December

At Last 16-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We weren’t trying to shove every member of the Rebellion together into the same room for this whole thing. As enormous as this station was, that just didn’t sound fun at all. And after all, one of the main points of all this was to have a party to celebrate finally getting that spell off the ground. And, more importantly, finally having a real, permanent defense against Seosten possession. Yeah, it was a big deal, and we were damn sure going to celebrate accordingly. Quite frankly, the idea of packing everyone into the same space and then setting them off made me picture a mosh pit. Which, those things were dangerous enough already, before you added in superpowers and a huge amount of size difference between various people. It–yeah. To say nothing of the fact that what the younger people would see as a good party was very different from what a lot of the older people would. 

So, we weren’t trying to squeeze everyone together. Instead, each major group had their own rooms. These were enormous chambers in their own right, like, football field-sized. I was pretty sure the various rooms had different set-ups, but this one (the one for adult students, our teachers, and a few others) had a large dance floor in the middle, long tables waiting to be filled with an assortment of food lining the sides, and smaller, circular tables to sit at toward the opposite side of the dance floor. Not that anyone was dancing or eating at the moment. We were mainly just standing around waiting and talking to each other. Or watching the screens. 

Yeah, screens. The walls were lined with dozens of them, most showing the other rooms full of people here on the station, while a few showed places away from it, like the Atherby camp, Wonderland, or the motel that the Eden’s Garden rebels had taken over. I even saw some that appeared to show completely different planets. Yeah, this was a big deal. Even bigger than I had already known. There were thousands of people pictured through these screens. And I was pretty sure I wasn’t seeing all of them. This was just… it was huge. There was no other way to put it. 

I could look around this single room and see most of the people I knew personally. And even in that case, most of the people here I didn’t know at all beyond a passing glance and name at most. I saw my teammates, my friends, my housemates, my teachers, other people from my classes, and a lot of people I had never even spoken to before. I saw dozens and dozens of people, of all shapes and sizes, whom I was pretty sure I had never seen, just right here in this room. Then I looked at the giant monitors all along the walls and recognized even less faces. but they were faces of people totally committed to this Rebellion, committed to changing things, to risking their lives in an attempt to make the world a better place. 

Only in that moment, as I stood there in our own room and stared at all these video screens showing so many people, did I really even start to grasp the size of this rebellion. Between the Alters who joined up with us, my mother’s original group of Heretics, their descendants who joined recently, those on colony worlds who wanted to be a part of it now that they knew it existed, the Garden rebels, and Athena’s group… yeah. I finally understood what a relatively small part of this whole thing I really was. 

All these people had their own reasons for being involved in this rebellion. They all had their own stories, their own battles, their own triumphs and failures. They had their enemies and friends, their lovers. They had their own everything. It would have taken a million lifetimes for me to find out even a fair percentage of all their stories. I was a piece of this, just a piece of a much larger whole. A whole which, with any luck, would use this spell as the real starting point to actually start to change not only the world, but the entire universe

Right, no wonder I suddenly felt so small. 

“It’s pretty intimidating, isn’t it?” 

Recognizing the voice, I turned to find myself staring at Avalon. She stood there, looking tired but still so incredibly beautiful. For a moment, my heart clenched. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen her at all recently. Sure, she’d been really busy helping with the spell, but she still came home most nights. We had spent time together these past few weeks, even if it was a bit short. And yet, seeing her right then, now that she was finally at the end of the long road that her ancestor’s spell had led her along, it… it meant more than I could even describe.

“Intimidating,” I found myself echoing without even thinking about it, “I’d say gorgeous.” 

Raising an eyebrow as her mouth quirked up very slightly in a smirk, Avalon casually replied, “Well, if you think all these people are gorgeous, maybe I don’t feel nearly as special.” 

Eyes widening, I flushed before quickly stepping that way to take the other girl into a tight hug. “You are definitely special,” I insisted. Just standing there with her, arms around my girl, was just… a shiver ran through me. It felt good. It felt right.

But that was nothing compared to how right and good it felt when Avalon took my chin in her hand and kissed me. At that moment, the entire world seemed to fade away. All of the hundreds of people in the room with us, the thousands on all those different monitors, everything and everyone disappeared, until it was only the two of us standing… no, floating in a void. I didn’t care about anything for those few long, precious seconds. The only thing that mattered was Avalon. 

Finally, my eyes opened as our lips parted, and I whispered, “I love you.” 

It was her turn to shiver, swallowing hard as she met my gaze. “I love you, Felicity,” Avalon murmured, gently kissing me once more. “You… you’re one of my favorite people.” 

Her eyes fell then, and I knew why. Gaia. Another of her favorite people. Reaching up, I gently cupped the side of her face, brushing my thumb just over her cheek. “We’ll get her out of there, Valley, I promise. Now that we have the possession-protection spell, we’ll find out where they’re keeping Gaia and save her. She needs to be back here. She needs to be part of this.” 

“She does,” Avalon agreed in a soft voice. Her hand moved to catch mine against her face, interlacing our fingers. “She saved me… a lot. She saved me more than I can say. I have to save her this time, okay? I can’t–I can’t just leave her.” 

“We won’t,” I promised, squeezing her hand firmly. “Whatever it takes, Valley, we’ll find her and get her back.” Then I asked about the other person she had grown quite fond of over these months. “How’s Dries doing?” 

There was a brief pause as she considered. “He’s… going through a lot right now. He’s happy that this whole thing is finally finished, after everything he and Liesje went through. But also… sad that she’s not here to see it. As good as it is, as happy as he is about the spell finally being done, the whole thing just keeps reminding him of all the bad stuff too. It’s… bittersweet.” 

Swallowing, I replied, “We have to be there for him. Make sure he knows he’s not alone. He… he deserves to have you around. You and Professor Tangle both. He needs to see and know that his family still exists, that they survived. That… you survived.” 

The two of us nodded to one another, then turned and began to make our way through the crowd together, still hand-in-hand. No way was I going to let go if I didn’t have to. We walked the room, saying hi to a few people here and there, mostly those I didn’t know but Avalon did. They were all talking to her, all congratulating and/or thanking her for everything. Valley, for her part, seemed embarrassed by the attention, but was trying to keep it together. She knew as well as I did just how big of a deal this was for the people who had lived under threat of Seosten possession for so long. Even those who had only recently found out the truth. It was big for them too. It meant that they wouldn’t have to constantly worry about the people around them being turned into spies and puppets. It was–yeah, it was a big deal. 

Eventually, the two of us found our way to a corner of the room where most of our friends were waiting. They had staked out an area with a few tables we could sit at once the whole thing got started. As we approached, Shiori hopped up from one of the tables, where she had been playing some sort of card game with Koren and Jazz. “Flick!” She came to give me a hug of her own, as Avalon released my hand so she could turn to say something to Columbus as he stepped over. I returned Shiori’s hug, pulling her to the side a bit so I could kiss her without feeling like we were being stared at the whole time. “Hey, Shy,” I murmured. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Before she could respond to that, Tabbris took her turn for a hug, whispering in my ear that December and the other Calendar people were ‘over there.’ I looked, and saw the three in question along with a couple other Seosten. They were all sitting at a nearby table, looking… well, not confused. They looked like they didn’t know if they would be welcome here or not, like they were ready to bolt for the door the moment anyone gave them a dirty look. Obviously they felt awkward about the fact that this entire thing was about their people being prevented from possessing people without permission. 

I felt like I should step over there and say something, but before I could move, Miranda was right in front of me. “Flick!” she blurted, “look at all these people.” She gestured to the monitors then. “Look at all those people. This is crazy.” 

“I guess getting the chance to be immune to Seosten possession brings a lot of people out,” I managed with a helpless shrug. “Hang on a sec.” Giving her a brief hug, I stepped around the other girl, waving the others off for the moment as I moved to find my way to where April, May, December, and those few other Seosten were sitting. “Hey there, guys,” I put in while grabbing a seat and pulling it out. “This the cool kid’s table?” 

They exchanged looks before May focused on me and quietly replied in a very stiff, yet also uncertain voice that sounded at least partially rehearsed, “We do not believe we should be here. We do not wish to intrude. This is not a place for us.”  

My head shook at that. “No, see, that’s where you’re wrong. I mean, let’s think about it for a second.” Letting my gaze move over all of them, I continued. “The main point here isn’t to stop your people from using their power. It’s to stop them from abusing their power. And I don’t just mean the possessing thing, even if that’s the main focus. It’s about stopping them from taking their power and using it to enslave, manipulate, and marginalize others.” Falling silent for a moment then, I watched the reactions of the Calendar people as well as the other couple Seosten who were sitting with them. “They do that to you guys too, even without possessing you. They abuse the difference between your powers to marginalize you. Most of them without even really thinking about it or knowing any better. And the way these situations work, nothing will change unless someone makes it change. You guys should know that most of all. Look how long your people live, and how… stuck in their ways they get. They need to be… pushed into changing. This is a push.”

April was the first to respond, her voice catching just a bit in a way that betrayed her uncertainty, much as she tried to push it down. “We are still loyal to our people, whatever faults they may have. We do not wish to make enemies of them. We…” She hesitated, clearly looking for the right words. 

One of the other Seosten, an achingly handsome guy with piercing green eyes, dark skin, and a shaved head spoke up. “We do not wish to destroy our people’s society. Only to make it better. The idea of fighting them directly, and of sitting in a room celebrating a victory over them such as this, is… not disturbing, precisely. We have made our choices. We know what is right. But it still… causes unease.”

I gave a quick nod. “That makes sense. I mean, yeah, you chose to turn against the… um, your society as a whole. Not because you want to destroy them, but because you want to make them better. That–” I sighed. “Believe me, I know how that is. You want to change things, just like we want to change Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, not destroy them. We’re sort of in a similar boat as far as that goes. Or maybe we’re just on the same river. Or–never mind, the analogy got away from me.” 

Exhaling, I pushed on. “The point is, we don’t want to fight your people. Okay, not the majority of them anyway. We don’t want to fight your people as a whole. And we sure as hell don’t want to kill all of them or destroy your society or whatever. The Fomorians are the real enemies, and we all know it. This whole thing is about forcing your people to stop using a method that obviously isn’t working and to do something new. You know, like work with other species. An alliance. That’s what we’re celebrating here. We’re celebrating taking a step that will maybe force the… hardliners among your people to come to the table and make meaningful changes. So we can all fight the real threat instead of each other. That’s why you should be here for this party. Because it’s about celebrating the chance to make things better for everyone.”   

By that point, some of the others had come over and joined us at the table. Shiloh pulled a chair over from another one and sat next to May, leaning in to whisper something to her while Eiji asked the Seosten whose name I didn’t know if he ever found some book they had apparently both been looking for. Vanessa came over, with some other Seosten boy she had been talking to nearby. Soon, there was no way to tell that these guys had initially been separate from the main group.

The air around here was practically electric. Everyone was talking back and forth. The entire room was practically vibrating with excitement. Every time I glanced around, I saw more and more people coming in and spreading out to find their own friends. Not to mention how many were showing up on the monitors. The energy level in this place was rising with every passing second. I was pretty sure if they didn’t start this thing soon, someone was going to pop like a balloon. 

Wait, given the wide assortment of powers, magic, and temperaments among everyone involved in this, I belatedly realized that I probably shouldn’t think about that. Not even as a joke. The point was, everyone wanted to get this show on the road. Which, given how long it had been coming (with various interpretations of that), was understandable. It was time to make this happen. 

As if in direct response to that thought, the lights in the room (and all the others on-screen) dimmed. The main monitor at the far end, which had been dark up to that point, came to life. We were looking at a split-screen view. On one side was the room with the spell itself. I could see people in there making last-second checks of the whole thing, including Wyatt, Sariel, and Apollo among several more. On the other side of the screen there was a small stage where others like Athena, Abigail, and my mother were having a whispered conversation slightly away from the microphone.

Eventually, there seemed to be a brief discussion about who was going to go up and talk. The others all looked to my mother, who was clearly reluctant. But finally, she rose and moved to the microphone. She was standing there, at center-stage on the main monitor, while everyone in this room and all the others stared in silence. Well, silence aside from a few scattered cheers when they saw the woman who had started this whole thing. I could tell so many others wanted to cheer too. But they wanted to hear what she had to say more. A hushed silence quickly fell over everyone. 

After a momentary pause, Mom seemed to rise slightly. She didn’t actually get any taller (though I was pretty sure she could have), but… something about the way she straightened herself up and squared her shoulders made her seem bigger than she had been. When she spoke, her voice carried through the entire room, through every room. Her eyes seemed to stare right into me just as they did everyone else. 

“My name is Joselyn Chambers. I have spent… the past hour watching these monitors. I have watched all of you, and the thing that stands out to me the most is how many of you I do not recognize. We’ve never interacted directly. I don’t know you. By and large, you are strangers to me. And… aside from my family, my husbands and my children, nothing in this life has ever made me happier than looking at these screens and seeing so many people I don’t know. 

“This… this movement started because a few of my friends and I decided we wanted to change things. We started in my room at Crossroads. We spoke in hushed, magically protected whispers. We celebrated faking the death of a single person, a man we had been sent to kill. Five of us spent days planning the rescue of one life. And in the hours of our quiet celebration that followed, I found myself standing by the window, looking out at all my classmates as I asked myself if things would ever truly change, if we could make a difference. 

“Had I the power, I would show my younger self these monitors. And when she asked who all of you are, I would tell her that I have no idea. I would tell her that one of the most remarkable and wonderful things I have ever experienced in my life is to look at all of you and have no idea who you are. I don’t know your names. I don’t know your faces. I don’t know your lives or your stories. But what I do know is that you are all here because you want to make things better. And you are willing to fight for it. To go from being five people in that room, to standing here looking at all of you is truly one of the most amazing and humbling moments of my life.  

“They say that I started this Rebellion. While there is some truth to that, a fire cannot burn without fuel, regardless of who struck the match. We will not win because of who lit the torch. We will win because of who carries it. Each and every one of you. Because as we have already seen so clearly, as long as a single torch exists, the fire will spread. They cannot snuff out every flame. And we… all of you… together we will take the injustice, the hatred, the very system which teaches us that these things are to be admired… and we will burn it to the ground. 

“This movement continues because of you. This world, this… universe will change because of you. Now it’s time for the next step of that change. With this spell, each and every one of us will be immune to unwanted Seosten possession. They will have no choice but to negotiate in good faith. No longer will they manipulate our civilization from the shadows. No longer will they turn us against one another based on lies and deceit. We will pull them to the light. All of them. And those who can stand in that light with us will be at our sides as we turn the focus of our war where it truly belongs, to those who would annihilate us all. 

“I do not know your names or your faces. But I do know this. Together, we are going to change the universe. 

“And they will all know our names.” 

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The Runaway 15-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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While the rest of us stood frozen for a moment, Mom and Asenath were already moving. They both crouched beside one of the bodies, checking it briefly before looking to one another. Some sort of silent conversation passed between them before my mother looked over at Mennin, her voice tense. “Are you sure your mother isn’t here? And Francis? Why hasn’t an alarm been sounded yet?”

“Yeah, like I said, she’s in Paris for a meeting,” Mennin informed us, already whipping a phone from his pocket. “Francis should be here. He should–The whole system is down. Alarms, communication, everything. It’s all down. Only someone with top level access should have been able to do that.” His long fingers danced over the phone, before he cursed in frustration. “They crashed the whole system. It’s a mix of technology and magic. I can bring it back up, but it’ll take time.” 

“We have to find Denise,” Asenath announced sharply while starting to rise. Half-way to her feet, she paused and tilted her head. “That blood.” Her hand rose, pointing to a small spot against the side of the bed that was almost invisible unless you were looking at the exact right place. “That’s hers. The rest of this belongs to these three, but that spot is hers. She was cut.” 

“You remember the smell of her blood from that long ago?” Rebecca asked, eyes widening. 

Asenath, in turn, gave a short nod. Her eyes had narrowed. “Yes. It was important blood. She’s still bleeding. I can track her scent if she hasn’t gone too far.”

“We can do better than that,” I replied, already moving to that spot. The blood-tracking ability the harpy had given me way back when we first ended up on the Meregan world. All I had to do was touch the spot with my finger, and…

“Top floor,” I announced, turning a bit to point. “She’s all the way up on the top floor and… and it feels like she’s moving fast, that way.” 

As I was saying that, Koren moved forward. She yanked a bit of cloth from one pocket and wiped it through the blood, then handed it to me. “So you can keep tracking her.”  

Mom immediately pointed to Mennin. “Get the system up and running again. Koren, Rebecca, December, and Tabbris, stay here to protect him, just in case. Tabbris can keep in contact with Felicity to let us know if anything happens.” To Asenath, Sean, Twister, and me, she gestured. “Let’s go find Denise. And… and stop whatever’s happening.” Her voice was thick with barely restrained emotion. It was obvious that she knew what all of this most likely meant. Ammon’s memories or… or personality, or… whatever must have managed to take over. And now she–or he–whoever she was after that, was going around the hotel doing… this. Killing people, making them shut down the whole security and communications system, and who knew what else. Whatever was actually going on, we had to find Denise and fix this, no matter what it took. That poor kid. God, fuck, how could this have happened? It didn’t even–was it just because of what Fossor had done? Did he plan for something like this, or was it all just an accident? 

Whatever it was, the point remained that we had to stop Denise and bring her back to her senses. Whether that took some sort of exorcism to get rid of the Ammon memories, or… or whatever. We had to fix this before things got even worse. And before Denise-Ammon made it out of the hotel and disappeared, since I had no idea how long this blood would keep telling me where she was. Especially considering if she–they got out of the building, I was pretty sure the Ammon part of her would be able to grab a ride and really disappear. 

Pushing that worry aside, I focused on something else that might actually be useful. “Hold on. If these guys died recently, I think I might be able to find their ghosts, if they left any. They could answer some questions.” My eyes closed, as I focused intently on my inherited Necromancy. I set aside all reflexive disgust at where the power had come from. What mattered was the fact that it could help us find out what was going on with Denise right now. It could give us answers about what had actually happened in here. Even if I was terrified as to what those answers would be. 

For a few seconds, I focused on that, before frowning. My head shook. “I don’t sense anything. I can’t feel their ghosts at all. I should be able to feel… you know, something. But it’s not there. It’s like…” I hesitated, a grimace touching my face. “It’s like someone else already took their ghosts somewhere else.” 

Everyone exchanged looks at that, their expressions making it clear that they didn’t like the sound of it any more than I did. Something was clearly very wrong here. Even more than we had already known. The thought sent a shiver through me. 

“We have to find her,” Mom announced, cutting through the brief silence that had followed my announcement. “That’s what matters. We’ll figure out the rest of it after she’s safe.” 

She was right, of course. What mattered was finding Denise and making sure she didn’t… that Ammon didn’t… making sure no one else got hurt, or worse. We could figure out the details, such as where the ghosts of these three people who had been murdered so recently had disappeared to, later. It was too bad that we couldn’t get easy answers about what actually happened, but there was no sense in wasting any more time standing around trying to figure it out. Not when Denise was right upstairs. 

Mennin apologized for the fact that he couldn’t send us directly to the top floor with the whole system being down, and gave us directions for the employee-access stairs that should go straight to the top. After a brief hesitation, he pleaded with us to hurry before focusing his attention back on getting the system running again. Apparently whatever Denise-Ammon had done was pretty extensive, because from the way the man was cursing, it didn’t sound like he was having much luck. Which really said a lot about how thoroughly it had been taken down, considering he was literally the son of the owner and apparently had the highest access. 

Either way, we left him working on that, with Tabbris (who had hopped out of me) and the others protecting him. Meanwhile, Twister, Sean, Asenath, and I jogged out of the room together with my mother, emerging into a white-carpeted hallway with various paintings along the wall. The art varied wildly in both style and ability. Next to what looked like a Renaissance masterpiece, there was a crayon piece that had to have been drawn by a child and hung up on a mother’s fridge. And right next to that one was a photo-realistic drawing of a man standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how the artwork was arranged. And we really didn’t have time to focus on that anyway, immediately turning to the left to rush down the hall.  

I could still sense Denise far above us, though now It felt like she was moving back to an area she had already passed before. I wasn’t sure if the Denise part and Ammon part of her were arguing, or if they were looking for something, chasing someone, or what. But they were definitely moving back and forth, because now I could feel her moving back the opposite way, toward the spot I’d sensed her in first. 

I informed the others, and Sean shook his head. “Is she looking for an emergency way out or something? With the whole system down, maybe the exits don’t work.”  

“Well, we got in, right?” Twister demanded. “That Tombs guy just waved his hand and made a door.” 

“He’s the son of the owner,” Mom reminded her. “That comes with privileges.” 

“Speaking of privileges,” I put in, “What exactly are we going to do when we find, uhh, them? Mom and I, we’re immune. And Koren. I mean I think we are. I mean…” Frowning, I shook my head. “Hold on, if she has his power does that mean we’re still immune or–” 

“We won’t take the chance,” Mom informed me, already reaching into her pocket. She produced a handful of coins, tossing one to each of us. “When we get close, put that against your forehead and say ‘Lestansurdi.’ It should make you deaf just long enough to secure Denise and stop her from saying anything. As soon as she’s… as soon as everyone is safe, we’ll work out how to extricate Ammon’s thoughts from her mind.” With a glance toward Asenath, she added, “Felicity, you should help Senny with that.” 

Right, because Asenath couldn’t use magic. She had been upgraded to the point that she could temporarily use other people’s powers by ingesting their blood, but magic was still a no-go for her. It had something to do with the original blood curse that the Vestil had put on the Akharu over the whole throne of the world thing. It cut them off from using any magic, and that curse extended through vampires (who were literally just Natural Akharu Heretics, if you got right down to it). Asenath had a lot of advantages, even more now that she had that upgrade, but she absolutely could not do anything with magic. 

“Uh, quick question, will that work?” Twister piped up. “I’m pretty sure the Denuvus power thing cuts through most forms of ‘can’t hear you,’ doesn’t it? Doesn’t seem like it should be that easy.”

“It worked back when Vanessa and Avalon used those earplug things last year,” I noted. “Though they said something about that being magical temporary deafness with limited charges. Only lasted a few seconds.” 

“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “They would have had to use a special sort of deafness spell to make it work. Probably similar to the one on these, but it works longer. I’ve been working on it since… since my son was given his power. It… it should work. It’s the best chance we have, in any case.”  

By that point, we had reached the end of the corridor. It was an L intersection, cutting to the right. But we didn’t turn that way. Instead, Mom moved to the small painting of a farmyard and put her thumb against the door of the barn, reciting a three sentence code that Mennin had given us. Then we held our breath for a moment. He had said that this emergency stairwell should work even with the system down, but I was pretty sure we all half-expected to be screwed over again anyway. Because at this point, it really wouldn’t have surprised us. 

Fortunately, the wall slid aside as promised, revealing a circular metal stairwell leading up. It was very narrow, only meant for one human-sized person to move up at a time. Which made sense, considering it was essentially only intended for Mennin or his mother and their immediate family to use. 

I went first, since I could detect Denise’s blood and knew exactly where she was. Asenath was behind me, with Mom right behind her. Twister, Sean, and Vulcan brought up the rear. We might have been more wary, but my ability to sense Denise eased tensions a bit. Still, we had no idea what sort of orders an Ammon-possessed (or whatever) Denise might have given anyone else in the building. So, we weren’t going to reach out for help. We had to get up there ourselves, use the special deafening spells, and… and capture Denise. After that? Yeah, I had no idea. Get Ammon’s thoughts and memories out of Denise somehow. We’d deal with that as it came. 

There were other landings to get off at more floors, but we ignored them. The only exit we needed was the one that led to Denise. And there it was. We finally made it. In the lead, I stopped by the door, focusing just a bit. It was getting harder to sense the girl’s location through the blood, but I could still do it. “This floor still,” I murmured under my breath. “Far end, all the way in the corner. I think she’s… she’s moving around one room? She keeps, like, standing in one spot, then darting to another, staying there for a few seconds, then darting to a different spot. It’s like she’s–” 

“Searching,” Asenath finished. “Whatever that room is, it sounds like she’s ransacking it. Or they are. Or–” A frown crossed her face.

Looking over my shoulder down to where she was, I gestured. “I know, confusing, right? No idea how to refer to… umm… them?”

“Them is as close as I think can be accurate,” Mom muttered. “At least until we know more about… about what happened.” 

Swallowing hard, I nodded before turning back to the exit. “Well, let’s go find them then.” Pushing the door open, I stepped out cautiously. Neither my item sense nor anyone else had picked up any sign of anyone beyond, but still. Again, with Ammon involved (in some way), there was no such thing as being too careful. They could have ordered anyone to lay in ambush in case someone came after them. 

The area we emerged into looked like (duh) an extremely high-end hotel. The floor was marble under our feet, with a very wide hallway (seriously, the corridor was like twenty feet across). The walls were this beautiful reddish wood, and chandeliers hung from the ceiling at equal intervals going down the hall. To the left, wide windows displayed various scenes from different parts of the world. To the right, spaced just as equally apart as the chandeliers, were doors leading into private suites. Next to the windows here and there were small tables with statuary, plants, chairs to sit in, and so on. 

“They’ve done some remodeling since we were here last year,” I muttered, eyes scanning the whole corridor rapidly. “The place looks different.” 

“They do that,” Mom informed me, stepping up to one side as she kept her gaze laser-focused ahead of us. “With the sort of magic and resources this place can pull in, they like to mix things up a lot. Probably even more after what you said happened. They would want to distance themselves from experiencing a full-on Seosten invasion and battle throughout their sanctuary.” 

“And now look what happened,” Sean put in flatly. He had moved up on my other side, Vulcan creeping ahead of him a bit while sniffing the air. “Their system’s down and at least three of their people are dead.”  

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out as violent as it did last time,” Twister noted. She hopped up, transforming into a small hummingbird before landing on Sean’s raised arm. 

Asenath, moving up next to Vulcan, shook her head. “It won’t. Whatever Ammon’s trying to do, whatever… whatever’s going on, we just catch Denise and evict every part of that… that… boy out of her.” It was clear that she wanted to say something worse than boy, but restrained herself with Mom right there. 

For her part, my mother simply started walking, gaze focused forward. “Yes,” she agreed, “we find Denise and free her. Whatever that takes.”

The rest of us exchanged brief looks before setting off after her. Yeah, I knew just how bad Mom was taking this whole thing. After everything she had done to make sure her own son wouldn’t resurrect, specifically so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else, and now… now he was hurting more people. Or his memories were, his thoughts, his–ghost. His something. Whatever, the point was, people were getting hurt and killed because of him. And Mom was feeling the guilt of that, magnified by the whole situation that had led to it. 

Something that struck me as odd as we ran down the hall past all these doors was the fact that we still hadn’t seen anyone else. No guests, no employees, no one. I’d expected to see a bunch of Ammon-controlled people blocking our path. Or at least a lookout or something. There should have been people ready for, if not us, then any other interruption. I was pretty sure that’s what Ammon would have done. But there was just no one. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. I had no idea if there were people inside their rooms, but there was no one out in the hall. In some ways, that was worse. It made me even more anxious. What was going on? Why was Ammon-Denise ransacking some room on the top floor instead of getting out of the hotel? What could they possibly want up there? Seriously, as far as I knew, Ammon had never even been here. He shouldn’t know anything about the place, and Denise definitely didn’t know anything about it. So what the hell was going on? We were missing something, and the closer we got to where they were without figuring out what that missing something was, the worse I thought it was going to be. 

Unfortunately, we were going to have to wait even longer to find out. Because just as we turned the corner at the end of the hall, a glowing reddish forcefield blocked our path. It stretched across the entire hallway, stopping us from moving forward. We all came to a halt, and Mom reached out to put her hand close to the thing. “It’s blocking transportation powers,” she murmured. “And it’s… really strong. I don’t think we can break through it. Not quickly, anyway. We need another way. Are they…” She looked toward me questioningly, while the others followed suit.  

“They’re still in that room,” I confirmed after a moment of focus. It was even harder now, the sense even more faded. But I could definitely still feel it, especially when I pressed my finger against the blood on the cloth. “Still moving around, just like before.” A frown touched my face once more. “I still can’t figure out what the hell they’re doing.” Looking to my mother, I asked, “Are you sure you can’t see them from here?” 

Mom shook her head. “Between the hotel’s own safety measures that are still running, and whatever they set up, I can’t see any better down this hall than you can.” 

We tried a couple of different things. Twister turned into a bug to find a way around or under the shield, but apparently it extended through the solid material. She couldn’t get anywhere. Mom, Sean, and I tried any combination of magic we knew to take the shield down, and that showed some promise, but it was too slow. Even working together, we would take at least an hour to break through the thing. And I was pretty sure we didn’t have that sort of time. We had to get in there and find out what the hell Ammon-Denise was doing. Every second that passed made me even more anxious. This was really bad. 

Punching the wall, Asenath turned to me. “Ghosts? There have to be some ghosts around here, right? Or you can use one of the others you already have. Maybe they can get through.” 

Mom was nodding. “Yes, they should be able to. Or you can summon them onto the other side. A shield like this has to have a power source somewhere nearby. If they can find and disrupt it, the shield should go down so we can get through.” 

Right, I could do that. If we needed the ghost on the other side of the shield, it was probably a good idea to reach out for one that was already over there. So, I pressed my hands against the force field, closed my eyes, and focused. Immediately, I sensed a presence. A familiar one at that. 

My eyes opened, to find the ghost boy from before, back at the other hotel. He looked the same as before, in his old-style clothing. “Hiya, boss lady,” he greeted with a casual wave. “You rang?” 

“You–how–what?” My mouth opened and shut, staring at him. “How are you…?” 

“Right, I got bored back at the motel, and your life seems exciting,” he informed me. “So, I figured I’d follow you and see what happened. You really need to get better about sensing that sort of thing. I mean, you got a lot of raw power, sure. But you need practice. No way should I have been able to follow you guys without you knowing. That’s just crazy. Probably would’ve sensed me downstairs when you were looking for those new dead folks, but I took a walk to check this place out. Pretty swanky.” 

“Felicity?” Mom prompted. “Is this a friend of yours?” 

“It’s a long story,” I replied. “Wait, not that long. He was back at the other hotel, where Mercer was. He helped me get through there. And now… now he’ll help here?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. 

He, in turn, shrugged. “I suppose. But maybe you should ask one of the ghosts who lives here. Like that guy.” Turning and moving a bit to one side, he raised a hand to point toward a dark figure that had just appeared in the hall behind him. Another ghost. I felt it. I could sense death surrounding the shape, which grew stronger as it came closer. 

Stronger… and even more familiar than the boy. 

“Well… hey there,” the figure drawled as they got close enough for everyone to see. 

“Didn’t expect to see you guys any time soon,” Seth’s ghost announced. 

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The Runaway 15-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Getting to the Auberge was a bit more complicated than just saying it, of course. Sure, we had something of an ongoing relationship witdoh them, but they were still in hiding. Between the rich and accustomed-to-comfort clientele that the Auberge tended to keep normally, and the people from Wonderland they allowed to visit and share time there, no one at the hotel particularly liked the idea of being easy to find. They kept the entrance into the hotel moving constantly, bouncing it from city to city with no set schedule or anything. There was no way to anticipate where they might be at any given moment. Because being easy to anticipate would mean being easy to kill. 

The only way we had to actually get through to them so we could schedule a meeting was to call up Abigail at the station and have her send a message that we wanted to have a face-to-face. And from there, we had to wait for her to call us back once she managed to get a response. Which left our little group holed up in an old, rundown building that had once been a tire shop. We had to put down a couple different spells that would make us hard to track, and also another couple that would alert us if anyone approached. We didn’t think that the Crossroads people would keep coming after us (they probably figured we had teleported away by that point), but it was better to be safe than sorry. 

Everyone was sitting around on a couple folding chairs, an old table that had been left behind, or just (as in my case) flopped out on the cement. I was staring at the ceiling, musing aloud. “Why does Denise keep remembering things? Why does she remember Ammon controlling her, or the gas station? And what… what made the Alter detection spell keep flickering back at the house? And smashed the gas pump? And why did Mercer forget the debt? Why did he… why?”

“I think you’ve summed up all the questions, babe,” Twister informed me, perched up on top of the nearby empty steel tool cabinet that had apparently been too heavy to bother removing. She gave me a thumbs up. “Now, can you actually answer any of them?”  

“Poor Denise.” That was Asenath, standing over by a window to watch the street beyond. She spoke in a soft, thoughtful voice. “Can you imagine going through what she is right now? She must be an Adjacent.” 

“That’s someone who had the Bystander Effect broken, but they’re still just a normal person other than that, right?” I put in, glancing toward the corner of the garage, where Rebecca and Koren were sitting together. 

Sean nodded. He had pulled a folding chair around and was sitting on it backwards, while Vulcan (with Vulcan Junior attached) lay by his feet as though resting. “Yeah, that’s right. So somehow the Bystander Effect didn’t fully take when Denise respawned. And now she’s getting nightmares about what really happened to her. And as if that’s not enough, without the Bystander Effect, she keeps seeing all these monsters and has no idea what they are. Or even that they really exist. And anyone she tried to tell wouldn’t know what she was talking about. They wouldn’t believe her. Which is… you know.” He grimaced. “Really not good.” 

Everyone was making very good points, but none of it was making me feel any better. And a glance over to the doorway where my mother was standing showed that it wasn’t making her feel any better either. We were all very anxiously waiting to see where we were supposed to go to find an entrance to the Auberge, so we could actually get some real answers. Which would be really nice, at this point, given how weird this whole thing with Denise had been so far. 

Asenath was still talking. “She’s an Adjacent, so she’s seeing all these monsters around her and no one knows what she’s talking about. Until she met those Alters.” She frowned then, looking between my mother and me. “Are you guys sure there was no other information about… you know, how she met them? Did she just go up and start talking?” 

I shrugged completely cluelessly, while Mom answered. “If he knew more than that, he didn’t include it in the spell. Felicity?” 

“Nope,” I replied. “He just said she met up with some people and went to the place he was going to name in that spell. I didn’t even know they were Alters until Mom said so. I think he was being as vague as possible intentionally. Whether he knows more than he said or not…” I hesitated before adding, “He seemed pretty competent, all things considered.” 

“So he’s probably not hanging around the place a bunch of Heretics were at just so he can be forced to answer more questions,” Sean lamented, reaching down to rub Vulcan’s head. “Too bad, it could have made this whole thing a lot easier. But then, nothing about this seems very easy so far.” He muttered the last bit thoughtfully before pushing himself up with a sigh. “Have you guys considered that there could be some sort of really powerful ghost haunting Denise?” 

Without a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve definitely been considering it. Maybe some sort of spirit that’s doing Fossor’s bidding one last time?” Glancing toward my mother, I grimaced before quietly adding, “I know you were sure that he didn’t know anything about what you did, but sending some independent ghost-thing off to screw with the one good thing you managed to do involving Ammon is… sort of completely his style, you know?” 

Mom didn’t respond at first, but after a moment, she gave a short nod. “You’re right, it does sound like him. But that still doesn’t explain why Mercer would forget the debt.” 

“Yeah, that’s really weird,” Rebecca piped up. “Unless… umm, we know the Bystander Effect isn’t working on Denise. Could it be something like… the Effect is malfunctioning on her and erasing or adjusting other people’s memories? Maybe it could even be directed by her, whether she knows it or not. Like, if she was there at the gas station and told Mercer he should forget the debt, and he just… did, because the Bystander Effect kicked in and erased his memory.” 

Thinking about that, I offered, “Maybe that’s what is making her parents not check in on her. You know, if she told them she was going to stay with her aunt before she ran away, and the Bystander Effect made it stick in their heads that way. Is that… even possible?”

We all exchanged curious looks before gradually turning our gazes, one by one, to the pair of Seosten sitting together next to the garage door. Tabbris and December looked at each other, then up to us, before the latter spoke. “Ohwe’renotexpertsaboutit. Justcuzwe’reSeosten… doesn’tmeanweknowanything….abouthowtheBystanderEffectworks.” 

Tabbris, meanwhile, pushed herself to her feet and fidgeted a little before hesitantly putting in, “I think maybe it’s possible? You should ask Mama though. She’d know a lot more about that sort of thing. But uhh, yeah maybe? The Bystander Effect is really weird and all that. It’s like, spells that are that big can have really weird side effects or go wonky if you poke them the right way. Or the wrong way.” Biting her lip, clearly uncomfortable from all the attention, she added a quiet, “I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t really help to just say ‘uh huh, maybe,’ but… uh huh, maybe.”  

“We’ll have to make do without bothering Sariel,” Mom noted gently. “We still can’t disturb them while they finish setting up that spell.” She offered the girl a soft, reassuring smile. “Your mom’s too important for that. They need her.” 

Stepping over that way, I put one arm around my little sister, tugging her closer. “That’s right, can’t finish the spell without help from the champion Seosten memory-adjuster. It’s okay, though. We’re all just spitballing here anyway. We’ll know more once we talk to Denise herself. And hey, bonus, if she really is an Adjacent, she’ll actually remember what we’re talking about.” 

Yeah, that clearly wasn’t exactly helpful in a lot of ways. Especially given the way I saw my mother flinch, subtle as it was. She had clearly been hoping to give the girl a normal life back. Forcing her to have all those memories on top of noticing the non-humans all around her, and having no one to talk to about any of it? No wonder she felt guilty. I didn’t want her to, of course. But I understood it. All I could do was hope that finding Denise and talking to her directly would settle as much of that guilt as possible. Making sure the girl was okay, that was what mattered now. And hey, maybe this would be for the best in the long run. If Mom could actually explain what happened and give Denise some closure on all that, it might be good, right? 

Reaching up behind her to grab a nearby metal railing before hauling herself up, Koren announced, “Hey, at least she’s at the Auberge, right? Face it, one little girl seeing monsters and running off on her own could have gone a lot worse than that. She found some people who listened to her enough to take her to the Auberge. That’s like…  one of the best possible outcomes, you know? If you think about it, she got really lucky there.” 

Yeah, Koren definitely wasn’t wrong, though the thought of how bad that could have gone made my stomach flip over. Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “Exactly. Now all we have to do is go there and talk to her. We’ll explain everything and help any way she needs, right?”  

The others agreed emphatically, just as Mom’s phone buzzed. She looked at it before straightening. “There’s a guide on his way. Abigail told him where to find us.” Her voice went flat. “Whatever happens, Denise needs real answers. She deserves real answers. After everything she’s been through, we owe her that much. I can’t give her back everything Ammon took with his… with what happened. But I can give her answers.” 

So, we collected ourselves and were ready a few minutes later when there was a light knock at the side door. I was the closest one to it, so I stepped closer, item-sense telling me there was one person beyond. With a shrug, I pulled the door open, before finding myself face-to-face with a familiar figure. The man in front of me was about six feet tall, with pale skin and a face that might have been incredibly handsome if it wasn’t just slightly off in subtle, yet subconsciously noticeable ways. His nose was just a tiny bit too small, and his mouth slightly too big. The proportions were just… a little off. Enough to make someone’s brain skip a little when looking at him, trying to figure out what was wrong. It was sort of uncanny valley-ish, that thing when something looks mostly human, but there’s something just wrong enough about it to make someone’s mind uncomfortable.  

“Mennin?” I managed. Yeah, it was Mennin Tombs, the son of the Auberge’s current owner, Caela Tombs. He was the guy who had been possessed by Radueriel for awhile when he, Abaddon, and Kushiel had been working on breaking into that side of the vault. “We didn’t know you were coming.” Quickly, I stepped back to let him in. 

“You kidding?” the man himself asked while stepping through the doorway. “If Mom wasn’t in the middle of a pretty intense meeting in Paris, she would have come herself as soon as she heard who was asking. And she’ll definitely want you all to stick around until she can get back to the Auberge to see…” His gaze moved around the garage before focusing on my mother. “Joselyn Atherby, I presume.” 

“It’s Chambers now,” Mom corrected with a faint smile. “But yes, and you would be Caela’s son.” With that, she stepped over and extended a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I just wish that was the only emotion connected to this moment.” 

“Right, the girl.” Mennin agreed, giving a quick glance around at the rest of us. “Sorry, some of you I know, some of you I don’t. I assume you’ve all been fully vetted?” He gave Mom a brief glance before hurriedly nodding. “Right, yeah, sorry. Habit. You know what they say about the first rule of the Auberge.” 

“Don’t tell anyone about the Auberge?” Koren piped up.

Mennin, in turn, grinned with that slightly-too-wide mouth. “That’s what I said! Err, I mean, no. The first rule is don’t let anyone who isn’t a registered guest find the Auberge. So, we’re going to have to make you all registered guests in order to keep up with that rule. We just, um, ever since last year, we’re even more careful about who we bring in. Usually that requires a lot of personal vetting. Which takes weeks. All of it to make the guests feel as safe as possible. But, you know, if anyone’s going to merit an exception, it’s Joselyn A–Chambers.” He offered Mom a smile, which then turned to me. “Not to mention the people who helped save the hotel in the first place last spring.” 

“We didn’t exactly save the–never mind.” My head shook. That was too complicated to get into. “What about Denise though? She wouldn’t have had weeks of vetting before showing up with–who did she show up with? Wait, she is there, right?” A sudden, horrible thought had just raced through my mind that this was all a wild goose chase and he would have no idea who that was. 

“Oh yes,” the man confirmed. “She is in the hotel. At least, we believe it’s her. The timeline and description both fit. Along with a few other things.”

Asenath frowned. “What do you mean you believe it’s her? Hasn’t she introduced herself?” 

With a cough, Mennin grimaced. “Not so much. I ahhh, well, see, that’s where things get a little more complicated.”

“Fantastic,” Koren blurted, “because what this whole situation was really missing was complication. It was all too simple and straightforward. Downright boring, really.” She noticed the looks everyone was giving her and flushed a bit, mumbling, “I’ll be quiet now.” 

“She is right though,” Mom noted with a look at Mennin. “This has all been quite complicated enough already. Can you tell us what you mean? Why hasn’t Denise introduced herself? Is she okay?” 

That led to another grimace from the man. “Okay, well, that’s a uhh…” He hesitated before pushing on. “After what happened last year, we had some new defenses installed. They’re spells that are supposed to expel you from the hotel if you intend to harm any of the other guests or employees. Really high-end stuff too, they had to bring in some serious mojo people to get it done. And we think that’s somehow affecting her. I mean, it hasn’t sent her out, but they’re reacting to something. She came into the hotel and barely had time for a how do you do before she just… passed out. Collapsed right there on the floor, and she’s been in a coma ever since.” 

“Wait, what?” Mom blurted. “She came in and then collapsed and she’s been in a coma for weeks? But what does that have to do with your new defenses? You said they should teleport her out of the hotel if she intended to harm your guests. But they’re not doing that.” 

His head shook once more. “Nope, they’re not. But they’re not working right either. Since the second she came in, those spells have been acting up. They’re just… off. I dunno the specifics, our mages do. They said the spells are wonky, and it started since she came in. We’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with them and her ever since. Haven’t had much luck.” 

“Not that we’re not super-glad you didn’t,” Sean put in, “but why didn’t you just send her out of the hotel if she was screwing up the protection spells by being there? Or just disable the protection spells to wake her up.”

“As far as the first bit goes, Mom wouldn’t let them,” Mennin replied. “She said there was something about the girl, she didn’t want to let anything happen to her. She couldn’t even really explain it. She just said we had to take care of her. So we’ve been trying to figure out what happened and how to wake her up. Mom had some other pretty powerful guests stop by to try their hand at it, but nothing worked. We were even going to reach out to you Rebel Heretics for help pretty soon if you hadn’t reached out first. As soon as that principal of yours described who you were looking for, we knew it had to be our coma girl.” 

He shrugged then. “And as for the other part, we did. Believe me, they disabled the spells, tried putting her in an area where they were blocked, even took her out of the hotel temporarily. Nothing worked. She’s still unconscious and still won’t wake up no matter what we do. She says some stuff sometimes, just mutters words now and then. But she’s still completely out of it.” 

“And you have no idea why the protection spells knocked her out in the first place?” I asked. “They just randomly completely messed up this one girl and threw her into a coma when she came into the hotel, all for no apparent reason?” There had to be more to it than that, of course. But damned if I had any idea. It was another piece of a very confusing puzzle. And at this rate, I was afraid we had a quarter of like six different puzzles all jumbled together. 

Mennin, in turn, replied, “Not exactly, but we think it might have something to do with her power.” 

“Wait, what?” I gave a double-take along with everyone else. 

“She doesn’t have any power,” Mom informed him, even as her eyes narrowed. “She’s a normal human. An Adjacent at most.”

“Uhhh…” Mennin looked back and forth between all of us. “Are you sure about that? Cuz that’s not what the people who brought her in said. And they were pretty confident about it.”   

Sean was the first to find his voice. “What do you mean? What–uh, powers do they think she has?” 

The man looked at us as though we’re trying to decide if we were playing some sort of prank on him or not. Finally, he took a breath before explaining what the Alters who had brought Denise into the hotel had told them. First one of the bad guys had smashed his baton into her head. When Mom heard that, she actually growled under her breath. But apparently the blow to the head, though it had knocked Denise down, hadn’t actually hurt her. She got up again, and actually punched the man who had hit her. Apparently she hit him hard enough to knock him flying backwards. Which had pissed off the second guy enough to kick her backwards into a tree. Which, again, had done nothing to the girl. 

“Then what happened?” Tabbris quickly urged once Mennin trailed off. We were all hanging off everything he said. 

“Then she uhh, she introduced herself,” Mennin replied. “At least, the people she saved think she did. They heard her say ‘My name is–’ but they didn’t catch the rest of it. She introduced herself, then told the men to stop. And–” 

“And they did,” I finished, through the hard lump that had suddenly formed in my throat. No. No, no, no, this wasn’t right. No. “Wait. Wait, did… did she say her name? Did she say Denise? Did she say ‘My name is Denise’, or… or…” 

“Ammon,” Mom finished for me. Her tone was brittle. “Did… she say… Ammon?” 

This can’t be happening. No. Ammon couldn’t actually be back. He couldn’t have been reborn in her body or whatever. A sudden rush of emotions and memories flew through me about everything we had seen up to this point. All those carvings in the wall, the dents in the side of the gas pump, Mercer forgetting the debt, all of it. Was that… was that Ammon? No. No, that didn’t make sense. He wouldn’t help people. He wouldn’t–but if he–but if she–but…

Mennin was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. They were a little preoccupied and didn’t hear everything she said. She introduced herself and told them to stop talking. Then she told them to drop their weapons and walk for an hour. When they left, our guests tried to thank her, and she begged them to help her. So they brought her to the Auberge. And then she collapsed. Now you know everything I do. Possibly more, it seems like.” 

I couldn’t even begin to sort through what I was feeling at that moment. If Ammon really was back in any form, or… or… no. No, we had to get there. We had to get there right now. I felt a sudden squeeze, as Tabbris grabbed my hand. She knew. As I glanced that way, my eyes wide, she quickly possessed me, and I felt her comforting presence like a warm embrace, from the inside. 

Mom’s voice was quiet, as she fought to keep herself together. “Take us to the Auberge,” she murmured. “Take us there, now.” 

Mennin gave a short nod, passing around what turned out to be hotel keycards. He told us to keep them in our pockets for safety purposes, against their other magical defenses. Then he held a hand up, focusing for a moment before a large, wooden door appeared in the middle of the room. Once it was there, he stepped up and turned the knob before opening it. He was already explaining, “This should take us straight to the medical wing, where–” Then he stopped talking, as he turned to face the door he had just opened. 

When the man froze, Mom moved over, gently pushing him out of the way. I was right behind her and we both stared into what looked like it had been a very nice private hospital room. Had been, that was, before all the murder. Three bodies were on the floor, two obvious nurses and one doctor. Blood literally coated the floor, like a small wading pool. It was everywhere. The bed where Denise should have been was empty, and those three were dead on the floor. 

We were too late. 

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The Runaway 15-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There was a bit of arguing back and forth between more of Mercer’s men after that. They really didn’t like the idea of letting me walk away with their boss and only one guy. But they also didn’t have that much of a choice. There was nothing they could do while I was inside him. Well, there was, but I had the impression they didn’t know the ejection spell. And even if they had, they would’ve had to get close to me and hold him down to make it work. It would’ve been a whole thing. Not to mention the fact that I could’ve killed him before they got that far. 

Either way, within about ten seconds of arguing, Beied shouted everyone else down and ordered a couple of them to go downstairs to find out what the hell was going on out there for themselves, while the rest were told to grab everything valuable and retreat to the secondary base. Whatever that was. I didn’t really care. All that mattered was finding out what this guy knew about where Denise had gone. 

That particular revelation was still rebounding through my head. My instinct back at the house has been right. She really did take off on her own. At least, it looked like that. She’d willingly gotten on a bus to leave town. Which explained why her parents and aunt both thought she was staying with the other. She’d chosen to tell them that. Though even that opened up a few more questions. Or a lot more questions. Like how she had convinced them it was happening, why they never realized there was anything wrong, and so on. It raised far more questions than it answered, really. But at least it was a direction. It would be a direction as soon as the man told me which bus she had taken. Which meant getting out of here without starting another fight. 

After ordering everyone else to step aside and make room, Beied gestured to the door. “Come with me then, Heretic. We’ll go to the roof, I’ll give you the information you want so much, and then you can let him go and we can all get back to our own very busy lives.” His eyes narrowed. “And no more funny business. You want what I know, you play nice for it. Try that possession trick on me, and this–” He drew a field-engraver of his own, giving a few quick swipes across his own forehead, “will wipe my memory of everything you’re looking for. It’ll be gone forever. So the only way you’re finding out what you want is by being nice and letting the boss go. Got it?” 

I wasn’t sure he was being truthful about what that rune on his head could do. But I also wasn’t going to take the chance. So, I gave a short nod and made Mercer start walking that way. “Sure thing,” I murmured with the man’s voice, “But like I said, we should hurry. Some of those Heretics down there are from the loyalists, the really… ambitious ones. And I don’t think my people are gonna be all that interested in stopping them from getting in here for much longer.” 

That started a little murmuring from the other guards before they were silenced with a sharp word from Beied, followed by an order to get the hell to work before the Heretics killed everyone in the hotel. Then he gave me a look and snapped that I should follow him before pivoting and walking out. I did so, though I kept a close eye on the people I was walking past, just to make sure none of them tried to do anything stupid. I didn’t think they would, given the situation. But I wasn’t going to let my guard down either. It was too dangerous to just assume none of them would get any bright ideas, either about trying to hurt me through their boss, or making a power play themselves by killing said boss while he was indisposed. After all, these guys were a gang. I had a feeling backstabbing was their most common method of promotion. And killing the boss could be a hell of a promotion, if they could hold onto it. 

But, in this case, no one tried anything. They left me alone, aside from a little grumbling under their breaths. They were not very happy with me. Which was just something I would struggle with, but with enough mental fortitude, somehow would find the strength to muddle on through it.

On the way through the corridor, as I followed after the Nekomata man, I reached out to Tabbris to find out how things were going out there. She couldn’t say much, but let me know that things were, as she put it ‘tense and a bit violent’ but that they were okay. She also wanted to know how I was doing, so I told the girl what I had found out so far, and that I was about to get more information before coming out. I was trying really hard not to focus on the fact that my little sister, mother, and friends were out there with some Heretics who probably wanted to kill all of them. The students probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but they would have adults with them. And if this went on too long, those guys might get word back to the Committee about who was here. And that… that could make this whole situation turn really bad. 

Yeah, the point was, I had to get the information and get out of here so that we could all leave. Every moment that passed was another moment that the situation could turn even more sideways than it already was. Because seriously, what were the odds that a Crossroads student hunt would happen right here, right now? I didn’t even want to try to figure that out. But hey, maybe Ambrose Keaton, my Calculus teacher, would be willing to give it a shot. 

It was just slightly possible that being forced to keep my anxiety over not knowing exactly what was going on down there in check so I didn’t screw this up was making me a little screwy in the head. Maybe more than a little. Either way, I kept a sharp lookout as we made our way through the corridor to the stairwell. This was a different one than the one I had been in before, where I had left the unconscious body. This one was labeled roof access, and there was a keypad lock. But the door was already standing open, and was held that way by a large planter. 

At a gesture from me to keep going, Beied started up the stairs, with me right behind him (keeping an eye over my shoulder just in case someone who was shielded from my item sense got any big ideas, of course). My guide’s voice was faux-casual. “So, you’re part of that Heretic rebellion thing, huh? How’s that working out for you?”

“Peachy,” I retorted before pointedly adding, “So, you’re part of a gang that terrorizes people into getting themselves killed during gas station robberies while trying to pay off a debt to you, and then also terrorizes their surviving child to try to force her into paying off the same debt, huh? How’s that working out for you? Also, just in case I wasn’t clear about this, if you or any of the people from this collection of upstanding citizens go anywhere near Kalia again, my friends and I will burn your entire organization to the ground. Your boss might have literally forgotten the debt, but you don’t get to bring it back up and go after it just because you didn’t. She’s done. She lost her dad from you fucks trying to get blood out of a stone. Either the debt is over, or you are.” 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the roof. There were guys up there who had been leaning over the edge to look at what was going on below. But they must have already been briefed about what was going on, because none of them looked surprised when we appeared. Nor did they look to their boss for orders. Instead, they shot him (me) nasty looks while obviously restraining themselves from lifting their weapons. Yeah, in about three seconds, they made it clear that they knew I was there. And that they weren’t at all happy about it. 

Beied, in response to what I had said, gave a short nod. “You can believe what you want, and make any threat that makes you feel better. But the fact is, I got no problem ignoring that debt. Far as I’m concerned, it died with the man himself. Going after family, that’s just a step too far. That’s why I didn’t remind him about it. Didn’t want it blowing back on any innocent parties. My interest was in finding out what happened to the boss to change his mind. Literally change his mind.” He paused briefly before giving me a look. “But I get the feeling you’re about as lost on that as me. So good luck. Now you ready to let him go?” 

Oh boy was I ever ready. I desperately wanted to kick my way out of this piece of shit and go down to join the others. But there was still one thing I needed. It was the entire reason we’d come this far, and I wasn’t about to run off without it. Making my host give the Nekomata man a hard look, I growled out, “Soon as you tell me everything you know about where Denise went.” 

“Of course,” he agreed. “Like you said, you and your friends can come after us and wipe us out. Pretty sure that includes if I lie to you right now. And you Heretics are good at finding people when you’re motivated. I don’t want you motivated to find me. So here it is, the full truth. That girl you’re looking for got on a bus to Chicago three weeks ago. I did a little digging after that cuz I was still curious and found out she went south to Belleville. From there, she met up with some people and went to one more place.” With that, he held up that field-engraver again, along with a flat metal sheet about three inches across. “The name of that place is right here.” He showed me the symbol he had drawn on the sheet. “Take this thing and say Maescarvien while giving it a little magic juice, and it’ll tell you where she went. Maescarvien.” He spelled it and said it once more, slowly. 

“Or you could just tell me right now,” I pointed out, making a point of glowering a bit at him. Somehow, it seemed less effective even though it was coming from a guy much bigger than I was.

“Yeah,” Beied agreed, “but see, this way you need to step out of my boss to get all the information you want. Like I said, possess me and the info’s gone. Only way you get it is with this thing right here. It’s a bit delicate, so you don’t wanna let it hit too hard. But then, I figure you Heretics have plenty of powers to help get the–oops.” Even as he said that, the man had already given the thing a toss, sending it flying off the roof.  “Might wanna get that.” 

I was already launching myself that way. With a curse, I lunged out of the man I was possessing, once more leaving an unconscious host to collapse while I dove off the roof and plummeted after the thing Beied had tossed. I heard the other guards start to shout something about shooting, but the Nekomata man called them off, telling everyone to evacuate and that they had enough problems without the rage that shooting a Heretic in the back would invite. 

Not that I was paying attention to any of that, of course. It was just noise in the background while I threw myself off the building and started to fall. All my attention was on the metal plate that guy had thrown. I could see it plummeting ahead of me, my eyes locking onto it. Nothing else mattered in that moment beyond grabbing that plate. Which wasn’t that hard, since I was finally far enough away from those magical transport defenses that a thought made a portal appear directly below the plate, while I put the other end slightly above me. As the plate passed through, I snapped my hand out and caught it. 

Right, now I had the plate. I just had to avoid hitting the ground at full speed. I was tough, but hitting the ground from like eighty feet up would probably still be pretty unfun. Thankfully, my staff had plenty of charge in it, so I managed to hold it in one hand while flipping over, triggering the boost a couple times to slow my descent before landing in a crouch on a small patch of dead grass near an empty fountain beside the hotel. 

Immediately, I shoved the plate away safely into a pocket while reaching out to Tabbris, as I could still feel her presence. Where am I going?

Her response was a blurted, Behind you! 

Yeah, I’d sensed it too in that same moment. We both felt my item-sense warning me about a figure rushing up at my back, moving completely (unnaturally) silently while reaching out with one hand. I let the person get close enough to think they were about to hit me, then pivoted and twisted out of the way. At the same time, my staff lashed out to collide with their stomach. 

Between my own strength and the other person’s momentum, I was pretty sure I hit hard enough to flatten a bear. But this wasn’t a bear. It was someone a bit more familiar. 

“Hey there, Zeke,” I breezily greeted while repositioning myself a few steps backward. “Mind if we catch up later, I’ve sorta got stuff to do.” 

Yeah, it was my old classmate. Zeke, generally speaking, didn’t exactly look that intimidating. He was physically average in most respects, standing about five foot eight, with brown hair that always looked like he had just ruffled it up after getting out of the shower and let it stay that way. He wore thin-rimmed glasses along with the Crossroads uniform with the white trim showing he had stayed in the security track. On his left arm was what looked like a metal gauntlet, but I knew it could expand into his weapon. All in all, he wasn’t the world’s most daunting figure. 

But then, neither was I. In all the time since I had woken up on that bus over a year earlier, I had long-since had to do away with any notion of what a powerful figure should look like. I knew better than to actually dismiss Zeke as a threat, especially given I didn’t really know what he was capable of. We hadn’t been close enough for me to keep track of his powers before leaving Crossroads, and it had been over six months since then. A lot could have changed in that time.

What had not changed, apparently, was Zeke’s dislike of me. His lower lip curled distastefully as he held one hand over his stomach where I had hit him. It wasn’t enough to put the boy down or anything, though from his expression it definitely hurt. “Chambers.” He said the name like it disgusted him, eyes narrowing into a dark glare. “Let me guess, the guys in this place are just tragically misunderstood orphans whose hugs cure all diseases and if we dance in a circle singing Kumbaya, it’ll erase all the effects of pollution on the planet.” 

“Those guys?” I nodded toward the hotel without taking my eyes off him. “Nah, I’m pretty sure they’re all assholes. And that’s not why I’m here anyway. Like I said, why don’t we do this another time. You go back to your… whatever you’re doing, and I’ll back off and go my own way. That way.” I used my free hand to gesture back over my shoulder. “Hotel’s all yours.” 

From the look on his face, Zeke didn’t believe me and thought it was some sort of trick. I almost wanted to just turn away from him and take off running to find the others, but there was no way I would give him that sort of opening when, again, I had no idea what he was capable of. 

Instead of just taking my offer and letting both of us move on with our lives, Zeke snapped, “Do you have any idea what Sands’ and Scout’s dad is going through right now because they listened to you? You fucking tore his family apart. You tore a lot of families apart. And you’re gonna get a lot of people killed with this bullshit.” His head shook. “But you don’t care. You never took any of this seriously. You never actually cared about any of it. The whole thing was just one big joke to you.”

“You know what, Zeke?” I shot back, “I’ve been connected to newspapers my whole life, and even I have no idea how to unpack all the issues you just threw on the table. Sands and Sarah make their own decisions. So does their mom. People make their own decisions. Good decisions and bad ones. People make choices and those choices determine what they are. That’s kind of the entire point of what we’ve been saying the whole time. If you still don’t get that, maybe I could send you a powerpoint presentation sometime if you–” 

Yeah, apparently that was more than the boy was willing to take. He abruptly lunged my way, the thing that had looked like a gauntlet on his left arm expanded into a full, circular shield. Even as I was reacting, the boy lashed out with that, sending the shield flying… not at me. Instead, it rebounded off the wall nearby before several spikey blades extended from all sides of the thing. As my head snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of a guy who had been standing just beyond the range of my item-sense, gun raised to point at me before his head was cut off by the now-bladed shield. The instant the headless figure dropped, the shield vanished from mid-air and reappeared on Zeke’s arm as he doubled over a bit, stumbling slightly from the rush of the kill. 

Two seconds passed before he looked up, focusing once more. “You didn’t hit me while you had the chance.” 

“You didn’t let that guy hit me,” I pointed out, still a bit surprised by the whole sequence. I might’ve been just as stunned as he was, despite not killing anyone. 

He, in turn, stared hard at me with a flat, “I’m not the bad guy.” 

“Yeah,” I replied, “and neither am I.” With that, I reached out with my Necromancy power, caught hold of the ghost of the man who Zeke had just killed, and made him appear directly in front of the boy. As Zeke reacted to that, I used the distraction to pivot and launch myself out of the way with a shot from my staff. In mid-air, I switched my clothes for the Seosten body-suit and transformed into the werelion form before hitting the ground running. By the time the ghost had vanished, Zeke would be left facing the empty space where I had just been. 

A few words of direction from Tabbris sent me through an assortment of alleys and side-streets before I finally came to the small dirt lot where the others had already gathered. Everyone looked more or less okay. Vulcan even seemed pretty energetic, like they had just been playing a fun game. VJ, meanwhile, was hovering up high in the air, keeping an eye out for anyone coming. 

“Felicity,” Mom started, focusing on me as I came to a stop and transformed back to my human self. “Did you–” 

“I got it,” I replied, switching the Seosten suit for my regular clothes before reaching into the pocket of my coat to take out the metal plate before asking, “What about you guys? What… what happened back there?” 

Asenath stepped closer. There was blood across her face, a bruise under her eye, and a Twister in hummingbird form perched on her shoulder. “They didn’t feel like listening to reason. As usual. What about Denise? Where is she?” 

Holding up the plate, I replied, “Let’s find out.” Of course, I didn’t just use a spell I didn’t know that had been told to me by someone who probably would’ve been just fine with all of us dying. I wasn’t quite that desperate or stupid. Instead, I told my mother what he’d said. She, in turn, looked at the plate and confirmed that the spell would do what he said. 

I gave it to her, so she could find out where Denise was. It felt like the right thing to do. While letting my mother do the spell, I reached out to take Tabbris’s hand, murmuring thanks for her help, and for staying with the others while all that was going on. She, in turn, embraced me tightly. 

After speaking the single word (Maescarvien) to trigger the spell, Mom recoiled a bit as she absorbed whatever it was saying. I heard a soft gasp escape her, before her eyes widened. 

“What? What is it?” I prompted, the sentiment echoed by the others. 

Mom, in turn, focused once more and glanced around to take everyone in. “The Auberge. The people she met are Alters. They took her to the Auberge.” 

“What?” I managed, giving a double-take. “Why would they–how would–what?” 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” my mother murmured. 

“But it’s time to go to the Auberge, find Denise, and get some actual answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters have started to be released. You can find the Summus Proelium non-canon available for ALL readers right here, while the first Heretical Edge non-canon is available right here. And did I say first Heretical Edge non-canon? Yeah, because of a tie, there will be a second (different) non-canon released later in the week. So look forward to that!

Okay, so we had a lot of questions and not many answers. For some reason, we were picking up hints of an Alter being at Denise’s house, but it kept flickering in and out. Which was weird to begin with. To say nothing of the words carved into the wall, proving she still had some memory of Ammon controlling her. Which had to be unbelievably traumatic for a little girl. And now we had the dented gas pump where she had been killed, along with some gangster Alter, whom Denise was capable of seeing and remembering? Someone who it seemed like Ammon might have had a history with himself, if the guy he killed while stopping by the gas station really wasn’t random. And yet, even that didn’t really fit. Why would that Alter guy–Mercer, why would Mercer just suddenly forget about the debt that he’d been so focused on before? Why did the magical signs of an Alter being around Denise’s house keep flickering in and out? Why did she remember stuff she shouldn’t? How much did she remember? And what did Mercer have to do with Denise disappearing in the first place? It definitely didn’t look good when it came to that guy. I was a bit terrified about what he could have done to that poor kid.

The point was, we needed real answers. And we were on our way to get them, using the tracking spell to follow Mercer back, hopefully to wherever he lived. Or worked. Or whatever. Where he was. We just needed to find the guy and get everything he knew out of him. 

On the way, while following behind Koren and Rebecca as those two used the tracking spell and led the way, I called my mother and let her know what was going on. She had finished the spell by that point and was able to tell us that Denise was alive and in relatively good shape. She wasn’t sick or intensely injured, or in any real physical pain as far as the spell could determine. 

“Can you figure out where she is with that?”  I knew it was a real long shot, given what I had already been told about how the spell worked. But it was worth asking. Anything that might help us actually get this girl back home where she belonged, safe with her family and away from all the horrible things that kept happening to her. As it was, I was starting to think the kid was just as cursed as my family was when it came to going through shit. That and Mom and I both felt responsible for her, given the whole Ammon situation. It was all just a huge mess. That poor kid. 

Unfortunately, Mom’s answer wasn’t good news. “I’ve tried,” she murmured. “Something is blocking any attempt to directly reach her. It might be this Mercer guy, if he’s that big in this area. Wouldn’t surprise me if he had some big-shot mage working for him. Especially if this has anything to do with some history with Fossor.” There was pain in Mom’s voice, which made my stomach clench. She clearly felt responsible for what had happened to Denise. We had to find that girl and help her. If anything unfixable happened to the kid… I didn’t know how Mom would react. She had put a lot into being able to fix one single thing that Ammon had done, and now it was falling apart. And beyond that, even more importantly, was Denise herself. No matter how Mom and I felt about Ammon, Denise was the priority. We had to find the kid and help her. 

“I’m going to meet up with you,” Mom was saying. “If this Mercer really does have Denise, or knows anything about what’s going on or where she is, we’ll get it out of him.” The tone of her voice left no doubt of just how badly she would react if the guy tried to hold out. Or if he actually had hurt that girl. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Mom was not in the mood to play nice.

Checking the street sign as we passed another corner, I told my mother where we were, and she said she would find us from there in a few minutes. She was just going to check a couple more things around the house. But she also made it clear that if we found our way to Mercer’s place in that time, we were not to go inside or confront him until she got there. 

Disconnecting, I looked over to Asenath. Even through the dim glow of the nearby streetlights, I could see the hard-set expression of her face. Yeah, she wasn’t doing any better with the news about Denise going missing. “We’ll find her,” I insisted, reaching out to put a hand on the vampire girl’s arm. “Whatever happened to that kid, Mom says she’s still in good physical shape. She’s okay. All we have to do is find her and bring her back home.” Pausing, I grimaced before adding, “And find out what went wrong in the first place, why she remembers… anything, how much of it she does remember, what happened to–” I cut myself off and heaved a sigh. “The point is, she’s physically okay. It sounds like she hasn’t been in any pain or anything, as far as that spell can determine. That’s a pretty good sign, right?” 

Exhaling, Senny looked over to me and gave a slight nod. “It’s a good sign. But we still have to track her down. Whoever this Mercer is, if he’s the one who took her, I…” She took a moment, clearly gathering herself as a rush of truly violent thoughts went through her mind too quickly and in too much of a jumble to work their way out of her mouth. 

“Believe me,” I put in, “between you and my mother, I’m pretty sure there won’t be much left of this guy if he touched a single hair on that kid’s head. At the very least, we’ll definitely find out everything he knows. And I have a feeling that he won’t be running any crime around here anymore.” Even if he didn’t have Denise, which seemed increasingly unlikely (he was the best suspect we had, so where else could she have gone?), none of us were in the mood to leave this guy alone after hearing that he’d basically tormented Kalia’s dad into robbing that gas station and getting killed in the first place. He set that whole thing in motion with his obsessive fucking greed. Regardless of what he knew right now, he was still a piece of shit.    

“That’srightwe’regonnamakehimpay!” December piped up, spinning around to face us while walking backward. Seeing the way her pale eyes stared right past me was a reminder that the kid was technically blind. Of course, she could still see in many other ways beyond the usual. She saw magical energy, electrical energy, soundwaves, etcetera. I was pretty sure she could even see some level of kinetic energy. And who knew what else. The point was, ‘blind’ was a bit of a misnomer. “We’llfindhimandtrackhimdownandmakehim–” She stopped then, as Tabbris leaned over to whisper something in her ear. Which made December whisper back, while both of them continued to walk backward down the sidewalk without any issues. It was safe to say that whatever lingering clumsiness issues my little sister had had from being stuck possessing me for so long were gone by now. After almost a year of being able to get out and stretch her legs, it was starting to be a lot easier to see the kid’s relation to her Olympian mother. 

Asenath and I fell back a few steps as the other girl put her hand on my arm, waiting until December and Tabbris had gone back to their own discussion and turned back around. Then Senny looked to me, her voice very low. “Something’s bothering that kid. She’s upset.” 

“Who–December?” I asked, blinking from the girl in question to Asenath and back again. 

“Yes,” she confirmed in that same soft voice. “Believe me, I can tell. She’s really upset about something and she’s hiding it. She’s doing a pretty good job about it, but it comes out sometimes. You need to ask those two older Calendar girls what’s going on. Find out if they know what’s bothering December so much, and if it’s anything we need to worry about.” 

Right, that was something else to worry about. Letting out a breath, I gave Asenath a thumbs up. “Thanks,” I murmured. “Next chance we get, I’ll find out what’s going on.” Right after we dealt with this mess. I just hoped that whatever was wrong with December was something we could handle. Maybe it was just about going back to visit Cahethal? I knew they’d seen her recently, and the rest of the Calendar. They had gone to get information about the Whispers, the Pale Ship, and Tabbris Senior. From what I’d heard, the Seosten woman had apparently promised to gather everything she had on them, in exchange for something she was going to talk to Abigail about. Some part of me worried that whatever this favor from Abigail was might be what was bothering December. But it wasn’t exactly something I couldn’t focus on right then.

I especially couldn’t focus on it when, a moment later, we turned a corner and saw a very old hotel directly ahead of us. The place was about six stories tall, and had clearly been around for like a century or so, with very few updates or improvements. Though it had been a grand old place when it opened, that much was certain. It looked like it had hosted the rich and famous for decades before falling into disrepair. Now it was… a mess. The place looked like it wasn’t even open. There were boards across most of the windows, and the lobby was only very dimly lit. 

“That’s the place,” Rebecca announced, looking that way before turning back to face us. “The guy’s tracks go right up into that building. I mean, eventually they do.” 

“What do you mean, eventually?” Asenath asked. 

Koren answered. “They go past this place. For a really long way, it looks like. But they come back this way from the other direction and go inside. It looks like he kept walking, then worked his way back.” She shrugged. “Maybe he wanted to go for a hike.” 

Something told me there was more to it than that. But then again, come to think of it, it was kind of a little odd that a guy who was apparently as important and big in the Alter crime world around here as Mercer seemed to be would be walking anyway, wasn’t it? After all, we’d walked for awhile. And the other two had made it clear that the trail never went to a car or anything. They still could’ve followed it if it had, but no, he stayed right on the sidewalk. That was… maybe odd? Maybe not. Maybe he was just health conscious or something. Or didn’t fit in a vehicle, duh. I really needed to stop trying to make those sorts of judgments.  and yet, something kept bugging me about the fact that he walked all this way past the hotel and apparently eventually came back to it.  maybe it was the fact that he didn’t stop anywhere else? If he had been stopping at all the places where people owed him money and pushing them to pay, that would definitely be one thing. But again, from what we could tell, he just… walked straight. Yeah, it was probably nothing, but I just couldn’t entirely shut it out of my mind. 

Rather than stand right out in the open, we moved back out of sight, using the nearby parking lot of a fast food place to talk about what was going on, and wait for my mother. And Twister, whom Asenath had already gotten hold of. Both of them would be here soon. Then we could figure out how best to approach what was apparently that Mercer guy’s headquarters. 

We didn’t have to wait long for my mom to show up. She came around from the opposite side of the nearby restaurant, casually walking as though heading for her car. Yet despite the outward appearance of her stride and body language, I could see the anger on her face. Mom was definitely in the mood to, well, directly confront the man who might have been responsible for Denise’s disappearance. I had the feeling that what she really wanted to do was walk up to that hotel and blow the doors in, then deal with anyone who was stupid enough to get between her and that guy. I didn’t envy anyone who would have been that stupid, either. 

Of course, Mom had more self-control than that, so she simply stopped and gave all of us a nod before announcing, “I gave the place a once-over on the way here. There are three guards on the roof, but they aren’t paying attention. Two in the lobby, three on each floor except the top, four in the back lot messing around with a van, and one out in the pool area, doing something with the pipes out there. Those are the armed ones. There are others, unarmed, hanging around in the rooms.” Raising a finger, she added, “that’s not to say they aren’t dangerous, only that they do not have weapons on them. Don’t underestimate what sort of threat they could be. The top floor’s a little more complicated. It’s shielded from any vision powers at all. The rest of the floor’s have their own vision defenses, but that one’s a real doozy.” 

“Holy crap,” Rebecca managed while staring at her with a look of genuine awe. “You got all that from a once-over on the way over here?” 

Mom, in turn, actually smiled very faintly. It was brief, given the overriding anger at the situation, but genuine. “I have had some experience in assessing secure areas quickly, needing to move past a building without attracting attention. When you hang around too much, the wrong people can notice. Then things get complicated.” She reached out, laying a hand on the girl’s shoulder and squeezing it. “I know your grandmother as well as I know anybody, Rebecca. Believe me, you’ll be fine. You’ll develop the skills and power to do the same, probably even better than I can. Especially if you listen to her. She knows what she’s doing.”

Rebecca seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention. And also like she wanted to ask my mother something but wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. But before she could say anything, we were distracted by the sound of other people approaching from across the lot. My item sense hadn’t picked them up yet, but we heard several distinct sets of footsteps. And metallic ones. Which confused me, until we turned to see three figures approaching. There was Twister, looking basically the same as when I’d first met her though a year older. But beside her was Sean, looking far different from when I had first met him. One year after meeting him at age seventeen and thanks to that fucking prison, he looked like he was in his mid-twenties. 

Yeah, I really wanted to punt his fucking parents into the sun, to say the least. What the fuck had they been thinking, keeping him in what amounted to solitary confinement for years? The sheer fact that he was as together as he was (and I knew he had issues still) was a testament to Apollo helping to keep him together through all that. That whole situation still pissed me off more than I could even hope to express, even after all this time. So I could barely think of how angry Sean himself, or his brother, or even Roxa (an actual werewolf) were. 

At the moment, Roxa wasn’t here. But Vulcan was, trotting alongside his master. When he saw us, the cyberform dog gave a bark of excitement, waiting for Sean to give the go-ahead before he came dashing over to get all the praise and attention the rest of us heaped on him. Especially Tabbris and December, who were delighted to play with the metal dog. Sort of like when they played with Cerberus, really. Even if Vulcan only had the one head. 

Well, sort of only had one head. It was a little more complicated than that. As illustrated when, in the midst of that, the sleek metal backpack-looking thing on the cyberform detached and hovered up into the air, a pair of wings extending from it, while a slot in the front opened up to reveal a camera lens. 

“Hey VJ,” I greeted Vulcan Junior as the drone hovered right in front of my face, clearly wanting attention as well. “Long time no see. I hope you’re keeping these guys safe, buddy.” 

“Oh, he is,” Sean assured me. “Especially since we had his forcefield upgraded.” With that, he stepped over and gave me a firm embrace, his voice a quiet mutter. “Heard you were having some trouble we could help with.” 

Twister, after exchanging fist bumps with my mother (still an odd sight to see) spoke up. “Yeah, I was about to show Seanny there how to have some real fun for his last night of freedom.” 

“Last night of freedom?” I asked, blinking between them. Behind me, the others echoed that confusion. So clearly this wasn’t just something I had missed by myself. 

Koren was already giving a quick nod, her gaze on him. “What’s she talking about? Why wouldn’t you be free after tonight? And where’s Roxa?” 

Sean, in turn, coughed and looked slightly embarrassed. “First, Roxa’s dealing with some sort of situation with the pack. Don’t worry, they don’t need help. It’s an internal thing. Uncle Mateo said it’s something they have to deal with. One of their vices got a bit out of control.” 

“Vices?” I asked, frowning a little. 

“The werecreature weakness,” Asenath put in. “Beyond the silver thing. You know the whole full moon thing?” 

“You mean where they go into a blind rage?” Rebecca asked. 

Asenath gestured that way. “Sort of, but that’s just one possibility. See, every were has their own aspect of the seven vices. Wrath or rage, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, greed, and pride. Once a month, whichever one of those affects them becomes… basically overwhelming.” 

Sean nodded to that. “It only lasts for a couple days, but they kind of… yeah, lose themselves to it. Rage is just the most commonly known one. You could have a were that was afflicted by greed suddenly start breaking into jewelry stores and stealing everything shiny. ” 

“How did I not know about this before?” I managed with a squint. “I mean, I know werewolves.” 

“It’s a personal thing,” he informed me flatly. “The one you know the most is Roxa and–let’s just say she’d rather not talk about it.” Clearly changing the subject deliberately, he added, “Anyway, never mind what Twister said. I’ll still be free, she’s just being dramatic. It’s not like I suddenly have to sit in a single house for years with nobody but myself for company.” He paused for a beat, saw our expressions, then muttered, “Jeez, tough crowd.”

With that, he ran a hand back through his hair and let out a long breath. “Honestly, it’s no big deal. You don’t think Larees threw all her freedom away by joining up, do you?” 

Well that caught my attention, distracting me from thinking about the were thing. “What? Why would–what does Larees have to–” Then I realized, eyes widening. “Gehenna? Sean, what–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yeah. What can I say, one of their people came to have a talk a couple weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about it, we had some discussions, and I agreed yesterday. After talking it through with Roxa, obviously. I don’t have to go anywhere, I’ll be assigned right here on Earth. And if I do go on any off-world assignments, she gets to come with me.” There was a bark from nearby, where December and Tabbris were still crouched by Vulcan, and Sean gave a slight smirk. “And so does he.” 

“But–but Sean, you were… you were locked up for…” I trailed off, head shaking as I tried to find words. 

“Why would you want to join up with a group devoted to imprisoning people after you were imprisoned for so long?” Koren flatly asked. 

Because I was locked up for so long,” came the response. “I know what it’s like. I feel like I can–you know, help. I know what the people in there are going through. I can… you know, work within the system. Besides, we know they lock some really bad people up. I want to be a part of keeping them there.” 

Mom’s voice was soft. “You’ve truly thought it through?” When he nodded, she offered him a slight smile. “Good luck.” 

“Yeah, good luck. But don’t suddenly become a stranger,” I put in. 

“Hey,” he retorted with a broad grin and wink, “we fight the Strangers, remember?” 

“Quite,” Mom agreed. “And speaking of that…” She turned in the direction of the hotel, eyes narrowed. “Let’s discuss how we’re going to drag this Stranger out and get some answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“This feels weird, right?” Koren asked, while the two of us stood at the edge of the gas station parking lot, staring at the place ahead of us. December and Tabbris were talking about some sort of spell nearby in their rapid way, while Rebecca was checking on something in her cannon backpack, giving us time to look the place over before going in. Asenath hadn’t arrived yet. 

“Weird?” I echoed in a flat voice. “Oh, you mean seeing this place in real life after using the PAWS thing to see it in holographic form last year back in Investigation class? Yeah, it’s pretty weird.” I couldn’t stop looking at the specific pump in question, where Denise had originally been murdered by Ammon. It was the furthest one from where we were standing, past a couple other cars that were fueling up. Their drivers were just standing around, having no idea they were so close to a spot where such a horrific act had been committed the year before. Because of course they didn’t know. Even if Mom’s whole thing with Denise hadn’t actually erased the fact that someone had died right there (and I still wasn’t completely clear on how much of those memories were left in the general public, or what they knew about it), these people had no reason to pay much attention to that. Especially over a year later. The thing was just a normal gas pump for them. 

And yet, as I stood there and squinted that way, I could have sworn there was something weird about it. Frowning, I started walking that way without knowing exactly what I was seeing. All I knew was that something was off. But even under the sharp glare of the heavy canopy lighting, it wasn’t visible from where we were. I needed to get a closer look.  

The others followed without questioning it. I crossed the lot, moving around one of the cars to go straight up to the pump itself. By that point, I could see what I had only barely noticed from further away. Dents. There were dents on both sides of the pump. It looked like someone had literally slammed their hands into the thing, caving it inward partway. Not so deep that it was broken, but definitely visible. Frowning, I ran my fingers over the dents, while the others crowded around to see what I was so focused on. 

“What the hell happened to it?” Koren asked, reaching out to brush her own hand over one of them before squinting at me with a very quiet, “It looks like… you know.” 

“Pretty fucked up, huh?” That wasn’t me. It was a thin, pale guy with short blond hair and a scraggly beard in a Coke delivery uniform, coming out of the store while dragging his two-wheeled cart thing behind him. He nodded our way. “Looks like someone went after that thing with a bat or something. Damn cameras didn’t catch whoever it was though. Pieces of junk. I keep telling Zane he needs to upgrade his security. ‘Specially after that poor girl offed herself right there.” He had stopped walking by then, clearly more in the mood to gossip than get back on the road. “Such a goddamn shame.” 

Right, so they did remember that someone died. Hesitating, I asked, “A girl killed herself here? How, why? Uhh, who?” That last one was what I was really interested in, to be honest. I was curious about what exactly was in their heads after Denise’s connection to the situation was erased. Not to mention the little bit about who exactly had punched this gas pump. Because I had a feeling it was connected to our situation. It seemed a little too coincidental otherwise. 

“Oh, yeah, you didn’t hear about that?” the guy whistled, nodding to the pump we were standing by. “Happened right there. Some guy came in and tried to rob the place, but she took his gun and shot him. Guess she couldn’t deal with what happened, cuz she came out here and used the pump to drown herself.” He was grimacing then, shaking his head. “Isn’t that screwed up? I mean, sucks to kill yourself anyway. But why wouldn’t she just use the gun? Drowning herself with gasoline, just–” A sigh escaped the man before he crossed himself. “So screwed up.”  

“Who was the girl?” Rebecca piped up when the man fell silent, clearly just as curious as I was about how that had been adjusted.  

The man, however, simply shrugged. “Oh, you know, one of the girls who worked here. She was from out of town, hadn’t really lived here long. Maybe that had something to do with why she killed herself, you know? No support system, no friends. I don’t think anyone even really remembers her name. And ain’t that just awful? I mean, bad enough to go through something that screws you up that bad, but then no one even knows much about you?” He grimaced to himself, looking a bit shaken by his own words before giving us a distracted nod and heading for his truck to get back to work. 

Which left us standing there, staring at the dents on the side of the pump. My voice was quiet. “Do you think someone or something came trying to find out the truth? Someone with a connection to Fossor or Ammon. Maybe they found the pump and… got frustrated because of the spell that changed people’s memories. If they were trying to find out who the girl who died here was, and nobody could tell them…” I trailed off, mentally working through the possibilities. None of them made me exactly cheerful. Even if that was true, we still had no idea who or what could possibly have been trying to get at Ammon or even Fossor himself. It wasn’t like there was a shortage of people they had made enemies of, and I was pretty sure plenty of those wouldn’t care about hurting Denise on their quest for revenge. Especially if they hadn’t heard about both of them being dead already. Much as I wanted to think that any enemies of Fossor would be friends of ours, that wasn’t necessarily true. He’d pissed off plenty of bad people as well. 

Rebecca spoke up after a moment. “Maybe that’s how they found Denise. If she was having nightmares or just… memories, she might’ve come here. Then whatever made those dents noticed her and figured out she had some sort of connection to Ammon.”

That sounded like a strong possibility, and I was about to say so before Asenath arrived. I sensed someone approaching from behind, and turned to see the vampire girl on her way. She looked uhh, not great. Between her and my mother, I wasn’t sure which was more upset about this situation. What I did know was that I wouldn’t want to be the person responsible when those two found them. I had a feeling the results wouldn’t be pretty. 

In a low voice as she stared at the same dents in the pump, Senny announced, “You think whoever left those is the one who knows where Denise is now? Then I suppose we should find out who, or what, it was.” Glancing to the others, she added, “We probably shouldn’t all crowd around inside to ask questions. Do you think you can look around out here? Check for anything unusual. Signs of magic, anything… odd like those dents right there, whatever might be a sign that something was lurking around this place. There might even be a nest nearby, on one of the roofs or in the alleys. If something was really trying to find Ammon by coming here, it might’ve staked the place out for awhile before seeing Denise. Worth a shot, anyway.”

The others agreed with that, Tabbris mentioning that she had a couple spells that could help check. She and December split off with Koren and Rebecca, all four spreading out to search the surrounding area. Which left me to go into the shop with Asenath. The two of us headed that way together, as I glanced at the (much) older girl. “I wish I could give you a platitude that would mean anything. But I’m pretty sure it would just be insulting. We both know how bad this looks.”

She, in turn, gave a very slight nod, her mouth pressed tightly closed while she opened the door and gestured for me to go in. “Doesn’t look good, that’s for sure.” 

The shop itself was empty, save for the teenage clerk. She had dirty blonde hair and was reclined in a chair behind the counter, paying more attention to her phone than us, though she did take a second to raise a hand in silent greeting when we looked that way. Her thumbs danced over the screen, texting away while clearly waiting for us to  go about our business.  

Exchanging a look with Senny, I shrugged before walking through the store to look around to give the place a once-over. Yeah, it looked just like the simulated version back at Crossroads. And gave me even more of the creeps. Sure, it looked completely normal, but something about the place just… made a chill run down my spine. Probably because I knew what had happened here. 

“Thirsty?” Asenath asked while I was thinking about that. 

“Huh?” I blinked, then looked down. There was a Sprite in my hand that I didn’t remember picking up. “Oh. Uh, I guess.” Frowning briefly, I shook my head. “This place and me picking things up, I swear.” 

“What do you mean?” the vampire girl pressed, squinting at me. 

I shrugged. “It was… well, obviously now we know it was because of the whole Ammon being my brother thing. But back when we were looking into the recreation of this place for Investigation class, I picked up a few different things that happened to be like… the exact stuff Ammon bought when he was here.” 

Asenath raised an eyebrow. “And now you just picked up that Sprite without thinking about it?” 

“Sure, I guess. But… he’s gone,” I pointed out. “I just… picked up a soda while I was thinking about all this stuff, that’s all. I mean, that’s not that weird, right?” 

“Maybe.” From her tone, Asenath wasn’t really convinced. Which was okay, because neither was I.

But, I shook that off for now. Though I put down the Sprite before purposefully walking to the counter where the clerk was. “Hey, uhh, can I ask you something?” Might as well jump straight into things. We needed to find some answers. 

Glancing up from her phone, the girl raised an eyebrow. “You need the key to the restroom? It’s supposed to be for customers only, but you know, fuck that. If you gotta piss, you gotta piss. No skin off my back. Mostly that rule’s supposed to keep the druggies out of the restroom, anyway.” 

I checked the name tag on her shirt. “Uh, Kalia? Right, nah, it’s not about the restroom. But thanks. Actually, we were wondering if anything weird had happened around here lately. You know, anything different from usual I’d say, probably within the past few weeks. Maybe three weeks ago to be specific?” Yeah, I was being about as straight-forward as possible. There wasn’t time to be cute about it, not with Denise’s life on the line. 

Something about the question had clearly immediately struck the other girl, judging from the brief expression that crossed her face before she wiped it away and offered us a squint. “Unusual?  We get a lot of weirdos in here. Comes with the territory. You know, open all night, close to a homeless camp about three blocks that way, and an improv theater about two blocks the other way. Weirdos are like, our number one customer base. So you’re gonna have to be a bit more specific.” Belatedly, she added, “Why, you looking for someone?” 

Well, screw it, time to go all-in on that whole not beating around the bush thing. “A girl, about ten to twelve years old. This tall, dark hair. She would have come in at some point in the past few weeks. And we think she might have, uhh, been hanging around out there to get a look at the gas pump where that, uhh, girl died.” Yup, just jumping straight on into the whole thing. 

Kalia, for her part, blinked at the question. Again, there was something telling in her expression  for just a moment before she shook it off, eyes narrowing. “What, did someone send you in to play games too? Cuz it’s not fun. It wasn’t funny then, and it’s not funny now. So you can just–”

“Whoa, hey.” Asenath held up both hands while protesting. “I promise, we’re not playing games, and nobody sent us in here. What are you talking about? We’re looking for a girl who went missing, and someone said she might’ve come in here and started acting weird. That’s all.” 

I nodded. “What she said. We’re just looking for this girl. But uhh, why do you think someone’s playing very not-funny games with you? What does that have to do with a girl?” 

Kalia looked back and forth between us as though trying to decide if we were being serious.  Finally, she exhaled and answered. “A little over a year ago, a guy came into this place and started to rob it. But the clerk who worked here shot and killed him. Then she killed herself.” 

“Yeah,” I started to confirm, “we heard about that much, but I don’t–” 

“He was my dad,” the girl replied. “He came to rob the place to make up for… because he borrowed money to take care of me. He borrowed it from a really bad guy named Mercer. He’s like this gang boss or whatever. Real lowlife, but don’t let him find out I called him that. He’s scary. Like, really scary. That–that son of a bitch was gonna do–he was gonna do something bad, to me, because he wasn’t getting his money back fast enough. My dad was desperate. He came here and he got killed. The owner gave me a job because I was hanging around just trying to see the place where my dad died. He gave me a chance. But then Mercer kept coming around, trying to get money out of me instead. He wouldn’t leave it alone. Nothing was enough for him. I didn’t–I didn’t have a chance. I kept trying to tell him to wait for me to be paid enough, but he wasn’t listening. He wasn’t–and then he just… he just…” 

Frowning, I asked, “He just what? Did he do something to you?” Oh boy, was I not in the mood to find out about some guy hurting and terrorizing a girl. I was already reeling from the revelation that she was the daughter of the original robber. That was–yeah. Eesh. It complicated that whole situation, that was for sure. And now to find out that the prick who had set the whole thing in motion was still trying to force this girl to give him more money after everything she had already been through? I really wanted to find whoever that was and give him a piece of my mind. And maybe a piece of my staff while I was at it. Fucking piece of shit.  

Again, the other girl hesitated. It looked like she was afraid to get into the details. She had a pensive look on her face and squirmed a little while fidgeting with her hands.

“It’s okay,” Senny gently reassured her, raising a hand to touch Kalia’s wrist while meeting her gaze. “Trust us, we don’t have anything to do with that Mercer guy. We’re not here for him, just looking for the girl. But tell us what happened. Did he hurt you? Has he threatened you again?”  Despite the gentleness of her tone as she tried to keep the girl calm, I could tell that she was just as close as I was to demanding directions to that guy so we could do something about him. 

Kalia, however, shook her head. “No, that’s the thing–I mean he was. He was being really demanding.” A frown crossed her face again. “He was really pushing hard, wouldn’t let up about it. He was supposed to come in the other day. I was waiting for him, but he never… he never came. Then I went to see him, I had fifty dollars. And he… he said he didn’t know who I was. I mean, he took the fifty bucks, but he didn’t know my name. He didn’t know who I was or who my dad was. He terrorized my father into getting himself killed, which–which drove another girl to kill herself because of it. Then he kept pushing me for more money. And then suddenly he doesn’t know who I am?”

Yeah, she was right. That did sound pretty weird. And distinctly unnatural. Before Asenath or I could say anything, however, the girl went on. “And with that girl going on about some tattooed monster coming in, I just–it was a weird coincidence. Especially with you coming in now.” 

“Hold on, a girl asked about a tattooed monster?” Asenath pressed, giving me a brief look. 

With a nod, Kalia confirmed, “Yeah, a little girl like the one you described. First she came in and was asking me about what happened with my dad and that clerk. I mean, she didn’t know he was my dad before. But she was asking about that. Then it was like… she went nuts? She started asking about some monster with scales and tattoos before just taking off and running outside. Then I never saw her again. Hell, might not even be the right kid.” 

To that, I dug in my pocket for my phone. “Hang on, I think I have a picture.” I had a copy of the video that my mother had shown us before when she revealed that Denise was alive. Bringing up a still shot of that, I held the phone out for the other girl to see. 

Kalia’s head bobbed quickly as she pointed at the screen. “Yeah, that’s her. Who is she?” 

“Her name is Denise,” Asenath explained. “And you’re sure you haven’t seen her since that day? She hasn’t come in again, or been hanging out or anything?” 

“I mean, I’m pretty sure she hasn’t,” Kalia replied with a shrug. “She just yelled about the tattooed monster and ran out. I didn’t really think much about it until all the stuff happened with Mercer.  Like I said, he was supposed to show up that day and he didn’t. And he’s got tattoos. Big bright red ones all over his body. No scales though. But I mean, she was a little kid, and kids have imaginations, you know? It’s just really weird. He completely forgets about the whole thing and acts like he’s never heard of my family, right after this kid was asking about stuff related to that and then went off about a tattooed monster? It’s two weird things in one day, and it sort of seems like they might be related. But I just sorta decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Then you guys came in and started asking about it and are you sure you don’t know him?” 

“No, pretty positive we don’t,” Asenath murmured, gazing off into the distance thoughtfully. 

“But I’m starting to think we should.” 

*******

Leaving the store, we met up with the others just behind the building and explained what we’d discovered. Then they told us about what they had found in turn. Apparently December and Tabbris had picked up signs of a big Alter of some kind, probably accompanied by others, hanging around the store several weeks earlier, but not recently. The traces were old and pretty faded. 

“Yeah,” Rebecca put in, “That totally fits with what we heard.” She nodded in the direction of some old homeless guy laying in a doorway across the street. He had a Coke he was sipping that had clearly come from the nearby vending machine, probably courtesy of her and Koren. “Elmer over there, he told us there used to be this guy who is really bad news with tattoos and stuff that came around the station, but he stopped a few weeks ago. And, get this, he saw a little girl with dark hair too, the same day the big guy stopped showing up.” 

Yeah, this was all sounding pretty suspicious. I had a bad feeling that this Mercer guy was related to why Denise had disappeared. Which was a thought that suddenly made me wonder–

“What if Ammon killing that guy wasn’t as random as we thought?” I put in. “I mean, what if this Mercer guy actually had some connection to Fossor after all? Then Denise shows up because she’s starting to remember stuff, and Mercer finds out, so he takes her and… and goes somewhere.” 

“That doesn’t explain why he would forget about the debt,” Asenath reminded me. “This guy hounded her dad into the grave and then kept pushing her about it. And then one day he just stops completely? Not just stops, seems to literally forget about it entirely. And it doesn’t explain those dents in the gas pump, like someone attacked it. There’s something really… strange about this whole bit. It feels like we’re missing something obvious. It’s right there, but I just can’t get a finger on it.” 

Tabbris piped up, “Maybe you could just ask him why he forgot the debt. I mean, possess him and read his mind. We should be able to find his memories from back then, and Mama taught me some about finding lost memories.”

“Right,” I murmured to myself a bit thoughtfully. She had a point, that might be the easiest way to actually get a firm idea of what was going on. “We just have to find the guy.”

“Ohthat’seasy,” December immediately informed us. “Thespellwe… wereusing…thatshowedushe…. washangingaroundhere… wecanusethat… totrackwherehewent.” 

“Uh huh, uh huh!” Tabbris bobbed her head quickly alongside the other girl. “He left a trail we could follow all the way back to his base.”  

“Sounds like a plan,” Asenath murmured, already taking out her own phone. “Let me call Twister, just in case we need a little more muscle.

“Then we can pay this Mercer guy a visit, and find out what really happened that day.”  

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The Runaway 15-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As soon as they heard that something was wrong, the others wanted to come with. So, I explained what little I knew as we made our way out of the food court and found a quiet, out-of-the-way area in a corner of the underground parking garage so we could use our transport coins to get back to the station. Not that we actually needed to hide from the crowds, given the Bystander Effect. But transporting like that left energy behind that could theoretically be used to track where we went. Just to avoid anyone… bad passing close to that spot soon and being able to do anything with the energy remnants, we didn’t want to do it in a big public area. Not that we were transporting directly anyway. The spell took us to three different destinations first before depositing us on the station. But still, better safe than sorry. 

In any case, I told them what I knew while we were walking, about Denise in general and what had happened. At least as much as my mother had been able to tell me in a couple sentences. Apparently, the girl had been gone for several weeks, at least. It was hard to be specific, because her parents never actually noticed she was missing. Yeah, that sounded bad, but apparently they believed she was staying with her aunt. Mom’s friend, who went to check up on the girl, actually followed through and went to the aunt’s rather than just assuming it was fine, only to find out that she had no idea where the girl was either. Both Denise’s parents and aunt thought she was with the other. No one actually knew where she was. The girl had completely disappeared.

By the time we emerged from the last of the rapid series of transports into the receiving room on the Star Station, Rebecca was shaking her head. “But who would kidnap her? I mean, do you think it’s related to all that… Fossor stuff?” She said the man’s name in a whisper while twisting her face in disgust at even having to speak it aloud. It looked like bringing him up made her physically ill. Which was a reaction I could definitely sympathize with. 

“It’s too much of a coincidence otherwise,” Koren pointed out while we stepped down from the small platform. “Even if it’s not his people directly, it’s probably connected to him in some way. Why else would she disappear like that?” 

“That’s right.” Mom’s voice was crisp as she marched toward us from the entrance. I could hear the barely constrained emotion and guilt almost like a physical slap. “Someone out there drew a connection between her and Fossor, and now they took her. No.” She stopped, hands tightening. “They could’ve taken her as far back as three weeks ago. Anything could’ve happened to her, any–” 

“Mom.” I quickly moved that way, catching her hands. “You had no reason to think she was in any danger. She’s just a normal kid, and both Fossor and Ammon are gone. They’re gone. Nobody had any reason to think anyone would be after her. And you still sent someone to check on her. It’s– there’s nothing else you really could’ve done, not with what we knew.” 

From the look on her face, I was pretty sure that wasn’t helping. I felt my insides twist almost painfully. This was Mom’s win over what Fossor had done to her son. She couldn’t bring back any of Ammon’s other victims, she couldn’t bring back Ammon himself. She couldn’t fix what Fossor had done to him, couldn’t save her little boy. But the one thing she had been able to do was make sure that he stayed dead and couldn’t be used to do any more evil, while giving one of his victims her life back. That was the only thing she had been able to actually do for the little boy she loved. And now someone had attacked that. Someone took Denise, to do… who knew what. No wonder Mom seemed like she was right on the edge of falling apart. This wasn’t just about Denise, awful as that was. It was about Fossor, Ammon, and all the rest of that horror. This was the one thing from that time, from what had been done to her son, that she had been able to fix. 

Tabbris and December had jogged up to join us by then, and while the latter stayed back a few steps, Tabbris herself came forward and caught my mother’s arm with both hands. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “We can still find her, right? We can still figure out where she is and get her back.” Left unspoken, of course, was the fact that we would only be able to find her if she was still alive. To say nothing of the fear about what had been done to her in all that time. 

Koren spoke quickly. “Yeah, we can find her. I mean, it probably won’t be easy, but… at least we can find out how she’s doing. You know, make sure she’s still…” She trailed off, clearly not wanting to say the worst option aloud, even though we were all thinking it. 

Visibly shoving that thought down, Koren continued. “The kid had to leave DNA at her house. You know, on her toothbrush or comb or whatever. All we have to do is find some of that. There’s a spell we can use to see how she’s doing. I mean, umm, physically. It should still be connected to her enough for that.”

“Can you track her with it?” Rebecca quickly asked. “I mean, if you can use her DNA to check what sort of… umm, shape she’s in, can you use it to find out where she is?” 

“It’snotreallythateasy,” December abruptly put in. “Ifshe’snotreallyclose… towhereyou’reusingthespell….itwon’tfindheratall… oryou’dhavetouse… somuchpowertomakeit….reachasfarasitneedsto… you’ddrainalltheenergyinthiswholeplace.”

Mom gave a short nod. “December’s right. That sort of spell works at relatively close range. Even the strongest ones I’ve seen are limited to the general vicinity of a city. And we don’t have the extra power to spare for a big thing like that. Every bit of extra energy anyone’s had for the past few weeks has gone to boosting Liesje’s spell.” Her gaze hardened a bit then. “But there are other ways to find her, and we’re going to. First, we go to her house and get that DNA. I already have a few others checking the aunt’s house, just in case there’s anything there. We don’t know when exactly she disappeared. She might’ve been there for awhile after all. We just–we don’t have any time to waste. Not when she could’ve been missing for three weeks already.” 

“What about Wyatt, and Deveron?” I spoke up. “Or Sariel, they could all–” 

“No.” Her head shook, clearly regretting the answer she had to give. “They’re working on the spell. We can’t interrupt them. It’s too important and they’ve been working too hard. That sort of magic, it’s… so specific, about every little detail. Including when you cast it, and everything about the day itself. Throwing that off, even a little bit, would mean weeks more work.” Even as she said that, I could tell that it was taking everything mom had not to insist anyway. She was desperate to find Denise. But we all knew how important getting the anti-possession spell running was. Denise was important too, of course. Yet there were a lot of people who could be saved with this spell. It was so hard to even think that way. It made me feel like a monster. But we couldn’t interrupt the work on that spell. Not when they were so close after spending such a long time on it. Denise was important, but so were all the people who would be saved or protected by the anti-possession magic. If it was interrupted now, there was no telling how long it would take to reset everything. As horrible as it felt, we had to figure out what happened to the kid without pulling in the whole cavalry. 

“We’ll find her,” I announced, forcing my voice to sound confident. “We’ll do it ourselves.

“So let’s stop wasting time and get down there.” 

*******

Both of Denise’s parents were at work. Because, of course, they had no idea there was anything wrong with their daughter. And we weren’t going to tell them, at least not yet. With a lot of luck, maybe we could find the girl before that was necessary. It wasn’t as though they could actually contribute in any way to find her. Hell, they wouldn’t even be able to retain the information about what was really going on if we did try to explain the situation. 

In any case, it wasn’t exactly hard to get into the house. Mom disabled the alarm and we spread out to look around. We weren’t just looking for her DNA. We also wanted to see if there were any hints about where she might have gone or what happened. There were a few spells we could use to see if any Alters had been around the house within the past couple months, as well as a few other things. If there was anything to find in this place, we were going to find it. 

At the moment, I was down on my side, peering under Denise’s bed to see if she had left anything important there. Mom was in the hallway behind me, working on those Alter-detecting enchantments. A bit further away in one of the other rooms, I could hear one of the others playing messages off the telephone on the very slim chance that might tell us anything. 

Unfortunately, there was nothing under the bed aside from some old shoes and stuffed animals. I pushed myself out and turned just as my mother stepped into the room. She was holding a black coin the size of a half-dollar. As soon as she stepped inside, the coin flickered, glowing red very briefly, then blue, then it went back to dull black. A moment later, it flickered again before going out. Wherever she moved it while moving slowly around the room, the coin flickered for a brief second or two, went out again, then flickered once more, repeating that.  

“Uhh…” I stared that way, frowning as the thing continued to glow, then not glow, then glow again. “I thought it was supposed to glow if there was any sign of an Alter being around here. What does it mean if it flickers like that? Is it just detecting a tiny hint or something?” 

Mom shook her head, frowning as well as she held the thing out between us. “No. If it detects anything at all, it’s supposed to glow. Red is if it’s detecting only the faintest trace, blue is a little stronger. If it was green, there would’ve been an Alter here within the past few days. Flickering like this… maybe something’s blocking it. Check for any spells that might’ve been left behind.” 

So, we started to do that as well. I checked in the usual places, along the baseboard, behind furniture, in the closet, and so on. I used that time to keep looking for any clues about what happened to the girl as well, also to no avail. 

At least, to no avail until I pushed the clothes and toys out of the way to check the back wall for any runes. I didn’t exactly find a spell, but I definitely found something interesting. As my eyes scanned over what I’d found there, I felt a chill run through me. “Mom!” I called. “Look at this.” 

She came quickly, and I stepped aside a bit to show her. There were words carved into almost the entire surface of the rear wall of the closet. Two words repeated over and over again, often carved on top of each other. Him Me Him Me Him Me Him Me. It went on and on like that, the words carved with some sort of knife. It was incredibly creepy to stare at. Worse, and more tellingly just in case we hadn’t gotten the point yet, there were much larger letters carved on top of those ones. Three letters, A-M-M. Then those were crossed out with what had clearly been a quick series of sharp jagged cuts. AMM. Ammon. She started to carve Ammon into the wall. Him, Me, Him, Me, Him, Me, then the start of the name Ammon? This… this was bad. 

Also, as soon as Mom stepped up to the closet, the Alter-detection coin began to glow once more. It was still flickering, but more slowly. It stayed lit up longer between flashes of darkness.  Either whatever was partially blocking it was weaker here, or the detection itself was just stronger in this spot, or… or… I had no idea. Mom said, it wasn’t supposed to work like that. If it was detecting anything, it should just light up, period. This whole flickering thing was… weird. Between that and the words carved in the wall, a cold shiver ran down my spine once more. 

“She remembers,” Mom murmured, sounding stricken as she reached out to touch the carved letters. “That should be impossible. She shouldn’t remember anything.” Her voice shook a little from the implication that this little girl actually even partially remembered what had happened to her. 

The two of us stood there, staring at the words carved into the wall for several long seconds. Then we were interrupted when Rebecca stepped into the room behind us. She was holding what looked like an appointment book in one hand and a tablet computer in the other. “Hey, umm, I don’t know if this means anything, but it turns out this girl’s mom was trying to get her to see a therapist. I mean, she got her to see one, but the girl wouldn’t go back to her again. So she was trying to get her to go to another one. Something about nightmares she was having.” 

“That’s not all.” Koren had joined her in the doorway, holding up two thick books I couldn’t see the titles of. “These were in the garage, hidden in a box full of balls and outside toys. Looks like they were checked out of the library a few weeks ago, in her name. They’re all about umm… mind control. Pretty heavy stuff. Looks like the kid had a lot she wanted to go back over again.” She showed us where a lot of the pages had strips of cloth, string, or other bookmarks, as if the reader had simply shoved whatever was in their pocket to mark the spot. 

Yeah, this had moved further and further into unsettling and creepy. Denise, as far as she or anyone else around her should have known, was like eleven years old. Even if we hadn’t seen the partial name and those words carved into the wall, one thing still would have been clear. The only reason she could possibly have for being obsessed with reading about mind control from adult books was if she actually remembered Ammon using it on her. 

Mom’s gaze moved from the books back to the words carved into the wall of the closet. “This is all wrong. It can’t… she can’t remember this… why would she remember anything?” 

“What’s going on?” That was Tabbris, as she and December arrived. “What happened?” 

We went through it all, the books, the therapist appointments, the words carved into the wall, everything. With all that put together, it sure sounded like the girl was sort of remembering at least part of what happened to her. Which had to be unbelievably traumatizing. I couldn’t imagine being a little kid and experiencing those sort of nightmares. 

“But what about the thing with the Alter detector?” Koren brought up. “Could that maybe be from someone like… projecting memories or thoughts or whatever into her head from a distance? I mean, if they aren’t fully physically present, maybe that could screw up the detection?” 

Mom seemed to consider that for a moment, looking at the coin in question as it continued to flicker. “Perhaps,” she murmured thoughtfully, before her gaze darkened. “But when we find whoever was responsible for that, whoever… took…” She trailed off, clearly taking everything she had to control her reaction. I was pretty sure she was even more upset than I was, and that was saying something, because I felt like putting my fist through the nearby wall a few times. 

Denise was fine! Why would she–why was she–who could possibly have…

“I need to call Asenath,” I murmured. “She thought this was over too. I mean, she got into this whole thing by trying to find out what happened to Denise the first time. I have to tell her. She can help.” 

“It’ll be dark in half an hour,” my mother informed me while glancing toward the nearby window. “Let her sleep until then. Maybe we can find something else, something better than bad news.” 

“I got this,” Rebecca announced, holding up a hand with a pink and purple hairbrush. “Pretty sure it’s hers. Can you do the spell with that?” 

Mom confirmed that she could and then took the brush down to the kitchen table to get started on that. Meanwhile, the rest of us kept looking around in the vain hope of finding something else useful. I was almost afraid to look in more closets or behind more dressers, just in case there were more creepy carvings. It was horrible to think about what had to be going through that girl’s mind to wonder if Ammon was still controlling her, to the point that she was carving those words into the wood. But I did anyway. We had to know just how bad of shape she was in. Though, to be fair, maybe the fact we were to the point of checking for how many bits of wall in her house she had carved rambling, repeating words into with a knife, sort of answered the question. 

Fortunately, or unfortunately given it might have helped, we didn’t find any more carvings. Nor did we find anything that could have told us where the kid went or who took her. It would take longer for Mom to work her way through the spell, given how thorough she was being. So, when we were done with the search, I took the time to call Asenath. 

That… was not a fun conversation. As soon as I told her what had happened, at least as much as we knew, the other girl went quiet for a few seconds. I could almost picture her face, staring at open air as she fought to contain herself. I knew exactly what she was feel–no, I didn’t. Close, but I did not know exactly what she was feeling. She had been hired to find out the truth about Denise’s murder, and that was what led to her meeting me and everything else that happened since then. She’d thought she had closure on the whole thing when Ammon died, and then closure of a better sort when Mom told her about Denise being brought back. Now this had happened and that closure was ripped away. 

“Who?” Her voice was a cold demand, brittle from anger that she was barely restraining. “Who took her?” 

“We don’t know,” I admitted. “Not yet. But we’re tracking her down. Mom’s working on a spell to… you know, check on her umm, physical state. It should tell us how healthy she is, whether she’s been drugged or enchanted, that sort of thing. Might even point us in her direction if she’s close enough and they haven’t blocked that.” Not that I had much faith in whoever had taken Denise being dumb enough for that. But hey, we had to try everything. Besides, that was even considering someone had physically taken her. Considering what we’d been finding around this house,  I had this nagging thought in the back of my head that all these nightmares she was clearly having could have driven her to run away. Or maybe…

“Wait,” I said aloud. “If she was having dreams about… about what happened, do you think she might’ve actually seen where it happened? I mean, the… the gas station. What if she went there to–I don’t know, to try to get some answers? It’s nearby, right?”

Both Koren and Asenath immediately confirmed that it was only a few blocks away from the house. So, I checked in with Mom, made sure she was gonna be okay there by herself working on that spell, and told her what we were going to do. It would still be hours before the girl’s parents got home, so we were good on that front. 

“Okay, Senny,” I announced while heading for the door with the others right behind me. “We’ll meet you at that gas station. 

“Let’s hope there’s someone or something there that can give us some clue of what the hell is going on.” 

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The Runaway 15-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Believe it or not, that single day was a pretty good example of how the next three weeks went. Yeah, three whole weeks with barely any real excitement outside of training and various planned scenarios. Just about the most dangerous thing that happened was when a few people threw a surprise party for Vanessa and Tristan (their birthday had been the 29th) and didn’t happen to inform Theia of what was going on. She was with them when the surprise was sprung and, well… yeah, they needed to get a new cake. But at least they didn’t have to get a new Jazz, and it was a pretty close call on that point. Luckily, she had good reflexes. 

So yeah, everyone made a mental note not to startle Theia. Which honestly probably should’ve been underlined and bolded in all of our mental notebooks anyway, long before that. But all was well that ended well, and that day ended well indeed. 

All the days did, actually. Three weeks, and I didn’t have any truly horrifying moments, no life and death decisions, no abductions, no crying in terror. I just… lived. I spent time with my girls, my friends, my family (including my mother), and the people who were just my classmates. 

And Persephone. I spent some time with her too, throughout those days. She didn’t demand anything, of course. I had a feeling she was one of the most patient people I would ever meet. Which made sense, given her age and everything. Still, I made a point of spending time with her now and then. Sometimes it was all in a group setting, other times I sat alone and just talked, shared things about myself and asked about her in return. She had a lot of interesting stories. Not to mention incredibly amusing ones, terrifying ones, just… a lot of stories worth hearing. 

I spent all that time with the woman, listened to her, talked with her about myself, showed her the things I was interested in, introduced her to a lot of human concepts, and basically just opened up to her a fair bit. And over those weeks, I grew to like her. Well, I’d already liked her before, just from how helpful she had been, not to mention the stuff we’d learned about where she came from. But now, after hanging out with her off and on over those intervening weeks, I definitely liked her as a person. She was cool. She was fun, exciting, different…

And I absolutely, positively, did not like her the way I liked–loved Avalon and Shiori. 

Yeah, it wasn’t happening. Not like that. Again, I liked her. But it was more the way I liked Sands and Sarah, or Columbus, or Sean. I wanted to protect her, help her, even make her happy. I cared about what happened to her. But I didn’t feel anything like that for her. Three weeks of spending time together, and the more I knew her the more clear it was that I just… wasn’t going to have those feelings. There was literally no sense of romance, at least as far as I was concerned. I was afraid to ask how she was feeling, especially before I would know for certain that she understood how she was feeling. 

That was my plan as far as that went. I wanted to help Persephone figure out on her own that she would be happier with someone other than me, with someone she actually enjoyed because of who they were rather than what power they had. I wasn’t sure how that would go, but yeah. My fingers were crossed. And I was thinking about adding toes, just in case. 

Now it was Friday, December 21st. Four days until Christmas. We’d already had Hanukkah from December 2nd to the 10th, and Kwanzaa would start on the 26th. Plus there were a few other holidays mixed in there I didn’t even know much about. Apparently December was a big time for that sort of thing no matter where you came from. Or maybe holidays on other worlds tended to migrate to December because that was the general holiday time. 

The fact that it was four days before Christmas was what had led to my current life or death quest: shopping for presents. On Earth.

“Can we please, please shoot out the speakers so those fucking Christmas songs shut up?” Koren pleaded with me while walking backwards through the mall so she could stare my way. “I promise there won’t be any collateral damage. Just the music. I will buy every single one of the presents you’re getting for everyone if you let me destroy every speaker in this mall so they can never torture anyone again. We’re supposed to stop monsters, right? What are the people who play this goddamn music on a constant loop if not monsters? My logic is impeccable and you should be nodding right now.” 

Walking beside me, Rebecca noted, “I don’t think shooting out the speakers and destroying the mall’s ability to make music really fits with the whole… blending in and not attracting attention thing. I’m just saying, people might notice something like that.” 

“Ilikethesongs,” December cheerfully announced while doing a little spin as she and Tabbris walked ahead of us. “Andthedecorationsandeverythingelse. Everyone’sreallyhappyabout…itbeingDecemberand…it’sliketheylikeme.” 

“They’re all December holidays!” Tabbris giggled, nudging the other girl. “Out on the lawn there arose such a clatter. December was here, now just let me at her. Away to the window I flew with a flash.”

December was grinning broadly as she put in, “ButDecemberwasmovingand… wemetwithacrash!” 

With that, the two of them jumped into each other, stumbling backward while laughing so hard they almost fell over. Quickly, they began to make up more lyrics amongst themselves.

“Well, at least they’re having fun.” Shaking my head, I looked at Koren (who was still walking backward, expertly avoiding everything that might have been in her way without looking). “Sorry, but Rebecca’s right. I really don’t want to give your mom any reason to hold off on sending me down here again. Not with my visits coming up.” 

“When’s the first one?” Rebecca asked. “And how many?” 

“Tomorrow night,” I replied, “and ahhh, about fifteen in the first batch. They’re all pretty close together. They’re from a umm, neighborhood that Fossor went through about ten years ago.” 

Tomorrow night would be when I officially started releasing some of these ghosts. It could’ve been earlier, but I’d discussed it with all of them and they decided to go closer to Christmas. There was a larger chance of their families being around. For those who weren’t stopped by the Bystander Effect, they could actually say goodbye in person. For those who were, the ghosts could at least see them one last time. It wasn’t much, especially after everything they had been through. But it was something that I could do for them. And I definitely didn’t want to screw that up by giving Abigail any reason to see sending me to Earth as a bad idea. Not that I honestly thought she’d put a stop to the plan or anything, but still. Better safe than sorry. Besides, I didn’t want to be hit with one of her disappointed looks. 

“He killed fifteen people in one neighborhood that he just happened to pass through?” Rebecca’s voice shook a little bit as she stared at me, the small girl adding, “Where was it?” 

“He killed a lot more than that in that neighborhood,” I replied in a tight voice. Thinking about it only made me more upset. “Fifteen were all that he bothered to reanimate and use. It’s a place in Cary, North Carolina. He was looking for something that was buried around that area, and there was this neighborhood watch group that sort of… vaguely annoyed him by showing up with flashlights when he was trying to di–sorry, when he was trying to have some zombies dig for him. It started a whole commotion and he ended up killing a bunch of them and putting those fifteen to work as ghosts to keep everyone else away for the entire week he needed to find the thing he was looking for. He turned that whole neighborhood into a horror movie, made the dead people haunt their loved ones to torture all of them to give himself privacy, and for fun.” My voice was a little hollow as I explained that. I could still remember how disgusted and angry I felt when the ghosts in question had told me their story. What made it worse, of course, was the knowledge that theirs was hardly unique. All these ghosts that I was now connected to, all the spirits I had inherited from Fossor, had deeply traumatic, horrifying stories of their own. All of them thanks to that piece of shit. The only bad thing about him being dead was that we couldn’t kill him again. 

Sounding like she was having very similar thoughts, Rebecca asked, “What was he looking for out there that was so important?” 

A heavy sigh escaped me, as I watched Tabbris and December chattering happily back and forth in front of a store window ahead of us. “Who knows? The thing they helped him dig up was some little wooden chest, about a foot wide and maybe a little under a foot tall? They don’t know what he did with it, or if he even used whatever was inside. Maybe it’s sitting somewhere waiting for him. Maybe he never did anything with it at all. Maybe he already used it. Maybe…” My head shook. “A lot of maybes. The point is, he killed them and the people in that neighborhood never got any sort of closure about what happened. We can’t really give them that, not really. But we can… sort of try. We can give his victims something.” It wouldn’t be enough. It would never be enough. But it could be something. 

Pushing those thoughts away, I made myself shrug while trying to sound casual. Not that it worked that well. “But hey, he’s gone forever now, and that’s what actually matters. That and cleaning up after all the trauma he left behind. And I get to take another step on that long journey tomorrow night. It was going to be Sunday instead of Saturday, but, well, you know.” 

They both nodded. They did know. Sunday night, December 23rd, would be when the anti-possession spell went into effect. Everything was prepared, and everyone had spent the past few weeks donating power to the spell. It had taken all that time, the months since we actually saved it from the vault, for the real experts to finish the adjustments for the spell and add in all the particular details that we were looking for. They had finally come back with every (excruciatingly precise) measurement and all the special materials that have been required. Then all they needed was raw power, and they received a lot of it from everyone living on the station, and a lot more beyond that. The spell itself had been drawn within one of the rooms on the station, and that was an absolutely incredibly protected place. Even I couldn’t get in there. Almost no one who wasn’t very high up or part of the actual spell team was allowed inside. But from what Avalon (who was allowed in because it was literally her ancestor’s spell) had said, the whole place was like one of those elaborate clean rooms, complete with an airlock entrance and special suits you had to wear to avoid messing anything up by breathing on it wrong or carrying in something that might disturb it. And even the suits weren’t enough. You also stood in the airlock area and let several different scanners run over you to make sure nothing bad went in with you. Beyond that, they had these special force fields covering the floor, walls, and ceiling where the runes were drawn, and more shields surrounding the artifacts that had been added into it. Everything was precisely laid out down to the millimeter. Every tiny, microscopic adjustment had to be agreed on by all the people working on the spell, and they used these special, incredibly precise instruments to make those adjustments. 

So yeah, it was a big deal. They’d been working on it for so long, no one wanted them to have to start over. So there were always guards stationed by the room, and enough spells around the place to ensure no one could get inside without alerting people. In that room was the result of centuries of searching, months of careful preparation and research, millions of dollars-worth of ancient artifacts, and the combined magical energies from what had to be thousands of people. 

It was a big deal, and rightfully so given everything it would accomplish. So now that the spell was finally going to be put into place, we were going to have a party. A real party, across not only the station, but down in the Atherby camp and in Wonderland. Yeah, it was a big thing. That was why I couldn’t do the ghost thing Sunday night. I was going to be rather busy. 

Smiling a bit to myself at the thought, I focused on Koren. “You gonna get something good for your mom?” 

She, in turn, made a face at me. “Don’t think you can weasel your way into finding out what I’m getting her just because you can’t think of anything. In fact, why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking of so I know you haven’t already copied me?”

The two of us stared at one another for a few long seconds before I raised an eyebrow. “You got nothing, huh?” 

Deflating, the other girl lamented, “I got nothing. And I really thought it’d be easier to shop for Mom by now! Especially with everything going on, all her new responsibilities, the–all of it! But I still don’t know what to get her. I’m not going with a gift card again. That seems extra lame now.”  

Yeah, she was probably overthinking it. But then again, I had no room to talk on that front, considering how much I was overthinking what I was going to get for my own mother. Seriously, what Christmas present could I possibly give her that would come anywhere near saying how I felt about the fact that she was finally home with us? Suddenly, I understood why Wyatt had felt the need to give multiple years-worth of missed presents. The whole concept was really overwhelming. 

With that in mind, I swallowed hard before quietly telling Koren that we would help each other find a good present. Hopefully, something good enough to even register on the scale of what I owed my mother would be sitting in one of these stores. Though somehow I doubted Hot Topic or the Gap had anything that could give her a decade of her life back, and take away all the bad shit  that had happened to her. 

Rebecca shook her head while shifting the backpack on her shoulders. “You guys are overthinking this whole thing. It’s not about giving them some amazing, perfect present. It’s about the fact that they get to be there so you can give it to them in the first place. Well, that and putting thought into it. Come on, what they want are gifts that show you were thinking about them. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be from you. And something that means they were on your minds, that they matter to you.”  

Thinking about that for a moment, I offered the girl a small smile. “You’re pretty smart about this stuff.”

She, in turn, blushed and ran a hand over her face. “Yeah, well, that was mostly Grandma talking. She figured you guys would be acting crazy about this whole thing and wanted to give some advice.”

She visibly blanched then, and I knew why. Both of her parents were still with the loyalists. They weren’t listening to her or to Lillian. And they had made it very clear that they wanted Rebecca back with them.

That was what this whole conflict was doing to a lot of people. My family may have been brought back together, but a lot of them were being torn apart. It was a fact that had been made even more apparent over these holidays. 

Even as I was trying to find the right words to say to the girl, she physically shook it off before asking, “Anyway, are we ready to get to the actual shopping part? I mean, I kind of need to buy something super-good for Grandma to pay her back for that advice about how you don’t have to get super-nice presents to show you love people.”

Koren and I exchanged looks briefly before I snorted. “Yeah, sure. Let’s get going then. Besides, if we take much longer to move on, December and Tabbris might physically drag us after them.” 

As if agreeing with that, Tabbris called, “We have to find something good for Grandma and Grandpa! They’ll be here any day!” 

Yeah, she was pretty excited to meet our grandparents officially and physically. We’d talked a bit more to them over the past few weeks, but Tabbris couldn’t wait to actually see them in person in her own body and all. She was incredibly nervous about it, even though they had made it clear that they were excited to meet her as well. It was a whole thing. I was pretty sure she wasn’t exactly afraid they would reject her. Not anymore. But still, she wanted to make a good first official impression, and had been sort-of agonizing over that for awhile now. 

“You know you can call them Popser and Grandmaria, Tabs,” I reminded her. 

She, in turn, squirmed a bit on her feet, with December bouncing behind her. “I know, it’s just… I don’t wanna take your thing.” 

My head shook, as I walked up that way and put both hands on her shoulders. “They’re your grandparents too. He’s your Popser and she’s your Grandmaria, just like they’re mine.” After briefly embracing her, I straightened. “Now come on. Let’s go find the perfect presents for everyone.” 

So, we walked onward. For the next couple hours, the five of us strolled through the mall and shopped. I picked up things for the others, including my girls, and we eventually stopped at the food court for something to eat. I sat there, watching people around us go about their own holiday shopping. It felt so surreal, seeing all those people with completely ordinary lives. Not that their lives weren’t important. They were. The point was just… they had no idea what was really going on in the world. The Fomorians, the Seosten, the monster under the ocean, things like Kwur and the other Gehenna prisoners, and so on. 

Would I prefer to be like that? Would I like it better if I could live an ordinary life with my family? Just to be completely fair, assume I could keep everyone I loved and cared about with me. My family and my friends. If I could keep them, would I want to go back to a normal life, one without all the pressure and responsibility? Would I prefer to live a completely free life, with an ordinary job as a reporter/writer, and not have to deal with any of that? 

No. No, I wouldn’t. I had a chance to ride multiple spaceships. I’d been to other worlds. I had incredible powers. I knew magic. I’d met amazing people, other beings who weren’t anything close to being human. There was a lot of pressure, sure. There was so much danger. But there was so much more than that. I’d been able to be part of so many incredible, amazing things in just the past year-and-a-half. I couldn’t imagine ever giving that up. Not for anything.

Tabbris chose that moment to poke me in the chin with a pretzel. “Whatcha got serious face for? What’s wrong?”  

Smirking a bit despite myself, I poked her with my own pretzel before dipping it in cheese to take a bite. Then I smiled at her and the others as they stared at me as well. “Nothing, really. Everything’s pretty good right–” 

I was interrupted by the buzzing of the phone in my pocket. Opening and shutting my mouth a couple times, I exhaled before pulling it out. “If this is something bad, you can all hit me.” Checking the phone, I saw that the call was from my mother. So, I clicked the button to connect and answered with, “Please don’t make me look like I just jinxed everything.” 

“Felicity,” Mom started immediately. “I need you to… I need you to come back and go with me.” 

Oh boy. Hearing the tone in her voice, I immediately pushed myself up. “We’re coming back. What’s wrong? What happened? Is Dad–” 

“Dad’s fine, we’re all fine,” she assured me. “I need you to come with me, we have to find her.” 

“Find who?” I shook my head, confused. The others had all risen around me, as we started moving together. 

“It’s Denise, Felicity,” Mom informed me. “She… she’s gone. 

“She disappeared and no one knows where she is.” 

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Interlude 14B – Calendar (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the far corner of an enormous junk yard somewhere in the southern edge of Michigan, a glowing green portal abruptly appeared directly between a hollowed out sedan and the remains of several old washing machines. An old mutt of a dog that had been lying idly watching a nearby ball as though deciding whether or not to give chasing it a go made a noise in the back of his throat and looked up in time to see three figures emerge from the portal. One was a young girl about nine or ten years old with dark hair and very pale eyes that were almost white, while the other two girls appeared to be in their teens. One was a pale red-head, and the other looked Asian, with very short hair. In the case of the latter two, their actual ages were roughly twice what they appeared to be.

After emerging from the portal, the three representatives of the so-called Calendar slowly moved their gaze around the junkyard, looking toward the dog briefly before their eyes shifted to take in the rest of the area. The canine itself didn’t move other than to bump its nose toward the tennis ball so that it would roll up a few feet through the dirt, then roll back. Beyond that, he gave no real reaction to their arrival. He was old and quite done being a guard dog. Or perhaps there was another reason he stayed put and didn’t start barking to sound an intruder alarm.

“What do you think?” April asked, squinting in the direction of the mutt. “That easy?” 

“Could be a double bluff,” May pointed out while continuing to split her gaze between the dog and the rest of the junkyard. “Be right in plain sight so that we would think it couldn’t possibly be that one. After all, they know we have December with us. She tends to win at this game.”  

The particular game, in this case, was something that members of the Calendar played with one another when they had to meet up after being separated. They would possess various animals and make the new arrivals guess which ones they were. You got two points for successfully guessing on the first try, one for the second attempt, and if you failed then, the member who had hidden received three points. It wasn’t an idle game either. They kept obsessive track of the score and had actual prizes, including a jackpot that could be won once someone got high enough. Others, including Cahethal, thought it was a waste of time. But members of the Calendar took it very seriously. It was one of the ways in which they bonded with each other. And December did tend to have an advantage at it, for one particular reason. 

“Speaking of which, what do you see?” April asked the younger girl. She herself had already picked out three more potential options in the form of two rats under one of the washing machines, and a mangy-looking crow who had set up a nest in the old junked car.  

December, for her part, appeared to be gazing off at nothing, her eyes unfocused. “There’sfourteenpossibilities,” she informed them. “Fourratsunderthemachinesthere. Twomoreunderthecar. Twocrowsnestingontopofthejunkpilethere. Anotheroneinthatcar. Thatdogwiththeball. Threecatsaboutfiftyfeetthatway. Andarabbitunderground… throughaholethirtyfeettheotherway.” 

She was technically blind, of course, thanks to a rare genetic mutation that had arisen through experiments in earlier generations. But that same mutation had left her with the ability to see magical energies, including that given off by living beings. And not only magical energies. She also saw electricity, heat, sound waves and the way they bounced off of objects, and so on. Put together, it allowed the girl her own particular type of vision, a three-dimensional image of her surrounding area, full of various energy patterns that she had become accustomed to deciphering until she had reached the point where interpreting the energies she saw and mentally translating that came as easily and instantaneously as an average person’s ordinary sight did. 

“Only fourteen?” May asked, looking toward the rabbit burrow that the girl had pointed out. 

December’s head bobbed rapidly. “Uhhuhuhhuhuhhuh! That’sallthestuffthat’sbigenough. Toosmallisstillcheating,right?” 

May gave a very slight nod, considering those options. “Yes, using something too small is still cheating. The game has to be played with something at least the size of an Earth mouse.” 

“So one of those fourteen,” April murmured. “Who was supposed to be meeting us here?” 

“Tember and Julie,” May replied, focusing her attention on the dog once more. It had slumped over onto its side, enjoying the very end-of-fall sun. The air was briskly chill, though there was no visible snow anywhere. Shiloh, the Heretic student who had taken to hanging out with them a bit, would have been dismayed by that fact, given how close to December (the actual month) it was. According to her, snow at the very beginning of December meant there would also be snow at the end, when the holidays came. None of the Calendar trio were exactly convinced of that logic. And truth be told, they were certain Shiloh wasn’t either. But the human girl certainly played up the superstition, possibly for comedic effect. 

It was a strange thought to have in that moment, May realized a bit belatedly. She was standing here, attempting to identify which animals their fellow Calendar people had possessed, and instead of focusing on that, she had thought about Shiloh for the past several seconds. Odd. 

Setting those thoughts aside, she focused on the issue at hand once more. Fourteen possibilities, and two of their companions to identify. For a moment, she thought about what she knew about Tember (September) and Julie (July). Both had been members of the Calendar longer than any of this trio, long enough to have adapted their given monikers somewhat. Despite that, neither happened to work together that often. So May was assuming they would have separated and chosen different animals to hide in.

“I know Tember,” April announced. “We hang out a lot. I’m gonna say he’s…” Trailing off, she leaned over to whisper quietly to the other two. 

There was a very brief conference back and forth, before May gave one more look at the junkyard around them and stepped forward. “Tember is the crow by itself in the car!” she called, loud enough to be heard. “Julie is the rabbit in the hole, pretending to be asleep.” 

There was a brief moment of silence, aside from the old dog panting a bit as he looked at them. Then the rabbit emerged into view while the crow in question flew down. Both animals promptly broke their own necks by twisting their heads too far to the side. An instant later, as the bodies fell, glowing humanoid energy forms appeared before resolving into each respective Seosten. 

“Very good, I thought we finally fooled you that time,” Tember, a large man who would have been considered Latino were he from Earth, announced while dusting off his clothes. They were old, having been repeatedly patched and repaired to the point that almost none of the original material remained. The clothes were the first that he had been given here on Earth, and Tember was loath to either replace them or use magic to repair them. He preferred fixing them, as he put it, ‘the human way.’ 

“So did I,” Julie put in. She was a black woman who appeared to be in her early twenties by human standards, wearing dark pants and a pristine, button-up white shirt under a long tan trench coat. “Especially with the magical tranquilizer we gave the dog there. He was a noisy little thing before that. You were supposed to think he was Tember.”

“Youcan’tfoolusthateasily!” December declared, before abruptly sprinting that way. And in her case, that meant using her improved boost to turn into a blurred form, appearing directly in front of the two almost immediately. “HiyaImissedyou!” She was hugging Tember tightly even as the man reacted to her sudden appearance. “We’vegotsomuchtotellyou,” she added, figure blurring once more as she darted the few feet over to embrace Julie just as tightly. “WehelpedstopaGehennaprisonernamedKwur…andkilledFossorhimselfthebigmeanNecromancer…andwentonapirateship…and–” 

Chuckling, Julie gently eased the young girl back by the shoulders to look down at her. “You do know that May and April have been submitting regular reports about everything that’s happened, don’t you?” There was a mixture of amusement and fondness in her voice as she ruffled the girl’s hair with one hand.

“WellsurebutIwantedtotellyoumyself!” December insisted while eagerly bouncing up and down. “Theymight’veleftstuffout! AndI’vegottatellyouaboutTabbris!”  

“Yes, Tabbris.” Tember noted thoughtfully, giving the girl a curious look, his tone casual. “She’s the one who was ahh, giving our people so many fits, right? The one who made them lose their minds trying to figure out why the Chambers girl couldn’t be possessed.” Even as he said that, there was amusement in his voice. It was very clear the revelation of just what–or who–had vexed their fellow Seosten (including Cahethal) for so long positively tickled the man. 

December beamed at that, bouncing up and down even more as she launched into a full-on rant about how positively cool and amazing her new friend was. The spiel went on for awhile, as the girl went deep into all the things Tabbris had done, without much in the way of chronological order. She simply blurted out everything that came to mind all in a rush. But every member of the Calendar was well-acquainted with the girl and accustomed to listening through her extended and very rapid stories to pick out the details of what she was talking about. 

While Tember listened attentively, asking questions now and then to show just how much  he cared about what the youngest member of their group was saying, Julie stepped aside a bit to speak more privately with April and May. Her voice was soft. “You asked for a face-to-face with the entire Calendar, and then Cahethal. Is there something we should know?” The tone of her voice made the underlying question clear. Was something wrong with their assignment to the Fusion school? 

April shook her head. “The assignment’s going fine. We only…” She glanced at the girl next to her, raising an eyebrow as though asking how they should put it. 

May, in turn, spoke up flatly. “The humans have asked for a bit of information, which we might be able to provide.” 

Looking back and forth between the two, Julie considered their words. “And is it information that we would want to give the humans?” 

“They are on our side,” April pointed out carefully. “Or they can be. Helping them now is the best way to ensure they are actually in a position to help our real war against the Fomorians if this truce continues beyond its first year and we begin a full, official alliance with the humans.” 

“Yes,” Julie agreed, “if the truce continues. But if it doesn’t, what sort of information are we giving them? Don’t forget, this could very well be a temporary situation. If the Seraphs choose to move to full invasion, every bit of information you give the humans could be used against us.” Her gaze moved between the two, then glanced toward December, who was still cheerfully talking to Tember about everything she had been doing with Tabbris. “In a few months, we may be taking very different, more direct measures against the people you’re trying to help now.” 

“Nowewon’t!” That was December, who had abruptly pivoted away from Tember, revealing that she had actually been listening the entire time. Her face had grown heated. “They’reourfriendsandtryingtofightthemwouldbestupidandwe’renotstupidand–” 

“December,” May interrupted, giving the younger girl a firm look to stop talking. “It’s okay. We’re just talking right now. Remember, Julie hasn’t been there. She doesn’t know what they’re like.” Her voice was calming, even as she gave the older Seosten girl a brief squint while pointedly adding, “No one’s going to ask you to hurt Tabbris or your friends. Don’t worry about it.” 

A moment of silent conversation passed between May, April, and Julie, where the latter made her opinion on the situation very clear. She believed it was a mistake to get too close to the humans, and had thought that sending December there in the first place was a bad idea. Not that she had anything directly against the humans (she was, after all, using a very human nickname). But when it came down to it, she was loyal to the rest of the Calendar, and to Cahethal for giving them the opportunity to be together. And, of course, to the Seosten in general beyond that. Her own people loathed her existence, yet she still longed for acceptance from them. She still believed it was possible to change their minds simply by being effective enough at her job. No matter how emphatically so many of the Seosten rejected that idea. 

Tember spoke up carefully after that long moment of silence had dragged on. “Well, why don’t we head back to the camp and talk to everyone else? You did say you wanted to get everyone. Even Cahethal agreed to show up. She’s… interested in seeing what has you so worked up.” As he spoke, the tall man  reached down to pick December off the ground, setting her on his shoulders while the girl gave a squeal of delight. “And everyone else has missed you.” 

“Didyoumissus?” December cheerfully chirped the question from her perch on the man’s shoulders, leaning over to look him in the eyes (or at least as close as she could get, being technically blind) from an upside down position. “Didjadidja?” 

“Hmm,” Tember playfully teased the girl, making a show out of pretending to consider before nodding toward May and April. “I suppose I might’ve missed those two, just a little bit.” 

“Andmeyoumissedmetoo!” December insisted while patting the top of the man’s head empathically. “C’monyougottasayityougottasayyoumissedmetooplease!” 

For another minute, Tember continued to tease the girl by pretending to consider whether he had actually missed her or not. She clearly knew he was only teasing her, and yet dramatically played up her reaction, lamenting how terribly mean he was and making a show of telling the man, who was essentially like an older brother, just what a mean and terrible jerk he was. 

“Jerk?” Julie asked the other two with an arched eyebrow. “A very human thing to say.” 

“A very Tabbris thing to say,” April replied mildly. “They’re friends. They’ve gotten pretty close.” 

“So I see.” Julie’s voice was a murmur before she shook her head, clearly uncertain about how that situation was going to unfold in the future, and concerned about December’s reaction. “In any case, you’ve made the first jump and it’s obvious you weren’t followed. Our detectors would have told us if they put any tracking spells on you. So we can go back to the camp now.” 

They still didn’t go directly there, of course. The Heretic rebels were not the only ones who knew what sort of downsides could come from allowing others to track them back to what should be a private location. Despite the confidence that they weren’t followed, the Calendar quintet made a couple extra portal jumps, just in case. 

Eventually, they arrived at their home here on Earth, a former summer camp next to a lake, with several cabins, and some boats. One of which was in use at that very moment as two figures in a canoe in the middle of the lake, fishing. The Calendar Camp should have been too cold for any boating or fishing at all, this close to winter in a place that was actually pretty far north in Alaska. But it was a relatively simple bit of magic between them to keep the surrounding area warm. It was already hard enough for people like them to have a place they could call home as it was. Now that they had a place, they certainly weren’t going to spare any expense or effort making it as comfortable as they could. This was their place. 

As soon as she saw the pair on the lake, December immediately hopped down from Tember’s shoulders  and took off. She became a blur that raced across the water, using her enhanced boost to get all the way over there without falling in. A moment later, she was in the middle of the boat, gesturing wildly while already starting to tell those two stories of her time at Fusion.

“Still as excitable as ever, I see.” Those words came from a much-older man, standing on the porch of the nearest cabin. He wore a painstakingly tailored suit that perfectly fit his slim form, which only added to the dignity afforded by his silvery-gray hair. Bystanders who saw him thought the Calendar man known as August looked quite a bit similar to the human actor Charles Dance. 

“Did you expect anything less?” the long-haired black man beside him, who also wore a neatly tailored business suit (though his was very white as opposed to the dark suit of his companion) asked. February (or Feb, ever since he had lost a bet with April that made him answer to the shortened name), looked out on the water, where the boat was making its way back with its now three occupants. December was still emphatically waving her arms around, her voice carrying just enough for them to hear the excitement in it, if not her specific words. 

His question was answered by a six-foot-tall blonde woman, who emerged from the cabin itself wearing a long red evening gown that glittered with each motion as she stepped into what little sunlight was visible.  “I do not believe anyone expects, nor wants December to change.” 

“Good afternoon, January,” April greeted the other Seosten politely. Of them all, January was often seen as the leader of the Calendar, despite the fact that she was not the one who had been there the longest. And not because she had the earliest month name either, having replaced an earlier January who had been killed. No, this January being seen as the default leader of the group simply came from being the type of person she was. 

With a fond smile at the red-haired younger Seosten, January reached out to brush a hand over the girl’s face. Casual touch may have been unheard of between so-called ‘normal’ Seosten and those they called Lies, but among the Calendar, it was fairly common. Because from each other was the only source many of them would ever get such casual touching. “Hello, April. It’s nice to see all three of you again. Getting your reports is just not the same.” 

“She’s not kidding,” a thin, wiry blond man wearing a flannel shirt put in as he stepped out of the cabin, carrying a clipboard in one hand. “I think she might make me start reading your reports out loud in character if this goes on much longer.” 

April smirked a little at that, “I’d pay to see that, November.” 

By that point, the boat had docked, and December was the first off it. She gave a loud, squealed, “Januaryfebaugustnovember!” Once more, her form blurred as she raced over to embrace each of them in turn, clinging tightly before babbling a long, very involved story about attending actual school classes with Tabbris and some sort of history project the two of them were working on. 

In the meantime, the two other boat occupants had emerged. There was the very tall, very introverted March, whose only sign of standing out in any way from any other pale-skinned humanoid was his magically-colored green hair. He tended to stand slouched, attempting to blend into the background. Which was difficult for a man of his size. 

The man climbing out of the boat behind him, however, was at the opposite end of the spectrum as far as standing out went. Though also Caucasian in appearance, he wore a long, very obvious lab coat over a loud Hawaiian shirt. His hair was naturally light, but currently magically colored similar to his quiet companion. His was electric blue. 

“Hello, March, Otto,” May greeted the new arrivals in turn. “Catch anything interesting?” 

“Sure,” Otto (October) replied with a gesture toward December. “Think she’s big enough to keep, or should we throw her back?” 

After a few moments of good-natured teasing back and forth, the group was interrupted by the appearance of a new portal, as Cahethal herself emerged. Their true leader and benefactor came into view. She was on the small side, barely five foot three inches, with very light hair and intensely green eyes. Like Otto, she wore a white lab coat, and immediately got right down to business after brusquely greeting the three by name. “You’ve asked for an audience with everyone, something about questions that can help your new… friends?” 

“Um, yes,” May confirmed. “But we hoped to talk to everyone. Where’s June?” That made the rest of the group look around, as though only just then realizing that the man in question wasn’t in the background. 

“Ah, yes.” Cahethal took a moment before quietly, yet bluntly telling them, “Unfortunately, June did not return from his last mission. You have my deepest sympathies. I did what I could to aid him, but he… ahh… it did not go well.” 

Lower lip trembling a bit, December tentatively asked, “Wha-what happened to him?” 

“I’m afraid that must remain classified for now,” Cahethal informed her. “And please, take all the time you need to grieve, after I have left. There is no rush to return to work. But do not lose yourself to that grief, as this is an opportunity. Kushiel’s daughter, you may extend an invitation for her to join your group and become the new June.” 

Those words led the three Fusion-guests to exchange glances before turning back to her. April replied quietly, the words thick in her throat. “I don’t think she’ll be interested.” Beside her, May and December were still silently reeling from the revelation of June’s death. As were the rest of the Calendar members, though the others did a better job of concealing their reactions to the blunt news for the time being. 

“It is your job to make her interested,” Cahethal informed her. “All three of you. Now, what is it you wanted to gather everyone here for? As you should know, I am quite busy at all times. 

“But please, tell me how I can aid with your mission.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Class Action 14-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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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