Athena

At Last 16-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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To say that the Whisper-Ghosts reacted badly to their Get Into Tartarus ticket being taken away would be a bit of an understatement. In the moment after the prototype ship vanished with Puriel and the kids on-board, a near-deafening scream went up throughout the room. It came not only from the Whispers who were possessing ghost ‘bodies,’ but from all of them. Dozens of the things, most nearly entirely invisible aside from distortion in the air, expressed their fury from all along the outskirts of the room. The discordant howl of rage sent an almost painful shiver through me. There was power there. Which wasn’t surprising, given how much their voices could affect people when they whispered. An outright scream like this, coming from that many of them? No wonder it felt like the magical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Even with our protection, hearing it made me want to gouge my own ears out. 

And that was the point, I immediately realized. The scream was an attempt to push through all our protection and force us to harm ourselves. It even almost managed it, despite everything. At the moment I had that thought, the next that leapt to mind was, ‘Grandmaria and Grandpartie aren’t protected.’ Yet even as I spun that way, hand outstretched to stop them from being made to do anything drastic, I could see that the situation was already well in-hand. Both of my grandparents, Uncle Al, and that Native American guy, were all unconscious on the floor with Mom, Sariel, and Athena standing over them. Apparently they didn’t want to take any chances. Which, given how powerful the Whispers clearly were, made sense. 

Thankfully, the Whisper-scream (yeah) didn’t last for long. Which was the good part. Unfortunately, the bad part was that as soon as it stopped, the assortment of possessed Olympian ghosts and air distortions closed in on the rest of us from all sides. Invidia was, as usual, at the front as their leader. Her gaze was centered on me, and I was pretty sure that the hatred in her eyes was coming from both her and Charmeine. With that little move back there, I had just made myself the Whispers’ personal enemy. Which was just fantastic, because I didn’t have enough of those anymore. Definitely needed to add a few more to the list. 

“You,” Invidia snarled, that single word containing about a decade’s recommended allotment of spite. “You are–” 

In mid-sentence, she abruptly vanished from that spot just as my mother appeared there, sword slashing through the space she had just been in. Mom’s own voice was hard. “Stay the fuck away from her.” The tip of the sword was pointed at the spot where Invidia had reappeared, a bit further back. “You already lost. Get over it.”

“Did we?” Invidia snapped back, as the other possessed Olympian ghosts gathered around her. They were all staring past my mother to meet my gaze, and it was very clear that the animosity I had sensed was coming equally from all of them. I hadn’t just made Invidia hate me, they all did. Their whole group, if not their whole… species or whatever. Which might be a new record even for me, given how recently we’d met. 

It was actually Theia who spoke next. The Seosten girl was standing on the spot where Puriel had been when he was thrown into the other ship. “You failed to take my father, so you failed to open the rift.” Her voice was as flat and matter-of-fact as ever, yet I could sense an underlying hint of emotion there. Theia, quite understandably, probably had complicated feelings about her father. Yet these creatures had been trying to take him away from her right when she had been about to be reunited with him for the first time since she… well, since she had changed so much. They had both changed a lot, and these Whispers had very nearly snatched Puriel away from her before she ever had the chance to have a real face-to-face with him. No wonder I could hear anger in her voice. 

Although to be fair, I was pretty sure everyone in this room was angry at the moment. 

“She’s right,” Athena put in. The woman had all-but materialized on the other side of my mother, with Dare right next to her. “Your efforts were focused on using Puriel to open a new way into Tartarus. He’s gone now, and no amount of bellowing is going to change that.” 

Invidia made Charmeine’s eyes narrow, her voice low and dangerous as she stared intently through everyone else to meet my gaze. “Perhaps not, but we may still extract a high price for such a delay.” 

“Extract a high price,” Dare informed her in a voice that somehow managed to convey even more of an open threat than her actual words did, “and pay an even higher one.”

Invidia’s eyes finally turned away from mine to look to her, a snarl finding its way into her retort. “Is that so? Because it seems to me we have you outnumbered. And we gain an even better understanding of our physical capabilities with each confrontation. You cannot hold out for long. Your resources are far from infinite, this far from any reinforcements.”

“Are we far from reinforcements?” I pointed out after taking a breath. “I mean, you just saw our extra ship jump in and then out of here instantly. You really think you can finish us off before Andromeda drops off Puriel and the kids then comes back with some help?” 

“Perhaps,” Invidia snapped in my direction, though she didn’t exactly sound confident. I was pretty sure she was running the numbers in her head and didn’t like what it was coming out to. “We can handle you, at least, annoying one.” 

“You’d have to go through all of us to do it,” Avalon retorted, putting herself slightly in front of me with her arm raised, projecting a blade from her gauntlet. Miranda silently joined her, even as my mother moved closer as well.  

Beside me, Cerberus gave a low growl through each of his heads. Persephone piped up, “Felicity has many friends you would have to go through. Including us. And we just got here. We can keep playing for awhile.”

She was right, of course. First, she and Cerberus had only just gotten started, which was the whole reason I’d kept them in reserve as backup even after the Whispers first showed themselves. It didn’t make sense to blow that surprise the very moment we saw some bad guys. I’d hoped that if Kushiel was here, we could have surprised her with them if things ever got really bad. And second, because the two of them were a Revenant and robot dog respectively. They didn’t really get tired. At least, not like that. I was pretty sure Cerberus could run down enough to need to recharge or whatever, but that wouldn’t be for quite some time. His makers didn’t want to have to go find a thousand double a batteries or whatever in the middle of fighting Manakel. 

Invidia was staring that way, her gaze locked onto Persephone. “And what precisely are you even doing? You should be aiding us, not hindering our efforts. You are a puppeteer of dead things, Revenant. You worm and slide your way into the dead and control it from within. You are nothing without the dead. We are all-but family, practically your siblings. You have far more in common with us than these creatures. And even if there were no similarities between us at all, you should want what we want. Unleashing this… Tartarus as they call it will bring even more of the power you are so fond of.” Her eyes darted briefly to me as she added, “You think this child, already about to fall in on herself after so minor an exertion, can offer even a small fraction of the necromantic energy that Tartarus being fully unleashed would bring into this universe? You latched yourself to that power’s previous custodian, and now to the child for no merit of her own. You aid her for the power she controls, and yet the source of that power could be in the palm of your hand. You bow to the one who holds a flashlight, while ignoring those offering you the power of the sun itself. All you need to do is stand with us, and you shall never be in the dark again. We know you better than they ever could. This girl will never see you as a romantic partner. She’s only using you for the strength you provide.” 

The others were staring our way, and it was all I could do not to turn and look at Persephone myself. But something told me that one of the worst things I could do in that moment was show any doubt in her. No matter how worried the paranoid part of me wanted to be, I had to trust her. More than that, I had to show that I trusted her. 

To that end, I stepped forward and over slightly, putting myself not quite directly in front of Persephone, but slightly to the side and ahead. I moved to a spot that put my back to her both literally and symbolically, while simultaneously being physically closer. My voice was sharp. “You know what’s funny? You’re trying to say that you can give Percy what she wants better than any of us, but you don’t even know what she wants. You don’t know what she likes. If you did, you’d know there’s no way in hell that she’d ever want to release a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. You know, because she lives here. Percy?”

“Yes, Felicity?” she chirped a bit from behind me, sounding curious. 

“What’s your favorite thing to do at two-fifteen on Saturday and Sunday morning?” I asked without looking away from Invidia and the other Whispers. Immediately after answering the question, I spoke the answer right alongside the Revenant. 

“Sit in the fluffy blue recliner with a hot, wet towel over my feet and a bowl of popcorn, half cheese and half caramel, in my lap watching the excellent Home Shopping Network and making up stories about what the people who buy the items are like.” 

We both finished saying that, word-for-word, before I added, “How do I know that? Because I talk to her. Because I’ve asked her that four times and she’s given the same answer every time. Because I like knowing things about her. And it’s kinda hard to have a shopping network, a TV, popcorn, a towel, or a recliner if there are a bunch of monsters destroying the universe.” 

Stepping back a bit, I reached a hand behind myself to find Persephone’s and squeezed it, all still without breaking eye contact with Invidia. “You think you know her? You don’t know a damn thing about her. You think you can talk her into betraying me because you tell her I don’t have romantic feelings for her? I never lied about that, not once. I have been completely up-front about that. But me not feeling anything romantic for Persephone doesn’t mean I don’t care about her. She is my friend. And if you open your mouth to try to manipulate her again, I will come over there, rip you out of that ghost body, then twist and fold your incorporeal ass into a shape that’s so geometrically impossible you’ll end up breaking the fabric of space-time and traveling back to inspire M.C. Escher. Leave my friend alone.” 

Speaking brightly, Persephone chirped, “Thank you, Friend Felicity. But I am more than capable of speaking up for myself.” She paused briefly before giving a short nod as she focused on Invidia and the other, increasingly angry Whisper-Ghosts. “As she said, you are not my friend. She is.” Her head tilted then. “Perhaps you should not have cultivated such a strong reputation for manipulation. Nothing you say is believable.”

“Yeah, well, they’re accustomed to having the power to back it up,” Apollo noted. “When you get too dependent on using a power that lets your voice manipulate and control people, well… let’s say I know what that can be like.” 

“You are nothing to us,” Invidia snapped in his direction, clearly offended by the insinuation that there was any similarity between what they did and his own Olympian power. 

Apollo, for his part, simply shrugged as though that didn’t bother him. “Maybe not, but your thing hasn’t worked so far. Actually, you’ve kind of failed at everything you’ve been trying to do this whole time.” 

“Everything?” There was amusement mixed in with the anger in Invidia’s voice. “Is that what you think? Because from where we are standing, we are in a much better position with these… bodies than we have been before.” She gestured around at the other Whisper-possessed ghosts. “Your annoying efforts to prevent us from opening the way to Tartarus notwithstanding, our efforts here have not been wasted. Whether you survive this encounter or not remains to be seen, but we will emerge stronger than we have been in many millennia.” 

“Sure,” Apollo agreed in a tone that made it sound like that didn’t even matter. “Not to mention Tartarus clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s a whole universe out there. Not like it’s just gonna disappear.” 

“Of course not,” the Whisper retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Tartarus has existed since before the creation of this universe, and it will continue to exist long after every star which warms your worlds has burned itself out. It is infinite. And we have patience to match. Your efforts here are nothing more than a brief delay.”

“Not even a particularly good one,” Apollo noted. “You have plenty of other options for opening a rift into the place. You don’t even need any of us.” 

“No,” came the response, “we do not need you.” 

“We’re not worth your time.” 

“You’re not worth our time.” 

“You should just leave right now.” 

“We should just–wait–” The very slightly glazed look that had crossed Invidia’s face started to clear as she focused. “You–you are not–” 

Apollo spoke once more, his voice firm as it filled the whole area around us as though he was speaking through a microphone that didn’t exist. “You should leave right now and go as far away as you can.” 

That was what it took. An instant after he finished those words, Invidia and the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts vanished. As soon as they did, the blond man staggered a bit, giving a heavy wheeze. “Ohhhkay, that took a lot more than I thought it would. They’re strong.” He glanced to the rest of us. “I wanted to ask for more information about what they are, but it… they were too strong. I could feel it. I would’ve had to keep talking for another ten minutes to get anything, and she was already starting to work it out. Had to go with the quick fix instead of the long term answers. Sorry.” His last word came as a mutter, the man clearly annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get anything else out of them. 

“Dude,” Miranda started while shaking her head, “you managed to voice-manipulate a bunch of alien creatures whose entire thing is voice-manipulating people. Even if you didn’t get everything you wanted out of it, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” 

“She’s right,” Dare agreed, brushing her sleeves off a bit before focusing that way. “We should focus on the fact that we managed to get out of that situation without losing anyone. Particularly Puriel. He is safe now, and they don’t have what they need to open a way to Tartarus yet.” 

“But they still got away with new ghost bo–” I started before abruptly spinning to focus on the group who had been standing slightly away, staring at all of us through that. “Grandmaria, Popser!” The words had barely escaped me before I was dashing that way. 

“There she is!” my grandfather cheerfully called while reaching down to haul me up from the floor as soon as I was close enough. He hugged me to his chest, even as my grandmother stepped in to join the embrace as well. Soon all three of us were embracing in a big group right there. I was basically squished in the middle, but I didn’t care. My grandparents were here, they were safe. Everything else could wait for the moment. 

Actually, no, not everything. In the midst of that, I started to think about Tabbris and my father, only to hear the latter’s voice. “Mom… Dad.” 

He was there, with Tabbris right at his side. The two of them looked pretty worn, and it was obvious they’d been through a lot down there keeping the Whispers away from the Slide-Drive. But they made it, just like the rest of us. We might’ve all been exhausted, but we were alive. And, well, the universe wasn’t about to be overrun by giant monsters, which was a good thing.

Opening their arms without taking their grip off me, Grandmaria and Grandpartie beckoned for their son to come right in. He did, and then there were four of us. Which quickly became five as my grandmother reached out toward Tabbris, taking the suddenly-shy girl by the hand to pull her in close. I could see the shudder that ran through my little sister before she let herself embrace her new grandparents tightly, one after the other. And they hugged her right back. There was no hesitation, they both pulled her right in close and tight as smoothly and immediately as if they’d known her for years. Probably because they understood just how much this would mean to Tabbris, how important it was. 

Speaking of important, no matter how good this hug might’ve been, it was missing one person. Dad and I both met each other’s gazes before nodding. We knew. Turning slightly while keeping one hand on my grandfather’s arm, I looked over that way with a simple, “Mom.” 

There she was, standing just to the side as she watched what was going on with that sword still held tight (maybe a little too tight) in her grip. At the sound of my voice, Mom started a bit before sheathing the blade. Her mouth opened and then shut as she fought to find the right words. 

She might not have known what to say, but my grandmother did. Extracting herself, Grandmaria took a few steps over there. She raised both hands, voice quiet. “I owe you such an apology, Joselyn. For… for the things that–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, shaking her head. “Maria, you don’t owe anything. If I saw what you–if I…” She took a breath before letting it out, clearly trembling just a little despite herself. “I would have said even worse things than I’m sure you did. I would have done worse things.” 

“Oh,” Grandmaria half-drawled with a note of embarrassment, “I don’t know about the first bit. I said some pretty awful things.” A self-deprecating smile found its way to her face before she stepped that way, reaching out to take both of my mother’s hands. Her voice was even quieter, yet stronger. “You did what you had to do to protect your family. I–we could not be more proud of you, dear. And… knowing what we know now, I understand it may feel very silly for someone so much younger than you are to express that sort of sentiment. It may mean very little–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, voice catching a bit. “Believe me, it… it means more than you know.” 

“Joselyn,” Dad spoke a bit tenderly, reaching out that way. He didn’t say anything else, just stood there with his hand stretched toward her. 

Grandmaria, meanwhile, looked back and forth between them before taking my mother’s hand. She squeezed it, offering a faint smile before giving her a tug. And just like that, she pulled Mom over to join the embrace. And now we were finally all right there, hugging one another tightly for the next few moments. There were a lot of things to worry about, of course. But this… this was important. It was worth taking a second to enjoy. 

Soon enough (all too soon, really), we had to separate. There would be more later, but for the moment, there was still too much to do. After all, we were still out here in the middle of nowhere. And there was no telling how long it would be before the Whispers found their way back. We had to get out of here while we had the chance. 

To that end, the others hadn’t just been standing around doing nothing, apparently. Athena had already sent Mercury and Sariel back down to the bridge to get the ship moving again, while Persephone had gone with Cerberus and Apollo to bring the slide-drive back online now that the Whispers were gone and we had control of the ship. 

Of course, there was still one more person who needed a hug. My eyes found him immediately after separating from the others. “Uncle Al,” I found myself murmuring while stepping over that way. 

“Hey there, kid,” he greeted me with a broad smile. “Can I get your autograph?” 

“Only if you give me yours, Uncle Hercules,” I shot right back before embracing him tightly. In this case, I didn’t hold back any strength. He could take it, and a hell of a lot more. 

From there, a whole lot of introductions started to be passed back and forth, and I gave a double-take when they introduced the Native American guy who had been quiet up to this point. “Kutattca? As in–wait.” 

The elderly man gave a simple nod, head bowing. “Yes, actually. My sister is Litonya. If you’d like, I can apologize for her. I have been doing so for quite some time.” 

“Okay…” My mouth opened, before I stopped, realizing I had no idea exactly where to go from there. “I have so many questions. But right now, I’m pretty sure we should focus on getting back to the station so we can meet up with Puriel and those kids again and make sure everyone’s okay.” 

“Yes,” Theia spoke up in agreement. “I would very much like to speak with my father when he is not… distracted. We have a great deal to talk about.” 

“One thing, Felicity,” Athena started, with a slow, deliberate glance my way.

“Are those Elemiah’s rings you have?” 

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At Last 16-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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On the heels of Invidia’s announcement, Athena was already moving. In fact, she had been moving even before the evil creature finished talking, lunging that way with her sword slashing upward. Yet Invidia met the incoming blade with her own, its ghost-like wispy form somehow still blocking the other sword as though totally solid. She gave Athena a smirk, raising both eyebrows before the two began to exchange blows with blinding speed.

In the next instant, the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts fell in on us from all sides. Or, rather, they would have. But I had already snapped both hands up and out, summoning all the power I could to force the Olympian ghosts to stay back. Strong as they were, aided by the Tartarus energy and the fact that they were being controlled by these other creatures, it took absolutely everything I had just to make them stop moving forward. Controlling them or pushing them back was completely out of the question. I stopped them several feet away from us, and that was the extreme limit of my capability. Even that was almost too much, as I could feel them pushing against my control. 

“If one of you guys could do something to stop these fuckers right about now,” I managed through gritted teeth while struggling to maintain any sort of grip, “that’d be super-great!” 

Because it sure didn’t look like Athena was going to be done with Invidia any time soon. Just like her fight with my mother, the pair seemed perfectly matched. I had a feeling that the Whisper possessing Charmeine’s ghost was getting stronger and better with each passing moment, more attuned to working with the ‘body’ she had taken over. Every time she fought with it, she got more capable at using it. Worse, I was pretty sure that whole thing went for all these guys. All the Whispers were controlling incredibly powerful and skilled Olympian Seosten, even if they weren’t bridge crew. The longer this went on, the better they were going to get at actually using those powers and skills. We had to end this before we were totally overwhelmed. 

Oh yeah, and before they managed to take over Puriel and force him to open a portal to unleash a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. That would be nice too. 

To one side, even as I spoke those words about asking someone to do something, Sariel was drawing back her bow. But she wasn’t focused on any of the Whisper-Ghosts who were still trying to lunge at us. Instead, her gaze was on Puriel himself. In that moment, I had the sudden realization of how angry she must still be deep down for everything that had happened to her and her family. Not to mention the simple fact that her missing daughter was trapped inside Puriel himself, and as far as anyone knew, the only way to free her was for Puriel to die. 

“Sariel!” Apollo called, his hand reaching out that way, though he didn’t actually touch her. “If he dies–” 

“I know,” she interrupted, voice flat. “If he dies, they can possess him.” Still, she loosed the arrow anyway. It shot through the air, flying right between two of the Whisper-Ghosts, over the head of one of the cowering children, and struck Puriel right in the–no. At the very last instant, just before the arrow would have gone clean through the thoroughly-distracted man’s throat, it broke apart. The shaft fell away, while the arrowhead exploded into a… a cocoon of glowing reddish energy that surrounded the man. A forcefield. Sariel had put a forcefield around him. 

A sudden rush of motion just as the woman had loosed that arrow made my gaze snap over to where Theia had almost launched herself in the air after the shot. Seeing what happened, the girl froze in mid-motion. From the look on her face, I was pretty sure she was more surprised by her own reaction than she was about what the arrow had actually done. In the instant where she had thought that her father was in danger, she had very nearly thrown herself in the path of the arrow. Sure, her power meant it wouldn’t be a problem, but what she was feeling in that moment had clearly left the girl reeling. 

And speaking of reeling, I couldn’t keep this up. My control over keeping the ghosts away was already starting to falter. Honestly, the fact that I’d kept it up this long against so many of them was almost a miracle. Especially when I didn’t have Tabbris with me to provide any extra boost.  

“Everyone get to Puriel,” Sariel announced firmly while drawing another arrow and giving me a quick, somewhat reassuring glance that said she knew just how close I was to losing it. “There are already Anti-Whisper Runes all along the floor around him, but they’re running out of power. Those things have him too distracted to recharge them. We have to get over there and do it ourselves.” 

She was right, I realized. That was our best shot at stopping these things. If we could recharge the runes to drive the Whispers away from Puriel long enough for the man to catch his breath and orient himself, maybe he could deal with them for good.  

“Flick!” Miranda was right next to me, shield held up protectively. “This feels like a rainy day situation, you know? I think it might be time to use th–” 

She was abruptly cut off. Not by me losing control of the ghosts I had been shoving away from us, but from something reaching up from underneath me. It grabbed my foot, and I barely heard Miranda, Avalon, and my mother all shout my name before I was suddenly yanked down through the floor, a yelp of surprise escaping me. 

At least I wasn’t being physically slammed through solid metal. My body had turned almost ghost-like itself as soon as whatever it was grabbed me. I had no control, however, as I was pulled completely helplessly downward. 

I didn’t just get yanked through one deck either. Three full decks passed me by in a quick blur before I landed hard on the floor of the fourth one. Only then, lying on my back, did I see the glowing tentacle wrapped around my ankle. A tentacle that was attached to the outstretched arm of yet another clearly-possessed Seosten ghost. He wasn’t an especially large man, standing only a few inches taller than me. His skin–or what was supposed to have been his skin if he had been alive, was black, with intensely green eyes and a very aristocratic face. He looked almost more beautiful than handsome. Well, aside from the fact that one of his arms had transformed into a tentacle that had stretched up through four full decks to grab my ankle, turn me intangible, and yank me away from everyone up there who needed me. 

“Okay,” I grunted while jerking my leg free. As soon as I did, my form solidified once more, and I rolled backward to my feet. “I’m getting really sick of you people, and sick of getting dragged away from my family and friends. That’s double-sick, so if I was you, I’d get the fuck out of my way.” 

Unfortunately, the Whisper-Ghost wasn’t impressed by my words. He gave me a simple smirk while transforming the tentacle back into a regular arm, head cocking to the side a little. “You’re the Necromancer,” he drawled. “We have a few things in common, you and my people. We’re all quite good at controlling dead things.” 

“Is this gonna be the ‘join us and rule the universe at our side’ spiel?” I spat back at him. “Because it’s kind of surprising how seldom I’ve gotten that, considering everything I’ve been through.” Even as I said the words, I was calculating the best way to get around him and back to where I needed to be. Was it time to use the–no. No, I could wait for that. I couldn’t use it just to deal with one guy. Not when I still didn’t know for sure just how bad this whole situation was going to get.

So, I instead held my staff out to one side, activating the next ghost-fire spell so I would actually be able to hurt this piece of shit. “If so, save your breath. I’ve got much better options for that if I wanted to rule the universe alongside actual competent megalomaniacs.” 

A deep, rumbling chuckle escaped the ghost figure. “If you are so dismissive and in such a rush, why not force me to move? Surely a strong, capable dead-puppeteer like you could manage such a thing.” His teeth gleamed as he smiled. “After all, it’s just you and me.” 

I wasn’t stupid. This was bad. This whole thing was bad. I had no idea what was going on up there, how the others were doing, if they had managed to save Puriel yet or if he was–well, clearly we weren’t at the place where these guys wanted to open the rift, because the ship was still moving. But we were still on our way there. Dad and Tabbris hadn’t managed to stop the ship. I had to get through this guy and go help the others. And yet, the way he was talking…

Fuck it, I couldn’t wait around and what-if myself all day long. Since he had literally asked for it, I snapped my free hand out, forcing all the strength I could into grabbing control of the ghost the Whisper was possessing. I was throwing everything I had into making damn sure I–wait. 

At the very last possible instant, I realized my mistake. Just as my power was latching onto him, I was already releasing it, spinning around while lashing out with my staff. 

It struck home, slicing right through three different ghosts who had been silently rushing up behind me. They used the fact that the guy in front of me had grabbed my attention, letting him manipulate me into throwing everything I had into grabbing hold of him, which would leave me vulnerable to attack from behind. And it had very nearly worked. It had worked, right up until the last possible instant. 

The good news was that my wild swing caught the ghosts who were right behind me before they could carry out their sneak attack. The bad news was that they weren’t the only ones. I had just enough time to catch a glimpse of something coming toward me from the side, before it smacked into the side of my head with enough force to knock me sidelong so that I stumbled a few steps over to the nearby wall. It made me see stars briefly even without having a nearby viewport. 

Shoving myself away from the wall and spinning back that way, I found myself surrounded on all sides. The guy with the tentacles had been joined by half a dozen friends. All of them spread out, making it clear that they had no intention of allowing me to get past them. 

Then I saw what had hit me that hard. It was… a ball, like one that a kid would play with. Actually, it probably had been played with by a kid before now, one of the Seosten children who were on the ship. But the way it had hit me, the force…

Hula hoops. That was my first impression when I saw the two rings floating in the air a few feet apart. Both black on the side facing me and gold on the side facing away. They really were about the size of hula hoops, hovering roughly midway between me and a Ghost-Whisper who was standing with her hand outstretched. She was fairly tall, just over six feet, and quite thin, with narrow silvery-blue eyes and short dark hair at odds with her pale skin. I was gonna guess that she was the one who had thrown that ball. 

Even as I had that thought, she smirked at me before hurling another ball. It passed through the hoops and–fuck! The moment it passed through the first hoop, the ball’s speed doubled, before doubling a second time as it passed through the second hoop. The ball hit me before I could even hope to dodge it. The best I could do, even seeing her throw it, was twist aside enough that it slammed into my shoulder. 

The hoops flew back through the air to her, as the Whisper-Ghost laughed and caught one on each arm, spinning them. They shrank rapidly, turning into bracelets on each wrist. As they did. she punched the air a few times, her arms moving about twice as fast as they should. 

Right. This… this was gonna be a problem. Maybe I could have done something to these guys, at least enough to shove them aside so I could run past, before exhausting myself upstairs keeping all the others away from everyone. But I didn’t have that in me right now. Not when these ghosts were both powered by Tartarus and possessed by the powerful Whisper creatures. I just couldn’t muster up the strength to shove enough of them aside. Not without taking a break. And there wasn’t time for that. 

“What’s the matter?” the Whisper-Ghost who had dragged me down here in the first place taunted, already transforming his arms back into tentacles. “Feeling a bit weak? Maybe you should take a little nap.” 

“You know,” I retorted, “that’s not a bad idea. Right now, I think we’ll just kick your asses and go upstairs.” 

His eyebrow rose, while the rest of his companions slowly began to move in closer, tightening the noose they believed they had caught me in. But it was the one with the hula hoops-turned-bracelets who spoke. “We? You are alone, child. You do not even have your usual companion riding… what is the term, copilot? Your friends and family are quite occupied, and even she is no longer with you. We all know the truth. You have no one standing behind you.” 

“Behind me?” I took a breath and then shoved everything I could into pushing all the ghosts back away from me. It wasn’t a lot, and it wouldn’t hold them for long. But it gave me the time I needed to speak. “Nah, I’ve got no one behind me. But you guys might want to look behind you.” 

Most of them saw that as a very obvious and pathetic trick. But two turned, looking that way. At first, they saw nothing. Then their eyes found the small metal ball I had summoned to my hand and tossed just before getting punched in the face to knock me over to where I now stood. It was about the size of a baseball, with intricate runes all over it and a single button on top. A single button that Gus, my cyberform mouse, was holding both paws against. As soon as they saw him, he gave a single, defiant squeak, then pushed the button. 

Instantly, the ball blew apart in a blast of blinding energy. When it faded, two figures were standing there. A beautiful white-haired woman with very tanned skin and a deep blue bodysuit, standing next to a three-headed mechanical dog bigger than she was. 

A three-headed mechanical dog whose entire purpose had been to hunt and kill undead things. 

“Cerberus!” Persephone called, voice echoing through the corridor, “ghosthunt!” 

The moment she said that word, each of Cerberus’s three heads rose a bit, showing their teeth as they growled. Blue-white ghostfire played over those teeth. Simultaneously, five holes appeared along each side of the robot dog’s back, allowing ten metal coils to emerge. Each had a small camera and laser cannon attached to it, wildly pointing in every direction as though checking for threats from all sides. 

Ghost-fire filled the air, produced through every metal tooth in all three heads. Nearly two hundred teeth all-told, each a small dagger that was now capable of driving its way into intangible forms. Such as the forms of the seven Whisper-Ghosts arrayed in front of him, as Cerberus glared and growled low. The laser-holding coils, mistaken as snakes millennia ago, turned as one to focus on their targets. 

At the moment they had appeared, as he caught sight of the ghosts in front of them, Cerberus’s brand new addition had started up. It was not a weapon. Not exactly. No, what he’d had added right at the front of his body, where his three heads joined, was a speaker system. A speaker system which had begun to play the opening notes of “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, filling the air as the assortment of Whisper-Ghosts stared in shock and tried to comprehend what had just happened. And in the very moment about thirty seconds in, just before the first word of ‘Jump’ came, Persephone spoke the next command. 

“Sic ‘em, boy.” 

He was on them an instant later, ghost-fire powered teeth tearing through one of the ghosts while a paw slapped at another and actually managed to knock him backwards. At the same time, those laser cannons opened up, driving even more of them in either direction away from him. And into Persephone and me, a fact they realized just as my empowered staff slammed into one, and her ghost-fire covered fist ripped through another. 

Yeah, those guys didn’t stand a chance. Even if they had been able to stand against a giant metal dog specifically built to destroy everything Manakel could have thrown at him, between him, Persephone, and me, they were dead before they knew what hit them. Or redead. Or–they weren’t a problem for the moment. We tore through their ghost forms and scattered them. They tried to reform, but we hit them hard enough to basically turn them into dust. It would take time for the Whispers to regroup and gather that much ghost energy once more. 

Soon, only the hula hoop ghost was left. She was already retreating, but Cerberus got there first, lunging in the way while breathing out a line of ghost-fire that made her recoil. Persephone, in turn, actually grabbed onto her, shoving the intangible figure to her knees while calling to me, “Felicity, picture a hard candy shell around her, squeezing very tight with your gift!” 

Ooookay then. Focusing hard on my Necormancy power, I imagined it creating a… well, hard candy shell around the ghost while she struggled. Honestly, if it wasn’t for both Persephone and Cerberus keeping her there, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on that, given it took several full seconds of concentration where I couldn’t do anything else. I was picturing more of a net, or saran wrap, totally covering the figure from head to toe. As I did, her movements grew slower and more subdued. 

“Now, Felicity, the blade!” Persephone urged. 

So, I drove the blade of my staff right through the motionless ghost form. That time, as I did, she screamed out loud. The Whisper appeared as an air ripple in front of my face before vanishing an instant later. 

Not that I noticed really, because I was too busy doubling over from the rush of… of pleasure that went through me. Pleasure that made me gasp and stumble, eyes widening. “What–what– I just–that just–” 

“It is possible to eliminate the ghosts so that they cannot recover,” Persephone calmly and flatly informed me. “You must simply trap them within a layer of your own ghost energy so that they cannot push their own outside of it. I would not suggest attempting to do so in open combat until you are far more experienced.” 

“I… uh huh…” Breathing hard, I stared at the spot where the ghost had been. Then I looked to one side and focused for a second. Sure enough, those two gold and black hula hoops appeared, hovering in the air. 

“Her name was Elemiah,” Persephone helpfully announced. “Her gift created those two rings, which she could control the size of down to fitting on her wrists and up to about twice what you see. She was able to mentally manipulate them, and anything passing through from the gold side would be doubled in speed for a few seconds, with the effect stacking if both rings were passed through in rapid succession. Anything passing through from the black side would be slowed to half its speed, or stopped briefly if that effect was doubled.” 

Okay… okay that was pretty… A thought made the hoops jump to my wrists before shrinking down to bracelets. Quickly, I punched the air just as the Seosten ghost had. And just like when she had done it, my fist moved about twice as fast as it should have. This I could get used to. 

Except I was going to have to get used to it later, because it was really time to go. Even as that thought occurred to me, I was already pivoting to face the white-haired woman with a blurted, “Nearest elevator! We need to get back to the sealed cargo hold, the one the Seosten don’t let anyone else into!” 

In response, Persephone immediately turned, beginning to move down the corridor. “It is this way, Felicity!” As we ran, with Cerberus bringing up the rear, she added, “I am glad that I was able to assist you, as promised. But I did not see Kushiel there.” 

“Yeah, I guess she’s not involved in this bit,” I murmured. “So keeping you hidden until she showed herself wasn’t really gonna work anymore. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of other Seosten ghosts for you and our friend there to deal with. We have to–” Abruptly, the ship jerked around us, enough to make me stumble. 

“The slide-drive has been de–” Persephone started. 

We did it! That was Tabbris, in my head once more. I could tell she wasn’t actually fully here, just partially recalled. We shut it down! But–but the bad guys are still trying to restart it. We have to drive them off. We can’t leave. I can’t– 

Stay there, I put in. Stay with Dad. We’ll take care of the rest of this. Just make sure they can’t start those engines again. 

That said, I looked back to Persephone and gave her a quick summary of what we were dealing with. “And now we have to get up there and stop them from taking over Puriel, before they open a portal into Tartarus and let out a bunch of monsters to destroy everything in the universe.” 

Giving a short nod, the woman replied, “Andromeda says that if you like, she can transfer herself from the other ship to this one and assist in resisting the Whisper’s control of its systems.” 

I started to nod, before catching myself. “Wait, you’re still in contact with Andromeda?” 

With a bright smile, Persephone confirmed, “Uh huh, our connection is very special. She is still in the other ship, remaining at a distance just as you requested.” 

“In the other ship…” I opened my mouth, then shut it. My eyes widened. “No. Tell her to stay there. Don’t transfer over here. 

“I have a better idea.” 

******

A short time later, the three of us burst through the doors back into the cargo hold I had been so unceremoniously dragged out of. A quick glance around showed that the situation had not exactly improved that much. But by the same token, at least it hadn’t gotten worse. Everyone was still fighting, and the Whispers had not yet taken control of Puriel. I could see where the others had boosted the runes protecting him, yet it wasn’t enough to keep them away for good. It was a delaying action at best. What we really needed to do was bring the man under the protection of Liesje’s spell. That combined with his own strength would probably be enough to keep them out of his head. But we couldn’t do that from here. He had to be back at the Star Station for it. For now, we had to do something to end the stalemate. And I was pretty sure I knew what that something was.

Cerberus was already going to town, clearing a path through the Whisper-Ghosts (and yes, he had started the song once more) as I raced alongside Persephone right back to where everyone had formed a ring around Puriel and the children. Grandmaria and Popser were there too, being protected by Avalon and a couple Mirandas. 

Two of the Whisper-Ghosts tried to move into my path, but I thrust my arms out, willing the two bracelet-sized rings to fly forward and turned so that their gold side was toward me. As soon as they were in position and just large enough, I hurled my staff, blade out. It passed through the two rings, quadrupling in speed so that it cut into the two ghosts before they had any idea what had happened. An instant later, a thought recalled the staff back to my hand. 

Another ghost was trying to come at me from the side as I passed the rings, but I made them grow to their full size and pivot in the air to put the black side toward the intangible figure. He passed through them and froze instantly, the double-black rings halting his movement entirely for a moment.

Between that and my Persephone and Cerberus escort, it was enough to clear my path. “Boost the runes!” I shouted while running up to join the others. The rings had come spinning back, shrinking down once more to take their spots on my wrists.

My reward for the words was a simultaneous look of disbelief from basically everyone there. Theia was the one who found her voice first, speaking plainly. “We have already been taking turns doing so. It has been our entire strate–” 

“No, everyone!” I blurted. “Everyone boost the runes right now with everything you’ve got! Shove the Whispers back as far as we can, just for a few seconds!” I focused on my mother, eyes meeting hers. “Trust me, we only need one quick boost!” 

Mom gave a short nod, turning to look at Athena. “Do what she says.” 

Athena, in turn, spoke up. “Everyone do it. Touch the runes and put everything you have into them, one more time.” 

So, we did. With the Whispers regrouping and coming straight at us, everyone crouched to touch one of the runes. And in that moment, we shoved every bit of energy we could muster, supercharging the spells to fill the room, driving the Whispers backward to the far corners. As expected, it would only last for a few seconds. That was as long as it needed to.

“Felicity,” Mom was saying, “any plan you’ve got, you need to–”

“Everyone get down!” I shouted, grabbing Avalon on one side and the nearest Miranda before hurling us forward and to the floor. Thankfully, the others followed suit immediately, everyone hitting the deck quite literally. 

It was just in time, as something filled the space we had just been in a moment later. Something large, long, and roughly tube-shaped. Like a shuttle. Or like–

“The prototype ship?!” Miranda blurted from behind me as I rolled over to look that way. Sure enough, the ship was right there, its back doors open and facing not us, but Puriel and the children. Because that was the ship I’d asked Andromeda to take and follow us with, just in case.

“Mom!” I shouted, pointing. 

She got the point instantly, trusting her hands outward. An invisible force hit the kids and Puriel, throwing them onto the ship as it perched there. 

“Andromeda, go!” My voice filled the air, even as the Whispers regrouped and began to descend once more, screeching in fury. 

She didn’t have to be told twice. The doors of the prototype ship snapped shut, and with a flash of energy, it was gone. It had jumped not only out of the Olympus, but all the way back to the Star Station. Far from any Whispers. It had worked. Puriel was safe. He was gone. Now there was no way for those fuckers to open the portal to Tartarus. 

Now all we had to do now was find a way to survive their reaction to that fact, and take back the Olympus for good. 

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At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Things were even worse, if that was possible. It turned out there were protection spells that the Whisper-possessed Seosten ghosts had put up around the Slide-Drive core. Which, of course, we didn’t have time to break through so we could disable the jamming. Not with Puriel already about to be taken over by those bastards. Every second we spent down here was too long. 

In the end, we only had one choice. My dad, despite his worry about his parents, agreed to stay behind and use the spells that he knew (and what Apollo and Aletheia showed him) to break through that protection so he could disable the jamming. It wasn’t perfect, but he had Mercury’s power. Which meant he could both speed up his own magic and make the protection spells run through their own duration much faster. He just had to do so carefully to avoid setting off any bad reactions. 

Tabbris was staying with him too. That was harder, but I convinced her that if I couldn’t stay and protect our dad from any of those Whispers that might come back, she needed to. She had her wings and knew all the ghost control magic I did, even if she didn’t have the same Necromancy power. I was trusting her to keep our father safe right now, and once they were done getting through the protections and were able to shut down the jamming, she would be able to recall back to me. 

Obviously, she felt guilty about leaving me ‘on my own,’ but I was able to convince her that it was for the best. We embraced briefly before separating so the rest of us could start running. 

Through my connection to Grover, I was able to describe exactly where Puriel and the others were both in appearance and in relation to our current location. Using that, Apollo and Aletheia figured out that they were in one of the special cargo holds. It was separate from the regular hold, intended to keep sensitive cargo that the Seosten didn’t want just anyone on the ship to have access to. The place was sealed behind high-level protections, which would have been a real problem if we hadn’t run into Aletheia already. Because she had actually been traveling on the Olympus already, and was trusted implicitly by Puriel, the Seosten woman already had access to the place. If it wasn’t for her, we probably would have had to spend way too much time finding a way to get through the security defenses. More time than we had right then, judging from how many of the Whispers I had seen doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head. 

As we raced back through the engine deck toward the elevator, Avalon complained, “This Puriel guy is supposed to be one of the strongest Seosten out there. I believe the exact words were ‘master of all energy, including magic.’ Shouldn’t he be able to wave his hand and blow these things away? It should be him saving us.” 

Aletheia’s voice was flat. “Ever since the… incident with the banishment orb, his mind has not been the same. Between that and the trauma he experienced at the orphanage when the Fomorians attacked, he has moments where he zones out and is incapable of reacting to the outside world. Spark is normally good at pulling him back from those moments, or simply taking over. But it seems that these Whispers are interfering with that.”

I gave a quick nod. “That’s what it looked like to me. I mean, from the outside.” Grimacing a bit, I added, “Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time. Things were looking pretty desperate up there.”

Thankfully, we wouldn’t be alone once we got there. Hopefully, at least. First, Miranda had already jumped back to her original body (it was with Athena and Dare) and was going to give them a detailed explanation straight up. As for the other two groups, I sent several of my ghosts back out to let them know what was going on as well. Between all that, it would hopefully make them meet us on the right deck so we could all do this together. That was the plan, anyway. 

By that point, we had reached the elevator, and I scrambled on before shifting my focus so I could look through Grover’s eyes once more to check what was going on. Things aren’t any better. It looked like Uncle Al, a Native American man, and my grandparents were all surrounding Puriel and the kids, protecting them from the ghosts that the Whispers kept summoning. Worse, I could see Invidia there, already in a duel with Uncle Al. Needless to say, he was holding his own. After all, he was Hercules. 

Even my grandparents were… doing something useful. It looked like Grandpartie was using a console to direct internal security weapons to fire on the ghosts, which were actually doing some damage to them. Probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how much experience Seosten would have with ghosts and other intangible beings, but still. And Grandmaria was… uhh, as best as I could tell at a glance, using magic to create a forcefield to hold the majority of the Whispers and ghosts off. 

I wasn’t sure which was more surprising and impressive to me, my grandfather being able to manipulate the ship controls like that, or my grandmother having a strong enough grasp over magic to create that forcefield. Or–wait, was she using magic or some power? Had she bonded to something? And come to think of it, Popser was barely touching the controls. It was more like his hands were resting on it, fingers twitching now and then. What–

Shaking that off, I focused on what was important right then. Namely, the fact that they were sort of holding off the attack. But still, things weren’t great. More Whispers kept getting through to add to the pile that were doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head, and the man himself still wasn’t moving or reacting to anything. He was just standing there with his head cocked to the side. There was clearly an internal struggle going on, and if we didn’t hurry up and get there, we were going to end up having to fight a Whisper-controlled Puriel. Which basically sounded like the exact opposite of anything approaching a good time. None of us were ready to deal with something like that. Hell, we weren’t enough even if we all joined together. This was Zeus, for fucks sake. We had nothing that could challenge him if he went after us. Especially on his own ship. Between that and all the other Whispers, including the Whisper-Possessed Charmeine, we would be completely fucked, in no uncertain terms.

Instructing Grover to tell my grandparents that we were on the way, I jumped back into my own mind in time to feel the elevator rising. It was going pretty quick too, and I could see Apollo messing with an open computer panel to one side. Apparently he had disabled the safeties or something and sped the thing up. Now we were flying toward the right deck. I just hoped we would make it in time. And, of course, cursed the fact that the Whispers’ jamming included blocking transportation powers. We had to do this whole thing the long way rather than just teleporting up there. Because, of course, this had to be as hard as possible. 

One day for a party to celebrate a victory. That was all I’d asked for. But did we get that? Of course not. And we still didn’t understand why the Whispers were here trying to pilot the ship into Tartarus to begin with. What did they think they could gain from that? Hell, what even were they? There were so many questions around this entire situation, and the only creatures with answers didn’t seem inclined to explain. But hey, maybe we could beat it out of them. 

Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating them in general. It was possible that I was slightly annoyed by this entire situation. Terrified too, of course. But also annoyed. 

The elevator finally stopped at the right deck, and the rest of us exchanged quick glances before stepping off together. The room beyond was shaped like a half-circle, with a line of elevators, including the one we had been on, along the flat line part. To the left and right were corridors, with several open doors along the curve part of the half-circle ahead of us. The main doors, straight across, apparently led to the primary cargo bay. But that wasn’t where we were supposed to go. Our destination lay to the left, down that hall. 

We were cautious, even as we stepped out of the elevator, weapons at the ready considering we had no idea what sort of traps or problems the Whispers might have left to slow us down so they would have time to take over Puriel. There could be anything waiting for us up here. 

And yet, despite having that thought, I still wasn’t prepared for what I immediately saw. Coming off the elevator, my eyes immediately fell on a single, lone figure standing with their back to us, staring through the doorway toward the main cargo hold. They showed no reaction to our arrival, and I took a quick second to size them up. They were solid, not a ghost, and seemed either human or Seosten from this angle. Probably the latter. A man, several inches under six feet, though pretty well-built. His brown hair fell to just above his shoulders, and he wore gray cloth pants and a simple white shirt, his feet bare. 

Even as I took that in, the man turned to look at me. Now I could see his face. He had a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes were a brownish-green. He looked, on paper, like a completely average guy of no particular power or importance. And yet, when I met his gaze, I felt myself shrink back reflexively. A lump had formed in my throat, as an inexplicable sense of danger and power filled me. He had made no threatening move, said no threatening words, had done nothing other than turn to look at me, but I still felt his power like a crushing weight. 

Abruptly, Apollo spoke up. “I’m not picking up any surprises.” He was holding a stone in one hand, enchanted to detect traps. “Doesn’t seem right.” 

“No surprises?” I found myself blurting. “What about–” Then my eyes flicked from Apollo, back to the strangely terrifying man by the cargo bay. But he wasn’t there. In that time, in that brief instant where my eyes had moved off him, he had vanished. “Wha–what?” I stammered, completely thrown off. I shouldn’t have been, given all the incredible powers I had seen. Yet something about that guy, something about… yeah. It threw me off, to say the least.

The others were all looking at me uncertainly, and I raised a hand to point to where the man had been, quickly explaining what I had seen. But none of them had caught a glimpse of the man. Even though he had been standing in plain view as far as I was concerned, they had not seen anything. A quick check with Seth and Rahanvael, each standing beside me, revealed the same answer. I was the only person who had seen him, or sensed anything at all. None of Mom’s powers, and none of Aletheia or Apollo’s magic, had picked up the man’s presence. 

And, come to think of it, I had not sensed him with my item-detection power either. He had definitely been in range of it, but I hadn’t sensed his clothes or anything. He had looked completely solid, but wasn’t detected by anything. Except by my own eyes, and only my eyes. No one else had picked up any sense of him at all. This was… weird. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to make me feel better about the situation we were walking into. 

Mom and the two Seosten spent a tense moment focusing on that spot, but even after I pointed out exactly where the man had been, they couldn’t pick up anything at all. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. Which, again, was more than a little worrying. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to focus on any implications of that. Not with the problems we already had to deal with. We still had to get into the other room before the Whispers got through to Puriel, so any thoughts and worries about the man I had seen were just going to have to wait. All I could really do in that moment was hope that it wasn’t something that would come back and bite us in the ass before we were done with this specific problem. Hell, for all I knew, that figure was working with the Whispers. 

On the plus side, there didn’t seem to be any defenses here blocking our way. Which in and of itself was a bit surprising, but we weren’t going to dwell on that too much either. Especially not when two of the nearby elevators arrived in the next moment, with Larissa, Haiden, and Mercury emerging from one, and Sariel, Theia, and Pace from the other. With their respective Mirandas, of course. The ghosts I had sent to get them rejoined me, fading from view for the moment (though ready to be summoned back as soon as I needed them). 

“You guys okay?” I asked, thoughts of the man I had seen fresh in my mind. Much as I tried to set that aside, I couldn’t entirely dismiss his face. The way he had stared right through me, the power I had felt, it was too much to ignore. 

Theia waved. “We killed ghosts. And fuzzy-ghosts.” 

“Whispers, she means,” Pace put in, voice tense as she glanced around as though expecting to be ambushed at any second. “And we didn’t kill them so much as… make them go away for the moment.” 

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we know where they went to,” Avalon muttered, eyes on the left-hand corridor leading toward the special, extra-secure cargo hold. “They’re throwing everything they have into taking control of Puriel. Or at least turning him against the rest of us. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t fancy our odds if that happens.”

“Which is why we need to get in there right now.” That was Athena, speaking as she and Dare came off another elevator. Her attention was laser-focused ahead, a silvery-gold sword in one hand that was still glowing from ghost-fire. “Worry about specifics later,” she instructed while still walking. “Right now, all that matters is driving these creatures away and giving Puriel time to collect himself.” After a brief verbal pause, she added, “And hope that Lincoln and Tabbris break those protection spells so they can stop this ship before it’s too late to matter.” 

Oh, right, of course. We had that problem to worry about too. Even if we did manage to get the Whispers away from Puriel and the others before they turned him into a monster who would annihilate us all, it would all be for naught if this damn ship managed to take us straight into Tartarus. But, you know, it wasn’t like we were under any pressure or anything. 

Pushing aside those thoughts we started to move, I told Athena and the others what I had seen, and the fact that no one else had sensed anything. She and Sariel exchanged brief glances, before the latter spoke. “When this is over, if it is alright with you, I would like to take a look at that memory and see this man for myself. It would be better than a description.” 

I agreed easily, hoping it would lead to an actual answer. Then I pushed the thought as far from my mind as possible, focusing on the here and now. As we ran, Dare gave me a quick look, silently asking if I was all right. I gave her a thumbs up, but made it waiver a little. Between that and the look on my face, I was pretty sure she understood just how uncertain I was about the whole thing. She, in turn, took a moment to touch my shoulder in mid-run, squeezing it firmly to let me know she was there. Which was nice, but also reminded me yet again that she still couldn’t tell my mother, her own daughter, who she really was and why she cared so much.   

It was just another thing I had to push out of my head so I could focus on the problem at hand. A problem that was right in front of us, as we reached the door leading to the special cargo bay. Aletheia had already input the code, the door sliding open to reveal the same room I had seen through Grover’s eyes. And a situation that had not gotten any better in the time since I had last checked. The kids were still huddled into an even tighter circle, though Spark wasn’t visible. My guess was that she was inside Puriel, trying to keep as much control as possible away from the Whispers, who were basically flooding over his body so much that there were constant distortion waves all around him. The rest of the Whispers, and the ghosts, were being desperately held back by Uncle Al, my grandparents, and that Native American man. But they were, unfortunately, fighting a losing battle, constantly having to pull back closer to the others as the attackers continued to flood into the room. There were so many Whispers. Obviously there weren’t as many ghosts for them to control, given–well, there weren’t an unlimited number of Seosten on the Olympus who had died, even counting ‘ordinary’ crew members. Still, they were all here, and they were making a huge push. Probably because this was as much a do-or-die moment for them as it was for us. 

Seeing us enter, Grandmaria raised a hand, the other held out to reinforce the shield she had erected around them. “Good to see you, kiddo! Wish I had time to have cookies ready.” 

“Later, Maria,” Uncle Al cheerfully replied even as his fist slammed into a ghost. It shouldn’t have done anything, yet the incorporeal figure still blew apart from that single blow. “There’ll be time for cookies once we remind these bastards they’re supposed to stay gone when they die!” 

“Hurtful,” Seth remarked beside me. “But considering the situation, fair.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sariel had taken a step that way, her eyes on the huddled children trying to make themselves even smaller. Specifically, on a small boy who was peeking up to stare right back at her. Omni. He was right there. 

Unfortunately, that single step was as much as she was able to take, before a familiar form coalesced right in front of us. Charmeine. No, Invidia. Her colored-in ghost form appeared, already smirking. “Oh, you people got through those traps even faster than we thought you would. That’s surprising. And annoying. But I think that’s about far enough.” Pausing, her head tilted before she raised both eyebrows. “Ah. It seems my host here has complicated feelings about seeing you, Artemis. How interesting.” 

Traps? What traps was she talking about? There hadn’t been any traps. Huh? A moment of confusion passed through me, as I exchanged a quick glance with the others. They looked just as uncertain. 

Sariel, on the other hand, manifested her bow and drew back an energy arrow before pointing it that way. Her voice was tight. “You and the rest of your kind need to get out of here right now. Why do you even want to take this ship into Tartarus in the first place? What could you possibly hope to get out of that?” 

“A fine question,” Athena put in, stepping beside the other Seosten woman, sword at the ready. 

Invidia, in turn, glanced between them before giving a slow, audible chuckle. “Taking this ship into Tartarus?” She echoed the words as though they were the silliest thing she had ever heard, shaking her head. “Oh dear. I believe you’ve made a very dangerous assumption. We have no intention of taking this ship, or anyone on it, into Tartarus. You see, in moments we will have control of one of the most powerful and instinctive magic users in this entire universe. But even more importantly, he has a direct connection to Tartarus itself. After all, it is the source of his power.

“Once we have him in hand, we will use that power to open the portal into Tartarus. Of that, you are correct. But we will not be going inside. No, quite the opposite. When the portal is open, we will be releasing the creatures which dwell within that universe into this one. Then our people will fulfill our destiny by taking the creatures for our own use. 

“And together, we will erase everything in existence.” 

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At Last 16-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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I really shouldn’t have been surprised at all. We had finally managed to get the anti-possession  spell put in place, so of course something else had to go wrong. So many thoughts about what possibly could have happened to make my grandparents and the others fail to respond to messages even though the Olympus was here, let alone what could be blocking my father from recalling to Grandmaria, kept filling my mind. I couldn’t stop imagining all the possible terrible things that could be going on over there. Sometimes, my imagination was the worst. Especially when it had so many real-life examples to pull from. 

The ‘we’ that were going over there included my parents, Dare, Sariel, Apollo, Athena, Mercury, Larissa, Haiden, Theia, Pace, Avalon, Miranda, and me. With Tabbris, of course, though she would be inside me. Which was a fair number of people. But then, it was also a fairly large ship. Not the biggest out there, of course. Nowhere near. But still a bit too big to easily explore with only a few people. Besides, we had no idea what would be waiting for us over there, or how quickly we needed to find Puriel and the others. We would be splitting up to look around, each group keeping one of the actual Olympian Seosten so they could help us find our way through the, again, pretty large ship.  

Mom had wanted my father to stay back here on the station until we established that it was safe on that ship, but he was having none of it. Not this time, anyway. They were both incredibly stubborn, and he had the edge given his parents were involved. In the end, she finally agreed as long as he promised to be careful and stay with her. And all of us had to carry emergency teleport things that would bring us back here if things went wrong. Somehow, I restrained myself from asking what would happen if the thing that was blocking recall and stopping Puriel from communicating also affected those emergency teleports. I had the feeling that a question like that wouldn’t help matters, relevant as it might have been. 

Athena was going over last minute instructions about how to activate the extra emergency beacons that would draw the others to our locations if we needed them quickly. Along with a few words about how stupid it would be to try to handle anything we saw without calling for help. She made us all promise to call for assistance the second we saw absolutely anything out of the ordinary. This, as she put it, was not the time to try to solve anything on our own. 

“Apollo,” she added pointedly with a look that way, “You’re absolutely sure that none of your… friends have said anything about this?” She was referring, of course, to the myriad future-seers, fortune tellers, and the like who owed various favors and help to the man. He had used their assistance many times in the past, including directing Haiden to Sariel in the first place. Yeah, apparently that had been a whole conversation. I wasn’t privy to the exact details, but it had obviously all worked out. Especially considering just what Haiden meeting Sariel had led to. 

In this case, the man gave a quick shake of his head. “Sorry, I’ve got nothing from anyone. Could be because it’s not that important, or because it’s being blocked, or they just missed it. Or… the list goes on.” With a slight grimace, he quietly added, “That’s really the problem with relying too much on people to tell you the future. When they don’t, it leaves you feeling half-blind. And they’re never perfectly accurate or detailed anyway. It’s an aid, a bit of help now and then, not something to base too many decisions on.” 

“Fair enough,” Athena murmured before focusing on the rest of us. “With that in mind, let’s get over there before something else goes wrong. I don’t want to pull too many people away from the celebration until we know exactly what’s going on. If this is something we can handle, we will. If not… well, we will cross that bridge if we come to it, as I believe the saying goes.”

“Perhaps my mother has found the ship first,” Theia mused thoughtfully. “I am not aware of any skill she might have in stopping my father from communicating, or blocking recall from this close. But then, I was also not aware that she had the skill to come back from the dead and turn herself into a super-ghost. So, perhaps she has other surprises as well.” 

Before anyone else could respond to that, Pace put her hand on the other girl’s shoulder, voice flat. “Whether it’s your mom or anyone else, we’ll deal with it. And if it is her, we’ll deal with it extra-hard.” 

Clearing her throat, Sariel spoke up. “Yes, well, in case it is her, everyone take these.” She extended an open wooden box full of pieces of wood about the size and shape of a pencil, with intricate runes carved into them. “If you see Kushiel, or any ghost, snap the wood. That will release a containment field that… well, should trap the nearest ghost. In Kushiel’s case, it might simply slow her down. Either way, snap the wood and then call for help. Or do both at the same time.” 

“She means everyone snap your wood and call for help,” Mercury put in. “If you see Kushiel, don’t just assume someone else will deal with her. The more of these things she gets hit with, the better off you’ll be. Which isn’t saying much, given how bad being around her is. But still.” 

“Mercury is correct,” Athena agreed. “The more of these spells she, or any other ghosts, have to work their way through, the better off we are all likely to be. Focusing my way, she added, “And I shouldn’t have to add this, but those of you who are skilled in Necromancy–” 

“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “I’ll snap the stick just like everyone else. Trust me, I already saw just how strong she is when I tried to stop her last time. And she’ll be more ready for Tabbris to boost me now. Doesn’t mean I won’t try. Every little bit helps. But I won’t rely on it.” 

Mom nodded, her hand reaching out to gently squeeze mine. “You know to be careful. Not only when it comes to Kushiel, but anything we might find over there. Whatever it is, we’re all better off handling it together.” 

With that, they triggered the portal. Sariel and Mercury had done most of the work with that, judging exactly where the Olympus was, how much it was drifting, and comparing that to their own memories of the ship’s interior. Assuming their calculations were right, the portal would lead us to the bridge of the ship. It felt like the best place to start. If we were incredibly lucky, we would find everyone right there and having this whole group ready to search would end up being pointless. I didn’t expect that, of course. Again, I had seen too much to be that naive. But still, it was nice to dream sometimes. And that was certainly one thing I’d love to be wrong about. 

In my head, Tabbris spoke up. We’re gonna see Mama’s ship! Belatedly, she added with a sense of guilt. I mean, I’m sure your grandparents are okay. And my new brother and sister! She added the last bit with a tone that made it clear she was still surprised by that thought. We’re gonna find them! 

Your grandparents too, I reminded her. And it’s okay to be excited about seeing the ship your Mom was on for so long. You’ve been waiting a long time for this. I’m sure she told you all sorts of stories. 

There was a brief, yet firm mental hug from my little sister before she spoke again. And when we find… Grandmaria and Grandpartie, they can tell us stories about their trip. So can Spark and Omni. They’ll tell us all sorts of stories. After a brief pause, she added hesitantly, Do you really think they’re okay?

That was the real truth, I realized. She was trying to focus more on being excited about visiting the ship, even though doing so made her feel guilty, because otherwise she would be obsessing over worrying about her new siblings, grandparents, and the others. And yet doing so made her feel guilty about not worrying about them. She was stuck in a loop like that. 

We’ll find them, I assured her. They have Puriel with them, remember? I mean, I know we both basically always saw him as a giant asshole in all the stories, but he’s… uhh, better now? Whatever, he likes them, right? So he’ll definitely be protecting them. And whatever’s going on, I doubt it can hurt Puriel before we get there. Don’t worry, it… it’s gonna be okay. Of course, I didn’t know that for sure, but I needed to say it about as much as Tabbris needed to hear it. 

We all passed through the portal a couple at a time, and I found myself feeling like I had walked into Star Trek even more than I already had, given the fact that we lived on a literal space station and I had visited multiple other worlds. Looking around this fancy bridge, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Data, Picard, or Sisko standing at one of the stations. 

But, there was no sign of Star Trek characters. Worse, there was no sign of anyone else either. My brief hope that we would find my grandparents and the others waiting for us was immediately dashed. Again, it wasn’t surprising at all, but I still gave a very soft sigh.

Beside me, Avalon took my hand and whispered, “I know, I was hoping they’d be here too.” She gave me a brief, understanding look and I felt a little bit better. At least whatever we were going to have to deal with here, I would have Avalon with me. Not to mention both of my parents. Having Dad with me through all this made me feel a little funny. But he deserved to be here as much as anyone. They were his parents, after all. 

Even as I was coming to terms with the fact that this mission wasn’t going to be incredibly easy after all, Mercury was already starting over to one of the consoles. He moved his hands quickly over the holographic controls for a few seconds before pivoting to look toward Athena, who was watching him expectantly. “Looks like the system is locked down. I can get into it so we can access the records and ship controls, but it’s going to take a little while.” 

After considering that briefly, the woman gave a short nod. “Stay here and work on that. Haiden, Larissa?” 

“We’ll cover him,” Larissa agreed. She and Haiden both moved to either side of the main doors leading out to the rest of the ship, taking up position to wait in case anyone who wasn’t one of us came through.

“There are three lifts just beyond the door, down that corridor,” Athena informed the rest of us. Well, those of us who hadn’t already spent many years on this ship. “The first two go through the rest of the Olympus. The last one goes up to bridge officer quarters. Apollo, take Joselyn, Lincoln, Avalon, and Felicity on the first lift and head for the engine compartment, then work your way around to the cafeteria. Sariel, take Theia and Pace on the second lift to the main crew quarters, work your way through those to the botanical gardens and then down to meet the others in the cafeteria to compare notes. Virginia and I will check the officer’s quarters with the third lift.” Finally, she looked to the last remaining person there. “And Miranda…”  

“Yup!” Miranda chirped understandingly before abruptly creating a couple duplicates. “I get it. Technically, I can stay with every group.”

One of the new Mirandas nodded. “And if something happens with one of the other groups, we can give a little tug and jump over to the original to let her know.” 

“Good,” Athena confirmed. “It’s always best to have multiple backup systems just in case something goes wrong.” Giving the group a brief once-over, she grimaced slightly. “I’m sorry, we really should have more people to search a ship this size. I am… hoping this is something we can solve ourselves. But if not, consider this a scouting mission. Remember, the moment you see anything out of the ordinary, contact everyone else. And if you need to retreat, do it. We need information, not martyrs. We find out what has been happening over here, and then decide how to handle it. Do not split up into smaller groups than this. I do not care what your reasoning is. All of you stay together, no matter what.” 

Only after getting an audible agreement from everyone did Athena gesture and urge us to move through the door. Sariel went first, with Apollo just behind her. The rest of us followed suit, as I felt Tabbris mentally school herself to calm down and focus on why we were here. Again, I couldn’t blame her for being excited. Hell, I was still excited about being on the actual literal Olympus. Seriously, there was of course that worry about my grandparents and the others. But still. I just had to promise myself that I would be giddy about actually being here later, once we knew for certain that everyone was safe. When that happened, I was going to come back here with Tabbris and get someone from this ship to give us a full guided tour. Hell, maybe Puriel himself would do it, if he was all… nicer and all now. 

Okay, maybe not him. I still wasn’t sure how that whole situation was going to go. But someone. 

The room beyond the bridge was shaped a bit like a triangle with the top cut off. The door we had come through was around the middle of the left side of the triangle. To our right, where the ‘bottom/wider’ part of the triangle was, two elevator doors were roughly equal distance apart. Those were clearly the ones that went to the rest of the ship. Meanwhile, to the left, at the cut-off ‘top’ part of the triangle, was a single elevator door with an obvious security panel next to it. That, I was willing to bet, was the one that led to the officers quarters. I also saw a door straight ahead which Athena walked straight to and opened by putting her hand against a glowing button there. Beyond was what looked like a conference room. Probably where the officers met to discuss plans or briefings or whatever. Either way, there didn’t appear to be anyone or anything inside, judging by the way Athena glanced in and then turned away with a shake of her head. “Let’s keep moving.” 

So, we split up as planned. I went with Avalon, my parents, and one of the Mirandas and followed Apollo to the first elevator, where we crowded onto it and headed down. From what I understood, the bridge area was around the center of the main orb of the ship, while the engine compartments were right near the bottom, and the main crew quarters, where Sariel’s group was going, were near the top. Using Athena’s instructions, our two groups were basically going to hit the top and bottom of the main orb, then work our way around and inward to meet on this same deck where we were starting, but over where the main cafeteria was. On the other hand, she made it sound simple, but the Olympus was pretty big. Five hundred meters in diameter, just counting the main, central body. One thousand, six hundred and forty feet. Meanwhile, the longest aircraft carriers in the Bystander world were just under one thousand one hundred feet. Not to mention the fact that this was an orb, so it was as long from top to bottom as it was from one side to the other. One thousand, six hundred and forty feet tall. I’d looked it up before, and the Empire State Building was one thousand two hundred and fifty feet from ground to roof. Three hundred and eighty meters versus the Olympus’s five hundred. We were basically looking through something that was as tall as the Empire State Building, and as wide as that laying on its side. And then some. It was an orb so that size shrank the further out you went, to an extent. Still, it was very large. 

Too large for just a few people to search. And that was before we even added in searching the attached gunships. Each of those was several hundred meters long by themselves. If we had to start searching them, this was going to be an even bigger project. 

But before we started worrying about that, we had to focus on this search. As we waited for the elevator to take us down to the engines, I looked over at Apollo. “So, how weird does this feel?” 

He offered me a rueful smile before nodding once. “Definitely feels weird, I’ll tell you that much. It’s ahh, been a long time since I was here. But the place doesn’t look like it’s changed at all.” Pausing, he nodded toward the wall opposite me. “That’s pretty new though.” 

Turning, I squinted at a mark that seemed to be etched into the metal. No, not a mark. Letters. A & M. A and M. Arthur and Maria. Seeing that, I smiled and reached out to tug Dad’s arm so he would look at it. Of course, he realized what it meant immediately, reaching out to touch the etching with a soft gasp. Both of us exchanged knowing looks. My grandfather had etched that there. He’d left his mark on the Olympus, just like carving their initials into a tree. Somehow, knowing my grandfather the way that I did, that didn’t surprise me at all. God, I hoped he was okay. 

We’ll find them, Tabbris quickly assured me. They’ll be alright. We just have to figure out where they are and… and then take them back to the party. They’re just making a dramatic entrance, right? 

As I gave her a firm mental agreement, Miranda spoke up. “It’s them, isn’t it?” She was pointing to the initials, squinting uncertainly. “It must be, cuz I’m pretty sure it’s not talking about the university from Texas.” 

Chuckling despite myself, I opened my mouth to reply. Before I could, however, the elevator stopped, doors sliding open to reveal a pristine white corridor that looped out toward the left before reaching a T-junction, with several doors along either side along the way. A steady humming sound could be heard, just barely audible. This was the main engine floor, and each of those doors led to a different section of them. If I understood things right, the engines themselves ran throughout this entire floor, while the corridor and attached doors led to the specific parts that people would need to get to for maintenance, repair, and such. You had to find the right door to get to the right area of the engine you wanted to work on, because trying to crawl, climb, hop, and whatever else your way through the actual engine itself to find your area would be incredibly dangerous and time consuming. You followed the guide in moving through the maze of corridors to the right door. Or, if you were a Seosten who was supposed to be there, you simply followed your own perfect memory. 

Mom stepped out of the elevator first, already drawing Mordred’s sword. She was supposed to be using it for awhile until it, like, acclimated to her or something so it would show us where Mordred’s body was. I wasn’t exactly sure how that worked, but they insisted it was right, so we were going with it. Mom just had to use the sword until something happened, I supposed. 

“Check every door,” Apollo was saying. “On both sides of the corridor. We’ll walk the main route, opening doors as we go and looking in to see if anything looks out of place. You should be able to see the whole space you need to check from the doorway without going inside. And trust me, if you don’t want to end up getting lost for days in there, do not leave the doorway. You may think you’re only going a few feet, but it’s really easy to get turned around and completely lost. Just open the door, look inside, then move on. If there’s something wrong, you’ll see it.” 

My mouth opened to agree, just as that steady humming we had been hearing abruptly grew louder. The floor vibrated a bit under our feet, and I heard a high-pitched whine from down the corridor, somewhere else in the engine floor. 

“Uh, what just happened?” Miranda demanded.

Avalon nodded, looking around quickly. “Yeah, what the hell is going on? That doesn’t seem normal.”

“Oh, it’s normal,” Apollo flatly replied. “At least, it’s normal if the ship you’re on has just activated its slide-drive.” 

“Wait,” Dad put in. “Are you saying–” 

Apollo gave a short nod, his face grim. “I’m saying, this ship is moving. 

“And I’m pretty sure none of us are in control.” 

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At Last 16-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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And celebrate we did. Throughout the entire rest of the day and far into the night, actually. The party spread over the entire station as we all moved from room to room pretty much randomly. There were even portals set up in very safe areas of each main camp (the station, Wonderland, the Garden rebels, etc) so that people could intermingle as much as they wanted. There were various concerts and games going on, impromptu contests of various types, and more. Hell, all my ghosts back in the Haunted Mansion were having a party of their own to celebrate the whole thing. They had signs set up outside directing people to come in and hang out with them, and the last I had seen, plenty were taking them up on that. Seriously, everyone was clearly using this as an excuse to let off a lot of tension and fully embrace letting loose. It was wild, chaotic, and totally amazing. 

It was yet another chance for me to be grateful for the level of stamina that I had, because it meant that I could keep going and see as much as possible long after many others had tapped out. Not that they were out for long. Many of them simply took a little nap for a couple hours here or there before jumping right back into it. But I saw basically everything. I made my way through all the rooms and camps, interacted with everyone, and just… really enjoyed myself. 

At the moment, I was on my way down the corridor to find the portal that would lead me to the Eden’s Garden motel. Or at least, the main one they had taken over. There were some people down there I wanted to talk to. It was almost three in the morning, but that didn’t matter at all. Given the way this party was going on, I was starting to doubt that it would die down entirely anytime throughout the rest of the day. Especially considering it was now officially Christmas Eve. Yeah, something told me people would be taking breaks now and then, but this whole celebration was just going to keep going, at one level or another, for quite a while longer. Which was understandable, considering how long most of these people had been living under the threat of having themselves or their loved ones enslaved by the Seosten. Literally for their entire lives, actually. No matter how long they had lived. Now they could be assured that they were safe from at least the whole being possessed part. Their choices would stay their own. Of course, whether we avoided outright physical war with the Seosten or not remained to be seen. But whatever came of that, at least we had this. They couldn’t take over our bodies and turn us against our loved ones. And that was well-worth spending all of Christmas Eve celebrating. 

Before I could get to the room where the portal was, a different familiar figure came into view from the opposite end of the corridor. Pausing as I saw him, I raised my hand. “Dries?” 

It was him, though the man looked quite a bit different than he had when I first met him the year before. He was still blond, but his hair had been straightened up. Still long, yet more evenly trimmed. As was his beard. He also wasn’t so bone-thin that it looked like he would snap apart in a stiff breeze anymore. He had filled out somewhat, and no longer wore ancient rags. He actually looked healthy after all this time. Though I was pretty sure it would take much longer for the haunted expression to leave his face, if it ever did. 

Seeing me when I called out, the man paused before offering me a tentative smile. He still didn’t really do well with crowds, but he could handle one-on-one conversations okay enough. Especially with people he actually knew. And I had spent time with him over the summer alongside Avalon as she got to know her ancestor a little better. 

“Felicity,” he greeted me in a slightly rattly voice that made me feel like he had a lot of emotions running through him. “Ah-are you well?” He didn’t stutter as much as he had back when we had first met, but that was something else that I was pretty sure would be a thing for a long time coming.  

My head bobbed a little. “I’m great. This whole thing is great. But, um, are you okay? I guess I just thought you would have gone back to your room right now. All these people are… a lot to deal with.” 

Giving a quick glance around as though making sure that a large crowd hadn’t snuck up on him from behind, the man quietly replied, “It is a… lot to duh-deal with. But I’m very glad that people are… ahh, are happy. It mah-makes it easier to handle. Harder when they are angry or upset. Sometimes it’s still pretty hard even if they’re ahh, happy. It’s a… a lot of emotion. A lot of noise. It’s a lot of everything. But I ahh, I cah-can handle it. I want to. I want to see this. It’s–it’s important.” 

Of course it was. This would mean even more to him, after all that he and his family had been through, than it did to most. I could hardly blame him for wanting to push himself past his comfort level to experience everyone celebrating the spell that was only possible because of him and his wife. I really couldn’t imagine the things that had to be going through his mind. 

“Liesje would’ve been proud of you, and of Avalon. Of her whole family,” I finally managed. Part of me wanted to embrace the man, yet I knew that was pushing things too far. He may have improved over these intervening months, but still. Just being out here like this and staying on the fringes of all the celebration was probably about as much as he could handle. 

So, I didn’t touch him. Instead, I simply gave the man a smile before adding, “And I know Avalon’s proud to have you as an ancestor. Getting to know you, it’s been one of her favorite things about all these months. She never really thought she’d get to know anything about her family. And uhh, now she does. Thanks to you.” 

I could see the slight blush, slightly hidden by the man’s neatly-trimmed beard, as he cleared his throat and clearly fought to find the right words. “I ahh, well, I’m glad to know her as well. I ahh, yes. It has been…” He blinked rapidly, clearly pushing back tears. “It has been a very lah-long road to get here. But I am glad for the ahh, the destination.” 

“And we’re all glad you made it here,” I quietly assured him. “This whole victory, it’s yours.” 

“It is Liesje’s,” he corrected me, biting his lip hard as a flood of emotion ran through his eyes before straightening somewhat. “It’s everyone’s. Ev–even them. Even the Say–Seosten.” I could see how hard it was for him to say that. “Many–many of them won’t think so. But it is good for them. It will force them to… to do something new, to try something else.” 

Slowly nodding, I replied, “I’m pretty sure the definition of insanity isn’t really doing the same thing and expecting different results like people say, but still, doing it for a few hundred thousand years does seem pretty… excessive. They’ve been stuck in their ways. And, you know, afraid that if they do try something totally new, it’ll backfire. Their way hasn’t won the war against the Fomorians, but it hasn’t lost it either. And when you’re dealing with monsters like that, you probably get pretty afraid of what’ll happen if you change the wrong thing and start losing instead of just tying.” 

We talked a bit more for a couple minutes, but I didn’t want to push him too hard. This whole situation was already a lot. So, eventually, I promised I would see him later and gave him directions for where I had last seen Avalon. Then I headed for the Eden’s Garden portal once more. 

There were even people celebrating inside the portal room. Granted, there were also heavily armed and prepared guards, just in case the wrong person happened to somehow make it through the heavily armed and prepared guards on the other side of the portal. But there were also tables laden down with food, and music played, albeit at a lower level than in most of the other rooms. It looked as though some of the people here had come to join one of the celebrations on the station, and then just ended up setting up right where they had arrived. Or maybe it was from people heading out of the station to somewhere else. Either way, the guards weren’t being left out. And I was pretty sure the same could be said of all the other portal rooms too. Some part of me worried about what would happen if someone did manage to attack while everyone was celebrating like this, but then I reminded myself that having more people in the room was technically better defense, not worse. At least, when so many of those people were as dangerous as everyone here could be. And had magic to immediately sober up if it came down to it. 

Yeah, anyone stupid enough to mount an assault with everyone up and aware like this would undoubtedly come to regret it. But it would still sour the mood, so I silently hoped nothing bad happened. After everything that people had been through, we deserved this party, damn it.

Some of the people in here I recognized, many I didn’t. Regardless, most of them came up to say something to me, either because of who my mother was, or because of who Avalon was. Or because they wanted to pat me on the back over Fossor finally being dead. Basically, there were a lot of reasons they wanted to talk to me. Which, honestly, was still a bit overwhelming.  But I rolled with it as much as I could and chatted for a few minutes. They told me some stories and jokes, not all of which I actually understood given how drunk some of them were, but I still laughed right along with them. 

Eventually, I excused myself from them as well, and made my way to the portal itself. After clarifying that this was the right one, I passed through it. As stable as the portal was, and as expertly as it had been created, I barely felt any twisting of my stomach. It was hardly worse than basically stepping down two stairs at once. One moment I was on the station, and in the next, I was standing in the back lot behind the motel that the Eden’s Garden people had taken over. 

Yeah, there was a party going on here too. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure that the whole party was really on both sides of the portal at once. People were just sort of willy-nilly moving back and forth. There was a table here with drinks on it that hadn’t been back in the other room on the station, even though I keenly remembered seeing drinks in people’s hands back there. The magic and wonder of having stable portals. Maybe allowing people to pick up drinks on Earth, take two steps and then enjoy that drink on a space station inside the sun wasn’t the most amazing use of transportation magic, but it was still pretty damn nifty. 

Just like a moment ago up on the station, people around here wanted to talk to me too. Again, I lingered and chatted as much as I could before excusing myself and heading off toward the main building. It was already late enough that I didn’t know if everyone I wanted to talk to down here would still be awake anyway, and I didn’t want to push it even more. 

To that end, I started with the room where Dakota had been staying while she helped work on the vines. Hesitating just long enough to make sure I could hear sound coming from in the room, I knocked and then stepped back a bit. 

There was a pause before the door opened and I saw the girl herself. She was just as small and frail-looking as I remembered her, with pale skin and black hair. She looked like Sharon/Alessa from that old Silent Hill movie. Except now she had a band of flowers in her hair, and vines (the smaller, normal kind rather than the giant ones related to the Eden’s Garden tree) wrapped around one of her arms. Just over her shoulder, I could see that the room was completely full of plants of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. It sure seemed like the girl had embraced her connection to them, despite what had happened with Kwur. 

“Uh, Flick?” She blinked at me. “Sorry, if you’re looking for Asenath, she was only here for a few minutes.” 

“Yeah!” Bobbi, popping up behind her, chirped. “She wanted to go make sure Seth’s ghost isn’t terrorizing people that go over to visit the Haunted Mansion too much. Or just harass him.” She offered me a small smile. “I think she missed him a lot.” 

“I think she did too,” I agreed before adding, “Did she have Denny with her?” 

“I’m here,” came a response from further in the room. The other two stepped aside, and I saw Denny herself, sitting in a chair in the corner with her legs drawn to her chest. There was a table next to her with several plates of half-finished pizza, and some sort of board game they had been playing together. 

“Oh, hey, Denny.” After taking a second to make sure I wasn’t intruding too much, I took a step into the room. There was actually grass on the floor instead of carpet, which was kind of neat. Moving over to where the other girl was sitting, I asked, “I–I’m really sorry to bring it up. Especially right now. But, have the dreams gotten worse?” 

She didn’t answer for a moment, staring down at the table. Finally, she looked up at me and swallowed. “It’s not just nightdreams. It’s daydreams too. The things he wants me to do, I mean.” She gave a little shudder before focusing once more. “Knowing the truth about what’s going on and who he is, it kind of helps a little bit. At least I know I’m not crazy. But he still wants me to do bad things, and it’s… my… my mom and dad.” Her eyes closed tightly and she hugged herself tighter, then looked back at me. “I miss my mom and dad. And–and I think his memories or whatever are using that to make me even more angry.” 

Wincing a little, I pulled a chair around to sit next to her. “I kind of thought that might happen. So I asked Sariel and she gave me these.” Reaching into my pocket, I produced a bottle of what looked like ordinary little white pills. “They’re a mix of medicine and enchantment, sort of like the Bystander Effect-breaking pills. She says if you take one of these before you go to bed, it’ll help you sleep and make sure you don’t have any bad dreams. It should keep Ammon’s thoughts away from you so you can actually rest.”

Taking the bottle, Denny thanked me quietly before clutching it in both hands. Even though she had supposedly been sleeping most of the day before, it didn’t seem like it had been a very restful sleep. She desperately needed a break from the… voice in her head. 

“I’m sorry, Denny,” I whispered, not trusting my own voice not to crack. “I’m so sorry we didn’t–that we weren’t–” Sighing, I shook my head. “I’m sorry. You keep getting hurt and it’s not your fault.” 

“I didn’t give her the sword,” the girl reminded me. “She said she was going to hurt other people, that she would kill people if I didn’t give it to her. But I still didn’t. And… and it’s worse.” 

Frowning a bit at that, I tentatively reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. “What do you mean, it’s worse? What’s worse?” 

“Me,” she replied in a hoarse voice. “I’m worse. I’m–I let my mom and dad die.”

“What?” My head shook. “Denny, you didn’t let them die. You didn’t–” 

She interrupted before I could continue. “You don’t understand. I mean, if I knew what–if I knew–if–” She stopped talking, clamping her mouth shut while a full shudder ran through her. 

Dakota stepped over to join us, her voice quiet. “She means if she knew that not giving Kushiel  the sword would mean her parents died, she still wouldn’t give it to her.” 

There was something in the girl’s voice that made me glance that way, realizing just how hard this had to be for her as well. After all, Kwur had forced her to help kill her own family. This whole thing had to be bringing up incredibly painful memories for her. 

Denny’s head was nodding quickly. She met my gaze, clearly holding back tears. “I would. I know… I know the bad things that Kushiel would do if she had the sword. I mean, I don’t know exactly what they are, but… but I know they’d be really bad.” Those tears forced their way out. “So even if I knew–even if I knew she would have killed my mom and dad, I wouldn’t–I wouldn’t give it to her.” 

Reaching out, I pulled the girl by the arm and lifted her into my lap before embracing her. I didn’t tell her that it was the right choice. I didn’t put any judgment on it at all. Because it wasn’t my place to do that, and my opinion was beside the point. She already knew she had made the right choice, and that not giving Kushiel the sword would always be the right choice. 

Instead, I held her close and rocked back and forth a little, letting the girl rest her head against my shoulder as she cried for the next several minutes. Letting her get those emotions out without trying to tell her which ones were right or wrong, or define anything for her, felt like the right thing to do. 

Finally, Denny straightened a bit. She looked a little sheepish, but shook that off before focusing on me. “Flick, could you… play the game with us for a little bit?” 

I nodded immediately. “Sure, I’ve got nothing but time. After all, it’s not like it’s a school night.” 

So, for the next hour or so, I sat with them and played the board game. We could all hear the parties going on outside, especially when the people shot off fireworks, which happened more than once. But we ignored all that, and I simply sat in that room with Bobbi, Dakota, and Denny, and played the game until all of them were so tired they were practically falling asleep in their chairs. With just a little bit of prompting, I got them to go to bed (all three of them were sharing one that night), shut out the lights (except for the one in the bathroom, which Denny requested be left on after gulping down one of those sleeping pills), then stepped outside and closed the door to the room behind me. 

I was planning on heading over to see Seller next. But before I could move away from the door, I felt the familiar touch of Tabbris poking me through our connection. Flick, uh, they need you right now back on the station. Your mom and some others. Can you get Theia while you’re down there too? 

A rush of confusion went through me. Why did they need–what was wrong with–no. I pushed away those thoughts and promised to be right there. Then I took a quick loop around the motel until I located Theia and Pace. The latter came along as well, as we headed back through the portal and followed Tabbris’s directions to where we were supposed to go. 

It was a relatively small office area. As promised, Mom was in there, along with my father, Athena, Dare, Apollo, Sariel, and Mercury. Seeing all of them, I immediately asked, “Is something wrong with the–” 

“The spell is fine,” Athena assured me. “It is working as intended and expected. No… the situation we have right now is that.” She pointed to a nearby wall, where I saw a holo-image of a ship in space. A familiar ship, given the pictures I had been shown. It was a large orb as a core, partially-encased by three elongated gunships attached to it. 

“The Olympus?” I blurted. “It’s here? Wait, it’s here?” 

“Close,” Apollo explained. “Close enough for communications. But… we haven’t had any of those.” 

“It’s drifting,” Mom informed me, her eyes on the ship. “There’s been no response to any attempts to contact them, and the ship itself just… stopped all their engines.” 

“Dad? Why don’t you just… borrow some Seosten powers, then hop over to Grandmaria and see what’s going on?” 

His head shook without looking away from the ship where his parents were. “I tried that. I can… feel her. I know she’s alive and all. But I can’t reach her. It feels like something’s blocking it.” 

My eyes widened. “What–how is that possible? I mean–sure anything’s possible, but… but why–what’s going on?” 

“I don’t know,” Mom murmured. 

“But we’re going to go over there and find out.” 

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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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