December

Promise And Peril 11-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we hit, and my vision went black.

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Promise And Peril 11-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Athena was right, of course. It was a bumpy trip. The moment the prototype ship’s jump was triggered, it started shaking violently. Almost like it was trying to tear itself apart. It was like sitting on top of an overloaded washing machine or something. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had been through it before. So had Sariel, though she had been in stasis at the time. For everyone else, this was new. And apparently not the most pleasant first experience. Worse, it would start shaking violently, then stop and be still for a few seconds, then start again and repeat that. 

“Is it supposed to be doing this?!” Sands called out a bit nervously while gripping her seat armrests. She, like the rest of us, was strapped in tightly. The seats in this thing were lined facing one another along both walls, like one of those military transport jets or something. “Cuz I don’t think I like the experimental ship running an experimental jump drive shaking like this! It feels like a bad thing!” 

Tristan was the one who answered from his own spot a few seats away, “Hey, it’s not so bad! Just be glad we actually get to be strapped in this time instead of fighting a telekinetic asshole!” 

“Trying to fight,” Vanessa murmured in correction, her own voice barely audible over the rapidly rising sound of the ship jerking back and forth. “We didn’t exactly do a very good job at it.”

Theia, meanwhile, just raised her arms above her head like she was on a rollercoaster with a loud, “Wheeee!” With Roxa and Pace sitting on either side of her, she even lifted one of each of their hands up with her own. Then the ship would stop shaking, and she would pout, lowering their arms. “Aww.” It started up again, and her arms shot back into the air, carrying the other two with them. “Wheeee! Awww… Wheee! Awww… Wheee!” The fact that she was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat (as far as I knew, she basically never took it off) helped add to the impression of her being on a casual day out at the amusement park.

For their part, Roxa and Pace each half-raised their other hand to go along with Theia, exchanging looks with one another. 

While all that was going on, everyone clearly trying to distract themselves from the fear of what would happen if this jump went wrong, I found myself looking over to where Sachael was. The white-bearded Seosten was watching me with a neutral expression. If the repeatedly violently shaking ship was bothering him, he didn’t show it at all. As our gazes met, he offered me a single, simple nod without speaking. 

What was he thinking? What kind of person was he? All I knew about the man was that he was still loyal to his people, but willing to bend the rules in his off-hours. From what Sariel and Athena had said, Sachael was really devoted to the idea of separating his work life from his private life. When he didn’t consider himself to be on-the-clock, he was a lot more chill. 

As for what his opinion about me was, I had no idea. And it didn’t seem like he was eager to speak up about it. After that simple nod, the man turned his gaze to look toward Sariel. Again, his expression remained completely unreadable. I had no idea what he was thinking. 

“I-it’s longer this time!” Tabbris piped up, drawing my attention to where she sat beside me, with Tristan on the other side. “It didn’t take this long before, even though we had to go further!” 

She was right. And it wasn’t just taking longer, the shaking was noticeably worse too. The ship seriously felt like it was about to tear itself apart and send pieces flying in every direction. 

Athena, at the front of the ship near the console that controlled everything, simply called back, “Everything is fine! The ship was prepared to go to Earth before, it had a smooth path plotted out. This time it doesn’t. It will be a rough ride, but the ship will hold together. Give it a moment.” 

She sounded distracted while explaining that, and I belatedly realized she was using her power. That scattershot precognition that allowed her to see the results of actions she took several seconds in advance. She was using that to make sure the ship wasn’t about to fall apart. Which made me feel a bit better about the whole thing. But still, I really hoped this would be over soon. 

Mom, who was sitting on my other side, put one hand on my shoulder. Her voice was firm. “Whatever happens, if we see a real Fomorian, you don’t fight it.” She squeezed firmly, looking up to Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, and the others to make sure they were listening. “That goes for all of you. I don’t care if you outnumber it twelve to one. If you see a real Fomorian, you run away from it. You can fight their creatures, but if there’s an actual Fomorian, all of you run away. You fight to get clear and you run. You don’t jump in to help, you get away. Is that understood?” 

Kohaku spoke up then. “Joselyn is correct. None of you, not even together, are prepared to face a full, battle-ready Fomorian in combat. And none of us are prepared to extract you should you be captured. If you try to jump in to help, you’ll be nothing more than a distraction. That isn’t intended as an insult,” she added quickly. “You are all amazing students. You truly are. You’ve advanced far faster and further than any of us could have anticipated, and all of us are more proud of you than we can say. But this is something beyond that. If you see a full Fomorian, you retreat immediately. No macho bullshit. Run away and leave them for us to deal with.” 

The rest of the adults voiced their own agreement with that. They all wanted to make sure we weren’t going to try to go toe-to-toe with a Fomorian. But before any of us could respond, Athena abruptly called back, “Brace!” 

Her warning came just in time. As all of us grabbed our armrests, the ship’s shaking suddenly jumped into overdrive. Seriously, it made the previous shaking feel like nothing. My stomach was twisting itself into knots, as the sound of metal screaming in protest filled the air. 

Another sound filled the air too. It was Theia again, arms still held high above her head (with Pace and Roxa’s lifted too) like she was on a rollercoaster, calling out an enthusiastic, “Whoooooo!” Yeah, she was still having a grand old time. I was pretty sure if this actually was an actual ride in a park, she’d jump right back in line for it. 

Meanwhile, I was almost afraid the ship really was about to blow apart and take all of us along with it. Which would have been a pretty bad way for this whole rescue mission thing to turn out. 

But it didn’t blow apart, of course. Just as the ship’s horrific shaking hit its peak, it just as abruptly stopped entirely. Seriously, one second it felt like we were about to explode in slow motion, and in the next second everything was completely still. Like someone had flipped a switch. 

“What…” Columbus started, looking around the moment everything stopped. “Did we break it?” 

Theia, however, shook her head. She still looked exuberant, though her voice was completely matter-of-fact. “We are here, of course. If we broke it, we would all be dead.” 

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, eyes glancing around the interior of the ship as though making sure everything was still completely sealed. “It stopped shaking because we made it.” 

Athena spoke then. “Yes. We are here.” With those words, she hit a few buttons on the console, and screens appeared around us to act like windows, showing the exterior of the ship. Not that there was much to see. We were, as planned, in the middle of nowhere. I could see stars all around us, of course. Brilliantly bright now that we were away from Earth. But there were no planets nearby or anything. It was the middle of empty space. Like drifting on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Only about a million times more dangerous if anything actually went wrong.

And this was the easy part, I had to remind myself. Before too long, we’d be where the real monsters were. I just hoped we were actually ready for that. 

Apollo, who had been silently checking over a different console through all of that, finally spoke up. “We’re on target. We hit the exact coordinates. Whoever designed this thing knew what they were doing.” 

“I mean, it was Radueriel, right?” Shiori piped up. “It had to be Radueriel.” 

“No.” That was Pace, actually. The Latina girl, who had switched her green-dyed hair to a full rainbow after cutting it quite short, was shaking her head. “If it was his, he’d already be trying to get it back. Think about it, he had to know you guys took it from Kushiel’s place, a toy like this? And he has no interest in grabbing it? Not even in negotiations? If he made it, wouldn’t he want his prototype back? That’s… that’s the impression I got of him from when… from everything I learned with Theia.” 

The Olympians onboard all exchanged looks, before focusing on Sachael. He, in turn, offered a simple shrug. His voice was even. “Sorry to say, I don’t know who designed this thing. But the girl there is right. Useful as it is, I would think that someone as protective of his designs as Radueriel is would have insisted on having it back as part of the truce agreement.” 

Yeah, that was pretty close to the same thing I had thought before. It made sense. Or rather, it didn’t make sense for this to be Radueriel’s design with as little interest as he had shown in it. But again, if it wasn’t his, then who? Should we be worried about someone else in the Seosten Empire who could design a ship like this that could jump anywhere almost instantly? How many more of these things had they already made? Was there a fleet of instant-jump ships just waiting for the truce to end so they could appear over Earth before we had any warning they were coming? Was I paranoid for even thinking that was a possibility? Well, yes, maybe it was paranoia. But was it unfounded paranoia? I didn’t think so. Not after everything I’d seen. 

“Okay, so the jump was on-target.” That was Lillian, who had been staring out one of the ‘windows’ for the past few seconds. “Can this thing actually get us to the Meregan world now?”  From the sound of her voice, the small woman had her doubts on that subject. Which was fair, after we’d just spent the past few minutes feeling the thing shake itself apart around us. 

“It can,” Sariel confirmed, her fingers moving over one of the control panels that had slid around in front of her seat, sort of like a tray table thing in an airplane. “The slide-drive isn’t exactly top-of-the-line. It’s barebones and barely adequate. But it is working. We should get there in one hour.” Before anyone else could speak up about how long that would take, she added, “We’ll be taking a few separate slides just to throw off any investigation once we’re done. We won’t be coming back to this spot after we grab Elisabet and Dexamene anyway, but the Fomorians could still potentially trace our entrance point back to here. We don’t want that. So we’ll take the long route around and throw them off with those extra slides.” 

“That’s the plan, anyway,” Apollo put in. “Which means we’ve got about fifty-seven minutes now for everyone to relax and breathe, then sixty seconds to psych yourselves up, thirty seconds for that to turn into blind panic, and then another thirty seconds to calm down again. Ready? Go.”

“You remain as inspiring and helpful as ever, Apollo,” Athena quietly noted before glancing at Sachael. She paused then, looking briefly as though she was carefully choosing her words. 

Actually, wait, was she using her power to judge what the best approach would be? That felt–well not exactly manipulative, but… huh. Was it bad? That was a tough question. And the fact that she’d paused long enough to be noticeable, how many options was she playing through, if that was the case? 

Either way, cheating or not, the woman finally addressed her Seosten-loyalist former crewmate. “Which does make it feel a bit like old times, doesn’t it?” 

Seeing Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and Sachael like that, I wondered what it had actually been like back on the Olympus. With Kushiel and certain others around, it definitely hadn’t been a picnic. And yet, there had certainly been good times. They’d been together fifty years or so even before coming to Earth. Which, I knew for them was seriously a drop in the bucket. And yet so many of them defined basically everything they were around either that, or their ‘god’ identities back on Earth. Athena used her Earth-goddess name rather than Auriel because she loathed the person she had been. Apollo didn’t go by Lucifer because he saw himself as more connected to Earth than the Seosten since he had left them. Mercury still used that name because it was the first one that the SPS-afflicted man had seen as his own after taking over the original Amitiel.

But Sariel didn’t. Sariel used her Seosten name consistently. Actually, I’d almost never heard her use the name Artemis. For a moment, I wondered why that was. Did she not like the identity? Was being Sariel more important for her than holding onto their old names was for the others? Was I just reading way too much into it? 

My gaze drifted over toward Jophiel. The Seosten woman had been silent through all of this since entering the ship, her gaze unfocused as she looked off into the distance. I had no idea what she was doing, other than worrying about Elisabet, but she seemed more… passive than I would’ve expected.

“Meditation spell.” That was Lillian, whispering toward me when she saw the direction of my gaze. “Way of keeping calm and clearing your mind before something important. Think of it as a magical tranquilizer that instantly wears off when it needs to.” 

Realizing I’d missed whatever Sachael had said in response to Athena, I glanced over to my mother, grabbing her hand to squeeze it. Really, I was hiding the fact that I’d palmed one of the privacy coins and was using it to make sure only her, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon could actually hear what I was about to say. Though the only person I really didn’t want to hear was Sachael. “I don’t suppose Bob’s linked you back into the Committee now that you’re free?” I was joking, mostly. “That’d be pretty useful.” 

Mom blinked at me briefly. “Bob?” she echoed blankly, clearly trying to think of someone with that name who would be the least bit relevant to what I was talking about. 

Oh, right, she wouldn’t know about that. Belatedly, I explained that we’d named the Reaper in the lighthouse Bob, thanks to Koren. 

Once she understood, Mom chuckled a little under her breath. “Ah, I used to call him Pops. He always felt like a… grandfather to me, of sorts.”

“That’s funny,” I replied with a chuckle despite myself, “Aylen sees him the same way.” Then I saw the way Mom blinked at me, clearly unknowing, and realized she had no idea what I was talking about. Right, maybe I hadn’t been able to tell her everything that had happened over the previous year. Bringing up the whole ‘friendly Fomorian’ thing had felt like something that could wait until we were free. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up right now. 

“Never mind,” I murmured. “I’ll tell you later. But you definitely don’t feel Committee-energized?” 

From the look on her face, Mom was tempted to pursue the previous subject. But she let it go with a shake of her head. “No, I haven’t felt anything like that. I don’t know if he even knows that I’ve been–that my memories have been restored, let alone that I’m no longer with Fossor.” 

“If he doesn’t, we’ll have to find a way to give him an update,” I assured her, squeezing my mother’s hand a bit more before quietly adding, “Not just because of the power thing. But because he misses you. He–I…” Hesitating, I explained how Bob had helped me before, by instantly teleporting my friends and I so we could fight Lemuel’s were-pack and eventually get the choker that allowed us to identify who had been possessed. Avalon, Shiori, and Tabbris piped up now and then too, helping to explain that whole situation. 

By the time we were done, Mom was shaking her head. “You mentioned most of that before, but not the detail about Pops. He–he really stepped up.” She sounded sad, and I realized he was yet another person (yes, person goddamnit) my mother cared about who had been taken away from her for a long time. “I’m glad you talked to him. He… needs more people to talk to him.” 

There was more to that, I realized. It sounded like Mom wanted to say something else about Bob-Pops needing people to talk to him. But she visibly put it aside, exhaling before settling on simply adding, “He deserves better.” 

We talked a bit more over the remaining time. Not all with the privacy spells, of course. I didn’t want to be that rude or obvious about it. I’d just figured that, whatever else he’d said about not reporting everything that happened to his superiors, it was still best not to let Sachael (or the Calendar duo) know too much about Bob and the fact that he was (sort of) communicating. 

Either way, pretty soon all of that was irrelevant. Because we were getting closer to the Meregan world, as all of our conversations kind of petered out. We were thinking about what was about to happen, about what we were going to see and potentially have to do basically as soon as we got there. 

We were nervous. All of us, even the Olympians. A glance around showed me that much pretty plainly. It was immediately clear that none of us wanted to be here right now. No one wanted to go running into a Fomorian-infested planet. We were all thinking about all the ways this could go wrong, about how bad it could potentially be. And I was pretty sure that no matter how detailed our imaginations might be, reality could probably get even worse. 

Finally, Apollo counted down while we all braced ourselves for what we were about to see. “In three… two… one…” 

We came out of the slide, all of us telling ourselves that we were prepared for the worst. And yet, nothing we had braced ourselves for could have prepared us for what we saw. 

There was a battle going on. An insane space battle the likes of which I’d never seen outside of movies. It was even more intense than the battle between Athena’s fleet and Kushiel’s research station defenses back when we had been rescuing Sariel. We were just beyond the outer edges of it, with the planet dead ahead. But between us and the world were dozens of enormous ships. Half were the biological sort the Fomorians used, while the other half were definitely technological. Lasers, missiles, various spell effects, tentacles, explosions of gore and acid, gigantic whale-like monsters that swam through space with their mouths open, all of it was laid out in front of us. We’d arrived in the middle of a massive warzone. 

“What–the Seosten are here?!” Lillian blurted, her gaze snapping toward Sachael. 

“No,” Athena immediately replied, her gaze riveted to the sight before us. “Those aren’t Seosten ships.” 

“Then who the hell are they?” Haiden demanded, leaning forward to stare at the screen at the front of the ship. 

Athena’s answer filled the small space around us. 

“I have no idea.”

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Promise And Peril 11-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on Lincoln posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can read it by clicking the previous chapter button above.

Something else had happened while I was busy with the whole Jophiel thing the night before. Not to mention having some time with my family. Apparently that Dakota girl had had an encounter with a monster from the ocean called a Nuckelavee. An encounter that had resulted in the death of an older Garden student before one of the Victors stepped in. 

At least Dakota was alive. Even more traumatized than she already had been, but still alive. And, according to Avalon, she and Miranda had also had an… interesting conversation when they went to see the girl. A conversation with Gaia’s former lover… about one of Gaia’s other former lovers. Yeah, relationships among people who lived for centuries were really complicated. 

Uh, not that I had much room to talk. 

Anyway, they met Accolon, who told them that the man who was the father of her biological son (Mordred) was ready to step in and help save her. Oh, and one other tiny detail, the guy in question was Oberon, the King of Canada. Yeah. Why hadn’t he mentioned that he was so close to Gaia before, so close that they’d had a fucking son together? I had no idea. Again, relationships were weird. Coupled (hah) with people as powerful and old as Gaia and Oberon? Yeah, it was a whole thing. 

The point was, he was ready to offer aid now. Which was good, because we were going to need help if we were going to get Gaia away from the Crossroads loyalists. There was no way getting to her would be as easy (relatively speaking) as rescuing Sean had been. Wherever she was, the Committee would have her locked down tighter than basically anything else in the world. And thanks to certain binding contract spells, we couldn’t even count on getting help from the people on the Committee who were actually on our side. They couldn’t so much as tell us where to look without exposing the fact that they’d done so, allowing the loyalists to move Gaia. 

“Hey.” Avalon’s voice suddenly interrupted my musing, making my attention focus on her as the two of us sat at a table in the Atherby Camp dining cabin where we were eating breakfast. Her eyebrows were raised. “Look, knock it off. I know that look, you’re obsessing about everything that you can’t do anything about right now. Focus on the thing in front of you. We’ll get Gaia back, but we can’t do anything about that right now. That Accolon guy said Oberon was going to put some resources into finding out where the prison is, and they’ll get back to us. Nothing else we can do right this second, okay?” 

Porthos, her lizard-cyberform, was sitting next to her on the table eating his own breakfast of metal beads. He gave me a firm shake of his fist as if to punctuate Avalon’s words. 

Blinking a couple times at that, I offered her a small smile. “You’re the one giving me a pep talk, even though she’s your mother.” 

“I know Gaia,” she replied quietly, yet firmly. “She’ll be okay. When we find her, she’ll be okay. But she’s just in prison right now. The… the not-psycho Committee members won’t let the others do anything that bad. She’ll be safe. Safe enough, anyway. We’ve got a more immediate situation.” 

“Elisabet and Dexamene,” I agreed with a grimace. “Yeah, being on a planet full of Fomorians is a pretty immediate problem.” Sighing, I added, “I know it’s a lot to ask for you to focus on something other than your mom, I–” 

“Stop.” Avalon’s voice was sharp, her fist hitting my shoulder from across the table. “Don’t be an idiot, Felicity. After everything we–” She cut herself off, shaking her head pointedly. “Just don’t be an idiot. I’m with you. Of course I’m with you. When we get more about Gaia, you’ll be there.” 

I gave a short nod, moving my hand to catch hers and squeeze it. “I’ll be there,” I confirmed. 

“And I’ll be here now,” she informed me. “Besides, like I said, we can’t do anything about Gaia right this second, so I need something else to kill. A bunch of Fomorian minions sounds like just what the doctor ordered.” The smile she gave me then was basically feral. “I do have a lot of aggression to get out.” 

Snorting at her, I brought her hand in to gently kiss the fingers without breaking eye contact. “Even after that whole thing with Fossor’s zombies? I would’ve thought you’d be done fighting for awhile.” 

Lifting her chin, Avalon retorted, “Like I said, a lot of aggression.” Adding a wink, she noted, “Though I guess there are other ways to work out energy like that.” 

Oh boy. My face was suddenly hotter than my food, as I choked a bit while the other girl snickered at me. “Not fair,” I managed to croak, “definitely not fair.” 

“What’s not fair?” That was Roxa, taking a seat next to me with a plate of her own before she blinked with realization. “Oh, right, you guys are being gross. Got it.” 

“Gross isn’t the word I’d use,” I informed the other blonde while giving her a poke in the arm with my fork. “A little bird told me you were angling to come on this rescue mission.” 

Casually spearing a huge hunk of steak with her fork before lifting it to her mouth to tear a bite out of it with her teeth, Roxa replied, “Yeah, well, sounds like an insanely dangerous trip that’s gonna end up with a lot of screaming and violence. So, you know, I’m there.” 

“Hopefully not too much screaming and violence,” I murmured, looking back and forth between her and Avalon. “You guys do understand that the goal here is to fly in, grab those two, and get out without too much fighting, riiiiaaand I realize even as I say that how stupid it sounds.” 

“At least she got there on her own,” Roxa noted with a smirk, taking another bite of her huge steak, chewing ravenously before adding, “When shit goes wrong and everyone’s fighting for their lives, I wanna be there.” Her expression sobered a bit then as she met my gaze. “Seriously, I can help. I want to help. I need to do something.” 

“You’ve done plenty,” I insisted. “Roxa, everything you–yeah. You were there yesterday. You and the rest of your pack. But if you really want to be there for this, I’m not gonna say no.” 

“Good,” she shot back, “I’d hate to have to kick your ass until you change your mind.” 

“I see wolf-instincts make one delusional too,” I teased despite everything. “Good to know.” 

That prompted a lot of back and forth between the three of us, before Shiori and Columbus showed up, along with Choo. The Jekern was insistent on attention, so I stepped up and wrapped both arms around him. He was huge now, big enough for Shiori to ride on. Which was a pretty big change from the tiny thing he’d been when we first met. 

“Hey, big guy,” I murmured while hugging the warthog-like creature tight. “Thanks for taking care of our girl while I was gone.” 

Choo, in turn, huffed and made a flicker of electricity tickle my face. From his snorts, I was pretty sure he was trying to tell me off for being gone so long and making his owner sad. 

“Believe me,” I informed him, “I feel the same way.” 

Rising, I exchanged a long, tender kiss with Shiori herself, ignoring everyone else for a moment. Then I embraced the other girl tightly before announcing, “So, both my girls here and nothing’s currently on fire except for all the things that are currently on fire.” Squinting at myself, I shook my head. “That made more sense before I said it.” 

“Pretty sure it didn’t,” Columbus put in mildly, scratching under Amethyst’s chin as the cyberform lay across his shoulder. “But I think we can give you a pass, all things considered. So, what’s going on with the whole rescue mission thing?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Guys, everyone can’t go. It’s supposed to be a quick in-and-out and yes I know the odds of that, but seriously.” 

“Ship’s big enough,” the boy pointed out. “If we don’t get into a fight, great. But don’t think you’re gonna be able to run out into Fomorian space without a hell of a lot of back-up. Shiori won’t let you go without her, right?” He looked to his sister, who gave a firm nod. “Right, and she’s not going without me.” 

Exhaling, I nodded. “I get it, believe me. I’m not about to run off without you guys. Let’s just… hope that this is a quick little jump across universes to grab those two and get out again. Hope for it, but plan for the worst.” Giving them all a thumbs up, I added, “And then maybe everyone can take a real vacation. And by real vacation, I mean go back to normal school for awhile. Actual school with classes and everything. How fucking weird would that be?”

“You’ve got a point there,” Shiori agreed. 

“With you, the only possible totally unexpected thing is a completely normal day.” 

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

That night, the ship was ready. Or at least as ready as it was going to get without weeks more work, and no way were Jophiel and Tristan going to wait weeks to start this rescue mission. We were lucky the two of them had waited this long. As it was, it took a lot to keep the two of them calm enough to stick with the plan so they didn’t run off to try to rescue Dex and Elisabet alone. 

Okay, it wasn’t that bad. The two of them already understood, and they weren’t idiots. Still, I felt like we had to keep an eye on Tristan especially. Not that the boy had a way of getting to the Meregan world himself, but I wouldn’t entirely put it past him to try to find someone who could

So, we mostly focused on killing time by establishing who was actually going to go on this rescue mission. As we’d said before, the hope was that we’d barely have to fight at all. But in anything, and especially where the Fomorians were concerned, hoping for the best and planning for the worst seemed to be the best way to go. We had to have enough people to fight. 

Jophiel was going, as were Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and this Sachael guy. That was five Olympians. We also had my mother, Deveron, Lillian, Haiden, Larissa, and apparently Kohaku. 

I’d had a private conversation with Dare about that whole situation, and she said that she wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if the Fomorians had too much interaction with her, so it was for the best that she stay behind. But boy did she not like it. Five minutes after getting Mom and me back in her life (even if Mom by necessity couldn’t know the truth about all that) and she already had to watch us go right back into life-threatening danger against the very species she had basically given up her entire life for. Yeah, she wasn’t exactly enjoying that idea, to say the least.

She did give me a few emergency enchantments she’d prepared, telling me to stow them away just in case. And she made me promise about a million times that I wouldn’t do anything that stupid and insane. Oh, and the hugs. She hugged me basically as hard as I’d ever been hugged, even with my mother’s return. This whole situation was hitting her pretty badly. 

As for the rest of us, I was going of course. So were Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, Sarah, Columbus, Avalon, and Shiori. Oh, and Roxa too. And she was bringing Theia and Pace along. Finally, May and December had hopped aboard the plan. 

Of course, May and December coming along brought up another point. Sachael already knew about the situation between Elisabet and Jophiel, of course, and had agreed not to make an official report about it until she officially reported it herself. But with those two, it was a bit more complicated. We knew they were reporting things back to Cahethal, and she wasn’t nearly as likely to keep quiet about this situation. But, as it turned out, we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris. 

Actually, ‘we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris’ came up a lot, now that I thought about it. At a certain point you’d think it’d stop being a secret, but there we were. 

Anyway, the point was, we had Tabbris. And she had become basically best friends with December. She asked the other girl to please keep a certain something a secret, promised it wasn’t a direct threat to the Calendar or to Cahethal, and the three of them agreed to take oath spells to not reveal that little secret. Pretty similar to the spells that Tristan, Vanessa, Tabbris, and I had been put under by Jophiel and Elisabet in the first place, actually.  

So that was our, ahhh, ‘crew’ for this mission. We could’ve had more, obviously. But we didn’t want to involve too many people. It was already a big enough group as it was, considering Elisabet and Jophiel had been keeping their whole thing secret for so long. Though I had a feeling it would be coming out sooner than they had planned, regardless of our precautions. 

Finally, it was time to head out. Athena had brought everyone who was going to Gaia’s secret cave where the ship was being kept. They’d put some more last minute work on it to make sure it was as ready to go as possible, and now we were all standing in front of the thing. 

Even now, I still didn’t think the thing looked much like a spaceship. It was just a long, jetliner-sized tube with a ramp leading up into it. Its weapons, engines, everything was well hidden. When it was closed up, it just looked like a semi-sleek metal cylinder. Whoever had designed this ship had focused entirely on function and not at all on form. Probably because it was a prototype. It wasn’t meant to be pretty or even heavily armed as far as ships went. It was meant to test that instant-jump system. 

Which made me wonder, not for the first time, who had designed it. Because it sure wasn’t Kushiel. It had to be Raduriel, right? That was the answer that made the most sense. Though it did raise the question of why he hadn’t done more to try to get his prototype back. Yeah, there was a truce, but you’d think he’d at least ask for it. Yet he hadn’t brought it up at all. Which seemed a little odd to me, given how special the prototype ship was. 

Athena was talking. “You all know the plan. Given optimum conditions, no one will have to lift a finger. That said, assume everything is going to fall apart. Watch each other’s backs, stay together as much as you can. Don’t let anyone get pulled away and separated. Do not let the Fomorians lead you into a trap. Don’t go anywhere alone, don’t chase them even if they look weak. If they start to retreat, let them. You have no idea how many of our people have been killed because they fell for the Fomorians pretending to be routed and then falling on them from all sides, even from what were supposed to be corpses.” 

For a moment, it looked like Athena might say something else, but decided against it. Instead, she simply continued, “If things fall apart, stay with each other and watch your backs. We’ll come to you. You all have emergency beacons and teleportation stones. The green ones will try to take you back to the ship. If those fail, the red ones will pick an unoccupied space on the planet as far from Fomorian detection as possible and send an alert to the rest of us. Use them if you need to. And… and you all have the X-stones.” 

Yeah, we did. The X-stones were just what they sounded like, rocks in the shape of an x. They were intentionally made to be impossible to mix up with any other enchanted object. As for what they did, they were essentially magical cyanide pills. Yeah. If this all went wrong, we had the opportunity to end ourselves rather than risk being experimented on by the Fomorians if we chose to.  

Wasn’t this just a super-awesome happy optimistic mission we were going on? Just what I had been looking forward to once Fossor was dealt with, a nice, quiet break to just relax. 

I would get that once the other two were safe. After everything they’d done, I couldn’t relax until they were back where they belonged. Once that happened, then I’d demand a vacation. 

Mom spoke up then. “Whatever happens, the job isn’t to kill Fomorians. Remember that, we cannot beat them. They’re too numerous, too powerful, and they’ll have reinforcements on the way the moment they detect us. The job is to get in, find Elisabet and Dexamene, and get out again. We kill what’s directly in our way and then leave. That’s all. The Fomorians have already taken over the planet. We can’t stop that and we can’t save that world. Not now.” Her voice was a bit strained as she said it, reminding me of the history she had with the Meregan. It had to be killing her not to even try to save those people. 

Once everyone agreed to what they were saying, Mom and Athena exchanged looks and some kind of silent communication. Then the Olympian woman turned to start walking up the ramp. “Right then. Let’s go see what we can do. Everyone find a seat and strap yourselves in.

“This is going to be a bumpy flight.”  

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Patreon Snippets 17 (Heretical Edge)

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And here is the next edition of Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge! Thanks to all $10+ donators for choosing/adding words to what they wanted to see.

Ruthers and Antaeus

Loud country music played through the smoke-filled bar, its crooning singer and strumming guitar leaving many of its occupants idly tapping their feet or bobbing their heads as they sipped at cold drinks. Behind the bar itself, the tender pointed the remote at the television in the corner, changing the channel from news to a football game that had been requested. Two men in front of the nearby jukebox were debating which song to put in next, while their dates watched them from a table with a mixture of amusement and exasperation at the fact that they couldn’t agree.

And in the back of the room, sitting alone at a table with a half-empty beer bottle and a small bowl of peanuts in front of him, was an enormous figure. At his full height, the man would stand seven feet tall. He appeared old enough that his long, formerly jet-black hair and thick mustache were streaked through with bits of white and gray. His dark eyes regarded the bottle in front of him for a moment before he pursed his lips and blew a small stream of ice-cold breath, restoring the chill to the beer. 

“You ruin it that way, Antaeus.” The voice came from directly beside the table, where no one had been a moment earlier. Now, Gabriel Ruthers stood there. In many situations, Ruthers himself would have been an imposing figure. Yet, even standing while the other man was sitting, he still appeared much smaller in this particular case. Both men were tall for humans, but the man with the beer was in an entirely different league.  

Antaeus, far from showing any surprise at all when the other man appeared beside the table, simply took a long and slow pull from his newly icy beer. “Ruin it, Gabriel? Have a seat.” 

Instead of doing so, Ruthers simply stood where he was while replying, “Good beer’s not supposed to be practically frozen. You’ve got English ale. It should be a bit cool, not ice cold.”   

“Heh.” Antaeus chuckled humorlessly once before shaking his head. “I like it the way I like it. Helps me forget the desert. What do you want? Thought I made it clear I was busy.” 

“I told you I wanted to talk about what happened,” Ruthers reminded him. As a waitress stopped by to ask if he wanted anything, he gave a shake of his head and sent the woman on her way before turning his attention back to the table. 

“And like I said,” came the flat response as soon as the waitress was gone, “I’m busy. Not in the mood to repeat myself.” Taking another long pull from his drink, Antaeus added, “Don’t think you can order me around either, Gabriel. Last I checked, you and me are peers now.” Finally, he turned a bit, looking over to the other man. “After all, we’re both members of the Committee and all that.” A very slight smile appeared, showing hints of his teeth. “Equal footing.” 

For a brief moment, Gabriel returned the smile. “Equal footing,” he echoed easily before adding in a pointed, deceptively calm-sounding voice, “If you don’t get up and walk out with me now, I’m going to hit you hard enough to make even someone as thick as you feel it.”  

The threat made the other man’s eyes narrow. “Don’t threaten me, Gabriel,” he half-snarled. “We may have to play nice in front of the others thanks to the rules. But if you start something, I’ll finish it and say we were sparring. And I’ve changed my mind. You’re not invited to sit with me. Get out.” 

Two things happened then. First, the air around the pair wavered until they were in a forest rather than a bar. And, just as Antaeus realized there was no longer a seat under him, Ruthers’ fist slammed into his face with enough force to send a violent shockwave through the forest itself, literally knocking over several nearby trees while the loud boom echoed like a gunshot. 

Antaeus hit the ground for a brief instant before he was abruptly and immediately back on his feet. Standing, he towered over the other man, staring intently down at him. “You always start your fights with cheap shots?” 

“Is it a cheap shot when I told you exactly what was going to happen?” Ruthers countered, not the least bit deterred. “We need to talk about what you did with Maria and Arthur Chambers.” 

“Them?” Antaeus gave a disbelieving look before shaking his head. He touched his readied fist against the front of his face where the other man’s blow had landed. There was no visible sign of any damage at all. Only his pride was stung. “I reported what happened. What more do you want? And talk fast, cuz in a second, I’m gonna show you why you shouldn’t start something you can’t finish.” 

“Gentlemen.” The voice came from the side, as Litonya, the elderly Native American Committee member, leaned a bit on a cane while watching them. “Is there some sort of problem here?” 

Antaeus jerked his head that way. “This guy wants to know about Grandma and Grandpa Chambers. Why don’t you tell him. It was your idea for me to go find them.”

“Your idea?” Ruthers turned his attention to Litonya. “I thought I made it clear that Felicity’s grandparents were to be left alone. They’re human, they have nothing to do with any of this.” 

For her part, the old woman regarded him passively for a few seconds before pointing out in the tone of a scolding schoolteacher from the days of switches and paddles, “People who have nothing to do with ‘this’, as you put it, would not have had Heracles himself protecting them. And even absent that evidence, they were involved through virtue of their son and granddaughter. Bringing them in was the correct move. The only fault was in its failure.” That last bit was added with a sharp look toward Antaeus himself. 

“Hey,” the old wrestler snapped, “I told you what happened. I would’ve handled Alcaeus, but that magic kicked in and took all of them away. I was ready to deal with him, not that. You didn’t say anything about that kind of power.” 

“Indeed,” Litonya agreed. “That is what we should be discussing.” She squinted toward Ruthers. “Steps were taken to ensure that prepared spells could not be used to remove the elderly Chambers. Those protections were entirely useless against the magic that teleported them. I shouldn’t need to remind you of how difficult that should have been. Whoever prepared the spell that took them away was powerful enough to entirely dismiss the strength of three Committee-level casters.” 

Three. Ruthers squinted. Antaeus and Litonya were two. That meant one other member of their group had been in on this attempt to abduct Maria and Arthur Chambers. “We have absolutely no indication that Alcaeus had any connection to the current rebellion. Whatever the reason for his presence, it doesn’t change the fact that neither of the Chambers should have been approached, let alone threatened. They are ordinary humans, Bystanders. They were to be left alone.” He repeated the last point firmly, eyes narrowing. “You know if you had brought this plan up with the others, you would have been outvoted. That’s why you went behind our backs.” 

“Yes,” Litonya agreed without reservation. “In some respects, you can be as weak and foolish as the rebellion sympathizers, Gabriel. You refuse to focus on what must be done to maintain or restore order. Like it or not, Felicity’s grandparents are involved in this war. As I said, removing them from play was the right move to make. If we held them right now, we could have used that to force their granddaughter to make a choice to either surrender them or face the consequences of refusal.” 

“Consequences of refusal?” Ruthers echoed in disbelief tinted with anger. He took a few steps that way. “If you’re actually implying–” 

“I imply only what would be for the betterment of this world as a whole,” came the sharp retort. Litonya met his gaze, unmoved by his obvious anger. “I would think you, of all people, would understand that. It would not be the first time you allowed innocents to be threatened in order to prevent further conflict and bloodshed.” 

You intended to have the children killed,” Ruthers reminded her in a sharp voice whose tone showed that he had not forgotten just how far she had been willing to go. “You thought having Joselyn’s children murdered would break her spirit.” 

“And you had them taken instead,” Litonya retorted. “You could have returned them, but you kept them. You kept them and used their lives to force Joselyn into compliance. Then, you understood that the ends justify the means. Why are you so squeamish about that fact now? This is no different from that.” 

For a moment, Ruthers was silent. A mixture of emotions played very faintly over his face. Subtle as they were, the fact that they could be seen at all spoke volumes as to what he was feeling. It was quite brief, yet telling. 

“You’re wrong,” the man finally replied in a quiet voice. “It is different.” Letting that hang in the air briefly, he added gravely, “What I did was worse.” That said, Ruthers straightened, his eyes glancing between his two fellow Committee members. “I used two innocent children as hostages to force their mother’s cooperation. Whatever my intentions, regardless of the fact that I never intended them to actually be hurt, it wasn’t right.” The admission, both to himself and aloud, was so soft it was almost inaudible. “I thought saving them from your assassin was enough and that keeping them to ensure Joselyn’s compliance was justified in the name of ending the war. I was wrong.”  

“Wrong?” Litonya stared at him in clear disbelief, her heavily-lined face showing her incredulousness. “You removed Joselyn from the rebellion. Do you have any idea how much more damage she could have done to this world and our society if she had remained free through all that time? Holding two infant children for a time, when they were never in any actual danger? How could that be wrong when measured against the lives that were saved?”

Ruthers knew what she was really saying. Litonya had murdered her own brother, a man she had loved through their incredibly long lives, after he expressed a belief in Joselyn’s mission. She would never accept that anything was wrong when it came to stopping the rebellion. If she could kill her own flesh and blood, the brother who had been a part of her life for over fifteen hundred years, she would never believe that any measures taken to stop the rebellion were too far. 

And yet, he still gave a short nod. “I took Joselyn off the board. I could have given her children back, and didn’t, just to make her surrender. You’re right. And yes, it worked. But to what end? The rebellion continued even without her. And now, her new daughter has brought it back. We have done nothing to address the root of the problem, only swept it away for a time.” 

“Which,” Litonya retorted, “is precisely why you should have allowed my assassin to do his job. If Joselyn’s children were eliminated, she never would have allowed herself to live long enough to make any of this a concern. Her emotions would have driven her to a suicidal attack, and we could have worked together to remove her entirely and permanently.” 

For a few long seconds, Ruthers was silent. He stared at the woman, barely paying attention to Antaeus, who stood in the background glaring at him. Finally, he found his voice. “Arthur and Maria Chambers are not to be harmed. Whatever happened, they are not to be put in danger. They will not be used as hostages. Period. When we find them, they are to be returned safely to their home and then… whatever they choose to do is up to them. That is something I will put to the rest of the Committee. And I promise you, it will not go your way.” 

Litonya and Ruthers stared one another down for several long, very tense seconds. Finally, the old woman exhaled. “It shall be as you say, and the consequences will be on your head. But perhaps, if you are finished with such posturing, you would like to know more about the magic that took them away to begin with.”

“What is there to know?” Ruthers countered. “You just underestimated the amount of power that the Rebellion put into their protection spells. Does it surprise you that they would take those kinds of measures after what we did to Joselyn’s children?” 

“Perhaps not,” came the simple, knowing response. “But that is not the intriguing part. You see, from the traces we’ve performed, the spell that took them away did not deliver the Chambers and their bodyguard anywhere on Earth. 

“It took them somewhere very… very far away.” 

********

Arthur Chambers

“More security at the border?” As he voiced that question, Arthur Chambers glanced toward the gray-bearded man who stood beside him on the balcony overlooking the small island. It was the same island, on the same world, where he, his wife, and their long-time friend Al (recently revealed to be Alcaeus/Heracles) had been magically transported after being attacked in Alaska.

“Yes.” Puriel murmured. His blue eyes remained centered off in the distance. Out on the grass, the two men could see Maria with the assortment of Seosten children. She had them all sitting on the grass around the large easel-like hologram projector that had been set up. It functioned a lot like a chalk/whiteboard in schools, projecting a flat glowing surface that could be written on using a special metal pencil-like tool. 

At the moment, Maria was teaching the children some basic science (at least as much as she could), but she also taught other things. Particularly with help from Aletheia for math, and from the old Native American Heretic Kutattca for History and English. They had an actual room for lessons, but Maria preferred to teach the children outside in the fresh air as much as possible after they had been kept imprisoned in that sterile lab for so much of their lives. 

Puriel’s attention was centered on the small girl with the black and blonde hair. Spark. From what Arthur understood, she was one of the Seosten whose possession power malfunctioned. Puriel had forced her to possess him in order to save the girl from his wife, and now she only manifested in this ghost-like form using the man’s own energy manipulation powers. Here at Puriel’s home, far away from any prying eyes, it was safe for her to manifest anywhere on the island. Yet, it still seemed hard for the man to let her out of his sight for long, despite the fact that she was technically always connected to him. They were safe on this island, and would have plenty of advance warning if anyone dangerous approached. Logically, there was no reason to worry. 

But logic often didn’t factor into things when you were worried about someone you saw as your child. That much Arthur understood, even if a lot of this was still incredibly alien… literally, to him.

“There was an incident,” Puriel continued after that moment of silence. His voice held a slight hint of curiosity. It was clear he hadn’t been told as much as he would have preferred. “Some sort of pirate ship raided one of the border stations that prevent transport to Earth. They managed to do enough damage to make a temporary hole and pass through.” 

Arthur opened his mouth, only to stop and consider the entire situation. He was discussing an alien spaceship raiding some sort of magic starbase with an alien who was actually Zeus. Zeus. The mythological god. Would Arthur ever stop being awed by that? How did his son and granddaughter even function if they regularly interacted with people and… and situations like this? How did they avoid being completely overwhelmed to the point of being gibbering wrecks? It seemed as though every time he started to talk, the sheer scale and enormity of all this left him incapable of even thinking straight, let alone contributing in any meaningful way. 

Finally, he managed to sort himself out enough to speak. “Seems like that’s not an easy thing to do.” 

“No, it’s not.” The response came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The slender, dark-skinned woman came through the doorway behind them. “It should have been impossible for a single pirate ship to accomplish something like that. At least not as quickly as they did. They were through and gone before reinforcements could arrive. For a group that small and relatively weak to do such a thing…” 

“They had assistance,” Puriel murmured. “Either a mole within the station itself who could prevent or slow down certain security measures, or someone far stronger than the rest of the pirates on the ship with them. Someone who was using the pirates as transport.” Pausing, he allowed, “Perhaps both.” 

“Whatever happened,” Aletheia replied after stepping over to stand on the opposite side of Arthur, “security has been drastically raised. They won’t allow anyone through now. It won’t be possible to get to Rysthael–Earth, until things calm down there. Not even for someone like you,” she added with a look toward Puriel. “They have Raduriel working on some new protective measure.” 

“He had ideas about that for some time,” Puriel noted. “But the Seraphim wouldn’t provide the resources he wanted for it. They said the border was secure enough without such an expenditure.” 

“They changed their minds,” Aletheia murmured quietly, eyes on the children and Maria in the distance. “Now they’re giving him everything he wants. Apparently part of his argument was that if his creation works, it could be used in other places to guard against Fomorian intrusion as well.” 

Reminding himself that these two beings had been alive for literally longer than recorded human history, Arthur felt like a very small child as he spoke up. “This ahhh… Radueriel, you said he’s the inventor, the uhhh… Hephaestus.” 

“That is how your people know him, yes,” Puriel confirmed before looking that way. “He is also very dangerous. He and his husband, Abaddon. The one you know as Ares.” 

“Right, you mentioned…” Trailing off thoughtfully, Arthur exhaled. “Which means he’s really good at his job. Between that and the fact that there’s a lot of attention on the border… we’re not going back home anytime soon.” 

“I told you that I would find a way to get you there,” Puriel reminded him. “Just as I promised Spark that I would get her to her mother. That has not changed. Somehow, I will keep my word.”

“Kutattca has thoughts on that subject,” Aletheia informed them. “He believes his sister could be the key.” 

“His sister?” Arthur echoed. “You mean the same one who tried to kill him and is currently part of the group that wants to turn my daughter-in-law, son, and granddaughter into a bunch of red paste? That one?”

Aletheia gave a single nod of confirmation. “Indeed, one and the same. Kutattca believes there may be a way of using both their close blood relation and the fact that she is a powerful Heretic  to create a link that can be used similarly to the way Puriel brought you here to begin with.” 

Arthur glanced between them. “You couldn’t do the same thing to send us back because you already had the spell created on Earth, so the link between Al and you was established while you were there, and sort of… pulled through the border with you when you left. Like a string that just kept stretching, right?” 

“Yes.” Puriel glanced to Aletheia, then back to Arthur. “I believe what Kutattca is suggesting is that we create a bond with him, and somehow transfer it to his blood relation through the connection both have to the Reaper that gives Bosch Heretics their power. He and his sister are both connected to this Heretical Edge, and if we could use that link…” Trailing off, the man nodded. “This will require some thought. And a lot of work.” 

“Well, whatever Maria and I can do to help,” Arthur offered. “Which isn’t much, I know. But–” 

“You may be able to do more than you think,” Puriel pointed out quietly. 

“Oh?” Arthur blinked that way. 

“Yes,” came the slow reply. 

“I have a few thoughts.” 

*********

Tabbris, December, Theia, and Doug, sometime during Flick’s disappearance but before Tabbris’s wings were revealed. 

“You guys really didn’t have to come with me, you know,” Doug Frey informed his three Seosten companions as the group walked through an enormous room filled with dozens of large marble-like monuments. Each was roughly eight feet in height and twelve feet wide, with thousands of different names inscribed upon all four sides. “I’m just saying hi.” 

Tabbris, Theia, and December exchanged glances. As usual, it was the latter who spoke first. “Ohit’sokay… Wedidn’thavealot… todootherthanhelpTabbris… worryaboutFlick… andshedoesn’tneedhelpwiththat.” 

Flushing visibly, Tabbris folded her arms against her stomach while changing the subject. “You remember where Paul and Rudolph’s names are?” 

Doug nodded, starting toward the monument in question. “Yeah, it’s this one over here.” Finding the name of his murdered teammates, he reached out to gently run a finger along both engraved names, side by side. “They umm, they asked us which one we thought they’d want their names to be on. We… we thought they’d like to be next to each other. Paul and Rudolph… damn it, this sucks.”

“Would you prefer a larger monument? Or a private one?” Theia put in curiously. “Did they spell the names wrong? They spelled the names wrong, didn’t they?” 

“What?” Doug blinked that way before shaking his head. “No, I just… I just meant that them being dead sucks. It just…” Trailing off, he stared at Doug and Rudolph’s names before quietly asking, “Do you guys–sorry, I mean the Seosten. Do the Seosten believe in any kind of paradise after death or… or reincarnation or anything?” 

December was, once more, the one who spoke first. “There’sthecusp…butwedon’tgettogothere.” 

“What?” Tabbris blinked at her friend. “I… I’ve heard a little about the Cusp. It’s sort of like an afterlife, isn’t it?” 

“Cusp, Rim, Edge, it has a lot of names,” Theia put in a bit absently, her own attention mostly on staring at the memorial in front of them. Realizing belatedly that the others were watching and waiting for her to continue, she straightened, offering an awkward smile before she continued. “Seosten think beings split into three parts when they die. Magic, life, and self.”

“Magic is like ghosts, right?” Doug noted. “That whole thing where ghosts are a person’s magic shaped and sort of… formed into an echo of them.” 

Theia’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! That’s one. The life part is someone’s… life. Their health, their living energy. That part goes back into the universe and gets…” Her face screwed up a bit thoughtfully. “… recycled? It’s recycled, like cans and paper and bottles. The life force is recycled back into the universe and used to make more living things.” 

Doug thought about that briefly. “So Seosten believe that the energy of a living being is split in three parts when they die. The magical energy goes to make ghosts… sometimes, and the life energy gets put back into the universe as fuel for future lives. But what’s the third part?” 

“Self,” Theia reminded him. “Self is the part that goes to the Cusp. Or Rim, or Edge, or whatever you want to call it. The Cusp is where a person’s mind or personality goes. They stay in the Cusp, watching over everyone they want to, in any world. They can’t affect anything, but they can watch.” Pausing at that for a moment, she quietly added, “Does that sound creepy?” 

“A little,” Doug acknowledged, “but it’s not really different from other ideas of an afterlife, I suppose. Lots of people think the dead stay in some form of heaven or whatever forever.” 

“Oh, not forever.” Theia corrected him. “That’s why it’s called the Cusp. You only stay there for awhile, before your Self falls into the Void and disappears forever. You stop existing then.” 

“Youcanstayforalongtime,” December quickly put in. “Centuriesandcenturiesormore. Aslongaspeoplerememberyou.” 

Theia’s head bobbed in agreement with the younger girl. “Yup. You stay in the Cusp and keep watching over everyone you want to as long as enough people remember you, as long as they know about you. The more people remember you and the more they know about you, the longer you can stay in the Cusp without falling into the Void.” 

Doug took that in, murmuring, “Which… I guess that means a lot of your people want the Olympians, like Sariel and Apollo, to remember them. I mean, they’re supposed to be immortal, right? As long as they don’t get killed. They won’t die naturally. So as long as they remember someone, and with the perfect memory your people have, they will, anyone they know who died will stay in the Cusp.” 

“Yes,” Theia confirmed. “And even the Olympians who are killed will be in the Cusp forever, because no one will ever forget them. At least not for a longer time than the Seosten have existed so far.” 

“Seepeoplearegonnaknowyouforalongtime,” December informed Tabbris. “Evenifyoudieyou’llstayintheCusp. I’lltrytowaveonthewaytotheVoid.” 

“We’re not gonna die,” Tabbris curtly retorted. “Not for a long time anyway. And not–if we do, we’ll hang out in the Cusp together. We’ll watch people.”

December, however, shook her head. “That’snothowitworks. Liesdon’tgettostayintheCusp.” 

“Hey, don’t call yourself that,” Tabbris quickly blurted. “And what do you mean, you don’t get to stay in the Cusp?” 

It was Theia who answered. “That is why Lies don’t have names. Our people do not want Lies to be a part of the Cusp, where they could infect generations-to-come. We are not given names, so that, at death, we will fall directly into the Void.” 

For a long moment after that, Tabbris and Doug both stared at Theia and December. Doug was the one who finally found his voice. “Just when I think I can’t possibly loathe your people any worse for how they treat those like you, we break through into whole new levels of hatred. They deliberately–they don’t give you names because they want your soul to disappear for eternity as fast as possible so you don’t infect their descendents?! That–you–that–” His face twisted as the boy tried and failed to put words to his fury and disgust. Finally, he blinked toward Theia. “Wait, you–when Principal Fellows gave you a name, she was… she was actually giving you… she was… oh. Oh damn.” 

“You need a name!” Tabbris blurted, suddenly throwing herself at December to hug the girl tightly. “You need a real name, a name that’s just you, not a title! Everyone’s gonna remember you forever and ever!” 

“ButIamDecember,” the other girl pointed out in a voice tinted by confusion, not only at Tabbris’s words, but still at least partially at the fact that the girl actually willingly touched her. “I’mpartoftheCalendar. Youcan’ttakemeawayfromthat. TheCalendararemyfriends. Ican’tabandonthem. WearetheCalendar.” 

“You won’t abandon them,” Tabbris solemnly promised, still not releasing her tight grip. “We’re gonna name all of you. Real names that are just for you! You’re not gonna fall into the Void.

“Even if we have to find every Seosten we can and stamp your names directly onto their skulls so they don’t have any choice but to remember you.” 

********

Sophronia and Gaia

“Did it help?” Sophronia Leven spoke aloud while standing in front of the tube that held Gaia frozen in stasis. Her hand was pressed against the metal plate allowing the link to the woman. “Do you think he listened?” 

He, in this case, was Liam Mason. The man had just left after his own discussion with the former Crossroads Headmistress, before Sophronia herself entered to have this conversation. 

Somehow, despite only being able to communicate mentally, Gaia managed to convey a heavy sigh. I do not know. Liam is very stubborn, and lost in a way that may be unreachable. The choices he has made… if he is ever to change, it will only be by his own decision. 

“It would mean accepting a lot of mistakes,” Sophronia quietly noted, her gaze meeting Gaia’s frozen, motionless eyes. “More than most people could. Given what he’s already allowed those mistakes to cost him, repeatedly…”

It is not impossible for him to change, Gaia insisted. Speaking as someone who made more than my share of ‘mistakes’, often born from my own stubbornness and emotions. Heretics live a very long time. He can become a new person, if he wishes to. 

“If he wishes to,” Sophronia agreed pointedly. Then she changed the subject. “Ruthers, Litonya, and Antaeus had a confrontation over the disappearance of the elderly Chambers. You were right, Ruthers didn’t order it. And he was pretty unhappy.” 

Gabriel believes in leaving humans out of any such conflict, Gaia noted. He would never have agreed to send Antaeus, or anyone else, to abduct Felicity’s grandparents. This is something else. 

After a brief, pointed pause, Sophronia carefully asked, “And you’re absolutely certain it wasn’t you? Something you set up and wouldn’t want anyone to know about, no matter how much you trusted them, because of compartmentalization?” 

Gaia managed a mental chuckle. I assure you, this was not me. I do not believe it was the Atherbys either. 

“I know it wasn’t them,” the other woman confirmed. “I have… friends who keep me informed about certain things on that side. They don’t have any idea who took the Chambers or where they are. Do… do you think it was Fossor? He might have taken the grandparents to use in some kind of spell related to bringing Felicity back from the future and enforcing obedience.”

There was a brief pause as Gaia considered that. No, she finally answered. I don’t believe Fossor is connected to this. It’s too convenient that they disappeared with Alcaeus right when they were in danger. You said they appeared to be transported offworld?” 

Sophornia gave a short, pointless nod. “Yes. We can’t trace the spell all the way to the source, only that it’s very far away. Too far to track. It–wait. You think it was those Seosten. But why would the Seosten take Felicity’s grandparents?” 

I’m not certain, came the response. But I wonder if we are not coming at this from the wrong angle. We have been assuming that whoever was responsible abducted the Chambers and accidentally took Alcaeus as well. What if it was the other way around? 

“You mean the Seosten took old Heracles and Felicity’s grandparents were just caught in it by accident?” Sophronia considered that. “But why? Why would they go through the effort of using the kind of power it would take to transport him and two others, the latter by accident, all the way across the universe?” 

Again, Gaia was silent (even mentally) for a few long moments. I do not know, she finally admitted. There is a very large piece of this puzzle that is missing. It would be nice to have some answers before Felicity returns. 

“You think she’ll make it back to this time then?” 

I know she will. Felicity Chambers will find her way back to this time. When she does, I believe it will spark the final, direct conflict between her and Fossor. 

A conflict only one of them will walk away from. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 6 – April, May, and December (Heretical Edge 2)

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“No, no, no! Bad stove!” Adding a flurry of her own people’s curses to that, the red-haired Seosten known as April quickly opened the oven before stumbling back with a cough as dark smoke came billowing out. It was accompanied by the obnoxious shriek of the alarm letting everyone within earshot know that cooking brownies had gone horribly wrong. She waved the smoke away, leaning in to grab the cookie sheet. 

“Wait!” A hand grabbed her arm, stopping the girl. So surprised was she by the unexpected physical contact, that April put up no struggle as she was pulled quickly backward. Glancing that way revealed that her accoster was the human named Douglas, the skinny blond Heretic boy. Only once she was safe did Douglas turn his attention to the smoke with a cough, waving his hand in front of his face. “Oh, that’s not great,” he managed before quickly making a fist and holding it near the smoke. When the boy moved his hand, a glowing yellow orb was left behind. With the sound of rushing air, all of the smoke was drawn into the orb, which turned darker and darker until it was black, then disappeared with the sound of a bubble popping. The smoke vanished with it. 

While he was doing that, a different figure stepped forward and reached in to grab the pan from the oven. It was Kushiel’s daughter, the Mendacia (or Lie) who called herself Theia. She simply caught hold of the pan full of its quite thoroughly burned, brick-like contents before setting it on top of the stove. 

“Theia!” Doug blurted. “I just stopped her from grabbing that with her bare hand, why would you do it? Are you okay?” Even as he asked that, the boy was leaning in to turn off the oven while holding his other hand up toward the smoke detector. A glowing energy construct shaped like a long pole with a finger on the end appeared and hit the button to silence the obnoxious alarm. 

Looking at the burn on her hand, the pale, brown-haired girl flatly replied, “I have felt worse.” With that, she looked to April. “We rang the bell, but the alarm was too loud. We… believed you could be in danger. Or that a very small mouse was trapped in your speaker system and desperately trying to communicate through very high-pitched scream-squeaks.” She paused. “But we only thought that for a moment.” Another pause. “… Do you have any mice?”

Straightening a little, April squinted, first at Douglas, who was adjusting the door of the oven to let it air out, then at Theia, who was looking around as though still partially-convinced there was a trapped supernaturally brilliant mouse somewhere. “Um, several, actually. But I promise none of them are trying to communicate. Or stuck in any of the stereo equipment.” Her head tilted as she looked at the New York Rangers hat on Theia’s head. “I thought that was the boy’s.” 

“I have tried to return it to him,” the other Seosten insisted, pointing to it. “He will not take it.” 

“I told you,” Doug insisted in a voice that made it clear they’d had the conversation before. “It was a present. You don’t take presents back. I mean, yeah, first it was just so you and Pace could both control her body, but now you’re out of her and… I mean, you’re you. You should keep it.” He turned away then, mumbling something about how Sulan already made him several replacements. 

“But…” April started before considering her words. “What… why are you both here?” 

“This is the house you and the other two Calendar members have been given to stay within while you are visiting the school, yes?” Theia prompted. “Douglas and I want to be… what is it?” 

“Welcoming committee,” the human boy supplied. “We’re here to be part of your welcoming party. We thought the others would be here too, ahh, where’s December and May?” 

Before answering, the red-haired Seosten looked back and forth between her fellow Lie and the boy. “If you are concerned about what we are up to, the security forces of this station have made it clear that any sensitive areas are under powerful protections and guard. We would not risk offending our hosts after agreeing to a truce by attempting to bypass those measures. That’s…” She paused. “That is strategically unsound.”

Doug exhaled, shaking his head quickly. “No, no. We’re not here to check in on you. I mean, we are, but not like that. We just wanted to see how you guys were doing. I mean,  I know everything’s pretty weird right now with Flick…” He trailed off, a grimace crossing his face. 

April gave a short nod. “The abduction of Felicity Chambers has upset many people. Not only her immediate family.” She looked toward the heavily burnt tray of what would have been brownies and gave a long sigh. “I… was attempting to provide a treat for December to take to Sariel’s younger daughter. She said that the girl has been… very sad, and hard on herself.” 

With a wince, the boy agreed. “Yeah, I mean, the others have been trying to help Tabs, but she’s not… taking it that great. Neither are Shiori and Avalon.” He sighed heavily. “And it sucks. But we’re not here about that. Sorry about your brownies, but I think we could probably help make more. You know, if you want.” 

Blinking at that, April didn’t answer at first. Instead, she asked, “You grabbed my arm. But you know what I am. Why would you do that?” 

As if it actually answered anything, Doug replied, “I didn’t want you to burn yourself.” He squinted toward Theia. “I didn’t want anyone to burn themselves, but I guess we’ll take what we can get. Next time, we’re using the oven mitt. Do you have an oven mitt? I’m bringing you an oven mitt.” He paused, then looked at her. “You mean why would I touch you when I know if you possess me I have to die before you can come out?” 

“Yes,” April confirmed, “that.” 

“Well,” the boy answered carefully, “the way I see it, you don’t particularly want to be stuck in me, right? You and me, we’re not exactly direct enemies or anything. Besides, you’re here on a truce, and you wouldn’t want to break that. Being afraid that you’ll possess me? I might as well be afraid that anyone around here will pull out a knife and stab me in the throat. You’ve been taught since you were a little kid that possessing people that you don’t mean to is bad and wrong and all that. It’s been drilled into your head forever. So why would I be afraid of you doing it anyway? You’re not a little kid or anything. Hell, you’re not even really a teenager, even if you look like you’re about fifteen. Theia looks like that too and she’s more like thirty.” 

“Yes,” April agreed with a squint. “She and I are close to the same age, I believe.”  

“Well, there you go.” Gesturing, Doug added, “You’re not some little kid. You’re an adult. I’m not afraid of you possessing me because we’re not enemies, and you’re not a sociopath. Trust me, I was teammates with a sociopath. I don’t worry about you possessing me for the same reason I don’t worry about random people in the hall pulling out a gun and shooting me in the face. I’ve got no reason to think you’re going to.” 

“They are very odd people,” Theia noted with a slight smile. “But I like them.” Head tilting to look at the oven, she wrinkled her nose at the smell. “I also like good brownies. Those are… not.  

“So, may we help make more?” 

******

The noise from a few dozen students in the college-level math class chattering with one another dulled quickly before silencing as their teacher stood at the front of the room with his hand up. The man was a Mezulef named Wuld. His people were slightly shorter than average humanoids, standing between three and five feet tall, and had thick brown fur along with ten eyes positioned in a ring all the way around their head. Wuld was on the taller end for his people, which still put him below average human height. 

Once the class was silent, the man gestured for the figure waiting by the door to come in. Promptly, May, who had been watching that, crossed the front area of the classroom and stood by the man. The Seosten, who by human standards looked like an Asian girl around eighteen years old (but was actually more like forty by Earth standard) stopped a few feet from the man, reflexively giving him the same space she had been taught throughout her life to give others. She had to be more than arm’s length away at all times if possible. 

“Okay, guys,” Wuld began in his people’s signature gruff voice, “this right here is May, one of our Seosten guests. I found her in the library earlier going through the same section on statistics we’re about to work on. Turns out she’s kinda good at it. Right, May?” 

Seeing everyone in the class staring at her, May hesitated slightly. She felt oddly shy, shifting on her feet while rubbing her hands against her baggy urban camo pants. Though she might have been considered a near middle-aged adult as a normal human, she was still quite young by Seosten standards. And more importantly, she was accustomed to being ignored at best, or more often loathed. Seeing people watching her with curiosity, as if they wanted to know more about her? That was… different. 

“Yes,” she finally managed, after taking a moment to collect herself. “I… enjoy math.” 

“And I enjoy teaching people who want to learn,” Wuld replied. “So May here is gonna sit in on a few classes. More if she wants to.” To the girl herself, he added, “Why don’t you go ahead and find a seat, then we’ll get started.” 

Find a seat? May blinked, turning to squint at the man. “With… them?” she asked blankly. 

Wuld, in turn, raised four different eyebrows before raising his voice. “Ah, quick question. Cooties. Does anyone in here have cooties?” Seeing no hands raised, he informed the girl, “By the grace of the pharaohs, I think you’re safe.” 

May still didn’t move immediately. She turned, looking toward the desks. There were several open, but all were in the middle of other groups. There were people all around  every open desk. People who were now waiting for her. 

“Here,” one girl finally spoke up, raising her hand with a mechanical pencil clasped in it. She was the Heretic known as Shiloh, a young Caucasian woman with dark brown hair that barely reached her shoulders in the back while the rest was shorter, leading to jagged, uneven bangs in the front. “There’s a desk here.” She indicated the seat beside her. 

May had been somewhat surprised that the teacher had told her to find a seat so close to his normal students. But seeing one of those students actively invite her over to sit directly next to her was even more unexpected. For a moment, she just stood there, staring briefly until Wuld cleared his throat. Then she found herself walking that way. With each step, May expected to see a shift of bodies away from the desk in question. But she didn’t. They didn’t. They stayed where they were. A few looked impatient to get back to the actual class. Which in and of itself was even more surprising. They weren’t paying attention to her every move. They weren’t staring at her with paranoia, waiting to slap her with punishment for getting too close, or even reflexively shifting their bodies away as she neared them.  

What in the name of the Fomorian progenitor was wrong with them? 

Shaking that uncertainty off as well as she could, May moved to the desk that had been offered and sat down. She placed the math book on the desk before looking over to the girl. “Thank you,” she started a bit awkwardly, unsure of exactly how to proceed. “Do not worry. I will try not to bother you.” 

“Try not to bother me?” Shiloh echoed in disbelief before shaking her head. “Dude, Mr. Wuld said you’re good at this math stuff, right? I totally called dibs on you helping me.” 

Immediately, the orange-skinned, purple-haired Querv boy who sat directly behind May leaned forward. “Hey, she’s gotta help me too. I’m totally lost on this stuff.” 

Turning a bit to put both of them in her line of sight, May stared for a silent moment. In the background, she noticed Wuld writing the next formula they would be studying on the white board. “You… want me to… help you learn.” Her voice was dull and flat from disbelief. 

“I mean, if you want to,” Shiloh quickly amended with a visible blush. “You don’t have to. It’s not like a requirement to sit here or anything. It’s just, I–” She glanced to the Querv boy. “I mean, we could really use some help.” Offering a slight, clearly nervous smile, she added, “Please?” 

“But you know what I am,” May pointed out. “You know I am… a Lie.”  

“Yeah, and like, everyone here has different powers and weapons and shit that could kill people,” Shiloh retorted. “But they aren’t good at math. Err, maybe they are… that’s not the point. The point is, you’re good at math. So, could you help us understand it?” 

“I…” Pausing, May finally gave an uncertain nod. “Yes. If you wish. 

“I would very much like to help you learn.” 

*******

“The people here are very strange.” 

As she made that announcement, April was sitting down in the main school cafeteria to eat dinner. December was to the right of her, with May on the far side of the younger girl. 

“That is understandable,” Theia, who had taken the seat directly across from April, pointed out. “Many of them are Strangers.” Her head tilted with a quirky, uneven smile, showing her teeth somewhat goofily. “Of both the capitalized and non-capitalized variety.” Leaning forward, she added in a quieter, somewhat conspiratorial voice. “That was a joke. I make them now. It’s fun.” 

“What’sstrangeaboutthem?” December piped up in a blur of words. She had been fairly quiet for awhile. Which was incredibly unusual for her. Now, she looked first to May to her right, then to April to her left.  

May, after giving Theia a brief squint, turned her attention to the youngest Calendar member. “They know what we are, yet they are not afraid of us. They… put us near their young. They want to learn from us. They touch us when they don’t have to. They are all very perplexing.” 

“Should, uhh…” Douglas, who was seated next to Theia, turned to look at Shiloh, who had just plopped down next to him a moment earlier. “Should we let them know that we’re sitting here and can actually hear them right now?” 

“My comment was partially intended for you, Douglas,” April primly informed him. “I still do not understand your actions earlier. We… don’t understand any of your actions. Why do your people insist on treating us as though we are not… what we are? Yes, you said that you are not afraid of being murdered, but… why would you treat us as though we are not… mistakes?” There was a bit of… worry, confusion, and disbelief in her voice. April had been treated a certain way her entire existence. Seeing a few people, such as the Las Vegas mission group, treat her differently had been one thing. But this was so much more than that. 

“Is it simply their trust in this protection spell that their archmages have been preparing?” May put in curiously. 

“Nah, that’s not it,” Shiloh, who actually looked a little amused by their bafflement, noted. “They have to do that anti-possession spell one-on-one the first time. Have they gotten to you yet?” she asked Doug. Getting a headshake in response, she gestured. “Me neither. Apparently they can like… renew the whole group once it’s applied, you just have to come back here once in awhile. But for the first time, they have to cast the spell on you directly. Lots of people don’t have it yet. It’s gonna take awhile.” 

Perking up a bit, December blurted, “Tabbrisishelpingwiththat! Orshewasbeforeshefellasleep. TheysaidIshouldlethersleep. Cuzshewasn’tsleepingforalongtime. BecauseofFlick.” 

Shiloh hesitated. Though the fact that the Seosten girl had possessed Flick for a long time was generally known, there were a lot of rumors and contradictory ideas. “Umm. They’re like… adopted sisters or something?” 

“Yes,” Theia immediately put in, leaning forward and turning her head to look down toward the other girl. “They are sisters. She is very upset about Flick Chambers’s disappearance. So… so are a lot of people.” 

“But they figured out the spell was some kind of time travel thing,” Doug put in. “Koren said Wyatt and Professor Dare went over it and they think it jumped her forward a few weeks. So–” 

“Her birthday,” May noted. “The necromancer sent her to her own birthday.” 

“Yeah, some present, right?” Doug muttered. 

“Tabbrishasbeenworkingreallyhard!” December announced, sounding worried. “Ithinkshe’sworkingtoohard. She’sdoingallthismagicstuff. Andshe’sdoingschoolstuff. Andshe’strainingwithAvalon. ShesaidshewantsAvalontoteachherhowtofight. CuzshewantstohelpsaveFlick. Sheknowsshecan’tfindherrightnow. Soshe’susingthetimetolearn. Andshekeepshavingnightmarestoo.” The last few words came out quietly, as she looked down. 

It was Shiloh who spoke up, reaching across the table to poke December. “Hey, they’ve got a sundae bar over there. Why don’t you grab something?” 

“Sunday?” December sounded baffled. “Butit’sstill–” Her confusion vanished as she saw what was pointed out. “Icecreamit’sicecreamwhocareswhatdayitis?!” With that, she was a blur of motion that disappeared that way. 

May looked to her new classmate. “Thank you. December is still young. She wishes to help Sariel’s… Tabbris. She wishes to help Tabbris, but she… we do not know how.”

“It’s no big,” Shiloh insisted a bit awkwardly, a blush touching her face. “It’s just ice cream. People like ice cream. You like ice cream, right? We could both go get it. You know, just–” 

Her words, awkward as they might have been, stopped as she instead squinted past the others. “What’s your friend doing?” 

“December?” Turning, May looked that way, to see the girl in question standing out of the way, hands clasped behind her back as she watched a couple other Seosten students filling their bowls with ice cream. 

“Hey.” Shiloh was up from the seat, stepping that way before the others could react. “That’s not fair. She was ahead of you and then she just put her bowl down and moved. What’d you guys say to her?” 

“What?” The young Seosten boy looked at his female companion, then shook his head at Shiloh, while she was joined by Doug, Theia, May, and April. “We just told her to remember the rules, that’s all.” 

“Yeah,” the female Seosten who was with him agreed. “I mean, I don’t really want to take ice cream once she’s… touched and breathed on all of it.” 

While the others reacted to that, Doug marched forward. The two unfamiliar Seosten each took up reflexive ready stances as though expecting him to start a fight. Instead, the boy walked past them, plucking a spoon from the tray. He leaned over, digging into one of the cartons to take up an enormous scoop of strawberry-chocolate ice cream. Then he walked over, thrusting the spoon out toward April. “Bite?” 

Looking very confused, the girl took a bit of the ice cream. Once she had some, Doug offered the still-quite full spoon toward Theia. “Bite?” He then waited as the other girl took a bite of her own, before offering it in turn to May and December. By that point, there was only a little ice cream left. Doug turned to the two newcomers and pointedly put the spoon fully into his mouth, taking all the ice cream there was before licking it clean to get every bit of it. 

“You guys… you don’t even…” The Seosten girl opened and shut her mouth before shaking her head as she turned to leave, the boy following after her. 

“Why did you do that?” April asked, squinting at Doug. 

“Cuz,” he replied easily, “with some people, it doesn’t matter how much you argue, how much you yell or fight or insult them. None of that’ll do anything. It won’t change their minds. Especially when they’ve grown up with it like those guys have. The only chance you’ve got is for them to see it for themselves. And not just a little bit, not just once. Over and over again.” 

“Okay, but dude,” Shiloh put in, “next time, I get to help. I like ice cream too.” 

Standing together, the three Calendar members looked at the two Heretics. April announced, “You see? Very strange people.” 

“Yes, they are strange,” Theia agreed, her voice quite cheerful as she put both hands on the sides of the hat Doug had given her. “But I am strange too. 

“And I would rather be strange together, than strange alone.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Needless to say, we were all very confused. Sands, Sarah, Felix, Triss, Tabbris, December, Dare, and I all stared at one another in wordless bafflement while Vanessa was clung to by the little girl who apparently knew her well enough to go for an immediate hug despite all her very understandable trauma. A girl she herself couldn’t remember at all. Which really should have been practically impossible given her memory powers, so what in the living hell?

Eventually, Dare stepped more fully into the room. “Dakota,” she started carefully. “How do you know Vanessa, exactly?” As she asked that, the woman glanced at the girl in question with an expression that clearly asked for her to wait until Dakota actually answered before speaking up.

For her part, Dakota stepped back, suddenly looking a lot more uncertain when she realized how many people were watching her. She actually half-hid behind Vanessa, which just made it more clear how much she trusted and looked up to the other girl. “Um. She visited the hospital where I was. She visited a lot of the kids, but she… she…” Biting her lip, Dakota glanced to the blonde girl. “She believed me,” the girl murmured in a quiet, hesitant voice. “When I told her what happened, she believed I wasn’t crazy. She… she’s the one who sent the doctor to me.”

Vanessa still looked pretty clueless. Considering that for a moment, she slowly nodded. “I did visit the hospital a few times to see people that I knew from before… but…” Focusing on Dakota, she continued. “What doctor are you talking about? Because…” She seemed to be considering her words very carefully to avoid upsetting the girl or dismissing her. “I think something happened to my memory. I don’t remember talking to you, and I really should.”

For a second, it was clear that the dark-haired girl felt reflexively hurt by not being remembered. But she pushed that down, shifting a bit on her feet before slowly asking, “Does… does that mean someone used magic on you? But you said you never forget anything. You said you’d always remember me because you have a magic memory. How can someone take that away?”

“There are always checks and balances,” Dare spoke up, drawing the attention of both girls. “Nothing is one hundred percent perfect and foolproof. Even a memory as protected as a full Seosten’s… or someone with that same gift, such as Vanessa, can be tampered with given enough power or skill. Remember, even Sariel’s memory was affected by the Seosten banishment orb. The real question right now is who changed her memory. And why.”

Yeah, she wasn’t wrong. That was definitely the most important question at the moment. But before we went further with that, something else seemed important too. And that something was introductions. So, I looked to the poor, clearly very skittish girl. “Hi, Dakota. I’m Flick. This is Tabbris.” I gently pulled my little sister up in front of myself, as she gave a short wave.

“Hi!” Tabbris piped up, her own hand moving to grab December (who still seemed surprised that anyone would willingly touch her), pulling the girl up beside us. “This is December! She’s cool.”

December’s mouth opened, then she stopped short. Turning to the girl beside her, she quickly asked, “Waitasec. Wasthatapun? YouknowcuzcoolandDecember. December’swinterandcold.”

Tabbris, in response, simply grinned and giggled a little bit. She said something very quick in Latin. I’d been learning a lot, but I wasn’t perfect yet. Plus, she said it at December speed.

So, instead of trying to follow that, I glanced to the others and asked, “Could the person who erased Vanessa’s memory have been the… you know, plant guy himself? Or one of the minions he took over, trying to isolate her from anyone who could help?” Belatedly, I added, “Or who could bring help.” Cool as she was, of course, I really doubted pre-Heretic Vanessa would have been much of an issue for someone like Kwur. Or any of those people, really.

Sarah spoke up then, taking a step closer with a look that made it clear that she was very much sympathizing with the girl who had witnessed (and been a part of) such horrific trauma as a child. Trauma that she couldn’t talk about very much. “Maybe the doctor Vanessa asked about?”

Before anyone else could say anything, Dakota shook her head quickly. “Nuh uh. Doctor Folgers is really nice and really cool and he helped seal the bad plant so no one could find it. Vanessa said she’d send someone who could help me and Doctor Folgers came and helped.”

“Doctor Folgers,” Dare echoed, looking over to Vanessa. “How about it, you remember them?”

A slight frown touched the other girl’s face, as she squinted off into the distance while murmuring, “Folgers. I…” Now she looked even more troubled while her head shook. “I don’t remember. No, I don’t remember hearing that name before.” Even as she said it, there was a slight hitch to her voice. It was obvious that she was very close to freaking out. Which I couldn’t blame her for, given how she’d relied on her perfect memory through literally her entire life. The idea that someone had actually messed with it after all had to be hitting pretty hard right then.

Dare seemed to consider for a moment before asking, “Dakota, what can you tell us about this Doctor Folgers? How did he meet with you, what did he look like? How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Did he tell you anything specific about how he sealed up that basement?”

“Why didn’t he take the plant or destroy it?” Sands quickly put in. “That seems pretty important.”

“Hey, yeah,” Triss put in from a bit further back where she and her own sister were standing (Felix was being pretty quiet at the moment). “How come this helpful magic doctor guy didn’t just destroy the stupid evil plant if he believed what you said and knew how dangerous it was?”

“He couldn’t!” Dakota put in quickly and a bit defensively before flushing a little as everyone looked at her. Once more, she seemed to instinctively shrink behind Vanessa for protection. Her voice was a bit quieter. “He said he tried to destroy it, but he could sense the… the voice trying to get to him. So he sealed it off. He said he was going to research more ways to safely get rid of it. He said he had some friends who knew magic better than he did and they could help.”

Reading something in her voice, I hesitated before asking, “You never saw him again, did you?”

“No,” the young girl confirmed quietly and with obvious sadness, shrinking in on herself a bit. “He never came back after that. I asked about him and they said there wasn’t a doctor by that name. I asked about Vanessa, and they said she was too busy to come see me anymore.”

Flinching noticeably, Vanessa went down to one knee and embraced the girl tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while holding her. “I’m sorry I… I’m sorry something happened and I couldn’t remember you. We’re going to help you now, I swear. We’ll figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again. You’re safe here, Dakota. Can… can you answer Professor Dare’s question about what Doctor Folgers looked like? Maybe that will help me remember him.” She sounded doubtful about that, but was clearly ready to try just about anything that might work.

So, Dakota described the man. Apparently he was rather rotund, shaped basically like a large beach ball. She said he was maybe about my height, and wore a doctor coat over a ruffled lime green shirt with some flowers on it. His stethoscope was purple, and he was always chewing a lot of bubblegum. Oh, and he apparently had very dark green, almost black eyes, along with a very friendly smile that made her feel safe when he talked to her.

The more the girl talked about him, the more obvious it became that she really missed him. He’d obviously made a very strong impression on her for the limited time they’d interacted. It made me feel even worse about the thought that she’d been alone for so long after something as traumatizing and soul-crushing as what she’d been through. This kid needed a lot of help.

Unfortunately, getting the description didn’t seem to help Vanessa at all. She squinted, clearly focusing very hard on trying to remember before sighing almost explosively. “Not remembering something is awful,” she declared. “Is this what everyone else feels like all the time when they can’t remember? Gotta say, not a fan.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I confirmed. “Maybe someone shapeshifted into you to talk to her because you went to the hospital and could be someone she trusted? But… why? And who?” My head shook. Too much speculation. “If your memory was messed with, maybe your mom can help? She’s basically the best expert we have at that kind of thing, isn’t she?”

As Vanessa nodded, Dare was already moving. “I’ll see if we can bring her down. You guys talk to Dakota a bit. Maybe she remembers some other things that could be useful.” To the girl in question, she asked, “Are you going to be okay here?”

Dakota gave a short nod, though she was staying very close to Vanessa. “I’m… yes, I’m okay.”

“Don’t worry, kid,” Felix declared. “We’re in a space station in the middle of the sun. Definitely don’t have to worry about that psycho monster plant dude finding you up here.”

“She’s right,” I agreed. “Plus you’re surrounded by people who would kick his ass.” Offering her a small smile, I added, “Do you mind if we take a few samples from you for the spell so we can go back out there and find this plant guy before he hurts more people? I swear it won’t hurt.”

“I don’t care if it does,” Dakota informed me solemnly. “You can hurt me to find him. I deserve it.” She said it so matter-of-factly, like… like it was a universal certainty that she deserved pain. That, more than anything I’d heard so far, showed me just how messed up this kid really was.

Vanessa, thankfully, was right there. Still on one knee, she shook her head while putting both hands on Dakota’s shoulders. But she didn’t say ‘you’re wrong’ or anything like that. Instead, she asked in a very calm, collected voice, “Why do you feel like you deserve to be hurt?”

Dakota stared at her, mouth opening before she swallowed hard and looked away. An expression of deep, lingering shame crossed her face. When she spoke, it was in a broken, halting voice while tears filled her eyes. “I did bad things.” For such a simple statement, there was a lot behind those few words. She didn’t need to say anything more than that. I… I didn’t want to hear more details. My own imagination was plenty bad enough as far as thinking about what had happened that terrible day. The last thing I wanted was to know for certain.

“Did you want to do those bad things?” Vanessa asked her simply, watching the girl’s eyes while still holding her by the shoulders. “Did they make you happy?”

Lip trembling for a few seconds, Dakota’s entire face crumpled in, tears falling freely. “No. No.” She repeated that a couple times, head shaking. Crying openly by that point, she stammered in a horrible, broken voice that hitched and cracked between almost every word. “No, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry. I want my Mommy and Daddy. I’m sorry. I didn’t wanna do that. I don’t want it. I don’t want to be here. I want my Mommy and Daddy and everyone. I want to go back. Please, please, I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I don’t want this.”

That was about as much as she could say, collapsing against Vanessa, who held her tight. The older girl’s voice was quiet and soothing. “You didn’t do it,” she assured her. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose it. You’d never hurt your family. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Dakota. Your mom and dad knew it wasn’t your fault. Your brothers and sisters knew that too. You’re okay.”

The two stayed like that for a couple minutes, Vanessa simply holding her close and soothing her the way I was pretty sure Vanessa herself had needed for quite some time as a child. Finally, Dakota looked up to her, sniffling a little. “You have to find the plant man and make him stop before he makes someone else kill people,” she said in a weak voice. “Please.”

“We will,” Vanessa promised her firmly. “We’re going to find him and stop him. We just have to take a few samples from you so we can do that, okay? It’ll be really easy and really quick.”

The girl agreed once more, and then Vanessa and Tabbris set out taking hair, skin, saliva, and blood samples from her. The last bit was the ‘hardest’, but even that wasn’t bad. All they did was set an enchanted vial against her arm and let it slowly fill up by essentially teleporting her blood the very short distance from her arm into the vial. There wasn’t even any penetration involved.

While they were busy with that, I focused on the others. “What do you guys think? Does this Doctor Folgers sound familiar to anyone?” To December, Triss, and Felix, I added, “You guys have more experience with the non-Heretic side of the world. Maybe he rings a bell?”

Unfortunately, they all shook their heads. As did Sands and Sarah. Triss spoke up with a hesitant, “I don’t think we know anyone who looks like that. I mean, he kind… maybe sounds a little bit like that one guy who used to be part of the Crossroads Committee before he died.”

“Brockett,” Sands put in. “Oliver Brockett. But it’s definitely not him. He wouldn’t need to go get help to deal with this guy. Or at least he wouldn’t admit it. And if the Committee knew that thing was there, they would’ve either destroyed it or blocked the whole house off a lot more than just putting an illusion over the basement. And he was still around until a few months ago. It can’t be him.”

“She’s probably right,” I murmured before offering, “Maybe we can go to the hospital where Dakota was and find the security footage from the last time she saw him? If we got an actual look at him, that might help identify the guy.”

“Not a bad idea, Felicity.” That was Sariel, coming into the room alongside Dare. As she entered, Tabbris and Vanessa both moved to embrace her, and she returned their hugs fondly. Then she looked at me, continuing her thought. “But there are easier ways to share the image of this doctor with you, without going to the hospital. First, however…” She focused on her Vanessa, frowning thoughtfully as she brushed the girl’s hair back and stared into her eyes with the look of a doctor examining a patient.

The rest of us exchanged uncertain looks and waited, while Sariel checked over her eldest daughter with a few prepared spells. Through it all, Vanessa remained quiet, clearly uncomfortable with the idea that her memory had possibly been altered.

“Something is definitely missing,” Sariel finally declared, straightening a bit. Her voice was tense. “Whoever did it was an expert, a surgeon of memory adjustment. They removed specific memories and carefully connected the remaining pieces so you wouldn’t notice. For example, say you were sitting in a chair in the waiting room, reading a magazine when someone came up and interrupted. The two of you have a ten minute conversation, then get up and walk into an examination room to talk to a doctor together before leaving to ride the elevator back down to the lobby before you finally part ways. Whoever went into your mind erased your memory of the other person entirely. They cut out the entire private conversation, then edited the person out of your memory of speaking with the doctor. Think of it as adjusting your memory of everything the doctor said to the second person as being said to you, with the other person’s questions being moved to you and even adjusted to sound more like something you’d say.”

Vanessa stared at her mother, mouth open. “That… that… who–why–” Her hands covered her mouth and she looked stricken at the thought. And for her part, Sariel didn’t look any happier. If anything, she was clearly even more upset and holding back most of it.

“I don’t know,” the Seosten woman replied in a quiet voice. “But we’ll find out, I promise you that much. Whoever did this was skilled enough that they didn’t leave much in the way of traces. We need to find the person themselves if we want to replace the memories.”

“Finding out who this doctor guy is might help with that,” I put in. “You said you could do something about that without having to go to the hospital to look through security footage?”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed, clearly taking a second to focus on the issue at hand instead of her daughter’s altered memory. “We only need someone who does remember him.”

“Memory transfer?” Vanessa guessed, looking to Dakota before reaching out to take the nervous girl’s hand reassuringly as she spoke directly to her. “If it’s okay with you, we could project your memories of the guy so everyone can see him. Would you be okay with that?”

Yeah, it was clear that, memory or no memory, Vanessa was very protective of this girl. Maybe that was just her own personality and all. Or maybe some part of her actually did remember her, even if she couldn’t actively recall those memories. Whatever it was, she definitely felt something.

“Okay,” the girl agreed quietly. “Whatever you have to take, I don’t care. Just find him and stop him.”

Sariel moved that way, taking a knee alongside her daughter before gently grasping the traumatized little girl’s hands. “Dakota, my name is Sariel. I’m going to use a spell that’s going to draw out one specific memory and project it for everyone to see. That’s all. It will take the memory you’re thinking about, so I need you to focus on when you saw Doctor Folgers. Think about talking to him, about what he looks like and hold that in your head, okay?”

The girl quickly agreed, and Sariel produced a small pink crystal. Promising that it wouldn’t hurt, she held the crystal up to Dakota’s forehead before murmuring the activation word for the spell. Immediately, the crystal began to glow and give off a soft hum. I heard Dakota gasp, but clearly Sariel had been right about it not hurting. At most, it seemed to tickle her a little bit.

Then the crystal glowed a bit more brightly, a light projecting off of it to reach the middle of the room before resolving into a hologram. As we all stared, the image resolved into a man. Just as Dakota had described, he was about my height, very rotund, with that outlandish outfit. And just as I’d thought, he didn’t look familiar at all. Aside from surface-level description, he didn’t look like Counselor Brockett.

“Ummm….” Slowly, I shook my head. “Nope, I’ve still got nothing. You guys?”

“Oh!” That was Tabbris, whose eyes widened. “We’ve seen him, we have seen him! Or a–I mean a picture, a–Mama, do me before the crystal runs out!”

With a shrug, Sariel did so, moving the crystal over to her daughter’s head. It took another few seconds, then projected another image. This one wasn’t of a person. It was of a hallway. Belatedly, I recognized it as the hallway within the casino in Vegas. It was taken from the moment I was thrown across the corridor and up against the wall by Sarez’s defensive spell, the one that left me stunned for a few seconds while Tabbris took over and made me run after him. In that moment, the image froze, showing a single painting on the wall.

It was a painting of the man we had just seen from Dakota’s memories. A very detailed one too. It looked important, like… like the man himself was important.

“Oh.” Tilting my head as I stared at the image, I said, “that’s from the Vestil casino. I guess we’re going back to Vegas then.”

“We were going back there anyway,” Vanessa pointed out. “Now that we have what we need to make the tracking spells so we can find Kwur.”

“Indeed,” Dare agreed, her own gaze intent on the image hanging in the air. “And I believe it’s time you all had a little more aid in ending this situation.” She looked to the rest of us. “Not all together. We can split into smaller groups and search the city for any trace of these plants. The tracking spells should signal if anyone gets close to them.”

Sands piped up quickly, “Hey, yeah. This time, you guys are totally not leaving without us.”

“I will have a discussion with these… Vestil about who the man in the painting is,” Sariel murmured. “That may lead to who…” It sounded like she was going to say something else, before settling on, “… manipulated my daughter’s memory.”

“I’m going with you,” Vanessa declared flatly.

Looking to Sands and Sarah, I asked, “You guys wanna wander Vegas together?” As they quickly agreed, I glanced back to the image from Dakota’s memories once more. Why was the doctor who had helped that girl and had apparently also been erased from Vanessa’s memory in a painting hung on the wall of the Vestil casino? Did that have anything to do with why Vegas was being targeted now? Unfortunately, my morbid guess was that this guy, whoever he was, had made Vegas a target by getting involved in the situation. But who was he? What exactly was going on?

And at some point in the course of all this, would I end up with an actual answer instead of yet another handful of questions?

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Causality And Casualty 5-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Please note that the Heretical Edge edition of Patreon Snippets will be posted on Friday for Patrons and Saturday for the public. This is to avoid making everyone wait even longer to get back to the plot while not making my wonderful $10+ Patrons wait too long to get their own snippets as well. 

The girl’s name was Dakota Coalbright. Apparently, four years ago, when she was nine years old, her father brought home some kind of plant from Canada. The plant turned everyone in her family, including the girl herself, into murdering psychopaths. Her whole family was killed (by each other), leaving only Dakota. Exactly how many of those deaths she was… well, responsible for was the wrong word, given the situation. Exactly how many of the deaths she had been forced to participate in was not something the girl was talking about, according to Sands. For all we knew, she might not even remember exactly how it went. Actually, I was… kind of hoping she didn’t, honestly. 

How terrible would that have been? By that point in my life, I’d only had my dad. How would I have felt if some plant, or any other effect, made me kill him? It would have destroyed me. I was seriously unsure if I ever would have recovered from something like that. I had no idea what kind of horrific sights, sounds, even smells were locked in this girl’s memory. But it had to be really bad. 

For four years, the girl had been in some mental hospital somewhere, as everyone believed that she had killed her entire family all by herself. I had to believe that had something to do with the Bystander Effect making them believe that a nine year old girl could kill an entire family like that. Not just psychologically, of course. There were plenty of fucked up people out there. But physically. I kind of doubted it was physically possible for her to do some of the things involved in those killings. But the Bystander Effect knew that magic was involved, so it made them think this was possible. Or something. Or maybe they just didn’t want to look too closely into it.

Either way, the point was that the kid (well, now thirteen-year-old) broke out of her prison/hospital when she heard some voice in her head, the same voice that apparently had convinced her and her family to kill each other before. Realizing that it meant the monster was back and loose, she broke out to get home. My best guess was that she wanted to save whoever was in her old house. But it didn’t work. Apparently when she got there, the people didn’t listen to her. They heard the voice and left, rather than kill each other. Probably because the voice in their heads (Kwur, obviously) had actual instructions for them beyond violence. 

But Dakota herself had been left to deal with the ghosts of her dead family members, which led to her hiding in the same basement area the murder plant had previously been left in, when Sands, Sarah, Triss, Felix, and Kohaku found her and heard the whole story. Hearing about ‘Canada’ made them call us. Or try to. Apparently no calls had been able to reach us while we were talking to Prelate at the Gehenna outpost. They’d tried a few times, only getting through once we were out and back to the bus. Finally, Sands was able to get through and we found out the rest of the story. 

It was… kind of convenient, really, that Sands and the others managed to get hold of someone who had been infected by Kwur’s spores or whatever right when we needed someone like that. I wondered, honestly, if that had been some kind of trap or something. But I couldn’t figure out what the point would be. This Kwur guy (if guy was the right word for him) couldn’t know that Kohaku would investigate some random ghost sightings. And even if he did, there didn’t seem to be a point to it. No, I had no idea if this was anything more than coincidence. But if it was, it didn’t seem to be something that Kwur set up. That said, I still wanted to keep my eyes open.

In any case, the girl had very clearly been infected by those Kwur spores, which meant she could help us track down other infested people, or even the main part of Kwur that was out of the prison. As Vanessa and Tabbris had explained, it wouldn’t be an instant locator spell or anything. At most, it would let us know if we were anywhere near someone like that. But it was something. And something was more than we’d had before.

Still, the girl didn’t want to go to Canada. Which, given her history with just one plant from that place, I couldn’t blame her for. And we didn’t want to send her into Vegas, given it was apparently rapidly deteriorating into a warzone. The best place for the kid was up in the star station. So, Vanessa, Tabbris, December, and I were going to go up there. We’d talk to the kid, see if we could find out anything else specific from her (like if she recognized the name Kwur at all), and get the samples we needed for the tracking spell. Meanwhile, the others would go back to Vegas itself, try to calm things down if they could, and look around for any hint of the evil plant. Maybe someone had given a flower gift somewhere in one of the casinos? Yeah, cuz that would be incredibly easy to narrow down. 

Either way, they were trying. We just had to hope that this Dakota girl’s contribution would be enough to find that piece of Kwur before things got a lot worse than they already were. 

Coming through the portal that Haiden had set up, the four of us emerged into one of the transport rooms. As soon as we appeared, I saw Abigail and Dare, standing with one of the other male adults whose name I couldn’t place. He was a thin, fairly short Latino guy who appeared to be in his fifties. I was pretty sure he was one of the former Garden Heretics who was teaching some classes here now. 

The three adults were deep in conversation, but when we appeared, it stopped. The Garden guy leaned in to say something to Abigail more quietly, while Dare stepped forward to meet us. I saw her eyes flick briefly to me before she addressed the group. “Long couple days, huh?” 

Groaning, I bobbed my head up and down. “You could say that. And they’re not over yet.” 

“Butit’sreallyinteresting,” December piped up from where she was standing next to Tabbris and just behind Vanessa and me. “It’salotmorefunthan… justrunningboringsurveillence… allthetime.”

Exchanging a brief look with me, Vanessa asked, “What about the stuff up here? Are they almost finished with the spell yet?” We’d been told before we left the first time that Dries and the others were just about finished adjusting the anti-possession spell so that it would block any of our people from being possessed as long as they returned to the station periodically for a refresh. That was the whole reason Avalon stayed behind instead of going on this trip to begin with, because they needed her to be close for the last bit before the spell would be ready. 

Dare grimaced slightly. “There were a couple of hiccups on that front. Turns out to make the spell work properly, they needed a… let’s call it a rare crystal. And by rare I mean we only knew of a few of them on Earth. The good news is, one of the crystals we knew about is in Brazil.” 

I blinked, starting to ask why that was a good thing. But Tabbris quickly blurted, “That’s where Hasty and the other werewolves went.” When I glanced at her, she blushed before explaining in a somewhat quieter voice, “She told me where they were going cuz we’re supposed to watch the new Fallstrider season on DVD but she made me promise to wait until they got back.” 

Yeah, apparently over the past couple months, Tabbris and the werewolf known as Hasty from Mateo’s pack had bonded a bit over a shared interest that Fallstrider anime. Now, whenever the pack was around, those two would find a quiet place to pop in the show. Which, honestly, was pretty awesome. I’d been interested in seeing what the fuss was about, but I’d look into it on my own. I didn’t want to butt in on what was clearly something Tabbris liked having with someone else. She deserved that.

December, in that moment, looked a little confused. “Waityouhaveafriend…namedHastyand…. it’snotme? Butbeinghasty… iskindamything.” 

Tabbris giggled, head shaking. “Hasty’s her nickname. I think you’d like her. And you can watch the show with us when she’s back. Oh! I’ll have to show you the rest of it first.” 

“Youcanshowme…” December informed her, “Butifit’satvshow… itwon’tdomuchgood.” 

Tilting her head, Tabbris hesitantly asked, “Do you not like TV? Is it because you have to sit down?” 

“IcansitdownifIwantto,” December sniffed before shaking her head. “ButIcan’twatchtv… cuzthere’snomagic… inthescreen… soIcan’tseeit.” 

Frowning uncertainly at Tabbris, who was frowning back at me, my mouth opened. But Vanessa beat me to it. “December, are you blind?” 

Defensively, the girl insisted, “Ihearandsmellandtasteandfeelreallygood. AndIseemagic. Iseemagicevenbehindme. Allaroundme. ItbouncesoffthingssoIknowwheretheyare. Ievenknowwhattheylooklike…. cuzthemagicsenseisreallysensitive. Anddifferentcolorsfeeldifferent. Iseemagic… andsoundwaves… andheatandelectricityandstuff. But… I can’t… see… normal not-magic screens… andstufflikethat.” She offered a shrug, clearly still self-conscious. “Icanseewithanimals!” 

“No, no, it’s okay,” I quickly put in. “We just…” December was like that Daredevil guy back in Seosten space that I’d fought? What she was describing was the same thing Apollo had talked about back then. He’d said it was a rare mutation that was the result of various experiments the Seosten had done to cure their pregnancy problem. So this kid had both that and SPS? Geez. 

“You can see electricity and soundwaves and magic and stuff?” Tabbris had jumped straight to that, her eyes shining with delight as she started. “What does that stuff look like? What does anything look like? Do you–” Realizing they were holding things up, she shot a quick, apologetic look toward Dare before stepping back as she pulled December with her. The two lowered their voices to talk.

With a shake of her head and a small smile, Dare nodded to Vanessa and me. “In any case, yes, the pack was in Brazil. So Avalon, Rebecca, and Aylen went with Deveron and Lillian to see what they could do about getting that crystal they need. They just left right after classes this morning.” 

Grimacing at the revelation that I’d missed Avalon, I exhaled. “Makes sense, they’ve gotta get that spell up.” Pausing, I looked toward December briefly before adding, “I wish we had time to help them…”  

Giving me a look that said she knew exactly how I was feeling, Dare gently replied, “I think they’ve got it handled for now. You’ve got your own situation to deal with, it sounds like.” 

“Situation to deal with… yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Seriously, monster alien plant thing, gonna try to break out the evil version of Arthur if we don’t put a lid on his bullshit. And part of said bullshit is starting a war in Las Vegas. So, ya know.” 

“We really need to talk to this Dakota,” Vanessa finished for me, voice slightly calmer than mine. 

Abigail spoke up then. “Yes, you will. She’s in one of the guest rooms with Sands and Sarah. They’re taking care of her. But…” She paused, clearly considering her words. “Be… careful, girls. I’ve barely spoken to her, but she’s obviously fragile right now. I know this is important, but don’t push her too hard. Making her think about what happened back then, it’s… it’s not a good idea.” It sounded like she was having a hard time even letting us go talk to this girl about the source of her trauma. Which was completely understandable, especially for someone like Abigail. Still, we didn’t have a choice. Not with Kwur (or at least a piece of him) out there ready to put a lot more trauma on a lot more people. She was our best, maybe only, chance to find him before things got so much worse for everyone. 

“It’s okay, Abigail,” I assured her, meeting my older sister’s distraught and conflicted gaze. “We won’t push her any more than we absolutely have to. We just need to get the samples from her and ask if there’s anything she knows that might help find this plant thing.” Offering her a small, hopefully somewhat reassuring smile, I added, “We’ll deal with this and then get right back to doing the school thing.” 

Returning my smile somewhat, she retorted, “You better. Don’t think you can blow off as many classes as you want just because we’re related. I’ll throw your butt in extra detention just to make an example out of you.” 

Making a show of shuddering at the idea of what extra detention would be like, I replied, “Well, we better get to it then. Guys?” I glanced over to Tabbris and December. “Ready to go?” 

They were. Dare escorted us out of the room, leaving Abigail and the other guy, who belatedly and briefly greeted us before returning to his conversation with my older sister. It sounded like they were talking about some kind of situation with the rebel Garden people who weren’t up here. I hoped they were okay. We kind of needed all the allies we could get. 

“What’s Mr. Echolls talking to Principal Fellows about?” Vanessa asked Dare curiously as we moved down the station corridor at a pace slightly faster than normal walking, but not quite jogging. “It sounded important,” she noted, glancing back that way with a thoughtful frown.

Without looking that way or breaking stride at all, Dare replied, “The Garden people have been having a bit of a problem with a group of Blemmye and their Manticore pets hitting a couple of their supply lines while they were in the middle of a fight with their own loyalists. They couldn’t spare the resources to deal with it without being hit hard on that other front. Nevada and Hisao took a few older students with Gordon, Douglas, Jazz, and Koren to help clean out that little problem. Abigail asked to be kept up to date with that, given… her daughter.”   

Right, the Blemmyes. Those were the humanoids with no heads but faces on their torsos that I’d seen (and fought against) when we were at Eden’s Garden looking for Roxa all those months earlier. Almost a year, come to think of it, considering it happened right at Thanksgiving. Damn. 

I also knew that the only reason Dare wasn’t out there with Hisao and Koren herself was likely because she wanted to know what happened with me being in Canada. Hell, the fact that Hisao was there was probably the only reason she wasn’t there with Koren. I wondered if she was having him keep her just as informed about what was going on as Abigail with that Garden teacher. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she had a spell ready to jump straight there if need be. 

Rather than address that, of course, I just shook my head. “Lots of things going on right now. It feels weird to know that… you know, Koren and Jazz and the others are out fighting one thing, Valley, Rebecca, and Aylen are dealing with something else, and Sands and Scout went out earlier and ended up bringing back this Dakota girl.”

“You mean it feels weird that they’re out doing all that and you’re not there?” Dare asked with a raised eyebrow before pointing out, “It’s not as though you’re sitting on your laurels, Felicity.” 

Flushing a bit, I nodded. “I know, I get it. They probably feel the same way about me being in Vegas, then Canada and all that. I guess you get used to feeling helpless like that and just having to wait to see how it goes.” 

“If you do grow accustomed to it,” my secret grandmother informed me in a soft voice, “it hasn’t quite happened for me yet. But you do learn to tolerate it. Just be there when you can.” She gave me a brief, yet meaningful look, offering a small smile of reassurance. “That’s what matters.”

Before long, the five of us reached the area with the guest rooms. Or at least these ones. I was fairly confident that there were a lot more, considering the size of this place. Felix and Triss were outside in the corridor, apparently having a conversation about some band they both liked. When the two saw us coming, Felix’s eyes lit up and the Nekomata Hybrid grinned. “Well hey, looks like neither of you bet enough to lose your shirts in Vegas.” At a sideways kick to the leg from her half-sister, she coughed. “And that’s a good thing. Very good thing. Don’t gamble. Or something.” 

“Felix,” Dare spoke warningly, raising her voice just a little bit so that it shifted from more casual conversation to the tone of an authority figure. That was all she said, that one word. But it was enough. 

“I know, I know,” the girl conceded. “That one was a bit over the line. I heard it as soon as I said it. I might be pushing it a bit hard to avoid thinking about… other things.” The white cat ears on top of her head flattened a little as she looked to the nearby door. 

Exchanging a brief look with Vanessa to make sure we were on the same page, I spoke up. “It’s okay. What’s going on with the girl?” 

Triss replied, again with that faint Russian accent I’d noticed the first time we met, “Sarah and Sands are in there with her. They’re playing one of those Zelda games. Apparently they had it in the hospital the kid was in and she knows it backwards and forwards, inside and out. She keeps telling the twins all about the lore of the whole series. Something about multiple timelines.” 

“Sounds like something Shiori’d be able to help her with,” I noted. “Is… do you think she’s okay to talk right now?” 

Both of the sisters looked to each other before Felix nodded. “Kid’s pretty tough, considering what she went through.” 

So, we went inside. I saw Sands and Scout sitting on either side of a couch. Sure enough, they were watching the Zelda game on a large screen, while the girl in question sat between them. She was pretty tiny, looking practically malnourished, with very pale skin and dark hair that apparently refused to be tamed. When the door opened, the girl turned quickly, reacting almost like she had been shot as she stared at us. 

Then she had an… odd reaction. I saw her face light up with recognition, and she blurted, “Vanessa!” In one move, the kid flung herself over the back of the couch, landing on the floor before bolting that way to embrace the girl beside me. “Vanessa! You’re here, I didn’t know you were here!” 

“Whoa, hey,” I teased while stepping back. “Didn’t know you had history with the new girl. How come you didn’t say anything? Dakota Coalbright’s a pretty unique name.” 

Vanessa hadn’t pulled back from the embrace. She stood there, returning it while looking at me of total and complete confusion. She mouthed a silent, ‘I don’t remember her.’ 

Wait… no. That was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was perfect. She’d never forgotten anything in her life. 

So how could this Dakota girl know her so well that she instantly went for a hug, while Vanessa didn’t remember her at all? 

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Perennial Potentate 4-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so… that was a lot to process, to say the least. We’d gone to Vegas to help find a missing little girl. When we were there, more kids as well as Asenath’s mother were abducted too. Then Heretics attacked one of the casinos and the information our two groups had gained led us up to Canada to meet King Oberon. From there, we’d been directed to some pure Alter town in the north wilderness. And because that clearly wasn’t enough, there turned out to be an outpost of an interuniversal prison up there, who were on Earth partially to eventually do something about Fossor. But while they were here, one of their other dangerous prisoners, a… sapient plant of some kind, had extended pieces of himself into the outside world, where they were infecting people to do bad things. If he managed to make enough bad things happen, he’d be able to manifest his primary consciousness in the outside world, escaping prison to do horrific things. 

Okay, one, my life was really fucked up. And two, the most surprising thing about all of this was that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Seosten at all. According to Prelate, the Seosten mostly left them alone (though they did have a few Seosten members), recognizing that the Gehenna provided an invaluable service. And, I imagined, recognizing the futility of attacking a group who could just decide to unleash all of the most dangerous and deadly monsters in the universe if you really pissed them off. 

So yeah, now we had at least some idea of what was going on. Even if it was really fucked up. Somehow, one of the Gehenna guards, this Azlee Ren, had been infected by spores from the prisoner they called Kwur. Azlee had set about trying to create a war in Las Vegas by abducting the princess, Rowan with the help of mercenaries he either contracted or infected with more spores. Or both. Probably both. Some of those mercenaries thought they were working for Gehenna itself, which was why Sarez sent us up here to Canada. They’d also abducted the other kids as well as Jiao to continue pushing Vegas toward outright war with each other.  

It wasn’t a bad plan, overall. Especially when he brought Heretics into it. Vegas was a powder keg that could easily blow up. Seriously, I didn’t know much about the Oni, but the Vestil and the Akharu were eons-old enemies. They had found peace in Vegas because two of their number married and started a family. The best way to break that peace was obviously to break the family. They took the kid to light the fuse, then took more kids to make things even worse. And now, if we didn’t do something to stop it, Vegas would go to war and Kwur would be free. 

Obviously, we asked Prelate why they couldn’t just move this Kwur guy off-world. He said it wouldn’t make any difference. Kwur’s spores were out there now, and moving the main body wouldn’t change that. Someone had to find the spores and either bring them back to the prison to join up with the main body, or destroy them. That was the only way to actually fix this whole situation before everything ended up getting a hell of a lot worse. 

Prelate had also mentioned that they couldn’t just kill Kwur because if they killed the part of his body that held the core consciousness, that would allow him to manifest it into one of the other parts of his body. And while he was handing out warnings, he’d mentioned that possessing anyone who was infested would be a bad idea, because that would give Kwur a chance to infest the person doing the possessing. 

So yeah, that was all just great. We had to retrieve or destroy all the pieces of that plant asshole the hard way. Oh, and save the kids and Jiao, of course. We had to get those children back to Vegas to prove what really happened. 

And there was another reason to solve all this, as if we needed more incentive. According to Prelate, they could help me with my Fossor situation by giving information that might be useful. But they would only do that if we helped solve this problem and get their prisoner back under control. You’d think they’d be super-invested in dealing with Fossor too, but apparently this Kwur thing was a more immediate and dangerous problem. Which–yeah, I could see how him getting out would be bad. If he was capable of spreading through all of the plants on an entire world (or even potentially beyond)? That could be apocalyptically bad. So we had to make sure that didn’t happen. We had to find his spores and deal with them before he managed to provoke enough violence to escape his prison.

Find and destroy the spores, save Jiao and the kids, return said kids to Vegas, avert a war, and in doing so, get information from the Vegas people about where Asenath’s father was, as well as information from the Gehenna group that might end up helping me deal with Fossor. 

There was just one problem with all that, of course. We had no idea where this Azlee Ren was. Or where any of the spores were. What were we supposed to do? How could we track them down? Finding Azlee was the key, but Gehenna had no idea where he was. So what now? 

We were all still wondering about that an hour later, as we left the prison outpost to meet up with our escorts, and the rest of our group, once more. Prelate had said that they would help in any way they could to deal with Kwur. They had numbers, power, weapons, they just didn’t know where his spores were. Or what they called his spores. I’d come to find out over that hour that his ‘spores’ were essentially any plant that wasn’t part of his main self. So finding infested ones? Not easy. They’d given us a spell that was supposed to identify any infected plant or person once it was applied to them. But we couldn’t just wander the entire North American continent using the spell on every person and plant we saw. That would get tedious pretty damn fast. 

We were just going to have to talk it through and see if any of us could come up with a good idea of how to find these people. And I really hoped that one of the others would have something, because I was drawing a really unusual blank. All I could think about was the fact that those guys in that tower were supposed to keep Fossor prisoner, and the fact that he had escaped in the first place to ever be a threat here on Earth was their fault. And how did I meet up with them in the first place? Because another prisoner of theirs had at least partly escaped. 

Okay, I knew that wasn’t fair. These people were responsible for the worst of the worst. They kept the vast majority of them contained. Having one of their charges escape a few thousand years ago, and then another work on escaping now was hardly the worst track record. 

Still, logic didn’t always work against emotions. And my emotions right now were telling me that Fossor wouldn’t ever have been a problem at all if these guys had kept him under control. I just had a lot of extremely complicated feelings about this whole messy situation, to say the least. 

Nuliajuk was talking as we left the tower to join up with the others out front where they were still waiting. “This is very… troubling news. If the plants themselves may become our enemies, sparking violence in those who inhale their scent, King Oberon must be warned. Canada,” she added in a dry voice, “as you may have noticed, has something of an abundance of plants. Something will have to be done to ensure they do not present a threat to the Court.” 

April piped up, “You’re not going to burn all of them are you?” Her voice sounded accusatory as she squinted at the Inuit woman. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of those plants are completely innocent. You can’t just take a flamethrower to every tree and flower in the area because one–” 

“We are not going to burn our gardens and trees,” Nuliajuk assured her calmly. “But precautions will have to be taken while this situation persists. As I said, the King must be informed of this.” 

“Informed of what?” That was Paul Bunyan, speaking up as he approached, still in his much smaller (yet still tall) form. He stopped in front of us, hugely muscled arms folded across his chest. “And what’s this about burning plants? You know if you need a plant taken care of, all you have to do is point Babe at it. If there’s plants to eat, he’d give me the silent treatment for a month if I didn’t give him first crack at it.”

Vanessa, meanwhile, was staring at us. She clearly had been paying attention to what happened in there through her father, judging from the look on her face. Tristan seemed to know what was going on too, as he leaned over and whispered something in his sister’s ear. 

“We’ll tell you on the way,” Haiden replied with a glance toward the rest of us. “Right now, we need to get back to King Oberon and tell him what’s going on. Then we can start helping these Gehenna people put a stop to this whole situation. And that’s gonna be fun, let me tell you.” 

Decker and his group of armed soldier-types (Strangers, as they deliberately called themselves) escorted us back to the bus. We would take the bus to the hangar and then portal to Oberon. Even if we had wanted to stay longer, Strangefield’s residents apparently weren’t interested. Well, the ones who knew we were there weren’t interested, at least. They wanted us out of their territory so they could go back to their ‘normal’ Heretic/human-free lives as soon as possible. Which, again, was fair. These people had been screwed over by humans losing their memories of being allies and then trying to kill them more than once. I couldn’t blame them for giving up on us.

During the ride back to the hangar, we carefully filled the others in on the whole situation and everything we’d found out. I saw Decker and a couple of his men give us double-takes once in awhile, but they stayed out of the conversation. Clearly they were all serious about not getting involved in this kind of business anymore, and just keeping to themselves. Still, I was pretty sure they would be paying a lot of attention to any plants that were in their city once they got back.

Meanwhile, April and December were deep in a private conversation that seemed pretty intense. I wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that the guy we were after was a magic plant monster and they served the Seosten who had posed as Demeter, who was basically supposed to be goddess of the plants or whatever. Not that I thought there was any kind of connection between them beyond that, but still. Maybe they thought there was? Or that she could do something? 

“Prelate gave us a stone that we can use to contact him as soon as we have anything substantial about this Kwur guy,” Haiden was saying. “And he said their people are going to continue doing their jobs to track down those spores themselves. But for the most part, we’re on our own with this. They have no idea where Azlee might be holed up, but it must be somewhere near Vegas if he’s trying to start a war there. Not that ‘somewhere near Vegas’ tells us much.” 

Paul spoke up thoughtfully, “Now that the conditions of the secrecy spell have been fulfilled, King Oberon might be able to tell you more. Maybe he’ll have something you can use.” 

“Unless there’s a magic ‘point me at the evil plant dude’ spell,’” Tristan pointed out, “I don’t think even the King of Canada can help that much. I mean, he’s crazy super powerful, sure, but how do you narrow down a search like that? Besides having lots of manpower, and I don’t think sending a huge force of Canadian Alter troops to Vegas would do much to calm the situation. You’d be playing right into what this Kwur wants, provoking a war. Seriously, it doesn’t matter if it’s one he made or another, right? Violence and anger is violence and anger, and he’ll be right there to soak it in.” 

“At least he has to be nearby,” Miranda muttered. “Imagine if he could just take in violence from anywhere in the world to get stronger.”

April’s reply to that was flat, seemingly emotionless. “If he gets strong enough to spread, that’s exactly what he’ll be able to do. Think about it,” she added after letting that hang for a moment, “his growth is exponential. As soon as he’s strong enough to break out of that prison and put his full consciousness into the outside plants, he can spread through those and keep growing. He’ll spread himself out to everywhere there’s conflict, and keep generating more of that to get even bigger. The more violence and anger he incites, the stronger he gets, which will allow him to incite more violence and anger in more areas.” 

Asenath, speaking up for the first time since we’d left the tower, murmured a quiet, “This could be very bad.” Her voice was subdued. I had a feeling that she was getting more and more worried about her mother’s prospects with every bit of information we found out. After she said that simple sentence, Shiori leaned in and hugged her sister, the two of them sitting quietly like that. 

“The Heretic war,” I pointed out after swallowing hard to push away the thought of anything happening to Jiao. I had to focus. “The Rebellion. If he gets a taste of that, he’ll make it worse. It’s hard enough to negotiate and have conversations with Hardliners, but with someone like Kwur inciting things in the background? There’d be no chance for peace or any kind of… of understanding. He’ll make sure everyone kills each other, just for the power boost he’d get.” 

“Basically, the whole world is fucked if that son of a bitch breaks out of that cell,” Haiden summed up. “And he’s not even the biggest threat they’re holding in that place.” 

Nuliajuk, with what I was pretty sure was deceptive calmness to her voice, spoke. “That is perhaps the most pressing issue. This Kwur will not simply content himself to ravaging this world. He will put his efforts, once he is strong enough, toward freeing his master, the Dragon-Heretic they call Ehn. If that happens, I fear the fate not only of this world, but of all worlds.” 

“But no pressure or anything, right?” I managed with a slightly crazed, high-pitched laugh. “No big deal, just stop Apocalypse Plant from unleashing evil Dragon God and destroying everything everywhere.” 

“It’s okay, Flick,” Tristan assured me. “We can handle this. We just need… I don’t know, Vanessa, what do we need?” 

Promptly, the girl replied, “What you really need is a spell to track this plant guy, or his spores.”

Tabbris piped in with, “You could do that with the spell they gave you, but if you want to do it… you know, faster and less… tediously, you need someone who was infested before, but isn’t now. I think…”  As everyone watched her, she went on eagerly with, “Yeah, yeah, that’s what you need. Someone who was infested but isn’t now. And is still alive. See, it’s like… there’s a couple spells that are kinda sorta right, especially if we change them a little bit. But none of those ones are ever gonna tell you exactly where to go. You can’t just like… enchant Google Maps and get an exact place.” 

Vanessa nodded along with our younger sister. “What she said. Basically, if you combine a tracking spell with the identification spells they already gave us, then get some of the plant or its remains, and some material from a previously infested person, you could probably jury-rig a spell to tell you if you’re anywhere near another infested or the plant itself. But the range wouldn’t be that long. You’d have to be within a short distance, like… a block or so, maybe? I’m not sure.”

“Butifit’sthateasy,” December demanded while her head snapped back and forth between Tabbris, who was sitting across the aisle from her, and Vanessa, several rows forward, “thenwhydon’ttheGehennaguysjustdothat? It’stheirjobtokeep… theplantguyinprisonright?” 

“Because it won’t be easy, right?” I put in. “I feel like we kind of skimmed over the ‘find someone who was infested, but isn’t now’ part. But wait, what about Sarez? You know, dealer guy? He was infected, he had to have–wait. No. Shit. Was he infected or just being used? Prelate said they used hired mercenaries who thought they were working for Gehenna because of who he was and–shit, he’s not, is he?” 

“We’ll find out,” Haiden announced. He took the phone from his pocket, making a call. As the rest of us watched, he went through a quick, private phone call. I saw him make a face several times, and it made my heart sink. 

“Okay,” the man finally announced while disconnecting the call. “That’s a no-go. Let’s just say if we need a living subject, Sarez isn’t going to be best choice. Someone assassinated him in the cell where they were keeping the guy. They’re working on finding out who did it, if it’s connected to our big bad or just one of their own people getting pissed off and making a move. The point is, he’s not gonna be providing any living material.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I managed. “So we have no host to work with. Which means we’re back to the plan of going door-to-door in Vegas looking for this Azlee guy. If we can find him, we can use him to find any of Kwur’s spores and deal with them. But we have to find him. Unless anyone happens to know where any other former Kwur hosts might be? Yeah, I didn’t think–” 

My phone rang. Blinking down at it, I checked the name. “It’s Sands. I–hold on.” Answering the phone, I started with, “Hey, Sands, we can’t really–wait…

“I’m sorry, you’re standing there with a little girl who was what?!

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Perennial Potentate 4-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Okay uh, wait, wait, wait! What do you mean you’re here to recapture Fossor?” Shiori demanded while I just stood there with my mouth open, unable to even think straight, much less talk. “You’re saying that you people are the good guys?! And you’re actually going to deal with the problem of the psycho evil necromancer who escaped from your prison?” Her hand was squeezing my arm almost painfully as she stared at the blue-scaled man. “Are you serious?” 

“Seosten call them Gehenna,” April informed us with a curious expression. She looked like she suddenly understood a few things better. “I’ve never seen any of them, but…” She glanced to Prelate Kotter. “Now that you’ve explained that much, that is who your organization is, yes?”

His head gave a short nod. “Yes, the Seosten and their adjacent peoples refer to our organization as Gehenna. We take the most wicked, those who could pose a true threat to the overall universe, and hold them where they cannot harm others. It is our purpose, and we hold no allegiance or debt to any government or individual save our own. We are neutral in all things save for our duty.” 

Haiden stepped in front of us, his back stiff as he stared at the man. “And the reason King Oberon didn’t tell us you were up here when we spoke to him was the oath of secrecy our friend over there mentioned?” he asked with a gesture toward Decker, standing nearby. “You actually got the King of Canada to agree to be bonded under a magical oath like that somehow?” 

“The good king understands that the service we provide to the universe should not be threatened,” Prelate replied simply. “The more who know of our presence and location on this world, the more dangerous that presence becomes, both to us and to his people.” 

Finally, I found my voice. “Because there’s gotta be a whole lot of bad guys out there who would love to smash their way into your prison here and release your inmates, right? I bet someone could cobble together a pretty damn good army that way. And if the people you’re holding on to are as dangerous as you’re saying they are… if they’re on the level of Fossor? That’d be bad. And you guys are up here all by yourselves.” 

“Indeed, Miss Chambers,” the man agreed. “It would be very… bad, as you say. Two points of correction, however. First, we are not alone. Not only would others of our organization arrive in short order to assist, but we would also have the aid of those who bear the Mark of Gehenna to bring forth their Leau Drema, their… as you would say, Spirit Animal.”

“Spirit Animal,” I echoed, blinking a couple times. “Mark of Gehenna, spirit–you mean tattoos? Like Larees, she has a–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yes, a phoenix Leau Drema. Larees bears the Mark of Gehenna, and is thus bound to aid our organization when called for. Those of the Mark swear oaths to ensure, at any time of need, that our most important prisoners do not escape, and to thwart all attempts of their minions and sycophants to retrieve them.”

“But we saw another guy,” Vanessa pointed out. “He had a tattoo that could become a giant snake, and he’s definitely still loyal to the Seosten.” 

Prelate gave a short, careless shrug. “Loyalties to governments and ideologies do not matter when Gehenna is in need. The one you speak of is named Nahash. He and Larees may fight on opposite sides at any other time, as may any of our other Marked. But when Gehenna calls, they will fight together to ensure the overall preservation of the universe at large.” 

That said, the man looked back at me. “The second point of correction to your earlier remark is that our prison is not ‘here.’ The structure you see behind me contains an entrance to our prison, along with multiple temporary holding cells and a barracks for our troops on this world. But it is not the actual prison itself. There are several such buildings like this one spread across the universe, wherever Gehenna establishes an outpost. But there is only one full prison, connected through magic to each outpost for immediate transport of our subjects.”

“Sounds like the Pathmaker,” I murmured before focusing. “The King spoke to you before sending us up here, didn’t he? That’s what he was doing that whole time.” 

Again, he nodded. “He made arrangements for this meeting, but we asked that he not give you the full story until we were able to speak in person. You may call us paranoid, but keeping our secrets is an important part of how our prison remains secure. We asked for the favor that he direct you our way, yet allow us to decide when and how to speak to you directly. He agreed, again, because not allowing word of our presence here to leak is in everyone’s best interests.” 

“Wait, hold up.” That was Jason. “I know I’m just the clueless nobody new guy around here, but if that place right there is just an entrance that connects to the prison, couldn’t you just shut it down if you were attacked here? I mean, yeah, they’d probably be able to breach the building itself with a strong enough force, but then what do they have? If you turn off the connection to the prison or whatever you use, they’ve basically got nothing. So what’s the big deal, exactly?”

Tabbris was the one who answered him. “There’s still a connection to the other place even after they shut it down. Especially if the link between locations has been there for a long time.” 

Prelate actually gave a faint smile at that, bowing his head in acknowledgment. “Yes, as the young miss said. If they were to take this structure, we would of course close the connection to the prison. But a force that was strong enough to take this place from us would likely be skilled enough to reopen that connection through the lingering magic from the previous link. Perhaps before sufficient aid could arrive.”  

“The same reason we have to be careful about where we connect portals to our own base,” Haiden reminded us, while clearly taking care not to give away any more information than necessary about the star station. “Because Crossroads and Eden’s Garden could potentially grab the lingering energy from a recent portal and use it to create another one, leading them to our home.” 

“Right, I guess that makes sense. Bad idea to let them do that.” As he said that, Jason looked over to Columbus. “Didn’t you say those goggles of yours can see lingering magical energy?” 

“Among other things,” the boy confirmed while looking toward our new host. “And if I can do it, anyone strong enough to attack this place and get anywhere definitely could. Plus, they’d actually know what to do with it. So, we can’t really blame these guys for being paranoid.” 

“Blame them for being paranoid?” Asenath echoed, her voice sharp. “No. But I do want answers, and I want them now.” She moved up, stepping beside me to focus on Prelate Kotter. “Someone kidnapped the princess from Las Vegas. When we investigated, they came back and abducted several more children and my mother. One of the people who helped them get away with that second abduction was a blackjack dealer, who told us to come here to Canada for answers. And while that was going on, a group of Heretics invaded another casino. When one of them was possessed, he gave us a single name. Azlee Ren Kotter. Whoever helped the Heretics break into the casino was going to take the kids they abducted to see that person.” 

If he had any reaction to hearing that, the man didn’t show it. Which was probably because he’d already heard all of it from Oberon the night before. Instead, he gave us a slight nod before replying, “There is much to discuss. Which we should do inside. But first, there are a few steps to take to ensure that you may safely enter the outpost without any… unfortunately accidents. We need to sync you to our security spells to make the system see you as our guests.” 

December’s hand snapped up quickly. “Waitwhenyousayguestsdoyoumeanguestsorguests?” Her eyebrows waggled pointedly. “Youknowwiththesinistermusicandstuff. Cuzthosearedifferent.” 

“What the kid said,” Haiden agreed. “Exactly what do you mean by making us your guests?” 

In the background, I could see Paul (with Babe) and Nuliajuk watching us from their place beside Decker. None of them looked like they were about to interrupt, though the big lumberjack (still in his smaller, more manageable form) did meet my gaze briefly and wink with a mouthed, ‘It’s okay.’ Somehow, that actually was reassuring. Knowing that… okay, believing that they had our backs if this went wrong helped a bit. As strong as this Gehenna group might’ve been, I refused to believe that they would just willy nilly piss off the King of Canada by attacking us right now. 

“Your caution is understandable, given this situation,” Prelate was saying. “I can assure you that we mean you no harm. But, for your own peace of mind, if you would like, you are free to leave some of your number here. They may, in turn, act or call for assistance should you not return promptly and safely. It is entirely your own decision. But I can only answer further questions inside.” 

As a group, we all exchanged glances. I was going in there, no matter what. They didn’t just have information about the missing kids and all that. They also knew things about Fossor. Things that might end up being useful, when… when the day came that I had to face him. So, whatever the others decided, I knew that I had to go in and find out whatever I possibly could. 

Apparently that wasn’t even much of a surprise, considering Shiori promptly announced, “I’m going in with Senny and Flick.” Yeah, she knew Asenath would go in there too, for her mother. 

“We can stay outside,” Vanessa pointed out. “If Tristan and I each possess someone who goes in for a second, we can use that connection to know if anything bad happens in there.” 

“The last person I possessed is back home at the school,” Tristan put in. “If I just stand out here and don’t possess someone, but Vanessa does, she can tell me if something bad happens. Then I can recall to the school and grab a whole crapload of cavalry. You know, like Mom.” 

“Whatever you decide to do,” Paul Bunyan spoke up after exchanging a few quiet words with his group, “Decker and I’ll stay with whoever waits out here. Nuliajuk can go inside with the rest.” 

In the end, we went with Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, December, and Bobbi waiting outside with Paul. Tabbris had the same benefit with me that Vanessa had with her own father (he was the one she chose to briefly possess). She could check in on me from outside to make sure we were safe. And December wanted to stay with her. With Bobbi, Paul, Babe, and (hopefully) Decker’s group protecting them, there was at least a decent chance they’d be okay long enough for Tristan to recall up to the station and get help. Which… yeah, we were probably being overly paranoid, but still. Wyatt would say we weren’t being cautious enough. This felt like the least we could do while still getting the information we needed. At least, assuming this Prelate guy was on the up and up. And I thought he was.

Yeah, if this Gehenna group had anything bad in mind, the people out here were in as good of a position to deal with it as they could possibly be given what we had to work with. 

Which left Haiden, Asenath, Miranda, Shiori, April, and me to go inside. With Nuliajuk, of course. Once we’d sorted all that out, Prelate nodded acceptingly and stepped over to Haiden first.  Carefully, he used what appeared to be their own version of a field-engraver to draw a magic symbol on the man’s arm. When he was done, he powered it and the spellwork disappeared, apparently activated. His voice was calm. “For the next twenty-four hours, or until it is revoked, our defenses will not bother you. Do not attempt to replicate the spell you just witnessed. There are elements you could not see, and specifics are changed often.” 

“Darn,” Haiden replied, “And here I was hoping to cover my body in spell tattoos and magic Michael Scofield my way into your prison.”  

“He broke out, not in,” Tristan reminded him. 

“Depends on the season you’re talking about,” April of all people put in. “And it depends on–” 

“Are you guys really having this discussion right now?!” an exasperated Vanessa demanded. Despite everything, the look on her face was actually pretty funny. I stifled my reaction though. 

Under Vanessa’s squinting gaze, the rest of us had our spell tattoos put on. Once we were suitably protected from the prison’s defenses, Prelate pivoted on his heel and started to move while beckoning. A massive ruby-red door with a bunch of white spell runes appeared at the base of the building as we followed him toward it. When we got closer, the man held up his hand. I had a brief glimpse of white spell runes on his palm before he held them in front of the door. The spells on the building seemed to glow brighter for a second, then the door opened. 

We stepped through that massive door and found ourselves in the lobby. But this definitely wasn’t a welcoming lobby. There were heavily armed troops, a dozen of them, waiting for us. They were dressed similarly to Prelate, each of them holding a complicated-looking advanced  rifle of some kind that probably shot lasers or nuclear explosions or something. They weren’t pointing them at us or anything, But I had the feeling that it wouldn’t take much if we were to act up. Plus, these guys were reinforced by a bunch of turrets all along the walls and ceiling. And I saw more spell work along every surface. Those runes glowed briefly when we stepped onto the floor, and I saw the spell that had been painted on my arm flash back to life for a second before it faded once more, with the defensive spells doing the same. Somehow, I was really glad that I hadn’t stepped into this place without that. It wouldn’t have ended well, that was for sure.

As for the room itself, it was circular, about a hundred feet in diameter, with a ceiling that was slightly curved and around thirty feet high. Beyond the turrets that I could see, there were also spots where I was pretty sure more defenses could pop out if need be. We weren’t seeing everything. Probably because they wanted to keep at least some secrets in case this went badly.  

Prelate said something in another language to the assembled soldiers, and they dispersed into pairs, going through various doors that appeared and opened as they approached before immediately disappearing again. He looked to us then, his tone softening somewhat. “Pardon our paranoia, this is quite an unusual situation. If you’ll come with me, I’ll explain what’s happening and how we can help each other.” 

So, we did. What else were we gonna do, leave? We trailed after the man as he walked to the middle of the room. Once there, a circular portion of the floor around us began to sink, as we were taken down on an elevator. There were smooth metal walls around us, with more obviously defensive spellwork.

Asenath clearly couldn’t wait any longer. She squinted at the man, demanding, “Would you like to finally explain what your people have to do with those kids and my mother being abducted? Because right now, it’s not looking very good for your people, I’ve gotta tell you.” 

“I’d also like to know why it seems that your people are trying to start a war in Las Vegas and using Heretics to do it,” Haiden lightly noted, though there was a slight edge to his voice. I was pretty sure he didn’t actually think the man in front of us was an enemy, but he also definitely wasn’t in the mood for any kind of runaround. 

“Yes,” Prelate agreed with them both. “First, I must confess that the spell I used to allow you into this building did more than what I said. Nothing harmful, but it also tested you for infection.”  

We all started to ask what he meant by that, but the elevator stopped. Rather than doors appearing, part of the wall turned transparent and we could see into a large chamber. It looked like some kind of zoo exhibit or something, a big rectangular room, about fifty feet by eighty feet with a twenty foot ceiling. The whole place was filled with plants. There was grass, a few gnarled-looking trees, some bushes, flowers everywhere, vines along the walls, the works.

The man spoke while we were taking that in. “As I said, we hold the most dangerous threats in our prison. But the single greatest threat is the being the prison was originally created for. The first prisoner. Or, as we call him, Ehn. One, in your language. Prisoner number one. Ehn, in our language. He is actually from your world originally. A human who became what you call a Heretic, bonded to a dragon.” 

That made Shiori’s gaze snap around, blurting, “Wait, like Arthur?” 

Like the king known as Arthur, but not him,” Prelate informed us. “Ehn predates that man by quite a bit. And he is far, far more dangerous. He is a monster who must remain contained. As must his closest followers. There are eight of them. The next eight prisoners after Ehn. All are potential world-ending catastrophic threats, given their own proclivities, strengths, and the fact that Ehn spent a long time using his dragon abilities to boost his lieutenants. They are dangerous, and they can never be allowed to escape.” 

He nodded then to the room ahead of us. “I already mentioned Kwur, or Three in your words. Kwur is different from the others. He cannot be left in the same place for long and must be moved every few months. The longer he stays in one general location, the stronger his ability to influence emotions becomes.” 

“Influence emotions? So he makes people violent, scared, that kind of thing?” Columbus asked. “And where is he, behind one of those bushes or in one of the trees?” 

“He is the bushes and the trees,” Prelate corrected. “Kwur is a plant-based life-form, of sorts. He grows and spreads through the plants. They are his body. And yes, he can influence those within a certain range of himself to feel strong, uncontrollable emotions, given the opportunity and enough time in an area. Normally that is a fairly short time, but our defenses render him mostly safe, for awhile. Eventually, however, his power will overload our ability to contain it and he has to be moved again. This was his time to be here, in this outpost. Unfortunately, it seems that some of his spores managed to infect one of our people somehow, and that person carried more spores into Las Vegas.”

“But why?” Miranda asked. “Wait, spores? Like… pieces of himself?” 

“Yes,” the man confirmed. “While he is capable of influencing people’s emotions, he is also able to influence them even more strongly, sometimes directly, by infesting them with his spores. That is what happened with the Azlee Ren you are looking for. Ren was infested with spores and, in turn, infested several others. We learned the truth too late, and they escaped. We didn’t know where they escaped to, but sent forces to search for them, to no avail until we were contacted by King Oberon, who told us of your questions. We now believe that the infested Ren and the others have contracted mercenary groups on this world for aid.” 

“But why?” I asked. “And what does that have to do with Las Vegas, and those kids? And why did that guy tell us to come to Canada to find them?”

In answer, Prelate replied, “Kwur feeds off of hatred and violence. His spores can grow faster and stronger in the middle of a warzone. Particularly one where peace previously existed. We now believe that Ren and the others under his influence are attempting to create a war in Las Vegas in order to grow his spores. The more of his spores grow, the more people he will be able to infest. And the more he infests, the greater his ability to provoke even more hatred and violence on an exponential scale.

“As for the man who sent you to us, it is very possible that at least some of the mercenaries employed by Ren and the others are under the impression that they are following our instructions, that Ren is acting in some official capacity. Whatever they believe, the result is that they are working to destabilize Las Vegas in order to create an environment which will best allow Kwur’s spores to grow much stronger and more numerous. If they grow strong enough, he will be able to manifest his core consciousness beyond this prison. 

“And if that happens, his evil will spread through every plant on this world, locking every being who lives here in a never-ending cycle of violence and hatred.” 

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Perennial Potentate 4-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The portal took our group out to an old airfield in the middle of nowhere. We were met by a small army of Alters of all shapes and sizes, who were heavily armed and very clearly nervous about our presence. None of them looked happy that we were there. Our group stayed as still and non-threatening as possible, for whatever good it did, while Paul stepped over there and had a brief, yet clearly somewhat heated discussion with the futuristic metal-armored canine-humanoid figure who was apparently this group’s leader. While that was going on, Nuliajuk spoke quietly.

“They are some of the city’s guards for our time here in this place. They call themselves Strangers. And yes, that is a deliberate appropriation of the term your people use for all non-humans. They wear it as a point of pride, just as their entire town has dubbed itself Strangefield. It is entirely intentional.”

She was clearly making no attempt to hide what she was saying to us, because I saw several of the armed soldiers look that way at her words. A couple of them nodded and one stared right at me. He looked like a living squid with armored plating and a ring of eyes surrounding his entire head. Three of those eyes were focused solely on me, and I literally felt his determination. If we ended up being a threat to his home or his people, he would stop us, no matter what that cost him. 

Right, I had the feeling this guy had some kind of ability to project his emotions or his general… thoughts or something to that effect. Maybe that was how he communicated? Either way, I simply gave him a slight nod, hoping that he would get the point. We weren’t there for a fight. Okay, well, we were. But not a fight with him or his people. We weren’t there to attack Strangefield. We were there to get the missing kids and Jiao and get out of there, that was it.

Finally, Paul stepped back and the armored canine-like figure (he didn’t really look like a werewolf, more like an anthropomorphic doberman pinscher) cleared his throat before looking at us. “Right then! Here’s the deal,” he bellowed in a commanding voice. “You all are here to talk to those… outsiders north of town. You are not here to hunt or kill any of ours. You understand that?”

Outsiders north of town? These… Kotter people were outsiders? Hadn’t Oberon said that they were important within the town? I supposed the people being important in the town didn’t mean they lived there, or that they were actually part of it, or… Huh. Now I was even more confused about what was going on. 

The man continued. “You will be escorted everywhere you go, and if any of you try to pull anything, you will regret it. Our people are under our protection. We won’t put up with any bullshit!  I don’t care what you think you’re doing or who you see. If they’re not your targets here, you leave them alone, period.” 

Scanning the group with a hard, piercing gaze, he belatedly introduced himself once no one argued. “My name is Decker. All these people here, they’re my people. Any of you mess with them, and you’re going to mess with me. Now if we all understand that, we can take you up to the outpost.” 

Outpost. Outpost of what? For what? 

Asenath took the lead, stepping forward as she spoke in a calm voice. “They understand. We understand. No one here wants any kind of war with Canada, or with Strangefield. We just want to find the children for Las Vegas to prevent a war there, and my mother. That’s all. These aren’t the same kind of Bosch Heretics that you or your people are accustomed to dealing with.” 

“Oh, we know exactly what kind of Heretics they are,” Decker assured her. “Believe me, we’ve had the experience. A few of our people, and many more our ancestors, fought alongside humans before the Bystander Effect existed. They had an entire civilization together. Then the Bystander Effect came and erased all of that. It came and suddenly our ancestors were forgotten or hunted. Our families were torn apart and destroyed. For centuries it was like that. Then the first Rebellion came and our people were told things would be different. Again, we fought alongside the humans. We did everything we could to make this world better for everyone. We trusted the humans again. And once more, their memories of us were erased. We were taken from their minds yet again, our alliance broken and some of us killed in the process. Many of our own memories of the rebellion were destroyed until so very recently. So why would we follow such things a third time? Why would we open ourselves to yet another opportunity for the humans to have their memories erased and make us their enemies again? We have all been slapped in the face more than enough, thank you very much. We are of no mind to extend ourselves again. Our people will not take that kind of risk with humans who will only forget us, who will only turn on us. You can do your business here, then leave. We will have none of your trouble.” 

There was a hardness to his voice, but more than that. There was also pain and regret. It was the voice of someone who had been hurt too many times to risk being hurt again. He had definitely been part of at least this last rebellion, my mother’s rebellion, and had been hurt when it was erased. I wondered if my mother had known him. Probably. God, it was so easy to forget or not even think about what it must have been like for people living through the creation of the Bystander Effect, or the Rebellion Eraser. No wonder this guy, and his people, were so jaded. 

Yeah, I couldn’t blame him for any of what he said or felt. So, I just stayed quiet while Asenath replied, “You’re right, there’s a lot of pain involved in that entire situation. But that’s not what we’re here about now. Do you know anything about the one called Azlee Ren Kotter?”  

For a moment, the man didn’t answer. I could see a few of his people look at one another in a way that made it clear they recognized at least part of the name, which made sense given what we had heard. There was a general, quiet murmur before Decker quieted them with a glance. Then he turned back and pointed to the hangar nearby. “Let’s go,” he ordered. “We can discuss the situation on the way. As I said, we’ll take you to the outpost and you can have all the Kotters you need. The sooner all of this is over, the sooner you can all leave this place.” 

Haiden agreed. “He’s right, let’s go.” The man gave us all a slight nod of encouragement, his hand gently squeezing Tristan’s shoulder before he started to move. “There’ll be time to talk.” 

As we all walked together to the dusty and very clearly broken down hangar, I could see December talking quietly to Tabbris. The two of them had their heads close together, and there was a strange expression on December’s face. I couldn’t read it very well from where I was, but somehow  I had the distinct impression that she wasn’t happy about something. I was going to have to ask my little sister about that later, if it was something she could actually talk about.  

Either way, we reached the hangar, where the bus was parked. It looked like any old bus I had ever seen. Nothing about it stood out. Which may have been the point. As a group, we filed onto the bus. Even Babe joined us, taking up a spot near the rear where a couple rows of seats had been removed. We were also accompanied by a dozen of our armed escorts, who took places in the back and front, leaving us to sit in the middle between both groups. Yeah, they weren’t taking any chances. 

Shiori and I sat next to each other. I let her have the window, glancing across the aisle to where Miranda was sitting with April. “Boy, Randi, this sure is some field trip, huh?” I teased. 

Snorting, the other girl glanced to me before noting, “Let’s just hope it goes better than the one we took to that soda factory. I don’t think these people would react as well as those ones did.” 

With a huff, I insisted, “I still say that guy looked really shifty and if we hadn’t gotten lost when we followed him, we totally would’ve blown that whole thing wide open. But uhh, yeah, let’s not wander off by ourselves this time. It’d definitely go a lot worse. And they might still call my dad.”  

Leaning up from the seat behind Shiori and me, Jason curiously asked, “So, uhh, is that the kind of story the whole class can hear about?” He grinned. “Because it sounds pretty interesting.”  

Exchanging a brief glance with Miranda, I shrugged. “Maybe we’ll tell you about it sometime. Right now, we should probably focus on how we’re going to find this Azlee. Whoever they are.” 

As though in response to that, the bus started moving. I could see Haiden, Paul, and that Decker guy standing at the front, next to the driver (a short, totally white pudgy guy who looked a bit like the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with a trucker’s cap and flannel shirt). The three of them were clearly in the middle of a conversation, occasionally glancing our way before returning to it. Obviously, it had to do with this whole outpost thing and the Kotter situation. Was Decker telling them that we had to leave the Kotters alone? Or that going after them was dangerous? Did he know who Azlee was in relation to the rest of the Kotters? Did–yeah, I didn’t know. I was just sitting there speculating wildly while they had their own private conversation. 

I wasn’t the best at sitting patiently while adults had secrets around me. It just wasn’t my thing. 

Finally, the other two sat down and Decker turned to face the rest of us. His hard gaze passed over mine before he spoke. “Okay, now that we have a minute, you should all know that you need to tread very carefully when it comes to the Kotters. This is not a group that you can run in demanding answers from. They’re not a group you can push around.” He held a hand up to stop any objections. “I know, you don’t feel like you’re doing that now. And you’re not. I understand, believe me. Sorry if I sound gruff about all this. You’re playing nice with us. Fair enough. How much of that is because of the king and how much is your choice, we’ll see. But the point is that even if the king didn’t exist, you would need to be careful with these people. They aren’t exactly from this place. And by this place, I mean Earth.”

From where she was sitting beside Bobbi, Asenath asked carefully, “That’s not exactly a rare situation, so why do you feel the need to point out that the Kotter family isn’t Earth-native?” 

“Because they aren’t a family,” the man replied coolly. “Kotter isn’t a family name. It’s a title, used within a certain organization. A title given to some people who work for this organization. And as an organization, they don’t react well to outsiders making any demands of them. They’re very… particular about their secrets, let’s say.” 

After letting that sink in, he continued with, “To that end, at their request, we keep their existence here very quiet. To almost anyone in the town itself, they would appear to be simple shut-ins. King Oberon is aware of them, of course, though he leaves them to their own devices for the most part, because of the service they provide.” 

My head shook quickly as I blurted, “What kind of service do they provide, then? What is this organization and what are they doing here on Earth that’s so important? Who are they, exactly?”

“We have made certain promises, enforced by magic, that prevent us from saying too much about who they are,” he replied. “It’s better if you talk to them yourselves to get your answers. With any luck, they will explain the situation adequately and you will be able to leave satisfied.” 

“Not without the kids and my mother, we won’t,” Asenath informed him. “Whoever this group is, whatever they’re up to, they have no right to start a war in Las Vegas by abducting children.” 

“I don’t believe they–” In mid-sentence, Decker paused. Then he shook his head, exhaling in a low sigh. “Sorry, you’ll have to see for yourself when we get there. There’s just some things that they are going to have to explain. I know how frustrating that is, believe me. But it is what it is.” 

“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Vanessa asked from the seat ahead of Shiori and me. “Anything you can say to help prepare us for talking to these people when we get there?”    

Decker seemed to consider that for a moment before giving a short nod. “I can tell you that these are hard people, but generally not bad ones. They make very difficult decisions for what they see as the ultimate good of the universe and every person in it. Some of them are a bit too rough, that’s for sure. It’s inevitable in their work. Just keep in mind, when you find out the truth, what they’re trying to do and what kind of consequences there would be if they screwed it up.”

Well, those words sure led to a lot of questions. I had no idea what he could actually be talking about, what kind of group this was. There were a ton of possibilities swirling through my head, but we just didn’t know enough. One thing had become increasingly clear ever since we went to Vegas, however. And it was even more clear now. This absolutely was not a normal kidnapping.

We also still had a couple hours ride before we would get to our destination. So, I sat back and chatted with the others. Shiori eventually leaned her head against my shoulder and fell asleep. I put an arm around her, gazed out the window at the beautiful Canadian wilderness we were driving through, and tried to keep myself calm for the inevitable… excitement that was probably coming. 

Finally, we reached Strangefield itself.  and boy was it aptly named. I had to wake up Shiori so she could see for herself. The whole city was built up into and around a canyon between two tall mountains. The buildings were a mix of styles from the past several thousand years. Some were modern, others look like they had come out of the old Revolutionary War times, a few were essentially Victorian or even older. I saw a couple buildings that looked as though they had been directly transferred over from medieval times. And more, different structures from every conceivable time period, all bunched up together as if they’d been transported directly here from wherever they had begun their existence. 

Then there were the futuristic buildings. Tall structures of gleaming metal and glass in fantastic shapes. A few of them, I belatedly realized, were actually ships. They were literal spaceships that had been parked and left as buildings, with fences and yards put up around them. 

“Holy shit,” I heard Columbus murmur from his seat with Twister, “this place is amazing. No wonder they have it all the way out here where no one will bother them. They’ve got the King to keep Heretics out, and they keep the city far from Bystanders so no one has to be nervous.”  

“Yes,” Decker confirmed with a glance. “That is the point. And it’s why you will do your business here and leave. Our people have no desire to spend any more time than they have to around humans who will inevitably forget any kind of alliance we have and turn to murder yet again.” 

Yeah, that one hurt. Flinching, I glanced back out the window. Not only was there a totally wild assortment of buildings, but there were plenty of people too. I could see dozens of figures all going about their ordinary lives. They were all Alters. An entire Alter city just existed up here far away from humans. They were all people who had been hurt and betrayed in the past thanks to memory alteration, people who had decided to give up on getting along with humans and simply created their own town, their own place to live where they could be safe and not killed or enslaved. It was like Vegas, or Wonderland, but on a much bigger scale than either of those. 

A few people glanced up at the bus as we passed, but none seemed to react much. I had the distinct feeling they didn’t know who or what was on it. The windows appeared to be pretty heavily tinted, probably for this very purpose. If Decker had his way, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t ever directly interact with any citizens of his town. They’d never know we were there.

Winding our way through with the town, we eventually passed to the other side of it, and traveled for another fifteen minutes out of the canyon before finding ourselves at the base of a hill surrounded by a massively high metal wall and gate. Beyond the wall, a road led up the hill toward a black obelisk-like building. There were turrets positioned along the wall, making it very clear that whoever lived in the obelisk did not exactly invite many visitors. 

The bus only stopped for a few seconds before part of the wall slid aside. Whoever was in there had obviously been waiting for us. Once the gate was open, the bus pulled through and continued up the hill. Behind us, the wall sealed itself once more. 

At the top of the hill was a small parking lot, with a couple other cars and one rather spiffy looking spaceship the same size as our bus. As we parked, Decker gave one last look, his voice gruff. “Just remember what I said. Keep yourselves under control.” 

The door opened and he climbed off. The armed escorts who were in front of us joined him, and we followed, with the rest of the escorts picking up the rear. All of us stepped down from the bus, forming a loose group in front of the base of the obelisk building. Up close, the place still seemed to have no windows or doors. It just looked like a black version of the Washington Monument.

There was a man there, I realized a moment later. He had been waiting in the shadows of the building, before finally stepping out into view. He had dark blue skin, somewhat reptilian with very smooth scales, and yellow, vertically-pupiled eyes like a cat or a snake. He also wore dark body armor, with a pistol of some kind strapped to one side of his waist and what appeared to be something similar to the laser swords I’d seen the Seosten use attached to the other side. 

“Good day,” he spoke smoothly once we had all noticed him. “I speak for our people. I am called many names on many worlds. Here, I am most known as Prelate. Prelate Kotter. I have been told that you seek business with one of our guards.”

Haiden frowned. “Guards? Guarding what?” 

“Many things,” came the reply, “including Kwur, the vile creature who, in an attempt to escape our facility, has caused the very situation which brings you to our doors. You see, we are a prison. More specifically, what you see here is but one simple outpost of a prison organization which exists throughout the universe. An outpost that has been established here on this world for several reasons.” 

He looked directly to me then, his gaze centering on mine. “Such as the recapture of the escaped prisoner Thirty-Four. 

“Or as you, Miss Chambers in particular, know him… Fossor.”

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