Asenath

By Blood 17-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Christmas morning was, to say the least, a bit of a blur. It seemed weird to immediately think of it in the sense of a montage, and yet that was what it felt like even while it was happening. I had my grandparents back, and that was a whole thing. I spent hours just sitting on the couch with my parents in their apartment on the station, listening to Grandmaria and Grandpartie tell stories about what they had been through since they were transported to the Seosten homeworld. My grandfather, of course, compared everything to various adventures in Star Trek. That was a whole thing, especially since my father’s favorite captain was Picard and Popser’s was Sisko. My grandmother and mom, meanwhile, liked Kirk the best. All of which begat an entire conversation about various episodes and what-if situations. And apparently whenever Uncle Al showed up (he was giving our immediate family time to reunite), he would have his own very strong opinions to share. 

Personally, I didn’t really pay that much attention to that entire franchise, but it was still nice to just sit there and listen to them go back and forth about it. Though, to be fair, given the people involved I would have quite willingly listened to them go on about nearly anything. All that mattered was the fact that they were here now. They were all here, together on Christmas morning after we had been separated for so long. Hell, even the fact that it was Christmas was basically immaterial when you got right down to it. My grandparents had arrived. It could’ve been Arbor Day, and it would still be one of the most amazing and wonderful times of my life.

There was also the fact that through that, I found out that my grandmother had become a Puriel-Heretic. Seriously, she was bonded to him and it had stuck. She actually had his power, even if she was only a tiny fraction as powerful with it as he was at the moment. But she was learning. Baby steps, just like the way I was with my incredibly powerful Necromancy. Except even more, because it was goddamn Puriel

Which, of course, fled to a sudden moment of fear about what would have happened if the Whispers had decided to go after her instead. Whether their lack of attempt had more to do with not knowing about that, or her not being powerful enough for their purposes yet, I was just glad they had mostly left her alone. 

And she wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful grandparent I had, either. Well, she already wasn’t because of Dare, but still. She wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful paternal grandparent I had. Grandpartie had been bonded to the same sort of thing Gaia and Seller had been bonded to. He had picked up the technology control powers, like the former headmistress. Because of course he had. This was my grandfather we were talking about. He loved new technology. Given the chance to mentally control it? I was willing to bet that he had quite literally jumped at the chance. Possibly to the point of banging his head on the ceiling.

So, both of my paternal grandparents were bonded to incredibly powerful beings, and had their own absurd gifts that they were slowly learning how to harness. Which was… yeah, that was a thing. 

Not only did we sit there listening to Grandmaria and Popser tell their stories, but we also got to tell them our own. Well, mostly me. I ended up talking a lot that morning, from quite early, essentially re-telling the whole story about what had happened since I took the bus that morning a year and half earlier. A year and a half. God, it felt like so much longer. Most of a lifetime, actually. When I tried to think about what life was like before that day, through the first full sixteen years of my life, I almost couldn’t picture it. The whole thing basically felt like a story I had read somewhere, rather than what amounted to almost ninety percent of my life. 

In any case, telling the story (or many stories) about what I had been through up to this point eventually led to my grandmother insisting we make cookies and take them with us when we visited the others. She felt distraught that she hadn’t had time on Earth to actually buy presents, and assured us all that they would be doing that eventually. No amount of protests that it wasn’t necessary would dissuade her. She was going to get presents for everyone, no question about it. We would just have some sort of late/extra Christmas when the time came. 

That, of course, added to the ‘montage’ feel. I helped her bake cookies, while also taking the time to help my parents put the finishing touches on the gifts we were taking over to the others. Which was supposed to have been done the night before, but we’d been a bit occupied. 

We weren’t too far through that before Tabbris arrived. She had been spending time with her other family, and popped up to meet our grandparents for the first time in an actual peaceful, quiet situation. Or at least, that was the idea. Except as soon as she arrived and saw them in the kitchen, Tabbris immediately hid behind me with her hands on my shirt. She was clinging to me while peeking out that way, making a very uncertain noise in the back of her throat. Apparently it was one thing to meet them in the heat of the moment back on the ship with everything that had been going on, and quite another to do so right now on Christmas morning with no other distractions or anything. 

Brushing her apron off, Grandmaria took one look our way and seemed to understand. She immediately reached out, plucking one of the just-finished cookies from the tray. Her voice was chipper as she took a couple steps our way. “Now, if there’s one thing I know about my Flick, it’s that she loves my coconut chocolate chip cookies. She doesn’t share them with anyone she doesn’t really care about. She especially wouldn’t break one in half except for the most special sort of person.” 

Having said that, she extended a hand with the warm, delicious, oh-so-incredible cookie in her palm, offering it to me. In the background, I saw Popser and Dad having a quiet conversation in a corner of the kitchen while occasionally glancing our way, and Mom was pretending to be busy with the mixing bowl, all of them giving us time to get through this.

Taking the cookie, I went down to one knee and looked toward Tabbris. My hands smoothly broke the treat in half before I spoke quietly. “She’s right, you know. I don’t share my grandmother’s special coconut chocolate chip cookies with just anyone. They have to be my top most favorite people in the world. And splitting just one?” I gave a low whistle before raising my half of the cookie to take a bite. Immediately, my eyes rolled back a bit as I gave a murmur of appreciation. Then I lifted the second half and offered it to the other girl while continuing softly. “That sort of thing is only for someone I love very much.” 

There was a brief pause before Tabbris, face pink, slowly took the offered cookie half and bit into it. Immediately, she visibly shivered and gave a very quick nod. Her voice was a whisper. “I wouldn’t wanna share a whole cookie either.” Having said that, she quickly shoved the rest of the cookie in her mouth and murmured appreciatively. Then her eyes blinked open once more to focus on our grandmother, offering a tentative smile. “Um, hi… hi.”

Gesturing back and forth, I introduced them officially. “Tabbris, this is our grandmother. Grandmaria, this is Tabbris, my sister.” 

“Why, hello, Tabbris.” Grandmaria stepped over closer. She didn’t go down to one knee the way I had, instead reaching out to take the girl’s raised hand as she started to wave. “Do you know what my very favorite sorts of heroes are?” 

“Um, no?” Tabbris offered a bit uncertainly while letting the older woman take her hand (her other one was busy checking for any crumbs from that cookie). 

With a kind, gentle smile, our grandmother explained, “I have three favorites. My first favorite heroes are the very sneaky ones who do all this work to help people without getting a lot of credit for it. My second favorite are the people who help my friends and family. And my third favorite are my own family themselves. So, you know, by all that, I would say that you might just be my very most top favorite person right now. I’m not sure yet though, we need one more test, just to check.”

Eyes darting briefly to me, still kneeling beside her, and then back again, Tabbris hesitantly echoed, “One more test?”  

Still giving the same tender, welcoming and yet somehow conspiratorial smile that I recognized from so many years past, Grandmaria gently replied, “Well, yes, before I decide if someone fits the family member sort of favorite person, I have to see how good they are at hugs.” 

A giggle escaped the girl beside me, before she managed to retort with a somewhat-straight face, “I dunno, that puts a lot of pressure on a first hug.” 

With a laugh at that, our grandmother tugged her over by the hand and the two embraced. It was somewhat tentative at first on Tabbris’s part, as she was obviously still a bit nervous about the whole thing. But that quickly vanished as she felt just how intently Grandmaria was hugging her, and she ended up latching on just as tightly. 

Watching that while smiling, I straightened and glanced to my parents. They were both watching as well, and Dad gave me a thumbs up. Then he leaned over to whisper something to his own father before both of them chuckled softly. 

By the time Tabbris and Grandmaria separated, Popser was right there. He reached down, taking the little girl by both hands and squeezing them. On a ‘one, two, three, hup,’ he hoisted her off the floor and into his arms for a tight hug of his own. 

It didn’t end there either. They both passed Tabbris back and forth for several more hugs before being satisfied for the moment. Then we got back to talking while finishing the last batch of cookies as I (with help from Tabbris, Dad, and Mom) finished getting them caught up on what they had missed. Or at least as much as we could think of right then. I was sure there would be a lot more specific details we have to get into later. But they had at least the broad strokes. And it also gave me a chance to let Tabbris know about just what our grandparents had been bonded to, so I could see if the look on her face was as great as the one on mine had probably been. So, of course, she had to hear all about that. And they both had to demonstrate, which was fun. Especially when Popser got Tabbris to ‘pull his finger’ and turned every television, radio, light, etcetera in the apartment on, including setting off a couple alarm clocks. And yes, that made Tabbris fall over giggling.   

Eventually, the cookies were ready and we packed them up along with all the presents, before heading out to go see Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt. They were waiting for us in Abigail’s apartment, and we all exchanged more hugs and greetings. Grandmaria and Grandpartie were both immediately taken with all three of the others, and stories were soon flying back and forth. Wyatt wasn’t exactly shy (awkward sure, but not shy), yet even he seemed to take to our grandparents incredibly quickly. Before long, he and Popser were sitting at a corner of the room, going over some sort of security device designs that Wyatt had scrawled on the back of a napkin. They sounded like little kids conspiring to build a tree house or something. It was pretty great, even if I was a bit nervous about what they would end up with. 

Koren, standing beside me as we watched everyone interacting and laughing like that, leaned over to whisper, “Did you ever think we’d be standing here like this back at school last year?” 

The thought made me snort at first, before shaking my head. A lump had formed in my throat. Looking at everyone, I stopped to think about how lucky I was in that moment. Sure, plenty of bad stuff had happened. And plenty of other bad stuff would happen in the future. But right then, I was celebrating Christmas with my father, mother, Grandmaria, Grandpartie, Koren, Wyatt, Abigail, and Tabbris. They all knew the truth, they were all on the same page, and we were together. What would the me from the year before even do if I had told her things would be like this was what the next Christmas would be like? I honestly had absolutely no idea. 

Of course, that led to the question of what next Christmas would be like, but I wasn’t going to focus on that right now. This was a day that I wanted to savor every last minute of. 

Finally, I found my voice. “Nope. I think I can safely say that I never expected to be in a situation like this.” Then I glanced toward the other girl and added, “Especially not when we first met.” 

Koren, in turn, snorted while giving a vigorous nod. “Especially not when we met.” After a brief grimace, she offered a small shrug. “I guess that just goes to show how much things can change, huh?” She glanced over toward Wyatt before adding, “Really, really change.” 

“Here,” I raised my hand with a treat in it. “Try one of Grandmaria’s cookies. Believe me, you wanna talk about change you’ll look back on? 

“After this, everything in your life will be ‘before cookie’ and ‘after cookie.’”

*******

So, that was how Christmas went. Well, that was how Christmas with the family went. We exchanged presents and all that. Uncle Al did eventually show up, which started a whole other round of stories, especially when who he really was got pointed out. And yes, they all made me change into my werelion form to pose with him. It wasn’t exactly the same as a real Nemean Lion (I was entirely too tiny), but the others got a kick out of it anyway. 

All in all, it was fun. And I also spent time with others, besides family. It was an entire day of that stuff. Not to mention the fact that everyone else was still deep in partying mode after that whole protection spell thing. Which they had gotten Puriel and everyone else linked into, so hopefully they would be safe from Whisper counterattacks. And beyond that, they were apparently working on security updates on the station to keep them out or monitor for them. I’d tried to get more information, but Abigail basically gave me a hard stare and told me to enjoy Christmas. I sort of heard an unspoken ‘or else’ behind her words, so I left it alone for the moment. Abigail could be pretty scary in her own right when she wanted to be. 

Late that night, after almost everyone else had already gone to bed, I was sitting in the park part of our housing area, watching a few people on the forcefield elevators as they came down. I had both of the rings that I had inherited from that Seosten ghost hovering close to the ground in front of me, as Jaq and Gus played by hopping back and forth through them from both sides so they could be faster or slower. They were clearly amusing themselves quite a bit, and I couldn’t help but smile every time I glanced that way. 

“Well, it’s nice to see they’re having fun.” Asenath, seated beside me, noted. “Who gave them the Christmas hats?” 

Yeah, both cyberform mice were wearing little red Santa hats that had been attached to their equally-little heads. There were even tiny bells on the end that jingled softly whenever they did their hops back and forth. 

“Shiori,” I informed the other girl, as a fond smile found its way to my face at the thought. “I told them they didn’t have to wear the hats past the party, but you should have seen the look they gave me. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to get that girl to make a whole bunch of little hats for them to wear. Otherwise I’ll never get those ones off them.” 

With a very low chuckle, Senny took a small piece of metal about the size of the top of a soda can from her pocket and tossed it down for the pair to immediately start munching on from either side. “Well, I can’t exactly blame them. They are very stylish.” 

“That’s for sure,” I agreed, before looking toward her. “It must be weird for you. I mean, you grew up before the whole Santa myth was even–” 

“Myth?” She glanced to me and raised an eyebrow. “After all this time, you really find the story of Santa completely impossible to believe?” 

Her words made me squint at the girl. “You are not about to tell me that Santa Claus is real. I’m sorry, but if you say those words, I’m just going to get up and walk away.” 

She, in turn, gave a low laugh. “Okay, the answer is no, he’s not real. And yet he is. Sort of.” To my confused look, Senny waved a hand. “It’s the elves that are real. Or rather, the LVS.” When I didn’t get it, she spelled it out. “The L-V-S.” 

From there, she told me the story about the tiny creatures who had arrived on Earth with no memory of their past, and their only clues being a badly damaged ship with the letters L V S visible. Letters the collective amnesiac creatures had taken as their name. LVS or ‘elves.’ Apparently they had been helped a lot by the actual Saint Nicholas way back in the days that he had actually lived. Once he died, they spread his legend and basically helped create and push the whole Santa Claus thing. And they tried to give gifts as much as they could. Clearly, they couldn’t do the whole world or anything like that, but they did do what was possible. And any parents that happened to see brand new gifts under the tree with no explanation, well, that was covered by the Bystander Effect. If they even got that far. According to Asenath, a lot of people just assumed either the other parent or some relative left the gift. They ignored it. 

Hearing all that kind of made me want to meet these LVS, but apparently they were pretty notoriously secretive. Asenath herself had only met them one time, a few decades back. Still, I’d met enough important people in the past year and a half that I wasn’t going to rule out the possibility. 

Before I could say anything else about that, the phone in my pocket buzzed. I plucked it out and took a look before blinking. “Uh, maybe it’s a good thing you’re here,” I murmured. “It’s Jack Childs.” The Eden’s Garden Victor was calling me, and I could only think of one reason for that. 

“Hello?” I answered, hitting the speaker button. “It’s Flick, and Asenath is here too.” 

“Ah, good to hear,” came the response. “Heard a lot about you, Asenath. Good things, for the most part. And plenty of bad from the right sort of people.” 

“I do enjoy hearing that the right people have bad things to say about me,” Senny noted. 

We both heard the man chuckle. “Ain’t that the truth. Anyway, a happy Christmas to you both. But I think you know why I’m calling.” 

“You have a lead on Kyril Shamon’s secret prison,” I immediately replied. “I mean, where he might be keeping… Tiras.” As I said that, my eyes darted toward Asenath. She had gone a bit still, staring intently down at the phone. 

There was a very brief pause (which seemed to be a lot longer than it actually was) before Childs confirmed. “That’s right, we’ve got a lead on it. But even better, we have a lead on a transport that’s taking place. If you can take a group, subtly intercept that transport, and show up there, you’ll be able to get your entire group inside before they know anything’s wrong and when it all goes down, Shamon will think the Rebellion simply chased it down that way.” 

“So whatever resources you used to find out where it is won’t be burned,” I murmured thoughtfully. A part of me wanted to note that they also wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty, but I knew better than that. This was about more than Senny’s dad. As important as he was to her, and to Shiori and me by extension, there was a whole war for the world and beyond to deal with. The rebel Victors couldn’t blow every resource they had to help save one guy. Or even a full prison camp. 

“Yes,” came the response. “The transport isn’t for a couple weeks, but if you’re interested, you should start putting together a group to deal with it. Be ready to get into the camp, find the prisoners, and get out before Shamon finds out and sends reinforcements.” 

“Oh, we’re definitely interested,” I replied, smiling dangerously toward Senny. 

“Just give us the details. We’ll take care of the rest.” 

Previous Chapter

Interlude 15B – Senny And Denny (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You’re really a umm, a vampire? Like, a real vampire?” The question, tinged with nervousness mixed with genuine curiosity, came from the young girl who sat perched on a swing in the middle of the park in the artificial town where the Fusion School adult students lived. She was holding the chains of the swing tightly, slowly gliding back and forth on it while her eyes remained locked on the (much) older figure on the swing next to hers. 

“That’s right, Denny,” Asenath confirmed without looking that way. Her attention was on the artificial moon against the dark ceiling. “I was born in seventeen-ninety-five. Kinda crazy, isn’t it?” She asked that with a small smile, finally glancing over to the girl. 

Denny, in turn, flinched despite herself. “Everything about all of this is crazy. Are… are they really right about me? I mean, was I really older? I mean, not as old as you, but…” From the tone of her voice, it was clear that the girl knew it was true deep inside, but she needed to hear it from someone else. 

Asenath gave a short nod. “It’s true. Everything they told you is true, all of it. You were just a teenage girl minding your own business when you got dragged into this because that boy thought you would be a fun victim. It wasn’t your fault and you certainly didn’t do anything wrong. He was just… his father turned him into a monster, and he took it out on you. I’m sorry that happened. I’m sorry for everything that happened to you, and I’m sorry that you were alone for so long while you were trying to figure out what’s going on. You didn’t deserve any of that.” 

Turning away, Denny silently swung back and forth. The only sound was that of the creaking chains. Finally, after almost thirty seconds of near-silence, she spoke again. “That girl back at the gas station, Kalia, she didn’t deserve what happened to her dad either. And… and from what you guys said, that… umm, Ammon didn’t deserve to have his dad make him bad.” She sounded hesitant to even say that, but forced the words out. Her voice turned even softer. “Sometimes good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I think… I think it’s not about what anyone deserves. It’s just about what happens. Good and bad.” 

“You’re a smart… person,” Asenath replied after taking a moment to absorb that. “But I’m still sorry you had to try to deal with all that by yourself. Even the strongest, smartest people need to depend on others. You had no idea what was going on or what was happening to you, and you still handled it better than most would have. You didn’t hurt anyone. You helped those people at the bus station. And you saved the sword from Kushiel, even after she kept threatening you. You were smart enough to know that giving it to her would make things worse, and brave enough to lie right to her face. Even after dealing with… with everything else you’ve been dealing with. Even after you saw her kill those people. You still did the right thing.” 

“Brave?” Denny sounded doubtful. “I was so scared I almost threw up. I didn’t have a plan or anything. I didn’t know what to do. If she started killing people again, I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t do anything. I tried to use the voice thing, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t–I didn’t–” She cringed, hunching in on herself, voice almost inaudible. “I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t want to give her the sword. Because if I gave her the sword and she killed people with it, that would be my fault. I don’t want people to be hurt or die because of me. Because if I do… if people die because of something I do, I think that might make him stronger. He might win. He might take over.” She swallowed a hard lump in her throat, hoarsely adding, “I’m not brave. I’m terrified… of him. Of what he’ll make me do if I give him a chance.”

Shaking her head, Asenath slipped off the swing and stepped around to stand in front of the other girl. “That’s why you’re brave, Denny. Do you have any idea how many people would be curled in a ball in the corner, completely catatonic from seeing those memories and thoughts? That or they’d just give into him entirely. Going through everything you did and still keeping yourself from doing anything bad? Having bad thoughts doesn’t make you bad. Listen, I’m a… I’m a vampire. There are so many times when I look at someone, smell their blood, and I just want to give in. I want to taste them. I want to indulge. Even around people I like, sometimes it just… flares up. I used to think that made me a monster. But having those thoughts isn’t evil. You had no idea what was going on. No one explained anything to you. These memories and impulses just kept shoving their way into your head and you still resisted. You did everything you could. You helped those people. You had Ammon’s thoughts in the back of your head and you still saved them. Yes, you are incredibly brave. Braver and smarter than I think almost anyone in your position would have been. You are one incredible girl, and everyone is so lucky that you are.” 

There was a moment of silence. Even the creaking chain stopped as the girl put her feet down to stop the swing. She kept her gaze locked on the ground, staring intently at nothing as various thoughts worked their way through her mind. Finally, Denny exhaled and looked up. “I think the memories are what helped me. My memories, I mean. I… I remembered how scared I was when he… when he made that man hurt me. I remembered laying on the floor and trying to curl up so he wouldn’t kick my stomach so hard. But I couldn’t stop him. I–I remember shooting him. I remember how he looked. I remember going to the gas pump. I remember the taste of–I remember. I remember it.” She swallowed hard, a visible shudder running through her. “I remember being hurt and… and killed like that. And I never want to make anyone feel the way I did. I think that’s why I could… why I can resist him. I think remembering those things helped me not be a monster. I don’t want anyone to ever feel that scared, and that helpless.” The pain in her voice was raw as she stared at Asenath. 

Silently, Senny offered her hands to the girl. She waited until they were accepted, then pulled Denise to her feet. “I am so sorry for everything that happened to you, before and after your… death. Whatever your reasoning, you are still one of the bravest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.” Squeezing her hands, she added quietly, “Your mother never believed that you killed yourself, you know.” 

Blinking rapidly, Denny stared at her, voice tentative. “What do you mean?”  

Asenath, in turn, told the girl about being hired by her mother to find out the truth. “Everyone told her that you killed yourself, but she didn’t believe it. She hired me to find out the truth, to find out who was responsible. That’s how I got involved in this whole thing to begin with. Hell, I’d say that’s why I was there to help Felicity when he tried to hurt her. If your mother hadn’t called me, I never would have been trying to track him down. I never would have showed up at that house and been able to help stop him, save Flick from the people he was controlling, and stop her father from being forced to kill himself. I never would have been there if your mom hadn’t refused to give up on finding out the truth, if she hadn’t refused to believe what they told her.” 

Digesting all of that, Denise turned away and folded her arms tightly. She stared down at the swing she had just been sitting on, silently processing for several long seconds. Finally, she spoke in a quiet voice. “You’re saying I should go back and explain everything to her, to both of them. You think I should tell my parents what’s going on. But how?” She turned back, pivoting on one foot to stare imploringly at the older girl. “How am I supposed to tell them any of this stuff? It sounds really crazy. It sounds… it’s…” Her eyes closed tightly, a small whimper escaping her before she opened them. “And they won’t remember anyway. Isn’t that what you guys said? It’s the umm, the…” 

“Bystander Effect,” Asenath finished for her, giving a short nod. “Yes, that is a thing. But there are pills that your parents can take that will temporarily disable it. So they can remember and understand what you’re telling them, what we can show them. We will still have to convince them that it’s real, but we can stop the Bystander Effect from butting in.” 

“And… and then what?” the girl asked, biting her lip. “Do they just keep taking those pills forever? What’s going to happen to them once they know the truth? Can you just have them do that umm, bonding thingie you were talking about? What if they don’t want to? What if they think I’m a monster? What if they think everyone here is a monster? What if they try to tell the police? What if–”

Reaching out, Asenath put both hands on the girl’s shoulders and spoke gently. “I can’t tell you that everything will be fine. I can’t tell you how they’ll react or how any of that will go. I’ve seen it go really well, and really poorly. I’ve seen the best and the worst reactions. But your parents deserve the chance to show you their reaction for themselves. They deserve the opportunity to know the truth. Like I said, your mother believed in you when everyone was telling her otherwise. Maybe they won’t be able to accept this, but give them a chance, okay?” 

Remaining silent for a few seconds as a conflicting rush of thoughts and feelings worked their way through her, Denny finally gave a very short nod while swallowing a thick lump in her throat. She was clearly still terrified at the prospect, but pushed past that. “Okay,” she managed weakly, “I want to tell them the truth. But you’ll come with me, right? You’ll help stop me if–if…” She was clearly terrified not only of her parents’ reactions, but also what she herself might be tempted to do when she saw them again.

Smiling very gently, Asenath nodded. “Yes. And don’t worry, we’ll help you block those memories and the… the impulses. You’re not alone anymore, I promise. And we’ll bring some others too. Come to think of it, we still need to find out if Felicity and her family are immune to the Denuvus power or not.” 

That made Denny blink. “Immune to the what?” 

“Oh, I guess we didn’t explain that part.” Asenath gestured with one hand. “That power you have, it didn’t come from Ammon originally. It actually belongs to a guy named Denuvus. He–”

“She.” Denny immediately interrupted the other girl, head shaking quickly as she stared with rapidly widening eyes. “You mean she. She was a woman. She talked to me. She was—I mean she even tried to use the–I mean she said her name and she was trying to make me–I mean–” 

Asenath frowned, gently taking the girl’s hands. “Denny, slow down. What do you mean she talked to you? Take a breath. What happened? Do you mean someone started to talk to you about Denuvus? Or… or…” She trailed off, staring at her. This was too important to not be completely precise about what exactly had happened. 

So, Denny did just that. She took a deep breath and let it out before explaining everything about the therapist she had been sent to see. Starting from the beginning, she detailed the entire encounter, including the part when the woman had switched to the name of Denuvus and had clearly tried to control her. Now that Denny understood the power and looked back on it, the meaning behind introducing herself with that name was obvious. 

“And it didn’t work at all?” Senny pressed, thoughts whipping their way through her head. It was a lot to take in. Granted, appearing as a woman didn’t exactly mean a lot in a world of magic, especially given how secretive Denuvus was. He or she always obfuscated details about themself and used proxies to hide behind. There were a thousand different rumors about where they had come from, and she was pretty sure that at least half of them had been started by Denuvus. Being a male could have been a lie from the start, or they could have appeared in a female form to throw people off that way. When dealing with someone like that, you could never take anything at face value. And yet… and yet this was still huge. 

Denny was nodding rapidly. “Uh huh. I mean uh uh. I mean, it didn’t work. She tried to make me tell her about my dreams and then told me to sit down. And she introduced herself both times, with that weird name. I just… I guess I kinda forgot about it because of everything else that’s going on.” Cringing a bit guilty, she quickly added, “I could tell you what she looks like, and if–oh. Oh. I told her to leave me alone and go jump in a lake. I mean, I told her my name and then I told her to go jump in a lake. Umm… that didn’t work though, right?” The girl suddenly sounded pensive and worried. “If I’m immune to her, she’s immune to me, and I didn’t actually make her jump in a lake. So she doesn’t have to be mad at me or anything. She doesn’t have to be angry and–and… umm…” Trailing off, she swallowed hard at the thought of having someone that dangerous angry with her. Even if she was immune, Denny wasn’t stupid. She knew that this Denuvus wasn’t limited to simply trying to use that single power on her. She could use it to hurt other people, or use other things. 

“It’s okay,” Asenath quickly assured her, though she herself was a bit stunned by the whole situation. “Like I said, you aren’t alone. We’re all going to help you, I promise. And we’ll figure out what’s going on with this Denuvus thing. Tell us where his… or her office was and we’ll check it out. I mean, I doubt there’s anything there still, but there’s always the chance Denuvus missed something when cleaning up. Anything that helps find out more about them. I’m pretty sure you’re the only person I know of to have a face to face with them and actually remember it. So anything you can tell us, anything else you remember or think of, it could all help.”

“I don’t–I’m not–” Cringing visibly, Denny gave a quick headshake. “I’ll try. But um, I think I need to check on my mom and dad now.” Drawing herself up, clearly trying to push down all her doubts and insecurities about that, she added, “I… I need to see them. I miss them.” Her voice shook slightly with the admission, revealing just how hard it was to say. She was so afraid of accidentally hurting her parents, and equally afraid of being rejected by them when they found out the truth. Yet she desperately wanted to be with them again. 

Squeezing the girl’s hands, Asenath nodded. “It’s okay. We’ll take you there right now. You’re right, we can deal with everything else later.” Plucking a phone from her pocket, she gestured with it. “Let me just set it up.” 

Quickly, Denise spoke up. “S-so, we’re really… umm… you know, this place is really…” She looked around the park, slowly raising her gaze to look at the artificial sky before swallowing hard. “It’s not really in the sun, right? It’s just somewhere else. Like a big building. That Mr. Sean guy said it was in the sun, but he’s just teasing.”

With a small chuckle, Asenath replied, “Well, he does tease a lot. But not this time. We are one hundred percent inside the sun. It’s a really big space station with a bunch of forcefields to protect it from being burnt up and crushed. It absorbs the energy from the sun and turns that into more force field power. So we never run out.”

Denny stared at her in disbelief. “But why would you do that? Why be in the sun at all? It’s like… super-dangerous. So why take the risk? What if something goes wrong? Won’t it, umm, like, kill everybody before they can do anything? One little crack or whatever and everyone gets incinerated, or crushed. Wait, would you burn up first or get crushed by the pressure?” For a brief moment, it looked as though she was trying to calculate that before quickly abandoning the thought. Instead, she settled on, “It’s bad. It’d be really bad. So why live here?” 

Gently, Asenath explained, “First, as far as the danger goes, you’re right. If anything went wrong, it’d be pretty bad. That’s why they built over a hundred redundancy systems. If there’s any problem with the integrity of the station, everyone on it will be teleported to one of a dozen different potential safe zones down on the planet. See, the way it was explained to me, the computer that helps run this place can do over five hundred thousand trillion calculations per second. You know how many that is? If you made a stack of pennies all the way up to the moon, you’d have to make two more just like it to equal one trillion. You know how long ago the dinosaurs lived?” 

“Um, sixty-five million years?” the younger girl offered. 

“Right, so sixty-five million years,” Asenath confirmed. “A trillion seconds is thirty-two thousand years, so you’d have over two thousand trillion seconds to reach sixty-five million years. Two thousand trillion seconds between now and when the last dinosaurs lived. And this computer can calculate five-hundred thousand trillion times per second. The instant it detects a problem, it will grab everyone on the station and teleport them off. That’s faster than anyone can think.” She smiled a bit, trying to be reassuring. “You see? Does that make you feel better?” 

Flatly, Denise replied, “Sure, unless the computer goes evil and kills everybody.” 

Asenath blanched a little. “Right, that’s where some redundancies come in. But trust me, it’s all as safe as it can be. As for why we live here at all, it’s because there’s a lot of bad people out there who are really powerful, and they want to find us. They want to do a lot of bad things. So, we have to hide in a really good place to make sure everyone who lives here is safe. It could be dangerous if something goes wrong, sure. But it’d be a lot worse if those people found where we live.” 

Swallowing hard as she processed that, Denise offered a weak, “There’s a lot of bad things going on that I don’t know about, huh?” 

“And you don’t need to know about them right now,” Asenath insisted. “You need to think about your family, and deal with your own stuff. Come on, I’ll call ahead and we’ll get an escort to go down to find your parents so we can explain everything.” 

*******

Forty-six minutes later, the group arriving at the front door of Denise’s family home included the girl herself, Asenath, Sarah and Sands Mason, their mother Larissa, and Risa Kohaku. Such a large group normally wouldn’t be required for a simple pick-up job, but they were being careful given the entire situation. And they wanted Denise to know she had all the support she needed when telling her parents what was really going on. 

Besides, Risa was the one who knew how to administer the Bystander Effect-blocking pills that would allow the girl’s parents to even retain any ability to understand and remember what they were being told. 

“Girls, watch the front yard, okay?” Larissa urged her daughters, while the rest of the adults moved up to the door behind Denise herself, who leaned up to push the doorbell, looking even more anxious with every passing second. 

“Sure, we got this,” Sands confirmed, exchanging a fist bump with her sister before the two of them stepped out by the front sidewalk. They listened as the doorbell rang a couple times, then heard Denise try the door and step in, calling out for her mother and father. Silence passed for a few seconds, aside from the sound of the others moving inside. And then, that silence was broken by a scream. 

Exchanging quick looks, Sands and Sarah resisted the urge to pivot and rush that way. Their job was to watch the front walk. If they ran off now just because they were curious, and someone came right in the spot they were supposed to be guarding, it could be really bad. 

“Mom!” Sands called. “What’s going on?” 

The next thing they knew, their mother was rushing Denise right back out of the house, before the girl collapsed to her knees there in the grass and threw up. She was sobbing so hard it seemed like her whole body might tear itself apart from the inside. 

“Kushiel,” Larissa managed flatly after falling right beside the younger girl to gather Denise into her arms. She held her tightly, half-laying there on the grass. “Kushiel was here.” 

“Wh-what?” Sarah spoke up. “How do you know?” 

“She left a note above the bodies,” Larissa informed her daughters. 

“It said, ‘you should have given me the sword.’” 

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The Runaway 15-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The moment the horrible ghost woman was gone, I fell to my knees and gave a deep gasp. Even with help from Tabbris, and my ridiculous stamina, that had taken a lot out of me. A large part of it, of course, was actually channeling all that power into my necromancy and using it properly. It was a lot to push through my system. I had to sit there for a few seconds to catch my breath. Mom and Asenath had already rushed forward to see what happened to me, while Sean and Twister moved to check on Francis, who had apparently passed out the moment Kushiel disappeared. While I was busy catching my breath, I felt my little sister step out of me to quickly explain that I was okay, just really exhausted after all that. 

My head bobbed as I looked up to see them staring. “She’s gone. Not for good, but it’ll take her a while to get herself sorted out after getting hit that hard. And even then she can’t get back here without a lot of help.” Biting my lip, I looked over to where Francis’s limp form was. “Is he okay?” 

“Breathing,” Sean confirmed. “I think he’s sleeping it off. Whatever Kushiel was doing to keep him paralyzed while she wasn’t even possessing him, it looks like it packed a pretty big wallop. Which, what was she doing? How the hell is any of that possible? Is it all just Tartarus bullshit?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted weakly. “All I know is that we don’t have to deal with her right now.” 

“But we will have to deal with her eventually,” Mom murmured, her voice dark as she gazed off into the distance. “A problem that should have been dealt with and gone for good, yet suddenly she’s back again and somehow even worse. Strangely, that isn’t nearly as surprising as I feel like it ought to be.” 

Grimacing it despite myself, I offered a weak, “I’m sorry, I should have been able to handle her. I’ve got all of this power from two different necromancers, and she’s a ghost. But she was just so strong. It’s like that Tartarus place is still fueling her or something. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, she’s not just going to go away. She’ll keep trying to get that sword. I just…” 

“First, don’t apologize.” That was Asenath, her hand moving to squeeze my shoulder as I knelt there. “Seriously, if it wasn’t for you, we would have been completely screwed. She has her old power plus now she’s a ghost, so she’s even harder to hurt without the right skills. It may have taken a lot out of you, but you still got rid of her. At least for now. And next time, we’ll be more prepared. This was a complete ambush and you still handled it better than most would have.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” Sean agreed. “That bitch be as crazy strong as she is just plain crazy. At least now we’ve got the time to practice and prepare stuff for whenever she shows up again. There’s some anti-ghost spells in some of the books I’ve been looking at, and she feels like just the right pain-in-the-ass spook to use them on.” Belatedly, he glanced over to Grover and Seth. “Uh, no offense.” 

Seth just blinked at him. “Why would we be offended by you wanting to get rid of that psycho bitch? Come on, I wanted her to burn in hell when we were alive, so I’m sure as fuck not gonna start feeling attached just because we’re both dead. We’re not suddenly kin or something.”

“Yeah, man,” Grover put in. “Hashtag not all ghosts.” Leaning over, he stage-whispered to me, “Did I use that right? I feel like that’s how they were using it back in the Runaway.” 

My mouth opened to confirm that before the word ‘runaway’ suddenly made me remember the other person in the room. With a gasp, I turned and looked over to the corner. Denise was crouching back there, looking like she was trying to disappear. As everyone else followed my line of sight, she cringed. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I didn’t want to help her. I don’t even know what’s going on, I don’t–I wasn’t trying to–I was–” 

“Denise.” Speaking quietly, Mom took a step over there, going down on one knee near the girl, but not quite close enough to touch. She was clearly worried about scaring her even more. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re the ones who should apologize. We didn’t know you would remember anything. We didn’t…” She trailed off, exhaling. “We thought you could go back to a normal life. I suppose we should have known better.” There was a brief pause before she amended in an even softer voice, “I should have known better.” 

That made the girl blink in confusion, her eyes taking the rest of us in before her head shook. “I don’t know what you’re–I don’t… wait… I know you. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know you, right? But I do. But I… I don’t. You’re… I’ve seen you before. But I haven’t.” She made a helpless noise in the back of her throat then. It was clear that this was confusing her even more. 

“Denise,” I started while pushing myself up so I could move over to take a knee next to my mother. “Maybe you could tell us what you remember, then we can help by filling in the blanks. It’s okay, no matter how… strange you think it is, we’ll believe you, I promise. Just tell us what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. Just… talk to us. We’ll help, I promise.” This whole situation was so much to get into (seriously, it was so much), that it felt like the best place to start from was by finding out what the girl herself already knew. 

So, Denise launched into the story of everything that had been happening to her over the past long while. It was a horrible story to sit there and listen to, knowing how many answers we could have given her. She had been having nightmares about her death and about Ammon’s own memories. Somehow, she was dreaming about all the terrible things he had done. His memories were mixed in with hers and it was really screwing her up. Not only that, she had indeed also somehow ended up with his power. Despite the fact that the power transfer thing was only supposed to be temporary (and, I was pretty sure, was only supposed to give her his Pooka power for that temporary time rather than everything), it seemed to have been permanent. She had his power and some of his memories, though all jumbled together. That was why she was having nightmares. She dreamed of being murdered by him, and of being him as he murdered her. Seriously, how fucked up was that? No wonder this kid was having a hard time. That would have been bad enough by itself, but she was also dreaming about all the other people he had killed. And seeing ‘monsters’ because the Bystander Effect wasn’t working properly. Monsters like Mercer, whom she had used Ammon’s power to make forget about that whole debt thing. So that explained that whole situation. 

The only positive part of all this was that Ammon wasn’t actually back. Not exactly. She had some of his memories, but it was still Denise in there. She was still in control. Yeah, positive in the sense that Ammon wasn’t back. Instead, Kushiel was. Honestly, I’m not sure that was really an improvement. Sure, Ammon’s power was terrifying,  But we had people who were immune to it, and he was still just a kid. Kushiel could conceivably be a hell of a lot more dangerous. 

But in any case, right now we had to focus on Denise. Who apparently also remembered a bunch of fairly inconsequential, academic-like stuff from her previous life. She remembered math and science and history that she had learned as a high school student, despite technically looking like she belonged in middle school. Which wasn’t exactly a problem, really. But it did add on to her confusion, which was even more stressful. Yeah, this poor girl needed help. And by help, I meant an explanation. She desperately needed, and definitely deserved, an explanation. 

“Sean,” Mom started once the poor girl had finished telling her side of the story, “I believe things should be fairly safe now. Could you go down and find Mennin to let him know what’s going on, and have him send some help for Francis?”  

As if her attention had only just turned that way, Denise abruptly blurted, “I-is that a robot dog?” 

“Sure is,” Sean confirmed, putting a hand on his head. “This is Vulcan. Vulcan, why don’t you go say hi?” 

The cyberform promptly moved that way, trotting closer. He passed my mother and me, before sitting on his haunches right in front of the girl. Denise hesitated, then reached out to tentatively touch his snout. Running her fingers along his mouth curiously, she inched closer, then slowly put both arms around Vulcan in a hug. One that I was pretty sure the poor kid desperately needed. 

Apparently Sean agreed, because he told Vulcan to stay here for now. Then he headed out for the medical room, calling back that he would find out what was going on with the other guests too. 

Once he was gone, I looked toward Denise once more. She still had both arms around Vulcan, clinging to him like a lifeline. “Okay. So, we do have answers for you. Some of them are really not… some of them are gonna freak you out. But it’s the truth. We won’t lie to you, I swear.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. “You deserve… a lot. But the very least we can give you is the truth.” 

So, we started from the beginning, at least as far as we could while still being vaguely relevant to Denise. We told her about Crossroads and Heretics, about the rebellion and my mother being sent away with a new memory, and eventually being taken by Fossor. We told her about Ammon, and how he had been turned evil. Then we got into the fact that he had gone to that gas station while on his way to find me

“That girl worked there,” Denise filled in, her voice full of trepidation as she clung even tighter to Vulcan. “He killed her, didn’t he? I saw her memories too. I saw… I mean… what?” She was looking at all of us as we stared at her, clearly reading the trouble in our expressions. 

Realizing how hard this was going to be, my mother and I exchanged looks before she turned back to the girl and started to gently explain the full truth. She started by calling Twister over, before the two of them explained what a Pooka could do beyond turning into animals, how they would ‘respawn’ as a child upon being killed, then mentioned that Ammon had forced one to ‘kill’ himself, thus inheriting his power. Twister tried to explain what it was like, waking up as a child once more and then gradually getting the memories of her past lives back. 

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Denise was starting to put things together, though she was clearly still in some denial. She held onto Vulcan even tighter while watching, eyes completely unblinking as she waited for the other shoe to drop.  

In the end, Mom tried to lower the shoe as much as possible before dropping it, but there was no way to stop it from hitting the floor. Taking a deep breath, she explained exactly what had happened, that the dreams about dying Denise had been having weren’t dreams at all, but her actual memories. She told the girl exactly how that whole thing had gone down, and how she had transferred Ammon’s powers to her in order to bring the girl back to life. She also told her about how she wasn’t supposed to remember anything, and that the powers were supposed to be incredibly temporary, only lasting for a few seconds at most. Just enough to bring her back. 

“If I had had any idea that you would actually remember anything, or retain any of it, I would have… I would have made sure someone was there for you.” There was pain in Mom’s voice,  and I could tell she wanted to reach out to the girl, but didn’t know how it would be taken. She clenched her hands and quietly added, “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry no one was there to help explain things to you, and I’m sorry you’ve had to try to understand this all on your own. You deserve better than that. Much better.” 

Denise didn’t respond at first. She stared at my mother, then at me, then looked down at the floor. Her grip on Vulcan remained tight as she made a low whimpering sound deep in her throat, clearly trying to cope with what she had just been told. I tried to think about how I would feel in her position, but I couldn’t even imagine it. Even after everything I have been through, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with being given the story that Denise had just been given. It was too much. How was she supposed to cope with the amount of shit that had just been dropped on her? She wasn’t just finding out the monsters were real and all that, she was also finding out that she had literally been murdered and brought back to life as a younger version of herself. 

“I know it’s a lot, kid,” Twister put in. I expected her to add a joke or something after that, but instead, she simply added, “Some of us Pooka have a sort of group meeting sometimes where we can talk about our memories. You know, the ones about being killed, and all those times where we don’t remember our past lives and think we’re just normal people. Sometimes the real memories kicking in are… well, kicking is the right word. Like a mule. It can really hurt. So, you know, you can come and be a part of that, if you want. Anytime you want, when you’re ready.” 

Staring at the floor and silence for several long seconds, Denise finally pushed herself up and folded her arms tightly, turning away from us. Her shoulders were shaking visibly, though no sound emerged. After an extended moment of that, she took a long, deep breath before quietly speaking. “I’m scared. I thought getting answers would make things better, but now I’m even more scared. You e-explained everything, but it didn’t help. It doesn’t help. I’m–he’s… he’s still there.” She turned it back to us, fists clenched. “I can feel him. I can hear his voice. I can see the things he did, the things he wants to do. And now… now I know it’s not just in my head. He’s really evil and he really killed all those people. He killed me. They aren’t just dreams. They’re real. And the things he makes me think about when I look at my mom and dad, they’re what he wants me to do. He wants me to kill them.” Tears had flooded her eyes, as she shook violently while standing there.

It was Twister who moved first, stepping over to embrace the girl tightly. Again, there were no jokes, no off-color remarks or attempts to break the tension. She just held onto Denise and let the girl cling tightly to her as the tears continued to pour out, uncontrolled. A dam had burst, and it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Not with how long Denise had been holding so much of it back. She had answers now, but as she’d said, the answers didn’t exactly fix things. 

“But you won’t,” I found myself saying before even realizing that I was going to speak up. The words came without conscious thought. And it wasn’t because of Tabbris, because she was still out of me. “You’ve already proven you’re stronger than him, than those memories. You were all by yourself and you still beat his memories. You resisted. You already proved you can beat him. And now you’re not alone anymore.” 

Mom gave a short nod. “That’s right, and you’re not going to be alone again. I don’t… I know you probably don’t want to be around us very much. Not after what you just found out. But we have people you can stay with, others who can help you understand your… power and how to get through those memories and dreams. We have friends who can be there for you.” 

For a moment, it looked like Denise was really fighting to find the right thing to say. Her mouth kept opening and shutting before she looked back to the floor, a frown knitting her brow. “Can’t you just erase those thoughts and memories? You do things like that, right? You could take his memories out of my head, right?” 

Again, we all exchanged looks before I hesitantly answered, “We have someone who might be able to do something with that, but I don’t want to speak for her. She’s definitely an expert at that sort of thing, so if anyone can do it, she can. But she’ll have to talk to you for a while and find out for herself if it’s possible. And how to do it without hurting you.” 

Swallowing, she met my gaze. “I just want them gone. I just want him gone. I just…” Her eyes closed and I saw a few more tears fall as she whispered in an exhausted voice. “I just want to sleep without dreaming about killing people.” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I had no idea. The only words that would come was a very weak, “Come with us and we’ll get you some help. Somehow.” I didn’t know if it would be as easy as just removing those memories or not, but somehow we would help her. 

“What about my parents?” she asked then, just as weakly. “They think I’m at my aunt’s. I… I lied to them.” Her voice was even more pained than before at the admission. “It was bad. It was wrong. But I had to tell them something. I had to… I had to leave, before the dreams made me… before…” She shuddered visibly, unable to go on. 

“We’ll work out what to do with your parents, I promise,” Mom assured her. “We’ll figure all that out later. Right now, we just need to have you talk with Sariel and see what she can do. That’s the first thing.” 

Even as she said that, the doors opened and several uniformed medical people came in, escorted by Sean. He waved them over to where Francis was (someone had put a pillow under his head). One of them split off to move over to check on Denise as well, taking a knee while having her sit in a chair so he could ask medical-related questions. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us moved out of the way for the moment. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Seth there. He arched an eyebrow. “So, seems like this ghost problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Think I could tag along with you, Miss Necromancer?” 

“Do you mean the problem of Kushiel being a ghost, or of you being a ghost?” I found myself asking. 

“Sure,” he replied with a sly wink before sobering. “Seriously, better than sticking around and haunting this place even longer. Last time I checked, you’re where the action is.” 

“Yeah, hey, me too.” That was Grover. “Your life seems pretty exciting. I want to see more. Besides, you still owe me a stabbing.” 

Glancing toward Asenath, who was standing in a corner of the room trying not to stare too much, I gestured. “Yeah. You’re welcome to stay. I need more ghosts. But uhh, maybe you should go talk to her, huh?” 

Giving me a brief salute, the man turned and moved that way. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, and I didn’t want to eavesdrop. It was between the two of them. 

Instead, I looked over at the doorway, where Koren and Rebecca had arrived. They looked at me questioningly, and I exhaled before stepping over to explain what was going on.  

They listened, with obvious increasing incredulity about the whole thing. Partway through, however, I paused and looked toward my mother. “Why do you think Kushiel was so convinced that sword was in here?” 

“Oh!” Denise piped up. “Um, because it was.” As the rest of us stared, she darted off the chair, moving to the fireplace to root around inside it before coming out with something long wrapped in cloth. She carefully set it down on a table, then unveiled… the sword. It was absolutely the right one, fitting the description perfectly, with a black blade, a red handle, and an amber jewel at the end. The sword, it was here. It was right here the whole time.

“What… but… but…” My mouth opened and shut, staring at the thing. “You said you couldn’t find it.”

She, in turn, squirmed a little uncomfortably. “I thought umm, I thought it’d be bad if she got it. She said she’d kill people if I didn’t help her find it, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill people anyway. I thought if she found it, everything would be worse. If she killed people because I didn’t give it to her, she would’ve done that anyway. But if she killed even more people because I did give it to her, it would’ve been my fault. I umm… I know it’s bad to lie. Am… am I bad?” 

“No, Denise,” I started. 

“Denny,” she interrupted. “I umm, please. Please call me Denny.” 

“Sure, anything you want,” I agreed while continuing to stare in disbelief at the sword. “But you’re not bad, Denny.

“In all, I’d say you’re pretty amazing.” 

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The Runaway 15-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For several long seconds, all of us just stared at the ghost figure. My mouth had fallen open, a noise of disbelief escaping me. Somehow, in the rush of trying to find out what had happened to Denise, I had entirely forgotten that Seth had been murdered right here in this building. Abaddon. Abaddon had killed him. Of course it made sense that one of the ghosts I would feel was him. He had to be one of the most recently killed people, aside from… aside from those three below and whoever else Denise-Ammon had killed. Of course it made sense. But I hadn’t thought about that at all. It had completely slipped my mind until he was standing right in front of us. 

Asenath was the first to actually find her voice, stepping right up to the shield. “Seth,” she managed, eyes wide. “You–you actually left behind a… you.” 

“A ghost?” He winked casually. “Yeah well, you didn’t think I was just gonna fade away into nothing, did you? Someone like me, we pretty much have to leave a mark on the world. In my case, it turns out that mark is literally a copy of myself.”  He squinted thoughtfully before adding, “I suppose there’s a story in there somewhere.” 

“That’s the sort of story that can come later,” Mom put in. “Can you do what we need?” 

“Oh, hey there, Jos.” Seth turned his attention to her and gave a little bow, his look one of familiarity. “I heard a few of the people around here talking about you getting out from under that fuck’s heel. Good for you. Wish I’d been there for that little scuffle. I had a few things I wanted to say to the bastard. As for this, yeah, I know where the power source for the shield is, but I need a little boost.” His eyes found me. “Can’t really generate enough physical force to break it without some help. Suppose that’s the problem with being dead.” As though to demonstrate, he waved his hand through a nearby wall. “If you wouldn’t mind, Miss Necromancer? I hear you’re pretty strong with that these days.” Raising a hand to the side of his mouth, he stage-whispered, “Ghosts gossip.”

Yeah, it was definitely him. Even in this sort of situation, Seth just didn’t take anything seriously. If I had thought his own death might change that, I was sorely mistaken. Or maybe it was just that ghosts were literally an impression of the original person left on the world using their magical energy. Either way, he was definitely still Seth. I was sorry that Shiori wasn’t here to see him. I knew how much she had liked the guy. 

Pushing all that out of my mind immediately, I gave a short nod. “I’ve been practicing,” I confirmed before closing my eyes. I focused on the energy in front of me. It took a moment to reach past the forcefield in order to feel Seth himself, but I managed it. With a little bit of effort, I pushed more power into him. I could feel his form solidify a little bit. It was somewhat like filling up a balloon with water, if that balloon had already held its shape for the most part. He became more present, more capable of acting on the outside world. 

“Ah, better.” Seth exhaled. “There we go. Now you all sit tight here. I’ll be right back.” With that, the man spun on his heel and walked into one of the nearby rooms we could see. The rest of us exchanged anxious looks. 

“Damn,” Twister noted, “even dead, he’s still pretty damn cu–”

“Don’t say it,” Asenath interrupted. “Trust me, he can hear you. Even as a ghost, he’ll never miss out on a chance to hear someone saying something that could inflate his ego.” 

“So what’s the deal with that guy?” my ghost buddy from the other hotel spoke up. “Sounds like you guys all know each other. C’mon, gimme the story. I like stories almost as much as stabbings. Especially if the story involves stabbing.” 

“I don’t think–hang on, what’s your name, anyway?” I realized I had never asked him. Mostly because I’d been a bit occupied back at Mercer’s place (not that I wasn’t occupied now), and didn’t think I’d ever see him again. 

“Grover,” he replied. “Grover Clyde, at your service.” He flashed me a smile that had probably melted a lot of hearts back when he was a living little boy. 

Over the next twenty seconds or so, I quickly gave Grover the rundown on who Seth was and what had happened. When I was done, he actually seemed to blanch a bit. “Damn. That sucks, man.” 

“Tell me about it,” Senny murmured. There was clear emotion in her voice, despite her attempt to play it off casually. For all that she had given Seth shit for being… well, Seth, it had always been obvious that she cared a lot about him. He was basically a brother to her, and I knew she felt horrible for what she saw as ‘letting him die’ before they could find her father. Who, of course, had been the one to turn Seth into a vampire in the first place. Tiras had brought him into their family. Asenath saw his death as a personal failure on her part. Which wasn’t really fair, but feelings and emotions seldom took fairness into account. 

Reaching out to avoid focusing on that, I looked through Seth’s eyes. He was standing in front of a black crystal about the size of a bowling ball. It was red and silver, floating in the air on a cushion of magical energy. That same magical energy surrounded the thing, seeming to form a sort of shield around it. Seth had already punched the thing a couple times, wearing out some of the power I’d given him. So, I filled him up with more, shoving my own energy into the ghost-man. He gave a gasp, before I saw him look down at his hands, clenching them into fists. “Why, thank you.” He was clearly talking to me, before rearing back to punch the shield surrounding the crystal once more. That time, it was enough, and the shield shattered. Which allowed Seth to reach in and grab the floating thing. He held it up above his head, grunted, and then slammed it down to the ground. The crystal shattered entirely, and I snapped myself back to seeing through my own eyes just in time to witness the forcefield that had been blocking our path completely vanish. 

Immediately, we all started to run that way. Twister flew down in hummingbird form, transforming to herself briefly before shifting into a wolf that raced alongside us. Even Seth jogged along with the group as soon as we passed the room where the crystal had been. I could still feel Denise ahead, on the far end of this floor. And yet, something was bugging me. I quickly spoke up, “Where did Denise-Ammon get a big crystal to power that forcefield?” 

Mom pivoted, facing me while still moving. “What big crystal?” 

Seth explained what he’d had to break in order to make the forcefield come down. Which brought my mother to a momentary halt. “Wait,” she spoke up sharply, making the others stop as well. “Felicity’s right, why–how would Denise, or Ammon if his memories have taken over, have that crystal? It’s… possible that it was already here, for some other purpose and they just took it.” Even as she said that, I could hear the doubt and uncertainty in her voice. And I didn’t blame her for that. There was just something very strange about the fact that crystal was there. Strange and convenient for trying to keep people like us away from them. There was a lot about this whole thing that wasn’t adding up. Could someone else be involved? That felt like wishful thinking. 

“Ammon… Ammon probably made someone tell him where he could get an energy source,” Asenath pointed out. “There have to be a lot of them around here.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, fair point. Still, something just seems…” 

“Off,” Twister agreed, rising up into her human form. “Yeah, babe, it’s felt off since we’ve been here. And it’s not just the fact that there were three dead bodies waiting for us. This whole place is just… it feels like someone’s watching us, you know?” She shivered, folding her arms. “I thought it was my imagination, paranoia from that whole creepy Ammon thing. But I dunno.” 

“We need answers,” Mom pointed out, gazing in the direction of where I could still feel Denise. “The best way to get those is to find that girl, make sure she can’t hurt anyone else, and then ask her some questions.” 

“Ahh, just out of curiosity here, what girl are you all talking about?” Seth put in. He rocked back and forth on his heels, his gaze sweeping over us. “I didn’t exactly see what happened here before you showed up, but I’ll tell you this much, there was definitely more than one person. I heard lots of voices, and some of the scuffles that happened, it wasn’t some little girl doing it.” 

“She could have put people in the hotel under her power. Or his power. Or–” Shaking off the whole confusion of that, I focused, telling Seth what we believed had happened. “The Ammon part of her has probably put some of the hotel guests and staff under her control and made them fight the others. That makes sense, right?”

“It does,” Mom reluctantly confirmed. “But we should still make sure we know what we’re walking into.” It sounded like the last thing she wanted to say. Mom needed to get in that room and stop Denise from doing… whatever she was doing. But she was right, we needed to know more. We weren’t going to do her or anyone else any good if we ran straight into some sort of trap. Sure, maybe this whole thing was just a result of Denise being taken over by Ammon’s memories/personality and using his power to make people in the hotel do things (including bringing out that crystal and setting up the forcefield), but even that still left a lot of questions. Including a lot of whys. Why would she want to do that? Why was she still spending time in this hotel instead of leaving? What was she looking for up here? What were we missing? Besides a lot. I was pretty sure one of the main answers to that last question was, ‘a lot.’ 

With a slight shudder to myself about how badly this whole situation could go, and was already going considering the dead people, I offered, “Maybe Grover and Seth could scout ahead and see what’s going on first?” Belatedly, I looked at the two ghosts. “That is, if you guys don’t mind that.”

The two, who had just met, immediately and without hesitation replied together, “Sure, what’re they gonna do, kill me?” They both then pointed and blurted, “Jinx!” 

Quickly, I waved my hands. “Just go see what’s going on in there!” Something was wrong. Something more than we knew. The urge to brush down this last hallway and run right into the room where I could still feel Denise moving around was almost overwhelming. I had to grab my own arms and make myself stop. A glance over to the side showed that Mom was basically in the same situation. She was staring that way, tightening and loosening her fists repeatedly. We had to help Denise. But we had to actually help her, not go rushing into a trap, or whatever this was, just because we were anxious. 

So, hard as it was, we waited. At least I had it a little easier than my mother. I was able to close my eyes and focus on the vision of one of the ghosts so I could see what was going on. I chose Seth. 

Immediately, I saw the door he was looking at. It was clearly an entrance into one of the fancier suites. Which also meant that it had a lot of magical shielding around it. Or at least, it had had a lot of magical shielding. Even while looking through Seth’s eyes, I could see where over a dozen different protective runes had been expertly broken. He and Grover were both leaning in to stare at where the shielding had been destroyed, clearly checking to see if there was any protection left. But I could tell already that there wasn’t. The room was completely open, at least as far as its magical defenses went. 

Sending a silent message for the two of them to wait for a moment, I opened my eyes and turned back to the others, telling them what we had seen. My head shook once I’d finished. “Does Ammon know how to break magic like that?” 

“Not that I’m aware of,” Mom murmured thoughtfully. “But it’s possible that his father taught him without my knowledge, or that he forced someone else to teach him at some point. It’s also possible that he controlled someone here into doing it. Through Denise.” With those last two words, her eyes darkened considerably.   

While she was saying that, another problem had jumped into my mind. If Denise had Ammon’s memories, or his personality had taken over, or… or whatever, did that mean that she remembered what had happened to kill him? More to the point, did she know that Dare was immune to him, and what that must mean? We hadn’t seen the sky crack apart temporarily like it had back when Koren and I had figured it out, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen at any second. Hell, it could have happened outside now without us knowing, right? Because what I really needed right now was another huge problem to worry about. If Denise really did have Ammon’s… everything, I had to find a way to make sure it didn’t get blurted out in front of everyone. Or we would risk an entire Fomorian invasion taking over the planet and probably killing billions of people in the process.

But hey, at least there was no pressure or anything. 

Realizing that the others were looking at me expectantly, I tried to shake that off and focus on the problem right in front of us. First we had to figure out what was going on with Denise. Then we could deal with the fallout of everything related to it. 

To that end, I focused on the two ghosts once more, seeing through their eyes as I asked them to turn invisible and poke their heads through into that room. There were no more defenses, so hopefully they wouldn’t have any problem taking a peek. We had to know what the hell was going on there. Especially considering my blood sense was still pointing directly through that doorway. Denise should be in the room right in front of them. For better or for worse, we were about to find out what she was doing. 

Holding my breath, I reached out for my mother’s hand blindly while watching through Seth’s eyes as he and Grover leaned over to peek through the door. The instant their heads passed through, we could see the grand entryway of the suite beyond. It was even bigger and more lavish than the other room, with an actual foyer beyond the entrance with a marble floor and a couple statues of centaurs holding up spears over the archway leading into the living area beyond. A staircase to the left (before the archway) spiraled up to a second floor with a balcony just over the arch where someone could stand and look down, and a doorway behind that seemed to lead into a library of some sort. Through the arch back down on the first level, there was a front living area, with several plush couches just in view surrounding a massive fireplace. 

While we were taking that in, a small, dark-haired girl went running past the archway, inside that front living area. Denise. Her sudden appearance made me reflexively jump, but she wasn’t attacking or hiding or anything. It didn’t look like she knew anything about the ghosts who had just poked their heads in. Rather, I realized as she darted past the archway again, dropping to her knees to peer under a couch, it seemed like she was looking for something. Rather frantically, if I wasn’t mistaken. 

Sure enough, a moment later we heard the girl blurt in a desperate voice, “I don’t know! I don’t know where it is! You have to be more specific. They moved everything around or something. Are you sure it’s in here?” There was a brief pause before her head shook quickly. “I know, I know! I’ll find it, I promise. I’ll find it, just… just don’t hurt anyone else, please? You don’t have to hurt anybody else, I’ll find it.”

Telling Grover and Seth to wait again, I popped back out of their vision. The others were watching expectantly, so I quickly explained what I had seen. Not that it gave a lot of answers, but still. With a grimace, I finished, “It sure doesn’t sound like she’s turned to evil or anything.” 

“She’s talking to someone,” Asenath murmured. “Ammon, maybe? Or the Ammon in her head. Maybe she’s trying to appease his voice or personality. You didn’t see anyone else in the room?” 

“No, and no one said anything when she stopped talking, before she responded,” I confirmed. “So yeah, that does kind of sound like a voice in her head. But if Denise is still herself enough to argue with the Ammon part that much, maybe we can actually pull her out of it and get her back to normal.” I gave my mother a hopeful glance at that. 

“Yes,” she confirmed, “that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Keep the deafening spells handy, but only use them if it looks like she’s about to do something with that power. I want to give her a chance to explain what’s going on.” With that, she started moving that way, while the rest of us quickly followed after. Now that we knew Denise was in there, and seemed to be alone, Mom wasn’t going to wait any longer. She wanted to get in there and help that girl. Asenath was right beside her, with Twister, Sean (with the Vulcans), and me bringing up the rear. 

On the way, I gave one more peek through the ghosts. But nothing had really changed. Denise was still looking for… whatever it was. At the moment, she had her body half-twisted inside the fireplace, peering up the chimney as she insisted there was nothing in there. Still, there was no sign of anyone else. And I heard nothing during the pause while she was silent before responding to whatever it was she heard, quickly pleading for more time. It sounded like the voice in her head was getting pretty impatient. I really didn’t want to think about what it might be threatening to terrify the girl so much. This whole situation was creeping me out even more with every passing moment. We had to get in there and deal with whatever this was. 

It didn’t take long for us to reach the entrance to the suite. As Grover and Seth glanced over to us, looking just as uncertain as the rest of us were, my mother kept going. She didn’t even break stride while waving her hand to make the doors swing open so she could pass through, Asenath right at her side. As we followed right behind, Mom’s voice called, “Denise? Denise Cartland!” 

With that, we were there, passing through the foyer and standing in that archway. And I could see Denise with my own eyes. She had jolted at the sound of my mother’s call, jerking upright from where she had been peering behind one of the statues in a corner. Eyes wide, she pivoted to face us, looking panicked. “N-no! No, what are you doing here? You can’t be here. Please, please, go away. If you don’t leave, she’ll hurt you.” 

“It’s okay, Denise,” Mom assured her. “We know what…” She trailed off then. “What… do you mean, ‘she?’ You mean he.” 

“Wh-what?” The girl, looking even more terrified as she saw how many of us there were, pressed her back against the wall as her head shook wildly. “N-no, no, she. She made him do it. She made him hurt them. She–she hurt–she–” 

“That’s enough, dear.” A new, yet vaguely familiar voice spoke from the other side of the room. Our gazes snapped that way, to see a man standing in one of the doorways. A man I knew, with light-blond hair, a slim build, and amber eyes. As with the last time I’d seen him, he wore a pristine white trench coat over a red silk shirt with buttons down the front, and white slacks.  Francis Gale, the Steward Hybrid. The Auberge’s head of security, essentially. He was there. But… but…

Even as a rush of confusing thoughts ran through my mind, a glowing figure emerged from him. My first thought was ‘Seosten.’ But I immediately felt the difference. This was a ghost. An incredibly powerful ghost. Instantly, I reached out with my power, attempting to halt it in its tracks. But my power just slid off it. The thing was too powerful, shrugging away my attempt to grab it. 

“I’m sorry dear,” the figure informed me, as the glow faded. “You’ll have to try harder than that. Perhaps you should go practice. In the meantime, where is my daughter? 

“We have some catching up to do,” Kushiel’s ghost announced.  

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The Runaway 15-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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While the rest of us stood frozen for a moment, Mom and Asenath were already moving. They both crouched beside one of the bodies, checking it briefly before looking to one another. Some sort of silent conversation passed between them before my mother looked over at Mennin, her voice tense. “Are you sure your mother isn’t here? And Francis? Why hasn’t an alarm been sounded yet?”

“Yeah, like I said, she’s in Paris for a meeting,” Mennin informed us, already whipping a phone from his pocket. “Francis should be here. He should–The whole system is down. Alarms, communication, everything. It’s all down. Only someone with top level access should have been able to do that.” His long fingers danced over the phone, before he cursed in frustration. “They crashed the whole system. It’s a mix of technology and magic. I can bring it back up, but it’ll take time.” 

“We have to find Denise,” Asenath announced sharply while starting to rise. Half-way to her feet, she paused and tilted her head. “That blood.” Her hand rose, pointing to a small spot against the side of the bed that was almost invisible unless you were looking at the exact right place. “That’s hers. The rest of this belongs to these three, but that spot is hers. She was cut.” 

“You remember the smell of her blood from that long ago?” Rebecca asked, eyes widening. 

Asenath, in turn, gave a short nod. Her eyes had narrowed. “Yes. It was important blood. She’s still bleeding. I can track her scent if she hasn’t gone too far.”

“We can do better than that,” I replied, already moving to that spot. The blood-tracking ability the harpy had given me way back when we first ended up on the Meregan world. All I had to do was touch the spot with my finger, and…

“Top floor,” I announced, turning a bit to point. “She’s all the way up on the top floor and… and it feels like she’s moving fast, that way.” 

As I was saying that, Koren moved forward. She yanked a bit of cloth from one pocket and wiped it through the blood, then handed it to me. “So you can keep tracking her.”  

Mom immediately pointed to Mennin. “Get the system up and running again. Koren, Rebecca, December, and Tabbris, stay here to protect him, just in case. Tabbris can keep in contact with Felicity to let us know if anything happens.” To Asenath, Sean, Twister, and me, she gestured. “Let’s go find Denise. And… and stop whatever’s happening.” Her voice was thick with barely restrained emotion. It was obvious that she knew what all of this most likely meant. Ammon’s memories or… or personality, or… whatever must have managed to take over. And now she–or he–whoever she was after that, was going around the hotel doing… this. Killing people, making them shut down the whole security and communications system, and who knew what else. Whatever was actually going on, we had to find Denise and fix this, no matter what it took. That poor kid. God, fuck, how could this have happened? It didn’t even–was it just because of what Fossor had done? Did he plan for something like this, or was it all just an accident? 

Whatever it was, the point remained that we had to stop Denise and bring her back to her senses. Whether that took some sort of exorcism to get rid of the Ammon memories, or… or whatever. We had to fix this before things got even worse. And before Denise-Ammon made it out of the hotel and disappeared, since I had no idea how long this blood would keep telling me where she was. Especially considering if she–they got out of the building, I was pretty sure the Ammon part of her would be able to grab a ride and really disappear. 

Pushing that worry aside, I focused on something else that might actually be useful. “Hold on. If these guys died recently, I think I might be able to find their ghosts, if they left any. They could answer some questions.” My eyes closed, as I focused intently on my inherited Necromancy. I set aside all reflexive disgust at where the power had come from. What mattered was the fact that it could help us find out what was going on with Denise right now. It could give us answers about what had actually happened in here. Even if I was terrified as to what those answers would be. 

For a few seconds, I focused on that, before frowning. My head shook. “I don’t sense anything. I can’t feel their ghosts at all. I should be able to feel… you know, something. But it’s not there. It’s like…” I hesitated, a grimace touching my face. “It’s like someone else already took their ghosts somewhere else.” 

Everyone exchanged looks at that, their expressions making it clear that they didn’t like the sound of it any more than I did. Something was clearly very wrong here. Even more than we had already known. The thought sent a shiver through me. 

“We have to find her,” Mom announced, cutting through the brief silence that had followed my announcement. “That’s what matters. We’ll figure out the rest of it after she’s safe.” 

She was right, of course. What mattered was finding Denise and making sure she didn’t… that Ammon didn’t… making sure no one else got hurt, or worse. We could figure out the details, such as where the ghosts of these three people who had been murdered so recently had disappeared to, later. It was too bad that we couldn’t get easy answers about what actually happened, but there was no sense in wasting any more time standing around trying to figure it out. Not when Denise was right upstairs. 

Mennin apologized for the fact that he couldn’t send us directly to the top floor with the whole system being down, and gave us directions for the employee-access stairs that should go straight to the top. After a brief hesitation, he pleaded with us to hurry before focusing his attention back on getting the system running again. Apparently whatever Denise-Ammon had done was pretty extensive, because from the way the man was cursing, it didn’t sound like he was having much luck. Which really said a lot about how thoroughly it had been taken down, considering he was literally the son of the owner and apparently had the highest access. 

Either way, we left him working on that, with Tabbris (who had hopped out of me) and the others protecting him. Meanwhile, Twister, Sean, Asenath, and I jogged out of the room together with my mother, emerging into a white-carpeted hallway with various paintings along the wall. The art varied wildly in both style and ability. Next to what looked like a Renaissance masterpiece, there was a crayon piece that had to have been drawn by a child and hung up on a mother’s fridge. And right next to that one was a photo-realistic drawing of a man standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how the artwork was arranged. And we really didn’t have time to focus on that anyway, immediately turning to the left to rush down the hall.  

I could still sense Denise far above us, though now It felt like she was moving back to an area she had already passed before. I wasn’t sure if the Denise part and Ammon part of her were arguing, or if they were looking for something, chasing someone, or what. But they were definitely moving back and forth, because now I could feel her moving back the opposite way, toward the spot I’d sensed her in first. 

I informed the others, and Sean shook his head. “Is she looking for an emergency way out or something? With the whole system down, maybe the exits don’t work.”  

“Well, we got in, right?” Twister demanded. “That Tombs guy just waved his hand and made a door.” 

“He’s the son of the owner,” Mom reminded her. “That comes with privileges.” 

“Speaking of privileges,” I put in, “What exactly are we going to do when we find, uhh, them? Mom and I, we’re immune. And Koren. I mean I think we are. I mean…” Frowning, I shook my head. “Hold on, if she has his power does that mean we’re still immune or–” 

“We won’t take the chance,” Mom informed me, already reaching into her pocket. She produced a handful of coins, tossing one to each of us. “When we get close, put that against your forehead and say ‘Lestansurdi.’ It should make you deaf just long enough to secure Denise and stop her from saying anything. As soon as she’s… as soon as everyone is safe, we’ll work out how to extricate Ammon’s thoughts from her mind.” With a glance toward Asenath, she added, “Felicity, you should help Senny with that.” 

Right, because Asenath couldn’t use magic. She had been upgraded to the point that she could temporarily use other people’s powers by ingesting their blood, but magic was still a no-go for her. It had something to do with the original blood curse that the Vestil had put on the Akharu over the whole throne of the world thing. It cut them off from using any magic, and that curse extended through vampires (who were literally just Natural Akharu Heretics, if you got right down to it). Asenath had a lot of advantages, even more now that she had that upgrade, but she absolutely could not do anything with magic. 

“Uh, quick question, will that work?” Twister piped up. “I’m pretty sure the Denuvus power thing cuts through most forms of ‘can’t hear you,’ doesn’t it? Doesn’t seem like it should be that easy.”

“It worked back when Vanessa and Avalon used those earplug things last year,” I noted. “Though they said something about that being magical temporary deafness with limited charges. Only lasted a few seconds.” 

“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “They would have had to use a special sort of deafness spell to make it work. Probably similar to the one on these, but it works longer. I’ve been working on it since… since my son was given his power. It… it should work. It’s the best chance we have, in any case.”  

By that point, we had reached the end of the corridor. It was an L intersection, cutting to the right. But we didn’t turn that way. Instead, Mom moved to the small painting of a farmyard and put her thumb against the door of the barn, reciting a three sentence code that Mennin had given us. Then we held our breath for a moment. He had said that this emergency stairwell should work even with the system down, but I was pretty sure we all half-expected to be screwed over again anyway. Because at this point, it really wouldn’t have surprised us. 

Fortunately, the wall slid aside as promised, revealing a circular metal stairwell leading up. It was very narrow, only meant for one human-sized person to move up at a time. Which made sense, considering it was essentially only intended for Mennin or his mother and their immediate family to use. 

I went first, since I could detect Denise’s blood and knew exactly where she was. Asenath was behind me, with Mom right behind her. Twister, Sean, and Vulcan brought up the rear. We might have been more wary, but my ability to sense Denise eased tensions a bit. Still, we had no idea what sort of orders an Ammon-possessed (or whatever) Denise might have given anyone else in the building. So, we weren’t going to reach out for help. We had to get up there ourselves, use the special deafening spells, and… and capture Denise. After that? Yeah, I had no idea. Get Ammon’s thoughts and memories out of Denise somehow. We’d deal with that as it came. 

There were other landings to get off at more floors, but we ignored them. The only exit we needed was the one that led to Denise. And there it was. We finally made it. In the lead, I stopped by the door, focusing just a bit. It was getting harder to sense the girl’s location through the blood, but I could still do it. “This floor still,” I murmured under my breath. “Far end, all the way in the corner. I think she’s… she’s moving around one room? She keeps, like, standing in one spot, then darting to another, staying there for a few seconds, then darting to a different spot. It’s like she’s–” 

“Searching,” Asenath finished. “Whatever that room is, it sounds like she’s ransacking it. Or they are. Or–” A frown crossed her face.

Looking over my shoulder down to where she was, I gestured. “I know, confusing, right? No idea how to refer to… umm… them?”

“Them is as close as I think can be accurate,” Mom muttered. “At least until we know more about… about what happened.” 

Swallowing hard, I nodded before turning back to the exit. “Well, let’s go find them then.” Pushing the door open, I stepped out cautiously. Neither my item sense nor anyone else had picked up any sign of anyone beyond, but still. Again, with Ammon involved (in some way), there was no such thing as being too careful. They could have ordered anyone to lay in ambush in case someone came after them. 

The area we emerged into looked like (duh) an extremely high-end hotel. The floor was marble under our feet, with a very wide hallway (seriously, the corridor was like twenty feet across). The walls were this beautiful reddish wood, and chandeliers hung from the ceiling at equal intervals going down the hall. To the left, wide windows displayed various scenes from different parts of the world. To the right, spaced just as equally apart as the chandeliers, were doors leading into private suites. Next to the windows here and there were small tables with statuary, plants, chairs to sit in, and so on. 

“They’ve done some remodeling since we were here last year,” I muttered, eyes scanning the whole corridor rapidly. “The place looks different.” 

“They do that,” Mom informed me, stepping up to one side as she kept her gaze laser-focused ahead of us. “With the sort of magic and resources this place can pull in, they like to mix things up a lot. Probably even more after what you said happened. They would want to distance themselves from experiencing a full-on Seosten invasion and battle throughout their sanctuary.” 

“And now look what happened,” Sean put in flatly. He had moved up on my other side, Vulcan creeping ahead of him a bit while sniffing the air. “Their system’s down and at least three of their people are dead.”  

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out as violent as it did last time,” Twister noted. She hopped up, transforming into a small hummingbird before landing on Sean’s raised arm. 

Asenath, moving up next to Vulcan, shook her head. “It won’t. Whatever Ammon’s trying to do, whatever… whatever’s going on, we just catch Denise and evict every part of that… that… boy out of her.” It was clear that she wanted to say something worse than boy, but restrained herself with Mom right there. 

For her part, my mother simply started walking, gaze focused forward. “Yes,” she agreed, “we find Denise and free her. Whatever that takes.”

The rest of us exchanged brief looks before setting off after her. Yeah, I knew just how bad Mom was taking this whole thing. After everything she had done to make sure her own son wouldn’t resurrect, specifically so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else, and now… now he was hurting more people. Or his memories were, his thoughts, his–ghost. His something. Whatever, the point was, people were getting hurt and killed because of him. And Mom was feeling the guilt of that, magnified by the whole situation that had led to it. 

Something that struck me as odd as we ran down the hall past all these doors was the fact that we still hadn’t seen anyone else. No guests, no employees, no one. I’d expected to see a bunch of Ammon-controlled people blocking our path. Or at least a lookout or something. There should have been people ready for, if not us, then any other interruption. I was pretty sure that’s what Ammon would have done. But there was just no one. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. I had no idea if there were people inside their rooms, but there was no one out in the hall. In some ways, that was worse. It made me even more anxious. What was going on? Why was Ammon-Denise ransacking some room on the top floor instead of getting out of the hotel? What could they possibly want up there? Seriously, as far as I knew, Ammon had never even been here. He shouldn’t know anything about the place, and Denise definitely didn’t know anything about it. So what the hell was going on? We were missing something, and the closer we got to where they were without figuring out what that missing something was, the worse I thought it was going to be. 

Unfortunately, we were going to have to wait even longer to find out. Because just as we turned the corner at the end of the hall, a glowing reddish forcefield blocked our path. It stretched across the entire hallway, stopping us from moving forward. We all came to a halt, and Mom reached out to put her hand close to the thing. “It’s blocking transportation powers,” she murmured. “And it’s… really strong. I don’t think we can break through it. Not quickly, anyway. We need another way. Are they…” She looked toward me questioningly, while the others followed suit.  

“They’re still in that room,” I confirmed after a moment of focus. It was even harder now, the sense even more faded. But I could definitely still feel it, especially when I pressed my finger against the blood on the cloth. “Still moving around, just like before.” A frown touched my face once more. “I still can’t figure out what the hell they’re doing.” Looking to my mother, I asked, “Are you sure you can’t see them from here?” 

Mom shook her head. “Between the hotel’s own safety measures that are still running, and whatever they set up, I can’t see any better down this hall than you can.” 

We tried a couple of different things. Twister turned into a bug to find a way around or under the shield, but apparently it extended through the solid material. She couldn’t get anywhere. Mom, Sean, and I tried any combination of magic we knew to take the shield down, and that showed some promise, but it was too slow. Even working together, we would take at least an hour to break through the thing. And I was pretty sure we didn’t have that sort of time. We had to get in there and find out what the hell Ammon-Denise was doing. Every second that passed made me even more anxious. This was really bad. 

Punching the wall, Asenath turned to me. “Ghosts? There have to be some ghosts around here, right? Or you can use one of the others you already have. Maybe they can get through.” 

Mom was nodding. “Yes, they should be able to. Or you can summon them onto the other side. A shield like this has to have a power source somewhere nearby. If they can find and disrupt it, the shield should go down so we can get through.” 

Right, I could do that. If we needed the ghost on the other side of the shield, it was probably a good idea to reach out for one that was already over there. So, I pressed my hands against the force field, closed my eyes, and focused. Immediately, I sensed a presence. A familiar one at that. 

My eyes opened, to find the ghost boy from before, back at the other hotel. He looked the same as before, in his old-style clothing. “Hiya, boss lady,” he greeted with a casual wave. “You rang?” 

“You–how–what?” My mouth opened and shut, staring at him. “How are you…?” 

“Right, I got bored back at the motel, and your life seems exciting,” he informed me. “So, I figured I’d follow you and see what happened. You really need to get better about sensing that sort of thing. I mean, you got a lot of raw power, sure. But you need practice. No way should I have been able to follow you guys without you knowing. That’s just crazy. Probably would’ve sensed me downstairs when you were looking for those new dead folks, but I took a walk to check this place out. Pretty swanky.” 

“Felicity?” Mom prompted. “Is this a friend of yours?” 

“It’s a long story,” I replied. “Wait, not that long. He was back at the other hotel, where Mercer was. He helped me get through there. And now… now he’ll help here?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. 

He, in turn, shrugged. “I suppose. But maybe you should ask one of the ghosts who lives here. Like that guy.” Turning and moving a bit to one side, he raised a hand to point toward a dark figure that had just appeared in the hall behind him. Another ghost. I felt it. I could sense death surrounding the shape, which grew stronger as it came closer. 

Stronger… and even more familiar than the boy. 

“Well… hey there,” the figure drawled as they got close enough for everyone to see. 

“Didn’t expect to see you guys any time soon,” Seth’s ghost announced. 

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The Runaway 15-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Getting to the Auberge was a bit more complicated than just saying it, of course. Sure, we had something of an ongoing relationship witdoh them, but they were still in hiding. Between the rich and accustomed-to-comfort clientele that the Auberge tended to keep normally, and the people from Wonderland they allowed to visit and share time there, no one at the hotel particularly liked the idea of being easy to find. They kept the entrance into the hotel moving constantly, bouncing it from city to city with no set schedule or anything. There was no way to anticipate where they might be at any given moment. Because being easy to anticipate would mean being easy to kill. 

The only way we had to actually get through to them so we could schedule a meeting was to call up Abigail at the station and have her send a message that we wanted to have a face-to-face. And from there, we had to wait for her to call us back once she managed to get a response. Which left our little group holed up in an old, rundown building that had once been a tire shop. We had to put down a couple different spells that would make us hard to track, and also another couple that would alert us if anyone approached. We didn’t think that the Crossroads people would keep coming after us (they probably figured we had teleported away by that point), but it was better to be safe than sorry. 

Everyone was sitting around on a couple folding chairs, an old table that had been left behind, or just (as in my case) flopped out on the cement. I was staring at the ceiling, musing aloud. “Why does Denise keep remembering things? Why does she remember Ammon controlling her, or the gas station? And what… what made the Alter detection spell keep flickering back at the house? And smashed the gas pump? And why did Mercer forget the debt? Why did he… why?”

“I think you’ve summed up all the questions, babe,” Twister informed me, perched up on top of the nearby empty steel tool cabinet that had apparently been too heavy to bother removing. She gave me a thumbs up. “Now, can you actually answer any of them?”  

“Poor Denise.” That was Asenath, standing over by a window to watch the street beyond. She spoke in a soft, thoughtful voice. “Can you imagine going through what she is right now? She must be an Adjacent.” 

“That’s someone who had the Bystander Effect broken, but they’re still just a normal person other than that, right?” I put in, glancing toward the corner of the garage, where Rebecca and Koren were sitting together. 

Sean nodded. He had pulled a folding chair around and was sitting on it backwards, while Vulcan (with Vulcan Junior attached) lay by his feet as though resting. “Yeah, that’s right. So somehow the Bystander Effect didn’t fully take when Denise respawned. And now she’s getting nightmares about what really happened to her. And as if that’s not enough, without the Bystander Effect, she keeps seeing all these monsters and has no idea what they are. Or even that they really exist. And anyone she tried to tell wouldn’t know what she was talking about. They wouldn’t believe her. Which is… you know.” He grimaced. “Really not good.” 

Everyone was making very good points, but none of it was making me feel any better. And a glance over to the doorway where my mother was standing showed that it wasn’t making her feel any better either. We were all very anxiously waiting to see where we were supposed to go to find an entrance to the Auberge, so we could actually get some real answers. Which would be really nice, at this point, given how weird this whole thing with Denise had been so far. 

Asenath was still talking. “She’s an Adjacent, so she’s seeing all these monsters around her and no one knows what she’s talking about. Until she met those Alters.” She frowned then, looking between my mother and me. “Are you guys sure there was no other information about… you know, how she met them? Did she just go up and start talking?” 

I shrugged completely cluelessly, while Mom answered. “If he knew more than that, he didn’t include it in the spell. Felicity?” 

“Nope,” I replied. “He just said she met up with some people and went to the place he was going to name in that spell. I didn’t even know they were Alters until Mom said so. I think he was being as vague as possible intentionally. Whether he knows more than he said or not…” I hesitated before adding, “He seemed pretty competent, all things considered.” 

“So he’s probably not hanging around the place a bunch of Heretics were at just so he can be forced to answer more questions,” Sean lamented, reaching down to rub Vulcan’s head. “Too bad, it could have made this whole thing a lot easier. But then, nothing about this seems very easy so far.” He muttered the last bit thoughtfully before pushing himself up with a sigh. “Have you guys considered that there could be some sort of really powerful ghost haunting Denise?” 

Without a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve definitely been considering it. Maybe some sort of spirit that’s doing Fossor’s bidding one last time?” Glancing toward my mother, I grimaced before quietly adding, “I know you were sure that he didn’t know anything about what you did, but sending some independent ghost-thing off to screw with the one good thing you managed to do involving Ammon is… sort of completely his style, you know?” 

Mom didn’t respond at first, but after a moment, she gave a short nod. “You’re right, it does sound like him. But that still doesn’t explain why Mercer would forget the debt.” 

“Yeah, that’s really weird,” Rebecca piped up. “Unless… umm, we know the Bystander Effect isn’t working on Denise. Could it be something like… the Effect is malfunctioning on her and erasing or adjusting other people’s memories? Maybe it could even be directed by her, whether she knows it or not. Like, if she was there at the gas station and told Mercer he should forget the debt, and he just… did, because the Bystander Effect kicked in and erased his memory.” 

Thinking about that, I offered, “Maybe that’s what is making her parents not check in on her. You know, if she told them she was going to stay with her aunt before she ran away, and the Bystander Effect made it stick in their heads that way. Is that… even possible?”

We all exchanged curious looks before gradually turning our gazes, one by one, to the pair of Seosten sitting together next to the garage door. Tabbris and December looked at each other, then up to us, before the latter spoke. “Ohwe’renotexpertsaboutit. Justcuzwe’reSeosten… doesn’tmeanweknowanything….abouthowtheBystanderEffectworks.” 

Tabbris, meanwhile, pushed herself to her feet and fidgeted a little before hesitantly putting in, “I think maybe it’s possible? You should ask Mama though. She’d know a lot more about that sort of thing. But uhh, yeah maybe? The Bystander Effect is really weird and all that. It’s like, spells that are that big can have really weird side effects or go wonky if you poke them the right way. Or the wrong way.” Biting her lip, clearly uncomfortable from all the attention, she added a quiet, “I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t really help to just say ‘uh huh, maybe,’ but… uh huh, maybe.”  

“We’ll have to make do without bothering Sariel,” Mom noted gently. “We still can’t disturb them while they finish setting up that spell.” She offered the girl a soft, reassuring smile. “Your mom’s too important for that. They need her.” 

Stepping over that way, I put one arm around my little sister, tugging her closer. “That’s right, can’t finish the spell without help from the champion Seosten memory-adjuster. It’s okay, though. We’re all just spitballing here anyway. We’ll know more once we talk to Denise herself. And hey, bonus, if she really is an Adjacent, she’ll actually remember what we’re talking about.” 

Yeah, that clearly wasn’t exactly helpful in a lot of ways. Especially given the way I saw my mother flinch, subtle as it was. She had clearly been hoping to give the girl a normal life back. Forcing her to have all those memories on top of noticing the non-humans all around her, and having no one to talk to about any of it? No wonder she felt guilty. I didn’t want her to, of course. But I understood it. All I could do was hope that finding Denise and talking to her directly would settle as much of that guilt as possible. Making sure the girl was okay, that was what mattered now. And hey, maybe this would be for the best in the long run. If Mom could actually explain what happened and give Denise some closure on all that, it might be good, right? 

Reaching up behind her to grab a nearby metal railing before hauling herself up, Koren announced, “Hey, at least she’s at the Auberge, right? Face it, one little girl seeing monsters and running off on her own could have gone a lot worse than that. She found some people who listened to her enough to take her to the Auberge. That’s like…  one of the best possible outcomes, you know? If you think about it, she got really lucky there.” 

Yeah, Koren definitely wasn’t wrong, though the thought of how bad that could have gone made my stomach flip over. Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “Exactly. Now all we have to do is go there and talk to her. We’ll explain everything and help any way she needs, right?”  

The others agreed emphatically, just as Mom’s phone buzzed. She looked at it before straightening. “There’s a guide on his way. Abigail told him where to find us.” Her voice went flat. “Whatever happens, Denise needs real answers. She deserves real answers. After everything she’s been through, we owe her that much. I can’t give her back everything Ammon took with his… with what happened. But I can give her answers.” 

So, we collected ourselves and were ready a few minutes later when there was a light knock at the side door. I was the closest one to it, so I stepped closer, item-sense telling me there was one person beyond. With a shrug, I pulled the door open, before finding myself face-to-face with a familiar figure. The man in front of me was about six feet tall, with pale skin and a face that might have been incredibly handsome if it wasn’t just slightly off in subtle, yet subconsciously noticeable ways. His nose was just a tiny bit too small, and his mouth slightly too big. The proportions were just… a little off. Enough to make someone’s brain skip a little when looking at him, trying to figure out what was wrong. It was sort of uncanny valley-ish, that thing when something looks mostly human, but there’s something just wrong enough about it to make someone’s mind uncomfortable.  

“Mennin?” I managed. Yeah, it was Mennin Tombs, the son of the Auberge’s current owner, Caela Tombs. He was the guy who had been possessed by Radueriel for awhile when he, Abaddon, and Kushiel had been working on breaking into that side of the vault. “We didn’t know you were coming.” Quickly, I stepped back to let him in. 

“You kidding?” the man himself asked while stepping through the doorway. “If Mom wasn’t in the middle of a pretty intense meeting in Paris, she would have come herself as soon as she heard who was asking. And she’ll definitely want you all to stick around until she can get back to the Auberge to see…” His gaze moved around the garage before focusing on my mother. “Joselyn Atherby, I presume.” 

“It’s Chambers now,” Mom corrected with a faint smile. “But yes, and you would be Caela’s son.” With that, she stepped over and extended a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I just wish that was the only emotion connected to this moment.” 

“Right, the girl.” Mennin agreed, giving a quick glance around at the rest of us. “Sorry, some of you I know, some of you I don’t. I assume you’ve all been fully vetted?” He gave Mom a brief glance before hurriedly nodding. “Right, yeah, sorry. Habit. You know what they say about the first rule of the Auberge.” 

“Don’t tell anyone about the Auberge?” Koren piped up.

Mennin, in turn, grinned with that slightly-too-wide mouth. “That’s what I said! Err, I mean, no. The first rule is don’t let anyone who isn’t a registered guest find the Auberge. So, we’re going to have to make you all registered guests in order to keep up with that rule. We just, um, ever since last year, we’re even more careful about who we bring in. Usually that requires a lot of personal vetting. Which takes weeks. All of it to make the guests feel as safe as possible. But, you know, if anyone’s going to merit an exception, it’s Joselyn A–Chambers.” He offered Mom a smile, which then turned to me. “Not to mention the people who helped save the hotel in the first place last spring.” 

“We didn’t exactly save the–never mind.” My head shook. That was too complicated to get into. “What about Denise though? She wouldn’t have had weeks of vetting before showing up with–who did she show up with? Wait, she is there, right?” A sudden, horrible thought had just raced through my mind that this was all a wild goose chase and he would have no idea who that was. 

“Oh yes,” the man confirmed. “She is in the hotel. At least, we believe it’s her. The timeline and description both fit. Along with a few other things.”

Asenath frowned. “What do you mean you believe it’s her? Hasn’t she introduced herself?” 

With a cough, Mennin grimaced. “Not so much. I ahhh, well, see, that’s where things get a little more complicated.”

“Fantastic,” Koren blurted, “because what this whole situation was really missing was complication. It was all too simple and straightforward. Downright boring, really.” She noticed the looks everyone was giving her and flushed a bit, mumbling, “I’ll be quiet now.” 

“She is right though,” Mom noted with a look at Mennin. “This has all been quite complicated enough already. Can you tell us what you mean? Why hasn’t Denise introduced herself? Is she okay?” 

That led to another grimace from the man. “Okay, well, that’s a uhh…” He hesitated before pushing on. “After what happened last year, we had some new defenses installed. They’re spells that are supposed to expel you from the hotel if you intend to harm any of the other guests or employees. Really high-end stuff too, they had to bring in some serious mojo people to get it done. And we think that’s somehow affecting her. I mean, it hasn’t sent her out, but they’re reacting to something. She came into the hotel and barely had time for a how do you do before she just… passed out. Collapsed right there on the floor, and she’s been in a coma ever since.” 

“Wait, what?” Mom blurted. “She came in and then collapsed and she’s been in a coma for weeks? But what does that have to do with your new defenses? You said they should teleport her out of the hotel if she intended to harm your guests. But they’re not doing that.” 

His head shook once more. “Nope, they’re not. But they’re not working right either. Since the second she came in, those spells have been acting up. They’re just… off. I dunno the specifics, our mages do. They said the spells are wonky, and it started since she came in. We’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with them and her ever since. Haven’t had much luck.” 

“Not that we’re not super-glad you didn’t,” Sean put in, “but why didn’t you just send her out of the hotel if she was screwing up the protection spells by being there? Or just disable the protection spells to wake her up.”

“As far as the first bit goes, Mom wouldn’t let them,” Mennin replied. “She said there was something about the girl, she didn’t want to let anything happen to her. She couldn’t even really explain it. She just said we had to take care of her. So we’ve been trying to figure out what happened and how to wake her up. Mom had some other pretty powerful guests stop by to try their hand at it, but nothing worked. We were even going to reach out to you Rebel Heretics for help pretty soon if you hadn’t reached out first. As soon as that principal of yours described who you were looking for, we knew it had to be our coma girl.” 

He shrugged then. “And as for the other part, we did. Believe me, they disabled the spells, tried putting her in an area where they were blocked, even took her out of the hotel temporarily. Nothing worked. She’s still unconscious and still won’t wake up no matter what we do. She says some stuff sometimes, just mutters words now and then. But she’s still completely out of it.” 

“And you have no idea why the protection spells knocked her out in the first place?” I asked. “They just randomly completely messed up this one girl and threw her into a coma when she came into the hotel, all for no apparent reason?” There had to be more to it than that, of course. But damned if I had any idea. It was another piece of a very confusing puzzle. And at this rate, I was afraid we had a quarter of like six different puzzles all jumbled together. 

Mennin, in turn, replied, “Not exactly, but we think it might have something to do with her power.” 

“Wait, what?” I gave a double-take along with everyone else. 

“She doesn’t have any power,” Mom informed him, even as her eyes narrowed. “She’s a normal human. An Adjacent at most.”

“Uhhh…” Mennin looked back and forth between all of us. “Are you sure about that? Cuz that’s not what the people who brought her in said. And they were pretty confident about it.”   

Sean was the first to find his voice. “What do you mean? What–uh, powers do they think she has?” 

The man looked at us as though we’re trying to decide if we were playing some sort of prank on him or not. Finally, he took a breath before explaining what the Alters who had brought Denise into the hotel had told them. First one of the bad guys had smashed his baton into her head. When Mom heard that, she actually growled under her breath. But apparently the blow to the head, though it had knocked Denise down, hadn’t actually hurt her. She got up again, and actually punched the man who had hit her. Apparently she hit him hard enough to knock him flying backwards. Which had pissed off the second guy enough to kick her backwards into a tree. Which, again, had done nothing to the girl. 

“Then what happened?” Tabbris quickly urged once Mennin trailed off. We were all hanging off everything he said. 

“Then she uhh, she introduced herself,” Mennin replied. “At least, the people she saved think she did. They heard her say ‘My name is–’ but they didn’t catch the rest of it. She introduced herself, then told the men to stop. And–” 

“And they did,” I finished, through the hard lump that had suddenly formed in my throat. No. No, no, no, this wasn’t right. No. “Wait. Wait, did… did she say her name? Did she say Denise? Did she say ‘My name is Denise’, or… or…” 

“Ammon,” Mom finished for me. Her tone was brittle. “Did… she say… Ammon?” 

This can’t be happening. No. Ammon couldn’t actually be back. He couldn’t have been reborn in her body or whatever. A sudden rush of emotions and memories flew through me about everything we had seen up to this point. All those carvings in the wall, the dents in the side of the gas pump, Mercer forgetting the debt, all of it. Was that… was that Ammon? No. No, that didn’t make sense. He wouldn’t help people. He wouldn’t–but if he–but if she–but…

Mennin was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. They were a little preoccupied and didn’t hear everything she said. She introduced herself and told them to stop talking. Then she told them to drop their weapons and walk for an hour. When they left, our guests tried to thank her, and she begged them to help her. So they brought her to the Auberge. And then she collapsed. Now you know everything I do. Possibly more, it seems like.” 

I couldn’t even begin to sort through what I was feeling at that moment. If Ammon really was back in any form, or… or… no. No, we had to get there. We had to get there right now. I felt a sudden squeeze, as Tabbris grabbed my hand. She knew. As I glanced that way, my eyes wide, she quickly possessed me, and I felt her comforting presence like a warm embrace, from the inside. 

Mom’s voice was quiet, as she fought to keep herself together. “Take us to the Auberge,” she murmured. “Take us there, now.” 

Mennin gave a short nod, passing around what turned out to be hotel keycards. He told us to keep them in our pockets for safety purposes, against their other magical defenses. Then he held a hand up, focusing for a moment before a large, wooden door appeared in the middle of the room. Once it was there, he stepped up and turned the knob before opening it. He was already explaining, “This should take us straight to the medical wing, where–” Then he stopped talking, as he turned to face the door he had just opened. 

When the man froze, Mom moved over, gently pushing him out of the way. I was right behind her and we both stared into what looked like it had been a very nice private hospital room. Had been, that was, before all the murder. Three bodies were on the floor, two obvious nurses and one doctor. Blood literally coated the floor, like a small wading pool. It was everywhere. The bed where Denise should have been was empty, and those three were dead on the floor. 

We were too late. 

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The Runaway 15-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There was a bit of arguing back and forth between more of Mercer’s men after that. They really didn’t like the idea of letting me walk away with their boss and only one guy. But they also didn’t have that much of a choice. There was nothing they could do while I was inside him. Well, there was, but I had the impression they didn’t know the ejection spell. And even if they had, they would’ve had to get close to me and hold him down to make it work. It would’ve been a whole thing. Not to mention the fact that I could’ve killed him before they got that far. 

Either way, within about ten seconds of arguing, Beied shouted everyone else down and ordered a couple of them to go downstairs to find out what the hell was going on out there for themselves, while the rest were told to grab everything valuable and retreat to the secondary base. Whatever that was. I didn’t really care. All that mattered was finding out what this guy knew about where Denise had gone. 

That particular revelation was still rebounding through my head. My instinct back at the house has been right. She really did take off on her own. At least, it looked like that. She’d willingly gotten on a bus to leave town. Which explained why her parents and aunt both thought she was staying with the other. She’d chosen to tell them that. Though even that opened up a few more questions. Or a lot more questions. Like how she had convinced them it was happening, why they never realized there was anything wrong, and so on. It raised far more questions than it answered, really. But at least it was a direction. It would be a direction as soon as the man told me which bus she had taken. Which meant getting out of here without starting another fight. 

After ordering everyone else to step aside and make room, Beied gestured to the door. “Come with me then, Heretic. We’ll go to the roof, I’ll give you the information you want so much, and then you can let him go and we can all get back to our own very busy lives.” His eyes narrowed. “And no more funny business. You want what I know, you play nice for it. Try that possession trick on me, and this–” He drew a field-engraver of his own, giving a few quick swipes across his own forehead, “will wipe my memory of everything you’re looking for. It’ll be gone forever. So the only way you’re finding out what you want is by being nice and letting the boss go. Got it?” 

I wasn’t sure he was being truthful about what that rune on his head could do. But I also wasn’t going to take the chance. So, I gave a short nod and made Mercer start walking that way. “Sure thing,” I murmured with the man’s voice, “But like I said, we should hurry. Some of those Heretics down there are from the loyalists, the really… ambitious ones. And I don’t think my people are gonna be all that interested in stopping them from getting in here for much longer.” 

That started a little murmuring from the other guards before they were silenced with a sharp word from Beied, followed by an order to get the hell to work before the Heretics killed everyone in the hotel. Then he gave me a look and snapped that I should follow him before pivoting and walking out. I did so, though I kept a close eye on the people I was walking past, just to make sure none of them tried to do anything stupid. I didn’t think they would, given the situation. But I wasn’t going to let my guard down either. It was too dangerous to just assume none of them would get any bright ideas, either about trying to hurt me through their boss, or making a power play themselves by killing said boss while he was indisposed. After all, these guys were a gang. I had a feeling backstabbing was their most common method of promotion. And killing the boss could be a hell of a promotion, if they could hold onto it. 

But, in this case, no one tried anything. They left me alone, aside from a little grumbling under their breaths. They were not very happy with me. Which was just something I would struggle with, but with enough mental fortitude, somehow would find the strength to muddle on through it.

On the way through the corridor, as I followed after the Nekomata man, I reached out to Tabbris to find out how things were going out there. She couldn’t say much, but let me know that things were, as she put it ‘tense and a bit violent’ but that they were okay. She also wanted to know how I was doing, so I told the girl what I had found out so far, and that I was about to get more information before coming out. I was trying really hard not to focus on the fact that my little sister, mother, and friends were out there with some Heretics who probably wanted to kill all of them. The students probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but they would have adults with them. And if this went on too long, those guys might get word back to the Committee about who was here. And that… that could make this whole situation turn really bad. 

Yeah, the point was, I had to get the information and get out of here so that we could all leave. Every moment that passed was another moment that the situation could turn even more sideways than it already was. Because seriously, what were the odds that a Crossroads student hunt would happen right here, right now? I didn’t even want to try to figure that out. But hey, maybe Ambrose Keaton, my Calculus teacher, would be willing to give it a shot. 

It was just slightly possible that being forced to keep my anxiety over not knowing exactly what was going on down there in check so I didn’t screw this up was making me a little screwy in the head. Maybe more than a little. Either way, I kept a sharp lookout as we made our way through the corridor to the stairwell. This was a different one than the one I had been in before, where I had left the unconscious body. This one was labeled roof access, and there was a keypad lock. But the door was already standing open, and was held that way by a large planter. 

At a gesture from me to keep going, Beied started up the stairs, with me right behind him (keeping an eye over my shoulder just in case someone who was shielded from my item sense got any big ideas, of course). My guide’s voice was faux-casual. “So, you’re part of that Heretic rebellion thing, huh? How’s that working out for you?”

“Peachy,” I retorted before pointedly adding, “So, you’re part of a gang that terrorizes people into getting themselves killed during gas station robberies while trying to pay off a debt to you, and then also terrorizes their surviving child to try to force her into paying off the same debt, huh? How’s that working out for you? Also, just in case I wasn’t clear about this, if you or any of the people from this collection of upstanding citizens go anywhere near Kalia again, my friends and I will burn your entire organization to the ground. Your boss might have literally forgotten the debt, but you don’t get to bring it back up and go after it just because you didn’t. She’s done. She lost her dad from you fucks trying to get blood out of a stone. Either the debt is over, or you are.” 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the roof. There were guys up there who had been leaning over the edge to look at what was going on below. But they must have already been briefed about what was going on, because none of them looked surprised when we appeared. Nor did they look to their boss for orders. Instead, they shot him (me) nasty looks while obviously restraining themselves from lifting their weapons. Yeah, in about three seconds, they made it clear that they knew I was there. And that they weren’t at all happy about it. 

Beied, in response to what I had said, gave a short nod. “You can believe what you want, and make any threat that makes you feel better. But the fact is, I got no problem ignoring that debt. Far as I’m concerned, it died with the man himself. Going after family, that’s just a step too far. That’s why I didn’t remind him about it. Didn’t want it blowing back on any innocent parties. My interest was in finding out what happened to the boss to change his mind. Literally change his mind.” He paused briefly before giving me a look. “But I get the feeling you’re about as lost on that as me. So good luck. Now you ready to let him go?” 

Oh boy was I ever ready. I desperately wanted to kick my way out of this piece of shit and go down to join the others. But there was still one thing I needed. It was the entire reason we’d come this far, and I wasn’t about to run off without it. Making my host give the Nekomata man a hard look, I growled out, “Soon as you tell me everything you know about where Denise went.” 

“Of course,” he agreed. “Like you said, you and your friends can come after us and wipe us out. Pretty sure that includes if I lie to you right now. And you Heretics are good at finding people when you’re motivated. I don’t want you motivated to find me. So here it is, the full truth. That girl you’re looking for got on a bus to Chicago three weeks ago. I did a little digging after that cuz I was still curious and found out she went south to Belleville. From there, she met up with some people and went to one more place.” With that, he held up that field-engraver again, along with a flat metal sheet about three inches across. “The name of that place is right here.” He showed me the symbol he had drawn on the sheet. “Take this thing and say Maescarvien while giving it a little magic juice, and it’ll tell you where she went. Maescarvien.” He spelled it and said it once more, slowly. 

“Or you could just tell me right now,” I pointed out, making a point of glowering a bit at him. Somehow, it seemed less effective even though it was coming from a guy much bigger than I was.

“Yeah,” Beied agreed, “but see, this way you need to step out of my boss to get all the information you want. Like I said, possess me and the info’s gone. Only way you get it is with this thing right here. It’s a bit delicate, so you don’t wanna let it hit too hard. But then, I figure you Heretics have plenty of powers to help get the–oops.” Even as he said that, the man had already given the thing a toss, sending it flying off the roof.  “Might wanna get that.” 

I was already launching myself that way. With a curse, I lunged out of the man I was possessing, once more leaving an unconscious host to collapse while I dove off the roof and plummeted after the thing Beied had tossed. I heard the other guards start to shout something about shooting, but the Nekomata man called them off, telling everyone to evacuate and that they had enough problems without the rage that shooting a Heretic in the back would invite. 

Not that I was paying attention to any of that, of course. It was just noise in the background while I threw myself off the building and started to fall. All my attention was on the metal plate that guy had thrown. I could see it plummeting ahead of me, my eyes locking onto it. Nothing else mattered in that moment beyond grabbing that plate. Which wasn’t that hard, since I was finally far enough away from those magical transport defenses that a thought made a portal appear directly below the plate, while I put the other end slightly above me. As the plate passed through, I snapped my hand out and caught it. 

Right, now I had the plate. I just had to avoid hitting the ground at full speed. I was tough, but hitting the ground from like eighty feet up would probably still be pretty unfun. Thankfully, my staff had plenty of charge in it, so I managed to hold it in one hand while flipping over, triggering the boost a couple times to slow my descent before landing in a crouch on a small patch of dead grass near an empty fountain beside the hotel. 

Immediately, I shoved the plate away safely into a pocket while reaching out to Tabbris, as I could still feel her presence. Where am I going?

Her response was a blurted, Behind you! 

Yeah, I’d sensed it too in that same moment. We both felt my item-sense warning me about a figure rushing up at my back, moving completely (unnaturally) silently while reaching out with one hand. I let the person get close enough to think they were about to hit me, then pivoted and twisted out of the way. At the same time, my staff lashed out to collide with their stomach. 

Between my own strength and the other person’s momentum, I was pretty sure I hit hard enough to flatten a bear. But this wasn’t a bear. It was someone a bit more familiar. 

“Hey there, Zeke,” I breezily greeted while repositioning myself a few steps backward. “Mind if we catch up later, I’ve sorta got stuff to do.” 

Yeah, it was my old classmate. Zeke, generally speaking, didn’t exactly look that intimidating. He was physically average in most respects, standing about five foot eight, with brown hair that always looked like he had just ruffled it up after getting out of the shower and let it stay that way. He wore thin-rimmed glasses along with the Crossroads uniform with the white trim showing he had stayed in the security track. On his left arm was what looked like a metal gauntlet, but I knew it could expand into his weapon. All in all, he wasn’t the world’s most daunting figure. 

But then, neither was I. In all the time since I had woken up on that bus over a year earlier, I had long-since had to do away with any notion of what a powerful figure should look like. I knew better than to actually dismiss Zeke as a threat, especially given I didn’t really know what he was capable of. We hadn’t been close enough for me to keep track of his powers before leaving Crossroads, and it had been over six months since then. A lot could have changed in that time.

What had not changed, apparently, was Zeke’s dislike of me. His lower lip curled distastefully as he held one hand over his stomach where I had hit him. It wasn’t enough to put the boy down or anything, though from his expression it definitely hurt. “Chambers.” He said the name like it disgusted him, eyes narrowing into a dark glare. “Let me guess, the guys in this place are just tragically misunderstood orphans whose hugs cure all diseases and if we dance in a circle singing Kumbaya, it’ll erase all the effects of pollution on the planet.” 

“Those guys?” I nodded toward the hotel without taking my eyes off him. “Nah, I’m pretty sure they’re all assholes. And that’s not why I’m here anyway. Like I said, why don’t we do this another time. You go back to your… whatever you’re doing, and I’ll back off and go my own way. That way.” I used my free hand to gesture back over my shoulder. “Hotel’s all yours.” 

From the look on his face, Zeke didn’t believe me and thought it was some sort of trick. I almost wanted to just turn away from him and take off running to find the others, but there was no way I would give him that sort of opening when, again, I had no idea what he was capable of. 

Instead of just taking my offer and letting both of us move on with our lives, Zeke snapped, “Do you have any idea what Sands’ and Scout’s dad is going through right now because they listened to you? You fucking tore his family apart. You tore a lot of families apart. And you’re gonna get a lot of people killed with this bullshit.” His head shook. “But you don’t care. You never took any of this seriously. You never actually cared about any of it. The whole thing was just one big joke to you.”

“You know what, Zeke?” I shot back, “I’ve been connected to newspapers my whole life, and even I have no idea how to unpack all the issues you just threw on the table. Sands and Sarah make their own decisions. So does their mom. People make their own decisions. Good decisions and bad ones. People make choices and those choices determine what they are. That’s kind of the entire point of what we’ve been saying the whole time. If you still don’t get that, maybe I could send you a powerpoint presentation sometime if you–” 

Yeah, apparently that was more than the boy was willing to take. He abruptly lunged my way, the thing that had looked like a gauntlet on his left arm expanded into a full, circular shield. Even as I was reacting, the boy lashed out with that, sending the shield flying… not at me. Instead, it rebounded off the wall nearby before several spikey blades extended from all sides of the thing. As my head snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of a guy who had been standing just beyond the range of my item-sense, gun raised to point at me before his head was cut off by the now-bladed shield. The instant the headless figure dropped, the shield vanished from mid-air and reappeared on Zeke’s arm as he doubled over a bit, stumbling slightly from the rush of the kill. 

Two seconds passed before he looked up, focusing once more. “You didn’t hit me while you had the chance.” 

“You didn’t let that guy hit me,” I pointed out, still a bit surprised by the whole sequence. I might’ve been just as stunned as he was, despite not killing anyone. 

He, in turn, stared hard at me with a flat, “I’m not the bad guy.” 

“Yeah,” I replied, “and neither am I.” With that, I reached out with my Necromancy power, caught hold of the ghost of the man who Zeke had just killed, and made him appear directly in front of the boy. As Zeke reacted to that, I used the distraction to pivot and launch myself out of the way with a shot from my staff. In mid-air, I switched my clothes for the Seosten body-suit and transformed into the werelion form before hitting the ground running. By the time the ghost had vanished, Zeke would be left facing the empty space where I had just been. 

A few words of direction from Tabbris sent me through an assortment of alleys and side-streets before I finally came to the small dirt lot where the others had already gathered. Everyone looked more or less okay. Vulcan even seemed pretty energetic, like they had just been playing a fun game. VJ, meanwhile, was hovering up high in the air, keeping an eye out for anyone coming. 

“Felicity,” Mom started, focusing on me as I came to a stop and transformed back to my human self. “Did you–” 

“I got it,” I replied, switching the Seosten suit for my regular clothes before reaching into the pocket of my coat to take out the metal plate before asking, “What about you guys? What… what happened back there?” 

Asenath stepped closer. There was blood across her face, a bruise under her eye, and a Twister in hummingbird form perched on her shoulder. “They didn’t feel like listening to reason. As usual. What about Denise? Where is she?” 

Holding up the plate, I replied, “Let’s find out.” Of course, I didn’t just use a spell I didn’t know that had been told to me by someone who probably would’ve been just fine with all of us dying. I wasn’t quite that desperate or stupid. Instead, I told my mother what he’d said. She, in turn, looked at the plate and confirmed that the spell would do what he said. 

I gave it to her, so she could find out where Denise was. It felt like the right thing to do. While letting my mother do the spell, I reached out to take Tabbris’s hand, murmuring thanks for her help, and for staying with the others while all that was going on. She, in turn, embraced me tightly. 

After speaking the single word (Maescarvien) to trigger the spell, Mom recoiled a bit as she absorbed whatever it was saying. I heard a soft gasp escape her, before her eyes widened. 

“What? What is it?” I prompted, the sentiment echoed by the others. 

Mom, in turn, focused once more and glanced around to take everyone in. “The Auberge. The people she met are Alters. They took her to the Auberge.” 

“What?” I managed, giving a double-take. “Why would they–how would–what?” 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” my mother murmured. 

“But it’s time to go to the Auberge, find Denise, and get some actual answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters have started to be released. You can find the Summus Proelium non-canon available for ALL readers right here, while the first Heretical Edge non-canon is available right here. And did I say first Heretical Edge non-canon? Yeah, because of a tie, there will be a second (different) non-canon released later in the week. So look forward to that!

Okay, so we had a lot of questions and not many answers. For some reason, we were picking up hints of an Alter being at Denise’s house, but it kept flickering in and out. Which was weird to begin with. To say nothing of the words carved into the wall, proving she still had some memory of Ammon controlling her. Which had to be unbelievably traumatic for a little girl. And now we had the dented gas pump where she had been killed, along with some gangster Alter, whom Denise was capable of seeing and remembering? Someone who it seemed like Ammon might have had a history with himself, if the guy he killed while stopping by the gas station really wasn’t random. And yet, even that didn’t really fit. Why would that Alter guy–Mercer, why would Mercer just suddenly forget about the debt that he’d been so focused on before? Why did the magical signs of an Alter being around Denise’s house keep flickering in and out? Why did she remember stuff she shouldn’t? How much did she remember? And what did Mercer have to do with Denise disappearing in the first place? It definitely didn’t look good when it came to that guy. I was a bit terrified about what he could have done to that poor kid.

The point was, we needed real answers. And we were on our way to get them, using the tracking spell to follow Mercer back, hopefully to wherever he lived. Or worked. Or whatever. Where he was. We just needed to find the guy and get everything he knew out of him. 

On the way, while following behind Koren and Rebecca as those two used the tracking spell and led the way, I called my mother and let her know what was going on. She had finished the spell by that point and was able to tell us that Denise was alive and in relatively good shape. She wasn’t sick or intensely injured, or in any real physical pain as far as the spell could determine. 

“Can you figure out where she is with that?”  I knew it was a real long shot, given what I had already been told about how the spell worked. But it was worth asking. Anything that might help us actually get this girl back home where she belonged, safe with her family and away from all the horrible things that kept happening to her. As it was, I was starting to think the kid was just as cursed as my family was when it came to going through shit. That and Mom and I both felt responsible for her, given the whole Ammon situation. It was all just a huge mess. That poor kid. 

Unfortunately, Mom’s answer wasn’t good news. “I’ve tried,” she murmured. “Something is blocking any attempt to directly reach her. It might be this Mercer guy, if he’s that big in this area. Wouldn’t surprise me if he had some big-shot mage working for him. Especially if this has anything to do with some history with Fossor.” There was pain in Mom’s voice, which made my stomach clench. She clearly felt responsible for what had happened to Denise. We had to find that girl and help her. If anything unfixable happened to the kid… I didn’t know how Mom would react. She had put a lot into being able to fix one single thing that Ammon had done, and now it was falling apart. And beyond that, even more importantly, was Denise herself. No matter how Mom and I felt about Ammon, Denise was the priority. We had to find the kid and help her. 

“I’m going to meet up with you,” Mom was saying. “If this Mercer really does have Denise, or knows anything about what’s going on or where she is, we’ll get it out of him.” The tone of her voice left no doubt of just how badly she would react if the guy tried to hold out. Or if he actually had hurt that girl. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Mom was not in the mood to play nice.

Checking the street sign as we passed another corner, I told my mother where we were, and she said she would find us from there in a few minutes. She was just going to check a couple more things around the house. But she also made it clear that if we found our way to Mercer’s place in that time, we were not to go inside or confront him until she got there. 

Disconnecting, I looked over to Asenath. Even through the dim glow of the nearby streetlights, I could see the hard-set expression of her face. Yeah, she wasn’t doing any better with the news about Denise going missing. “We’ll find her,” I insisted, reaching out to put a hand on the vampire girl’s arm. “Whatever happened to that kid, Mom says she’s still in good physical shape. She’s okay. All we have to do is find her and bring her back home.” Pausing, I grimaced before adding, “And find out what went wrong in the first place, why she remembers… anything, how much of it she does remember, what happened to–” I cut myself off and heaved a sigh. “The point is, she’s physically okay. It sounds like she hasn’t been in any pain or anything, as far as that spell can determine. That’s a pretty good sign, right?” 

Exhaling, Senny looked over to me and gave a slight nod. “It’s a good sign. But we still have to track her down. Whoever this Mercer is, if he’s the one who took her, I…” She took a moment, clearly gathering herself as a rush of truly violent thoughts went through her mind too quickly and in too much of a jumble to work their way out of her mouth. 

“Believe me,” I put in, “between you and my mother, I’m pretty sure there won’t be much left of this guy if he touched a single hair on that kid’s head. At the very least, we’ll definitely find out everything he knows. And I have a feeling that he won’t be running any crime around here anymore.” Even if he didn’t have Denise, which seemed increasingly unlikely (he was the best suspect we had, so where else could she have gone?), none of us were in the mood to leave this guy alone after hearing that he’d basically tormented Kalia’s dad into robbing that gas station and getting killed in the first place. He set that whole thing in motion with his obsessive fucking greed. Regardless of what he knew right now, he was still a piece of shit.    

“That’srightwe’regonnamakehimpay!” December piped up, spinning around to face us while walking backward. Seeing the way her pale eyes stared right past me was a reminder that the kid was technically blind. Of course, she could still see in many other ways beyond the usual. She saw magical energy, electrical energy, soundwaves, etcetera. I was pretty sure she could even see some level of kinetic energy. And who knew what else. The point was, ‘blind’ was a bit of a misnomer. “We’llfindhimandtrackhimdownandmakehim–” She stopped then, as Tabbris leaned over to whisper something in her ear. Which made December whisper back, while both of them continued to walk backward down the sidewalk without any issues. It was safe to say that whatever lingering clumsiness issues my little sister had had from being stuck possessing me for so long were gone by now. After almost a year of being able to get out and stretch her legs, it was starting to be a lot easier to see the kid’s relation to her Olympian mother. 

Asenath and I fell back a few steps as the other girl put her hand on my arm, waiting until December and Tabbris had gone back to their own discussion and turned back around. Then Senny looked to me, her voice very low. “Something’s bothering that kid. She’s upset.” 

“Who–December?” I asked, blinking from the girl in question to Asenath and back again. 

“Yes,” she confirmed in that same soft voice. “Believe me, I can tell. She’s really upset about something and she’s hiding it. She’s doing a pretty good job about it, but it comes out sometimes. You need to ask those two older Calendar girls what’s going on. Find out if they know what’s bothering December so much, and if it’s anything we need to worry about.” 

Right, that was something else to worry about. Letting out a breath, I gave Asenath a thumbs up. “Thanks,” I murmured. “Next chance we get, I’ll find out what’s going on.” Right after we dealt with this mess. I just hoped that whatever was wrong with December was something we could handle. Maybe it was just about going back to visit Cahethal? I knew they’d seen her recently, and the rest of the Calendar. They had gone to get information about the Whispers, the Pale Ship, and Tabbris Senior. From what I’d heard, the Seosten woman had apparently promised to gather everything she had on them, in exchange for something she was going to talk to Abigail about. Some part of me worried that whatever this favor from Abigail was might be what was bothering December. But it wasn’t exactly something I couldn’t focus on right then.

I especially couldn’t focus on it when, a moment later, we turned a corner and saw a very old hotel directly ahead of us. The place was about six stories tall, and had clearly been around for like a century or so, with very few updates or improvements. Though it had been a grand old place when it opened, that much was certain. It looked like it had hosted the rich and famous for decades before falling into disrepair. Now it was… a mess. The place looked like it wasn’t even open. There were boards across most of the windows, and the lobby was only very dimly lit. 

“That’s the place,” Rebecca announced, looking that way before turning back to face us. “The guy’s tracks go right up into that building. I mean, eventually they do.” 

“What do you mean, eventually?” Asenath asked. 

Koren answered. “They go past this place. For a really long way, it looks like. But they come back this way from the other direction and go inside. It looks like he kept walking, then worked his way back.” She shrugged. “Maybe he wanted to go for a hike.” 

Something told me there was more to it than that. But then again, come to think of it, it was kind of a little odd that a guy who was apparently as important and big in the Alter crime world around here as Mercer seemed to be would be walking anyway, wasn’t it? After all, we’d walked for awhile. And the other two had made it clear that the trail never went to a car or anything. They still could’ve followed it if it had, but no, he stayed right on the sidewalk. That was… maybe odd? Maybe not. Maybe he was just health conscious or something. Or didn’t fit in a vehicle, duh. I really needed to stop trying to make those sorts of judgments.  and yet, something kept bugging me about the fact that he walked all this way past the hotel and apparently eventually came back to it.  maybe it was the fact that he didn’t stop anywhere else? If he had been stopping at all the places where people owed him money and pushing them to pay, that would definitely be one thing. But again, from what we could tell, he just… walked straight. Yeah, it was probably nothing, but I just couldn’t entirely shut it out of my mind. 

Rather than stand right out in the open, we moved back out of sight, using the nearby parking lot of a fast food place to talk about what was going on, and wait for my mother. And Twister, whom Asenath had already gotten hold of. Both of them would be here soon. Then we could figure out how best to approach what was apparently that Mercer guy’s headquarters. 

We didn’t have to wait long for my mom to show up. She came around from the opposite side of the nearby restaurant, casually walking as though heading for her car. Yet despite the outward appearance of her stride and body language, I could see the anger on her face. Mom was definitely in the mood to, well, directly confront the man who might have been responsible for Denise’s disappearance. I had the feeling that what she really wanted to do was walk up to that hotel and blow the doors in, then deal with anyone who was stupid enough to get between her and that guy. I didn’t envy anyone who would have been that stupid, either. 

Of course, Mom had more self-control than that, so she simply stopped and gave all of us a nod before announcing, “I gave the place a once-over on the way here. There are three guards on the roof, but they aren’t paying attention. Two in the lobby, three on each floor except the top, four in the back lot messing around with a van, and one out in the pool area, doing something with the pipes out there. Those are the armed ones. There are others, unarmed, hanging around in the rooms.” Raising a finger, she added, “that’s not to say they aren’t dangerous, only that they do not have weapons on them. Don’t underestimate what sort of threat they could be. The top floor’s a little more complicated. It’s shielded from any vision powers at all. The rest of the floor’s have their own vision defenses, but that one’s a real doozy.” 

“Holy crap,” Rebecca managed while staring at her with a look of genuine awe. “You got all that from a once-over on the way over here?” 

Mom, in turn, actually smiled very faintly. It was brief, given the overriding anger at the situation, but genuine. “I have had some experience in assessing secure areas quickly, needing to move past a building without attracting attention. When you hang around too much, the wrong people can notice. Then things get complicated.” She reached out, laying a hand on the girl’s shoulder and squeezing it. “I know your grandmother as well as I know anybody, Rebecca. Believe me, you’ll be fine. You’ll develop the skills and power to do the same, probably even better than I can. Especially if you listen to her. She knows what she’s doing.”

Rebecca seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention. And also like she wanted to ask my mother something but wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. But before she could say anything, we were distracted by the sound of other people approaching from across the lot. My item sense hadn’t picked them up yet, but we heard several distinct sets of footsteps. And metallic ones. Which confused me, until we turned to see three figures approaching. There was Twister, looking basically the same as when I’d first met her though a year older. But beside her was Sean, looking far different from when I had first met him. One year after meeting him at age seventeen and thanks to that fucking prison, he looked like he was in his mid-twenties. 

Yeah, I really wanted to punt his fucking parents into the sun, to say the least. What the fuck had they been thinking, keeping him in what amounted to solitary confinement for years? The sheer fact that he was as together as he was (and I knew he had issues still) was a testament to Apollo helping to keep him together through all that. That whole situation still pissed me off more than I could even hope to express, even after all this time. So I could barely think of how angry Sean himself, or his brother, or even Roxa (an actual werewolf) were. 

At the moment, Roxa wasn’t here. But Vulcan was, trotting alongside his master. When he saw us, the cyberform dog gave a bark of excitement, waiting for Sean to give the go-ahead before he came dashing over to get all the praise and attention the rest of us heaped on him. Especially Tabbris and December, who were delighted to play with the metal dog. Sort of like when they played with Cerberus, really. Even if Vulcan only had the one head. 

Well, sort of only had one head. It was a little more complicated than that. As illustrated when, in the midst of that, the sleek metal backpack-looking thing on the cyberform detached and hovered up into the air, a pair of wings extending from it, while a slot in the front opened up to reveal a camera lens. 

“Hey VJ,” I greeted Vulcan Junior as the drone hovered right in front of my face, clearly wanting attention as well. “Long time no see. I hope you’re keeping these guys safe, buddy.” 

“Oh, he is,” Sean assured me. “Especially since we had his forcefield upgraded.” With that, he stepped over and gave me a firm embrace, his voice a quiet mutter. “Heard you were having some trouble we could help with.” 

Twister, after exchanging fist bumps with my mother (still an odd sight to see) spoke up. “Yeah, I was about to show Seanny there how to have some real fun for his last night of freedom.” 

“Last night of freedom?” I asked, blinking between them. Behind me, the others echoed that confusion. So clearly this wasn’t just something I had missed by myself. 

Koren was already giving a quick nod, her gaze on him. “What’s she talking about? Why wouldn’t you be free after tonight? And where’s Roxa?” 

Sean, in turn, coughed and looked slightly embarrassed. “First, Roxa’s dealing with some sort of situation with the pack. Don’t worry, they don’t need help. It’s an internal thing. Uncle Mateo said it’s something they have to deal with. One of their vices got a bit out of control.” 

“Vices?” I asked, frowning a little. 

“The werecreature weakness,” Asenath put in. “Beyond the silver thing. You know the whole full moon thing?” 

“You mean where they go into a blind rage?” Rebecca asked. 

Asenath gestured that way. “Sort of, but that’s just one possibility. See, every were has their own aspect of the seven vices. Wrath or rage, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, greed, and pride. Once a month, whichever one of those affects them becomes… basically overwhelming.” 

Sean nodded to that. “It only lasts for a couple days, but they kind of… yeah, lose themselves to it. Rage is just the most commonly known one. You could have a were that was afflicted by greed suddenly start breaking into jewelry stores and stealing everything shiny. ” 

“How did I not know about this before?” I managed with a squint. “I mean, I know werewolves.” 

“It’s a personal thing,” he informed me flatly. “The one you know the most is Roxa and–let’s just say she’d rather not talk about it.” Clearly changing the subject deliberately, he added, “Anyway, never mind what Twister said. I’ll still be free, she’s just being dramatic. It’s not like I suddenly have to sit in a single house for years with nobody but myself for company.” He paused for a beat, saw our expressions, then muttered, “Jeez, tough crowd.”

With that, he ran a hand back through his hair and let out a long breath. “Honestly, it’s no big deal. You don’t think Larees threw all her freedom away by joining up, do you?” 

Well that caught my attention, distracting me from thinking about the were thing. “What? Why would–what does Larees have to–” Then I realized, eyes widening. “Gehenna? Sean, what–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yeah. What can I say, one of their people came to have a talk a couple weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about it, we had some discussions, and I agreed yesterday. After talking it through with Roxa, obviously. I don’t have to go anywhere, I’ll be assigned right here on Earth. And if I do go on any off-world assignments, she gets to come with me.” There was a bark from nearby, where December and Tabbris were still crouched by Vulcan, and Sean gave a slight smirk. “And so does he.” 

“But–but Sean, you were… you were locked up for…” I trailed off, head shaking as I tried to find words. 

“Why would you want to join up with a group devoted to imprisoning people after you were imprisoned for so long?” Koren flatly asked. 

Because I was locked up for so long,” came the response. “I know what it’s like. I feel like I can–you know, help. I know what the people in there are going through. I can… you know, work within the system. Besides, we know they lock some really bad people up. I want to be a part of keeping them there.” 

Mom’s voice was soft. “You’ve truly thought it through?” When he nodded, she offered him a slight smile. “Good luck.” 

“Yeah, good luck. But don’t suddenly become a stranger,” I put in. 

“Hey,” he retorted with a broad grin and wink, “we fight the Strangers, remember?” 

“Quite,” Mom agreed. “And speaking of that…” She turned in the direction of the hotel, eyes narrowed. “Let’s discuss how we’re going to drag this Stranger out and get some answers.” 

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Long Awaited 12-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Well, after that little revelation and explanation, it was time to find out what Asenath had wanted to talk about. And as it turned out, she had a mix of good and bad news herself. Namely, she finally had more information about where her long-lost father was. That was the good part. The bad part was that the information she had pointed to one of the Garden Victors (a guy I didn’t know by the name of Kyril Shamon) being the guy who was holding Tiras. Or had been holding him several decades earlier. For all we knew, those guys traded their Alter slaves like Pokemon cards. Or Pokemon themselves, come to think of it. Why were cards my first thought? 

In any case, Asenath went through explaining all that, with some input from Twister about how fucking cool it had been to ambush the man they got the information from with what was apparently Senny’s first field-use of her new ability to borrow powers through drinking blood. 

“I mean,” the Pooka was saying, “we basically made her into a vampire that can turn into a bat. By which I mean, a proper vampire. Kinda silly that the rest of them don’t, you know?”

“I’ll bring it up at the next convention,” Asenath dryly replied, “make sure everyone knows just how silly it is that we don’t have the power to shapeshift. Maybe we can get it in the next patch.”  

“You’re teasing,” Twister noted while pointing at her. “But a vampire convention would be awesome. Especially if there was like, a werewolf convention next door and the walls fell down. Battle royale, last person standing is the champion of that old rivalry once and for all.” 

Shaking her head as she muttered something about having no idea where the idea of a werewolf-vampire rivalry had come from when the real Akharu rivalry was with Vestil, Asenath eventually looked at Mom and me. “Anyway, that’s where we are now. It’s… it’s something, at least. After all this time, I finally have a name to go off of.” 

“A name is a good thing to have,” I agreed. “Especially when you’ve been looking for this long without even having that much. But uhh, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this Kyril Shamon.” 

“I have.” That was my mother, her voice contemplative. “Though he’s better known as Tarhunz.” 

“Wait, wait,” Twister suddenly put in, “he’s not the Tarhunz, right? I mean, when it comes to really powerful Heretics, it’s just good to check now and–you’re nodding why are you nodding?” 

Offering the girl an apologetic grimace of sorts, Mom quietly confirmed, “Yeah, that Tarhunz. Or Tarhunna, as the Hittites knew him. Or even Teshub, as the Hurrians knew him. He got around.”

“Uh, I’m sorry, what?” My hand was raised as I looked back and forth between the other three. “Can someone stop to fill in the person without a degree in ancient mythology? Tarhunz, Tarhunna, Teshub, whatever he used to go by, who is this guy? Or who was he? Why is him being these other names scary? I mean, we’ve met a lot of scary people already, you know?” 

Mom and Twister looked to each other, with the former gesturing for the latter to go ahead. Which made the Pooka girl grin happily as she turned back to me and launched into an explanation. “Tarhunz, he was basically this super-badass weather god for these bronze-age people in the Middle East. Like, their main guy. When he was Tarhunna for the Hittites, he and the Sun goddess of Arinna were top of the top. They ruled the heavens or whatever. This guy was the chief god for a lot of people back then. Even Bystanders know that from their little history clubs.” She gave me a pointed look, fox ears twitching. “You know what it means in real terms if Bystanders know this guy was god-level important back then. God-level important means–” 

“Means god-level powerful,” I finished with a grimace. “And you said bronze-age. That’s before the Bystander Effect. Which means humans and Alters all lived together, people knew about magic, yada yada. So this guy couldn’t just do a few little tricks, make a couple sparks fly, and maybe summon a little drizzle to really impress everyone. If they saw him as a god at that point, he had to be really strong. Strong enough to hold onto that position through the people who would’ve been trying to knock him out of it. And he did that for, you said three different groups of people back in those days?” Heaving a sigh, I shook my head. “Right, and if he was that strong even before getting the Victor upgrade–hang on, what kind of Heretic was he before?” A sudden thought had struck me in that exact moment, and I really didn’t like it. “I mean, what was he a Natural Heretic of? Cuz, like, being a super-powerful storm manipulator makes me think–”

“He’s not a Sachael Heretic,” Mom assured me, erasing that particular worry from my mind, at least. “He was linked to a Raijin, a Japanese storm-being. How that happened is anyone’s guess. He doesn’t exactly give classes on the subject, from everything I’ve heard. He’s quiet about his past. Quiet in general, really. Except when it comes to fighting. Then he gets loud.” 

Yeah, a guy who was known as a storm god for a bunch of ancient, magic-using civilizations getting ‘loud’ didn’t sound like a good thing to me. Especially not when that same guy was apparently now an Eden’s Garden Victor, and had apparently been holding Asenath’s dad prisoner for awhile. All that just seemed to add up to very bad things, as far as I was concerned. 

Apparently Asenath agreed, because she heaved a long, audible sigh. “Like I said, good news and bad news. Now I have a lead on my father, but that lead just happens to be someone powerful enough to backhand swat me across the continent if I try to demand answers.” 

Reaching out, I touched the other girl’s arm. “Guess it’s a good thing you’re not alone then, huh? Trust me, Senny, if you ask that guy for answers, you’re gonna do it with a lot more than just yourself standing there.” With a small smile, I added, “I mean, you’re my girlfriend’s sister. Like either of us are actually gonna let you just go off and pick a fight with a Victor all by yourself?” 

“She’s right,” my mother agreed quietly, her eyes glancing to me briefly before she focused on Asenath. “You have many friends. When the time comes, you won’t be alone. We’ll help you.” 

“Exactly, dude.” With a thumbs up, Twister teasingly added, “And you know what? You’ve been such a good friend for all these years, I’ll even give you a ten percent discount for my help.” At a trio of looks from all of us, she snickered before relenting. “Okay, okay, I’m there regardless, eesh. You people want me to starve.”  

For Senny’s part, she was quiet after that, seeming to consider for a few long seconds before nodding. “I know. And I’m… I’m grateful to all of you. Truly grateful that I–that there are people who would help me find my father. My mother, she’ll want to be there too. But before we do anything about that, we need to know more about him. And, preferably, if he even has my dad at all. Or, for that matter, keeps him anywhere nearby. I mean, it’s possible my father is part of some group this guy stuffed into a random work camp somewhere and that we can save him without ever actually seeing Shamon, or whatever name he goes by, face to face.” 

“Possible,” Mom allowed in a very careful tone before adding, “but you know what they say.” 

“Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” Senny confirmed. “Which means we need to know more about him. Knowing is half the battle and all.” She paused briefly, then looked to the two of us. “And there’s always the chance that he was holding my dad as a favor for his Victor partner. Which means we’d have to know as much as we can about both of them.” 

My mouth had just opened to ask who that was, when Mom answered, “Ikita. The two of them run the Eternal Eye tribe. I don’t know much about her, only that she’s always seemed fairly reasonable about things, even if she is loyal to a bunch of murderous–” Stopping herself from what clearly would have been a very in-depth rant, she sighed before pushing on with the actual point. “In my experience, both Ikita and Shamon have always struck me as the type to play things quietly and close to their chests. They watch a lot, pay attention–there’s a reason their tribe is called the Eternal Eye, the watchers, the ones who wait and see things. They’re careful and they take their time. They are not as quick to jump to action as some of the other tribes. Which, in some ways makes them safer, and in other ways it makes them more dangerous.” 

“They were also Miranda’s original tribe,” I quietly pointed out. “She might know a lot more about them than any of us do just being on the outside. They were her leaders. Even if they didn’t stick their necks out to save her or anything, she probably spent time around them. And from the sound of things, we could use all the information we can get. About both of them, just in case.”

Asenath’s head bobbed quickly. “Miranda, yes. Her and anyone else we can talk to who’s had a lot of experience with these two, or just that tribe in general.” She frowned, mind clearly racing frantically from the very thought of how close she was, relatively speaking, to finally finding her dad. “There are some other Eternal Eye tribespeople with the Garden Rebellion, aren’t there?” 

“Some,” I confirmed. “Most of the tribe stayed loyal, but some of them left. We could probably talk to them too, besides Miranda. And Seller.” To that last bit, I added, “He wasn’t part of that tribe, but he spent plenty of time around all the Garden people. He’d probably know something important.”

For a brief moment, it looked as though Mom was going to say something about that. But in the end, she just offered a very faint smile. “Yes, there’s people we can talk to. No one is going to run into this blind but, I promise, Asenath, we will do absolutely everything we can to find your father.” She exhaled, a flash of emotion running across her face briefly before focusing. “After everything you’ve done for my family, I owe you that and so much more. When the time comes, we will all be there to help get your dad back, no matter where he is or who has him.” 

“Same.” With that word, Twister gave Asenath a quick, firm swat on the back. “She just said it a lot more poetically than I could. Or whatever. Point is, I’m right behind you. Or maybe in front of you. Or above, if I’m a bir–hey, the point is, I’ll be there. I mean hell, after all this time, I really want to meet the man behind the myth, the guy who helped give the world all this awesome.” Along with her words, the Pooka gestured pointedly up and down Asenath like she was a prize.

With a cough, Senny shook her head. “So, right now we just need more info. As much as we can get. Which means a lot of talking to people.” Offering me a slight smile, she added, “Good thing at least two of us have a lot of interest and experience with interviews, isn’t it?” 

“Three,” Mom put in. “I did more than my share back in Laramie Falls as the sheriff. And I figured out pretty quick how to tell when people knew more than they were saying, back during the… the first rebellion.” Her last words came quietly, as she gazed off into the distance. “It took awhile for me to learn how to tell who could be trusted, but I got there. Just a little too late.” 

Liam, I knew. She was thinking about Liam, and the fact that his betrayal had been what forced the Rebellion to go loud in the first place, instead of staying a quiet, subtle thing that could have built up a lot more strength and potentially beaten the loyalists. Instead, they had been forced into the open, leading to everything that happened. In a way, leading to my own existence. No wonder Mom seemed to have complicated feelings about that whole thing. I got the impression that she really would have liked to be in a room alone with Liam Mason for awhile. Though what would happen in that room, exactly, I didn’t know. And I was pretty sure she didn’t either.

Twister was already waving her hand. “Yeah, yeah, you’re all amazing investigators, whatever. Some of us spend our super-long lives doing far more awesome things. But hey, I think I can lower myself to doing a few interviews around here, for a good cause like this. Hey, if nothing else, I make pretty good muscle standing in the background being intimidating.” To demonstrate, she immediately transformed into an enormous grizzly bear standing on her hind legs, showing her teeth. 

With a cough, Senny nodded. “I’m not sure how much we’re going to have to intimidate the people who are on our side, but yeah, you’re always helpful, Twist.” Exhaling then, she folded her arms, clearly containing the emotions she was still feeling about finally having actual information she could use. Yeah, it wasn’t an immediate, easy jump from that to having her dad back, but it was something. It was an actual step, and for someone who had been stuck on the edge of a half-finished bridge with nowhere to put her feet next, having something firm extended to her so she could actually take that next step was important. I knew that from experience. 

Now all we had to do was take that little bit of information and turn it into something we could actually act on. No one was going to run up to this Shamon guy and get anywhere by demanding answers out of him. But, if we could get the right information about who he was and what he was up to, even where he might keep his prisoners, maybe we could actually find Tiras. Right now, it seemed like the best way to start would be to find and talk to my old best friend. 

And I could definitely think of worse ways to spend a few hours than hanging out with Miranda. 

******

As it turned out, Miranda wasn’t actually up on the station today. She was down with Dakota at the place where the Garden rebels had set up, helping with more of that whole ‘making the vines work’ thing. The good news on that front was that they now had an idea of what had been stopping the vines from working even after they were planted in the right place. The bad news, of course, was that the things responsible for hurting the vines were the Nuckelavee, servants of the big bad nasty thing living at the bottom of the ocean. No one knew why said big bad nasty thing was so interested in the vines, but it was obviously nothing good. 

But, knowing what the problem was had apparently led the Garden people to at least put up guards all around the spots where they were planting the vines, down on the ocean floor. They used strong enough Heretics, spaced close enough together, to make sure the Nuckelavee, or anything else their master sent, didn’t have a chance to get close to their prizes. It wasn’t a solution that could last forever, of course. But at that point, I was pretty sure the Garden rebels  just wanted to prove that they could keep the fruit coming. They’d deal with how to keep it safe in the long term once they actually got the damn things growing properly.

In any case, I eventually headed down there to find my friend. Mom didn’t come with me, since she still wanted to spend at least some time with the rest of the family. And, she said she’d contact a few other people to find out what they might know about Shamon.  

Spreading out to ask people things made sense, of course. That was why Asenath and Twister weren’t coming with me either. The two of them had been joined by Shiori and were going to talk to a few Alters up on the station or down in the Atherby camp who’d had run-ins with the Eternal Eye Victors or those close to them (apparently there were at least a couple who had once been held prisoner at Eden’s Garden). Which would hopefully lead to something. Especially the ones who have been prisoners. If they could tell us where the Eternal Eye prisoners were kept… yeah, it was a serious longshot that any would still be kept in the same place, of course. But it was something. And right now, we kind of needed any kind of lead we could get. 

At least I wasn’t alone heading down there. As soon as they found out what was going on, Koren, Sands, and Sarah had all volunteered to come with. I’d also taken the time to tell the three about the situation with Denise and what my mother had done, since they had been part of looking into that whole thing back during our first real Investigation Track meeting. All four of us had learned about Denise’s death before we even knew Ammon existed. That was when I’d been drawn to pick up the exact same things he had bought at the gas station when–huh. Did I ever find out why that had happened? Was it just a weird half-sibling connection thing, or some kind of… I didn’t know. Thinking about Ammon made me feel sick. 

We had called down ahead to let Miranda know we were coming, so she was already waiting there in the field behind one of the motels that the garden Rebels had taken over. As soon as we appeared, Randi came jogging up and embraced me tightly. The two of us hugged like that for a few seconds before releasing each other so we could step back and breathe. 

“Already throwing yourself into something new to take care of, huh?” the other girl teased. 

“More like something old,” I corrected. “This is dealing with something that’s been waiting to be dealt with for a long time.” With a grimace, I added, “And hey, it’s not like we can exactly hurl ourselves into certain death yet. We’re just…” 

Sarah finished for me, her voice flat. “Just doing the boring legwork to hurl ourselves into certain death later.” 

“Which,” Sands put in, “you have to admit, is a step-up from our usual way of doing things.” 

Coughing, I waved both hands. “Come on, no one’s hurling themselves into–okay yes we’re talking about a Victor. But the entire reason we’re talking about all this is to avoid that kind of danger. You know, find a way around him or how to… how to deal with it without a fight.”

Sands nodded. “Like I said, a step-up from our usual way of doing things.”

Before any of the others could say anything to that, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. An instant later, we all heard the sound of alarms going off, and calls to action from around the motel. Someone shouted something about Nuckelavee, which was just fantastic. 

My mouth opened, but a shout from Koren interrupted. The other girl jerked her hands outward, and a column of dirt rose up beneath the five of us, pitching our whole group out of the way. Flipping over in the air, I landed on my feet with one hand down for balance, sliding backward a couple yards. Around me, the others more-or-less managed the same, all of us staring toward the spot where we had just been. 

Sure enough, a Nuckelavee was there. God, the thing looked horrific. Like a horse with a rider, but all the same being. Covered in exposed muscle, with the human-part’s torso tilting back around the middle to reveal a huge secondary mouth beyond the horse-part’s. And speaking of the horse part, it had only a single, too-large eye, with an enormous, tentacle-like tongue that whipped back and forth threateningly. 

In the background, we could already hear other Garden people fighting. Which meant there were more than one of these things. Where had this one come from? It was just… there, all of a sudden. 

Wherever it came from, it was here now. And the rest of the Heretics around this place were busy. Which meant we had to deal with it. I just hoped we–

Koren’s hand grabbed my arm, as she blurted. “What the hell is that?!” 

I was about to remind her of what a Nuckelavee was. Then I realized she wasn’t talking about the thing in front of us. No, she was referring to the object or… or something that was streaking down out of the sky directly above our heads. For a second, all of us, even the Nuckelavee, looked up that way as the object–no… person got closer. A person who was flying down out of the sky, screaming in terror. Wait… no, that… that wasn’t terror. 

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” 

And with that, the falling figure slammed into the Nuckelavee with so much force that the thing actually fucking exploded. Seriously, it was like Gallagher hitting a watermelon. Chunks of that monster went flying in every direction, splattering across the ground–and across all of us. Fucking gross, yeah. But mostly we were stuck staring that way in shock, none of us having a clue what the hell was going on. 

And then the figure who had fallen out of the sky popped right back to their feet–to her feet. She stood up in the midst of the… the splattered remains of what had once been a Nuckelavee. The girl was drenched in gore, but she appeared to be like twenty-one or so. Her skin was very tan, and she had long, snow-white hair that fell to her mid-back. She wore what looked like skin-tight leather clothing, but I couldn’t tell what color it was because all of it was entirely covered in bits of dead monster. 

“Hello, Felicity Chambers!” the woman blurted. “I’m so glad I finally found you!” 

“You killed my husband, Manakel.” 

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Long Awaited 12-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the year and some odd months since I had been officially introduced to this life, I’d seen a lot of crazy things. I’d heard even more crazy things. I had experienced and been told a lot that stretched my capacity to be surprised. I wasn’t going to say that I couldn’t be shocked, because that would obviously just tempt the universe into making it happen. 

But if the past year–hell, if the past couple days hadn’t made me immune to being left completely speechless, they had at least given me a pretty strong resistance. Which is why it was so impressive that, with one sentence, Mom had managed to leave me so utterly astonished, I actually literally stared at her with my mouth open while strange noises escaped me. They weren’t words, that much was for certain. At most, they were a random assortment of vowels and consonants with no real rhyme or reason. It felt like my entire brain took several long moments to entirely reboot itself. For those seconds, there was nothing of note going on in my head. Nothing aside from that last sentence from my mother playing on a repeating loop. It was like she had spoken in a completely foreign language and I was trying desperately to decipher the meaning. But I understood the meaning. Well, I understood what the words in that order meant, generally speaking, even if I couldn’t comprehend basically anything else about it.

My only real consolation in that moment was that I wasn’t the only one left standing there in shock. Asenath and Twister seemed equally affected, both of them actually taking a step back reflexively as they too stared at Mom. None of us found actual words to say for those few seconds, simply looking at my mother while opening and shutting our mouths like a trio of baby birds. It probably looked pretty funny from the outside, if anyone else had been watching. 

In the end, it was Twister who managed to speak first. Specifically, she blurted a quick, “I’m sorry, you did what with a Pooka respawn power? What the actual fuck are you talking about?” 

“Uhh, yeah, what she said.” I pointed to her without looking away from my mother, actual vaguely coherent words finally finding their way to my lips. “What’s going on, Mom? What did–what the–what?” Yeah, I did say vaguely coherent. At least they were actual words. 

Asenath didn’t say anything at all. She just stared at Mom silently, apparently satisfied enough with the verbal questions that Twister and I had managed to wait for an actual answer. 

As for Mom herself,  I could tell there were a lot of emotions running through her. Many of them conflicting with one another. She seemed sad, yet also proud. Lost, yet determined and focused. She was in deep mourning, but she was also happy in a sort of bittersweet way. There was regret, peace, grief, and acceptance. I had the feeling that she had gone through all of these feelings in much more separated detail for a long time, and what we were seeing was the abbreviated form jumbled together as she was in the situation of finally explaining what had actually happened. 

Finally, after a long, heavy silence, Mom started to speak. She didn’t look at me, or either of the others. Her gaze was fixed off into the distance, voice thick with emotion. “No mother should ever have to plan for her child’s death. Not in any way. Not in the sense of preparing for a terminal disease. And not in the sense of ensuring that should he ever die, he would not come back.” 

Silence returned for a moment while my mother’s eyes closed, and she took a long, deep breath in an attempt to steady herself. It didn’t seem to work that well, as her voice still cracked when she continued. “No mother–no parent who has ever lived should ever be put in the position of making certain that if their son dies, he will stay dead. I have hated some people in my life. I have loathed some of my enemies, those who have hurt me or those I love. But I would not wish such a fate on anyone I have ever quarreled with. No one should ever be in a position where they have to look at their child and not only plan such a thing, but–” Her voice broke then, and it took her a moment to force the words out. “–but actually enact it themselves.” 

Part of me wanted to reach out to her, but it felt as though this whole story was something she needed to get through without my interruption or distraction. So, clenching my hands, I watched and listened in silence. Of all the things I owed my mother, the absolute least I could pay her with right now was patience. I could stand here and wait for her to get through this on her own terms.

“And yet,” Mom eventually continued, “That is the very situation I was in. My son… my son was corrupted, changed irrevocably by that… thing. He took my sweet boy and he broke him. Magically, permanently broke him. He destroyed his sense of morality, took away any chance he had of being a good person. He was, at one point. He was my sweet boy, so curious about his–about everyone. He would have been good. He would have been a good boy, a good man.” Eyes closing tightly, Mom folded her arms, hugging herself as she continued in that lost, broken voice. “Fossor took that away. He destroyed my son. His magic was–the experimental spells he performed to erase Ammon’s conscience–his morality, there was nothing anyone could do to fix it. I tried–I looked–I asked–I did… I did everything I could. But there was nothing. There was no way to restore him, no way to make him what he once was. There was no way to fix him. And with his power–with the abilities he had… he would have done so much more terrible things as he got older. As a child, his evil was bad enough. But if he got old enough to become truly cruel, with the power he had to force people to obey his commands, the things he would have done…” Mom physically shuddered, mouth tightening a bit as her head shook. I could see the tears in her eyes as they opened once more, but she blinked them away stubbornly, forcing herself to focus on telling the story. 

“And then Fossor manipulated a situation that would make things so much worse. He ensured that Ammon killed a Pooka, Scott, and inherited his respawn power. Now, no matter what happened, Ammon would be a threat forever. Every time he died, he would simply come back as a child. Unless he was killed again before the Pooka’s respawning gift recharged, he was effectively immortal. Free to ruin people, free to torture and kill as much as he or his father wanted, with almost no consequence. He would grow up, destroy innocent lives, traumatize and break them. Then, if he was killed, he would simply wait in safety, grow up, and do it again. That was the future Fossor described to me, a future where my son would be an immortal monster who would never stop ripping innocent souls apart. That would be the legacy of my little boy.” 

The deep hatred for the monster who had done that, who had planned all of that and gloated about it to her, filled my mother’s voice in a way I had not actually heard her fully express before. This was something far worse than possibly anything else he had done, in a personal sense. Because this forced my mother to do something so repulsive to her, so wrong, that it had torn a bit of her own soul out to even consider it, let alone to actually do it. 

“I couldn’t let that happen,” she murmured, eyes closing once more as she folded her arms against her own stomach as though holding in the deep, horrible pain. When she spoke again, her voice cracked even more than before. She could barely get the words out. “I couldn’t–wouldn’t let my son become that. I loved him. Gods forgive me, even with the terrible things he did, I loved him. I remembered him as he was, as he used to be. I remembered the boy that Fossor killed, not the evil, empty shell he brought back to me. 

“But if I let it happen, if I let my love of who my son used to be stop me from doing what had to be done, then the things he did would be my fault. Every innocent life he destroyed, every person he killed, everyone he tortured and traumatized, every family he ripped apart would, in some way, be because of me. It would be because I couldn’t get over my love, because I couldn’t do what had to be done. Parents would lose their own children, and children their own parents, because I refused to do the thing that only I could do. I could save them from that. I could save all those future victims, could stop all those horrific things from happening.” 

Slowly, Mom lowered her head, staring at the ground as she almost inaudibly whispered, “All I had to do was condemn my son to permanently die. ” 

Okay, now I couldn’t resist. Seeing my mother like that, hearing her strained voice, I moved that way and reached out to take her hand with both of mine. “Mom.” I meant to say more than that, but the single word was all that managed to come out before the lump in my throat took over and I couldn’t speak anymore. Not that I really had any idea of what to say. It just felt like I should have something, like I should have a way of making my mother feel better. But how was I ever supposed to do that in this situation? I still wasn’t sure exactly what she had done or how she ever could have ‘given the Pooka power’ to this other girl. But everything she was saying, hearing the pain and loss in her voice as she remembered not the Ammon that we had known, but the one she knew before Fossor had turned him into… into that, made me want to resurrect that evil piece of shit just so we could all kill him again. And again, for good measure. 

After a few long seconds, Twister spoke. “Jos… how did you give this human girl Pooka resurrection? Especially after she’d already been dead for a long time. It doesn’t–how?” 

Mom’s hand squeezed both of mine before she straightened up a bit, squaring her shoulders. It was clear she was bracing herself, drawing strength from me, to push on through the story. “There are spells used to temporarily share or transfer the powers that Heretics have to someone else. Normally that’s just another Heretic. The Committee and the Victors for Eden’s Garden are two examples of massive versions of one of those spells. The Committee share all of their powers amongst one another, and the Victors share small portions of the powers that belong to every single member of their tribes. They’re similar spells. But another version allows for one or more Heretic power to be shared with any other person. It’s very complicated magic. And normally, impossible to do with an ordinary human. After all, most magic requires that you be a Heretic of some kind. But do you know why?” 

After exchanging brief looks with Asenath and Twister, I shook my head. Mom, in turn, offered a very faint, humorless smile. “It’s the Bystander Effect. The enchantment drains all magical potential from any normal human in order to sustain itself. That’s why it’s so hard to get things like healing spells to affect a normal human, because the Bystander Effect is draining their magical potential so the healing spell can’t find a foothold. And it’s the same thing in this case. Trying to magically share any Heretic powers with a normal human will fail because the Bystander Effect will suck up that energy for fuel to keep the worldwide enchantment going.” 

Falling silent for a few seconds as she clearly worked her way through several conflicting emotions, Mom finally pushed on. “But there’s one difference between a normal human and Denise that made the Bystander Effect no longer a problem.” 

“Was she a–no.” My head shook. “Ammon didn’t turn her into a Natural Heretic or anything. What–” 

“She was dead.” Asenath’s voice was quiet, yet certain. “Denise was dead. The Bystander Effect wasn’t affecting her anymore. It wasn’t part of her. Because she was dead.” She reiterated the last part with what sounded like pointed wonder as she looked toward the phone in my mother’s other hand. The phone that had shown us the video of an alive Denise. 

“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “Denise was dead. The Bystander Effect wasn’t targeting her anymore. So, I asked Fossor for permission to visit the grave. He thought my witnessing Ammon’s victims was a good thing. It amused him. So he allowed it, with very specific rules, of course. But those rules didn’t prevent me from doing what I needed to do. I used an old spell, one similar to the Committee power sharing ritual. It… it was taught to me by the reaper inside the lighthouse. He was–is my friend. I used the ritual spell to share one single power with Denise’s… body for one single moment. That was all I was capable of doing. A Pooka’s resurrection gift is incredibly powerful. It’s one of the strongest abilities imaginable. It’s so strong even the Committee can’t share it amongst themselves. But… using power that I stored up for months, I was able to create a spell that would transfer that specific power for exactly three seconds. Just long enough to work. The spell was set to trigger at one very precise moment.” 

“When Ammon died,” I quietly put in, realizing the truth. “You set the spell so that it would transfer his Pooka power to… to Denise for three seconds at the exact moment that he died.” 

Mom’s gaze met mine as she gave a slight nod. “Months of preparation, and even then, I could only transfer it for three seconds. Which, for any other power, would have been almost useless even for a living person. After all, how much use can a person get out of a power transferred to them for three seconds, using magic that’s stored up for months and requires a ritual that takes several hours to perform? Even more useless for a… for someone who’s dead. Taking that much magic and time to transfer almost any power to a dead person for three seconds would be basically the biggest waste of time and effort you could ever imagine.

“But not the Pooka resurrection. For three seconds at that exact moment, when Ammon was killed and that respawn power activated, it was transferred to Denise’s body. She resurrected, not him. And then the power transfer faded, but Ammon was–he was already dead.” Once more, my mother’s voice cracked and sounded like her soul was breaking. “He won’t… he won’t come back. The power activates upon death. Now that he’s gone, it won’t activate at all. It’s gone forever. I–” Her hand pulled away from mine so she could clutch her arms around her stomach. It looked like she was going to be sick. “I killed my son.” There was a horrible, soul-wrenching sound in those words. 

“Mom, no,” I quickly insisted while stepping that way to put my arms around her tightly. “Don’t you see? You didn’t kill him. You freed him. You said yourself that what Fossor did to him couldn’t be undone. Do you really think the innocent little boy you remember would ever want to be the thing he was turned into? He wouldn’t want to hurt and kill those people, Mom. Fossor thought he found a way to enslave that little boy into being his monster forever. That’s what he was gloating about, because he thought he beat you. He thought he made your son into a monster who would never die, who could never escape. But you stopped him. Mom, you saved him. You freed Ammon and let him move on.” 

Asenath spoke up. “You did a lot more than that. You made the hard choice, Joselyn. You sacrificed whatever small hope you might have had to eventually change Ammon back, to save everyone he would have killed in the meantime. All of the victims he would have tortured and killed, all those innocent people who would have been his targets. You saved them all. And you did it by making the hardest choice a parent could ever have to make. You chose not to save your son. You chose to let him die, so all his future victims would live. You freed your son from Fossor’s control, you gave up any hope you had of turning him back to the way he was, you saved every future potential victim, and… and you brought one of his victims back to life.” She still sounded completely floored by that last part. Which, yeah, no kidding. So was I. 

One of his victims.” From my mother’s voice, she sounded more guilty about the fact that she had been limited to that single resurrection than proud that she’d managed it at all. “He had a lot more than that. But I couldn’t do anything for the rest of them. I had to pick one. And Denise was… she was the innocent person he killed on his way to meet Felicity. Because of the stories I told him. He wanted to meet his sister because I told him about her. About you.” She glanced toward me, eyes blinking back a rush of obvious tears. “I–I couldn’t let that stand. When I saw her mother–when I looked at that woman and thought of how she felt having her daughter ripped away from her like that, I… I had to give her back. I couldn’t do anything for most of my son’s victims. But I could do that. I could fix that one thing. I could save one person. I could stop one mother from feeling that… that grief. I could fix one family.”

“But what about her memories?” I put in, confused. “Her and her mother’s. Wouldn’t they remember her being dead and all? Not to mention everyone else’s memories. Everybody knew she was dead. But then she’s suddenly alive again? Oh, and all the news about it, the paperwork, the–everything. All the stuff that would’ve happened to show she was dead. I mean, did the Bystander Effect just magically take care of all that? And where did she respawn? Cuz if she woke up in a coffin underground….” 

Holding up a hand to stop the barrage of questions, my mother confirmed, “For the last part, no, she did not wake up in the coffin. The spell moved her back home. And for the rest of it, the Bystander Effect is very powerful. There’s a reason why it has to constantly feed itself with the magical potential  of every ordinary human. Billions of living beings are providing power for it. So yes, it changed things. It fixed people’s memories, changed the news reports, fixed the evidence, everything it had to do to erase the fact that Denise had ever been that old, ever worked there, ever died there. It changed all of it. As far as anyone affected by the Bystander Effect is concerned, Denise was always born several years later than she actually was, and has never been that old. And, since the Pooka power transfer was temporary, Denise herself is also affected by that. She doesn’t remember anything about what happened with Ammon. She’s a normal, happy little girl growing up in an ordinary household. She doesn’t remember any trauma, and neither does her family. It–I couldn’t do much. There were so many of Ammon’s victims who I…  I couldn’t do anything for. But her–her I had to. I had one chance to help one victim. So I did. I freed my son. I killed my son. I let him die so she could live. She has a chance now. She can live her life, grow up, have everything she would have had if she never met him. It was all I could do.” 

Swallowing hard, I took a second to let all of that wash over me. It wasn’t enough, of course. It was going to take a hell of a lot longer than a second for me to fully understand and process everything my mother had given up simply to save the life of one girl she would probably never meet. But I did know one thing for certain. It was something I had known for a long time, but kept being reiterated. And now that realization, that feeling, was even stronger than it had ever been. 

“Mom,” I managed in a quiet voice, “you’re the bravest, strongest person I’ve ever known.” 

A rush of emotions passed through my mother’s face at that. In the end, all she could do was pull me to her. I felt her strong arms hold me close, pressing me against herself protectively while she gave a very slight, yet powerful shudder. “My Felicity,” she whispered. 

For a long moment, we just stood there like that. Nothing else had to be said about it. We all knew what my mother had sacrificed, what it had cost for her to do what she did. We knew how much it cost for my mother to give up any chance she might have had to get back the little boy she loved, what it had taken for someone like my mother to let her own son die. I had never known the Ammon that she knew. But I did know, in this moment, how much choosing to let him go had torn my mother apart. And I knew something else. 

I had never been more glad that that evil piece of shit Necromancer was fucking dead. 

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