Chayyiel

Denouement 10 – Blood And Truth (Heretical Edge)

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A full fledged member of the Crossroads Committee versus a not quite second year student. Even if that student was one of the best in her year, with far more experience than she should’ve had, their confrontation would have been utterly laughable. Beyond laughable. It would have been as much of a fight as a small bug facing off with a car on the freeway was. 

It would have been, save for one thing. Litonya wasn’t only facing a second year student. Not in the least. She was facing a second-year student who had been possessed by one of the most dangerous and potent people in the universe, a person whose power amounted to finding ways to win in any situation, no matter what. 

And they were holding Excalibur, one of the most powerful weapons in existence. 

Unfortunately for the old woman, she still had no idea what she was actually facing. With a contemptuous snarl, she made a backhand gesture while sending a wave of force that should have thrown Flick into the wall and put her on the ground with copious broken bones, ending the ‘fight’ in an instant.  

But that didn’t happen. Instead, Chayyiel snapped the girl’s staff up into position, using Flick’s ability to instantly inscribe images onto objects to create a rune before sharply speaking the command word. The wave of kinetic force that should have blown through anything the seventeen-year-old could possibly put up given an entire year of preparation, let alone on such short notice, was stopped short by a glowing shield. 

“Truly, Litty?” Flick’s voice snapped. “Just going for a few broken bones? I thought the savior of all humanity had to go for the kill every time.” 

Litonya, taken by surprise as her utterly dismissive attack was completely stopped short, created a ball of anti-magic directly in front of the girl. The orb, a small, floating red-and-black swirling mass, would prevent her from using any magic. Then the ancient-looking woman simply created a force field bubble around Flick and filled it with the most potent paralyzation drug known to Heretics. One drop of the liquid against her skin would leave the girl completely unable to move for hours unless an antidote was provided. And Litonya had flooded the entire bubble with the stuff. 

Then… a blade appeared. Excalibur cut straight through one of the most powerful forcefields Litonya could summon. It cut through like paper, impaling the anti-magic orb and destroying it as well. A moment later, Flick’s body stepped out, sheathed in a softly glowing forcefield of her own that hugged her form and protected her from the paralyzing liquid. By the blood trickling from the girl’s hand, the shield around her had been summoned using blood magic, something the anti-magic orb would not have been able to stop because it was so incredibly rare that she never should have known it. 

“I mean,” her voice started again, “that’s what you did to your little brother, isn’t it? The guy who depended on you, the one you were supposed to protect. The one who trusted you. Did you feel anything when you murdered him? Did you look him in the eyes, or did you wait until his back was turned?” 

Staring first at the sword, then raising her eyes to the girl herself, Litonya straightened. For just a moment, a snarl touched her lips at the words, before she pushed it aside. A certain feigned bit of age-related weariness and general crooked posture faded as she held herself upright, her voice dark. “Fine then. I suppose I shall have to take this somewhat seriously. And you know nothing of Kutattca, Matanto.”

“I know you stood over his blankets to watch him sleep when he was too young to crawl,” came the response. “I know you swore an oath to the old spirits to protect him, to guide him. I know you held his hand when he was afraid of the noise in the sky, and sang him songs to quiet his fears. I know he loved you more than every leaf on every tree, from the tall rock by the wading water to the narrow canyon where the coyotes slept. I know he trusted you. 

“I know you murdered him.” 

Through all of that, the two of them stood facing one another. Neither moved. Those seconds dragged on while they watched, with their audience remaining just silent. Once Flick’s voice had stopped, it became so quiet that their metaphorical, and in some of their cases literal, heartbeats could be heard.  

In the end, Litonya made the first move. Her face contorted with anger, as she snapped, “I did what was necessary for the world’s survival. I did what had to be done.” 

Then she moved. Unlike many who used super speed, she was not a blur of motion. There was no blur at all. She was simply suddenly moving so quickly that everyone else completely stood still. She was there, in front of Flick’s face as her hand snapped out to take the sword from the girl while throwing her into the wall to be done with this. If it killed the girl, then so be it. She was done playing nice with these traitors. Let it kill the girl, and then she would rip the creature possessing her from the child’s body.

But in that exact same millisecond, a spell that had been inscribed on Flick’s shoulder suddenly flared to life. It was some kind of speed enhancement spell, keyed to trigger the moment it detected fast enough movement. Chayyiel had anticipated this move and prepared for it. Flick was suddenly able to move as quickly as the other woman, her staff snapping out to smack into Litonya’s wrist. 

It should have done nothing. A Committee member was several thousand leagues beyond what someone like a second year student could actually hurt. Litonya couldn’t be damaged by something as simple as being smacked by a staff. It would crumble like a toothpick before so much as breaking her skin. 

Or it should have. But Chayyiel had aimed her strike not to do direct damage. Instead, its angle, speed, and exact target were perfectly planned to strike an incredibly precise spot in the woman’s arm that made it cramp up a bit. She didn’t do actual damage, but Litonya felt the tiniest spasm in her arm before it recovered. That tiny spasm made her gasp slightly, slowing her reaction as the sword went for her stomach. 

But Litonya wasn’t done. Not that easily. A burst of telekinetic force knocked the sword off course before it could impale her, and she conjured a ball of lightning with enough power within it to light up the entire eastern seaboard. Power crackling wildly in her hands, as she sent it directly into the girl. 

It blew through the shield around Flick’s body. The blonde girl jerked a bit, crying out as the very tips of the electricity crackled against her body. But just as quickly, the summoned ball flew away. It was yanked out of Litonya’s control and sent back behind her. As the woman’s gaze snapped that way, she saw Flick’s staff. It had been enchanted with some kind of electricity summoning rune and sent through a small portal the girl had created. A magical lightning rod. 

Damage had been done. There were black scorch marks on the girl’s skin, along with sharp red blisters. But she wasn’t down. Nowhere near it. In fact, even as Litonya’s gaze shifted to the staff, she felt Flick’s body suddenly move onto the attack. 

In a blur of motion, Litonya’s head snapped to the side, avoiding the thrust of the sword. In the same moment, the girl’s voice spoke up once more, her voice a mixture of contemptuous and amused. “Hard decisions?” 

Litonya’s arm  turned to a dull black metal as she blocked the girl’s hand when it smacked out toward her. The metal armor stopped any kind of pressure point shenanigans, even as Flick continued with a spat, “Funny, how your ‘hard decisions’ always come down to you being right and never changing.” 

With a grunt, the Native American woman lashed out with a backhanded blow before sending a narrow blast of concussive force powerful enough to pulverize a steel wall into atoms. Flick’s head barely shifted to let the fist sail past her chin, before she pivoted away from the blast of force. 

“You murdered the brother you swore to protect. The boy on the blankets, the boy who swam at your side, the boy who lay under the stars and told you of dreams. The one you taught to sing. He’s dead because of you.” 

“Because of you!” the Native American woman snarled, her face contorted with rage. “You! You! All of you!” 

Then the fight was on in earnest. Through Litonya’s power and Chayyiel’s magic, the two moved at speeds all but invisible to the human eye. Litonya summoned a blade of energy in one hand and brought it slashing toward the girl’s neck while her other hand created a tiny orb that would put out enough crushing force in the short area in front of it to literally compact any organic material into a much smaller cube. Distract with the very obvious and flashy energy sword and then kill with the much more dangerous but less obvious attack. It was a combination that she had used to great effect over the centuries, similar to those who simply thought of her as a weak old woman. 

But Chayyiel was not one of those people. Before they even finished manifesting, her foot snapped out and tapped against the floor beneath it, conjuring a rune there that quickly became a black chasm, some kind of portal that sucked the growing orb down into it. At the same time, Flick’s hand snapped up with Excalibur to catch the falling blade. While a good number of swords would have instantly shattered under a blow from a blade empowered by a Committee member’s nigh-incalculable energy reserves, Excalibur held perfectly firm. Even Litonya’s incredible strength was countered by a mixture of Chayyiel’s boost and the exact angle she struck the descending blade at.  

It was an exchange that took less than a second, and by the time any watching would’ve been able to comprehend what happened, the combatants had moved on. Four, five, six slashes of that glowing laser blade cut through the air and the next second, all from different angles. All were met and almost casually stopped by Excalibur, as Chayyiel parried at precisely the correct angle to avoid taking the brunt of the other woman’s considerable strength, making the blade slide away from her host with each swing. 

“No,” Flick’s voice finally broke the verbal silence that had followed Litonya’s violent proclamation. “You betrayed your oath and damned your blood and honor. Your brother came to you for help, for love and trust. He came to his sister. And you killed him. No one forced you. No one manipulated you. Your hand was forced by none but your own damned soul.” 

Litonya’s enraged shout of denial filled the room, even as metal tentacles lashed out from one wall to grapple the possessed girl. At the same time, a dozen orange protrusions appeared on the other wall, each sending out rays of blazing heat that would melt through steel. The beams were all perfectly coordinated to avoid hitting one another while leaving nearly no space for Flick’s body to move. As though those were not enough, long diamond-like spears began to pop up from the floor at random angles. They crashed into the ceiling with terrifying force, cutting off even more space.

And through all of that, Litonya kept pressing her own personal attack, coordinating her strikes as well as all three environmental hazards to such a pinpoint degree that none interfered with one another. She said nothing, too angry, too enraged, to focus on any verbal communication. She wanted this traitor dead. She wanted the creature possessing her dead. She wanted them all dead. 

She could go ahead and be disappointed. Twisting sideways to avoid the next heat ray, Chayyiel brought Excalibur up to block two quick strikes from the woman in blindingly rapid succession, even as her foot tapped the floor to create another rune that summoned a wall for two of the tentacles to crash into. A diamond spear erupted from the ground right under her feet, but she was already reacting, turning just a bit before snapping her hand out to catch the rising spear just under the sharp blade. She held on, letting it take her toward the ceiling and above the worst of the blazing rays and tentacles. 

She kicked off of the spear then, launching herself through the air as two crisscrossing red beams shot through the space where she had just been. In mid-air, she pivoted, holding a hand up as a rune appeared on Flick’s sleeve to conjure a small shield of energy. The shield caught the half dozen black dagger-like blades that Litonya had just sent toward her. The blades exploded with incredible force and fury an instant later, but the shield had been prepped to absorb that. 

More tentacles and spears launched themselves at the girl in the air, but she used them like stepping stones, easily hopping from one to the other, pushing off as she made her way to the far wall. It was the source of the rays of blinding heat, all of them firing rapidly at her. But none could touch her. The girl’s figure slipped through and past every attack like a person dodging raindrops in a downpour to remain perfectly dry. Nothing could touch her. 

A forcefield, blazing with heat of its own that would incinerate anything unlucky enough to touch it, suddenly flared into life in front of her. Excalibur cut through it, just as Flick’s body hit the wall. Chayyiel clung there with one hand, fingers somehow finding the perfect grooves in the wall to hang from for a moment. At the same time, she used Excalibur to cleave through the ball of electricity that had been launched toward them, sending sputtering sparks to either side. 

The heat rays had adjusted by that point to shoot straight up. But Chayyiel had had enough time to create yet another spell on the wall, which she triggered with two quick words before launching herself away from it into a dive, once again miraculously passing through the tiny space available between all of the attacks being sent at them. Nothing could possibly have avoided every single beam. 

But she did.

The rays of heat converged, nearly forming a miniature sun in the spot Flick’s body had just been clinging to. Then they stopped. The spell on the wall had taken hold, and the protrusions generating the beams were taken over by it. Instantly, they switched sides and Litonya found herself under assault by her own creations. Creations which, despite all her power and skill, she could not yank back under her own control.

The rays couldn’t actually kill her, of course. But they were distracting, as three of them collided with the woman’s face, staggering her for an instant. 

Only three, Litonya realized belatedly. The rest had proceeded to mercilessly burn through all the metal tentacles she had summoned, as well as most of the forest of diamond spears. They cleared some space for Chayyiel to work with.

She worked, in this case, by speaking again. “That’s why you want Joselyn dead. That’s why you were willing to kill innocent children. It’s why you’re willing to do everything you’ve already done that you can never tell anyone about. The family in the attic in San Diego. The crystal child who lived below the stage and only wanted to feel the music. The girl who came to you for help. The ones you killed. The ones you chose to kill, because it was easier.” 

After that trio of heat rays left a very slight scorch mark on her cheek, Litonya first protecting herself by sheathing her body in the same metal armor from before. Then she used a sharp gesture to hit all of her own co-opted heat generators with an array of ice beams that shattered each of them.

In that moment, Flick’s body was in front of her, speaking once more. “Because you have to. You have to kill them. You have to murder infants and slaughter every creature you ever see. You have to burn them all, because if you don’t, if there’s even one single innocent out there, it means you were wrong. It means you betrayed and killed your own brother for no reason.” 

Litonya’s blade lashed out dozens of times in the span of a bare couple of seconds. None even came close to striking home. Her rage had blinded her to everything, leaving Chayyiel able to continue in that same flat and definitive tone. 

“It means you’re not a hero making hard decisions. You’re not the savior of the world. You’re not a wise old woman creating a better life for others by doing what has to be done. 

“You’re just a psychopath who murdered her own brother. You’re not the light shining against the darkness, you are the hand snuffing the candle. You don’t make hard decisions. You’re too much of a coward to make a hard decision. Those who stand against you, those who speak when you would silence them, who stay and fight when you would rip their hearts from their chests for the crime of believing differently than you. They are brave. They know what you would do, and still they fight. You hide behind your beliefs and the power that has been handed to you. You slaughter innocent after innocent because the very second you stop doing so, you have to admit that that is what you have been doing.” 

With a thought, the old woman summoned a terrifying thunder clap that would deafen anyone aside from herself and leave them disoriented enough to finish off in an instant. 

Or it should have. Because once again, Chayyiel had anticipated such a move. The moment that the sound filled the hall, another prepared rune that had been waiting for just such a trigger flared to life on the girl’s collar. The incoming sound was immediately muted for her, leaving Flick and Chayyiel just fine. 

They behaved as though they had been affected, however, staggering just a bit. There was no need to overdo it. Chayyiel simply gave their opponent the tiniest opening, a single moment of apparent vulnerability to take advantage of. 

Litonya took the bait, abruptly appearing directly behind the girl as she lashed out with her energy blade to impale the traitorous spawn of a traitor and end this once and for all. 

Her blade passed straight through a small portal that had suddenly appeared directly at the small of Flick’s back. The other end of the portal appeared directly in front of the blonde girl’s face. At the same time, her foot tapped the floor to create another rune, making it blossom into what appeared to be an energy shield, as though to block the same blade she had just sent toward her own face. 

But she ducked, dropping a bit as the blade hit the wall of energy she had summoned. And in that instant, Litonya had just enough time to realize that it wasn’t a shield at all. Rather, the glowing ‘wall’ was actually a magnifier of sorts, multiplying the damage of any laser at that passed through it. Or, in this case, that of her energy blade. The already powerful laser construct was made several times more so just before it was about to stab into her own face. 

She twisted, managing to avoid taking the blade into her eye. It cut into her shoulder instead, cutting straight through the armor and deep into the muscle beyond. It drew a strangled and furious cry of pain from the woman, who was not at all accustomed to actually being hurt at any point in recent memory. 

Chayyiel had already pivoted, dismissing the portals as Excalibur lashed out. The blade cut into the exact spot on the other woman’s shoulder where she had just damaged herself. It was enough to bring another cry of pain from the woman as she used her other hand to summon a wave of mountain crushing force. But before she could, Chayyiel created a portal directly in front of the hilt of Excalibur as she yanked it back. The other end of the portal appeared at a spot right by Litonya’s neck. That metal armor still covered her skin, making it impossible to affect her with a simple touch. But this was not a simple touch. As the hilt impacted her armored neck, Chayyiel triggered the spell she had placed on it, creating a tiny, localized and contained, yet incredibly powerful explosion that rocked the woman’s head to the side. It disrupted her focus, stopping her from creating that crushing force that likely would have ended the fight. 

“Joselyn sacrificed her freedom and her soul for family,” Flick’s voice informed the woman in a whisper that still filled the corridor around them. “You… you sacrificed family for nothing. And when he died, when you cut him down from behind like the coward you have always been, the boy who slept on those blankets, who held your hand through those storms, the boy you taught to sing…

“He died ashamed of you.” 

Litonya went wild with rage. A dozen lasers filled the air. Her blade lashed out time and time again. A rush of cold air that would freeze almost anything it touched filled the space around them. Twin bolts of lightning were summoned from the ceiling to the floor where Flick stood.

None struck their target. Between her own movements, summoned spells to intercept, and blindingly fast motions of Excalibur, Chayyiel avoided everything that had been launched at them. Parried the blade, danced around a bolt of lightning, created a wave of heat that dissipated the rush of cold air, and finally flicked Excalibur up at the exact angle to find a single weak point in the armor covering the other woman’s wrist. The blade didn’t quite cut through even then, but hit that single weak point in a way that made the muscles in Litonya’s arm seize up for just an instant. 

That was all the opening that Chayyiel needed. Instantly, she used Flick’s power to transfer the sword from one hand to the other, already lashing out with it. The blade found that exact damaged bit of Litonya’s shoulder that had not yet been fixed… and cut straight through it, severing the woman’s arm. 

With a bellow of mixed fury and surprised pain, the old woman reflexively grabbed at the bloody stump, only to find her hand intercepted by the ready blade as Excalibur struck the exact same spot it had hit a moment before, directly on her wrist. That time, the blade actually cut through her armor, taking the woman’s hand with it. In the span of a single second, one of her arms and the opposite hand had both been cut off. 

Chayyiel’s free hand snapped out while the woman was still reacting to that, conjuring a rune onto Litonya’s chest that triggered instantly and created a blast of pointed kinetic force so strong that it shattered several of her ribs and partially collapsed a lung even through her armor. She was sent flying back to crash ragdoll-like into the wall, where she lay on the floor in a heap. 

Flick’s voice was dark, and hard. “Do you know why you’re not healing, why every attempt you’ve already made to regrow that arm and hand has failed? It’s because Excalibur does not allow that kind of healing. The damage it does is far more permanent. And now you will be an example. Everyone who looks to your Committee will see that you are not invincible. So many of those who have chosen to stand against you do so despite believing that you are one step removed from a god. Imagine how many will turn when they see what you really are.

“Now do what you have always done when presented with a challenge. 

“Run.” 

With that final word, Excalibur lashed out once more to take the woman’s head from her body. 

Litonya vanished an instant before it would have. The old woman, untouchable for so long before being suddenly disarmed in a very literal sense and a moment from death, teleported away. She retreated. 

The moment she was gone, Chayyiel stepped from Flick, cracking her neck once while examining the sword now back in her own hand. “Well then,” she announced. 

“Shall we finish getting you out of here?”

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Denouement 8 – Ambuscade (Heretical Edge)

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Despite all of the attention the attack outside was getting, there were still a decent number of guards left in the prison. Those guards made their presence known as Flick and Sean’s group raced through the hallways of the facility. Most were dealt with by Athena, as she used her power repeatedly to warn her of incoming danger. Here and there, she would direct one of the others, warning them to stop, where and when to swing a weapon, and where to step to avoid the prison’s own substantial traps and defenses. 

As the group turned another corner, Sean scribbled on a piece of paper, drawing quickly while occasionally glancing up to check their progress. Finally, the boy-turned-young-man slapped the paper against a wall and blurted the activation word. As he did so, a knee-high wall apparently made of the same material as the actual wall shot out into the corridor all the way to the opposite side. A second later, the short, newly summoned wall extended itself clear back down the corridor they had just come from, curving around the bend. It seemed to stretch on for a good sixty or seventy feet, before popping upwards to fill in the space above itself, forming a full wall. A full wall almost a hundred feet long, leading back down the way they had come to close off the entire corridor for that length. 

“Been wanting to try that one for awhile,” Sean observed in a somewhat hoarse voice. “Nice to have space to actually use it.”

He tried to sound casual about it, but there was clear anger, loss, and bitterness lying just behind the words. 

They continued on, Sean laying more walls, traps, and illusions as they went. None of them were expected to actually stop any pursuit, but forcing them to deal with it would take time. As would forcing them to slow down, anticipating anything that was put in their way. 

Finally, the group reached the door leading into the room containing their part of the anti-teleportation defense. Just as they got there, however, the door opened and a guard stepped out. He didn’t seem surprised to see them, but neither was he holding any kind of weapon or making any move to attack. Athena also didn’t do anything more than raise an eyebrow at the man. The two of them stared at each other for a brief moment before the woman spoke. “You know why we came this way?”

The Heretic nodded, then grabbed the door to open it once more. “It’s all yours.”

Before Flick, Sean, Avalon, or Sands could question that, the door slammed shut once more, ripping its way out of the man’s hand. A new voice spoke up, from back the way the group had come. “It most certainly is not theirs.”

Everyone whirled that way, only to see Litonya. The ancient-looking Native American woman stood there, a scowl crossing her heavily-lined features. Power, the extent of which none of them, not even Athena, could hope to actually face straight on, emanated from the angry Committee Heretic. 

“Though I am quite certain we can find other accommodations for each of you.”

*****

A shower of tiny bone spears that had been shot from Pace’s raised hand were intercepted and destroyed by a flurry of lasers courtesy of a small, frisbee-sized drone. The drone adjusted its fire to shoot at her as well, but she blurred out of the way in a burst of super speed, catching only a couple of shots that hurt, but not nearly enough to put down a Heretic-werewolf. 

Unfortunately, she had only gone a few short feet out of the way before a heavily muscled arm slammed into her, going just as fast. Pace was knocked onto her back, as the adult male Heretic stood over her. The drone fit itself back to his arm, matching its twin on the other arm.

“Garden bitch, huh?” the man snarled while forcing a half dozen metal bands to pop from the ground and wrap around the girl as she was trying to catch her breath. “Gotta tell ya, I don’t hate the idea of killing one of those, orders be damned.”

With that, he raised his foot, silver encasing it just as he began to slam it down toward her head with a loud cry of rage. 

A small, blonde figure slammed into him from the side. It wasn’t enough to knock the man down, despite Roxa’s strength. But it did make him stagger just enough that his descending foot missed Pace’s head. It slammed into the ground a few inches away, leaving a small crater there, as rocks and dirt were sent flying. 

Before Roxa could recover from her headlong crash, the man’s hand snapped out, yanking her off her feet before he smacked her upside the head with his other hand, stunning the girl. An instant later, he shook her violently while holding the dangling girl up by her arm. “The fuck are you supposed to be, the cavalry?”

Though dazed, Roxa shook her head. A smile crossed her face as she held a small mouse up with one hand. Her answer was a quiet, “Transport.”

With that, her fingernails extended into claws, piercing the mouse’s throat. It died instantly, and a glowing figure appeared before revealing Theia, as she grabbed the man’s shoulder. “Hi, fuckface!”

She disappeared into him, possessing the man before he could do more than make a slight sound of protest. A moment later, his hand waved, removing the metal bands from Pace before helping her up while simultaneously setting Roxa down carefully. 

Wincing, Pace murmured, “Thanks, are you—”

Before she could say anything else, the man’s head abruptly jerked so hard to the side that it turned almost one hundred and eighty degrees. He fell to the ground dead, while Theia emerged from within him. 

“You could’ve passed off the damage to something else and let him go!” Pace blurted. 

“And we could’ve used his Heretic powers in this fight,” Roxa pointed out, a bit more mildly. 

To Pace, Theia sniffed. “He tried very hard to kill you. I don’t let that go.” To Roxa, she admitted, “But maybe I was a little impulsive about it. Which is very strange and out of character for me.”

The three exchanged looks, but couldn’t say anything else, as they were suddenly lifted off their feet and sent flying by a tidal wave of earth. A new threat had presented itself, and they were once more thrust into the ongoing battle. 

******

A gleaming blue sword cut rapidly through the air, intercepted three quick times by a shield that left a glowing forcefield behind. Miranda, back-pedaling with her shield raised, ducked under a fourth swing from her Heretic opponent. An instant later, the man pivoted in place, lashing out with a kick that took a second Miranda in mid-leap, colliding with her stomach and sending her to the ground. His sword snapped down to intercept the hurled forcefield disc from a third Miranda, before he used a gesture to send a diagonal pillar of stone out of the ground to collide with yet another. 

“You think you can beat me with numbers?” the man snarled. “Two can play at that game. Or should I say…”

Three more glowing figures emerged from the man. Each resolved into a near-copy of him, though rather than being exact duplicates, one was made of obsidian, one of silver, and the third some kind of red metal. 

“Four,” the quartet finished a bit smugly. 

In response, each Miranda duplicate split twice more, providing three opponents for each of the four of him. They all attacked at once, sharing powers between them as they collectively threw themselves at the man. It didn’t help that much. Despite being outnumbered, each of him was more experienced and had more abilities to work with. Several of the Mirandas were killed, briefly stunning the others. One of the Mirandas, on the ground from a particularly rough blow, slammed her hand against the dirt. As she did so, the sound of it was amplified into a shockwave that spread out from that point, staggering each of the men briefly. She then quickly rolled over, mouth opening to shout in a voice that was amplified and focused, “Hey!

The shockwave from her voice slammed into the original man, knocking him back a step. His hand snapped up, only to be hit from another side by a different Miranda using the same power with, “Leave!”

A third struck him from behind with an amplified, “Me!”

“Alone!” The final word came from the first Miranda again. But she didn’t use it to strike him. Instead, the girl turned her head toward the ground and used the force to launch herself up and at the man. He had already recovered and grabbed her leg easily. But a new Miranda burst forth from her in yet another duplication, locking her arms around the man’s neck as she shoved her face right up to his ear and used the power again. “Fuck you!”

That was enough to truly stagger the man. He went to one knee, dropping both Mirandas as blood fell from his ear thanks to his burst eardrum. 

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t keep him down long. Worse, there were still his metal duplicates to deal with, who didn’t disappear when the original lost focus as the Mirandas had hoped they might. Instead, the three metal versions of the man simply looked profoundly pissed off as they closed the distance with the various Mirandas. 

Then the girl(s) had help that actually wasn’t from herselves. A Hunga Munga throwing axe flew through the air just past the silver man, before stopping as Koren appeared, holding it. Without an instant of hesitation, she swung her second axe in the other hand. In mid-swing, the weapon suddenly grew in size, becoming almost comically enormous aside from the bit where she was holding it. The head of the axe was almost as large as the man himself. And more than its size was increased. Making it bigger also magnified the force with which she hit by many times. 

The blow literally cut the silver man in half, making the others stop short while Koren returned the axe to its normal size. “Hey,” she snapped, “didn’t my friend here tell you to leave her alone?”

Each remaining Miranda had gotten to their feet by that point. They spread out, a few more filling in their lost numbers. The man whose eardrum had been burst rose, a forcefield appearing around him as he snarled, “Traitors.”

Koren retorted, “Child-soldier rearing, mass-murdering psycho. Tell you what, when your side isn’t indiscriminately killing everything that isn’t exactly like you without so much as a trial, locking someone in solitary confinement for years, kidnapping toddlers to be held hostage, and seriously considering using a blood plague to enslave half their population, you can think about being within an airplane’s reach of the moral high ground. Until then, fuck you!

The man’s eyes narrowed as he gave a quiet snarling sound that resolved itself into the single word, “Lies.” 

With that, he teleported the distance between himself and the nearest Miranda. His hand grabbed her by the face and lifted the girl off her feet as he spun to slam her down into the ground on her back. At the same time, a group of precise waves of kinetic force struck each of the other Mirandas and Koren. They were thrown into the air with cries as the two metal duplicates each fired several bolts of electricity straight into the spot they were launched toward. Koren and the Mirandas were caught by the lightning bolts, spasmed in the air, and were dropped to the ground where they lay still. 

The man experienced a brief rush of pleasure as his blue aura flared. It wasn’t much, but then, a couple random students wouldn’t provide any huge boost. 

He exhaled after the aura faded, sighing a little as he stepped over to where Koren’s motionless form was. “Wasn’t really supposed to kill you, but oh well. Accidents happen. Guess that means you don’t have anything else to say though, huh, smarta—”

He was interrupted by the giant axe head suddenly bearing itself in his chest. Blood spilled from his mouth, choking the man as he blinked down in disbelief. The axe was held by a very much alive Koren. 

“Thank my Uncle Wyatt. He made a spell that triggers a small version of the Heretic kill aura. Only works if they actually think they could have killed something. So we had to give you an opening.”

With that, she shrank the axe back down to its normal size while yanking it out of him. The man choked up more blood before collapsing to the ground. As he fell, Koren’s aura flared to life, the girl’s back arching as an unwanted cry of pleasure escaped her. 

And hers was real. 

The remaining Miranda, the one who had been slammed into the ground, found her a moment later, both of them looking very bruised and battered. “You okay?”

Koren’s head shook. “I didn’t want to kill him. I… I was going to use the transport stone. But I was afraid it wouldn’t work yet. He wasn’t that hurt. If we didn’t stop him right now, he could’ve… I mean… it was the only opening we had, and we might not have gotten another one before… I… I… oh God.”

She turned then, throwing up on the ground while Miranda quickly moved to help her. She pulled the hair away from Koren’s face, keeping an eye out around them just in case while letting the other girl purge herself of at least the physical manifestation of her revulsion. Maybe it would help for a little while. 

Both girls crouched there on the edge of the chaos, each trying to cope, and help the other cope, with the violence they had to perform. Violence they would continue to perform, no matter how sick it made them. 

This was war, and it was only going to get worse. 

******

The man who had come through the door and began to let Flick’s group pass him was yanked off the floor, hurled down the corridor, and left to slam into the wall. He slumped unconscious, as Litonya announced, “I do not know if you are a coward or a traitor. Nor do I care. You will be dealt with later.”

Her eyes focused on the group, settling on Flick first, ignoring Avalon as the dark-haired girl stepped in front of the blonde. “Gabriel should have taken my advice and had you quietly killed before you could cause this much trouble. He still hasn’t learned his lesson. So absurdly soft-hearted, having your siblings spirited from their crib before my agent in the Rebellion could eliminate them.”

A look of mixed shock and confusion leapt to Flick’s face, as she stammered, “Wait, w-what?”

Litonya shrugged. “Gabriel believed that taking the children hostage would be enough. I knew that while it may temporarily force Joselyn into compliance, it would not truly change her. We would have this same issue soon enough, as proven now. But finding her infant children murdered in their crib? That would truly break her, and we would never have to deal with her again.

“We disagreed. I overruled him and gave the order. He went around me and had the children abducted before my agent could do the work. If he had simply listened to me the first time, we wouldn’t be here now.” Her head tilted a little thoughtfully, a small sneer crossing her lined face. “And, I suppose, you wouldn’t be anywhere at all.”

Flick rocked backward from that, both hands covering her mouth as her face turned white. A sound of various mixed emotions choked its way out of her covered mouth while Avalon and Sands split their attention between her and the woman in front of them, clearly at a complete loss. 

Sean spoke up, his voice was hard. “You tried to send someone to murder innocent children? You try to have babies assassinated, and you still think you’re in the right? You somehow managed to make Gabriel Ruthers abducting infants into a moral improvement over your own plan, and you still think you’re some kind of savior?” His voice shook with a mix of disbelief and anger. Nearby, all Flick could do was stare with her hands over her mouth, completely unable to find any words at all. 

“You’re an evil bitch,” Sands spat. 

Litonya regarded her impassively. “I do what is necessary to protect the majority of this world, against any who may threaten it.” 

Her attention shifted toward Athena. “And you are one of those threats, are you not?”

The Olympian drew herself up to her full height, short brown hair seeming to glow a bit as she drew Excalibur. “Am I a threat to your world? Absolutely. I am Athena, though many on your world know me as Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.”

Litonya’s eyes narrowed. “Do you truly believe that you have the slightest—”

Her head snapped to the side then, avoiding the sword as it was thrown through the air. It sailed past, missing her throat by an inch before embedding itself in the wall beyond. 

A dry chuckle escaped the old woman then. “And here I had believed that Athena was known for some great tactical ability. I suppose such accolades were thoroughly undeserved. Throwing away the most powerful asset you have was the single dumbest thing you could have done.”

Athena looked unperturbed. “Was it? I told you, I am also called Nimue. And if you knew anything at all about my history, you would realize one very important thing. I was not known for using the sword. 

“I was known for giving it to someone far better than I.”

A sound behind her made Litonya spin, in time to see a glowing figure emerge from the man she had knocked out, the man who had been neither traitor nor coward, but possessed. The figure resolved itself into a physical form, hand grabbing Excalibur before pulling it from the wall and turning to face Litonya. 

“Hi,” Chayyiel announced. “Do you mind sharing?”

“Do I mind—” The confused Litonya began to echo the words, but they weren’t meant for her. Another glowing figure appeared, as Tabbris stepped from Flick, who made a quick portal, hand extending through it. Chayyiel caught her hand, before disappearing into her. Flick straightened, one hand holding Excalibur while the other hand held her staff. 

“Now then,” Chayyiel spoke through her. 

“What were you saying about this girl’s family?”

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Summer Epilogue 1B (Heretical Edge)

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In the end, the group (consisting of Dare, Kohaku, Gabriel Prosser, Sariel, Apollo, Athena, Larees, Haiden, Larissa, Theia, Metatron, Raphael, Chayyiel, Jophiel, and Cahethal) traveled through six different portals before finally reaching their destination. While the lab was located on Earth and would have been ordinarily reachable through a single portal, it was protected in a myriad of ways. One of those ways was a particular spell which functioned as a combination lock of sorts. If the person entering did not first go through each of the previous five locations just before entering the lab, all of the contents within it would disappear.

Once they were finally there, the group as a whole looked around. They had arrived in a perfectly white room just large enough to hold them. Every surface was pristine, without a single smudge or fleck of dust. The immaculate white walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to pulse a bit with power for a few seconds after their arrival.

Cahethal spoke for the first time as the pulsing glow faded. “A sterilization spell, to remove any exterior contaminants that might be brought in. And unless I miss my guess…”

Sariel confirmed, “A version of the expulsion magic, to ensure that no one enters carrying one of our people unknowingly.”

Metatron gave a dark look at that. “That spell technology is not allowed anywhere near this world. It is heavily regulated. You should not even have been taught how to use it.”

Apollo cheerily replied, “She wasn’t. She reversed engineered it after spending so much time in old Kushiel’s place.” Though his words were light, there was an underlying hardness to his tone as he stared intently at the old man while bringing up what his adopted sister had gone through.

Cahethal gave the woman a curious look at that, several different thoughts clearly playing out in her mind while she remained silent.

Metatron, however, wasn’t nearly so reserved. He gave both of the ‘twins’ a disbelieving look. “Even if that were true, which I have many reservations about, allowing power like that to be here on this planet, even in a controlled environment, is absurdly risky. If it were to accidentally find its way to anyone else—”

Apollo interrupted. “Oh, it’s finding its way to other people. Like Gabriel here. You can be damn sure that his people are going to have these things set up around their homes. So if you or any of your colleagues might have been thinking about any infiltration, they should reconsider.”

Giving them another incredulous look, Metatron snapped, “You would provide such dangerous magic to another species? Do you have any idea what you risk with such insanity?”

It was Chayyiel who spoke. “For someone who has ranted at such lengths on what sort of traitors Lucifer and Sariel are, you seem oddly surprised that they do not consider themselves loyal to our side.”

Her words were met by a brief look from the man, and a simple, vaguely disbelieving, “Our side?”

Before anyone else could respond to that, Raphael spoke up while cracking his neck. “As much fun as this banter is, it’s somewhat crowded in here, and I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. When that happens, my wings tend to come out. Which, in a place like this, could be dangerous for everyone else. What do you say we move on?”

Haiden nodded. “I’m with David Lee Roth over there. We’re not going to get along, so let’s just get this over with.”

“Yes,” Jophiel agreed quietly. “Some of us have other matters to attend to once this business is finished.”

From where she was standing, Larissa observed, “Like getting ready to leave the host you’ve been enslaving for so long once Liesje’s spell is fixed?”

Jophiel offered her a smile. “Fortunately, that is not a problem I have to contend with. The Committee’s connection to one another should be enough to dilute your little spell. At least enough for me to retain control. So I do hope that any of your future plans did not rely solely on us losing influence over Crossroads.”

While the others exchanged glances, Sariel and Apollo moved to the nearest wall and began to run through several unlocking spells together to open the way forward. it took over a minute of rapid incantation before a single doorway appeared nearby. It was a simple arch, revealing a much larger room beyond.

As a group, they moved one by one through the archway and into the lab itself. The place was as wide as a basketball court and as long as two of them. Dozens of tables were set up all around the room, with bits of equipment, half-formed spell runes, notebooks, computers, and more all over the place. In the very center of the room was a pedestal with a softly glowing blue orb slightly larger than a softball sitting on it. Patterns of white runic symbols danced across the surface of the orb, the spell that kept its contents contained, among other things. Stacks of paper as tall as a person surrounded the pedestal, while another had been knocked over so that its contents were spread all around the foot of it. There were notes sprawled on the floor, as well as on the pedestal itself. Notes which seemed to flip back and forth between Latin and English seemingly at random, as though the person taking them was absently flipping back and forth themselves.

Cahethal observed, “I see neither of you have yet mastered the art of a clean and organized workspace that I spent so long trying to instill in you. It is good to know that some things will never change.”

With a grin, Apollo agreed, “Yeah, like the way we’re still finishing the work you couldn’t get done.”

Raising a finger to point at the man, Cahethal started to retort before pausing. Then she lowered her hand and carefully replied, “The time will come, Lucifer, when we are no longer in a truce. You would do well to remember that.”

Before he could respond, Larees spoke up. “So hey, I’ve gotta ask…” She took a quick sip from her flask before continuing. “Exactly how many days or weeks do you think you devoted to trying to figure out why you couldn’t possess that Chambers girl? Is there a ream of notes with all your hypotheses about it? Ooh, or holo recordings. Because I would pay good–”

“Stop it,” Sariel snapped before adding a simple, “It’s easy to overlook the obvious answer to a problem. She’s the one who helped teach us that.”

With those words, the woman moved to the pedestal. “Come on. We’ll show you how to do this and then you can leave Earth.”

“Finally,” Metatron announced while they followed her, “you say something that I can fully and completely agree with. Being away from this planet and rid of responsibility for it, even if only for one of its years before your experiment inevitably fails, sounds quite pleasant right now.”

“If everyone is finished sniping at one another, maybe we should get on with it,” Chayyiel announced.

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed in a doubtful tone, “show us what you have done that is so different than what hundreds of our best scientists have been able to do with thousands of years of work.”

Apollo began to explain while Sariel did something with the orb. “See, your problem was that you’ve all been trying to open a new portal into Tartarus.”

A disbelieving came over Cahethal. “Yes, that is our entire purpose here. Have you misunderstood this completely?”

Sariel spoke then while rising from where she had been making one last adjustment to the pedestal. “He doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want a portal to exist. He means it’s wrong for us to try to open it. We can’t.”

Before any more exasperated demands could be made, she continued while picking up the orb. “This can. You see, thousands of years ago, long before we came anywhere near that spot of space, something came out of it. Something made that hole from Tartarus to our universe. Whatever it was punched a hole between realities. When it did, it left behind a trail of the same energy from that reality that we use to empower ourselves. Think of it as stepping out of a lake and walking on dry ground while leaving puddles behind you. It carried that energy with it when it came here. Energy which, I will remind you, can never be completely destroyed.”

“That’s what you have in that orb,” Jophiel observed.

Sariel nodded. “Yes. Over all those years, the energy trail drifted apart through the entire universe. We—” She indicated herself and Apollo. “— have been using magic to pull bits of it here for a long time. And this orb is what we have.”

Apollo clarified, “What she means is that we set it up to pull in that energy thousands of years ago and she’s been quietly working on it off and on all this time. She just needed a little help right at the end to get it fully contained and sealed up in that nice little package for you.”

Metatron raised an eyebrow. “So what you are saying is that you have worked thousands of years and have managed to collect just enough energy to empower perhaps one person. Somehow this is not the solution I believe the rest of the Seraphim were hoping for. And it is certainly not what you promised.”

Apollo just shook his head. “What you do with the orb when we give it to you is up to you. You can use it to empower one person. Or, you can be smart with it.”

Cahethal spoke then, understanding. “We can use it to get back into Tartarus. If we flood it with enough power to jumpstart it while those specific spells on that orb are active, the residual Tartarus energy will attempt to return home. We don’t have to make another portal. They will leave a hole when they pass through. A hole which we can catch before it closes and stabilize.”

Raphael gave a low whistle. “That simple, hmm?”

Chayyiel shook her head. “There’s nothing simple about it. But, yes. It should work exactly the way they say. We will be able to open the way to Tartarus once more. Or, as he said, empower a single individual.”

“I suggest you go with the first option,” Apollo put in with a smirk. “But, you know, you do you.”

“I would point out here,” Metatron noted, “that this entire situation has grown beyond your initial demand. First, you say that it is to create a deal where we will leave your family alone. And now, it is tied into the truce agreement with this planet.”

Sariel nodded. “Let’s just say our changing situation necessitated a more thorough agreement. Not that it changes anything. The Seraphim have already voted to give Earth one year to prove ourselves. And you already know that you’re agreeing to leave my family alone. We’re just putting the bow on both deals together.”

It was Raphael who agreed. “She’s right, it doesn’t change the agreement. If anything, it gives us an out. Because if this orb doesn’t do what they say it well, that provides you an excuse to break the entire deal. Or at least bring it up for review with the rest of the Seraphim. And I can pretty much guarantee that if this promise is broken, there will be enough votes to nullify the truce.”

The man let that hang for a moment before snapping his gaze to Apollo and the others. “So, I really hope that it works the way you’re saying it will. Because I kinda like this place and I’d really prefer not to go all full scale invasion and war on it. It’s a great planet to come vacation once in a while. You know, when you just need to get away from everything. It would just rip me apart to have to come here and… rip it apart.”

“It will work.” That was Kohaku. “You all sign the magical agreement to leave her family alone for good, and to uphold the truce agreement here for one year, to enact no substantial efforts against this world for that time. Then you can take that orb back to your space and play all the super soldier games you want. Go bowling with it for all we care. But take it and go.”

Raphael observed her briefly, his tone curious. “You were the one Manakel took as a host, right? I, um… I’m sorry you didn’t know him before. He used to be a lot more fun than he ended up becoming.” After a brief pause, the man took in a breath and then let it out in a sigh. “I know it means basically nothing. But I do wish you could have known him then. He would have been appalled and destroyed by what he became. And the Manakel I knew would have wanted you to have this.” Extending his hand, the man held out a simple necklace of sorts. It was a small clear crystal dangling from a leather cord.

“It’s okay. You can have all your magic experts look over it as much as you want. It’s not a trap.”

Rather than take it, Kohaku simply stared. “What the hell is it?”

It was Theia who spoke up. “Dead seer.”

Raphael nodded to her. “Exactly. See, back when Manakel was still new to his gift and exploring the art of necromancy, he created this. It doesn’t summon any ghosts or zombies or anything. Instead, when a person looks deep into the crystal, they will see an image from the life of someone they’ve lost. It’s sort of a window into the past. You can’t interact with them, you can’t bring them back, you can’t do anything except look. It’s like one of your human video tapes. Just look into it and think about who you want to see. Anyone you knew who passed away.”

Kohaku’s hand moved to close around the cord, but she didn’t take it. Her eyes bore into the ancient, powerful figure’s. “You expect me to believe that you’re just handing this over with no strings attached and no tricks. Forgive me, but I’m not exactly inclined to think the best of your people.”

Chayyiel spoke. “Manakel was his descendent, his great-great grandson, and his protégé of sorts. Raphael helped raise and protect him.”

The man himself gave a short nod. “As I said, I knew him a long time ago, and I know what he would want. He didn’t always make the right choice. And he got a lot worse over time. But he’d want you to have that. If you want to throw it away, that’s up to you. Take it, and do what you’d like with it.”

As the woman silently accepted it with a conflicted look, Metatron cleared his throat. His expression was annoyed. “If we are quite finished playing nursemaids to the humans and the traitors, perhaps we can complete this arrangement. We still need proof that the orb will work as described before we sign any deal.”

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed. “Unfortunately, we cannot risk breaching that orb to test the energy within without releasing all of it. Which would tend to defeat the purpose of taking it back with us.”

Sariel reached behind the pedestal to remove a much smaller orb, this one about the size of a marble. “That’s why we have this.” She tossed it to the woman, sending the marble perfectly into her palm. “It’s the same stuff from the orb. You can take it to the containment area there.” She pointed to where a series of protection spells had been drawn around a circle in the corner. “Do whatever tests you want until you’re satisfied.”

Apollo then added, “Though I would like to point out that it’s not exactly hard for you people to come back here if you get out to your space and find out we lied. That would be breaking the agreement. And, you know, it would also be pretty damn stupid. I mean, what are we gonna do, move the whole planet?”

After he finished that bit, it was Chayyiel who looked to him. “Our space?”

The man shrugged. “Something tells me that it doesn’t matter what kind of truce or peace agreement we set up, I am never actually going to be welcome out there. Call me crazy.”

Metatron snapped, “No one forced any of you to betray your people.” He gave Sariel, then Athena each a dark look in turn. “Or to lay with creatures far beneath us. Or tutor a man whose power could have threatened our entire civilization as a whole. You all chose that, and you will receive no pity for the repercussions.”

Waving a hand dismissively, Cahethal muttered in an uncaring and distracted voice, “Yes yes, they are such terrible people, of course. Now come here. I need your help to verify this.” Marble in hand, she moved to the containment area, with Metatron following after giving them all one more disgusted look.

As the two of them moved away, Jophiel turned her attention to Athena. “Speaking of your misguided efforts all those centuries ago, you must have been quite relieved during the… situation at Crossroads to see that your protégé’s top knight has somehow managed to survive all these years. Although, from the memories that I’ve seen, she looks more like his consort than his knight. Isn’t that funny? Because, as far as I knew, the two were secret lovers, not twins.”

From where she was standing, Theia offered, “I can go rent a backhoe if you’d like to keep digging.”

Offering the younger girl a brief smile at that, Athena nodded simply to Jophiel. “Yes, it was quite a relief to be reunited with… her. We had much to talk about.”

For a moment, it looked as though Jophiel might question what exactly they had talked about. But in the end, she simply looked away.

After a minute of silence, Raphael looked over toward Larissa and Haiden. “You know, if we’re speaking freely at the moment, I will say that I was fairly impressed by your antics in our space. Not that it would have stopped me from killing you, but still, given how isolated you were, you actually did fairly well.”

Haiden met his gaze. “Yeah, well, let’s just say you gave us plenty of incentive to get creative. Hell, if you’d just left my family alone to begin with, we never would have been out there.”

Sariel spoke up. “That doesn’t matter right now. We make this deal and our family does get left alone.”

“And you all leave,” Larissa added.

Raphael shrugged. “Well, most of us do. I’ll be sticking around for a little bit.” At the quick looks from the group he held up a hand. “Not to worry, I have no intention of violating the truce, I promise. My interest lies in reconnecting with an old friend, as I said.”

Before he could be asked for any information about that ‘old friend’, Cahethal stepped out of the containment area. A wisp of blue-black smoke was drifting around inside of it. “It’s real,” she reported. “They’ve contained the energy, and from what I can tell, it will work the way they claim. There should be enough in that orb to open the way to Tartarus once more.”

“Thank the Void,” Metatron muttered. “Then we sign the agreement and leave. I, for one, I am looking forward to not thinking about this dirt ball until the apes who live here have torn each other apart.”

“Aww,” Haiden put in, “we love you too.” He accepted the offered flask from Larees and took a swig. “Believe me, speaking for the apes, we’ll be just as glad to see you go.”

For the next two hours, the agreement was drawn up and several dozen spells were attached to it to bind all parties to the terms. If any knowingly violated those terms, there would be harsh consequences. Not only politically and monetarily, but also physically and magically. They would quite literally be putting their power and lives on the line to knowingly violate the contract.

Then it was done. All present signed the contract. Earth would be left relatively alone for one year. And Sariel and Apollo’s family would not be purposefully hunted or harmed so long as they did not initiate first attack.

Chayyiel, glancing back and forth between both groups once it was done, announced, “Good. Now those of us who wish to leave may do so. And those of us who have a little more business to take care of first can focus on that.”

Metatron gave her a look. “You have been quite thoroughly informed that your place is not here on this world,” he reminded her. “It is not your territory. An exception may have been made for this, but as I have told you many times,  I will not have you wandering this planet so long as it is under my control,.”

Chayyiel smiled slightly. “You’re right. But as you have repeatedly expressed with much gratitude and pleasure, this world is none of our responsibility after this agreement. During the truce period you are no longer responsible for it. Which means your permission for visitation to the world is not required during that time.”

As the man stared at her, barely able to keep his mouth from falling open as the trap was revealed, she continued. “Many, many years ago, you informed me that I lacked any subtlety or patience. You said that you would see through any childish plans I set toward ever coming back here. And you said that so long as this world was in your hands, I would not set foot on it.”

She let that hang in the air for a moment before taking a single step forward. In that motion, she stepped out of her shoe, placing one bare foot pointedly on the floor in front of it. Her voice was soft.

“I believe your ride is waiting.”

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Summer Epilogue 1A (Heretical Edge)

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They came in force. Three ships, each capable of carrying a hundred troops and their assorted weaponry, along with a dozen armored vehicles, all full to the brim, landed in an almost entirely empty field in the middle of Wyoming.

It was fitting that it was Wyoming, of course. Fitting that this meeting take place near the home of the girl who had helped contribute so much to this moment. Even if she was nowhere near this meeting, it helped contribute to the feeling that she was connected to it in some way.

Each ship was shaped like a letter D, the cockpit near the top or front where the curved and straight parts met. In normal flight, the ship flew like that, while in battle it would turn, the cockpit rotating to face the same direction as the flat side where dozens of cannons and launchers would emerge to create a weapons platform.

As the trio of ships landed equidistant apart, twin gang planks at both ends of each ship lowered and troops began to disembark quickly. They were followed by the tanks, all of them spreading out to take up a perimeter.

They did this in full view of their welcoming committee, which consisted of ten of the most dangerous beings to the Seosten Empire currently on Earth: Apollo, Sariel, Athena, Larees, Gabriel Prosser, Virginia Dare, Risa Kohaku, Haiden Moon, Larissa Mason, and the ‘Lie’ known to those here as Theia. Ten people who, though wildly varying in power, had managed to strike or contribute to very telling blows.

The offer that Apollo and Sariel had first extended to the Seosten Empire had been accepted, and the two groups had agreed to meet here this day. With a bit of an amendment, in that the promise to leave Sariel and Apollo’s family alone would be tied to the agreement to also leave Earth in peace for one year without bringing forces to take control of the planet by force. Both promises would be tied to the same binding magical contract.

Watching the troops spreading out, Haiden remarked, “You don’t think they’re stupid enough to try anything right now, do you? I mean, this has got to look like a pretty attractive target.” He gestured around at their assembled group.

Sariel shook her head. Her hand rose to point at the glowing blue symbol on the side of each ship. It looked like three interconnected circles with a triangle in the middle where all three overlapped. “They came under the sign of Pax, a woman from our far history who helped to unite disparate tribes and led us to perhaps the last true and lasting peace our people ever knew. If it were to get out that they broke a truce under that sign, they would face widespread riots and condemnation across the universe, from our own people.”

“As would we, for the same,” Athena noted. “We would lose all sympathy and potential allies. So no one makes a move against them unless they force it. There may be very tempting targets on their side as well. Do not take them. We need this truce now, even if it is temporary.”

Without being looked at, Theia chimed in, “We will not throw rocks first, no matter how many they deserve to be hit with.” Under her breath, the girl added, “Maybe because there aren’t enough rocks on this planet.”

She was more than a little uncomfortable right now. Not only because of the actual meeting, but also through the fact that Pace was not here. Though the two were physically separated, she still felt connected to her most recent host, and really did not like to be that far from her. She felt awkward and alone even when surrounded by many others.

Larees raised a hand as though to put it on the girl’s shoulder, then froze partway there. Her old and deeply ingrained hesitation to touch or have anything to do with a Seosten Lie was hard to shake. Finally, though she looked a little uncomfortable, the woman made a point of following through with the motion, putting her hand firmly on Theia’s shoulder. Even then, it took her a moment to speak while she kept her hand in place, refusing to allow her reflexive prejudice to control her actions. Her voice was a bit stiff, though she tried to force herself to relax a little.

“Don’t worry, we’re not going to run out of people who deserve to have rocks thrown at them anytime soon.”

Virginia Dare spoke up then, her eyes fixed on the troops. “She’s right, we have enough problems already living here as it is. I’d prefer these guys just get what they need and leave.”

Larissa glanced to her, speaking a single name. “Fossor.”

The other woman gave a slight nod, her expression darkening. “We need to focus on dealing with the necromancer before he finishes whatever plan he has for that rope. We don’t even have Gaia around right now, we—” She stopped, voice faltering a little.

“We’ll get her back,” Risa assured her. “And we’ll handle Fossor too. We’ll get Joselyn away from him. We don’t have to beat around the bush or be so quiet about it anymore. The cat’s out of the bag, so we might as well take advantage of that.”

Speaking for the first time, Gabriel Prosser announced, ”We have reinforcements coming in already, people from the old rebellion who remembered our contact channels. Some of them are bringing friends or family. We’re working on setting up new ones and verifying their intentions.” He glanced to Athena then. “Your people are handy for that. It saves Enguerrand a lot of work.”

The woman gave a very slight smile at that. “It is good for our people to contribute, and to see how well an alliance can work. Though it may be seen as unfair to some, to have their thoughts pried into.”

Risa shook her head. “They’re told what’s happening, and that it’s a condition of bringing them aboard. We have to be certain that they’re not double agents or spies. Besides, it’s good for them to see what your people are capable of. So they don’t underestimate them. Especially since we’re using that time to tell them exactly what your people have been up to and what they’re responsible for.”

“Yes,” Dare agreed. “The Seosten won’t be a secret anymore. Everyone who joins us is going to know they exist and what they’ve been doing.”

The arriving troops had settled by that point. Only a relative few were actual Seosten, of course. Most were various other species, though almost all stared at the assembled group with varying levels of disgust or distrust, particularly toward the four Seosten ‘traitors.’ Clearly the majority of this honor guard were deeply loyal soldiers, which only made sense.

There was, however, another group, located to one side and consisting of about a fifth of the assembled unit that did not look disgusted. Instead, they appeared curious, or even intrigued. A few looked as though they might come closer to talk to the group, but were prevented by decorum. Beyond that, they wore armor that seemed more individualized. Instead of the plain, uniform black, theirs were decorated with various colors and designs, some quite well drawn.

Dare started to ask why that group was different. But before she could do more than open her mouth, the rest of the soldiers all turned as one and stepped back to create a corridor. Through that corridor approached three figures. One was an elderly man, the second a young girl, and the third a tall, lanky-looking man who appeared to be almost all elbows and knees. His hair was worn long, almost to the middle of his back, and was a mix of gray and blonde. His face had a very slightly lined look that made so that if he had been human, his age could’ve been estimated anywhere between his late thirties and early fifties.

“Metatron,” Sariel whispered to the others with a nod to the elderly man. Then her eyes fell on the seemingly young girl, breath catching a bit before she added a soft, “Chayyiel.” Finally, she looked to the lanky man, who stood just over six and a half feet tall. “And—”

Before she could finish, the man himself stepped forward, tilted his head back and spread his arms wide while loudly declaring in what was essentially a shout to the heavens. “I’m home!”

Turning in a wide circle, with his arms still outstretched, the man continued while sounding almost like a rock star greeting a wild audience. “Hello, my people! Hello my beautiful, beautiful world! How are we doing today?!” He paused then, sniffing once, before doing so again. “Hmm. Bit more pollution.”

Athena spoke then, her words both a greeting and explanation to the others. “Raphael. We weren’t expecting you to come.”

“Raphael,” Larissa whispered softly. “He’s—”

Sariel nodded. “You would consider him an archangel. One of seven who were part of an earlier super soldier test like the Olympus program.”

“You’d also consider him a shit-scary motherfucker,” Larees added pointedly. “If it wasn’t clear already, don’t start anything. Like, double-don’t start anything.”

Raphael himself by that point actually came forward, his voice just as loud and carefree. “Auriel, it’s so good to see you… and not have to kill you.” The latter was added thoughtfully as he looked the woman up and down briefly. There was a hint of amusement and teasing to his voice that made it relatively unclear just how serious he was being.

Clearing his throat, Metatron stepped forward as well. “Our fellow Seraphim insisted on accompanying us for this brief visit.” His eyes narrowed at Athena. “And it will be brief. I have no wish to stay on this planet any longer than absolutely necessary to complete our… transaction.”

Giving the man a disdainful look, Athena coolly replied, “Of course. Why would you wish to spend any time on a world of such importance, which you are personally responsible for? This is your first visit ever, isn’t it? The first in thousands of years.”

The old man clearly restrained a snapped retort, settling on simply saying, “It shall cease being my responsibility for at least one of its years when we are through here. And, Void willing that your failure through that year is thorough enough, we will then exercise a far more permanent solution to the entire situation.”

“He means good luck.” The words came from Chayyiel as the girl passed Metatron. She also moved past Athena, though her hand very briefly touched the woman’s arm and squeezed. Instead, she moved straight to where Sariel and Apollo were. Stopping there, she looked calmly from one to the other, as though appraising them.

Then, without warning, she stepped forward and tightly embraced Apollo. Her arms went around the man to hug him firmly before she did the same with Sariel, hugging the woman tightly. For the latter, the girl leaned up and whispered something very quietly in her ear. It was a private, secret message that went on for several long seconds and caused Sariel’s eyes to widen a bit. Both she and Apollo belatedly returned the embrace once they recovered from the surprise of it, though whatever Chayyiel had whispered to Sariel made the woman freeze up briefly.

With a look of clear disapproval, Metatron made a noise in the back of his throat, glaring at the girl. “Have you forgotten which side you are on?” he asked in a somewhat dangerous tone.

In response to that, Chayyiel replied simply, “No, I haven’t.” She turned slightly, giving him a somewhat cheeky smile. “It’s called a truce, Metatron.  I don’t have to be enemies with anyone here right now. I can hug anyone I want to.”

As if to prove that, the girl moved to embrace Larees then, also whispering something to that woman that made her give a surprised double-take.

“Aww what the hell, she’s got a point.” That was Raphael, who abruptly and unexpectedly pulled Athena into a hug as well, while the woman made a surprised sound. “I like this human custom.”

With a clearly audible sigh, Metatron announced through gritted teeth. “We are here to complete this arrangement. Rysthael will be left to its own devices for one of its years while you find a way to prove this alliance possible. But only in exchange for what you have already promised. If you were not lying.”

Athena simply gestured then. “You have greeted us, Metatron. Of a sort. But you have said nothing to those who truly speak for this world.” She gestured then. “Humans. I’m certain you’ve heard of them.”

Taking that as his cue, Prosser stepped that way and extended a hand. As he did so, every weapon on the field was suddenly pointed his way. If he noticed, the man gave no indication. “Good afternoon, Seraphim. I am Gabriel Prosser.”

Metatron gave him a dismissive glance. “I am well aware of who you are, and how much trouble you have caused. You should count yourself lucky that we are not meeting under different circumstances.”

In response to the clear threat, Gabriel simply replied, “When I was a young child, I allowed slave owners to intimidate me. It has been a very long time since I was a child.”

He smiled then, showing a bit of his teeth while lowering his hand without shaking Metatron’s. “But as your hosts to our world, we will extend you every available courtesy.”

Bowing her head a bit, Chayyiel spoke up. “We thank you for your hospitality, Sir Gabriel. Once our field leaders to this world have arrived, we will be ready to begin.”

Field leaders. Dare and the others exchanged brief glances. They knew what that meant. They were waiting for the Seosten who had been put in charge of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden groups. Most likely they were possessing a Committee member and Victor, respectfully. Not that they would show up in their hosts. They weren’t that stupid. Still, it might possibly lead to some hint in the future.

Metatron looked reluctant to agree with Chayyiel, But protocol and decorum forced him to give a slight nod. “Yes, for a backward dust ball of a world, I have certainly seen wo—”

In mid-sentence, the man stopped. His eyes had been casually roaming over the assembled group until he saw Theia. “You.” That single word showed more disgust and anger than an entire diatribe could have. He glowered at her, his hands slowly closing into fists. “What is that doing here?” The demand came in a brittle voice.

Theia, for her part, raised a hand to wave at the man. “Hi, Grandpa,” the girl all-but chirped.

That made several dozen eyes snap to the girl, while Metatron himself simply tightened his fists. His gaze moved to Gabriel as he spoke sharply. “I know that you are unaware of our people’s customs. But we do not invite Mendacia to delicate negotiations. Particularly Mendacia who murder their own mother.”

“Lies,” Athena translated. “He means Lies.”

Nodding, Gabriel murmured, “I picked that up.” He looked to Metatron for a moment as though choosing his words carefully. Finally he spoke. “While I offer my reserved sympathies for your loss, the girl stays. I assure you, if we were to refuse conversation with everyone whom we found morally, socially, and in every other way repugnant, this negotiation would not be happening.”

Raphael, who had been observing this quietly, spoke up then. “He’s got a point. It’s their world, their people. You don’t have to like the girl, but they don’t have to get rid of her.”

For a moment, it looked as though Metatron might actually snap at the much more powerful man. But in the end he stopped himself, taking in a breath and letting it out before pointedly turning his gaze and body away from his granddaughter. “No matter. All of them are traitors. I should expect no less for its company.”

“You know,” Haiden suddenly spoke up. “Maybe the fact that you refer to a girl, let alone your own grandchild, as ‘it’ might say something about why your civilization is so fucked up.” He started to continue, but Larissa silenced him with a hand on his arm.

Metatron, meanwhile, gave the man an unimpressed look. “You should measure your tone. You, who would defile one of ours, disgust me no less than the murdering Mendacia.”

Before anyone else could say anything, a pair of portals opened nearby and two figures emerged. Both were female, one a tall, beautiful brunette, while the other was a smaller woman with light hair and incredibly green eyes.

“Jophiel,” Chayyiel greeted the former, then the latter. “And Cahethal. Nice of you both to make it.” Belatedly, she added, “Or do you prefer Aphrodite and Demeter while still on Earth?”

“Our Seosten names are fine,” Cahethal replied. “We are no longer playing make-believe gods.”

Both newcomers were subsequently deeply and thoroughly examined by all of the Earth group. These two were obviously the ones who were possessing the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden leadership. However unlikely it was that they would betray anything that gave away their host’s identities, there was always the chance.

Jophiel, in turn, seemed to study them right back. Her eyes moved over the group curiously for a moment before she spoke. “I don’t see the representative from Camelot. Is she not a part of this?“

Her words made the assembled group exchange glances before Athena replied, “Lady Lancelot is… occupied at the moment.”

“Pity,” Jophiel remarked. “I am certain we all have a great many questions for her. Particularly given her long absence.” Pausing, she added thoughtfully, “And the fact that she is a ‘her’ at all. Is she the true Lancelot, a descendant, something else?”

“Good questions,” Raphael agreed. “But they fall beyond the scope of this meeting. I believe what we should be discussing now is the main thrust of the negotiations.” He looked toward Sariel and Apollo. “The Summus Proelium Project.”

Metatron nodded. His own tone was fairly dismissive. “You claim that you can bring it back, re-open our way into that place. That is the sole reason these negotiations are happening, and I assure you, if you do not follow through, we will not hesitate to—”

Apollo interrupted. “We’ll follow through on our end, old man. Don’t worry about that. But we can’t do it here.”

Sariel clarified, “If you wish to see our work, you need to come with us. It’s not something that can be duplicated right here in some random field.”

Idly, Apollo added, “And it’s not a place that will fit all your friends here, let alone their toys.” He gestured to the gathered tanks.

Metatron gave both of the ‘twins’ a brief look, his expression barely less than a disgusted glare at their very presence. Particularly Sariel, whom his annoyed and disgusted gaze lingered on the longest. It was clear that he was deeply offended by her mere existence.

Raphael, however, spoke casually. “I assume all of even your more overzealous people understand that our entire trip here calls under the sign of Pax.”

That earned a nod from Athena. “No one will do anything untoward, Seraphims. This truce is best for all of our peoples, and they will not jeopardize that.”

The three Seosten leaders exchanged looks with each other as well as with Jophiel and the completely silent Cahethal, who had yet to so much as greet anyone. Then Metatron spoke. “Very well, the five of us shall accompany you while the honor guard stay here. But you should be well aware that should anything happen, they will be but the very tip of a full invasion.”

“But we shouldn’t have to worry about that,” Raphael insisted. “I’m sure they get the point. Now let’s do this thing before I get bored and wander off to find my old friend Michael.” He pronounced it the old way, ‘mick-aye-el’, with a full I sound in the middle.

The name made Sariel and Apollo glance briefly at one another before nodding.

“Okay,” Apollo announced.

“Then come with us, and we’ll show you how to bring back the Summus Proelium project.”

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Mini-Interlude 75 – Chayyiel

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“You should not be here.”

Metatron’s voice was firm, the annoyance within it clear as the gray-haired old man stared intently at the only other figure within the small waiting area that served as a preparation room before those within would be admitted to speak before the full assembly of Seraphim, the leaders of the Seosten Choirs. From tradition, all who planned to speak before the Seraphim, even others of the same rank, waited in this small room. It was part of demonstrating that they all came from the same source, that all, no matter their current power and authority, were Seosten. That sentiment was stated plainly on a plaque within the room itself.

It was, on the face of it, a fine idea. Yet it was a statement which also, Chayyiel had long-since noticed, made the assumption that all who deserved to speak to the Seraphim were Seosten.

In response to Metatron’s words, the incredibly deceptively young-looking Chayyiel turned her head slightly to look at the man. Her voice, as she calmly replied, was even. “As I recall, kind Seraph, our ranks are equal in the eyes of this committee. And if you are making decisions regarding the situation on Earth, I have personal experience there. You do not.”

“It is that very personal experience that is why you should not be here,” Metatron informed her. “And we are not here simply to make a decision about Rysthael. We are here to determine if the deal which Lucifer and Sariel have offered should be honored. And you have entirely too personal of a history with those two to offer an unbiased opinion in that case as well. Flatly put, you have nothing to say here which will not be clouded by your past experiences.”

Chayyiel simply smiled at the man. “Only amongst the worst of bureaucracies is experience and detailed knowledge of the subject being decided upon seen as a disqualifying negative.”   

“Your words and retorts have grown sharp with age,” Metatron replied in a tone as even as hers. “But they do not change simple fact. Your perspective is clouded by your childhood with the traitors, therefore it cannot be trusted. You cannot make unbiased decisions regarding Rysthael, or the people upon it. Particularly Lucifer and Sariel, or anyone related to them in any way.”

Still smiling faintly, the girl gave a slight bow of her head to him. “I’m sure that the other Seraphim have already taken your words of caution into account and are thoroughly prepared for this briefing.” It was a not-so-veiled way of informing the man that she was well aware of the fact that he had been privately warning certain of their peers against what she might say, which also told him that they perhaps could not be as trusted as he believed. Or perhaps that their aids could not. It was hard to say where the information had leaked from to reach her ears.

And that was the point.

Before Metatron could respond to those words, the door at the far end of the room, just below the plaque which stated that all Seosten who walked through it were seen as equal in the eyes of those they were speaking to, opened. An aide stood there, dressed in a crimson robe with gold trim, the hood and mask raised to leave only his eyes exposed. Another bit of ceremony intended to show all as equal, which also served the function of disguising which specific Seraphim aid performed which duties during these meetings.

“They are ready for you, Honorable Speakers,” the masked and hooded figure announced. He bowed to each of them before turning on his heel, standing there in place until Metatron and Chayyiel approached. As they neared the man, he conjured a simple flame in his hand using a spell on his gloves, using it as a torch to light the pitch-black corridor beyond.

Following the man through that dark hallway, the two very mismatched Seraphim spoke no other words to one another. What needed to be said, as much as either would listen to, already had been. What mattered now was what each would say to the rest of the gathered leadership.

The long, completely straight corridor went on for almost three full minutes of walking, during which none were allowed to speak. The idea was that those who were about to speak would use that time to center themselves and prepare their minds for what was about to happen.

Finally, they reached the exit, a single wide door that slid silently out of the way, allowing them to exit the corridor. Stepping through, the trio arrived in a triangular room. A short set of stairs led up onto a stage in the same shape as the room itself, with three equal sides. Running up from each of those sides was a set of bleacher-like stands. Each of the gathered Seraphim were seated on plush chairs that attached to those benches.

Ninety-seven. That was how many Seraphim were attending this meeting. Not physically, of course. Each of the Seraphim, and the chairs they sat on, were actually safely within their own territory, being projected to this location via hologram.  Ninety-seven meant that only twenty-four currently living Seraphim had been unable or unwilling to make it. A decent amount of attendance, all things considered.

All conversation amongst the nearly one hundred Seraphim stopped as the trio entered. The masked aid immediately moved to the side, standing unobtrusively in one of the corners. Metatron and Chayyiel, meanwhile, walked silently up the stairs to stand in the exact center of the stage, facing the audience.

At this point, only one of the three sides of the triangular room, the one straight across from the tunnel entrance, was occupied. The other two stands of bleachers were each angled inward from the ends of that side before reaching the ‘point’ of the triangle where the door that the trio had just come through. Those sides were empty, because no one had spoken. This was the way that debates and decisions worked among the Seraphim. The bottom of the triangle, straight across from the door and the way those entering from the tunnel were facing, was where all of them began the discussion. As the meeting went on and the attendants began to choose which side of the debate they fell on, each would press a button on their chair, which would transfer their holographic image to either one side or the other, whichever was demonstrative of their opinion. They could change sides as they wished throughout the meeting, to show who they agreed with most throughout. At the end, votes were tallied based on where each Seraphim was seated.

“Kind Seraphs,” Metatron began without sparing a look for Chayyiel. “Thank you for taking the time from your schedules to meet with us on this important day. We are here to determine two things. First, what action should be taken regarding Rysthael now that the Aken spell has fallen into the hands of the rebel humans. And second, whether any attention should be paid to the deal that the traitors Lucifer and Sariel have offered, which is the potential ability to reopen the Summus Proelium project and begin creating newly empowered soldiers similar to the so-called Olympians.”

He paused then. “It is my belief that Rysthael should be taken by force. Due to our efforts, their space defenses are nonexistent, while the planet-based ones are easily compromised. The majority of their most powerful inhabitants such as the leadership of both primary Heretic organizations, Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, can be eliminated as a threat through their connection to our own operatives. The rest will easily be brought into line through a combination of our implanted members and military force from a few ships. Those same ships should prove sufficient to handle any opposition from the so-called Bystanders. We bring a few cargo haulers to the planet, set up our portals, and we can have the majority of the population taken to more secure facilities in a few weeks.”

“And then what?” Chayyiel put in, as she was serving as his opposition in this debate. “The spell is quite clear. Any Heretics from Earth cannot be possessed. Or, if they are successful at changing it, cannot be possessed without deliberate permission from the Heretic themselves. You wish to take seven billion inhabitants from their home planet and do what with them?”

Metatron turned a slight smile to her. “Breed them, of course. Yes, humans born on Earth would be immune to possession. So we take them away from Earth, breed them, and have their children as our weapons against the Fomorians.”

Chayyiel gave the man a dark look. “You have no proof that would work. Perhaps the spell applies to all descendants of those it is originally cast on, regardless of their physical location at the time of their birth. And even if not, what you are suggesting would require several decades to work, in a best-case scenario.”

“Two at the most,” Metatron corrected. “We can begin physical training and power-boosting of the offspring after the first ten years, and have the first ready to go before the end of the second. After that twenty years, we will churn out millions of these troops per year, a far higher rate of growth than our previous efforts. It will be enough to turn the tide against the Fomorians and end this war once and for all, within this century.

“And even if they cannot be controlled in our usual way, I guarantee that we possess enough power to force them to follow orders the old fashioned way. At least enough to send them at our true enemies. Or, we simply raise the offspring to adore and worship us, so that they do allow us to possess them. In any case, we retain control and point them at the Fomorians. One way or another.”

There were more than a few Seraphim shifting themselves over to the right-hand side of the meeting room, demonstrating their agreement with Metatron’s words. Chayyiel briefly watched them before speaking. “What you’re suggesting is to do the same thing with the humans that we’ve done with hundreds of other races for hundreds of thousands of years at this point. Because that has worked so well in our efforts to end this war and defeat the Fomorians. Specifically, we may possess the firepower to keep the humans in line, but that only works so long as we keep them weaker than we are, which would seem to hinder any efforts for them to destroy the Fomorians. They’re either too weak to overpower us, or strong enough to challenge the Fomorians. It literally cannot be both ways. Not to mention the fact that any strength we bring against the humans to keep them in line, a task which grows exponentially difficult with every bit of strength we allow them to have in our efforts to make them powerful enough to be useful at all, is strength we must take from elsewhere. Strength which will not be available where it is needed: on the front line.

“The entire reason the Earth-project was set up the way that it was is that doing so allowed us a steady influx of Heretic soldiers. It may not have been a flood of millions as you’re suggesting, but it was stable and it allowed the Heretics to gain enough power and skill to be useful before being brought to the war. That, in turn, gave them a better chance to survive and be useful when put against the Fomorians.”

Metatron nodded. “And that worked for its time. But that time has passed. It passed when the Aken spell was taken by the rebels. We have no other choice. Any Heretics born on Rysthael, or if your suggestion is true, any Heretics even descended from those born on Rysthael, cannot be unwillingly possessed. This is our only choice.”

“No,” Chayyiel pointedly disagreed. “There is another choice. We leave the humans with their space. We leave Earth alone and proceed with our human colony worlds. It will mean less of an influx of Heretics, but they will not be completely closed off. We take the colony worlds, break off all contact with Earth, and ensure that those colonies continue to grow. They can still become Heretics. We have species to bond them with, and we also have several with their own growing Eden Trees. They may only produce a few of the empowering fruit each year, but that is better than nothing.”

Metatron scoffed. “You are suggesting that we cede Rysthael in its entirety to the humans? That is absurd. Losing the influx of Heretics from the primary planet would be a blow we may never recover from. No, we take all the humans now. We may lose a decent percentage of them in the transfer and containment phases, but less than we lose by allowing the entire planet’s population to be taken from us. A little effort and risk now, and we will end this war within the century with an unending flood of new Heretics.”

One of the Seraphim in the audience cleared his throat. “I believe we’ve heard enough for a vote. Those in favor of invasion and forced relocation of the humans, to the right. Those opposed, to the left.”

It was fairly evenly split. Yet Chayyiel could see at a glance that more favored invasion. Of the ninety-seven who had attended the meeting besides herself and Metatron, fifty-six voted to invade, while forty-one voted not to. A clear winner.

Yet even as Metatron began to raise his voice to thank the gathered Seraphim for voting in his favor, Chayyiel spoke up. “I invoke Final Words.”

Final Words was an opportunity for one who had lost a vote to attempt one last time to convince those attending to change their mind about their vote. It allowed them as much time as they wished to speak for, so long as they continued without taking a break aside from answering questions from those gathered.

With a sigh, Metatron looked to her. “Do you truly believe you can say anything, in minutes or hours, to change the minds of at least fifteen of those who sit before us?”

“I have the right to attempt it,” Chayyiel pointed out to him, before addressing the audience. “But I have already attempted to convince you with my own words. Perhaps it is time to use the humans’ own words to convince you that they would be a powerful ally and a terrible enemy.”

One of the other Seraphim raised an eyebrow and asked, “What exactly will you say to convince us of that?”

Lifting her chin, Chayyiel announced, “It’s not what I will say.” She brought up a small handheld computer then. “It’s what I will read. The humans will change your minds themselves, with this.”

Another of the seated Seraphim nodded that way, his tone curious. “What is it?”

“This,” Chayyiel explained to the ruling body of all Seosten, “is a most sacred document, which will show beyond any doubt that the Seosten have much to learn from humanity, should we give them the time and opportunity. It is a text passed and shared throughout their world-wide communication system, which lays out the rules of engagement and governance of any enemies and peoples which the humans may find themselves brought into conflict with. It is a charter, a declaration, of everything they believe is necessary to achieve and retain victory over their enemies. And it is, I believe, the single most important letter to ever be penned upon that planet.

“It is titled, ‘The Top 100 Things I Would Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord.’”

With that pronouncement, Chayyiel gave the audience a moment to murmur. Uncle Apollo would be proud of her for getting that entire spiel out with a completely straight face. She would have to see about obtaining the recording of the meeting to have it sent back to him, to show just how far the little joke he had sent her had gone. And how useful it had become in this moment.

“Ahem,” she began, holding the computer up importantly. “Number one. My Legions of Terror will have helmets with clear plexiglass visors, not face-concealing ones.”

One of the Seraphim shook his head, barking a short laugh of disbelief. “How in the void is that useful advice? Or important in any way. Or even slightly relevant?”

“Ah,” Chayyiel replied, “clearly it’s an indication that the humans will carefully inspect all of their troops. It’s shorthand for a rule that they will not allow themselves to be easily infiltrated, and will be on the lookout for spies and traitors, both of which are our go-to’s. By not covering their soldiers’ faces, they mean that each of them will be thoroughly vetted and identified at all times. That would make it even more difficult for our standard operating methods than it would already be.”

She continued then. “Number two, my ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.”

“Oh, come now!” One of the Seraphim blurted. “What relevance could that possibly have? With species as small as pixies, or those who can turn into mist, sand, water, or more, what point would containing the size of ventilation ducts have? This is a farce.”

Prepared for the question, Chayyiel easily replied, with as much seriousness as she could muster, “Again, your mistake is remaining too literal. This shows that they are security-conscious regarding their own buildings. If infiltrating an enemy’s personnel fails, what is our next option? To infiltrate and sabotage their structures. Yet here we have them stating their intention to guard against that very thing. They will be prepared for our efforts in that regard as well.”

She continued then, ignoring the murmured comments. “Number three, my noble half-brother whose throne I usurped will be killed, not kept anonymously imprisoned in a forgotten cell of my kingdom.” A pause then, before Chayyiel added in a flat tone, “I’m sure no one here can think of anyone who was kept alive in a prison cell for entirely too long and whose recent escape now threatens our entire society.”

With a moment to let that sink in, she pushed on through the list. Shooting was not too good for their enemies, the source of their powers would be kept in a private bank rather than stored supposedly beyond all reach, they would not gloat over their enemies, take the time to explain their plans before killing them, any required marriages would be immediate and private without wasting time or effort, and so on and so on. With each statement, she found some way to apply it to the current situation or to the Seosten in general.

Of particular amusement, for her own reasons, was the rule that any plan would be run past a five year old child to spot flaws within it.

Listen to advisors, no distracting maniacal laughter (she interpreted it as time wasted gloating), spending time and effort to make better uniforms for soldiers to raise their morale.

When she came to the point about not consuming any energy field bigger than their head, Chayyiel paused upon reading it. Her eyes lifted, and she smiled faintly. “This, of course, cautions against attempting to gain power that you are not prepared to handle. I think everyone here can understand the dangers of that.” She left unsaid, of course, the fact that they were all planning on doing just that anyway with the Summus Proelium project.

One of the Seraphim finally spoke up again. “These are preposterous. Number eighteen said that they would have no sons, and the next one stated they would have no daughters. How would their race continue?!”

“These points are clearly not meant in seriousness,” Chayyiel informed him, “but are intended to demonstrate the potential danger of rebellious, discarded children and show that we should take care of and guide our offspring. Something that Kushiel would have done well to listen to.”

Nearby, Metatron bristled, his mouth opening. “My daughter–”

She looked to him, expression soft. “Your daughter was killed by your granddaughter. I’m sorry that you lost her, but from all accounts it was self-defense, brought on specifically by ignoring that very rule.”

Only centuries worth of practice allowed Chayyiel to say the words with a straight face, rather than follow her first instinct, which would have been to put her fist through the man whose outright revulsion and near-violent reaction to Kushiel confiding in him the fact of his granddaughter’s disability had been the basis for the woman’s turn from being patient with the then-young girl’s gradual growth, to obsessively torturing her in a psychotic push for immediate results. Kushiel had, at one point, shown pride and care toward her child, until she made the mistake of confiding in her father what kind of tests they were doing. Learning that his grandchild was a Lie had made Metatron react horrifically, which in turn drove Kushiel’s hatred toward her daughter’s condition.

But she could not risk letting on that she knew that much about their situation. So, despite the urge to assault the man, Chayyiel went on with her list. Never push their luck or tempt fate by claiming invincibility, always have redundant systems, dress in bright colors to avoid appearing evil, turning into a giant snake never helped any situation, believe the words of their subordinates, do not employ bounty hunters who care about a fair fight, use a computer operating system that no one outside of those approved to handle it know how to work with, train their armies, listen to advice from underlings, and so on and so on. Every point, every statement, she found a way to apply to their own situation, at least in the hypothetical. Even one of the last ones, that data of crucial importance would be padded to 1.44Mb in size, seemingly completely irrelevant, was clearly a call to ensure that all important data would be too large to be easily copied to the most-used portable data storage device. Which was difficult to do in a society which could store terabytes worth of data on something the size of a fingernail. But the idea was sound.

Finally, she read the last entry, that all subjects would be kept in a mindless trance by providing free unlimited Internet access.

“Quite obviously, this is one of the most important entries on this list. It suggests that we avoid rebellion by keeping the people under our rule happy and content.”

“And by reading all of that,” Metatron slowly asked, “what did you accomplish? You cannot possibly believe that we actually have much to learn from the humans with this simple… childish… absurd list. You’ve changed the minds of…” He checked briefly. “Two. Two of our colleagues. You are still out-voted fifty-four to forty-three. The motion to invade will carry and–”

“Ahem.” A new voice spoke up, as their eyes turned back to the audience. Several more Seraphim sat there in the middle. A few more appeared a moment later. Late arrivals.

Late, in fact, because they had been speaking with Chayyiel’s top assistant and long-time friend, Aletheia. They were being convinced of which way to vote, but that had required more time than Chayyiel had before the vote would take place.

Hence, this elaborate ruse to buy more time.

The fifteen who arrived late all shifted to Chayyiel’s side of the voting, changing the results to be fifty-four to fifty-eight. Which meant there would be no invasion.

With a sigh, Metatron waited until all had shifted back to the middle before demanding, “Then what would you suggest? We cannot simply sit and do nothing. What should we do about the humans?”

“We could always turn them from subjects into allies,” Chayyiel mildly offered, well-aware of how that would be taken.  

“Allies?” Metatron snapped, his expression showing how ridiculous he found that idea. “What you’re suggesting is absurd. You do recall the history lessons of what happened the last time we trusted another species enough to ally with them as ‘friends’? They betrayed us to the Fomorians. Our entire species was nearly destroyed. Seosten can only trust Seosten. That is the way it has always been.”

“And yet this entire war that we have been fighting for untold generations,” Chayyiel pointed out, “is the direct result of the actions taken by Cronus, a Seosten.” She let that settle for a moment before continuing. “I am not saying that allying with the humans is our first choice. I am saying that leaving them in peace for now while potentially exploring that option for the future is the only true choice we have. Metatron’s suggestion, which has already been voted down, would have taken precious resources away from the front for decades, which we cannot afford to do. Unpossessable humans is not a problem that can be solved by bringing billions of those unpossessable humans into our territory and pissing them off. The best solution to this situation is to leave Earth in peace until we have a plan to convince them to willingly work with us.”

Metatron was watching her. “Or a plan to force them to obey orders. As we should have from the start.”

“I’m almost inclined to agree with him,” one of those who had originally voted for Chayyiel mused. “If it would end this situation, even if it’s a bit risky… better than risking an alliance.”  

One of the Seosten still seated in the middle raised a hand. “How much time would you need to craft these two separate plans? Invade or… hmm… convince the humans to work with us willingly.” He sounded a bit hesitant to even voice such a thing out loud.  

“As I said,” Metatron replied, “we can send a force today.”

“Five years,” Chayyiel informed the Seraphim in the audience. “Five years to create a plan that will convince the humans to work alongside us to defeat the Fomorians.”

The Seraphim in question turned to murmur something to a group behind him before facing her once more. “One year,” he countered. “We will give you one year to convince both this body and the Heretic leadership to adopt an alliance. Or at least an arrangement to continue providing Heretics for us to use. And as you are so drawn to Rysthael itself, we will use their calendar. One Rysthael year from today, you will have your chance in front of this body to prove that an alliance is possible and preferable to invasion. All in favor to the right, opposed to the left.”

Roughly three quarters of those attending moved to the right. It was passed. Which meant that they now had to debate what to with the offer that Sariel and Lucifer had extended, and that would be a whole other debate in and of itself.

But as far as Earth itself was concerned, the debate was done. Chayyiel and her people had one year to come up with a plan that would convince the Seraphim to ally with the humans. And vice versa.

She just hoped that Jophiel would be ready to present her students by then.

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Patreon Snippets 3

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The following is the third 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. 

Columbus, Shiori, And Jiao

Through the pitch black night, three figures picked their way along a winding mountain trail. Trees lined both sides of the path, branches often sticking out in their way. Yet despite that, and despite the winding nature of the path that often seemed terribly random, none of the three ever missed a step. Through the complete darkness that came from the stars and moon being hidden behind clouds and the nearest city lights being many miles away, they nonetheless avoided every branch, stepped over every loose rock and random hole, hiking the trail as though it was illuminated by the bright light of noon.

Shiori, Columbus, and Jiao. Shiori and her mother had been spending a few days… or nights rather, each month meeting for things like these hikes, so that they could get to know each other. And this time, with her mother’s blessing, Shiori had invited her brother along, feeling that he really needed to get out. Manakel was now as dead as Charmiene. Avalon had been rescued and was recuperating at the Atherby camp. Things had… for the most part, settled down at least for the time being.

“Do you ever, umm, miss it?” Columbus, whose goggles really did allow him to see everything as if it was daytime, asked hesitantly while looking toward the taller of his two companions.

Jiao, whose vampiric gifts included the vision that allowed her to function perfectly in darkness, paused very briefly before guessing what he was referring to. “You mean the sun.”

Shiori paused as well, glancing over her shoulder at her mother. Though she wasn’t an actual vampire, she was a dhampyr, a hybrid. Which meant that her own night vision was good enough that she was no more inconvenienced by the darkness than either of the others. When she spoke up, her voice was hesitant. “It’s been a really long time, hasn’t it?”

“Two hundred and twenty-seven years,” the woman confirmed, her always soft voice even more so as she turned her head to look up at the dark, cloud-covered sky. “And yes, in some ways, I do miss it. It’s different now, with motion pictures. But back then, being away from the sun for so long was… sometimes very hard. All I had was my memories, and paintings. Over the years, I’ve seen more of it. Pictures, silent movies, when color came to the motion pictures, I was… I spent a long time watching them, because they allowed me to see the sun in real time.

“I–” Wincing, Columbus offered a weak, “I didn’t mean to make you sad or… or anything.”

Meeting his gaze, the Asian woman gave a slight shake of her head. “You didn’t make me sad, Columbus. At least, not in the way that you think. Yes, being a vampire means that I cannot function in daylight. But it also means that I am alive. If I had never met Tiras, if he had never shared his blood with me, I would have died in that hospital. I didn’t lose two hundred and twenty-seven years of sunlight. I gained two hundred and twenty-seven years of moonlight. Two hundred and twenty-seven years of seeing the world grow, of seeing society develop. I was sick, I was dying. I did not lose anything. I gained. I gained two incredible men that I love very much, along with two beautiful, amazing daughters whom I would not trade for any amount of sun.”

“But you haven’t seen them,” Shiori pointed out hesitantly. “You haven’t seen Tiras in… over two hundred years, almost as long as you haven’t seen the sun. And then you fell in love with… with my dad… with Liang, and you haven’t seen him for years either.”

Jiao gave the slightest nod. “You’re right. And I miss them both terribly. I still believe that I will see them again, that I will find them, or they will find me. But if we don’t… if I live a thousand years and never see them again, that won’t erase the reason that I love them, or the time that we did spend together. There are so many bad things in this world, and so many good things. If you spend all your time dwelling on the bad, like the years that you spend apart from someone you love, you’ll forget about the good, like the reason you miss them to begin with.”

Her golden-amber eyes remained locked on Columbus’s. “The trick is to remember that no matter what’s wrong… whether you feel lost, confused, alone… frightened… angry… betrayed, that they are your feelings. And there is nothing wrong with you for feeling that way.”

“I–” Columbus spoke that single word before his voice cracked, breaking right there as he gave a sharp shudder. His eyes closed behind those goggles, his voice a whisper that barely carried over the soft breeze. “I’m afraid.”

The admission was accompanied by a sag of his shoulders, his entire body slumping a bit. “I’m afraid. She’s dead. She’s gone. He’s dead too. They’re dead. I have protection. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I’m afraid. I don’t…” Squeezing his eyes shut even tighter, along with his fists, the boy shook his head. “I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be afraid.”

He felt arms wrap around him then, recognizing his sister as she embraced him tightly. “It’s okay to be afraid, Columbus. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

His mouth opened and shut before he managed to protest, “They’re dead. They’re gone. She’s dead.”

“Oh, my boy.” Reaching past her daughter, Jiao put one gentle, soft hand against the side of his face. “The hurt and fear that someone leaves behind after they’re gone doesn’t simply disappear when they do. Bad things can last for quite awhile. But so do good things, if you let them. You want to know how to fight this, how to move on? Make new memories, better memories. Be with your family, with your friends. Do things that you enjoy.

“The pain that your demons inflicted on you doesn’t fade when they die. It fades when you live.”

Columbus couldn’t speak for another few seconds, the lump in his throat taking his voice while he simply clung to Shiori. Finally, he managed to move one arm, opening it while Shiori did the same. His own voice returned, just enough for the boy to whisper, “Thank you.”

Jiao took one step closer, letting both of her arms wrap around the two. She embraced them, brother and sister, her daughter…

And the boy she would have proudly called her son.

 

******

 

Lincoln and Tabbris after the hospital.

 

The tiny blonde girl, face still adorned by fox paint, staggered through the portal that had been opened to lead her back to the Atherby camp. Two steps through, and she was there, standing on the grass next to the lake. Standing, that was, for all of a brief second. Then her legs buckled and the girl began to collapse.

She didn’t fall far, however, before a pair of strong arms caught her. Lincoln Chambers, taking a quick knee to grab onto the girl, lifted her up smoothly while rising. “Whoa, hey there.”

Starting a bit, Tabbris belatedly realized where she was, blinking up at the man who held her in his arms. A slight tremble came to the girl, before she turned a bit to hug onto him as tightly as she could manage. “M.. Mr… Mr… I… I mean… Dad. Dad. Avalon… Avalon–”

“She’s okay,” Lincoln promised. “They’re taking care of her right now. You kept her alive, Tabbris. Brave, brave girl. You kept her alive. You saved her.”

“Columbus too,” she murmured, not relaxing her grip at all. “He’s… he’s…” She could barely speak. The exhaustion from everything she had done, even with Columbus’s help, had left her entirely too far gone. She needed to sleep. But first, she needed to know that things were okay.

“He’s okay too,” Lincoln assured the girl. “And Flick. She’ll be okay.”

“R-Rudolph won’t,” Tabbris whispered, tears suddenly filling her eyes as she shuddered. “Rudolph. Rudolph’s–”

“I know.” His own voice cracking as well, Lincoln hugged the girl tight against himself. He couldn’t say it would be okay, because it wouldn’t. Not anytime soon. A boy had been murdered by a monster, and Tabbris had seen his body. She had seen… too much. She’d seen entirely too much. Not just that night, but throughout her life. She never had a real chance to be a little kid. Even when she had been hiding inside Felicity, the girl had still needed to worry about intruders, about monsters trying to enslave or abduct her charge. And she had had no one to help her.

But she would never lack for that now. Never again. Lincoln vowed that to himself. Tabbris would never have to feel that alone again.

“You’re safe,” he whispered, holding the exhausted girl close. “Flick is safe. It’s over, my little fox-girl. It’s done. You saved Avalon. You beat them.”

Her eyes blinked up at him then, still wet from tears even as she clung desperately, both to him and to consciousness itself. “Dad,” she whispered softly. “Daddy. Please don’t go away.”

Heart aching, Lincoln shook his head. “I promise, baby girl. I promise, I’m right here. I won’t leave you alone. I’m right here. My girl. My beautiful, brave little girl.”

Tears returning, Tabbris closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head. She tried to say something else, but couldn’t find the words. And the thought of opening her eyes now that they had closed seemed an impossibly daunting task.

So she didn’t. Eyes closed, the girl turned her head a little to rest it against her father’s chest. Just for a moment, just to catch her breath. Just to feel, for a second or two, the unconditional paternal love and acceptance that she had been so starved for through so much of her life.

It would be hours before her eyes opened again. And true to his word, Lincoln stayed with her through all of it.

 

*****

Lies and Pace

 

They were in the forest of Eden’s Garden. Pace with her fellow werewolves Valentine and the pack leader Lemuel. Facing them was the blonde girl that Doxer wanted to play with, that Felicity Chambers. Somewhere in the distance came the sound of the other girl, the one that Lemuel had turned into a werewolf. That one was currently going through her first change, and from the sound of things, it was not going well.

Pace, or Lies in that moment, had just shared her secret with the Felicity-girl, had just revealed the hilarious truth that she was both werewolf and Heretic.

Werewolf, Heretic, and Seosten Lie, but the girl didn’t need to know that part. That was an even bigger secret. Couldn’t tell her that. Couldn’t let her ruin it.

Aloud, she announced, “Shh. Nobody else gets to know. Don’t want you spoiling my secret fun. That’d be really, really mean.”

Technically, she was referring to the secret about her be a werewolf. But she also meant the secret about her being a Seosten. The secret that Felicity didn’t know yet. Sometimes Lies got herself confused about what people did and didn’t know. It was all so exhausting, keeping those secrets.

See? that voice in the back of her mind, the true Pace, who still refused to just be quiet and stop talking, put in. You keep pretending you don’t know her name. You call her Present to her face. But you think of her as Felicity. She’s a person. They’re all people. Roxa’s a person. Roxa. That’s her name. That’s the name of the person you let Lemuel put through hell. Felicity. That’s this girl’s name. You know her name.

The girl, Felic–Present was babbling. She was saying something, but then Rox–the new wolfie girl was very, very rude and interrupted with a scream of agony. So whatever Present was about to say had been forgotten, as she blurted the other girl’s name and moved as though to go to her.

Well, that was just rude. Growling deep in her throat at the sheer audacity, Lies quickly put herself back in front of the other girl. Her arms snapped up, her hands found both of Present’s shoulders, and she forcefully shoved her back a step. “No!” she blurted, “Bad present! You can’t see her now, the other one isn’t done making her change yet, and we promised she’d be alone the whole time. You don’t wanna make liars out of us, do you? Rude Present.”

Lies. Lies, look. Look. Focus. Look!

In mid-rant, the words of her host penetrated, and Lies found herself slowly lowering her gaze slightly, from Present’s face to a spot a bit lower. She saw then, what she had been too distracted by her anger to see before. She saw what her host had immediately seen, even in that brief split second when they had shoved Present.

She saw the other girl. She saw the child… the child inside of Felicity Chambers.

Seosten. A Seosten child. There was a Seosten child inside of Felicity Chambers. That was why she was immune to being possessed. All the manpower, all the time, all the arguments over what Joselyn Atherby had done to render her daughter immune to possession, all the ranting from Cahethal about the problem… and the answer had been that simple.

Felicity Chambers was possessed… by a child.

Chambers was saying something else, something about them making Roxa into a werewolf as that realization dawned on her.

“Isn’t it funny?!” Lies blurted with a loud, crazed cackle of laughter. She wasn’t talking about the Roxa girl. Who cared about the Roxa girl? She knew why Chambers couldn’t be possessed. She knew another secret.

But the others didn’t. No one knew what she knew. She had to cover. So she let them think she was talking about the Roxa girl, babbling on something ridiculous about not giving the girl her toy.

She brought up the choker, even flicking a finger against it, while keeping half an eye on the Seosten child. Was she a Lie too? Was she controlling this Felicity this whole time?

No. Felicity moved without the girl moving the same way. The girl wasn’t controlling her, she was just… standing there, so to speak. She was possessing her, but she wasn’t doing anything with it. She was just there… protecting the girl from being possessed.

This was hilarious. This was very… very funny.

So distracted was she, that Lies didn’t see the attack coming. She was caught flat footed as Felicity moved suddenly, lashing out with that staff of hers while triggering a kinetic blast that sent Pace flying off to hit a tree.

She recovered instantly, of course. But still, the girl sat there, thinking.

What are you going to do? The voice, fearful, came from the real Pace once more. You know the truth. So what are you going to do with it?

We could make Manakel love us forever, Lies pointed out. Manakel would love us. Cahethal would love us. Even Charmiene would be happy. They would tell Mama that we did good. Maybe–

You don’t believe that. The voice was soft, far different from the tone that had come before. Pace had seen as much of her mind as Lies had seen of hers. But you’re right about Manakel and the others. They’d be really happy. They’d reward you. All you have to do is tell them about that girl. All you’d have to do is tell them about the girl.

Chambers had sent herself through the trees, reappearing directly behind Lies as the girl picked herself up. Before that staff she had could reach her head, Lies had already reacted. She spun, ducking as she moved before lashing out with a punch.

The girl. The child. She needed to activate the choker again so that she could see the child.

The punch did the trick. As did grabbing hold of Felicity’s bicep to keep it active. Lies yanked too hard, breaking the girl’s arm as she threw her to the ground.

She could see her again. The child, right there in plain view. She was so… innocent, so young.

But they’ll take that away, Pace reminded her. You can make yourself the Seosten hero. All you have to do is sentence that girl to whatever Manakel and the others… like your mother, would put her through. Torture. Pain. Loss. They’ll take Felicity away from her. They’ll take that girl back to Seosten space and they will get answers out of her. But you’ll win. You’ll be the hero.

So again, what are you going to do?

In answer, Lies lashed out, kicking Chambers repeatedly while calling her a bad present.

Our secret, she informed her host. No one else’s. Ours. Maybe we’ll get the girl out later. Protect her. Have a friend. We could do that. That… that might be nice. But we don’t tell anyone. We don’t… do that to her. We make this look good. But we keep the secret.

She didn’t know this girl, didn’t know anything about her or why she was there. Or how she’d gotten there, for that matter. But she did know one thing. If it was the choice of  being the Seosten hero and subjecting this girl to the same kind of things she had gone through as a child, or keeping it secret… she would keep it secret.

Because what was the point of making Manakel and the others happy and finally winning the approval that she had so desperately wanted for so long… if she couldn’t live with herself?

 

******

 

Tabbris and Gabriel Prosser

 

“Mr. Gabriel, that train is pretty big. Are you sure you can stop it?”

The question from Tabbris came as the young girl waited a little bit away from the man himself. Gabriel, meanwhile, stood in the middle of a set of the road tracks, watching the incoming freight train as it bore down on him while seeming to pick up speed with each passing second. It was no ordinary freight train, but one that had been heavily reinforced, armored by both technology and magic. The train projected a force field around itself, had heavy plating mounted to it, and there were even turrets attached to the top all along its length, one to each car.

Meanwhile, the tall, yet unassuming black man stood in its path. One hand rested lightly on the handle of his ever-present shovel, which had been pushed into the ground a bit.

In answer to the girl’s question, he gave a slight nod. “It’s quite alright, thank you. Just stay there, and no one will see you.” He had put up half a dozen protection and cloaking fields around the girl.

He could have simply send her home through a portal, of course. They had been out looking at tropical fish near an island that he had wanted to show the girl when the call came in about a train carrying prisoners and slave labor toward a Seosten transport ship had come in. He could have sent the girl home then, but she had asked to stay and watch. He would still send her away the instant anything went wrong, but for the time being, he let her stay.

The train closed on him and the first few turrets spun toward the front to take aim. The ones behind the front each rose a bit more on platforms to shoot over the others. Leaving nothing to chance, as many as possible opened fire, while the train itself picked up speed, doubling in an instant, even as the force field around the front grew even brighter and stronger.

As dozens of blasts of powerful, pulverizing energy that could have punched their way through armored tanks shot toward him, Gabriel held up his free hand. The blasts were drawn toward it, narrowing into a single dazzlingly bright beam before disappearing into the man’s palm with no more apparent effect than a flashlight.

With all that power summarily absorbed, Gabriel immediately released it once more in the form of dozens of bright blades of energy, which appeared near each turret and instantly sliced through them, leaving the guns useless.

The train itself was still bearing down. As it neared him, in the bare couple of seconds before he would have been left as a smear on the tracks, Gabriel narrowed his eyes. At a thought, two things happened. First, a pair of portals appeared directly in front of him and a bit further back, just further apart than the length of the train itself.

Second, the train’s momentum was taken away. It immediately began to slow down, passing repeatedly between the two portals as it did so. He didn’t want to instantly stop the train, to avoid injuring those on board. So, he simply gradually stole its momentum while repeatedly sending it back and forth through those two portals. From the outside, the train appeared to stay almost in one place, repeatedly running over the same path of track, while from the train’s perspective, it was still covering lots of ground.

Within a few seconds, the train was safely stopped, unable to move no matter what it drivers tried. Almost as quickly, dozens of armored soldiers appeared, dropping off of the train or scrambling up on its roof to surround the man who had stop them. Their weapons were raised and ready. Before long, fifty troops of various shapes and sizes were there.

In response to all of this, as their weapons were leveled and the troops awaited the order to attack, Gabriel spoke three simple words.

“You may surrender.“

They didn’t, of course. But he had to offer. Instead, as their leader shouted a single word, the soldiers all opened fire, or used whatever ranged power they happened to have. Whatever it took, they would destroy him. Dozens of energy blasts, fireballs, jets of ice, hyper-accelerated metal balls, contained explosions, and more collided with the man in a terrifying display of power.

Then it was over. The dust cleared, and Gabriel Prosser stood entirely unaffected. Not a single attack had managed to so much as ruffle his shirt.

“Okay,” he said then, even as the troops prepared to attack again. With that simple word, Gabriel lifted his shovel from the dirt and drove it down hard once more.

As the blade of the shovel was driven through the dirt, dozens of copies of it appeared simultaneously. They shot up out of the ground, out of thin air, or out of the side or roof of the train itself. The duplicated shovel blades instantly grew to several times their normal size while glowing with unbelievable power. Each was positioned perfectly to slice straight through one of the soldiers. No armor or protection could save them. The troops, to a man, were instantly cut in half from every direction by that single thrust.

Throughout all of this, Gabriel had only moved twice. Once to raise his hand, and the second time to lift his shovel and drive it down once more. Now the train was stopped, its mounted weaponry destroyed, and its troops eliminated.

“Okay,” the man announced simply, turning to where Tabbris was.

“Let’s see how our new friends on board are doing.”

 

******

 

Young Chayyiel

 

“And then Trierarch Bayest drew his gun, pointed at the Fomorian on the ground, and said, ‘You didn’t leave one survivor, you’ve left two.’  And then he pulled the trigger and blew the Fomorian’s whole head into splatter dust like fwoomsh!

With the end of her pronouncement, the young Chayyiel suddenly threw her arms wide open, going as far as jumping into the air to demonstrate the explosive nature of the aforementioned head explosion. She added in her best approximation of gooey noises as well right at the end, as if demonstrating the resulting gore dripping from the walls.

The first of her two-member audience who had been listening to the girl’s story gave her a broad smile. Abaddon, his enormous figure completely dwarfing the child’s as they stood on one of the Olympus’s space observation decks, raised his hand. His thumb was lightly pressed against the side of his index finger, while the other three fingers were tucked down against his palm. Millennia in the future and far away, the human equivalent of that gesture would be a thumbs up.

“That’s right, aucellus,” he announced, using his favored nickname for the child. “That’s exactly how that went down. I should know, I was the other survivor. And Bayest was one of the most badass trierarchs I ever had the pleasure of serving under.”

The other occupant of the observation deck grunted in disbelief. Cahethal, her incredibly, distractingly green eyes focused on the man, disbelievingly asked, “Are you quite certain that you’re not exaggerating even a little bit? I find it difficult to believe that one man, no matter how talented he may be, was capable of single-handedly wiping out an entire Fomorian strike force, no matter how motivated he may have been.”

Grunting, Abaddon thumped a fist against his chest. “You believe what you want, science girl. I know what I saw. Bayest is the biggest damn hero of the Seosten that I’ve ever met. And there ain’t never going to be another one like him.”

“You just said—” In mid-sentence, Cahethal visibly gave up and shook her head with a sigh. “Never mind.”

She focused on Chayyiel then. “Come, you know that you are here for more than simply listening to totally exaggerated war stories.”

Obediently, Chayyiel moved over to stand next to the woman who had, over the past year or so since the ship had launched, taken up a role as one of her teachers.

Once the girl was there, Cahethal asked, “You asked to work on your experiment here on the observation deck so you could watch the stars. Are you sure you won’t be too distracted? And did you bring your materials?”

Quickly nodding, the girl promised, “I’ll work on it. I have my things right over there.” She pointed to a couple of cloth bags sitting near the entrance. “Thank you, praeceptor. It’s so boring in the test lab.”

Grunting a little, Cahethal simply gave a single nod. “Just be sure that you do not make me regret this allowance. I will return in one hour and I hope to see some definite progress.”

As the girl fervently promised to get her work done, Cahethal and Abaddon stepped out, leaving her alone for the time being. On his way, the large man glanced back and winked at her. “Biggest badass of the Seosten, kid. You remember that. Maybe you’ll get lucky and meet him one day.”

Once they were gone, Chayyiel move to the nearest wall and used the screen there to call up an exterior view of the ship. She stood there, smiling giddily at the projected image.

“Oh Olympus,” the girl murmured while running her hands through the holographic shape, “you’re the most amazing ship in the universe.”

Bias aside, the girl wasn’t that far off. Though their crew was somewhat limited only to those who had passed through the Summus Proelium Project, it was easily state of the art. The latest in technology and magic lay at their fingertips. The Olympus was truly remarkable in every conceivable way.

The main central body of the ship was made up of an orb exactly five hundred meters in diameter. This was where the living and science facilities, as well as the primary slide-drive that allowed the ship to enter what amounted to hyperspace, were. Attached to that orb in three separate places (the top and both sides) were three long structures that extended about twenty meters behind the orb, continued along the outside of the orb and ahead past it another one hundred. Each of the three structures was shaped roughly like part of a cylinder, curved inward so that they lay almost flat against the surface of the orb itself. They were wide enough that with one on top and the two equidistant apart on the bottom left and bottom right of the orb, each nearly touched one of the others. The far end of each of these half-cylinder structures narrowed into sharp points, forming a jagged end.

At an order from the ship’s captain, each of those three (or fewer if needed) could separate from the main orb. As it did so, that half-cylinder would extend its sides, opening wing-like structures so that it could function as a separate combat-capable ship. When all four of its pieces were locked in place, the Olympus was a terrifyingly powerful vessel for its size, precisely because it was essentially three gunships mounted against a very well shielded central core. It could fight like that, as one, or separate itself into the three distinct combat ships and one command orb that could stay to direct the battle, or flee with all of their intact leadership and resources if need be. The separate, incredibly heavily armed combat ships had their own slide-drives just in case, but they were only rated for a much slower jump, used for emergencies. The vast majority of their power and available space was given to shields and weapons. There was no doubt about their intended purpose.

As the girl stood there admiring the hologram, the nearby door slid open, admitting Amitiel to the observation room. “Hey, kid,” he started with a wave. “Thought you might like some company.“

Immediately smiling, Chayyiel nodded. “Hi, Uncle Amitiel.”  She paused, turning to look both ways before taking a bit of metal from her pocket. Her thumb pressed against it and she murmured a spell that she had picked up from a few of the adults. After a second of that, she nodded. “It’s okay, nobody’s watching.”

With that established, she then asked, “Did you think about what we were talking about? The bit about you having your own name, I mean.”

Shaking his head, the being who had once been known as a Lie before taking the body of the true Amitiel replied, “It might’ve been over a year, but I’m still getting accustomed to answering to his name. Besides, what’s the point of having a name that only you or I know about?”

Shrugging, Chayyiel answered, “Other people might know someday. You can trust Sariel and Lucifer, you know.”

Rather than directly respond to that, Amitiel asked, “How are you doing with them still being gone on that mission? You alright?”

Looking back that way, Chayyiel hesitated, biting her lip before honestly answering, “I miss them. I know we have to maintain radio silence and everything, but we don’t even know if they’re okay.”

“Don’t you worry,” Amitiel assured her. “You know how good those two are. Kushiel may have pushed for them to go that first time just to get rid of them, but they showed her, didn’t they?”

The girl swallowed at that memory before giving a short nod. “Why does Kushiel hate them so much?”

The question made him sigh, hanging his head before shaking it. “Why does Kushiel do anything? She pretty much hates everyone she can’t control, and you know how Lucifer is about people trying to control him or his partner.”

Frowning, Chayyiel folded her arms across her chest while her brow knitted. “Kushiel isn’t very nice. But Uncle Puriel is… usually. Except when he listens to her.” She paused briefly before amending, “Okay, sometimes he’s nice. But she’s never nice. So how come he likes her so much?”

Amitiel opened his mouth, before pausing to shake his head. “You know what kid, I think you just stumbled across one of the great mysteries of the universe. I mean, sure, she’s pretty and all, but…” He paused again, then shrugged helplessly. “Yeah, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”

Changing the subject then, the man asked, “So what kind of project are you doing for the old microscope?”

Giggling despite herself, Chayyiel chastised, “You shouldn’t call her that. Just because she’s short and has special eyes…”

“Still makes you laugh though,” Amitiel pointed out with a wink. “So about this project, you wanna show me?”

Brightening, the girl asked, “Do you want to help me with it? The stuff is right there.” She pointed to the bags next to him.

Amitiel glanced down before grabbing the bags to walk that way. “Sure, why not. Let’s see what we’re working with.

“And while we work, you can tell me what outrageous story Abaddon’s filled your head with this week.”

******

 

Aylen Tamaya

 

Alone in the room that she shared with Koren Fellows, Aylen Tamaya stood at the window, gazing down at the grassy field where her fellow students walked, sat, or even ran. They studied and worked there, enjoying the always-beautiful afternoon on the magical island.

The Native American girl’s eyes found their way to one group in particular. Sitting there on the grass, engrossed in another of their deeply private conversations, were Columbus Porter, Sean Gerardo, Felicity Chambers, Douglas Frey, and Scout Mason. Avalon wasn’t there, because she had been hurt, taken by monsters and terribly hurt in some way before being rescued by her team, and by Gaia. She was recovering now, apparently, off in some secret place with people the Crossroads headmistress trusted.

Aylen hoped that the girl was okay. Avalon had… had helped her when she really needed it. Without her, Aylen’s… secret would have gotten out. She wouldn’t have been able to stop it. She owed her life to the other girl, and so much more. If there was anything she could have done to help Avalon, she would have, without a second thought.

But the others, the rest of Avalon’s team, didn’t trust her. And she didn’t blame them. Why wouldn’t they keep secrets? After all, she was keeping a very big one. One that she had even convinced Avalon herself to keep for her. A secret from everyone, except for Avalon, now.

Whatever problems Avalon’s team was going through, Aylen wished that she could help. But that would mean revealing herself, revealing the truth about what she was. And that was… that was too much. She wanted to help, but exposing herself like that, revealing herself was… she couldn’t do that. Not yet. No matter what Avalon had said about how they could be trusted.

She’d promised to think about it, and she would, she had, quite a lot. More than once, Aylen had stood outside either Felicity or Scout’s door, sometimes in the middle of the night, and tried to work up the courage to knock. She wanted, so badly, to tell them everything.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. Not only from a lack of trust, or an overabundance of fear. But also because whatever they were going through, it would be so much worse if they had to deal with her problems too. And that wasn’t fair to them. Felicity and the others had far too much to deal with as it was without Aylen piling onto the secrets they were keeping.

With a sigh, the girl gave the group one last look before turning away from the window. She walked from there to the wall, where a mirror had been mounted. Standing there, she faced the mirror and examined herself, seeing what others saw when they looked at her.

Dark hair that fell to her shoulders. Dusky skin. High cheekbones. Dark eyes. As she examined herself from each angle, Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, made a noise from where was perched on his wooden stand. The nest that he slept in was on top of Aylen’s dresser nearby.

“I know, Sovereign,” the girl assured her partner. “We’ll leave soon, I promise. I just have to see.”

From her pocket, she withdrew a small comb. The comb had been a gift. Running a thumb over the runes etched in it, the girl slowly touched it to the side of her face, and whispered the activation spell.

In an instant, she changed. And Aylen saw her true form. Her skin was still dark, testament to her true Native American roots. Or at least, those of her mother. Or at least… one of her mothers. What the comb revealed was the genetic contributions of her other mother.

Her first mother’s contribution to the child made possible by the being known as Grandfather was her Native American appearance. Sonoma had also passed along her werecrow gifts. Aylen had kept them secret ever since she had come to this school, though she had gifted herself a few private flights with Sovereign whenever she needed to clear her head.

But as the magical comb revealed her true self, Aylen saw the parts of her that she had inherited from her other mother.

Eyes that were a deep azure blue.

Hair that was much the same. Blue. The blue of the cloudless sky.

The blue of the Reapers. Or a half-reaper, like her second mother, Bastet.  

Bastet and Sonoma, her mothers. And with any luck at all, Aylen would soon be able to save her grandfather.

No, not that one. Her other grandfather. Bastet’s father.

What Crossroads called the Heretical Edge.

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Mini-Interlude 68 – Olympian Origins

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Several Thousand Years Ago

Three figures, one much smaller than the others, stood in front of the great transparent wall of the space station Aquilari’s observation deck. Before them lay the vastness of space, filled with innumerable stars, galaxies, and worlds beyond comprehension or belief. The universe, itself to the larger multiverse as this single station was to the galaxy it lay within.

“Are we really gonna see it all, Uncle Lucifer?” The soft, reverent voice came from the child, as she stood between her older companions. Chayyiel, only ten years old, could not hope to comprehend the scale of what lay before them. Despite all the incredible power that had been thrust onto her, despite the accident that had made her into what could become one of the most powerful Seosten in existence, she was still a child. She was still innocent.

With a slight smile at that, Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel. She, in turn, returned the smile. Which was nice, considering he was one of the few people she seemed comfortable enough to smile with. Shy and withdrawn, his female partner didn’t tend to do much talking. She let him do that. And he was good with the arrangement, since he loved to talk.

Even before his own enhancement. An enhancement that had been just as accidental as both Sariel’s and Chayyiel’s. All three of them, accidents.

Well, mostly accidents. Chayyiel’s father had intended to expose her to the physics-defying energies of the other-world. But only for a short time, just long enough to… to help her. Unfortunately, it had gone wrong. The man had been distracted and taken away from his work at the worst possible time. Which resulted in Chayyiel being abandoned in that other-world and assumed lost forever. At least until Sariel and Lucifer, his lab assistants, had saved her with the help of one of the actual project subjects, a man named Amitiel. He had been the one who came to the two in the first place, pleading with them to do something to save the girl. He had begged them to go beyond all safety measures, pleaded for them to not just bend the rules, but shatter them in order to open the portal again and get the girl out.

They had done so, at the cost of destroying the Seosten’s only method of accessing that other-world.

For some time, there had been talk of locking Lucifer and Sariel up, of containing them to some prison lab, of… doing any number of things that angry people talked about doing when something as bad as losing access to the ability to create ageless super soldiers happened. But in the end, higher powers had decided that since their numbers of project successes were limited, throwing away any of them wasn’t viable. The two had instead been assigned to the same exploratory ship as the rest of the products of that project. Though they were currently given no real assignment, being relegated to caring for and watching over Chayyiel herself.

Lucifer didn’t mind that either, any more than he minded being the ‘face’ of his partnership with the shy Sariel. Chayyiel was a good kid, and smart as hell even before she had been upgraded.

“We’re gonna try,” he replied to the girl’s question, giving her a wink. “It’s a pretty big universe though. It’ll take a long time.”

“Very long,” Sariel quietly agreed. Her hand moved to Chayyiel’s shoulder, squeezing it. She had been the one to come up with the solution that allowed herself and Lucifer to extract Chayyiel. It was a solution that had ended up destroying the project itself, even as it saved one child’s life. Lucifer had tried to take that blame for himself, but it was one time where Sariel had not meekly and quietly allowed him to take the lead. He’d wanted to spare her from being the focus of so much anger, yet she had done so anyway, confessing that it was her plan.

Seeing her small, fragile figure hunched in on herself while being bombarded with so much vitriol from the investigative committee had been the one and only time in his life to that point that Lucifer had been tempted to murder other Seosten. And not just one of them, but each and every figure who had been hounding, insulting, and belittling the woman beside him.

Not deterred in the least, Chayyiel’s head bobbed up and down. “Uh huh, but we’ve got time, right?” She looked first toward Sariel, then to Lucifer, eyes shining with curiosity and innocence as she firmly declared, “We’ve got lots of time to see everything out there.”

Chuckling, the man put his hand on the opposite shoulder from where Sariel’s still was. Both of them stood there with their hands on their young charge. “You’re not wrong about that,” he admitted while turning his gaze back to the stars. “We do have a lot of time.” Curiously, he asked, “So, how long do you think it would take to see everything there is to see out there? Every star, every world, every moon, everything. How long would it take us to see  all of it?”

Chayyiel blinked at that, face scrunching up with thought for a few seconds before guessing, “Ten thousand years?”

“Longer than that.” That was Sariel, her voice quiet, yet firm. “Much longer.”

“She’s right,” Lucifer agreed. “You want to see everything, you better settle in for the long haul. There’s a lot of stuff out there. And,” he added, “a lot of danger. Not just Fomorians. Other things too. A whole universe worth of monsters and problems.”

“We can handle it.” Chayyiel’s voice was assured, arms folded across her stomach as she gazed out at that starfield, determination written across her face. “We’re gonna see it all. And we’re gonna end the war with the Fomorians. We’re gonna fix everything.”

Again, Sariel and Lucifer exchanged brief glances. That time, it was Sariel who spoke up first. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

We can,” Chayyiel corrected.

“We’re gonna do it together.”

******

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome… aboard the Olympus.”

Pride filled the voice of the man who made that announcement. The figure, who was just barely under six feet in height, with black hair that was lined at the temple and along the sides with silver, smiled. It was a smile that spoke of adventure, of daring, and of battles yet to come.

His name was Puriel, and this was his ship. He stood directly in the middle of the bridge, surrounded on all sides by the consoles that his people, his people would use to direct the ship along their journey, through their missions. This pristine, almost perfectly white with hints of gold room was the command center, the brain of one of the most technologically and magically advanced ships in the entire Seosten fleet. Entire planets had worked to put this single ship through its theoretical, testing, and practical phases. And now it was real. It was complete.

And it was theirs. The products of the Summus Proelium Project, the experimental upgrading process created by Director Aysien, who had been granted an endless lifespan as their aging was frozen, along with other enhancements and unique, individual gifts, had all been gathered onto this single ship. A single ship with a single mission: to explore the vast, unending reaches of space and find some advantage that would allow the Seosten to finally finish the forever war. It was a war that had been raging for hundreds of thousands of years. Literally dozens of generations of the Seosten, whose members lived roughly ten thousand years by themselves, had come and gone without ever experiencing anything except this war against Cronus’s children, the Fomorians.

And now, Puriel’s people, his people, would have a chance to find a way of ending that war, of ending the threat that the Fomorians posed to the entire universe, once and for all. Yes, he felt pride at that fact. Yes, he felt immeasurable happiness at the very thought that his children might, might grow up in a universe where they would be safe.

That thought made his gaze move to the console near the very back of the bridge, next to the main door. And to the beautiful figure who sat there, looking back at him from across the room. Tall and regal, with a beauty that was matched only by her sharp wit and sharper tongue for those who had failed her, Kushiel still took his breath away. To have a child with her, to give that child a chance to live in a universe free of the Fomorian threat… he still held to that hope, to that dream. Old as he was even now, that was a dream worth working for.

And he could live to see it. His age, like all of the crew of the Olympus, had been frozen. Unless killed by some outside means, they would never die. They could, conceivably, actually live to see the end of this war, and whatever would come next.

But the others were watching. As much as he felt that he could lose himself in the gaze of his wife forever, this was too important of a day. So, Puriel pulled himself back, clearing his throat. “Logistics,” he used Kushiel’s position rather than her name. Must stay professional. “Report.”

Granting him one of her rare, yet beautiful smiles before it vanished behind a mask of professionalism, Kushiel gave one slight nod, her voice crisp. “Yes, Trierarch. All supplies are in the green. Fuel stores are reporting maximum capacity. Weapons are pristine. We are clear for six months of regular rations and travel before restock and refuel will be required.”

“Good to know how long we’ve got ahead of us,” Puriel replied with a broad smile. He couldn’t help it. He was professional, not dead. Still, he cleared his throat before his gaze moved slightly to the next station. “Engineering?”

Radueriel returned his brief smile, giving a hand gesture that was part wave and part salute. “Believe me, Trierarch, we are just fine down in the engine room. The boys and I have spent the past week going over every millimeter of that beauty down there. She’ll get us where we need to go, and give a little kick to anyone that tries to stop us from getting there.”

“Given the things we’ll be running into,” Puriel replied, “it better be a big kick.” He turned his attention to the next console over then. “Tactical?”

Auriel stood at rigid attention beside her station, hands clasped behind her back. “Sir,” she began crisply, “All weapons are online and at full capacity.” And yet, even the always professional woman (to the point that many had joked when they thought neither she nor Puriel could hear them about the enormous stick that must have been lodged deep in her backside) could not entirely contain the excitement of what was about to happen. There was the faintest of smiles that briefly flickered across her expression. “It will be a very big kick, sir.”

Puriel smiled. “That’s what I like to hear. Security, Crew Liaison, any issues getting everyone settled in?”

From opposite sides of the bridge, Abaddon, as ship’s security chief, and Jophiel, as the crew liaison, both reported negative. The former continued with, “We all did a bit of partying last night, but we’re good for departure.”

It was technically against the rules, as military crews that were about to set off were supposed to remain ‘dry’ for a full day before departure. And Abaddon definitely wasn’t supposed to outright tell the ship’s trierarch about it. But what the hell. It was a special occasion. And everyone knew that no one paid attention to that rule.

Though, from the dirty look that Auriel was shooting Abaddon, if she had her way, it definitely would have been an issue. It was good for him then, that Puriel was far more easygoing. Well, as far as that kind of thing went, anyway.

Next, Puriel turned his attention to the woman who stood near the door, clearly waiting to be dismissed as soon as this launch procedure was over.  “Research and Development?”

The small woman who met his gaze had startlingly green eyes, the result of an earlier enhancement after losing the ones she had been born with. They allowed her to see into many different spectrums, and enhance down to the microscopic level. Her name was Cahethal, and she was also one of the members of his crew that Puriel knew the least about, aside from the late-comers. And they… well, they were a different situation entirely.  

She was also clearly anxious to get back to work, since her response was a simple, “We’d be doing a lot better if I wasn’t wasting my time up here. I have a whole roster of bright-eyed know-it-alls that I need to whip into shape before they run an experiment that blows up this entire ship.”

“Well,” Puriel replied easily, “I guess we’ll have to let you get back there as soon as possible to avoid that, won’t we? Let’s finish up then.” His attention moved to the man next to her. “Medical?”

The man there, Manakel, had been working with Puriel for the past five hundred years. The two knew each other quite well, and exchanged brief smiles. Neither could believe they were finally here, commanding their own ship. And not only that, but one of the most advanced ships in the fleet. It was a dream come true, for both of them, in many different ways.

“The crew checks out,” the medical chief reported crisply. “We are ready to go.”

“Indeed we are,” Puriel agreed before looking at last toward the nearest console to his own seat. “Unless my executive officer has any problems to raise?”

The man there, Sachael, was almost as tall as the giant Abaddon, though he also looked to be much older. His long, pure white hair fell to his shoulders, and he had a beard to match, along with eyes that were pale blue, like a pair of frozen ponds set against the snow of his hair. He had also worked with Puriel even longer than Manakel had. Which meant that Puriel was pretty certain Sachael had been the one to convince the crew to go out for drinks the night before.

On-duty, Sachael was the consummate professional. He did his job, and he did it very well. Perfectly, in fact. He was the best first mate that Puriel could have asked for. But off-duty, the man was another story. He was fanatical about separating his two lives, to the point of almost seeming to be two entirely different people. He valued his freedom and fun. That was why he worked so hard while on-duty, so that he could turn it all off and let loose when he wasn’t. And woe be to the person who made him work when he considered himself done.

In this case, the man nodded crisply. “All departments and systems seem to be green.”

Puriel turned to the front then, his mouth opening to address the helmsman, when the door at the back of the room, near Kushiel, Manakel, and Cahethal, slid open. Three figures entered then, one much smaller than the other two.

Lucifer and Sariel, both of them barely past their mid-fifties in age. Barely more than children, really. Neither had actually been selected by their Choirs to be a part of Summus Proelium, or this ship. No, they had been simple lab techs back at the project itself, little more than assistants to Aysien himself until… well, until things had changed. Mostly due to the other figure they had entered with: Chayyiel. The director’s daughter, whose accidentally extended excursion into the other-world where they had drawn their extraordinary gifts from had resulted in the ending of that project.

Or, more specifically, whose unprepared retrieval from that excursion had ended the project, along with any way of actually accessing that other-world, possibly forever.

It was that fact that likely fueled the audible annoyance in Auriel’s voice, as the woman snapped, “What are they doing here?” It looked like she was about to order them off, but stopped herself with a look to Puriel.

Heedless of the reaction (most of the bridge crew looked no less annoyed or outright angry than Auriel herself did) that their presence was creating, Chayyiel all-but sprinted across the bridge, letting out a whoop as she saw the starfield ahead of them. “Are we really leaving, Uncle Puriel?!” She blurted while stopping beside him. Her hands grabbed his arm and she gazed up adoringly. “Really really leaving?”

Kushiel’s own tone was even darker than Auriel’s. “If the girl’s babysitters cannot even perform that duty adequately–”

“We’re sorry. Sorry.” Lucifer hurriedly put in, head shaking quickly as he moved with Sariel right on his heels. The blonde woman was slightly younger than her constant companion, and she was also much more shy. Puriel wasn’t sure he’d heard the woman speak more than a few words that she didn’t absolutely have to speak in the whole time that he’d known her. She relied on her research partner to do that talking for her so much that the rest of the lab, and now the crew here, had begun referring to them as ‘twins.’

“We tried to keep her in the mess hall,” Lucifer was explaining, “so she could watch the launch from there. But she kept insisting that–”

“Ahem.” Manakel raised a hand, drawing Puriel’s attention. “I’m afraid I did indeed extend an invitation to the young miss to bring her guardians with her to see the launch from the bridge. I thought it would be something she would enjoy. Who wants to see the first launch of a ship like this from the mess or the observation deck when you can see it from the bridge?”

Pausing briefly, Puriel looked down to the girl, whose eyes were shining with hope as she stared right back up at him, batting her eyelashes like some kind of innocent bifestel.

“Well,” the man finally replied, “how can I argue with that? Over there.” He nodded to a nearby couple of seats set against the wall near Abaddon. “Strap yourselves in, okay?”

That earned him a hug from the girl herself, before she and her two caretakers (who would have to be given some other job at some point, but Puriel wasn’t sure what that would be just yet, particularly if Cahethal continued to insist that she didn’t want them) moved to the seats.

With that interruption settled, Puriel finally looked to the front. “Helm and Navigation?”

The man there, Amitiel, gave a short nod. He had been looking briefly toward the three newcomers, his attention apparently caught by a wave from Chayyiel herself before belatedly realizing that he had been addressed.

“Ah, ready, sir,” he replied carefully.

Puriel didn’t know Amitiel that well, but he had noticed that whatever else the procedure that changed them all had done, it also seemed to have made him quieter than before. Less boastful of his skill and more… calm than he’d been in those first few weeks. Which was a good thing, as far as Puriel was concerned. Having a calm, professional helmsman would help the ship get through its shakedown voyage without too many problems. Hopefully.

“Very good,” he announced then, realizing that everyone’s eyes were on him. His command crew. His people. They were watching him, waiting for his word to launch. Waiting for him to give the command that would begin their great journey.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began then, turning his attention to the stars.

“Let’s see what she can do.”

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Interlude 37B – Chayyiel

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“Miss Chayyiel? I mean, um, Seraph, are you okay?”

Chayyiel heard the man’s voice, but for a moment, the girl who had been ten years old for millennia gave no response. She stood there in the rounded, tube-like corridor of the spaceship with her head down, her pixie-cut black hair too short to fall into her eyes the way she wished it would. That might allow her to hide the pain in her expression.

Manakel was dead. He was gone forever, wiped away, never to live again. Dead. Forever.

The news had only just come through, right when they had been in the middle of a very important operation. In mid-battle, even. She’d taken the information, walked three more steps along the same way she had already been going on what amounted to autopilot, then stopped. Right there in the middle of that corridor, Chayyiel had stopped, lowered her head, and let the actual truth of the news wash over her.

Her escorts all looked at one another. There were six of them, each powerful Seosten in their own right, they exchanged glances briefly before the one who had spoken before did so again. “Ma’am, do you need to call this off? If–um, if you need time…”

There were many people, both in and out of the Seosten species, who would have questioned why Chayyiel felt even a moment of remorse and mourning for a being like Manakel. And she even understood that. The things he had been responsible for, the people he had hurt and killed, she knew exactly why the general instinct for most was to add spit, rather than flowers, to his grave. But the truth was that the grief that she felt then was less for the man he had died as, and more for the man he had been before. Or rather, the man that she had seen him as when she was a child, growing up in the corridors and decks of the Olympus.

Manakel back then had given the young Chayyiel, a child with far too much power thrust upon her at such a tender age, comfort. He had taught her to enjoy tea and gardening, and had allowed her to enter his quarters at any point to play with his Dymenian rastfels. He’d even taught her to care for her own pets whenever she insisted on having them, drawn from the various worlds they visited. He had read her stories from his books to help her sleep, and had tutored her in several subjects. He was one of her guardians, one of her tutors, one of her friends. That was the man she grieved for in those few seconds. Those were the memories that played through her mind.

A Seosten’s memory was perfect. Which made it harder for someone’s current atrocities to entirely eclipse the thoughts of what he had once been. It was too easy to focus on the good parts.

Finally lifting her head, Chayyiel pushed those thoughts away. That was the other thing about having a perfect memory. It was easy to stop the thought process you were having and get right back to it later without missing a beat. “No,” she said quietly while already starting to walk again, “this is too important. We’re not abandoning the mission now.”

Her escort fell into formation around her, allowing Chayyiel to lead the way through the ship corridor. The ship was called the Alisper’s Craet, and it was a fast, heavily armored vessel without much in the way of weaponry. What it did have, however, were special clamps that allowed it to hook onto other vessels or stations, cut through the hatches or even the walls there, and attach their own boarding tubes. The Craet was a boarding and raiding ship.

The corridors of this ship were so different than that of the Olympus. There, the halls had been more square than rounded, and larger. There had been a less utilitarian look to them as well, as the ship was intended to be lived in comfortably away from regular civilization for many years. The Olympus had been meant for long excursions far away from regular Seosten space. And over time, the walls of the ship had been decorated by the people serving aboard it. Here and there had been pictures drawn or taken, or paintings, or any other bit of art and personality. The ship had been lived in. It had been a home, and for awhile, the people on it had been a family.

A few more steps, and the sound of laser-fire reached the group. Chayyiel and her escort picked up their pace, jogging down the corridor before reaching one of those boarding tubes. It had been extended to their target, and a group had already taken up position on either side of the opening. Like the group with her, there were six of them. In their case, however, none were Seosten. About half were very obviously different, two being rather massive ogres (their ten-foot tall bodies would barely fit into the boarding tube if they hunched over) while the third was a tiny pixie. The remaining three were roughly humanoid and wore the standard issue black armor and helmets.

All six carried guns of various sizes, and were already using them to send a continuous hail of laserfire down the boarding tube even as Chayyiel and the others approached. They spared  glances to the new arrivals, but didn’t do anything stupid like waste time greeting them or saluting. Chayyiel had broken them of that habit as soon as possible.

Instead, they kept shooting, even as the Seosten with the girl spread out, each moving to one of the non-Seosten. One by one, in perfect coordination both amongst themselves and between each of the two groups, a non-Seosten would briefly stop firing, and then their Seosten partner would possess them, stepping into the body before resuming their attack.

Partner. That was the operative term, and it was the only way Chayyiel, as Seraph, allowed anyone under her command to work. If you were a Seosten, you were matched with a non-Seosten partner that would be drawn from a pool of volunteers. A team of both psychologists and combat trainers alike would match Seosten to the volunteer they saw as the most likely fit. The Seosten and their non-Seosten host would then both work and train together, learning how to function as partners. Once a week, both would be interviewed separately to ensure that the partnership was proceeding properly and that the Seosten was not abusing their host as was so common in most other parts of the Empire. The non-Seosten beings were treated as being just as important as the actual Seosten were, and were provided wages, rights, and benefits to suit that. Within the ships, stations, and planets that were under Chayyiel’s command as part of the Seraphim, abusive Seosten did not last very long. Chayyiel couldn’t keep track of everyone under her command. But she could keep track of those most loyal to her, and they in turn kept track of those under them, and so on down through the ranks.

And so the Seosten and Non-Seosten partners linked up there without any hesitation or awkwardness. Their shooting continued, while Chayyiel herself moved to the open docking tube, looking that way. Several bodies, random assortments of biological monstrosities that were the Fomorian footsoldiers (not actual Fomorians, but the creations they sent to do their dirty work) lay scattered along the tube, while a few more continued to try rushing forward. One ran on four legs and looked a bit like the animal known as a moose on Earth, save for its much sharper horns rather than the antlers of that creature, while the other two loped along like oversized apes with more reptilian features and scorpion-like tails. None seemed affected by the laser-fire.

They were, however, vulnerable to other things. And as Chayyiel looked at them, her power took over.

Left-most reptilian-primate very slightly limps on his right side. Right primate brash and easily manipulated through temper. Does not limp like the other. Both are invulnerable to most forms of energy, meant to combat Seosten lasers specifically. Blunt and blades similarly ineffective. Fire negated. Cold a possibility. Not particularly weak, but not specifically protected against it. Poisons, many ineffective, few esoteric possibilities. Eyes only one-quarter as resistant to lasers as the rest of the body–protection comes mainly from scales. Scales vulnerable to sufficient pressure at one specific angle. Tails segmented, protected similar to body but vulnerable at the joining point between sections.–

Taking in the moose-like creature at the same time, her power continued. —Quick runner, fast-acting paralytic toxin on horns. Vulnerable at knees. Blindspot directly to either side of the shoulders when within two feet and lower than shoulder-height. Hearts located exactly six inches below the throat, five inches beyond the right-front leg, and directly above the tailbone.–

Everything her power told her, Chayyiel took in within an instant. In the time it took most people to recognize that the person they were looking at had blonde hair, she had already catalogued each of those facts that her ability had reported.

It was a power that would have been dangerous enough, if it had been all that she received after accidentally being left in the other-universe that her father had opened a portal to through his experiments. But it wasn’t. Her physical attributes, her strength, speed, and more had all been enhanced far beyond what a Seosten her size and age should have been capable of. Similarly, her ability to boost herself was greatly increased.

And then there was the fact that, any time she spent in what amounted to the same room as any person, she automatically learned every physical and mental skill they possessed. Combat, academic, magical, whatever they knew, she would know. She knew their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and she gained every bit of combat skill, magic knowledge, and everything else that could give them an edge.

Just like now, when she looked at these three creatures and instinctively, immediately, knew their every weakness. She knew how they would fight because she knew how they had been trained/programmed to fight. Through knowing all of their skills and all of their weaknesses, Chayyiel knew everything that they could do, everything they would do. Knowing everyone’s skills, strengths, and weaknesses was a blueprint to understanding what they would do in any situation, against any stimuli.

After that brief instant of taking in exactly what these creatures were and what they were capable of, she launched herself into a sprint while crisply ordering, “Eyes!”

Her people reacted just as quickly. As well trained and disciplined as they were, they instantly knew that her single word meant to shoot at the eyes of the two creatures in front. Their lasers filled the air around her, Chayyiel trusting them to miss her. Which was one thing that her being so small actually helped. They could fire over her head and still miss her by a solid foot.

The two reptilian primates staggered a bit under the combined laserfire. They had to close their eyes to protect from being shot, which blinded and slowed them further. Instinctively, their scorpion-tails snapped up and around, probing the ground in front of them with a few violent stabs.

Exactly as Chayyiel had expected them to. In that instant, she hit her boost, her speed suddenly multiplying exponentially to turn her entire body into a barely visible blur. As those bladed tails rebounded from the floor, the girl moved right between them. Her hands snapped out, catching hold of the tails before she smoothly drove each up under one of the scales of the opposite creature. It was the exact spot and exact angle that her power had drawn her attention to.

Instinctively, as they felt the unknown pressure, each of the blinded primates heaved up and back with their tails. In doing so, they managed to free themselves. But in the process, they also snapped that single scale off of each other’s bodies, leaving a tiny patch of unprotected skin.

Without missing a step, she continued on past the two even while they were still yanking their tails back. The quadruped was right behind them, and coming in fast with its head lowered, those horns ready to paralyze and skewer her.

But Chayyiel was ready too. A quick, last-second step to her left and a drop to her knees put her in the creature’s blindspot. She slid that way, hand yanking what looked like an empty knife handle from her belt. She thumbed the button on it, making the eight inch laser blade hum to life.

Sliding past the animal’s blindspot there, Chayyiel used the laser-knife to cut through its front right knee. Just as quickly, as the creature stumbled on past her, she stabbed up through each of the hearts she had noted earlier, saving the one in the tailbone for last as she swung herself up onto its already stumbling body. Her weight back there drove the creature toward the ground back-end first. As it fell, a second laser-knife appeared in her other hand, and she threw each end over end to sever either side of the animal’s horns, cutting them from its head.

She sprang forward then, up over the collapsing creature’s head while her hands moved to catch its falling horns. By that point, the primate creatures had only just started to realize that she was behind them, and began to turn, still under a hail of laserfire.

They didn’t get far, however, before Chayyiel hurled the horns she had severed from their partner, straight into the tiny exposed spots of skin that their tails had exposed by snapping off that single scale on each. The horns flew perfectly, driving into that small spot before pumping their paralytic poison directly into their bloodstream.

It worked incredibly quickly, dropping each of the creatures to the ground in full paralysis a second later. Which left Chayyiel standing there surrounded by the bodies of all three Fomorian creatures. One of them dead, the other two paralyzed.

“Finish them off,” she ordered her people, already pivoting to head onward through the boarding tube and into the Fomorian vessel. “The Beta will be close.”

Beta. In the Fomorian ranks, there were generally six types of creature (with some exceptions): alphas, betas, gammas, deltas, epsilons, and zetas. Only the first three were actual Fomorians. Zetas were mindless, easily killed creatures that functioned only as massive packs. Epsilons were stronger and capable of acting alone, similar to the creatures that she had just killed. Deltas were very strong and independent, as well as being intelligent enough to create their own plans. Basically, the Fomorians’ best creations, but not really actual Fomorians.

Gamma Fomorians were young, unproven. Betas had been around long enough to make a name for themselves and made up the bulk of the actual Fomorian population. And Alphas were their leadership, rare even for Fomorians, who already had an actual population much lower than the Seosten with their own shortage.

Sure enough, right on the other end of the tube stood a tall, gray-skinned Fomorian. Its angular face, too-large eyes, and bulbous head was instantly recognizable, though individuals tended to differ widely as far as their bodies went through their own genetic enhancements.

Her power kicked in the instant she saw him. —Immune to heat up to roughly half the temperature of the core of a yellow sun. Immune to cold. Absorbs most types of radiation and energy. Absorbs most magic. Armored against blunt force. Poisons are useless. Can see through every conceivable spectrum including magic. Eyes are only one of several ways he can see. All critical organs packed into an armored shell in the center of the body, impregnable to most attacks even if they do get through the outer body.

This was a strong Beta, probably close to being promoted to one of the Alphas. And from the look in those eyes, he knew that dealing with Chayyiel would be just the boost he needed for that promotion. He started forward, each of his six arms coming up to produce a variety of bladed weapons meant for cutting her open.

She kept walking, not breaking stride as she moved straight for the Fomorian. She saw his toothy smile as the creature watched her approach. His blades went up, one of his hands opening to reveal a paralytic powder that he filled the air with. One single molecule of that powder entering her system would leave Chayyiel as helpless and frozen as the creatures she had just left.

She kept walking. Her thumb brushed over a spell inscribed into one of her gloves, and a light forcefield popped up around the girl. It wasn’t enough to hold back much, but it did force the paralyzing dust away from her, clearing the air.

The Fomorian reached for her, each of those six hands trying to grab onto the girl. But Chayyiel was too quick, too small, too aware of his every move. She barely seemed to react, ducking once, sidestepping a few inches, and turning her body. Yet all six of his grasping limbs utterly missed, putting Chayyiel directly in front of him with his arms extended past her.

He started to pull back, grinning even wider as his limbs moved to envelop the girl. But again, Chayyiel was too quick. In one, single motion, her hand snapped up, balled into a fist. She struck the Fomorian precisely seven inches below his throat and four inches to the right at the exact angle and with the exact force her power had already informed her of.

That single blow made him freeze. His arms went limp, falling to his sides, and the Fomorian made a sound like a gasping fish, trying in vain to suck in air.

His legs gave out a second later, and he collapsed to the ground, twitching and spasming as his brain went through the horrific stroke that had been brought on by that single, incredibly precise blow. A quarter inch in any direction, a fist angled even slightly differently, a blow with any more or less force, and nothing would have happened. But the blow wasn’t any different. It was exactly what her power told her to make it. And a handful of seconds later, his body was still and silent. He was dead.

Her escort arrived momentarily, and Chayyiel ordered them to follow the path that had already been planned out. The rest of the Seosten attack force was keeping other parts of the Fomorian ship busy, and her people had their own job to do. Again, her people asked if she was okay, if she needed to pull back. But again, Chayyiel refused. Destroying the brain of the Fomorian Dierev (essentially a three-hundred-plus foot tall monstrosity capable of untold devastation) before it could be delivered to the rest of the assembled body was too important to withdraw now.

Her power was too useful to sit on the sidelines. It had always been that way. For the past three thousand years, Chayyiel had been too important to sit things out. Ever since she had been lost on the other side of that portal. The portal into a strange other-universe full of indecipherable energy storms which, upon proximity with a living being, fundamentally altered that being, granting them incredible powers and halting their aging completely.

That had been her father’s project, all those years ago: to use the vast amount of resources it took to open portals into this world of power-bestowing energy storms, and expose his test subjects to them. How much power each subject received was impossible to predict, since it had to do with how much direct exposure to the energy storms they had, and the location and strength of those were impossible to predict.

When he had secretly been working on his own daughter, however, Chayyiel’s father had been interrupted. She had fallen in and been cut off for much longer than the others. Longer than she should have been able to survive.

And she’d still be there, or her body would, had two lab technicians not noticed what was happening while her father was detained, and set out to rescue Chayyiel themselves. The two had ended up exposed to the energy storms as well, for as long as it took to open the portal once more and pull the girl out. Unfortunately, doing so the way that they did, without as much time and care spent before opening the portal (as they refused to wait longer to pull her out) resulted in the energy storm somehow shorting out the hole in space that was their only access point to that universe.

The project had been over, simply because there was no way to access that universe. Not until another similar ‘hole’ in the fabric of their reality was found. And in the past several thousand years, Chayyiel had yet to hear of one. It may have been the only one of its kind, ever.

In any case, the three of them had never been intended to be enhanced the way the ‘real’ test subjects were, those who had been specifically chosen by their Choirs and had resources devoted to the program so that they could be upgraded. But it had happened, and the Empire couldn’t afford to throw any resources away, particularly super-soldiers. So, despite all of their young ages (she was still a child, but they weren’t that much older either as far as Seosten went) Chayyiel and her saviors, Sariel and Lucifer, were added to the roster of the newly formed Olympus.

The Olympus. The family. They had been a family once. Or at least, Chayyiel had seen them that way. Yes, there were problems, disputes, grudges, even all-out fights. But Chayyiel had been a child growing up on that ship. She had been taught by them, raised by them. Manakel had his problems, but he had cared for her. He had helped her, comforted her.

So yes, she mourned for him. Even as she understood the man he had become, and that he had very much dug his own grave, she was still saddened by his death. It still left a hole in her that would not be filled.

“Seraph?”

After they had completed their mission, one of her men stood near her on board their own ship once more. The Fomorian vessel had been blown apart, its deadly cargo going with it. Her man watched her, concern written across his face. “Seraph, I’m sure the leadership would agree to a sabbatical, if you wish to make a brief trip to Earth to avenge Manakel’s death.”

“Avenge?” Echoing that word, Chayyiel glanced toward the man, giving a slight shake of her head. “Kalifiel, there’s something you need to understand. Sometimes we aren’t the good guys. And when people kill us, it’s not always because they’re monsters. It’s also because we are. Because we hurt them. Because we drove them to it.

“So no, I don’t want to kill the people who killed Manakel. His death makes me sad, not angry. I know why it happened. I know that he deserved it. I didn’t want it to happen. I would have stopped it if I could. But avenge? No. What I want is to end the situation that made that necessary. I want to fix the problem, not make it worse.”

“End the situation?” Kalifiel stared at her uncomprehendingly. “I know you’ve changed a lot under your command, that we’re… um, that we’re different from most of the Empire. And that’s really impressive. But fixing the entire problem? Is that even possible?”

For a moment, Chayyiel said nothing. She thought of what Jophiel and her lover were doing with the same girl who was apparently responsible for Manakel’s death. She thought of Sariel, and the way the woman had been pushed into the arms of the human that she had subsequently fallen in love with. She thought of every little nudge she had given to get things to this point. She thought of the way she had directed that shard of the broken banishment orb into Dries Akens’ prison in order to draw the Heretics there so that they would free him. She thought of all the small actions with much larger results. Some that had already happened, others that were yet to come.

“Oh, it’s possible,” she murmured softly then, barely loud enough for Kalifiel to hear the words. “It may take a lot of work, a lot of time, and… well, more than a few setbacks.

“But then, being patient is just another skill. And for now, I have something else to do.”

******

“Hah, I knew they’d send someone to pick me up.”

The human boy, Isaac, grinned as he watched Chayyiel calmly approach him. The unconscious bodies of the two men who had been his guards lay limp on the ground behind her.

“Ohh, it’s a perfectly secure prison in a base built and hidden by the mighty Athena, you’re never getting out of here.” Isaac’s words were mocking as he shook his head. “It’s like they’ve never read a comic book before. So you gonna hop out of the midget and find a more useful body for us to get out of here, or what?”

“Manakel chose to recruit you,” she informed him flatly, stopping just in front of the boy after deactivating the forcefield that contained him. “He decided that you had some use.”

“Oh yeah, and I’m even more useful now,” the boy replied with a grin, tapping the side of his head. “You wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve heard while sitting around in here. Plus I’ve got all those yummy powers.”

Chayyiel’s head shook once. “Manakel is dead.”

“Oh shit, really?” Isaac whistled then. “Right, no fucking wonder you finally came to get me. You’re shit out of options. So let’s go.”

“No.” Chayyiel’s denial was simple. “I didn’t come here to take you out of this prison.”

“What?” Annoyed now, Isaac spread his arms. “Then why the fuck are you here?”

“Because,” she replied easily, her eyes rising to meet his. “I have read comic books.”

There was a blur of motion then, accompanied by a hum of energy, And as it faded, Isaac stood there in complete disbelief, staring at the blood that had already drenched his open hands. Blood from the deep cut in his throat. His mouth opened and shut a couple times, as a weak, wheezing noise escaped him.

“And quite frankly,” Chayyiel continued while holding the laser-knife in one hand, “I’m sick and tired of villains who keep coming back.”

She turned away then, walking to the exit while the boy’s body collapsed behind her. As she moved, Chayyiel casually tossed a single, small silver object roughly the size of a pen behind herself. An instant later, it exploded and Isaac was utterly incinerated, his body reduced to little more than a dark smear on the ground.

Just in case.

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Mini-Interlude 50 – Jophiel And Elisabet

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Well, that would be one complete and utter waste of time out of the way, Elisabet silently announced while leaving the room where she and the other Crossroads Committee members had just finished yet another discussion. Just in time for the next one.

The ‘discussion’, such as it was, had been three hours of arguing over what they could possibly do about the disappearance of Felicity Chambers and the other students, and everything else that stemmed from that. Mostly it had amounted to little more than talking in circles. As usual.

Jophiel, the Seosten once called Aphrodite in the days of the Olympians, chuckled in equal silence, her amusement audible only to herself and her beloved human, her sianame.

Sianame. Pronounced See-Aw-Naw-May, it wasn’t a Seosten word. Nor was it a human word. In truth, the term originated from a race known as the Beventreist, who had been conquered by the Seosten over five thousand years earlier, back when Jophiel had been barely a new recruit. The Beventreist had believed in reincarnation, and sianame were two souls who were bonded for all eternity. In some lifetimes they would be lovers, in others they would be parent and child, best friends, business partners through world-changing endeavors, or even, in some cases, mortal enemies. Generation after generation, sianame would be brought together in various ways, often the most important part of each other’s lives, for good or for ill.

Jophiel didn’t believe in reincarnation, save for the Pooka or similar variety. But she did appreciate a good romantic story. And, as far as she was concerned, Elisabet was her sianame. Her soulmate, in Earth terms.

Yes, she replied easily, but if nothing else, at least our next appointment is an excuse to visit home.

She felt Elisabet’s agreement. The two of them had been connected for so long that their minds almost ran concurrently in many cases. At times it was almost difficult to separate out which of them was responsible for which thought.

Sí, her human partner replied. We do not have such opportunities nearly enough, lately.

There was no actual discussion between the two of them about when Elisabet would stop controlling her own body and when Jophiel would take over. There was no need for such a discussion. They simply knew each other so well that the moment the two of them were halfway down the hall away from the Committee’s meeting room, Elisabet stopped walking and Jophiel started, all in the course of the same step. No one watching would have been able to pinpoint the moment that it happened, regardless of how closely they were watching.

Taking over in mid-step while allowing her host to slip into that comfortable, familiar position in the back of her own mind, Jophiel cast their shared senses out. The odds of them being followed or observed were miniscule, but it was best to make absolutely certain.

Nothing. She could sense no one, even with more than a two dozen powers meant to ferret out anyone who might be invisible or remotely observing them somehow. They were not being watched.

Satisfied, Jophiel turned to a nearby door. The room on the other side didn’t matter. The door was simply the means to an end. Facing it, she held up one of Elisabet’s hands and focused on it until the hand turned semi-translucent, like that of a ghost. Carefully, she then reached into their own chest, using their ghost-like hand to go right through flesh, muscle, and bone without causing any actual damage.

Carefully, the Seosten woman found a small object secured to the side of one of their ribs. At a touch and thought, the object itself turned insubstantial as well, allowing her to take hold of it. A moment later, she withdrew their hand, revealing the object clutched between two fingers: a key.

Returning their hand and the key to solid form, Jophiel ran two fingers over the small metal object. It looked so simple, like an ordinary brass key that had been used on Earth hundreds of years earlier. Yet, it was so much more. As her fingers ran over it, the key read her DNA signature. Small runes began to glow red on it, and a single word of power made the rusty old brass metal gleam a bright blue.

Without another word, Jophiel pushed the key toward the door. As it approached the much smaller lock, meant for one of the tiny, far more modern versions, the key itself shrank and shifted its end so that it would fit easily.

Slipping the key into the lock, the Seosten woman uttered one more command phrase before turning it. There was a musical chime, and as she withdrew the key and opened the door, an almost blindingly bright white light had replaced whatever had normally been on the other side of it.

She stepped through. Instantly, the two of them felt the effect of the light. Combination magic and technology, it scanned their every single molecule. Every atom of their body and of everything they were bringing with them was given a thorough examination. They were checked for anything that could be a threat, knowing or not. Any magical effect, any bit of Fomorian biological trickery, anything out of the ordinary.

Once it was over, the light faded and they were standing, as expected, in a simple metal room that was only slightly bigger than an ordinary prison cell. All along the ceiling and floor were were dozens of tiny red crystals which, if they had been any kind of threat, would have immediately detonated with force roughly equivalent to the so-called Tsar Bomba, a fifty megaton nuclear weapon that had been detonated by the Soviets on Earth. All of it concentrated within a single room barely sixteen feet wide by twelve feet long.

That wasn’t the only safety measure. After the detonation, this particular room would have been vented into space and immediately shunted through a portal into the middle of a star several months journey away.

Luckily, none of that happened. Unfortunately, it was also far from the only security measure. It took another twenty minutes before the requirements were satisfied. Finally, however, they emerged from the room into a long, tube-shaped corridor. The walls, made of a clear material similar to but much stronger than glass, revealed the open starfield beyond. They had come to a space station, one of many that orbited the world below.

As she stepped into the tube, Jophiel glanced that way, to the planet visible through the clear wall. Her eyes took in the splendor that was her home. Her true home. Elohim. The cradle of the Seosten civilization.

A combination of eleven oceans and innumerable lakes and rivers covered almost seventy-five percent of the planet’s surface. But that was pretty much where the superficial similarities with Earth ended. While humanity’s home held seven major continents, the largest landmass on Elohim was only about as large as Earth’s Australia. The vast majority of the Seosten homeworld’s landmass was taken up by intricate island chains. There were thousands of them, islands which ranged from small enough to throw a rock across, to islands that were almost a thousand miles across. Most of those islands formed a sort of spiral through the ocean, surrounding that single Australia-sized continent.

They had been one single continent at one point, the only one on the planet, surrounded by ocean. Then the cataclysm had happened. Cronus had happened. By the time he was gone, the bulk of the continent had been broken up into these islands, and it had been this way for the past several hundred thousand years.

The majority of the islands were physically connected in various ways, mostly through underwater tubes allowing rapid transit, but also through above-water bridges. Entire cities that would make Earth’s largest metropolises look tiny had been made to take up many islands to the point that it was sometimes hard to tell that they were separate islands, through all the buildings that had been constructed between them.

It was, in the end, home. And Jophiel loved seeing it every time. Coming back roughly once a year wasn’t enough. She wanted the war to be over. She wanted… a lot of things. Mostly she wanted the Fomorian threat to be ended so that the Seosten could move on and become true partners with humanity and the other races. Once the threat of extinction had been eliminated, true growth could happen. But not until then.

The world was also protected by one of the largest fleets in the Seosten armada. First, there were six Letum-class destroyers. Each was just under fifteen kilometers long, and individually held enough firepower to level most worlds, an army of over fifty thousand ground troops of various species, and almost three hundred fighter-sized spacecraft.

Backing them up were ten Cunae-class carriers, each of which held another hundred starfighters, and two dozen more ships of mixed varieties ranging from simple patrol craft that were barely larger than an Earth passenger airliner, up to the three Diruo-class ships. Those were only a few kilometers shorter than their Letum-class older brothers, and packed even more firepower at the expense of not carrying any fighter craft and only a token force of ground troops. At their core, the Diruo were essentially giant metal circles with a bridge and a few other compartments in the center, surrounded by hundreds of cannons and other guns that pointed in every direction. Engines at each primary compass point and in the top and bottom ensured that the Diruo ships could travel in every direction as needed.   

In all, the Elohim fleet would demolish anything that got near to the Seosten home planet. Not that such a thing was at all likely, considering the amount of other defenses surrounding the entire system. But still, where the Fomorians were concerned, it was best to be prepared.

“Jophiel.” The voice came from the end of the tube corridor, drawing her attention toward the two figures there. One, the speaker appeared to be an elderly man of what would be considered Caucasian ethnicity on Earth. His face lined with wrinkles and the majority of his hair had long-since fallen out. He was old, very old, even by Seosten standards.

Beside the old man stood a figure who could have been mistaken as his granddaughter. She appeared to be, at most, nine or ten years old, with short black hair cut into a pixie style and innocent blue eyes. Neither were in host bodies. These were their personal, true forms.

“Metatron,” Jophiel greeted the man first, giving him a bow of respect before turning her attention to his diminutive companion, bowing to her as well. “Chayyiel.”

She bowed to both, because each were her superior, in many ways. They were members of the Seraphim, the Seosten version of what humans would think of as a senate. While Metatron had never actually been to Earth as far as she was aware, he had been the Seraphim in charge of it from this end of the Seosten Empire since they had found the planet in the first place.

Chayyiel, on the other hand… she had been on Earth for quite some time before coming back here to join the Seraphim. Her apparent young age was even more deceptive than most of the Seosten, as though she was the youngest of the Olympians, she was still multiple thousands of years old. 

On Earth, Chayyiel had portrayed the Olympian known as Hestia. She was also the single strongest warrior that Jophiel had ever personally seen, and was within the top ten strongest Seosten who had ever lived. Jophiel had only seen one being who was capable of besting Chayyiel in single combat: the so-called once and future king, Arthur Pendragon.

It had been Puriel’s betrayal of Chayyiel’s trust, when he had interfered with her latest duel with the natural dragon-Heretic, that had made her leave Earth. What had been intended as a personal battle, meant for only the two of them, had turned into a full-scale assault. Puriel had dropped a literal army on top of Arthur, and in the end… in the end Arthur was no longer a threat.

Chayyiel, however, had taken the hit against her honor personally, and swore that if Puriel ever tried to give her another order, she would kill him. Leaving Earth, she had returned to Seosten-controlled space, quickly making her way to the ranks of the Seraphim.

Thankfully, she seemed to bear Jophiel herself no ill will. Now, she simply returned the other woman’s bow without speaking.

“Would you care to leave your host and stretch your legs?” Metatron asked, as he always did, even though her answer was always the same.

“I’m fine,” Jophiel replied. There was no way that she would ever abandon her Elisabet here. Despite protocol, there was entirely too high of a chance that her sianame would be possessed by another Seosten, and that… that was something she couldn’t allow to happen.

“Very well,” the elderly Seosten announced with a simple nod before turning on his heel. “Come then, we need to discuss what exactly happened down there that could have led to Charmiene’s death. Many of the Seraph are calling for the Earth experiment to be ended, and for us to take a more… direct role in their lives, as we do with every other race.”

“What led to Charmiene’s death was Charmiene’s stupidity,” Jophiel informed him flatly while starting to follow. “She died because she had to show off, and gave the humans time to get in a lucky shot. She indulged herself, and paid for her arrogance. And those are the same Seraph who try to end our work with the humans every time someone sneezes funny.”

“Still,” Chayyiel finally spoke as she took up the rear, walking behind Jophiel and Metatron, “we must provide answers to them. Answers that will not offend Charmiene’s Choir, or their allies.”

Inwardly, Jophiel sighed. This is going to be incredibly long and boring. I don’t suppose you might want to take over again so I can take another nap?

Elisabet’s only response was a deliberate snoring noise.

******

Literal hours later, Jophiel finally emerged from the shuttle that had brought her down to the planet’s surface. It had to be a shuttle, as no teleportation was allowed to penetrate the shields that surrounded Elohim’s atmosphere.

Quietly, she descended the platform where the shuttle had landed. The city that they were in was called Parestai. It was, in many respects, quite similar to the city of Venice on Earth. Situated over a half dozen small islands, with so many buildings and bridges connecting them that it was difficult to tell at a glance that they were separate islands, Parestai was beautiful. Its architecture, like most Seosten, was decidedly Earth Roman, with lots of pillars, arches, and marble. Gondola-like boats roamed the waterways, and there were more visible animal mounts and carts than there were motorized vehicles. Parestai was a simple, quiet city, a place for personal reflection and meditation.

Walking the short distance to a narrow alleyway between buildings, Jophiel moved about halfway down the alley before reaching what appeared to be a blank adobe wall. Setting her hand against it, she murmured the passcode.

Immediately, a previously-invisible door appeared, swinging open to allow them admittance to Jophiel’s private home.

Some of the former Olympians preferred far more elaborate affairs for their homes. Puriel and Kushiel had an entire island to themselves, an enormous mansion full of servants. Not that the former Hera spent much time there. Kushiel had her experiments and prisoners to focus on. Puriel however… well, he had never been the same after the mishap with that banishment orb. Jophiel would be surprised if the man ever left his home.

In all, most of the Seosten known as the Olympians had massive, grand homes fit for kings, spread throughout the Empire. But Jophiel didn’t care about that. This small, hidden apartment on the island that she loved so much was enough. Because it was a place where she and Elisabet could be themselves, without worrying about pretenses or being seen.

As the door closed behind them, Jophiel finally stepped out of the body she had been inhabiting. Emerging and stretching out there in what humans would call the foyer of her home, she turned toward Elisabet. Smiling at the Spanish woman, Jophiel stepped in to kiss her tenderly.

The two stood together, embracing while sharing that kiss for several long, beautiful seconds. Eventually, they separated, and Jophiel gestured. “That could have been worse. At least we have a couple days here before we have to go back.”

Elisabet chuckled, nodding. “It could have been much worse, yes. Though…” Pausing, she sighed. “You know that some of them aren’t going to stop pushing for the full, violent take-over of Earth. They think that all humans should be treated the way they treat Heretics out here.”

Jophiel winced, reaching out to touch her beloved’s face. “We don’t all treat you that way, even out here.”

Elisabet reached up, tenderly touching the Seosten woman’s hand to hold it there against her own cheek. “Enough do,” she replied. “They don’t see us as partners. They see us as… clothes, suits of armor and weapons to be worn and discarded as needed.”

She wasn’t wrong, Jophiel knew. There weren’t many here at the heart of the Seosten Empire, of course. But out on the actual Fomorian frontlines, Heretic bodies were used the same way humans on Earth used tanks and other weapons of war. Particularly powerful Heretic bodies were given to high ranking Seosten, while even younger, newer Heretics were given to those who had proven themselves in some way. Hell, a lot of Heretic bodies were used interchangeably, passed back and forth between multiple Seosten in a garrison. Still others were essentially sold or at least rented in what amounted to a marketplace, where their Seosten owners would detail what the Heretics were capable of and allow their potential buyers to take them out for a ‘test drive’.

They were a commodity to many, no more important than a car, or, as Elisabet had said, a suit of armor.

“You know what the best way of stopping that is,” Jophiel reminded the other woman.

“Yes,” Elisabet replied simply, “ending the Bystander Effect.”

Ending the Bystander Effect. It was a goal that both of them longed for, but one that seemed almost impossible to achieve safely given the current climate. Sure, there were many who were in favor of its elimination. But those same proponents also wanted to do that simply so that the Seosten could take over completely and openly, which would just lead to all humans being treated the same way that so many of the abducted Heretics were treated out on the war front.

No, they needed to end it, but in a way that convinced enough of the Seraphim that humanity and the Seosten should be partners in this war. If they could just make them understand that the key to beating the Fomorians was a true human-Seosten alliance, where they were equal partners…

Unfortunately, that particular goal seemed to be a long way off. It was, however, part of the reason that Jophiel had made certain that her people did nothing about the Hybrid offspring of Sariel and Haiden Moon. Once she had found out about them, she had worked to keep Vanessa Moon’s existence as quiet as possible, and had convinced her superiors to adopt a hands-off policy, to see what happened. She had been forced to call in favors, make threats, and outright bluff to keep the girl out of Kushiel’s hands. But in the end, her own authority had been respected, and Vanessa had been left alone to grow up.

After that moment of contemplative silence, Elisabet asked, “Do you think Radueriel will find Chambers and the others?”

“Find? Yes,” Jophiel replied. “Capture… that might be more difficult. Especially now that they have joined up with Sariel’s mate and her former host. And quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure who I should be rooting for in that particular confrontation.”

Elisabet gave a soft chuckle at that. “The more power the Chambers girl gains out here, the more likely she will be able to free her mother from the necromancer. And if Joselyn Atherby is freed, she may be returned to power. Which would–”

“–Restart the rebellion,” Jophiel finished. Then she smiled. “Precisely. Which is another opportunity to convince the Seraphim that humanity’s true potential is in being partners with the Seosten, not slaves to them.”

“What we really need,” Elisabet reminded her, “is an example, something we can point to and show that human-Seosten partnerships are possible. We–”

“I can’t tell them about us, Lissy,” Jophiel interrupted, shaking her head. “I won’t risk it. I won’t risk losing you. But… if Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion returns, maybe… maybe we can point the Aelaestiam toward them this time, the way we planned before.”

The Aelaestiam were, essentially, a Seosten version of the Atherby rebellion. They were a small group of Seosten who believed that hosts should be treated fairly, that the Seosten Empire was wrong, that the ends did not justify the means. Jophiel and Elisabet disagreed with them on that last point, but they could still be useful in many ways. They also would have been wiped out long ago, if it wasn’t for their leader. Auriel, the woman who had portrayed Athena on Earth. She had taken up their cause, and it was her tactical prowess that kept the Aelaestiam from being completely erased, and had even led to certain key victories. Not enough to be a true threat to the Empire, of course. But enough to remain a relevant nuisance.

Jophiel and Elisabet had planned on linking Auriel’s Aelaestiam and Atherby’s rebellion while Joselyn was still a major threat, providing the tragically outnumbered Seosten underground with potentially incredibly powerful Heretic host bodies.

Done the right way, with a delicate touch, it could have shown the Seraphim that Seosten-Heretic partnerships would be vastly stronger than an enslaved Heretic. Unfortunately, Joselyn had been captured before that was possible, and there had been too many eyes on what was going on for Jophiel to risk making any kind of move. Now, however, if Felicity could free her mother and restart that rebellion… it was worth considering.

“Come, my love,” Jophiel finally announced, shaking off those thoughts while while taking the other woman’s hand. “Let’s eat, and watch the sunset. There will be time to worry about all this later. Right now, all I want to do is be with you.”

Returning her smile, Elisabet started to nod, only to stop as a beep from the nearby wall terminal interrupted them.

Jophiel seriously considered not answering. But in the end, her sense of duty was too strong. Sighing, she squeezed her partner’s hand lightly before possessing her once more. It wouldn’t do for whoever was on the other side of the call to see them separated.

Hitting the button on the wall terminal to accept the connection, she watched as Chayyiel’s seemingly eternally child-like face appeared.

“You’re needed,” she announced flatly. “Manakel’s human spy has made contact.” Her distaste at the word ‘spy’ was readily apparent. “As you happen to be here rather than on Earth, Radueriel has requested your presence.”

“Made contact?” Jophiel raised one of Elisabet’s eyebrows at that. “You mean the one called Isaac, of course. He left his companions then?”

“No,” Chayyiel replied, “but he says that they have a way of erasing the spell that protects the identity of Manakel’s host. He has been instructed to prevent that from happening, at all costs. Whether he succeeds or not, Radueriel has asked that you speak with him in person. He would like to know everything you know about these humans, as his attempts to capture them have been… unfruitful.”

Once more, Jophiel had to resist the urge to sigh heavily. “Very well,” she replied, with an inward apology to her love. This was too important to brush off.

“Send the shuttle.”

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