Calafia

Commissioned Interlude 11 – Lincoln (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The following is a special commissioned interlude. The regular chapter will be out tomorrow as usual.

Lincoln Chambers needed a distraction. Flick and Joselyn were gone again, off on their mission to help save those two who were stranded on that other world. And as much as he hated the idea of his wife and daughter running off into danger yet again pretty much immediately after getting away from Fossor, he also couldn’t possibly object. Not in good conscience, anyway. The only reason he even had Felicity and Joselyn back at all was because of the two they were going off to rescue. And waiting a bit longer wasn’t an option, if what he’d heard about these Fomorian creatures was anywhere near accurate. If they waited and something happened to those two in the meantime, neither his wife and daughter, or Lincoln himself, would forgive themselves. Horrible as it was, unfair as it was, they had to go right then to save those two.

And yet, as much sense as all that made, as much as it was absolutely the only option, some part of Lincoln had still wanted to object. He wanted to tell them to make someone else go. Hadn’t his family done enough to deal with all this? There was no shortage of powerful people out there who could rush to pull those two off the Meregan world. Why did his wife and daughter, who had literally just barely been rescued themselves, have to be the ones to go? 

It was a stupid question, of course. And one he would never voice, even as it insisted on bouncing around through his head. They had to go because that was who they were. Flick had been saved by those two, Elisabet and Dexamene, and she wasn’t going to sit around letting someone else pay them back for that. It wasn’t who she was. And it certainly wasn’t who Joselyn was. He could’ve said that much even before he knew about her being the leader of some Heretic Rebellion. Just as the sheriff of a small city in Wyoming, she wouldn’t have just sat back and let someone else run into danger to save another person. 

To object now, as much as he might’ve wanted to, would’ve meant objecting to who they were. It would have meant raising his protest against everything his wife and daughter stood for. Terrified as he was about what could happen right after he got them back, Lincoln couldn’t do that. Because loving them meant accepting that they would run into danger to save another. 

But even if he couldn’t object, even if he had accepted (for the most part) that the two people he loved most in the world had to go off on this horrible mission, Lincoln still couldn’t just sit around doing nothing while waiting to hear back. He’d drive himself insane just pacing around the cabin, or walking by the lake. There was nothing he could do about their trip, no way for him to help or even keep track of them. They were off on another world, in another universe. There was nothing he could do about it. 

Fortunately, Lincoln had other family members to worry about. His parents–something was wrong. And it had taken him a long time to figure that out. Mostly because right after Flick had disappeared, Lincoln sent a message to his parents to let them know that Flick had surprised him by taking a full summer load of classes, so now she was taking the semester off of that fancy school of hers. Which meant he could take her on a long camping trip off the grid. Just the two of them on an extended vacation, he’d claimed in the message. Getting away from everything.

It was stupid. But he just–with Flick gone, taken by the same piece of shit who had taken Joselyn for so many years, Lincoln couldn’t deal. He could not possibly have talked to his mother and father without spilling the whole situation, and that–even if they could use the potion to make them remember, it would’ve been too much. He couldn’t drag his parents into this whole mess and try to explain… all of it while also losing his mind over his missing daughter. 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. But he just could not deal with trying to talk to them while all that was going on. So he’d sent the message about going off the grid, let them know to send any calls and emails to the same locations, and then shut down communication. He didn’t dare open any messages from them in that time. Hearing his mother lament about not hearing Flick’s voice on her birthday, all while knowing where his daughter actually was, might have just broken him. 

But hey, as it turned out, he needn’t have worried about messages from his parents making him feel even worse about the situation. Because there weren’t any. As in none. Checking his email and the voicemail that he’d been studiously ignoring over the past… how long had it been? Months? Time really flew when your wife and daughter were imprisoned by a violent amoral sociopath. Either way, there was nothing. No email and no voicemail. Nothing at all. 

That… was wrong. Totally wrong. The only reason his parents wouldn’t have left dozens of messages was if… if something had happened to them. And the fact that they hadn’t left anything since his own messages, not even a response to it, meant…

His parents were missing–had been missing for that whole time. It was the only explanation. The guilt of that, the sudden rush of realization as the truth dawned on the man, had nearly sent him to the floor. It had been all he could do, that day as his wife and daughter set about their business getting ready to go do their own mission, not to bring it up. 

He couldn’t tell them, couldn’t let them know there was a whole other problem. They were already going into some of the worst danger imaginable. Lincoln would not distract them with anything else. Instead, he kept it quiet and tried to solve the situation himself. Just in case he was overreacting, he tried contacting his parents directly to no avail. Several calls to their cells had gone unanswered, even when he used the emergency sos code they’d established.

They were in trouble. Fuck, they’d been in trouble and he’d been so wrapped up in being worried about his wife and daughter, he’d completely missed the danger his own parents were in!

That was a whole new flood of guilt and despair. One that he’d almost let himself succumb to after Flick and Joselyn left, before getting himself under control. There could still be a simple explanation. There could be, much as he doubted it. This… this was something far worse than just a simple downed cell phone line or them being snowed in. Yes, they were in Alaska and yes there had been some bad storms up there recently, but it just wasn’t–that wasn’t it. 

So, Lincoln had his distraction. He couldn’t do anything about what Jos and Felicity were up to, couldn’t help them or even find out what was going on until they made it back (and they would make it back, he insisted to himself repeatedly). But he could find out what was wrong with his parents. That was a problem he could focus on. Because as many possibilities as there were for what was going on with them and what had happened, at least they would be on this world. 

He wasn’t going to investigate the situation alone, of course. For one thing, as much as he liked to think he was progressing in his study of magic, he wasn’t anywhere near good enough to create a portal all the way to his parents’ last known location in Alaska. He had other help. 

“Ready to go, Mr. Chambers?” Sean Gerardo, the young man several years older than he should have been thanks to years spent in solitary confinement, asked. Sean himself was another who was worried about someone who had gone on the mission to rescue Elisabet and Dexamene. Several someones, actually. Not only had essentially his entire old team gone together, but Roxa as well. Sean would have gone, except for an injury from the fight with Fossor’s forces. It had taken most of the night to heal, and he was still limping a little bit. From what Lincoln had heard, the young man had asked Roxa to go in his stead to help his friends. Not that she took much convincing. 

Before Lincoln could respond, Vulcan trotted up beside his owner and partner with a bark. He was accompanied by the young… half-Native American and half (one-quarter?) Reaper, Aylen Tamaya. “Yes,” the girl spoke up, “I believe we are. Right, Professor?” 

“Virginia is fine, Aylen,” Dare herself, the final member of their group, announced as she joined them. “Or Miss Dare, if you prefer. But yes, if Mr. Chambers doesn’t have anything else first?” 

Lincoln, for his part, retorted, “If you’re Virginia, I think you can call me Lincoln. And yes, I just–” He stopped, pausing before pushing on. “I want to thank you three–” A low, pointed growl from Vulcan made him correct himself. “Ahem, I want to thank you five for all this.” He over-enunciated the proper number with a nod upward to where Aylen’s own cyberform hawk was gliding watchfully over them. “Booking a flight and heading up there myself was doable, but probably not nearly as effective.” He was doing his best to keep his voice light, trying not to let them see just how worried he was about the whole situation. His parents going dark for so long could maybe have an innocent explanation. After all, he told them he was going dark first. And they were in Alaska. Not even near any of the cities. From what he’d heard, they were going with Al to an old cabin that their old friend had up there. It was possible that between spotty cell service and their own distraction by the beautiful scenery that weeks had passed without them thinking about checking in. Doubtful, but possible. And it was the explanation he was hoping for. 

At least he knew they hadn’t been taken by Fossor before his death. There was no way, from everything everyone had told him about that piece of shit, that he wouldn’t have used that to torment Felicity and Joselyn. The fact that he’d never brought it up, even on the cusp of his death, proved that he didn’t know everything about it. 

So, that eliminated the psychotic (and thankfully dead) Necromancer as a potential suspect. Unfortunately, they didn’t exactly lack for others. The more he thought about it, the more worried Lincoln became about the whole thing. Which was why he was doing his best to focus on the possibility that it was all innocent and not completely lose his mind in front of the others. 

Virginia spoke first, shaking her head at his attempt to downplay things. “You are part of a much larger family now, Lincoln. Whatever is going on with your parents, be it innocent or not, we will be there to help you handle the situation.” She paused briefly before continuing. “And even if this turns out to be a simple case of losing contact, it is perhaps time to bring them into the fold.” Her eyes met his, seeming to stare straight through him as she spoke in a soft yet oddly intense voice. “Speaking truth to your family, sharing your life with them, your triumphs and trials, is a true gift. Your parents love and trust you, and you them. Never waste that, Lincoln. Bring them into the truth while you can. Keep them safe, and allow them to share in your life. All of your life.” She glanced away. “That is the most important advice I believe I could ever give you.”  

There was something… important there. Lincoln liked to think that he was far from an idiot. It was obvious that the woman was speaking from personal loss. Was it simply about the parents she had lost as a child with the attack meant to kill Virginia herself? Or the fact that she’d somewhat recently learned that the first man to take her in, the Akharu called Tiras, was still missing? Or the continued imprisonment of Gaia, whom she had also seen as a parental figure? 

All of it, most likely, of course. Every single one of those situations had clearly fueled the feelings that Virginia was showing right here. And that made perfect sense. Yet he still couldn’t shake the thought, the instinct, that there was more to it than that. And above all else, Lincoln was a man who was accustomed to following his instincts. Especially lately. 

But now wasn’t the time to poke at that, if he ever did considering the woman’s right to privacy. He had his own family situation to handle before he worried about poking at hers, so he pushed those thoughts aside for the time being.

Thankfully, Sean was already stepping in with a convenient distraction to help Lincoln turn off those instincts, holding up a small vial of grayish liquid. “This should do the trick, Mr. Chimera-Blood. Pulled it out of a Hill Troll the pack dealt with a few days ago. Been stored away, so it’s still fresh.” Pausing, he added, “You don’t have to drink it, do you?” 

“Squeamish?” Aylen idly asked, tilting her head a bit to look at the boy while Sovereign landed on her abruptly-raised arm. “I’d think you’d be fine with that, given… well, everything.” 

“Not exactly,” the young man replied before pointing out, “but there’s a difference between vampires or wolves getting blood, and an ordinary, average human dude. I meant for his sake.” 

Lincoln shook his head, with a glance toward Virginia. “No. I’ve practiced with it a bit and all it takes is skin contact.” With that, he held his hand out, palm up. “Haven’t done a troll yet.” 

Popping the top off the vial, Sean poured the blood out into Lincoln’s hand. It sat there for a moment, then gradually began to be absorbed into his skin. As always, the man felt a tingling sensation, a rush similar to static electricity washing over the skin the blood was touching and then gradually moving through the rest of his body. It made him gasp slightly, before giving a full shudder, extending his arms out to shake them sharply while cracking his neck. 

“Wow,” the man managed. “Now that’s a rush. Feel like I just drank seven cups of espresso or something. That–that’s a lot of energy.” He cracked his knuckles, giving a short nod. “Ready.” 

“Troll strength and regeneration should be the best way of keeping you safe against whatever might be out there,” Virginia reminded him. “But don’t forget that you’re not trained to fight. If something happens, play back-up and keep yourself safe. I’m not–” She paused before pointedly continuing, “I’m not going to tell your wife and daughter that I let you get hurt. Understand?”  

Lincoln gave a short nod, before the woman turned, pulling a small stone from one pocket. “I spent the past hour keying this to the area you mentioned. It should take us straight there.” With those words, she activated the spell on the stone, tossing it to the ground. A moment later, the stone itself disintegrated and a doorway had appeared in its place. It looked like an actual door, standing there in the middle of the grass lot behind Lincoln’s cabin with nothing supporting it. 

At her own insistence, Virginia opened the door and stepped through first. The open doorway revealed the Alaska scenery that Lincoln had expected. There was a lake straight to the right (almost in the exact same spot the lake here at the Atherby camp was, which felt disconcerting), a beautiful forest to the left, and the cabin he’d seen a few pictures of straight ahead. There was also, unfortunately, no sign of his parents just yet. Not that he’d expected it to be that easy, but there was always the slight hope. 

Sean and Vulcan went next, before Lincoln followed with Aylen and Sovereign bringing up the rear. Immediately, the girl sent her cyberform hawk soaring off into the sky to get a look at the surrounding area, as Sean took his metal dog to sniff around for any interesting scents. 

Lincoln, meanwhile, walked with Virginia up toward the front patio of the cabin. The two of them glanced to one another, before he raised his voice to call, “Mom? Dad? Uncle Al?” 

They’d reached the short steps leading up the patio in front of the door, but there was no response. Virginia held up a hand to stop him from proceeding, focusing her gaze on the cabin. From the way she was turning her head, he had the feeling she was seeing through the walls. 

“No one’s there,” she finally announced. “And… come here.” 

“Miss Dare, Mr. Chambers!” Aylen called, jogging up. “It’s the cabin, it–” 

“Yes,” Virginia interrupted gently. “Come, Lincoln.” With that, she guided him around the side of the cabin, one hand on his arm as though to steady him. 

Immediately, he saw why they were acting so oddly. Half of the cabin simply wasn’t there. The front half looked fine, but the back half had–it looked like it had been disintegrated, blown away along with a bunch of trees on that side. 

Seeing that, Lincoln felt himself stagger. He felt the rush of terror that he’d been successfully staving off ever since realizing that his parents had gone dark rising up to overwhelm him. He felt Virginia’s grip on his arm tighten as she literally stopped him from falling. A loud buzzing sound started to go off in the back of his head. No, no. No, please, what–why did, who was–

A sudden bark interrupted Lincoln’s panic, snapping his gaze up and around. Sean was there, with Vulcan, who gave another sharp bark beyond them to–he turned. 

“Hello, Lincoln.” 

It was Calafia, the Committee woman who had helped save Lincoln, Twister, and Asenath back at his old house. The one who had helped Gabriel Prosser find Joselyn in the first place all those years ago, and who had also helped weaken the Bystander Effect on Lincoln himself. All because she owed Joselyn ‘more than she could ever repay’, according to the woman. 

“You,” Lincoln snapped despite himself. “What did your Committee do?” He felt Virginia step very slightly in front of him, even as Aylen and Sean took up their own positions nearby. 

There was a slight pause before Calafia spoke. “You are correct, in a way. Without informing any of us, even Ruthers, Litonya sent one of our newest members, Antaeus, to… collect your parents.” 

“Antaeus,” Virginia snapped, “your hardliner members must be even more desperate than I thought.” 

“Where are they?” Lincoln immediately blurted, stepping around Virginia to start moving toward the woman. “Where are my parents? You better not think that just because–” 

“Peace,” Calafia insisted, raising a hand. “We do not have them. That is the truth. Antaeus was sent, yet…” She paused before asking, “How much do you know about that friend of theirs, who owned this cabin?” 

“Al?” Lincoln shrugged, frowning. “Albert Caeus. He’s been around forever, since I can remember. They–” 

“Caeus?” Virginia interrupted. “Your parents’ friend’s name is Al… Caeus? Alcaeus.” Seeing his blank look, she added, “Heracles. Is that–” A nod from Calafia made her exhale. “Your parents’ old friend is Hercules.” 

“Holy fuck, dude,” Sean blurted abruptly. “How connected is your family?” 

Lincoln, meanwhile, was reeling. Everything–he’d known Uncle Al his entire life, since he was old enough to even remember anything. He was there all the time. And through all of it, the man who brought him Christmas gifts, the one who–who he’d always seen as an uncle, was actually Hercules? That, even more than everything else he’d experienced over the past year, was enough that he needed to sit down. Only one thing stopped him from staggering. “Where–where are they? What happened?” 

Calafia answered simply, “Antaeus attempted to confront them. He used a blast of power to destroy the cabin as a show of force. But before he could do anything more, they… disappeared.” 

“Disappeared?” Virginia echoed, squinting. “You mean Alcaeus used an emergency teleport.” 

“We don’t believe it was him,” came the response. “Antaeus insists the man wasn’t using any spells and spoke no triggers. It could have been tied to the danger of the situation, yet… we believe there was outside involvement. Particularly considering… how far the transport sent them, according to the scans we’ve done of the energy it left behind.” 

Her words, and her tone of voice, made Lincoln frown. “What… what do you mean? How far did the transport send them? Where are they?

“Where exactly are my parents?” 

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Interlude 10B – Committee Meeting (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who do not read Summus Proelium to have already gotten this notice, the non-canon chapter for Heretical Edge was released over the weekend and can be found right here. Wanna see Haiden end up in the world of superheroes? Feel free to check it out!

Deep within an ancient forest, whose trees had stood since before humanity had truly understood the concept of civilization (though that understanding had yet to come for many), a small clearing held twelve figures, who stood in a perfectly formed circle facing one another. Each remained equidistant apart by several feet, far enough that they could all stretch their arms in every direction without coming close to touching one another. The figures stood in pitch darkness. Not even the moon or stars penetrated this clearing despite their existence and the clear sky. Yet despite the lack of any actual illumination, each of the twelve gathered there together could see one another as perfectly as though they had been standing in broad daylight. 

“You should have called the rest of us in.” At the eleven o’clock position, Litonya’s voice spoke up, holding traces of disgust and admonition. “Defeating the Necromancer was a triumph. Yet allowing the traitors to do the bulk of the work, then gathering them up once the deed was done? That would have been a master stroke. Ending both threats in one fell swoop.” 

Directly across from the ancient Native American woman, at the five o’clock position, Edward Teach spoke up. “Why does it not surprise me that the concept of honor entirely eludes you?” 

Geta, who stood to Litonya’s left in the exact twelve spot, gave a low and humorless chuckle that filled the pitch-black space around them. “Are we to be lectured on honor by the old pirate? What’s next, shall we look to Calafia for an explanation of the Bystander staryacht program?” 

Calafia herself, who stood at the six o’clock spot straight across from the old Roman Emperor, spoke in a dark voice of her own. “Perhaps your jibes would strike home more if you knew they referred to such things as spaceships, not staryachts.” She gave a slight smile, teeth visible to all around her. “Just a suggestion. Knowing less than I do about such a subject does tend to detract from your overall point.” Pausing pointedly, she added in a curious tone, “Which was?” 

One of their two newest members, the gigantic (he topped out at a full seven feet) bear of a man called Antaeus, with his thick dark mustache, long dark hair peppered with gray, and piercing gaze, spoke up from his position to Geta’s left at one on the clock. “His point,” he rumbled in a voice that was boiling over with derision and impatience, “was that we don’t need to hear about honor and loyalty and whatever the fuck from some old pirate bastard. What we need to do is talk about why this whole rebellion thing is still a problem after we could’ve put a stop to it.” 

His words were met by a scoff from Percival. The former knight was standing to Calafia’s left, at seven o’clock and across from Antaeus. “So you people are suggesting that we respond to the Rebellion’s aid in defeating one of the most evil, monstrous threats that has ever faced humanity, by betraying and descending upon them in an ambush once they were exhausted. What a remarkably brilliant way to demonstrate our virtues as the true saviors of our people.” 

Sigmund, the enormous ancient Norseman, made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, spitting at his own feet from where he stood at three o’clock. “Betray? You wanna talk about betrayals, nobleman? Those fucking rebels are the gods damned traitors, and they deserve anything they get.” He jabbed a finger that way, his voice darkening even more. “Let’s be clear. This ain’t Camelot. And I don’t see any King Arthur around anymore. We’re here to protect humanity, not get praise and play shining beacons of light and goodness. You see the monsters out there. You know what we’re dealing with. You know what those things are gonna do when they see the opportunity these traitors are handing them. They’ll help tear our entire society apart, break us, and turn humanity into their feasting grounds. You wanna make sure that doesn’t happen? Then we have to stop the traitors soon. Whatever it takes. Even if that means doing the dirty shit that makes us look like the bad guys. We end it, period.” 

From the eight o’clock position to Percival’s left, Sophronia cleared her throat. “And in so-doing, undoubtedly drive even more of our own people away as they see the depths to which we are willing to stoop. Do you not see how the simple factual information of how we acted to end the previous rebellion has driven even more potential allies to be our enemies? You cannot end this sort of situation with a hammer. You cannot force every person to be too afraid of rebelling, and still count on them to stand against true evil. You cannot put a whip to the backs of those we are supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder with. It will not work. It cannot work.”

“You’re right.” That was Ruthers, who stood to Litonya’s right at ten o’clock. “The worse we can be perceived as acting, the more it will push others to join the Rebellion. Especially with their… allied Strangers playing nice. If those on the fence between our two sides see Strangers behaving honorably for the Rebellion while we act as monsters, it will tear our society apart even more than it already has been.” 

To his right (and Sophronia’s left), Davis Neal, who was dressed in a modern black suit rather than his usual lumberjack outfit (he’d even shaved his beard, making the man look almost unrecognizable), raised an eyebrow toward the man beside him while speaking in an even voice. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were almost sympathizing with them, Gabriel.” 

His words were met by a sharp glare from the man in question. “Hardly, Davis. I am not sympathizing with traitors. But nor am I blind to the mistakes of the past. I see how those among us have reacted to the flood of information given to them by Sinclaire’s spell.”

“Speaking of which.” The next pointed words came from the handsome Asian woman known as Jue, who stood at the two o’clock spot to Antaeus’s left. Once everyone’s attention was on her, she continued. “It occurs to me that our entire purpose behind recruiting and promoting our other newest member was to handle that particular situation.”

“Yes,” Davis agreed, looking across the circle to the sole remaining figure, who had yet to speak. “That’s what we got her for, and as far as I can tell, there has been no actual movement on that point. Or am I mistaken? Perhaps she can address that?”

The question was met with a moment of silence, as all attention moved that way to follow her gaze. Finally, the single newest member of the Committee straightened. The crimson hood with gold trim that had covered their head to leave their face in even deeper (supernatural) shadows than the already extant darkness fell back to reveal an olive-skinned figure of dark, curled hair and mismatched eyes, one green and the other blue. It was impossible, whether through a glance or extended evaluation, to entirely discern the sex of the person. They were either a quite handsome woman or a beautiful man, a fairly androgynous figure, all told. 

The newcomer spoke toward Davis in a voice that possessed a remarkably dream-like, echoey quality. “I am not he, nor she, but they. On this, I insist no sway.” 

“But there’s still only one of you, right?” Antaeus put in as the Committee’s other newest admission. “You’re not keeping some kind of rabbit in your pants or something, magician? Sorry, I just don’t know how to keep up with all this new shit.”

Regarding their fellow newcomer coolly, the cloaked figure replied, “You are no older than I, and what I am has always been. There are those who pretend we don’t exist, whether now or way back when.” 

Davis cleared his throat, shooting a glance toward the larger man before speaking. “Let’s try to focus on the matter at hand, huh? Jue’s right, we did recruit and promote our newest friend here for a specific purpose. One which… they are supposed to be quite adept at. Perhaps they can explain the situation?” 

Beside the androgynous figure, Teach spoke calmly. “They wanna know why you haven’t given us the keys to mind-fuck our entire population, Hecate. Cuz that worked out so well the last time.”

Litonya sharply interrupted, “No one is suggesting any… mind-fuckery.” She over-enunciated the last word, making her distaste for the tone apparent. “In fact, we specifically involved her–them,” she corrected belatedly, “to prevent the mental manipulation that Sinclaire has already engaged in.” 

Geta spoke in agreement, “That was the point, wasn’t it? We needed help erasing the spell that Sinclaire put on the Edge so we don’t get any more nasty surprises.” 

That had been an unpleasant realization, to find that not only had Gaia’s spell filled the minds of every living Crossroads or Eden’s Garden Heretic with her assorted collection of propaganda about the Rebellion and everything the loyalists had done to stop them, but it also did the exact same thing for all new recruits. Every time a person either went through the Lighthouse or ate one of Garden’s apples, their heads were flooded with that same rush of information. It was cheating, is what it was. Gaia Sinclaire, despite literally being magically frozen and utterly incapable of interacting with the outside world, was still managing to twist the minds of Crossroads students. If some of them hadn’t been so frustrated with the woman, they would have admired her for that. And some admired her anyway. 

Hecate spoke again, their voice still retaining its echoey/distant sound that made those who heard it feel as though they were listening through a dream. “Your requests have been clear. You seek a return to yesteryear. A wish to see Morgan’s magic revoked. A pity, such effect may not be retroact?” 

Shaking his head with a grunt, Geta flatly retorted, “We want you to use that mental magic you’re such an expert at to turn off Gaia’s spell. Stop it from interfering with our new recruits. They don’t need to get… all of that shoved into their heads right from the start, before we can even ease them into things. They are students. Don’t know why people keep romanticising how much the old traitor actually cares about the kids when she’s shoving magical propaganda in their heads. Seems to me if she actually cared about them she’d leave the kids out of it.” 

Ruthers cleared his throat, arms folded across his chest as he pointedly put in, “Her reasoning is immaterial. The point is, we need the spell either removed or modified. And you’ve now had weeks to examine it with the power boost being a member of the Committee provides. Tell us, is that something you can do? Can you erase the spell Gaia created so we can create new Heretics without shoving all that propaganda in their heads at the same time?” 

After a brief moment of silence, Hecate inclined their head before answering. “Such is perhaps possible. Yet it is your people who are suasible. Such efforts may spare the innocence of newer recruits, but the words are out there, and erasure never refutes.” 

“In other words,” Teach translated, “erasing the information isn’t going to make it magically better. Maybe you can stop them from having all the information about the Rebellion shoved into their heads the moment you put them through the lighthouse, but then what? You think they won’t find out about the Rebellion another way? Older students will talk. Other adults will talk. You think we don’t have Rebel sympathizers within the school right now, people who agree with them to one level or another but didn’t leave for whatever reason? Because if you do, you’re a fool.” 

Litonya started to respond to that, but Ruthers spoke up first. “I believe we’re all well-aware that this is a losing prospect. We need to get ahead of the curve and tell the students the story from our point of view, not allow Gaia’s words to get to them directly. We need to tell them that there are those who think… who believe differently, but they’re being manipulated.” 

“I’m sure that’ll go well,” Percival retorted in a dry voice. Shaking his head in obvious distaste, he sighed before turning to their newest member once more. “You said you can stop Gaia’s spell, turn it off? How long is that going to take? And what do you need to pull it off?” 

Hecate answered simply, their voice rising just a bit so that the ever-present echo grew to surround the assembled group throughout the clearing. “What is needed is time and much work. Fortunately, such ought not to irk. The spell’s damage for these students is wrought. Now a year to have a solution be sought.”  

“Yeah, you’ve got some time,” Sigmund confirmed with a grunt. “Personally, I’d prefer to get it dealt with sooner rather than later. But whatever. Do your job. What about the other business?” 

“There’s still no sign of Elisabet,” Sophronia announced. “And no indication of how or why she disappeared. She’s been entirely cut out of the Committee link. Whether that means she’s dead or not, I don’t know. But she was alive when the link was severed, we’ve put that much together. Beyond that, we have nothing, still. Months of investigation, and we have nought to show for it.” 

The heavy sigh in response to her words seemed to come from all of them at once, though it was Calafia who spoke. “She hasn’t left to join the Rebellion, we’d know about that by now. And they haven’t killed her. We would… know about that as well.” 

“What, then?” Jue demanded. “Some other player has stepped onto the board, only to remove one of our members with us having no clues of the who or how?” 

“The bodysnatchers, perhaps,” Geta put in. “It’s possible Elisabet found out more about them than they expected. Maybe they tried to take her and it went wrong, so they had to eliminate whatever was left.” His words were matter-of-fact, ignoring the looks he drew from a few of the others. 

“If she is alive, she will be found,” Litonya put in, sounding impatient that they were even bringing it up. “Continue putting resources toward locating her. In the meantime, there is still the pressing issue of the Rebellion. Which, it must be stated again, could have been ended by now had our people been alerted in time. I have heard that there were already those among the few who were brought there who were ready and willing to do so, yet were stopped.” Her eyes were on Ruthers to her right. 

With a sigh, the man shook his head. “I will not stand here and defend my choices again and again, Litonya. It would have been wrong to taint the victory over the necromancer with a betrayal. They are our own people. If we want to change their minds, we need to change them, not wait for them to be worn down fighting a battle against a greater evil and then take advantage. We will fight this war properly. If they engage us, we will defend ourselves. We will continue to hunt the monsters, and if the rebellion gets in the way, we will deal with them. But I will not be party to that sort of underhanded tactics against our own people.” 

“Is this a good time to bring up that we still have the option of the blood curse?” Sigmund started. “It would–” 

“No.” That was Ruthers, the single word snapped. “We are not going to use magic to enslave our own people.” 

Before responding to that, Sigmund and Litonya exchanged glances. The man moved his gaze around the circle to see the reactions of everyone present. Hecate remained impossible to read and a nearly complete unknown. But of the others, it appeared that the only ones who were for such a measure were himself, Litonya, Antaeus, and Geta. The last had been against the blood curse during the previous war, but apparently something had changed. 

Regardless, it wasn’t enough. Ruthers had shifted his opinion, and a total of four being in favor of using the curse would never pass. Even if they tried to explain it as a temporary measure… better to drop the issue. 

“Of course not,” he settled on replying smoothly after taking in the temperature of the group. “Best to ensure we’re all on the same page, that’s all. But if we’re reduced to arguing about what we could have done differently after the necromancer’s death, and have no further real information on Elisabet, I think we’re about done here for now.” 

There was a murmur of agreement, a few last exchanged words, and then the group broke apart. Litonya, Geta, Antaeus, Ruthers, Davis, Jue, Sigmund, and Hecate moved off together before splitting into smaller groups to begin leaving. 

Which left Sophronia, Percival, Calafia, and Teach standing alone, watching the group go. 

“We’re outnumbered,” Percival noted after ensuring they weren’t being spied upon. 

“At least they don’t have enough to push for the curse,” Teach pointed out. “Not sure what we’d have to do then.” He looked over to Calafia, adding, “What about your half-siblings? Any word from them?” 

The dark-skinned woman, in turn, offered him a slight smile. “According to Alexander and Cleopatra, the rebel Gardeners are still attempting to make their liberated vines work properly. There was an… issue with our friend deep under the sea.” 

That drew a collection of grimaces from all four, just as the approach of another drew their attention that way. After a moment, the approaching figure emerged from the surrounding trees to reveal themselves. 

“Hecate,” Sophronia greeted the newest Committee member in a faintly cautious tone. “You’ve returned. Done speaking to the others so quickly? Let me guess, they want you to use your mind magic to find out where the rest of us stand. And what we might be doing.”

There was a brief pause before the androgynous figure offered a simple nod. Their voice was dry. “They spoke, of course, only hypothetically.” The tone of their words in that last bit was tinged with amusement, a clear quote from the others. “And, in their eyes, always empathetically.” 

Clearing his throat, Percival spoke up carefully. “You’ve had time now, what do you think?” 

Hecate met his gaze, their own mismatched eyes studying him briefly before casually responding, “You were right, to allow your rivals to recruit me. They have given their trust absolutely. To their eyes I am working to erase Morgan’s magic. So sad, their assumptions prove tragic. This thing you ask will, in time, come to pass.”  

Teach let out a sigh of relief then. “You can really do it? I mean, I know you’re good, but it’s asking a lot.” 

“Morgan has opened the route,” came the response, “with the spell she brought about. Her magic touched the minds of all connected to that power, all of which I am now told to scour. The work I do to end the effect will do far more than they suspect. It will cease the feeling of fear and rage, stuff such manipulations in a cage. I will mute the urge to kill, to hunt. But not, perhaps, to be affront.” 

“They’re saying what I believe they’re saying, right?” Sophronia carefully asked, her voice quiet. 

“Yes,” Percival confirmed. “The others think Hecate’s working with the Edge to undo Gaia’s spell. They’re really using the opening to pass another effect through it. One to dampen the sensation all our people get when they see an Alter. If it works, Bosch Heretics won’t get the Stranger sense anymore, and Alters won’t get a sense when they see us either. 

“And maybe, just maybe, if we don’t have a fucking soundless voice screaming in our heads about what a threat the thing we’re looking at is, some of us might just have to start talking to each other.”

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Triumph 10-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It had been on the cusp of night throughout the battle with Fossor, the quarry itself filled with shadows that had grown longer and blacker with each passing minute. Now, as we emerged through the opening in the forcefield, darkness had fully settled around the place. But the quarry itself was filled with enough lights from various bits of magic and powers that it might as well have been the middle of the day. But beyond the quarry, things were pitch-black.

There were also a lot more people here than had been present for the battle. I saw groups from Wonderland, more Fusion school people, and other rebel-aligned groups gathered up on one side. Meanwhile, Ruthers and those few other Committee people had been joined by a small army of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden loyalists. Everyone had formed up onto either side to stare one another down, with hushed, yet clearly heated discussions between groups.

That heated discussion, however, stopped instantly the moment my mother and I emerged with the others. As soon as we came into view, every bit of conversation stopped short, as their eyes turned to us. I felt the weight of hundreds of people staring at us. Some, on the side of the rebellion, were focused on my mother with expressions of joy and welcome, amazement at her presence and her survival. I saw a few raise their hands to their mouths in shock, tears visible.

That was when it really struck me. This wasn’t just about people who believed what my mother said. It wasn’t just about following her words because she was powerful and cunning, or because she happened to be the one in charge. This was beyond anything like that. They didn’t simply believe in her cause. They loved her. They loved my mother more than I could ever have truly understood before that moment. And seeing her right there after all the time that had passed (now that their memories were back) was akin to seeing their savior rise from the ashes. Their true leader, their champion, the one who had brought the original rebellion together, had come back. 

Meanwhile, the reaction from the loyalist side was far more mixed than the one from the rebellion. Looking that way, I saw some who looked sad. Whether because they hoped Mom had died, or were lamenting the side she had chosen, I wasn’t sure. There was also plenty of hatred, outright disgust, and other strong, nasty looks. But still others looked confused or uncertain. It seemed like they didn’t know exactly how to feel right then. 

That mixture of uncertainty, regret, hatred, and just… sadness made me hesitate, staring that way while the others all formed up behind us. I couldn’t actually feel other people’s emotions, of course. This was all just taken from reading the expressions on their faces. But I had a pretty strong impression that if I could feel what they felt, the sheer force of it would’ve knocked me down. These people, all of them on both sides, had very strong emotions about my mother. 

Mom had stopped when I did, her hand moving to touch my arm. Wyatt and Abigail were on her other side (the right), while Koren moved up with me on the left. When I felt Mom’s touch, I swallowed the thick lump in my throat before nodding with a whispered, “I’m okay.” 

Movement from the loyalists side was met with a rush of motion from the rebels. Ruthers had taken a step our way, only to be met by a dozen figures on our side who moved to intercept and block him. Which had made more people from the loyalists jolt as though to jump in. 

“Stop.” That was Mom, her voice loud and clear. The single word made not only all the people on our side freeze, but also caused those loyalists to stumble a bit. Aside from Ruthers, of course. He just kept walking, albeit gradually, clearly in no rush. The rebels who had moved to stop him parted at a nod from my mother, leaving an opening for the man to walk through. 

He didn’t come right up to us, stopping a good twenty feet away. Not that that sort of distance actually meant anything when it came down to it. If he wanted a fight, he would have a fight. 

Oh boy. If tensions throughout the quarry had been high before, they were damn near stratospheric right now. The people on Ruthers’ side were clearly only waiting for a single word from him before they would jump into battle. And those on our side, though tired from the fight with Fossor, were just as willing to throw down the instant anyone made a move. The slightest wrong word here could result in a catastrophic battle so soon after we had beaten the monster.

No one said anything at first. No one moved once Ruthers had stopped. All eyes from both sides were on him, waiting to see what he did, what he would say. Whatever happened, whatever came next, everyone was ready. 

“I’m sorry,” Ruthers said. 

Okay. So I was wrong. We weren’t ready for whatever would come. Because I was pretty sure I was far from the only person who was floored and reeling from those two words. There was a collective gasp throughout both sides. It was clear that no one saw anything like that coming. 

But if he noticed the reaction, Ruthers gave no indication of it. He focused solely on my mother, still speaking in a flat, gruff voice. “Not for fighting you. Not for stopping you. Not for trying to make sure you never poisoned any more of our people with your rhetoric and naive thoughts. I will never stop working to make certain you are put away where you can’t destroy our world, where you can’t doom humanity. I won’t stop fighting you until you’re no longer a threat, Joselyn.” There was anger, brittle rage and hate that had built up over the past century. 

“But,” he continued, just as I started to think this might go sideways after all. “I took it too far. I let…” He paused, trailing off with a shake of his head before pushing on. “I involved your family. I involved children. Your children.” With that, his gaze flicked toward Abigail and Wyatt briefly, before returning to our mother. “I lost it. I lost… I was no better than the things that want to destroy this world. For that, for them, I am sincerely sorry. It was wrong. It was evil. And I will never allow anything like that to happen again. You have my word. Whatever comes next, however this goes, I will not allow things to go that far.” He was speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear, on both sides. A glance past him showed that the loyalists were whispering amongst themselves, clearly confused as to exactly what he was talking about. 

Mom, who had been silent through all of that, finally spoke up. Her own voice was as brittle as his, making it clear that the hatred he felt for her went both ways. “Do you think that’s enough?”

There was a brief pause before Ruthers shook his head. “Probably not. But we all have darkness in our pasts, things we wish we didn’t have to do. Or things we should have chosen not to. You and I, we are alike at least in that.” He took a breath, letting it out. Somehow, the tension in the air grew even thicker. It felt like it was hard to breathe through the certainty that any second, violence would start and blood would fly. 

Ruthers, however, kept talking through it, even as people on both sides shifted dangerously. “You are wrong, Joselyn. You have always been wrong. The creatures you court, the ones you believe to be your allies and friends, they will betray you. They cannot be trusted. And the moment you accomplish their tasks for them, they will prove that. The people you love will be killed. Your family will be torn apart. You would sell this world out to those creatures, allow them to destroy humanity because you refuse to see the truth.” 

“I see plenty of truth,” Mom informed him in a flat voice. “Between you and Litonya, I think it’s been pretty well proven that it doesn’t take horns, a tail, green skin, or anything like that to make a monster. It just takes someone willing to do monstrous things.” 

Ruthers, for his part, dropped his gaze to the ground briefly, then raised it to stare at her. “Stop this now, Joselyn. Tell your people to stand down and for things to go back to the way they were before your daughter restored their memories. We have a chance, right now, to stop this war. I’ll let you come back. We will let you come back. Not just you. Your family, everyone. Things can go back to the way they were supposed to be, before any of this happened. We can end this civil war, we can all go back to fighting the monsters we’re supposed to be fighting.” 

Mom, for a moment, just stared at him. When she spoke, her voice was almost awed. “If you believe I would do that, you’ve truly never understood anything about me. And if you believe I could do that, that my words would mean anything to all these people if I betrayed them and everything I’ve ever stood for, then you’ve never understood them either.” 

There was a moment of silence before Ruthers exhaled. “You’re going to go back to pushing this open warfare, aren’t you, Joselyn? Look at what was accomplished today. Fossor is dead. His body has been taken apart and disintegrated, just to be certain of that. He’s dead and gone. We have a chance for peace now, a chance to make things better and avoid all the bloodshed and suffering that you know is coming. We have a chance to avoid all of that and for all of our people to stand united against the threats we both know are out there.” 

“Are you blind, or just an idiot?” Those words came not from Mom, but from Abigail. She had suddenly spoken up, drawing everyone’s eyes and more than a few gasps. When Ruthers’ gaze settled on her, she continued. “Yeah, hi. It’s me, the grown-up version of the toddler whose head you held a metaphorical gun to. Or maybe it was a real gun, I don’t know how literal you make your threats against children. The point is, look around you. The people who fought that Necromancer, the ones who helped kill him? They weren’t all humans.” 

Ruthers was silent, and I had the feeling he was taking a moment to tell himself not to start another war right here. His hand moved before a small flask magically appeared, which he took a sip from before making it disappear again. Only then did the man seem to trust himself to speak. “I’ve never said that Strangers are incapable of working alongside humans for limited times and toward goals that help them. Only that they will always eventually fall back to their baser natures or their own self-interests and hungers. Fossor made many enemies. The fact that these creatures wanted him dead and saw this opportunity as the best way to make it happen does not change anything about what they are and what they will always be.” 

“Fossor is dead, Ruthers.” That was Mom again. Her voice shook a bit. “You said it yourself, he’s gone. You’re right, this is a chance. It’s a chance for us to let all of that go. The rage you’ve felt, the hatred you’ve put on everyone who isn’t human since the moment that one man betrayed your trust? Let it go. These people, all these people, they don’t have to be your enemies. We can all be united against the actual threats in this world, human or Alter. We can avoid this entire war. You can help turn the tide and shift the Committee and Crossroads itself to being the force for rightness and good that it should be. He’s dead. He’s gone. Let it go and move on, Gabriel. Please.”

Ruthers said nothing to that at first. Instead, his gaze turned toward me, eyes narrowing. “You,” he said flatly, managing to keep any sort of judgment he had about me out of his voice, “you killed the Necromancer. Your second Necromancer kill, if I’m not mistaken.” 

“Um.” I swallowed, offering him a small shrug. “I’d say it was more of a giant team effort. But if you mean I was the one who took the last hit, yeah. I did. It was right there. Believe me, I know you or my mom had a better claim to–” 

“I don’t care about that,” the man informed me sharply. “But he is dead. You felt the… he didn’t fake his death somehow, didn’t switch with something else. Our people said the body was his, but you…” 

Realizing what he was asking, I quickly shook my head. “Err, no, he didn’t fake it. Trust me, that–he’s dead. One hundred percent dead.” 

“You’ve felt his power then,” Ruthers pressed. “You’ve felt an increase in your own strength, your own… necromancy.” He said the word with obvious disgust, making it clear what his own feelings on that particular style of magic were. “You have his gift.” It was perfectly apparent in his voice that he didn’t exactly see it as an actual gift. 

“I–” My mouth opened, then shut. Was this a trap of some kind? Was he trying to establish a reason to want to come after me for having Fossor’s power? Was–fuck it. I gave a short nod. “I’ve felt it, yeah. It’s easier to–yeah, I’ve had an upgrade. I mean, it’s nowhere near the sort of things he could do. I mean–” 

“Fossor wasn’t capable of the things Fossor did when he first started out,” Ruthers informed me simply. “But he got there. And you–” 

“Are different,” Mom snapped shortly. “I’ve told you what we can do here, Gabriel. If you–” 

It was his turn to interrupt, cutting my mother off with a short, “We’ll leave.” There was a renewed firmness to his voice. “This is a day for celebration and relief. Fossor is dead. I was… wrong, about you working with him.” That last sentence came with a slight hesitation, but he did at least meet my mother’s gaze through it. “But this–this I am not wrong about. The creatures you call your allies will turn on you, when it is in their best interest to do so. I only pray that it will be when they sense weakness because the humans on your side are about to be beaten, and not when you have fulfilled your purpose by killing enough of ours.”

Mom’s voice was sad. “These people helped kill Fossor, the abomination you’ve rightfully raged against for all this time, the one who began your obsession. And it’s still not enough. You still can’t let go of your blind hatred enough to see the truth.” 

“I see perfectly clearly,” the man insisted, starting to turn away from us. “I see that you will drag our people into a war because you are incapable of letting go of foolish naivety that you should have grown out of by now. But for now… for now we’ll leave, as I said.” He paused briefly before speaking again with dark bitterness. “Your obsession with allowing humans to kill humans for the benefit of monsters can wait.” 

“My mother!” Beside me, Avalon suddenly called out. I felt her hand grab my arm, gripping tightly as she demanded, “Where is she?” 

Glancing back toward us at those words, Ruthers hesitated before answering quietly. “Gaia is safe. She won’t be harmed. I promise you, whatever happens, she will not be used as a pawn or hostage. She is a prisoner and she will stay that way.” 

From the way Avalon’s grip on my arm tightened, I had the feeling there was a lot more she wanted to say to that. But she kept quiet, aside from a very quiet snarl under her breath. 

Ruthers obviously heard that, but made no comment. Instead, he looked at me. “For your sake and for those you claim to care about, you should go see the Wandering Woman.” His gaze moved to Mom’s before adding, “You know it’s for the best.” 

Before I could ask who that was, the man snapped his fingers. A portal appeared nearby. With varying degrees of reluctance, the Crossroads loyalists began to move through it, some making comments about how this wasn’t over. One of the last of which was Liam Mason. He stood by the portal, staring over to where Larissa, Sands, and Sarah were. All three were watching him. There were obvious emotions there, but the girls held firm. For a moment, it looked like Liam might say something. His face was twisted, mouth opening as though to call out. But, in the end, he just sighed visibly and shook his head before turning to step through the portal. I caught the barest glimpse of his face in the process, once he had turned away from his family. It was torn by grief, tears in his eyes as he forced himself to step through that portal. I had the feeling there was more to that whole interaction I hadn’t seen. 

In any case, they left. Ruthers, Calafia, and Teach were last, the three standing together to give one last look our way before stepping through. 

They were gone. Which left the rest of us standing here, alone in the quarry. For a few seconds, no one said anything. Then I heard Prosser speak up loudly, his voice filling the whole area. “I’d say it’s past time we all got out of this place. Preferably before our friends who just left decide to change their minds about saving our fight for another day.” 

Everyone started to disperse, and I looked to my parents. Both parents. Both of my parents. My mom was there. Right there. After all this time, not only the past ten years, but all the time since the moment her twins were taken, she was finally back where she belonged. She was back with her friends, her teammates, her people. She stood with both of her husbands, her three living children, and her granddaughter. Her family. 

 “What–” My throat caught as I saw them together after all this time. “What now?” 

“Now, like Gabriel said, we get out of here,” Mom informed me with a small, yet stunning smile.

“And we move on.” 

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Kairos 9-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The next set of the non-canon chapters were released over the weekend! They are (and will remain only) on Patreon, but everyone can read them even if you are not a Patron. You can find the Heretical Edge non-canon chapter right here. And for those who read Summus Proelium, you can find the non-canon chapter for that right here

I’d thought that I had seen Fossor angry before. When we ruined his first attempt at this spell, when we made him abandon his home because I brought a horde of his enemies down on him, when his former ghost slaves had brought that same army right here before he was ready, or even just a moment earlier when my mother had destroyed his second attempt at the spell. I’d thought, as the man had brought his foot slamming repeatedly down on my hand in his best attempt to crush the bones within to dust, that I had seen the limits of his temper. 

But I hadn’t. Not then. Because the anger I’d seen in those moments held nothing, not the slightest flickering candle flame, to the white-hot, blinding atomic rage I saw in his eyes when he realized what I had just done. And why wouldn’t he be angry? He had spent literal millennia building up his invulnerability. He had been untouchable, in every sense of the word. The most powerful beings in the universe couldn’t kill him, because he was able to pass every bit of real damage they did off to billions of hostages over on his own world. Hell, a lot of those enemies had gathered together after he’d nearly wiped out humanity the first time, just to use a spell that was supposed to banish him from Earth. But it hadn’t. It had simply forced him to step on the ashes of his own people to avoid losing his connection to that world, a ‘sacrifice’ that he was more than willing to make. 

He spent all that time, all that effort, beat everyone who had aligned themselves against him. Yet, in two seconds, I took all of it away. I destroyed his invulnerability, not through a clever spell taught by a wise old mentor, not through eons of training or some incredibly rare, mythical artifact that I quested for weeks to obtain. 

It was a rock. I took his power away with the same rock I had carried around in my pocket for over a year. The rock that had been with me in that field, the one I had tossed through my first portal back when all of this had been completely new to me. The rock that had become our team mascot. The biggest goddamn hero in this or any other world. The Fossor-Slayer. Herbie. 

And boy was Fossor pissed about that. Even as the full realization of what I had managed to do settled into him, the homicidal rage took over. His foot lashed out toward my face before I could so much as blink, before I could do anything at all. This wasn’t the same as the blows  he’d been hitting me with before, back when he’d been dragging things out and intentionally making me suffer. No. This was a man who could likely kick through solid steel, intending to pop my head like a melon and put an end to me once and for all, even as a deafening bellow of unimaginable wrath erupted from him. I was no longer something to play with. I was an ant to crush. And, in that particular moment, I posed about as much of a chance as one. 

But this was one ant who wasn’t alone. Just as Fossor’s foot was literally less than an inch from my face, as I could feel the rush of air and motion with the certainty that I was about to pay for what I’d done with my life, the shield surrounding us disintegrated under the combined blows of Gabriel Prosser, Hisao, Dare, Kohaku, Deveron, Avalon, Shiori, and Asenath. It shattered like glass, and a hand caught Fossor’s leg by the ankle a millimeter or so from making contact with my face. 

“That’s… my… daughter.” Mom snarled the words, her grip iron tight on the man’s leg just before her fist collided with his face with so much force that he was sent careening away, flying a good forty feet before he came down on his back. 

He picked himself up a moment later, even as all eyes turned that way, the fighting briefly coming to a halt. Fossor’s nose was bloodied and broken. He had been hurt. Visibly hurt. 

We tried to follow up immediately, of course. No way were we just going to stand there. Even if my own hand was practically crushed and still gradually healing. But even as we made a move that way, to finally finish this fucker, he shouted a command word. More than a dozen of the huge Meregan zombies vanished from other parts of the battlefield where they had been, appearing directly in front of the Necromancer himself before they immediately exploded. The energy from their deaths was instantly converted into two things. First, a shockwave that knocked almost everyone down. I was thrown to the dirt next to my mother, even as the second part of his spell manifested. It was a glowing forcefield dome to keep Fossor safe. At least for a moment. He’d casually sacrificed those Meregan forces to create a new shield. 

It wouldn’t keep everyone out for long, but Fossor didn’t need it to last long. He was glaring at me from behind that forcefield, the loathing in his gaze enough to send a chill through me despite everything. A snap of his hand made the blood on his face vanish, the damage undone as if it had never happened. At the same time, one of the ghosts nearby made a sound of distress before falling apart. He’d sacrificed the ghost to heal himself. 

Yes, he fixed the damage immediately. But he’d had to sacrifice one of the ghosts he had here to do so. Just like he’d sacrificed those Meregan. They wouldn’t be coming back. There was no more connection to his world. What he had right here on Earth was everything. He couldn’t pull in more reinforcements from his world, couldn’t pass every bit of damage to those billions of hostages anymore. If we could destroy everything he had on this planet, we could destroy him. 

If we could kill everything he had here, we could kill him. 

Fossor had clearly come to the exact same conclusion, and he was nothing if not pragmatic. Angry as he was, he wasn’t going to pursue a vendetta against me right now if it meant sticking around to face his enemies in anything within the same zip code as a fair fight. Instead, he instantly sacrificed another half a dozen of his prepared troops while producing a small octangular medallion of some kind, snapping a word that sounded more like a threat than a spell. There was a flash of energy and then… nothing. He was still there, still standing behind that protective forcefield, surrounded by his assortment of minions and enemies. And he looked just as confused as he was angry. 

“Sorry,” Deveron informed him, sounding anything but as he stepped up on the other side of my mother. “All transportation magic out of this place is officially shut down for awhile.” He gave the man who had done so much harm to his wife a toothy, vindictive smile. “Our son really wanted to make sure you didn’t turn tail and run like the pathetic coward you are. Took awhile to set up, but thankfully you’re just enough of an arrogant prick to give them time to do that.” 

Even then, standing there with so many powerful forces arrayed around him and cut off from his primary source of power, Fossor didn’t look beaten. How could he? Even without access to his own world, he still had literally thousands of ghost and zombie minions filling this quarry. He could still draw from them for power and health, could still use them as cannon fodder. He could still overwhelm us through sheer numbers. 

And, of course, he was accustomed to beating the odds and destroying his opponents. He’d been doing so for thousands of years by this point. No one had ever truly beaten him, not in any lasting way. 

So, I was hardly surprised when the vindictive piece of shit snarled, “You think this means you’ve won?  You think being cut off from my own world will be the end of me? I am not so easily vanquished by a child. You say no one can leave this place? So be it. You will all die.” Even as he spoke, hundreds of those undead creatures put themselves between us and him. Those hundreds became thousands, forming a blockade to keep us away from their master. Between them and that forcefield of his, I’m sure he felt about as safe as he could.

At the same time, I saw dozens of ghosts fly straight into Fossor, vanishing as they were absorbed by him. He was making himself stronger, converting their very lives (or unlives) into strength and power for himself. I saw enchanted artifact after enchanted artifact appear in his hands before activating with various flashes of light and sound. He was pulling out all the stops, using everything he had to make himself stronger and to give himself the edge before we could get through his shield. 

“I’ve brought more than enough to this place to finish each and every one of you,” his furious voice declared. “You think me foolish enough not to prepare for this eventuality? You’ve already exhausted yourselves against the hordes that were here before, yet look around you. My legions in this quarry have not dwindled, while you have thrown yourselves again and again against the bloodied rocks. How much more do you have in you to continue this fight?” 

It was my mother who spoke. “Enough,” she informed him, “to see you dead.” 

That prompted what sounded like a mix between a near-hysterical laugh and a snarl. “No. No, you don’t. Believe me, Joselyn, even now there are not enough of you to end this the way you so desperately want it to. Not even with everything your little girl has done and all the allies she has summoned. While I admit she is quite charismatic, even she doesn’t have enough friends for that.” 

Lifting my gaze up toward the sky at a bit of motion, I did a double-take, then smiled despite myself. “Who said I only summoned friends?” 

Fossor, in turn, followed my gaze by looking up. Which gave him a nice view of three jagged, four-foot-wide bolts of red energy that shot straight down side-by-side before slamming into his forcefield. The shield blew apart, leaving the Necromancer stumbling backward as he took in the sight above him. 

“Hello again, old man,” Ruthers, hovering in the air above Fossor, greeted him in a voice filled with the sort of anger and hate that had spent centuries simmering. Part of that deadly red energy still crackled around his hand, adding emphasis to the words. “It’s been a long time.” 

Yeah, I had included Gabriel Ruthers in my beacons (which had apparently successfully triggered at some point in all of that). Because beating Fossor was too important to worry about anything else. So I even called him for help. And not just him. Hovering on either side of the man were a couple more Committee members, Calafia and Percival. They were the sources of the other two beams that had worked together with Ruthers’ to blow apart Fossor’s shield. 

Once again, I was rewarded with a look of total surprise as Fossor took in the realization of what I’d done. He truly couldn’t comprehend that I would have deliberately called for help from Ruthers of all people. Nor that Ruthers hated him so much he would show up and focus on him while ignoring my mother and me. 

Soon, however, he found his voice. Still surrounded by his army of undead, an army that seemed to have grown larger in that time as scattered members formed up in position to protect their master, the man snarled, “Well isn’t this just a wonderful sight? Sworn enemies working together. It tickles me, it really does. Makes a man feel special.” His eyes narrowed then. “But you won’t be enough. All of you weren’t enough before and three won’t be enough now. Surely you must realize that I don’t have to win this battle. That spell they’ve been using to keep me here? It can only run at the power it needs to trap me for so long. I only have to delay you and keep you posturing long enough for it to run out. Or should I say, only had to delay, because–” 

“The spell won’t be running out.” That was Percival, who stared down at the man with almost as much hatred and disgust as Ruthers. “Sorry, but it’s not just three of us. It’s five, and the other two are busy making sure this spell stays just as charged as it needs to be to keep you right here.” 

Needless to say, Fossor didn’t like that. Delaying us long enough to run out the spell that was trapping him here had been the only reason he stayed as calm as he was. Now, with the news that the power of two full Committee members had been added to keep the spell going, he knew that was useless. 

He had one chance, just one. If he could get out of range of the spell, he could escape. Then none of this would actually matter. I could see that realization come to the man. His only chance to get out of this was to make a run for it. 

Ruthers saw it too, because just as Fossor’s mouth opened to say something, he vanished from his place in the air. He didn’t teleport, he simply moved so fast he might as well have. There was no blur of motion, no sign of the man at all aside from the zombie and ghost bodies that were blown out of his way as he tore through them in a straight rush to reach Fossor. It happened in an instant, while the Necromancer’s mouth was still opening. Then, with a satisfying crack, Ruthers put his fist into Fossor’s face, knocking his head to the side even as a shockwave of concussive force rushed out, knocking a dozen or so nearby zombies to the ground. 

In that single blow, the Committee man hit Fossor with enough force to have pulverized a tank. As for the Necromancer himself, he simply blew apart. Literally, his body popped like some kind of water balloon, sending a spray of ectoplasm stuff in every direction. 

Wait, ectoplasm stuff? 

“It’s not him!” Calafia shouted, her voice magnified to fill the entire quarry. “But he’s still here! The Necromancer has disguised himself as one of his own creations! Stop them!” 

Of course. Fuck, fuck! Fossor was just that fucking slippery. Of course he hadn’t just now realized that his best bet for escaping was getting himself out of range. He’d probably known that since the moment Deveron had revealed that he was trapped here. Or even back when I’d used Herbie to strip the bulk of his power away. He was, as usual, at least a step ahead. 

He’d also obviously figured out that being the target for a lot of really powerful people was a pretty bad position to be in. At some point, probably when he was activating all those spells, he’d managed to switch places with one of his own undead things, disguising himself as a zombie or a ghost or something. Either way, it was a trick, and now the real Fossor could be any of the thousands upon thousands of creatures in front of us. Thousands upon thousands of options, and knowing Fossor and his magic, he could have disguised himself as any of them. 

As one, every zombie, ghost, and skeleton spoke in a chorus of a single voice, Fossor’s. A chorus of one voice that flooded the quarry. “Why, it looks like you have a bit of a problem. Why don’t we add to it?” 

With that, and with no further warning, an incredibly bright, near-sunlike explosion erupted right where we’d thought Fossor was, where the ectoplasm of his undead double was still splattered over the ground. Instantly, before the explosion had grown much larger than a large van, Ruthers, Prosser, Percival, and Calafia all snapped their hands out. Energy leapt from them to surround the explosion. Yet it didn’t go away. Whatever spell Fossor had triggered, it was strong enough that it was taking all four of them just to contain it. 

That was the point, I realized immediately. Whatever that spell was, it kept those four busy. They couldn’t let it go or it would kill all of us. And we couldn’t retreat because of Wyatt’s spell keeping us here. We either had to lower the spell, allowing Fossor to escape that way, or keep it up and let four of the biggest guns we had stay off the board to stop the explosion from killing everyone. 

Oh, and because that wasn’t enough, all the beings Fossor had summoned, every single undead creature of the thousands upon thousands that filled this quarry, broke and rushed in every direction. It was a flood of monsters, running every which way. All of them intent on escaping the quarry. And somewhere in that rush, somewhere hidden amongst them, was the Necromancer himself. 

It was total chaos. Which was, again, just what Fossor wanted. Everyone was fighting, everyone was screaming. I heard ten voices in ten different places say they found him. Fossor, messing with people. Making different zombies look like him to throw people off. I saw Avalon nearby, taking the head off one ‘Fossor’ zombie, only for the head to revert back to its very non-Fossor appearance as it rolled along the ground. All around me it was the same story. People found ‘Fossor’ only for it not to be him. A dozen zombies were killed instantly as my mother snapped her hand up, making metal spikes rise out of the ground, impale them, then disintegrate the remains. 

All the forces we had, all the literally staggering amount of power in this quarry, meant that killing the fucking things wasn’t an issue. The problem was the sheer numbers. Because I’d been wrong in my estimates. This wasn’t thousands of zombies. It was hundreds of thousands. It had to be. Between everything flying in the air, to everything on the ground, to the fact that they just kept fucking coming no matter how many were killed, there were hundreds of thousands of Fossor’s minions in this quarry, and Fossor could have disguised himself as any of them. I’d cut Fossor off from his own world, but he was by no means helpless. He still had all of his forces that were already here on Earth, and he’d put every single one of them in this single quarry to serve as distractions. 

Ruthers, the other Committee members, Prosser, together they probably could have wiped out this entire army much faster than we could. But they were caught holding back that explosion spell or whatever it was. They couldn’t take their focus off it long enough to end this.

It was up to the rest of us. We had to find the real Fossor. We had to figure out which one of the hundreds of thousands of things rushing to escape the quarry was actually him.

Because if we didn’t figure it out, right now, he was going to escape. And then all of this would have been for nothing. 

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Convalescence 38-03

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As Professor Dare led me through the hallways to the elevator, I asked, “Are necromancer powers really that rare? I mean, if Percival felt like he needed to warn me about their reaction…”

There was a brief pause before the woman answered, “No, they’re not exactly unheard of or anything. But Crossroads Heretics don’t really use them. They have something of a negative connotation. And given the experience that so many of those who started Crossroads had with Fossor, let’s just say that necromancy in general is pretty much avoided as much as possible.”

“Well that’s stupid,” I blurted bluntly. “Avoiding something just because a bad guy uses it is kind of idiotic. I mean I get the whole not using dead people thing. Trust me, I totally get that. But staying away from it and hiding from it just because one necromancer screwed them over so badly? Wouldn’t actually investigating it and practicing with it be a better way of dealing with things? I mean, if nothing else, it would let you learn how to counter it more effectively.”

Was it weird that I had been one hundred percent against the idea of using the necromancy I had inherited right up until the second that I’d found out that Ruthers didn’t want me to use it? And now suddenly I had an argument about why it shouldn’t be avoided. That was probably weird.

Pausing there in the hallway, Professor Dare reached out to take my shoulder. “You’re right, people can be very irrational when it comes to emotional events. And the Black Death was a very emotional event.” She hesitated before continuing. “And there are others who felt like that. They pursue necromantic powers to learn more about how to counter them. Or even just to use them for good. But people like Ruthers don’t accept that. He, well, he gets kind of angry when it’s brought up.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, “because what I really needed was for Ruthers to have even more reason to hate me. Hey, maybe if he gets ticked off enough every time he sees my face, he’ll be so angry he’ll forget how to talk.”

Squeezing my shoulder once more, the woman assured me, “You won’t be alone in there. Percival and the others won’t let it get too out of hand. Just tell them as much of the truth as you can. And if they try to trap you on something, just say that you’re tired. God knows you’ve been up long enough. Just tell them that it’s been a long night and you’re not thinking straight. If it happens enough, Gaia will pull you out. Okay?”

I nodded, and we continued into the elevator. Silently, we headed up. When the doors opened, I saw two familiar faces waiting for us: Patrick and October. The two of them looked a bit tired after everything that had happened (and like they had been in the middle of some pretty intense fighting themselves), but they were definitely alert. And they even looked a little bit happy to see me there for some reason.

“Miss Chambers,” Patrick started, “I am glad that you’re…” He paused, clearly considering his words before going with a quiet, “Well, let’s just say I’m glad you’re not in any worse shape.”

I coughed at that. “Thanks for being tactful and honest at the same time.”

With October on one side of me, Patrick on the other, and Dare bringing up the rear, I was escorted back to the office where everything had happened. The two men stopped outside of it and gave me a pair of encouraging nods while taking up station on either side of the door. Professor Dare, however, followed me all the way in.

And then we were there. We were in the same penthouse office where the confrontation with Manakel had happened. They’d cleaned things up, of course. But still. We were where Avalon— where all of us had nearly died. Where we had first seen Rudolph’s body. My throat caught a little bit before I even looked at anyone, and I felt Professor Dare’s hand on my back bracingly. It helped a bit, but I still didn’t really want to be here. Which sounded kind of dumb put like that, yet I couldn’t help the feeling.

Taking a breath, I finally looked up to see who else was there. Ruthers, of course, along with Percival and Calafia as I had already known. Gaia was there too. Then there was Davis, Sigmund, Litonya, Teach, Oliver, Sophronia, and Jue. In other words, everyone except Elisabet and Geta. Which, considering the former was the one in charge of security for all of Crossroads, I was pretty sure that her not being here during the current situation didn’t exactly look good. I wondered what her excuse was going to be.

Davis was the first to speak, clearing his throat before starting with, “Miss Chambers, thank you for joining us here. We understand that it has been a very long night and that you have been through a lot. So we’ll do our best to make this as quick as possible. We just need a few answers while the situation is clear in your head. And, hopefully the things we have to say will help put your mind at ease.”

Teach spoke then before I could question what the man meant by that. “Some of us even understand that this might be the wrong place to do this. So if you want to go somewhere else, anywhere else, you just go ahead and say so. Back to the school or to some neutral place, we can do that.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, Ruthers interrupted. “Stop coddling her,” he snapped with a brief glare at the others. “She’s not a child.” To me, he spoke bluntly. “They say that you were the one who raised the body of Rudolph Parsons.” As expected, the man’s gaze was hard, his expression openly suspicious. As I had known and been warned of, my demonstrating any necromantic power only made the man distrust me even more.

Pushing down about a dozen sarcastic answers with some effort, I gave a single nod. “Yes,” I announced simply. “Apparently I inherited the same necromantic power that the man who killed him had. I didn’t ask for it. Because you guys, of all people, should know, if there was a way to ask for what power you wanted to get, this stuff wouldn’t be nearly as random. Not to mention the fact that we’d be better at knowing what we got without tripping over it.”

I saw Oliver, of all people, smother a smile with his hand before nodding. “Indeed,” the portly man agreed. “but there is something different about these particular necromancer abilities which makes them somewhat more worrying than usual.”

Sophronia nodded. “Specifically, when a couple of our people attempted to halt Mr. Parsons’ body, he simply turned intangible and passed through them.”

“That,” Litonya snapped, “is impossible. Strangers and Heretics are alike in that fact. They do not retain their powers after death. Their strength as zombies is in their numbers, and sometimes skill, but never powers. It doesn’t happen.”

Somehow I restrained myself from pointing out how stupid it was for her to say that, considering she had just seen it happen with Rudolph. As tempting as it was, I had a feeling it wouldn’t help my case.

I also could have informed her and the rest of the Committee that there were also a lot of other ways that Heretics and Alters were alike, but I figured this was also the wrong time for that.

Instead, I shrugged a little bit while slowly looking around the room to meet all of their intense gazes. “Yeah, maybe now you guys understand why he was so dangerous, why all of his people are so dangerous. Look at what they did with this place.” I gestured around the room. “Look at this whole hospital. They took over this whole hospital. They are using it as their own personal base, their own place to snatch whoever they wanted. Who knows how many people you thought died and ended up with them instead? I didn’t have anything to do with that. That’s obviously been going on for decades, at least. There were hundreds of dead bodies in here hidden away for him to play with.”

Gaia finally spoke up then. “Miss Chambers is, of course, correct. You know as well as I do that some of the bodies found when the necromancer was killed have been dead or missing for well over eighty years. They were preserved somehow, and hidden away. I do hope you’re not suggesting that she could possibly have had anything to do with that. She is quite good for her age, we are all well aware of that, but time travel?”

Sigmund shook his head, grunting out an annoyed, “Of course not. We’re just trying to find out everything she does know. Sometimes people know more than they think they do. You just have to ask the right questions to tease it out. Not that it matters that much now, but still.”

Or people knew more than they were willing to say. I knew that was the unspoken part of his statement, and the other thing that they were doing. And what the hell did he mean it didn’t matter much now?

Taking a breath, I started with, “I have a couple questions myself. Starting with, isn’t there supposed to be more of you?” I gestured to the empty spot near Litonya. “Where is, um, was it Elisabet? And that Geta guy.”

Yeah, I already knew where the former was, better than these guys did. But it made sense for me to ask. Plus, I was still curious about what her excuse was.

All of them exchange glances, and from the look on some of their faces, they weren’t exactly accustomed to someone openly questioning them in a situation like this. They were far more used to someone ducking their head and answering everything they asked.

In the end, it was Teach who answered. “Unfortunately, Miss Elisabet and Geta have been unavoidably detained with another matter. They’ll, ahhh, be here as soon as possible.”

I probably shouldn’t have said the next thing. I definitely shouldn’t have said it. But I did. Straightening up a little, I nodded. “Okay, so where were the rest of you while this was going on? I mean, this was your main hospital being completely taken over. That’s got to be a big deal, right? But you only sent two of you to deal with it? What else was going on?”

“Miss Chambers,“ Ruthers snapped, “we do not explain our actions or reasoning to you. You are—”

It look like he was winding himself up into a very impressive rant, but Sophronia interrupted.

“Enough, Gabriel. The girl has earned straight answers.” To me, she explained, “There were other attacks. Heretic-on-Heretic attacks. At least fifteen counts of long-time Heretics attacking their allies, their friends. And then going on sprees attacking everything in sight. Destroying long-held Heretic structures, burning down supplies, doing as much damage as they could.”

My eyes widened at that. “Now that they know that you know they can possess people and that they’re organized, they’re not hiding it as much. They’re showing you what they can do. And they were distracting you away from this place.”

Sigmund gave a low chuckle. “Yes, they’ve shown what they are capable of. And we have contained the situation. They took their shot, and it wasn’t enough. That is what we were doing tonight: ending this threat. We hunted down every last compromised Heretic. When cornered, the creatures inside tried to flee before being destroyed, down to the last of them. We’ve stopped them.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of me, “Don’t be an idiot.”

As soon as I said, my eyes widened and my heart seemed to stop. I saw similar surprised looks on everyone’s face, especially Sigmund himself. The man looked as though I had just spontaneously transformed into a unicorn singing show tunes with his mother’s voice. “Excuse me?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” I quickly held up both hands in surrender. “It’s just been a long night, a long… well, everything. What I’m saying is that obviously wasn’t their best shot. They wouldn’t blow it like that. That was a tiny hint of what they’re capable of. It was a distraction, not a full assault.“

Jue spoke then, her voice brittle. “Given what you have been through, your fear of them is completely understandable, as is your outburst. It will not be forgiven so easily a second time, mind, but one strike should be overlooked at this point.”

She continued before I could say anything. “That said, we assure you, the threat posed by this group has been largely dismantled now. We have spent most of this evening interrogating those involved and investigating the bases that they directed us to. We found the arena where you and the others were being held.”

Well, that took me aback. I blinked twice before stammering, “You did?”

Ruthers nodded. “It was exactly as you described it, actually. We found several prisoners still there. None of your fellow students, unfortunately. Not just yet. But we did find imprisoned Heretics who confirmed your story. They even remember seeing you there.“

My mouth opened and shut, and I felt my head spin. Was I in the twilight zone? How could the Committee find an arena that didn’t exist? How could they find witnesses to corroborate our story when our story was bogus? At least those specifics of it. How…

“Correct.” The voice came from the doorway and I saw Elisabet and Geta there. The woman herself gave me a brief look before continuing. “Apologies, following the leads provided by your former fellow prisoners took longer than expected.”

“Indeed,” Geta confirmed. “But we can safely say that we have dealt with the largest part of the conspiracy and infiltration. The necromancer was clearly their leader, and without the head, the rest fell apart. They tried to enact their primary attack, but they weren’t ready yet. It fell apart too soon. They did a lot of damage, and far too many people died because of our failing. But it’s been contained.”

That was it, I realized. That was how the Seosten were going to spin this, how they were going to deal with the news about their existence getting out. That was why they hadn’t bothered to keep things quiet in the hospital and why they’d had a bunch of their assets reveal themselves in those seemingly pointless and failed attacks. Because they wanted it to look like they’d been flushed out. They couldn’t make the whole Committee forget everything they knew (not easily anyway), so they went the other way: open and eventually failed attack. That way, the Committee would do exactly what they were doing now (with a little helpful nudge from Elisabet, of course): decide that the main threat was over. It was a feint, of sorts, just enough of an attack to make Crossroads think that they had successfully repelled a major invasion and put a stop to the conspiracy they had uncovered.

The Seosten had probably rewritten several Heretics’ memories, faked the deaths of some of their people, probably even allowed the deaths of as many non-Seosten as they could spare. I imagined some of those Seosten who had ‘been destroyed’ had really played up their death scenes to make it look good. Maybe they’d even gone as far as supplying some real Seosten bodies or something to make it look even more real. I didn’t know, but they probably had plenty given all the fighting they did. Elisabet had even managed to convince Geta of what he was seeing. Or they had just possessed him with someone else, though I wasn’t sure on that point since possessing a ready and alert Committee member should have been pretty damn hard to pull off.

Either way, the point was, they’d released a few of their prisoners with rewritten memories to match the story that I had told. The Seosten had actually used the story that we made up to explain our absence as a way of taking the heat off themselves with a fake failed assault. An assault that was apparently big enough to require the Committee to intervene, which of course would convince them that it was authentic. But in the end, it had been designed to fail.

The Seosten sacrificed a relatively small force (though the non-Jophiel ones clearly hadn’t been expecting to lose Manakel) in exchange for making Crossroads think that they’d successfully driven out the infiltrators. And they did it using the story that we had made up. And worse, the Committee was never going to believe if I tried to tell them that they were wrong. They’d just think that I was paranoid after everything I’d been through. Because of course they would. They’d even think that they were doing the right thing by calming me down.

Plus, there was the fact that I couldn’t really argue with them, because this was a plan that Jophiel had obviously had something to do with and she was right there. She wouldn’t want me to go against the plan she’d set up to put the Seosten back under cover.

I suddenly wanted to punch something.

“For that matter,” Davis put in, “we even found and took care of the monsters who took the infants from the nursery here. The children have all been rescued and are being reunited with their families as we speak. Along with most of the actual patients. Those who survived, anyway. These… creatures were trying to smuggle them in a train. Our people spotted them, alerted us, and we dealt with the situation. Exactly as planned.”

Oh, it was exactly as planned, alright. I agreed with that wholeheartedly. The disagreement came in our respective ideas of whose plan it was.

While coming to terms with all that, I saw Dare start to speak up, only to stop just as suddenly. Her eyes glanced toward Gaia. The headmistress hadn’t moved or made any indication of communication, but I was certain that she’d somehow told Dare (probably telepathically) not to challenge the story. She either wanted the Committee to believe that they’d dealt with the threat, or didn’t think challenging it was worth the trouble it would cause.

By that point, Elisabet and Geta had moved to join the rest of the Committee. The latter cleared his throat before speaking. “Now then, I suppose that since Miss Chambers’ story has been proven correct, some of us should probably apologize for doubting her.”

That was the other side of Jophiel and Elisabet’s plan with all this, I realized. Making me look like I was telling the truth didn’t just take the heat off of the Seosten. It also worked to convince at least more of the Committee to get off my case, leaving them breathing room to work with me, with us. In one move, they had sacrificed a few pawns in order to keep the full extent of Seosten power a secret and keep me in a position beneficial to them.

Ruthers looked like someone made him swallow a frog. Grimacing, he grunted out, “Let’s see how the rest of this story holds up before we go handing out pats on the back.” To me, he demanded, “Let’s hear the whole story, Chambers. Tell us what happened tonight, everything that led up to you taking on the powers of a necromancer whose raised zombies, against everything we know, retain their abilities.”

I saw Elisabet pause briefly, only for an instant. I was positive that she already knew that Manakel was dead, of course. But the fact that I had inherited his necromancy powers did seem to somewhat surprise her. Which clearly meant that it surprised both her and Jophiel. Her eyes moved from Ruthers to me, a thoughtful look touching her gaze. “Mmm, it seems we may have missed more than we thought, Geta.”

“Indeed,” the man agreed. “Suddenly I’m far more interested in hearing this story.”

“Right,” I murmured quietly before straightening as I reached into my pocket. “Okay, well, it’s a long story. But I guess the gist of it is that Herbie saved the day.”

Yeah, I immediately had to backtrack and give the actual explanation. But honestly, after what I’d just had to listen to, I didn’t care. It was worth it just to see the look on their faces as I stood there proudly holding up my rock for their collective bewildered inspection.

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Interlude 36C – Percival and Gaia

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1670

“Gaia, is it? That’s what you’re calling yourself these days?”

As the red-haired woman entered the house and heard the voice, she paused. Without turning around, she replied, “It is better than some alternatives.”

Percival, of those legendary knights trained and empowered by her half-brother, spoke up once more while stepping out of the shadows of the alcove he had been waiting in. “You are very right. There are a lot of things those who knew you back then could call you which would be worse than Gaia Sinclaire. Or even Scáthach. I heard you took that name for a while.”

Finally, the woman turned to face him. Her voice was soft. “You may believe this or not, but it is good to see you.” She paused then before adding, “It is good to see anyone from then. It has been quite some time.”

“I wish I could say it was good to see you in return,” the man informed her in an even voice. “Because that would mean, well, a lot of things that happened didn’t happen. And if they hadn’t happened… maybe things would be very different now.”

Gaia met his gaze without flinching. “You mean to say that had I not betrayed my brother, he might still be… with us. Arthur could still be king and the world itself would be much better off than it is now in our current circumstances.”

Percival’s voice was flat. “That is what I mean to say, yes. You weren’t the cause of all of our problems. Not even close. But if you had stayed on our side, if you had been a true ally and friend, things could have turned out very differently than they did.”

There was silence for a few, long seconds before Gaia slowly nodded. “You are correct. I had so much rage toward what I saw as injustice and oppression that I inflicted it myself in my zeal to eradicate it. I hurt people who did not deserve to be hurt. I killed those who did not deserve to die. I betrayed my brother because I did not feel he went far enough for my own sense of justice.”

She swallowed hard then before continuing in a softer voice. “I think about that day a lot, you know. The day when Arthur and I finally broke. When he refused to execute the men for burning the village… for everything they did before setting the flames… I could not let it stand. I could not walk away from it. They had to die.”

“They had already surrendered,” Percival put in then. “They had thrown down their arms and were on their knees. Arthur accepted their surrender because he was a man of honor. It wasn’t about whether they deserved eventual execution or not. They would have faced judgment. But not in that second. Not after they surrendered. Especially not when there were those in their number who may not have been involved.”

Swallowing once more, Gaia gave a very slight nod. It was a point she had argued against for a long time. But not right now. “Perhaps. But I couldn’t wait. I wouldn’t wait. You were there, Percival. You saw the village, what they did. You saw the people they burned, the women they raped. You saw the carnage. You heard the children crying. I could not let it go.”

Percival’s voice was as soft as hers. “So you killed them yourself, while they sat in cages waiting for judgment. You judged them yourself. You told Arthur you would back off. Then you doused all of the men in oil and set them ablaze while they were helpless. You broke Arthur’s word for him. He promised those men a fair trial and judgment, the chance to speak in their own defense. They had families too, and he promised those people their fathers would be given a fair trial. Some of them may not have been directly involved. We didn’t know the whole story. The ones who claimed innocence, who claimed their comrades had gone off without them, they may have been truthful. It could have come out with a proper investigation and trial. But you killed all of them, even after promising Arthur you would leave it alone. You gave him your word. He asked you to swear you would leave it alone, and you agreed. Then you killed them anyway.

“And that was the problem. Because if Arthur could not trust his own sister, if his own sister could betray him and pursue her own justice against his orders, what were the odds of others respecting his word? The things you did that day and afterward hurt Arthur’s ability to lead. Because they knew. The people knew you were out there, knew you were playing your own games. You created your own army, pursued your own sense of justice. Arthur needed loyalty. He needed the people to trust him. He needed his sister to trust him.”

He sighed then, slowly shaking his head. “To be quite honest, we moved on to bigger threats after you were gone. We were so… young back then, so incredibly new to things. You were only a threat for a few years, maybe twenty at the most. A blink of an eye, really. You were with us for a little while, then you were against us for a little while. Then you were gone. Arthur mourned for you. He even looked for you, for a long time. It distracted him, searching for you.”

Gaia flinched a little, her hands tightening and loosening once. “He truly should not have bothered.”

“It’s who he was,” Percival replied, “who he is. Even after everything that happened, he still wanted to forgive you. He still wanted to bring you back, wanted to bring his sister back. And that’s kind of the point. Arthur trusted you. He needed you. More than almost any of us aside from Gwen, he needed you. If none of it had happened, if you had still been there, had still been loyal and everything hadn’t gone wrong…”

Again there was silence before the woman quietly replied, “I am well aware of my own sins. And all of those which came after that moment. It was the breaking point. But it was hardly my worst action once the flint had been struck. I did a great many terrible things in the name and pursuit of what I saw as justice. Some of them I would stand by today. Many I would not. Especially…” She stopped then, emotion flickering into her eyes as her arms reflexively closed around her stomach.

For the first time, the man’s gaze softened noticeably as he spoke for her. “Mordred, your son.”

Even after all the time which had passed since that terrible day, the name brought tears to her eyes. The woman shuddered and then spoke in a voice so soft it was almost inaudible, and cracked with emotion. “He died because of me. Because of my actions. I lost my son. My little boy. Not so little at the time, but still. Always my little boy. Always and forever. He’s gone forever because of me. I can never undo the things I did, the mistakes I made. Just as I can never see my son again. I would have done anything to save him, anything to change what happened. I would have sacrificed myself a thousand times over if it would have saved him. But I could not. Just as I cannot change my other mistakes. All I can do is be a better person now than I was then. Maybe it will never be enough for any kind of redemption. I truly doubt it will. But it is all I have, all I can do. Be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I am today. I have nothing else.”

Slowly stepping forward, Percival extended a hand to rest on the woman’s shoulder. “I didn’t have a chance to tell you this then, but I am very sorry about your son. I know you loved him. And he truly loved you. What happened to him was a tragedy.” He paused then before adding, “Some of us thought you might have ended yourself after that. You disappeared for a long time. Then you just showed up again after hundreds of years, and it turns out you time traveled. The rest of us, we took the long way around. But you found a shortcut.”

There was the tiniest hint of a smile on Gaia’s face. “I wondered how long it would take you to ask about that. It is a very long story. And I did not come alone.”

“Yes,” Percival confirmed. “The Green Knight, I am well aware. He was with you when you were turned the first time, wasn’t he? He took the being’s nature-based gifts, while you gained the control over machines and inventions that made the people of our time call you a sorceress.”

The woman nodded once more. “He was with me then, yes. We have been acquainted for quite some time, off and on. I would not call us friends, but we do seem to be bound to one another in some way. I could not say why. Perhaps the future will reveal why we are so connected.”

Her head a shake then. “But he is not the only companion I had in that trip. Though perhaps the only one closest to an ally.”

Percival nodded. “Yes, I know about the creatures you brought through with you. Believe me, if I hadn’t convinced myself it was not your intention, we would have had this conversation much earlier. And it would not have been nearly as pleasant.”

“Yes,” Gaia murmured, “it was most certainly not intentional. I did my best to contain them, and stopped them from killing a boy in the village where I arrived, though not before he had already been bonded to it.” She glanced to the man then. “I am told that boy became one of yours. One of theirs, rather. Ruthers, I believe, was his name.”

Percival winced a little. “Gabriel Ruthers, yes. He used to be a lot different than he is now, a lot more optimistic. He was the one who pushed to make a deal with the necromancer. And we saw how that turned out.”

She looked to him then. “They don’t understand, you realize. This hatred of everything not human. They are pushing it too far. Arthur would not agree with it.”

There was a slight flinch from the man at that, before he gave a faint nod. “He would not. There’s something else to it, something…” He paused before settling on, “I have a purpose for being here. But it may take quite some time to come to fruition.”

The two of them stood there together in silence for some time, both contemplating all of that before Gaia looked to him. “As we have quite firmly established, my trip through time was long ago. I have been in this time, so to speak, for quite some time now. Far longer than I spent in our original time. It must have been over five hundred years by this point. Five hundred years. If what you wanted was answers, or even justice for my past, you could have sought me out then, at any point. You have had quite a long time to do so. I am sure it did not take you long to understand who I was. You could have come while I was with the Sinclairs. I would hardly have been in any shape to stop you. Yet you wait until now. After all this time, I would say you were openly avoiding me.”

“You’re right,” Percival agreed. “I could have come to find you before. I almost did. But I wanted to give you time to show what your intentions were. Arthur would have wanted me to give you time. He would have given you a chance to prove yourself again.”

“Is that why you’re here now?” she asked him then. “Because you’ve come to a decision?”

“I am here now,” the man replied easily, “because they recruited you. They brought you into this, made you part of their new group. So I had to come see if I could actually trust you.”

Rather than follow on that immediately, Gaia asked, “Are you here with these people because of your own choices, or because of something Arthur asked you to do? Is your presence a coincidence, or a mission?”

He met her eyes. “That is something I could only explain to someone I trust.”

“And do you trust me?”

In response, the man was silent for a few seconds. Then he looked back up and squared his shoulders. “Truthfully, I haven’t decided yet. Mostly because I don’t know what’s going to happen the next time you get angry. You may have the best of intentions now, and then lose your mind and all sense of proportion later. But, you know what? The fact that I haven’t decided I don’t trust you is a significant step up.”

The woman gave a slight nod of agreement. “Given our past, yes, it is. But where do we go from here? How do we move forward?”

Rather than immediately answering, Percival asked, “What about your apprentice, the girl who travels with you. Where is she today?”

Smiling just a little at the question, Gaia replied, “Virginia is pursuing one of her own interests. I don’t expect to see her again until quite late.”

“In that case,” the man put in, “perhaps we could take a walk somewhere private, and you could tell me more about how you and the Green Knight traveled in time. You could tell me a bit more about all of that. And by tell me more, of course, I mean tell me anything at all.”

Gaia chuckled very softly. “A walk in the woods then, and a bit of conversation to sate your curiosity?”

Percival moved to open the door. “We shall see how much of my curiosity is sated by how much you deign to tell me. I warn you however, my curiosity has a voracious appetite. Particularly when it comes to this issue.”

With a slight smile, the woman moved after him. “Then I do hope it is a long walk.

“Because it is a very long story.”

*******

Present Day

As the red-haired woman strode across the seemingly barren Wyoming field, a small army of men rushed to stop her. More than two dozen strong, the men might as well have been wheat to the thresher. With a single wave of her hand, Gaia Sinclaire encased all of the men in cocoons made of dirt drawn from the ground. The cocoons turned to metal, before being flooded with heat as intense as any drawn from the furnace of a crematorium. All of the men were instantly incinerated, and Gaia kept walking without even breaking stride as her own aura briefly flared.

She was slowed, however, as Percival appeared in front of her. “Gaia,” the man announced with one raised hand, “stop.”

“Stop?” The woman echoed incredulously. “You know what’s going on down there, what they’re probably doing. They have Joselyn’s daughter. They have my daughter. We know that’s where she is. They’ve got my daughter, Percival.” She pointed to the ground where, two hundred feet below, the roof of the Eduard Jenner Center For Strange Maladies lay. “If they think that the shield they have erected around it will keep me out, they are sorely mistaken. I will rip up this entire field and tear the building apart.”

“I know who is down there,” the man confirmed. “And I know what they’ve done. Probably better than you do. But you can’t rip up the field, Gaia. You have to stop.” As the woman opened her mouth to argue, he continued. “They’ve tied that shield into the life forces of every innocent person inside. Hostages, Gaia. They have hostages. If you go slamming your way through to save the people you care about, everyone else in there whom other people care about will die in the process. You don’t want that. I know you don’t want that.”

His words made the woman pause, taking in a long breath before letting it out again as her face tightened. “They could be killing her in there,” she snapped. “We don’t know how soon the protective spells will wear off. They could be killing her right now. They could kill Felicity, or any of the other students. They could be killing them now, while we stand here.”

Swallowing slightly, the man gave a faint nod. “I know,” he replied softly. “We will get inside, I promise. But we have to do it carefully. We have to find a safe way to break through, not just by force. If you break through by force, you are condemning all of those other people to death.”

There was silence for a few seconds then, before Gaia met his gaze. “The Seosten. You know about them.”

“For a long time,” the man confirmed. “Let’s just say Arthur and the rest of us have a unique and extensive history with them. He was about to bring you in on that when, well, when you proved untrustworthy.”

Again, Gaia was silent for a moment before straightening up. “Is our privacy ensured here?”

“Yes.” The voice came not from Percival, but from Calafia, as the beautiful, dark-skinned woman appeared nearby. “Our colleagues are involved elsewhere. We have privacy now.”

For a moment, Gaia exchanged a look with the man nearby. As Percival gave her a slight nod of confirmation, she turned back to Calafia. “We obviously have much to talk about soon. But for now, our enemies are clear.”

“The Seosten,” Calafia confirmed. “We handle this situation and then we can talk about everything that needs to be discussed.”

“We can provide a lot of raw power,” Percival put in then. “But safely breaking through the shield is going to require more than that. Their magic is intricate, hard to understand. We don’t have time to learn enough about it.”

After another brief pause, Gaia replied, “We don’t have to. We already have someone.”

With those words, a glowing figure stepped out of the other woman before turning solid. As she turned to the two Committee members, both tensed before easing slightly.

“Artemis,” Percival announced flatly.

“Sariel now,” she corrected him quietly. “And you were trained by Auriel.”

“Nimue to me,” the man returned. “And now I have a great deal more questions.”

“To be answered later.” Once again, the voice came from someone new, as Gabriel Prosser stepped up to the group. “For now, we have the raw power to handle the Seosten magic. And,” he added with a glance toward Sariel, “the expertise to deal with it safely.

“So let’s rescue those kids.”

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Homecoming 35-02

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Gaia’s voice was the first to break the brief silence that followed Ruthers’ announcement. “Why Gabriel,” she began in a flat voice, “I am pleased to see that you take the disappearance of several students so seriously, but I am a bit surprised to see it taken quite this seriously. A couple of those students reappear and half of the Committee is suddenly involved? Are you very certain that none of you had anything more important to attend to?”

Meanwhile, I was busy glancing over every Committee member that was there, and noting that Elisabet wasn’t among them. Because, of course, she was a billion light years away, dealing with all that. I did wonder where these guys all thought she was. But there really didn’t seem to be any way to bring it up naturally, like, ‘Hey, where’s that Spanish woman? I really liked her. She’s so on top of things, it’s like there’s two of her.’ Yeah, real subtle.

Litonya, the Native-American woman with the face lined with some serious wrinkles spoke then. “It is about far more than a few disappearances, Sinclaire, as you are well aware. It is about the fact that the same people who abducted Miss Chambers and her peers were able to mount a country-wide assault, and even attack the school itself, as a distraction to allow that abduction.”

Geta, the black guy who had been some kind of Roman emperor, gave a firm nod. “Not only that,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “but they also somehow took two more students weeks later.” His head nodded toward Vanessa and Tristan. “And took them straight from the school grounds itself without security being able to detect it happening.”

Teach, old Blackbeard himself, added, “The point is, it’s a pretty big deal. Probably not quite big enough for all six of us, but, you know, we were curious.”

Reading between the lines there, I was pretty sure that Ruthers had been coming out here with just people that he could trust to be on his side of things, but Teach had come to make sure that things stayed fair. And I was incredibly grateful for that. After everything we had been through, the last thing that we needed was for things to go nuclear right now.

Ruthers spoke then. “Either way, we are here now. And there is a far more important subject then the question of why we chose to come.” He looked toward Tristan and me then, and I could have sworn that his bulldog expression actually softened just a little bit. “Miss Chambers,” he started, “Mr. Moon, are you all right? What is wrong with Miss Moon?”

”Uh,” Tristan started while glancing down at his sister in his arms, “she’s fine. She’s just exhausted. It’s been a long trip.”

It was Sophronia, Zeke’s mother, who jumped on that. “What exactly was this trip, as you say? Where have you all been, and how did you escape? Where are the others? Are they still alive? As you can see,” she finished with a slightly thoughtful look, “we have a great many questions.”

Before anyone else could say anything, I finally managed to get a word in. “We were taken by a bunch of bad guys who wanted to find a way to use Heretic students against Crossroads. That’s why they went through all that effort to make a distraction. They wanted to get us young because we’d be easier to handle. They’ve been training us, making us fight in this arena thing since they took us. They thought they could turn us into their soldiers.”

Yeah, I may have done a little thinking ahead of time about how to explain our disappearance. And this would help to cover the fact that we had new powers and skills that we shouldn’t have had it all we were doing was sitting in a cell or something. It wasn’t perfect, of course. But we didn’t need perfect. We just needed something believable enough.

Ruthers was watching me, his hard expression also curious. “And the others,” he began, “are they dead?”

He’s worried, Tabbris piped up with obvious surprise. He’s worried about the others. He’s afraid that they really are dead. He cares about them.

It wasn’t quite a complete surprise. After all, I had been telling the truth back when I told the man that I could sympathize with the position he had been in before. The man could be an asshole, and I blamed him for a lot of things. Kidnapping my older brother and sister was at the top of the unforgivable list. But I also didn’t think that he was a completely irredeemable bastard with absolutely no good points. I could believe that he thought he was doing the right thing, even if it made him come off as a piece of shit. And I definitely believed that he could be worried about the fate of several students, since he had run the school for many years before moving up to the Committee.

I shook my head at that. “No,” I answered, “they’re not dead. At least…” I swallowed hard, the lump in my throat suddenly quite real. This part I hadn’t even had time to tell Gaia, Dare, and Deveron.

Speaking of the latter, he had been standing somewhat behind me with his hand on the back of my shoulder. Every time Ruthers spoke, I felt his nails digging into the muscle of my back a little bit, as if he was very, very close to throwing himself at the man, damn the consequences. Which, of course, would have been a very bad idea.

Dare had noticed my expression. “What? What happened?”

Right, this was hard. I took a breath and let it out again before starting. “It’s Professor Katarin. H-he… he’s…” Again, I had to swallow. “He’s… gone. He’s dead.” My voice sounded hollow to my own ears. Saying the words that flatly, with that kind of finality, it brought back the same feelings that I’ve had right after it had happened. I felt sick, like I wanted to throw up again. There was a cold, empty pit in my stomach. And it only got worse when I saw the shock in Professor Dare’s eyes. Of all the things that she had been expecting me to say, that was probably pretty low on the list.

Gaia too seemed taken aback, her eyes widening just a little bit before she spoke a single word, ”How?”

“Yes,” Ruthers, who looked just as surprised, agreed. “How? Are you… quite sure?”

Biting my lip almost hard enough to make it bleed, I gave a slight nod at that. It was so hard to talk through the lump in my throat. But I forced myself to. “He was… betrayed. He didn’t see it coming. But he… he died a hero. He died protecting innocent people. There was a chance. He… he could have survived. But a bunch of other people would have died, so he stayed. And because he stayed, because he chose to stay, he couldn’t protect himself. So he died.” The words sounded empty, and I didn’t really recognize my own voice. But I said them anyway. They needed to know. Later, I would tell Gaia and the others the full story. But right now, even the Committee needed to know that Ulysses Katarin had died a hero.

“What monster was responsible for it?” The flat question came from Sophronia, as the auburn-haired woman met my gaze. I didn’t know how, but I had the feeling that the she suspected that the answer was more complicated than it just being a normal Stranger.

So, I answered. “It was Isaac.” My voice was as flat and hard as I could make it with those words. Maybe I couldn’t tell the whole truth about what had happened out there, not yet anyway. But I could at least make sure that everyone knew about what a complete piece of shit that son of a bitch was. I could make sure that they all knew he was an utter psychopath.

“What?” That was Geta, frowning heavily. “You mean Ulysses died saving Isaac Acosta?”

Resisting the urge to snarl my answer, I shook my head. “No, I mean Isaac killed him.” In response to the surprised looks, I explained, “He was a traitor. He’s the one that sold us out and helped those people abduct the rest of us. He killed Paul Calburn before all that happened, probably weeks earlier, and helped them replace him with that Fetch. He probably helped them abduct Professor Katarin back when he first disappeared too. Katarin tried to help us, and Isaac took advantage of that. He used one of their cannons. If Katarin had moved, it would have killed a lot more people. But he took the hit himself instead. That’s why he’s dead. Because he let himself get hit so that other people wouldn’t.” By the end, despite my attempt to sound as clinical and detached as possible, there were tears in my eyes and I could barely speak.   

In the background, I could see Deveron and Professor Dare reacting. Both looked like they had been punched hard. Dare’s mouth opened and shut, the horrible agony barely hidden behind her eyes making me desperately wish that I could have told them in private. Even Gaia still looked hurt.

Litonya was the first to find her voice. “Is it possible that you misunderstood, and that the boy was actually replaced as well? If there was one Fetch, or another of those… creatures that is capable of taking over and controlling the body of–”

“No,” I quickly snapped despite myself. I didn’t want Isaac getting off from something like that. “Believe me, it was him. I don’t know how they turned him, or what they did. But he’s a traitor.”

“If they… these people who abducted you, managed to go as far as to turn a human against his own…” Ruthers looked like he wanted to believe that I was lying, but couldn’t quite bring himself to. “If they could do that, they must be a hell of a lot more advanced than most of the Strangers on this planet. This is a coordinated, planned effort.”

“Of course it was coordinated.” The words came from Calafia, who had already moved to stand over some of the dead soldiers. The woman, whose rescue of my father from the werewolves (to say nothing of her efforts in removing the Bystander Effect from him) I still didn’t fully understand, frowned while looking down at them. “These are very advanced armor and weapons,” the woman noted. “And very uniform. This is not a ragtag force. This looks like a proper military. So yes, we are dealing with a coordinated threat, a genuine assault on our world. And it is probably one that has been in the makings for quite some time.”

“You.” Geta was looking at Tristan. “How did you and your sister get wrapped up into things? You didn’t disappear with the others. You disappeared later, and from the school itself, no less.”

Tristan’s answer came without a second thought. “Nessa and me, we were trying to figure out what happened to our friends. So we ended up looking through all their rooms, just in case there was something to find. Anyway, eventually we got to Isaac’s. There was this kind of… roundish metal thing under his bed that opened and closed. You know, sorta like a clamshell? Anyway, it must’ve been some kind of teleporter, because we opened it and the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by a bunch of those soldier guys on some random moon. And they were not happy to see us, I can tell you that. They took us down to where Flick and the others were.”

Wow. Okay, apparently Tristan had been working out what to tell people too. That or he had come up with that off the top of his head. Either way, it was pretty impressive.

The Committee members all exchanged brief glances with one another, seeming to communicate silently before looking back to us. Ruthers was the one who spoke once more. “How, precisely, did you escape from these people? And where are the others?” His eyes drop down a little bit to the girl in Tristan’s arms. “And what exactly is wrong with Miss Moon?”

“N-nothing.” That was Vanessa herself. She shifted a little, opening her eyes. “I… I’m okay.”

“She was–” Tristan started, while carefully letting the girl down onto her own feet.

“Miss Moon?” Litonya interrupted, clearly wanting to see what Vanessa would say without prompting or help from her brother about what had already been said. “What happened?”

Fortunately, if the Committee thought they were going to catch us in a lie, they would have to try harder. Because Vanessa simply answered, “The three of us were supposed to fight in one of those arenas again. But we saw one of those clamshell teleporters on a table. I saw them use the thing before, and I remembered what they did. So… we went for it. We managed to lock the door and I used it. I… guess it took a lot out of me though. I—” She gave a long, loud yawn before shuddering. “It was hard.”

Either she had been awake for a lot longer than we thought she was, or maybe one of the others like Deveron had telepathically fed the answers to her. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, the answer fit everything that Tristan and I had said so far. But I couldn’t tell if Ruthers was happy or annoyed about that fact. His face was fairly unreadable.

Geta, however, openly scowled while indicating the dead bodies on the ground. “And how did these get here?” he demanded. “Are we to assume that you killed them when they followed you here?”

“No.” That was a Professor Dare. “We did.” She nodded to the rest of us. “When the tracking spell that Headmistress Sinclaire placed on Miss Chambers after her previous… experiences let us know that she was back, we came immediately and arrived just in time to stop these… soldiers from taking the children back.”

“Unfortunately,” Gaia herself added then, “there were a few who escaped. And they seem to have taken the teleportation devices with them.”  

“And,” Teach noted, “as all of these men are dead, we won’t be getting any answers out of them.”

Calafia shook her head. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Even corpses can hold a wealth of information. My people can autopsy them, and find out more than you would think.”

“Fair enough,” Teach agreed. “And my people can take the armor and weapons and see what we can find out about how it was made. Maybe there’s a recall function, or a map in one of their pants.”

“Keep me updated on what you find out,” Geta instructed. “I’ll talk to Oliver, compare notes with him about all the worlds we know about.” To Vanessa, Tristan, and I, he added, “We’re going to need you to describe everything you can about this… moon that you were on. We’ll compare it to our records, and see if we can work out where you were.”

That was right. From what I remembered, Geta was the Committee member in charge of colonizing and exploring newly discovered worlds, while Oliver was the one who worked with colonies that were already established. The two of them worked together a lot.

“Unless,” Litonya put in then, “you believe that the others would have been killed already, after your escape.” The old woman’s gaze met mine intensely, like she was trying to see right through me. “I can’t imagine what kind of guilt that thought might make you feel.”

I met her hard gaze without blinking. “They’re alive,” I replied flatly. “Those guys went through a lot of effort to catch us. And they put even more effort into training us to fight for them. They’re not gonna just throw all that away, especially when they don’t think that we can tell you anything important. They’re arrogant pieces of shit. Believe me, they will never believe that we could find them again.”

“Well,” Ruthers announced, “we’ll just have to teach those creatures how wrong they are.” He looked to the three of us then. “But right now, you look exhausted.” Belatedly, the man added, “And your classmates would probably like to know that you are well. I know that Liam would like an update about his daughter. Unless…” His eyes narrowed a little. “… there’s anything else you’d like to tell us right now?”

I knew what he was doing. Ruthers had probably been all-but convinced that my mother had had something to do with us disappearing. He probably thought that I had recruited the others or something. But now that we were here with a bunch of heavily armored soldiers that looked like they had come from some sci fi movie, I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. Or how he was somehow justifying it to still be Mom’s fault. Maybe he thought she’d been spending all these years raising an actual military or something. It wouldn’t surprise me. Either way, he was very obviously trying to see what he could get out of me.

“Honestly, it’s a jumble right now,” I replied. “I still can’t believe we actually got away, and that you guys all got here so fast. I’ll probably think of something else to tell you in an hour, or a day, or a week. It’s all just… it’s a mess in my head right now.”

Calafia was already nodding to that. “Perfectly understandable. I will send my Runners to speak with you soon. Try to sort out your thoughts. Anything that you can tell us, anything at all, might lead to the other students. Particularly if it can be put together with anything that’s found during the autopsies or the inspection of their equipment.”

Tristan nodded quickly along with me, while Vanessa responded. “Don’t worry, we want to find our friends as much as you want to find the people who did this.”

“And with that,” Gaia cut in before any of the Committee members could say anything, “I believe it is time to take Miss Chambers and the Moons back to the school.”

“We will be in touch,” Ruthers assured us, while I heard Calafia in the background calling in a squad to pick up the bodies. “One way or another.”  

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. Gaia gestured, creating a portal for us to move through. As I started to follow the others, however, Ruthers stepped over to take my arm. “Oh, Miss Chambers…”

For just a second, I thought Deveron was going to take a swing at him. I heard him grunt behind me, his entire body tensing before he stopped. Mostly because Professor Dare had put her hand on his opposite arm.

Looking at Ruthers’ hand, then his face, I schooled my expression to be as even as possible. “Yes, Counselor?”

Those eyes tried to bore straight into my soul. “If there is anything else that you think about, anything you want to tell me… I will listen.”

“Thank you, sir,” I carefully replied, restraining every smartass remark that popped into my head right then. “I will.” Then I added, “And my father, sir? I was told you guys would try to find him.”

His gaze narrowed just a little bit, though I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “I’m afraid we have no more information than we did before.”

“Oh.” Swallowing hard, while pretending to be upset (it wasn’t hard to pretend, since I had plenty of other things to be upset about), I nodded slightly. “If you do find anything…”

“We will tell you,” he promised.

Thanking him in a mumble, I pulled away and joined the others in moving through the portal to go back to Crossroads.

Except we weren’t at Crossroads. Instead, the portal had taken us to a clearing in some kind of forest somewhere. It looked pretty, with the setting sun just visible through the branches above, which made the multi-colored leaves glow beautifully.

“Where–” I started, looking back to the others, just in time to find myself hauled up into a tight hug by Wyatt. The man was stronger than he looked, strong enough to make me gasp.

“It’s alright,” Gaia announced with a tiny smile as Sariel stepped out of her. The two women exchanged brief glances, and I was absolutely certain that they’d had a long, private conversation while all that had been going on. I wasn’t sure how much the Seosten had been able to tell Gaia, but it was probably quite a bit.

Though not enough, apparently, as the headmistress looked to us, to me. “Now we have some privacy and time so that you may explain exactly what happened while you were away. I know that you are eager to see your friends, and we will make that happen as soon as possible. But we also need to know what we are dealing with, before there are any other interruptions.

“So please, start at the beginning, and tell us what happened out there.”

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Mini-Interlude 31 – Calafia and Ruthers

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on a conversation between Calafia and Ruthers shortly after Joselyn’s disappearance. Please enjoy. 

About Ten Years Ago

“Do you ever stop and look at what they’ve built?”

As she spoke, the woman known as Calafia dipped her hand into the cone-shaped paper bag, coming out with several kernels of popcorn. She popped the buttery, salted treat into her mouth without ever looking behind her toward the man who had just walked across the grassy park to meet her. She kept her gaze on the ducks steadily swimming across the pond.

Gabriel Ruthers, the bulldog masquerading as a man, stepped beside her. He had no popcorn. Instead, he held a newspaper under one arm. His voice was a grunt. “I assume you’re not talking about the ducks.”

Taking another small handful of the popcorn that she had purchased from the vendor at the edge of the park, Calafia nodded slightly. “Humanity, Gabriel. They’ve advanced so far, so quickly. Look at their buildings, their cities compared to just a few hundred years ago.”

“Compared to when we began nudging them, you mean?” the man replied simply. “I wasn’t in on your conversations then. But I heard enough. And I recall hearing that you objected to it.”

Her head bowed slightly. “I did,” she confirmed. “I thought that we should allow humans to develop naturally, rather than providing our little… hints to guide them.”

Ruthers watched the pond for a moment, his brow knitted in a frown before he replied, “We owed it to ‘em. After what happened with the necromancer…” He squinted, fist tightening at his side before continuing. “They deserved a little help. If we hadn’t… if I hadn’t… if…” Pausing, the man shook his head, setting on a flat, “Things could’ve been different. We owed them a little help. Taking a little bit of the technology we scavenged from some of those Strangers and using it to help give humanity a little push is the least we could’ve done. It helped give them a fighting chance.”

For a few seconds, neither of the two said anything. They continued to watch the simple, swimming ducks in silence. Eventually, however, it was Ruthers who spoke. “It’s official,” he declared, passing the newspaper to her without looking away from the water.

Calafia didn’t need to look at the paper to know what it said. After all, she’d already read the article herself. But there was no sense in telling him that. No sense in giving the man any idea that she paid any more attention to the situation than was absolutely necessary. If the time came that he ever had cause to think back over their interactions, looking for hints that she knew too much or was too involved, she wanted to give the man as little as possible.

To that end, the woman carefully took the paper in one hand and glanced at the headline. “Local Sheriff Still Missing,” she read aloud. “I take it they haven’t found a body then.”

Because of course, the subject was Joselyn Atherby. The subject was almost always Joselyn Atherby when it came to Ruthers. The woman hadn’t even been a Heretic for over a decade, and yet she was still the first thing on his mind. He was as obsessed as… well, usually when she gave examples of someone being obsessed with something, ‘Ruthers and Atherby’ was her go-to. It was more difficult from the other end of it.

And now that Joselyn had disappeared, he had begun talking to every Committee member separately. She’d already heard about what he wanted to ask. But again, Calafia remained silent about it, letting him bring it up.  

“Of course not,” Ruthers snapped. “You know they won’t. Not unless she decides to manufacture one to give the husband some kind of closure.”

Counting silently to five in her head, Calafia used the time to eat another handful of popcorn before responding. “The husband, you say,” she observed. “Not the daughter as well?”

He was quiet for a moment then before clearing his throat. “Yes, well, that’s what I came to talk to you about.”

There was no sense in appearing to be completely obtuse. Even if she hadn’t already been aware of what the man wanted, Calafia would have been able to put it together. “You want to take the girl.”

“Take her?” Ruthers echoed, glancing away from the pond and to her. She felt his eyes study her for a moment before he spoke again. “What I want–” He stopped, taking a breath before letting it out. Then he started again, softer that time. “What I want is for that girl to have a chance.”

Pausing at that, Calafia quietly asked, “What do you mean by that?”

His response was soft. “What I mean is… we can argue all day about whether Atherby regained her memories and took off, or if someone else found her. You know what I think. But this isn’t about that argument. We can save it for another day. This is about the girl, the child. And here’s the thing, whatever happened to Atherby, her daughter is going to have a rough time.”

She thought about that briefly before looking back to the ducks. “Because if Atherby went back to her old ways, she’ll come back for her daughter.”

“And pull her into… that,” Ruthers confirmed. “She’ll have that girl mixing up with Strangers and–” He cut himself off, clearly avoiding going down that line of thought. “She’ll get her daughter involved in her war. And if she was taken by someone else, that person must be strong enough to avoid the mnemosyne spell, which means–”

“They’re powerful, and dangerous.” Calafia sighed then. “And you think they’ll come back for the girl.”

“One way or another,” he replied, “she’s in danger. That girl is either going to be recruited by her mother, or abducted by the same being who was powerful enough to ignore our memory spells and take Atherby. Right now, at this moment, it doesn’t matter who’s right. I’ll set that aside. What matters is the girl. If we don’t take her in, she’ll be in danger.”

That was… he had a point. Not that she thought for a moment that the woman would actually have abandoned her family in the first place, but that second option, that whoever had taken her would come back for the child… Calafia frowned a little bit to herself, watching the pond for a moment as she collected her thoughts. “It would involve taking her away from her father.” She glanced that way. “One would think that you would be against that sort of thing. After all, the man already lost his wife.”

His response was a sigh. “You’re right, most of the time, taking a Bystander child away from her Bystander father would make me sick. But this? Either Atherby is going to drag her daughter into this and the man will lose his kid anyway, or this mystery force that took her is going to take her and kill him in the process.

“That’s what it comes down to. No matter who’s right, the kid and the dad are both in danger if she stays. I mean–” Ruthers sighed once more. “I know that I’m the bad guy here when it comes to this sort of thing, all right? I understand that. It’s okay. Most of the time, I don’t give a shit, as long as we can all do our jobs and keep this fucking world spinning. But this time, it’s not about that. It’s about that girl and her dad. And yeah, separating them’s gonna hurt in the short term. But if it’s between hurting them now so they both survive, or leaving them alone and letting them die just so we don’t have to feel like the bad guys… shit, I’ll go ahead and be the asshole. I’ll be the monster. Yeah, I think we should take her in. I think it’s the best way to keep the kid and her dad safe.”

Decades ago (a drop in the bucket of her life), Calafia had made the choice to allow Joselyn Atherby to take her son away from her, to hide him so that neither she, nor any of her fellow Counselors, would know where he was. Not that Ruthers knew that. As far as he and all of the others were concerned, Calafia’s son had been killed. That was the way it had to be. Since he had been turned by that weretiger, everyone would have known the truth. And they would have killed him, would have killed her son if she didn’t send him away and cut herself off from him.

So she did have some experience when it came to deciding that it was better to separate the parent from the child. When it came down to it, what mattered more, Felicity Chambers’s immediate happiness and that of her father… or their lives? Ruthers did have a point. Sometimes what appeared to be the callous, unfeeling solution was best in the long run.

And yet… losing contact with her own child, that had been her choice. She knew that wherever he was, Joselyn had ensured that he had a chance. She had given Calafia her word that they would keep him safe.

What was the right answer here? Was she betraying Joselyn by entertaining the idea of taking her child away from her husband? Or would it be more of a betrayal to leave the girl where she was, as a target for whatever had taken her to begin with?

Damn it, why couldn’t Gabriel Prosser have given the woman her memory back so that she could find a way to actually disappear, with her husband and child?

Thinking about it for a few more long seconds, Calafia finally came to a decision, shaking her head. “The best I can offer you is a compromise as part of the vote. We maintain the surveillance, maybe even establish a stricter set. If we see anything that indicates that the girl’s either in danger, or being contacted by her mother or any of her people… then we take her in.

“I’m sorry, Gabriel, I can’t agree to taking a girl away from her only remaining parent. Not like this. Not… yet. When–if there’s any sign of any of that, then yes. You’ll have my vote. But until then… higher security, continued surveillance, monitoring the girl… it’s the best I can do.”

For a moment, the man said nothing. She thought he was gearing himself up for an argument. But in the end, he put a hand on her shoulder. His voice was gruff.  “I’m sorry about your son. Losing him, it was… That–this must…” For once, the man seemed to realize that he shouldn’t say anything else. And he also chose not to argue any further, saying only, “I won’t give up trying to change your mind.”

“You wouldn’t be you if you did, Gabriel,” she replied quietly.

For a few minutes, they stood on the edge of the pond like that, watching the ducks. Eventually, his hand slipped from her shoulder, and the man stepped back. “I have more people to talk to, but if you need–”

“I’m quite all right, Gabriel,” Calafia informed him. “I’m going to stay here and watch the ducks for a while though.” A pause then, before she added, “Thank you.”

He grunted in response, watching her for a moment before turning on his heel to walk away. The man was clearly disappointed by her answer, but tactful enough at least to avoid pushing the issue.

Many different thoughts swam through Calafia’s mind then, much like the ducks in the pond ahead of her. Like them, there was far more going on beneath the surface than her still and stoic demeanor betrayed. But one thing above all else, above the thought of what Ruthers would do next, or who had taken Joselyn, or what would happen to her daughter, one thought was louder than all of that.

She missed her son.

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Interlude 22C – Joselyn

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the origin of Pace posted yesterday (Sunday). If you missed it, you may want to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

July 10th, 1950

“My son, they would have killed him.”

Two women stood facing one another, their appearances within the illumination of the city street lights starkly contrasting. One was white, with blonde hair that stood out in the night. The other was black, her skin and hair both dark enough to fade easily into the shadows lurking just beyond the street lamps. Overhead, the moon was at its dimmest, a bare sliver that did little more than confirm its existence, while clouds ended any light that might have come from the far distant stars. The city itself, aside from the streetlights above these two women, was as dark as it was silent.

“You’re right, Calafia,” Joselyn Atherby replied to the much-older woman across from her. “They would have killed him. Because he was different. Because he wasn’t human. One little scratch. One scratch from that weretiger and now every plan, every dream, every goal you had for your son is gone. Everything you wanted to do for him, everything he was going to be for you is gone.”

Calafia bowed her head slightly, giving an almost imperceptible nod. “I know,” she murmured quietly. “I know, believe me, I know. But he’s… you… you made sure that he–”

“He’s okay,” Joselyn assured her. She didn’t know what it was like to be a parent, but she did know that the idea of having a child and being separated from them, not knowing if they were okay or what was happening to them, was the worst experience she could possibly imagine. So as angry as she was at the things that the woman in front of her had allowed to happen up until it was personal for her, she wouldn’t hold that reassurance away from her. “He’s safe, I promise.”

The relief in the other woman’s body language was obvious, as a great deal of the tension left her. “Don’t tell me where he is.” The words seemed to almost break her even as she said them. “Just… just promise you’ll make sure he stays safe, that none of our people will find him.”

“They believe he’s dead,” Joselyn replied, her tone turning a bit softer at the woman’s continued concern. “And they’ll keep believing that. No one’s going to find your son, Calafia. You have my word. I told you when you first made contact that we’d keep him safe, and I meant it.”  

For a moment, Calafia closed her eyes. Tears leaked from them, though if they were more from the relief that her son was safe or from the agony of the realization that she would never see him again, Joselyn couldn’t say. She just waited while the woman worked through her emotions.

Finally, Calafia straightened a little, her eyes finding Joselyn’s as she steadied herself. “You never said what you wanted in return for the aid of your people. You saved my son’s life.”

“Calafia,” Joselyn answered simply, “if you think that I need something in exchange for saving your son from the people who would kill him just for being a were, then you’ve missed the entire point.”

Pausing for a moment to take that in, the dark-skinned woman eventually spoke once more. “If there’s nothing else, you should leave this place. I owe you my son’s life, but the others do not. Gabriel has been fully accepted into our ranks. You must already understand what that means.”

“It means that he’s as powerful as you are now,” Joselyn confirmed. “And the first thing he’s going to do with that power is try to pay me back for making him look like such a fool for so long.”

“He won’t just try,” Calafia cautioned her. “If he finds you, he will win. You are here alone, Miss Atherby. Don’t be a prideful fool and throw your life away by waiting for him here. You might have been able to face him as he was, though even that was debateable. But now that he is a part of the Committee, you would be nothing more than a bug against a windshield. You would fail.”

“Maybe,” Joselyn allowed. “But if I don’t do something, he’ll keep coming anyway.” Her hand lifted to gesture at the empty, dark streets around them. “Why do you think I chose to meet here?”

Slowly, she turned in a circle as though taking all of it in. “It’s actually one of the most impressive things the Heretics have done, you know? An exact one-for-one replica of New York City, set down on a world far from Earth, yet almost identical to it. The perfect place for Heretics to practice fighting and hunting in an urban area. Yet devoid of any innocent civilians that might get hurt.”

Calafia took a moment to look around as well, as though seeing how impressive the recreated city really was for the first time. But soon, her gaze locked onto the much younger woman’s once more. “My… son’s condition has made me… think about the things that our society stands for. I don’t know yet how I feel about all of it, but in this case…My son would be dead if it was not for you, Miss Ath– Joselyn. I owe you far more than I can ever repay. But I will attempt to do so. If you ask, I will put myself in the path of Gabriel Ruthers. I will stop him from harming you.” Left unsaid was what that would mean. In exchange for the life of her son, Calafia would put herself against the Committee, would stand openly with the rebellion in defiance of Crossroads laws.

Joselyn smiled slightly, but shook her head. “If you really want to know what you can do to make it up to me… keep thinking about what it means. Think about all the mothers like you who have lost people like your son. Think about the people who have been killed for doing nothing more than being born. Think about all of them. But the most important thing you could ever do for me is… think about the monsters that we hunt and kill. Think about all the monsters you’ve ever killed or ordered killed. Think about them…. And stop thinking of them as monsters. Think of them as people. People with lives. People with families. People with loves, dreams, hopes. Just… people.”

Her voice had softened throughout that, but rose then, firm and confident. “But right now, the best thing you can do is leave. You’re right, Ruthers is gonna be here soon.” Her smile was humorless. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. And the best thing you can do is stay on the Committee. There might be a time that we need you, a time that we need help. You being on the Committee, that’s what we need right now. Just keep thinking. Not just about what I said, but about how you feel. Think about that. Feel it. Let yourself feel it, for once, without shutting it down. Keep feeling.”

“If I leave,” Calafia spoke quietly, “you will die.”

The blonde shrugged. “Messages outlive the messenger, Calafia. And you might be surprised.”   

Obviously realizing that she wouldn’t be able to change the rebel leader’s mind, Calafia bowed her head. “I wish you luck. And if you survive this encounter, we will speak again.”

“Yes,” Joselyn agreed. But by the time she finished with, “we will,” the other woman was gone.

For a few seconds, she just stood there. Eventually, however, she turned and began to walk slowly down the middle of the street. Streetlights came to life as she reached them, while the ones behind her doused themselves, creating a sort of roving spotlight that kept her illuminated.

Ten minutes after Calafia had left, Joselyn rounded a corner to find a man standing in her path. A man she knew far too well, from the years she had spent in what had been his school at the time.

“Shall I call you Headmaster still?” she asked, “Or would you prefer the term Counselor?”

Ruthers stood, his bullish, prizefighter-esque body lit by the lamps above him as he glared at the woman he loathed so thoroughly. “Atherby,” he snarled. “I already checked the city. You’re alone. Your husband isn’t here, and he’s not coming. Neither are any of your people. There’s a lockdown in effect. No one teleports in or out of the training city until this is over. So I’m going to give you one chance. Surrender, and you’ll go to trial. On the honor of my blood, I won’t harm you if you give up now.”

Joselyn shook her head, lamenting. “Aww. And here I thought you’d be excited to show off all your new tricks, like an eager little bulldog. All that power, all that strength, and you want me to surrender without letting you show me any of it? That doesn’t sound like you, Gabby.”

Gabby. She knew he hated the name, loathed it almost as much as he hated Joselyn herself. That was why she used it. Getting under his skin, making him stop thinking straight, it was part of the plan. This night, this moment, had been building since the moment she had decided that she would never be able to live in this society without pouring everything she had into making it better.

His smile was more like a grimace, like the man himself had never fully learned how to make that expression. “We both know you won’t surrender,” he replied flatly. “But now that I’ve offered you the chance and you’ve turned me down, you can feel even worse when this is all over.”

Lowering her gaze to look at the ground, Joselyn gathered her strength for what she had to do next. It wasn’t what she wanted to do. It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. But she had to try. For everything that she was attempting to change about Heretic society, she had to try.

“Ruthers, it doesn’t have to be like this. None of this has to happen. Things can change. We can be better. You saw that yourself once. You took a chance. It backfired, but that doesn’t make the intention wrong. Trusting the wrong person doesn’t make every person evil. We can work together to change things. We can make Crossroads be the real heroes, the champions we should be. Not just for humans, but for everyone. We can protect them all.”

“You,” Ruthers snarled without a moment’s hesitation, “are a fool. And you are letting yourself and your followers be used by monsters. Yes, I worked with them once before. And what came of it? Humanity was nearly erased, you ignorant child. That is a mistake I will never make again. And I won’t let you drag humanity into extinction by making the same one. This ends now, Atherby.”

“On the contrary,” the blonde woman replied simply. “I think you’ll find that it’s just beginning.”

He was on her then. In the span of less than one hundredth of a second, the man went from standing a hundred feet away, to being directly in front of her. His fist lashed out, tearing through the air faster than sound itself. It was a blow that would devastate mountains. Several windows in the buildings surrounding them shattered from the force and speed of the punch. It was meant to end this entire conflict in a single, solitary blow. A punch meant to end Joselyn herself.

She caught it in the palm of her hand.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. The sheer force that was put into the blow meant that the kinetic energy had to go somewhere. She absorbed it, dissipating the excess into a wave behind her that shattered more windows and sent several cars flipping up and over each other. But for the most part, she simply put a hand up and caught a punch from a man who was now one of the most powerful beings on the planet.

“Come on, Gabby,” Joselyn’s voice was a taunt, as Ruthers stared at his fist pressed firmly into her palm. “I thought you were gonna bring something new to this.”

With a growl, the man yanked his fist back. His other hand lashed out, then the first. That continued for another eight strikes. Ten full blows, each powerful enough to go through concrete like it was rice paper. And all ten so quick that it defied not simply human comprehension, but seemingly physics itself. They came in the span of less than one tenth of a second. It was motion so fast that to the human eye, it wasn’t simply a blur. It was nonexistent.

Joselyn evaded them all. Her body twisted, turned, ducked, and stepped aside to avoid each blow, no matter how fast they came. He was fast, but she was just as fast as he was.

That was the entire point. Not that he understood that. Not that he had any idea.

As his flurry of punches failed to make contact, Ruthers seemed to realize that this wasn’t going to be the cakewalk that he expected it to be. He had come expecting to smack her down like a dog with his new power. But that wasn’t going to happen that easily. And in that realization, he finally unleashed.

A wave of the man’s hand caught all of the glass that had been shattered and now lay along the ground. The shards flew into the air, driving in toward Joselyn from every side, each moving as fast as a bullet. And even as they flew, each tiny shard of glass was transformed into jagged metal, which itself was superheated and surrounded by a tiny arc of what looked like purple electricity. Ghost-fire, as they called it. Energy that was able to burn ghosts, or anyone who was in a ghost-like, non-solid state. Hundreds of shards of glass, all simultaneously turned to burning metal with their own ghost-fire, just to make sure that she couldn’t simply turn intangible to avoid them. And all coming at her from every possible angle.

Grimacing, Joselyn threw both hands up and out. With her motion, a circular wall of concrete two feet thick rose from the ground to surround her, capping itself off in a dome just as the electrified, super-heated metal shards buried themselves in it.

Feeling the top of the concrete dome yanked from her control, Joselyn turned herself into an insubstantial, ghost-like state and leapt backward through the wall. She was just in time, as the roof of the dome slammed down with enough force that it would have crushed her in a solid state, and covered in ghost-fire to burn her in her current intangible form if she hadn’t moved.

In the next instant, she was gone. Her blinding speed carried her forward, before a leap took the blonde woman up and over the concrete structure. The leap would have carried her a good fifty feet into the air, except that as soon as she saw the man below her, Joselyn instantly changed the direction that her momentum was carrying her. Now, instead of leaping up and forward, she was suddenly leaping down, without actually touching anything to change direction.

Her fist lashed out. And with it, she summoned not only her own strength, but a literal lightning bolt. It shot, jagged and crackling with power, out of the sky. Her figure was enveloped in the lightning, its power wrapping itself around Joselyn just before both collided into the pavement with enough force to leave a ten-foot wide, three-foot deep crater in the street where Ruthers had been. Had been, because the man had teleported aside at the very last possible instant. Any windows within several blocks that hadn’t already been broken were shattered by the thunder that had accompanied the lightning.

“How?” the man demanded once the echoes of the thunder had faded, his voice dark. “You’re not this strong. Not this fast. Not this powerful.”  As he spoke, a flick of the man’s hand animated one of the cars that had been tossed aside earlier. It rose on impossibly articulated wheels to lunge for Joselyn like a mechanized jungle cat, its front half opening to reveal jagged teeth-like shards of metal as the thing went for her.

It came within a foot before a thought from Joselyn opened a portal directly in front of herself. The mechanical beast flew through the portal to be dumped out somewhere else in the city.

“Guess we both got an upgrade, didn’t we?” she shot back, rising from her crouch to face him.

His head shook. “It doesn’t matter. A few tricks won’t save you, Atherby. I’m putting you down before you destroy our entire society, before your naivety dooms humanity.”

In answer, Joselyn raised a hand and twitched her fingers, beckoning him to keep trying.

With a blur of speed, he was on top of her once more. That time, as his fist lashed out, the concrete beside the man tore itself up and into a giant approximation of his arm and hand that was twice as large as the man himself. Both his real fist and the one that had been summoned from the pavement covered with ghost-fire to ensure that she couldn’t simply turn intangible. And each flew with a speed that would have made bullets in mid-flight seem to be standing still.

Joselyn’s hunga munga were abruptly in her hands as she dove forward and down, passing just beneath the swinging, ghost-fire covered concrete fist before popping up in time to catch Ruthers’ against one of her weapons. The other lashed out toward his throat, but he jerked his head back just in time.

The concrete fist was coming for her from the back, but a thought from Joselyn froze the thing solid, covered in a thick layer of ice. At the same time, she followed up her attack with another rapid series of swings from her throwing axes, forcing her opponent onto the defensive for a moment.

A snap from the man’s fingers froze time.

A blink from her restarted it.

A wave of his hand summoned a tornado of fire that tore its way through the street, melting steel and concrete alike.  

A flick of her finger turned the inferno of wind and ash to stone in the middle of the street.

The ground tore itself apart under her feet, revealing a pit a hundred feet below that was instantly filled with lava. The lava itself erupted into the air, sending a shower of molten rock flying up toward her even as Joselyn herself began to fall.

With a roar of triumph, Ruthers concentrated the lava into a single, powerful geyser. He sent it right up through the spot where Joselyn was. For ten full seconds, the former headmaster kept that up. The spray of molten rock rose a solid hundred feet into the air, and was at least twelve feet wide. It completely enveloped the woman throughout that time, even as the man surrounded the geyser with ghost-fire and several other measures to prevent her from escaping.

Finally, he released it, letting the geyser of lava fall back into its pool.

“Oh,” Joselyn announced as she hovered there in the air, looking utterly unsinged. “Did I forget to mention that I’m immune to heat? And that I can fly? Oops.”

Giving a bellow of frustration and disbelief, Ruthers launched himself into the air. He was a nearly invisible blur, flying so fast along the edge of the tallest nearby building that he created a miniature sonic boom in his wake.

And as he flew, the skyscraper itself ripped up out of the ground. The building tried to fall apart, but Ruthers held it together through sheer force of will, his telekinesis wrapping itself around the structure to keep it intact even as the thing was torn from its foundation to rise up with him.

High in the air above the city, the man inverted. The building hovered there beside him. With a thought, he sent it flying like a missile… straight… back… down. Fast enough to crack the sound barrier by itself, the four hundred foot tall, multi-hundred thousand ton structure careened toward the ground… toward Joselyn.

A point had to be made. So she launched herself straight at the building. Flying toward the thing, Joselyn let herself crash through the bottom, then through floor after floor until she had punched through the top.

She joined the hovering man in the air, even as the building-turned-missile hit the ground with enough force to collapse most of the structures around it.

“Impossible,” Ruthers spat the words, his disbelief at war with his blinding rage. The man was literally shaking. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. This was wrong. It was all… all wrong.

“Remember this, Gabby,” Joselyn informed him, hovering thirty feet away. “As long as you keep murdering innocent people, as long as you keep blaming people who have done nothing wrong for your mistakes, as long as you destroy lives and turn families into terrified orphans and grieving parents, this will never end.

“And,” she added while raising a hand. “Anything you can do…” Her fingers snapped, erasing the anti-teleportation shield that had been erected around the city.

“I can undo.”

Then she was gone.

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