Charmeine

At Last 16-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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To say that the Whisper-Ghosts reacted badly to their Get Into Tartarus ticket being taken away would be a bit of an understatement. In the moment after the prototype ship vanished with Puriel and the kids on-board, a near-deafening scream went up throughout the room. It came not only from the Whispers who were possessing ghost ‘bodies,’ but from all of them. Dozens of the things, most nearly entirely invisible aside from distortion in the air, expressed their fury from all along the outskirts of the room. The discordant howl of rage sent an almost painful shiver through me. There was power there. Which wasn’t surprising, given how much their voices could affect people when they whispered. An outright scream like this, coming from that many of them? No wonder it felt like the magical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Even with our protection, hearing it made me want to gouge my own ears out. 

And that was the point, I immediately realized. The scream was an attempt to push through all our protection and force us to harm ourselves. It even almost managed it, despite everything. At the moment I had that thought, the next that leapt to mind was, ‘Grandmaria and Grandpartie aren’t protected.’ Yet even as I spun that way, hand outstretched to stop them from being made to do anything drastic, I could see that the situation was already well in-hand. Both of my grandparents, Uncle Al, and that Native American guy, were all unconscious on the floor with Mom, Sariel, and Athena standing over them. Apparently they didn’t want to take any chances. Which, given how powerful the Whispers clearly were, made sense. 

Thankfully, the Whisper-scream (yeah) didn’t last for long. Which was the good part. Unfortunately, the bad part was that as soon as it stopped, the assortment of possessed Olympian ghosts and air distortions closed in on the rest of us from all sides. Invidia was, as usual, at the front as their leader. Her gaze was centered on me, and I was pretty sure that the hatred in her eyes was coming from both her and Charmeine. With that little move back there, I had just made myself the Whispers’ personal enemy. Which was just fantastic, because I didn’t have enough of those anymore. Definitely needed to add a few more to the list. 

“You,” Invidia snarled, that single word containing about a decade’s recommended allotment of spite. “You are–” 

In mid-sentence, she abruptly vanished from that spot just as my mother appeared there, sword slashing through the space she had just been in. Mom’s own voice was hard. “Stay the fuck away from her.” The tip of the sword was pointed at the spot where Invidia had reappeared, a bit further back. “You already lost. Get over it.”

“Did we?” Invidia snapped back, as the other possessed Olympian ghosts gathered around her. They were all staring past my mother to meet my gaze, and it was very clear that the animosity I had sensed was coming equally from all of them. I hadn’t just made Invidia hate me, they all did. Their whole group, if not their whole… species or whatever. Which might be a new record even for me, given how recently we’d met. 

It was actually Theia who spoke next. The Seosten girl was standing on the spot where Puriel had been when he was thrown into the other ship. “You failed to take my father, so you failed to open the rift.” Her voice was as flat and matter-of-fact as ever, yet I could sense an underlying hint of emotion there. Theia, quite understandably, probably had complicated feelings about her father. Yet these creatures had been trying to take him away from her right when she had been about to be reunited with him for the first time since she… well, since she had changed so much. They had both changed a lot, and these Whispers had very nearly snatched Puriel away from her before she ever had the chance to have a real face-to-face with him. No wonder I could hear anger in her voice. 

Although to be fair, I was pretty sure everyone in this room was angry at the moment. 

“She’s right,” Athena put in. The woman had all-but materialized on the other side of my mother, with Dare right next to her. “Your efforts were focused on using Puriel to open a new way into Tartarus. He’s gone now, and no amount of bellowing is going to change that.” 

Invidia made Charmeine’s eyes narrow, her voice low and dangerous as she stared intently through everyone else to meet my gaze. “Perhaps not, but we may still extract a high price for such a delay.” 

“Extract a high price,” Dare informed her in a voice that somehow managed to convey even more of an open threat than her actual words did, “and pay an even higher one.”

Invidia’s eyes finally turned away from mine to look to her, a snarl finding its way into her retort. “Is that so? Because it seems to me we have you outnumbered. And we gain an even better understanding of our physical capabilities with each confrontation. You cannot hold out for long. Your resources are far from infinite, this far from any reinforcements.”

“Are we far from reinforcements?” I pointed out after taking a breath. “I mean, you just saw our extra ship jump in and then out of here instantly. You really think you can finish us off before Andromeda drops off Puriel and the kids then comes back with some help?” 

“Perhaps,” Invidia snapped in my direction, though she didn’t exactly sound confident. I was pretty sure she was running the numbers in her head and didn’t like what it was coming out to. “We can handle you, at least, annoying one.” 

“You’d have to go through all of us to do it,” Avalon retorted, putting herself slightly in front of me with her arm raised, projecting a blade from her gauntlet. Miranda silently joined her, even as my mother moved closer as well.  

Beside me, Cerberus gave a low growl through each of his heads. Persephone piped up, “Felicity has many friends you would have to go through. Including us. And we just got here. We can keep playing for awhile.”

She was right, of course. First, she and Cerberus had only just gotten started, which was the whole reason I’d kept them in reserve as backup even after the Whispers first showed themselves. It didn’t make sense to blow that surprise the very moment we saw some bad guys. I’d hoped that if Kushiel was here, we could have surprised her with them if things ever got really bad. And second, because the two of them were a Revenant and robot dog respectively. They didn’t really get tired. At least, not like that. I was pretty sure Cerberus could run down enough to need to recharge or whatever, but that wouldn’t be for quite some time. His makers didn’t want to have to go find a thousand double a batteries or whatever in the middle of fighting Manakel. 

Invidia was staring that way, her gaze locked onto Persephone. “And what precisely are you even doing? You should be aiding us, not hindering our efforts. You are a puppeteer of dead things, Revenant. You worm and slide your way into the dead and control it from within. You are nothing without the dead. We are all-but family, practically your siblings. You have far more in common with us than these creatures. And even if there were no similarities between us at all, you should want what we want. Unleashing this… Tartarus as they call it will bring even more of the power you are so fond of.” Her eyes darted briefly to me as she added, “You think this child, already about to fall in on herself after so minor an exertion, can offer even a small fraction of the necromantic energy that Tartarus being fully unleashed would bring into this universe? You latched yourself to that power’s previous custodian, and now to the child for no merit of her own. You aid her for the power she controls, and yet the source of that power could be in the palm of your hand. You bow to the one who holds a flashlight, while ignoring those offering you the power of the sun itself. All you need to do is stand with us, and you shall never be in the dark again. We know you better than they ever could. This girl will never see you as a romantic partner. She’s only using you for the strength you provide.” 

The others were staring our way, and it was all I could do not to turn and look at Persephone myself. But something told me that one of the worst things I could do in that moment was show any doubt in her. No matter how worried the paranoid part of me wanted to be, I had to trust her. More than that, I had to show that I trusted her. 

To that end, I stepped forward and over slightly, putting myself not quite directly in front of Persephone, but slightly to the side and ahead. I moved to a spot that put my back to her both literally and symbolically, while simultaneously being physically closer. My voice was sharp. “You know what’s funny? You’re trying to say that you can give Percy what she wants better than any of us, but you don’t even know what she wants. You don’t know what she likes. If you did, you’d know there’s no way in hell that she’d ever want to release a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. You know, because she lives here. Percy?”

“Yes, Felicity?” she chirped a bit from behind me, sounding curious. 

“What’s your favorite thing to do at two-fifteen on Saturday and Sunday morning?” I asked without looking away from Invidia and the other Whispers. Immediately after answering the question, I spoke the answer right alongside the Revenant. 

“Sit in the fluffy blue recliner with a hot, wet towel over my feet and a bowl of popcorn, half cheese and half caramel, in my lap watching the excellent Home Shopping Network and making up stories about what the people who buy the items are like.” 

We both finished saying that, word-for-word, before I added, “How do I know that? Because I talk to her. Because I’ve asked her that four times and she’s given the same answer every time. Because I like knowing things about her. And it’s kinda hard to have a shopping network, a TV, popcorn, a towel, or a recliner if there are a bunch of monsters destroying the universe.” 

Stepping back a bit, I reached a hand behind myself to find Persephone’s and squeezed it, all still without breaking eye contact with Invidia. “You think you know her? You don’t know a damn thing about her. You think you can talk her into betraying me because you tell her I don’t have romantic feelings for her? I never lied about that, not once. I have been completely up-front about that. But me not feeling anything romantic for Persephone doesn’t mean I don’t care about her. She is my friend. And if you open your mouth to try to manipulate her again, I will come over there, rip you out of that ghost body, then twist and fold your incorporeal ass into a shape that’s so geometrically impossible you’ll end up breaking the fabric of space-time and traveling back to inspire M.C. Escher. Leave my friend alone.” 

Speaking brightly, Persephone chirped, “Thank you, Friend Felicity. But I am more than capable of speaking up for myself.” She paused briefly before giving a short nod as she focused on Invidia and the other, increasingly angry Whisper-Ghosts. “As she said, you are not my friend. She is.” Her head tilted then. “Perhaps you should not have cultivated such a strong reputation for manipulation. Nothing you say is believable.”

“Yeah, well, they’re accustomed to having the power to back it up,” Apollo noted. “When you get too dependent on using a power that lets your voice manipulate and control people, well… let’s say I know what that can be like.” 

“You are nothing to us,” Invidia snapped in his direction, clearly offended by the insinuation that there was any similarity between what they did and his own Olympian power. 

Apollo, for his part, simply shrugged as though that didn’t bother him. “Maybe not, but your thing hasn’t worked so far. Actually, you’ve kind of failed at everything you’ve been trying to do this whole time.” 

“Everything?” There was amusement mixed in with the anger in Invidia’s voice. “Is that what you think? Because from where we are standing, we are in a much better position with these… bodies than we have been before.” She gestured around at the other Whisper-possessed ghosts. “Your annoying efforts to prevent us from opening the way to Tartarus notwithstanding, our efforts here have not been wasted. Whether you survive this encounter or not remains to be seen, but we will emerge stronger than we have been in many millennia.” 

“Sure,” Apollo agreed in a tone that made it sound like that didn’t even matter. “Not to mention Tartarus clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s a whole universe out there. Not like it’s just gonna disappear.” 

“Of course not,” the Whisper retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Tartarus has existed since before the creation of this universe, and it will continue to exist long after every star which warms your worlds has burned itself out. It is infinite. And we have patience to match. Your efforts here are nothing more than a brief delay.”

“Not even a particularly good one,” Apollo noted. “You have plenty of other options for opening a rift into the place. You don’t even need any of us.” 

“No,” came the response, “we do not need you.” 

“We’re not worth your time.” 

“You’re not worth our time.” 

“You should just leave right now.” 

“We should just–wait–” The very slightly glazed look that had crossed Invidia’s face started to clear as she focused. “You–you are not–” 

Apollo spoke once more, his voice firm as it filled the whole area around us as though he was speaking through a microphone that didn’t exist. “You should leave right now and go as far away as you can.” 

That was what it took. An instant after he finished those words, Invidia and the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts vanished. As soon as they did, the blond man staggered a bit, giving a heavy wheeze. “Ohhhkay, that took a lot more than I thought it would. They’re strong.” He glanced to the rest of us. “I wanted to ask for more information about what they are, but it… they were too strong. I could feel it. I would’ve had to keep talking for another ten minutes to get anything, and she was already starting to work it out. Had to go with the quick fix instead of the long term answers. Sorry.” His last word came as a mutter, the man clearly annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get anything else out of them. 

“Dude,” Miranda started while shaking her head, “you managed to voice-manipulate a bunch of alien creatures whose entire thing is voice-manipulating people. Even if you didn’t get everything you wanted out of it, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” 

“She’s right,” Dare agreed, brushing her sleeves off a bit before focusing that way. “We should focus on the fact that we managed to get out of that situation without losing anyone. Particularly Puriel. He is safe now, and they don’t have what they need to open a way to Tartarus yet.” 

“But they still got away with new ghost bo–” I started before abruptly spinning to focus on the group who had been standing slightly away, staring at all of us through that. “Grandmaria, Popser!” The words had barely escaped me before I was dashing that way. 

“There she is!” my grandfather cheerfully called while reaching down to haul me up from the floor as soon as I was close enough. He hugged me to his chest, even as my grandmother stepped in to join the embrace as well. Soon all three of us were embracing in a big group right there. I was basically squished in the middle, but I didn’t care. My grandparents were here, they were safe. Everything else could wait for the moment. 

Actually, no, not everything. In the midst of that, I started to think about Tabbris and my father, only to hear the latter’s voice. “Mom… Dad.” 

He was there, with Tabbris right at his side. The two of them looked pretty worn, and it was obvious they’d been through a lot down there keeping the Whispers away from the Slide-Drive. But they made it, just like the rest of us. We might’ve all been exhausted, but we were alive. And, well, the universe wasn’t about to be overrun by giant monsters, which was a good thing.

Opening their arms without taking their grip off me, Grandmaria and Grandpartie beckoned for their son to come right in. He did, and then there were four of us. Which quickly became five as my grandmother reached out toward Tabbris, taking the suddenly-shy girl by the hand to pull her in close. I could see the shudder that ran through my little sister before she let herself embrace her new grandparents tightly, one after the other. And they hugged her right back. There was no hesitation, they both pulled her right in close and tight as smoothly and immediately as if they’d known her for years. Probably because they understood just how much this would mean to Tabbris, how important it was. 

Speaking of important, no matter how good this hug might’ve been, it was missing one person. Dad and I both met each other’s gazes before nodding. We knew. Turning slightly while keeping one hand on my grandfather’s arm, I looked over that way with a simple, “Mom.” 

There she was, standing just to the side as she watched what was going on with that sword still held tight (maybe a little too tight) in her grip. At the sound of my voice, Mom started a bit before sheathing the blade. Her mouth opened and then shut as she fought to find the right words. 

She might not have known what to say, but my grandmother did. Extracting herself, Grandmaria took a few steps over there. She raised both hands, voice quiet. “I owe you such an apology, Joselyn. For… for the things that–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, shaking her head. “Maria, you don’t owe anything. If I saw what you–if I…” She took a breath before letting it out, clearly trembling just a little despite herself. “I would have said even worse things than I’m sure you did. I would have done worse things.” 

“Oh,” Grandmaria half-drawled with a note of embarrassment, “I don’t know about the first bit. I said some pretty awful things.” A self-deprecating smile found its way to her face before she stepped that way, reaching out to take both of my mother’s hands. Her voice was even quieter, yet stronger. “You did what you had to do to protect your family. I–we could not be more proud of you, dear. And… knowing what we know now, I understand it may feel very silly for someone so much younger than you are to express that sort of sentiment. It may mean very little–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, voice catching a bit. “Believe me, it… it means more than you know.” 

“Joselyn,” Dad spoke a bit tenderly, reaching out that way. He didn’t say anything else, just stood there with his hand stretched toward her. 

Grandmaria, meanwhile, looked back and forth between them before taking my mother’s hand. She squeezed it, offering a faint smile before giving her a tug. And just like that, she pulled Mom over to join the embrace. And now we were finally all right there, hugging one another tightly for the next few moments. There were a lot of things to worry about, of course. But this… this was important. It was worth taking a second to enjoy. 

Soon enough (all too soon, really), we had to separate. There would be more later, but for the moment, there was still too much to do. After all, we were still out here in the middle of nowhere. And there was no telling how long it would be before the Whispers found their way back. We had to get out of here while we had the chance. 

To that end, the others hadn’t just been standing around doing nothing, apparently. Athena had already sent Mercury and Sariel back down to the bridge to get the ship moving again, while Persephone had gone with Cerberus and Apollo to bring the slide-drive back online now that the Whispers were gone and we had control of the ship. 

Of course, there was still one more person who needed a hug. My eyes found him immediately after separating from the others. “Uncle Al,” I found myself murmuring while stepping over that way. 

“Hey there, kid,” he greeted me with a broad smile. “Can I get your autograph?” 

“Only if you give me yours, Uncle Hercules,” I shot right back before embracing him tightly. In this case, I didn’t hold back any strength. He could take it, and a hell of a lot more. 

From there, a whole lot of introductions started to be passed back and forth, and I gave a double-take when they introduced the Native American guy who had been quiet up to this point. “Kutattca? As in–wait.” 

The elderly man gave a simple nod, head bowing. “Yes, actually. My sister is Litonya. If you’d like, I can apologize for her. I have been doing so for quite some time.” 

“Okay…” My mouth opened, before I stopped, realizing I had no idea exactly where to go from there. “I have so many questions. But right now, I’m pretty sure we should focus on getting back to the station so we can meet up with Puriel and those kids again and make sure everyone’s okay.” 

“Yes,” Theia spoke up in agreement. “I would very much like to speak with my father when he is not… distracted. We have a great deal to talk about.” 

“One thing, Felicity,” Athena started, with a slow, deliberate glance my way.

“Are those Elemiah’s rings you have?” 

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At Last 16-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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On the heels of Invidia’s announcement, Athena was already moving. In fact, she had been moving even before the evil creature finished talking, lunging that way with her sword slashing upward. Yet Invidia met the incoming blade with her own, its ghost-like wispy form somehow still blocking the other sword as though totally solid. She gave Athena a smirk, raising both eyebrows before the two began to exchange blows with blinding speed.

In the next instant, the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts fell in on us from all sides. Or, rather, they would have. But I had already snapped both hands up and out, summoning all the power I could to force the Olympian ghosts to stay back. Strong as they were, aided by the Tartarus energy and the fact that they were being controlled by these other creatures, it took absolutely everything I had just to make them stop moving forward. Controlling them or pushing them back was completely out of the question. I stopped them several feet away from us, and that was the extreme limit of my capability. Even that was almost too much, as I could feel them pushing against my control. 

“If one of you guys could do something to stop these fuckers right about now,” I managed through gritted teeth while struggling to maintain any sort of grip, “that’d be super-great!” 

Because it sure didn’t look like Athena was going to be done with Invidia any time soon. Just like her fight with my mother, the pair seemed perfectly matched. I had a feeling that the Whisper possessing Charmeine’s ghost was getting stronger and better with each passing moment, more attuned to working with the ‘body’ she had taken over. Every time she fought with it, she got more capable at using it. Worse, I was pretty sure that whole thing went for all these guys. All the Whispers were controlling incredibly powerful and skilled Olympian Seosten, even if they weren’t bridge crew. The longer this went on, the better they were going to get at actually using those powers and skills. We had to end this before we were totally overwhelmed. 

Oh yeah, and before they managed to take over Puriel and force him to open a portal to unleash a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. That would be nice too. 

To one side, even as I spoke those words about asking someone to do something, Sariel was drawing back her bow. But she wasn’t focused on any of the Whisper-Ghosts who were still trying to lunge at us. Instead, her gaze was on Puriel himself. In that moment, I had the sudden realization of how angry she must still be deep down for everything that had happened to her and her family. Not to mention the simple fact that her missing daughter was trapped inside Puriel himself, and as far as anyone knew, the only way to free her was for Puriel to die. 

“Sariel!” Apollo called, his hand reaching out that way, though he didn’t actually touch her. “If he dies–” 

“I know,” she interrupted, voice flat. “If he dies, they can possess him.” Still, she loosed the arrow anyway. It shot through the air, flying right between two of the Whisper-Ghosts, over the head of one of the cowering children, and struck Puriel right in the–no. At the very last instant, just before the arrow would have gone clean through the thoroughly-distracted man’s throat, it broke apart. The shaft fell away, while the arrowhead exploded into a… a cocoon of glowing reddish energy that surrounded the man. A forcefield. Sariel had put a forcefield around him. 

A sudden rush of motion just as the woman had loosed that arrow made my gaze snap over to where Theia had almost launched herself in the air after the shot. Seeing what happened, the girl froze in mid-motion. From the look on her face, I was pretty sure she was more surprised by her own reaction than she was about what the arrow had actually done. In the instant where she had thought that her father was in danger, she had very nearly thrown herself in the path of the arrow. Sure, her power meant it wouldn’t be a problem, but what she was feeling in that moment had clearly left the girl reeling. 

And speaking of reeling, I couldn’t keep this up. My control over keeping the ghosts away was already starting to falter. Honestly, the fact that I’d kept it up this long against so many of them was almost a miracle. Especially when I didn’t have Tabbris with me to provide any extra boost.  

“Everyone get to Puriel,” Sariel announced firmly while drawing another arrow and giving me a quick, somewhat reassuring glance that said she knew just how close I was to losing it. “There are already Anti-Whisper Runes all along the floor around him, but they’re running out of power. Those things have him too distracted to recharge them. We have to get over there and do it ourselves.” 

She was right, I realized. That was our best shot at stopping these things. If we could recharge the runes to drive the Whispers away from Puriel long enough for the man to catch his breath and orient himself, maybe he could deal with them for good.  

“Flick!” Miranda was right next to me, shield held up protectively. “This feels like a rainy day situation, you know? I think it might be time to use th–” 

She was abruptly cut off. Not by me losing control of the ghosts I had been shoving away from us, but from something reaching up from underneath me. It grabbed my foot, and I barely heard Miranda, Avalon, and my mother all shout my name before I was suddenly yanked down through the floor, a yelp of surprise escaping me. 

At least I wasn’t being physically slammed through solid metal. My body had turned almost ghost-like itself as soon as whatever it was grabbed me. I had no control, however, as I was pulled completely helplessly downward. 

I didn’t just get yanked through one deck either. Three full decks passed me by in a quick blur before I landed hard on the floor of the fourth one. Only then, lying on my back, did I see the glowing tentacle wrapped around my ankle. A tentacle that was attached to the outstretched arm of yet another clearly-possessed Seosten ghost. He wasn’t an especially large man, standing only a few inches taller than me. His skin–or what was supposed to have been his skin if he had been alive, was black, with intensely green eyes and a very aristocratic face. He looked almost more beautiful than handsome. Well, aside from the fact that one of his arms had transformed into a tentacle that had stretched up through four full decks to grab my ankle, turn me intangible, and yank me away from everyone up there who needed me. 

“Okay,” I grunted while jerking my leg free. As soon as I did, my form solidified once more, and I rolled backward to my feet. “I’m getting really sick of you people, and sick of getting dragged away from my family and friends. That’s double-sick, so if I was you, I’d get the fuck out of my way.” 

Unfortunately, the Whisper-Ghost wasn’t impressed by my words. He gave me a simple smirk while transforming the tentacle back into a regular arm, head cocking to the side a little. “You’re the Necromancer,” he drawled. “We have a few things in common, you and my people. We’re all quite good at controlling dead things.” 

“Is this gonna be the ‘join us and rule the universe at our side’ spiel?” I spat back at him. “Because it’s kind of surprising how seldom I’ve gotten that, considering everything I’ve been through.” Even as I said the words, I was calculating the best way to get around him and back to where I needed to be. Was it time to use the–no. No, I could wait for that. I couldn’t use it just to deal with one guy. Not when I still didn’t know for sure just how bad this whole situation was going to get.

So, I instead held my staff out to one side, activating the next ghost-fire spell so I would actually be able to hurt this piece of shit. “If so, save your breath. I’ve got much better options for that if I wanted to rule the universe alongside actual competent megalomaniacs.” 

A deep, rumbling chuckle escaped the ghost figure. “If you are so dismissive and in such a rush, why not force me to move? Surely a strong, capable dead-puppeteer like you could manage such a thing.” His teeth gleamed as he smiled. “After all, it’s just you and me.” 

I wasn’t stupid. This was bad. This whole thing was bad. I had no idea what was going on up there, how the others were doing, if they had managed to save Puriel yet or if he was–well, clearly we weren’t at the place where these guys wanted to open the rift, because the ship was still moving. But we were still on our way there. Dad and Tabbris hadn’t managed to stop the ship. I had to get through this guy and go help the others. And yet, the way he was talking…

Fuck it, I couldn’t wait around and what-if myself all day long. Since he had literally asked for it, I snapped my free hand out, forcing all the strength I could into grabbing control of the ghost the Whisper was possessing. I was throwing everything I had into making damn sure I–wait. 

At the very last possible instant, I realized my mistake. Just as my power was latching onto him, I was already releasing it, spinning around while lashing out with my staff. 

It struck home, slicing right through three different ghosts who had been silently rushing up behind me. They used the fact that the guy in front of me had grabbed my attention, letting him manipulate me into throwing everything I had into grabbing hold of him, which would leave me vulnerable to attack from behind. And it had very nearly worked. It had worked, right up until the last possible instant. 

The good news was that my wild swing caught the ghosts who were right behind me before they could carry out their sneak attack. The bad news was that they weren’t the only ones. I had just enough time to catch a glimpse of something coming toward me from the side, before it smacked into the side of my head with enough force to knock me sidelong so that I stumbled a few steps over to the nearby wall. It made me see stars briefly even without having a nearby viewport. 

Shoving myself away from the wall and spinning back that way, I found myself surrounded on all sides. The guy with the tentacles had been joined by half a dozen friends. All of them spread out, making it clear that they had no intention of allowing me to get past them. 

Then I saw what had hit me that hard. It was… a ball, like one that a kid would play with. Actually, it probably had been played with by a kid before now, one of the Seosten children who were on the ship. But the way it had hit me, the force…

Hula hoops. That was my first impression when I saw the two rings floating in the air a few feet apart. Both black on the side facing me and gold on the side facing away. They really were about the size of hula hoops, hovering roughly midway between me and a Ghost-Whisper who was standing with her hand outstretched. She was fairly tall, just over six feet, and quite thin, with narrow silvery-blue eyes and short dark hair at odds with her pale skin. I was gonna guess that she was the one who had thrown that ball. 

Even as I had that thought, she smirked at me before hurling another ball. It passed through the hoops and–fuck! The moment it passed through the first hoop, the ball’s speed doubled, before doubling a second time as it passed through the second hoop. The ball hit me before I could even hope to dodge it. The best I could do, even seeing her throw it, was twist aside enough that it slammed into my shoulder. 

The hoops flew back through the air to her, as the Whisper-Ghost laughed and caught one on each arm, spinning them. They shrank rapidly, turning into bracelets on each wrist. As they did. she punched the air a few times, her arms moving about twice as fast as they should. 

Right. This… this was gonna be a problem. Maybe I could have done something to these guys, at least enough to shove them aside so I could run past, before exhausting myself upstairs keeping all the others away from everyone. But I didn’t have that in me right now. Not when these ghosts were both powered by Tartarus and possessed by the powerful Whisper creatures. I just couldn’t muster up the strength to shove enough of them aside. Not without taking a break. And there wasn’t time for that. 

“What’s the matter?” the Whisper-Ghost who had dragged me down here in the first place taunted, already transforming his arms back into tentacles. “Feeling a bit weak? Maybe you should take a little nap.” 

“You know,” I retorted, “that’s not a bad idea. Right now, I think we’ll just kick your asses and go upstairs.” 

His eyebrow rose, while the rest of his companions slowly began to move in closer, tightening the noose they believed they had caught me in. But it was the one with the hula hoops-turned-bracelets who spoke. “We? You are alone, child. You do not even have your usual companion riding… what is the term, copilot? Your friends and family are quite occupied, and even she is no longer with you. We all know the truth. You have no one standing behind you.” 

“Behind me?” I took a breath and then shoved everything I could into pushing all the ghosts back away from me. It wasn’t a lot, and it wouldn’t hold them for long. But it gave me the time I needed to speak. “Nah, I’ve got no one behind me. But you guys might want to look behind you.” 

Most of them saw that as a very obvious and pathetic trick. But two turned, looking that way. At first, they saw nothing. Then their eyes found the small metal ball I had summoned to my hand and tossed just before getting punched in the face to knock me over to where I now stood. It was about the size of a baseball, with intricate runes all over it and a single button on top. A single button that Gus, my cyberform mouse, was holding both paws against. As soon as they saw him, he gave a single, defiant squeak, then pushed the button. 

Instantly, the ball blew apart in a blast of blinding energy. When it faded, two figures were standing there. A beautiful white-haired woman with very tanned skin and a deep blue bodysuit, standing next to a three-headed mechanical dog bigger than she was. 

A three-headed mechanical dog whose entire purpose had been to hunt and kill undead things. 

“Cerberus!” Persephone called, voice echoing through the corridor, “ghosthunt!” 

The moment she said that word, each of Cerberus’s three heads rose a bit, showing their teeth as they growled. Blue-white ghostfire played over those teeth. Simultaneously, five holes appeared along each side of the robot dog’s back, allowing ten metal coils to emerge. Each had a small camera and laser cannon attached to it, wildly pointing in every direction as though checking for threats from all sides. 

Ghost-fire filled the air, produced through every metal tooth in all three heads. Nearly two hundred teeth all-told, each a small dagger that was now capable of driving its way into intangible forms. Such as the forms of the seven Whisper-Ghosts arrayed in front of him, as Cerberus glared and growled low. The laser-holding coils, mistaken as snakes millennia ago, turned as one to focus on their targets. 

At the moment they had appeared, as he caught sight of the ghosts in front of them, Cerberus’s brand new addition had started up. It was not a weapon. Not exactly. No, what he’d had added right at the front of his body, where his three heads joined, was a speaker system. A speaker system which had begun to play the opening notes of “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, filling the air as the assortment of Whisper-Ghosts stared in shock and tried to comprehend what had just happened. And in the very moment about thirty seconds in, just before the first word of ‘Jump’ came, Persephone spoke the next command. 

“Sic ‘em, boy.” 

He was on them an instant later, ghost-fire powered teeth tearing through one of the ghosts while a paw slapped at another and actually managed to knock him backwards. At the same time, those laser cannons opened up, driving even more of them in either direction away from him. And into Persephone and me, a fact they realized just as my empowered staff slammed into one, and her ghost-fire covered fist ripped through another. 

Yeah, those guys didn’t stand a chance. Even if they had been able to stand against a giant metal dog specifically built to destroy everything Manakel could have thrown at him, between him, Persephone, and me, they were dead before they knew what hit them. Or redead. Or–they weren’t a problem for the moment. We tore through their ghost forms and scattered them. They tried to reform, but we hit them hard enough to basically turn them into dust. It would take time for the Whispers to regroup and gather that much ghost energy once more. 

Soon, only the hula hoop ghost was left. She was already retreating, but Cerberus got there first, lunging in the way while breathing out a line of ghost-fire that made her recoil. Persephone, in turn, actually grabbed onto her, shoving the intangible figure to her knees while calling to me, “Felicity, picture a hard candy shell around her, squeezing very tight with your gift!” 

Ooookay then. Focusing hard on my Necromancy power, I imagined it creating a… well, hard candy shell around the ghost while she struggled. Honestly, if it wasn’t for both Persephone and Cerberus keeping her there, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on that, given it took several full seconds of concentration where I couldn’t do anything else. I was picturing more of a net, or saran wrap, totally covering the figure from head to toe. As I did, her movements grew slower and more subdued. 

“Now, Felicity, the blade!” Persephone urged. 

So, I drove the blade of my staff right through the motionless ghost form. That time, as I did, she screamed out loud. The Whisper appeared as an air ripple in front of my face before vanishing an instant later. 

Not that I noticed really, because I was too busy doubling over from the rush of… of pleasure that went through me. Pleasure that made me gasp and stumble, eyes widening. “What–what– I just–that just–” 

“It is possible to eliminate the ghosts so that they cannot recover,” Persephone calmly and flatly informed me. “You must simply trap them within a layer of your own ghost energy so that they cannot push their own outside of it. I would not suggest attempting to do so in open combat until you are far more experienced.” 

“I… uh huh…” Breathing hard, I stared at the spot where the ghost had been. Then I looked to one side and focused for a second. Sure enough, those two gold and black hula hoops appeared, hovering in the air. 

“Her name was Elemiah,” Persephone helpfully announced. “Her gift created those two rings, which she could control the size of down to fitting on her wrists and up to about twice what you see. She was able to mentally manipulate them, and anything passing through from the gold side would be doubled in speed for a few seconds, with the effect stacking if both rings were passed through in rapid succession. Anything passing through from the black side would be slowed to half its speed, or stopped briefly if that effect was doubled.” 

Okay… okay that was pretty… A thought made the hoops jump to my wrists before shrinking down to bracelets. Quickly, I punched the air just as the Seosten ghost had. And just like when she had done it, my fist moved about twice as fast as it should have. This I could get used to. 

Except I was going to have to get used to it later, because it was really time to go. Even as that thought occurred to me, I was already pivoting to face the white-haired woman with a blurted, “Nearest elevator! We need to get back to the sealed cargo hold, the one the Seosten don’t let anyone else into!” 

In response, Persephone immediately turned, beginning to move down the corridor. “It is this way, Felicity!” As we ran, with Cerberus bringing up the rear, she added, “I am glad that I was able to assist you, as promised. But I did not see Kushiel there.” 

“Yeah, I guess she’s not involved in this bit,” I murmured. “So keeping you hidden until she showed herself wasn’t really gonna work anymore. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of other Seosten ghosts for you and our friend there to deal with. We have to–” Abruptly, the ship jerked around us, enough to make me stumble. 

“The slide-drive has been de–” Persephone started. 

We did it! That was Tabbris, in my head once more. I could tell she wasn’t actually fully here, just partially recalled. We shut it down! But–but the bad guys are still trying to restart it. We have to drive them off. We can’t leave. I can’t– 

Stay there, I put in. Stay with Dad. We’ll take care of the rest of this. Just make sure they can’t start those engines again. 

That said, I looked back to Persephone and gave her a quick summary of what we were dealing with. “And now we have to get up there and stop them from taking over Puriel, before they open a portal into Tartarus and let out a bunch of monsters to destroy everything in the universe.” 

Giving a short nod, the woman replied, “Andromeda says that if you like, she can transfer herself from the other ship to this one and assist in resisting the Whisper’s control of its systems.” 

I started to nod, before catching myself. “Wait, you’re still in contact with Andromeda?” 

With a bright smile, Persephone confirmed, “Uh huh, our connection is very special. She is still in the other ship, remaining at a distance just as you requested.” 

“In the other ship…” I opened my mouth, then shut it. My eyes widened. “No. Tell her to stay there. Don’t transfer over here. 

“I have a better idea.” 

******

A short time later, the three of us burst through the doors back into the cargo hold I had been so unceremoniously dragged out of. A quick glance around showed that the situation had not exactly improved that much. But by the same token, at least it hadn’t gotten worse. Everyone was still fighting, and the Whispers had not yet taken control of Puriel. I could see where the others had boosted the runes protecting him, yet it wasn’t enough to keep them away for good. It was a delaying action at best. What we really needed to do was bring the man under the protection of Liesje’s spell. That combined with his own strength would probably be enough to keep them out of his head. But we couldn’t do that from here. He had to be back at the Star Station for it. For now, we had to do something to end the stalemate. And I was pretty sure I knew what that something was.

Cerberus was already going to town, clearing a path through the Whisper-Ghosts (and yes, he had started the song once more) as I raced alongside Persephone right back to where everyone had formed a ring around Puriel and the children. Grandmaria and Popser were there too, being protected by Avalon and a couple Mirandas. 

Two of the Whisper-Ghosts tried to move into my path, but I thrust my arms out, willing the two bracelet-sized rings to fly forward and turned so that their gold side was toward me. As soon as they were in position and just large enough, I hurled my staff, blade out. It passed through the two rings, quadrupling in speed so that it cut into the two ghosts before they had any idea what had happened. An instant later, a thought recalled the staff back to my hand. 

Another ghost was trying to come at me from the side as I passed the rings, but I made them grow to their full size and pivot in the air to put the black side toward the intangible figure. He passed through them and froze instantly, the double-black rings halting his movement entirely for a moment.

Between that and my Persephone and Cerberus escort, it was enough to clear my path. “Boost the runes!” I shouted while running up to join the others. The rings had come spinning back, shrinking down once more to take their spots on my wrists.

My reward for the words was a simultaneous look of disbelief from basically everyone there. Theia was the one who found her voice first, speaking plainly. “We have already been taking turns doing so. It has been our entire strate–” 

“No, everyone!” I blurted. “Everyone boost the runes right now with everything you’ve got! Shove the Whispers back as far as we can, just for a few seconds!” I focused on my mother, eyes meeting hers. “Trust me, we only need one quick boost!” 

Mom gave a short nod, turning to look at Athena. “Do what she says.” 

Athena, in turn, spoke up. “Everyone do it. Touch the runes and put everything you have into them, one more time.” 

So, we did. With the Whispers regrouping and coming straight at us, everyone crouched to touch one of the runes. And in that moment, we shoved every bit of energy we could muster, supercharging the spells to fill the room, driving the Whispers backward to the far corners. As expected, it would only last for a few seconds. That was as long as it needed to.

“Felicity,” Mom was saying, “any plan you’ve got, you need to–”

“Everyone get down!” I shouted, grabbing Avalon on one side and the nearest Miranda before hurling us forward and to the floor. Thankfully, the others followed suit immediately, everyone hitting the deck quite literally. 

It was just in time, as something filled the space we had just been in a moment later. Something large, long, and roughly tube-shaped. Like a shuttle. Or like–

“The prototype ship?!” Miranda blurted from behind me as I rolled over to look that way. Sure enough, the ship was right there, its back doors open and facing not us, but Puriel and the children. Because that was the ship I’d asked Andromeda to take and follow us with, just in case.

“Mom!” I shouted, pointing. 

She got the point instantly, trusting her hands outward. An invisible force hit the kids and Puriel, throwing them onto the ship as it perched there. 

“Andromeda, go!” My voice filled the air, even as the Whispers regrouped and began to descend once more, screeching in fury. 

She didn’t have to be told twice. The doors of the prototype ship snapped shut, and with a flash of energy, it was gone. It had jumped not only out of the Olympus, but all the way back to the Star Station. Far from any Whispers. It had worked. Puriel was safe. He was gone. Now there was no way for those fuckers to open the portal to Tartarus. 

Now all we had to do now was find a way to survive their reaction to that fact, and take back the Olympus for good. 

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At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Things were even worse, if that was possible. It turned out there were protection spells that the Whisper-possessed Seosten ghosts had put up around the Slide-Drive core. Which, of course, we didn’t have time to break through so we could disable the jamming. Not with Puriel already about to be taken over by those bastards. Every second we spent down here was too long. 

In the end, we only had one choice. My dad, despite his worry about his parents, agreed to stay behind and use the spells that he knew (and what Apollo and Aletheia showed him) to break through that protection so he could disable the jamming. It wasn’t perfect, but he had Mercury’s power. Which meant he could both speed up his own magic and make the protection spells run through their own duration much faster. He just had to do so carefully to avoid setting off any bad reactions. 

Tabbris was staying with him too. That was harder, but I convinced her that if I couldn’t stay and protect our dad from any of those Whispers that might come back, she needed to. She had her wings and knew all the ghost control magic I did, even if she didn’t have the same Necromancy power. I was trusting her to keep our father safe right now, and once they were done getting through the protections and were able to shut down the jamming, she would be able to recall back to me. 

Obviously, she felt guilty about leaving me ‘on my own,’ but I was able to convince her that it was for the best. We embraced briefly before separating so the rest of us could start running. 

Through my connection to Grover, I was able to describe exactly where Puriel and the others were both in appearance and in relation to our current location. Using that, Apollo and Aletheia figured out that they were in one of the special cargo holds. It was separate from the regular hold, intended to keep sensitive cargo that the Seosten didn’t want just anyone on the ship to have access to. The place was sealed behind high-level protections, which would have been a real problem if we hadn’t run into Aletheia already. Because she had actually been traveling on the Olympus already, and was trusted implicitly by Puriel, the Seosten woman already had access to the place. If it wasn’t for her, we probably would have had to spend way too much time finding a way to get through the security defenses. More time than we had right then, judging from how many of the Whispers I had seen doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head. 

As we raced back through the engine deck toward the elevator, Avalon complained, “This Puriel guy is supposed to be one of the strongest Seosten out there. I believe the exact words were ‘master of all energy, including magic.’ Shouldn’t he be able to wave his hand and blow these things away? It should be him saving us.” 

Aletheia’s voice was flat. “Ever since the… incident with the banishment orb, his mind has not been the same. Between that and the trauma he experienced at the orphanage when the Fomorians attacked, he has moments where he zones out and is incapable of reacting to the outside world. Spark is normally good at pulling him back from those moments, or simply taking over. But it seems that these Whispers are interfering with that.”

I gave a quick nod. “That’s what it looked like to me. I mean, from the outside.” Grimacing a bit, I added, “Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time. Things were looking pretty desperate up there.”

Thankfully, we wouldn’t be alone once we got there. Hopefully, at least. First, Miranda had already jumped back to her original body (it was with Athena and Dare) and was going to give them a detailed explanation straight up. As for the other two groups, I sent several of my ghosts back out to let them know what was going on as well. Between all that, it would hopefully make them meet us on the right deck so we could all do this together. That was the plan, anyway. 

By that point, we had reached the elevator, and I scrambled on before shifting my focus so I could look through Grover’s eyes once more to check what was going on. Things aren’t any better. It looked like Uncle Al, a Native American man, and my grandparents were all surrounding Puriel and the kids, protecting them from the ghosts that the Whispers kept summoning. Worse, I could see Invidia there, already in a duel with Uncle Al. Needless to say, he was holding his own. After all, he was Hercules. 

Even my grandparents were… doing something useful. It looked like Grandpartie was using a console to direct internal security weapons to fire on the ghosts, which were actually doing some damage to them. Probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how much experience Seosten would have with ghosts and other intangible beings, but still. And Grandmaria was… uhh, as best as I could tell at a glance, using magic to create a forcefield to hold the majority of the Whispers and ghosts off. 

I wasn’t sure which was more surprising and impressive to me, my grandfather being able to manipulate the ship controls like that, or my grandmother having a strong enough grasp over magic to create that forcefield. Or–wait, was she using magic or some power? Had she bonded to something? And come to think of it, Popser was barely touching the controls. It was more like his hands were resting on it, fingers twitching now and then. What–

Shaking that off, I focused on what was important right then. Namely, the fact that they were sort of holding off the attack. But still, things weren’t great. More Whispers kept getting through to add to the pile that were doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head, and the man himself still wasn’t moving or reacting to anything. He was just standing there with his head cocked to the side. There was clearly an internal struggle going on, and if we didn’t hurry up and get there, we were going to end up having to fight a Whisper-controlled Puriel. Which basically sounded like the exact opposite of anything approaching a good time. None of us were ready to deal with something like that. Hell, we weren’t enough even if we all joined together. This was Zeus, for fucks sake. We had nothing that could challenge him if he went after us. Especially on his own ship. Between that and all the other Whispers, including the Whisper-Possessed Charmeine, we would be completely fucked, in no uncertain terms.

Instructing Grover to tell my grandparents that we were on the way, I jumped back into my own mind in time to feel the elevator rising. It was going pretty quick too, and I could see Apollo messing with an open computer panel to one side. Apparently he had disabled the safeties or something and sped the thing up. Now we were flying toward the right deck. I just hoped we would make it in time. And, of course, cursed the fact that the Whispers’ jamming included blocking transportation powers. We had to do this whole thing the long way rather than just teleporting up there. Because, of course, this had to be as hard as possible. 

One day for a party to celebrate a victory. That was all I’d asked for. But did we get that? Of course not. And we still didn’t understand why the Whispers were here trying to pilot the ship into Tartarus to begin with. What did they think they could gain from that? Hell, what even were they? There were so many questions around this entire situation, and the only creatures with answers didn’t seem inclined to explain. But hey, maybe we could beat it out of them. 

Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating them in general. It was possible that I was slightly annoyed by this entire situation. Terrified too, of course. But also annoyed. 

The elevator finally stopped at the right deck, and the rest of us exchanged quick glances before stepping off together. The room beyond was shaped like a half-circle, with a line of elevators, including the one we had been on, along the flat line part. To the left and right were corridors, with several open doors along the curve part of the half-circle ahead of us. The main doors, straight across, apparently led to the primary cargo bay. But that wasn’t where we were supposed to go. Our destination lay to the left, down that hall. 

We were cautious, even as we stepped out of the elevator, weapons at the ready considering we had no idea what sort of traps or problems the Whispers might have left to slow us down so they would have time to take over Puriel. There could be anything waiting for us up here. 

And yet, despite having that thought, I still wasn’t prepared for what I immediately saw. Coming off the elevator, my eyes immediately fell on a single, lone figure standing with their back to us, staring through the doorway toward the main cargo hold. They showed no reaction to our arrival, and I took a quick second to size them up. They were solid, not a ghost, and seemed either human or Seosten from this angle. Probably the latter. A man, several inches under six feet, though pretty well-built. His brown hair fell to just above his shoulders, and he wore gray cloth pants and a simple white shirt, his feet bare. 

Even as I took that in, the man turned to look at me. Now I could see his face. He had a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes were a brownish-green. He looked, on paper, like a completely average guy of no particular power or importance. And yet, when I met his gaze, I felt myself shrink back reflexively. A lump had formed in my throat, as an inexplicable sense of danger and power filled me. He had made no threatening move, said no threatening words, had done nothing other than turn to look at me, but I still felt his power like a crushing weight. 

Abruptly, Apollo spoke up. “I’m not picking up any surprises.” He was holding a stone in one hand, enchanted to detect traps. “Doesn’t seem right.” 

“No surprises?” I found myself blurting. “What about–” Then my eyes flicked from Apollo, back to the strangely terrifying man by the cargo bay. But he wasn’t there. In that time, in that brief instant where my eyes had moved off him, he had vanished. “Wha–what?” I stammered, completely thrown off. I shouldn’t have been, given all the incredible powers I had seen. Yet something about that guy, something about… yeah. It threw me off, to say the least.

The others were all looking at me uncertainly, and I raised a hand to point to where the man had been, quickly explaining what I had seen. But none of them had caught a glimpse of the man. Even though he had been standing in plain view as far as I was concerned, they had not seen anything. A quick check with Seth and Rahanvael, each standing beside me, revealed the same answer. I was the only person who had seen him, or sensed anything at all. None of Mom’s powers, and none of Aletheia or Apollo’s magic, had picked up the man’s presence. 

And, come to think of it, I had not sensed him with my item-detection power either. He had definitely been in range of it, but I hadn’t sensed his clothes or anything. He had looked completely solid, but wasn’t detected by anything. Except by my own eyes, and only my eyes. No one else had picked up any sense of him at all. This was… weird. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to make me feel better about the situation we were walking into. 

Mom and the two Seosten spent a tense moment focusing on that spot, but even after I pointed out exactly where the man had been, they couldn’t pick up anything at all. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. Which, again, was more than a little worrying. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to focus on any implications of that. Not with the problems we already had to deal with. We still had to get into the other room before the Whispers got through to Puriel, so any thoughts and worries about the man I had seen were just going to have to wait. All I could really do in that moment was hope that it wasn’t something that would come back and bite us in the ass before we were done with this specific problem. Hell, for all I knew, that figure was working with the Whispers. 

On the plus side, there didn’t seem to be any defenses here blocking our way. Which in and of itself was a bit surprising, but we weren’t going to dwell on that too much either. Especially not when two of the nearby elevators arrived in the next moment, with Larissa, Haiden, and Mercury emerging from one, and Sariel, Theia, and Pace from the other. With their respective Mirandas, of course. The ghosts I had sent to get them rejoined me, fading from view for the moment (though ready to be summoned back as soon as I needed them). 

“You guys okay?” I asked, thoughts of the man I had seen fresh in my mind. Much as I tried to set that aside, I couldn’t entirely dismiss his face. The way he had stared right through me, the power I had felt, it was too much to ignore. 

Theia waved. “We killed ghosts. And fuzzy-ghosts.” 

“Whispers, she means,” Pace put in, voice tense as she glanced around as though expecting to be ambushed at any second. “And we didn’t kill them so much as… make them go away for the moment.” 

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we know where they went to,” Avalon muttered, eyes on the left-hand corridor leading toward the special, extra-secure cargo hold. “They’re throwing everything they have into taking control of Puriel. Or at least turning him against the rest of us. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t fancy our odds if that happens.”

“Which is why we need to get in there right now.” That was Athena, speaking as she and Dare came off another elevator. Her attention was laser-focused ahead, a silvery-gold sword in one hand that was still glowing from ghost-fire. “Worry about specifics later,” she instructed while still walking. “Right now, all that matters is driving these creatures away and giving Puriel time to collect himself.” After a brief verbal pause, she added, “And hope that Lincoln and Tabbris break those protection spells so they can stop this ship before it’s too late to matter.” 

Oh, right, of course. We had that problem to worry about too. Even if we did manage to get the Whispers away from Puriel and the others before they turned him into a monster who would annihilate us all, it would all be for naught if this damn ship managed to take us straight into Tartarus. But, you know, it wasn’t like we were under any pressure or anything. 

Pushing aside those thoughts we started to move, I told Athena and the others what I had seen, and the fact that no one else had sensed anything. She and Sariel exchanged brief glances, before the latter spoke. “When this is over, if it is alright with you, I would like to take a look at that memory and see this man for myself. It would be better than a description.” 

I agreed easily, hoping it would lead to an actual answer. Then I pushed the thought as far from my mind as possible, focusing on the here and now. As we ran, Dare gave me a quick look, silently asking if I was all right. I gave her a thumbs up, but made it waiver a little. Between that and the look on my face, I was pretty sure she understood just how uncertain I was about the whole thing. She, in turn, took a moment to touch my shoulder in mid-run, squeezing it firmly to let me know she was there. Which was nice, but also reminded me yet again that she still couldn’t tell my mother, her own daughter, who she really was and why she cared so much.   

It was just another thing I had to push out of my head so I could focus on the problem at hand. A problem that was right in front of us, as we reached the door leading to the special cargo bay. Aletheia had already input the code, the door sliding open to reveal the same room I had seen through Grover’s eyes. And a situation that had not gotten any better in the time since I had last checked. The kids were still huddled into an even tighter circle, though Spark wasn’t visible. My guess was that she was inside Puriel, trying to keep as much control as possible away from the Whispers, who were basically flooding over his body so much that there were constant distortion waves all around him. The rest of the Whispers, and the ghosts, were being desperately held back by Uncle Al, my grandparents, and that Native American man. But they were, unfortunately, fighting a losing battle, constantly having to pull back closer to the others as the attackers continued to flood into the room. There were so many Whispers. Obviously there weren’t as many ghosts for them to control, given–well, there weren’t an unlimited number of Seosten on the Olympus who had died, even counting ‘ordinary’ crew members. Still, they were all here, and they were making a huge push. Probably because this was as much a do-or-die moment for them as it was for us. 

Seeing us enter, Grandmaria raised a hand, the other held out to reinforce the shield she had erected around them. “Good to see you, kiddo! Wish I had time to have cookies ready.” 

“Later, Maria,” Uncle Al cheerfully replied even as his fist slammed into a ghost. It shouldn’t have done anything, yet the incorporeal figure still blew apart from that single blow. “There’ll be time for cookies once we remind these bastards they’re supposed to stay gone when they die!” 

“Hurtful,” Seth remarked beside me. “But considering the situation, fair.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sariel had taken a step that way, her eyes on the huddled children trying to make themselves even smaller. Specifically, on a small boy who was peeking up to stare right back at her. Omni. He was right there. 

Unfortunately, that single step was as much as she was able to take, before a familiar form coalesced right in front of us. Charmeine. No, Invidia. Her colored-in ghost form appeared, already smirking. “Oh, you people got through those traps even faster than we thought you would. That’s surprising. And annoying. But I think that’s about far enough.” Pausing, her head tilted before she raised both eyebrows. “Ah. It seems my host here has complicated feelings about seeing you, Artemis. How interesting.” 

Traps? What traps was she talking about? There hadn’t been any traps. Huh? A moment of confusion passed through me, as I exchanged a quick glance with the others. They looked just as uncertain. 

Sariel, on the other hand, manifested her bow and drew back an energy arrow before pointing it that way. Her voice was tight. “You and the rest of your kind need to get out of here right now. Why do you even want to take this ship into Tartarus in the first place? What could you possibly hope to get out of that?” 

“A fine question,” Athena put in, stepping beside the other Seosten woman, sword at the ready. 

Invidia, in turn, glanced between them before giving a slow, audible chuckle. “Taking this ship into Tartarus?” She echoed the words as though they were the silliest thing she had ever heard, shaking her head. “Oh dear. I believe you’ve made a very dangerous assumption. We have no intention of taking this ship, or anyone on it, into Tartarus. You see, in moments we will have control of one of the most powerful and instinctive magic users in this entire universe. But even more importantly, he has a direct connection to Tartarus itself. After all, it is the source of his power.

“Once we have him in hand, we will use that power to open the portal into Tartarus. Of that, you are correct. But we will not be going inside. No, quite the opposite. When the portal is open, we will be releasing the creatures which dwell within that universe into this one. Then our people will fulfill our destiny by taking the creatures for our own use. 

“And together, we will erase everything in existence.” 

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At Last 16-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was fast. Or maybe that was just Charmeine. Either way, she was practically on top of my mother the moment those words had left her mouth. Before any of us could move, she pivoted under the raised sword and lashed out with a fist. No, there was a dagger there, I realized at the last instant. A ghost-dagger which turned solid in mid-strike. 

But Mom was pretty fast too. The sword that the ghost-woman had ducked under was suddenly in her other hand, transferred instantly before she brought it up to block the incoming blade. With her other hand, she summoned… what looked like a ball of ghost-fire around her fist before punching through Invidia’s face. Or rather, where her face had been, because the ghost-woman dodged it with a loud, cheerful laugh. Yeah, a laugh, as though this was a game. Because just like she’d said a moment earlier, this was fun for her. For them. 

As for me? Well, a lot of words immediately sprang to mind when it came to the idea of fighting Whisper-possessed Olympian Seosten ghosts. But none of them were ‘fun.’ Or any word that could be found under its entry in the thesaurus. Especially not when we still didn’t know exactly where my grandparents or the others were. I just had to hope that my ghosts were getting the message across to the other searchers. Who, of course, might be dealing with their own problems already. Because somehow I really doubted we were looking at all the Whispers on the ship. Or even all the Seosten ghosts. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to focus on that. Or even time to go to my mother’s aid, because the rest of those ghosts seemed to have taken Invidia’s laugh after that first, blindingly-quick exchange as an invitation, as all of them attacked at once. And yeah, they were laughing too. 

The nearest Whisper-Ghost throwing himself at me was a tall figure. Well, sort of tall. A few inches over six feet, with black and red hair worn long, and incredibly fit. Not to mention clearly angry, and focused on killing me in particular. Not that anyone would know just from listening to him. He was laughing cheerfully, like a kid at the carnival or something. Which was juxtaposed against a look of such vile hatred that I seriously took a reflexive step back. The mix of cheerful laughter with looks of utter disgust and bitter animus was disturbing.

But I had my own ghost. Rahanvael was right there, interposing herself between us. The moment I saw her block the Seosten, I focused on shoving power into her so she could do more than simply be visible. In this case, she used that power to catch the Seosten’s arm as he reached for me, driving her knee hard into his stomach before flying straight up while dragging him up after her. Then she sort of inverted in the air, essentially giving him a shoulder throw. Except instead of tossing him toward the floor, she heaved the other ghost up toward (and through) the ceiling. Then she followed him up and out of sight.  

That gave me time to grab for the piece of pencil-sized wood Sariel had provided. As instructed, I snapped it with my thumb before giving it a toss toward the nearest Whisper-Ghost just as he was coming for me. As the spell activated, a half-visible greenish cage appeared around the form before falling to the ground with the ghost contained within. 

Around me, I could see the others doing the same. Some managed to catch their targets while a couple missed. But it still helped, immediately taking out about four or five of the things. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect solution. I saw the familiar distortion in the air as the Whispers who had been possessing those particular Seostens escaped, and several new ghosts appeared. Like–like they had summoned brand new ‘bodies’ to possess. We had trapped some of their ghost options, but they still had more to choose from. 

In other words, things were still bad. As evidenced when I caught sight of another of the things… not coming straight at me. Instead, she was standing back a bit, hands raised. Just as my attention snapped that way, I saw a slight distortion in the air. Something that looked a bit like a diamond-shaped icicle flew straight at my face, so fast that even with my reflex-enhancements, I barely managed to snap my head out of the way in time to avoid most of it. I felt the thing slice across my cheek, drawing blood on its way. Worse, there were three more coming right at me, moving just as quickly. 

Instantly, I hurled myself into a sideways flip, allowing the first of the three icicles to pass inches away from my stomach. A thought brought my staff to one hand while I was still in mid-flip, and I snapped it outward to knock the second icicle out of the air while simultaneously hitting the button to shoot a burst of kinetic force out the other end, which took care of the third icicle. 

Landing on my feet, I brought the staff up and out, snapping, “Time to fight!” The words summoned Jaq and Gus, who assumed their positions as blade and grapple. But that was for later. First, I hit the button on my staff to make a cloud of sand shoot out one end to form a thick cloud. 

It was just in time too, because there were suddenly seven of those deadly icicle things flying at me. All of them spaced perfectly in an attempt to hit me with at least one of them no matter how much dodging or staff-swinging I did. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t planning on doing any. Instead, I focused on the sand I had summoned. It immediately turned red-hot, even as I spread it out and sent the cloud flying forward to catch the icicles. They melted, turning to steam. Which itself might’ve been a problem, as it was still spraying forward toward me. But I was ready for that too. Or rather, Tabbris was. She had taken control of one of my hands, summoning a small stone to the palm before tossing it forward while triggering the power that made it grow to the size of a much larger boulder. In mid-flip, it caught the incoming super-heated spray, shielding us. 

Before the Whisper-Ghost could send any more of those things at me, I made my super-heated sand fill the air around her, specifically spreading it out a bit to make it as hard as possible for her to actually form the damn things. From what I had seen in those few seconds, she made them right in front of her hands before launching them. Now, she couldn’t do that. Because every time the icicle started to form, my sand instantly melted it.  

She hasn’t played enough Pokemon, Tabbris noted in my head. Everyone knows ice is weak against fire, fighting, and rock. Her power loses three different ways. 

Yeah, I replied, and you know what ghost is weak against? Other ghosts. 

Abruptly, Rahanvael appeared behind the ice-creating ghost, as I sent more power into her. Enough power that she was able to shove the Whisper-Ghost hard, making the figure stumble forward just as I hit my boost and threw myself that way. My thumb found the spell I had there to summon ghost-fire, surrounding the staff in that glow just before it collided hard with the side of her head, snapping it back. Before she could recover, I spun the staff around, driving the blade through her chest. 

The ghost vanished, though I knew she wasn’t gone for good. I could still sort of feel her essence around. I had just disrupted her for now. Or them. All these Seosten ghosts were actually possessed by Whispers, I had to remind myself. It was just… weird. 

At that moment, I barely had time to glance around to see how the others were doing. From the corner of one eye, I caught a glimpse of Avalon rapidly parrying with blades formed from her gauntlets as a Whisper-Ghost went after her with what appeared to be a pair of swords made out of electricity. Avalon was back-pedaling, but Miranda was right there, shield raised to block one of the incoming swords, giving Valley an opening to turn her energy blade into a large fist. And apparently the energy constructs from those gauntlets had been upgraded to actually affect ghosts, because it slammed into their opponent, making him stagger, form flickering a bit from the effort of maintaining cohesion. 

Further away, I could see Apollo and Aletheia standing together against two more of the Whisper-Ghosts. They seemed to be handling themselves well enough, unsurprisingly. It looked like Apollo was doing some sort of containment spell, while Aletheia held her hand out and used what had to be her own power, which was… disrupting them or something. I wasn’t sure, but every time she used it, the ghosts who were trying to attack them sort of… flickered a bit. It threw them off, whatever it was. Slowed them down, delayed their reactions, made them sort of dazed or whatever. Enough that Apollo was able to finish his spell, tossing a playing card from his palm, which hit one of the ghosts and literally sucked it inside. Yeah, he threw a card and sucked one of the ghosts into it. 

I really needed to get him to teach me that spell. 

And yet, just like the others had with the first containment spells, the Whisper who had been captured simply escaped the ghost it had been possessing and summoned a new one to control. Which put Apollo and Aletheia, not quite back to square one, because they had still taken one of the Seosten ghosts out of the equation and made the Whisper bring out another (and there wasn’t an endless supply of those), but still. Not great. 

Meanwhile, apparently a couple of the ghosts had gotten the idea that my dad might be an easy target. It was a mistake they quickly came to regret as, at that particular moment, the Seosten Dad had Chimera-bonded with while attempting to recall to Grandmaria was Mercury. The Seosten man’s Olympian power allowed him to extend, shorten, or delay effects on himself. Which also allowed him to boost for minutes at a time rather than seconds, and with even more effectiveness. That was where Mercury had gotten the reputation for having super speed from. And Dad was using that in the moment to speed himself up so he could create and empower specific anti-ghost magical enchantments on the blank coins he’d brought with him. In the short time that I spent glancing that way, I saw my father’s blurred form rush through scrawling a spell onto his latest coin, before tossing it at the floor right in front of the ghost who was coming for him. A burst of purple electricity shot from the coin, making the ghost blow apart (though it left that distinctive distortion in the air that meant the Whisper itself was still around). 

Then there was my mother. She was still going toe-to-toe with Invidia, both moving too quickly for me to keep track of very well. The Whisper-Ghost still had her daggers, and was a blindingly-fast dervish, attacking my mother from all sides. Mom, meanwhile, continued to block or evade every strike, lashing out with several of her own. Yet no matter how quick she was or what extra powers she threw into the mix, Invidia evaded all of it. It was clear they were pretty evenly matched. And I still had no idea how much of that was the Whisper herself (or itself), and how much was Charmeine’s skill and power. 

That was as much as I was able to take in with that quick glance around. We weren’t falling, but we weren’t exactly winning either. There were more of these things jumping into the fight already, and the ones we did manage to hit hard enough to disrupt simply reformed shortly afterward. Or summoned new ghost bodies to use.

Oh, and on top of all of that, all of these ghosts were still laughing. They were just having a grand old time with this whole thing. Laughing while giving those hateful, threatening glares and trying to murder us. It was really sending mixed messages. 

Behind me, Rahanvael intercepted the return of the ghost she had followed through the ceiling. I gave her a quick boost of power before pivoting to snap my staff up, intercepting an enormous ghost-like hook on the end of a pole that had been coming toward me from behind. The Whisper-Ghost there was a lanky woman with short blueish hair and light skin. Well, light even for the whole ghost thing. Which, again, the fact that ghosts possessed by Whispers had pretty much their normal color tone was just… weird. Her polearm had that large hook at the end, now caught against my staff. 

“Kinda hard for a ghost to sneak up on a Necromancer,” I informed her a bit tersely. “Just FYI.” Worry about everyone else kept any amusement out of my voice. The words were dark. I wanted these ghosts to back the fuck off, and the fact that I couldn’t affect them (at least, not very easily) even with my own Necromancy power was incredibly annoying. I wanted to find my grandparents, damn it! 

If this particular Whisper-Ghost cared about my anger, she didn’t show it. Instead, she just glared at me even more hatefully, while simultaneously giving a delighted squeal of laughter, like a small child going down a water slide. 

“Yeah,” I grunted, “haha to you too.” And without another word, I knocked her hooked polearm away from my staff and pivoted, bringing the weapon around toward her head. She recoiled to make it miss her by about six inches. Or rather, it would have missed by about six inches, except in that moment, I focused on the ‘make things grow’ power once more. That time, instead of turning a small stone into a boulder, I extended my staff several more inches so that Jaq, in his blade form and glowing bright from ghost-fire empowerment, cut straight through her throat. The form dissipated violently, that condensed magical energy blowing apart. And yet, she never stopped laughing. Well, until the form had completely vanished. Even then, I was pretty sure the Whisper left behind hadn’t stopped. I just couldn’t hear her thanks to Liesje’s spell. 

At the same time, while that had been going on, Tabbris was busy keeping another of the ghosts, a guy who looked like he could have passed for a particularly buff Indian man on Earth, busy by directing the superheated sand into his face. Which didn’t actually hurt him, of course. But it did obscure his vision enough that he didn’t see as she also directed my finger to hit the button that would launch the ghost-fire empowered grapple right into his chest. Or… it would have, except that just before the grapple reached him, he abruptly appeared in like six different places at once, scattered all around within about a twenty foot area. There were six versions of him for a second, then five of them disappeared. Including the one the grapple had been shooting toward. 

Wait, I knew that guy. Or rather, I knew of him. Apollo had mentioned him one day when we were talking to Miranda about her duplication. His name was… Enyalius, that was it. Apparently he had been a big disciple of Abaddon. His power had allowed him to–well, do exactly what I had just seen, make anywhere from five to ten duplicates of himself within an area that stretched to about fifty feet wide. He had little-to-no control over where all of them ended up appearing, and had to pick one to keep before the rest disappeared within a couple seconds of being created. 

Oh shit, which meant– with the realization and my own senses screaming at me, I spun around, snapping the staff up to knock aside the ghost-figure’s reaching hand. No, hands. My staff knocked two hands and a knife away. As expected, he had duplicated himself again, and several of the ten clones he had created had been close enough to lunge at me. I deflected their attacks, barely, and they vanished an instant later. He just chose to keep one of the clones that had appeared further away. 

This was his game, it was how he fought. He would create a bunch of short-lived duplicates, attack with as many as were close enough to reach the target (or targets) in the couple seconds of life they had, then simply allow them to disappear while choosing to keep one who was far enough back to be safe from immediate retaliation. 

All of which meant that fighting this guy was a pain in the ass. Soon, he was pressing the attack. He just kept creating more duplicates, coming after me with whoever was close enough, and then allowing them to vanish a second later. There was no point to actually trying to hit any of them, because they were just going to vanish almost immediately anyway. And I couldn’t take him out, because he could just pick any of them at random to make his new self. 

I might have been overwhelmed pretty quickly, except I did have a couple of advantages to help out. Namely, I had Tabbris copiloting to help deal with defense, and Rahanvael had returned to cover my back. Even then, however, keeping up with the guy who could mass-spam these two second duplicates all around me was pretty much a losing battle. It was just a matter of time. He could just keep pressing and waiting for us to make a mistake. Worse, the Whisper-Ghosts I had already dealt with were reforming. This could get bad very quickly. 

But the thing was, I wasn’t limited to only having one ghost for help. Through those frantic few seconds, I let Tabbris partially take over so I could put some focus toward calling back some of the spirits I had sent out to search the ship. I made the call pretty simple, if they hadn’t found anything yet or had already delivered their message, they were to come back to where I was. 

Just as the next wave of duplicate attacks came, Seth appeared to one side of me. His hand caught the nearest Whisper-Ghost-Clone’s wrist and yanked hard before throwing a punch at his face. Only for that one to poof out of existence. Seth, in turn, blinked at his own fist and muttered something about not knowing his own strength. 

The rest of the ghosts aside from Grover appeared shortly afterward. And now it was a much more fair fight. I had five ghosts on my side, counting Rahanvael, so it was a lot harder for Enyalius to find a blind spot to hit me from. And having all these ghosts with me to cover my back meant I could press my own attack. No matter which duplicate he chose to stay in, I had someone nearby ready to hit him. And my ghosts could actually touch his. 

All of which meant that it wasn’t long before the blade of my staff found his main body (or ‘body’) and made it burst apart in another spray of ghost… energy or whatever. Not that the threat was over, not by a long shot. He wasn’t gone for good, either him or the Whisper who had been piloting him. Not to mention the rest of these damn things. But I did feel a burst of satisfaction in the moment.

But it wasn’t enough. Again, no matter what we did, we couldn’t get rid of them for good. Tabs, I think we might need to do the super-wing boosted ghost shove. And later come up with a better word for it. 

But we can’t hit all of them! Her voice was plaintive. Last time it was all we could do to shove Kushiel away, even with the wing-boost. 

These guys aren’t Kushiel, I reminded her. But you’re right, we need a better idea than the shove. And I just got one. 

She already knew what it was, of course, as soon as it had occurred to me. Immediately, the two of us began to coordinate moving closer to where Apollo and Aletheia were. Everyone else was fighting, keeping the Whisper-Ghosts back without actually stopping them, while Mom and Invidia’s fight continued without either gaining any real advantage. 

“Apollo!” I shouted as soon as I was close enough to be heard. “Let us in!”  

Thankfully, he understood immediately, and extended his hand. I used a portal to reach the distance between us, grabbing on before possessing the man with his permission. Then I was inside him, and he knew my plan in an instant. Immediately, he drew another of the spell cards with the ghost-trap enchantment on it. But this time, just as he went to power it, Tabbris manifested her wings through him. They flared to life, extending out behind the man while the power they provided was shoved into the spell. 

Most of the Whisper-Ghosts had no idea what hit them. The ghost trap spell filled the entire room. Knowing it was coming, I had already ordered my ghosts to disappear. But our opponents didn’t get the message. Almost every single Seosten ghost in the room was sucked into the card. 

Almost every single one. Invidia resisted it, though she did snap her head around to snarl in our direction. Mom attempted to take advantage of that, but the woman vanished from where she had been standing. Only to reappear right where the card newly-full of ghosts had fallen. 

We didn’t have a chance to grab her, or it. Apollo was staggering from the effort of putting everything he had into that spell. Aletheia made an attempt to blast the ghost-woman with her power, but she grabbed the card and vanished. 

“Wha-what just happened?” Miranda demanded, looking around the suddenly empty battlefield. 

Stepping out of Apollo, I replied, “They’re uhh, they’re gone for now?” 

Apollo nodded, his face a bit grim. “It’ll take her a little bit to get her pals out of the card, but I’m not sure how long. We need to move. Come on, the jamming spell should be right in the core here, they probably have it drawing power from that.”

Appearing beside me, Seth spoke up. “So your pals on the bridge know what’s up. And from what the others said, they warned the rest of them too. Just in time too.” 

“So there are other Whisper-Ghosts. Are they okay? Sariel and the others, I mean.” 

“Sounds like it,” he confirmed. 

I started to say something else, but felt a tug at my consciousness. Grover. The last ghost who hadn’t shown up for the fight. Reaching out to him, I looked through his eyes to see what was up. And what I saw only took a few seconds to compute before I immediately withdrew and blurted, “Guys, we need to move, right now!” 

“What’s going on?” Mom asked, quickly turning to me. 

“I know where Popser and the others are,” I replied, using the name for my grandfather that I had used for such a long time while I was a little kid. It was always Popser or Grandpartie. “And they’re in trouble. Puriel’s like–not responding to anyone, not doing anything, and there’s a lot of Whispers all around. The others are trying to hold them off, but… but the Whispers are doing everything they can to get into Puriel’s head. 

“And if they take him over, we’re all fucked.” 

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Patreon Snippets 10 (Heretical Edge)

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

A few thousand years ago

The Phej were a tall, roughly humanoid species, standing just over two and a half meters in height, with dark blue, almost purple skin that grew darker at their heads, feet, and hands. They had four eyes spaced evenly around their face in a square pattern, with two vertical slit mouths parallel to one another in the middle. They smelled through organs within the mouths themselves. One mouth produced half the sounds their people were capable of, while the other, connected to entirely differently shaped vocal chords, produced the other half. The two worked in concert. 

At the moment, six of the Phej were striding purposefully through the corridor of their most powerful command ship. Four wore the uniforms of security personnel, while the remaining two were officers, the equivalent of a lieutenant and admiral (mnent and tauta respectively in their own language). They walked confidently, but quickly. Particularly when the ship shuddered under what was obviously an attack, the lights briefly dimming before returning to their steady blue emergency glow. 

The doors ahead of of the group swooshed open smoothly, admitting the six into a dimly lit, circular chamber that was just large enough for all of them with the control console and holographic display arranged in the middle of it. 

“Mnent,” the ship’s commander (and commander of the fleet itself) spoke, addressing his fellow (though much lower-ranked) officer. “Bring up the sitview.” 

Mnent Faa did so, pressing three quick holographic buttons on the console. In response, a display of the area surrounding their ship appeared. The Phej home planet lay relatively ‘below’ them to the left, with their own ship and a dozen others spread out to face the enemy fleet. Too many enemy ships, not enough Phej. But that was okay. Because they had a secret weapon, one that they had been working on for many decades for just such an occasion. 

“Are you sure it’s ready, Tauta Krin?” Faa asked a bit tensely. “If we take this shot and miss, we won’t get another one.” 

“It’s ready, Faa,” Krin assured the other man. “And if we wait any longer, there won’t be a point to using it. Bring up the targeting data for their ships. All of them.” He waited while the mnent did that, watching as white targeting reticles appeared on each of the twenty-seven enemy vessels. So many of their own ships had been destroyed by that fleet. That ended now. 

The reticles went from white, to green, and finally to the hard blue. With a low snarl through his twin mouths, he began to give the order to fire. 

In that instant, two of the security officers who had accompanied them abruptly drew their sidearms and fired. The shots instantly killed the other two guards. As Faa spun that way, hand groping for his own weapon, a shot took him in the face. 

With a bellowed curse of defiance, Krin dove for the control. But the glowing energy figure emerging from one of the ‘traitor’ guards caught him first, as the blonde Seosten dove into him. His hand stopped right next to the button. 

Head snapping to the side sharply with the distinct sound of a neck breaking, the remaining guard fell, revealing a dark-skinned Seosten woman, who grinned and pumped her fist. “Whoo! How great was that? We were right on top of them and they didn’t have a clue.” Charmeine turned then, spitting on one of the dead. “Think we’re just gonna let you blow up our people, assholes? Think again. We gave you a chance to surrender.” 

Her attention turned back to the possessed leader, pressing, “Come on, Brainiac, you said you knew how to work this system, right? So are we good or what?”

Perusing it briefly, Sariel finally spoke through the man. “Yes. Just a moment.” Her fingers danced over the controls, as she ignored the mixed pleas and threats from her host. “There.” 

On the holographic screen, the reticles over the Seosten fleet disappeared, replaced by more over each and every Phej ship. In addition, several targeting markers appeared on the planet itself. 

“What are those?” Charmeine asked, pointing to the latter. 

“Military bases, supply depots, places this man knew about that would make good targets,” Sariel replied with his voice. “One shot from this weapon of theirs, and we not only take out what’s left of their entire fleet, we cripple any potential resistance on the ground and their entire system of government.” 

Her words were met with a feral grin from the other woman. “So let’s do it and call Puriel to tell him how awesome we are. What are we waiting for?” 

Hand lingering over the button while her host desperately begged her to have mercy, to let them surrender, to spare his people, Sariel watched the holographic battle. 

“Nothing,” she finally replied. 

And then she pushed the button. 

*******

Immediately after the prison escape

As the Atherby camp and their allies celebrated their success in retrieving not only Sean Gerardo, but a good number of other prisoners, as well as powerful Crossroads weapons from the depot, and the destruction of several important Crossroads satellite stations, a single pale figure stood far away from all of it. With her back to the proceedings, Larees leaned against a tree and watched the sky while taking a long, lazy pull from her trusty flask. 

“You gonna come talk sometime tonight, kid?” she drawled casually, “or just stand back there and lurk some more?” 

Behind her, Theia slowly emerged from the darkness and approached. She paused while coming parallel with the woman, glanced that way, and then walked on past. Moving to another nearby tree in front of Larees, she positioned herself there before noting, “You are not celebrating.” 

“Ah, correction,” Larees countered while raising her flask to indicate it. “I’m not at the celebration. I am most definitely celebrating. In my way.” 

“Your way of celebrating does not look different from any other day,” Theia pointed out. 

Snorting, Larees replied, “Maybe I’m just celebrating all the time.” Raising the flask to her lips, she gulped a mouthful of the smooth, burning liquid before adding, “You’re not at the party either.” 

There was a moment of silence from Theia before she quietly said, “I make some of them uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do that to them all night long.” 

Instead of responding to that right away, Larees just watched her in silence for a few long seconds. When she did speak, it was a quietly muttered, “Your mother was a real piece of shit, you know that?” 

“I did not kill her simply because she forgot my birthday,” Theia pointed out, head tilting. “But what does she have to do with this?” 

“Sorry,” Larees muttered, head shaking as she pushed away thoughts of the children she had been forced to bear before they were taken from her, one by one. “It’s nothing. I was just…fuck. Never mind. You want a drink?” She held the flask up, nodding to it. 

Eyes centering on the offering, Theia pointed out, “Most of our people would never be comfortable sharing that with a Lie.” 

“You’re right,” the older Seosten agreed, glancing to the flask briefly as she considered. Then she tossed it that way. “Careful, it kicks pretty hard. Take it slow.” 

Catching it with one hand, Theia stared briefly at the woman, before gradually putting it to her lips. She took a sip, then another, before coughing loudly and repeatedly. 

A laugh escaped Larees. “Told you. It kicks.” 

Theia forced herself to take another drink just to prove she could, before clearing her throat. She glanced to her, hesitating before offering, “Do… you believe you’ll ever find your children? The ones that…” She trailed off, watching the woman’s face. “Is this one of those things I shouldn’t have said?” 

Larees opened her mouth, then hesitated before swallowing hard. She stepped over, took the flask back, and had a long drink from it before answering. “No, it’s–no, I don’t think I will. It’s a big universe and… and they could be anywhere. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see them. If any of them are even alive.” 

Theia’s voice was quiet. “I’m sorry about what my mother did to you.” 

For a moment, Larees didn’t respond. Then she held the flask back out once more for the girl to take again. “I’m sorry about what your mother did to you.” 

Trying the harsh drink once more, Theia still coughed, though she was more prepared that time. Her gaze found the other woman’s. “She was a… real… piece of shit?” 

“Yeah, kid,” Larees agreed. “But you know what, she did do at least one good thing in her miserable life.” 

Uncertain, the younger Seosten tilted her head. “What?” 

“Simple, kid,” her companion replied, taking the flask back for a long pull. 

“She made you.” 

******

Shortly Under A Year Ago

“Dude, you’re like… a king or something.” The words came in an awed voice as the young boy named Tristan Moon stared at the man in front of him. The two of them were alone in a side room, where Tristan had been ushered in order to meet his ancestor. “My great-whatever grandpa’s a king! That’s ffffffuuuuureaking awesome.” 

Nicholas Petan, a dark-haired, handsome man with just enough gray to be distinguished offered the boy a slight chuckle while shaking his head. “Not hardly a king, I’m afraid.” He paused then before offering a wink. “Maybe a baron.” 

A stunningly bright smile leapt to the boy’s face. “But you’re like this badass knight commander guy! That’s so cool! I bet you–wait, but… but your guys hurt my friends.” He frowned at that thought, clearly at a loss about whether he could still be excited or not. 

With a low sigh, Nicholas stepped over and took a knee in front of his descendant. “That… whole thing was a very tragic and… unexpected oversight. A mistake. I made a mistake when I passed orders to my subordinates. My phrasing when I asked them to retrieve you could have been better.” He glanced to the side, features briefly marred by a frown before a glance back to the charming blond-haired boy in front of him made it melt away. “But we will deal with that later, I promise. I’ll show you what we do to maintain the loyalty of our troops. Both magically and otherwise. You don’t want to rely entirely on magic. But I will teach you all of that on our way.” 

“You mean…” Tristan hesitated before asking, “You mean I can go with you? Wait, where are we going?”  

“Go with me?” Nicholas put a hand out to rest on his shoulder. “Greats-grandson, we are going many places. Most importantly, we are going to find your family. I have some… leads on that front.” 

That disarmingly brilliant smile returned for a moment, then Tristan hesitated. “I… what about the spell that keeps bouncing me back here? And… and… my new friends?” 

“The Heretics you will see again,” Nicholas assured him. “They have their own things to do, but your paths will cross soon enough. As for the Meregan, I’ve spoken a bit to their leader and… while a few will stay here, we will be working together. Some will come with us.” 

He exhaled then. “And the banishment spell, I have some ideas about that. It’s weaker than it should be, so we should be able to stop it from booting you back here unless you actually go back to Earth. That’s what it’s banishing you from. I can keep you with me, and we’ll work on finding a way to disable the spell entirely.” 

“And find my family?” the boy asked, hopefully.

“Yes,” Nicholas assured him, “and find your family. Most certainly that. That is… if you are… okay with the idea of living aboard a starfaring vessel traveling the universe searching out danger. If you– Tristan?” He blinked, waving a hand in front of the boy’s face as his descendant stared at him with eyes as wide as saucers, mouth open. 

Gradually, a sound similar to a tea kettle’s whistle emerged from Tristan, before he literally threw himself at Nicholas with a joyful shout, clinging to him while babbling something about someone named Picard. 

“I… ahhh… shall take that as agreement.” 

*******

Sometime over the summer

Feet pounding against the ground, Tabbris raced through the forest, chancing a glance now and then over her shoulder. Her heart beat faster with each desperate step, her breath hard and ragged. She fled blindly, dodging around one tree before leaping over a raised section of roots. Coming down, the young Seosten nearly lost her footing and sprawled, but caught herself at the last instant before pushing off once more. Behind her, she heard her pursuer getting closer with each step, the sound of their feet snapping twigs and branches growing louder by the second. 

She had nearly reached the next large tree, eyes focused ahead with the desperate certainty that at any second, a hand would grab her shoulder, when a figure emerged from that very tree. Her pursuer jumped into view, arms outstretched. She came within a bare instant of being caught, but triggered her boost just in time. The world slowed, and Tabbris dropped into a slide through the dirt that carried her under those open, anticipatory arms. 

Her pursuer spun, reaching down to grab for the back of her shirt. But she managed to throw herself forward from her slide, rolling to her feet before springing up. She didn’t want to waste her boost, but kept it going a moment longer. Just enough to let her leap from a standing position to the lowest branch in the tree. 

It was risky. The one chasing her could travel through the tree, like Flick did. Every step Tabbris took was another step where they could catch her. But she had to try. Running along the outstretched branch, she heard the figure jump into the tree. They would reach her any second… any…

She leapt from the branch just barely ahead of the arm that extended from the branch to grab for her. Tabbris flew from the tree, arms and legs windmilling wildly as she let out a loud squeal just before landing on her backside at the very edge of a steep slope that the edge of the branch had been hanging over. Aimed perfectly as she was, the girl slid on her back down the slope, half-falling all the way to the bottom before rolling to a stop. She lay there on her back, panting hard. 

“Hey!” A voice called from up above, prompting the girl to open her eyes. She saw her pursuer, a male Relukun (or wood-person) maybe a year older than she was. “No fair, you used your boost!” 

Staying on her back, Tabbris stuck her tongue out at him. Then she wondered if he could actually see it from up there. “You used your tree-walking power, Pickle!” she shot back. “Fair’s fair! You didn’t tag me, and I can still make it to base!” 

His name wasn’t really pickle, but the boy liked them so much, that’s what he became known as. Now, the tree-boy shook a wooden fist at her. “You’ll never make it, vile beast!” 

“Wanna bet?!” Tabbris retorted. She watched as he started to scramble down the hill after her, before laughing while scrambling back to her feet. A head start. She could make it to the boulder they’d picked out as home base, especially now that she’d had a chance to lay down for a few seconds and breathe. 

Then it would be her turn to chase Pickle, and she already had a plan. 

******

Shortly after the prison attack

Standing in the Committee headquarters, directly in front of the door leading into Counselor Litonya’s office, Liam Mason raised his hand to knock. Before he’d even gone halfway through the motion, the door opened and a voice within beckoned, “Come.” 

Thank God, he’d been losing his mind out here. After the day that had just happened, and everything he’d heard about how the traitors had attacked them, Liam needed to hear that things would be okay. More importantly, he needed to hear, from someone who had been there, how his family was doing. And who better to look to for reassurance on both fronts than one of the Crossroads Committee? 

The man stepped over the threshold, hearing the door click closed behind him. He was in a sparse room that looked quite similar to a Japanese dojo. The walls were lined with weapons, with a couple small tables of various food, drink, and other objects, while the floor was some kind of training mat. It was empty, save for a single figure who sat cross-legged in the middle. A figure who stood when he arrived, turning to face him. 

For a brief moment, Liam couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at. Counselor Litonya stood in front of him, but not… not all of her. She stood there with one entire arm missing, along with her other hand. It was… it couldn’t… that wasn’t…

“You requested this meeting for a reason other than gawking, I hope,” Litonya reminded him in the voice of a stern old school marm. As she spoke, the woman stepped over to a nearby table. A glowing blue semi-translucent image of an arm and hand appeared as she reached for the pot of tea, manifesting a similar hand on her other side to move a cup closer. 

“I–” Part of Liam wanted to ask if she was okay. But that was absurd. It was like asking a star if it was okay. The star was–it was a star. Barring age, of course it was okay.  It was–you didn’t ask a Committee member if they were–

But one had been killed earlier that year. They could be killed, he knew that. It had happened before. Hell, another of the Committee was currently missing. Yet somehow… somehow being killed or out of contact didn’t strike him as… as vulnerable as seeing one of the Committee members… maimed. Maimed. The very word was ridiculous. They were–if they–

“Mr. Mason,” Litonya urged him while looking that way as she took a sip. “Speak, or leave.” 

Swallowing, he forced himself to speak. “I just–I was… told that you saw one of my daughters earlier.” 

“I did,” she confirmed. “Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to speak much.” Her smile was thin. “She did call me an evil bitch, if you were curious.” 

Making a sound of shocked disbelief, Liam shook his head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I–it’s… it’s that girl. She’s–and Larissa is… that Felicity girl. She’s… they’re twisting everything around. It’s still–they’re still dancing to Gaia’s tune, Gods damn it! I don’t care that she’s locked up, she planned all of this, all of it, and she’s been manipulating them and they don’t know where to–” 

“Liam,” Litonya spoke sharply. “We are all well aware of how the creatures Sinclaire allied herself with have manipulated our people. Rambling accomplishes nothing.” 

“Who… who did… what happened to you?” He tried to stop himself from asking, but it came out anyway. “Why don’t you just… heal?” 

There was a low chuckle, like the sound of dry leaves being crushed. “Miss Chambers herself. Or rather, the creature she allowed to possess her.” Reading his wide eyes and open mouth, she interrupted his question. “It is a question I don’t wish to get into. Suffice to say, they possess the sword of the old King, and the wounds it causes take a very long time to heal.” 

“A… I don’t–” How could someone actually hurt you, even if it was with Arthur’s sword?! “What about… prosthetics?” 

“Believe it or not,” the woman’s sharp tone retorted, “you are not the first to suggest such a thing. Unfortunately, the reason the wounds take so long to heal is that the sword leaves lingering minor magical energy which slowly disintegrates anything it touches. Anything that comes into contact with… the wounds is gradually destroyed or at least damaged to the point of being structurally compromised. This–” She indicated her summoned solid-energy limbs. “–will have to do. Now, is there anything else? As you might imagine, I am rather occupied.” 

Hesitating briefly, Liam swallowed before asking, “That other thing that I asked about before. The one about the Chambers girl claiming her mother was taken by Fossor. Have you–” 

“She is with the necromancer,” Litonya confirmed. “That much we know. It was unfortunately rather brutally confirmed by the scouts who were sent to confirm Joselyn’s presence in a mall earlier today. Yet another part of the traitors’ plans, no doubt, meant to divide and conquer.” 

“Jos, she’s… she’s working with Fossor, willingly?” Liam murmured, shock touching his features almost as much as seeing Litonya’s injuries had. 

“That appears to be the case,” the woman informed him. “She has now taken to luring our people into traps in order to gain power by ambushing and murdering them. Now, if you will excuse me, I have pressing matters elsewhere. The Committee must choose a couple new members to count among our number.” 

“Wha–? You’re choosing new Counselors?” he blurted with surprise. That didn’t happen. 

“Pressing times call for pressing measures,” Litonya replied simply. “Our enemy has outmaneuvered us for far too long, has taken far too many of our people and assets. Don’t worry, Mr. Mason. We have just the people in mind for these positions. 

“And when confrontation comes again, it is the traitors who will find themselves at a disadvantage.” 

*****

Sometime over the summer. 

It was a short, very stocky man who stood in front of an unlabeled heavy metal door somewhere in Pittsburgh. He wore an olive green overcoat and a heavy beard. An old mangy cat of no possible discernible breed sat at his feet and licked his paws while the man reached up with one gloved hand to bang on the door. 

A moment later, a slot in the door slid open, allowing three eyes to peer out. “Whatayawant?”

In response, the man held up a leather bag, shaking it a bit to create a jingling sound. “Entrant’s fee,” he muttered in a deep, gravelly voice. 

The eyes disappeared, replaced by a single thin hand with too many fingers. The man put the bag in the palm, and it was withdrawn. There was another pause, before several locks were disengaged and the door was pulled open. The three-eyed man with too many fingers on his hands stood there watching him with a shotgun. “Name.”

Bowing his head a bit, the man in the olive coat replied, “Dark. John Dark.”

For a moment, the two stared at one another, the three-eyed man clearly sizing him up before finally offering him a broad smile as he stepped back and raised his arm to indicate past himself. “Well, John Dark, you just bought yourself into the auction. Congratulations, and don’t go blowing all your coin on the first decent beast you see.”

Returning the man’s smile with a nod of appreciation, Dark walked past him through the narrow corridor. The cat followed at his heels, offering a quiet meow. 

The corridor lead to a large circular room, big enough to be a concert hall. Throughout the room were dozens of beings of all shapes and sizes. And cages. Cages that were staggered randomly throughout the room, holding even more wildly varied beings. They were prisoners, slaves to be auctioned off for those who bought them, the people who were now examining their potential merchandise. 

The din of conversation continued for another few minutes before a new figure in a garish bright red coat and top hat swept his way into the middle of the room with a raised hand. Under the top hat, he had dark blue skin and hair like a mythical gorgons, full of living snakes. 

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he called loudly to draw all attention to him. “Welcome to our humble auction! We’ll get things started right away, but first—“

“One silver.”

John Dark spoke up loudly, interrupting the auctioneer with that single word. It drew everyone’s attention to him, and the snake-haired man frowned, his serpents hissing. “I am afraid we haven’t started the auction yet, good sir. And when we do, you shall have to pay a lot more than one silver if you wish to take any of our fine, quality merchandise home.”

John Dark spoke again, before the man could redirect everyone’s attention. “You’re wrong about two things there. First, I wasn’t offering one silver for one of your slaves. I offered one silver for all of them. One silver on top of whatever you value your lives at. I assume, quite a lot. You can claim that reward by leaving this place now, and never looking back.”

Dozens of weapons were drawn at his words, along with magic and other powers being readied. Around the room, security guards appeared, levying their own weapons at this simple-looking stranger. 

If he was put off by the display of force, the man gave no indication. He simply continued. “As for the second thing you were wrong about… I am no sir.”

With that, the ‘man’ swept off the coat to reveal a lithe, feminine figure beneath. Also hidden beneath the coat had been a heavy shield and spear, mounted to her back. 

Pulling both to her hands, the woman held the shield up as every non-slave in the room unleashed on her. Bullets, lasers, fire, wild attacks of every kind erupted through the room, centered on the spot where she stood. A spot where a glowing gold light had flared up. 

After almost thirty full seconds of non-stop attack, the slavers and their customers finally relented. They had poured enough fire power into that spot to kill nearly anything. 

Nearly. 

The woman still stood. Her false beard was gone, revealing a face that many could, and had, called beautiful, with a distinct resemblance to the classic actress, Audrey Hepburn. Her shield glowed brightly, almost blindingly so, extending its energy in a field that encased and surrounded her body like a second skin. 

“My name,” she began through the baffled silence, “is Jeanne d’Arc. And you are wretched, evil beasts. You enslave and sell the innocent as your chattel. You are a plague upon this land, and your judgment has come due.”

With those words, the woman known more commonly as Joan of Arc raised her spear. It began to glow with the same energy as her shield. It was the energy gifted to her through ritual by the angel… the Seosten… Michael. Only a small portion of his gift, yet enough to keep her alive all these years after he had saved her from the fire. A sliver of his energy which healed her wounds, ceased her aging, and allowed her to channel it through her shield to create an impenetrable barrier around herself or others, and through her spear to allow it to cut through near anything in existence. 

Many had wondered over the years what sort of Heretic Jeanne was. In truth, she was no Heretic at all, merely a human gifted incredible power through ritual magic. 

Incredible power which she put to use now, as the slavers opened fire once more. Joan went to work. 

Before long, it was over. The slavers and their customers were dead, and the prisoners were being escorted to safety by several people Jeanne had let into the building after dealing with the three-eyed man at the front. As she stood out of the way, a small, green-furred figure approached tentatively. “Err… what… what is this?” he asked with obvious confusion. “Are you with that… that new Heretic rebellion?”

A taller, gray-skinned figure spoke up then. “H-hey, yeah, that rebellion’s going again. I heard that… that Atherby woman came back.” His own voice was hopeful, wide eyes staring at their rescuer. “Are–do you know her? Is she really back? Is she–” 

“I’m sorry,” Jeanne gently interrupted, raising a hand to quiet the man in a soft voice. “I am with Wonderland, not the Rebellion, though we are connected. And I’m afraid that Chevalière Atherby is not… she has not returned.” For a moment, she thought of what she knew of the woman’s daughter, the girl who had brought back the rebellion. Jeane knew enough of her, both thanks to friends within the Atherby camp and Crossroads itself, and thanks to her own curiosity in the past. Not to mention the words of her off-and-on lover, the vampire Seth. His death had brought Jeanne to Wonderland to pay her respects, where she had agreed to take his place as their Tiebreaker for the time being. 

She and Seth had had their ups and downs, but they had loved one another for most of their time together. Even if that love turned to heated arguments now and then. She had mourned his loss, cursed the fact that she had not been anywhere near to aid him, and vowed to find the creature who had murdered him. This Seosten, the one called Abaddon. She would find and kill every body he manifested until she reached the last one. This she had sworn upon Seth’s grave. 

In any case, Seth knew Felicity. Or Flick, as she preferred to go by. He’d initially been curious about her when he found out she was dating the girl who was… essentially his step-sister, in a lot of ways. He’d asked Jeanne look into her, to see what kind of person she was beyond simply being her mother’s daughter. She, in turn, had told him that she didn’t need to look into the girl then, because she already had rather thoroughly in the past, and that he had nothing to worry about. Over time, Seth had actually gotten to know the girl a bit more for himself, and confirmed her assessment. It was no surprise to Jeanne whatsoever that the girl had brought back her mother’s rebellion. Not after being her teacher for most of a semester back in junior high.  

Seeing the look of disappointment on the two men’s faces after telling them that she wasn’t with that particular group, Jeanne assured them, “Her children are part of that rebellion. Her youngest daughter brought it back.” 

“Her youngest daughter?” one of the men breathed. “Who is she, do you know her? Did you know her mother?” 

A fond smile touched the woman’s face. “Joselyn… yes, you might say our paths have crossed. As for her daughter, she does not know it, but we have met. And eventually, we will meet again.” She offered them a slight shrug then. “As I said, Wonderland may not technically be part of them, but we have contact. Do you… have friends there?” 

“I don’t know,” the short, furry man lamented. “Maybe. Everything was so… so confusing in the escape from those tunnels, my people said they knew where to go to find them, but I don’t know if they did.” 

“Come then,” she urged, turning to gesture ahead. “Let us go see if your people are there. And if they are not, I will help you find them. 

The taller, gray man blinked. “You… you’d do that? But you don’t even know us.” 

Meeting his gaze, Jeanne replied simply, “My hands have no eyes, no ears. They need not know a man to bring him up, to offer him food, shelter, or aid. My oath is to help those who need it, not only those whom I have called friend. Now come, we will find your family and friends.” 

“If they’re not with the rebellion,” the green-furred man lamented, “they may have fallen in with other evil men, like these.” His small hand indicated the bodies around them. 

“If that is the case,” Jeanne informed him, “and your people have been taken by more evil men, 

“Then more evil men will die.”

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Patreon Snippets 7 (Heretical Edge)

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

Theia and Gwen – Night After The Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He named it Chadwick and Chickee.”

******

Bastet, Aylen, and Sonoma – One Year Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

Virginia Dare – Day After the Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Dare was home.

******

Sean – Several Months Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

Croc – Night of the Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No? Good. Then let’s get busy.”

*******

Gavin And Stephen – Night of the Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what do we do?” Gavin asked.

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

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

*******

Erin Redcliffe – Night of the Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

Jessica Trent – Night of the Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Revenge.”

******

Marina Dupont – Night of the Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not if she had anything to say about it.

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New York Minutemen 27-05

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“Stop her!” a voice shouted from behind me, and I twisted that way in time to see Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Sean put themselves between me and the rest of Roxa’s old team. Doug, one of the few who definitely wasn’t the one working for the Seosten, was the one who had spoken. On one side of him was Paul, with Jasmine on the other side. Isaac was slightly behind Jazz, while Gordon was to Paul’s left. Everyone had their weapons out, on both sides. And I had no idea who on Roxa’s team could actually be trusted, even if they weren’t actually possessed.

It was just them. I had no idea where Deveron and Marina were, or anyone else. Though considering how much planning the Seosten had put into this, I was willing to bet that they had enacted some kind of distraction on that end too. I just hoped that both of them were okay.

“Back off!” Avalon snapped at Douglas and the rest of them. She had ignited one of her gauntlets in a blade, and seemed to be almost daring one of them to try to get past her. Beside her, Sands had erected a half-sized stone wall between them, while Sean had Vulcan in his gun-form. Things were about to go sideways any second, even without Charmeine’s help.

“What are you doing?!” That was Jazz. She had her falchion out, with white-hot flames licking around the blade. “Are you just gonna let her attack your own teammate? What the hell?!”

“It’s not our teammate!” Sands shouted back at her. “You all need to back off. Let her explain.”

“Explain?” Paul snapped. “How about she explains what she did to Rudolph, or Professor Carfried, or Professor Dare? And why she just attacked Columbus. Explain all of that.”

Sean started to say something, but I spoke over him. “Sands is right! That,” I pointed at figure in front of me, “is not Columbus. I mean, it is, but he’s…” My head shook. “Look, you guys, I know this is a lot to take in. But listen to me. Columbus has been possessed.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” Isaac demanded, clearly tightening the grip on his three-headed flail. Like the rest of them, he didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen to reason. But was that because he was the bad guy here, or because it really sounded crazy?

“Yeah, Flick, what the hell?” Charmeine had Columbus back on his feet. But I’d actually achieved my goal. His goggles were sitting across the room, out of easy reach. I didn’t feel like being paralyzed in a single shot again. ‘He’ was rubbing his head. “What happened to you?”

“No,” I snapped despite myself. “We’re not playing that game.” Glancing back to the others in their tense stand-off, I informed them, “We don’t have time to go through all of it. Just–Listen, there are bad things coming. I don’t know what, but it’s bad. You want proof that he’s possessed, that the thing talking right now isn’t Columbus? Avalon, the spell.” I nodded for her to use the one that Gabriel had taught us that would expel Charmeine. “If you were really Columbus, this spell wouldn’t do a thing to you.”

Yet, as Avalon took a step that way, Jazz blurted, “Hey, get away from him! Don’t you go near him. Just… we have to call and–”

“Damn it, listen!” I stepped over, shaking my head. “You want proof that I’m not crazy? We know a spell to expel the bitch that’s possessing him. Just let her use it. Then you’ll know for sure.”

From where he was standing with his weapon (at the moment, it was in its tommy-gun mode rather than sword and shield mode), Gordon spoke in a flat voice. “You really want us to let you use a spell that none of us have ever heard of, that could do anything at all to him. Not likely.”  

“Uhh,” Charmeine made Columbus’s voice sound shaky and nervous. “Thanks, guys. I… I don’t know what’s going on. I was trying to figure out why they’ve been acting so… so weird, and–”

“Oh, put a fucking sock in it, Meryl Streep,” Sean blurted with an almost violent eyeroll. “The Academy isn’t handing out any awards tonight. Flick,” he announced while keeping Vulcan pointed at the others, “do what you need to do to get that bitch out of my friend.” His voice was tense, and it made me realize just how hard it had been for him to act like nothing was wrong for so long around his possessed roommate.  

Paul, however, clearly wasn’t going to let that happen. “You take another step that way,” he replied while holding his two hand-axes up, “and we’ll stop you. Don’t… move. We’ll call for help, then wait for the other Heretics to show up and deal with all this, whatever it is.”

“Are you even listening to me?” I squinted, unable to figure out if he was part of Seosten plan, or just being thick-headed. “There are bad things coming. If we don’t deal with this right now, then-”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as something went flying over my shoulder. My item-sense barely had time to register it as an arrow before the thing flew into Paul’s shoulder. A second later, it exploded into a burst similar to my own concussion mines, sending the boy crashing to the floor with a surprised, pained cry as his weapons clattered to the floor.

“She’s telling the truth,” Rudolph announced from his place at the same window that I had just crashed through. He still had his bow raised, another arrow notched in it as he aimed at Paul.

“Rudolph!” Jazz blurted, already starting to move to help Paul. “What the hell are you doing?!” she demanded, voice actually shaking from her confusion. “What the fuck is going on?!”  

“Jazz, don’t!” Rudolph sent an arrow between them, putting it right past Jasmine’s nose to make her stop short. “Don’t go near him,” the blonde boy called to her, “that’s not Paul!”

That’s not Paul, that’s not Columbus,” Isaac’s voice was almost shrill. “Is anyone who they say they are? Did we all switch bodies? Is this a Freaky Friday situation? Can I pick my new one? Cuz I’ve got some ideas.”

Douglas looked torn between ignoring Rudolph’s words to run and help Paul anyway, and running to Rudolph himself instead. “Rudy, buddy, what are you talking about?” he asked, voice catching a little. “Come on, what’s going on? Flick just came in and attacked her own teammate, and now you’re attacking your teammate? Come on, talk. Because this is starting to sound a lot like that thing where two groups of good guys all fight each other because of a miscommunication, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not be that cliche.”

“That’s not Paul,” Rudolph repeated, even as ‘Paul’ himself tried to sit up. “He’s an imposter.”

Jasmine’s voice was tense, as she demanded, “How do you know that? Are you even sure?”

“He’s sure,” another new voice announced from the broken window. Roxa. It was Roxa. She appeared on the back of Gidget in her hoverboard form, landing in the room beside Rudolph. Since my Stranger-sense didn’t go off, I had to assume she was wearing the choker. She was also dragging a body behind herself, balanced on the back of the board.

“Roxa!” Jazz sounded equally shocked and happy. “You’re okay! You’re–you’re… what… who…?” she trailed off as her eyes caught sight of the body that the blonde was holding.

Roxa continued, her voice somber and flat. “He knows it’s not Paul because…” she stepped off the board, gaze downcast as she lay the body down on the floor. “Because this is Paul.”

It was. Paul. The boy was… oh God, he was dead. Gone. The sight made me choke, bile springing to my mouth. Behind me, the others were having pretty much the same reaction.

“Paul!” Jasmine’s voice was a half-scream, half-sob. She took several steps that way, toward the body, before stopping short as she glanced back toward the Paul that was there. “I–I don’t… I don’t understand. What–”

“I was tracking you,” Roxa informed me. “Saw the guy taking Rudolph in the cab. So I stopped them. The… Paul was in the trunk.”

Roxa had rescued Rudolph. She’d rescued Rudolph, then found the body that proved Paul was the mole on their team. Thanks to her, we might pull this off without everything going wrong. And thanks to the choker, she could actually do that without having everyone immediately attack her.

“Okay,” ‘Columbus’ sighed, shaking his head. “I guess we’re doing this the easy way then. Shame. I tried.” Looking up, ‘he’ focused on me. “Just remember, You wanted it this way.”

“Guys,” I started quickly, “we need to–”

It wasn’t quick enough. A flick of Columbus’s hand drove an invisible sledgehammer of force into my chest that sent me flying backward into the far wall before I could even think about moving. As I rebounded off it, dazed for a moment, the sound of shouting filled my ears that was quickly dwarfed by gunfire.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sean opening up on the… whatever it was that had taken Paul’s place. He was already on his feet, clearly either much less affected by Rudolph’s shot than he’d pretended to be, or he’d simply had time to heal. And he was moving fast, darting away from the hail of minigun fire to the point of running up along the wall. Then it leapt off into a dive that took Jasmine’s legs out from under her, hand-springing over her sprawled form to plant both feet into Doug’s chest in a kick that knocked the boy into Sean’s line of fire, forcing the other boy to stop shooting for a moment.

Meanwhile, Columbus was glowing with a strange reddish-orange aura that surrounded his body. As Avalon went in with one of her energy blades, he simply caught it. He literally caught the blade in his hand. Or, as I noticed a second later, he actually caught it against that thin aura. It was some kind of shield or forcefield or whatever that was surrounding his skin. It let him simply catch even the solid-energy blade, using it to yank Avalon closer before Charmeine sidestepped and put Columbus’s foot into the back of the girl’s leg.

As Avalon dropped to one knee, I was still pushing off the wall. Columbus’s hand reared back, forming a fist before lashing downward at the briefly prone girl. Before the blow could strike home, however, an arrow ricocheted off that forcefield-sheathed arm. Rudolph. The arrow didn’t seem to do any damage, but it did knock the boy’s arm off-course. And it was followed up by Roxa leaping to put her foot in the boy’s face. That knocked Columbus away from Avalon, but Charmeine instantly recovered by making him avoid all five of the girl’s flurry of follow-up punches as if they were nothing. She simply twisted Columbus’s body this way and that, like she knew where each punch was going long before it was ever even thrown.

By that point, Avalon and I had both recovered. I pushed off the wall, darting for Columbus’s left side while spinning to build momentum as my staff whipped out and around toward his head. We needed him down, at least damaged enough that the Seosten bitch couldn’t use him to attack us anymore. I just wasn’t sure how we were actually going to accomplish that.

At the same time that I made my move, Avalon dropped to sweep Columbus’s legs out from under him, clearly timing her spin for just as my staff would hit the boy.

It still didn’t matter. At the last second, Charmeine gave a quick little hop over Avalon’s extended leg while simultaneously catching hold of the end of my staff. She yanked me forward and off-balance, forcing my staff to smack into Roxa’s face instead of Columbus’s with a blow that knocked the other girl onto her back. Releasing my staff, the boy’s leg snapped up, catching my stomach to drive the wind out of me. Then he was somehow behind me, taking hold of my arm before throwing me to the ground. An instant later, his foot collided with my stomach again and I was sent rolling along the floor as the contents of my stomach fought to come up.

Columbus was just so damn fast. That upgrade that he’d gotten from… from killing Josiah, coupled with the boost that Charmeine could give him–wait a second.

Hey, partner, how you doing in there? I sent to Tabbris, trying to sound more confident than I felt right then. You okay to help me out?

The response was tentative. A-almost. She sounded exhausted. I’m trying, but–but she’s a lot older, and–

It’s okay, I assured her. Just hold it for the right time. Let me know when you can give me a few seconds of boost. That’s all I need. We’ll hold on until then. Let me know and wait for my mark, got it?

There was a sense of agreement, and I flipped myself back to my feet. In the background, I could see the others trying to deal with the Paul-Doppelganger. But it clearly wasn’t making things easy.

And we had our own problems. Avalon was giving Roxa a breather, pulling Charmeine’s attention to her even as Gidget came running in to grab hold of Columbus’s wrist in her mouth.  Unfortunately, a flick of his hand sent the mechanical cougar tumbling end over end, and Roxa’s brief distraction as she blurted her cyberform partner’s name gave Charmeine the opening she needed. A silver knife suddenly appeared out of nowhere in Columbus’s hand, and a flick of it cut into the blonde girl’s arm. She gave a strangled cry of pain, stumbling back as her arm hung useless at her side. Whatever Charmeine had hit, it left Roxa unable to use that arm.

It was like I was moving in slow motion. It was like all of us were moving in slow motion. Avalon, Roxa, and me, let alone with help from both Rudolph and Gidget, should have been able to do something here. And yet, we couldn’t even land much of a hit. Not with things the way they were.

But giving up wasn’t an option. Not now, not ever. With a grunt, I went for it, back into the fray. Something had to take. Between the five of us (more if any of the others could pull free of their problem), something would stick.

Unfortunately, it still didn’t seem as though anything actually would. As Avalon, Roxa (still favoring one arm), and I converged on the spot where Columbus was, the boy simply disappeared. I caught sight of him an instant later, stepping out of one of the nearby shadows along the wall as if it was a doorway. It put him directly behind Avalon before a wave of his hand literally set the girl aflame. Fire erupted over her, though the cry that came then wasn’t from Avalon, but from me. I screamed. Avalon? Avalon spun around to put her fist into Columbus’s face… while she was literally on fire.

Was it too soon to say that I was in love?

Of all the things that Charmeine could have expected Avalon’s reaction to being set on fire would be, apparently ‘ignore it and punch her in the face anyway’ wasn’t in the top ten. She was taken completely by surprise for what had to be the first time since I’d come through the window and nailed her. Nor did she expect Roxa to tackle her to the ground. I heard the howl of pain from the blonde girl as her bleeding arm was jostled. Still, she dove full-force into Columbus, taking him down to the floor just as one of Rudolph’s arrows shot just over their heads. Instead of hitting Columbus/Charmeine, it hit Avalon.

But that wasn’t a mistake, I realized. The arrow that struck her exploded. Not with energy, but with water. It burst on impact with Avalon, creating a brief geyser of water that drenched the other girl to put out the flames. Rudolph had been aiming for her.

O-okay, okay, my ride-along partner cut into my thoughts, I… I think I can give you a… umm, a short boost. Just a few seconds.

Thanks, Tabbris, I replied silently while taking a step that way. Wait for my mark. With only a few seconds of boost before my own Seosten-ally would wear herself out again, I had to time it just right. It had to be perfect.

Heavily burned, yet clearly not caring, Avalon was already going for the prone Columbus as Roxa practically knelt on top of him. Unfortunately, within the span of an eyeblink, the two had switched places. Roxa was lying prone on the floor while Columbus knelt on her. Shit, shit, another power. If this went on for too much longer, Charmeine was going to figure out too many of the powers she had available for us to be able to beat her.

Avalon barely registered that fact in time to collapse her energy blade before it would have cut through the other girl’s arm. Even then, she was extended enough that Charmeine was able to drive an elbow back into her face, knocking her onto her backside before Columbus abruptly stood and spun, catching my incoming swing and pointing my staff downward so that the blast of concussive energy that I had been releasing caught Gidget, sending the cyberform tumbling end over end.

She was playing, I realized. Even now, in this situation, Charmeine was showing off. She could have taken all of us much more efficiently, focusing on one at a time. She’d shown that with the single cut that had taken out one of Roxa’s arms. She could have killed or at least disabled us with ease. But she was working out her frustrations from the past half year (and probably even longer) by toying with us.

Summoning my little mice friends, I sent them to their places, converting my staff into its bladed form. Then I focused, watching as Avalon and Roxa struggled to keep pace with Columbus. I wanted to rush in, wanted to throw myself back into that fight. Especially as I saw Avalon take three rapid, vicious blows to the face. But I stopped myself. I made myself stand still, watching for my moment. Throwing myself in there was accomplishing nothing.

Then I saw it. Charmeine had Columbus half-turned away from Avalon, a gesture sending Gidget away while she put his fist into the blonde girl’s face.

In that instant, I blurted, “Valley, Kappa!” Mark, I added silently toward my companion. Mark, mark, mark!  

Avalon reacted to my words without even an instant of hesitation. Both of her hands snapped up, as a new energy construct emerged from her gauntlets: a cage. It was just big enough to catch Columbus between the glowing solid-energy bars, trapping him in place between them. It was one of the new constructs that the other girl had been working on over the past few weeks.

It wouldn’t last, of course. He’d already demonstrated more than one teleportation ability. In a second, he’d get out of that cage. But the point hadn’t been to contain him, it had been to know exactly where he would be in the next instant. That’s what I had needed Avalon to do.

I was already moving. Not toward the cage, but toward Roxa. As the boost from Tabbris filled my body, I felt invincible. I was moving faster than I ever had, even during the trip across the city. The Seosten girl had thrown everything she had to me. And while it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds, that’s all I needed.

Roxa was there. I dove forward, lashing out at her leg with my staff. And then, at the last second, it wasn’t Roxa there anymore. It was Columbus. Charmeine had switched places, just as I’d known she would. Trapping her in that energy cage with the code phrase Avalon and I had come up with (we had about a dozen different ones like that, it was kappa for cage) made her react by doing the same thing she had done before. She’d switched places with Roxa, thinking that whatever was about to happen would happen to that girl instead.

But I’d planned on her doing just that. So as Columbus’s body appeared in Roxa’s place, my staff was already lashing out and down, boosted by the speed and strength that Tabbris had given me. The blade on the end of my staff sliced through the back of his leg, and he immediately dropped with a strangled cry. His leg couldn’t support his weight anymore, not the way I’d cut him.

Before Charmeine could recover (and before I lost the boost), I was already spinning. My staff went up and around, colliding with the boy’s head. That time, as the blow struck home, he collapsed and stayed collapsed.

Everything, in that moment, went completely silent. The fighting on the other side of the room was still, as everyone looked over to see the unconscious, injured, downed Columbus. He was down, but did that mean that Charmeine was?   

“Okay.” It was another voice, a female voice that came as if in response to my own thought. The voice that I had heard that night on the beach. Charmeine. So no, no she was not down. She was very much not down. In that moment, the bitch was standing over Columbus’s limp, bleeding, unconscious form, staring daggers at me. “Now, now I’m a little bit annoyed.”

Gordon snapped his gun that way, as did Scout and Sean with theirs. “Who are you?” he demanded. For once, there was actual emotion in his voice. Seeing Paul’s body there and then fighting his doppelganger, it had clearly affected him. It wasn’t just in his voice. I could also see it in his face, the way his aim shook a little as he stood there, clearly about to lose it.

“Oh, that hardly matters,” Charmeine retorted. “You won’t survive long enough to understand it anyway. Fetch!” It took me a second to realize she was saying a name rather than giving an order with that word.

Fetch. The Paul-clone, I realized. He was still up and around, even with everyone else focusing on him. And from the look of things, he wasn’t all that hurt. Whatever that thing was, it was tough.

“Finish dealing with the other children. I have these ones,” Charmeine continued. “We just have to work out a few ground rules before their little journey, isn’t that right, kids?”

Even as she spoke, the white-haired, dark-skinned Seosten woman’s hand was snapping out. I saw something leave her fingers, a small object that snapped itself against the nearby wall, just past Avalon. An instant later, a glowing red forcefield popped up into existence, cutting Avalon, Rudolph, Roxa, and me off from the others. We, along with Charmeine, were on one side of the glowing wall. Meanwhile, Sean, Sands, Scout, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Isaac were on the other side with the fake Paul. Fetch, apparently. Clearly, as confident as Charmeine was in her own skills, she didn’t want to deal with all of us at once. Or maybe she just wanted to focus on those of us that she hated the most.

Either way, we were going to have to hope that the others could handle that ‘Fetch’ thing. Because the forcefield turned opaque, and I couldn’t see what was happening on the other side.

Charmeine, for her part, cracked her knuckles. “Now,” she announced. “It’s time to be a little more straightforward. No more games or misdirection. No more possession. I’ll deal with you myself.”

There was no talking, no discussion. One second, the four of us (five if you counted Gidget, which I did) were arrayed around the Seosten. Then we were moving, attacking… fighting.

Avalon reached her first, energy blade going straight for her chest. At almost the exact same time, one of Rudolph’s arrows was shooting through the air toward the woman’s other side, while Roxa and I went for her front, Gidget going in low, toward her legs.

It didn’t matter. Charmeine was as ready for all of us as if we had each sent postcards a month ahead of time, detailing everything we were going to do and exactly when we were going to do it. Ducking backward a bit, just enough to let Avalon’s blade swish past her harmlessly, she twisted to catch the incoming arrow even as her foot lashed out, kicking Avalon in the stomach hard enough to send the girl flying backward into the energy wall. By that point, Roxa and I were right there. But the Seosten gave the arrow she had caught a quick toss right down into Roxa’s leg an instant before it exploded. The blonde girl was sent to the floor with a cry that was half-howl. Her leg was injured. Not nearly as badly as her arm, and it would heal much faster. But still, it slowed her down.

I was there, staff swinging for her face before she simply caught it an inch from her nose. Giving me a small smirk, the Seosten ripped the staff from my hands as easily as if I was a child. Then her foot abruptly slammed into my chest. I felt ribs crack as I was hurled backward to the floor just in time to hear a yowl from Gidget as Charmeine did something that made the cyberform cougar stumble while sparks of electricity shot off of its back and face.

I’d thought that getting the cunt out of Columbus would help. If it did, there wasn’t that much of a difference. The Seosten assassin could still take us apart, even without Columbus’s boosted powers. She was just so damn fast. Even with the werewolf enhancements that I had, along with all my training and everything else, it felt like I was standing still. And there was no way that Tabbris could boost me again. Not so soon after she’d given me everything she could just to help get the bitch out of Columbus to begin with. I had to let her rest, had to let her recover. I was going to have to do this without the boost.

Charmeine took three quick steps back from Avalon as the other girl went after her with all the anger and frustration that had clearly been building up over all the time that the Seosten had been screwing with her life.

But Charmeine easily avoided everything, so easily that she was actually laughing. “Is that all?” she taunted Avalon while twisting her head sideways to avoid the massive solid-energy hammer that was swinging past. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this, Hannah.” With those words, she side-stepped while catching Avalon’s arm with both of her hands, one on each side of her elbow. A sudden, vicious jerk was followed by the snap of the bone breaking as Avalon actually gave a gasp of pain before she was unceremoniously tossed aside.

She didn’t stay down. None of us did. All three of us girls, with Rudolph providing support fire whenever he had something resembling a clear shot, and Gidget, kept going after Charmeine. But it meant nothing. She picked us apart, again and again, as if we were helpless children.

And she was laughing the entire time. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones working out a lot of built-up frustration and anger. Charmeine had been forced to play nice for a long time, and now she was taking it out on us, taking her time without actually going for any fully disabling moves. Still playing. Even after what I had done to drive her out of her host, she was still playing with her food. She wasn’t trying to end it. She wanted the fight to continue on so that she could keep taking us apart bit by bit. It was incredibly arrogant. I just wished she wasn’t backing it up so effectively. One after another, everything we tried just broke like we were water and she was an immovable mountain. We couldn’t do anything to her. Nothing worked. Nothing stuck. She was just too god damn fast, too strong, too… everything.

“Alright then, children,” she announced after knocking us to the floor for what had to be the fifth time, “I think it’s time to put an end to this.” A snap of her fingers summoned two of those orbs to her hands, while she smirked. “Who wants to be banished from Earth first, hmm? If you ask very nicely, maybe I’ll even send some of you together. Would anyone like to beg to stay with their friends? Begging is always fun to watch.”

We couldn’t put her down. We could barely even touch her. The very few actual hits we’d all managed to land, even working together, had barely amounted to a scratch. Fighting a full Seosten like this just… wasn’t working. She was pretty much destroying us whenever we tried.

But I had one advantage over her. One power that she didn’t have that might just be what ended this. All I had to do was keep her talking, keep her focused solely on me and nothing else.

“Charmeine!” I blurted, jerking myself to my feet despite the pain that spread through my entire body every time I moved. She may have been toying with us, but she wasn’t taking it easy.

“Oh good,” the bitch announced, lifting her chin as she smirked at me, “a volunteer.”

That was all it took to get Avalon back to her feet, blurting, “Felicity!”

The terror in her voice made my heart skip and catch, but I had to focus. Keeping my eyes locked on Charmeine, I spoke again. “You know, you may think you’re hot shit now, but did you ever stop to think about how we even found out about you to begin with, how we knew to start looking for you? Did you ever stop to think about what gave you away?”

The Seosten paused like that, squinting at me for a moment with the orbs in her hands. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “You learned about our presence from the mercenary.”

“Fahsteth?” I shook my head, giving a glance toward the probably totally perplexed Rudolph. “Nope. We already knew you were around by that point.” I narrowed my eyes then. “It was you.”

As she stared at me, I took advantage of her hesitation by continuing. “Yeah, that’s right. Remember that night on the beach, when you watched me on the phone and found out about the meeting with him? You came out after I left and made your call. But I saw you. I heard you, through my little fox friend. See, I never let it go, I never dismissed her. So she was still there. I heard everything you said. That’s how we found out about you. That’s how we knew to look for you. Not Fahsteth, not Prosser’s people, nobody else. You. You stood there and blabbed all about it without even checking to make sure I was really gone. So congratulations, Master Spy. Gaia knows about you. All her people know about you. They’ll be ready.

“And it’s all your fault.”

If Charmeine had been annoyed before, now she was completely pissed off. “Oh,” she snarled while taking a step my way, “I am going to enjoy watching them take you apart, piece by piece.”

“Yeah?” I lifted my chin. “Maybe you should wait until you get back from your trip.”

“Trip?” she shook her head. “I’m not going anywhe–” At the last second, she spun around.

But it was too late. Because I’d kept her talking, kept her focused on me long enough. The power that I had, the one she didn’t have… was the item-sense. It meant that I could feel things moving. I could feel the slow, ever-so gradual shift of the one person that Charmeine had forgotten about, the one person she had dismissed through all of this, probably because she had spent the past who-knew-how-many months enslaving him.

Columbus was awake. He had spent the past few moments slowly, gradually positioning himself to reach his goggles where they had fallen at the very beginning of all this. And as Charmeine spun that way, he unleashed a concussive blast from his goggles that caught the bitch right in the chest, tore her off her feet, and sent her flying through the broken window.

An instant later, I was right on her heels. Pointing my staff back as I leapt that way, I triggered the concussive blast, expending all of its energy. I didn’t care. She couldn’t get away. We had to be sure. We had to be positive. And a four story fall just wasn’t enough.

Flying out off the explosion of my staff’s charge, I found myself in the air over the street about seventy feet below.  Charmeine was twisting in the air, grabbing something that would obviously let her escape.

I never gave her the chance. The blade on the end of my staff drove its way clear through her chest and out the other side.

Her eyes went wide. I saw the shock there. The disbelief. The denial. She had been winning. She had been taking us apart. She could beat us effortlessly.

Yet, here we were. She had let up for one moment, given one single opening. And now the two of us were falling through the air, with my staff embedded through her body. Hell, she was actually falling slower now, because my own momentum from the staff’s expended charge was propelling us forward in an arc instead of straight down.

“You,” she snarled, “stupid–”

I interrupted. “You’re all connected, right? Good. I want all of you Seosten to know…” As we began to arc down toward the ground, I gave her a dark smile, showing my teeth. “I’m going to use this power to fucking destroy you.”

Her mouth opened, but before another word could escape the woman, I jerked the staff back and up, the blade tearing through her chest before literally cutting her head in half as the blade came up through her neck and out the top.

A blinding, unbelievable rush of pleasure shot through me, flooding my entire body with a feeling beyond anything I’d felt before. Beyond the Amarok, beyond Doxer, beyond anything that I could describe.

She was dead. Dead. Charmeine was fucking dead. The bitch who had puppeted one of my teammates, one of my friends, my girlfriend’s brother for what was probably months by that point was dead!

Dead.

Dead.

DEAD.

But I was in midair, still falling…

And then a hand caught mine. My eyes opened to find Roxa there, riding her hoverboard as she held my wrist with her good arm. “I’ve got you!” she called. “I’ve got–”

Something abruptly grew hot in my jacket pocket. Looking down, I saw it. The orb. One of the orbs that Charmeine had been using. She’d gotten one last trick in. Somehow, while we were falling, even as my staff was embedded in her chest, she had slipped the thing into my pocket. Now it was active. It was about to–

There was a flash of light, and sound. And when it was over, Roxa and I were both laying on our faces in the middle of a brightly lit room. Around us, I saw more bodies picking themselves up. The orbs. They hadn’t just caught us. They had captured others as well.

“The… hell…?” Jazz. She was lifting her head, groaning. “Where…”

“Where the hell are we?” Sands finished for her. It was Sands to my left. She was there, with Gordon beside her. Isaac was a little bit to the right.

That was it. Roxa, Sands, Jasmine, Gordon, Isaac, and me. We had been caught by the orbs.

“Where?” I echoed, slowly looking around the room in the place far, far from Earth. “I could tell you,”

“But you’re not gonna like it.”

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Mini-Interlude 42 – Elisabet

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Of all the places that one might have expected to find the Crossroads Committee Counselor known as Elisabet spending her very valuable free time, one would have to know her quite well to guess that it would be a simple, quaint children’s play at a junior high school. Most people, even many of her co-Counselors, would have run through quite an extensive list of other possibilities before ever getting close to that possibility.

The Spanish woman sat in the rear-most row of seats, despite the fact that the auditorium was barely half full. Half a dozen rows sat between her and the nearest other observers, all of whom were either proud parents or bored siblings, raptly watching or studiously ignoring the events on stage as the pint sized performers carried on with their own rendition of Beauty and the Beast.

Most would also have completely missed the arrival of the new figure who stepped into the darkened auditorium. For one thing, the figure simply stepped through the closed doors rather than opening them to admit any of the light from the outside hall. That coupled with the figure’s almost eerily silent movement within the near pitch-black room meant that they were all-but impossible to notice.

Elisabet, however, noticed. There were a wide assortment of powers that made that possible, from the three-hundred and sixty degree vision that gave her a full view of the entire auditorium and everyone within it at all times, coupled with more than a dozen different powers raising her ability to see in the dark or other vision enhancements, to her senses of smell and hearing being so refined that she could have noticed the arrival even if they had been invisible. Then there were the powers that allowed her to sense air being disturbed, the contents of the figure’s pockets, the calcium in their bones,  even the electrical impulses within their brain. It was all-but impossible to sneak up on a member of the Crossroads Committee, no matter what methods one used. Even teleportation was out, considering not only their multiple danger-warning powers, but also the ones that were able to detect most forms of energy teleportation created.

The point was, ambushing a member of the Crossroads Committee would only be possible by someone of equivalent or greater power. And those were exceedingly few and far between. There were the Eden’s Garden Victors, of course. Unlike the Committee, who all shared all of their powers with one another, each Victor (every tribe had two of them) gained a little bit of the power that each member of their tribe gained when killing a Stranger. That made them roughly equivalent to the power of a Committee member.

But the new arrival was not one of the Victors, or anyone anywhere near powerful enough to take Elisabet by surprise. She’d known that they were coming since even before the figure had come through the closed doors.

Still, she didn’t move. Remaining in her seat, the woman waited as the figure crossed the darkened auditorium to join her. Only once the new arrival had taken the next seat over did Elisabet speak. “You’re going to make your move against the Chambers girl.”

Charmeine, temporarily removed from her host, spoke flatly. “They know who I am. She has the choker, and I didn’t figure it out before…” A look of annoyance crossed her face before she spoke again. “I need authorization to use the spell sealers, Jophiel.”

Elisabet… or rather, the Seosten Jophiel, finally turned slightly to look at the woman. “Spell sealers won’t help you against the protection that was put on Liesje Aken’s heir. We already told you, if the girl dies before you remove that spell, all of us will be exposed. We have all ordered her death. We are responsible for your actions. If she dies by your order or hand, the spell will snake its way up through all of us. We will be revealed to the caster, permanently. That, as you have been reminded of repeatedly, cannot be allowed to happen.”

It obviously took Charmeine a moment to collect herself. Jophiel could tell that much even without the assortment of emotion-sensing powers that she had access to. Finally, the dark-skinned Seosten straightened before speaking. “I don’t need them for her. I need the spell sealers for the Chambers girl. She has the same protection spell, along with about half a dozen others. And that’s just the ones that we’ve been able to find without a thorough search.”

She continued before Jophiel could point out the obvious. “And yes, I know that if the Chambers girl dies, we’ll have the same problem. The energy from her death will trigger the spell that points them straight toward all of us. Even if we leave our bodies and get new hosts, it’ll keep leading them right to us. That’s why we’re not going to kill her. I need the spell sealers to block all the other spells on her long enough to take her in and do what we need to do. Before they wear off, I will send her to our space. The humans have no way of getting anywhere near her out there. After that, all we have to do is wait for the spell to wear off while our people work out why we can’t possess her at their leisure.”

She continued, telling the other Seosten the rest of her plan. At the end, Jophiel lifted her chin, considering for a moment. “You come to me rather than to Manakel because…”

“Manakel referred me to you,” Charmeine replied flatly. “You are the one who controls access to the spell sealers. And if this fails, he wants me to be blamed instead of himself. So he made me come to ask you. That way, if it goes wrong, he wasn’t the one who asked you. I was.”

A slight smile crossed the other woman’s face briefly, before she gave a slight nod. “We need this situation to be attended to. You have permission to use one spell sealer. It should be enough for your purposes. Just remember, they do not, as the humans say, grow on trees.” That was putting it lightly. One spell sealer, of the kind that the woman was asking for, required almost a hundred years to gather enough energy to be useful. They were also exceedingly hard to make, which was why their use had to be approved. Turning slightly, she faced Charmeine. “It should also go without saying–”

“Last chance,” Charmeine finished for her, already standing up. “Yes, I am aware. It won’t be a problem this time.”

Turning, she started to leave before pausing to look back. “… why come here?”

Jophiel nodded to the children on stage. “The girl there, she is my host’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter.” Her chin rose. “One must, of course, maintain illusions. It also allows me time to think, and plan.” Slowly, she looked that way, her voice turning pointed, “In privacy.”  

The black woman squinted at her for a moment, but clearly didn’t want to risk challenging her superior on that. Turning on a heel, she strode away without another word.

For almost three full minutes, the woman sat there in relative silence, aside from the voices on stage. She watched the play, just as she had been doing with half her attention while the other Seosten had been there.

Finally, she was certain that Charmeine wasn’t coming back any time soon. Letting out a breath, she straightened up, standing from the seat while announcing softly, “She seems confident.”

From the seat that she had just vacated, a voice replied, “Of course she does. Between her arrogance and the fact that her failure will lead to her… punishment, it would be far more surprising if she didn’t project confidence.”

Jophiel turned, looking down at the woman who had spoken. Elisabet. The real Elisabet, now that she had vacated her body while standing up, leaving her host sitting there.

While Elisabet was a Spanish woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, Jophiel looked like a very… buxom brunette Caucasian who was barely in her twenties. She appeared to have more in common with Avalon Sinclaire than she did with her host. She was, in every sense of the word, utterly gorgeous, even for a Seosten.

There was a reason that she had been chosen to take the role of Aphrodite while the Seosten had been playing gods amongst the humans, after all.

For a moment, Jophiel and Elisabet stared at one another, both women remaining utterly motionless and silent. Then the Seosten took a step to the side before taking the seat next to the Spanish woman. “I’m sorry she had to interrupt,” she announced, “I promised that we’d watch Daniela’s play without distractions.”

Elisabet shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault,” she replied. “You could hardly send her away without addressing her. That might make her suspicious. And we don’t want that, do we?” She turned away from the play for a moment, looking toward her.

Jophiel continued to meet her gaze briefly before a very slight smile touched her beautiful face. “No,” she replied quietly while taking the other woman’s hand, “we certainly don’t… my love.”

Yes, Elisabet was far more than Jophiel’s host. She wasn’t enslaved, nor was her mind wiped. She wasn’t actually being controlled against her will in any way. No, the truth was that the two were partners, in every sense of the word. Partners in business, partners in combat, partners in all of their endeavors. And partners in love. As they had been for many, many years, since before Elisabet had actually been a part of the so-called Crossroads Committee.

It hadn’t started out that way. Jophiel’s assigned duty at the time of their meeting had been to assess the then-young Heretic for possible infiltration and recruitment into the just-formed Crossroads Academy. Jophiel had originally appeared to her as a young girl who had to be saved from monsters. Over the course of the next several months, she was supposed to determine whether the Spanish girl was worth recruitment.

Instead, the two gradually fell in love with one another, to the point that Jophiel revealed the truth of herself, and her people. And, to her surprise and joy, Elisabet had accepted her.

From that time on, they were partners in every way. Elisabet knew what the Seosten were truly doing, but she also knew about the war that they were fighting against the Fomorians. She knew what the Fomorians intended for humanity, and believed that fighting alongside the Seosten was their best chance for survival.

She did feel some guilt, at times, about the fate of the non-humans who were killed. But the truth was that, guilty as she might feel, her first loyalty was to humanity. And Elisabet believed that if humans didn’t grow stronger, if Heretics weren’t strong enough, that the Fomorians would enslave and destroy all of them. Human, Seosten, or any other race. The creatures that they called Fomorians (even the Seosten didn’t understand what they really called themselves, so Fomorian was a good enough term) would annihilate entire civilizations, just as they had for millennia. Very few were powerful enough to stand in their way. The Seosten stood the best chance of putting an end to the Fomorians. But they couldn’t do it without help.

And that help would be the humans, the Heretics. Once they were strong enough. But to get there… certain eggs had to be broken. Sacrifices had to be made. If that meant allowing certain innocents to die now so that everyone didn’t die later, then… that was something she could live with.

It was something they both lived with. Jophiel lied to her people, and Elisabet lied to hers. They were both lying to everyone except each other. They would never lie to one another. They were each all the other truly had. And if it came down to it, each would choose the other over everyone else in the known universe.

They were, after all…

Partners.

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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“Welcome, boys and girls, to the Clocktower.”

Josiah Carfried (not our magic teacher, the other guy) stood in front of both of our assembled teams about half an hour later. We had gone through the portal room in the Pathmaker building, only to come out in the middle of… well, exactly what he said: a clocktower. We were in the top part of the tower, a room where all four walls were actually the reverse sides of clock faces, and we could see through them to the city beyond. The walls there were apparently one-way, allowing us to see out past the partially obstructing clock hands, but the world couldn’t see in.

Except… my mouth opened to say something about what we were looking at, but Gordon beat me to it. “Where the clocks are,” the boy started in his ever-serious and flat (and frankly, a little suspicious) voice, “they’re not showing the same parts of the city.” Raising a hand, he pointed at the north clock face, which showed a view from above a park, then used his other hand to point to the east clock face, which showed a view above a busy intersection that would have, if they were connected, run through the park. “There’s no way those two views could be that close.”

“Excellent catch!” Josiah blurted, pointing at him then with a wide smile. “Yes, very good, uhh…”

“Gordon,” Jazz supplied for him, giving the boy a short side-eye. “His name is Gordon Kuhn.”

Josiah nodded, his smile widening. “Right, right, Gordon Kuhn. Very good, Gordon.” He turned to gesture at the walls. “Each clock face is actually a portal connecting to one of several dozen possible locations within the city. At any point, our people here can use the portals to get nearly anywhere they need to be almost instantly. With the amount of Strangers we’ve got running around this city, being able to respond that fast is… well, it’s not just important, it’s essential.

“The Minutemen use these portals all over the city. If you know where they are, all you have to do is walk up to one, announce your name, and the portal will recognize you as a Heretic. Then it will open and allow you to come through to here. And from there, you can get anywhere else within the city just by walking up to one of the clock faces and announcing where you want to go. It’ll open the nearest portal. Pretty cool, huh?”  

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Isaac had raised his hand, looking amused. “Did you just say Minutemen? What, can this thing go back in time too? Cuz if it can, I’m gonna go invest in some stocks or something. And maybe get a state named after me. What do you think, no one cares if Wisconsin gets a new name, right?”

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

“Hey now, Paul.” That was Marina Dupont, the tall, pale girl with brunette hair that was cut short, almost above her ears. She was shaking her head at their team leader. “Remember, we solve things constructively. You can’t just tell Isaac to shut up and expect him to learn. You have to tell him what he’s doing wrong and phrase it in a way that allows him to grow as a person.”

I was pretty sure that every single thing with a face, including the clocks, rolled their eyes.

“Mr. Acosta,” Professor Dare addressed Isaac with a narrowed-eye look. “Please, be silent.”

Josiah continued then. “The answer, ah, Isaac, is yes. I did say Minutemen. That’s what the Heretics assigned to this New York branch call themselves. You know, because they live in and deploy through this clocktower. And their goal is to respond to any crisis within minutes. Which, sorta makes the whole ‘Minutemen’ thing make sense. Plus, it’s a reference to Heretics being a part of those militias back when the whole war of independence thing was going on.”

War of independence, I noticed he referred to it as. Not the Revolution or the American Revolution. I was pretty sure that was a British thing. Interesting.

Yeah, a silent voice spoke in my head that I belatedly recognized as Deveron’s, about a quarter of the guys assigned here switched to our side in the war and sabotaged this place so they couldn’t ambush Alters so much. Took them years to put it back together from all the damage we did to it. Wonder if they just stuck the same guys back here after wiping their memories…

He sounded odd, like he’d started out trying to just share a bit of history with me, but turned bitter toward the end of it. I turned slightly to glance at him, and he gave me a slight head shake.

Scout turned to whisper something to her sister, and Sands spoke up for her. “If there’s a bunch of Heretics assigned to this place,” she asked, “where are they? This place looks pretty empty.”

Professor Dare, standing behind us, spoke up. “Their offices and other rooms are downstairs. This is just the transportation room. Though,” she amended then, “I don’t imagine many of them are here…”

Josiah was nodding quickly. “Yeah, they’re pretty busy people. Don’t spend much time around here. Mostly they’re in and out. But we can go down and check things out for a minute. Then we’ll take a little drive to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and we can talk about what you guys wanna do first today. Remember, this is a reward, so you’re not just here to learn. You’re also here to have fun. Four days of fun.”

******

The man wasn’t wrong, at least about the first day. It was more than fun, it was probably one of the best days I’d had since becoming a Heretic. Well, aside from the private time I got to spend with Shiori and Avalon, but in a group setting? Yeah, this was pretty much one of the best. Josiah was clearly intent on showing us a good time while we had the chance to be there.

We went to two different museums, one of which had this awesome light show. We also visited this thing called the High Line, which had been an elevated railroad track back in the thirties, but was now a narrow, raised park that gave some amazing views of places like the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson river. Plus, there were all kinds of food vendors and art pieces scattered throughout. With the pretty grass and bushes and everything along both sides of the walkway above the concrete and pavement of the bustling city below, it was really neat.

That night, we ate at an amazing diner place that served hamburgers practically as big as my head, and long, shoestring fries that made me seriously think about going back and hugging whoever had cooked them. Topping it all off with a big chocolate milkshake was just the best.

Even having Charmeine around, puppeting Columbus, couldn’t totally ruin things. She would get what was coming to her. Every second that she held him against his will, I was going to make her pay tenfold for it. Whenever I saw ‘him’ joking around with Sean, or asking Professor Dare and Josiah questions, and especially whenever ‘he’ got anywhere near Avalon, I barely restrained myself from lashing out. I still had no idea how Shiori had been keeping it together.

At least she wasn’t on this trip. Maybe not having to see Columbus would give her a little break. Though I suspected she’d just spend the entire time worrying. Which was why I texted her pretty much constantly, and sent pictures back. I wanted her to know that everything was going fine.

Hell, even catching the occasional stare from one of Roxa’s old teammates wasn’t enough to put that much of a damper on the day. I already knew that they were suspicious of me, and we were going to take care of that the very next day. I could deal with being stared at awhile longer.

The hotel we were staying at was pretty good too. It was a six story place, and Josiah had rented out about half of the fourth floor. We split into pretty much the same room assignments that we had back at the school, meaning that Avalon and I shared one. Boys were given rooms on one side of the hall, while girls were on the other. Jazz and Marina shared a room, as did Rudolph and Deveron, in order to make everything even. Though I suppose there was a little bit of co-ed habitation going on, since poor Sean was still stuck playing roommate to Charmeine.

Yeah, making snarky thoughts like that in my head did actually help me cope with this situation.

“So what do you think, Herbs?” I asked my pet rock while balancing him on my hand in front of the window of the room that I was sharing with Avalon. “It’s a pretty gorgeous view, huh?”

“It really is,” Avalon remarked from where she was standing over in the bathroom doorway.

Glancing over my shoulder, I raised an eyebrow. “You can’t even see the city from over there.”

She graced me with a tiny smile then, one that few were lucky enough to ever see. Her voice was so soft that I could barely hear, yet the words themselves still sent a shiver through me.

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

My eyes widened briefly, and I made a noise that sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a giggle as my face turned pink. “I, I, um…” Squirming a little, I gave the other girl an admittedly goofy smile. “You’re, umm, I mean… you’re pretty… pretty. Pretty.”

“Chambers,” Avalon drawled slowly, stepping away from the bathroom before walking toward me with a raised eyebrow. “Did you just say ‘pretty’ three times in a row?”

“I, um, it… bore repea–” I started before being interrupted as Avalon reached me. Her lips found mine, and it was all I could do to avoid dropping Herbie as my hand quickly closed. Hell, it was all I could do to avoid dropping myself, as weak as my knees felt.

After a bit of that, Avalon pulled back and gave me a wry, knowing look. “Well, you ready to go?”

“Ready to…” I echoed blankly, mumbling the words cluelessly while staring at her. Which, gorgeous as she was, didn’t really help with that whole focusing thing.  I had to blink a few times, shaking my head to clear it before remembering. “Oh. Oh, right. Um. Um. Yeah, meeting Roxa, got it.” Squinting at the girl, I managed a weak, “That was mean.”

From her smile and wink, I don’t think she felt bad about it at all.

Eventually, we did make our way out of the room. But we didn’t go out the door where one of the others could’ve seen us. Instead, the two of us slipped out onto the balcony. Making sure no one was watching (or at least none of our classmates), I took hold of Avalon before producing my staff in the other hand. Then we leapt from the balcony, dropping fast toward the street before I used a blast of kinetic force from the staff to shove us across the street. Before we splatted against the roof of the lower building there, I let off a couple more bursts from the staff to slow us down until the two of us landed fairly lightly, each dropping into a roll to take the rest of our momentum.

As we picked ourselves up, the sound of slow clapping drew my attention to the other side of the roof, where Roxa stepped into view. “Good job,” she started. “I’ll give the flight over here about an eight, but I’ve gotta drop the landing to a six point five. Sorry, I’ve seen better.”

“Well shit,” I retorted, “guess we’ve gotta go back up there and try it again. Shooting for a nine.”

Stepping over beside me, Avalon lifted her chin to the other girl. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Roxa shook her head. “Nope. The others are back in a motel a few blocks away. Except for Lesedi. She’s up in one of these buildings with a rifle. You know, just in case anything went wrong.”

Restraining the urge to look around, I nodded. “Well, I think we’re okay. We shouldn’t be gone for long though, so here.” Reaching up, I fumbled with the invisible clasp of the choker briefly before pulling it off and offering the thing to her.

We weren’t going to have the meeting between Roxa and her old team until tomorrow, when we could get everyone away from Josiah for long enough. But I wanted the girl to have the choker ahead of time so that I didn’t have to disappear to get it to her before the reunion actually happened. Thus, the quick meeting tonight.

“Thanks,” Roxa replied, feeling out the choker briefly before looking at me. “So all I have to do is put it on?”

I nodded. “Yep. As long as you’re wearing it, their Stranger Senses won’t go off.” Pausing then, I asked, “Nervous about seeing them again?”

She gave a quick, emphatic nod at that. “Hell yeah. I… I think I made the right choice. I know I did. But it’s… it’s still gonna be hard. It feels like I abandoned them. I know, I know they wouldn’t understand. It’s just…” Roxa sighed.

“I get it,” I assured her, glancing toward Avalon. “We both get it. But you should be where you’re happiest, not wherever makes other people happy.”

Smiling slightly, the other girl nodded once more. “Thanks… now you should go, before something happens.”

“Alright,” I agreed, “but be ready for tomorrow. We’ll text as soon as we get away from Carfried and meet you… where did we say?”

“Bowling alley,” Avalon replied. “Four blocks east. Dare vetted it.”

“Right.” Roxa raised her fist. “Bowling alley, tomorrow. I’ll wait for the text. I just hope we–”

She was cut off then as my hand snapped up, covering the girl’s mouth. “Don’t,” I chastised flatly.

“Just don’t.”

******

“Exactly how many pancakes can you eat, anyway?”

Blinking up from my plate to look at Deveron as he finished asking that, I shrugged. “Um. As many as I’ve already eaten, plus… three? I think three.” Blushing a little then, I mumbled, “I like pancakes.”

The two of us were the only members of the group that were up at the moment. Deveron had met Avalon and me when we got back to the hotel, and offered to go out with me after the other girl crashed. So, after spending a little time upstairs, I’d eventually joined him in the lobby. That time, I didn’t mind going right through the hallway. We weren’t going anywhere that would’ve mattered if Roxa’s team saw.

We’d walked around for a little bit, looking through the city. Deveron talked some about other times that he’d been here. I kind of had to coax him into it, but he’d slowly opened up as we strolled. We had moved through the busy city, talking about… well, a little bit of everything, from his time in school and how the teachers had been back then, to what was going on right now, to… hell, his favorite books when he had been growing up. I even asked him about Bystander things, like what it had been like to go to Crossroads while the first World War was happening.

It was honestly the closest I’d felt to the man who was my mother’s first husband that I could ever remember. And now, we were sitting in a diner, eating food while he chose to give me shit about how many pancakes I’d eaten.

He was chuckling, while taking a bite of his own omelet. “Nothing wrong with liking pancakes, Flick.” Tapping his fork against the plate a couple times thoughtfully, he added, “Your mom likes them. Especially–”

“Blueberry ones,” I finished, finding myself smiling. “I remember. Everything was an excuse for blueberry pancakes. On my fifth birthday, she made this…” I trailed off, blanching suddenly as my stomach dropped.

“Flick?” Deveron frowned, his voice rising. “What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s not… it’s just…” I sighed. “For my fifth birthday, Mom made these blueberry pancakes that were shaped like a raccoon. You know, oval for a body, then a circle for the head, an oblong shape for the tail and two little bits for ears. It was…” I swallowed hard, slumping in my seat in the far corner of the diner. “It was supposed to be Taddy.”  

I told him about Taddy, my old stuffed raccoon that I’d had since I was a baby. I told him how close I’d been to my little toy, and how I’d destroyed it with scissors after coming home from school to find my father crying over my missing mother’s shirt.

“It’s stupid,” I mumbled, staring down at the half-finished plate of pancake while blinking stubborn tears out of my eyes that just wouldn’t go away. “Just a dumb toy. But I wish I could take it back.” My eyes closed tightly and my shoulders shook. “I wish I could take it back.”

There was the squeak of Deveron rising from his side of the booth. Then I felt him take a seat at my side. His arm moved around me, pulling me into a sort-of sideways hug that I only resisted for a moment before letting myself slump against him. My head rested against his shoulder, and I gave another shudder.

“I miss her,” I managed after a few seconds of that.

“I know.” There was pain in Deveron’s voice. Pain that I completely understood. “I miss her too, kid.

“I miss her too.”

******

The next morning, after breakfast, it was time for what was promising to to be another long, but fun day. Our first stop, according to Josiah, was the Bronx Zoo. Apparently the rest of the day was supposed to be a surprise, but he promised it would be interesting.

Unfortunately, we had too many people to fit everyone into one vehicle. But Josiah and Dare were on top of that, and already had two vans and a car waiting when we got out of breakfast.

So we split up. The others split up and went into both of the vans, while Professor Dare, the elder Carfried, Rudolph, ‘Columbus’, and I took a car right behind them. Carfried stayed in the front with Rudolph squeezed in next to him beside the driver, while the rest of us sat in the back. Dare was in the middle, putting herself between me behind the driver’s seat and ‘Columbus’ behind Carfried in the passenger’s seat. The reason she gave for putting the two of us on opposite sides of the car was so that we could both look out the window to watch the city. Which sounded like a decent enough explanation.  

I knew why Dare wanted to keep Charmeine in the same car that she was in. It would allow her to keep an eye on the Seosten bitch. Between her and Profess–err, Josiah Carfried, Charmeine wasn’t likely to try anything too obvious. Still, something felt off as the car pulled into traffic.

The driver, a short, squat guy wearing way too much cologne, was chattering away about the city as he wove the car in and out of lanes. Somehow, he always managed to find a spot to swerve into that was barely large enough for the cab. Half the time, he wasn’t even paying attention to where he was going. He’d look over his shoulder to say something about some bridge or building or whatever while jerking the wheel violently to the left to zip into a tiny opening that had just appeared between a dump truck and a van full of Japanese tourists.

Honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention to the poor driver. My gaze was focused out the window, watching passing buildings. But my mind was too busy trying to figure out how Roxa’s team was going to take it when she showed up. Would they calm down, or just double down on their paranoia? Was there anything else I could do, or actually tell them to make things better? I didn’t dare go with the whole truth. I’d gotten really lucky when it came to my own team. I couldn’t expect an entire other team to react that well to the whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ story.

“Hey, Flick.” That was Colu–Charmeine. ‘He’ was leaning forward to see around Dare, eyebrow raised as he fumbled a little with the goggles in his hands that he’d pulled off to tinker with. I could almost believe that he was nervous. “You okay? You seem a little, you know, distracted.”

Yeah, I wanted to say, I’m a little distracted thinking about how I’m going to find a way to rip you out of my friend, my girlfriend’s brother, and burn you alive, you gigantic puppeteering cunt.

Instead, I just managed as much of a smile as I could. “Grew up in Wyoming, remember? Never been to a place like this,” I nodded over my shoulder at the window. “City is freaking huge, man.”

‘Columbus’ smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, “it is freaking huge… man. Oh, and uh, immutatio.”

I was still registering the fact that he’d said some completely random word that didn’t make sense, even as Professor Dare was already twisting. I heard the start of a shout, before she was gone. Gone, as in she literally fell backwards through the car. The spot where she had been sitting was partially translucent, like a ghost. And Dare herself was tumbling along the road, end over end. We’d been going at a pretty decent clip by that point, up to about fifty-five, and that spell that Charmeine had spoken had literally turned Professor Dare’s seat and that part of the car insubstantial, dumping her out onto the road in the middle of traffic.

A cry had just escaped me, as I reflexively jerked my head around. Yeah. Dumb. Idiot. I should’ve stayed focused on Charmeine. But it was Professor Dare. I had to turn, staring through the back window at the sight of the blonde woman getting her feet under herself just in time to dive out of the way of a honking semi that came barreling through the spot she’d been in a second earlier.  

It was only for an instant. I only looked back for the span of a heartbeat before my werewolf-enhanced reflexes made me twist back to face the bitch wearing Columbus. But it was still a heartbeat too long. I saw ‘him’ flip up those goggles of his, thumb hitting a button on the side. Then there was a flash, and I was slumping sideways. My body was locked up, paralyzed.

And it was worse than that. Charmeine had used only one hand to hit the button on the goggles that paralyzed me. Because her other hand was occupied, holding the red-bladed knife that she had just stuck through the back of Josiah Carfried’s neck. The white glow of Columbus’s kill-aura filled the cab, while Rudolph actually let out a strangled scream of shock that only stopped as the driver of the cab drove an elbow back into his face so hard that the boy immediately slumped, unconscious.

“Just one more thing,” Charmeine announced while tugging the red-bladed knife out of the dead Heretic’s neck, her eyes focused on my totally unmoving body as I lay slumped in the corner of the cab. As I was forced to do nothing but watch, she made Columbus’s hand reach up to the roof of the cab. Her fingers scratched away at the fabric there, revealing a spell that had already been drawn in there. Just like the spell that she had prepared to turn Dare’s part of the cab ghost-like. This one, however, did something very different. As she touched it, the view outside the cab windows went fuzzy white for a couple of seconds, and my stomach twisted. Then the view changed. We were in a completely different part of the city.  The spell had teleported the car.

Dare had been left behind. Josiah Carfried was dead. Rudolph was unconscious. The driver was… somehow working with them, and Charmeine… Charmeine wasn’t pretending anymore. I was alone. I was completely on my own, and still paralyzed from whatever those goggles had done to me.  

It felt like my heart was beating so loud that it almost drowned out Columbus’s voice as Charmeine made him speak. “I do hope you didn’t honestly think we were stupid enough to not figure out that you still had the choker. But thank you for being subtle enough about it to give us time to set up enough spells to block all those wonderful little tracking enchantments you’re carrying around. It means that we’ll have plenty of time to have a little conversation.

“A conversation that, I can promise you, you are not going to enjoy.”

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