Chayyiel

Interlude 15C – Finding A Reaper (Heretical Edge 2)

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The moon hung full and bright above the small park on the edge of a quiet town on the very southern edge of Idaho, barely a couple miles from the Utah border. It was a town of only ten thousand people. Within a stone’s throw of this small park, the town’s only elementary school stood. After classes, the children would often run to this park to play, far enough from the school to feel better about getting away from the place, while still technically within sight of adult supervision as various teachers and other faculty went about their end-of-day duties. 

And yet, this late at night, there were no children anywhere near the park. They were all at home, safely tucked into their beds. Instead, a single figure sat on the swing set, gently rocking back and forth as the chains creaked quietly. She was a young woman, or appeared to be young, in any case. Slender, with long brownish-blonde hair fashioned into a pair of tight braids. The tips of the braids were bright pink. Seemingly at odds with her casual, almost carefree swinging, she wore form-fitting armor that was black along the legs, boots, arms, and gauntlets (with a bit of blue running along the sides as an accent), while the armor covering her torso was dark blue, with a white emblem of a griffin in flight stretching across the front, from the waist to the right shoulder. 

After several more seconds of letting the swing gently creak back and forth, the sound of it filling the otherwise silent night air, Gwen spoke. “You should probably come out and talk. I don’t think he’s going to show up until we have it out.” 

Her words were met with another moment of silence before a smaller figure emerged from a tree on the edge of the playground. Chayyiel, dark hair cut short as she wore her standard military-like fatigues and body armor, came into view while speaking flatly. “He does seem to be the type to want us to talk things through without his direct intervention, doesn’t he?” 

Rather than answer immediately, Gwen watched the Seosten in silence for a few seconds. An assortment of conflicting thoughts ran through her head before she stopped the swing and stood. She did not move any closer, standing right where she was, arms folded tightly against her stomach as she stared that way. Her voice, when it came, was quiet. “He’s probably right. Better that we talk without his help.”

With a nod of agreement, Chayyiel simply replied, “We probably should have already. But I… ahh… was not exactly allowed to come back to Earth for quite awhile.”

Gwen, in turn, raised an eyebrow. “I guess I was unaware that anyone could tell you where you were allowed to go. What are they going to do, ground you? Imprison one of their most effective weapons against the Fomorians because you went out-of-bounds?” 

A slight chuckle escaped the visibly younger (yet actually much older) girl, as Chayyiel gave a short nod of acknowledgement. “It would be more about losing long-term political power, something I’ve come to find is quite important when it comes to making lasting changes. It doesn’t matter how easily I can beat someone in a fight, if I don’t have the power to make societal changes.” 

Tilting her head slightly, Gwen considered that before a very small smirk touched her face despite herself. “That sounds pretty similar to the conversation I had with Arthur before he became king. No matter how strong he was, he also needed to be a leader. He needed to inspire people, needed to… give them a banner of authority to act under.” 

Chayyiel hesitated, clearly unsure at that moment if she should say what came to mind. In the end, she straightened visibly before meeting the other woman’s gaze. “Yes, it was… it was our last moments together, feeling his skills of leadership and… inspiration, which convinced me of what my next path must be. Well, technically it was the moments after…” She trailed off. They both knew the words she wasn’t actually speaking. After Arthur had been taken away from both of them. 

“I blamed you for a very long time, you know.” Gwen’s voice was matter-of-fact. Not accusing, exactly. Simply stating the truth of the matter. Better to just get things right out in the open from the start. “He was only out there because of you. Whether you intended it or not, he was vulnerable because you asked him to meet you. And to be honest, there was a time when I was almost certain you did intend it, that your whole thing with him was an act. Because your people couldn’t be trusted. They were all manipulators, liars, monsters who puppet anyone they want. So why would you be any different?” She paused, offering a slight shrug. “I suppose I saw Nimue as the sole exception to that rule. Or maybe I was just looking for a reason to hate you.” 

“That is fair,” Chayyiel murmured. Continuing to remain where she stood, she added, “You are right. Whatever my intentions, Arthur was put in a position of vulnerability because of me. Because I trusted the wrong person. For whatever it may be worth, I will tell you now as I would have told you then, I never wanted that to happen. I was trying…” She trailed off, giving a low sigh. “I was trying to make things better for all of our people.”

Both went silent for a few seconds, considering their next words carefully. Each knew just how easily they could say the wrong thing, and how important it was that they not do so. For Gwen, as emotional as she was about the loss of her husband, his potential future depended on her not caving to those emotions and going for the momentary satisfaction. And for Chayyiel, as much as she wanted to make that situation right, pushing too hard, too quickly would do the opposite. 

Finally, Gwen spoke in a slow, careful voice. “I trust Michael. I trust him more than I trust anyone in the world, even myself. He says that you are being truthful when you say you had no part in the planning of… that. He says you knew nothing about it and that you would have stopped it or warned Arthur not to come if you did.” She paused briefly before continuing. “I believe him. Which means I believe you. And yet, while this may not be your direct fault, the fact remains that, as I said, he was there because of you. If you truly wish to make it right, I… I will welcome your aid.” The words came quietly, the importance and difficulty of them readily apparent. Gwen knew that her best chance of getting her husband back was with the aid of the person who had, albeit unwillingly, led to his death. It was a hard thing to accept, even now. Perhaps even harder in this moment, as she stood face to face with the girl for the first time. 

Still, she pushed all of those thoughts and emotions aside and focused on what was most important. “I… please… help me save Arthur.” 

Chayyiel gave a single nod. Her voice was soft. “That has been my intention from the start of my return to this planet. Even before. I have–” She stopped herself. Explanations didn’t matter, not right then. Instead, she simply finished with, “Between the two of us, I believe we can bring him back.”    

“It’s going to take more than the two of you.” Michael, striding into view from the far side of the playground where there had appeared to be no one up until that very second, announced. “Like I said to each of you before, if you’re going to wake Arthur up, you need very specific help.” 

“You mean besides the Merlin Key?” Gwen pressed. Even now, out here in the middle of nowhere, confident as she was that they weren’t being eavesdropped on, she didn’t say Aylen’s name aloud. Call it paranoia, but she had no desire to risk something that important. 

“Someone besides the Merlin Key, yes,” Michael confirmed. “Not that we have any idea how they’re supposed to help in this case, but even they will need something more. A Reaper.” 

Chayyiel arched an eyebrow at that. “I was under the impression that the Fusion school had made contact with a half-Reaper, at least. Bastet?” 

“Unfortunately, from the research I’ve done, you need a full Reaper for this,” Michael informed them, his gaze passing back and forth between the two. “One that is… shall we say, mobile.” 

“So having a discussion with Crossroads’ imprisoned Reaper is out of the question,” Chayyiel noted, voice turning quiet. “Though that is a situation which also needs to be resolved. Eventually.” 

“Eventually,” Gwen agreed, giving a quick, thoughtful glance that way before turning back to her adopted father. “I don’t know about you, but in my experience, Reapers aren’t exactly going around listing themselves on Google. And they don’t congregate anywhere. I’ve been alive over fifteen hundred years, and I think I’ve seen one of them… twice. Both times at a distance, and both times they left immediately. So unless you have one on speed dial…” 

“Not exactly,” Michael admitted. “But I do know where to find one who might be willing to stick around and talk. We just have to provide a little… incentive. A bribe, of sorts.” 

His words made both Chayyiel and Gwen blink almost in unison, the latter speaking first. “A bribe? What exactly are we supposed to bribe a Reaper with? You have a pile of fresh dead bodies in your–wait, don’t answer that.”

“I’m certain any full Reaper could provide all the fresh dead bodies they could ever want,” Chayyiel pointed out mildly, her eyes locked onto the older Seosten. “And yet, nor can I think of anything we could offer to a Reaper. I may have lived longer and been to more places, but my own experience is not much different than Guinevere’s. Reapers are quite self-sufficient, incredibly rare, and generally do not deign to speak with non-Reapers.” Pausing, she added, “Actually, I’m not entirely certain they even speak with one another. Even in the incredibly rare times I have seen more than one in the same place, they were not communicating.”

With a very slight smirk that betrayed his amusement for reasons the two didn’t yet understand, Michael simply replied, “Let’s just say this one is different. Now come, I asked you both to meet me here for a reason. We have to pick up that bribe I was talking about.” 

While the other two glanced at one another again, even more confused now about what this small town could possibly have to offer that would convince a full Reaper to give them anything (or even speak with them, come to think of it), Michael turned and strode away. His lanky form faded quickly into the shadows, before Chayyiel and Gwen moved to catch up, striding along on either side of the man. 

“Are you going to ask?” The faint amusement Michael’s voice betrayed how much he was enjoying this entire situation, as they reached the edge of the park and continued across the street, passing the elementary school on the left. 

“Will you give a straight answer if we do?” Gwen retorted doubtfully. 

He, in turn, smiled. “It’s more fun if I don’t.” 

“Then no, I’m not going to ask.” With that, Gwen shot a glance past the man toward Chayyiel. “He has far too much fun keeping secrets.” 

“It’s more about seeing your looks when the secrets come out,” Michael corrected. “And for that, they have to come at the right time.” He pivoted, watching the two while walking backward down the sidewalk. “Trust me, you two, this will be much better if you just experience it without any advance warning.” Belatedly, he added, “And when we’re done, who knows, maybe you’ll have a new friend.” 

The idea of any Reaper being a friend, given how mysterious, standoffish, and… alien they tended to be was just confusing and intriguing enough to make Chayyiel and Gwen exchange glances once more. Neither were thinking about their differences and problems at that moment. Which, of course, both knew was at least a major reason behind Michael teasing them. But it still worked. Silently, they exchanged nods of agreement. Even knowing that he was playing them (and getting an awful lot of amusement out of it), they were still too curious about this entire situation not to go along with it.

Leading them through several dark streets, Michael eventually came to a stop in front of a small, one-story house with an attached garage. Unlike most of the houses on the street (and everywhere else they had passed on the way here), there were lights on inside. Michael gestured for the other two to follow him, then walked to the front door and pressed the buzzer once. 

“It’s one in the morning,” Gwen pointed out in a soft voice. “Are you sure–” 

Before she could get the rest of the question out, the door was opened a crack, as a woman they couldn’t see much of stood there, hissing, “You have it? Cash only, remember. And I’m counting it before you get anything.” 

“Indeed,” Michael agreed cheerfully. From one pocket of his sports coat, he produced a thick wad of Bystander money and passed it over. 

For her part, the mostly-hidden woman checked the cash, counting her way through it before appearing to be satisfied. “Boxes are right at the front. Don’t go digging in anything else or I’ll call the cops.” With that, she stuck her hand out through the crack, a remote grasped in it. As she thumbed its single button, the nearby garage door began to lift with a low rumble. And with no further words, the woman shut her own door, locking it immediately. 

“She seems friendly,” Gwen noted brightly, before focusing on her father. “Boxes?” 

Rather than explain anything (because what fun would that be), Michael casually strode back along the path to the garage. The other two followed, finding the space in question quite filled with various boxes. As promised, there were several at the front, clearly separate from the others. It looked as though they had been recently cut open and then resealed. 

“Both of you grab one.” With that simple instruction, the Seosten man bent to pick up a box of his own, waved to the nearby security camera that was clearly focused on them, and turned to walk out once more. 

Again, the two girls looked to one another. Gwen was the first to move, reaching down to pick up the next box. “You sure you don’t want to check inside these…” Pausing as she listened to whatever it was shifting around inside, she tilted her head and started to focus on one of her acquired vision gifts. 

“Don’t you do it, young lady!” Michael called back without even looking. “This is a surprise.” 

With the somewhat guiltily flushed look of a child caught trying to inspect Christmas presents early, the woman quickly moved to follow, with Chayyiel taking the last box and trotting along after. 

“So, now where are we going?” Gwen asked, once they were away from the house. 

“We’re going to the only place the person we’re taking these boxes to could possibly live,” came the mysterious reply. 

“The New York City sewers.” 

*******

“I thought you were making a joke about the sewer thing.” 

As Chayyiel spoke those words, the three of them were standing above a manhole in an alley deep in the heart of the Manhattan borough of New York. The manhole itself was at the end of an innocuous-looking dead end alley, surrounded on all sides by tall buildings. There seemed to be nothing of note in this relatively small space other than the manhole. There were no back doors into the buildings, no way out of the alley save for going right back out the way they had come in, and there were no trash cans or dumpster. It was, or appeared to be, entirely useless space. 

“The best jokes, my dear,” Michael reminded her, “are the ones that are completely true.” With that, he set the box he was carrying down and leaned over to knock on the manhole cover itself. 

For almost twenty seconds, there was no response or reaction at all. Yet Michael didn’t move other than to straighten and pick up the box once more. 

“He’s enjoying this so much,” Gwen flatly informed the Seosten girl nearby, well-aware that a large part of Michael’s entire purpose behind this game had been to not-so-subtly put the two of them on one side together and himself on the other. Even if it was in something as simple as him knowing what was going on and them wanting to know, he had essentially paired them into a team with a single goal.

Chayyiel, who was equally aware of what was going on, gave a single nod as a very slight smirk touched her face. “He is.” 

They knew he could hear them. That was part of the game too. 

Abruptly and without warning, the manhole cover rose up on what appeared to be a mechanical arm, sliding out of the way to reveal a ladder leading downward. And without a moment of hesitation, Michael set his box next to the opening, climbed down, and called for them to drop the boxes through before they followed. 

They did so, eventually descending into…a wide-open, circular underground chamber, about a hundred feet across. The floor was concrete, the walls brick. Posters of cartoon characters, movies, video games, and more lined those walls. Dozens of boxes were scattered everywhere, while a sleeping bag on an air mattress had been haphazardly shoved to one side, away from a folding table that was piled high with pizza boxes and soda bottles. 

“Well,” Gwen announced as her gaze passed over the space. “This is not what I expected.” 

“Sorry!” The sudden apology came as a figure appeared out of nowhere. Literally, as the space next to the table had appeared to be completely empty until that very moment. Which, to make these three specific people, with their assorted gifts and ongoing magic, believe that there was nothing in that space took some doing. 

“I haven’t finished unpacking yet,” the figure continued to explain. She appeared to be a young woman in her late teens, with incredibly pale skin and bright pink hair with black highlights. Her clothes consisted of a pair of ratty old pink jeans with several holes through the legs, black combat boots with pink laces, and a long-sleeved black shirt with a large neon pink skull taking up most of the front. Beneath that were the words ‘One Of A Kind.’ 

“See,” she continued, “I had this apartment but there was this Heretic guy and I let him go so I just had to move and I decided it was time to go for my dream place, which is turning out just fantastic, but I haven’t really gotten everything set up yet.” 

Chayyiel’s mouth opened, before she paused and let her head tilt slightly. “… Ahh, why did an encyclopedic knowledge of every episode and comic issue of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles suddenly jump into my head?” 

“What?” Gwen asked with a blink. “You didn’t already have that?” No sooner had she said those words, than her eyes widened slightly. “Oh, crap! Wait, is that completely up-to-date? Don’t tell me what happened in the Battle Lines arc. I’ve only read up to issue eighty-six and I don’t want spoilers. Hope they finished off that xenophobic piece of shit Bishop though. That guy wants to wipe out everyone who isn’t human and–you know, I just figured out why I might dislike him so much.” 

“Aww man!” the newcomer abruptly blurted, “if you haven’t read the–oh.” Quickly, she drew two fingers across her lips. “You can find out on your own.” That said, she focused on Michael. “You came back.” 

Clearing her throat, Chayyiel spoke then. “You’ve spoken before, then? To this… ahh, apologies, you are a… Reaper?” 

“Oh, I’m sorry, how rude of me.” Shaking her head, the woman looked toward Chayyiel and Gwen. “Allow me to introduce myself.” 

And so she did, in the way of her own people. Within the span of less than a second, a full and complete knowledge of not only her chosen name of Jones, but also everything that had led to her separation from the rest of her people, filled their minds. Everything of note from the moment the feedback from the Heretic woman being yanked across the universe by the Seosten she was connected to while accessing that particular Reaper Archive had fundamentally changed something within Jones, through her foundation-laying interaction with the young Casey girl and how the other Reapers reacted afterward, was included within that burst of information. 

Needless to say, Gwen staggered a bit from the overload. Even Chayyiel, accustomed as she was to absorbing large amounts of information quickly, was visibly affected as she had to shake her head several times to clear it. 

Looking abashed, Jones apologized, “Sorry. I always forget other species don’t really deal with our downloads that well. You okay?” 

“Just… just peachy,” Gwen managed, blinking rapidly to make her eyes focus. “Jones. You’re Jones.” 

“That’s me,” the Reaper agreed, before gesturing toward Michael. “And to answer the question from before, we haven’t really spoken, or met. He came and knocked on my… front door up there, and told me he was going to bring a couple important people to meet me. I guess that’s you. And that he’d bring something to trade for a few minutes of my time. I guess that’s what’s in the boxes. May I see?”

“You don’t know what’s in them already?” Chayyiel asked curiously. 

Jones, in turn, scoffed. “Of course not. They’re a surprise. You don’t ruin the surprise ahead of time. That’s the best part.” 

“I like her,” Michael announced, setting his box down before gesturing for the other two to do the same. With a short gesture, the thick tape sealing all three boxes was cut by several four-inch-long energy blades, which briefly appeared and gave a series of quick slashes before disappearing. Then he gave the first box a push that way, with an air similar to a drug dealer sending his latest bulk shipment over to be inspected and purchased. 

Opening the box the rest of the way, along with the two that the others sent over, Jones revealed… toys. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys, all of them still within their respective boxes and other packaging. There was a wide assortment, from every continuity of the animated series, movies, and comic books stretching all the way back to that first, groundbreaking cartoon in the late 80’s, to the most recent reimagining. All were represented. 

“All of them in mint condition,” Michael noted. “Thousands of dollars worth. The man who owned the collection before… passed away. His wife is selling all of it. Some of those are pretty rare, only a few still unopened.” 

“Radical,” Jones replied, before abruptly holding her hand out. A long, black scythe with a dark blue blade appeared there. At the same time, a dark hood that had been sewn to the collar of her shirt rose up to cover her head. Grasping the weapon, she gave a sharp gesture with it. As she did so, dozens of small glowing portals appeared along the walls. At the same time, several glowing hands made of energy manifested next to the boxes and immediately began to grab random toy packages before tossing them through the various portals. 

“What–where are you sending them?” Gwen quickly asked, looking back and forth between the boxes of toys and the portals they were all being unceremoniously hurled through. 

With a smile of satisfaction, Jones answered simply. “To a lot of kids who need them. Toys are meant to be played with, not sealed up in a box for money.” She stood there watching until all three boxes were entirely emptied and dismissed the portals with a gesture before turning to face the three. “Now then. 

“What exactly can I do for two Seosten and King Arthur’s wife?” 

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Commissioned Interlude 14 – Archangels (Heretical Edge 2)

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Zadkiel 

“Are you angry, sir?” The question came from a tall, thin figure wearing a dark hood and ruby-red metal mask that left his eyes exposed. Three other figures dressed similarly stood somewhat behind him. All of their attention was focused on the man who stood a short distance ahead of them, his back to the entire group. Although some might have objected to calling the being a man. He was half-Seosten, half-Fomorian, a creature born not of some romantic union, but two separate beings who had been forcibly merged together in the bowels of Tartarus. Standing almost eight feet in height, the creature’s normally Seosten-handsome features were broken by the influence of his Fomorian-self. His skin was gray and pallid, eyes almost twice the size they should have been. The wings that had emerged from his back were partially solid, bat-like structures where the bones in such a creature would have been, while the flat parts that would ordinarily have caught the wind to propel lift were filled by solid energy. 

“Angry?” the one who, as a potential point of contention against his missing self went by the title of Godfather (alternately Maestro and even his original Seosten name of Zadkiel), echoed with a small smile. A very slight giggle escaped him, which echoed weirdly through the underground cavern the group were standing in. “Why would we be angry?” 

That prompted the four masked figures to look at one another briefly, wondering if their report had been heard correctly. None of them knew who each other was. That was the reason for the masks, enchanted as they were to prevent any powers from seeing through them. It allowed their master to ensure that only he was aware of all those he had turned. They would leave this place separately, and for the most part would forget what had happened during their time here. It would sit at the back of their thoughts, a subconscious knowledge of who they belonged to, though they would be mostly unable to directly recall it until he called for them again. Another safety measure against their connection to him being uncovered. Not even Seosten possession would reveal his influence. 

His. Their. Which was it? The terms seemed interchangeable. The hybrid sometimes spoke as a singular, sometimes as plural. None who interacted with him (or them) knew the reasoning behind it. Perhaps even they themselves (or he himself) didn’t. He… they… simply were

Finally, the figure who had spoken first tentatively replied, “They know of your existence. And the Olympian has disappeared after the death of her Committee host. She knows you were responsible for her beloved’s presence on Aiken’te’vel, and clearly blames you for her death. Now she has returned to Earth safely. She and those who take her side will be watching for you. It is… not good news.” 

There was a moment of silence before the tall hybrid slowly turned to face them. He reached out, his long arms extending to put his hands against the mask of the man who had spoken. The minion froze, going completely still while Godfather very tenderly brushed too-long, too-thin fingers over the metal that covered his face. “We are not angry,” came the slow, deliberate response. “After all, to be angry would imply that their knowledge will make any difference. Forewarning of a storm does not prevent it from accomplishing its destruction. They may flee, they may prepare, they may do anything they wish in advance of our arrival. But when the time comes, none of it will save them.” 

As he spoke, Godfather’s fingers slipped under the mask. He pulled it down, looking into the face of the man beneath. The three figures behind stirred a bit, but remained silent. They could not see their companion’s face, not from that angle. Nor did they wish to. Seeing his face would have been against their master’s orders, and to go against their master was to face immediate death. 

But their master could see. He could look into all of their faces, could look through their souls. He knew them, he owned them. They were his tools, tools he would use to further his own goals. And if they failed him, if they faltered, he would cast them aside, their bodies and souls erased before they even touched the ground. 

“No,” Godfather quietly repeated, “we are not angry. Let them try to prepare. Watching the ants as they scurry in such panic may lead to something…” There was a pause before they gave another eerie giggle. “… interesting.” 

That said, he released the face of the man he had been holding and turned to face the nearby blank cavern wall. “Go now. Return to your lives. The time will come when I require you again.”

The hybrid figure stood there then, waiting for the group to obediently disperse. Only once they were gone did he reach out to touch the seemingly blank wall. Under his hand, part of the wall faded and vanished, allowing him to step through into what appeared to be the interior corridor of a ship, buried deep within this cavern far underground.

“Soon,” he murmured, reaching out to run a hand over one of the nearby consoles fondly. “Soon, you will be completed. They are already on their way. Before long, they will bring us the one we need to finish your construction, the one whose genius will finish what we began.

“And that will be the… Spark of the flames that will burn it all.” 

******

Remiel 

Stand! Rise!” The bellowed call, erupting from a figure who seemed entirely too small and slight to produce such a powerful sound, filled the air of the battlefield where a motley assortment of several thousand figures of various species had slumped in preparation of their impending defeat. The land, once a lush valley, had been scorched, burned to dirt and pockmarked by various craters from incredible impacts and explosions. Three thousand, four hundred, and eighty seven beings lay in various states of exhaustion behind a makeshift dirt wall that had been built up to shield them from the army of steadily approaching biological horrors. It was an army that was repeatedly repelled, yet came onward inevitably. 

The army here had once measured several times larger than their current numbers. They had been fighting for their lives for days now, with barely any rest. And still, the army of Fomorians showed no real signs of abating. Their enemy was a tidal wave of death and destruction, one that could not be resisted. This world, a small out-of-the-way place near the edge of Seosten territory, had already mostly fallen to the monsters. The Seosten simply did not have the resources to defend it right now. Perhaps they would be back to wipe the Fomorians away before they could establish a firm foothold. But either way, it would be too late for the inhabitants of the place itself. 

Most of the actual Seosten had already abandoned this place, leaving on their ships to reinforce other positions. And they had taken the strongest among the planet’s defensive military with them. It hadn’t been the Seosten’s first choice, but they were needed to ensure the Fomorians could not overwhelm a different, more strategically important position. All of which left the planet’s only defenders as ill-trained, ill-equipped, doomed figures who could do little more than stave off the inevitable while allowing as many of their people to flee on ships as possible. 

Most of the Seosten were gone. Save, of course for one. The one who was already standing at the head of their embattled position. The small woman who barely topped five feet in height. Her coal-black skin was offset by brilliant blue eyes that seemed to glow with power far exceeding her very slight stature. Her dark hair was worn quite short.

“Stand?” one of the planet’s original inhabitants (tall, green-skinned humanoid figures with yellow faces and black lines across his arms) echoed, his voice full of disbelief. “Rise with what? Your people already abandoned us. They went off to defend something more important. We’re all gonna die anyway. Why do you think we should get up again? Why shouldn’t we just end it? Who cares if it’s now or when they get here?” His hand thrust toward the sound of the approaching Fomorians. His words were met with an assortment of exhausted agreement that spread through the mostly-broken people. They had lost all hope of escape from this place, and nearly all hope that they would be able to help others flee. Their faith was broken, their morale shattered. 

“What,” the Seosten woman returned, “is my name?” She stood in front of them, waiting a moment while they stared her way before raising her voice to a bellow once more. “What is my name?!” 

Finally, the group called back, “Remiel!” 

She, in turn, gave a firm nod. “I am Remiel. And by my name I will tell you this. The Fomorians come. I am going to meet their charge. I will take their approach and I will blunt it against myself, so that your people, your people may escape. Yet I am but one person. I will do as I must. I will stand in the path of these creatures to protect your people as I would stand to protect any in this universe against the scourge that approaches. These creatures are a flood. They are a rushing river. I will stand in the water’s path. I will hold back all I am able. But when they pass me, what will they meet? Will they see a wall of soldiers? Will they see brave forces, standing in their path to ensure your children and families have another second to flee, another moment to reach their ships, another minute to rise into the stars? Or will they see cowards, lying in the dirt awaiting their deaths?” 

With that, she turned and began to climb the dirt hill. 

A slight pause followed her words. The assembled exhausted soldiers looked to one another. Finally one rose, then another, and more. A little under three quarters of the almost thirty-five hundred motley soldiers tiredly took up their weapons once more and forced themselves to climb that dirt hill. Their bones ached, their eyes burned from lingering poison gas. They longed to lay down and sleep for days. Yet they followed the Seosten woman at her words. 

When they reached the top of the hill, the troops found themselves facing that woman. Her back was to the approaching Fomorians, still over ninety seconds away before the nearest would reach them. 

“And so here you are,” Remiel noted, her voice a soft rumble, like distant thunder rolling through their ranks. She raised a hand, speaking a single word. As she did so, a flash of brilliant blue light filled the air behind the assembled group. They spun back, to find that those who had chosen to stay behind, who had not risen to join them, had vanished. 

That, of course, gave rise to a rush of confused, fearful words about what she had done. But Remiel kept her hand in the air, speaking over the crowd. “They are safe! You will see them soon enough. Despite their fears and fatigue now, they served well. They tried their best for as long as they could. I do not fault their exhaustion, mental or physical. I have sent them to join your people as they leave this world. A moment of faltering does not erase the blood, sweat, and lives that all of you have sacrificed in this battle. Yet they were not prepared for what comes next. I had to know which among you were strong enough.” 

“Strong enough to die against those monsters?” one man demanded, barely capable of holding his rifle up to indicate the incoming horde, barely twenty seconds out. 

Remiel, however, gave a very faint smile. “No, I do not need those strong enough to die.” At those words, her own archangel wings emerged from her back. Made of brilliant blue energy, matching the color of her eyes, they stretched out impossibly wide, enveloping the nearly two thousand, five hundred troops in a ring of blazing, nearly blinding power. The troops were forced to look away, lest they be blinded. 

And then the wings were gone. As was the battlefield itself. They were somewhere else, some entirely different world. A world free from Fomorian invasion. 

“You may visit your people soon,” Remiel informed the confused group. “They are already safely fleeing. Once they are settled in a new home, I will ensure you are able to see them. Of that you have my word.” 

“What–what happened?” One of the troops stammered. “Why–how–what? Why… why are we here? Why did you bring us here?”

“Why?” Remiel echoed. “Because I do not need sacrifices. I do not need people to throw themselves uselessly against an enemy they stand no chance against, to protect a world that has already been lost. I need those, as you, that I can build into something more than you are now. As I said, I do not need those who are ‘strong enough to die.’

“I need those strong enough to train.”  

*******

Selaphiel 

A tall woman, fully six feet in height, with long, flowing blonde hair (including heavy bangs that covered her forehead down to her very light green eyes) stood at the very edge of a mile-wide crater that marked what had at one point been the Earth-based outpost of the Gehenna prison organization. Her face, which looked as though it had been chiseled from marble, betrayed no emotion as she surveyed the destruction. Not that there was much to survey in the first place. Nothing had survived the devastation of that magical explosion. 

“Fossor sure did a number on this place, didn’t he?” The man who spoke stood inside the crater. Yet despite the pit itself being almost fifteen feet deep, he was still almost eye-level with the woman as she stood on the edge of the lip. 

“Paul Bunyan,” she remarked simply, “I presume.” 

“That’s right,” he drawled. “And you’re the Seosten. Well, do they still consider you a Seosten these days? You’re the one they call Selaphiel.” An archangel (or Dyeus, as they were technically called) who had joined Gehenna. She was one of the organization’s leaders. 

“I shall always be Seosten,” the regal woman informed him. “Though I have endeavored to become more than I began.” She turned her gaze to him with a slight nod. “And yes, Fossor has dealt this organization quite a blow. Not a mortal one. But quite damaging nonetheless.” 

“The King wants to know what you’re all going to do now,” Paul informed her simply, turning his gaze away from her to look out over the vast barren emptiness. Roughly a quarter of the way into the crater, a much deeper hole stood. The magic explosion had been intentionally formed to force most of its destructive power to follow the path of the building deep into where the underground portions had once been. Nothing was left of the Gehenna structure. 

Selaphiel gave no response at first. Her pale green eyes simply passed over the same hole his own gaze had locked onto, while a very slight frown wrinkled the center of her forehead. Finally, she broke the lingering silence that had formed over those moments. “You mean, he wishes to know if Gehenna will rebuild here, move to somewhere else on the planet, or leave entirely.” 

“That’s about the size of it,” Bunyan confirmed. “With Fossor dead, he won’t be a problem anymore. But he’s not the end of the enemies you all have. And enemies targeting Gehenna, now that Fossor’s proven you’re not invincible, could bring problems to Canada. The King isn’t exactly bursting with joy at that idea.” 

“They are no threat to him,” Selaphiel pointed out flatly. As she spoke, the woman flicked her hand out, summoning a long golden staff, richly decorated with magical runes, with a brilliant gleaming emerald at one end. The jewel itself pulsed with power, sending lines of green light running down the shaft and over each of the runes in a clearly deliberate pattern.

“Nope,” the man agreed. “They aren’t really a threat to him. But he can’t be everywhere at once, and he’d prefer not to put his people in danger. Which is why he wants to make a new deal.” 

His words made the Seosten woman turn her gaze to him, one eyebrow rising. “A new deal?” 

“He says your people can rebuild here,” came the response, “but he gets to have a few of his own people on-site to help keep the place safe, and as outside observers to the situation.” 

“I do not know that the other directors will be eager to accept such a requirement,” Selaphiel carefully informed him. “We do not allow such oversight in other places.”

“Sure,” Paul drawled, “but something tells his majesty that your people really want to keep an outpost here. Fossor’s gone but you’re not pulling up stakes. There’s more to why you want to be on-planet. We’re not sure why, but he thinks whatever it is will be enough to make you agree to those terms. We put people in your new location, help you watch out for any of your new… friends that might take a shot, and we get to help make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.” He indicated the crater stretched out before them. 

After a few moments of silence, the woman finally gave a short nod. “Agreed. Have your king draw up the necessary contracts so I may peruse them. You have my contact information.” 

Without waiting for a response, Selaphiel extended the staff toward the deep hole. It began to glow brighter, even as the woman’s brilliant, nearly blindingly bright wings emerged from her back and spread out to their full extension. The wings were the color of malachite, nearly matching the emerald atop the staff. They pulsed with power of their own even as the woman began to chant a series of indecipherable words from some long-dead language. The power around them grew and grew, forcing Paul to withdraw several steps and turn his head away. 

Finally, an explosion of power erupted from the staff, careening toward the hole in the ground before impacting with enough force that Paul felt himself, despite his height, recoil a bit. When he looked that way, shielding his eyes with one hand, he saw the emerald light fading to reveal a tower standing there. It was just the same as the last one, a tall black obelisk rising toward the sky. 

“That was fast,” Paul remarked with a cough. 

“We have no time to waste,” she informed him. “There are no prisoners within the structure, and will not be until your king agrees. Go and see the contracts drawn up, so that we may put the building to use.” 

With that, she made the staff disappear with a flick of the hand that was holding it. Then the tall Seosten woman touched two fingers to her forehead, brushing her blonde bangs out of the way to reveal a tattoo there of two emerald-colored serpentine eyes. Those eyes began to glow under her touch, before rapidly becoming three-dimensional. The eyes emerged from her forehead, followed by the rest of a reptilian face. It grew exponentially by the second, a truly massive green lizard creature rising out of Selaphiel. 

No, not a lizard. A wingless dragon, fully large enough to swallow the twenty-foot-tall Paul Bunyan whole. It towered a full fifty feet high, scales gleaming with inner power. Not a true dragon, of course, but similar to the phoenix summoned through the tattoo of another Seosten member of Gehenna, the one called Larees. 

The summoned creature extended its tail, allowing Selaphiel to stride up toward its back. As she did so, her own wings faded from her body before reappearing on her companion, forming the actual wings of the dragon. From there, the woman stood atop her partner as those powerful glowing energy wings flapped down hard, sending both the creature and the Seosten herself upward. 

In a moment, they had vanished from sight, disappearing into the clouds. 

******* 

Gabriel 

Through the remains of the secret facility that had once belonged to Kushiel, three figures strode purposefully. Well, one strode more purposefully, with the other two hurrying to keep up.  The one in the lead was a woman who would have been considered Asian if she had been human rather than Seosten. She wore a sleek dark blue bodysuit under a long white leather coat. Her black hair was held in a long, tight braid, and her light brown eyes gleamed with anger.  

“Why was I not informed of this place while it was still in use?” Her demand came in a sharp, no-nonsense voice while she marched onward, heels clicking sharply against the floor with each step as she glanced briefly through various doorways leading into facility rooms where labs and prison cells were before making a disapproving sound and moving on after each. 

Of the two figures following, one was a Seosten man who appeared to be much older (but in actuality was several full millennia younger), while the other was a Relekun female hurriedly taking notes of everything that happened. It was the Seosten man who spoke up. “Ah, well, Miss Gabriel, the decision was made that there was no need to involve you, or distract you from your own work unless sufficient progress was seen. To avoid corrupting either your work or theirs with–” 

In a sharp voice, Gabriel interrupted. “I would hardly appreciate you defecating into your own hand and giving it to me as an explanation, let alone simply offering the excrement someone else has handed you to pass along. I am not a fool, Seurateis. I know precisely why I was not included.” She stopped, pivoting on one heel to face him. “Because I would never have approved of such a facility. I was told that I would be given charge of all research groups devoted to correcting our peoples’ population problem. And yet, I was kept entirely in the dark when it came to this place. Inform the Seraphs that if such a discrepancy is found again, they will not enjoy the measures I take to ensure it does not happen a third time.” 

“I–uh.” Seurateis faltered. “I am not entirely certain that I can pass along that tone of message. But I will… ensure that they are aware of your disappointment in the situation.”

Gabriel, in turn, made a soft scoffing sound under her breath before looking to the Relekun woman. “Daen,” she spoke the girl’s name a bit more gently, “what is the number one rule of working in such advanced scientific fields?” 

There was the slightest pause before Daen carefully recited, “Your actions have consequences.” 

“Precisely,” Gabriel confirmed, turning back to Seurateis. “The knowledge we gain, the power we unlock, the weapons and spells we create, everything we do can have untold consequences. We know that quite clearly from the fate of Cronus, and the rising of our Fomorian foes. We know that from the state that our own people have been in for hundreds of thousands of years. What we do carries repercussions, often grave ones. It is important that we remain respectful of those consequences, lest we create an even more dire threat than that which we already face.” 

She paused deliberately, allowing those words to sink in before continuing. “Let there be no misunderstanding, we have long-since sunk below the moral high ground. The things our people do in service of victory over the Fomorians do not make us heroes. Yet I do believe they are necessary things. But I will not tolerate such… evil as this, not for our own people and not for others. Every Seosten who worked within this facility is to be put to work going through every file, every scrap of information we have about those who were imprisoned here. Those who did not survive are to be identified, their families notified and compensated fairly. The bodies, if they remain, are to be delivered to their homes so that they may be disposed of in whatever manner their loved ones prefer. Those who survived, Seosten and otherwise, are to be released onto a world of their choosing.” 

“But most are criminals,” the man protested. 

Gabriel’s eyes sharpened, glowing amber wings appearing behind her as she dangerously replied, “They have served their sentence. Release them.” 

With that, she pivoted once more and began to walk away, wings fading from view. “Daen, assist him in the endeavor.” 

The Relekun woman gave a short nod before tentatively asking, “And what of the medical data that was collected?” 

There was a brief moment of silence as Gabriel stopped walking. Then she replied simply, “Moral or not, we will not cast potentially valuable information into the flames. That would simply make the sacrifices of the people held here even more pointless. Gather it, we will see if there is anything useful. And when you have taken all this facility can provide, I want it erased. Destroy every scrap of it.

“While I exist, such evil will not be glorified.”  

*******

Jegudiel

Is that all you have brought to face me?!” 

The bellowed demand came from a tall, shirtless Seosten man, who stood an inch over seven feet in height, his long black hair worn all the way to the middle of his back. His bare, heavily tanned chest, rippling with muscles and gleaming from sweat, was adorned by the tattoo of a sword that rose from navel to just under his throat. In one hand, he held a long, blood-stained axe, while the other gripped a hammer with one flat edge and the other a sharp point. The remnants of pulverised organs and various fluids adorned each. A pair of long, crimson red wings stretched from the man’s back, illuminating the otherwise dark area surrounding him with a deep red glow.  

His name was Jegudiel, and he stood at the center of what had, up until moments earlier, been a battlefield. Now, it was the site of a mass execution. Where once had stood hundreds of Fomorian monstrosities, now there was only ashes. Nothing of their intended invasion force on this moon outpost had survived his onslaught.

“I have been told so much of the ferocity of the Fomorian forces assaulting this place!” Jegudiel shouted into the darkness. “But what do I find when I come to face it? No worthy foe, no battle deserving of my name! Bring forth your creatures, bring forth your own people! Bring me a foe I can sink my teeth into, so that I may tear out their heart and bathe in the blood of one worthy of being torn asunder!” 

There was no response to his cry, the Fomorians who might have remained long-since having retreated from the field rather than uselessly throw themselves against the threat he presented. Finally, with a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, Jegudiel turned to stride back the way he had come. On the way, he paused before turning his head sharply to look out into the darkness, his tone dangerous. “Present yourself.” 

After a very brief hesitation, a smaller, slightly more pale Seosten man stepped into view. “I see your excursion here has been successful.” 

Jegudiel, however, scoffed at that. “Hardly a battle worth my time, Pravuil. But…” He paused before admitting, “I am glad that this place is protected once more. I do not fault those who require assistance, nor do I wish harm to them. Few can stand against the forces the Fomorians bring to bear. The people of this outpost are safe now, and that… that is good.” He sighed. “I only wish to find a true battle, one that will secure my legacy and ensure my name will never be forgotten.” 

Pravuil, in turn, offered him a faint smile. “In that case, perhaps you will be interested in a bit of information that has come our way.” He waited for the man to give him a nod to continue, then explained. Over the next few minutes, he told his leader exactly what whispers had reached him. 

When he was done, Jegudiel had straightened to his full height, gazing down at him intensely. His crimson wings were even brighter than before, glowing powerfully. “Is this true?” he demanded. “Do not give me such false hope, Pravuil.” 

“As far as I have been able to confirm it,” his subordinate confirmed, “it is true. My sources are quite confident.” 

There was no response at first. Jegudiel’s wings slowly folded in against his back. “Well then,” he finally announced in a far quieter, far more introspective voice. “Inform the leadership that I will be taking that vacation they have been insisting upon for so long. 

“Tis time I visit Earth. And see my daughter.” 

*******

Raphael And Chayyiel

“You must want this thing pretty badly, to ask for help.” The drawled words came from Raphael, as the tall, lanky man with long gray-blond hair stretched lazily. He was standing just outside of a small antique shop somewhere in Boston. The subject of his comment, the deceptively young-looking (they were all that, but her even more so) Chayyiel, stood in front of the door, reading the sign posted there about the hours. 

“It’s important,” she murmured absently, before glancing over to him. “And you are the one who sent a message saying you wanted something interesting to do.” 

He grinned in response. “That’s because I know you’re always doing something interesting, busy little feun.” He referred to a small mammal native to their homeworld that was essentially a miniature beaver that could fly like a bat with long wings. They created homes inside massive trees that grew up out of the abundant oceans. “Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention to what I hear about your trip across this world. You’ve been raising a few eyebrows back home. And that’s just from the parts they know about.”  

“I keep myself occupied,” she agreed idly before nodding to him. “If you’re ready for this?” 

He nodded lazily while stretching his arms over his head. “Sure thing, but ahhh, why don’t you take a step to your left? Scooch over.” He made a little flicking motion with his hand until she did so, moving out of the way. Then the man cracked his neck to both sides before glancing over to the nine-month-old English Bulldog currently sniffing a nearby fire hydrant. “Check this out, Zad.” 

The bulldog, in turn, plopped on its haunches and looked that way. He had been well trained to know what was coming when his new owner spoke in that tone of voice. Particularly as it often meant he would end up with treats afterward. 

And with that, satisfied by his audience, Raphael allowed his golden-white energy wings to emerge, flared them out behind him… and then fired a beam from each. The beams tore through the facade of the antique shop, literally erasing it (and the myriad of protective spells and weapons that had been waiting to cause problems) from existence within a bare handful of seconds. When the beams finally stopped, there was little left of the shop other than a smoldering ruin with a metal hatch in the middle of the floor. One more brief, incredibly casual shot from a single wing erased the hatch itself, revealing a ladder leading down. 

“Probably a good thing you had the right place, huh?” Raphael casually remarked. “Would have been pretty embarrassing for you to get that wrong.” Left unsaid, of course, was the fact that he himself would not particularly have cared that much. But he knew she did, and didn’t mind at least making the slightest attempt to follow her preferences in such a matter as far as collateral damage went. It was why he had made certain to contain his beams to only hit the building itself and not blast any further than that.   

“I made sure,” she informed him while already moving toward the hole in the floor. Zad accompanied her, leaning over it to stare down into the dark abyss while sniffing curiously. 

“Sure you don’t want any more help?” Raphael asked, stepping up to look that way as well. “No telling how much trouble you might run into down there. I’d feel sort of bad if I went to all the trouble of blowing away the front door defenses just for you to get in trouble down in the tunnels. Especially if you’re right about what’s in that place. They’ll be protecting it pretty heavily.”

“I can handle it,” she assured him, “but thank you.” Turning that way, Chayyiel listened to the sound of the people below reacting to the intrusion. “You should go, get Zad some lunch. He’s hungry.” 

“He’s always hungry,” Raphael pointed out before stooping to scratch behind the ears of the animal in question. “Maybe we’ll try that… what did you call it, a Morongleen Barby Q?” 

“Mongolian Barbecue,” Chayyiel corrected, even as the sound of multiple weapons being readied directly below them reached their ears. “Two blocks down to the west.” 

With that, she touched something on her shoulder, activating a protective spell before hopping into the broken hatch. As she fell toward the people below, the gunfire and screaming started.  

“Ahh well,” Raphael remarked, straightening and turning away from the sound of fighting going on below, “Let’s go, Zad. 

“I’d like to find out if these ‘Mongolians’ are any good at cooking.” 

*******

Michael And Chayyiel

Two heavily armed humanoid figures wearing golden armor stood outside the entrance into a clearly heavily reinforced bunker in the middle of the woods. The man on the left held an enormous trident weapon with a shotgun attachment, his gaze panning over the trees in front of them while he asked, “So what do they have the old man working on now?” 

His companion, a slightly smaller female figure with a sword at her hip and rifle in her hands, shook her head. “Fuck all if I know. You think they tell me anything more than they tell you? I’m only your senior by like three weeks. All I know is it’s something big and they don’t want any interruptions, so keep your eyes peeled. Hell, if we’re lucky, maybe they’re having him build something that could wipe out those fucking Boschers for good this time.” 

“Actually,” a voice from above and behind them remarked, “at the moment they want him to create something that hides all of you from any of those Boschers. You know, a permanent, perfect cloaking field around all your facilities that can stand up against their powers.” 

The sudden interruption was, to put it mildly, surprising. Both guards spun that way, snapping their weapons up. They found themselves staring at a small, young Seosten girl crouched there on top of the bunker’s roof, eying them curiously. The unconscious figure of the sniper who had been stationed further back on the roof lay next to her, his rifle discarded a bit to the side. 

“What th–shoot her!” the female guard snapped, already starting to open fire on the crouched figure. A rapid series of small purple lasers erupted from her rifle with the speed of a minigun, flooding the air with a hundred shots within only a couple seconds of pulling the trigger. The shots were intentionally spread out to cover an area roughly the size of a human male in order to hit any conceivable weak point on the body, and to cover any immediate attempt to dodge. 

Beside her, the male guard fired several quick rounds from his shotgun-like weapon. The destructive force from the explosive pellets the weapon fired could easily blow apart a car.  

All of that firepower, however, accomplished nothing. They simply hit a glowing forcefield that appeared in front of the girl. No, not a forcefield, a wing made of energy, which stretched out from behind the men and reached up to cover the crouched figure. 

Within seconds, the guards had stopped firing. Their heads slowly turned to find a slim man with gray hair and wire-frame glasses standing behind them. The glowing energy wings came from his back. 

“Afternoon,” Michael greeted them. 

“I’m truly sorry about this.” 

*****

Thirty seconds later, Michael used his wings once more to blow a hole through the bunker door. Then he gestured for his companion. “After you, my dear.”

Chayyiel, in turn, gave a short nod before proceeding inside and down the hall. She was already counting out a handful of previously enchanted marbles into one hand. At the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps, she reared back, triggered the spells upon the marbles, and chucked them. The marbles careened down the hall, bouncing off walls, floor, and ceiling. With each bounce, they emitted a stunning electrical shock. Soon, she heard them reach the incoming troops, who began firing uselessly at the tiny orbs while the sound of their cries filled the air, followed by dull thuds as their unconscious forms collapsed. 

“An elegant solution,” Michael noted. 

“Thanks,” she replied. “One makes do when you don’t have magic wings that can blast through everything in their way.” 

And so it continued. Chayyiel and Michael made their way through the entire bunker, casually dispatching anyone who happened to be in the way. Eventually, she reached the heart of the structure, a workroom filled with various tools, equipment of every shape and size, books full of spells, various types of field-engravers, and more. A single figure stood within that room. He was a tall (almost seven feet), heavyset male figure with dark blue skin, a turtle-like shell on his back, a pair of compound eyes centered on his face with two slits above that were used as a nose, and a mouth below. Four antennae, two small at only two inches and two large at almost six, adorned the top of his bald head. His long arms reached all the way to the ground if it let them droop, and had seven incredibly dextrous looking fingers at the end of each. 

“Are you here to kill me?” the man asked without looking up as the door slid open. His attention was on the oblong box he was carefully inscribing something into. “If so, might I ask that you wait until I finish this? An interruption could create a vortex that would swallow this entire facility and several hundred surrounding square miles.” 

“We’re not here to kill you, Quervus,” Michael informed the man before nodding to Chayyiel. “I was simply helping my young companion here find you. She’s been looking for quite awhile.” 

Chayyiel spoke up. “You did a job for a friend of mine about fifteen hundred years ago. You enchanted a piece of dragon bone and turned it into a sword.” 

There was a brief pause before Quervus nodded. “I remember it. You want another of those, I need another dragon bone.” 

“Not a sword,” she replied, reaching into her pocket to produce a bag, which she unwrapped and reached into, taking out a square chunk of dragon bone about three feet across. “Let’s just say, I acquired this from an old antique shop. I need you to turn it into the chest piece of a suit of armor.” 

Finally, Quervus turned to look at her. His eyes scanned over the bone she was holding. “For one of you, or the man the sword was for?” 

“Neither,” Michael put in. “But I have the measurements for you right here.”

Chayyiel nodded in agreement. “We have someone else in mind. 

“We need you to make it for a woman named Joselyn.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 13 – Summer Roadtrips

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The following takes places shortly after Chayyiel and Raphael arrived on Earth back in the very first Summer Epilogue. 

“Boy, it sure feels different to be back on Earth, doesn’t it?” The Seosten man asking that question had rather long, gray-blond hair that fell to the middle of his back. Had he been human, his age could have been estimated at anywhere between late thirties and early fifties. Though he was, naturally, so much older. He also stood six feet, seven inches tall. Despite his sheer height, however, he managed to not appear intimidating at first glance. His figure was not one of muscle and overt strength, but more lanky. Rather than thick biceps or any other sign of an impressive physique, the man was all elbows and knees. He appeared as though he should be clumsy, though a moment of observation would reveal just how coordinated he truly was. Gangly scarecrow in simple, stationary appearance, sinewy panther stalking its prey in actual motion.

He paused that motion then, in mid-step on his way across an unassuming-looking parking lot attached to a rest stop in the middle of nowhere at some point far north-east of Lincoln, Nebraska. This was where he and his companion had agreed to part ways for the time being. It was that companion whom he had been addressing, and looked to now. “But then, probably hits harder for you. I mean, after everything that went down between you and your old captain.” With those words, the man made a point of flicking a little dust off his clothing. He wore loose-fitting jeans and an open Hawaiian shirt over a white tee-shirt, with sandals completing the look. “But hey, just gotta brush that off and move on.” As easily as he had brushed his clothes, apparently.

Chayyiel, of course, almost couldn’t have looked more like the tall man’s opposite in so many ways. She was a quite short, slender girl with short, pixie-style black hair. While he was tall and gangly, she was small and compact. Where his hair was long, hers was very much not. Even their clothes were quite different. His gave the appearance of being open and casual, just an ordinary man on vacation. She, on the other hand, wore military camo pants, boots, and a black turtleneck with what looked like miniaturized SWAT body armor. It looked as though she was about to go trick or treating as some sort of military Special Forces agent. 

Feeling the man’s gaze on her without looking that way, Chayyiel simply replied, “That was a long time ago, Raphael. A lot has changed since those days.” She kept her voice purposefully flat, looking across the lot and to the empty highway beyond. No cars were passing, nor were there anywhere in sight. And given the remoteness of this area, none were likely to be seen any time soon. The lot itself was empty, save for one vehicle, a fancy, gleaming red Porsche, which looked incredibly out of place. It wasn’t even parked in an actual spot, instead sitting right in the middle of the lot directly ahead of them. The top was down and one of the doors was open. 

“Hah, ain’t that the truth.” Raphael gave a low chuckle. “I think you’ve gotten even scarier, for one.” He gave her a wink before adding, “Not as scary as I can be, but you know, still pretty good.” 

“If I knew we were competing,” Chayyiel informed him casually, “I would have brought a Uelphec mask. Maybe that would have pushed me over the line for the judges.” 

Raphael squinted at her briefly before giving a loud laugh. His hand patted her shoulder. “See that? That’s why you and I can get along.” He walked to the car then, bringing a hand down to tenderly rub along the hood with a murmur of appreciation. “And speaking of getting along, these humans do know how to make some gorgeous transportation, don’t they?” 

“That and many other beautiful things, I’m told,” Chayyiel replied simply. She made no secret of the fact that she kept close eyes on Earth despite not physically being on-planet for so long. She had her own contacts who kept her up-to-date on what happened here, and how things were developing. A few of whom were known, but many were entirely unidentified. 

In one motion, Raphael swung himself down into the car and closed his eyes, giving a groan of appreciation at the feel of the leather seat. “Oh yes, that’s the stuff right there. Excellent, just the way I asked for it. Seat’s even heated.” His eyes opened once more to look at her. “Sure you don’t wanna stick with me a bit longer? We could take a joyride and see where the road takes us. You and me together here on this world? Even if our people weren’t already in charge, we’d rule the planet in a day. Less if we made a contest out of it.” 

“Thankfully, the world doesn’t need conquering,” Chayyiel replied dryly. She let that hang in the air briefly before adding, “And I think we’re both going different ways right now.” The Seosten girl stepped back then, giving a very short nod. “Enjoy yourself, I’ll find my own ride.” 

Shrugging, Raphael started the car with a key that had been left there by the contact who had delivered it for them. “Suit yourself. Looking forward to hearing all about the business you attend to here.” He revved the engine loudly, a smile spreading across his face. “At least, the parts you actually talk about!” 

With that, he shifted into gear and hit the gas, pulling out of the lot. An instant later, the car was tearing off down the road before it quickly disappeared from sight. Chayyiel could hear the man’s loud, excited whoop over the sound of the roaring engine before both faded off in the distance. 

He was gone then, and she was alone here on Earth. Just the way she had wanted. Yet the girl didn’t move immediately. There was no rush for her at this exact moment. She knew where she was going next, but she had over an hour of leeway and her destination wasn’t far. For the moment, she was going to take advantage of that extra time and let herself breathe. Learning not to totally suffocate herself under the weight of her responsibilities had been one of the most important things she had picked up from Apollo. It was, perhaps, the only reason she had survived as long as she had with everything she had taken on. More than her absurdly potent power to absorb skills and identify weaknesses, it was learning to back away and take a few minutes for herself that truly saved her from that crushing impulse to keep working at all times. 

With that in mind, the girl turned and walked to the nearby vending machines. She stood there, examining them curiously for a moment before drawing a field-engraver from one pocket. In a few quick strokes, she drew a simple rune on the side of the machine. Her fingertip touched it as she spoke a word. As soon as she did that, the spell activated, immediately summoning all abandoned human money (defined as human monetary currency that had been on the ground for at least one day) within thirty miles of this secluded spot. Given how out-of-the-way the place was, she was prepared to extend that radius if need be. But a small pile of money appeared on the ground at her feet. It came out to roughly sixteen dollars, and she put most of that away for later before buying herself a human soda and a bag of chips. 

With that done, Chayyiel took a sip of the soda and considered briefly. Yup, it was even better here on Earth then the ones she had been sent by Apollo. Then she started walking. Not out to the road, but off into the forest. With her soda and chips, the girl strolled casually into the trees, disappearing from the practically-abandoned rest stop, once more leaving the place empty.  

*********

Raphael didn’t slow down any after leaving the site of the rest stop. He was here on Earth to do a few things, and one of the most important (in his mind anyway) was to have fun. He’d worked for far too long not to give himself a break, at least now and then, to just cut loose. After all, what was the point of working so hard to stop Fomorians from destroying the universe if you weren’t going to give yourself a chance to enjoy what was in that universe? Sometimes, you just had to take the time to remind yourself of what was worth putting so much effort into protecting. 

So, with the top down and the human vehicle roaring pleasingly around him, the Seosten man pushed the pedal to the floor and enjoyed the sensation. It wasn’t exactly comparable to using his wings to fly wherever he wanted to go (the wings didn’t provide any lift, they just allowed an unlimited energy source for a simple flight spell), but it was still quite enjoyable in a different way. He could certainly see why so many people on this planet liked this sort of thing. 

Yes, having a couple of the Seosten who had previously been stationed here on Earth give him a course in how to pilot–err, drive these human vehicles before he made the trip was definitely worth it. He would have to send a bonus to those two. And another to the one who had ensured that such a… wonderful example of a human vehicle was provided for him.  

He had been racing down the highway for about thirty minutes, occasionally blowing past another vehicle here or there (particularly the big trucks with heavy trailers hauling supplies in what was a fascinatingly low-tech, non-magical solution to transportation issues) when the sound of a loud alert siren from behind him caught Raphael’s attention. Moving his gaze from the road ahead to the mirror, he watched the black and white human vehicle with the flashing red and blue lights. Ah, he knew what this was. Local authorities attempting to enforce lower speeds out of some idea of what would be safe. And provide monetary relief to their own coffers in the process. Understandable, yet he had neither the time nor inclination to deal with such mundane, unimportant matters. 

To that end, he didn’t slow down. Instead, the man reached out to touch the dashboard with one hand. Summoning just a small fraction of the power provided by his (still unsummoned) wings, he carefully sent that power into the vehicle. Part of it went to surround the wheels in a protective shield, while the rest was sent to boost the engine. 

The effect was immediate. The human vehicle went from doing about two hundred and forty kilometers (a hundred and fifty miles) per hour, to abruptly doing more than twice that. In a fraction of a second, he was suddenly moving down that highway at speeds far beyond anything the human authority vehicle could even dream of reaching. The flashing red lights disappeared from the mirror as the car rocketed onward while Raphael gave a loud shout of exhilaration. This, this was why he’d come to this world. He had needed a break, and the humans were providing that, however unknowingly. 

At those speeds, it didn’t take long for him to reach a more populated area. The almost empty road led to a much busier one with six different traffic lanes going each way, and he was soon weaving the blindingly fast car around other vehicles. A laugh escaped the man as he twisted the wheel just in time to avoid clipping the rear bumper of a truck, missing by fractional centimeters. The near-miss did nothing to discourage him, of course. If anything, it made Raphael feel even more alive and excited. This was so much better than driving along an empty road. And so it continued like that, as he poured a little more of his own power into the vehicle to both reinforce the materials and boost its speed further. With that, he reached almost four hundred miles per hour. At those speeds, he had to use a bit of his own Seosten boost to ensure his reflexes could keep up with the rapid changes in obstacles, weaving in and out of traffic, around various other human vehicles and even onto the spaces on either side of the road. Through it all, the man laughed joyously. This was so much fun. 

He hoped Chayyiel was enjoying herself even half as much as he was. The kid deserved that. 

*******

For fifteen minutes, Chayyiel continued to walk through the forest while enjoying the soda and chips. Once both were gone, she took a moment to incinerate the empty packaging with a spell. At that point, she appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees on all sides. Turning in a circle, she took a moment to observe the area around her, comparing it against the directions she had received from one of her contacts here on this planet. Freshly oriented, the Seosten girl continued to walk for another five minutes before reaching a small clearing surrounded by short pine trees, with a line of blue-white wildflowers growing next to a log. Yes, this was the right place, according to that contact. And she trusted him implicitly. 

To that end, she stooped to pluck a small stone off the ground before pursing her lips to give a low, melodic whistle. As she did so, there was a quiet rustle in the nearby bushes before a humanoid figure with dark red skin and an interesting pattern of tattoo-like lines over his body emerged into view. His voice was a whisper. “Ylegni, you weren’t supposed t–” He cut himself off upon realizing that the signal did not come from the man he expected after all. But, before he could react, Chayyiel gave the small stone a quick toss, ricocheting it off a nearby tree before it struck the man in the side of the neck. He immediately collapsed as the rock struck the exact point needed to in order to leave him temporarily paralyzed. He could still breathe, but only in short, shallow gasps. 

Stepping over to stand over the man, Chayyiel took a knee while he stared at her in open-mouthed confusion, sucking in as much air as he could. Her voice was quiet. “I’ll have more to say to you in a few minutes, but you can stay here for now.” She produced a small metal disc roughly the size of a coin and placed it on his chest before activating the spell attached to it. Immediately, a series of golden wires emerged and wrapped around the man to ensure he wouldn’t be able to move even once the temporary paralyzation wore off.  

That done, she reached into his pocket and plucked out a large red key. The man stammered curses at her, but she ignored them and stood to walk over to a nearby boulder. There, she found the little hole where she’d been told it would be and stuck the key inside. After turning it, a literal mundane-looking human door appeared in the middle of that small clearing. Chayyiel plucked out the key, walked to the door, and turned the knob. It opened, before she stepped through, disappearing from the clearing. A moment later, the door itself vanished as well, leaving the red-skinned man trussed up on the ground, helpless to warn his companions about what–or who– was coming their way. 

******

Over the next forty-five minutes, Raphael pushed that car as hard as he could. It was held together only thanks to his own power shielding it from the stresses he was subjecting the vehicle to. He managed to get it up to five hundred miles per hour, and might have gone even further than that, but he was rapidly approaching his first destination. So, the man gradually and reluctantly slowed down while watching out the passenger side as he neared a small town. Eventually, he spotted the building he’d previously seen a hologram of, and parked right in front. Just like when he’d picked the car up at the rest stop, he didn’t bother using a spot. He was really only vaguely aware of the concept anyway, and finding a space between two lines sounded boring. Raphael didn’t really do boring, especially while he was eighty-five percent on vacation. 

So, he left the vehicle right where it was and stepped out before glancing up to read the sign next to the door of the building. Sure enough, it was the veterinary clinic he had been looking for. At least, that’s what the place claimed to be. In reality, they did a fair bit more than that. 

Whistling an old song from his homeworld, the lanky man strolled to the door and opened it before stepping through. There were several people in there, with an assortment of animals waiting to be seen. A few barked, meowed, or chirped at him when he appeared, and their owners, along with the receptionist (who was clearly not human, with her dark pink scales and four separate eyes spread equa-distant across her face), looked up. As usual when seeing him for the first (or even second or third) time, they stared a bit longer than was necessary. As tall and gangly as he was, mixed with his long hair and general Seosten attractiveness, he was accustomed to gazes lingering. 

Raphael, in turn, offered a faint smile. “Well, hello there,” he greeted the entire room casually. “I know this might be a bit of an inconvenience, but I’m afraid I’m going to need all of you to leave with your little friends.” He raised a hand to point toward the receptionist. “You can stay.” 

The group, naturally, didn’t move at first. There were a couple more scattered barks from half-hearted animals who seemed just as confused as their owners. Raphael wasn’t surprised, but he also didn’t really care to take more time out of his day explaining anything to these people. So, he simply raised his voice. “Sorry, are you all having trouble finding the door? It’s right there.” With those words, he pointed toward the entrance. As he did so, one of his golden-white wings made of pure energy flared out, sending a blast that utterly annihilated both glass and metal doors as well as two feet of wall on either side and a bit of the ceiling. 

That got everyone’s attention nicely. Every animal was going nuts while the people themselves screamed. Raphael, meanwhile, simply gazed at them while keeping his hand raised to point at the hole he’d made. After that brief moment of shock, everyone ran for the exit, taking their animals with them. Well, save for one man, who abandoned his own medium-sized canine cowering under the seat as he fled for his own life. 

For a moment, Raphael frowned after that last guy. But before he could decide what to do about it, the sound of the receptionist rising to her feet caught his attention. He heard the clear sound of a standard-issue Seosten laser rifle charging up for a shot, and his second wing flared to life, crossing over to cover his left side in plenty of time to intercept the blast.  

“Oh no, no, no, not–no!” The clearly not-human receptionist, who was backing away from the desk with her weapon raised, kept babbling. Her tail was swinging wildly behind her. “Not one of you, not one of you, why are you here now?! It was almost done! We were almost ready!” 

“I think you just answered your own question there, Chief,” Raphael informed her. His wing intercepted another flurry of desperate shots, before transforming into a pair of long, golden-energy whips. They lashed out, cutting through the woman just before she would have been out of sight through the corridor leading to where the vets operated. Without even time to scream, she was disintegrated. 

Raphael first started that way, only to adjust his course. He walked across the waiting room lobby to where the animal had been left. It was still cowering under the chair, and he crouched to get a look at the thing. He was aware enough that the general species was referred to as dogs, but had no idea what its actual breed was, with its brown and white fur, stubby legs, and wrinkled face. As the animal whimpered, Raphael slowly put his hand out, holding it there until the dog sniffed. It then sniffed again, its whimper turning to one of confusion and uncertainty rather than fear. The Seosten man waited until it had calmed down a bit before carefully picking the dog up. It whined a bit more, but soon calmed down. 

“Hello there…” Trailing off, Raphael held the animal away from him, checking the undercarriage. “… boy. Your owner sure didn’t care about you, did he?” Shaking his head in disgust, the man pivoted and began to walk back toward the hallway leading to the vet operating rooms once more. “Let’s go deal with these bad people, shall we?” 

Within three steps, two more beings of the same species as the receptionist popped out with weapons of their own. They were instantly disintegrated by a single blast from one wing, which also took out a solid portion of the wall there, revealing an empty restroom. 

Now Raphael could hear people shouting, weapons being drawn and charged up, and various magical spells being chanted. Tucking the dog under one arm, he continued that way with a smile. “That’s right, boy. 

“Let’s have some fun.” 

********

Ten minutes after stepping through the magic doorway, Chayyiel emerged once more into the clearing. She was using a spell to clean blood and slime off her gloved hands, while the red-skinned man she had paralized and then tied up stared at her with wide eyes. “Wha-what the three hells did you do?!” he demanded, angrily squirming in a futile attempt to get free.

Chayyiel, in turn, simply walked over to crouch next to the man. Her voice was quiet. “My friend told me that you weren’t aware of what was actually going on in there. That’s why I spared you.” 

“What was going on?!” the trussed-up man echoed in disbelief. “What do you mean? They were making medicine for sick people, for sick Alters who can’t go to a hospital and risk seeing Heretics!” The outrage was evident in his voice. 

Rather than argue with him, Chayyiel simply turned to look over her shoulder at the door. As she did, a figure came through, followed by another, then a third, fourth, all the way to ten. All of them were emaciated, weak-looking people, an assortment of species including three humans while the rest were different. They wore ragged clothing and had dark circles under their eyes. 

“Wha–who the hell are they?!” the bound man demanded. 

“Prisoners,” Chayyiel informed him. “The people you worked for did create some medicine. But their primary purpose was to experiment on humans and Alters alike, attempting to create drugs that could be used to simulate the human bonding power to give any being the power of any other.” She paused before pointedly adding, “They were unsuccessful, and the more they failed, the worse they put their subjects through. These were the ones who weren’t either dead, or too far gone to move. I’m calling in some people to take care of those. And you..” She gauged his reaction briefly. “You truly didn’t know.” 

As the man stammered that of course he didn’t, she rose and spoke a single word that made his magical bonds vanish. “Stay here with these people. When the people show up to take care of things, tell them everything you do know. Help them go through things down there.” 

With that, she took a moment to assure the terrified former prisoners that everything would be okay, that everyone who had been torturing them in the name of their experiments was dead, and that people would be there soon to take them somewhere safe. Then she turned and started to walk away.    

“Wa-wait!” the red-skinned man called. “Where are you going now?!” 

Pausing briefly, she replied, “I’m on vacation. 

“I’m going to Disney World.” 

*******

It took roughly five minutes for Raphael to finish clearing out the lab hidden under the vet clinic. As the receptionist had protested, their little group truly had been close to their goal. That goal had been to construct what amounted to artificial Fomorian bodies (based on the records from the Fomorian invasion and a few samples they had dug up) with all of their immunities and abilities, and stick their own minds inside of them as a total physical upgrade. 

But now those people, their lab, their records, and all of the samples had been wiped from the face of the universe. After Raphael left the building with the dog still under his arm, he turned back and let his wings expand to either side of his body at full normal extension. With a blinding blast of energy, the building itself was erased, every trace of it wiped away to leave nothing but a deep hole in the ground where the lab itself had been before all of that was destroyed a minute earlier. 

Well, there was one thing left from the clinic. From his pocket, Raphael plucked out a book of different dog breeds that he had grabbed on his way. Flipping through the little book with one hand, he found the right entry before looking at the animal under his arm. “Says here you’re an English Bulldog. That right?” As he asked that, the now-familiar sound of sirens filled the air as human authority vehicles approached. Raphael, however, ignored them aside from glancing that way. He stepped down into his car, setting the dog on the passenger seat. Only then did he notice the metal tag on the collar. Lifting it up, he read, “Conroy? No, I don’t think so.” His head shook while he started the car and peeled away from the remains of the clinic. “I lost an old friend a long time ago. Been thinking about him a bit lately. 

“Think I’ll call you Zad.” 

******

A week later, Chayyiel had suited action to words. She had hitchhiked her way from Nebraska to Florida. Well, not exactly hitchhiked in the strictest sense, as most of the rides she had taken had no idea she was there. Between a combination of hiding in the back of trucks or simply using a ‘forget me’ spell while seated directly beside the driver or in the backseat, she had made the long journey in relative comfort. 

Not that she enjoyed taking advantage of people that way, but having the appearance that she did made certain things complicated, particularly here on Earth. It was better to avoid having well-meaning humans attempt to help the ‘lost little girl,’ whom they would undoubtedly believe was running away from home, or some such thing. Not to mention those who would have their own much less altruistic intentions toward what they saw as a helpless girl. Those people she would happily erase from existence, but it would still be yet another complication. 

So, she avoided all of that by keeping herself hidden and hitching rides from unknowing strangers. And she did, at least, pay for her rides in a manner of speaking. Before leaving each ride for a new one, Chayyiel made sure to do something that would help them. For a few, that meant using a combination of magic and acquired mechanical skill to fix things in their car. For another, it had meant trading a couple coins of stored magical energy to the Alter who ran the nearby convenience store in exchange for a pile of groceries to leave in the passenger seat. Or even helping to find a child’s lost toy and returning it for them. And so on that went, as she did what little things she could to pay for the rides, even if the people involved didn’t know anything about it. She knew, and that was important. 

For those intervening days while traveling, Chayyiel had simply enjoyed watching the scenery. She had been away from Earth for so long, yet kept up with what was happening and how the world was developing. She saw it in holograms, in ordinary pictures and videos, even simply in stories from those who spent time on the planet. But now she was here, and for those days, she appreciated silently watching the countryside of this small, out-of-the-way world pass her by.  It reminded her of old times. 

And now, as the ancient-yet-youthful Seosten girl had said, she was here in the middle of Disney World. One of their famous turkey legs was held lightly in one hand while she gazed around at all the sights that surrounded her. Yes, this place certainly lived up to the hype. Of course, she wasn’t merely here for entertainment. As in most things she did, there was a more important purpose to her presence at the park. But that could wait. For the time being, she simply began to make her way to one of the rides. Yes, this would all be considered incredibly mundane and ordinary next to Seosten technology, to say nothing of actual magic. Yet there was a charming… innocence to this place that she enjoyed. It was an opportunity to, at least temporarily, shut out all of those pressing responsibilities that threatened to consume her every waking moment and enjoy something simple. For a few hours, she was able to relax and simply go with the flow. She went on rides, played games, watched people enjoy their own vacations, and ate as many of the delightful human treats as possible. Ice cream, pretzels, cotton candy, funnel cakes, french fries, she tried all of it. And that turkey leg. 

Eventually, the time for fun and games was over. The sun was beginning to set, which meant the true reason she had come here would be starting soon. With a small sigh of regret that things had to turn serious once more, Chayyiel made her way through the park to a small, innocuous-looking area with a blank wall near one of the gift shops. Without bothering to check if anyone was looking, she approached the wall and tapped six particular bricks in a specific pattern. Immediately, a doorway appeared in the wall, and she stepped through to enter a rocky tunnel sloping downward. Torches glowing with magical flames lined both walls. 

“Back to work,” she murmured quietly to herself before starting her descent, as the doorway sealed itself behind her once more. In the distance, the sound of a large group of people chanting magical words filled the unnaturally cool air. 

Good, she was just in time.  

******

Raphael was having the time of his life. Well, okay, not really. After all, he’d had a very long life filled with a lot of fun. But it was, at least, a very pleasant personal holiday, even if bits of work were mixed in. Such was the life of most Seosten, let alone those as powerful and important as one of the six remaining Dyeusai (what the humans called archangels) in the universe. Even when taking a well-deserved break, there were still important things to be done. 

Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself while doing it. And while he wasn’t literally having the time of his life, he was making the best of his time here on Earth. He had visited a literal Bystander rodeo in Texas, had snow skied at the glacier in Hintertux, Austria, taken two sight-seeing tours of London, one the Bystander version and one guided by Alters (they were pretty understandably nervous about his presence, but took him on the tour anyway). He visited the Lourvre in France, had a meal and shared stories with an indiginous tribe of mixed humans and Alters in Brazil, went flying through the Grand Canyon, and went diving in Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef. 

He’d done all those things and more over the course of a few weeks. And through it all, he had his new favorite companion, the incredibly loyal English Bulldog he had named Zad. Whoever Zad’s former cowardly owner had been, Raphael didn’t care. The dog was his now, and would be staying with him wherever he went. He’d taken the time to enchant Zad’s collar with various protective spells (fixing the name on the tag in the process), and stuck a few Seosten technological surprises in it as well. 

Eventually, he stepped out of a cabin in the isolated wilderness of Alaska, calling back over his shoulder, “Yeah, well think about that the next time you decide to try to use the energy from an ancient artifact to give yourself the power of a demigod so you can rule half a planet.” Pausing, he amended, “Or don’t, cuz of the whole, you know, being dead now thing.” 

At his feet, Zad gave a loud bark of agreement before growling back the way they’d come. 

“Good boy,” Raphael praised, leaning down to rub behind the animal’s ears the way he liked. “But don’t worry about her. She’s all gone now. You and me… what do you think of another round of that… Korean barbecue like last week?” 

The answer from Zad was a little growl that turned to a whine as his head tilted. 

“Yeah, you’re right,” Raphael decided, rising to step down off the porch. 

“Burgers it is.” 

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

A few minutes after descending her way into the tunnels under Disney World, Chayyiel stood over an assortment of bodies. Two dozen dead figures in red-gold robes stained thoroughly with their own blood (of a wide variety of colors to go with their various species), which also leaked out in wide puddles across the dirt floor. 

A single, heavily wounded survivor slumped against the nearby wall, holding his stomach in. His eyes were wide as he stared at her. “H-how… dare… dare… you interrupt… the ritual.” 

“Well, usually, I would’ve sent one of my… friends here on this world to handle your kind, but I happened to be in the area,” Chayyiel informed him before making a show of ‘realizing’ something. “Oh, the emphasis there was on ‘interrupt,’ not ‘you,’ huh? You want to know why your ritual was interrupted, not why I specifically did.” She shrugged, moving to crouch next to him. His hand lashed out with a blade that jumped from the sleeve of his robe, but her hand was faster, snatching the weapon out of his grasp without blinking or taking her gaze from his. 

“So, I get it. You and your little cult here had the bright idea to use the Fountain of Youth buried under this place to power your spell. Not a bad idea. I mean, the fountain’s still powerful enough to send out an aura over this entire area that tends to make people feel like kids again. More energy, more optimism, just… more innocent and wide-eyed wonder. So you figure, if it can affect over fifty thousand people a day like that, it must be strong enough to give your summoning spell the oomph it needed to call on your personal chosen god. And yeah, you’re probably right. Unfortunately, your personal chosen god happens to be a monstrous abomination that would’ve killed about… hmm… half the people in this state before the Heretics managed to contain the situation.” 

“Never!” the injured cultist snapped. “The Cackling Fade would never be contained! Her shroud will spread–” 

“I don’t need the spiel,” Chayyiel interrupted with a sigh. “The point is, you’re not doing that. I happen to prefer this world unshrouded. So your Cackling Fade will have to find another summer home. And that ought to be long enough.”

“Long enough for wh–” the cultist started, before Chayyiel’s hand moved to slit his throat with his own blade. 

“Long enough for the energy you already put into the ritual to dissipate so your death won’t finish the spell as the final sacrifice,” she informed his dead body, then rose. Her gaze took in the corpses that littered the ground, before she tossed the knife aside and turned to start out. She would make a call and get someone to come and clean this place up, as well as put some more security in to protect the fountain. 

Leaving the tunnels, she stepped back out into Disney World proper. Hmm. Maybe she could go see that electrical light parade before leaving this place. It was supposed to be pretty good. 

And after all, she was on vacation. 

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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 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 burying 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 will, 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 falls 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 do 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 Charmeine. 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 being 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 Charmeine 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 the Seosten’s 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 sent 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 its 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 stopped 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 part-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 he 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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