Athena

Promise And Peril 11-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – if you happened to miss it, the Heretical Edge non-canon chapter was released over the weekend right here

“So, let me get this straight,” Sachael began several minutes later. “There are two super-Fomorians running around on Earth. Both empowered by Tartarus and split from the same original Fomorian. One of them is… considers himself ‘good’ and calls himself Grandfather. He’s the one who brought the first humans to Rysthael–Earth. And he’s just been sort-of hanging out the whole time, being zany. The other one, meanwhile, was trapped in Tartarus for another couple hundred thousand years until Zadkiel, who happens to be a Seosten archangel, ended up in there too. The two of them were fused together, somehow got out, and now he-they are on Earth calling themselves Godfather, Maestro, and who knows what the hell else. And something tells me he’s not nearly as sparkles, sunshine, and happiness as you say the first one is.” 

“Uh, yeah, that seems to just about sum it up,” I confirmed, giving my mother a brief look. She looked stunned by all that, to say the least. “But, you know, if you could keep the Grandfather part to yourself, I just–that’d be great?” Yeah, my voice was a bit weak at that point cuz eesh was that asking a lot. Not that we’d said anything about Bastet or especially Aylen, of course. We weren’t quite that stupid. We just spoke as if Grandfather himself had found and spoken to us. I’d clarify the truth with my mother later, once we were somewhere slightly more private. 

Sachael gave me a brief, clearly appraising look before pointing out, “Promises aside, I am fairly certain that if I were to tell my superiors, or… anyone about what you’ve said, and behaved in any way as though I believed it was more than incoherent gibberish from a human whose mind has been shattered by a year of unrelenting stress, I would be immediately stripped of all my own authority and put into forced retirement. At the very least.” 

“He’s got you there,” Tristan murmured under his breath before speaking up almost challengingly toward the man himself. “Does that mean you don’t believe it?” 

Sachael was quiet for a moment before sighing heavily. “No, I believe I do. That’s what scares me. But I can’t exactly tell the people in charge about it because even on the very slim chance they actually believe me, we know exactly what their first and probably only instinct will be the moment they hear ‘two super-Fomorians on Rysthael.’”

“Destroy it.” That was Athena, her voice soft. “They’ll bring everything they have to in order to level Earth until there’s nothing but dust left.” 

Gulping audibly, Vanessa piped up. “Right, so um, please don’t tell them about that part.” 

“I have to do some–” Sachael started to insist before catching himself with a low sigh. “Yes, I’m not about to go running to the Seraphs babbling about something that will get me locked up at best and your entire planet razed at worst. But I can’t just leave it alone either. If there’s really a malevolent super-Fomorian with Dyeusai powers added on and everything that Zadkiel knew about our society, command structure, security, and… and everything else? That’s something that has to be dealt with. And I think it’d go over a hell of a lot easier with the Seraphs if we could drag this hybrid thing in front of them instead of just promising that he’s out there somewhere. Presenting an apocalyptic problem goes better when you’ve already solved it.” 

“So, what you’re saying is,” I began, “you’ll keep quiet about the giant problem until you’ve got a solution to go along with it. Are you sure um, are you sure you can get away without warning your people about him–them, whatever they go by?” Of all the things I had ever thought I would need to worry about, the preferred pronouns of a merged Fomorian-Seosten super-creature as was not one of them. Like, seriously. What even was my life?

“I’m not sure of much right now, actually,” the man informed me. “But I am fairly certain that, out of a very large assortment of terrible options, keeping quiet for the time being is the least terrible. If what has been said today is true, this Maestro may be the most dangerous single enemy our combined people have ever seen. He possesses all the power and skill of one of the Fomorian Alphas, along with that of a Seosten Dyeus and the knowledge that comes from being very high up within the military structure of both. And, what’s more, he clearly knows how to be quiet. He has kept himself hidden for a long time now, choosing not to draw attention to his existence. One who knows how to have all that power and then not use it is far more dangerous than one who blunders about showing off their strength. Which leads to the question of what, exactly, is his endgame in that case? What is he trying to accomplish?” 

“It’s something to do with all the Seraphs,” Elisabet murmured, a frown crossing her face. “I’m not exactly positive, but he wants to do something to the Seraphim. At first I thought he intended to kill or destroy them, but that’s not it. I’m just not sure exactly…” Trailing off, she sighed. “I don’t know, but it’s something to do with them. That’s why that… Gemini pushed us toward arranging the meeting between them and the children.” She nodded toward Vanessa, Tabbris, Tristan, and me. “Whatever his goal is, getting them close to the Seosten leaders is part of it.” 

“Right, so we don’t go anywhere near them,” Vanessa put in. “Except I’m pretty sure it’ll come up when this whole truce year thing is over.” 

“A lot of things are going to come up once the truce year is over,” Athena muttered under her breath before sighing. “I suppose that means we’ll have to deal with this Maestro before then. Or at the very least discover what his actual plan is.”

Mom finally spoke up in a quiet, clearly constrained voice. “Is he the one who brought the Fomorians here in the first place?” 

The way she said it made me blink that way, before realizing just what she was getting at. She’d lost both of her parents as a child when she was younger than Tabbris. She had basically been Savvy’s age, and her father had sacrificed his life while her mother sacrificed her identity. All of that was to drive the Fomorians away. Now Mom was asking if the being responsible for them being there in the first place hadn’t even been affected. 

Wow. When it was put like that, I… wow. That just made the fact that I couldn’t tell her about Dare even worse. 

Elisabet seemed to pick up basically the same vibes, pausing momentarily before she replied. “I don’t think so. He may have taken advantage of the situation, but the indication I got was that he is not united with or connected to his people. To… either side of his people. Their people. Whatever his goals are, he seems to be working without the rest of the Fomorians. Perhaps because he believes he’s better than they are. Or because he believes they would be more of a hindrance than a help, or their goals are not aligned. Either way, I am fairly certain he has not been in contact with them.” 

Gazing off at nothing, I stopped listening for a moment while they kept talking. Something else had occurred to me, and I wasn’t sure I should actually say it. Part of me really didn’t want to. But Mom noticed. Her hand touched my arm, and when I glanced that way, she silently mouthed, ‘what?’

So, I swallowed back my uncertainty and spoke up. “Maybe you shouldn’t survive, Elisabet.” 

That got everyone’s attention. Not only that of the woman in question, but the entire group. They all blinked at me while I blanched before pushing on quickly. “Oh boy, could I have phrased that better or what? Sorry, I mean, you should survive, obviously. Duh. I’m glad you–I mean you’re–never mind. The point is, maybe no one else should know that you survived. Think about it, if this Maestro guy knows that you can tell us everything about him, it might push him over the edge. He’ll either come after you or accelerate his plans, and I don’t think any of us want to see what he’s got in mind right now. But if you died before you could tell us anything, it might calm him down. You said you already dealt with the implants he put in you?” 

Elisabet was watching me intently, though whatever she thought of what I was saying, she kept it to herself. Her voice was even as she answered. “I did. I cut the implants out. And believe me, they’re all gone. I also had our new… friends here run a scan just in case I’d missed anything. They’re a bit confused about human biology, but with a little education, they did a fine job. There is nothing unnatural within my body now. Nothing he could be using to spy on or control me.” 

The rest of us all exchanged looks, before Sariel spoke up. “Felicity may have a point. If this Maestro believes you have died, it may reassure him not to take any drastic measures. Particularly if he believes his plan is progressing as he desires.” She hesitated then, taking a breath before adding, “If he believes that Elisabet’s ‘death’ has spurred Jophiel to push onward with their plan of teaching the children enough to meet the Seraphim, it may be possible to take him by surprise. Which would appear to be the only possible advantage we might have.” 

I felt Mom’s grip on my arm tighten a bit for a moment, and was afraid of what she might say. But she took a second to collect herself before carefully responding. “What do you think that would accomplish, exactly?” 

She had directed the question toward Sariel, but I spoke up because I had been the one to start the whole line of thought. Also because I wasn’t sure there was anything the Seosten woman could’ve said that would sound like a good idea to my mother. “His biggest advantage–okay his top three advantages are the fuck you I win doom laser wings, his practically unparalleled ability to manipulate biology and create unholy abominations, his incredibly intricate understanding of both Fomorian and Seosten society and military structures, the centuries he’s had to perfect himself and his plan–” 

“That’s more than three,” Tristan pointed out. 

Blowing out a long breath of air, I grimaced. “The point is, somewhere in the top ten of his advantages is the fact that no one’s supposed to know about him. If he knows for sure he’s lost that, he’s more likely to act. Which could be an advantage if it means he acts rashly and makes a mistake, but I don’t think he will. Plus there’s all those other advantages he still has. Making him think his secret is still safe is the best way to give everyone the time they need to find him. We can talk to Grandfather again, find out more from him about his other half. We can–we can do a lot of things if we’re careful. But if he finds out we know about him and chooses to make his move? Then we’re on the back foot again and have to keep reacting to everything.” 

“And the best way to do that is to let him think Elisabet died during the rescue attempt,” Mom finished, heaving a sigh. “What, do we say the Fomorian poisoned her too and it killed her before she could tell us anything? I suppose we’re taking it for granted that he has ways of getting information out of our side.”

“I think that’s a foregone conclusion,” I agreed. “And there’s no way he knows what these people are capable of, what their technology can do. We say they couldn’t save her and leave it at that.” 

Jophiel, speaking carefully, asked, “Are you suggesting that lies and memory manipulation be brought into play to change what those on this mission already know?” 

“No.” That was my mother, her voice sharp and reproachful. “We’re not messing with anyone’s memory.” 

“Besides,” I quickly pointed out, “it’s pretty obvious that no one we brought with us is under his influence or whatever. If they were, we never would’ve gotten this far. Elisabet had plenty of chances to be umm… shut up, you know? Even if he had to turn them into a suicide bomber to do it, just to keep himself secret. I think it’s pretty safe to say this group is clear.” 

“So what are we supposed to do?” Tristan asked. “Tell everyone to pretty please keep Elisabet being alive secret and we’ll explain why eventually, or tell everyone here the whole truth about this Godfather guy? Because that’s an awful lot to get into right now. Plus, those girls from the Calendar are–um, they might have other priorities. I know they took the oaths not to talk about what happens on this trip, but still.” 

Athena was the one who answered. “We carefully and quietly tell everyone the truth about this Maestro person. Not about his other half, that’s not our secret to tell. We leave it only to what Elisabet knew at the start of this conversation. We explain why it must be kept secret, and perform the same privacy spells that were done to ensure Felicity, Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan did not tell anyone about Elisabet and Jophiel’s relationship or arrangement with them. But we make sure they know those spells are being performed. We do that for all of us, with a prepared safeword that will allow anyone to break the spell for themselves, just in case it becomes of life and death importance that they share this information. But doing so will also alert everyone else that they have broken it.” 

We talked a bit more about all that, but it was the best idea we had. We would pretend Elisabet had died so this Maestro-Godfather prick thought he was safe, then do our best to make sure we found him before the time came for the twins, Tabbris, and I to have a discussion with the Seraphs to show off how special we were, or whatever. 

It wasn’t a lot, but it was basically all we could do at the moment. Honestly, the whole situation was just pretty damn terrifying and it was freaking me out a lot. But putting that aside and letting the adults try to figure out how to track the bastard down and deal with him (or at least wait until we could get more information from Grandfather) at least meant I didn’t have to focus on it immediately. I was sure it would become a giant glaring problem soon enough. But for the moment, I was going to turn my attention to something I could affect right now. 

Namely, finding Alecra and talking to her as much as possible before she and the rest of her people went off to their new world for an incredibly well-earned break

******

So, that was exactly what I did. Well, Mom and me. And Tabbris. We let the others deal with pulling in each person individually or in pairs to explain that whole… situation, while the three of us tracked down Alecra and a few of the other Meregan (all of whom Mom knew by name) and just… talked. It was pretty nice, actually. Obviously I had to shove all the worries about the unkillable super-monster in the shadows out of my thoughts to enjoy it. But honestly? It wasn’t that hard to do so. After all, this wasn’t the first time I’d had an approaching deadline to deal with a psychotic, almost all-powerful monster with a god complex. And this one didn’t even have my mother as a hostage. 

Anyway, the point was that all that would be dealt with later. There was literally nothing we could do about him now. So we didn’t worry about it. We talked to Alecra about her surviving people, about what this new world was like, about what the Roenier themselves were like, and so on. We talked about the whole mission they’d been on, about the Meregan helping the Roenier to begin with, about other adventures they’d been on, basically everything they’d done. And, of course, she wanted more information about Fossor’s death. So we told her everything in as much detail as possible. 

Yeah, I was pretty sure she was going to be sharing that story with the rest of the Meregan. Good. They all deserved to know that he was fucking gone. Not even worm food. Not even dust. He was nothing. Just like he should have been. He was dead and I hoped that fact was written across the stars for everyone to see. 

I also did something else important with Alecra, as well as a few other Meregan. Namely, I summoned the few Meregan ghosts I had among those who had been at the final battle with Fossor. One by one, I let them introduce themselves, talk a little bit about who they were with these few living Meregan. Some actually knew each other and there were tearful (and temporary) reunions. Others simply promised that they would pass the names and last words of the passing ghosts on to any family or friends they could find.

The point was, they got to say goodbye. I almost felt like a voyeur, standing there bringing forth all these ghosts and spying on their last words. And yet, it gave me a new appreciation for my Necromancy. It had always been useful despite how I instinctively felt about it, but this… this felt good. It was still sad and terrible that they died to begin with, yes. But my power gave them the chance to say goodbye. Really say goodbye. Not some prayer to some invisible deity, a real goodbye to the people they loved. 

 When the ghosts were done, they would tell me it was time, and I let them go. Their energy dissipated, fading away. All save for a couple of the Meregan, who asked to stay with me until I visited the Roenier homeworld to see where their people ended up. I pointed out that I might not get there any time soon, if at all. But they were willing to take that risk. 

In any case, I… I helped these people. This power from Fossor, who was responsible for so much suffering and so many atrocities, actually helped give the Meregan, people who had been some of the most hurt by him, closure. 

Eventually, it was time for us to go. Because it was time for them to go. They had successfully retrieved every living member of the Meregan race from their own world, and the battle against the Fomorians had enacted enough losses that things were starting to get a bit dicey, apparently. They needed to retreat with the survivors, head back to their own world (their new world, in the Meregans’ case) and start the process of rebuilding. 

During that initial withdrawal, as the fleet was getting away from the Meregan world, Mom, Athena, and the rest of the adults all stressed just how important it was that the Roenier fleet make sure the Fomorians couldn’t track them to the wormhole. They had to take the long way, ensure their trail couldn’t be followed (they did say they had ways of doing that), and in general just… keep themselves safe. If the Fomorians could find them, they would. 

We exchanged details about how to contact each other, and I promised that someone would make sure to send information to Purin and his group of Meregan once the timeline caught up in a few years.

Then we were done. A mostly-healed Jophiel was released from the medical bay. With her in tow, everyone returned to the prototype ship, we said our final goodbyes (well, hopefully not final final), and boarded. The Roenier had helped patch the thing up as much as they could while we were waiting, and it was fairly spaceworthy again. 

So, we resumed our spots onboard, launched off the Roenier ship, then floated there in space watching as the fleet used their own version of hyperspace or warp speed or whatever (it wasn’t the same as the Seosten Slide-Drives, I knew that much) to rapidly vanish from sight. 

“Well,” Elisabet finally announced once our ship was alone there in the middle of empty space. “I suppose that means it’s time for me to die now, isn’t it?” 

“Don’t worry, it’s only temporary,” I pointed out. “Besides, being dead and having to hide will give you plenty of time to catch up on all the shows you’ve missed. Or books. Or games. How are you at JRPGs? The point is, you just spent months trapped on a Fomorian-infested desert world. So how bad could being quarantined in one place where you have all the entertainment you could possibly want be?” 

From the way she was squinting at me, the woman couldn’t figure out if I was kidding or not. Finally, she looked toward Jophiel. “I suppose you’re right. There are certainly worse fates. But please, I have waited a very long time, and survived through quite a lot to be able to say this. 

“Let’s go home.”

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Promise And Peril 11-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so Jophiel and Elisabet had something incredibly important to tell Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, Sariel, Athena, Sachael, Mom, and me. For a moment as we walked through the ship corridors, I wondered what it could be. Was it about the way Jophiel had been poisoned, or–no. No, it had to be about how and why Elisabet had ended up on the Meregan world to begin with, right? It had to be about how she was cut off from the Committee. Everyone had wondered how that was even possible. That had to be what this was about. It was the only thing that made sense. Elisabet had been focused solely on making sure Jophiel made it through being poisoned, and now that the Seosten woman seemed to be pulling out of it (thanks to help from the Roenier), the time had come to finally tell us what the hell happened. 

Which was both exciting and terrifying, honestly. Because while I really wanted to know what could’ve stripped Elisabet’s Committee link and blocked Jophiel, at the same time I really didn’t. There was little chance that the answer was going to be anything even remotely positive. No, it was going to be terrifying and awful and I was going to regret finding out the truth. And yet, I couldn’t just ignore it either. That never worked out. 

Tabbris, walking right beside me, caught my hand and whispered, “Do you think it’s something new? I thought it was Fossor for awhile, but it couldn’t’ve been him that did it, right?” 

Grimacing, I shook my head while squeezing my sister’s hand. “Yeah, sorry. I don’t think we’re lucky enough to have the problem be something that we already dealt with. This is something new. Something new and bad enough to separate someone from the Committee, which…” I trailed off, not wanting to finish that sentence. It was bad, that was the point. Really bad. 

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Tristan was saying as he pivoted to walk backwards so he could face us. “We dunno what happened. It could’ve been a one-time thing, or some other kind of specialized situation. Personally, I wouldn’t put it past that Litonya bitch to be behind it. She’s been on the Committee for a long time, right? She could probably figure out how to kick someone off it if she really put her black-hearted, psychotic little vindictive mind to it.” 

“I don’t believe even she could do that,” Sariel informed her son. A moment later, she amended, “Given the chance, I believe she would do such a thing to the right people, but this seems beyond even her actual capability. Beyond which, why target Elisabet with it rather than one of the people she knows to be a rebellion sympathizer? Elisabet was acting under cover, there was no reason for Litonya to believe she would be a good target for this sort of attack, even if she was capable of it.” 

“Besides,” I put in, “I don’t think Litonya’s the type to keep quiet about what she did. Come on, she killed her own brother and people know about it. If she found out anything incriminating about Elisabet and pulled some kind of super-move to cut her out of the Committee, how quiet would she be? Especially if she could point at people like Teach and Percival and tell them to behave, or they could be next. I mean, it really seems like the sort of thing she’d use as leverage if she had it. She just–she doesn’t strike me as the type to be subtle, you know?”

“Yes,” Mom muttered under her breath in a dark tone. “Subtle is something Litonya is not.” 

Yeah, I had a feeling my mother wanted to go a few rounds with the bitch for being the one who suggested killing Abigail and Wyatt. That wasn’t going to be something she just let go. Mom obviously still had issues with Sariel, yet her whole thing hadn’t actually been intentional. She’d suggested to Ruthers that he abduct Deveron, yes. But at least Deveron was a combatant, and Sariel’s whole intention had been to stop the war from escalating to the point that her people stepped in directly before she managed to finish fixing the spell to open the Tartarus universe again. Sariel had always wanted to use that as a bargaining chip to make her people back off, or at least negotiate, and it would’ve been much harder to do that if Mom’s rebellion had gotten to the point that the Seosten were sending troops to deal with the situation. Her efforts to delay the rebellion hadn’t been intended to stop it entirely, only to manipulate it into slowing down long enough that she could put her own game-changer into play without anyone else knowing what she was doing ahead of time. 

Yes, her actions had backfired, but she’d had decent intentions at least. And Mom knew that, even if she still harbored completely understandable anger at Sariel for it, which would take her quite awhile to get over. If she ever did fully. Litonya on the other hand had no such excuse. Given the opportunity, I was almost certain that Mom would, to put it mildly, cut a bitch. 

But all those thoughts were pushed aside thoroughly as we reached the secondary medical area where Jophiel had apparently been moved once she was out of immediate danger. They were still keeping an eye on her to be certain that the poison wouldn’t get worse again, but at the moment the combination of the healing that Elisabet had done to her and the Roenier’s efforts were apparently keeping it pretty thoroughly at bay. Enough, at least, that it was okay for her to have visitors.

Our Roenier guide stayed outside, while the rest of us moved in through the doors into… well, the hospital room, I supposed. Though it was different from most I had seen. There was no visible bed. Instead, Jophiel was sort of floating in the middle of a tube-like forcefield in the middle of the room. She wore some kind of skintight hospital clothes similar to a Seosten bodysuit, but clearly fashioned on this ship given the way it had a dozen cords leading out of it, through holes in the forcefield and into various machines that appeared to be monitoring her. She was conscious though, and apparently deep in conversation with Elisabet, who stood beside the tube with one hand on it. As soon as we all stepped inside, they waited for the doors to close before the (former?) Committee woman beckoned us closer with an urgent look. “Come here, all of you,” she quickly insisted. 

Yeah, it was definitely serious. Glancing briefly toward my mother and getting a nod in return, I went with her and the others over to the tube. As soon as we were there, Elisabet began activating more privacy spells than I had ever seen in one place. It was obvious that she’d been preparing them for a long time. Just one after another. In the end, the air was practically vibrating from the overlapping bits of magic that were working together to make sure no one overheard. 

Mom was the first to speak, her voice quiet (though sort of echoey, which I assumed was also a result of all the privacy spells). “Elisabet, I’m starting to suspect you don’t want anyone to know what you’re about to say to us right now. If you cast any more of those spells, you might not hear it yourself.” 

As if seeing her for the first time when she started to respond to that, Elisabet gave a brief double-take. “Joselyn Atherby,” she breathed. “You are quite–” She cut herself off, glancing toward me and offering a very faint smile. “All other things aside, I’m glad your daughter managed to rescue you from the Necromancer. Jophiel tells me he met a rather satisfying end.” 

I was pretty sure there was a lot Mom wanted to say to that, starting with the fact that Elisabet and Jophiel had been instrumental in having her imprisoned and erased the first time, as well as everything else that had been done to stop the Rebellion from making things right. But she set all that aside, visibly swallowing them back before simply replying, “Yes, Fossor did meet his end, finally. An end that was a long-time coming. And I hear you have been busy instructing my daughter, her sister, and her other siblings in a great many things, which you believe will help in the long run?”

“Yes…” Looking thoughtful for a moment, Elisabet eventually shook that off. “But that is of lesser concern right now.” 

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “I do have one question. When you were dying, why didn’t you just possess Elisabet and take the free healing that usually comes with it? We were all sort of lost in the moment at the time, but seriously, couldn’t you have just done that? And even if it didn’t heal you, at least it should have paused the poison’s effect on you while you were possessing her.” 

It was Elisabet who answered. “She refused, because the Fomorians… trap their poisons that affect Seosten.” 

With a nod, Sariel added in a grave voice that made me think she was speaking from experience, “When we possess other beings while poisoned, it transfers the poison to our new host and spreads that way. The result is… bad. Any poison powerful enough to incapacitate a Seosten will do horrific damage to most hosts, including humans. Particularly, while the poison primarily affects the Seosten’s body, during possession it initially targets the brain for a host.” 

“It drives the host mad,” Sachael put in. He also sounded as though he had personal experience with what they were talking about. “Irrevocably. It… creates a level of paranoia and terror that we can’t do anything to fix, making the host see all friends as nightmares and turning them homicidal. It makes them forget who they are, makes them go so far as to tear their own eyes out to avoid seeing the things the mind-poison is making them witness.” 

“Wha–but–but–that’s ridiculous!” Vanessa looked personally offended by that explanation. “How could a poison that affects the Seosten’s body also affect the mind of someone they possess?! How does the biological element even–how–what?” She continued to sputter for a moment, clearly personally offended by the idea. 

“Truly, it is a question for the ages,” Elisabet agreed. “However, at this particular moment, the thing we need to discuss is Maestro.” 

The way she said the name, with that dark intonation, made all of us look at one another as if we expected someone else to have some idea. But other than Jophiel within the forcefield, everyone seemed equally clueless. Finally, it was Sariel who spoke up. “Who, or what, is this Maestro?” 

So, over the next few minutes, Elisabet began to explain what had really happened to her. And boy was it a doozy of a story. Apparently, waaaaaay back when she and Jophiel had first been getting close, they were stranded on some lost alien ship. Jophiel had gone to get help while Elisabet was trapped there. But she wasn’t alone. There was a… a creature there with her, a being who called himself Maestro, who had chased the trapped Elisabet through the ship. She had known he was too powerful for her, and that he would fuck with her memories. So she created some kind of failsafe system to restore those memories and block out the artificial intelligence he was planning on inserting into her. Basically, she used spells on herself that were cued to go off when this Maestro guy was close to his goal and when the inserted AI was projecting itself out of her mind. And then she not only erased her own memory of having performed those spells, she erased her memory of ever knowing them in the first place just so that the implant wouldn’t have any warning at all. Not only that, but apparently whatever spell she’d used had been enough to stop Jophiel from noticing that anything was different about what magic she knew. 

No wonder the Seosten woman had been attracted to Elisabet from early on. Young Elisabet was a badass.  

Mom was shaking her head once Elisabet got that far. “But I don’t understand something. What exactly is this Maestro’s goal, and how did he get close enough to it for your spell to trigger? And what happened to make you end up trapped on Aiken’te’vel with no link to the Committee?” 

“That’s where the whole thing gets more complicated, and more terrifying,” Elisabet replied simply after she and Jophiel exchanged a brief, yet very intense look. A look that made me realize I definitely didn’t want to hear what else they were going to say. Actually, what I really wanted to do in that exact moment was turn around and walk out the door. Would it be that bad if I just left right then and let other people deal with whatever the real problem was? Seriously, hadn’t I done enough? Actually, I could grab my mom and my sister and just–

And just what, exactly? Leave Tabbris’s siblings (and my friends) and mother to solve the problem? Refuse to be involved even if it got Sariel and the twins hurt or killed? What was my endgame with that plan? Oh, and how did I expect Tabbris to go along with it and not have any opinion of her own? Or was I just going to abandon her too? 

No, much as I hated it, I had to stand here and listen to whatever horrific information was about to come out of Elisabet’s mouth. Because I couldn’t leave the people I cared about to deal with something that was bad enough to make her and Jophiel openly worry. I just couldn’t. 

Instead, I stood there and listened, knowing that this would be something we would have to deal with. But at least it was something I could deal with alongside my mother. That–that was what had made this entire rescue mission so different, honestly. My mother was there, and even when she wasn’t right beside me, I knew she was close. I was fighting near my mother, the mother who had been torn away from me (and the rest of her family) for so long. My mom was here on this mission with me, and that made all the difference in the world. I could handle whatever this was. And really, how ba–

Nope, nope, nope. Abort. Launching that thought through the torpedo tube and into the sun. You hear me, universe? I did not finish that thought. I did not finish that thought! 

Once everyone had made it clear we were as ready as we would ever be to hear what they had to say, Elisabet continued. “This Maestro, he’s a… a hybrid of sorts, but not like your children, Sariel. He’s an unnatural hybrid, an abomination. He was once two distinct beings who were fused together somehow, I don’t…” She grimaced, shaking her head. “One of his halves was one of your archangels, one of the Dyeusai.” 

That made both Sariel and Sachael do a sharp double-take, almost completely in sync. Their mouths opened, but Jophiel interrupted. “Yes, it’s who you think. It’s Zadkiel.” 

Sachael looked like he had been physically shoved, reeling backward a step. Seldom had I seen a Seosten look so thoroughly stunned. Sariel, meanwhile, also looked surprised, but recovered faster. She spoke aloud, explaining to the rest of us. “Zadkiel was the first of our people to enter Tartarus, long before the Summus Proelium project. He–his power as one of the Dyeusai meant that it was believed he would be as safe as possible, that he could handle any threat that presented itself. But he was–he was left in there. They lost contact and he was cut off.” Swallowing, she added, “They tried to find him. They did everything they could to pull him out. Believe me, I–we… Apollo and I researched everything they did back when we had to get Chayyiel out of there. We pored over everything they tried, and they tried everything. But it was like–it was like Tartarus refused to give him back. Like it had a hold of him and wouldn’t let them find him.” 

There was a brief pause as she glanced away, clearly reliving some very emotional moments from the days when they had been focused on saving Chayyiel. How could that have made them feel, to have ideas about saving her, then read through the notes to find out that their idea had already been tried and failed? Then to have that happen over and over again, knowing that there was an innocent little girl lost out there that time rather than a battle-hardened archangel? 

“It tried to do the same with Chayyiel, but we got her out,” Sariel was saying. “And now–now you’re saying Zadkiel made it?” 

“No.” That was Jophiel, head shaking. “No, he’s not Zadkiel anymore. He’s nothing like–he’s worse. Like she said, he’s been fused with another being. Probably while he was inside Tartarus. He was fused with–” 

My eyes widened, as I blurted, “A Fomorian. He was fused with a Fomorian.” 

The outburst made Jophiel, Elisabet, Sachael, and my mother twist to look at me. Not the others though. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and their mother had already gotten it, and were exchanging looks of their own. 

Meanwhile, I continued. “There was a damaged Fomorian there already, one that… that had been in there for a long time. For hundreds of thousands of years by then, probably. Or whatever was left of him by then. He must’ve come across this Zadkiel and that place… fused them together.” 

Elisabet, who was staring at me intently, slowly continued. “You’re right. The Fomorian that was in there was split in half. One of his halves escaped and the other was left behind, until he met Zadkiel and they fused. This twisted hybrid, he doesn’t just call himself Maestro. He goes by other names too. Names like Godfather. He likes that one because his other half, his brother–” 

“Goes by Grandfather,” I finished for her. “His other half calls himself Grandfather.” 

“Felicity,” my mother was saying, “how do you know all this?” 

Biting my lip, I glanced to Sariel and the others before exhaling. “Right. 

“I guess we really do have a lot to talk about.”

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Promise And Peril 11-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We asked Kernek if there was anything we could do to help, of course. Even after everything that had happened, all of us wanted to throw whatever we had left behind helping whatever remained of the Meregans escape their planet. Even if at least one of those volunteers, Sachael, was probably more focused on the damage he could do to the Fomorians in the proc–no, that wasn’t fair. Sachael wasn’t a bad guy just because he was loyal to his people. He’d already proven that. He was keeping Jophiel and Elisabet’s secret–had kept their secret for awhile. As long as it wasn’t openly a threat to his people, he wasn’t going to go blabbing about it. And honestly, from what I’d seen of the man, he was actually curious about where their whole ‘experiment’ would go.

In any case, it turned out the Roenier had things in hand. The Fomorian’s anti-magic stuff apparently didn’t stop whatever actual technology these guys used to transport people. It was like the beaming technology from Star Trek, pretty much. This whole space battle was essentially a delaying action while they identified all the pockets of remaining Meregan and teleported them up to the ships to be met by representatives of their own people, just in case. 

That same technology was helping Jophiel right then. The Fomorian’s poison or venom or whatever was really nasty, but the Roenier had ways around it. Apparently, it was just going to take awhile. Their doctor assured us that they could handle the situation and that she’d be back, good as new. They just needed to do some more work to flush everything out of her system. 

Meanwhile, as they worked on that, the rest of us (including those who had been waiting on the prototype ship) sat in the cafeteria-like area we had been shown to. It looked remarkably well-suited for human-sized and shaped people, which Sands had remarked on only to be told by Kernek that several of the rooms on this ship were capable of reshaping themselves to suit whatever other species they picked up. Apparently, while we were busy talking to the doctor, Kernek himself had pulled Haiden and Larissa aside to ask them about what sort of furniture we were accustomed to, working through their descriptions to create this place. 

Again, it was a really good job. The chairs were basically perfect, if slightly larger and a little more rounded than expected. And the tables were more triangular than rectangles, but still. It just seemed a little eclectic rather than wrong. It was a pretty good approximation of human furniture for a species that walked around on six legs. I was definitely impressed. By the whole situation, really. 

Still, there was one pretty important thing. Which led to me asking, while sitting at one of the tables, “Uh, Kernek, exactly how many of the Meregan can you save? I mean, Fossor had his way with the world for a long time and there wasn’t much left when we came here before. And… and now the Fomorians have been around for at least months. What–” There was a lump in my throat, which I swallowed back with some effort. “What’s left of their species?” I was glad, in that moment, that Alecra had stepped away to help greet the members of her people that were being transported onto this particular ship. I wouldn’t’ve wanted to bring this up in front of her. 

The scorpion-butterfly-centaur man let his colorful wings stretch out away from him in both directions, tilted downward before wiggling a bit. He’d done that a couple times while explaining things, and I had the feeling it was his species way of indicating that they were thinking about how to answer. Sort of like the way a human might say, ‘Uhhhmmm.’ Finally, he straightened a bit, focusing on me. Around us, I could see the rest of the group paying close attention, their own conversations forgotten in that moment. 

“There are more than you might first guess,” came the eventual response (translated as always by the extra voice amongst the chittering language of his species). “Our friends, the Meregan, have perfected the technology to sheathe their forms in a powerful, stone-like structure.” 

Quickly, I nodded, but it was Shiori who spoke up. “It’s supposed to be able to survive in the sun, right? I mean, in a star. It’s like super cryogenics or something.” 

Kernek made no audible response, but his head tilted to the right and as he did so, the machine translated it as, “Yes.” Their equivalent of a nod, apparently. He continued audibly. “The process is remarkably suited to guarding both against the…” He stumbled a bit over the next words, which the machine translated as “Plays-with-dead-things.” 

“Necromancer,” my mother spoke up. 

Kernek asked her to repeat that a couple times while he fiddled with the translation collar, then said the words in his language again. That time, instead of saying ‘plays-with-dead-things’, the collar translated it as, “Necromancer.” Waiting until he got the nod from my mother and others that it was right, the man pressed on. “The Meregan rock-freezing process is quite suited to protecting against both the efforts of the Necromancer and that of the Fomorians. While both were able to break through eventually, it seemed to require much effort and work on their part. And the stone-process also shielded them against easy detection. Which means those who were not near known cities or easily seen from aerial detection methods–” 

“They survived,” Sariel abruptly put in, her eyes widening a bit. “How many? What–how large of a population are you pulling up?” 

It took a bit to figure out how the different numbering systems worked, but in the end we got it down to being just under two hundred thousand. Which, of course, was still horrifyingly close to complete species extinction for a people who had once spread across their entire world. Despite that, however, a couple hundred thousand was more than I had expected to still be alive. The Meregan could survive being down to that, right? Especially if they had this chance to go and regroup with their new friends on a safe world. Safer than this one, anyway. 

The point was, this was better news than I’d ever expected to get as far as the Meregan were concerned. This was good. This was excellent. The Meregan could survive and, with any luck, even thrive eventually. God, I hoped so. They deserved the break. 

Belatedly, I thought about the whole time-travel aspect of what I’d told Purin and his Meregan several years in the future. Right now, they believed that most of their people had been wiped out, and I couldn’t change that until we passed the time when I’d told them so. Still, I spoke up, explaining the situation to Kernek and asking if there was anything we could do to send them coordinates to find the rest of their people once we caught up with that timeline. That, of course, required more explaining and translation to work out the whole concept of time-travel. But eventually, the man understood. 

“Ah, fascinating. And terrifying for implications… But in such case, we will give numbers to place in space to send these people. In that time, one of ours will be at those numbers to meet them, and take any other friend-Meregan who wish to go to our homeworld.” He offered me what looked like his best approximation of a smile. “Perhaps you would like to come as well, for some visit?” 

Swallowing, I shook my head. “Sorry, there’s way too much to do back on Earth. But you know, maybe by the time we catch up with Purin’s people, things will be calm enough for us to come say hi. I think… I think I’d like that.” As I said it, my eyes glanced over to my mother. 

“I think several of us would like that,” she agreed quietly, hand moving to squeeze my shoulder. “Kernek, thank you. Thank all of your people. What you’ve done for the Meregan, what you’re doing right now? It’s–you are good friends to them.” 

“They are good friends to us,” he insisted. “The Meregan have more than won our loyalty and assistance. What they have been through as a people…” That time, his head bobbed up and down in what looked to me like a nod. But his collar translated it as, “Very bad feeling.” 

Athena was there, stepping up with Theia behind her. “You’re right, it’s very bad. These people… they deserve every break they can get. They were very lucky to find you, Kernek. I…” She paused before settling on, “I wish you and they the best in the future.” 

In response, Kernek tilted his head to the left in an identical motion as when he had tilted it to the right for ‘yes.’ The collar translated it as, “No.” Then he pressed on verbally. “There is more you wish to ask, General Of Seosten Rebellion Athena?” 

Hearing that, the woman paused. I saw her eyes glance over toward Sachael and back again before she spoke. “A part of me wishes to ask for your continued aid against the Fomorians, yes. Your people would be a great boon. But that is an unfair request. You appear to be far enough away if this is your first knowledge of them. And I would not wish to drag the Meregan into more conflict when they have already been so… harmed.” 

Again, Kernek stretched his wings and wiggled them in that ‘uhhmm’ motion while clearly considering his response. Finally, he settled on, “There is aid we may give. Aid in technology, aid in resources. As we are told, the Fomorians are a threat that will reach our world in time should they not be stopped. Better we are giving what we can now to make that not a problem in the future.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sachael watching this whole exchange intently while Athena, my mother, and Kernek started talking about some specifics. It was clear that the old Olympian was very curious about the whole situation. Briefly, I wondered what he was going to tell his own people about all this. Would they see the–who was I kidding? Of course they would see the Roenier combined with the surviving Meregan as an asset. That wasn’t even a question. The only real question was how much effort they’d put into trying to locate them, or this wormhole thing. And that depended on how much Sachael told them. 

Actually, come to think of it, if he told them anything about them, he’d have to explain what he was doing here. And I was pretty sure telling them he helped save Jophiel’s host would lead to even more questions that he had promised not to answer. He was supposedly on vacation right now. Telling them about this would be… complicated. 

By the time I’d worked my way through all that, the man himself was watching me. He offered a very faint smile and nodded once. It was almost like he’d read my mind. Or, more likely, had watched the expressions on my face and accurately interpreted them. It was a thought that made me squint at the buff Santa Claus for a moment before making a face at him. He, in turn, chuckled slightly and inclined his head as though acknowledging my reaction. 

“Flick.” It was Roxa, hissing at me from nearby. She had Pace with her, both of them sliding closer along one of the other sides of the same triangular table I was at. “Tell me you’re not trying to antagonize another Olympic Seosten. Cuz you’ve been lucky so far, but–” 

“What? No!” Hissing my denial, I felt my face turn pink while shaking my head quickly. “That’s not–I wasn’t–I wouldn’t…” Squinting at the two, I continued in a softer voice. “I wasn’t staring him down or anything.” 

Pace, for her part, looked unconvinced. “It’s just that… you sort of have a bit of a reputation, you know? And he’s gotta know by now.” 

Sinking a bit in my seat, I shook my head a bit more. “I don’t have a reputation. I mean I shouldn’t. Everything has been extenuating circumstances done by other people. I just sort of happen to be close by or… you know, tangentially involved.” 

Pace and Roxa looked to each other, then back to me. “Uh huh,” the latter replied. Neither she nor Pace looked convinced. 

“They’ve got a point,” Sands informed me in a quiet voice. She and Sarah had slid closer from the other side. “I don’t mean that you’re targeting people or anything like that. But he’s gotta know what you’ve been involved with. Extenuating circumstances or not, you’ve been around and somehow involved when several of his old crewmates and friends were killed, you know?” 

“Be careful,” Sarah finished simply for her sister, voice equally soft as she watched my reaction.

Glancing around at all of them, taking in their urgent looks, I finally nodded firmly. “I know. I get it. Don’t worry, I’m not about to start anything or go off alone with–” 

“Miss Chambers.” It was Sachael, voice rising a bit as he stood up and approached. “May I speak with you over there for a moment or two?” He nodded toward a corner of the room. 

Okay, well, I didn’t expect to break that promise before I could even finish making it. But hey, I’d still be in sight. And seriously, I was positive he wasn’t going to pull anything right here in front of everyone. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t pull anything at all, but especially right in the same room. So, ignoring the looks I was getting from the others, I straightened from the table. “Uhh, yeah.” My gaze turned a bit, first seeing my mother and the other adults still talking to Kernek, then to where Tabbris and December were deep in conversation about the ship, near to where Tristan and Vanessa were talking to Dexamene. Finally, I nodded and moved to where Sachael had indicated. “What’s–uhh, what’s up?” A little awkward, but seriously, I had no idea what he wanted to talk to me about. It wasn’t like he was just going to bring up the fact that I was connected to the deaths of several of his old crew. 

“You have been present at the deaths of multiple members of the Olympus crew,” Sachael replied, “yes?” 

Right, okay, so I was just wrong about everything today, apparently. Seriously, maybe it was just time to stop making assumptions altogether. Maybe he was about to try for some vengeance or–

He must have seen the look on my face, because Sachael interrupted my thoughts. “I assure you, Miss Chambers, this is not about enacting revenge. I understand that there are losses within serious conflicts, and that those you have taken away from us were responsible for harming you and those close to you. It is… certainly not a pleasant thought. You have been near the deaths of several people I had grown to care about or respect very much over the years. But we have taken much from you as well. War, even a mostly silent one, begets losses. I am well aware that you were not the one who began or sought out such things.” 

The man paused then, seeming to be lost in thought for a few seconds before sighing heavily. “The point is, I have not brought you aside seeking–what is the term, an eye for an eye? I seek something else. Specifically, your memories.” 

Well that didn’t exactly help. Eyes widening a bit, I managed to sputter, “You want to take my–” 

Quickly, Sachael shook his head, holding up one hand. “Ease, Miss Chambers. I misspoke. I do not mean to take any memories, or adjust any. On the contrary, I would like you to share your memories of the moments those Seosten died. Our… my people find memories incredibly important.” 

“Yeah,” I retorted despite myself and before I could think about what I was doing. “That must be why you’re so quick to remove or change them from others.” 

“That is fair,” he agreed in a soft voice. “My people have done many things that most of us would regret, given the opportunity. And yet, I still find myself asking for your aid in this. Sariel knows how to copy such memories, and I believe you trust her. I would be…. very grateful, if you could possibly find it in yourself to have her copy those memories so that they can be taken home to my people. Memories are, to my people, very important factors of the afterlife. I understand that it is a lot to ask of you. Perhaps far too much, considering the… situations that those deaths are connected to. I have no promise to make, and no threat. Only the request. Please.”

What was I supposed to say to that? No, I won’t help you follow your people’s customs to honor your dead because I didn’t like them? After a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Let me talk to Sariel. I–we’ll figure something out. But you should talk to Theia too. She was there with… with Kushiel.” 

“I know,” he murmured. “And I will. I…” He looked that way as well. His voice was quiet. “Her father believed that sending her to Manakel would help her. He knew of what his wife had done, and wanted… he wanted her to have a chance. He believed his oldest friend would give her that chance. He didn’t understand how much had changed.” 

It seemed like the guy was talking more to himself than to me. As I tried to think of what to say, one of the other Roenier abruptly entered the room and said something to Kernek. This one didn’t have a translator, so I had no idea what the words meant. 

Then I was given a bit of a hint, as Kernek turned back to us to speak. “The one you call Jophiel is awake. She and the one called Elisabet have requested the presence of the four who are their students, as well as the ones Sariel, Athena, Sachael, and Joselyn.

“It seems they have information of vital importance to share.”

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Promise And Peril 11-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It wasn’t long after I’d made that announcement before the alien guy who had been talking before came back on the communications network, still being translated by the computer voice. “Having troubles with connection to Friend. Fomorian attacks rendering communications difficult. Take landing in open port, will guide if follow.” 

With that, one of the fighters pulled ahead of us. It waggled back and forth a bit as though to get our attention before beginning to fly closer to the much larger Meregan ship. Now that we took a closer look at it, I could see how it was a Meregan vessel. The thing really was huge. The space between the front of the pyramid-like shape and the back was enough to fit at least thirty or so decks comfortable for the ten to twelve-foot tall Meregan. 

Which also begged the question of just how many people those command vessels for these new aliens carried. Because they were a hell of a lot bigger than the Binsayeac, and judging from the much smaller fighters that were escorting us, their people weren’t giant like the Meregan. Put in that context, those command ships really were incredible. The jellyfish structures themselves were big enough that they could have had a dozen of the Meregan ships land across the top without filling it up. Staring that direction, I realized they were further away than I’d first thought, it was just that they were so big they looked closer. The dome parts of each command ship had to be a good ten miles across, and given the shape, about three-quarters of that tall. Not counting the miles-long energy tendrils that acted as their main weapons. 

They were big ships, that was the point. And that was just the main command vessels. They had a lot more. No wonder they were capable of fighting the Fomorians head-on. Though that, of course, left a hell of a lot more questions. Like who they were, where they’d come from, why the Seosten had never heard of them, and how the Meregan had found them. Which I hoped we were about to get answers to once we landed on this ship.

As promised, the fighter escorting us led the way to an opening around the back of the Binsayeac-Two. I could see the docking bay beyond, as well as a handful of familiar giant figures. Well, generally familiar. I didn’t actually recognize faces of course. Especially not from this distance. But they were definitely Meregan, standing out of the way while waving as we approached. 

Finally, the ship landed, Sariel expertly setting it down in the middle of a pretty empty-looking docking bay (I assumed most of the ships that should have been there were out fighting). After a brief pause, Athena spoke. “Most of us should stay here. Take care of Jophiel or just be ready for whatever happens. But we need answers, and we need to see if they have a medical center that can do more for her than we can.” 

There was a bit more discussion for the next few seconds. In the end, it was decided that Tristan, Shiori, and I would go out there, since we knew the Meregan the best, along with Athena, my mother, Vanessa, and Sariel. The rest would wait back here to see what happened, and to be ready to go if we needed to take off quickly. Which was what we would do if they had nothing that could help Jophiel. She was stable enough for the moment, apparently. But she needed help as fast as we could get it. 

I expected Elisabet to have an opinion about us taking the time to stop for this, but she was too busy focusing on keeping the other woman stable. The only thing she said, as we started toward the back door, was a simple, pleading, “Hurry.” Her voice was strained and desperate.

Tristan and I exchanged brief glances, then moved quickly to the back of the ship with the others right behind us. As we approached, the door slid open and we moved down the ramp. Just as we reached the bottom, a voice called out, “Friends-Shiori and Flick! Friend-Tristan!” 

The voice made all of us look over, just in time to see a tall (naturally) Meregan woman approach with a wide smile. She also had long, dark-green hair and a very familiar face. The name jumped to my mind, my mouth opening. But Shiori beat me to it. 

“Alecra!” she called, moving that way quickly. 

Yeah, it was the Meregan woman we had met a year earlier during our first visit to their planet, the one who showed us how their special transport thing that had brought us to their world in the first place worked. Alecra had explained that we ended up in the desert above the ship because she had forgotten to shift the beacon’s transport location to account for the ship being underground at the time. 

Shiori was already hugging the woman’s leg, leading Alecra to gently pat the top of her head while looking over to Tristan and me. “Friend-Tristan! You are…” Frowning, she leaned closer. “You are being bigger than you should being.” 

“Alecra didn’t go with us on Grandpa Nick’s ship,” Tristan informed me. “She was one of the ones who stayed behind on the planet, but… but how are you here?” 

Before the large woman could respond, Sariel quickly spoke up. “I’m sorry,  but we have an emergency. Do you have a medical room we could use? And preferably someone who could help. It’s… it’s some kind of Fomorian poison.” 

Instantly sobering, Alecra gave a quick nod and gestured for two of the other Meregan who were waiting in the background. “Yes, yes, whatever any of yours are being needing. We are having not as much as we would be liking for the monsters who have been taken our world, but what we are having you are having.” 

Vanessa and Sariel quickly led the other Meregan over to the ship to let them know they could bring Jophiel down, and the next few minutes passed very quickly. Elisabet emerged with her lover on a magic stretcher, already snapping information at the Meregan about what she’d tried and what sort of condition the other woman was in. The Meregan, in turn, took down everything she said while calling ahead for their medical bay to be prepared, promising that their doctor was waiting. 

Together, we ran out of the docking bay and through a winding series of enormous rounded corridors. Like the first Meregan ship we had been on, this one was very rock-like. Instead of looking like it was made of metal, the interior appeared to be more of a cavern, carved out of stone. We had to go down an elevator (which turned out to essentially be a floating boulder held up by… something, and through two more twisting corridors before finally reaching a large open room full of various consoles where a tall (even by Meregan standards) man with a shock of dark blue hair sticking out in every direction Einstein-style stood waiting next to a slab of stone. 

The doctor Meregan didn’t bother to introduce himself, of course. He ordered that Jophiel be put up on the slab, then started to examine her while listening to everything Elisabet was saying. In between her words, the man quickly snapped more directions to his assistants in the room to bring him various instruments and tools. 

“We should being stepping out,” Alecra whispered. “Giving them time for working.” 

She had a point. Of course, Elisabet wasn’t going to leave Jophiel’s side even if an entire army tried to make her. So we didn’t. And Sariel stayed as well, to help as someone closer to the right size who wasn’t as emotionally compromised as Elisabet was. 

But Athena, Mom, Tristan, Vanessa, Shiori, and I left the room with Alecra. Once we were in the hall and a large stone slab had rolled into the way to give the doctor and others some privacy to do their jobs, I shook my head at Alecra herself. “Looks like you’ve been really busy,” I managed that unbelievable understatement in a quiet voice. 

Belatedly, Shiori, Tristan, and I introduced Athena. But when we got to my mother, who had been quiet, Alecra took a second look before we could even speak. It was the first time she had really focused on Mom since we arrived, with the whole Jophiel thing. And the moment she did, the green-haired woman’s eyes widened dramatically. “Friend-Joselyn!” she blurted out loud. Without wasting another second, she immediately reached down to pick my mother up from the floor, voice delighted as she pulled her into an embrace. “Friend-Flick has found you!” 

A noise escaped Mom that was half-gasp and half-laugh. “Yes, Alecra, it’s very good to see you too.” Her words were soft and gentle, with… with a lot of emotion behind them. She returned the embrace slightly awkwardly, held off the floor as she was. “I’m glad you’re safe.” 

That, of course, prompted a lot of questions from the Meregan woman about how Mom was here and what had happened. So, while we were waiting to find out what happened with Jophiel, we all gave an abridged version. When we got to the fact that Fossor was now dead, the large woman took a knee in front of me. Her expression was intense as she carefully put my hand up to touch the side of my face with a couple fingers. “Are you be speaking true, Friend-Flick? The monster is truly being dead forever?” 

Right, long before the Fomorians had ever gotten here, it was Fossor who first destroyed the Meregan civilization. He turned them into his slaves and basically broke their people to the point that they were vulnerable enough for everything that came after. No wonder Alecra was so invested in wanting to make sure he was actually dead. This meant a lot to her, to all of them. 

So, taking a deep breath, I nodded. My voice was quiet, yet firm as I carefully assured her, “I promise, Alecra. He’s really and truly dead. He’s never coming back and he’s never going to hurt anyone again. He’s dead. Totally and completely dead. They took his body apart and disintegrated every bit of it separately just to make absolutely sure. There’s nothing left. He’s gone.” Reaching up, I put both hands on one of her enormous arms. “Fossor is dead.” 

For a moment, there was no reaction. I saw the words penetrate, as Alecra simply met my stare. Gradually, the true realization of everything that meant appeared in her gaze. The emotion, the relief, the… release of everything Fossor had done to her people was visible right there in her face, before she ever said anything. There were tears that never physically formed in the seemingly bottomless green wells of her eyes. It was a pit of emotions that I knew well, the immeasurable relief that the evil creature was forever gone, mixed with the realization that that still didn’t fix everything he had broken. Fossor was dead and would never hurt them again, but that didn’t actually help her people, it didn’t change everything he had done to them or bring back the ones he had killed and enslaved. It was a moment to be celebrated, but it didn’t fix things. Everyone Alecra and her people had lost would stay lost. Which, of course, reminded me that there was even more loss than the woman actually knew. 

So, cringing a little, I told her about Gavant and the other Meregan who had ended up at Fossor’s fighting arena while I was there. It was hard. Especially when I saw her expression. But I pressed on. She needed to know. Mom helped, stepping in to take over when it was obvious that I couldn’t stand to say anything else. Her gentle voice filled the silence, as she told Alecra about how brave her people had been, and that there were still living members back on Earth who had survived that whole thing. 

That gave me the time to collect myself before adding that Purin and still other Meregan were still with Nicholas Petan and would still be there several years into the future. Which kind of seemed to help a little bit, I thought. But again, it didn’t fix everything. Alecra still had a heavy weight of sadness, which was fair. Her people had been destroyed so many times, had been through so much already. How could they go on after all this? And their world was still…

“Wait, what about you?” I suddenly blurted. “How are you here? Who are all these people? You–you went out and found a fleet to come back and help you fight the Fomorians here. You–” There was a thick knot in my throat that I swallowed back. “You found friends.” 

That made Shiori quickly pipe up with, “Yeah, who are all these people? Where’d this fleet come from? How did…” She trailed off, looking uncertain about how to actually ask the next part. 

Tristan took over. “How did you convince them to come help fight the Fomorians?” 

Alecra took a moment to collect herself, straightening up and stepping back. She glanced toward the boulder covering the entrance to the medical bay, seemingly lost in her own thoughts before finally speaking up. “Those who were remaining after many took left with Lord-Nicholas were be fixing the Binsayeac. It was requiring much working, much fixing. Then it was becoming much different ship. More pieces. We did be naming it Binsayeac Two. Then we did be going to do what we were be doing before. Finding friends.” 

Over the next few minutes, the woman explained that, for what turned out to be several months, the new Binsayeac had basically wandered around aimlessly. Apparently several times they were almost destroyed, found nothing but people who wanted to kill them or take the ship. Or use them as weapons, given their size and strength. Alecra and her people had almost given up. She didn’t get too into it, but I could tell from what she did say that the mood on the ship had been pretty dour, at least as far as Meregan went. They were afraid they would never find the allies they were looking for. 

Then they found it. Not another planet, not even another ship. They found a wormhole in space. A wormhole leading to some other universe entirely. And, being the insane explorers they were, the Meregan actually went through it. Yeah, they had no idea where it led or what they would find. But Alecra and her people still went through that wormhole just to see what would happen. 

Apparently what happened was that they found another ship on the far side, a science vessel that was examining the wormhole from that end. There was a bit of a miscommunication, considering this other species and the Meregan didn’t understand each other at all. So they initially fought, but when the science vessel was damaged and started to lose atmosphere, the Meregan risked their lives to save them. 

Athena, who had been silently observing this whole situation up to that point, spoke up finally. “That changed things. They knew you weren’t a threat then, once you saved their ship.” 

Alecra started to nod, but before she could respond, a different voice spoke up in that completely indecipherable alien language that was belatedly translated. “Yes, our captain knew the Meregan intended no danger to us, and that the fighting had been a mistake.” 

The voice (or voices, considering the overlapped alien words) made everyone turn. And that was when we got our first actual look at the people the Meregan had made allies with. 

My first thought was that the being in front of us looked like a humanoid scorpion mixed with a butterfly. The upper torso was definitely fairly human in basic form, though covered in a blue-green exoskeleton and with four arms rather than two. The lower half was more shaped like an ant with a thorax and abdomen that were horizontal to the ground as opposed to the torso’s vertical position. Sort of like a centaur’s human torso compared to the horse part. There was a long scorpion-like tail coiled behind him. His face, meanwhile, was also fairly insectoid, with large dark-blue compound eyes that took up most of either side of his head, and mandibles that were the source of the clicking sounds that came as his people spoke their language. 

Then there was the butterfly part. Yeah, the guy had two enormous, beautifully detailed and delicate-looking wings that were spread out behind him, attached to the horizontal part of his body rather than the torso. The wings flickered a bit, glowing briefly as he spoke before he tucked and folded them in tight. 

“Apologies for interruptions,” the alien continued. “We are known amongst our people as the…” He trailed off. “It is impossible for your language to translate, we believe. The nearest would be Roenier.” He pronounced it like row-near. “That is, we believe, close enough. I am privileged to be known as First Liason Officer Kernek.” 

“First Liason Officer Kernek,” Athena repeated before introducing herself. “I have to say, your people are incredibly generous for coming to this world to help a species–a people you’ve only just met.” 

Kernek, however, clapped his mandibles together twice and made a guttural sound, which the translator (I now saw that it was a small collar thing around his neck with a glowing gem attached to it which pulsed different colors with each word) interpreted with a vocal, “It is nothing less than what is deserved.” 

He went on to explain that the Meregan on that ship had been incredible allies with the Roenier for those few months, aiding them in over a dozen incredibly important battles to take back their own homeworld from other enemies. Over those months, the two species became–to put it simply, best friends. They were unshakeable allies, to the point that an entire section of the Roenier homeworld had been set aside for the Meregan to live on. 

“That is why we are being here now,” Alecra put in. “Friends-Roenier are being here with their fleet to help take our people.” She paused. “All who are remaining, anyway. Every Meregan will going to our new Friends-Roenier.” 

“You’re not here to fight the Fomorians to take back your planet,” Tristan realized. “You’re here to evacuate everyone who’s left and take them to a new world, a safe world.” 

Quietly, with clear sadness in her voice, Alecra explained that while it was a very hard decision, they knew that they couldn’t hold their planet anymore. After everything that had been done to it, there wasn’t enough left to save. But their people could go on. They were going to take every last Meregan they could find, from all the hiding places on their world, and get them to the safety of the Roenier’s world, where they could finally have some measure of peace. And, of course, time to recover from everything that they had been through as a species. 

“Is it being wrong?” That was Alecra, her eyes on my mother as she hesitantly spoke up. “Abandoning our home.” 

Mom, in turn, shook her head, speaking in a gentle voice. “No, Alecra. It’s not wrong. Take your people. Recover. Grow. Survive. You deserve that and so much more. Take everyone you can and be with your new friends. Build back not to what you were, but even stronger. Become more than you were, with your friends. You and the Roenier are much more together than either of you ever were apart. 

“And I, for one, can’t wait to see what you become together.”

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Promise And Peril 11-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fulmen.” 

Thunderbolt. He said thunderbo–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boss?” Apollo asked, looking toward Athena. 

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

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

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

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

“I dunno,” I started. “I don’t–” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Meregan found friends.” 

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Denouement 10 – Blood And Truth (Heretical Edge)

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A full fledged member of the Crossroads Committee versus a not quite second year student. Even if that student was one of the best in her year, with far more experience than she should’ve had, their confrontation would have been utterly laughable. Beyond laughable. It would have been as much of a fight as a small bug facing off with a car on the freeway was. 

It would have been, save for one thing. Litonya wasn’t only facing a second year student. Not in the least. She was facing a second-year student who had been possessed by one of the most dangerous and potent people in the universe, a person whose power amounted to finding ways to win in any situation, no matter what. 

And they were holding Excalibur, one of the most powerful weapons in existence. 

Unfortunately for the old woman, she still had no idea what she was actually facing. With a contemptuous snarl, she made a backhand gesture while sending a wave of force that should have thrown Flick into the wall and put her on the ground with copious broken bones, ending the ‘fight’ in an instant.  

But that didn’t happen. Instead, Chayyiel snapped the girl’s staff up into position, using Flick’s ability to instantly inscribe images onto objects to create a rune before sharply speaking the command word. The wave of kinetic force that should have blown through anything the seventeen-year-old could possibly put up given an entire year of preparation, let alone on such short notice, was stopped short by a glowing shield. 

“Truly, Litty?” Flick’s voice snapped. “Just going for a few broken bones? I thought the savior of all humanity had to go for the kill every time.” 

Litonya, taken by surprise as her utterly dismissive attack was completely stopped short, created a ball of anti-magic directly in front of the girl. The orb, a small, floating red-and-black swirling mass, would prevent her from using any magic. Then the ancient-looking woman simply created a force field bubble around Flick and filled it with the most potent paralyzation drug known to Heretics. One drop of the liquid against her skin would leave the girl completely unable to move for hours unless an antidote was provided. And Litonya had flooded the entire bubble with the stuff. 

Then… a blade appeared. Excalibur cut straight through one of the most powerful forcefields Litonya could summon. It cut through like paper, impaling the anti-magic orb and destroying it as well. A moment later, Flick’s body stepped out, sheathed in a softly glowing forcefield of her own that hugged her form and protected her from the paralyzing liquid. By the blood trickling from the girl’s hand, the shield around her had been summoned using blood magic, something the anti-magic orb would not have been able to stop because it was so incredibly rare that she never should have known it. 

“I mean,” her voice started again, “that’s what you did to your little brother, isn’t it? The guy who depended on you, the one you were supposed to protect. The one who trusted you. Did you feel anything when you murdered him? Did you look him in the eyes, or did you wait until his back was turned?” 

Staring first at the sword, then raising her eyes to the girl herself, Litonya straightened. For just a moment, a snarl touched her lips at the words, before she pushed it aside. A certain feigned bit of age-related weariness and general crooked posture faded as she held herself upright, her voice dark. “Fine then. I suppose I shall have to take this somewhat seriously. And you know nothing of Kutattca, Matanto.”

“I know you stood over his blankets to watch him sleep when he was too young to crawl,” came the response. “I know you swore an oath to the old spirits to protect him, to guide him. I know you held his hand when he was afraid of the noise in the sky, and sang him songs to quiet his fears. I know he loved you more than every leaf on every tree, from the tall rock by the wading water to the narrow canyon where the coyotes slept. I know he trusted you. 

“I know you murdered him.” 

Through all of that, the two of them stood facing one another. Neither moved. Those seconds dragged on while they watched, with their audience remaining just silent. Once Flick’s voice had stopped, it became so quiet that their metaphorical, and in some of their cases literal, heartbeats could be heard.  

In the end, Litonya made the first move. Her face contorted with anger, as she snapped, “I did what was necessary for the world’s survival. I did what had to be done.” 

Then she moved. Unlike many who used super speed, she was not a blur of motion. There was no blur at all. She was simply suddenly moving so quickly that everyone else completely stood still. She was there, in front of Flick’s face as her hand snapped out to take the sword from the girl while throwing her into the wall to be done with this. If it killed the girl, then so be it. She was done playing nice with these traitors. Let it kill the girl, and then she would rip the creature possessing her from the child’s body.

But in that exact same millisecond, a spell that had been inscribed on Flick’s shoulder suddenly flared to life. It was some kind of speed enhancement spell, keyed to trigger the moment it detected fast enough movement. Chayyiel had anticipated this move and prepared for it. Flick was suddenly able to move as quickly as the other woman, her staff snapping out to smack into Litonya’s wrist. 

It should have done nothing. A Committee member was several thousand leagues beyond what someone like a second year student could actually hurt. Litonya couldn’t be damaged by something as simple as being smacked by a staff. It would crumble like a toothpick before so much as breaking her skin. 

Or it should have. But Chayyiel had aimed her strike not to do direct damage. Instead, its angle, speed, and exact target were perfectly planned to strike an incredibly precise spot in the woman’s arm that made it cramp up a bit. She didn’t do actual damage, but Litonya felt the tiniest spasm in her arm before it recovered. That tiny spasm made her gasp slightly, slowing her reaction as the sword went for her stomach. 

But Litonya wasn’t done. Not that easily. A burst of telekinetic force knocked the sword off course before it could impale her, and she conjured a ball of lightning with enough power within it to light up the entire eastern seaboard. Power crackling wildly in her hands, as she sent it directly into the girl. 

It blew through the shield around Flick’s body. The blonde girl jerked a bit, crying out as the very tips of the electricity crackled against her body. But just as quickly, the summoned ball flew away. It was yanked out of Litonya’s control and sent back behind her. As the woman’s gaze snapped that way, she saw Flick’s staff. It had been enchanted with some kind of electricity summoning rune and sent through a small portal the girl had created. A magical lightning rod. 

Damage had been done. There were black scorch marks on the girl’s skin, along with sharp red blisters. But she wasn’t down. Nowhere near it. In fact, even as Litonya’s gaze shifted to the staff, she felt Flick’s body suddenly move onto the attack. 

In a blur of motion, Litonya’s head snapped to the side, avoiding the thrust of the sword. In the same moment, the girl’s voice spoke up once more, her voice a mixture of contemptuous and amused. “Hard decisions?” 

Litonya’s arm turned to a dull black metal as she blocked the girl’s hand when it smacked out toward her. The metal armor stopped any kind of pressure point shenanigans, even as Flick continued with a spat, “Funny, how your ‘hard decisions’ always come down to you being right and never changing.” 

With a grunt, the Native American woman lashed out with a backhanded blow before sending a narrow blast of concussive force powerful enough to pulverize a steel wall into atoms. Flick’s head barely shifted to let the fist sail past her chin, before she pivoted away from the blast of force. 

“You murdered the brother you swore to protect. The boy on the blankets, the boy who swam at your side, the boy who lay under the stars and told you of dreams. The one you taught to sing. He’s dead because of you.” 

“Because of you!” the Native American woman snarled, her face contorted with rage. “You! You! All of you!” 

Then the fight was on in earnest. Through Litonya’s power and Chayyiel’s magic, the two moved at speeds all but invisible to the human eye. Litonya summoned a blade of energy in one hand and brought it slashing toward the girl’s neck while her other hand created a tiny orb that would put out enough crushing force in the short area in front of it to literally compact any organic material into a much smaller cube. Distract with the very obvious and flashy energy sword and then kill with the much more dangerous but less obvious attack. It was a combination that she had used to great effect over the centuries, similar to those who simply thought of her as a weak old woman. 

But Chayyiel was not one of those people. Before they even finished manifesting, her foot snapped out and tapped against the floor beneath it, conjuring a rune there that quickly became a black chasm, some kind of portal that sucked the growing orb down into it. At the same time, Flick’s hand snapped up with Excalibur to catch the falling blade. While a good number of swords would have instantly shattered under a blow from a blade empowered by a Committee member’s nigh-incalculable energy reserves, Excalibur held perfectly firm. Even Litonya’s incredible strength was countered by a mixture of Chayyiel’s boost and the exact angle she struck the descending blade at.  

It was an exchange that took less than a second, and by the time any watching would’ve been able to comprehend what happened, the combatants had moved on. Four, five, six slashes of that glowing laser blade cut through the air and the next second, all from different angles. All were met and almost casually stopped by Excalibur, as Chayyiel parried at precisely the correct angle to avoid taking the brunt of the other woman’s considerable strength, making the blade slide away from her host with each swing. 

“No,” Flick’s voice finally broke the verbal silence that had followed Litonya’s violent proclamation. “You betrayed your oath and damned your blood and honor. Your brother came to you for help, for love and trust. He came to his sister. And you killed him. No one forced you. No one manipulated you. Your hand was forced by none but your own damned soul.” 

Litonya’s enraged shout of denial filled the room, even as metal tentacles lashed out from one wall to grapple the possessed girl. At the same time, a dozen orange protrusions appeared on the other wall, each sending out rays of blazing heat that would melt through steel. The beams were all perfectly coordinated to avoid hitting one another while leaving nearly no space for Flick’s body to move. As though those were not enough, long diamond-like spears began to pop up from the floor at random angles. They crashed into the ceiling with terrifying force, cutting off even more space.

And through all of that, Litonya kept pressing her own personal attack, coordinating her strikes as well as all three environmental hazards to such a pinpoint degree that none interfered with one another. She said nothing, too angry, too enraged, to focus on any verbal communication. She wanted this traitor dead. She wanted the creature possessing her dead. She wanted them all dead. 

She could go ahead and be disappointed. Twisting sideways to avoid the next heat ray, Chayyiel brought Excalibur up to block two quick strikes from the woman in blindingly rapid succession, even as her foot tapped the floor to create another rune that summoned a wall for two of the tentacles to crash into. A diamond spear erupted from the ground right under her feet, but she was already reacting, turning just a bit before snapping her hand out to catch the rising spear just under the sharp blade. She held on, letting it take her toward the ceiling and above the worst of the blazing rays and tentacles. 

She kicked off of the spear then, launching herself through the air as two crisscrossing red beams shot through the space where she had just been. In mid-air, she pivoted, holding a hand up as a rune appeared on Flick’s sleeve to conjure a small shield of energy. The shield caught the half dozen black dagger-like blades that Litonya had just sent toward her. The blades exploded with incredible force and fury an instant later, but the shield had been prepped to absorb that. 

More tentacles and spears launched themselves at the girl in the air, but she used them like stepping stones, easily hopping from one to the other, pushing off as she made her way to the far wall. It was the source of the rays of blinding heat, all of them firing rapidly at her. But none could touch her. The girl’s figure slipped through and past every attack like a person dodging raindrops in a downpour to remain perfectly dry. Nothing could touch her. 

A forcefield, blazing with heat of its own that would incinerate anything unlucky enough to touch it, suddenly flared into life in front of her. Excalibur cut through it, just as Flick’s body hit the wall. Chayyiel clung there with one hand, fingers somehow finding the perfect grooves in the wall to hang from for a moment. At the same time, she used Excalibur to cleave through the ball of electricity that had been launched toward them, sending sputtering sparks to either side. 

The heat rays had adjusted by that point to shoot straight up. But Chayyiel had had enough time to create yet another spell on the wall, which she triggered with two quick words before launching herself away from it into a dive, once again miraculously passing through the tiny space available between all of the attacks being sent at them. Nothing could possibly have avoided every single beam. 

But she did.

The rays of heat converged, nearly forming a miniature sun in the spot Flick’s body had just been clinging to. Then they stopped. The spell on the wall had taken hold, and the protrusions generating the beams were taken over by it. Instantly, they switched sides and Litonya found herself under assault by her own creations. Creations which, despite all her power and skill, she could not yank back under her own control.

The rays couldn’t actually kill her, of course. But they were distracting, as three of them collided with the woman’s face, staggering her for an instant. 

Only three, Litonya realized belatedly. The rest had proceeded to mercilessly burn through all the metal tentacles she had summoned, as well as most of the forest of diamond spears. They cleared some space for Chayyiel to work with.

She worked, in this case, by speaking again. “That’s why you want Joselyn dead. That’s why you were willing to kill innocent children. It’s why you’re willing to do everything you’ve already done that you can never tell anyone about. The family in the attic in San Diego. The crystal child who lived below the stage and only wanted to feel the music. The girl who came to you for help. The ones you killed. The ones you chose to kill, because it was easier.” 

After that trio of heat rays left a very slight scorch mark on her cheek, Litonya first protecting herself by sheathing her body in the same metal armor from before. Then she used a sharp gesture to hit all of her own co-opted heat generators with an array of ice beams that shattered each of them.

In that moment, Flick’s body was in front of her, speaking once more. “Because you have to. You have to kill them. You have to murder infants and slaughter every creature you ever see. You have to burn them all, because if you don’t, if there’s even one single innocent out there, it means you were wrong. It means you betrayed and killed your own brother for no reason.” 

Litonya’s blade lashed out dozens of times in the span of a bare couple of seconds. None even came close to striking home. Her rage had blinded her to everything, leaving Chayyiel able to continue in that same flat and definitive tone. 

“It means you’re not a hero making hard decisions. You’re not the savior of the world. You’re not a wise old woman creating a better life for others by doing what has to be done. 

“You’re just a psychopath who murdered her own brother. You’re not the light shining against the darkness, you are the hand snuffing the candle. You don’t make hard decisions. You’re too much of a coward to make a hard decision. Those who stand against you, those who speak when you would silence them, who stay and fight when you would rip their hearts from their chests for the crime of believing differently than you. They are brave. They know what you would do, and still they fight. You hide behind your beliefs and the power that has been handed to you. You slaughter innocent after innocent because the very second you stop doing so, you have to admit that that is what you have been doing.” 

With a thought, the old woman summoned a terrifying thunder clap that would deafen anyone aside from herself and leave them disoriented enough to finish off in an instant. 

Or it should have. Because once again, Chayyiel had anticipated such a move. The moment that the sound filled the hall, another prepared rune that had been waiting for just such a trigger flared to life on the girl’s collar. The incoming sound was immediately muted for her, leaving Flick and Chayyiel just fine. 

They behaved as though they had been affected, however, staggering just a bit. There was no need to overdo it. Chayyiel simply gave their opponent the tiniest opening, a single moment of apparent vulnerability to take advantage of. 

Litonya took the bait, abruptly appearing directly behind the girl as she lashed out with her energy blade to impale the traitorous spawn of a traitor and end this once and for all. 

Her blade passed straight through a small portal that had suddenly appeared directly at the small of Flick’s back. The other end of the portal appeared directly in front of the blonde girl’s face. At the same time, her foot tapped the floor to create another rune, making it blossom into what appeared to be an energy shield, as though to block the same blade she had just sent toward her own face. 

But she ducked, dropping a bit as the blade hit the wall of energy she had summoned. And in that instant, Litonya had just enough time to realize that it wasn’t a shield at all. Rather, the glowing ‘wall’ was actually a magnifier of sorts, multiplying the damage of any laser that passed through it. Or, in this case, that of her energy blade. The already powerful laser construct was made several times more so just before it was about to stab into her own face. 

She twisted, managing to avoid taking the blade into her eye. It cut into her shoulder instead, cutting straight through the armor and deep into the muscle beyond. It drew a strangled and furious cry of pain from the woman, who was not at all accustomed to actually being hurt at any point in recent memory. 

Chayyiel had already pivoted, dismissing the portals as Excalibur lashed out. The blade cut into the exact spot on the other woman’s shoulder where she had just damaged herself. It was enough to bring another cry of pain from the woman as she used her other hand to summon a wave of mountain crushing force. But before she could, Chayyiel created a portal directly in front of the hilt of Excalibur as she yanked it back. The other end of the portal appeared at a spot right by Litonya’s neck. That metal armor still covered her skin, making it impossible to affect her with a simple touch. But this was not a simple touch. As the hilt impacted her armored neck, Chayyiel triggered the spell she had placed on it, creating a tiny, localized and contained, yet incredibly powerful explosion that rocked the woman’s head to the side. It disrupted her focus, stopping her from creating that crushing force that likely would have ended the fight. 

“Joselyn sacrificed her freedom and her soul for family,” Flick’s voice informed the woman in a whisper that still filled the corridor around them. “You… you sacrificed family for nothing. And when he died, when you cut him down from behind like the coward you have always been, the boy who slept on those blankets, who held your hand through those storms, the boy you taught to sing…

“He died ashamed of you.” 

Litonya went wild with rage. A dozen lasers filled the air. Her blade lashed out time and time again. A rush of cold air that would freeze almost anything it touched filled the space around them. Twin bolts of lightning were summoned from the ceiling to the floor where Flick stood.

None struck their target. Between her own movements, summoned spells to intercept, and blindingly fast motions of Excalibur, Chayyiel avoided everything that had been launched at them. Parried the blade, danced around a bolt of lightning, created a wave of heat that dissipated the rush of cold air, and finally flicked Excalibur up at the exact angle to find a single weak point in the armor covering the other woman’s wrist. The blade didn’t quite cut through even then, but hit that single weak point in a way that made the muscles in Litonya’s arm seize up for just an instant. 

That was all the opening that Chayyiel needed. Instantly, she used Flick’s power to transfer the sword from one hand to the other, already lashing out with it. The blade found that exact damaged bit of Litonya’s shoulder that had not yet been fixed… and cut straight through it, severing the woman’s arm. 

With a bellow of mixed fury and surprised pain, the old woman reflexively grabbed at the bloody stump, only to find her hand intercepted by the ready blade as Excalibur struck the exact same spot it had hit a moment before, directly on her wrist. That time, the blade actually cut through her armor, taking the woman’s hand with it. In the span of a single second, one of her arms and the opposite hand had both been cut off. 

Chayyiel’s free hand snapped out while the woman was still reacting to that, conjuring a rune onto Litonya’s chest that triggered instantly and created a blast of pointed kinetic force so strong that it shattered several of her ribs and partially collapsed a lung even through her armor. She was sent flying back to crash ragdoll-like into the wall, where she lay on the floor in a heap. 

Flick’s voice was dark, and hard. “Do you know why you’re not healing, why every attempt you’ve already made to regrow that arm and hand has failed? It’s because Excalibur does not allow that kind of healing. The damage it does is far more permanent. And now you will be an example. Everyone who looks to your Committee will see that you are not invincible. So many of those who have chosen to stand against you do so despite believing that you are one step removed from a god. Imagine how many will turn when they see what you really are.

“Now do what you have always done when presented with a challenge. 

“Run.” 

With that final word, Excalibur lashed out once more to take the woman’s head from her body. 

Litonya vanished an instant before it would have. The old woman, untouchable for so long before being suddenly disarmed in a very literal sense and a moment from death, teleported away. She retreated. 

The moment she was gone, Chayyiel stepped from Flick, cracking her neck once while examining the sword now back in her own hand. “Well then,” she announced. 

“Shall we finish getting you out of here?”

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Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

One after another, light green lasers filled the air, each shot blasting a hole into the dirt as the automated defense drone dove toward its target, a large grizzly bear currently ripping apart one of the Crossroads’ prison’s turrets that it had ripped out of the ground. 

The bear, Twister, pivoted around toward the incoming shots with a roar that seemed to shake the ground she was standing on. An instant before the next round of lasers would have struck her, the bear form vanished. In its place hovered a small hummingbird, just as four simultaneous shots sailed past her… striking another figure entirely, a girl who had been crouched behind Twister’s bear form, just waiting. 

“Thanks!” Bobbi Camren, clad in the blue-white, glass-like body armor created by her power, grinned as the energy from the drone’s shots coursed through her. It manifested in the form of brightly flickering lightning-like electricity dancing through her armor. 

The drone adjusted instantly. A small compartment slid open in its front, and a rocket shot forth with a sharp whistle on its way toward the pair. In the next second, the rocket would explode in a ball of fire and force powerful enough to destroy everything in a thirty foot radius around them. 

With barely a thought, Bobbi shoved all the power she had just absorbed into her speed. The world around her slowed to the point of nearly standing still. The rocket inched its way through the air, flames dancing behind it even as a second rocket very slowly began to emerge from the drone, a follow-up shot just to be sure of its kills, aimed in the direction they would likely flee. 

Bobbi cracked her neck, watching the rockets for a brief instant before shoving off her left foot. She sprinted that way, feet tearing up the ground, leaving little smoldering imprints in her rush. With a raised hand, she used a bit of her power to conjure a solid-energy ramp leading up along the first rocket’s path. Passing the rocket in a sprint, she grabbed the front of it on the way past. It turned, facing back the way it had come while continuing its oh-so-slow (from her current point of view) flight. 

From there, Bobbi leapt from her ramp. The second rocket had gained about a foot of distance in that brief time, and she threw herself at it. Her hands caught the side of the rocket, yanking it off course. A new thought summoned a small wall of energy in mid-air, which Bobbi kicked off of while holding onto the explosive weapon. Course adjusted, she let go and allowed herself to drop to the ground, landing in a roll. 

Her speed ended then, and the girl’s head jerked up just in time to see the first rocket slam into the drone it had emerged from. With a deafening explosion, the drone went up in flames, showering bits of metal debris all over. 

At the same time, the second rocket struck its new mark as well: another turret mounted on a nearby building that had popped out to begin shooting at the intruders. Both the drone and the turret were simultaneously destroyed by the former’s own adjusted rockets. 

In the next moment, a coil of stone and dirt erupted from the ground, wrapping around Bobbi and yanking her down. One of the loyal Crossroads Heretics came into view, his long, dark hair wet with sweat as he tightened his fist to make the rock coil in turn tighten. The rock was giving off some kind of… dust that went through Bobbi’s helmet and made her feel dizzy. It was hard to focus. “Stardrinker Heretic, huh?” The man’s voice was a mixture of harsh and genuinely curious. “Haven’t seen any of those for a long time, kid. Where’d you find yours?” 

“Mars,” came a snapped retort from about ten feet away, just before a blast of energy shot through the stone coil, blowing it apart into small chunks and freeing Bobbi. 

The Crossroads loyalist spun to the new attacker, already flinging his hand out to throw a dozen glowing energy blades that way. But Columbus, whose goggles had just blasted apart the man’s stone coil, vanished from sight. 

He reappeared on the opposite side of the man, already throwing both hands forward as he summoned a wave of incredibly powerful kinetic force to throw at him. Just before it struck him, however, the Crossroads man snapped his hand out behind his back, catching the force with a power of his own before converting the power into fire and flinging it back at Columbus. The fire took the form of a snake whose head was the size of a Volkswagen, mouth wide open as it flew at the boy. 

The fire-snake was blown apart into separate sparks and bits of flame in mid-lunge, as a new figure leapt through it. Aylen Tamaya, body covered in the armored shape of her own cyberform, Sovereign, landed in a crouch. The scattered remains of the fire snake turned white-hot before shooting back toward their progenitor. He, in turn, gave a sharp wave of his hand to summon a rush of wind to send them flying off into the distance. 

In the time that he was dealing with the flames, Aylen rose with a sharp whistle. The sound was answered by a heavy bark, as the cyberform dog called Vulcan all-but flew across the ground in a sprint to rush at her from behind. At the last instant before he would have collided with the girl (who showed no sign of moving), Vulcan leapt, his body splitting apart into two halves almost directly down the middle. As Aylen raised both arms to either side, the two halves of Vulcan latched onto her armor. The half on her left arm produced the minigun that gave Vulcan his name. Meanwhile, the half on her right arm produced a sharp, foot-and-a-half long blade. The bulk of the dog’s body had slid up into itself in both halves, leaving what amounted to a pair of shields all along each of the girl’s arms in addition to the weapons.

Columbus had already been putting his studies with Harrison Fredericks to good use. 

The minigun opened up, flooding the air with bullets as the Crossroads figure recovered from hurling the incoming flames away from him. Several shots took him in the chest, but did little more than stagger him before he brought a quick forcefield up to send further shots ricochetting uselessly away. 

Keeping his shield up with one hand under the assault of gunfire, the Heretic abruptly snapped his other hand down, turning just a bit to catch Columbus by the wrist just as the boy appeared beside him. Gripping tight enough to break the bone there, he began to jerk upward as though to hurl him out of the way. 

In the midst of that, however, Columbus’s free hand snapped up, throwing a cloud of sand into the man’s face. 

That sand promptly transformed into a certain small Asian girl who went by the name of Shiori, whose fist collided with the Heretic’s jaw with enough force to snap his head back with a sharp grunt of pain. Reflexively, he used Columbus as a flail, jerking the boy’s body at her while cursing out loud. 

Shiori, however, turned back into sand, allowing her brother’s form to pass right through her before reforming herself. Still in mid-lunge, she caught onto the Crossroads man’s shoulders, mouth opening. Just as Columbus collected himself enough to teleport away from his captor’s grip, Shiori unleashed a burst of lightning from her mouth that caught their opponent full in the face. 

It accomplished little, aside from briefly blinding the man as his head jerked back. Shiori, in turn, was hurled away from the man by a wave of force as he roared in annoyance while staggering a bit, eyes blinking rapidly. The Asian girl tumbled and fell, skidding along the ground with a yelp.

And in that moment, as the man recovered, he caught a brief glimpse of a crow flying directly into his face. In the next instant, that crow transformed back into Aylen. She had abandoned Sovereign and Vulcan, both still in the form of the armor with attached weapons, leaving both still there firing at the forcefield as a handy distraction. Now, back in her own body, Aylen brought both hands together in a hard slam that sent a deafening wave of sound centered solely on the man himself. To outside observers, there was simply a distortion in the air and a slight thud-like sound. To the Crossroads man, an earsplitting boom struck, sending him to one knee as blood poured from both ears.  

Still, the man was able to summon enough focus to draw a new rock-coil from the ground, wrapping around Aylen’s ankles before hurling her out of the way with a vicious slam into the ground that left her lying a bit dazed, as she lay in a slight crater that had been created there. Despite her prodigious protections and regeneration, she wouldn’t be getting up again for a moment or two. 

Disoriented as the man was by the loss of his hearing, he did not, however, detect the pounding footsteps coming up from behind him. Not even his assortment of danger senses helped, given it had been spending all its effort alerting him about the still-present gunfire from the Vulcan-Sovereign combination that whole time. The man’s only real warning was the way the ground shook around him, and he spun just before Twister, in rhino form (having just switched from the horse form she’d been using to gain as much speed as possible), crashed into him. The man went flying, bouncing end over end along the ground before ending in a tangled heap of limbs. He was still breathing, slowly trying to push himself up with a mixed mutter of curses and grunts. Despite everything, he was still ready to go, still oriented enough to fight, just as soon as he could get his feet back under himself.

Then Columbus was there, appearing beside the man just in time to press one of Wyatt’s knock-out and teleport rocks against the side of his neck. With a quick command word to activate it, the boy sent their opponent far away. He’d be pretty pissed off once he woke up, but that was something to worry about another day.

“Did… did we win?” Bobbi managed, pushing herself up as she finally shook off the effect of that rock coil. Nearby, Aylen was starting to do the same. 

“Win?” Twister echoed while shifting back into her own form. “Not yet, kid. Why, you’re not tired yet, are ya? Cuz we’ve got a long way to go, and Ol’ Assy’s gonna be pretty ticked off if we don’t hold up her end of the battle since she can’t be here with the whole sun thing.” She paused then before adding, “At least she’s keeping busy with the other thing.” 

“I’m okay,” Bobbi insisted, shaking the cobwebs out of her head as she focused. “But these guys really don’t want us to be here.” She took a quick glance across the chaotic battlefield. They were mostly along the outskirts, picking up stragglers and dealing with random defenses, while the bulk of the allied Rebel Heretics, Seosten, and Atherby Alters handled the main threats. Seeing the display of powers, weapons, and utter destruction that had overtaken the once-supposedly abandoned town was staggering. The destructive capability of an entire World War had descended into this small area. 

“Well,” Shiori muttered as she picked herself up and shook the dust out of her hair. “If they don’t want us here, they just have to do one thing. 

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

“I gotta say, Flick,” Sean called out over his shoulder as he jogged down the narrow prison corridor, “you guys still know how to make a pretty good entrance!” 

Flick, running along behind him with Avalon nearby, replied, “You like that, huh? Yeah, we would’ve been here sooner, but we really had to practice that.” There was a slight hitch to her voice, as, despite her attempt to sound casual, the very thought of joking about how long Sean had been left in this prison, from his point of view, was too much.  

Sands, just ahead of Sean, called back to the others, “Don’t… don’t forget about the part where we just could not get the welcome back cake to taste right.” She too, was trying to lighten the mood a bit after the shock of seeing Sean as an adult and realizing just how long it had been for him. And like Flick, her attempt to do so was accompanied by hesitation, and a voice that just couldn’t quite convey the casualness she was going for. 

The four teammates were accompanied by Athena, who was ahead of them by a bit to allow them to talk as they raced through the prison toward one of the defense stations. Vanessa, Tristan, and their father were heading for the other one, leaving Larissa and Apollo to guard the main room. All three groups would need to take down their respective defense consoles near-simultaneously to avoid triggering the evacuation procedures. 

Flick’s voice sobered a bit then, as she reached out to touch the back of the… now-man’s arm. “Sean,” she started. “Seriously, if–” 

“Not now.” His voice was rough, but Sean quickly tempered it, exhaling. “It’s not–it’s not your fault. I know you were trying, but… but I don’t want to talk about it right now. Later, okay? Just… later. Let’s get the hell out of here right now, before we get into the apologies, promises, and all that shit.” He knew even as he said it that it wasn’t the best response he could’ve had, but it had been quite some time since he regularly dealt with people he wasn’t openly contemptuous of aside from Apollo and the occasional visit from someone like Flick. This was different. Between that and his anxiety about being so close to escaping this hellhole, he just… couldn’t think about anything else. 

He’d thought of almost nothing more for so long than getting out of this place that had been his prison for so goddamn long. And now that the moment was here, now that it was so close he could taste it, the fear that it would all be snatched away and he would once again be trapped for endless weeks, months, and even years… it left his body shaking despite himself. 

Luckily (in a way), he didn’t have much more time to dwell on that for the moment. Because in mid-sprint, Athena abruptly spun back toward them. Excalibur leapt to her hand, already rising on an intercept course against seemingly nothing… an instant before it suddenly collided with the descending blade of the Crossroads Heretic who had just teleported into view, appearing between the Seosten woman and Sands. Simultaneously, another Heretic guard appeared ahead, that one armed with some form of shotgun, which she opened fire with. 

“Wall!” Athena snapped without looking as she threw her left hand out, a dagger flying toward the second Heretic before it exploded into a field of energy that intercepted the shotgun blast. At the same time, the woman used Excalibur to parry several quick thrusts from the first Heretic’s blade. 

Sands didn’t argue or wait for even a moment. Her mace snapped up immediately and she conjured a wall in front of herself, cutting them off from Athena for the moment so the woman could do her work without worrying about the four of them getting in the way. Where the girl Sands was at the start of the year might have tried to throw herself into the fight alongside Athena to prove something, the one she was now had already proven everything she needed to. And almost none of it was what she had set out that year to prove. 

Unfortunately, the group wasn’t exactly in the clear. While the sound of Athena dealing with the adult Heretics came through the walls (Sands had hastily erected a couple more just to be on the safe side), a new figure appeared between them. 

Sean saw the woman, a single word full of disgust and anger jumping to his lips. “Mom.” 

In the next instant, Sands and Sean were hurled backward against one wall, while Flick and Avalon were slammed into the opposite one. All four were held there telekinetically, as Andrea Gerardo brought both hands out, holding them in place. “That’s enough!” she blurted in a voice that filled the hall. “You children don’t know what you’re doing, but this is as far as you go. You’ve–” 

“Hey Sean!” Flick interrupted, drawing the woman’s attention. “I know I was late getting here, but how’d you like a–” In mid-sentence, a portal appeared in front of her hand as she was held against the wall. She stuck one finger through and out the other end of the portal behind Andrea to touch the woman’s neck. 

“–free shot?” Andrea’s mouth finished Flick’s sentence, as the girl disappeared from where she had been pinned. The others were all released, stumbling a bit. 

Sean, recovering first, didn’t hesitate. His fist lashed out, slamming into his mother’s face. Her head was knocked backward, and the woman collapsed as Flick’s glowing figure emerged and solidified. 

“Do I wanna know how much of that was you knocking her out and how much was me?” Sean asked, rubbing his bloodied fist. 

With a shrug, Flick replied, “Let’s just say she got the message.” 

There was a series of quick knocks against the walls that Sands had erected then, and the girl quickly dismissed them to reveal Athena. Stepping into view, the Seosten woman took a glance toward the collapsed figure on the floor, then looked at Sean. “Everything okay?” 

He swallowed once, staring at his mother for a moment before lifting his gaze with a slight nod. “Peachy. Let’s go. I’m not in the mood for any more family reunions.” 

“Well,” Flick informed him as they started to move once more. “Your brother’s outside, so I hope you’re okay with one more.

“Cuz he’s sure been anxious to find you.” 

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Denouement 4 – Chicanery (Heretical Edge)

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Hand pressed against the red circle on the wall of his living room to activate the intercom linking his prison house to the guards, Sean Gerardo’s mouth opened as he called, “Hey, Cristof! You still out there?” 

There was a momentary pause before Cristof Manders appeared in a brief flash of light. The man was three inches shorter than Sean’s own six foot four, and much thinner. Sean may have been stuck in this prison for eight years (from his point of view), but over time he had convinced his jailers to provide a few extra amenities, including an entire, well-equipped gym to replace his own makeshift one. He spent hours each day in that gym, and it showed in his form. 

But while Cristof may have looked smaller than Sean, the power discrepancy had always been far lopsided in the other direction. Cristof was a full Heretic and had been for over forty years. Which could be said for any of the man’s coworkers as well. Sean’s personal training and workout regime meant nothing next to the powers that any of his jailers could employ. 

Squinting at Sean suspiciously, Cristof asked flatly, “What do you want, Gerardo? Your parents aren’t scheduled to visit for another–” He paused, clearly considering the time differences. “–another two days by your clock. And you’ve already had your groceries delivered this week.”

Sean’s head bobbed up and down. “Right, yeah. But I figured you might want to play another game.” He gestured toward the table where he’d set up the chess board. “If you’re not busy.” 

Again, the other man paused. His head tilted as though listening to something that Sean couldn’t hear, before he lifted his chin. “I don’t know if you’ve somehow figured out what’s going on, or if this is all part of a contingency plan for anyone who ended up like you, but it’s not working.” 

Doing an admirable job of looking confused, Sean’s eyes widened fractionally. “Uhh, what?” 

“The people you’ve got outside,” Cristof snapped. “They’re not getting in here. And you know what? Even if they do, you’re still not getting away. Because the instant they breach the prison is the instant we teleport you out of here. I mean hell, that’s not even something we have to do manually. It’s built into the prison defenses, Gerardo. The instant anyone who isn’t allowed in this prison sets foot in it, you and every other prisoner are immediately transported to a back-up facility on the other side of the ocean. So this whole attack? It’s completely pointless.” 

“Okay, well, I don’t know anything about an attack.” Sean’s shoulders shrugged. “Not sure how I could, unless you guys are a lot worse at security than you’re supposed to be. But if there’s something going on out there, do you need to go out and help?” 

The man gave him a dangerous smile. “Nah. They don’t need me out there to deal with this. Trust me, we were ready. I’m here to play backup for the backup. On the off-chance your old friends manage to bypass the automated security, I’ll take you to your new prison myself.” 

With an easy nod, Sean’s mouth opened to ask, “Well, it’d probably be easier to protect those automated security spells if you were in the room with them instead of here, wouldn’t it?” 

“And leave you alone in here?” Cristof snorted. “Nah, you’re up to something. I can tell.” 

“Sure, okay.” Sean’s voice was agreeable and personable. “Well, I suppose the easiest thing to do would be to take me with you then, right?” His shoulders shrugged once more. “I mean, if my friends out there are coming here to get me out, my not being here would thwart that pretty effectively. You could keep an eye on me and the emergency security spells at the same time. Then if anything did happen to them, you could probably see it in time to fix it.” 

For a few long seconds, the man just stared at him. “Take you out of your prison cell?” 

“You have to admit,” Sean’s voice pointed out, “no one out there would expect it. They come bursting in, using all their plans and effort just getting to this cell and… whoops, I’m not here. I’m out there with you, in a secure room where they don’t have the slightest prayer of finding me. You’d be saving the day. Saving the whole prison, really. Hell, you could leave a trap here so that anyone who jumps in to save me gets caught in it.” 

“A trap…” Cristof echoed slowly, clearly considering it. “Yeah. Hey, you get over here.” He pointed to the front door. “Stand right there and don’t move, you got me? Do not move.” He waited until Sean had moved to stand there, then quickly scrawled a few quick runes around the walls, activating several prepared spells before backing up to join his prisoner. “Right. First one of your friends out there that manage to come here are going to get a real big surprise.” 

Sean’s head bowed. “I feel sorry for whoever ends up in here.” His mouth turned up in a very slight smile then as he looked at his jailer. “But hey, they did pretty much ask for it.” 

“Yeah… yeah, they did. Now come on.” Cristof grabbed him by the shoulder. “You try to pull anything right now and I swear, you won’t wake up from the coma for a month. Got it?” When Sean’s head bobbed in a nod, he grabbed the door, activating the spell on it to transport both of them out of the cell that the boy-turned-man had been trapped in for so long. 

They appeared together in a narrow corridor with metal walls lined with various glowing spell glyphs. Behind them was a vault door, apparently what Sean’s cell entrance had looked like from the other side. “You pull away from me,” Cristof warned him, “and those spells on the walls will put you on your ass so fast you’ll think you time-traveled.” He then yanked his charge along down the corridor. They passed several more metal vault-like doors. Other prisons. 

“I thought there’d be more guards out here.” Sean’s voice was contemplative, as they reached a short flight of stairs at the end of the narrow corridor. “You know, normal patrols just in case.” 

“There are,” his jailer snapped, grip tightening on his shoulder while all-but dragging him up those stairs. “Most of them are busy dealing with your friends outside. But don’t get cocky, I can deal with you myself, and I’m not the only one here. You’re not going anywhere, Gerardo.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Sean’s voice was smooth and quiet, a reassuring timbre that eased Cristof’s suspicion while the man pulled him along in a tight, inescapable grip. 

“Hold it!” The new voice interrupted just as they reached the top of the stairs, where a pair of double doors waited at the end of a circular landing. There was another Heretic there, a guard Sean knew by the name of Julien. He had a three-bladed spear in one hand, his face a mixture of apprehension and disbelief. “What the hell, Cristof? You brought Gerardo out of–explain this! Do you have any idea what’s going on out there? We’re under siege and you choose now to-” 

“Yeah,” Cristof snapped, “I know what’s going on. And I know that if those guys actually make it in here, the first place they’ll go is this guy’s cell. So better for him to not be there, get it? This room is the most protected one in the prison. I’m taking him in there. Anyone tries to get past you, I’ll teleport him the hell out of here and they’ll get absolutely nothing.” 

“It–are you sure that…” With a frown, Julien slowly asked, “Is that really something that we–” 

“You’re right.” Sean’s hand rose for attention, drawing the men’s gazes. “It’s not a perfect plan. But you know what would make it better? You keeping guard right here.” His head nodded toward the floor in front of the room. “Believe me, I know my friends and you should be ready to deal with them if they get this far. Don’t let yourself get distracted, because they’ll take advantage. You should be here, ready for them.” 

“I… right, yeah. Go inside.” Julien stepped away from the double doors, already watching the way they had come from. “Get him in there, lock the place down. I’ll make sure no one gets through.” He gave a sharp look toward Sean. “Your friends are about to fail, you know. Then you’ll have plenty of company in here. Hell, maybe we’ll arrange some play dates so you can all talk about how dumb this rescue attempt was.” 

“Hey, that’s enough,” Cristof snapped. “Yeah, the kid–err… guy’s not going anywhere. But you don’t have to be a dick about it. These people are just doing what they think is right. They’re wrong, but we don’t convince them of that by being assholes. They’re misguided, not some kind of… Strangers. Just protect the entrance, let me handle Gerardo.” 

With that, the man opened the door and pulled Sean in after him before letting it close. They were now in a circular room about thirty feet in diameter. The walls were lined with consoles, computer monitors showing various parts of the prison inside and outside, and lots of flashing warning lights. On the screens for the exterior of the prison, they could see dozens of figures fighting, spells and powers sending bright flashes of light here and there as the intruders fought against the prisons defenders. It was total chaos, impossible to easily follow over the monitors. 

“Nice place,” Sean’s voice murmured as he slowly looked around the room, taking in the security screens with barely a glance before focusing his attention back on Cristof. “I can see why you’d bring me here. I mean, if you’ve gotta hold out somewhere, this is the place to do it. Hell, you could probably stick the controls for every security measure in this prison here.” His head shook. “But they didn’t do that, did they? They didn’t put every security measure in this room.” 

“Hell no,” Cristof retorted. “We’ve got spells to stop anyone not authorized from teleporting in or out of this place. Not just here. Two redundancies in opposite parts of the prison. Three layers of security, counting the one in here,” he bragged with a confident smile. “And if one goes down, the other two activate emergency evacuation in seconds. Like I said, your friends out there don’t have a chance. We know what we’re doing here. They’re wasting their time.”

“They’re pretty good at that.” Sean’s voice was a murmured agreement before he added, “But I hope you guys didn’t put those redundant spells too close together. They’re not like, next door or anything like that, right?” 

With a snort, Cristof snapped, “How stupid do you think we are? Look, right there.” He pointed to a map of the facility on a nearby wall. “See these two rooms? That’s where the redundancies are. Like I said, completely opposite sides of the prison, and far from this room. We’re safe.” 

Sean’s head bobbed in a quick nod. “Wow. Yeah, you guys really thought of everything. Seems like it’s all handled.” There was a brief pause before he murmured a thoughtful, “Unless…” 

Frowning with equal parts anticipation and suspicion, Cristof demanded, “Unless what?” 

The prisoner shrugged. “I dunno. I just… I mean, I certainly didn’t tell anyone about this place, right? And you know you didn’t. Seems to me like the only way my friends out there could know where this place was and how to get to it would be if somebody told them. But if it wasn’t me, because I’ve been stuck here the whole time, and it wasn’t you, then… it kind of had to be…” 

“Someone else,” Cristof finished, staring at him with wide eyes. “You think someone in this place told your friends about it. You think someone–one of the other guards– is a traitor.” 

With a cough, Sean’s gaze moved to watch the security monitors, his voice idle, as though it hardly mattered. “It’s kinda the only thing that makes sense. No other way for them to find this place. Lots of traitors going around, no way of knowing who might’ve changed their mind about the rebellion lately. And you know, if there’s a traitor in here, someone who told those guys how to get to this place, they could’ve done more than that.” 

Cristof’s weapon, a sword with two parallel blades that could each shift between various elements and metals, was in his hand. “More than that?” he demanded with a look at the door.

“Sure.” Sean’s head nodded toward the control consoles. “You know that security spell you were talking about, the one that’s supposed to teleport all the prisoners out of here the second an intruder sets foot in this place? Whoever that traitor is, he would’ve told my friends about it, right? No way he wouldn’t. So why are they trying so hard to get in here? Unless…” 

Eyes widening, Cristof’s gaze snapped from the door to one console in particular. “Unless it’s compromised,” he finished for the other man, already starting to step that way. 

“Yup.” Sean’s own voice was a conspiratorial whisper. “I bet they changed it. They made it so the spells will transport you and the rest of the guards out of here instead. You’ll be teleported so far away you’ll never make it back in time. And they’re just waiting to activate it, any… second…” 

“Not this time!” Cristof retorted, shooting Sean a hard glare before his hands danced over the controls. It was a mixture of spells and actual technology. One hand dismissed a rune intricately drawn across the console, while his other hand punched in a code on the physical keypad. His voice was triumphant as he spun from the console with a laugh. “Sorry, Gerardo, your friends’ little tricks aren’t gonna work today. I just disabled that security spell, so let’s see them try–” 

“What the hell did you just do?!” The demand came from the figure who appeared with a snap of power in the middle of the room. Another Heretic, this one a dark-skinned woman carrying a bladed shotgun, had teleported in, already whirling to face Sean while snapping her free hand up, a ball of semi-invisible force appearing at the ends of her fingers. 

At the same time, the door slid open, as Julien came rushing through as well to see what had just happened. His spear was raised and ready to throw. 

With a flash of light, a bright, glowing figure stepped from Sean’s body. Apollo stood there, hand raised. Two of the rings on his hand flared with power. The first summoned a forcefield, intercepting the ball of energy the Heretic woman had just flung toward Sean. The other sent a burst of electricity back that way, flinging her into the far wall where she crashed through one of the screens there with a spray of glass and sparks. 

Simultaneously with that, another figure shot out of the back of Apollo. Felicity Chambers was there, hand already raised. As Julien’s spear flew toward Sean, she summoned a small portal. The spear sailed through it before reappearing behind Julien to slam into the man’s leg. An instant later, Flick’s kinetic-empowered staff slammed into the staggering man’s face, knocking him into the opposite wall. She followed that up with another blow before he could recover, even as two blades, hurled by Apollo, embedded themselves in the wall to either side of Julien. 

Cristof, by that point, had jerked around, two-bladed sword coming up. But before he could do anything, Sean slapped a hand against his arm. A napkin, pulled from his pocket, was there. The napkin he had spent hours subtly drawing a spell on under the tutelage of Apollo. With a single word, Sean activated that spell, and the napkin exploded into a sudden spray of liquid metal that enveloped Cristof before instantly hardening into a cocoon. A second later, the cocoon was filled with a potent knockout gas. Even as the cocoon fell to the ground and began to melt away into a puddle, the man inside lay completely unconscious. 

Meanwhile, the two daggers Apollo had hurled produced figures of their own. Sands and Avalon both appeared while Julien was raising a hand toward Flick. He had just summoned a bolt of power that would punch through the girl’s body, when her newly emerged teammates each struck the man from either side. Sands’ mace and a glowing warhammer conjured from one of Avalon’s gauntlets each slammed into him. That time, he collapsed and didn’t rise again. 

Quickly, Flick and the others took the man’s spear from his leg before using one of the enchanted rocks Wyatt had provided. This one wouldn’t teleport the man anywhere (that was impossible from in here until the security defenses were taken down), but it would ensure that he stayed unconscious for a few hours.

That done, the trio looked over first to where Cristof was, finding the man completely in hand. The woman who had appeared was down as well, Apollo tugging her limp form over to lie next to Cristof. 

Another glowing figure emerged, this time from Flick. Tabbris appeared, before she in turn produced Larissa, who produced Haiden. Athena emerged from him, Tristan from her, and Vanessa from him. Soon, the whole group was there in that room. 

“Sean!” Flick blurted the instant the initial threat was over and they were all present. With that, she threw herself that way, even as Sean reflexively opened his arms. The two embraced tightly, as Flick’s head shook. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry it took so long. Oh my God. I’m sorry.” 

Shaking his head, Sean tried to say that it wasn’t her fault, that it wasn’t any of their fault. The words stuck in his throat, and he just clung tighter. They’d interacted before during all this, in his virtual reality space whenever Apollo brought her in. But that was different from this. He hadn’t even let Flick or the others see how old he was getting in comparison to them, preferring to project himself in his mind as the boy he’d been back then. This was the first time they had really seen him as he was now. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Tristan managed, staring at him. “You’re… you’re… fucking buff.” 

A hiss of disbelief that turned into a coughing-laugh emerged from Sean, as he shook his head. “I’m… a lot of things,” he muttered. “Mostly glad to see you, man.” The two boys embraced firmly. “Really god damn glad to see you.” 

Tabbris took her turn for a hug then, followed by Sands, Vanessa, and the others. Even Avalon took his hand for a moment, squeezing before leaning in for a brief hug as she whispered in his ear about being glad to see him. But before that went on too long, Athena spoke up. “Very good. But we have to keep moving. There are still two redundant defenses to take down. Thanks to Apollo and his Tartarus gift, we know exactly where they are.” Her hand gestured to the spots on the map that Cristof had so helpfully pointed out. 

“We split into groups. One group stays here to defend this room. Two more go to each of these places, and we shut down their security simultaneously.

“This isn’t over yet.”

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabbris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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Summer Epilogue 1B (Heretical Edge)

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In the end, the group (consisting of Dare, Kohaku, Gabriel Prosser, Sariel, Apollo, Athena, Larees, Haiden, Larissa, Theia, Metatron, Raphael, Chayyiel, Jophiel, and Cahethal) traveled through six different portals before finally reaching their destination. While the lab was located on Earth and would have been ordinarily reachable through a single portal, it was protected in a myriad of ways. One of those ways was a particular spell which functioned as a combination lock of sorts. If the person entering did not first go through each of the previous five locations just before entering the lab, all of the contents within it would disappear.

Once they were finally there, the group as a whole looked around. They had arrived in a perfectly white room just large enough to hold them. Every surface was pristine, without a single smudge or fleck of dust. The immaculate white walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to pulse a bit with power for a few seconds after their arrival.

Cahethal spoke for the first time as the pulsing glow faded. “A sterilization spell, to remove any exterior contaminants that might be brought in. And unless I miss my guess…”

Sariel confirmed, “A version of the expulsion magic, to ensure that no one enters carrying one of our people unknowingly.”

Metatron gave a dark look at that. “That spell technology is not allowed anywhere near this world. It is heavily regulated. You should not even have been taught how to use it.”

Apollo cheerily replied, “She wasn’t. She reversed engineered it after spending so much time in old Kushiel’s place.” Though his words were light, there was an underlying hardness to his tone as he stared intently at the old man while bringing up what his adopted sister had gone through.

Cahethal gave the woman a curious look at that, several different thoughts clearly playing out in her mind while she remained silent.

Metatron, however, wasn’t nearly so reserved. He gave both of the ‘twins’ a disbelieving look. “Even if that were true, which I have many reservations about, allowing power like that to be here on this planet, even in a controlled environment, is absurdly risky. If it were to accidentally find its way to anyone else—”

Apollo interrupted. “Oh, it’s finding its way to other people. Like Gabriel here. You can be damn sure that his people are going to have these things set up around their homes. So if you or any of your colleagues might have been thinking about any infiltration, they should reconsider.”

Giving them another incredulous look, Metatron snapped, “You would provide such dangerous magic to another species? Do you have any idea what you risk with such insanity?”

It was Chayyiel who spoke. “For someone who has ranted at such lengths on what sort of traitors Lucifer and Sariel are, you seem oddly surprised that they do not consider themselves loyal to our side.”

Her words were met by a brief look from the man, and a simple, vaguely disbelieving, “Our side?”

Before anyone else could respond to that, Raphael spoke up while cracking his neck. “As much fun as this banter is, it’s somewhat crowded in here, and I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. When that happens, my wings tend to come out. Which, in a place like this, could be dangerous for everyone else. What do you say we move on?”

Haiden nodded. “I’m with David Lee Roth over there. We’re not going to get along, so let’s just get this over with.”

“Yes,” Jophiel agreed quietly. “Some of us have other matters to attend to once this business is finished.”

From where she was standing, Larissa observed, “Like getting ready to leave the host you’ve been enslaving for so long once Liesje’s spell is fixed?”

Jophiel offered her a smile. “Fortunately, that is not a problem I have to contend with. The Committee’s connection to one another should be enough to dilute your little spell. At least enough for me to retain control. So I do hope that any of your future plans did not rely solely on us losing influence over Crossroads.”

While the others exchanged glances, Sariel and Apollo moved to the nearest wall and began to run through several unlocking spells together to open the way forward. it took over a minute of rapid incantation before a single doorway appeared nearby. It was a simple arch, revealing a much larger room beyond.

As a group, they moved one by one through the archway and into the lab itself. The place was as wide as a basketball court and as long as two of them. Dozens of tables were set up all around the room, with bits of equipment, half-formed spell runes, notebooks, computers, and more all over the place. In the very center of the room was a pedestal with a softly glowing blue orb slightly larger than a softball sitting on it. Patterns of white runic symbols danced across the surface of the orb, the spell that kept its contents contained, among other things. Stacks of paper as tall as a person surrounded the pedestal, while another had been knocked over so that its contents were spread all around the foot of it. There were notes sprawled on the floor, as well as on the pedestal itself. Notes which seemed to flip back and forth between Latin and English seemingly at random, as though the person taking them was absently flipping back and forth themselves.

Cahethal observed, “I see neither of you have yet mastered the art of a clean and organized workspace that I spent so long trying to instill in you. It is good to know that some things will never change.”

With a grin, Apollo agreed, “Yeah, like the way we’re still finishing the work you couldn’t get done.”

Raising a finger to point at the man, Cahethal started to retort before pausing. Then she lowered her hand and carefully replied, “The time will come, Lucifer, when we are no longer in a truce. You would do well to remember that.”

Before he could respond, Larees spoke up. “So hey, I’ve gotta ask…” She took a quick sip from her flask before continuing. “Exactly how many days or weeks do you think you devoted to trying to figure out why you couldn’t possess that Chambers girl? Is there a ream of notes with all your hypotheses about it? Ooh, or holo recordings. Because I would pay good–”

“Stop it,” Sariel snapped before adding a simple, “It’s easy to overlook the obvious answer to a problem. She’s the one who helped teach us that.”

With those words, the woman moved to the pedestal. “Come on. We’ll show you how to do this and then you can leave Earth.”

“Finally,” Metatron announced while they followed her, “you say something that I can fully and completely agree with. Being away from this planet and rid of responsibility for it, even if only for one of its years before your experiment inevitably fails, sounds quite pleasant right now.”

“If everyone is finished sniping at one another, maybe we should get on with it,” Chayyiel announced.

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed in a doubtful tone, “show us what you have done that is so different than what hundreds of our best scientists have been able to do with thousands of years of work.”

Apollo began to explain while Sariel did something with the orb. “See, your problem was that you’ve all been trying to open a new portal into Tartarus.”

A disbelieving came over Cahethal. “Yes, that is our entire purpose here. Have you misunderstood this completely?”

Sariel spoke then while rising from where she had been making one last adjustment to the pedestal. “He doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want a portal to exist. He means it’s wrong for us to try to open it. We can’t.”

Before any more exasperated demands could be made, she continued while picking up the orb. “This can. You see, thousands of years ago, long before we came anywhere near that spot of space, something came out of it. Something made that hole from Tartarus to our universe. Whatever it was punched a hole between realities. When it did, it left behind a trail of the same energy from that reality that we use to empower ourselves. Think of it as stepping out of a lake and walking on dry ground while leaving puddles behind you. It carried that energy with it when it came here. Energy which, I will remind you, can never be completely destroyed.”

“That’s what you have in that orb,” Jophiel observed.

Sariel nodded. “Yes. Over all those years, the energy trail drifted apart through the entire universe. We—” She indicated herself and Apollo. “— have been using magic to pull bits of it here for a long time. And this orb is what we have.”

Apollo clarified, “What she means is that we set it up to pull in that energy thousands of years ago and she’s been quietly working on it off and on all this time. She just needed a little help right at the end to get it fully contained and sealed up in that nice little package for you.”

Metatron raised an eyebrow. “So what you are saying is that you have worked thousands of years and have managed to collect just enough energy to empower perhaps one person. Somehow this is not the solution I believe the rest of the Seraphim were hoping for. And it is certainly not what you promised.”

Apollo just shook his head. “What you do with the orb when we give it to you is up to you. You can use it to empower one person. Or, you can be smart with it.”

Cahethal spoke then, understanding. “We can use it to get back into Tartarus. If we flood it with enough power to jumpstart it while those specific spells on that orb are active, the residual Tartarus energy will attempt to return home. We don’t have to make another portal. They will leave a hole when they pass through. A hole which we can catch before it closes and stabilize.”

Raphael gave a low whistle. “That simple, hmm?”

Chayyiel shook her head. “There’s nothing simple about it. But, yes. It should work exactly the way they say. We will be able to open the way to Tartarus once more. Or, as he said, empower a single individual.”

“I suggest you go with the first option,” Apollo put in with a smirk. “But, you know, you do you.”

“I would point out here,” Metatron noted, “that this entire situation has grown beyond your initial demand. First, you say that it is to create a deal where we will leave your family alone. And now, it is tied into the truce agreement with this planet.”

Sariel nodded. “Let’s just say our changing situation necessitated a more thorough agreement. Not that it changes anything. The Seraphim have already voted to give Earth one year to prove ourselves. And you already know that you’re agreeing to leave my family alone. We’re just putting the bow on both deals together.”

It was Raphael who agreed. “She’s right, it doesn’t change the agreement. If anything, it gives us an out. Because if this orb doesn’t do what they say it will, that provides you an excuse to break the entire deal. Or at least bring it up for review with the rest of the Seraphim. And I can pretty much guarantee that if this promise is broken, there will be enough votes to nullify the truce.”

The man let that hang for a moment before snapping his gaze to Apollo and the others. “So, I really hope that it works the way you’re saying it will. Because I kinda like this place and I’d really prefer not to go all full scale invasion and war on it. It’s a great planet to come vacation once in a while. You know, when you just need to get away from everything. It would just rip me apart to have to come here and… rip it apart.”

“It will work.” That was Kohaku. “You all sign the magical agreement to leave her family alone for good, and to uphold the truce agreement here for one year, to enact no substantial efforts against this world for that time. Then you can take that orb back to your space and play all the super soldier games you want. Go bowling with it for all we care. But take it and go.”

Raphael observed her briefly, his tone curious. “You were the one Manakel took as a host, right? I, um… I’m sorry you didn’t know him before. He used to be a lot more fun than he ended up becoming.” After a brief pause, the man took in a breath and then let it out in a sigh. “I know it means basically nothing. But I do wish you could have known him then. He would have been appalled and destroyed by what he became. And the Manakel I knew would have wanted you to have this.” Extending his hand, the man held out a simple necklace of sorts. It was a small clear crystal dangling from a leather cord.

“It’s okay. You can have all your magic experts look over it as much as you want. It’s not a trap.”

Rather than take it, Kohaku simply stared. “What the hell is it?”

It was Theia who spoke up. “Dead seer.”

Raphael nodded to her. “Exactly. See, back when Manakel was still new to his gift and exploring the art of necromancy, he created this. It doesn’t summon any ghosts or zombies or anything. Instead, when a person looks deep into the crystal, they will see an image from the life of someone they’ve lost. It’s sort of a window into the past. You can’t interact with them, you can’t bring them back, you can’t do anything except look. It’s like one of your human video tapes. Just look into it and think about who you want to see. Anyone you knew who passed away.”

Kohaku’s hand moved to close around the cord, but she didn’t take it. Her eyes bore into the ancient, powerful figure’s. “You expect me to believe that you’re just handing this over with no strings attached and no tricks. Forgive me, but I’m not exactly inclined to think the best of your people.”

Chayyiel spoke. “Manakel was his descendent, his great-great grandson, and his protégé of sorts. Raphael helped raise and protect him.”

The man himself gave a short nod. “As I said, I knew him a long time ago, and I know what he would want. He didn’t always make the right choice. And he got a lot worse over time. But he’d want you to have that. If you want to throw it away, that’s up to you. Take it, and do what you’d like with it.”

As the woman silently accepted it with a conflicted look, Metatron cleared his throat. His expression was annoyed. “If we are quite finished playing nursemaids to the humans and the traitors, perhaps we can complete this arrangement. We still need proof that the orb will work as described before we sign any deal.”

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed. “Unfortunately, we cannot risk breaching that orb to test the energy within without releasing all of it. Which would tend to defeat the purpose of taking it back with us.”

Sariel reached behind the pedestal to remove a much smaller orb, this one about the size of a marble. “That’s why we have this.” She tossed it to the woman, sending the marble perfectly into her palm. “It’s the same stuff from the orb. You can take it to the containment area there.” She pointed to where a series of protection spells had been drawn around a circle in the corner. “Do whatever tests you want until you’re satisfied.”

Apollo then added, “Though I would like to point out that it’s not exactly hard for you people to come back here if you get out to your space and find out we lied. That would be breaking the agreement. And, you know, it would also be pretty damn stupid. I mean, what are we gonna do, move the whole planet?”

After he finished that bit, it was Chayyiel who looked to him. “Our space?”

The man shrugged. “Something tells me that it doesn’t matter what kind of truce or peace agreement we set up, I am never actually going to be welcome out there. Call me crazy.”

Metatron snapped, “No one forced any of you to betray your people.” He gave Sariel, then Athena each a dark look in turn. “Or to lay with creatures far beneath us. Or tutor a man whose power could have threatened our entire civilization as a whole. You all chose that, and you will receive no pity for the repercussions.”

Waving a hand dismissively, Cahethal muttered in an uncaring and distracted voice, “Yes yes, they are such terrible people, of course. Now come here. I need your help to verify this.” Marble in hand, she moved to the containment area, with Metatron following after giving them all one more disgusted look.

As the two of them moved away, Jophiel turned her attention to Athena. “Speaking of your misguided efforts all those centuries ago, you must have been quite relieved during the… situation at Crossroads to see that your protégé’s top knight has somehow managed to survive all these years. Although, from the memories that I’ve seen, she looks more like his consort than his knight. Isn’t that funny? Because, as far as I knew, the two were secret lovers, not twins.”

From where she was standing, Theia offered, “I can go rent a backhoe if you’d like to keep digging.”

Offering the younger girl a brief smile at that, Athena nodded simply to Jophiel. “Yes, it was quite a relief to be reunited with… her. We had much to talk about.”

For a moment, it looked as though Jophiel might question what exactly they had talked about. But in the end, she simply looked away.

After a minute of silence, Raphael looked over toward Larissa and Haiden. “You know, if we’re speaking freely at the moment, I will say that I was fairly impressed by your antics in our space. Not that it would have stopped me from killing you, but still, given how isolated you were, you actually did fairly well.”

Haiden met his gaze. “Yeah, well, let’s just say you gave us plenty of incentive to get creative. Hell, if you’d just left my family alone to begin with, we never would have been out there.”

Sariel spoke up. “That doesn’t matter right now. We make this deal and our family does get left alone.”

“And you all leave,” Larissa added.

Raphael shrugged. “Well, most of us do. I’ll be sticking around for a little bit.” At the quick looks from the group he held up a hand. “Not to worry, I have no intention of violating the truce, I promise. My interest lies in reconnecting with an old friend, as I said.”

Before he could be asked for any information about that ‘old friend’, Cahethal stepped out of the containment area. A wisp of blue-black smoke was drifting around inside of it. “It’s real,” she reported. “They’ve contained the energy, and from what I can tell, it will work the way they claim. There should be enough in that orb to open the way to Tartarus once more.”

“Thank the Void,” Metatron muttered. “Then we sign the agreement and leave. I, for one, I am looking forward to not thinking about this dirt ball until the apes who live here have torn each other apart.”

“Aww,” Haiden put in, “we love you too.” He accepted the offered flask from Larees and took a swig. “Believe me, speaking for the apes, we’ll be just as glad to see you go.”

For the next two hours, the agreement was drawn up and several dozen spells were attached to it to bind all parties to the terms. If any knowingly violated those terms, there would be harsh consequences. Not only politically and monetarily, but also physically and magically. They would quite literally be putting their power and lives on the line to knowingly violate the contract.

Then it was done. All present signed the contract. Earth would be left relatively alone for one year. And Sariel and Apollo’s family would not be purposefully hunted or harmed so long as they did not initiate first attack.

Chayyiel, glancing back and forth between both groups once it was done, announced, “Good. Now those of us who wish to leave may do so. And those of us who have a little more business to take care of first can focus on that.”

Metatron gave her a look. “You have been quite thoroughly informed that your place is not here on this world,” he reminded her. “It is not your territory. An exception may have been made for this, but as I have told you many times,  I will not have you wandering this planet so long as it is under my control.”

Chayyiel smiled slightly. “You’re right. But as you have repeatedly expressed with much gratitude and pleasure, this world is none of our responsibility after this agreement. During the truce period you are no longer responsible for it. Which means your permission for visitation to the world is not required during that time.”

As the man stared at her, barely able to keep his mouth from falling open as the trap was revealed, she continued. “Many, many years ago, you informed me that I lacked any subtlety or patience. You said that you would see through any childish plans I set toward ever coming back here. And you said that so long as this world was in your hands, I would not set foot on it.”

She let that hang in the air for a moment before taking a single step forward. In that motion, she stepped out of her shoe, placing one bare foot pointedly on the floor in front of it. Her voice was soft.

“I believe your ride is waiting.”

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