Denuvus

Patreon Snippets 16 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following are the Heretical Edge edition of the next requested Patreon Snippets from our $10+ donators. In this case, there are only two snippets, but one is 4500 words long, so… less snippet and more ‘about a chapter and a half.’ Hope you all enjoy them, and thanks for everything!

 

Denuvus and Trice

“How is our new guest settling into his quarters?” Denuvus casually asked her young assistant. The two of them stood in a fairly dark room, with a holographic globe of the Earth hovering in the air to take up most of the space within, serving as the only source of illumination. Her fingers played over part of the globe, turning it idly while she watched a line of energy that drew itself up and away, off into what would be open space.  

“The bogeyman is fed and watered,” Trice retorted. The green-haired young Heretic folded his arms while adding, “You gonna tell Miles and his buddies that we’ve got his dad?” They had used the distraction of the assault on Fossor’s compound to snatch up the man. 

“Not just yet,” came the quiet, distracted answer as Denuvus leaned in close to examine the glowing line. “We’ll keep him safe and taken care of for now. Miles and his friends could still be of some use very soon. When the time comes, we’ll give them a target and allow them to rescue Caleb while taking care of a… situation for me. No sense in throwing away perfectly good weapons before making use of them, after all.”

“That guy finds out you’ve had his father and didn’t tell him, he’s gonna be pissed,” Trice noted. 

Denuvus’s response was a dry, “The quiver of my fear at the prospect of such a thing shall shake the foundations of the Earth. Yet I soldier on through grim determination.”

With that, the dark-haired woman raised a hand to point. “Come here and look at this, see what we’re about to do.” 

Frowning, Trice stepped that way, staring at the line. “What the hell am I looking at?” 

“This,” the woman informed him, “is the trail of the magic that our friend Fossor used to send Miss Chambers away from this world and into the future. But by the nature of time travel magic, it can be… twisted, if one acts quickly enough at the exact moment of its casting.” 

Trice gave her a look. “Is that what you were doing while I had to drag the bogeyman dude out of there? Messing with the time travel spell?” 

“I want Miss Chambers to end up where and when I need her,” came the casual reply. “Not where and when Fossor wants her to be. I simply gave the spell a slight… wait.” The calm, confident reply turned faintly, yet noticeably uncertain that last word. 

“Wait?” Trice echoed, glancing at her. “What?” 

“This,” Denuvus informed him while indicating one flickering part of the line, “is where I interfered to send the Chambers girl where I want her.” Slowly, her finger moved up to a different flickering point further along. “This is someone else.” 

“Someone else?” Trice blinked that way. “What do you mean ‘someone else?’ I thought you said you’d have to interfere with the time travel spell at practically the exact moment it was cast.” 

“Yes,” the woman confirmed, “you would. You would also have to be an incredibly gifted and powerful mage to adjust a time spell that had already been adjusted once.” 

Trice looked to the line, then back to her. “So what does that mean?” 

For once, Denuvus looked slightly annoyed, and not entirely in control of the situation. “It means,” she managed through somewhat gritted teeth, “that someone else took control of the spell to move Miss Chambers beyond where Fossor or myself wanted her.” 

“But who the hell could do that?” Trice demanded. “Who was strong enough and knew to do it at that exact time?” 

“That,” came the slow, deliberate response, “is a very good question.” 

 

***********

 

Tabbris and Lincoln

 

“Are you certain this is something you want to do right now?” Sariel Moon asked quietly as she and Lincoln Chambers watched one another in a dimly lit room, the two of them only barely visible to one another through a couple of faintly flickering candles positioned at opposite ends of the table that sat between the pair. “Unlocking your Chimera gift is something you can’t ever do again. Not like this. If you would rather wait until your older daughter is here…”  

“I need to help.” The man’s voice was rough. He’d been through a lot in a short time. They had been so close to getting both Felicity and Joselyn back, and then that was snatched away. Not to mention his discovery that both of his own parents had disappeared, with no one having any idea where they were. There’d been worry for a time that Crossroads or Eden’s Garden had grabbed them, but neither of those groups had made a peep about it. The entire point of taking them would have been as leverage against Felicity and Joselyn, and yet there was nothing. And none of the whispers that the Atherby clan and rebellion at large had heard from those sympathetic to their cause within the Heretic organizations had heard anything about it. 

Maria and Arthur Chambers had simply vanished. Which, given the kind of things Lincoln now knew were out there, made him very anxious about what had prompted such a disappearance. Between that and the thing with Felicity and Joselyn, he hadn’t been getting much sleep. 

With a low sigh, he continued. “I can’t just sit around. I need to help. Felicity–she has a way of getting in trouble. Between her and Jos, and my parents going missing, I can’t just sit here. I’ve been learning a lot about–” He coughed, forcing the word out, “–magic, and believe me, that’s still a thing I can’t believe I’m talking about seriously. I’ve been learning a lot about that, but it’s not enough. I can’t become a normal Heretic–which is also a phrase I can’t believe I’m using– because of my… whatever, my blood, my mutation. I can’t become a Natural Heretic like any of these other humans. I can’t just pick someone to bond to and naturally grow their… gifts.” 

Sariel nodded once. Lincoln was a Chimera-blood, so any bonding he underwent would be temporary. He’d have their gifts, quicker than a normal Natural Heretic would. Yet unlike a normal Natural Heretic, he would go back to normal in a few hours or days, depending on how much genetic material was used to bond him in the first place. 

“As I said,” she quietly reminded the man, “once you unlock your Chimera gift the first time, you will be able to temporarily form a bond with any Alter whose bodily fluids you come into contact with, even through your own skin. Simply touching the blood or saliva of an Alter will create the temporary bonding.” There was a brief pause before the Seosten woman added, “I’m told that the Atherby clan has their own… traditions around the bonding process. A ritual, of sorts, that they have performed for generations. I believe they would greatly appreciate your participation.”

“These people are Joselyn’s family,” Lincoln murmured quietly, watching one of the flickering candles briefly before turning his attention back to the woman. “And they’ve taken care of Felicity and me for a long time now. There’s no way I’d refuse their traditions. Not after everything they’ve done, everything they’ve risked… everything they are. So yes, I’m up for it.” Again, there was a scratchiness to his voice, emotion lurking just under the surface of his words. The Atherbys had done more for his family and the people he loved than Lincoln himself would ever understand. He knew that. And he would be damned before he refused any invitation to participate in their traditions. They were Joselyn’s people, her family, even if that fact had been stripped out of her memory when he’d known her. They were important to her, so they were important to him. The things they did and cared about were important to him. 

Sariel offered him a faint smile that was barely visible, as the shadows and candlelight dueled with one another across her face. “I’m glad our daughter has you for a father, Lincoln Chambers. Which reminds me… as far as your first bonding goes, Tabbris will be very upset if you don’t choose her.” 

“It was always going to be her,” Lincoln assured the woman. “Like you said, she’s our daughter. The kid slept with me at night before I even knew she existed, and she’s been protecting her sister since… since she came to Earth, since before she could even talk. How could I choose anyone else? 

“Besides, between you and me, pissing that kid off feels like a bad idea.” 

*******

The next evening, shortly before sundown, Gabriel Prosser stood at the edge of the lake with his hand outstretched over the water. His eyes were closed as he murmured a quiet yet long spell. The sense of power that came off of the man, power that seemed to infuse itself into the lake, was intense enough to make the hair on the back of any onlooker’s neck stand up. And there were a lot of onlookers. Every single one of the Atherby camp inhabitants who weren’t very young children, up at the Fusion school, or off on one mission or another had shown up. There were dozens of them, all standing in a group as they watched their leader work a spell that most of them knew by heart, given how important it had always been to their people. Some were even murmuring the words to the spell under their breath along with the man, almost akin to a prayer.

Between Prosser and the other Atherby people stood three figures. Sariel, Lincoln and Tabbris. The latter two wore white robes with gold trim, the hoods raised over their heads. Across the back of the robes, also in gold, was the design of a sword held high in a clenched hand. A sword that many of the clan still recognized as the blade of their original king, Arthur Pendragon. 

At Tabbris’ feet sat what looked like an ordinary, small goldfish bowl with a thin glowing forcefield across the top. It was far more than that, however. The interior of the bowl was as large as a decent sized bedroom, and was full of hundreds of bright, colorful fish of all kinds. There was an entire habitat inside that deceptively small-looking fishbowl, and Tabbris could adjust both the sides and top to look at any part of it at any time. They were her fish, the bowl a gift from her mother and its occupants gifts from… well, everyone. 

If Tabbris couldn’t have Flick here for this moment, she’d damn sure wanted her fish friends to be there. 

As he finished speaking the words of the spell, Gabriel grew silent. The rest of the clan followed suit. For a few precious seconds, the only audible sound was that of the waves gently lapping against the pebble-covered beach. There was stillness, a sort of magical peace. The sun had begun to set by that point, sending its red-orange glow across the water. Still, no one broke the silence. 

Finally, the tall dark-skinned man spoke while still facing the lake, his voice filling the air. “In the times of the king, those who were chosen as his knights, his select warriors, were gifted with a strength beyond their own. They were gifted with augmented strengths and powers, raising them above what they could achieve on their own. Arthur’s Dragon gifts allowed him to make others stronger. The man himself, our founder, did not simply protect his people. He enabled them to protect themselves. Our forebears, the people of Camelot, stood against the tyranny and darkness that have threatened this world for millennia. And their cause has not been forgotten. Their beliefs, their strengths, their ideals have not been forgotten. 

He turned then, facing the others while the lake behind him was lit by the fading sun. “In the absence of Arthur, we lack the ability to pass on the enhancement that he was capable of. Yet we are not without strengths of our own. As is the tradition of our people, those humans who join us are bonded to their Natural partner not only once, but twice.” 

Lincoln, of course, had been told about this ahead of time. As had Tabbris. They wouldn’t have ambushed the pair with such a revelation. Still, hearing it out loud like this made the man blink, his hand reaching down to touch the shoulder of his younger daughter. She leaned into it, and the two returned their attention to the man who was still speaking. 

“Our second-bonding,” Gabriel continued, “must be with the same species as the first, but need not be the same individual. A Natural Heretic who is bonded a second time this way will find their gifts growing faster and stronger than before. It is not the same as Arthur’s Dragon-boost, but it is our method of preserving that same idea. A way of giving our people any advantage we can, against the forces assembled against us.” 

As those words trailed off, the man focused on the trio directly in front of him. A slight smile touched his face. “Here we have Lincoln Chambers, husband of our true and rightful leader, Joselyn.” 

He spoke the name simply. Yet the moment the name of Lincoln’s wife left Gabriel’s mouth, every member of the Atherby clan spoke three words together. “True and free!” The words came instantly, filling the air with the force of thunder. True and free, it was a motto that had existed in one form or another since as long as almost any involved with the clan could remember. Yet that meaning had been greatly expanded, embraced, and exhibited by Joselyn herself in her time as the leader of the rebellion that the Atherby clan had been attached to. True and free. Their lives, their goals, their struggles, could be summed up, in large part, by those words. They fought for the truth and they fought for freedom. Freedom to live. Freedom to exist. 

“True and free,” Gabriel echoed in quiet agreement. It was a motto that had remained dormant for a long time, since the loss of Joselyn and her children. Invoking it now, at the moment when one of her husbands was about to go through the bonding process, felt right. It was hope, despite all the setbacks. More than that, it was a statement of determination, a declaration that Joselyn herself, and her youngest daughter, would both be free. 

Once those words had echoed across the lake, the man continued. “Lincoln is special, not only because of his family, but because he himself is quite the accomplished journalist. He is a man who seeks truth, and delivers it to others. Could any of us who know Joselyn be surprised that she would find a man like him?” He was smiling faintly, head shaking a little before adding, “And Lincoln here is also of the Chimera-blood.” That pronouncement made a few people’s eyes widen in surprise, as Gabriel went on. “The bonding process, first or second, will not be permanent. Yet it will unlock his gift to bond with any Alter much more easily. And Lincoln has agreed to undergo the second bonding as well, in keeping with our traditions. For that, we will now prepare.” 

As soon as those words were spoken, the group of Atherby clanspeople began to move. They passed Lincoln, Sariel, and Tabbris, a few offering quiet words of encouragement and gratitude. Over the next few minutes, the people spread out around the edge of the lake, putting enough distance between themselves that would reach all the way around and come back around the other side. 

“What happens now?” The question came not from any of the trio who stood there waiting, but from Abigail Fellows. Joselyn’s eldest daughter stood beside her twin brother and her father, the three having just been revealed when the rest of the clan moved to position themselves around the lake. They would not have missed this for anything. Not considering how important Lincoln was to Joselyn. 

Deveron straightened to his full height. The fact that he now looked like he was in his twenties rather than his teens still sometimes threw everyone who primarily knew him from his two years of deception at Crossroads, but they were gradually growing accustomed to it. “Now,” he answered in a soft voice, “they take the walk.” 

Wyatt, his eyes heavy and dark given the effort he was going through to find a way of bringing his younger sister back from the future, managed to mutter, “Traditions are a bad idea. People take advantage of traditions. Poison the ritual, invoke obscure rules to their benefit, create an ambush. Traditions are routines. Routines are stupid.” 

Deveron glanced to his son, casually replying, “See those birds out there?” Raising his hand, he pointed to a flock of dark crows that were gliding across the trees in a slow circle around the lake. “A few of our Seosten friends are using them to keep an eye on things. We also have guards in the woods, a few emergency teleports set up just in case, and I put a few whispers out that the Atherbys were doing something special for Lincoln near Laramie Falls, just in case.” 

There was a brief pause from Wyatt, before the gangly man gave a somewhat reluctant nod. “That’ll have to do, I suppose.” He knew himself. He knew he was anxious because of Flick, angry that he hadn’t been able to find her in time and now couldn’t drag her backwards through time to bring her back. He was running himself ragged and barely listened to anyone’s attempts to get him to rest at all. Intellectually, Wyatt knew there were few places on the planet safer for this than the Atherby camp. But that didn’t stop his imagination from running wild with all the possibilities of what could go wrong.

Meanwhile, Gabriel had turned to face Lincoln and the other two now that the rest of the clan had assumed their positions. He offered all three of them a smile, as well as his hand. In it was a small, ornate-looking dagger with a red hilt and intricate runes along the slightly curved blade. 

Seeing the blade, Sariel promptly asked, “Are you sure that’s not too big? It’s–” 

“Mama,” Tabbris interrupted while picking up her fishbowl. She held for her mother to take. “It’s okay. I can do it.” With her pets safely held by her mom, she turned back to Gabriel, her small hand rising to take the offered handle. Holding the dagger tightly, she recited the words she had been taught earlier that day. “Sire of Atherby, I am to share with one.”

“Do you share by your own will and choice?” Gabriel recited. 

Her head gave a short nod as she lowered the dagger to hold at her side. “It is a gift, given of choice.” 

“Who holds your left, and who your right?” The man’s next question came. “Who receives your left and right?” 

In some situations, a donating Alter would be attended by two, such as both parents, or siblings. In this case, only Sariel spoke. “I hold her left. I hold her right.” Tradition, of course, meant that she did not say that she held her left and right, but rather, that she spoke the words exactly as they would have been spoken had there been two people. 

Lincoln took his cue to speak then. “I receive her left and right. I accept and welcome the gift as it is offered, by one I trust with my all.” 

“Begin the walk,” Gabriel intoned, stepping back and raising a hand to indicate that they should move to the left. “And when you complete the circle, know that you will both return to this camp as more than you are now. Your bond will never be broken, however far you may part. Leave as halves, and return as whole.” 

As he finished speaking, Sariel took up the next part. “I wait to receive you both, as one.” 

With those words, Lincoln moved forward while taking Tabbris by the hand. Together, they passed Gabriel, stepping right out onto the water. As they did so, the spell that the Atherby leader had cast took effect, turning the liquid firm, yet slightly springy under their feet. 

Turning left, the two began to walk together. Tabbris’ voice was quiet. “I miss Flick.” 

Eyes closing briefly, Lincoln gave a short nod as he squeezed the young girl’s hand. “Me too, Cookie Bear.” He took a breath, forcing himself to continue. “But you know her. You know how she is, who she is. She’ll be okay and we’ll pull her back here. Or she’ll find someone in the future to… to send her back here. But we have to make sure here is as good as possible. And be ready the next time she needs help. Right?” He managed the last word through a tight throat. Keeping it together for Tabbris’s sake was actually helping Lincoln not fall apart entirely. His parents, his wife, his eldest daughter, all of them missing with no idea where or how they were doing. But he had his younger daughter here, and he would be damned before he lost it in front of her. 

By that point, the two had reached the first of the assembled figures who lined the entire length of the lake. Standing on the beach while Lincoln and Tabbris stayed atop the water, Misty (the young Natural Ogre Heretic) extended a hand with a wooden bowl held in her palm. “What do you give? What do you accept?” 

“I give of myself to this clan,” Tabbris recited, her voice cracking just a little bit as she was obviously still thinking of Flick. “I accept this bond.” 

Lincoln, squeezing the girl’s hand slightly before releasing it, spoke the next words. “I give of myself to this clan. I accept this bond.” 

“I, Misty Proell, accept this bond,” came the response, before she murmured a single word of a spell and offered the bowl forward. The bit of magic she had instilled into it made a few runes on the side of the bowl glow briefly. 

Tabbris, taking a breath, carefully raised the dagger and touched it against her forehead, then to her lips, then raised her free arm. A small opening in white robe revealed the pale skin of her arm beneath, where she touched the edge of the blade and drew a very slight cut. Blood lined the blade, before it glowed briefly and the wound healed. There was no hiss or any other reaction from the Seosten girl, given the way the dagger had been enchanted. It immediately healed any damage it did and caused no pain. Fairly useless as a weapon. But then, it wasn’t meant as one.

With a very slightly shaking hand, Tabbris touched the blade to the offered bowl. Immediately, that very small amount of blood was magically pulled from the dagger. Once she did, the bowl vanished from Misty’s hand, even as she nodded for them to continue. 

Next was Misty’s older brother Duncan, who controlled metal using his Natural Ullmis Heretic gifts. He held the bowl that his sister had held moments earlier, as it passed magically down the line to him. In a grave, serious voice, he spoke the same words she had, and they gave the same responses, and he spoke the one-word spell to add a bit of his own power to the bowl. At the proper time, when the bond was accepted, Tabbris touched the blade to her arm once more, drawing another painless, rapidly-healed cut to take another small bit of blood.

The bowl vanished from Duncan’s hand, and they moved on down the line. One by one, working their way around to the midway point on the far side of the lake from where they had started, Tabbris put more of her blood into the bowl. It was only a small amount each time, a few drops. But it added up gradually, as each member of the clan voiced their acceptance of this bonding.

Finally, they reached that halfway point as the sun finished setting, leaving the lake fairly dark. A woman stood there, clad in blue and black form-fitting armor with the white emblem of a griffin in flight across the chest. Guinevere of Camelot held the bowl, which had been about a quarter filled by that point. Rather than repeating the same thing the others up to that point had, however, she instead intoned, “In the name of the King of Kings, your bond is accepted. Your alliance is your strength, as it is all of Camelot and those who have descended from it, still holding those ideals. Let it bring forth your power, so you in turn may stand against those who would see freedom broken.” With those words, the woman spoke the same empowering spell the others had, followed by another two words. Those words triggered the power in the bowl that had been built up by everyone thus far, sending an electric crackle through the blood before she held it out to Tabbris. 

The young Seosten took the bowl, staring at the empowered blood within it. Blood that had been in her, and was now charged by magic from each of the people along the first half of the lake. Empowered so that it would be far more likely to ‘take’ and create a Natural Heretic on the first try. 

“My blood,” she announced quietly before holding the bowl out with both hands toward Lincoln. “I give it freely.” 

“I accept it freely,” Lincoln confirmed, taking the bowl gently before breathing out. They had assured him that the bowl would enchant the blood so that it tasted like nothing, but it still took some effort to get past the thought of what he was doing. Finally, the man raised the bowl to his lips and drank it down as quickly as possible. Once the bowl was empty, he bowed his head and returned it to Tabbris, who in turn returned it to Guinevere. 

Gwen, in turn, took the bowl and spoke once more. “Your gifts are received. And as you make your way back to where you began, they will be strengthened. Go, and see your bond reach beyond what you imagined.” 

For his part, Lincoln felt… stronger. He felt as though years had lifted from his body. He’d been in decent shape anyway, but his age was getting to him here and there through various dull aches. Yet all those had disappeared so suddenly their absence was immediately obvious. He abruptly felt like he was twenty years old again, though there were no physical changes. He was lighter on his feet, his hearing was better, sharper. His eyesight too, had been improved. Taking on, even temporarily, the Seosten powerset had essentially made him the best possible physical version of himself. And that was just the passive enhancements. Was this what it felt like to be a Seosten all the time? 

Turning, he and Tabbris moved to the next person along the shore of the lake. Vanessa. The blonde half-Seosten smiled at her younger sister as the wooden bowl appeared in her hands. “Your bond is unbroken,” she spoke carefully, “Let it serve those in need. Let it protect you, yours, and those who stand before evil. Let it reach from sea to stars.” With those last words, Vanessa first crouched to touch the bowl to the water, then stood and raised it toward the dark sky, as though offering it to the very stars she had just mentioned. Finally, she lowered it, extending the bowl not toward Tabbris, but to Lincoln while speaking a word of empowering magic. 

He, in turn, took the blade that Tabbris offered him, cutting a bit of his own exposed arm before allowing the blood to drip into the bowl. Then they moved on. There were no words for Tabbris and Lincoln to speak at this point. Their duty was to remain solemn and quiet, hearing the words being spoken to them. 

Tristan was next, followed by Haiden. Each spoke the same words Vanessa had, performing the same actions, touching the bowl to the water, then raising it to the sky before offering the bowl to them as they spoke the word to add their power to the spell on the bowl. Throughout that, Lincoln and Tabbris took turns cutting themselves, each mixing their blood in the bowl until they returned to the spot where they had begun. 

Finally, they stood in front of Gabriel once more. The man himself held the bowl with their mixed blood, offering them a soft smile. “Your journey has begun,” he informed the pair. “You have been bonded once, and will soon be twice. You will never be truly apart, despite any distance between you. You are forever linked through these bonds. Bonds that do not hold you, but instead free you. The clan of Atherby, descendants of Arthur’s Camelot, welcome you to our fold. We are as one.” 

With that, he spoke the words that triggered the bonding spell, sending another electric crackle through the blood before offering it to the man across from him. 

Again, Lincoln drank from the bowl. Not all of it, only about half. Then he lowered the bowl and held it to his younger daughter. “We are as one.” 

Tabbris, in turn, drank from the bowl to finish the contents before quietly echoing, “We are as one.” 

She and Lincoln both turned to face one another then, linking hands together while Gabriel put one hand on each of them (on Lincoln’s back and Tabbris’s head). The Atherby leader spoke out loud, while the rest of the clan approached from their positions, walking across the enchanted lake. “We are as one. You are bonded, linked for all of your days.” 

Together, Gabriel and all of those who had gathered to witness the event spoke seven intricate words. They were Mayan in origin, the spell a gift from those people. As the spell was triggered, the blood that had been in the bowl (and was now in both Lincoln and Tabbris) triggered. Both felt a rush of power, a burst of nearly electric shock that made them jump. The second bonding, meant to strengthen the first and give the Natural Heretic a boost to their gifts, had been successful. 

Several long seconds of silence followed, before Tabbris hesitantly and quietly asked, “Dad… are you okay?” 

Lincoln, in turn, nodded. “Yeah,” he murmured before looking back up. “It feels pretty… Tabbris?” 

“What?” Only belatedly did the young girl realize that the man wasn’t the only one staring at her. So were Gabriel, the other assorted clanspeople, her mother, siblings, everyone. “What? What? I don’t–” In mid-sentence, Tabbris turned to look to the side, only to stop short. A single brightly glowing wing made of solid-light energy was there. A glance to her right revealed the same on that side. A pair of energy wings had sprouted from her back at the moment the second bonding boost had been triggered. 

“Your father…” Sariel managed. 

“He’s one of the archangels.”

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Mini-Interlude 81 – Joselyn and Denuvus (Heretical Edge)

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Please note, the following takes places immediately following Mini-Interlude 55, when Denuvus revealed herself to be the ‘prisoner’ Ammon brought back from one of his outings and left her to help his mother. 

Also note, this is NOT the regular chapter whose early release is tomorrow. That is still coming as scheduled. This is an entirely extra (commissioned) chapter. I hope you enjoy it. 

“Hold that thought.”

Moments after she had simultaneously introduced herself and used her power to ensure that her command for Joselyn to answer all of her questions was actually followed, Denuvus held a hand up to stop her from doing just that. A small smile played at the pretty, yet unassuming-looking woman’s face. “You seem a bit surprised, Mrs. Chambers. Was it something I said? Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things I’ve said, you should stand there without making any move to alert anyone, attack me, or do anything else beyond breathe and talk to me until I say otherwise. And you can scratch your nose or any other itch you have. I’m not a monster.” 

Joselyn, staring at her for a moment, managed to breathe out. “You look different than I imagined, ‘Denuvus’. Unless you shapeshifted yourself to look like… this.” She did her best to keep her words calm, while her mind raced. Even for someone who had seen a lot in her life, finding out that this woman, who had appeared to be an innocent victim of one of Ammon’s temper tantrums, was actually the mysterious, whispered-about puppet-master whose potent ability was the basis on which Joselyn’s own son’s powers were based was… a lot.

“Yes and no,” came the clearly amused reply. “Yes, I’m using a power to change what I look like. I do that a lot, though I happen to be partial to this one. She’s… no one important, just a woman I saw once. But her face has stuck with me for some reason.” Denuvus mused on that for a moment before continuing with a shake of her head. “And no, I’m not really a man. Though people believing that is very useful for me. Oh, and ahh, my name is Denuvus, never tell anyone anything you find out about me, anything I tell you about my plans, goals, or even what I like to have for dinner. I’m a fish person, for the record. Deep fried catfish and hushpuppies, that’s basically my kryptonite.” 

The time that Denuvus had taken to say all that had given Joselyn a chance to regroup a bit. “Are you here to kill Fossor?” she asked carefully, unsure how she would be forced to react if the answer was yes. She was sworn, magically, to protect him from direct and legitimate threats. On the other hand, Denuvus had used her power to make her stand still. Which would win out in a direct competition? She genuinely wasn’t sure. 

“Kill him?” Denuvus echoed. “Eventually, I’m sure. But for now, what I need when it comes to that man is information. I’ve tried to extract it from him before but, well, our conversations never go very well. Even when he doesn’t know it’s me he’s talking to.”

She smiled a bit, clearly remembering a particularly amusing moment before shaking that off as she leaned back on her heels to look at Joselyn. “Anyway, getting information out of him, especially what I need, it’s a bit like getting blood from a stone. Although, I have actually done that, and it involves a lot more cayenne pepper than you’d think. But this man? I can’t get what I need out of him. Or I couldn’t, until you and your son came along. People close to him.”

Eyes flashing a bit with anger, Joselyn snapped, “I’m not close to him. And neither is Ammon. We’re both tools to him. If you think you can threaten either of us and make him do anything…”

“Physically close,” the other woman amended with a vague wave. “You spend a lot of time with him, and if he enjoys anything, it’s the sound of his own voice. We do have that in common, at least. I need you to tell me everything you know about him.” 

Joselyn just stared at her for a moment before speaking. “I’ve heard plenty about you, from a lot of people. A lot of it contradicts itself, and I’m pretty sure there’s as much bullshit as truth in it. And I sure as hell don’t know about you being a woman. If you even truly are, you could be lying about that. You could be lying about anything. But what all of those things agree with is that you are dangerous. You kill anyone who gets in your way, without batting an eye. You kill people just because they might be able to expose something about you. He’s a monster, but so are you.”

If she was offended, Denuvus didn’t show it at all. “And you have just… no experience in being close to monsters, right? Joselyn, I’m not here as a threat to you. In fact, I may eventually end up getting you out of here. Who knows? It would be nice to stick something to him that hard. He would be so pissed off…”

She shrugged, adding, “Besides, we shouldn’t fight. After all, we’re kind of co-mommies. My blood was used to make your son what he is. Which, given the whole Heretic thing, practically makes him my family. I mean, if they have a take your son to work day, we might have to thumb wrestle over who gets him. Although, isn’t it pretty wrong that he’d be both safer and less fucked up mentally if he came with me?”

She chuckled softly before letting out a breath. “So, let’s get down to business. Like I said, you’re going to tell me everything you know about Fossor and Ammon. Let’s start with the kid. I just have one very important question. When you were pregnant, did Fossor ever take you away from Earth?”

Joselyn clearly hadn’t been expecting any kind of questions like that, blinking in confusion. “Take me away from Earth? I mean, yes, we went to a few places. Why?”

Ignoring the question, the other woman asked, “Did he take you to his world?”

Slowly, Joselyn nodded. “We spent a little time there. He said something about it being important for the baby to have a connection to his father’s world. He said it was a tradition, but I’m pretty sure it was about magic.”

“Bright girl,” Denuvus agreed. “Let me guess, at some point, your memory has a big blank spot, where are you have no idea what happened.”

For a few seconds, Joselyn just stared at her, thoughts whirling in her mind before she confirmed, “I remember him giving me a tour of the house he grew up in. He was looking at a picture. Then it’s blank. The next thing I remember, we were on our way back to Earth, and it was two days later. . I have no idea what happened in that time, and quite frankly, I’ve been trying very hard not to think about it all this time.”

“I have some ideas,” Denuvus murmured. “But first, tell me what you know about Fossor as a boy. I want to know everything, even the smallest detail, about his life on that world. I want you to walk me through every little bit you know. Be completely honest.”

Sighing, Joselyn did just that. She told the woman about Fossor being a child gifted in his species’ rare gift to speak with the dead, and how his abusive father had reacted. She told her about the young Fossor trying to render his sister immortal and killing her.

“And then he went to prison,” Denuvus noted. “But not just any prison. He was sent to one of the single most secure prison facilities in the known universe, which just happened to be held on his own home planet. At least, at that time it was. He kills his sister, and ends up in a place that’s meant to hold the worst monsters who have ever existed? How exactly does that work? Did he ever tell you how he ended up there?”

“He was kind of vague on that,” Joselyn admitted. “I take it you know how he ended up there?”

“Yes,” Denuvus murmured, “it’s because he wanted him there. And even as their prisoner, he still had that kind of influence. Enough to get the young, untrained and incredibly powerful necromancer brought close to him.”

“Another prisoner?” Joselyn was frowning. 

“Not just any prisoner,” Denuvus informed her. “The prisoner.  The one the prison was built for. Literally, the one. You know the name Fossor is just Fah-Seur, thirty-four in their language? The thirty-fourth prisoner. The one we’re talking about now is their word for One. You know about Arthur? The King, not your father-in-law.”

Joselyn nodded. “Of course, I— wait. You’re not…”

With a soft chuckle, Denuvus shook her head. “It’s not Arthur. This was long before his time. Several thousand years ago. It’s another natural Dragon-Heretic, one that’s… let’s say less Camelot and more Genghis Khan. The prison was originally built to contain him and his personal minions. That is its primary purpose. When our friend here escaped, they moved the prison. There were too many defenses for him to get all the way to One and the other important prisoners before the people in charge could get out with them, and now the prison is somewhere else. One is still safely locked away.”

Joselyn squinted that way.  “And do you think you can control this guy? Is that why you’re so interested?”

Denuvus gave her a long look. “I am not suicidal. Nor am I quite that arrogant. No, I don’t believe I can control this man. He was a full fledged powerful Dragon Heretic who was dangerous enough to build the universe’s strongest prison for, over three thousand years ago. Now? Even locked up, who knows how strong he could be? No, controlling him is not my plan. But I do believe that he could be useful to my overall goal.”

“And what is that?” Joselyn probed. “Because as far as I knew, your only real goal was to be as comfortable as possible and live like a quiet emperor. Excuse me, empress. Sticking your neck out as far as looking for whoever this guy seems like a really good way of getting your head chopped off, at the very least. So what makes it worth that risk?”

“Perhaps some day I will tell you more,” Denuvus allowed thoughtfully. “But at this exact moment, let’s just say there is a creature whom I very much wish dead. Everything I have become, everything I have… sacrificed… turning myself into what I am and amassing as much power as I have, even keeping so many secrets about myself, has been toward the goal of killing this creature. He believes himself to be a god, and he’s not far wrong. But, even gods can be killed, given the right power in the right circumstances.”

Joselyn’s head shook slowly. “You want this… whoever it is dead so much that you’ve become a monster yourself. How many people have you killed to get here? How many of the people who actually cared about you or could have if you let them have you thrown away? How many lives have you destroyed with this obsession? You mentioned sacrifice, and that meant something to you. What was it? Who? Who did you sacrifice for your power? Because you clearly love them, and their death isn’t something this other creature did. You did that. Whoever this person was that their death still affects you after all this time, that was you. For everything this enemy of yours has taken away from you, it seems to me that you’ve thrown away just as much in this mad rush for revenge.”

An invisible force suddenly gripped her, lifting the woman off the floor and squeezing tight enough that Joselyn let out a gasp of pain. 

“I threw nothing away,” Denuvus announced in a low, dangerous tone. “She is still a part of me, as she always will be. Making a choice and standing by it doesn’t mean it will never hurt or that you will never regret it. But I would not change what I did. I accept the pain as part of the price for eventually killing the monster who took my—” She stopped, emotions warring on her face for a very brief moment before she contained them.

“You are far from the only one who knows what it is like to have a child taken away from you. Some in a more permanent sense then others. Whatever it takes, whoever’s life is lost, I will see this creature bloodied, broken, and dead. And in the end, as he falls, he will know it was me. He will know that his death and every loss he has suffered has been my doing. Before he dies, the last words that leave his filthy mouth will be the names of my son and daughter that he took from me. Then he will die, and every atom of his flesh will be incinerated.”

Swallowing slightly at the end of that, Joselyn spoke carefully. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what that creature did to you, and what it made you become. But you never had to do all of this. You didn’t have to make this whole crusade yours and no one else’s. If he’s as much of a monster as you say, you could have gone to…”

Denuvus raised an eyebrow. “Gone to who? The Seosten-puppeted Heretics? One of these other groups would not do what needs to be done to destroy him? People who would completely fail to understand the threat until it was too late? His tendrils are everywhere. He could control any of them. No, I will kill him myself, whatever the cost.”

She let Joselyn drop to the ground finally. “And thanks to our son, or at least his existence, I am several steps closer to that.” The woman offered a faint smile. “I suppose influencing Fossor  with the idea of using my blood on an offspring of his own was worth the effort.” 

Joselyn’s eyes widened slightly. “You… what? No, Fossor had to have your blood stolen, and then killed the intermediary.”

The other woman chuckled. “Well, of course. He’d hardly do what I wanted him to if I just handed the blood to him. It had to be his idea. Or, he had to believe it was. Planting those seeds took quite a while. But now they have paid off. He took you back to the world he came from. And if I’m right, he did exactly what I wanted him to.”

Smiling at the other woman’s expression, she waved a hand idly. “But, that is something that won’t come to fruition for sometime, as the lord of the house here furthers his plans. Which is just fine, as I am nothing if not patient. In any case, it will be fun to see him made useful to me again.”

“Again?” Joselyn carefully echoed. 

Denuvus nodded. “Yes well, the ritual which granted me my Djinn required an unbelievably powerful spell be cast so that I could draw the excess into mine.”

“Powerful spe—” Joselyn’s eyes widened. “ The banishment curse. The one the old Heretics used to try to get rid of Fossor. You took energy from it. If you hadn’t done that—”

“The spell would have proceeded exactly as it did,” Denuvus interrupted. “I know it would have because they came to my sister and I to ask for help. They were looking for the aid of anyone capable of contributing to their spell. So they let us see it. I knew what would happen. The loophole was right there. But I didn’t say anything, because I needed them to cast it. I needed that energy.  The energy from so many incredibly powerful people throwing their all into this spell was something I’d been waiting for.”

Shaking her head, Joselyn demanded, “How do you know that things would have gone the same if you hadn’t interfered?”

With a sigh, Denuvus answered. “Because my ritual did not take from their spell before it was cast, it used the cast-off energy afterward. Djinn are created in one of two ways, accidentally or purposefully. An accidental Djinn comes about when a world shaking spell is employed and the… let’s call it exhaust from that spell happens to miraculously find its way into a recently deceased body. Even then most of the time it will simply destroy the body. To form an accidental Djinn, the body must be far enough away that the energy has to strain a bit to reach it, thereby entering the body slowly enough that it doesn’t promptly explode. Yet if it’s too far away, the energy will drain away before enough pools to create the Djinn. It’s all very complicated, sort of like not only predicting where lightning will strike, but from how far away. And then, for good measure, do the same thing for every bolt in the entire storm.”

“Lightning rods,” Joselyn murmured. 

The other woman smiled once more. “Yes, the ritual I used was like a very specific series of lightning rods. They pulled the energy in just the right way, at the exact speed to create my Djinn. Think of it as a complicated recipe, where food must be cooked at precisely the right temperature for precisely the right amount of time, or it’s all ruined.”

Joselyn swallowed. “You mentioned a sister. What happened to her?”

Denuvus was quiet for a moment before answering. “Creating a Djinn requires a sacrifice, a blood cost. You can’t just put it in any old body. It must be the body of one you truly love. I truly loved my sister. But it was the only way to put a stop to this monster.”

“Or you could have told the Heretics who came to see you for help with the spell about him,” Joselyn pointed out. “With enough help—”

“We tried,” Denuvus snapped. “Right after we escaped from our confinement, we tried to tell others about the threat. Some didn’t believe us at all. Others just believed we were grossly exaggerating the threat. And others… others were agents for him, willingly or otherwise. We were nearly enslaved once more because we went to others for help.”

She exhaled slowly. “No, I learned a long time ago that I can only depend on myself and my sister. Now only myself.”

Her hand waved that thought away, after a brief troubled frown that was also dismissed. “But let’s get back to it, shall we? There’s still a lot I need to know about Fossor and our little boy. 

“So, I suppose it’s a good thing that we have all night to talk.”

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Summer Epilogue 6 – Trice and Denuvus (Heretical Edge)

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Leaning against one of the posts holding up an exit sign along the freeway, Trice watched cars continue to stream by. The green-haired boy wore his usual long brown trenchcoat. It wasn’t his coat, of course. Not any more than the pike secured to his back was his pike. Who the hell even knew where those were now. But they were, at least, perfect replicas provided by his current patroness.

Speaking of whom, he looked over his shoulder to where the small, dark-haired woman herself sat on a chair she had conjured on the far side of the sign. The chair projected some kind of magical cloaking field that rendered both of them invisible to the cars passing by. “So,” the boy started, “not that taking Heretic prisoners doesn’t sound fun. But what’s the point? And–” He paused, blinking at the woman. “Are you reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?”

“Mmmhmm,” Denuvus murmured, her eyes on the book in her hands. Her voice was absent, attention clearly on the writing in front of her. “I kept meaning to, but time has a habit of getting away from you when you live for centuries. I do hope that Harry finds out who’s been petrifying all the students.” Closing the book then, she used it to point at the boy “And I promise, if you spoil it for me, I will be quite cross.”

Trice squinted at her for that. “I’m kind of surprised you’re rooting for the good guys. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but aren’t you kind of a megalomaniacal supervillain?”

Dropping the book onto the chair as she stood, Denuvus replied, “I’m a lot of things. But medically speaking, no. First of all, they don’t use the term megalomania anymore. Now it’s narcissistic personality disorder. And I don’t have that. I can fake it pretty well, but that’s not me. I want you to keep that in mind. Everything I do is not because of a mental disorder. It’s because I choose to do it. Because I chose a very long time ago to put three things above everything else. My life, my comfort, and my revenge. I know exactly who I am, what I’m doing, and why.”

It was the first time she’d said that much about herself, and Trice found himself blinking. “Revenge?”

“That book has me pontificating,” Denuvus muttered, waving a hand to make the book and the chair it was sitting on vanish. “Let’s just say that my sister and I were once more… Dobby than Harry Potter. We had a master, and everything I do is geared toward one day destroying him.”

Biting his lip as he wondered if he should even say anything, Trice found himself asking, “You have a sister?” What the hell, if she didn’t want him to talk about it, she could always make him shut up. She could technically make him do anything she wanted. Actually, the fact that she had yet to use her true power on him aside from demonstrating that she could was a little confusing.

“I had a sister,” Denuvus informed him in a matter-of-fact tone. “And then I killed her.”

“Damn,” Trice managed. “That’s cold. You must’ve really hated her.”

The woman’s voice was soft, mind clearly elsewhere. “I loved her with all my heart. She was all I had. We were all each other had. In my entire life, she was probably the only person I ever truly loved besides myself. In all the centuries that have passed, I’ve never stopped missing her. Not once. Not for a single day. But I had a choice once, to escape with my sister and leave our revenge unfulfilled. Or to sacrifice her to gain the power I needed to one day make him pay for everything he did. I made my choice.”

For a moment, Trice was silent. He shifted from foot to foot, mind racing before finally speaking up once more. “That all sounds pretty personal. Why the hell are you telling me about it?”

“As I said, that book has me speaking too much,” she replied before turning her gaze on him. “And because I want you to understand. I am not a maniac. I will not turn on you for no reason. I know precisely what I’m doing and why. As long as you are either helpful or at least not a hindrance to that, we will have no quarrel. But the moment you think about making me regret taking you out of that cell, remember that I sacrificed my sister to achieve my goals. And I have only become more determined since that time.”

Swallowing, the boy gave a quick nod. “Yeah, point taken. I get it, believe me. Besides, it’s not like I’ve got anywhere to go. That Chambers chick might’ve restarted the whole rebellion thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m still persona non grata with the Heretics. And since that whole magical info download shit she did actually didn’t mention the body-snatching fuckweasels you say were responsible for Torv’s death, I get the feeling that I’ve got a better chance of making them pay by staying with you. Doxer’s dead and… and I don’t know what the hell happened to Pace. There’s nothing for me to go back to. Whatever you’re doing, I’m with you.” He paused then before gesturing to the freeway. “But like I said, I still dunno what the point of taking Heretic prisoners is. It seems kind of… loud and obvious. The kind of loud and obvious that gets attention. And from everything you’ve said, attention is something you usually avoid.”

“Attention can have its uses,” she reminded him. “Having a reputation, even if only by your name, tends to open a lot of doors. If I wanted to disappear entirely without leaving a trace, I could have done so centuries ago, and lived quite comfortably. But comfort is not my only goal. Sometimes to accomplish what one needs to, one must… make a little noise.”

With that, the woman began to walk toward the freeway, stepping over the guardrail. “And we’re not taking Heretic prisoners.” Her hand rose to flag down passing trucks. “We’re saving them.”

Before Trice could ask what that meant, a semi pulled to the side, slowing as it came right up alongside them on the shoulder. When it stopped, the woman opened the door, using it to haul herself up to look at the expectant driver. “Hi,” she started. “My name is Denuvus. I need you to do something for me.” Leaning closer, she whispered something Trice didn’t catch, then hopped down, closed the door, and pounded her fist against it twice. Apparently the driver took that as a signal, because the truck started moving again, pulling back out onto the freeway.

“What’d you tell him t–” Trice started before cutting himself off as he watched the semi. Rather than actually pull back into a lane to drive on, the man was maneuvering the truck and trailer across all four lanes of traffic, blocking all of it before stopping entirely. Immediately, horns began to blare as cars and trucks were forced to come to a quick halt. There were a few fender benders, which only added to the obnoxious horns. Those were quickly accompanied by shouts.

Trice’s mouth opened, but Denuvus was already moving, walking along the shoulder toward the quickly mounting traffic jam. With a sigh, he followed, keeping his eyes open for any kind of threat. Not that he expected one right here, but stranger things had happened. Like little Hannah Owens becoming a certified badass, for one. Who could’ve seen that one coming?

He still didn’t know how he felt about that… hurgh, he was trying not to think of her as a bitch. Especially after having time to think about this whole Seosten… situation. But whatever. It wasn’t like he wanted to sing Kumbaya with the–damn it, with her. He still didn’t like her. And she was still the one who had killed his little brother. But now he had bigger fish to fry. Angel fish.

Heh, angel fish. Yeah, that was a good one.

They approached a red van that was stopped in the middle of the rapidly growing line of cars. Five figures sat in the van, all of them watching. As the two got closer, several of the van’s doors opened, and the figures emerged.

“Whatever you want,” the man who had been driving started, “you need to turn around and walk away.” He stepped around the front of the van then, ignoring a few horn honks that were directed his way. “Ain’t a single person here who’s in any mood for games.”

Trice looked the man up and down briefly. He looked to be in his mid-forties as far as Bystanders would be concerned, not that that was any actual indicator of anything. At least, the boy thought it was forties. Sometimes it was hard to remember what normal human aging was supposed to look like. In any case, he had dark blond hair that fell just past his ears, and a face  that looked oddly off-centered. His nose seemed to be set slightly off from his eyes, and his mouth seemed further off-set than that. It was like his entire face had been set at a very slight, yet noticeable diagonal angle rather than a vertical one. Not enough to be clearly unnatural or anything, but definitely enough for the man to stand out in a crowd.

“Hey, you don’t wanna come with us, that’s up to you,” Denuvus replied then, her voice taking on a more casual bordering on arrogant tone than the one she normally used. It was the voice of a confident and competent person who was not necessarily a leader. The voice of someone who followed orders well. Exactly how the woman managed to portray that much in a single sentence was beyond Trice, but it was the exact impression he got. And judging from the looks the people who had just gotten out of that van gave each other, they felt the same.

“Why would we come with you?” the man with the uneven face demanded with a squint. “I’ve never seen you before. And that one–” He looked toward Trice. “Something tells me he’s got a tattoo on his arm. An apple with a dagger in it? Am I getting close?”

“He used to be part of Eden’s Garden, yeah,” Denuvus confirmed. “But he’s not now. And neither am I. What we are, is your ticket out of here without being picked up by your old friends from Crossroads.” She shrugged. “Of course, if you’d rather take them on… I’m sure they’ve noticed the delay by now. They should be here any second.”

“What?” one of the women in the group spoke up. She had light brown skin and looked like she was in her very early twenties, her eyes pale green. “What do you mean? There’s Crossroads people here?” She looked to the man in charge then, adding a quick, “I told you they’d track us down, Barrus. Now what the hell are we supposed to do?” Her words were echoed by the others, who were all already looking around as though expecting to be jumped any second.

“Stop,” Barrus retorted, his eyes on Denuvus. “We don’t even know who these people are. For all we know, they’re part of a trap.”

“Not a trap,” Denuvus corrected. “An opportunity. We don’t have time to explain, but if you come with us, we will. The men from Crossroads are a few miles up the road. They were waiting for you to come by. Like I said, they’ll have already noticed the delay and the lack of cars. So they’ll be coming. I dunno who they are, but there’s one guy. He like… he looks like a buff Santa? Only change the suit for this red chainmail stuff, and he uses a chaingun with–”

“Kalvers,” Barrus snarled the name with clear hatred. “That’s him. Fuck. If he’s up there…” He trailed off, looking toward the others as if thinking about how much trouble they were in.

“Our employer sent us to offer you a way out,” Denuvus put in, making Trice glance to her. He kept all surprise off his face though. She’d told him enough to understand that she tended to play things this way. “We have an escape portal right over the ridge there. But we need to go.”

“And who is your… employer?” Barrus asked with clear suspicion in his voice. “Why should we believe that you’re–”

“Barrus!” the woman who had spoke a moment earlier blurted, “we don’t have time!”

“Your friend is right,” Denuvus agreed, stepping back. “You can do what you want, but we’ve got no intention of staying here while those Crossroads people come to see what the hold-up is. Follow or don’t, it’s up to you. But I’ll tell you this much, you come with us and we’ll make you an offer. If you don’t like it, you can walk away. No hard feelings. Either way, you get out of this place.”

She was walking then, and Trice quickly pivoted to follow. He resisted the urge to look back, instead using his enhanced hearing and his new ability (thanks to a brief fight with a Stranger that Denuvus had procured) to manipulate and sense cloth to keep track of the people behind them. There was a brief delay, but then all five followed them. Warily, but they did follow, while the sound of blaring horns and screaming people faded into the background.

As promised, there was an active portal just over the ridge by the time the group got there. It glowed with power, a shimmering blue door-shaped light. Reaching it, Denuvus stepped aside. “I know you guys don’t have any reason to trust us,” she announced simply, “but we’re just here to do a job. That job is to get you out of here so our employer can make you an offer. That’s it. Trice?” She nodded to him. “You go first.”

Giving the group of wary Crossroads Heretics a brief glance, Trice shrugged. “Sure, whatever.” He stepped through the portal then, ending up exactly where he expected: an empty restaurant. The place had been cleared out specifically for this. The tables were all immaculate, the view through the nearby floor to ceiling windows extraordinary as they overlooked the bustling city of New York. This restaurant, set in the fifteenth floor of the building, was normally packed from opening to closing. But Denuvus had a way of… making things like that change, whether she used her power or not. Be it natural charisma, favors she was owed, money put into the right hands, or, failing all of that, her power, she generally got anything she wanted.

Turning as he stepped away from the portal, Trice watched as the five Heretics came through, followed finally by Denuvus herself before the portal closed behind them.

“What–” one of the other guys, a small, skinny guy with pale skin and red hair who looked like he wasn’t even twenty-one yet, blurted. “I know this place. My girlfriend and I got in a couple summers ago. Her dad had an in with the Minutemen and they pulled some strings. But it’s never empty. What the hell?”

“Our employer knows how to pull a few strings,” Denuvus demurely replied with a tiny smile. “He thought you might enjoy a nice, private lunch in one of the most exclusive restaurants in New York. Afterward, we can talk a little business. If you don’t like what you hear, any or all of you free to walk away.”  

“Who exactly is this employer?” Barrus asked, his tone a bit lighter than it had been, yet still clearly tinged with unease and suspicion. “And who are you people? We don’t even know your names. Except you called that one Trice.”

“You’re right, sorry,” Denuvus admitted. “Yes, he’s Trice. I’m Glaive. As for who we work for… have you heard the name… Denuvus?”

Apparently they had, because all five people blurted different things at once. Trice heard completely different things from each of them. One said that Denuvus was dead, another that he was a monster, another that he was a hero, the fourth that he had never existed at all, and the fifth that he was a Stranger who pretended to be a Heretic.

“Oh, Denuvus is very much real, and alive,” Denuvus assured them with a faint smile. “And he’s ready and willing to offer each of you  food, shelter, power, money, and everything you need to take this battle to the people who really deserve it, the ones responsible for this whole situation.”

That made the quintet look to each other once more, exchanging silent conversation before they looked back to the woman. “No offense,” the brown-skinned woman started, “but you kind of came out of nowhere. You say you saved us from a Crossroads ambush, which, if so, thanks a lot. But we don’t know anything about you. And you say this Denuvus guy, if he’s even real, is going to help us take the war against Crossroads?”

“No.” Denuvus’s voice was blunt. “That’s not what I said. What I said was that he wants to help you fight the people who are responsible for this situation. That’s not Crossroads. They’re as much victims as anyone else in all this. Some more willing than others, but still.”

“The hell are you talking about?” the red-haired man demanded, his eyes squinting. “You trying to say that Eden’s Garden is behind all of this shit?”

“They’re victims too,” Denuvus informed them. Her eyes scanned over the group, pausing as if she was trying to decide just how much to tell them this early.

“Spit it out,” Barrus snapped, his fists visibly tightening. “Or we walk out of here right now.”

“Okay, okay.” Waving a hand as if in surrender, while Trice knew she’d wanted to be talked into sharing this the entire time, Denuvus took a breath. “You want to know who the real enemies are? You want to know who’s responsible for manipulating all of Crossroads and all of Eden’s Garden? I’ll tell you all about them. I’ll tell you who your real enemies are.

“They’re called the Seosten…”

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Interlude 36A – Trice

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Every day was the same. Wake up, find breakfast waiting on a small tray in the middle of the tiny cell. Then he would spend the first part of the morning exercising as much as the cramped space allowed, including some work with the free weights that the Crossroads Headmistress had spelled to pop into the room at that time before disappearing again exactly sixty minutes later. Not that he could have used them to escape even if they had stayed permanently.

After that, Trice would spend the rest of the morning studying. Sinclaire had set educational books to pop into the cell at that time. Not that he had the faintest fucking clue what the point of that was, unless the bitch just couldn’t get over her compulsive need to educate everyone.

Either way, he would study the college-level textbooks until lunch, when more food would arrive. In the afternoon, there would be a random test focusing on one of the subjects from that morning. He never knew which one it would be, so he had to study all of them. And the reason he studied at all was because of the reward. If he failed the test (which in Sinclaire’s world was apparently anything worse than a C), he was only given more study materials to work on.

However, if he passed the test with a C, he was given a choice of fictional books to read for the rest of the day, including through dinner. A B would earn books and his choice of music, while an A earned the above as well as a single movie that would be projected on the wall of the cell during and after his supper. Then it would be lights out around ten in the evening, before they repeated the exact same thing the next day. This had been going on for so long that Trice had lost track of what day it was. Or even what month. He asked now and then and was told, but he didn’t know if he believed the answer. And lately it hadn’t seemed to matter. One day was the same as any other. Who cared what the actual date was?

That particular day started like any other. The boy opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling of the cell for a few long, quiet seconds before he slowly sat up. Turning on the cot, he put his feet down on the bare cement floor while staring down at them. Another day that would be just like any of the others. Would Sinclaire visit him that day? She hadn’t for awhile. It was like she was distracted by something else. Something more important than him. He knew that someone was at least making sure he was still alive and getting all of his food, study materials, and rewards, but whether it was Sinclaire or someone else, they didn’t deign to interact with him.

Words echoed within his head as he sat there, staring at the floor. Hannah’s words, accusing him of helping the people who had fucked with his brother’s head to make the boy attack her. Her vicious, emotional diatribe about how the two of them could have made the monsters pay for what they did to Torv, but that he had actually been helping them instead. Accusations bounced around wildly inside the boy’s head so much that he had long-since lost track of whether they came from things that Hannah had actually said… or what he himself thought.

Was is it true? Had they been helping the same people who engineered Torv’s death? At the time, he had denied it the same as he denied all of her excuses. The girl had clearly led his brother on all that time, and then attacked him for making a move. That was what he told himself, anyway. She deserved to be put down for killing his brother. Didn’t she?

Or did he feel guilty himself for his part in things? After all, he had been the one to tell Torv to make his move when the boy had come to him confessing all the feelings that he had for the girl. He’d been going on and on about how much he wanted her, to the point of obsession. Trice had told him to go for it, had encouraged him to take the leap and get in on that while he could.

Their entire conversation had played itself out in the boy’s head over and over again, unrelentingly for months. Was what he had seen as simple, possibly incredibly drunk enthusiasm and ranting about love actually Torv being affected by some magical spell? Had he himself contributed to it by encouraging the boy to make his move?

Had he helped to send his own brother to his death by not recognizing that his mind had been affected somehow? Could he have stopped it? Could he have saved his brother’s life right then?

Had he been helping the same monsters who engineered Torv’s death in the first place?

Seosten. That’s what Sinclaire had called them during one of their brief conversations. The Seosten had been his mysterious benefactors, the ones who had hated Hannah so much and seemed to have such unlimited resources. According to Sinclaire, the Seosten were the monsters behind Torv’s death, as well as a bunch of other shit.

With those thoughts weighing even more heavily on his mind than usual, Trice reached down for the breakfast tray. His fingers found nothing, and the boy turned slightly to look for it.

There was no tray. No breakfast at all. It wasn’t there. That never happened, never. For all that he might complain about the time he had spent locked up in here like an animal, there had always been plenty of food and water for him. Slowly, the boy frowned before raising his gaze for the first time to the rest of the cell.

The door was open. That was the first thing that he noticed. It was just sitting open. And beyond, he saw trees and sand, rather than the same dull cement room that had always been there before. Trees and sand? Open cell door? Now how was Sinclaire trying to fuck with his head?

For a few long seconds, the boy didn’t even move. He remained seated there on the cot, half-convinced that the Crossroads Headmistress, or even Hannah herself, were about to reveal themselves. But nothing happened. No one was there. It was just… an open door.

Well shit, what else was he supposed to do? If this was a test of some kind, he had no idea what the point was. With a sigh, the boy stood up, and moved to the open doorway. Hesitantly, he put his hand up with him space, expecting to find a force field.

His hand went straight through instead. There was nothing to stop him from stepping out. So he did just that, finding himself standing barefoot on the soft, warm sand beyond. He was on a beach somewhere. Not the Crossroads beach. There was no school in the distance. And the sand looked different from what he had seen of that place. It was even softer, lighter than the sand from that place. The sand was almost as white as paper. The nearby ocean was deep, deep blue. The whole place looked unnaturally, (probably literally) magically, beautiful.

One of those tropical birds let out a loud cry from overhead, and the boy’s gaze snapped up toward it. He saw a flock of them flying up there, disappearing into a stand of trees in the distance. His eyes followed their flight path briefly, until slight shift in the air nearby made his head snap back around, already shifting himself into a defensive stance reflexively.

A man stood there, a dark-skinned man with pale green eyes and slicked back short black hair. He was wearing black armor of some kind, with a pike that had an electric shock prod at the end. He wasn’t aiming it at Trice, though the boy got the general idea anyway. When he spoke, his voice was calm. Not flat, but almost melodic. “Your presence is required.” With those words, the man lifted his free hand to point down the beach.

“That right?” Trice started, eyes flicking from the man to the direction he was pointing and then back again. “And what if I’m not really in the mood to go that way?” It was a simple question, his tone more curious than actually challenging. He wanted to know where this guy stood.

The man’s response was to touch the trigger on his pike, making that pointed end light up with electricity for just a moment. He didn’t make a move other than that simple demonstration.

“Yeah,” Trice grunted. “That’s about what I thought.” With that, he turned on his heel and began to walk through the warm sand, letting the grains move between his toes. “You know, if you people were gonna take me out of there, you could’ve at least provided shoes.”

There was no response from the man walking behind him. Not that Trice actually expected one. This guy was just a lackey, a grunt doing his job. The boy also had no doubt that he wasn’t the only one escorting him. He was just the only one that they were allowing him to see. No, even if he jumped this guy, there would clearly be others ready to step in.

“You could at least tell me why my powers still aren’t working, you know,” he pointed out after a few more silent seconds had passed. “I’m out of the cell, but I still can’t use them. If you guys were actually freeing me, you’d think you’d fix that too.”

Nothing. No response. Apparently he wasn’t important enough to be escorted by someone who could (or would) actually explain anything to him. Just like Doxer hadn’t been important enough for their supposed ‘allies’ to give the slightest shit about when he fucking died.  

Doxer. Poor Dox was dead. That Chambers girl had killed him. Which, well, they’d been fighting and Dox would’ve killed her given the chance, but still. Every time Trice thought he’d gotten over it, he’d think of something that Doxer would’ve said about this whole situation, and the fucked up reality popped back into his head. Doxer would never make any more crass comments, would never say anything so fucked up that Trice just had to stare at him before laughing despite himself. The two of them, and Pace, would never get drunk and take shots at some of the wild animals out in the forest surrounding the tree again.

Torv would never beg to come along, bothering them like the annoying little shit that he was.

That was still Hannah’s fucking fault, wasn’t it? The fuck did she have to kill Torv for? If he was fucked up by magic, if that was even true, then nothing he’d done was his fault anyway. So why did she have to kill him? That was still… it was still…

Fuck. Fucking fucked fuck. Where was something he could hit? Because he really needed it. This whole situation was fucked beyond belief. Torv… Doxer… and what about Pace? Was she alive? Was she dead? Was she still trying to free him or avenge Doxer? Shit, did she think he was dead too? Did she have the slightest clue what had happened, or did she just think that he and Doxer had both simply disappeared?

Was she still working for the people who had recruited them to do all this, who had set this whole thing up? What the hell was going on out in the real world?

For a few minutes, they just walked like that. Finally, he saw some kind of beach cabin up ahead. It was sitting right up toward the edge of the water, that end of it raised up enough that when the tide came in, the ocean wouldn’t end up in the cabin’s living room. Instead, the water would simply turn the area beneath the beautiful deck into a wading pool.

“Go.” His escort had stopped, and was pointing to the wooden stairs that led up to that deck.

“What?” Trice snapped back at him flippantly, “You’re not coming with?” Getting no response from the man other than that silently raised hand that was still pointing, he sighed. “Right, of course.” He saluted his escort briefly, then turned as ordered to walk to the stairs. Once again, he reached for one of his powers, any of them. Nothing came. He was as helpless now as he had been in that goddamn cell. Probably because these Seosten wanted to find out exactly what he’d told Sinclaire, and where he stood with them, before they actually let him be a threat.

A threat, right. If a quarter of what he had been told (or just inferred) about these fuckers was true, even with every power in his arsenal, Trice was about as much of a threat to them as a fly was to the truck whose windshield it splattered against. Fucking assholes.

There was no one waiting for him on the deck. Because of course, he wasn’t fucking important enough to have someone already sitting there. They would make him wait instead, probably to make that exact point. At least they happened to be gracious enough to have food ready, since they had stopped him from getting actual breakfast. A table had been set up with a veritable feast lining it. Tray after tray of various meats, fruits, cheeses, and desserts adorned every inch of the available space, along with another smaller table with coffee and juice waiting.

Filling a plate as much as he could, and taking a cup of coffee (while trying as best as he could not to cry at the very idea of actually getting coffee rather than simple water for once), Trice set himself down at the nearby empty table, digging into the feast with a ravenous hunger.

The stray thought about poison occurred to him, of course. But he dismissed it just as quickly. If these guys wanted him dead, they could have done so a dozen times before now. No, whatever their deal was, whatever reason they had for freeing him, it wasn’t to turn right around and  poison him. They probably expected him to be blindly grateful for their generosity.

Well, they could expect all they wanted. If these assholes were actually responsible for what happened to Torv, then he didn’t care how much food they offered, or anything else. He was going to find a way to murder the fucking cocksuckers.

Not that he felt any better about Hannah. He’d never liked her, even from the beginning. He’d never seen what his brother liked about her so much, aside from the irrefutable fact that she had eventually grown up to be hot as hell. Hot or not, however, she’d still killed Torv when he wasn’t in his right mind. But if these guys were more responsible, he would make them pay for it.

Okay, maybe the honest truth was that he didn’t know how he felt about the fucking Hannah situation.

Correction, he knew exactly how he felt about fucking Hannah. It was the same way most red-blooded straight men probably felt. But he didn’t know how he felt about the girl specifically, as a person or whatever. It was all so confusing and hard to keep straight. Maybe he’d fucked up by putting all the blame on her so quickly. Maybe he’d allowed his grief about his brother’s death to manipulate him into doing shit he shouldn’t have, into listening to people that he shouldn’t have. And maybe he’d said and done some stupid shit in general.

But what was he supposed to do, just completely forgive that she had killed Torv? His brother wasn’t in his right mind. What he’d done wasn’t his fault. He was a good kid, and Trice had promised to take care of him, had promised that he would do the ugly shit to protect his brother and keep him safe, no matter what.

So maybe he was blaming her instead of himself. He’d been the one who hadn’t noticed that Torv was being affected by some actual spell or whatever. He’d just thought that the kid was finally acting on feelings he’d been suppressing for a long time. Maybe ignoring all that and blaming Hannah had been easier, just because he hadn’t liked her to begin with. Maybe… fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck.

All those thoughts, and more, kept bouncing their way around inside Trice’s head as he finished his meal. Gulping down the last of his coffee, he heard movement behind him as the door of the cabin opened and shut.

Still, he didn’t turn around. “You know,” the boy muttered, “getting me out of Sinclaire’s clutches is really impressive and all. Seriously, I dunno how you managed it, but fucking kudos. Still, the least you could do is give my powers back.”

“A simple spell,” a female voice informed him calmly. “Well, simple for me, anyway. You’ll have your powers back as soon as I’m certain that we are on the same page.”

The boy snorted slightly at that, looking into his empty coffee mug for a moment before retorting, “On the same page? Is that the page where you tell me all about how you Seosten are the ones behind everything that ever fucking happens on this world? Or were you just planning on playing mind games to find out if Sinclaire already told me that part? Seosten, right? That’s how you say it?”

“Seosten?” The voice sounded amused, and Trice finally stood and turned to find an unfamiliar woman with short black hair standing there, watching him with a slight smile.

“Dear child,” the woman drawled, “whoever said that it was the Seosten who freed you?

“My name is Denuvus. Let’s sit down and have a chat about your future.”

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Mini-Interlude 56 – Klassin Roe

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“I just… I just want to explain, you know?” The voice of Russell Bailey, formerly monikered as Virus, was quiet even in the small room that amounted to Klassin Roe’s therapy office. The headmistress had offered to make it larger, but Roe had declined. He didn’t need an enormous room to work in. It was best that the students he worked with feel secure, not overwhelmed.

Now, he sat back slowly in his chair while lifting his chin to the boy. “You want to tell your family what really happened to your father.” His voice held no judgment, no condemnation.

The boy flinched a little bit, running a hand up through his newly shortened hair. At one point not long before, it had been long and dyed an obnoxious bright red, but Russell had taken most of it down to a short crew cut, and it had grown out to its natural light brown. He also no longer wore the facial piercings that had been such an extensive part of him at the beginning of the year.

“They think it was just some crazy cult initiation or something,” the boy mumbled, his gaze dropping to the floor. “They’ll never really know. They’ll never understand that it was… it was…” His voice caught a little, mouth working before he gave a little shudder. “That it was my fault.”

“You still think that it was your fault?” Again, Roe did not correct the boy, not in this particular situation. He believed that Russell was wrong, of course. But simply telling him that would accomplish nothing. What the boy really needed right in that moment was someone to talk to, someone to sit and listen to his turmoil without correcting or inserting their own opinion.

Russell gave him an incredulous look for a second anyway, blurting, “Of course it is! I–Just think about it. I hang out with a bunch of psycho gangbangers to look cool. My parents tried to tell me to leave them alone. Everyone tried to tell me to leave them alone. But I thought they were badass, so I made ‘friends’ with them.” His fingers jerked up to form the air quotes while mouth twisted in derision at that word. “I fucked around with those guys cuz they were sooo cool.”

He went silent for a few seconds then, his face contorting a little as his head shook violently. There were tears forming in the boy’s eyes, tears that he angrily blinked away. “Then I become a Heretic. So I go back over Christmas to hang out with my old ‘friends’, and guess what.”

Roe remained quiet. He knew this story, of course. He’d heard it many times. But talking it through, repeating it, helped Russell deal with everything. It seemed to help him cope.

“They’re monsters,” the boy spat, his hard gaze glowering at the desk between them. “They’re a bunch of fucking monsters, most of them. Strangers. And they know what I am as soon as they see me. They know I’m a Heretic, so I get the hell out of there. I’m freaking the hell out, so I run away. I didn’t know what to do. I should’ve called you guys. I should’ve called Crossroads. But I just ran to the arcade and screwed off for awhile. I had to think. I was just… I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do. So I just hung out. I fucking–” His face twisted once more, and the tears threatened to come back. It was clearly all he could do to keep it somewhat under control.

When he finally continued a few seconds later, his voice was hollow. “I walked back home. I walked home and… and my dad… those assholes. Those fucking motherfuckers, they… they went to my house looking for me while I was hanging out at the arcade. But they found my dad instead. They found my dad and they… they murdered him. They killed my dad and–and–and tore him apart. The cops thought it was some kind of devil worshipping cult initiation because of all the–the blood and how they–how they just…” Trailing off, Russell lowered his head, no longer fighting the tears as they fell freely down his face.

As far as Klassin was aware, only the staff and the boy’s team were aware of exactly what had happened. And even some of his team might not have known the whole story. Most of the school was entirely unaware of the trauma that had caused the formerly-named Virus to change so much after that first semester. It was his choice to tell them or not, just as it had been his choice to continue attending classes so soon after everything that had happened. The headmistress had, of course, urged him to take some time off. She had almost insisted on it. But in the end, Russell had made the point that he needed to feel useful. He needed to keep himself busy, not dwell, and that the longer he spent just sitting around, the worse he actually felt. The creatures responsible for the murder and dismemberment of his father had completely disappeared, which meant that the most Crossroads could do was get his mother and little brother out of there, move them to a new city with a job transfer, and thus hopefully keep them away from any further reprisals from Russell’s former friends. The attack and murder had happened at the very beginning of the holiday break, and Russell had spent the remainder of it coming to terms (as much as he could) with the loss of his father.

“But I can’t tell them any of that,” the boy spat angrily, pushing himself up out of his chair rather than sit any longer. “My mom, Jake, I can’t tell them why Dad’s dead. I can’t—I can’t explain. I can’t tell them about the monsters, because they won’t remember it anyway. I just–” Turning, he lashed out, punching the nearby wall with both of his fists. The wall was reinforced, yet the twin blows still dented it visibly while the boy slumped, head shaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Russell.” Standing as well, Klassin moved that way, laying his hands on the boy’s shoulders from behind. “You know how easy it is to repair the walls around here.”

For a moment, the boy just stood there, fists partly indented into the wall while he shuddered. “I told you the story before,” he mumbled. “You already knew it anyway. I just–I want to tell them. I want to tell them so bad, but it won’t do any good. And I can’t—I can’t handle letting them know the truth once, just so they can forget it again right after. I can’t handle that. What if they hate me and then completely forget about it? I couldn’t… I couldn’t deal with that. I just–I can’t.”

Silence filled the room for a few long seconds then, before Klassin finally spoke up, his voice soft. “The Runners haven’t stopped looking for the Strangers who murdered your father. And they won’t stop looking. They will find them, especially with all the information you’ve given.”

“For all the good it does,” Russell muttered darkly. He turned from the wall, facing Klassin with a forlorn, empty look. “It doesn’t bring my dad back. It doesn’t–” He stopped then, biting his lip while his head shook as he changed to, “You know why I really wanted to keep coming here instead of taking time off like the headmistress wanted?”

Klassin had his guesses, but he simply inclined his chin curiously and let the boy speak. That was what Russell needed right then. He needed to talk. That was why he had brought up the entire situation again, despite the fact that they had already been through it several times.

“Because I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Russell’s voice was firm, his hands tightening into fists. “I can’t bring my dad back. I can’t go back in time and stop myself from being such a stupid fucking–” Cutting himself off, he gave a violent headshake once more, forcibly pulling himself back from the precipice of that emotional crater. “I can’t undo anything I did. But I can be a good Heretic. I can help other people.”

Smiling just a little bit, Klassin gave a slight nod. “That is an admirable goal, Russell. One that I think your father would approve of. And so would your family, if they understood the situation.”

For his part, the boy simply swallowed hard while looking down, folding his arms against his chest uncomfortably. “Yeah, well, can we talk about something else? I don’t wanna talk about that anymore.”

“Of course.” Nodding once more, Klassin asked, “What would you like to talk about?”

At first, Russell was quiet. He shifted, clearly unsure of whether he should really ask what he wanted to. “The umm, the car you were working on before.”

“The Sixty-Nine Mustang Boss 429?” Raising an eyebrow with a tiny smile despite himself, Klassin nodded. “Of course. It’s been a nice little project car for awhile.” Magic, of course, would have made the work pass much faster than the months that this had actually taken. But Klassin preferred doing this kind of thing the long, slow way. He enjoyed working on the cars with his own two hands, no powers or spells involved.

“Do… do you think I could–I mean I don’t know if you need—or want–or…” It was clearly hard for Russell to find the words, his face flushed.

Saving him from floundering even more, Klassin reached out to squeeze the boy’s arm. “Why don’t we get out of this place before we both develop claustrophobia, huh? Come on down and take a look at the car with me. If you’re up for it, maybe you could help me get some of the rebuild done.”

Gaze lifting at that, Russell managed a tiny smile. “You… you’re sure?”

Grabbing his leather jacket from the nearby hook, Klassin nodded while gesturing to the door. “Absolutely. Figure between the two of us, we should be able to get the old girl purring again in just a couple weeks.”

As the two of them started out of the office, the boy hesitantly volunteered, “My dad had a muscle car before he had to sell it a couple years ago. I helped him fix it up so he could sell it. That’s how he paid for our trip to Hawaii. I— I was pissed at him for selling it. I wanted it. I–I didn’t… I treated him like shit.”

“Hey.” Klassin stopped in the doorway, looking to the boy. “You helped your dad rebuild a car. I guarantee you, that’s what he remembered. Everyone knows that their kids are going to lash out and say stupid things. Especially teenagers. But I promise you, that’s not what he focused on. That’s not what he remembered. The time you guys spent working on it, that’s what your dad thought about. That’s what mattered to him.”

Russell’s voice cracked a little bit. “You… you think so?”

“I know so,” Klassin assured him before teasing, “Now come on, if I’m gonna exploit our time together to get free work out of you, we better be quick and quiet about it.”

“It’s Headmistress Sinclaire, sir,” Russell retorted. “I’m pretty sure she knew how we were going to spend our time today before we did.”

Chuckling despite himself as he stepped out of the office, Klassin bowed his head in acknowledgment. “You know what, you’re probably right. That headmistress is one smart cookie. But you know what I think?”

“What?” Curious, Russell stepped through and watched as the man closed the door to his office.

Klassin winked. “If we do get in trouble… we’ll just bribe her with the car.”

******

“So, how did it go today?”

Later that evening, Klassin was stepping out of his office and flicking the light off on his way when the voice spoke up from nearby. Smiling despite himself, he looked that way.

“Hey, Risa,” he greeted the woman, stepping that way. “You mean with Russell?”

Risa Kohaku nodded, stepping in to embrace him. The two exchanged an initially brief kiss that lingered slightly more than Klassin had intended before they both stopped to catch their breath. “Wow,” the security chief murmured under her breath with a tiny smile. “Looks like someone really needed that.”

“Long day,” Klassin agreed. He stepped back, still holding the woman’s hands. “I got Russell working on the car with me. It was even his idea, pretty much. I just…” He sighed. “I wish we had better news for him. Your contacts in the Runners, they don’t have any more news?”

Risa winced, shaking her head a little. “No, they’re still looking but… honestly, I’m not sure how much more they’ll actually find. The Strangers who murdered his father are… they knew enough to get the hell out of town afterward.”

“At least it means they’ll probably leave the rest of his family alone,” Klassin noted. “They’ll know that we’ll be watching for them.” Heaving a long, heavy sigh, he shook his head before asking, “Anyway, I thought we could go out for dinner tonight. You know that little place in Italy with the great seafood? What was the name of that village?”

“Atrani?” Risa supplied. “Sure, we haven’t been there for awhile. But umm….”

Lifting an eyebrow as the woman trailed off, Klassin poked her forehead. “This isn’t really you, is it?”

“It’s me,” she retorted a bit defensively. “Duplicates are totally me. But uh, yeah, it’s a duplicate projection. Sorry. I couldn’t get away yet, but I still wanted to meet you. I missed you.”

“And your duplicates can’t leave the island without you,” Klassin finished for her. Some types could, he knew. But Risa’s were limited to the same universe (or pocket universe, in this case).

“I promise,” the woman assured him, “it won’t take much longer. I just have to listen to Rucker’s report. Twenty minutes, tops. I’ll meet you by the Pathmaker?”

She offered him another kiss, and Klassin took it, giving her a little smile despite himself. “Sure. But you tell him that he’s gotta give you a couple hours without any interruptions unless it’s the end of the world. I want to have you to myself at least for a little while.”

Her smile, embarrassed as much as it was proud, lit up the little corridor. “I promise,” she agreed. “We’ll have some time to ourselves. Just you and me.”

The duplicate disappeared then, leaving Klassin standing in the hall by himself. The man smiled slowly, anticipating not only the upcoming meal, but everything else that the evening promised to bring.

Whistling softly, and just a little off-key, he shrugged into his jacket and started down the hall. As busy as things were, as much work as they still had to do (especially when it came to finding Chambers and the rest of the missing students), it was still possible to find bits of joy here and there. It was important to have those moments.

His phone rang a moment later, and the man glanced to it. Unknown number. Shrugging, since that didn’t mean much in his work, he answered it. “This is Roe.”

“Klassin Roe?” an unfamiliar voice on the other end replied. “The man who used to be Jonathan Ruthers?”

Pausing, Roe frowned. “I don’t go by that name–who is this?”

“It’s okay,” the voice replied, “I just got your name from… let’s call her an old, old friend of yours. She said that you could help me with something.

“But first, allow me to introduce myself. My name… is Denuvus.”

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Mini-Interlude 55 – Joselyn

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“Moooooooommmmmy! Momma! Mom-mom-mom-momma Mia Mama!”

The chanting voice drew Joselyn from a deep slumber. Eyes opening as her mind oriented itself away from the dream to the real world, she found herself, as most mornings, waking up in an incredibly comfortable, silk sheet-covered bed. The bed itself was located within what had to be one of the most beautiful bedrooms on the face of the planet. Floor to ceiling glass doors led out to a balcony to her right, while a walk-in closet the size of most apartments was to the left. Paintings, mirrors, entire statues, and more signs of absurd opulence filled the rest of the nearly six hundred square foot bedroom, with a ceiling that was fifteen feet up. It was an absurd size.

As her head lifted from the pillow to look straight across from the bottom of the bed to the double doors that stood open, Joselyn found the source of the call. Ammon. The boy stood there, framed in the doorway with a smile on his face as he announced, “I brought you breakfast!”

With that, he snapped his fingers. Four figures moved past the boy, two to either side as they came into the room. Three of them were carrying trays laden with food, while the fourth carried three different pitchers of fresh juices. They moved quickly and efficiently to stand on either side of the bed. None moved a muscle once in position. And without fail, each looked utterly petrified.

Slowly, Joselyn sat up in the bed, pulling the sheet with her so that it continued to cover her form. She was not allowed clothes when sleeping. Not that Fossor spent many evenings in the same room, or even that many in the same house. He was most often elsewhere, carrying out his plans or enacting his various vengeances. But his rules remained in place regardless, and one of them was that Joselyn was not to wear clothes to bed. She was, in fact, not allowed to dress herself until Fossor himself gave permission, even if he had to do so over the phone.

At a certain point, she had been able to make that particular rule almost meaningless, as she only required perhaps a half hour of sleep per day. But Fossor had begun siphoning energy from her for some project, meaning that she now required at least four. She still wasn’t sure how much of that was because he had an actual project that required her energy and how much was simply because he was amused by thwarting any attempt she made at working around his rules.  

Either way, she had to sleep for at least four hours each night depending on how much his secret project took out of her that day, and during that time she was not allowed any clothes. It was, by that point, just another small indignity that continued to amuse the man who had enslaved her. One more thing that he controlled. One more thing that he made her ask for.

“Ammon,” she spoke carefully, choosing her words the best way that she could while shifting the sheet a little so that it covered more. “I don’t recognize these particular servants. Are they new?” It never ended well to be confrontational with the boy. Not anymore. Particularly as she wasn’t allowed to discipline him anyway. She had to be careful in how she spoke to him. Not for her own sake. His ability wouldn’t work on her, and she could quite easily overpower him if need be. But because he would take his frustration out on others, and she was not allowed to stop him.

“I haven’t decided yet,” the boy replied simply, chewing his lip for a moment in thought as he stepped in and walked slowly up to the end of the bed. Gesturing, he explained. “They were mean when I got to the restaurant, so I had to make them see that they were bad. But now I kinda like them. And it’s not like they have any customers to go back to. Or a restaurant.”

Despite herself, Joselyn flinched inwardly a little bit. Right. No wonder these four looked so traumatized. She didn’t know exactly what Ammon had done. But she had the general idea already, and had absolutely no desire to have any specific details spelled out. A quick glance over the gathered quartet revealed little. They were all dressed as servers in nice black slacks and crisp white shirts. Two were female, the other two male, one of each standing on each side. The females were noticeably attractive, which Joselyn prayed was a coincidence. Once Ammon began hitting puberty, with his… abilities and lack of any kind of remorse or even a basic understanding of empathy… bile rose in her throat, and she had to look away for a moment. But only for a moment. If Ammon thought that something had upset her, he would lash out. Not at her, but at these four. He would think that they had done something, somehow. He was never cruel to Joselyn purposefully. He… in his own way, cared for her. At least as much as he was capable of, after what Fossor had done to warp and mangle his psyche. Some part of Ammon still remembered loving his mother, so he repeatedly tried in vain to recapture that feeling. He tried so hard to remember the good emotions that his father had stripped away from him.

Forcing herself to smile, because to do otherwise would bring tears, and Ammon’s anger at the people around them, Joselyn extended a hand. “Do you want to come up and help me eat this feast?” she asked, trying hard not to let her hand tremble from the rage that she felt at Fossor.

Ammon’s own childish smile was bright, and not put-on at all. He clambered up into the bed, crawling up quickly and settled in next to her before imperiously ordering, “Dessert first!”

Swallowing hard, Joselyn put a hand on the boy’s head. She leaned down, smelling his hair for a moment. God. Oh God. She remembered how he had been. She remembered the boy before… before all this. She remembered his sweetness, his curiosity about everything. Her son. Her beautiful, amazing, wonderful baby boy. And now she had to wonder every time she saw him, how many people he had murdered, how many lives he had destroyed.

He’d asked her enough pointed questions that she knew he knew about Koren. The new Koren, her granddaughter. How much else he knew, she wasn’t certain. But she did know that he hadn’t told his father. Why, she wasn’t exactly sure. But he hadn’t. Not yet, anyway. For whatever reason, the boy was keeping that particular information to himself.

She wished so much that she could believe it was for a good reason. But she knew better. Whatever was driving her son to keep Koren Fellows a secret from his father wasn’t anything good. And the thought of what he might be up to, what his twisted, broken mind might conjure up…

Out of sight of Ammon, with her face against the top of his head, Joselyn allowed a single, solitary tear to fall as the captive restaurant staff prepared to serve their meal.

******

The roar of flames filled the air as the male fire elemental flew straight toward Joselyn a couple hours later. As he approached, his heat scouring the floor it was flying over top of, she dove to the side, rolling before popping up to her feet. The second she was upright, the elemental was already pointing that way, a geyser of flame erupting from his outstretched hand. It came so quickly that all Joselyn could do was jerk her entire body backward as far as she could, allowing the fire to roast the air right above her nose. The heat so so intense that it would have melted her eyes in their sockets if she hadn’t already possessed enough resistance powers.

The room that they were in lay deep in the subbasement of the mansion.It was, essentially, a fighting arena, complete with stands for an audience of at least a hundred people. The arena itself was circular and about a hundred feet in diameter, with a forcefield that contained both the violence and any stray powers. Set right next to what would be considered the ‘owners box’ in the middle of the stands was a screen showing a time that was currently ticking down from ten seconds in yellow numbers.

That had to do with another of Fossor’s rules. He arranged these tournaments, forced her to fight these Alters that he had… acquired. He would throw them into this pit and have them attack her. Sometimes only one, sometimes many. The clock showed how long Joselyn had to survive before she was allowed to use any active powers. Technically, there were two countdowns. When the numbers were red, it meant that she wasn’t allowed to fight back at all, only evade and stay away from her attacker(s). When the numbers were yellow as they were right then, she could fight, but was not allowed to use any active powers. And when the countdown hit the single green zero, she could go all out.

Fossor, for all his arrogance, didn’t want her to become a mindless murder-addict. He wanted her to work for him, wanted her to serve him. But she would be less effective at that if she was addicted to killing, which would happen to any Reaper-based Heretic who killed too easily too often. Kills had to be earned. If he just had her walk from cage to cage killing one Alter after another, it wouldn’t be long before she completely lost her mind and became little more than a beast. He could get one of those from anywhere. But he only had one of her. Hence these tournaments, these actual fights and all his rules about making her earn each victory, each kill.

The stands themselves were about a quarter full. The twenty-odd people who were watching were a mixture of Ammon’s… pets (four of which were the restaurant servers he had just abducted that morning) and a few of the living beings that Fossor himself kept around to serve him. The vast majority of the beings on the grounds were dead, zombies given specific instructions and tasks to perform by their necromancer master. But there were about a dozen of the living variety, those whose tasks were too much to entrust to mindless zombies. The ghosts weren’t mindless, but interacting with the physical world was taxing. So there were the living servants, though they were just as enslaved to Fossor as their deceased companions.

Three quick fireballs were shot through the air at her. She pivoted around one before leaping to twist her body so that the other two would fly past either side of her. In mid-air, the clock hit that green zero, and she inverted. Her fist lashed out, turning blue as a curtain of ice enveloped the wave of flames that the fire elemental had been pushing toward her. The elemental quickly rose high into the air, above the ice wall so that he could fire (literally) down at her.

But Joselyn wasn’t there. Appearing on top of the wall of ice that she had created, almost directly behind the elemental, she extended her hand. As he spun, a wave of cold from her fingers enveloped the figure. His flames were instantly doused, and his red-orange body turned pale white as he was frozen solid.

A quick kick from her shattered his body into a thousand pieces, which rained down over the arena while Joselyn’s golden aura flared up.

There. It was done. Not all of her training for the day, but at least the last one that she had to kill. Joselyn dropped to the floor, looking to the stands as the gathered witnesses began to move away. All save for one of the restaurant employees, a young woman who sat in the stand by herself, staring at Joselyn while looking terribly alone and lost.

With a soft sigh, she approached the girl. The forcefield had lowered as everyone else made their way out to go about the rest of their duties (or find some other entertainment). “My son didn’t give you any instructions?”

The girl had a slight deer-in-headlights look, swallowing audibly while staring up at Joselyn. She was pretty, with short raven-black hair that was cut just past her ears and an innocent, naive face. Joselyn thought that she looked a fair bit like Phoebe Cates in those Gremlin films.

“J-just to stay in the building,” she answered quietly, her voice shaking a little.

“What’s your name?” Joselyn asked, her voice as gentle as she could make it.

The girl answered, whimpering just a little as she did so. “J-Jenna. It’s Jenna.”

“Jenna,” Joselyn repeated, nodding. “Why don’t you come with me? I have a little solo training to get through, then I was planning on visiting the library. Neither of us can leave the building, so we might as well stay together.”

Blinking rapidly in an obvious attempt to avoid tears, Jenna nodded while stammering, “Okay. But… but y-y-your son, he’s… he’s a…”

“I know,” Joselyn spoke simply, her voice softer than ever.

“Believe me, I know.”

******

“Well, my dear, how was your day?” Fossor’s voice was sweet, no different from any other husband and father as he took his seat at the obscenely long dinner table. Beside him, one of his reanimated automatons poured a glass of wine for its master.

“Three,” Joselyn answered flatly, not yet moving to touch her own plate even as Fossor immediately began to dig into his steak. “I killed three of them today.”

Beside her, Jenna moved to copy the actions of her dead counterpart beside Fossor. Joselyn had managed to convince the man and Ammon both to let her keep the girl with her for the time being. She had no idea how long it would last, but she would do everything she could.

The bottle shook a little in the terrified girl’s grip. It would have spilled, which itself would have drawn the ire of the monster at the end of the table, and Jenna would have been killed. But Joselyn carefully and subtly extended just a little of her power, taking control of the liquid as it fell and guiding it to land smoothly in the glass regardless of where the actual bottle was, or how much it was shaking.

“Well, it sounds as though you kept yourself occupied, at least.” Fossor nodded once before launching into his actual point. “I had quite the busy day myself, of course. So many small fires to put out and larger fires to create. Exhausting, really. But…” He paused with his fork in midair, a chunk of meat held in the tines. “The more interesting part is that it seems our girl is making quite the name for herself out in Seosten space.”

Felicity in Seosten space. When she’d first heard that, Joselyn hadn’t been able to contain her panic and terror. The things that those creatures could do, the things they would do in order to get the information they wanted.

Information, apparently, that had to do with why Felicity was immune to them. When that little tidbit had initially made its way back to Fossor, he had taken her straight to his Writing Room and made her answer questions for over an hour trying to find out how that had happened. But the simple truth was that Joselyn had no idea. She hadn’t had to try to hide anything from him about it, because she didn’t know. She had some vague idea that it might have been Gabriel’s doing, of course, but no hard facts. Not that that had stopped Fossor from putting her through the wringer until he was satisfied. And even then, he hadn’t been very happy about it. About not knowing, that was. He found the fact that she was immune hilarious and useful, but not knowing why ticked him off something fierce.

Pausing then, she looked up to meet the man’s gaze as he stared at her knowingly. “You heard something else from Crossroads?” She chose her words carefully, because whether he was getting information from his spy in the school or from somewhere actually within the Seosten Empire was important.

Chuckling, making it clear that he understood exactly what she was asking, Fossor ate three more bites of his steak. He moved slowly and deliberately, obviously enjoying dragging out the conversation now that she was interested. She was always interested in hearing about her daughter, even if it had to come from him. And he knew that.

Finally, the necromancer spoke. “It seems that our little girl has managed to create quite the ruckus. She’s freed a group of slaves from their prison camp. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite good enough to stop that Isaac fellow from subsequently murdering a good number of them. Also, that bothersome… Catsarein man?”

“Katarin,” Joselyn murmured, remembering the man well.

“Of course.” Fossor spoke the words in a way that made it clear that he didn’t consider the name important and had already dismissed it. “He was murdered by that delightful Isaac child. If he survives his trip out there, it might be fun to invite him over for a playdate with our boy.”

Our boy. Our girl. His. Fossor always made a point of claiming ownership over things that he had decided were his.

And now Ulysses Katarin was dead. Murdered by the psychopath that the Seosten had been nurturing and cultivating. The thought of that… thing traveling with any of the others, let alone her daughter, made Joselyn furious. But it also terrified her. Hearing that he had killed Ulysses, that just… It was another loss. Another in a very long line of them that showed no signs of stopping.

She sent a silent apology to the man’s spirit, wherever it may have been, that she had been able to do nothing to help him. The pain… she set it aside, put it into that special lock box deep in her soul where it would wait for her to have time to actually grieve. Not in front of Fossor. She refused to show that kind of emotion in front of him.

So she still had no idea where he was getting his information from. The necromancer played most of that close to his vest, despite his enjoyment of showing off how much he knew about Felicity’s life. Joselyn was reliant on him for almost every scrap of information about her own daughter, and he delighted in that fact.

He was not, however, privy to the information about Koren, either the new one or the woman who was now Abigail. Nor did he know about Wyatt. So whatever his source was, it wasn’t as informed as it could be. And he had not yet managed to ask the right question in their Writing Room sessions for Joselyn to give that information up. Either that or he did know but was deliberately not bringing it up in order to give her false hope. Joselyn had long since stopped trying to guess when he was playing those sorts of games.

But as far as she knew, he didn’t know about those three. For the time being, they were safe from him, though she was sure that wouldn’t last. And the thought of what he would do when he found out about Abigail and Koren in particular… it brought bile to her throat and rage into her heart. If he touched them, if he even threatened to touch them…

“My dear,” Fossor interrupted, nodding toward where she had inadvertently melted half of the fork in her hand, “if the meal is that unpleasant for you, I will have the chef returned to his grave immediately and a new one… selected.”

In other words, he would kill someone else to serve as their chef. Quickly, Joselyn shook her head. “No, the meal is fine. But Felicity, if those Seosten take her…”

“Never fear, my dear,” the man spoke calmly and with a soft smile that one might have taken as fatherly if they didn’t know better, “The Seosten will not be keeping our girl. You can be quite certain of that. There are… plans in motion as far as that is concerned. So rest your little mind about it. Enjoy the dinner. Unless, of course, you do want a new chef?”

Swallowing her initial reaction, Joselyn set the mangled and melted remains of the fork down before touching a finger against it. Summoning the power of an ùruisg, she focused on repairing the damaged utensil. Within a few seconds, the fork was as good as new, and she took a bite of her meal to appease the man.

“You see, it’s good, isn’t it?” Fossor prompted, clearly enjoying just how much he could control her.

“Delightful,” was her single word reply.

******

“Now, you stand right here all night.” Ammon was instructing Jenna late in the evening.

They were back in Joselyn’s room. She had managed to make it clear to her son that she preferred having the girl around, without making it seem like she was giving orders. So now he had agreed to let the girl stay.

“You stand here,” the boy continued, “and get my mom anything she needs. Anything she tells you to, right? You understand?”

From where she was standing, Joselyn offered a careful, “Perhaps if she sits, she can be quicker about moving around if she needs to get something for me.”

Ammon did a quick double take, looking between her and the girl before nodding. “Oh, uh, okay. There.” He pointed to a plush recliner. “My name is Ammon. Sit there and don’t move unless my mom asks you to get her something. Then follow her orders and go back to the chair when you’re done.”

Obediently, the young woman pivoted to walk that way. She seated herself, clearly still confused about why she couldn’t stop obeying the boy’s instructions.

Once she was seated, Ammon looked to Joselyn. “Do you need anything else, Mom!” His smile was bright, his pride at ‘helping’ obvious.

She swallowed a little, shaking her head. “No. Thank you, my little soldier.” Her little soldier. Gods. She had called him that almost from the moment he was born, because of the way he kept putting his hand up near his face in what she thought looked like a salute. Her soldier. Her trooper. Her fighter. Her boy. Her baby boy.

What had Fossor done to him?

Smiling widening, Ammon chirped, “Okay! I’m gonna go play in the garden.”

Play in the garden. She had the feeling that was far less innocent than it sounded. But before Joselyn could say anything, the boy was gone, racing through the door before clomping down the stairs loudly. For a moment, she watched him go, then gestured to make the doors close.

“What… what is he?” The shaky, horrified voice came from the chair, and Joselyn glanced that way to find Jenna sitting with her hands tight against the armrests. “Wh-why can’t I… why can’t I get up? How is he–he… he killed them. He killed all of them. All those people.” Her voice was starting to grow hysterical, which meant that Joselyn needed to get her to calm down.

“It’s– It’s okay.” It wasn’t, but if the girl didn’t get herself under control, it would be a whole lot worse. “I know you’re scared. I know you’re confused. But listen to me. I’ll try to keep you safe, as much as I can,” she promised the young woman. “I know this is all terrifying. And I’m sorry about what happened, what… Ammon did. But I’m afraid that there isn’t a lot that I can explain. You wouldn’t remember it anyway.”

The girl gave her a shy smile. “I’m pretty sure that all of this would be pretty hard to forget. And I really want to know. He–the things he did, the things he makes us do. How can he–how?”

Swallowing, Joselyn shook her head. “As I said, you wouldn’t remember even if I told you. And for the time that you did remember, you would just be even more frightened than you are now.”

The little smile remained, but it was… different somehow. The girl shifted, lifting her chin while slowly replied, “I’m afraid that I’m going to have to insist that you tell me everything you know about Fossor, about the boy, about all of it. Everything.”

Joselyn blinked, eyes widening a little as she looked up quickly. Fossor had never introduced himself. She knew that for a fact. He didn’t consider it worth his time to introduce himself to Ammon’s playthings or any of the other servants if he could help it. “How do you know his na–”

The girl slowly stood up from the chair. Stood, despite Ammon’s order. Because she had never truly been under the control of Ammon’s power at all. Because she was the source of that power. 

“My name is Denuvus,” the manipulator announced, her voice filling the room.

“Tell me everything I want to know.”

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Interlude 19 – Nevada

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August 20th, 1615

The blonde girl’s lifeless body lay naked upon the rough stone table which sat in the middle of the forest clearing. While she had obviously been beautiful and vivacious in life, her skin was now pallid and cold. Her arms were spread to both sides, the table itself large enough that her fingers barely reached the edges despite the fact that the girl had been in her late teens before her untimely death.

A half-melted candle sat in both of her open hands, their wax pooling in her half-cupped palms. Bits of that melted wax had been drawn up carefully over her wrists before giving way to flower petals, which decorated both arms up to her shoulders. Those, in turn, were replaced with sticky lines of blood which formed intricate designs running over each breast, down over her stomach, and lower. Both of her legs were marked with the pelts of various animals that had been sacrificed specifically for this endeavor.

The dead girl’s body was positioned by the compass, her head facing east for the rising sun. On the edge of the small forest clearing, at each of the other three compass points, a crucified body could be seen, limbs nailed to the carefully constructed wooden crosses. Blood had dripped from multiple wounds, falling into a pool at their feet before being carefully drawn along the ground to meet in a central location. The blood from the three crucified victims had then been combined into a single line that ran up to the end of the table to become the blood that now decorated the dead girl’s upper body.

For miles throughout the forest, rain fell in torrents while thunder provided its own roaring displeasure. However, no drops penetrated the clearing despite its open connection to the sky. Lightning flashed so close that the explosion of sound it created was deafening. Yet, it too never touched the clearing itself.

A woman, identical in appearance to the one on the table (save for being alive), walked along the trail of blood that led from the crucified victims to the deceased figure who so resembled her. As naked as all of the dead figures, she stopped by the side of the stone table. Her hand slowly ran up the torso of the decorated corpse, carefully avoiding smudging any of the blood designs. There was a fondness in her eyes, yet a madness as well. As her hand found the other girl’s mouth, she carefully pulled it open.

“They’re almost done,” she murmured softly, voice almost drowned out by the crack of thunder that came immediately on their heels. “Do you feel it? Do you feel the power they’re using to banish him?”

There was no answer, of course. The living girl reached to the side to pick up a wooden cup that had been filled with the blood of every creature, human and otherwise who had been sacrificed for this endeavor. Carefully, she placed the cup at the lips of her dead doppelganger before beginning to pour the blood into her mouth and down her throat. Steadily, she drained the cup until nothing was left.

“Just a little more time,” the girl murmured with a soft smile which still somehow managed to betray her damaged psyche even more than the ritualistic surroundings did. “They’re nearly finished with it.”

Turning her gaze to the sky, the girl watched in silence for another minute. She made no other motion, her form completely still. As she had promised, it wasn’t long before the dark evening sky turned a dull red color. It lasted only for a few seconds, but it was enough for the girl to know that the time had come. Before the brief glow in the sky had faded, she began to chant. The words were an ancient, dead language from a world that had been dead and gone since before sapient creatures existed on Earth.

The chant filled the air, almost soothing if the current of power they carried hadn’t been so ominous. With each word, that power grew more apparent, sizzling audibly throughout the air of the clearing.

Four words left of the chant. With the first, a bolt of red lightning shot from the sky to strike the first of the crucified corpses at the edge of the clearing. That lightning, however, failed to fade away as normal bolts did. It remained exactly where it was, crackling with power in a display that would remain unheard of by mundane humans for several more centuries. Two more words each attracted identical bolts of crimson lightning to the remaining pair of crucified victims, the same as the first. Each of the three jagged crimson lines of power connected the sky to the crosses and the bodies nailed upon them.

One final word. As it left the girl’s lips, a final bolt of lightning tore its way out of the sky and entered the clearing. This one was a pale, almost white blue, like the smallest inner flames of a fire. And it burned as bright and with as much power as the other three bolts combined. Its target was the stone table, striking the blonde corpse that lay upon it directly where her heart was. And as the living figure stepped quickly out of the way with a look of indescribable glee upon her face, those other three bolts connected themselves to the fourth through several tendrils of electricity that forked out to join it.

The central, azure bolt grew brighter, while the connected crimson bolts began to steadily fade as they fed their energy to it. Meanwhile, the body on the table shook violently. The stench of burning flesh filled the air. Not from the target of the central bolt, but from the crucified bodies attached to the remaining three. Their forms were burnt beyond recognition throughout those few seconds, until nothing remained but the blackened ashes, which drifted away from the crosses they had been nailed to.

Finally, the blue lightning faded out of the sky until only a small portion remained. That portion seemed to pour itself over the body of the girl on the table. The sharp, powerful electricity crackled and sizzled up and down her figure, down to her toes and then back up once more. Gathering near her open mouth, it fed itself through the opening. More and more of the blue current filled her up that way as the corpse inadvertently swallowed the power that had been called down from the sky and channeled through the arranged crucifixion victims, until no sign of that sky-fire remained, leaving the clearing eerily silent.

Three seconds later, the corpse’s eyelids rose to reveal eyes that seemed to be made entirely of that azure lightning. It crackled audibly throughout the small orbs, leaving no trace of white for a moment until gradually fading into slightly more normal blue eyes. They blinked once, then again before sight seemed to return to the figure. Her skin turned a healthy pink rather than its previous deathly pale, and she jerked upward before half-falling off the table. The previous silence was broken by harsh coughing.

The already standing figure, identical to the one who lay over the edge of the table, watched in silent awe for a brief moment before stepping closer. “It worked,” she murmured. “It really… really worked.”

As her coughing gradually faded, the newly risen former corpse blinked upward in confusion. Seeing the figure standing there, she made a soft gasping sound before speaking in a voice that was cracked from a combination of long disuse and her own uncertainty at making the words. “I… I know you.”

“No.” The standing girl shook her head at that. “You’re wrong. You don’t know me. She knew me.”

Moving to a sitting position, the formerly dead girl looked down at herself and the runes that had been drawn in blood, then to the animal skins that had fallen from her legs as she moved. Frowning, her gaze rose again to the standing figure. She stared for a moment before raising her hands to touch her own face, her own hair. “We are the same,” the girl started uncertainly. “Identical.” She paused. “Sister.”

Crack, the standing girl slapped her, hard. “No,” she snapped with obvious impatience. “Never say that again. We are not sisters. Theda was my sister, my twin sister. You are not Theda, and never will be.”

“Who am I?” The girl paused, looking at her own hands briefly before looking up again. “What am I?”

Smiling faintly, the standing figure answered with obvious pride. “A djinn. That’s what you are. You’re a being of pure magical power.” Met by a blank stare, she sighed. “When a spell is cast, there is residual power. Most of the time that power fades away without impact. But when the spell is powerful enough, it affects the physical world. Usually it just creates terrible storms or other events. When the mountains spew fire and smoke, those sometimes come from the residual effects of powerful spells.”

Not-Theda tilted her head curiously at that. Her tone was innocent. “I am not a fire-mountain.”

“No,” the other girl agreed flatly. “You’re not. You see, sometimes, if you know just when a suitably powerful spell is about to be cast and you… prepare properly,” she indicated the clearing around them including the crosses where the crucified bodies had been, “you can harness the residual magic and channel it into the creation of… you. A djinn. That’s where all your kind come from. You’re not real, you’re not human beings. You’re creatures formed entirely from magic. Extraordinary, but not human.”

“Not human,” the newly risen figure echoed, her voice thoughtful and quiet. “But Theda was human.”

Nodding, the standing girl spoke softly. “Yes. Theda was human. But a djinn requires a body to inhabit. And the greater the sacrifice of that body, the greater chance that the spell to create the djinn succeeds.” Her unhinged smile returned as she shrugged. “What greater sacrifice is there than one’s own twin?”

“You killed your twin sister,” Not-Theda realized, straightening once more while staring at the girl.

“As I said,” the standing figure replied, “a great sacrifice was needed. The Heretics cast their spell to banish the necromancer from this world. I just… latched onto the residual power from their magic to create you. Otherwise all that power would have just created another earthquake or fire-mountain. And what a waste would that have been?” She shook her head in disgust at the very thought of such a thing.

“Anyway,” she added while clapping her hands together. “Let’s get started. This,” she picked up the wooden cup that had held the blood, “is your vessel. Think of it as your anchor to this world. Usually they use oil lamps for this. It’s supposed to be easy to pour the blood out. But—well, I didn’t have one. And whoever holds your anchor controls you. They’re your master. So what does that make me?”

Not-Theda paused, eyes looking at the wooden cup briefly before she answered quietly. “My master.”

The standing girl smiled at that, clearly happy. “Yes,” she confirmed. “That’s exactly what I am. And you are a djinn, the living embodiment of magic. Which means you exist to grant wishes. My wishes.”

Glancing down at herself, she made a face. “To begin with, I need clothes. Not the same ones as before. I deserve better ones. Clothes befitting a lady of my stature. Or the stature I’ll soon have.” Snapping her fingers, she gestured to herself. “I wish for the clothes of a noblewoman, made of the finest materials.”

At those words, Not-Theda felt a tug at her core, an irresistible urge that was almost like a subconscious bodily function. Obey. Grant the wish. Use her magic. It all rose up in her until she focused on what what her master had requested. Clothes. Fine clothes. Her blue eyes glowed with power, and she lifted a hand into a gesture. That rising power flowed out of her, until her master was suitably attired in a dress that would have been perfectly at home on any woman of royal standing.

The newly-dressed woman giggled upon seeing what she had been draped in. Lifting her hands, she spun in a slow circle to make the dress rise briefly. “Good,” she announced with child-like delight. “Very good. Now dress yourself too. Not like this, but… servant clothes. Because that’s what you are.

“Because I have a lot of plans, and you… you’re going to help me get everything I could ever want.”

******

Wednesday, July 18th, 1984

“So this is the thing that makes new Heretics, huh?” The girl who had at one point simply referred to herself as ‘Not-Theda’ had a name now. A name drawn from the title on a movie poster starring Peter Fonda and Brooke Shields, Wanda Nevada. At some point, she should actually see the movie itself.

“Yes, Nevada,” the red-haired woman standing beside her in front of the Heretical Edge confirmed. “This is what allows us to create more Heretics so easily.” She glanced to her, “Are you going to change your appearance before you surrender your powers? It wouldn’t do for Jackson to notice you.”

Nevada gave a swift nod, face flushed at the terrifying memory of the relentless Heretic chasing her through the mall before Deveron had intervened. “Yes, I’ll change. But I still want to look like me. Close to me. Just different enough that he won’t recognize me. I… I don’t want to change that much.”

Gaia Sinclaire’s hand found her shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to. I doubt he paid enough attention to recognize you at all. You were just another target for him to eliminate. But still, better safe than sorry.”

Nodding silently, Nevada took a step forward. Feeling the power coming off of the light, she put a hand on it. “Are you sure about this?” she asked the headmistress. “I’m pretty sure I can change it to accept hybrids, but if I make myself human after that, I won’t be able to change it back. And that’s a pretty big step. Half-human Heretics? What if your—uh, what do you call your leaders? What if they find out?”

“The Committee,” Gaia answered easily. “And things have to change. This is the most effective way to make that happen right now. After Joselyn’s rebellion and what happened with her, we can’t simply let it go on. We need to show that Alters and Heretics can live alongside each other, can work with one another. It’s going to be a long journey to get there, but this… this is an important step along the way.

“Besides,” she added a little more quietly, “It was her plan, and it should be put into play even if she can’t do it herself.”

Nevada was quiet for a moment then, looking at the lighthouse lamp. Her hand trailed along the side of it before she looked to the other woman. “You have to say the words. And it’ll probably help if you hold my anchor while you’re doing it.” She nodded to the wooden cup that sat nearby.

With a soft, knowing smile, Gaia picked up the cup and held it carefully. “I wish you would change the Heretical Edge so that it can turn half-human Alters into Heretics as well.”

Nevada felt the familiar tug at her power. Over the past several hundred years, she had felt it many times. This one was different somehow. It was a wish that she truly wanted to grant. Yet it would also be one of the most powerful wishes she had ever granted. Not simply in initial effect, but also along the line, throughout the future. Allowing non-pureblood humans to become Heretics? The very thought of the things that it could change, that it would change was staggering.

She gave another glance to her anchor, to the wooden cup that allowed whoever held it to command her. It had passed through several hands over the centuries, for one reason or another. Usually because after a powerful enough ‘wish’, the hold that her master at the time had over her was lessened. She herself became less powerful as she recharged, but she was also able to disobey and escape until her power inevitably returned and she became tied once more to whoever held her anchor.

Yet her creator, the twin sister of the girl who had been sacrificed to give her life, had always taken back possession eventually. She would pass into the hands of one man, then be sold to another, only to be lost in a brutal attack that left her master dead. Her anchor would change hands again and again. Sometimes she would be owned for only a few short hours, while other times, her current master would be smarter about keeping the anchor safe. But it never lasted forever. And eventually, her creator would show up to take the cup back. And with it, she would regain control of what she called her property. Despite all the magic she already had, despite all the power she had already taken for herself, she wouldn’t let her djinn creation go. Not for good. Nevada, or the girl who eventually became known as Nevada, was her trophy. She was her greatest symbol of power, a living djinn. And perhaps some small part of her felt connected to the body of the twin that she had sacrificed to gain all that power.

Either way, whatever the reasoning, she always found Nevada and always took control of her again.

Not this time, however. This time would be different. As she focused on fulfilling that one final wish, the last wish she would ever grant before she turned herself into a human, Nevada knew one thing for certain. Her creator would never take that freedom away from her again. She wouldn’t be a slave to her, or to anyone else. Never. She would live her own life, be her own person, make her own choices. Now and forever.

Theda’s sister, Denuvus, would never own Nevada again.

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