Dracula

Growth 18-04 And Patreon Snippets 25B (Heretical Edge 2)

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Eventually, we left Tabbris with Sariel, our dad, and Jegudiel so the four of them could talk in a private room for awhile. Athena said something about needing to send a message to Michael, and dismissed herself. 

Before long, it was time for me to go back to class for my extra afternoon make-up stuff. I’d offered to blow it off for the day with a straight face, and Dad, Tabbris, and I all shuddered at how Abigail would have reacted to that. I’d already missed plenty while on that trip. If she found out I was skipping classes while literally here on the station, let alone the extra classes I was supposed to be taking to make up for being gone on that mission, I was afraid that she might actually go nuclear, excuses be damned.

Honestly, it was more of a study hall/tutoring session anyway. All of us who had been on that mission, as well as some others who were busy with other things, were in an unused classroom with an old Crossroads teacher who had left with the rest of us. His name was Bentley Carver, and he had been the Development instructor for the seniors/fourth years. He was an elderly guy who looked kind of like Einstein, but with bright blond hair, bushy eyebrows, and an even bushier mustache. I’d met him briefly the year before when he’d stepped in to help save me from being interrogated by a bunch of other students about what happened with Doxer. And he was sure excited to see us today, making sure we knew that if we needed any help going over any of the extra worksheets that our teachers had provided, all we had to do was ask. 

He spent some time with an older student who was apparently having some trouble with his quantum mechanics work, which was fine with me. I sat with Avalon, Shiori, Jazz, Doug, Columbus, Sands, and Scout. Gordon was out with his dad still. Even Abigail didn’t expect him to be back at school already. Everyone was quietly focused, and I ignored all the thoughts of what Tabbris was doing with Jegudiel right then, trying to busy myself with my own stuff. I spent a good twenty minutes flipping between the worksheet and textbook for what had been a two-week course on how enners (the coins used to contain magical energy to use as currency) were created. Well, they called it a textbook. It was more of a hand-written journal that had been magically copied a bunch of times. But the guy who had written it had good handwriting, at least.

And he had a lot of interesting things to say about how people used to trade magical energy. Apparently at one point, a lot of people had actually literally touched each other to send the power into them. Which was dangerous for a variety of reasons, not to mention inconvenient. So they started putting it in random objects that were enchanted to hold the power. Unfortunately, that wasn’t great either, particularly because sometimes those objects disappeared for whatever reason. They would end up in the Bystander world and the magic that was put in them would ‘go funny,’ affecting the world around them. That was a big reason behind the Bystander stories about cursed artifacts, dolls that moved on their own, that sort of thing. One guy would put magic in a doll because he happened to have it lying around, then he’d lose track of it and it would end up in the Bystander world where the stored magic would act up and make it do funny (or terrifying) things. All in all it just wasn’t a very good idea, especially because it was so hard to know what had been given magic to store if you happened to forget. Or never knew in the first place. 

Which was why they came up with the Enner system. And, lo and behold, it wasn’t Heretics who created it at all. The original system that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden ended up ‘borrowing’ had actually been created back in Ancient Egypt, though the coins themselves looked different, and weren’t called enners. It had spread out from there, and when Crossroads was first established, began to be taught amongst their classes. Of course, they didn’t exactly credit the original source. 

I was filling in the worksheet where it was asking about the different shapes of older enners when Professor Carver stepped over to help Doug with his own worksheet. I could hear them murmuring in low voices about energy flow levels for the first primitive enners. Which brought Jazz in, as she had apparently been having her own issues with how that worked.  

When he was done helping them get back on track, the man turned my way, his voice low as he glanced between Avalon, Shiori, and me. “Everything okay over here? Looks like you’re trucking along. Ah, Miss Sinclaire, would you mind giving this to Dries when you see him?” He set a glass figurine of a ballet dancer, about six inches tall, on her desk. “We were having a small discussion the other day about an old dancer whom we both adored from the origins of ballet itself. I remembered a student of mine provided this likeness of her quite some time ago, and I would like him to have it. I dare say he was even more enamored of her than I, given she was his sister.”

That made Avalon do a double-take, eyes darting from the glass figurine of the dancer to the man himself. “Dries’ sister was a ballet dancer?” 

“One of the very first,” Carver confirmed. “Dries was incredibly proud of her, of course. Unfortunately, she was killed when they were both still in their teens. Long before he even met Liesje or Hieronymus. But he still holds her close to his heart. I am certain that he would be more than willing to talk to you about her, if you ask him when you pass the figurine along.” 

Yeah, something told me he could just as easily have given the thing to Dries himself, but had wanted to give Avalon an opening to talk to her ancestor about his past.

After that, he looked at me. “Miss Chambers, I recall teaching your mother during her second year. I ahhh, I am ashamed to say that we didn’t get along for some time. I considered her too stubborn to learn new things, and believed that she would get herself killed by not listening to her instructors. I am quite glad that I was wrong about that.” Even as he said that, the man’s brow furrowed. “Except, perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. Telling a girl that you expected her mother to get herself killed through stubbornness was… yes, I probably shouldn’t have said that.” 

Coughing a bit, I shook my head. “I get it. At least you’re on the same side now? Err, were you part of the Rebellion back–” 

“Not… precisely,” he answered with a slight grimace. “Not at first, anyway. I’m also ashamed to say that it was not until shortly before your mother’s… imprisonment that I found myself truly questioning what I had always taken as simple facts. The inherent evil of non-humans, that is. To be frank, it was not until I learned that my own son had joined the Rebellion. After that, actually. My initial response was to drag him back where I felt he belonged. When I found him, we fought. He was young, but quite… skilled. Enough that he was able to talk to me a bit before I could subdue him. The things he said, the words he used… maybe it was simply that it came from someone I cared a great deal about, but I listened. I didn’t want to, but I did. I listened to enough to actually hear the words that your mother and others had already been saying. So, I gave him a chance to show me these Alter societies. I spent a little time with them. Which, of course, made my previously-held convictions fall just about as quickly as the shame for my actions rose.” He offered us a somewhat sad smile then. “I resolved to do what I could to direct potentially sympathetic students toward the Rebellion, even after your mother was imprisoned. At least, until my memory of all of that was erased some decades later.” 

Looking like he was a bit lost in those recently-restored memories, Carver frowned before shaking himself. His gaze focused on me once more, and he smiled while tapping his knuckles lightly on the desk. “In any case, you let me know if you need any help. All of you.” That was added with a glance to the others before he headed off to respond to another student with their hand raised. 

Leaning closer to Avalon’s desk, Shiori examined the glass figurine there. “Wow, there’s a lot of detail on this thing. She’s really pretty.” Her eyes glanced up to the other girl. “Actually, she kinda looks like you a little bit.” 

I leaned closer as well and squinted at it before blinking a couple times. “Hey, yeah, she does look like you, Valley. Her face is practically the same.” 

Flushing a little bit, Avalon shrugged. “Well, I’m definitely not a ballet dancer. So there’s a pretty big difference. And even if I wanted to be, I don’t have the body type for it. They’re thin and… thin.” Her face was pink, and she reached out to pick up the figurine. “I’ll take it to Dries later. Come on, we need to get back to work.” 

Shiori and I exchanged glances, before I nodded. “Right, yeah, of course. Back to work.” With that, I settled in my seat once more and turned my gaze back to the book. Still, I couldn’t help but think about Dries. His sister had died while he was still a teenager. Then he had fallen in love with Liesje and that whole thing had… yeah. That poor guy. 

Of course, that whole thing also made me think about my own little sister. How was Tabbris doing with her birth-father? He seemed nice enough for the moment, but I was still unsure how that whole thing was going to go. I was worried about her, and had to resist the urge to reach out through our connection to check on her. She deserved time with him without me snooping or bothering her, no matter how curious and worried I was. 

So, with some effort, I shoved those thoughts aside and forced myself to focus on the book in front of me. I would find out how that whole thing had gone later. But one thing was for sure. 

Wings or no wings, Jegudiel was going to find himself in a world of hurt from a lot of people if he ever made Tabbris sad. 

********

Tabbris was fine, of course. Well, pretty much fine. There was obviously a lot she had to work through when it came to the idea of her birth father visiting. On the plus side, she also seemed at least a bit happy about getting to meet him when I talked to her later that day. She was overwhelmed by the whole thing and would need time to process, but it definitely could have gone a lot worse. Apparently she had requested that Vanessa, Tristan, Spark, and Jehoel all go in as well to meet the man, and Jegudiel had given every single one of them a hug. Yeah, a literal hug. Hybrid human-Seosten, SPS Seosten projected as a hologram, and experimented-on kid who turned into younger versions of the person he was touching instead of possessing them, none of that mattered. He embraced all four. I was kind of sad that I had missed that.

Apparently he’d also thanked Dad for taking care of Tabbris for so long, and actually called her our daughter. Actually, given the way loyalist Seosten normally–it seemed a little odd that he was so quickly willing to not only accept Dad like that, but also treat the other four so well. But maybe that was just me being overly suspicious again. Just because this guy was loyal to the Seosten government and all that didn’t mean he was incapable of being decent. After all, there were plenty of them who truly believed that if the Seosten didn’t rigorously control… enslave all these populations, then the Fomorians would wipe out everyone. Seosten, human, and every other species in the universe would be utterly destroyed. Plus, from what I had heard, this guy spent most of his time on the front lines of the war. He literally watched the Fomorians try (or succeed) to genocide entire worlds over and over again. So maybe his perspective was a little different than people who only saw the Seosten forcing other species to work on equipment and resources to send to that frontline. Perspective was pretty important, after all. At least, that was what I kept telling it myself. 

I was thinking about that among other things (my brain was pretty full), as I took a walk through the station later that evening. It wasn’t quite dinner time yet and I was trying to clear my head, considering Jegudiel was supposed to be there to eat with us. Which… yeah, clearing my head was a good thing. 

I rounded a corner, lost in my own thoughts, only to very nearly run right into Roxa coming the other way. The power that made her untrackable unless you were looking right at her affected my item sense as well. Which I knew, but still didn’t help me avoid jumping backward with a fairly undignified yelp. 

“Hey, Flick,” Roxa casually announced while watching me collect myself with a very tiny smile. “Sorry, I probably should’ve said something before. Guess I wanted to see if you’d notice, or just how distracted you were.” Her teasing tone softened as she added, “How’s Tabbris doing?” 

“You heard about that, huh?” I asked while glancing past her to Pace, as the Latina girl approached. 

“Basically everyone has,” Roxa confirmed. “I mean, one of the archangels shows up and starts walking around the station? And it’s one of the archangels who isn’t Michael? It’s news.” 

“Big news,” Pace added, stopping next to the other girl. “Even bigger than the whole Dracula thing.” 

She said that while looking past me, and I turned to look back down the hall. Sure enough, Theia was there, along with April and June. Or rather, the man who had once been called June. Yeah, coming back here to find out that one of the Calendar people was actually Dracula himself, and had decided to start hanging out here on the station was… something. Especially when I found out why he had decided to be around now. 

Speaking of which, the man had spotted us by then and was approaching with April and Theia trailing behind. He met my gaze with an expression that was half-smile, half-smirk. “Felicity Chambers, a pleasure to see you once again. And you, Roxanne and Pace. I hope the three of you are well. And assume you haven’t been visited by any more Seosten ghosts today.” 

“I haven’t seen Kushiel,” I confirmed. That was why he was here, why he had decided to start staying on the station. Apparently he had a thing about Kushiel and now that she was back as a ghost, wanted to make sure something was done about her. I had no idea what their whole history was, but he wanted her dead, and that was good enough for most people around here. Enemy of my enemy, and all that. But I was still concerned about what his intentions beyond that were. Something about the guy just rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was that he was so cavalier about killing a lot of people. Or that he made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t here because he believed in our cause or anything, but rather because he thought we could help get rid of Kushiel for good. 

Unfortunately, he also apparently knew a lot about her resources and secret places here on Earth. So the adults had decided not to cast him out immediately. The way they put it, dealing with someone like Kushiel in the best-case scenario required doing things you might not want to. Now that she was some sort of super ghost, we needed every advantage we could get. Even when that advantage was this guy. He didn’t care about our cause and he didn’t care about any of us. Well, that wasn’t true. He cared about the other members of the Calendar. At least Abigail said he did, and some of the stuff I had seen seemed to lend credence to it. He cared about Theia too. Other SPS Seosten, he cared about them. He was almost tender with them at times. Seeing him interact with them was the only time I didn’t think he was putting on a show of being nice. And that was specifically Seosten with that condition, not his entire species. I was pretty sure he lumped everyone into two categories: SPS Seosten, whom he cared about, and everyone else, whom he didn’t. He reminded me a bit of Magneto, from the X-Men. He wanted to protect his people, no matter what happened to anyone he didn’t consider one of his.

The smile he gave me then didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, you know, just let me know. Let everyone know. Trust me, you don’t want to face her alone.” 

“She won’t,” Roxa put in, stepping beside me. “Anyone comes at Flick, they’ve got to deal with a lot of other problems.” 

“Kushiel found that out the first time,” Pace added while stepping up on my other side. “Right, Theia?” 

Rubbing a hand over the cap that Doug had given her, Theia gave a little nod and straightened. “Yes,” she agreed quietly. “My mother took too many of my friends away. I could not allow her to take you.” Her eyes moved back and forth between Pace and me. “Either of you.” 

Drake (he said we should call him that, given he didn’t want to go by June anymore and thought Dracula might sound a little silly) smiled sidelong at the Seosten girl. “And I’m so very glad you did. Even if it didn’t quite stick. The next time we kill her, it will.” He showed his teeth then, his canines somehow extended like the fangs of his namesake. I still wasn’t sure how he did that, given he wasn’t actually a vampire. 

“I wish my mother’s spirit to be banished as well,” Theia agreed before looking at April, who was staying back a bit. “But I remain certain she will not show herself here any time soon. Particularly not before we collect December for the ice–” 

“Icecreamicecreamicecream!” Speak of the dev–well, superfast little girl, December herself came zooming down the hall from the way the others had come. April calmly stepped out of the way and put her hand down just in time to catch the girl by the top of her head, halting her in place. The kid was literally bouncing up and down. “Ifinishedthehomework, sowecango geticecreamnow?” She waved to everyone in turn in a rush of motion that was practically a blur, greeting each of us. “HeyPacehiFlickheyRoxa…… Hiya, Ju–Drake.” She had to correct herself, her words so slow at that point that it actually sounded like she was speaking normally. 

“Hey there, kid.” Drake gave another genuine, gentle smile that way. “You’re going to go get ice cream, huh? I’d tag along, but I haven’t had dinner yet–hold on, you’re not spoiling your appetite are you? Are they letting you have ice cream for supper?” He adopted a teasingly authoritative tone. 

Giggling, December shook her head. “Nowehad… dinnerafew… minutesago! Wehaditearly…cuzwedidn’tgo… tolunchcuzwe… werebusyreportingin.” 

“Ah, and how is the old–” In mid-sentence, Drake caught a look from April and cleared his throat. “How is Cahethal?”

“She’s very curious about you, that’s for sure,” April informed him in a flat voice. “You know she wants to have a discussion.” 

“And the very moment I have literally any interest in that, I’ll get right on it,” Drake replied casually, clearly unconcerned. “But in the meantime, if you’re all going to talk about ice cream, I suppose I’ll head out. Don’t want to be tempted to be bad about my diet, after all.” He winked, then started to walk away, calling back toward me, “Remember, Miss Chambers, the instant you see any sign of Kushiel, let me know.” 

Waiting until he was gone, I looked toward the others. “How’s it been going with searching the addresses he’s been giving? Any luck? Any sign that he’s actually on the up and up?” 

Theia answered immediately. “He has given valuable information. True information.” 

“She’s right,” Pace confirmed. “Kushiel hasn’t been at any of the places they went to check, but it was obvious that she had people keeping them up for her. You know, from before she died. Err…” She frowned then. “This whole situation is weird. She died, she should stay that way. This isn’t Dragonball Z.” 

“Don’t forget, she is still dead,” I reminded her. “This is just her… leftover we’re dealing with. Her ghost. Her echo or whatever.” 

“She’s a pain in the ass, that’s what she is,” Roxa announced. 

“You’re not wrong about that,” I agreed, frowning a bit in thought before looking at the others. “And I’m worried that we haven’t heard from her in so long. She made a big show about being back, then just… disappeared for over a month? That just tells me she’s up to something big. 

“And we are definitely gonna regret finding out what.”  

********

Patreon Snippets 25B

Two of Joselyn’s old teammates back when she attended Crossroads were Seamus and Roger Dornan, cousins. They’ve been seen a few times in the story (including in the recent rescue mission), and the first time they were seen as adults (taking place right after Flick gave everyone their memories of the Rebellion back) was in one of the ninth Patreon Snippets right here. In that snippet, it was established that despite their memories of the Rebellion being erased, they had semi-recently turned against Crossroads entirely on their own and began helping Alters. According to that snippet, they decided to turn against Crossroads and stopped believing that all Strangers were evil after encountering innocent children while on a hunt. The following is that specific scene

Six And A Half Years Ago

“Hey, hold up there.” 

As the nine-year-old girl started to turn off the sidewalk to head into the nearby alley, a fairly short, red-haired man wearing construction clothes with a reflective vest stepped in the way with one hand up to block her. “Sorry, Miss, we’re doing some work down there. Can’t use the shortcut today.” 

The girl wasn’t very happy about that, given not using the shortcut would add a full ten minutes to her route home. But she finally moved on down the street, trudging a little bit with the knowledge that she was going to miss the first minutes of the show she liked to get home for. On the way, the kid absently tossed the brown paper bag lunch sack she was carrying into a trash can before breaking into a run. Maybe she wouldn’t miss too much. 

Watching her go, Seamus Dornan spoke without looking over his shoulder. “We set up?” 

“Damn straight we are.” Behind the man, his cousin Roger brushed a hand through light blond hair that fell to his shoulders. Standing an inch shorter than Seamus and also wearing construction clothes along with an expression of barely constrained anger at the moment, he added, “And the things that keep stalking that kid through this alley every day should be here any minute, so let’s get in position.” 

At the mention of the reason they were here and had steered the kid away, Seamus grimaced. They had seen some signs that there were Strangers in this area, and had taken the past week to track down the source. Learning that those things, whatever they were, were waiting in the alley for that poor kid to go past every day made him shudder to think about what could have happened. Why they were waiting so long to make their move, he couldn’t say. Maybe they liked to make a game of it. Maybe they were waiting for her to get a little bigger, or for the moon to be in the right phase, or… whatever. Who knew what went through the minds of monsters? As far as he was concerned, however, that was over. Whatever those things were up to, they wouldn’t be hurting this little girl. Not while he and Roger were here. 

To that end, the two of them stepped fully into the alley. Roger had set up a couple of ‘notice-me-not’ circles, one about halfway down the alley next to a dumpster and the other a bit further on, closer to the exit but up on the lowest landing of the fire escape. That latter one was where Seamus would set himself. The two of them took their positions and waited. 

They weren’t waiting very long before catching the sound of something–no, several somethings approaching from the far end. Several small figures came into view, moving directly under Seamus. They wore heavy hooded jackets that made it hard to make out any details, even if he had been down on the ground rather than above them. He could see Roger watching them from the protection of his own magic circle next to the dumpster, pistol raised as he waited to take these nasty things by surprise. 

Gripping a construction mace in his own hand, Seamus made himself wait. They had to be sure that there were no more of these things lingering behind. This had to be a full wipe if he was going to feel like that poor kid was safe. 

The trio of small figures moved to the dumpster itself, their movements slow and cautious. The nearest one reached up into the wide metal slot that the garbage truck would use to pick up the dumpster eventually. There was a brief pause, then a whispered, “It’s not here.” The voice sounded stressed, worried, and something more. “Did she–” 

Roger, who had always been more impulsive and less patient, stepped from his circle, gun raised. “Looking for someone?”  

Muttering something about waiting for a signal, Seamus leapt from his perch to land behind the trio. A gesture with his mace made a solid wall right behind him to block them up from that direction. And they sure as hell wouldn’t be getting past Roger to go the other way, whatever they were. 

As soon as they saw the Heretic in front of them, the trio… screamed. They spun to retreat, only to spot Seamus and the wall rising into place. Two of the figures fell to the ground right there, a sound of… a sound of… was that…

Were they crying? 

The hoods had fallen off the two who had fallen down by that point, leaving Roger and Seamus staring at what looked like a cat-like Rakshasa and wolf-like, red-furred Lupera. A juvenile Rakshasa and Lupera. Kids. Two tiny, terrified Lupera and Rakshasa children, lying there on the ground with tears in their eyes, shielding their faces with their arms.

Meanwhile, the still-standing figure shouted, “Get away!” The words came with a voice that shook, cracking with audible terror. Their own hood fell as well, when they snapped their head back and forth to look at Roger and Seamus while putting one hand down in front of the other two, as though shielding them. This third one was also a child, a reptilian figure who looked like they might be a couple years older than the first two. 

The two on the ground, if they had been human, might’ve been five or six from the look of them. The one standing in front of them, arms out to block the Heretics from the two cowering figures, was maybe eight years old. They hissed a little, frills on the side of their neck standing out as though to make themselves look bigger. “G-go away!” they repeated, though it was more of a desperate wish than a demand. Their voice sounded… broken. Empty. Lost. They sounded like a person who was already dead. They… both the kids on the ground and the one standing in front of them, all sounded like they had nothing left. No hope. They were just… they were…

“Roger,” Seamus started, making his own cousin gasp slightly as he was startled out of his own long, silent stare, “watch them. Don’t… don’t.” He left it at that while walking past the trio. They shrank back even more as he moved, the reptilian figure physically pushing their two companions back against the dumpster as though it would protect them. 

Walking back to the front of the alley, where he’d turned the girl away, Seamus left for a moment. He was back shortly, carrying the small paper sack she had thrown into the trash can down the street. Moving purposefully, he opened the bag, emptying it out on the ground in front of the huddled trio. Out fell a sandwich wrapped in a plastic baggie, an orange, a carton of juice, and a bag of chips. 

“This?” he started, his own voice cracking very slightly. “This is why you’ve been following that girl?” 

The lizard girl said nothing, looking more confused and wary than anything. The younger Lupera girl spoke up with a tiny, frightened, “Sh-she doesn’t eat her lunch, she never eats her lunch.” 

“She throws it away so her mom won’t get mad,” the Rakshasa boy added. “P-please, please, we’ll go away. We won’t take her food anymore, ple–” 

“Don’t bother, Teumni,” the reptilian whispered, sounding just as hollow and resigned, yet still refusing to move from their spot in front of their younger companions. “They won’t listen. They never listen.” They met Seamus’s gaze, eyes wide with terror. They were so afraid they could barely string the words together, so lost in despair and dread that they would have fallen over. They would have cowered. Yet they didn’t. They stood in front of their younger companions because they were all they had. They stood because there were no others to stand for them. 

They were, at once, the most terrified and most brave being Seamus had ever seen in his life. 

Swallowing, Seamus moved his gaze away from the three and toward Roger. Their eyes locked, a long, silent moment passing between them. He stooped very slowly, his movements making the three Strangers cower in against one another, the reptilian more determinedly holding their arms out to cover the other two. But Seamus didn’t reach for them. He picked the wrapped sandwich up from the ground, unwrapping it carefully before taking a sniff. “Peanut butter,” he murmured. “It’s a peanut butter sandwich.” His words were soft, incredulous over this whole situation. 

Again, he looked toward Roger. They both stared silently at one another, before the other man gave a very slight nod of agreement. Seamus, in turn, slowly raised the unwrapped sandwich, holding it out that way. 

The reptilian child stared at the offered sandwich, a whimper escaping them at what they perceived as a taunt. “What… what do you want?” they brokenly asked. 

“What do I want?” Seamus echoed, staring at the sandwich in his outstretched hand as though it held the answer. “What I want…” The truth came to him as he sank to one knee, the mace falling from his other hand to clatter against the ground. “What I want is for no one to ever look at me the way you are right now.” He was speaking mostly to himself, as surprised by the sound of his own voice as he was by the content of it. 

Someone finally took the sandwich away, but it wasn’t any of the three Stranger children. It was Roger, who looked at the food in his hand, then tossed it aside before going down on one knee as well, next to his cousin. “Yeah, I’m not really a fan of it either,” he murmured before focusing on the kids. “Listen, we… we’re not gonna hurt you.” 

“Y… you’re not?” That was the Lupera girl, her snout twitching a little. 

“No,” Seamus agreed. It was the first thing he had been completely certain of since he’d dropped into the alley. “We’re not.”

“Where are your parents?” Roger asked. 

There was no immediate answer, as the three looked at one another before the reptilian answered in a quiet, flat, “Your people killed them.” 

That landed hard, like a jab to the stomach. Seamus felt it, his body wincing inward slightly as though it had been a physical blow. Words came to mind, but none were sufficient. And yet, the fact that he felt the impulse to say them, the fact that he felt any… guilt about what they said, the fact that the children themselves were so affected, the fact that… that any of this was happening…

“Come on,” he finally announced while pushing himself to his feet. In that moment, he had come to a decision. Beside him, Roger stood as well, the two in silent agreement despite not doing anything to communicate with each other.  

“Wha-what?” The reptilian stammered, terror palpable in their voice as they stared at him while keeping their arms resolutely in front of the other two. “Y-you said–” 

“We’re not going to hurt you,” he interrupted, assuring them of that in as firm a voice as he could manage. “But since my cousin threw your sandwich away, we owe you some food, and there’s a McDonald’s right around the corner. So what do you say we get some lunch, and do something I’m starting to think we should have done a long time ago. 

“Talk.” 

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Patreon Snippets 24 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 24th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Heretical Edge-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Avalon and Gwen (The following takes place sometime after the previous chapter 17-01 and before the next chapter 17-02

“This place has the best sushi you will ever eat. Bar none.” 

With that small aside, Gwen pulled the nozzle out of the corvette’s gas tank, slid it back onto the pump, hit the screen twice with her thumb to decline a receipt, and started up toward the rundown, dingy-looking building advertising one dollar hot dogs and seventy-nine cent large fountain drinks. “Don’t just stand there, this is the best time of day for the fresh stuff.” 

Avalon, standing by the rear of the car, stared after the blonde (with pink tips) woman while silently echoing, ‘fresh stuff.’ Her head shook as she quickly pushed herself into motion, walking that way. “Wait, this is a gas station.” 

“Uh huh,” Gwen agreed, already reaching out for the door after giving a quick nod to the distracted man who passed them while talking on his phone. 

“A gas station in the middle of Nebraska,” Avalon continued, stepping in once the other woman gestured for her to go ahead. “Which, just to be clear, is literally the most landlocked state in the entire US. I double-checked just to be sure. It’s the only state that is triple-landlocked. You have to go through at least three states, or two states and a big Canadian province, to get to the ocean no matter which way you go. We’re talking over a thousand miles to the nearest ocean.” 

Stepping into the store before letting the door close after her, Gwen airily replied, “That’s right.” She turned a bit then, eyes surveying the empty shop aside from a single employee who was silently reading a magazine while keeping half an eye on them. The man looked Latino, with long hair pulled into a ponytail, a heavyset body, and a tee-shirt advertising a boxing match that had been over for going on twenty-five years. 

Satisfied that there was no one else in the convenience store, Gwen called out toward the man sitting there. Only she spoke in what sounded like rapid Japanese, and all Avalon got out of it was that her tone sounded questioning. Plus she was pretty sure there was a greeting in there somewhere. 

By the time Gwen was half-way through her question, the man behind the counter was already scrambling off his stool. It fell with a crash while he darted around the side and approached, speaking in his own rapid Japanese the moment the woman had finished. Again, Avalon couldn’t follow the actual words, but she could tell he was apologizing. He also kept bowing repeatedly, fumbling for something in his pocket. 

“Kaili,” Gwen interrupted, her hand moving to touch his arm. “It’s alright. We haven’t seen each other in awhile, and I looked different then. But please, my… niece here doesn’t speak your language.” 

“Niece?” The man’s gaze snapped from Gwen to Avalon, eyes widening. “You are the princess of Avalon?!” He was already bowing to her rapidly, babbling in his own language once more in what sounded like even more apologies. 

“Wait, no, I’m not–I mean it’s not princess anything, it’s just Ava–” Cutting herself off in mid-objection (which she was pretty sure the man himself wasn’t even hearing in the midst of his own apology), Avalon looked toward Gwen, voice flat. “Gaia knew what she was doing.” 

Giving her a tiny smirk, Gwen nodded easily. “Of course she did. Good or bad, that woman rarely did anything by accident.” With that, she turned back to Kaili and spoke up with a gentle, yet firm voice. “It’s alright, we aren’t here for any of that. We came for the sushi. If it’s ready?” 

Clearly snapped out of his rambling apology for not somehow intuiting who Avalon and Gwen were the moment they stepped inside, Kaili stopped short, glancing toward an unlabeled door in the back while tugging a set of keys from his pocket. “Oh yes, yes, of course. Our normal customers have not arrived yet, you shall be the first. And ahh, have first choice, naturally.” Even as he said that, the man was already hurrying toward that rear door, using no-less than four keys on separate locks before he finally pulled it open. As he was starting to give a grand gesture for the two to go through, a man in a trucker’s cap began to come in the main door from the lot outside. But before he could get more than a step inside, Kaili snapped, “We’re closed!” At his words, the customer was pushed back out the door by an invisible force and the door shut firmly in his face before the sound of a lock clicking filled the air. Outside, the man voiced confusion, pulled at the door twice, then shook his head and walked away muttering. 

“Ahem,” Kaili turned his attention back to the two women, arm rising to motion them inward as he held the door politely. “Please, please, after you, your majesties.” 

Avalon started to object, then simply gave a heavy sigh before walking through the door, with Gwen following just behind her. There was a set of stairs on the other side, leading down into an open basement room that was much larger than the building upstairs. Along the walls on either side were several enormous aquarium tanks, filled with fish of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Many of which didn’t look like they belonged on Earth. The tanks continued down under their feet, as Avalon, Gwen, and their escort walked across a glass floor, toward several tables that had been set up in the middle of the room, spaced far enough apart that the occupants could have a private conversation. 

Handing the two of them menus, Kaili bowed once more before announcing that he would return right away. Then he moved to a door at the back of the room, which seemed to lead to a kitchen area. 

With her menu in one hand, Avalon glanced around, taking in the colorful fish on all sides of her. Glancing up, she saw a literal glass ceiling with even more fish visible there. “This is… different.” 

“Not what you expected, hmm?” Gwen teased lightly. “It’s something wonderful hiding under the guise of something plain. I think that’s why I like it so much.” Pausing briefly, she added, “Well, that and the fact that the food truly is utterly delightful. I, ah, wanted to share something nice with you. I know we haven’t… really had much time to talk about…” She gestured back and forth between herself and the other girl. “Our situation.” 

“You mean my situation as your, ah, niece?” Avalon tried out the word, face twisting a little before she shook her head. “You don’t have to call me that. I know you didn’t get along with Gaia, and she just adopted–” 

“Stop,” Gwen interrupted. “You’re right, I have had my issues with… Gaia. When we get her back, she and I are going to have a very long, very intense conversation about a lot of things. But she has more than proven that she is not the same person I knew back then. And she has absolutely proven that she loves you. Believe me when I say, I watched her all last year. The way she is with you, the way she watches you when you aren’t looking, the way–” Cutting herself off, she simply finished with, “She does not see you as a responsibility, she sees you as her daughter. I hope you know that.” 

“I’m… still coming to terms with it,” Avalon murmured while shifting in her seat. “I need–I want–we have to get her out of there. I have to tell her, I mean… I have to tell her everything I wanted to tell her before.” 

“We will,” Gwen assured her. “But that’s my point. You love her and she loves you. She is your family. Which means you are my family. Believe me, Arthur will make that abundantly clear when we get him back. Which we are also doing.” 

“Arthur… literal King Arthur,” Avalon breathed out the words even as her head shook in disbelief. It took a moment to organize her thoughts. “You know, I thought that with Liesje’s spell finally cast, my whole ridiculous important family thing would be over. But I’m sitting here with Queen Guinevere, wife to King Arthur, whose sister is the, ahem, formerly evil witch Morgan Le Fay, who is my adopted mother.” 

“Yeeeah, your life is never gonna be boring,” Gwen confirmed with a light, casual chuckle. “But at least you’ve got some interesting relatives out of it.” 

Grimacing, Avalon muttered a dark, “Better than my dad, that’s for sure.” She paused to consider briefly before meeting the woman’s gaze. “It is pretty weird though. I mean, having Harper as my aunt.” 

With an audible snicker, Gwen offered, “It could be worse. At least you’re not related to Litonya.” 

Silently mouthing, ‘oh my God’ at the very thought, Avalon gave a full-body shudder. “Is this your way of making up for not being able to mentally torture me for all the years I was growing up, by putting that thought in my head?” 

“Figured that out, did ya?” With those teasing words, Gwen sobered a bit, her voice softening. “Wherever you came from, however it happened and whatever the reasoning, you are Gaia’s daughter. Which means you are my niece. That means something to me. And it’ll mean something to Arthur. Not to mention the people who are still loyal to him. You are, for all intents and purposes, a princess. Granted, one with no lands or real responsibilities… yet. But a princess nonetheless.” 

Awkwardly rubbing the back of her neck, Avalon made a face. “I’m not–I mean… I’m not, though. Not–I just want to… I’m not that type of person. When I was a kid, I was a wimp. At the Garden, I learned how to be tough, how to fight and protect myself. Then that fell apart, and Flick… Flick, Gaia, and the others taught me how to open up a little bit and not be so hard. But I’ll never be…” She took a deep breath. “I’ll never be a princess-type princess.” 

A snort escaped Gwen, which turned into a laugh. “I’m sorry, have you taken a look at me? Listen, Avalon–” Stopping abruptly, she shook her head. “I’m starting to think Gaia named you that to mess with me too. Anyway, I was raised to be a fighter. I was raised by Michael. I never–being queen was never on my to-do list either. Neither was falling in love with Arthur. So believe me, I know where you’re coming from. I know how uncomfortable it can be to find out that people are looking up to you, that you’re actually responsible for more than just yourself and the few people around you. That’s why I’m here now, with you. Because I want to help you be ready for when that responsibility actually shows up. You and me, we’ve got a lot in common. I wish I had a me to be there for me when I was me back–” She stopped, face twisting a little. “And now I’ve lost myself.” 

Smiling just a little, Avalon quietly replied, “That’s why we’re here, so you can start talking to me about all these things?” 

“Well no, we’re together so I can start talking to you about all these things,” Gwen corrected. “We’re here because like I said, their sushi is goddamn amazing. Now look at the menu and figure out what you want. And don’t worry, if you want to sneak a little wine, I won’t tell anyone. 

“After all, I am the cool aunt. And being queen has its privileges.” 

*********

The Calendar (The following takes place sometime shortly after the upcoming 17-03)

“Why are we here?” The skinny man who asked that question had short, dirty-blond hair that was mussed up, and wore a pair of jeans with a flannel shirt tucked into them. His words were addressed to the eclectic group standing around him, all of them waiting in a large shed at the rear end of an old farm. 

“You know why we’re here, November.” That crisp reply came from a tall, blonde woman in a red evening gown that looked quite out of place in the dingy shed. “We were invited.” 

Clearing his throat, a black man with shoulder-length dark hair wearing a pristine white suit pointed out, “Now January, I believe what November was asking was why were we invited?”

“Feb’s got a point,” Julie (July) agreed. Like the man she was referring to, Julie was black and appeared to be what humans would consider twenty-two or so. She preferred to wear a tan trench coat, like various Earth detective stories they had seen, over black pants and a white shirt. “They already have three of us up there. Why would they want any more?” 

“Unless it’s a trap.” That supposition came from October, or rather, Otto. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties (making him several thousand in actuality), and his own style of clothing went toward loud Hawaiian shirts covered by a white lab coat. He also wore glasses that possessed an array of special abilities. “Perhaps Athena’s alliance believes that they can remove a resource from an enemy in one stroke by taking her entire Calendar off the board.” 

“If you believed that,” the eldest of their group, a gray-haired man in a multi-thousand dollar suit, put in, “you would not have agreed to come here.” August’s eyes narrowed that way. “Not unless you had some plan of your own.” 

The two members of the group who had been silent up to that point were both rather large men, each standing well over six feet. One would have been considered Latino if he had been human, and wore clothes that were rather drab and heavily patched. They had been worn for a long time. The other, equally as tall, had green crewcut hair and also wore simple clothing. Tember (September) and March respectively. 

It was Tember who spoke up then, his attention on Otto. “Come on, man, tell us you didn’t bring some sort of bomb or weapon that’s gonna start the war up all over again.” 

March, who rarely spoke at all given his intense dislike of attention, made a noise in the back of his throat that showed just how much he didn’t like that idea either. 

With the attention of all seven other members of the immediate group on him, Otto waved both hands. “I didn’t bring a bomb or a weapon. I mean, no more weapons than the rest of you are carrying. Trust me, I got the speech. Multiple times. I’m just saying, if they wanted to get rid of all of us, it makes the most sense to do it all at once. If they ‘lost’ the other three, it would look suspicious to ask for replacements. This way, we can all have an accident together.” 

“Now I’m regretting even bringing it up,” November muttered before shaking his head. “I wasn’t trying to say it’s a trap. I’m just asking why they want us up there. There has to be a reason, but I can’t figure out what they get out of it.”

August, who had been gazing out the nearby open door for a moment, turned his attention back to the others while speaking flatly. “When it comes down to it, we are not worth such effort. It would be trivially simple for Cahethal to replace all twelve of us should the need arise. Never forget that the courtesy she extends us in allowing our autonomy and individuality is not due to any specific unique achievements on our part. There is a long list of those like us who would quite easily take our place.” 

“She hasn’t replaced June yet,” Julie pointed out in a quiet voice. “Why do you think that is? I mean, she replaced December faster than this. And others.” That last bit served to remind the others that she was one of the longest-lasting members of the current Calendar. To the point that she had slightly adapted the provided name of July to Julie, making it more of her own. 

“That is a good question,” January agreed thoughtfully. “I suppose she could still be holding out for Kushiel’s daughter, despite May and April’s strong doubts on that front.” 

For a brief moment, all of them exchanged silent looks. In the end, it was Feb who broke that silence. “She has an Olympian power. If she said the word, Cahethal would replace any one of us with her. She doesn’t have to keep a position open. She would create an opening if she had to.” 

None of the others disagreed with that, though they were glad not to be the one who brought up the reality that they simply were not truly that important in the grand scheme of things. 

Tember finally let out an audible sigh. “Everyone calm down. No one is being replaced. Kushiel’s daughter–” He stopped, considering briefly before amending his words. “Theia has no interest in joining us. May and April made that clear. Whatever Cahethal’s reason for not replacing June yet, I don’t think it has anything to do with her. We’ll find out when she wants us to know.” 

“Okay, so that takes us back to why does that group want us up there?” Julie pointed out. “Athena is not stupid enough to think she could get real information out of us. And even if she did, they already have the other three. What is the tactical advantage of having all of us there the same time?” 

Otto, voice thoughtful, put in, “Maybe they’ve got some new tracking spell or something and want to put it on all of us while we’re there so they’ll always know if we start spying on them.” 

January opened her mouth, then paused to consider. “That… if they had such a spell, it would be enormously valuable. At least as much as their new protection magic. The ability to mark us in a way that allows them to track us even through other possessions, and to always know precisely where we are… that would be one of the biggest anti-Seosten weapons in existence.” 

“And if anyone could and would develop it,” Otto pointed out, “it’s Athena’s organization right here at Rysthael.” 

August raised his hand to stop them. “I’m afraid we are getting far too deep into the weeds of wild supposition here. I do not know why we have been invited to visit this place any better than any of you, but I do not believe the intention is nefarious. Ignoring the fact that our friends would have warned us if they suspected any such efforts, it is simply unnecessary. Not only do they have April, May, and December as it is, they also have plenty of other Seosten with them who would quite willingly submit to the testing of such a spell. Our presence would be entirely superfluous.” 

“Unless they just wanted to cast it on us to make sure we can’t ever actually spy on them,” Otto started to point out before blanching as the entire group stared at him. “I get it, I get it, paranoid. It’s not likely, yeah. But I still don’t–” 

At that point, his words were interrupted by the sudden appearance of the portal they had all been waiting for. It grew to full size in front of them, just before several figures stepped through. The group immediately recognized April, May, and December, even as the latter blurted January’s name and embraced her tightly. Then she began to make her way around the circle, giving each of them hugs of their own. 

By that point, April and May had stepped aside to give room for three more figures to join them. The first was Theia herself, while the second was Mercury, his gaze passing quickly over everyone as though assessing them for any threat. Finally, the third was a woman who would have been entirely unfamiliar to them if they had not read the detailed dossier about her. 

“Principal Abigail Fellows?” January couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice. “We didn’t expect to see you here.” 

The woman in question offered her a small smile. “I suppose it is a bit of a surprise. And I know how surprises can be disconcerting. Sorry for that. I wanted to come greet you myself and extend our invitation to visit the school, if you are all still interested.” 

December immediately began to launch into a long spiel about how much they had to come, before May gently covered the girl’s mouth and spoke up herself. “Perhaps official introductions.” She and April went down the line, giving each Calendar member’s name. 

And with each introduction, Abigail insisted on shaking their hands. Which was quite disconcerting for all of them, even knowing about the protection spell. 

“Well,” Mercury finally announced, “shall we go back through? We have–” 

Before he could say anything else, the man abruptly pivoted, hand coming up with a pistol, which he pointed past the others toward the doorway. The doorway where another figure, simultaneously incredibly familiar to the Calendar, and utterly astonishing, had appeared. 

“June!” December blurted out loud, lunging that way. “What’reyoudoinghere?! Ithoughtyouweredeadtheysaidyouweredead! Howcomeeveryonethinksyou’redead?!” 

The man in question, a Seosten who appeared to be around twenty, with short black hair, wore the same dark clothes and white jacket they had always seen him in. But he also wore something else, a sly, cocky smirk that seemed out of place on one of their kind. 

“Well hey there, pals,” he greeted them while ruffling December’s hair. “You weren’t about to go on this tour without me, were you?” 

“Cahethal said you were dead, June.” January’s gaze was laser-focused on the man. 

“Well in a way, I suppose June is,” the man replied lazily. “I got tired of him. And tired of working with that old stuffy bitch. Decided to go back to my old self. Or one of my old selves anyway. Thought maybe I could collect some long-owed royalties.

“After all, these humans have been profiting off the name Dracula for a very long time.” 

A/N: Dracula was previously seen (and established to be an SPS Seosten) in a historical figures snippet found as the last entry in the chapter right here. And yes, he has somewhat changed his appearance since then.

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Mini-Interlude 73 – Historical Figures Part A

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Heracles – California – Present Day

“You’re getting a little too obsessed with those toys of yours, Arthur,” an elderly woman with a face that was heavily lined with age, yet still retained endless beauty, announced primly. She eyed the man beside her as they strolled together down the store aisle, the subject of her remark pushing a heavily-laden cart. “Honestly, computers in glasses. Who needs that?”

Arthur Chambers turned his head to regard his wife of so many years, winking at her from behind the high tech lenses that he wore. “Oh, don’t be such a fuddy duddy, Maria. These things are useful as hell! Look, I can scan the barcode here…” As he spoke, the man leaned over to stare intently down at a bag full of mulch in the cart. “And check the prices elsewhere. See, it’s three twenty-five at Home Depot.”

Maria Chambers eyed the man with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. “I’m so glad that your thousand dollar glasses have managed to save us fifty cents if we drive another two miles, you economical genius, you. At that rate, they’ll pay for themselves in a few short centuries.”

“Hmmph,” Arthur huffed while lifting his chin. “Al likes them, don’t you, Al?”

Both turned to look behind them, toward the fairly enormous figure who had been silently following them throughout their discussion. Arthur Chambers himself was a tall man himself, standing a full six and a half feet in height, with a physique that made him look as though he could wrestle bears. But the man behind him was almost five inches taller than that, and if Arthur could wrestle bears, this man could have drop kicked them. Despite the lines on his face and his grayish-white hair, he still moved with all the sprightliness of a much younger man (much, much younger than Arthur and Maria knew).

“Don’t look at me,” he easily replied, “I don’t exactly keep up with all the new technology.” He left out, of course, the fact that things such as batteries, steam engines, the printing press, and the mechanical clock had all been ‘new’ at some point within his lifetime. Or, for that matter, glasses themselves.

Maria smiled, gesturing with her hand. “Well, that’s only because you’re so tall that it takes awhile for you to see what all us mere mortals down here are doing, Mister Caeus.”

Caeus. Albert Caeus. It was the name he used now, and so very close to the name he had been born with, all those many… many years ago. Alcaeus, son of Alcmene and Amphitryon. One of two sons, actually. Twins, the other being named Iphicles.

Then the troll had come. The troll who had killed the infant twins’ father in an attack which had resulted in its blood spilling in the crib of the infant Alcaeus, gifting the child with its incredible strength and regenerative power. Strength which had grown as the boy aged, drawing the attention of the being known as Zeus. That so-called god had taken an interest in the boy, beginning to train him. Which had angered his wife, Hera, who sent the boy on many errands designed to kill him.

Yet Alcaeus had persisted, had continued to grow in strength and power despite Hera’s attempts to kill him. So he had taken on a new name, one meaning ‘Glory of Hera’, to show that it was his trials brought by the goddess that would make him famous.

Glory of Hera. Or, in a word, Heracles.

For quite some time, Heracles had proven himself against all comers and challenges. His desire to win Zeus’ approval and best Hera despite everything she threw at him quickly became an obsession. He did many good things throughout his quests. Yet also many bad things, things that he could take no pride in now. Yet at the time, all that had mattered were the victories, which continued to pile up. He was the grandest champion in all the lands, in every land.

Then the Bystander Effect had happened. And when it had, Heracles had seen what the people he had spent so much time trying to prove himself to, so much of his life working for, had been capable of. He had seen the unprecedented deaths that happened due to them erasing humanity’s memory and understanding of magic and of other intelligent species. He’d seen entire cities fall, had seen families turning on one another. He’d seen death to a scale he had never before imagined.

It had been too much, and the man called Heracles (or Hercules depending on the land he traveled through) had simply… disappeared. He left, disappearing into the mists of history and then myth. As far as almost all were concerned, he was dead.

For Heracles himself, it was a retirement. And a rebirth. Taking up the name of his birth once more, Alcaeus had kept to himself. He spent centuries simply traveling the world, moving often and sometimes spending entire decades living entirely alone and isolated in lands beyond true civilization. All that time had been spent coming to terms with his own anger, with the deeds he had done, both good and bad. The fury and obsession with proving himself against all odds had, in time, faded from a raging inferno to a spark held deep in his soul.

He had needed time to come to terms with who he was as a person. And who he was, was a very angry man who could quite easily lose himself in violence, and in drink. So he had sworn off both, had spent many years as a pacifist who did not raise a hand to others.

That too, had been going too far, only in the other direction. It had taken centuries beyond that for Alcaeus to find the concept of balance in his life. Balance which he was still striving for, but was at least closer to.

It was during one of those attempts at balance that he had met a then-young Arthur Chambers in a bar, and had become quite friendly with the man. After all, how could Alcaeus not make time to spend with a man after witnessing him, while a completely normal Bystander human in every respect, actually come out on top of a fist fight with a werewolf?

Seeing that remarkable event, he had bought Arthur a drink. Then another. And from that point on, the two had been friends. Even to the point of now, many years after that event, when Arthur and his wife had taken ‘Old Al’ with them to shop for new supplies for their garden.

It had been a long time, from their point of view. Long enough that, despite the fact that Alcaeus had been taking care to make himself look older over time, they had actually commented on his seeming agelessness.

He would have to leave soon, would have to fake a death just as he had with so many other Bystanders he had grown close to. It was a time he was not looking forward to.

“Well,” Maria Chambers insisted, “you are coming to dinner, anyway. And don’t give me any of that lip about not wanting to be an imposition. You’re coming and that’s final.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Al quietly acquiesced with a small smile. “Though I should probably find something to bring with, so I don’t feel like too much of a bother. I’ll meet the two of you up front.”

They made some noise about him not needing to worry himself about it, but headed off. Al watched them go, smiling softly. Slowly, he turned to look at the nearby shelf full of more mulch bags and other planting supplies. After eying the shelf briefly, he glanced up and down the aisle. Empty. Quiet. Not many people in the gardening section.

Without warning, his fist abruptly lashed out. He punched straight through the shelf and out to the other side. His groping hand caught hold of a startled figure there, clutching the fabric of his shirt before giving a hard yank forward. There was a hard thud as their head struck the shelf, and Al released them to collapse to the floor.

Whistling softly, he casually strolled around to the other aisle, where the figure in a dark trenchcoat was just starting to pick himself up.

“No,” Al calmly announced while putting his foot on the back of the figure’s head to keep him down on the floor. “Stay.” When the unknown man tried to grab his foot, he added, just as calmly, “If you try to possess me, I will crush your mind more thoroughly than I could crush your head by stepping down right now.”

The figure froze, and Al went on. “I told the last one of you who came sniffing around here, the Chambers are off limits. What part of that didn’t you understand?”

“Hey, hey, it’s not them, it’s not personal,” the hurried response came. “It’s their grandkid. She’s a Heretic, a Crossroads Heretic. But she knows about Seosten, and we think her dad knows, cuz he disappeared. So we’ve been trying to find him. But that means getting to his parents, her grandparents. He’s gone, we thought he’d contact them sometime. That’s all I know, I swear. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. I know what they tell me, and that’s to take one of those two and find out what they know about what their son and granddaughter are doing.”

“Lincoln Chambers is on a special investigation,” Al murmured, though that much obviously wasn’t true. “And Arthur’s granddaughter is–aww hell.” He muttered under his breath, stepping down a little more firmly. “You listen up. If I see, hear, or even smell you, or any of your kind, around my friends again, I will send you back to your masters taking up a third of the space your body ought to, with all the same parts still attached. And I do have ways of checking that they stay clean and unpossessed. You understand?”

He felt the quick nod beneath his foot, then moved it. “Go.”

The Seosten scrambled up, giving a brief glance back before starting to hurry off. Al watched him go, sighing to himself. Maybe he would poke around a bit, see what else he could find out about this whole situation while keeping an eye on Arthur and Maria to make sure they weren’t dragged into it. The Seosten, after all, weren’t known for giving up quite that easily. In any case, it sounded like his latest retirement was about to come to an end.

But hey, it had been nice while it lasted.

******

Saint Nicholas – Turkey – March 15th, 2018

It was a quiet, lonely grave, set in an unknown grove far from any sign of civilization. The simple headstone, itself having been replaced and updated several times since the original burial, was marked by words carved in Latin reading, when translated: Father Nicholas – Immortal In Deeds And In Love.

Any who found the grave would not believe it contained the man that it truly did. Yet Saint Nicholas of Myra, the man who had inspired the legend that would become Santa Claus, did indeed lay entombed here, far from County Kilkenny, Ireland, where Bystanders believed his tomb to be.

Here, in this quiet grove, a dozen figures stood in solemn, reverent vigil around the grave. Each stood no higher than a foot, though otherwise appeared to be adult humans. Seven males and five females, varying in apparent age. Each wore a patchwork outfit of various brightly-colored bits of fabric, including phrygian caps. Caps which, at the moment, were held against their hearts.

Their ancestors had come to this planet in a ship, though due to an accident in the cryo-freezing of those ancestors, none remembered precisely where that ship had originated from, nor what their race was called. The ship itself had been badly damaged in the crash that had awoken them, leaving only a portion of its name visible. Three letters: LVS. In time, they had taken that as a name for themselves. Lvs, or simply… elves.

While the current surviving elves had never truly met the man to whom they were paying homage, their respect and adoration for him could not have been greater. It had been the great Saint Nicholas, after all, who had taken in their ancestors and protected them from the Heretics who had come to kill them. It had been he who, through his incredible generosity and understanding, had given them a home and a place to work. He had taught them to make gifts for the children, before passing them out himself.

He had been a shining beacon of love and grace, changing the lives of those early elves roughly sixteen hundred years earlier. And after his death, they had grieved for him as if he was one of their own.

But they had done more than grieve. They, and in time, their descendants, had worked to ensure that the legend of Saint Nicholas’ generosity and love of children lived on. They furthered the legend of what became known as Santa Claus, so that every Bystander child might, for at least a time, believe in magic.

And every March fifteenth, they gathered here at his grave to honor the man who had given so much. He had been a human, an ordinary human in almost every respect aside from his gift to see through the then-much weaker Bystander Effect. That itself was something no one could explain. Nor did they want to try. That was simply who he was.

“Our sorrow is a hole which lies ahead of us,” one of the elves, a man known as Tuelen, quietly intoned.

Around him, the others all spoke as one, “Our joy will fill it.”

“Our grief is a pit which stretches before us,” Tuelen spoke next.

Again, the others spoke their part of the ritual as one. “Our deeds will fill it.”

“Our loss is a tomb which stands in front of us,” Tuelen finally declared.

“It is filled,” came the reverant chorus.

“It is filled,” Tuelen softly agreed. His eyes closed, and he thought of the stories that his own grandparents had shared with him, of the stories their grandparents had told them, of the man himself. A man he was entirely too many generations removed from knowing. Yet despite never coming close to meeting Saint Nicholas, he and the other remaining descendants of those original elves would continue the tradition. They would keep his memory alive.

They would defy the Bystander Effect and those who created it, by putting an old, ordinary Bystander human into the minds of as many as they could. Their ancestors had promised the old man that he would not be forgotten. Saint Nicholas would always be remembered.

One by one, the twelve small figures turned away from the grave and walked away. Tuelen was the last to move, staring at the marker for a few long moments after the others had departed. He thought not only of Nicholas himself, but of his dear, beloved family. They had all been lost over the years, some to age, others to more violent ends. Yet through it all, they had maintained the work. As would he.

Touching his fingers to his lips, then to the name on the gravestone, he finally turned to walk away. The others were waiting for him as he reached the road beyond the grove several minutes later.

“To the workshop?” Frodey, the youngest of their group while still being an adult spoke up. She was a tiny female only nine inches in height, barely above a child, with a shock of bright purple hair that stuck out in every direction.

“To the workshop,” he agreed. It was only March, giving them around nine months before the next Christmas. But given what day it was, none would have been happy or comfortable doing anything but working. Working on the toys and gifts that they would give children, to commemorate Saint Nicholas.

They couldn’t really go to every house in the world, of course. Not even enough to actually make a dent in things. And in those places they did go, the Bystander Effect made the parents within dismiss the idea of a ‘real Santa Claus’ when they saw gifts whose sender seemed unclear. No, the so-called elves could only make relatively few children happy each year. But those few mattered to them. Because they would have mattered to Father Nicholas.

And really… was that true? Yes, they were only able to directly help relatively few on that holiday. But so many others came together to do even more work for one another. In a way, the spirit of Saint Nicholas was helping so many more than those few whom the elves could directly affect. Just as their ancestors had hoped for. Just as they had worked so long to ensure.

The elves worked through the year. Not only for the single night of Christmas, though that was their main show. They also worked for other nights, giving toys and other bits of help here and there wherever they could. They worked, they laughed, they played… And they remembered. They remembered the man who had saved the lives of their ancestors and given them so much to live for, all those many years ago.

They remembered the man called Saint Nick. And ensured that he would, in turn, be remembered by far more than they.

******

Vlad Tepes – Visegrád – 1475

The emaciated figure hung from chains in the dark dungeon. Dried blood decorated his otherwise naked, near-skeletal body. Scars ran freely over that nude form, while his dark hair fell long enough to obscure his face with his head held down. Several sharp hooks where various torture elements hung protruded from the wall just behind him. His toes were held an inch or so from the cold stone floor, where more blood had fallen to stain the area around a small drain. A curious rat sniffed one of his toes, preparing to take a bite until the dangling man brought his foot back and kicked it to send the rat scurrying away with an annoyed squeal.

“Ah, so you are alive.” The voice, speaking quietly from the nearby nearly pitch-black doorway, sounded vaguely amused. The man who entered was dressed in finery, his skin flawlessly smooth and perfumed. Clearly well-fed, the blond man slowly descended the steps into the dungeon, carefully stepping over another rat before stopping in front of the prisoner. “Aww, come now,” he cajoled the man, whose head remained down, “you know how I enjoy these chats. They have been ever so informative this past decade.”

Snapping his fingers then, he spoke brightly, “Ah, I know the problem. You wish to be referred to by name, yes? What is it the people call you? Impaler? Yes, Vlad the Impaler. Or… do you prefer simply ‘The Impaler’? Sir The Impaler, perhaps?” His taunting tone turned sharp as he smacked a hand through the dangling man’s hair to strike his face. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Slowly, the man in question raised his head. His face was just as scarred and broken as the rest of his body, though his eyes were sharp, with cunning that shone through even in his condition. “Impaler,” he spoke in a deep voice that rumbled through the dark, damp room. “It’s a bit… on the nose.” A small smile crossed his face. “I’d hate to see what they would have called me if I had followed my first instinct to have them fed to the pigs. Pigfeeder? How would you terrify a populace with a name like that?”

“Terrify?” His tormentor echoed before chuckling. “Oh, you’ll never be terrifying anyone again, Impaler. Except perhaps the children when your body is strung up in the square. My father has tired of keeping you here. You don’t even squeal the way you used to. You’ve become too boring to torture. Weak as you are, I give it another… few days before we put you out of our misery. Though if you beg very nicely, I may be persuaded to–”

“I like your clothes.” The interruption came from the hanging man, as he swept his gaze all the way down, then up again. “It has been awhile since I wore such finery. But the perfume? That has to go. Far too many enemies with sharp noses. And it’s a little bit… poncy, don’t you think?”    

“You…” Taken aback briefly, the finely-dressed man opened and shut his mouth before getting himself under control. “You clearly don’t understand your position here yet. Which is funny, because one would think that after so many years, even the least of–”

In mid-sentence, he stopped short as the prisoner abruptly moved. His body jerked as he twisted his wrists around the chains holding him before grabbing on tight to haul himself up. But even as his tormentor abruptly jumped back, the prisoner simply pulled up on those chains. With a grunt, he hauled his body up higher. A brief, wicked smile was flashed to the other man, before he abruptly swung his head back as hard as he could.

With a sickening thunk, the back of Vlad Tepes’ head was impaled on one of those sharp protrusions that held various torture instruments. His body went slack immediately, blood pouring freely down the already stained wall as his intelligent eyes faded.

And in the wake of that, a glowing figure appeared directly in front of the now-dead prisoner. The light faded, revealing a pale man with dirty blond hair that fell to his shoulders. His face looked as though it had been carved from marble, his eyes a pair of twinkling aquamarine gems. He wore a dark red form-fitting jumpsuit of material as far beyond the comprehension of the man before him as his sudden appearance was.

“Wha-wha–” the finely dressed man stumbled back, eyes wide with terror as his gaze snapped from the dead prisoner to the figure who had abruptly appeared in that flash of light. “Sorcery,” he blurted before starting to raise his voice to a shout, “Sorcer–

His words were cut off then, as the newly arrived man abruptly moved, turning into a blur that slammed into him. He was brought off the floor and pushed hard against the opposite wall with a hand over his mouth.

“Shhh, shhh…” the new arrival whispered. “We don’t want to be interrupted, do we?” Holding his hand over the other man’s mouth, he smiled. “I thought you wanted to meet the Impaler, after all.”

Watching the other’s eyes instinctively move past him to look at the now-dead figure hanging against the wall, the pale man chuckled softly. “Him? Oh no, no, no, no. Vlad. Vlad isn’t the Impaler. He was simply a boy. Simply a silly boy held hostage by the Turks almost thirty years ago. He wanted power, wanted a way to kill his enemies. I gave it to him. I believe… in the end… he found the cost too high. But I must say, all these years here in your dungeon have given me a new appreciation for the torment a human body can withstand. Your people, they are artists. I will most enjoy turning them to a better use of their talents.”

He slowly moved his hand from the other man’s mouth, to hear the whispered, “Wh-what… what are you?”

A new smile crossed his face then. “What am I? My people call me a Lie. But I am far more than that.” Leaning in very close then, he whispered almost seductively in the other man’s ear. “Let me show you.”

The finely-dressed man opened his mouth to scream, but it was too late. The figure holding him vanished, but the man remained pinned against that wall, trapped by a force far greater than he had been previously. His eyes slammed shut, and his body jerked once, then again.

Then his eyes opened, and the Lie looked out through new eyes. He surveyed his previous body, hanging there from the ceiling. A slight smile touched his new face, even as he straightened up. Glancing down at new hands, he turned them over a couple of times while ignoring the screaming, distant voice of his new body. It would fade away eventually.

“Yes,” he announced in his new voice, “no more perfume. And the hair… hmm.” With a thoughtful look, he stepped over to his old body. His hand reached past to touch the wall where the wet blood still dripped. Carefully, he dipped his finger in that blood, before drawing a simple rune on his own arm. After the spell was drawn, he touched it gently while murmuring the activation words.

His new body began to glow then, hair lengthening and darkening while his face reshaped itself. A moment later, it had transformed to look identical to the dead man, save for appearing much healthier and stronger, as he had in the time before his capture. He appeared to be Vlad Tepes, miraculously recovered from twelve years of torture and starvation and dressed in fine clothes.

“Better,” he announced then with a nod of satisfaction. “After all, what’s the point of cultivating a reputation if you just have to start over again every time you change bodies?”

Turning on his heel, he began to walk from the dungeon, only to pause at the foot of the steps. Head cocked to the side, he listened briefly to a pleading voice that only he could hear. “No, I am not Vlad Tepes. Though I have enjoyed being the son of Vlad Dracul.”

His voice was decisive, as he began his way up the steps. “Yes, I like the sound of that. That is a name that I will hold onto, a name that I will make my own. Son of Dracul.

“Dracula.”  

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