Ehn

Commissioned Interlude 19 – Gehenna Prisoners (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The following is a commissioned interlude focusing on a look at the main ten prisoners of Gehenna, including Ehn, his eight lieutenants, and the Tenth prisoner, who is not part of Ehn’s group. It does not count as a regular chapter on the regular schedule. Thanks so much!

Ehn (One)

Casually using a spatula to move the meat around on the pan as it sizzled and cooked, the man once known as Wiglaf, in days so far past he could barely remember what they were like, spoke in a quiet, measured voice. “Do we know yet how many were lost on the Penmiea Moon?” 

Weregeld, his guard by some measures and assistant by others, tilted his gleaming silver head to regard him briefly before answering. “Thirty-seven thousand Seosten-aligned troops have been listed as killed-in-action. Two-hundred-and-forty-three thousand civilians are assumed dead, or taken to be repurposed as Fomorian shock troops. As for the Fomorian dead–” 

“I assume the numbers of their throwaway forces will be incalculably high,” Wiglaf–or Ehn as he was now known– interrupted. “They’re also pointless. The Fomorians can throw away a million and make a million more. The Zetas and Epsilons are meaningless. The Deltas barely count themselves, and only because they can count, unlike the first two. Only the Gammas, Betas, and Alphas are actual Fomorians. Tell me the numbers that matter.” 

“Of course, sir,” Weregeld acquiesced with a bow. “The Fomorians lost ten Gammas in this assault, along with two Betas. No Alphas were present and thus none were lost.” 

“Unlikely they would’ve been anyway,” Ehn murmured, scooping his food out onto a plate before shutting the heating unit off. He moved to the table while adding, “The Seosten didn’t have the right troops there to handle an Alpha showing up. We took Kwur’s seedling off the moon in time?” 

Weregeld gave a nod of confirmation. “As you ordered, yes. Might I ask how you knew the moon would be under assault by such a powerful force?” 

In answer, Ehn reached out to touch a button on the side of a handheld computer sitting next to him on the table. A series of holographic news reports, maps, files about troop movements, and more were projected upward in a jumble. “It’s all there if you read it properly. The Fomorian don’t tend to be all that difficult to predict. They’re more like a force of nature. Once they show up, they’re all-but impossible to stop. But they’re not creative or stealthy. Not as a whole, at least. There are some tricky ones. But the species in general, they’re like a flood. If you look at the environment, you can figure out where the water’s going to go when a dam breaks. The Seosten stopped them here, here, and here.” With each repeated word, he flicked through various reports of battles happening throughout the universe. “Penmiea made the most sense for them to make a renewed assault. Not a hundred percent, of course, but it wasn’t worth the risk keeping Kwur’s seedling in place.” 

“I’m certain he is grateful for your foresight,” Weregeld put in. “As are the four-hundred-and-twenty-one thousand Penmiea civilians who were successfully evacuated due to your warning.” 

“It’s not enough,” Ehn informed him flatly. “Between the civilians and military, almost three hundred thousand people were still murdered by those monsters. If I was ready, if my people were prepared and this stage of my plan completed, we could have stopped that. Perhaps not all of it. We could not have saved every life. But there are innocents dead today who could have lived if I was able to prepare more quickly. Every death is a failure, and I will see that each is avenged.”

Sounding curious, Weregeld hesitantly pointed out, “You are aware that there are those who believe you would not care overly much about the deaths of nonhumans, given your claims of human superiority?” 

“Yes,” Ehn agreed. “Those people mistake my belief that humans should stand at the head of galactic rule to mean that I find other species inferior or in some way deserving of death. All species deserve to live free and cheerful existences, doing as they wish. My belief is that humans are capable of providing that freedom, that cheer, to everyone. Our ability to bond with other species, to gain their gifts, allows us unmeasured versatility and strength. The Fomorians created us to serve as their greatest soldiers. We, instead, will be their destroyers. We will end the Fomorian threat and usher in a new legacy of peace in this universe. A peace which we will enforce against any threat. We will rule, but it will not be a rule of terror and enslavement. We will make things right. Humans will stand as protectors and leaders. Everyone will live as they choose, so long as that choice does not harm others.” 

There was a brief pause then, before the man quietly added, “Unfortunately, drastic measures will need to be taken until we reach that point.” 

“Drastic measures such as allying yourself with an assortment of individuals which includes a few of what could be considered some of the most dangerous and murderous beings in the universe?” Weregeld asked after a moment of silence. 

“Precisely,” came the confirmation, as Ehn met the Mevari’s gaze. “They are dangerous. Some have done terrible things and will likely do more. But keeping them here, pointing them in the direction I wish them to be pointed in, will lead to a better universe in the end. You saw what happened with Merakeul. Fossor, that is.” 

“He became one of strongest Necromancers in the universe,” Weregeld noted. “If not the strongest. And he did so by committing countless atrocities.” 

Ehn gave a short, single nod. “And then he died, his power taken by someone of much better character and ethics. Just as he was supposed to. And Felicity Chambers is gradually beginning to understand and utilize that power, just as she is supposed to. In time, she will become a much greater ally than Merakeul could ever have been.”

“Might I ask,” Weregeld began slowly, “does that mean you intend for those few of your lieutenants who are not already human to be replaced by a human? There is the situation with that Dakota child. Which some may believe was intentional as well.” 

Rather than answer, Ehn simply smiled faintly. “Speaking of my people, would you mind bringing up the security feed for each of their cells?

“I would like to see how they’re doing.”  

******

Twen (Two) – The Hole

The main room of the cell was circular, the walls composed of unending mirrors which stretched all the way around. In the middle of that fifty-foot diameter space was a figure who stood twelve feet in height. He was roughly humanoid at a glance, with two arms, two legs, and a head all in the correct places, as well the right amount of fingers. However, he appeared to be wearing a form-fitting black scuba suit, gloves, boots, and full head-covering mask with no visible eye or mouth holes. In fact, the face part of the mask was completely flat and blank, as though the figure had no actual nose, eyes, or mouth at all. That twelve-foot tall, entirely black and faceless figure, was reflected in every direction through the mirrors along the walls. As was the single piece of decoration in the room, a three foot metal vase-like container with a lid blocking the opening. Nothing else stood in the cell. Only the tall, black form and the metal vase. 

A moment later, the tall, humanoid figure changed. He was now a six-legged dog. Then he was a snake, filling the entire room save for the spot where the vase sat. Then he was not a creature at all, but a bicycle, which rolled in circles around the mostly empty space for a few seconds before transforming yet again, into a small starfighter, hovering a few feet off the ground. Then he was a monkey, a tree, a dozen other animals and objects over the span of a couple minutes. 

As a soft, polite chime echoed through the enclosed space, the figure transformed back into his tall humanoid shape and turned to face one part of the circular room. Nothing about that spot stood out any more than any other spot, yet he had been here long enough to know precisely where the opening to this cell was. And, as expected, the chime ended as that part of the mirror shimmered like liquid. A rifle appeared, followed by another, the two men holding them very clearly standing side by side. They were ready for him to make a move. Not that he would. Not that he had any desire to. 

His master had not requested it. 

Instead, the being known as Twen simply watched impassively as the rifles stuck through the mirror were trained on him, before a crate was tossed through. It was a gray animal-carrying crate, like one that a human might use to carry a large cat or small dog to the vet. There was a handle on top, and a cage-like door in front. 

Once the animal crate was delivered, the rifles withdrew, and the mirror shifted back to normal. They were done. Probably off to celebrate. After all, dinner had been successfully served once more.

Rather than approach the cage and its squeaking occupant immediately, Twen silently pulled the lid from the vase and held his hand over the opening. As he did so, black, tar-like liquid began to fall from his hand. His hand itself remained intact, as did every part of his form. But it shrank. The more of that dark liquid that fell into the vase, the less of him there was. He gradually shrank down until he was closer to six feet in height, halving his size. Yet despite the vase clearly not having room to hold that much, it was not overflowing. He didn’t need to put part of himself away to change size, as evidenced by his bout of shifting a moment earlier. But it did make things more comfortable. Shifting his size while containing or expanding part of his mass was like holding his breath. Putting part of that mass away, or pulling some out, was far more comfortable.

Only once he had halved his size did Twen step toward the cage. Still displaying no facial expression (nor face at all, let alone a mouth of any sort), he knelt in front of it. His hand moved, undoing the latch so the door could swing open. 

After a brief moment of nothing, a greenish-gray pig-like animal emerged. It sniffed the air, snorted twice, then stepped fully out onto the metal floor with all six of its legs. With a huff, it surveyed its surroundings, looked curiously toward its own reflection, then stared up at the black figure kneeling over it, and gave a tentative squeak. 

As though in response, Twen put his hand out, palm down. He lowered it as though to pat the animal, but only rested the hand on its head. For a moment, there was no response. Then the animal jerked once, gave a sharp squeak of distress, and immediately froze. Its greenish-gray body was rapidly overtaken by black lines that spread out from the spot on its head where Twen’s palm was touching. The lines widened and lengthened over the span of a couple seconds, until they had enveloped the animal entirely. It gave one last pitiful squeak, before beginning to dissolve. Within another moment, the entire shape of the animal had collapsed, becoming a bubble of more tar-like liquid. Which itself was slurped up through the kneeling figure’s hand and arm, disappearing within his body.

Yet he didn’t stop there. Once the animal itself was gone, Twen’s hand moved to touch the crate. That too was quickly transformed into the same black goo before being absorbed. Only then, once there was no trace of anything that had been added to the room, did he rise to a standing position once more. The animal and crate together had provided enough mass for him to gain a foot of height, returning him to a respectable seven feet. 

Now properly fed, the figure moved back to the center of the room, just beside his vase. He stood there, motionless as a statue. It was how he would stand for the rest of the day and evening, until his next meal was delivered. Day in and day out, his routine was the same with no variation. Yet he was not bored. Far from it. Throughout those long hours stretching into long days, years, decades, and centuries, the being known as Twen experienced hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives worth of memories. 

In point of fact, to be specific, he experienced billions of lives. Three billion, four hundred thousand, eight hundred and ninety-two of them. One life for every person on his original homeworld, before an experiment had turned him into this. Before he had absorbed them. All of them. Every single member of his species. Three and a half billion lives, all taken as his body had grown larger and larger, gradually encompassing the whole of his world. 

But now, almost the entirety of that world-worth of extra mass was stored in his vase, leaving Twen standing mostly alone, allowing only a few voices into his head at once. Only a few sets of memories. 

For months, years, and centuries, he alternated between standing silently and random fits of shapeshifting, allowing the voices of the dead to speak to him, to share their memories so that he would not be entirely alone. And he waited for his master to give the word. The word that would mean it was time to put himself together and be whole once more. 

Drawing all of his absorbed mass from the vase would allow Twen to grow to his full size, something more akin to a small moon. A moon he could shape and move however he wished. Thus, when he did so, he would not be a man standing at his master’s side.

He would become the living flagship upon which Ehn and his armies rode to war.

*********

Kwur (Three) – The Growth

At one point, the thirty foot by thirty foot cell had been a blank square room with nothing inside other than a series of sprinklers hanging from the ceiling, four bright sun lamps in the corners, and a single small sapling tree planted in the exact center of the room. The walls and ceiling were metal, while the floor consisted of about six feet worth of dirt before reaching the metal there. But over the course of centuries, through various favors, threats, gifts, and more, various other plants had been added. Now, the cell belonging to the being known as Kwur was a small, densely packed jungle. It was impossible to see the walls through the vines, moss, and other foliage, while the four separate sunlamps were given just enough space so that their light could reach all the planets that needed it. Below the canopy, darkness-loving moss and mushrooms grew along the floor, along with a thick carpet of weeds and other hardy plants that could survive in nearly any conditions. 

A single small path from the doorway to the central tree still existed, though to call it a path was a bit optimistic. In truth, it was simply a narrow space where fewer plants had grown, an area where it was possible for a human-sized person to carefully walk through without being forced to hack and cut their way with a blade or laser. That was the deal made with the cell’s occupant. He could spread through all the plants in the room, but he had to leave space to reach his primary tree. 

It was through that small path that the young (though not nearly as young as he should have been) Heretic named Sean Gerardo made his way, carrying a wooden box under one arm and a heavy canvas bag in the other. He wore a pair of protective goggles and a gas mask over his face. His cyberform dog, Vulcan, trailed after him while sniffing the various plants curiously. 

Reaching the seven-foot-tall young tree waiting in the center of the room, Sean spoke up. His voice came through almost robotically thanks to the electronic distortion of the mask he wore. “Special delivery. Hope you’ve got something for me, cuz I wouldn’t want to have to take all this stuff back.” In demonstration, he shook the box he was carrying so the contents could be heard rattling around inside. 

In response, the ground at the base of the tree in front of him lit up as a purplish-blue moss began to glow. At first, the whole four foot wide, two foot high patch glowed all at once. Then most of the glow faded, leaving behind glowing letters that spelled out, ‘Don’t damage my reward.’ 

Reading that aloud, Sean nodded. “Sure thing, don’t worry, it’s all safe. But like I said, I hope you’ve got something good to trade for it, because I was given full permission to retract the deal if I don’t think you’re paying your fair share. And given how much you fucked with my friends, I’d be pretty happy to tell you to rot in your boredom for awhile.” Though his tone was fairly light, there was a hint of seriousness behind the words, his eyes narrowing into not-quite a glare behind the goggles. “I may be the new guy as far as Gehenna goes, but they don’t seem too concerned about playing nice with the cabrón who tried to escape this place a few months ago. So I’m pretty sure I’ve got some broad leeway as far as that goes.” 

His words were met with a brief pause before more glowing letters appeared in the moss, spelling out, ‘Show me my DVDs.’ 

“Show you? Oh yeah, sure, I can do that.” Setting the box down in front of him along with the bag, Sean glanced toward his cyberform partner. “Hey Vulcan, send VJ up to check on that north-east sunlamp while we’re in here, would you? It’s been giving some weird readings, probably power fluctuations.” 

Immediately, the small backpack-shaped attachment linked to the metal dog popped free and flew up out of the foliage to examine the lamp in question, which had been reporting a few minor errors over the past day. On its way, the little drone produced two small grappler arms, one containing a screwdriver and the other a tiny blowtorch. 

Once VJ was on his way to check that out, Sean opened the box and began to pull out several DVD cases. “We’ve got the full box set of I Love Lucy, seasons eleven through fourteen of Gunsmoke, seasons nine and ten of MASH, the Annie Oakley collection, the full Babylon 5 series, and volume one of the Laurel and Hardy collection. Should be enough to keep you busy for awhile. You know, if you earn it. So what’ve you got on your end, buddy?” 

In response, the glowing moss spelled out, ‘Ulken’s gang on Prondena planning assassination in one week.’ A blue rose grew just below those words. Then the words shifted to, ‘Rogue scientist living on Xyatl Station creating plague to unleash and spread via refueling ships.’ A red rose grew next to the blue one. And finally, the words shifted to read, ‘Prisoners in Caternal Seven holding facility plotting riot and escape by taking warden’s daughter hostage when she visits for religious services.’ A dark green rose grew next to the red one.

Opening the heavy canvas bag, Sean carefully took out a pair of gloves and several small metal boxes. Pulling on the gloves, he plucked each rose and set it into a separate box before sealing each. When the flowers were pressed to one’s face and inhaled, they would convey all the facts and overheard details related to each reported situation they were connected to. Kwur’s smaller plants were each allowed to exist in various areas throughout the universe, too disconnected and few for him to exert any real influence through, but capable of allowing him to overhear conversations others tried to keep hidden. He traded the information he gained from that spying for certain benefits here in the Gehenna prison. 

Once the flowers were secure, Sean put the boxes away and then nodded. “Right, well, assuming that all pans out I won’t have to come back in here and take your new shows away. Here you go.” He pushed the box of DVDs forward, watching as several vines extended to take it, exposing a large television monitor and various electronic device players from a bunch of different species and worlds. The vines immediately popped open one of the cases, carefully extracted the disc inside, and shoved it into the player. Soon, an episode of Gunsmoke was playing on that television. 

“Right, well, enjoy.” Sean turned, looking up as VJ reappeared. “You get that fixed, buddy?” A chirp from the small drone was met with a thumbs up. “Good job.” That said, he pivoted and began to walk back the way he’d come, before pausing to address Kwur once more. “But hey, just so you know, don’t fuck with my friends again. 

“Or I’ll show you some real gun smoke.” 

*******

Seur (Four) – The Expanse

Unlike the past two cells, this one was decorated appropriately and rather thoroughly. It consisted of three interconnected rooms with their own doorways. The first couple were a relatively modern Earth-style kitchen and living/bedroom area. They looked like they could have come straight out of the set of one of those 1960s and 70s sitcoms that Kwur enjoyed so much. There was even a bowl of fresh fruit on the table just waiting to be enjoyed. The third and final area was an elaborate bathroom. This one seemed even more modern than the other two, with an expensive and state-of-the-art whirlpool bath that was large enough to almost do laps in, along with a separate shower. 

The human woman who occupied this particular cell was not a product of the eras represented by either the kitchen and living room or the bathroom. On the contrary, she came from a time long before either of those. Known now by the prison moniker of Seur, she was born in ancient Rome under the name Clelia. 

In this particular moment, Seur stood in her kitchen, quickly and methodically chopping onions and carrots for the soup she was making. Her black hair was cut short, more like a traditional male cut than that of a woman. She wore blue overalls and a red checkered shirt, another sign of her distaste for holding to the traditions of the people she had come from. She wore what was comfortable, and what she liked. Seur held little to no attachment to people and the society she had come from. Not since they had experimented on her to create what she now was. 

At one time in her life, all those centuries ago, the girl then known as Clelia had been a street urchin, a homeless child with an eternally-empty stomach and no prospects. As such, when a collection of fairly unscrupulous scientists had abducted her along with several others in the same situation, no alarms had been raised. Very few, if any, had cared. 

The scientists had been attempting to perfect a sort of incredibly powerful teleportation magic, one that would have allowed entire armies to be moved vast distances in the blink of an eye. The young Clelia, only seven years old when originally abducted, had spent years in a small cell, much worse than this one, watching those around her be mutilated and indescribably destroyed by those experiments one by one. Deemed too small and frail to be useful for their experiments at first, she was often forgotten in the corner, left to watch older subjects come and go. She ceased making friends with them, calling those who came through ‘the doomed.’ 

And yet, she did not stay too small forever. After six years of this, at the age of thirteen, she had finally been considered ready to join in the very same failed experiments that she had spent more than half a decade watching the tragic results of. But by that point, the scientists were least better about keeping their subjects alive. She was lucky in some ways, yet not in others. They kept her alive, but cared little for how much pain they put her through. For another four years after that, they worked their experiments, still trying to perfect their original intention of enhancing soldiers with the ability to transport instantly anywhere their commanding officer sent them. She was cut open repeatedly, had various enchantments etched into bones and organs, was forced to swallow all manner of potions and various power-enhancing minerals, had magical stones grafted to her insides, and countless more procedures. 

In the end, they had both succeeded and failed, leading to the seventeen-year-old Clelia’s escape. Right after she had killed all of them, every person responsible for imprisoning and torturing her for a decade. For some time after that, she had wandered free before being approached by the man now known as Ehn. Under his guidance (to say nothing of his Dragon boosting ability), she became even stronger, and he had inspired an incredible sense of loyalty in the young woman. 

Thus, she allowed herself to be imprisoned once more, at his request. Her cell this time around was at least much more comfortable, and updated whenever she wished. She stayed here, waiting for Ehn’s word to make their move. 

Once the onions and carrots were cut, the woman held her hand out over them. As she raised it, vegetable pieces lifted from the countertop, hovering there in the air. A flick of her finger made them rise in front of her hand rather than underneath it, and then she shoved her palm forward. The carrots and onions flew over, stopping just above the prepared soup pot. She lowered her hand from where she was standing a good seven feet away, and they dropped into the pot obediently. 

The ancient Roman scientists who had tried so hard to create perfect teleportation inside her had failed at that. But they had created something else. Rather than moving her body to any location, Seur was capable of manipulating what she called ‘distance space.’ This allowed her to do multiple things. First, space within about six inches of her own body was permanently bent and elongated. Anything entering that space would immediately, from its own point of view, have to travel several thousand miles before it would actually reach Seur. From the outside, it was six inches of space. But that six inches became nearly five thousand miles simply through the automatic bending of space within it. 

Bullets fired toward her would drop to the ground long before reaching the woman, their energy easily expended within the extended space. Powerful enough lasers technically could have reached her, but they were slowed so much that she could simply step aside from them. Gas as well had no effect unless it was capable of filling several thousand miles worth of space. And even then, she could easily leave the area before that became an issue. Living beings attempting to make their fists, tentacles, or other non-sensory body parts cross that ‘six inch’ gap without assistance would find it rather impossible unless they threw their whole selves into it. And when they did that, they disappeared entirely, their minds experiencing deep psychological damage from what amounted to living through an MC Escher drawing of twisted space. In time, they would be spat out of the space from a random direction, never reaching their target. 

She was, of course, capable of selectively allowing anything through her field instantly. This allowed light and oxygen to reach her, gave her the ability to pick up objects, and so on. It even allowed her to touch people normally. But those were exceptions, which were manually allowed by Seur herself. Anything else attempting to reach her had much more trouble. 

Beyond that simple protective field, as demonstrated in her movement of the onion and carrot pieces, Seur was also capable of a certain form of telekinesis. This was done by focusing on anything she could see and deliberately affecting its distance and position relative to her own body. She had moved the vegetables by changing their distance from her hand, forcing them to rise into the air to be closer to her, then pushed them further away to reach the pot. Which was a very minor, almost inconsequential use of that ability. At its higher strengths, she was capable of sending entire star cruisers thousands of miles away with a gesture, or of making a small army worth of soldiers fly across a countryside by flicking her finger.

These were her gifts, after spending so many years in the hell that those now-dead scientists had created. And when the time came, when Ehn said the word, she would use them to help him change the universe. 

*******

Dah (Five) – The Bruiser

Like the previous cell, the one belonging to Ehn’s fourth lieutenant was properly furnished. In this case, it was in the style of a modern twenty-first century Earth home, as its occupant deliberately kept track of styles and had her belongings updated as necessary throughout her stay. She wished to have some connection to the world she had left behind, a world she hoped to return to and experience in person someday. 

A world she had been born on hundreds of years before the earliest histories of human civilization. 

She’d been born with a name she no longer remembered, though it could not have been much more than a specific sort of grunt, had lived in what amounted to a cave with a family or tribe she could hardly remember more than brief glimpses of. A family who had all died within the first decade of her life. Half taken by hunger directly, while the other half fell to hunger of a different sort. The hunger of predators. 

Left alone, the tribeless girl had struck out to find food, to find others of her kind. Too young at the time to even remember her full decision-making process these days, she had hiked through fields and mountains, searching for a new home. In truth, she should have died a dozen times over in those first days. Yet somehow, the child survived. She gradually made her way through a narrow mountain pass, evading predators by mere inches in some cases. She survived on stream water, as well as berries and the meat of a small rodent she had managed to bash with a stick. Nights were spent curled in a ball and covered in leaves in the hollows of trees to live through the harsh cold. 

Even then, it was clear that she would have died. Left alone and with no real supplies, to say nothing of any actual directions toward others of her kind, the girl of barely one decade in age would never have made it were it not for… the gray man. 

These days, she could not picture him clearly. But she knew he was gray. Grayish green, with large eyes. Lying there early in the morning after a particularly cold night, she had seen him approach through the darkness, the sun still an hour away from rising. Illuminated only by moon and starlight, he appeared in front of her, spoke kindly in her own language, and gave her clothing made of heavy furs to ward away the cold. He gave her clothes and a blanket. Then he did… something, and she had fallen asleep. 

When she woke, the child was within a short walking distance of a small tribe of other humans, many days walking distance away from where she had fallen asleep. Other humans who had taken her in. And for five years afterward, she had thrived as much as it was possible to. Their tribe grew, merged with another, continued traveling to hunt, and engaged in several territorial battles against other tribes. 

It was during one of those battles that the girl, known to her new tribe as Mekkta, was separated from the others. Chased by several males from a rival tribe, she fled through the underbrush. The fifteen-year-old girl had borne one child already, and was in no particular hurry to carry another so soon. She managed to lose her pursuers, but also lost herself. Wandering in an attempt to find the rest of her tribe while staying hidden from their enemies, she came upon a small cave hidden far from sight of any trail, nearly invisible behind a gnarled old tree. Hearing pursuit, Mekkta squeezed her way into the tiny hole, barely managing to fit herself. 

Once inside, the cave had opened up quickly into a chamber almost ten feet across. In the center of that chamber were the remains of an old skeleton. The skeleton of something decidedly unlike Mekkta herself. The figure had to have been ten feet tall when it was alive, and had more arms than her people did. The skull was similarly oversized. 

When the young Mekkta curiously touched the bones, they had instantly disintegrated under her touch, turning to dust. At that moment, a terrible earthquake had struck, collapsing the cave. But through the course of the quake, the dust from those disintegrated bones had filled the air. Air which Mekkta had inhaled. 

She survived the collapsed cave with no particular injuries or negative effects. Whatever the creature whose bones had been in that cave might have been, inhaling the dust from them had provided the girl with strength beyond comprehension. Her body became unbreakable, she had no need for food, air, or water, and she was capable of felling and carrying enormous trees with little effort. A single blow from her fist could shatter a human’s head, and none of their weapons could harm her. 

Shortly after gaining this gift, Mekkta had been attacked by a tribe of others like her, those who had gained powers through the bodies of those who were not-human. In the course of that battle, strange magics were thrown through the air. One of those magics struck the invulnerable, strong girl, sending her to another world. 

She had not set foot on Earth again. Instead, Mekkta had traveled through the Seosten Empire as an oddity, learning what she could. For years even before the Seosten had heard of Earth, she lived among their backwater worlds, learned their language, their culture, their history. And when she had been approached by the man now known as Ehn, she had joined him with one caveat. Someday, she wanted to go back to Earth. She wanted to go back home and live among her people. 

Ehn had agreed. And here they were, waiting for the right time. Thanks to the boosts his dragon powers gave her, Mekkta was even stronger than she had been before. They had tested her thoroughly, and not even the force of a Seosten capital ship main cannon was capable of so much as bruising her skin. Meanwhile, her strength had been magnified to the point that she was able to exert well over one hundred thousand tons worth of force. Exactly what she had bonded to with the dust of those bones in the cave all those millennia ago was still a mystery, but between that and the dragon boosts she had received, very little in the universe was capable of standing against a single serious blow. In most cases, she barely had to exert herself to overwhelm any defenses. She was so strong, in fact, that a simple, light tap was enough to put the vast majority of foes down for the count. Which, honestly, she often found annoying. Half the reason she was looking forward to Ehn’s war, beyond wanting to go home, was that she might finally find someone who could present something resembling a challenge. 

And yet, here she stood, a black woman of precisely five feet, three inches in height. Her long dark hair was worn in elaborate braids, as she flipped through the channels on her modern television. At her request, her ‘video box’ received all the channels it would have if she lived in modern day Brazil, the area where she had been born and spent those first years of her life. 

In time, the woman who went equally by the number moniker of Dah and by her human tribal name of Mekkta would return to the land of her birth. She would set foot on Earth once more. She would see her descendants, her species, rise to a true place of galactic importance and leadership. Nothing and no one would stand in the way of that. 

********

Nihkta (Six) – The Surgeon

Not only was the cell of Ehn’s fifth lieutenant far different from the previous two, it was different from what most who saw the man himself would have pictured. In meeting the human known now as Nihkta, Six in that long-abandoned alien language used by Gehenna, the very first thing most noticed was his height. Or lack thereof. The Asian man, who appeared to be in his mid-thirties, stood only five feet tall. His head was shaven bald, and he had a tattoo of an owl in flight across it, properly visible only if you were standing over him. Which, given his slight stature, many did. He was quite thin in addition to being short, and tended to wear oversized clothing that made him appear to be even smaller. Jeans that had to be rolled up and belted on, along with long-sleeved shirts that made his hands disappear like a child. 

Adding to this appearance of youth was the fact that Nihkta very rarely stopped smiling. He was always quick with a joke, and often went through great pains and effort to cheer up not only his companions, but any strangers he saw who appeared to be going through rough times. 

And yet, despite this, when one walked into Nihkta’s cell in Gehenna, they would find what appeared to be a room belonging to someone entirely different. Posters of heavy metal rock stars and bands lined every wall. The lighting was kept dark, illuminated almost entirely by neon strips along the edges of the ceiling. One wall was taken up almost entirely by an elaborate stereo system, with speakers that were constantly pumping brain-rattling screaming death metal. Not only from Earth itself, but similar styles of music taken from other worlds as well. 

A couch lay in the middle of the room, surrounded by various blankets and pillows. In front of it was a television that usually played either music videos or various video games and their equivalents, taken from alien civilizations as well. Through one door next to the television, a small, mostly ignored kitchen could be found, while a bathroom was accessible through the opposite door, behind the couch.

Then there was the last door. Located to the left of the couch and just to the right of the elaborate stereo system, the door was always kept shut, unlike those leading to the kitchen and bathroom. Because to pass through that door, was to enter a space entirely unlike the others. 

This room, the last of his prison territory, was still not what those who only knew Nihkta’s personality would expect. But it was what those who knew his skillset would expect. 

This room, unlike the others, was kept silent. The walls were soundproof. The room was also pristinely clean. In the middle was an examination table, like what was found in a modern hospital. The three walls not attached to the door were all lined with glass cabinets and countertops. Various medical tools of every time period, culture, and even species imaginable were kept in those drawers and cabinets. Four different powerful microscopes and other medical and scientific instruments were dotted along the countertop space. A rolling chair (he liked to spin in it) sat in one corner. 

It was in this room, next to that chair, that Nihkta stood at the moment. He had one arm resting on the counter, palm up. The arm itself had been cut open from wrist to elbow, though Nihkta showed no discomfort for that fact. He had long-since installed a switch to disable his own body’s pain response, though he found it useful to turn on whenever he wasn’t actively working on his own body or otherwise in need of ignoring physical trauma. It was far too easy to accidentally injure himself with a muted or absent pain reaction. 

During his mortal life on Earth, around what was now seen as three hundred AD, he had been obsessed with traveling the world, learning medicine and magic. Though the latter, by that point, was very much a disappearing art when it came to the human world. Nihkta had been what would in modern times be called an Adjacent. He could see through the still-burgeoning Bystander Effect as though it wasn’t there, without being bonded to anything. 

In the course of those travels and studies, he had learned from dozens of experts of all different species. He did this for over fifty years, until he himself was considered an old man, and learned many secret and forbidden medical techniques. Putting several of those medical disciplines together had allowed Nihkta to transfer the knowledge of others into his own mind directly in order to enhance his own intelligence. He only did such a thing with those who volunteered, those who were old or broken in some way and wished to share their knowledge in a quite literal sense before they passed. 

With his enhanced mental ability, the equivalent of what became dozens of brilliant medical minds all working together, Nihkta eventually learned to reverse his own aging process, as well as give himself various upgrades. First simply by enhancing his human body, and later by taking parts of other (already dead or volunteer) species in order to grant himself their abilities. 

In truth, Nihkta wasn’t sure what he was now. He certainly wasn’t an ordinary human, given a solid three-quarters of his body parts under the outer skin were either advanced technology (such as bones replaced by a material that would stand up under several tons of pressure and deflect blows from one of those laser swords) or literal alien organs granting him their gifts. Yet he wasn’t quite what would be considered an ordinary Natural Heretic either. He wasn’t bonded to one Alter, he put dozens of pieces of them into himself and somehow made it all work. Dozens of different Alters powers, all of them boosted by Ehn’s dragon power, resided in him.

What he did know was that working with Ehn would give him the opportunity to accomplish his life’s dream of eliminating mortality and upgrading all of humanity to reach the potential he knew they were capable of. 

And maybe, just maybe, he could make them laugh along the way.

*****

Steth (Seven) – The Maker

If the past few rooms had been relatively different from one another, they might as well have been identical compared to the next. It was less of a series of rooms, and more of a large swamp. Measuring two hundred feet by two hundred feet square, with a roof thirty feet high, the area was covered in dank, dingy water that was several feet deep and swarming with various creatures and plant life. Several short yet wide, vine-covered trees were scattered throughout, rising out of that water. A single dirt embankment lay against one side of the room with just enough space for a single crocodile to rest itself like an old log. 

In the exact center of that swamp was what looked at first glance like a rickety wooden raft. Yet attached to the top of that raft was a series of nozzles, projecting a sort of anti-gravity force which kept the far sturdier looking metal platform hovering six feet higher in the air, over the raft. The metal platform was twenty feet by fifteen feet, and had a set of wide metal stairs leading up out of the water to reach it at one end. Stairs that were much too wide and far apart for an average human to use. 

Atop that hovering platform sat an old hoverbike belonging to a species that had long-since been absorbed by the Seosten. It was technically obsolete technology by modern standards. Or it had been, before the being now known as Steth got to it. 

At first glance, she appeared to be a large plump frog, with a slightly narrower head and eyes that were attached to long stalks. Her body was eight feet wide, ten feet long, and six feet tall. Unlike ordinary Earth frogs, her back was covered in what appeared to be hair, but was actually hundreds of thin tentacles. Right now, dozens of those tentacles were hard at work, holding an assortment of tools as they worked on the old hoverbike, souping it up. Her eye-stalks extended, one growing to a full ten feet long as it moved around the bike to study it from every angle, while her other eye-stalk moved independently up to examine one of her tools critically, checking to see that it was working properly. 

In her old life, before being recruited by Ehn, Steth had created such beautiful machines. Her crowning achievement was an army of war-robots which had decimated the armies of the world she came from. In her anger at what she saw as a population who belittled and dismissed her, she had sought to prove her worth by decimating their defenses and putting her own robot army in their place. 

Unfortunately, she had done a bit too good of a job. Her mechanical monstrosities had indeed done what she wanted… at first. But they ended up growing what amounted to consciences and sided with the people they were supposed to destroy. They had, in essence, turned on the maker who wanted them to take over the world and helped to drive her from that world to protect the people who should have been their victims. Which was quite frankly unfair.  

For decades, she had been at war against her own creations. Then Ehn had come, convincing her that she should side with him and aid in raising humanity to their full potential. While others of their group would do so either as physical enforcers and direct damage dealers, or in upgrading humans themselves in the case of Nihkta, or even as a living spaceship who could absorb any and all attacks thrown at him in Twen’s case, Steth’s job would be to design and create the weapons and armor used by Ehn’s future armies. And she had spent the past millennia in this prison perfecting those designs. Which included building things and shoving it all into crates which were taken to other parts of the prison and put into storage. 

Most might have questioned how she was able to gain access to equipment for such work, being a prisoner as she was. But most didn’t understand the specific situation Ehn and his people were in. Prisoners though they might have been on paper, things weren’t quite that cut and dry. So long as they stayed put and didn’t make a fuss, they were generally allowed whatever they requested. There were multiple reasons for that, but she didn’t really focus too much on them. It didn’t really matter in her day-to-day work. All she cared about was that her job was to create these beautiful weapons, and that was what she did. 

Finally satisfied that her tool was working properly, she extended it to the underside of the hoverbike. One of her eyes joined it, twisting around to see up into that small space. It was dark, but she could see in near-black conditions just fine. She was able to push the tool up into that space alongside her extended eye, and carefully tighten a single loose bolt. There, that should stop the zero point zero zero one three percent power loss. As well as the slight tug to that side. Most wouldn’t have detected it. She was not most. 

With Ehn’s dragon boosts enhancing her already-considerable mechanical and technological abilities, Steth was one of the most advanced weapons and robotics designers in the known universe. She would use those gifts as Ehn requested, to aid him in arming his people to advance his own goals. When the time came, everything she built would be put toward universal conquest, to put things in order and allow Ehn’s species to rise to their natural place as leaders and protectors. 

And once that was done, once Ehn had everything he wanted, she would take a piece of those same armies, go back to her own world, and teach those rebellious machines a lesson for not conquering the world for her the way she had told them to in the first place. Oh, and this time, she was being very careful not to give her creations the capacity for free-thought. 

That was a mistake she would only make once. 

***********

Rahn (Eight) – The Unwritten

Most who were at all aware of the circumstances revolving around the creation of the Bystander Effect believed that it had first been tested on the city of Athens. A test which had horrifically devastated the city itself, as former friends and family were instantly turned on one another. Thousands were left dead in the chaotic fighting as humans forgot everything they knew about Alters, yet were still capable of seeing them for what they were. Half the city burned almost overnight. To say nothing of the damage that was done from the fact that the humans forgot how to use and maintain the magical spells that kept the city itself running. 

It was, in a word, tragic. But it was not, in fact, the very first instance of testing what would become the Bystander Effect. There was another test, an earlier… more focused one. So focused, in fact, that it involved only a single person. A young man, barely old enough to serve in their military and drawn from the general population of Athens itself. 

That young man’s true name, at the time, had been Linus. He was a nobody, an inconsequential son of an inconsequential merchant. One of several such sons, neither the oldest nor the youngest. He was neither handsome nor ugly, a slender figure of average appearance in almost every way, from his short brown hair to his height of several inches under six feet. Which was all by design. Those responsible for the Bystander Effect had not wanted to take anyone whose abduction would be particularly noteworthy, for someone who was noteworthy might attract unwanted attention. The more average the better, and Linus had been incredibly average. Few had taken the time to search for very long after he disappeared, taken for the experiments of the Seosten. 

In point of fact, he was not the only person taken that way and experimented on. He was simply the first and only one those experiments had worked properly on. For a certain definition of the word ‘properly.’ 

Now, at this point, the young Athenian man sat in his comfortably-appointed cell in Gehenna. There was nothing all that unique about the space. He had a soft padded floor, a decent bed to sleep on, a small monitor on one wall to watch entertainment next to a shelf full of books he enjoyed reading, and a small kitchen and bathroom on opposite sides. 

And he had a robot. Well, not his robot. Gehenna’s. Named Krix, the robot looked like a metal human with a visor running all the way around his head. The visor contained his visual receptors, allowing him to see in a full three hundred and sixty degrees around the room. Between that and the assortment of cameras in every corner, Krix was capable of observing the boy now known as Rahn one hundred percent of the time. Which was important, given the moment he ceased observing the boy, the robot would have forgotten he existed. 

That was the effect of the Seosten experiments that had been performed on the boy. Every few seconds, his body projected a magical pulse in every direction, which forced everyone who knew about his existence and was not actively observing him to forget about him. No matter what he did to them, no matter how obvious his existence, if they were not actively focused on him and glanced away, the pulse would erase their memory. When they looked back to him once more, they would have no idea who he was. The effect worked on computers and artificial beings just as well as it did on living people. His very existence was erased not only from memory, but from records as well, electronic and otherwise. Everything with his identity written on it would be erased by those pulses of magic that came every few seconds. 

That was why it was so important that Krix observe him at all times, either through direct eyesight with his three-hundred-and-sixty degree vision, or through the cameras. The robot was connected to the prison’s primary power core, allowing him to run constantly with no rest. Even then, there were several redundant systems, smaller robots the size of Earth dragonflies hovering around the room. If Krix’s memory was erased, they were programmed to attach themselves to him and restore the back-ups. Beyond that, the robot had been given full authority over this area. Guards often appeared to ‘clean out the empty cell,’ only to be turned away by Krix as he explained the situation for the seven millionth time. 

Not that Rahn was actively trying to leave. Not at this point. Ehn’s promise, once he found the boy wandering the streets of a small city shortly after his escape from his captors, had been that he would have his chance for revenge against those who had abducted and tortured him with their experiments. And that Ehn would fix him so that he could be with people and not have them forget his existence. 

It was fair to believe such a promise, given Ehn had been the only person to find any way of getting around Rahn’s power. First, his own Dragon Heretic powers rendered him immune to any magic he didn’t want to affect him. Which included the memory-erasing effect. Beyond that, every person enhanced by his dragon boosts also retained their memory of the boy. Ehn’s lieutenants could remember him. Which made them his family, and he would do anything to protect them. And, given Ehn’s boosts not only halted his aging but also made him much stronger and faster than he should have been, protecting them was something he was far more capable of these days. 

Whatever it took, whatever they had to do and whatever forces were arrayed against them, Rahn would see Ehn’s vision come to pass. When the time came, they would raise humanity to become what Ehn saw them as being. 

And damn whatever Seosten or other force tried to stop that. 

*******

Mehtra (Nine) – The Light

The set of rooms belonging to the last of Ehn’s primary lieutenants appeared to be almost empty at this particular point. A scattered assortment of books lay on the floor in one corner, the monitor of a television was sitting in an opposite corner, a pile of various food supplies and a blank, featureless sink was in the kitchen. Other than those things, as well as a toilet, sink, and shower in the bathroom, the area was entirely empty. The walls, floor, and ceiling were blank metal. There was absolutely nothing to show that a person had been living in this space regularly. 

It looked as though the tall, beautiful blonde woman who stood in the middle of the main room was just moving in. Yet nothing had been further from the truth. She had actually lived in this cell for many, many years. The absence of any furniture, cupboards, or indeed almost anything to make this place a real home wasn’t because she had just arrived. Nor was it due to some wish to live in squalor.

It was because Mehtra was redecorating. 

She hadn’t been born Mehtra, of course. Her name through the first part of her life was Osyth. And she was, in actuality, the very first of Ehn’s people to have joined him. She had been more of a daughter than a soldier to the man, having been taken in by him long before he ever started using time travel to recruit his other people. To the point that she had accompanied him on each and every one of those recruitment sessions. First as a child accompanying their parent, and later as his partner, his reinforcements, not that he needed such a thing. She watched his back and served as his voice in times when he could not appear personally. 

But first, before that, she had been an ordinary human girl. A girl who had been out picking berries to sell in her village when she ended up accidentally caught in the middle of a battle between the man who would become known as Ehn, and another man of incredible power. Their fighting would have erased the small, inconsequential child from the map entirely. But Ehn, then named Wiglaf, had noticed and protected her. His protection had resulted in his quarry escaping, yet not before that man’s blood had been spilled across the girl’s face. 

The blood on her face was the first of two things that would change Osyth’s life forever. The second was the righteous fury of the man whose battle against Wiglaf had been interrupted. So angry was, in fact, that by the time Osyth returned to her village, it had been wiped off the map. The furious man had known where the girl came from and took his anger out on the town. Every building was destroyed, every person killed. Including her family and friends. 

With Wiglaf/Ehn’s help, Osyth had hunted down the man responsible for that massacre and made certain he died. It had taken well over a year to find him, but that was time well spent. And from that point on, she was as devoted to her new father-figure as anyone ever could have been.

Standing in the middle of her cell now, the woman now known as Mehtra (or Nine), glanced around the empty room before focusing on a single wall. Or rather, on a point far away from that wall. She focused on the power she could feel coming from the prison’s primary reactor. And with a thought, she gently pulled just a bit of that power to her. Not enough to cause any issues, though that would not have been that difficult. Just enough to do what she needed to right now.

With that power humming inside her, Mehtra’s right hand gave an idle wave. Immediately, the four walls of her main prison room went from being blank metal, to being a soft yellowish color. She paused, head tilting before the walls turned to more of a light blue. Immediately afterward, the blank metal floor under her feet became a fluffy white carpet. A plush armchair and couch appeared in front of the television, which was lifted up inside an ornate wooden cabinet. Next to that, a large bookshelf appeared, as each of the books themselves were lifted out of the jumbled pile and arranged carefully within it. A beautiful ceiling fan lowered itself into place and began to lazily spin. 

Meanwhile, those same things were happening inside the kitchen and bathroom. Tile floors appeared, along with a mirror, cabinets for all the food, a table and chairs, a wall clock, a long dresser with various knicknacks, and an enormous bed to sleep on complete with mattress and blankets. 

The man who had killed Mehtra’s family, who had massacred her village, the man whose blood had been spilled across her face, had been a fully-powered Stardrinker. And when that blood entered her mouth, Mehtra had become a Natural Heretic of him. Between that and Ehn’s boosts, she was capable of drawing energy from vast distances and turning it into destructive blasts, weapons, blinding speed… or this, more creative and sustained use. 

Every object she created this way was, technically, a hard-light construct. Yet Mehtra’s skill with this power was so complete that she could control exactly how soft each object was. Blankets felt like blankets and were both fluffy and warm. The mattress functioned as a mattress. The carpet was soft under her feet, while the walls, tables, chairs, and such were firm and solid.  

Not only could she make these dozens of different hard-light objects feel exactly the way they were supposed to, she could maintain them nearly indefinitely without actually focusing on them. She created them and so long as she stayed within several hundred feet (not a problem in this place), they would remain intact even as she slept.

This was one example of the power of a Dragon-Boosted Stardrinker. A tiny example, really. And when the time came to show the more destructive side of her gift, she would do so once more. 

For Ehn, for the man she saw as her adopted father, she would do anything. 

*********

Those eight beings made up the entirety of Ehn’s lieutenants, his most loyal enforcers and advisors. Together, they were nine of the reasons for Gehenna’s creation. And yet, there was one more whose existence and actions had necessitated the formation of such a prison. A single being, entirely unconnected to Ehn or any of his people and with absolutely no loyalty to them, who was seen as being as much of a threat to continued order as the other nine combined. One figure who required an intergalactic private prison force merely to somewhat contain. 

*******

Zahl (Ten) – The Victorious

The rooms belonging to this last of Gehenna’s primary prisoners were, in no uncertain terms, a disaster. Larger and more numerous than any of the others, Zahl’s quarters were more of an estate than a cell. Thirty-six rooms in total, including no less than six bathrooms and four kitchens, as well as twelve different bedrooms, all decorated differently. There were also several dining rooms, living areas, libraries, and so forth. Far more than any single person really needed to live in, yet very necessary to ensure Zahl stayed put and didn’t decide to put too much effort into leaving. 

They did have a habit of getting bored quite easily.

That quick boredom showed not only in the extensive amount of rooms that were necessary to keep them occupied, but in the way those rooms were such a mess. Random toys, books, bottles, statues, blankets, video games, puzzles, lamps, clocks, painting supplies, and dozens more random objects littered every clear spot of every room, as the being known as Zahl put some time into entertaining themself, then simply tossed whatever it was aside and moved on to the next thing. Or they would be thoroughly occupied in one activity, notice something else, and immediately jump to that. They were not only easily bored, they were also easily distracted. Which itself was something of a boon for Gehenna in keeping them locked up for so many years. Though that was something more whispered about far from Zahl’s earshot, because if they understood what was being done, they might just get angry at the manipulation and leave on their own anyway. Which was a potential situation that would very easily and quickly spiral completely out of any semblance of control. 

After all, it took quite a bit to so much as give pause to the being known as the Monkey King. 

It was hard, or even impossible, to refer to something like a ‘normal life’ for the creature most commonly named Sun Wukong. Nothing about him had ever been ‘normal,’ from his mysterious birth atop a mountain, seemingly created from a stone, all the way through his many misadventures throughout first the Earth itself and later every world he could reach with his considerable power.

Many would have said that the (mis)adventures and feats of Sun Wukong had been exaggerated. In some ways they were correct, in the sense that the beings he met and places he went were not quite gods, nor heavens and hells, but incredibly powerful beings and other worlds. Where he came from, who his own people really were, and so forth were questions to which he had no answers, despite many journeys to find them. All he knew was that he appeared to be a man-sized monkey, complete with fur and a tail, though his skin was as hard as stone. 

In the course of his attempts to understand his origin, or simply entertain himself in a world which so often stubbornly insisted on attempting to be boring, Sun Wukong had gained power beyond nearly any comprehension. He became immortal several times over, gathered weapons and tools that could shatter entire armies, became the most skilled combatant across many worlds, and was even capable of shaping the very hairs from his body into duplicates of himself. 

He was, in no uncertain terms, one of the strongest and most dangerous beings who had ever existed. Not only for his immense power and skill itself, but also for his tendency to act first without thinking anything through. If he had been named the god of anything in particular, it would have been impulsiveness. He was not, generally speaking, a bad person. He simply did whatever came to mind without thought for what the negative effects could be. Between that and his temper, it was easy for the so-called Monkey King to do far more damage than he ever intended. 

The red headband he always wore had at one point been intended to curtail this habit, as it was capable of, with a single spoken word, causing intense, direct pain. Enough to cripple even one as strong as him. Yet over so many years, Sun Wukong had become strong enough that use of the headband did little more than slow him down. 

Yes, there were other beings who were stronger, or smarter, or faster than he was. But in the end, he always came out on top. One way or another. 

When it came right down to it, he was here, in this prison, because he chose to be. They entertained him, gave him whatever he wanted, and helped to ensure his impulses didn’t hurt anyone else. Yet given an excuse, it would not take much for Wukong to decide he had other places he would rather be, other people he would rather talk to. 

He feared no enemy. But boredom terrified the Monkey King. He would do anything to avoid it, to ensure that there was always a challenge, always something new and exciting waiting around the corner. It was that very dislike of being bored that had led him to, over the past few months, agree to speak with the man who called himself Ehn. Though he owed no allegiance to that man, it was at least something new. And in those discussions, Wukong had found himself agreeing to perform a favor, at some point in the future, for the man. A favor which promised to be very interesting indeed, and provide him with brand new entertainment. 

Now, he stood in front of a mirror in one corner of one of his thirty-six rooms. Reaching out with a hand, he brushed a blanket away from it, revealing his own reflection. The reflection of the tall, handsome, furry Monkey King. He held his nearly eighteen thousand pound staff casually in one hand, smiling at his own appearance before casually making the staff shrink down to the size of a toothpick, which he stuck behind his ear. 

And then that appearance changed, as he used one of his many gifts. His form shifted, shrinking down somewhat and becoming slightly more thin, while the hair on his head lightened and extended and the hair everywhere else vanished. Within barely more than a blink of an eye, he stood in the very form he would use to provide this favor for the Dragon-Heretic. 

Watching his long tail, the only thing he was incapable of shifting away in his transformations, swing back and forth briefly, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, Zahl, or whatever else he chose to call himself, turned his attention to the face of his new figure. He spoke in her voice, addressing the form of the human girl whom he would, at some point, replace. At least temporarily. 

“Don’t you worry, Felicity Chambers. 

“I’m gonna have so much fun while I’m being you.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Things were even worse, if that was possible. It turned out there were protection spells that the Whisper-possessed Seosten ghosts had put up around the Slide-Drive core. Which, of course, we didn’t have time to break through so we could disable the jamming. Not with Puriel already about to be taken over by those bastards. Every second we spent down here was too long. 

In the end, we only had one choice. My dad, despite his worry about his parents, agreed to stay behind and use the spells that he knew (and what Apollo and Aletheia showed him) to break through that protection so he could disable the jamming. It wasn’t perfect, but he had Mercury’s power. Which meant he could both speed up his own magic and make the protection spells run through their own duration much faster. He just had to do so carefully to avoid setting off any bad reactions. 

Tabbris was staying with him too. That was harder, but I convinced her that if I couldn’t stay and protect our dad from any of those Whispers that might come back, she needed to. She had her wings and knew all the ghost control magic I did, even if she didn’t have the same Necromancy power. I was trusting her to keep our father safe right now, and once they were done getting through the protections and were able to shut down the jamming, she would be able to recall back to me. 

Obviously, she felt guilty about leaving me ‘on my own,’ but I was able to convince her that it was for the best. We embraced briefly before separating so the rest of us could start running. 

Through my connection to Grover, I was able to describe exactly where Puriel and the others were both in appearance and in relation to our current location. Using that, Apollo and Aletheia figured out that they were in one of the special cargo holds. It was separate from the regular hold, intended to keep sensitive cargo that the Seosten didn’t want just anyone on the ship to have access to. The place was sealed behind high-level protections, which would have been a real problem if we hadn’t run into Aletheia already. Because she had actually been traveling on the Olympus already, and was trusted implicitly by Puriel, the Seosten woman already had access to the place. If it wasn’t for her, we probably would have had to spend way too much time finding a way to get through the security defenses. More time than we had right then, judging from how many of the Whispers I had seen doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head. 

As we raced back through the engine deck toward the elevator, Avalon complained, “This Puriel guy is supposed to be one of the strongest Seosten out there. I believe the exact words were ‘master of all energy, including magic.’ Shouldn’t he be able to wave his hand and blow these things away? It should be him saving us.” 

Aletheia’s voice was flat. “Ever since the… incident with the banishment orb, his mind has not been the same. Between that and the trauma he experienced at the orphanage when the Fomorians attacked, he has moments where he zones out and is incapable of reacting to the outside world. Spark is normally good at pulling him back from those moments, or simply taking over. But it seems that these Whispers are interfering with that.”

I gave a quick nod. “That’s what it looked like to me. I mean, from the outside.” Grimacing a bit, I added, “Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time. Things were looking pretty desperate up there.”

Thankfully, we wouldn’t be alone once we got there. Hopefully, at least. First, Miranda had already jumped back to her original body (it was with Athena and Dare) and was going to give them a detailed explanation straight up. As for the other two groups, I sent several of my ghosts back out to let them know what was going on as well. Between all that, it would hopefully make them meet us on the right deck so we could all do this together. That was the plan, anyway. 

By that point, we had reached the elevator, and I scrambled on before shifting my focus so I could look through Grover’s eyes once more to check what was going on. Things aren’t any better. It looked like Uncle Al, a Native American man, and my grandparents were all surrounding Puriel and the kids, protecting them from the ghosts that the Whispers kept summoning. Worse, I could see Invidia there, already in a duel with Uncle Al. Needless to say, he was holding his own. After all, he was Hercules. 

Even my grandparents were… doing something useful. It looked like Grandpartie was using a console to direct internal security weapons to fire on the ghosts, which were actually doing some damage to them. Probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how much experience Seosten would have with ghosts and other intangible beings, but still. And Grandmaria was… uhh, as best as I could tell at a glance, using magic to create a forcefield to hold the majority of the Whispers and ghosts off. 

I wasn’t sure which was more surprising and impressive to me, my grandfather being able to manipulate the ship controls like that, or my grandmother having a strong enough grasp over magic to create that forcefield. Or–wait, was she using magic or some power? Had she bonded to something? And come to think of it, Popser was barely touching the controls. It was more like his hands were resting on it, fingers twitching now and then. What–

Shaking that off, I focused on what was important right then. Namely, the fact that they were sort of holding off the attack. But still, things weren’t great. More Whispers kept getting through to add to the pile that were doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head, and the man himself still wasn’t moving or reacting to anything. He was just standing there with his head cocked to the side. There was clearly an internal struggle going on, and if we didn’t hurry up and get there, we were going to end up having to fight a Whisper-controlled Puriel. Which basically sounded like the exact opposite of anything approaching a good time. None of us were ready to deal with something like that. Hell, we weren’t enough even if we all joined together. This was Zeus, for fucks sake. We had nothing that could challenge him if he went after us. Especially on his own ship. Between that and all the other Whispers, including the Whisper-Possessed Charmeine, we would be completely fucked, in no uncertain terms.

Instructing Grover to tell my grandparents that we were on the way, I jumped back into my own mind in time to feel the elevator rising. It was going pretty quick too, and I could see Apollo messing with an open computer panel to one side. Apparently he had disabled the safeties or something and sped the thing up. Now we were flying toward the right deck. I just hoped we would make it in time. And, of course, cursed the fact that the Whispers’ jamming included blocking transportation powers. We had to do this whole thing the long way rather than just teleporting up there. Because, of course, this had to be as hard as possible. 

One day for a party to celebrate a victory. That was all I’d asked for. But did we get that? Of course not. And we still didn’t understand why the Whispers were here trying to pilot the ship into Tartarus to begin with. What did they think they could gain from that? Hell, what even were they? There were so many questions around this entire situation, and the only creatures with answers didn’t seem inclined to explain. But hey, maybe we could beat it out of them. 

Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating them in general. It was possible that I was slightly annoyed by this entire situation. Terrified too, of course. But also annoyed. 

The elevator finally stopped at the right deck, and the rest of us exchanged quick glances before stepping off together. The room beyond was shaped like a half-circle, with a line of elevators, including the one we had been on, along the flat line part. To the left and right were corridors, with several open doors along the curve part of the half-circle ahead of us. The main doors, straight across, apparently led to the primary cargo bay. But that wasn’t where we were supposed to go. Our destination lay to the left, down that hall. 

We were cautious, even as we stepped out of the elevator, weapons at the ready considering we had no idea what sort of traps or problems the Whispers might have left to slow us down so they would have time to take over Puriel. There could be anything waiting for us up here. 

And yet, despite having that thought, I still wasn’t prepared for what I immediately saw. Coming off the elevator, my eyes immediately fell on a single, lone figure standing with their back to us, staring through the doorway toward the main cargo hold. They showed no reaction to our arrival, and I took a quick second to size them up. They were solid, not a ghost, and seemed either human or Seosten from this angle. Probably the latter. A man, several inches under six feet, though pretty well-built. His brown hair fell to just above his shoulders, and he wore gray cloth pants and a simple white shirt, his feet bare. 

Even as I took that in, the man turned to look at me. Now I could see his face. He had a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes were a brownish-green. He looked, on paper, like a completely average guy of no particular power or importance. And yet, when I met his gaze, I felt myself shrink back reflexively. A lump had formed in my throat, as an inexplicable sense of danger and power filled me. He had made no threatening move, said no threatening words, had done nothing other than turn to look at me, but I still felt his power like a crushing weight. 

Abruptly, Apollo spoke up. “I’m not picking up any surprises.” He was holding a stone in one hand, enchanted to detect traps. “Doesn’t seem right.” 

“No surprises?” I found myself blurting. “What about–” Then my eyes flicked from Apollo, back to the strangely terrifying man by the cargo bay. But he wasn’t there. In that time, in that brief instant where my eyes had moved off him, he had vanished. “Wha–what?” I stammered, completely thrown off. I shouldn’t have been, given all the incredible powers I had seen. Yet something about that guy, something about… yeah. It threw me off, to say the least.

The others were all looking at me uncertainly, and I raised a hand to point to where the man had been, quickly explaining what I had seen. But none of them had caught a glimpse of the man. Even though he had been standing in plain view as far as I was concerned, they had not seen anything. A quick check with Seth and Rahanvael, each standing beside me, revealed the same answer. I was the only person who had seen him, or sensed anything at all. None of Mom’s powers, and none of Aletheia or Apollo’s magic, had picked up the man’s presence. 

And, come to think of it, I had not sensed him with my item-detection power either. He had definitely been in range of it, but I hadn’t sensed his clothes or anything. He had looked completely solid, but wasn’t detected by anything. Except by my own eyes, and only my eyes. No one else had picked up any sense of him at all. This was… weird. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to make me feel better about the situation we were walking into. 

Mom and the two Seosten spent a tense moment focusing on that spot, but even after I pointed out exactly where the man had been, they couldn’t pick up anything at all. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. Which, again, was more than a little worrying. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to focus on any implications of that. Not with the problems we already had to deal with. We still had to get into the other room before the Whispers got through to Puriel, so any thoughts and worries about the man I had seen were just going to have to wait. All I could really do in that moment was hope that it wasn’t something that would come back and bite us in the ass before we were done with this specific problem. Hell, for all I knew, that figure was working with the Whispers. 

On the plus side, there didn’t seem to be any defenses here blocking our way. Which in and of itself was a bit surprising, but we weren’t going to dwell on that too much either. Especially not when two of the nearby elevators arrived in the next moment, with Larissa, Haiden, and Mercury emerging from one, and Sariel, Theia, and Pace from the other. With their respective Mirandas, of course. The ghosts I had sent to get them rejoined me, fading from view for the moment (though ready to be summoned back as soon as I needed them). 

“You guys okay?” I asked, thoughts of the man I had seen fresh in my mind. Much as I tried to set that aside, I couldn’t entirely dismiss his face. The way he had stared right through me, the power I had felt, it was too much to ignore. 

Theia waved. “We killed ghosts. And fuzzy-ghosts.” 

“Whispers, she means,” Pace put in, voice tense as she glanced around as though expecting to be ambushed at any second. “And we didn’t kill them so much as… make them go away for the moment.” 

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we know where they went to,” Avalon muttered, eyes on the left-hand corridor leading toward the special, extra-secure cargo hold. “They’re throwing everything they have into taking control of Puriel. Or at least turning him against the rest of us. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t fancy our odds if that happens.”

“Which is why we need to get in there right now.” That was Athena, speaking as she and Dare came off another elevator. Her attention was laser-focused ahead, a silvery-gold sword in one hand that was still glowing from ghost-fire. “Worry about specifics later,” she instructed while still walking. “Right now, all that matters is driving these creatures away and giving Puriel time to collect himself.” After a brief verbal pause, she added, “And hope that Lincoln and Tabbris break those protection spells so they can stop this ship before it’s too late to matter.” 

Oh, right, of course. We had that problem to worry about too. Even if we did manage to get the Whispers away from Puriel and the others before they turned him into a monster who would annihilate us all, it would all be for naught if this damn ship managed to take us straight into Tartarus. But, you know, it wasn’t like we were under any pressure or anything. 

Pushing aside those thoughts we started to move, I told Athena and the others what I had seen, and the fact that no one else had sensed anything. She and Sariel exchanged brief glances, before the latter spoke. “When this is over, if it is alright with you, I would like to take a look at that memory and see this man for myself. It would be better than a description.” 

I agreed easily, hoping it would lead to an actual answer. Then I pushed the thought as far from my mind as possible, focusing on the here and now. As we ran, Dare gave me a quick look, silently asking if I was all right. I gave her a thumbs up, but made it waiver a little. Between that and the look on my face, I was pretty sure she understood just how uncertain I was about the whole thing. She, in turn, took a moment to touch my shoulder in mid-run, squeezing it firmly to let me know she was there. Which was nice, but also reminded me yet again that she still couldn’t tell my mother, her own daughter, who she really was and why she cared so much.   

It was just another thing I had to push out of my head so I could focus on the problem at hand. A problem that was right in front of us, as we reached the door leading to the special cargo bay. Aletheia had already input the code, the door sliding open to reveal the same room I had seen through Grover’s eyes. And a situation that had not gotten any better in the time since I had last checked. The kids were still huddled into an even tighter circle, though Spark wasn’t visible. My guess was that she was inside Puriel, trying to keep as much control as possible away from the Whispers, who were basically flooding over his body so much that there were constant distortion waves all around him. The rest of the Whispers, and the ghosts, were being desperately held back by Uncle Al, my grandparents, and that Native American man. But they were, unfortunately, fighting a losing battle, constantly having to pull back closer to the others as the attackers continued to flood into the room. There were so many Whispers. Obviously there weren’t as many ghosts for them to control, given–well, there weren’t an unlimited number of Seosten on the Olympus who had died, even counting ‘ordinary’ crew members. Still, they were all here, and they were making a huge push. Probably because this was as much a do-or-die moment for them as it was for us. 

Seeing us enter, Grandmaria raised a hand, the other held out to reinforce the shield she had erected around them. “Good to see you, kiddo! Wish I had time to have cookies ready.” 

“Later, Maria,” Uncle Al cheerfully replied even as his fist slammed into a ghost. It shouldn’t have done anything, yet the incorporeal figure still blew apart from that single blow. “There’ll be time for cookies once we remind these bastards they’re supposed to stay gone when they die!” 

“Hurtful,” Seth remarked beside me. “But considering the situation, fair.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sariel had taken a step that way, her eyes on the huddled children trying to make themselves even smaller. Specifically, on a small boy who was peeking up to stare right back at her. Omni. He was right there. 

Unfortunately, that single step was as much as she was able to take, before a familiar form coalesced right in front of us. Charmeine. No, Invidia. Her colored-in ghost form appeared, already smirking. “Oh, you people got through those traps even faster than we thought you would. That’s surprising. And annoying. But I think that’s about far enough.” Pausing, her head tilted before she raised both eyebrows. “Ah. It seems my host here has complicated feelings about seeing you, Artemis. How interesting.” 

Traps? What traps was she talking about? There hadn’t been any traps. Huh? A moment of confusion passed through me, as I exchanged a quick glance with the others. They looked just as uncertain. 

Sariel, on the other hand, manifested her bow and drew back an energy arrow before pointing it that way. Her voice was tight. “You and the rest of your kind need to get out of here right now. Why do you even want to take this ship into Tartarus in the first place? What could you possibly hope to get out of that?” 

“A fine question,” Athena put in, stepping beside the other Seosten woman, sword at the ready. 

Invidia, in turn, glanced between them before giving a slow, audible chuckle. “Taking this ship into Tartarus?” She echoed the words as though they were the silliest thing she had ever heard, shaking her head. “Oh dear. I believe you’ve made a very dangerous assumption. We have no intention of taking this ship, or anyone on it, into Tartarus. You see, in moments we will have control of one of the most powerful and instinctive magic users in this entire universe. But even more importantly, he has a direct connection to Tartarus itself. After all, it is the source of his power.

“Once we have him in hand, we will use that power to open the portal into Tartarus. Of that, you are correct. But we will not be going inside. No, quite the opposite. When the portal is open, we will be releasing the creatures which dwell within that universe into this one. Then our people will fulfill our destiny by taking the creatures for our own use. 

“And together, we will erase everything in existence.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 9A – Ehn (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Screams and fire filled the dark, smoke-laden air. Flames crackled forth as lightning cast from the maw of a terrible, half-hidden beast. A sword shattered as glass against the creature, as cowards fled and hid from its fury. The monster rose, towering above all. Its image blotted out the sky, its roar threatening to sunder the heavens above while its claws tore the world beneath. Soon, all that would exist, all that would be, was the creature, standing alone amidst the destruction of all that had ever been. The beginning and the end. The teeth and the fire. 

The man’s eyes opened. Above the bed he lay on was no dragon, no flames, no flying shards of metal from a shattered sword. Instead, his eyes beheld what at first appeared to be a partially clouded sky, with birds frozen in mid-flight and a horizon of distant mountains. A second thought, however, proved that the birds were not frozen, but that the entire ‘sky’ and nearby walls were but an incredibly detailed and lifelike painting.

Those same walls and ceiling had been blank metal at the start, but the man had long-since tired of such a view. Or lack thereof. Thus, he endeavored to learn painting, a skill he had lacked at the start of his imprisonment. An imprisonment that had begun thousands of years before his own physical birth, chronologically. Technically, he had now been alive for several times longer than the length of time that had passed back on Earth since he was born. 

Time travel. Even he found it annoying. Much as it had aided him in avoiding the problems of his contemporary Dragon-Bonded, the king known as Arthur. 

In any case, for the thousands of years since those first few decades, his prison cell had been painted with a new view every so often. Every landscape he painted was drawn from the man’s own memory, a perfect image from the days of his freedom.

Watching those still, motionless birds, the man contemplated for what seemed to be a few seconds. Soon, however, he realized that over an hour had passed. Such a thing hardly mattered, of course. In a place like this, with a life as long as he’d had, hours and seconds were hardly differentiated. For several thousand years, he had been locked in this place, imprisoned by the group who called themselves Gehenna. His capture and confinement was not simply part of their job, but the entire purpose of their existence. He was the reason they had been formed in the first place. Though they kept other prisoners, most were taken solely so that those who wanted them imprisoned would contribute resources toward funding and empowering Gehenna so they could continue to pay the incredible cost of keeping this man contained for so long. 

He was their first prisoner, the reason they existed. He was the first. He was One. In their language, he was Ehn. 

Tearing his gaze from the painted birds, the man known to the guards of this place as Ehn rose from his bed. His cell was quite large for what it was, essentially consisting of a metal room thirty feet long by twenty feet wide. In the countless years that had passed, the place could quite easily have become filled with rich, ornate furniture and trinkets, as had the cells of those he counted as his allies in this place. And, indeed, other rooms that Ehn considered his held countless measures of comfort and entertainment, ways of passing the time. But in his personal cell, this single room where he slept, nothing of the sort existed. The room was empty, save for his simple bed and a wardrobe that held his clothes. Part of the blank metal wall beside the wardrobe was reflective, a mirror he could use to examine himself after dressing. 

He wanted no material distractions within his own room, nothing that would take focus away from his meditations and planning. Sitting in the middle of the room for hours at a time, contemplating existence itself with nothing but his own landscape painting to gaze upon, kept the man focused and clear-headed, able to look toward a future only he could see. 

It was a future outside of this place. A future of conquest, achievement, and a legacy that would live on for eons. A future he had sought since the days of his first steps beyond the blood of the dragon that had transformed him. The dragon whose screams he could still hear, whose terrible claws and fire were still felt upon his skin whenever his eyes closed. 

Moving from the simple bed to the wardrobe, the naked man drew out simple clothes of gray, cloth pants and a white, featureless shirt. He dressed in silence, feet remaining bare, before looking to himself in the mirror. He was not an especially tall man by what Earth-bound humans would think of as modern estimates. He stood only five foot, nine inches, though all of that was quite well muscled over so many lifetimes of battles and training. His skin had been pale during his life of freedom and had become even more so over the past millennia of imprisonment. Once, his hair and beard, both the color of brownish-rust, had once been fairly long and intricately braided. Over these years, he had taken to cutting both. Now, the hair of his head fell to just above his shoulders, while his beard was neatly trimmed and would not have seemed out of place on the streets of modern-day Earth. His eyes, a muddy brownish-green color, betrayed no real sense of the incredible power he held. 

For a few moments, the man called Ehn took in the sight of himself in silence. He raised a hand to touch the part of his cheek that had once been heavily scarred. It was a wound that, like so many others, had faded after his growth into a full Dragon-Bonded. Healing was but one of the gifts of the creature that had wrought so much destruction upon the land. Gifts that he had gained after the death of…

Pushing the thought aside, the man turned from the mirror and strode away. This was not the time to dwell on memories of events long-since faded into oblivion. His eyes should not be locked to the past, but should remain fully set toward the future, to the eventual universe he had put so much of his blood and sweat toward. A universe of humanity, strong and victorious, standing as guardians and stewards for all living things. He saw humanity not as weapons to be used and directed, as the Seosten did, but as the warriors that would destroy the Fomorians, break the chains of slavery, and usher the universe into a new age. 

Unfortunately, many people would die in the process of creating such a future. It was tragic, yet inevitable. For things to improve, for humanity to truly rise to the position he knew they were capable of, there would be much more suffering. His people, and the universe at large, would have to go through the crucible and have their imperfections, their flaws, burned away. 

His people would rise, when the time came. And when it did, he would be there to lead them against a universe that would not understand their goals. Until then, he waited. He planned. He prepared. When the coming war came, when it was time for the ascension of humanity to its true place, as leaders and protectors of all who lived in the universe, he would be ready. 

A nearly invisible door lay at the opposite end of the room, and it was there that Ehn strode toward. It opened at his approach, revealing a single gleaming silver figure, a robot who served as Ehn’s combination servant and guard. The guard he interacted with the most, anyway. This prison had been built to contain him, after all. There were more troops here, both of the living and artificial variety, than most could comprehend. Not that they were there to stop him directly. They would have failed at that anyway. No, the armies quartered here were intended to stop anyone from freeing him, or breaking the spells that kept him contained. 

It was those spells that Gehenna relied on to keep him trapped here. Layer after layer of magic that prevented him from leaving this place. There wasn’t one single spell that accomplished the job, but many various overlapping effects. Some limited his power, some would cause bad things to happen if he tried to leave, others served as tethers to yank him back if he did leave, and still more would target any location he left to with more destruction than an entire city could hope to survive. Not that such an assault would be enough to end him for good, but it was thought that it may break him down to a level where he could be contained once more. But, of course, the strongest of the spells was the one which targeted his own magical immunity, allowing the rest to work in the first place. It was that spell which took the most power, forcing Gehenna to use the equivalent energy of several major planets to maintain it. 

They took no chances when it came to keeping their first prisoner, the reason for their creation and continued existence, where he belonged. The level of power it took to maintain the spells that trapped him would have bankrupted entire planets were it not spread between many of them. They were Gehenna. Their purpose was to keep Ehn trapped in this place.

“Good morning, Weregeld,” Ehn quietly greeted the artificial construct with the name he had given him when the being had declined to provide one. He spoke in the language of his youth. Not that it truly mattered, as Weregeld would understand any of the three dozen languages the man could have spoken in. Many millennia before Gehenna had put him to work as guard in this place, Weregeld and the others of his kind, known as the Mevari, had been created by a now-almost extinct race called the Tseuckaviel. The Mevari were incredibly powerful cybernetic lifeforms, a single one capable of going toe-to-toe with multiple true Fomorians and their armies. That Gehenna would put one to work this way was unsurprising. A single Mevari could, after all, safely take multiple shots from a capital ship-grade laser cannon, was as strong as the mightiest of trolls, immune to any biological agents given their mechanical nature, never tired or grew hungry, was capable of reaching two hundred miles per hour at a sprint, had a metal body that resisted the effects of anything like acid or electricity, and a central power core that could run unaided for over ten thousand years while generating a constant null-magic field up to a few inches around them. 

He was, in a way, both the perfect companion and perfect guard for Ehn. Or at least, the best that Gehenna could manage in a single being. 

“Good morning, Prisoner One,” the Mevari spoke crisply. “Would you prefer to begin with daily news, breakfast, physical exercise, mental exercise, maintenance, or other business?” 

Ehn considered that briefly. This was one way that he had invented to make the days, years, decades, and centuries not bleed into one another quite as much. He never began two days in a row the same way. His schedule for each day had to be different, just to avoid letting his mind stagnate. He kept similar meals separated by at least a month, as well as other measures that were intended to ensure he never lapsed into complacency. 

“Which mental exercises are we up to?” the man asked, already slipping past the robot guard and into the larger hallway beyond. It was shaped like a U, with his cell at the bottom of said U while the corridor bent in either direction away from him. 

“The effect of magic on universal physics as taught in modern Seosten academies, a history of the Jewish religion on Earth, the life of Rakshasan king Tulmien the fourteenth and how his death shaped their society for several centuries, and an examination of the racial tension between gray-striped Neunliens and their unstriped kin before the arrival and subsequent take-over of their society by the Seosten,” came the simple response. “And you wished to be reminded that your test on the two hundred and thirty-seven types of flora found within the Ophloin Depths on Catryol is in three days.” 

“Later for that,” the man decided. He needed breakfast first before getting into such things. “We’ll do food first. No, news. Tell me the news on the way to the kitchen.” With that decided, he started along the U-shaped hall toward the left, passing several other doors on the way. There was no one else here, of course. Very few people ever visited him, unless there was a situation, or he sent for them. For the most part, Ehn could go years without speaking to another person beyond Weregeld. 

Keeping pace with him, the silver humanoid construct briskly informed him of several important events within the universe. Some more important than others. But through it all, Ehn could tell the robot was keeping something back. He let that go on through reaching the kitchen and beginning to make his own food, knowing that the robot would eventually get to the point. 

Only when he had asked the appropriate questions for the events that were already presented, and taken his seat with the prepared meal some twenty minutes later, did Weregeld finally pause in a pointed way. Though some would say that a robot couldn’t possibly be ‘nervous’, that was the distinct impression that was given. 

“What is it?” Ehn asked calmly, cutting into his spiced meat without looking up. He knew what he would see, the silver-figure gazing at him intently, trying to gauge how he would react to what was about to be said. 

“Ah, it’s one of your… projects, sir,” came the eventual response. “The necromancer who has been making his place on Earth for some time.” 

“Merakeul? The one who calls himself Fah-Seur. Fossor.” Taking a bite and chewing thoughtfully, Ehn waited before prompting, “What about him?” 

Again, there was a brief pause. If Ehn didn’t know better, he’d think the robot was afraid of being destroyed for giving bad news. Which was preposterous of course. He never killed the messenger. “It’s–he’s dead, sir. He was killed just yesterday, according to the reports we’ve received. I made certain to confirm it before bringing the news to you, and it is definitive. The one called Fossor has suffered true and final death.” 

For a moment, Ehn didn’t react at all. He cut himself another piece of meat, chewing on that thoughtfully as he digested the news. Finally, the man spoke a single word, “Who?” 

“Ah, the ahh, human girl,” Weregeld hurriedly explained. “The daughter of the Heretic he abducted, the one who helped return the memories of her mother’s rebellion against Crossroads. She–” 

“Chambers?” The man turned slightly, his gaze taking in the silver figure directly as he spoke very carefully, making it clear that he expected no misinterpretations. “Felicity Chambers killed Merakeul?” 

Again, there was a very brief pause, before the robot slowly confirmed, “That is correct.” 

“Ah.” Turning back to his plate, Ehn resumed eating with a simple, “Good to know.” 

When he said nothing else beyond that, Weregeld hesitantly asked, “This doesn’t upset you?” It was clear that he’d expected at least some kind of outward reaction. A very angry and potentially incredibly destructive outward reaction. 

“Should it?” Ehn asked flatly, curious as to what his companion’s response would be. He knew what the robot, and by extension other members of Gehenna believed. But he was curious as to how much would be openly acknowledged. The guards here knew that their primary prisoner had far more power and influence than one should in his position, even if most didn’t actually understand the hows and whys of it. Which was intentional, of course. They couldn’t do their jobs if they were distracted by such information. 

“It’s just–” Again the construct hesitated, seeming to consider its words. Or maybe it was getting orders from elsewhere. “You put a lot of work and energy into building Fossor as a potential weapon or ally in the future. It was, after all, upon your insistence and considerable calling of favors that Merakeul was imprisoned by Gehenna in the first place. You wanted him imprisoned and then allowed to escape for a reason. And now, after several thousand years of allowing him to run like that, he is… dead. All that effort and energy has been wasted.” 

Ehn didn’t respond to that for the moment. Instead, he continued to eat, silently clearing his plate before straightening. As he took the dishes to the sink, the man casually spoke. “By that measure, I suppose one would think that this… Felicity Chambers has eliminated one enemy, only to gain another.” He washed the plate, glass, and utensils before turning to his companion/guard. “Is that what you’re asking, Weregeld? If I want to extend my influence to see the Chambers girl eliminated for such a transgression?” 

“The thought had occurred, yes,” came the response. “All that energy and effort to ensure that the necromancer would be a tool for future use, wiped away by one young child. A certain measure of annoyance and retaliation would be understandable.” 

Rather than speak to that right away, Ehn simply turned and began to walk out of the room, returning to the corridor. Together, the pair had strode almost all the way back to where his cell was before he finally responded. “You’re right, of course. I did put quite a lot of effort into putting Fossor into the previous Gehenna prison, and in ensuring his escape was not interrupted. The favors, the strength that had to be shown to ensure his growth into what he became, was not insignificant. For that to be wiped away, erased thousands of years later by a single, random girl? For my plans to be destroyed that easily, that would be quite the problem. I see why you would anticipate fury and retaliation.” 

By that point, they had stopped in front of the door leading to what Ehn thought of as his classroom. Weregeld slowly asked, “But you are not reacting that way. Which would imply that none of that actually happened. Your efforts were not, in fact, wiped away. It would imply that you are not angry about your plans being hurt, because they weren’t hurt at all. Because–” 

Ehn offered him a very faint smile, as the construct finally reached the proper conclusion. “Because I never intended for Merakeul to live forever. He served his purpose. He spent thousands of years gaining power, stretching his gift beyond what he ever could have reached without a little prodding. And now that he made his power as strong as possible, the man himself wasn’t needed. A vile, untamed beast like that is like a rabid wolf. You put such a thing down, you don’t try to use it.” 

“You always intended for him to be killed by a human who could inherit his gift,” Weregeld realized. “Was it always that girl in particular, or…” 

“There were several options,” came the simple response. “The older Chambers woman, for one. But I can work with the child as well, when the time comes. For the moment, let’s just say that if Felicity Chambers believes her life will become less complicated with the death of the necromancer, she is very much mistaken.” 

Thousands of years earlier, by his own reckoning, the man had been the only person to stand at his cousin’s side and face the dragon head-on. While all others ran, the two of them had taken the monster alone. As his shield was burned to ashes and the other man’s sword shattered against that beast’s hide, the one who would become known as Ehn had driven his own sword into the wound. It was an act that had left his hand both horribly burned, and covered in the dragon’s blood that would make its mark on his future. And it opened the way for the beast to be killed by his far-stronger companion. 

His champion and mentor had died that day. But, thinking back to that moment brought no tears or regrets, for Ehn knew that the other man would not have chosen any other way to end his life but to have killed a dragon in the process. For that was truly a death befitting the strongest of warriors.

And now, thinking of what was to come, the man formerly known as Wiglaf, cousin of Beowulf, smiled with quiet anticipation.

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter