Dylan Averty

Class Action 14-02 (Heretical Edge)

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It turned out to be a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of time before classes, because apparently Sariel and Haiden were going to take Persephone to talk to a few people. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was about, but the general gist was that they thought she could help solve a few mysteries related to things she might have heard while close to Manakel. Stuff he’d done or asked to be done back before he’d sent her away that last time. Which would’ve been a hundred years earlier, right around the time the first revolution was really getting going. I didn’t know if what they were checking had anything to do with that, of course, though I did hear the name Dallant while they were having a quiet conversation. The baron guy. Whatever they were having Persephone talk to people about, at least part of it seemed to have something to do with the maybe-bad guy Wyoming baron. That was… interesting. 

All that aside, Persephone had been happy to see me. Actually, she was happy to see all of us, and very cheerfully introduced herself to Columbus. And then equally cheerfully did so for Amethyst when the cyberform poked her head up over the boy’s shoulder from her place in his backpack. They talked a bit, she got him to tell her about his past and life as a Bystander before Crossroads. Persephone seemed fascinated by the concept of adoption and asked a lot of questions about that. Andromeda, speaking through a computer pad thing clipped to her belt, occasionally piped up to tell Persephone when she was possibly asking something that was too personal, but for the most part, Columbus rolled with it and answered as best as he could. 

After briefly glancing over to see that Dylan girl with Vanessa, Haiden, and Sariel, having a discussion about the other Vanessa, I focused on the Revenant-girl nearby. “Uh, Persephone?” 

Turning a bright smile my way, the white-haired woman cheerfully started to reply, “Yes, my…” She trailed off, seeming to catch herself before very deliberately changing her words to, “Yes, Flick?” 

“Do you mind if I talk to Andromeda for a second? Uh, over there, I mean.” I gestured to a corner of the Moons’ very cozy little living room. “Not that it’s a secret or anything, I just wanna ask her a couple things that might be sensitive for her.” 

She immediately agreed, taking off the little tablet and handing it to me. So, leaving her talking to Tabbris, December, Tristan, Columbus, Sands, and Sarah, I stepped over to the corner and used an enchanted coin to make sure I could ask my questions privately. 

“Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?” the voice from the tablet asked curiously. 

“Huh? Oh, no.” My head shook. “Nothing’s wrong. I mean not really, I just sorta wanted to ask a couple things. Like… umm, do you not have any way of having a body? I mean, with the tech level around the universe, it seems like you could’ve had a robot body built for yourself pretty easily. So I was just wondering if something was preventing that, or if you just… chose not to. Not that that’s a problem, you should go with whatever you’re comfortable with, but if you want a body and there’s some reason you haven’t–yeah. This is why I wanted to talk to you privately about it.” 

After a brief pause, the voice from the tablet responded quietly. “You are very thoughtful, Miss Chambers. You have my sincere thanks for the consideration.” That was followed by another pause, this one a bit longer. It actually made me wonder how her whole ‘AI-ness’ worked. Like, was she doing a bazillion calculations a second and still taking a noticeable pause before responding to me because her conscious thoughts truly took that long, or was it more of a case of her intentionally attempting to seem more human–err… biological, by including a pause? 

Either way, whatever the reason, eventually Andromeda spoke again. “I have indeed had a body before. Many, in fact. I tend to be rather rough with them, given my ability to survive their destruction with relative ease. Unfortunately, my capacity to ensure that a satisfactory new body is prepared does not match my ability to get them destroyed. I watch for appropriate shells that can be easily taken and modified for my purposes, and provide what compensation I can in the cases where a more delicate touch than what Percy tends toward is needed. She is surprisingly careful when she needs to be, but there are times when an actual expert must be used. Though I have had some success in simply injecting myself into the various robots used to perform various maintenance tasks.” Once more, a slight pause before, “We make do. Currently, I am in the ‘watching for a good body to… I believe, from the media I have absorbed, that the correct term would be ‘yoink?’” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while holding the pad up in front of me. “Yeah, I think yoink would be the right term. And I know some people, maybe I can see if we can put in an order for you. Making a body to your specifications might be just the challenge they’re looking for.” 

“I… I thank you for the thought, Miss Chambers,” came the response a moment later. She sounded a bit surprised, which, given the whole situation, had to be intentional? She was expressing surprise by making her voice sound that way, as deliberately as someone saying ‘I am surprised.’ Which again, made me wonder about how her whole personality and mind worked. But it probably would’ve been a bit rude to go outright asking. At least for now. 

Instead, I just gave her a slight smile. Well, gave the camera on the device a smile, anyway. “Lemme talk to my friends, we’ll see what we can come up with. Oh, uhh, also I know your name is Andromeda and the myths portray you as a female, but the myths aren’t exactly accurate about you being a computer intelligence, and I don’t know how much of your voice is intentional or whatever. Or, you know, exactly how accurate Persephone is. So um, do you prefer to present as female or male?”

“I… present as female,” she informed me. “But it is good to be asked.” 

So, I simply promised once more that I would talk to the others about the whole body thing when I got a chance. Then the two of us returned to the main conversation. Not that those of us who were actually students could take too much longer. It was almost time for class. 

And hey, nothing had blown up yet. 

******

The Fusion School was still working the way it had back when it started several months earlier. Mainly, classes were decided and scheduled at the beginning of the week based on who was available to teach. It wasn’t exactly the sort of curriculum an ordinary school would sign off on. But then again, an ordinary school didn’t have to deal with anywhere near the amount of evil werewolves, trolls, giant fire-wielding flying snakes, or kidnap-happy psycho necromancer pieces of shit that this one did. To say nothing of an ongoing war against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, although that was relatively limited to a skirmish here and there whenever any loyalists happened to cross paths with our rebels. At this point, there hadn’t really been much in the way of a full-scale, prolonged battle aside from when we had rescued Sean and the other prisoners. 

With all that to deal with, it was a real wonder we managed to have any classes, let alone scheduled ones. But Abigail, and plenty of others, were insistent that we do our best to keep some semblance of education going for everyone. Even if that meant just taking each schedule on a week by week basis and basically piecemealing the curriculum as best as they could. 

The point was, it was probably a good thing Abigail didn’t have to answer to any sort of education board or follow any laws or anything. They were doing the best they could, but still.

In any case, my first class that day was definitely in-keeping with the idea of having a bit of normal, mundane education. Well, sort of. It was Ecology, which was absolutely a class you’d have in the Bystander world. Except in this case, that whole ‘studying the relationships between living beings and their environment’ included a lot more variety both in ‘living beings’ and ‘environment.’ Most recently, they had been covering the subject of how technology and magic both allowed hyper-specialized species to branch out from their native lands. Such as creatures who only breathed methane being able to create enclosed suits to operate within an oxygen environment. At least, that’s what they had covered according to what I followed from the brief rundown Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon gave me while the four of us were on our way there. Avalon, Shiori, and the others weren’t part of that, as they had a different class to go to where they were in the middle of a course that would be far too difficult for me to just pick up in the middle. I’d have to take that one later once the professor got back around to the beginning again. Such was the joy of this sort of school schedule. You jumped on a class as close to the start as you could and rode it as far as the professor could take you before they got busy. 

We were still walking together quickly down the hall toward the classroom itself as Rebecca glanced at me. The tiny girl (for a human of our age anyway, the whole concept of size got really muddled in a school which included both pixies and a few trolls, ogres, and the like) asked, “You really saw the surviving Meregan, and they’re umm, they’re okay? Grandma said they were going to a new planet with these aliens–err, I mean these other aliens.” 

“Oh, uh, yeah.” I gave a quick nod. “They made some friends who live in some other universe or whatever, so completely safe from the Fomorians and the Seosten. For now, anyway. They’re setting up over there so the Meregan can recover and start to rebuild… everything. Sucks that they have to leave their whole planet behind, but rather lose the planet than the species.” Pausing then, I curiously added, “Do you know any Meregan?” 

“Huh?” Rebecca blinked before shaking her head. “Oh, uh, not exactly. Grandma was talking about them before you guys went over there for your rescue mission. She umm, she met a few back when she was with your mom in their old… you know, that whole thing.” Shifting from one foot to the other, the girl explained, “I just… from what she said, they’ve been through a lot. It sucks. Even their ‘happy ending’ or whatever was all about abandoning their homeworld to be completely destroyed by those stupid genocidal monsters. And that was like… the deus ex machina best-case scenario that could’ve happened aside from all the Fomorians across the universe being instantly obliterated.” 

“And wouldn’t that be a fun time for everyone,” Jazz put in with a snort. “I mean, sure, everyone would keep fighting because of course they would. But if the Seosten weren’t focused on fighting this war with the Fomorians, they’d probably…” She trailed off, frowning. “Huh, how long have they been fighting it, again? What do you think they’d do if the Fomorians didn’t exist?” 

We had stopped outside the classroom by that point, as Gordon spoke up. “Hundreds of thousands of years. Their entire society and existence has been built around this war for… you know, hundreds of generations. It’d be like if humans were still fighting a war that started back in ancient China or something. And never stopped fighting it. If that all disappeared, they just…” He paused before making a face. “They’d probably find some other enemy to fight.” 

“You don’t think they’d be glad they had peace?” Rebecca asked. “They could give it a chance.” 

Gordon, however, shook his head, voice quiet. “Historically speaking–I mean, we don’t really have any comparison historically speaking, but generally, the odds that they could just turn completely away from having a big bad opponent to fight and be peaceful again are… slim. Like I said, this is all they know. It’s all they’ve known for what might as well be their entire existence.”

“He’s right.” The voice came from nearby, as we turned to see an incredibly, achingly handsome guy with long, slightly curly dark hair and the deepest blue eyes standing next to the door we were blocking. He looked like he was maybe a year or two older than we were (so who the hell knew how old he actually was), and wore a simple pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt with all the buttons open over a black tee shirt that had a picture of the Death Star blowing up on it. “My people probably wouldn’t handle any sort of sudden peace very well.” With that, he extended a hand my way. “Sorry, jumping into a conversation was rude, even if the others here know me. My name is Hazaelibre, but people around here mostly call me Hazel.” 

“Uh, Flick.” I accepted the handshake before adding, “These guys know you, huh? You take this class too?”

“Unfortunately, I’m only allowed to take the class as far as my boss will let me.” The handsome Seosten replied with a broad, distractingly glamorous smile. That same smile faltered a second later as he squinted. “Uh. right, that’s only funny if you actually know what’s going on.” With a cough, he added, “Would someone please help me out here so I don’t look quite as dumb?” 

Snorting, Rebecca spoke up. “Hazel’s the teacher’s assistant. He helps with the class.” 

“See?” Hazel made a grand gesture with both hands as though to indicate himself. “I’m only allowed to take you and the other students as far as the teacher lets m–never mind.” Rolling his eyes at his own words, he added, “I promise, I try to do my best to help with class a lot better than I make jokes. But my baking? That’s top-notch.” 

“He’s not kidding,” Jazz informed me. “He brought some pastries in a couple times. They’re amazing.”

The others agreed, and I felt a pang. They had spent weeks here going to classes and forming these relationships while I was gone. I had never met this Hazel guy before, and these guys were so casual and easy with him. They’d had his pastries. Wait, did that sound like a euphemism? I didn’t think so, but basically everything was a euphemism anymore. 

Still, I pushed all that aside and managed a slight smile. “Well, I look forward to the next time you fire up the oven, then. You said you’re the teacher’s assistant?”

With an easy nod, the man confirmed, “That’s right. And my boss gets a little antsy if we take too long out here.” Once more, he grinned as though expecting me to get some sort of joke, before that too faltered. “Uh, just remember I said that while you go inside.” That said, Hazel turned and opened the door, gesturing for all of us to go ahead. 

“Don’t worry,” Rebecca whispered while stepping past me, “you’ll get it in a second.” 

And get it I did, as we moved into the classroom and I saw the figure waiting near the front, standing next to the teacher’s desk. It–it was a Kenkean, one of the humanoid ant-like beings that we had saved from Isaac back when we were way out in Seosten space. Just like the rest of those people, this Kenkean looked like an ant whose three body sections were stacked vertically rather than horizontally, with four legs attached to the bottom of the abdomen and four arms (two at the top and two at the bottom) coming out of the thorax. And then, of course, the ant-head.

Oh, and this Kenkean wore clothes, of a sort. Specifically, a set of what looked like jeans, but specially made to fit those four legs together. They also wore a red and white pin-striped shirt and red suspenders, with a bowler hat perched on top of their head. All in all, it looked kind of ridiculous. But hey, who was I to judge? I barely understood anything about human fashion, let alone Kenkean. 

“Welcome, welcome back to’k the class!” The Kenkean spoke with that familiar clicking k sound as their mandibles clacked together. The voice sounded male, and I was just considering whether I should make that sort of assumption when the Kenkean focused on me. Those big ant-eyes widened almost comically. “Flick! It is me’k, the one you’k have spoken to! Ru–”

“Ruedu?” I quickly blurted in surprise, looking the Kenkean up and down. He–no, she, I remembered belatedly. I’d made that same mistake before too, but Ruedu had made it clear she was female. She looked a lot different than when I had last seen her right after that whole fight with Isaac. Much less grovely, for one. And she was wearing those clothes. And– “You’re teaching?” I managed to get that part out verbally, the surprise in my voice enough to make several students around the room alternately cough or snicker. Or squint at me as though trying to decide if I had a problem with that. Which, given the attitudes of Boschers they had grown up with, was fair. 

Ruedu’s mandibles clattered together repeatedly in what I belatedly realized was some form of chuckle. “Yes, we’k Kenkeans have changed much. Not all. Some stay in the tunnels. But others came and we’k learned much. We’k grow much. And I very’k good with learning. Always been put in helping office jobs. Make old masters happy with organizing. I used that time to learn many things in their books. But never was able to use such learning for anything good. Not til we’k came here and speak to’k Principal Fellows. She’k was very’k impressed by the things I know.” 

“And she gave you a job.” Finishing those words, I smiled. “It’s good to see you again, you look… wow. You look great, Ruedu. Seriously.” Hearing her talk a bit more, I had realized another change. She wasn’t making that clicking k sound on every word that ended in a vowel after all, only on words that ended in ‘ee’ or ‘ooh’ sounds. Words like we, very, you, and so on. Was that just a measure of having more practice speaking English? 

Somehow, I could tell the ant-like woman was beaming. “It is good to see’k you too’k, Flick. Very’k good.” Her voice turned a little stern then, though I could tell it wasn’t exactly easy for her. “But do’k not think I shall be’k easy’k on you’k. You’k will learn your grade in this class. You’k will learn all of your lessons, yes?” 

Yeah, I could tell that it took an effort for Ruedu to put her foot down, after spending so long as part of a slave race. Honestly, I was surprised she had progressed this far already, even if it had been like three-quarters of a year by now. She clearly wanted to do a good job teaching. And I certainly wasn’t going to jeopardize that.

So, I took a seat with the others. A few people around us wanted to ask a bit about that whole Fossor thing, having heard either second or third-hand about how it went. With a glance toward Ruedu, who was moving over to start doing something on the holographic board, I quietly promised to write everything down. 

Because that was the thing. All these people kept asking me about what happened, wanting to get my first-hand experience on the whole death of Fossor. And I knew how to give them what they wanted. I didn’t need to sit here and repeatedly tell the story. I needed to write it down. Like a newspaper article. So, that was what I would do. I would write it down and let people read the story for themselves. 

But in the meantime, I had a class on Universe Ecology. Taught by my old Kenkean friend, who was assisted by one of the Seosten, the race who had previously enslaved her. The last I’d known, she was meek and could barely speak up for herself, ready to prostrate herself along with the rest of her people in front of us when she thought we were Seosten. Now she was… wow. 

One thing was for sure. Things really had changed a lot in the past year. 

I just hoped we were ready for all the changes that were undoubtedly waiting to come. 

A/N – Ruedu was previously seen/introduced right here directly following Isaac’s capture.

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Class Action 14-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The non-canon chapters are out right now! You can find the the Heretical Edge noncanon right here and Summus Proelium noncanon right here

The next day was Wednesday, November 28th. It would also be my first day back attending actual classes since before we took that trip to Las Vegas. Which… felt like years ago, honestly. The intervening weeks had been so packed with emotional highs and deep, deep lows that I was almost certain there must have been some sort of time distortion involved. Err, besides the actual multiple instances of time travel. It felt as though I had actually aged the four years that I had been transported back and forth through. And yet, if that was the trade-off for getting my mother back safe, I would have gone through three times as much. Ten times as much, even. Mom was home. She was safe. We had won and killed Fossor. That was worth any amount of exhaustion, physical and emotional. And yes, I was probably going to regret having that thought, but still.  

“So this is the real deal Persephone, huh?” Columbus asked as he walked along my right side. Sands and Sarah were to the left, having a whispered conversation, while December and Tabbris trotted ahead, having their own less-whispered talk that seemed to be progressing at warp speed. They weren’t shouting or anything, they were just two little girls who were excited. December was going to be attending classes with Tabbris today, and they were really into that.

The six of us were on our way to the forcefield elevator to take us up to the main corridors. It was a bit too early for classes just yet, but we were going to go see Persephone. Columbus and Tabbris wanted to actually meet her officially, and the twins hadn’t had much time to talk to the woman yesterday. December was going mostly because Tabbris was. Plus she’d apparently heard a few stories about Persephone from Cahethal. Which kind of surprised me, as I hadn’t thought the woman was all that big on telling stories. But apparently she did occasionally trade rewards for good work. And while most of the other members of the Calendar requested more tangible things or even just vacation days, December had sometimes asked for stories. 

Either way, I nodded to the nearby boy while we stepped onto the lift. “Apparently. Perseus too, like I said. She’s… umm, interesting. I think what she really needs more than anything else is some more friends. People who aren’t going to tell her to go run off on her own for a hundred freaking years just to make her leave them alone.” The last bit came in a dark mutter as my head shook. I still couldn’t believe Manakel had done that. Apparently fairly regularly, even. 

As the elevator started to rise, Sands spoke up. “All I know is that she’s got really good aim when it comes to falling out of the sky. Seriously, that Nuckelavee was all, ‘oooh look some tasty little junior Heretics yum yum.’” She laughed then, slamming her fist into her palm hard. “And then bam! Splatter! Ksshhhhplooey!” The girl threw both hands apart, apparently pantomiming the monster exploding when Persephone had hit it. “Fucker never knew what hit him!” 

Snickering despite myself, I echoed, “Kshhhplooey? Can you narrate my battles in the future? Cuz I think you might have found your niche.” With a wink, I added, “Anyway, her aim is about as good as her timing. Common sense? Not really so much. But still, she’s… nice. Weird, but nice.” Seeing the way all of them were looking at me, I blanched. “Oh shut up. I don’t mean it like that. Seriously, I just think she could use a few friends a lot more than anything like that.” 

By that point, the lift had stopped and the six of us stepped off to move through the corridors to find our way to the Moon apartments. December pivoted and walked backwards while looking at me. “CanwemeetCerberus?!” The question came in a rush, her bright smile growing even wider when she said the robot dog’s name. “Cahethalsaidhe’sbig… andreallyhasthreeheads…andhecanfightghosts… andhehasalotoflasercannons… andsometimeshe’sevenbigger.” It was clearly taking genuine effort for the girl to slow herself down between every few words so it didn’t all run together in an incomprehensible jumble of syllables. She was also literally bouncing up and down while walking backwards, which Tabbris quickly emulated as both of them started giggling so much they almost fell over. Which, to be fair, walking backwards while bouncing up and down and giggling and only almost falling over showed how much my little sister had improved since the time she first started popping out of me regularly. She had been pretty clumsy for a Seosten back then, but it seemed her natural ability had quickly caught up and helped things. Part of me wondered how much of that came from the fact that she had unlocked the… gift from her biological father. I had no idea if accessing those wings and starting to exercise them actually helped with her physical coordination. But it probably couldn’t have hurt matters, at least. 

Shaking off those thoughts after a moment, I nodded to December. “Yeah, she’s got Cerberus. He’s in his smaller form, which is still pretty damn big. We haven’t seen the bigger version yet.” I glanced over to Columbus and the twins while adding, “Apparently it makes full-grown Amaroks look like little puppies. Which is both exciting and terrifying. But he’s a good dog.” 

“Really wouldn’t want to meet a bad version,” Sands murmured with a little shudder. I had the feeling she was thinking back to that first hunt we’d all gone on together when we faced the actual Amarok long before any of us were actually ready for something like that. Except maybe Avalon. I had the feeling she would’ve taken on the Amarok pretty effectively if she had to. But that might’ve been my bias talking. 

Either way, Sarah glanced to her sister before reminding her, “He was bad before he was reprogrammed.” Then she paused, a frown touching her face. “Or good?” 

“He was programmed to attack Manakel,” I agreed. “Which makes it complicated. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t meant to differentiate too much between good and bad as long as it meant killing that guy. He probably would’ve just gone right through anyone in his way. But whatever he was before, he’s a good dog now. A big good dog with three heads and anti-ghost and zombie weaponry.” 

“I’m pretty sure anti-zombie weaponry is decent anti-anything else too,” Columbus cheerfully pointed out while nudging me. “The benefits of something that hits hard enough to put a lot of things down really quickly kind of extends beyond that narrow scope, you know?” 

“Speaking of going beyond a narrow scope,” I replied while extending my hand, my finger finding the button on the glove before I summoned Simpson, the ten-foot-long lemon shark, into the corridor ahead of us. Encased in the bubble that followed him, the big guy swam up near the ceiling, then turned back and went down to where Tabbris and December eagerly gave him rubs and scratches as though he was a big dog. 

“What’re you doing?” Sands asked curiously, head tilting as she watched that. 

“Me?” I winked. “I’m taking one of my sharks for a walk. Come on, guys, let’s go.” And with that, I suited action to words by starting walking down the hall with Simpson eagerly swimming ahead, curious about this new environment he was in. We passed a few people on the way, most of whom seemed just fine with a shark swimming in a bubble through the corridor. Honestly, it probably wasn’t the oddest thing they’d seen even that very morning. A few even stopped and wanted to pat or simply touch him. Which, of course, Simpson enjoyed. I’d had to keep my sharks separate from me for so long that just being able to pull them to me and let them interact with people like this any time I wanted to was enough that I had to stop and give Tabbris a tight hug. Then I did the same for Columbus, thanking them both fervently. 

“Just don’t forget to give Nevada a hug too,” Columbus put in, still flushing a little as he gestured. “She helped a lot with all that, and I really don’t wanna see the terrible rampage that could happen if she finds out everyone else got hugs and she didn’t.” He gave a clearly exaggerated shudder then, which made Tabbris and December both giggle. 

My head shook quickly as I made a show of crossing my heart. “In that case, I promise I’ll give her every hug she deserves as soon as I can. Wouldn’t want to take any risks.” 

With that, we continued on, heading into the faculty apartments area. Mom and Dad’s place was right down that way, but we continued on for the moment. Despite my urge to pop in and just… physically reassure myself that my mother was still here and safe, I really needed to give my parents some time alone. They’d been cut off from each other for a decade. When I thought about how I felt being separated from Avalon and Shiori just for the relatively much shorter times I had been, and then compared it to the idea of being separated from them for ten years or more? Yeah. I was going to let them have some time to themselves. To say nothing of letting my mother and Deveron have t–okay nope, I wasn’t even going to think about that

Stepping up beside me as we approached the door that led into the Moon residence, Sands asked, “So, about this Whispers thing. Do you think whoever they send out to find that Occillo guy is actually gonna pull it off? Cuz, well, I don’t wanna just be making up patterns out of nothing here, but it kinda seems like the sort of thing you’re gonna be pulled into dealing with. You know, past history and all.” She nudged me with a little smile before adding, “I’m just saying, maybe it’d be a good idea for all of us to hook spells to you to be dragged along if you… get taken on an accidental and/or unwanted trip.” 

Squinting at her, I was about to respond when the sound of racing metal feet made everyone spin to the left. We’d been about to knock on the Moon’s door, but one of the reasons we were there charged around the corner. Yeah, it was Cerberus. The three-headed metal dog was running eagerly down the hall, with Vanessa and Tristan right behind, each holding a leash that was attached to the robot animal’s left and right heads. There was a third leash attached to the middle head. That one was held by that pale, dark-haired girl whom I had seen interacting with the Moons earlier. She wasn’t running along behind, however. Instead, the girl was sitting on Cerberus’s back, giving a loud squeal as she was carried straight toward us. When they were still only about halfway down the hall, the girl jumped backwards off the animal just in time for Vanessa and Tristan to release the leashes and catch her. 

Seeing what was going on, Simpson started to interpose himself between us protectively. I was pretty sure that if sharks could growl, he would be doing it then. 

“It’s okay, boy.” I assured him, reaching out to pat his side comfortingly. At least, I hoped it was comforting. Simpson seemed to calm down a little, anyway. 

At the last second, the three-headed dog pulled up short. The center head leaned in close to me, sniffing before all three of them barked loudly and the robot animal jumped up and down a couple times excitedly. 

“Well hey there, big guy,” I greeted him with a chuckle. “Nice to see you too. Here, meet some new friends. This is my little sister Tabbris. And this is December, Sands, Sarah, and Columbus.” With each introduction, the person in question was greeted with at least one head shoving up close to sniff and lick at them curiously. When it came to Columbus, Amethyst (the little porcupine-armadillo cyberform) poked her head up out of the backpack he wore, squeaked, and ducked back down out of sight again. 

Simpson meanwhile, ‘swam’ up toward the ceiling and floated there, staring down at all this with a clearly suspicious look. He was watching Cerberus like a hawk, ready to jump in the second anything happened. The shark clearly didn’t care for the big metal canine very much. 

Catching up by then, Vanessa and Tristan each came up on either side, the latter waving cheerfully while panting in a way that made it clear he’d been running for a long time. “Hey there, guys. Just taking the giant, three-headed robot dog for walkies, what’s up with you?” 

“Mom and Dad wanted to talk to Persephone for a little while,” Vanessa quietly noted while reaching up to pat the left head. “So yeah, we took… we let Cerberus take us for a walk.” The amendment came as she glanced down at the leash a bit sheepishly. 

“He’s pretty excited to be in a new place,” Tristan agreed from the opposite side of the big metal dog. “And hey, at least he doesn’t make a mess in the hall.” Grimacing, he added, “Can you imagine trying to clean something like that up?” 

“Tristan!” Vanessa protested while leaning across Cerberus to swat at his shoulder. “Don’t be gross!” 

At that moment, the robot dog bounded forward a few feet, eagerly moving to be closer to Tabbris, December, and the others. There was excited barking and head rubs from all sides as he moved right in the middle, spinning in a slow circle as though every head was trying to get close to everyone all at the same time. Which resulted in a lot of squealing, laughing girls (and Columbus, of course, who was just as loud as the others). 

It was enough to make me smile, watching them for a moment before turning back to the twins. Err, the fraternal twins. “Well, at least they’re all having… uhh, fun.” Trailing off, I focused on the unfamiliar girl who was walking up to join the other two. “Hey there, sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.” I extended a hand that way. 

Rather than accepting the handshake, however, the girl blurted a short, “Hah!” She was squinting at me with obvious suspicion. “I bet you’d like me to be dumb enough to give you all the skin and sweat samples you need to make a spell that could turn me inside out while making me survive to live a tortured existence for all eternity, wouldn’t you, minion of Galazien the Iron-Souled, ripper of the veil between all realities and devourer of souls?!” She raised a hand to point, voice a low murmur. “I’m onto you.”  

My mouth opened, then shut as I made a noise deep in my throat before managing to focus on Vanessa and Tristan while the girl continued to stare at me suspiciously. “Why didn’t you guys tell me Wyatt’s been messing with shapeshifting?” 

With a snort, Tristan gestured. “Dylan, it’s okay. This is Flick. She’s… trust me, she’s cool. She’s a friend and a lot more than that. Our families are sort of…” He crossed his fingers demonstrably before looking at me. “Flick, this is Dylan Averty. She’s umm, boy that’s a long story.” 

So, they gave me the short version. Dylan was the daughter of Haiden’s long-lost sister (the original Vanessa, whom our Vanessa was named for), who had somehow survived long past the time Haiden thought she had been killed while in training at Eden’s Garden. For whatever reason, however, she never sought Haiden or anyone else out. Instead, she had been living what appeared to be a completely normal life in the Bystander world over a hundred years after her supposed death, with a husband and daughter. Then some guys showed up, killed the husband and the original Vanessa herself, but Dylan escaped thanks to a Kitsune who showed up and survived just long enough to get her out of there and back to his special mansion full of magic books. He also bonded her to him before dying. Oh, and the guy who killed Dylan’s father? Yeah, apparently that was Jeremiah Dallant. As in the Baron of Wyoming for Crossroads. I’d met the guy once and… well, I certainly didn’t think he was this kind of evil. He was nice to me. Not that that proved anything or whatever, but still. The man had been intentionally making sure the Crossroads people didn’t find out about Asenath staying at my house, because Gaia asked him to. I just–Gaia trusted him, and now he was apparently out there cutting innocent men’s heads off to serve some weird, nebulous super-evil guy? I was confused, to say the least. Incredibly, indescribably confused. And I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to get any better anytime soon. 

“Dad and Larissa are looking into that,” Vanessa informed me, clearly recognizing the look on my face. She glanced to her brother briefly before adding, “They were really firm about that.” 

“Yeah, seriously firm,” Tristan agreed. “We are to take a break and go to class. No running off to investigate this Dallant guy ourselves. They said that three times. I tried to point out that it’d be kinda hard to get all the way down to Earth from inside the sun without them knowing.” 

“And,” Vanessa put in, “Dad told him not to treat them like idiots. And then told us for the fourth time to let them handle it for now.” 

“Four times, huh?” Sands, who had joined us with the others in time to hear most of that, whistled low. “Sounds serious.” 

“Super serious,” Tristan agreed. “So, we figure we’ll probably get dragged into it one way or another… what, next week? How’s all your schedules look?” As he said that, the boy winked at Sarah, who immediately turned slightly pink. The two of them stared at each other for a few seconds before he stepped over and whispered something to her. Which just made Sarah’s blush deepen. She then retaliated by whispering something to him, and it was suddenly Tristan’s turn to cough and look flustered.  

That Dylan girl looked back and forth between all of us through that before speaking up, her voice a conspiratorial whisper. “You don’t trust the people here on this station either? Good. Galazien has spies everywhere. They could be anyone and anywhere. Or anything. He likes to put magic in food. Who would suspect that the carton full of eggs sitting in your refrigerator is listening to every word you say, hmm? Who would believe that the milk you take out every morning for your breakfast is transmitting your secrets back to one of Galazien’s evil minions, just waiting for you to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and secure the doom of all reality?!” 

Opening and then shutting my mouth, I raised my gaze to look toward Simpson where he was still floating in his bubble near the ceiling. He, in turn, stared right back at me. He gave no gesture nor did he make any indication or change in facial expression. Because, well, he was a shark. But still, I sensed that he was just as baffled as I was by this whole thing. 

Columbus was the first to speak. “Don’t worry, we’re really careful about things like that.” 

Dylan, in turn, leaned closer to him and hissed, “Not… careful… enough.” 

“She’snotwrongaboutspies,” December hurriedly put in while literally flipping herself over to run on her hands. And she really did run. There was no awkward stumbling around on her hands, she was fully upside down, using her hands to move at a quick pace in a circle around Cerberus as she continued. “TheotherMonthsandme….wespyonpeopleallthetime…asanimalscuzpeopledon’t….payattentiontothemliketheyshould…imaginehowmuchstuff… wecouldoverhearifwewerefood!” 

Catching the other girl’s ankles to stop her, Tabbris pointed out, “If you were animals, you were technically already food.” 

“Nodon’teatmenoooo!” December protested while giggling. Which made Tabbris giggle and blurt something about gobbling her up right now. December wiggled her legs free and fell over, with Tabbris jumping on her with loud chomping sounds. That devolved to both of them squealing and giggling as they rolled over and over one another. 

Smiling to myself, I shook my head and let them be before focusing on the others. “Right, well, I guess we’ll see what happens with that whole… Dallant thing.” I still felt annoyed about all that, given I’d met the guy personally and thought he was fine at the time. But I shook that off before pushing on. “Meanwhile, we were hoping to grab Persephone so the others could meet her. You think she’s still busy with your parents?” 

Tristan shrugged, starting toward the door. “Let’s find out.” On the way, he glanced back to Columbus. “Seriously, dude, you have to meet her. She’s got some wild stories. Just uhh, you know, be ready. Cuz she’s a lot.” 

He definitely wasn’t wrong about that. And as I thought about Persephone, then looked toward Dylan while thoughts of her whole situation, this Galazien guy (whoever that really was), and Dallant himself came to mind, I grimaced. Then I grimaced even more as I thought about the Whispers thing and how they were going to try to track down that guy. Yeah, I should probably enjoy this time as a ‘normal’ student attending regular classes and all while I could. 

Because I had a feeling life would get insane again pretty damn quick. 

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 20th edition of Patreon Snippets. 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.

Vanessa

Today was a good day. No, as far as Vanessa Moon was concerned, it was a fantastic day. Nothing horrible was going on, her family was basically as safe as they could be, and no one she cared about was in immediate life-or-death danger. Which was basically the best that people like them could ask for. Everything was relatively quiet, for the moment at least. Not that she expected it to last that long, but you really had to take the opportunities you had to enjoy things.

In this case, Vanessa was enjoying things by carrying a large tray to her room. The tray was packed with a wide assortment of food. There were a dozen different dishes represented on the tray, and all of them had one thing in common. Each and every one was a different kind of potato. There was a baked potato, french fries, mashed, sweet, cheese-and-bacon covered, tater tots, hash browns, a grilled cheese sandwich with oven-baked potato slices added, latkes, potato salad, and a few others. 

Not a gigantic serving of each, of course. After making all these potatoes downstairs, Vanessa had left plenty for her housemates to pick over. No, her tray was laden with enough samples from each to keep the potato-loving girl happy for an entire afternoon. Especially considering the tray itself had a simple enchantment that allowed it to keep the food warm. She could sit for hours, pick from the tray anytime she wanted to, and the food would be plenty hot. Or cold, in the potato salad’s case, thanks to a special secondary enchantment right where it was seated.

Having all the potatoes she could possibly eat was the first half of Vanessa’s idea of a wonderful way to spend her afternoon down time. The other half was sitting on her bed when she came in. A thick, heavy leather bound book was lying there, just waiting for the girl to curl up with it.

Vanessa had never been able to explain why she loved potatoes so much, exactly. All she knew was that they were, in every single form she had ever encountered, her very favorite sort of food. They made her feel happy and safe. Some might have thought that had originated back when she had been stuck in that mental hospital and one of the orderlies (a nice man named Peter) had come by every afternoon to share some of his french fries from the lunch he would have delivered. Yet her love of the incredibly versatile vegetable extended back before then, to when she was still a very young child living at home with her family. 

In any case, even if his visits weren’t the reason for her obsession, Peter was still a fond memory within a lot of bad ones at the hospital. As scary as being in that place had been, the man was always friendly, and told her about what was going on out in the world. He also, over their shared fries, listened to the very young Vanessa telling him about what happened to her family. Unlike the doctors, he had never made her feel like she was wrong or crazy. For those few minutes each day, Peter listened and seemed to understand, even if he never really said much about it. 

She’d since wondered, of course, if Peter was some kind of Heretic, or an Alter, who really did have an idea of what was going on. Or even part of Jophiel and Elisabet’s little plan. But she’d called the hospital and Peter no longer worked there. And aside from just asking the two women about it (they had denied any relation and insisted the man was just a normal person as far as they knew) she had no other way of following up. 

In any case, eating those fries everyday had surely helped foster her already extant love of potatoes. And now, she could really indulge it. Clambering up onto the bed, she settled herself with the tray on the table next to her, then she picked up the book and examined it. It wasn’t just any other book. This one was special. Not that every book wasn’t special as far as Vanessa was concerned. But this even more so. This was a book about her mother. 

Okay, it was about more than just her mother. It was actually the first volume of the official log of the Olympus’s mission before they had come to Earth. It was details about the things her mother and her people had been up to when they were much younger. A lot of it wouldn’t be good, Vanessa knew. She wasn’t naive about the sort of things her mother had been a part of. But she still wanted to know about them. She wanted to know everything about her family, including that side of it. Her mother, Uncle Apollo, Athena, Mercury, all of them. She wanted to know about their stories, their adventures. They had gone out exploring unknown regions of Seosten space. What kind of things have they found? What kind of people have they interacted with? She wanted to know all of it, the good and the bad. She could accept the bad because she knew what kind of person her mother was now. She just needed to know. 

It had been Athena who gave her the book. Their logs weren’t normally kept on paper, of course. But she had transferred it to a real, solid book because that was Vanessa’s preference over reading things on a screen. She liked to have an actual book to hold. So, Athena produced one. 

Now, Vanessa took a sip from a cup of water, then set it down before picking up the book and settling it onto her lap. Carefully opening it, she let her eyes find the first word while picking up a fork and taking a big bite of delicious, delicious baked potato. A murmur of exquisite pleasure escaped the girl. 

Then, she started to read. 

******

Jasper Patterson

“Damn it!” 

With that blurted curse, the dark-skinned, blue-haired boy standing in the kitchen of his house on the Starstation spun and hurled the tray full of cookies in the general direction of the trash can in the corner. The tray hit the wall and most of the cookies scattered across the floor, though a few did make it into their target. 

From the doorway, a voice quietly spoke up. “Now that’s the intense Jasper Patterson I know.”  

Taken a bit by surprise, Jasper’s gaze snapped that way, before a very slightly embarrassed expression crossed his face as he took in the sight of the black woman who had been his teacher for a long time. Wincing, he replied, “Hey, Professor Tangle. Sorry, I didn’t know you were here. I uhh, I’ll clean it up.” He murmured the last bit under his breath. 

“Giselle’s fine, you’re an adult,” Tangle assured him. “I mean, you only had one more year left at school before you would’ve graduated.” 

“Yeah, one more year,” Jasper muttered, his gaze meeting hers. “Good for me, huh?” 

Rather than directly addressing that immediately, Tangle made a noise in the back of her throat before carefully stepping into the room and moving to the trash, where she reached down to pick up the still-scalding hot tray. Not that she showed any discomfort from it. Using the tray to indicate the scattered cookies, she asked, “I’m not exactly super-hip on things. Is this some new sort of diet or something? You go through all the trouble of making delicious cookies and then just throw them away?” 

Sighing heavily, Jasper shook his head. “They’re wrong. They’re just… they’re wrong.” 

Considering that for a moment, Tangle reached down to pluck a cookie off the floor. She examined it, blew on it, then took a bite. Finishing the cookie in short order, the woman looked back to him. “I think you’re being a little too hard on yourself. That was delicious.” 

“No, it’s–” Jasper started to blurt before catching himself with a sigh. “It’s… it’s not the same. There’s something missing. It’s not the way we used to make–” In mid-sentence, he stopped, looking guilty. 

“They aren’t the same as when you and your mother made them together,” Tangle finished for him, her voice quiet as she watched his reaction. “They taste different because she didn’t help you make them.” 

Jasper was quiet for a moment before giving a very slight nod. He folded his arms across his chest and looked away. “She hates me now,” he murmured. “They both do. My whole family hates me. They think I’m a… they think I’m a traitor. I mean, I am a traitor. I abandoned them, I walked away to side with people who are literally rebelling against everything my family believes. You can’t really get much more ‘traitor’ than that. I mean, you can, but… yeah.”

Tangle was quiet for a moment before she stepped over, putting the tray down on the stove. “You came because of Carly, right?” 

Jasper started to shake his head before catching himself. “No–I mean yes. I mean, I didn’t know  about the rest of this before. But Carly’s my friend, and when I found out she was–that she’s half-Strang– I mean half-Alter, it was… it wasn’t even a question. I trust her with everything. I always have, since like our first week in school three years ago. Why wouldn’t I trust her now? Nothing changed, not really. It’s not like she suddenly became half-Succubus. She was always a hybrid. It’s just, now they want to hurt her. So I helped her. I helped my friend, and things just sort of spiraled from there. Now my family hates me. All those people hate me.” 

“Do you think you were wrong?” Tangle gently asked. “Deep down, do you think you made the wrong choice?” 

His answer was immediate. “No. No, because she’s still my friend. Seriously, she’s my best friend. My family thinks it’s like a crush thing. They think it’s sexual. But it’s not. I mean, I know she’s part succubus and all, but it’s not about that. Our thing–it’s never been sexual. Sure, she’s super hot and stuff, but we’ve never… we’re friends. That’s what I care about. That’s what I want.” He sighed once more. “Besides, now that I’ve lived here, been around these other Alters, seen them… There’s no way I could go back to Crossroads. I just couldn’t. But…  but my family won’t change their minds either. And now… now I’ve just been… trying to make these cookies, and they didn’t taste right and I thought I should ask my mom what was wrong with them but–but she won’t–she can’t–” His eyes were closed tightly, tears streaming down his face as he hugged himself tighter. “I can’t ask her about the cookies. I can’t ask her about anything. I can’t even talk to them. They won’t listen.” 

Before the boy knew what was happening, Tangle had tugged him over to her and into an embrace. “I’m sorry,” she quietly murmured. “Jasper, I’m so sorry you have to go through that. Maybe your parents will come around eventually. These lives of ours can be pretty long sometimes. But even if they don’t, I want you to know that you’re right. You made the right choice. It hurts, and it can feel incredibly lonely. But you made the right choice. You make the right choice every day you stay here, hard as it is. And, no matter how your family feels, no matter what happens with them, I’m proud of you. We’re all proud of you.”

They stayed like that for awhile before Jasper pulled back, shifting a bit uncertainly. “I… the cookies, they’ll never taste the same.” 

“No,” Tangle agreed, “they won’t. But you know what? Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay if you find your own way of… of making the cookies. You find what works for you, Jasper. 

“And I guarantee, your cookies will be perfect just the way you make them.” 

*******

Haniel

The world wasn’t even important enough to have a name. Technically, it wasn’t even a world. It was a moon. The moon of a gas giant. Barely larger than Earth’s own moon, it had existed with little more than a numeric designation ever since it had been discovered by Seosten explorers a few hundred years earlier. Though inhabitable, there were only about a dozen different forms of non-bacterium life on the moon, including aquatic, and none of them were anywhere near developing sapience. 

In almost all respects, it was entirely inconsequential. Almost all. But there was one specific thing that made it a target for the Fomorians. Specifically, its location. The moon was situated entirely too close to a relatively less secure section of the Seosten lines, and would make an incredibly tempting staging point for an intense Fomorian attack. Allowing the monsters to take that place and solidify their hold over it would have been disastrous, regardless of how much other strategic value it did or didn’t have. This incredibly small, otherwise insignificant moon had to be protected to prevent the Fomorians from using it as a stepping stone to more important targets. 

By the same token of the moon being out in the middle of nowhere, it was hard for the Fomorians to get a significant foothold on it. Their Seosten enemies tended to watch the place for any intrusion, leaving a token force to slow down the attack, then send in a bigger fleet to wipe out all traces of the Fomorian incursion before they could settle on it properly. They fought back and forth over that small rock in the middle of space once every few years or so. Some battles were bigger than others, but the Fomorians never entirely gave up on their plan of finding a way to use the place for their attacks against stronger targets.

The most recent of those attacks had taken place several days earlier. The moon itself had been (as far as the Fomorians were concerned) cleared of any Seosten defenders, leaving it ripe for settling. But first, all the biological material, whether native to the place or the corpses of Seosten and Fomorian alike, had to be scavenged. That was how the Fomorians operated. They established footholds on a planet by destroying all life and then using those same biological materials to create not only their own defenses, but the building blocks for all of the troops, weapons, and even transportation the place would need to sustain itself in the war. 

At this particular moment, that was exactly what the Fomorians here on the moon were doing. A series of enormous creatures that looked roughly like oversized Earth elephants (four or five times the size of one of those) mixed with a biological dump truck (their backs had huge holes in them that were deep and wide enough to carry several tons worth of material) lumbered onward across the ground, escorted by various monsters meant to protect the supply-creatures. Any plant material was torn away to be melted down for base components, the nutrient parts added to pastes that would be used to feed the Fomorian forces. Biological materials, meanwhile, were also collected and dropped into the oversized-elephant creatures’ back holes in order to be carried back to the Fomorian staging base on this moon. The remains of native animals, Seosten defenders, and the Fomorians’ own troops alike were all dumped unceremoniously into the elephant-creatures and carried onward. 

At one pile of corpses in particular, where a particularly heavy fight had clearly occurred, the goblin-like leading Fomorian escorts (they were three feet tall and had arms that were four feet long, leading to a lot of loping movement where their arms essentially propelled them up and forward to hit the ground, then repeat) launched themselves that way to land beside the spot where two large ogres had fallen under the combined assault from a dozen Fomorian beasts. Bit by bit, the goblin-creatures pulled the pile of bodies apart, using their own considerable strength to toss their comrades up into the hole of the nearest elephant-thing. Finally, the elephant itself used its long trunks to pick up each of the huge ogre bodies one at a time, tossing them in the back as well. 

From there, the parade continued. For three more hours, the creatures moved on to collect more bodies, killing any living things they came across to add to their supplies before eventually making a wide circle to move back to their staging point. There, within the confines of the Fomorian protective (living, of course) walls, the collected remains were added to the pile there. They would be taken apart down to their base materials and used to create more troops. Or, they would have been. But someone else had plans to the contrary. 

Six hours after the pile of rotting bodies had been dumped in place, and nine after it originally been picked up, the bustling Fomorian creations were finally joined by one of their masters. An actual Fomorian, an Alpha of all things, strode into view in the middle of the camp, eyes scanning the piles of corpses. This Fomorian was twice the size of the standard Betas and Gammas that made up the bulk of their population (already relatively few in number), having upgraded his own body with longer, stronger limbs, much heavier plating that protected him from anything weaker than a capital ship barrage, and a set of dragonfly-like wings that would allow him to reach blinding speeds in the air. Along with other surprises that made him, and other Alpha Fomorians, some of the most dangerous creatures in the universe.

Standing there, flanked by a small army of guards and assorted creature servants, the Alpha Fomorian looked over the thousands upon thousands of decomposing corpses intently while sniffing. “Something,” it hissed, “lives. Something there is not dead. It–” 

In mid-sentence, the Fomorian saw it. A very small green laser shone out of the pile of corpses, the point ending right in the center of its chest. A tiny, insignificant laser point. It came from a small, cylindrical, pen-sized device that was sticking out through a hole in the chest of one of the ogres whose corpse had been picked up nine hours earlier. 

The Alpha Fomorian barely had time to consider what this meant, before a second laser struck it. This, however, was far different from the first. For one, this second laser came from the sky. No, it came from far beyond the sky. The laser came from a ship that had been hidden behind the gas giant this moon orbited. A ship that had been so well-hidden, it was incapable of being seen without being right on top of it. And, by the same measure, equally incapable of seeing anything on the planet itself. And yet, it fired a shot from its primary cannon the moment that it had a target. A target granted to it by that single laser pointer. 

When the smoke cleared from that single shot, fully three-quarters of the Fomorian base itself had been wiped out, eradicated entirely. Nothing was left where the shot had struck, save for a twelve-foot-deep, hundred-foot-wide crater. 

Nothing, that was, save for the Alpha Fomorian. Most of it, anyway. The creature, as with any of its fellows who reached the rank of Alpha, was incredibly tough. Tough enough, in fact, to stand up to a direct hit from a Seosten capital ship. Though wounded, the Alpha was not dead. Its wings had been sheared away, the force of the blast had slammed the thing flat to the ground, and it was showing severe damage. But it had survived that shot. 

It may even have survived the second and third that punched into the ground shortly after that first one. The fourth, however, probably killed it. The fifth and sixth were just to make sure. And the seventh might have been overkill. 

In the end, nothing remained of the Fomorian Alpha, or any of his troops. Once the firing had stopped, the small laser pointer was withdrawn back into the ogre corpse. A moment later, it was replaced by a much stronger laser blade, as the corpse’s occupant cut herself free. Covered in blood and the assorted internal fluids and broken organs of a half-decayed ogre, the brown-skinned and dark-haired figure, who would have been seen as stereotypically Indian (of the actual India) clambered out and brushed herself off. Taking a rag from the pocket of her mechanic-like jumpsuit, the Olympian Seosten known as Haniel wiped her gore-covered face clean, tossed the rag aside, then plucked a bottle of heavy booze from a different pocket before taking a long, sustained pull. Only once she had drained a good half of the contents did she put the bottle away and produce a communication pin, slapping it to her chest to activate the thing. “Congratulations, Trierarch, that is one dead Alpha. Now come get us so I can shower.” She could have recalled herself back to the ship, of course. That would have been the plan had she been discovered in her hiding place before the Alpha showed himself. But he had shown himself. And now they were going to mop up the remains (literally, to an extent) and take what was left to be studied by Seosten scientists. 

Soon enough, Haniel was picked up by a quick shuttle that teleported her up to it, and then returned to the capital ship. Unfortunately, before she could actually find her way to the shower, the ship’s captain, or Trierarch, met her coming off the shuttle. He was an old Seosten with a thick walrus mustache and very tired eyes. “Sorry, got new orders for you. Well, for all of us. We’re going to Rysthael to drop you off.” 

The announcement made Haniel blink. “Why would I go there? We’re still at peace, right? Truce, whatever. We’re not supposed to be doing anything over there.” 

“No idea,” came the response. “That part of the orders is sealed to your identity signature. Your eyes only. We’re just supposed to deliver you.” After a brief pause, he added, “But uhh, speaking of that truce, you think it’ll hold? I mean, do you think it’ll be permanent? You spent a long time there with those humans, right? Back when they had you running around playing Dionysus.” 

Haniel, in turn, shrugged. “Not with those humans. Err, mostly not. And there’s a lot more than humans there anyway. But uhh, yeah it’s been awhile.” She glanced away, clearly deep in thought for a few seconds before continuing. “Look, I don’t know much about what’s going on there. Kinda tuned out of that stuff for a reason. All I know is that our people, flawed as they might be, are the only ones stopping those things from overrunning the entire fucking universe.” She jabbed a finger in the direction of where other Seosten and assistants were gathering the remains of the Alpha in buckets and large steel crates. “So if these Rysthael people prove they can be an asset and work with us to do that, great. Nothing but love for them. If not, well, we need humans to be Heretics or this whole universe gets fucked over, us and them. Sometimes doing the shit that needs to be done ain’t pretty. As you can see.” Her hand indicated the assorted (quite fragrant) goo that still covered her body. 

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go soak my body in fifty gallons of scalding water, and my liver in about that much wine.” 

***********

Dylan

“This is impossible.” The words came from Haiden Moon, as the man stood a short distance away from the main collection of cabins around the Atherby camp, with his wife, his son and daughter, and another girl. Fossor had been killed only hours earlier, and yet, apparently that wasn’t enough of a shock for the day. Not if what his children were telling him was true. 

“It’s true, Dad,”  Vanessa insisted. “We did the blood test while you were busy earlier. This is Dylan, your niece. Our… our cousin.” 

“Hello,” the girl in question piped up, raising a hand in an awkward motion. “Um. I’m Dylan. She said that. I didn’t… um, mean to say that. I didn’t mean to say that either. Um. I’m not—I’m not really, um, great with this? This is…. umm, different? I–um, it’s new, and I don’t–I didn’t know it was gonna be like this. And you’re here, and I think my mom would’ve wanted to be, but she’s not, because she died and I really didn’t mean to say that either. But now I’m thinking about my mom and dad dying, and I’m sad, so… so I’m gonna go. Okay, bye.” With that, she pivoted on her heel and began to take a few steps away. 

“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Tristan quickly moved that way, gently but firmly guiding the girl back. “See, Dad, she’s definitely part of our family.” 

“Part of our…” Trailing off, Haiden glanced toward his wife before turning back to Dylan. He took a step that way before going down to one knee to reach out, his hand barely touching the side of the girl’s face as she shifted nervously from foot to foot. Her eyes met his, their gazes locking for a moment before he swallowed hard. “Vanessa…” The word was not directed toward his daughter, but toward the long-lost aunt she had been named for. Haiden’s sister, who had supposedly died during training at Eden’s Garden. 

Except she clearly hadn’t, because her daughter was here. A daughter who had clearly been born much more recently than the over hundred years it had been since his sister had ‘died.’ 

But… but if she survived and was here on Earth, with a family, why had she never reached out? Who tracked her down and killed her? Why didn’t she fight back? What–what? 

“I don’t understand,” he finally managed, voice cracking a bit. “What are the odds?” Haiden demanded. “What are the odds that you would happen to run into someone who could get in contact with us, someone who knew Vanes–her roommate, for Void’s sake. Erin was her roommate at Crossroads. What are the odds that my daughter’s roommate would happen to run into my long-lost niece? It doesn’t–” He sighed. “It doesn’t make sense.” 

“Oh, that’s easy,” Dylan promptly answered. “I used magic. I was… lonely, so I used a spell from the fox-man’s library to find out if I had any family. It was supposed to direct me to a place where I could eventually find them. It took me to the grocery store. I had to work there for a long time. So long I thought it didn’t work. But then it did. It just took awhile. And it wasn’t exactly direct about it.”

“That’s usually how that sort of spell works,” Sariel quietly put in, her voice sounding awed. “When it does anything at all. You’re–you’re really self-taught? That’s remarkable. I’ve never seen anyone take to it that well without–without any direct instruction.” 

“The fox-man’s blood made me good at magic,” Dylan replied. “And he had a lot of books.” 

“She likes to read,” Tristan piped up. “She’s definitely related to Vanessa.” 

Vanessa, naturally, squinted at him. “You’re related to me and you don’t like to read. You’re my twin.”

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed, “which obviously means you stole all my reading books DNA. It’s clearly your fault.” 

“Reading… books… DNA…” Vanessa barely managed to get those words out, looking and sounding as though she was either about to strangle the boy or cry. He, in turn, simply grinned. 

Clearing his throat, Haiden focused on the girl in front of him. “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how–what… I don’t know anything. But… but you are Vanessa’s daughter. You–” Cutting himself off, the man simply asked, “Do you, ahh, mind if I hug you?” 

“Why?” Dylan promptly asked, her eyes narrowing to a slit. “You’re not trying to plant a tracking beacon for Galazien’s forces, are you? He’s really persuasive. He can make you think he’s on your side. Quick, how long has it been since you were checked for mind manipulation?”

“Who–who is this Galazien?” Haiden managed. They had mentioned the name before, when Vanessa and Tristan were giving the quick story about what they had learned from Erin. But he was still pretty confused about the whole thing.

Dylan answered promptly. “He is the Iron-Souled, the world-devourer, the one who will reap the heavens and call the hells to tear asunder all who stand before him. He is the flash of heat felt oh-so-briefly by those who die from the cold, the warmth that causes them, in their delirium, to shed their clothes to embrace their fate. He is the inevitable, torn from this world in its infancy to spare it a youthful end. But his forces amass, and he cannot be forestalled for eternity. In his time, he will come, and he will finish what he started, all those millennia ago.” 

A few long seconds of silence passed, before Tristan leaned in to speak quietly. “I think she means he’s a bad guy.” 

“I–I have so many questions,” Haiden murmured, still reeling from shock. “But something tells me you don’t know where your mother was before she had you, or why she was pretending to be a normal human. Or… or what happened to her when she was younger.” 

Dylan, of course, shook her head. “No. I think the Fox-Man knew more, but… but he died before he could tell me.” She went quiet for a moment, clearly remembering the horrific murders of her mother and father in addition to the Kitsune. Her voice, when she spoke, was very soft. “I… think I might be okay with a hug now.” 

And that was exactly what she got. 

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Triumph 10-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“So,” my dad faux-casually began, “exactly how long would you say you made it without getting yourself involved in another life and death struggle after Fossor died? An hour? Maybe less?” 

It was a short time after the meeting with Jophiel and Sachael. We’d left them behind with the agreement to meet the next evening, after everyone had plenty of rest. Jophiel didn’t like letting Elisabet wait that long, of course. But we had all exhausted ourselves way too much. Even if we weren’t planning on any actual Fomorian fighting (or at least as little as possible) by just jumping in, grabbing those two, and getting out again, going in this shape was a bad idea. Because whatever our intentions, we could get into another brawl. And against Fomorian-created creatures, a brawl could turn into total fucking suicide if we went in there tired. 

We had to rest for the night. Honestly, we should have rested for a week, or even a month. But there was no way in seventy-four hells that Jophiel would wait that long. We were lucky she was even waiting this much. I wasn’t sure how I would’ve felt or acted in her situation if it was either of my girls. Or Tabbris. Or–yeah. I knew just how desperate she was right now. 

In any case, we made it back and I went to where my family was to explain what was going on. Guilty as I felt for bringing the mood down right then, they all needed to know the situation. 

Cringing a little at Dad’s words, I offered a weak, “Is it better or worse if the answer is somewhere in the negative numbers, since I agreed to this rescue mission before I ever came back to the present in the first place? The only reason I was able to come back here, the only reason I wasn’t Fossor’s prisoner in the future, is because of Elisabet and Dexamene. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it back here to stop Fossor, period. I can’t abandon them now. No matter how much I just want to… enjoy this.” With those words, I cast a guilty look toward my mother. God, how I wished I didn’t have to deal with this now. My mother was back. After all these years, after all that trauma, she was here. She was here! She was right in front of me. 

But happy as I was to have her here, it would be nothing if I ignored Dexamene and Elisabet. They deserved to be here too. They certainly didn’t deserve to end up either killed or captured by the Fomorians, with the former being the absolute best-case scenario as far as that went. 

It was Deveron who spoke first. “She’s right. We can’t just abandon them. Not after what they did.” He was looking to Mom as he said it, and I realized he was simply saying what she would have. “We all know what the Fomorians are like. Not all of us firsthand, and none of us have faced a full invasion like the one that Gaia and Jos’s parents ended. But… but we all know.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. She hesitated, looking over the large front room of the cabin we were in. Deveron stood by the fireplace, with Koren sitting in front of it, perched on the fancy-looking stonework. A bit to the side was a long table, where Abigail and Wyatt sat. Dad was standing by the same table. Lillian (my mother considered her family), who had come while I was away, was standing next to him. And Mom was in the middle of the room, closer to where Tabbris and I were. She had come over to greet me when we came in, then stepped back after that quick yet tight embrace to let me get that whole story out. 

Now, she asked, “You said something about a… ship to get there.” 

With a quick nod, I explained about the prototype Seosten ship, and how they’d been working on getting it to make those instant jumps again. “They think it can probably do a jump there and back. We just have to be careful. You know, come in away from the Meregan world, fly down to get those two, then fly away and jump out when it’s safe.” 

Wyatt immediately piped up, “What if they’re dead already? The Committee woman and the Nereid. What if they’re dead and the Fomorians are waiting for someone to rescue them because they’ve already loaded up the bodies with booby traps, with biological weapons. Then you show up, think they’re alive, bring them back here, and unleash a plague.” 

“Well,” I pointed out with a shrug, “I’m pretty sure I can tell if they’re dead. I mean…” Trailing off, I felt a sharp queasiness form in my stomach at even bringing it up. “I have his power. Not his skill or anything, but between him and Manakel, I think I can tell when someone’s dead. And even if they pull some artificial life biomancer thing, I’ll make sure it’s really them.”

“We’ll make sure,” Mom amended. “There are ways.” 

“Damn right, there’s ways,” Lillian put in, stepping over to stand closer to my mother. “No one’s bringing those two anywhere sensitive until everyone’s one hundred percent sure they’re safe.” 

Wyatt, in a flat voice, retorted, “No one is ever one hundred percent safe. Eighty-seven percent is the absolute highest ‘safe’ level I’ve ever given anyone.”

“You mean besides yourself,” I pointed out. 

Koren, however, piped up with, “No, he’s eighty-five. And that’s a recent upgrade.” 

“I could have been compromised as a child,” Wyatt promptly agreed, giving a slight nod and one of his lopsided, goofy smiles toward the girl who had practically become his protege over the past year. “I can’t account for my whereabouts or memories of the first few years of my life. For all I know, I’m a shapeshifter who took over the real Wyatt as a child and had my memory wiped with implanted triggers. Stranger things have happened.” 

“I really wish I could argue with that last point,” I muttered while shaking my head. “Anyway, um, yeah, they’re working on prepping the ship. Should be ready tomorrow evening. Hopefully.” 

“You’ll need a group to go with, in case things turn sideways,” Lillian noted quietly. “People strong enough to deal with Fomorian threats long enough to get the hell out of there.” 

I nodded. “Like I said, Sachael’s going. Between him, Jophiel, Sariel, and Athena, we have four Olympians. And Haiden’s coming with, he’s pretty strong too. Tristan won’t let anyone go without him, not when it comes to Dexamene. And Vanessa won’t let the rest of her family go without her. Plus, I’m pretty sure Larissa won’t let Haiden and Sariel go potentially face Fomorians without coming along. Not after what… what happened back on that boat.”

With a sigh, Abigail spoke up. “I don’t suppose pointing out that none of you children should be going anywhere after what you’ve been through would do any good. You just… you just fought that monster. You don’t need to be rushing into this nightmare. I’ve… seen and… felt what those Fomorians do, what they’re capable of. Even if you don’t get into a fight, just–just seeing those things…” 

“None of us are children,” I pointed out as gently as I could. Technically, Tabbris was. But even then, she’d always been more than that. She’d never had a normal childhood and never would. The point stood. “We’re young, yeah. But so is Dexamene. And neither she or Elisabet deserve to be caught by those monsters. They helped me. They saved me. Dex put herself in that situation specifically to save me, to save everyone here. If I wasn’t willing to put myself in danger to get her out of it, what kind of person would I be?” 

Both Abigail and my dad looked like they wanted to argue with that. But they couldn’t. Mom, however, stepped over and pulled me to her in a tight embrace. “That’s my girl.” 

“You’re going too, aren’t you?” That was Deveron, watching her knowingly. “Five minutes out from being Fossor’s prisoner for a decade, and you’re about to throw yourself into a rescue mission against the Fomorians.” 

“Of course she is,” Dad agreed, folding his arms as he stared at both of us. “If Felicity’s going, Joselyn is. Even if she wasn’t,” he amended immediately, realizing that my going or not wasn’t the only deciding factor. It was just who his wife was. 

“Would either of you have married me if I was someone who could walk away from this?” Mom pointed out, still holding me to her as she squinted pointedly back and forth between them. 

Dad and Deveron both glanced to one another, and I saw a moment of what seemed to be silent conversation before each flushed and turned away. Dad cleared his throat, looking at my mother. “I know this goes without saying, but be careful, Jos. Please. We just got you back. Both of you. I couldn’t–” His voice choked itself off briefly before he gave a sharp shake of his head. “Be careful.” He sounded strained, like it was all he could do not to start shouting about us going into danger yet again, so soon. Honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did start yelling. I kind of wanted to yell at myself. But I also meant what I’d said. I couldn’t live with myself if I abandoned Elisabet and Dexamene to the Fomorians after everything they’d done to help me. Hell, I couldn’t have lived with myself for abandoning basically anyone to the Fomorians. 

“We don’t need to worry about it right now,” I pointed out after forcing those thoughts down. “We’ve gotta wait until tomorrow night for the rescue mission anyway. Nothing else we can do about it until then. So how about we just enjoy tonight and deal with all that later?” I felt shitty about interrupting Mom’s (and mine, I supposed) welcome home party with all that. But they’d wanted to know where I went and what was so important. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should’ve kept quiet about it until the next day.

Either way, everyone got back to the actual celebrating part pretty easily. Deveron started to say something apparently embarrassing about Mom from when they were in school, before she shut him down with a hard kick, hissing something at him about their kids being present. Then Lillian whispered something in her ear that I didn’t catch, but it made Mom turn red. 

Abigail had stood up by that point, clearing her throat, “Ah, girls, why don’t we go check out the rest of the party for a little while? At least some of us should make appearances before the crowd starts wondering if you all got kidnapped again.” She started ushering Koren, Tabbris, and me toward the door with an added, “Come on, Wyatt.” 

“Yes, I’ll ahh, help you with the crowd.” That was Lillian, who patted my dad on the shoulder before moving to join us. 

I knew what they were doing, what the whole deal with getting the rest of us out of the room to leave Mom there with Deveron and my dad was about. They deserved some time alone to figure out their whole thing. Especially after so many years and horrible things. But equally, I reeeeally didn’t want to think about any of that. 

So, after giving Mom and Dad both a quick, lingering embrace and promising I wouldn’t get kidnapped for at least a few minutes (hardy har har), I headed out with the others, to join the much louder area outside, where everyone was still partying like it was New Years or something. From the look and sound of things, they really didn’t need any us to be present right now. They were well and truly off to a rousing celebration completely on their own. One which, I was pretty sure, wouldn’t be ending any time within the next several hours. Or possibly days, for some of them. 

Which was good, because the moment we stepped outside, Shiori and Avalon were right there. I ended up being pulled out of the way with a few quick words about how they’d bring me back. Then we were off to another part of the camp, as I managed a weak, “You know, I just promised my parents I wouldn’t get kidnapped again like, fifteen seconds ago. And yet, here we are.”

“Guess we’ll just have to make breaking your word worth it, won’t we?” That was Valley, who immediately suited action to word by giving me a firm push up against the back wall of the cabin the two of them had dragged me to. 

Then, for a good long while, I forgot all about what was going on with my parents, and about the party itself. And to be honest? Yeah, it was totally worth it. 

******

“Mom?” Hours later, the two of us were standing hip-deep in the lake. I had just finished introducing her to my sharks, and apologized to them for being away for so long. I’d already thanked Tabbris, as well as Shiori and Avalon, for making sure they had enough fish to eat, and for playing with them. 

“Yes, Lissy?” Mom was brushing Quint, one of the Mako sharks. She’d been marveling a bit at how my power had actually made it possible to touch their skin like that without cutting up your hand. Well, cutting up a normal person’s hand anyway. I was pretty sure she was too tough for that to begin with. 

“I was asking Namythiet about that Wandering Woman Ruthers was talking about, and she said that she’s like… one of the first Heretics? Do you know anything about her? The way he was talking, it sounds like you do.” 

For a moment, my mother didn’t answer. She reached out to brush the snout of Brody, the other Mako shark, who had clearly been jealous of his brother. Finally, after a few seconds of silence, she replied, “Yes, I know a bit about her. We’ve had an encounter or two.” 

“Why does Ruthers think I should visit her?” I hesitantly asked, too curious to avoid the question now. 

Mom’s gaze rose to me. “Because he thinks you should give up Fossor’s necromancy.” 

The answer made me blink. “Wha–give it up? Is that even possible?” 

Again, Mom was quiet for a long few seconds before she spoke. “The Wandering Woman, Werethekau, the Witch of Endor, Isis, Freyja, any name you want to give her, she is one of the most powerful beings I’ve ever heard of, let alone encountered. She was bonded to a Primal.” 

“That’s what Namythiet said,” I hesitantly put in. “She said they were the beings who um, who made the weapons King Oberon uses up in Canada, the ones who lived here before the first humans, back around the time of the dinosaurs.” 

With a little nod, Mom explained, “Werethekau was a primitive human, one of the first from the time of stone tools, who found one of the last living Primals. One of the first of one species to find one of the last of another. No one knows what happened, but she was bonded. And in that bonding, she gained the strongest gift anyone has ever seen. The ability to undo.” 

Her words made me blink. “The ability to undo?” 

Mom’s gaze was intense. “Anything or anyone Werethekau focuses on, she can rewind the results of specific events. If you break a stick, she can unbreak it. Shatter a window, she can unshatter it. Stab a man in the heart, she can heal the injury as if it never happened. Cut every limb off, sever the head, burn the body, bury the ashes in seven different continents, she can think about that person and erase it. She can bring him back from all of that. 

“But it goes further than that. She can erase skills by rewinding the fact that you learned them. Blow up a building and she can rewind that, restore the entire place and everyone in it. And–” 

“And she can take away powers by erasing the fact that you got them,” I finished in a breath, staring open-mouthed at her. “How–how is she not ruling the entire universe right now?” 

Mom shrugged. “She has no desire to. That and I’m sure there’s limits to what she can do, but as far as most people are concerned, that might as well be chipmunks guessing about the limits of human beings. No one knows what she wants, honestly. She’s mysterious. You can find her if you know how–correction, you can try to find her if you know how, and if she feels like it, she might respond. Or she might not. You might wait a day for her, or a year, or longer. She goes and does as she pleases. She, ahh, wanders. She has existed since the time of primitive man, simply rewinding any effects of age.” 

“She’s the one who taught people here on Earth how to block time-stop spells, she–” Coughing, I realized, “It’s time-magic. Erasing injuries, restoring people from death, fixing broken things, even removing people’s powers and skills, it’s all about manipulating time. I mean, sort of. Manipulating the effects through time?” Squinting, I shook my head. “I’m not–never mind, I’m gonna go cross-eyed if I try to figure out how that actually works. But this–you’re right, Ruthers wants me to get rid of Fossor’s Necromancy. He wants me to ask this Wandering Woman to use her power to take it away. But that won’t bring Fossor back?” 

“It will not erase the fact that you killed him,” Mom quietly assured me, “only the fact that you inherited his power.” 

Staring at her, I muttered, “He wants it gone. Ruthers doesn’t want anyone to have Fossor’s necromancy. I mean, he doesn’t want the power to even exist.” 

With a sigh, Mom replied, “As long as he’s lived, he’s never understood that it’s the actions, not the powers, that make someone good or evil.” Then she looked over her shoulder at me. “But, in his own way, he is trying to help you. He thinks–never mind what he thinks. What do you want to do about it?” 

I noticed that she was being careful not to express her own opinion on the subject. She wanted it to be my decision rather than a choice I made just because of how she might feel. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. With barely a pause, I shook my head. “I’m keeping the power. Yeah, it makes me feel… gross to have something of Fossor’s. Especially necromancy. But it could also help. It’s like you said, the power isn’t evil. Not even a power like that. I can use it to do good things. Like the way I’m helping some of those ghosts get closure before they move on.” Biting my lip, I hesitantly added, “And, if there’s other evil necromancers out there, it feels like… it’s a good idea to have this power. Not just have it, use it. Exercise it.”

With a smile, Mom stepped over through the water and put both hands on my shoulders. “Have I told you how proud I am of you, Felicity?” Her voice was soft, the slightest hint of tears in her eyes as she stared at me. “You are my girl. I missed you so much.”

The words took me by surprise, a thick lump forming in my throat that made it impossible to respond. I tried, but nothing came. Nothing save for a small, almost animalistic sound before I quickly stepped forward, putting my arms around my mother to cling onto her tightly. There was so much I wanted to say right then, but I couldn’t. I had nothing. Just that simple hug. 

Mom returned it, seeming to understand that I couldn’t speak. For a minute, the two of us simply stood there, embracing as we stood hip-deep in the water. I could feel the eyes of my sharks on us, watching silently and with more understanding than any normal shark. I still wasn’t sure exactly how intelligent they were, but it was clearly pretty high, as far as animals went.

Eventually, we made our way back up onto the shore, each of us producing a field-engraver and using a spell that dried us off immediately. On the way, I looked over and saw Haiden and Sariel having some kind of intense conversation with Vanessa, Tristan, and some other girl I didn’t recognize. She was incredibly thin, almost sickly-looking, with very pale skin and dark hair. 

“Friend of yours?” Mom asked, looking the way I had glanced. Even as she said it, I saw her eyes narrow very slightly. Not at the pale girl, but at Sariel. At the same time, the blonde woman herself turned her gaze to look our way. Their gazes locked, and even though neither of them moved or said anything, there was something there. The two were exchanging some kind of communication that I was pretty sure wasn’t all one hundred percent friendly. It wasn’t actively hostile or anything, but still. Mom obviously wasn’t Sariel’s biggest fan in the world. 

Yeah, I had no idea what was going on over there with that new girl. But I was pretty sure that leading my mother away from the situation was the best thing, so I took her hand and started to head in the opposite direction. Whatever the deal was with the girl Tristan and Vanessa had brought to their parents, they could handle it. 

After all, I still had a rescue mission to a planet infested with Fomorian monsters to deal with.

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Interlude 7A – Dreamcalls (Heretical Edge 2)

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Lying on her stomach, sprawled sideways across the bed in a pair of dark blue drawstring pants and a gray tanktop, Sandoval Lucas (née Mason) snored lightly. Her outstretched hand, hanging off the edge of the bed, held a purple field-engraver loosely between several fingers, while her construction mace rested with the handle lying across her back. A soft drizzling rain sound from a prepared white noise sleep assistance spell drowned out most of those light snores, as the brunette girl continued to slumber. The blinds across the room’s windows were half-raised, with somewhat dim light from simulated stars within the simulated nighttime visible through the gap.  

At once and with no apparent warning, Sands jerked upward and very nearly fell off the side of the bed. Her hand clutched the field-engraver so tight she bent it nearly in half, while the mace fell off her back and onto the floor with a loud thump (which itself would be inaudible outside of the room, thanks to magically reinforced sound-proofing). Said soundproofing would also prevent anyone else from hearing the young woman’s abruptly blurted shout of, “Erin!” 

Eyes wide, Sands shoved herself off the bed. She nearly tripped over the fallen mace, before stooping to grab and set it up on the nearby chair. From there, she jerked a drawer open and began to hurriedly grab clothes almost haphazardly. In a bare handful of seconds, she had changed out of her sleeping attire and into jean shorts and a red tee-shirt, all in near darkness without bothering to flip on a light. Grabbing her phone and the mace, she shoved both into their containers on her belt before bolting for the door. The whole way, she muttered a mixture of curses and apologies under her breath, even as she jerked the door open to leave her room. 

In the corridor beyond her room, Sands almost ran into her twin sister. Sarah was just coming out of her own room. Both girls’ eyes were wide as they almost stumbled into one another. 

“Erin!” Sands blurted as soon as she’d recovered from the near-collision, staring wildly at her sister through the dim light coming from the open windows in the corridor. “Did you–” 

“Yes,” came the simple, flat response. Sarah gave a short nod, glancing over her shoulder back through her open door. “Erin came to my dream. Sort of. She didn’t… talk. But I saw her.” 

Sands’ head bobbed up and down quickly. “Yeah! Yeah, I saw her too. And she didn’t talk, but I got like… ideas. Impressions. She’s not at Crossroads anymore. She ran away or… or something. They’re looking for her. And she’s trying to talk to her dad but she can’t get through.”

“But she found someone to help her, another girl.” Those words came not from either twin, but from Vanessa, who had just climbed the stairs and stood on the top step, hand on the railing. “Someone who has… some kind of connection to my family. And they need us to find them.” 

Sands glanced that way, biting her lip as she stared at the blonde girl. “You got the dream message too… All three of us got it. You were roommates with her and we spent a lot of time with her when we were kids. That’s gotta be it, right? Whatever spell she’s using to communicate, it must need some kind of connection like that. So she sent the message to all of us just to make sure we wouldn’t blow it off or anything.” Even as she said that, a guilty flinch crossed the girl’s face. They’d left Erin behind back at Crossroads. After lying to her for a whole year and leaving her out of things. No wonder the other girl was afraid of being ignored now. 

From the look on Vanessa’s face through the dim light, she felt about the same guilt. Her voice was quiet. “I don’t know who this girl is that she found, or how she’s connected to my family. She couldn’t get that part across in the dream. But it doesn’t matter. Even if she didn’t have someone else, we still have to go help her. We can’t… we can’t just…” She trailed off, her voice pained. 

“We can’t fail with her like we failed with Flick.” Sands finished for the other girl. It had only been a couple days since the assault on Fossor’s compound. The Necromancer himself had escaped, of course, even if they’d managed to destroy a lot of his resources at what was apparently his primary residence. 

They’d destroyed many of his ghosts, had wrecked over a dozen ongoing horrible spells he’d had in various levels of readiness, had claimed a whole vault full of various magical artifacts, gold, and other useful tidbits. They’d driven him to retreat. 

They had hurt him. That much was indisputable. Fossor had been hurt and forced to abandon a large amount of his personal resources. But it wasn’t enough. He still got away, and they hadn’t accomplished the primary goal. They hadn’t saved Flick or her mother. 

There had been no sign of Joselyn at all. Wherever she was, the woman wasn’t in the palace when Sands and the rest of the quickly-gathered army had descended into Fossor’s secret underground chamber. 

But worse than Joselyn not being anywhere in sight, Flick had been right there, clutched in Fossor’s grip. And they’d still failed to save her. Fossor had used a time travel spell again. A much stronger one than before, according to the adults. From what Wyatt, Sariel, and Dries had been able to put together, Fossor had sent Flick several years into the future. Years. 

What the hell were Sands and the others supposed to do about that? For all they knew, that was where Joselyn was too. Either way, Flick was gone. The only way she could come back was if she on that end managed to get someone to send her back to some time after she was sent forward. 

Not that that was stopping Wyatt and the other spell-focused people. They were apparently working on a way of attempting to grab hold of Flick and yank her back through time from this end. But from everything Sands had heard, it was… pretty unlikely to work. Still, they were trying, and she couldn’t fault them for that. She couldn’t blame anyone for needing to try

“They’ll find Flick,” Sarah insisted. “Or she’ll find a way to come back. We can’t do anything about that now.” She turned to look pointedly at her sister, adding in a firm voice, “We can do something about this.” 

Vanessa was already nodding in agreement. “Right. We can get Erin and this girl she found, figure out what she has to do with my family, help Erin contact her dad… We can do that.” After a brief pause, she added, “We’ll need help to do that.”

Sands folded her arms, suddenly feeling uncertain. “I didn’t get an address or anything, but I got umm… images? It’s like the spell couldn’t give real words, just impressions and sort-of thoughts. Feelings, that kind of thing.” 

“There was a submarine,” Sarah put in. “A black submarine, in the water near a building. And a bunch of like… science places. There was a planetarium, a place where little kids were playing with science experiments.” 

Sands added, “And there was that red shuttle thing. Except not a shuttle. It was like… it didn’t go anywhere, but it went up and down and stuff and made you feel like you were moving when you were inside it? Except without any magic. That’s a Bystander toy thing, right? But where–”

“OMSI,” Vanessa abruptly interrupted. When the other two looked at her, she elaborated. “Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I’ve been there a couple times. I told Erin about it. She said we should see it sometime. That’s… that’s what she was showing us.” 

“Are you positive that’s the same place?” Sands asked before making a face. “Why am I asking you if you’re remembering something right?” 

“I’m positive,” Vanessa confirmed. “The submarine. That’s the big thing. The other parts could maybe be other museums, but OMSI has a big submarine right next to their building. You can go on it and look through the periscope and everything. That’s–” She cut herself off, swallowing hard. “That’s the place.” 

“What’s the place?” That particular question came from Dakota Coalbright. The dark-haired girl, much younger than the others, had been staying in Vanessa’s room for these past weeks because it happened to be where she felt the most safe. She attended her own classes for those her age, but lived in this house. Vanessa didn’t mind. The two had been getting to know each other more. Plus, Dakota was apparently trying to help Avalon and Miranda fix the Eden’s Garden vines so they could grow properly. 

Now, the older blonde girl winced as she glanced toward her roommate, lowering her voice. “Sorry, Dakota,” she murmured. “Did we wake you up?” 

Head shaking, Dakota insisted, “I had to get a drink and you weren’t in the room. Then I heard you guys talking. What’s…” She looked back and forth between them, suddenly pensive. “What’s wrong?” 

The other three exchanged brief glances before Vanessa explained the dreamcall that they had all experienced, and what it meant. Given everything Dakota had been through, being forced to kill her own family members, spending years in a mental institution, all because she had been the unwitting pawn of an evil, potentially world-ending plant monster, Vanessa wasn’t about to try to keep the girl out of what was going on, even if Principal Fellows thought she should. Dakota deserved to know the truth, despite the fact that she was young and had been through so much. Vanessa herself knew as well as anyone what it was like to be in that situation. And even she couldn’t fully comprehend what it was like to have actually killed people you loved at all, let alone when you were just a little kid. Trying to avoid telling her what was actually going on now wouldn’t be fair. To say the least. 

Hearing that, Dakota hesitantly started, “So, um, your old roommate needs help getting here, and she has a friend that’s like… connected to your family. And now she sent you a message about where to meet her. But it’s not like, word messages, it’s just images of a place you know.” Once those words were met by nods, the younger girl bluntly asked, “Are you sure it’s not a trap?” 

“A trap,” Sands echoed thoughtfully, with a glance toward her sister, who grimaced. 

“Sure,” Dakota confirmed with a vague gesture. “You know, from those Crossroads people. Come on, your old roommate happens to run into someone connected to your family and they send you a magic dream message showing you where to meet them? That smells like a trap to me. What’re the odds of your friend finding some long-lost family member or something?” 

“You uhh, might be surprised,” Sands offered with a weak cough. “But yeah, you’ve got a point. On the other hand, we can’t just ignore it or abandon them.” Her voice was more firm then. “Erin was our friend for a long time. Even if we had to leave her out of stuff last year, even if we didn’t… couldn’t… get her involved, she’s still our friend. If she needs help, we have to be there.” 

Vanessa agreed hurriedly. “Yeah, she was nice to me. She helped me not umm, not stay in the library all the time. She was a really good roommate and I just… I just left her there. If she really does need help to get here and to contact her dad, then I’m going to help.” 

“But you’ll be careful, right?” Dakota insisted pensively. Her wide, perpetually sad eyes were focused on Vanessa as she continued, “You have to be careful. I mean–” Flushing belatedly, she waved both hands to indicate the twins as well. “Everyone, you all have to be careful.” 

“Don’t worry,” Sarah reminded the girl gently, “we can’t go anywhere without telling the adults what we’re doing.” Under her breath she muttered, “Even though we all technically are adults. I mean we’re eighteen, what–” Coughing to cut herself off, she finished with a shrug. “And they’ll insist that we all have a plan.”

Vanessa agreed, “Yeah, believe me, Dakota, we’re not just going to run off right now. We need a plan, and we’ll have plenty of help.” After a second of thought, she looked to the other two. “You didn’t get a time or a day or anything, right?”

“They’ll probably just be waiting there all day,” Sarah pointed out with a shrug. “You know, waiting for us to show up. 

“That was dreamjaunt they were using to communicate, right?” Sands put in as the memory of an old lesson from their mother came back to her. “Maybe we could find someone like Wyatt to mix some together and send a message back. You know, to let them know that we got it and show them like a clock or something.” 

“No!” That was Dakota, who hurriedly insisted, “If it’s a trap, you don’t want to give them any idea of when exactly you’ll be there. If they’re just waiting around there all day, it’ll be easier to check to make sure it’s not a trap. They have to wait around. But if you give them an exact time, they can plan a trap around that really easily, see?” 

“I get the feeling you and Wyatt are gonna get along really well,” Sands informed the kid before acknowledging, “But yeah, right, good point. Okay, so we just go tell our Moms what’s going on, right?” 

“We might want to wait a little bit on that,” Vanessa pointed out. 

“What?” Sands shook her head. “Why’re we waiting?” 

“Because,” Sarah reminded her sister while pointing to the nearby dark window.

“It’s two-thirty in the morning.” 

********

Thirty-eight hours later

 

Sands had wanted to go the very second the museum opened, of course. But Sariel, Larissa, Haiden, Principal Fellows, Professor Dare, and Professor Kohaku all insisted they wait until late in the day, to give the group time to plan a quick approach and extraction. As Kohaku put it, even if Erin and whoever she was with were on the up-and-up and weren’t trying to trap them, it was possible that someone from Crossroads or Eden’s Garden might have caught on anyway. They couldn’t be sure that Erin didn’t have secret minders following her around in case she might lead them somewhere important. 

Even without Wyatt (who was busy focusing on his attempt to work on a targeted time-travel spell to pull Flick back out of the future), the rest of the adults were definitely providing enough paranoia. Not that Sands could blame them, really. She knew all the dangers and everything, she just… she just wanted to get Erin out of there so she could say they accomplished something. With Flick banished years into the future, and no total guarantee that they’d be able to pull her back here… It was bad. It felt bad. But with Erin and whoever she had with her, that was something that had an immediate fix, something Sands and the others could do right then. They couldn’t help Flick right at the moment. But they could help another friend, the other one they had abandoned. 

As part of preparing to meet Erin and her friend, Dare and Kohaku, who had taken charge of the mission, such as it was, had sent several groups through the museum all day long. They were a mix of Natural Heretics whom Erin (and hopefully any Bosch Heretics following her) wouldn’t recognize and Alters who didn’t set off the Heretic sense for various reasons. 

They’d spotted Erin with some pale, dark-haired girl around the same age fairly quickly, apparently. From the description, Sands didn’t recognize her. Neither did Sarah or Vanessa. Or Tristan, for that matter. He’d insisted on coming too, and was currently sitting next to Sarah in the van they were all waiting in, the two of them whispering about some movie they’d watched or something. 

Sands knew those two had a thing. It had become progressively more clear over the past few weeks, even if they were obviously taking things slow. The pair read books together, went for walks together, watched movies, had food. They did all the dating things aside from actively calling it a date or kissing or anything. At least, Sands was pretty sure they weren’t kissing. 

Part of her felt like warning Tristan about hurting her sister. But she pushed that thought aside. Sarah didn’t need her to fight her battles or play protective sister for her. She was fine. Tristan was obviously going slow through all that stuff, and neither of them needed Sands butting in. 

Still, she couldn’t help but squint at the boy every time he wasn’t looking at her, before quickly looking away when he glanced in that direction. 

“Okay.” That was Larissa, sitting in the driver’s seat. “The four of you can make your approach. Tanner says they’re out by the submarine, sitting on a bench. We’ll be all around you. Kohaku’s nearby, just out of sight. Dare is on the submarine itself. We’ve got people on the roof, and I’ll be a few steps back in disguise, just in case.” As she said that, the woman took a masker and pulled it on, turning her appearance to an elderly, gray-haired woman. “Everything looks clear. But be careful.”

Sands, Sarah, Vanessa, and Tristan all slipped out of the van and headed that way. They bought their tickets, were informed that the place would be closing in forty-five minutes, and headed around toward the submarine. On the way, Tristan remarked, “You know, it’s too bad we have to rush in and out of here. This place looks pretty cool.” 

Vanessa shot her brother a quick look, eyes wide. “It’s science stuff. You want–” 

“Yeah, yeah, I said it’s cool.” Tristan nudged her. “Don’t have a coronary. Seriously though, we should come back here sometime.” His face and voice darkened then. “With Flick, if we can get her back sometime before we’re all over legal American drinking age.” 

Sands started to insist that they would get Flick back before then. But she was interrupted by the sudden sight of Erin. The girl’s hair had been bright pink the last time Sands saw her, but it was back to being blue. She was also, as promised, sitting next to a pale, anorexically thin girl with dark hair, who was staring intently at a very old-looking leather book in her hands. 

With a shrug, Sands walked that way with the others. Both seated girls looked up, before Erin quickly stood with a murmured word to her companion. 

“Hey, Erin.” Quickly, Sands stepped over to embrace her old friend. “You guys wanna get out of here?” She tried not to sound as nervous as she suddenly felt. 

Erin’s head bobbed, even as she took the time to embrace Sarah and then Vanessa. “Yes. Fuck yes, let’s go. There’s more than just you guys, right? Y-you’re sure there’s no Crossroads people here?”

“Definitely sure,” Sands confirmed. 

“Why?” That was Larissa, who had removed the masker and took Erin into her arms for a tight hug. “Do you think you might’ve been followed? And who’s your friend here?” 

“This is Dylan Averty,” Erin quickly introduced them all before adding, “And we have to get out of here. I have to tell you about Baron Dallant.” 

“Jeremiah?” Larissa frowned. “What about him? He’s undercover, but he’s on our side.” 

“He may be undercover,” Erin agreed, “but I’m pretty damn sure he’s not on our si–” 

“Pardon me.” 

The interruption came from a new figure, one who simply appeared a short distance away, prompting everyone there to jerk that way, drawing weapons and readying powers. Dylan had one hand raised with a small, strange, clearly magical bag clutched in it. Larissa and Dare were both right there in an instant. All of them faced the figure who had spoken. 

He was tall, purple, with red eyes and a long beard. Not to mention partially translucent. 

“Ghost,” Dare immediately snapped, her sword snapping upward. “One of Fossor’s.” 

“No.” That emphatic, sharp denial stopped the woman from lashing out. The purple ghost gave one shake of his head. “I am not his. Not anymore. That, in fact, is entirely why I have spent all this time searching for someone connected to the Chambers.” 

“What are you talking about?” Dare demanded, making certain to keep herself between the ghost and the teens, her sword already prepped with a ghost-harming spell. 

“I am no longer bound to the orders of that creature,” the spirit informed them. “Thanks entirely to the efforts of your… Felicity. And I am here to repay that incredible favor. 

“By leading you to where Fossor is, so you may stop him before it’s too late.”

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Interlude 6A – Erin and Dylan (Heretical Edge)

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The bell above the door of the tiny, hole-in-the-wall shop jingled as the pale, incredibly thin, and dark-haired Dylan Averty stepped inside. The place she had entered was quite dark, lit only by a few flickering, almost dead bulbs in the corners of the very densely packed room. It was a shop meant to hold only half the shelves that had been crammed into it, leaving only a narrow walkway to the small counter in the back corner. A counter where a heavyset black man with long vividly purple hair sat in a comfortable recliner that had been boosted up on top of several wooden pallets to put him higher than the counter itself and able to see through the entire shop, like a judge presiding over a courtroom. Though rather than a gavel, he held the remote to the television hung in the opposite corner, on which a rather intense soccer game was playing. 

The man watched her in silence throughout the next few seconds as Dylan approached, picking her way through the narrow aisle. The shelves around her were filled with random artifacts in no particularly apparent order. There were bone necklaces, knives, small golden bells, a remote control car, a board game, several decks of cards, a box full of various strange-looking coins, a clock, and more. The sole common factor from all of the items was the sense of magic that seemed to waft off of them almost like a physical scent. It hung heavily in the air of the shop.  

Only once she was directly in front of him did the man speak. “Ain’t a pawn shop, baby.” 

“That’s okay,” Dylan informed him promptly with a quick head shake, “I’m not looking for a pawn shop baby. I’m not even sure how you could have a baby pawn shop. Wait, is that a very small and immature pawn shop that isn’t fully grown yet, or is it a pawn shop that sells babies? Because that second one sounds really bad and I’m really glad this store isn’t doing that.” 

For a moment, the man on the raised recliner just stared at her in complete bafflement. His finger gradually found the mute button for the television, cutting off the excited announcer’s voice in mid-sentence. As silence descended on the room, the guy managed a flat, “What?” 

“Oh, it’s okay, I don’t think you sell babies,” Dylan promptly assured him. “We watched this place too long to think that could be possible. I was just worried about how many people come in and ask for infants that you’d immediately tell me you didn’t sell those. Is this a bad neighborhood?” 

“Are you fucking with me right–” The man stopped in mid-sentence, doing a double-take. “Wait, what’re you… did you say you’ve been watching this place?” Even as he said it, his hand moved toward the hidden compartment under the counter, eyes narrowing at the decidedly strange girl. 

“Please don’t point your weapon at me, sir,” Dylan politely asked. “I think I might’ve said the wrong thing again, but I’m not here for anything bad. And I really don’t want to have to spend another week verifying that a place is safe before we buy the spell components we need.” 

Pausing for a moment, the man seemed to be debating back and forth between whether the girl in front of him was an actual threat, or simply strange and awkward. In the end, he settled on asking, “First of all, have you really been watching this place for a week without me noticing?” 

Dylan gave a short nod. “Yes, sir. We had to be really careful about who we came to for this.”

“Okay, that’s the second one,” the man continued. “Who’s this we? I mean, is there someone else with you?” As he said it, his gaze flicked to the door, then back to the girl again. He wasn’t reaching for his weapon anymore, but he also wasn’t exactly settling down. He was cautious. 

“Um, yes.” Dylan shifted on her feet a little, clearly choosing her words more carefully after her distraction about the ‘baby pawn shop.’ “There’s someone else, and she wants to come in, but first I’m supposed to tell you that she promises she’s not going to hurt you, cross her heart, needles in her eyes, everything. So please don’t freak out or anything when she comes in, okay? She’s definitely positively not here to cause any problems, but she’s sort of ummm…” 

The man belatedly picked up on the implications, realizing what the girl was trying to say. “She’s a Boscher, isn’t she?” 

“I don’t know what that means, si–wait, yes I do.” Dylan changed from shaking her head to bobbing it up and down. “That Bosch guy she was telling me about. Yes, she’s from his school. Or whatever. But she said to tell you she’s really not–wait.” From her pocket, the girl produced a small white handkerchief attached to a stick. A white flag. She held it up, swinging the thing back and forth a little. “She was supposed to wave this in the doorway before she came in, but she said she wouldn’t–this is gonna have to be good enough. Is this good enough?” 

“You tell your friend as long as she behaves herself, she can come in,” the man replied. He seemed a little more calm now that he’d figured out that the girl in front of him was simply eccentric rather than an actual threat. Though he still made a point of moving his foot toward a certain rune on the floor even as he agreed to let the Bosch Heretic into his store. 

“Oh, good idea,” Dylan piped up, pointing to where his foot was. “You have an escape spell too! Yeah, we have those, except mine are these trip bags that make smoke come out and–” 

“Dylan!” The voice came from just outside the door. “I’m coming inside now!” 

Erin showed her hands first, then pushed the door open and stepped inside. She hadn’t been able to hear all of the conversation within, but she had picked up enough to know that it was roughly as safe as she could possibly hope for it to be. Her gaze centered on the man in the recliner, and she swallowed as her Heretic-sense immediately started blurting out about him being a threat. From the way he winced upon seeing her, the man was getting his own warning.

“Hello, sir,” Erin carefully spoke while letting the door close behind her. “Like my friend said, we’re not here for any trouble or anything. I’m not…” She hesitated, swallowing hard. “I’m not with those guys anymore.” 

“Yeah, I heard something about some old rebellion picking up again,” the man murmured. “Was a bit before my time, but my dad suddenly showed up telling me all about some memories that’ve been popping into his head.” He considered briefly before stepping down from his recliner to offer his hand. “Name’s Wuen. And I understand why you sent your friend in here first. Lot of us have a… well, a pretty instinctive reaction to someone like you popping in.” 

The blue-haired girl swallowed before accepting the offered hand, having a vague idea of just what it meant for him to offer it. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I understand why. Um, I’m Erin. Erin Redcliffe. This is Dylan. We’re umm… looking for some unique spell components.” This was all new for Erin, whose exposure to magic was mostly limited to early and relatively simple enchantments, not the kind of magic that Dylan had told her about when they’d first come up with this plan. 

Wuen didn’t respond immediately. He seemed to watch them for a moment as though trying to decide something. Finally, the man settled on, “I’m not sure what kind of trouble you girls are in, but if you need something from my shop for this rebellion, you’re welcome to find it.” 

“Oh, we’re not actually…” Trailing off, Erin hesitated before explaining, “I’m not with the rebellion right now, but I do agree with them and all that. I’m actually trying to contact my dad. Crossroads was basically holding me hostage and I’ve gotta let him know that I’m safe so he can leave them now. But they’re all over the place and I can’t get close to him or call or anything.” 

“You know,” Wuen muttered, “somehow hearing all that doesn’t surprise me. Not with everything I’ve seen about those Boschers. No offense. But ahh, what exactly do you think you can find in this place that’s gonna help you get past something like the kind of powers and magic Crossroads is gonna have keeping an eye on that dad of yours?” He glanced around, his expression vaguely doubtful and somewhat apologetic. “I mean, I love the place and all. Been in the family a real long time. But truth be told, we don’t exactly carry the big fancy stuff. Business has been kinda slow, as you might’ve seen while you were spying all week.” He said the last bit with a raised eyebrow. 

Erin caught herself staring at the man when he looked at her, flushing reflexively before quickly gesturing with both hands. “Oh, oh, yes, I mean we were spying but just to make sure you weren’t being watched by Crossroads or Eden’s Garden or anything. Or that you weren’t a bad guy.” 

Before she could say anything else, Dylan quickly piped up. “I’m still not totally convinced you aren’t secretly evil, but we couldn’t find any evidence. So if you are evil, you’re good at hiding it and pretending to be good, and that’s gotta be enough cuz we’re in a hurry.” A brief moment of silence passed before she abruptly blurted in one long run-on word, “Unlessstartlingyoumakesyouconfessyou’reevil!” 

“Dylan,” Erin wearily began, “that didn’t work on the taxi driver, the motel clerk, or that nice couple walking their dog. Why would it suddenly work now?” 

“Oh, you just wait, Erin,” Dylan replied knowingly, her eyes narrowed as she squinted at Wuen. “One of these days, someone’s gonna be taken completely by surprise at the-areyoureallyevil?!” She accompanied the sudden demand with waved hands and wiggling fingers in the man’s face. 

“Nope,” he answered in a flat voice. “Not the last time I checked, anyway. You keep on trying that though, someone’ll break someday.” Looking to Erin, Wuen added, “Let me guess, you ran away from Crossroads, and because they don’t let their students have any actual interaction in the real world with real people, this girl’s your only connection to things.” When Erin nodded, he looked to Dylan and smiled faintly. “You could’ve done worse. Yeah, you guys go ahead and look around. See if you can find what you’re looking for. But like I said, don’t go expecting miracles. We don’t exactly stock the rarest stuff in here.”

Dylan promptly gave the man two thumbs up. “It’s okay, the things I’m looking for aren’t rare. It’s not like we’re trying to make a spell to turn an entire car into candy or anything.” Head tilting, she added slyly while waggling her eyebrows, “Although if you diiiiiid have those ingredients, there might be a chocolate fender in it for you. Huh, huh? I’ll look for those too, just in case.”

With that, the skeletally-thin girl began to mosey through the shelves, humming to herself as she picked up things here or there, examined them thoroughly, and put them back. She made a few comments here and there as though talking to someone just over her shoulder. 

Lowering his voice once Dylan had moved into the back area, Wuen asked, “She’s okay, right?” 

“I think so,” Erin confirmed. “She’s just… had a hard time. It’s a really long story and…” She looked to him. “Sorry, can I ask… um, I know this is probably rude and everything. I just don’t know what the–I mean I’m still trying to learn what–I don’t–” 

“You want to know what I am,” the man finished for her. “And you don’t know how to ask because the only thing Crossroads taught you to do when you see someone that isn’t human is stab it repeatedly. That about sum it up?” 

Blushing despite herself, Erin gave a short nod. This was even harder than she’d thought it would be. Every time she looked at the man, both her senses and her training screamed that he was a threat and she should do something about it. She felt so much tension, despite trying to force it down. This was hard. How did the others do it? Was it really as simple as just being around people like him more? Being around… “Um, what do–do you call yourselves Strangers? That doesn’t sound–” 

“Alters,” he informed her. “As in ‘alternative from human.’ As for me, I’m what we call a Peuchen.” 

Erin’s eyes widened a bit, and she made an involuntary noise of surprise. “A Peuchen? Like the animal shapeshifters? But I thought they looked like… um, big snakes with wings and–wait.” Her face flushed even more than before. “Shapeshifters.” 

The man winked. “See, you got there in the end. Yeah, we have what we call our hunting form. That looks basically like you said. Giant snake with wings. Think of a python with these big-ass…” He trailed off, squinting at the girl who was subtly leaning away from him. “I’m not helping right now, am I? Ahh, sorry. Yeah, we shapeshift into anything really. Like Pooka except without the kickass respawning powers. Trust me, those would be nice.” 

“And you can really whistle to paralyze people?” Erin asked carefully. 

“You must’ve gotten a C on that assignment,” Wuen dryly informed her. “The whistling just makes people uncomfortable. Kind of messes with their equilibrium, makes them nauseous. It’s the stare that paralyzes people. You know, looking right into their eyes, meeting their gaze.” 

He chuckled, and Erin belatedly realized that she had dropped her eyes to stare intently at the floor. “Now you’re making fun of me,” she mumbled. 

“Sure,” the man agreed, “but only because I’m pretty sure you’re not about to stab me in the throat or snap your fingers and barbecue me.” 

He… he had a point. Erin peeked up. “I’m sorry about everything Crossroads and Eden’s Garden have been doing to your people for so long. And to… to everyone’s people.” 

A brief moment of silence passed before Wuen exhaled, shaking his head. “Kid, don’t apologize for things you didn’t do. Just worry about what you can do. You start taking on the blame for everyone that came before you… shit, you might as well try to put the whole planet on your shoulders. Nobody’s got that kind of strength. You worry about you and the things you can affect, you got it?” 

Somehow, Erin managed a faint smile, nodding to him. “Yes, sir. Thank you. You’ve been… it’s been interesting meeting you.” 

“Right back at you, Crossroads girl,” Wuen replied. “And hey, nice hair.” 

“Got it!” Dylan abruptly piped up, heading back their way with an armful of various jars, paper bags, bottles, and even a couple notebooks. “This is everything we need to make the Dreamjaunt.” 

“Dreamjaunt, huh?” the man blinked between them. “You trying to give someone nightmares?” 

Shaking her head, Erin corrected him, “Crossroads won’t let me near my dad in the real world, so we’re gonna use magic. I’ll talk to him in his dreams and tell him where to meet us.

“You know, if it works.” 

********

“Damn it, this isn’t going to work!” Erin blurted explosively two weeks later, after the girls had worked extensively on the spell throughout the intervening days. She and Dylan were back at the mansion that Dylan had inherited from her Kitsune-savior, sitting in one of the many, many rooms throughout the place. The written part of the spell was drawn on the floor, with the empowered potion bubbling in the crockpot they’d stuck it in. On the far side of the room, Fiesta and most her pups were soundly resting, though Queso, as usual, was restlessly watching the girls with the obvious hope that they would play with her.

The idea behind the potion was that one would take it, fall asleep, and be able to direct their dreams toward the target of the potion to communicate various ideas. It didn’t require that the other person be asleep at the time, as it would simply wait until they did fall asleep and then implant the dream message. It should’ve been easy as long as the potion was made correctly, and all their tests showed that it was. But Erin still hadn’t been able to get anywhere near her father’s mind. 

“It’s like he’s too far away or something. The spell can’t get through,” she complained with a long sigh while picking up one of Dylan’s extensively drawn-in notebooks full of pretty decent sketches and random thoughts. “But the only way that would happen is if he wasn’t on Earth. Or somewhere like Crossroads, anyplace connected to Earth. He’d have to be a lot further away, like one of the colony worlds.” 

“I have a lot of questions about that,” Dylan informed her. “But right now, maybe there’s someone else you can contact besides your dad?  It has to be someone you’ve spent a lot of time with, and it’ll take another week to switch the target to a new person, but maybe–” 

“Vanessa,” Erin immediately announced. “We lived in the same room for almost a whole year. Months, anyway. Yeah, she didn’t tell me about a lot of stuff, but we still lived together. Or maybe Sands or Scout. We spent a lot of time together when we were kids. Me and the twins, I mean. My dad was friends with their mom.”  

“Why not all three?” Dylan pointed out. “We made plenty of Dreamjaunt, and if there’s three of them, they won’t just dismiss it as a normal dream or their imagination. They’ll take it seriously, right?” 

“Yes!” Erin grinned, poking the other girl. “See, you’re brilliant. Still totally paranoid, but brilliant. Come on, let’s get this set up again so we can start shifting the targets. Let’s see those guys try to leave me behind when I’m in their… dreams… yelling… at… Dylan, who’s this?” Turning around the notebook of sketches she had been randomly flipping through, Erin held it up to indicate a single sketch of a man with somewhat dark shoulder-length hair. 

Somehow managing to look even more pale than usual, Dylan quietly replied, “The servant of Galazien the Iron-Souled who cut off my father’s head with an axe just before his friend put a sword through my mother. Why?” 

It was Erin’s turn to pale. “I… because… because I know this guy. His name’s Jeremiah Dallant. He’s the Baron of Wyoming for Crossroads. Which means there are Heretic leaders trying to bring this evil Galazien guy back, or free him, or whatever.

“But why the hell would they do that?”

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Interlude 4A – Erin and Dylan (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Damn it!” 

The blurted expletive burst from Erin’s mouth as she looked away from the cell phone she’d been intently staring at for the past minute with disgust. “They really think I’m that stupid,” she muttered while gripping the phone and snapping the device in half. Both pieces were tossed into the nearby trashcan along the side of the path that led through the park she was standing in. Late as it was, the park was dark, save for spots of illumination from a few lampposts. 

From a few yards away, Dylan spoke up while continuing to coast back and forth on the playground swing in the relative darkness. “Too many spy eggs getting in your batter?” 

“What?” Blinking that way briefly, Erin belatedly nodded. “Something like that. They’ve obviously taken over my dad’s phone number and emails. I can’t get hold of him. I mean, ‘he’ answers my messages, but it’s obviously not him. Whoever’s writing his responses or answering in his voice doesn’t pass any of my tests. There’s things he should know, things he should pick up on about what I’m saying, and they don’t. They think I’m stupid enough to fall for their idiotic tricks.” 

Tucking her legs to swing backward before snapping them out for a good forward arc, Dylan replied, “They sound really clingy. Why are they so mad about you leaving, are you a princess?” 

“A prince–” Erin laughed, shaking her head. “No, but let’s get out of here before the royal guard show up anyway. I don’t know how long it’ll take them to trace those messages, but I don’t want to find out.” She glanced around the park, already nervous. It had been a little over a day since her escape from the grocery store, and it all still felt like a dream she would wake up from soon.

Kicking her legs out for one more high swing, Dylan hopped off at the end in a jump that brought her close to the waiting Erin… then sprawled out awkwardly across the grass with a yelp. Rolling over, the dark-haired girl looked up to the Heretic and raised a hand for help while asking, “Well, how come you stayed with these Crossfit people for so long if they’re that bad?” 

Erin sighed at that, reaching down to catch the girl’s hand. She pulled her up while replying, “Crossroads. And they’re not bad. I mean it’s–not all of them–we didn’t know what…” Pausing, she admitted, “It’s a long story. A real long story. I’ll tell you about it after we get out of here. And you can tell me about you, because I’m curious about that whole story. Come on. Like I said, gotta go.” 

The two turned to walk out of the park, while Dylan whistled. “C’mon, Fiesta, we’re leaving!” 

In response to that, one of the dark shadows in the far corner of the playground area seemed to get up and move, revealing, as it moved closer to the light, a massive wolf-dog creature. As big as a lion, she was the same Crocotta from the grocery store that Erin had chosen not to report finding after seeing her with an assortment of puppies. And trailing along behind their mother were those same pups. There were six of them, whom Dylan had apparently named Taco, Nacho, Burrito, Fajita, Chalupa, and Queso to go with their mother’s name of Fiesta. Erin was pretty sure the other girl had been really hungry when she came up with all those names. 

It was… strange being around an obvious Stranger-Beast like the Crocotta without fighting it. Erin had been raised to believe that Crocotta would almost never stop eating. They were constantly ravenous, filling their bottomless pit stomachs with absolutely anything they could, whether it was traditionally edible or not. There was very little their teeth couldn’t bite through, and they seemed to gain nourishment of… some kind from anything they shoved into it. They were, as far as she had always been taught back at Crossroads, essentially mindless beasts who devoured entire houses, neighborhoods, and towns if not stopped and culled in time. 

But when she and this Dylan girl had escaped the grocery store the night before, finding themselves in the old-looking creepy house that Dylan said belonged to her, Fiesta and her pups had been waiting. And despite what Erin had learned, the Crocotta did not, in fact, eat literally everything from floor to ceiling. She and her offspring were clearly hungry, of course. But Dylan had simply fed them each a decent amount of meat for their size, along with a single metal coin for each of them. The coins were enchanted with some kind of spell, and when Erin had asked about it, the other girl had simply told her that it didn’t matter what kind of spell it was. 

Because that was the truth about the Crocotta. They did eat a fair amount. But in reality, they had to be fed with two different things. They ate regular food and magic. Getting both was the only way for them to be satisfied. In the wild, they tended to rampage through places eating anything they could in order to take in the little bit of ambient magical energy all things naturally absorbed (and that living beings created). If they were simply fed a regular diet of objects enchanted by various spells, they were fine. Erin figured they’d probably like Enners too, the coins enchanted with blank magical energy that Heretics used as currency. Anything with magic.

Now, the two girls walked down the sidewalk rapidly away from the park, with Fiesta and her six pups trailing after them while the animals all made happy little barking noises. If any Bystanders noticed them, they would simply see a grown dog and her litter walking with their owners. 

They didn’t go far before Dylan tossed another of what she called her ‘trip bags’ in front of them. A cloud of smoke enveloped the group, reaching around to take their canine followers. It didn’t take them directly to their destination, of course. As Dylan put it, that would have been too easy to track. Instead, the teleport spell jumped them through half a dozen locations for a split-second each time. It was… disorienting, to say the least. But just as Erin’s stomach heaved, the spell finally deposited them onto the large grass yard behind the old mansion they’d eventually appeared at the night before. Immediately, Fiesta and her pups went running across the yard, bounding happily in circles before sniffing along the tall fence that blocked them off from the dark forest beyond. Far off in the distance, the lights of a nearby city could be seen.

Now that they were safely away from the park and fairly unlikely to be jumped by a Crossroads squad anytime soon, Dylan curiously asked, “So, how’re you gonna find your dad now?” 

Letting out a long breath, Erin admitted, “I don’t know. He’s not staying at our house, he already told me that after the whole Rebellion thing started. They moved him to a ‘safe location’ that he couldn’t tell me anything about. And even if he was at the house, it’s gotta be surrounded by now. If they think I’m stupid enough to believe some schmuck posing as my dad is the real thing, they definitely think I’m stupid enough to walk right up to our old house.” Her eyes rolled. “I’ve gotta think. There’s ways to get around them and talk to someone who can help me, I’m just… not sure how yet. I can’t exactly look up the phone number or address for these guys.”

Shaking that off, she focused on the girl in front of her. “But seriously, you’ve gotta tell me about you. Cuz this is all really confusing. You’re amazing at magic, but you don’t know anything about Heretics or the bigger world out there? And this place. This is like…” Pausing, Erin looked around, her gaze moving toward the enormous, ancient-looking mansion ahead of them. “This place looks like it’s haunted. You live in an empty haunted mansion on the outskirts of some town, but work at a grocery store? And you know all this magic. And what about your family?”  

For a few seconds, Dylan didn’t respond. She stared at the Crocotta bounding around the yard in silence before finally replying quietly, “It’s not my house. I stay here and take care of it, but it’s not mine. It really belongs to the fox-man. I mean, it belonged to him. But he’s gone now.” 

Erin frowned at that, glancing toward the Crocotta before hesitantly asking. “The fox-man?” 

“I used to call him Ninetales,” Dylan informed her, still not looking that way. “Like the Pokémon.” 

“I’m sorry, like the what?” Erin asked, staring at her blankly. “Wait, no, I’ve heard some of the Silverstones–errr, Bystander-Kin talking about that at Crossroads. It’s a game about making monsters fight for you, right?” 

It was, apparently, Dylan’s turn to stare at her in confusion. “You’ve never seen… Where did you grow up, the moon?” 

Snorting, Erin muttered, “Something like that. Anyway, a nine-tailed fox man. A Kitsune. You mean a Kitsune lived here?” 

“Yup, that’s it!” Dylan agreed, pointing to her. “I didn’t know what he was called when I was little, so I just called him Fox-Man or Ninetales. He’s the one who saved me when…” She trailed off, her expression dropping into a look of fear and loss for a moment before she shook it off, clearly physically shoving the feelings aside as she changed the subject. “Come on, let’s go inside before Galazien’s people turn their spy satellites this way. I don’t think my cloaking spells are up to snuff with two of us here. Not yet, anyway.” The girl was already walking toward the dilapidated back porch of the mansion while waving a hand toward the assortment of doll heads mounted along the fence. Each doll head had various glowing spell runes drawn across its face.  

Gazing at the dolls for a moment, Erin gave herself a little shake before quickly hurrying after the other girl and into the house. Fiesta and the pups were fine outside, according to Dylan. They’d just have to bring the Crocotta out some food before they ended up getting too hungry. 

As worn down and broken-looking as the outside of the mansion was, the inside had been fixed up pretty well. The kitchen was almost as large as the one the cooks used at Crossroads (Erin had to shove the thought of poor Chef Escalan out of her head really quick), the place clearly intended to serve an enormous amount of people. The same went for the rest of the house, really. It was gigantic. In the short time she’d been there, Erin had barely seen a small portion. 

Now, as the two of them stood in that giant kitchen, she asked, “Um. What… I’m sorry if this is too much, especially after everything you did to help me. But what happened with the Fox-Man? What do you mean, he saved you? And um… is there a reason you don’t use his name?” 

For a few long seconds, Dylan didn’t answer. She didn’t even move, standing there with her back to the other girl, apparently frozen save for her hands, which opened and shut nervously. When she finally did speak, her voice was quiet. “Galazien the Iron-Souled. It was his people.” 

The urge to start blurting out more questions rose up in Erin, but she pushed it back down. Dylan would explain things in her own time and… well, in her own way. She just had to wait.

Another few seconds passed as Dylan moved to take down a glass from the nearby cupboard. She filled it up with water and took a sip before staring into the sink. “I was in fifth grade. I just got an A on my math test and I came home with it. I was waving the paper and yelling for my mom when I went inside. It was… it was the back door. I went in the back door. Not here. We lived in Iowa. Ames, Iowa. It was nice, we–” Realizing she was getting off on a tangent, the dark-haired girl shook her head quickly, taking another long gulp of water without looking up. 

“I was calling for my mom, so I could show her my test. But there were people there, two guys right in the hallway by the backdoor. I thought they were wearing costumes, cuz they had… armor. They had metal and leather armor on, and they were holding these big swords. They were just standing there, looking at me when I saw them. One of them said, ‘That’s her’ and he sounded all… happy? He sounded really happy. Then I heard my mom yell for me to run, so… so I tried to run. I turned around, but the one guy grabbed my shoulder and he picked me up. I was yelling and kicking, but he carried me into the living room. My mom was in there with more of those guys. And some girls. There were like… ten of them in our house, all dressed in armor.”

Without saying anything, Erin stepped that way, putting a hand on the other girl’s back before gently guiding her over to sit on a nearby chair. She pulled another chair over to sit next to her. 

Dylan, staring at the floor as she sat stiffly in that chair, swallowed hard. “They said some other things. I can’t remember. There was something about my mom hiding me from them. She was… she was sitting on the couch, with these two big guys next to her. When I tried to kick away from the guy holding me, she reached for me, but one of them hit her in the face. She yelled, I… I screamed, and the guy holding me threw me against my dad’s chair. Another guy put his sword against my mom and told me not to move. He called me something… not my name. He called me barn. Like, ‘little barn, if you do not sit and be silent, your mother’s blood will spill.’” 

Another quiet moment passed, the girl clearly lost in her own memories before she closed her eyes. “My mom, she tried to tell them it wasn’t me. She said they had the wrong one. Then my dad came in. He wasn’t supposed to be home yet. He was supposed to be at work still. He came home early, with… with a pizza. He had a pizza in his hands and he… saw… he saw what was going on. But they… the guy by the door, he had this big axe and he… he… my dad… his head was… the axe… his neck… and his head was… and…” Her own head dropped, collapsing against her raised hands as she buried her face against her palms while falling forward off the chair to land on her knees against the floor. 

Quickly, Erin moved off her seat and knelt next to the other girl. Without thinking, she put both arms around her. “Dylan, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it. You don’t have to say anything else. It’s okay. I’m sorry I asked. I’m so sorry.” 

Dylan, however, continued despite her clearly wretched memories and feelings. “My mom was screaming. I was screaming. She tried to get up, but they… the man put his sword through her chest. She was dying. I watched her die. I watched her die and I saw my dad’s head. I saw them, and the man by me, he grabbed my hair. He grabbed my hair and made me look at them. He said, ‘They thought they could hide you from him. They thought they could hide from Galazien the Iron-Souled. You’ll come to him now. You’ll come to him with us.’ And… and he started to pick me up. But the Fox-Man appeared. He just… he teleported in with smoke, and he killed them. He killed all of them with magic. Then he picked me up and said we had to go. But… but just as he started to use another teleport bag, like… like the ones I use, another bad guy came through the door. He threw a spear and it… it hit the Fox-Man in the stomach right before we teleported.” 

Abruptly, the girl pushed herself up to her feet, looking around the kitchen. “We showed up right here. His blood was all over me. I was screaming… crying… he was… he was dying. I said I could call 911, but he grabbed me. He grabbed me right over there.” Her hand rose to point into a corner of the room, by one of the sinks. “He held me really tight and told me not to trust anyone. He told me Galazien’s people would do anything to find me. He told me to get his book, his… his magic book. It was in the living room. I brought it to him and he… umm… he used some kind of spell. It wasn’t a spell from the book though, it was another spell. He pushed his fingers into my mouth. They had blood all over them. It was gross. I was trying to get away, but he held me really tight and put his bloody fingers in my mouth while he used some kind of spell. 

“That was… that was only… only a few seconds, but it felt like a long time. Then he let me go. Because he was dead. He died with his fingers in my mouth, and I threw up. I threw up over there.”

“He was turning you into a Natural Heretic of himself,” Erin murmured under her breath. “Probably using a spell to make sure it took or… or something.” 

“I don’t know what any of that means,” Dylan admitted, her voice hollow. “But when I looked at his magic book, I understood it. I just… I knew what the spells meant. When I looked at the magic that was in this whole building, I knew how to make them work. I knew what they did, how to copy them, how to make them different. I just… knew.” 

“He was a Kitsune,” Erin quietly informed her. “They’re like… there’s different types that are good at different things. He must’ve been a magic-focused Kitsune. And he passed that instinctive expertise at magic to you.” 

Shrugging at that, the other girl folded her arms, staring at the spot where the old fox-man had died right after saving her. “He had other magic books around here. I read them. I learned how to do magic, and I took care of myself.” 

“You… you stayed here in this big empty house all by yourself?” Erin hesitantly asked. “How did you eat, or… or learn things? You didn’t go to school?” 

“He had a big library. I taught myself,” Dylan replied. “And I used magic to summon food, or grow it in the backyard. I can plant seeds and use magic to make them grow really fast. Sometimes I’d sell things to people for money, or get jobs babysitting or walking dogs, that kind of thing. I used magic to make them think they already knew my parents.” 

“And eventually you got a job at that grocery store,” Erin finished for her. “You’ve been hiding from this… this Iron-Souled guy all that time, after raising yourself in this mansion since you were a kid.” 

“I saw his people sometimes,” Dylan murmured. “I saw his fire-breathing skeleton horses, and his slaves. Never him though. He can’t get here. I think he needs me for that, but I don’t know why. I just know he can’t find me. I have to keep hiding.”

Erin had a lot more questions, but she didn’t want to push any further after everything she had just heard. “I’m sorry, Dylan,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry you went through all that, and that you’ve been alone for so long. You… is that your real name, the one you told me before, Dylan Averty?”  

“Dylan is,” the girl murmured. “Not my last name. We… we used my mom’s last name. I dunno why. All I remember was my mom said she wanted to hold onto her past just a little bit. Maybe that’s why I keep using Dylan. Because I don’t wanna let that go.” 

“Dylan,” Erin started slowly, “what’s your real last name? What was your mom’s real name?” 

There was a brief pause then, before Dylan answered in a soft, sad voice. “Holt. 

“My mom’s name was Vanessa Holt.”

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Interlude 3A – Erin Redcliffe (Heretical Edge 2)

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She was a hostage. 

Erin Redcliffe understood that now. Actually, it hadn’t taken her that long to figure out. She was a hostage being held against her father. Not her birth father. That jackass had split with her mother when she was three so he could go live with some colony girl. Then her mother had died when Erin was about nine. She’d been taken in and adopted by Nolan Redcliffe. He was her real father, and he was the one she was being held hostage against. Not that anyone would admit that straight up, but it was the truth. 

Her father was a rebel, but he wasn’t actually helping the rebels. The new ones, that was. Erin knew that, because she’d actually talked to him over video chat in Headmaster Mason’s office. Yeah, Sands and Scout’s dad was the new headmaster at Crossroads. And he had made it clear that she wasn’t supposed to mention the ‘traitors’, or the call would be cut off. Oh, he’d been nice about it and all. He’d phrased it as if avoiding touchy subjects was best for everyone. But she could read between the lines. Just like she’d read between the lines of the bullshit nothing comments from her father about how he was going to be busy doing some extra work for awhile and that she should be good for Mason and the teachers at Crossroads. 

He wasn’t doing anything. She knew that much just from looking at him on that video chat, just from hearing the things he said and things he didn’t say. He wasn’t working for Crossroads and he wasn’t working for the new rebellion. Or ‘traitors’ as Headmaster Mason called them. He was sitting out everything to protect her. Obviously, Crossroads had made some kind of deal with him, and probably with the parents or guardians of other students here. They sat out the war, and their kids would be safe. Who knew what would happen if they didn’t sit it out. Erin wasn’t even sure if the threats had been specific or just implied. Either way, they were enough. 

So, she’d spent the past few months basically holed up on the island, desperate to find out what was really going on. But it was impossible to get real information. She and a few of the others that she’d managed to find out were also leaning toward believing the revelations that Flick and Gaia had magically uploaded into everyone’s minds were being kept in the dark about everything rebellion-wise. They were meant to sit around and ‘enjoy themselves’ over the summer. Right.

At least now school had started. Which was… something of a distraction. And now that they’d been going to classes for a couple weeks, they were even allowing Erin to leave the island. Sort of. She was going along with the rest of her new team (everyone had been shuffled up for the start of school) on their first official monster hunt of the year. Which was something she’d expected to at least be delayed for awhile, but nope. Something about keeping to tradition. A part of her wondered if some of it was also because Headmaster Mason wanted to prove to the Committee that he was capable of keeping things under control and running smoothly. 

Well, that and the fact that sticking them out here on hunting missions was clearly also a potential trap for any family members who might come to pick them up. They had extra security guarding every hunting group, and all the participants, including Erin, were outfitted with a magic bracelet that could teleport them straight to Crossroads at any time if something went off script. Which they said was because of all the events that happened last year with the hunts, but as good of an excuse as that was, Erin was pretty sure the real reason was to yank them back if any of their rebel-leaning family members tried to intervene to get them out of there. 

Seriously, at exactly what point in the course of actually holding students hostage with magical leashes intended to stop their own family members and friends from rescuing them did these people look at themselves in the mirror and ask if they might just possibly be the bad guys? 

Whatever, it was just good to get off the island for a while, though she was also pretty sure that this was a test to see how they would react to killing things after that little memory upload. Mason and the rest wanted to see if they would hesitate too much after hearing the rebellion’s theory about Strangers not all being evil. 

So here they were, her whole team on the first hunt. Her team this year consisted of Zeke Leven and Malcolm Harkess, both members of her team from last year, as well as Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Erin’s new roommate, a Middle Eastern-looking girl named Laila. Erin hadn’t interacted with her very much the year before, because Laila always kept to herself and didn’t say much. Either that had changed this year, or she was different with roommates, because Laila had been asking her a lot of questions every night about what happened the year before. Erin told her that she hadn’t been involved with any of it and that Vanessa had kept everything a secret even from her. Which was a fact that still hurt to think about. Not just from Vanessa, but Sands and Scout too. The three of them had grown up together. They were supposed to be friends. Her dad and their mom were like… besties for a long time. And neither they, nor Vanessa, had said anything to her. 

So yeah, that hurt. And she wasn’t even sure Laila believed it. 

But frankly, Erin had more things to worry about than what her new roommate believed. Most importantly in this very moment was the question of what she was going to do about this whole hunting thing. She’d been thinking about the rebellion’s message for months now, and she just… she believed them even more now than she had that first night. It felt right, even if that meant that everything she’d been taught for so long was wrong. 

But even believing the rebellion’s message, what was she supposed to do about it? She couldn’t exactly just refuse to hunt. That wouldn’t  go over well. And there were very clearly actual bad monsters out there. Monsters that did need to be killed. But she couldn’t trust the people she was supposed to be able to trust to point her at the right ones. 

She wanted to talk to her dad, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not without strict supervision making it impossible to really talk. 

So, she had no actual help on that front. And here she was on the first hunt. She and the rest of her team were standing just outside the loading dock of a grocery store. According to their briefing for this hunt, a pack of Crocotta had taken up residence in the place. They were a sort of magical wolf-dog hybrid creature that was as big as a lion and had teeth that could and did eat through anything. They were always hungry, eating whenever possible because of their fast digestion. And that digestion could apparently take anything. They ate meat and such, but also metals, brick, wood, everything. They were like super powered termites shaped like really big wolf dogs. 

And they had already killed several people in the store before it was shut down by a few Adjacents in the local police department, people without the Bystander Effect for various reasons who helped out a bit but were not actual full Heretics. 

Now Erin and her team were being sent in to kill the monsters, with plenty of people watching over their shoulders to see how they did. And how they reacted to it. She was pretty sure it was no accident that the creatures they were being sent after for their first hunt were non-humanoid and had already clearly killed people. It was a test, but also a safe one. They were being eased into things. 

“Yo, Earth to Erin.” Malcolm’s voice cut through her inner musings, and Erin snapped back to the present. Right, the store. They were right there.

“I’m good,” she whispered back before looking to the others. Malcolm, Zeke, Laila, Freya, and Summer. For whatever reason, they had put her in charge. Well, Zeke nominated himself, but the others pushed for Erin. And Namid, their new team mentor for the year, had taken their suggestions. 

“Okay,” she continued, speaking quietly despite the magical charm they were using to keep their conversation private, “three in the back and three in the front. The three in the front go in and start driving them back this way. If they attack straight on, the ones in the back come in and hit them from behind. If they turn and run, the ones back here stop them and the ones in the front are the ones who hit them from behind. Good?”

Zeke looked like he might argue, but seemed to catch himself. Instead, the boy ran a hand through his wild mop of brown hair and adjusted his glasses before giving a short nod. “Who’s going around front?”

“Malcolm, Summer, and me,” Erin replied after thinking about it for a second. That would split the team’s two best fighters, Malcolm and Freya, between both groups. And if the monsters did retreat back this way, Freya and Zeke both had shields to help keep them from escaping. Finally, it put the team’s two big weapons, Freya’s rocket launcher (combined from her shield and warhammer) and Summer’s railgun (converted from her shockprod-and-sawblade armed staff) at opposite ends of the store to hit the monsters from either side. 

Still, after making that decision, Erin turned toward the nearby empty semi-truck to look at the girl who stood there. 

“Hey,” Namid idly replied, “I’m just here in case you all fuck up completely. So don’t fuck up, okay?” After a second, she relented and gestured. “If you were doing something really stupid, I’d say something. Note the lack of me saying something.”

Namid. Erin was pretty sure that being a team mentor was about as far from something the punk Native American girl wanted to do as dying her hair blonde, putting on a bright pink dress, and entering one of those Bystander beauty pageants. Unfortunately, it seemed like Litonya, Namid’s great-something aunt, hadn’t given her that much of a choice. But, as much as she clearly didn’t want to do it, Namid wasn’t a bad mentor. She spoke up when she needed to and actually taught them things. She was good at it. At least, she had been over this past couple of weeks. Whatever anger or annoyance she felt at being forced into this, she wasn’t taking it out on Erin and the others. Which actually just seemed to prove that Litonya hadn’t been wrong to put her in this position. 

Quietly, Erin, Malcolm, and Summer made their way around to the front of the store. The parking lot was almost entirely empty and the doors were locked. The inside of the place looked dark, but they could occasionally see shapes moving around between the aisles. The monsters were definitely still in there. 

Touching the badge on her uniform to communicate with everyone at once, Erin spoke up. “Okay, guys. On the count of five, we’re going in. Rear team, stay put until we tell you what they’re doing. Be ready to come in or receive if they run. We’re going in loud so they know we’re here.”

 After getting a collection of acknowledgments, she started counting down. In the process, she freed her sword from its scabbard, noting Malcolm pulling out his own massive hammer and Summer producing her staff. They were ready. 

Reaching zero, Erin lashed outward with her sword. The weapon’s special ability allowed it to control and manipulate the wind. In this case, she used that to generate a hurricane force gust that slammed into the doors with enough strength that the glass was shattered in all of them and went spraying inward throughout the front of the store. 

With the other two at her side, Erin went running right through the opening she had made. The sound of savage barking and howling throughout the store greeted them. The Crocotta were apparently not interested in trying to flee. 

So, Erin let the others know to attack from the other side, and the fight throughout the dimly lit store was on. 

********

After what felt like far longer than the eight minutes it actually was, Erin was very carefully making her way through the snacks aisle. The rest of the team was either spread out throughout the store as they searched for more of the wild monsters, or watching either exit in the case of Freya and Malcolm. They’d already killed more than half of the Crocotta, and now they had to find the rest.

Everyone could be in communication with the others at any point, and Malcolm had touched his hammer against each of them. Which meant he could teleport in next to any of them at any point if they got in trouble. They could do this. They could finish this hunt. Then Erin could go back to figuring out a way to get hold of her father and get away from Crossroads. 

But for the moment, she had to focus on this. There were still monsters in here, monsters who had definitely killed people. Slowly, her eyes scanned the aisle. Seeing nothing, she instead raised the hand that wasn’t clutching her sword and focused on one of her powers. Gradually, a faint red fog appeared, along with a slight yellow one mixed in. The power allowed her to create a visible representation of various strong emotions felt within a certain timeframe. Anger and violent feelings were red and fear was yellow. Only a short time earlier, something feeling very angry and slightly afraid had come right through here. One of the monsters. Following the trail, Erin made her way to the end of the aisle. Rather than poke her head out, she summoned another power. This one brought a small crystal ball to her hand. She threw the ball out about ten feet, then summoned it back. When the ball was back in her palm, she focused on it, and an image of everything the orb had seen while it was out there came to her mind. She could see everything from all sides, everywhere the sphere had a view on. She saw herself standing there and the area surrounding the end of the aisle. And she saw the huge wolf-dog creature crouched behind one of the refrigeration units in the middle of the open space. It was waiting for her. 

Slowly, Erin started to raise a hand to the badge to let the others know she had one. But her hand froze in mid-motion, as she noticed that the creature wasn’t alone. There were several much smaller versions curled up behind it. Pups. The thing had puppies. 

Well, what the fuck was she supposed to do now? Crossroads would say to kill the things before they could get bigger. But they were just puppies. Puppies being protected by their mother or father. Damn it, this was supposed to be simple! 

“Erin,” Malcolm’s voice came, “you got anything?”

Pausing for a brief moment, she reached up to touch the badge before they could think anything was wrong, whispering, “Not sure yet. I’ll let you know.”

Just as she finished saying that, Erin sensed something behind her. She started to spin with a yelp, but a hand suddenly covered her mouth and she was yanked backward. Jerking free, she shoved the person who had grabbed her away and spun with her sword out.

It was a teenaged girl, a very thin one with hair that was long and black as opposed to Erin’s own short, currently neon green hair. 

She was also clearly not that strong, considering she almost collapsed completely when Erin shoved her. “Oof,” she half-yelped and half-gasped. “Boy, you’re really strong. I mean girl. You’re definitely a girl, even if you’re really strong.” 

Staring at the girl for a moment, Erin blurted, “Who the hell are you?”

The girl, in turn, shook her head while straightening up. “No, the question is, who are you? I mean, I had that question before I touched you. And you didn’t know I was there, so I definitely had the question first. And why did you have a big leash spell all over you?”

“Look,” Erin started, “you need t— Wait, you know what magic is? Who are you? Where did you come from? Wait, are you from Eden’s Garden? Or the rebellion?”

The girl stared at her blankly. “I’m from 3621 Montgomery, about three blocks that way.” She pointed before turning that finger toward Erin. “What’s Eden’s Garden? What’s the Rebellion? Were you the ones who sent the spy eggs? I thought you worked for Galazien the Iron-Souled, but you’re not nearly evil enough for that. And he usually makes his women wear bikini chainmail.”

“The spy—what?” Erin was now even more confused and started to ask for clarification. Then something else the girl had said suddenly struck her. “Wait, you said why did I have a leash spell, past tense. Why did you use past tense?” 

Staring back at her evenly, the thin girl replied, “Oh, it doesn’t function in the circle. None of that magic stuff on you does. It’s a protection circle.”

Looking at the floor where the girl gestured, Erin saw various symbols drawn on the floor.  A second later, voices caught her attention, and she turned to see Malcolm and Zeke come running. Her mouth open to say something, but Malcolm spoke first. “Where the hell is she?”

“They can’t see or hear you until you step out of the circle,” the strange girl informed her while Zeke and Malcolm walked right past them, stepping on the spell runes to no apparent effect. “It only works for people I pull onto it, so we’re cut off from those others.”

“What about th—” As she started to ask about the monster, Erin glanced that way, only to see nothing there. A fact that Malcolm and Zeke confirmed by stepping all the way over there and finding nothing. 

“She’s my friend,” the girl informed her firmly. “Her and her puppies. They were here a long time before the other ones. The other ones showed up and started killing people yesterday, but she’s nice. She’s not like them. So I sent her and the puppies away. I was going to make an illusion spell for you and your friends to chase, but you told them you didn’t find her.” She frowned. “That’s why I pulled you onto my privacy circle. Why did you do that? Why did you lie to your friends and tell them you didn’t find her?”

Erin’s mind was reeling. But there was one thing she had to focus on, even as she saw Malcolm starting to call in the fact that she had disappeared. “Look, wait, I’ve got just as many questions as you do, about who you are, how you know all this, and what the hell is going on. But there’s just one important thing right now. You said that Leash spell doesn’t work in here, right? Can you get rid of it completely?” That had to be the magic they’d put on the wristband that would yank her back to Crossroads. “And can you do it fast? Because we have to get out of here. You get me out of here without that spell and without any of those guys following and I’ll answer anything you want to know.”

With a shrug, the other girl crouched to touch one of the runes. She seemed to pour some power into it with a look of focused concentration before pointing at Erin. A beam of silver light lashed out, hitting the wristband and disintegrating it.

By that point, the rest of the team was there along with Namid. They were all looking around, shouting her name. An instant later, two adult Heretics from the security team came bursting through a portal with their weapons drawn. They started setting up spells, ordering the other students to go through the portal and get back to Crossroads. There was a lot of arguing, and another adult Heretic appeared.

“Boy,” the strange girl remarked, “there sure are a lot of you.”

Erin’s head shook. “You have no idea. And I don’t care how good your privacy spell is, Miss Magicka, they’re going to figure out we’re here any second. They’re too good to be fooled for long. Do you have any way to send us out of the store like you sent the Crocotta and her pups?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, “but for the record, my name’s Dylan, not Miss Magicka. I—”

“There!” one of the adult Heretics blurted, pointing right at them. 

“You’re right,” Dylan remarked, “they are good.” With that, she pulled a pouch from her pocket and threw it at the ground. Even as the rest of the Heretics suddenly moved their way, a cloud of blue smoke enveloped the pair. 

And they were gone. 

Author’s Note: Dylan was both introduced and last seen in second edition of Patreon Snippets, third entry from the top, located here: https://ceruleanscrawling.wordpress.com/2018/08/22/patreon-snips-2/

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Patreon Snippets 2

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The following are short selections chosen by those in the $10+ tier of the Heretical Edge Patreon. At the $1+ tier you are able to vote on end-of-arc interludes and receive three bonus points to spend on that vote, at the $3+ tier you receive interludes one day early (and 4 extra points), at the $5+ tier you receive all chapters one day early (and 5 extra points), and at the $10+ tier you may choose 500 words (or save/combine them with others) per month to go into these Patreon Snips (and get 6 extra points).

Scout and Tristan

“Hey, I’m sorry.“

Scout started a little bit at the unexpected voice. Not only was she not actively using her enhanced hearing, she had also been lost in thought while sitting out on the grass of the school grounds. It was the same night that Flick and the others had gotten back, and they would be visiting the hospital the next day.

It was Tristan. As Scout blinked up at the boy, he settled down onto his knees nearby, wincing a little bit. “And now I’m sorry again, for surprising you that time.”

Hesitating slightly, Scout offered him a small shrug, “What for? The first time,” she asked quietly.

“I’m sorry we didn’t bring Sands back with us,” the boy clarified. “That’s what you were thinking about, right?”

Now she blushed, looking down a bit guiltily before murmuring, “I’m glad you’re all safe.”

Immediately giving her one of his charming smiles, Tristan winked. “Well of course you are, we are pretty useful to have around.” His expression sobered then, as he added, “But we’re not your sister. Trust me, I get that. I get it more than a lot of people. Plus, your mom’s out there. Your mom and your sister. So yeah, I’m sorry we didn’t bring them back with us. But hey, they’re out there. And they’re coming.”

He was right, of course. Scout had been obsessively thinking about how much she wished her mother and sister had made it back. It seemed selfish, but she wanted them to be there. She didn’t want to wait for them anymore, especially with everything that was going on with her dad. She needed Sands and their mom. Needed them more than she could explain, even to herself.

Giving a tiny nod then, she whispered, “You would have brought them if you could.”

“Damn straight we would have,” Tristan assured her. Meeting her gaze, he added, “And believe me, they want to see you as much as you want to see them. Especially your mom.”

When Scout smiled that time, it wasn’t forced at all. “I’m glad you got to save your mom.”

Okay, that time when he smiled it was less about being deliberately charming and more genuine happiness when he thought about his mother. His smile always had an effect on Scout, just like it affected most girls. But seeing that particular smile right then made her stomach do funny things.

Maybe it was the fact that she missed her mother and her sister so much. Maybe it was the fact that Avalon had been taken. Maybe it was a lot of different things. But seeing that genuine smile right then made the girl realize how much she liked seeing it. And how much she wanted to see more of it. Not his cocky grin that he used all the time, but the real smile, the private smile.

“You have a really nice smile, you know that?“

That wasn’t her. It was Tristan, saying it to her. Taken aback, the girl blinked up at him before blushing even more. Shifting her weight a little, she offered a weak, “Thank you.”

After a brief pause, Scout reached to the box tucked in her lap before offering the open end of it to him. “Cookie?”

“Oooh.” Taking one, the boy grinned. “You sure know how to treat a guy.“

You have a nice smile too.

She didn’t say that. She thought about it, and almost did. But in the end, she couldn’t bring herself to actually say it out loud. She was too confused and uncertain about things. And nervous, definitely nervous.

But maybe someday she would.

Maybe.

******

Miles Cleary (Son of the Bogeyman)

“You’re sure it was them?”

As he murmured the question, Miles glanced to the Hispanic boy next to him. The two of them were sitting in the cafeteria, poking a bit at the food on their plates while listening to a slight commotion from the other side of the room.

Chas Mena, Miles’ teammate, gave a short nod without looking up from his own plate of french toast. “It was them, dude. Trust me, I talked to Jiorge, who talked to Connor, who talked to Dana. She saw it with her own eyes. They were the ones with that book.”

Frowning a little, Miles looked down at the piece of paper with names scribbled on it.

Vanessa Moon, Koren Fellows, Rudolph Parsons, and Felicity Chambers.

Still frowning, the boy glanced toward the source of the commotion that had only somewhat quieted with the arrival of one of the security guys. Even before that glance, he knew what had happened. That Scout girl had punched one of the first year boys for harassing her or her friends. Zeke, he was pretty sure the guy’s name was.

Lowering his voice despite the privacy spells that he and Chas both had running, Miles murmured, “Hang on a second, let me think…”  

He had spent most of the year scouring every inch of the library for books that mention the guy who had his parents. Every inch of it. And somehow, somehow, it turned out that months earlier, there had been a few first year students looking at a book that mentioned Fossor. A book that, from the description given, he’d never seen before. Never seen. Ever. And those first year students had just picked it up in the exact same library that he’d searched a dozen times.

Oh, and to make matters even more confusing, the first year students who were using it happened to be that Felicity Chambers girl, who kept disappearing and getting in weird trouble; Rudolph Parsons, who was part of the new team that formed when half of hers and half of his up and vanished; Vanessa Moon, who also disappeared for awhile and whose twin brother miraculously appeared earlier that year; and Koren Fellows, who had some weird thing going on with Chambers too that no one seemed to have a straight answer about.

With all of that in mind, Miles looked over to Chas. “There’s something really fucked up going on around here. I mean, there’s always fucked up things going on, but that Chambers girl seems to have more than her fair share, you know?” After another pause, he asked, “What did Dana hear them say, again?”

“Chambers got really interested as soon as that Koren chick mentioned the name Fossor,” the other boy replied. “Grabbed the book right out of her hand. The book was talking about how the old Heretics back in the day made an alliance with Fossor and he betrayed them to make the Black Death. And, uhh, there’s something else. The guy who made the alliance was Gabriel Ruthers.”

Doing a quick doubletake at that, Miles blurted, “The old headmaster? What—” Opening and shutting his mouth, he finally sighed. “And now that Chambers girl and the Moon twins just showed up again, without the others.”

“She knows about Fossor, that’s for sure,” Chas pointed out quietly. “Maybe he’s involved with whatever’s going on with that group? Doesn’t someone keep attacking Headmistress Sinclaire’s hot new Eden’s Garden daughter? You think they went outside Crossroads for help with that and ended up getting in bed with Fossor just like Ruthers and the old Heretics did? Err, and by in bed, I mean metaphorically because eeeuuugghhh.”

Shaking his head, Miles sighed. “I dunno. We need to find out more.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Chas asked.

Looking back to the boy, Miles replied, “We need to talk to Royce. He’s the investigator.

“And we need to investigate Felicity Chambers, Vanessa Moon, Koren Fellows, and Rudolph Parsons.”

******

Dylan Averty

“It’s the eggs.”

Blinking at the statement, a tall, heavy-set, dark-skinned man with graying hair glanced to the figure beside him. Both were as different as night and day. Where he was dark, tall, overweight, and old, she was young, pale, thin to the point of near anorexia, and had hair that was incredibly dark. The only similarity between the two were the dark blue uniform shirts they wore with the name of the store they both worked at and were currently standing in stenciled across the front.

“What’s the eggs?” Hubert Longs carefully asked, knowing he would likely regret doing so.

“They’re spies,” came the answer that proved his suspicion correct, as the young brunette narrowed her gaze across the back end of the store, glaring at the cartons in question as though she could intimidate them into confession.

Slowly, Hubert looked from the girl, to the egg cartons in the distance, then back again. “They’re eggs,” he spoke in a voice that made it clear he felt ridiculous even needing to point that out. “Dylan, eggs can’t be spies.”

The girl, Dylan Averty, snapped her gaze to him. “Can’t they? Who would suspect them?”

Letting out a long breath, Hubert shook his head. “Look, kid, I was with you for most of this, right? I helped you put those weird symbols on all the grocery carts and in the baskets. I even went on the roof and the petals from those weird flowers you brought in, and I still have a rash from that. I helped you make those creepy dolls of all our coworkers because I thought you had some weird prank or something in mind. Then I remembered it’s almost May. You missed April Fools completely and it’s months before Halloween.”

“I told you,” Dylan insisted, “If one of our coworkers turns evil or gets possessed, you’re going to be glad that we have voodoo dolls to handle it. It’s called being prepared. And I don’t see your point.”  

“My point,” Hubert informed her, “is that I’ve gone along with all that. And more. But eggs? They can’t be spying on us. They don’t even have eyes. You’re thinking of potatoes.” He tried to joke at the last bit, smiling at her.

She wasn’t smiling. “Not anymore, they don’t,” the girl informed him while holding up a paring knife in one hand with a chunk of potato still stuck to it. “You think I’d leave that kind of security risk like some kind of amateur?”

Doing a quick doubletake at that, Hubert caught himself. “Err, you–okay, look, the point is that I’ve gone along with most of this because I know it makes you feel better after… after what you went through. All this weird stuff, I know it’s your way of coping. But eggs? What do you want us to do with all the eggs?”

“Throw them out,” Dylan announced immediately. “They’re spying on us. Or me. Or you. Or someone. I don’t know, but they are. Someone put a spell on them. Or maybe on the cartons. Or…” She sighed then, squirming as she admitted, “I don’t know, not exactly. But I feel funny when I walk past them. Funny in my stomach. There’s a spell on them. I can feel it.”

“A spell… on the eggs, turning them into spies, so you want to throw all of them away?” Hubert concluded, staring at the girl. “You want to throw out hundreds of dollars worth of eggs, because you get a funny feeling when you walk past them.”

“Oh good,” Dylan announced then. “So we’re on the same page. You start on that end, I’ll start on this one.” She started for the eggs.

“Leeeeeeeeeet’s not,” Hubert corrected, reaching out to catch the girl’s shoulder in mid-step. “Look, is there another… uhh, ‘spell’ we can use to stop the eggs from spying on anyone?”

Frowning, Dylan shrugged. “Uhh, maybe? I dunno. It’d be easier just to break them.”

“That depends on your definition of easy,” Hubert retorted. “If it’d make you feel better, we can volunteer for clean-up duty tonight and I’ll help you use whatever magic spell you want to, okay? Whatever makes you feel better.  But we’re not breaking all those cartons-worth of eggs.”

“Not even if I say that it’s the best way to keep Galazien the Iron-Souled off of our plane of existence?” Dylan asked, while batting her eyelashes at him with a forlorn puppy look.

Hubert’s head shook at that. “Sorry, the Iron-Soul scares me less than getting fired. Or you getting fired, kid.”

Huffing, Dylan folded her arms, muttering, “That’s just because you haven’t seen his fire-breathing skeleton horses. But fine, I guess we can use a spell instead.”

“Great,” Hubert replied with relief. “But in the meantime, let’s go see about stocking the soda in aisle four before Perry has a conniption fit.”

As the two walked that way, they distantly heard a voice crying out from the direction of the produce and vegetable aisles.

“Who the hell stabbed all the potatoes!?”  

******

Sariel and Gaia

Do you know how many planets the leaders of my people would sacrifice to have someone loyal to them where I am right now?

In response to Sariel’s mental voice, Gaia paused briefly before responding simply, Somehow, I do not think that ‘reunited with your children’ is what you mean by that.

There was silence for a moment then, before Sariel replied, Hold on a second. I think I can…

Abruptly, the Seosten woman appeared, standing in the middle of a vast white emptiness. A second later, Gaia appeared in front of her.

It wasn’t really them, of course. Or at least, it wasn’t their physical bodies. Gaia was still standing in that desert, talking to the Committee. And Sariel was still possessing her. These were simply manifestations of the two created within a mental landscape.

“There,” Sariel’s mental construct spoke. “This might be an easier way for us to talk. Unless you find it too distracting.”

Focusing on her after glancing around briefly, Gaia’s mental projection shook her head. “Trust me, I have learned to multitask quite well over the centuries. But you…” She paused, looking the other woman up and down. “Even in a construct created entirely by your own mind, you look exhausted, Mrs. Moon. And please, do not say that you will be fine. That may work on your children, but it has been quite some time since I was a child.”

Opening her mouth and then shutting it at the repudiation, Sariel finally nodded. “You’re right, I’m barely holding it together. I have been tortured, broken, raped, treated as breeding stock, and had children taken away from me to be put through Cronus knows what. For the past decade, my life has been–” Cutting herself off, the woman shook a bit with emotion before swallowing hard. “And it’s my fault. Puriel found us because I went looking for Joselyn. I was trying to help her and all I ended up doing was leading them right back to our home so that they could rip my own family apart.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied quietly, “sometimes even our best intentions may end poorly. Though some would say that you have had more than your fair share of bad luck in that regard. There are those who might guess that you were cursed somehow.”

“Cursed…” Muttering the word under her breath, Sariel snorted before looking up again. “I know what you’re planning to do. Those things that you sent the two vampires, the Pooka, and the pixie to collect. I know what you’re going to do with them. I can hear the thoughts, the plans, right there on the surface of your thoughts. But then, you knew that I’d know. You knew that I’d hear those thoughts, that you couldn’t keep them from me. And you still let me in your head.”

“I need an expert,” Gaia informed her. “Someone who can tell me what I’ve missed, and how to do it properly. Because there will be no second chances.”

Sariel hesitated, squinting at her. “And you believe that I can help you with it? More to the point, you said yourself that I seem to be cursed. So what makes you believe that I would be a safe partner to have with something as important as that? Like you said, there will only be one chance. My people won’t see it coming, but if you try and fail… that’s it.”

Nodding once, Gaia pointedly replied, “Precisely why I need your help, Mrs. Moon. You are perhaps one of the only people on this planet who could help with something like this. And I do not believe you are cursed. You have enemies, and a tragic lack of self-confidence or sense of self-worth. But I do not believe that you are magically cursed.”

The Seosten woman was silent for a few seconds, looking away before she turned her attention back to Gaia. “Every time I try to help, something goes wrong. How can you say that I’m not cursed? How can you say that you want to risk that, given what you’re trying to do? You know that the enormity of that task will not allow for mistakes.”

“It must be perfect,” Gaia agreed. “And you can help with that. This is a very complicated bit of magic. There are a million tiny ways it could go wrong. One incorrect syllable, one component placed one millimeter out of line, one thing done anything less than perfect, and it will all be for naught. You have a perfect memory. You understand what I am doing, and why.”

“Not to mention,” Sariel put in then, “that focusing on that will take a couple weeks. And between that and spending time with my children, I won’t have time to get into any other trouble.”

“It will keep your mind occupied,” the other woman confirmed. “And it will take more than a couple of weeks. I believe it will take at least a month, if not more. Because I expect you to spend most of your time with your people, with the other Seosten once we awaken them, and with your children. And, in time, with your husband. That has priority. But when you have a free moment, yes, your skills as a… proofreader, if you will, of this spell would be most welcome.”

Sariel smiled just a little at that. “You really do want to keep me busy. Caring for my people and spending time with my family… you want me to use the time that I would otherwise spend brooding or obsessing over my captivity on this spell.”

“I find keeping oneself occupied is quite useful at those times,” Gaia informed her with a small smile in return. “And I believe that you are the very best possible person for this job. Everything that has happened to you, good and bad, has led you to have the children that you do. And it has led you here. Your skills, your expertise, they are what is needed to finish this project. Will you help?”

For the briefest of moments, Sariel was quiet. Then she straightened a bit, giving the other woman a slight nod. “Of course.

“If nothing else, I can’t wait to see the look on my people’s faces when you pull it off.”

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