Denise Cartland

Growth 18-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

Wonderland had moved again since the last time I had visited. Now, they were set up in a literal ghost town. Literal in two different ways, actually. In the sense that there were some ghosts (mostly of the cowboy variety) hanging around, and in the fact that it had once been an actual lived-in town on the frontier of the wild west. There had been a small mining rush in the hills slightly to the north for a little while, but it hadn’t lasted long enough for the town to transition into some other way of life once the silver dried up. Plus, the railway that they had expected to come near, or even through, the town had actually been positioned about thirty miles south. So, almost as quickly as it had been built up, the town had been abandoned as its citizens sought better places elsewhere. 

Decades later, the town had been used to film a few old movies. That hadn’t lasted very long either before they moved filming to other places closer to California, but it had been big enough to have a few new buildings built on the edge of town so the people filming around the place could have places to stay. Those new buildings included the garage where we had come through the portal. Being out a short distance away from the town proper (so they could film the westerns without getting something like that in the shot) made for a decent place to have people teleport in, so they could have the anti-transportation spells and other protections up around the main area.  

From here, the nearest (legally) inhabited town was called Geraldine, about twenty miles south-westish. Population: a whole two hundred or so. The Missouri River was a few miles to the east, through a more mountainous area. In this place, they had plenty of privacy, and advance warning if anyone happened to come near. 

Marina explained all of that to us as we walked out of the garage and found ourselves standing at the top of a low hill. This was the hill where people had been mining back in the day. In fact, if we looked a bit to the right, we could see the old mine entrance. To the left was a gas station and a motel, both looking like they had come out of the 1950’s. Because they had. Neither of them were technically in service, though the Wonderland people had taken them over as well. Straight ahead, meanwhile, the old town of what had been called Gust, Montana lay stretched out away from the base of the hill. It consisted of a main street with about ten buildings on each side, including the saloon, post office, jail with the sheriff’s office attached, a boot and shoe store, gun shop, and more. Behind the left-hand side of the main street was an assortment of small houses. Behind the right-hand side, meanwhile, were the stables and a long barn-like warehouse where food and other supplies had been stored. 

“See?!” Baidy flew up into the air over our heads hovering there as she pointed toward the town. “We used to stay in a museum, but it got dangerous there so we had to move, then we lived in a big warehouse and it was really crowded, but then we moved here and it’s got a lotta space!” 

“Lots of room to spread your wings, huh, Baidy?” Marina put in with a small smile. To us, she added, “We’ve got a few who like to run a lot too. They love it here. Miles and miles of open space.” Glancing toward Denny and Dakota, she added, “Most of the kids are up in the mountains right now, but they’ll be back later. They went for a hike with a couple of the scouts, and Buddy.” 

“Yeah, I was kinda surprised he wasn’t around to say hi already,” Miranda murmured while glancing around. “Hope we get to catch up with the big guy later.” 

“You will,” Quing announced as the avian-man stood behind us. He wasn’t quite glowering, but it wasn’t an open and friendly look either. “Buddy has made it clear that he wants to say hello before you leave again. And he wishes to meet these two.” 

“M-meet us?” Denny managed a bit uncertainly. “He’s the big troll, right?” Her eyes glanced back toward me with obvious nervousness. “He’s… he’s nice?” 

“Very nice,” I confirmed. “Right, Marina?” 

The other girl gave a quick nod. “He’s a giant sweetheart. Emphasis on giant and on sweetheart. Trust us, he’s one of the nicest people here as long as you don’t try to hurt anyone he’s supposed to be protecting.” 

Swallowing hard, Denny quietly murmured, “I’ll try not to.” 

Yeah, there was definitely a whole thing there that was going to take a lot of time and therapy to work through. I watched as she absently took Dakota’s hand, the two of them standing closer together while watching the town below as though expecting a giant angry troll to come charging out at them. They were clearly still nervous about how this was going to go, which I couldn’t really blame them for. The only way to show them that it was going to be fine was to get down there and let them see for themselves. 

From the look that Marina gave me, she had the same thought. So, we started down the dirt road leading to the main part of the town. Quint stayed behind, apparently to do a patrol around the perimeter. On the way, there was a shimmering effect in the air that lasted for about fifteen feet. It kind of tickled a little bit. According to Marina, if we hadn’t been allowed through, the alarms would have sounded and we would have found ourselves in a time distortion field that would’ve slowed our movement drastically, giving the Wonderland people time to respond. 

But, obviously we were expected and had been cleared. Something told me that Quing had done something back in the garage to allow us through the security field, but had kept it secret so we wouldn’t know exactly what was done. He wasn’t a very trusting sort, that Quing guy. Wyatt would probably love him.

Either way, we went on a tour through the town. We saw how the Wonderland people were living in this place. They’d worked some enchantments on the buildings to allow for extra rooms that shouldn’t have been there so everyone could fit. Apparently most of the regular civilians stayed in the various houses or in the motel above the saloon. The Septs lived and worked in the courthouse, children were educated both in the schoolhouse and in the church building, and most of the businesses were used for crafting things to be sold in online shops so the people could have regular Bystander money. They also raised cattle out on the fields and sold the meat to butchers. 

We also met a lot of people along the way, of both the human-looking and very not human-looking variety. Some I’d seen before, though most at a distance, while others seemed new. Either way, they were friendly and cheerful. It was a lot for Denny, and even Dakota, to take in. They both kept looking around at everyone while clearly doing their best not to stare too much for fear of being rude. Still, the two of them were gawking a fair bit at all the different sights, especially when it was something like an eight-foot-tall crocodilian man putting the finishing touches on a beautifully hand-crafted grandfather clock that he planned to sell, or a cat-like Rakshasa woman brushing the coat of a preening Pegasus.  

The point was, there was a lot to see around this place, and we’d barely scratched the surface even twenty minutes later. We kept stopping to look at things and talk to people. The younger girls didn’t do a lot of talking, especially Denny, who stayed almost entirely silent the whole time. But they paid attention, and were clearly enthralled with everything. 

“You guys really like it here, huh?” I eventually asked as we stood outside the jail. Dakota and Denny were standing a few feet away, having a conversation with Baidy. They were talking about something to do with fishing, and how they couldn’t do it back anywhere near the Garden rebels place because of the whole Lotan and its pet Nuckelavee situation. 

“It’s really nice,” Marina agreed quietly. “I think they like living in a real town, even if it’s a small one. They’ve got different houses, open space for everyone to stretch their legs and wings, even a school. Hell, they have businesses. Real businesses where they can make things and get money for it. It’s… it’s a real town here, you guys.”

Avalon, who had been pretty quiet through all of this, spoke up. “I should bring Salten here. I mean, he already gets plenty of space to run and fly around on the station. They have rooms for that. But I think he’d like to set foot on Earth too. He deserves that.” 

“Don’t worry, we’ll bring him down, and Choo too,” I assured Valley while putting an arm around her and squeezing. “They can run around and play tag out there. Can you imagine it?” 

“Imagine?” Valley retorted, “I’ve seen them do it. And yeah, probably better for them to do it somewhere that Salten won’t break a window turning his head too fast.”

“So that’s what happened the other day,” I exaggeratedly gasped. “Eiji kept insisting that he looked at his reflection in the window and it blew apart.” 

“I’m not saying that couldn’t have happened too,” Valley mildly replied as a very small smile played at her face. “Salten’s only broken so many windows.” 

“Speaking of open fields and broken windows,” Miranda started while giving me a nudge from the other side, “Maybe we can get a baseball game going at some point. Didn’t you say Sarah’s a good pitcher?” 

“That’s what I’ve heard,” I replied with a nod. “And are you sure you want to do that? Remember what happened the last time you and I played baseball?” 

Miranda huffed, rolling her eyes. “Oh please, what’re the odds that you’ll go sliding into home and accidentally find a skeleton finger twice?” 

Dakota, who had been saying something about some scary movie, abruptly pivoted to face us. “Wait, what? A skeleton finger?” 

“More than just the finger, really,” Randi noted thoughtfully. “It was actually the whole hand and part of an arm, but most of it was buried. Everyone running across the bases for all that time worked away the dirt until a bit of the finger was uncovered. Flick found it the hard way.” 

“And by hard way,” I put in with a grimace, “She means I was sliding into the plate and my leg got cut on the bone. So I brushed the dirt away from it until we figured out what it was.” 

“That was a fun weekend,” Miranda cheerfully added. “Especially since it’s Flick, so you all know what she had to do.” 

Every single one of them, Miranda, Avalon, Dakota, Denny, even Baidy, simultaneously agreed, “Investigate.” 

A blush crossed my face as I huffed a little bit. “Oh come on, it was a skeleton hand buried under the baseball diamond by home plate. You don’t have to be obsessed with investigating things to want to find out more about it. I bet every single one of you, aside from Randi cuz she was there, want to know what that was all about and whose hand it was.” 

To my satisfaction, they all exchanged brief looks before giving an assortment of nods. Before they could say anything, however, I felt someone else’s presence step into range of my item-sense from the direction of the jail while a voice spoke up. “If the stories I remember hearing while I was there are any indication, this should be good.” 

Turning that way, I found myself looking at a woman who looked a fair bit like the legendary movie actress Audrey Hepburn. Her dark brown hair was cut short in a pixie style that fell just above her ears, with bangs in the front. She wore an outfit that was straight out of the sort of Western that would have been filmed here back in the day, with somewhat tattered old jeans, cowboy boots, a leather duster, button-up Western shirt, belt with a silver buckle and a pair of revolvers on either hip, and a full-on cowboy hat. 

Without thinking at all, I quietly (but not quietly enough) murmured under my breath, “Oh my God, Tabbris was right, I really did have a crush on you.” 

As everyone turned it to stare at me and I realized that I said the quiet part out loud, my blush returned with a vengeance. “I mean–I ahh–I wasn’t–who said that?” Turning, I looked over my shoulder as though searching for the culprit. “I think it came from the uhhh–yeah.” Still flushing despite myself, I focused that way while trying to ignore the assorted snickers. “You… you’re… I mean back in the day you were…” 

“When you knew me, I was Trevor Rawlings,” the woman replied. “Your seventh grade math teacher. The news about your mother had gotten around, and I wanted to see what her daughter was like. I was going to go as a history teacher, but it felt a little on the nose.” 

“You were named Trevor Rawlings?” Denny blinked back and forth between us. “Wait, is this a disguise thing, or a ‘coming to accept your true self’ thing?” 

“A disguise thing,” came the response. “I accepted my true self a long time ago. And the fact that I consider myself… fluid in that regard. I have male moments and female moments. I’m not too fussed about what I’m called, given I’ve answered to everything under the sun. But a simple ‘they’ works quite well at all times. My birth name–” 

“Joan of Arc,” Dakota abruptly blurted, her own eyes widening. “Holy crap, you’re Joan of Arc.” 

An audible chuckle escaped the w–them as they focused on the girl. “That’s one of the things I’ve been called in my life, yes. Though it was actually more of Jeanne D’arc in the old days.” They pronounced the first name something like ‘Jahn’ with a bit of a rolling Juh sound. “I have gone by a lot of different names and titles over the years.” 

“So like, you were a Heretic when you did all that stuff?” Denny hesitantly asked while biting her lip. “But why would they be able to imprison you, and then… I mean…” She trailed off awkwardly, clearly unsure how to continue that line of questioning. 

“It’s alright,” Jeanne assured her. “That wasn’t a great time in my life, but it was also very long ago. To answer your question, no, I was not a Heretic. I’m still not, actually.” 

That made most of the others do a double-take, while I snapped my fingers. “That’s right, you were empowered by Michael.” 

“Empowered in more than one way,” they confirmed. “But yes, in a literal sense, he shared a small portion of his Dyeusai power with me, after saving me from the flames that would have ended my life. The power keeps me young, heals my wounds, and allows me to channel it into a protective barrier, or into my weapon so that it may penetrate very nearly anything it comes up against.” 

“You were–umm, friends with Seth,” I put in. “He mentioned that. I mean, he mentioned a lot more than that, but I wasn’t sure how much to believe.” 

“Yes, that does sound like him.” There was clear fondness in their voice as they gazed off into the distance before focusing on us once more. “To answer your question, yes, we were involved. Well, off and on. We had our ups and downs, as any relationship spread over so many years. But whatever our complications, I was sad to hear about his death. That’s why I took up his old position as Tiebreaker for Wonderland.” 

“I can summon him down here,” I hesitantly offered. “I mean, his ghost. He’s sort of… up in the station right now. We found him–his ghost that is, in the Auberge. So, if you want, I can bring him down here. You know, so you guys can talk.” 

“I’d like that,” Jeanne quietly murmured, a thoughtful look crossing their face before they added, “But perhaps we should finish your tour first. Then I can meet his ghost, and apologize for not being there when he needed help.” It was a bit subtle, but I could hear the guilt and pain in their voice. They really had cared about Seth, that much was clear.

Before anyone else could say anything, the sound of running footsteps through the hard-packed dirt caught our attention, along with a voice calling, “Tiebreaker! Tiebreaker!” 

It was a pale girl, about my age (or at least that was how she looked, it was impossible to tell for sure in this world). Her hair was short like Jeanne’s, but rather than being pixie-cut, it was spiked up and gelled (or magicked) to stay in place. The spikes of hair looked sharp enough to cut my hand if I had entirely lost all sense and stupidly patted her on the head. It was also gray. Not old people gray. More of a shimmering sort of gray, darker at the roots and almost silver on the tips. She wore baggy cargo pants with a lot of pockets, black tennis shoes with purple laces, an Abe Sapien from Hellboy tee-shirt, and a black San Jose Sharks (the hockey team) varsity jacket. 

She came right up to us, skidding to a stop before offering a curious look. “Hiya.”  

“Hey Sesh,” Marina greeted the girl. “These guys are just visiting for awhile. This is Flick, Miranda, and Avalon. And these two are Dakota and Denny. Guys, this is Sesh.” 

Sesh had been smiling through all that, and with that smile, I noticed something else. She had multiple rows of very sharp teeth, like a shark. I knew what that meant. Or at least I was pretty sure. She was an Akheilosan. Like–

“Fahsteth,” Sesh immediately spoke up, as if she’d read my mind. Her attention wasn’t on me, however. It was on Avalon. “If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re right. He’s my dad. But believe me, nobody wants him dead more than I do.” Under her breath, she muttered, “Even if the list of people who would tap dance on his grave is pretty long.” 

“Um, who’s Fahsteth?” That was Denny, hesitantly asking the question as she looked back and forth between all of us. “I mean, besides a pretty bad guy, I guess?” 

Avalon and Sesh both answered at the same time, “A piece of shit.” 

“Jinx, you owe me a coke,” Sesh instantly announced before blanching slightly as she realized who she had said it to. “But, uh, I guess we’ll call it even on account of all of the times my Dad tried to kill you. Or helped someone else try.” 

“It’s a long story,” Avalon informed Denny. “The short version is that he was working for the Seosten who were trying to kill me through most of my life so I wouldn’t open the vault that my ancestor sealed with a blood-relation lock and take the spell that would stop the Seosten from possessing people here on Earth.” 

“The end of that story is we got in the vault anyway and that spell is what was used just a little while ago to make all our people Seosten-immune,” I added. “We can’t make it work for everyone in the world yet, but you know. One step at a time.” 

“Anyway, the point is, I heard you cut my dad in half once,” Sesh informed Valley. “And even though that still wasn’t enough to kill him, that was still the best news I got in a long time.” 

Dakota and Denny both sputtered audibly, the former blurting, “Being cut in half wasn’t enough to kill him?!” 

“He’s enhanced himself a lot,” Sesh replied with a shrug. “Or had other people do it. Actually killing him requires rolling a nat 20 like five times in a row.” 

Avalon stared at her blankly, along with the rest of us. “It requires rolling a what now?” 

Before Sesh could answer, however, Jeane spoke up. “You were trying to get my attention? Is there a problem?”

Sesh shook her head. “Not a problem, something awesome. You’ve gotta check it out. I was hiking through the hills over there and I found a door. Like, a vault door straight out of Fallout. It’s built right into the hill, but it’s really hidden. You have to squeeze through these rocks and bushes and stuff, then crawl through a tunnel, but then it opens up and there’s this circular area with some water coming out of an underground stream, and the vault door is right there and it’s fucking cool.” 

Arching an eybrow, Jeanne replied, “Well then, why don’t we suspend the tour for a moment and go see this ‘fucking cool’ vault door?” 

Looking to the others, I shrugged. “Sure, why not? 

“But I swear, if we see the name ‘Vault-Tec’ written anywhere around there, we are walking away and never looking back.” 

Previous Chapter

Growth 18-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Going to visit Wonderland was a big deal for Denny. And a big deal for Dakota too, come to think of it. Neither of them had had that sort of opportunity before. The opportunity to see so many Alters in a peaceful setting, that was. Dakota spent most of her time at the Eden’s Garden Rebels place, and while they were definitely on the side of Alters not all being evil, there weren’t exactly that many around the motel. And Denny had spent time up on the station, but still didn’t trust herself around people that much so she tended to stay in either Asenath or Abigail’s apartments. Abigail had decided not to push her about going to classes for awhile, and instead let her do homeschooling stuff. Eventually she would probably need to physically attend, but there was time for that. After everything she had been through, nobody thought pushing her was the right idea. 

So, this would be a pretty new experience for both of them. I just hoped it went better than my own first visit to that place. But then again, Theia was on our side now, so we could hardly–nope. I refused to finish that thought. Not in this reality, and certainly not with the things I’d already experienced. I may have had a tendency to push my luck with fate, but that was too far. 

“You’re tempting fate again, aren’t you?” 

The demand came from Avalon, who was squinting at me as she, Miranda, and I stood at the back of the small, fenced in area behind the motel where Iskolar the old Garden lady with the giant sword had just created a new portal leading up to the Station. One we weren’t going through. 

“Who, what, me?” I blinked several times at the accusation, while Valley continued to squint. 

“She’s right,” Randi put in idly, standing a bit back with her thumbs in her pockets as she regarded me with a very small smile. “You have that ‘I just thought something dumb and now reality is gonna make me pay for it’ face. You probably just thought something about how at least we won’t get attacked at Wonderland like you did the first time you went there, huh?” 

My mouth opened, then shut, as I felt the slightest pink flush cross my face. “I need to get friends who don’t know me as well,” I muttered under my breath. 

Before either of the other two could respond to that, the portal was finished and a small figure slowly came through. It was Denny, looking quite unsure of herself. She kept glancing around, hunching her shoulders in what seemed like an attempt to make herself smaller. Or possibly she thought she was a turtle and was trying to retract her head into a shell that wasn’t there. Either way, she basically shuffled her way through and looked very much like she might just decide that jumping back the way she’d come before the portal closed would be the best idea. 

Quickly, I spoke up. “Denny, hey. I uhh, hi.” Trying not to sound (or look) awkward, I offered her a smile and gestured. “We better let Iskolar shut down the portal now, or we’ll all have to listen to her and Llars flirting for the next hour.” 

Iskolar, for her part, scoffed at me. “You make your jokes, but I’ll have you know I could teach every one of you a thing or two about good flirting,” she retorted primly. “And good dating.” 

There was a brief pause before Denny nodded and took a few more steps toward us and away from the portal. She seemed like… well, she sort of seemed like someone who was just learning how to swim and had just moved barely far enough out into the water that their feet didn’t quite touch the floor of the pool anymore. Once she heard the portal itself turn off at a gesture from the woman who had created it, Denny gave a very soft gasp. She was clenching one hand tightly.

“Oh well, hello young lady,” Iskolar greeted her. “As I’m sure you heard just now, I’m Iskolar. And you–” 

“Denny,” the girl quickly put in. “I’m Denny. Hi. Um, thanks. I mean, for the…” She gestured behind herself at the spot where the portal had been a moment earlier. “The lift?” 

“Oh, any time, dear,” Iskolar assured her with a smile. “Any time at all. I hear you’re quite the crossword champion.” 

Denny blinked at that, seeming taken aback. “How did you… Dakota?” 

“She might’ve bragged once or twice about how quick her new friend was at solving those things,” Iskolar confirmed with a wink. “Faster than me, and I’ve been doing it a wee bit longer.” 

Now Denny was blushing, squirming a little under the attention. So I spoke up. “Dakota’s just grabbing a couple things from her room. You guys, uh, you’ve been talking a lot, huh?” 

Focusing on me, the girl gave a quick, somewhat jerky nod. “Oh–uh, yeah. Um, sort of. Abigail and Mr. Tougan–he’s my therapist– thought it would help if I talked to her. Because she um, because she had some bad experiences too.” 

That was putting it lightly, considering Dakota’s entire family had been forced to kill each other by a megalomaniac super plant, which only she had survived. She ‘won’ the massacre, and now she had Kwur’s own powers. Well, his plant control powers anyway. Whether she’d inherited anything else of his was yet to be determined. So yeah, she’d definitely had some bad experiences. I could see why Abigail and this Mr. Tougan guy had thought it might help the two of them to talk to each other. 

Denny was still explaining. “Mostly we talk over the computer. We do that a lot. Really a lot.” She admitted that with a slight blush, squirming on her feet. “Maybe a little too much. But she’s… she’s good to talk to. She understands a lot of–um, she understands a lot. And we don’t just talk about bad stuff. Or even mostly about bad stuff. Usually we talk about these shows we’ve been watching on Netflix or whatever. I mean, we put the show on at the same time and talk about it while we’re watching it. Mostly about the show, but sometimes we just start talking about other things and forget what’s going on so we have to rewind and–” All at once, she seemed to realize just how much she had been saying, and how quickly she’d been saying it, and clammed up. Her blush was deeper. “And it’s not a big deal.” 

Randi grinned while speaking up. “I mean, if you’re a crossword champion, I might need to get your help with my English homework.”

“Sorry,” Denny replied with a helpless shrug, “knowing a lot of words doesn’t really make me that good at knowing the rules of grammar or whatever. And I don’t even know that many words. It’s just that I see the clues and the number of letters and then I just… know what the right word is.” 

She hesitated before starting to say something else. But before she could, I sensed Dakota approaching. Sure enough, just as I turned to glance that way, the girl in question came around the corner. She was carrying a heavy backpack over one shoulder. Seeing Denny, she darted that way to embrace her. “Hey, Kitchen!” 

Denny, after the slightest hesitation, returned the hug. “Hey, Kentucky.” 

Weirdly, it was only while seeing the two of them together right then that I realized how relatively similar they looked. At least on paper. They both had dark hair and pale skin, and they were both close to the same age. Well, Dakota was thirteen while Denny was eleven. But even that wasn’t quite right, because Denny still had some memories (and was getting more as the days went on, apparently) of being her older self before she’d died, so–yeah. It was complicated. But they did look similar, enough that they could have been sisters. I wondered, inwardly, if that helped at all. Did they get along so well because both of them really needed some form of family? Not that I thought they were pretending or anything like that, just… subconsciously, maybe it helped them talk about the things they needed to talk about with each other. 

“Kitchen?” Randi echoed Dakota’s words, then Denny’s, “Kentucky?” Then she realized. “Your names.” 

“She was Den,” Dakota confirmed. “Then it turned into Closet, or Living, or Study, or any other room.” 

Denny nodded, looking a bit more at ease than she had before Dakota showed up. “And she’s any state. Except Nevada. I um, I met Nevada. But that still leaves a lot of others, doesn’t it, Utah?” 

Dakota promptly leaned over to whisper something quietly in the other girl’s ear that I couldn’t hear. Then the two of them snickered before Denny whispered something back. 

Yeah, I was going to have to make sure Abigail was aware of what a good choice having the two of them talk had been. But then, I was pretty confident she already knew that. My older sister was pretty good at this sort of thing, apparently. 

Clearing my throat, I spoke up. “Right, so we’re going over to Wonderland. But there’s a couple of things we should probably warn you guys about so they don’t take you by surprise.” 

Looking a little hesitant once more, though bolstered by the presence of Dakota, Denny quietly asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea? If there are a lot of people there, and if I hurt anyone–” 

Stepping that way, I took her hand and squeezed it, meeting her gaze. “Listen, okay? That’s not going to happen. You’re not gonna hurt anyone. There’s a lot of protection over there, people who know how to keep everyone safe. And you’ll have us with you every step of the way. We’re all just gonna go hang out, see some cool stuff, talk to cool people, and do cool things. But no one is going to force you into it. If you really, genuinely don’t want to do this, say the word and we’ll do something else. We can all hang out in one of the rooms around here and watch a movie, or play a game, or whatever. It’s no big deal. But if you’re just afraid that you’ll hurt someone, or that someone will hurt you, I promise we won’t let that happen. 

“Those memories in your head, his voice, they don’t control you. They don’t control anything. You have his power, and you can do whatever you decide to do with it, not the other way around. And when I say his memories don’t get to control you, I don’t mean by telling you what to do. I don’t mean by puppeting you. I mean they don’t get to stop you from living your life. He’s gone. You’re not. You’re here. You won. We will do whatever you are comfortable with. Just know that we’re going to be there, and make sure it’s what you want to do. Not what his memories want to force you into.” 

Denny was quiet for a moment, staring at me as she considered all that. Then she gave a single, barely perceptible nod. “I… I kinda want to see Wonderland. It sounds fun.” She actually sounded almost guilty in admitting that she thought it would be fun. Which made me want to take Fossor’s thus-far nonexistent ghost (please God no) and Kushiel’s entirely too-extant ghost, and punt both of them into the sun for what they had helped do to this girl. Yes, Fossor hadn’t been directly involved, but it was his fault. He was responsible. And besides, it wasn’t like I needed that much of an excuse to want to kill Fossor again. He had it coming a million times over. Thankfully, that wouldn’t be an issue. Not after everything that had been done to ensure he didn’t have some sort of loophole to come back through. He was dead and gone, period. 

I should know, people kept borrowing the memory of the event that Sariel had copied out of my brain so we’d have proof of what happened. And not just my brain, Mom’s too. Both of us had seen him die, so Sariel copied our memories and allowed people to see them. Apparently Fossor didn’t exactly lack people who wanted to see exactly how he died. Let alone experience doing it themselves. 

Shoving those thoughts away, I made myself smile at the girl in front of me. “Yeah? Cool, because trust me, it’s gonna be fun. Especially when you meet Buddy System. And Namythiet. And–well, a lot of people.” 

Avalon spoke up, voice curious. “What about you, Dakota? Are you okay with going over there?” 

There was the slightest hesitation as the other girl thought that through before nodding. “Now that the vine’s working, I want to… I want to celebrate. I wanna do something new, something really different. I wanna…. I wanna be happy.” She gave a small smile toward Denny, taking the girl’s hand. “I–we didn’t make it through everything those people put us through just to act like we died when we didn’t. We’re gonna go have fun, right, Library?” 

Straightening up a little bit, though she was still smaller than the girl next to her, Denny gave a firm nod of agreement. “Right, yeah, fun. Let’s do that fun thing. You said we’d meet someone named Buddy System?” 

“Yeah, he’s one of the people we need to warn you about,” Miranda murmured. 

“He’s a troll,” I confirmed. “I mean, not a stupid internet jerk, a real live troll. But he’s really nice. He just looks scary, and we didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. Trust me, once you meet him, you’re gonna love the big guy.” Saying that, I tilted my head thoughtfully. “Actually, come to think of it, we haven’t actually seen Joan of Arc yet.” 

“I–what?” That was Denny, giving a double-take. “Haven’t seen who?” 

Grinning, I gestured toward Iskolar. “You hear that? Now she’s interested. Guess we better start up that portal and head over there. 

“Time for Denny to see just how crazy this world can get.” 

******

Marina Dupont was there to meet us when we came through the portal and into what looked like a moderately-sized garage, just big enough for two cars. The tall, pale brunette was accompanied by Quing, the avian-like Lavinisi who worked as one of Wonderland’s main security guards alongside Buddy. He was watching us intently from his spot in front of the main rolling door, his sharp eyes gazing at and through all of us as we appeared. The portal. He was watching the portal. I could see his right wing-hand touching the handle of one of his many knives, his entire body visibly tense. 

Right, of course he was a little worked up. He was responsible for the security of this place, and we had just come through a portal that led back to an encampment of a whole bunch of people who had been responsible for slaughtering a lot of Alters. Yes, the Garden people were rebelling against that and we were all trying to change things, but still. 

A moment later, the portal faded behind us, and Marina quickly stepped over, extending her hand to catch mine. But not to shake it. Instead, she pulled me into an embrace. “Hey, Flick!” Avalon got the same treatment and greeting, as did Miranda. “You guys really need to visit more. Do you have any idea how much the kids ask about all of you?” 

Even after she had sent the Crossroads children back to their parents (on either side), Marina wasn’t totally done with taking care of children. First, there were the ones over twelve who had chosen to stay at Wonderland rather than go back to their parents. That was a choice Marina and the people here had allowed them to make. With the option to go back whenever they decided to. Thus far, none had. 

But even more than that, when the Wonderland Septs had learned how good Marina was with children, they had basically assigned her as a permanent… nanny, of sorts. And from what I had heard and seen, she had never been happier. This was where she belonged, teaching and taking care of younger kids. It suited her much more than Crossroads had. 

Once she had embraced and greeted us, she turned her attention to the other two. But Marina didn’t immediately reach out to them. She didn’t try to grab and hug them. Instead, she offered both of them a smile. “Hey. I’m Marina, what’re your names?” 

The two girls exchanged glances before Denny stood up straight. “Denny,” she answered quietly. “I’m Denny.” 

“And I’m Dakota,” the slightly older girl put in. “You… you went to Crossroads?” She had heard a lot about that place over the past few months, most of it from Sands and Sarah. 

Nodding, Marina replied, “That’s right, I went there for two years. Well, basically two years. Flick and Avalon were one year under me. But you know what?” she continued with a conspiratorial tone, “With all the stuff that kept interrupting them last year, I think they attended like… three months of classes. Maybe.” 

As she winked at the two of us, Dakota and Denny snickered a little. Then Marina added, “On the other hand, I’m pretty sure they’ve been through more training and live combat than fourth-year students who are about to graduate.” She glanced up toward me, offering a little smile. “They’re bonafide badasses, and you couldn’t ask for better friends.” 

“Yeah, they’re alright.” The grunt came from Quing, whose voice continued to surprise me for how deep and gravelly it was, coming from a relatively thin bird-man. “They’ve done some good work out there.” Those laser-focused eyes settled on me, our gazes locking. “Getting rid of Fossor, that was a big deal. Thanks. I mean, I ahh, know you had your own reasons for doing it, but still. Thanks.”

Before I could say anything, Miranda piped up, “Yeah, a lot of people are glad he’s dead. I don’t think that man had any friends.”

My mouth opened, but a young voice abruptly called, “Can I come out now?” It was coming from a corner of the ceiling in this garage, where a small face with feathers and an orange-yellow beak was poking out through an opening. “Nothing blew up and the portal’s gone!” 

Quing exhaled, giving all of us another quick once-over before waving one of his wing-arms. “Yeah, come down.” 

The face at the hole disappeared, before the girl it belonged to promptly dropped through. She glided down, her own wing-arms extended until she was hovering directly in front of us. It was a Lavinisi, like Quing. Only this one was a young girl, basically a little kid. Her feathers were dark red as opposed to Quing’s blue. She also wore tan cargo pants and a gray tee-shirt with an image of the actual Falco from Star Fox on it. Underneath that, she had clearly used red fabric marker to write (in somewhat shaky lettering), ‘Uncle Quing!’ 

After taking all that in, I noticed that she clearly wasn’t actually using her wings to keep herself up off the ground. They were just sort of extended out to either side as she hovered a couple feet off the floor. The Lavinsi flight seemed to be more of the Superman-like variety, with their wings acting as rudders in the air to guide them, or whatever. 

“Hi!” the young Lavinsi chirped, her attention focused on the two girls close to her own apparent age. “I’m Baidy! You’re Dakota and Denny. I heard you. Wait, was that rude? I didn’t mean to eavesdrop or spy, but Uncle Quing said I had to hide until we knew it was safe.”  

“It’s okay, Baidy,” Marina assured her. “But you should greet everyone, remember?” 

“Oh!” Turning her attention to the three of us, Baidy quickly introduced herself once more, and made it clear that she had heard our names too. But she was clearly more interested in Denny and Dakota, which was fair. 

Clearing my throat, I gestured, “Well, it seems to me that we were promised a tour of the newest Wonderland. Pretty sure there’s no one better for that than someone who gets a birds-eye view of the place.” 

Grinning, Marina turned a bit to where Baidy was practically vibrating with excitement. “She’s right, maybe you should help lead this tour. You know where everything fun and interesting is.” 

“Really?!” Baidy brightened, literally hovering higher in the air in her excitement. “Okay! Uh, come on!” She flew straight up toward the hole in the ceiling, only to stop when she was almost there. There was a momentary pause before she slowly sank back to the ground, looking somewhat sheepish. “I uhh, um, maybe we should use the door.” Her embarrassment at forgetting that we couldn’t fly wore off instantly as she flew that way, hitting the button to make the big rolling door start to rumble its way up. “You’re gonna love it here!” She was already giggling so much she almost couldn’t get her next words out. 

“It’s wonderful!” 

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At Last 16-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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And celebrate we did. Throughout the entire rest of the day and far into the night, actually. The party spread over the entire station as we all moved from room to room pretty much randomly. There were even portals set up in very safe areas of each main camp (the station, Wonderland, the Garden rebels, etc) so that people could intermingle as much as they wanted. There were various concerts and games going on, impromptu contests of various types, and more. Hell, all my ghosts back in the Haunted Mansion were having a party of their own to celebrate the whole thing. They had signs set up outside directing people to come in and hang out with them, and the last I had seen, plenty were taking them up on that. Seriously, everyone was clearly using this as an excuse to let off a lot of tension and fully embrace letting loose. It was wild, chaotic, and totally amazing. 

It was yet another chance for me to be grateful for the level of stamina that I had, because it meant that I could keep going and see as much as possible long after many others had tapped out. Not that they were out for long. Many of them simply took a little nap for a couple hours here or there before jumping right back into it. But I saw basically everything. I made my way through all the rooms and camps, interacted with everyone, and just… really enjoyed myself. 

At the moment, I was on my way down the corridor to find the portal that would lead me to the Eden’s Garden motel. Or at least, the main one they had taken over. There were some people down there I wanted to talk to. It was almost three in the morning, but that didn’t matter at all. Given the way this party was going on, I was starting to doubt that it would die down entirely anytime throughout the rest of the day. Especially considering it was now officially Christmas Eve. Yeah, something told me people would be taking breaks now and then, but this whole celebration was just going to keep going, at one level or another, for quite a while longer. Which was understandable, considering how long most of these people had been living under the threat of having themselves or their loved ones enslaved by the Seosten. Literally for their entire lives, actually. No matter how long they had lived. Now they could be assured that they were safe from at least the whole being possessed part. Their choices would stay their own. Of course, whether we avoided outright physical war with the Seosten or not remained to be seen. But whatever came of that, at least we had this. They couldn’t take over our bodies and turn us against our loved ones. And that was well-worth spending all of Christmas Eve celebrating. 

Before I could get to the room where the portal was, a different familiar figure came into view from the opposite end of the corridor. Pausing as I saw him, I raised my hand. “Dries?” 

It was him, though the man looked quite a bit different than he had when I first met him the year before. He was still blond, but his hair had been straightened up. Still long, yet more evenly trimmed. As was his beard. He also wasn’t so bone-thin that it looked like he would snap apart in a stiff breeze anymore. He had filled out somewhat, and no longer wore ancient rags. He actually looked healthy after all this time. Though I was pretty sure it would take much longer for the haunted expression to leave his face, if it ever did. 

Seeing me when I called out, the man paused before offering me a tentative smile. He still didn’t really do well with crowds, but he could handle one-on-one conversations okay enough. Especially with people he actually knew. And I had spent time with him over the summer alongside Avalon as she got to know her ancestor a little better. 

“Felicity,” he greeted me in a slightly rattly voice that made me feel like he had a lot of emotions running through him. “Ah-are you well?” He didn’t stutter as much as he had back when we had first met, but that was something else that I was pretty sure would be a thing for a long time coming.  

My head bobbed a little. “I’m great. This whole thing is great. But, um, are you okay? I guess I just thought you would have gone back to your room right now. All these people are… a lot to deal with.” 

Giving a quick glance around as though making sure that a large crowd hadn’t snuck up on him from behind, the man quietly replied, “It is a… lot to duh-deal with. But I’m very glad that people are… ahh, are happy. It mah-makes it easier to handle. Harder when they are angry or upset. Sometimes it’s still pretty hard even if they’re ahh, happy. It’s a… a lot of emotion. A lot of noise. It’s a lot of everything. But I ahh, I cah-can handle it. I want to. I want to see this. It’s–it’s important.” 

Of course it was. This would mean even more to him, after all that he and his family had been through, than it did to most. I could hardly blame him for wanting to push himself past his comfort level to experience everyone celebrating the spell that was only possible because of him and his wife. I really couldn’t imagine the things that had to be going through his mind. 

“Liesje would’ve been proud of you, and of Avalon. Of her whole family,” I finally managed. Part of me wanted to embrace the man, yet I knew that was pushing things too far. He may have improved over these intervening months, but still. Just being out here like this and staying on the fringes of all the celebration was probably about as much as he could handle. 

So, I didn’t touch him. Instead, I simply gave the man a smile before adding, “And I know Avalon’s proud to have you as an ancestor. Getting to know you, it’s been one of her favorite things about all these months. She never really thought she’d get to know anything about her family. And uhh, now she does. Thanks to you.” 

I could see the slight blush, slightly hidden by the man’s neatly-trimmed beard, as he cleared his throat and clearly fought to find the right words. “I ahh, well, I’m glad to know her as well. I ahh, yes. It has been…” He blinked rapidly, clearly pushing back tears. “It has been a very lah-long road to get here. But I am glad for the ahh, the destination.” 

“And we’re all glad you made it here,” I quietly assured him. “This whole victory, it’s yours.” 

“It is Liesje’s,” he corrected me, biting his lip hard as a flood of emotion ran through his eyes before straightening somewhat. “It’s everyone’s. Ev–even them. Even the Say–Seosten.” I could see how hard it was for him to say that. “Many–many of them won’t think so. But it is good for them. It will force them to… to do something new, to try something else.” 

Slowly nodding, I replied, “I’m pretty sure the definition of insanity isn’t really doing the same thing and expecting different results like people say, but still, doing it for a few hundred thousand years does seem pretty… excessive. They’ve been stuck in their ways. And, you know, afraid that if they do try something totally new, it’ll backfire. Their way hasn’t won the war against the Fomorians, but it hasn’t lost it either. And when you’re dealing with monsters like that, you probably get pretty afraid of what’ll happen if you change the wrong thing and start losing instead of just tying.” 

We talked a bit more for a couple minutes, but I didn’t want to push him too hard. This whole situation was already a lot. So, eventually, I promised I would see him later and gave him directions for where I had last seen Avalon. Then I headed for the Eden’s Garden portal once more. 

There were even people celebrating inside the portal room. Granted, there were also heavily armed and prepared guards, just in case the wrong person happened to somehow make it through the heavily armed and prepared guards on the other side of the portal. But there were also tables laden down with food, and music played, albeit at a lower level than in most of the other rooms. It looked as though some of the people here had come to join one of the celebrations on the station, and then just ended up setting up right where they had arrived. Or maybe it was from people heading out of the station to somewhere else. Either way, the guards weren’t being left out. And I was pretty sure the same could be said of all the other portal rooms too. Some part of me worried about what would happen if someone did manage to attack while everyone was celebrating like this, but then I reminded myself that having more people in the room was technically better defense, not worse. At least, when so many of those people were as dangerous as everyone here could be. And had magic to immediately sober up if it came down to it. 

Yeah, anyone stupid enough to mount an assault with everyone up and aware like this would undoubtedly come to regret it. But it would still sour the mood, so I silently hoped nothing bad happened. After everything that people had been through, we deserved this party, damn it.

Some of the people in here I recognized, many I didn’t. Regardless, most of them came up to say something to me, either because of who my mother was, or because of who Avalon was. Or because they wanted to pat me on the back over Fossor finally being dead. Basically, there were a lot of reasons they wanted to talk to me. Which, honestly, was still a bit overwhelming.  But I rolled with it as much as I could and chatted for a few minutes. They told me some stories and jokes, not all of which I actually understood given how drunk some of them were, but I still laughed right along with them. 

Eventually, I excused myself from them as well, and made my way to the portal itself. After clarifying that this was the right one, I passed through it. As stable as the portal was, and as expertly as it had been created, I barely felt any twisting of my stomach. It was hardly worse than basically stepping down two stairs at once. One moment I was on the station, and in the next, I was standing in the back lot behind the motel that the Eden’s Garden people had taken over. 

Yeah, there was a party going on here too. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure that the whole party was really on both sides of the portal at once. People were just sort of willy-nilly moving back and forth. There was a table here with drinks on it that hadn’t been back in the other room on the station, even though I keenly remembered seeing drinks in people’s hands back there. The magic and wonder of having stable portals. Maybe allowing people to pick up drinks on Earth, take two steps and then enjoy that drink on a space station inside the sun wasn’t the most amazing use of transportation magic, but it was still pretty damn nifty. 

Just like a moment ago up on the station, people around here wanted to talk to me too. Again, I lingered and chatted as much as I could before excusing myself and heading off toward the main building. It was already late enough that I didn’t know if everyone I wanted to talk to down here would still be awake anyway, and I didn’t want to push it even more. 

To that end, I started with the room where Dakota had been staying while she helped work on the vines. Hesitating just long enough to make sure I could hear sound coming from in the room, I knocked and then stepped back a bit. 

There was a pause before the door opened and I saw the girl herself. She was just as small and frail-looking as I remembered her, with pale skin and black hair. She looked like Sharon/Alessa from that old Silent Hill movie. Except now she had a band of flowers in her hair, and vines (the smaller, normal kind rather than the giant ones related to the Eden’s Garden tree) wrapped around one of her arms. Just over her shoulder, I could see that the room was completely full of plants of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. It sure seemed like the girl had embraced her connection to them, despite what had happened with Kwur. 

“Uh, Flick?” She blinked at me. “Sorry, if you’re looking for Asenath, she was only here for a few minutes.” 

“Yeah!” Bobbi, popping up behind her, chirped. “She wanted to go make sure Seth’s ghost isn’t terrorizing people that go over to visit the Haunted Mansion too much. Or just harass him.” She offered me a small smile. “I think she missed him a lot.” 

“I think she did too,” I agreed before adding, “Did she have Denny with her?” 

“I’m here,” came a response from further in the room. The other two stepped aside, and I saw Denny herself, sitting in a chair in the corner with her legs drawn to her chest. There was a table next to her with several plates of half-finished pizza, and some sort of board game they had been playing together. 

“Oh, hey, Denny.” After taking a second to make sure I wasn’t intruding too much, I took a step into the room. There was actually grass on the floor instead of carpet, which was kind of neat. Moving over to where the other girl was sitting, I asked, “I–I’m really sorry to bring it up. Especially right now. But, have the dreams gotten worse?” 

She didn’t answer for a moment, staring down at the table. Finally, she looked up at me and swallowed. “It’s not just nightdreams. It’s daydreams too. The things he wants me to do, I mean.” She gave a little shudder before focusing once more. “Knowing the truth about what’s going on and who he is, it kind of helps a little bit. At least I know I’m not crazy. But he still wants me to do bad things, and it’s… my… my mom and dad.” Her eyes closed tightly and she hugged herself tighter, then looked back at me. “I miss my mom and dad. And–and I think his memories or whatever are using that to make me even more angry.” 

Wincing a little, I pulled a chair around to sit next to her. “I kind of thought that might happen. So I asked Sariel and she gave me these.” Reaching into my pocket, I produced a bottle of what looked like ordinary little white pills. “They’re a mix of medicine and enchantment, sort of like the Bystander Effect-breaking pills. She says if you take one of these before you go to bed, it’ll help you sleep and make sure you don’t have any bad dreams. It should keep Ammon’s thoughts away from you so you can actually rest.”

Taking the bottle, Denny thanked me quietly before clutching it in both hands. Even though she had supposedly been sleeping most of the day before, it didn’t seem like it had been a very restful sleep. She desperately needed a break from the… voice in her head. 

“I’m sorry, Denny,” I whispered, not trusting my own voice not to crack. “I’m so sorry we didn’t–that we weren’t–” Sighing, I shook my head. “I’m sorry. You keep getting hurt and it’s not your fault.” 

“I didn’t give her the sword,” the girl reminded me. “She said she was going to hurt other people, that she would kill people if I didn’t give it to her. But I still didn’t. And… and it’s worse.” 

Frowning a bit at that, I tentatively reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. “What do you mean, it’s worse? What’s worse?” 

“Me,” she replied in a hoarse voice. “I’m worse. I’m–I let my mom and dad die.”

“What?” My head shook. “Denny, you didn’t let them die. You didn’t–” 

She interrupted before I could continue. “You don’t understand. I mean, if I knew what–if I knew–if–” She stopped talking, clamping her mouth shut while a full shudder ran through her. 

Dakota stepped over to join us, her voice quiet. “She means if she knew that not giving Kushiel  the sword would mean her parents died, she still wouldn’t give it to her.” 

There was something in the girl’s voice that made me glance that way, realizing just how hard this had to be for her as well. After all, Kwur had forced her to help kill her own family. This whole thing had to be bringing up incredibly painful memories for her. 

Denny’s head was nodding quickly. She met my gaze, clearly holding back tears. “I would. I know… I know the bad things that Kushiel would do if she had the sword. I mean, I don’t know exactly what they are, but… but I know they’d be really bad.” Those tears forced their way out. “So even if I knew–even if I knew she would have killed my mom and dad, I wouldn’t–I wouldn’t give it to her.” 

Reaching out, I pulled the girl by the arm and lifted her into my lap before embracing her. I didn’t tell her that it was the right choice. I didn’t put any judgment on it at all. Because it wasn’t my place to do that, and my opinion was beside the point. She already knew she had made the right choice, and that not giving Kushiel the sword would always be the right choice. 

Instead, I held her close and rocked back and forth a little, letting the girl rest her head against my shoulder as she cried for the next several minutes. Letting her get those emotions out without trying to tell her which ones were right or wrong, or define anything for her, felt like the right thing to do. 

Finally, Denny straightened a bit. She looked a little sheepish, but shook that off before focusing on me. “Flick, could you… play the game with us for a little bit?” 

I nodded immediately. “Sure, I’ve got nothing but time. After all, it’s not like it’s a school night.” 

So, for the next hour or so, I sat with them and played the board game. We could all hear the parties going on outside, especially when the people shot off fireworks, which happened more than once. But we ignored all that, and I simply sat in that room with Bobbi, Dakota, and Denny, and played the game until all of them were so tired they were practically falling asleep in their chairs. With just a little bit of prompting, I got them to go to bed (all three of them were sharing one that night), shut out the lights (except for the one in the bathroom, which Denny requested be left on after gulping down one of those sleeping pills), then stepped outside and closed the door to the room behind me. 

I was planning on heading over to see Seller next. But before I could move away from the door, I felt the familiar touch of Tabbris poking me through our connection. Flick, uh, they need you right now back on the station. Your mom and some others. Can you get Theia while you’re down there too? 

A rush of confusion went through me. Why did they need–what was wrong with–no. I pushed away those thoughts and promised to be right there. Then I took a quick loop around the motel until I located Theia and Pace. The latter came along as well, as we headed back through the portal and followed Tabbris’s directions to where we were supposed to go. 

It was a relatively small office area. As promised, Mom was in there, along with my father, Athena, Dare, Apollo, Sariel, and Mercury. Seeing all of them, I immediately asked, “Is something wrong with the–” 

“The spell is fine,” Athena assured me. “It is working as intended and expected. No… the situation we have right now is that.” She pointed to a nearby wall, where I saw a holo-image of a ship in space. A familiar ship, given the pictures I had been shown. It was a large orb as a core, partially-encased by three elongated gunships attached to it. 

“The Olympus?” I blurted. “It’s here? Wait, it’s here?” 

“Close,” Apollo explained. “Close enough for communications. But… we haven’t had any of those.” 

“It’s drifting,” Mom informed me, her eyes on the ship. “There’s been no response to any attempts to contact them, and the ship itself just… stopped all their engines.” 

“Dad? Why don’t you just… borrow some Seosten powers, then hop over to Grandmaria and see what’s going on?” 

His head shook without looking away from the ship where his parents were. “I tried that. I can… feel her. I know she’s alive and all. But I can’t reach her. It feels like something’s blocking it.” 

My eyes widened. “What–how is that possible? I mean–sure anything’s possible, but… but why–what’s going on?” 

“I don’t know,” Mom murmured. 

“But we’re going to go over there and find out.” 

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Interlude 15B – Senny And Denny (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You’re really a umm, a vampire? Like, a real vampire?” The question, tinged with nervousness mixed with genuine curiosity, came from the young girl who sat perched on a swing in the middle of the park in the artificial town where the Fusion School adult students lived. She was holding the chains of the swing tightly, slowly gliding back and forth on it while her eyes remained locked on the (much) older figure on the swing next to hers. 

“That’s right, Denny,” Asenath confirmed without looking that way. Her attention was on the artificial moon against the dark ceiling. “I was born in seventeen-ninety-five. Kinda crazy, isn’t it?” She asked that with a small smile, finally glancing over to the girl. 

Denny, in turn, flinched despite herself. “Everything about all of this is crazy. Are… are they really right about me? I mean, was I really older? I mean, not as old as you, but…” From the tone of her voice, it was clear that the girl knew it was true deep inside, but she needed to hear it from someone else. 

Asenath gave a short nod. “It’s true. Everything they told you is true, all of it. You were just a teenage girl minding your own business when you got dragged into this because that boy thought you would be a fun victim. It wasn’t your fault and you certainly didn’t do anything wrong. He was just… his father turned him into a monster, and he took it out on you. I’m sorry that happened. I’m sorry for everything that happened to you, and I’m sorry that you were alone for so long while you were trying to figure out what’s going on. You didn’t deserve any of that.” 

Turning away, Denny silently swung back and forth. The only sound was that of the creaking chains. Finally, after almost thirty seconds of near-silence, she spoke again. “That girl back at the gas station, Kalia, she didn’t deserve what happened to her dad either. And… and from what you guys said, that… umm, Ammon didn’t deserve to have his dad make him bad.” She sounded hesitant to even say that, but forced the words out. Her voice turned even softer. “Sometimes good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I think… I think it’s not about what anyone deserves. It’s just about what happens. Good and bad.” 

“You’re a smart… person,” Asenath replied after taking a moment to absorb that. “But I’m still sorry you had to try to deal with all that by yourself. Even the strongest, smartest people need to depend on others. You had no idea what was going on or what was happening to you, and you still handled it better than most would have. You didn’t hurt anyone. You helped those people at the bus station. And you saved the sword from Kushiel, even after she kept threatening you. You were smart enough to know that giving it to her would make things worse, and brave enough to lie right to her face. Even after dealing with… with everything else you’ve been dealing with. Even after you saw her kill those people. You still did the right thing.” 

“Brave?” Denny sounded doubtful. “I was so scared I almost threw up. I didn’t have a plan or anything. I didn’t know what to do. If she started killing people again, I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t do anything. I tried to use the voice thing, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t–I didn’t–” She cringed, hunching in on herself, voice almost inaudible. “I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t want to give her the sword. Because if I gave her the sword and she killed people with it, that would be my fault. I don’t want people to be hurt or die because of me. Because if I do… if people die because of something I do, I think that might make him stronger. He might win. He might take over.” She swallowed a hard lump in her throat, hoarsely adding, “I’m not brave. I’m terrified… of him. Of what he’ll make me do if I give him a chance.”

Shaking her head, Asenath slipped off the swing and stepped around to stand in front of the other girl. “That’s why you’re brave, Denny. Do you have any idea how many people would be curled in a ball in the corner, completely catatonic from seeing those memories and thoughts? That or they’d just give into him entirely. Going through everything you did and still keeping yourself from doing anything bad? Having bad thoughts doesn’t make you bad. Listen, I’m a… I’m a vampire. There are so many times when I look at someone, smell their blood, and I just want to give in. I want to taste them. I want to indulge. Even around people I like, sometimes it just… flares up. I used to think that made me a monster. But having those thoughts isn’t evil. You had no idea what was going on. No one explained anything to you. These memories and impulses just kept shoving their way into your head and you still resisted. You did everything you could. You helped those people. You had Ammon’s thoughts in the back of your head and you still saved them. Yes, you are incredibly brave. Braver and smarter than I think almost anyone in your position would have been. You are one incredible girl, and everyone is so lucky that you are.” 

There was a moment of silence. Even the creaking chain stopped as the girl put her feet down to stop the swing. She kept her gaze locked on the ground, staring intently at nothing as various thoughts worked their way through her mind. Finally, Denny exhaled and looked up. “I think the memories are what helped me. My memories, I mean. I… I remembered how scared I was when he… when he made that man hurt me. I remembered laying on the floor and trying to curl up so he wouldn’t kick my stomach so hard. But I couldn’t stop him. I–I remember shooting him. I remember how he looked. I remember going to the gas pump. I remember the taste of–I remember. I remember it.” She swallowed hard, a visible shudder running through her. “I remember being hurt and… and killed like that. And I never want to make anyone feel the way I did. I think that’s why I could… why I can resist him. I think remembering those things helped me not be a monster. I don’t want anyone to ever feel that scared, and that helpless.” The pain in her voice was raw as she stared at Asenath. 

Silently, Senny offered her hands to the girl. She waited until they were accepted, then pulled Denise to her feet. “I am so sorry for everything that happened to you, before and after your… death. Whatever your reasoning, you are still one of the bravest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.” Squeezing her hands, she added quietly, “Your mother never believed that you killed yourself, you know.” 

Blinking rapidly, Denny stared at her, voice tentative. “What do you mean?”  

Asenath, in turn, told the girl about being hired by her mother to find out the truth. “Everyone told her that you killed yourself, but she didn’t believe it. She hired me to find out the truth, to find out who was responsible. That’s how I got involved in this whole thing to begin with. Hell, I’d say that’s why I was there to help Felicity when he tried to hurt her. If your mother hadn’t called me, I never would have been trying to track him down. I never would have showed up at that house and been able to help stop him, save Flick from the people he was controlling, and stop her father from being forced to kill himself. I never would have been there if your mom hadn’t refused to give up on finding out the truth, if she hadn’t refused to believe what they told her.” 

Digesting all of that, Denise turned away and folded her arms tightly. She stared down at the swing she had just been sitting on, silently processing for several long seconds. Finally, she spoke in a quiet voice. “You’re saying I should go back and explain everything to her, to both of them. You think I should tell my parents what’s going on. But how?” She turned back, pivoting on one foot to stare imploringly at the older girl. “How am I supposed to tell them any of this stuff? It sounds really crazy. It sounds… it’s…” Her eyes closed tightly, a small whimper escaping her before she opened them. “And they won’t remember anyway. Isn’t that what you guys said? It’s the umm, the…” 

“Bystander Effect,” Asenath finished for her, giving a short nod. “Yes, that is a thing. But there are pills that your parents can take that will temporarily disable it. So they can remember and understand what you’re telling them, what we can show them. We will still have to convince them that it’s real, but we can stop the Bystander Effect from butting in.” 

“And… and then what?” the girl asked, biting her lip. “Do they just keep taking those pills forever? What’s going to happen to them once they know the truth? Can you just have them do that umm, bonding thingie you were talking about? What if they don’t want to? What if they think I’m a monster? What if they think everyone here is a monster? What if they try to tell the police? What if–”

Reaching out, Asenath put both hands on the girl’s shoulders and spoke gently. “I can’t tell you that everything will be fine. I can’t tell you how they’ll react or how any of that will go. I’ve seen it go really well, and really poorly. I’ve seen the best and the worst reactions. But your parents deserve the chance to show you their reaction for themselves. They deserve the opportunity to know the truth. Like I said, your mother believed in you when everyone was telling her otherwise. Maybe they won’t be able to accept this, but give them a chance, okay?” 

Remaining silent for a few seconds as a conflicting rush of thoughts and feelings worked their way through her, Denny finally gave a very short nod while swallowing a thick lump in her throat. She was clearly still terrified at the prospect, but pushed past that. “Okay,” she managed weakly, “I want to tell them the truth. But you’ll come with me, right? You’ll help stop me if–if…” She was clearly terrified not only of her parents’ reactions, but also what she herself might be tempted to do when she saw them again.

Smiling very gently, Asenath nodded. “Yes. And don’t worry, we’ll help you block those memories and the… the impulses. You’re not alone anymore, I promise. And we’ll bring some others too. Come to think of it, we still need to find out if Felicity and her family are immune to the Denuvus power or not.” 

That made Denny blink. “Immune to the what?” 

“Oh, I guess we didn’t explain that part.” Asenath gestured with one hand. “That power you have, it didn’t come from Ammon originally. It actually belongs to a guy named Denuvus. He–”

“She.” Denny immediately interrupted the other girl, head shaking quickly as she stared with rapidly widening eyes. “You mean she. She was a woman. She talked to me. She was—I mean she even tried to use the–I mean she said her name and she was trying to make me–I mean–” 

Asenath frowned, gently taking the girl’s hands. “Denny, slow down. What do you mean she talked to you? Take a breath. What happened? Do you mean someone started to talk to you about Denuvus? Or… or…” She trailed off, staring at her. This was too important to not be completely precise about what exactly had happened. 

So, Denny did just that. She took a deep breath and let it out before explaining everything about the therapist she had been sent to see. Starting from the beginning, she detailed the entire encounter, including the part when the woman had switched to the name of Denuvus and had clearly tried to control her. Now that Denny understood the power and looked back on it, the meaning behind introducing herself with that name was obvious. 

“And it didn’t work at all?” Senny pressed, thoughts whipping their way through her head. It was a lot to take in. Granted, appearing as a woman didn’t exactly mean a lot in a world of magic, especially given how secretive Denuvus was. He or she always obfuscated details about themself and used proxies to hide behind. There were a thousand different rumors about where they had come from, and she was pretty sure that at least half of them had been started by Denuvus. Being a male could have been a lie from the start, or they could have appeared in a female form to throw people off that way. When dealing with someone like that, you could never take anything at face value. And yet… and yet this was still huge. 

Denny was nodding rapidly. “Uh huh. I mean uh uh. I mean, it didn’t work. She tried to make me tell her about my dreams and then told me to sit down. And she introduced herself both times, with that weird name. I just… I guess I kinda forgot about it because of everything else that’s going on.” Cringing a bit guilty, she quickly added, “I could tell you what she looks like, and if–oh. Oh. I told her to leave me alone and go jump in a lake. I mean, I told her my name and then I told her to go jump in a lake. Umm… that didn’t work though, right?” The girl suddenly sounded pensive and worried. “If I’m immune to her, she’s immune to me, and I didn’t actually make her jump in a lake. So she doesn’t have to be mad at me or anything. She doesn’t have to be angry and–and… umm…” Trailing off, she swallowed hard at the thought of having someone that dangerous angry with her. Even if she was immune, Denny wasn’t stupid. She knew that this Denuvus wasn’t limited to simply trying to use that single power on her. She could use it to hurt other people, or use other things. 

“It’s okay,” Asenath quickly assured her, though she herself was a bit stunned by the whole situation. “Like I said, you aren’t alone. We’re all going to help you, I promise. And we’ll figure out what’s going on with this Denuvus thing. Tell us where his… or her office was and we’ll check it out. I mean, I doubt there’s anything there still, but there’s always the chance Denuvus missed something when cleaning up. Anything that helps find out more about them. I’m pretty sure you’re the only person I know of to have a face to face with them and actually remember it. So anything you can tell us, anything else you remember or think of, it could all help.”

“I don’t–I’m not–” Cringing visibly, Denny gave a quick headshake. “I’ll try. But um, I think I need to check on my mom and dad now.” Drawing herself up, clearly trying to push down all her doubts and insecurities about that, she added, “I… I need to see them. I miss them.” Her voice shook slightly with the admission, revealing just how hard it was to say. She was so afraid of accidentally hurting her parents, and equally afraid of being rejected by them when they found out the truth. Yet she desperately wanted to be with them again. 

Squeezing the girl’s hands, Asenath nodded. “It’s okay. We’ll take you there right now. You’re right, we can deal with everything else later.” Plucking a phone from her pocket, she gestured with it. “Let me just set it up.” 

Quickly, Denise spoke up. “S-so, we’re really… umm… you know, this place is really…” She looked around the park, slowly raising her gaze to look at the artificial sky before swallowing hard. “It’s not really in the sun, right? It’s just somewhere else. Like a big building. That Mr. Sean guy said it was in the sun, but he’s just teasing.”

With a small chuckle, Asenath replied, “Well, he does tease a lot. But not this time. We are one hundred percent inside the sun. It’s a really big space station with a bunch of forcefields to protect it from being burnt up and crushed. It absorbs the energy from the sun and turns that into more force field power. So we never run out.”

Denny stared at her in disbelief. “But why would you do that? Why be in the sun at all? It’s like… super-dangerous. So why take the risk? What if something goes wrong? Won’t it, umm, like, kill everybody before they can do anything? One little crack or whatever and everyone gets incinerated, or crushed. Wait, would you burn up first or get crushed by the pressure?” For a brief moment, it looked as though she was trying to calculate that before quickly abandoning the thought. Instead, she settled on, “It’s bad. It’d be really bad. So why live here?” 

Gently, Asenath explained, “First, as far as the danger goes, you’re right. If anything went wrong, it’d be pretty bad. That’s why they built over a hundred redundancy systems. If there’s any problem with the integrity of the station, everyone on it will be teleported to one of a dozen different potential safe zones down on the planet. See, the way it was explained to me, the computer that helps run this place can do over five hundred thousand trillion calculations per second. You know how many that is? If you made a stack of pennies all the way up to the moon, you’d have to make two more just like it to equal one trillion. You know how long ago the dinosaurs lived?” 

“Um, sixty-five million years?” the younger girl offered. 

“Right, so sixty-five million years,” Asenath confirmed. “A trillion seconds is thirty-two thousand years, so you’d have over two thousand trillion seconds to reach sixty-five million years. Two thousand trillion seconds between now and when the last dinosaurs lived. And this computer can calculate five-hundred thousand trillion times per second. The instant it detects a problem, it will grab everyone on the station and teleport them off. That’s faster than anyone can think.” She smiled a bit, trying to be reassuring. “You see? Does that make you feel better?” 

Flatly, Denise replied, “Sure, unless the computer goes evil and kills everybody.” 

Asenath blanched a little. “Right, that’s where some redundancies come in. But trust me, it’s all as safe as it can be. As for why we live here at all, it’s because there’s a lot of bad people out there who are really powerful, and they want to find us. They want to do a lot of bad things. So, we have to hide in a really good place to make sure everyone who lives here is safe. It could be dangerous if something goes wrong, sure. But it’d be a lot worse if those people found where we live.” 

Swallowing hard as she processed that, Denise offered a weak, “There’s a lot of bad things going on that I don’t know about, huh?” 

“And you don’t need to know about them right now,” Asenath insisted. “You need to think about your family, and deal with your own stuff. Come on, I’ll call ahead and we’ll get an escort to go down to find your parents so we can explain everything.” 

*******

Forty-six minutes later, the group arriving at the front door of Denise’s family home included the girl herself, Asenath, Sarah and Sands Mason, their mother Larissa, and Risa Kohaku. Such a large group normally wouldn’t be required for a simple pick-up job, but they were being careful given the entire situation. And they wanted Denise to know she had all the support she needed when telling her parents what was really going on. 

Besides, Risa was the one who knew how to administer the Bystander Effect-blocking pills that would allow the girl’s parents to even retain any ability to understand and remember what they were being told. 

“Girls, watch the front yard, okay?” Larissa urged her daughters, while the rest of the adults moved up to the door behind Denise herself, who leaned up to push the doorbell, looking even more anxious with every passing second. 

“Sure, we got this,” Sands confirmed, exchanging a fist bump with her sister before the two of them stepped out by the front sidewalk. They listened as the doorbell rang a couple times, then heard Denise try the door and step in, calling out for her mother and father. Silence passed for a few seconds, aside from the sound of the others moving inside. And then, that silence was broken by a scream. 

Exchanging quick looks, Sands and Sarah resisted the urge to pivot and rush that way. Their job was to watch the front walk. If they ran off now just because they were curious, and someone came right in the spot they were supposed to be guarding, it could be really bad. 

“Mom!” Sands called. “What’s going on?” 

The next thing they knew, their mother was rushing Denise right back out of the house, before the girl collapsed to her knees there in the grass and threw up. She was sobbing so hard it seemed like her whole body might tear itself apart from the inside. 

“Kushiel,” Larissa managed flatly after falling right beside the younger girl to gather Denise into her arms. She held her tightly, half-laying there on the grass. “Kushiel was here.” 

“Wh-what?” Sarah spoke up. “How do you know?” 

“She left a note above the bodies,” Larissa informed her daughters. 

“It said, ‘you should have given me the sword.’” 

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The Runaway 15-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The moment the horrible ghost woman was gone, I fell to my knees and gave a deep gasp. Even with help from Tabbris, and my ridiculous stamina, that had taken a lot out of me. A large part of it, of course, was actually channeling all that power into my necromancy and using it properly. It was a lot to push through my system. I had to sit there for a few seconds to catch my breath. Mom and Asenath had already rushed forward to see what happened to me, while Sean and Twister moved to check on Francis, who had apparently passed out the moment Kushiel disappeared. While I was busy catching my breath, I felt my little sister step out of me to quickly explain that I was okay, just really exhausted after all that. 

My head bobbed as I looked up to see them staring. “She’s gone. Not for good, but it’ll take her a while to get herself sorted out after getting hit that hard. And even then she can’t get back here without a lot of help.” Biting my lip, I looked over to where Francis’s limp form was. “Is he okay?” 

“Breathing,” Sean confirmed. “I think he’s sleeping it off. Whatever Kushiel was doing to keep him paralyzed while she wasn’t even possessing him, it looks like it packed a pretty big wallop. Which, what was she doing? How the hell is any of that possible? Is it all just Tartarus bullshit?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted weakly. “All I know is that we don’t have to deal with her right now.” 

“But we will have to deal with her eventually,” Mom murmured, her voice dark as she gazed off into the distance. “A problem that should have been dealt with and gone for good, yet suddenly she’s back again and somehow even worse. Strangely, that isn’t nearly as surprising as I feel like it ought to be.” 

Grimacing it despite myself, I offered a weak, “I’m sorry, I should have been able to handle her. I’ve got all of this power from two different necromancers, and she’s a ghost. But she was just so strong. It’s like that Tartarus place is still fueling her or something. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, she’s not just going to go away. She’ll keep trying to get that sword. I just…” 

“First, don’t apologize.” That was Asenath, her hand moving to squeeze my shoulder as I knelt there. “Seriously, if it wasn’t for you, we would have been completely screwed. She has her old power plus now she’s a ghost, so she’s even harder to hurt without the right skills. It may have taken a lot out of you, but you still got rid of her. At least for now. And next time, we’ll be more prepared. This was a complete ambush and you still handled it better than most would have.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” Sean agreed. “That bitch be as crazy strong as she is just plain crazy. At least now we’ve got the time to practice and prepare stuff for whenever she shows up again. There’s some anti-ghost spells in some of the books I’ve been looking at, and she feels like just the right pain-in-the-ass spook to use them on.” Belatedly, he glanced over to Grover and Seth. “Uh, no offense.” 

Seth just blinked at him. “Why would we be offended by you wanting to get rid of that psycho bitch? Come on, I wanted her to burn in hell when we were alive, so I’m sure as fuck not gonna start feeling attached just because we’re both dead. We’re not suddenly kin or something.”

“Yeah, man,” Grover put in. “Hashtag not all ghosts.” Leaning over, he stage-whispered to me, “Did I use that right? I feel like that’s how they were using it back in the Runaway.” 

My mouth opened to confirm that before the word ‘runaway’ suddenly made me remember the other person in the room. With a gasp, I turned and looked over to the corner. Denise was crouching back there, looking like she was trying to disappear. As everyone else followed my line of sight, she cringed. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I didn’t want to help her. I don’t even know what’s going on, I don’t–I wasn’t trying to–I was–” 

“Denise.” Speaking quietly, Mom took a step over there, going down on one knee near the girl, but not quite close enough to touch. She was clearly worried about scaring her even more. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re the ones who should apologize. We didn’t know you would remember anything. We didn’t…” She trailed off, exhaling. “We thought you could go back to a normal life. I suppose we should have known better.” There was a brief pause before she amended in an even softer voice, “I should have known better.” 

That made the girl blink in confusion, her eyes taking the rest of us in before her head shook. “I don’t know what you’re–I don’t… wait… I know you. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know you, right? But I do. But I… I don’t. You’re… I’ve seen you before. But I haven’t.” She made a helpless noise in the back of her throat then. It was clear that this was confusing her even more. 

“Denise,” I started while pushing myself up so I could move over to take a knee next to my mother. “Maybe you could tell us what you remember, then we can help by filling in the blanks. It’s okay, no matter how… strange you think it is, we’ll believe you, I promise. Just tell us what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. Just… talk to us. We’ll help, I promise.” This whole situation was so much to get into (seriously, it was so much), that it felt like the best place to start from was by finding out what the girl herself already knew. 

So, Denise launched into the story of everything that had been happening to her over the past long while. It was a horrible story to sit there and listen to, knowing how many answers we could have given her. She had been having nightmares about her death and about Ammon’s own memories. Somehow, she was dreaming about all the terrible things he had done. His memories were mixed in with hers and it was really screwing her up. Not only that, she had indeed also somehow ended up with his power. Despite the fact that the power transfer thing was only supposed to be temporary (and, I was pretty sure, was only supposed to give her his Pooka power for that temporary time rather than everything), it seemed to have been permanent. She had his power and some of his memories, though all jumbled together. That was why she was having nightmares. She dreamed of being murdered by him, and of being him as he murdered her. Seriously, how fucked up was that? No wonder this kid was having a hard time. That would have been bad enough by itself, but she was also dreaming about all the other people he had killed. And seeing ‘monsters’ because the Bystander Effect wasn’t working properly. Monsters like Mercer, whom she had used Ammon’s power to make forget about that whole debt thing. So that explained that whole situation. 

The only positive part of all this was that Ammon wasn’t actually back. Not exactly. She had some of his memories, but it was still Denise in there. She was still in control. Yeah, positive in the sense that Ammon wasn’t back. Instead, Kushiel was. Honestly, I’m not sure that was really an improvement. Sure, Ammon’s power was terrifying,  But we had people who were immune to it, and he was still just a kid. Kushiel could conceivably be a hell of a lot more dangerous. 

But in any case, right now we had to focus on Denise. Who apparently also remembered a bunch of fairly inconsequential, academic-like stuff from her previous life. She remembered math and science and history that she had learned as a high school student, despite technically looking like she belonged in middle school. Which wasn’t exactly a problem, really. But it did add on to her confusion, which was even more stressful. Yeah, this poor girl needed help. And by help, I meant an explanation. She desperately needed, and definitely deserved, an explanation. 

“Sean,” Mom started once the poor girl had finished telling her side of the story, “I believe things should be fairly safe now. Could you go down and find Mennin to let him know what’s going on, and have him send some help for Francis?”  

As if her attention had only just turned that way, Denise abruptly blurted, “I-is that a robot dog?” 

“Sure is,” Sean confirmed, putting a hand on his head. “This is Vulcan. Vulcan, why don’t you go say hi?” 

The cyberform promptly moved that way, trotting closer. He passed my mother and me, before sitting on his haunches right in front of the girl. Denise hesitated, then reached out to tentatively touch his snout. Running her fingers along his mouth curiously, she inched closer, then slowly put both arms around Vulcan in a hug. One that I was pretty sure the poor kid desperately needed. 

Apparently Sean agreed, because he told Vulcan to stay here for now. Then he headed out for the medical room, calling back that he would find out what was going on with the other guests too. 

Once he was gone, I looked toward Denise once more. She still had both arms around Vulcan, clinging to him like a lifeline. “Okay. So, we do have answers for you. Some of them are really not… some of them are gonna freak you out. But it’s the truth. We won’t lie to you, I swear.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. “You deserve… a lot. But the very least we can give you is the truth.” 

So, we started from the beginning, at least as far as we could while still being vaguely relevant to Denise. We told her about Crossroads and Heretics, about the rebellion and my mother being sent away with a new memory, and eventually being taken by Fossor. We told her about Ammon, and how he had been turned evil. Then we got into the fact that he had gone to that gas station while on his way to find me

“That girl worked there,” Denise filled in, her voice full of trepidation as she clung even tighter to Vulcan. “He killed her, didn’t he? I saw her memories too. I saw… I mean… what?” She was looking at all of us as we stared at her, clearly reading the trouble in our expressions. 

Realizing how hard this was going to be, my mother and I exchanged looks before she turned back to the girl and started to gently explain the full truth. She started by calling Twister over, before the two of them explained what a Pooka could do beyond turning into animals, how they would ‘respawn’ as a child upon being killed, then mentioned that Ammon had forced one to ‘kill’ himself, thus inheriting his power. Twister tried to explain what it was like, waking up as a child once more and then gradually getting the memories of her past lives back. 

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Denise was starting to put things together, though she was clearly still in some denial. She held onto Vulcan even tighter while watching, eyes completely unblinking as she waited for the other shoe to drop.  

In the end, Mom tried to lower the shoe as much as possible before dropping it, but there was no way to stop it from hitting the floor. Taking a deep breath, she explained exactly what had happened, that the dreams about dying Denise had been having weren’t dreams at all, but her actual memories. She told the girl exactly how that whole thing had gone down, and how she had transferred Ammon’s powers to her in order to bring the girl back to life. She also told her about how she wasn’t supposed to remember anything, and that the powers were supposed to be incredibly temporary, only lasting for a few seconds at most. Just enough to bring her back. 

“If I had had any idea that you would actually remember anything, or retain any of it, I would have… I would have made sure someone was there for you.” There was pain in Mom’s voice,  and I could tell she wanted to reach out to the girl, but didn’t know how it would be taken. She clenched her hands and quietly added, “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry no one was there to help explain things to you, and I’m sorry you’ve had to try to understand this all on your own. You deserve better than that. Much better.” 

Denise didn’t respond at first. She stared at my mother, then at me, then looked down at the floor. Her grip on Vulcan remained tight as she made a low whimpering sound deep in her throat, clearly trying to cope with what she had just been told. I tried to think about how I would feel in her position, but I couldn’t even imagine it. Even after everything I have been through, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with being given the story that Denise had just been given. It was too much. How was she supposed to cope with the amount of shit that had just been dropped on her? She wasn’t just finding out the monsters were real and all that, she was also finding out that she had literally been murdered and brought back to life as a younger version of herself. 

“I know it’s a lot, kid,” Twister put in. I expected her to add a joke or something after that, but instead, she simply added, “Some of us Pooka have a sort of group meeting sometimes where we can talk about our memories. You know, the ones about being killed, and all those times where we don’t remember our past lives and think we’re just normal people. Sometimes the real memories kicking in are… well, kicking is the right word. Like a mule. It can really hurt. So, you know, you can come and be a part of that, if you want. Anytime you want, when you’re ready.” 

Staring at the floor and silence for several long seconds, Denise finally pushed herself up and folded her arms tightly, turning away from us. Her shoulders were shaking visibly, though no sound emerged. After an extended moment of that, she took a long, deep breath before quietly speaking. “I’m scared. I thought getting answers would make things better, but now I’m even more scared. You e-explained everything, but it didn’t help. It doesn’t help. I’m–he’s… he’s still there.” She turned it back to us, fists clenched. “I can feel him. I can hear his voice. I can see the things he did, the things he wants to do. And now… now I know it’s not just in my head. He’s really evil and he really killed all those people. He killed me. They aren’t just dreams. They’re real. And the things he makes me think about when I look at my mom and dad, they’re what he wants me to do. He wants me to kill them.” Tears had flooded her eyes, as she shook violently while standing there.

It was Twister who moved first, stepping over to embrace the girl tightly. Again, there were no jokes, no off-color remarks or attempts to break the tension. She just held onto Denise and let the girl cling tightly to her as the tears continued to pour out, uncontrolled. A dam had burst, and it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Not with how long Denise had been holding so much of it back. She had answers now, but as she’d said, the answers didn’t exactly fix things. 

“But you won’t,” I found myself saying before even realizing that I was going to speak up. The words came without conscious thought. And it wasn’t because of Tabbris, because she was still out of me. “You’ve already proven you’re stronger than him, than those memories. You were all by yourself and you still beat his memories. You resisted. You already proved you can beat him. And now you’re not alone anymore.” 

Mom gave a short nod. “That’s right, and you’re not going to be alone again. I don’t… I know you probably don’t want to be around us very much. Not after what you just found out. But we have people you can stay with, others who can help you understand your… power and how to get through those memories and dreams. We have friends who can be there for you.” 

For a moment, it looked like Denise was really fighting to find the right thing to say. Her mouth kept opening and shutting before she looked back to the floor, a frown knitting her brow. “Can’t you just erase those thoughts and memories? You do things like that, right? You could take his memories out of my head, right?” 

Again, we all exchanged looks before I hesitantly answered, “We have someone who might be able to do something with that, but I don’t want to speak for her. She’s definitely an expert at that sort of thing, so if anyone can do it, she can. But she’ll have to talk to you for a while and find out for herself if it’s possible. And how to do it without hurting you.” 

Swallowing, she met my gaze. “I just want them gone. I just want him gone. I just…” Her eyes closed and I saw a few more tears fall as she whispered in an exhausted voice. “I just want to sleep without dreaming about killing people.” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I had no idea. The only words that would come was a very weak, “Come with us and we’ll get you some help. Somehow.” I didn’t know if it would be as easy as just removing those memories or not, but somehow we would help her. 

“What about my parents?” she asked then, just as weakly. “They think I’m at my aunt’s. I… I lied to them.” Her voice was even more pained than before at the admission. “It was bad. It was wrong. But I had to tell them something. I had to… I had to leave, before the dreams made me… before…” She shuddered visibly, unable to go on. 

“We’ll work out what to do with your parents, I promise,” Mom assured her. “We’ll figure all that out later. Right now, we just need to have you talk with Sariel and see what she can do. That’s the first thing.” 

Even as she said that, the doors opened and several uniformed medical people came in, escorted by Sean. He waved them over to where Francis was (someone had put a pillow under his head). One of them split off to move over to check on Denise as well, taking a knee while having her sit in a chair so he could ask medical-related questions. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us moved out of the way for the moment. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Seth there. He arched an eyebrow. “So, seems like this ghost problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Think I could tag along with you, Miss Necromancer?” 

“Do you mean the problem of Kushiel being a ghost, or of you being a ghost?” I found myself asking. 

“Sure,” he replied with a sly wink before sobering. “Seriously, better than sticking around and haunting this place even longer. Last time I checked, you’re where the action is.” 

“Yeah, hey, me too.” That was Grover. “Your life seems pretty exciting. I want to see more. Besides, you still owe me a stabbing.” 

Glancing toward Asenath, who was standing in a corner of the room trying not to stare too much, I gestured. “Yeah. You’re welcome to stay. I need more ghosts. But uhh, maybe you should go talk to her, huh?” 

Giving me a brief salute, the man turned and moved that way. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, and I didn’t want to eavesdrop. It was between the two of them. 

Instead, I looked over at the doorway, where Koren and Rebecca had arrived. They looked at me questioningly, and I exhaled before stepping over to explain what was going on.  

They listened, with obvious increasing incredulity about the whole thing. Partway through, however, I paused and looked toward my mother. “Why do you think Kushiel was so convinced that sword was in here?” 

“Oh!” Denise piped up. “Um, because it was.” As the rest of us stared, she darted off the chair, moving to the fireplace to root around inside it before coming out with something long wrapped in cloth. She carefully set it down on a table, then unveiled… the sword. It was absolutely the right one, fitting the description perfectly, with a black blade, a red handle, and an amber jewel at the end. The sword, it was here. It was right here the whole time.

“What… but… but…” My mouth opened and shut, staring at the thing. “You said you couldn’t find it.”

She, in turn, squirmed a little uncomfortably. “I thought umm, I thought it’d be bad if she got it. She said she’d kill people if I didn’t help her find it, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill people anyway. I thought if she found it, everything would be worse. If she killed people because I didn’t give it to her, she would’ve done that anyway. But if she killed even more people because I did give it to her, it would’ve been my fault. I umm… I know it’s bad to lie. Am… am I bad?” 

“No, Denise,” I started. 

“Denny,” she interrupted. “I umm, please. Please call me Denny.” 

“Sure, anything you want,” I agreed while continuing to stare in disbelief at the sword. “But you’re not bad, Denny.

“In all, I’d say you’re pretty amazing.” 

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The Runaway 15-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Seeing Seth as a ghost had been a pleasant sort of surprise. This? This was basically the worst kind. Seeing Kushiel there, even as a ghost, made me reel backward. This was wrong. This was all wrong. She was supposed to be gone completely. And how was she possessing Francis? I didn’t–what–how? All those questions rushed through my head as I stared open-mouthed at the figure. 

“Lady,” Mom announced, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re going to explain just what the hell is going on here. And let Francis go. Now.” Even as she spoke, my mother focused, producing a gleaming silvery-gold sword out of nowhere, with runes inscribed on it that were glowing with energy. I had no idea what it was or where it came from, but it seemed pretty dangerous. My mother clearly wasn’t playing around. 

“It’s Kushiel,” Sean informed her in a flat voice, without taking his eyes off the woman in question. He had one hand on Vulcan’s head, while the cyberform gave a low growl. “Puriel’s wife. Theia’s mother.” 

“Her name is not Theia!” Kushiel practically thundered. Seriously, the room shook a little bit, with paintings and light fixtures rattling against the walls. Her ghostly figure turned a bit red, and seemed to actually give off a bit of heat. “She has no name, she is Mendacia. She could have earned a name if she worked hard enough to help fix what she is, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t. She has no name. And even if she did, it certainly wouldn’t be that name.”

“What are you doing?” I put in, before we could get more off track. Besides, I really didn’t feel like letting her talk about Theia at all. She didn’t deserve to. “How are you controlling Francis? And what the hell did you do to Denise?” Even as I said that, I gave the girl in question a quick glance. She had moved to hide behind the nearest couch, peeking over it with a tiny whimper when I said her name. 

“What am I doing?” Kushiel echoed, her voice reverberating through the room once more. “Well, little girl, as it turns out, it would seem that being dead is not exactly the end for those of us with enough of a Tartarus gift. We still have things to do. That energy, that power… I can still feel it.” She looked at her own semi-translucent hand, clearly marveling. “Yes, I am a ghost. But you can feel for yourself, not the ordinary sort. Tartarus sustains me, gifts me with the strength to resist even your control. I even maintain my ability to possess and control others.” She glanced over her shoulder at the motionless man behind her. “In exchange for service.” 

“Something’s wrong,” I murmured. “This isn’t her. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. She’s different.” 

“Different?” Kushiel glowered at me, gaze seeming to burn straight into my soul. “If I have changed in some way, perhaps it is the fault of the creature who murdered me.” 

“That creature is your own daughter!” I snapped back. “The one you abused and tortured for most of her life, just because she’s different.” 

“She is an abomination!” The ghostly figure roared. That time, several of the paintings fell off the walls and I felt a blast of heat fill the room. It was enough to make me wince a little bit, though it only lasted for a moment. “And I assure you, she will get what is coming to her.” 

Mom spoke up then. “You are not going to hurt anyone else.” As she said that, the sword flared to life with light blue flames. A form of ghostfire, I was pretty sure. 

“You might want to think twice about using that,” Kushiel retorted darkly, even as her form seemed to fade just a little bit. She didn’t disappear, but most of her body turned even more translucent. Except for her eyes. Those flared even brighter. “Even in life, I was a bit harder to harm than you might assume.” 

“She reflects damage to other people,” I put in. Mom knew that, she’d heard the stories. But I wanted to make sure everyone remembered, just in case. High as tempers were right now, one wrong move could turn incredibly bad. “You hurt her, she makes it hurt someone else instead.” 

Kushiel’s cold, dead gaze focused on me. “Very good, child. Gold star for you. That is what they say on this backwater, nothing world, isn’t it? Several gold stars. Have all you want. For all the good they will do you.” 

Twister, straightening up beside Sean, replied, “How do you know she even still has that power? I mean, she’s a ghost. Did she really get to smuggle that sort of gift past Death Customs?”

A look of amusement crossed the woman’s gaze, as she stared Twister down. “Oh, by all means, have a go if you wish to see for yourself. Or, perhaps you should ask the child there.” 

Denise, with a tiny gulp, managed to weakly put in, “They tried to hurt her when she showed up. Mr. Gale did, before she… before she took him. But everything they hit her with, it… it hurt other people.” 

Great, so there was our confirmation. Kushiel really had kept her power after death. Because that was fair. Sometimes I really just wanted to look at the sky and scream bullshit as loud as I could. Not that it would actually help anything, but it might make me feel a little better for a few seconds.  

Asenath finally spoke up, her voice quiet. “But what does Denise have to do with any of this?” 

“That child?” the tall, ghostly woman gave a contemptuous glance that way, making the girl in question whimper and duck down again. “Everything and nothing. I sensed the dark presence in her as soon as they brought her in. The power she has, I can smell it. For months, I had no firm presence in this place. I floated through its walls, my form… scattered. It was so… difficult to focus, to think. I was dreaming of Tartarus, of what has to happen. Dreaming of what must come, but unable to bring myself together. I could not force myself to coalesce, no matter how hard I tried. Like attempting to wake from a deep slumber. The protections within this place forced me to continue my aimless drifting, my sleep, my dreams. When that child was brought into this place, I felt her presence like a beacon. It helped me bring myself together, just a bit more. Not enough, but it was better than nothing. And then… when the man who has been entrusted with this hotel’s care left the premises, my head cleared even more.” 

Mennin, I realized. His mother was gone, and when he had left to come collect us, it somehow removed the protections that had stopped Kushiel from bringing herself together fully. I didn’t know how or why that was a thing in the first place, but it was the only way this made sense. For a certain definition of ‘making sense.’ The thought that all of this had started happening just because we pulled the man away from the Auberge was enough to send a cold chill through me. 

“I felt my strength return,” Kushiel was saying. “For the first time in months, I truly felt like myself. And I knew what to do. I took their protector.” She gave a dismissive wave of her hand toward Francis, who was still standing motionless, staring at nothing. “I took his body for my own. He fought me, as she said. But it was both meaningless and too late. And, of course, it did not help that he was distracted attempting to aid the child there.” 

“She killed them,” Denise managed in a voice that cracked from fear and grief. “They were trying to h-help me, and she… she killed them. She killed them and their… their ghosts were there. But sh-she took them. It was like she… swallowed their ghosts.” 

That was enough to make Grover and Seth each take a step back, while Kushiel gave them a dark smile. “Yes, absorbing other ghosts does seem to help with my own focus and strength. And I am getting a bit peckish.” 

Denise went on quickly. “I tried to stop her, I tried to use the voice, but she didn’t listen. It didn’t work. I-it didn’t do anything.” 

Kushiel was immune to Ammon’s power? That raised even more questions. Was it a ghost thing or–yeah, I had no idea. Not to mention the way Denise talked about it seemed to indicate that she wasn’t actually being controlled by Ammon’s memories or whatever. But that opened a whole new confusing can of worms that we didn’t have time to get into thanks to the elegantly dressed and psychotic ghost elephant in the room. 

Denise was still talking. “Sh-she said she’d stop killing people here if I helped her find the thing she’s looking for. I-I didn’t want to, but she promised she’d leave everyone else alive if I found it.” 

“Yes, and you have failed at that repeatedly, haven’t you?” Kushiel shot back, her harsh voice making the girl recoil and drop back behind the couch once more with a choked sound of terror. 

Asenath quickly snapped, “Leave her alone! What the hell are you even looking for in here? What do you want?”  

From the corner of my eye as she was saying that, I noticed Seth move to put his hand on her shoulder, only to fail as it simply passed through the girl. He glanced down at his hand and grimaced. 

“What do I want?” Kushiel echoed the question, just as she had the earlier one. “What I want is what belongs to me. Perhaps if you children assist that one in finding it, I will be grateful enough to allow you, and everyone else who still resides in this pit, to live for the time being. Who knows, if I get what I want, I may be so pleased that I will spare you permanently.”

We really were in trouble here. I had been trying to get hold of her ghost form with my power this whole time, to no avail. It was that Tartarus energy. Not only was it somehow sustaining her as a ghost and allowing her to do far more than she should have been able to, it also made it impossible for me to make my Necromancy latch onto her. It was shielding her or something. Or it just made her ghost too different for my power to get a good grip. I could sense her pretty well now. Hell, I could even sense the link she had to Francis, like a piece of her sitting inside him. Her recall point. 

Either way, beating her the easy way was out. At least for now. Worse, none of us had the sort of power it would take to kill Kushiel without having it rebound back on one or more of us. I was curious whether Tabbris’s wings could destroy her without being reflected, but I wasn’t sure. And that really wasn’t the sort of thing that you could just test. If I was wrong and the damage from the wing blasts could be reflected, whoever it hit would be obliterated. We couldn’t risk that. 

On the other hand, thinking about that made another thought pop into my head. Immediately, I blurted, “Well, it’d be pretty hard to help you find whatever you’re looking for when we don’t even know what it is.” 

“I-it’s a sword,” Denise put in. “A sword with a red handle, a umm, a little yellow jewel at the end, and the blade is black. Like, totally black.” 

“Shit, you really think you can find that thing?” That was Grover, of all people. The young-looking ghost boy had floated up to one side of me, staring at Kushiel. “You know how many of our folks have scoured the whole world for that sword? It’s a myth. And not the real sort of myth. The fake kind. You think you’re the first dead thing to try to get it? I had a pal who wasted two centuries looking for that thing. Never got anywhere. You know why? Because it’s a dumb bedtime story. It ain’t real and it never was.” 

Kushiel looked like she was about to retort, before giving a double-take, her eyes narrowing. “I have no idea who you are.” The words came in a suspicious snarl. 

“Grover Clyde, at… her service,” he replied with a nod toward me. “And like I said, lady, if hundreds of ghosts over the past thousand years can’t find that sword, what makes you think you can within five minutes of waking up?” 

Glowering once more, as her ghostly form gave off even more heat, Kushiel snapped dangerously, “Perhaps it is the fact that I was there when it was enchanted, simpleton. I know who took it. And I know he stayed in this hotel, in this room. It may have been changed and redecorated many times over the centuries, but I know it was here. The blade is in this room somewhere. I can feel it.” 

“Uh, for those of us who have no clue what the hell you’re talking about,” Sean spoke up, “how about you tell us what the hell you’re talking about? What sword? Why do you want it so bad? And why were a bunch of ghosts looking for it?” 

Kushiel’s glower turned that way. For a moment, I was afraid she’d get so hot she might start incinerating things. It was almost like that old Disney Hercules movie, when Hades would get so pissed off he turned red. But this wasn’t funny. It was dangerous, and we still didn’t have a way to safely counter her. Especially not when she could jump back into Francis at any point and suddenly be in control of a Steward-Hybrid within his own home. That was a recipe for disaster. 

In the end, however, I supposed her need for the sword was stronger than her rage. Because the ghost woman calmed a bit, lifting her chin thoughtfully. “You want to know what this sword is? Why doesn’t your little friend there tell you all about it? Given his clear expertise, and all.” 

“Yeah.” Seth was looking at Grover as well. “I’m kinda curious about that myself.” 

Grover, in turn, shrugged carelessly. “Well sure, I guess. According to the myth, because that’s all it is, the sword is called Clarent.” 

“Wait, hold on,” I blurted. “I know that one. That’s the, you know, the sword Mordred used. G–Morgan’s son. That was his weapon, right?” Yeah, I had done a little research after the whole Guinevere revelation. Not to mention finding out that Aylen was supposed to be the one that brought Arthur back to life somehow. That was still a doozy. 

“Very good, another gold star,” Kushiel put in, a bit tauntingly. It made my mother growl just a little while stepping closer to me. If the Seosten woman cared, she didn’t show it. Instead, she simply offered me a very faint, humorless smile. “But then, from everything I have heard, you were always an ambitious little go-getter. I’m not surprised you did your homework.” 

Grover quickly pushed on. “Well, uh, anyway, according to all the rumors, this Clarent can be picked up and used by ghosts. Or anyone else of a less-than-tangible nature. It’s got a lot of powers attached to it. And it’s supposed to help you find his body. Mordred’s that is.” 

That made me do a double-take, though Sean spoke first. “Why would you want to find that body?” 

The ghost-boy’s eyes glanced toward me before he flatly replied, “Because that body is special. You know, according to the legend. Yeah, even ghosts have legends. If you believe them, a ghost is supposed to be able to possess that body and control it permanently. You know, basically coming back to life. And you get all his power and everything too. Supposedly.” 

Turning my gaze sharply back toward Kushiel, I snapped, “That’s what you want? You want to find that sword so you can get to that body and possess it?” 

“What can I say,” she lazily replied, “there’s a few bells and whistles on that corpse that would be very useful for someone as living-impaired as I happen to be. To say nothing of some other benefits. My little friend behind me there is a decent temporary fix, but maneuvering him is so much more awkward than it should be. He’s always fighting me. But with the body that Manakel and my dear husband prepared? It would be exactly like coming back to life again. Or, as close as one can get. Add a little magical shapeshifting, and I’ll be as good as–well, better than new, really.” 

Yeah, this was definitely bad. One of the last people I wanted to find a way to come back to life again was Kushiel. Not exactly the very bottom of the list. That spot was and always would be reserved for a certain necromancer. But she was definitely pretty far down there. We couldn’t let her find that sword or that body. And we absolutely couldn’t let her kill anyone else in this place. But we still couldn’t fight her directly. Anything we tried to hurt her with, she would just reflect back at one of us. 

“How do you even know that sword is in this suite?” Sean demanded with a glance toward me. “Seems to me like the kid over there has been tearing this place apart without much luck. Maybe you got your rooms wrong. Did you mix up the one and the seven, or maybe the nine and the six? People do that all the time. I’m just saying, we could expand the search.” 

Kushiel was… unamused. She gave him a withering stare before retorting, “The sword is here. I know it is here. And now that you are all here as well, you can help find it.” 

Taking two steps forward, my mother spoke quietly. “And just what on this planet, or any other, makes you think we would ever help you find something that would allow you to be that dangerous?”

Unmoved, Kushiel flatly replied, “Because unlike me, your daughter is not a disappointment. Truly, you have so much to be proud of.” Her eyes moved to me, and I felt a shiver run down my spine at the coldness of that gaze. “She has done so much to gain the enmity of me, and my people. But given our respective sides, I believe that makes you care for her even more. As you care for all these people. So allow me to put this plainly. Find me what I am looking for, and I shall take my leave of this place and you may all go about your day. Perhaps you may even discuss a way to kill me again.

“But deny me? Try to keep my property away from me? Should you make such a foolish choice, I will have the gentleman behind me incinerate every room in this hotel. Believe me when I say he is capable of it. This is a true Steward Hybrid.  And this is a home full of so many gifts for him. You cannot harm or stop me without killing yourselves. And should you try, I will burn this entire place to the ground and retrieve my property from the ashes.”

Mom started to say something to that, but I quickly interrupted. “You were right about something else, you know.”

That made Kushiel look at me, eyes narrowed. She was clearly suspicious, and yet too arrogant to act on that suspicion. Which said a lot given the fact that she was literally dead thanks to underestimating someone. “I have been correct about a great many things, child. Perhaps you should be more specific.”

For a moment, I didn’t respond. Instead, I took in a deep breath and let it out, eyes closing briefly. Then I opened them and looked at her. I intentionally kept my voice as calm and steady as possible. “A minute ago, you said I was an overachiever. I guess I have been in some ways. It’s been that way for a long time. I always felt this extra drive to try harder at something I cared about. And awhile back, I found out why that was, where that extra drive came from. The truth is, I was feeling the drive of two people. There is always someone right there with me cheering me on, encouraging me, pushing me to do better. She was right there, every time I needed her.”

Kushiel raised a hand, but it was too late. Because in that moment, Tabbris, whom I had spent the past several minutes summoning and silently conferring with, made her presence known by manifesting those glowing wings out of my back. 

But we didn’t use them to blast the woman, not without knowing whether it would work or not. Instead, every ounce of the power they could provide was pushed into my necromancy. The wings flared blindingly for one instant before fading, as I felt their strength flood through me. 

“Bye, bitch.”

With those words, I pushed as hard as I could with every ounce of power I now had.

And with a scream of rage that seemed to shake the entire building to its foundation, Kushiel’s connection to Francis was snapped, and the ghost herself was sent far, far away. 

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The Runaway 15-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For several long seconds, all of us just stared at the ghost figure. My mouth had fallen open, a noise of disbelief escaping me. Somehow, in the rush of trying to find out what had happened to Denise, I had entirely forgotten that Seth had been murdered right here in this building. Abaddon. Abaddon had killed him. Of course it made sense that one of the ghosts I would feel was him. He had to be one of the most recently killed people, aside from… aside from those three below and whoever else Denise-Ammon had killed. Of course it made sense. But I hadn’t thought about that at all. It had completely slipped my mind until he was standing right in front of us. 

Asenath was the first to actually find her voice, stepping right up to the shield. “Seth,” she managed, eyes wide. “You–you actually left behind a… you.” 

“A ghost?” He winked casually. “Yeah well, you didn’t think I was just gonna fade away into nothing, did you? Someone like me, we pretty much have to leave a mark on the world. In my case, it turns out that mark is literally a copy of myself.”  He squinted thoughtfully before adding, “I suppose there’s a story in there somewhere.” 

“That’s the sort of story that can come later,” Mom put in. “Can you do what we need?” 

“Oh, hey there, Jos.” Seth turned his attention to her and gave a little bow, his look one of familiarity. “I heard a few of the people around here talking about you getting out from under that fuck’s heel. Good for you. Wish I’d been there for that little scuffle. I had a few things I wanted to say to the bastard. As for this, yeah, I know where the power source for the shield is, but I need a little boost.” His eyes found me. “Can’t really generate enough physical force to break it without some help. Suppose that’s the problem with being dead.” As though to demonstrate, he waved his hand through a nearby wall. “If you wouldn’t mind, Miss Necromancer? I hear you’re pretty strong with that these days.” Raising a hand to the side of his mouth, he stage-whispered, “Ghosts gossip.”

Yeah, it was definitely him. Even in this sort of situation, Seth just didn’t take anything seriously. If I had thought his own death might change that, I was sorely mistaken. Or maybe it was just that ghosts were literally an impression of the original person left on the world using their magical energy. Either way, he was definitely still Seth. I was sorry that Shiori wasn’t here to see him. I knew how much she had liked the guy. 

Pushing all that out of my mind immediately, I gave a short nod. “I’ve been practicing,” I confirmed before closing my eyes. I focused on the energy in front of me. It took a moment to reach past the forcefield in order to feel Seth himself, but I managed it. With a little bit of effort, I pushed more power into him. I could feel his form solidify a little bit. It was somewhat like filling up a balloon with water, if that balloon had already held its shape for the most part. He became more present, more capable of acting on the outside world. 

“Ah, better.” Seth exhaled. “There we go. Now you all sit tight here. I’ll be right back.” With that, the man spun on his heel and walked into one of the nearby rooms we could see. The rest of us exchanged anxious looks. 

“Damn,” Twister noted, “even dead, he’s still pretty damn cu–”

“Don’t say it,” Asenath interrupted. “Trust me, he can hear you. Even as a ghost, he’ll never miss out on a chance to hear someone saying something that could inflate his ego.” 

“So what’s the deal with that guy?” my ghost buddy from the other hotel spoke up. “Sounds like you guys all know each other. C’mon, gimme the story. I like stories almost as much as stabbings. Especially if the story involves stabbing.” 

“I don’t think–hang on, what’s your name, anyway?” I realized I had never asked him. Mostly because I’d been a bit occupied back at Mercer’s place (not that I wasn’t occupied now), and didn’t think I’d ever see him again. 

“Grover,” he replied. “Grover Clyde, at your service.” He flashed me a smile that had probably melted a lot of hearts back when he was a living little boy. 

Over the next twenty seconds or so, I quickly gave Grover the rundown on who Seth was and what had happened. When I was done, he actually seemed to blanch a bit. “Damn. That sucks, man.” 

“Tell me about it,” Senny murmured. There was clear emotion in her voice, despite her attempt to play it off casually. For all that she had given Seth shit for being… well, Seth, it had always been obvious that she cared a lot about him. He was basically a brother to her, and I knew she felt horrible for what she saw as ‘letting him die’ before they could find her father. Who, of course, had been the one to turn Seth into a vampire in the first place. Tiras had brought him into their family. Asenath saw his death as a personal failure on her part. Which wasn’t really fair, but feelings and emotions seldom took fairness into account. 

Reaching out to avoid focusing on that, I looked through Seth’s eyes. He was standing in front of a black crystal about the size of a bowling ball. It was red and silver, floating in the air on a cushion of magical energy. That same magical energy surrounded the thing, seeming to form a sort of shield around it. Seth had already punched the thing a couple times, wearing out some of the power I’d given him. So, I filled him up with more, shoving my own energy into the ghost-man. He gave a gasp, before I saw him look down at his hands, clenching them into fists. “Why, thank you.” He was clearly talking to me, before rearing back to punch the shield surrounding the crystal once more. That time, it was enough, and the shield shattered. Which allowed Seth to reach in and grab the floating thing. He held it up above his head, grunted, and then slammed it down to the ground. The crystal shattered entirely, and I snapped myself back to seeing through my own eyes just in time to witness the forcefield that had been blocking our path completely vanish. 

Immediately, we all started to run that way. Twister flew down in hummingbird form, transforming to herself briefly before shifting into a wolf that raced alongside us. Even Seth jogged along with the group as soon as we passed the room where the crystal had been. I could still feel Denise ahead, on the far end of this floor. And yet, something was bugging me. I quickly spoke up, “Where did Denise-Ammon get a big crystal to power that forcefield?” 

Mom pivoted, facing me while still moving. “What big crystal?” 

Seth explained what he’d had to break in order to make the forcefield come down. Which brought my mother to a momentary halt. “Wait,” she spoke up sharply, making the others stop as well. “Felicity’s right, why–how would Denise, or Ammon if his memories have taken over, have that crystal? It’s… possible that it was already here, for some other purpose and they just took it.” Even as she said that, I could hear the doubt and uncertainty in her voice. And I didn’t blame her for that. There was just something very strange about the fact that crystal was there. Strange and convenient for trying to keep people like us away from them. There was a lot about this whole thing that wasn’t adding up. Could someone else be involved? That felt like wishful thinking. 

“Ammon… Ammon probably made someone tell him where he could get an energy source,” Asenath pointed out. “There have to be a lot of them around here.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, fair point. Still, something just seems…” 

“Off,” Twister agreed, rising up into her human form. “Yeah, babe, it’s felt off since we’ve been here. And it’s not just the fact that there were three dead bodies waiting for us. This whole place is just… it feels like someone’s watching us, you know?” She shivered, folding her arms. “I thought it was my imagination, paranoia from that whole creepy Ammon thing. But I dunno.” 

“We need answers,” Mom pointed out, gazing in the direction of where I could still feel Denise. “The best way to get those is to find that girl, make sure she can’t hurt anyone else, and then ask her some questions.” 

“Ahh, just out of curiosity here, what girl are you all talking about?” Seth put in. He rocked back and forth on his heels, his gaze sweeping over us. “I didn’t exactly see what happened here before you showed up, but I’ll tell you this much, there was definitely more than one person. I heard lots of voices, and some of the scuffles that happened, it wasn’t some little girl doing it.” 

“She could have put people in the hotel under her power. Or his power. Or–” Shaking off the whole confusion of that, I focused, telling Seth what we believed had happened. “The Ammon part of her has probably put some of the hotel guests and staff under her control and made them fight the others. That makes sense, right?”

“It does,” Mom reluctantly confirmed. “But we should still make sure we know what we’re walking into.” It sounded like the last thing she wanted to say. Mom needed to get in that room and stop Denise from doing… whatever she was doing. But she was right, we needed to know more. We weren’t going to do her or anyone else any good if we ran straight into some sort of trap. Sure, maybe this whole thing was just a result of Denise being taken over by Ammon’s memories/personality and using his power to make people in the hotel do things (including bringing out that crystal and setting up the forcefield), but even that still left a lot of questions. Including a lot of whys. Why would she want to do that? Why was she still spending time in this hotel instead of leaving? What was she looking for up here? What were we missing? Besides a lot. I was pretty sure one of the main answers to that last question was, ‘a lot.’ 

With a slight shudder to myself about how badly this whole situation could go, and was already going considering the dead people, I offered, “Maybe Grover and Seth could scout ahead and see what’s going on first?” Belatedly, I looked at the two ghosts. “That is, if you guys don’t mind that.”

The two, who had just met, immediately and without hesitation replied together, “Sure, what’re they gonna do, kill me?” They both then pointed and blurted, “Jinx!” 

Quickly, I waved my hands. “Just go see what’s going on in there!” Something was wrong. Something more than we knew. The urge to brush down this last hallway and run right into the room where I could still feel Denise moving around was almost overwhelming. I had to grab my own arms and make myself stop. A glance over to the side showed that Mom was basically in the same situation. She was staring that way, tightening and loosening her fists repeatedly. We had to help Denise. But we had to actually help her, not go rushing into a trap, or whatever this was, just because we were anxious. 

So, hard as it was, we waited. At least I had it a little easier than my mother. I was able to close my eyes and focus on the vision of one of the ghosts so I could see what was going on. I chose Seth. 

Immediately, I saw the door he was looking at. It was clearly an entrance into one of the fancier suites. Which also meant that it had a lot of magical shielding around it. Or at least, it had had a lot of magical shielding. Even while looking through Seth’s eyes, I could see where over a dozen different protective runes had been expertly broken. He and Grover were both leaning in to stare at where the shielding had been destroyed, clearly checking to see if there was any protection left. But I could tell already that there wasn’t. The room was completely open, at least as far as its magical defenses went. 

Sending a silent message for the two of them to wait for a moment, I opened my eyes and turned back to the others, telling them what we had seen. My head shook once I’d finished. “Does Ammon know how to break magic like that?” 

“Not that I’m aware of,” Mom murmured thoughtfully. “But it’s possible that his father taught him without my knowledge, or that he forced someone else to teach him at some point. It’s also possible that he controlled someone here into doing it. Through Denise.” With those last two words, her eyes darkened considerably.   

While she was saying that, another problem had jumped into my mind. If Denise had Ammon’s memories, or his personality had taken over, or… or whatever, did that mean that she remembered what had happened to kill him? More to the point, did she know that Dare was immune to him, and what that must mean? We hadn’t seen the sky crack apart temporarily like it had back when Koren and I had figured it out, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen at any second. Hell, it could have happened outside now without us knowing, right? Because what I really needed right now was another huge problem to worry about. If Denise really did have Ammon’s… everything, I had to find a way to make sure it didn’t get blurted out in front of everyone. Or we would risk an entire Fomorian invasion taking over the planet and probably killing billions of people in the process.

But hey, at least there was no pressure or anything. 

Realizing that the others were looking at me expectantly, I tried to shake that off and focus on the problem right in front of us. First we had to figure out what was going on with Denise. Then we could deal with the fallout of everything related to it. 

To that end, I focused on the two ghosts once more, seeing through their eyes as I asked them to turn invisible and poke their heads through into that room. There were no more defenses, so hopefully they wouldn’t have any problem taking a peek. We had to know what the hell was going on there. Especially considering my blood sense was still pointing directly through that doorway. Denise should be in the room right in front of them. For better or for worse, we were about to find out what she was doing. 

Holding my breath, I reached out for my mother’s hand blindly while watching through Seth’s eyes as he and Grover leaned over to peek through the door. The instant their heads passed through, we could see the grand entryway of the suite beyond. It was even bigger and more lavish than the other room, with an actual foyer beyond the entrance with a marble floor and a couple statues of centaurs holding up spears over the archway leading into the living area beyond. A staircase to the left (before the archway) spiraled up to a second floor with a balcony just over the arch where someone could stand and look down, and a doorway behind that seemed to lead into a library of some sort. Through the arch back down on the first level, there was a front living area, with several plush couches just in view surrounding a massive fireplace. 

While we were taking that in, a small, dark-haired girl went running past the archway, inside that front living area. Denise. Her sudden appearance made me reflexively jump, but she wasn’t attacking or hiding or anything. It didn’t look like she knew anything about the ghosts who had just poked their heads in. Rather, I realized as she darted past the archway again, dropping to her knees to peer under a couch, it seemed like she was looking for something. Rather frantically, if I wasn’t mistaken. 

Sure enough, a moment later we heard the girl blurt in a desperate voice, “I don’t know! I don’t know where it is! You have to be more specific. They moved everything around or something. Are you sure it’s in here?” There was a brief pause before her head shook quickly. “I know, I know! I’ll find it, I promise. I’ll find it, just… just don’t hurt anyone else, please? You don’t have to hurt anybody else, I’ll find it.”

Telling Grover and Seth to wait again, I popped back out of their vision. The others were watching expectantly, so I quickly explained what I had seen. Not that it gave a lot of answers, but still. With a grimace, I finished, “It sure doesn’t sound like she’s turned to evil or anything.” 

“She’s talking to someone,” Asenath murmured. “Ammon, maybe? Or the Ammon in her head. Maybe she’s trying to appease his voice or personality. You didn’t see anyone else in the room?” 

“No, and no one said anything when she stopped talking, before she responded,” I confirmed. “So yeah, that does kind of sound like a voice in her head. But if Denise is still herself enough to argue with the Ammon part that much, maybe we can actually pull her out of it and get her back to normal.” I gave my mother a hopeful glance at that. 

“Yes,” she confirmed, “that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Keep the deafening spells handy, but only use them if it looks like she’s about to do something with that power. I want to give her a chance to explain what’s going on.” With that, she started moving that way, while the rest of us quickly followed after. Now that we knew Denise was in there, and seemed to be alone, Mom wasn’t going to wait any longer. She wanted to get in there and help that girl. Asenath was right beside her, with Twister, Sean (with the Vulcans), and me bringing up the rear. 

On the way, I gave one more peek through the ghosts. But nothing had really changed. Denise was still looking for… whatever it was. At the moment, she had her body half-twisted inside the fireplace, peering up the chimney as she insisted there was nothing in there. Still, there was no sign of anyone else. And I heard nothing during the pause while she was silent before responding to whatever it was she heard, quickly pleading for more time. It sounded like the voice in her head was getting pretty impatient. I really didn’t want to think about what it might be threatening to terrify the girl so much. This whole situation was creeping me out even more with every passing moment. We had to get in there and deal with whatever this was. 

It didn’t take long for us to reach the entrance to the suite. As Grover and Seth glanced over to us, looking just as uncertain as the rest of us were, my mother kept going. She didn’t even break stride while waving her hand to make the doors swing open so she could pass through, Asenath right at her side. As we followed right behind, Mom’s voice called, “Denise? Denise Cartland!” 

With that, we were there, passing through the foyer and standing in that archway. And I could see Denise with my own eyes. She had jolted at the sound of my mother’s call, jerking upright from where she had been peering behind one of the statues in a corner. Eyes wide, she pivoted to face us, looking panicked. “N-no! No, what are you doing here? You can’t be here. Please, please, go away. If you don’t leave, she’ll hurt you.” 

“It’s okay, Denise,” Mom assured her. “We know what…” She trailed off then. “What… do you mean, ‘she?’ You mean he.” 

“Wh-what?” The girl, looking even more terrified as she saw how many of us there were, pressed her back against the wall as her head shook wildly. “N-no, no, she. She made him do it. She made him hurt them. She–she hurt–she–” 

“That’s enough, dear.” A new, yet vaguely familiar voice spoke from the other side of the room. Our gazes snapped that way, to see a man standing in one of the doorways. A man I knew, with light-blond hair, a slim build, and amber eyes. As with the last time I’d seen him, he wore a pristine white trench coat over a red silk shirt with buttons down the front, and white slacks.  Francis Gale, the Steward Hybrid. The Auberge’s head of security, essentially. He was there. But… but…

Even as a rush of confusing thoughts ran through my mind, a glowing figure emerged from him. My first thought was ‘Seosten.’ But I immediately felt the difference. This was a ghost. An incredibly powerful ghost. Instantly, I reached out with my power, attempting to halt it in its tracks. But my power just slid off it. The thing was too powerful, shrugging away my attempt to grab it. 

“I’m sorry dear,” the figure informed me, as the glow faded. “You’ll have to try harder than that. Perhaps you should go practice. In the meantime, where is my daughter? 

“We have some catching up to do,” Kushiel’s ghost announced.  

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Interlude 14A – Denny Departs (Heretical Edge 2)

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The sound of the loud, piercing siren filled the air as the police car went screaming past the bus station. Denny Cartland, half-hiding behind a pillar on the front walkway, peeked out to watch the car go by. The eleven-year-old girl wore a heavy sweatshirt with the hood up, along with an actual winter coat with that hood up, gloves, a scarf, dirty jeans that had seen better days, and beaten-up sneakers with a pair of thick socks. Not that she actually needed all that, even with the snow that covered the ground. Temperature didn’t seem to bother her at all, warm or cold. But if she had stood around in a t-shirt and shorts, people would have noticed. People already noticed her. She was a kid at the bus station. It was hard not to stand out. 

They especially would have paid attention if her picture had been plastered all over the news. A not-quite-twelve-year-old kid disappearing? Yeah, even she knew what that would be like, with national headlines. She wouldn’t be able to take a step without being recognized by someone. 

But she’d had to leave, had to get out of her house and away from her parents. The thoughts she kept having, the dreams that filled her head, they were so awful. She thought about killing everyone she knew as well as strangers. She thought of torturing them, making them cry and suffer. There were vivid memories of killing people. She… she was bad. She was wrong. 

She had to get out of there and find someone who could help, someone who could make the evil, bad thoughts go away. She wasn’t sure who or how yet, but the impulse to just get away from her family had been too strong to ignore. Once she was far enough away, once she could stop somewhere safe and clear her head, she might be able to think of how to find someone.

It wasn’t just her own problems she had to figure out, not just the… the impulses and memories. It was also the fact that that girl at the gas station had completely forgotten the monster that was in there. And she wasn’t the only one. In the few days that had followed, Denny had seen several more clearly…. not-human people hanging around different places, and nobody ever seemed to notice. They always acted like the… the non-humans were completely normal, and if she asked about them, they looked at her like she was crazy. She had not yet worked up the courage to approach one of the not-humans, since they seemed to think she would see them as totally normal too and she was petrified of what would happen if they found out otherwise. 

The point was, she had to get away from home, clear her head, and find someone she could get some answers from. 

And yet, there was that problem of being seen as a runaway. So, Denny… Denny had been evil. She had been bad. She told her parents–she used… she used her voice, the voice that made people do what she wanted. It had taken some time, but she figured out that she had to say her name to make it work. She had to introduce herself, even if they knew her. And after that, they would do what she said. Even to the point of remembering what she told them to remember. 

So, evil as it was, with a hard anvil of guilt sitting in her stomach, Denny had used her power to tell her parents to believe that they had sent her to stay with her aunt for a few weeks. She would call back every few days with fake updates about how much fun she was having. 

In the meantime, she had used almost all of her savings to take two different buses over the past day and a half. She was somewhere in southern Illinois right now, trying to figure out how she was going to take another bus anywhere useful with only twenty dollars left in her pocket while studiously ignoring everyone around her. She had to ignore them. The less attention she paid to the people she saw, the less vivid her thoughts about killing them would be. 

Twenty dollars. Her stomach growled a bit, reminding the girl that she had already eaten the last sandwich she’d packed before leaving the house. Crap. Why didn’t she pack more food? Why didn’t she think of more things? She had been in such a rush to get out of the house before something bad happened that she had barely prepared. The nightmares and horrific daydreams were too strong, she just had to get out of there. But now that she was so far away, the thoughts of everything she had forgotten to do or bring just kept filling her head with self-recrimination. 

Self-recrimination? How did she even know that word? She knew what it meant, but… like, how? How did she know it? She’d never read it before, had she? That was the other side of the whole thing. She had all these evil thoughts and impulses, sure, but she also knew things she shouldn’t know. Not just words, but math and history too. She kept thinking about trigonometry. How did she know anything about trigonometry?! Not just the word, she knew what it meant, how to use it. She knew… she knew more than she should, and had no idea how other than some fuzzy memories of sitting in a classroom. But she hadn’t. She had never learned this stuff in a classroom. She was in fifth grade, for crying out loud! How did she know any of this? 

“Yo, kid!” A gruff, heavy-set man in an orange parka stood in front of Denny, and had apparently been trying to get her attention for some time. He waved a gloved hand in front of her face. “You waiting for your parents or something? This ain’t the best place to hang around, ‘specially for a little girl.” He gestured to the nearby doors. “Why don’t you go in and sit where the guys in there can see you, just to make sure nothing bad happens. You need money to get a drink out of the vending machine?” He was fumbling in his pockets, and came out with a crumpled dollar.  

She wasn’t supposed to lie. She was not supposed to lie. Especially not to an adult who was simply trying to help her. But as with basically everything she had been doing lately, Denny didn’t have a choice.  It wasn’t like she could tell this guy the truth. Either he wouldn’t believe her and would decide she was crazy (maybe she really was), or he would completely forget what she had said. Either way, it was either pointless at best or actively a bad idea at worst.   

So, with a heavy sigh, Denny accepted the dollar bill and quietly thanked the man. With one last look out at the street, she mumbled something about waiting for her father. Maybe with that, the guy wouldn’t feel the need to stick around to check on her. It was a bus station, he probably had places to go. 

She really wished she had a place to go. Denny had been standing there hoping to get some idea of how she could take another bus to get even further away from home. Or rather, trying to get some other idea. Because she knew just how easy it would be to simply use her voice to force someone to give her a ticket, or the money for one. But that was wrong. It was stealing. And she was profoundly terrified that doing anything wrong would lead her down a slippery slope to the very, very bad things that kept popping up in her thoughts and dreams. Even now, seeing the man in front of her, she could imagine stabbing a pair of scissors up into his throat. She could perfectly picture the look of terror and shock on his face as his blood came spurting out while he collapsed. She could hear his panicked gurgling as his body fell, as he–

Physically jerking herself backward, Denny mumbled her thanks and quickly turned to walk back into the bus station. Drink. She could get a drink and think. Maybe that would help, somehow. Making a beeline for the vending machine while feeling the nice man’s eyes on her, she picked out a soda and took it to one of the chairs in the corner of the waiting room.  

It did not help. Not really. As she sat there nursing the bottle, all the girl could think about was how easily she could solve this problem. It felt like a voice in the back of her head constantly whispering that she could be on the next bus in two seconds. It would be so simple. All she had to do was use her own voice to get the clerk behind the counter to give her a ticket and forget what happened. It wouldn’t even hurt anybody. 

Except it would. She was young, but she wasn’t stupid. Denny knew that people counted money at the end of a shift like that. If the clerk gave her a printed ticket and didn’t have the corresponding money for it, they’d get in trouble. Tickets were like fifty to a hundred dollars, or more. They’d notice that much money missing from the register, and even if they couldn’t track it to a specific ticket, the clerk would get in trouble. She didn’t want to let that happen, and really did not want to do it by using her voice. She had to find another way, but how? Something, there had to be something she could do, someway she could… hold on. 

It was still bad. It was so bad. It was still lying and using her voice to trick people. But maybe she could do it without getting anyone in trouble. A rush of thoughts went through the girl’s mind. The guilt was still heavy even at the thought of what she was considering, but she had to move. She had to get out of here and go somewhere that she could get answers, even if she had no idea where that somewhere was just yet. If she found a big enough city, far enough away from home, she just… knew there would be answers there. How she was so certain of that, Denny had no idea. But she was. She just had to keep moving, had to let herself be pulled to the right place. 

Taking another long sip from the soda as she turned to scan the room once more, Denny saw no sign of the nice man in the orange coat. So, she picked herself up from the plastic chair and walked out of the waiting room to the depot where the buses were lined up. No one paid her much attention there. The regular people were rushing to get on the right bus, and the employees were making sure that everyone actually getting on the buses had their ticket. 

For a few moments, she stood there, letting her gaze pan over the assembled buses. She was looking for the right one at just the right time. Her eyes watched one driver start to close his doors, but a glance toward the windows showed too many faces and heads there. The bus looked full. That wasn’t right. She needed something with less passengers, where her presence wouldn’t bump anyone else off or raise questions. 

At first, she was afraid nothing would look right. Then her gaze found a bus in the rear corner. The windows looked only about a quarter full, and the driver was looking at his watch before starting to step up so he could close the doors. That one. Deep inside, she knew that had to be the right one, and a better chance wouldn’t come along anytime soon. Besides, if she waited much longer, the bus depot wouldn’t be as crowded and people might pay more attention to her.

Glancing around just enough to make sure no one was watching or following her, Denny quickly jogged that way, holding up her hand. “Wait!” she called out to the driver. “Please wait, sir!” 

The man stopped, turned to look her way as he stood with one foot on the bottom step. “Hey, kid. Sorry, where’s your parents? They already up there?” He started to turn as though to call out to the other passengers to find out who she was with. Which would’ve complicated this. 

“Sir!” Denny quickly interrupted, grabbing his sleeve so he had to look at her. Her mouth opened to say what she needed to say, only for the words to catch in her throat. Evil. Bad. Horrible. She couldn’t–couldn’t do that. It was wrong. She was wrong. She was bad, and if she did bad things, she’d do even worse things. Lying and stealing could lead to… to the things in her dreams. No, no, please. She didn’t want to do that. She didn’t want to be that. Please no, don’t be that. The thoughts swarmed through her head, the terror of what she might turn into if she indulged at all.

A confused, then worried look crossed the man’s face as he clearly started to picture having to deal with whatever her issue was. “Hang on, kid, I’ll flag someone down and you can get–” 

“No!” Denny quickly blurted. She shoved all her guilt down for the moment. It was now or never, she wouldn’t have a better chance. And now that she was right in front of this guy, he wasn’t just going to walk off again without paying attention and sending someone after her to find out what was wrong. He’d seen her face, he saw the look in her eyes, the guilt and fear. She had to do it.

“My name is Denise,” she announced, staring up at him as tears filled her eyes. “I already gave you my ticket.” She said the words softly, almost too quietly. But the man heard. He stared at her for a brief second before giving an obedient nod. “You already gave me your ticket.” 

“And my parents talked to you,” she added in another hoarse whisper, forcing herself to continue despite the violent guilty churning of her stomach. “They want you to make sure I behave and get to… to…” She leaned over, staring up at the sign on the front of the bus. “Milwaukee.” That’s where the bus was going. From Illinois to Wisconsin. That had to be far enough for something better to occur to her, right? It was far enough that she would have no chance of doing anything bad to her parents at least, and as soon as she was far enough away from them, she could focus on learning the truth about what was wrong with her, why she had all these evil thoughts and… and this power. Not to mention how strong she was. An image of denting the gas station pumps inward when she’d hit them the other day flashed through her mind, and Denny blanched, bile rising in her throat. 

Somehow, she pushed those thoughts down and climbed up into the bus. Or, at least she started to. But just as she was moving past the driver and looking to the back to find an empty seat, the sound of a yelp caught her attention. It was coming from far off on the opposite side of the depot, past so many noisy people and buses that the girl had no idea how she had heard it. But she did. Her head snapped that way instinctively, gaze searching until she caught sight of several figures at the corner of the building. There were three men and a woman. Two of the men were basically dragging the other man and the woman while they struggled to get free. Just before they went out of sight, one of the men raised some sort of hammer and hit the struggling man in the head, making him slump. Then they were out of sight. 

But there was something else about those people. The woman had bright orange skin with small yellow horns, and the man who had been hit looked like he had very light tan fur across his body. Meanwhile, both of the men who had been dragging them around the corner had very thick yellow-green skin and their faces were kind of… pig-like, with big snouts. They looked sorta like the pig-guard guys in those Star Wars movies. 

Eyes widening, Denny started to point. “Hey, did you see–” She cut herself off upon seeing the driver simply take his seat. No, he didn’t see anything. And if he had, he’d forget it. Just like Kalia had forgotten everything back at the gas station. He had no idea anything bad was happening right around the corner of that building. No one did. 

No one but her. She was there. She knew. 

For a moment, Denny stood frozen in the doorway. To one side a seat was waiting for her. A seat on the bus that would take her far away from this place, to where she could make sure her family was safe by staying far away from them. To the other side was a door leading back into the depot, to where those strange, alien-looking people were just around the corner. 

No one would help them. No one even remembered they existed. They didn’t know that Denny had seen them. No one would blame her for getting on the bus and letting it take her away from here. She was just a kid. People wouldn’t believe her if she pointed it out, it wasn’t her responsibility… and… and…

Denny stepped off the bus. As the driver called after her, she walked away without looking back. He gave one more half-hearted call, then shut the door with a very final-sounding hiss-clank. 

Trying not to think about how utterly stupid she was being, Denny hurried across the lot, weaving between buses and people while keeping her eye on the corner of the building. What was she doing? Why was she going closer? She could have been out of there. She had her seat on the bus, completely free and clear. Why was she doing this? Why was she trying to help people she didn’t even know, people who looked… who looked so different? 

Because she had been hoping someone would help her, Denny realized, even as she drew closer to the corner. She had started doing this whole thing, leaving home and going on this stupid trip in the first place because she was hoping that someone would find and help her. How could she possibly expect someone else to help her if she wasn’t willing to help other people?

Stopping at that corner, the girl carefully peeked around. The area here was shielded from the nearby street by a series of tall hedges and bushes. She saw the man with light fur and the orange-skinned woman on the ground, cowering at the feet of the two heavy-set pig guys who were standing over them with what looked like a couple batons raised. 

“Think you can run off without paying French what you owe him?” One of the pig guards flipped the weapon around in his hand threateningly while continuing, “That’s not good. Not good at all. And after all he did for you and yours.” 

“P-please,” pleaded the man, “we don’t have any more money. We barely have enough to feed ourselves. We just need to get a fresh start. We heard there was a place–” 

“French knows what you heard!” the second pig guard snapped, slamming the baton down into his hand with a meaty thunk that made both of the people on the ground cringe backward. “You think you can just run off to some magical fairy land and avoid paying what you owe? Nah, French says if you can’t pay, you can be an example.” 

“Stop!” Denny blurted, popping around the corner with her hands up. “Stop it!” 

Maybe jumping out right next to the bad guys wasn’t the best idea. The second she spoke, the nearest pig-guy spun, his baton lashing out. Before Denny could even think ‘uh oh,’ the weapon crashed into the side of her head and sent her to the ground with a scream of… of… pain? 

No pain. It didn’t hurt. Lying there in the grass while the two pig-guys blurted demands at their victims about who she was, Denny realized the blow hadn’t hurt at all. It knocked her down, but there was no pain. 

Feeling dazed from the realization rather than the blow, the girl pushed herself up and turned in time to see the pig-guys notice her. The one who had hit her reared back once more. But Denny lashed out. Her small fist collided with the big man’s stomach with enough force to send him flying backward, even as she herself felt the force reverberate back through her small form, making her stumble back a couple steps. As for the pig-guy, he hit the nearby wall hard enough to crack it, slumping to the ground in a daze. 

The other guy came after her with a cry, his foot lashing out to collide with the girl hard enough to send her flying. She felt her back hit the trunk of a thick tree, collapsing at the base of it. But again, it didn’t hurt. She was fine. Her body was so small she could be tossed around at will, but nothing was actually doing damage. Nothing that lasted, anyway. Her gaze rose in time to see the pig-guy spin to lash out with his baton toward the cowering couple, but Denny blurted out a quick, “My name is Denise, stop!” She managed the last word just as the baton was an inch from the back of the fur-covered man’s head. 

Slowly picking herself up, Denny moved that way. The voice. The voice in the back of her head was there, telling her to make them stab each other. It would be fun. No, no, make the two of them bite each other’s throats out. They tried to hurt her, tried to kill her. That was fair, right? Right? She could indulge, she could make them regret ever being born, let alone raising a hand against her. She could make them–

“Shut up!” Denny blurted at the silent voice, making everyone jerk in surprise. Forcing those feelings down, she carefully told the two men to drop their weapons where they were and walk away for an hour before they stopped. 

As they left, the orange woman stammered a confused, “Th-thank you? What… who… who are…” 

Tears in her eyes, Denny turned to face the couple. “Please. Please, I don’t know who to talk to. Something’s happening to me. Please… help. Help me, please. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. You look like monsters but I know you’re not because I’m a monster and I don’t want to be but please please help me.”

The fur-covered man and the orange woman looked at each other, clearly conferring silently. “We could take her with us,” the woman quietly suggested. 

“Yeah, we could,” the man confirmed before turning to Denny. “Okay, kid. Umm…

“We’ll take you to the Auberge, to see Mennin Tombs.”  

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Interlude 12B – Denny Again (Heretical Edge 2)

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The quiet, familiar scritching sound of a small knife blade steadily carving into wood filled the small space of the closet where Denny was crouched. She had closed the door and scrunched herself into the back behind the clothes and toys, invisible if someone simply glanced inside. Between that and the fact that it was the middle of the night with no lights on other than what came through the curtained window near her bed in the main room, the area around her was pitch-black. But that didn’t matter, not really. She wasn’t afraid of the dark. And she certainly wasn’t worried about monsters. 

Because she was a monster. And monsters belonged in the closet. 

She had told her mother that she didn’t want to see that therapist again. For some reason that she couldn’t explain, she didn’t say anything about the woman changing her name to that weird one, or any of that. Denny wasn’t sure why, she just knew it was a bad idea. First her mother had wanted her to give it another try, but then they had gotten word that ‘Megan’ was going on an extended trip and wouldn’t be available. So she had agreed to let her daughter see a different therapist, though that hadn’t actually started yet. She was supposed to have her first visit next week. Which didn’t help the girl right now, as she crouched in the closet, carving into the wall. 

It was also too dark to see exactly what she was carving. But that didn’t matter either, because she didn’t need to see it. She knew, deep in her soul, what was carved throughout every wall of the closet. Two different words, repeated over and over again. One was two letters and the other three letters. Me Him Me Him Me Him. The two words were cut into the walls obsessively. From the look of it, if someone had examined the carvings closely, it would appear as though many instances had one word carved first, and then the other carved almost on top of that. It was an argument, played out through a steak knife that had been borrowed from the kitchen, digging into the wall. 

Him. He was there. She could feel him, could almost hear his voice. She caught glimpses of him out of the corner of her eye, and felt him standing behind her. But he was never there when she looked closer. He was always just out of sight, just out of reach. He was right there with her, yet not. 

Grasping the knife carefully in both hands, the eleven-year-old girl stared unseeingly through the darkness at where she knew the rear wall was. With a shaking grip, she reached up and began to carve a much larger word, which would take up the entire wall if she finished it. 

The first letter was A. That was followed by an M. By the time she began to carve the second M, the girl’s hands were shaking so much she actually dropped the knife when the letter was half-done. She reached down, fumbling a bit until she found it. Unfortunately, her hand found the blade first and grasped it, making the blade cut into her palm. Not too deep, barely enough to draw blood. But it made the girl yelp softly. Abruptly, she looked up at the wall again, still incapable of seeing it, yet knowing what was there. The expression on her face, had it been visible to anyone, would have shifted from one of resignation, to intense anger. With the knife held tightly in her slightly injured hand, she ignored the pain and lashed out to cut a deep gouge through the aborted name she had begun to carve into the wall. Once, twice, three times she cut deep lines through it, crossing the unfinished name out. She wouldn’t finish it. She refused. He couldn’t make her. He couldn’t change her. She wasn’t him. She wasn’t. She was Denny. He was–he was–he didn’t matter. He wasn’t here. She wouldn’t obey him again. She wouldn’t be what he wanted. She wouldn’t do anything he said. The whispers, the thoughts, the impressions he left at the back of her mind, they didn’t matter. None of that mattered. She was Denny. She mattered. She was going to do what she wanted to do. She was going to be what she wanted to be. She didn’t have to listen to him. She never had to listen to him. 

The sound of footsteps creaking on the stairs snapped the girl out of her intense fit of repeatedly gouging lines through the partially finished name. Someone was coming. Him? Was it him? Was he coming because she refused to carve his name? Was he coming for her now? No, no, he couldn’t come for her. He couldn’t come, because he was already here. And because he wasn’t. He was here, and he wasn’t, and he never could be. And yet, the rush of terror that filled the girl, the animalistic survival instinct as she heard those footsteps, couldn’t be ignored. 

Straightening, she stepped out of the closet, still holding the knife in her injured hand even as she heard those footsteps steadily approaching her room. Quickly and silently, she moved to stand behind the  bedroom door, safely out of sight as the footsteps stopped. Her hands shook so much she almost dropped the knife again. If he was here, if he was real, she didn’t know what to do. She was terrified, yet also furious. A righteous anger, a rage that the young girl could barely comprehend, had filled her at the thought that he was coming. She wouldn’t let him hurt her. She wouldn’t let him control her. No more. Not again. Never again. 

The footsteps stopped outside her door, and for a moment there was nothing but the silence. Then, the door slowly began to creak open. It came about halfway, and from her position behind it, Denny was able to peer through the small crack between the wall and the door itself just enough to see a figure standing there, mostly concealed in the shadows of the hallway. He was there, staring in at the lump of blankets on her bed that made it look as though Denny was sleeping in it. 

She would stab him. As soon as he came through the door and walked to the bed, she would stab him from behind. She wouldn’t let him touch her, wouldn’t let him talk to her, wouldn’t let him do anything. He would never hurt her again. She wouldn’t let him hurt her or control her.

“Is she okay?” Those words, spoken in a hushed tone, filled the air, startling the girl. They came from down the hall, not from the figure next to the door. And the voice was quite familiar. Her mother. Her mother was just down the hall, addressing… addressing the figure there. 

“She’s asleep,” came the whispered response. A whisper she also recognized. Her father. The figure standing just on the other side of the open door, looking at what he thought was Denny lying in bed, was her own father. She had almost stabbed her own father, out of the sheer terror that had been brought on by the thought that the figure from her dreams was standing there.

While the girl was reeling from what she had almost done, the door creaked closed once more and she heard her father walk away to join her mother. She was left standing there in the dark. The knife fell from her grip to the carpet, and she raised her hands to stare at her own palms. In the slight illumination that came through the window, she could see fairly clearly. There was no wound there. The spot of her hand that she had cut was already completely healed, save for the stain of blood that proved it had once been injured. In those brief moments, the wound had entirely vanished. 

Denny’s breathing grew heavy as she stared at her hand, where the cut should have been. Where she had felt it, where there was still blood showing that a cut had once existed. Her voice was a whisper that sounded entirely too loud within the confines of this dark bedroom. 

“What… what’s happening to me?” 

*******

Gas filling her mouth, pouring down her throat, choking her on the fumes. Tears filling her eyes, panic making her want to scream. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t move, couldn’t get away, couldn’t stop the gasoline from killing her, from–

“Yo, kid!” A sudden shout startled her. “You camping out to save a pump for your dad, or what?” 

Yes, Denny had been standing at a gas station right where a car was supposed to park, staring at one of the pumps. No, not just a gas station. Not just ‘one of the pumps.’ The gas station. The pump. The one from her dream that wasn’t a dream. She knew that, she recognized it. It was the gas station her parents sometimes stopped at on the way home, only a few blocks from their house. Standing there, staring at the pump, she knew it was the same one from those dreams. Something deep in her soul told the girl this was the right place. 

No, the wrong place. This was the wrong place entirely. She shouldn’t be here. She really shouldn’t be here. A loud voice in the back of her mind was telling the girl to turn around and run away, to never set foot anywhere near here again. 

And yet, another voice was telling her that she had to be here, that she would never get any better until she faced this and could understand it. She was so confused, so lost, she had to know the truth, had to know what was wrong with her and fix it before she… before she did something bad. 

Still, she didn’t want to get run over. So, she quickly stepped out of the way and let the man in the sedan pull up to the spot where she had been standing. He grumbled while getting out to pump his gas, and the sight of the man holding the nozzle made bile suddenly rise up in Denny’s throat. Pivoting, she rushed to the shop itself, pushing her way inside. As the polite ding filled the air, the girl took a moment to pant and catch her breath, almost doubling over as she tried to stop hyperventilating. No, no, she couldn’t be out there, couldn’t look at the pump. She couldn’t stand there and…

A sudden rush of images filled the girl’s mind. She was being hit, knocked to the ground, kicked repeatedly, a foot colliding with her stomach. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream anymore. She couldn’t beg. Her stomach hurt, there was something wrong with it, something that made it impossible to breathe properly. Her face was bleeding and broken, one eye swollen shut. The pain was awful, but it didn’t compare to the sheer terror. He was going to hit her again, he was going to hurt her, because he was told to. Because… because he told him to. Him, not the man hurting her, but the… the…

“Hey, hey, are you okay?” It was the clerk, a girl in her late teens who had come around the counter and moved to where Denny had crouched down and started crying. “Uhh, do you want me to call somebody? Are you lost or something?” 

Swallowing hard, Denny pushed herself to her feet and shook her head. “N-no, it’s okay. I just…” She trailed off helplessly then. How exactly was she supposed to explain what had just happened? She didn’t understand it herself. The images in her mind had been so vivid, so real. She could feel the blows, could hear the–him ordering the other man to hit her again, and again, and again. 

Forcing those thoughts down, she clenched her fists while meeting the gaze of the older girl with dirty-blonde hair. “Can um, can I ask you something, please?” She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice. 

“Uh, sure, I guess.” Clearly uncertain about what this girl who had just walked into the gas station before falling to her knees and crying was going to ask, the teenaged clerk gestured. “Come on, you can have a soda on me. You look like you need it. What do you need to ask?” 

A rush of confusing and contradictory thoughts ran through Denny’s mind as she followed the clerk over to the counter and accepted the bottle of Sprite. For a moment, she was able to distract herself by focusing on opening it and taking a long sip. But she felt the clerk’s curious eyes on her the whole time, and finally couldn’t wait anymore. So, Denny took a breath before looking up. Her voice caught a little as she forced the words out. “Did somebody die here? I–I heard somebody died here. Um, I think it was… uhh, awhile ago with–what?” The way the clerk was staring at her made the girl a little nervous. Even more than she had already been. 

“Did someone put you up to this?” the clerk demanded, though her voice was more resigned than angry. “Just–just tell me if someone put you up to it. They think it’s real funny just to send–” 

Eyes widening, Denny shook her head rapidly. “No! Nobody put me up to anything, I swear. I just… I heard somebody died here and I can’t stop thinking about it. I know it’s weird, but can you please tell me? I swear it’s not a joke or anything. Please.”

There was a momentary pause as the clerk considered, before sighing. “Yeah, somebody died here. But it wasn’t recently, and it wasn’t just one person. Two people died about fourteen months ago. There was a… a robber and the last girl who worked at this place. They said the guy tried to rob her and she… um, she got the gun away from him and shot him. Then she umm… killed herself.” Slowly, the clerk turned to look out toward the gas pumps. Her mouth opened, but Denny didn’t need to hear more. 

“She died from the gas,” the young girl murmured audibly, staring in the same direction. She could smell the fumes, could taste it pouring down her throat, could–could– Shaking herself violently, Denny forced herself to look back at the clerk. “They said she killed herself?” 

“That’s… what they said.” There was doubt in the clerk’s voice as she squinted that way. “It’s kinda weird though, isn’t it? I mean, they said she felt so guilty about killing my–the guy that she had to… to do that.” 

Catching what the older girl had almost said, Denny focused on her and frowned. “Did you know the guy who–” 

“You should leave.” With those words, the clerk pointed to the opposite door from the one Denny had come through. “Go out the back. Get out of here, hurry, go!” Her words were urgent, nearly frantic in a tone shift that startled the younger girl. She was already coming around the counter, taking hold of her shoulder to pull her away. 

Denny started to argue in confusion, when the ding of the bell above the door she had come through filled the air. Both girls turned that way to find an enormous figure crouched down a bit as he pushed his way through the door. Seeing that, the clerk suddenly gave Denny a shove that knocked her to her knees behind one of the display cases. “Hide,” she hissed. 

From her place behind the shelves, Denny lifted her head and peered through the crack in time to see the figure straighten up. Her first impression had been right. The man wasn’t just tall, he was a huge, broad-shouldered man with an assortment of bright red tattoos across his scaled body. 

Wait, scaled body? Denny gave a double-take, eyes widening. Yes, the man had scales. Like… like a really bad skin condition? Her mother had always said that she wasn’t supposed to stare at people who were different like that, but this guy was really different. He wasn’t just tall, he was… he was so tall he’d had to stoop to get through the door. Over seven feet. His body was dark blue-green, with a slightly lighter face. And, again, he had scales. Very thick, obvious scales. His eyes were vertical, like a snake or a lizard. 

“Kalia,” his voice rumbled while Denny shrank back in fear. “You shouldn’t have blown me off this morning. You know I don’t like that.” His vertical pupils narrowed at the older girl. “Your dad did that a lot.” 

“Mercer,” the clerk (Kalia) managed in a clearly weak voice. “I was gonna come find you after work. I’ve got fifty dollars for you.” 

“Fifty?” The enormous, scaled figure gave a heavy, humorless laugh. “Your dad owed ten thousand when he bit the dust. You think fifty’s even a drop in that bucket?” With that, the man paused, looking around. “Come to think of it, kid, you working in the place he died trying to get my down payment is pretty fucked up. And that’s coming from me.” 

Wait, wait, the girl was– Denny was left reeling from that revelation, even as the huge, alien figure stalked forward to close the distance between himself and Kalia. “Now,” he snarled, “Now, you gonna dig deep and find a way to get the money your family owes, or am I going to have to try to pry it out of grieving family member number three?” Before the girl could answer, he snapped a hand down to grab her by the throat. “Maybe what you need is some motivation. Cuz clearly, I ain’t done enough t–” 

“Stop it!” Without even knowing what she was doing, Denny had leapt to her feet and held both hands up. “Stop it, stop!” 

The giant figure did stop, his head slowly turning to look that way. Those vertical eyes focused on her. “Who the fuck are you?” 

“I…” Her throat was dry, a thick lump filling it. She could barely breathe, could barely think. “My… my name is Denise.” 

“Yeah? Good for you.” Mercer’s voice made it clear how little he cared. “Now, if you don’t mind, I–” His grip tightened on the other girl’s throat enough to make her yelp in pain. 

“Stop it!” Denny blurted as terror filled her. “Let her go!”  

Abruptly, the enormous figure did just that. He released Kalia, allowing the girl to suck in panicked gasps of air. Then just stared at Denny. His eyes narrowed. “What… the fuck did you just–” With an animalistic roar, he began to lunge that way. 

Denny, in turn, jerked backward with a panic. “Stop!” she desperately cried out. 

And, again, the figure stopped. He abruptly jerked to a halt, glowering at her. “Listen to me, you little shit. I don’t know how you’re doing this, but–” 

But something had a hold of the eleven-year-old by then, some subconscious realization that she didn’t fully understand. Her shaky voice came once more. “P-put… both hands… above your head.” 

He did, which almost scared the girl more than if he hadn’t. As the man raised both hands high over his head, palms flat against the ceiling, he began to snarl very intricate and detailed threats about what he was going to do to them. 

“St-stop talking!” Denny hurriedly stammered, terror filling her. “I–I–umm… ummm…” What was happening? Why was he obeying her? What was he? He wasn’t normal. He wasn’t normal. “P-please, just… just…” Her mouth opened and shut. Just what? What was he supposed to do? 

There was a… whisper at the back of her mind. A whisper she couldn’t quite hear, but her subconscious knew what the whisper was saying. Some small part of her understood the advice. “Forget you were here,” she finally managed. “Forget that girl there, and anything her family owed. Forget all of it, everything that happened here and everything about Kalia and her family. And… and go away. Walk away, and don’t stop walking until you… until you’re ten miles away.”  

And with that, the horrifying figure obeyed. He turned and left the store, walking away across the lot while leaving both girls standing there staring after him. 

“Wha… what j-just happened?” Kalia managed. “Who the hell–how did–” In mid-sentence, the girl abruptly stopped, shook her head, and then turned back to Denise with a smile, her voice utterly devoid of any fear or reaction to the events from a moment earlier. “I’m sorry, what were we saying?” 

“Th-that guy, who was he?” Denny asked, confused by the girl’s sudden chipper attitude. 

“Sorry, what guy?” Kalia looked politely curious, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t see any guy. Were you looking for someone?”

“The guy who was just here!” Denny blurted. “The big–the monster with the scales and the tattoos!” 

Still, Kalia just stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Are you okay? You’re the only one who’s come inside in like half an hour. Hey, do you want me to call someone? Do–hey, wait!”

But Denny didn’t wait. As a tumultuous rush of confusion and fear filled her mind, the girl raced for the door. She slammed her way through it, ignoring the older girl calling after her. Instead, she ran across the lot and stopped in front of the gas pump. The gas pump. For a moment, she just stood there, staring down at the spot where… where…

Gasoline filled her throat. She saw the boy staring at her, watching, waiting. She felt the terror, the certainty that she was about to die. She felt it, she knew it was coming. Any second it would be too much. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t–

A scream tore its way out of the eleven-year-old girl’s throat, as her hands lashed out reflexively. They slammed into the gas pump with enough force to leave a pair of visible dents on either side.

Seeing that, Denny stumbled away a couple steps. Her hand covered her mouth, as she fell to her knees there on the asphalt. “No, no, no…” she mumbled behind her own palm as tears of confusion flooded her eyes. “Please… please…

“Somebody tell me what’s going on.”

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Interlude 12A – Denny (Heretical Edge 2)

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Her hands hurt from gripping something so tightly. She couldn’t let it go. Something–tape was wrapped around them. Not only around her hands, but her whole head. The tape was wrapped tightly around her head and hands. She couldn’t release the thing she was holding, couldn’t let go. 

Couldn’t take it out of her mouth. 

She tasted metal, a long, grooved shaft of steel choking her. And she tasted more than that. Gasoline. She tasted gasoline. Not a drop or a drizzle. The thing tied to her head, tied to her mouth, was pumping gasoline into her mouth. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t take it out. She couldn’t do anything but sit there, letting the gas keep pouring down her throat. He was there. He made sure. The smell of the fumes blinded her. The taste made her retch. But she couldn’t stop. He wouldn’t let her. She had to keep drinking. Had to keep choking. Had to keep going until…

With a strangled scream, eleven-year-old Denise Cartland hurled herself sideways off the desk in her sixth-grade classroom, where she had briefly drifted off. As she landed on the floor between her seat and her neighbor’s, the girl was already heaving. She threw up on the cheap linoleum. The gasoline, she could taste it. She could taste it. It was in her mouth, down her throat. She had to get it out. She had to get it all out. Her fingers clawed at the floor, tears blinding her as she heaved. Her lunch, eaten only an hour earlier, came rushing out and drenched the floor. Around her, she could hear students crying out and jerking away. A few chairs fell over in their rush to escape the sight of their classmate throwing up. 

“Back up, back up everyone!” Mr. Tuttle, their teacher, quickly instructed as he approached. Stepping around the mess, the middle-aged man took a knee next to the young girl, a hand on her back. “It’s okay, Denise. It’s alright, get it out. It’s okay.” He coaxed her while rubbing her back, his other hand moving to draw some of the girl’s dark hair away from her face. At the same time, he turned toward a student near the door. “Brad, go get the janitor, he should be mopping near the library right now. Wait, grab the hall pass there. Now go, tell him what happened. Yolanda, Frank, open those windows over there.” Even as he gave those instructions, Tuttle was still gently rubbing the girl’s back, trying to coax and comfort her. 

Denise barely heard any of that. Her tear-blinded gaze was on the floor, but she wasn’t actually seeing that either. Instead, all she saw was the cold asphalt of a gas station parking lot. All she felt was the tape tied so tightly around her hands, forcing her to grip that fuel pump handle. All she tasted was the gasoline, pouring relentlessly down her throat. She was choking, dying. She had to get it out. Her small body heaved once more, but there was nothing else in her stomach. Try as she might, she couldn’t get the taste out. She couldn’t get the gasoline out. 

It took another minute or so before the girl managed to calm down enough to recognize that she had been having a nightmare. It wasn’t real. None of it was real. Finally lifting her head to look around with wide eyes, she saw the rest of her classmates staring. Most looked sympathetic or worried, though a few were snickering behind their hands, as whispers passed through the crowd. Whispers that sent a flood of embarrassment through the girl to replace the terror.

“Denise?” Mr. Tuttle gently asked after giving a quick look to the rest of the students to quiet down and get themselves under control. “Are you okay?” 

“I… I…” Opening and shutting her mouth, the eleven-year-old looked around, before lowering her gaze to the floor. A horrible shudder ran through her, as she hugged her arms tightly around herself. 

“I don’t know.” 

********

The man couldn’t move. Oh, he wanted to. He desperately wanted to. But his feet remained firmly rooted to the floor. He could do nothing about the flames gradually filling the room. He couldn’t even turn his head away from the rising smoke, his coughing growing louder by the second. He couldn’t do anything to save himself while the room burned around him. He wasn’t tied down, or hindered in any physical way. He stood there with the open door leading to open, cool, clear air mere feet away. It would have taken almost nothing for the man to sprint to safety. Six steps. Six steps and he’d be free. But he couldn’t take those six steps. 

Because she wouldn’t let him. 

Denise stood in that open air, just a short distance from the doorway. She saw the flames rising around the man. She saw his terrified gaze as he stared pleadingly at her. He wasn’t begging anymore, because she had told him to stop. His whining had been entirely too annoying after the first few seconds. It distracted from the sound of the flames, and she wanted to hear when they reached his body. She wanted to hear what it sounded like when a person started to burn, without all the annoying, distracting screaming getting in the way. So she had told him to shut his mouth and not open it no matter what. Finally, she would be able to hear the fire properly. Finally, she would hear exactly what happened when the flames began to burn his flesh away. He’d probably fall down by then, as the smoke got to him. But there wasn’t much to be done about that. Maybe next time she’d find a way to string the person up so they’d stay standing the whole time. But either way, she’d still hear it. She’d hear and smell the flames burning his body. 

And maybe, just maybe, as she watched this man burn to death, Denise would finally feel something. 

“Denise! Denny, sweety, Denny, it’s okay. Please, baby, wake up.” 

The voice, accompanied by hands gently shaking her, snapped Denise awake. She jerked in her bed, crying out while her wide, terrified eyes darted around. She wasn’t standing in front of a burning building. She wasn’t watching a man about to die. She wasn’t anticipating it, looking forward to it, savoring it. She was in her bedroom, in her bed, with her mother sitting on the edge shaking her awake. Her voice was worried. “Denny, baby, it’s alright. You were having a nightmare… again. You’re safe, sweetie. I promise, baby, it’s okay. It was just a dream. Just a bad dream.”

A choked sob escaped Denise, as she sprang toward her mother and grabbed on tight. Burying her face against the comfort of her mom, the little girl clung to her and shook violently. “Mom, Mommy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t wanna–I–I didn’t–” She was trying to say that she didn’t want to kill that man, but couldn’t get the words out. And a part of her knew there was no way to explain it anyway. 

Her mother, clueless about what was really upsetting the girl, hugged her tight while shaking her head. Her voice was soft and soothing. “It’s okay, baby. It’s alright. It wasn’t real. You’re okay. Nothing’s going to hurt you, I promise. You’re safe now, my sweet little girl.”

For a couple minutes, they sat there like that, Denise clinging to her mom as the feelings and desires she had felt in the dream gradually faded. They’d been so real, so intense. It was like she was really there, really standing near that man who was about to die. But more than that, it was like she’d wanted to be there. She wanted to see him die, wanted to finally feel some guilt, some good emotion. Because there was nothing. She couldn’t feel it. She couldn’t feel the guilt or sadness she was supposed to feel. Something was wrong with her, and no matter how much she tried to fix it, nothing worked. She just couldn’t feel the right things. She–she was a…

“Monster,” the girl murmured under her breath, the words barely audible. 

They were, however, loud enough for her mother to hear, and the woman simply hugged her even tighter. “No baby, there’s no monster. It’s alright. Come on, it’s okay. Let’s go get a drink, you’ll feel better.” 

With that, she coaxed Denise to stand up and began to walk out of the room with her, their hands tightly clasped as she promised the girl a glass of milk to calm her down. They passed Denise’s father on his way back from the bathroom, the man pausing just long enough to ask if the girl was okay before heading back to bed. After all, he had to get up early for work in the morning. 

Trying to push those horrific memories and thoughts out of her mind, Denise walked with her mother to the kitchen, then sat at the table, sipping milk and nibbling at a single cookie. Her mom sat next to her, looking worried and clearly trying to hide it. Her voice was gentle. “How do you feel, Denny?” 

Denise didn’t answer at first. Thoughts of those dreams filled her head, and she had to set the milk down before it spilled from her shaking hand. The nightmares didn’t come every time she slept, but they were often enough that her mother was talking about taking her to see a doctor, a therapist who could help. Her mother was already afraid of the nightmares Denise was having, and the girl hadn’t even told her any details. She couldn’t. She just… couldn’t tell her mother about those dreams. Not the monster ones. Not the ones where she was the monster. 

So, pushing that terror and confusion away, the girl met her mother’s gaze. She managed, through some effort, to smile. “I’m okay,” she claimed, her voice a little hollow. “Can I go back to bed now? I’m pretty tired.” 

Her mother nodded, getting up and moving to turn out the kitchen light. As she did so, Denise spoke up again. “Mom?” 

“Yes, sweetie?” Turning toward her, the woman was startled to see her daughter standing directly behind her, having moved silently from the table while her back was turned. 

But not nearly as surprised as she was when the girl’s hand rose with the knife to plunge into her chest.

And just like that, Denise snapped awake. She jerked upright so fast, crying out as she did so, that she nearly fell backward off the chair where she and her mother had been sitting around the kitchen table. Her mother’s head was on the table, the woman snoring quietly. The two of them had both fallen asleep while sitting there, and somehow Denise jerking upright hadn’t woken her mother. The half-finished glass of milk was nearby, next to a mostly-finished cookie. They had been asleep for about twenty minutes, according to the cat clock on the wall. 

Breathing hard, the young girl looked away from her mother, gaze focusing off toward her own distorted reflection in the gleaming metal toaster nearby. Her voice cracked as she whispered very quietly, “What’s wrong with me?” 

As if in response, the reflection in the toaster twisted even more. It could’ve been a trick of the light, or… or something else. But she saw her hair lighten. She saw her eyes change, her face shift. She saw… she saw…

Him. 

********

Things continued that way for another week. Denise–or Denny as she was increasingly insisting she wanted to go by permanently, had more nightmares, though she managed to stop screaming out quite as much. She hid as many of them as she could, afraid that her family and others would see her as even more of a freak than they probably already did. If they only knew the half of it. They thought she was only seeing monsters coming after her. But it was so much more, so much worse. She dreamed about dying, yes. She had that same dream of choking on gasoline. That dream that was so real it was practically a memory. But she had more dreams than that, horrific dreams where she was the monster. Half were just as realistic as the gasoline dream, so vivid they were as real to her, even after she woke up, as a real memory would have been. And the other half were… were fantasies. That was the only way she had to describe them. They were fantasies about killing people she knew. Her friends, her teachers, her family. People she passed on the street. Anyone and everyone. She would have long, intricate hallucinations about killing them. And after every single one, she would see… him. 

Who was he? She had no idea. And yet, she did. He was her. She was him. But she wasn’t, not really. He wasn’t real. But he was. He was the boy who spoke. But the boy who spoke never spoke. Not to her. Not in the glimpses she caught of him. Because he was her. But he wasn’t. 

This was all wrong. It was all confusing and wrong. She saw the boy here and there, always in distorted reflections or in the corner of her eye. She never saw him directly. He was at the edge of her mind, behind her and yet never there when she turned. She had no idea who he was, and yet she knew him. What? That didn’t make any sense. None of it made sense. She knew him but she didn’t? That was wrong. It was all wrong. All of it was… was… wrong. She couldn’t remember his name, but she knew it. She knew his name. His name, it… it was…

Dangerous. His name was dangerous. Every time she thought she had his name right on the tip of her tongue, Denny would collapse in a ball of fear. An unrelenting, terrible tidal wave of terror completely overwhelmed her whenever she got close to remembering, close to… thinking of it. 

Her family didn’t know about most of that, of course. But they knew enough that her mother insisted she see a therapist. So, that was where Denny was now, sitting in the woman’s office, mumbling a bit about one of the nightmares she’d had. One of the safe nightmares. No way was she going to tell this stranger about the other nightmares, the ones where she was a killer. Or her… her fantasies. She wasn’t going to tell anyone about those. 

The therapist, a tall, dark-skinned woman with short hair who had introduced herself as Megan, smiled gently from where she was sitting in an armchair. There was an actual couch in the room, but she’d told Denny that she didn’t have to lay on it, or even sit on it if she didn’t want to. She’d joked that she would lie to the grand order of therapists if they asked about Denny sitting on the magic couch. 

So, Denny did not sit on the couch. She sat on the floor, as far from the couch as possible. She didn’t want to be near it. She wanted to be– well, she wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else, really. She wanted to be anywhere aside from the place that would prove she really was… broken. Instead, she sat there on the floor next to a small table where some kids had left crayon drawings. But she didn’t touch the crayons either. She just sat there and talked about some of the nightmares she’d had. The safe ones. Herself choking on gasoline, and a few others that… that were more vague. Dreams about running away from someone, dreams about being thrown out a window and falling all the way to the cement, and dreams about being buried alive. That last one, that one was… that one was the worst. Because in that one, she was afraid. She was always afraid after, of course. When she woke up. But in most of the dreams, aside from the gasoline one, she was never afraid during them. It was only in the dream where she was lying in the grave, pleading and begging for her… for her… for a man to stop, when she actually felt fear during the dream. But the man never stopped. He just kept putting more dirt on top of her. Burying her in… a grave with other dead things. He ignored her pleading, ignored her crying out for her mother, and kept burying her in the dirt until everything except her face was covered. Then he took a vial of… of blood, poured it into her mouth, made her swallow it, and then… then he kept burying her. Shovelful after shovelful of dirt kept coming, all while she cried, and pleaded, and… and…

“Denny?” Megan quietly spoke up from her chair. She wasn’t holding a notebook or doing anything that looked like taking notes. “Are you okay? It looked like you… had something on your mind.” 

Realizing that she’d lost herself in the memory of that horrible dream, Denny gave a quick headshake. “Sorry. I was just… thinking.” Blinking up that way as a thought occurred to her, she hesitated before asking, “Are you going to tell my mom if I don’t tell you more things?” 

With a small smile, Megan shook her head. “No, Denny. I’m not going to tell your mom about anything we say during these sessions. You can say as much or as little as you want to. If you don’t want to talk about your dreams, maybe you’d like to draw a picture?” With that offer, the woman indicated the stack of papers, pencils, and crayons. “Would that help?” 

Looking over at the paper for a brief moment, Denny shook her head. “No,” she answered quietly, clenching her hands a little. She was too afraid of what sort of thoughts would run through her head if she picked up the pencil. The last time she’d picked up scissors at school, the images that had filled her mind when she’d looked at one of the boys… it almost made her throw up again. 

So, she left the pencils alone, turning away from them while fidgeting with her hands. “Can you give me medicine?” the girl finally asked after another extended moment of silence while she worked up a bit of courage. “You know, the kind that makes me not dream anymore. I’m tired, but I don’t want to go to sleep. That’s when I dream.”

Picking herself up from the chair and moving over to sit on the floor near the young girl, Megan quietly asked, “Those dreams are pretty bad, huh?” When Denny nodded, the therapist seemed to consider briefly before continuing. “I’m sorry you’re having these dreams, Denny. You don’t deserve that. I want you to know that you’re not a monster. These things you’re feeling, they’re not your fault. They’re not your thoughts, or your memories. Well, most of them. They’re not about you. None of this is. You’re just… an innocent bystander.” 

Shifting a little, Denny stared at the woman. Her suspicions had suddenly been raised. “What– what do you know about it?” 

Megan, in turn, smiled very faintly. It looked like a sad, old smile. “A lot more than I should, probably. But that’s not the point. And you won’t remember any of this later anyway. Denny, I’m very sorry about this. I know most others would doubt that, but I truly am sorry that you were affected this way. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to live your life and–” She sighed heavily. “But I can’t let this go. I need to know about your dreams. I need you to tell me everything you’ve experienced, all of it. I have to get every detail, just in case. There might be something important somewhere in there. Something I’ve needed to know for a long time.” 

Denny began to push herself up from the floor. “I don’t wanna talk to you anymore, Megan,” the eleven-year-old informed her. “I don’t–” 

The older woman interrupted. “I’m sorry, I’m not really a Megan. It is a pretty name though. My name is Denuvus. Tell me about your dreams.” 

For a brief moment, Denny was silent, staring at the woman. Then her mouth opened, and the words came.

“I told you, I don’t want to talk to you anymore. And why’d you say your name was Megan if it’s Denuvus? What kind of name is Denuvus? I–I have to talk to my mom.” She pivoted to walk toward the door. 

Megan–or Denuvus, had risen to her feet. “My name is Denuvus. I want you to come back and sit down.” 

“Yeah? Well my name’s Denise,” Denny sarcastically retorted, grabbing the door to pull it open. “And what I want is for you to leave me alone and go jump in a lake.” In another second, she was out and stalking through the hall. 

She didn’t look back as the door closed behind her, which was almost a shame as it meant that she didn’t see the surprised look on her supposed therapist’s face as the woman vanished from the couch. 

A few seconds later and several miles away, the woman appeared above the surface of a small, local lake. She dropped into the water with a splash before rising to stand atop the water as though it was a physical floor. As she did so, her physical form shifted and transformed back to that of the small Caucasian woman with black hair, the appearance she used most often when talking to Trice. “Hmmm,” Denuvus murmured.

“Well, this was unexpected.”  

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