Doctor Manakel

Calm Before 20-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Children? Children of Olympians?” As he said those words, Manakel started to continue before pausing. A slight grimace crossed his face. “I would ask if you were certain, but I do not believe you would have come to me with that if you were not.”

I was back in the room where the Seosten ghost man was being held, with my mother standing at the doorway watching. She had that sword that Kushiel had wanted held in one hand, her attention torn between inspecting it and keeping an eye on every move he made. 

“Yeah,” I confirmed flatly, “we’re sure. The others saw a few of them use powers. And they basically confirmed it when it was brought up. Except they said Kushiel is their mother. Apparently they seemed pretty loyal to her.” 

Manakel absorbed that, floating backwards a couple feet as though the information itself had physically rocked him. “Kushiel having access to any children at all is very bad news. Having Olympian children is much worse, especially if they are, as you say, loyal. It sounds as though she has raised fanatics.” 

I took a breath, preparing myself. “Okay, look I just have to ask. Did you know anything about this? Did you know she had offspring like that? You or your old self or whatever. Did you have any idea?”  

The man shook his head firmly. “I assure you, I may have had a good many issues by the end, but I was loyal to my people in my own way. Had I known there were living offspring from our ship, I would have had them taken away from her to be raised properly.” 

I continued to stare at him for another few seconds, trying to read if there was anything duplicitous in his face. I wasn’t sure, not entirely. But something told me he was telling the truth about this. It didn’t take much to know that allowing Kushiel to raise a group of potentially incredibly powerful fanatical teenagers was a bad idea. So, I glanced toward my mother and gave her a short nod. As I was doing that, Manakel spoke up. “When you say these children displayed powers, what were they?” 

“They didn’t have any necromancy,” I replied simply. “At least none that they saw. But apparently not all of them used any visible powers.” I thought back to what the others had described. “There was one who controlled water, another one who made the concrete turn into fists, big ones. Another made the air solid enough to walk on or hit people with. And then there was the girl, the one in charge I mean. Apparently she made explosions and teleported? They’re not sure if those were part of the same thing or what.” 

Manakel considered that, silent thoughts clearly passing through his mind as his expression twisted. “The water isn’t hard. That must be Sachael’s child. As for the concrete manipulator, my… best guess is Orifiel. He was able to control physical buildings and similar constructs. That may be an earlier manifestation of it. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t using the power to its full extent. Either way, Orifiel… passed away over fifty years ago. Kushiel must have either kept some of his genetic material herself, or acquired it from another storage facility.” 

He went silent for a few seconds, processing his thoughts. I didn’t interrupt, and he eventually spoke again. “The girl who manipulated the air would almost certainly be the offspring of Rabia. She was… killed by the Moon girl during your assault on Kushiel’s original lab. And as for the girl who teleports via explosions…” He paused before visibly sighing. “I’m afraid I have no idea. It could be a manifestation or use of an ability I didn’t witness, or… perhaps a combination of two powers from a pair of Olympian parents, which created this form… I apologize. It could also be part of one of my removed memories.” 

“Removed–” I started before realizing. “Right, Athena and Sariel talked about that. Seosten can just… remove bits of their memory and store them somewhere else to go back for later when they need them.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “If that is the case, all you need to do is acquire my stored memories from the homeworld.” Another grimace came then, as he lamented, “I intended those words as a mixture of a joke and praise for your probable ability to actually accomplish something like that. But I’m afraid it may have come off as taunting.” 

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I pushed all of that down and simply replied, “Yeah, well until we happen to get those memories, we’ll just have to go with what you said. Which, for the record, basically matches what Sariel and the others thought.” Of course we had talked to them first before asking him any questions. I want to know if he would keep anything back. 

Manakel, in turn, gave me a short nod. “Please tell me you are going to inform my people of this.” He hesitated before adding, “If you truly wish for this peace treaty to work out, telling them is a good idea. They will not react happily should they learn about it and discover that you’ve kept it from them.” 

Before I could respond, my mother spoke up. “Yes, we are going to let your people know about it. Especially Sachael. He was already willing to help us once before, and even if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t…” She glanced away before turning back, expression hard. “I wouldn’t keep a secret like that. Your people are… you have trouble creating offspring. These children… their parents deserve to know they exist. The ones who are still alive anyway.” 

The reminder made me grimace a bit. That reminded me of another potential issue. I had no idea if that air-controlling girl, Fuscus apparently, knew that Vanessa was the one who had killed her real mother. Or if she would even care. That whole situation was complicated, to say the least. And it had the potential to become even more so. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I asked, “You were around Kushiel a lot more recently than the others here. I mean, you were on decent terms with her. Plus you uhh, you’ve had that connection to Tartarus. Do… do you have any idea why she might’ve wanted to take Harrison Fredericks? Is this a Kushiel thing, or a Tartarus thing, or–why does she want him? What is she planning to do?” We’d asked the other Seosten here on the station the same thing, of course, but they’d had no idea. 

Unfortunately, Manakel shook his head. “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly guess why she would want to abduct the creator of cyberforms, aside from forcing him to create more for her. You said her ghost companions could possess them. Perhaps she wants to give them bodies they can use so they are not limited to ghost forms. But that is merely a guess.”  

“Yeah,” I replied, “that’s basically where we’re at too.” I hesitated before looking back to him. “If you remember or think of anything else–”  

“I will tell you,” he assured me. “Even if I was not intent on making up for past mistakes, removing those offspring from her control is vital. I will attempt to think of what they could be doing with Fredericks. Of course, I can make no promises, but I… I will do what I can. You have my word, Felicity Chambers.” 

That was basically all I could ask for, and all I would trust him to say. So, excusing myself, I left him there with his thoughts. As Mom and I stepped out, we looked at each other. “This could get really bad,” I said quietly. 

Still holding that sword, Mom gave a short nod. “Yeah, it could. But we’ll handle it. Whatever she’s planning, we’ll deal with it. Now, don’t you have something else to do?” 

I blanched a little. “Right, homework. Actually, does it count as homework if we’re living on a space station in the middle of the sun? Maybe we should call it sunwork. That makes it sound exciting.” 

Mom, for her part, chuckled while reaching out to brush my hair. “You can call it anything you want, my little Felicity. Just make sure you get it done. You know the rules.”

Snickering despite myself as I pushed worry about what Kushiel and her newly revealed entourage were up to out of my head, I replied, “Yeah, yeah, I am totally not allowed to go on any life-and-death, world-saving and horrifyingly terrifying missions to far sides of the planet and or universe until I get my homework done. Sorry, my sunwork done.” 

“That’s right,” Mom confirmed, hand brushing down the side of my cheek fondly. “Now you head on back to your room to work on that, young lady. Don’t make me get Wyatt to lock you down until it’s done.

“I’m sure he’d love the challenge.” 

*****

For the next couple of weeks, things settled down for the most part. We didn’t see any sign of Kushiel, or Invidia, or any of the other Whispers or Seosten ghosts. Besides the one we had locked up here with us, of course. We had groups out searching for Fredericks with no luck. The loyalist Heretics from Crossroads and Eden’s garden had already set up camp at his lab. Well, they set up camp outside of it. Apparently they were incapable of getting inside. Which raised the question of how Kushiel had managed to go through that and get him out of there. His defenses were too much for a joint team of Heretics to properly deal with, but she got through it as a ghost? Yeah, I had a few questions about that.

But, there was nothing to be done about that for now. Not until someone managed to track them down, or at least get a lead. For the moment, we had nothing. So, I went about my days like an ordinary student. Two weeks of ordinary school days, or at least as ordinary as they got around here. 

I had spent time helping the Carnival System explore who they were. They started attending their own classes alongside Dakota, Bobbi, and others. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard for the other students to accept them. Apparently multiple minds sharing one body wasn’t all that extraordinary or weird for them. I could only imagine what it would’ve been like in the Bystander world. 

I didn’t visit Zeke, of course. We weren’t friends, and my presence wouldn’t make his staying here any better. But from what I heard, he really wasn’t happy about the situation. They had him in a comfortable set of rooms without letting him near any of the non-Heretic students. He kept going on about being a prisoner, but what else were we supposed to do? We couldn’t trust him not to react violently the first time some innocent little Alter kid went running past him. 

Malcolm, his old friend and roommate, had left Crossroads. Actually, Sophronia brought him over. Apparently he had only stayed there to try to help Zeke in the first place, not because he still believed in them. Which made me wonder how many others were there just to be with friends and family. 

Either way, Zeke might’ve been more angry with Malcolm than he was at his mother or anyone else. He refused to see him. Which had to hurt, but Malcolm seemed to roll with it.

I did go back to visit the residents in the hidden vault. I had promised we would help them, and we were. Most chose to stay and wait for us to find their missing kids with the information we had taken from Perrsnile. Information which, unfortunately, was going to take time to pan out. After all, it wasn’t like the people he had sold those kids to had all stayed in one spot. We were working on tracking them down. Which, overall, the vault people were being pretty patient about. Especially considering what they had already been through. Some chose to leave the vault and go out on their own, or even come up to live on the station. Whatever they wanted, we helped with as much as we could. 

Beyond that, I spent time with Manakel, taking lessons from him about how to use my power properly. As promised, we started with me learning how to undo the spell that had sent Grover’s friend away. It was a slow process, and I wasn’t ready to do it just yet, but it was definitely progress. I assured Grover that as soon as I had a handle on it, we would go back to that hotel and give it a shot.

So, basically, I had a lot to work on even if there wasn’t much openly happening. I definitely wasn’t bored, to say the least.

That whole not bored thing went triple at the moment, considering I was busy frantically sparring with Avalon. She was intent on making sure I wasn’t slacking in that department. And, I was pretty sure, she was also working out various frustrations of her own. She was getting more and more worried about Gaia with every day that went by. Which I couldn’t blame her for. We had to get the woman out of there. Preferably as soon as possible, and definitely before this truce with the Seosten ran out. 

Finally, after an intense series of clashes between my staff and two of the energy blades from her gauntlets, we both took a few steps back and bent over to grab our knees while panting a bit. I shook my head. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have someone like Zeke in here to beat up on?”  

She gave me a look and snorted. “Trust me, Felicity, if there was any chance I could get away with that, I would. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold back with him nearly as much as I do with you.” 

“Yeah,” I retorted, “if this is you holding back, he’d probably end up in rough shape. I’m pretty sure Sophronia would object to us handing him back to her in more than one piece.” Sobering after that, I added, “I take it there still hasn’t been any luck trying to figure out why the Whispers want him.” 

“Nothing new,” she confirmed while cracking her neck as she straightened up. “Something to do with that colony world, but we can’t go there and check it out ourselves. Crossroads still has a presence there. Athena says they’re working on getting someone there to look around, but they have to be subtle about it.” 

“Speaking of which,” I put in, “I was talking to Wyatt earlier, and he said they’ve put together another packet of information to send to Crossroads and Garden about protections against the Whispers. Everything we know about them. I mean, there’s no proof they’ll even listen to us, but we’ve gotta try, right?” 

Avalon grimaced visibly, murmuring, “Yeah, we have to try. The last thing–one of the last things we need is for a bunch of loyalist Heretics to end up being controlled by Invidia’s pack.” 

“Sure doesn’t sound fun,” I agreed, stomach twisting a bit at the thought. “I think I’m starting to understand why you want to exhaust yourself with all this.” My hand gestured around the training room before I focused on her, voice softening. “Seriously, I know it’s a lot to deal with, but we’re getting there, you know?” 

“Are we?” she replied simply. “Because it kind of seems like we keep adding new problems we need to deal with without actually handling the stuff we already have.” 

She wasn’t wrong about that, and I had just opened my mouth to try to find something I could say when there was a chime from the door, indicating someone wanted to come in. We opened it, and found Shiori on the other side. But she wasn’t alone. Asenath was there too, along with another figure I didn’t recognize, but knew immediately. They were a silver metallic android with glowing gem-like eyes. From what I’d heard, those eyes changed color, but for the moment they were an amber-brown. 

“Hey, Flick,” Shiori chirped, stepping in to embrace me tightly. She had been busy lately, helping her sister search for answers to Tiras’s lost memories. “Hey, Avalon.” 

“Hey guys,” I greeted alongside Valley. “Looks like you brought a friend.” 

Senny nodded. “Yeah, this is Robin. Ah…” She leaned around to glance at the figure’s eyes. “Hood. Yeah, Robin Hood.” 

The robot smiled brightly. “Pleased to meet you, Felicity Chambers.”

Their eyes shifted to yellow while they added, “We’ve been waiting a long time to meet the one who stomped Fossor’s stupid butt so hard!” 

Before I could respond, the eyes turned red. “I just wish we could’ve been there to lend a hand. Cuz beating the shit out of that asshole sounds like fun.” 

I’d heard about this, of course. Shiori had explained the whole situation when she heard about Denny and the Carnival System. But we still went through official introductions. This was the Robin System. The one I’d seen first, with the brown eyes, was the original–or at least the first one who had woken up here on Earth. They were Robin Hood, or the Hooded One. The yellow-eyed one was called Sprite, or the Sprightly One. Red eyes was Brawl, or the Brawling One. Med/Medical One, Chat/Chatting One, Quip/Quipping One, and Sec/Security One all had green, light blue, pink, and dark blue eyes respectively. And each took the time to introduce themselves. 

Once that was done, I smiled easily. “I take it you’re here to see the Carnival?” There had been talk about the Robins coming up to see Denny and the others, but they had been really busy the past couple weeks. Apparently it wasn’t easy to track down the Rasputin guy, even with the special information they’d received in exchange for some sort of favor they’d done for some woman. She knew places he had been, and stuff about where he might go, but not a current physical location. 

Their eyes shifted to green as Med spoke up. “Yes. We would like to speak with them and… and help ensure they understand their situation and that they are not alone.” 

Then the eyes turned yellow for Sprite once more. “And it’s fun! We like meeting others like us. We don’t… we don’t get to do that very often.” 

“Trust me, they’re excited to talk to you too,” I assured them. “Actually, I’m pretty sure we can head up there right now.” 

“Excellent,” came the response as those eyes shifted to dark blue, for Sec. “And, of course, there is the other matter we came here for.” 

“Other matter?” I echoed, exchanging a glance with Avalon. 

“Yeah…” Shiori scratched the back of her neck. “You’re not gonna believe this, Flick. But we found out where Rasputin is right now, and why it’s been so hard to actually find him.” 

Looking back and forth between them, I slowly asked, “Something tells me this is gonna be a big answer, but… where is he?” 

“Not on Earth,” Asenath informed me, voice solemn. “He’s on Fossor’s homeworld, Flick. 

“That’s where we need to go if we’re gonna find him.” 

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Calm Before 20-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and is able to be read by everyone right here

“Answer her,” Avalon was already pressing, her gaze intent as she stared that way. “Why were you looking for Hajer? And why in an old hotel that was taken over by a gang of Alters?” 

“To answer your questions in reverse order,” Manakel’s ghost informed us, “Hajer moves around quite a lot. Hence her title. I had it on quite good authority that she was there most recently at that time. Why she went to that place, I could not possibly say, only that she was at one point. Unfortunately… for me at the time, she was gone by the time I arrived. Which, as you have already learned, was not something I enjoyed learning.” He paused, giving a slight sigh before pushing on. “As to the first part, I wished to employ her services in removing the protections from Miss Sinclaire here.” His eyes moved to Avalon, who was still staring intently right back at him. “It was a long shot that she would agree to such a thing, but then, we were trying a lot of long shots at the time. And she has been surprising before in what she has agreed to.” 

Squinting, Valley slowly asked, “She’s the ancient human who was bonded to one of those Primals, right? The… whatever they were who created the weapons the King of Canada uses.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Your people would have called her a caveman. Or cavewoman. Bit offensive, but not incorrect. She was born in a time when the majority of your people did live in caves, when most of the Alters who would eventually come to call this planet home had not yet arrived. And those who had were… genuinely more threats than allies. In the early days, there were large portions of this planet which were ruled by incredibly dangerous creatures. Among those ancient inhabitants were very, very few of the beings you call Primals. Their own species was already doomed despite their vast power, and you might say a couple of those who were left… retired here. They stowed large armories of their advanced weaponry, such as what Oberon found.”

“Um, why were they doomed?” I found myself asking uncertainly. “I mean, as a species. What happened to them?” Was it weird that I was asking questions of the guy who had spent so long trying to murder my girlfriend and destroy my entire life, as though he was just another teacher? And did the fact that Avalon was right here with me, also asking him questions, make that whole situation better or worse? I wasn’t sure, but it was definitely a thing. 

“We don’t precisely know, to be honest,” was Manakel’s somewhat disappointing response. “Well, there are theories based on information we do have. I can tell you the one I subscribe to, which is that the beings we know as the Primals performed a spell that was so… dangerous and consuming, it destroyed their ability to procreate. And it did so to such an extent that even cloning would not help, because this spell they created and triggered worked by draining the life force from any iterations of their species who were not alive at the moment it was triggered.” 

I absorbed that for a moment before my eyes widened. “Wait, you mean they effectively destroyed their own ability to continue their species because they made a spell that killed any members of that species who weren’t there at the time? So they could never make any more, and the ones who died just… never got replenished?” 

“That seems like a very bad plan,” Persephone put in, gently rubbing one of Cerberus’s heads. “I don’t know what sort of goal they could have had for that.” 

“What she said,” Avalon noted dryly. She was still watching the man with obvious suspicion despite her curiosity. “What the hell were they trying to do? Are you sure they did it to themselves? That sounds an awful lot like something someone else would have done to them.” 

Mankel’s head bobbed slightly to acknowledge the point. “Yes, well, as I said, we know very little about them for certain. For the most part, they came from a time long before even my people. Certainly before we were an intergalactic civilization. We’re forced to piece things together from old records and stories. But we do know that, within the few records we have found and translated, the Primals repeatedly referred to their situation as something they had done to themselves. They blamed no outsiders, no invading enemy or force. Whatever happened, they were the source of it.” 

“So they couldn’t have any kids or create any clones, or do anything that would carry on their species,” I murmured. “And apparently this spell or whatever it was couldn’t be stopped. They were stuck with just whichever of them happened to be alive when the spell was cast, and once they died, that was it.” The idea made me shudder. What would it be like to live as a people as advanced as these Primals had been (if the weapons Oberon had found were any indication) and then become completely helpless to prevent your entire species from just dying out? 

“A few ‘retired’ to this planet, and this Wandering Woman, or Freyja, or Hajer… whatever she calls herself, she came across one of them way back in the primitive days.” Avalon frowned a bit. “If they lived so long ago that even your people didn’t know anything about them, they must live for a long time for any to have survived long enough for a primitive human to meet them.” 

The man gave a slight nod once more. “Yes, they were incredibly advanced in many ways, to the point of becoming nearly entirely immortal, in some cases. And yet, still, once one died for any particular reason, they were gone forever and the species was one step closer to complete extinction. And even they could only prolong their lives, or protect themselves from outside threats, for so long. Or perhaps some simply… chose to die, after so much of their species was wiped away with no chance to return to their former glory. They could have given up.” 

He was silent for a moment after that, clearly considering how it would feel, before visibly swallowing. Then he went on. “Hajer met one and was bonded to them. Perhaps it was an intentional way for that particular Primal to feel as though they were passing something of themselves on. Whatever the reasoning, she is quite possibly the most powerful being on this planet.” 

“She has the ability to undo things,” I remembered. “Mom said if she focuses on something or someone, she can undo the effect of anything. If you burn a house down, she can wave a hand and put it back to the way it was before the fire. Even if that means bringing everyone who was killed in the fire back to life. But like, she can even undo learning. She can make you forget things, or even erase skills out of your head by removing the fact that you ever learned them.” 

“All of which is correct.” After saying that, Manakel paused, glancing away as though losing himself in thought for a moment before shaking it off as he turned back to us. “As I said, my goal was to find her and convince her that it would be in the best interest of this world for me to succeed in my mission.” His gaze focused on Avalon as he flatly finished with, “My mission, of course, to kill you. Again, for however little it is worth, you have my apologies. Yet I did, absolutely and without question, believe what I was saying at the time. I believed that killing you, eliminating any possibility of Liesje’s spell from ever being put into the world, would maintain the peace here. Because if my people found out that spell was active, I believed they would come here in force.” 

“Yeah, they still might try that,” I muttered under my breath. “But I guess you didn’t find her.” 

“No, I did not. So I returned to other plans.” He looked to Avalon once more. “Plans which failed.” 

“Yeah, we’re all glad about that, believe me,” I noted. “But anyway, to get back to the whole reason I brought that up in the first place, you said you could help me learn to undo that… ‘severscatter’ spell that you used on Grover’s friend so we can bring her back?” 

“As I also said, it will take some time for you to learn enough to do so,” the man reminded me. “But yes, I believe it can be done. Once you have learned how, you will have to go to the spot where it occurred. And you will need to know as much about the girl as possible. That, you will need this… Grover’s aid with. But assuming all goes well enough, you should be able to, ahem, bring her back.” 

My phone buzzed at that point, so I glanced down at it before replying, “Well, I’ll definitely be coming to you for lessons soon. But in the meantime, it sounds like the others are starting to wake up.

“And I really need to get back there in time for my grandparents to meet Theodore.” 

******

Of course, Manakel had no idea what I meant by ‘Theodore,’ and I wasn’t yet to the point where I felt like explaining it. So Avalon and I left him there with Persephone and Cerberus. They had a lot to talk about, and I was pretty sure most of it was pretty private stuff. Still, I made sure Percy knew she could call for us any time she wanted, and that she absolutely did not have to do anything Manakel told her to. And I told Andromeda she should listen in and make sure nothing untoward happened. Even if he was being… well, nice now, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Having a secretly-still-evil Manakel manipulating Persephone into something bad wasn’t quite the worst situation I could think of, but it wasn’t good either. 

Either way, right now wasn’t the time to think about all that. Now was the time to focus on Grandmaria and Popser, who were standing in the kitchen alongside Dad, Mom, and me. And Loudpound, who was wolfing down a very large stack of pancakes at the table. Or rather, pancake and egg sandwiches. She took two pancakes at a time, shoved several spoonfuls of scrambled eggs between them, then ate the result like a sandwich. While sometimes dipping it in syrup. I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to try it like that, but she sure enjoyed it. 

“Uurph, I gotta tell ya, Grandma Chambers, you make some fine flapjacks,” she announced after devouring another of her concoctions. “I mean, I never actually had real ones before, just what I’ve got from borrowed memories, or how they taste inside. But if I had to have anything as my first outside meal, I’m glad it was this.” She took another huge bite then, with a murmur of pleasure, then gulped down half a glass of milk. 

Staring at the greenish-brown, taller Denny in wonder (for more than one reason, I was sure), Grandmaria finally found her voice. “Oh, well, if you think those little things are good, you should try my cookies sometime.” 

Pointing with her latest pancake and egg sandwich clutched in one hand, Loudpound declared, “I’ll hold you to that! Err–what?” She looked to the side as though listening to someone else before muttering under her breath, then turned back. “I mean, thanks. You know, for that and all this food. It’s all ahh, it’s all good.” 

Grandmaria paused before smiling. “Well, I’m just glad you’ve all been enjoying it. Or… is that just you? I’m afraid I’m not quite certain how that works with your… ahh, situation.” 

Taking another gulp of milk to finish off the glass, Loudpound shrugged. “I’m not really the explaining things type, unless you’re talking about explaining just how much it hurts to have my fist in your face. Then I’m more of what you might call an interactive teacher.” She offered a toothy grin that showed off her fangs. Then there was another pause as she listened, before shrugging. “Yeah, well, you do it.” 

With that, her body shrank down half a foot, back to the original Denny’s height. Her skin shifted away from the brownish-green and became a bright fuchsia, while her clothes were a mint and black mix. She even had a matching cape. Her eyes were yellow with no whites to them, and she had short and spiky white hair. 

“Hi!” the new arrival chirped. “I’m Tailor! Letters was gonna come out and talk, but she’s busy right now. I wanted to say I really liked the pancakes too! I probably wouldn’t have put them together with the eggs like that, but it was a new experience. I think new experiences are good! Err, most of the time. Okay, okay, maybe there’s a lot of bad new experiences, but this one was just weird, and weird isn’t bad! I like experiencing things.” 

She looked to my grandmother then. “We can taste what the person on the outside eats, but it’s like… one step removed? It’s not quite like having someone describe something to you, but it’s not exactly the same as experiencing it yourself either. It’s like, uhhhhh… you know when you eat something and then a couple seconds later you can still remember what it tastes like really well? It’s sorta like that.” She thought about her own explanation for a second, then gave a firm nod. “Basically.” 

“Well,” Popser started, “it’s certainly a delight to meet you, Tailor. I hope we didn’t annoy your… sister? I hope we didn’t annoy her too much with all our questions.” 

“Psshh, nah, she’s okay.” Tailor waved that off. “Like she said, she just doesn’t like to explain things. Or listen to things being explained. She gets bored pretty quick.” Her head tilted to look up toward the corner of the ceiling. “What? You do. I didn’t say it was a bad thing.” Looking back to my grandparents, she added, “Anyway, we decided we don’t really like the term sister or brother, because… well, some of us are more connected than others. Letters was reading stuff online earlier when she was out, and she thinks those should be called syslings. Like system siblings. That’s what we are, a System, basically. We didn’t start out the same way they do, but… I mean, it’s close enough. Anyway, we’re the Carnival System. Some of us are syslings, some of us aren’t. Mostly we’re what you call Aspects, or maybe headmates.That’s another word Letters found. Individually, we’re Aspects. When you’re talking about what we are to each other, it’s Headmates. Loudpound and Bijou are syslings because they’re really close, even though they’re pretty different. But just go with headmates for all of us as a whole.”  

Dad, who had been standing in the back corner of the room next to Mom as they watched all this, spoke up. “I had an interview with someone like that awhile back. We were trying to find out what they knew, but the one we needed to talk to was, ahh… gone. I think they said he ‘walked out.’ I ended up talking to their–what did he call himself? Archeologist, that was it. He called himself the System Archeologist. He had this mental museum of all of the pieces of memory the other parts of them left lying around. Ended up being pretty helpful. And ahh, educating.” 

We all talked a little bit more about that, before Grandmaria promised to make cookies soon, and said she would invite any of the Carnival System out to help. Then she and Popser decided they were ready to go in and see Theodore. Apparently the System had already figured out that he couldn’t manifest outside. He wasn’t exactly the same as them. They were all pieces of Denny, at least partially, so they could take over and control the body. But he was more of a separate entity inside her memories, and apparently that wasn’t enough for him to take over. Though, to be honest, I wasn’t sure he even wanted to. He was pretty nervous about interacting with anyone in there, let alone taking over the body in the ‘outside world.’ 

In any case, Tailor swapped with Walker, who grunted her own greetings before waving for us to step together. So, Mom, my grandparents, and I all moved closer. The four of us were going in. Apparently it wasn’t easy for Denny to support too many people inside herself at the same time, and we didn’t want to push things any further than that. 

We arrived in the carnival itself, and my grandparents looked around in wonder. Grandpartie went on a bit about how amazing it would be if they could make a virtual reality video game look this good, while a few of the Aspects cautiously watched from various game booths and rides. They weren’t approaching. 

Then a voice spoke up cautiously from nearby. “I… hello.” It was Theodore, of course. He tentatively stepped out from behind one of the booths, looking nervous. He had dressed up in a cute little black suit with a blue bowtie and matching boots. 

Turning that way, Popser was the first to react. “Aha!” he crowed, making Theodore jump a little. “There’s my grandson!” With a grin, he stepped that way, then paused before lowering himself to one knee. Even then, he still towered over the small boy. “I like your tie. That’s not a clip-on.” 

“No, sir,” Theodore confirmed. “Bang-bang helped me tie it.” 

“Well, he did a bang-up job.” Giving a laugh at his own joke, Popser added, “And it sounds like he’s a good friend. You can call me Popser, or Grandpartie, just like the others.” He offered his hand. “You like Theodore or Theo?” 

After a very brief pause, the boy accepted the shake, his own hand vanishing into our grandfathers’ much bigger one. “I think I usually prefer Theodore, but… Theo sounds okay coming from you, uh, sir.” 

“Theo it is, then,” Popser agreed before waving a hand. “Maria, come meet our grandson.” 

Soon, the three of them were talking animatedly. Well, our grandparents were doing most of the talking. Theodore stayed pretty quiet and just watched. But his eyes were certainly animated, as he stared at them and alternately nodded or shook his head while they asked questions. 

Stepping next to my mother as that went on, I quietly murmured, “I’m pretty sure this is good for all of them.” 

Her head gave a short nod, eyes remaining centered on Theodore while shining with half-shed tears. “Yes. It’s good for them, and for us. And I think it’s good for Denny and the rest of the Carnival as well.” Saying that, she smiled even more at the sight of Popser rising while picking Theodore off the ground so he could hold him up as high as possible, making the boy give a reflexive laugh. Her voice became so quiet, I could barely hear her next words.  

“It’s just plain… good.” 

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Calm Before 20-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Beside me, Persephone made a noise as though she was going to say something. Before she could, however, Avalon put a hand on her arm and looked at her. Neither of them spoke in that moment, but I could see some sort of silent communication through expressions going on. After a couple seconds, Percy bowed her head slightly as though accepting what the other girl wanted. Then she glanced toward me and whispered very faintly, “She is very persuasive.” 

“That she is,” I murmured under my breath. I honestly wasn’t sure what to make out of the fact that Valley was capable of convincing an Olympian-powered Revenant to let her go first, but it certainly wasn’t surprising. She was pretty damn special. 

Meanwhile, Avalon herself took a couple steps forward while keeping her eyes on the ghost. Her voice was flat, though I could hear the emotion layered within it. “You tried awfully hard to make sure I died last year, Manakel.” The only slight stumble in her words came when she said his name, as though she hadn’t decided until that very moment whether she was going to use any sort of honorific or not. And to be fair, I really couldn’t blame her for going with not. 

“I did,” Manakel confirmed. He seemed to consider how to respond next before speaking again. “I would say that it was not personal, but of course, it was very personal to you. And, I believe, quite personal to me by the end. I would also say that I was not myself at the time, but that should not matter to you. Both for the fact that the victim should never be made to excuse the faults of the aggressor, and because I was hardly the sole representative of my people who caused you harm. We Seosten made a bit of a habit of that.” 

Again, he fell silent for a moment, his gaze watching her. And yet, though his expression appeared fairly blank on the outside, I could feel the turmoil within the man. He really did feel guilty about the whole thing, but honestly felt as though showing his feelings that way would be selfish. The man was taking time between sentences to choose his words not in an attempt to be manipulative, but because he wanted to be careful not to turn a discussion about Avalon’s feelings into one about his own problems. 

Okay, seriously, I was getting an awful lot of information about his emotions and whatnot. Was this just because of our connection through the Tartarus thing? Because I definitely didn’t get that much detail from all my ghosts. If I did, I would’ve been able to tell whether Perrsnile or Ausesh were lying back in the vault. 

“What I can say,” Manakel eventually continued, “is that I am sorry for all suffering I was directly or indirectly involved with when it comes to your life, Avalon Sinclaire. I was performing the duties which were assigned to me, but that is not an excuse, for I had previously proven myself capable of creatively reinterpreting orders, and I certainly could have suggested other solutions to the situation. The fact is, I chose not to. For that, regardless of any outside influence I may have been operating under, you have my deepest, most unequivocal apology.” His gaze met hers. “I am sorry for hurting you, and for participating in causing you pain.”

Avalon seemed to absorb that for a moment. Watching her from behind, I could see the way her shoulders hunched slightly before she forced them down and continued to meet his gaze. After all that time, after everything she had been through when it came to the Seosten in general and Manakel in particular, she wasn’t going to look away from him or show any fear. A brief couple of seconds passed before she finally replied, very slowly and deliberately, “I’m going to be watching you, and I’ll be ready… if you end up trying anything.” Another pause, then, “For whatever reason.” Which, I imagined, was her concession that he might very well be telling the truth about being ‘better’ now, but could still end up being re-corrupted by Tartarus. 

Manakel obviously understood all that, acknowledging her words with a simple nod. “I would expect nothing less, Avalon Sinclaire. You have, in all respects, proven yourself to be a quite remarkable and resourceful young woman. Who,” he added while glancing to me very briefly, “is also very adept at finding remarkable and resourceful companions.” 

“Yeah,” Avalon retorted, “and I’m rather fond of them. So don’t think you can try something just because one of them might be… more inclined than I am to believe any story you tell.” After letting that sit very briefly, she added, “Not that I’m saying you’re lying right now. But if you are, or if your… situation changes at any point, I won’t hesitate to make sure you go away forever.” 

Beside me, I could see Persephone shift a little. I wasn’t sure what exactly she was feeling about any of this situation, let alone what Avalon was saying. It was complicated, to say the least. Whatever she was thinking, I was pretty sure it wasn’t the same thing she would’ve thought before she came here. I’d only known her for a short time, but the experience of having Sariel and several of her other former crewmates apologize for how they had treated her seemed to have meant a lot to her. Though I was also certain even she didn’t understand those feelings.

Manakel never looked away from Avalon through her words. He took them in and waited to be sure she was done before quietly replying, “I am glad to hear that. And I hope, if that time comes, you truly will ensure that I do not cause you any more harm.” 

Avalon looked like she was going to say something else briefly before deciding against it. Instead, she stepped aside, moving back toward me before glancing toward Percy with a quiet, “Sorry, he needed to hear it. And I needed to say it.” 

“It’s alright, Avalon,” Persephone brightly informed her, “sometimes we need to say things.” With those simple words, she turned her attention back to Manakel and quietly added, “Hello, my husband. You still smell of the Necromancy, though not as much. It is… filtered?” She sounded like she wasn’t sure that was the right word, but rather, the closest she could think of. 

Again, I sensed a torrent of emotions from Manakel, even though his expression remained relatively blank. He took a moment, looking like he was inhaling though of course there was no actual air involved. A habit, I supposed. Then he spoke, his voice as gentle as I had ever heard it. “Persephone, I am glad to see that you’ve made your way here. You and Cerberus.” 

Hearing his name, the three-headed robot dog immediately took a few cautious steps forward, before all six of his ears laid back as he made a soft whining sound. I knew the problem immediately. Cerberus recognized Manakel, but also knew that he was intended to fight evil ghosts. Even though I’d had him around my ghosts a few times, this specific situation was still awkward and different enough that he wasn’t sure what to do about it. And, I was pretty sure he could sense how uncertain and tense the whole thing was, which didn’t help.

Persephone moved up as well, stopping next to Cerberus once more before laying a hand on one of his heads. Her voice was still bright. “If it is true that ghosts of your people are being taken to serve this… Tartarus, then I am very glad you managed to avoid that fate.” She glanced over her shoulder toward me, offering a smile before turning back to him as she continued. “Felicity is very special. She taught me how to effectively protect my yellow pseudo-circle from the evil colored ghosts.”

Manakel, who quite obviously had no experience with Pac-Man, made a noise of uncertainty before managing, “I’m glad she’s been here for you. And that you have… grown.” 

“He means he’s glad you’re not immediately throwing yourself at him while pledging obedience,” Avalon put in flatly. “Which is one thing I think we can safely both agree with.” 

“Quite,” Manakel murmured with a glance that way before turning his attention fully to the Revenant woman. “If I owed Avalon Sinclaire an apology, I owe you more than I could ever give. My treatment of her was at least covered by duty. It was my job to find a way to kill her. But you… the way I…” He grimaced, giving a soft sigh. “I believe the part of me that was becoming increasingly influenced by my connection to my… our fallen crewmates was afraid that you might be able to detect something different about me. So I continually sent you away on long trips, under the pretense of not wanting Kore’s body to be near me. A, ahh, readily accepted excuse, to say the least.” 

After saying those words, he hovered forward a bit and focused on her. “I have failed in so many ways to give you advice, guide you along your journey of self-discovery, or in any way aid you as I should have. But if I can do any of that now, if it is not too late, I would like to say this. Listen to Felicity Chambers and to Avalon Sinclaire. And to those close to them. They are the best guides you could have when learning to exist in this universe.” 

Another pause came before he added, “And yet, you are Olympian too. You served on that ship. You performed every duty asked of you. You put yourself in danger repeatedly, and were responsible for protecting everyone there. You were a member of that crew. Don’t you let anyone take that away from you, or forget it. Sariel, Luci– Apollo, Athena, all of them, they can help you. They will… want to help you. Let them. And those who try to take away from your contributions, who try to diminish your worth… don’t accept it. You are special, Persephone, in ways I don’t believe you, I, or anyone else we know quite understands just yet. You don’t need a husband, or a wife, or any other version of someone to attach yourself to in order to be important. You always were. All you have ever needed was to be yourself. I mistreated you, took advantage of you, sent you away when you might have formed bonds with the crew so that you would remain alien to them because I didn’t want you to be too close to them. For that and everything else, I am sorry. Please, never call me your husband again. I did not treat you as one should, and I did not earn it. I would like, before my time is up and I reach whatever fate comes for me, to be able to call you a friend. But I would prefer to take our time at that.” 

Persephone seemed to take that in, considering it for a few long moments before straightening up. “I would like to call you a friend in the future as well, Manakel. And I have been told that it is rude to refer to someone by a term or name they have asked you not to use. So, just as I do not refer to Felicity as my wife, I will not refer to you as my husband. But I want you to know that, should this Tartarus attempt to claim you again, I will do everything in my power to ensure that does not happen.” 

Visibly grimacing at the very thought of that place taking control of him, Manakel hesitated before finding his voice. “I assure you, I would accept any and all aid in avoiding that.” Then he looked to Cerberus and added, “Yes, even from you, Spot.”  

Stepping forward myself while Cerberus bounced around in a happy circle at being acknowledged, I announced, “Well, we might not all be friends, but at least we can accept that Tartarus and Maestro are the real threats.” 

A clouded expression crossed Manakel’s face, and I felt a mixture of anger and fear from him. “Yes, that is…” He sighed. “Sariel asked me what I knew about that, about him. Unfortunately, the answer is nothing. All I know now is what they told me. I never heard any mention of Zadkiel, or any Fomorian-Seosten hybrid while hearing the… pardon I know the term is sensitive right now, lower-case whispers of my old crewmates.” 

“That’s right,” I put in, “You were hearing the voices from the Olympians who died. And they were actually speaking out loud. Persephone heard them, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. You…” I considered my words before just outright asking, “Why didn’t you tell anyone about that? I mean, didn’t the ship have a psychologist who should’ve been available?” 

“Miss Chambers,” Manakel promptly replied, “precisely what evidence have you seen in all your short, yet highly consequential dealings with my people which would make you believe we have a strong grasp of the necessity of mental health?” 

“Well if I was gonna think too much along those lines, I’d wonder if you people could even define the term,” I retorted before coughing. “But yeah, fine. Not telling Puriel though? He was your captain and, like, your friend, wasn’t he?” 

For a second, Manakel looked away. I could sense… well, that same regret, yet also some positive feelings. He was remembering old days with Puriel. My pointing out that they were supposed to be friends made him think about what had made them friends in the first place. The memories, happy as they might’ve been, were obviously tainted by what came later and his own regrets. Yet they existed, and for a moment he simply enjoyed those memories. Which, given the Seosten perfect recall, had to be easier to do. Yet on the other hand, it also meant that he could perfectly recall every bad thing he had done as well. 

With a visible sigh, the man focused once more, his gaze meeting mine. “He was, and I would like to say that it was the influence of Tartarus which prevented me from speaking up. Which, perhaps, became the truth eventually. But at first…at first it was selfishness. I believed that it was simply my own power allowing me to see and hear the ghosts of those who died on the ship, and I thought if I said it was happening, they would either do something to prevent it, or… or relieve me of my duties. Neither of which I wanted to happen. I wanted to continue serving on the Olympus, alongside my friend. And I wanted to keep seeing the ghosts, even if they didn’t listen to me.” 

“Didn’t listen to you?” Avalon immediately echoed. 

“That is why I believed they would either relieve me or find a way to remove the ghosts,” Manakel replied. “Unlike all other spirits, these did not obey my commands. I didn’t know if that was a psychological block on my own part, not wanting to command those I felt I had failed in allowing them to die, or… or what. Either way, the fact that they continued to appear only while I was alone, and that I could not control them, convinced me that outsiders would believe I was either losing my mind, or that I could not effectively control my own gift when it came to the deaths of my crewmates. It was… it was a conscious choice not to tell anyone when I could have. A mistake on my part.” Another slight pause, then, “One of many.” 

I had no idea what I was supposed to say to that, so I moved on. “I have another question for you. It’s important. I need you to think back to last year. There was a hotel called the Runaway. It was taken over by a bunch of Alters, a gang. You went there for some reason, and when the two ghosts who live there showed up, you asked them about something or someone named Hajer. When they couldn’t answer your question, you tried to do something to them. The girl ghost pushed the boy out of the way, so he was only slightly clipped by it, but she took the full hit.” 

Manakel seemed to be focusing on recalling that memory, before looking back to me. “You have the boy ghost, don’t you? He only took a small fraction of the hit, so he would have come back on his own eventually.” 

“Oh!” Persephone abruptly piped up. “You used a pehvne spell.” To us, she added, “I guess the best translation would be… uhh… severscatter?” 

“That is as good as any,” the man agreed. “A pehvne, or ahh, severscatter spell normally involves shoving your own magical energy into your opponent, infecting his energy, the fuel he uses to cast spells and even use many abilities, and then rip that fuel out of him before scattering it in all directions. Some levels of the spell scatter the energy within the same area, allowing it to be reclaimed quite quickly, while higher levels scatter it much further to the point that it is essentially gone forever. Which, in the case of most living creatures, means little aside from the fact that it will take them time to regenerate their own magical fuel.” He paused then, considering Avalon and me. “Having posed as one of your instructors for quite some time last year, I know that you are both very bright. And that you are aware of how that works.” 

“People gradually absorb energy from the sun or just air around them and convert it into mana, or whatever you want to call it,” I confirmed. “Once they convert it, the energy has their own sort of signature that makes it theirs, so they can use it properly. So you’re saying the power you used was supposed to take someone’s magical energy and scatter it so they can’t cast spells until their tank refills. But you used it on ghosts, and they’re basically nothing but magical energy.” 

He confirmed that with a nod before explaining, “I put enough power into that to ensure they would not come back within the next ten of your Earth years if used on both. As the girl took the brunt of it, I can only imagine it would take twenty for her to return. I was… quite angry at the time. As I recall, we had just discovered that Zedekiah Pericles was not the person responsible for Miss Sinclaire’s protection.” 

Meeting his gaze evenly, Avalon retorted, “After you people murdered him.” 

“Yes.” Manakel’s voice was flat. “After we murdered him. And yes, before you ask,” he added to me, “I believe I can help you bring the ghost back. Or teach you how to do it. That will take some time, but it is as good a place to start as any with our lessons.” 

“Well, good,” I replied. “And while we’re at it, maybe you should explain exactly what, or who, you were looking for at that place anyway. Because if not being able to find this Hajer pissed you off that much, I think it’s something we should know about.” 

“Ah,” the ghost-man replied, “well that is not difficult. You may have heard of her yourself. But I believe you would know Hajer as the ahh… Wandering Woman? Or possibly Wrethekau, Freyja, Isis, the Witch of Endor?” 

“Oh. Right, yeah, we’ve heard of her,” I agreed. “But why were you looking for her, exactly? 

“And I swear to any deity-level power you might have any shred of belief in, if any of the next few words out of your mouth have anything to do with her having any part in my or Avalon’s family histories, I may have to give Grover what he wants and stab someone.” 

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Calm Before 20-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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 After checking in on Ausesh and Perrsnile, I visited with the other ghosts for a while and took down some notes about a few things they needed or wanted. Stuff like some extra DVDs for various shows they couldn’t find on the streaming services that had already been set up for them. I also took a dozen of the ipads and electronic book readers that were lying around and updated them, downloaded some more materials, and adjusted the automatic-page turning systems so they could be turned on and off with a simple touch. That way, the ghosts would only have to use enough energy to start and stop the automatic turning, or adjust how fast it went, rather than having to do it every time they wanted to make it go to the next page. Finally, I set up a large touch screen monitor on the wall of one of the rooms with a paint program. They could stand there and brush their fingers over it to make pictures and then save them to be displayed on other screens throughout the mansion. I had set the sensitivity up pretty high so they didn’t have to use much energy to make it register the touch.

Several apologized repeatedly for even asking for stuff, but I made it clear that I wanted them to tell me when there was anything I could get for them. If I was stuck as a ghost like that, and had very limited options for entertainment, I would definitely want to be able to ask for new things to keep myself occupied. Especially if, as was the case for most of them, my previous Necromancer had been Fossor. 

“You sure I can’t get anything for you?” I finally asked Grover while standing outside in the backyard. I’d expected him to be first in line to ask about new DVDs, but he hadn’t spoken up for any of it. 

The small, yellowish-orange ghost boy with that ratty, ill-fitting patch-work suit shook his head while looking a bit pensive. If it wasn’t for the visible scales on his arms and wrists, and the curly horns that were visible sticking out from under that newsboy cap, I almost could have thought that he was a completely human kid, working up the nerve to say something. 

Glancing over my shoulder to where Avalon was examining a statue on the far side of the yard, I paused before lowering my voice. “Grover, what’s wrong? I know you’ve got a list of old shows you want me to try to get. Are you okay?” 

A moment of silence passed before he slowly looked up at me. His voice was quiet. It was nothing like the casual and confident ghost I’d known from the moment we met. “He’s here, right? Manakel.” 

The question made me blink in surprise, giving the boy another look as I reassessed him. “Wait, you know Manakel? Hold on, was he the one who…” 

“He didn’t kill me, no,” Grover informed me, but his voice still sounded off. “I had a friend for a while, a ghost friend. She was this dilly of a babe. You’d probably call her wicked cool. She uhh, she taught me everything about being a ghost. Protected me for a long time, showed me the ropes and helped me uhh… come to terms with everything. Would’ve been lost without her. Nihla, that was her name. I used to call her Wafer. You know, like those cookies, the Nilla Wafers.” 

He was gazing off into the distance, clearly lost in memory for a moment. Then his expression clouded. “We were minding our own business last year when that Manakel guy paid a visit to the hotel. He was looking for something. Or maybe someone. Whatever, the point is, the guy summoned us up as soon as he felt us in that place. He wanted us to tell him about something or someone named Hajer. We didn’t know what he was talking about, and he ahh… he didn’t like that. He did something, some sort of banishment spell. It was supposed to destroy both of us, but Nihla shoved me out of the way, so I only got hit by a little bit of it. Just enough to scatter me for a few days until I could pull myself together. But Nihla… she was gone. He destroyed her.” 

Oh boy. Taking all that in, I gave a long sigh before focusing on him. I pushed enough power into the boy to make him solid from it so I could put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m really sorry about that. I–I’m sorry.” Swallowing, I added, “That’s why you showed yourself to me as soon as I was there, isn’t it?” 

“I recognized the… scent of your power, at least part of it,” Grover confirmed. “Poked my head out to see what the hell that monster was doing back there, so when I saw you instead… I was curious. Wanted to find out why you smelled like his power. You know, if you were his kid or something.” 

Shuddering at that thought, I watched him for a moment. “Then you found out he was dead and I had his power.” 

Grover gave a very short nod. “I found out you killed him. Semantics aside, you killed him. Or your body did. Whatever. You had his power.  And you were a necromancer. I thought maybe… at some point when you were stronger…” 

I realized suddenly what he was talking about, rocking back on my heels. “You were hoping I might be able to bring Nihla back. Since I have his power.” 

He offered a weak shrug, clearly feeling embarrassed or ashamed of even bringing it up. “I know it’s probably impossible. If he destroyed her, there’s no coming back from that. But if there’s even the slightest chance that there might be some piece of her left, if anyone’s power could fix her, it’s that. And you were… not like him. I wasn’t even going to talk about it until you had a lot more training, until I did… until I did you enough favors that you might want to help.” Another pause came, before he gave a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry.” 

Taking a moment to collect my thoughts, I finally exhaled before speaking up. “Okay, first of all, you don’t have anything to apologize for. Nothing. You’ve been helping a lot, and of course you want your friend back. I mean, if she hasn’t moved on or anything like that, obviously you’d want to help her reform. There’s nothing wrong with that, so don’t apologize again. And believe me, I know what it’s like to hate that guy. Remember, he spent most of last year trying very hard to kill Avalon.” I glanced toward the girl in question briefly before turning my attention back to him. “He was responsible for a lot of bad things.”

That said, I shook my head. “And I know hearing he’s not that person anymore doesn’t really help. I could spend the next week talking about how Tartarus affected him, about how the ghosts of the other Olympians who died helped twist him into what he was. I could talk about how he’s supposed to be different now, but I don’t think it would really help. He’s still the guy who hurt, or even destroyed, your friend. Semantics don’t really matter when it comes to that.” 

Again, I hesitated, my eyes closing tightly as memories flashed through my head. “He killed my friend. He killed Rudolph, murdered him right in front of us. So yeah, I know that it’s not something you can just forget because he says he’s different now.” 

My hand clenched tightly before I forced myself to continue. “But, he’s here now. And the truth is, I need his help. This power I have is really strong. It’s got so much potential, but I can only learn so much so fast from people like Brom Bones. Don’t get me wrong, that guy’s a really good teacher. And if I had years to learn what I needed to, he’d definitely be enough. But I have to learn as fast as possible if I’m going to use it the way I need to. With the Whispers out there, and Olympian ghosts like Kushiel… it’s too dangerous for me to take my time learning. I have to get better as fast as possible. And the best way for me to do that is to learn from the man himself.” 

After letting that sit for a moment, I met the ghost boy’s gaze. “And he can teach me how to help your friend. I mean, if it’s at all possible. I could spend years, even decades, trying to understand how to fix what he did on my own, and still not get anywhere. I wouldn’t even know where to start. But if he’s right here, and he claims he wants to make up for all the terrible things he did, here’s his chance. I’ll tell him to help me find Nihla, if there’s anything… if it’s possible, and bring her back. I promise. As soon as we get things settled and all that, I’ll tell him that’s the first thing on the list. I’ll help get your friend back, Grover. If it’s at all possible, we’ll get her back.” 

I could see the way he absorbed my words, clearly doing his best not to give too much of a reaction. He didn’t want to let himself actually hope. Even then, his eyes betrayed the impact of what he was feeling for a moment before the boy got himself under control. With a very slight nod, he spoke in a flat voice. “Just don’t trust him, huh? Whatever sort of sob story he’s got about how sorry he is and how that wasn’t him, you keep your eyes on him. Maybe he can help and maybe he can’t, but you make sure he doesn’t get one over on you.” 

“Don’t worry,” I started to assure him before catching myself. “Well, do worry, but do it in moderation. We’ll both keep our eyes open, okay? Let me know if you see, or hear, anything hinky.” 

With a slight snort despite himself, Grover echoed, “Hinky. Sounds funny when you say it.” He sobered then, staring at me before giving a somber nod. “He starts trying anything, we’ll let you know. Me and the other ghosts. You can count on us.” 

“She can count on all of us,” Avalon announced while moving up on one side of me. Her attention was on him. “And like she said, if there’s any fragment of your friend out there, we’ll make him help bring her back.”

Glancing that way, I raised an eyebrow. “Pretty good hearing from the other side of the yard.” 

In response, Avalon turned her head and brushed her hair back so I could see the almost invisible hearing aid-like buds in her ears. “Just testing a new invention. If I tune it to one person’s voice, it can pick up that plus anyone directly talking to them from as far away as a hundred yards. Including through walls.” 

Grinning a bit despite myself, I poked her lightly. “Well, I do enjoy being your guinea pig.” At Grover’s exaggerated look, I rolled my eyes. “Yeah yeah, go on and get back to your thing. We’ll talk about the Manakel situation later, I promise. He’s gonna help.” 

The boy gave a very brief, yet sincere smile before switching back to his usual casual expression as he started to go back into the house. Partway there, however, he spun back to me. “Oh, well, as long as you’re already taking down a list of new DVDs you should pick up, it’d be a waste if I didn’t make sure you get some actual decent ones. 

“You might wanna get a pen and paper or something.” 

*****

Once that was done, Avalon and I made our way out of the haunted mansion. I’d barely reached the sidewalk before the sound of heavy metal running along the pavement drew my attention that way. Sure enough, Cerberus, in his, ahem, ‘small’ form, was charging toward me. All three of his heads were focused on the spot where I was standing, giving me wide puppy grins before they each barked in succession, one after the other. 

Bracing myself, I caught the two side heads as the robot-dog skidded to a halt right at my feet. Rubbing the metal there as though scratching them (something they seemed to enjoy despite the fact that it really shouldn’t have done anything), I tilted my head back and let the middle head lick my face. “Heeey, who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy! Good boy!” His tail was thumping against the ground excitedly, as he shifted the middle head out of the way so the left one could get a few licks in, followed by the right. 

Meanwhile, the ones that weren’t licking my face leaned toward Avalon, who gingerly reached out to pat them. Porthos, perched on her shoulder, gave a long and apparently quite detailed chittering lecture to them which I was pretty sure had something to do with explaining how Avalon was his partner and they should remember that. 

“He was very excited to see you again, Felicity,” Persephone cheerfully announced while approaching. She was taking her time, walking right along the curb while carefully putting one foot directly in front of the other as she balanced on the edge. “And you, Avalon, of course. But mostly Felicity, because she was missing all day and he knew she was in trouble.” Focusing on me, she added, “We were all very sorry that we could not aid you while you were Sure Locking Homes.” 

I blinked a couple times at that, before realizing. “… You mean Sherlock Holmes?” 

Grinning brightly, she replied, “That’s what I said. I do not know why a phrase about ensuring homes are locked has become synonymous with solving mysteries, but I am assured ‘playing Sure Lock Homes’ is the correct term.” 

Despite myself, I couldn’t help but smile a bit at that, shaking my head. “Come on, I’ll explain the whole Sherlock Holmes thing on the way.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, however, I hesitated. “I mean, if you’re sure you want to go see him right now?” There was no need to define exactly who I meant. She knew. 

Meeting my gaze with a serious expression, the white-haired woman gave a single nod. “Yes, Felicity. I… I have had several long discussions with Miss Sariel, Captain Puriel, and others. And with you as well, all of which I am very grateful for. But I believe that it is my… it is Doctor Manakel to whom I must speak next. That is an opportunity I believed was lost to me once, and I would not like to lose it again, should anything else happen.”

She was being so careful to explain things, and I could tell she’d rehearsed what she was going to say, probably several times. Not that I could blame her at all. I knew how hard it was for her, often, to express her thoughts and feelings in ways that were clear to the rest of us. She was different, she thought differently, in many ways. She was an alien being permanently possessing another alien being, a dead alien being at that. That whole situation was… different, to say the least.  

But really, what it came down to was that she deserved to see Manakel if she wanted to. So, I nodded, rubbed each of Cerberus’s heads once more, then started to walk. “Okay, let’s go see him then. 

“And hope that Jerry Springer never finds out about the ghost of a Greek god alien guy meeting with his Revenant-possessed ex, the girl who helped kill him, and the girl he spent most of a year trying to murder. Or he might bring his show back, and I think we all know this world can’t survive that.” 

*******

By the time we got to the room where they were keeping Manakel for the moment, only Athena and a few people I didn’t recognize but was pretty sure were major spell-users were standing outside. I’d seen Wyatt working with at least one of them before, exchanging notes about security magic. So yeah, obviously they were pulling out the big guns to make sure he stayed where they wanted him. 

It only took a minute to talk to Athena for her to agree to let us go inside. She came with, just in case, but promised to stay out of the way unless something happened. 

So, there we were, standing just inside what turned out to be a fairly empty room at this point aside from an old-fashioned Earth clock radio, a painting of a ship on the ocean, and a bookshelf with an assortment of things on it. Athena said they would be moving some things in to help him keep himself busy while he was waiting to be useful, but this was it for the moment. Just those things… and Manakel himself. 

The ghost figure was hovering near the back of the twenty-foot wide, fifteen foot long room. His gaze was focused away from us, but I knew he was aware of our presence. Still, no one said anything. Even Cerberus was quiet, sitting down on his haunches next to Percy while we all waited for something to happen. 

Finally, the man turned slowly. I watched as his gaze passed over me first, then Cerberus, Avalon, and Persephone. With each new figure, he gave a very faint, almost entirely imperceptible flinch. It was basically only visible in his eyes. Or maybe because I could sense him so well. Either way, the strongest reaction came when he focused on Persephone. Ghosts didn’t breathe, of course, but his translucent form still seemed to inhale slowly, as though preparing himself. Then he spoke in a voice that was somehow simultaneously quiet, yet filled the room, like a very low rumble of distant thunder. “Good morning, ladies. 

“I imagine it’s time to talk about a few things.” 

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay. Okay, okay, okay. No, no, not okay. What the fuck?! Staring at the ghost figure in front of us, I heard a sound not unlike the emergency alert tone on the television go through my head. Before I knew what I was doing, I had already shoved myself in front of the others and snapped my hand up. With a grunt of effort, I forced every bit of power I could summon toward the dead man so I could trap him in place and stop him from doing anything. But could I even manage that? I hadn’t been able to stop Kushiel before because she was empowered by Tartarus. What made me think I could do it now? And yet, what choice did I have? I had to try. 

Sure enough, I felt the same problem I had with Kushiel. My Necromancy couldn’t catch a hold of him. It kept glancing off. I was going to have to try something else. I was going to have to call someone else for help, call everyone for help. Tabbris, call– 

“Please, please,” Manakel abruptly put in, “it’s all right. Please, calm yourse–” In mid-sentence, it was his turn to be interrupted, as a sudden fireball exploded right in the middle of him. It disrupted the ghost’s form briefly, obscuring him from sight. 

Flak, who had apparently taken over from Jordan, held her hand out with another fireball forming at the tips of her fingers. “He’s a bad guy, right?! Can we go?! Can we get out of here?!” 

“Ahem.” Manakel’s ghost appeared a few feet to the side from where the fire had been. “Please, before you burn down the entire hillside and that town over there, may I speak?” 

In the back of my head, Tabbris was telling me to hang on, and that she was getting people to help. I focused on the ghost, shifting over a few steps to keep myself in front of the others. I could feel Marina lift her weapon protectively in front of Dakota as well. Still, I kept my focus on the man in question. If he could be called a man now. “So,” I managed, “you came back too?”  It really shouldn’t have surprised me. Hell, apparently this was the time for people to come back in one form or another.

Manakel hovered there, his eyes watching me. But strangely, I didn’t feel any of the hatred and utter contempt that I had felt from him before. Or even from Kushiel’s ghost more recently. Instead, I felt something more like… shame? I felt disgust, but not at me. It was… what? 

The man spoke finally, his voice quiet. “As I was saying, I owe you an apology, Ms. Chambers. I owe a great many apologies. Far too many to ever truly manage, no matter how long my… extra existence may last.” 

I was absorbing all of that, still confused beyond belief. “Are you trying to say you don’t want to kill me?” I finally managed. Even as I said that, I was still keeping a wary eye on the man while holding my staff up. A single word would activate one of the ghost-fire spells I already had prepared on it, but I held off for the moment. 

There was a brief pause before the ghost gave a slow bow of his head. His voice was soft. “Ms. Chambers, I can safely say that killing you, or any of those who might believe I hold some vendetta against them, is the furthest thing from my mind. This may be difficult, or impossible, to believe, but I am quite truly not the man you knew me to be.”

Looking over my shoulder briefly to exchange a quick look with Marina and the others, I then turned back to him. “What exactly are you saying? You died and now all of a sudden you’re not a giant piece of shit anymore?” 

Clearing his throat audibly, the man grimaced before nodding. “I suppose that is one way to put it. You are correct that in my old state of mind, I would have quite loathed you for your actions. And yet, that hatred would not have been limited to you or to any who had actually wronged me. Before my death, I was… not the sort of man I ever wanted to be.”

Before he could say anything more about that, or before we could respond, a portal opened up nearby. Several figures came rushing out. The first was Sariel, with Tabbris right behind her. They were accompanied by Athena, Mercury, and my mother. And, just behind them, Puriel came as well. 

The new arrivals spread out, and I found myself gently pressed back by my mother as she put herself in front of me. Which was funny, considering the way I had done the same to the others before.

“Manakel,” Sariel immediately started, “if you wish to enact some vendetta against the one who killed you, then look to me, not her.”

“No one is going to be the subject of a vendetta.“ That was Puriel. The man focused his gaze firmly on Manakel’s ghost. “You came back.”

With a soft, somewhat beleaguered sigh, Manakel confirmed, “Yes, apparently I have. And as I was just saying, I’ve not come to enact any revenge plot. Or any other plot. I’ve come to apologize. To a great many people, actually. But I am glad to see that several of those have already come to me.” 

None of us were going to let our guards down, obviously. But we stood there and cautiously listened while he explained. Apparently, the man had actually partially reformed shortly after his death. The connection with Tartarus had brought him back, as it had Kushiel and the others. But for some reason, that same connection had been at least partially severed. It was like he was being pulled in two directions at once, connected both to Tartarus and to something else. He couldn’t understand what that other thing was for a while, but it gave him a sense of clarity that he had not had for a long time. It made him think about the person he had become over the years. 

At one point in his past, before the Olympus had come to earth, Manakel had been a good man. That much we had heard already from others. He took care of Sariel, Apollo, and Chayyiel not only as the ship’s doctor, but as a source of advice. And he had been a close friend to Puriel, who had actually countered some of Kushiel’s influence. 

So yeah, he had, at one point, been far different from the man we had come to know. But over the centuries, he had found himself becoming more and more corrupted by that same connection to Tartarus. In his new ghost form, with that strange connection to something else, he was able to think more clearly and fully grasp the type of man he had become. Faced with the guilt of the things he had done, he let his ghost form drift in a state of near-nonexistence. He expected to be taken by the void anytime, and had even wished for that.

Mercury’s voice was quiet as he asked, “But what happened then? Pretty obvious you didn’t disappear into the Void.” Even while he was saying that, my item sense picked up something. On the man’s shirt was a button. Well, there were a lot of buttons. But this was a particular button that wasn’t a button. Instead, it was a camera. A camera that was picking up audio and visual stuff, and, I was pretty sure, transmitting it to Chayyiel. 

There was a brief pause before Manakel sighed. “No, I did not. Some time ago, I felt a rush of power, an explosion of sorts, coming from the other end of whatever I was connected to besides Tartarus, the thing that prevented me from being subjected to its control. It took me a while, but I brought myself together and followed that power to a small prison world. A human Heretic prison world.” 

Realizing what he was saying right then, my eyes widened as I blurted, “You’re talking about the place we went to. That explosion, it was me using all that necromancy in that fight. You felt me, because I’m the one you’re connected to. When I killed you— I mean when we killed you, I reaped your power. That connected you to me.”

Looking my way, he gave a short nod once more. “Precisely. I learned that you were the one preventing me from falling back under the sway of that place. You may have aided in my death, but in so-doing, you reaped my power and thus gave me a… connection which prevented me from falling entirely back under Tartarus’s influence. After that realization, it took me some time to decide what I should do about it.” 

Athena took a step forward, exchanging a look with Puriel before speaking carefully. “And what decision have you come to?” 

I could tell this was a lot for them to take in. Not only because of the whole ‘him supposedly not being an evil dickhead anymore’ part, but it was even more confirmation that if they died, they would be turned into Tartarus ghosts. That had to be hard to think about. 

Manakel was quiet for a moment before his eyes focused on me. “I wish to teach you. I have no idea how long the connection between us will allow me to maintain my own thoughts and personality. But for whatever time we have, I want to use it to help you understand how to use my power. I had millennia to practice with it.” He paused again before quietly adding, “And, with any luck, I will be able to instruct you well enough that should the time come where I no longer control myself, you will be able to send me through the void where I can no longer harm anyone. As, I hope, you will do with all of our people, removing them from Tartarus’s influence and sending them on.”

Okay, yeah, that was a lot to take in, to say the least. He wanted to teach me how to use Necromancy so that I could destroy him if he ever turned evil again? And then use that same knowledge to destroy other Olympian ghosts so they couldn’t be used by Tartarus? Even assuming that was true and this wasn’t some sort of trick, wow. I just… wow. 

Puriel spoke up carefully. I could tell he was trying not to instill his will on the situation, even if he did have an opinion. “It is true that over the centuries since we were connected to Tartarus, he did change, quite substantially. I was far too distracted to pay attention at the time. Nor… nor would I have done what I should have if I had.” 

“It… was not specifically the connection to Tartarus,” Manakel informed us. “It was the deaths. Every… every one of us who had that connection and died, some part of me felt them. Their deaths… weighed on me. Not in the normal way. I felt that connection to them.” 

It was Sariel who realized it first. “They died and were tied to Tartarus, just like every one of us who dies and becomes one of its ghosts. Like Kushiel. Even though you weren’t dead, you were connected to them. You felt its influence on you through them. Because of your necromancy. Every Olympian who died gave you another small connection to Tartarus. That… changed you.” 

Athena took over, her own voice clearly contemplative. “When you died, you should have been taken by it too. But Miss Chambers reaping your power connected you to her as well, and that… saved you. Like being thrown a safety line when you’re about to be sucked under a whirlpool.” 

“That… is an accurate assessment,” Manakel agreed. His eyes focused on me. “All of which is why I say that I hold no ill will to you, Miss Chambers. Were it not for that connection, I would have been lost entirely and would simply be a thrall of that place. The fact that I retain any of my own faculties is because of you. I wish to repay that… and make up for my actions before my death, as well as ensure those who I was given charge of are not eternally enslaved.” 

Mom‘s voice was flat and somewhat dangerous. “You want me to believe the only thing you’re here for is to teach my daughter how to stop you and the rest of the Tartarus ghosts?” 

“Mrs. Chambers,” he replied in a voice that showed far more respect than I would have expected, “to say that I understand your doubt would be an understatement of epic proportions. It is part of why I did not make myself known for some time. Not only your doubt, but that of everyone else as well.” His eyes flicked toward Athena, Puriel, and Sariel. “And yet, when I sensed Miss Chambers’ disappearance from this reality, I thought perhaps you had been taken by those still beholden to Tartarus.” He paused and let out a heavy sigh, his ghost form flickering slightly. The impression I got was that it was from the various emotions he was having. “I thought it might be too late, that I had delayed for too long, and at any moment, my connection to you would be severed. I feared I had made yet another mistake and would be back under the thrall of that place. It was… a disturbing, terrible fear.” 

I believed him. I wasn’t exactly sure why exactly, but I did. It just felt like he was telling the truth, like… I could feel his sincerity. He was terrified of being controlled by Tartarus the way Kushiel apparently was. Or, I was pretty sure, being taken by the Whispers like Charmeine had been. 

While I was thinking about that, he continued. “I understand that this is difficult to believe, if not impossible. But as I said, I mean none of you any harm. The man I was before my death, the things I did and what I became…” He bowed his head for a moment before lifting it to look at them. “I am not proud of any of it.” Looking toward Puriel, he added, “You entrusted your daughter to me, and I was not the man you believed me to be. I did not help her in any way, certainly not as you expected.”

The others looked like they were still absorbing that, while Athena spoke up. “If we are going to allow you to continue to exist anywhere near us, and particularly near young Miss Chambers, we are going to need certain assurances. Special assurances, not merely your word.” 

Mom gave a quick nod at that, not taking her gaze off the translucent man. “That’s for damn sure. You say you want to help my daughter learn to control your power better, so she can stop others like you? Maybe you’re telling the truth, but before I’d let you anywhere near her, we’re going to make sure you can’t make us regret that.” 

For a moment, Manakel looked like he was considering those words and how best to respond to them. His form flickered a little more, as the impression I got was… disgust. Not at them or any of us, but at himself. He felt sick about the fact that we, and particularly his old friends, were reacting to him this way. Sick at himself. I felt the disgust directed inward. He hated what he had been, and the things he had done. I was completely certain by now. In the time since I had first laid eyes on him, I’d come to sense his emotions and general state of being better with each passing moment. And right now, I was completely certain that he hated himself. He genuinely wanted to pass on everything he knew to me so that I could destroy him when the time came. He wanted to be sent through the Void before he could be turned against the people he cared about again.

Reaching out, I put a hand on Mom’s arm before speaking up. “You don’t have a problem with that, right? You’re okay with us making sure you can’t hurt anyone else.”

His eyes centered on me, and then softened. I knew he could tell that I sensed what he was feeling. He gave me a short nod without breaking that stare, before speaking softly. “Yes. Whatever measures you deem necessary.” 

This was still a lot to take in, to say the least. This guy had been doing his level best to destroy my life and kill my girlfriend through most of last year, and now he was dead and his ghost wanted to help? I wasn’t sure what to do with that. Part of me strongly wanted to tell him to take a hike. Of course, that would have been a waste, and yet, it was still right there on the tip of my tongue. After everything he had done, everything he tried to do, I was just supposed to forget that and accept that he had been affected or turned evil or something by Tartarus even before he died? 

I found myself looking at everyone else for a moment as they seemed to be waiting to see what I said. Apparently since I was the one he wanted to teach, they were waiting for my opinion. I still hesitated before offering a shrug. “I’ve got all this power, and I barely know how to use it. I mean, Brom is helping a lot, and so is.. uhh… Persephone…” Trailing off then, I glanced toward Manakel. He looked a little surprised to hear that she was around, and then his expression turned to one of shame. He was obviously thinking about how he’d treated her. 

Letting that go for the moment, I pushed on. “Anyway, they’re helping, but learning from someone like him? I think I need that. I think he could really help me use this power the right way, before it’s too late. I need to get better at it. And you know there’s no better teacher than him.” 

There was a moment of silence as the others absorbed that, before Athena and my mother exchanged a brief, whispered conversation. Then the Seosten woman nodded toward Manakel. “We will discuss how to contain your spirit somewhere safe within our home. You will not be allowed to leave that area, and Miss Chambers will come to you there for instruction. Is this acceptable?” 

He agreed, and then all of the Seosten started to discuss things together. Not just how to contain him, but also about everything they have missed. Leaving them to that, I turned to my mother. There was something else incredibly important that we needed to do.

First, of course, I found myself facing Tabbris. She sprang my way to give me a tight hug. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I should’ve been with you, I shouldn’t’ve–” 

“Stop,” I insisted, returning the hug. “I’m fine. You can’t be there all the time, Tabs. You have your own life. You were visiting your dad. Which–is he…” 

“He’s still here,” she replied. “He’s visiting Michael right now.” 

“Good.” Hugging her more tightly for a moment, I added, “This was a really long day, and I wanna hear about the rest of it. But uhh… first, I think–Mom? You need to meet someone.” 

Her gaze had already moved to Flak, taking in the red skin and all that. “Denny? What–” 

Boy, this was going to be complicated. Glancing toward Marina, I gestured. “Explain it to the others, please? Let them know we’re fine and we’ll be right back.” Then I turned back to Flak. “Would–” 

“Yeah, yeah,” she immediately replied, waving a hand dismissively. That shimmering wave passed over her again, as the body shifted from Flak to Walker, with her gray skin and cloak. 

Needless to say, Mom was even more confused. Her eyes widened at that, taking the whole thing in. “Okay, now I really need to know what’s going on.” 

“Mom, that was Flak. This is Walker,” I informed her. “They’re–it’s a long story, but easier to tell inside.” Reaching out, I took the gray-skinned girl’s hand, before offering my other one toward my mother and Tabbris. “Trust me?” 

They did, both reaching out to touch my arm. I waited until we were all ready, before looking back to Walker with a nod. She returned it, before visibly focusing. And then we were gone, taken inside Denny so they could meet the rest of the Aspects. 

And Theodore. 

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, I learned everything Perrsnile knew about the people he had sold those children to. It was going to take a lot of effort and time, but we would track them down and save all the ones we could, the ones who were still alive. I held no illusions that they would all be safe and sound after all these years, but I was going to do everything I could to put them back with their families. I had detailed notes written down, and promised the nasty little man that I would be keeping him with me while checking on the information he gave. Part of me thought I should just get rid of his ghost immediately, but I wanted to make sure he wasn’t screwing with us one last time. He had no chance of hurting any of us anymore, but I really wouldn’t have put it past him to get sick amusement out of telling us a bunch of lies just before I erased his ghost, leaving us with no way of getting the actual information.

Besides, maybe someone like Brom Bones knew a spell that could make him tell the truth. Or maybe Denny would do it if she showed herself at some point. I wasn’t sure. But either way, getting rid of him right then, no matter how much I wanted to, felt like a bad idea. Still, I didn’t have to deal with him at the moment. So, I used my necromancy to take him down to a tiny speck of power so he wasn’t even visible. Then I basically shut him away for the moment so I could move on to the next thing. In this case, the next thing was going with Gliner and the other ghost, Ausesh, up to the auditorium so we could talk to Sesh– hold on, was this really the first time I was noticing the similarities between those two names? There was absolutely no relation between Sesh and Ausesh, as far as I knew, and yet… yeah that was weird. 

Shaking that off, I took the elevator that way, and soon found myself facing a bunch of curious and scared people all looking to me for answers. They were also staring in confusion at Gliner, Archibold, and the ghost of Ausesh, who hovered in the background trying to ignore all of them. Her whole problem with crowds might’ve been lessened by being dead, but it wasn’t gone entirely. When she saw me glancing her way, the woman whispered, “Don’t look at me, you talk to them.” 

“She’s right,” Gliner agreed while folding his arms as he stood next to his partner. His voice was a soft murmur. “They don’t really know us, for the most part.” 

Swallowing hard, I stepped to the middle of the stage and raised my voice. “First, I want all of you to know that the murderer has been caught and stopped. We know what happened here, and you’re all safe.” 

Yeah, that brought on a lot of questions. They were being shouted at me from every direction, until I whistled as loud as I could. That made them stop so I could push on. “I’m going to tell you all the truth, and it’s going to be hard to hear. But we have proof, and we’re going to restore your memories about all of it.” That started even more murmuring about what I meant by restoring memories, so I held up both hands and continued. “Like I said, this is all going to be pretty hard to hear, but I really need all of you to listen.” 

And with that, I gave them the whole explanation. I told them about Perrsnile selling their children and then erasing their memories using the vault’s built-in system for making sure no one could expose this place. Needless to say, hearing that they could have decades-old children running around in the outside world, or rather, enslaved in the outside world, caused even more of a fervor. But they all wanted to hear everything, so they settled down soon enough, now definitely latched onto my every word. 

I continued through the rest of it, telling them about the whole Ausesh, Gliner, and Archibold situation, and about Gliner and Archibold making their mistakes about who the guilty person was. I told them about Perrsnile killing Mophse, and why that happened. I told them all of it. Not really the Denny stuff. That felt personal and not exactly relevant to the situation. But I did tell them that Perrsnile was dead now, and would never threaten them again. I just left out who exactly killed him. 

Obviously, they had a lot of questions about their missing children and the memories related to them. So, I quickly assured the whole crowd that Ausesh knew how to undo the memory eraser system, and that we were going to work on that immediately. “I just wanted you guys to know it was coming so you wouldn’t be so… umm, shocked when you get your memories back,” I explained. “I promise, we’re about to go work on that. But since the bad guy is gone, I think you can all safely go back to your rooms and all that, if you want to. Or to the cafeteria, or whatever. We’ll send out an intercom message when we’re about to restore your memories, and I’ll talk to you again once we figure out what’s going to happen next. I just–yeah.”

Feeling a bit awkward and like I might have been rambling on too much, I stopped myself before taking a breath. “I promised you guys before that we weren’t going to make you leave this place if you don’t want to, and we’re still not. We’ll find someone to help take care of the vault’s system, someone who can learn from Ausesh over here. She might not have programmed the computers, but she did design and build the vault itself, so between that and Sitter, we can keep the place running.” 

For her part, the ghost woman hesitated before straightening a little with a nod. “I will… do everything I can,” she agreed quietly. “Valdean would have wanted that. I am… sorry he is not here to be the face of this any longer. And that I am… not physically equipped to do as good of a job as he would like.” She was mumbling those words by the end, and I could see people in the audience trying to lean forward to hear what she was saying. 

Rather than ask her to repeat herself (figuring that wouldn’t go well), I just spoke up myself. “She’s right, she’s gonna help any way she can. We all will. And that includes helping all of you find your lost family members. If any of you want to help with that when the time comes, you can. But either way, if you have kids out there, or other family, we’ll find out what happened to them, and if possible, bring them back to you. I know you guys don’t have a lot of reason to trust Heretics, but I promise, we’re going to take care of this.” 

All of that was obviously a lot for them to digest, to say the least. I answered a few more questions about what was going on and what we were going to do, then stepped out of the way while waving Sesh up to join us. Once we were closer to the back of the stage and had a little privacy, she stared at me wide-eyed. “Damn, Flick. When you get to the bottom of things, you really get to the bottom of them.” With a quick glance toward Gliner and Ausesh, she looked back to me and added, “What about the others?” 

After a momentary hesitation, I gestured. “They’re okay. There’s just uhh… well, there’s stuff with Denny, but they should tell you that part themselves. Sorry to ask this, but could you stay up here a bit longer while we get the memory thing working right? Just in case those guys need something. I know I said they could head out to their own rooms and stuff, but uhh… they don’t seem to be doing that.” 

Glancing over her shoulder to look that way before turning back to me, Sesh nodded. “Yeah, sure. We’ve uhh…” She reached into her San Jose Sharks jacket and withdrew a large hardcover Dungeons and Dragons handbook, waving it idly. “I’ve sorta got a game going with some of these guys right now, so take your time, you know?” A soft chuckle escaped her before she sobered. “Perrsnile was playing for awhile… fuck!” She punched her own hand. “I can’t believe I never even–”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “None of us realized until–well, yeah. He had everybody fooled, believe me. And there’s no point in playing the what if or should have game. He’s dead. Now we just have to pick up the pieces. 

Sesh nodded once. “Sure, I’m just saying, I never would’ve let him play a paladin if I had any idea. But uhh, just so you know, I’m gonna want to hear everything that happened, cuz I’m pretty sure you’re leaving some stuff out right now. For now though, yeah, I’ll stay in here with these guys some more. Just make sure you let us know before you shove everyone’s memories back in their heads? Most of these people are probably gonna want to be sitting down when that happens. It just, you know, feels like it’s gonna be a lot.” 

Promising that we would absolutely do that, I headed back for the elevator once more. On the way, I casually glanced toward the others., “Is there some sort of record for riding this thing around the vault the most times in a single day? Because I feel like I’m approaching the championship.” 

“You might be in the top ten,” Gliner informed me, “but you’ll never touch Valdean’s record. Not with as much as he went tearing around this place trying to solve everyone’s problems and…” Trailing off, he sighed before looking at the ghost woman nearby. “I am… the words I want to…” His face twisted a little, as all six of his eyes looked off in different directions before he clearly forced himself to focus on her, as the words came out. “I am sorry. I am so very sorry for my–for my assumptions, and my actions. My–I murdered you. You trusted us to protect you, and I not only failed to do that, I took your guilt for granted and didn’t give you any opportunity to defend yourself. I–I can’t–” 

“Stop,” Ausesh interrupted, her voice flat. “You’re right, you killed me, and you can’t undo that. Nothing you say will magically bring me back to life.” She paused, and I could feel the turmoil within her ghost energy before she sighed. “But, I understand why you did what you did. I was an old Heretic. Even if I was never exactly top of my class in combat, if I had been the monster you believed me to be, you never would have gotten a fair shot off.” Her hand rose to point at him. “That does not mean I have forgiven you. But I do understand your reasoning. Let us leave it at that for now. Anything else would be a waste of time and effort.” 

It looked like Gliner still wanted to say something about that, but he acquiesced and gave a short nod. I could tell that he didn’t want to push things too much. No matter how much he felt the need to apologize for, well, killing her, it was better if he let it go for the time being. Otherwise, he’d just be apologizing for his own feelings rather than hers. 

Instead, after letting out a long breath, he turned to me. “Are you really going to go out there and try to find all those missing children? Even though it’s been decades?” 

After grimacing slightly at the reminder of just how long those ‘kids’ (probably mostly adults by now depending on how fast each of their species matured) had been missing, I confirmed, “I mean, there’ll probably be several of us taking turns working on that. We’ll have to trade off whenever one of us has some free time, but yeah. It needs to be done, and something tells me there won’t be a shortage of volunteers to help with it.” 

“I’ll be one of them,” he informed me. 

“As will I,” Archibold noted. “We… have a lot to make up for.” 

A moment later, the elevator door opened, and we moved back into the server room. As soon as we got there, I saw Sitter standing up. He was lifting one foot off the floor, even as De–Letters stood in front of him and requested, “Okay, the other foot, please.” Immediately, the robot lowered that foot and lifted the other one. 

“Hey, Sits! You’re awake.” Waving that way as I approached, I added, “How’re you feeling?” 

“I believe the correct term is ‘annoyed,’” came the response. Sitter’s mouth lights shifted to an amber color before he added, “Mostly at my own failure to identify the trap before it was sprung. I apologize for being unable to assist your investigation.” 

“Oh, Sitter,” Ausesh murmured before hovering closer. “You have always been entirely too concerned with aiding others over your own personal well-being. You nearly died.” 

“And you…. did.” Sitter flatly pointed out, mouth-lights shifting to a soft green as his head tilted that way. “I am told that I should know you, that you aided in my creation, and that of this vault.” 

“Yes, we can restore those memories, I… believe.” Frowning a little, the ghost woman looked toward me. “As I said before, programming is not my strong suit, but I know a little.” 

“Right arm, please,” Letters put in, watching as Sitter lowered his leg and raised the arm. Then she addressed the rest of us. “I think I can help with the memory thing, I just want to make sure his physical responses are working right. Other arm, please.” 

Marina, approaching from the back area of the server room, spoke up. “You managed to get him working pretty quickly, Letters.” 

The blonde girl shifted a little, looking embarrassed by the compliment. “It wasn’t that big of a deal. I just reconnected a few–never mind. He should be okay now. Oh, uh, you can put your arm down. Do you want me to dig deeper and try to fix your memory?” She sounded a little hesitant and unsure of herself. 

Sitter, however, nodded once, mouth lights shifting to a dark blue. “I trust your ability, Lady Letters. And it would certainly be nice to know that my memories are correct. If nothing else, it would be a good idea to have all those memories checked before I trust myself to disengage the locks for this vault. If my memories are still wrong, I shudder to think of what could happen.” 

Taking that as a good shifting point, I looked over to Ausesh. “Speaking of having the correct memories, is there anything else we need to bring down here before we get started on fixing everyone else’s?”

“No,” she replied, “we can start that right now. I may not know a lot about programming but I know how this works. Valdean and I worked on it together. He was always…” She trailed off before giving a soft sigh. “We can do it now. Here, come this way.” 

So, while Letters worked on fixing Sitters’ memory, Archibold, Marina, Gliner, and I did all the physical work on the system itself as Ausesh called out instructions. Shifting the memory-eraser part of the system over to restoring the memories it had changed wasn’t exactly easy. It was possible, but required some rewiring and even physically moving components. Apparently she mainly knew how to do this because Valdean had talked her through it as a just in case sort of measure. Which, well, we had definitely hit ‘just in case’ quite awhile back. 

Either way, while it was time-consuming, and would’ve been impossible if she wasn’t telling us exactly what to do, the actual work itself wasn’t that hard. I was able to zone out just a little and simply focus on moving one piece of the machine somewhere else, or switching the positions of two wires, that sort of thing. Mostly I focused on what was going to happen once we got out of here. Avalon and Shiori were probably going to kill me. Then find a way to resurrect me so Tabbris and my dad could kill me. Then Abigail and Wyatt could take their turn, and– yeah. I probably had a lot of death in front of me. 

Though that sentence could be completely accurate in a few other ways too. 

In any case, after about an hour, we had the whole thing put together. Letters had finished with Sitter about twenty minutes earlier, and had been replaced by Peanut, the pixie Aspect. And yes, that meant that, thanks to Tailor, she shrank down to a positively tiny form. In that body, small as it was, she was able to get into the very tight spaces within the machine, which would’ve required the rest of us to take the thing apart to reach. And boy was Peanut excited to be in the outside world. She kept commenting about how big everything was, even though she’d been in a larger space inside the Carnival. But when I pointed that out, she said this place felt bigger. I could only imagine how she’d react to the actual outside world. 

Between her going into those tiny spaces we couldn’t fit in and (somewhat reluctantly) temporarily shifting into the skittish bunny-like Bijou so she could simply reach through solid material, the Aspects were already incredibly helpful. 

Not that they weren’t already helpful, considering Letters’ ability to fix Sitter. But still. They were definitely making very good first impressions. 

Finally, it was done. Before we activated it, of course, I told Sitter that we needed him to use the intercom to warn everyone it was coming. Which he did, politely reintroducing himself, assuring the guests he was fine, and that they should sit down while their memories were restored. 

From where she was hovering next to one of the computer terminals, Ausesh nodded to me while indicating the enter button. “Press that, and the system will restore all altered memories.” 

My finger rose, then I stopped myself and looked over to Bijou. The pink bunny girl was half-hiding behind Marina, eyes and ears darting in every direction. She might’ve been less afraid of us now, but that didn’t mean she was completely calm. And she was making absolutely certain to keep either Marina or me between her and any of the others. So, I kept my voice low. “You guys wanna do the honors? Since you helped so much.” 

Her head tilted a bit at me, before she abruptly shifted down into the much smaller Peanut. “I’ll do it!” the pixie girl cheerfully called. Flying over, she landed next to the computer. “This is one small step for pixies–which is saying a lot, cuz we’re pretty small to begin with, and one giant leap for Aspect-kind!” With that, she stomped down hard with her foot on the enter button, while making a trumpet sound with her mouth. 

*****

After that, well, a lot of things happened very quickly. The people of the vault had all of their memories back. They knew who their children were, and that caused a lot of emotions. Marina and I did our best to help them through it, as did Sitter and Sesh. Ausesh wasn’t exactly suited for that sort of thing, and the two bodyguards were more about physical action than helping with emotions. 

Obviously, we promised again to help get their families back together. I reassured them once more that we would send more people into the vault to talk to all of them. I knew Abigail would want to come in here, and that she would know exactly who to bring with her. There was a lot that was going to have to be done in order to fix all of this. We were also going to set up a way to get in and out of it more easily, which Ausesh said she had a few ideas for. A way to link this vault both to Wonderland and to the Fusion school. 

There was a lot to be done. I would have to go in and out of this place for quite awhile before we were through fixing everything Perrsnile had done. And I couldn’t even get rid of that piece of shit’s ghost until we knew for certain he’d told us everything. 

But, in the meantime, I could at least get out of here for now. Ausesh was coming with, given the trouble she would have when it came to those orichalcum walls. I was going to set her up with a lab in the Haunted Mansion so she could work on those new vault entrance ideas. Besides, she wanted a bit of time away from Gliner for the time being, which I couldn’t blame her for. 

As for Gliner himself, and Archibold, they would be staying in the vault to help out, in between going out with us to find the missing family members. Sesh was staying there too. Apparently she’d taken a liking to all the vault people, and wanted to stick around for awhile. Besides, they were deep into that D&D game and she didn’t want to abandon her players. 

Which left Marina and me standing back in Valdean’s room, along with Dakota and Jordan, the Denny-Aspect who was blue, with the scales, red hair, and the trident and all that. Apparently she manipulated water and had something to do with marine animals. Even as we stood there, she bounced the trident against the floor, making it give off a steady ringing sound as she called, “I cannot wait to see the outside world! My first order of business shall be to investigate this ‘streaming video.’ I had no idea computers were so protected against being wet.” 

The words actually made Dakota snicker before she poked the blue-scaled figure. “Did Denny make you as the one who likes puns on porpoise?” 

“I do not know,” Jordan shot back, “I shall have to ponder that.” 

Groaning despite myself at their antics, I shook my head. “Well, I can already tell which of my girlfriends you’ll get along with.” Turning to the two bodyguards, who stood nearby, I added, “Take care of things in here until we bring some more people back to help, okay?” 

They promised they would, before I nodded to Sitter. “Okay, hit it.” 

“Very well,” he confirmed. “Be safe, and do not be strangers, Lady Flick, Lady Marina, Lady Dakota, and Lady… Jordan,” he confirmed. “And all the other Sir and Lady Aspects. We will look forward to your return visits. For more than one reason.” 

With that, he did… something, and the air shimmered around us. Suddenly, we were standing on the hillside right above the ghost town of Wonderland. I could see the place stretched out below us. 

“Ahh, that’s better,” I announced while stretching my arms. Then I reached out through my connection to my little sister. Tabs, you there? 

Flick! She sounded both shocked and delighted. You made it! 

Yup, I confirmed. It’s a really long story, but what did we miss? 

Uhhh… There was a pause, then, Hang on, I’ll come to you! Then we can share stories. Cuz this one’s pretty long too. 

That’s great, I sent back. I gotta tell you, what I definitely really need right now is a big surpr–

“Ms. Chambers,” a voice spoke up from behind me, even as my Necromancy started screaming at the power I was feeling. I spun so fast I almost fell over, even as Marina, Dakota, and Jordan did the same around me. We found ourselves facing a single semi-transparent figure. 

“I believe… I owe you… and a great many others… an apology,” Manakel’s ghost announced.

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