Bobbi Camren

By Blood 17-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Despite the fact that we had succeeded in rescuing the prisoners, the mood as we prepared to get the hell off this planet was somber, to say the least. My peers and I might not have known Tribald Kine that well, but I had still liked him. Hell, he was the one who had originally sent me to check out the photograph in the Crossroads hallway that gave away the fact that my mother had once attended there. He set me on this whole path, in a way. And the others… Deveron, Klassin Roe, and the Dornans had all gone to school with him. He was one of their oldest friends (and teammate, in some cases). Kohaku and Tangle had both known him as a child. They taught him. They–god damn it. Now he was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

I couldn’t even summon his ghost. I tried, wanting to bring him with us. But there was no response. I even had the others boost me, and the adults made a small portal back to the prison camp. It was too tiny for anyone to get through, and in an out-of-the-way spot, just enough that I could find a connection to his ghost if it was back there. But it wasn’t. It should have been, but it just…. wasn’t there. Nor were any other ghosts, despite the fact that I knew for a fact others had died. It was like someone else had gotten there first, which…

The point was, I couldn’t summon him, which made this entire thing even worse. I felt like a failure as we carefully wrapped his body up and put it in one of the separate magical storage bags. He would stay safe there until we got back home so he could be buried properly. 

No. No, he wouldn’t be safe. He was dead. The correction blared in my mind as I closed my eyes tightly and turned away from the sight of the Dornans carefully putting the bag in the truck. On the other side of the clearing, I could see Tangle and Kohaku talking to the conscious prisoners, getting them organized to get on the truck so we could leave before the Eden’s Garden people showed up and turned this into a brawl again. I was done fighting for the moment. Hopefully for a long moment. There had been more than enough of that already. 

Avalon stood beside me, quietly speaking up. “I thought we made it without losing anyone.” 

“So did I.” As my voice murmured that, I found her hand and squeezed it. “We were close. And he would have been happy that we got the prisoners out.” Even as I said that, the words felt hollow and empty. Of course he would have liked that. But he also would have liked it to get out of there with his own life. And now I couldn’t even summon his ghost? This sucked. This whole thing was just–I wanted to leave. I really, desperately wanted to leave and never see this planet again. Between Heretics enslaving innocent people, fighting for my life repeatedly, and giant monsters fueled by blood sacrifices or whatever the fuck, if I ever saw this planet again once we left, it would be too soon. 

And yet, even as I had that thought, something made my head turn to look into the nearby trees. Nothing. There was no one there. If the Eden’s Garden people had found us, all the adults here would have reacted. They weren’t that distracted. But they just kept going about their business, getting ready to leave. 

“What?” Avalon asked, her gaze shifting between me and the woods where I was staring. I could feel her tense a bit beside me, clearly getting ready to call out a warning. 

“Nothing,” I started, before correcting myself. “I mean, I don’t think it’s anything. Just the same feeling as when we were going through the woods earlier. Like someone or something is watching. You don’t feel that?” 

There was a brief pause as the other girl considered before her head shook slowly. “No. I felt it before, but nothing right now. You still feel it?” 

A slight grimace found its way to my face before I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making it up in my head because I’m paranoid at the moment. Maybe part of me just wants there to be something else to fight so I can stab something. I just–” Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I set myself before starting to walk. “Come on, let’s check it out. Don’t worry, we’re not going to disappear into the forest, I just want a closer look.”

The twins joined us as we moved that way, and a quick consultation revealed that Sands didn’t feel anything, but Sarah did. Although she was just as unsure as I was about whether this was a real thing or just paranoia. The four of us got closer to the trees while I tried to determine where the feeling of being watched was coming from. A glance toward Sarah was met with a helpless shrug. She had no idea either. And yet, we could both still feel eyes on us. It was a creepy feeling, to say the least. Especially considering the other two didn’t feel it. Between that and the fact that we still didn’t know if it was real or just a product of our imagination… yeah. Walking toward those trees wasn’t the most fun time I’d had. I felt my stomach twisting a little the closer we got. It made my breathing instinctively get faster and deeper, like when I used to sneak peeks at scary movies as a kid when I wasn’t supposed to. The hair on the back of my neck kept standing up, and it felt like every step could result in the ground falling out from under me. I could almost hear the agitated violins in the soundtrack growing closer and closer to a terrible screech. Everything else had disappeared. I couldn’t think about the rescued prisoners, poor Tribald, or even about the fact that we had to leave before the Garden people counterattacked. I was barely cognizant of the others walking with me. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that existed, was whatever it was in that forest that happened to be staring at me. 

A hand caught my arm, stopping me in place. Only then did I consciously realize that Avalon had been repeating something for the past few seconds. I had somehow completely tuned out her voice. Now, she yanked me around, speaking louder. “Flick. What are you doing?” 

“Huh?” Blinking a few times, I looked around. We were much closer to the trees than I had planned on getting. Nearby, Sands was holding Sarah quite similar to the way Avalon was holding me. It looked like the other girl was snapping out of whatever she had been under too. 

“I–” Swallowing once more, I shook my head. “I don’t know. It just felt like I had to keep going. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t–” Cutting myself off, I gave an uneasy look over my shoulder toward the trees. The feeling of being watched was still there, but it had lessened. Now it was more like idle curiosity. Which was still enough to make me shiver a bit. “Come on, let’s get back over there. We need to get the hell off this planet.” The words ‘while we still can’ tried to emerge, but I forced them back down. No way was I going to curse us like that. 

The four of us made our way back over to the others, where Deveron was waiting. The man clearly had a lot to deal with. I could see the emotions in his eyes even as he pushed them back to focus on the matter at hand, asking what happened. So, we explained the whole thing, starting with the fact that we had felt something watching us as we walked through the forest on our way to the prison, and now what had just happened to Sarah and me. 

Taking that in, Deveron frowned and looked past us toward the woods. His eyes scanned it as though he was trying to determine if there was anything dangerous, before the man sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t see anything, but–we need to leave.” 

“That’s what I said,” I murmured before adding, “I wonder if what we are feeling has anything to do with that monster in the prison cave.” 

Deveron blinked at me, frowning. “What monster in the prison cave? Wait, Jasmine and the others were talking about some big fight down there. What was that?”

Wincing, I gestured. “It’s kind of a long story, and we don’t have a lot of time, do we?” 

“I have no idea how much time we have, but let’s err on the side of caution,” he replied before giving a sharp whistle, raising his voice to be heard through the clearing. “Everyone on the truck, we’re getting out of here! We’ll sort out details once we’ve got some distance between us and this damn place.” Even as he said that, the man was already walking that way, waving for the rest of us to follow. 

Before going anywhere, I gave the woods one last glance. Whatever was in there that had been watching us, whether it had something to do with the monster we had killed or not, I wasn’t willing to just dismiss the whole thing as a figment of our imaginations. We had definitely felt something. But it seemed like a mystery that would go unsolved, given we weren’t going to be sticking around any longer. And I, for one, wasn’t quite so obsessed with learning the truth that I would be willing to change that. If there really was something in those woods that kept watching us, it could just go ahead and stay there. 

So, we all loaded onto the truck. There wasn’t quite enough room for all of us plus the conscious prisoners in the living area, given it hadn’t been intended to hold this many people. But we were able to shift the supplies in the main area around and drop a few crates. The supplies were intended to provide water and food for the whole prison for a few weeks, So we weren’t losing much by leaving a little bit behind. It allowed us to get more room in there for everyone, which became a bit more comfortable once we took some blankets and pillows out of the cupboards and laid them down over the floor. 

Two of the prisoners who were awake and moving around were trolls, so they took up a large portion of the space we cleared out. They looked bewildered by everything that was going on, but tentatively friendly enough. They also didn’t seem to speak much English or Latin, but followed instructions cheerfully enough when they were accompanied with hand gestures. One of the other conscious prisoners, an orc who introduced himself as Teragn (terrain), said that the Heretics had simply referred to the trolls as three-oh-oh-two and three-oh-oh-three. Or just Two and Three for short. Whether they had any actual names or not nobody knew, but they responded to those names for the moment. And, again, we really didn’t have time to get into details just yet. We mostly just pantomimed at the two trolls for them to sit, and gave them a large ball of cheese and a ham from one of the boxes. They really loved that and immediately proceeded to start making ham and cheese sandwiches. Which, in their case, meant using ham as the bread and cheese in the middle. 

Soon, we had all of them on the truck. Including the still-unconscious Eden’s Garden Heretic who had apparently turned traitor. Kohaku had gone over the man with a fine-toothed comb to find any tracking spells or devices, but came up short. Still, they were keeping him secured with those cuffs and magically asleep, lying on a cot in the living area so we could talk to him later. 

Once everyone was onboard, Deveron hauled the heavy doors shut. He gave a quick glance to the clearly still terrified and confused prisoners sitting around, before speaking as gently as possible. “It’s okay. I know you don’t have much reason to believe this, but you’re safe with us. We’re going back to Earth, then you can do whatever you want from there. We’ll… we’ll talk about it on the way. Right now–” 

“They’re on us.” That came from Kohaku, who was looking at what looked like an ordinary smartphone. There was a slight grimace on her face. “No more time for explanations, we need to jump now.”  

With a muttered curse, the man immediately darted to the control board on the wall. You could also initiate the jump from the cab of the truck, but this was quicker right now. Opening the panel revealed a keypad where the coordinates were supposed to be put in, and a lever to activate it. That was how it looked normally. But now there were eight glowing little gemstones attached to the console as well. The stones were essentially magical batteries, storing a bunch of power we’d brought with us from home. And now they were plugged into the teleportation system.

The truck abruptly started to jerk backward, as if a large hand had grabbed onto it. Several people cried out, but Deveron simply shook his head. “Not today,” he muttered before yanking on the lever. 

And with that, we were gone. Whatever hand or power had been trying to pull the truck was left behind as we instantly transported off the planet. In my imagination, I could almost hear the Eden’s Garden people screaming as the truck vanished right in front of their eyes.

Instead of letting go of the lever when the jump happened, Deveron shoved it up into the default position, gave us all a look, and then yanked it down a second time. We jumped again. Of course, we weren’t dumb enough to make a single jump and allow them to track us. Each time the truck transported, two of those initial eight gemstones went dark. It allowed us to make four rapid jumps, each one bringing us slightly closer to Earth. 

By the time the fourth jump happened, the truck was shuddering and making unhappy noises. Plus the transport console was giving off a little smoke. I’d asked why we couldn’t just make every jump we needed to go straight back home instead of only going slightly over halfway, and this was the answer I’d been given. The truck could only stand up to so many transports at one time, even with extra power. Four was apparently pushing it, and no one wanted to see what happened if we went for five. It wouldn’t do us any good to push so hard to get home, only to blow up or materialize in the middle of empty space with a broken transport system. 

We also weren’t going to their normal jump points. Instead, Athena had given us a list of habitable moons along the way, and those were the coordinates we used. Just for fun, those first three jumps had been to a desert moon, an ice moon, and a forest moon. Just so those chasing us could have the full original trilogy Star Wars experience. 

Once the truck settled a bit and we were all certain it wasn’t going to catch fire on us, Deveron breathed out and nodded to Tangle, who was standing by the main door. At his nod, she unlatched it and hauled the door up, to reveal… rocks. Lots of enormous boulders all around us. 

“Look, Herbie,” I announced while hopping down onto the gravel-covered ground. I had the heroic stone in question in my palm already, turning in a circle so he could see. “It’s your homeworld.”   

As planned, the place we had landed looked like a large quarry. And in this case, large meant the size of a full city back on Earth. The rocks varied in size from pebbles all the way up to boulders the size of skyscrapers. According to Athena, there was some sort of special material within the rocks that would help block scanners if our pursuers actually made it this far. Which was doubtful to begin with, but being extra careful didn’t hurt anything.  

Tangle and the Dornans stayed with the conscious prisoners back there to tell them exactly what was going on, and who we were. Meanwhile, Asenath, Twister, Shiori, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug worked with Klassin to check on the unconscious prisoners and try to see what we could do for them. 

Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me to talk to Kohaku and Deveron about exactly what we had seen down in that cave. The six of us walked a little bit away from the truck, standing near a rock that was a good thirty feet tall and almost as wide. There, we carefully went through the whole story. We told them about the carvings we had seen and about the big hole in the floor that had clearly been covered with a forcefield at one point. And, of course, we told them about the way those tubes had clearly been draining blood from the prisoners into the hole. 

When we got to the part about the giant monster and began to describe it, I could see a flash of what looked like recognition on both their faces, before they smothered it and told us to go on. They clearly knew something, but weren’t willing to get into it just yet. Not until we told them the whole story. 

The others obviously noticed too, because when we finished, Sands folded her arms and focused on them. “You guys know something about that thing, don’t you? Come on, we killed it, you can at least tell us what the fuck it was.” 

With a heavy sigh, Kohaku shook her head. “That’s the problem, you probably didn’t actually kill the main thing. Just one of its… extensions.” 

“Extensions?” I echoed that, frowning. “You mean like the whole Nuckelavee thing? Like how they’re extensions or… or creations of that Lotan monster under the ocean?”

“Something like that,” Deveron confirmed. “Deep-Walker is just one of the names it has. No one knows very much about it, but from what I’ve heard, the thing basically… infects worlds. You know how Seosten possess people? This thing possesses planets. It produces monsters a lot like that thing you fought, and killing one of them doesn’t hurt the Deep-Walker any more than killing a Nuckelavee hurts Lotan. And… and they’re usually even stronger than that. I think you managed to get what amounts to a baby.” 

“If that was a baby,” Sands managed weakly, “I really don’t want to run into the adult version.” 

“No,” Kohaku agreed firmly, “you don’t. Nobody does. Which probably means that was what was watching us in the woods. The Deep-Walker infests planets and then controls every aspect of them. Well, eventually anyway. It takes time for it to get control.” 

“But what was it–I mean what were they–” Cutting myself off, I made a noise deep in the back of my throat. “Were they feeding it?” 

Sarah spoke up then. “Taming it.” 

Deveron cursed several times loudly, before nodding. “You know, I think that’s exactly what that stupid son of a bitch was doing. Kyril Shamon had that mountain mined out specifically to find those tunnels and then built that place to feed blood into the–he’s trying to tame and control that fucking–it’s a world-ender and he’s trying to make it his fucking pet!” 

He and Kohaku stepped aside for a minute, conversing quietly with each other. Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me by ourselves. I looked at Sands. “Do uh, do you have any idea what you got from that thing?” 

She didn’t. Fortunately, I had a Tabbris on-call. As I used our connection to let my little sister know that we had successfully escaped with the prisoners, and about our single casualty, she projected herself to me. Not a full recall. We didn’t want to pull her away from the station for that long, not when she had her newly-arrived siblings to spend time with. But she could at least temporarily project to me. 

Sorry about Mr. Kine, her voice spoke hesitantly in my mind. 

Me too, I agreed. Can you tell the others back there so they… so they know? Is my mom– 

She’s not back from her thing yet, came the response. But somebody will tell her, I… maybe Abigail? 

I nodded a bit. That’s not a bad idea. Or Deveron when he calls to check in. I think–anyway, we made it. And we’re bringing his body back. With that, I gave her a quick rundown of what had happened, with the other girl reading my mind to fill in some of the blanks. Then I asked, Sands doesn’t know what she has, so… 

She agreed to help, and I asked Sands for permission to possess her. Once she had given it, I took her offered hand and disappeared. It only took a minute for Tabbris to reach through her connection to me and scour what Sands was capable of, then report back to me.

Oh, she announced once I stepped out of the other girl, um, I think Spark needs some help. 

Go, I urged, shaking my head at how guilty she sounded. It’s okay. Thanks for the help. We’re safe now. We’re out of there, and we’ll be home in a few days. I’ll check in later too. 

If… if you’d really needed me back there, with that monster, you would’ve let me know, right? Tabbris sounded hesitant, like part of her still felt guilty for not coming along in the first place. 

Of course, I assured her. That’s the fun part of having the whole recall thing, right? Now go have fun. Or whatever. Help your other sister. 

Her presence faded from my mind before I looked back over to the expectantly-waiting Sands. “Well?” she pressed, practically bouncing on her toes. 

“Well,” I echoed, before leaning in to whisper in her ear. 

Taking in everything I said, Sands gave a double-take. “Are you serious?” When I nodded, she flashed a short grin before gesturing. “Back up. Everyone back up.” 

The three of us did, with Avalon and Sarah giving me a curious look. Once we were out of the way, Sands cracked her neck. She had to focus for a few seconds, finding the right… trigger or whatever. Even though I’d told her what she could do, it still took a bit of time to figure out how to do it. In the meantime, I called a warning over to Deveron and Kohaku, who turned to watch.

But, after a few seconds, she found it. Instantly, Sands grew in size until she stood a solid thirty feet tall. She was gigantic and could apparently take an absurd amount of damage, even considering the size. Not quite as much as the monster in the tunnel, but still a lot. 

Okay!” Sands spoke, voice booming out. “I think I can get used to this.” 

“Better not get too used to it!” I shouted up at her. “I’m pretty sure you won’t fit in the truck like that!” 

Fitting in the truck was definitely something she had to do. We might’ve had to stop to let things recharge, and there were the prisoners to deal with, both of the conscious and unconscious variety. Not to mention the fact that we had to keep an eye out for pursuers. There was plenty of work to be done. But what mattered right now was that we… most of us anyway, had gone into that prison, saved the people we went there for, and got out. Now it was time to go home. 

And for Asenath and Gordon to officially be reunited with their fathers.

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By Blood 17-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thankfully, I wasn’t out for long. When I came to a short time later, Doug was sitting over me, using one of the enchanted stones we’d all received from the adults to give me a bit of energy. Sort of like smelling salts mixed with strong coffee. My eyes blinked away the blurriness until I managed to focus on him, then started to sit up. 

“It’s okay,” he assured me. “Fight’s over. They’re… trying to figure out how to open the tubes and get everyone out without hurting anyone.” He looked over his shoulder, and I followed the boy’s gaze to where everyone else was, sure enough, working on that. Even Sands was up and moving around, talking animatedly to her sister as they crouched behind one of the tubes.

“Checking for traps?” I asked, my gaze turning toward the dead body of the giant monster. It was still there, and still just as horrifying. Okay, maybe slightly less horrifying dead than it had been when it was alive. But I still wasn’t going to get anywhere near it. Still, I took a second to stare at the thing, feeling a sense of awe and satisfaction both about the fact that we had managed to kill it, and that all those people who had been sacrificed to bring it to life had had a part in taking the the damn thing down. I’d felt their own intense relief just before they passed on.  

Doug confirmed that before hesitating. “I think I should use my question, but I’m not sure. What if we need it later for getting out of here? I’ve only got the one.”  

I knew what he was talking about, it was that thing where he could ask a question once per day and get either the answer or be directed toward the answer. It was the same thing that had pointed his team toward me when he’d asked how they could find out what was really going on with Roxa. And now he could either use it to ask how to get the prisoners out of those tubes, or save it in case we needed an answer to a more dire and immediate problem later. It had to be a hard choice to make every time he made it out in the field like this. How was he supposed to know if using his single question at any given point was the right time? It was a lot of pressure. I didn’t even like using limited quantity items in video games, let alone something like this. 

Still, I only hesitated for a moment in this case before giving a short nod. “Use it. The sooner we get them out of there and moving, the sooner everyone gets off this planet. That’s gotta be worth it.” 

Letting out an audible breath, Doug hesitated to think before starting. “Okay, well here goes nothing. How do we safely get the prisoners right there out of the tubes without harming any of them or setting off any traps?” His voice turned somewhat eerie through that, gaining a slight echoey quality to it. 

While waiting for him to get an answer to that, I looked over to where Asenath and Shiori were standing together in front of the tube that Tiras was in. His daughter had a hand against the side, clearly overwhelmed by the fact that she was seeing him in person for the first time since she was a child. Even now I couldn’t make him out very well, but she knew him. And for Asenath, ‘since she was a child’ had been a very long time indeed. I couldn’t even imagine the emotions that were going through her mind at that moment. Especially considering she was that close to him, but still couldn’t talk to him yet.  All those years and all that distance, and now the only thing between them was this tube, but she couldn’t get through it. Not yet, anyway. 

Gordon had found his father too. Standing at the far end of the line of tubes, the boy had his arms folded across his chest while he stared silently at the figure within. As always, it was hard to judge his emotions solely from the flat expression on his face but I had a feeling there were a lot swirling inside him.  

With a slight gasp, Doug started and gave a sharp shake of his head. He glanced toward me briefly before starting that way at a jog. “Hang on,” the boy called, “I know how to get them out! But uhh, they’re gonna be out of it for awhile. They won’t wake up even after we get them out of the tubes, so we’re gonna have to carry them or…” Trailing off, he frowned while taking in the amount of prisoners. Three rows of ten. Thirty prisoners. We didn’t have nearly enough people down here to carry that many. 

Fortunately, we had come prepared for that, just in case the people we were rescuing weren’t in any condition to move on their own. Granted, we were anticipating injuries or something like that, not some sort of stasis coma. 

“We’ll have to use the blankets,” Avalon murmured. “Get them out, guys.” To Doug, she added, “How do we open them up?”  

Sands, Sarah, Shiori, Jazz, and I started to pull ‘the ‘blankets’ out. They were the same sort of magical storage blankets that Kohaku had used to store the body of that Heretic up in the lighthouse. When they were placed over someone, the blanket would shift them into a special pocket dimension (one with oxygen, of course). Each blanket could be used multiple times to store up to ten people. So we had plenty for this. 

Of course, that raised another thought in my mind. We had seen prisoners walking around outside when we first arrived, doing work for these people. Where were they now? We hadn’t run into them on the way down here, so I hoped they were taking cover in one of the buildings so we could find them before we left. Or maybe Kohaku and the others already had. Either way, we just had to deal with these ones. 

By the time we got the blankets ready to go, Doug had already taken Avalon, Gordon, Shiori, and Asenath over to what at first looked like just an ordinary boulder near the wall. But when he ran his hand over it, the hologram vanished, revealing a console. He quickly started typing in a complicated sequence on the keypad there, and as he did so, each of the tubes gave an affirmative beep. Then the liquid in them started to drain out. Where it went I wasn’t sure, but it was gradually disappearing, leaving the bodies within to slump down. Then the ‘glass’ of the tubes rose upward, leaving an opening while the still-unconscious prisoners simply fell limply against the floor of their containment units. Not the most graceful way of getting them out, but at least it worked. We didn’t exactly have time to worry about treating them like they were at a five star resort right at the moment, and I doubted the prisoners would care. 

Quickly, we all started to move in pairs, Avalon and I working together, to lay each prisoner out and put one of the blankets over them. The things were made to stretch a lot and shape themselves around the person being put under it, so it wasn’t that hard. Nearby, I could see Shiori and Asenath doing that with Tiras, while Jazz helped Gordon with his father. The whole time, I just kept imagining a clock ticking down. We had no idea if the Eden’s Garden people had even managed to get any sort of message out let alone how long it would take help to arrive. It was like being in a room where there could be a bomb, but we didn’t know if it existed or how much time was on it. Not to mention, whether there were reinforcements coming or not, the adults were still out there fighting against a numerically superior force, and the element of surprise had to have worn off by now. So, we had no idea if the Victor was on his way, or how Deveron’s group was doing out there, and the longer we took with this, the worse off the situation could be. Especially after we had already taken all that time to get down here and fight that fucking monster. Stressful, to say the least. Every second we took getting these unconscious figures under the blankets to store them safely felt like an hour. 

Finally, we had all of them put away. It had obviously been hard for Asenath and Gordon to be literally touching their fathers after all this time, only to shove them out of sight again. At least it was incredibly temporary, and they knew that. We just had to get the hell out of here. 

“Okay,” Senny announced while rising with the blanket that had her father and several others stored within slung over her shoulder, “someone let them know it’s time to bug out of here.” Her voice caught just a little in the middle of that, betraying a tiny bit of the intense emotions she had to be feeling. 

I already had the coin in my hand by the time she finished saying that. Rubbing my thumb over it, I murmured the words to trigger the spell. It grew warm in my palm before letting out a loud chiming sound. In that moment, the identical coins in the pockets of Deveron, Kohaku, and all the others out there would be going off. It was the signal to let them know we had the prisoners and were on our way out, so they needed to be ready. 

Collectively, our group exchanged glances. We were exhausted from the fight, some of us even more so from multiple fights. But we had to keep going. This was almost over. We were this close to being done and gone. So, we steeled ourselves, took a breath, and then turned to run back up the tunnel we had come down. I ignored how exhausted I felt after empowering all those ghosts to hold the beast down. I ignored everything, my fear of what would happen if Victor Kyril Shamon showed up, the joy at seeing Asenath and Gordon manage to get to their fathers, my anger at what the Heretics here had been doing–wait, no, scratch that. I held onto that. I used that anger and focused on it as I ran with the others, keeping pace with them so we could all remain in a group just in case there were any bad surprises waiting for us. 

Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything in our way. I supposed that anyone who was still up and moving was probably thoroughly distracted by the huge fight going on outside. They didn’t exactly have time to set up a trap for the rest of us. No matter how long the paranoid part of my brain kept screaming that this was taking, it was all still pretty quick in the grand scheme of things. 

Shortly before we reached the entrance, as we passed through familiar parts of the tunnel, Sarah produced a second coin with near-identical runes as the one I had used before we started running. Its spell was activated, alerting the others that we were about to emerge. The first coin told them we were on our way, this one told them we were right there and they should tell us if it was safe to come out or if we should wait. 

At first there was no response and we slowed slightly while exchanging looks. Did we keep going if they didn’t respond? Or did we hold off and try to find out what was–

There. Thank God, that wasn’t a decision we had to make. Just as I was starting to think that something terrible had happened, a glowing green arrow appeared in the air in front of us. That was the signal. We were good to go. The fighting wasn’t completely over, or the symbol would have been a thumbs up. A green arrow meant it was safe to go and fairly clear, but there were still threats out there so we should keep our eyes open. A raised red hand would have meant stop, and a yellow question mark would mean there were threats right in front of the entrance that we would need to engage with. This wasn’t the absolute best response, but still. 

So, we kept going, sprinting straight out of the tunnel, through the spot where the forcefield had been before Columbus took it down. Right there, at the mouth of the cave inside the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, the Dornan cousins stood using a wave of blue-white fire from their hands to block several separate incoming blasts of energy. The Eden’s Garden people were still attacking, but Seamus and Roger were shielding the area. Tangle, looking a bit worse for wear and bloodied, was standing to one side, clearly watching for us. As we emerged, she shouted something to the other two, then beckoned for us to hurry. 

We didn’t see anyone else. They must’ve been fighting elsewhere, however, because I could hear shouting and explosions and… more going on in the distance. This place was a complete warzone, and something told me it was just going to get worse as the defenders warmed up. Let alone if they actually managed to summon reinforcements. 

Shoving that out of our minds, we ran straight toward Tangle. As we approached, the woman threw something toward the ground. It sprang up to form a door. A literal door standing right in the open, like the one I had taken to get to Crossroads. It was closed at first, but she shoved it open to reveal a clearing with black-gray trees and orange dirt on the other side. Still a place on this world, but away from the immediate fighting. A place to regroup so we could leave. 

Bobbi went through the door first, then Doug, Twister, Shiori, and the rest of us followed right behind. I was last, pausing just long enough to shout toward Tangle, “Everyone else?!” 

“Heading out right after you!” She glanced to me while shouting that. “Go!” 

Even as she said that, I could see the blue-white flame shield that Seamus and Roger were projecting start to flicker as more and more attacks hit it. Clearly, it wasn’t going to hold for much longer. Especially as the Heretics on the far side noticed the flickering and renewed their efforts. The blasts they were hitting it with were like artillery shells exploding against a forcefield of fire. It was going to fail any second now. And then, well, then we would really be in trouble. 

So, I went through the door, stumbling a bit in my rush. Then I was in that clearing with the others, who were already catching their breaths. Shiori quickly grabbed me in a hug that also pulled me away from the door just as Tangle came through. She was followed by Roger, then Seamus. Past the two of them, as I looked that way while still clutched by Shiori, I could see six Heretics coming straight toward us. They had spotted the door and were racing our way. One of them turned into a blur of motion, speeding straight at us so quickly he would’ve reached the door before anyone could react. 

At least, before I or any of my peers could react. Tangle’s hand snapped up as she turned back that way right after she and the cousins reached the clearing. A jet of water shot from her palm and between Roger and Seamus before expanding into a massive tidal wave the moment it passed the doorway. That tidal wave slammed into the approaching Heretic. I caught a brief glimpse of him attempting to fight his way through it and continue his forward momentum before the wave managed to shove him away from the door. 

That wasn’t the end of it, however. A circular blade shot through the doorway from that side, nearly embedding itself in Tangle’s throat before Roger snapped his hand out so that it embedded itself in his palm instead, making the man grunt. Meanwhile, Seamus grabbed the door to shove it closed, taking what had to be at least three or four blasts of energy against his arm and side, one of which destroyed half his shirt and left a truly nasty-looking burn across the lower half of his torso. It looked painful as fuck, to say the least. But the man showed no reaction other than to give a grunt similar to Roger’s when the blade had embedded itself in his hand.

In the next second, he had the door shut. The instant the latch clicked, the whole thing vanished. We were–okay, not safe. Not in the least. But assuming they had set this up the way we planned, we were now hundreds of miles from the prison. It would take them time to find us. Time we could use to get out of here on the– I looked around. There. The truck was waiting about a hundred feet away, just as pristine as it had been when we left it to make our scouting and sabotage trip. 

“What about the others?” Avalon was asking, panting a bit from everything. “And the rest of the prisoners? There were some out and standing, but the ones we found–” 

“Deveron and the rest have them,” Roger informed us. He was pulling the blade out of his hand. Grimacing at it, the man focused until the blade turned to dust. His wound was already starting to heal. “That’s why we had to split up. They had a bunch of slaves holed up in a corner of the compound. One of their people tried to send a bunch of fire that way to kill them off for retribution or whatever, but another guard was shielding them.” 

“Wait,” I spoke up. “You mean one of the Eden’s Garden Heretics was shielding the prisoners from getting hurt? Someone sympathetic to our side?” 

Seamus, gingerly touching his burn with a wince, shrugged. “I think they called him Coppe. Just someone who didn’t think their prisoners deserved to die like that, I guess. Can’t make him very popular with the rest of his people, though.” 

“No, probably not,” Tangle confirmed before focusing on us. “But what happened down–” 

In the midst of that clearly very important question, another door opened up nearby. We all spun that way, weapons raised. But it opened to reveal Klassin Roe, who stumbled through looking about as good as any of the other adults here. One of his arms was literally missing, and he had a hard shell of half-broken ice across half his torso, as well as a deep burn across his forehead. Clearly barely keeping himself upright, the man held the door as Kohaku appeared, followed by Jiao. The moment they were through, the trio moved away from the door, allowing a line of neon-red jumpsuit-wearing prisoners, of all colors, shapes, and sizes to pass through. A couple of them were too big for the door as it was, but it rose and changed shape to accommodate them. Soon, in addition to the thirty unconscious slaves we had taken from the tubes, there were a dozen or so more standing around. They looked bewildered, anxious, afraid, clearly unconvinced that this was a real rescue. Which I couldn’t blame them for. Not after everything they had been through, especially if they had the slightest idea what had been done to their fellow prisoners down in the caves. 

Either way, the second the last prisoner was through, another man appeared. I didn’t recognize him, but he wasn’t in prisoner clothes. He was a guard, another Heretic. Tall and blond. As soon as he was there, Roger and Seamus caught him by the arm and yanked the man out of the way. They had a pair of cuffs on him almost immediately, and Tangle used a field-engraver to put a spell on the man’s arm. She said something to him, he gave a short nod, and then she said another word and he collapsed. Roger and Seamus stopped him from collapsing, gently lowering him to the ground.

The traitor, I had already realized. It was that Coppe guy, the guard who had shielded their prisoners against his fellow Heretics’ retribution. That’s why he was here with us, but they weren’t taking any chances. He was being secured and knocked out until we could figure out what to do. 

Meanwhile, Deveron had appeared. He was dragging something with him, kicking the door shut while explosions continued on the far side. I could hear someone scream his name with rage that sent a chill through me. It was the sort of anger that promised retribution. This wasn’t over. We still had to get off the planet before they tracked us down. 

But wait. Where was–

Then I saw what Deveron had been dragging, as he carefully laid it down on the grass. No, not it. Him. Tribald Kine. Motionless, his eyes staring sightlessly toward the sky. 

We had escaped with the prisoners, for the moment. But not without cost. 

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By Blood 17-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so this giant spider-crocodile-man thing wasn’t just really big and scary-looking. It was also very angry and incredibly violent, both of which were demonstrated as it let out a loud, piercing scream and brought two of those massive legs up before slamming them down toward the spot where we were all standing. Sands threw up a stone wall with her mace, Bobbi created a forcefield, and Gordon an ice-wall. All three defenses were layered together, and the creature’s legs punched through all of them like they weren’t even there. Thankfully, we were all already diving out of the way, but still. Seeing those deadly legs just punch through the walls of ice, stone, and light that easily from the corner of my eye as I was throwing myself to the side gave some small idea of how dangerous this thing was. Definitely not something to take lightly. Really, it seemed like the smartest choice was to turn around and get the fuck out of here. And yet, we couldn’t run away. Not now. We had to deal with it, if we were going to get those guys out of their prison tubes. And there was absolutely no way that Gordon or Asenath would leave without their fathers. Not when they were this close. 

So, we had to fight this thing. And we had to do it quickly, before the Eden’s Garden people managed to summon reinforcements. But at least there were twelve of us, right? We could bring this thing down pretty quick with all of us working together. At least, I hoped we could. 

Using a quick burst from my staff to lift myself back to my feet the instant I hit the ground, I spun toward the spot where those two enormous spider-like legs had just slammed into the rocks and dirt, spraying both in all directions. The creature was still screaming, but I shouted over it. “Get it away from the tubes!” Even as those words escaped me, I was already running to one side while converting my staff to its bow form. An instant later, I sent an energy arrow flying up to slam into the side of the thing’s monstrous humanoid head. The concussive blast barely seemed to register. The three eyes visible on its left side glared down at me, before the thing brought another of those ten legs out in a contemptuous swat, like I would when slapping a particularly annoying and persistent fly out of my face. 

Another quick kinetic burst from my staff launched me up and over the bus-sized leg. But while I was still in mid-air, a small opening appeared on the side of the creature’s neck, like a blowhole or something. But this didn’t suck in air. Instead, it shot this blob of sticky webbing that slammed into me. The next thing I knew, I was hitting the floor with this stuff wrapped tightly around me and holding me down. I couldn’t move, encased as I was in this sticky webbing. And it smelled awful, like rancid milk. Worse, it was starting to burn. Not like fire. Like acid or something. It felt like that, anyway. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t trapped that way for long. Even as my body had started to register the pain, Doug was right there. His hand rose, projecting what looked like a welding torch flame from his palm while he touched the webbing with his other hand. The flame cut right through the web, but didn’t hurt me at all, even though it should have been going straight into my side. As soon as I was free, he turned the blowtorch power to his own hand, cutting the webbing off that as well. 

The monster was starting to follow up already, lifting one of those legs. But before it could bring the leg down, Avalon screamed fire at it. Literally. She opened her mouth and flames shot that way. Flames which turned into a bird and flew right up into the side of the monster’s head.  She actually seemed more surprised than it was, mouth still open as she stood there frozen briefly. 

I and several others shouted a warning as the monster swung its leg back that way, abandoning its attack on Doug and me to instead swat at the source of that fire bird. At the last second, I saw metal armor encase Avalon, just before she took the blow from the leg. It launched her up and backwards against the rock wall, but she landed on her feet. 

Right, so we knew two of the powers she’d gotten from the guy in the tower. 

Meanwhile, everyone else was fighting too. Bobbi’s speed-blurred form raced up an energy-construct track she had created before driving a blade into the side of the thing’s head. Asenath was right behind her with a knife, stabbing into one of its eyes. Gordon had hold of one of the legs and was freezing it solid. Recovering from her fall, Avalon (still encased in armor) drove one of her gauntlet energy blades into the leg that had smacked her, while Shiori sent both of her electricity-covered discs flying up into another pair of eyes on the far side. Jazz had conjured her gravity orbs near another of its legs, trying to yank it off balance that way while Avalon and Gordon attacked its legs on this side. Twister turned into a bird, flying up to land on its back before transforming into a lion to bite into the base of the thing’s neck. Sarah had her rifle up, shooting multiple times into other eyes from several directions at once. Sands turned into her shadow-form, sliding up one of the thing’s legs to its back behind Twister before bringing her mace up toward the roof of the cave. With a grunt, she slammed it downward, bringing a sharp pillar of stone out of the ceiling to stab into the creature’s back. Finally, Columbus sent a blast of energy from his goggles into the creature’s long, exposed throat. 

And none of it seemed to accomplish anything. Columbus’s blast hit the neck with no apparent reaction. Everyone stabbing or shooting into the thing’s eyes had their attacks bounce off as if the eyes themselves were made of steel. Twister’s teeth couldn’t puncture its neck, and the stone pillar that Sands had conjured crumbled as it struck the thing’s back. Even Avalon, Gordon, and Jazz had no luck. The energy blade did nothing to one leg, the ice had barely settled on the second before the creature simply snapped it outward to send shards flying everywhere, and if it noticed the pull from the gravity orbs, it didn’t give any indication. 

But no matter how easily it had shrugged off every attack, the creature was still very angry. Not that it showed that through the scream. In fact, the scream itself had completely stopped. Instead, the monster made a dark, violent noise, like a growl. Its head turned a bit, as though it was considering us. Then a smile came across its face, showing those rows of deadly teeth. It saw us, evaluated us, and found us to be no real threat. And yet, threat or not, it was still going to kill us. 

“Flick, can you possess it?!” Columbus shouted across the cavern at me. 

Grimacing, I created a portal in front of my hand. I hadn’t really done a lot of possessing animals (if that was even what this thing was), but if it would stop it from being a threat… I shoved my hand through to grab the side of the monster’s leg, making physical contact before using my stolen Seosten power. 

I was in the creature. And yet, I was not in control. I felt bottomless, unfathomable rage. I felt destruction. I felt the unfathomable, unrelenting fury of a full legion of monsters stuck within the body of one. A hundred, a thousand voices in that head, each of them crying out for more death, more violence, for blood to be spilt upon the altar of their endless thirst. It was as though every dark impulse, every drive toward savagery and cruelty, had been drawn from thousands of beings and shoved into this single mind. If it could even be called that. This creature, this monster, had the violent desires of all those different minds, each clamoring for more destruction. I couldn’t control or direct it any more than I could tell a planet where to move. 

For a moment, I thought I would lose myself within that horrific tide of sadistic barbarity. But at the last possible second, I remembered to eject myself. And eject I did, flying through the air to land hard on the ground almost directly next to where I’d been a moment earlier. Crashing down, I managed a weak, “Don’t.. do that. Bad. Very bad.” 

“Then we do it the hard way,” Avalon announced, after giving me a quick glance to make sure I was okay. When I struggled upward, she snapped her attention back to the creature. “Don’t spread out your attacks!” she shouted while backpedaling a bit. “Focus on one eye and one leg at a time! Make a hole and punch through it! Chambers, Porters, Lucases, and Asenath on the eyes! The rest of us on the legs! One target at a time til you do some damage!” 

Even as she said those words, the creature was sending several shots of webbing from multiple holes in its long neck, forcing everyone to dive out of the way. I barely managed to avoid being hit that time. Which was good, because I had absolutely no desire to end up trapped by that shit again.  

Giving a quick nod and mutter of good luck toward Doug, I ignored the nausea that had swam up in me at the memory of what possessing that thing had felt like and shoved myself into a sprint, gripping my weapon tightly as I shifted it back into its staff form. Bobbi leapt down toward me, coming my way so fast she was almost still a blur. Without missing a beat, I held my staff up for her to grab onto it before pivoting in place to hurl the smaller girl in the direction of one of the legs so she could maintain her speed. In mid-flight, she produced a glowing red energy sword before slamming it into one of the joints. Still no damage. 

But I couldn’t think about that, other than to hope that one of their attacks eventually got through. My sprint, by that point, had carried me close enough to the monster that I was able to leap and summon my new rocket-burst power to carry myself all the way up to its scaled back, landing almost exactly where Columbus had been a moment earlier. 

Sands was still there, pivoting around to put herself next to me. Even as she did that, I was already pointing my staff toward the thing’s ring of eyes. “It’s cool, I’ve got this!” With those words, I sent my super-heated cloud of sand right there. Screwing with vision using my sand was sort of my thing, I could–

And then the creature sent what seemed to be high-powered blasts of wind out of its fucking tear ducts to blow the sand away from its face. The wind was too strong for me to get the sand close. 

“Okay,” I amended, “I don’t got this.” So I was zero for two in trying to end this thing instantly. Stellar track record, Flick. And on top of everything else, I could still feel that weird, silent voice at the back of my mind. Only now it was worse, like something was desperately trying to shove its way out, or dig its way in. I couldn’t tell. Either way, this was a bad place to be in. We needed to get the fuck out of here. But we couldn’t, not until we dealt with this thing and saved those prisoners. 

Sands and I exchanged a quick glance and shrug before moving onto Plan B (or whatever letter this was). Namely, we looked up toward that ring of enormous eyes once more, far above us at the end of that long neck. Then we both jumped. Our strength had been enhanced enough by that point that, even without a boost, we could get some decent vertical distance. And I added to that by catching hold of the other girl while triggering the rocket burst once more. It carried us the rest of the way up there, as we both lashed out with our weapons. My bladed staff and her mace both slammed into the eye one after the other with as much force as we could muster. Which, considering Sands was capable of lifting a good four thousand pounds even without the boosted strength from standing still, and killing the Heretic back on Earth had pushed me up to just over that, was a lot of force. 

But again, our blows did nothing. The creature barely blinked under the pair of attacks. I was pretty sure the most we managed to do was annoy it, considering the way it screeched. 

Nor did Columbus’s follow-up blast of concussive energy, Shiori’s lightning breath, or Asenath’s own blast of lightning breath (she had borrowed some blood from Shiori to gain her powers for this whole thing) manage to do much better. I had no idea how the others on the ground were doing with the leg, but I hoped they were getting further than we were. 

By that point, Sands and I had almost collided with the ceiling, flipping ourselves over as the other girl made a quick wall for us to bounce off of. Which was just in time, as the creature opened its mouth to send a long, sharp tongue at the spot where we would have been an instant earlier. The tongue was more like a rope, with a blade on the end that probably would have pierced straight through us considering how easily it punched right up into the stone ceiling. 

Right, so unbelievably tough to the point of taking half a dozen blows against one eye without even blinking, strong enough to basically pulverize any of us with those massive legs, a bunch of blowholes around its neck that each could shoot acidic, almost-inescapable webbing, and now the thing had a long, prehensile tongue with a blade on the end that could go through stone. Were there any other powers or advantages this thing wanted to pull out to show how drastically outclassed we were? 

Fuck, I really shouldn’t have asked. 

Sure enough, the monster seemed to read my mind. Because the instant that Sands and I landed next to the others, it immediately began to produce a thick cloud of dark purple smoke from the same tear ducts it had produced the wind from. Which was weird, unfair, and very clearly poisonous. I didn’t even need my power to smell poison to kick in (which it did) before I realized that. Before the gas could reach us, I blurted, “Don’t breathe it!” 

“Worse than that!” Columbus snapped. Bringing up Amethyst in her shield form, he fired four of her spell-quills outward. In mid-air, the spells activated at a word from him, each creating their own sustained blast of wind to send the gas out away from us in various directions. “It’s acidic and hallucinogenic.” His hand tapped the side of his goggles in explanation. “It’ll melt your face off while giving you a psychotic trip of your worst nightmares, like the Scarecrow in Batman!”

Okay, that was just… not good. Quickly, before those wind spells could wear off (I was pretty sure he didn’t have an unlimited supply of them) I spat a wad of that thick resin stuff over the nearest tear duct to stop the gas from that one. 

Thankfully, Sands was already acting too. From her hands, she shot two different lines of spider-like webbing over a couple more gas-producing tear ducts. Meanwhile, Sarah chambered a round in her rifle, snapped it up once more, and fired a shot. But instead of being a normal bullet, that one exploded into thick putty when it hit the tear duct on that particular eye, before solidifying. 

Of course, the monster wasn’t just going to sit still and let us do that. The whole time we were dealing with the terror-gas, it kept jerking itself violently back and forth in an attempt to throw us off its back. It was all we could do to stay on, and I was pretty sure we wouldn’t even have managed that much if this thing wasn’t also busy dealing with the others attacking its legs. 

Worse, it was simultaneously sending more shots of that nasty webbing of its own at us through the holes in its neck. But we still had Shiori and Asenath, who kept blasting the incoming webbing with directed sonic-attack screams from the Cù-Sith that Shiori had killed way back during the whole business with tracking down Fahsteth last year. The screams were a bit loud for us, but the power was focused enough that the bulk of the sonic energy was directed in a straight line toward the incoming webbing, breaking it apart and scattering it before the stuff could reach us. 

At that moment, just as we finished blocking the thing’s gas-producing tear ducts that could reach us, the entire monster abruptly lurched to one side with a horrifying scream of rage. It was the others. Through sustained, directed attacks that entire time, they’d managed to get one of its legs off. And boy was our new friend pissed about that. It staggered that way, very nearly throwing the rest of us off its back. Still, it had nine legs left, three of which were violently stabbing down at the others down there. They definitely had its attention. 

And hey, the good news right then was that the tear ducts were blocked, so I could use my sand again. Unfortunately, the bad news was that this thing had no intention of letting me get that far. The group below may have pissed it off, but it hadn’t forgotten we were there. As evidenced by the fact that several of those eyes were glaring straight at those of us on its back. Yeah, it definitely hadn’t forgotten we were there. And it was going to do something about that, before we could take advantage of its ‘vulnerable’ eyes. 

In this case, that ‘something’ turned out to be ‘hold itself up on two of its remaining nine legs (one on each side), continue to stab at the people down there with three of the seven free ones, and twist the other four around to stab upward at us. Like someone reaching their arm around to scratch their own back. Only, well, much worse. Four bus-sized sharp spider-feet slamming down toward us from all sides. 

We got out of there, barely. The six of us bailed in different directions just in time, launching ourselves off the thing before it could pulverize any of us. Unfortunately, now we were falling from pretty high. Not far enough to kill us, given our strength boosts. But still not great. Fortunately, I was ready for that. With a thought, I summoned some of my volunteer ghost friends, one for each of us. The six ghosts manifested, catching us under our arms as they turned solid just long enough to lower us to the ground so we could land on our feet. 

Immediately, I fell to my knees with a gasp, pitching forward before catching myself with my hands. A short distance away, I could half-see the giant monster flailing violently. Its leg shot out toward Doug, but he managed to manifest those metal coils from his hands to shove himself up and out of the way. The deadly tongue nearly tore through Gordon, but he summoned a pillar of ice under his feet to lift himself up while shooting the monster’s face repeatedly with his own tommy gun. On the far side from Doug, another leg nearly took Sands’ head off but she froze, making herself all-but completely invulnerable for that instant so the leg actually bounced off her. 

It flailed, shot out more webs, screamed, threw those deadly legs around in every direction, and more. Yet I simply knelt there, staring at the ground. Above my head, Shiori and Avalon appeared as though by magic, working together to stop a set of webbing that had been coming my way. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, “are you–” 

Shoving myself to my feet in a single, smooth motion, I brought my staff up. “Everyone get ready to hit it with everything you’ve got!” I shouted as loud as I could. “And I wish someone had a camera.

“Cuz this is gonna be epic.” 

With those words, I grasped my staff high over my head with both hands, and reached out with my power. With my necromancy. Because in the moment that I had summoned those few ghosts to catch us as we fell, I had realized what that feeling in the back of my head the entire time we’d been coming down into this cave was. I’d realized what was trying to get my attention, what had been clamoring for a bit of power, a bit of strength. With a scream that tore its way out of my throat like a force of nature as I slammed my staff into the ground, I gave them that power.

People had died in this cave. Not a few. Not a dozen. Not a hundred. Three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five. All of them different ages, genders, and species. They had died here, as what amounted to blood sacrifices to create, empower, and feed this creature. In their terrible, traumatic deaths, ghosts had been left behind. At that moment, as I slammed my staff into the ground, I shoved every bit of power I could into those ghosts. I boosted myself for even more power, and I gave it all to them. Even then it probably wouldn’t have been enough to control that many ghosts with my particular skill level. But there was no controlling to be done here. I didn’t have to ask for them to do it. They were ready and waiting, desperate for a chance. 

Hey ugly!” I screamed as loud as I could, already wavering on my feet as the thing focused on me. My entire body was trembling from effort, sweat pouring down my brow. I could barely speak. “You got some friends…. who wanna say hi.” 

My staff collided with the floor of the cave, and in that instant, all three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five ghosts launched themselves upward out of the cave floor, all around the monster. They caught its legs, its extended tongue, its neck, they fell upon its back. They drove it to the floor and they held it there through sheer weight of numbers. It flailed, it screamed, it struggled, but it could do nothing. It was held down, trapped, pinned by the ghosts of the very same people who had been sacrificed to create it. 

Just like that, the monster’s neck was exposed, and everyone hit it in those brief seconds. Everyone but me, at least. Every attack they had, every power, everything they could hit it with was directed to one spot on the thing’s neck. They blasted it, cut it, shot it, burned it, they hit that single, small spot together. And under that assault, they broke through. They cracked the thing’s scales, they made a hole. A hole that someone could take advantage of. 

Sands was that someone. Rearing back, the girl hurled something small that way, like a pitcher on the mound letting loose with a fastball. But this wasn’t a leather-covered cork orb. It was a piece of wood, with runes along the side. And as Sands let it go, sending the wood flying at the single exposed hole in the monster’s neck, she triggered the magic on that wood. 

She summoned her theriangelos, the massive red and pink rhinoceros. And that three thousand pound rhino went flying, as fast as a girl who could lift four thousand pounds could hurl a small block that weighed about five ounces, straight at the single weak point that everyone had created. 

The rhino utterly annihilated that weak point, tearing through the monster’s neck and out the other side. Sands had severed the monster’s head from its body, and as she collapsed with a cry of pleasure, I released the ghosts I had summoned. I felt their own relief, their gratitude, as they vanished forever. 

“See,” I managed blearily, swaying a bit on my feet, “told you it was gonna be ep–” 

And then I passed out.  

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By Blood 17-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The timing for our plan was incredibly crucial. We had to wait for enough of the guards to be thoroughly distracted by Deveron and the Dornans so the rest of us could jump them from behind. And if this whole thing worked the way it was supposed to, we would be doing that more than once. We just had to hit them just right. 

To that end, Kohaku and Tangle had the rest of us touch them and wait until enough of the guards had made their way to the gate on the far side of the complex below. Finally, it was time. There were still a few stragglers up on the buildings or coming out of side doors, but we couldn’t wait any longer. We needed enough of the guards to be over by the gate, yet if they got too far out, this wouldn’t work. So, with a word of warning, the two Heretic adults teleported all of us down to the roof of the building almost directly below us. There was a single guard there who had been taking aim with a rifle that looked a lot like Sarah’s. But even as he spun upon our arrival, Kohaku was driving her fist, abruptly shape-shifted into a glowing blade, into his gut. She cut him all the way up to his neck and then ripped her fist out. He was flailing and gasping until she transformed her hand back and caught both sides of his head so she could literally rip it from his body. It was brutal, efficient, and made my eyes widen as a noise of disbelief escaped me. The man had been gutted and then had his head torn from his shoulders before he even knew what was going on. Seeing it from this side was incredibly dark.

Meanwhile, Tangle wasn’t exactly slouching. There had been another Heretic coming out the door of the building we were standing on, and the former Crossroads teacher was already conjuring some sort of energy rope, which she threw around his neck like a noose before yanking him up to our level. He was choking and flailing even as she held the rope with one hand, produced some sort of knife with the other, and drove it into the top of his head. 

Both women acted together, and the whole thing took less than five seconds before the two guards were dead. I saw Kohaku and Tangle’s individual auras both flare, but if they noticed the rush of pleasure, neither reacted. Their attention was focused out on the yard itself, where we could see more Heretic guards racing around the fake smoldering remains of the transport truck on their way to deal with where they thought the main threat was coming from. 

Our main advantage throughout this whole thing, besides the element of surprise, was the fact that there weren’t incredibly powerful Heretics stationed here. At least relatively speaking. Honestly I thought the guy in the radio tower was powerful enough to be a problem. But the truth was that most of the people here were basically average. The strongest Eden’s Garden Heretics wouldn’t be guarding a backwater prison work camp with a few Alters digging out a mountain. They weren’t pushovers, by any means, but we weren’t dealing with the cream of the crop. And that was basically the only reason we had any chance of getting away with our small group performing a rescue mission. Especially now that we had cut off their ability to communicate easily with reinforcements. 

To the right, we could see another man come running out of the building there, shouting something about ‘the tower’ being down. Sure enough, he was pointing up toward the tower we had just come from, calling over his shoulder toward someone else inside the building. I could see him bracing himself for what was probably going to be a teleport up that way so he could figure out what was wrong with their radio. But then he caught sight of us on the roof of the other building, his attention snapping our way just in time for Tangle to hold her hand up. A strange set of dancing lights appeared in her palm. The man stopped short, staring at those rapidly moving glowing symbols with a slack-jawed expression. It only lasted for a brief moment, two seconds at most. But that was enough for Kohaku to appear behind him. And to the left of him. And to the right of him. While still standing right here with us. The two duplicate Kohakus on either side of the man caught hold of him, while the third pointed her hand into the back of his head and used the finger-laser I’d seen before. It took three or four shots, but the man went down. Which was just in time for a burst of flame from inside the building to engulf all three Kohaku clones and incinerate them. 

The regular Kohaku grimaced, then vanished from where she was standing, only to appear down there on the rear side of the building. As we watched, she raised her hands and then slammed them together. With that motion, the building crumpled in on itself, turning into a metal ball that was collapsed around the Heretic within. Unfortunately, he simply phased out of it, appearing in a ghost-like form with his gaze focused on Kohaku. 

Which meant he never noticed Tangle pointing a hand at him as she summoned a blast of electricity like the freaking emperor from Star Wars. The blast tore into his intangible form, seeming to hurt him even more than it would otherwise. With a scream, the man basically disintegrated. 

In what had to be less than thirty seconds, four Heretics were dead thanks to Kohaku and Tangle. Yes, we were taking them by surprise, and they were focused on other things. But still. 

That seemed to be all of the people who were right here, so we could move again. Our group hopped to the ground to join Kohaku, who was looking across the chaotic prison grounds. Her voice was terse. “Hit them now, hard as you can.” 

‘Them,’ in this case, were the Heretic guards on their way past the fake truck remains. They were in mid-sprint and hadn’t noticed the burst of violence behind them. We had to get their attention on us for this to work. So, Sarah brought her rifle to her shoulder and fired a shot, I transformed my staff into its bow-form to send an energy arrow that way, Avalon pointed one of her gauntlets to launch what looked like a bolt of energy similar to her constructs, and Sands drove her mace into the ground, sending a low, foot-high wall racing along the ground until it grew up and outward into a rock spike that slammed into one of the men. 

Between all those attacks and what Kohaku and Tangle sent that way as well, we definitely had some of the guards’ attention. They spun back toward us, bringing up their own weapons and powers. Which, for an instant, made this whole getting their attention thing feel like a bad idea. 

But, of course, there was a reason we wanted them to look at us. And that reason showed itself before they could launch their counterattack. From the fake rubble where they had been hiding, our companions abruptly appeared. Columbus rose, using his goggles to fire a blast of energy into one man’s side. Though strong enough to punch through rock like it was paper, the blast barely made that guy stagger a bit. He looked toward Columbus, just before Shiori launched herself at him from the side, her fist slamming into his face. Which didn’t do a lot on its own, but then six or seven glowing energy-like duplicate Shioris copied the same motion. That was enough to make him reel a bit, which was when Columbus brought both his hands together and shoved hard, sending a blast of kinetic force into the man that was hard enough to knock him a good twenty feet. And before he could crash to the ground, Bobbi was there in a blur of motion, catching the guy in the back as he was falling with a glowing energy construct of a fist the size of a small car. 

Shiori, Columbus, and Bobbi all hit that guy, while Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon hit another one, Tribald Kine and Klassin Roe hit a third, and Jiao and Asenath jumped a fourth. This was how we were hitting them, how our plan worked out to triple-ambush the prison guards. First Deveron and the Dornans unexpectedly attacked them from one side. Then, as they were running to deal with that, Tangle, Kohaku, and the rest of our group hit them from behind. And as the guards we hit were turning to deal with us, the others rose from their places hidden in the supposed wrecked remains of the truck to attack both the ones who kept going toward the gate and the ones who turned to deal with us. No matter which way they turned, the Eden’s Garden people were getting hit from behind by someone. 

Suffice to say, they were all having a bad day. And it was only going to get worse for them. They were stuck reacting to something that they hadn’t known anything about practically a minute ago. Up to that point, this had been a perfectly ordinary, mundane evening for them. And now they were under direct assault from what had to feel like all sides. They didn’t have time to adjust to what was happening, whereas our group had been planning this literally for weeks. We knew what we were doing, and we certainly weren’t going to give them time to recover. 

To that end, the second we had their attention and caught the guards between all our groups, Kohaku pointed toward the hole in the mountain. Specifically, to the cave entrance leading into what still remained of the mountain that hadn’t already been dug out. “You know your parts. Stay together, be careful.” 

That was all she had to say. Without missing a beat, Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and I were already running to the side. Twister jumped from my shoulder, transforming into a cheetah to run ahead of us. Part of me felt bad about leaving Kohaku and Tangle by themselves. But on the other hand, they could handle it. We had to do our part and get into the prison. 

Not that we would be getting in there alone. Even as we approached the cave entrance where the mountain had been hollowed out, the five of us were joined by Columbus, Shiori, Asenath, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Bobbi. 

Yes, that left Jiao, Tribald Kine, and Klassin Roe in the middle of the Heretic guards, Deveron and the Dornan cousins in front of them, and Kohaku and Tangle at the back. They were all adults. Their job was to draw attention and keep the guards focused on them. Meanwhile, the rest of us had to make our way through the deeper prison complex, staying together to handle whatever and whoever might still be down there until we reached the prisoners themselves. We had to get in there and let them out so everyone could teleport the fuck out of this place before the Eden’s Garden people managed to recover too much. Again, the plan relied a lot on timing, on hitting these guys so hard and so fast and from so many sides they never had the chance to retaliate too much before we were already gone. And there were still so many ways it could fall apart. All I could think of, even as our groups ran through the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, was that we had to hurry. 

This place was weird, to say the least. It was like a huge bite had been taken out of the hill itself, leaving just under a third of its lower portion present. There were several large digging-like machines that sat motionless and unused for the moment scattered around the massive open cavern-like space, but nothing seemed to be holding up the hundreds of tons of rocks and dirt high above our heads. I had no idea how they were stopping the upper section from crashing in, and hopefully we wouldn’t be here long enough for that to become relevant. What we were interested in was a hole in the inner wall, which led to the lower tunnels where the prisoners were supposed to be kept. At the moment, a glowing blue forcefield was stretched across that hole, blocking entrance to those tunnels, but that wouldn’t be an obstacle for long. . 

“Didn’t take all the excitement for yourselves, I see,” Jazz noted once we all came to a (very temporary) stop at that forcefield. She was panting a bit, holding her falchion in one hand, its projected flames dancing around the blade. 

“Thought about it,” I retorted, “but we figured you’d complain if you came all this way just to be bored.” 

Even as we said that, Columbus had vanished from where we were standing. He appeared on the far side of the forcefield, standing inside the enclosed, previously empty security station there. We could barely see the boy through the narrow window where the guards were supposed to stand to control the forcefield whenever people needed to move in and out. 

Thankfully, it didn’t take the boy long to figure out the controls in there. Soon, the forcefield was down, and he rejoined us as we started running together once more. Now we were inside the cavern. The entrance tunnel, carved into black and gray rock, was about twenty feet wide and equally as high. So we weren’t exactly cramped, even with a group as relatively large as this was. The tunnel sloped downward, leading deeper underground and into the darkness. So, after producing flashlights, that was the way we went, keeping our eyes and other senses open as we raced deeper into the man-made (or at least living person-made) cave. 

I didn’t sense anyone, but I did sense… something. It was weird, a feeling pressing down on me from all sides, like… I wasn’t sure. It was at the back of my mind with every step, making the hair on my neck stand up. I felt something, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t good. But there was nothing I could do about it. We had to keep going. 

“Did we ever figure out what the hell they were trying to do down here?” Columbus asked, while we continued downward, spreading out a bit to avoid making ourselves a single target. “I mean, this is a weird way to mine, isn’t it? How much effort are they spending just to keep the top of the mountain from falling in? They’ve dug out so much of this place, for what? Minerals? The hell are they looking for and why are they taking out so much of the mountain to do it without taking the top?” 

“Those are all very good questions,” Gordon agreed simply while not breaking stride. “Maybe the prisoners will know more when we find them.” 

Yeah, he couldn’t have been any more clear. What he was focused on was finding his father. Everything else, as far as he was concerned, could take a back seat, including questions about what the Eden’s Garden people were trying to do with this place. Which was fair, given I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be interested in those sorts of details if I was in his boat. Still, Columbus had a point. We had spent the past couple weeks, including the trip here, trying to work out why the mountain would have been mined out this way, without any luck. Now we were here and seeing it in person, and it seemed to make even less sense. Between that, the weird feeling of being watched that some of us had experienced coming through the forest, and now the feeling was I was getting as we descended, this planet in general was giving me the creeps. 

All of which was just more proof that we needed to get all these prisoners and leave as soon as possible. As if we’d needed any additional motivation for that.  

We were rounding a bend in the tunnel when Doug called out for everyone to wait. His flashlight was pointed toward the inner wall, where we could see what looked like words carved into it. Words that had been broken and chipped away by time or erosion or whatever. It looked like at one point there had been a full message carved there, but there were only bits and pieces of it now, words here or there. 

“Uh, can anyone read that?” I asked. It looked like gobbledygook to me. The ‘letters’ were meaningless shapes to the point that I couldn’t even tell which ones were complete and which had been broken.

We needed to hurry, obviously. But something about this made everyone stop to look at it. The message, if that’s what it was, gave me a weird feeling. I felt like we needed to know what it said. So, Bobbi produced a bit more light, a couple glowing balls to illuminate the whole thing. It took up a good ten feet of space, and had obviously been an extensive bit of writing when it was complete. Now more than three-quarters of it had been broken. 

Avalon spoke quietly. “I think I can. That… guy back in the tower, he must’ve had some sort of language deciphering power.” She lifted a hand to point. “This little bit here, it says ‘blood taken’ or maybe ‘blood given.’ And here, it says ‘legs of the world.’ Or maybe ‘legs stretched across the world.’ Down here, it says ‘deep-walker.’ and in this last bit, it says, ‘powers of blood.’ 

“Well that’s all nice and creepy,” Shiori muttered. “Wait, what about this?” Her light had found another bit near the bottom right that we had missed. This seemed somewhat more intact, several complete sentences carved near the floor. 

Crouching down, Avalon examined it, grimacing slightly. “It says, ‘Before being taken, activate disintegration.’” 

“Before being taken, activate disintegration?” I stared at the other girl. “What does that mean?” 

Her head shook. “I don’t know, but I think the bit that comes after it was instructions for the disintegration they were talking about. Maybe a spell or something.” Her finger traced along the broken bit of wall next to it. “But from the look of this whole message, the tunnel was here already. It looks like it was just buried and these guys uncovered it.” 

Asenath spoke firmly. “Whatever it’s about, we need to get to the prisoners. Everyone outside is… they can’t hold out forever.” 

Nervous as we were about whatever that message was talking about, she had a point. We had to press on quickly, or all of this would be for nothing. 

The tunnel opened up wider and wider the deeper we got. There were several more of those messages along the way, although all of them were even more damaged than the first and didn’t give any more information. At least not in the brief glimpses we gave them, and we weren’t going to stop again for a closer inspection. The longer we spent doing this, the more likely it was that we would end up being interrupted by Eden’s Garden reinforcements. So we pushed the bad feelings we were having down and kept descending through the ever-widening tunnel. 

Finally, after what felt like far too long, the tunnel opened into a truly massive underground cavern. Seriously, this place was impressive. And we were able to understand just how impressive it was right from the start thanks to the fact that the whole place was lit up by powerful stadium-like lights hooked up all along the walls. Clearly those had been recently added. The far side of the cavern from where we were standing had to be at least two football fields away, and it was almost that wide. There was a huge hole in the center of the cavern that took up about a third of the floorspace. Meanwhile, to the right was a series of what looked like tubes similar to the ones Sariel, Larees, and the other Seosten prisoners had been kept in when Kushiel was trying to transport them off that lab. They were arranged in three rows of ten, all varying sizes to accommodate a single prisoner held within. Pipes were attached to the bottom of the tubes, all leading out to a single larger pipe that ran straight to that large hole in the floor. 

Asenath sniffed once. “Blood,” she murmured. “The pipes are full of blood.” 

Oh yeah, and that feeling in the back of my head was worse. It was like… voices, almost. Not whispers, and definitely not the Whispers. It wasn’t really voices, or even thoughts. But it was like… trying to be thoughts? I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It was almost like when you saw someone shouting through a soundproof window, so you couldn’t hear them but you knew they were talking. It was like that, except in my head. 

Yeah, it made no sense at all. And I still didn’t know whether I was imagining it or not. 

“Okay, now I’m really freaked out,” Jazz announced. “The hell were they doing here? There was that warning back there, and now they’ve got all these prisoners in these tubes having their blood drained out to go into that hole? This is a horror movie. We have come into a–” 

“Papa!” Asenath blurted the word, lunging toward one of the tubes. Sure enough, there was a man floating in some semi-clear liquid there. It was hard to make out details, but if she said it was her father, I was willing to take her word for it. 

At nearly the same time, Gordon called out from where he had found his father as well. He was in one of the other tubes. Everyone started looking around, trying to figure out the best way to open those things up to let them out. 

“Um, Flick.” That was Columbus, calling me over to one side. “You see those antennae things sticking down out of the ceiling?” 

I looked. He was right, there were a dozen of the large metal ‘antennae things’ sticking down. “Uh huh.” 

“I’ve seen those before,” he informed me. “I mean, in Charmeine’s memories. They’re supposed to be producing a forcefield in the direction they’re pointing. Which would be over that hole in the floor, where those tubes were taking the blood.” 

“And now there’s no forcefield there,” I murmured. “So do you think–” 

That was when it appeared. In the midst of everyone else trying to figure out how to let the prisoners out of their tubes, a thing launched itself out of the hole. All I could see in that instant was a massive form moving very quickly. Then it landed in front of us, and we all had a good look at it. 

The thing stood on ten towering legs that were spread out around its lower body like a spider’s eight limbs, each as wide around as a school bus and at least twice as long. The body itself was more like a gigantic, very fat crocodile with those thick protective scales. A long neck like that of a giraffe, though also layered with heavy scales rather than fur, extended outward from the body, with an almost humanoid head attached to it. Almost humanoid that was, aside from the scales protecting it, and the fact that instead of two eyes, there was a ring of them all the way around it, so the creature could see in all directions. It opened its mouth, revealing a line of deadly shark-like teeth, and gave a dangerous hiss. 

“I uhh…” My voice came out soft, barely audible, a mouse-like squeak. 

“I think we just found out what they were giving blood to.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

By Blood 17-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A loud clang filled the air as my staff snapped up just in time to catch the descending blade of a sword. The owner of that sword, a woman a couple inches taller than me, with long red hair tied into a braid, snarled darkly at me. “I know you. You’re that little girl who helped start this whole Rebellion up again. You really think you’re some sort of hero for helping these monsters?” Even as she asked that, the woman was spinning away from me, hand rising as she made a dozen pebbles from the ground around us float into the air. They also became ultra-hot judging from the way they immediately turned bright-red, before she sent them flying at me. 

Our attack against the transport was proceeding, well, about as expected. We knew it wouldn’t be super-easy, but we had to make it quick, before anyone who might have been paying attention noticed the delay. We were using jammers of our own this time, so they couldn’t call out for help, and we’d arranged this little attack to come right when they were just finishing up loading the semi truck with supplies. That was what this transport was meant for. They were at a warehouse on the edge of some random city in the southern United States, cramming the truck full of various foodstuffs, tools, and whatnot. Then they would be making the long journey to that prison colony. At least, that was their plan. We had sort of interrupted that with our attack. 

Some of us were stopping the drivers, or the loaders, or protecting the jammers, or attacking various Heretic guards. That last bit was where I came in. My job, at the moment, was to deal with this particular guard. But there were two problems with that. First, the person I was assigned to was supposed to be a student, someone closer to my age and all that. But this was definitely an adult Heretic. And the second problem was that it turned out she wasn’t really in the mood to be dealt with. She was much more in the mood to try to stab me repeatedly with her sword. 

The two of us were out near one of the corners of the warehouse, and I could hear more fighting going on behind me. But I couldn’t spare the time to glance that way. All I could do was hope that everything was going okay back there, while using a burst of energy from my staff to launch myself up and over the incoming burning pebbles. Flipping over in the air, I converted my staff into its bow form, and sent a shot past the woman. The energy arrow exploded a second later, sending a concussive force wave that… well, it was supposed to knock my opponent forward so that my foot could collide with her face as I came down. Unfortunately, she apparently wasn’t affected by it. No, scratch that, the concussive force seemed to empower her. She absorbed it, grinning at me as my foot whiffed through the air where I had expected her to be. Worse, her eyes were glowing. Glowing very–

At the last possible second, I focused on my energy absorption power, just as the other Heretic shot a laser beam out of her eyes at me. Apparently she could absorb kinetic energy and turn it into eye lasers. Which was probably a good thing to know before I went and smacked her with my staff. 

Shoving all that power I had just absorbed (wait, did that mean I had essentially absorbed the power from my staff, with this chick as an intermediary?), I threw it into my boost while lunging back that way. At the same time, I made both of my rings grow large in front of me, boosting my speed even further as I hopped through them. Now I was using my full Seosten boost, charged by the power I had just absorbed, and then boosted further by those rings. I was moving faster in that moment than I ever had, at least under my own power.

And yet, my opponent was fast enough to keep up. Her sword slashed out, nearly taking my head off as I got near. I barely managed to snap myself out of the way, my hand smacking against her shoulder to–not possess her. It was weird, I could feel her arm, but I couldn’t–

Forcefield. She had a skin-tight forcefield all around herself. I caught a glimpse of it then, flickering over her face. It wasn’t over her clothes, but it was definitely under them, and seemed to extend over her whole body, if a glance toward her very faintly glowing hands was any indication. Yeah, she definitely had a forcefield over herself, just under her clothes. Whether it was specifically to protect herself from being possessed, or simply a bit of added defense I wasn’t sure. But it was there. 

Also there in that instant? Her sword. But I managed to duck out of the way just in time before spinning into a sideways kick. She took it, absorbing the kinetic impact from the super-strong kick to give herself a quick burst of eye lasers. But that time she didn’t shoot at my chest. No, she sent a bright burst toward my eyes, briefly blinding me. Then she quickly followed that up by pivoting to one side before driving her sword toward my stomach. Clearly trying to take advantage of my momentary blindness. 

Fortunately, I still had my item sense. I knew exactly where she was, and managed to make my staff grow just enough to intercept her sword. The end of the staff slammed into the ground, and I used that as a pivot to come around, my foot colliding with her shoulder. 

Once more, she absorbed the impact and my vision cleared just in time to see her sending another shot my way. That time, I created a quick portal in front of my raised hand, redirecting the laser blast into her opposite shoulder. 

Apparently she felt that one, because a curse escaped the woman while she flipped her sword around and glared at me. “Your traitor mother failed before, and she’ll fail this time too. You and all those like you will either be killed or mind-wiped again so things can go back to normal. We won’t let you endanger all of humanity with your naive bullshit.” 

“Killed or mind-wiped for disagreeing with slavery and genocide,” I pointed out flatly. “And you still think you’re the good guys? I’d ask how you live with yourself, but I get the impression it involves a lot of not thinking about it, combined with a dash of murder. And anyway, debating with you is obviously a waste of breath, so I have only two words to say to you. Shark punch.”

Even as I said that, my fist was lashing out as I summoned Princess Cuddles in one of those forcefield bubble things. The woman might’ve been tough, but very few people could stand unaffected with an enormous great white shark coming straight at their face, mouth open. She flinched sideways, just a little. Her focus was centered on the incoming bubble-encased shark. Which was enough for me to literally spit a glob of that quick-drying resin stuff right onto her face. At the same time, I dismissed Princess Cuddles. She was tough, but I really didn’t think she was up to taking a full blow from a pissed off Heretic. 

And boy was she pissed off. The hardened resin was only covering her face for a few seconds before she literally screamed so loud the stuff basically disintegrated. And without missing a beat, she made several large chunks of concrete rise into the air, literally ripping them out of the ground with her mind. Soon, a half-dozen thick slabs were floating around her, all of them burning hot. “You wanna play games now, traitor?” she demanded while making the burning concrete slabs spin wildly around us. “Let’s see how your mother likes getting you back after you’ve been pounded into a thick paste and then burned until there’s nothing left.” 

Part of me wanted to point out that my mother wouldn’t be getting anything back if this woman burned my remains until there was nothing left. But I didn’t think she’d appreciate the correction. Besides, I really had to focus in that instant. She was already sending all six of those large slabs of concrete flying at me from every direction, with varying angles and speeds. It was nearly impossible to find a safe route through them. But only nearly. With a combination of my enhanced speed from a renewed boost (sadly not enhanced by absorbed energy anymore), my item sense, and the enhanced werewolf agility, I… still couldn’t have gotten through them. Not the way they were closing in around me. Fortunately, those weren’t the only gifts I had. I had those new rings too. They snapped up into place in front of two of the slabs, positioned to slow them down as they passed through. At the same time, I focused on the third one, stopping it completely with my power to halt objects for a few seconds. 

The result of slowing two of the slabs down and stopping a third completely left just enough space for me to launch myself up and out of there just before the burning concrete pieces slammed into the spot where I had just been. In mid-air, I sent my grapple outward and up to catch hold of a piece of the warehouse roof, yanking myself that way to land on the very edge of it. 

Snarling as she glared up at me with those concrete slabs (even more of them now that they had broken apart into several separate pieces) floating around her, the Eden’s Garden Heretic snapped, “You really think you can start this fight and then run away like a little coward?” With those words, she was already launching herself upwards after me. As she did so, a couple flame-like energy bursts appeared under her feet and the small of her back, carrying her upward almost like rocket boots or something. 

As soon as she started to lunge, I had the rings at full size in front of her. She just gave me a dark look while bringing two of those concrete slabs under her feet to boost herself even faster. The flames that had also been boosting her appeared under the pieces of concrete. Now she was lifting herself with both the rocket burst power and by telekinetically (or whatever) lifting the concrete under her feet.  

Unfortunately, she had made a couple of mistakes. First, the rings weren’t set to slow her down. They were set to speed her up. So, whatever boost she was getting from the combination of the concrete and the rocket burst, going through the rings doubled it. Suddenly, she was going much faster than she expected. At the same time, just as the woman realized something was wrong, I made it even worse. Back when I had kicked her a few moments earlier, it wasn’t just a kick. I had used my instant-inscription power to put a very simple spell against her jacket. The first spell I’d ever learned, actually. It was the flash-bang spell, though a stronger one than I had been capable of before. And in that instant, just as she was flying up toward me much faster than she expected, I triggered that spell. There was a sudden boom and flash of light, leaving the woman blind and deaf at the worst possible second. The worst for her, that was. Because I was already diving out of the way while leaving a rock where I had been standing. A rock which instantly grew up to the size of a large boulder with my growth power, while simultaneously freezing in the air thanks to my item-stop power. 

It was a case of an unstoppable object, the blind and deaf super-fast Heretic, versus an immobile one, the frozen rock. In this case, the Heretic won—sort of. The boulder shattered as she slammed into it, but it was a very close call. She hit the roof on the other side, coming down in a heap while coughing weakly. I could see several bones sticking out, her foot was twisted around the wrong way, and there were cuts and bruises all over her body. She’d hit the boulder hard, shattering both it and her forcefield, and doing a hell of a lot of damage to herself in the process. 

“You–” She snarled, catching herself against the roof on her hands and knees. 

“Me,” I agreed, while driving the blade of my staff down through her back as hard as I could. I was boosting with everything I had, and between that and my own enhanced strength, I still barely managed to get the blade to go through her, even without her forcefield. She was incredibly tough. But it made it. My staff went all the way through and out the other end, speared through the woman from behind. 

Even that wasn’t quite enough. I could still see those chunks of burning concrete as they came flying toward me. But before they could get there, I abandoned my staff and dove into a backward roll, going just under them. 

The woman shoved herself upward, staff still shoved through her. Blood was pouring from her mouth and the wound, but she refused to go down. Her sword was long gone, somewhere off on the other side of the roof. Yet she ignored that as much as she was ignoring the huge weapon through her chest, snarling hatefully while starting to throw herself at me, hands outstretched. 

“Gus, go!” I shouted. Immediately, the grapple shot forward, launching itself past me to embed in the nearby chimney, before beginning to pull the staff after it. And that hauled the injured woman along for the ride, drawing a strangled scream from her as she was yanked off the ground and sent flying toward me. 

Spinning aside, I snapped my hand out and summoned my silver knife. It cut through the woman’s throat on her way past. Even with the speed she was traveling at, even with my own strength, even with the enhanced sharpness of my silver knife, it still barely managed to cut her. I felt blood from her throat, but it didn’t take her head off or do nearly as much damage as it should have. Still, in the same motion, I recalled the staff back to my other hand, finished pivoting as she sailed past me, and then hurled it as hard as I could into her back once more. 

That was enough. Between slamming through the frozen boulder, taking a bladed staff through her back once, getting her throat cut, and then taking the bladed staff through her back again, the woman was done. She hit the ground frozen, motionless. 

And then I felt it. A rush of pleasure that made me fall to my knees with a gasp, staff and knife both dropping from my hands. It was a blinding, overwhelming rush. Not quite like when I had killed Fossor. It didn’t knock me out or anything, but damn was it close. 

By the time I managed to come back to myself, Asenath and Avalon were standing over me up there on the roof. They both stared down while I lifted my gaze, looking back and forth between them. It took me a moment to find my voice, managing a somewhat weak, “Did umm, did we win?” I felt almost delirious in that moment, still riding high off the rush from that.. that kill. Eesh.

“Yeah,” Avalon informed me while holding out a hand. “We won. You know you weren’t supposed to go after a full Heretic by yourself, right?” 

Taking the hand, I let her pull me up while shrugging. “We didn’t expect a fully-trained adult Heretic to be one of the perimeter guards. Weren’t they supposed to be down to using more trainees for that with this whole war thing going on?” Brushing myself off, I added in a slightly more serious tone. “Tell me this doesn’t mean they had some sort of warning.” 

Asenath spoke quietly. “They didn’t have any warning. Looks like you just happened to get unlucky with that guard. Maybe she was filling in for someone else, or working on training. Either way, they had no idea we were coming.” 

A bird flying overhead came down close, transforming in mid-flight into Twister before landing smoothly. She straightened up, voice flat. “Yeah, and they didn’t get a warning out either. Those jammers blocked everything they had on them, and you guys hit them hard and fast enough that they couldn’t pull anything more elaborate together. It’s all good.” Her gaze found me then before she slyly added, “And those moves back there…” She whistled low. “Kinda know why this one and the one down there have the hots for you.” Her hand gestured toward Avalon and down presumably in the direction of Shiori. 

Flushing just a little, I shook my head. “Just trying to survive and stop the other person from surviving. I didn’t–” Pausing, I took a breath. Now that the rush of battle was over, the truth about just how easily I could have died back there was starting to wash over me. It made me feel… a little giddy. Was that weird? Hell, was it weird that this particular fight was affecting me more than so many others? Was it just because I had been going up against a full Heretic who very easily could (and would) have snapped me in half? Of course I’d fought Heretics before, particularly over the summer, but not… not like that. Or was it because of what she’d said about my mother, making it more personal? I needed some time to think about all that. 

Fortunately, I would have all the time I needed for that on this trip. But we couldn’t wait around too much right now. So, I shook off those thoughts and focused. “I didn’t do all that just so we could lose our advantage by letting Shamon’s people figure out something’s wrong before we want them to know.” 

The others agreed, and we rejoined the others on the ground. Deveron gave me a quick look, waiting for me to nod that I was okay before he spoke up. “Okay, the lot’s secure. We’ve got the bodies, and prisoners, already sent back to the station. Except the one on the roof.” Again, he glanced my way. “I’ll grab her. The rest of you, finish loading those crates onto the back of the truck. We have no idea how much of those supplies we might end up needing. Especially if we get out of that prison camp with everyone we’re going in there for.” 

So, that was what we did, grabbing the crates to carry over to what would be our Trojan horse. The truck itself looked like an ordinary semi from the outside. But once the back doors were opened, it revealed a much larger interior. Like, three times normal size, including a pretty large space for the people who weren’t driving to comfortably stay in. Essentially it was a large RV-type space on one side (complete with cots, couches, televisions, a full-sized stove and fridge, and more) and a storage compartment for all these crates on the other, with a metal wall dividing them. Say what you would about Shamon, but he let his people travel in comfort… when they were transporting supplies to his slave camp. Huh. 

Looking over toward Sands and Sarah as the twins walked with me from the warehouse to the truck, I hefted the large crate in my arms before asking, “Is it weird that we’re taking a truck to go to another planet? I feel like that’s probably weird.” 

“Um!” Bobbi, zooming up from behind us while floating a couple crates of her own in a pair of energy-construct bubbles, raised a hand. “Yeah, I had a question about that. Huh?” She considered briefly before giving a nod of satisfaction. “That’s the question.” 

“Yeah, ‘huh’ sums it up for me too.” That was Columbus, as he hopped down from the truck after carrying his own heavy crate into it. “I mean, does the truck transform into a spaceship? I was really picturing a spaceship when we were planning this whole thing.” He gave the truck a look as though it had personally betrayed him by not being a sleek starcruiser, perhaps equipped with heavy laser cannons and missiles. 

“Don’t worry, kid, I was disappointed about the lack of a cool spaceship too.” Seamus Dornan, one of my mother’s (and Deveron’s) old friends and teammates, spoke up. He was a red-haired man who was only a few inches taller than me, and pretty slender overall. “Feels like a gyp.” 

“Shouldn’t say that word, man.” That was Seamus’s cousin, Roger. He was an inch shorter than even Seamus, with light blond hair rather than red, though his went all the way to his shoulders. “It’s offensive. Like a slur against the Romani people. You know, making a whole word based on what they used to be called mean ‘to rip someone off’? Pretty fucking bad, dude.” To the rest of us, he added, “And he thinks he’s the responsible one.” 

“Remind me,” Seamus shot back, “how much money do you owe on drinks at our bar?” 

“I’m sorry, say that again.” Roger scoffed audibly. “Our bar. You don’t have to buy drinks at your own bar. That’s like, the main benefit of owning one.” 

“Actually,” Seamus informed him, “the benefit of owning a bar is making money off of said bar. Which is hard to do when your business partner throws away half your stock between his own drinking and giving out rounds on the house.” 

To the rest of us, Roger stage-whispered, “He’s really cranky about this whole ‘not a spaceship’ thing.” 

“It might not be a spaceship,” Tribald Kine put in as the tall, incredibly thin man approached, “but it’s still going to take us to other worlds.” As the others looked to him, he explained, “The truck is equipped with a portal-generator. But it doesn’t have the power to go straight from here to our destination. That’s too far. They’ve got seven different jump points on small, shielded asteroids or moons between here and there. The truck makes a jump to one spot, then needs about twenty-four hours to recharge for the next one.” 

“Right,” Deveron confirmed while approaching after apparently having taken care of the body up on the roof, “Which is why this is going to take us a week to get there and a week to get back. We’ve got some… extra plans for the return trip, but we’ll see about that when we come to it. For now, everyone aboard the truck. Time to play delivery people.

“And in this case, we’ll owe a lot more than a free pizza if we’re late.” 

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At Last 16-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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And celebrate we did. Throughout the entire rest of the day and far into the night, actually. The party spread over the entire station as we all moved from room to room pretty much randomly. There were even portals set up in very safe areas of each main camp (the station, Wonderland, the Garden rebels, etc) so that people could intermingle as much as they wanted. There were various concerts and games going on, impromptu contests of various types, and more. Hell, all my ghosts back in the Haunted Mansion were having a party of their own to celebrate the whole thing. They had signs set up outside directing people to come in and hang out with them, and the last I had seen, plenty were taking them up on that. Seriously, everyone was clearly using this as an excuse to let off a lot of tension and fully embrace letting loose. It was wild, chaotic, and totally amazing. 

It was yet another chance for me to be grateful for the level of stamina that I had, because it meant that I could keep going and see as much as possible long after many others had tapped out. Not that they were out for long. Many of them simply took a little nap for a couple hours here or there before jumping right back into it. But I saw basically everything. I made my way through all the rooms and camps, interacted with everyone, and just… really enjoyed myself. 

At the moment, I was on my way down the corridor to find the portal that would lead me to the Eden’s Garden motel. Or at least, the main one they had taken over. There were some people down there I wanted to talk to. It was almost three in the morning, but that didn’t matter at all. Given the way this party was going on, I was starting to doubt that it would die down entirely anytime throughout the rest of the day. Especially considering it was now officially Christmas Eve. Yeah, something told me people would be taking breaks now and then, but this whole celebration was just going to keep going, at one level or another, for quite a while longer. Which was understandable, considering how long most of these people had been living under the threat of having themselves or their loved ones enslaved by the Seosten. Literally for their entire lives, actually. No matter how long they had lived. Now they could be assured that they were safe from at least the whole being possessed part. Their choices would stay their own. Of course, whether we avoided outright physical war with the Seosten or not remained to be seen. But whatever came of that, at least we had this. They couldn’t take over our bodies and turn us against our loved ones. And that was well-worth spending all of Christmas Eve celebrating. 

Before I could get to the room where the portal was, a different familiar figure came into view from the opposite end of the corridor. Pausing as I saw him, I raised my hand. “Dries?” 

It was him, though the man looked quite a bit different than he had when I first met him the year before. He was still blond, but his hair had been straightened up. Still long, yet more evenly trimmed. As was his beard. He also wasn’t so bone-thin that it looked like he would snap apart in a stiff breeze anymore. He had filled out somewhat, and no longer wore ancient rags. He actually looked healthy after all this time. Though I was pretty sure it would take much longer for the haunted expression to leave his face, if it ever did. 

Seeing me when I called out, the man paused before offering me a tentative smile. He still didn’t really do well with crowds, but he could handle one-on-one conversations okay enough. Especially with people he actually knew. And I had spent time with him over the summer alongside Avalon as she got to know her ancestor a little better. 

“Felicity,” he greeted me in a slightly rattly voice that made me feel like he had a lot of emotions running through him. “Ah-are you well?” He didn’t stutter as much as he had back when we had first met, but that was something else that I was pretty sure would be a thing for a long time coming.  

My head bobbed a little. “I’m great. This whole thing is great. But, um, are you okay? I guess I just thought you would have gone back to your room right now. All these people are… a lot to deal with.” 

Giving a quick glance around as though making sure that a large crowd hadn’t snuck up on him from behind, the man quietly replied, “It is a… lot to duh-deal with. But I’m very glad that people are… ahh, are happy. It mah-makes it easier to handle. Harder when they are angry or upset. Sometimes it’s still pretty hard even if they’re ahh, happy. It’s a… a lot of emotion. A lot of noise. It’s a lot of everything. But I ahh, I cah-can handle it. I want to. I want to see this. It’s–it’s important.” 

Of course it was. This would mean even more to him, after all that he and his family had been through, than it did to most. I could hardly blame him for wanting to push himself past his comfort level to experience everyone celebrating the spell that was only possible because of him and his wife. I really couldn’t imagine the things that had to be going through his mind. 

“Liesje would’ve been proud of you, and of Avalon. Of her whole family,” I finally managed. Part of me wanted to embrace the man, yet I knew that was pushing things too far. He may have improved over these intervening months, but still. Just being out here like this and staying on the fringes of all the celebration was probably about as much as he could handle. 

So, I didn’t touch him. Instead, I simply gave the man a smile before adding, “And I know Avalon’s proud to have you as an ancestor. Getting to know you, it’s been one of her favorite things about all these months. She never really thought she’d get to know anything about her family. And uhh, now she does. Thanks to you.” 

I could see the slight blush, slightly hidden by the man’s neatly-trimmed beard, as he cleared his throat and clearly fought to find the right words. “I ahh, well, I’m glad to know her as well. I ahh, yes. It has been…” He blinked rapidly, clearly pushing back tears. “It has been a very lah-long road to get here. But I am glad for the ahh, the destination.” 

“And we’re all glad you made it here,” I quietly assured him. “This whole victory, it’s yours.” 

“It is Liesje’s,” he corrected me, biting his lip hard as a flood of emotion ran through his eyes before straightening somewhat. “It’s everyone’s. Ev–even them. Even the Say–Seosten.” I could see how hard it was for him to say that. “Many–many of them won’t think so. But it is good for them. It will force them to… to do something new, to try something else.” 

Slowly nodding, I replied, “I’m pretty sure the definition of insanity isn’t really doing the same thing and expecting different results like people say, but still, doing it for a few hundred thousand years does seem pretty… excessive. They’ve been stuck in their ways. And, you know, afraid that if they do try something totally new, it’ll backfire. Their way hasn’t won the war against the Fomorians, but it hasn’t lost it either. And when you’re dealing with monsters like that, you probably get pretty afraid of what’ll happen if you change the wrong thing and start losing instead of just tying.” 

We talked a bit more for a couple minutes, but I didn’t want to push him too hard. This whole situation was already a lot. So, eventually, I promised I would see him later and gave him directions for where I had last seen Avalon. Then I headed for the Eden’s Garden portal once more. 

There were even people celebrating inside the portal room. Granted, there were also heavily armed and prepared guards, just in case the wrong person happened to somehow make it through the heavily armed and prepared guards on the other side of the portal. But there were also tables laden down with food, and music played, albeit at a lower level than in most of the other rooms. It looked as though some of the people here had come to join one of the celebrations on the station, and then just ended up setting up right where they had arrived. Or maybe it was from people heading out of the station to somewhere else. Either way, the guards weren’t being left out. And I was pretty sure the same could be said of all the other portal rooms too. Some part of me worried about what would happen if someone did manage to attack while everyone was celebrating like this, but then I reminded myself that having more people in the room was technically better defense, not worse. At least, when so many of those people were as dangerous as everyone here could be. And had magic to immediately sober up if it came down to it. 

Yeah, anyone stupid enough to mount an assault with everyone up and aware like this would undoubtedly come to regret it. But it would still sour the mood, so I silently hoped nothing bad happened. After everything that people had been through, we deserved this party, damn it.

Some of the people in here I recognized, many I didn’t. Regardless, most of them came up to say something to me, either because of who my mother was, or because of who Avalon was. Or because they wanted to pat me on the back over Fossor finally being dead. Basically, there were a lot of reasons they wanted to talk to me. Which, honestly, was still a bit overwhelming.  But I rolled with it as much as I could and chatted for a few minutes. They told me some stories and jokes, not all of which I actually understood given how drunk some of them were, but I still laughed right along with them. 

Eventually, I excused myself from them as well, and made my way to the portal itself. After clarifying that this was the right one, I passed through it. As stable as the portal was, and as expertly as it had been created, I barely felt any twisting of my stomach. It was hardly worse than basically stepping down two stairs at once. One moment I was on the station, and in the next, I was standing in the back lot behind the motel that the Eden’s Garden people had taken over. 

Yeah, there was a party going on here too. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure that the whole party was really on both sides of the portal at once. People were just sort of willy-nilly moving back and forth. There was a table here with drinks on it that hadn’t been back in the other room on the station, even though I keenly remembered seeing drinks in people’s hands back there. The magic and wonder of having stable portals. Maybe allowing people to pick up drinks on Earth, take two steps and then enjoy that drink on a space station inside the sun wasn’t the most amazing use of transportation magic, but it was still pretty damn nifty. 

Just like a moment ago up on the station, people around here wanted to talk to me too. Again, I lingered and chatted as much as I could before excusing myself and heading off toward the main building. It was already late enough that I didn’t know if everyone I wanted to talk to down here would still be awake anyway, and I didn’t want to push it even more. 

To that end, I started with the room where Dakota had been staying while she helped work on the vines. Hesitating just long enough to make sure I could hear sound coming from in the room, I knocked and then stepped back a bit. 

There was a pause before the door opened and I saw the girl herself. She was just as small and frail-looking as I remembered her, with pale skin and black hair. She looked like Sharon/Alessa from that old Silent Hill movie. Except now she had a band of flowers in her hair, and vines (the smaller, normal kind rather than the giant ones related to the Eden’s Garden tree) wrapped around one of her arms. Just over her shoulder, I could see that the room was completely full of plants of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. It sure seemed like the girl had embraced her connection to them, despite what had happened with Kwur. 

“Uh, Flick?” She blinked at me. “Sorry, if you’re looking for Asenath, she was only here for a few minutes.” 

“Yeah!” Bobbi, popping up behind her, chirped. “She wanted to go make sure Seth’s ghost isn’t terrorizing people that go over to visit the Haunted Mansion too much. Or just harass him.” She offered me a small smile. “I think she missed him a lot.” 

“I think she did too,” I agreed before adding, “Did she have Denny with her?” 

“I’m here,” came a response from further in the room. The other two stepped aside, and I saw Denny herself, sitting in a chair in the corner with her legs drawn to her chest. There was a table next to her with several plates of half-finished pizza, and some sort of board game they had been playing together. 

“Oh, hey, Denny.” After taking a second to make sure I wasn’t intruding too much, I took a step into the room. There was actually grass on the floor instead of carpet, which was kind of neat. Moving over to where the other girl was sitting, I asked, “I–I’m really sorry to bring it up. Especially right now. But, have the dreams gotten worse?” 

She didn’t answer for a moment, staring down at the table. Finally, she looked up at me and swallowed. “It’s not just nightdreams. It’s daydreams too. The things he wants me to do, I mean.” She gave a little shudder before focusing once more. “Knowing the truth about what’s going on and who he is, it kind of helps a little bit. At least I know I’m not crazy. But he still wants me to do bad things, and it’s… my… my mom and dad.” Her eyes closed tightly and she hugged herself tighter, then looked back at me. “I miss my mom and dad. And–and I think his memories or whatever are using that to make me even more angry.” 

Wincing a little, I pulled a chair around to sit next to her. “I kind of thought that might happen. So I asked Sariel and she gave me these.” Reaching into my pocket, I produced a bottle of what looked like ordinary little white pills. “They’re a mix of medicine and enchantment, sort of like the Bystander Effect-breaking pills. She says if you take one of these before you go to bed, it’ll help you sleep and make sure you don’t have any bad dreams. It should keep Ammon’s thoughts away from you so you can actually rest.”

Taking the bottle, Denny thanked me quietly before clutching it in both hands. Even though she had supposedly been sleeping most of the day before, it didn’t seem like it had been a very restful sleep. She desperately needed a break from the… voice in her head. 

“I’m sorry, Denny,” I whispered, not trusting my own voice not to crack. “I’m so sorry we didn’t–that we weren’t–” Sighing, I shook my head. “I’m sorry. You keep getting hurt and it’s not your fault.” 

“I didn’t give her the sword,” the girl reminded me. “She said she was going to hurt other people, that she would kill people if I didn’t give it to her. But I still didn’t. And… and it’s worse.” 

Frowning a bit at that, I tentatively reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. “What do you mean, it’s worse? What’s worse?” 

“Me,” she replied in a hoarse voice. “I’m worse. I’m–I let my mom and dad die.”

“What?” My head shook. “Denny, you didn’t let them die. You didn’t–” 

She interrupted before I could continue. “You don’t understand. I mean, if I knew what–if I knew–if–” She stopped talking, clamping her mouth shut while a full shudder ran through her. 

Dakota stepped over to join us, her voice quiet. “She means if she knew that not giving Kushiel  the sword would mean her parents died, she still wouldn’t give it to her.” 

There was something in the girl’s voice that made me glance that way, realizing just how hard this had to be for her as well. After all, Kwur had forced her to help kill her own family. This whole thing had to be bringing up incredibly painful memories for her. 

Denny’s head was nodding quickly. She met my gaze, clearly holding back tears. “I would. I know… I know the bad things that Kushiel would do if she had the sword. I mean, I don’t know exactly what they are, but… but I know they’d be really bad.” Those tears forced their way out. “So even if I knew–even if I knew she would have killed my mom and dad, I wouldn’t–I wouldn’t give it to her.” 

Reaching out, I pulled the girl by the arm and lifted her into my lap before embracing her. I didn’t tell her that it was the right choice. I didn’t put any judgment on it at all. Because it wasn’t my place to do that, and my opinion was beside the point. She already knew she had made the right choice, and that not giving Kushiel the sword would always be the right choice. 

Instead, I held her close and rocked back and forth a little, letting the girl rest her head against my shoulder as she cried for the next several minutes. Letting her get those emotions out without trying to tell her which ones were right or wrong, or define anything for her, felt like the right thing to do. 

Finally, Denny straightened a bit. She looked a little sheepish, but shook that off before focusing on me. “Flick, could you… play the game with us for a little bit?” 

I nodded immediately. “Sure, I’ve got nothing but time. After all, it’s not like it’s a school night.” 

So, for the next hour or so, I sat with them and played the board game. We could all hear the parties going on outside, especially when the people shot off fireworks, which happened more than once. But we ignored all that, and I simply sat in that room with Bobbi, Dakota, and Denny, and played the game until all of them were so tired they were practically falling asleep in their chairs. With just a little bit of prompting, I got them to go to bed (all three of them were sharing one that night), shut out the lights (except for the one in the bathroom, which Denny requested be left on after gulping down one of those sleeping pills), then stepped outside and closed the door to the room behind me. 

I was planning on heading over to see Seller next. But before I could move away from the door, I felt the familiar touch of Tabbris poking me through our connection. Flick, uh, they need you right now back on the station. Your mom and some others. Can you get Theia while you’re down there too? 

A rush of confusion went through me. Why did they need–what was wrong with–no. I pushed away those thoughts and promised to be right there. Then I took a quick loop around the motel until I located Theia and Pace. The latter came along as well, as we headed back through the portal and followed Tabbris’s directions to where we were supposed to go. 

It was a relatively small office area. As promised, Mom was in there, along with my father, Athena, Dare, Apollo, Sariel, and Mercury. Seeing all of them, I immediately asked, “Is something wrong with the–” 

“The spell is fine,” Athena assured me. “It is working as intended and expected. No… the situation we have right now is that.” She pointed to a nearby wall, where I saw a holo-image of a ship in space. A familiar ship, given the pictures I had been shown. It was a large orb as a core, partially-encased by three elongated gunships attached to it. 

“The Olympus?” I blurted. “It’s here? Wait, it’s here?” 

“Close,” Apollo explained. “Close enough for communications. But… we haven’t had any of those.” 

“It’s drifting,” Mom informed me, her eyes on the ship. “There’s been no response to any attempts to contact them, and the ship itself just… stopped all their engines.” 

“Dad? Why don’t you just… borrow some Seosten powers, then hop over to Grandmaria and see what’s going on?” 

His head shook without looking away from the ship where his parents were. “I tried that. I can… feel her. I know she’s alive and all. But I can’t reach her. It feels like something’s blocking it.” 

My eyes widened. “What–how is that possible? I mean–sure anything’s possible, but… but why–what’s going on?” 

“I don’t know,” Mom murmured. 

“But we’re going to go over there and find out.” 

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Interlude 13A – Bobbi and Dakota (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Come on, Dakota. Trust me, what you need is some fun.” The words came from Bobbi Camren, as the mixed-race, dark-haired fourteen-year-old strolled casually backward down the sidewalk. Her attention wasn’t on where she was going, but on the girl who was walking along a bit behind (well, in front of considering Bobbi was walking backwards) her. “If there’s one thing I figured out after spending a long time with people like Asenath and Twister, it’s that you should have fun while you can.” After a brief pause, she added with a grin, “Well, that and how to kick a truly inspiring amount of ass.”  

Eyes darting around rapidly as the two of them walked along the sidewalk of the busy street several miles away from the motel where the Eden’s Garden rebels had set up, Dakota hesitated before finding her voice. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Even as she asked that, the girl flinched a little at how childish it sounded. Especially given the way her voice cracked. 

She was only a few months younger than Bobbi, but she felt like a child (though not an innocent one). Bobbi had done so many cool things, and Dakota… Dakota had done things too. Things like kill several members of her family while under the influence of Kwur, and spend years afterward in a mental institution because she couldn’t explain what really happened in a way that anyone would have understood. The voice from the plant made her do it? Yeah, no wonder they locked her up. Vanessa had believed her, and even sent that Doctor Folgers guy to help. But then they had both stopped showing up. The other doctors said there was no one named Folgers at the hospital, and that Vanessa was too busy to talk to her. 

Now, of course, the girl knew that was all part of the plan to keep her isolated and away from anyone who could help. Vanessa’s memory had been erased by that… that Fossor guy. It was a whole big thing. Still, it didn’t totally erase the feelings of being abandoned and discarded. Kwur made her help kill her family, made her the only survivor, and then trapped her in a mental hospital full of other damaged people and far away from anyone who could understand what actually happened. All because he wanted… he wanted what? Why did he make her a–what was the word… Natural Heretic? Why did he make her a Natural Heretic of himself? Was it intentional, or just something he took advantage of afterward? And either way, why? 

No matter what the evil plant’s reasoning was, every possibility made her shudder. 

Bobbi was talking, her voice helping to pull Dakota out of the spiral of dark thoughts. “Of course it’s a good idea. Come on, you’ve been locked up in that motel obsessing over fixing the plants for too long. You need to get out and have a little fun. Take your mind off that stuff for a little bit. We’re just two girls heading to the mall to hang out, watch a movie, and get totally sick off Twizzlers and Raisinettes. Unless you’re more of a Whoppers sort of girl. Which is cool, I guess.” She said the last bit in a voice that made it clear that Raisinettes were superior. 

“But if I can’t do it,” Dakota hesitantly pointed out in a weak voice, “if I can’t make the plants work right, they’ll feel like… like they wasted their time with me. And… and Noyade…” 

Bobbi had stopped walking by that point, standing still as she reached out to put both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “If you can’t make the plants work, you’ll feel like Noyade died for nothing by protecting you,” she finished the sentence for her in a quiet, subdued tone. 

Not really trusting her voice, Dakota gave a hesitant nod. The thought of still failing to fix the plants kept her up at night, invaded her dreams (not that those were very good most of the time anyway), and made it hard to keep things in her stomach. The Gardener people were nice to her. They protected her. They were depending on her to help them recruit more people. If she couldn’t manage that, if she couldn’t give the Rebellion a way to make more Heretics, then what… what was she even doing there? Why did she survive this long? 

She had to do something good with this power. Otherwise, the only thing she would ever be was a girl who helped kill her entire family… and a tool for whatever plan that evil plant had. 

“Listen, Dakota.” Bobbi’s voice was serious. “I’m not just goofing off now, okay? I mean it. Obsessing over whether you fix those vines or not isn’t helping anything. It’s making you sick, it’s making you, like… doubt yourself. You need to get away from all that stuff, have some fun for a little while, then go back and work on it again. It’s like…” She trailed off for a moment, clearly trying to find the right words. “It’s like when a truck gets stuck in the mud, and they just keep hitting the gas so the tires spin and spin and spin without going anywhere. The truck just gets more stuck, see? You need to go at it from another angle, find a way to pull the truck out or give it leverage. So you walk away from it, clear your head, and go back later.” 

Dakota didn’t respond at first. She stood there, shoulders hunched a bit while staring at the ground. It took her a moment to breathe in slowly before raising her gaze to meet the other girl’s. “You really think… you really think doing something else might help?” She asked that in a small, quiet voice, which radiated vulnerability. Swallowing hard, the girl crossed her arms protectively over her stomach before adding, “I just.. I just want to do something right.” 

“Hey.” Squeezing the girl’s shoulders, Bobbi insisted, “Take my word for it, okay? You need to clear your head. You need to get out of there for awhile and not think about it. So, you and me? We’re going to go veg out at a movie. A totally dumb, totally absurd action-comedy that will turn your brain to mush. And when you’re sufficiently mushed, then we’ll move on to phase two.” 

Dakota blinked at that. “Phase two? What’s phase two?” 

“You’ll find out.” With that, Bobbi winked. “Trust me, it’s just like, a sort of favor I got from someone after all the stuff that happened last year. It’ll be fun, I promise. But it’s the sort of fun you need to ease into. It’ll be better when you’re a little more relaxed. Or at least not as stressed. So, let’s start with a movie. A simple, easy, utterly brainless movie where nothing matters.” With that, she raised a hand to point to the nearby mall entrance. “Ready?” 

Swallowing back her doubt and uncertainty (to say nothing of her guilt), Dakota made herself nod. “I–yeah. Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go see a movie. 

“Wait, hold on. It’s not that Sherlock Gnome movie, is it? Cuz I think I’d rather just find another monster to kill me.” 

******

A couple hours later, the two teen girls were emerging from the mall together once more. Each held a mostly finished soda cup, and Bobbi still held a box with a few Raisinets left. Both were giggling and nudging each other over the ridiculousness of the movie they had just seen (which was indeed not the gnome movie). They repeated lines to each other, laughing before the other person had even finished the quote, and engaged in a sort of rapidfire back-and-forth where each only had to say a few words for the other to completely know where they were going with it and start to react as though they had already finished the sentence.

Only when they reached the curb leading to the parking lot did Dakota pause. She stared at the pavement for a moment, then raised her cup to squint at the remains of the liquid inside. Her voice turned quiet. “You were right. I didn’t think about anything bad while I was there. Or anything at all about the Heretics, or the vines, or Garden, or any of it. I didn’t think at all.” 

Watching her curiously, Bobbi waited a moment before asking, “Are you… okay?” 

Dakota seemed to consider the question before taking a long sip from her drink. Finally, she gave a very slight nod. “I think so. I feel… I feel like… like I’m still worried, and I still want to fix things. But it’s not…” She trailed off, putting one hand on her own shoulder as though pushing it down. “It’s not right here.” Then she moved her hand to her stomach. “And it’s not right here. It’s more right…” She turned, indicating the space on the other side of her where Bobbi wasn’t standing. “It’s more right there. It’s still there and it’s still important. Really important. But it’s not right on top of me. It’s not crushing me.” She bit her lip before looking over to the other girl. “And part of me feels a little bad about that too. But maybe that’s okay. I guess it really has been awhile since I stopped focusing on that stuff.”

Offering Dakota a quick smile, Bobbi nodded. “See? And it’s not over yet. Remember, that was just phase one of getting you to stop obsessing for one night.” 

Clearly, Dakota actually had forgotten that there was supposed to be more to their day, because she gave a bit of a double-take. “Wha-oh. Wait, what else are we doing? You wouldn’t tell me before.”

“And you think I’ll tell you now?” Bobbi teased before waving both hands. “Okay, okay. Actually, come on, we’re supposed to meet him over on the other side of the parking lot, over there.” She pointed while hopping off the curb and starting that way. “You ever been to Disney World?” 

Dakota started to follow before quickly looking over, almost tripping over the curb on her way after the other girl. “Wha-what? Disney World? No? Wait, why? We can’t leave for that long.” 

Glancing over her shoulder toward Dakota with a sly smirk, Bobbi retorted, “Who said anything about leaving for a long time? My friend can get us there just like that.” She snapped her fingers in demonstration. “His name’s Berlin, and he’s an Abeonas. Trust me, it’ll be just like walking down the street. Plus, we’re meeting Twister there. She and Berlin wanna hang out too. We’ll see the park for a few hours, then we’ll come home. And that’s when you’ll–” Abruptly, the girl stopped talking. And walking, for that matter. She suddenly halted in mid-step, slowly lowering her foot while squinting at a camper van that was parked ahead of them with all the doors hanging open. 

“What’s wrong?” Dakota asked, gaze darting back and forth between the van and her new friend. “I guess it looks a little creepy, but–” 

“That’s Berlin’s ride,” Bobbi informed her. “This is where we’re supposed to meet him, but… where is he?” She took a step that way, squinting intently at the vehicle without calling out. 

Dakota made a face behind her. “You seriously wanna take a ride to Disney World with a guy in a van?” She muttered the words under her breath, marveling not only at how creepy it sounded out loud, but at the fact that it would hardly have been the weirdest ride she herself had taken. After all, she’d had to hitchhike her way from the hospital to her family’s old house when she’d heard Kwur’s voice in her head again and realized that someone found the hidden plant.

Bobbi, by that point, had reached the van and poked her head in to look around. “He’s not here,” she murmured worriedly. “He should be here. He was supposed to meet us right at his van.” 

“Maybe he had to go to the restro–” In her own mid-sentence, Dakota stopped and frowned. She stepped over to the nearby flower garden at the edge of the parking lot and crouched down, reaching out to touch a trampled flower with the very tip of her index finger before giving a soft gasp as a sudden rush of images filled her mind. “Three guys. They stomped all over. They were loud. They were… fighting.” 

“What?” Bobbi blinked, turning that way. “How do you–hey, what’s going on?” Even as she asked that, the girl was stepping over and crouching next to her. “It’s a broken flower.” 

Dakota’s eyes had drifted closed, as she kept her finger pressed gently against the poor mangled plant, adding a second one while the images continued to twist their way through her mind. The images were hard to understand. Some came in black and white, some in too much color, or upside down. And each came with a thought or a reflexive sort-of understanding. Or rather, a piece of a thought or understanding. It was difficult to sort through or find anything coherent within one image by itself, but putting them all together like letters or syllables of a word helped. As did speaking them out loud. So she did, her voice continuing in a dreamlike tone as she spoke the thoughts that the images brought to mind. “Three men. Two fighting one. Dragging him from the van. Hitting him with something shiny. Red hair, orange eyes.” 

“That’s Berlin!” Bobbi blurted, before clapping a hand over her own mouth to allow the other girl to continue. Even if hearing that Berlin had been attacked made her want to start screaming obscenities that would’ve made adults give themselves whiplash to hear coming from her mouth.

Dakota was still talking quietly. “They fought him right here, trampled these flowers and the grass. They dragged him… they dragged him that way.” Turning, she pointed down the slope and off into the wooded area beyond that ran under and beside the nearby freeway. “Just–wait a minute.” She focused again, going silent for a few seconds before adding, “They’re still there. The trees can see them. The grass, they’re trampling it, and the flowers. The bushes, they’re tearing through the bushes. They’re trying to get somewhere really fast…” 

“Wait, wait, they’re still here?” Bobbi blurted, bolting to her feet. “Come on!” 

Dakota blinked at that. “Wait, shouldn’t we call someone to go save him?”  

Grabbing the other girl by the arm and pulling her to her feet, Bobbi shook her head. “There’s no time! You said yourself they’re in a rush.” She put both hands on her friend’s shoulders and met her gaze. “Come on, we can do this. Remember I told you about how I helped people in my neighborhood before I ever met Twister and Asenath? You and me, we can save Berlin. Please? He’s my friend, and they’re running away with him.” 

Despite being as nervous as she was, how could Dakota argue with that? Bobbi was basically the first chance at a real friend her own age she’d had in a very long time. Not to mention that small part of her that was offended about the plants being unceremoniously trampled and broken. So, she pushed all her doubts aside and gave a hesitant nod. “It’s that way,” she declared while pointing with a hand. “But they’re already a couple miles away, and I saw a… I think it was a portal just ahead of them. I don’t think we can–” 

Before the other girl could continue with that, Bobbi was already moving. She snapped a hand out toward the row of parked cars nearby and drained all the energy from their batteries. Immediately after doing so, she created a glowing red cube around Dakota, making it hoist the surprised girl into the air. And then? Then Bobbi ran. She directed the cube with Dakota ahead of her while racing down the slope and into the woods the way the girl had indicated. The rest of the world seemed to stop entirely as she poured energy into her own speed and that of the cube, moving so fast everything else was almost motionless. Upon hitting the woods, Bobbi leapt over logs, ducked branches, sidestepped her way around clusters of bushes, and created energy-construct stairs and ramps ahead of her to get over pits, boulders, and similar obstacles. The woods were dense, but Bobbi’s speed and ability to simply create temporary ways around anything in her way meant very little could impede her progress. Meanwhile, Dakota was brought along right behind her in that cube, the whole experience passing by faster than it would even take for her stomach to register that it should be upset about this entire situation. 

In the end, the two of them crossed that two miles in less time than it would have taken the average person to finish getting up from their chair. Finally, Bobbi heard sounds up ahead and skidded her way to a stop while lowering the cube to the ground and dismissing it to release the other girl. Then she quickly reached out to stop Dakota from stumbling, raising a finger to her lips for quiet just as they heard men cursing nearby. Through the thick clump of trees just ahead, they could see a small clearing where there was a glowing portal that was clearly waiting for the three figures who were moving toward it. One of those figures was being carried by the other two, clearly unconscious.

“Come on, come on, before the bastard wakes up,” one guy was saying. As Bobbi leaned closer, she could see that he had light gray fur and very small brown horns that looked as though they had just barely started to grow. The other guy was a metallic man over seven feet in height, but quite skinny. They were carrying Berlin by the arms and legs, heading for the portal. 

“Yeah yeah,” the tall metal man snapped. “I’m coming. Keep your shorts on.” 

They were only a few steps from the portal, so Bobbi couldn’t wait any longer. With a hushed whisper for the other girl to wait there, she launched herself that way and turned into a blur of motion. It wasn’t quite as fast as she’d been when going from the mall to this spot, but still a hell of a lot faster than almost anyone else was capable of. 

In mid-sprint, Bobbi summoned her blue and white glass-like energy-construct armor. Electricity seemed to dance inside the form-fitting suit, while the helmet covered her head and face entirely with no apparent visor or eye slits at all. 

The shorter, fur-covered man reacted first, starting to pivot that way with a blurted warning. But Bobbi was already launching herself off the ground. At her speed, with the armor protecting her from damage, she slammed into him so hard, he hit the ground with her on top of him and didn’t move again other than to cough a couple times in pain. 

The metal guy was trying to react, but Bobbi had already rolled off the first man and pointed that way. As she did so, a glowing fist the size of a small motorcycle slammed into the man with so much force, he was hurled off to crash into a tree about twenty feet away. He tried to get up, but the energy-construct turned into an open hand and held him against the ground. 

“Hah!” Bobbi snapped, lashing out with her armored foot to kick the fur-covered man in the face when he started to move. “That’s what you both get for–” 

That time, what interrupted the girl was an incredibly thick bubble of strange sticky liquid that suddenly formed around her. She was torn from the ground and held in place, unable to move as a third man came into view from the other side of the clearing. He was almost as tall as the metal guy, and appeared to be made of chewed up pink bubblegum, all wrinkly and sticky. Instead of regular arms, he had a random assortment of pink tentacles sticking out various parts of his body with no apparent rhyme or reason.

“Both?” he echoed tauntingly. “What made you think there was only two of us? Now, how about you let my friend over there go, and–” 

Then it was his turn to be interrupted, as Dakota burst into the clearing with both hands raised. “Let her go!” she snapped. 

“Another one?” the bubblegum man lamented without too much worry. “Aight then, c’mere.” He started to extend one of his tentacles, a bubble beginning to form to pick the girl up. 

Before it could reach her, however, Dakota made a noise in the back of her throat that was half-terror and half-anger, then made a shoving motion with both hands. As she did so, a nearby tree straightened up a bit out of the ground and half-turned that way before one of its branches abruptly snapped down, slamming into the bubblegum man so hard he collapsed to the ground like he’d been hit by a car. 

Instantly, Bobbi was released. She took a quick second to make sure the full trio were dealt with, then raced over in a blur of motion to reach Dakota. “Dude! That was awesome!” 

“I made it move! I made the tree move!” Dakota blurted, grabbing Bobbi’s outstretched hands. The two of them jumped up and down a couple times. 

“Hell yeah, you made it move,” Bobbi agreed. “You wolloped that guy real good. He never saw it coming.”

“Yeah, that was pretty cool.” The words came from Berlin, as the Abeonas grunted and sat up from where he had been dropped in the dirt. “Ow. Hey, you’re Dakota, right? Good to see you. Thanks for uhh… jumping in there.” He looked to Bobbi. “You too. I ahh, dunno where those guys wanted me to go, but it probably wasn’t fun.” 

He’d picked himself up from the ground by then, already taking a phone from his pocket. “I gotta call this in, get some Atherby peeps to come grab these guys and get answers out of ‘em. Err, and they can get the Boschers involved, I guess.” After a brief pause, he added, “Oh, and uhh, sorry. I don’t think we’ll make it to Disney World today.” 

“It’s okay,” Bobbi replied, squinting at the metal man while reinforcing the energy-construct hand that was holding him in place. “We’ll go another time, right?” She was addressing the girl beside her. 

Dakota gave a quick nod. “Uh huh. Another time. Besides,” she added quietly, “I, umm, I think I’m ready now. I wanna try talking to Eden’s Garden vines again. But there’s something we’ve gotta do first.”

“What?” Bobbi asked with a curious look. 

“We’ve gotta go back to the van,” the other girl informed her. “To where that broken flower is. I promised it we’d help. I mean, if it didn’t tell me about what happened, we wouldn’t’ve found your friend. So we’ve gotta go back and help it. That’s… that’s not crazy, is it?”   

“Nah,” Bobbi assured her. “It’s not crazy. 

“And if anyone says it is, just hit ‘em with another tree.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Kairos 9-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I had thought that the fight in this quarry was insane and chaotic before. But all of that had been nothing compared to this. Hundreds of thousands of undead creatures, all rushing in every possible direction, even up into the air, to escape. Any of them could have been Fossor in disguise, so all of them had to be stopped. They all had to be either destroyed or exposed as the Necromancer himself. We couldn’t let even a single one get out of this quarry. 

“Mom!” I blurted, even as a skeletal deer-like thing tried to sprint past me. My staff snapped that way, shoving through the bones of the thing’s neck just before I triggered a kinetic blast that blew the head into splinters and sent the rest of the bones tumbling to the ground before they broke apart into dust. “What do we do?! How’re we supposed to find the right one?!” 

My mother, for her part, had just finished catching five zombies and a ghost inside some kind of gelatinous cube thing that instantly incinerated itself and them once they were all caught inside it. “Rahanvael,” she said quickly while pointing her hand to send a single, tight-beam laser that caught three more fleeing zombies who had been making a break for it through a small opening. 

I didn’t have to voice the question. Rahanvael was already there, appearing in front of me while shaking her head quickly. “I–I don’t know! His power is everywhere, he’s obfuscating himself somehow! He knows I can find him by tracking his power, so he–he’s spread it everywhere! I can’t focus–I need… I need…” It was obvious that she was going to say she needed time. Time we didn’t have, because of all this chaos. Even in that moment, I was shifting my staff into its bow form and firing a single energy arrow that made a huge Meregan zombie stumble so that Roxa in werewolf form could leap onto its back. She was followed by several more of her wolf pack, who all took the Meregan to the ground together, tearing the already-dead body apart.  

“Time, I know!” I quickly put in, spinning back to hock a wad of that amber-like spit toward a skeleton that was trying to rush past Shiori while her back was turned as she caught one of her spinning discs. It caught the thing’s feet and the ground, pinning it there so she could finish it off. 

“You need time?” That was Avalon. She pivoted to face me from a few yards away while the gauntlet of her extended arm projected a blade that cut the head from another zombie. “We’ll cover you.” Despite everything going on around her, despite her own heavy panting as she continued killing these things, Avalon’s voice was still calm and collected. “Do what you need.” 

“Damn straight!” That was Columbus, appearing to one side. He had Amethyst, his porcupine cyberform, in her shield form with the quills pointed out. Two of those quills flew off, and when they hit this huge, winged-zombie creature in mid-flight, the ice spells on them activated, freezing the thing solid just long enough to bring it crashing back to the ground with a heavy thud as dust flew everywhere. “Focus on finding the chief asshole, we’ve got these ones!” 

Shiori, Koren, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were right there too. All of them spread out around me, focused on keeping the fleeing undead away from me. Away from us. 

Quickly, I looked to Rahanvael. “One chance,” I said quickly. “We have to hurry, or–”

“I know.” Rahanvael said simply. There was no need for me to continue. We both knew. If we didn’t identify exactly where Fossor was before he managed to escape, this whole thing would’ve been for nothing and he would just try all this again. She looked at me intently. “I need to… to possess you, basically. I need your power, your connection to the undead to weed all the extra out.” 

I didn’t even hesitate. With all the insanity around us, as practically everyone I knew who could fight did so against hundreds of thousands of Fossor’s forces, I extended a hand to her. “Do it.”

It wasn’t the same as Seosten possession, of course. If nothing else, I already had one of those with my sister. This was ghost possession, and as Rahanvael’s hand touched mine, I could tell the difference. This was… cold, for lack of a better term. I felt a chill that seemed to run through my actual soul, as this ghost merged fully with me. I could feel her thoughts, her terror that the creature her brother had turned into would actually escape again. I could feel her determination that he not do so, that he be stopped for good here and now. I could feel everything, just as she could undoubtedly feel all of my own thoughts and feelings. 

I have to put everything into finding him, Rahanvael’s voice informed both Tabbris and me. Everything. 

She wasn’t exaggerating. The whole world went dark then. I couldn’t see or hear anything around us. I couldn’t even sense anything with my powers. It was one huge black void. All my senses were turned off, aside from… wait. Energy. I could… feel energy. Life energy–no, not life. Death. I could feel death energy around us. Literally everywhere around us. It was a hurricane of Necromantic energy. No wonder it was so impossible for Rahanvael to differentiate anything. Fossor really was hiding himself in a giant storm of power. The only chance we had was that he was cautious. He wouldn’t make the first run for an escape. He’d wait to see where an opening appeared. But he also wouldn’t wait too long, because he only had so many forces to keep our people busy with. Wherever that piece of shit was, he would make his move soon. 

We had to find him before that. It was the only choice, the only chance we had. Find him. Stop him. 

This was terrifying. I knew there was violence going on around me. I could feel the undead through their energy. But I couldn’t feel my friends. I had no idea how they were doing. I just… I just had to trust that they were safe, that they were still right there protecting Tabbris and me. I had no idea how the fight was going, if they were hurt or… or worse. My only choice was to stand here, blind and deaf, and trust that my friends could take care of themselves. 

Fuck, this was hard. 

I could feel Rahanvael taking control of my Necromancy power, could sense how she was using it to direct the death energy around us. I wasn’t yet powerful enough, even with her help, to take control of more than a few of these things at a time. But she wasn’t trying to take control of them. She was infecting them with my power, letting that power spread quickly through the army, sort of like a virus. I couldn’t actually make them do anything with that tiny amount of power, but I could see where it went, the way it mixed with Fossor’s own power. Through what felt like hours, my power spread through the undead within the quarry, just a dot of it here or there. Not enough to actually do anything with them, but enough to mark all of them. 

All of them, that was, except for one. One spot where my power couldn’t infect Fossor’s. One spot. One being who was immune to being touched by my own Necromancy. 

Him. It was him. 

We found him. 

My eyes opened as Rahanvael separated herself from me, and I saw the carnage around us. It was clear that Fossor had left his horde instructions not only to escape, but also to kill me if they could manage it. All around us were dozens upon dozens of dead (or redead) things, or just the dust and ectoplasm from skeletons and ghosts. My friends, my teammates, had been joined by others. My mother, Deveron, the rest of her own team, Asenath, Bobbi, Vanessa and Tristan, and more. It had clearly taken all of them to keep these things off me through the time that I had been indisposed. 

There wasn’t time to thank them. There wasn’t time for anything. Not when I knew where Fossor was. I could still feel him, could still sense the way his own power was so different from mine. Now that it had been so thoroughly pointed out to me, it was a difference I could never forget. The man himself was like a bright shining beacon, so different from the rest of the creatures around him now that they had all been marked by my power. 

And he was making his move. Even as I focused on my ability to sense him, I could feel the Necromancer bolting for an open spot. The fighting had spread out too far. Our forces were thin on the edges. He had the opening he wanted, the opening he needed to escape. 

Like fuck would I let that happen. 

“Got him!” I blurted, spinning toward the direction I could still feel the bastard in. Unfortunately, that just put me face to face with a veritable wall of both enemies and friends. The battle raged on ahead of me, not only on the ground but in the air too. There was no way I could get through all that in time to reach Fossor before he managed to escape. He was already making his move!

At least, there was no way I could do that alone. But I wasn’t alone. The moment they realized where I was trying to go, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Asenath, and all the others launched themselves that way. The wall of enemies in the way collapsed inward as my people, my friends, barrelled headlong into it. A hole, they were making a hole for me to get through. 

I took advantage without thought. I would thank them later, I would say… everything that needed to be said later. Right now, only one thing mattered, getting to Fossor and stopping him once and for all. 

It wasn’t as easy as just going through a single opening and then having a free run to where the evil piece of shit was, of course. The entire quarry was filled with these creatures, all of them in my way. Or at least, they tried to be in my way. But Avalon and the others stayed just ahead of me, tearing their way through the enemies. Here, Sands made a wall to block off one section to create an opening. There, Gordon encased himself in enormous ice armor and used one long arm to swat a group of zombies away. There, Sean and Vulcan worked with Sarah and her own gun to put down a group of fliers that were trying to swoop in from above. 

Koren and Miranda worked together to deal with a massive skeleton giant to the left. To the right, Vanessa and Tristan were stopping a cloud of angry ghosts from reaching us. Bobbi and Asenath raced ahead, each grabbing a rotting zombie barbarian creature, tearing the pair apart from each other and out of the way. 

Deveron and Lillian were there, the latter using a summoned wind storm to hurl a dozen undead into the air before the former incinerated them with a blast of white-blue fire from his pistol. The Dornans and Tribald Kine were stopping a literal giant (the thing towered at least twenty feet tall, twice the size of a Meregan) from stomping down on the spot just ahead of me. 

Everyone, everyone was helping. They were clearing the path. I was taking advantage, racing through the holes they created. I didn’t have time to slow down, didn’t have time to help. Getting to Fossor was all that mattered. They had this. I had him. 

Or rather, we had him. Because my mother was right beside me. The two of us sprinted onward, Mom right at my side. The others could barely keep up with clearing the path, not even worrying about killing everything in the way. They were purely focused on simply moving the enemies. Even then, it was only the fact that we had so many on our side, so many friends and allies right there with us, that allowed Mom and I to keep running without slowing down to engage with the minions ourselves. Neither of us spoke. Neither of us needed to. We were together right here, at this last moment. That was all that mattered, the two of us being together, side-by-side, as we made one final run to either stop Fossor from escaping, or die trying. 

A blast from Columbus’s goggles slammed into a huge, twelve-foot tall troll zombie that had been looming up in front of us, the concussive force putting the thing on its back long enough for my mother and I to leap over it. I had to boost to make the full jump, while my mother used some kind of gravity manipulation power to keep herself in the air long enough to make it from the troll’s feet all the way past its head. It was starting to recover, starting to grab for us, but we were already gone. Behind us, I heard a howl as Dare, in giant wolf form, landed on top of the thing to make sure it would never be a threat again.

I could feel him. I could still feel Fossor. He was… he was there. He was just ahead of us. But, close as he was to us, he was also close to the edge of the quarry, and thus close to escaping the spell that was keeping him trapped here. The moment he made it over that line, the very second that monster managed to edge a foot out of the magic that stopped him from teleporting, he would be gone. He would escape. He would leave and go back to being a threat for everyone in the world, a threat that would hurt and kill everyone I cared about. 

Fuck. That. 

Tabbris! I shouted inwardly, even as Mom intercepted some kind of spinning ghost armed with glowing blades that came in out of nowhere. That wing blast thing, can you do it again? I had no idea what all that was about, and there wasn’t time for details. All that mattered was whether she had another one in her or not. I’d had the impression that she couldn’t do that constantly, that it needed time to recharge. But had it been enough time yet? 

There was a brief hesitation, even as I pivoted to stab the blade of my staff through a zombie that came lunging at us from that side. He was with a horde of others, but our friends had managed to intercept the rest. I could feel Tabbris’s doubt, but it was quickly replaced by firm determination. Yes, she insisted. I can do it again. 

Good, ready? I let her take in exactly what I wanted to do, what I was planning. 

Ready! I could feel that she was afraid, afraid of her own power, afraid of this whole situation, of messing up and letting Fossor escape. She was terrified. But she was here. She was here with me, and determined to make this work. Whatever it took. 

“Mom!” I blurted out loud. “On three, hit me with the strongest energy blast you can and get us into the air. One… two… three!”

As I said that, my hands gripped my staff, triggering the boost to start my launch upward. At the same time, I felt my mother’s hands grab my shoulders as she used her gravity power to send us flying even higher than my staff could manage. On the way, her hands glowed and I felt her pouring energy into me. Energy that I focused on absorbing. 

We were in the air. More enemies came in from all sides, but between Mom and our friends below, they were dealt with. 

Most importantly, I could see him. I could see the single ‘zombie’ making a flat run for the line. Fossor had abandoned blending in by that point. No one was around him, they were all engaged with other threats and too far away. No one could stop him. 

Or so he thought. The second I saw that clear path to the monster, I blurted both inwardly and aloud, “Do it now!” 

It was like before, when we had used a powered up blast to destroy the creatures blocking me from reaching Fossor the first time. But now, we weren’t shooting an army. Nor were we shooting Fossor himself. Tabbris and I both knew the man would just shove the effect off onto any of his creatures who were still here. Then he’d keep going and escape. 

No, we didn’t shoot Fossor. We shot the ground. Those bright light wings appeared from my back and a blinding blast of power, a ten-foot-wide eruption of energy hurtled itself down out of the sky, tearing into the Earth with a deafening blast that sent dirt, dust, and rocks in every direction. 

Through that blinding, choking cloud, Mom and I fell. We landed together, and my mother used a quick gust of wind to send the dust away. 

We were in a hole. A twenty-foot-wide, twelve-foot-deep hole. About as wide as a boxing ring without the ropes. A boxing ring with a single opponent who stood facing us, hatred and disbelief twisting his features. 

“Leaving so soon?” I demanded, taking a quick step away from my mother so we wouldn’t be caught in the same attack. “And without us? I thought we were supposed to be a family and all that.” 

“Yes, brother,” Rahanvael agreed, appearing beside me. “We are family.” 

“We are family,” Mom corrected pointedly, straightening up as she focused on Fossor. “Not him.” Her hand snapped out, throwing some kind of enchanted marble into the air. As it hit the top of the hole we were all in, a glowing energy shield appeared, creating a forcefield ceiling to keep all of us, Fossor included, right here in the hole. 

This was it. No other tricks. No escapes. No new allies or friends. They were all busy, all occupied. My mother and I (with Rahanvael and Tabbris), facing the man who had done so much to tear our family apart. Just us. Just him. For the last time. 

One way or another, this was the end.

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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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