Aylen Tamaya

Kairos 9-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who haven’t seen it, there was a new commissioned interlude posted yesterday that focused on the Alter-Natural Heretic organization Section Four. If you haven’t read that, you can click the previous chapter button above to do so. 

“Kill me?” Fossor chuckled, though it sounded more deranged and emotional than he probably meant it to. “Has that ever worked for you, my dearest woman, mother of my child? Oh…. I suppose I can’t call you that now, can I? Not after our girl over there got her own brother killed. Now how is that going to affect your relationship?” 

Mom’s voice was calmer than I would have expected. Cold, really. “Over ten years together. More than a decade. And you still know nothing about me.” 

“He knows little about what it means to care for anyone at all.” Those were the words that came from Rahanvael, as the ghost girl hovered nearby, her hand lightly touching her own throat, where I could see what looked like… marks of some sort. As if Fossor’s invisible grasp had left an impression in the… well, ‘skin,’ or whatever that would be called. 

As for the Necromancer himself, he actually looked a bit upset by what she’d said, his face flushing a bit as he snapped, “I have always cared for you, Rahan.” Again, he pronounced it ‘Rain.’ “Everything I have done, everything I’ve become, everything that has– it was all because I loved–love you. It was all because I wanted to protect you! I only wanted to keep you safe.” 

“You’re right.” Rahanvael’s voice was soft, barely audible, yet somehow filled with raw emotion. It quaked, the words hoarse and broken. “Everything that you have done started because you were trying to protect me. We lost our mother, and when we visited her spirit to say goodbye, you felt her. You tried to keep her there. That’s how you found out about your power, Mera. You felt her and you tried to stop her spirit from moving on, and when they wouldn’t let you, when our father forced you to let her go, you… you were so afraid. We lost our mother and you were afraid you would lose me, lose your twin. So you did what? You withdrew even more. You spent seven years obsessing over learning to control your power on your own, experimenting on animals in the woods. Seven years when we could have been living our lives.” 

“If you and Father had only listened to me, we could have had an eternity together!” Fossor… yeah, he was clearly unstable. Facing his sister like this wasn’t doing wonders for his emotions. Still, he took a moment, mastering himself (at least outwardly) before speaking again, a bit more coldly. “But you didn’t. He didn’t. He–he interrupted. I would have brought you back.”

“You did bring me back,” Rahanvael reminded him, voice still quiet. “And I have spent millennia watching you commit more atrocities, more… evil than I could have imagined entire civilizations being capable of. Your crimes may have begun when you cut my throat, Mera. But everything you’ve done, everything you’ve become, that is what tears my heart from my chest.” 

Her voice was even more hollow by that point. She finished with the last thing she needed to say. “I loved my brother. He was my everything, my Mera. You are not him. You are an empty, soulless abomination that needs to die.” 

“You…” For a moment, Fossor looked… almost lost, really. It was so brief that I might have passed it off as my imagination. But it was there. It was absolutely there. He saw his sister, saw the way she looked at him, heard what she said, and it looked like those words struck home, for just a moment. But then it vanished, either hidden away or dismissed entirely. In its place was anger. Cold anger, the sort that would leave any soul that could feel such emotion a barren wasteland. 

He spoke again, voice far emptier than I had ever heard it. “Each of you will learn the cost of your efforts. Because you seem to have forgotten one very important thing. You cannot harm me.” 

With those simple words, he straightened, blue-white flames flickering around his feet before extending out into the shape of a serpent that coiled up and around him almost protectively. It was like a… ghost. It was a ghost snake. A giant ghost snake. Fun. 

“My life is connected to those of my world–of our world,” he amended, with a look toward his sister. “How many of our people will you allow them to sacrifice before bowing to the inevitable? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? More? How many will you let them put to the flames?” 

His words had an impact. I could tell that much. Rahanvael swallowed, floating there next to me. But she refused to break eye contact, staring back at him with a sad, broken voice. “Whatever it takes,” the girl informed him very quietly. “You must be stopped. A man who has already murdered millions cannot bargain with the lives of those he would kill anyway.” 

The ghost-serpent around Fossor drew itself up a bit, even as the man coldly snarled, “Then, by all means. Come and stop me.” 

Even as he said those words, the ghost-snake launched itself toward us. The thing was as big as a bus, mouth stretching wide as though it was going to try to eat us. I had no idea if it was even capable of that, given the whole ghost thing. But nor was I going to test it. With a quick thrust of my staff, I triggered the boost on it, sending myself up and over the lunging snake. Below me, Mom vanished from where she was standing, appearing off to the side while producing a glowing blue energy sword in one hand that she used to cut into its side. 

The snake wasn’t the only issue, of course. Fossor still had a literal army of ghosts and zombies he could throw at us. And throw them at us he did, as what looked like a tidal wave of the undead creatures came swarming in from all sides. The Necromancer wasn’t fucking around anymore. Even as I launched myself up, I could see an army of the creatures coming in from all sides, practically falling in on us like a tidal wave. This wasn’t a few ghosts, or a handful of zombies. This wasn’t something he expected us to fight. He expected us to be massacred. 

In mid-air, I dropped my staff, focusing on using the object-stopping power I’d just learned about. The staff froze, even as my feet came down on it. The freeze would only last for a few seconds, of course. But for those few seconds, I could stand on the staff in mid-air as though I was on solid ground. And I used that by summoning a dozen or so coins to each hand. Coins I had prepared over my time spent in the future waiting for the time travel spell to be ready. 

With those coins in hand, as I perched on my frozen staff, a very slight, humorless smile touched my face. Then I threw the coins out in every direction, scattering them through the air while blurting the command word. 

That swarm of Fossor’s minions kept coming, even as the coins were flung into their midsts. Then the spells activated, and the coins exploded into several clouds of blue-green mist. Every ghost or zombie that was touched by the mist immediately turned on one another. Which made others around them, those not affected by the clouds, turn back to defend themselves or be dragged to the ground. No longer were they a coherent army sent to attack us. Thanks to my frenzy-undead spells (learned courtesy of Petan himself, actually), huge portions were stuck blindly fighting each other.

By that point, the item-freeze had ended, and I grabbed my staff while it fell. A quick burst sent me flying forward and to the ground, where I landed on both feet in an open space that had been created by the frenzy spells. 

Mom was still dealing with the giant snake. Fossor was moving to the altar. More of his minions who hadn’t been either affected by the frenzy spells or attacked by those who had been were closing in on me. I’d dealt with a large portion of his army with that little trick (one I’d deliberately been saving until Fossor actually committed himself to using more of his forces), but not nearly enough. There were still dozens, even hundreds in the way, coming for me. Coming to stop me from getting to their master. 

But it wasn’t enough. Not this time. I wasn’t going to let anything, not even a literal army, stop me from getting to that son of a bitch. Focusing, I took off, running straight toward Fossor, which put me on a collision course with the largest concentration of the undead creatures. 

I couldn’t control all of Fossor’s minions. I wasn’t that strong or skilled yet. Fossor was far better than I was at Necromancy. At most, I could control a few at a time, even after all the practice I’d had recently. 

But here was the thing. I didn’t need to control all of them. I only had to control the ones directly in front of me, the ones close enough to actually touch me. Because only those few were a real threat. Only those few, the ones near enough to reach out and scratch, claw, or bite me were the ones I needed to worry about. And those were the ones I took control of. With effort that manifested itself into a literal scream tearing its way out of my throat, I shoved my will into the handful of ghosts and zombies that were directly in my way. The four nearest pivoted, throwing themselves into those behind them to form physical blockades. 

Dashing through the opening that created, I instantly released my hold on those four, shifting it over to the next small handful. Two ghosts and three zombies all turned on their companions, freeing up another small bit of space for me to move through, even as I shifted my control yet again. 

I made my way through Fossor’s army like that. Yeah, I couldn’t come close to matching his power or skill, even while he was distracted. But there was only so much space around me, so all I had to do was control the ones right there for the few seconds while passing through the area. It didn’t deal with the problem entirely, but that was a lost cause anyway. The problem was Fossor, not his minions. He was the one I had to get to. 

Between using my own Necromancy to briefly control very specific figures, my ghost-fire enchanted weapon to cut through others, and a few strategic boost from my staff, I made my way quickly through the army that was trying to cut me off. Fossor. I had to get to him. That was all that mattered. Nothing else. All I had to do was stop him from getting to that altar. 

He could have made it. Even with everything I’d done, all the practice I’d had, he could have gotten there if it wasn’t for one thing: my mother. It was obvious that, while he’d dumped an army in front of me and left them on their own, my mom was a different story. She’d already dealt with that giant ghost snake, but Fossor kept sending more and more things at her with each step he made toward his actual destination. Burning metal spikes tore themselves up out of the ground. A dark, acidic fog that dissolved anything it touched. Skeletal creatures with a few scraps of rotted flesh hanging from their bones. Balls of greenish-white flames. Anything and everything he could summon was being thrown at my mother just to keep her busy, just to keep her away from him while he took those last few steps toward his destination. He wasn’t worried about me. He was worried about her, and it showed in how much focus and effort he was putting toward occupying her. The power, the spells, the sheer force of everything he was dumping into that one small spot where my mother stood was staggering. 

And yet, Mom met everything. She shattered his attacks, broke them apart like waves crashing against a boulder. Her powers, her skill, her magic, all of it matched what he was sending at her. He was so much older, so much stronger, but he couldn’t break her. Not as distracted as he was. His attention was torn between trying to get to that altar and keeping her busy. All while he simply ignored me, trusting the army he’d tossed my way to be enough. 

It was a mistake I would be glad to make him pay for. 

With a violent, inarticulate scream, I tore my way through the last of the ghosts in my way, the blade of my staff cutting through the glowing figure. The ghost disintegrated, leaving a clear, open space between us. Between Fossor and me. 

Four steps. He was four steps from the altar. My hand thrust out, creating a portal even as I triggered the boost from my staff and gripped the small bit of wood that was installed near the middle. A piece of wood that allowed me to possess it, disappearing into my own staff while the boost I had triggered sent it flying through the portal I’d created. 

I came out through the portal directly in front of Fossor, emerging from my staff immediately and catching it in one hand while glaring at him as I stood in his way. “No.” My voice was flat. I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t make some kind of cutting remark or give a witty comment. That single word was all I could force out through the thick lump that had formed in my throat. 

A cloud of ashes swirled around Fossor, pulled from that canteen before they settled in front of his feet as he took one more step to put himself closer. In the same motion, he lashed out as though to backhand me despite the fact that he wasn’t quite close enough. Still, my staff snapped up to block it. 

But he wasn’t trying to hit me with his hand. Instead, in response to his gesture, a giant skeletal version, almost as large as my entire body, tore itself out the ground and slammed into me with so much force I was sent staggering backward. He immediately followed that up by summoning two more smaller hands to grab my ankles, but I stopped one by throwing my own will against it, forcing the hand to freeze. The other I cut off with a quick slash of my staff. 

Fossor was there, right in front of me. His fist lashed out, and I ducked, my staff snapping up to drive the blade into the side of his wrist. I might as well have been hitting a mountain for all the good it did. His arm didn’t even move. The blade of my staff did nothing to him, any damage it might have been capable of simply and casually passed off to any of the billions of hostages he had. 

The Necromancer, clearly angry by that point, followed up with three more snake-quick strikes. I blocked one, twisted around the second, but the third caught me. He was so fast. Loathe as he obviously was to actually physically involve himself in a confrontation, he was still so fucking fast. And strong. That single blow, a contemptuous backhanded strike, knocked me to the ground. It was a momentary opening, but one that Fossor took advantage of, foot snapping out with deceptive casualness to kick me in the face. It was like being hit by a train. I was thrown to my back, dazed and barely conscious through those brief, crucial seconds. 

Standing over me, Fossor moved to finish up by summoning some kind of ghostly spear, sending it down at my chest with a quick, dismissive gesture. 

But I wasn’t alone. In that instant, the very moment that I was in real danger, Mom was there. She appeared, glowing blade lashing out to cut through the ghostly spear and knock it aside. Instantly, she followed up by summoning a ball of flame, sending it into Fossor’s face. 

It did nothing. He passed off the damage, snarling in annoyance before launching himself at my mother. Not just the man by himself. He summoned more arms, more flames, more blades, all of it filling the air with two intentions: to kill me and to kill my mother. 

If I had been by myself, I would have been dead. But I wasn’t. Mom protected me. With every motion, every snap of her sword, every flick of her finger, she stopped another attack, broke another of Fossor’s summoned blades, or disintegrated another of his ghosts. 

Through that, I somehow forced myself to my feet, intercepting a couple of those attacks myself. And beside me, Rahanvael appeared. She couldn’t do much, but, being a ghost, she could catch some of the intangible spears and blades that were sent at us. She was one more thing to take some of the attacks. 

Between us, between Rahanvael and myself, we managed to give Mom an opening here and there to actually counter-attack. She didn’t have to put everything she had toward saving us. She had a few moments to lash out with attacks of her own. Attacks that would have killed him. Again and again, my mother could have put that fucker in the ground. Her blade cut through his throat, tore into his stomach, her fire engulfed him. But nothing stuck. Nothing could stick. He passed all of it off to his hostages. No matter what we did, no matter how many times Mom fucking killed him, it never mattered. 

Finally, glowing ghost-like bars appeared, rising around Fossor to cut us off from him. I could see the effort on his face, could see that we’d had an effect, no matter what he may have wanted us to think. He was angry. But more than that, he was winded. Everything we’d done, it mattered. He couldn’t dismiss us, couldn’t just knock us aside like weeds. 

“You,” the bastard snarled, “cannot stop me. You will fail. You will fall. Your bodies will be buried here, alone and forgotten. Y–” 

And then a shovel slammed through those summoned bars, shattering them like crystal before crashing into Fossor’s face to send him flying backward from the sheer force of the blow. The evil fuck crashed onto the ground a good couple hundred feet back, just as one of his ghosts disintegrated itself under him so his body wouldn’t hit the dirt without the protective ashes. 

“Not alone,” Gabriel Prosser informed him, straightening to stand beside my mother. “And never forgotten.” 

Nor was he alone. All around us, throughout the quarry, more figures appeared. Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Gwen, Nevada, Kohaku, Carfried, Hisao, Asenath, Seller, Twister, Brom Bones, Mercury, and more appeared. Mateo and his werewolves were here, including Pace and Roxa. May and April were here. Misty and her brother Duncan appeared. Enguerrand, Larissa, and Haiden too. My brother, Wyatt, appeared with Koren beside him. Avalon and Shiori, standing together with Aylen, Miranda, Columbus, Sands and Sarah. Sean was there too, in his still-confusingly older form right alongside his brother Ian.

“No…” Fossor snarled, his eyes daring around to find himself surrounded as he picked himself up. “No, this is–no, you cannot be here! The beacons have not yet broken through the shielding! You cannot have been summoned, you cannot be here!” 

“We had a little help finding the place,” Apollo casually informed him. And with those words, more figures appeared. Ghosts, but ones who had not been summoned by Fossor. 

They were the ghosts I had freed, the ones I’d given the same power as Rahanvael by cutting them away from Fossor’s control. I saw Ahmose at their head, his eyes blazing with fiery hatred for the man who had destroyed and enslaved him for so long. 

“It ends,” the ghost informed his former master, his words echoed by the rest of the ghosts who had accompanied him to this final confrontation. The ghosts who, instead of running and hiding from the monster who had done so much to them, had found my friends, my allies, and brought them here to stop him once and for all. 

A hand touched my arm. My gaze turned, and I saw her. My little sister. Tabbris stood there, tears filling her eyes as she stared at me. “You’re okay,” she whispered, voice so soft it seemed as though she was afraid I would shatter. 

“I’m okay,” I confirmed. Then I extended my hand to her. “You ready for this?” 

Her tears melted away, expression hardening into determination, as she met my hand with her own. “Ready.” 

Then she disappeared, possessing me once more. Back where she belonged. Back with me. 

Now it was time. Either we would stop Fossor here and now. Or we would die, and the Earth would be his forever. 

As one, the army that had arrived to end Fossor once and for all fell in on him. 

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Patreon Snippets 13A (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thanks go to all of the incredible $10+ donators to my Patreon for these snippets! Remember, $10 may get you one 500 word snippet per month, but a mere $5 gets you every chapter one day early, and $3 gets you the interludes a day early! Not to mention the ability to vote on upcoming end-of-arc interludes with bonus points! 

Aylen with Grandpa Reaper

Listening to Professor Dare extol the evils of non-humans as well as the virtues of Heretics and the creation of the Heretical Edge thanks to the incredible genius of the clearly charming and handsome Hieronymous Bosch made Aylen Tamaya want to stab herself in the ears. At least then she wouldn’t have to listen to the bullshit until her hearing came back. Though, on the other hand, doing something like that might possibly attract some curiosity from the teacher who was, at this moment, going on about how Heretics were the lone defense against the hordes of evil that would wipe out civilization and so on and so forth. Frankly, Aylen didn’t think the woman’s heart was really in her explanation. It kind of felt like she was saying the right words without totally feeling it. 

But then, Aylen was probably just projecting her own feelings onto a woman who had given this same or similar speeches for decades. The lack of true fire behind the words probably had more to do with how often she’d explained all this rather than any lack of conviction. The worst thing Aylen could do here, right in the camp of the enemy, was start thinking that any of them could be trusted. While the majority clearly believed they were doing the right thing rather than being actively malicious, that was no consolation. They’d been raised to be fanatics, and she had no doubt they would take that fanaticism far enough to kill her if they knew what she really was. 

This was dangerous. It was so dangerous. Being here, talking to these people, letting them think she was one of them… it could go wrong in so many ways. But she had to. This was the best–only chance that her family had to free Mother’s father, Aylen’s Reaper grandfather. That was confusing, given the Grandfather she had grown up with. She needed another name.  

Lost in thought as she was (not to mention the fact that she was intentionally ignoring the ‘everything else is evil, humanity fuck yeah speech), she almost missed the fact that Professor Dare was activating the lever. Light suddenly filled the room, drawing everyone’s eyes while the woman called for them to gaze into it and to not look away. With the dramatic declaration that this was the Heretical Edge, the light grew blindingly bright, taking away all other vision as the students around her were all swept away into the Edge Visions that would turn them into Bosch Heretics. 

But Aylen was different. She was already part-Reaper. Everything the Bosch Heretics could do, she was already capable of. That and more, given Grandfather’s tinkering. There was nothing for the Edge to do to her. And yet, the light still blinded her. And as her vision cleared a few moments later, Aylen still found herself elsewhere, just as her fellow students would have. 

Specifically, she was standing in her own living room–no. No, this wasn’t their most recent living room. It was the living room of the house they had lived in when Aylen was still only seven years old. That was the first time she remembered hearing enough of the story about where Mother’s father was and what Heretics were to actually understand it. It was the room Aylen had been sitting in, with Mother and Mama, when she first resolved to somehow, someday, save Mother’s papa. The thought that her beloved mother had been without her own father through her entire life had left the young Aylen stricken, and she’d promised that she would someday help free him. Neither of her mothers had taken it entirely seriously at the time, but she was determined.

And now, here she was. Years later, facing the Heretical Edge, Aylen was here in this room again. 

“Interesting.” 

That single word came from behind Aylen, and she spun to find herself facing a figure she had previously only seen in drawings and in magic projections. It was a tall man, with sharply, almost achingly pretty features that reminded her of the elves in the Lord of the Rings movies. His skin was bone-pale, his hair as blue as the sky. Eyes that were deep violet stared at her, seeming to take in every feature with an intense curiosity. He gazed into her, reading things even Aylen wasn’t aware of. The power and authority radiating from his form made her reflexively gasp. She felt, in that moment, the way ancient, primitive man gazing up into the wonder of the sun must have felt. An apt comparison, for the power in this man compared to her own was that of the sun to a primitive human. He was more than she had ever truly expected him to be. 

“Grand…. father… “ Aylen whispered, staring at him as her mouth fell open. Everything she had planned out to say, everything she wanted to explain, was washed away in that moment. She knew nothing, she thought nothing. She could only stare. 

He had only said that single word, before falling silent when she turned to him and spoke her own single word. For the several long seconds, neither said anything else. Aylen could see, could practically feel, the old Reaper taking in everything about her. His gaze, once it was done taking her in, slowly panned around the living room. He looked to the pictures and paintings on the wall, to the television where DVD’s of her favorite childhood movies were stacked up, and to the baby blanket neatly folded on the nearby chair. A blanket she still had to this day. Through it all, Aylen remained silent. Something told her not to interrupt, to let this go at his pace, not her own. 

Finally, those intense eyes returned to her own gaze. And in that moment, they softened. The dark, almost black purple turned a more gentle violet as he spoke three words in a voice that was so small, so vulnerable and hesitant that Aylen thought there was no conceivable way it could have come from the blindingly powerful figure in front of her. 

“She is alive?” 

Those three words, that single question from the being who served as the linchpin of the entire Bosch Heretic society and empowered literally thousands of beings, came wrapped in the emotion of a man who had lost his child eons ago. It was the emotion of a man who had forgotten what it was like to hope that such a child had survived, whose heart had long-since abandoned those thoughts. 

The words came from a man who had entered this room and had that hope rekindled in the form of the girl standing before him. Those long-extinguished flames had begun to smolder once more. 

Somehow, Aylen found her voice. “My… my mother. My mother is your daughter.” 

The man said nothing, not aloud anyway. But his eyes. When she looked into his eyes, Aylen saw a rush of emotion. Those embers of hope she felt before had flickered into a small, yet fierce flame with a heat that drove away what had clearly been cold certainty of his daughter’s loss. 

“Tell me. 

“Tell me everything.” 

So, she did. Walking through the house of her memories, Aylen spoke with her mother’s father for what felt like hours. She had no idea how these visions worked for the actual Heretics, but she seemed to be there for much longer than was actually possible. She told him of her mothers, of her own birth, of her other grandfather. She told him of her mission here. 

“I’m going to get you out of this place,” she promised him. By that point, the two were back in the living room. Through all of that, neither had touched the other. She didn’t feel right making that sort of assumption, and he had not extended his own hand through their discussion. “I don’t know how yet, but that’s why I’m here. It’s the whole reason I came to this place. I promise, no matter what, I–” 

In mid-sentence, the phone on the nearby wall interrupted Aylen by ringing. Her gaze snapped toward it with confusion, but her grandfather simply looked at it without moving. A moment later, it stopped. She was about to ask why the phone would ring in her vision, when he spoke instead. “You… you said your name was Aylen?” When she nodded, he continued. “Aylen, I believed my daughter, my only living heir, was dead since before I was trapped in this place. I have spent millennia believing the only child I would ever have was gone forever. Listen now. In telling me that she lives, in telling me that my… my child has survived all this time… you have already freed me from far darker a prison than this could ever be.  

“You, Aylen, are my granddaughter. You are my proof that my child is not dead, my proof that she has lived a life, that she has known happiness. Even if I could not be there, you are my proof that she has stood, learned, lived, and loved. You say you have come to free me? Your existence is my freedom.”

After saying those words, the old Reaper raised a hand. Only then did he finally touch Aylen. His palm pressed against her cheek, as he exhaled slowly. “Granddaughter. When your grandmother spoke of children, grandchildren, and on, I… I did not understand the concept. It took such time for her to explain the–” He stopped talking then, looking away as the phone rang once more. Again, the man made no move to answer it, instead staring until the ringing stopped. 

Aylen meant to ask about the phone. Instead, the words that first were, “What about Grandmother? What… happened?” 

“That is for another conversation,” he replied quietly. There was pain in his voice, a deep ache that had clearly yet to heal even all these centuries later. “I’m afraid our time here is still limited. You’ll be waking up soon. And I would rather not end our visit on such things.” 

“Grandfather, there’s… there’s more, there’s a lot more I want to say,” Aylen pleaded, though she wasn’t even sure who she was directing the plea to. He held no control over the fact that she would have to wake up and be amongst the true Heretics once more. “I don’t know how we’re going to get you out of this, but we will. I will. I’m here to find out everything I can about how the Heretics have you trapped. Once I do, Mother, Mama, the other Grandfather, we’ll all get you out. I promise. We will get you out of this. You’ll see her again. You’ll see Mother again.” 

She was embracing him. Aylen wasn’t even sure when or how that had happened. Her arms were around him, her face buried against his shoulder. She clung to the man, wanting to stay there and tell him everything about her life, everything about her mothers’ lives. That brief flicker of loss and pain she had seen when he thought of her grandmother made her want to stay forever and tell him everything he had missed. She desperately wanted to fill the emotional pit she had seen in him with everything she could. 

And then again, even as she felt herself begin to drift away from the vision, the phone rang once more. Aylen stubbornly clung to her grandfather, refusing to let go. The phone was louder. “What is it?” she demanded with confusion. “Who keeps trying to call you? I don’t–how are they calling you?” 

“It is symbolic,” he informed her in a quiet voice. “The phone you hear is a manifestation of my old power reaching out to me. If I establish contact, it will free me from this place.” 

Staring at him, aghast, Aylen blurted, “Wh-what?! Why–why wouldn’t you just answer then? If your power can free you, answer the–” 

“No.” His voice was sharp, even as Aylen realized that she had been reaching toward the phone herself. “It is the power of my darker self. The power of what the humans call a Hangman, an evil being bent entirely toward destruction and death.” 

Hand shrinking away from the phone, which had gone silent once more, Aylen murmured, “Your old power… it’s right there, and you’ve been ignoring it all this time. All you have to do is answer it, and if you did, you’d be free but… you’d be evil?” 

“Far worse than that,” her grandfather quietly replied. “I am connected to every Heretic created through the light or the apples. 

“If I become a Hangman, so will they.” 

*******

Former Crossroads Student Mentor Cameron Reid

 

“Don’t make me do this,” Cameron Reid pleaded. The black girl stood at the edge of a used car lot, beside a rusty old sedan that had been cleaned up as much as the employees could manage. She held a wicked-looking faintly curved short sword in each hand, with her favorite little friend, the blue-tongued skink named Tad Cooper (no one she talked to ever got the reference), perched on her shoulder. “Just walk away. We don’t have to do this. I don’t want to do this.” 

“You don’t?” Standing in front of her, long pike raised and pointed that way, Foster Remels snarled the two words. Foster was a light-skinned red-headed boy with the tattoo of a flaming skull on the exposed left shoulder of his sleeveless arms. “Good, does that mean you’re giving up this bullshit and not being a traitor anymore? Because that’d be pretty fucking spiffy, Cameron.” His eyes narrowed. “Otherwise, we really do have to do this. You come back, tell the Committee you’re sorry and you were just confused. They’ll understand, Cameron. Stop this. Help me kill the monsters, and we can all go home.”

At the word monsters, Cameron glanced sidelong toward the small group of blue-skinned humanoids huddled next to one of the nearby trucks. They were the owner of the car lot and his family/employees. Seeing them like that, huddled together while staring fearfully at the two squared-off Heretics, the lump in her throat at the idea of fighting one of her classmates and friends hardened. She swallowed it down, turning her attention back to Foster. “If you think not wanting to fight you is enough to make me change sides, then you don’t understand why I left in the first place.” 

“You’re right!” Foster snapped. “I don’t! We’re supposed to be the good guys, Cameron! We kill monsters and save people! We–” His burst of anger softened, the boy’s clear frustration melting into a desperate plea. “No, you’re right. I do get it. It’d be really nice to see all those creatures out there and think that we could be friends with them. I understand! I swear, I get it. And maybe someday we can! Maybe someday we can find another species to work with us! But not like this. Not by betraying our own people. Don’t you see? You and the others are doing exactly what the monsters want. They’ve been trying to create a civil war in Crossroads for all this time! They did it once before and we survived, and now they’ve done it again!”

For a moment, Cameron was silent. She thought about the students she had mentored back at Crossroads over the past year. They were all so different. Zeke, his incredible pride and hot-headedness repeatedly getting him in trouble despite his intentions. He came to her several times over the year trying to get help with his anger issues. In calm, private situations, the boy repeatedly planned out how to be ‘nicer,’ but in the heat of the moment, repeatedly fell back to the same attitude that got him in trouble. He and Malcolm Harkess, the remarkably gifted athlete and fighter despite his Bystander-kin origins who had ended up being one of Zeke’s closest friends despite their differences and constant arguments, had stayed back at Crossroads. 

Erin too. She was at Crossroads, though Cameron wasn’t sure why. She would have thought that someone like Erin would switch sides, given what she knew about the girl. And yet, here they were. 

Travis Colby, another Bystander-kin like Malcolm, had joined the rebellion. Actually, he’d followed Cameron. When she’d made the choice to follow Chambers and the others that fateful night, Travis had been behind her. She warned him about what she was doing, and he’d simply replied that if Jazz had a boyfriend who was a Stranger, then he wasn’t cool with killing all of them. 

Then there were the twins, Vanessa and Tristan. They, of course, switched sides. They were part of the switching sides. They weren’t even fully human, but hybrids. Humans mixed with a Stranger. 

Her team. The team she was responsible for mentoring, had been split in half. So why had Cameron chosen to switch sides? Why did she choose to go with the rebellion? 

“I don’t know,” she started out loud, “how many of the things out there who aren’t human are actually good. I don’t know how many of those claiming to be good for the rebellion actually are! I don’t know how many are faking it or might just go back to being monsters the second they get a chance. I don’t know! But I know one thing. I know the only way, the only real way, that someone who is bad becomes good is by being treated like they could be! If you treat people like monsters, if you hunt and kill them just for existing, you give them no choice but to act the way you’re treating them. If all you ever do is look for monsters, that’s exactly what you’ll find!

“I don’t know how much this will pay off. I don’t know if we’ll be betrayed. But we have to give it a chance. We have to try to treat them like we’d want to be treated.”

Pointing his pike past Cameron to the huddled figures, Foster declared, “They’re selling cars to humans and then selling their info to monsters who hunt down the humans in their homes.” 

“You don’t know that,” Cameron insisted. “That’s just what Crossroads told you. Why do you believe them?” 

“Because they’ve been doing this for hundreds of years!” he insisted. “Because they know better than you or me. I side with the people who protect humanity, Cameron, with the people who have always protected humanity. Maybe they’re not perfect, maybe we still have a long way to go as a group. But throwing that all away can’t be the right answer!” 

For a moment, the two squared off. Then Cameron turned her head and murmured something to Tad. The tiny lizard ran to the end of her arm, to her waiting hand. Cupped in her palm, the lizard started to glow as she used her favorite power before tossing him to the side. 

He was already growing. When he landed near the huddled family of Alters and straightened up, Tad Cooper was four feet tall and a solid twenty-feet long. He was a massive lizard, armored with scales that were as hard as steel. As he looked toward Foster, the lizard opened his mouth and sent out a rush of freezing breath that created an ice wall between them. 

“If he goes near those people, Tad,” Cameron ordered her empowered lizard, “put him on the ground.” 

Face sombering, Foster cracked his neck while lifting his pike. “So… it’s going to be like that.” 

“Yeah,” Cameron agreed, her own voice just as unhappy, yet equally resolved. “It’s going to be like that.” 

Then there was nothing more to say. The two former friends watched one another’s eyes, saw the impasse between them… and lunged to attack. 

*******

Alcaeus/Heracles

 

Of all the great, remarkable, sometimes even terrible deeds that Alcaeus, once known as Heracles, had achieved in his incredibly long life, convincing Maria and Arthur Chambers to leave their home for an extended vacation had to be one of the most impressive.  

The two were long-retired and spent every day in their California home, where they had lived for almost their entire married life. When their ‘friend Al’ had come to them with a suggestion that they join him on a tour of the world, they had been a bit… uncertain, to say the least. When he explained that he was putting together a book about various tourist destinations specifically for the retired community and that he needed their perspective on all the places he was supposed to go for the book to work as intended, they had understood a little more. Though they had still been a bit surprised that his publisher was footing the bill for three people to go on this journey. 

But even with that explanation, Maria and Arthur had been hesitant. As much as this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see everything they had ever wanted, the two were content in their lives the way they were. Not only that, but with their son (as far as they knew) on a long undercover investigative assignment and their granddaughter away at private school, the two wanted to be close to home in case either needed them. 

Fortunately, Arthur was a bit of a tech-obsessed geek, particularly for an old man. He ended up pointing out to his wife that their cell phones would take calls from their son and granddaughter no matter where they were. And beyond that, their security system would let them know if anyone showed up at the door. If it was Felicity or Lincoln, Maria and Arthur would be able to talk to them through the doorbell camera and arrange for a flight out to meet wherever they happened to be. 

That was one of Maria’s primary conditions. She and Arthur set aside money for two separate plane tickets, enough to bring Felicity and/or Lincoln anywhere they were, no matter where that was. She insisted that if her son or granddaughter needed them, they would have the money, their own money, to fly them to DC, New York, London, Hong Kong, or anywhere else in the world. 

In the end, they did at least finally agree. Which allowed Alcaeus to get them out of their house and away from home on this globetrotting trip. It was a temporary measure, of course. But it would give him time to figure out just how serious the Seosten attempts to get at the two would end up being. It was a stop-gap, yet an important one. 

At the moment, they were in Alaska, staying in a hunting lodge. Al had taken his friends out to see all the incredible wildlife and stunning visuals that the area had to offer. They were in awe of it all, of course, and their own utterly stunned reactions to these things reminded Alcaeus of how much he took for granted. He had been on this world for so long, had seen so much, that he sometimes (often) forgot just how incredible it really was. 

They deserved to know more. They deserved the whole truth. And part of this trip, if the man was being honest with himself, was his own way of deciding if he should take that step or not. Because while they deserved the truth, they also deserved to live their lives without being dragged into the whole problems of Heretics, Seosten, and everything else. 

Yet, Al asked himself while standing on the porch of the hunting lodge with Maria and Arthur cuddling on the swing behind him, weren’t they already involved? Their granddaughter was a Heretic who had found out the truth about Seosten. Their son had somehow (assuming Al’s contacts were correct, and he believed they were) broken the Bystander Effect and figured out a lot of the truth on his own, and was even now living with the old Gabriel Prosser’s people. 

Yes, they were involved. The only real question was how involved. And Al thought he knew the answer. The only real answer was to give them the truth and let them decide for themselves. It would take some effort, there were things that needed to be collected to make the spell work. But once he did, he could temporarily remove the Bystander Effect and tell them the truth. Then he would let Arthur and Maria decide if they wanted to retain that knowledge and be a part of… of all this. Because the truth was, it wasn’t his choice. It was theirs. 

For now, however, he would simply keep them safe. And show them as much of the world as he could. To that end, he raised his hand to point. “If you’re up to it, in the morning–” 

Then it happened. In mid-sentence, a rush of memories burst forth out of nowhere, an explosion of knowledge that rocked Al backward. 

He had never been an official part of Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion. But he knew of it. And he had helped now and then, when possible. For the most part, the Alcaeus of that time simply wished to be left alone, if the threats weren’t world-ending, like the Fomorians. He had been trying to keep his ever-present temper in check, had tried to find true balance in his life between the good man he wanted to be and the embodiment of rage and destruction that he was so good at becoming. 

So, he had helped when needed, had served as a sort of… babysitter at times for those who were in danger and had nowhere else to turn. He had met Joselyn Atherby, had seen the strength in her. Strength was something he liked… a lot. And he liked her… a lot. For a man like Alcaeus, liking a woman generally meant one thing. And… well, this case was no different. The two of them had, with the blessing of her husband… Deveron, that was it, taken that liking to another level once or… twice or… 

Fuck, this was awkward. 

The rush of memories, the realization that he not only knew the woman who had supposedly abandoned Arthur and Maria’s son and granddaughter, but had actually slept with her (and quite enjoyed it, honestly), was almost more than even a man as strong as Alcaeus could handle. He stumbled back a step, gasping. Rebellion, Joselyn, the Atherbys, her daughter… Her daughter had awakened those memories, had awakened the rebellion. 

Arthur was suddenly there, a hand on Al’s arm while the other caught his back. Nearly half a foot shorter than Alcaeus despite being six-foot-five himself, he was still built sturdily enough to catch the stumbling man. “Whoa there! Hey, Al, you okay?” In the background, Maria was already insisting that her husband help him over to the swing while she called for a doctor. 

“No, no, I’m okay,” Al insisted, shaking his head. “Just got a little dizzy for a second. Long day.” 

“You come right over here and sit down,” Maria Chambers insisted, pointing to the swing. “I don’t want to hear any arguments, you understand? Get off your feet, now. You men, always pushing yourselves so far. Too damned stubborn to admit you’re getting too old for these things.” 

Letting himself be pulled by Arthur to sit down on the swing, Alcaeus mused inwardly. He’d thought that explaining the truth about this whole situation to his friends was going to be awkward before. 

Now? Now he was going to have to be good and god damned drunk before even starting. 

***************

Earth Club

 

“This… is… cowabunga!” 

As he blurted those words, the green-skinned boy known as Layuerk (or Lurk, as many called him), pumped his fists into the air and jumped up and down in front of the entrance to the most incredible, wonderful place he’d ever set foot near. Truly, the shining jewel of the vast universe.

Oak Park Mall, in Overland Park, Kansas. 

“It’s radical, dude.” Stepping beside his friend, the Reusfiel (essentially an anthropomorphic fox-bunny) named Grisson added, “Cowabunga’s something you yell, like neat or yay. Something can’t be cowabunga. Come on, we watched every Ninja Turtles movie last week for a reason. So we sound like normal teenagers and don’t stand out. We’re supposed to be under cover.” 

As he said that, they were joined by a new figure. She stood two inches over six feet, with body entirely made of metal, and arms that reached all the way to the ground despite her height. Ferrdreis, the Ullmis. Her male twin, Aerlicht, was right behind her. “We are very good at being under cover,” Ferrdreis announced, before looking at a passing elderly couple who were on their way into the mall. “Greetings, Bodacious Lady and Sir Dude! May your days be totally tubular and free from bogus.” 

The couple stared at them for a moment, clearly confused before hurrying off. Watching them go, Ferrdreis tilted her head. “Perhaps it is my accent?” 

These four, the full members of what they had always called the Earth Club back in Seosten space, were finally here. They were here on Earth after so many years of picking up random toys, games, movies, and more from the place they had become obsessed with. With the arrival of the Aelaestiam station and its conversion to the Fusion School for Heretics and Alters, these four were finally able to live their dream of actually setting foot on Earth. And they were making the most of it. 

“I still don’t get it,” Layuerk insisted. “So you can yell radical, excellent, awesome, all those things. You can say yell those and something can be those. Like a radical car or an excellent movie. And you can also yell cowabunga, but something can’t be cowabunga? No, I refuse. This building is totally cowabunga!” 

“If you think this mall’s cowabunga, you’re gonna flip if we ever go to Mall of America.” The drawled announcement came from the Earth Club’s adult escort for this little trip, Deveron Adams. The handsome, dark-haired man stepped up onto the curb, accompanied by his teenage granddaughter, Koren Fellows. 

“One step at a time, Grandpa,” Koren teased the man. “Don’t overload their circuits.” Even as she said it, the girl was wincing with a look toward the two metal figures. “Errr, that wasn’t supposed to be a robot joke or anything. Not that I think you’re robots, it’s just–I mean I wasn’t–” 

“Would you like me to interrupt and pretend you never said anything?” Deveron asked conversationally. When the flushing girl covered her mouth with both hands and nodded, he turned his attention to the quartet. “Alright, guys, you remember the rules. We stay together. We’ll look at what you want to look at. There’s plenty of time and plenty of stores to see. They’ve got an arcade, a mini-golf place, a food court… let’s work our way toward the food court. We’ve got two hours before the movie in the theater. We’ll mosey that way, pick up some food, then see the movie. And what do you do in case of emergency?” 

In answer, all five teenagers held up their arms to display the wristwatches that had been enchanted with spells to teleport them to safety if a command word was spoken. 

“Good job.” With a smile, Deveron gestured. “Right then,

“Let’s go cowabunga this mall.” 

******

Jiao

 

Stepping off the brightly lit sidewalk with a sharp pivot into a much darker alley, a frail-looking Asian woman wearing a long dark coat with a leather satchel over one shoulder strode smoothly in the shadows. Her feet announced her movement with each step that clicked against the dirty cement, until they simply… didn’t. Between one step and the next, she abruptly stopped providing any sound at all, her motions utterly silent. It was as if she had flipped a switch, no longer deliberately walking in a way to invite her pursuers into a false sense of superiority. 

It was to those pursuers that Jiao spoke, as she stopped walking a few feet from the wall marking the dead end of the alley. “If you would like to have a conversation, I have time now.” 

“A conversation?” The derisive voice came from the first of two orcs who stepped up into the opening of the alley. They were joined by a larger troll, who growled with annoyance while filling up the entire alley entrance. “Oh,” the orc continued, “we can have a really quick conversation. Just tell us where your husband is.” 

Still facing the wall rather than turning to them, Jiao tilted her head a little to gaze at the trio over her shoulder from the corner of her eye. “I would say you’ll have to narrow it down, given my apparent proclivity for wandering husbands. But I am afraid it would not be helpful, as I remain sadly unaware of the whereabouts of either.” 

The orc who had been speaking gave a dark chuckle. “You say a lot of words, but not the ones we wanna hear.” His eyes narrowed, and he produced a heavy flintlock-like enchanted pistol, pointing it at her. “We wanna know where Liang is. More to the point, our boss wants to know where he is. You can either tell us, or we’ll make you scream and see if he comes running.” 

Jiao’s response to the threat, as the second orc produced a glowing energy blade and the troll heaved a massive axe off his back, was a simple, “You are welcome to the attempt.” 

With a snarl, the orc pointed his enchanted gun and pulled the trigger, sending a concentrated blast of electrical energy (enough to put an Amarok on the ground), while the other orc dashed forward, energy-blade already lashing out to cut through the space the woman would have to dodge into. 

Or rather… the space she should have dodged into. But instead of moving that way, Jiao simply pivoted. Her left hand snapped upward, producing a small pistol of her own before firing off a single bullet, striking the hand of the lizard-like Alter who had been silently sneaking down the wall in an attempt to ambush her while she was distracted. With a yell as his hand was struck by the shot, the lizard-man plummeted off the wall and ended up falling directly into the path of the incoming ball of lightning. 

Meanwhile, Jiao’s other hand snapped backward and down, producing a pistol of its own before firing a shot into the knee of the orc who had just whiffed his laser-sword through the air where he’d thought she would be. He collapsed with a scream, before her pistol fired a second shot through the side of his head. 

Before the body could fall completely, the vampire used a very slight burst of speed to put herself on the opposite side of him just as another lightning ball from the first orc blew a hole in the wall where she had just been. Dropping both guns, Jiao hoisted the body of the second orc with one hand. A moment later, it was sent flying through the air. The first orc ducked, but the troll simply caught the incoming body with one hand. 

“That was pretty fucking stupid, bitch,” the orc snarled, already striding toward her with his magic pistol raised. “What the hell did you think that was gonna accomplish, huh?”

“What you should be asking yourself,” Jiao patiently and quietly replied, “is, if I threw him with one hand, why did I drop both guns?” 

“If you threw him with one–” As he echoed those words dismissively, the orc’s eyes suddenly widened as he saw that Jiao’s other hand wasn’t empty. Rather, it held a remote detonator. He spun back toward the troll, who was staring curiously at the dead orc in his massive hand. “Put him–” 

That was as far as he got, before the explosion blew the troll into little chunks. The force of the shockwave was enough to knock the living orc to the ground, where he lay with a groan before slowly lifting his head as the barrel of a pistol was placed calmly against it. 

“Perhaps,” Jiao began, as calmly as ever, “we can have that conversation about the gentleman who wishes to find my second husband now.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The silence following that particular announcement seemed to last for days. We all just stared at the kindly old Fomorian like he was… well, a kindly old Fomorian. There wasn’t really a more absurd example that sprang to mind. Yet, somehow, he had managed to make the situation even more insane. Which took some doing. 

“Grandfather,” Sonoma chided, “we said we were going to ease them into that whole thing. Gently, remember?”

An expression of confusion crossed his alien features, as he looked back and forth between our shocked looks and the Native American woman. “I did, didn’t I? I said we’ll talk about it later. How could—oh! Oh, oh yes.” 

Suddenly becoming completely distracted and clearly forgetting what he had just been talking about, the old Fomorian took a step toward Dare before catching himself. “Ah, pardon me. Not to startle you into any violent reactions, Miss Dare. But would you mind if I approach?”

Dare paused. For good reason, I knew. Not only did she have a lot of bad experiences with his people, but there was a lot riding on people not realizing exactly who she was. But, either she decided there wasn’t that much of a risk, or that refusing would be even more of a potential problem. Either way, she gave a slight nod while watching him carefully.

With a broad, disarming smile, the Fomorian quickly moved forward. I had the impression he could have moved even faster, but had deliberately slowed himself to avoid upsetting people. He was right there in front of Dare, gingerly taking hold of her wrist between two of his long fingers before staring at her arm. More specifically, at the bare part of skin between her wrist and the sleeve of her shirt. He made several curious hmmm noises while turning her arm this way and that before laughing with delight. “Yes, yes, I knew it! I knew this line was important when I saw it before. Didn’t I, little buddy? Yes, you. Who’s adorable? You’re adorable! Yes, that’s a good little trooper.” 

“Um.” Beside me, Rebecca asked quietly, “is he talking to her arm like it’s a puppy?”

My head shook. “I think he’s talking to her DNA like it’s a puppy.” Which was even weirder, but still.

After making another couple cooing noises of pride and delight, the Fomorian abruptly snapped his head around. It turned a full one-eighty to look straight at me. Which didn’t do anything to make me feel less freaked out. “Oh, but of course, of course. You have been forced to stay apart for such a long time, haven’t you?”

Wait, did… did he know… my eyes glanced up toward Dare, who looked almost physically stricken, mouth opening though it was clear that she wasn’t exactly sure what to say. But she had to say something, before this guy blurted out the wrong thing and—

“Yes, you certainly have,” the Fomorian concluded with a sage nod as he released Dare, his gaze still on me. “You’ve been separated from your mother for years now.” He stepped closer, going down on one knee again in front of me. His voice, while still cheerful, had taken on a note of somberness. “I’m sorry to hear of your family’s ills and trials. They’ve been through quite a lot. And have sacrificed much.” 

He knew. I was certain of that just from his words as I stared into his eyes. He knew exactly what the relationship between Dare and me was, and why it was so important that no one else find out. Had he known the whole time, or did he figure it out just by looking at us? If he had figured it out just by looking at us, had that hurt the spell? I found myself looking upward, almost anticipating some kind of cataclysmic sign of Fomorian ships like had happened back when Koren and I found out. 

But there was nothing like that, and the figure in front of me seemed to follow my gaze upward before assuring me in a casual tone, “It’s alright. I have great trust in the abilities of all of you.” 

He stood back up then, his infectiously cheerful voice continuing. “You’ve all done such amazing things. Removing that nasty memory spell. Building the Hoover dam. Bringing down that woolly mammoth in Broken Fang canyon. Defending your dens from the coyote pack near Moon Crescent Lake.” Pausing belatedly, his head tilted before he amended, “Wait, I was thinking of ancient tigers and modern beavers for those last two. But still!”

Of all of us, it was actually Vanessa who suddenly blurted, “What were you saying about my mom making a new universe?!” Her arms were raised in total bafflement as she stared at the figure. “What was all that about?“

Tabbris’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Mom can’t make universes! I mean—” she cut herself off, shooting a quick, apologetic look to Sariel as though feeling guilty about saying there was anything her mom couldn’t do. “I mean, she didn’t make a new universe.”

Clearly chuckling despite herself, Sariel ruffled both of her daughters’ hair before nodding. “What they said.”

Grandfather looked to her, seeming to consider for a moment before he responded. “You’re right, of course. You didn’t create a new universe. Not at all. No, your work with Tartarus did that.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if that should explain everything. Which… well, given what we knew of that place, it probably did help at least a little bit. But still… not really. 

Bastet exhaled, gesturing. “Everyone sit down. We’ll explain the full situation, I promise. It does involve your work to reopen a way to the Tartarus universe, but there’s a lot more to the whole thing. A… lot.” 

“She’s not kidding,” Sonoma assured us. “That’s where we’ve been for the past few months. Though it wasn’t that long for us. It’s– complicated. Really complicated. So let’s all sit down, get comfortable, and we’ll try to get through all of it.” 

Somehow, we arranged ourselves at the tables. Though it was clear that the only thing anyone was interested in was hearing this story. I sat between Avalon and Rebecca, the three of us exchanging glances. Tabbris was by her mother and brother. Everyone was looking toward Grandfather. As for the Fomorian himself, he seemed to be considering his words carefully before straightening up, cracking his knuckles. Despite everything, I saw every single adult we had brought with us stiffen reflexively for a moment.

But Grandfather simply started to talk. “Right then.” He looked to Sariel. “You created an orb to re-open a path into the Tartarus universe. To do so, you summoned latent energy from that universe and brought it here to Earth from all over this universe, yes?” When she simply nodded, he continued. “When you brought that energy to this world, it… I suppose the best word is absorbed. It absorbed information about the Earth. All of the information about this world was imprinted upon it. Like pushing silly putty against a newspaper. That’s fun! Have you ever—”

Stopping himself, the figure shook his head and pushed on. “Ahem, in any case, the energy from Tartarus is not stable in time. It fluctuates, often very dramatically. So when it was absorbing information, it didn’t only take that data from the moment the energy was here, it did so across the planet’s entire history from conception to… well, to the moment it was drawn to. One single bit of that energy bounced back in time all the way to when the dinosaurs roamed the planet and absorbed all of the information about them. Every last detail about every dinosaur imprinted all of it into a that little spark. And the same thing happened throughout all of this planet’s history. Isn’t it glorious?” 

Tristan frowned. “I don’t get it. This weird energy stuff was making records of the world?”

Grandfather’s head bobbed quickly, eagerly. “Yes, yes! But not just normal records. No, that’s not what it was doing. It was copying entire living beings, you see? All that data about how many legs and arms something something is supposed to have, how many heads, how many teeth, or eyes, or how long their intestines should be. It was copying all of it. Physical data and mental data. Historical record and a sort of… what’s the word?”

“Photograph,” Bastet supplied. She was looking to the rest of us. “The energy was brought here to this world. It carried itself across space and time, recording all the information it could about Earth. But even for something as absurd as Tartarus energy, it can only record so much. So as far as keeping physical records, it focused on what it saw as native inhabitants. Animals native to this world, including humans.”

Gwen spoke then. “So if I have this right, this energy was called here and experienced all of human history. Somehow, for some reason, it was recording all of this. Not just the basic information but… like… physical structures of what it considered to be native animals. And plants, I assume. It was, what, taking pictures of people?”

“Oh, more than that,” Grandfather insisted, “so much more than that. It wasn’t just making pictures, it was making copies. Copies of every flora and fauna it saw as native to this world, across its entire history.”

“That’s impossible,” Vanessa blurted. “That’s over a hundred billion humans alone, let alone all the plants and animals and… do you have any idea how many different animals and people that is? Do you have any idea how many plants that is?”

Grandfather nodded excitedly. “Yes, it’s rather amazing, isn’t it? All that information locked into those tiny sparks of energy and then put in the sphere that Mrs. Moon here and her adopted brother created.”

Sariel sank back in her seat. “We sent the orb back to our people. What did we do…?”

“Very good things!” Grandfather insisted. “You remember the siphon?”

“You haven’t told them that part yet,” Sonoma gently noted. 

Finally unable to help myself, I quickly put in. “This is about the place Harrison Fredericks went, isn’t it? Columbus was telling us about that. Fredericks said he showed up in a world that was like ours, only they had… like… superheroes. Normal people with superpowers and costumes and everything. Superpowers they got from some orb that said Summus Proelium in their heads or something.”

Sariel gave a slight nod. “The orb ended up in an alternate Earth somehow. We knew that.”

Grandfather, however, shook his head quickly. “Not just an alternate Earth. One created by the orb itself. When your people activated it and sent it through to Tartarus, the safeguards that you put on the orb against danger activated. Tartarus is nothing but danger. So the orb attempted to escape. Your protection magic made it try to get out of Tartarus, out of its own home. It did so the only way that it could, by creating a new universe and popping itself out into it.”

Avalon’s voice was dull with disbelief. “The orb created an entire universe?”

It was Bastet who answered. “Not by itself. The orb was smart. Well, smart in a way, thanks to the magic put on it. It absorbed all the Tartarus energy it could and used that to both break out of there, and to create this new universe. Not a full copy, of course. It had records of where all the planets and stars and everything else were supposed to be, for the most part. But the only information about living beings it had was what it recorded on Earth.”

Sonoma took over for a moment. “The orb created an empty universe. Empty except for Earth. On that Earth, it bounced across billions of years, creating every living being in its memory. It literally created copies of every person, animal, plant, everything. It copied everything including the history. It made everything exactly the same. Only it didn’t copy Alters. Or Heretics. Because the energy saw Heretics as not being native to Earth. It copied their basic information, but not enough to create physical bodies.”

Grandfather spoke again. “This wonderful, loyal orb was trying to get home. Home to, well, its mother. But it was confused. A very brave and smart little magic orb, but not exactly perfect in its reasoning. It’s like a child, you see. It thought it could create home. So it made that Earth with everything being completely identical. It created new physical bodies of every human being it had recorded, filled them with their own memories and personalities, faked things where it needed to in order to force the history to go the way it was supposed to even without Alter influence, and generally tried its best to make what was supposed to be home.”

Avalon slowly exhaled. “You’re saying it made the history of this alternate world exactly the same as ours, even when Heretics and Alters didn’t exist, just by… forcing things to happen?” 

Again, Grandfather’s head bobbed. “Precisely! Brilliant, isn’t it? In its own way, at least. It thought it could create the perfect situation to make the world it was creating be the home that it left.” 

“But it couldn’t.” That was Bastet. “It couldn’t really make that place the way it wanted, because something was missing. It was still trying to find its mother.” She looked to Sariel. “Think of the orb as an AI. It’s been trying to find its creator and get back to you. When making this whole new world didn’t work, it had to try something else. So it created another world. It bounced back into Tartarus, absorbed more energy, then popped out again and created another Earth just like the first one it made. This time it changed a few things here and there. But you still weren’t there. So it did it again, and again, and again. It was trying to find the iteration of the world where you existed.”

It was Grandfather’s turn again, while all of us sat there stunned into silence. “The poor, loyal orb couldn’t find you anywhere, no matter how many different Earths it made. So it tried something else. I suppose it thought maybe the humans it made could find you, or become you, or help it understand what it did wrong. Maybe all of the above. The point is, it began taking Tartarus energy and using it the way it remembered from you.”

“Powers,” I realized aloud. “It started using the energy to give people powers. That’s what Fredericks saw. The orb created all these Earths and then just started turning the humans into superheroes because it was trying to find Sariel?”

“Superheroes on some worlds,” Sonoma confirmed. “Different things on others. One Earth became more of a… fantasy world of magic and monsters as the orb delivered specific Tartarus gifts unlocking the ability to use magic in the previously non-magical humans, while transforming others into approximations of what it remembered of various Alters from human memories. Other Earths it left completely alone with no interference. We believe it sees those worlds as a control group.” 

“And what was that you said about a siphon?” Koren put in, sounding just as stunned as I felt. 

“Oh yes!” Grandfather explained with infectious childlike eagerness. “Tartarus is fast and incredibly powerful. But it is not entirely without limits. This wonderful, wonderful little orb had been creating entire galaxies over and over again, and filling them with people. That takes a lot of power. Power it was draining from Tartarus, you see? It was a part of Tartarus itself, so the place couldn’t expel or stop it. But it was different, thanks to the magic placed on it. In trying to get home or create home, in trying to find its creator, it drained more and more energy from Tartarus. It’s still draining power from Tartarus. That wonderful orb is acting as a siphon, drawing power and weakening it so it can’t wake them up.”

Gabriel, who had been silent up to this point, asked, “Wake who up?”

It was Sariel who answered. “The monsters who nearly destroyed the universe before. My people developed our space flight based on technology we got from a crashed ship belonging to a race known as the Suelesk. Their entire civilization and most of the universe at the time were almost entirely wiped out by these giant monsters. Four of them. They were from Tartarus, weren’t they?”

Bastet nodded. “And it has been trying to wake them up, or find them, or retrieve them, or something. We’re not sure. Either way, it’s been using energy to try to bring them back. And it seemed like it might have been getting close. But that little orb you made keeps taking all the excess energy and stealing it. Stealing energy for its own little project, and Tartarus itself is incapable of doing anything about it.”

Vanessa spoke up quickly. “It’s like the orb infected Tartarus. Like… Tartarus knows something’s wrong, but it can’t detect the orb as an intruder because it’s all made up of its own energy.”

With clear delight on his widely smiling face, Grandfather pointed to her. “Yes! Yes, exactly! Brilliant girl. I knew your line was destined for something special the moment they used mud as a cooling agent.  Brilliant.”

Tristan patted his sister on the back. “Yeah, that’s our Nessa, always cooling off with mud.”

While Sariel sat there looking completely stunned into silence, Dare cleared her throat. “So, let’s sum up what you’re saying. The orb that was made to give the Seosten access to Tartarus again has managed to gain some vague form of pseudo-sapience. Now it’s looking for its mother, only it’s confused and thinks it can just make a new world and she’ll be on it. So it keeps making different variations of Earth based on all the information it absorbed about this place. Only on those Earths, humans are the only species who exist? Does that mean that if your people find these other universes they could have all the humans they could ever want?”

Bastet answered. “That’s part of the reason we went over there to check. No. The orb copied the physical form of humans, but it either didn’t or couldn’t replicate their bonding ability. They’re identical to humans from this Earth in almost every other respect aside from that. Even their history is basically the same all the way up to around the year two thousand. Anytime great historical events were influenced by supernatural forces on this world, the orb just faked it to try and make things as similar as possible.”

Sonoma added, “It’s been trying to throw in different variations to figure out why it can’t find its creator. So, as we said, in some worlds it introduces powers earlier than others, sometimes it introduces them in a different way or changes things, and in some it doesn’t introduce them at all.”

Remembering what Columbus had said once more, I asked, “What about the voice? It says Summus Proelium in a female voice.”

“Mrs. Moon’s voice,” Grandfather informed us. “The orb is trying to find its maker, so it uses those words to embed her voice into their minds. If they hear her voice, it will know and come to them.”

Sariel finally spoke up. “If this— If the orb is trying so hard to find me, I should go to it. It’s been creating entire universes trying to find me.” She sounded understandably dazed by the whole prospect. “It… I need to talk to it.”

Bastet replied, “The orb is bouncing wildly through time and universes. Sometimes more than one iteration of itself show up right next to each other. It seems to ignore most known rules of time travel, probably because it’s the one that created these universes. Either way, if you go there, you will probably end up drawing a lot of different iterations of it to you at the same time. It could end up causing more problems than it solves. Better to stay here and use magic to lock onto a specific version of it, pull that version to you and work things out from there.”

Sonoma added, “Besides, as they said, the orb is drawing energy that Tartarus would use to wake up universe-destroying abominations.”

Shifting up in my seat, I slowly spoke. “Sariel and Apollo accidentally created a sapient magic orb that’s saving the universe by draining power from the dimension of ultimate evil and destruction to create lots of different Earths so it can try to find its mother. Yup, that makes perfect sense to me.”

Raising her hand, Rebecca spoke up weakly. “You know, Grandma has been telling me some really crazy stories about when she and Mrs. Chambers were young. 

“But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna win the next storytime.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As far as walking into potentially dangerous situations went, it couldn’t get much better than doing so with Sariel, Gabriel Prosser, Gwen, and Professor Dare surrounding us. That assortment of incredibly powerful, skilled people went a long way toward making the idea of walking into dinner with a Fomorian somewhat less terrifying. Aylen’s assurances that ‘Grandfather’ would never hurt us and her explanation of why that was so helped a lot too, but still. I’m not sure I would’ve felt great about going to this whole thing without all the protection. I probably still would’ve done it thanks to everything she said, but I would’ve been a lot more nervous. 

The point was, with all four adults, the rest of us felt better about the whole thing. I wasn’t sure how they felt about it given they had actually fought the Fomorians for a lot longer than we had (a lot longer in Sariel’s case), but still. They were staying quiet as we walked through what turned out to be a wide open grassy field with a cottage sitting next to a small lake. There were several long tables set up behind the cottage, covered in tablecloths and stacks of dishes.

Aylen was out front, by her own insistence. Avalon, Koren, Tabbris, Rebecca, Vanessa, Tristan, and I were walking together, with the four adults spread out around us. Gabriel brought up the rear, Dare walked to the left, Sariel to the right, and Gwen was right up front, just behind Aylen. As a group, we made our way across the field, approaching that pleasant-looking little cottage. 

A figure appeared there, between two of the tables as we got closer. One second there was nothing there, then there was. It wasn’t the Fomorian, probably purposefully. Intead, the figure was a woman. She stood there in a dark blue cloak that drifted loosely in the soft breeze, the hood leaving most of her face cast in shadows save for the soft azure glow from her eyes.  

If any of the adults were taken aback by the woman’s sudden appearance ahead of us, they didn’t show it at all. The four simply stopped walking, followed belatedly by the rest of us. 

“Mother,” Aylen chided while continuing on that way. “Stop trying to intimidate my friends.” 

The voice that came from the woman was quiet, yet reached all of us easily.  “I wasn’t trying to intimidate them. I was making it clear that we would not be intimidated. There is a difference.” 

“Sorry!” That voice came from the doorway of the cottage, as another female figure came rushing out. She was Native American, a fairly small and fragile-looking woman with long dark hair framing a soft, welcoming face. She was carrying a tray full of various crackers, meats, and cheeses, hurrying over to one of the tables to put it down before brushing off her simple jeans and red flannel shirt. “I told her to be nice.” To the first woman, she reiterated, “I said be nice.” 

“I was being nice,” the cloaked figure murmured. “I didn’t say anything wrong.” Her gaze turned to us then. Or me, specifically. The two of us locked eyes, as I stared into those softly glowing blue orbs. There was an incredible amount of power and knowledge there. As well as something deeper. Pain, loss, a very real sense of… worry. Somehow, looking at her, I knew she was… afraid of how this would go. She was as nervous as any of the rest of us, afraid this whole thing would go wrong and that Aylen would have to leave us. She was afraid that this would ruin her daughter’s relationship with us, with her friends. And despite all the reassurances Aylen had given her about how we could be trusted, she was still wary of potentially having to defend herself, her wife, and the Fomorian who had cared for her for so long when no others would. 

Wait. With a jolt, I blinked rapidly and broke the connection. How… how had I gotten all that just by looking in her eyes? What the hell? I didn’t have any kind of empathic powers as far as I knew. I couldn’t read people’s emotions like that. And it had never happened that way in the past in any case. So how had I just looked into this woman’s eyes and suddenly understood all that? Was she projecting her feelings to me? But that didn’t make any sense. There was no reason for her to do that, and I had the impression that she wouldn’t have wanted me to know that much about her own personal feelings and worries anyway. So what the living hell? 

The conversation between the adults who had come with us and Aylen’s other mother had continued, as she stepped over and extended a hand toward Gwen with a voice that was clearly pushing for cheerfulness to cover the tension and uncertainty that everyone very obviously felt. “Hi, good evening. My name is Sonoma.” 

Apparently Gwen was the right person on our side to break the tension, because she immediately shook the offered hand, her smile bright and genuine. “Well hiya! I’ve gotta say, meeting you and… well, hearing about your little family has done a hell of a lot to answer some questions I’ve had for a long time.” Her words were cheerful, as she shook the hand enthusiastically. This was real, I knew. She wasn’t putting on an act or anything. It was the Harper part of her, the part of Harper that had been the real Gwen. She was open, enthusiastic, cheerful, kind of goofy… that was Guinevere, wife of King Arthur and secretly the real Lancelot. She was a bit of a dork (like me, honestly) and absolutely the right person to speak first. 

Clearly taken a bit by surprise, Sonoma smiled reflexively while returning the handshake. “Oh. Well, yeah, I suppose we probably have left a few mysteries lying around over the years.” 

“Speaking of mysteries we’ve left lying around,” the hooded woman put in, “apparently you’ve picked up my wife’s ring, though it’s a choker now.” 

While I was blinking in surprise at that, Gabriel spoke up. “The Ring of Anuk-Ite.” His gaze was on Sonoma. “You were the old chief’s daughter, the one who searched out a shaman to help… ahhh, cure his child when she was turned into an Alter.” 

“Wait, yeah, I remember this,” Rebecca blurted. “You guys were telling us about it over the summer. Old shaman couldn’t turn her human again, but she enchanted a ring for the girl that would hide her from the Heretic sense, right? But… the legends said another creature killed her and took the ring.” 

“Took the ring,” Sonoma confirmed. “Not so much with the death thing. And that much wasn’t so bad. It’s how I ended up meeting Bastet again.” Her gaze turned slightly to the hooded figure with the same kind of smile that I often found myself giving Shiori and Avalon. “She and Grandfather were the ones who made the ring in the first place. My father and I found them. Or they found us. When the ring was taken, Bastet… helped me. We’ve been together ever since.” 

Bastet. Wait a second, Bastet and Grandfather. Why did that sound so familiar when put that wa–

“Bastet and Grandfather!” That was Avalon, not me. She blurted it out loud, eyes widening. “I know you. I mean, my–Liesje Aken, my ancestor, she knew you. When I saw her–I mean when she… she recorded a memory, a ghost, sort of. Her memory-ghost told me that Grandfather and Bastet helped her create the anti-possession spell that’s been protecting her descendants. The same one that Dries, Sariel, and the others have been fixing to protect everyone back at the school.” 

Right, right, that was how I knew the name. Avalon had told me all about that. Why hadn’t the name ‘Grandfather’ tickled anything in our memories before now? Maybe it was just that generic. But still. 

Bastet had finally reached up to take the hood down, revealing a Reaper-pale face and long azure hair that matched her eyes. Her voice was slightly warmer. “I remember Liesje. I liked her. She found us without any real nudges, essentially on her own. That was… impressive.”

“Liesje found you and this Grandfather guy all on her own?” I blinked, looking over at Avalon. “Damn, your ancestor was a badass.” 

“Like we didn’t know that already,” she retorted dryly before blinking. “The story. Right. The story said that the Ring of Anuk-Ite was made by a being who lived on Earth since the first wind touched the first dust.” 

“Grandfather,” Aylen supplied. “And he hasn’t been on Earth that long, but poetic license. Like I told you, he brought ancient humans here, so he’s been around since we’ve existed, basically.”

This was all making a lot more sense. Holes in what I understood were being filled in really quickly over these past few hours. 

Another long-standing mystery was filled in a moment later as something clicked in my head. “Wait a second.” My eyes snapped over to Bastet, who was watching me with a curious expression. “You. Your aura’s gold, isn’t it? Because your father is the–the reaper back at Crossroads. He’s your father and his aura is gold, like Gaia’s and mine. And my Mom’s. We’re connected to the Reaper in the lighthouse and he’s your father so your aura is probably gold.” When the woman slowly nodded, I snapped my fingers. “You were the one who killed those eleven Heretics awhile back! The one who jumped in to stop them from massacring those Alters and killed eleven of the twelve Heretics who were there. The Committee thought it was my mother, but it was you.” 

Her head gave a slight bow. “You picked up on that quite easily. Yes, Grandfather and I have spent generation after generation working in the shadows. Sometimes I choose to be… a little more open about things. It was not my intention to cast the blame to your mother. Apparently the Heretic I left alive did a terrible job of providing a description of her attacker.” 

“Or they just weren’t listening after she said ‘gold aura’ and my mother’s name popped into all their heads,” I pointed out with a shrug. “Still, that explains it. I’ve seriously been wondering about that for months.” 

Looking back over to me, Gwen pointed out, “Now multiply that by a thousand years or so with little mysteries piling up. Yeah, this whole thing answers a lot.” She glanced to Sonoma and Bastet then while adding, “We really need to sit down at some point and talk all that out. But it can wait until after we’re all a little more comfortable with each other.” Her expression brightened. “Which, hey, is what this whole dinner is about, right?” 

Tabbris, who had been sticking pretty close to her mother as well as Tristan and Vanessa through this, spoke up. “Do we get to meet this Grandfather guy now?” 

Her mother laid a hand on the girl’s head with a nod. “Yes, I believe we are all quite interested in that prospect. Even if we are also nervous about it.” That admission came with a small smile, obviously attempting to make light of what was probably a very tense situation for someone like her. The Seosten had been fighting the Fomorians for hundreds of thousands of years and had apparently never encountered a single good version. Maybe that was because only the bad ones went out conquering galaxies, but still. The fact that she had spent so long like that meant that being willing to accept that there could be a good one even through Tartarus shenanigans was pretty big. 

There was a brief pause as Sonoma and Bastet looked at one another, exchanging some kind of silent communication before the latter turned back to us with a slight nod. “Yes. Before we eat, it’s best if you all meet him.” Her eyes narrowed, however, as she slowly looked over our entire assembled group. “But let me make something clear. I understand–we understand– that this will be a tense situation and that you have never met anyone like him. With that in mind, if anyone makes a hostile move toward any of us, including Grandfather, you will not like how this meeting proceeds.” 

“Bastet,” Sonoma spoke carefully, taking a step that way before looking to us. “You have to understand, we aren’t exactly accustomed to reaching out like this… at all. Grandfather keeps himself secret for a reason. Not only because of how people could react, but also to stay away from his other half. Opening up like this is dangerous. But we… we thought it was the right time, after everything you’ve done. Everything that’s happening, it’s… time for us to open up a little bit.” 

It was Gabriel who responded to that first. “I believe we all completely understand why you would be hesitant to trust in your situation. Just as I believe you can understand why the idea of someone like this Grandfather is very… odd. But you’re right, given how things are progressing, we need to work together. Which means trusting one another at least enough to actually meet.” 

“Great,” Koren blurted, sounding maybe just a little hysterical. “Now that we all totally understand each other, can we get on with it?”  

“You, I like,” Bastet informed her before nodding. “Yes, now that we’re on the same page.” She turned, speaking in just as normal a voice as ever without raising it at all. “Grandfather, it’s safe.”

And with that, a figure emerged from the cottage. Everyone stood there, very much trying to remind ourselves not to freak out. It was the Fomorian alright. He was tall, with the same angular features, gray skin, and big eyes as the one we’d met at Thanksgiving. He looked kind of like one of those stereotypical ‘gray aliens’ from so many sci fi and alien abduction stories. Which made sense, given how ingrained these guys (and this one in particular) had to be in the human consciousness. Seeing him raised the hair on the back of my neck, even though I had been repeatedly assured about how safe and good he actually was. 

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected this ‘good Fomorian’ to be like, honestly. I didn’t know how I thought he would act or talk. But whatever I had expected, it was obviously way off. Because the first thing this Fomorian did, as soon as we had a chance to see him, was clap his hands. His voice was bright and cheerful, totally at odds with his appearance. 

Also at odds with his appearance? His appearance. Specifically, the apron he wore. Yeah. Despite my private assertion earlier, the Fomorian was wearing an apron. It was white, with words on the front, a mixture of handwritten and carefully printed. In printed letters at the top, it read ‘We–’ followed by the word ‘Grandfather’ in neat handwriting and ‘Aylen’ in the sloppy print of a child. Next to each was a handprint, the many-fingered Fomorian to the left of ‘Grandfather’ and a small human child’s print to the right of ‘Aylen’. 

Underneath their names and handprints were the neatly printed words, ‘Cooking Buddies! Together, we can make–’ And under that was what had at one point been a lot of blank space. But almost all of that blank space was taken up by scrawled words clearly written by the young Aylen, a list of the dozens and dozens of things she’d cooked with Grandfather over the years. Just glancing at it, I could see her handwriting getting better as the list went on and she grew older. That and the things they made grew more complicated.  

While we were taking all that in, the Fomorian known as Grandfather blurted a delighted, “Yes! Yes, excellent! You’re all here! Oooh, you’re all here, wonderful! Ohhh you all look so amazing! So much hair, so much color! Your eyes! Your little fingers! Ohhh my, oh my, oh my! Beautiful, and so handsome. So very handsome. We must get pictures. Yes, yes we must have pictures for the album. Our album is so very lacking in people other than us. And one with dark skin! Wonderful, so wonderful! I think I met your original progenitor once, dear boy. I have a picture somewhere. You have his eyes. Gabriel, yes? Yes, such a wonderful name. Such wonderful people! Children, children everywhere!” He was practically crying with happiness, arms extended wide as if to literally hug all of us. At the same time, he was bouncing back and forth from foot to foot, obviously far too excited to stand still. 

Yeah, this… this was not at all what I had expected. In the background, I could see Aylen watching us all with an expression that was clearly a mixture of nervous and amused. Amused to see how we would react, and also nervous about how we would react. 

Dare was stiff, but motionless. I could see the intense emotions playing out behind her eyes. Of course, considering she’d literally sacrificed her entire identity and her husband to kick the Fomorians off Earth, this would affect her. She kept it under control, eyes flicking towards me before giving a subtle nod. She would be okay. Gwen and Gabriel were taking it in stride, the former looking more curious than anything, while Sariel… Sariel looked… relieved? Not in a ‘oh good it wasn’t a trap’ way, but more… it was deeper than that. I had a strange feeling that some part of the Seosten woman had almost been desperate for this to be real, for a living ‘good Fomorian’ to exist. 

Meanwhile, beside me, Koren made a sound deep in her throat. Quickly looking that way, I saw her eyes widen, tears starting to leak from them. She wasn’t even looking at his disarming apron. She wasn’t ready. She was back there, back almost a year ago at Thanksgiving, in the house where her real father had been murdered and the Hiding Man had forced her to stick her hands inside her mother to keep her heart pumping. 

Grandfather’s bright, cheerful expression dropped a bit when he looked at Koren. Immediately, he went down to one knee. His voice, when he spoke, was much different than I expected. He sounded… well, like a grandfather, really. He sounded old and kind and knowledgeable. He sounded wise. 

“Dearest far-child,” he said quietly, his voice much more serious and gentle than his previous loud and cheerful words. “Excited as I am to see how much you have grown from your ancestors… I remember your progenitor too. I remember the look in the eyes of your ancient ancestor, the first of your line to look upon the sky. I remember watching him take up his first rock, hold it in his hand, and scrape his name upon the wall of the cave. I was so proud of him, so proud of all of them, all of you. You are all my most tremendous, remarkable creations, who have so far exceeded any of my dreams. 

“But in my excitement, I do sometimes forget that my appearance carries its own burdens. I am so very sorry for the losses you have experienced. It was not my intention to cause you grief or fear. I care for all of you. I would never wish to bring misery or harm to you. You are all the greatest achievement I shall ever experience.” He seemed to hesitate then before softly adding, “I would… ask that you please not be afraid of me. But should my presence inspire too much ache, I will step away and not intrude again, you need only give the word.” 

With a deep gulp, Koren glanced to me before very slowly stepping closer. “You’re… you’re not like the others.” 

“No,” he promised, giving a slight shake of his head. “I’m very glad to say that I’m not.” 

There was another brief pause, before Koren exhaled, her voice quivering just a little. “I think it’s okay if you stay.” 

The smile came back, a smile that somehow seemed to light up the whole area despite the fact that we were standing in daylight. Grandfather straightened slowly, clearly making a point not to move too quickly in front of us. “Thank you, far-child,” he murmured before turning to look toward Sariel. “And you,” he asked simply. “Honorable Seosten… and your children. Are you quite alright?” 

Sariel gave a single nod. “Yes, I believe I am.” 

“Excellent, excellent, very good.” That childlike enthusiasm and happiness was back, as he clapped his hands once. “In that case, shall we eat? I’m quite eager to share all this food we’ve been making!

“And then, perhaps I can tell you about the alternate universe that your experiments into what you call Tartarus has created.” 

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Learning Days Daze 2-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, a Fomorian. We were about to go to dinner with a Fomorian. After everything I’d learned (and actually seen) about those monsters last year, the very idea of actually sitting down to a meal with one of them felt more like a threat of torture than anything else. Despite everything Aylen had said, along with everything we’d all been saying about how every species could be good, it was still pretty hard to just stop being nervous about it.  

That, more than anything else had in the past, gave me a bit of insight into how hard it was for other people who had grown up under the Bosch way of thinking to accept that their entire society had been wrong for so long. This wasn’t even my entire world view being challenged and changed. This was just accepting that, through extraordinary circumstances, one single member of an otherwise totally evil race was good. And I was still somewhat suspicious. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t quite as hard to imagine why people would stick to what they had been taught for so long. 

I shoved it down, knowing it was wrong, but that didn’t stop the hair on the back of my neck from standing up at the very thought of going to this dinner. At the very least, I definitely wasn’t going to be able to relax anytime soon. 

Lost in thought after explaining everything to a just-recalled Tabbris, I barely noticed as she turned my hair pink and looked over toward Professor Dare. We were still in the park area, aside from Aylen, who was still gone to give us all a chance to talk about what she’d said. 

“I want Mama to come,” my mouth said, before Tabbris stepped out of me. She drew herself up, looking at Dare and Gwen. “I think Aylen’s right, and telling the truth and everything, but I still want Mama to come.”

Vanessa and Tristan both nodded together, the former speaking up. “Yeah, our mom should come. She knows a lot about Fomorians. And about magical science. Which, for the record, is still a term that makes me twitch when I say it. Either way, Mom should be there.”

Dare paused before nodding. “That’s not a bad idea. If this…” She breathed in and then out, clearly having issues with the concept. “If this Fomorian is on the level, he won’t object to us having as much reinforcement as possible, within reason. And your mother is definitely within reason. But we need to keep this close and quiet. There are a lot of people who would never understand having any kind of discussion with a Fomorian, all explanations be damned. And this entire alliance is on shaky ground as it is. Until we find out more, don’t go telling anybody else about it, okay?”

Koren raised a hand. “What about my mom?”

Dare nodded to that. “You and I can go talk to her before any of this happens. Obviously, there are exceptions. I just mean in general, keep it quiet. I know this is a new year and a new school and everything. But let’s not push our luck for how much people will accept very quickly.”

She was right, and we all agreed to keep it as quiet as possible, at least until after this dinner when we would have a better idea of how on the level the whole thing was. 

We separated for the time being, Tabbris and I walking with Avalon. On the way out of the park, I looked over at the dark-haired girl beside me. “You think the Fomorian thing might have something to do with Aylen being the Merlin Key that’s supposed to wake up Arthur?”

She paused, head tilting slightly before offering me a shrug. “Could be related. Or maybe it’s still just the Reaper thing. Either way, she’s really different from most people.”

Tabbris looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and I nodded her way before speaking toward Avalon. “You kinda like her, huh?”

For once, the normally perfectly poised and graceful young woman missed a step, almost stumbling as she looked at me. “I haven’t— I mean, I wouldn’t—”

With a smile, I stepped around in front of her, putting both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “Valley, listen to me. Do you know how they said that a million Earths could fit in the sun when they were talking about how hard it would be to find this place?”

“One point three million,” Avalon corrected, “but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Imagine the biggest hypocrite who has ever existed in the history of the universe is the size of the Earth,” I explained. “If I actually had a problem with you liking somebody else, I would be the sun to that Earth. You could fit one point three million record breaking hypocrites in the hypocrite that I would be at that point. I have Shiori, remember? I have her and you. And you, just you by yourself…” Swallowing, I reached up and laid my hand against her cheek. “You’re more than I ever thought I could have. I don’t mind if you like somebody else too. It doesn’t mean we don’t still love each other.  You share love, you don’t hoard it. So trust me when I say that it’s okay if you like Aylen.” 

That all said, I leaned in and gently touched my lips to hers before leaning back to smile at her. “Okay?”

She exhaled, hands moving up to settle on my shoulders, squeezing a bit before murmuring a quiet, “Okay. You’re a pretty good girlfriend, Chambers.”

Showing my teeth in a cheesy grin, I replied airily, “It’s all thanks to Herbie. He offers excellent relationship advice.”

That all taken care of, I looked over to Tabbris. “Speaking of your mom, how’s that whole multiple recall points thing going? Wasn’t she teaching you how to work with that?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s really hard, though. It has to do with taking a little bit of the first person’s magical energy with you. But every time you take energy out of someone like that, it tries to fall out from being shaped like them to being shapeless. You have to try to keep it in the right shape the whole time until you get to somebody else and then leave it in them. Then you can trick your recall into thinking the bit of the first person that you left in the second person is actually the first person.” Her head tilted a bit and she worked through that in her head before nodding with satisfaction. “Like I said, it’s really hard. Mama does it really easily. She can take a little bit out of one person and copy it into other people. It’s crazy.”  Even as she said it, the girl was grinning broadly, unable to keep just how proud she was of her mother out of her face. 

Avalon raised an eyebrow. “That sounds pretty useful. Even just the copying someone’s magical signature part. There’s a lot you could do with that besides creating a duplicate recall point. Magical signatures are important all on their own for a lot of other things.”

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Tabbris quickly agreed. “She said we have to be really careful when we do it, because bad things can happen if it’s wrong.“

“Being careful sounds like good advice in general,” I murmured. “Especially when it comes to possession and borrowing someone’s magical energy. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that not doing that willy nilly without practice is a good idea. No wonder your mom’s being careful about who she shares that with.”

There was a general murmur of agreement from the other two before I straightened. “Now, speaking of things we’re going to have to be careful with, let’s go with Vanessa and Tristan and see about getting your mom involved in this insanity. Because in a dinner party that already involves a good Fomorian, an ancient Native American werecrow, and the half-Reaper daughter of the being who literally powers the Heretical Edge, we’d be crazy not to throw Artemis into the mix too.”

********

Eventually, after hours of worrying about it and obsessing over how this was going to go, it was time. As a group, including Sariel, we met Aylen in one of the transport rooms. They were  essentially large open metal chambers with spellwork all over them that was supposed to make it impossible, or as close as it could be to impossible, for anyone to backtrace a transport from here down to Earth. Or wherever else we went. A dozen of the best magic users we had, including Wyatt, had worked for over a month to ensure it was all as safe as possible. We knew that trying to get into this place would be one of the top priorities of the loyalists. So making sure that was as close to impossible as we could was one of our top priorities. 

Pffft, we and our. Like I had actually done anything. I’d seen some of what they were planning at the time, when Wyatt showed me his notes, and it was as far above my head as my new calculus classes would have been to a third grader. I’d say it was Greek to me, but I actually understood a little Greek. 

What it came down to was that the transport rooms were safe, and they were supposed to be the only place we transported from if there was any choice at all. It had been drilled into our heads repeatedly that just because we weren’t planning on facing any loyalists didn’t mean that they wouldn’t eventually find the spot we had transported down to, where they could possibly use residual energy to trace back to where we had come from if we didn’t use these rooms. 

Aylen was standing nearby, fidgeting with uncharacteristic nervousness as she watched everyone gather. I saw her eyes stray over toward Sariel now and then, before she finally spoke up. “Okay, um, there’s something you all should know about Grandfather before we go anywhere.”

Standing off by herself, Rebecca offered a weak, “You already told us he’s a Fomorian, what else could there be? Don’t say he’s a Yankees fan too. Hold on, wait, is that how they win all the time? Cuz that would explain a lot.

Stepping over by the tiny girl, I asked, “Your grandmother get you into Bystander sports?”

Her head bobbed. “I’m pretty sure she and Sands and Sarah’s mom tried to set up some kind of league for it awhile ago. You know, something fun that wasn’t combat training. They couldn’t get enough people interested.”

“Maybe they should try again up here,” I offered before looking to Aylen. “What did you want to warn us about?”

After a brief moment of hesitation, she explained, “Grandfather is very enthusiastic. He’s eccentric and friendly and maybe a little too forward, and very enthusiastic. He doesn’t tend to get to talk to a lot of people, for obvious reasons, so when he does, sometimes he goes overboard. Like I said, he’ll never hurt you. But he might get a bit… curious and touch you. It’s just something he does. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s eccentric, and really nice.”

Sariel, standing with all three of her children around her, lifted her chin to watch the girl for a moment while speaking. “You must have grown up in a very curious household, Aylen. I would be very interested in hearing stories about it later, if you are willing to share.”

It was kind of weird. Out of all of us, Sariel actually seemed the most at ease with the idea of meeting a good Fomorian. I didn’t know if she was just better at hiding her feelings, or if knowing them as well as she did made this easier to believe somehow, or what. Maybe seeing all the evil her own people had done made all this easier to go with. Regardless, after getting the situation explained, she’d barely batted an eye before apparently being completely on board with it.

Abigail, on the other hand, had wanted to come. She also wanted to forbid both Koren and me from going. But Dare had promised her we would be okay, and that her going was a bad idea. Not only was she not exactly huge in combat, but she was also very important as a symbol here in the school. If she left, it would raise a lot of questions from everyone here. We wouldn’t be able to keep it quiet for long. She’d had put herself in that kind of spotlight and couldn’t easily step out of it. 

So, somewhat reluctantly, Abigail had agreed. We would go down to this dinner and let her know about everything that happened during it.

Gwen stepped forward. She had been standing back with Gabriel Prosser, who had transported up here to leave with us. The two of them had been holding a long, magically quiet conversation. Whatever they had been talking about had been pretty intense, just by judging from the outside. 

Now, Gwen looked to Aylen. “I know this was probably one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, given how we could’ve reacted. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a really important secret that you’re keeping from people you care about.” Offering the much younger girl a wry smile, she added, “It must’ve been hard not knowing how it would go. Or still not knowing how it’ll go. It’s okay. Whatever happens, we’ll all try to be as diplomatic as possible. And hey, thanks for trusting us enough to even try this.”

The words were enough to draw a small smile out of Aylen, as she admitted, “Mother had me wear magic on my shoes that would have taken me out of here if you reacted badly.” She shrugged, casting a somewhat guilty look over toward Avalon. “Sorry, no offense. Our family’s just really accustomed to being careful.”

With a light chuckle, Gwen shook her head. “Believe me when I say, none taken. Isn’t that right, Gabriel?“

The large, dark-skinned man gave a single nod. “We do know something about needing to take care when reaching out to trust someone potentially dangerous.”

“And yet,” Dare pointed out, “we also know a bit about needing to take a leap of faith at times. You say this grandfather of yours is a good Fomorian? I have to admit, that’s pretty hard for me to accept, after everything I’ve seen. But, I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I didn’t at least give it a chance.”

“Earths in the sun kind of hypocrite, huh?” I couldn’t help but put in, with a wink toward Avalon. 

Dare gave me a brief, curious look before nodding. “Indeed. Earths in the sun level hypocrisy. So believe me, Aylen, we’re going to give this a shot, no matter how uncomfortable it may make some of us.” She exhaled, adding, “I just hope your family understands if things are a little bit tense for a while.”

“Oh, they’re ready for it,” Aylen assured her (and the rest of us). “Grandfather’s been so nervous that he was baking all week long.”

Baking. Wow. That just filled my head with the image of a big gray Fomorian with bulbous eyes bustling around a kitchen wearing a frilly apron and one of those fluffy white hats, making little cakes and cookies. Which, of course, was just silly. He might’ve been eccentric, as Aylen said, but there was no way he would go around like that. 

Tristan interrupted my mental image by piping up then with, “So, are we gonna do this, or what? Because I don’t know about you guys, but I’m famished. And we already know it’s gonna take forever once we meet this Grandfather dude before everyone will be satisfied enough to actually eat. Let’s get this show on the road already.”

Smiling, Vanessa clapped him on the back. “My brother, cutting through any and all diplomatic issues at warp speed because he’s hungry.”

Tristan gave a firm nod. “Damn straight. Get done with all that and move onto the important stuff, like the first course. Come on, I’m giving up Chef Gisby’s stuff here, remember? Now that’s a sacrifice that should be written about in one of those old Iliads things. Which, for the record, are total bullshit anyway. I don’t remember there being one single mindflayer in that whole story.”

Vanessa made a disgruntled noise in the back of her throat while twitching a bit, looking like she wanted to say something to her brother, who was just smirking knowingly at her. He knew exactly how to push her buttons, and delighted in doing so at any given time. Even now, when we were about to go see what was possibly the only decent Fomorian in existence. 

In the end, the blonde girl couldn’t stop herself from rising to the bait, blurting, “That’s Illithid, not Iliad!”

Snickering despite myself at her inability to resist correcting him, I put in, “The boy’s got a point. You can go on about what a biological genius this special Grandfather of yours is, Aylen, but how is he with dinner, really? Hell, how’s the rest of your family? I mean, when it was my dad and me, we didn’t exactly go all out. Our idea of a big dinner with company that Dad wanted to impress was ordering Boston Market instead of KFC or pizza. So, are we talking microwavable stuff here, or…”

While Tristan made put-on horrified sounds and faces in the background (clearly playing it up a bit when he made Tabbris giggle), Aylen simply replied, “I told you, he’s been baking all week, trying to get everything just perfect. He really wants to impress you guys. Whether he’s any good at it or not…” She shrugged, clearly content to tease us at this point. “You’ll just have to come and find out. 

“Let’s just say, my family may be new to entertaining, but they’ve had a lot of practice when it comes to food.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, after we were done eating that afternoon, Avalon, Koren, Rebecca, Vanessa, Tristan, and I met with Aylen at the park. The rest of us were sitting on the grass, watching as the part-Reaper girl paced back-and-forth in front of us, looking more frazzled and unsure of herself than I had ever seen her. 

I wasn’t sure why she was so nervous about us meeting her family. Did it have anything to do with the fact that she still chose to hide her true heritage? Most hybrids around here felt safe enough by now to reveal what they were. But Aylen was still posing as a normal Heretic student, despite the fact that she wasn’t actually a Heretic at all. Her power-gain abilities came from the Reaper side of her genetics, much as her crow form came from the other side. But we knew all that, so what would she be nervous about when it came to us meeting her family?

Avalon spoke up carefully. “Aylen, you know that we all have personal issues and traumatic secrets in our families. Whatever it is, no one’s going to hate you.”

I saw a brief smile cross the noble-looking girl’s face, as she raised her gaze to watch Sovereign glide across the top area of the domed environment. “Still, you’ll understand why I’m a bit… apprehensive once I tell you. Which I’ll do, just as soon as they get here.”

I started to ask who ‘they’ were, but the other girl’s timing was pretty perfect, as two figures came into view just then, approaching us.

“Professor Dare?” Vanessa started, “and… umm, Guinevere?”

“Just Gwen is fine,” the woman who had posed as Harper through almost all of last year replied. It was still seriously weird to look at her. She was still Harper, just older, a woman who appeared to be in her twenties rather than a teen girl. The pigtails I had always associated with her were now a pair of tight braids that fell down her back. The hair that had been dyed pink was now almost fully brownish-blonde, with just a little hint of pink in the braids that helped me see more of Harper. 

Dare was looking curiously to Aylen. “Gabriel is a bit busy right now, but he said he will meet us tonight.”

I blinked at that. “Wait, as in Gabriel Prosser? Okay, what’s going on? Now you want Professor Dare, Gwen, and Prosser to come with us to this dinner?”

Tristan’s head bobbed quickly as he rubbed the head of Bobbi-Bobbi, who was draped over his shoulders. “Yeah, what’s with bringing the army along? Are your moms really that terrifying to guests?”

The two women looked just as curious, even if they didn’t say anything. I had the feeling they wanted to know what the deal was as much as the rest of us. Which made me wonder what she’d said to them in the first place about coming to this thing. 

For a moment, Aylen didn’t say anything. She just took in a breath before looking to the adults. “Could we get a privacy bubble, please? I mean a really good one. It’s important.”

Whatever doubts they may or may not have had, Dare and Gwen didn’t hesitate to take her seriously. Both formed layered privacy spells, which I had no doubt would be basically impossible for anyone to eavesdrop through. Between the two of them, that was a hell of a lot of power put to making certain that whatever Aylen was about to say stayed between us. 

Still, she didn’t speak right away. The girl stood there, hands clenching and unclenching a couple times. She stared at the ground, as though working herself up to this. No one moved or tried to rush her. We all wanted to know what was going on, but it had to come out in her own time, even if I couldn’t stop my mind from racing about what she could be about to tell us. I had a lot of wild thoughts. What if one of her mothers was related to Fossor? What if she was a clone of Litonya? What if she knew where Arthur was? What if she was Arthur? 

Now I was just getting silly. But my mind wouldn’t stop racing with various wild thoughts about what this might be about. After the year that we had just been through, this really could have been absolutely anything. 

Finally, Aylen let out a long breath and spoke. “What I’m about to tell you is a really, really big secret. And when I tell you, you’re probably going to freak out a little bit. Or a lot. But I really need you to keep listening, please. I need you to hear all of it before you start losing your minds too much. I just need you to know that my family and I would never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it. My grandfather, he’s… different, and you’re going to have to let me explain that.”

Dare took a few steps that way, her voice gentle. “I know you’re nervous, Aylen. But it’s okay, we’re going to listen, I promise.”

As if she was ripping off a particularly stubborn and painful Band-Aid, Aylen looked up to meet Dare’s gaze, the words popping out in a way that seemed to surprise even her. “My grandfather is a Fomorian.”

Well, that bomb went off and physically rocked everyone. I saw Dare actually take a reflexive step back, while everyone else gave soft gasps. Well, most of us anyway. Beside me, Avalon quietly murmured, “That’s what I thought.” Seeing the incredulous looks the rest of us gave her, she offered a one shoulder shrug. “After everything that happened last year and what she already knows, there were only so many possibilities. A connection to the Fomorians was my best guess.”

Rebecca spoke up then. “Wait, wait, wait. I don’t understand. You can’t be… I mean you’re not Fomorian. You’re not. You’re part Reaper and part werecrow. There’s no Fomorian in there. Wha-what?” She sounded like she was pretty close to hyperventilating. Which, given she had grown up knowing about everything those monsters had done, was fair. 

And speaking of people with plenty of reason to freak out, Koren was on her feet. It looked like she didn’t know what she was doing there, whether she wanted to run away or at Aylen. Her voice trembled. “What are you talking about? You can’t be related to them. They’re all evil. I mean, I know what this whole school is about and everything, but still. It’s the Fomorians. Their whole thing is being evil monsters. You can’t have some kind of connection to them. Do you know the things they do? Do you know how many civilizations they’ve completely wiped out? Do you know how many hundreds of thousands of genocides they’re responsible for? They’ve wiped out half the universe!” She was getting louder with each word. 

Tristan spoke then, gesturing between himself and his sister. “And our mom’s species has enslaved the other half, you know. She’s different. Tabbris is different. So is Uncle Apollo, and a bunch of others. If there can be enough good Seosten to be an entire section of their populous, then why not one Fomorian who is different?”

Koren shook her head at him. “You don’t understand.”

The boy slowly stood, head tilting. “I don’t? I spent years with Grandpa Nick, traveling all over the universe on his ship. We saw world after world after world that was hit by the Fomorians. When I was fourteen, I tried to help a little girl with purple skin and these glowing white braids. She was so scared and I told her we were there and she was going to be okay, and do you know what happened? She exploded because of a genetic bomb that the Fomorians planted in her. She exploded when she was hugging me. She blew up and I spent three weeks in the infirmary dealing with the infection that almost killed me. They saved me from the infection, but they couldn’t save me from that memory, and I still have dreams about it.

“So don’t tell me that I don’t understand. Because I do. I know exactly what they’re like. I saw world after world of examples of what they’re like. I know them better than almost anyone here.

“But I also know that the entire point of everything we’re doing here is that not everyone has to be evil just because others like them are. The entire point we’ve been trying to say this entire time is that people should be judged by their actions, not the species they come from. But if we’re just going to say that it’s completely impossible for a Fomorian to be good, before even listening to Aylen? Then we might as well just pack this whole thing up and go back to Crossroads. Because we don’t really believe it.”

Vanessa had moved to stand behind her brother, putting a hand on his back as his voice grew more emotional throughout that. He finally quieted, while Dare cleared her throat, glancing toward Gwen briefly before nodding at Aylen. “I believe he summed it up better than I could,” she said in a soft voice with clear emotion behind it that I was sure only Koren and I had any real inkling of the reasoning behind. “It’s okay. Keep going. We’re listening.”

Aylen did so, biting her lip before pushing on. “Nothing I told you before was a lie. One of my mothers is a werecrow, and the other is a half-Reaper. Her father is the Reaper that Crossroads uses to power the Heretical Edge. But he didn’t raise her. Neither did her mother. We don’t actually know what happened or why she was alone, but she was. She was on her own as a tiny little girl, until Grandfather found her. 

“We all call him Grandfather. I don’t think he has any other name, at least not one that we can pronounce. He’s a very old Fomorian, like… really old. And he’s not like them. He’s not like them at all. He’s the one who stole humans from the rest of his people to begin with. He’s the one who brought human ancestors here to Earth to begin with. He sabotaged their whole project, make sure they couldn’t make any more humans, and set up this whole world to try to keep us safe. I know that’s really hard to believe, but—”

“The traitor!” The words came from both Koren and me. The two of us glanced to each other before I quickly pushed on. “The Hiding Man, the Fomorian who… who killed Koren’s dad. He told us about this guy! He told us about a Fomorian who betrayed his entire species and stole the human project to bring it here. They hate him. They loathe him. He’s like the Benedict Arnold for their entire species.”

Beside me, Avalon murmured a quiet, “Victor Benedict probably wouldn’t like that comparison.” 

Aylen gave a faint smile. “That’s Grandfather alright. He sort of… made me. He took samples of both my moms and put them together. and he did some other stuff too. The point is, I’m both their kid and sort of a combined clone or whatever? With some other bells and whistles that even I don’t know everything about. Grandfather likes to tinker.”

Finally speaking up as she lifted her chin, Gwen asked, “And now he wants to meet, after spending the entirety of human history in the shadows?”

“Stuff is happening,” Aylen replied. “With all this that’s going on, and… other things, Grandfather says that you should meet and talk. He can warn you about some things, and explain some other things.”

Dare’s voice was careful and measured. “What makes him so different? Do you know why he’s not like the rest of his people? What could possibly make him turn against them. Because if this is true, he’s the only one I’ve ever heard of like that.”

Gwen nodded. “Same here. I’m pretty curious too. I mean, I am in for meeting this guy anyway, because… a good Fomorian? This I’ve got to see. But still, what do you know?” Coming from her, it managed to sound less like a demanding interrogation and more open curiosity. 

Finding my way to my feet, I put in, “Yeah, Aylen. I think you’ve got us all convinced enough to at least go through the meeting, even if some of us are going to be pretty freaked out the whole time, but if there’s anything else you could tell us so we could maybe understand a little more?” Rebecca, in particular, still looked really uncertain about this. Koren was more mixed ever since she and I had simultaneously realized that the girl was talking about the Fomorian traitor. She still looked torn, but not exactly like it was completely abhorrent. 

Aylen, in turn, nodded. “I can. It has to do with the place the Seosten call Tartarus.”

Vanessa blurted, “The empty universe with that energy that gave Mom and the other Olympians their powers?”

“Yes,” Aylen confirmed. “A long time before the Seosten ever found it, the Fomorians did. They found a way into it and they sent one of their best scientists inside along with a collection of minions, genetically engineered creatures that were basically like guard dogs. These creatures barely had any intelligence of their own, and the energies in Tartarus messed with them first. It made them stronger, meaner, gave them powers and took them out of the Fomorian’s control.”

She took a breath then, and I had the feeling this was the first time she’d ever told the story herself. But she had clearly heard it plenty. “The mutated guard dogs attacked the Fomorian. They destroyed the thing he was using to tether himself to his own world and left him stranded there. He managed to kill them, but he was really badly injured in the process. One of the minions managed to rip part of his head off. Literally, it took off a big chunk of his skull and brain. And not just that. It went all the way down through a third of his head and into his neck and then out under his shoulder. All of that was just cut off, including his arm. But Fomorians are tough enough that he survived.”

Rebecca managed a weak, “He survived having a third of his head, part of his neck, and his arm ripped off in one big wound?”

“Like I said,” Aylen replied, “Fomorians are tough. Plus he had a little help. That energy in Tartarus started regenerating them. Both of them.”

I blinked. “Both? Wait, you mean the three quarters of his body that was still intact and the one-quarter that was on the ground?”

She nodded. “Exactly. The part that was standing up realized that his other part was regenerating too. He freaked out and tried to stop it, but the one on the ground, that was mostly just an arm and part of his head, fought back. It was regenerating the whole time, so there was this little barely forming body while they were fighting. They fought and they got separated. Geographically, I mean. The other Fomorians found the one that was rebuilt from just part of the head and the arm. His body had completely re-grown by then, so they didn’t know the difference. They went in to find out what he discovered, and he escaped.”

“The one you call Grandfather,” Dare murmured, sounding completely taken aback by all of this. 

“Yeah.” Aylen hesitated then, before continuing. “When he regenerated, something changed. He doesn’t know if it was just because he only had a third of his brain left or what, but he didn’t think the way they did anymore. He felt things like remorse, and pity, and… and love. He loves his creations. Us, I mean. Humans. His original self was one of the lead scientists on that project and suddenly, this version of him actually cared about what happened to us. 

“First, he knew that Tartarus was dangerous, so he destroyed everything they knew about how to reach it. He wiped it all out so they could never get there again. I don’t know exactly what he did, but he’s pretty confident they can never open the portal to get there. Then he stole all the samples for humans and all the other regular animals here on Earth.”

“Wait,” I put in, “all the other animals?”

“Well, a lot of them.” She looked to me. “That’s why there’s so many Alters all over the universe who kind of or really look like animals here on Earth. They started out as Fomorian experiments based on those species. It’s also why humans don’t Heretic bond with Earth-native animals, because they’re Fomorian experiments. Or they started that way. They were the ancient ancestors of the animals we know now. Grandfather mixed them in with the animals that were already here. And from that point, they’ve intermixed so much over the millennia that the genetic lines are indistinguishable. There’s so much of the Fomorian-creations in them that humans can’t bond with them, just like they can’t bond with Fomorians themselves.”

“But we can still get powers from most of their creations,” Dare pointed out. “Not from the the Fomorians themselves, but from the things they send after us. Trust me on that one.”

“Yeah,” Aylen confirmed. “It’s the specific creatures from that lab. Humans were designed to be incompatible with them from the start, and the Fomorians can’t make new creatures that are incompatible with humans because Grandfather destroyed all their human research and samples. He also sabotaged any attempt they could ever make at resuming the process.”

My mouth was opening and shutting. It was all I could do to keep this straight. “So he destroyed their experiments, stole all the samples, and came here? And now he’s been here on Earth just watching us this whole time? That’s… that’s…”

Avalon spoke up. “He’s hiding for a reason, isn’t he? His other self.”

With an audible swallow, Aylen confirmed, “His other self got out at some point. We don’t know what happened or how long he’s been around. But he’s been trying to find Grandfather because he wants to re-combine with him. Believe me, that can never happen. It would be apocalyptic bad. Grandfather basically has all the cheat codes for the human genetic line. If his other half manages to join with him and take over, he could basically control all humanity. All of it. Everyone with even part human blood would be under his control. Everyone in the universe.”

To the side, Gwen quietly remarked, “Well, as long as it’s nothing too serious. Here I thought learning about the only good Fomorian would be cupcakes and rainbows.”

Aylen’s voice was somber. “Grandfather said that if it would save his creations and the universe, he’d destroy himself to make sure that never happened. But he and his other half have matching Tartarus Energy in them. He says that if he dies, everything in his brain will go to his other half. So destroying himself isn’t an option. Because that would just give the other him everything it wants anyway.

“But now he’s afraid that things have happened, that the other him is making moves. So he wants to meet you guys, because there might be a time in the future when he has to ask for help.” 

Clearly finished, Aylen shrugged. “I… know this is a lot. Really. A lot lot. So… I’m just going to step away and let you guys talk for a minute. You probably have things to discuss. Just let me know when you’re ready to go.” With that, she stepped out of the privacy bubble, leaving the rest of us to look at each other. 

Which was the exact moment I felt a sudden familiar presence in my mind. Hi! Tabbris blurted happily. 

What’d I miss? 

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Learning Days Daze 2-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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 Yeah, on top of everything else, I was spending a lot of my evenings secretly being trained by one of the most dangerous beings in the universe. Or at least, by a sort of virtual reality copy of her. Which was pretty close. 

Tabbris knew about it, naturally. As for the others, Avalon and Shiori knew, as did my father, Dare, and Sariel herself. We were keeping it as secret as possible beyond that to avoid Fossor somehow getting wind of it, as he tended to do. Not that I didn’t trust the rest of my friends and family, of course. It was just… better to keep certain cards close to the vest until the time came to play them. The fewer people who knew about me having a copy of Chayyiel in my head, the less chance of Fossor finding out.

She was here to train me, to help me prepare for the future. That included whatever was going to happen when my birthday came around, and beyond. I’d even asked her opinion about the whole Fossor’s sister thing, and she gave me some tips. 

We split our time between her teaching me magic and teaching me to fight better. My lack of needing real sleep meant I could go through a lot more of these extended, intense virtual training sessions than others who needed more time fully shut down. 

It wasn’t exactly the same as a full physical training session, but pretty damn close. And coming from someone as skilled as she was, it was worth everything. Months of training under her several times a week was probably the equivalent of years or even decades training under other people. The extra help she was giving me this way was worth more than I could ever really repay, even if I lived a thousand years. It was completely invaluable. 

That was what I kept telling myself no matter how often she beat me up. And I got beat up a lot. The fact that this was taking place in my head apparently meant I could take all the damage in the world and then just be fine. I’d been ‘killed’ more times than I could count in these training sessions. But it was never gratuitous or anything. Chayyiel was teaching me. Or Shyel. That was what I referred to the one in my head as to separate her from the real one. Shy because she was hiding in my brain. Shy Chayyiel. Shyel. It worked. 

Shyel showed me what she was doing over and over again, getting it into my head as well as into my body until it was reflex. Then she did something else that totally destroyed me, and taught me how to handle that. Move after move, bruise after bruise, death after death, she had spent these past couple of months driving me as hard as she safely could given everything else going on. It wasn’t every night, but it was enough. At least, I hoped it would be. I hoped all of this would be enough to deal with Fossor. To say nothing of everything else that was bound to come up. After all, I had at least two members of the Crossroads Committee who were definitely royally pissed off at me. I needed all the help I could get. 

Groaning a bit as I lay half in a pile of leaves while rubbing my arm, I blinked up at the simulacrum. “You’d think that if we’re in my brain, we could make getting hit not hurt so much.”

Offering me both a smile (making her look even more like an innocent child than she already did) and her hand, Shyel replied, “It would do more harm than good to teach you how to handle something without any pain involved. It’s better for you to learn how it’s going to feel and go on through it anyway.” 

Her expression softened considerably then, as the girl helped me back to my feet. “But I’m sorry if I’m hurting you. I just know we’re running out of time and there’s so much more I want to teach you.”

“Hey, I am the one who’s supposed to be getting nervous and antsy about this whole thing,” I reminded her. “We’ve still got time. And I think I’m getting better, even if you keep taking me apart like I’m a toddler.” I didn’t have any problem admitting that, considering the real Chayyiel took basically everyone apart like they were toddlers. There was nothing to be embarrassed by. 

Hesitantly, I admitted, “I’m still not sure why you did all this, exactly. I mean why the original you went through all this trouble to help me train. I doubt you do this with everyone who gets into trouble.”

“That would be an awful lot of people to stick mental constructs of myself into,” she agreed, “even if I did only pick up the skill from Sariel recently. The truth is, I’m pretty sure you’re going to end up being important down the line, so I have a vested interest in keeping you safe and strong. And out of the hands of certain people.”

“Certain necromancers, for example,” I murmured before looking back to her. “Yeah, I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty awesome. It’s amazing, the fact that you’re doing all this. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if that gift horse keeps beating the crap out of me. But if you say I’m supposed to do something important in the future… well, somehow I’m even more nervous.” 

“I think you might do something important,” Shyel corrected. “It’s a big distinction. I haven’t used some kind of future sight prophecy spell to prove it or anything. That stuff is impossible to really rely on anyway. It makes things more complicated. I’m going off what I know about your situation, and about you yourself. It’s an educated guess. The point is, there’s no such thing as ‘grand destiny.’ You take your own actions. And I think you could take some very important ones, if you get a chance to. You’re important because of the kind of person you are, not any mythical future. I want to make sure enough people like you make it into that future in good enough shape to actually do something with it.” 

Somehow, I managed to blush inside my own head and couldn’t stop it. Which totally wasn’t fair. Coughing, I glanced away before asking, “Do you think any of this is going to be enough when the time comes and Fossor decides he wants to take me?” 

“I think every little bit helps,” she informed me. “In the end, the more options you have for dealing with it, the better off you’ll be. That’s why I’m teaching you magic as well. And speaking of which…” 

“Time for spell lessons?” I managed a slight smile at that. “Good, give my bruises a chance to fade. By which I mean the ones on my skin and the ones on my ego.” 

With a (probably unneeded) wave of her hand, Shyel turned the forest we were standing in into a classroom. There was a single desk, and I sat down while she moved up to where a row of bookshelves were waiting. “Tonight,” she started, “we’re going to learn a bit more about transmutation spells. Specifically, the ones to protect or enhance yourself.” 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “I guess I can see how those might be useful at some point.” Sitting up a bit in the desk, I added, “Sounds good, Teach. Hit me. 

“And by that, I mean with knowledge. Like I said, still bruised over here.” 

*******

The next couple days basically went like that. We had classes in the morning, split between normal academic stuff and more exotic learning, then training in the afternoon. I had another nightly training session with my brain tutor, where I got beat up a lot while gradually learning what I was doing wrong. 

Then it was Friday. My first class that morning, which I had with Aylen, Sarah and Sands, Columbus, Miranda, and Jason, was xenozoology. We would be learning about various Alter animals, like Choo’s Jekern or Salten’s Peryton. Or, hell, like the Amarok that had given me my ‘hardly ever get tired’ power so long ago. We were apparently going to get into what kind of powers and advantages they had, as well as the best ways of either taming or at least avoiding a fight with one. And, of course, how to fight or kill them if we had to. Because there would be times when that was unavoidable. Even animal-intelligence level Alters could be a real threat. Like, again, the Amarok. 

But there were potential alternatives to always killing them. Alternatives which we would be learning here, in this small forested area built into one of the side rooms of the station. The place was basically like a park, with heavy doors along the far wall, opposite where we came in. Apparently there was a whole animal care facility beyond those doors, and our teacher would be bringing the creatures in to meet us whenever needed. Eventually, we’d even have a chance to go back there ourselves. But the teacher wanted to start us off a bit more slowly than that. Apparently he had doubts about a bunch of Bosch Heretics coping well surrounded by Alter animals, for some reason. 

To be fair, he was actually a Bosch Heretic himself. Specifically, the man had been part of Eden’s Garden, apparently since its inception. His name was Scratch. Or at least, that was the only name he went by, and he’d been going by it for so long that no one Miranda talked to had ever known or been willing to say what his original name had been. Not even Seller. 

Scratch was a fairly short, thin man, barely an inch taller than me. His long, dark gray hair was tied into a ponytail, and his heavily tanned face was marked by a single curved scar, shaped kind of like a crescent moon, up under his right eye and extending onto his cheek. I didn’t know what the scar had been caused by or why it wasn’t healed, but it had to have been something pretty bad. 

“Scratch was always good with the animals,” Miranda informed me in a hushed whisper while the man himself went to one of the large doors to retrieve the first creature he wanted us to see. “He was the Dust Striders’ creature keeper, but the other tribes got help from him sometimes too. He wouldn’t let anyone abuse his, ahhh, charges, even before the whole rebellion thing.” 

By that time, the man was on his way back. A large metal cage floated along behind him. Though ‘cage’ was probably a bit of a misnomer. I knew that, like the bag Shiori had kept Choo in through a lot of last year, there was actually a lot more room than it looked like in that box for whatever was in there. It would have its own private habitat built specifically for it. Or them, considering there could be any number of animals within. The box was just what it looked like from the outside. The entrance to the habitat, or whatever. 

In any case, the box was about nine feet long, four feet wide, and six feet high. It settled to the ground directly beside Scratch, while the thirty or so other students and I watched carefully and curiously. 

When the man finally spoke, his voice was quiet and subdued. It wasn’t hard to hear, exactly, it was just… sort of restrained. It was just loud enough to understand him and no louder. “Good morning,” he greeted us, dark green eyes scanning the group. He met my gaze for a brief moment before his eyes moved on. “I assume all of you have fought and killed what you would consider a monster of some kind before? It’s okay, we’ve all done it, to protect ourselves, to protect others, or because those of higher authority told us it was the right thing to do.” 

Gradually, everyone nodded in agreement or half-raised their hands, and Scratch continued in that same soft voice. “This class is going to teach you how to handle such creatures properly. And properly means different things depending on the situation. In some cases, handling a creature will mean killing it. There’s no two ways around it, there will be times when killing is the best and perhaps only solution to a situation. But there will be other times when you may be able to control and contain the creature, taking it away from where it was doing harm and either keeping it for safe study and care by experts, or releasing it in its proper habitat.”

Again, his eyes moved over us. “Many of you who grew up with Crossroads teachings have believed that all such creatures must always be killed immediately, lest they destroy all civilization. Others, who grew up under the Eden’s Garden ways, were taught that they can be controlled, used as beasts of burden, as slaves. And, of course, there are those of you who grew up under neither system and have been taught all manner of things. Some good, some bad. But here’s the truth: killing every animal, even the ones who seem threatening and dangerous, is wrong. Now, letting them hunt and massacre civilians, that’s wrong too. The point is to learn to recognize when a situation calls for violence, and when it calls for restraint.

“A lot of you have spent your entire lives learning to fear and hate the creatures out there. So, before I teach you anything else, before we say a single word about how to fight the kind of animals you see out there, I’m going to teach you something far more important than how dangerous they can be. I’m going to show you how wondrous they are.” 

With that pronouncement, the man took a laser pointer (or what looked like one) from his pocket. He pointed it at the ground a few yards in front of the box, and the laser from it created a blue line. Gradually, he drew a semi-circle around that area from one side of the box to the other. When he clicked another button on the thing in his hand, a mostly transparent, humming  forcefield popped into existence from the line he had drawn. It stretched up and over the box like a bubble, enclosing the space directly in front of the cage. 

Scratch spoke again, once the shield was in place. “Alter animals, those not of this world, can be incredibly dangerous. Never forget that. But they can also be beautiful, wonderful creatures, worthy of our respect, and our care. There is a balance to be found between fearing or hating them, and allowing them to slaughter innocents. This class is meant to teach you how to find that balance, how to kill when you need to, and how to control them when possible. My partner and I will teach you how to recognize aggressive behavior, how to stop it, how to make these animals listen to you.” 

I was just wondering what he meant by partner, when my item-sense picked up someone coming in from behind us. Turning a bit, I saw Rebecca’s grandmother, Lillian. Mom’s old best friend and roommate. The small woman approached, giving me a brief wink as she spoke up. “That’s absolutely right. I know Crossroads, for one, never stops to show their students how truly amazing some of these creatures can be. Only how dangerous they are, and how to kill them.” 

Stepping past us, Lillian offered the group a broad smile, laying her hand on the side of the metal box. “And speaking of truly amazing creatures, how many of you have ever heard of a Taynfiel? More commonly known as a lion-bee.” 

A few hands went up, mostly among the Alters and Natural Heretics in the group. A single Eden’s Garden student put his hand up too, though he looked a little uncertain. 

“Lion-bee?” I whispered to Jason, who had his hand raised. “Why do they call it a–” 

That was as far as I got before the door of the box slid aside, and the creature within came bounding out. It was… well, yeah, I could see why it was called a lion-bee. The thing was about the size of a large dog. It had dark tan fur, with a couple black stripes. Its head was very lion-like, complete with a full-on furry mane. It had a set of large insect-like wings, and instead of a floppy lion’s tail, it had a prehensile one with a long, sharp blade at the end. Like a stinger. 

It was a lion-bee, there could be no other conceivable name for it. 

And then it made a sound. It was like a cross between a heavy purr and a deep buzz. Its wings contributed, suddenly beating very rapidly but barely moving, going up and down only a couple inches each way. The thing looked back and forth between us, giving off that wing-assisted purr-buzz. 

“This,” Lillian informed us, “is Tatters. He’s a lion-bee, a Taynfiel, who was raised in captivity from birth. The only thing he likes more than fishing with his tailblade is cuddles. The forcefield was just to make you all feel safe. But we’re going to take it down in a minute. Everyone stay fairly still. Don’t overwhelm him, and don’t make any threatening moves. Tatters is tame and friendly, but he’s still an animal and he will defend himself if need be. Stand still, let him come to you. You can pet him if you like. If you’d prefer he not come to you, go ahead and take a few steps back. No one will blame you, I promise. If you’re not comfortable yet, go ahead and step out of the group.” 

A few people did so, not trusting either themselves or the animal. The rest of us stood still, while the forcefield lowered. The fuzzy lion-bee sniffed the ground where the shield had been, then took a quick wing-assisted jump over to where Lillian was. He enthusiastically sniffed her stomach and offered hand, licking her palm once before turning his attention to us. 

I was the first one he came to. Part of me wondered if that had to do with my own werelion form. I’d used it that morning to go running around the neighborhood, could he smell it? I wasn’t sure how that worked. 

Either way, he came right up and sniffed me. Slowly, I went down to one knee and let him sniff my face. His tongue, as he licked over my cheek, was a bit rough. Still, I giggled a little. Which he liked, apparently, going by the way his wings beat a little faster, making his purr louder. 

“Hey, buddy,” I murmured with a smile, rubbing my hands up through his luxurious, fluffy mane. “Who’s a good boy, huh? You’re a good boy. Good little bee-kitty.” 

A few others had a couple minutes with him, before Lillian and Scratch announced that we should step back, because Tatters wanted to stretch his wings. We did so, and the lion-bee zoomed straight up off the ground. He flew to the ceiling, flipped over to land there, and stared at us from an upside down position for a few long seconds before zooming off again. He did a few barrel rolls and loopty-loops, very clearly showing off for a (mostly) appreciative audience. 

Aylen stood beside me, her voice a soft murmur. “My family’s back,” she informed me while we all watched Tatters. “So, I guess, if you’re up for it… they’d like you and Avalon and a few others to come over for dinner tonight. But first, meet me out in the park by our houses after lunch.

“There’s a few things I really need to explain.”  

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Learning Days Daze 2-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Abigail wanted us to have a well-rounded education. Which meant learning both Heretic and Bystander lessons. Wait, we had Alters in school now. So it really wasn’t ‘Heretic’ lessons. Supernatural lessons, maybe? Either way, she wanted us to learn both that stuff and the regular old lessons like Math, English, and so on. Just like back at Crossroads, though with fewer classes, since we were only going to them in the morning. To that end, they’d made up a system of having one day where we would have two mundane classes and one magical-type class, then the next day we’d have the opposite, two magical-type classes and one mundane class. 

Today, Tuesday, was a two mundane, one magical class day. Specifically, my schedule for the day consisted of Calculus first, then Trials of the Sea, and finally History of Africa. Though they were apparently going to teach us about both mundane and supernatural-type stuff in that last one, so maybe it counted as both. 

I had no idea what Trials of the Sea was, to be honest, but it sounded awesome. Although I was a little sad that we wouldn’t get to have Blackbeard as a guest speaker. The Committee members who were sympathetic or totally on our side still couldn’t act openly like that. The word that they had come to talk to us would somehow get out and then there would be hell to pay. 

The Committee were also still missing Elisabet. The last I’d heard, Jophiel had managed to work out through help from Sariel that her lover wasn’t on Earth and hadn’t been since the moment she disappeared. They knew she was alive, and not on Earth. That was about it. What had happened to her, where she went, what kind of condition she was in, all of that was blank. 

Jophiel wasn’t taking it too well. But, to her credit, she wasn’t letting that stop her from teaching us. Yeah, Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had some lessons with her over the summer. Even without Elisabet around for demonstration purposes, Jophiel still knew a hell of a lot about working together in a possessor-possessed partnership, and she taught us as much as possible. She’d set time out of her schedule looking for the woman she’d loved for hundreds of years, a woman who was now missing and could be anywhere in the universe, to teach us. She’d even worked as much as she could on teaching us that power-sharing spell, though it was slow-going. It was a very powerful spell, and it turned out we had to cast it ourselves. 

I had my issues with the way Jophiel did some things, but I had to respect that she was doing all this. The thought of focusing on… anything while Avalon or Shiori might have been missing like that was… impossible. Hell, I didn’t know how they had done anything back when I was missing. 

In any case, Jophiel taught us a lot. Even if every time we’d seen her, she looked more haggard, and not at all like… well, like I was accustomed to her looking. She was tired, emotionally wrecked, drained of almost everything she had. And still, she taught us for hours. She was patient, she didn’t yell or curse at us. At least, not outwardly. In short, she was a great teacher.

Which made the fact that we still had no idea where Elisabet was somehow even worse. 

Sighing as I shook that thought out of my head and walked the rest of the way through the connecting tube (filled with visions of the solar system from somewhere around Saturn) leading from the elevator room to the classrooms, I found myself stepping into what looked like any old high school on Earth. Seriously, there were lockers along the walls, kids getting stuff out of those lockers, a janitor mopping up some spilled milk or yogurt or something, and more. There was even a sign on the nearby wall above the lockers welcoming students to our new school. Hell, this looked more like an ordinary public high school hallway than Crossroads had. 

Well, except for the fact that some of those students were obviously not human. Nor was the janitor. He was an Orc of some kind, though one with four arms. Two of those arms were being used to hold the mop he was wiping up the milk with, while the other two steadied the bucket. 

Oh, and the sign welcoming all of us was some kind of projected magical hologram or something. As I watched it, the words changed from a generic welcome message to a room number and directions. It was telling me where to go for my first class. Along with a reminder note about which locker number was mine, and a countdown before school would start. It just knew all that and was able to change for each person looking at it. 

I had six minutes. Plenty of time to get to the lockers. Thanks to Abigail, I knew that Shiori, Avalon, and I all had them next to each other. There were benefits to being related to the principal.

Doug and Ruckus split off to find their own lockers, while Avalon, Aylen, and I went for ours. Aylen’s was directly across from Avalon’s, with a female Menmeran (the really muscular frog-like people) already standing at the next locker over from that one when we arrived. Aylen gave a little curtsy-bow and said something to the Menmeran girl. Apparently she was greeting her by name, calling her Pret. I only knew it was her name because Pret responded by saying Aylen’s name and doing the same kind of half-curtsy thing that Aylen had done a moment earlier.  

“She lives in the house on the other side of theirs,” Avalon informed me. “The one on the corner. We were talking for awhile last night.” 

Nodding thoughtfully, I asked, “Man, this school really is different, huh?” 

Avalon snorted once, glancing to me before replying, “Gaia would like it.” She swallowed very faintly then. 

“She will,” I corrected. “When we get her out and back here.” My hand found Avalon’s, squeezing briefly as she returned my smile silently, but clearly gratefully. Then we separated to get our stuff. 

Which was right when a pair of hands covered my eyes from behind, as a voice whispered, “Guess who.” 

“Uhhh…” Pretending to think about it, I offered, “The girl whose clothes and pocket contents my item-sense is almost as familiar with as my nose is familiar with the exact soap she uses?” 

Sulking just a little at that, Shiori took her hands off my eyes and pecked me on the cheek. “Powers make games like that too easy. I’m gonna take you by surprise someday, I swear.” 

With a smile, I turned and put both hands on either side of her face. “Shy,” I said quietly, “not being startled is not the same thing as not being surprised. And believe me, you surprise me every single day just by being the ridiculously amazing person you are.” With a little smile, I leaned in and kissed her gently, shivering as she gave a tiny whimper and clutched at me. 

Finally stepping back, I moved to the nearby locker while asking, “So is Choo back at the house?” As I spoke, my thumb pressed against the reader. It wasn’t just reading my fingerprint. Apparently it read some kind of magical signature or… something, I wasn’t sure of the specifics. Either way, the scanner went from red to green after I held my thumb against it for a couple seconds, and the door clicked. I opened the locker, finding all the books I was going to need for the semester already stacked neatly in there, as they were for everyone. My finger moved along them until I found the one for Calculus, pulling it out before tucking the book under my arm. 

Shiori was nodding, finding her own locker to open it. “Uh huh, he’s in the back yard with Salten. I think he really likes it here.” With a little smile, she glanced toward me while adding, “He liked it at the camp too, with all the kids. I can’t believe how much he likes being around people.” She had her own calculus book out by then, shutting her locker with a quiet, “Maybe it’s because he had to hide for so long before, back at Crossroads. He got really lonely in his pocket world.” 

Reaching out to catch her hand, I assured the girl, “Well hey, he’s here now. And I think he and Salten are really getting along.” With that, I glanced over to Avalon, who had closed her own locker to join us. “Though we should probably put some stuff out in the yard for them to do.” 

The others agreed, and we walked toward class with Aylen. Sands and Sarah were just outside the room, talking to Eiji Ueda and Gordon. The big (huge, he was six and a half feet tall and built like a truck) Canadian-Asian boy looked over as we approached. “Oh hey, I ahh, hope you guys don’t mind. Rebecca said it’d be okay if Raphael chilled in your backyard with your buddies.” 

Raphael, of course, was Eiji’s cyberform rhino. As far as I could tell, he and Eiji were almost perfectly matched. Both were enormous, but also incredibly smart. Eiji read very nearly as much as Vanessa did, and was just about as likely to know the answer to any given question. And, as far as I knew, he was a totally normal Heretic-born student. Aside from the fact that he was from Canada, which apparently was some kind of big deal. There was a so-called ‘King of Canada’ there that Heretics stayed away from. Even the Committee left him alone, which… yeah, that confused, intrigued, and worried me all at the same time. I’d been promised that we’d learn about the King soon, and that was something I was definitely looking forward to. Just who and what was this King of Canada that he could make all of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden too afraid to challenge him? 

Avalon told the boy it was fine and that Raphael could visit any time. The more those guys were entertained, the better. Porthos, who was riding on her shoulder, make a sound of agreement before using her hair to swing over to the opposite shoulder, landing there while pointing to the classroom with a trumpeting sound. 

“You know this is math class, right?” Avalon dryly asked the cyberform gecko while heading in. “Not dueling class.” 

Shiori went in behind Avalon. But before I could follow as well, Sarah spoke up, taking my attention. “Brom says he’ll meet us in one of the magic testing labs up here tonight right after dinner for the next session. If you’ll be settled in enough by then.” 

Right, Sarah had actually been working with Brom too. Necromancy was a lot harder to learn without inheriting (or stealing) an actual power for it, but it was still possible. At least, learning the basic stuff was possible. Sarah had said that she wanted to learn as much as she could, because knowing how to do something was a big step toward knowing how to undo it. That and she had this whole thing about being prepared for every eventuality. 

It was that thought that made me glance toward her left arm. Even though it had been almost two months, the thought that it wasn’t a real arm at all, but a magitech solid hologram of one still made me do a double-take every now and then. It looked real. It felt real. I tended to forget the truth unless I was actively thinking about it, or whenever she shifted it to one of its other forms.

“Sure,” I finally replied, shrugging. “I’ve gotta ask him some questions anyway.” Questions about getting a certain ghost back so I could talk to her and get some actual help with my own increasingly pressing necromancer problem. It was clearly time to think outside the box with this whole thing. 

“Sorry, guys,” Sands informed us, “I still think the whole necromancy thing is creepy. I mean, I get it. Useful, gotta know it to fight it, don’t throw away any potential advantage. I just… yeesh.” 

“Does this mean Sarah doesn’t get to store her rodent practice corpses in your house?” I teased, watching Sands turn several different shades of green before snickering. 

“Outside,” she informed me (and Sarah, probably). “All necromancy stuff has to be done outside. And especially nowhere near the kitchen.” 

All three of us shuddered, collectively remembering the fact that Crossroads’ chef had, for some time last year, been a zombie manipulated by Fossor. That was… an unpleasant thought, to say the least. 

“Okay,” I started with a quick headshake. “Now that we’re all thinking about something we really don’t want to, how about we get into class? I hear Calculus is really fun.

“Of course, it was Vanessa who told me that, so…” 

******* 

“Welcome!” a voice called grandly, its deep baritone filling the air, “to the Trials of the Sea!”

The place for our second class wasn’t technically an actual ‘sea’, though only because it technically wasn’t connected to an ocean. Size-wise, it almost might as well have been. It was a lake located within the station itself. Only in this case, the lake was about the size of Lake Superior back in the US. In other words, it was three hundred and fifty miles long and about a hundred and fifty miles wide. 

It was a lake… on a space station… three hundred miles long. I just… I couldn’t even fathom the size of this place. I really couldn’t. Someone back in Calculus had brought up how much room the station was taking up in the sun and Eiji had reminded them that over a million Earths could fit in the sun. It would take one point three million Earths to fill up the entire sun. This station, even with a lake this size in it, only amounted to a drop in the bucket if that bucket was the size of Texas. 

The point was, there was a lot more to the station than just the areas we were generally staying in. We’d had to take a portal to get down here, and I was sure there were more parts of this place that other teachers would have us use at some point. That or we’d end up around them for one reason or another. 

We were also on a boat. A ship. Right, ship was the proper term. I knew that much. It was an old wooden sailing vessel floating along in the middle of that lake. The portal had deposited all of us out here. And by all of us, that was about thirty students. Not everyone had every class at the same time, of course. There were way too many students for that. Of the ones here with me, I had Shiori (Avalon was in a different class this time), Jazz, Jason, Tristan, Triss, Miranda, and Koren. 

The man who was talking stood just a hair over six feet in height. His frame was muscular in a lean sort of way. His black silk pants were loose, billowing slightly in the artificial breeze. He wore a white and gold silk shirt with some ruffles to it, and the exposed skin of his arms (the shirt was sleeveless) and chest (the top few buttons were undone) was heavily tanned over skin that was already a natural Middle Eastern dark. His black hair was long, falling just past his shoulders, and he had both a goatee and a neatly trimmed mustache. His eyes were the only openly unusual part of him (aside from the fact that he was drop dead gorgeous in every way), considering they were a deep, striking gold color. 

Koren had her hand up. When the man looked that way, she asked, “Err, why is it called that? Why are we on a boat? And who are you?” Ticking them off on her fingers, she paused before nodding definitively. “I guess that’ll work for the first three questions.” 

Giving her a smile that was a mixture of gold, silver, and ruby teeth, our instructor casually replied, “And a good first three they are, Miss Fellows. I’m not just saying that because your mother’s the principal either.” With a wink, he started, “As for why we’re on a boat, that’s because every class we have will take place here or right down in the water. Or under it. Be it in this station’s water, one of the Earth’s oceans, or even the seas of a whole new world, our classes this semester will always take place there. Not in a classroom. In my experience, you learn by doing. And we will be doing a lot.” 

With a broad (very metallic) smile, the man waved a hand. “And we’ll do it in style! While having fun. Because I promise you all, having lived as long as I have, if you’re not having fun, then why the hell even bother?” 

Turning, he grabbed the nearby rope and used it to haul himself up onto the nearby railing. The man stood there, staring out over the water with a heavy, contented sigh. “The oceans are a great mystery, boys and girls and everything in between. They are rough and harsh and gentle and loving. They are dark, they are open, they are cold and they burn with the fires of a thousand, thousand, thousand mysteries. Monsters and creatures beyond your wildest imaginations and your deepest nightmares lurk there, along with wonders you could never conceive. Entire civilizations lay beneath the waves of all the oceans of the Earth. Worlds of mystery and fascination, of monsters and fables are all out there. And we will find them. We will see them. We will seek them out, explore them, and learn all the secrets I can teach you. You stay with this class and I will take you beyond all of your dreams. We will find the monsters and our fortunes in the world far beyond the land. Beyond both in distance, and in mystery.” 

“You asked who I am, and that is your answer. For all the times I have put the ocean behind me, it has never lasted. Because its power and mystery will forever call to me. The danger and wonder of what lies beneath the next wave, or beyond the next island, is one that I can never truly ignore for long. It is everything I am. It is everything I will ever be. 

“I am Sinbad, and I am here to show such wondrous things.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next morning, just as the simulated sun came up (if it was the real sun poking through, we’d all be dead), I was out jogging around the neighborhood. There were others who were up and moving around already, some of them waving to me or talking a bit. But mostly, I was left with my own thoughts. Which was how I wanted it. We were going to be busy in classes soon enough. For this short time, I really needed to clear my head somewhat so I could focus. Running helped with that. I could mindlessly jog along the sidewalk, letting my mind wander.

The night before, Tabbris and I had tried again to summon or contact Rahanvael’s ghost. But it hadn’t amounted to anything. We put the call out and she didn’t answer. I’d try again until she did, but I had to admit that it was a little disheartening to get absolutely no response for so long. 

It didn’t matter. I’d keep trying until we pulled her in again. If she was for real, and judging by everything the best magic-inclined people I could find could determine, she was, then she was the biggest chance I had to find out something useful about Fossor before the time limit was up. 

I was going to look for more necromancy books, and ask Brom where I might find some that were useful as far as calling to ghosts from other worlds and possibly anchoring them here on Earth went. It was yet another project to work on, but a really important one.  

Pretty soon, it would be time to head to breakfast with the others. So, I started looping back around to head for home. As I plucked the bottle of water from my belt and took a sip, a nearby whistle caught my attention. Turning while slipping the cap back on the bottle, I saw a tall, caucasian boy with long, bright red (clearly unnaturally dyed or magically colored) hair. He was leaning against a tree. Nearby on that same tree, a cyberform owl perched, head turned toward me. The boy waved, making it clear I was the one he was trying to get the attention of. 

As soon as I took a step that way, he started with, “Holy shit, I am so sorry. That was stupid. Whistling, I wasn’t… I mean, I wasn’t trying to… you know, whistle like that. I was trying to get your attention, but not with the–you were running and all and it wasn’t–shit. Yeah. Sorry.” 

Blinking at that, I shook my head. “It’s okay, I can kinda tell the difference between ‘hey, you’ whistles and… that kind of whistle. Don’t worry about it. Um. I don’t think we’ve met, though.” 

“We haven’t,” he confirmed. “My name’s Gambol. Well, that’s my Garden name anyway. Not sure if we’re still supposed to use them or… whatever, it’s better than my real name, trust me.”  

“Gamble?” I echoed curiously. “Where’d that come from, are you really into cards or Vegas or something? Or are you from Vegas? Cuz I have a lot of questions about that place.” 

He chuckled, shaking his head. “No, not that kind of gamble. Gambol, b-o-l. And… why do I always correct people on that? The version they assume is so much cooler.” With a sigh, he informed me, “Gambol, it means to… eeeehhhh… frolic around. You know, skip and play.” 

Covering my mouth, I coughed while giving him a look. “Your Garden name is basically ‘frolic’, and you actually correct people who think it’s the betting money version?” 

He raised his arms, spreading them out helplessly. “I know, right? You’d think I’d learn at some point.” Sighing once more, the boy rolled his eyes exaggeratedly before adding, “Anyway, now that you know my cool warrior name is all about dancing around in a field of flowers, possibly with a crown of daisies on my head, you’re Chambers, right? The girl that ahhh, Flick, was it?” 

“The girl that Flick, yup,” I confirmed. “That’s me. Why, what’s up?” I added the last bit curiously. 

“Well, first of all,” he started after a brief hesitation, “you totally helped erase that damn spell that made everyone forget genocide might be a bad thing. So thanks for that. It’s actually… kinda nice to know that there’s good people out there besides humans. Cuz the other way is ummm, pretty lonely if you think about it for a second. Size of the universe and everything else is evil?”

“There’s plenty of evil things,” I murmured before nodding. “But yeah, everyone besides humans being monsters who want to kill us all does seem like a pretty lonely way of thinking. But really, it was Gaia who did most of the work. She had the idea, she set up the spell and everything. All I did was follow her instructions. Hell, I didn’t even remember doing it at the time. She took it out of my memory so I wouldn’t think about what I was doing and give it away.” 

“She uhh, she’s still a prisoner, right?” He sounded hesitant. “The old Crossroads Headmistress? That’s what people keep saying anyway. Some people said she died back during that escape, but mostly they say your Committee is keeping her locked up somewhere.”  

“Unfortunately,” I replied with a slight nod. “They’re working on it, but… the Committee’s got her locked down pretty tight. Obviously. Especially after that attack we made on the prison a couple months ago. I mean, she wasn’t there to begin with, but after that they really went hardcore in keeping her secure. Last I heard, they had her prison off-planet and it keeps moving around.”

“Shit, they really don’t want anyone getting her out,” the boy muttered before shaking himself. “Err, yeah, sorry. Probably none of my business. Hope you get her back though. And not just because she’d be really useful.” Again, he hesitated, looking awkward for a moment before heaving a sigh. “Right, the real reason I wanted to talk was to umm, to apologize for my sister.”  

Well, that was unexpected. Blinking at him, I asked, “I’m sorry? Who’s your sister and why are you apologizing for her?” I was trying to think of any girl Garden student I had a problem with. The only one who came to mind immediately was Pace, and that was before we knew she was possessed (and we’d even settled things with Theia). Plus, she was Latina and he was white.

“Oh, right, you haven’t… I mean I don’t think you…” Wincing, Gambol gave a vague gesture. “It’s actually your friends… or… whatever they are who met her. Miranda and Karen?” 

“Koren,” I corrected. “So your sister did something to Miranda and Koren? I don’t–wait…” Something was tickling my memory when he mentioned that, something I tried to repress.

“Yeeaaaah,” he drawled reluctantly. “But trust me, you’re the one who deserves the apology. My sister’s name is Josie. She and her boyfriend and his other girlfriend Kumiko were sort of…” 

“Oh my God.” My face was red by that point. “They’re the ones that–I mean she was the one that– Oh God.” Right, I knew who Josie was now. Koren and Miranda had mentioned that there was some trio at Garden, the jackass named Weston (whose Uncle had nearly killed Pace before Roxa finished him off) and his two girlfriends. Two girlfriends who happened to be very deliberately fashioning themselves to look like parody versions of Shiori and me for… reasons that made me seriously want to saw open my head and fill my brain with bleach for thinking of.

Wincing when he saw that I’d realized what he was talking about, Gambol offered, “Yeah, like I said, sorry. She used to be a pretty good person, I swear. Then she fell in with that Weston creep and keeps getting worse. I don’t know how he convinces her to do half the shit he does, it’s just… it’s dumb and I’ve tried to talk to her but she won’t listen. Which… I know people have to make their own choices, but she’s sort of my twin and I feel responsible for the shit she does.”

My head shook. “Don’t worry about it. Yeah, it’s pretty freaking gross. But I seriously have a lot bigger things to focus on. So… whatever. I’m gonna guess that she didn’t come with you?”  

“Hell no,” he confirmed. “Believe me, we had a whole fight about it and everything. I tried to drag her away, which… in retrospect, was pretty stupid. She’d never have stayed, and they probably would have sent her back anyway as soon as they realized they couldn’t trust her. But still.” His voice trailed off at the end, as he looked to the ground with a sigh. 

“She’s your sister and you wanted to get her out of there,” I finished for him. “Not to mention getting her away from Weston. I get it. Maybe you’ll be able to talk her into it later.” 

“Here’s hoping,” he agreed before waving a hand. “Anyway, I just wanted to say that. You know, before anyone else happened to bring it up. So yeah, I hope you can get Gaia out of prison.” 

“And I hope you can talk your sister back to her senses,” I replied. “Not only because her cosplay bullshit makes me feel super, incredibly, unbelievably gross, but also because she’s your sister. So good luck.”

“Thanks.” Giving a little wave, he stepped back. “I’ll let you get back to your run. And ahh, probably see you in class at some point, I guess.” 

With a wave, I headed off once more, moving a little faster than before. Yeah, I needed to shower before breakfast. 

And not just from the run. 

******

After cleaning up and having breakfast with some of the others in the kitchen, I headed out with Tabbris. The two of us got to the elevator before I squeezed her hand. “You ready for this, partner?” Even though I’d known it was coming, the idea of separating to go to different classes only really struck me just then. This was more than just doing separate things for awhile like we’d done during the summer. This would be the first time since I was a kid that I would regularly be going to school without someone riding shotgun in my head. Even if I hadn’t actually known about her for most of that time, there was still something big about that. 

It wasn’t just me, either. Tabbris looked my way as we stood by the elevator and gave a hesitant nod, gulping. “I umm… I think so?” she offered weakly, clutching my hand tightly. “I kept thinking it was a long time away, y-you know? Even yesterday. I was thinking it’d never get here. This morning, it felt like… it felt like it’d never really happen. But it did. We’re here, and… and…” 

“Don’t worry, sis,” I assured her. “You’ll be great. And then we’ll have stories to share.” Offering my fist for her to bump, I added pointedly, “Besides, it’s not fair for me to hog all your awesome for myself. Hell, I’m pretty sure it’s not even physically possible, you know? That’d be like trying to hold all the heat of a volcano. And, well, it’s not like you’ll be alone up there.” 

Her head bobbed a bit. “I know. There’s the other kids up there. Like Richton and Meley.” 

“Well, them for sure,” I agreed before reaching into my pocket. “But you’ll also have someone else to help make sure everyone’s safe.” Producing Herbie, I held the rock out for her.  

Eyes widening, Tabs shook her head quickly. “What? I can’t take him. You–he’s yours.” 

“He’s ours,” I insisted. “And he can take turns keeping us safe. This is your first time going to class by yourself. If I can’t be there with you, he can. Trust me, he’ll make sure everything’s okay. You carry him this week, I’ll carry him next week.” Smiling, I pressed him into her hand. 

Hand closing around our incredible, handsome, daring and brilliant bodyguard, Tabbris gave me a solemn nod. Her voice was a very quiet, somewhat shaky whisper. “Thanks, Flick.” 

In response, I embraced her. “I love you, little sister. We’ll meet at lunch, okay?” 

Returning the hug as tightly as she could, Tabbris nodded against my shoulder. “Uh huh,” she murmured before adding a quiet. “I love you too, Flick.” 

We separated, just in time for the elevator we were waiting on to arrive. And it wasn’t empty. The forcefield lowered, revealing two people whose ears were probably burning right then. It was Richton and Meley. Plus, Kisea and Demeas were with them. The four young Seosten blurted both our names, before Meley sprang over to embrace Tabbris with a happy meep. 

“That’s funny,” I teased the others, “I didn’t know you guys had your classes down here.” 

Demeas, who somehow looked even more like a miniature viking than he had before (despite being too young to have a beard) by apparently putting on a little more muscle over the past few months, shook his head quickly while retorting, “We came to bring Tabbris to class!” 

“And what class is that?” I asked while giving the boy a look up and down, “How to train a dragon?” 

The red-haired boy’s eyes widened dramatically as he blurted, “You know how to train dragons?!” That, of course, got the attention of the others, as well as some people passing by to use the elevators. 

Feeling a slight flush touch my face before using my power to shift it away self-consciously, I corrected, “No, no, it was just a joke. I was referencing a–never mind. We’ll show you the movies later. Shouldn’t be that hard now that we’re on Earth. Or, well, close enough.” Clearing my throat, I gestured. “You all set then, Tabs?” 

She gave me a brief, hesitant look before nodding. “See you at lunch?” Her voice was hopeful. 

“Definitely at lunch, partner.” Giving her a thumbs up, I waved them off. “Go on, have some fun, learn things, do whatever you’re supposed to. I’ll muddle through school all by myself.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Jaq and Gus to each crawl up out of my backpack. They perched on either of my shoulders, shooting me betrayed looks. 

“Ah, hey boys.” Reaching up carefully with either hand to rub their heads, I pointed out, “I know you’re here, but you can’t cheat and give me the test answers inside my head.” 

Indignantly, Tabbris blurted, “I never did that!” 

“And see where we are now?” I primly retorted before winking. “Go on. We’ll be fine. You and Herbie go show everyone else how awesome you are.” 

With a still-hesitant but somewhat better wave, Tabbris set off back up the elevator with the others. I stood there, waving up at them for a few long seconds before pausing with my arm up. Head tilting, I squinted after the departing elevator. “Wait, shit, I’ve gotta use the elevator too. What the hell am I doing?” 

“Chambers,” Avalon’s voice called, “why are you waving at the elevator?” 

Turning, I looked over as she, Doug, Aylen, and that Ruckus guy (the Alter who looked like several metal slinkies all stuck together, with eyes that were glowing red orbs poking out of the head slinky) approached. “Oh, sure,” I sniffed, “I’m Flick when we’re being all friendly and stuff, but Chambers when I look ridiculous.” 

“I’m glad we’re on the same page,” she replied coolly, though she was unable to stop the slight smile that quirked her lips upward for a moment while trying to keep her voice flat.

One who didn’t make the slightest attempt to keep his voice flat was Ruckus, who basically launched himself my way. He didn’t literally crash into me, thankfully. He just bounced forward, practically flying into the air from his slinky-like feet and legs (which apparently acted like springs), traveling the fifteen feet or so that separated us in an instant before landing in front of me. The metal coils that were his arms popped up, some kind of metal fingers that amounted to smaller, tightly wound springs extending to take my hand with both of his. He was shaking it up and down rapidly. When he spoke, it all came out in a rush. It was like every sentence came as one word, with breath pauses only between those sentences. “Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh! It’ssogoodtomeetyou! Iknowhoyouare! You’reJoselynAtherby’sdaughteroroneofthem! That’sawesomemydadusedtobepartoftherebellion! NowheisagainIguessandIgettocomehere!” 

Stepping up beside him, Doug put a hand on the coil-boy’s shoulder. Or what there was of one. “Easy, Ruckus. Remember what we said? Slow it down a little bit.” 

“It’s okay,” I assured them, looking back to Ruckus. “Your dad was part of the old rebellion?” 

His head bobbed up and down very fast, creating the sound of metal coils rapidly clanking against each other before he added a quick, “Heremembersyourmomnowandwantedmetosayhehopesyoufindher.” 

Swallowing, I offered him a little nod. “I hope we find her too. Tell your dad thanks, and I’m glad he made it back. Does that mean Alters are remembering the rebellion too?” The spell from Gaia hadn’t specifically targeted them. Targeting Heretics through the Edge had been hard enough. 

It was Aylen who answered. “When the Rebellion eraser spell was broken for the Heretics, it damaged it enough for everyone else that it’s been fading for months.” 

“I guess that makes sense,” I murmured. “Asenath and Twister started remembering things right after they interacted with me. So it must’ve been kind of flimsy that way.” 

The elevator arrived, and we stepped on to head up for breakfast. On the way, Sovereign, from his spot on Aylen’s shoulder, made a soft, pointed noise. 

“Oh yeah,” the half-Reaper girl started, “I got word from my mothers. They’re finally on their way back from whatever they were doing. They should be home in a couple days. So if you guys are ready to meet them…” 

“Ready?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow toward her. “Of course we’re ready to meet your family.” 

She met my gaze while the elevator reached the top of its ascent. “No, you’re really not,” the girl informed me. 

“But it should be fun anyway.” 

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Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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