Avalon Sinclaire

Interlude 20B – Avalon And Aylen Meet A Witch (Heretical Edge 2)

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Flick was off-planet. Not that that meant all that much as a statement by itself, to be fair. The entire Fusion school lived off-planet if one wanted to get technical. After all, the sun was quite a bit distant from the Earth. Ninety two million miles, basically. You could fit over eleven thousand Earths between the actual planet and the sun itself. But more specifically, Flick was completely out of the solar system. She, and those who had accompanied her, had gone off to visit Fossor’s home planet in order to find the missing vampire Rasputin, as well as give the ghosts she had collected an opportunity to be released there if they wanted to. And, of course, to talk to Fossor’s former slaves about what had happened to the dead piece of shit. 

Avalon would have gone with her, in a heartbeat. But there were things to do here on the planet. They had a lead about how to find and free Gaia, and she wasn’t going to let that slip through her fingers. As much as she wanted to be with Felicity when she visited Fossor’s homeworld, she couldn’t miss the chance to save Gaia. Not after everything the woman had already done for her. Hard as it was, she had stayed behind, trusting Shiori to help keep Flick out of too much trouble. 

Not all of it, by any means. She was completely confident that something would go wrong. There would be a lot of danger, fighting, and terror. The question wasn’t whether that stuff would happen, only whether Flick and the others would come back from it. And Avalon trusted that they would. Especially with both Shiori and Mrs. Chambers there. Not to mention Persephone, who may have abandoned her plans to make the girl her wife or whatever, but still obviously cared about what happened to her. They would help keep Flick safe, and she would do the same for them. 

For now, Avalon focused on pushing those thoughts, and worries, out of her mind. She couldn’t affect any of it, so she was just going to have to wait and see what happened. After all, she had her own thing to focus on, with tracking down this lead. Wyatt had been the one who managed to dig it up. It, in this case, was an old Crossroads Heretic who had apparently grown disgusted with the entire civil war and walked away from it. From what Wyatt had put together, this guy wasn’t interested in joining the Rebellion, but he wouldn’t help the Loyalists either. He chose to become independent. Beyond that, while he wouldn’t help the rebels and refused to actively assist in saving Alters, he did at least commit to his neutrality by only hunting down the ones he was reasonably confident were actually attacking people. According to Wyatt, the guy actually did some investigation work to determine for himself that the Alters were guilty of hurting and killing people before he hunted them down. 

In Avalon’s book, that actually put him on the Rebellion’s side, regardless of his claims of neutrality. When one side said ‘kill all of them’ and the other side said ‘only kill the bad ones,’ and your way of being neutral was to only kill the bad ones… yeah. But she wasn’t going to argue with that. If the guy wanted to say he was neutral just because he wasn’t actively participating in the Rebellion itself, then… fine, whatever. 

The point was, he had also apparently been one of the Heretics involved in setting up the system for keeping Gaia prisoner. Wyatt thought they might be able to convince him to give them some real information about that, information they could use to find and free her. Unfortunately, that was time-sensitive given the guy was moving around a lot. He did everything he could to remain completely out of sight. So if they didn’t take advantage of knowing where he was going to be for the next couple days, they’d lose him. And who knew how long it would take to find the guy again? Especially if Crossroads decided to go after him themselves. 

All of which was why Avalon was here, in the main library of Iowa State University. She was on the third floor, just beside several sets of individual study rooms starting to her right. To her left was the men’s restroom, with various plush cushioned seats and tables ahead of her where an assortment of students were busy studying and writing. Various shelves of books lay beyond them, with more students browsing through. One, a small teenage black girl, who looked like she was barely old enough to even be in college, was chewing on a pencil while flipping through a very large book of maps set up on a table at the end of one of the rows of shelves. A short distance away, a man in his twenties, wearing a rainbow colored beanie, was perusing a book about the history of war in Africa. And so it went throughout the room with more random students. Some looked bored, others frantic and terrified. 

Either way, they were all busy and none paid Avalon more than a passing glance, if that much. 

Well, one guy had done more than give her a glance, but he was going to be icing his wrist for awhile, and wouldn’t be a problem anymore. Not before they had a chance to finish what they were doing and get out of here, anyway. 

‘They’ consisted of Avalon and her other girlfriend, Aylen. And wow. Just the thought of having one person she trusted enough to call her girlfriend would have been unthinkable only a little over a year earlier. To have two girls, two she cared about as much as she cared about Felicity and Aylen, and to have them return that affection… it felt impossible, as though her luck and life couldn’t possibly be that good. 

That, in truth, was why Avalon was so terrified of what was going on with Gaia. It felt like the world would find a way to make her pay for being happy with Felicity and Aylen by taking her adoptive mother away. Which… yes, that was ridiculous. If someone else had voiced that worry, Avalon would have told them they were being absurd. 

Unfortunately, sometimes it was easier to give advice than to take it. It didn’t matter how much the girl told herself she was being an idiot about it, her feelings remained what they were. Stupid feelings. 

“Valley,” Aylen spoke quietly from her spot beside the other girl. Her attention was on a blond, thoroughly average-looking guy who appeared to be in his early twenties. The man had just stood up from a table, tucking his laptop under his arm while putting a pencil behind his ear. He walked away from where he had been sitting, before the pencil fell to the floor beside another table where a dark-haired black man with a neatly-trimmed beard was studiously writing in a notebook. The second man, who appeared to be either an old student or a young professor, barely glanced up as the blond stooped to grab the fallen pencil and walked onward. 

That was the signal. The blond man was Wyatt in disguise, using magic to both stop anyone from recognizing him and to block Alters from identifying him as a Heretic. Avalon and Aylen were using the same spells. They both still retained the same basic appearance, but just enough was altered to make them not immediately recognizable. 

Wyatt dropping the pencil next to the other man had been the signal that he was the person they were looking for. The missing, ‘neutral’ Heretic, James Northern, was indeed a black man, though he looked quite a bit different in the pictures Avalon had seen. He was normally visibly older, for one, looking more like a man in his fifties than one in his twenties. They had known he would be using a disguise, just like they were. Which should have made it all but impossible to find the guy, but Wyatt had his ways. And if he said this was the person they were looking for, it had to be right. 

Taking a breath as she told herself not to rush no matter how badly she wanted to, Avalon began moving that way. There had been some idea of coming with more than just the three of them for this, and especially to approach him with more than just herself and Aylen. But in the end, it had felt safer to avoid making James feel threatened by only coming to him with the two of them, while Wyatt stayed as backup in case they had to escape for whatever reason. That was also why they were approaching him in this public space, where he wouldn’t have to worry about a bunch of other Heretics starting a fight with him. That was the idea, anyway. It was all about keeping him calm. They’d see how well it went. 

The man in question glanced up as the two girls approached. Without saying a word, Avalon tugged the chair across from him out and sat down. Aylen did the same beside her, both of them keeping their hands in plain sight. There was always the chance that he might use magic or a power to simply vanish in front of them, but they were hoping against hope that he would at least wait long enough to hear them out. Especially if he didn’t know who they were immedi–

“You’re late,” James noted in a calm voice. “She said you’d probably be here sometime this morning. It’s already afternoon.” 

Blinking twice while resisting the urge to glance in Wyatt’s direction, Avalon carefully replied, “I don’t think we’re who you–” 

“You’re Sinclaire’s adopted daughter, right? Avalon, formerly Hannah.” James noted before glancing toward Aylen. “And given you’re Native American, I’d say you’re her girlfriend. Not the Chambers girl, she’s probably not the type to racially appropriate like that, even for a disguise, unless she had to. Especially not in this case. So, Ms. Tamaya, I presume?” 

Exchanging a glance with the other girl, Avalon sat back in her seat to look at the man intently. “You knew we were coming, then. But who told you that?” Her eyes were scanning the area around them, watching for any trap. Not that she expected anything to have gotten past Wyatt. And the fact that he wasn’t bailing them out immediately meant there wasn’t an apparent threat. Not yet, anyway. 

“Not Crossroads,” James calmly informed her. “You’re safe here. She doesn’t want to hurt you or anything. She just wants to talk, and she wanted to do it privately. So she asked me to stay put and let you come to me.” 

“Whoever this is, we still have to ask you something, Mr. Northern,” Aylen pointed out. 

The man shook his head. “I can’t help you get the old headmistress out of prison. They would have changed everything after I left.” Before they could protest, he continued. “Whatever info I gave you would be outdated and useless at best, and would lead you into a trap at worst. But you won’t leave here empty-handed. I said I couldn’t help you. But she can.” 

Yes, this entire thing had been a longshot, of course. but it had been something. And now Avalon was reeling a bit from being told, in rapid succession, that the man couldn’t help but that someone else here could. Her eyes scanned the room once more before flatly asking, “She who? Someone asked you to sit around and wait for us to approach, and you did? I thought you didn’t want anything to do with Loyalist Heretics or Rebels.” 

“I don’t, for the most part,” he confirmed. “There’s more important things to do than fight each other. But she’s neither of those things anyway. You’ll see for yourselves, if you go into that study room over there, second on the right. Go in there and she’ll meet you. And yes, I’m aware of how much that sounds like a trap. But you have my word, for whatever that may be worth, that it is not. If you want to save the woman who adopted you, that’s how you do it. Go in that room and have a little discussion.”

Avalon was silent for a moment, running through all that in her mind. She knew that others would have screamed at her for even entertaining the idea. But they were here already, and James had obviously known they were coming. He knew who they were, yet had sat and waited for them to approach. Either this really was some sort of trap, or he was telling the truth about this mysterious woman wanting to talk to them about saving Gaia. 

She couldn’t risk walking away from something like that. So, giving a very short nod to him, Avalon stood. “Thank you.” 

“Thank me by focusing more on saving people than fighting a war against the Loyalists,” he replied simply, turning his attention back to the book he had been looking at. 

There was a lot Avalon wanted to say to that. Instead, she glanced toward the study room in question. She and Aylen exchanged looks, before starting to head that way together. Wyatt would have heard that whole conversation, but he hadn’t moved from the table he’d taken up residence at. He wasn’t doing anything to stop them from going into that room. Either he knew it was pointless to try to prevent Avalon from doing everything she could to get the answer they needed, or he too knew this was still their best, and possibly only, chance. Or, most likely, both. 

Whatever the reasoning, the man stayed where he was, though Avalon knew he wasn’t nearly as involved with his book as he appeared to be. He would be keeping track of everything that happened in this place, and where everyone was. Even more so now than before. 

Trusting the man to let them know if anything was wrong, the two girls walked to the study room. It appeared to be empty, but before going in, Avalon carefully plucked a coin from her pocket and activated the spell on it. It would glow bright red if there were any transport spells inside the room that would have sent them somewhere else once they passed through. Yet when she surreptitiously tossed it through the doorway, it stayed dark. No transport magic then. 

With one more glance at one another, the girls stepped through into the room. Nothing happened. They looked around the small space a bit, then moved to sit down at the table. There was nothing to do now but wait, and hope this wasn’t a complete waste of time. Or worse. 

They weren’t waiting very long before the door opened, and another person stepped in. It was the young black girl Avalon had noticed looking through maps earlier. She stood barely over five feet, a diminutive figure with long, intricate braids, each of which was dyed a different color of the rainbow. She wore glasses along with an open flannel shirt over a gray tee, and jean shorts. Without saying anything, she closed the door behind her, before moving to sit at the table across from them. Only once she was seated and had adjusted herself, with both arms crossed on the table in front of her, did she look directly at the other two and finally speak. “So, the way I hear it, y’all wanna get Gaia Sinclaire out of the slammer. And the sooner the better, yeah?” 

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed. “But before we say anything else, who are you?” 

Her question was met with a smile that showed the stranger’s perfect white teeth. “Who am I? Oh, you could call me a witch. Most do. Some for good reasons, some for bad.”

She seemed to consider something for a moment before making a decisive clicking sound with her tongue. “Usually I like to play coy with this, but that’s probably a waste of our time right now. There’s already a lot for us to talk about, and I don’t exactly have unlimited time. Pressing concerns elsewhere, you know.” She paused then before audibly chuckling. “Isn’t that weird? It doesn’t matter how old you are, there never seems to be enough time to do everything you want and need to. You’d think once you live as long as I have, you’d run out of stuff to keep you busy.” 

Her expression sobered almost immediately then, eyes seeming to stare right through Avalon as she pointedly added, “I’ve gone by more names than there are students in this school. I could list them for you, but we’d be here for way too long. And at some point that sort of thing just turns into bragging. Only a few of them are actually known these days anyway. Isis, and yes I am pretty pissed off about that name getting ruined, Werethekau, Freja, but most just call me–” 

“The Wandering Woman,” Aylen managed, sitting up a bit straighter. “Wait, how do we know you’re–” 

“Telling the truth?” the woman finished for her. From within her open flannel shirt, she produced a rotted apple core, the skeleton of some sort of rodent, and a silver-bladed knife. Without wasting a moment, she dropped the first two on the table, then calmly and without any expression whatsoever, drove the blade of the knife through three of the fingers on her right hand, slicing them clean off. 

Avalon and Aylen, rather understandably, jolted a little bit at that. Though before they could say anything, the woman waved her uninjured hand at the damaged one. In the blink of an eye, her fingers were reattached, and there was no visible blood left on the table. Another gesture made the rotted, mostly-eaten apple quickly reform itself into its perfectly pristine, crispy-looking self, as though it was fresh off the tree. And, with barely a look that way, the woman turned the rat skeleton into a live, squeaking creature that was sniffing the apple with interest. 

While the two Heretics were still reacting, both felt themselves shrink in their seats. No, they weren’t just shrinking. They were getting younger. The two quickly exchanged half-panicked looks, only to find themselves staring at twelve-year-old versions of one another. They were sitting there, practically drowning in their too-large clothes. A noise of confusion and shock escaped both girls.  

“I am who I say I am,” the woman informed them, before tucking both rat and apple away. With another wave of her hand, she returned the girls to their proper ages, this time in the blink of an eye rather than the slower effect she’d used when deaging them. “And if you want to save Gaia Sinclaire, I can help you do that.” 

“Why?” Avalon asked, once she’d found her voice. “Everyone says you don’t get involved in this sort of thing.” 

“I don’t let others drag me into their problems,” came the short reply. “There’s a difference. I choose when to involve myself and with what. There’s a lot going on that you don’t know about. I have to pick and choose just how involved to get. There’s only one of me, after all, and a lot to do. Remember what I said about not having enough time?” 

“What–” Aylen started before taking a second to find the right words. “What do we call you? And uhh, do you want me to leave you guys alone?” 

“I’ve been using Sawyer recently,” the woman replied easily. “That should do. But no, you should stay. After all, this involves you too. And that thing you’re supposed to do that you’ve been wondering about.” 

“You know about–” Aylen caught herself. “Of course you know about that. Wait, does that mean you know more about it? Do you know how I’m supposed to do it? Do you know what–” 

Sawyer held a hand up to stop her. “I know more than I can tell you now, I’ll say that much. But I can tell you more than you already know.” She smiled faintly. “Listen, sometimes it’s fun to be creepy and mysterious, but it also takes a lot of time, and it can be annoying as fuck. I mean, from the other side of it too. So let’s just cut to the chase, shall we?” She pointed toward Avalon. “You want to save Gaia Sinclaire. If you wanna do that, you need some of her blood. Or blood from someone related to her.” 

“But Gaia’s only son died ages ago,” Avalon pointed out. “The Seosten used his body and… and that’s it. We can’t find him. She doesn’t have any other descendants.” 

“You’re right,” Sawyer confirmed. “You can’t find what you need that way. But she had a half-brother. Okay, she had two half-brothers. One of them is the one you’re trying to bring back.” Her eyes glanced toward Aylen, then back again. “But the other, Chadwick, lived a completely normal life. Well, as normal as one could live after your entire family disappeared or were killed by a dragon and you were sent off to a new family. Chadwick lived and died, and his descendants continue on to this day. Some even became Natural Heretics, though the Seosten never allowed any to go near Crossroads or Eden’s Garden. That would’ve been too dangerous, if one of them had turned out to be the Merlin Key.” 

“You’re saying we need to find one of Chadwick’s descendants and use their blood to locate Gaia,” Avalon put in. “But the hardliners would’ve blocked her from that sort of magic. They aren’t stupid.”

“Well, not in that sort of way, no,” Sawyer agreed while taking her glasses off. She held them by one side and tapped the other against her hand. “But what I’m about to tell you ain’t the sort of magic you can just block like that.”

Before saying anything else, she dropped the glasses and reached into her pocket to take out a package of Starburst candies. “God, I love these things.” Tapping it against the table, she pried an orange one out, unwrapped it, and popped the thing in her mouth. Then she offered the package to them. “Go ahead.” 

While Avalon and Aylen hesitantly each took one of the candies, the woman continued. “I tell ya, people talk about the good old days, but speaking as someone who’s been around for all the days, they’re full of shit. Rose-colored glasses and all that. Ironically, that’s one of the reasons the old days were shit. No easy way to get glasses. Now, where was I?” 

“Blood from Chadwick’s descendant for some special spell,” Aylen informed her. 

Pointing that way, Sawyer nodded. “Right, yeah, that. If you wanna save Gaia, you need three things. The first is the blood of Chadwick’s descendant. The second is the blood of two of her heirs.” 

“You heard me say that Gaia doesn’t have any natural children, right?” Avalon pointed out. 

With a slight smirk, Sawyer replied, “I said heirs, not children. You count as one of those heirs. Virginia Dare counts as the other. She sees both of you as her kids. Well, she sees a lot as her kids in one way or another, but you two more than others.” She set the glasses down before continuing. “So that’s easy. And third, you need the blood of a Reaper.” Before Aylen could say anything, she continued. “That is, the blood of a full Reaper, not a half-one.” 

Avalon opened and shut her mouth before shaking her head. “Oh, right, so all we have to do is find a full Reaper and ask if we can pretty please borrow some of his blood.” 

“Her blood,” came the correction. “Because your friends Guinevere and Michael the Seosten already went and found one willing to help. Her name’s Jones. It’s a long story, and probably one she should tell you herself. Point is, they found her to help bring Arthur back, but she can help you with this too. You get the blood from those four people. The Reaper, the descendant, yourself, and Virginia Dare, then follow these directions.” A sealed envelope seemed to appear from nowhere in her hand, which she slid across the table. “It’ll tell you exactly where Gaia Sinclaire is, no matter how much they try to block it. And it’s an ongoing spell, so you’ll find her again even if they move her.” 

While Avalon slowly took the envelope, Aylen asked, “Seriously, why are you doing all this? Why are you helping this much?” 

“Let’s just say there’s some big trouble coming,” Sawyer replied. “And if this planet is gonna get through it, which I’d kinda like it to do since I happen to live here, we’ll need Arthur back on his feet.” 

“Wait, Arthur?” Avalon blinked. “What does Arthur have to do with Gaia? I mean,” she amended, “I know she’s his sister and all that, but how does saving Gaia help bring him back?” 

Unwrapping and eating another Starburst, Sawyer remained silent, watching them until she had swallowed it. “Simple, she’s the only chance you’ve got of getting anywhere near the Reaper that’s locked up inside that lighthouse.” 

“My grandfather?” Aylen blurted. “What–wait, huh?” 

“Your Reaper grandfather, as opposed to the Fomorian one, yeah,” the woman confirmed. “He was there the day Arthur met the dragon. If you wanna bring Arthur back, you need what’s locked up inside his copy of the Reaper archives. He’ll know more once you talk to him. Plus some other stuff, but Guinevere’s got most of that covered. What you really need are in those archives. And the only way to get them is with that Reaper’s help. Which you can only get to with Gaia’s help.” She smiled a bit, looking back and forth between the two girls. “See how convenient it is that you two came together?” A pause followed before she laughed. “Hah, and that works both ways. You came here together, and you came together as a couple. Now seriously, your babysitter’s getting nervous out there. I haven’t exactly been letting him hear what we’re talking about, cuz I despise eavesdroppers. You better head back out there before he decides to do something drastic.”

“Wait,” Avalon quickly put in. “Ruthers thought they might be able to convince you to take Felicity’s necromancy away. Was… was he right about that?” 

Sawyer’s head shook. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll be taking anything away from that girl,” she murmured. “She’ll need everything she can get soon enough. Especially when he decides he’s ready to train her. Which should be any time now.” 

Avalon was nodding slowly, before blinking at that last part. “He? Wait, when who decides to–” But even as she began to ask that, her eyes focused on the spot where Sawyer had been sitting. 

There was no sign of her. She had disappeared in the span of a blink, leaving no sign she had ever even been there. 

No sign, that was, aside from two wrapped Starburst candies, one for each of the girls. 

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Calm Before 20-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Children? Children of Olympians?” As he said those words, Manakel started to continue before pausing. A slight grimace crossed his face. “I would ask if you were certain, but I do not believe you would have come to me with that if you were not.”

I was back in the room where the Seosten ghost man was being held, with my mother standing at the doorway watching. She had that sword that Kushiel had wanted held in one hand, her attention torn between inspecting it and keeping an eye on every move he made. 

“Yeah,” I confirmed flatly, “we’re sure. The others saw a few of them use powers. And they basically confirmed it when it was brought up. Except they said Kushiel is their mother. Apparently they seemed pretty loyal to her.” 

Manakel absorbed that, floating backwards a couple feet as though the information itself had physically rocked him. “Kushiel having access to any children at all is very bad news. Having Olympian children is much worse, especially if they are, as you say, loyal. It sounds as though she has raised fanatics.” 

I took a breath, preparing myself. “Okay, look I just have to ask. Did you know anything about this? Did you know she had offspring like that? You or your old self or whatever. Did you have any idea?”  

The man shook his head firmly. “I assure you, I may have had a good many issues by the end, but I was loyal to my people in my own way. Had I known there were living offspring from our ship, I would have had them taken away from her to be raised properly.” 

I continued to stare at him for another few seconds, trying to read if there was anything duplicitous in his face. I wasn’t sure, not entirely. But something told me he was telling the truth about this. It didn’t take much to know that allowing Kushiel to raise a group of potentially incredibly powerful fanatical teenagers was a bad idea. So, I glanced toward my mother and gave her a short nod. As I was doing that, Manakel spoke up. “When you say these children displayed powers, what were they?” 

“They didn’t have any necromancy,” I replied simply. “At least none that they saw. But apparently not all of them used any visible powers.” I thought back to what the others had described. “There was one who controlled water, another one who made the concrete turn into fists, big ones. Another made the air solid enough to walk on or hit people with. And then there was the girl, the one in charge I mean. Apparently she made explosions and teleported? They’re not sure if those were part of the same thing or what.” 

Manakel considered that, silent thoughts clearly passing through his mind as his expression twisted. “The water isn’t hard. That must be Sachael’s child. As for the concrete manipulator, my… best guess is Orifiel. He was able to control physical buildings and similar constructs. That may be an earlier manifestation of it. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t using the power to its full extent. Either way, Orifiel… passed away over fifty years ago. Kushiel must have either kept some of his genetic material herself, or acquired it from another storage facility.” 

He went silent for a few seconds, processing his thoughts. I didn’t interrupt, and he eventually spoke again. “The girl who manipulated the air would almost certainly be the offspring of Rabia. She was… killed by the Moon girl during your assault on Kushiel’s original lab. And as for the girl who teleports via explosions…” He paused before visibly sighing. “I’m afraid I have no idea. It could be a manifestation or use of an ability I didn’t witness, or… perhaps a combination of two powers from a pair of Olympian parents, which created this form… I apologize. It could also be part of one of my removed memories.” 

“Removed–” I started before realizing. “Right, Athena and Sariel talked about that. Seosten can just… remove bits of their memory and store them somewhere else to go back for later when they need them.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “If that is the case, all you need to do is acquire my stored memories from the homeworld.” Another grimace came then, as he lamented, “I intended those words as a mixture of a joke and praise for your probable ability to actually accomplish something like that. But I’m afraid it may have come off as taunting.” 

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I pushed all of that down and simply replied, “Yeah, well until we happen to get those memories, we’ll just have to go with what you said. Which, for the record, basically matches what Sariel and the others thought.” Of course we had talked to them first before asking him any questions. I want to know if he would keep anything back. 

Manakel, in turn, gave me a short nod. “Please tell me you are going to inform my people of this.” He hesitated before adding, “If you truly wish for this peace treaty to work out, telling them is a good idea. They will not react happily should they learn about it and discover that you’ve kept it from them.” 

Before I could respond, my mother spoke up. “Yes, we are going to let your people know about it. Especially Sachael. He was already willing to help us once before, and even if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t…” She glanced away before turning back, expression hard. “I wouldn’t keep a secret like that. Your people are… you have trouble creating offspring. These children… their parents deserve to know they exist. The ones who are still alive anyway.” 

The reminder made me grimace a bit. That reminded me of another potential issue. I had no idea if that air-controlling girl, Fuscus apparently, knew that Vanessa was the one who had killed her real mother. Or if she would even care. That whole situation was complicated, to say the least. And it had the potential to become even more so. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I asked, “You were around Kushiel a lot more recently than the others here. I mean, you were on decent terms with her. Plus you uhh, you’ve had that connection to Tartarus. Do… do you have any idea why she might’ve wanted to take Harrison Fredericks? Is this a Kushiel thing, or a Tartarus thing, or–why does she want him? What is she planning to do?” We’d asked the other Seosten here on the station the same thing, of course, but they’d had no idea. 

Unfortunately, Manakel shook his head. “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly guess why she would want to abduct the creator of cyberforms, aside from forcing him to create more for her. You said her ghost companions could possess them. Perhaps she wants to give them bodies they can use so they are not limited to ghost forms. But that is merely a guess.”  

“Yeah,” I replied, “that’s basically where we’re at too.” I hesitated before looking back to him. “If you remember or think of anything else–”  

“I will tell you,” he assured me. “Even if I was not intent on making up for past mistakes, removing those offspring from her control is vital. I will attempt to think of what they could be doing with Fredericks. Of course, I can make no promises, but I… I will do what I can. You have my word, Felicity Chambers.” 

That was basically all I could ask for, and all I would trust him to say. So, excusing myself, I left him there with his thoughts. As Mom and I stepped out, we looked at each other. “This could get really bad,” I said quietly. 

Still holding that sword, Mom gave a short nod. “Yeah, it could. But we’ll handle it. Whatever she’s planning, we’ll deal with it. Now, don’t you have something else to do?” 

I blanched a little. “Right, homework. Actually, does it count as homework if we’re living on a space station in the middle of the sun? Maybe we should call it sunwork. That makes it sound exciting.” 

Mom, for her part, chuckled while reaching out to brush my hair. “You can call it anything you want, my little Felicity. Just make sure you get it done. You know the rules.”

Snickering despite myself as I pushed worry about what Kushiel and her newly revealed entourage were up to out of my head, I replied, “Yeah, yeah, I am totally not allowed to go on any life-and-death, world-saving and horrifyingly terrifying missions to far sides of the planet and or universe until I get my homework done. Sorry, my sunwork done.” 

“That’s right,” Mom confirmed, hand brushing down the side of my cheek fondly. “Now you head on back to your room to work on that, young lady. Don’t make me get Wyatt to lock you down until it’s done.

“I’m sure he’d love the challenge.” 

*****

For the next couple of weeks, things settled down for the most part. We didn’t see any sign of Kushiel, or Invidia, or any of the other Whispers or Seosten ghosts. Besides the one we had locked up here with us, of course. We had groups out searching for Fredericks with no luck. The loyalist Heretics from Crossroads and Eden’s garden had already set up camp at his lab. Well, they set up camp outside of it. Apparently they were incapable of getting inside. Which raised the question of how Kushiel had managed to go through that and get him out of there. His defenses were too much for a joint team of Heretics to properly deal with, but she got through it as a ghost? Yeah, I had a few questions about that.

But, there was nothing to be done about that for now. Not until someone managed to track them down, or at least get a lead. For the moment, we had nothing. So, I went about my days like an ordinary student. Two weeks of ordinary school days, or at least as ordinary as they got around here. 

I had spent time helping the Carnival System explore who they were. They started attending their own classes alongside Dakota, Bobbi, and others. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard for the other students to accept them. Apparently multiple minds sharing one body wasn’t all that extraordinary or weird for them. I could only imagine what it would’ve been like in the Bystander world. 

I didn’t visit Zeke, of course. We weren’t friends, and my presence wouldn’t make his staying here any better. But from what I heard, he really wasn’t happy about the situation. They had him in a comfortable set of rooms without letting him near any of the non-Heretic students. He kept going on about being a prisoner, but what else were we supposed to do? We couldn’t trust him not to react violently the first time some innocent little Alter kid went running past him. 

Malcolm, his old friend and roommate, had left Crossroads. Actually, Sophronia brought him over. Apparently he had only stayed there to try to help Zeke in the first place, not because he still believed in them. Which made me wonder how many others were there just to be with friends and family. 

Either way, Zeke might’ve been more angry with Malcolm than he was at his mother or anyone else. He refused to see him. Which had to hurt, but Malcolm seemed to roll with it.

I did go back to visit the residents in the hidden vault. I had promised we would help them, and we were. Most chose to stay and wait for us to find their missing kids with the information we had taken from Perrsnile. Information which, unfortunately, was going to take time to pan out. After all, it wasn’t like the people he had sold those kids to had all stayed in one spot. We were working on tracking them down. Which, overall, the vault people were being pretty patient about. Especially considering what they had already been through. Some chose to leave the vault and go out on their own, or even come up to live on the station. Whatever they wanted, we helped with as much as we could. 

Beyond that, I spent time with Manakel, taking lessons from him about how to use my power properly. As promised, we started with me learning how to undo the spell that had sent Grover’s friend away. It was a slow process, and I wasn’t ready to do it just yet, but it was definitely progress. I assured Grover that as soon as I had a handle on it, we would go back to that hotel and give it a shot.

So, basically, I had a lot to work on even if there wasn’t much openly happening. I definitely wasn’t bored, to say the least.

That whole not bored thing went triple at the moment, considering I was busy frantically sparring with Avalon. She was intent on making sure I wasn’t slacking in that department. And, I was pretty sure, she was also working out various frustrations of her own. She was getting more and more worried about Gaia with every day that went by. Which I couldn’t blame her for. We had to get the woman out of there. Preferably as soon as possible, and definitely before this truce with the Seosten ran out. 

Finally, after an intense series of clashes between my staff and two of the energy blades from her gauntlets, we both took a few steps back and bent over to grab our knees while panting a bit. I shook my head. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have someone like Zeke in here to beat up on?”  

She gave me a look and snorted. “Trust me, Felicity, if there was any chance I could get away with that, I would. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold back with him nearly as much as I do with you.” 

“Yeah,” I retorted, “if this is you holding back, he’d probably end up in rough shape. I’m pretty sure Sophronia would object to us handing him back to her in more than one piece.” Sobering after that, I added, “I take it there still hasn’t been any luck trying to figure out why the Whispers want him.” 

“Nothing new,” she confirmed while cracking her neck as she straightened up. “Something to do with that colony world, but we can’t go there and check it out ourselves. Crossroads still has a presence there. Athena says they’re working on getting someone there to look around, but they have to be subtle about it.” 

“Speaking of which,” I put in, “I was talking to Wyatt earlier, and he said they’ve put together another packet of information to send to Crossroads and Garden about protections against the Whispers. Everything we know about them. I mean, there’s no proof they’ll even listen to us, but we’ve gotta try, right?” 

Avalon grimaced visibly, murmuring, “Yeah, we have to try. The last thing–one of the last things we need is for a bunch of loyalist Heretics to end up being controlled by Invidia’s pack.” 

“Sure doesn’t sound fun,” I agreed, stomach twisting a bit at the thought. “I think I’m starting to understand why you want to exhaust yourself with all this.” My hand gestured around the training room before I focused on her, voice softening. “Seriously, I know it’s a lot to deal with, but we’re getting there, you know?” 

“Are we?” she replied simply. “Because it kind of seems like we keep adding new problems we need to deal with without actually handling the stuff we already have.” 

She wasn’t wrong about that, and I had just opened my mouth to try to find something I could say when there was a chime from the door, indicating someone wanted to come in. We opened it, and found Shiori on the other side. But she wasn’t alone. Asenath was there too, along with another figure I didn’t recognize, but knew immediately. They were a silver metallic android with glowing gem-like eyes. From what I’d heard, those eyes changed color, but for the moment they were an amber-brown. 

“Hey, Flick,” Shiori chirped, stepping in to embrace me tightly. She had been busy lately, helping her sister search for answers to Tiras’s lost memories. “Hey, Avalon.” 

“Hey guys,” I greeted alongside Valley. “Looks like you brought a friend.” 

Senny nodded. “Yeah, this is Robin. Ah…” She leaned around to glance at the figure’s eyes. “Hood. Yeah, Robin Hood.” 

The robot smiled brightly. “Pleased to meet you, Felicity Chambers.”

Their eyes shifted to yellow while they added, “We’ve been waiting a long time to meet the one who stomped Fossor’s stupid butt so hard!” 

Before I could respond, the eyes turned red. “I just wish we could’ve been there to lend a hand. Cuz beating the shit out of that asshole sounds like fun.” 

I’d heard about this, of course. Shiori had explained the whole situation when she heard about Denny and the Carnival System. But we still went through official introductions. This was the Robin System. The one I’d seen first, with the brown eyes, was the original–or at least the first one who had woken up here on Earth. They were Robin Hood, or the Hooded One. The yellow-eyed one was called Sprite, or the Sprightly One. Red eyes was Brawl, or the Brawling One. Med/Medical One, Chat/Chatting One, Quip/Quipping One, and Sec/Security One all had green, light blue, pink, and dark blue eyes respectively. And each took the time to introduce themselves. 

Once that was done, I smiled easily. “I take it you’re here to see the Carnival?” There had been talk about the Robins coming up to see Denny and the others, but they had been really busy the past couple weeks. Apparently it wasn’t easy to track down the Rasputin guy, even with the special information they’d received in exchange for some sort of favor they’d done for some woman. She knew places he had been, and stuff about where he might go, but not a current physical location. 

Their eyes shifted to green as Med spoke up. “Yes. We would like to speak with them and… and help ensure they understand their situation and that they are not alone.” 

Then the eyes turned yellow for Sprite once more. “And it’s fun! We like meeting others like us. We don’t… we don’t get to do that very often.” 

“Trust me, they’re excited to talk to you too,” I assured them. “Actually, I’m pretty sure we can head up there right now.” 

“Excellent,” came the response as those eyes shifted to dark blue, for Sec. “And, of course, there is the other matter we came here for.” 

“Other matter?” I echoed, exchanging a glance with Avalon. 

“Yeah…” Shiori scratched the back of her neck. “You’re not gonna believe this, Flick. But we found out where Rasputin is right now, and why it’s been so hard to actually find him.” 

Looking back and forth between them, I slowly asked, “Something tells me this is gonna be a big answer, but… where is he?” 

“Not on Earth,” Asenath informed me, voice solemn. “He’s on Fossor’s homeworld, Flick. 

“That’s where we need to go if we’re gonna find him.” 

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Calm Before 20-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and is able to be read by everyone right here

“Answer her,” Avalon was already pressing, her gaze intent as she stared that way. “Why were you looking for Hajer? And why in an old hotel that was taken over by a gang of Alters?” 

“To answer your questions in reverse order,” Manakel’s ghost informed us, “Hajer moves around quite a lot. Hence her title. I had it on quite good authority that she was there most recently at that time. Why she went to that place, I could not possibly say, only that she was at one point. Unfortunately… for me at the time, she was gone by the time I arrived. Which, as you have already learned, was not something I enjoyed learning.” He paused, giving a slight sigh before pushing on. “As to the first part, I wished to employ her services in removing the protections from Miss Sinclaire here.” His eyes moved to Avalon, who was still staring intently right back at him. “It was a long shot that she would agree to such a thing, but then, we were trying a lot of long shots at the time. And she has been surprising before in what she has agreed to.” 

Squinting, Valley slowly asked, “She’s the ancient human who was bonded to one of those Primals, right? The… whatever they were who created the weapons the King of Canada uses.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Your people would have called her a caveman. Or cavewoman. Bit offensive, but not incorrect. She was born in a time when the majority of your people did live in caves, when most of the Alters who would eventually come to call this planet home had not yet arrived. And those who had were… genuinely more threats than allies. In the early days, there were large portions of this planet which were ruled by incredibly dangerous creatures. Among those ancient inhabitants were very, very few of the beings you call Primals. Their own species was already doomed despite their vast power, and you might say a couple of those who were left… retired here. They stowed large armories of their advanced weaponry, such as what Oberon found.”

“Um, why were they doomed?” I found myself asking uncertainly. “I mean, as a species. What happened to them?” Was it weird that I was asking questions of the guy who had spent so long trying to murder my girlfriend and destroy my entire life, as though he was just another teacher? And did the fact that Avalon was right here with me, also asking him questions, make that whole situation better or worse? I wasn’t sure, but it was definitely a thing. 

“We don’t precisely know, to be honest,” was Manakel’s somewhat disappointing response. “Well, there are theories based on information we do have. I can tell you the one I subscribe to, which is that the beings we know as the Primals performed a spell that was so… dangerous and consuming, it destroyed their ability to procreate. And it did so to such an extent that even cloning would not help, because this spell they created and triggered worked by draining the life force from any iterations of their species who were not alive at the moment it was triggered.” 

I absorbed that for a moment before my eyes widened. “Wait, you mean they effectively destroyed their own ability to continue their species because they made a spell that killed any members of that species who weren’t there at the time? So they could never make any more, and the ones who died just… never got replenished?” 

“That seems like a very bad plan,” Persephone put in, gently rubbing one of Cerberus’s heads. “I don’t know what sort of goal they could have had for that.” 

“What she said,” Avalon noted dryly. She was still watching the man with obvious suspicion despite her curiosity. “What the hell were they trying to do? Are you sure they did it to themselves? That sounds an awful lot like something someone else would have done to them.” 

Mankel’s head bobbed slightly to acknowledge the point. “Yes, well, as I said, we know very little about them for certain. For the most part, they came from a time long before even my people. Certainly before we were an intergalactic civilization. We’re forced to piece things together from old records and stories. But we do know that, within the few records we have found and translated, the Primals repeatedly referred to their situation as something they had done to themselves. They blamed no outsiders, no invading enemy or force. Whatever happened, they were the source of it.” 

“So they couldn’t have any kids or create any clones, or do anything that would carry on their species,” I murmured. “And apparently this spell or whatever it was couldn’t be stopped. They were stuck with just whichever of them happened to be alive when the spell was cast, and once they died, that was it.” The idea made me shudder. What would it be like to live as a people as advanced as these Primals had been (if the weapons Oberon had found were any indication) and then become completely helpless to prevent your entire species from just dying out? 

“A few ‘retired’ to this planet, and this Wandering Woman, or Freyja, or Hajer… whatever she calls herself, she came across one of them way back in the primitive days.” Avalon frowned a bit. “If they lived so long ago that even your people didn’t know anything about them, they must live for a long time for any to have survived long enough for a primitive human to meet them.” 

The man gave a slight nod once more. “Yes, they were incredibly advanced in many ways, to the point of becoming nearly entirely immortal, in some cases. And yet, still, once one died for any particular reason, they were gone forever and the species was one step closer to complete extinction. And even they could only prolong their lives, or protect themselves from outside threats, for so long. Or perhaps some simply… chose to die, after so much of their species was wiped away with no chance to return to their former glory. They could have given up.” 

He was silent for a moment after that, clearly considering how it would feel, before visibly swallowing. Then he went on. “Hajer met one and was bonded to them. Perhaps it was an intentional way for that particular Primal to feel as though they were passing something of themselves on. Whatever the reasoning, she is quite possibly the most powerful being on this planet.” 

“She has the ability to undo things,” I remembered. “Mom said if she focuses on something or someone, she can undo the effect of anything. If you burn a house down, she can wave a hand and put it back to the way it was before the fire. Even if that means bringing everyone who was killed in the fire back to life. But like, she can even undo learning. She can make you forget things, or even erase skills out of your head by removing the fact that you ever learned them.” 

“All of which is correct.” After saying that, Manakel paused, glancing away as though losing himself in thought for a moment before shaking it off as he turned back to us. “As I said, my goal was to find her and convince her that it would be in the best interest of this world for me to succeed in my mission.” His gaze focused on Avalon as he flatly finished with, “My mission, of course, to kill you. Again, for however little it is worth, you have my apologies. Yet I did, absolutely and without question, believe what I was saying at the time. I believed that killing you, eliminating any possibility of Liesje’s spell from ever being put into the world, would maintain the peace here. Because if my people found out that spell was active, I believed they would come here in force.” 

“Yeah, they still might try that,” I muttered under my breath. “But I guess you didn’t find her.” 

“No, I did not. So I returned to other plans.” He looked to Avalon once more. “Plans which failed.” 

“Yeah, we’re all glad about that, believe me,” I noted. “But anyway, to get back to the whole reason I brought that up in the first place, you said you could help me learn to undo that… ‘severscatter’ spell that you used on Grover’s friend so we can bring her back?” 

“As I also said, it will take some time for you to learn enough to do so,” the man reminded me. “But yes, I believe it can be done. Once you have learned how, you will have to go to the spot where it occurred. And you will need to know as much about the girl as possible. That, you will need this… Grover’s aid with. But assuming all goes well enough, you should be able to, ahem, bring her back.” 

My phone buzzed at that point, so I glanced down at it before replying, “Well, I’ll definitely be coming to you for lessons soon. But in the meantime, it sounds like the others are starting to wake up.

“And I really need to get back there in time for my grandparents to meet Theodore.” 

******

Of course, Manakel had no idea what I meant by ‘Theodore,’ and I wasn’t yet to the point where I felt like explaining it. So Avalon and I left him there with Persephone and Cerberus. They had a lot to talk about, and I was pretty sure most of it was pretty private stuff. Still, I made sure Percy knew she could call for us any time she wanted, and that she absolutely did not have to do anything Manakel told her to. And I told Andromeda she should listen in and make sure nothing untoward happened. Even if he was being… well, nice now, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Having a secretly-still-evil Manakel manipulating Persephone into something bad wasn’t quite the worst situation I could think of, but it wasn’t good either. 

Either way, right now wasn’t the time to think about all that. Now was the time to focus on Grandmaria and Popser, who were standing in the kitchen alongside Dad, Mom, and me. And Loudpound, who was wolfing down a very large stack of pancakes at the table. Or rather, pancake and egg sandwiches. She took two pancakes at a time, shoved several spoonfuls of scrambled eggs between them, then ate the result like a sandwich. While sometimes dipping it in syrup. I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to try it like that, but she sure enjoyed it. 

“Uurph, I gotta tell ya, Grandma Chambers, you make some fine flapjacks,” she announced after devouring another of her concoctions. “I mean, I never actually had real ones before, just what I’ve got from borrowed memories, or how they taste inside. But if I had to have anything as my first outside meal, I’m glad it was this.” She took another huge bite then, with a murmur of pleasure, then gulped down half a glass of milk. 

Staring at the greenish-brown, taller Denny in wonder (for more than one reason, I was sure), Grandmaria finally found her voice. “Oh, well, if you think those little things are good, you should try my cookies sometime.” 

Pointing with her latest pancake and egg sandwich clutched in one hand, Loudpound declared, “I’ll hold you to that! Err–what?” She looked to the side as though listening to someone else before muttering under her breath, then turned back. “I mean, thanks. You know, for that and all this food. It’s all ahh, it’s all good.” 

Grandmaria paused before smiling. “Well, I’m just glad you’ve all been enjoying it. Or… is that just you? I’m afraid I’m not quite certain how that works with your… ahh, situation.” 

Taking another gulp of milk to finish off the glass, Loudpound shrugged. “I’m not really the explaining things type, unless you’re talking about explaining just how much it hurts to have my fist in your face. Then I’m more of what you might call an interactive teacher.” She offered a toothy grin that showed off her fangs. Then there was another pause as she listened, before shrugging. “Yeah, well, you do it.” 

With that, her body shrank down half a foot, back to the original Denny’s height. Her skin shifted away from the brownish-green and became a bright fuchsia, while her clothes were a mint and black mix. She even had a matching cape. Her eyes were yellow with no whites to them, and she had short and spiky white hair. 

“Hi!” the new arrival chirped. “I’m Tailor! Letters was gonna come out and talk, but she’s busy right now. I wanted to say I really liked the pancakes too! I probably wouldn’t have put them together with the eggs like that, but it was a new experience. I think new experiences are good! Err, most of the time. Okay, okay, maybe there’s a lot of bad new experiences, but this one was just weird, and weird isn’t bad! I like experiencing things.” 

She looked to my grandmother then. “We can taste what the person on the outside eats, but it’s like… one step removed? It’s not quite like having someone describe something to you, but it’s not exactly the same as experiencing it yourself either. It’s like, uhhhhh… you know when you eat something and then a couple seconds later you can still remember what it tastes like really well? It’s sorta like that.” She thought about her own explanation for a second, then gave a firm nod. “Basically.” 

“Well,” Popser started, “it’s certainly a delight to meet you, Tailor. I hope we didn’t annoy your… sister? I hope we didn’t annoy her too much with all our questions.” 

“Psshh, nah, she’s okay.” Tailor waved that off. “Like she said, she just doesn’t like to explain things. Or listen to things being explained. She gets bored pretty quick.” Her head tilted to look up toward the corner of the ceiling. “What? You do. I didn’t say it was a bad thing.” Looking back to my grandparents, she added, “Anyway, we decided we don’t really like the term sister or brother, because… well, some of us are more connected than others. Letters was reading stuff online earlier when she was out, and she thinks those should be called syslings. Like system siblings. That’s what we are, a System, basically. We didn’t start out the same way they do, but… I mean, it’s close enough. Anyway, we’re the Carnival System. Some of us are syslings, some of us aren’t. Mostly we’re what you call Aspects, or maybe headmates.That’s another word Letters found. Individually, we’re Aspects. When you’re talking about what we are to each other, it’s Headmates. Loudpound and Bijou are syslings because they’re really close, even though they’re pretty different. But just go with headmates for all of us as a whole.”  

Dad, who had been standing in the back corner of the room next to Mom as they watched all this, spoke up. “I had an interview with someone like that awhile back. We were trying to find out what they knew, but the one we needed to talk to was, ahh… gone. I think they said he ‘walked out.’ I ended up talking to their–what did he call himself? Archeologist, that was it. He called himself the System Archeologist. He had this mental museum of all of the pieces of memory the other parts of them left lying around. Ended up being pretty helpful. And ahh, educating.” 

We all talked a little bit more about that, before Grandmaria promised to make cookies soon, and said she would invite any of the Carnival System out to help. Then she and Popser decided they were ready to go in and see Theodore. Apparently the System had already figured out that he couldn’t manifest outside. He wasn’t exactly the same as them. They were all pieces of Denny, at least partially, so they could take over and control the body. But he was more of a separate entity inside her memories, and apparently that wasn’t enough for him to take over. Though, to be honest, I wasn’t sure he even wanted to. He was pretty nervous about interacting with anyone in there, let alone taking over the body in the ‘outside world.’ 

In any case, Tailor swapped with Walker, who grunted her own greetings before waving for us to step together. So, Mom, my grandparents, and I all moved closer. The four of us were going in. Apparently it wasn’t easy for Denny to support too many people inside herself at the same time, and we didn’t want to push things any further than that. 

We arrived in the carnival itself, and my grandparents looked around in wonder. Grandpartie went on a bit about how amazing it would be if they could make a virtual reality video game look this good, while a few of the Aspects cautiously watched from various game booths and rides. They weren’t approaching. 

Then a voice spoke up cautiously from nearby. “I… hello.” It was Theodore, of course. He tentatively stepped out from behind one of the booths, looking nervous. He had dressed up in a cute little black suit with a blue bowtie and matching boots. 

Turning that way, Popser was the first to react. “Aha!” he crowed, making Theodore jump a little. “There’s my grandson!” With a grin, he stepped that way, then paused before lowering himself to one knee. Even then, he still towered over the small boy. “I like your tie. That’s not a clip-on.” 

“No, sir,” Theodore confirmed. “Bang-bang helped me tie it.” 

“Well, he did a bang-up job.” Giving a laugh at his own joke, Popser added, “And it sounds like he’s a good friend. You can call me Popser, or Grandpartie, just like the others.” He offered his hand. “You like Theodore or Theo?” 

After a very brief pause, the boy accepted the shake, his own hand vanishing into our grandfathers’ much bigger one. “I think I usually prefer Theodore, but… Theo sounds okay coming from you, uh, sir.” 

“Theo it is, then,” Popser agreed before waving a hand. “Maria, come meet our grandson.” 

Soon, the three of them were talking animatedly. Well, our grandparents were doing most of the talking. Theodore stayed pretty quiet and just watched. But his eyes were certainly animated, as he stared at them and alternately nodded or shook his head while they asked questions. 

Stepping next to my mother as that went on, I quietly murmured, “I’m pretty sure this is good for all of them.” 

Her head gave a short nod, eyes remaining centered on Theodore while shining with half-shed tears. “Yes. It’s good for them, and for us. And I think it’s good for Denny and the rest of the Carnival as well.” Saying that, she smiled even more at the sight of Popser rising while picking Theodore off the ground so he could hold him up as high as possible, making the boy give a reflexive laugh. Her voice became so quiet, I could barely hear her next words.  

“It’s just plain… good.” 

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Calm Before 20-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Beside me, Persephone made a noise as though she was going to say something. Before she could, however, Avalon put a hand on her arm and looked at her. Neither of them spoke in that moment, but I could see some sort of silent communication through expressions going on. After a couple seconds, Percy bowed her head slightly as though accepting what the other girl wanted. Then she glanced toward me and whispered very faintly, “She is very persuasive.” 

“That she is,” I murmured under my breath. I honestly wasn’t sure what to make out of the fact that Valley was capable of convincing an Olympian-powered Revenant to let her go first, but it certainly wasn’t surprising. She was pretty damn special. 

Meanwhile, Avalon herself took a couple steps forward while keeping her eyes on the ghost. Her voice was flat, though I could hear the emotion layered within it. “You tried awfully hard to make sure I died last year, Manakel.” The only slight stumble in her words came when she said his name, as though she hadn’t decided until that very moment whether she was going to use any sort of honorific or not. And to be fair, I really couldn’t blame her for going with not. 

“I did,” Manakel confirmed. He seemed to consider how to respond next before speaking again. “I would say that it was not personal, but of course, it was very personal to you. And, I believe, quite personal to me by the end. I would also say that I was not myself at the time, but that should not matter to you. Both for the fact that the victim should never be made to excuse the faults of the aggressor, and because I was hardly the sole representative of my people who caused you harm. We Seosten made a bit of a habit of that.” 

Again, he fell silent for a moment, his gaze watching her. And yet, though his expression appeared fairly blank on the outside, I could feel the turmoil within the man. He really did feel guilty about the whole thing, but honestly felt as though showing his feelings that way would be selfish. The man was taking time between sentences to choose his words not in an attempt to be manipulative, but because he wanted to be careful not to turn a discussion about Avalon’s feelings into one about his own problems. 

Okay, seriously, I was getting an awful lot of information about his emotions and whatnot. Was this just because of our connection through the Tartarus thing? Because I definitely didn’t get that much detail from all my ghosts. If I did, I would’ve been able to tell whether Perrsnile or Ausesh were lying back in the vault. 

“What I can say,” Manakel eventually continued, “is that I am sorry for all suffering I was directly or indirectly involved with when it comes to your life, Avalon Sinclaire. I was performing the duties which were assigned to me, but that is not an excuse, for I had previously proven myself capable of creatively reinterpreting orders, and I certainly could have suggested other solutions to the situation. The fact is, I chose not to. For that, regardless of any outside influence I may have been operating under, you have my deepest, most unequivocal apology.” His gaze met hers. “I am sorry for hurting you, and for participating in causing you pain.”

Avalon seemed to absorb that for a moment. Watching her from behind, I could see the way her shoulders hunched slightly before she forced them down and continued to meet his gaze. After all that time, after everything she had been through when it came to the Seosten in general and Manakel in particular, she wasn’t going to look away from him or show any fear. A brief couple of seconds passed before she finally replied, very slowly and deliberately, “I’m going to be watching you, and I’ll be ready… if you end up trying anything.” Another pause, then, “For whatever reason.” Which, I imagined, was her concession that he might very well be telling the truth about being ‘better’ now, but could still end up being re-corrupted by Tartarus. 

Manakel obviously understood all that, acknowledging her words with a simple nod. “I would expect nothing less, Avalon Sinclaire. You have, in all respects, proven yourself to be a quite remarkable and resourceful young woman. Who,” he added while glancing to me very briefly, “is also very adept at finding remarkable and resourceful companions.” 

“Yeah,” Avalon retorted, “and I’m rather fond of them. So don’t think you can try something just because one of them might be… more inclined than I am to believe any story you tell.” After letting that sit very briefly, she added, “Not that I’m saying you’re lying right now. But if you are, or if your… situation changes at any point, I won’t hesitate to make sure you go away forever.” 

Beside me, I could see Persephone shift a little. I wasn’t sure what exactly she was feeling about any of this situation, let alone what Avalon was saying. It was complicated, to say the least. Whatever she was thinking, I was pretty sure it wasn’t the same thing she would’ve thought before she came here. I’d only known her for a short time, but the experience of having Sariel and several of her other former crewmates apologize for how they had treated her seemed to have meant a lot to her. Though I was also certain even she didn’t understand those feelings.

Manakel never looked away from Avalon through her words. He took them in and waited to be sure she was done before quietly replying, “I am glad to hear that. And I hope, if that time comes, you truly will ensure that I do not cause you any more harm.” 

Avalon looked like she was going to say something else briefly before deciding against it. Instead, she stepped aside, moving back toward me before glancing toward Percy with a quiet, “Sorry, he needed to hear it. And I needed to say it.” 

“It’s alright, Avalon,” Persephone brightly informed her, “sometimes we need to say things.” With those simple words, she turned her attention back to Manakel and quietly added, “Hello, my husband. You still smell of the Necromancy, though not as much. It is… filtered?” She sounded like she wasn’t sure that was the right word, but rather, the closest she could think of. 

Again, I sensed a torrent of emotions from Manakel, even though his expression remained relatively blank. He took a moment, looking like he was inhaling though of course there was no actual air involved. A habit, I supposed. Then he spoke, his voice as gentle as I had ever heard it. “Persephone, I am glad to see that you’ve made your way here. You and Cerberus.” 

Hearing his name, the three-headed robot dog immediately took a few cautious steps forward, before all six of his ears laid back as he made a soft whining sound. I knew the problem immediately. Cerberus recognized Manakel, but also knew that he was intended to fight evil ghosts. Even though I’d had him around my ghosts a few times, this specific situation was still awkward and different enough that he wasn’t sure what to do about it. And, I was pretty sure he could sense how uncertain and tense the whole thing was, which didn’t help.

Persephone moved up as well, stopping next to Cerberus once more before laying a hand on one of his heads. Her voice was still bright. “If it is true that ghosts of your people are being taken to serve this… Tartarus, then I am very glad you managed to avoid that fate.” She glanced over her shoulder toward me, offering a smile before turning back to him as she continued. “Felicity is very special. She taught me how to effectively protect my yellow pseudo-circle from the evil colored ghosts.”

Manakel, who quite obviously had no experience with Pac-Man, made a noise of uncertainty before managing, “I’m glad she’s been here for you. And that you have… grown.” 

“He means he’s glad you’re not immediately throwing yourself at him while pledging obedience,” Avalon put in flatly. “Which is one thing I think we can safely both agree with.” 

“Quite,” Manakel murmured with a glance that way before turning his attention fully to the Revenant woman. “If I owed Avalon Sinclaire an apology, I owe you more than I could ever give. My treatment of her was at least covered by duty. It was my job to find a way to kill her. But you… the way I…” He grimaced, giving a soft sigh. “I believe the part of me that was becoming increasingly influenced by my connection to my… our fallen crewmates was afraid that you might be able to detect something different about me. So I continually sent you away on long trips, under the pretense of not wanting Kore’s body to be near me. A, ahh, readily accepted excuse, to say the least.” 

After saying those words, he hovered forward a bit and focused on her. “I have failed in so many ways to give you advice, guide you along your journey of self-discovery, or in any way aid you as I should have. But if I can do any of that now, if it is not too late, I would like to say this. Listen to Felicity Chambers and to Avalon Sinclaire. And to those close to them. They are the best guides you could have when learning to exist in this universe.” 

Another pause came before he added, “And yet, you are Olympian too. You served on that ship. You performed every duty asked of you. You put yourself in danger repeatedly, and were responsible for protecting everyone there. You were a member of that crew. Don’t you let anyone take that away from you, or forget it. Sariel, Luci– Apollo, Athena, all of them, they can help you. They will… want to help you. Let them. And those who try to take away from your contributions, who try to diminish your worth… don’t accept it. You are special, Persephone, in ways I don’t believe you, I, or anyone else we know quite understands just yet. You don’t need a husband, or a wife, or any other version of someone to attach yourself to in order to be important. You always were. All you have ever needed was to be yourself. I mistreated you, took advantage of you, sent you away when you might have formed bonds with the crew so that you would remain alien to them because I didn’t want you to be too close to them. For that and everything else, I am sorry. Please, never call me your husband again. I did not treat you as one should, and I did not earn it. I would like, before my time is up and I reach whatever fate comes for me, to be able to call you a friend. But I would prefer to take our time at that.” 

Persephone seemed to take that in, considering it for a few long moments before straightening up. “I would like to call you a friend in the future as well, Manakel. And I have been told that it is rude to refer to someone by a term or name they have asked you not to use. So, just as I do not refer to Felicity as my wife, I will not refer to you as my husband. But I want you to know that, should this Tartarus attempt to claim you again, I will do everything in my power to ensure that does not happen.” 

Visibly grimacing at the very thought of that place taking control of him, Manakel hesitated before finding his voice. “I assure you, I would accept any and all aid in avoiding that.” Then he looked to Cerberus and added, “Yes, even from you, Spot.”  

Stepping forward myself while Cerberus bounced around in a happy circle at being acknowledged, I announced, “Well, we might not all be friends, but at least we can accept that Tartarus and Maestro are the real threats.” 

A clouded expression crossed Manakel’s face, and I felt a mixture of anger and fear from him. “Yes, that is…” He sighed. “Sariel asked me what I knew about that, about him. Unfortunately, the answer is nothing. All I know now is what they told me. I never heard any mention of Zadkiel, or any Fomorian-Seosten hybrid while hearing the… pardon I know the term is sensitive right now, lower-case whispers of my old crewmates.” 

“That’s right,” I put in, “You were hearing the voices from the Olympians who died. And they were actually speaking out loud. Persephone heard them, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. You…” I considered my words before just outright asking, “Why didn’t you tell anyone about that? I mean, didn’t the ship have a psychologist who should’ve been available?” 

“Miss Chambers,” Manakel promptly replied, “precisely what evidence have you seen in all your short, yet highly consequential dealings with my people which would make you believe we have a strong grasp of the necessity of mental health?” 

“Well if I was gonna think too much along those lines, I’d wonder if you people could even define the term,” I retorted before coughing. “But yeah, fine. Not telling Puriel though? He was your captain and, like, your friend, wasn’t he?” 

For a second, Manakel looked away. I could sense… well, that same regret, yet also some positive feelings. He was remembering old days with Puriel. My pointing out that they were supposed to be friends made him think about what had made them friends in the first place. The memories, happy as they might’ve been, were obviously tainted by what came later and his own regrets. Yet they existed, and for a moment he simply enjoyed those memories. Which, given the Seosten perfect recall, had to be easier to do. Yet on the other hand, it also meant that he could perfectly recall every bad thing he had done as well. 

With a visible sigh, the man focused once more, his gaze meeting mine. “He was, and I would like to say that it was the influence of Tartarus which prevented me from speaking up. Which, perhaps, became the truth eventually. But at first…at first it was selfishness. I believed that it was simply my own power allowing me to see and hear the ghosts of those who died on the ship, and I thought if I said it was happening, they would either do something to prevent it, or… or relieve me of my duties. Neither of which I wanted to happen. I wanted to continue serving on the Olympus, alongside my friend. And I wanted to keep seeing the ghosts, even if they didn’t listen to me.” 

“Didn’t listen to you?” Avalon immediately echoed. 

“That is why I believed they would either relieve me or find a way to remove the ghosts,” Manakel replied. “Unlike all other spirits, these did not obey my commands. I didn’t know if that was a psychological block on my own part, not wanting to command those I felt I had failed in allowing them to die, or… or what. Either way, the fact that they continued to appear only while I was alone, and that I could not control them, convinced me that outsiders would believe I was either losing my mind, or that I could not effectively control my own gift when it came to the deaths of my crewmates. It was… it was a conscious choice not to tell anyone when I could have. A mistake on my part.” Another slight pause, then, “One of many.” 

I had no idea what I was supposed to say to that, so I moved on. “I have another question for you. It’s important. I need you to think back to last year. There was a hotel called the Runaway. It was taken over by a bunch of Alters, a gang. You went there for some reason, and when the two ghosts who live there showed up, you asked them about something or someone named Hajer. When they couldn’t answer your question, you tried to do something to them. The girl ghost pushed the boy out of the way, so he was only slightly clipped by it, but she took the full hit.” 

Manakel seemed to be focusing on recalling that memory, before looking back to me. “You have the boy ghost, don’t you? He only took a small fraction of the hit, so he would have come back on his own eventually.” 

“Oh!” Persephone abruptly piped up. “You used a pehvne spell.” To us, she added, “I guess the best translation would be… uhh… severscatter?” 

“That is as good as any,” the man agreed. “A pehvne, or ahh, severscatter spell normally involves shoving your own magical energy into your opponent, infecting his energy, the fuel he uses to cast spells and even use many abilities, and then rip that fuel out of him before scattering it in all directions. Some levels of the spell scatter the energy within the same area, allowing it to be reclaimed quite quickly, while higher levels scatter it much further to the point that it is essentially gone forever. Which, in the case of most living creatures, means little aside from the fact that it will take them time to regenerate their own magical fuel.” He paused then, considering Avalon and me. “Having posed as one of your instructors for quite some time last year, I know that you are both very bright. And that you are aware of how that works.” 

“People gradually absorb energy from the sun or just air around them and convert it into mana, or whatever you want to call it,” I confirmed. “Once they convert it, the energy has their own sort of signature that makes it theirs, so they can use it properly. So you’re saying the power you used was supposed to take someone’s magical energy and scatter it so they can’t cast spells until their tank refills. But you used it on ghosts, and they’re basically nothing but magical energy.” 

He confirmed that with a nod before explaining, “I put enough power into that to ensure they would not come back within the next ten of your Earth years if used on both. As the girl took the brunt of it, I can only imagine it would take twenty for her to return. I was… quite angry at the time. As I recall, we had just discovered that Zedekiah Pericles was not the person responsible for Miss Sinclaire’s protection.” 

Meeting his gaze evenly, Avalon retorted, “After you people murdered him.” 

“Yes.” Manakel’s voice was flat. “After we murdered him. And yes, before you ask,” he added to me, “I believe I can help you bring the ghost back. Or teach you how to do it. That will take some time, but it is as good a place to start as any with our lessons.” 

“Well, good,” I replied. “And while we’re at it, maybe you should explain exactly what, or who, you were looking for at that place anyway. Because if not being able to find this Hajer pissed you off that much, I think it’s something we should know about.” 

“Ah,” the ghost-man replied, “well that is not difficult. You may have heard of her yourself. But I believe you would know Hajer as the ahh… Wandering Woman? Or possibly Wrethekau, Freyja, Isis, the Witch of Endor?” 

“Oh. Right, yeah, we’ve heard of her,” I agreed. “But why were you looking for her, exactly? 

“And I swear to any deity-level power you might have any shred of belief in, if any of the next few words out of your mouth have anything to do with her having any part in my or Avalon’s family histories, I may have to give Grover what he wants and stab someone.” 

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Calm Before 20-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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 After checking in on Ausesh and Perrsnile, I visited with the other ghosts for a while and took down some notes about a few things they needed or wanted. Stuff like some extra DVDs for various shows they couldn’t find on the streaming services that had already been set up for them. I also took a dozen of the ipads and electronic book readers that were lying around and updated them, downloaded some more materials, and adjusted the automatic-page turning systems so they could be turned on and off with a simple touch. That way, the ghosts would only have to use enough energy to start and stop the automatic turning, or adjust how fast it went, rather than having to do it every time they wanted to make it go to the next page. Finally, I set up a large touch screen monitor on the wall of one of the rooms with a paint program. They could stand there and brush their fingers over it to make pictures and then save them to be displayed on other screens throughout the mansion. I had set the sensitivity up pretty high so they didn’t have to use much energy to make it register the touch.

Several apologized repeatedly for even asking for stuff, but I made it clear that I wanted them to tell me when there was anything I could get for them. If I was stuck as a ghost like that, and had very limited options for entertainment, I would definitely want to be able to ask for new things to keep myself occupied. Especially if, as was the case for most of them, my previous Necromancer had been Fossor. 

“You sure I can’t get anything for you?” I finally asked Grover while standing outside in the backyard. I’d expected him to be first in line to ask about new DVDs, but he hadn’t spoken up for any of it. 

The small, yellowish-orange ghost boy with that ratty, ill-fitting patch-work suit shook his head while looking a bit pensive. If it wasn’t for the visible scales on his arms and wrists, and the curly horns that were visible sticking out from under that newsboy cap, I almost could have thought that he was a completely human kid, working up the nerve to say something. 

Glancing over my shoulder to where Avalon was examining a statue on the far side of the yard, I paused before lowering my voice. “Grover, what’s wrong? I know you’ve got a list of old shows you want me to try to get. Are you okay?” 

A moment of silence passed before he slowly looked up at me. His voice was quiet. It was nothing like the casual and confident ghost I’d known from the moment we met. “He’s here, right? Manakel.” 

The question made me blink in surprise, giving the boy another look as I reassessed him. “Wait, you know Manakel? Hold on, was he the one who…” 

“He didn’t kill me, no,” Grover informed me, but his voice still sounded off. “I had a friend for a while, a ghost friend. She was this dilly of a babe. You’d probably call her wicked cool. She uhh, she taught me everything about being a ghost. Protected me for a long time, showed me the ropes and helped me uhh… come to terms with everything. Would’ve been lost without her. Nihla, that was her name. I used to call her Wafer. You know, like those cookies, the Nilla Wafers.” 

He was gazing off into the distance, clearly lost in memory for a moment. Then his expression clouded. “We were minding our own business last year when that Manakel guy paid a visit to the hotel. He was looking for something. Or maybe someone. Whatever, the point is, the guy summoned us up as soon as he felt us in that place. He wanted us to tell him about something or someone named Hajer. We didn’t know what he was talking about, and he ahh… he didn’t like that. He did something, some sort of banishment spell. It was supposed to destroy both of us, but Nihla shoved me out of the way, so I only got hit by a little bit of it. Just enough to scatter me for a few days until I could pull myself together. But Nihla… she was gone. He destroyed her.” 

Oh boy. Taking all that in, I gave a long sigh before focusing on him. I pushed enough power into the boy to make him solid from it so I could put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m really sorry about that. I–I’m sorry.” Swallowing, I added, “That’s why you showed yourself to me as soon as I was there, isn’t it?” 

“I recognized the… scent of your power, at least part of it,” Grover confirmed. “Poked my head out to see what the hell that monster was doing back there, so when I saw you instead… I was curious. Wanted to find out why you smelled like his power. You know, if you were his kid or something.” 

Shuddering at that thought, I watched him for a moment. “Then you found out he was dead and I had his power.” 

Grover gave a very short nod. “I found out you killed him. Semantics aside, you killed him. Or your body did. Whatever. You had his power.  And you were a necromancer. I thought maybe… at some point when you were stronger…” 

I realized suddenly what he was talking about, rocking back on my heels. “You were hoping I might be able to bring Nihla back. Since I have his power.” 

He offered a weak shrug, clearly feeling embarrassed or ashamed of even bringing it up. “I know it’s probably impossible. If he destroyed her, there’s no coming back from that. But if there’s even the slightest chance that there might be some piece of her left, if anyone’s power could fix her, it’s that. And you were… not like him. I wasn’t even going to talk about it until you had a lot more training, until I did… until I did you enough favors that you might want to help.” Another pause came, before he gave a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry.” 

Taking a moment to collect my thoughts, I finally exhaled before speaking up. “Okay, first of all, you don’t have anything to apologize for. Nothing. You’ve been helping a lot, and of course you want your friend back. I mean, if she hasn’t moved on or anything like that, obviously you’d want to help her reform. There’s nothing wrong with that, so don’t apologize again. And believe me, I know what it’s like to hate that guy. Remember, he spent most of last year trying very hard to kill Avalon.” I glanced toward the girl in question briefly before turning my attention back to him. “He was responsible for a lot of bad things.”

That said, I shook my head. “And I know hearing he’s not that person anymore doesn’t really help. I could spend the next week talking about how Tartarus affected him, about how the ghosts of the other Olympians who died helped twist him into what he was. I could talk about how he’s supposed to be different now, but I don’t think it would really help. He’s still the guy who hurt, or even destroyed, your friend. Semantics don’t really matter when it comes to that.” 

Again, I hesitated, my eyes closing tightly as memories flashed through my head. “He killed my friend. He killed Rudolph, murdered him right in front of us. So yeah, I know that it’s not something you can just forget because he says he’s different now.” 

My hand clenched tightly before I forced myself to continue. “But, he’s here now. And the truth is, I need his help. This power I have is really strong. It’s got so much potential, but I can only learn so much so fast from people like Brom Bones. Don’t get me wrong, that guy’s a really good teacher. And if I had years to learn what I needed to, he’d definitely be enough. But I have to learn as fast as possible if I’m going to use it the way I need to. With the Whispers out there, and Olympian ghosts like Kushiel… it’s too dangerous for me to take my time learning. I have to get better as fast as possible. And the best way for me to do that is to learn from the man himself.” 

After letting that sit for a moment, I met the ghost boy’s gaze. “And he can teach me how to help your friend. I mean, if it’s at all possible. I could spend years, even decades, trying to understand how to fix what he did on my own, and still not get anywhere. I wouldn’t even know where to start. But if he’s right here, and he claims he wants to make up for all the terrible things he did, here’s his chance. I’ll tell him to help me find Nihla, if there’s anything… if it’s possible, and bring her back. I promise. As soon as we get things settled and all that, I’ll tell him that’s the first thing on the list. I’ll help get your friend back, Grover. If it’s at all possible, we’ll get her back.” 

I could see the way he absorbed my words, clearly doing his best not to give too much of a reaction. He didn’t want to let himself actually hope. Even then, his eyes betrayed the impact of what he was feeling for a moment before the boy got himself under control. With a very slight nod, he spoke in a flat voice. “Just don’t trust him, huh? Whatever sort of sob story he’s got about how sorry he is and how that wasn’t him, you keep your eyes on him. Maybe he can help and maybe he can’t, but you make sure he doesn’t get one over on you.” 

“Don’t worry,” I started to assure him before catching myself. “Well, do worry, but do it in moderation. We’ll both keep our eyes open, okay? Let me know if you see, or hear, anything hinky.” 

With a slight snort despite himself, Grover echoed, “Hinky. Sounds funny when you say it.” He sobered then, staring at me before giving a somber nod. “He starts trying anything, we’ll let you know. Me and the other ghosts. You can count on us.” 

“She can count on all of us,” Avalon announced while moving up on one side of me. Her attention was on him. “And like she said, if there’s any fragment of your friend out there, we’ll make him help bring her back.”

Glancing that way, I raised an eyebrow. “Pretty good hearing from the other side of the yard.” 

In response, Avalon turned her head and brushed her hair back so I could see the almost invisible hearing aid-like buds in her ears. “Just testing a new invention. If I tune it to one person’s voice, it can pick up that plus anyone directly talking to them from as far away as a hundred yards. Including through walls.” 

Grinning a bit despite myself, I poked her lightly. “Well, I do enjoy being your guinea pig.” At Grover’s exaggerated look, I rolled my eyes. “Yeah yeah, go on and get back to your thing. We’ll talk about the Manakel situation later, I promise. He’s gonna help.” 

The boy gave a very brief, yet sincere smile before switching back to his usual casual expression as he started to go back into the house. Partway there, however, he spun back to me. “Oh, well, as long as you’re already taking down a list of new DVDs you should pick up, it’d be a waste if I didn’t make sure you get some actual decent ones. 

“You might wanna get a pen and paper or something.” 

*****

Once that was done, Avalon and I made our way out of the haunted mansion. I’d barely reached the sidewalk before the sound of heavy metal running along the pavement drew my attention that way. Sure enough, Cerberus, in his, ahem, ‘small’ form, was charging toward me. All three of his heads were focused on the spot where I was standing, giving me wide puppy grins before they each barked in succession, one after the other. 

Bracing myself, I caught the two side heads as the robot-dog skidded to a halt right at my feet. Rubbing the metal there as though scratching them (something they seemed to enjoy despite the fact that it really shouldn’t have done anything), I tilted my head back and let the middle head lick my face. “Heeey, who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy! Good boy!” His tail was thumping against the ground excitedly, as he shifted the middle head out of the way so the left one could get a few licks in, followed by the right. 

Meanwhile, the ones that weren’t licking my face leaned toward Avalon, who gingerly reached out to pat them. Porthos, perched on her shoulder, gave a long and apparently quite detailed chittering lecture to them which I was pretty sure had something to do with explaining how Avalon was his partner and they should remember that. 

“He was very excited to see you again, Felicity,” Persephone cheerfully announced while approaching. She was taking her time, walking right along the curb while carefully putting one foot directly in front of the other as she balanced on the edge. “And you, Avalon, of course. But mostly Felicity, because she was missing all day and he knew she was in trouble.” Focusing on me, she added, “We were all very sorry that we could not aid you while you were Sure Locking Homes.” 

I blinked a couple times at that, before realizing. “… You mean Sherlock Holmes?” 

Grinning brightly, she replied, “That’s what I said. I do not know why a phrase about ensuring homes are locked has become synonymous with solving mysteries, but I am assured ‘playing Sure Lock Homes’ is the correct term.” 

Despite myself, I couldn’t help but smile a bit at that, shaking my head. “Come on, I’ll explain the whole Sherlock Holmes thing on the way.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, however, I hesitated. “I mean, if you’re sure you want to go see him right now?” There was no need to define exactly who I meant. She knew. 

Meeting my gaze with a serious expression, the white-haired woman gave a single nod. “Yes, Felicity. I… I have had several long discussions with Miss Sariel, Captain Puriel, and others. And with you as well, all of which I am very grateful for. But I believe that it is my… it is Doctor Manakel to whom I must speak next. That is an opportunity I believed was lost to me once, and I would not like to lose it again, should anything else happen.”

She was being so careful to explain things, and I could tell she’d rehearsed what she was going to say, probably several times. Not that I could blame her at all. I knew how hard it was for her, often, to express her thoughts and feelings in ways that were clear to the rest of us. She was different, she thought differently, in many ways. She was an alien being permanently possessing another alien being, a dead alien being at that. That whole situation was… different, to say the least.  

But really, what it came down to was that she deserved to see Manakel if she wanted to. So, I nodded, rubbed each of Cerberus’s heads once more, then started to walk. “Okay, let’s go see him then. 

“And hope that Jerry Springer never finds out about the ghost of a Greek god alien guy meeting with his Revenant-possessed ex, the girl who helped kill him, and the girl he spent most of a year trying to murder. Or he might bring his show back, and I think we all know this world can’t survive that.” 

*******

By the time we got to the room where they were keeping Manakel for the moment, only Athena and a few people I didn’t recognize but was pretty sure were major spell-users were standing outside. I’d seen Wyatt working with at least one of them before, exchanging notes about security magic. So yeah, obviously they were pulling out the big guns to make sure he stayed where they wanted him. 

It only took a minute to talk to Athena for her to agree to let us go inside. She came with, just in case, but promised to stay out of the way unless something happened. 

So, there we were, standing just inside what turned out to be a fairly empty room at this point aside from an old-fashioned Earth clock radio, a painting of a ship on the ocean, and a bookshelf with an assortment of things on it. Athena said they would be moving some things in to help him keep himself busy while he was waiting to be useful, but this was it for the moment. Just those things… and Manakel himself. 

The ghost figure was hovering near the back of the twenty-foot wide, fifteen foot long room. His gaze was focused away from us, but I knew he was aware of our presence. Still, no one said anything. Even Cerberus was quiet, sitting down on his haunches next to Percy while we all waited for something to happen. 

Finally, the man turned slowly. I watched as his gaze passed over me first, then Cerberus, Avalon, and Persephone. With each new figure, he gave a very faint, almost entirely imperceptible flinch. It was basically only visible in his eyes. Or maybe because I could sense him so well. Either way, the strongest reaction came when he focused on Persephone. Ghosts didn’t breathe, of course, but his translucent form still seemed to inhale slowly, as though preparing himself. Then he spoke in a voice that was somehow simultaneously quiet, yet filled the room, like a very low rumble of distant thunder. “Good morning, ladies. 

“I imagine it’s time to talk about a few things.” 

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Calm Before 20-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Eventually, Avalon dragged me to the gym for some extra training while we continued to talk about everything that had happened. Despite having a very good excuse and not even actually being in that much danger this time, I had the sneaky suspicion that part of her still sort of wanted to kick my butt at least a little bit for disappearing again. Though to be honest, if she had said anything about taking it easy on me or giving me a break, I might’ve had to double-check to make sure some Seosten hadn’t figured out a way to bypass her possession protection after all. Seriously, that would’ve been about as alarming as if Shiori abruptly declared that puns were a low form of humor she wanted nothing to do with. If either of those things happened, I would know something was terribly wrong. 

We practiced for about an hour, after which I declared a time-out because I really needed to check in on my ghosts. Particularly Perrsnile and Ausesh, and then the whole Manakel situation. Not that I wanted to visit the latter alone or with only Avalon. But then again, I was pretty sure at least one of the other Seosten would still be there with him. At least, if my old friend had turned into a raging evil jackass for a long time before dying, then came back claiming to be good again, I’d probably have more than a couple hours worth of discussion with him straight off the bat. 

First though, we showered and changed into some clean, fresh clothes. Then Valley accompanied me as we headed for the young adult living area, where the haunted mansion was. On the way there, however, my phone buzzed. Checking it, I found an incoming call from… “Andromeda?” I asked, tapping the button to answer with a glance toward Avalon. Honestly, Andromeda didn’t even need to make it seem like a normal phone call. She could’ve just started talking to me through the phone’s speaker. But she liked to try to be more polite than that. 

“Good morning, Miss Chambers,” came the AI’s voice promptly. “I was glad to hear of your successful intervention within the hidden vault, as well as the identification and elimination of the murderer and child-enslaver within. Excellent work indeed.” 

“Uh, thanks,” I managed with a very slight blush as Avalon raised an eyebrow at me, clearly hearing all that. “I do my best. But it wasn’t really my–never mind. It’s uh, what’s up?” It felt awkward. I didn’t want to imply that Andromeda couldn’t just call me up to chat or anything, but I had a feeling there was more to it than that. 

Sure enough, she continued. “As far as what came directly following your mystery excursion, ahh, Percy is aware that Manakel’s ghost has appeared.” 

Yeah, I’d figured that was what this would be about as soon as I saw her name on my phone. The whole Percy and Manakel situation couldn’t just be ignored. I’d seen the way he reacted when I mentioned her before. The guilt in his expression… yeah. That was certainly going to be a thing. 

So, I hesitated only slightly before replying, “Is she okay?” Honestly, I really had no idea how she would react to this whole thing. Especially after she had been spending time with the other Olympians lately. There was a whole situation there, with them realizing how they had treated her before and trying to be better about not just blowing her off or outright getting rid of her. They had been trying to open up to her a bit more and treat the Revenant like one of their crew. So, yeah, I really didn’t know how she felt about her old relationship with Manakel, or how she would feel about his ghost showing up. It was complicated, to say the least. 

No sooner did I have that thought, than Andromeda helpfully informed me, “It is complicated. Yet, she does wish to speak with him. She would like you to be there as well. She is not certain as to why, but I believe it is for a sort of ‘moral support.’” She paused briefly before adding, “She would appreciate your presence.” 

“I’ll be there,” I promised. “Can you have her meet us at my Haunted Mansion in a few minutes? I’ve just gotta check on the other ghosts.”  

Andromeda agreed to pass that message along. Before she disconnected, I added, “You know, you should come with us the next time we check in on that vault. There’s a robot named Sitter in there.” 

Another pause came, before Andromeda spoke with a tone of obvious amusement. “Miss Chambers, are you attempting to set me up on a romantic excursion?” 

“Hey,” I retorted, “I just think you two would be cute together. It’s not my fault. And you did say you liked to jump into robot bodies now and then.” 

With what I swore was an audible chuckle, the AI confirmed that she would certainly give it some thought, before signing off. Once I put my phone away, my attention turned back to Valley. “Well,” I started casually, “should we head over there?” 

“I would make a comment about you playing Cupid,” my girlfriend remarked dryly, “but as it turns out, Cupid is a bit of a fucking prick. So I won’t label you like that.” 

Right, Cupid had been one of the identities taken by Paschar, the guy who started the entire thing with Dries and Liesje thanks to his relationship with them. A relationship which… had not gone well, to say the least. Grimacing despite myself, I gave a quick nod. “Thanks, I’d really rather you not associate that guy with me in any way.” 

With that, I took her hand and the two of us walked together through the corridors to the open forcefield elevator. As we descended, I glanced toward the other girl and smiled faintly. “You sure you’re not just hanging out with me so you can make sure I don’t fall into another pocket universe without you anytime soon?” 

Snorting, Avalon squeezed my hand and retorted, “Believe it or not, Chambers, I kind of enjoy spending time with you every now and then.” 

“Promise?” I teased with a tiny, irrepressible grin. 

Turning to me, the other girl brought our linked hands up so she could brush my own fingers against her cheek, then moved them to brush her own against mine. Which sent a tingle through me, as I gave a very soft gasp. Her voice was soft. “I promise, Felicity, spending time with you is one of my favorite things in the world. You might make me want to scream sometimes because of all the trouble you manage to find, but truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because any other way wouldn’t be you. I don’t love some hypothetical version of you who could be different.” Bringing my hand closer, she gently kissed my fingers, meeting my gaze as the elevator reached the ground. “I love you.” 

Well, fuck, what was I supposed to say to that? My knees almost buckled, as a very soft, yet audible whine escaped me. I had to clutch Valley’s hand even tighter to keep myself upright, while swallowing hard. Our gazes never broke. “I love you,” I assured her, my voice trembling just a little. With my free hand, I reached out to gently brush her hair back, feeling an almost-electric shock as my fingers touched her cheek and then over her neck. To my gratification, she clearly reacted as well, visibly shivering. 

I wasn’t sure which of us moved first, but we kissed once more. Though it wasn’t nearly as long as I would’ve liked, before we both heard someone approaching. It was just one of the other students, probably heading up for an early breakfast. Or a very late dinner. Either way, they gave us an apologetic look while we passed one another, Avalon and I stepping off the elevator pad so they could use it. Then the two of us started walking together once more, heading for the mansion. It was still artificial very early morning down here, so the ‘sun’ was down, the overhead ‘sky’ dark aside from the pinpricks of light from the fake stars and moon. Between that and the sound of insects chirping (some of those were real and some were fake for ambiance), it really was incredibly peaceful. I was enjoying this, just walking along with Avalon. Maybe it was weird that I felt like that while we were on our way to visit a bunch of ghosts in a literally haunted house. But hey, I was a Necromancer. Ghosts didn’t scare me. And they sure as hell didn’t scare Avalon. I was pretty sure ghosts were more afraid of her than they were of me. 

As we reached the Haunted Mansion, Rahanvael was already hovering by the front door. She offered a faint smile, her translucent figure flickering just a little as she pulled in enough energy from the provided magical batteries within the house to make herself visible for us. “Andromeda sent a message through the radio to say you would be coming.” 

Seeing her made me smile just a little at the reminder that Fossor was gone forever. Yet it also reminded me that I needed to go to their world at some point and let her go. She wanted to do it on her homeland, wanted to move on to whatever might come next, if anything, on the planet where she had been born. I couldn’t really blame her for that. Besides, the people on that world deserved to hear exactly what had happened to the man who had ruled them for so long. I had a feeling that was going to be a long and involved conversation. 

But, for now, that was going to have to wait a bit longer. Pushing the thought aside, I gave her a quick nod. “I hope we’re not interrupting anything. I just wanted to come and check on things.” 

Rahanvael shook her head. “You’re not interrupting anything. Trust me, everyone here appreciates your visits, as well as your indulgence.” She paused as though considering her words. “You didn’t have to go so far out of your way to make the ghosts here so comfortable.” 

Meeting her gaze, I replied, “Yes, I did. And the fact that you think I went so far out of my way to do it is why. You guys all deserve a place where you can relax and just exist. Especially if I’m going to be asking you to help me with things. It’s the least I can do.” 

Beside me, Avalon cleared her throat before speaking up. “On top of that, having you all together here makes it easier for Felicity to train with her power.” Her eyes squinted toward me. “When she actually does that.” 

Flushing a little, I waved one hand. “I know, I know. I’m working on it. And hey, now I have a pretty important teacher for that. Which…” Blanching, I added a bit more quietly, “just happens to be the guy who tried to kill you a bunch last year.” 

“Yeah,” she replied flatly while gazing pointedly at me, “and yet, he’s the one who happens to be a ghost. I think I won that contest.” 

“You win a lot of contests,” I informed her. “When it comes to Manakel, all of them. Err, except maybe medical knowledge and also Necromancy. Which brings me back around to why it’s a good thing that I can learn from him.” Under my breath, I muttered, “I’m just gonna have to keep telling myself that every time I think about what he tried to do to you.” 

With a firm shake of my head to push that dark thought away, I sighed while looking back toward Rahanvael. “Besides, the whole thing is really just me getting a jump on Halloween for next year. If I can keep this place stocked with ghosts, I’m a shoo-in to win the haunted house contest that I still have to convince Abigail to throw.” 

The ghost girl actually giggled a little at that, and it was incredible to both hear and see. Ever since her brother had been killed, a huge weight had clearly been lifted from her shoulders as well. She clearly still felt the pain of what he had become, and everything he did. And yet, I could tell that things were better for her now. She was opening up a bit more. The sad part about that was that it had taken so long. She was basically my age or younger when she had been killed. And for every bit of the millennia that had followed, the parts she had been aware for anyway, she’d had to witness the atrocities her brother committed. She never had the chance to really become… anything. It was horrific. And to think that it had all happened, all of that, everything he did throughout his long and terrible life, because he had thought he could make his sister immortal. By, ahh… killing her. He was so terrified of losing his sister the same way that he had lost his mother, that he murdered her, with the intention of turning her into some sort of super-zombie. 

When you got right down to it, Teen Fossor was kind of an idiot. If nothing else, what would’ve stopped him from waiting until she did die of whatever hypothetical future thing he was so afraid of and then trying out his ‘put the soul back in the body’ thing? I was pretty sure his ‘super zombie who retained their personality and was basically just the same as a living person but immortal’ was bullshit anyway. But even if it wasn’t, what was his freaking rush

Oh well, it wasn’t like it was at all relevant anymore. He was dead and gone, and good riddance. I wasn’t going to waste anymore time wondering about that. Instead, I smiled a bit at Rahanvael, who was giving me a curious look after clearly reading a bit into my expression. Giving her a thumbs up, I asked, “So how are our new arrivals doing?” 

The girl turned to look over her shoulder into the house before looking back at us. “Ausesh is doing well. I don’t think she’s left the room we gave her to set up in. There’s a magic battery so she can move her equipment around, and she’s been running a lot of experiments on herself. She said she wants to understand what she is now from a very clinical perspective.” With a shrug, she added, “Everyone deals with becoming a ghost in their own way. I think she wants to science it to death. Or–you know.” 

Snorting slightly, I nodded. “Sure, science death to death. She seems like the type. And speaking of type, she’s also not exactly that outgoing, so don’t feel bad if she doesn’t socialize very much.” 

“Understandable,” the ghost-girl agreed before adding, “As for your other new addition, he is still in the cell in the basement.” She hesitated briefly, giving me a look. “Are you certain you don’t want to just… send him on? He seems dangerous to keep around, even if he’s contained. The others don’t like the idea of having someone like him in our home.” 

“Are they upset?” I asked quickly, not wanting to do anything to make things worse. 

Quickly, Rahanvael shook her head. “Not exactly. It’s more that we all feel gratitude to you for everything you’ve done, and we don’t like the idea that this… person might somehow find a way to hurt you, or any of us, because he hasn’t been sent out of this world.” 

“Believe me,” Avalon put in, “you’re not the only ones who want him to stop existing as soon as possible.” 

“I will, soon,” I promised. “But he helped sell those children, so we have to find them. I need to reunite them with their families. I don’t want to get rid of him and then find out he had the last laugh by managing to lie to me about where they are. Besides, even if he’s telling the truth, it might be harder to find them than we think, and he might have extra information we need to track them down. He might have answers that we don’t know the questions to yet. So, for now, he stays where he is until we can deal with all that. Unless you guys want me to find another spot to keep him?” 

“No,” Rahanvael immediately responded. “No, he should stay here.” 

“Exactly.” That was Seth, who came into view to stand next to her, giving Avalon and me both a nod of greeting. “Leave ghosts to watch over a ghost. We’ll keep him in line. Already got a shift of guards keeping an eye on that piece of shit.” 

“They’re not getting too close to the trap spell, right?” I quickly put in. I’d had help tying it into an extra battery so that it could be permanent. Essentially, the batteries in this place held magical energy that came from the station’s vast reserves. It allowed the ghosts to function as they wanted in here. And, in this case, ensured that Perrsnile would be trapped forever. Or as long as I wanted.

“We’ve got a safety line drawn on the floor,” Seth informed me. “They don’t go past it. But if he tries anything, they’ll sound the alarm and we’ll get news to you.” He paused briefly before adding, “In the meantime, I heard that the search for whoever erased Tiras’s memory is getting closer to actual payoff. I probably shouldn’t have to tell you–” 

“When we get to a result, I’ll bring you with,” I assured him. “I promise, you’ll be involved. But yeah, stuff is moving along with that. Come on, I want to check in on Perrsnile and Ausesh myself, just to say hi. And maybe a couple other words. We can talk about what Asenath and her new friends are up to on the way. 

“Yes,” Avalon agreed. “And then, I’ll go with you to see Manakel.” 

“I have a few words I want to say to him as well.” 

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Calm Before 20-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – the following takes place shortly before the situation depicted in interludes 19C and 19D at Harrison Fredericks’ lab. 

After everything we had been through inside the vault, we were all exhausted by the time we got out of Wonderland. With the promise that we would go back and visit again while hopefully not ending up trapped in another pocket dimension for the entire time, of course. We were tired and just plain done with everything. So, Mom insisted that Marina, Dakota, and the Carnival (that was what Denny and all her new Aspects wanted to be called when referring to all of them together) come with us to my parents’ apartment and sleep there for the night. She said other people would ask way too many questions if we tried to go to sleep in our houses or our own rooms, and that they had plenty of space. 

She wasn’t wrong about that part, for sure. There was a big room my parents weren’t using at all, and after a quick reunion with my father and grandparents, Mom insisted they had let us sleep and that there would be more explanations in the morning. Or that she would explain things while we got the rest we needed. Either way, glad as I was to see all of them again, I was almost as glad to be able to fall into bed and completely turn my brain off for awhile. It had been a long day. Between dealing with the whole murder thing, trying to help Denny, and then running into the ghost of Manakel, it was… a lot. I just needed to stop for a bit. 

I did, of course, want to know what I had missed while we were in there. So, Tabbris caught me up to speed about the Avalon situation. Or rather, the Zeke situation. Apparently the Whispers had gone after him for some reason that no one was exactly clear on, except his mother said that it had to do with something his father had done on that same world where the Whispers had been imprisoned to begin with. Which probably meant that we really didn’t want them doing whatever they were intending with Zeke. 

So now, at Sophronia’s request, he was staying here on the station with us. And boy, from what Tabbris said, was he not very happy about that. To say the least. He still thought we were all evil cowardly traitors or something, and now he was convinced his mother was crazy. Still, he couldn’t really stop the adults here from keeping him. He didn’t know how to use transportation magic (they didn’t teach that this early at Crossroads), and any powers he had for that were short-range. He had no way of getting all the way from the sun back to Earth. Not that that stopped him from ranting about how we were holding him prisoner and all that. According to Tabbris, Abigail had tried to talk to him for awhile but gave up and told him they’d talk a bit later, once he calmed down. She did make sure he had all the food and entertainment he could need, and kept sending some of his old classmates to talk to him. Especially Erin Redcliffe and Travis Colby, his old teammates. Even that didn’t really seem to help, though. If anything, he was apparently even angrier with them.

Obviously, I wanted to talk to Avalon. But she was asleep when I got back, apparently at Abigail’s order. So was Shiori. They had both been told that there was nothing they could do to get into the vault where I was, and that if that changed, they would be informed and wouldn’t it be just terrible if there did turn out to be a way to go in and they were too exhausted to do it? 

Yeah, it was blatant manipulation and everyone involved knew that. Still, it apparently convinced them enough to lay down for a bit, so they were asleep when I got out of that place. I didn’t want to wake them up, no matter how much I wanted to see them. Besides, there was that whole thing about me needing a bit of sleep too, so my brain could actually function. So, I put off that particular reunion. Besides, as long as it had felt in the vault, we weren’t actually in there even for a full day. It just seemed like it had been a week. Or longer.

I did do one important thing before sleeping. I took Perrsnile to the haunted mansion and told the other ghosts to keep an eye on him. I also used another of those ghost containment spells just to make sure of it, and promised to explain more later after giving them a quick rundown of what was going on and who the son of a bitch was. I also dropped Ausesh off there, but let her know she could do whatever she wanted in that place and that I would turn one of the rooms into an actual lab to work in as soon as possible. Then I left to get some actual rest. 

Marina, Dakota, the Carnival, and I camped out on the floor in sleeping bags. Letters was the one who had manifested when we went to sleep, but when I came to a couple hours later (fully-rested, of course), I didn’t see her at all. Then I spotted Peanut, the tiny pixie Aspect, curled up in a nest she had apparently made out of a towel on a nearby table. She was making adorable little squeaking noises with each soft exhale, wings fluttering a bit now and then.  

Quietly getting up so I wouldn’t disturb the others, I slipped out of the room. They definitely needed more rest. After all, not everybody had the benefit of Amarok power allowing them to get away with being fully refreshed after just a couple hours of sleep at most. Though if asked, I’d have to say that I highly recommended it. Especially if you were going to throw yourself into the sort of situations that kept popping up in my life.

The only person awake in the apartment when I stepped out was Grandmaria. It was early enough that she was sitting in a kitchen illuminated only by the small light over the stove, drinking a cup of tea. As soon as she saw me, my grandmother was on her feet saying something about how she would make me some food. Before she could, I stepped over and embraced her. I’d done it earlier, just before going to sleep, but I needed another one. And it was clear she did too, from the way she squeezed me back. 

I thought about insisting that she didn’t need to make me anything, but I also knew that it made her feel like she was contributing and helping. And I didn’t want to take that away. On the other hand, I also didn’t want her to do it all by herself. So, I insisted on at least making my own drink and refreshing hers, while asking if she’d had any sleep. 

“Oh, I’ll get some rest later,” she replied shortly. “Don’t you worry about me. I want to know how that girl in there is doing.” She paused, clearly sorting through things in her head before questioning, “I mean, those people? I’m not sure what the proper… term would be…” 

Yeah, we had explained a little bit about that before crashing, and I was sure my mother had told them more before she’d gone to bed herself. Still, it was no wonder that my grandmother would probably be a bit confused about that whole situation. So, while we were making food for ourselves and something to drink, I went through the whole situation from the top and explained everything. Not just about the Carnival, but everything that happened in the vault. Some she already knew, but I could tell it helped for me to go through all of it like that. And it also helped me sort it out in my own head. 

“So, we talked about it, and if you’re talking about the body as a whole and the people inside it, they prefer ‘they or them,’” I informed her. “But each one of the different Aspects has their own preferred term. Most of them are ‘she or her,’ but there’s a couple individual ‘they or them’ and ‘he or hims.’ Like Bang-bang. The easiest thing is just to use the term for the one who is physically active and in control of the body if you’re saying something specific like, ‘do you want a soda?’ Or address all of them if you’re trying to ask the whole collective something. And don’t worry about being confused. They’re still working out that whole thing too, so it’s not like they don’t have questions themselves. All that really matters is to listen to what they say, and understand that they may share a body, but they’re individuals. They have their own likes and dislikes, so just because one of them says they prefer something doesn’t mean they all do. Denny… Denny needs a lot of help. She’s been through a lot, and she’s not ready to be in control of the body right now. I mean, she deserves a break.” 

“She does,” Grandmaria agreed with a troubled frown. “I just wish there was more we could do for her. For all of them. So many people inside one body. I… it reminds me of when you, your father, and the others came into my head while your grandfather and I were still out in space. Hearing all your voices and feeling you there, that was, well, it was a lot. If I had to share my body with you, I would do it in a second. But are we certain we can’t get them their own bodies?”

Biting my lip, I offered a shrug. “Honestly, I don’t think it works that way. They’re part of–they’re all sort of… it’s complicated. But even if it did, I’m pretty sure some–or even most of them don’t want to leave. Grandmaria, I get it. Believe me, I understand. But I don’t think this is something we need to ‘fix.’ It’s just who they are. They’re like a family living in one body. They need each other, they’re a part of each other. And that whole situation isn’t something we need to fix or change, it’s just something we need to accept. If they need help with something, they’ll ask for it. We just need to listen, and give it to them.” 

My grandmother absorbed that, clearly considering it before giving a short nod as she nibbled on some toast. “Well, if that’s what they need, it’s what they’ll get.” She hesitated then, clearly uncertain of how to bring it up before carefully adding, “But, about this other part, the… Theodore. Is he really– I mean is he only…” 

“As far as we can tell, that’s not Theodore mixed with part of Denny,” I confirmed. “He’s just the memories or… personality of him before Fossor turned him into Ammon. Before he–before he did all that. He’s like the piece of Theodore that was locked away, the part Fossor cut out or blocked off or whatever. It’s complicated, like the rest of that entire situation. But it’s him, Grandmaria. It um, it kinda freaked me out too, believe me. You didn’t know Ammon. You never met him, you never–” A shudder ran through me as my face twisted a bit. “It’s weird, seeing him now. But it’s not Ammon. It’s Theodore. He’s Theodore. Or at least as close to him as we’ll ever see. Closer than I thought. And we can talk to him. Mom already did.” 

A smile found its way to the elderly woman’s face as she sipped her tea. “Yes, she was quite happy about that. And chatty. I don’t believe I’ve seen Joselyn so talkative since…” She paused again, head tilting before her eyes found mine. “Actually, I do remember the last time she talked that much. It was over the phone just as you went into first grade. She had dropped you off, still had time before her shift, and your father was already at the paper. She needed someone to talk to, so she called us, and your grandfather put the phone on speaker. I remember sitting out on the back porch on our swing, listening to your mother telling us everything about that morning. She told us what you were wearing, how you woke up, the lunch you both made together, every single thing you said on the drive there, what you looked like going into the big, big building with that little green backpack…” She trailed off, smiling fondly at the memory. 

Then Grandmaria swallowed hard, voice troubled. “I never should have believed that she would ever willingly abandon you or your father. Not after that, let alone all the other times that… I never should have believed it.” 

“It’s okay.” That wasn’t me. It was my mother, standing in the doorway. Her voice was soft, gaze focused on the older woman. “I understand why you would.” 

My grandmother was already on her feet, moving that way to embrace her. The two of them exchanged a couple of quiet, private whispers before Mom joined us. Which meant Grandmaria was bustling around making more food. Meanwhile, I turned to my mother and I asked about Manakel. So she informed me that Puriel and the other Seosten were still with him, as far as she knew. They were keeping an eye on him while a proper containment room was prepared. He’d already agreed to stay wherever we wanted him to, but no one was going to take any chances. Not with someone like him. Yeah, I wanted to take advantage of the lessons he was offering, but we were still going to be careful with it. Even if he was telling the truth about not being a horrible person anymore, even the man himself admitted that there was no telling when Tartarus might get its hooks into him again. We had to make sure that, if something went wrong, he couldn’t do any damage to this place. Or to any of us, for that matter. 

Giving them a moment together, I stepped out of the kitchen to the main living room and simply stood by myself for a minute. Or rather, for about seven seconds, before a lump laying on the nearby couch was suddenly picking it–herself up. My item sense picked up just what I needed to tell me who it was in the relative darkness, even as I spun that way. “Shiori?” 

She threw herself at me, and I caught the other girl while taking a step back to brace myself. Then we were kissing. It was… oh, it was nice. Wow. Really nice. After a moment of that, I came up for air and smiled a bit. “I think I found the sweet spot. If I’m out of touch for just most of a day, you get worried about me without getting mad at me for being gone for much longer than that.”

Snorting at me, Shiori punched my arm. “Don’t be a jerk about it or I could be mad at you for that.” She was smiling though, beaming really. “You solved a murder mystery.” 

“That’s what they pay me the big bucks for,” I replied as casually as possible. “Maybe I should get a private office and a trenchcoat, huh? You could be one of my dames.” 

Shiori giggled, started to say something, then just hugged me tighter. That felt about as good as the kiss, honestly. I held onto her, giving a soft sigh of contentment before quietly asking, “What are you doing here? I mean, sleeping out on the couch?” 

“We didn’t wanna wake you up,” she informed me. “But we knew you wouldn’t sleep all night. I uhh–” Looking over toward one of the recliners, which had also been made up for someone to sleep in but was empty now, Shiori added, “I think Avalon went for a walk. Saving Zeke and then having him stay here was… a lot. Especially since she was worried about you the whole time.”

“I bet,” I murmured softly before kissing her once more. “I’ll find her. Are you okay though?” 

She confirmed that she was fine. She and Twister had been off helping Asenath try to track down the person who erased her father’s memory. Apparently they had some big lead with that. Asenath and Twister had found some group of other people who were also looking for Grigori Rasputin, the Akharu who had been with Tiras on that last mission. There was some woman named Inanna who could point them all in the right direction. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as just giving them a current address. Inanna had clues about where Rasputin was, and they were working on narrowing it down. The man wandered a lot, apparently. 

Either way, they were all busy with that. I made Shiori promise to let me know the second they needed any help. By that point, she was yawning, so I walked her back to the couch and got her to lay down again. But just as I was about to quietly head out, she caught my hand. “Oh, I almost forgot. Is it true about Denny having… I mean about her having a lot of people inside her head?” 

Blinking once, I nodded. “Yeah, they’ll definitely wanna talk to you when they wake up again and all that. Err… you know, I’m not sure if the inside carnival part sleeps or gets dark or… what.” Briefly, I gave her the explanation about what I was even talking about. 

Shiori, in turn, nodded slowly as she absorbed that. “You should have her–or them talk to Robin.” 

“Robin?” I echoed, tilting my head curiously. 

With an audible snicker, Shiori informed me that she was talking about Robin Hood. Or Robin Med. Or Robin Chat. And so on. Apparently one of the people Asenath was working with now was a robot. Actually, they were one of the Mevari, the incredibly powerful robots created by the Tseuckaviel like Lord Yup, the small, purple-skinned man who was capable of seeing through the eyes of any living person he’d ever seen. Now I really wanted to find Lord Yup and let him know that one of his peoples’ creations was still intact and living on Earth. 

In any case, the point was that apparently this particular Mevari had been the actual Robin Hood. And they, like Denny now, had many different personalities/minds living inside one head. I wasn’t sure how that worked, if it was an intentional Mevari thing or something new. But they had experience communicating as several people living in one body. So, Shiori thought Denny and the rest of that whole group would want to meet them. I was pretty sure of that too, but told her I’d check with them first to make sure. 

With that, I told Shiori to go back to sleep, kissed her once more, and headed out. Grandmaria and Mom were still talking in the kitchen, so I stepped out of the apartment and looked around for Avalon. Not that I had to look very hard. She was just down the hall, doing something with her phone. When I approached, I could see that she was looking at pictures of herself with Gaia that looked like they had been taken last year. 

“I didn’t know you had those,” I murmured while stepping up beside the other girl. 

She, in turn, smiled very faintly. It was almost a grimace. She was blinking rapidly as well, pushing wetness out of her eyes before she put the phone away. “Gaia sent them to me. She had cameras watching us sometimes, and they… she wanted mementos.” Swallowing visibly, she looked to me, and I could see the vulnerability there. “Felicity, we have to get her out of there.” 

Flinching, I reached out, pulling the other girl to me. We embraced tightly, and I whispered, “We will, I promise. We’ll get her out.” Putting both hands on either side of her face, I made her meet my gaze. “You hear me? We’re gonna get her back.” 

“She saved my life,” Valley murmured, staring intently at me. “More than once and in every way possible. She saved me, Felicity. We have to save her.” 

She kissed me then, and the two of us lost ourselves in one another for a few moments. I held her tight while talking about what had happened, and she told me a few more specifics about her own day. We had all very clearly been busy, to say the least. 

And something told me that between me needing to take lessons from Manakel’s ghost, Asenath getting closer to finding out who was responsible for her father’s lost memories, the whole Whisper situation with Zeke being up here now, whatever Kushiel was doing, the need to save Gaia, and the whole rebellion in general, things weren’t going to get boring anytime soon. 

But hey, if they did, I always had that private detective gig to fall back on. 

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Interlude 19B – Rescuing Zeke (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was quick, to say the least. With Avalon, Aylen, Rebecca, Shiloh, Erin, Miranda, Eiji, Cameron, and Nevada already reacting to her appearance, the Whisper-possessed ghost instantly vanished from where she was. She reappeared directly in front of them, taking the time to give Avalon a sly, taunting smirk just as one of Cameron’s twin short swords lashed out. The blade was already glowing from a triggered ghost-fire enchantment, proving the former mentor of Vanessa, Tristan, and Erin’s team had come prepared. And yet, her blade struck nothing but empty air, as Invidia twisted sideways to avoid it. The move was relaxed, almost contemptuously so, as she shifted just enough to make the blade whiff past her. In the same motion, her hand snapped out with a deceptively casual look. The impact was anything but casual, however, as her hand slammed into Miranda’s chest with enough force to send the girl flying out the window with a violent and loud shattering of glass. 

In the next instant, Rebecca fired a blast of pulsing energy from a wrist-mounted gun of some sort, Eiji sent a burst of electricity from his hands that way, and Avalon activated her own gauntlet to produce an energy blade that would cut through ghosts. All three of their attacks, despite their close proximity to one another and the lack of warning, were reflexively situated to avoid hitting either one another or any of the others. They had trained far too much to make that sort of mistake. And yet, none of their attacks hit their actual target either. Somehow, the ghost woman moved too quickly for any of them to land a blow. The next thing they knew, she had caught hold of Shiloh by the arm and back of the neck and threw her out the window that Miranda had already gone through. Meanwhile, her foot snapped out to slam into Eiji’s stomach hard enough that he was knocked to the ground despite his size and strength. Another half second passed while Invidia spun toward Rebecca. But before she could make another move, a small green ball was tossed into her. It stopped in the middle of her ethereal form and began to glow. The ghost woman made a motion as though to move forward, only to stop short with a grunt. The ball was holding her in place. Her gaze snapped over to Nevada, who stood with her arm outstretched. In her other hand, the blonde woman held a pistol. “Everybody get down,” the former teacher  ordered while taking aim. The students all dove to either side at her words. 

Seeing a small pistol pointed at her, Invidia smirked despite the fact that she had been trapped in place. “Is that really the best you can do?” 

Meeting her gaze evenly, Nevada slyly replied,”Nope.” With that, she flipped the gun around so it was upside down in her hand. A flick of a button on the side immediately made the gun rapidly grow and transform itself. The barrel extended and separated out into several larger versions, while the sides of the gun opened to reveal pocket dimension space within where more and more pieces extended out and snapped into place. Within a few seconds, the small pistol had transformed into an absolutely enormous gatling gun that was literally larger than Nevada herself. She had to hold it by the main grip as well as an extra handle partway down the giant barrel. Invidia had just enough time for her eyes to widen as the barrels began to glow with ghost fire energy before thousands of bullets were flying her way. Bullets which were fully capable of harming ghosts. 

Invidia took several dozen of those hits, holes appearing in her form as she recoiled and hissed before managing to break the hold of the ball. It blew apart and she instantly vanished, clearly needing to regroup. Immediately, Nevada snapped toward Avalon. “Get out there and check on those two, then get those other Whispers away from Zeke. Yeah, I know, but do it. Rebecca, go with her. The rest of you watch for our new friend, because I don’t think she’s done being a pain in the ass yet.” The whole time she was speaking, Nevada had been doing something with an enchanted stone she pulled from her pocket, which disintegrated into ashes once she activated it. 

Avalon didn’t need to be told twice. While a part of her really wanted to stay behind and deal with Invidia, given the history she had with the host of the woman she was possessing, she knew better than to argue. This was too important. Without wasting another second, she pivoted and raced to that window before diving through. Rebecca was right behind her, and the two of them fell to the ground below. It was only a couple story drop, practically nothing for them by that point. They both landed smoothly next to Miranda and Shiloh, who had already picked themselves up. The four of them saw Zeke as he held his shield in front of himself. The shield was glowing with energy as he used it to deflect one of the ghost’s hands as it tried to grab him. A second ghost was coming at the boy from the right-hand side, while a third and fourth came up from behind, and a fifth was coming from his left. His free hand produced a flash of light that made the ghost to the right recoil reflexively, while he twisted away from the grasping hands of the ghosts behind him, and turned his head to look straight at the one coming up on his left. His eyes produced a pair of blueish-white beams of energy, which cut through that ghost and made it vanish. 

Which would have been all well and good, except that four more ghosts had appeared in that time and were grabbing for his arms. They all managed to catch him, but before they could solidify their grip, Avalon had produced her lizard cyberform, Porthos, and shifted him into his pistol form. She had, of course, already upgraded him to produce ghost-fire shots on command. Between having known multiple necromancers as enemies and being aware of the Whispers in general, not being prepared for something like this would have been absurd. Her first shot caught one of the ghosts in the side of the head, which wasn’t enough to destroy it, but made it recoil and let go of Zeke. Her next three shots hit each of the other ghosts, drawing their attention in rapid succession. 

Rebecca, by that point, had switched from using her wrist-mounted gun to produce her enormous cannon from that backpack she wore instead. As the nearest ghost focused on Avalon when she shot him once more, Rebecca opened up with that cannon. A positively massive blast of energy erupted that way, catching not only the one Avalon had just shot for a second time, but two others in its radius as well. All three of the ghosts were blown apart. 

“Takes awhile to recharge up to that level again, so you guys better do something!” the small girl blurted while shifting back to her wrist blaster to shoot one of the other ghosts who was flying at her. 

Shiloh held her wrist computer up and hit a couple buttons on the holographic display. And she did so, a beam of silver energy shot from that, to a nearby parked car. The engine on the car started up, before the entire thing was sheathed in the familiar ghost-fire as it abruptly drove forward to crash through two more Whisper-ghosts, dissolving them. 

“Yeah,” Shiloh called toward Avalon while directing the car toward the largest cluster of the ghosts, “you’re not the only one who prepped for more necromancer bullshit!” 

Miranda, meanwhile, was running toward Zeke. One of the ghosts went to grab her, and she smacked it away with her own glowing shield. The motion created six energy duplicates of her weapon, all of which slammed into the ghost, one after the other to drive it further back. When Miranda reached the boy, she blurted, “You need to get the hell out of here, right now!” 

He, in turn, snapped, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’ve got this, traitor!”  

By that point, Avalon and the other two had joined them. “Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “you’re hearing voices in your head. Voices that won’t shut up. It’s them, the Whispers, and you have no protection against them. You need to get the hell out of here right now.” 

From the way the boy flinched when she brought up the voices, everyone knew she was right. Still, he sneered, “What’s the matter, your girlfriend decided to come after me on her own and you didn’t like that?” 

Avalon blinked once before staring that way. “Do you think Flick’s behind this?” 

“Gee, let me think,” he retorted, “she’s some big hotshot necromancer and these are a bunch of ghosts who randomly decided they hate me in particular. Let me do the math on that one.” 

Miranda and Avalon exchange looks, both rolling their eyes. But it was Shiloh who spoke first. “Don’t be an idiot, she already told you what these things are. They can whisper in your head and take control of you if you don’t get the hell out of here right now. Use your evacuation thing, you gotta have one.” 

Rebecca added, “Have you noticed all your backup is gone?” 

While they were all saying that, the Whisper ghosts had regrouped and were surrounding them. Avalon could hear fighting going on in the building they had just come from, and silently wished Nevada and the others luck against Invidia. Right now, they had other things to focus on. 

Zeke, for his part, seemed to take a moment to consider what they were saying. He kept a tight grip on his shield, gaze snapping around very distrustingly. He clearly didn’t like any of them, to say the least. But, in the end, he admitted, “I tried, it didn’t work. They’re blocking it or something. But you probably already knew that,” he quickly added, as though he couldn’t stand not to suggest that they still could have something to do with this. 

By that point, the ghosts had begun charging in once more. Rebecca kept firing shots from her wrist blaster, while Miranda sent some more energy copies of her shield flying out to collide with them, and Avalon used Porthos.

“We have to get him out of here,” Avalon ordered. 

“On it,” Shiloh called. With that, she directed the car she had taken over to come screaming up in front of them, before the door opened. “Get in!” she shouted at Zeke. 

He, in turn, scoffed. “What the hell makes you think I’m just gonna –” 

Before he could say anything else, Avalon grabbed the back of his neck with her free hand and bodily threw him into the backseat of the car while firing three more shots in rapid succession. Then she lunged to jump on top of the car before firing yet another shot at the ghost who was trying to come from that side. Miranda jumped onto the trunk, while Rebecca and Shiloh threw themselves into the front seat of the car. And with that, the tires squealed loudly as the car took off. 

“I can’t keep the ghost-fire charge going all the time!” Shiloh shouted while her fingers danced over the controls on her wrist computer. The car went squealing around a corner, while the Whisper ghosts chased after them. 

Leaning back a bit to steady herself as she was nearly launched off the top of the car, Avalon focused on a power she had picked up by killing that Heretic back on the prison world. Her feet were immediately rooted to the metal there. As long as she didn’t want to move, almost nothing could make her. Between that and her own balance, she was able to keep herself upright and aim her pistol at the ghosts as they gave chase after the group. No matter how fast the car went, the Whispers were right behind them. Grunting, Avalon pulled the trigger several times, sending glowing bullets that way. At the same time, she dug in her pocket for a teleportation stone and looked at it before shaking her head. Crouching so she would be closer to the windows, she fired again while shouting, “Transport stones are down for us too! We’ve got to get further away!” 

Miranda, ahead of Avalon in her spot down on the trunk, shouted a warning as the pursuing ghosts sent… some sort of collective energy blast their way. It was as wide as the car itself, and looked a bit like weird glowing ectoplasm with lightning dancing through it. Whatever it was, being hit by it felt like a very bad idea. Thankfully, Shiloh reacted to the shout and sent the car into a sharp turn toward a nearby alley. They had been passing bystanders in other cars and on the sidewalks the whole time, without any of them noticing anything aside from the fact that they were speeding, of course. But now, as the car went screaming past several vehicles to cut them off, there were a few annoyed honks. As well as a scream as one of the pedestrians had to throw themselves backwards to avoid the oncoming car. Another person wasn’t fast enough on their own, but before the car could run them over, Rebecca leaned out the front passenger seat and thrust her hand that way. A glowing blue replica of her hand, several times larger, caught the person and pushed them out the way just as the car passed through the spot they had been and made it into the alley. In the next instant, the ghost energy blast hit the wall of the building they had just passed, and a ten-foot-wide section of that corner immediately crumbled into dust to reveal the interior. 

Seeing that, Miranda exchanged a quick look with Avalon above and behind her before turning her head slightly to shout, “We really, really don’t want to get hit by that thing!” 

From his own spot in the backseat, Zeke had picked himself up and demanded, “Would you people let me the hell out already?! Do you think I’m about to let you kidnap m–” 

“Shut the fuck up,” Avalon ordered without any preamble. “I don’t know why those Whispers are so intent on getting you, but we’re not about to let it happen.” The damn things were enough of a threat as it was without having control of a Heretic, even a young and incredibly annoying one like him. Besides, something told her this was more important than the Whispers simply trying to grab any random Heretic. There were too many of them here and they were too intent on their mission. Invidia was involved, and had sent what had to be over a dozen of their people after this one boy. Maybe she was just missing something or overthinking it, but it felt like there was more to the whole situation. 

And speaking of the Whispers not giving up, there they were. The alley was suddenly full of them as the ghosts chased after the car. “Can we jump yet?!” Rebecca shouted while leaning out the passenger side so she could fire a couple shots toward their pursuers. “Please tell me we can jump!” 

Checking her teleport stone again, Avalon grimaced, then fired two more shots at a couple ghosts who were getting too close.  “No! We need to go further!” 

Miranda made a noise in the back of her throat before launching three energy-duplicate shields to slow down the approaching ghosts. “Just how big is their teleportation blocker?! And can I just say, I wish Flick was here!” 

By then, they reached the end of the long alley, and the car narrowly avoided crashing into a passing box truck, which spun out of the way while the driver leaned on his horn. “You’re not the only one,” Avalon half-muttered. Then something else occurred to her and the girl’s eyes widened slightly before she turned a bit to shout toward the front of the car, “Check Zeke! He might have something on him that’s blocking the transport spells!” 

“What the hell are you talking about?!” Zeke’s voice shouted back. “I don’t have anything li– hey get the fuck off me!” 

Rebecca had jumped into the backseat with him and was checking over the boy. Despite his reflexive struggle, she shouted in his face for him to knock it off unless he wanted to be possessed and enslaved by those things that were chasing them. That was enough to make him stop, and he finally started helping her by patting himself down, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

While that was going on, Shiloh sent the car weaving back-and-forth across the entire road, moving between other cars going both directions as she used all six lanes, three on each side, to keep the car away from the ghosts chasing them. Avalon kept shooting, while Miranda used her shield replicas to help hold off their pursuers, given they couldn’t pass directly through the energy constructs and had to go around. It slowed them just enough. 

Unfortunately, it was at that moment that the ghosts sent another massive ectoplasm blast of power at them. The thing was twice as large as the last one, and seemed even more dangerous with the lightning crackling inside it. It sheared right through an oncoming van, turning half of it into dust. Worse, when Shiloh sent the car to the far side of the road, the energy adjusted course to follow. And it was catching up quickly. Seeing that, Avalon shouted, “Miranda, you’ve gotta make the biggest shield you can!” 

In response, the other girl dropped onto her backside, leaning against the rear window while lifting her arm up. A new shield-shaped energy construct appeared, projected from the physical one on her arm. This one remained attached to its parent, growing larger and larger by the second. Soon, it covered the entire back half of the vehicle, large enough that Avalon could have ducked behind it to use as a wall. 

But it wasn’t enough. The pursuing ectoplasm blast rose up over the shield, picking up speed to get in front of them before starting to come down from the top. Seeing that, both Avalon and Miranda shouted warnings, with the latter starting to lift her massive shield a bit too late. 

Then the ectoplasm was caught by a new shield, a more physical one. Zeke had leaned out the window and thrust his arm up, making his own shield grow in the process until it caught the blast. It did its job, making ectoplasm blast expend itself and fizzle out, though the shield didn’t fare much better. The thing broke apart instantly under the impact, leaving the normal-sized one behind, looking a bit charred and damaged. Zeke hissed with pain and annoyance, head turning until he saw Avalon staring down at him from the roof. There was a brief pause before he muttered, “What, as if I was gonna let that thing kill all of us, me included.” 

Avalon really wasn’t sure the Whispers had any intention of killing Zeke, but now wasn’t the time to get into that. Instead, she shouted, “Rebecca?!” That was all she said. It was all she needed to say. 

“Working on it!” the other girl shouted back from inside the car. She yanked Zeke backwards by the belt, then shoved her hand into one of his pockets while the boy yelped. Finally, Avalon heard her exclaim in relief before blurting, “Got it, got it!” 

“Good!” Avalon retorted. “Now get rid of it!”

Rebecca did just that, hurling the thing out the window. As it flew out, she shot it with a blast from her wrist. The small coin disintegrated. Yet the teleportation stone in Avalon’s hand only flickered a bit. It was waking up, but not fast enough. They had to get further away from the effect the coin had created. It was gone, but the anti-teleportation field hadn’t collapsed yet.

In that instant, she heard Shiloh curse, and Avalon turned to see a line of the Whispers ahead of them. Now they had a group behind and one in front. They had to get further away, but these guys weren’t going to let them. 

Well, they didn’t really have a say in the matter. Shiloh immediately hit something on her wrist, and that glowing ghost-fire reappeared around the vehicle. It had recharged. 

And speaking of recharging, Rebecca pushed herself halfway out of the rear passenger-side window and sat on the edge of it, turning toward the Whispers who were waiting for them. Immediately, her cannon reemerged from the girl’s backpack, extending itself to its full size. In the next instant, she fired another enormous blast. It tore through the Whispers, disintegrating several of them just before the car passed through that spot. Others tried to swarm the car from the sides, but the ghost-fire kept them away, while Avalon and Miranda protected themselves with shot after shot, and shield after shield. 

Soon, they broke through the line, and Avalon finally saw the teleportation stone in her hand light up. “We’re good, go, go, go!” She leaned over just enough to watch as Rebecca ducked back into the car, grabbing onto Zeke as she activated her own emergency exit stone. Then the two of them were gone. Shiloh followed suit, leaving the car driving along on its own toward a concrete wall, while the Whispers continued to give chase, more desperate now with their screeching. 

Exchanging one last look, Miranda and Avalon activated their own stones, and disappeared. 

Instantly, they reappeared back at one of their fallback spots, a small apartment several miles away from the bus station. Zeke was there, scrambling away from the others to put his back against a nearby wall as he blurted, “Okay, now tell me what the fuck those things were!” 

“That’s a long story,” Avalon replied evenly. 

“Yeah, are you sure you want to hear it?” Shiloh put in. “Or are you gonna assume we’re lying?” 

“You’re all just–you just–fuck you,” Zeke managed. “Just tell me what those things are and let me get the hell out of here.” 

“Zeke.” That was a new voice, speaking up from the doorway. They all turned, to see no less than the boy’s mother, Sophronia. She was there alongside Nevada, and immediately passed the others to embrace her son. “You’re safe, the Whispers didn’t take you.” 

“What?!” He blurted the words while leaning back. “You know about them? What the hell is going on?” 

While those two were talking, Avalon looked toward Nevada, who looked bloodied and haggard. “The others?” 

There was a pause before the blonde woman quietly answered, “They… they’ll be okay, with time. They were hurt, Cameron pretty badly, but they’ll live. Invidia’s gone, for now. And pretty pissed off about the whole situation.”

“Mother,” Zeke put in, “can we please get away from these traitors now?” 

Sophronia, however, was silent for a moment. Then she spoke carefully. “Under the circumstances, perhaps it’s best that you stay with the group who have far more defense against the Whispers than we do. If that is alright?” She directed the last bit toward Nevada.

“Of course,” the other woman agreed. “Zeke can stay with us.” 

The collective shout of, “What?!” may have been the first time Avalon and Zeke were both in full agreement. 

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Interlude 18A – Avalon (Heretical Edge 2)

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“A real life murder mystery, are you serious?” 

“Yep!” Avalon half-chirped and half-growled in a put-on show of casualness betrayed by her clear annoyance and frustration. “You know, just one of those things Felicity managed to trip over.” As she said those words, the girl looked over her shoulder toward Aylen, who had been the one to ask the question. The two of them were on the edge of the new Wonderland wild west ghost town, watching Salten flying overhead. Avalon had needed a distraction, so she had her Peryton friend brought down to stretch his legs and wings. One of the Wonderland kids was perched on a special saddle they’d put on him. Salten had, of course, complained, but not too much. He liked giving rides to little kids, much as he might’ve made a show of grumbling about being saddled. 

Now, of course, there was a line of kids waiting for their turn. Avalon was ostensibly making sure everyone had their fair amount of time, but mostly she had been pacing back and forth obsessing over what was going on with Flick. Then Aylen showed up and gave her a reason to rant about the whole situation. Not that she was angry with Felicity, of course. It wasn’t her fault she disappeared. They had all gone in to check that place out, after all. It was just her luck that she’d been part of the group to get sucked into what turned out to be a secret vault in a pocket dimension. 

Honestly, after the past year and a half and everything that had happened since Avalon had met Felicity Chambers, it wasn’t even that surprising. She was mostly annoyed that her girlfriend had been taken away from her yet again without either of them having any say in the matter.

Now, she faced her other girlfriend and sighed. “She’s in there right now with those kids, Marina, and Fahsteth’s daughter, trying to solve a couple murders before the computer system will let them leave. They’re stuck in that place with a murderer, and I can’t do anything about it.” After saying those words, she turned and whistled for Salten to come down so the next kid in line could have a turn. 

Aylen grimaced slightly, stepping closer before tentatively putting a hand on Avalon’s shoulder. “I, ahh, I know that has to be frustrating. I’m sorry.” She paused briefly before offering a very faint smile. “This whole situation is strange, isn’t it?” 

“Strange because I have one girlfriend trying to help me feel better about my other girlfriend being magically teleported away to solve a decades old murder?” Avalon snorted audibly. “What’s so strange about that?” Her head shook then as she pulled the other girl’s arm to tug her into an embrace. “I’m sorry you have to put up with this. I’d understand if you want to get out of here.” 

“Are you kidding?” Aylen retorted while returning the firm hug. “You’ve seen my family. This isn’t that bad. Besides, I know why you’re worried about Flick. I care about her too. Not like you do, but still. She has a habit of getting in trouble.” She paused thoughtfully before adding, “On the other hand, you know if anyone in our class group is ready to deal with a secret murderer, it’s her.” 

Still holding onto the other girl, Avalon smiled to herself. “Of course. Though she’s not the only one well-suited for it. I’m sure you could sniff out a killer pretty well.”

“Maybe if they were about to strike again,” Aylen mused while leaning back to look her in the eyes. “Even then it’s not exactly reliable. I can’t tell every time someone is about to die.” 

By that point, Salten had landed. Avalon squeezed the other girl one more time before moving to help the one boy down out of the saddle before lifting the next volunteer. The new young girl was a squirmy, bouncy Rakshasa child, who settled down once Avalon firmly told her that if she didn’t get strapped in properly she wouldn’t be going anywhere.  

Soon, she was all set, and Avalon gave Salten half an apple to chomp down before sending him back up in the air. As the other kids all oohed and ahhed, split between asking the just-finished boy how his ride had been and watching the Rakshasa girl on her own turn, Valley stepped away from them and turned her attention back to Aylen. “Miranda and I went right through that door when they disappeared. Jeanne didn’t even have a chance to use her spear. We ripped it down and got into the place. Not that it helped at all. There’s some tunnels down there with supplies that were probably meant to be sent into the vault itself at some point. But nothing useful. Jeanne was tearing through some of the mountain itself when we got the call from Flick’s dad about what happened.” 

“He’s not very happy either, I take it?” Aylen guessed, reaching out to take the other girl’s hand. 

Squeezing back as their fingers interlocked, Avalon shook her head. “Not particularly, no. But honestly, I think he’s happy this wasn’t part of some bigger plot. It wasn’t Kushiel or those Whisper things, at least.” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “I really don’t like the idea of her being in there trying to find a killer who’s been able to hide this long, but it could be worse, you know?” She paused before giving a heavy sigh. “And how bad is it that I can say that? Out of all the possibilities of what could have teleported Flick away and kept all of us from getting to her, this is pretty close to the best case scenario.” 

“There’s been a lot worse, that’s for sure,” Aylen agreed quietly. “I guess in this case the devil you know isn’t better than the one you don’t.” For a moment, the two of them stood together, watching Salten fly through the air with his newest charge. Then she added, “You know, I understand that you feel frustrated and like you can’t do anything to protect her when this stuff happens, but you’re pretty wrong about that.” 

Glancing that way, Avalon raised an eyebrow. “I’m wrong?” 

Aylen met her gaze. “Yeah, sort of. I mean, sure, you can’t always stop her from being taken away on these weird trips. You can’t lock her in a box and make sure no one bad ever so much as looks at her. To be honest, I’m pretty sure you don’t actually want to do that anyway. But you can protect her. You have protected her. Even when you don’t get taken along with Flick, you still protect her. All that fighting she can do now, a big part of that is because of you. She’s one of the best fighters in our whole–in a few different age groups. And sure, a big part of that is because of being taught by people like Deveron, or her mom, or Athena, or–yeah, there’s a list. But another big part of it is you. You laid the groundwork, and you make her keep training. You push her to be better all the time.” 

Turning to face Avalon directly, Aylen put both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “You spend all this time helping her train and teaching her how to fight even better, and then she uses it when these people drag her off like this. She knows how to defend herself and she’s really good at it, because of you. You stand here and you talk as though you can’t protect her, but you do that by teaching her and making her train all the time. All those exercises you put her through, that’s you protecting her, Avalon. Because you can’t be there all the time. She’s ready for these situations, and much worse than this, because you make sure she is.” 

Avalon processed that for a moment, before raising both hands to cup the other girl’s face. Gently brushing her fingers down Aylen’s cheeks, she leaned in to kiss her softly. Their lips barely touched, before she exhaled softly and touched her forehead against Aylen’s. “You’re pretty smart, you know that?” 

“I have good breeding,” Aylen lightly teased, adding a soft chuckle. “You know, that’s an even more fun joke to make now that you actually understand what it means.” 

For her part, Avalon chuckled as well before glancing up to make sure everything was still fine. Of course, Salten would have made certain she knew if something was wrong, but still. Sure enough, the Peryton was still flying in a lazy, casual loop while his diminutive rider squealed in joy. As she watched that, Avalon quietly asked, “Have you figured anything else out about the Arthur thing?” 

“You truly are trying to distract yourself from this, aren’t you?” Aylen gave the other girl another quick kiss before stepping back a bit while running her hands through Avalon’s long hair. 

“Just a bit,” Valley confirmed dryly. “Shiori’s already distracted. She’s off helping her sister with that whole finding the person who stole her dad’s memory thing. Meanwhile, I’m standing here watching kids fly around while I wait for Flick to solve a decades old murder in a pocket dimension. So yes, please, help me be distracted?” 

Wincing, Aylen offered a helpless shrug. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how good of a distraction it’ll be. We haven’t figured out anything new. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do to bring him back. I don’t know if it’s something about my genetics, or something I can physically accomplish, or a choice I might make, or–or anything. I’ve been talking to Grandfather and he isn’t sure either. And my mothers don’t know anything. Or they all know exactly what’s supposed to happen and aren’t telling me because it’ll change something, I’m not sure which. Either way, there’s no answers coming from that direction. And Mercury already said he doesn’t know anything beyond the fact that I’m the one who’s supposed to do it.” 

“It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?” Avalon quietly murmured, hand moving to cup the girl’s face once more. 

Sighing, Aylen leaned into the touch while giving a slight nod. “I’d say you have no idea, but you do. How did you put up with that whole ‘being the one person who can enter the blood vault and get the spell that can stop Seosten possession and change the whole balance of power in the universe’ thing?” 

“Mostly by not thinking about it in those terms too much,” Avalon replied with a cough. “It’s way too overwhelming if you let it be. Sorry I brought it up.” 

“No, no, it’s okay.” Aylen insisted. “Trust me, I think about it all the time. How can I not? I’m supposed to… you know. Do that, somehow. It’s never far from my mind. In fact, I was just thinking about–hang on.” There was a buzzing in her pocket, and she tugged a phone out before reading over the text, a grimace finding its way to her face almost immediately. 

“Something wrong?” Avalon asked while watching her expression. 

Aylen glanced up, expression darkening. “Sort of, yeah. Shiloh’s asking for help. She and a couple others were supposed to pick up some new arrivals at the bus station, but there’s some old friends there. Well, definitely not friends. Old classmates, of the sort who stayed with Crossroads. They need some help dealing with the situation.” Quickly, she added, “But I can grab a couple others to–” 

“No, I’ll go with you,” Avalon insisted. “I can’t help around here. Someone else can watch the kids and make sure they all get a chance with Salten.” 

“Are you sure?” Aylen pressed. “I don’t want–” 

Avalon immediately interrupted, voice firm. “Aylen, trust me, I do not need to stand around worrying about Flick for the next… however long this takes. Now please, just tell me where we’re going. 

“Besides, if there’s one thing that’s gonna make me feel better about all this, it’s being able to punch someone in the face.” 

******

Miranda joined them, instantly volunteering as soon as Avalon poked her head in the craft shop where the other girl had been distracting herself by talking to the elderly glassblower who had been working there and told her what was going on. The three of them were also accompanied by Nevada, as well as Erin Redcliffe. Given what Shiloh had reported about what they were facing, the five of them should have been more than enough. But better to be safe than sorry. 

According to Shiloh’s report, she and a couple others were waiting across the street and had been about to make their move to make sure the station was safe, when they noticed Zeke Leven sitting on one of the benches. From there they had identified three other students from their year, as well as a single adult who appeared to be watching over them. This was a hunt. They were clearly waiting for the bus to arrive. Which would happen in the next fifteen minutes. There wasn’t a lot of time to spare. Not if they wanted to deal with this before there were even more civilians in the line of fire. 

Now, they were all gathered inside the empty office room across the street from the bus stop. The blinds were drawn, but Avalon stood at the edge of them peering through the gap. She could see Zeke still sitting there, just barely in view, obviously watching for the bus to arrive. Part of her wondered why they would have someone who would set off every Alter’s danger alert as soon as they saw him sitting in plain view. But maybe they wanted a panic? 

“I’ll handle Gilbert,” Nevada was saying. “The rest of you pair up. There’s four of them and eight of you, so two for each. Don’t be cocky, okay?” She turned a serious expression to them, a far cry from her usual perky attitude. “Yes, you’re all better than they are. You have a lot more real-world experience. But don’t be stupid about that. Take advantage while you can.” 

The others who had been with Shiloh to make the original pick-up were Eiji Ueda, the large Japanese-Canadian boy whose study habits rivaled Vanessa’s, as well as Cameron Reid and Rebecca Jameson. 

“Right,” Shiloh started to agree. “So we all pair up and spread out to jump these guys before the bus gets here. If we’re really quick and careful, maybe we can deal with it without scaring the people we’re supposed to be protecting, right? I mean, it’s not like they haven’t been through enough.” Her voice turned to a mutter then. “The whole reason we had to move them was because their old home got burned to the ground in a raid.”

Rebecca nodded. “They lost three people. Three members of their family. We promised they’d be safe on this trip, that as soon as they got here, we’d take them to their new home.” 

“And they will be safe,” Avalon announced without taking her gaze off Zeke. “We’ll handle these guys and then take the Alters to that new house. We aren’t going to let anything happen to them.” Maybe she couldn’t help Flick right now, or contribute in any way to that whole situation, but she could help these people. She could make sure they didn’t lose any more people they cared about. She could help deal with this. She would help deal with this. 

Erin spoke up from the corner of the room where she stood with her hand on the hilt of her sword. “That bus is gonna be here in twelve minutes. If we’re going to do this without letting those people end up getting caught in the middle, we need to get out there now.” She sounded anxious. Probably because she was thinking about her own father. Apparently he was still stuck back at Crossroads. Not because he was loyal to them or anything, but because they were essentially holding him prisoner. And probably not just him, come to think of it. He was just one example. Crossroads wasn’t eager to let anyone leave to join the Rebellion, to say the least. 

Avalon knew there was something more going on with that whole situation. Erin had been spending a lot of time with Nevada trying to work it out, and the two of them seemed somewhat cagey about it. That was why the girl was with Nevada when they had called her for help with this. Hell, Erin was probably just as happy for the distraction as Avalon herself was.

“Yeah,” Rebecca spoke up, her gaze glancing toward Avalon with a nod of understanding. She was worried about Flick too. “We need to move. I’ll go with Eiji. If that’s cool?” 

The tall, muscular boy agreed easily. From there, the others paired up, with Avalon and Aylen remaining together. However, just as they were about to move out, Valley gave one last glance out the window before holding her hand up abruptly. “Wait.” 

“What do you–” Nevada started before looking that way. Clearly, she used some sort of X-Ray power, because she was staring right at the wall in the direction of where Zeke was, before cursing loudly. 

“What?” Rebecca demanded. “What’s going on? What do you guys see out there?” 

“Ghosts,” Avalon answered. “There’s a bunch of ghosts surrounding Zeke out there. And the others.” She grimaced before adding, “They don’t look very friendly.” 

“Ghosts?” Shiloh echoed in confusion. “What’re ghosts doing out there? Why’re they messing with Heretics? They don’t stand a chance, right?” 

“Oh, I don’t know about that, we can be rather surprising and tenacious when we want to be. Well, our version can, anyway.” The voice came from the far corner of the room, where there should have been no one. As they all whipped their gazes that way, weapons raised, the assembled Rebel Heretics saw a single figure standing there. Or rather, hovering. 

“Ahem, what’s the right word?” mused Invidia, the Whisper who had taken over Charmeine’s ghost. “Oh yes. 

“Boo.” 

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Growth 18-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sesh wasn’t kidding about finding the vault door. Or about how hard it was to get to. The rocks and bushes we had to squeeze through looked impossible. Out here in the middle of nowhere, I wasn’t surprised the place hadn’t been found before. We were almost a mile from the ghost town, and far from the mineshaft. There was no reason for anyone to be in this area, and certainly none for someone to actively push their way through the foliage and boulders. Even after you did that, it just opened into a small half-cave area with a partially-open ceiling. The place looked like it went nowhere, but if you pulled a bit more shrubbery out of the way, there was a low tunnel you could get down and crawl through for about thirty feet. Once you did that, it opened into a fully-enclosed space about fifteen feet wide, where there was this positively enormous steel (or maybe something more than steel) vault door built right into the side of the hill. The door itself was ten feet tall and about six feet wide. There was no handle to pull, as the door was flush with the rock around it. Instead of having a dial to turn or whatever, there was what looked like a black magnetic strip, four inches long by two inches wide, right in the center of the door. 

Seeing us look that way as we spread out to give each other room, Sesh nodded. “Yeah, I can’t figure out what that’s for, or how to open it.” 

With a small smile, Jeanne replied, “If it comes down to it, I am fairly certain my skeleton key will fit.” Saying that, they reached to their back, catching hold of something invisible there. A moment later, they pulled out a long metal spear. The tip glowed with the same sort of bright energy that came off of the archangel wings. “But,” they mused thoughtfully, “perhaps this should be a last resort. I’d hate to damage the door if we don’t have to. Is there a lever, or button?” 

So, we looked around through the small, enclosed space. But there was nothing to find. The only thing that stood out aside from the gleaming metal door itself was that small black strip. But it didn’t seem like a button, given I tried pushing it to no avail. 

“Hang on,” Marina put in, leaning closer to the thing. “Look, there’s a tiny circle right there in the middle. Maybe you have to push that bit in or something? Anyone have a paperclip?” 

“Oh!” Baidy chirped, “I do… uhh, back in my other pants. I knew  I should’ve worn the red ones today!” 

Leaning closer myself, I tried to dig my fingernail into that little hole. But the moment I put my skin up against it, I felt a sharp poke. A needle had popped out of that little hole and into my finger, drawing a tiny dot of blood. 

“Oh,” I managed, “fuck, that’s probably not–” 

I was interrupted by a rumbling sound. The walls around us were shaking just a bit, loose bits of dirt cascading toward the ground. It was the door. The thing was opening inward as we all reflexively jumped back. 

“Did that thing just take your blood before opening?” Avalon demanded. 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, you think that’s weird?” 

“It’s probably not good,” Miranda put in quietly, hand on Dakota’s shoulder. “But if the door was supposed to test blood before opening, why would it open for yours? Do you have another super special relative who built this place and we just happened to stumble across it?” From the sound of her voice, she was half-kidding about that. Which, given everything that had happened since I became a Heretic, was completely fair.  

“Look.” That was Denny, as she poked her head around me to peer into the opening that the door had revealed. “It’s a hallway.” 

She was right. Beyond the now-open door was a corridor or tunnel about twenty feet long, very slightly curved toward the right to lead deeper into the hillside. It had been dark at first, but a moment after the place opened up, a few panels in the ceiling began to glow to illuminate the hall. There was another door at the far end, but it looked like a normal one with an actual knob. 

“Oh come on,” Sesh quickly blurted, “we’ve gotta check it out. Don’t you want to know why the door opened for you?” She asked that while looking at me, her gaze eager. “There’s gotta be a reason, right?” 

“Yeah, yeah,” Baidy agreed while bobbing her head rapidly. “You gotta wanna know.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed, “I do want to know. But hang on.” Rather than walk straight in, I focused on my connection to Tabbris. It felt a bit wrong to interrupt her time with her bio-dad and the rest of her family (including our dad), but this was important. 

Flick? I heard in my head as soon as she acknowledged the mental pull. Um, are you okay? Wait– She absorbed the current situation as I opened my mind to her, before blurting, You found a secret vault door by Wonderland?! Neat! 

A smile found its way to my face as I silently replied, Yeah, it’s pretty cool. But we’re gonna step in here to look around for a minute so could you stay connected just until we know it’s safe?

She quickly agreed, and let both Dad and Sariel know what was going on. Apparently they were teaching Jegudiel how to go bowling. Which kind of made me sorry that I wasn’t there to see it, but at least I had my own neat thing to investigate. 

Once we were all on the same page, I nodded to the others. “Okay, I guess we can check this place out now. And hey, at least we’ve got a pretty damn good escort.” That bit came with a gesture toward Jeanne. “Can’t imagine the new Wonderland Tiebreaker being a pushover. Let alone someone who put up with Seth for so long.” 

Smirking just a bit, the person in question gave a slight bow. “I endeavor to do my very best.” 

From there, I was about to walk-in when I abruptly stopped and turned a bit to look at Dakota and Denny. “Err, sorry, are you guys okay with this? If you don’t want to be involved, we can take a break with this and I’ll come back later without you. No big deal.” 

The pair looked at one another, a moment of silent conversation passing between them before Denny turned back to me. She visibly gulped, but straightened pointedly. “I-it’s okay. You’re here, and Mx. Jeanne is here, and… and everyone.” Her eyes glanced toward Avalon and Miranda. “I mean, I kinda wanna see what’s in there too.” 

“See?” Sesh grinned, showing those wide, multi-layered sharp teeth. “We all want to get in there. So let’s check it out.” With that, she stepped through the opening. 

“Hang on,” I started, while stepping after her. Nothing happened, however. There was no sudden explosion, no magically-appearing enemies, nothing at all. The air inside this tunnel felt slightly cooler than the air outside, but that was about it. 

Dakota and Denny were right behind me, with Marina staying close to them. Avalon and Miranda came next, followed by Baidy, and Jeanne brought up the rear. With Sesh leading the way, we walked through the narrow corridor to the door at the far end. On the way, I kept thinking about the whole bit with the door taking my blood, asking Tabbris, Does your mom have any idea why it would do that and open for me? 

There was a brief pause before the other girl replied, Mama says it really could be an ancestor of yours, or maybe it was checking to see if you were one of the vault’s enemies, or that you were human, or a Heretic of some kind, or weren’t affected by the Bystander Effect, or–

As Tabbris was in the middle of continuing that line of thought, Sesh reached out to grab the knob on the new door. The moment she did, the lights in the tunnel abruptly went out. We were cast into darkness. Before I could even think anything, a sudden, abrupt twisting sensation of being transported filled my stomach, and I found myself dropping through open air a few feet before landing sprawled on a soft floor. Around me, I heard a few more arrivals, and heard their grunts of surprise. 

Tabbris, it was a trap! I blurted inwardly, already yanking my staff out as I jumped back to my feet. It was dark in here, but I could fix– 

The lights came on, and I blinked against the sudden brightness. I was standing in a much wider room than that tunnel had been. It was circular and about fifty feet in diameter. The floor under my feet was carpeted, though the walls themselves were still solid metal. Straight across from me, at about the twelve o’clock position, was a set of wooden double-doors. To the right, at the three o’clock spot, was a pair of plush armchairs to one side of a comfortable-looking couch, all around one of those big old-fashioned CRT television sets inside of a massive wooden cabinet. The couches and TV all looked like they came from the eighties. There was even an old Nintendo and controllers set in front of the television. 

Turning to look behind me, I saw a kitchen area at the six o’clock spot. It was literally a couple kitchen counters (including a sink) with an oldlooking microwave and blender, a big metal fridge, and a stove. Again, they all looked like they were decades old, but quite clean. Like they’d almost never been used, or were taken very good care of. They were in practically pristine condition.  

Finally, to the left at around the seven o’clock position, we could see a bathroom area. There was a toilet against the wall with a privacy screen that wasn’t pulled, along with a sink and shower. 

“It’s like an apartment,” Sesh announced while standing up beside me as she took the whole place in as well. “Like an apartment that was dropped inside a bigger room or something.” 

Quickly, I took stock. She was here beside me, but not everyone else had made it. It was the two of us, plus Marina, Sesh, Dakota, and Denny. As for what had happened to Avalon, Miranda, and Jeanne, I had no idea. 

Tabs, we just got transported to this–Tabs? I focused on my connection to the other girl, but there was no response. Uh, Tabbris? Oh come on, that’s impossible. 

And yet, as impossible as it might have been, there was no response from my little sister. It was like she wasn’t there at all. 

“Uhh, umm, what’s going on?” That was Denny, as Dakota helped her up off the floor. “What just happened?” 

Marina, shooting a quick glance toward me, replied, “Something teleported us. It’s okay, just… just stay close.” She had her corseque (sort of like a spear with two sideways blades at the end in addition to the pointed tip) in one hand while scanning the room. “Flick, can you–” 

“No good,” I replied. “Tabbris isn’t in my head anymore. Or something’s blocking her. Which, you know, is pretty damn impressive. Hang on.” With that, I tried a much more mundane solution. Namely, I took the phone from my pocket and looked at it. Unfortunately, there was no signal. Which I really shouldn’t have been surprised by, given everything. But still, a sigh escaped me. 

“Nothing?” Marina was checking her own phone, glancing toward me. When I shook my head, she grimaced. “Me neither. So we’re definitely being blocked somehow. But by who? And why?” 

Thinking about how much Miranda and Avalon had to be freaking out right now, out there with Jeanne and Baidy, I tried using one of our emergency communication coins. It was supposed to allow us to send an SOS to anyone else with the coins. But again, there was no response. So this place wasn’t just cut off from normal phone signals and my connection with Tabbris, it was even blocking magic. I was starting to get a pretty bad feeling. 

Still, there was something else I could try. I’d learned how to make a transportation spell while trapped in Fossor’s place. So, striding quickly to the nearby kitchen counter, I shoved the blender out of the way. My hand hit the surface and I activated my instant-inscription power to begin making the elaborate runes appear. Yet no sooner had they appeared, than they vanished, leaving the counter spotless once more. With a grimace, I tried once more with the same effect. Nor was trying it on the wall any better. It vanished there too. Okay, well I couldn’t exactly draw a spell if the drawing itself kept disappearing. And this sort of thing needed more space than I could get on a coin or stone. What was I supposed to do? 

Turning to face the others, I shook my head. “Okay, I can’t use magic to transport us out of here if this place won’t let me draw on anything. Maybe we should look around a little more.”  

“Why was it only us?” Dakota asked. She was holding Denny’s hand tightly, her voice making it clear that she was trying to keep it together and not freak out mostly for the other girl’s sake. “The others were in the tunnel too, so why’d it take us and not them?” 

I started to say that I had no idea, but before any words could come out, those double doors in front of us suddenly opened. We all went on guard, as a figure stepped through. It–it was a robot. Yeah, a literal robot. The thing was clearly made of metal, though shaped like a human with legs, arms, and head in all the normal places and numbers. He was even wearing clothes. A suit, in this case. He looked sort of like a butler. The eyes on his metal head looked like glowing rubies, and he had no nose. His mouth was an array of smile-shaped lights that glowed bright blue as he called, “Hello, hello, hello! It’s so nice that you’ve finally come!” 

Marina and I immediately moved in front of the two kids with our own weapons raised, while Sesh jumped to one side, with a pair of daggers held backwards in her hands. I was the first to find my voice. “Hey, stop. Who are you? Where are we?” 

The robot butler promptly came to a halt, his ruby eyes glowing a bit more. “Oh, my greatest apologies. You’re absolutely correct, introductions are in order.” The lights that made up his curved mouth-shape shifted from blue to a light green. “I am called Sitter. My master chose the name because he thought it amusing. As though I was his babysitter. Which was odd, as he was very much not a baby. Or even a child. And most children do not create their own babysitters. But I suppose it was his sense of humor. And it was my duty to ensure he ate and slept properly while lost in his work.”

I was even more confused now. His master? Why–what? Before I could say anything, Marina spoke up. “Where’s your master now? And where are we? Why can’t we contact anyone else?” 

“My master?” Sitter echoed, head tilting very slightly in a human-like display of curiosity or confusion. “But that’s why you are here, of course. As for where here is, you should know that already. We are within my master’s private vault. It is contained within a pocket universe, locked outside of normal space and time. That is why you cannot contact anyone from the outside. My master was quite insistent that there be no way for any undesirables to enter his sanctuary without permission. He was quite wary of being attacked. Which…” His mouth-lights shifted from green to a yellowish color. “I suppose was a well-founded fear after all.” 

“We’re in a pocket dimension?” That was Denny, abruptly speaking up as her voice caught a bit, turning into a squeak toward the end. “Does that mean we’re stuck here?” 

“Oh no, not all,” Sitter assured us, the lights turning back to their original blue. “Well, not for long, hopefully. I assure you, the very moment that you complete the job you were hired for, you will be able to leave.” 

“Job we were–what are you talking about?” I demanded, tightening my grip on the staff. “We weren’t hired for any job. And where’s this master of yours?” 

“But of course you were,” Sitter insisted. “You are Crossroads Heretics, are you not? The vault would not have allowed you entry if you were not Crossroads Heretics. And my master is the whole reason you are here.” 

“The blood test thing,” I realized. “It was checking to see if I was–wait, Crossroads? Your master was hiring people from Crossroads for something? Who is he?” 

Sitter’s glowing ruby eyes met my gaze. “My master’s name is Valdean Kalama Ecclestone. He was a well-known and respected member of your Crossroads community for many years, before choosing to retire in the very late eighteen hundreds, when he became dissatisfied with life as a Crossroads Heretic. Master Valdean became convinced that the beings he was assigned to hunt and kill were not deserving of such a fate. He designed this place to be his new home as well as theirs, and housed many non-humans within various apartments throughout this pocket dimension. They are all linked to this, Master Valdean’s chambers.” He waved his hand around to indicate the room we were in. 

Taking in a breath before letting it out, I started slowly. “Let me get this straight, your master was a Crossroads Heretic. Then he decided that Alters–or nonhumans– weren’t all evil after all. So he built this vault with a pocket dimension where he brought people to live so they could be completely safe from any other Heretics who wanted to kill them. But where is he now? Where’s everybody?” 

“Unfortunately,” came the response, “after many decades spent safe in here as a small, yet devoted community, there was a murder within these halls. One of our guests was killed by another. Precisely who was responsible, we did not know. Master Valdean became convinced that we required outside assistance. So, he contacted a friend in Crossroads, one whom he had recently come to know was part of a rebellion against their usual method of operation. He was a detective, one of their Bow Street Runners, named Ashby Banks. Sir Banks agreed to take the matter to his superior within the Bow Street Runners, another member of the rebellion, named Tribald Kine. He promised discretion and aid.” 

“Tribald,” I muttered, wincing inwardly as the words came softly. “He’s gone now. He died.” 

“I am very sorry to hear that,” Sitter gently replied. “It has been some time since Sir Banks agreed to take the request for aid to Sir Kine. We never heard back.” 

Thinking about that for a moment, I realized, “The Rebellion eraser. It must’ve come after Ashby Banks agreed to talk to Tribald about this place, but before he actually could. The eraser must’ve considered this information to be part of what it had to get rid of.” 

“I know that name,” Marina put in. “I’ve heard of Ashby Banks. He died a few years ago.” 

“Which explains why he never told Tribald once the eraser was undone,” I muttered. “He was already dead, so he never had the chance.” 

“This is all very distressing news,” Sitter announced. “Though it does answer our questions about the apparent abandonment. My master grew angry with getting no response, so he shut down all communication with the outside world, determined to solve this murder himself. Unfortunately, the killer struck again, and Master Valdean was their newest victim.”    

“Wait, he was killed too?” Sesh gave a double-take. “And this place has just been sitting like this for decades?” 

“We are quite able to sustain ourselves without outside interference,” Sitter informed us. “As you will see for yourselves in the course of your investigation.” 

“Investigation?” I shook my head. “What do you mean? We’re not here for that.” 

His gaze met mine. “Oh, but you must be. Don’t you understand? Before my master’s death, he ensured that only the ones from Crossroads would be able to enter this place. He agreed to the entry of only five investigators. Sir Banks, his superior, Sir Kine, and three subordinates. This is a large vault, with much space to search.” 

“That’s why the others weren’t transported in with us,” Marina realized aloud. “We were the first five in line.” 

“Quite so,” came the confirmation as Sitter’s robot head bobbed. “And I am quite afraid that my master was insistent that the killer be brought to justice. So insistent that he ensured the lockdown of this facility would not be ended until it is determined that the killer has been identified. Between that and his fear that the Crossroads Heretics would attempt to abandon their agreement, there is no way to enter or leave this place until that time.”

“What… is–is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Denny asked me, her eyes widening. 

Slowly, I nodded. “I think so. We can’t get out of here until we solve this mystery, guys. 

“Zoinks.”  

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