Bastet

Patreon Snippets 12A (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thanks to all $10+ Patrons who requested these snippets. These are the requests that were made for Heretical Edge. The two Summus Proelium Snippets, which are long enough to be their own chapter, will be released at the end of the current arc of that story. Thanks again! 

“Then add a little curl under the cross shape right there, like a tail,” Sariel Moon carefully instructed her eldest daughter while the two of them stood out in the woods a few hundred yards away from the lake where the Atherby camp was. “That’s right, just like that.”

Gaze intent on the metal bracelet she was catching the spell onto, Vanessa glanced up after a moment to her mother. “That’s it?”

With a smile, the older woman nodded. “Now you’re ready to power it. Remember, you want a very slow trickle of power in through the left side of the runes until it starts filling, and once it’s about halfway full, you want to go to the right side and flood it quickly so the two waves of power crash into each other in the middle. You have to get the fill-speed just right.”

Eventually, Vanessa had the bracelet enchanted properly. Clipping the thing onto her wrist, she touched it and murmured the activation word. It glowed briefly, and she reached out to pick up the dagger that her mother offered her. Taking a breath, she hurled it, the dagger spinning end over end before embedding itself in a tree a short distance away. Staring at the weapon, Vanessa flicked her wrist to the side, and an instant later, the dagger was back in her hand as the runes on the bracelet flared for a moment. 

It had worked. Her mother had taught her a spell to summon things back to her hand shortly after they left it. Sariel didn’t need it, of course, given her own natural power. But it would be very useful for Vanessa. And for Tristan, once his sister could sit on him and make him learn it. 

Watching her daughter practice with the spell a couple more times, Sariel finally, somewhat hesitantly remarked, “You haven’t really said anything about the other family, you know? It’s okay if you want to.”

Blinking over to the woman, Vanessa asked, ”Haven’t really said anything about who? What other family?”

Her mother offered her a small smile. “The one who must have taken care of you when we disappeared. You were still very little, I hope they found a good family soon, so you could have some stability. I was… thinking we might visit them at some point.”

For a long moment, Vanessa didn’t say anything. She fidgeted with the dagger in her hand before turning to throw it hard at a tree that was further away. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “I didn’t really get adopted or anything. People want little kids, not twelve or thirteen-year-olds with emotional development problems.”

Staring at the girl, Sariel shook her head. “I don’t understand. You weren’t thirteen when we vanished, you were seven.”

With a sigh, Vanessa summoned the dagger back before looking to her mother. “Yeah, but I was a seven-year-old with a perfect memory. The Bystander Effect didn’t exactly work on me, so I remembered everything that happened. All of it. And I was too dumb to know I shouldn’t talk about it. I thought you were supposed to tell the police when bad things happened. So I told them that my family was abducted by a bad magic guy. I told them about the orb that exploded and sucked you all into it. I told them about a lot of things.

“They took me to a counselor, who tried to figure out what mundane explanation there was for the things I was saying, because I was obviously traumatized. But I just kept telling them more and more about the things I knew, and none of them believed me. Of course they didn’t believe me. They thought I was emotionally disturbed because of the things that I actually saw. Even when I pointed out the actual ‘monsters’ I could see walking the streets, it didn’t help. Actually, it made things worse. They decided I was crazy. Not the word they used, but that’s what they thought. I was just the insane little girl.”

Sariel, who had been staring at the girl with mounting apprehension and worry, gently took the knife from her daughter’s hand and made it disappear before interlacing their fingers. Her voice was quiet. “What happened, Nessa?”

The response was a few long moments of silence before the girl gave a small shrug, staring at the ground. “They put me in a group home for awhile, with other kids who had ‘emotional developmental problems.’ I tried to take care of them, tried to help them deal with their issues instead of focusing on mine. It was good for them, the other kids. Even though a lot of them were older than me, I still helped. I took care of them when the adults got sick of dealing with us. It was a good distraction. But I was still worried about you guys, so I kept asking when they were going to find you, when they were going to put the orb back together. I kept talking about the stuff I shouldn’t talk about. Because I didn’t know any better yet. 

“Eventually, they decided I was too disturbed to be in one of the homes. They said I was upsetting the other kids with the things I talked about. But they weren’t upset. The adults were the ones who were upset. So they put me in a hospital for the psychologically disturbed.”

Abruptly, Sariel’s hand grew tight against her daughter’s and she made a noise of disbelief before using her free hand to tilt Vanessa‘s chin up, staring down into her eyes. “No… no, baby. Please tell me they…. oh… no…” Memories flashed through the Seosten woman’s mind. Memories of a childhood spent in the old mental asylum, with her own mother. Memories of hiding in the passages between the walls. Memories of the horrors and nightmares she had witnessed and grown up with until the day her Lucifer had found and rescued her. The thought of her daughter being in any kind of situation like that, let alone one without any of her family and with no one who believed her, made a horrible shudder run through the woman. 

Her arms wrapped around the girl, pulling her tight while she whispered, “I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry. I should have been there. I should have been with you.”

Returning the embrace, Vanessa shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault, Mom. You weren’t exactly in a good place either. I know you would have stayed if you could. It wasn’t your fault. Besides, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Elisabet and Jophiel posed as one of the counselors and helped me sometimes. They took me out for ice cream and stuff.”

Sariel held her daughter tighter, demanding, “Why didn’t they get you out of there and put you in a better home?”

“I sort of asked Jophiel that awhile ago,” Vanessa admitted. “Or something to that effect, anyway. She said that it was safer for me to be there and out of the way where none of your people would pay too much attention to me until I was old enough to know how to keep quiet. She said it was best at the time because your people would have insisted I be taken or eliminated if I was even a hint of a threat. In the hospital, I wasn’t.”

Sariel was silent for a few seconds, considering that. Part of her wanted to scream at Jophiel still, for leaving her child in that kind of environment for so long. But she knew that a large part of the anger she felt now was actually guilt toward herself for not being there. Guilt for failing to protect her child. That, and the emotions from her own memories of a childhood spent in such a terrible place.

Vanessa spoke again. “I helped take care of some of the people in there too, like the kids before. People who really needed it. Eventually, the doctors decided I was okay. Because I stopped talking about that stuff. I learned better. They let me leave, but by then I was too old to be a good adoption. Like I said, people want little kids. So, I just sort of bounced through different homes. I’d spend a few months in one home, then they’d get a kid they actually wanted to invite to go to a different home. At least, that’s what I thought it was at the time. Jophiel told me they were moving me around a lot to keep me off the Seosten radar. She said they were afraid that some of your people would decide to get rid of the threat. You know, because I’m an abomination or whatever. Hybrid.”

By the time she was done explaining all that, Sariel could only hug her daughter tighter, so tight she was almost afraid she might break the girl. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’m here now. I’m here now and I’m going to be here. But, for the times when I’m not, for the times when I can’t be, I want to show you everything I know, so you can take care of yourself. And your siblings. I know I can’t always protect you from everything. But I can help. I can teach you.”

Vanessa returned the hug before tilting her head back to look up at her mother. She managed was a very slight smile. “Trust me, Mom, if there’s one thing I really love to do, it’s to…” 

 

*****

 

“….learn from you?” the young man known as Amenhotep, sole ruler of the Egyptian Empire now that the death of his father had ended their brief co-regency, asked the man who stood across the fire pit from him. The two of them were standing out in the desert, where the elder figure was ostensibly attempting to teach his pharaoh all the magic he needed to know in order to rule and protect the lands he was now responsible for. 

Amenhotep, however, was impatient and annoyed about the entire exercise he had been dragged out on. Spending the past couple of years as a co-ruler under his father had made him long to be fully in charge, but without the maturity and grace that was needed for such a thing. He was far from actually ready, despite his impatience. Hence why he had just demanded to know what in this entire world he could possibly still have to learn from his companion after all this time.

The older man who had taken him here, to the wild lands away from civilization, was not human. He was a Rakshasa, an old cat-figure whose fur had deeply grayed with age. His name was Taleun, and he had served the pharaohs of Egypt for generations. Standing across the fire from the impetuous young man, he carefully replied, “It is the duty of the pharaoh to master the arts which have protected this land throughout its existence. There are secrets that only the true leader all of our people is privy to. Secrets about where we come from and the threat which lies in waiting should our guard ever fail. Secrets that could lead to the enslavement of all our people.”  

Amenhotep made a dismissive noise at that. “Our people are the rulers, not the slaves. We are far too powerful to fall to any of our enemies. You are a paranoid old cat, Taleun. Have you looked around at our people anytime recently? We are stronger than any who have ever set foot upon this world. Our Empire will not be threatened by your old ghost stories.” 

The Rakshasa pleaded with him, “We are strong precisely because of the precautions taken by your ancestors, young pharaoh. Do not believe that such a thing was easily gained, or that the threat has vanished. Those who lurk in the shadows ready to take our people for their own will not to be swayed by our power, for it is nothing to them. They will slither their way as serpents into your mind and take everything we have if you do not heed the warnings of the past. Learn the spells that will protect you, that will protect all of us. Learn to control the defenses that have been established by those who have fought and bled to erect those very protections. Or you may well rule over the collapse of this empire.” 

Pointing a finger at the old feline-figure, Amenhotep snapped, “I will not be threatened or spoken down to as a child. Do not forget your place. I am Pharaoh. I will decide how our people can be best protected. The gods have chosen me to rule our empire and I will not fail them.” 

Bowing his head, Taleun carefully conceded, “I mean no disrespect, of course. You are indeed the chosen pharaoh, and you will lead us to an even more glorious Empire than ever before. Yet to do that, you must utilize the power and knowledge that the gods have provided. Our true strength and glory is in the might of the Pharaoh himself, and you have the ability to be the greatest of them all. I believe you are more capable than any we have ever known. That is why I push you so hard. Because I know you can take it. Because I know you are the one who will expand our strength from one end of this world to the other. You are truly chosen.” 

Mollified by his teacher’s words, Amenhotep gave a short nod. “I suppose you have a point, yes. Strong as our empire is, the pharaoh must be prepared to lead it to even greater heights. Very well, I will learn these lessons you insist upon.” After a brief pause, he amended, “In three days, we can begin.” 

Hesitantly, Taleun pointed out, “This is something we should begin as soon as possible, my pharaoh. If our enemies learn that we are vulnerable now, that our leader is not prepared–” 

“I am prepared for all who may come before me!” the young ruler snapped, his voice a roar. “You forget that I am the most decorated warrior of our age. I am strong with or without your lessons. As I said, I will learn them soon. In three days. Now I have other business to attend to, business that does not involve standing in a desert learning from paranoid old cats. Be here when you are called to be, and I will learn your lessons. Do not trouble me before then. That is the end of it.” 

With that, he touched one of the many golden bracelets on his wrist and activated the portal spell upon it before stepping through, returning to his palace. The Egyptian Empire would not be led by paranoid cowards any longer. It truly would stretch across this world. 

Closing the portal, he looked around his private chambers before speaking up. “We are alone.” 

There was a brief shimmering in the air, before a remarkably beautiful and exotic light-haired woman came into view. Smiling at him, she purred, “I missed you, my pharaoh.” While speaking, she slinked toward him, taking his hand with a murmur of pleasure at his very touch. “Must you leave me alone for so long?” 

Hungrily kissing the woman, Amenhotep replied, “I came as soon as I could extract myself from the old man, Dumah. He’s so paranoid, if he knew I was involved with an outsider he might keel over and die on the spot.” 

Returning the kiss just as hungrily, Dumah snaked her arms around him tightly and murmured “Perhaps I would not be such an outsider if you were to allow me the great privilege of gazing upon you bare of all but the love between us.” 

“Would you be as bare, my love?” the young pharaoh asked with a needful murmur of pleasure as his hands ran up and down her lithe form. “Such a thing could tempt the gods themselves.” 

Smiling, the beautiful woman stepped away and began to disrobe before his needful gaze. Soon, she was naked before him. “Your turn, beloved,” she purred. “All of it. Take away all that hides your strong body from me. I wish to gaze upon my beloved as he was born.” 

So he did. One by one, Amenhotep removed his clothes and the many rings and bracelets that adorned his body. Some of which had been with him almost from birth, their potent magics something he would have been taught about had he simply stayed with his tutor rather than pushing the lessons away. 

Once both were naked, Amenhotep reached out for his exotic mistress’s hands. “Will you give yourself to me now? Will you give yourself to your pharaoh?”

With a smile, Dumah accepted his grasp, her eyes gazing deeply into his. “My dear Amenhotep, beloved leader of the chosen Empire… it is you who have given yourself to me.” 

With that, the woman vanished, her form merging with his. Amenhotep jerked reflexively, a gasp escaping him before his body jerked once. Then again. His eyes closed tightly, then opened as he straightened. As Dumah made him straighten. 

“Thank you for your cooperation, boy,” his voice spoke aloud, while Amenhotep himself railed impotently against her control. 

“It will prove most… helpful.” 

And it did. For a few years, while the now-possessed pharoah set about removing all references, however hidden or vague, of the Seosten from the Egyptian religion. Pushing them to worship the new sun deity of Aten, Dumah-Amenhotep had entire vaults worth of records destroyed, going as far as erecting a new city for the sole purpose of pushing this new way of thinking and erasing the old ways, which gave these people entirely too much information about how to detect and counter the Seosten Imperium. She even had the pharaoh’s name changed to Akhenaten in honor of this new sun god. 

But those who had stood against the Seosten in the past, who had come here to this world and left warnings to their descendants, had been thorough in their teachings. They were prepared for this sort of thing. Taleun was prepared. And as much as it pained the old Rakshasa to do so, he and the secret cabal of priests and other loyal followers of the old ways were eventually able to confront the Seosten-possessed ruler. In the course of that confrontation, the enslaved Amenhotep did the one thing he could do to protect his people. 

He managed, through extreme effort, to seize control for a split second. That second, taken at the exact right time, allowed Dumah’s attackers to pierce the pharaoh’s chest with their enchanted blades. Blades that were spelled to strike not only the possessed, but the possessor as well. 

Dumah was killed, as was Amenhotep himself. In turn, his heir, Tutankhaten, was made the new ruler. And he was prepared from that moment to resist the Seosten. Specifically, he was prepared by being turned into a Natural Seosten Heretic with the blood of Dumah herself, taken from the blades that had pierced her as she possessed the now-dead pharaoh. 

And with that, the Seosten’s attempt to infiltrate and take over the Egyptian Empire their old way was brought to a halt. They would have to engage in some other method to subjugate the people of this world. 

Whatever it took, the Seosten would find the way to break these Egyptians. Because no matter how difficult it became, the Imperium would never…

*******

“Admit they might be wrong?” 

Third year Crossroads student, Andrew Bruhn, had barely finished the words before his roommate, a boy named Carter, slapped a hand over his mouth as the two of them lounged in the recliners in their own dorm room. “Are you crazy?” he demanded. “Do you want to be arrested or something?” 

Andrew’s eyes rolled. Sighing, the pale, muscular boy pushed the hand away from his mouth. “They’re not going to start putting eavesdropping spells on everyone’s room. And they’re not going to arrest me just for saying that the Committee might have to admit they’re wrong about this.” 

Carter, a thin, dark-skinned boy, shook his head. “Okay, first of all, I’m only entertaining this because we’re supposed to be best buds. Second of all, why would the Committee need to admit they’re wrong when they’re not. We know monsters are evil. Do you have any idea how many people we’ve saved in just the two years we’ve been here already? Oh, and third of all, if you believe the Rebellion’s crazy theories, why didn’t you just go with them? I mean, you were the mentor for the Porter, Tamaya, Fellows, and Jameson girls and they all took off.” 

Picking himself up from the chair, Andrew walked to the window to look outside. “I’m not saying the Rebellion is right either. Not exactly.” He turned back to his friend. “What I’m saying is, what if these monsters can learn to be better? What if it’s possible to teach them? What if that’s what the Rebellion is experiencing when they think that they’re around ‘good Strangers?’ You know, like how you can train an animal not to bite.” 

“You mean they’re domesticating them?” Carter demanded, squinting at his roommate. 

Andrew frowned. “That sounds a lot like slavery, which isn’t what I meant. But… sort of, I guess. I just meant, we know a lot of them are intelligent enough to form traps and simulate society and stuff. They’re not dumb, mindless monsters. They just… they kill and eat humans. If the Rebellion has somehow taught them that eating humans will get them killed, then maybe they might have something resembling a point. Not that most Strangers aren’t evil right now, but that it might be possible, if we work hard enough, to make them not. I mean, wouldn’t that be nice? If we could have an end to this constant fighting?” 

Getting up from his own seat, Carter folding his arms over his chest. “You’re saying get them young and teach them not to hurt humans and if you do that long enough to enough of them, then the ones that know not to attack humans will outnumber the ones who do.” 

“Give evolution a helping hand, I guess,” Andrew confirmed with a shrug. “We did it with dogs. Who says we can’t stop all this killing just by incorporating a ‘reward-penalty’ system instead of just killing literally everything that isn’t human? If we can train them, if we can make being nicer to humans appealing instead of just murdering them instantly, maybe… maybe we could change things for good. Look, all I know is that this whole fighting each other thing is…”

******

(The following is Non-Canon/did not really happen. It is just for fun

 

“… not fun,” Bastet declared flatly. Her, as usual, intense expression that promised swift violence to those who happened to annoy her was somewhat muted by the… colorful clothing that she wore. A dark green sleeveless top over a long-sleeved red and white candy cane-striped shirt. Bright red tights. Green shoes with pointy ends that curled up and had tiny bells on them. A long, floppy, green felt hat with a white ball at the end. And, of course, long, pointy plastic ears over her own. She was, after all, an elf. At least, she was supposed to be. 

“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun if you let it.” The reply came from her wife, Sonoma, who was dressed almost identically save for flipping the red and green parts of the outfit. That and the fact that she wore a bright smile rather than a scowl. “Grandfather’s really looking forward to this. And you’re the one who lost the bet,” she reminded her with a wink. 

Huffing a bit, Bastet retorted, “I still say he helped that quarterback. No way a total Bystander high school kid has an arm like that. Their team should’ve been demolished.” 

Shrugging, Sonoma airily pointed out, “You were the one who gambled something like this on the outcome of a high school football match.” Grinning, she leaned in to gently kiss her wife. “And we do look adorable.” 

“Yes, yes, yes, you most certainly do!” Grandfather himself announced while leaping through the nearby doorway with a grand flourish to stand on the front porch of their cabin in front of the two. “And how do I look?!” 

Both women turned to take him in. What they saw was a full-on Fomorian. Tall, gray-green skin, bulbous eyes on an equally bulbous head. Long, gangly limbs with large hands and fingers. Over all of that, a Santa costume. A thick red coat with white trim, red pants, black boots, a floppy red hat with a white ball at the end, and a beard. A thick, very clearly false white beard. 

As both of them all-but doubled over laughing, Grandfather beamed. “You see, I knew I could bring joy to everyone as Jolly Old Saint Nick! People are afraid of Fomorians, but everyone loves Santa!” 

With that, he whistled. Which brought the sound of jingling bells as four reindeer came into view from the nearby woods, pulling a grand sleigh behind them until they came to a stop right in front of the trio. While there were four of them, however, there were actually eight heads. Each of the reindeer possessed two. 

“Well?” Grandfather cajoled with a quick wave of his arms. “Let’s go, let’s go! Lots of good little boys and girls to visit this evening!” 

With varying degrees of eagerness and reluctance, the two women climbed up into either side of the sleigh while Grandfather took the middle seat. Clearing his throat, he used long-fingered hands to pluck up the reins and gave them a quick snap while calling, “On Dashner! On Pranxen! On Compid! On Dondzen!” At the command, the four two-headed reindeer took off, charging across the field before great, expansive wings suddenly sprouted from their backs. That was the reason for only having one reindeer in each row, of course. Their wings got in the way and interfered with each other. But Grandfather couldn’t decide which of the classic eight he wanted to have, so he created reindeer with two heads and simply combined the pairs. 

It was the most obvious solution, of course. 

Flying up into the air, the four double-headed reindeer pulled the sleigh after them. The magic required for the group to actually visit every home in the world would be far too involved and likely to attract attention, of course. Not to mention how unlikely it was that Bastet would put up with it for that long, bet or no bet. But Grandfather had come up with a list of a few dozen very needy children who could do with waking up Christmas morning with some unexpected presents. 

As the sleigh found its way to the first house and hovered there over the roof, Bastet produced a small red ball. Judging her aim, she tossed the orb off the sleigh and down the chimney with perfect precision. 

In the living room of the house, the little crimson orb halted in the fireplace, floated out into the living room, and took a quick scan around. Finding the room dark and empty of people, it beeped softly once. A moment later, there was a brief flash of light as Santa Grandfather appeared with a pair of presents held in both hands. Carefully setting the gifts under the decorated tree, the tall Fomorian smiled at the sight. 

There was just one more thing to do. As quietly as possible, Grandfather reached into the pocket of his bright red coat and took out a handful of blue dust. Holding it up to his lips, he blew on it. The dust blew out through the room. It would wait for the parents to enter and then gently adjust their memories so that they would believe they had scrimped and saved to purchase the new gifts that were under the tree. They could be proud of what their children were receiving, rather than confused and possibly terrified of where it had come from. 

All that done, he grabbed a cookie from the table where the plate was waiting and ate it happily before catching the nearby floating ball. At his touch, it transported him back up to the sleigh. “Okay!” he announced, “one down. But next time, you’ll be coming inside, of course. Santa can’t do everything without his elves. Besides, that’s a lot of cookies and we know how much Bastet loves chocolate chip.”

Before the woman could retort to that, a sudden voice from above interrupted. “Fomorian!” 

It was a group of Heretics. Crossroads Heretics, to be exact. Ten of them, all bristling with weaponry and powers that seemed to electrify the very air around the group. They stood upon a hovering chunk of concrete that had been ripped from the ground. 

“Your evi…” In mid-declaration, the lead Heretic stopped, finally actually paying attention to the being who struck such terror into each of their hearts. A being… dressed as Santa… with the red suit… a clearly fake beard… and… and…

“What.” That was all he managed, in a flat voice of disbelief and confusion. 

“Why, hello!” Grandfather called cheerfully, waving. “I know our people have their troubles, but I’m sure we can all get along on this grandest of nights. The spirit of Christmas and all that?” 

Apparently not, because all ten of the Heretics immediately sprang to the attack, powers and weapons leaping into action to take down the monsters before them.

Approximately thirty-four seconds later, all ten of the Heretics lay on the snow-covered ground, covered in an assortment of bruises and energy-sapping spellwork. Their weapons were scattered around them, while Bastet stood in the middle of their group. 

“You’re lucky it’s Christmas,” she informed the groaning, pain-filled Heretics. “It means you get to live. Bother us again and we won’t be so nice.” 

“Ahem,” Grandfather interjected from where he was still standing in the sleigh, “Speaking of nice…” 

Rolling her eyes, Bastet nodded. “Right, right. Here you go.” With a wave of her hand, she summoned a piece of black coal for each of the Heretics, which flew out to land on top of them. “Welcome to the naughty list, assholes.” 

That said, she crouched before springing upward. A minor twist of gravity allowed her to reach the sleigh, landing lightly inside. 

“Well,” Grandfather began while giving the reins a quick shake to send them on their way, “let’s hope the rest of our visits aren’t interrupted like that, hmm?” 

“Actually,” Bastet informed him, “I’m hoping there’s a lot more where that came from. 

“Between beating the shit out of assholes and free cookies, there might be something to this Christmas thing after all.” 

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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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Patreon Snippets 7 (Heretical Edge)

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The following is the seventh volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Theia and Gwen – Night After The Exodus

Standing in the middle of the forest, several hundred yards away from the Atherby camp, Guinevere watched the stars with her head tilted back. She had been there, motionless, for several minutes, her attention seemingly focused far away. Then, her voice cut through the silence. “You know, I’m told that technology has improved so much lately, you could take a picture and stare at that forever if you’d like. It’s pretty nifty.”

There was a brief moment of hesitation before Theia came forward out of the trees. “Theia-I knew you would notice… me. But w—I did not want to force you to acknowledge it. It… we… I can go.” She seemed nervous, fidgeting from foot to foot while her hand reached out to hold a nearby tree as though for balance and support.

Gwen blinked once at the girl, head tilting slightly. “Go? Why would I want you to go?“

Theia answered promptly. “Because you are thinking about your husband, the one who has been gone for so long.” Pausing, she added with a faint tone of uncertainty, “Aren’t you?”

With a slight smile, Gwen nodded. “Yes, but I don’t need to be alone to do that. Part of me is always thinking about him.” She beckoned with her hand then. “Hey, why don’t you come over here? I’ll show you what I was looking at.” She offered the girl a smile. “It’s okay, really.”

After another brief hesitation, Theia did so. She shuffled her way closer, stopping in front of the woman while staring at her with somewhat widened eyes and a look of almost puppy-like adoration.

Gwen started to raise her hand to point, before stopping to look at the girl curiously. “Are you okay?”

Theia’s head bobbed up and down as she nodded rapidly. “Uh huh, uh huh! Yes, yes. It’s just that… you… you’re good. You’re very good. You’re amazing, I have read about you. I heard about you. I took memory-spheres about your fighting as Lancelot. You–you are…” She stumbled over her own words, face flushed as she stammered.

Giggling despite herself, Gwen shook her head. “Hey, it’s okay. Pace yourself.” The last bit was said with a wink.

“You–” Theia stopped, head tilting. “Pace myself. You did that on purpose.” When her words were met with a silent smile, the girl started to return it, before stopping as her face fell a bit. “Pace is good. You… you are good. You are good, and Theia-I… I… am not good. I have done bad things.”  

Giving a soft sigh, Gwen reached out to carefully take the girl’s hand, using that to turn her to face the same direction before pointing up to the sky. Finally, she spoke. “You say you’ve done bad things? How do you know they were bad?”

Theia was quiet briefly before she answered. “Pace. Pace and Miss Abigail and Miranda. They showed me. They helped me. I don’t want to hurt them. They are my fr-friends.” Her voice cracked at that word, as though just saying it made her terrified that her deceased mother would somehow come back and take those friends away.

“They are more than friends. They are my…” And then she stopped talking. Because if saying friends was difficult for the girl to get out, the word that had sprung to her mind just then was impossible. Because they could not possibly be that word, because that word had always rejected her. That word had sent her away, had tortured her, had destroyed her in so many ways.

If she used it here, if she tried to claim these people as… as… that and it was rejected, she might never recover. A fear of that rejection deep in her heart stopped her from using the word even now, away from them.

Gwen spoke softly. “They helped you see right from wrong, good from bad. They help you see that you’ve done bad things. And now that you know that, you regret those things? You feel bad about them?“

Theia nodded, and Gwen smiled. “Good. Remember that feeling. Use it to be a better person. Because you are better, Theia. Don’t let your mother or your father or your people or even your condition dictate what kind of person you are. Don’t let anyone turn you into something you don’t want to be. You feel bad about the things that you did? Good, make up for them. Do good things. But do them because you want to. Do them because you want to be a better person.”

After the two stood there in silence for a few seconds, Theia murmured a soft, “I thought you would want to kill me, for being one of them. A bad one.”

Head shaking, Gwen replied, “I don’t need to kill the girl who did those things, Theia. It sounds to me like your friends already did that.”

They stood there like that in silence for a few seconds before Gwen lifted her hand. “Now look right up here, I’ll show you the constellation that Arthur made up.

“He named it Chadwick and Chickee.”

******

Bastet, Aylen, and Sonoma – One Year Ago

 

“And of course we have extensive contacts in over a hundred and twenty universities and colleges throughout the United States and Canada,” the man who had introduced himself as Tyson Larrington announced to the slender, diminutive Native American woman and her daughter, both of whom sat on the couch opposite the chair he had been invited to use. All three were in a pleasantly and warmly decorated living room, pictures on the nearby television and mantle showing times throughout the young girl’s life from being a baby to her current age of sixteen. Some of the pictures also showed the woman who sat beside her, while others had a different woman, with pale skin and hair that was so light it was almost white.

It was that woman who entered the room then. And from the looks of her, she very well might have come through a time warp. The pale woman wore an old green house dress and an apron, looking as though she was coming straight from the 1950s. She even carried a tray of delicious-smelling cookies.

“Well now,” Bastet replied to the man pleasantly while holding that tray of cookies, “that does sound very interesting, Mr. Larrington. This… ahhh… dear me, I’m just being as forgetful as an old rooster on Easter. What did you say the name of this school that you want to take our Aylen to was?”

“Crossroads Academy,” the Heretic promptly answered. “And I assure you, should you allow your daughter to come to our school, she will be in the best of hands. Our faculty and equipment are top of the line.”

Head bobbing easily, Bastet replied, “Oh, I’m sure everything there is cutting edge. Cookie?” she offered with a bright, winsome smile that could have come from a catalogue during the Eisenhower administration. 

“Thank you, ahhh, Mrs. Tamaya.” Larrington took the offered treat from the tray, turned it over in his hands, and then took a bite. That he managed to swallow the whole thing without betraying a reaction when, contrary to its amazing scent, the thing tasted almost exactly like dirty tree bark was quite a testament to his poker face.

Bastet smiled broadly. “Oh, it’s just Bess, Mr. Larrington. Sonoma here, she’s Mrs. Tamaya. I took her name when we… ah, broke Adam‘s covenant to be together instead of with a man.” She spoke the last bit in a stage-whisper, as though it was positively scandalous.

Sonoma cleared her throat, speaking up for the first time in the past few minutes. “Sorry, Bess has these little sayings and… ahem… whatnot because she grew up in a small, isolated religious…”

“Cult,” Bastet supplied cheerfully. “Yes, it was an extremist doomsday cult. Very dark. So much gloom and ranting. Boy, I could tell you stories about those people. And I don’t mean just the normal Bible thumping. They went all the way, yessir. It was just scary, you know what I mean? They were right off the deep end. Believed everyone who wasn’t exactly like them was evil and had to be killed. That’s right, killed. If you didn’t look and think exactly like them…” She drew a line across her throat with a finger and made a dramatic cutting sound. “You didn’t deserve to live. Crazy racist psychopaths.”

Letting that sit for a brief moment, she plastered another broad smile on her face. “Oh, but do tell us more about this wonderful school of yours. It sounds just delightful.” Her hands lifted the tray toward him. “Another cookie?”

Quickly demurring as politely as possible, Larrington cleared his throat. “Aylen, we like to get an idea of how the prospective student feels before bringing them in. I know this is a lot to ask, to be away from your mothers for so long when you seem so close. Does this sound like something you would be interested in?”

Shifting on the couch next to Sonoma, Aylen nodded slowly. “Yes, sir. From everything you said before, and today, I think Crossroads sounds great. I’d really like to go there.” She and the Heretic exchanged brief knowing looks, the two women clearly entirely clueless as to what their daughter could possibly be referring to.

Bastet spoke up then, as if a thought had just occurred to her. “Oh, but your teachers, they’re open minded, yes?” She gestured back and forth between herself and her wife. “As you might have guessed, we are kind of accustomed to a bit of ahhh, unpleasantness from certain sects. And not just my own family either. If she goes to your school, we want to be sure they’re not going to teach her to be hateful and prejudiced. I mean, these are teenagers, with such moldable minds. Can you imagine if the wrong people got a hold of them and started teaching them such awful, violent things?” She gave a visible shudder then, shaking her head. “No, I’m afraid we will definitely need assurances that your school is open minded about all life choices.”

If he made any connection between the truth of what his school was and her words, the man gave no indication. He simply smiled and nodded. “I promise you, Miss— ahh, Bess, Crossroads accepts students from all lifestyles, and does not discriminate based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything of the sort.”

Clearing her throat, Sonoma glanced to her wife. “Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does,” Bastet agreed amicably. “Almost too good to be true. But then, we were talking about finding a good private school…” She appeared to consider it for a moment, before glancing toward Aylen. “You’ll e-mail every day, and call as much as you can. And pick up when we call you?” Her words were firm, brooking no argument.

Giving a quick nod at that, the girl replied, “Yes, Mother. Every day.”

Sonoma smiled, putting a hand on her daughter’s before squeezing it slightly. “You better, we don’t want Bess to have to come up there if you get busy and stop talking to us.”

“Oh, I’d make a huge mess of things there,” Bastet agreed with an easy laugh. “I’d take three steps into that school and before you’d know it, the whole place would be on fire or something.”

Chuckling as well, Larrington offered them a nod. “Well, we’ll just have to be sure that your daughter stays in contact. We wouldn’t want to have to rebuild the school. I’m actually part of the second year faculty, but I can promise you that my colleagues on the year one staff will be right on top of things. I’ll make sure you have the numbers for several of them before I leave here, in case you have any more questions at any point. But ahh, I don’t want to push you too much today. Would you like me to come back later in the week to discuss this further?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Bastet assured him, winking. “We’d be foolish as a lead kite if we let you walk out of here without making sure our girl’s got her seat in that school.”

Looking just a little surprised, the man blinked once before recovering. “Ahh, yes, of course. I can grab the paperwork from my bag if you’re certain you don’t need to talk about it more. We don’t want to rush you into an important decision like this.”

“Oh, we’re not rushing at all, Mr. Larrington,” Bastet informed the man.

“We’ve been talking about doing something like this for a long time.”  

**********

 

Virginia Dare – Day After the Exodus

 

They had prepared for this. Virginia knew that. For years, they had prepared for… well, something like this, at least. Gaia had warned her that things would probably happen to take her out of commission, either for a time or…

For a time. In this case, it was for a time. She would be back. Maybe it would take awhile to recover from the drain that casting that spell had put on her and to get out of whatever deep, dark hole the Committee goons threw her into. But she would be back. In the meantime, Virginia had to help hold things together. She couldn’t think about what would happen if Gaia didn’t wake up, or if…

She couldn’t think about that. Any of it. People were counting on her to hold it together, to hold herself together. Gaia most of all. And Virginia had no intention of letting them, or her, down.

“And this is the inner ward line,” Misty, the young (relatively) Ogre Heretic announced while gesturing to a spot of seemingly empty dirt and weeds. “See that tree over there with the gnarled roots coming up? That’s one of the signs of it if you get lost. Of course, there’s six other ward lines. This is the closest one to the camp, like I said. By the time anything gets through all seven, it’ll basically be an all hands on deck situation. Kaste and Rain redo the spells once every few days just to be sure. They’ve got some kind of system for it that everyone pays energy into. So, you know, if all you guys are staying, either everyone’ll pay a lot less or the wards are gonna be a lot stronger. Probably the second one, since there’s even more to protect.”

Misty went on to explain more about the wards, and Virginia listened with half an ear. She heard everything the girl said. But she didn’t need to. Because while specifics had changed and updated with the times, the general idea of how security for the camp worked had been the same since… since she was a part of it.

The camp had moved several times since those days. But there were only so many safe locations. And it was easier to move to a spot that they knew well enough to ward properly. So, while the camp didn’t always stay in the same place, there were about six or seven possible locations that they cycled through at random, using whichever seemed best at the time of the current move. After the location was freshly vetted, of course.

But Virginia knew this location for more than just that. She knew the location because she was the one who had given it to Joshua, and through him to his father Lyell, all those years ago. Because this… this lake, was where her family had lived, where the missing Roanoke colonists had eventually settled after leaving their original landing spot. And where they had all died when the Great Evil that so desperately wanted Virginia, the first English child born on the continent. This valley, where this lake and forest lay, had been the first home that Virginia ever knew. Until that home was destroyed, her family murdered, and she herself was made an Amarok Heretic.

It was also the place where Joshua had, centuries later, proposed to her. So maybe being here now was for the best. Maybe… it was somehow right that everything that had happened would lead to her being in this place once more. Especially as it had brought most of her surviving family with it.

Her family… her beautiful, brilliant, incredibly brave daughter. Her Joselyn. Her baby girl was still locked up by that monster. But the others… her three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter were here at the camp. Even if only Felicity and Koren knew who she was, they were here. They were in the place where Virginia had grown up. And, after they’d had a bit of time to adjust to the situation and take it in, she could actually tell at least the two of them about that fact. And that knowledge, the realization that she could actually talk to Felicity and Koren about this place, had stunned her beyond understanding.

Of course, thinking about the three grandchildren she had here at the camp reminded Virginia of the one who was not there. The one who would never be there, because she had…

No choice. She’d had no choice. Except that was a lie, because she did have a choice. She could have allowed Ammon to fulfill his plan. She could have sacrificed her oldest granddaughter, as well as Avalon, Vanessa Moon, and the other people in the stadium in order to ensure that no one found out she was related to him. That would have been the coldest thing to do. But it also would have been the thing that best protected the world at large from Fomorian invasion. It was what some would have chosen. Risking that again by allowing Felicity and Koren to learn her identity had been… selfish in some ways. She couldn’t actually say that her actions weren’t at least somewhat motivated by wanting someone in her family to know her. And the idea of letting Abigail and the others die to keep that secret had felt impossible.

It was a choice she stood by, and would have made again. But it had been so dangerous. And now they were here at the camp. At the village of her childhood, her first real home. How dangerous was that, and for how many reasons?

But Virginia had experience in keeping such things to herself. Her eyes, her expression, revealed none of those thoughts. Just as they betrayed none of her familiarity as Misty led her onward through the tour of a place that she had known like the back of her hand a hundred years before the girl’s great-grandparents had likely even been born. She feigned cluelessness as she was led through the camp, passing so many landmarks from her past. Some good. Many bad. All evoking thoughts and emotions that stayed deeply buried.

Much had happened in such a short time. Gaia was imprisoned. The revolution was back on. People were remembering many things they had been forced to forget. The war would soon be in full swing once more. But through it all, something else had also happened.

Virginia Dare was home.

******

Sean – Several Months Ago

 

Standing just outside his room at Crossroads Academy, Sean Gerardo closed his eyes and put a hand on the head of his constant companion. Vulcan made a soft noise in the back of his throat that was half-whine and half-question.

“I know, buddy,” Sean murmured. But he didn’t move. How could he do this? How could he just… just sleep in the same room as Columbus when he knew that that Seosten bitch was puppeting him? The thought of it, the thought that his friend was being toyed with, was being enslaved by that… that…

Calm down. He had to calm down. Luckily, he didn’t have to do that by himself. Reaching into a pocket, the boy retrieved a small silver coin. With a whispered word, he pressed the coin to his own arm to activate the spell that had been inscribed into it.

The effect was instantaneous, and Sean felt himself calming. His emotions settled a bit. According to Nevada, who had enchanted it, the spell would help settle him, dulling his emotions somewhat. And beyond simply dulling them, it would also help to mask the emotions he was giving off for anyone who was sensitive to that kind of thing. That way, there was less chance of the Seosten inside of Columbus noticing that something was wrong.

Even then, the boy had to take a few more deep breaths to prepare himself before setting his shoulders. Cracking his neck, he strode that way with Vulcan at his side and pushed the door open to step into the room he shared with his best friend.

And with the monster who had taken over his body and was enslaving him, apparently.

Columbus was in the room already, sitting at his desk doing some kind of homework. Or rather, the monster that was–

He had to stop thinking about that, it was just going to make him angry again, spell or no spell.

“Hey, dude,” Columbus idly waved with a pencil while focusing on the paper in front of him. “Sup?”

Speaking past the thick lump in his throat, Sean forced out, “Nada.” Jerking a thumb to his own bed, he added, “Gonna crash. You wanna hit the gym first thing?”

“Yeah, sure, wake me up,” Not-Columbus replied with what sounded like vague disinterest, ‘his’ attention already mostly focused on his paper once more.

Good enough. Turning back to his bed, Sean walked that way, patting the side of it until Vulcan hopped up to take his place at the foot. With one last glance toward his enslaved friend, Sean hit the button to plunge his side of the room into darkness as the privacy shield rose around him. Only then did he slump, falling onto the bed before muffling a scream against the pillow. Not that it would have mattered. With the privacy shield up, he could bellow at the top of his lungs and Columbus wouldn’t hear him.

He lay there on his bed, staring at the ceiling, for a few minutes. Sleep. He was supposed to sleep now. Even with his emotions dulled and masked, how could he do that? And for how long? How long was he supposed to sleep in the same room with… with that thing in his best friend in this place?

He had to. He had to keep the ruse going, for as long as it took. If he didn’t, if he changed rooms, if he did anything to let on that he knew, it could ruin everything. And then he might never get Columbus back at all.

Honestly, Sean was really starting to hate the Seosten Empire.

******

Croc – Night of the Exodus

 

As his enormous hand closed around the face of the screaming, cursing man who had come charging into the center of the tree, the Unset known as Croc heaved the man up and backward with barely a thought and less of an effort. The intruder, a Heretic from the Remnant Guardians tribe, continued his violent swearing until the back of his head collided with the wall. Then he slumped, his unconscious body dropping as Croc let it go.

“Whose side was he on?” The question came from another of the Unset. Counting Croc himself, there were eleven of the tribeless ones here, guarding the way up to where the Victors lived. All held their assortment of weapons or readied powers. And most looked as though they didn’t know whether to point those weapons to any potential intruders… or to each other. Glares of suspicion, dislike, and open hostility had replaced the camaraderie and trust that had been there only an hour earlier.

An hour earlier… before the spell that had revealed the truth to everyone.

“It doesn’t matter whose side he was on,” Croc replied flatly, his eyes snapping from one group of five to the second group of five. Was it fate that he had ended up with groups of equal size right here, right now? Five who had been part of the rebellion or at least agreed and sympathized with it in the case of the two who were too young to have been involved, and five who had and did not agree with it. Equal groups, both separated to either side of the stairway they were all supposed to be guarding.

“Doesn’t it?” That was Sabie, one of the loyalist group. The muscular dark-skinned woman squinted at Croc. “You were one of the traitors back in the day.”

Threefold, the short Asian man who appeared to speak for those on the other side, snapped, “You mean he wasn’t a fascist piece of shit who wanted to kill everyone who wasn’t human. And who–oh, by the way, supported a group that wanted to use a blood curse to enslave everyone who didn’t agree with them.”

Stop.” It was a simple word, but Croc put power into it. Literally, in this case. Power that knocked both groups back a step. His eyes moved from one set of five to the other before he spoke again. “All of you listen to me. It’s chaos out there. We can all hear it. We can see it. We can sense it. Everyone is fighting. It’s a war over the whole tree. Tribes are fighting tribes, fighting themselves, fighting… brother against brother. Families, friends, people who have lived together for decades are at each other’s throats. And everyone is caught in this.”

“What’s your point?” Sabie demanded. “It’s just your people causing shit again when they should have left well enough alone.”

One of the other group behind Threefold tried to snap a retort, but Croc spoke first. “The point is that both sides have things to lose. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what side you’re on. Do you want this war to happen right now, right here? Do you want it to happen in the tree, with all the civilians and students around? Agree with them or not, they are your family, your friends, your fellow people. Stop throwing punches and insults and look at each other. You know each other. Whatever decisions were made back then, they weren’t made by us. We have worked with each other for decades. You’ve trusted each other. You’ve trusted me. And I trust you. All of you. But I swear to the roots, if any of you raise a hand to each other until after we deal with this situation, I will throw you off the goddamn tree. Is that understood?”

There was a brief pause before Threefold asked, “… Until we deal with it?”

Croc gave a slight nod. “Yes. Because that’s what we’re going to do. We are going to work together. We are going to get the other Unset, and we are going to calm things down. The Victors can take care of themselves. We are going to protect the tree, and everyone on it, by putting a stop to the fighting. We will make our way from branch to branch. We will separate everyone, and those who choose to leave will be allowed to do so uncontested. Later, both groups can debate, argue, fight, whatever they want. Both groups can kick each other’s asses to their hearts content… later. But they will not do it now, and they will not do it here. We will drag them apart and let the ones who want to leave do just that.

“We do not pick sides. If you want to choose a side after today, you can feel free. But right now, we are Unset. We protect the tree and everyone on it. No matter their side, no matter their choices, no matter what they have done in the past or may do in the future. We protect them. We drag them off each other, stop the fighting, and let them leave if they choose to. Now does anyone have a problem with that?

“No? Good. Then let’s get busy.”

*******

Gavin And Stephen – Night of the Exodus

 

“They’re gone, man,” Stephen muttered while sitting on his bed in the room that he shared with his teammate. The only teammate he had left in fact, the only one who hadn’t left. He and Gavin, along with the rest of the student body, had been ordered to stay in their rooms until told otherwise. He was pretty sure there were extra locks on the door, and spells to keep them there.

Gavin nodded. The tall boy, his height and relative thinness at odds with Stephen’s own short stockiness, ran his hands back through his hair while muttering several curses. “I know, man. They all left. They all left. What the hell?”

Grabbing his nearby pillow before throwing it angrily against the nearest wall, Stephen blurted, “You really think Shiori’s one of them? A… a monster?”

Gavin open his mouth to retort before stopping. He made a noise deep in his throat before shaking his head helplessly. “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s all so screwed up. I mean, she’s not, right? I mean she’s not a monster. It’s just Shiori. She can’t be a monster.”

“She’s got a human parent, right?” Stephen offered. “Maybe that makes it so she’s not evil? That could work, could not? Being half human. If having a monster parent could make someone evil, then having a human parent could make them good just as easily. Isn’t that how it should work?”

Once more, Gavin groaned. “I don’t know. What about this whole rebellion thing? It’s like… they’re trying to protect monsters? They’re trying to work with them? I don’t get it. Why would they work with things that eat people?”

Putting his head in his hands, Stephen was quiet for a moment. “It’s not just Shiori. Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca left too. They’re gone. Did they join the bad guys? Are we the bad guys? We’re not the bad guys, right?” His tone was pleading as he walked toward his roommate and friend.

Gavin’s voice was soft. “They wanted to make a blood plague to enslave everyone on the other side. I’m pretty sure whatever side we’re on, it’s not the one with the angels on it. But I mean, the other side can’t be exactly right either, right? Working with things that eat people. How do they know that those things can just stop doing that? How do they know…” He trailed off, shaking his head helplessly. “Fuck, man, I don’t know.”

Stephen sighed before straightening. “Okay, how about this. We know our team, right? We know them. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. And we know Shiori’s not a monster. Whatever else is going on, we know she’s not evil. So we try to talk to them. We get them to understand that this whole rebellion thing isn’t going to work. We can change things here. Maybe there’s people like Shiori who shouldn’t be lumped in with the evil ones. I don’t know. But this rebellion thing, that’s just going to screw everything up. So we talk to them. We get them to understand that.”

“What about the people on this side who wanted to use a blood curse?” Gavin asked. “That sounds pretty unequivocally evil to me.”

Stephen nodded. “Yeah, and that’s why we have to change things here. You have to get into the leadership. You have to work in the structure. Everyone who isn’t hardcore kill everything just pissing off to go join the rebellion only leaves the people who are. And then both sides are just going to fight until they kill each other.”

“So what do we do?” Gavin asked.

Stephen met his gaze. “I dunno. I… fuck, I don’t know.

“But I’m pretty sure, whatever we do, a lot of people are going to get hurt.”

*******

Erin Redcliffe – Night of the Exodus

 

Erin was hurt. Physically and emotionally, in fact. Emotionally because she had woken up from a deep sleep only to be bombarded by a tsunami of information magically shoved into her head that completely turned her entire worldview upside down. And the people who had shoved that information in there, the people who were responsible for changing everything she thought she knew about the world, were already gone.

She had left her room upon taking in all that life-changing information, only to find that anyone she could have talk to about it had left. Vanessa, her roommate, was gone. They left her here asleep.

That was another reason for her emotional pain, being left behind like that. And as for her physical pain, that came from the fact that she had punched the wall hard enough to put a hole in it after being basically shoved back into her room by a passing teacher and told her to stay there. Like a prisoner. They were treating everyone who was left like prisoners.

The fact that she was alone in this room only reminded the girl that she had been left behind. It reminded her that she had been roommates with Vanessa for almost an entire year and had never been talked to about any of this. No one had trusted her, had even thought about her, enough to broach the subject at all.

That wasn’t fair. She knew that. It would’ve been dangerous to do something like that. But knowing things logically didn’t get rid of her feelings. Especially when she had nobody to talk to.

What was she supposed to do now? With everything that had been shoved into her head, did she really believe what she’d been taught her whole life? And even if she didn’t, what could she do about it? She didn’t know where Vanessa, Professor Dare, and all those other people had gone. She wouldn’t have the first clue of how to find them.

Her dad. She needed to talk to her dad. He had been around when that rebellion from Flick’s mother was going on. Had he been a part of it? Had he been opposed to it? And how would she feel either way? Whatever, it hardly mattered now. She had tried to call him, as well as Vanessa. Neither call went anywhere. They were being jammed, communications with the outside world blocked.

If her father was part of the rebellion, was he again now that his memories were back? Wait, what were the Crossroads people going to do about students whose families were suddenly part of the rebellion again? What if her dad was part of the rebellion and now they wouldn’t let him come get her?

She was trapped here, trapped in this room where she had no chance to talk to anyone, or to understand anything. No one would say anything to her. They just shoved her in here, locked the door, and let her pace around punching walls while wondering what she was supposed to believe now.

She would have gone with them. Erin knew that. Whatever she believed, she would have gone with Vanessa and the others if she had been there. But she wasn’t. She was asleep. And now she was trapped here.

Gripping her short blue hair with both hands, Erin groaned while nearly ripping it out in frustration. She had to get out of here. She had to find the others, talk to her dad, and figure out what was going on. But most of all, she couldn’t stay here anymore. Not with what she had learned, with the information that had been shoved into her head. She couldn’t stay here. She didn’t believe in Crossroads anymore.

And what was going to happen when the people here figured that out?

******

Jessica Trent – Night of the Exodus

 

“Excuse me?” An elderly woman, speaking hesitantly as she stepped out of the small, almost cottage-like house set on the corner of a small, unassuming street in a town somewhere in Falls Church, Virginia, stared at the figure who had been standing in front of her house for the past thirty minutes.

If the figure had been a man, she might have called the police. She was still thinking about it. But looking out her window to see this woman in what appeared to be her early twenties staring at her house for so long without moving had made her more curious than frightened.

The woman had deeply tanned skin, as if she spent most of her time outside in the sun. Her hair was black and cut mostly short with one longer part on the left side that formed a braid. Her eyes were dark blue, to the point of almost being black, and a single jagged scar across her left cheek from her jawline up just under her eye and across her nose marred an otherwise stunningly beautiful face.

After hesitating just a moment upon getting a good look at that scar in the streetlight, the older woman approach. She walked carefully down her front sidewalk, her voice gentle. “Sweetie, do you need something? Would you like me to call somebody? Are you okay?” The lost, broken look in the woman’s eyes had raised every maternal instinct that Bethany Sweetwalker had.

Finally meeting her gaze, the scarred woman quickly shook her head. Though she tried to keep her voice light, it was obvious that she was barely holding it together. “No, no, I’m fine. I just… I’m sorry. My name is Jessica Trent. I… I used to live here.”

Blinking at that, Bethany replied, “Well, you must have been quite young at the time. You don’t look a day over twenty-one, and I’ve lived here for twenty years.”

Jessica gave her a soft, genuine smile that the scar did nothing to diminish. “I am older than I look,” she replied simply. Then she took a breath. “I’m sorry. I was just hoping that, if it’s not too much of an imposition, I might look around for a minute? I could pay you for the trouble.”

Bethany’s head shook. “Oh nonsense. If you’d like to see your old childhood home, who am I to stand in the way? You come right on inside, and take all the time you need. I warn you, it’s a little bit of a mess. I don’t get visitors very much since the grandchildren moved to Idaho.”

Jessica followed the woman inside, stepping into the small living room. The second she did so, more of the memories that had already been flooding her mind for hours came rushing in.

She saw him, the man with incredibly fine blue and white tiger-striped fur, and large eyes as green as the forest. She saw him, and knew his name.

Xhan. The man she loved. The man she had devoted her life to for over thirty years. The man whose child she had eventually borne.

Moving through the living room and into the nearby kitchen, before glancing through the two small bedrooms and single bathroom, Jessica remembered all the years spent here in this house with her husband and their son, Sergei. Everywhere she looked, in every corner of every room, another memory of their life here together made itself known. They had been happy here, a tiny family living together in this small house. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for them. It was all they needed.

And then it had been taken away, in a way none of them could have protected themselves from. The spell that erased Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion had erased all of Jessica‘s memories of her family. Her husband and son were ripped from her mind entirely. For decades, she had been back at Crossroads, helping to fight and kill people like her husband and child because her mind had been violated.

For the Crossroads Committee, it had not been enough to make her stop fighting them. They had ripped her choices away, had ripped her family away and completely erased them. They had turned her into a murderer against her will. They erased her choices and destroyed everything she had built.

She had no idea where Xhan and Sergei were, or if they were even alive. And they would not remember her any more than she had remembered them until this moment, until the spell came that restored all of it to her. The spell had only restored her own memories, not theirs. They had no reason to come find her, because they had no idea who she was. If they were alive, she had no idea where to find them, or even how to look. They could be anywhere in the world, or on any world. It was a search that could very well be utterly doomed on the face of it. They had decades worth of a head start, and no reason to know she was looking.

They were gone, and she had no idea how to find them.

She stood there, fists clenched as tears fell freely down her face. Eventually, Bethany quietly asked, “Sweetie, are you sure you don’t want me to call somebody?”

“No,” Jessica replied in a flat voice. Her eyes opened and she looked to the kind, elderly woman who was actually probably several decades younger than her. “Thank you, but this was a mistake. There’s nothing here for me. I’ll leave you alone.”

After a brief hesitation, Bethany reached out to touch her arm. “I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.”

“So do I,” Jessica agreed. “But I’m afraid it might be gone forever.”

“Oh dear,” Bethany urged, “You have to keep hope. If you don’t have hope, what’s left?”

Jessica answered without looking at the woman. Her gaze was focused on the corner of the living room where she could see her husband and son comparing their height marks on the wall. Her response was a single, definitive word that filled her body and soul. It was an answer, but also a promise, a solemn vow.

“Revenge.”

******

 

Marina Dupont – Night of the Exodus

 

“Marina, would you go get the Bluejay group and bring them to the main room?”

For a moment, Marina Dupont stared at the woman who was speaking. The older Heretic, a woman named Kelly, was the only adult besides Marina (herself only technically an adult by being nineteen) who was still here in what was called the Nest. That was the word used for the daycare/school/orphanage where all the young children from toddlers all the way up to twelve years old stayed while their parents were busy… or gone permanently.

“The Bluejays?” Marina echoed. That was the nickname of the six year olds. Every age group had bird names, up to the twelve-year-olds, who were called Owls. “You want me to go get the kids? What about everything that just happened? What about everything that just popped into our heads? You know what it means?”

A rebellion. There had been a full-scale rebellion against Crossroads, against the idea of killing all beings who weren’t human. People believed that there were good Strangers. They actually believed that. They believed it to the point of going to war about it, until that rebellion had been erased.

And it was Flick’s group who restored those memories, or instilled them in those who were too young, like Marina herself. Everything that had happened over the year, all the students whom Marina was supposed to mentor that had disappeared or died, this had something to do with that. She knew it. She didn’t know how, but it had to be related in some way. All those secrets they had been keeping, it was about this. They believed that Strangers weren’t all evil, and they were afraid of how she would react to that idea. That was why they were so secretive around her. They didn’t hate her. They were just being careful. For good reason.

Kelly, a woman who would have appeared to be in her late forties as a Bystander, interrupted Marina’s thoughts. “Yes, I know what it means. It means that we are going to have a lot of parents coming to grab their children. We need to get everyone into the meeting room so we can work out which ones are safe to release.”

Blinking in confusion, Marina asked, “What do you mean, safe to release? If their parents come to get them, shouldn’t we just let them go? I mean, they’re their parents.”

Kelly’s head shook. “Only once they’ve been cleared by the Committee as not being traitors. Listen to me, we are not going to send impressionable, innocent children home with parents or other family members who are traitors. Besides, having their children means they’ll come and talk. It might head off a big part of any violence if they can be told to surrender for their kids, okay?” When Marina slowly nodded in understanding, the woman gave her a smile. “Good, now go get the Bluejays, I’m going to make sure—”

In mid-sentence as she turned to look down the hall, the woman was suddenly cut off by the feel of Marina’s hand against her neck, a coin clutched between her fingers. She tried to react, but Marina spoke the incantation first, sending a powerful sleep spell into Kelly that dropped her to the floor.

She wouldn’t be out long, maybe ten minutes. That was the best that Marina could hope for. Quickly, the girl went down to one knee and searched through the woman’s pocket until she found a large blue key. The field trip key, as people here in the Nest called it. It worked on a single door that would transport them to any of several dozen locations across the world.

Clutching the key in one hand, Marina jumped up and ran to the Bluejay hall.  Over the next minute or so, she gathered each of the ten children who fell into that category and ushered them with her to the main room where everyone else was already waiting. There were over sixty kids in there, most of them sitting around chattering about the coolness of being up in the middle of the night, or sleeping on the floor or in chairs. A few looked confused or even scared. All of them looked up as she entered with the other group, some blurting some variation of, “Miss Marina! What’s going on?”

Taking a breath, Marina held up the key. “Everyone get your buddy. We’re going on a trip.”

Danny, a young boy just over nine, raised his hand. “A trip? But we’re supposed to be sleeping. Where’s Miss Kelly? What’s going on?”

Forcing a smile on to her face, Marina put a finger to her lips. “Shh. It’s a surprise. Come on guys, you’ll like it, I promise. We’re going to have an adventure.”

She turned then, leading them to the field trip door. She had no idea where she was going to take them. But she knew one thing, she was not going to let either side of this war use children against each other. Every child’s parent, no matter what side they were on, would be able to come pick them up from wherever she took them. She was not going to be party to that kind of evil. Rebel or loyalist, they could all claim their offspring, siblings, or whatever.

There would be consequences, of course. She knew that. She’d known it from the moment she made the decision to knock Kelly out. She would probably be labeled a traitor herself for doing that. But Marina didn’t care. She didn’t care how anyone saw her, or what they did to her for it. All she cared about was stopping these kids from being turned into pawns for this war.

No one was going to use children as hostages. Not this time.

Not if she had anything to say about it.

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Interlude 23 – Bastet

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There were twelve of them. Two six person teams. Each of them a fully-trained Heretic, of the Crossroads variety. The youngest of their number had graduated from that school thirty years earlier, the eldest, a hundred and fifty years earlier. Between them, they possessed over eight hundred years worth of experience in hunting and killing the creatures they called Strangers.

And they were using that experience to terrify children. Which likely seemed fair to them, since they had already used it to kill those children’s parents or caretakers only minutes earlier.

The place was an apartment building in Brooklyn. It was a haven for Alters of many kinds. Not as large or well-known as Wonderland or certain others, but respectable enough. Before the last few minutes of horror, it had held about thirty families. Some were as small as a single adult with no one else to care for, while others were as large as both parents (or three parents in the case of one tri-gendered species) with entire litters of children. They were a small, yet devoted community. They never bothered others, kept to their own group, educated their young amongst themselves, and generally avoided much contact with the outside world. It was the safest way.

Or it had been, before one of their number had been spotted picking up groceries by a Heretic. The Heretic had avoided direct confrontation, following his quarry until he found the apartments and realized how many other Alters were living there. After he had reported back, this combined, two team taskforce had been assigned to ensure none of the ‘infestation’ escaped.

It was amazing, how easy it became to kill people when you thought of them in terms of pests.

They had moved quickly and efficiently. Some of the Alters had managed to put up a pretty decent fight. The apartment building itself was heavily damaged. But in the end, with the doors barred by a couple of the Heretics, and other methods of transportation out of the apartment building blocked due to a combination of powers and magic, it was a foregone conclusion. The Alters were wiped out. All, that was, except for the children. Forty-one of them, from a variety of parents. All had been ushered into the building’s basement where their classes were usually held when the fighting began. They huddled in the corner, listening with growing terror to what was occurring directly above their heads. The screams of their parents, the helplessness they felt as their loved ones, their families, were cut down by those who saw them as monsters, was impossible for some of them to even comprehend. Their lives were destroyed in those moments.

And those same lives would be erased soon, if the Heretics had anything to say about it. Because seeing entire species as evil, soulless abominations didn’t allow one to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants, or between children and adults. Seeing another living being as inherently evil from birth didn’t allow for the concept of negotiation or mercy. Generations worth of military leaders had attempted the same sort of disconnect between the people of their own nation and those of others, and that was simply among other humans.

As the door into the basement was blasted open, three of the Heretics, half of one team, descended quickly. They soon found themselves facing the collection of Alter youth, senses clearly alerting them to the true nature of even the most human-looking among them.

“You were right,” a Heretic announced as he drew his weapon, a spear with fire dancing around it. “It’s a nest. Another year or two and they would’ve spread out into the neighborhood.”

It was as far as he got before the eldest of the Alter children, a boy who looked to be about the equivalent of a human fourteen-year-old with dark red skin and scales, charged the Heretics with a scream of mixed rage, terror, and grief. He snatched up one of the nearby metal chairs, flinging it at the Heretic’s head in a desperate bid to at least gain their attention, their notice before they dispassionately snuffed out the life of him and his friends. .

The chair halted in mid-air, before melting into a pool of liquid metal that split apart into four separate floating bubbles which flew straight to each of the boy’s four limbs. The liquid metal bubbles formed themselves into shackles that wrapped around his wrists and ankles, yanking him to the floor where he fell. His bellow of rage and grief morphed to a cry of pain as he landed hard on his back, held there by the metal shackles that somehow fused solid with the cement floor at a casual gesture from the man he had been recklessly charging toward.

The remaining children tried to scatter or run to the aid of the first, but at a gesture from one man, all were caught by an inescapable, directed force of gravity that yanked them inexorably to the ground. They struggled futilely against the pull, unable to break free of the directed gravity.

“Deal with the rest,” the man with the spear ordered his two companions while flipping his weapon around. The fire built up around it before he drove the spear down at the boy’s throat.

An inch from its target, the spear halted in mid-air. Twin wispy tendrils of black smoke had snaked in to wrap around the shaft, holding still against the Heretic’s considerable strength.

“One of the brood!” the Heretic blurted, jerking at his staff with enough force to tear a car door free. It was a futile effort, as the tendrils easily held it still.  “We’ve got an umbrakinetic.” Which was odd, considering none of the Strangers they’d observed should have had any such power.

The other two Heretics picked up the pace, striding toward the children with their own weapons drawn. Before they had even crossed half the distance, however, the first man’s spear was torn out of his grasp by the wispy-looking tendrils. The weapon was flung across the room, passing the two rushing Heretics before a hand reached up to catch it by the shaft, easily snatching the spear out of midair. The hand, and the person it was attached to, stood between the Heretics and their prey, in a spot where they were all quite certain no one had stood an instant earlier.

Her form was shrouded, both in the dark hooded cloak that she wore as well as shadows themselves that seemed to instinctively draw closer to the figure. Twin glowing azure eyes remained her only visible distinctive feature as her black-gloved hand held the stolen spear.

The three men froze briefly, staring at the figure who failed to set off the sense that would tell them she was one of the vile Strangers. And yet, neither did she seem to be one of them.

“Your… intrusion is unnecessary, Gardener,” the man whose spear had been taken from him snapped after giving a quick check to ensure that the Stranger at his feet was still held. “We’re handling this infestation. Unless you want to cause an incident between our people, I suggest–”

“You are a fool.” The voice came sharply from the figure as she turned her head to him, shadows continuing to play over the front of her hooded face to hide it. “And I am no Heretic, Garden or otherwise. In all of my very long life, I have not suffered as many traumatic concussions as it would take to leave my mind damaged enough to believe the nonsense you cling to. The nonsense you use in order to hide from the truth, that you are the true monsters.”

Even as she finished speaking, the woman’s hood seemed to fall back of its own volition, the shadows removing themselves to reveal a face that far paler than should have been natural, almost bone-white. Her hair as blue as her eyes, fell free and loose once out of the confines of the hood. A sense of power, almost like the gathering energy of an impending lightning strike, swirled around the strange woman as her gaze remained locked on the trio of Heretics.

One of the men, his rifle raised and pointing, gave a confused, uncertain, “Stranger?”

The man whose spear she held shook his head. “Impossible. Nothing non-human could hold a Heretic weapon for that long. The pain would leave them broken and screaming on the floor. She’s one of the Natural Heretics. Maybe one of Prosser’s brood.” To the figure, he snapped, “We aren’t here to play games with your kind. You don’t want to be part of our society, fine. Leave. Let us finish cleaning this place out before they find a way to escape.”

The pale, blue-haired woman straightened a little, her chin slowly rising. “Perhaps I have not made myself clear.” She brought the spear around to grasp with both hands while raising her foot. “The only chance you have of harming these children–” Her foot pressed against the spear for a moment before the weapon literally snapped in half and the pieces were tossed aside. “–is if any happen to be allergic to your blood or the dust of your bones as it fills this room.”

The Heretics’ surprise that the intruder would dare to interrupt and speak to them that way had found its match in their shock at her ability to simply snap one of their weapons as if it was nothing more than a particularly thick stick. For a moment, they simply stood there, as though frozen. Then the three moved, their actions coordinated and honed through decades of practice. Communicating with one another through their shared telepathic link, the three abandoned their attack on the helpless children to focus entirely on the intruder who had interrupted them while also alerting the other nine Heretics that they had arrived at the building with, those still spread throughout. Within seconds, all twelve were aware of the blue-haired woman’s presence.

Good. She wanted them to know. She wanted all of them to be aware of her. For once, it would be their turn to be afraid, to feel the terror of being hunted down and systematically eliminated.

She owed these children that much, for failing to arrive in time to spare their parents the fate that these Heretics had visited upon them. She owed them the certainty that the people who had murdered their families would never harm anyone else. Justice, she owed them justice.

The Heretic with the rifle took a shot at her. His weapon was essentially a fully-automatic machine gun with next-to-no kickback. There were two triggers for the weapon. One fired a single tracer with each shot. The tracer was a small, disc-like object about the size of a pinhead that automatically attached itself to whatever it struck. The tracers served two purposes. First, they sent a detailed scan of any target, biological or otherwise, that they were near back to the gun itself. A readout on the gun would provide a list of everything the scan determined.

The tracers’ other use had to do with the second trigger. When that trigger was pulled, the gun would begin to spray approximately eight hundred bullets per minute, with the Heretic love of magically putting large spaces into small objects allowing the gun to carry enough ammunition to fire for a full ten minutes straight without the need to restock or reload. And those bullets would follow the easiest unobstructed path toward the tracer itself, no matter what kind of cover the person it was attached to tried to hide themselves behind. They would simply go around anything in their way, to the best of their ability, bending around corners, dropping to avoid shields, and so on. It was all-but impossible to hide from the bullets once they had a lock on a tracer that had attached itself to you.

The intruder, however, had no desire to hide. As the tracer shot its way to her, she allowed it to strike home without moving a muscle. However, the instant that the regular bullets began to tear their way out of the gun’s barrel at the staggering rate of around thirteen per second, a simple thought instantly transported the tracer from herself to the pocket of the second Heretic. The man had already drawn his mace and was readying himself to back up his partner after the initial volley. He never saw the shots coming. And as good as the rifle-toting Heretic’s reflexes were, he still held the trigger down for a solid three seconds before realizing something was wrong. Three seconds of thirteen bullets meant that his partner was struck by nearly forty bullets almost directly in the back, when he’d had no idea there was even a threat there.

Tough as the man was, and he had been a Heretic for long enough to be very tough indeed, he couldn’t simply ignore something like that. The bullets punched through his back and out his front, leaving gaping holes in his dark suit while blood and more leaked through. His expression of shocked pain as he collapsed to the floor brought a slight smirk to the pale woman’s face.  

The man with the rifle was screaming at the sight. He vanished from where he had been, appearing in a kneeling position at his partner’s side while hurriedly working to stabilize him.

Meanwhile, the one whose spear she had taken threw himself fully into the offensive. Snatching a knife from his belt, he came at her with the blinding speed of a vampire. In the span of less than a second, he had crossed the room and performed six separate slashes with his blade.

Each and every one missed, whiffing through air while she barely seemed to move. Through little to no exertion on her part, the woman avoided each strike simply by twitching the appropriate part of herself the precise millimeters required to avoid being cut. No more, no less.

He threw more of himself into the attack, producing a second blade before going at her in a violent, half-crazed flurry of slashes and jabs that passed too quickly for the human eye to follow.  Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen separate attacks. And each was avoided with as little effort as possible. She turned and twisted, anticipating not just the next attack, but the next five, positioning herself perfectly with each motion. The man was bellowing and lashing out wildly. The woman… barely seemed to be paying attention.

Eventually, the Heretic conjured a forcefield around her, instantly filling it with a miniature tornado with winds of nearly three hundred miles per hour. The intention was to literally paste the walls of the forcefield with her blood as she was violently blown around within it, rebounding off the walls several times per second from winds powerful enough to pick up a car and hurl it.

She simply teleported outside of the forcefield, appearing directly behind the man. Extending both hands, she summoned the pieces of his broken spear to her before taking a knee in order to drive the broken ends of each spear piece behind herself and through the back of both of the man’s knees.

Releasing the spear pieces as the man screamed and collapsed, she rose in time to see the man with the rifle coming at her. He had turned his entire body into a substance that was harder than steel. Between that, his strength, and the fact that he was moving at near mach speed, the punch that he bringing to bear as his arm came swinging around was powerful enough to blow through the side of an armored warship as if it was made of particularly thin paper.

His armored fist came to an abrupt halt roughly a foot from the woman’s face. Two of her fingers, index and middle, were pressed against his hand. She had caught his most powerful blow on two fingers. And now she stood there, smiling faintly at his disbelieving stare for a half-second before releasing the kinetic charge she had just absorbed into a blast that sent him flying end over end backwards to slam into the far wall like an insect smacking off the windshield of a car.

By that point, the man whose spear had been broken in half and driven through his knees had yanked the pieces out and was back on his feet. His healing was good enough to bring him up and around, arm morphing into fire that would have been hot enough to melt steel as he drove it at the woman’s back.

A thought allowed her to switch places with the man whose body had been torn apart by bullets. Between his own healing and the help from his companion, he would have survived. Would have. Except that as the woman switched places with him, the fire-engulfed fist of his other companion punched straight through his back and out the front. The empowered, supernaturally heated flames had turned most of the man’s body to ash by the time the first Heretic realized what he had done, a scream of horror passing his lips even as his aura flared up to announce the other man’s death.

She used the rush of unwanted pleasure that the man felt then as his body absorbed the powers from his companion in order to rise to her feet once more from the position she had ended in when she had switched places with the other Heretic. A flick of her hand summoned the two bloody halves of the man’s broken spear before a thought separated them further into a dozen smaller pieces that hovered there in the air between them for a second before the woman simply turned away from him. A dispassionate wave of her hand as she began to walk away sent the shards flying that way. Even as he came out of the pleasure brought on by the death of his friend, the man was pierced up and down his body by a dozen small shards of his own spear. Each only penetrated less than an inch into his body, nothing he couldn’t survive.

And then each of the empowered shards exploded, the collective energy blowing the man apart into chunks that painted the walls with his blood and the dust of his bones. Just as she had promised before the fight (such as it was) began.

Ignoring the rush of being filled with the man’s power and memories, as the golden glow of her own aura rose up, she focused on the surviving Heretic of the trio, the one with the gun who had been hurled back against the far wall. He had just managed to drag himself back to his feet. “H-how, how?” he demanded, his face a mixture of pain and confusion. “Gun… gun won’t… won’t shoot at another Heretic even with tracer. Safeguards.”

Lifting her chin, the pale woman smiled faintly. “Oh, the safeguards that prevent your rifle from shooting at one of your companions, no matter where the tracer ends up? I disabled them before you even saw me. A simple spell… there.” She nodded toward the butt of the rifle.

Despite himself, he looked. Right there, at the very back end of the gun, a small rune had been drawn. Somehow, the woman had walked right up to him and put the spell on his rifle that had allowed her to disable the safety measures that should have protected his companion.

Wait, that wasn’t the only spell that had been drawn on the butt of the–

“Jiwe,” the woman announced flatly, speaking the word that would empower the second spell she had drawn on the rifle. There was a brief flash of light, and when it faded, the man holding the weapon had been turned to stone. His petrified form stood there, encased in rock.

By that time, the remaining Heretics, all of whom had been cut out of their companions’ mental link since the moment the now-dead men had graciously informed them of her presence, had arrived. They came from the stairs, turned to smoke and poured down through the vents, or simply teleported into the room. Before long, all nine stood in a loose circle around the woman, the expressions on their faces showing the horror they felt at what they saw.

Beast!” one of the men bellowed, ripping his sword free of its place. “You’ll pay with yo–”

The woman was standing on the opposite side of the man from where she had been. The man’s own sword was in her hand, dripping blood. The same blood leaked from the man’s neck for a second before his head slid away and dropped to the floor, the rest of his body shortly following.

As her golden aura rose up briefly, there was a collective shout from the rest of the gathered force, all eight of them. One blurted, “Heretic!”

“Oh,” she replied in a low, dangerous voice. “I am as far from a Heretic as you are from humanity. I am Bastet. Come. Show me your vengeance and I will show you mine. We will compare their worth and see who is found wanting.”

Each of the remaining Heretics glanced to one another, readied their weapons and their power… and came at her.

The point had been made, and even together, the Heretics were no threat to her. And yet, Bastet allowed them to last almost twice as long as the three who had come before them. Allowed it so that the children they had so terrorized would at least see the deaths of their families murderers. She let it be dragged out longer than it had to be solely to provide those children with some measure of satisfaction.

But in the end, the outcome was inevitable. Each of the Heretics lay dead on the floor, or broken into too many pieces to rightfully be called a corpse. They were gone, all of them.

Finished, Bastet gave a simple flick of her hand, removing two protective forcefields she had placed over both the larger group of children and the boy who had been separated from the others at the start. Forcefields that had kept them from being harmed in the midst of that battle.

The tears of both gratitude and fear, the pleas for the status of their parents and families, and more had already begun. They were a cacophony that she could do almost nothing for. Nothing that she hadn’t already done. Comforting, encouraging, grieving, the half-Reaper known as Bastet could provide none of it.

But she did know where they could get it. Her hand rose, tossing a small red stone toward the nearest, oldest boy. “Gather the rest around, everyone touching. Hold the rock and say Ile. You’ll be taken somewhere safe. Somewhere away from here. There will be other Heretics coming. Leave.”

With that warning, the woman transported herself away. She didn’t go far, only to the roof of the apartment building. Beside her, the stone statue of the gun-toting Heretic had been brought along. And with a touch, Bastet returned him to normal.

He fell to his knees, collapsing with a cry of both terror and pain. Slowly, he breathed, lifting his head. “Not… not…”

“Dead?” she finished for him. “No. You’re no use to me dead.”

With that, she gestured, and the man was thrown onto his back. A thought made him sink almost fully into the roof as though it was made of water before only his head remained loose.

Before he could recover, she reached down, scrawling a rune on the man’s forehead with a red felt pen. The symbol  seemed to catch fire an instant later before burning itself into his skin as the man gave a scream of agony.

For twenty-four hours, he would be incapable of using any of his powers. Her magic had sealed them away from him. It meant that he would remain trapped where she put him long enough for his rescuers to arrive. Long enough for her point to be made.

Her eyes seemed to burn blue fire into the imprisoned man’s own gaze, his body trapped by the bricks of the roof. He was as bereft of thought as he was of words, staring wide-eyed that way.

She left him there without another word, left him to tell the story to the other Heretics when they came to find him. A single living witness, to tell the story, to inform the others that they were not the only hunters out there.

One survivor, to ensure that they knew that this had been done by a single woman. And that she was out there, watching them.

When she returned to the basement, the children were gone. They had used the transportation stone, fleeing to the safety she had promised them.

And yet, the basement wasn’t empty. A single, gray-green figure crouched there, examining some of the blood. Upon Bastet’s arrival, the Fomorian rose to his full height. “Were you… in time?”

“In time to save the children, Grandfather,” Bastet replied. “The rest…” She turned away, gaze dropping. “I felt them die. I can still taste it. But I got here too late.”

Together, the two shared a moment of silence for the dead. Then he stepped closer, his hand finding her shoulder. “You sent the children to him?”

She gave a slight nod. “They’ll be safer there than anywhere else. He’ll know how to care for them, and how to… teach them to cope with their loss. He’s better with… that.”

Grandfather began to respond, before abruptly bending to snatch up a rat that had come from the wall to investigate the scent of death. Holding the squeaking, squirming thing in one hand, the Fomorian examined it with delight. “Ooooh, hello, young man. I believe I knew your ancestor. Does your family hail from Italy, by chance?”

Turning slightly, he smiled absently at his companion. “Dear girl, have I ever told you why the animals of this planet so closely resemble living beings of other worlds? Why the Satyrs resemble goats, why the Rakshasa appear to be anthropomorphic cats, or why the delightful Jekern look quite similar to warthogs?”

“Only seventeen thousand times, Grandfather,” Bastet informed him dryly. But he was already launching into the lecture. A lecture she could recite along with him.

“My people were working on cloning beings of every world. Enormous tanks full of the DNA of every known creature. All the better to study them. Their DNA was broken, of course. They didn’t want to create real, sapient clones. They wanted test subjects, target practice.”

“And when you stole the first humans,” Bastet continued for him, “You took the test-DNA vats as well.”

His head was bobbing quickly, eagerly. “Couldn’t let my humans be lonely. Brought the test vats and fixed them myself, spread them over the world here and there. Let a few out at a time. Let them wander while finishing work on humans. Allowed them to mingle with the creatures that lived here already. Intermarried. Spread the genetics. Now indistinguishable from what was here before and what wasn’t.”

That was why so many Alter species resembled animals that were found on Earth, because the Earth animals themselves were descended from test-tube creatures that had originally been intended to look like those Alters. And the reason that humans gained no benefit from the mixing of their own blood and that of ordinary animals was that aforementioned ‘broken’ DNA. The test-creatures were never meant to be actual clones of the Alters they resembled. They were artificial, and so the human power to latch itself onto the DNA of other species would never manifest.

“Come, come,” Grandfather instructed while striding toward the stairs while tucking the rat into one of his pockets. “We’ll get ice cream and I’ll tell you the truth of where what the humans call were-creatures come from.”

“Oh, goodie,” Bastet muttered, trailing after him. “You’ve only told me that one nine thousand times.”

Of course, the elderly Fomorian wasn’t listening, and had already begun to excitedly repeat the story. And with barely a sigh as she settled her mind in to hear it all once more, Bastet followed. There were, after all, worse ways to spend her time.

And he had promised ice cream.

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Mini-Interlude 25 – Liwanu

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the backstory behind the creation of the Ring of Anuk-Ité. Please enjoy.

Roughly five hundred years ago.

“Father. Father, stop.”

The strained voice came from the smaller of two figures who stood at the very end of a winding dirt path lined and half-hidden by gnarled old trees. In front of them lay the murky, mist-filled confines of a swamp, the stench from which gave both figures pause.

“No, Sonoma.” The taller figure, his body lean and muscled from years of hunting and war, shook his head. A face hard with the same fierce determination that had led him to the leadership of his tribe, yet lined with worry from the care that drew that tribe’s love and loyalty, stared down toward his beloved daughter as he put a hand on her shoulder. “There is no stopping. Not until you are made well.”

The girl, barely old enough to have seen eleven winters, took her father’s arm. “But the witch. Seeing the witch, it is… very bad. You cannot pay her price.”

A slight smile touched the face of the warrior chief, whose name was Liwanu, a name which meant ‘growling bear’. In this case, however, he could not have looked less like his namesake. His hand carefully took his daughter’s. “Sonoma,” he murmured, the love he felt for her palpable in the air between them. “For you, I will pay any price. If the witch-woman asks that I strip the skin from my body to fashion into a rope that will reach the moon, I will do so. You will be safe.”

Sonoma opened her mouth to speak, but before any words could come out, a visible shudder ran through the girl. Her head twisted sharply, and she made a pained sound as part of her face bulged out unnaturally. The skin stretched, her nose noticeably hardening and lengthening briefly before she caught it. With visible effort, the girl forced herself back to normal, though the effort left her drained and sweating.

“It is getting worse,” the man declared, staring down at his daughter. “You will not be able to stop the change should it come again.” With that realization, he bent to scoop the girl into his arms. As she protested, Liwanu began to jog into the swamp.

The path, which had always been narrow and hard to find, all but vanished the moment they entered the evil place. And what little light there had been seemed to flee from the very second that they crossed that border. Dingy water crept up to the man’s ankles, then to his calves as he sloshed his way onward.

For hours, the man forced his way onward, his desperate hope to save his child spurring him to ignore his own fatigue and inevitable, growing doubt.  He continued despite his daughter’s weak protests, each little spasm of her body as she fought off the change urging him to move faster. As the animals of the swamp circled, their interests piqued by the strange intruders, he continued deep into the unfamiliar territory.

Finally, as the man felt that he could take no more steps, he realized something. The sounds that he had been hearing, the noises every animal made as they fluttered through the trees or worked their way through murky water, were gone. The snakes, crocodiles, birds, frogs, and other creatures that had been a steady accompaniment throughout his wet, cold, dark journey had all become mysteriously silent. Darkness and dampness were now his only companions. And even their presence seemed somehow muted, as though those very basic elements were hesitant to be seen in this place.

No sooner had Liwanu noticed this unnatural silence, than it was interrupted by a familiar sound. It was a sound that had been at his side from the moment he arrived in the swamp: footsteps sloshing through water.

And yet, in this case, his own feet were still, his gently whimpering daughter still held in his arms. Neither were the source of this familiar sound, which drew closer even as he noted the strangeness of it.

Carefully, the man set his daughter down on her feet directly behind him. Her arms wrapped their way around his waist as he drew the spear from its place at his back. Holding the end pointed toward the incoming sound, he waited, eyes straining to see through the gloomy darkness.

The water-filled steps continued to approach. Even in the dim light, the figure would come into view within ten more paces. Nine more steps… eight more… seven…six… he felt his daughter cling to him even more tightly… five… he crouched slightly, bracing himself to make a sudden move if he needed to. Four more steps… three more… two…

“You have come very far out of your way, Liwanu.”

The voice came not from ahead, where the approaching footsteps had suddenly fallen silent, but from behind. Even as little Sonoma gave a surprised yelp, the man spun back that way. His arm went down to ensure that his daughter was swept along to stay behind him, and he raised that spear threateningly. Then he stopped, staring through the shadows.

The figure who stood there had come far closer than she should have been able to, considering he had not heard her approach at all. And for a man who could hear the water-snakes winding their way just below the surface of the swamp, that was a chilling realization.

She wore a dark cloak, with a hood that left her face in shadows. Her eyes, barely visible, were azure blue, with a faint glow like some of the night-beasts.

And as she took a single step forward, the man realized something else. She was not standing in the water, but atop it. Her feet walked upon the top of the swamp as easily and steadily as his own stepped on solid ground. The cloak she wore spread out along the surface without getting even slightly damp, as though it too treated water as earth.

“You–” he started before stopping. “You are the shaman, the Lady of the Swamp.”

“Lady, are they calling me now?” the hooded figure remarked. “It is better than Creature of the Swamp, at least.”

Were he alone, Liwanu might have fled then. He might have run from the swamp and never spoken of it again. But the presence of his daughter, and her desperate need, drove him to stand his ground. Tightening his grip on the spear, yet lowering it so that the figure before him would not interpret it as a threat (as if such a thing could threaten her), he managed to speak again after a moment. “You… know my name.”

“I know a great deal more than that, Liwanu,” the cloaked woman confirmed. “As I said, I know how far you have come. And I know what you are looking for.”

“A cure.” The man quickly spoke, his head nodding as he pulled Sonoma around in front of him. “A cure for my daughter, so that she can be human once more.”

For a long moment, the figure in front of him, the Lady of the Swamp, stood silent. Finally, she turned to walk back the way she had come. “I have nothing for you here. You have wasted your time.”

Eyes widening, Liwanu fairly leapt forward through the swamp. He resisted the urge to grab for the woman’s arm, but only just. “No,” he blurted, “you are her last chance!”

“Her last,” the cloaked figure asked, “or yours?”

Abruptly, he was standing where she had been. Turning, he found the hooded figure crouching (still atop the water) beside his daughter. A hand, far paler than any of his people’s, reached out to touch Sonoma’s shoulder as the young girl shrank away from the figure.

Despite his fear and trepidation, Liwanu gave a shout that filled the swamp. Lunging forward, he drove his spear at the woman who would dare reach for his child.

It struck a tree. A tree that had not been there before, yet now stood in the same place that the figure had been, gnarled and aged as though it had grown in the swamp over the course of decades.

“You fight for your child,” the voice of the hooded woman spoke from behind the man once more, where she stood a few feet away from both him and his daughter. “Why? Is she not a burden, she and her… affliction that you wish me to cure?”

Giving up on yanking his solidly planted spear from the tree, the man turned once more to the figure. His hand found the knife at his waist as he pulled it free. “My daughter is no burden,” he snapped.

“She is a monster, yes?” the figure half-taunted him from her place in the shadows.

A low growl escaped the man, like the wild cats of the mountains. “My daughter is no monster.”

“Then why do you tell her to resist her change, when doing so harms her so much?” the woman asked. “Why do you travel so far out of your way to seek a way to cure her of what you call an affliction? You wish her to be human so that she will no longer be a monster.”

“I wish her to be human so that she will no longer be hunted!” Liwanu shot back, his desperation making him forget his own fear. “If it was only my people, I would take us both away from them. But anywhere she goes, the seers will know what she is. They will find her, hunt her, kill her.”

Again, silence returned to the swamp for several long seconds before the hooded figure spoke. “You wish her to be human not because you believe she is a monster, but because you fear for her safety.”

Slumping a little, Liwanu managed a weak, “Sonoma would never harm any innocents. I know that. But other people are… not so trusting. They do not know her. She would be hunted for all of her life. I wanted… I wish to spare her that. I want to protect her.” He spared a glance to his daughter, who was half-curled up on herself, doubled over from the strain of holding back her change.

“First,” the hooded woman spoke after a moment, “you must accept two things.” She moved a step forward, a step that carried her much further than it should have, putting her beside his daughter. Her hand found the girl’s shoulder, and she leaned closer to whisper something that Liwanu couldn’t hear.

Yet as she heard the words, Sonoma straightened. She gave a soft gasp of relief, before her body abruptly shrank. It contorted, bones shifting and cracking with painful sounds that seemed to draw no actual displeasure from the girl herself. Patterns appeared on her skin as she shrank, patterns that emerged a few seconds later as dark feathers.

Within a minute or so, the child had been replaced by a crow that flapped up to land on the tree that had mysteriously appeared so recently. It gave a sharp squawk, then another, looking at Liwanu.

“The first thing you must accept,” the woman informed him, “is that your daughter must change at times. It is a reflex that cannot be ignored. The longer she restrains herself, the worse she will feel.”

Holding out his hand, Liwanu waited until the crow flew down to land on his arm. “But you will–”

The figure interrupted. “And the second thing you must accept is that there is no cure. Your daughter will be this way until the day she dies.”

Even as his despair rose once more, she added, “However, if it is safety you wish for her… that is not so impossible.” Her softly glowing blue eyes stared into his. “It is not a cure. But if you wish it, if you are truly the man you claim to be, there may be a way of… disguising the child so that no one will know her true nature. They will believe that she is human. Even those seers.”

Quickly, Liwanu nodded. “Yes,” he blurted. “As long as she is safe, as long as she can live without being hunted. I will do anything, give you anything you ask for.”

“Do not make such a promise lightly,” the figure warned him. As she spoke, the air around them spun. The man felt briefly nauseous, before finding himself standing somewhere unfamiliar, with his transformed daughter still perched on his arm.

The floor was hard, like rock. Yet it was smooth to the touch. So smooth the man could almost see his face in it. The walls were similar, though blue to the floor’s polished white. And the air… the air felt… gentle, like a soft breeze was constantly running through it, a breeze that carried unfamiliar scents. A low hum, barely audible yet impossible for him to ignore, carried on constantly through the background. Light came from… not torches or any other fire, but from glowing… rocks running along the ceiling.

“Come,” the hooded figure instructed before turning to walk toward what looked like a wall in this strange, polished cave. “If you wish to help your daughter, if you really want her to have this safety, follow me.” Pausing then, she added, “And for all our sakes, do not try to lick anything.”

As she approached the wall, it slid aside with a soft whooshing sound, leaving Liwanu’s eyes to widen at her power of sorcery. She hadn’t made a motion, or even spoken a word. All she had done was approach, and the wall had opened for her.

He followed, Sonoma carefully perched on his shoulder, as the woman led them through a long tunnel just like the cave they had just emerged from. Together, the three moved through what seemed like a maze of these bright polished tunnels, until they reached another, slightly larger cave.

In that cave stood a man, a man… far different than any Liwanu had ever seen before. His face was more angular than a human, with grayish-green skin that was altogether… unsettling.

The silence held like that for only a moment before the figure abruptly dashed forward wish such speed that the two had barely blinked before he was suddenly in front of them. “Oh!” the gray-green man blurted. “Oh, yes, yes, perfect. You made it. You made it, you brought them. You really brought them.” His hand grabbed one of Liwanu’s, and the figure carefully, yet quickly seemed to count his fingers. “All present and accounted for then, yes? Yes. Thirteen fingers–no–wait. Ten.” A shocked gasp escaped him. “Did you lose them in a great bat–no, wait, we settled on ten, didn’t we? I always thought thirteen would be better, but the others wanted you to be just like so many other–”

Shaking that off, the figure lamented, “Oh, but now I’m being rude. I haven’t even finished counting your toes. Would you mind taking your shoes off so I can do that?”

Finally catching himself after standing there flat-footed staring at this strange demon of a man, Liwanu quickly jerked away while drawing his knife once more. “Who–what are you?” he demanded.

Despite his dangerous appearance, the strange green-gray figure gave a smile that seemed… charming, even goofy. “Oh, right, you’re one of the warriors. Yes, my fault, entirely my fault. Introductions are important. You, of course, are Liwanu and Sonoma. And I am…” He paused, clearly thinking about his answer. “… I suppose, ‘Grandfather’ would be the most appropriate term, in this case.”

“You are not my family,” Liwanu objected, eyes darting between the green-gray figure and the hooded woman.

“No, no, you are right,” the strange man confirmed. “We’re not… technically family. And yet, Grandfather is still probably the closest thing to a word that you would understand.”

Rather than object, Liwanu took a step back while using one arm to shield his daughter in her crow-form. “I do not consort with demons.”

“Yet you would consort with what you call a shaman, or a witch, or the Lady of the Swamp?” the hooded figure reminded him of her presence. “If you wish to protect your daughter, you need both of our help.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” the figure who called himself Grandfather confirmed. “Of course. If you want to hide your daughter’s true nature, you will need my knowledge of umm… “ He paused, looking toward the woman. “What term would they understand?”

“Blood and bones,” she answered flatly. “You will need his knowledge of blood and bones, and my knowledge of magic.” Lifting her chin so that her face was nearly uncovered from its place in the shadows of the hood, she added, “Do you wish to continue, or shall I send you on your way?”

It wasn’t even a question. If it meant protecting his daughter… Liwanu nodded. “If it means that she can live her life without being hunted by every seer, I will do anything.”

“Excellent,” Grandfather announced. And with that, the gray-green man lifted his hand, reached up with a knife in the other, and severed one of his own fingers as smoothly as someone snipping a branch from a tree.

Hearing the squawk of surprise from Sonoma, and seeing the look of shock on Liwanu’s face, Grandfather’s head shook. “Oh. Oh, I’m sorry. No.” Waving his hand, which had already stopped bleeding, he explained, “this is nothing. I removed any–” Pausing, he finished with a simple, “It didn’t hurt. I’m quite all right, I assure you. And you need this,” stripping the flesh and skin smoothly, he held up the bone, “to provide a base for the ring.”

“The ring…” Liwanu echoed, staring at the bone.

“Oh yes, your daughter will need to wear it.” Grandfather smiled then as he continued. “Between my bone and the stone that dear Bastet provides–”

“Bastet,” Liwanu echoed, looking toward the hooded figure.

“A name that I provided,” Grandfather explained when the woman herself remained silent. “I’m afraid that we aren’t aware of what her true parents would have named her, given the opportunity.”

“She is… not human?” Liwanu spoke slowly, looking at the figure once more.

A slight chuckle, dark and humorless, emerged from the woman. Finally, she lowered the hood of the cloak to reveal skin that was so pale it was almost as white as snow. Her hair was as blue as her eyes.

“No,” Bastet announced. “I am not human. Well,” she amended, “my mother was. My father…” Pausing, the woman shrugged. “My father is nothing you would understand.”


“I understand none of this,” Liwanu pointed out. “Yet if you say this will help my daughter…” He looked toward Sonoma briefly before nodding. “Then I will believe you. But,” the man added, “if she… if she dies from this magic you are doing, I do not care what kind of gods you might be. I will find a way to destroy you.”

Bastet said nothing to that, while Grandfather seemed to brighten. “I love it!” he blurted. “I love how much they care for their young, for their own. Do you know that the others thought that they should just–with a hive and…” He made a few vague gestures before shaking his head. “Never mind, it’s depressing. And they’re long gone anyway.”

Focusing on the even-more confused Liwanu then, the green-gray man sobered. “I assure you, your daughter will be perfectly safe. If anything we were going to would endanger her life, Bastet would know.”

“Because she sees the future?” the tribal chieftain, who was far out of his comfort zone, guessed.

“Oh no, well… in a way.” Grandfather smiled. “She would know because, if anyone was close to dying anywhere around here, she would… smell it, in a way. And probably drool a little bit. She does get famished from time to time. You see, Bastet’s father… is what we call a Reaper.”

Over the long, heavy silence that followed that pronouncement, Grandfather abruptly clapped his hands. “So, who’s ready to make a magic ring?”

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