Bobbi Camren

Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The death of Kwur’s special tree had an immediate effect. Or rather, a lot of immediate effects. First, the branches and roots that had been pinning me to the wall dissolved into ash, letting me stumble a bit before catching myself. Turning quickly to look back the way I had come, I saw all the plants throughout the subway tunnel falling apart into more clumps of ash that faded into nothing after a few seconds. I wasn’t sure… why exactly, but it clearly had something to do with Kwur’s connection to the plants. We’d killed the largest concentration of his consciousness here in Vegas, and what was left wasn’t able to maintain the jungle he’d created. I hoped the fact that all of this was dissolving meant that the plant back in Gehenna was his only body now. 

Okay, I didn’t really believe the universe was that lucky. But I could at least hope that any other bodies he had were well away from Earth and too weak to pose much of a threat for awhile. 

But I still had to check on the others. We assumed that killing this part of Kwur would free those he had put under his control (that’s what Prelate had told us anyway), but I had to be sure. With a grunt, I pushed myself that way, starting to run toward the opening when I felt Tabbris’s presence as the girl did a partial recall to me, just enough to communicate. Which she did, by blurting an excited, We did it! We broke the evil Plant Man! Did you see the way he exploded?!  

Her excitement was contagious. Or maybe I was just really giddy after that whole thing. My head bobbed with an easy smile, as I passed through the subway platform and looked around at all the plants disintegrating into ash. I definitely saw, I replied. That was a really good shot, Ace. 

December did it too! She informed me. We pushed the button together! After Larees made sure the targeting was right. And then the stupid evil plant guy went fwooom! I could hear the grin in her voice. He was so surprised! 

By that point, I could see Columbus and Bobbi greeting Miranda, Sands, Sarah, Shiori, and Asenath as they emerged from the other tunnel. At first, my heart sank a little bit, a heavy stone of worry sinking into my stomach briefly. But then I saw Jiao. She was behind them, helping that Julius Harn guy walk. He looked a little roughed up, but not too bad considering the situation I’d left all of them in. Scattered around the platform were a bunch of injured and unconscious figures, or people just sitting there looking confused about the whole situation.

Bobbi raced quickly to Asenath, hugging the vampire. I heard her say something about how great it was that they’d found Jiao. Columbus, meanwhile, took his turn to embrace Shiori, the two adopted siblings holding each other for a moment. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, racing toward me after being released by her brother. I caught her, and we embraced tightly while the other girl murmured against my ear, “You did it. You did it, you killed him, you freed my mom.” There were tears in her voice as she clung tightly to me. I could feel the incredible stress and tension she’d been holding in throughout the time that her mother had been missing (and especially once we’d found her here under Kwur’s control) melting away as she shuddered emotionally. 

Holding the other girl close, I murmured reassuring words while silently telling Tabbris that I would see her soon and that she should get back to December, Larees, and the others on the ship. We would all be meeting up together to go over what had happened, and to see that the Gehenna people knew exactly what the situation with the bit of Kwur that had been out here was. And to make sure the whole thing was really over. Which… come to think of it… 

“Hey, what about that Azlee Ren guy?” I suddenly blurted, frowning as Shiori and I released each other to look to the rest of the group down here. “He’s the one who basically started this whole thing. So where is he?” My gaze found Julius Harn, who was already looking at me. He seemed really tired, barely able to stand. His heavy, beachball-like body was slumped over, using the wall to keep himself up rather than leaning against Jiao any more. “What’s going on?” 

The man breathed hard a couple times, inhaling and exhaling in slightly shuddering gasps before he managed to speak. “Never… saw a man called… Azlee. He wasn’t… down here.” 

Okay, that definitely didn’t make any sense. We knew for a fact that Azlee Ren was the guy who was behind this. Or rather, the Gehenna prison guard who had been Azlee Ren and was probably being controlled by Kwur. Why wouldn’t this Harn guy know anything about him? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be. There was just… something off. If Azlee wasn’t down here, if Harn had never seen him, what… what? 

“Maybe his memory was changed,” Sarah offered with a helpless shrug. “Like Vanessa’s.” She was leaning on her rifle, breathing almost as hard as Harn was. Now that I looked around a bit, I could see that everyone looked pretty worn out. They were barely able to keep standing, for the most part. Whatever had happened while I was gone, it looked like it hadn’t been restful, to say the least. They’d been to hell and back just fighting to keep Jiao and Harn from doing anything they wouldn’t be able to take back. It could’ve been really, unbelievably bad. The thought of Jiao coming back to herself after killing either of her daughters, or anything like… no. No, I wasn’t going to think about that. We beat Kwur, and none of us died. We won. 

Even if the pressing worry about just where the hell Azlee was kept burning like a match at the back of my mind. 

Before anyone else could say anything to Sarah’s suggestion, we heard more people approaching. Turning, we all saw Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan coming our way. They looked as worn out as the rest of us, but otherwise unharmed. 

Seeing Harn, Vanessa stopped short, staring at him. He, in turn, looked back to her, offering a slight, tired smile. “I wouldn’t… wish the circumstances on anyone,” he managed a bit weakly, “but it is still good to see you again, Miss Moon.” 

While Vanessa shook her head and stared at him helplessly, Sariel stepped in. “You do know my daughter then? You remember helping her? You remember her introducing you to Dakota?”

The man frowned in confusion. His eyes glanced from Sariel to Vanessa and back again, looking uncertain. “I… well, yes, of course I remember that. I worked with Vane–wait, are you… You’re her mother, aren’t you? And you–” He seemed to notice Haiden and Tristan for the first time, a delighted smile crossing his face. “Vanessa! You got your family back! That’s wonderful!” 

“I…” Vanessa bit her lip, wincing a little as she admitted, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t remember you. I should, but apparently somebody… somebody altered my memory. They took you and Dakota out.” 

It looked like Harn was going to say something to that, but Haiden spoke up first. “We should really talk about this somewhere else. I don’t feel comfortable down here in Kwur’s tunnels, even if he is dead.” Offering a shrug, he added, “This place gives me the creeps.”   

He definitely had a point. I didn’t feel like staying down here any longer than we had to either. So, we started out of the tunnels. It was a lot different down here without all the plants, that was for sure. I could see a group of the previously mind-controlled people standing in a clump, with that ogre-like Luiena woman from the Oni and Eldridge from the Akharu talking to them.

As we approached, Eldridge excused himself and came trotting over. “Well, hey there!” He was grinning, clearly in a good mood. “Looks like calling in some help from the Heretic Rebellion was the right move after all.” His expression sombered just a little bit then, as he added, “Seriously, thanks, guys. Thank you so much. It looks like we’ll be able to wrap things up here without everything falling into open war after all.” 

“What about the rest of the missing kids who were taken with Jiao?” I asked. “And the princess, umm… Rowan, what about her?” 

Haiden answered, “Dare, Triss, Felix, and I found them. We… dealt with the people they had guarding them. They’re with the kids now, so it’s okay.” 

Eldridge nodded easily. “That’s right, and our people are already there too. The princess and her friends are safe, it seems everyone here has made it relatively intact. This was a success.” 

“But we still don’t know where that Azlee guy is,” Miranda pointed out. 

“And something tells me that’s gonna bite us in the ass at some point.” 

*******

Rowan was a cute kid. Half-Akharu and half-Vestil, she took more after the former, having a full physical body instead of the gas form. But apparently that was only the outside. Inside her body was primarily made of that gas cloud rather than any organs. Instead of having regular eyes, the space where they should be was filled with that rapidly color-changing gas. She was half and half, an exterior humanoid (or Akharu) body with a mostly energy/liquid/gas-like interior. 

In any case, the biggest point was that she was safe. And talkative. She and her friends who had also been rescued chatted up a storm with everyone who would indulge them. Which included Tabbris and December, of course. The other two came down from the ship to meet up with everyone, and we all reunited at the Vestil casino to exchange explanations and stories. 

Barnyard the troll, Pars the werewolf, and the rest of that group were there too. I made sure they were allowed to show up so we could thank them for helping to take care of our bodies as much as they had before our positions were swapped with our Theriangelos. From what I’d seen, they had done a lot of fighting to keep more of Kwur’s forces off of us when they could have walked away. We owed them for sticking it out at the risk of their lives, even if Pars insisted they were only making up for attacking us in the first place. He was a pretty cool guy, and so was Barny. I made sure to tell Pars he should look up Mateo’s pack if he had a chance, and that Barnyard might like to see Buddy System in Wonderland. 

We also got to see the parents of the missing kids meet up with them, including Rowan’s. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and overall joyful reunions. It was actually really nice to watch, even if I didn’t know these kids at all. I was glad we’d been able to save them. Or rather, that Dare, Haiden, and the cat-girls had, come to think of it like that. 

Anyway, the point was that it was really good to see these kids actually reunited with their families after everything that had happened to them. They had to all be checked for influence by Kwur, of course. But they came up clean. They were fine, and they were back with their parents. 

Then things got even better, as we stood in one of the private lounge areas of the casino watching all of this go on. Better, in this case, because one of the nearby doors opened and Avalon entered, accompanied by Sean, Theia, and Roxa. The latter two went to greet some of the others, but Sean and Avalon came to where I was standing with Shiori, Columbus, Asenath, and Jiao. 

Sean got to me first, and we embraced. “Hey, big guy,” I murmured. And big he was. It was still so strange to see Sean as a man in his twenties, after we’d… after we’d failed to rescue him for so long. He’d spent what to him was years in that prison. I honestly had no idea how he was holding up, aside from the fact that he spent a lot of time with his uncle, brother, and Roxa. I’d heard that he mostly coped by keeping himself busy, and that he did a lot of camping outside, under the stars. And yeah, I definitely couldn’t blame him for that last part. Apparently he hated being cooped up inside, hated staying in one place for very long at all, actually. He had a thing about never sleeping in the same place more than a couple times in a row if he could help it. Which, I supposed, made him pretty well-suited to traveling with a pack of werewolves who weren’t staying in the same place longer than a day or two if they could help it. 

“Hey yourself, Flickster,” Sean murmured, releasing me from the hug. “You’ve been busy. Out blowing up trees with ship-mounted cannons, huh?” 

“Eh,” I replied, “that tree had it coming.” 

It was Avalon’s turn then, and I quickly latched on, hugging the other girl as tightly as I could. Feeling her there, holding her after everything that had happened… it really affected me. I might’ve held on longer than strictly necessary, but it didn’t seem like she was objecting very much. The two of us clung to each other, before I leaned back and smiled. A joke of some kind found its way to my lips, but Avalon’s were there before I could say it. She kissed me, and I whimpered a little. Wow, yeah, it really did affect me. For a moment, I lost myself in that kiss. 

Eventually, we pulled back, and I took a moment to catch my breath before managing to focus on the smirking girl in front of me. I felt a bit giddy. And other things beyond giddy. “Umm… hi.” Coughing as the blush stretched across my face at the look she gave me, I managed a weak, “I guess you finished the errand you were on? How did umm…” I coughed again. “How’d that go?” 

“It’s finished,” she informed me, actually smiling genuinely. It was the smile of accomplishment, of finally finishing the project that her ancestor had worked on so hard. “Close enough, anyway,” she amended. “Dries and the others are putting the last touches on it. The spell should be ready to go within the day. We found what we needed.” 

Grinning, I hugged her again. “That’s great! See, we’ve both been busy little beavers lately.” 

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready to go back to boring old normal classes for a little bit.” Pausing, she amended, “Okay, our classes are never actually boring. But still. You know what I mean.” 

I nodded. “I definitely know what you mean. Believe me, we’re all ready for a good long break. But for now, hey, let’s just enjoy the celebration. The Gehenna people should be here any minute to give us a quick debriefing about the current Kwur situation.” As I said it, I gave Deveron a little wave over where he was talking to one of the Vegas people. 

“What about Azlee?” Columbus put in. He and Sean had been having their own little reunion. “We still don’t know where he is.” 

I started to say that that was going to be a job for the Gehenna people to track down their missing guy. We’d done our part. But before I could get it out, Dare approached with a simple, “They’ve found him.” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “They found Azlee Ren?” 

She gave a short nod. “Yes. Well, it turns out Larees did. She was determined to finish the job, given her… connection to Gehenna. She tracked him down in a motel on the edge of the strip. She’s bringing him back now, and the Gehenna people are on their way to pick him up.” 

Sure enough, it wasn’t long from then before Larees came in, accompanied by a figure who looked pretty similar to Prelate, actually. He had the same reptilian blue skin, vertically-pupiled yellow eyes, and so on. This had to be Azlee Ren. 

And… there was something… almost familiar about him? At first I thought it was just because he looked somewhat similar to Prelate. But that wasn’t it. The more I looked at him, as Larees led his shackled form across the room toward us, the more something niggled at the back of my mind. Wait… wait a minute…

Without really knowing what I was doing, I moved away from the others and stepped that way. They followed, and I heard Shiori ask if I was okay. But I didn’t answer. Instead, I held my hand out and said, “Stop.” 

Azlee stopped. He stood there, staring at me. Larees stopped too, looking from him to me. Her mouth opened, but I spoke again. “Sit down.” 

Azlee sat down. 

“Flick?” Shiori asked from nearby. “What… what are you… how are you doing that? Wait, are you controlling him? Because you could only do that if–” 

Spinning on my heel, my mouth opened as I blurted, “He’s a zom–” 

That was as far as I got, before Azlee exploded. His entire body blew apart in a blast of white light. I caught a glimpse of Dare in mid-leap, my name on her lips. Avalon and Shiori were there too, just behind her. Everything seemed frozen, as that white energy sought out me specifically. I felt the heat from it envelop my body, covering me from head to toe. It stung a little bit, just this side of being painful. Then I felt it cover me. I felt my body being yanked backward. I saw Dare, Shiori, Avalon, and all of the others grow smaller, their forms fainter as I was dragged from them. The world spun. My stomach heaved. Everything was upside down and inside out. 

A stone floor came up and smacked me, almost knocking the wind from my body as I fell with a yelp. Groaning, I lifted my head and looked around. I was… I was in a room I’d never seen before, a stone room covered in still-glowing runic symbols and devoid of any furniture or decorations. It was mostly dark, save for the small pool of light that I was lying in and the faint glow from the spellwork. 

Then I saw the figure who stood nearby, watching me. I saw the flickering light illuminate his slow, satisfied, triumphant smile. 

Fossor.

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Causality And Casualty 5-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Mom!” Shiori blurted, already starting to take a step that way as her eyes widened at the sight. 

My hand snapped out to stop her, but Asenath was there first, catching her sister by the arm. “Wait,” she said quickly. “Don’t get close to her.” As she said it, Senny was staring hard at their mother, a heavy, smoldering rage visible in those suddenly intense, dark eyes. “Let… her… go.” 

“Oh, don’t be like that!” Jiao blurted in a voice that I knew was entirely uncharacteristic. “Don’t be spoilsports! You’re all finally here, and we’re gonna have so much fun together!”  She sounded cheerful, energetic, like some kind of perky cheerleader hyped up on coffee and school spirit or something. This was absolutely not Jiao talking to us right now. Not even a little bit.  

“You really wanna have some fun?” Sands all-but snarled while clenching her hands as she stood next to Sarah. “How about we tell ghost stories and toast marshmallows around a bonfire. There’s a lot of fuel for it in this place.” With one tight fist, she indicated the plants around us. 

Instead of Jiao, it was Julius Harn who spoke next (or rather, he who Kwur spoke through). “Oooh, you’re just so precious with the threats and the angry little fist! Probably should have paid more attention in wilderness survival when they taught you about dead wood being better for making fires, but still! You’re adorable, I could just pinch your little cheeks!” That same broad, probably uncharacteristic manic smile was on the old man’s face, as he beckoned. “Come! Come, let’s not dawdle any further, we have so much to talk about. So many things to prepare!”  

“Listen, you chlorophallic weed!” That was Shiori, and she had both of her disc weapons out, as they sparked with electricity. “The only thing you need to prepare for is letting go of my mother!” 

Absent of any apparent feeling of intimidation, Kwur-Jiao spoke up. “Sweetie, as adorable and precious as your fleshy anger is, there is no need for it. Everything’s going to be just fine. Come, let me show you.” She pivoted, starting to walk deeper into the forested area before calling back in a slightly darker, yet still fairly cheerful voice. “That is, unless you’d prefer to see how well my having control of your mother can serve as a motivator, or as a punishment?” Even as he said it, Jiao’s hand moved to pull part of her jacket away, revealing some kind of explosive securely strapped to her back. “She was good enough to bring the party favors, after all.” 

Fuck. He was right, unfortunately. We couldn’t chance anything or he’d use those explosives. And I was pretty sure even an old vampire like Jiao couldn’t survive something like that. 

So, with a collective sigh and an exchange of looks promising each other that we’d find an opening, Sands, Sarah, Miranda, Asenath, Columbus, Bobbi, Shiori, and I reluctantly followed after Kwur-Jiao. Behind us, I heard and felt Kwur-Harn trail after, whistling cheerfully to himself as if nothing was wrong at all.

There was a narrow trail through the trees and bushes. Narrow enough, that was, for me to feel the leaves and branches gently brushing over me as we passed through. I didn’t think too much about that until I caught Kwur-Jiao glance back at me with a little smile just as one branch in particular brushed over my arm. Then I realized it was intentional. The plants were sticking out just far enough to touch us on the way past on purpose, like a… like a caress or something. It was enough to bring bile to my throat, before I turned sideways to avoid them. The others must have either picked up the same, or realized what I was doing, because they followed suit. 

The path led us in a loop, and we mounted a set of stairs that had been placed against the edge of the tracks to reach the platform. Not that it was easy to tell exactly where we were just from looking around. The entire platform was even more overgrown than the tunnels, with thick grass under our feet, along with bushes and trees all around. Enough of the latter were so tall and thick that they entirely blocked out the ceiling. It was like being in an actual jungle. Except for the whole lack of animal sounds. Which, in some ways, seemed even more eerie. The whole place was uncomfortably quiet, raising the hair on the back of my neck. I wanted to demand that Kwur stop this, that he tell us where we were going. I wanted to do a lot of things that might have made me feel better, or at least less useless, for a few seconds. But I kept quiet, for now. 

On the way, I focused a bit on seeing through Marian’s eyes. Jason, April, and the Alters who had been guarding our actual bodies before we were switched around looked completely baffled. There were bodies of other attackers lying around, some alive and some not. It was clear that Kwur had sent more people after us, but our new friends had pulled through in keeping us safe. Until we were switched. Now they clearly had no idea what to do. Especially considering, from the sound of things, they were still being attacked now and then. Before long, they’d be in real trouble. 

Quickly, I moved Marian, getting their attention as I had her paw touch the ground and focused on my image inscription power. Using that, I created a message on the pavement in bright red letters, giving them the phone number to contact Dare and tell her where they were so they could get help before they were overwhelmed. It was the best I could do just then.  

By then, we’d mounted the steps and moved across the subway platform. There was a hole in the wall ahead of us, one that had clearly been added for all this. The concrete there had been punched through, leading to a smaller, clearly more recent tunnel through the dirt and rock beyond. Without hesitation, Kwur-Jiao led us into the tunnel. It was just wide enough for us to pass through in a single-file, and Asenath went first. She was followed by Shiori, then the twins, Bobbi, and Columbus, with me bringing up the rear aside from Kwur-Harn. A quick check through my connection to Marian showed that April was already on the phone. Hopefully Dare would get to that group soon, because it kind of sounded like they were in trouble. Kwur wasn’t exactly reacting well to so many of his little puppets being freed from his control, apparently. 

As we walked through the tunnel, there were actual windows along either side. The windows peeked into large, hollowed-out caverns. But they weren’t just caverns. They looked like rooms in a house or apartment, complete with carpet, furniture, lights, everything. It was like… like a television or movie set, I realized. Or like the stage of a play. The rooms were sets, with the windows being where the fourth wall would be. And on those sets were people. Some Alters, some human, but just… people. They seemed to be carrying about their lives as if totally unaware of the windows looking in on their fake apartments and houses. Like… like a tv show. That’s what it was. That’s what all of this was, a living, breathing tv show. 

Even as I came to that realization on my own, Kwur-Jiao reached out to touch a button by one of the windows. Suddenly, we could hear sound coming from within the ‘house’ there, and it was… yeah, it was a TV show in real life. The human woman was lecturing some kind of amphibian boy who was apparently ‘playing’ her son about his grades and how if he didn’t get them back up, he wouldn’t be allowed to go to the picnic the next day. The Alter kid even said ‘gee willikers.’ It was fucking bizarre. 

We moved on and watched a couple more for a minute. They were all just like that. They were people being controlled by Kwur into acting out these ridiculous scenarios. And belatedly I realized that there were plants in every one of those scenes. Usually just house plants or flowers. He was watching. He was watching them play out these insane living television scenes. 

What in the serious living fuck was wrong with this monster? 

“You see?!” Kwur-Jiao cheerfully urged after muting the most recent scene and beckoning for us to keep following her through the tunnel. “We can all have such a wonderful time working together. I just know you’ll be fine additions to the cast, and we’ll have your friends join in soon enough. With all of you here, the show will be better than it ever was!” 

Through gritted teeth, Columbus demanded, “Are you seriously acting like this whole thing is just a bunch of tv shows, or… or movies or whatever for you to watch?” 

“Puppet shows,” Miranda corrected in a flat voice. “He’s making puppet shows for himself.” 

She was right, of course. This whole thing, all of it, was one big collection of puppet shows. And from the sound of it, that’s what he wanted to do with all of us. Maybe the whole world. He wanted to start this entire war in Vegas in order to get strong enough to spread his plants everywhere and turn the whole world into his own personal living puppet show to act out these stories. All of which made this quite possibly the strangest, most fucked up thing I’d ever seen. And that was actually a pretty long and exhaustive list of strange, fucked up things at this point. 

Kwur-Harn was talking from behind us. “So many of your people misunderstand me. They think I hate you flesh-things. Absolutely not! I think you’re amazing. You’re such wonderful creatures. But you waste it so much. You waste your lives on such frivolous, boring things. Surely you must agree by now. Look at how many wars there are on just your world. Look at what the Seosten have turned all of your species into. Nothing but fighting and killing. You ignore so many of the wonderful stories you could tell. Television and movies are your greatest achievements, you should embrace them. Act out the stories you like and then move to another!” 

Sarah spoke up quietly then while taking her sister’s hand. “You’re a little insane.” 

With a shake of her head, Kwur-Jiao insisted, “My methods may seem harsh, but I am trying to free all of your people from this endless cycle. There will be violence first, enough to give me the power I need to spread over this planet. But once I am strong enough, I will take the people of this world in hand, and give them better stories to tell than the ones they have been trapped within for so long. I know that may be very difficult for you to accept, but it really is for the best. You will be happy. Well, not always. Sometimes you’ll be sad, when the story says you should be. But I’ll make sure to give you happy stories too. Some of you may even see each other again. Sometimes you’ll be enemies, sometimes friends. It will be wonderful. And so very interesting!” 

“You want to play with us like the fucking Sims?” Shiori blurted. “You want to treat the entire world like a bunch of Sim games, movies, whatever. You think you can puppet our whole population into being your entertainment?!” 

That eerie, creepy, disturbing smile stretched across Jiao’s face once more, as Kwur made her respond with an enthusiastic, “It’s just as I said! So many think I hate you fleshy things. But I love you all. I love you all and I will protect you. I will give you much better lives. You’ll just have to trust me a little bit. There will be some harsh growing pains, but it will be wonderful in the end!”

With that, Kwur-Jiao turned back to us. More lights came on behind her, and I saw that the tunnel stretched on for what seemed like miles. There were dozens more windows that we hadn’t seen yet. How long had he been doing this?! How many people were down here? This was insane! Well, that much was obvious, but still! 

“You see?” he asked through Jiao, “I am not really your enemy. In fact, I believe we can all be quite good friends. If you cooperate, I will make absolutely certain that you get the best stories. We can even negotiate on keeping you together with those you care about! You won’t have to fight for your lives anymore. You won’t have to worry about all the bad things that could happen. Everything will be just fine.” Kwur-Jiao looked straight to me. “You won’t have to worry about all the terrible things that are waiting for you.” 

“Sorry,” I shot back, “I never really wanted to be an actress. I think we’re gonna have to pass.” 

“You’ll change your minds,” Kwur-Harn knowingly insisted, smiling the whole time. “Maybe if you see a few more of our shows down here, you’ll understand that it’s not a bad thing at all.” 

“Actually,” Miranda put in, “I think we’ve seen just about enough.” With that, she glanced toward me, hand rising with the Kwur-tracking stone cupped in her palm. She’d used a spell to summon it from her Theriangelos. It was giving off an intermittently bright green glow. “Getting dimmer here, it’s the other way!” 

Even as she said that, Asenath and Shiori were moving. The two sprang at their mother, Shiori lashing out with a fist that hit Kwur-Jiao in the face and rocked her head backward. At the same time, Senny’s blurred form rushed past her before pivoting with something held up in one hand. It was a piece from the explosives strapped to Jiao. “As if my mother didn’t make sure I knew how to disarm her bombs,” the vampire snarled. 

“Well then,” Kwur-Harn began in a voice dripping with that same false-kindness. 

“We’ll have to do this the old fashioned way,” Kwur-Jiao finished. 

Suddenly, a pair of stone walls shot out up from the ground as Sands raised her mace. They wrapped around Harn while the girl blurted over her shoulder toward Miranda, Bobbi, Columbus, and me. “Go!”

The four of us went. On the way, two duplicate Mirandas split off from the original and went to help Sands and Sarah with Harn, while yet one more raced back to where Shiori and Asenath were still trying to contain Jiao. 

Meanwhile, we sprinted back through the tunnel. And it wasn’t exactly a peaceful trip. Suddenly, the people in those glass enclosures weren’t acting out scenes anymore. Instead, they were pounding at the glass while screaming at us. It was creepy as hell.  

Then it got worse. Because the glass retracted, and the tunnel was suddenly filled with a bunch of random figures of all ages whose entire focus was on stopping Columbus, Miranda, Bobbi, and me. And we definitely couldn’t fight them. 

“Flick!” Randi blurted, tossing the stone underhanded to me before creating half a dozen quick duplicates. “Go, just go!” The seven of them quickly moved to block for me, the main one snapping, “Ears!” As soon as we all (including her six duplicates) covered our ears, she let loose with a deafening scream that filled the tunnel and made all of our attackers stumble. Then another Miranda extended both hands, summoning some kind of three-inch thick metal poles from each palm that shot out a good thirty feet before snapping to either side to knock the deafened figures out of the way.

Bobbi, Columbus, and I shot through the briefly cleared path, sprinting down the tunnel as fast as my feet could carry us. On the way, Columbus snapped at Bobbi to go, and she was suddenly gone, using her superspeed to get a hell of lot further than we could. As soon as she did that, the boy reached out to catch my arm, teleporting the two of us as far down the tunnel as he could see. He did that twice more in rapid succession before we reached the platform where Bobbi was waiting.

As we landed, I checked the stone in my other hand. The glow was getting brighter. The main part of Kwur. That was the important part, the most important part. I had to get to the main part of Kwur. Once we destroyed that, the rest would be a mop-up. 

But first I had to get there, and Kwur was not going to make that easy. I realized that as I looked out over the platform and saw even more guys coming for us. It was a mixture of people in the same ‘normal life’ costumes from those plays going on back in the other tunnel, and people in actual armor with weapons and such. Clearly, he was throwing everything at us. 

“Flick, get to Kwur,” Columbus told me sharply. “You’re the one with the–just go.” He looked to Bobbi. “We got this, right, kid?” 

“Sure,” she replied, already cracking her knuckles. “We got this.” 

I didn’t argue with them. There wasn’t time. As Columbus teleported into the midst of the incoming group and Bobbi created a wall of energy to clear a path for me, I took off running once more. 

Unfortunately, I’d barely crossed half the platform before seeing an even thicker, incredibly dense wall of plants in the way. They were growing in my path, even as I got there. Within seconds, there were three new trees blocking my way that simply grew up out of seemingly nothing. 

“Oh,” I snapped under my breath, “we’re playing that way, huh?” With that, I snapped my staff down, using a burst to launch myself into the air. I went straight toward the nearest tree. It was tempting to use my wood-traveling power, but given the warning against possessing people who were infected by Kwur, I really had no idea what traveling through one of his plants would be like. Too risky. 

Instead, I landed feet first on one of the branches, my staff already converted into its bow form. Drawing back an energy arrow, I quickly muttered a word to activate one of the spells Shyel had taught me. It turned my blue-ish arrow red. When I released it, the energy shot out, colliding with the thickest set of bushes and trees in my path before exploding into a burst of red-hot fire. 

Before the plants could grow back, I launched myself that way, sailing through the opening before rolling as I hit the ground. More plants. More plants everywhere, and none of them the actual one I was looking for. But the stone said to keep going that way, so I did. I raced through the thick jungle, avoiding more and more bushes and trees that kept growing in my path to slow me down. 

A figure appeared from behind one of the trees, gun raised. I didn’t even hesitate before snapping my staff out to slam into the side of his head. Another two emerged from a bush, and I hit them with an energy-arrow that knocked them flying before they could take aim. Kwur was getting desperate.

Which meant I was getting close. 

There! I saw another tunnel opening on the opposite side of the platform from where Kwur had taken us. That had to be it. Even as I saw it, an enormous, thick tree sprang up to block the tunnel. But I didn’t care. A simple redwood wasn’t going to stop me from getting where I needed to go. Not now. 

More people were emerging to stop me, but I ignored them aside from tapping my staff against the ground as I ran, leaving a few concussive mines for them. Most of my focus was on that tree, even as plants sprang up all around me. One tree burst out of the ground right at my feet, making me stumble and nearly lose my footing before catching myself. 

But I kept going. Just before reaching the tree, I sent a cloud of sand ahead. But this wasn’t just any sand. It was super-heated. The sand itself was protected from turning to glass because it gave off heat rather than being hot itself. I wasn’t sure how that worked, exactly, but it did. Somehow. 

In any case, the super-heated sand cut through the tree in a brief few seconds. As it fell, more were growing into its place, branches twisting around like hands reaching out to grab me. But I used that open moment to dive through the opening, rolling as I ended up in an open cavern. 

There. There was a single pine tree sitting in the middle of this cavern, attended by warming lamps and a sprinkler system keeping it warm and damp. 

Unfortunately, before I could even recover from my dive, something caught me by the arm. It was a thick root growing from the wall. The root yanked me back against the wall, before half a dozen more popped out and secured me there. I couldn’t even budge. 

“It’s too bad.” The new voice came from the far corner of the cavern, before an emaciated-looking figure stepped into view. It was a human (or looked human anyway, and didn’t set off my Heretic-sense) man who looked like he was barely this side of dead. “We could have had so much fun together. But the shows will go on without you. Still, unfortunate.” 

He paused then, head tilting a little. “Why are you smiling?” 

“Because you lost,” I informed him. “You let me find your heart right there.” As much as I could from my pinned position with a dozen different roots holding me in place, I nodded toward the tree. The one the enchanted stone, now bright red, had led me to. 

The emaciated-man looked that way, then turned back and shook his head. “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to do anything about that now. And your companions are already being brought into line.” 

“See, a lot of people have thought that they had me under control,” I retorted. “You think you’re the first? Hardly. They always get a little surprise. Heretics have super powers, you know.” 

“No powers that will let you get out of this,” he noted. “We know what you are capable of.” 

My eyes narrowed. “Buddy, you have no idea what I’m capable of.” 

After letting that settle, I turned my tone conversational then. “See, awhile back, I picked up a little power from something called a Blemmye. Long story short, it lets me know exactly where places I know about are, in relation to where I am. Like, right now I know the Vestil casino is exactly sixteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven feet north-north-east of here. Or three point two miles. I know exactly how far this place is from my old house, or my elementary school. I know exactly how far we are from our new base.” 

“Curious, how exactly does that help you now, in this position?” the thin figure asked. As he said it, a couple more roots crept out of the ground to hold me even tighter, just in case.

“Three reasons,” I replied slowly. “First, because I know exactly where something else is. Last spring, a few friends and I traveled on a prototype ship to get back to Earth from Seosten space. Some of our people have been spending months fixing that thing up to get the cloaking device working, and now it’s hovering above Vegas. It’s been waiting up there. 

“Two, you may think you’re close to people when you infect them, but my little sister is closer to me than you’ll ever understand. Right now, she’s on that ship. 

“And three, the fact that I know exactly where things are down to the inch works both ways. It means I know where I am exactly in relation to where they are. Or, in this case, where a certain little tree is, exactly sixty-three feet and seven inches east of me.” 

As I said it, dawning comprehension appeared on the Kwur-infested man’s face, and he spun that way. But it was too late. My eyes snapped shut, as a terrifying, deafening, blinding flash suddenly filled the cavern. 

The six-foot wide laser from the ship-mounted cannon tore through the pavement, the ground underneath, blew into the cavern itself, and obliterated Kwur’s special tree. 

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Causality And Casualty 5-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So here we were. Everyone else was busy with their own situations, leaving Sands, Sarah, Miranda, and me to trudge our way through the secret subway tunnels under Las Vegas. And we weren’t even using our own bodies for it. No, we had to use our Theriangelos animals because those same tunnels were filled with plants that may or may not turn our normal selves into crazy mass-murdering monsters. Four of us were down here looking for the largest concentration of Kwur’s consciousness, so we could destroy it and get the hell out of here.

We also couldn’t bring most of our regular powers into this. I’d learned to channel some of my abilities through Marian, thanks to Shyel. And the other three had a couple gifts of their own they managed to use through practice. But for the most part, what we could do was very limited. 

Long story short, this was going to be a pretty… interesting time, particularly if Kwur had as many people guarding his main consciousness as I was pretty sure he did. Four of us, limited powers, using animal bodies, against an evil plant monster and all his minions. Fan-damn-tastic. 

There were so many plants in here, trees, bushes, flowers, vines crawling up the walls, and more, that it was like moving through a very narrow jungle. But there were at least a couple things in our favor. Firstly, we knew for a fact that while Kwur was aware enough to know we were somewhere around his plants, he didn’t know exactly where. Those guys from before hadn’t been able to pinpoint my location. I had the feeling it was sort of like a human having a tiny germ inside their body. They might feel the effects of it being there, but narrowing down its exact location was harder. He was generally aware that we existed, but he didn’t have enough of his consciousness in these plants to point his people to a specific spot, thankfully. 

And beyond that, the other positive was that between my fox and Miranda’s raven, we could pretty easily scout ahead without giving away our position. The two of us stayed close to the top of the trees and the ceiling of the tunnel as we took turns, swapping between scouting ahead and watching behind just in case a group tried to sneak up behind us. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino and Sarah’s crocodile moved over the ground. They were the muscle, while Randi and I were the eyes and ears, alert to the point of paranoia as we all moved together through the tunnel. 

And yet, even with that level of alertness, we were still almost taken by surprise. I had Marian perched at the top of a tree, carefully watching the silent, vegetation-filled tunnel ahead for any sign of movement ahead of us. Seeing nothing, I was about to jump to the next tree, when something made me stop. I wasn’t sure what it was, aside from some vague feeling. I hesitated for an extra couple of seconds, asking myself what exactly had made me freeze like that. 

There. Ahead and a bit to the right, near the ceiling of the tunnel. A portal opened, and a lithe, thin figure dropped out of it before catching themselves on the branch of the tree. The figure was humanoid, but with an extra leg on each side and a very long neck with a small, ball-shaped head on the end of it. They were also carrying a very long rifle, already setting themselves up with it from their perch as they used the scope to scan the ground. 

Stay back, I quickly warned the others. Sniper in the trees. Maybe more than one, they’re really quiet and came through a portal, so there might be more in other spots. I’ll deal with this one. 

Right, ‘deal with this one.’ I was glad my telepathic voice sounded so damn confident. Now all I had to do was actually follow through. Not to mention doing it without letting Marian ‘die’, and hopefully without alerting any other snipers that may be in the area that they were under attack.

To that end, I quickly shifted Marian’s colors to match the wall of the tunnel before hopping over to the very small, decorative bar near the ceiling. Keeping my eyes on the sniper, who was panning his gun from one side of the tunnel to the other, I thought about what powers I had access to in this form. It took a lot of practice and effort to channel Heretic-gained abilities through the Theriangelos. At that point, I was able to use my shifting power to change Marian’s colors, the imbuing power to use instant spells, my enhanced dexterity, agility, and reflexes making the fox even more of a crazy acrobat, some of the enhanced strength making her stronger than she should be for her size, my ‘sense all objects around me’ power, and the ability to copy any sound I heard into an object and make that object produce that sound. 

So I was a tiny fox who was faster, stronger, and more agile than she should be, who could instantly create images and words (and thus spells) with a touch, sense all objects around me, change my colors like a chameleon, and make anything I touched produce any sound I heard.

Oh, and I had that whole ‘see through stealth powers and camouflage’ ability I’d gotten from the Pantler back in Seosten space. Which, come to think of it, was probably how I saw this sniper guy to begin with. 

So, I didn’t have anything too flashy. I didn’t have my weapon, and I was in the body of a tiny fox. But I could deal with that. I could take this guy down before he knew what hit him. Hopefully.

Moving slowly along that bar, resisting the urge to rush and give away my position, I kept my eyes focused on that sniper. He was still totally focused through the scope, intent on waiting for our group to blunder into his line of fire. He had no idea I was there, gradually getting closer.

Orrrrr maybe he did. Suddenly, the figure snapped that gun up to point directly at me. Only the fact that I’d been paying so much attention, combined with those enhanced reflexes, saved Marian from being blown to pieces. The instant the barrel was pointed my way, I lunged sideways off the bar. Behind me, a chunk of the wall about as wide around as Marian’s entire body was blown apart by some kind of totally silent and invisible shot. It was like a blast of air or kinetic force or something. Whatever, it was strong enough that one hit would have completely obliterated my fox. So avoiding being hit was probably a pretty good idea right now. 

Cursing frantically in my head (and probably aloud back with my body), I sent Marian lunging from one branch to the next, leaping quickly through several trees while Mr. Sniper kept shooting, totally destroying every branch an instant after my tiny paws left it. I barely had time to focus on evading the next shot, let alone try to figure out how to get closer to the bastard. It took everything I had just to keep Marian ‘alive’ through those brief handful of seconds (which felt like an eternity). I dropped to the lower bushes, but it didn’t help. I couldn’t stay still for a single second, or the next shot would have destroyed my Theriangelos. Which wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would still be a pain in the ass to create a new one and meet up with the others. Especially in a situation like this, where every second counted, considering the rest of our people in Vegas were in the middle of their own battles to take out Kwur. 

Somewhere in the midst of that, the shots abruptly stopped. It took me a moment to realize that it had been a hot second since the last invisible blast had blown apart part of the ground where my furry butt had been an instant earlier. Even then, I figured it was a trick or he was just taking more careful aim. That was, until Miranda’s silent telepathic voice reached me. Got him, Flick. 

Stopping short, I blinked up that way. Sure enough, the sniper was stretched out unconscious across the high branch. His rifle was dangling from another part of the tree lower down where it had fallen. And Miranda herself, or her raven anyway, was perched beside the man. You make a really good distraction, you know? Her voice was very slightly teasing. 

Right, distraction, I muttered silently. That’s totally what I was going for. 

After reporting to Sands and Sarah that the first threat was taken care of, Miranda and I joined up at the top of that tree (I took it a bit slower to catch my breath from the panicked rush of adrenaline that those few moments of being shot at had been), watching for any more snipers. 

There were none immediately in view, and we called for the other two to move forward. Then the two of us kept going. This time, Miranda and I stayed together. If there were people ready to ambush us, we really needed both of us to deal with them. That much had just been proven. 

We moved back and forth as a pair, checking behind our small group, then ahead. A couple times we found more snipers waiting, but we dealt with them. Mostly by Miranda or me causing a distraction, before the other would move up behind the would-be ambush to knock them off their perches to the ground below. There, Sarah, whose crocodile form was almost as stealthy as the two of us despite being much larger, would make sure they weren’t in any shape to fight.

It was slow-going, to say the least. But it was also the best shot we had at making our way through these tunnels without ending up with our Theriangelos blasted apart. Which wouldn’t exactly be useful as far as reaching the main part of Kwur (that wasn’t already in the prison) and burning him went. 

Finally, Miranda and I both stopped. Ahead, the tunnel opened up into what looked like another station. And there were definite defenses there. The snipers spread through the trees may have been fairly subtle up to that point, but this was anything but subtle. Six literal turrets with dual-linked cannons that looked like they had come off an actual starship were set up along the entrance into the station, facing out into the tunnel toward us. They were each manned by a figure who watched the small jungle intently. What I could see of the station beyond them was even more filled with plants than the rest of these tunnels had been, the vegetation incredibly thick. I couldn’t see all the way through it to where the opposite tunnel was, but I had no doubt that they had cannons facing that way too. 

Yeah, it may have been a stretch, but I was pretty sure this was the spot. A guess that was proven as the enchanted stone hung around Randi’s raven gave off a firm, steady glow. It wasn’t flickering anymore. Whatever else was in that station, it was definitely where Kwur’s strongest presence in Vegas was. Now we just had to do something with it. Because not only were those cannons enough on their own to totally destroy each and every one of us (probably with one shot), but they undoubtedly weren’t the only defenses in this place. Kwur knew we were in the area. He knew we were looking for him, and he’d had time to prepare. Our only real saving grace here was that all those other groups were hitting more places where he had extended other parts of himself. Which might, maybe stretch his resources too thin. Even then, he’d have plenty of defenses if this really was his main… self here in the city (dealing with a being who could stretch himself through millions of plants and had multiple levels of consciousness was really complicated to even think about).

You ever miss being kids in school, investigating silly things? Miranda asked while the two of us stared at those turrets and tried to think of a way past them. 

Hey, a lot of that stuff was totally important, I retorted. 

Sure, Randi agreed. But we never had to deal with giant laser cannon turrets while we were working out the case of the missing crate of chocolate milk. 

Smiling inwardly despite myself at that particular memory, I replied, And just like Alison Kotters, Kwur’s gonna get exactly what’s coming to him. There was a brief pause before I added thoughtfully, Maybe not the head covered in sour milk, but hey, the day is young. 

Passing information about what we could see back to Sands and Sarah, the four of us held a brief conversation about what we could do. In the end, we went with the best plan we could come up with. Which amounted to me sneaking my way up to the turrets and using magic to secretly disable them while Randi provided overwatch support with her literal bird’s-eye view, letting me know when it was safe to move and when to remain still. Once the turrets were down, the four of us would crash the party inside the station, find the main plant, and make sure it burned.

Okay, so, stealth. I could do this. Never mind that only a few minutes earlier, that sniper had seen me. This was different. These guys were talking to each other, chatting back and forth while manning their cannons without scopes. And I had Miranda watching to tell me when it was safe to move. I would be okay. I could absolutely, definitely do this. 

Repeating that to myself as I crept as carefully and silently as possible through the underbrush, I kept to the corner of the tunnel. Camouflaging Marian with the same colors as the bushes she was moving through, I froze whenever Randi said to, not moving again until she gave the word. Bit by bit, inch by inch, I moved closer to the cannons.

Eventually, I was close enough to hear the men’s conversation. They were fairly tense, but chatting about some ball game or something. I wasn’t sure. The point was, from the sound of their voices, they were afraid of something. But whether that something was more our group, or the thing they were guarding, I wasn’t sure. Hell, I wasn’t sure how much these guys were actually themselves and not mind-controlled. Though the fact that they were chatting about sports implied there were still at least some of their own thoughts. 

Whatever, if we got through this and managed to destroy the Vegas portion of Kwur, I’d make sure to ask these guys what it was like. But for now, I had to make this work. So I kept moving whenever it was safe, inching my way up to the edge of the first turret. I was basically right under the wooden platform that the guy manning the turret was standing on. Peeking up, I could see him, an orc figure standing there, leaning against his enormous weapon while chatting about someone or something covering a spread. 

Carefully, I stuck one paw up through the cracks in the platform. Finding the bottom of the starship turret, I focused on one of the spells that Shyel had taught me. Essentially, it was a ‘jamming’ spell that would prevent any electronic equipment it was applied to from working for a short time. Hopefully, that would be long enough for all of us to get through. 

I didn’t activate the spell just yet, of course. Instead, I worked my way down through the line of turrets, carefully reaching through the gaps in the platforms with Marian’s tiny paw to apply it to each of the weapons in turn. 

Finally, they were all marked. I crouched in the corner, still hidden. You guys ready for this? 

Born ready, came Sands’ reply. I didn’t know exactly where she was, but she and Sarah had both moved into position and were apparently just out of sight. Miranda was still high above, hidden at the top of one of those trees. 

Counting down from five, I hit zero and activated the spell. At the exact same time, there was a sudden thunderous crash as one of the trees literally fell over when Sands’ rhino ran right over and through it. She tore through the entire tree like it wasn’t even there, charging directly at the line of turrets. 

Obviously, the guys manning those turrets reacted. First they laughed. But that laughter turned to confusion as none of their weapons worked. Soon, they were cursing out loud, just as the rhino (its strength and speed temporarily raised by Sands’ Seosten-gained boost ability) slammed into the middle turret. The guard there went flying with a scream, while Sands demolished that weapon, then turned to slam her horn into the one to the left. Meanwhile, Sarah, whose crocodile was perched on the rhino’s back, leapt off and crashed into the guard to the right. 

I made my move then, quickly lunging up to climb the leg of the man on the far left turret, using the same electrical-shock spell I’d used on the guy in the first station to put him down. On the far end of the line of turrets, Miranda’s raven was dealing with the last guy. 

We were through. The four of us basically blew right past these guards, rushing into the jungle-filled station. 

Then all four of us stopped short. Because a man was standing there between two trees. He was alone, and recognizable. It was the guy from the painting in the casino. The one who had apparently posed as a doctor to help Dakota seal Kwur’s flower away, or tried to. Julius Harn, that was his name. He was just standing there, as if he was waiting for us. 

“Oh, hello, girls!” the man called pleasantly as we came up short. “It’s so nice to meet you face to face. Or… well, I suppose not quite. Let’s try that again.” 

With that, he snapped his fingers. As he did so, I felt a sudden twisting sensation. My whole body shook, bile rose in my throat, and then I was there. My real self was there. I was sprawled across the ground at the base of the grass-covered subway tracks in my real physical body. Around me, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were there too. Focusing briefly, I could see our new Alter friends up above staring at Marian and the other animals in confusion. He’d used some kind of… spell or power or something to swap our bodies, putting our real selves where the Theriangelos were and vice versa. 

The four of us scrambled to our feet, while Julius continued. “Isn’t that better?” 

No. No, it was definitely not better. The bushes, the plants, they were all around us. Even at minor strength, how long would it take them to completely leave us mindless as Kwur’s emotional manipulation took over? How long did we have? Minutes? Seconds? Far too short to get anywhere. The entire tunnel system was filled with these plants. And besides, we still had to destroy Kwur. 

Destroy Kwur? No, why would we do that? That was silly. Kwur was our friend. Why would we try to burn our friend? He was the most helpful friend I had, the best friend any of us had. He was going to help me deal with Fossor. He’d gone out of his way to make sure we could–

“Flick!” The voice suddenly cut through all the bullshit in my head in that second, and my gaze jerked just in time to see a blur of motion as a figure rushed right up to me. Something grabbed my arm, then a small pill was shoved into my mouth and my head was snapped backward to make me swallow it. The next thing I knew, my thoughts cleared up. 

Asenath. It was Asenath. She gave me a quick wink, then blurred her way to Sands. Another super-fast figure was with her, already shoving a pill into Miranda’s mouth. It was Bobbi. The two of them made all of us swallow those pills, and our minds cleared up. 

Shiori was there too. She and Columbus came rushing out of the same jungle the four of us had just passed through. Moving right to me, Shiori quickly blurted, “Are you okay?! The Gehenna people, they came through with the pills. They’re supposed to protect from…” 

She trailed off then, staring at the man who had greeted us. Asenath had already stepped over in front of us, with Columbus and Bobbi a bit behind her. 

If he was intimidated by facing the eight of us, or even annoyed that we suddenly had protection from Kwur’s powers, Julius Harn (however much of him was really Harn and not just Kwur) didn’t show it. Instead, he smiled broadly, arms outstretched as though he could just hug all of us at once. “What wonderful timing! I’m so glad you all got the invitation!” 

“Invitation?” Asenath echoed, her voice snarl. “How about I invite you to tell me where our mother is, before I–” 

“Senny,” a new voice interrupted. “Don’t be rude, dear.” With those words, Jiao appeared. She came from the thick clump of trees nearby, moving to stand next to Harn with a totally fake, plastered-on smile. Like a pod person. 

“After all, our host has gone to such lengths to bring us all together. The least we can do is be polite.”

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Perennial Potentate 4-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The portal took our group out to an old airfield in the middle of nowhere. We were met by a small army of Alters of all shapes and sizes, who were heavily armed and very clearly nervous about our presence. None of them looked happy that we were there. Our group stayed as still and non-threatening as possible, for whatever good it did, while Paul stepped over there and had a brief, yet clearly somewhat heated discussion with the futuristic metal-armored canine-humanoid figure who was apparently this group’s leader. While that was going on, Nuliajuk spoke quietly.

“They are some of the city’s guards for our time here in this place. They call themselves Strangers. And yes, that is a deliberate appropriation of the term your people use for all non-humans. They wear it as a point of pride, just as their entire town has dubbed itself Strangefield. It is entirely intentional.”

She was clearly making no attempt to hide what she was saying to us, because I saw several of the armed soldiers look that way at her words. A couple of them nodded and one stared right at me. He looked like a living squid with armored plating and a ring of eyes surrounding his entire head. Three of those eyes were focused solely on me, and I literally felt his determination. If we ended up being a threat to his home or his people, he would stop us, no matter what that cost him. 

Right, I had the feeling this guy had some kind of ability to project his emotions or his general… thoughts or something to that effect. Maybe that was how he communicated? Either way, I simply gave him a slight nod, hoping that he would get the point. We weren’t there for a fight. Okay, well, we were. But not a fight with him or his people. We weren’t there to attack Strangefield. We were there to get the missing kids and Jiao and get out of there, that was it.

Finally, Paul stepped back and the armored canine-like figure (he didn’t really look like a werewolf, more like an anthropomorphic doberman pinscher) cleared his throat before looking at us. “Right then! Here’s the deal,” he bellowed in a commanding voice. “You all are here to talk to those… outsiders north of town. You are not here to hunt or kill any of ours. You understand that?”

Outsiders north of town? These… Kotter people were outsiders? Hadn’t Oberon said that they were important within the town? I supposed the people being important in the town didn’t mean they lived there, or that they were actually part of it, or… Huh. Now I was even more confused about what was going on. 

The man continued. “You will be escorted everywhere you go, and if any of you try to pull anything, you will regret it. Our people are under our protection. We won’t put up with any bullshit!  I don’t care what you think you’re doing or who you see. If they’re not your targets here, you leave them alone, period.” 

Scanning the group with a hard, piercing gaze, he belatedly introduced himself once no one argued. “My name is Decker. All these people here, they’re my people. Any of you mess with them, and you’re going to mess with me. Now if we all understand that, we can take you up to the outpost.” 

Outpost. Outpost of what? For what? 

Asenath took the lead, stepping forward as she spoke in a calm voice. “They understand. We understand. No one here wants any kind of war with Canada, or with Strangefield. We just want to find the children for Las Vegas to prevent a war there, and my mother. That’s all. These aren’t the same kind of Bosch Heretics that you or your people are accustomed to dealing with.” 

“Oh, we know exactly what kind of Heretics they are,” Decker assured her. “Believe me, we’ve had the experience. A few of our people, and many more our ancestors, fought alongside humans before the Bystander Effect existed. They had an entire civilization together. Then the Bystander Effect came and erased all of that. It came and suddenly our ancestors were forgotten or hunted. Our families were torn apart and destroyed. For centuries it was like that. Then the first Rebellion came and our people were told things would be different. Again, we fought alongside the humans. We did everything we could to make this world better for everyone. We trusted the humans again. And once more, their memories of us were erased. We were taken from their minds yet again, our alliance broken and some of us killed in the process. Many of our own memories of the rebellion were destroyed until so very recently. So why would we follow such things a third time? Why would we open ourselves to yet another opportunity for the humans to have their memories erased and make us their enemies again? We have all been slapped in the face more than enough, thank you very much. We are of no mind to extend ourselves again. Our people will not take that kind of risk with humans who will only forget us, who will only turn on us. You can do your business here, then leave. We will have none of your trouble.” 

There was a hardness to his voice, but more than that. There was also pain and regret. It was the voice of someone who had been hurt too many times to risk being hurt again. He had definitely been part of at least this last rebellion, my mother’s rebellion, and had been hurt when it was erased. I wondered if my mother had known him. Probably. God, it was so easy to forget or not even think about what it must have been like for people living through the creation of the Bystander Effect, or the Rebellion Eraser. No wonder this guy, and his people, were so jaded. 

Yeah, I couldn’t blame him for any of what he said or felt. So, I just stayed quiet while Asenath replied, “You’re right, there’s a lot of pain involved in that entire situation. But that’s not what we’re here about now. Do you know anything about the one called Azlee Ren Kotter?”  

For a moment, the man didn’t answer. I could see a few of his people look at one another in a way that made it clear they recognized at least part of the name, which made sense given what we had heard. There was a general, quiet murmur before Decker quieted them with a glance. Then he turned back and pointed to the hangar nearby. “Let’s go,” he ordered. “We can discuss the situation on the way. As I said, we’ll take you to the outpost and you can have all the Kotters you need. The sooner all of this is over, the sooner you can all leave this place.” 

Haiden agreed. “He’s right, let’s go.” The man gave us all a slight nod of encouragement, his hand gently squeezing Tristan’s shoulder before he started to move. “There’ll be time to talk.” 

As we all walked together to the dusty and very clearly broken down hangar, I could see December talking quietly to Tabbris. The two of them had their heads close together, and there was a strange expression on December’s face. I couldn’t read it very well from where I was, but somehow  I had the distinct impression that she wasn’t happy about something. I was going to have to ask my little sister about that later, if it was something she could actually talk about.  

Either way, we reached the hangar, where the bus was parked. It looked like any old bus I had ever seen. Nothing about it stood out. Which may have been the point. As a group, we filed onto the bus. Even Babe joined us, taking up a spot near the rear where a couple rows of seats had been removed. We were also accompanied by a dozen of our armed escorts, who took places in the back and front, leaving us to sit in the middle between both groups. Yeah, they weren’t taking any chances. 

Shiori and I sat next to each other. I let her have the window, glancing across the aisle to where Miranda was sitting with April. “Boy, Randi, this sure is some field trip, huh?” I teased. 

Snorting, the other girl glanced to me before noting, “Let’s just hope it goes better than the one we took to that soda factory. I don’t think these people would react as well as those ones did.” 

With a huff, I insisted, “I still say that guy looked really shifty and if we hadn’t gotten lost when we followed him, we totally would’ve blown that whole thing wide open. But uhh, yeah, let’s not wander off by ourselves this time. It’d definitely go a lot worse. And they might still call my dad.”  

Leaning up from the seat behind Shiori and me, Jason curiously asked, “So, uhh, is that the kind of story the whole class can hear about?” He grinned. “Because it sounds pretty interesting.”  

Exchanging a brief glance with Miranda, I shrugged. “Maybe we’ll tell you about it sometime. Right now, we should probably focus on how we’re going to find this Azlee. Whoever they are.” 

As though in response to that, the bus started moving. I could see Haiden, Paul, and that Decker guy standing at the front, next to the driver (a short, totally white pudgy guy who looked a bit like the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with a trucker’s cap and flannel shirt). The three of them were clearly in the middle of a conversation, occasionally glancing our way before returning to it. Obviously, it had to do with this whole outpost thing and the Kotter situation. Was Decker telling them that we had to leave the Kotters alone? Or that going after them was dangerous? Did he know who Azlee was in relation to the rest of the Kotters? Did–yeah, I didn’t know. I was just sitting there speculating wildly while they had their own private conversation. 

I wasn’t the best at sitting patiently while adults had secrets around me. It just wasn’t my thing. 

Finally, the other two sat down and Decker turned to face the rest of us. His hard gaze passed over mine before he spoke. “Okay, now that we have a minute, you should all know that you need to tread very carefully when it comes to the Kotters. This is not a group that you can run in demanding answers from. They’re not a group you can push around.” He held a hand up to stop any objections. “I know, you don’t feel like you’re doing that now. And you’re not. I understand, believe me. Sorry if I sound gruff about all this. You’re playing nice with us. Fair enough. How much of that is because of the king and how much is your choice, we’ll see. But the point is that even if the king didn’t exist, you would need to be careful with these people. They aren’t exactly from this place. And by this place, I mean Earth.”

From where she was sitting beside Bobbi, Asenath asked carefully, “That’s not exactly a rare situation, so why do you feel the need to point out that the Kotter family isn’t Earth-native?” 

“Because they aren’t a family,” the man replied coolly. “Kotter isn’t a family name. It’s a title, used within a certain organization. A title given to some people who work for this organization. And as an organization, they don’t react well to outsiders making any demands of them. They’re very… particular about their secrets, let’s say.” 

After letting that sink in, he continued with, “To that end, at their request, we keep their existence here very quiet. To almost anyone in the town itself, they would appear to be simple shut-ins. King Oberon is aware of them, of course, though he leaves them to their own devices for the most part, because of the service they provide.” 

My head shook quickly as I blurted, “What kind of service do they provide, then? What is this organization and what are they doing here on Earth that’s so important? Who are they, exactly?”

“We have made certain promises, enforced by magic, that prevent us from saying too much about who they are,” he replied. “It’s better if you talk to them yourselves to get your answers. With any luck, they will explain the situation adequately and you will be able to leave satisfied.” 

“Not without the kids and my mother, we won’t,” Asenath informed him. “Whoever this group is, whatever they’re up to, they have no right to start a war in Las Vegas by abducting children.” 

“I don’t believe they–” In mid-sentence, Decker paused. Then he shook his head, exhaling in a low sigh. “Sorry, you’ll have to see for yourself when we get there. There’s just some things that they are going to have to explain. I know how frustrating that is, believe me. But it is what it is.” 

“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Vanessa asked from the seat ahead of Shiori and me. “Anything you can say to help prepare us for talking to these people when we get there?”    

Decker seemed to consider that for a moment before giving a short nod. “I can tell you that these are hard people, but generally not bad ones. They make very difficult decisions for what they see as the ultimate good of the universe and every person in it. Some of them are a bit too rough, that’s for sure. It’s inevitable in their work. Just keep in mind, when you find out the truth, what they’re trying to do and what kind of consequences there would be if they screwed it up.”

Well, those words sure led to a lot of questions. I had no idea what he could actually be talking about, what kind of group this was. There were a ton of possibilities swirling through my head, but we just didn’t know enough. One thing had become increasingly clear ever since we went to Vegas, however. And it was even more clear now. This absolutely was not a normal kidnapping.

We also still had a couple hours ride before we would get to our destination. So, I sat back and chatted with the others. Shiori eventually leaned her head against my shoulder and fell asleep. I put an arm around her, gazed out the window at the beautiful Canadian wilderness we were driving through, and tried to keep myself calm for the inevitable… excitement that was probably coming. 

Finally, we reached Strangefield itself.  and boy was it aptly named. I had to wake up Shiori so she could see for herself. The whole city was built up into and around a canyon between two tall mountains. The buildings were a mix of styles from the past several thousand years. Some were modern, others look like they had come out of the old Revolutionary War times, a few were essentially Victorian or even older. I saw a couple buildings that looked as though they had been directly transferred over from medieval times. And more, different structures from every conceivable time period, all bunched up together as if they’d been transported directly here from wherever they had begun their existence. 

Then there were the futuristic buildings. Tall structures of gleaming metal and glass in fantastic shapes. A few of them, I belatedly realized, were actually ships. They were literal spaceships that had been parked and left as buildings, with fences and yards put up around them. 

“Holy shit,” I heard Columbus murmur from his seat with Twister, “this place is amazing. No wonder they have it all the way out here where no one will bother them. They’ve got the King to keep Heretics out, and they keep the city far from Bystanders so no one has to be nervous.”  

“Yes,” Decker confirmed with a glance. “That is the point. And it’s why you will do your business here and leave. Our people have no desire to spend any more time than they have to around humans who will inevitably forget any kind of alliance we have and turn to murder yet again.” 

Yeah, that one hurt. Flinching, I glanced back out the window. Not only was there a totally wild assortment of buildings, but there were plenty of people too. I could see dozens of figures all going about their ordinary lives. They were all Alters. An entire Alter city just existed up here far away from humans. They were all people who had been hurt and betrayed in the past thanks to memory alteration, people who had decided to give up on getting along with humans and simply created their own town, their own place to live where they could be safe and not killed or enslaved. It was like Vegas, or Wonderland, but on a much bigger scale than either of those. 

A few people glanced up at the bus as we passed, but none seemed to react much. I had the distinct feeling they didn’t know who or what was on it. The windows appeared to be pretty heavily tinted, probably for this very purpose. If Decker had his way, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t ever directly interact with any citizens of his town. They’d never know we were there.

Winding our way through with the town, we eventually passed to the other side of it, and traveled for another fifteen minutes out of the canyon before finding ourselves at the base of a hill surrounded by a massively high metal wall and gate. Beyond the wall, a road led up the hill toward a black obelisk-like building. There were turrets positioned along the wall, making it very clear that whoever lived in the obelisk did not exactly invite many visitors. 

The bus only stopped for a few seconds before part of the wall slid aside. Whoever was in there had obviously been waiting for us. Once the gate was open, the bus pulled through and continued up the hill. Behind us, the wall sealed itself once more. 

At the top of the hill was a small parking lot, with a couple other cars and one rather spiffy looking spaceship the same size as our bus. As we parked, Decker gave one last look, his voice gruff. “Just remember what I said. Keep yourselves under control.” 

The door opened and he climbed off. The armed escorts who were in front of us joined him, and we followed, with the rest of the escorts picking up the rear. All of us stepped down from the bus, forming a loose group in front of the base of the obelisk building. Up close, the place still seemed to have no windows or doors. It just looked like a black version of the Washington Monument.

There was a man there, I realized a moment later. He had been waiting in the shadows of the building, before finally stepping out into view. He had dark blue skin, somewhat reptilian with very smooth scales, and yellow, vertically-pupiled eyes like a cat or a snake. He also wore dark body armor, with a pistol of some kind strapped to one side of his waist and what appeared to be something similar to the laser swords I’d seen the Seosten use attached to the other side. 

“Good day,” he spoke smoothly once we had all noticed him. “I speak for our people. I am called many names on many worlds. Here, I am most known as Prelate. Prelate Kotter. I have been told that you seek business with one of our guards.”

Haiden frowned. “Guards? Guarding what?” 

“Many things,” came the reply, “including Kwur, the vile creature who, in an attempt to escape our facility, has caused the very situation which brings you to our doors. You see, we are a prison. More specifically, what you see here is but one simple outpost of a prison organization which exists throughout the universe. An outpost that has been established here on this world for several reasons.” 

He looked directly to me then, his gaze centering on mine. “Such as the recapture of the escaped prisoner Thirty-Four. 

“Or as you, Miss Chambers in particular, know him… Fossor.”

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All-Out 3-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Of all the places in the world, I can’t believe they went to Canada.” As she spoke, Miranda (there was only one of her right now) faced the window of the conference room back in the hotel. The others had caught up in a van and gave us a ride back here as we explained what our captive had said. Now we were sitting back here talking some more while the casino owners did their thing to try to get more information out of him. I really didn’t envy that guy. But I also didn’t pity him that much, especially with the whole princess and now other children being missing thing. Not to mention Senny and Shiori’s mother. It had been all we could do to stop Asenath from ripping the guy apart to find out if any answers were written on his lungs or kidneys. 

We, those of us in the conference room at the moment, consisted of Miranda, Shiori, Asenath, Bobbi, Tabbris, December, and me. The others were apparently on their way with Haiden, having gone through some kind of ordeal of their own that I hadn’t caught the details of. 

Standing up from the chair where I had been resting for a minute, I demanded, ”Okay, seriously. What the hell is the thing with Canada? Everyone keeps hinting about it and talking around it. I know there’s some guy that calls himself a king or something up there and people are afraid to piss him off. What’s the deal? Who is he? Why is he so strong? What is everyone so afraid of when it comes to him?”

December quickly piped up with, “Sometimesbeingafraid…  isasmartthing… likebeingafraidofjumping…. intoalivevolcano. That’sprettysmart… andyou’dprobablygetfurther… bypunchingthelava… thanyou’dgetby… tryingtotelltheCanadaking… todosomethinghedoesn’t… wanttodo.”

Asenath spoke up. “Not all of us are afraid. Most of us just have a healthy respect for him, and for Canada in general. It’s mostly Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics that have the problem. And Seosten, apparently. He generally doesn’t like you people very much, mostly because they kept trying to find new ways to invade his territory. Canada is right there, after all. They were trying to expand that way, and didn’t exactly take no for an answer. At least until he killed off a couple Committee members.”

My eyes widened, but before I could say anything to that, Shiori beat me to the punch. “Whoa, whoa, wait, wait! Now you’re saying that he’s actually killed Committee members? Like, multiple ones in a single fight?”

Miranda put in, “And at least one Victor, from what I heard. Yeah, they have to go through all these special treaties and things to visit that place, and people who come from there have a whole list of rules they have to follow about going back-and-forth. He’s pretty particular.”

Shaking my head, I glanced toward Tabbris briefly before asking, “But how is he so strong? Who is he? What is he? The answer to that keeps getting pushed off, but I’d say it’s pretty damn relevant right now. Is he working with these kidnappers? Do we need to worry about facing off with somebody that could beat multiple Committee members at once? Because that’s just not going to happen. I know we’ve pulled off some pretty impossible things, but… no. Just.. no. So what the hell is he?”

“It’s better if we talk with everyone at once,” Asenath informed me. “Columbus and the twins are going to want to know about him too. And I have no idea how much Jason knows. Haiden might be able to explain some too.”

There was a knock at the door then before anyone could say anything. But just as I started to think the other group was already here, Eldridge stepped in. “Okay, so that guy’s not saying anything else. They’re using truth spells and other things, but nothing is coming out. He’s got some kind of protection. Until it wears off, there’s not much else we can get from him. And trust me, they were thorough. And it turns out doing our best to keep a couple of those Siekun guys who jumped in to fight for him alive was a waste of time. They had some kind of suicide spell so they couldn’t be taken prisoner.”

He glanced toward Miranda and me then while adding, “Also, for the record, what you two pulled back there on the street was one of the most fucking amazing and crazy things I’ve ever seen in my very long life. I think part of me is supposed to tell you that it wasn’t really in keeping with the whole be subtle thing we were talking about, but fuck it. Plus, you did it for a good reason. And you even caught the guy, so two thumbs up. Just don’t be surprised if Bystanders start talking about people filming some crazy action movie here.”

Bobbi’s head nodded up and down quickly. “Yeah, when you guys jumped off the roof, I thought you were insane. Actually, you probably are a little insane.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “A lot of that was crazy. But we couldn’t let him get away.” Actually, it only really hit me afterward just how insane all that stuff had been. In the heat of the moment, I haven’t really had time to think about it. I just did it. Now? Now I felt weak in the knees just picturing half that stuff. 

“Definitely crazy,” Eldridge replied, “but you got the job done better than we could have expected. Unfortunately…”

“Canada,” Asenath finished for him. “What kind of relationship does Vegas have with the King?”

“Not as bad as the one that Boschers have with him,” he pointed out mildly. “It has its ups and downs, I guess. But that’s not the point. The point is that the King does not allow armed and violent incursion into his territory, which is what our people are going to want to do to get those kids back. And your mother,” he added with a glance toward Asenath and Shiori. “Between the ones who are gonna want to go charging in and the ones who will just completely write them off and try to find a way to arrange the entire new political situation in their favor with the princess gone, this whole thing just got even more complicated. Think of it like Britain nowadays sending an armed special forces team into Delaware. Yeah, they’re all on pretty good terms overall, but that shit just wouldn’t fly.”

“So we need to talk to the King himself,” I pointed out. “Explain what we’re doing, why we’re there, that kind of thing. We can’t just let them take those kids and Jiao. We still don’t even know why they went through all that to grab them. Why grab the witnesses later instead of picking everyone up right then? Did they realize that the kids saw something they shouldn’t have and they just didn’t know it? And why take Jiao at all? I don’t get it. But that’s the point, we need to find out. Which means we need to go to Canada. And from what you guys are saying, first we need to talk to this terrifying King guy and get permission to be there.”

“We need more than that,” Asenath announced reluctantly. I could tell how badly she wanted to go running off to find her mother. To say nothing of the fact that we were supposed to get information about where her father was out of all this. Still, she shook her head. “Canada’s a really big place. There’s no way the King is going to let us go traipsing around his entire country without something more to go on. We need a name or something.”

“Well,” Tristan’s voice spoke up as he and the others filed in through the door behind Eldridge, “how about if we give you three names?” Despite his light words, the boy looked like he’d been through the wringer. Bruises were slowly fading on his face, leading me to wonder just how bad they’d looked a few minutes earlier. His clothes were caked in mud and other things, and he had one whole side of his shirt that was ripped away. 

Seeing Columbus come through the door equally covered with mud and blood all over his face, his clothes ripped and torn and Amethyst hanging over his shoulder with what seemed like an exhausted expression on her small metal face, Shiori bolted up right and went that way. “What happened?!”

“I’m okay,” Columbus insisted. “Mostly thanks to Twister showing up at the right moment.” 

In response to that, a small brown mouse that had apparently been perched just behind Amethyst hopped down, transforming into the girl in question. “Hey,” she airily announced, “couldn’t let that guy finish carving up your pretty face, could I? He had it coming.” 

“What guy?” Shiori demanded, her eyes snapping back and forth between the Pooka girl and her own brother. “There was a bad guy?” 

“Several.” Haiden was the one who said that, as he came through the door with his daughter. “We ran into a bit of trouble. Some enterprising and morally dubious soul left a couple teleporters in the Akharu casino that let in a few loyalist Heretics.”

“What?!” I blurted, my eyes widening. “How did that happen? What the hell?“

“It wasn’t a full invasion.” Those words came from April. The red-haired Seosten girl was right behind Haiden. “It was simply a small group of Eden’s Garden Heretics who were told that they could attack the main vampire den inside Vegas by taking the portals that were provided. They didn’t know who provided the portals, only that they’d gotten that kind of information from them before and it paid off. Their benefactor always used a go-between.”

“It was a distraction,” Vanessa murmured. “And an assassination mission. Whoever sent those guys gave them a list of key people to kill to do the most damage possible. They had pictures and information about where they’d probably be, everything.”

Hearing all of that, Eldridge had gone even more pale. “Who… how many…”

“A few,” Haiden quietly admitted, his expression serious. “I’m sorry, it was a coordinated attack and we couldn’t save everyone. But… but most of the Heretics died. A couple escaped through new means. Not the same way they came in. That was closed off almost immediately. Your people believe it was intentional, that… that whoever left the teleportation spells to bring them in meant for them to be trapped there so they’d do as much damage as possible before being killed.” 

“And wouldn’t be able to tell the Vegas people anything about who put them up to it,” I muttered. 

Jason, who had been standing back in the doorway, rubbed the side of his head where a heavy bruise had formed. “Yeah, and let me tell you, they did not expect to find us there. I mean, Mr. Moon mostly. He really kicked their faces in.” 

“So they all died or escaped before you could get anything out of them about–” I started before catching myself. “Wait, no. How would you know for sure they were Eden’s Garden Heretics, or that they were working with someone else, unless you got something out of them. Plus, Tristan said something about three names. Did they–April?” 

The Seosten’s head tilted as she looked back to me before giving a single nod. Her voice was simple. “We were told to help. I helped.” 

“She possessed one of them and got as much information as she could,” Haiden translated. 

“And they weren’t working for your boss?” Miranda asked, watching April’s reaction about as closely as I was. 

“No,” the red-haired girl replied coolly. “Cahethal has no knowledge of this invasion attempt.” Pausing briefly, she amended, “At least, that is what she said when I asked. And I believe if she did, the attack would have been far more surgical in nature.” 

“Surgical, cuz she’s a scientist,” Shiori muttered, “I get it.” Despite her love of wordplay, she obviously didn’t look happy. Being worried about her mother was clearly hitting her hard.

It was hitting Asenath hard too, despite her being better at hiding it. She’d just lost a guy who was like a brother to her a few months ago, and now on the cusp of getting information about her father’s whereabouts after literally centuries, her mother went missing. Yeah, I didn’t blame either of them for being worried. 

“Besides,” April was adding, “the King doesn’t like the Seosten either. Worse than Heretics, actually. Cahethal would not be doing anything in his territory.” 

Haiden continued. “I think April’s right, this doesn’t seem like a Seosten thing. Anyway, before killing the guy, she got as much as he knew out of him. Which wasn’t much. But he did apparently overhear one side of a conversation that their go-between had over the phone with their benefactor. The only thing that stood out was something about taking the kids to see one person in particular. Someone named Azlee Ren Kotter.” 

“A name. You got the name of someone they were taking the children to see,” Asenath breathed. 

“And you’ve got the country,” Tristan pointed out while leaning against the nearby wall. “That Canadian King guy might not like it if we just say we want to traipse willy nilly everywhere across his territory on the off chance we stumble across the people we’re looking for, but that name might help. Maybe he even knows this… Azlee.” 

“Which brings us back around to visiting Canada and talking to this King,” I pointed out. “Which means we need to know what we’re dealing with.” 

Eldridge spoke up. “I… need to go and check on my people. Bol and the others here will provide anything you need. Good luck, and I hope we see each other again before you leave. If not, come back and visit. I–” It looked like he felt torn between his worry for the other Akharu and vampires, and his duty here. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do. You have my number.” 

“Go, Eldridge,” Haiden urged. “See to your family and friends. We’ll handle this.” 

We watched the guy step out, and I saw a couple Vestil out there having an intense conversation with the Oni woman, Luiena. Whatever they were all saying (it was clear that they were using some kind of privacy spell), I was pretty sure none of them were very happy. Though I wasn’t sure if they weren’t happy with each other, or just the situation. Either way, things were probably getting pretty bad. 

Vanessa clearly agreed, because she turned back away from the doorway as it closed behind Eldridge and announced, “We have to go find Rowan, Jiao, and the other kids before everyone here goes to war with each other. They were talking when we were coming over here and there’s a lot of Akharu and Vestil blaming the Oni, some of the Oni think the Vestil are framing them, some Vestil think the Akharu are trying to keep the hybrid princess to themselves, and vice versa.” 

“So we have to find her, and the others, and prove it was an outsider,” I muttered, folding my arms with a glance toward where Tabbris and December were deep in quiet, yet rapid, conversation with each other. “Or Vegas is gonna get a lot less friendly for everyone. And a war in Vegas would end up with a lot of Bystander casualties, since they have no way to defend themselves.” 

“Yeah…” With a long sigh, Haiden looked toward Twister. The two seemed to have some brief, silent conversation mostly consisting of facial expressions before he turned back to the rest of us. “Have a seat. We’ll talk about Canada before seeing about… about securing passage there.” 

So, we sat down, and Haiden started with, “The story of the King of Canada… or rather, the source of his strength, doesn’t start in Canada. It starts in ancient India.” 

“I’m sorry, what?” Tristan stared at his father. “What does India have to do with Canada?” 

“Wel, technically a lot of things given world history,” Haiden pointed out. “But in this particular case, nothing directly. The place we know as Canada simply happens to be the burial place for the Astra.” 

I started to ask what that meant, but Vanessa was already speaking up. “Supernatural weapons in Indian mythology. They were all connected to various deities and had incredible power.” 

“I’m sorry, deities?” I cut in. 

“Our best guess is unbelievably powerful Alters in ancient times,” she replied. “They made these Astra as the ultimate expression of their power. Like the Agneyastra, a weapon capable of summoning fire that could burn anything and was almost impossible to put out by any normal means until it destroyed the target it was meant for. Or the Varunapasha, a rope fashioned into a noose that nothing, not even these ‘gods’, could escape. Or the Bhargavastra, a bow that fired thousands or even millions of arrows in a single shot. One pull of the bow string could rain death on an entire battlefield. Or Maheshwarastra, which could shoot a beam of heat capable of turning even deities into ash. There’s more, but you get the point.” 

“Okay, one, those all sound fucking awesome, and I want one,” Tristan announced. “And they’re buried in Canada?” 

“They were buried in Canada,” Haiden corrected. “Not all of them, but enough. A lot. And with the Astra was buried the body of the Indian hero Karna, alongside the armor and earrings he had worn from birth that made him invincible until he removed them. The body of Karna, his armor and earrings, and the Astra were all buried as far from India as possible, apparently to keep them from being misused. Honestly, like Vanessa said, no one really knows what these ancient ‘deities’ really were. No one knows where the Astra or Karna’s armor and earrings truly originated from. They’re probably a mix of incredibly powerful technology and equally strong magic. Magic stronger than almost any that’s ever been seen on this planet. They were hidden away to stop anyone from getting that kind of power. Then he found them. Or was guided to them, it’s not clear.” 

“And this ‘he’ would be the King of Canada?” I asked, trying to think of what even a normal person armed with the kind of weapons Vanessa had described could do. And there were even more than the ones she listed? 

“That’s him,” the man confirmed before continuing. “Though he wasn’t known as that at the time. Before finding the hidden burial chamber where they were kept, the King was… in some ways, a refugee, one fleeing from Crossroads Heretic oppression. He was–” The man stopped, looking over toward Twister, who was giving him literal sad bunny eyes, having transformed partly into a rabbit with her ears down. 

“Oh, okay, tell them,” Haiden relented with a gesture. “I know you’ve been waiting to.” 

“Yup, he’s a Fae!” Twister informed us with a grin. 

“A… a Fae?” I asked, feeling a bit dazed. “What’s–what? Like a pixie or a fairy?” 

Her head shook as she contorted her face back to the way it was supposed to look. “No, like a Fae. They’re not human, they’re not Heretics, they’re not Alters. They’re Fae. They’re humans or Alters who were either magically transformed to become something very different from humans, or the biological descendants of beings like that. People who were changed by some magical ritual, or by accident, or anything like that to become something very different from what they started as. Like dwarves. They’re Fae now, but they started out as humans thousands and thousands of years ago until this old sorcerer wanted to create beings who were good at mining for him, so he transformed a few to start. Then they bred.” 

“So a Fae could start out as any race,” Miranda asked carefully, “and then something magical happens to change them to the point that they can actually pass on those traits to create what amounts to a whole new race?” 

“Some can’t pass on their traits and are still accepted as Fae,” Asenath informed us. “But generally, yes. Fae are usually lumped in as Alters by Heretics, but they usually don’t appreciate that. It’s also not a thing limited to Earth, from what I’ve heard. Any race out there can have magical mutations that become Fae.” 

Taking that in, I looked to Twister. “And this King of Canada is a Fae.” 

She nodded. “That’s right, he’s a Fae. One who found the burial chamber of all those weapons. He took Karna’s armor and earrings, so he’s basically invulnerable to almost anything. Seriously, it’s basically impossible to kill him as long as he has the armor and earrings. That was Karna’s whole thing, he was supposedly born with the armor and earrings already attached to him and as long as he had them, he was basically immortal. Nothing could penetrate the armor.” 

“Did they try throwing him into the sun?” Tristan asked. “That usually helps kill things.” 

“In this case, it would be a bad idea,” his father informed him. “Karna’s armor and earrings supposedly came from a Sun Deity. Whatever the truth is, the more sunlight they’re exposed to, the stronger they make him.” 

“He’s God damn Superman too?!” Tristan blurted. “He’s supercharged by solar energy?!” 

“Well, you know,” Haiden drawled, “Joe Shuster was Canadian. But yes, the armor and earrings make him incredibly strong and fast as well.” 

“So this King guy has access to all that, and all those weapons, those Astra,” I murmured, staring first at her, then at Haiden. “Which… what else could they do, Vanessa?” 

She gave a helpless shrug. “Lots of other things. It depends on which ones he has. There was one that could dispel any magic at all, or one that could summon wind strong enough to lift an entire army. There’s dozens of them, some are a lot more vague about what they do than others, but as I said, they’re all supposed to be directly connected to a deity figure. There’s one that’s supposed to summon a mountain and drop it on your enemies.”

“A… a mountain,” I echoed dully, staring at her. 

“Maybe it was actually a meteor or something and they just embellished,” she admitted with a shrug. “I don’t know. The point is, it summons a really big rock that falls down and destroys armies.”  

While the rest of us were reacting to that, Haiden explained, “The Fae King basically used some kind of ritual magic to bind the weapons to himself, so he can summon them from wherever he is, or send himself to any of them. The only downside for him is that whatever force put those weapons in that chamber wants them to stay there. So the Astras lose their charge and return to the chamber after just a relatively short time of being used or if they’re taken too far away.”

“Let me guess, the borders of Canada are about as far as they can go,” I piped up. 

He nodded. “Yup. So basically he’s a powerful Fae on his own, who now wears enchanted armor that makes him almost invincible, and is capable of summoning dozens of superweapon-level magical artifacts bonded directly to himself that give him Committee-level powers. And now, we’re going to go ask him very nicely if we can step onto his land.” 

“Do we know his name or anything else that might help?” Tabbris quickly piped up, sounding equal parts fascinated and worried. 

“Oh, we definitely know his name,” Asenath confirmed. “So do you, in fact. At least, if you ever read Shakespeare. His original name was Alberich, but he’s better known by the French equivalent.

“Oberon, the Faerie King.”

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All-Out 3-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The dealer in question was apparently named Sarez. He was a dark blue-skinned humanoid with white spots on his neck and forehead, along with three evenly-spaced eyes instead of two. He was also not on the casino floor anymore, though he was in the building still. Going by the cameras, he had made his way to the staff kitchen and was having food with a few others. 

Asenath wanted to go grab the guy immediately, but Bol initially made her back down with the reminder that we were in their casino and their own people would take care of getting information out of him. We were just supposed to watch the security feed while they picked the guy up. Which led to all of us staring impatiently at the screens for what felt like way too long even to me. For Shiori and Senny with their mother missing, it had to have felt like hours

“Come on!” Shiori blurted out loud while pointing at the screen of the nearest laptop. “What’s going on, why don’t they grab that guy and drag him out already? He’s right there, and he’s gotta know where Mom is! What’re they doing, letting him finish his meal first or something? Wait, is this a last meal he doesn’t know about?” 

Bol, who was holding some kind of small golden orb that was apparently a communication device, tucked it away while responding with a flat, “Unfortunately, there is a problem. Our people ran passive magic checks over Sarez and he appears to be in possession of a particular artifact which allows him to mark any person. From that point, if any marked person approaches him with hostile intent, or even targets him directly with anything like a teleportation spell or attack, he’ll sense it ahead of time. We don’t know how long he’s had it–” 

Miranda groaned, “But it’s probably been long enough for him to mark everyone on your security team, if not everyone on your staff. So if they go to grab him, or teleport him anywhere, or whatever, he’ll know and get the hell out of Dodge. That’s why he feels safe enough to sit around eating lunch or whatever. Because the second you come after him, he’ll just bounce.” 

“So let us do it,” Asenath told Bol and Eldridge, giving the men a sharp look. “We’re new, there’s no way he could have marked us. We’ll grab the guy like I wanted to in the first place. Bobbi still has to get close to him anyway to make sure he’s the right one. I mean…” She glanced at the laptop screen, showing her teeth with a low snarl. “He is, but it’d be nice to have confirmation.” 

“That’s our other problem,” Bol replied with a snarl of his own that showed just how frustrated he already was. “Look at his wrist when he reaches for his drink again. There, see the silver bracelet? It’s got a partner on his ankle. They’ve got what you call Double Jump spells on them. The second he feels threatened, he’ll activate one, probably with a voice command. The Double Jump means it’ll teleport him twice. Once inside the building, and once outside of it.”

“The first jump will take him to another place where he’s tampered with the anti-teleport security,” I murmured. “Like the one in here, but it could be anywhere in the building.” 

Eldridge nodded in agreement. “Sounds about right. Then this pain in the ass can teleport through that hole in the security to get outside the building. And the fact that he’s got two on probably means they’re keyed to each other. So if you take one off, it’ll trigger the other automatically. You’d have to the one from his wrist and the one from his ankle simultaneously, and too quickly for him to say the command word before you manage to get them off him. And they’re probably spelled against things like telekinetic or metallokinetic control. Which is just–”  

“Wecandoit!” That was December, jumping up and down with obvious excitement. Though whether it was at the prospect of being helpful, or just at doing something given how bored she was, I couldn’t say. She was gesturing back and forth between herself and Bobbi. “She’saStardrinker. They’rereallyfast. AndI’mreallyfasttoo. MyboostisboostedandIcanboostitmore. Sowecanbothbe reallyfastandgoget themagicthingsoffhim. Andwecandoitatthesametime. Cuzwe’rebothreallyfast.” 

“I think I followed that pretty well,” Miranda murmured. “But could that really work? They both just superspeed into the room and grab the teleport bracelets off that guy before he can react?”

“It could,” Bol thoughtfully replied while staring at the nearest screen. “And I believe it may be the best chance of making sure he doesn’t escape in the time we have to work with.”  

Asenath was already heading purposefully toward the door. “Right, so point us in the right direction. We’ll get close, send the speedsters in to make sure he can’t escape, then nail him to the wall.” Pausing, she added, “And I mean that figuratively… mostly. Okay, if nails are in the immediate vicinity, I won’t be held responsible for how literal it becomes. I’m just saying.” 

Miranda and I exchanged brief looks, before I offered her a thumbs up. “See?” I asked while following after Asenath. “We know how to make a trip to Vegas fun even without the gambling.”

“At this point,” Miranda informed me, “gambling seems like a downgrade in excitement.” 

So, Bol and the other Vestil escorted us to just down the hall from the room in question. Our guy was still in there, just enjoying his food while apparently unaware that he had already been found out. Which, given that little artifact of his that was supposed to let him know if anyone he’d marked was coming straight for him with hostile intent, made sense. But still, that was some patience on his part, to pull off something like that and then just sit there eating food while waiting for the lockdown to be over? 

Actually, if he could teleport out, why didn’t he? Was he hoping to keep his job here if they couldn’t figure out that he was the one who had done it? Or was he waiting for something else specific? Was there a certain time he was waiting for? Maybe someone else was going to arrive or… be available? Or maybe it was some thing that was being brought in? We’d have to ask as soon as we had him contained, because damn, that was really bothering me. 

Soon, we were set up in the hall. I could see the door ahead of us, and murmured in Bol’s direction, “I know we’re in a rush, but what exactly are this guy’s gifts, his powers? Besides using hold and pass magic. What are we about to walk in on? More importantly, what are we about to send Bobbi and December over there against when they grab those bracelets off him?” 

“Sarez is a Heaul,” came the answer. “Each of those white spots you see on his neck and forehead, and other parts of his body, can grow into a separate layer of armor you have to break through to get to anything vulnerable. Heaul can either stack their armor plates like that for more protection, or wait until you break through one, then activate another one. The stronger ones can grow back damaged shell spots fast enough that as long as they drag the fight out enough, they can keep cycling through fresh armor. And that third eye in the middle can do a paralyzing stare, as long as it’s looking at you and using it, you won’t be able to move.” 

Asenath nodded. “Right, well he can armor up all he wants, considering we have questions to ask. As for his paralyzing powers, we outnumber him and we’re hopefully about to take him by surprise.” She looked to December and Bobbi. “You two ready? We’ll be right behind you. The second you’ve got the bracelet and anklet off, bail and leave us room to grab him. Got it?” 

December’s head bobbed up and down so fast I seriously thought it might fall off. “Yupyupyupreadytobeusefulcuzwe’resupposedtobeusefulandifwe’renotusefulthenwhatareweevendoinghere–” From the corner of my eye, I saw Tabbris make a weird, funny face at her. She crossed her eyes, tilted her head, and puffed out her cheeks. It made December suddenly laugh, sputtering a little before actually slowing down a bit. “Imeanwe’reready. We’rereadytogo. Youknowassoon… asyousaytheword.” That was accompanied by a deliberate thumbs up toward Tabbris, who returned it with a giggle. 

We had one of the laptops letting us see the security screen, so that the two speedsters would know exactly where their target was. I held it up in front of them, while Asenath counted down from three. At the last second, the lights behind us went out. Not a surprise considering Bobbi had warned us it was coming. She needed the extra boost from that power. 

I also saw December touch something on her own wrist. There was what looked like a medical alert bracelet or something there, only with a dozen little dark blue gems. One of them dimmed as she touched it, just before Asenath reached zero. 

And then they were off. I could see a slight blur of motion from December, but almost nothing from Bobbi. They were just gone. Meanwhile, on the screen, Sarez suddenly fell over backward with what sounded like a blurted magical word. The trigger for his escape spells. But nothing happened. And we were already on our way. Asenath used her own speed, becoming a streak of color rushing ahead of us to reach the room even as the last syllable of his useless escape spell left the man’s lips. 

An instant later, I had passed through the doorway right behind Shiori, with Miranda just behind me. Tabbris had already recalled into me right as all this started, and Asenath was right in front of the man with her fist swinging for his face. December and Bobbi were in opposite corners. 

Unfortunately, not having his escape hatch apparently didn’t mean the man was totally vulnerable. Which we found out, as he suddenly blurted another word, and a concussive wave of force erupted from one of the rings on his hand. It slammed into all of us, sending us backwards. I was hurled out of the room entirely, crashing into the far wall while everyone else hit the walls inside the actual room. 

But it wasn’t just the pain of hitting the wall. There was something else to it too. Even as I slumped to the floor, I felt a strange… listless sensation. It wasn’t exhaustion or anything, it was just… a moment of not really caring about anything that was going on. I wanted to zone out and think about… birds. Birds sounded interesting. How did they fly, really? And why did they come in so many colors? It was a mating thing, right? But why were some bright and others were so–

Flick! Tabbris’s voice in my head snapped me out of it. Belatedly, I realized we were running down the hotel corridor. Wait, why were we running? 

Then I ‘remembered’, though it was less remembering and more having the past few seconds dumped into my head. As soon as I hit the wall and went out of it, Tabbris had taken control just in time to see Sarez flee through the door we had just been flung out of. He hit Bol, Eldridge, and the others with some kind of slow spell before taking off the other way. So Tabbris had given chase while inwardly screaming for me to wake up. And now that I knew what was going on, she relinquished the reins, just as I saw Sarez hit the door leading to the stairwell. It slammed shut right behind him, and I saw three different semi-transparent glowing chains appear around it. A spell to keep it shut. 

I didn’t even hesitate. Grabbing the knob, I turned while shoving against the door and the lock spell shattered under my ‘passage through locked doors’ power. I hit the stairwell in time to see the guy heading up instead of down. He glanced back, a gun appearing in his hand. In the same instant, I felt my body suddenly jerk to a halt as his third eye focused on me. He took a second to aim, then fired. Just as he did, I summoned a portal in front of my face, sending the other end of it back toward the guy’s leg. I hoped to slow him down, but the bullet barely seemed to do much. A second later, the reason became apparent, as a spot of white broke out through his pant leg where the bullet had struck, expanding outward to form a full suit of armor around the man. 

His hand snapped up, another ring on his hand glowing as a ball of white-hot fire appeared there before it was sent flying my way. Instantly, I focused on absorbing all that energy. By the time the explosion of fire faded, my whole body felt uncomfortably warm as it fought to contain that much power, and the sound of Sarez’s footsteps was fading as he ran.

“Oh no you don’t,” I muttered, already calling my staff instantly to my hand. Transferring all that power I’d absorbed into the staff itself to instantly charge it, I sent a burst out through the bottom to launch myself over the edge of the stairwell and into the open space leading all the way down to the floor far, far below. Before I could drop very far, Gus was launched upward in his grapple form, slamming into the ceiling far overhead to stop my fall. Then I expended the rest of the charge I’d just absorbed, channeling it into a boost from the other end of the staff that sent me rocketing all the way upward, past stairwell after stairwell. 

Where were the others? Were they okay? I couldn’t think about that. They’d be fine. I had been fine, eventually. I just had to catch this guy, right now, before he somehow managed to get away. That had to be why he was going up instead of down, right? He had some kind of backup escape plan. Another one. 

He also must’ve been using some kind of speed-enhancement spell, because even with the rocket-boost yanking me past all the stairs to the top, he still beat me up there. Barely, but he beat me. I saw him disappear through the roof-access door while leaving two injured security guards on the floor nearby. Very injured, if I had to guess from a glance. 

Tabs, help them! I blurted inwardly while giving my little partner a mental push as I went for the door. I’ve got this! 

Without hesitating, Tabbris popped out of me from behind, solidifying as she dropped down to do what she could for the security guys. Meanwhile, I could hear the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps and hoped it was Asenath and the others. But I couldn’t wait to find out. This guy could be gone by then. So, staff raised, I went right through the door.

Yup, it was definitely a roof alright. Sarez was ahead of me, racing for the edge. Before he could get any further, however, I summoned a quick little portal and shoved my staff through it, letting the other end pop out right in front of him before triggering a blast from the energy that had stored up since I landed in the stairwell a few seconds earlier. It wasn’t a lot, but it did manage to take the guy by surprise enough to make him stumble back a step or two. And that gave me an opening to hurl a small ball of goop that I’d summoned to my other hand. The goop was that nausea-inducing liquid, solidified into a gel. It stayed that way just long enough to splatter against the back of the man’s head. 

Unfortunately, that armor of his must’ve protected him from the effects of the gel, because he barely reacted before throwing a marble at his own feet. As the marble shattered, a wide wave of metal spikes, taller than I was, erupted from it and went shooting along the ground toward me. But I was ready, running forward to meet them. At the last second, I leapt up, planting my left foot against one of the spikes before pushing off. There were several lines of them, all staggered in size and placement, and I bounced from one to the next, ducking under a couple, hopping over one, trusting my instincts and reflexes. 

Once again, Sarez was almost to the edge of the roof. I opened another portal while leaping off the side of the last jagged metal spike, hurling myself that way as the portal appeared in front of me with the other end directly in front of the fleeing man. That time, I literally threw my staff through it while triggering the charge. The explosion of energy knocked the man backward, and I used the new power I’d just gotten at the theater a couple weeks earlier to summon the staff back into my hands as I landed on one knee, swinging it for the back of his leg. He was tough, but the strength behind the blow coupled with the concussive explosion of force he’d just taken to the face made the man stagger. 

I took advantage, springing to my feet before grabbing for his chest. But nothing happened when I summoned the Seosten possession power. There was just… nothing there.

The armor, I realized. The power couldn’t get through that white exoskeleton armor, which had completely covered him. Just as that came to mind, the man’s fist found my stomach, and then he was hurling me over his shoulder to the roof. His voice was a vicious snarl, “You don’t know what you’ve brought upon yourself!” 

Rolling backward to my feet, I was about to snap a snarky retort, when Asenath’s voice interrupted. “Why don’t you tell us then?” She was there, along with the others. Miranda, Shiori, Bobbi, and December were coming out right behind her. “And while you’re at it, tell us where you sent my mother and those kids.” 

I couldn’t see the blue man’s expression through the exoskeleton helmet that covered his face. But I saw the contempt in his eyes, and heard it in his voice. “Why don’t they explain it, in detail.” 

They, in this case, apparently referred to the entire swarm of lizard-people in suits (seriously, they looked like reptilian humanoids all wearing perfectly tailored tuxedos) that appeared in a literal flash of gray-green smoke. One of them screamed something about oppressors before they all threw themselves at us. In the background, I saw Sarez leap from the edge of the roof, throwing something ahead of himself that seemed to slow his fall. 

Then two of the lizard-men were on me. I ducked under one, snapping my staff up to rebound off the other’s chin before flipping the weapon around to drive the bladed end down into his foot. Using that as a brace, I shoved myself up into a double-kick, planting both feet against the first reptilian’s chest. But I didn’t just kick him. I also possessed him in the same motion. As he fell back, I took control, summoning my staff back to his hand (telling myself to cheer over that part actually working later) before spinning to cut the blade across the throat of his companion while simultaneously shoving my own host into unconsciousness. 

Then I just staggered for a second as the rush of pleasure from that kill filled me. It wasn’t all that strong, but still. Without Tabbris muting the sensation, it hit me more than it might have. I shook it off in time to see another lizard guy coming for me, holding a weird jeweled khopesh. 

He, in turn, was knocked to the ground by Miranda as she tackled him. “Go!” She shouted at me. “Get that guy!” Even as she said it, another Miranda appeared, already running. 

Asenath and Shiori were across the roof, engaged in a fight back to back. December and Bobbi were together too. All of them were busy. They didn’t have time. We didn’t have time. Not before Sarez got away. 

Running to the edge of the roof, I looked down. He was far below. Far, faaaaar below, a speck that was already landing on the pavement near a waiting SUV.

“With me?” I blurted, looking to the nearby Miranda. 

“Since second grade,” she shot back, already planting her hands on the edge of the low wall and starting to push herself up. I followed suit. Together, the two of us heaved ourselves over the edge of the roof. 

Then we dropped, plummeting through the air hundreds of feet toward our escaping target… and the ground. 

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All-Out 3-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“What?!” 

The blurted demand came from both Shiori and Asenath in the wake of the news that, rather than being closer to finding the latter’s father, now their mother had disappeared. Both of them looked like they were reminding themselves that killing (or even just smacking) the messenger was both totally wrong and would be a really bad idea right now, all things considered. 

But, of course, they controlled themselves. Senny found her voice first, while the two Vestils and Eldridge all looked briefly nervous. “What do you mean, they’ve disappeared? How can that happen? This…” She took an obvious calming breath, though I could see her fist tighten at her side, fingers digging into her palm. “This place has ridiculous security measures, doesn’t it?” 

“The ridiculousiest,” came an answer from a new approaching figure from down the hall. It was another Vestil, and from the description Shiori, Columbus, and Senny had given of their visitor that started all this, I was guessing that was this guy. An assumption proven right as the Vestil glanced in the direction of Bobbi, Miranda, Tabbris, December, and me. “Bol Sampson. Glad you could all make it. And yes, our security is absolutely top notch. It has to be, to run a casino like this. But that doesn’t seem to have helped, in this case. Come on, I’ll show you what happened.” 

His voice was tense despite his attempt to sound cordial. Which made sense. Even ignoring the security failure, having a bunch of children apparently abducted right from under your nose, to say nothing of a temporary ally who was trying to help you find what amounted to a literal supernatural mob princess? Yeah, no wonder the poor guy sounded like he was right on the edge of an actual breakdown. 

Together, we all followed Bol. The other two Vestil trailed behind us, along with Eldridge. The hall we were walking along had an open wall to one side overlooking one of the casino floors, clearly meant to entice everyone with all the bright, flashy games below. Glancing that way, I saw plenty of humans obliviously enjoying their gambling. But I also saw other things, Alters of every shape and size. There were Relukun, crystal people, various elementals, a couple orcs, and more. Most were having fun, though there were a few who looked like they had just gambled away the last pennies in their pockets. One guy in particular, a large onyx-skinned humanoid with burning flames where his eyes were, looked like he was about to cause a scene. But just as he started winding himself up, two figures dressed the same as the security guys I’d seen outside stepped that way. One leaned in and whispered something to the man while putting a hand on his arm. After a second of that, the upset guy gave a short nod, stepping back as he deflated a bit, the moment neatly deescalated. With a somewhat embarrassed-looking expression, the big guy hurriedly left the gambling floor.

Eldridge had moved behind me as I watched that, his voice quiet. “If their security is anything like ours, those guys just informed him that a nice bottle of something they know he enjoys was sent up to his room, on the house. Then it’s his choice to either go up and enjoy it or escalate things. With a little reminder of just how that kind of thing tends to go inside these places. Which, believe me, isn’t well for the person making a scene.”

By that point, we’d reached the conference room where the kids were supposed to be. The place was one of those with a bunch of plush, comfortable chairs arrayed in a semi-circle in front of a smallish, slightly raised stage. There was room for a hundred or so people in the room. At the moment, there were various toys, books, and coloring things all over the place, along with a few snacks and drinks clearly meant for kids. Apparently they didn’t want their young witnesses to be bored. Which was nice. I wondered who had been in charge of that. 

Asenath moved immediately to the front of the room, near the stage. She crouched, putting a hand on the floor before exhaling. “Mother was here. Right here, just a few minutes ago.” 

“What happened?” Shiori asked, voice tense as she stepped near her sister and stared at Bol. “How could someone make our mom and a bunch of kids you guys were supposed to be taking care of just disappear right from under your noses? You’ve got like… anti-teleportation things?” 

“Yup!” That was December. She hopped right up on a chair, pointing up to a corner of the room. “There’sonethere…” And then she started literally leaping from chair to chair, hopping around the room while pointing seemingly randomly in every possible direction. Seriously, she was like some kind of bouncy ball, a blur of motion and energy. “Andonethere… andthereandthereandthere…” Turning to us after stopping on the back of the last chair, she brightened cheerfully. “Doyouwanttogo… backdownthehallso… Icanshowyou…. alltheothersIsaw?” 

See, I had no idea what I expected SPS Seosten under Cahethal’s authority to be like, but this? This wasn’t it. Was it all just because she mostly left the so-called ‘Calendar’ on their own? 

“Ah, that… “ Bol shook his head. “Thank you, but I don’t believe that will be necessary, Miss…” 

“Ember,” she promptly supplied with a cheeky grin, barely able to restrain the obvious giggles. 

“Miss Ember it is,” Bol agreed with a slight bow, the glowing, multi-colored smoke-liquid in his glass-like body pulsing with what I… thought might be a silent chuckle of sorts before he moved on. “Yes, the room, like the rest of the casino and hotel, are filled with anti-teleportation markers along with defenses and sensors against other magic. But even with those… well, here.” With one hand, he produced a small blue ball with runes drawn on it. “You should see for yourselves.”

With that, he activated the ball. Immediately, a bunch of glowing figures appeared in the room around us. Holograms. They were holograms of all the Vestil children. Each of them looked different. Like, really different. There were a couple humanoids, but there was also one shaped like an octopus, a big dog, a bird of some kind, even one that was basically a long snake. The only way I could tell they were all Vestil was that each body, no matter what shape it happened to be, was clear and filled with colored smoke and liquid. I supposed since these people’s physical bodies were essentially just magically-summoned constructs, what they actually looked like didn’t actually matter. They were basically a race of shapeshifters or whatever. Crystal shapeshifters. Briefly, I wondered what it was like to grow up in a society where everyone literally just shifted between liquid and gas forms, with your only physical bodies being whatever you conjured and shaped to place yourself in. Bodies that looked like whatever you wanted. Did that end prejudice sooner? 

No, I reminded myself, they didn’t have to be as prejudiced against each other as humans have been, because they had three other intelligent species on their planet to compete against. 

Jiao was there in the magical hologram too, of course. Just as Asenath said, the woman was standing on the stage. She was watching the kids scattered around the room while alternately looking at a phone in her hand. Then she turned, looking off toward what appeared to be the wall. A second later, they all vanished. Just like that. One second Jiao and the kids were there and in the next, poof. Gone. 

“What was she looking at?” Miranda asked, stepping up to where Jiao was before turning to look in the same direction she had right before the whole disappearing thing. “It’s a wall.” 

“One of the teleportation blockers,” Asenath replied, already stepping over that way. She pointed to a small, barely visible design half-hidden in the woodwork. “That’s what this is, right?” Frowning, she added a quieter, “But there’s something wrong with it.” 

Bol joined her, leaning in to examine it himself while the rest of us approached. “Yes,” he agreed. “Someone has definitely tampered with this one.” Glancing that way, the man added a quiet, “Good catch for someone who can’t use magic at all yourself.” 

“I’ve learned to adapt,” Senny replied flatly before looking over her shoulder. “Bobbi, come taste this. See if you can figure out anything about it.” 

“Taste…?” Bol echoed curiously. He, Eldridge, and the two other Vestil watched as the younger girl stepped up to put her hand against the symbol. 

“There’s… there’s two kinds of magic there,” Bobbi murmured. “One is older, sort of… set into the wall. It’s been there for a long time. Or at least the shape of it has. But the other magic is new. It tastes… strange, like it doesn’t belong there.” 

“Would you recognize it if you felt it again?” Asenath asked while everyone else watched. This, from what the vampire had told me, was a new trick Bobbi had picked up over the past few months, being able to identify what she called the ‘taste’ of the energy in magic to know the general type of spell it was and who had cast it. Or at least, that the same person had cast a particular spell. 

Now, the girl hesitated, touching the symbol again before giving a hesitant nod that grew a bit more firm after a moment. “I–uh huh. Yeah, I think so. It’s pretty distinct magic. Whoever put it there, if I can feel their magic, I’ll know it’s them.” Her words were somewhat uncertain at first, but gradually became confident toward the end. “I can do it, I can identify them. Mr. Rendell’s been teaching me.” 

“A Stardrinker-Heretic,” Eldridge noted with an approving tone. “Now those are rare. Particularly one so… young.” 

“Yeah, she’s pretty special,” I agreed with a thumbs up at the girl in question, a gesture that she returned with a bright smile. Then I turned my attention back to Bol. “Please tell me you guys locked this place down as soon as they disappeared. Not that I expect it’ll stop them if they were able to teleport Jiao and the kids out past all your security anyway, but still.” 

“Actually,” came the response, “we know they haven’t left. They may have been able to get a teleport past our security, but we still detected it. Our alerts let us know it was happening, and it hasn’t happened since. We locked everything down, and the only spot the teleport happened was right here in this room.” 

Tabbris piped up then. “Could they maybe have not been in this place to start with? Like, maybe they set the spell up and then left before triggering it.” 

If answering a girl as young as Tabbris was bothering Bol, he didn’t show it. He just shook his head. “What they did was hard enough to begin with, just doing it from the inside. I don’t believe it’s physically possible for them to project magic through the defenses we have around the outside of the building. At the very least, our alarms out there would have detected it. The magic had to be triggered from within this building, we locked everything down the moment the one and only teleport happened in this room right here, and there’s been no alert of another one since.” 

“So whoever did it is probably still in the building,” Miranda put in with a small frown. “Maybe this was a one-time thing? Or they’re just arrogant enough to think they can wait you out. I mean, important or not, you can’t lock down this building forever.” 

“We have magic keeping the Bystanders from thinking about leaving,” one of the Vestils whose name I didn’t know announced. When we looked that way, he added, “Peace, we do not use it constantly or without cause. The magic is used to keep Bystanders inside when events are happening outside that would be hazardous to their health, and difficult to explain. We ensure they win enough to compensate for their time and to keep them happy, magic or no.” 

“The point,” Eldridge informed us, “is that the Bystanders aren’t wondering why they can’t leave, and the non-Bystanders know something’s up and that they’re supposed to sit tight. Everyone’s still having a good time, so no one’s going to panic or get upset. People at the front?” He added with a look toward Bol. 

“They’re being turned away,” the other man replied. “Our security is informing them that the venue is at capacity, given certain construction that’s taking place, and that they should try their luck at one of our other locations.” 

Shiori spoke up. “So we just have to get Bobbi near everyone in the casino so she can check them? That… um, seems like the person would notice something first and maybe get away if they decided to bolt for it. Or just, you know, kill themselves rather than be taken by you.” 

Eldridge gave a nod of agreement, “The Dhampyr is right. We don’t have time to take the girl near every single patron, and the moment we start doing that, the… perpetrator will probably notice something and escalate the situation.” 

“So use her to confirm it’s the right person,” I pointed out, “but narrow it down some other way. We can do that, right? If this is a casino, you’ve got cameras all over the place. We just have to look through the footage and find anyone doing what might be magic. That should help cut down on the possibilities.” 

“What if they were doing it in the restroom, or their hotel room?” Miranda asked. “Then we won’t see them at all.” 

“Simple,” I replied, “they look through the footage themselves and check it against guest records. Make a note of anyone in the hotel who is not on the footage, as well as anyone who was in the restroom at the time the teleportation happened. If we don’t find the right person while watching the people we can see, it was one of the people we can’t. Then it’s still narrowed down.” 

“Do we have time to look at all the camera footage?” Shiori sounded (understandably) worried. 

Bol snapped his fingers to one of the other Vestil, who left the room quickly. “Yes, we’ll keep things as calm as we can. Our own people are looking through the footage as well, but… perhaps you will see something they don’t. Take a look, see if you can narrow it down while we make a note of anyone not on camera at the time.” As he said it, the Vestil who had left came back in the room. Behind him floated a half dozen laptops, which flew around to land on various surfaces. On their screens I could already see camera footage playing. 

“It will be within a two to three minute window at the time of the abduction,” Bol informed us. “See if you can spot anything before our own people do.” 

So, we spread out around the room with the provided computers and spent the next little while staring at the camera footage. We watched the same couple minutes over and over again from as many different angles as possible. Sped up, slowed down, zoomed in, zoomed out, we watched all of it again and again. Miranda even split herself into several duplicates to watch her screen with multiple pairs of eyes. 

None of it helped. The only magic we could see being used was some of the dealers making cards float back to them, flip through the air, change colors or give off little sparks, that kind of thing. Clear and obvious entertainment tricks for the non-Bystanders. Showmanship. 

“Uuuurgggh,” December groaned. She wasn’t watching a screen. Instead, the girl was hanging upside down from one of the ceiling lamps, watching us. “Sooooo bored, can’twejustgopunchsomeone?” 

“We have to know the right person to punch,” Tabbris reminded her, though I could tell she was bored too. It was frustrating, staring at the same two minute time period, sometimes slowed down and sometimes sped up, while trying to spot any of the guests doing anything untoward. But they just weren’t. The security in this place was too good. They would have noticed a guest casting a spell if they were on camera. Which–

Wait. 

My hands quickly danced over the controls on the keyboard, adjusting the playback timeline as I rewound and then pushed it forward, my eyes staring intently. 

“This is impossible,” Shiori announced, clearly too distraught about her missing mother to sit and focus on this for any longer. “All these people aren’t using magic. I swear we’ve stared at every single guest in this whole place and not one of them is–” 

“That’s because it wasn’t a guest,” I cut in. “Camera thirty-two, zoom in on the dealer at the table and go back an hour, then play it forward at five times speed.” 

They all did so, and I pointed. “There, see it? Pause… there.” 

“Yeah, he’s using magic,” Asenath confirmed. “They all use magic, the dealers. It’s just performance art, and not powerful enough to actually trigger a teleport for one person, let alone a whole group.” 

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Yeah, but look at his other hand. He’s using hold and pass magic.” 

Most of the others asked what I was talking about, while Bol took a step my way, his voice clearly surprised. “Are you sure?” 

“Hold and pass magic,” I quickly explained to the others. “It’s…basically you start the very bare bones of a spell and then hold it, hold the… the shape of it. Normally you do that by repeatedly tracing a rune of the spell against your palm or a flat surface or something every minute or so to keep it fresh. You hold the power that way, keep it shaped the way you want it so the spell doesn’t fade. The pass part comes from the way you empower the spell. Basically, you kind of… push it into someone else, let the spell take some of their power, usually so little they don’t notice it’s gone. Then you pass it into someone else and take a bit more power from them, then someone else, and so on. You can empower really big spells without draining yourself by passing the spell back and forth between willing or unwilling subjects, even without letting them know what’s happening if you’re careful enough. And that’s what this dealer guy right here is doing. For an hour before the teleport, he keeps putting his thumb against his palm like right… there. He’s tracing a spell against his own hand and passing it through people that sit at his table, empowering it over that hour. He’s using hold and pass magic to set up the teleport.”

The others stared at me, Miranda finally asking, “How do you know about that?” 

Chayyiel, of course. She’d been giving me magic lessons in addition to the combat ones. I couldn’t do the hold and pass spells yet, but I had the basic idea. I also couldn’t tell them about it. 

So, I settled on a simple, “I have really good teachers.” It wasn’t a lie. “But that’s him, that’s your guy.” I looked at Bol pointedly. “And it’s why your people haven’t caught him yet. Because they’re looking for a guest using magic.” 

Bol stared at the screen, his eyes focused on the dealer who had apparently helped abduct Jiao and a whole group of Vestil children. Not to mention the fact that this guy was obviously connected to the original disappearance of the Vestil-Akharu princess. 

“Well then,” the man murmured. 

“I think someone should go have a little chat with our new friend.” 

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All-Out 3-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The day after the all those… revelations was Saturday. Which was good, because I really couldn’t deal with more classes right then. There was no way that actual school could help to hold a candle to everything we’d learned from Bastet, Sonoma, and especially Grandfather. If I’d had to sit in class, nothing would have penetrated the dense fog of wild thoughts that had filled my brain every waking hour. 

Aylen’s grandfather was a Fomorian. An incredibly nice and goofy one who seemed to be the complete opposite of most of his people, but still. That made it even more to digest. So we were waiting before finding out even more. Most of us, anyway. Sariel and Apollo were there now, going through the spell they’d created that had ended up creating copies of our entire wo–

Nope, couldn’t think about that. It was too much. Too overwhelming. Later, once… all of that had had time to settle, we would visit Grandfather again to learn more. He didn’t seem to mind the delay. Then again, I had a feeling that waiting weeks between having these kind of discussions was more like a few minutes to people like him, or even people like Sariel or Dare. 

Would such long time spans ever seem short to me? Because from where I was sitting, the previous year hadn’t seemed any shorter even if I knew it would eventually be little more than a blip of my life (assuming I survived). If anything, it felt like it had taken several years to get through that single one, especially considering everything that had happened. 

The point was, it was a lot to think about, and I couldn’t focus on anything else. Well, almost anything. There was something else that took up my thoughts. Another new revelation, this one coming from my own father. Apparently, he was something known as a Chimera-blood, meaning any attempt to perform a Heretic bond on him didn’t stick. He could temporarily bond, but it would fade over time. Which was just… it was… really? How on Earth did my mother manage to accidentally trip into marrying a Chimera-blood, when they were apparently indescribably rare?  

Regardless, something else had popped up over the previous weekend beyond all the new revelations. Something that not only landed on our plates, but immediately shot to the top of them. 

“I’m sorry.” That was Shiori, and it wasn’t the first time she’d said it in the past hour, let alone the past week. “I know there’s already a lot to deal with, with… with October coming up really fast. But now we’re dumping this on you and—”

Quickly, I interrupted, putting both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “Shy, stop. It’s okay. Of course we’re going to help with this. You found a way to maybe track down Asenath’s father. Come on, you know how much she’s already done for me. If she needs help finding her dad, I’m completely there. End of story. So no more apologizing. It’s not like there’s anything else I could really do right now anyway.”

The other girl slowly nodded, and the two of us stood there with our hands on each other‘s shoulders for a silent moment before I looked around a bit self-consciously. We weren’t exactly alone. Shiori and I were in one of the transport rooms along with Columbus, Vanessa, Tristan, Miranda, and Jason. Yeah, Jason was there. He had volunteered to come once he’d heard the basic situation. Apparently he had some experience in the place we needed to go. 

Las Vegas. That was where we were going. Not because Asenath’s father was there, but because a guy who claimed he had information about where Tiras actually was wouldn’t give us that information until he got some help tracking down a missing Vestil-Akharu hybrid grandchild who was like a princess in their alliance or something. 

Yup, it was time for a field trip to Vegas so we could start trying to find a missing princess in order to earn information that would hopefully lead us to Asenath’s father, who had been missing for a couple centuries.  

I wondered what other people were doing with their weekend. Going to see a movie? Having a picnic? Getting some extra studying in?

Okay, that wasn’t really fair. I already knew what Avalon was doing, at least. And it definitely wasn’t a picnic. She was helping Dries and Wyatt run last minute checks and tests on the possession protection spell, which would apparently be going live very soon. But they needed her blood to keep running tests on. Which meant she had to stay with them rather than go with us. Obviously, she wasn’t too happy about that, but I promised to bring her back a few Vegas souvenirs. Somehow, that didn’t seem to make her feel better, though she knew why we couldn’t wait. Not only was finding Tiras important, but there was also the missing little girl to think about. 

Oh, and as far as the Grandfather thing went, we hadn’t told anyone except a few people, because it was a lot to take in. Eventually, more people would have to know the truth, but we were waiting for a bit. So far, Avalon and I had told Shiori. Vanessa and Tristan had apparently helped their mother tell their father. And Koren and I had also told Abigail and Athena. 

Again, we would definitely explain all of this to the others eventually. We just wanted a little more time to digest it ourselves. It was a pretty huge bombshell to drop on people. Especially people like Sarah and Sands, whose lives had been shaped so fully by an evil Fomorian. We had to find the best way and time to explain it, which really made me sympathize with the way Aylen had been acting right before she told us the truth. 

In any case, right now there was this to deal with instead. So I forced my focus onto the actual current situation just as Columbus stepped over to join Shiori and me. His new porcupine/armadillo cyberform, Amethyst, was trotting along by his feet. The little thing was really shy and kept hiding behind her creator’s legs whenever anyone else looked at her. It was kind of adorable, and made me want to pick her up and hug her, dangerous metal quills be damned. 

“Flick’s right,” Columbus agreed. “We’re here because we want to be. Whatever happens, we’re gonna help you find that girl and your… uhhh… I guess… stepdad, sorta? I’m not sure what the right term is considering you’ve got a different dad, but your mom is still in love with both of them and…” Stopping, Columbus looked back and forth between Shiori and me in mounting realization. “You know what? You two actually have even more in common than I thought. It’s kinda weird.”

Tabbris, having just recalled to me, popped out at that point with a quick nod. “I know, right?” With that, she went down to both knees and held her arms out. Immediately, Amethyst made a soft squeaking sound before coming out from behind Columbus his leg and going to her. Because, for whatever reason, Tabbris was the main exception to the cyberform’s shyness. She loved attention from my little sister, who seemed to be the only one besides Columbus and, to a lesser extent, Shiori, that Amethyst was comfortable with. 

Smiling down at the sight of Tabbris carefully but enthusiastically hugging the metal porcupine, I then looked up as the door across the room opened. Jason, Vanessa, and Tristan stepped out of the way as two figures arrived. One was Asenath. The other was Bobbi Camren. The girl had apparently insisted on being a part of this. Which was fair, considering how much she’d been involved with Asenath the year before. She’d spent more time with the vampire than I had. Besides, young as she was, the girl was powerful. She’d already proven very useful during the big attack on the Crossroads prison months earlier. 

“Everyone ready?” Asenath asked after looking around to make sure we were all there. This would be our group heading down there. Shiori, Jason, Columbus, Tristan, Vanessa, Asenath, Bobbi, Tabbris, Miranda, and me. We would probably split up down there, and also meet up with Twister, Haiden, and Jiao, who had been working the case since yesterday. 

Bobbi was already nodding rapidly. The biracial girl bounced on her heels a little while blurting, “Are you kidding? Some of us have been dying to do something useful for weeks now. Missing princess from once mortal enemies, who could tear their entire alliance apart if we don’t find her? Bring it on!”

Speaking dryly, Asenath reminded her, “Just remember you still have homework to do in between all the exciting stuff. Don’t make me regret letting you come. Because if your grades start slipping, you know Principal Fellows is going to come after both of us.”

Jason spoke up. “You guys are ready for this whole Vegas thing, right? Cuz I gotta tell ya, saying they don’t like Bosch Heretics around is kind of an understatement. It’s dangerous for people like you. They get pretty nuts about it.”

Asenath nodded. “He’s right, they do. There is a reason Vegas has managed to stay free from Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, and it’s not because they hesitate when it comes to dealing with intruders. 

Tristan shrugged. “Good thing we’re not intruders then, isn’t it? We’ve got this Bol guy giving introductions. Plus, Mom and Dad still have contacts from when they were living there. They already made some calls and gave us some people to talk to. And Dad’ll probably have even more lined up by the time we get down there.” 

With a nod, Asenath produced a wooden box. “And you’ll all have these.” She began to pass out little necklaces from the box to everyone except Jason. They had been enchanted by Sariel to hide the fact that we were Bosch Heretics, and would apparently last for a few days. I already had that ability that stopped me from pinging as one until I used any active powers, but still. It was probably a good idea to layer that kind of protection. 

“You know,” Tristan piped up after putting his own necklace on right along side the one that was actually Bobbi-Bobbi (having her around with the actual human Bobbi was bound to get confusing very soon), “speaking of the whole Heretic sense thing, they really need to do something about that. Up here, I mean. It gives up alerting us about Alters after that first burst every morning, but every time we’re not around them for a little while, it starts up again. It’s probably the same for them. And when you’re trying to get along in a school that’s already this tense, having something like that blaring off in your head repeatedly every day doesn’t help.”

Jason agreed immediately, reminding me of the fairly unique position he and the other Natural Heretics occupied in not being like us Boshers, but not being Alters either by announcing, “Yeah, trust me, the Alters here are kind of put off by it too. They’re pretty sure you guys aren’t going to attack them by this point, for the most part anyway, but still. It’s easy to get pretty jumpy, and with everyone still trying to figure out how to get along… It’s really something that should be dealt with.” 

“It’s part of the anti-possession spell, actually,” I put in. “It’s supposed to make it so that anyone under the spell doesn’t trigger the alerts for each other.”

Tabbris piped up, “Which should also make it easier to notice shapeshifters and people with disguise spells, you know? Cuz they could still set off the alert.”

Asenath nodded. “Hopefully, they’ll have that done soon. But in the meantime, we’ve got this to deal with.”  She sounded more anxious about all of this than I had ever really heard from her, which made sense considering how much was at stake. This was her chance to find the father she had been missing for literally hundreds of years. No wonder she was tense. How on edge would I be when… when the time came to finally go after my mother? And she’d only been missing for like a decade. 

Vanessa stepped forward to join the rest of us. “Don’t worry,” she assured the vampire, “we’re going to find the girl and get the information about your dad. Ours is already down there with your mom, and he’s really good at finding things.”

“She’s right,” I agreed. “Don’t forget about the part where he tracked down a bunch of broken orb pieces across basically a whole galaxy full of hostile enemies who all wanted to kill or enslave him. He did pretty great there, and Vegas is a place he actually knows. He’s got this. We all do.”

“Exactly,” Shiori quickly put in while stepping over to embrace her half-sister. “They’re right, Senny, we’ll find this girl. Even if we have to traipse all over Vegas and turn over every stone to do it.

Exhaling, Asenath gave a brief nod, and gave all  of us a brief, grateful look while taking Shiori’s hand. “Thanks. I know, you’re right. I just… This is important, so we need to get down there. We have to find this girl, and I have the feeling that I am going to need all of your help to do it. At least, if we’re going to find her in time to matter.”

“Then let’s find her,” I announced. “Everyone’s here, right? We’re just waiting for someone to make the portal. Which… who was supposed to do that, again?”

The door opened once more, in what I thought at first was an answer to my question. But the person who came through was not someone who would be teleporting us. It was Abigail, and as far as I knew, she wasn’t suddenly a master with transportation spells. 

“Hey, guys,” my much older half-sister (Holy shit, that was another thing I had in common with Shiori, wasn’t it?) greeted us. “Glad you’re still here, cuz… I have some more help for you.”

As she said that, Athena stepped through the doorway to join her. Seeing her, Tristan pointed. “Are you the ‘more help?’ Cuz if you are, I feel like she should’ve said a lot more. Maybe with all capital letters.”

With a small chuckle, Athena shook her head. “While I would love to be involved, there are other matters dragging my attention elsewhere. But I trust that you will be fine. I am simply here to vouch that your actual new assistants are… on the level, as they say.”

Blinking uncertainly back to the others for a moment, I shrugged while asking, “What new—”

Aaaand I was suddenly interrupted by a blurred form of speed that suddenly flew through the doorway and rocking into a stop right in front of us, words flying out of the new arrival’s mouth like water from a firehose. 

“HitheytoldustowaitinthehallbutIgetreallyboredsowe’reherehi!”

Rocking backwards reflexively on my heels, I blinked at what turned out to be a young girl around Tabbris’s age. She had dark hair and wore a light hoodie that was too large for her, as well as urban camo pants. Oh, and a smile. She was grinning so wide I thought her face might break.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Abigail wince while Athena opened her mouth to say something. But another voice spoke up first, one from the doorway, as a red-haired girl who appeared to be a year or two younger than us stepped in. “Sorry, kid’s got a mind of her own sometimes. Especially when it comes to meeting new people. She doesn’t get to do that very often. Not directly, anyway.”

Tabbris, who had put herself right in front of me facing the fast-talking young girl, blurted, “Youtalkreallyfastyouknow?” She was boosting herself. 

The other girl’s smile just got wider. “IliketalkingfastitletsmeputalotmorewordsintolesssecondssoIdon’twastetimeyouknow?”

Lifting her chin, Tabbris nodded. “Yeahbutsometimesit’shardforotherpeopletounderstandisn’tit? Andiftheydon’tunderstandyouwastemoretimerepeatingit.”

I boosted myself partway through that, just enough to follow what they were saying more easily. Hearing the words, the new girl tilted her head thoughtfully before nodding. “I’m…. December.” She was clearly making a physical effort to slow her words down, counting in her head and patiently while rocking back-and-forth for a second or two before saying the name. 

“Hi, December,” the other girl greeted her. “I’m Tabbris.”

“Wait, I know who you guys are,” I suddenly blurted. “Theia mentioned you awhile ago. You’re the uhhh SPS Seosten who work for Cahethal.” I used the term that Miranda had invented (Sticky-Possession Syndrome), rather than the horrible ‘Lies’ their own people preferred. 

The red-haired girl stepped closer. “We don’t know what that means. I’m April. December and I are part of the Calendar. And yes, we work for Cahethal. But December and I, along with May, were sent to see this school for ourselves as part of the truce. And in the spirit of full cooperation, we offered to help with this.” 

Abigail spoke up. “And by offered, she means December blurted out that they know Vegas very well and that we should let them go with you if we don’t want you to die.”

“See?” December herself put in, still grinning, “we’retotallybeinghelpful… cuzmakingsureyoudon’tdie… seemsprettyhelpfultome!”

“Cahethal told us to make ourselves useful,” April announced. “So that’s what we’re doing. We’ll go down there with you and help find this missing girl. We can get into places you can’t, and we’re very good at getting information we’re not supposed to have.”

Columbus, who had stood up with Amethyst hanging off his shoulder, peeking over it at the new arrivals, spoke up. “Are you bragging or threatening?”

Carefully holding both hands up placatingly, April replied, “As I said, Cahethal sent us here under the truce. We won’t do anything to jeopardize that. We didn’t infiltrate this place. We came here openly from the very start. Right now, we just want to help.”

Athena nodded. “We’ve put them through a lot of testing. As far as we can tell, they’re being truthful about why they’re here. And now they want to help you find the missing girl. I wouldn’t throw an offer like that away just because it’s hard to trust our people.”

Before anyone else can say anything to that, Asenath interrupted. “She’s right. They’re in. Whatever it takes to find the girl and get my father back.”

Gesturing that way, I drawled, “Well, you heard the lady, and this is all her show.” With that, I clapped my hands together once. “So,

“Let’s all go to Vegas!”

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Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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