Columbus Porter

At Last 16-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Well the kids definitely liked that. For the next couple hours, we took them around the ship and let them see the various rooms, like the bridge, the engines, some of the cabins, and so on. Andromeda played guide, while Cerberus remained an even more effective babysitter than Columbus, Shiori, or me. Granted, a large part of that was because the Seosten kids didn’t get such a kick out of riding on our backs, but still. Maybe if I turned into my lion form, I could’ve given him a run for his money, even if I didn’t have three heads.

In any case, they had a lot of fun and that was what mattered. But eventually, it was time to take them back to the station so I could get on with the next part of my day. Namely, heading for the neighborhood that had been so tragically decimated by Fossor (and the fact that that description did essentially nothing to narrow down the options was pretty depressing) so I could let some of my inherited ghosts go. They deserved–okay, what they really deserved was to be brought back to life along with all the family and friends they had been forced to murder or watch be murdered. But failing that, they deserved to be released so they could rest properly. 

Unfortunately, Avalon still couldn’t join us. Part of me felt a little sad that she couldn’t be there, and that she was so busy in general lately. To the point that she basically devoted all of her energy to it. But, on the other hand, that was completely selfish and I shoved it down as far as I could. She was doing far more important things right now in helping to get that spell ready. I would have plenty of time with her soon enough. 

I did have Shiori with me still, and Columbus. And we had been joined by Triss (the full catgirl with white-brown fur) and Felix (the half-catgirl with pale skin and short white-blonde hair with just cat ears and a tail) as Nekomata had a whole culture built up around helping and releasing ghosts. Not to mention fighting them when necessary. Which, I supposed, made sense given creating ghost-fire was one of their natural abilities. The two of them had apparently felt drawn to be involved in something like this once they heard about it. Even if Felix was only half-Nekomata, she still embraced that side of herself. That and I was pretty sure she also thought ghosts were cool. 

As we waited in one of the smaller transport rooms for someone to come help us get down to Earth, Shiori looked at me. “Is umm… Seth with you?” Yeah, introducing ghost-Seth to Shiori had been a whole thing. She tried to hug him and went right through. Then I’d used just enough power to make him solid so she could actually pull it off. Seeing her be able to actually embrace him probably wasn’t the absolute best thing I would ever do with my Necromancy, but I was pretty sure it would occupy a solid part of the top ten for a long time. 

Now, however, I shook my head. “He said he didn’t really feel like being anywhere near all the depressed ghosts. Neither did Grover. I left them back in the haunted mansion.” 

The haunted mansion, that was what we were calling it, because it was what Seth had called it. Basically it was just another house on the far corner of the neighborhood. Well, it looked like just another house from the outside. Inside, it was more like a castle. There were seven floors and like a hundred rooms. I wasn’t sure what it was actually intended for, but it wasn’t being used at the moment, so Abigail had allowed me to start keeping ghosts there when I didn’t want to carry them around with me. It helped with the privacy thing too. I could always summon them to me when needed, but giving them their own space was important. It helped them feel less like tools or slaves. 

Also, a television with voice control. That was important too. Or so Grover had emphatically informed me. Apparently he had gotten really into some daily soap opera that one of the guards always watched back at the Runaway, and didn’t want to miss any of it. 

Nearby, Felix was doing a handstand and getting Triss to time how long it took her to do ten laps around the entire room like that. She called out, “I think they’re both just scared of the stories they’ve heard about Nekomata. We’re sort of like ghost boogeymen. Sorry, boogeygirls. Boogeycats?” She kept scrambling on her hands while considering that. “Yup, boogeycats, I’m sticking with that one.” 

Jumping on that, Columbus asked, “What kind of world did the Nekomata come from to naturally develop the ability to hurt ghosts? I mean, I understand someone making a spell that does it, but you guys just have it naturally, right?” 

Triss, still holding her phone with the stopwatch app running in one hand, held up the other and popped her claws, making pale blue flames flicker across them as she gave a short nod. “When we get older, we’ll be able to make it bigger and stronger, even create weapons out of thin air with it. We’re still pretty young and… new to all this.” She got through all of that without reflexively looking at us with suspicion as though wondering if we were going to somehow use that knowledge against her. Which really showed how much she’d changed since the first of the year. Of course, spending every day with people probably had a way of working through your apprehension of them. Especially if you were fighting alongside them now and then. 

“Time!” Felix called while flipping from her hands to her feet in one smooth motion as she reached the corner of the room where she had started ten laps ago. “And what sister-dear means is that we are so incredibly awesome right now, but just wait until we learn a few more tricks. Then we’ll totally kill the awesomeness meter.” With a grin, she held up her fist, creating a similar blue-flame glow around it before slyly adding, “And when that turns into a ghost, we’ll kill it again. How many people can say they broke the awesome-meter and then killed its ghost?”

“She says,” Triss put in dryly, “to the girl who can make ghosts perform the King of New York sequence from Newsies if she wanted to. Also,” she added while glancing toward Felix, “one minute, twelve seconds. Not your best.”  

“That’s an oddly specific hypothetical,” I informed her with a small smile. “And hey, I’m not quite that good yet. I mean, unless I just ask them and they’re in a good mood. Actually, I’m pretty sure some of them would do it anyway. I’ve seen a few that seem like they’d be into that. But the point is, I’m not good enough to force dozens of ghosts into an intricate, coordinated dance number against their will.” Belatedly, I added, “And I wouldn’t do that anyway. But if that’s something you’re interested in, maybe I can see if there are any musical-inclined ghosts later. Sounds like pretty good practice, come to think of it. All that coordination and–okay I have to stop thinking about directing a bunch of ghosts in a play now.” 

“Probably a good idea,” Shiori piped up while giving that familiar and incredibly endearing goofy grin. “After all, you don’t wanna confuse Patrick Swayze. He won’t be able to figure out if he’s in Ghost or Dirty Dancing.” 

Leaning close to her half-sister, Felix loudly whispered, “Who’s Patrick Swayze? Actually, wait, scratch that entirely. What’s Dirty Dancing? That sounds like the far more important question.”

Before any of us could respond to that, Triss cleared her throat, pointedly changing the subject. “Anyway, as far as why the Nekomata developed these powers, our ghosts are sort of umm… difficult. They have a habit of turning into what you would call a poltergeist more often. Not all the time, but enough that it’s a thing. They become really angry and hostile. So we have the ability to defend ourselves from them and… and end the angry ghost. I guess a really long time ago, our people did some big project to write ghost-fire into our DNA or whatever. Sort of a mix between genetic manipulation and magic.” 

“Sort of like how the Seosten extended their lifespans and made themselves all attractive and all that?” I suggested. 

Triss, in turn, shrugged. “I guess so. I’m not sure how it worked. But I do know that most of our people probably wouldn’t react well to the comparison.” She looked to Columbus then, and I saw… well, not a blush. She had fur. But there was something in the way she looked at him that made me think there was something possibly there. Or maybe I was just crazy. Either way, she focused on him while adding, “I guess it was really bad for a long time, back in the ancient days. We had whole rituals set up to expunge ghosts. It wasn’t just Nekomata either. Something about everything that lives or comes from that world makes them more likely to create ghosts, and much more likely for those ghosts to turn violent. Which made it hard to build things that lasted. When they created our ghost-fire powers, that was when our people were really able to focus on expanding our civilization.”

For once sounding completely serious, Felix flatly added, “Yeah, until people like Fossor found out what they could do and started hunting all of us nearly to extinction. Between him trying to get rid of anyone that could innately fight his ghosts, and Heretics trying to steal our power to do it for themselves, we–” She stopped, blanching just a little with a glance toward Shiori, Columbus, and me as her extra cat-like ears flattened. “Errr, I mean…” 

“It’s okay,” I immediately assured her while restraining a wince. “Trust me, we get it. Boy do we ever get it.” 

Thankfully, it was right around then that the doors slid open, and Nevada strolled in. “Hey there, guys! Sorry I’m a little late, had something I had to take care of. Hope you didn’t die of boredom waiting for me.” She exchanged a high five with Felix, then Columbus before turning to the rest of us, holding a hand out expectantly. 

“We survived,” I promised while slapping her hand. Shiori followed suit, with Triss going last. 

Only once she’d gotten a high five from everyone did Nevada continue. “Good, cuz if I had to come in here and find a bunch of corpses because I made you wait too long, I’d probably have to fill out like…  a pile of paperwork at least six inches thick.” 

“You’re just scared of Abigail’s reaction to finding out you let five students die right here on the station,” I retorted. 

“Pffftt, hell yeah I am,” she confirmed while vigorously nodding. “Your sister is scary, babe. And trust me, I know–” She cut herself off then. “Never mind, come on, let’s get this show on the road.” 

*******

So, with Nevada’s help, we transported down to the neighborhood in question. It was a gated community on the north-west side of Cary, North Carolina. The town itself had a population of about a hundred and ninety thousand people, and was spread out across a large area. Lots of good-sized one or two-story houses with big front and back yards and positively enormous trees. Well, as far as North America, Earth trees went. There was a lot of greenery everywhere. From what I had read, the east side was where downtown was, along with a lot of the older buildings. The western side was the suburban area. That was where Fossor had been that fateful night when those neighborhood watch people annoyed him into killing all of them and making them haunt, torture, and kill their own families over the next week. All so he could search for whatever he’d been trying to find in peace. 

I’d done some research about this place ahead of time, so what I saw didn’t really surprise me as we came through the portal. At one time, the neighborhood here (known as Elkwood Estates) had been one of the most prestigious places to live in the town. Given a little more time, it probably would have been a home for the truly elite in North Carolina. 

But Fossor had put an end to that. Now, the place was practically a ghost town. Only about half the houses were still occupied, and they were all rundown. Graffiti covered basically every surface, trash cans lay out on their sides in the road, most of the street lamps were either burned out or broken, weeds were overgrowing everywhere (and were just about the only plants still alive), and so on. It looked like the ‘bad timeline’ in the second Back To The Future movie.

As the six of us emerged from the portal that Nevada had created, we were standing in one of those empty lots. Behind us stood a two-story Victorian-style house that had clearly been vacant for years. The ‘for sale’ sign in the weed-covered yard looked like it was about to fall over. The houses on either side of this one weren’t doing any better. Nor was the one across the street. Though the one next to that at least had a beat-up old sedan in the driveway and a couple lights were on. There were also thick bars across all the windows, and what looked like a security camera above the front door. Looking down the street, there were a couple other houses like that. Maybe one in every four appeared to be occupied. I assumed others were as well, but didn’t look like it from the outside. 

“Well,” Columbus started quietly as he gazed up the street and gave a little shudder. “Fossor definitely left his mark on this place. You said you don’t know what he was looking for out here?” 

“He took a small wooden chest,” I replied, “about a foot wide and just under a foot tall. The ghosts have no idea what he did with it, if anything. They never saw him open it. Not that that means much. He wasn’t exactly in the habit of sharing his plans with them.” 

Nevada spoke up then, “So we have no idea what this thing was, why it was buried out here, who put it there, how Fossor found out about it, what he did with it… or anything, other than the fact that he found it and the box was roughly one foot by one foot.” 

“That’s about the size of it,” I confirmed, exchanging a nod with Shiori as she gave me a quick, brief smile for the pun. “And it was ten years ago, so either he put it away somewhere or he used it and… did… something.” Offering a helpless shrug, I added, “But we’re not here for that. We’re here to help these people say goodbye.” 

While saying that, I extended a hand and sent a mental call to the fifteen ghosts in question. They knew it was coming, that I was doing this today. We’d had a whole discussion late the night before while everyone else was asleep, and I had promised that when I called for them next, it would be right here in this neighborhood. 

A moment later, they all appeared. Fifteen ghosts. Eleven of them human, one Rakshasa, two sibling Ailkins (basically humanoid deer people with a lot of sharp teeth and four arms), and a single gnome. They appeared, before immediately spreading out. As the rest of us simply watched in silence, the ghosts moved across the yard, looking up and down the street. I heard a couple very soft sobs, and a single quiet curse. A couple of the humans pointed down the street while murmuring something about living that way, while the Ailkins moved to the very edge of the driveway and were having a murmured conversation that I didn’t catch any of (and didn’t want to pry). 

I just gave them time. In no way, shape, or form was I going to rush any of this. We were here to let them get as much closure as we could manage. And right now, that meant standing back while they adjusted to actually being here. 

The Rakshasa ghost, a male feline figure with long gray-white fur, turned to me. His name, I remembered, was Keoph. Meeting my gaze, he spoke in a solemn voice. “Perhaps it would be best if we all took a walk through the neighborhood together, one last time.” 

The rest of us exchanged looks, and I gave a short nod. “That sounds fine, yeah. Which ahh, way do you want to go?” 

In answer, the fifteen ghosts conferred briefly before starting to head down the sidewalk together. All save for the gnome, at least. Her name, or at least the one she’d told me, was Gimcrack. She was a tiny, faintly glowing pink color with just a hint of white to it around her face. When she spoke, her voice was deeper than I would have expected, given her size. “If’n you don’t mind, I would prefer to stay back with you, Miss Felicity. There… won’t be anything for me in any of these houses. I lived alone. No one to miss me. Only reason I was even with that neighborhood watch group in the first place was because they trampled through my yard and I wanted to give them a piece of my mind. See how that turned out.” 

Swallowing hard, I gave a quick nod. “Sure, walk with us. But I umm, I think you’re wrong about people missing you. Just because you didn’t have family here doesn’t mean you didn’t affect their lives.” 

“Aww, that’s sweet of you to say, dear,” she informed me. “But I’m afraid I was a recluse. Bit of a hoarder. Never talked to my neighbors, didn’t see the need, seeing as they wouldn’t know anything about me anyway. Far as any of the humans were concerned, I was just a little old lady who lived by myself and never talked to them. Probably thought I was a witch. Being little and a lady is about the only true parts that salaud Bystander Effect didn’t erase, and they didn’t even know how little.” 

Something told me there was a story there, about her being screwed over in trying to reach out to people but constantly losing them because they couldn’t remember details about her. Which was just one more sad thing on top of a whole heap of depressing that this entire situation was. 

So, we walked together like that. Columbus and Shiori kept asking Gimcrack a lot of questions about her life, while Felix and Triss moved ahead to walk with the rest of the ghosts. I stayed around the middle, watching as we passed all these mostly-empty houses. Every time we reached one that was supposed to belong to one of my little group, they would split off and fly over that way. I let them go, simply sending a bit of power their way so they could interact with a couple things. Brush a hand over a person’s face, touch a portrait, stuff like that. Bystanders wouldn’t be able to see them, but the ghosts themselves would get some measure of closure. And, in a small way, I liked to think that the Bystanders would too. Even if they didn’t remember it. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us walked onward, taking a slow, long loop through the once-promising community. On the way, Keoph fell back a step and focused on me. “You, you’re a good person, Miss Felicity. Been a long time since any of us were around good people for very long. I think you ahh… I think you mean to do positive things with these Necromancy powers of yours. Thank you for that. And for this. It’s–it’s more than we thought we’d ever get. Which is what makes asking for anything else–” 

“What is it?” I quickly put in. “What can we do? What can I do?” 

He hesitated, before offering a heavy sigh. “Just… maybe, if you get a chance, look in on this place once in awhile? I don’t expect you to fix all the problems it’s got, but just… I don’t know. I’m sorry, forget I said anything.” 

“No, I–it’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I get it, really. I don’t know what I can do, but I’ll check in on this place and… maybe find out if there’s any way to get it cleaned up. Or find people who could move here. You know, Alters would understand about the haunting thing and that Fossor is dead now so it’s safe. I’ll figure something out, I promise.”

By that point, we were down to only the Alter members of my little ghost group. The humans would be joining back up with us soon enough, after saying goodbye to their old families and homes in their own way, but right now, it was just Keoph, Gimcrack, and the two Ailkins (their names were Hijer and Jiher). And we had just reached the small, wooded area where Fossor had been when they found him. When… yeah. This was where they had all agreed they would say goodbye for the last time. 

And lined up in that wooded area, right where Fossor had been, were three long picnic tables. An assortment of figures surrounded the tables, of several different species. There were coolers and baskets spread out both on the ground and up on the tables. 

The moment we came into view, the people around there looked up, and immediately started calling out the names of these four. And the four, in turn, called out names of people they recognized. Their family and friends. Three of them rushed that way, after recovering from obvious surprise. They couldn’t exactly embrace them… or at least, they couldn’t until I pushed enough power in them for it. 

Meanwhile, Gimcrack was staring up at me. She pointed with a shaking hand. “That… that is my… brother over there. My brother I never told anyone about. How did he…?” 

Offering her a faint smile, I quietly replied, “I did my research. I reached out to people and asked anyone who had any connection to the people here to come for this. Even got a few who had some connection to the human ghosts, so they’re not completely left out. I wasn’t just going to send you off without any goodbyes. Now go on. Talk to your brother. Take all the time you need.” 

Using part of the power I had given her, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it. There were tears in her eyes. Then she pivoted and moved that way, the ghost gnome meeting the living one in a tight hug. 

Stepping back with Columbus, Shiori, and the others, I lowered my voice. “Hope you all weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere, because I’m planning on staying for awhile.” 

“Nope,” Shiori murmured, “as far as I’m concerned, these guys can have all the time they want. 

“And if anyone tries to ruin this, we can help you restock your ghosts.” 

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At Last 16-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Oh no, the ghost-man has eaten my yellow pseudo-circle!” Perched on the floor of the living room in the house where I lived with the others, Persephone intently moved the stick of the simple controller we’d given her. “Yellow pseudo-circle junior shall avenge you, yellow pseudo-circle! The big dot! Muahahha, yes, flee! Flee, ghost-men and tremble before the power of the big dot as yellow pseudo-circle junior casts aside his doubts and seeks vengeance for the–my big dot has worn off. Curse the transitory nature of invincibility ball and flee! Seek life now! Live and take your smaller circles! Take all of the tiny balls, for the ghost-men guard them jealously, so taking them all will be a much finer revenge! Flee and eat them all!”

“So uhh, she likes Pac-Man.” Sitting beside me on the couch, Shiori noted that fact while miming writing in an invisible notebook. “Hell, she’s getting pretty good at it too. Isn’t she, Choo?” 

Beside the couch, the now fairly-large warthog-like Jekern huffed cheerfully, a spark of electricity zapping out of his snout with a sharp crack. He was dividing his attention between watching the screen with real interest, and eating an assortment of meat treats out of a bowl on the floor. Actually, come to think of it, he was only eating whenever Pac-Man ate. Every time the so-called ‘yellow pseudo-circle’ ate a line of pellets, Choo would quickly lean down to start scarfing from his own bowl. When Pac-Man stopped, so did Choo. I had no idea what that was about. 

After watching Persephone finish another stage (crowing about the ghost-men losing their pellets), I gave a short nod. “Yeah, you were right. Starting her on a simple game like this was the right way to go. Give it a little more time and I think she’ll be ready for Mario.” 

“Excellent,” Shiori murmured in a Mr. Burns impression while staring at the screen with heavily-exaggerated intensity. “Soon, she’ll go from Mario to Mario Kart. And then the ultimate culmination of Operation: Get A Fourth Player For Mario Kart Battle Mode Splitscreen.” After a brief pause, she added, “It uhh… it’s a pretty self-explanatory plan.”  

Snorting despite myself, I caught the other girl’s hand and squeezed it before focusing on the screen once more. “Hey, Percy. When you’re done there, we should take Savvy and the other kids over to the Quietus. I promised they could see an actual pirate ship before Christmas, and it’s getting pretty close.” Belatedly, I added, “Besides, Doug has some research ideas about those anti-Whisper markings and wanted me to take some pictures while we’re over there.” 

“Oh, yes!” the white-haired woman agreed cheerfully. “And later, you will go and say goodbye to some of your ghost friends.” Her smile turned to a scowl as she looked back at the screen. “Not the bad tiny ball-hoarding ghosts. They are terrible and mean and do not deserve to say goodbye. Only death. They deserve death and an eternity within that tiny square prison.”

My head bobbed. “Yup, gotta take some of those ghosts over to that neighborhood tonight and let them get their last words in. They umm…” I swallowed a little, interrupted by thoughts of what Fossor had done just to the people of that neighborhood when they had dared to even very slightly inconvenience him by showing up with flashlights to investigate what he and his zombies were doing. Fifteen people were killed that first night and then reanimated into ghosts to help torment and destroy the lives of everyone else who lived there for the next week, before being forced to serve him in other ways for the past ten years. No wonder they wanted to go back to where they had lived and get some sort of closure before I released them. The things that piece of shit had made them do to their own friends and family, the things he had– I cut my own thoughts off, forcing myself to focus on the here and now, finishing with a flat, “They deserve that much.” 

“Speaking of umm, people who deserve better,” Shiori managed weakly, “what’s going on with that Denise girl now? And what about umm, her parents’ bodies?” She asked the second part with a visible wince. 

Exhaling hard, I slumped back against the couch and shook my head. It was hard to believe all that stuff with tracking down Denise and ending up at the Auberge had happened only yesterday. “I think she finally got to sleep, with a little magical aid,” I muttered. “She’s staying in Asenath’s apartment. Bobbi gave up her room for the night to sleep on the couch. I don’t think…” A lump had formed in my throat and I had to swallow hard. “I don’t think she’s doing very well. I mean, who could blame her? She’s really–she’s really messed up. All that shit she’s been through already and then Kushiel…” Saying that name made my voice turn to a growl. It was all I could do not to bring my fist down hard on something. 

“Kushiel was not a good living person.” That was Persephone, speaking up without looking away from the game on her screen. “She is not a better dead one.” 

“How’d she even know where Denise’s parents lived, anyway?” Shiori shifted a bit, looking at me curiously. “I mean, her address wasn’t listed at the hotel or anything, was it?”

“No, they had no idea who she was,” I replied. “Not exactly anyway. But we do know how Kushiel found out her address. Turns out one of the powers Francis Gale picked up from someone at the Auberge was the ability to know where people live, where they come from. That sort of thing. So when Kushiel possessed him, she was able to sense where Denise lived. Err, where Denny lived. She doesn’t like being called Denise. I think it’s that whole ‘my name is’ thing.”

“Poor kid,” Shiori murmured, head shaking slowly. “What about her parents’ ghosts?” 

“No go,” I replied. “Just like the people Kushiel killed at the Auberge, there were no traces of any ghosts left behind. I tried, but I couldn’t summon them. Not even long enough for Denny to say goodbye or anything.” 

Shiori’s gaze dropped, glaring off into the distance. “I can’t even–fuck, that’s rough. And right before Christmas too. She’s never gonna forget that. Every year she’s going to associate Christmas with walking in and seeing her parents like–” She blanched, and I had the feeling she was pretty tempted to hit something too. Instead, she reached out to touch Choo’s head, scratching behind his ears as he gave a series of happy, approving snorts. 

“Yeah, fuck Kushiel,” I put in. “Like Percy said, she’s just as bad dead as she was alive.” With that, I had to push myself up, standing as a rush of anger ran through me. I paced to the nearby window, staring out at the grass before adding, “Anyway, as for what we do have of Denny’s parents, their umm… their bodies are up here. They put them in storage until she’s ready to have a funeral. Then they’re gonna have to figure out what to say to her aunt, the one she told her parents she was staying with. And their neighbors. And–yeah. It’s a whole thing.” 

“She can’t live with her aunt, right?” Shiori asked. “I mean, Kushiel could probably find her if she did. And she umm… probably doesn’t want to put her aunt in danger.”

My head bobbed. “Yeah. I mean, even without knowing her aunt’s address, Kushiel said something back at the hotel about how she sensed the ‘dark presence’ in Denny as soon as they brought her in. We don’t want to take the risk that she could maybe track the kid down somewhere else on Earth that way. So yeah, just to be on the safe side, she can’t really go down to Earth. At least until we get the Kushiel thing under control. Or find a way to shield her from being detected. Which means finding out exactly how Kushiel does that. But no one can even really start working on that until, you know.”

“Until after they finish working on the anti-possession spell,” Shiori finished, taking her own turn to push herself to her feet before pacing. “So like I said, poor kid. I wish you could’ve just archangel-blasted that bitch into monomolecular dust. I mean, I know why you couldn’t, but still.” She looked toward me with a serious, troubled expression. “She’s not done making trouble.” 

Before I could respond to that, Persephone set the controller down and popped up, her voice flat. “I am very sorry that dead-Kushiel has hurt your new friend so much, Felicity. Normally, I would offer to kill the person who has caused you pain. But I am afraid that would not work in this case.” 

“Yeah, that might be a bit difficult,” I agreed with a slight grimace. “But hey, just knowing I’ve got a friend like you to throw down if need be, that’s helpful.” Offering the Revenant-woman a small smile, I paused. “Hold on, that’s a good question. I mean, not what you can do, what you are. When Kore died, she didn’t leave behind any sort of ghost, did she?” I figured if anyone would know the truth about that, it would be the woman who had taken over her body and been… close to the ship’s resident necromancer. 

“No,” Persephone confirmed, “she never appeared as a ghost. Not that I saw, in any case. But then… there was the whispering.” 

Shiori and I exchanged looks quickly before turning back to her. “Whispering?” I pressed, confused. “What sort of whispering?” 

“At times, Manakel forbade me from entering his private rooms,” Persephone explained. “He said that he needed to be alone. And sometimes, when he did that, I would hear whispering. I assumed he was speaking to himself, but there were different voices. So, I assumed he was communicating with someone elsewhere. Now that you ask, however, perhaps there was someone else in the room whom I did not know about. Whom… no one else knew about?”

Well that was unexpected. Once more, I exchanged a look with Shiori. “Right, maybe we should find out more about that. Hold on, you said whispering. Did you actually hear anything he said in these whispers?” It was a long time ago, yes, but the Seosten memory should hold up. That was, if it still applied while the Seosten’s body was being possessed. Actually–wow. I had no idea how that worked.

In any case, Persephone shook her head. “Manakel asked me to respect his privacy, so I did not eavesdrop. I heard only the presence of voices, not the actual words.” After saying that, she visibly flinched. “And now by respecting the request of Manakel, I have disappointed you.” 

Quickly, I assured her, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it. I just–yeah, we’ll figure it out another way. But if you think of anything else from back then that might be relevant about ghost-Olympians, let us know, please?” 

Brightening at the prospect of being useful, Persephone gave a cheerful, “Of course, I will do that. If anything comes to mind, you will be the fourth to know.” 

The specific number made me blink. “Fourth?”

She, in turn, pointed to herself. “I will be first because they are my thoughts, Cerberus will be second as he is a good dog and often gives me the best ideas, Andromeda will be third because she is good for telling me if I am doing something wrong, and you will be fourth.”

“Oh, well, that’s clear enough.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “Speaking of Cerberus, you should grab him so we can head over to pick up the kid. She’s been so excited about going over to that ship, she’s probably bouncing off the walls by now. 

“And knowing Seosten athleticism, that could be very literal.” 

*****

A short time later, we had liberated a handful of toddler Seosten from their caretaker for the day (or possibly the other way around), and were heading down the corridor with them. Or, to be precise, they were riding on Cerberus’s back. Yes, this three-headed robot dog, shoulders taller than my own even in his small form, was trotting proudly down the hall with four tiny Seosten children on his back, all in a line. Little dark-skinned and dark-haired Savvy was at the front, with the red-haired boy Penemue (half a churro sticking out of his mouth) behind her, the artistic, brown-haired boy Kemetiel behind him, and the blonde girl, Grisiniel, at the very back. All four were cheering as Cerberus bounded ahead of us down the hall, executed a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn and came bounding back. He was actually a very good babysitter, as far as that went. One of his heads was always turned to keep track of what the kids on his back were doing, the second focused straight ahead to know where he was going, and the third kept an eye out for any potential threats or problems coming their way. Not that there should have been any of those right here, but I appreciated the devotion anyway. 

Meanwhile, I was walking with Persephone slightly behind and to the right side, Shiori to my left, and Columbus next to her. Amethyst the cyberform porcupine-armadillo was hanging over his shoulder, apparently asleep. Or recharging, or… just not active. 

I had told Persephone she didn’t have to hang back, but she insisted that the place at my side was reserved for Avalon. Who, unfortunately, was still busy with the whole spell thing. Given the critical stage they were at, they had to have constant and immediate access to Avalon and her blood, just in case. I missed her, but then, this was more important than my own personal feelings. The last thing anyone needed right now was for the spell to fail right at the end after everything they’d all put in it.

Which was another reason, among many, for why I was glad we were living inside the freaking sun right now. There was less chance of someone like, say, a certain deceased-yet-still-evil Seosten woman showing up and fucking the whole thing over. 

The thought of that made me frown a bit to myself before I was distracted by Savvy calling, “Fick! Fick, we’s-we’s–we-we-we’s got–got a–we’s got a–” 

Smiling as Cerberus came to an obedient halt in front of me, I looked up at the girl. “It’s okay, you’re not paying by the millisecond. Breathe. You’ve got what?” 

She, in turn, took a very deep breath and held it for several seconds, cheeks bulging out dramatically, before blowing it all out. Then she tried to speak again. “We’s got a dog to ride, and he has three heads and he’s cool!” Then she jabbered for about three sentences in Latin, amounting to talking about how Cerberus was the bestest most amazing guard puppy ever. 

“He’s pretty cool, yeah,” I agreed, reaching out to rub one of his heads. “What about the rest of you guys, you all ready to go see the pirate ship?” 

With the churro still sticking out of his mouth like a cigar, Penemue gave a quick nod, words coming in a somewhat muffled rush. “We did all our homework early so we could go. It was hard, a whole page! I hadda color seven letters!” To demonstrate, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled up piece of paper with the letters A through G on it. Each letter had an animal or a bug that started with that letter next to or on top of it. There was an alligator around the A, a bee hovering above the B, cat lying on top of the C, dog next to the D, elephant with an E balanced on its stretched-out trunk, a fox curled up on the lower horizontal line of the F, and a gorilla half-hiding behind the G. Each of the letters and associated animals had been colored in by clearly enthusiastic-yet-young hands. Penemue had tried, in general terms, to stay in the lines and use appropriate colors. It was adorable to look at, and I made sure to ooh and aww over it and tell him just how good it looked for all the effort he had put into the page. 

“I like coloring!” Kemetiel, the other boy, put in. “That’s my favorite thing! See?” Then it was his turn to show me his version of the exact same page. And he had gotten a lot more creative. He switched and mixed colors, added new legs and antennae and wings to the various animals, drew background scenes of battles going on around them, added several spaceships shooting lasers at each other, and so on. Despite the generally amazing Seosten physical skill, he was still only four, so the pictures weren’t like, animation-ready or anything. But I could tell what they were supposed to be. Hell, he certainly drew better than I could. 

I made sure to give him just as much praise so neither of the boys felt left out or ignored, before asking to see the girls’ pictures. Savvy showed me hers first, with each letter very neatly colored in. She had clearly taken her time and focused intently on staying inside the lines. 

And then she had added what looked like a giant rabbit ninja with a sword in one hand and an axe in the other, with a speech bubble leading to the words, ‘I ate the ham!’ 

“I like ham,” she stage-whispered to me while leaning a bit closer when she saw where my eyes went. “It’s the best. No, ham and cheese. No, grillied ham and cheese. Wait… yeah. Yeah, grillied ham and cheese!” 

“Well, we’ll have to get some of that later,” I noted. The promise of grilled ham and cheese might be the best way to get her to eventually leave the ship we were about to go see. Tucking that thought away, I focused on the other girl. “What about you, Grisiniel?” 

The little sandy-haired four-year-old took a carefully-folded piece of paper out of her pocket and held it out to me, squirming a little self-consciously. I took it, carefully examining the work. Everything was neatly and carefully colored in, and there were no extra drawings on the page. However, I could see words next to each animal. Belatedly, I realized they were names. She had named each of them. Then I noticed something on the other side of the page, and turned it over. The entire back of the paper was taken up by words. She wrote each animal’s name, underlined it, then wrote a paragraph about that animal, going on about who they were, what they liked, what their jobs were, and so on. Again, she was four, so it wasn’t incredibly in depth or anything, but still. She wrote names and backstories for the letter animals. 

“You guys are awesome, you know that?” I smiled, reaching out to ruffle her hair as she giggled. 

“That’s for sure,” Columbus agreed, as he and Shiori examined the papers I was handing off to them. “I might just get you four to handle my trig homework from now on, cuz you’re obviously ready for that.” 

His words prompted a chorus of giggling and protests from the kids, before they all bantered back and forth. Chuckling to myself, I stepped away, tugging Shiori with me before lowering my voice. “I texted Senny a few minutes ago to see how things were going over there. She says Denny’s still asleep. They’re not gonna bother her until she wakes up on her own. But when she does, it’s umm…” I flinched, needing to look at the chibis over on the metal dog to slow the rush of horrible feelings. Swallowing hard, I pushed on. “When she does, it’s gonna be bad. That poor kid. I want that fucking bitch to…” I stopped myself, words turning into a low snarl as I thought of Kushiel. 

Taking my hand, Shiori gave a quick nod. “Kushiel deserves all of the–” She proceeded to pretty accurately mimic my own snarl. “And more. But right now, she’s not the important thing. Denny is. Whatever she needs…”

“She gets,” I agreed. “I mean, I’m pretty sure what she needs the most right now is Kushiel taken off the board. But absent that for the moment, yeah. Anyone she wants to talk to, anything we can bring her, anything just– fuck. I can’t even imagine going through the shit she is, the shit she’s been going through. It’s not fair. And yeah, I know that’s childish, especially after everything we’ve seen already. But damn it, it’s not fair!” 

Shiori had nothing to say in response to that. Instead, she just put her arms around me. I returned the favor, and the two of us stood there and embraced for a few long seconds. It didn’t exactly make things better, but it helped. 

And the other thing that would help was spending some more time with these kids over on the Quietus. Which was a thought that made me clap my hands together a couple times to get the attention of the others. “Okay, guys! Who’s ready to go see a real-life pirate ship?” 

That earned me an assortment of cheers. And not just from the kids either. As I gave Columbus a look for being the loudest one there (to the point of making poor Amethyst jump, falling off his shoulder before the boy had quickly caught her), he flushed a little. “What can I say? I got caught up in the moment. Now let’s go see this ship, dang it, before something else happens and we end up in another brawl or something.”

That, of course, was Shiori’s cue to immediately give a bright smile while chirping, “Don’t worry, whether we’re going on a ship, or getting into a fight…

“We’ll always set assail.”  

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Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 22nd edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least 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. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions.

Finally leaving the chaotic rush of yet another school day behind her, Abigail Fellows said goodnight to Miss Handsy before heading out of the office, satchel full of files over one shoulder and a cup of steaming hot coffee in the other hand. She was walking briskly down the hall when a voice spoke up from behind, calling her name. Abigail slowed and turned to see the dark-haired Athena approaching. Waiting for the Seosten woman, she asked, “Didn’t you have something going on over with the… what was the name of that group again? The ones who want to build an elevator to the moon.” 

“The Kalsteren,” Athena reminded her. “And not yet. They want me there for a special holiday, but it doesn’t start for two more days. They’re still setting things up. Also, the elevator thing is a bit of a misnomer. What they actually want is a stable, permanent portal to the moon. Which is a phenomenally bad idea, given… well, you know. But try telling them that.” Pausing, she murmured, “Right, I’m going to have to actually try to tell them that. We’ll see how it goes.” 

Curious, Abigail asked, “Actually, I don’t know. Why would a portal to the moon be a bad idea, exactly?” 

Athena’s mouth opened to answer, but they were interrupted as a new voice called out, “Abigail!” It was Theia, popping out of a nearby doorway. She was giving the wide smile that only ever seemed to appear that genuinely when she was talking to very few people, including Douglas Frey, Pace, Koren, Miranda, and most of all Abigail herself. 

“Hello, Theia,” Abigail greeted the girl with a smile of her own. “What can we do for you?” She didn’t outright chide her for not acknowledging Athena at all, simply choosing to point the other woman out by very slightly stressing the ‘we’ part of the sentence.

“Oh, hello, Athena,” Theia promptly greeted the other woman, voice making it clear that she hadn’t actually noticed her at all. That done, she promptly turned her attention right back to Abigail once more. “I found this.” Raising her hand, she showed both women the large, blue-and-violet seashell that took up most of her palm. “It’s lucky. You should have it on your desk.” 

“Aww, why thank you, Theia.” Accepting the seashell, Abigail nodded. “It’s very pretty.”

“It’s lucky,” the Seosten girl reiterated. “You can’t lose it. It has to go on your desk. You have to keep it safe.” Her voice was oddly urgent as she stared at the woman intently, as though expecting her to walk right back with it at that very moment. 

And that was exactly what Abigail did. With a glance toward the woman next to her, she gave a short nod. “Well then, I wouldn’t want it to accidentally get put somewhere else. Why don’t you show me the best place for it? Athena, you’re good with tactics, perhaps you’ll have a thought or two.” She gestured, inviting both of them to follow as she pivoted and walked right back to the other room, passing Miss Handsy once more with a pleasant greeting. 

Theia followed, of course, with Athena behind. Though the Olympian gave no real input on the placement of the shell, she did watch with curiosity while the other two positioned it just so. Only once she was satisfied that the shell was in its proper place, did Theia nod with satisfaction. “Good, you will have luck now,” she announced. “You need it. The job you have taken on is very difficult, and you will probably fail without a lot of luck.” With that blunt pronouncement, she offered another smile. “And now you have it, so I will leave.” Abruptly, she spun on her heel and began to walk away. 

“Oh, Theia, you’ll be over for dinner tonight?” Abigail quickly put in. “Koren wanted your help with some sort of vegetable dish she looked up. Apparently she thinks you’re better with a knife then she is.” 

“It’s true,” Theia agreed, “I have cut many things. And many people. And many things off many people.” With a bright, cheerful smile, she added, “I will be there to help cut more things.” 

And just like that, she was gone again, exiting through the door with only a belated, “Goodbye, Athena!” 

Only once she was sure the girl had left through the outer office, did Athena close the door and step over to where Abigail was. “Do you have any idea what you’re going to do about that?” she asked while nodding toward the sea shell. 

Abigail, in turn, blinked. “The shell? Well, unless you’re about to tell me that it’s actually a monster that will eat me the first chance it gets, I was planning on leaving it right there. I mean, she’s not wrong about us needing luck to pull this whole thing off without ending up in a full-scale war against your people. Though I like to think our odds aren’t quite that bad.” 

Shaking her head, Athena looked to the shell briefly before turning back to Abigail. “That is the shell of a Kaula Mehyian. They are an incredibly rare creature, whose shell only turns that color once the animal itself has passed away of old age. Which only happens after ten thousand years. The same general life span as a normal Seosten. It’s part of why our people came to see them as lucky. The shell itself is proof that the Kaula Mehyian lived a full life and died naturally. If the shell is taken early, it doesn’t turn that color. Once the animal dies, the shell falls away and changes to what you see there. For Theia to have one means she either paid… an enormous fortune for it, or experienced what for almost anyone would be a once-in-a-lifetime find, and was able to pick up one of those shells on her own. That shell by itself would be considered…” She shook her head, trying to find some sort of comparison. “Your people have your four-leaf-clovers and horseshoes and such. But you have nothing like this. There is nothing even remotely similar. A Seosten with a Kaula Mehyian shell would never give it away, save for a true fortune, or… to someone incredibly important to them.” 

“Someone incredibly important…” Abigail echoed, glancing toward the shell itself once more with new understanding. 

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “That’s what it means. Do you see the way she smiles at you? She does not smile at others that way. When she smiles at most people, it’s… awkward. Something closer to predatory. It doesn’t look quite right. And yet, with you, she’s perfectly natural about it. And one other thing, did you notice that she left without saying goodbye to you? Twice, in fact. First she announced that she was leaving and began to walk out. The second time, she specifically said goodbye to me. Not once did she say it to you.” 

“Well, I wasn’t going to bring it up,” Abigail murmured, “but I assumed she was just in a hurry. Or didn’t think it was worth saying, considering she’ll be around to help with dinner in just another hour or so. Hardly worth reprimanding her for, or even talking about, really.” 

“That’s not my point,” Athena informed her. “She isn’t saying goodbye because she doesn’t want that level of separation. It’s a… subconscious thing. If she never says goodbye to you, then you’ll never be apart from her.” She paused, then gestured with a sigh. “Sit down, please, Abigail. I think we should talk a bit more about this.” 

Her words made the school principal pause before nodding as she sat down. “You’re not about to tell me not to get so close to one of your people, are you?” Her tone was mostly light, but there was something more behind it. She would not have reacted well if the other woman actually pulled anything like that, no matter how unlikely it was. Theia meant too much to her. 

Taking the seat across from the desk, Athena shook her head. “No, Abigail, of course not. What I want is to ask you precisely how close you’re planning on being. You know how badly that girl’s mother treated her, how… rejected she was. Now I’m fairly certain she has latched onto you as… a replacement. You named her. You treated her like a real person. You… you are much more than a friend for her, and if that’s not… if that’s something you don’t want, we should find a way to take care of it before it goes too far.” 

Abigail leaned back a bit in her seat, watching the woman intently. “You mean if I don’t want Theia to see me as a mother, we should stop being so close.” 

“What I mean,” Athena clarified, “is that I think it would do her a lot of good if she didn’t have to tiptoe around the situation because part of her is afraid you will reject her if she brings it up any more directly than she already has. She needs to be accepted, fully accepted, if she’s going to move completely beyond the person her mother and our society turned her into. I think you can help with that–I think you have helped with it, more than anyone could have asked. But here I am, asking you for more. I know that’s incredibly unfair.” 

“What’s unfair,” Abigail retorted, “is what that girl went through for so long.” She exhaled, dropping her gaze to look at an unrelated folder on the desk while various thoughts ran through her mind. “She deserves a stable home, and people she can count on to be there for her. She’s had that, around here, to an extent. But you’re right, she needs more. She deserves more.” 

Both women went quiet for a moment then before Athena spoke. “As I said, I believe she has come to see you as a mother. But that leaves the question of whether you can see her as a daughter. But I think I had my answer to that when I watched your expression when you thought there was even a chance that I was going to say you shouldn’t be so close to her.” 

With a small, self-deprecating smile, Abigail admitted, “If you did try to tell me to stay away from her, I might have been thinking of throwing myself over this desk at you. You know, as effective as that would have been.” 

“Hey, you certainly would have had the element of surprise,” Athena pointed out with a smile before chuckling softly. She glanced away for a moment, seeming to think about what was next before turning back to the other woman. “My point is that what Theia needs is something more official. Something that can feel… firm to her. Something tangible, so she doesn’t need to wonder anymore about just how far your acceptance goes.” 

“Kushiel.” Abigail spoke the name with a harsh, spitting tone before shaking her head. “That woman treated her daughter like…” She trailed off, exhaling long and slow as she collected herself. “Whenever I think about how Theia was treated, it just… I want to… It makes me want to hurt people the way I’ve only ever wanted to hurt them when my… when Koren was hurt. I want… I want to be everything Theia needs. I want to be a better everything for her than her… than Kushiel was. I suppose I was just afraid that pushing on that too hard would make her think I was trying to replace her actual mother.” 

“Good,” Athena pointed out. “Kushiel should be replaced. An overfull lint trap would be a better mother than she was to that girl. The sort of upgrade you would be is just…” She coughed. “Abigail, she needs you to make it official. She needs you to be her mother. That means more than just hanging out. That means treating her the way you would Koren. It means making her part of your family, in every way. But only if you’re up for that. You can’t go halfway on it. Not with this, not with that girl. If you accept her, you have to accept all of her. Which means you’ll have to be ready to help her through some tough times. She’s been through more than either of us know, and I think there’s a fair bit she still has bottled up from the time she spent under Kushiel’s experiments.”

“And I want to be there to help her through that,” Abigail confirmed, in a soft, yet certain tone. “I want… I want to give her everything she never had the chance to have when she was with your people.” Pausing, she gave a very slight grimace. “I’d say no offense, but you know.” 

“You wouldn’t mean it,” Athena replied. “And it’s deserved. My people have a long way to go on a great many things.” With another sigh, she straightened, extending a hand. “I know there’s no real… court system for adoption up here. But I think it should be more than randomly telling her how you feel. She deserves something bigger than that.” 

Abigail accepted the hand, rising from her own seat. “Oh, don’t you worry, one word to Koren and she’ll help plan a party the likes of which you have never seen. And as for the official part, I think I can make up some papers and a certificate just fine. After all, I was a lawyer in a previous life.” 

“Well, here’s to previous lives,” Athena noted with a thoughtful gaze. 

“And the lessons we take from them.” 

*********

“You remember when we took Lincoln on that road trip across the country?” Arthur Chambers asked his wife while the two of them stood atop a hill overlooking a wide valley between a pair of silvery-red mountains whose peaks rose clear out of sight into the purple-clouded sky. The grass beneath their feet was a faint orange color, tinged with white on the tips. Before the pair, the field itself was full of enormous herd animals that looked like a cross between elephants and giraffes, with incredibly long, thick necks, tusks, and big floppy ears. They stood ten feet tall at the shoulders, the necks extending the heights of their head at full extension to nearly double that. It allowed them to reach their favorite food as it grew within crevices in the surrounding mountains. Their tusks were used to break open smaller holes to reach the moss that filled intricate cave networks throughout those mountains. And the sound whenever one of those creatures reared its head back and slammed forward to break into those caves, or simply to break apart boulders to get at the moss growing within, echoed like thunder across the field. 

“You’re thinking about the buffalo, aren’t you?” Maria replied. Her own gaze was focused on the Seosten children, who were running through the field, laughing and playing with one another. She could see Omni, pulling his sister’s hard-light form right along with them. From what Puriel had said, the two had quickly become close as soon as they met. And by now, they were all-but inseparable. 

“I’m thinking about the buffalo,” Arthur confirmed with a small chuckle at the memory. “Do you think he’d chase these big fellas?” 

“I think he learned his lesson with the buffalo,” Maria murmured before glancing that way. “You always did like going on trips. This whole thing must be your dream come true.” 

Arthur, in turn, offered a slight nod. “Hey, in more ways than one.” Tugging his wife closer by the hand, he squeezed it before putting his arm around her. “Having you here for my Star Trek adventure makes it so much better than my boyhood dreams. If Linc and Felicity were here, that’d make everything perfect.” Belatedly, he added, “And Joselyn.” That was still new, getting accustomed to the fact that the woman who had apparently broken his son’s heart and abandoned her family wasn’t the horrible person she had appeared to be. He owed that woman a lot of apologies for the thoughts he’d had over the years. 

“And Joselyn,” Maria confirmed, clearly having the same thought. Reaching out then, she pointed toward the spot where the children were running in circles. A moment of focus created a small, red ball of energy in the middle of them. The ball floated there until they had all noticed it, before abruptly zipping away from them. With a collection of squeals, the children suddenly started to chase the ball, laughing with delight as it led them on a run through the field. 

From behind the pair, Puriel spoke up as he approached. “I notice your little game there happened to lead them away from that nursing Ceurth.” He nodded toward a pair of the large animals lying together near where the kids had been moving their game. 

“No reason to interrupt a busy mother,” Maria noted without looking at him. Her attention remained on making the glowing ball lead the children on a chase. “How are the others doing with the hunting?” Alcaeus and Kutattca had gone off to get food to restock the ship’s stores. That being the main reason for this stop, aside from allowing everyone to stretch their legs. They were all down here except for Aletheia, who was still up on the ship itself as it waited for them in orbit around this unoccupied moon. 

“You think this’ll be the last stop we need to make before Earth?” Arthur added. They were far past the barrier by that point, in an area of space where livable worlds were even fewer and farther between than usual. It was Aletheia who had remembered this particular moon and ensured it would be part of their trip. 

Puriel stepped up beside the pair, watching the children below. “Yes,” he confirmed. “This is the last one. Soon, we’ll be at your home. And you can rejoin your family.” Belatedly, he added, “You are becoming quite proficient with your gift, Maria.” 

A small smile played over the elderly woman’s face as she made the ball fly straight up in the air, then down again. “It’s nothing compared to the sort of things you can do with it. Making a glowing ball of energy isn’t exactly helpful in a fight.” 

“You can be far more helpful than you realize,” Puriel informed her. “And not everything needs to be about being useful in war.”

Maria and Arthur exchanged glances then, before the latter spoke up. “From everything we’ve learned about your people, they’d really take that as a sign that you’ve lost your mind.” 

Puriel was silent for a few long moments, his gaze staring down at the children while his mind was elsewhere. “Yes, well, perhaps I have, at that.” 

Arthur cleared his throat. “He’s right about one thing, you are getting better. Almost makes me jealous that you took that gift.” 

“Don’t you start,” Maria teasingly chided. “You made your choice and have your own powers. And, the last time I checked, you were having a grand old time playing with the children with them.”  

“Yes,” Puriel agreed, “and yours have been quite useful already, even if they are still in their infancy stages. You will get better with them. But we will need to pay careful attention to that growth, and ensure there are no unwanted side effects. The DNA of that particular creature has always been a bit… unique in many ways.

“I, for one, am very interested to know whether the Djehuti gift will remain, as it is now, solely the same manipulation of technology as the woman who calls herself Gaia, or if you will eventually also manifest the same biological expertise as the man who now calls himself Seller.”

******

The house where Vanessa and Tristan lived with Sands, Sarah, and several others was dark as the blonde twins approached with Theia between them. The three were chatting about ways that they could potentially find out more about the Whispers and that whole situation, if Cahethal refused to play ball. Theia, of course, had her own ideas about good sources of information, and was just in the middle of explaining a plan that involved rigorous use of Flick’s ability to summon dead people and talk to them, when they reached the front entrance. 

As he unlocked the door, Tristan pointed out, “Hey, at least we don’t have to worry about being quiet. Even if everyone’s asleep in here, they’d all be in their soundproof roo–” 

That was as far as the boy got. Because in that moment, as he turned the knob and pushed the door open, his words were interrupted by a loud squeal. Or rather, several loud squeals, as a handful of party horns were blown all at once, to varying effectiveness. On top of that, the entryway just beyond the door was filled with people, all of them shouting something. 

Theia reacted instantly. Shoving the other two off to either side, she threw herself through the doorway and caught hold of the nearest ‘attacker’ by the arms. Her head slammed forward to crash into the person’s face, turning what had been a shout into a yelp of pain. In the next moment, she pivoted, hurling the dazed figure past the group before snatching two knives from her belt. One flew in the direction of the person she had headbutted and shoved, even as she pivoted to choose her next target with the other. 

All of that took place in what would have been a blink for most people. At her full boost, in fight or flight mode, Theia had done all of that before the average person could have even started to react. 

Which also meant it was only then that she actually took the time to see what she had thrown herself into. The people here were… Sands, Sarah, Koren, Ejji, Felix and her sister Triss, Columbus, and several more people from their classes. None were holding the weapons she had expected to see. Instead, they held balloons, whistles, and other party favors. 

“… what?” Theia finally managed, stopping short just before she would have thrown herself at the next person, blade in hand. 

“Hey!” Vanessa, poking her head in from one side of the door where she had been shoved, blurted. “What’s going on?” 

“Yeah.” Tristan joined his sister, head poking in from the other side of the door. “What gives?” 

“Uhhhhh…” The groan came from a low, wheeled table that had been brought into the hall behind the group. Jazz lay there, one hand holding her face where Theia had headbutted her. In her other hand was the blade that had been thrown, snatched out of the air before it could do any damage. Less spared, unfortunately, was the large cake that had been sitting on that table. A cake that was entirely destroyed by Jazz landing in it. 

“Happy birthday, you two?” the cake-covered, groaning girl managed, focusing somewhat bleary eyes on the twins in question. 

“And whoever’s job it was to tell Theia about the surprise, I’m gonna kick your ass.” 

********

“Fick, Fick!” The excited cries from the tiny, four-year-old Sahveniah filled the hallway. Within an instant of laying eyes on the older blonde girl, the dark-skinned blur raced across the distance separating them and hurled herself that way. 

Reacting quickly, Flick caught the girl in mid-leap and straightened, pulling her into a hug. “Hey, Savvy. Long time no see.” 

Holding on as tight as her little form was capable of (which was a surprising amount, given how quickly Seosten developed their physical prowess), Savvy didn’t respond at first. She simply clung to the older girl for several long moments before finally murmuring, “You were gone for a long time. They said you had to fight the bad guys. But you shouldna gone by yourself. You coulda beat the bad guys more easy if you wasn’t all alone.”  

Swallowing hard, Flick held the girl tighter against herself. “You’re right,” she murmured, “I shouldn’t have gone by myself. I’ll remember that. But hey, I brought my mom back.” 

“Yay!” After that initial cheer, Savvy leaned back to squint at the girl. Held up in this position, they were eye to eye. “I didna know you had a mama.” 

Flick gave a small chuckle at that before lowering herself down. She set Savvy on the floor in front of her while taking a knee right there in the Starstation corridor. “Oh yes, I definitely have a mama. You should meet her. I think she’ll like you.” 

“I’m a pirate,” Sahveniah informed her solemnly. “Does your mama like pirates?” 

“I think she’ll like one as adorable–” Flick started before amending, “Ahem, I mean as fierce and adventurous as you.” 

Her words made the younger girl give a brilliant smile, the entire hall around them seeming to light up. “When I get bigger, I’mma go on a ship, an’ take the ship, an’ go fight the bad guys, an’ steal all the bad guys’ booty. Fick? What’s a booty?” 

Coughing, Flick leaned back to sit on the floor with her back to the nearby wall, tugging the girl over. “Ah, in this case, it means their treasure.” 

Savvy cooed happily while climbing into her lap, nuzzling up against her shoulder. “What about other booties? Is there other kinds o’ booty?” 

Flick, in turn, simply hugged the girl tighter to herself. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll find out all about every kind of booty. I’m sure you’ll grow up to be the most successful and dangerous pirate queen the universe has ever seen. Entire worlds will quake at the sound of your name.” 

“Only the bad guys,” Savvy insisted pointedly. 

“Only the bad guy worlds,” Flick agreed, moving her hand to gently stroke the girl’s hair. “You’ll steal all their treasure and make them walk the airlock. And your crew will sing all sorts of songs about the dreaded and beautiful pirate captain Savvy.” 

Giggling, Sahveniah gave a nod of confirmation, still leaning against her shoulder while making soft noises of contentment in her position. Eventually, she murmured, “Fick? I missed you.” 

“I missed you too, Savvy,” came the soft, gentle response. 

“I missed all of you.” 

*******

“Alright, all of you line up!” The order came from Larian Mondo, a two-hundred year old Heretic who had been brought in to take up the position at Crossroads that Virginia Dare had so loudly vacated when she left with the rest of the traitors. He was a deceptively small-looking man, barely five-foot-seven, with wire-rimmed sunglasses and long dark hair. He wore a dark blue suit, and carried a construction mace in one hand similar to the one used by Sands Mason. 

Sands. Thinking of the girl, Zeke Leven felt a sharp pang run through him. Fuck. He liked that girl. He’d liked her for years. Then that Chambers bitch had to show up and totally screw their whole society over, and confuse Sands and her sister so much they and their mother ran off with her. Just because her mom was a crazy, deranged traitor. 

And now here Zeke was, on another student hunt just a few days before Christmas, because almost nobody was allowed to leave the school to go on holidays thanks to this war draining all their resources. 

There were two teams assembled in front of Larian in this narrow alley in the outside world. Zeke, of course, along with Malcolm Harkess, Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Laila Kassab (their sixth member, Erin Redcliffe, had disappeared during their previous hunt) for one team, and Gavin Rish, Stephen Kinder, Russell Bailey, a tall Latino boy named Martin Gutierrez, and two girls named Noelle Starson (a dark-haired, light-skinned girl with light green eyes and a wide mouth) and Tracy Faulk (a deeply-tanned blonde who was almost always laughing at inappropriate jokes) for the other.

The eleven students stood in front of Larian, while three other adult Heretics were lined up behind them, along with both team’s older student mentors. Crossroads was taking no more chances with their student hunts. Not after Erin’s disappearance. The two teams would each be accompanied by two of the adults and their student mentor.

Larian looked the group over. “Okay. Behind me and through that alley, there’s a hotel. Our info says it’s infested with some real nasty pieces of shit. The leader’s a Marakeya, so don’t let him get his hands on you or you’ll regret it. We’ll be right there with you. We start at the bottom and work our way up. One team at the front entrance, one at the back. They’re all monsters in there, so don’t let anyone escape.” He paused before adding, “And yeah, I know you’d all rather be hanging out for the holidays. Three days before Christmas and all. So thanks for coming along on this. Sometimes saving humanity means not getting a full vacation.” 

With that, he split the groups up with a few muttered words and waved hands, then pivoted, taking Zeke’s team along with their mentor (the Native American girl Namid) toward the front. One of the other Heretic adults brought up the rear, while the remaining two would escort the other team to the back of the hotel.  

Unfortunately, even as the group approached the hotel, they found their way blocked by a figure standing at the end of the alley. A figure who, by that point, was familiar to everyone. To Zeke, especially, despite never seeing her in person. He had the memory of her appearance seared into his brain from the research he’d done to find out exactly who was responsible for the society he had grown up in being torn apart not once, but twice. Seeing her, he felt a sudden rush of anger. Worse than what he felt whenever he thought of Chambers herself. 

“Joselyn Atherby,” Larian snapped, snapping his mace down before giving it a flicking motion that made a handful of steel spikes rise out of the ground, angled that way. 

The other Heretic adult abruptly disappeared from behind the group and reappeared next to Larian. Where he had disappeared from, a water-shaped version of himself was left behind before splashing to the ground, and where he appeared, a burst of flame shaped like him filled the air, then dissolved into the man’s physical form. He was holding his own weapon, a long claymore sword that could shift into a musket-like gun. “You shouldn’t be here, Atherby.” 

“Someday, I’ll tell enough of you that my last name is Chambers now, that it’ll actually stick.” After muttering those words, the blonde woman focused. “I need you to back off for a few minutes. We’re… busy. A girl’s life depends on it.”

Larian snorted, shaking his head. “I knew you were stupid enough to defend these monsters, but I thought you had some standards. Defending the things in that hotel, that’s a new low, even for you. But hey, why don’t you try your lies on someone else, like say…” He trailed off, pausing before his eyes narrowed. “You’re blocking communication back to Crossroads.”  

Joselyn, in turn, flatly informed him. “Of course I am. I’ve done this rebellion thing before, remember? And I’m not defending any of the people who willingly live in that hotel. But as I said, we’re in the middle of something. The life of a girl who is not in that hotel depends on us getting information out of the ones who are. So back off for a few minutes, then we can both… go about our jobs.” 

Larian and his partner seemed to consider that for a moment, before the first man’s eyes narrowed. “No. You know what? I think you’re stalling for something. Giving them time to get out.” With that, he waved a hand back toward the students. “Get in there, wipe out everything in your path. We’ll deal with her ourselves.” 

The next thing Zeke and the others knew, they were enveloped in a rush of energy, before finding themselves deposited in one of the side parking lots with the hotel itself visible in the distance. 

“What–what do we do?” Freya demanded. The tall, red-haired girl was looking around in confusion while holding her warhammer in one hand and shield in the other. She turned toward Namid for help. 

Rather than wait for their mentor to speak, however, Zeke was already pivoting, stalking toward the hotel. “We do what the man said. Get in there and kill everything in our way.” 

“Gonna need you to stop right there, dude.” The new voice came from a figure who rose from behind a nearby car and moved to block their path. 

“Koren?” Summer blurted. The black girl was staring that way, mouth agape. “Wha-what the hell are you guys doing? You can’t seriously think this is right. Those are bad guys in there!” 

Rebecca Jameson, moving up beside Koren, gave a short nod. “Yeah, you’re right. Those are bad guys. But we’re trying to help a girl who isn’t a bad guy. And the only way to do that is to find her in there before you guys kill them all or make them run away. Or at least find out where they took her. Mrs. Chambers told your teacher guy that, but he wouldn’t listen.” 

Malcolm, enormous sledgehammer in hand, took a step closer while tapping the head of the weapon against the ground a couple times. “You guys really need a better excuse. Now either get out of the way and let us do our jobs, or we’ll go through you. Neither of you could match me in training last year, you really think you can do it together? Let alone all six of us.”  

Heaving a heavy sigh, Namid finally spoke up. “He’s right, you two need to get out of the way. Believe me, I really don’t want to hurt either of you. This whole situation is fucked beyond belief, but we’ve got a job to do. So move.” 

The two girls exchanged glances, before turning back to the six Crossroads students. Koren spoke first. “Sorry. We can’t do that.” 

Rebecca added, “I guess you’ll just have to go through us.” 

There was a brief pause before Namid gestured. “No killing, just make them stay down.” 

Immediately, Malcolm lunged that way, already swinging his hammer. He moved so quickly, his form was a blur. Koren, however, smoothly twisted aside, pivoting on one foot like a ballet dancer as the hammer swung past her to slam into the ground. As soon as the head of the weapon hit the cement, three blunt concrete ‘spikes’ erupted from the ground right where the girl was. But Koren had already flipped up and over, landing behind the boy. She lashed out with a kick, which collided with his back, knocking him forward into the concrete slabs he had raised. Except they weren’t concrete anymore. In that moment, with a quick look, she had transformed them into a gooey, sticky, tar-like substance that gripped the boy tightly. 

Malcolm immediately used his hammer’s ability to send himself back to any of the last ten spots he had hit with it in order to teleport to where he had been standing a moment earlier. But he was still covered in tar. Tar that was rapidly solidifying, even as he blurted, “The hell is this?!” 

“Just get rid of it and focus!” Zeke snapped. The boy was already going at Koren from the side, lashing out to bash her with his shield while simultaneously creating three glass-like balls behind her, which exploded with concussive force meant to throw the girl forward into his swinging shield. 

Koren, however, wasn’t there. She had already tossed one of her Hunga Munga throwing axes into the air, teleporting herself up to it before pivoting in midair to face the boy below. A moment of focus made a wave of concussive force slam into the back of Zeke’s legs, knocking him slightly off-balance. 

He, of course, reacted by snapping his gaze up to where she was. The front of his shield shifted, producing two gun-like barrels from the middle, which fired twin bolts of electricity, powerful enough to put a bear on the ground. 

But Koren wasn’t there anymore either. Just before teleporting herself up to the first Hunga Munga, she had dropped the other one. In the instant where Zeke was shooting his electricity at her, she teleported herself down to that one, appearing in a kneeling position right next to the boy while he was facing upward. Before he could adjust, Koren lashed out with her fist, which collided with the boy’s stomach with enough force to double him over. 

Malcolm, by that point, had gotten enough of the tar off himself to come lunging to help his friend. But Koren had already torn the shield from Zeke’s grasp and pivoted, Captain America-ing the shield that way to take the charging boy’s legs out from under him. He turned the fall into a roll, coming up nearby while swinging his hammer. 

At the same time, Zeke had recovered from the punch, and swung around to clap his hands together, creating a focused sonic blast that would have burst the girl’s eardrums, staggering her just long enough for Malcolm’s attack to put her on the ground.

Would have, that was, if Koren hadn’t already made a wall of earth rise out of the ground behind herself in a semicircle. The wall caught the sonic blast, shielding her from its effects. Which allowed the girl to thrust both hands forward, hitting the charging Malcolm with a telekinetic shove that halted his forward momentum and sent him flying backward to crash into a nearby wall. 

Zeke, stumbling backward from the wall, shot a look toward Malcolm, then over to where Summer, Freya, and Laila were clearly having their own problems with the tiny waif Rebecca. “The fuck?!” He blurted the words in confusion. “You two weren’t this good last year.” 

“Things change,” Koren informed him flatly, flipping her Hunga Munga around in both hands before facing him. “You’ve been in class. We’ve been in a war. So, you guys gonna walk away?” 

In answer, Zeke made a growling noise deep in his throat, glaring at her. “You know what?” he snarled, already readying himself. “I think it’s time to shut you up.” 

“By all means,” Koren replied. 

“You’re welcome to try.” 

Wanna see more of this conflict and how it all resolves? Check out the end of arc interlude coming up in a few more chapters!

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Class Action 14-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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After all the ridiculousness of that, my next class was Calculus. Which I didn’t mind too much, actually. Sure, math was never going to be my absolute favorite subject, even back in normal, mundane school. But it was important for working out a lot of the more complicated spells. Yeah, some of that stuff required a lot of incredibly involved measurements and calculations about various aspects of the item you were enchanting, where you were, how much it was supposed to affect, and so on and so forth. Math was important for all of that stuff. 

But even more than that, it was a chance to settle down and relax after the chaos of Sinbad’s class. I could sit there at my desk, listen to the teacher (a man named Ambrose Keaton, from Eden’s Garden), and just passively take in his lesson. He was a black guy, only a couple inches taller than me and a little on the heavier side, though I was pretty sure a lot of that was muscle. He wore an old-fashioned set of clothes from the 1800s, with the whole trousers, silk shirt waistcoat, very loose-fitting bow tie, long, loose jacket, and boots. Oh, andit a snazzy-looking top hat, of course. It almost seemed as though he had just stepped out of a period-piece movie or something. Aside from the fact that he wore very modern (and quite cool-looking) sunglasses, and had a distinctly non-period cellphone sticking part of the way out of his front jacket pocket. 

He was also a pretty damn good math teacher. He took the time to explain things pretty well, and related the stuff he was talking about to situations in the real world, rather than leaving it all as numbers on the board. The man had a very engaging personality, unlike the stereotypical math teacher. He knew everyone’s name and a few things about them that he could talk about and relate to the lesson, despite this group apparently only having had a couple classes before this one.  

“So, when you get down to it,” Ambrose was saying as he paced through the aisles between our desks, “calculus is really a building block or a tool that can be used to make almost anything you do that involves numbers much more efficient, or even safe. People designing buildings or bridges use it to determine the precise measurements within the structure, or how much force and weight it can support. You need a firm understanding of calculus to really know how the forces acting on your structure are going to affect it. Or let’s say you’re at a Bystander amusement park and you’ve been put in charge of the concessions. You need to know how many hot dogs, buns, pretzels, cups, napkins, bags of cotton candy, gallons of ice cream, and everything else you need to purchase for a given stretch of time. You buy too little, you’re going to end up with guests who are annoyed and might not come back. That hurts the park’s bottom line. But if you buy too much, that stuff can go bad and you’ve just wasted money. A good understanding of calculus can help you make those choices. It’s not perfect, but it can help.” 

Travis Colby, one of my old Bystander-kin classmates from Crossroads, raised his hand. “Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but why would we be designing buildings or running a theme park? I mean, we all know what we’re doing after these classes. We’re fighting monsters. And uhh,” he quickly amended, “by monsters, I mean anyone who acts like one or… you know, does monstrous things.” The boy fumbled his words a little at the end before lifting his chin toward the young orc teenager sitting beside him. “The bad guys, I mean.” 

“Yeah,” the orc agreed with a broad smile before holding out his fist. “We squish bad guys.” 

Travis, in turn, gave him a fist bump before looking back to Ambrose. “You know what I mean, dude. It’s not like we’re going to go out in the mundane world and get normal jobs.” 

Ambrose was quiet for a moment after that. He seemed to be considering those words before casually replying, “You can if you want to.” After exhaling slowly, the man walked to Travis’s desk,  though he was clearly addressing all of us. “Here’s what I want to make very clear today, and through the rest of this class. You are allowed to become whatever you want. If you get through this school and go on to become a heroic slayer of evil and champion of all that is good, that’s great. But if you decide to become an artist, or an author, or a chef, or even run the concessions at an amusement park, that’s fine too. Your life… is your life. You do not owe anybody your life, certainly not me or any of your other teachers here at this school. Become what you choose to. Put your life toward what will be most fulfilling to you. For many of you, that will be continuing to actively fight. For others, you may decide to take a backseat to things and only… go into action when absolutely necessary, to protect others you see who are in immediate danger. And that is fine. That is absolutely a valid choice, which no one should fault you for. And even if they do, ignore them. Because again, your life is your life, no one else’s.” 

“That’s not really true for the rest of us, is it?” The new voice came from a corner of the room, where my quiet, anti-social Relukun housemate, Kersel, sat. The wooden boy shifted in his seat as everyone looked at him, his gaze firmly locked on our teacher. “I mean yeah, sure, these guys… your human students, they can do whatever they want. They can go ahead and ignore all of it if they want to. No bark off their back. Some of us have to live in a world where we could be hunted down and killed any day. Oh sure, I’ll go run an amusement park, and pray every day that none of their bloodthirsty, psychotic friends come through, see what I am, and fucking murder me and everyone I care about. That sounds like a great life to have. Sign me up.” 

Several people in the class started to respond, but Ambrose held up a hand for them to stop. He nodded to Kersel then. “You’re absolutely right. It is a lot more dangerous out in the regular world for you and others like you. It shouldn’t be, but that is the reality of the situation. We will fight to change that. Others will simply attempt to create a better world by living in it. Remember what I said before about people who could choose to fight only when they had to? That applies here. Say you do take that job at the amusement park. And then someone comes through and tries to kill you for being what you are. But you don’t have to fight them off alone, because one of the ticket-takers, an accountant in the back office, a guy in a mascot costume, and the woman fixing a broken ride all jump in and help protect you. Because they’re all trained people living their own lives, just like you.” 

That said, the man gazed around to the rest of us. “I’m not saying you forget everything you know. And I’m definitely not saying that all the problems in the world will go away just because you want to live as normal of a life as possible. What I’m saying is that it is not impossible for you to protect one area. It is not wrong for you to choose to put yourself into a normal job, and then step in only when you need to. Find others like you, who can help create a small area within the world where people who would be hunted can be safe. Find those who don’t set off the Stranger sense and put them at the entrance so they can warn those who do when there’s trouble coming. Create escape routes and plan for problems. Work together to create the sort of world that all people can live in. You fix the world by living in it, by making it better so that those who would drag people down into the filth where they thrive are left behind. You will never truly beat that sort of ideology by hitting it with a sword. You beat it by creating an environment in which it cannot exist.”  

With that, he tapped one of the nearby desks a couple times pointedly. “That, my friends, is what this class is about. That is what calculus is. It is using what we know, to calculate what we want. It is not simply passively accepting the reality of the situation, but learning how to use that reality to create incredible things. Math is the world and everything in it. Learn to use that math, make it work for you, and you might not be able to build a better world. But you can certainly build a better piece of it.

“Now, let’s talk about a man named Pythagoras. Maybe you’ll even get to meet him someday.”

*******

After that class, it was time for lunch. Which I had in the cafeteria with Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Roxa, Doug, and May. Most of us were eagerly devouring the meals in front of us, after hours of classwork, while Doug questioned May about anything she might’ve known about the so-called Whispers, as well as the Pale Ship and the original Tabbris. Yeah, he wasn’t exactly going to let that sort of thing go, especially not when he had a Seosten right there to interrogate. 

Unfortunately, May didn’t really know much about any of it. Nothing about the Whispers, of course. And not much as far as the other two things went. She just said that it had never been a subject she was interested in. Nor was April, apparently, though she was busy helping one of their classmates with something back in one of the science labs. 

Stabbing a fork into a potato, Doug asked, “Do you know anyone in your group who might know more about that stuff? He hesitated before adding, “I mean, it seems to me like other Seosten tend to ignore you guys a lot. You blend into the background whenever they aren’t putting you to work. Plus, you like… work for one of their big scientists.” 

“We will not betray Cahethal,” May immediately put in, sitting up a bit straighter in her chair. 

Roxa quickly spoke up. “He’s not talking about betraying anyone, just sharing any information any of you might have about this situation that could maybe lead to answers for everyone. I mean, your boss would probably like it if you found out more about the Pale Ship, or these Whispers, right? She seems like the type to want an explanation for all that.”   

Doug nodded. “What she said. I’m not saying you should keep anything a secret from your boss. Go ahead and tell her whatever you want. But it seems like sharing information would be the best way to go for all of us, you know?” 

I spoke up. “Yeah, I mean, one side having part of the story, the other side having another part, and nobody sharing anything is basically a recipe for neither side to ever figure out the truth.” 

“If this truce is going to go beyond a year, into a real alliance,” Avalon quietly reminded the girl, “we need to get used to sharing things with each other. And trusting each other.” 

May looked at her in silence for a moment. From the look on her face, she understood just what it meant for Avalon to say something like that, given everything the Seosten had put her through. Not only her, but her entire bloodline. After all the pain and death they were responsible for, just within Avalon’s own life, her being the one to say we needed to work together meant a lot. May clearly understood that, taking a few seconds to let it actually sink in before speaking carefully. “You have a point.” She paused after admitting that, then gave a short nod. “I believe there may be one member of the Calendar who knows something, but I won’t say anything else until I speak with them and see if they are comfortable with talking about it. Is that acceptable?” 

Doug had just started to agree that it was, when Shiloh approached. “Is what acceptable? Hey, May.” She offered the Seosten girl a smile, before shifting a little awkwardly as though realizing she had just interrupted something and suddenly wondering if that was bad. 

“Hey, Shy Two,” Shiori immediately spoke up while gesturing. “Come on, sit with us.” 

Shiloh immediately snickered with a look of visible relief that crossed her face before she stepped over to take the seat across from her (and next to May). “Thanks, Shy One,” she cheerfully noted, setting her plate down. 

“They figured out they both have the same nickname,” Columbus informed me. “It’s been a lot of this ever since.” 

Roxa held up a hand while rapidly chewing the enormous mouthful of burger she had just taken. It was so much meat her cheeks bulged out, and took several seconds for the girl to manage to get it down. Finally, she spoke up. “At least Shy makes sense for someone named Shiloh. Shiori is like… She-Or-Eee. How do you get Shy out of that?” 

Shiori shrugged as everyone looked to her for an explanation, while gesturing toward Columbus. “Ask my brother over there. He started it. Then it just stuck.” 

Columbus, in turn, made a clearly exaggerated harrumphing sound. “Come on, it’s not that weird. People have shortened versions of their names that don’t phonetically line up perfectly all the time.” He waved it off then. “Anyway, someone tell Shy Two what we’re talking about.” 

So, I did just that. Over the next couple of minutes, I gave the other girl a quick rundown about the situation, telling her as much as I could in that brief time without getting too confusing or detailed about it. Honestly, it still felt strange to talk so openly about stuff that I would have had to obsessively keep secret the year before. I barely knew Shiloh (though clearly she had spent some more time with the others here while I had been gone), and yet I could just… talk about that stuff with her. I didn’t have to be paranoid that she was going to expose what we knew. That ship had sailed. 

It was definitely a different experience, but I wasn’t complaining. God, was I ever not complaining. I could not even begin to describe how much better it felt to be able to just talk openly about this stuff, without using a bunch of privacy spells and being paranoid that any given person might be listening in. We could just tell Shiloh the truth. Sure, she might lack some of the context or be confused about a lot. But we could explain it. That was just… awesome. 

Once I was done, and the others had piped up with their own input, Shiloh herself seemed to take a few long seconds processing the whole thing. Finally, she offered, “So the adults–I mean the older adults, they’re looking for that Occillo troll guy and whoever he was working with?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, they found out where the guy was living on that station, at least back then. They’re gonna send some people to check it out. I mean, they’re probably not dumb enough to still be there, but maybe there’s some clues about who the other guy is or where they went.” 

With a curious, thoughtful frown, the shaggy-haired brunette offered a hesitant, “Why don’t you ask around the station here about him? I mean, a lot of the people here come from out in that space, or at least they’ve spent a lot of time there. Or even just know people who have. This guy, he’s a genius-level troll Indiana Jones explorer. That has to stand out even in a giant universe. Maybe someone around here has heard of him. At least enough to get more information, you know?” She paused slightly before adding, “You don’t have to keep everything secret anymore, you might as well take advantage of that and find out what people know.” 

Yeah, she definitely had a point there. Maybe no one would actually know the guy, but on the off-chance that they did, it was worth asking about. “Besides,” I put in, “even if no one’s heard of him, they might know about that station, or even have someone there who could talk to whoever gets sent out to it.”

Shiloh seemed relieved that we weren’t dismissing what she said, offering me a quick, slightly nervous smile. “Yeah, just like that. See, you can just, you know, use what you’ve got around here.” After another brief hesitation, she offered, “I could ask a few people about that if you want.” Quickly, the girl explained, “I’ve sorta been talking to a lot of people around the station for that book of stories I wanna write. You know, the stories about other worlds? So, yeah, if you want, I could see if any of those people I’ve talked to, um, know anything.” She was shifting a bit uncomfortable from the attention of everyone, looking down as she poked at the food on her plate. “Or I can just leave it alone.” She mumbled that last part under her breath. 

“Dude, are you kidding?” I immediately insisted. “If you’ve got contacts who could maybe help find out anything about this guy, go for it. No way are we going to turn down actual help.” 

The others made sounds of agreement with that, before May noted, “It would be a waste to ignore a potential resource.” 

“Yeah?” Shiloh looked up, offering a slightly… well, shy smile at the Seosten girl as her uneven bangs covered part of her eyes. “Do you want to maybe walk around with me and talk to them? It might be nice to have some company, you know. Or umm, in case I forget any of the details. You’re–you have a really good memory and all. I mean, I could write it down, or record it, or–it’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it, you don’t have to come with me.” Her head shook rapidly to dismiss the thought.

May hesitated before offering a flat, “I am Seosten and a… I am affected by Anima Catenata.” 

The rest of us, including Shiloh, looked at each other in confusion before Columbus asked, “Anima what now?”

“Chained soul,” I mentally translated after a second. “Oh, wait, is that what you call… you know, SPS?” 

The Asian-looking Seosten gave a very slight nod. “That is the formal, technical name for the condition from long ago, before such… prejudice was associated with it. When the condition was being diagnosed. It is rarely used now, simply because there is no need to. We are not Seosten with the condition of Anima Catenata. We are simply Mendacia, to them.”  

With that, she looked at Shiloh. “That is what I was saying. Other species here may dislike me for being too Seosten. Seosten themselves may dislike me for not being Seosten enough. Having me walk with you to these discussions may be more of a handicap than an aid.” 

My mouth opened to say something, but Shiloh beat me to the punch. “Dude, they’ll get over it. And if they don’t, screw them. This whole school is supposed to be about learning to work together and accept others, right? I mean, that’s what the entire truce is about too.” 

“That… is true,” May agreed. “Very well, if you like, I shall accompany you to speak to your contacts.” 

“Good,” Avalon announced, “and now that that’s settled, we can talk about what else is going on this afternoon.”    

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “What else is going on this afternoon?” 

She, in turn, offered me a slightly feral smile. “You’ve gotten away without training long enough.” 

“Oh.” Flushing a little, I insisted. “I promise I did a lot of training the whole time. Live action, very intense training. Lots of it.” 

“Good,” she replied, clearly not dissuaded in the slightest. “Then it won’t be a shock to your system to get back to something a little more organized.” 

With an audible snicker, Roxa spoke up. “Be afraid, Flick. She’s been planning out how to run you ragged and work through that stamina of yours for awhile. Something about making sure you’re ready the next time anything bad happens.” 

“Yup,” Shiori confirmed. “And she had the rest of us help her perfect the system.” 

“Oh boy,” I managed in a slightly weak voice. “I guess the welcome home vacation is officially over, huh?” Still, despite my words, I met Valley’s gaze and the two of us smiled at one another. This, I knew, was precisely how Avalon showed that she cared. By working me to the bone. The more she cared about someone, the more she pushed them to work harder. She demonstrated affection through being a demanding taskmaster. 

And lucky me, as I found out over the next couple hours, she was apparently feeling very affectionate. 

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Class Action 14-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The non-canon chapters are out right now! You can find the the Heretical Edge noncanon right here and Summus Proelium noncanon right here

The next day was Wednesday, November 28th. It would also be my first day back attending actual classes since before we took that trip to Las Vegas. Which… felt like years ago, honestly. The intervening weeks had been so packed with emotional highs and deep, deep lows that I was almost certain there must have been some sort of time distortion involved. Err, besides the actual multiple instances of time travel. It felt as though I had actually aged the four years that I had been transported back and forth through. And yet, if that was the trade-off for getting my mother back safe, I would have gone through three times as much. Ten times as much, even. Mom was home. She was safe. We had won and killed Fossor. That was worth any amount of exhaustion, physical and emotional. And yes, I was probably going to regret having that thought, but still.  

“So this is the real deal Persephone, huh?” Columbus asked as he walked along my right side. Sands and Sarah were to the left, having a whispered conversation, while December and Tabbris trotted ahead, having their own less-whispered talk that seemed to be progressing at warp speed. They weren’t shouting or anything, they were just two little girls who were excited. December was going to be attending classes with Tabbris today, and they were really into that.

The six of us were on our way to the forcefield elevator to take us up to the main corridors. It was a bit too early for classes just yet, but we were going to go see Persephone. Columbus and Tabbris wanted to actually meet her officially, and the twins hadn’t had much time to talk to the woman yesterday. December was going mostly because Tabbris was. Plus she’d apparently heard a few stories about Persephone from Cahethal. Which kind of surprised me, as I hadn’t thought the woman was all that big on telling stories. But apparently she did occasionally trade rewards for good work. And while most of the other members of the Calendar requested more tangible things or even just vacation days, December had sometimes asked for stories. 

Either way, I nodded to the nearby boy while we stepped onto the lift. “Apparently. Perseus too, like I said. She’s… umm, interesting. I think what she really needs more than anything else is some more friends. People who aren’t going to tell her to go run off on her own for a hundred freaking years just to make her leave them alone.” The last bit came in a dark mutter as my head shook. I still couldn’t believe Manakel had done that. Apparently fairly regularly, even. 

As the elevator started to rise, Sands spoke up. “All I know is that she’s got really good aim when it comes to falling out of the sky. Seriously, that Nuckelavee was all, ‘oooh look some tasty little junior Heretics yum yum.’” She laughed then, slamming her fist into her palm hard. “And then bam! Splatter! Ksshhhhplooey!” The girl threw both hands apart, apparently pantomiming the monster exploding when Persephone had hit it. “Fucker never knew what hit him!” 

Snickering despite myself, I echoed, “Kshhhplooey? Can you narrate my battles in the future? Cuz I think you might have found your niche.” With a wink, I added, “Anyway, her aim is about as good as her timing. Common sense? Not really so much. But still, she’s… nice. Weird, but nice.” Seeing the way all of them were looking at me, I blanched. “Oh shut up. I don’t mean it like that. Seriously, I just think she could use a few friends a lot more than anything like that.” 

By that point, the lift had stopped and the six of us stepped off to move through the corridors to find our way to the Moon apartments. December pivoted and walked backwards while looking at me. “CanwemeetCerberus?!” The question came in a rush, her bright smile growing even wider when she said the robot dog’s name. “Cahethalsaidhe’sbig… andreallyhasthreeheads…andhecanfightghosts… andhehasalotoflasercannons… andsometimeshe’sevenbigger.” It was clearly taking genuine effort for the girl to slow herself down between every few words so it didn’t all run together in an incomprehensible jumble of syllables. She was also literally bouncing up and down while walking backwards, which Tabbris quickly emulated as both of them started giggling so much they almost fell over. Which, to be fair, walking backwards while bouncing up and down and giggling and only almost falling over showed how much my little sister had improved since the time she first started popping out of me regularly. She had been pretty clumsy for a Seosten back then, but it seemed her natural ability had quickly caught up and helped things. Part of me wondered how much of that came from the fact that she had unlocked the… gift from her biological father. I had no idea if accessing those wings and starting to exercise them actually helped with her physical coordination. But it probably couldn’t have hurt matters, at least. 

Shaking off those thoughts after a moment, I nodded to December. “Yeah, she’s got Cerberus. He’s in his smaller form, which is still pretty damn big. We haven’t seen the bigger version yet.” I glanced over to Columbus and the twins while adding, “Apparently it makes full-grown Amaroks look like little puppies. Which is both exciting and terrifying. But he’s a good dog.” 

“Really wouldn’t want to meet a bad version,” Sands murmured with a little shudder. I had the feeling she was thinking back to that first hunt we’d all gone on together when we faced the actual Amarok long before any of us were actually ready for something like that. Except maybe Avalon. I had the feeling she would’ve taken on the Amarok pretty effectively if she had to. But that might’ve been my bias talking. 

Either way, Sarah glanced to her sister before reminding her, “He was bad before he was reprogrammed.” Then she paused, a frown touching her face. “Or good?” 

“He was programmed to attack Manakel,” I agreed. “Which makes it complicated. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t meant to differentiate too much between good and bad as long as it meant killing that guy. He probably would’ve just gone right through anyone in his way. But whatever he was before, he’s a good dog now. A big good dog with three heads and anti-ghost and zombie weaponry.” 

“I’m pretty sure anti-zombie weaponry is decent anti-anything else too,” Columbus cheerfully pointed out while nudging me. “The benefits of something that hits hard enough to put a lot of things down really quickly kind of extends beyond that narrow scope, you know?” 

“Speaking of going beyond a narrow scope,” I replied while extending my hand, my finger finding the button on the glove before I summoned Simpson, the ten-foot-long lemon shark, into the corridor ahead of us. Encased in the bubble that followed him, the big guy swam up near the ceiling, then turned back and went down to where Tabbris and December eagerly gave him rubs and scratches as though he was a big dog. 

“What’re you doing?” Sands asked curiously, head tilting as she watched that. 

“Me?” I winked. “I’m taking one of my sharks for a walk. Come on, guys, let’s go.” And with that, I suited action to words by starting walking down the hall with Simpson eagerly swimming ahead, curious about this new environment he was in. We passed a few people on the way, most of whom seemed just fine with a shark swimming in a bubble through the corridor. Honestly, it probably wasn’t the oddest thing they’d seen even that very morning. A few even stopped and wanted to pat or simply touch him. Which, of course, Simpson enjoyed. I’d had to keep my sharks separate from me for so long that just being able to pull them to me and let them interact with people like this any time I wanted to was enough that I had to stop and give Tabbris a tight hug. Then I did the same for Columbus, thanking them both fervently. 

“Just don’t forget to give Nevada a hug too,” Columbus put in, still flushing a little as he gestured. “She helped a lot with all that, and I really don’t wanna see the terrible rampage that could happen if she finds out everyone else got hugs and she didn’t.” He gave a clearly exaggerated shudder then, which made Tabbris and December both giggle. 

My head shook quickly as I made a show of crossing my heart. “In that case, I promise I’ll give her every hug she deserves as soon as I can. Wouldn’t want to take any risks.” 

With that, we continued on, heading into the faculty apartments area. Mom and Dad’s place was right down that way, but we continued on for the moment. Despite my urge to pop in and just… physically reassure myself that my mother was still here and safe, I really needed to give my parents some time alone. They’d been cut off from each other for a decade. When I thought about how I felt being separated from Avalon and Shiori just for the relatively much shorter times I had been, and then compared it to the idea of being separated from them for ten years or more? Yeah. I was going to let them have some time to themselves. To say nothing of letting my mother and Deveron have t–okay nope, I wasn’t even going to think about that

Stepping up beside me as we approached the door that led into the Moon residence, Sands asked, “So, about this Whispers thing. Do you think whoever they send out to find that Occillo guy is actually gonna pull it off? Cuz, well, I don’t wanna just be making up patterns out of nothing here, but it kinda seems like the sort of thing you’re gonna be pulled into dealing with. You know, past history and all.” She nudged me with a little smile before adding, “I’m just saying, maybe it’d be a good idea for all of us to hook spells to you to be dragged along if you… get taken on an accidental and/or unwanted trip.” 

Squinting at her, I was about to respond when the sound of racing metal feet made everyone spin to the left. We’d been about to knock on the Moon’s door, but one of the reasons we were there charged around the corner. Yeah, it was Cerberus. The three-headed metal dog was running eagerly down the hall, with Vanessa and Tristan right behind, each holding a leash that was attached to the robot animal’s left and right heads. There was a third leash attached to the middle head. That one was held by that pale, dark-haired girl whom I had seen interacting with the Moons earlier. She wasn’t running along behind, however. Instead, the girl was sitting on Cerberus’s back, giving a loud squeal as she was carried straight toward us. When they were still only about halfway down the hall, the girl jumped backwards off the animal just in time for Vanessa and Tristan to release the leashes and catch her. 

Seeing what was going on, Simpson started to interpose himself between us protectively. I was pretty sure that if sharks could growl, he would be doing it then. 

“It’s okay, boy.” I assured him, reaching out to pat his side comfortingly. At least, I hoped it was comforting. Simpson seemed to calm down a little, anyway. 

At the last second, the three-headed dog pulled up short. The center head leaned in close to me, sniffing before all three of them barked loudly and the robot animal jumped up and down a couple times excitedly. 

“Well hey there, big guy,” I greeted him with a chuckle. “Nice to see you too. Here, meet some new friends. This is my little sister Tabbris. And this is December, Sands, Sarah, and Columbus.” With each introduction, the person in question was greeted with at least one head shoving up close to sniff and lick at them curiously. When it came to Columbus, Amethyst (the little porcupine-armadillo cyberform) poked her head up out of the backpack he wore, squeaked, and ducked back down out of sight again. 

Simpson meanwhile, ‘swam’ up toward the ceiling and floated there, staring down at all this with a clearly suspicious look. He was watching Cerberus like a hawk, ready to jump in the second anything happened. The shark clearly didn’t care for the big metal canine very much. 

Catching up by then, Vanessa and Tristan each came up on either side, the latter waving cheerfully while panting in a way that made it clear he’d been running for a long time. “Hey there, guys. Just taking the giant, three-headed robot dog for walkies, what’s up with you?” 

“Mom and Dad wanted to talk to Persephone for a little while,” Vanessa quietly noted while reaching up to pat the left head. “So yeah, we took… we let Cerberus take us for a walk.” The amendment came as she glanced down at the leash a bit sheepishly. 

“He’s pretty excited to be in a new place,” Tristan agreed from the opposite side of the big metal dog. “And hey, at least he doesn’t make a mess in the hall.” Grimacing, he added, “Can you imagine trying to clean something like that up?” 

“Tristan!” Vanessa protested while leaning across Cerberus to swat at his shoulder. “Don’t be gross!” 

At that moment, the robot dog bounded forward a few feet, eagerly moving to be closer to Tabbris, December, and the others. There was excited barking and head rubs from all sides as he moved right in the middle, spinning in a slow circle as though every head was trying to get close to everyone all at the same time. Which resulted in a lot of squealing, laughing girls (and Columbus, of course, who was just as loud as the others). 

It was enough to make me smile, watching them for a moment before turning back to the twins. Err, the fraternal twins. “Well, at least they’re all having… uhh, fun.” Trailing off, I focused on the unfamiliar girl who was walking up to join the other two. “Hey there, sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.” I extended a hand that way. 

Rather than accepting the handshake, however, the girl blurted a short, “Hah!” She was squinting at me with obvious suspicion. “I bet you’d like me to be dumb enough to give you all the skin and sweat samples you need to make a spell that could turn me inside out while making me survive to live a tortured existence for all eternity, wouldn’t you, minion of Galazien the Iron-Souled, ripper of the veil between all realities and devourer of souls?!” She raised a hand to point, voice a low murmur. “I’m onto you.”  

My mouth opened, then shut as I made a noise deep in my throat before managing to focus on Vanessa and Tristan while the girl continued to stare at me suspiciously. “Why didn’t you guys tell me Wyatt’s been messing with shapeshifting?” 

With a snort, Tristan gestured. “Dylan, it’s okay. This is Flick. She’s… trust me, she’s cool. She’s a friend and a lot more than that. Our families are sort of…” He crossed his fingers demonstrably before looking at me. “Flick, this is Dylan Averty. She’s umm, boy that’s a long story.” 

So, they gave me the short version. Dylan was the daughter of Haiden’s long-lost sister (the original Vanessa, whom our Vanessa was named for), who had somehow survived long past the time Haiden thought she had been killed while in training at Eden’s Garden. For whatever reason, however, she never sought Haiden or anyone else out. Instead, she had been living what appeared to be a completely normal life in the Bystander world over a hundred years after her supposed death, with a husband and daughter. Then some guys showed up, killed the husband and the original Vanessa herself, but Dylan escaped thanks to a Kitsune who showed up and survived just long enough to get her out of there and back to his special mansion full of magic books. He also bonded her to him before dying. Oh, and the guy who killed Dylan’s father? Yeah, apparently that was Jeremiah Dallant. As in the Baron of Wyoming for Crossroads. I’d met the guy once and… well, I certainly didn’t think he was this kind of evil. He was nice to me. Not that that proved anything or whatever, but still. The man had been intentionally making sure the Crossroads people didn’t find out about Asenath staying at my house, because Gaia asked him to. I just–Gaia trusted him, and now he was apparently out there cutting innocent men’s heads off to serve some weird, nebulous super-evil guy? I was confused, to say the least. Incredibly, indescribably confused. And I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to get any better anytime soon. 

“Dad and Larissa are looking into that,” Vanessa informed me, clearly recognizing the look on my face. She glanced to her brother briefly before adding, “They were really firm about that.” 

“Yeah, seriously firm,” Tristan agreed. “We are to take a break and go to class. No running off to investigate this Dallant guy ourselves. They said that three times. I tried to point out that it’d be kinda hard to get all the way down to Earth from inside the sun without them knowing.” 

“And,” Vanessa put in, “Dad told him not to treat them like idiots. And then told us for the fourth time to let them handle it for now.” 

“Four times, huh?” Sands, who had joined us with the others in time to hear most of that, whistled low. “Sounds serious.” 

“Super serious,” Tristan agreed. “So, we figure we’ll probably get dragged into it one way or another… what, next week? How’s all your schedules look?” As he said that, the boy winked at Sarah, who immediately turned slightly pink. The two of them stared at each other for a few seconds before he stepped over and whispered something to her. Which just made Sarah’s blush deepen. She then retaliated by whispering something to him, and it was suddenly Tristan’s turn to cough and look flustered.  

That Dylan girl looked back and forth between all of us through that before speaking up, her voice a conspiratorial whisper. “You don’t trust the people here on this station either? Good. Galazien has spies everywhere. They could be anyone and anywhere. Or anything. He likes to put magic in food. Who would suspect that the carton full of eggs sitting in your refrigerator is listening to every word you say, hmm? Who would believe that the milk you take out every morning for your breakfast is transmitting your secrets back to one of Galazien’s evil minions, just waiting for you to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and secure the doom of all reality?!” 

Opening and then shutting my mouth, I raised my gaze to look toward Simpson where he was still floating in his bubble near the ceiling. He, in turn, stared right back at me. He gave no gesture nor did he make any indication or change in facial expression. Because, well, he was a shark. But still, I sensed that he was just as baffled as I was by this whole thing. 

Columbus was the first to speak. “Don’t worry, we’re really careful about things like that.” 

Dylan, in turn, leaned closer to him and hissed, “Not… careful… enough.” 

“She’snotwrongaboutspies,” December hurriedly put in while literally flipping herself over to run on her hands. And she really did run. There was no awkward stumbling around on her hands, she was fully upside down, using her hands to move at a quick pace in a circle around Cerberus as she continued. “TheotherMonthsandme….wespyonpeopleallthetime…asanimalscuzpeopledon’t….payattentiontothemliketheyshould…imaginehowmuchstuff… wecouldoverhearifwewerefood!” 

Catching the other girl’s ankles to stop her, Tabbris pointed out, “If you were animals, you were technically already food.” 

“Nodon’teatmenoooo!” December protested while giggling. Which made Tabbris giggle and blurt something about gobbling her up right now. December wiggled her legs free and fell over, with Tabbris jumping on her with loud chomping sounds. That devolved to both of them squealing and giggling as they rolled over and over one another. 

Smiling to myself, I shook my head and let them be before focusing on the others. “Right, well, I guess we’ll see what happens with that whole… Dallant thing.” I still felt annoyed about all that, given I’d met the guy personally and thought he was fine at the time. But I shook that off before pushing on. “Meanwhile, we were hoping to grab Persephone so the others could meet her. You think she’s still busy with your parents?” 

Tristan shrugged, starting toward the door. “Let’s find out.” On the way, he glanced back to Columbus. “Seriously, dude, you have to meet her. She’s got some wild stories. Just uhh, you know, be ready. Cuz she’s a lot.” 

He definitely wasn’t wrong about that. And as I thought about Persephone, then looked toward Dylan while thoughts of her whole situation, this Galazien guy (whoever that really was), and Dallant himself came to mind, I grimaced. Then I grimaced even more as I thought about the Whispers thing and how they were going to try to track down that guy. Yeah, I should probably enjoy this time as a ‘normal’ student attending regular classes and all while I could. 

Because I had a feeling life would get insane again pretty damn quick. 

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Reception 13-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A little while later, I stepped through a portal leading to the Starstation, accompanied by Avalon, Shiori, and Persephone (with Cerberus cheerfully bringing up the rear). Sariel was there waiting for us, along with Abigail, Professor Tangle, and my mother. The four adults appeared to have been deep in conversation when we showed up, but cut it off the moment we appeared. 

“Girls,” Abigail started, walking up with the others right behind her, “you made it back. We heard the visit to the… alien space pirate ship was fairly productive?” Even now, after just over a solid year of being involved with this stuff, she still sounded like she couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. Which, to be fair, was a feeling I could totally understand. 

“You could say that,” I replied dryly, with a glance toward the others before gesturing at the white-haired woman and three-headed robot dog, who were both curiously watching this whole thing. “Abigail, this is Persephone and Cerberus. Persephone, this is my–” 

“Older sister!” she blurted excitedly, bounding forward with both hands outstretched as though to grab the other woman’s. At the last second, however, she stopped herself and very clearly clutched both hands to her stomach. “I’m sorry, it’s very nice to meet you, but I’m not supposed to grab people unless they say it’s okay. I forget that a lot, but not as much as I used to.” Straightening up to her full height, she very deliberately asked, “May I please shake your hand?” 

Abigail seemed a bit taken aback, which was a pretty normal reaction to Persephone. But after taking a moment to collect herself, she glanced briefly toward me while nodding slightly as though to say she understood. Then her eyes shifted back to Persephone as she extended a hand politely. “Of course, it’s nice to meet you, Persephone. Thank you so much for intervening to help my little sister, my daughter, and the others with that monster who attacked them.” 

With a little squeak of happiness, Persephone took Abigail’s hand in both of hers and eagerly pumped it up and down. Her smile was broad. “Of course, of course! I couldn’t let anything bad happen to my– I mean to Flick before I even got to know her! Because getting to know someone is very important whether it’s before something bad happens to them, or before you give them sweet and adoring nicknames. Which you aren’t supposed to call them until they say it’s okay.” She wasn’t quite ‘reading off the back of her hand’ obvious that time, but it was still clear that she was reciting what she had been told and didn’t fully understand it.

“Precisely,” Mom agreed, stepping closer before holding her hand out for all three of Cerberus’s heads to curiously sniff. “Everyone takes things at a normal pace and we all get to know each other. And whatever happens, happens. No one is obligated to do anything.” As she said that, Mom was looking directly at me, holding my gaze until I nodded with understanding. Finally, she turned her attention fully to Persephone. “Would you mind taking a walk with Sariel? She can show you where you’ll be staying. Everyone should settle down for now, and perhaps we can have you over for dinner tomorrow to meet Felicity’s father.” That last part was clearly added as a concession to show that she wasn’t actively trying to keep Persephone away from me. This whole situation was incredibly delicate and more than a little awkward. So far, the Revenant-Seosten had very cheerfully gone with the flow, and honestly seemed to be trying to accommodate us, as well as understand why we felt the way we did. It was obviously alien to her, which made me wonder how much of that was just the fact that she was what she was, and how much was the fact that she spent so much time alone. Even when Manakel had been nice to her, he still sent her away for extended periods.   

In any case, Persephone readily agreed before turning to me. Her voice was just as bright and cheerful as ever. “It has been very interesting to meet you, Flick! I’m glad I could help before, and I hope I can be helpful later too!” Her head was bobbing rapidly, eyes literally sparkling a bit with power. “I won’t say that I’m glad you killed my Mannikins, because I still really miss him. But I am glad that the person who inherited his gift was as pretty and nice as you.” 

Well, what the hell was I supposed to say to that? Opening and shutting my mouth as I fought to find words, I finally settled on, “Uh, well I’m glad you’re okay with uhh, with everything.” Yeah, wow, put that speech on a Hallmark card. Wincing, I rubbed the back of my neck self-consciously. “I mean, I’m glad you’re–I’m looking forward to getting to know you later.” God, what was with me being awkward about this whole thing? I mean, beyond the fact that it was super-awkward and confusing to begin with, of course. 

Thankfully, Persephone didn’t seem to notice. She just smiled and gave me a happy wave before skipping off to where Sariel was waiting. Both of them headed out the door together, leaving Avalon, Shiori, and me to give a full rundown of everything that had happened up on the ship to Abigail, Mom, and Professor Tangle. At first I wasn’t sure why the latter was there, but then I remembered that before she’d had that whole… situation the year before where she’d been in the hospital for so long, she had actually been the Explorer Track advisor for the first years. Explorers, as in the people who focused on going to other worlds and documenting everything about both them and the various new Alters they encountered. Yeah, I supposed her being involved in a conversation about a space pirate ship full of various strange and potentially brand new alien beings probably made sense. Especially once she started asking very specific questions about what and who we had seen up there. She wasn’t taking notes or anything, but I had the feeling she didn’t really need to. Between Abigail as a lawyer, Mom as sheriff, and Tangle as both a professor and someone who knew exactly what sort of questions to ask in this specific situation, the three of us spent the next twenty minutes or so being quite thoroughly interrogated about every little detail of our time on the ship. Not that it was bad or anything, just… very thorough. 

Finally, we told them that Doug and Theia had gone with Dare and Apollo to check on something back at the Atherby camp, and Mom said they would talk to that group soon. Then she offered us a smile. “Thank you, girls. I know it’s not fun to stand there and answer a bunch of questions, but you took it like champs. Why don’t you head on in and get some dessert or something? Then rest, it’s been a long day, and I believe everyone is going back to school tomorrow?” 

Abigail gave a firm nod. “That’s right, we don’t want everyone falling behind in classes just because you all managed to squash a genocidal cockroach. Besides, I may still be very new to all of this, but I’m fairly certain there will be plenty of excuses for more days off as the year goes on.” 

“Trust me,” I muttered, “you’re not that much newer than at least Shiori and me. And you’re probably right. Actually, at this point, the year going on without any more sudden interruptions to our class schedules would be so shocking I might just keel over.” 

“Which,” Avalon pointedly added in a flat voice, “would necessitate a change in our school schedule.” 

“Yeah, see?” I gestured. “Can’t escape it. So you’re right, we should probably go to all the classes we can manage while it’s an option.” I didn’t add that it would be nice to go back to doing something as normal as attending school again, after everything that happened with, as Abigail had put it, that genocidal cockroach. But from the look on everyone’s face, I didn’t have to. They already knew. There was a brief moment of silence before Mom reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “Go on,” she urged me. “Have some fun, get some rest, and be ready for school tomorrow. Plus, I think Tabbris and Columbus have something to show all of you.” 

That was right, Tabs had said they were working on something together. I’d forgotten, thanks to everything that happened on the ship. But now I was back to being profoundly curious about that whole thing. And hey, I could actually go find some answers now. 

That in mind, I gave my mother and sister both a hug. Then I hesitated before shrugging and giving one to Professor Tangle as well. Why not? After everything that happened last year, she could probably still use plenty of them. Hell, she was technically related to Avalon to some extent, but I don’t think the two of them ever really got into that. 

Once that was done, I followed Mom’s suggestion by heading out with my girls. Avalon, Shiori, and I made our way through the corridors before reaching the forcefield elevator leading down to the miniature town where the houses were. It was (simulated) night by that point, but plenty of people were still out walking around in groups or alone, and we ended up chatting here and there before finally making it to the house. Once there, I breathed in and let it out, smiling a bit to myself. 

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked, watching me curiously. 

My head bobbed. “Yup, I’m happy. This is two nights in a row I get to sleep in my own bed.” 

Nudging me a bit sharply with her elbow, Avalon retorted, “Let’s try to raise that to a much higher record than two, huh?” 

“That’s the plan,” I agreed while rubbing my side. “And now that I don’t have Fossor hanging over my head anymore, maybe it’ll actually happen. But hey, come on, I was promised a surprise from my little sister, and I aim to see what it is.” 

“Haven’t you had enough surprises already today?” Avalon demanded with a squint. 

“It’s okay,” Shiori quickly assured her, “this one won’t want to marry her. I mean, probably.” 

“You’re both incredibly mean,” I complained before heading toward the door. Before I got there, however, the sound of voices coming from the backyard made me adjust course to walk around the house. The other two followed, and we met a very excited Choo as he came charging around the corner, happily grunting and squeaking. Naturally, we stopped to greet the big pig, giving him rubs, pats, and scratches, much to his satisfaction as he snorted and tried to rub up against all of us at once. Shiori produced a half-full bag of popcorn from the theater and set it down for him. If he hadn’t already adored her, that definitely would have done the trick. He tore the entire bag apart getting to the popcorn, and ate the greasy remains of the bag itself too. 

Accompanied by one very happy Jekern, we continued around to the back of the house. As expected, Columbus and Tabbris were there. And they weren’t alone. Nevada was with them, along with Gordon, Jazz, and Eiji from next door. All of them seemed to be inspecting something that had been laid out on the table that we couldn’t see, and there was a spirited discussion going on about something that had to do with how ‘cool’ the something was. 

Before any of us could say anything, Nevada abruptly turned and gestured in my direction. “Well, why don’t we let the birthday girl herself decide how cool it is?”  

“Flick!” Tabbris jumped up from the table, half-falling over before catching herself. “You’re back!” Her surprise really showed just how intently she had been focused on whatever this project was, because she apparently hadn’t been paying attention to our connection. 

“Sorry,” I teased while nodding over my shoulder. “Should I go back? Maybe there’s another person waiting to fall out of the sky and declare us married. I could go for a guy this time.” 

That earned me a sharp jab in both sides from Avalon and Shiori. Meanwhile, Gordon and Jazz both stepped around the table to come more into view as they greeted us, with Eiji following suit. I didn’t know the huge Asian-Canadian boy that well, aside from the fact that he was the second-smartest person in our grade behind Vanessa. Well, that and he also had a rhino that transformed into a motorcycle (and a backpack), which automatically made him awesome. 

With a visible smirk, Jazz too-casually started to ask, “So Tabs was right? You went and got–” 

“I did not go and get hitched,” I immediately interrupted. “No one’s married. I mean, obviously a lot of people are married. Even around this station. But not me. I am absolutely and definitely not married to anyone.” After a brief pause, I amended, “Except possibly danger. I might be married to that. But that’s only because it’s hung around and been a part of my life for so long, it’s become kind of a common law sort of thing. Which is gonna make it really suck if I ever decide I can’t stand being around danger anymore, because then it’ll take half my stuff.” 

Everyone stared at me for a moment after that whole spiel, before Eiji leaned over a bit toward Gordon and quietly (but intentionally audibly) murmured, “I see what you mean.” 

Tabbris had already bounded over to where I was, catching my hand. “Is she cool, at least?” 

Feeling a slight flush across my face, I exhaled before nodding. “Yeah, she’s cool. It’ll be good to have her around. And she’s got this big robot dog with–” 

“Robot dog?” Now I had Columbus’s attention as he turned to face me, having been intently focused on doing something with whatever he was working on at the table. He had his goggles down, but I could feel his eyes staring at me intently. “You mean like a cyberform?”  

“Like a cyberform,” Shiori answered for me. “But not the same. Cerberus. You know, the Cerberus? He’s this big metal dog with three heads and he can fight ghosts and get even bigger. We didn’t get to see the big version yet, but she said it makes Amaroks look like his puppies!” From the sound of her voice, it was clear that the other girl could not wait to see something like that. She was incredibly excited about the prospect of Cerberus’s big form. 

Obviously, everyone had questions. Including Nevada. So, the three of us spent the next few minutes explaining what had happened. Not only with Persephone, but with the ship as well. They were all incredibly interested in that entire thing, especially when I brought up the anti-Whispers runes, and the fact that the person responsible for them was apparently an enhanced-intelligence troll who was looking for a ship connected to the original Tabbris. 

Yeah, that got a big reaction from my Tabbris. She wanted to know everything that had been said about that, absolutely everything. I repeated every word, and explained everything we had found out. Which was fair, considering he was her namesake. It just took awhile to get through, and I needed a bit of help from Shiori and Avalon. But eventually, the others were up-to-date. 

When we were finally done, Gordon was the first to speak, his voice as calm as ever. “Let’s hope they find this Occillo guy and he feels like answering questions.” After a brief hesitation, he added in a slightly quieter voice, “The Whispers are important to Douglas. Which means they’re important to the rest of us. I mean, his old team.”

“Damn straight,” Jazz agreed. “Doug gets real intense about those things whenever they come up. He doesn’t actually get into details about what happened out there, but it was pretty bad.”

Eiji had been sort-of standing in the background through all that. Okay, well, not really in the background. The dude was six and a half feet tall and built like a damn NFL linebacker. He may have been almost as academically inclined as Vanessa, but he looked like he belonged in the WWE or something. The point was, the guy was enormous and didn’t really ‘blend in’ very well. But he had been quiet throughout most of that, simply watching as we explained what had happened. Once in a great while, he asked a clarifying question. But it was clear that he had been brought up to date about most of this stuff at some point. Unsurprising, since he shared a house with Vanessa, Tristan, Koren, Sands, Scout, Aylen, Jazz, Jokai, and Gordon (and that boy-made-of-slinkies named Ruckus whom I didn’t know anything about but probably wasn’t relevant to this).  Between all of them, Eiji had been given enough details to follow along with most of this conversation, only needing a few bits of clarification.

Now, he spoke up. “If these Whispers are actually more widespread than that single contained colony world, they’re important to everyone.” 

Nevada gave a quick nod. “Exactly, gold star or whatever, Eiji. Sounds like we need to find this Occillo guy for several reasons, including getting everything he knows about the Whispers so we can be ready to deal with them.” Pausing, she added with a beaming smile. “Well, that and who doesn’t wanna meet a brilliant, intelligence-enhanced cyborg Indiana Jones troll? That sounds fucking awesome to me, and whoever disagrees gets an F in any of my classes.” A quick cough and correction followed that. “I’m kidding, nobody gets an F. Don’t tell Abigail I said that, she scares me.” 

We talked just a little bit more about that situation, before Tabbris finally bounced up and down eagerly. “Okay, okay, we get the point! Come on, let’s show her the new stuff. It’s all ready, right?” 

Exchanging brief glances with one another at that, Nevada and Columbus paused before the former nodded. She was grinning even more than she had a moment earlier. “Oh yeah, they’re both ready. I mean, you could probably get away with tinkering with them a little more, but it’s good enough. We can always make improvements later.” 

“What’re you guys talking about?” I demanded, looking back and forth between them. “And–wait, you called me birthday girl earlier. It’s definitely not my birthday. And I didn’t exactly have a great one this year anyway.” 

“That’s why we wanted to give you late presents,” Columbus informed me. “To make up for that. First, here.” He reached back to the table, taking a black metal bracelet thing and handing it over. “It’s like the one that Broker guy gave you before, the one that got broken or lost or whatever when Fossor took you.” 

Taking the bracelet, I blinked before asking, “You mean…” 

“He means,” Tabbris quickly put in, “it’s connected to Jaq and Gus! You can use it to see through their eyes, teleport them back to you, or teleport yourself to them.” 

“But that last one is only if you’re within about a hundred feet,” Columbus noted. “Sorry, we couldn’t get it out any further. You can still see through their eyes up to about ten miles though.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t apologize. This is awesome. Amazing. Seriously, I missed this thing. Thought I’d have to track Broker down again to get a new one. I can’t believe you made one yourself.” 

“With some help,” Columbus reminded me, glancing toward Nevada. 

She, in turn, giggled. “Hey, not as much as you’d think considering how new you are to the whole thing. Pretty soon, you’ll be making this stuff by yourself.” 

“You can play with that later!” Tabbris informed me. “Now you’ve gotta see the big thing.” 

Raising an eyebrow as I attached the wristband in place, I asked, “This isn’t the big thing?” 

Prompted a lot of snickers and excited looks between everyone else beyond Avalon, Shiori, and me. Whatever this was about, they all thought it was really cool and couldn’t wait for us to see it. 

‘It’, as it turned out, was a pair of gloves. Dark blue and black gloves with a metallic sheen to them. Columbus passed the thing to Tabbris, who passed it to me, quickly insisting, “Put them on, put them on, put them on. Please?” 

Well, who was I to argue with her? Shrugging, I did so. Of course, the gloves fit me perfectly, like a second skin. “Well, I’m definitely styling now,” I announced while holding both hands up and wiggling my fingers. 

“Check the back of the right glove,” Columbus urged. 

I did so, blinking at the outline of a Great White shark that was emblazoned there. “Hey, it’s Princess Cuddles.” 

Quickly, Tabbris told me to run my thumb across it. So I did, and the emblem changed to that of a Mako shark facing one direction, while a second rub of my thumb switched it to a Mako shark facing the other direction. I had two Mako sharks, Brody and Quint. There were also emblems of the Lemon Shark Simpson, the Bull shark Sherman, and the gorgeous blue-and-white (I’d never been sure of his species) Jabberjaw. 

“Wow, pretty emblems,” I remarked. “But–” 

“It’s more than emblems,” Columbus informed me. “Check the left glove. Feel the little button against the side of your index finger? Push it with your thumb and hold it down.” 

It took a second, but I found the tiny little button he was talking about. There was a slight click when I pushed it. Nothing else happened, at least at first. But after about three seconds, I felt the emblem on my right glove grow warm. And then? Well, then Jabberjaw appeared floating in the air right beside me. I jumped, jerking that way and half-falling while most of the others snickered. 

I wasn’t crazy, and it wasn’t an illusion. Jabberjaw was floating there. Not in empty air, but in a bubble of water that was just slightly bigger than he was. As he swam in a circle around me, the bubble went with him.

Tabbris immediately explained, “See, the gloves generate a bubble of water, and summon the shark that the image on the right one is set to. Now you can bring your sharks with you to places!” 

As soon as he realized I was there, the beautiful shark quickly swam (through the air) over to me to get rubs. Hesitantly, I glanced to the others before getting a confirming nod that it was okay. Then I reached out, my hand passing through the bubble without breaking it so I could rub his head. “Oh my God, you guys really… you really made these just so I could bring my sharks around with me? Wait, I thought you said you couldn’t teleport living things further than a hundred feet with this tech.” 

“Yeah,” Nevada confirmed. “That’s why you need this.” She picked up what looked like a regular little vial with a sealed lid on it, handing it over. “Your sharks are in there. Bigger on the inside and all that. Believe me, it’s big enough that they’ll be fine. Just make sure you check their food supply once a week or so and add more fish.”

I was holding a vial that could fit in my pocket, and it had all my sharks in it. Not only that, I could use my new gloves to bring any of them out and let them float around me in a bubble any time I wanted to. Staring between the vial and Jabberjaw (who was interestedly swimming through the air over to where Tabbris was), I opened and shut my mouth a few times. “Guys, this… you… this is amazing. Seriously. You didn’t have to–but you really–” I swallowed hard. “Thanks.” It was all I could manage. At least, until another thought occurred to me. “Oh my God!” 

“What?” Columbus quickly asked. “What’s wrong? Did–” 

“No, nothing’s wrong,” I assured him. “I just thought of the best thing ever. Quick, give me a target.”

The others all looked at each other in confusion, but Nevada reached into her pocket and then tossed something. As she did so, it expanded into a full archery-like target before landing on the ground, rocking back and forth briefly. “That work?” 

“Yup!” I chirped. Then I waved to Jabberjaw. “See you soon, buddy!” With that, I pushed the button again and the bubble with him inside vanished as he was returned to the safety of the vial, which I had already set in my pocket. Then I stepped closer to the target, judging the distance before rearing back. In the process, I activated the glove once more. As the emblem grew warm, I cocked back my fist and then swung it a good three feet or so away from the target. In mid-swing, the bubble with Jabberjaw appeared once more, crashing through the target and breaking it into splinters. 

“Hah!” I blurted, a broad smile finding its way to my face. “Screw the falcon punch. 

“I can shark punch!” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Long Awaited 12-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I didn’t need much sleep, obviously. But I did stay in bed with my girls for as long as possible. I just laid there and enjoyed being with them while not having anything super-immediate and right in my face that had to be taken care of. Sure, there were things to do, but they could either wait on their own, or we had no choice but to wait because we had no way of affecting the situation yet. Whichever, the point was, I had no flashing life-or-death emergencies at the moment. 

Eventually, of course, I did need to get up and move around. I extricated myself from the bed and slipped downstairs, heading outside to practice with my staff in the backyard. I was mostly just running through some training drills, moving almost entirely on autopilot. It helped me clear my head a bit, even with the audience I attracted as Raphael, Eiji’s rhino cyberform in the backyard next door, moseyed over to the chain link fence and watched me curiously. Of course, I sent Jaq and Gus over there to keep him company, which led to both of the mice perching on each of the rhino’s horns so that all three could watch as I did my thing. I had the feeling that If any of the three that had the ability and materials to write, they would have held up number cards like a scoring table. Actually, come to think of it, that would be a pretty good skill to teach them. Could they learn to write? Because that would be a good way of passing information or relaying an emergency when we didn’t have any other way of–later. I’d think about it later. 

Another thing I had to think about for later was replacing the wristband that had previously allowed me to teleport myself to where my mice were or vice versa. It had been destroyed at Fossor’s, and now that I was back, I really needed a new one. 

When I was done staff-training, I took a jog around the neighborhood. Between my enhanced speed, strength, and stamina, taking a little jog wasn’t exactly going to do a lot for me. Or anything at all, really. But it passed the time and I enjoyed it. Plus, it was a way of re-acclimating myself to the neighborhood, considering how long it had been since I’d actually lived here. God, it felt like I’d been gone for a year, not just a couple months. One of which I’d literally skipped over. I didn’t even know what day it was. Seriously, Petan and his people had made such a big deal about getting me back to the right day, but it had all been in relation to when Fossor’s spell was cast, and was more of a… conceptual date for me. I had the vague idea that it was late November, but God only knew exactly which day. Was it close to Thanksgiving? Had we already passed it? Actually, yeah we had. Fossor made us have that… feast. But I still wasn’t sure what day it actually was. Did it really matter? Probably not, but I was curious. Honestly, I wanted to know when the first real holiday would be where Mom would actually be with us. Mom here with us and safe, Dad safe, my paternal grandparents… not exactly here, but on their way. Hell, maybe they’d make it before Christmas. Wouldn’t getting them back here be a great way to celebrate everything? 

Yeah, okay, my whole family situation was still complicated. Especially when you added in Dare and that whole… yeah. But still, I wasn’t going to let that get me down. This was basically the best condition my family had been in in years. My mother was here, and whatever happened next, she would be with us. Fossor hadn’t won. He’d lost. He was dead. I could let myself be happy about that, damn it. The universe wasn’t going to implode just because I let myself be a little optimistic about things. Not cocky or dismissive, just… optimistic. That was safe, right? 

Eventually, I worked my way back to the house, where I went inside and met up with Rebecca, Miranda, Doug, and Jason, who were all in the kitchen making breakfast together. When I came in, they had a whole thing about welcoming me home and all. It was pretty cute, especially when Jason held up a banner he’d made with those very words across it, which looked so hastily-done I was pretty sure he’d scribbled it out when he saw me coming back from jogging (which, given his ability to multitask, he’d probably done while preparing the food). I didn’t care. I exchanged embraces with everyone, thanking them. Most of them I’d already reunited with back at the Atherby camp before, or on the literal battlefield where Fossor had died. But I still hugged them all as if I hadn’t seen them in years. It was really good to be home, in more than one way. 

Pretty soon, they all went back to getting breakfast ready. I did my best to help, which mostly meant doing exactly what I was told and staying away from the stove just in case. It seemed to work, because nothing blew up and the pancakes, eggs, and sausage all managed to survive without being burnt to a crisp. Which was good, because Tabbris, Avalon, Columbus, Shiori, and Triss had joined us by that point, so there were a lot of hungry stomachs.

Shiori let Choo out of his ball (it wasn’t like he was cramped in there or anything, given the size of the pocket dimension within) in the backyard. The poor guy had exhausted himself during the fight back on the Meregan world and had slept through basically the entire flight home and all that. I couldn’t blame him either. That had been a huge, nasty fight, and the big guy really came through. As far as I was concerned, he’d earned all the naps and extra food he wanted. 

Shiori, of course, had no intention of giving him sausage. Yeah, it wasn’t exactly cannibalism given he wasn’t really a normal pig and all that. But, as she put it, it was close enough to be uncomfortable. Still, he got his share of pancakes and eggs, and he really seemed to enjoy them. We could hear the Jekern happily going at it in the big feeding bowl on the back porch. 

“Should we be saving some of this for Kersel?” I spoke up while everything was being passed around. The wooden Relekun guy was the only member of our house who wasn’t down here, and I kind of felt bad. I didn’t know him very well, or really at all. But still, he was part of the house, even if he did tend to keep to himself. 

“He’s kind of a vegetarian,” Jason informed me with a glance toward the others. “He’s got his own stuff in the fridge. Just make sure you don’t eat or drink anything with his name on it.  Seriously, he gets really particular about that.” The boy said that while scratching the back of his neck in a way that made it clear he’d been on the wrong side of that ‘particularness.’ 

Rebecca spoke up then. “He’s just kind of… shy. Okay, not shy. He doesn’t like to be around people very much. It’s not just Heretics either. Err, Boschers. It’s not just Boschers like us. He doesn’t like crowds or loud noises or having to talk to people in general. He just… keeps to himself. He doesn’t even say much in class.” 

Briefly, I wondered if that had anything to do with an experience the Relekun boy had had, or if it was just the way he was without any tragic backstory. Either way, pushing on that front was probably overstepping to the point of rudeness. He deserved some privacy. So, I focused on the people who were here. And on eating a little bit of breakfast. Emphasis on little bit, considering I still had to eat something with Mom and Dad. No way was I going to miss out on that, no matter how good this breakfast was. 

“Actually, hey, is it a school day?” I suddenly found myself blurting. “I don’t even know what the date is. Or anything.”

That made everyone exchange glances before Avalon answered, “It’s Tuesday, November 27th. They cancelled classes for a few days to let everyone celebrate Fossor dying.” 

“Oh,” I murmured. Yeah, of course that was a big deal for everyone else too. He’d sort of terrorized and murdered a hell of a lot more people than just my family. 

Tabbris, who had been running around the backyard with Choo after scarfing down about half a plate of food (she was holding out for family breakfast too), came trotting back in, out of breath and moved to take several gulps from her own glass of juice. Watching that, I chuckled softly. “Okay, well, thanks for the welcome breakfast, guys. And the banner.” I gestured to where Jason had hung the sad, but cute little thing across the wall with tape. “This is all awesome. And hopefully, this time I’ll stick around long enough to–” 

“Chambers,” Avalon spoke warningly, her gaze intent on me. “Do I need to get a spray bottle and start squirting you and hissing every time you try to tempt fate?” 

Coughing, I shook my head. “No, ma’am.” With that, I pushed myself up and exchanged a kiss with both her and Shiori. Promising to come find each of them later (And, in the latter’s case, that I would talk to Asenath about whatever her thing was), I said goodbye to the others and headed out with Tabbris to go upstairs. The two of us made our way through the maze of corridors to find the right door. Mostly thanks to my Seosten little sister and her perfect memory, of course. 

The door unlocked for us automatically, and we stepped inside just in time to hear laughing and the sound of pots and pans clanging in the kitchen. Exchanging brief glances, we moved that way, finding Mom and Dad working around the stove, chatting with each other. Mostly Mom was teasing him about never learning how to make real food, while he insisted there was some kind of magic anti-cooking curse specifically targeting him, which had clearly passed down to me. 

They were both just… laughing and talking and teasing each other. For a moment, Tabbris and I stood there, taking that in. She reached out to take my hand, squeezing it while giving me a quick, happy look. It was a look that I returned. 

Mom knew we were there, of course. Eventually, she waved us in and set us to different chores for getting this breakfast ready. Omelettes. She was making omelettes. Tabbris and I jumped to follow instructions, and soon the four of us were joined by Deveron, Abigail, Wyatt, and Koren. Then the kitchen was really busy. Not to mention loud. Everyone was talking back and forth, food was sizzling, we were all joking, teasing… laughing… being a family. We were being a family. It was… wow. 

Wyatt even let Corporal Kickwhiskers wander around on the floor, where he, Jaq, and Gus chased each other back and forth through the living room. Of course, Wyatt said it was good training for the little cat’s hunting instincts and ability to quickly assess and adjust to potential danger. I wasn’t sure what kind of training ‘lots of scritches from everyone in the room’ was, but Kickwhiskers definitely got that too. We ate, we talked, we laughed, it was all great. Just… really great. And nothing interrupted. There were no explosions, no sudden emergencies or problems. We got through that entire full breakfast together, and another hour or so afterward of just talking. Deveron told a story about Mom as a student when she was organizing some kind of protest about the way Ruthers was running this one training tournament, and how the old Crossroads Headmaster had practically ripped his hair out because of all the shit she had been piling onto him from getting the other students involved in that whole thing. It sounded pretty great, and I could see just how much they loved each other in the way he and Mom exchanged glances. It was the same sort of look I’d also been seeing between her and Dad. It was–yeah. That was definitely complicated. I was glad that my own joint relationships were more… had started at the same time, basically. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be involved with Avalon for literally decades, then lose and eventually completely forget her for decades, get involved with Shiori, then get my memories of Avalon back. It was all… yeah, complicated. But they seemed to be working their way through it, even if it was clearly going to take time to really figure it out. 

Seeing Mom with Abigail, Wyatt, and Koren was kind of amazing too. For awhile, I just sat back and watched the four of them interact. Koren actually seemed to be the most comfortable, even repeatedly calling her ‘Grandma’ in what I was pretty sure was meant to be a teasing way. But Mom seemed to like it. She chuckled, pulled Koren over to sit on her lap, and started teasing her right back, about what kind of student she was, what kind of boys she might like and if there was anyone special, just general stuff like that. Which made Koren bring up that Wyatt had a thing for Croc over at Eden’s Garden, leading to a whole bunch of chattering back and forth. Wyatt himself seemed kind of overwhelmed and a little reflexively defensive, but he settled down easily enough. Especially when Mom went on to talk about memories she had of Croc, something Wyatt was pretty interested in. I had no idea how that whole thing was going, but apparently he had spent some more time with the guy. Which was great. I really, really wanted good things for Wyatt. After the kind of life he’d had to lead to all his issues, he deserved as many of those as possible. Thankfully, this moment right here counted. For both of us, actually. 

Come to think of it, we all deserved this and more. Tabbris had spent years basically alone. No, worse, she was around Dad and me but had to hide from us. Deveron had lost his wife and children for almost a century. Wyatt had been raised by horrible people who gave him all sorts of legitimate paranoia issues. Dad himself lost his wife for years, thinking she had intentionally abandoned him and his daughter, me. Koren had spent years with the spectre of the Hiding Man looming over her, and the trauma of all that in her memories while no one else in her family remembered anything. 

Out of all of us, Abigail had apparently had the most normal life up until she was traumatically brought into this by that same Fomorian monster. But even she’d been taken away from her real mother, father, and twin brother, and had to grow up in a different place, with different people. I hoped she had a happy childhood and all, but either way, she was still kidnapped from her family. She still lost time, moments, memories that she should have had. Even if it did lead to her having Koren, whom she clearly wouldn’t give up for anything. Hell, that was like the fact that Mom losing everything in Heretic society had led to her having me. It was… complicated. Even Abigail finally being brought into things had come with the cost of losing her husband. And Koren losing her father. He was a man I never knew anything about, and the Fomorian piece of shit had just murdered him to take his place for fun.

So yeah, we all deserved to have as many of these moments, these breakfasts, these mornings, these days as possible. We deserved to have years and years of them all in a row, without interruption. We’d never get that, of course. Hell, lots of stuff was already lining up to call for our attention within the next few months, let alone years. So, I would just enjoy these moments when they came. I would gorge myself on the enjoyment of just being with my family. 

Eventually, Mom asked if I wanted to go for a walk with her. And, judging from the way she was looking at me, I was pretty sure there was something important she wanted to talk about in the process. Of course, I wasn’t going to object to spending more time with her, so we excused ourselves, heading out with just the two of us. 

Whatever Mom wanted to talk about, she didn’t immediately get into it. So, I just showed her around the station for a while, mostly focusing on the school and adult student living areas, considering those were really the only places that I knew. There were a lot of people who wanted to see Mom and ask her questions. That part was unsurprising, but there were others who wanted to talk to me. Yeah, apparently the fact that I had been the one to finally get the killing blow on Fossor had been spreading around, and people wanted to talk about how that felt, or just shake my hand. It was awkward, especially when a couple people asked if I’d really picked up his necromancy and wanted to know if I’d show it to them. 

Thankfully, Mom helped extricate me from the most awkward situations without hurting anyone’s feelings or being rude. She was smooth and very charismatic with them. Better than I ever could have been, that was for sure. If I’d ever had any question as to how she could have been the one to lead that first rebellion, which I really didn’t, I wouldn’t have after this. 

In any case, we talked to people, we wandered around, and I showed her the house I was now living in, along with the others in the neighborhood. I was going to ask if she wanted to go inside and see the others, but Mom suggested we walked to the park so she could talk, and show me something. What she wanted to show me, I had no idea. But it was clearly something important.

Whatever it was would take me a few more minutes to find out, apparently, because when we got to the park, a voice called out my name. It was Asenath, approaching along with Twister. Both of them were focused on me being there, but stopped short when my mother turned that way. 

“Asenath,” Mom immediately greeted, “and Twister. You’re still going by Twister, right? I’d hate to think you went and changed nicknames when you forgot about me.” 

“Forgot you came up with it,” the Pooka girl cheerfully answered, “but I definitely didn’t forget the name. It’s a hell of a lot better than Esevene, that’s for sure.” That said, she made a fist and bumped it against Mom’s. “Still looking good, Jossy.” 

“I’d say the same to you,” my mother replied, “but you’re a bit shorter than I remember you being. Gotta watch out for the people you piss off.”

“Right back atcha, babe,” Twister retorted. 

With that, Asenath coughed and reached out to take Mom’s hand, squeezing it firmly before speaking up. “It is great to see you around again, Joselyn. And to remember who you are.”   

“I enjoy all of that too,” Mom confirmed with a soft smile, pulling Asenath into an embrace. “And I’m glad to hear that you helped my daughter here more than once.” 

Glancing my way, Asenath gave a short nod. “Yeah, well, I sort of tripped over her when I was trying to help the mother of a dead girl get some justice. I–” 

Mom interrupted. “That’s what I wanted to talk to Felicity about, actually. It’s good you’re here.” She glanced toward Twister before adding, “good all of you are here.” She hesitated then, taking a breath before letting it out. “As… you all know, my son… my youngest son, Ammon, was… killed.” Her voice was quiet, and she spoke up quickly when the three of us looked at each other. “Fossor destroyed him long before he… long before he was finally killed. And by that point, the death was more of a mercy. Not only for him, but for everyone else he would have hurt and killed because of what Fossor turned him into.” Even as she said the words, Mom’s voice cracked. I knew it was hurting her to say all this, hurting her to even think that one of her children dying was a good thing. 

She kept going before any of us could find the right words to say anything. “But, you should also all know that he used his power on a man named Scott, and made him kill himself. Scott, he’s a–” 

“A Pooka,” I suddenly put in, a mixture of dread and confusion suddenly rising up in me as I glanced toward Twister. “Wait, Mom. Wait. Are you saying… are you telling us that–” 

Mom, instead of answering, took a phone from her pocket. “I asked a friend to go over and record this for me yesterday before we went on the ship. Watch.” Her voice was quiet as she held the phone up, playing a video on it. 

Twister, Asenath, and I exchanged pretty loaded glances once more before focusing on the screen. There, we saw a house. It was a pretty simple, suburban place. My fists were tight as I waited to see my Pooka-resurrected half-brother show up. How could this be happening? Would he be evil again? He had to be, right? They got all their memories back eventually, so everything that he’d been, everything that he was and what he’d done, it would all–

The front door of the house opened, and a girl emerged. She looked to be about eleven years old or so, with dark hair and a quick smile as she shouted over her shoulder that she was going to someone named Carly’s house. Whoever was taking the video must’ve been invisible or something, because the girl didn’t even look at them despite jogging down the sidewalk right in front of the camera. Watching her, I felt a sense of familiarity somehow. It was like I knew the girl from somewhere. Seriously, I knew her. It was right there on the tip of my tongue.

When she got right up close, her face framed in the video, Asenath suddenly snapped her hand out with vampire speed, pausing it. She was even more pale than usual. “That’s… that’s… how? I know that face. She’s younger now, but I know her. It’s the girl from the gas station. The girl Ammon murdered. Joselyn, how the fuck is Denise Cartland alive? And why is she a kid?” 

“Simple,” came Mom’s quiet response. 

“I used my son’s Pooka respawn power to bring her back, instead of him.” 

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Promise And Peril 11-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Flick, on left!” 

With Columbus’s words ringing through my ears, I spun that way, the bladed end of my staff lashing out and extending to be long enough that it cut through the head of the snake-creature that had been lunging toward me. The body (with its long, sharp talons) was still coming forward, however, so I sent a burst of concussive power from the end of the staff to blow it backward.

At the same time, I felt several of those enchanted quills from the boy’s cyberform porcupine, Amethyst, fly just behind the back of my head to collide with the chest of the enormous, six-armed monstrosity that had been charging up from that side. The quills activated as soon as they hit, summoning a cloud of intense acid that literally started dissolving the ten-foot tall thing’s flesh while it bellowed and staggered. It was like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the guys melted. Soon, he was little more than a rather-disturbing puddle fading away into the sand.

A moment later, the ship behind me let loose with another barrage of shots that cut through more of the larger creatures. They were still mostly focused on fixing the thing so it would be spaceworthy, but every once in awhile they managed to find the time and power to fire off the newly-revealed weapons. It was enough to keep the swarm of monsters from totally overwhelming us, at least. 

But it didn’t completely take care of everything, as evidenced by the fact that two more creatures were already coming at me from either side. One was a four-legged… almost dog-like thing except for the rhino head and the prehensile tongue it was already lashing out my way. The other, meanwhile, looked like a gorilla with no fur and three different heads, all stacked on top of one another. The top was where the real head should be, with the second in its chest and the third in its stomach. And the worst part was that they looked like human heads. They looked like the faces of people I would see just randomly walking down the street on Earth. 

Tabbris and I didn’t have to confer, or even actively say what we were doing. We were too connected for that. We knew, our thoughts, our impulses, all of it linked. Instantly, I snapped my left arm, with the staff gripped in it, toward the gorilla-man (men?). At the exact same time, Tabbris directed my right arm to snap out toward the dog-thing while summoning Herbie from his spot in my pocket. The rock went flying, growing into a much larger stone thanks to my object-growth power. Suddenly, he was about the size of a boulder, sailing through the air. 

While Tabbris was getting the true hero of Earth into the fray, I was sending a burst of concussive force into the legs of the ape-men-thing. The blast knocked the thing tumbling heads over heels with a roar, before I launched myself that way. Flipping over the monster, I drove the blade of my staff into the back of its neck, landing on its back to drive it into the ground as it died. 

Herbie, meanwhile, was frozen in mid-air. Tabbris had used the power from that Lemevwik I’d killed in Fossor’s arena to pause the enlarged-stone. Frozen like that, it remained completely still while the dog-thing went plowing straight into it. Oh, and it also burned half its face off, eyes boiling apart. Apparently Tabbris hadn’t just enlarged and frozen the stone, she also used the super-heating power on it. Now the dog-rhino monster was blinded and its horn (as well as the rest of its snout) was basically a half-melted mess. It looked horrific, and sounded even worse. 

Thankfully, it didn’t exactly last much longer before Avalon was there, cutting the monster’s head off with a casual backhand from one of her energy-bladed gauntlets while simultaneously snapping her other hand down to touch the thing. Under her grip, the creature’s body disintegrated into dust, which then flew toward yet another monster before bursting into flames. 

Yeah, I really had to ask her what the deal with that power was. I’d seen her use it before, back at the fight with Fossor’s army. But later. Right now, there were far more problems to deal with. 

A thought snapped Herbie back to his small size and summoned him into my hand. At the same time, I triggered a burst from my staff to send me flying over to where Shiori was, slamming into one of the humanoid-things she was busy struggling against. Between the two of us, the thing finally went down, leaving us to collapse on top of its body just as Roxa, in wolf form, flew over our heads to rip out the throat of yet another monster. They were everywhere. No matter where I looked, there were more of the things, a never-ending tide that kept slamming up against the wall that was… well, us. And this was a wall that couldn’t last forever, even with help from those new cannons or whatever they were.  

As far as I could tell, none of these kills were giving anyone any kind of power boost. That was a thing with Fomorian creations, of course. Sometimes they gave power boosts and sometimes they didn’t. This time, it appeared that they wouldn’t. Which was both good and bad. It was good considering that distinctive burst of pleasure at the wrong time could have been catastrophic for someone who didn’t have a Tabbris to mute it (which was why we were supposed to be covering one another in big fights). But it was also bad in that it meant we weren’t actually getting anything out of each kill.  

It wasn’t enough. All of this, all of us including the ship itself, and it still wasn’t enough. The Fomorians just kept coming. No matter what we did, no matter how many we killed or how powerful we were, they kept coming. There seemed to be no limit to either the Fomorian numbers, or the depths of the horrors they could think of. Every monster, every single one of their abominations, was a nightmare. And they seemed to have one for every grain of sand on this entire goddamn planet. 

In the distance, I could see my mother and Deveron, back to back as they destroyed the monsters descending upon them. Lillian was there too, the three falling right back into their same teamwork to deal with everything the Fomorians sent at them. But again, they were only so many people and there was only so much they could do. We had to finish this. We had to get out of here. Preferably before we had to face any legitimate Fomorians rather than just their creations. Their army of monsters was bad enough, but a real, full-scale Fomorian? That could very easily tip the scales. It was already all we could do to stem the tide of these minions. 

We didn’t give up, of course. Even as the thought of how bad this could be flickered through my mind, I was already driving my elongated-staff through another pair of monsters, yanking it back, and spinning to hurl the weapon into the face of a third before summoning it back to my hand. 

Yeah, giving up wasn’t even the slightest hint of an option. We would keep fighting, keep killing these fucking things, for as long as we could move. But not all of us had the kind of stamina that I did. We all had various boosts to it, but I knew for a fact I could keep going at full strength for a lot longer than someone like Shiori or Sands could. We had to finish this, one way or another, before they started to falter. Because that would start a domino-like collapse that none of us were going to survive. 

Then it happened. A flash of Vanessa’s face appeared in my mind, along with the words ‘Surrounded – McGillicuddy – Help.’ 

It was my taboo-word power, one of the other things I’d gotten during my time with Fossor that allowed me to designate any word and know when anyone within a quarter mile said that word, along with a single word before and after, and their face. Right now, that word was McGillicuddy. That was what I’d called out for Vanessa to remember as she left with the others. Now she was using it to let me know that they were surrounded and needed help. Which was just fantastic, because the rest of us were doing so well. We were downright bored right now. 

But that didn’t matter. We had to help. Because until Vanessa and the others managed to get Elisabet and Dex to the ship, none of us could get the hell out of here. And time was clearly not on our side. Hard or not, I had to get over there. 

“Jophiel and the others need help!” I shouted over my shoulder toward Shiori, even as the two of us were pressed back-to-back. 

“How’re we supposed to get there?!” Shiori blurted, while Choo came charging in to collide with one of the monsters. And considering he was so big his shoulders were taller than I was, anything that warthog collided with knew they’d been hit. In that case, Choo slammed into the creature with enough force to send the thing crashing to the ground, wide-open for Shiori herself to sever its head with a toss of one of her discs. “I don’t think these guys are gonna listen if we call a time-out!” Even as she said that, her enormous Jekern partner sent a blast of electricity into the air that turned a descending pterodactyl monster into what amounted to a barbecued corpse.  

Avalon was already right there, along with Sands, Sarah, and Columbus. The latter spoke up while shooting a blast from his goggles. “You three go! We’ll cover you.” He vanished briefly, appearing directly behind what looked like a two-headed centaur before bringing it down by ripping both of its necks in opposite directions with enough force to nearly rip the heads clear off. 

Sarah was nodding, raising her rifle to fire three quick shots that took a trio of bat-like monsters that had been in mid-dive directly behind the much larger thing Choo had killed. “We have you. We’ve got this. With the ship’s help, we can handle it.” she informed us flatly. 

It was going to have to be enough. As an idea jumped into my head, I blurted, “On me, let’s take a ride!” To Sands and the others, I added, “I’ll open a path, you keep it open and stop them from following!” With that, I began to shift into my werelion form, using a quick boost to speed the process into taking only a moment before I was running on all fours.

Quickly, Shiori summoned Choo back into his ball and stowed him. At the same time, Avalon caught her hand and tossed her up onto my back. A second later, the other girl landed right behind her. 

There we were, me in lion-form with my girls perched on my back as I ran straight at the nearest wall of Fomorian monsters, all of whom were very eagerly waiting for our arrival. I could put on an incredible burst of speed with my boost, which was why I’d wanted the girls on my back. Unfortunately, in that instant, all it would do was make us slam into that wall of monsters faster

But as I’d said, I had a plan. And I put it into action in that moment, focusing not on the monsters standing there eagerly waiting for us, but on the ones that were already dead. I focused on the piles of shattered, broken, eviscerated Fomorian creations that all littered the ground around their still-living companions. Instantly, using barely more than a nudge, I felt the dead things respond. Dozens of them, dozens, tore themselves upward, half leaving body parts behind as they basically mindlessly and awkwardly threw themselves against the living versions. 

Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. It looked janky as hell, not to mention horrific, with half-destroyed bodies just sort of dragging themselves up with whatever limbs they had left and bodily lunging at one of the other creatures. But it worked. Horrible and awkward as it was, it worked. I’d managed to force the dead Fomorian creatures to create a hole in the middle of their line by shoving their living companions to either side. The hole was basically just big enough for me to fit through. 

I took advantage of that instantly, shoving all I could into my boost for those few seconds. Suddenly, I was running a hell of a lot faster. It was like being back on that freeway in Vegas. I tore across the sand, blowing through the open hole just as Sands, Sarah, and the others opened up on the monsters to make sure they didn’t follow us. My control over the dead ones fell away as all my focus went toward getting to where I could still feel Dexamene through her blood. 

There! I could see a big hole in the sand, like a crater. My power was telling me that’s where Dexamene was. Which meant it was where they all were. Pushing myself harder, I made my lion-self into what amounted to a blur, a furry rocket-engine screaming across the desert. It wasn’t far, of course. But every second counted. Every moment it took for us to get there felt like an eternity where Vanessa and the others could be overrun. So I pushed myself harder, shoving everything I could into moving just a little bit faster. 

Finally, we reached the edge of what turned out to be a thirty-foot deep, eighty-foot wide pit. Sure enough, Dexamene and Elisabet were down there, basically directly in the middle along with Jophiel, Sariel, Tristan, and Vanessa. 

And they were surrounded by even more monsters than I could count, including one that looked like a twelve-foot tall octopus using its tentacles to stand. A large, pulsing blue gem thing took up most of its head, which seemed to give off little sparks of energy now and then. It was in the middle of the group, apparently being protected by everything around it, if my split-second glance was right. It looked like everyone down there was trying to aim for the thing, but their attacks were intercepted. 

Vanessa must have seen us right there on the edge, because suddenly I saw her face again, and heard three words. “Octopus – McGillicuddy – Trapping!” 

Right, yeah, my first impression was correct. That big thing, with the giant pulsing gem in its head, was somehow trapping the group down there. Blocking teleportation or movement powers somehow? I wasn’t sure. Quickly, I shook myself just enough for the others to get off, then shifted into my normal (hah, as if anything about me was normal) human form and blurted that we had to kill the octopus. 

Unfortunately, Avalon quickly revealed the real problem and why the others couldn’t escape by reaching out. Her hand stopped in midair, blocked by a shining, glimmering forcefield that disappeared once she drew back.

 “What’re we supposed to do?” Shiori quickly asked, staring at the group below. “It’s the gem thing, right? That’s making the shield, but we can’t get through the shield to hit it, and those guys can’t get to it because of all the monsters! I don’t think we have enough firepower to overload it.”

“Actually,” I corrected, “that’s exactly what we have. I knew it was a good idea to save this. Ready, Tabs?” 

Uh huh! came the almost-feral sounding response. Of course, her mother and siblings were down there. She was damn sure ready to blow this shield to hell in order to get them out.  

Realizing what I was talking about, Avalon and Shiori both backed up, as those bright energy wings erupted from my back. The wing spread out, even as I shoved everything I had into boosting their power. Tabbris did the same, and an instant later, all that power erupted into a blinding blast that slammed into the shield… and shattered it. I was left staggering, blurting, “Kill it, kill the thing now!” 

Neither Avalon nor Shiori needed a written invitation. Both of them were already moving, leaping out over the pit. Valley produced something that looked an awful lot like the same small silver ball Shiori used to store Choo. Only when she threw hers out and it popped open, a majestic white stag with silver antlers and blue wings emerged. Salten. He flapped hard once just as Shiori and Avalon landed on his back, then carried the two straight over to the octopus thing where they dropped off him to land on either side of the gem. Even as I was recovering from that brief moment of exhaustion, the other two were hitting that gem with everything they had. There were monsters attempting to swarm them, but it was too late. The giant crystal thing shattered, sending power flying in every direction. Power that knocked Avalon and Shiori to either side. Thankfully, before I even had a chance to worry, both were caught in mid-air by Salten doing some pretty impressive midair acrobatics in order to get to each of them. With the monsters below throwing acid, blades, spines, and all manner of other things, Salten flew back up. He was followed by Sariel, Jophiel, and the others as Elisabet used some kind of floating power to raise everyone up. More attacks were being thrown at them, of course, but Vanessa had both hands out and had created some kind of big…red gooey gel ball thing from her palms. It was about ten feet in diameter and she held it with no apparent problems, so it couldn’t have been that heavy. Yet everything that hit it was just absorbed into the ball like some kind of freaky jello mold. Either way, it was weird. But probably not as weird as certain powers I had. 

Before long, everyone made it. Salten landed, and Avalon only waited until she and Shiori were both off him before returning the Peryton to his ball. I couldn’t blame her for wanting him to be out in this hellhole as little as possible. Emergencies only. If anything happened to him here, with these things? Yeah, best he just chill out in his ball. 

“Flick!” Suddenly, Dexamene was hugging me. The Nereid’s grip was tight. “You came!” 

Flushing a little, I nodded. “Told you I would.” As I squeezed tight, my gaze found Elisabet. “I… hi.” She looked very different than I remembered, wearing what was obviously hand-crafted leather armor. That long, luxurious-looking black hair had been cut down to barely reach past her ears. She also had a line of golden daggers attached to one arm and a golden sword at her hip.

“Thank you, Felicity.” The woman was clearly ragged, barely keeping herself upright as she half-leaned against Jophiel. “We had no idea those things were so close. They were waiting for us to get help, they knew–” Shaking that off, she managed, “We need to go, now.” 

“Yes,” Jophiel agreed. “There will be time to sort all of this out. Now, we get back to the ship. 

“Before this entire world turns itself into a portal to the void just to spite us.”

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Promise And Peril 11-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium posted yesterday. If you read that story but missed that chapter, you can find it right here

Fortunately, I wasn’t out for long. Unfortunately, the reason I wasn’t out for long was that the sound of screeching and tearing metal snapped my eyes open. Blinking past the lingering bleary spots in my vision, I stared upward just as a spot of sunlight appeared. Sunlight through the hole that was being torn in the side of the ship as something literally drove its claws through it and ripped upward. Something that was snarling and growling nastily as it continued its work. 

Before I could focus my vision enough to tell what the thing looked like, a laser shot upward from nearby, hitting the invading creature and making it recoil with an angry, pained squeal. Kohaku was there, hand raised with her thumb raised and index and middle fingers pointed like a gun. That was where the laser had come from. A second later, after giving me a quick glance, she launched herself upward toward the hole and disappeared through it. I heard two more quick shots, followed by what sounded like a roaring fireball or something similar. Either there were more Fomorian-crafted creatures out there, or the one was pretty tough.

Or both. Probably both. Either way, I had to get up. This was really no time to lay here. My gaze snapped over to Mom. She was awake. Then it moved to Tabbris. Also awake, sitting next to December and May as the three gazed up at the hole the monster had created. From the looks on their faces, I was pretty sure they had gotten a much better look at the thing than I had. And they weren’t exactly bursting with joy about that fact, so I doubted it was a pleasant creature. 

Avalon and Shiori were up already, standing nearby as they looked to me, the latter pulling Columbus to his feet from where he had been sprawled. I gave them both a thumbs up. 

“Sound off!” Athena was up by then, calling out those two words as she gave a quick look toward the main control panel where smoke was steadily rising, along with a few sparks.

“Risa’s outside,” Haiden quickly snapped. “Covering her.” With that, after making sure Larissa and his family were conscious, the man disappeared. I heard him join the fray out there, my worry about just how many of those things were descending on the ship rising by the second. 

Quickly, the rest of us started calling out to say we were conscious and mostly unhurt. Mom was right by me, her hand on my arm (whether she was reassuring me or herself I wasn’t certain) as she seemed to be scrawling a spell of some kind on a blank stone with a field-engraver. She was drawing too quickly and murmuring too quietly for me to know what it was. One by one, the rest of the Seosten and my friends reported in as we heard the fighting continuing. There was too much of it. This obviously wasn’t a few scouting monsters. It was a full-scale attack.

“Elisabet.” That, of course, was Jophiel. She was up too, her hand outstretched toward the prepared transport circles. But a moment later, the woman hissed, “Blocked. Something’s blocking transports.” Rather than dwell on that, she pivoted, already moving to the hole. 

“Jo, wait.” That was Sariel, speaking up obviously hard for her as she had already stopped her kids from chasing after their dad when he took off to keep the monsters away from the ship. 

“I’m through waiting!” Jophiel snapped, whirling on her. “You have your family back, Sariel. Elisabet is my family. She’s been my family for a hell of a lot longer than you’ve had yours. She’s been in this hellhole for months. I’m going to get her, and if you think you can stop me–”

Sariel raised a hand, speaking up over the other woman. “You’re right. But don’t go alone. You don’t know what condition they’re in, if they’ve been–just don’t go alone. Come on. I’ll go with you.” She’d obviously been about to point out that the Fomorians had attacked us the second we got close to Elisabet and Dexamene, but stopped herself and simply implied it instead.

“Mom!” Tristan blurted, scrambling that way with Vanessa right behind him. He was clearly all geared up to protest that they couldn’t be left behind, that Dexamene was his friend, and so on.

Sariel, however, simply said, “You two, with us. Tabbris, stay with Flick. We’ll be back.” 

“The rest of us will secure the… landing site,” Athena announced carefully. “Clear space around it, then we’ll see what repairs need to be made, and get to work. Be quick, but thorough. I don’t think there was any severe damage, we just need to make it last for a jump out of here.” 

Even as she said that, Sariel, Vanessa, and Tristan were already leaving with Jophiel. As they went, I called to Vanessa, figuring she was in the best head space for it, “Remember what I said back at camp about getting help!” 

The blonde girl gave me a quick thumbs up. Then she was gone with the rest. I hoped… okay, I hoped a lot of things, but in that particular moment, I was mostly hoping that Dexamene and Elisabet were actually safe and that this hadn’t been an intentional trap.  

“December and May will stay with me,” Athena continued. “You’ve both worked on ship systems before, as I understand it. You have experience. Help me assess the damage and determine repairs.” She looked to the two, who seemed surprised that she was asking a couple of SPS Seosten to do such an important job. In response to their staring, the woman snapped sharply, as though she had no time for foolish time-wasting, “Am I wrong?” 

“No,” May immediately replied, head shaking. “We’ve done maintenance on ships. It is… it is one of the most important things our type are allowed to do.” 

“Itwasmyfirstjob!” December piped up in a rush. “CuzI’mlittleandIfitinthepipes!” She said it proudly, even as the implication of someone her age being put in dangerous maintenance situations on live spaceships made a rush of anger rise in me before I pushed it back down. Now really wasn’t the time to start getting offended about the way the Seosten treated people. There would be plenty of time for that later, assuming we all survived this. 

“Good,” came the response. “Then get busy. The repair spells we brought are in the compartment there. Find the right spots to employ them.” 

With that, she looked to Sachael. “Something brought us down. It’s one hundred yards west and about twenty feet below the ground.” 

The man said nothing to that. He simply nodded, then leapt through the same hole as the others, vanishing from view as he moved off to deal with the thing that broke the ship. All by himself, apparently.  

To the rest of us, Athena added, “Help the others clear those things out. Stay together, stay near the ship, don’t let them draw you away. Watch each other’s backs. You clear space while we assess the damage and fix it.” She was clearly reiterating her order to make certain we understood. “We’re not here to kill a bunch of Fomorians. We’re here to grab those two, fix the ship enough to escape, and get out. Go.” With that, she pressed the button to open the rear doors, extending the ramp rather than making us rely on going through the hole in the roof. 

Apollo, Deveron, Pace, and Theia were the first group to go through, joining Kohaku and Haiden outside. Immediately, the sound of fighting got even louder. Things clearly weren’t settling down. Any hope I’d had that the space battle going on above would distract the Fomorians too much to be a threat down here was rapidly evaporating. Then again, Fomorians had a way of doing that with any hope. For a brief moment, my thoughts jumped back to Dare and all the sacrifices she had made just to kick these monsters off Earth. What was she thinking right now, stuck back there while we were off fighting the very creatures she’d lost so much to? How would I feel at this moment if I was in her position? Especially if most of the people putting themselves out here had no idea why I cared about them so much. 

Mom’s hand was still on my arm. There was obviously a lot she wanted to say. Instead, she held the stone out to me. “If we’re separated, use that. It’ll bring you to me.” She hesitated then, looking not only at me, but also to the others. “Be careful. Please.” From the strained sound of her voice, it was taking everything she had not to tell us to wait here. Not that we would’ve listened, and she knew that. 

Still, I took the stone, tucking it away while murmuring, “I love you, Mom.” My hand caught hers, squeezing very tightly for a moment as our gazes locked. It was only for a brief second, not nearly long enough. But then, ‘not nearly long enough’ seemed to describe our entire history with each other, and Mom’s history with her children in general. 

Fuck, that sounded dark and unfair. Which, again, suited Mom’s relationship with–fuck it.

Sands, Sarah, Avalon, Shiori, Columbus, Roxa, and I went together, with Mom and Lillian right behind. On the way, I glanced over to where Tabbris stood and called over the sounds of battle that had gotten so much louder ever since the ramp was opened. “You staying with December?!”  

There was a very brief pause, before her head shook. She disappeared, and I heard her voice in my head as she spoke a single word. Partners

Partners, I replied firmly, managing a very slight smile before wiping it away. Time to do this. 

With that, I shoved down all the doubts that tried to creep into my thoughts, all the fear of facing more of those Fomorian abominations, and pushed myself into running down the ramp while drawing my staff. Avalon and Shiori were on either side of me, the others all around us. 

Reaching solid ground (or as solid as the sand under my feet could be), I looked quickly to the left and right, my gaze taking in everything that was going on. And as I did so, any last lingering optimism I’d had that we could easily deal with this situation was gone. I’d already realized that this wasn’t a scouting party, but it was even worse than I’d imagined. The entire area around our crashed ship was flooded with monsters of all shapes and sizes. It was a horror show beyond anything I could have imagined. Hundreds of the creatures all swarming around all sides. It was impossible to tell where one monster ended and another began. Some had multiple heads, some had none that were discernible. There were claws, tails, tentacles, fangs, bloated sacks of venom or acid, snakes with shark-like heads, an enormous antelope thing with shoulders twelve feet high and a dozen legs, something that looked like a giant pterodactyl with a fat body and hundreds of tiny baby-like hands all along its front from neck to tail, flailing and grasping at the air. All that and more, so much more. Monsters beyond description were in every direction. 

Haiden, Kohaku, Mom, Theia, and all the others were doing their best to deal with the things, but it was all they could do just to stop the beasts from completely overrunning our small group. They were a flood of nightmares that kept swarming higher and higher, like a rising wave threatening to capsize a ship. Only in this case, our ship had already crashed. The longer we were here, the more of these things that would show up. And it was already right up at the tipping point. We didn’t have any backup or rescue coming. We were the rescue. If we didn’t hold them off right here and now, that was it. 

But we didn’t have to last long. That was our only saving grace. If we could hold off the swarm long enough for Sariel, the twins, and Jophiel to grab Elisabet and Dexamene, we could escape. Well, assuming Athena and Calendar girls (still didn’t like that term) could fix the ship. 

The point was, we only had to hold out for a short time. Please, please let us last that long. 

To my right, Avalon was already using three quick shots from Porthos in his gun form to make a flock of bat-like creatures with steel-tipped wings abort their dive-attack. The bat-things regrouped, shrieking as they launched tiny, needle-like blades from their wings, which Avalon caught against a glowing energy shield that was suddenly projected from one of her gauntlets.

Meanwhile, Shiori had intercepted a four-foot tall stone-skinned ape thing with four legs and three arms. She launched herself that way, fist slamming into its face before a sudden, momentary duplicate appeared just long enough to copy her motion to hit it a second time. It tried to grab the real Shiori as the duplicate disappeared, but she turned to sand, letting the thing fall through her before reforming behind it, mouth open to shoot a burst of lightning into its back. 

They were both handling things. Which was good, because I didn’t exactly have time to help either of them. Ahead of me, there was a fifteen-foot long squid thing with its own tentacles lashing out, and as my eyes snapped that way, the front of the squid’s body opened up right along the middle to reveal a naked humanoid male shape attached within a nutrient sac. The humanoid was maybe four feet tall, with fully-formed genitals and an oversized head that lolled to the side within the gel-like liquid. It had no eyes, and only three fingers on each hand. All six of those fingers rose to point toward me, and I heard an utterly horrific wailing as it opened its mouth. It was a wail that seemed to make my very bones creak, sending an awful chill down my spine as it vibrated in my skull.

The squid-thing that served as the naked, immature humanoid’s main body boosted itself up on two tentacles while sending three more straight at me. The screaming continued unabated. If anything, it actually got louder, the sound seeming to drive itself deep into my brain, taking all of my focus. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t–

And then it was gone. The would-be distracting pain from the thing’s scream vanished, and the sound itself was heavily muffled. I could still somewhat hear it, but it was barely there. My eyes focused just in time to launch myself up in a leap over the nearest tentacle, staff lashing out to stab the already-prepared bladed end into the second tentacle. That drew a new scream from the humanoid, but this was a wail of pain rather than an attack. 

Thanks, I blurted quickly to Tabbris for shutting down my senses to save me from the thing’s scream. At the same time, I was already landing on the third tentacle, which instantly flung me toward two more tentacles that were already lashing my way, trying to snap my body in half by crushing me between them. But I was faster, launching myself into a backward flip that carried me just barely through the narrow space between the two incoming tentacles. On the way, I spat a wad of resin, which caught all three tentacles (the two that had been coming toward me as well as the one that had flung me), trapping the trio together like a wad of super-strong rubber cement. Which gave me an opening, as I dropped toward the ground, to create a quick portal in front of me. With a grunt, I boosted my strength while shoving the blade of my staff through the portal and out the other end, which was located right in front of the humanoid’s face. The amniotic sac or whatever the thing was encased within was tough, but it shattered under the strength of my empowered blow, and the blade went right through the thing’s face while it screamed. 

Then I hit the ground, landing in a crouch as the squid-humanoid fetus thing collapsed lifelessly. To my right, Sands and Sarah were working together with Avalon to deal with an incursion from that side. To my left, I caught a quick glimpse of Roxa, Pace, and Theia bringing down the big antelope thing. Meanwhile, Shiori was racing straight at me, shouting something about a boost. Instantly I saw what she meant, crouching to catch the other girl’s raised foot as she leapt. Activating my boost once more, I heaved as hard as I could, throwing her upward just high enough to catch the swooping pterodactyl thing with all the tiny hands. The second she was there, all those hands tried to grab her. But once more, Shiori did the ‘shift to sand, let the thing pass through her, then reform again’ trick. That time, it put her on the flying monster’s back. 

In that instant, I had two more creatures coming after me. The first was essentially a three-foot diameter ball with a humanoid face on the front that popped hands out anywhere it needed to. It flew through the air at me just ahead of a fat, five-foot tall reptilian figure with nine-foot long arms. 

Laser? Tabbris pressed, seeing the line of monsters behind those ones. 

My head shook, even as I closed the gap. Save it until we need it. Last ditch thing. 

In the background, I could see Shiori throw something out ahead of the flying monster she was riding. It was a small silver ball, which popped open to release Choo. In mid-air, the horse-sized warthog creature unleashed a blast of electricity straight into the flying monster just as Shiori flung herself off it and shot an identical blast into the thing from behind. The twin lightning bolts hit the Fomorian creation, sending it sputtering lifelessly to the ground. 

By that point, I’d reached the ball-creature. A plus-sign shape appeared along the front of the thing before it split open along those four sections to reveal what looked like a miniature blackhole. It was some kind of super-gravity field that instantly yanked me toward the thing. But I caught myself with a burst of energy from my staff, arresting my momentum just in time before the bigger monster’s long arm swept through the space where I would’ve been without that help. 

A sudden shot from Porthos hit the ball-creature, which exploded into a spray of goo that I threw myself forward and rolled under to escape from. I wasn’t absolutely sure being hit by the goo would be a bad thing, but it was a fair guess. 

By that point, even as I smacked the long-armed creature’s hand out of the way with my staff, I could see Shiori and Choo out of the corner of my eye. She was actually riding him, having landed on her pet’s back before he, in turn, landed on the back of one of the giant snake-serpent monsters. The Jekern was charging ahead, shooting lightning from his mouth while Shiori urged him onward, riding her pig-mount as they took the snake thing right to the ground. 

In that moment, just as the blade of my staff was driven through the long-armed reptilian’s stomach as I half-lay at its feet, one of Avalon’s energy blades cut through it from the back. The thing was basically cut in half, falling apart while the beautiful dark-haired girl caught my hand to haul me back to my feet. “No time to nap, Chambers!” she blurted, turning to put her back to mine as even more of the monsters appeared. There was no end in sight, as more and more of the things emerged. Nothing we did was enough. I saw kill after kill, but there were just so many of them. 

If Jophiel and the others didn’t get back with Elisabet and Dexamene, if we couldn’t get this ship back off the ground and get out of here really soon, we were going to miss our chance. We would be overrun. Even with my mother, Haiden, Risa, and the others, it wasn’t enough. There were too ma–

Abruptly, I sensed a sudden change behind me. But before my item-sense power could thoroughly process it, there was a high-pitched whine, and a burst of bright, blinding light as a laser passed just over my shoulder. And a bit to my left. And far off to the right. And in a dozen or more different directions. 

Half of the Fomorian army that had been descending upon us completely vanished, blown apart from lasers fired by…. by… 

I pivoted back toward the ship. Except it wasn’t the same ship anymore. Before, the thing had looked like a tube with a flat bottom. Like a metal twinkie, basically. Now, the main body of the twinkie had grown by about a third of its original length, as sections of it had split apart down the length and extended almost like an accordion. Every few feet, a series of panels slid apart. Doing so uncovered a series of glowing reddish discs. Those red discs were where the lasers that had torn through half of the Fomorian pack had originated. 

“Hey!” we all heard May’s voice call through some kind of ship-mounted intercom. “Starting the repairs on the ship made it shift into some kind of combat mode!” 

There was the slightest of pauses, before Athena’s voice carried through the same intercom. “Made it do what?!

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Promise And Peril 11-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Our original idea had been that we would fly in, locate Elisabet and Dexamene, then get close enough to teleport them onto the ship and flee before the Fomorians had time to scramble too many of their defenses. Obviously that plan had been completely incinerated thanks to the fact that the fuckers were already in the middle of a pitched battle against… some unknown force. 

That unknown force wasn’t the Seosten, yet was strong enough to send a whole fleet after the Fomorians here on the Meregan world. Why? Who? How? Every possible question was swirling through my head as I simply stared open-mouthed at the screens that showed the battle going on ahead of us. For that moment, I couldn’t think, let alone speak. I had no idea what to do. And from the looks on the faces of Vanessa, Tristan, and the other students around me, neither did they. We’d thought we were ready for just about anything we could’ve run into. We were wrong.

Thankfully, we weren’t the only people here. And the others we had with us were a hell of a lot more experienced than we were. Taken by surprise or not, the real adults around us had been through more than we had (crazy as that might seem), had seen far more surprises and learned to react faster to them. Particularly the Seosten given their lifespans, but Mom and the others too. My friends and I had been through a hell of a lot in a year, but they had been through so much more for so much longer. 

Athena was the first to react, after what had to be barely a second since she had admitted that she had no idea who the other ships belonged to. “Helm, full power on sub-engines, boost forty percent from weapons and reserves split evenly. Take everything you need to do your thing. Guns aren’t going to get us through this today. Navs plot Ah and Bay courses through sector quattuor-sex-septem and feed to Helm, bracing for on-fly adjustments. Jophiel on exterior spellwatch, Haiden and Larissa back her up, you’ve done this before. December and May on secondary spellwatch. Something gets through Jophiel, call it out and intercept with counters. Sachael is on power-watch. Feed energy where it’s needed. Joselyn, Risa, back him up. If he raises a hand, he needs you to feed magic energy to him so he can shift it to the ship’s systems when needed. Helms has full control, feed everything she needs to her and let her work.”

She rattled off those instructions so effortlessly, and everyone immediately moved to follow them. Sariel was apparently Helm, while Apollo was Navs, both of them springing to action as their hands danced across the consoles, blurting words to one another in a rapid series of what had to be half-code and half-intuition from the sheer length of time they’d known each other. No wonder people had considered the two of them to be twins, because they sure communicated like they were right here and now. They were barely speaking English, just blurting sentence fragments or strings of numbers and letters, often finishing one another’s… whatever. 

Meanwhile, the others jumped right to action too. Mom and Kohaku slid closer to Sachael, who had lifted one hand to press against the wall of the ship while his other hand steadied a console and turned it closer to him, his fingers flying over the holographic buttons to make it send reports on the ship’s systems. At the same time, Jophiel (whose magical meditative-state had vanished the instant she was needed) sank in her seat a little while producing two small metal discs, one in each hand. Her eyes drifted half-closed as she began slowly moving the discs around seemingly randomly. They glowed very faintly now and then, and when they did, she would move the discs back to the spot where it had happened and murmur something. My guess was that the discs detected magic that might affect our ship or the people in it and she was ready to block such attempts. With the help of Haiden and Larissa, who had already produced what had to be counterspell-enchanted coins, ready to use them at whatever spot the Seosten woman indicated. 

May did the same as Jophiel, though her movements weren’t quite as smooth. She had December backing her up, one hand on the other Calendar member’s side as though ready to feed energy into her while her other hand held a counterspell coin of her own. 

The rest of us weren’t totally left out of things, obviously. The moment the ship took off, heading what seemed like straight for the battle, Athena turned slightly to call back, “Felicity, be ready to track the moment we’re within the atmosphere. The rest of you, prepare the transport circles just as I showed you!” 

Trying to ignore the fact that we were flying straight into the crossfire between two fleets of warring ships and had no idea whether the people fighting the Fomorians would give a shit about killing us along with them, I reached deep into my pocket, unzipping it. After digging around a bit, I came out with a small vial. A thick, pale blue liquid was visible through it as I clutched the vial tight. It was protected against damage, of course. But still, the contents were entirely too precious to risk losing. Not after we’d come all this way. 

All around me, Avalon and the others were already crouching in the bit of open space where the base of the transport circles had been started before we ever left, drawn in by Athena and Sariel the night before. Vanessa, Tristan, Roxa, and Avalon worked on one while Sands, Sarah, Columbus, and Shiori worked the other. Tabbris helped by moving between both, suggesting improvements or corrections here and there. They couldn’t finish the enchantments because the details had to be saved for when we were actually here. But my friends were quickly sketching in what was needed with a few glances toward a nearby console to get specific coordinate details. Even then, they wouldn’t be able to finish just yet. Not until we had an exact location. And that part was up to me. 

Trying not to think about what would happen if the world-shattering forces around us actually started to pay our relatively little ship too much attention, I focused on staring intently at the planet ahead while gripping the vial tight. I wanted to help the others, I wanted to do anything other than sit there. But I had to be ready. I couldn’t be distracted. Besides, as much as I wanted to contribute, they had enough people drawing in the transport spells. And I sure as hell had no idea what I was doing when it came to actually helping with the ship defense. My need to help wasn’t an excuse to get in the way. 

But, valid as that point was, it didn’t really help me feel any better. I couldn’t contribute right now. All I could do was sit there, tensely watching the battle going on ahead and all around us. Lasers, missiles, random spells, tentacles, fang-filled monstrosities, and more exploded, shot, and swarmed everywhere I looked. Our ship barrelled right on through, spinning, diving, and rolling just to get a little bit closer to the planet with each passing second. Several spells came close, but Jophiel and May, with help from the others near them, dispelled and countered them before they could do too much. Meanwhile, Athena was snapping orders back and forth between Sachael, Sariel, and Apollo. She was clearly using a mix of watching the screens and her own power to keep track of any immediate dangers, telling them where to go and when to transfer power between the shields and engines just for that little bit of a boost at the exact right time.

There was no way we could’ve made it through with this array of forces against us, on either side. The plan, again, had been to get to the planet and out before they could assemble everything we were already seeing. This ship was a prototype, intended to test the transport system, not to win (or even survive) a battle like this. And here we were, flying directly into the middle of a fight between two incredibly powerful fleets who were intent on utterly destroying one another. We were a very small bird flying through a hailstorm of lasers, missiles, and worse. 

The fact was, we probably still would’ve been destroyed if we didn’t have Athena, Sachael, Jophiel, Sariel, and Apollo. They knew what they were doing, and had fallen right back into working together as if no time had passed since they were part of the same crew. It was kind of amazing to behold, terrified as I was about the whole situation. 

And yet, above and beyond all the others, it was Sariel who got us through it. I watched her at the controls as she seemed to sit in total relaxation. She wasn’t stiff, wasn’t hunched over in her seat. Instead, she sat back, breathing calmly in and out while carefully yet coolly putting her hands up against the holographic display. Then? Then she went to work. 

When it came down to it, flying this ship through this battlefield amounted to driving a dump truck through a field full of tanks, artillery, and racecars armed with machine guns. But impossible had apparently never met Sariel’s piloting. 

A very slight touch with one hand sent the ship spinning upside down (well, relative to how we were before), while her other hand slowed our speed fractionally and touched the nose of the craft downward by maybe a meter. In that same instant, while the ship was in mid-spin, two massive laser-blasts passed through the space where it had just been. They came in at an upward angle, spaced apart just enough they passed above and below the ship itself. The fact that it was already spinning and thus at a diagonal angle was the only reason the shots missed. And, given the ship was basically a tube aside from having a flat bottom and rounded top meant the shots came really close indeed. 

No sooner had those two shots skimmed past us than we were fully upside-down, and in that instant, a flailing Fomorian tentacle passed just barely above the now-upward facing belly of the ship, while some kind of glowing ball of… something bad went sailing just above the nose of the ship that Sariel had nudged down enough to avoid that very thing. 

That was just the first half-second. Three different attacks, all avoided with a single maneuver. And then? Then it got really nuts. Sariel flew that ship like it was an extension of her own body. I’d seen her in physical action, I’d heard and seen how her power amounted to more than just being able to hit things really well. It gave her perfect accuracy. Anything whose path and motion she was capable of controlling, including herself and things she drove or piloted, she did with that same perfect accuracy. She threw and shot things like a goddess, true. But she also moved and piloted like one. If she controlled where and how something moved, it did so utterly flawlessly. 

It should have been impossible to make it through the battlefield before us. Yet Sariel made it look easy. Every motion of her hands, every control she touched, every slight adjustment of the ship’s trajectory, speed, and more made dozens of attacks miss. Some of them (mostly from the Fomorian side) were intended for us, some were just attacks we happened to pass through on our way. But between Sariel’s piloting and the magic defenses from Jophiel, December, and May we avoided all of them. This little, flimsy, dump truck of a shuttle danced through the entire battlefield like it was nothing. 

Through it all, with each passing minute, we drew closer and closer to the planet. Yet it didn’t seem to be enough. No matter how close we got, the world seemed eternally far away. It was like staring at a pot of water while you were trying to make food, willing it to start boiling and all it would do was steam forever. Except in this case, instead of a few hunger pangs there were blindingly bright, six-meter-wide laser blasts that would have obliterated our entire ship and everyone on it if they got too close. And all I could do, the only thing I was capable of in that moment, was rocking my body back and forth in the seat, silently willing us to please go just a little bit faster. Which was about as helpful as… well, about as helpful as rocking back and forth on a spaceship to make it go faster. With the vial clutched tight in one hand, I swallowed hard past the lump in my throat. Please. Please get there. Please let us make it in time. We were so close. After everything that had happened, if Elisabet and Dexamene ended up dying anyway, or worse, I wasn’t sure how I would live with myself. To say nothing of what would happen if I managed to get myself and everyone on this ship killed by dragging them into this in the first place. 

We had just beaten Fossor. He was dead. And now I had to pull basically half the people I cared about in the world into a situation like this? Yet, what choice did I have? I owed Dexamene and Elisabet everything, everything. I owed them my life, my freedom, the lives and freedom of basically everyone I knew, everyone in the entire world if Fossor had had his way. 

We had to get there. We had to save them. 

An explosion of blue light and what appeared to be a rapidly expanding mushroom (not a mushroom cloud, a literal mushroom in the middle of space) appeared just to our left, while a beam of energy wide enough to encompass an entire football field blasted through the space to the right. But Athena had been ahead of things, snapping orders two seconds earlier that made Sariel twist the ship to fly right through the relatively narrow space between the two attacks. Immediately, the woman called out another order to Sachael to shove all the power he could to engines for the boost, and the ship sped up to narrowly avoid some kind of gravitational anomaly spell that burst to life right where we had just been. The engines strained against the force of its pull, but with the added power were barely able to pull us through. 

It went on like that, chaotic and insane. Anything Sariel herself couldn’t avoid with her expertise and power, Athena was on top of with her own. Sitting where I was, unable to actually help, I saw all of it while most of the others only seemed to be able to focus on the one thing they were trying to do. Lucky them. I sat, eyes snapping from person to person, from near-hit to near-total-destruction. I saw Apollo calculating the best approach through the dazzling array of attacks passing back and forth between the two fleets, saw my mother and Kohaku next to Sachael, feeding power to him so he could keep the ship’s systems running properly, saw my friends frantically yet carefully trying to finish the transport spells. All of this, everything around me, was happening all at the same time, throughout this chaotic battle. And through all of it, I could do nothing to actually help. I had to sit there, waiting and hoping we would get close soon. Tempting as it might have been to try to aid my friends, not only was getting in the way a bad idea, but if I ended up getting distracted with that and missed the fact that we were in the atmosphere I’d end up making the whole situation worse by dragging everything out. 

So, I waited, tensely watching throughout the fight. If it hadn’t been so terrifying and the situation so critical, I might’ve enjoyed the show. Between all the lasers, the monsters literally swimming through space with their tentacles waving out to grab passing ships, the way various spell effects triggered here and there, it was the sort of spectacle that would take a hundred million or so to make a movie of. 

Gripping the vial tight in one hand, I stared as the fighters and smaller vessels swooped here and there, or looming above and below like enormous whales in the case of the capital ships. I could hear my own breathing over the sound of everyone else calling back and forth, and forced myself to breathe. Calm. Listen. Watch. If it came down to it, knowing everything possible about these people who were fighting the Fomorians might end up being really important. So I took in everything I could, just in case. I didn’t understand much of it, to say the least. But I took it in.

Ten minutes. It took ten minutes of this, one of the longest ten minutes of my life, and our ship was a bit singed, the shields heavily damaged from a couple near-misses. But we made it. We finally penetrated the atmosphere, dropping quickly toward the world below while Athena called out for me to do my part. 

Immediately, I popped the top off the vial and poured some of the contents out into my hand. The pale blue liquid pooled in my palm. It was blood. Specifically, Dexamene’s. Yeah, we weren’t just blindly hoping I’d be able to find her when the time came. I had my harpy blood-tracking power from the last time I’d been here, fighting against Nicholas’s forces. It clearly required we be at least somewhat nearby, but I could use it as the ship skimmed through the atmosphere and point out when we were close, getting us to them through a game of hot and cold. At least, that was the idea. 

The real question was, would the fact that there was an all-out war going on just above help or hinder us? The Fomorians were already out in force rather than having to scramble the way we’d expected, but they were also busy at the moment. I supposed it really depended on how well the unknown forces did at keeping them occupied. 

But seriously, how the hell was there an entire fleet powerful enough to stand up against the Fomorians this way and none of the several very well-informed Seosten here had any idea who they were? How was that even possible? Was it just a case of space being really fucking big and therefore the Seosten simply didn’t know every force that was out there? That seemed too simple, and yet I couldn’t think of any other explanation. Especially if these people were relatively new to the scene. That made sense, sort of. I’d just spent the past year being conditioned to believe the Seosten knew basically everything about the universe, so it was a weird awakening. 

In any case, wondering about all of that could come later. Right now, I was going to hope that, whoever they were, they managed to keep the Fomorians off us. Meanwhile, I closed my eyes, focusing on the blood pooling in my palm. Dexamene… Dexamene… where was she? Please. God, please, I had to find her. I wasn’t positive of how far away I could be and still use the Harpy’s power. Hopefully not too far, or this could take a long time. 

Now it was everyone else’s turn to anxiously watch me. There were a few tense words about staying low and keeping an eye on any incoming threats, but for the most part the other people onboard simply stared and waited. I could feel their eyes on me, clearly silently urging the power to trigger just as much as I was. Please… Dexamene… please… How much time had passed? How many minutes? How much longer could we stay here? How long would it–

“There!” Without warning, and while barely consciously realizing what I was doing, my hand snapped out toward the right. “A hundred miles that way!” It was right on the edge of my senses, barely a blip, yet I was absolutely certain it was her. 

The ship instantly turned, heading the way I pointed out. As we got closer, I was able to guide them more specifically, all while praying that what I was leading us to was a living, free Dexamene and not a body. Nearby, I could see Tristan clasp his hands, staring ahead anxiously while Sarah put a hand on his shoulder. Jophiel, on the other hand, had her gaze fixated solidly on me as she waited tensely. We were close, so close. Within a few seconds of my pointing out where to go, the distance had dropped from a hundred miles to practically nothing. 

Then we were there. My power said Dexamene was directly below, and the ‘window’ at the front of the ship adjusted to show a view of what was down there. 

“Yes!” Tristan suddenly thrust his fists in the air. And I didn’t blame him, because they were there. Dexamene and Elisabet both. The two stood below, staring up at the ship. We’d made it. They were safe, they were–

Brace!” Athena abruptly shouted, an instant before… something hit us. I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that there was a bright flash, a loud bang, and the ship suddenly started spinning wildly. The view went wild, the ground coming up far too quickly. 

Then we hit, and my vision went black.

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