Cameron Reid

Interlude 19B – Rescuing Zeke (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was quick, to say the least. With Avalon, Aylen, Rebecca, Shiloh, Erin, Miranda, Eiji, Cameron, and Nevada already reacting to her appearance, the Whisper-possessed ghost instantly vanished from where she was. She reappeared directly in front of them, taking the time to give Avalon a sly, taunting smirk just as one of Cameron’s twin short swords lashed out. The blade was already glowing from a triggered ghost-fire enchantment, proving the former mentor of Vanessa, Tristan, and Erin’s team had come prepared. And yet, her blade struck nothing but empty air, as Invidia twisted sideways to avoid it. The move was relaxed, almost contemptuously so, as she shifted just enough to make the blade whiff past her. In the same motion, her hand snapped out with a deceptively casual look. The impact was anything but casual, however, as her hand slammed into Miranda’s chest with enough force to send the girl flying out the window with a violent and loud shattering of glass. 

In the next instant, Rebecca fired a blast of pulsing energy from a wrist-mounted gun of some sort, Eiji sent a burst of electricity from his hands that way, and Avalon activated her own gauntlet to produce an energy blade that would cut through ghosts. All three of their attacks, despite their close proximity to one another and the lack of warning, were reflexively situated to avoid hitting either one another or any of the others. They had trained far too much to make that sort of mistake. And yet, none of their attacks hit their actual target either. Somehow, the ghost woman moved too quickly for any of them to land a blow. The next thing they knew, she had caught hold of Shiloh by the arm and back of the neck and threw her out the window that Miranda had already gone through. Meanwhile, her foot snapped out to slam into Eiji’s stomach hard enough that he was knocked to the ground despite his size and strength. Another half second passed while Invidia spun toward Rebecca. But before she could make another move, a small green ball was tossed into her. It stopped in the middle of her ethereal form and began to glow. The ghost woman made a motion as though to move forward, only to stop short with a grunt. The ball was holding her in place. Her gaze snapped over to Nevada, who stood with her arm outstretched. In her other hand, the blonde woman held a pistol. “Everybody get down,” the former teacher  ordered while taking aim. The students all dove to either side at her words. 

Seeing a small pistol pointed at her, Invidia smirked despite the fact that she had been trapped in place. “Is that really the best you can do?” 

Meeting her gaze evenly, Nevada slyly replied,”Nope.” With that, she flipped the gun around so it was upside down in her hand. A flick of a button on the side immediately made the gun rapidly grow and transform itself. The barrel extended and separated out into several larger versions, while the sides of the gun opened to reveal pocket dimension space within where more and more pieces extended out and snapped into place. Within a few seconds, the small pistol had transformed into an absolutely enormous gatling gun that was literally larger than Nevada herself. She had to hold it by the main grip as well as an extra handle partway down the giant barrel. Invidia had just enough time for her eyes to widen as the barrels began to glow with ghost fire energy before thousands of bullets were flying her way. Bullets which were fully capable of harming ghosts. 

Invidia took several dozen of those hits, holes appearing in her form as she recoiled and hissed before managing to break the hold of the ball. It blew apart and she instantly vanished, clearly needing to regroup. Immediately, Nevada snapped toward Avalon. “Get out there and check on those two, then get those other Whispers away from Zeke. Yeah, I know, but do it. Rebecca, go with her. The rest of you watch for our new friend, because I don’t think she’s done being a pain in the ass yet.” The whole time she was speaking, Nevada had been doing something with an enchanted stone she pulled from her pocket, which disintegrated into ashes once she activated it. 

Avalon didn’t need to be told twice. While a part of her really wanted to stay behind and deal with Invidia, given the history she had with the host of the woman she was possessing, she knew better than to argue. This was too important. Without wasting another second, she pivoted and raced to that window before diving through. Rebecca was right behind her, and the two of them fell to the ground below. It was only a couple story drop, practically nothing for them by that point. They both landed smoothly next to Miranda and Shiloh, who had already picked themselves up. The four of them saw Zeke as he held his shield in front of himself. The shield was glowing with energy as he used it to deflect one of the ghost’s hands as it tried to grab him. A second ghost was coming at the boy from the right-hand side, while a third and fourth came up from behind, and a fifth was coming from his left. His free hand produced a flash of light that made the ghost to the right recoil reflexively, while he twisted away from the grasping hands of the ghosts behind him, and turned his head to look straight at the one coming up on his left. His eyes produced a pair of blueish-white beams of energy, which cut through that ghost and made it vanish. 

Which would have been all well and good, except that four more ghosts had appeared in that time and were grabbing for his arms. They all managed to catch him, but before they could solidify their grip, Avalon had produced her lizard cyberform, Porthos, and shifted him into his pistol form. She had, of course, already upgraded him to produce ghost-fire shots on command. Between having known multiple necromancers as enemies and being aware of the Whispers in general, not being prepared for something like this would have been absurd. Her first shot caught one of the ghosts in the side of the head, which wasn’t enough to destroy it, but made it recoil and let go of Zeke. Her next three shots hit each of the other ghosts, drawing their attention in rapid succession. 

Rebecca, by that point, had switched from using her wrist-mounted gun to produce her enormous cannon from that backpack she wore instead. As the nearest ghost focused on Avalon when she shot him once more, Rebecca opened up with that cannon. A positively massive blast of energy erupted that way, catching not only the one Avalon had just shot for a second time, but two others in its radius as well. All three of the ghosts were blown apart. 

“Takes awhile to recharge up to that level again, so you guys better do something!” the small girl blurted while shifting back to her wrist blaster to shoot one of the other ghosts who was flying at her. 

Shiloh held her wrist computer up and hit a couple buttons on the holographic display. And she did so, a beam of silver energy shot from that, to a nearby parked car. The engine on the car started up, before the entire thing was sheathed in the familiar ghost-fire as it abruptly drove forward to crash through two more Whisper-ghosts, dissolving them. 

“Yeah,” Shiloh called toward Avalon while directing the car toward the largest cluster of the ghosts, “you’re not the only one who prepped for more necromancer bullshit!” 

Miranda, meanwhile, was running toward Zeke. One of the ghosts went to grab her, and she smacked it away with her own glowing shield. The motion created six energy duplicates of her weapon, all of which slammed into the ghost, one after the other to drive it further back. When Miranda reached the boy, she blurted, “You need to get the hell out of here, right now!” 

He, in turn, snapped, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’ve got this, traitor!”  

By that point, Avalon and the other two had joined them. “Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “you’re hearing voices in your head. Voices that won’t shut up. It’s them, the Whispers, and you have no protection against them. You need to get the hell out of here right now.” 

From the way the boy flinched when she brought up the voices, everyone knew she was right. Still, he sneered, “What’s the matter, your girlfriend decided to come after me on her own and you didn’t like that?” 

Avalon blinked once before staring that way. “Do you think Flick’s behind this?” 

“Gee, let me think,” he retorted, “she’s some big hotshot necromancer and these are a bunch of ghosts who randomly decided they hate me in particular. Let me do the math on that one.” 

Miranda and Avalon exchange looks, both rolling their eyes. But it was Shiloh who spoke first. “Don’t be an idiot, she already told you what these things are. They can whisper in your head and take control of you if you don’t get the hell out of here right now. Use your evacuation thing, you gotta have one.” 

Rebecca added, “Have you noticed all your backup is gone?” 

While they were all saying that, the Whisper ghosts had regrouped and were surrounding them. Avalon could hear fighting going on in the building they had just come from, and silently wished Nevada and the others luck against Invidia. Right now, they had other things to focus on. 

Zeke, for his part, seemed to take a moment to consider what they were saying. He kept a tight grip on his shield, gaze snapping around very distrustingly. He clearly didn’t like any of them, to say the least. But, in the end, he admitted, “I tried, it didn’t work. They’re blocking it or something. But you probably already knew that,” he quickly added, as though he couldn’t stand not to suggest that they still could have something to do with this. 

By that point, the ghosts had begun charging in once more. Rebecca kept firing shots from her wrist blaster, while Miranda sent some more energy copies of her shield flying out to collide with them, and Avalon used Porthos.

“We have to get him out of here,” Avalon ordered. 

“On it,” Shiloh called. With that, she directed the car she had taken over to come screaming up in front of them, before the door opened. “Get in!” she shouted at Zeke. 

He, in turn, scoffed. “What the hell makes you think I’m just gonna –” 

Before he could say anything else, Avalon grabbed the back of his neck with her free hand and bodily threw him into the backseat of the car while firing three more shots in rapid succession. Then she lunged to jump on top of the car before firing yet another shot at the ghost who was trying to come from that side. Miranda jumped onto the trunk, while Rebecca and Shiloh threw themselves into the front seat of the car. And with that, the tires squealed loudly as the car took off. 

“I can’t keep the ghost-fire charge going all the time!” Shiloh shouted while her fingers danced over the controls on her wrist computer. The car went squealing around a corner, while the Whisper ghosts chased after them. 

Leaning back a bit to steady herself as she was nearly launched off the top of the car, Avalon focused on a power she had picked up by killing that Heretic back on the prison world. Her feet were immediately rooted to the metal there. As long as she didn’t want to move, almost nothing could make her. Between that and her own balance, she was able to keep herself upright and aim her pistol at the ghosts as they gave chase after the group. No matter how fast the car went, the Whispers were right behind them. Grunting, Avalon pulled the trigger several times, sending glowing bullets that way. At the same time, she dug in her pocket for a teleportation stone and looked at it before shaking her head. Crouching so she would be closer to the windows, she fired again while shouting, “Transport stones are down for us too! We’ve got to get further away!” 

Miranda, ahead of Avalon in her spot down on the trunk, shouted a warning as the pursuing ghosts sent… some sort of collective energy blast their way. It was as wide as the car itself, and looked a bit like weird glowing ectoplasm with lightning dancing through it. Whatever it was, being hit by it felt like a very bad idea. Thankfully, Shiloh reacted to the shout and sent the car into a sharp turn toward a nearby alley. They had been passing bystanders in other cars and on the sidewalks the whole time, without any of them noticing anything aside from the fact that they were speeding, of course. But now, as the car went screaming past several vehicles to cut them off, there were a few annoyed honks. As well as a scream as one of the pedestrians had to throw themselves backwards to avoid the oncoming car. Another person wasn’t fast enough on their own, but before the car could run them over, Rebecca leaned out the front passenger seat and thrust her hand that way. A glowing blue replica of her hand, several times larger, caught the person and pushed them out the way just as the car passed through the spot they had been and made it into the alley. In the next instant, the ghost energy blast hit the wall of the building they had just passed, and a ten-foot-wide section of that corner immediately crumbled into dust to reveal the interior. 

Seeing that, Miranda exchanged a quick look with Avalon above and behind her before turning her head slightly to shout, “We really, really don’t want to get hit by that thing!” 

From his own spot in the backseat, Zeke had picked himself up and demanded, “Would you people let me the hell out already?! Do you think I’m about to let you kidnap m–” 

“Shut the fuck up,” Avalon ordered without any preamble. “I don’t know why those Whispers are so intent on getting you, but we’re not about to let it happen.” The damn things were enough of a threat as it was without having control of a Heretic, even a young and incredibly annoying one like him. Besides, something told her this was more important than the Whispers simply trying to grab any random Heretic. There were too many of them here and they were too intent on their mission. Invidia was involved, and had sent what had to be over a dozen of their people after this one boy. Maybe she was just missing something or overthinking it, but it felt like there was more to the whole situation. 

And speaking of the Whispers not giving up, there they were. The alley was suddenly full of them as the ghosts chased after the car. “Can we jump yet?!” Rebecca shouted while leaning out the passenger side so she could fire a couple shots toward their pursuers. “Please tell me we can jump!” 

Checking her teleport stone again, Avalon grimaced, then fired two more shots at a couple ghosts who were getting too close.  “No! We need to go further!” 

Miranda made a noise in the back of her throat before launching three energy-duplicate shields to slow down the approaching ghosts. “Just how big is their teleportation blocker?! And can I just say, I wish Flick was here!” 

By then, they reached the end of the long alley, and the car narrowly avoided crashing into a passing box truck, which spun out of the way while the driver leaned on his horn. “You’re not the only one,” Avalon half-muttered. Then something else occurred to her and the girl’s eyes widened slightly before she turned a bit to shout toward the front of the car, “Check Zeke! He might have something on him that’s blocking the transport spells!” 

“What the hell are you talking about?!” Zeke’s voice shouted back. “I don’t have anything li– hey get the fuck off me!” 

Rebecca had jumped into the backseat with him and was checking over the boy. Despite his reflexive struggle, she shouted in his face for him to knock it off unless he wanted to be possessed and enslaved by those things that were chasing them. That was enough to make him stop, and he finally started helping her by patting himself down, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

While that was going on, Shiloh sent the car weaving back-and-forth across the entire road, moving between other cars going both directions as she used all six lanes, three on each side, to keep the car away from the ghosts chasing them. Avalon kept shooting, while Miranda used her shield replicas to help hold off their pursuers, given they couldn’t pass directly through the energy constructs and had to go around. It slowed them just enough. 

Unfortunately, it was at that moment that the ghosts sent another massive ectoplasm blast of power at them. The thing was twice as large as the last one, and seemed even more dangerous with the lightning crackling inside it. It sheared right through an oncoming van, turning half of it into dust. Worse, when Shiloh sent the car to the far side of the road, the energy adjusted course to follow. And it was catching up quickly. Seeing that, Avalon shouted, “Miranda, you’ve gotta make the biggest shield you can!” 

In response, the other girl dropped onto her backside, leaning against the rear window while lifting her arm up. A new shield-shaped energy construct appeared, projected from the physical one on her arm. This one remained attached to its parent, growing larger and larger by the second. Soon, it covered the entire back half of the vehicle, large enough that Avalon could have ducked behind it to use as a wall. 

But it wasn’t enough. The pursuing ectoplasm blast rose up over the shield, picking up speed to get in front of them before starting to come down from the top. Seeing that, both Avalon and Miranda shouted warnings, with the latter starting to lift her massive shield a bit too late. 

Then the ectoplasm was caught by a new shield, a more physical one. Zeke had leaned out the window and thrust his arm up, making his own shield grow in the process until it caught the blast. It did its job, making ectoplasm blast expend itself and fizzle out, though the shield didn’t fare much better. The thing broke apart instantly under the impact, leaving the normal-sized one behind, looking a bit charred and damaged. Zeke hissed with pain and annoyance, head turning until he saw Avalon staring down at him from the roof. There was a brief pause before he muttered, “What, as if I was gonna let that thing kill all of us, me included.” 

Avalon really wasn’t sure the Whispers had any intention of killing Zeke, but now wasn’t the time to get into that. Instead, she shouted, “Rebecca?!” That was all she said. It was all she needed to say. 

“Working on it!” the other girl shouted back from inside the car. She yanked Zeke backwards by the belt, then shoved her hand into one of his pockets while the boy yelped. Finally, Avalon heard her exclaim in relief before blurting, “Got it, got it!” 

“Good!” Avalon retorted. “Now get rid of it!”

Rebecca did just that, hurling the thing out the window. As it flew out, she shot it with a blast from her wrist. The small coin disintegrated. Yet the teleportation stone in Avalon’s hand only flickered a bit. It was waking up, but not fast enough. They had to get further away from the effect the coin had created. It was gone, but the anti-teleportation field hadn’t collapsed yet.

In that instant, she heard Shiloh curse, and Avalon turned to see a line of the Whispers ahead of them. Now they had a group behind and one in front. They had to get further away, but these guys weren’t going to let them. 

Well, they didn’t really have a say in the matter. Shiloh immediately hit something on her wrist, and that glowing ghost-fire reappeared around the vehicle. It had recharged. 

And speaking of recharging, Rebecca pushed herself halfway out of the rear passenger-side window and sat on the edge of it, turning toward the Whispers who were waiting for them. Immediately, her cannon reemerged from the girl’s backpack, extending itself to its full size. In the next instant, she fired another enormous blast. It tore through the Whispers, disintegrating several of them just before the car passed through that spot. Others tried to swarm the car from the sides, but the ghost-fire kept them away, while Avalon and Miranda protected themselves with shot after shot, and shield after shield. 

Soon, they broke through the line, and Avalon finally saw the teleportation stone in her hand light up. “We’re good, go, go, go!” She leaned over just enough to watch as Rebecca ducked back into the car, grabbing onto Zeke as she activated her own emergency exit stone. Then the two of them were gone. Shiloh followed suit, leaving the car driving along on its own toward a concrete wall, while the Whispers continued to give chase, more desperate now with their screeching. 

Exchanging one last look, Miranda and Avalon activated their own stones, and disappeared. 

Instantly, they reappeared back at one of their fallback spots, a small apartment several miles away from the bus station. Zeke was there, scrambling away from the others to put his back against a nearby wall as he blurted, “Okay, now tell me what the fuck those things were!” 

“That’s a long story,” Avalon replied evenly. 

“Yeah, are you sure you want to hear it?” Shiloh put in. “Or are you gonna assume we’re lying?” 

“You’re all just–you just–fuck you,” Zeke managed. “Just tell me what those things are and let me get the hell out of here.” 

“Zeke.” That was a new voice, speaking up from the doorway. They all turned, to see no less than the boy’s mother, Sophronia. She was there alongside Nevada, and immediately passed the others to embrace her son. “You’re safe, the Whispers didn’t take you.” 

“What?!” He blurted the words while leaning back. “You know about them? What the hell is going on?” 

While those two were talking, Avalon looked toward Nevada, who looked bloodied and haggard. “The others?” 

There was a pause before the blonde woman quietly answered, “They… they’ll be okay, with time. They were hurt, Cameron pretty badly, but they’ll live. Invidia’s gone, for now. And pretty pissed off about the whole situation.”

“Mother,” Zeke put in, “can we please get away from these traitors now?” 

Sophronia, however, was silent for a moment. Then she spoke carefully. “Under the circumstances, perhaps it’s best that you stay with the group who have far more defense against the Whispers than we do. If that is alright?” She directed the last bit toward Nevada.

“Of course,” the other woman agreed. “Zeke can stay with us.” 

The collective shout of, “What?!” may have been the first time Avalon and Zeke were both in full agreement. 

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Interlude 18A – Avalon (Heretical Edge 2)

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“A real life murder mystery, are you serious?” 

“Yep!” Avalon half-chirped and half-growled in a put-on show of casualness betrayed by her clear annoyance and frustration. “You know, just one of those things Felicity managed to trip over.” As she said those words, the girl looked over her shoulder toward Aylen, who had been the one to ask the question. The two of them were on the edge of the new Wonderland wild west ghost town, watching Salten flying overhead. Avalon had needed a distraction, so she had her Peryton friend brought down to stretch his legs and wings. One of the Wonderland kids was perched on a special saddle they’d put on him. Salten had, of course, complained, but not too much. He liked giving rides to little kids, much as he might’ve made a show of grumbling about being saddled. 

Now, of course, there was a line of kids waiting for their turn. Avalon was ostensibly making sure everyone had their fair amount of time, but mostly she had been pacing back and forth obsessing over what was going on with Flick. Then Aylen showed up and gave her a reason to rant about the whole situation. Not that she was angry with Felicity, of course. It wasn’t her fault she disappeared. They had all gone in to check that place out, after all. It was just her luck that she’d been part of the group to get sucked into what turned out to be a secret vault in a pocket dimension. 

Honestly, after the past year and a half and everything that had happened since Avalon had met Felicity Chambers, it wasn’t even that surprising. She was mostly annoyed that her girlfriend had been taken away from her yet again without either of them having any say in the matter.

Now, she faced her other girlfriend and sighed. “She’s in there right now with those kids, Marina, and Fahsteth’s daughter, trying to solve a couple murders before the computer system will let them leave. They’re stuck in that place with a murderer, and I can’t do anything about it.” After saying those words, she turned and whistled for Salten to come down so the next kid in line could have a turn. 

Aylen grimaced slightly, stepping closer before tentatively putting a hand on Avalon’s shoulder. “I, ahh, I know that has to be frustrating. I’m sorry.” She paused briefly before offering a very faint smile. “This whole situation is strange, isn’t it?” 

“Strange because I have one girlfriend trying to help me feel better about my other girlfriend being magically teleported away to solve a decades old murder?” Avalon snorted audibly. “What’s so strange about that?” Her head shook then as she pulled the other girl’s arm to tug her into an embrace. “I’m sorry you have to put up with this. I’d understand if you want to get out of here.” 

“Are you kidding?” Aylen retorted while returning the firm hug. “You’ve seen my family. This isn’t that bad. Besides, I know why you’re worried about Flick. I care about her too. Not like you do, but still. She has a habit of getting in trouble.” She paused thoughtfully before adding, “On the other hand, you know if anyone in our class group is ready to deal with a secret murderer, it’s her.” 

Still holding onto the other girl, Avalon smiled to herself. “Of course. Though she’s not the only one well-suited for it. I’m sure you could sniff out a killer pretty well.”

“Maybe if they were about to strike again,” Aylen mused while leaning back to look her in the eyes. “Even then it’s not exactly reliable. I can’t tell every time someone is about to die.” 

By that point, Salten had landed. Avalon squeezed the other girl one more time before moving to help the one boy down out of the saddle before lifting the next volunteer. The new young girl was a squirmy, bouncy Rakshasa child, who settled down once Avalon firmly told her that if she didn’t get strapped in properly she wouldn’t be going anywhere.  

Soon, she was all set, and Avalon gave Salten half an apple to chomp down before sending him back up in the air. As the other kids all oohed and ahhed, split between asking the just-finished boy how his ride had been and watching the Rakshasa girl on her own turn, Valley stepped away from them and turned her attention back to Aylen. “Miranda and I went right through that door when they disappeared. Jeanne didn’t even have a chance to use her spear. We ripped it down and got into the place. Not that it helped at all. There’s some tunnels down there with supplies that were probably meant to be sent into the vault itself at some point. But nothing useful. Jeanne was tearing through some of the mountain itself when we got the call from Flick’s dad about what happened.” 

“He’s not very happy either, I take it?” Aylen guessed, reaching out to take the other girl’s hand. 

Squeezing back as their fingers interlocked, Avalon shook her head. “Not particularly, no. But honestly, I think he’s happy this wasn’t part of some bigger plot. It wasn’t Kushiel or those Whisper things, at least.” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “I really don’t like the idea of her being in there trying to find a killer who’s been able to hide this long, but it could be worse, you know?” She paused before giving a heavy sigh. “And how bad is it that I can say that? Out of all the possibilities of what could have teleported Flick away and kept all of us from getting to her, this is pretty close to the best case scenario.” 

“There’s been a lot worse, that’s for sure,” Aylen agreed quietly. “I guess in this case the devil you know isn’t better than the one you don’t.” For a moment, the two of them stood together, watching Salten fly through the air with his newest charge. Then she added, “You know, I understand that you feel frustrated and like you can’t do anything to protect her when this stuff happens, but you’re pretty wrong about that.” 

Glancing that way, Avalon raised an eyebrow. “I’m wrong?” 

Aylen met her gaze. “Yeah, sort of. I mean, sure, you can’t always stop her from being taken away on these weird trips. You can’t lock her in a box and make sure no one bad ever so much as looks at her. To be honest, I’m pretty sure you don’t actually want to do that anyway. But you can protect her. You have protected her. Even when you don’t get taken along with Flick, you still protect her. All that fighting she can do now, a big part of that is because of you. She’s one of the best fighters in our whole–in a few different age groups. And sure, a big part of that is because of being taught by people like Deveron, or her mom, or Athena, or–yeah, there’s a list. But another big part of it is you. You laid the groundwork, and you make her keep training. You push her to be better all the time.” 

Turning to face Avalon directly, Aylen put both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “You spend all this time helping her train and teaching her how to fight even better, and then she uses it when these people drag her off like this. She knows how to defend herself and she’s really good at it, because of you. You stand here and you talk as though you can’t protect her, but you do that by teaching her and making her train all the time. All those exercises you put her through, that’s you protecting her, Avalon. Because you can’t be there all the time. She’s ready for these situations, and much worse than this, because you make sure she is.” 

Avalon processed that for a moment, before raising both hands to cup the other girl’s face. Gently brushing her fingers down Aylen’s cheeks, she leaned in to kiss her softly. Their lips barely touched, before she exhaled softly and touched her forehead against Aylen’s. “You’re pretty smart, you know that?” 

“I have good breeding,” Aylen lightly teased, adding a soft chuckle. “You know, that’s an even more fun joke to make now that you actually understand what it means.” 

For her part, Avalon chuckled as well before glancing up to make sure everything was still fine. Of course, Salten would have made certain she knew if something was wrong, but still. Sure enough, the Peryton was still flying in a lazy, casual loop while his diminutive rider squealed in joy. As she watched that, Avalon quietly asked, “Have you figured anything else out about the Arthur thing?” 

“You truly are trying to distract yourself from this, aren’t you?” Aylen gave the other girl another quick kiss before stepping back a bit while running her hands through Avalon’s long hair. 

“Just a bit,” Valley confirmed dryly. “Shiori’s already distracted. She’s off helping her sister with that whole finding the person who stole her dad’s memory thing. Meanwhile, I’m standing here watching kids fly around while I wait for Flick to solve a decades old murder in a pocket dimension. So yes, please, help me be distracted?” 

Wincing, Aylen offered a helpless shrug. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how good of a distraction it’ll be. We haven’t figured out anything new. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do to bring him back. I don’t know if it’s something about my genetics, or something I can physically accomplish, or a choice I might make, or–or anything. I’ve been talking to Grandfather and he isn’t sure either. And my mothers don’t know anything. Or they all know exactly what’s supposed to happen and aren’t telling me because it’ll change something, I’m not sure which. Either way, there’s no answers coming from that direction. And Mercury already said he doesn’t know anything beyond the fact that I’m the one who’s supposed to do it.” 

“It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?” Avalon quietly murmured, hand moving to cup the girl’s face once more. 

Sighing, Aylen leaned into the touch while giving a slight nod. “I’d say you have no idea, but you do. How did you put up with that whole ‘being the one person who can enter the blood vault and get the spell that can stop Seosten possession and change the whole balance of power in the universe’ thing?” 

“Mostly by not thinking about it in those terms too much,” Avalon replied with a cough. “It’s way too overwhelming if you let it be. Sorry I brought it up.” 

“No, no, it’s okay.” Aylen insisted. “Trust me, I think about it all the time. How can I not? I’m supposed to… you know. Do that, somehow. It’s never far from my mind. In fact, I was just thinking about–hang on.” There was a buzzing in her pocket, and she tugged a phone out before reading over the text, a grimace finding its way to her face almost immediately. 

“Something wrong?” Avalon asked while watching her expression. 

Aylen glanced up, expression darkening. “Sort of, yeah. Shiloh’s asking for help. She and a couple others were supposed to pick up some new arrivals at the bus station, but there’s some old friends there. Well, definitely not friends. Old classmates, of the sort who stayed with Crossroads. They need some help dealing with the situation.” Quickly, she added, “But I can grab a couple others to–” 

“No, I’ll go with you,” Avalon insisted. “I can’t help around here. Someone else can watch the kids and make sure they all get a chance with Salten.” 

“Are you sure?” Aylen pressed. “I don’t want–” 

Avalon immediately interrupted, voice firm. “Aylen, trust me, I do not need to stand around worrying about Flick for the next… however long this takes. Now please, just tell me where we’re going. 

“Besides, if there’s one thing that’s gonna make me feel better about all this, it’s being able to punch someone in the face.” 

******

Miranda joined them, instantly volunteering as soon as Avalon poked her head in the craft shop where the other girl had been distracting herself by talking to the elderly glassblower who had been working there and told her what was going on. The three of them were also accompanied by Nevada, as well as Erin Redcliffe. Given what Shiloh had reported about what they were facing, the five of them should have been more than enough. But better to be safe than sorry. 

According to Shiloh’s report, she and a couple others were waiting across the street and had been about to make their move to make sure the station was safe, when they noticed Zeke Leven sitting on one of the benches. From there they had identified three other students from their year, as well as a single adult who appeared to be watching over them. This was a hunt. They were clearly waiting for the bus to arrive. Which would happen in the next fifteen minutes. There wasn’t a lot of time to spare. Not if they wanted to deal with this before there were even more civilians in the line of fire. 

Now, they were all gathered inside the empty office room across the street from the bus stop. The blinds were drawn, but Avalon stood at the edge of them peering through the gap. She could see Zeke still sitting there, just barely in view, obviously watching for the bus to arrive. Part of her wondered why they would have someone who would set off every Alter’s danger alert as soon as they saw him sitting in plain view. But maybe they wanted a panic? 

“I’ll handle Gilbert,” Nevada was saying. “The rest of you pair up. There’s four of them and eight of you, so two for each. Don’t be cocky, okay?” She turned a serious expression to them, a far cry from her usual perky attitude. “Yes, you’re all better than they are. You have a lot more real-world experience. But don’t be stupid about that. Take advantage while you can.” 

The others who had been with Shiloh to make the original pick-up were Eiji Ueda, the large Japanese-Canadian boy whose study habits rivaled Vanessa’s, as well as Cameron Reid and Rebecca Jameson. 

“Right,” Shiloh started to agree. “So we all pair up and spread out to jump these guys before the bus gets here. If we’re really quick and careful, maybe we can deal with it without scaring the people we’re supposed to be protecting, right? I mean, it’s not like they haven’t been through enough.” Her voice turned to a mutter then. “The whole reason we had to move them was because their old home got burned to the ground in a raid.”

Rebecca nodded. “They lost three people. Three members of their family. We promised they’d be safe on this trip, that as soon as they got here, we’d take them to their new home.” 

“And they will be safe,” Avalon announced without taking her gaze off Zeke. “We’ll handle these guys and then take the Alters to that new house. We aren’t going to let anything happen to them.” Maybe she couldn’t help Flick right now, or contribute in any way to that whole situation, but she could help these people. She could make sure they didn’t lose any more people they cared about. She could help deal with this. She would help deal with this. 

Erin spoke up from the corner of the room where she stood with her hand on the hilt of her sword. “That bus is gonna be here in twelve minutes. If we’re going to do this without letting those people end up getting caught in the middle, we need to get out there now.” She sounded anxious. Probably because she was thinking about her own father. Apparently he was still stuck back at Crossroads. Not because he was loyal to them or anything, but because they were essentially holding him prisoner. And probably not just him, come to think of it. He was just one example. Crossroads wasn’t eager to let anyone leave to join the Rebellion, to say the least. 

Avalon knew there was something more going on with that whole situation. Erin had been spending a lot of time with Nevada trying to work it out, and the two of them seemed somewhat cagey about it. That was why the girl was with Nevada when they had called her for help with this. Hell, Erin was probably just as happy for the distraction as Avalon herself was.

“Yeah,” Rebecca spoke up, her gaze glancing toward Avalon with a nod of understanding. She was worried about Flick too. “We need to move. I’ll go with Eiji. If that’s cool?” 

The tall, muscular boy agreed easily. From there, the others paired up, with Avalon and Aylen remaining together. However, just as they were about to move out, Valley gave one last glance out the window before holding her hand up abruptly. “Wait.” 

“What do you–” Nevada started before looking that way. Clearly, she used some sort of X-Ray power, because she was staring right at the wall in the direction of where Zeke was, before cursing loudly. 

“What?” Rebecca demanded. “What’s going on? What do you guys see out there?” 

“Ghosts,” Avalon answered. “There’s a bunch of ghosts surrounding Zeke out there. And the others.” She grimaced before adding, “They don’t look very friendly.” 

“Ghosts?” Shiloh echoed in confusion. “What’re ghosts doing out there? Why’re they messing with Heretics? They don’t stand a chance, right?” 

“Oh, I don’t know about that, we can be rather surprising and tenacious when we want to be. Well, our version can, anyway.” The voice came from the far corner of the room, where there should have been no one. As they all whipped their gazes that way, weapons raised, the assembled Rebel Heretics saw a single figure standing there. Or rather, hovering. 

“Ahem, what’s the right word?” mused Invidia, the Whisper who had taken over Charmeine’s ghost. “Oh yes. 

“Boo.” 

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Patreon Snippets 13A (Heretical Edge 2)

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

Aylen with Grandpa Reaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting.” 

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

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

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

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

“She is alive?” 

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

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

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

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

“Tell me. 

“Tell me everything.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Former Crossroads Student Mentor Cameron Reid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Alcaeus/Heracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, this was awkward. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Club

“This… is… cowabunga!” 

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

Oak Park Mall, in Overland Park, Kansas. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go cowabunga this mall.” 

******

Jiao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Interlude 47 – Tristan and Vanessa

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The following is a commissioned interlude focusing on Vanessa and Tristan introducing the latter to her team back when he first showed up. And… well, other stuff too. Remember, it takes place months ago, while Roxa is still at the school and thus Rudolph has not switched teams, etc. 

Several Months Ago

After hours in long discussions with Headmistress Sinclaire (with several different staff members going in and out throughout their talk), Vanessa and Tristan Moon were finally left alone in the school corridor once more. They’d had that short conversation with Gaia, where Vanessa had learned just how much the woman actually already knew about Alters not being evil, and about the woman’s son, and… and everything else that had made the girl need to sit down, dizzy from the revelations. Then Vanessa and Tristan had spent an hour alone in the office, just trying to process the idea that they were actually together once more.

After that, once the two felt like they couldn’t make the adults wait any longer, they had told Gaia that they were ready. She had prepared them, told them what to say, what story to tell to her own staff and anyone else who asked. She prepared them for all the questions, all the tests, all the… everything. Not that it was nearly as much as some of the adults wanted. The other teachers had wanted to run Tristan through more tests, had wanted to ask even more questions. But the headmistress had made them stop. She said that there would be time to talk about everything else later, and then let them go.

So there they were, standing out in the corridor that was devoid of anyone else for that moment. Alone, save for each other, the twins finally left to talk privately.

“I still can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you made it, I mean, I mean… I can’t–” Vanessa realized that she was babbling and cut herself off. Verbally, at least. She couldn’t seem to stop her hands from constantly touching her brother. She squeezed his shoulders, his arms, took his hands, moved back to his face, touched his hair. It was a dream. It was just like a dream, so similar to dreams that she’d had for the past decade. Any second now, she was going to wake up. She would wake up and her entire family would be missing once more. She’d wake up, and the entire world would think that she was crazy once more.

She couldn’t go through that again. She’d stopped telling the story early on, once her seven-year-old self had sat through several psychologists that kept telling her she was wrong, that she hadn’t seen what she thought she saw. They told her that her memory was playing tricks on her. But that was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was never wrong. Never. But between the lectures, the long discussions, and the talk of drugs, she’d pretended that they were right.

But she’d never stopped believing what she knew was right. Squashing it down in public, pretending for so long, had just made the things worse in her own subconscious mind. Accusations from her family, her mother and father, and from Tristan, had filled her dreams. They thought that she had forgotten them, that she had abandoned them. More than once, the girl had woken up in a cold sweat, sobbing into her pillow as she begged them to understand.

And now, now she was petrified that all of this was going to disappear. She was afraid Tristan would be gone, that he would vanish the next time she blinked. There was even a certain terrible fear that, after Tristan disappeared, everyone in the school would forget him as well. She was afraid that he would be gone, and that all of her teachers and classmates would have no idea who she was talking about. That fear made her keep touching him, keep all but clinging to him. If her brother did disappear, she’d rather be taken with him than be left behind again.

“Nessa,” Tristan spoke quickly, smiling as he grabbed her hands and held them. “It’s okay. I’m here. And I ain’t going away again. I’m anchored to Flick, so I’m staying right here. Okay?”

For a single, brief moment, Vanessa felt a twinge of jealousy toward the other girl. It was dumb. She knew that. But for that handful of seconds, the fact that her brother was magically anchored to Felicity Chambers made her feel somehow left out. Again, dumb. There was absolutely no reason for it. Tristan was anchored to Flick because she had seen him on that other world, and he’d needed someone that he could remember in order for the spell to work. He and Gaia had thoroughly explained all of that over the several hour discussion that they had just come out of.

“I know,” the girl mumbled, squeezing her brother’s hands. “I know that you’re here. I just…” Her mouth opened and shut as she fought to find the right words, words that wouldn’t sound crazy.

She didn’t need to. Tristan just smiled and gave her a little nod. “I get it. I… wow. I spent so long trying to remember you, trying to remember anything about our family at all, and nothing worked. But now it’s like all those memories just came pouring back as soon as I saw you.”

Vanessa felt a slight blush touch her face then, and her smile brightened as she informed the boy, “If there’s anything you still don’t remember, I can tell you about it.”

He chuckled a little before giving her a tight hug. “Nessa and her perfect memory. I remember. I remember all of it. I’m surprised you haven’t already managed to get…” Biting his lip as he hesitated, Tristan asked hesitantly, “You really don’t have any idea where Mom and Dad are?”

She flinched, almost as if she had been physically struck. Cringing, Vanessa pleaded, “I’ve been trying. But they hide everything so much around here. There’s just… holes in all of it. Between that and all the rules, the memory manipulation, the… everything, it’s hard. I didn’t know wh-”

“Shh.” Tristan shook his head. “Hey, it’s okay. Two heads are better than one, right? We work together, Nessa. Remember how it goes? You’re the brains, I’m the brawn. We’ll find them.”

Vanessa nodded at that, her twin able to make her feel better and calm her down as easily now as he had when they were children. He was right, they complemented each other. Being without him for an entire decade had been like losing an arm and learning to work without it. She’d needed her brother. Now that he was back, they would find their parents. She knew they would.

“Come on,” she finally announced, pulling him by the hand. “I’ll show you around. You still have the key so you can get to the room that Headmistress Sinclaire said we could use, right?” Later, Tristan would have to be given his own room. But for the evening, Gaia had said they could spend the night in the same room, one of the guest suites in the upper floor of the main building. After everything that had happened, she wasn’t going to immediately separate the two of them.

“Nessa,” Tristan replied while giving her a brief look. “She handed it to me, I put it in my pocket, and we walked like… fifteen feet.” His hand dug pointedly into the pocket in question as he continued. “I mean, c’mon, how could I possibly have lost it that soo–hey, where’d it go?”

Vanessa raised her hand, showing the boy the key in her palm. “You dropped it on the floor when you were putting it in your pocket.” Even then, she couldn’t stop smiling. This. This was what she had missed. The last time they had been together, they were both still in first grade. Now, so much time had passed, so much had changed. And yet, some things were the same.

“Right, then.” Tristan grinned right back at her while taking the key, as utterly incorrigible as he had always been in her memories. “I’m glad you passed that perception test. Good job.”

“You absolutely did not do that on purpose,” the girl huffed at her brother while folding her arms.

He winked at that. “And yet, as soon as I said the words ‘passed’ and ‘test’, you got all happy.”

“I–” Vanessa opened and shut her mouth, flushing a little before turning to walk. “Come on.”

Together, the two of them walked down the hall to the stairs, and made their way out of the building. But they had barely stepped out onto the grounds before the twins found themselves facing a small group of people who had clearly been waiting for them: Vanessa’s teammates.

“Hey, Vanessa!” That was Cameron Reid, their team mentor. The black girl had been facing away from the doors, clearly saying something to the others as the twins emerged. Now, she turned to them, whipping around so fast that, in any normal situation, the ever-present blue-tongued skink that was draped over the girl’s shoulder would have gone flying off.

Yet, as always, the lizard somehow managed to retain his spot. Vanessa had seen their team mentor actually fight while keeping the little guy with her. It had something to do with a collection of reptile-based powers that Cameron had. Which, among other things, allowed her to not just communicate with reptiles but actually temporarily make them grow. With a single touch and moment of focus, the second-year student was capable of making the eighteen-inch lizard rapidly become as large as a pony and as long as a crocodile, complete with steel-like armored scales. Even more impressively, she could give them the ability to project various types of breath weapon. It had to be chosen at the time that the reptile was affected, but they could gain fire breath, lightning breath, ice breath, a corrosive acid breath, and probably others.

Essentially, with a touch and about fifteen seconds of time, their mentor could turn the eighteen-inch lizard perched on her shoulder into a four-foot tall, twenty-foot long armored dragon that could breathe fire, lightning, or whatever. It was incredibly impressive to see.     

But Vanessa still didn’t understand what kind of reference Cameron was making when she said that the lizard’s name was Tad Cooper. Something about a musical, but the girl just kept giggling when she tried to explain it.

“Um, hi, guys.” Biting her lip, Vanessa nodded to her team. “What’re, uh, you doing out here?”

“Vanessa, c’mon.” Malcolm gave her a look for that one, shaking his head. “Everyone knows you’re a genius, so don’t try to play dumb.  You gonna introduce us, or what?” His gaze turned to the boy beside her before he lifted his chin in greeting, giving a drawled, “Sup, dude?”

“And where have you been hiding him?” Erin added, her eyes wide as she looked Tristan up and down appreciatively before giving Vanessa a hurt look. “Seriously, we’re supposed to be best-roomies and you never mention that you’ve got a–a brother, right? He is your brother? Maybe a cousin, or a nephew, or even an uncle of some kind?” From the look on the girl’s face, Vanessa was quite certain that Erin had an ulterior motive for hoping that they were related.

“Easy, Erin,” Cameron was shaking her head, clearly amused. “They’re Bystander-kin, remember? They don’t tend to have uncles or nephews that are the exact same age. Usually.”

Zeke, standing a bit away from the others, muttered something under his breath that sounded like, ‘Lucky them.’ Then he looked straight to Vanessa. “So, you gonna explain or what?”

“Oh, right.” Coughing, Vanessa lifted her hand to gesture to each in turn. “Trist, these are my, uh, my teammates: Malcolm, Travis, Rudolph, Zeke, and my roommate Erin. And this is our team mentor, Cameron. Guys, this is Tristan, he’s my twin brother.” She supposed that Erin’s subsequent fistpump of victory was fairly understandable, but the little dance was pushing it.

Rudolph was the first to step that way, barely edging out Erin herself. The pale, slightly hefty boy offered his hand with a small smile. “Hey, uh, I guess we should say, welcome to Crossroads.”

“Hey, thanks, dude.” Rather than shaking Rudolph’s hand, Tristan slapped him five instead, then did it the other way with the back of his hand, before grabbing the boy’s hand to pull him into a shoulder bump. “You’re the guys that’ve been helping Nessa, huh? Thanks, man.”

To Cameron, the boy flashed a broad, endearing smile. “Hey, who’s your friend? Can he come say hi too?”

The older girl chuckled, reaching up to take the lizard off her shoulder before holding him out. “Sure, here. This is Tad. Tad, say hi to Tristan. And be nice.”

Tristan carefully took the reptile, rubbing the back of its head with obvious quick fondness. “Awesome. I always wanted a pet snake or something.”

In turn, he went through greeting each of the others. Despite the fact that Vanessa had been with the team since the beginning of the semester and Tristan had only met them a few seconds earlier, he already seemed completely at ease with them. Which was the way it had gone when they were younger too. As far back as preschool, Tristan had been the one who introduced the two of them to other kids, even to teachers. Tristan was the outgoing one, Vanessa was the bookworm, the one who was ‘weird’ because she did things like write out multiplication tables while the rest of their classmates were still learning how to color inside the lines. The teachers had wanted to move her up to higher grades, even that early. If the school staff had had their way, Vanessa would have been in third or fourth grade while Tristan was in first. But their parents had refused to split them up like that.

Someone with a darker sense of humor probably could have made a joke about how that turned out.

“Erin’s right, though,” Cameron pointed out. “You never mentioned you had a brother, let alone a twin. I thought you grew up in like, some kind of group home or something, wasn’t it?”

“Hey, yeah,” Vanessa’s roommate tore her attention away from Tristan to squint at Vanessa. “How come you never mentioned him? And why hasn’t he been here from the beginning? I mean, obviously he was like… missing or something? The way you were in the cafeteria…”

Giving a little nod, Vanessa launched into the explanation that they had given the teachers and other adults, the story that Gaia had told them to tell once she found out exactly what had happened. “Yes, it’s like I said, Tristan is my brother. But our family isn’t exactly Bystanders.”

“Our mom and dad,” Tristan put in then, “they were Heretics. But they, uh, they were kind of Garden of Eden Heretics.”

“Eden’s Garden,” Vanessa corrected with a slight nudge. “They were Eden’s Garden Heretics.”

The boy nodded. “Right, that. Either way, they retired and went off to live on their own. Awhile later, out popped the most beautiful and brilliant twin babies you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Clearing her throat pointedly, Vanessa cut in. “We didn’t know our parents were different, until monsters attacked our house. They were Strangers who had a grudge against Mom and Dad.”

“Our parents fought them,” Tristan continued with a little shrug. “But the Strangers were really… persistent. They had this portal set up and it took the three of us away. Our parents and me. But the portal got destroyed in the process and Nessa was left behind.”

Travis spoke up then. “Holy shit, dude. How–” He hesitated, wincing as he looked over to Vanessa before slowly asking, “How, uh, how old were you?”

She swallowed at the question. “Seven. I didn’t know what happened. I couldn’t remember much of it, until I got here, and had my Edge vision. That’s when I found out all the stuff about them being Heretics and retiring, and what really happened in our house that day.”  

Tristan nodded while letting Tad climb up his arm to his shoulder. “Meanwhile, when the portal got busted, it split us up. I still don’t know where Mom and Dad got sent to, but I ended up on some random world half a universe away. I would’ve been in deep shit, except some other Heretics showed up.”

“Wait,” Malcolm blurted, “other Heretics? What the hell is that supposed to mean? You said you were halfway across the universe. Are there just random Heretics hanging around other planets?”

It was Zeke who answered. “Crossroads maintains outposts on other worlds, yes. I imagine the… other place does as well.” The distaste in the boy’s voice as he obliquely mentioned Eden’s Garden was readily apparent. “What the hell do you think the Explorer track is for? You know, the one that Vanessa over there belongs to.”

Tristan gave the other boy a look. “Pretty sure his confusion was from the implication that the Heretics I met weren’t in contact with Earth, dude.” Shaking his head, he continued, “But yeah. They were from the other place. But they hadn’t been back in a long time. They got lost out there somehow. I guess when the portal showed up and dumped me out, they sensed it, so they came to find the portal to go home. Except all they found was me. But they took me in and helped raise me. Taught me pretty much everything I know while we were all looking for a way to get back here.”

“So, what happened?” Cameron asked as she took her lizard back from Tristan, feeding him a treat of some kind. “How did you end up back here now? And where are those other Heretics, did they go back to Eden’s Garden or something?”

Tristan shook his head, running a hand through his hair with a since. “Nah, uh, actually we only managed to find a thing that would send one of us back. They made me be the one to use it, said that I was still young and had a sister to get back to. I showed up back on Earth, a couple Crossroads Heretics came to investigate and ended up bringing me here since they didn’t know what else to do with me. I didn’t know Nessa was here until, well, until that bit in the cafeteria.”

“Wow.” Erin was looking back and forth between both twins. “That’s like… holy shit. Are you sure you don’t have some kind of luck power, Vanessa?”

Zeke spoke up then, his voice pointed. “She still kept secrets. She didn’t tell us any of this, even after she knew about the Heretic thing. And that’s probably why she’s been spending so much time in the library, trying to find the things that took her family.”

Erin frowned a little at that. “Good point. How come you didn’t tell us about that, Vanessa? Didn’t you trust us?” She sounded hurt.

“Hey, hey.” That was Malcolm. The tall, muscular boy shook his head. “Ease up, you guys. It takes more than a couple months to open up to complete strangers like that. You can say ‘team’ until you’re blue in the face, but that’s her family we’re talking about. She didn’t know how we’d react, or how all the teachers around here might react, for that matter. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t trust us, it means it’s her family and that was the best chance she had to find them after, what, a whole decade? Can you really blame her for playing things close to her vest?”

“Malcolm’s right,” Cameron agreed. “Come on, you guys. I’m supposed to be your mentor. If I can get over the incredible insult–” She winked at Vanessa to show that she was teasing. “–of not being included in any of this, I think everyone can. Let’s give the team brainiac a break, huh? Like he said, it was about her family.”

Blushing deeply, Vanessa mumbled a thank you to both of them. Then she hesitantly added, “Um, I was about to show Tristan around. Do… do you guys want to help?”

******

Present Day

“Don’t think about why you want to visit your father.” The steady, soothing voice came from the old Seosten-Heretic, Enguerrand. He was seated on the opposite side of the boat from where Vanessa and Tristan sat. The boat itself was floating peacefully in the middle of the lake near where Gabriel Prosser’s group had their camp.

It had been Scout’s idea that they come here, so that Vanessa could learn to use the power that she had been developing that connected her to her father deep in Seosten space. The hope was that with enough practice, she might be able to tell the man about Flick and the others.

Don’t think about it?” Vanessa echoed, biting her lip as she stole a glance at her brother before looking back to the man who was the closest thing they knew to an expert on the Seosten powers. “Shouldn’t I be thinking about why I want to visit him as… motivation?”

“Yeah, that sounds weird,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, that’s a lot of emotion right there that you’re telling her not to focus on, you know? Oh, and also, when the hell did you start talking in a modern voice instead of all that verily and prithee crap we heard you using before?”

The elderly knight chuckled a little then. “Yes, I wondered if you would notice that. I…” he breathed a long, low sigh. “I have a great deal of respect for the Seosten whose power I inherited all those years ago, whom I served for quite a long time. When I realized that you were both half-Seosten, I suppose that those old habits and… memories came back a little bit.”

“You–you served a Seosten? And liked it?” Tristan stared at the man. “Who–how–what?”

Smiling faintly, Enguerrand gestured. “Let us focus on this. Perhaps I will tell you the story some other time. Once you’ve earned it.” At the last bit, he winked. Then the man turned his attention back to Vanessa. “As to your relevant question, yes, the emotion of why you want to project yourself to your father is important. But only once you have more control. As it is, you are focusing too much on why. You wish to see your father so much, for very understandable reasons. But as it is, you are… “ He paused, considering his words. “Let’s just say, you are flooring the gas pedal without knowing how to steer. You are flooding the tank before you’ve learned how to take the automobile out of park.”

Vanessa swallowed, looking at the bottom of the boat for a moment. “I… I guess that makes sense. So, how do I steer? How do I take it out of park?”

“I will teach you that,” the man promised. “I will teach both of you, because Tristan’s own gift will come soon enough. There is more to projecting yourself to your last host than simply wishing you were there. Especially over this kind of distance. You must also think about the person you are projecting yourself to, what you know about them, what kind of person they are. Projecting to them is about… imagining that you are controlling them, putting yourself in their shoes, so to speak. You see, you are thinking about how much you want to speak with your father, but in doing so, you are focusing on you as Vanessa speaking with him. To project in the way that you wish to, you should be thinking of yourself as him. Cast yourself as your father, think like him, speak like him, do everything you can in the way that most reminds you of him. That is how you will attune yourself to him.”

For two hours, they worked on that. By the end, even though they hadn’t done anything that should have been physically demanding at all, Vanessa felt exhausted. She slumped in the boat, shaking her head. “I can’t do it. I can’t send myself to him.” The girl felt like she was on the verge of tears.

“That is quite all right, Miss Moon.” Enguerrand insisted with a soft smile as she took her hand. “These things take time. You are progressing better than I believe most would have, I assure you.”

“Yeah, Nessa, don’t sweat it,” Tristan added. “At least you can try to help. I can’t even do that much right now.”

Sighing, Vanessa nodded. “I just really wanted to…” She shook her head then, dismissing it. “I guess we can come back later?”

“Of course,” Enguerrand agreed immediately. “I would like that very much. But for now, we should go back to shore.” He raised his hand to point to a man standing there, clearly waiting for them. “I believe that Gabriel would like to speak with you.”

Prosser waited there until the boat reached the dock, then caught the rope that was tossed up and leaned down to tie it off. He reached down to help them each out of the boat, asking how they were doing as soon as they were each on solid, dry ground.

“Could’ve been better, could’ve been worse,” Tristan informed him easily.

Chuckling a little, Gabriel nodded. “I believe that’s life in a nutshell for most people.” He sobered then, holding out an envelope in one hand. “This came for you.”

Both twins blinked at it, and Vanessa frowned. “Came for us? Us, like, came here for us? How?”

Gabriel was watching them. “A group of refugees that we picked up earlier. They were ambushed by Heretics on the road until a man saved them. Apparently, he gave them this letter, told them to wait for us to show up, and said that they should give this letter to me.”

He turned it over then, showing the twins their names written on the front in elaborate, gold lettering. “It was checked for spells before we came anywhere near here. There’s nothing on it but text, written on computer paper. I don’t know what it says, but I do know that there’s nothing magical about it. Would you like to open it?”

The twins looked at each other once more before shrugging. Tristan took the offered envelope, turning the thing over in his hands briefly before quickly ripping it open. Inside, there was a single, folded piece of white paper, with five lines printed in bold, all-caps lettering right in the middle.

“Uh, why does Pitiniana sound familiar?” Tristan asked his sister.

“It was a city in Sicily, but it’s lost now,” Vanessa answered. “And it’s also the world we’re supposed to visit in a few days with the Explorers. That’s probably how you know it. Why?”

Turning the paper over, Tristan showed the contents to her, letting her read the message that the mysterious man had sent sent to them.

PITINIANA

3 DAYS. 14:30

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT YOUR PARENTS.

I’LL BRING SNACKS.  

— UNCLE SATAN.

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