Athena

Denouement 10 – Blood And Truth (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know you murdered him.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He died ashamed of you.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Run.” 

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

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

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

“Shall we finish getting you out of here?”

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Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Denouement 4 – Chicanery (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This isn’t over yet.”

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer Epilogue 1B (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you all leave,” Larissa added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe your ride is waiting.”

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Summer Epilogue 1A (Heretical Edge)

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They came in force. Three ships, each capable of carrying a hundred troops and their assorted weaponry, along with a dozen armored vehicles, all full to the brim, landed in an almost entirely empty field in the middle of Wyoming.

It was fitting that it was Wyoming, of course. Fitting that this meeting take place near the home of the girl who had helped contribute so much to this moment. Even if she was nowhere near this meeting, it helped contribute to the feeling that she was connected to it in some way.

Each ship was shaped like a letter D, the cockpit near the top or front where the curved and straight parts met. In normal flight, the ship flew like that, while in battle it would turn, the cockpit rotating to face the same direction as the flat side where dozens of cannons and launchers would emerge to create a weapons platform.

As the trio of ships landed equidistant apart, twin gang planks at both ends of each ship lowered and troops began to disembark quickly. They were followed by the tanks, all of them spreading out to take up a perimeter.

They did this in full view of their welcoming committee, which consisted of ten of the most dangerous beings to the Seosten Empire currently on Earth: Apollo, Sariel, Athena, Larees, Gabriel Prosser, Virginia Dare, Risa Kohaku, Haiden Moon, Larissa Mason, and the ‘Lie’ known to those here as Theia. Ten people who, though wildly varying in power, had managed to strike or contribute to very telling blows.

The offer that Apollo and Sariel had first extended to the Seosten Empire had been accepted, and the two groups had agreed to meet here this day. With a bit of an amendment, in that the promise to leave Sariel and Apollo’s family alone would be tied to the agreement to also leave Earth in peace for one year without bringing forces to take control of the planet by force. Both promises would be tied to the same binding magical contract.

Watching the troops spreading out, Haiden remarked, “You don’t think they’re stupid enough to try anything right now, do you? I mean, this has got to look like a pretty attractive target.” He gestured around at their assembled group.

Sariel shook her head. Her hand rose to point at the glowing blue symbol on the side of each ship. It looked like three interconnected circles with a triangle in the middle where all three overlapped. “They came under the sign of Pax, a woman from our far history who helped to unite disparate tribes and led us to perhaps the last true and lasting peace our people ever knew. If it were to get out that they broke a truce under that sign, they would face widespread riots and condemnation across the universe, from our own people.”

“As would we, for the same,” Athena noted. “We would lose all sympathy and potential allies. So no one makes a move against them unless they force it. There may be very tempting targets on their side as well. Do not take them. We need this truce now, even if it is temporary.”

Without being looked at, Theia chimed in, “We will not throw rocks first, no matter how many they deserve to be hit with.” Under her breath, the girl added, “Maybe because there aren’t enough rocks on this planet.”

She was more than a little uncomfortable right now. Not only because of the actual meeting, but also through the fact that Pace was not here. Though the two were physically separated, she still felt connected to her most recent host, and really did not like to be that far from her. She felt awkward and alone even when surrounded by many others.

Larees raised a hand as though to put it on the girl’s shoulder, then froze partway there. Her old and deeply ingrained hesitation to touch or have anything to do with a Seosten Lie was hard to shake. Finally, though she looked a little uncomfortable, the woman made a point of following through with the motion, putting her hand firmly on Theia’s shoulder. Even then, it took her a moment to speak while she kept her hand in place, refusing to allow her reflexive prejudice to control her actions. Her voice was a bit stiff, though she tried to force herself to relax a little.

“Don’t worry, we’re not going to run out of people who deserve to have rocks thrown at them anytime soon.”

Virginia Dare spoke up then, her eyes fixed on the troops. “She’s right, we have enough problems already living here as it is. I’d prefer these guys just get what they need and leave.”

Larissa glanced to her, speaking a single name. “Fossor.”

The other woman gave a slight nod, her expression darkening. “We need to focus on dealing with the necromancer before he finishes whatever plan he has for that rope. We don’t even have Gaia around right now, we—” She stopped, voice faltering a little.

“We’ll get her back,” Risa assured her. “And we’ll handle Fossor too. We’ll get Joselyn away from him. We don’t have to beat around the bush or be so quiet about it anymore. The cat’s out of the bag, so we might as well take advantage of that.”

Speaking for the first time, Gabriel Prosser announced, ”We have reinforcements coming in already, people from the old rebellion who remembered our contact channels. Some of them are bringing friends or family. We’re working on setting up new ones and verifying their intentions.” He glanced to Athena then. “Your people are handy for that. It saves Enguerrand a lot of work.”

The woman gave a very slight smile at that. “It is good for our people to contribute, and to see how well an alliance can work. Though it may be seen as unfair to some, to have their thoughts pried into.”

Risa shook her head. “They’re told what’s happening, and that it’s a condition of bringing them aboard. We have to be certain that they’re not double agents or spies. Besides, it’s good for them to see what your people are capable of. So they don’t underestimate them. Especially since we’re using that time to tell them exactly what your people have been up to and what they’re responsible for.”

“Yes,” Dare agreed. “The Seosten won’t be a secret anymore. Everyone who joins us is going to know they exist and what they’ve been doing.”

The arriving troops had settled by that point. Only a relative few were actual Seosten, of course. Most were various other species, though almost all stared at the assembled group with varying levels of disgust or distrust, particularly toward the four Seosten ‘traitors.’ Clearly the majority of this honor guard were deeply loyal soldiers, which only made sense.

There was, however, another group, located to one side and consisting of about a fifth of the assembled unit that did not look disgusted. Instead, they appeared curious, or even intrigued. A few looked as though they might come closer to talk to the group, but were prevented by decorum. Beyond that, they wore armor that seemed more individualized. Instead of the plain, uniform black, theirs were decorated with various colors and designs, some quite well drawn.

Dare started to ask why that group was different. But before she could do more than open her mouth, the rest of the soldiers all turned as one and stepped back to create a corridor. Through that corridor approached three figures. One was an elderly man, the second a young girl, and the third a tall, lanky-looking man who appeared to be almost all elbows and knees. His hair was worn long, almost to the middle of his back, and was a mix of gray and blonde. His face had a very slightly lined look that made so that if he had been human, his age could’ve been estimated anywhere between his late thirties and early fifties.

“Metatron,” Sariel whispered to the others with a nod to the elderly man. Then her eyes fell on the seemingly young girl, breath catching a bit before she added a soft, “Chayyiel.” Finally, she looked to the lanky man, who stood just over six and a half feet tall. “And—”

Before she could finish, the man himself stepped forward, tilted his head back and spread his arms wide while loudly declaring in what was essentially a shout to the heavens. “I’m home!”

Turning in a wide circle, with his arms still outstretched, the man continued while sounding almost like a rock star greeting a wild audience. “Hello, my people! Hello my beautiful, beautiful world! How are we doing today?!” He paused then, sniffing once, before doing so again. “Hmm. Bit more pollution.”

Athena spoke then, her words both a greeting and explanation to the others. “Raphael. We weren’t expecting you to come.”

“Raphael,” Larissa whispered softly. “He’s—”

Sariel nodded. “You would consider him an archangel. One of seven who were part of an earlier super soldier test like the Olympus program.”

“You’d also consider him a shit-scary motherfucker,” Larees added pointedly. “If it wasn’t clear already, don’t start anything. Like, double-don’t start anything.”

Raphael himself by that point actually came forward, his voice just as loud and carefree. “Auriel, it’s so good to see you… and not have to kill you.” The latter was added thoughtfully as he looked the woman up and down briefly. There was a hint of amusement and teasing to his voice that made it relatively unclear just how serious he was being.

Clearing his throat, Metatron stepped forward as well. “Our fellow Seraphim insisted on accompanying us for this brief visit.” His eyes narrowed at Athena. “And it will be brief. I have no wish to stay on this planet any longer than absolutely necessary to complete our… transaction.”

Giving the man a disdainful look, Athena coolly replied, “Of course. Why would you wish to spend any time on a world of such importance, which you are personally responsible for? This is your first visit ever, isn’t it? The first in thousands of years.”

The old man clearly restrained a snapped retort, settling on simply saying, “It shall cease being my responsibility for at least one of its years when we are through here. And, Void willing that your failure through that year is thorough enough, we will then exercise a far more permanent solution to the entire situation.”

“He means good luck.” The words came from Chayyiel as the girl passed Metatron. She also moved past Athena, though her hand very briefly touched the woman’s arm and squeezed. Instead, she moved straight to where Sariel and Apollo were. Stopping there, she looked calmly from one to the other, as though appraising them.

Then, without warning, she stepped forward and tightly embraced Apollo. Her arms went around the man to hug him firmly before she did the same with Sariel, hugging the woman tightly. For the latter, the girl leaned up and whispered something very quietly in her ear. It was a private, secret message that went on for several long seconds and caused Sariel’s eyes to widen a bit. Both she and Apollo belatedly returned the embrace once they recovered from the surprise of it, though whatever Chayyiel had whispered to Sariel made the woman freeze up briefly.

With a look of clear disapproval, Metatron made a noise in the back of his throat, glaring at the girl. “Have you forgotten which side you are on?” he asked in a somewhat dangerous tone.

In response to that, Chayyiel replied simply, “No, I haven’t.” She turned slightly, giving him a somewhat cheeky smile. “It’s called a truce, Metatron.  I don’t have to be enemies with anyone here right now. I can hug anyone I want to.”

As if to prove that, the girl moved to embrace Larees then, also whispering something to that woman that made her give a surprised double-take.

“Aww what the hell, she’s got a point.” That was Raphael, who abruptly and unexpectedly pulled Athena into a hug as well, while the woman made a surprised sound. “I like this human custom.”

With a clearly audible sigh, Metatron announced through gritted teeth. “We are here to complete this arrangement. Rysthael will be left to its own devices for one of its years while you find a way to prove this alliance possible. But only in exchange for what you have already promised. If you were not lying.”

Athena simply gestured then. “You have greeted us, Metatron. Of a sort. But you have said nothing to those who truly speak for this world.” She gestured then. “Humans. I’m certain you’ve heard of them.”

Taking that as his cue, Prosser stepped that way and extended a hand. As he did so, every weapon on the field was suddenly pointed his way. If he noticed, the man gave no indication. “Good afternoon, Seraphim. I am Gabriel Prosser.”

Metatron gave him a dismissive glance. “I am well aware of who you are, and how much trouble you have caused. You should count yourself lucky that we are not meeting under different circumstances.”

In response to the clear threat, Gabriel simply replied, “When I was a young child, I allowed slave owners to intimidate me. It has been a very long time since I was a child.”

He smiled then, showing a bit of his teeth while lowering his hand without shaking Metatron’s. “But as your hosts to our world, we will extend you every available courtesy.”

Bowing her head a bit, Chayyiel spoke up. “We thank you for your hospitality, Sir Gabriel. Once our field leaders to this world have arrived, we will be ready to begin.”

Field leaders. Dare and the others exchanged brief glances. They knew what that meant. They were waiting for the Seosten who had been put in charge of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden groups. Most likely they were possessing a Committee member and Victor, respectfully. Not that they would show up in their hosts. They weren’t that stupid. Still, it might possibly lead to some hint in the future.

Metatron looked reluctant to agree with Chayyiel, But protocol and decorum forced him to give a slight nod. “Yes, for a backward dust ball of a world, I have certainly seen wo—”

In mid-sentence, the man stopped. His eyes had been casually roaming over the assembled group until he saw Theia. “You.” That single word showed more disgust and anger than an entire diatribe could have. He glowered at her, his hands slowly closing into fists. “What is that doing here?” The demand came in a brittle voice.

Theia, for her part, raised a hand to wave at the man. “Hi, Grandpa,” the girl all-but chirped.

That made several dozen eyes snap to the girl, while Metatron himself simply tightened his fists. His gaze moved to Gabriel as he spoke sharply. “I know that you are unaware of our people’s customs. But we do not invite Mendacia to delicate negotiations. Particularly Mendacia who murder their own mother.”

“Lies,” Athena translated. “He means Lies.”

Nodding, Gabriel murmured, “I picked that up.” He looked to Metatron for a moment as though choosing his words carefully. Finally he spoke. “While I offer my reserved sympathies for your loss, the girl stays. I assure you, if we were to refuse conversation with everyone whom we found morally, socially, and in every other way repugnant, this negotiation would not be happening.”

Raphael, who had been observing this quietly, spoke up then. “He’s got a point. It’s their world, their people. You don’t have to like the girl, but they don’t have to get rid of her.”

For a moment, it looked as though Metatron might actually snap at the much more powerful man. But in the end he stopped himself, taking in a breath and letting it out before pointedly turning his gaze and body away from his granddaughter. “No matter. All of them are traitors. I should expect no less for its company.”

“You know,” Haiden suddenly spoke up. “Maybe the fact that you refer to a girl, let alone your own grandchild, as ‘it’ might say something about why your civilization is so fucked up.” He started to continue, but Larissa silenced him with a hand on his arm.

Metatron, meanwhile, gave the man an unimpressed look. “You should measure your tone. You, who would defile one of ours, disgust me no less than the murdering Mendacia.”

Before anyone else could say anything, a pair of portals opened nearby and two figures emerged. Both were female, one a tall, beautiful brunette, while the other was a smaller woman with light hair and incredibly green eyes.

“Jophiel,” Chayyiel greeted the former, then the latter. “And Cahethal. Nice of you both to make it.” Belatedly, she added, “Or do you prefer Aphrodite and Demeter while still on Earth?”

“Our Seosten names are fine,” Cahethal replied. “We are no longer playing make-believe gods.”

Both newcomers were subsequently deeply and thoroughly examined by all of the Earth group. These two were obviously the ones who were possessing the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden leadership. However unlikely it was that they would betray anything that gave away their host’s identities, there was always the chance.

Jophiel, in turn, seemed to study them right back. Her eyes moved over the group curiously for a moment before she spoke. “I don’t see the representative from Camelot. Is she not a part of this?“

Her words made the assembled group exchange glances before Athena replied, “Lady Lancelot is… occupied at the moment.”

“Pity,” Jophiel remarked. “I am certain we all have a great many questions for her. Particularly given her long absence.” Pausing, she added thoughtfully, “And the fact that she is a ‘her’ at all. Is she the true Lancelot, a descendant, something else?”

“Good questions,” Raphael agreed. “But they fall beyond the scope of this meeting. I believe what we should be discussing now is the main thrust of the negotiations.” He looked toward Sariel and Apollo. “The Summus Proelium Project.”

Metatron nodded. His own tone was fairly dismissive. “You claim that you can bring it back, re-open our way into that place. That is the sole reason these negotiations are happening, and I assure you, if you do not follow through, we will not hesitate to—”

Apollo interrupted. “We’ll follow through on our end, old man. Don’t worry about that. But we can’t do it here.”

Sariel clarified, “If you wish to see our work, you need to come with us. It’s not something that can be duplicated right here in some random field.”

Idly, Apollo added, “And it’s not a place that will fit all your friends here, let alone their toys.” He gestured to the gathered tanks.

Metatron gave both of the ‘twins’ a brief look, his expression barely less than a disgusted glare at their very presence. Particularly Sariel, whom his annoyed and disgusted gaze lingered on the longest. It was clear that he was deeply offended by her mere existence.

Raphael, however, spoke casually. “I assume all of even your more overzealous people understand that our entire trip here calls under the sign of Pax.”

That earned a nod from Athena. “No one will do anything untoward, Seraphims. This truce is best for all of our peoples, and they will not jeopardize that.”

The three Seosten leaders exchanged looks with each other as well as with Jophiel and the completely silent Cahethal, who had yet to so much as greet anyone. Then Metatron spoke. “Very well, the five of us shall accompany you while the honor guard stay here. But you should be well aware that should anything happen, they will be but the very tip of a full invasion.”

“But we shouldn’t have to worry about that,” Raphael insisted. “I’m sure they get the point. Now let’s do this thing before I get bored and wander off to find my old friend Michael.” He pronounced it the old way, ‘mick-aye-el’, with a full I sound in the middle.

The name made Sariel and Apollo glance briefly at one another before nodding.

“Okay,” Apollo announced.

“Then come with us, and we’ll show you how to bring back the Summus Proelium project.”

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Mini-Interlude 68 – Olympian Origins

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Several Thousand Years Ago

Three figures, one much smaller than the others, stood in front of the great transparent wall of the space station Aquilari’s observation deck. Before them lay the vastness of space, filled with innumerable stars, galaxies, and worlds beyond comprehension or belief. The universe, itself to the larger multiverse as this single station was to the galaxy it lay within.

“Are we really gonna see it all, Uncle Lucifer?” The soft, reverent voice came from the child, as she stood between her older companions. Chayyiel, only ten years old, could not hope to comprehend the scale of what lay before them. Despite all the incredible power that had been thrust onto her, despite the accident that had made her into what could become one of the most powerful Seosten in existence, she was still a child. She was still innocent.

With a slight smile at that, Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel. She, in turn, returned the smile. Which was nice, considering he was one of the few people she seemed comfortable enough to smile with. Shy and withdrawn, his female partner didn’t tend to do much talking. She let him do that. And he was good with the arrangement, since he loved to talk.

Even before his own enhancement. An enhancement that had been just as accidental as both Sariel’s and Chayyiel’s. All three of them, accidents.

Well, mostly accidents. Chayyiel’s father had intended to expose her to the physics-defying energies of the other-world. But only for a short time, just long enough to… to help her. Unfortunately, it had gone wrong. The man had been distracted and taken away from his work at the worst possible time. Which resulted in Chayyiel being abandoned in that other-world and assumed lost forever. At least until Sariel and Lucifer, his lab assistants, had saved her with the help of one of the actual project subjects, a man named Amitiel. He had been the one who came to the two in the first place, pleading with them to do something to save the girl. He had begged them to go beyond all safety measures, pleaded for them to not just bend the rules, but shatter them in order to open the portal again and get the girl out.

They had done so, at the cost of destroying the Seosten’s only method of accessing that other-world.

For some time, there had been talk of locking Lucifer and Sariel up, of containing them to some prison lab, of… doing any number of things that angry people talked about doing when something as bad as losing access to the ability to create ageless super soldiers happened. But in the end, higher powers had decided that since their numbers of project successes were limited, throwing away any of them wasn’t viable. The two had instead been assigned to the same exploratory ship as the rest of the products of that project. Though they were currently given no real assignment, being relegated to caring for and watching over Chayyiel herself.

Lucifer didn’t mind that either, any more than he minded being the ‘face’ of his partnership with the shy Sariel. Chayyiel was a good kid, and smart as hell even before she had been upgraded.

“We’re gonna try,” he replied to the girl’s question, giving her a wink. “It’s a pretty big universe though. It’ll take a long time.”

“Very long,” Sariel quietly agreed. Her hand moved to Chayyiel’s shoulder, squeezing it. She had been the one to come up with the solution that allowed herself and Lucifer to extract Chayyiel. It was a solution that had ended up destroying the project itself, even as it saved one child’s life. Lucifer had tried to take that blame for himself, but it was one time where Sariel had not meekly and quietly allowed him to take the lead. He’d wanted to spare her from being the focus of so much anger, yet she had done so anyway, confessing that it was her plan.

Seeing her small, fragile figure hunched in on herself while being bombarded with so much vitriol from the investigative committee had been the one and only time in his life to that point that Lucifer had been tempted to murder other Seosten. And not just one of them, but each and every figure who had been hounding, insulting, and belittling the woman beside him.

Not deterred in the least, Chayyiel’s head bobbed up and down. “Uh huh, but we’ve got time, right?” She looked first toward Sariel, then to Lucifer, eyes shining with curiosity and innocence as she firmly declared, “We’ve got lots of time to see everything out there.”

Chuckling, the man put his hand on the opposite shoulder from where Sariel’s still was. Both of them stood there with their hands on their young charge. “You’re not wrong about that,” he admitted while turning his gaze back to the stars. “We do have a lot of time.” Curiously, he asked, “So, how long do you think it would take to see everything there is to see out there? Every star, every world, every moon, everything. How long would it take us to see  all of it?”

Chayyiel blinked at that, face scrunching up with thought for a few seconds before guessing, “Ten thousand years?”

“Longer than that.” That was Sariel, her voice quiet, yet firm. “Much longer.”

“She’s right,” Lucifer agreed. “You want to see everything, you better settle in for the long haul. There’s a lot of stuff out there. And,” he added, “a lot of danger. Not just Fomorians. Other things too. A whole universe worth of monsters and problems.”

“We can handle it.” Chayyiel’s voice was assured, arms folded across her stomach as she gazed out at that starfield, determination written across her face. “We’re gonna see it all. And we’re gonna end the war with the Fomorians. We’re gonna fix everything.”

Again, Sariel and Lucifer exchanged brief glances. That time, it was Sariel who spoke up first. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

We can,” Chayyiel corrected.

“We’re gonna do it together.”

******

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome… aboard the Olympus.”

Pride filled the voice of the man who made that announcement. The figure, who was just barely under six feet in height, with black hair that was lined at the temple and along the sides with silver, smiled. It was a smile that spoke of adventure, of daring, and of battles yet to come.

His name was Puriel, and this was his ship. He stood directly in the middle of the bridge, surrounded on all sides by the consoles that his people, his people would use to direct the ship along their journey, through their missions. This pristine, almost perfectly white with hints of gold room was the command center, the brain of one of the most technologically and magically advanced ships in the entire Seosten fleet. Entire planets had worked to put this single ship through its theoretical, testing, and practical phases. And now it was real. It was complete.

And it was theirs. The products of the Summus Proelium Project, the experimental upgrading process created by Director Aysien, who had been granted an endless lifespan as their aging was frozen, along with other enhancements and unique, individual gifts, had all been gathered onto this single ship. A single ship with a single mission: to explore the vast, unending reaches of space and find some advantage that would allow the Seosten to finally finish the forever war. It was a war that had been raging for hundreds of thousands of years. Literally dozens of generations of the Seosten, whose members lived roughly ten thousand years by themselves, had come and gone without ever experiencing anything except this war against Cronus’s children, the Fomorians.

And now, Puriel’s people, his people, would have a chance to find a way of ending that war, of ending the threat that the Fomorians posed to the entire universe, once and for all. Yes, he felt pride at that fact. Yes, he felt immeasurable happiness at the very thought that his children might, might grow up in a universe where they would be safe.

That thought made his gaze move to the console near the very back of the bridge, next to the main door. And to the beautiful figure who sat there, looking back at him from across the room. Tall and regal, with a beauty that was matched only by her sharp wit and sharper tongue for those who had failed her, Kushiel still took his breath away. To have a child with her, to give that child a chance to live in a universe free of the Fomorian threat… he still held to that hope, to that dream. Old as he was even now, that was a dream worth working for.

And he could live to see it. His age, like all of the crew of the Olympus, had been frozen. Unless killed by some outside means, they would never die. They could, conceivably, actually live to see the end of this war, and whatever would come next.

But the others were watching. As much as he felt that he could lose himself in the gaze of his wife forever, this was too important of a day. So, Puriel pulled himself back, clearing his throat. “Logistics,” he used Kushiel’s position rather than her name. Must stay professional. “Report.”

Granting him one of her rare, yet beautiful smiles before it vanished behind a mask of professionalism, Kushiel gave one slight nod, her voice crisp. “Yes, Trierarch. All supplies are in the green. Fuel stores are reporting maximum capacity. Weapons are pristine. We are clear for six months of regular rations and travel before restock and refuel will be required.”

“Good to know how long we’ve got ahead of us,” Puriel replied with a broad smile. He couldn’t help it. He was professional, not dead. Still, he cleared his throat before his gaze moved slightly to the next station. “Engineering?”

Radueriel returned his brief smile, giving a hand gesture that was part wave and part salute. “Believe me, Trierarch, we are just fine down in the engine room. The boys and I have spent the past week going over every millimeter of that beauty down there. She’ll get us where we need to go, and give a little kick to anyone that tries to stop us from getting there.”

“Given the things we’ll be running into,” Puriel replied, “it better be a big kick.” He turned his attention to the next console over then. “Tactical?”

Auriel stood at rigid attention beside her station, hands clasped behind her back. “Sir,” she began crisply, “All weapons are online and at full capacity.” And yet, even the always professional woman (to the point that many had joked when they thought neither she nor Puriel could hear them about the enormous stick that must have been lodged deep in her backside) could not entirely contain the excitement of what was about to happen. There was the faintest of smiles that briefly flickered across her expression. “It will be a very big kick, sir.”

Puriel smiled. “That’s what I like to hear. Security, Crew Liaison, any issues getting everyone settled in?”

From opposite sides of the bridge, Abaddon, as ship’s security chief, and Jophiel, as the crew liaison, both reported negative. The former continued with, “We all did a bit of partying last night, but we’re good for departure.”

It was technically against the rules, as military crews that were about to set off were supposed to remain ‘dry’ for a full day before departure. And Abaddon definitely wasn’t supposed to outright tell the ship’s trierarch about it. But what the hell. It was a special occasion. And everyone knew that no one paid attention to that rule.

Though, from the dirty look that Auriel was shooting Abaddon, if she had her way, it definitely would have been an issue. It was good for him then, that Puriel was far more easygoing. Well, as far as that kind of thing went, anyway.

Next, Puriel turned his attention to the woman who stood near the door, clearly waiting to be dismissed as soon as this launch procedure was over.  “Research and Development?”

The small woman who met his gaze had startlingly green eyes, the result of an earlier enhancement after losing the ones she had been born with. They allowed her to see into many different spectrums, and enhance down to the microscopic level. Her name was Cahethal, and she was also one of the members of his crew that Puriel knew the least about, aside from the late-comers. And they… well, they were a different situation entirely.  

She was also clearly anxious to get back to work, since her response was a simple, “We’d be doing a lot better if I wasn’t wasting my time up here. I have a whole roster of bright-eyed know-it-alls that I need to whip into shape before they run an experiment that blows up this entire ship.”

“Well,” Puriel replied easily, “I guess we’ll have to let you get back there as soon as possible to avoid that, won’t we? Let’s finish up then.” His attention moved to the man next to her. “Medical?”

The man there, Manakel, had been working with Puriel for the past five hundred years. The two knew each other quite well, and exchanged brief smiles. Neither could believe they were finally here, commanding their own ship. And not only that, but one of the most advanced ships in the fleet. It was a dream come true, for both of them, in many different ways.

“The crew checks out,” the medical chief reported crisply. “We are ready to go.”

“Indeed we are,” Puriel agreed before looking at last toward the nearest console to his own seat. “Unless my executive officer has any problems to raise?”

The man there, Sachael, was almost as tall as the giant Abaddon, though he also looked to be much older. His long, pure white hair fell to his shoulders, and he had a beard to match, along with eyes that were pale blue, like a pair of frozen ponds set against the snow of his hair. He had also worked with Puriel even longer than Manakel had. Which meant that Puriel was pretty certain Sachael had been the one to convince the crew to go out for drinks the night before.

On-duty, Sachael was the consummate professional. He did his job, and he did it very well. Perfectly, in fact. He was the best first mate that Puriel could have asked for. But off-duty, the man was another story. He was fanatical about separating his two lives, to the point of almost seeming to be two entirely different people. He valued his freedom and fun. That was why he worked so hard while on-duty, so that he could turn it all off and let loose when he wasn’t. And woe be to the person who made him work when he considered himself done.

In this case, the man nodded crisply. “All departments and systems seem to be green.”

Puriel turned to the front then, his mouth opening to address the helmsman, when the door at the back of the room, near Kushiel, Manakel, and Cahethal, slid open. Three figures entered then, one much smaller than the other two.

Lucifer and Sariel, both of them barely past their mid-fifties in age. Barely more than children, really. Neither had actually been selected by their Choirs to be a part of Summus Proelium, or this ship. No, they had been simple lab techs back at the project itself, little more than assistants to Aysien himself until… well, until things had changed. Mostly due to the other figure they had entered with: Chayyiel. The director’s daughter, whose accidentally extended excursion into the other-world where they had drawn their extraordinary gifts from had resulted in the ending of that project.

Or, more specifically, whose unprepared retrieval from that excursion had ended the project, along with any way of actually accessing that other-world, possibly forever.

It was that fact that likely fueled the audible annoyance in Auriel’s voice, as the woman snapped, “What are they doing here?” It looked like she was about to order them off, but stopped herself with a look to Puriel.

Heedless of the reaction (most of the bridge crew looked no less annoyed or outright angry than Auriel herself did) that their presence was creating, Chayyiel all-but sprinted across the bridge, letting out a whoop as she saw the starfield ahead of them. “Are we really leaving, Uncle Puriel?!” She blurted while stopping beside him. Her hands grabbed his arm and she gazed up adoringly. “Really really leaving?”

Kushiel’s own tone was even darker than Auriel’s. “If the girl’s babysitters cannot even perform that duty adequately–”

“We’re sorry. Sorry.” Lucifer hurriedly put in, head shaking quickly as he moved with Sariel right on his heels. The blonde woman was slightly younger than her constant companion, and she was also much more shy. Puriel wasn’t sure he’d heard the woman speak more than a few words that she didn’t absolutely have to speak in the whole time that he’d known her. She relied on her research partner to do that talking for her so much that the rest of the lab, and now the crew here, had begun referring to them as ‘twins.’

“We tried to keep her in the mess hall,” Lucifer was explaining, “so she could watch the launch from there. But she kept insisting that–”

“Ahem.” Manakel raised a hand, drawing Puriel’s attention. “I’m afraid I did indeed extend an invitation to the young miss to bring her guardians with her to see the launch from the bridge. I thought it would be something she would enjoy. Who wants to see the first launch of a ship like this from the mess or the observation deck when you can see it from the bridge?”

Pausing briefly, Puriel looked down to the girl, whose eyes were shining with hope as she stared right back up at him, batting her eyelashes like some kind of innocent bifestel.

“Well,” the man finally replied, “how can I argue with that? Over there.” He nodded to a nearby couple of seats set against the wall near Abaddon. “Strap yourselves in, okay?”

That earned him a hug from the girl herself, before she and her two caretakers (who would have to be given some other job at some point, but Puriel wasn’t sure what that would be just yet, particularly if Cahethal continued to insist that she didn’t want them) moved to the seats.

With that interruption settled, Puriel finally looked to the front. “Helm and Navigation?”

The man there, Amitiel, gave a short nod. He had been looking briefly toward the three newcomers, his attention apparently caught by a wave from Chayyiel herself before belatedly realizing that he had been addressed.

“Ah, ready, sir,” he replied carefully.

Puriel didn’t know Amitiel that well, but he had noticed that whatever else the procedure that changed them all had done, it also seemed to have made him quieter than before. Less boastful of his skill and more… calm than he’d been in those first few weeks. Which was a good thing, as far as Puriel was concerned. Having a calm, professional helmsman would help the ship get through its shakedown voyage without too many problems. Hopefully.

“Very good,” he announced then, realizing that everyone’s eyes were on him. His command crew. His people. They were watching him, waiting for his word to launch. Waiting for him to give the command that would begin their great journey.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began then, turning his attention to the stars.

“Let’s see what she can do.”

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