Freya Sullivan

Interlude 3A – Erin Redcliffe (Heretical Edge 2)

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She was a hostage. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they were gone. 

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

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Interlude 40B – Dosina Banning

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“Oh God, it wasn’t mud in my hair, it wasn’t mud!”

The yelped words came from Dosina Banning. Having graduated from Crossroads almost six years earlier, the dark-skinned girl had very likely not picked up a weapon since that time. Never having been much focused on or interested in her actual training even while a student, Dosina was good with a certain kind of archival magic, spells focused on sorting and categorizing things. Such magic was quite good for administrative work, but not so much on the front lines of a fight. Which was fine, in most cases. There was very much a place for such work in the offices of the Crossroads Heretical administration. An army wouldn’t be worth much if everyone was a frontline soldier, after all. Dosina might not have been much of a fighter, but her work was still needed and appreciated in the proper place.

Unfortunately, this… was not the proper place. In many ways, actually. Only a minute earlier, Dosina had been having dinner at Crossroads Academy with her little sister, Summer and the rest of Summer’s team. She was one of three adults at the table, along with the boy Eiji’s uncle named Banri, and the father of Shiloh, another of Summer’s teammates. The three adults had been eating with their student relatives, and the other three team members: Russell, Freya, and Harper.

The key word was had. They had been having dinner. A feast, actually. But now… now something had happened. The last thing Dosina knew, a few of the kids around them had been complaining about not feeling well. Then there was a twisting sensation, and she had abruptly found herself… elsewhere. A dark elsewhere. A dark, muddy, and wet elsewhere. It was a swamp of some kind, one filled with nasty smells and creepy, crawly things. Dosina had already kicked a couple of entirely-too-large centipedes off her shoes before looking around. It was too dark to see further than ten feet or so. Those ten feet basically showed her muddy water, spots of land like where she was standing that weren’t exactly dry but at least made the water only rise to her ankles, twisted trees, and shapes that could have been logs or… or worse.

She had just taken a step back from one probably-not-a-log in particular when a glop of what she had thought was mud had fallen into her hair. The discovery that it was, in fact, something worse than mud had prompted her outburst. Now, she shook her hand off desperately, raising her voice. “Hello? Is anyone else out there? I said, hel–”

A hand covered her mouth. Dosina instantly focused on one of her powers. She wasn’t a frontline fighter, but nor was she a Bystander. Her teeth instantly turned to metal and became sharp enough to bite through steel, as she went to chomp down on the hand keeping her silent.

The hand released her at the last second, a hand turning her around. Dosina saw scraggly brown hair, mismatched blue and brown eyes, and a lined face. Then she recognized the man there, his face illuminated by a magical or ability-fueled light floating beside him. Garrison Lexx, Shiloh’s father. He gestured for her to be quiet, then nodded back the way he had apparently come.

Dosina followed him quickly, relieved beyond belief that she wasn’t alone out here in this swamp. Within a few steps, they passed around a large tree, and she saw that half of it was hollowed out and open. Her sister, and the rest of the people who had been at the table, were there. Summer, Russell, Freya, and Shiloh were all lying on the ‘floor’ of the tree’s hollowed out interior. None of them looked very good.

Seeing Summer, Dosina immediately moved to drop to her knees by the girl. Technically, they were what the Bystanders would call ‘half-sisters’ given the fact that they had different mothers. Both of whom were still very involved with their father. But those kind of polyamorous relationships were so common among Heretics that most simply stuck with referring to each other as full siblings unless an actual bloodline was important to the conversation.

“Oh, God, are you okay? Are you…” She touched her sister’s face, wincing at the heat and moisture she felt. “She’s burning up.”

‘They all have a fever,” Eiji’s uncle Banri, an Asian man even taller than his already quite large nephew, announced. “Whatever sent us here, it also made them sick. Most likely we were all poisoned. But we’ve stacked enough regeneration and other protections that it wasn’t enough to even notice. They… weren’t so lucky. All of them except Eiji and Harper there.” He nodded to the pair, who stood nearby, the former wearing his cyberform partner in its backpack form. “Our bloodline is very… resistant to magical poison. That’s why my nephew was unaffected. As for Harper–”

“I wasn’t hungry,” the pink-haired girl put in, sounding somewhat down from her usual incredibly chipper self. She was watching her teammates anxiously while standing quite close to Eiji as if instinctively seeking protection. “I uhh, sorta filled up on cupcakes before dinner.”

“So the spell–whatever brought us here, it was attached to the food?” Dosina frowned. “But if they’ve been poisoned–”

Garrison had already moved to kneel next to his daughter, touching Shiloh’s face. “They’ll be okay, with time. Mostly it’s draining their energy, keeping them too weak to do much. But we need to get out of here. Because if someone went through the trouble of poisoning us and sending us out here, it won’t be the end of it. There’ll be something worse coming. And there’s some kind of anchor spell in the area, keeping us here.”

Banri was frowning worriedly. “Stay here with them,” he instructed Dosina. “If anything happens, let us know. We’ll clear a path and see if anything’s on its way. Do not leave them alone.” He gave her a firm look, making the twenty-six year old feel as though she was back in school again until she nodded. Then he and Garrison moved out slowly and cautiously into the swamp.

“Guys, come here,” Dosina quickly ordered, looking toward Harper and Eiji until the two moved closer. As she started to turn her attention back to the swamp nervously, Summer’s hand found hers. The girl was shivering, face flushed as she murmured, “Dossier, you made it too.”

Ignoring the teasing nickname, Dosina jerked her attention to the girl. “Summer, you’re awake! You– wait.” Leaning back, she gave her little sister a very briefly suspicious look. “This isn’t some prank gone wrong, is it?” It would be just like Summer to think that sending her to a gross swamp would be hilarious. The girl was as attracted to disgusting things as Dosina was repulsed by them. And it also wouldn’t be the first time that a prank had backfired on her.

Summer’s head shook quickly. “N-no, definitely not a … a prank. Don’t be dumb.” She was clearly trying to be indignant, but lacked the energy. “I couldn’t pull all these people here. And I wouldn’t interrupt Family Day. I mean, maybe turning your room into a swamp, sure. But this?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Dosina muttered. “I was just hoping for a minute, because then we wouldn’t really be in trouble. But I think–huh?!” Her head jerked upward, focusing on a sudden blur of motion above them.

A creature was there. Dosina barely had time to register its entirely-too-rapid arrival as it fell through her line of sight before the thing suddenly landed nearby.

No, it didn’t land. It splatted. The thing crashed into the ground way too fast, basically exploding into a spray of goo that made her jerk backward with a yelp of surprise, and then one of disgust. “Ohhhh gross! It’s a… spider… thing.” Frowning, she hesitantly kicked the thing with a foot.

“It’s dead.” That was Summer. Still clearly barely able to move, her younger sister was staring at the body. “Or it was, before it fell…” Her voice was soft, whatever poison was affecting her and most of her teammates clearly making her too tired to even adequately react to what was happening.

Eiji was there, taking a knee by the gross, splattered body. The thing was an arachnid the size of a small deer. And now it was just sort of… all over. “The bit where the web comes out,” he murmured, “It… looks like it was… cut?”

“Cut?” Dosina echoed. ‘You mean like it was hanging up there to ambush us and then something else cut its spinneret and made it fall and splatter like that?”

“I guess,” the boy quietly confirmed before turning his head to look back up into the dark trees. “But who… or what would do that? If it’s… a person that wants to help, wouldn’t they announce themselves?”

“I bet they’re just shy,” Harper announced then before cupping her hands to her mouth to call out. She had just taken a breath, a sound starting to leave her lips before Eiji stopped her. “Harper, what are you doing?”

She blinked at him. “I was just gonna say hi and let them know that we want to be friends.

“We’re trying to be quiet, Harper,” Dosina reminded the girl. “As in not attract the attention of all the things out there that really do not want to be our friends.” She was trying very hard not to upchuck at the sight of the splattered spider still visible out of the corner of her eye. Dosina had never been very good with creepy crawly things of the normal variety, let alone big ones. And despite having done her share of fighting while at school, it had been six years since then. Six years where she hadn’t so much as thrown a punch. She’d never liked killing or any of that.

Still, she was the oldest person here with the other two adults gone for the moment. Her sister and several of her teammates were sick. If push came to shove, she would protect them. Even if it was gross spider things that liked to splatter disgusting guts all over the–

Don’t ralph. Do not ralph. Not only would Summer never let her live it down if she did, doing so probably wouldn’t make any of the kids feel any safer. She had to pretend to be in control, pretend that she wasn’t totally freaking out. Pretend that–

A rustling in the bushes nearby made her head jerk that way, even as a ball of fire appeared in her palm. Fire. She could do fire. Burn it. Burn whatever was going to try and hurt her sister. Her eyes focused on that rustling, and she thought there were eyes… malevolent ones… staring at her. The thing out there in the swamp, it was getting ready to lunge. And Dosina, terrified though she might have been, was going to meet it with as much fire as she could hurl in its general direction. But not yet. Wait, she told herself. Wait for it to show itself. Wait for it to lunge.

It was about to come. She sensed it, she could feel it. The thing was ready, and so was she. Any instant. Any instant it would show itself, leaping from the bushes with–

A yelp filled the air. It was short, but very distinct. And it clearly came from that same bush. Dosina thought she caught the briefest glimpse of movement, the bushes giving a single shake. Then there was silence. The malevolent presence was gone. Whatever had been staring at them had… left? Fought something else?

Behind her, she heard Eiji blurt, “Harper?”

Tearing her attention away from the now-silent and apparently empty bush, Dosina looked that way quickly, only to find the girl in question poking her head out from behind the large Asian boy. “Right here!” she chirped. “What’s wrong?”

Eiji blinked. “I thought you–err… never mind. This place is creepy.”

Harper’s head bobbed up and down quickly, pink pigtails bouncing. “Really creepy! What about the… the thing out there?” Her trembling hand pointed past Dosina, to the bush. “Should I uhh, throw one of my bombs at it? I mean, I know you said don’t attract attention, but if we’re about to be attacked and–uh, shouldn’t someone be watching it?”

“It’s gone,” Dosina informed her. “Maybe… it left, or… got scared? Or maybe something else–never mind. I don’t know, but it’s not there.”

“Ooh, maybe our new friend killed it,” Harper blurted with a broad, eager smile. “You know, the same one that killed the spider.”

“That’s not necessarily a friend,” Eiji quietly pointed out. “It could just be something or someone who wants us for themselves.”

Before Dosina could respond to that, a shape swept by the tree. It was moving fast, but was also very large… and very long. Despite its speed, she could see the shape continue passing by in the shadows for several long, terrible seconds.

“Um. Was that a snake?” The question came from Freya Sullivan, who was sitting up and staring that way. The red-haired girl looked tired, but she was at least awake. Barely. She only stayed that way for a moment before slumping once more. She, and the others, were drifting in and out.

“Guys, back away from the opening,” Dosina quickly ordered Harper and Eiji. “Just… just keep your eyes open. And stay back. If something’s out there, I can burn it.” To demonstrate, she conjured more flame to her hands, sending a burst of fire out through the opening of the hollow tree to light up the swamp beyond. There was no reaction, but she still sent a couple more bursts of fire that way. With any luck, it’d scare off whatever was lurking out there.

Eiji moved beside her, backpack in one hand. With a grunt, the large boy tossed it on the ground ahead of them. “Raphael?”

The bag responded by growing and shifting, legs sprouting from it. Within a few seconds, the ‘backpack’ had grown into a full-sized rhinoceros. The thing grunted and tossed its head back and forth a couple of times as though checking out its surroundings, before looking toward its owner with a worried huffing sound.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Eiji assured the cyberform rhino, rubbing its back. “You ready to protect the others?” When it gave another huffing sound, this time of agreement, the boy looked to Dosina. “Raphael’s immune to fire. And… well, a lot of other things. So, something comes after us…”

He gave a short, low whistle then. As he did so, the rhino stood up on its hind legs, like a person. It shrank a bit, head shifting down even as its back opened up. After a moment, the thing looked like an anthropomorphic rhino suit. Eiji stepped inside, and the suit closed up after him.

The thing had gone from being a backpack, to being a full-sized rhino, to being humanoid rhino-shaped power armor. And Dosina knew it had a fourth function, though she was pretty sure the thing’s motorcycle form wouldn’t be nearly as useful out here in this swamp.

“We’ll hold it,” Eiji finished his earlier statement. “It comes through, we’ll hold it, you burn it.”

“Err, right.” Dosina straightened. “Harper? Can you–”

“On it!” When the older girl looked that way, she saw Harper crouched by the rest of her teammates, giving her a thumbs up. “If anything sneaks past you, I’ll scream loud enough that you’d think we were all screaming.”

“Good, good.” Trying to suppress her own nervousness still, Dosina focused on that opening. If that… that thing came back again, it was going to get a big surprise. “Eiji, if you see anything come through…”

The boy nodded, the rhino-suit making him look even bigger than he already was. With it on, he was almost eight feet tall. “I can hold it,” he assured her. “And I can take any fire you can dish out. Just focus on pouring on the flames.”

They waited. Dosina and Eiji kept their eyes focused on the tree opening, waiting for the snake to show itself again. She was afraid to look away, worried that if she took her eyes off it for one second, the creature would know and use that to launch itself into the tree. Fear of being responsible for anyone’s death very nearly kept her from even blinking. First spiders, then snakes? She hated swamps. Hated, hated, hated them.

So tense was she, in that moment, that when Garrison and Banri appeared abruptly, she nearly fricasseed them both in a wild spray of fire before catching herself. “Don’t do that!” the girl blurted, before belatedly realizing that both men were staggering a little. Eyes widening, she moved that way to check on them.

“It’s okay,” Eiji’s uncle assured both her and the armored boy himself. “We’ll be fine. Just a lot of things out here like using poison. We dealt with most of it, but there’s a tribe of things I’m pretty sure we don’t want to meet heading this way. Best if we just avoid them completely.”

Garrison nodded. “There’s a clear path north. We’ll see if we can get away from the anchor spell that’s stopping us from teleporting out of here with you kids. Just move fast and stay together. We–Harper?”

The girl blinked that way. “Huh?”

“Are you okay?” The man looked worriedly to the girl. “It’s okay if you’re scared. We’ll get you through this. You… looked like you were spacing out there. What were you muttering? It sounded like… something degrees? Latitude and longitude?”

Harper turned a bit pink to match her hair. “O-oh, no, sir. I was just reciting baking recipes. You know, cooking temperatures. It um, it calms me down.”

Smiling just a little, Banri nodded to her reassuringly. “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry, we’re not going to let you get hurt. We do need to get going though. And fast, so… Enji?”

The boy had already stepped out of his armor, letting Raphael shift back to his rhino form. Together, he and his uncle picked up Summer, Shiloh, Freya, and  Russell, draping their barely conscious forms over the large animal’s back so that he could carry them.

Then they set out. Banri and Garrison led the way, with Harper and Eiji walking behind and in front of the lumbering Raphael, respectively. Dosina brought up the rear a bit back from Harper. It scared her more than she would admit, but she did it anyway. A small ball of fire conjured in each hand, she kept her eyes mostly focused behind them, barely paying attention ahead except to keep herself with the group as they moved through the murky, dark, terrifying swamp.

“Would asking where the giant snake went count as jinxing us?” Eidi asked aloud in a hushed tone.

“Giant snake?” Banri echoed. “We saw the body of one about thirty meters or so from the tree. But it was dead.”

“Maybe the same thing that killed the spider killed the snake,” Harper put in cheerfully. “Told you we had a friend.”

“Wait.” Garrison turned back, looking past all of them to Dosina. “I thought that was you.”

Her head shook quickly. “N-no, not me. I didn’t ki–” Her words were interrupted by a loud, sharp yipping sound from off to their right. It sounded like it was coming from far away, but not nearly far enough.

“Company,” Banri muttered. “We’ll talk about that later. Keep moving.”

So, they continued, Dosina trying not to think about what kind of things were probably watching their every movement, just waiting to pick off a straggler. And also trying not to think about the fact that staying at the rear and covering the others made her very much look like one.

A chittering sound to her right made the girl’s head snap that way. She saw what she could have sworn looked like the tip of a spear. Then it was gone. The bushes rustled, and the chittering stopped.

To her left and behind them, right there! It was a snout, appearing from the gloom before a mouth opened in a toothy smile that made Dosina’s heart stop. Her hand snapped up, a cry on her lips, just before the thing’s smile suddenly vanished along with the snout itself. It looked like it was yanked back out of sight, disappearing into the bushes with what she could have sworn was a yelp of surprise.

“Dosina?” The voice came from Garrison, and the girl realized belatedly that they had stopped when she did. Turning back that way, she saw Harper step back from the tree that had briefly hidden her. All of them were looking to Dosina with obvious concern.

“I–it’s okay,” she claimed, though she wasn’t sure it was. “There’s just a lot of… things out here.”

“Yeah,” Banri agreed. “There are. So let’s get away from them.”

She kept watching, kept waiting for another attack. Yet as they kept moving through that swamp, Dosina only saw signs of creatures about to attack and then… changing their mind, or disappearing. Whatever was happening, the things weren’t following through. She had to send a burst of flame here and there to scare a few things off, but for the most part, they seemed to vanish on their own. Maybe something out there had decided that ambushing the would-be ambushers made for a better meal than trying to attack the Heretics.

Whatever it was, Dosina was just going to be glad when they were out of there. She wanted to be in civilization again.

Forty minutes. It took them forty minutes of hiking through that gross swamp, feet constantly slipping in the ankle-to-knee length water, mud (and worse) working its way into their shoes and clothes, bugs flying around their faces, and… bigger things stalking them constantly, before they finally reached somewhat dryer land. Picking their way out of that swamp and up into the heavily forested area beyond, the group gathered together once more.

“Everyone okay?” Garrison asked while helping his daughter down off of Raphael. She and the rest of the team had woken up for good toward the end of their little hike. Now, all of them were looking around.

“Where are we?” Shiloh asked her father.

“I’m not entirely sure,” the man admitted. “But we’re away from the worst of the things in that swamp. And we’re pretty sure we know what’s stopping us from teleporting out. It’s you guys.” Briefly, he explained that whatever they had eaten hadn’t just made them sick and transported them, it was also anchoring them to the spot.

“So uhh, what’re we supposed to do to get rid of it?” Blanching at his own question, Russell guessed, “Throw up?”

“Wouldn’t do much good right now,” Banri thankfully replied with a shake of his head. “It’s settled in. We need a countering agent, which–err… Harper?”

The girl in question blinked up from the little bouquet she was poring over. “Hmm? Oh, uh, it’s just flowers. I like picking up pretty things when I’m, um, nervous. They’re not poisonous or anything, if that’s what you–”

“These.” Banri stepped that way, plucking collection of plants from her with one hand before separating out a few gray and white flowers in particular. “These should do the trick.” Unceremoniously, the man plucked the blossoms. “Everyone chew and swallow a handful.” He began to pass out the petals then, watching as everyone, including Dosina, chewed up the rather nasty tasting flowers and swallowed them.

They may have tasted bad, but the results were immediate. Dosina instantly felt stronger. Not that she had felt that weak to begin with, but the effects were still noticeable. And the others were showing more life too. Russell in particular was holding a hand up in front of his face, peering off into the darkness. “Wow, you guys must’ve been really busy protecting us.”

“Not really,” Garrison replied with a shake of his head. “It was mostly quiet on the way out. Why?”

“Mostly quiet?” Russell echoed. “Uh, you know that power I was telling you about at dinner? The necromancy-vision thing?”

“The one that highlights dead things?” That was Banri, the man nodding. “Yeah, why?”

“Uhh, well…” Shifting from foot to foot, Russell finally just held his hand up. A beam of blue light shone out from it, which he swept back and forth for a few seconds. Every dead thing the light touched, it made glow.

And there were a lot of things glowing. The beam didn’t reach all the way back along their path, only a couple hundred yards through the swamp. Yet even in that distance, several dozen dead bodies could be seen. They glowed brightly after being touched by the blue beam, dozens and dozens of bodies literally covering both sides of their path.

“What… the hell?” Garrison stepped that way, staring at the lit-up bodies. “What killed those things, and why didn’t we see or hear any of it?”

“I think we can address that later,” Banri replied, head shaking as he turned back to the others. “Once these kids are safe. Okay, let’s see if this works this time.” That said, he raised his hand and clearly focused. There was a few flickering sparks in the air, before an actual, genuine portal appeared. Dosina almost fainted in relief.

“Good. Right, let’s go.” Banri waved for the others to go ahead. “This’ll take us back to the school. We can figure out more from there.”

They started through, the kids who had been affected the most going first, while the adults covered them. One by one, they all went through the portal. All, that was, except for…

“Errr, Harper?” Dosina looked at the girl, who was placing a large chocolate muffin on a stump. “What are you doing?”

“Leaving a treat for whoever our nice mister guardian angel was,” Harper replied with a bright smile. “Because if they don’t eat the monsters out there, I bet they’re really hungry after spending all that time protecting us.

“I know I am!”  

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Mini-Interlude 48 – Vanessa and Tristan

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“Nessa, how many times are you gonna read that message?” Tristan asked his sister. “It’s less than twenty words long, and you’ve been staring at it for days now. I’d say you have the whole thing memorized, but you know, with your memory you did that the second you glanced at it. At this point, you’ve probably got every possible anagram for the message memorized too.”

The two of them were sitting in the grass just outside of the Pathmaker building, waiting for Professor Carfried and the rest of their Explorer track to show up.

”There has to be a secret code or something,” Vanessa murmured as she continued to stare intently at the paper. “He called himself Uncle Satan, whoever this is. Why would he do that unless it was meant to be a special message we need to to decode?”

Tristan shrugged. “Maybe he’s really Satan,” he offered. “I mean, would that really be the strangest thing that’s ever happened us? And remember, you’re talking to the kid who was pretty much raised by a combination of a race of giant aliens and our long lost great great something grandfather in another dimension.”

The blonde girl squinted at her brother for a moment. “We are not related to Satan,” she insisted. “Satan doesn’t exist. Hell, he was—“ she stopped then, sighing as she watched Tristan try to smother his snickering. “And now you’re laughing because I said Hell when talking about Satan, aren’t you?”

The boy waved his hand, coughing. “I’m good, I’m good. Seriously though, you can’t just dismiss this. Remember the whole thing about how the Seosten act like angels? Well, if there’s angels then maybe there was actually someone who they called Satan.”

Vanessa’s mouth open and then shut, as she watched him. Considering that for a moment, she finally offered, “You know, you’re smart enough to be getting better than C’s in all your classes.”

“Eh.” Tristan gave a vague, dismissive gesture with his hand. “You’re the smart one, I’m the athletic one. Let’s just stay in our lanes.”

“You’re smart too,” Vanessa insisted. “You just don’t care about doing the work, or studying, or really paying that much attention in lectures.”

The boy stretched widely. “That’s because everything you just described is boring as hell,” he announced with an exaggerated yawn.

His sister started to say something else, only to stop while nodding past his shoulder. “They’re coming,” she whispered, her hand already reaching out to take the privacy coin they had been using. Dismissing the spell, she tucked it away in a pocket. The two exchanged brief glances, nodding to each other before picking themselves up and brushing the grass off their legs.

“See?” A Heretic-born boy named Dominic announced while gesturing at the two. “I told you guys they’d be out here already. And you wanted to wait inside or check their rooms.” Scoffing, he addressed the twins. “How long’ve you guys been sitting here, anyway? Hours? Don’t you have anything better to do?” His tone was teasing, but there was also an underlying curiosity.

His roommate, another Heretic-born named Tejas, spoke up dismissively then. “Who cares? They’re right here now, so can we get this show on the road? I’m ready to go to another world.”

“Don’t worry, man,” Sean Gerardo announced while patting the other boy on the back as he slipped by, “I’m sure we’ll get there before all the good restaurants are full. But personally, I’m kinda hoping there’s some Hamilton seats available over there.” He grinned. “I mean, it’s not like taking a portal to another world is the furthest people have gone to get tickets to that thing.”

Vulcan left his partner’s side then, moving over to the twins for some petting and affection. Vanessa gave it to him, smiling a little as she rubbed the mechanical dog’s snout and fed him a handful of mixed copper and steel balls that she had been keeping in her pocket for him.

That, of course, led to a haughty screech from nearby as the cyberform hawk known as Sovereign left Aylen’s shoulder. He flapped twice on his way over before landing on Tristan’s quickly raised arm. The metal bird then proceeded to squint pointedly at Vanessa.

“Sovereign,” Aylen chastised her cyberform companion, “don’t be so rude.” The Native American girl stepped over that way, shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she murmured with a slight blush. “He may be a glorious bird of prey. But sometimes, he is also a great spoiled pig.”

Tristan just shook his head with a grin, already producing bits of metal from his own pockets. “Don’t worry, Aylen. We came prepared this time.” He held the gleaming balls up for Sovereign to quickly peck at, seeming completely unconcerned by how close the bird’s razor-sharp beak came to his skin. He knew just how deadly the cyberform could be with it. Yet the boy also knew how accurate Sovereign was. His hand wasn’t in any danger. “There you go, big guy.”

After a moment of looking back and forth between Sovereign and Vulcan as the two ate their treats, Tristan’s eyes widened. “Hey, you know what we should do? He turns into a suit of armor, and he turns into a big gun, right? And Bobbi-Bobbi,” he indicated the chain around his neck that would turn into his own cyberform snake, “makes a big cannon too. We should totally see if we can get some of the Development people to make it so these three can like… combo-transform into one big robot with two giant freaking guns on it. That’d be so badass! Or a tank. They could all combine into a mini-tank. How goddamn awesome would that be?”

“Not a bad plan, Mr. Moon!” The response came from their Track leader, Professor Carfried. The young teacher made his way up through the group, carrying his heavy walking stick in one hand as he moved to the front. “Unfortunately, however, it shall have to wait until after our excursion today! Which, I’m sorry to say, will be to an utterly uninhabited planet. So,” he added with a wink toward Sean, “no Hamilton tickets. Do let me know if you happen to find any though. Of all the perks related to being a trainer of monster-killing heroes, apparently those are not included.”

“So, uh,” Freya Sullivan, a beautiful, red-haired amazon-like girl who almost looked as though she had been carved from marble to be the perfect representative of a warrior goddess spoke up. “Is this one of those Bystander things where we’re all just supposed to smile and nod as we pretend we’ve got the slightest clue what you’re talking about?”

“Pretty much, yes!” Turning on his heel, the man let the walking stick slide down before catching one end of it. He then tapped the other end against the ground. “Everyone, with me. And–” From the point where his stick touched the ground, a narrow glowing red pathway appeared, leading off toward the building. “–stay on the path, please. Let’s not have a repeat of last time. We may be called Explorers, but that does not give us carte blanche to wander off in the Pathmaker building itself and set off half of the alarms in the building, Tejas.

The Indian boy coughed, shrugging a little while he muttered, “I told you, I just got lost.”

Sovereign returned to Aylen’s shoulder then, and the group followed Carfried into the building. They were careful to stay in the path. No one wanted to lose their chance to go to another world by breaking the rules again. And Tejas didn’t really want to deal with everyone (most of whom were already watching him closely) yelling at him if it looked like he was about to wander off.

As they walked, Tristan gave his sister a nod. Whatever happened, they would find their answers about who this ‘Uncle Satan’ really was, and what he actually wanted, very soon.

But whatever happened, he still wasn’t going to give up on that ‘combine the three cyberforms into one awesome tank-robot’ plan. That was a genius idea, and no one was going to convince him otherwise.

******

“Okay, so now what?” Tristan asked Vanessa a while later as the two of them wandered through what looked like the equivalent of a pebble-covered beach. Only in this case, the pebbles were bright pink and green, and all seemed to have been polished to an almost-glowing sheen. Meanwhile, the lake they were walking past was filled with beautiful turquoise water. Occasionally, fountains sprayed up here and there, reaching a hundred feet in the air and creating brief, gorgeous waterfalls on their way back down. The path they were following actually wound its way out across the lake in a sort-of natural land bridge, allowing the twins to watch the occasional fountains on both sides.

Their track had split up shortly after arriving on the planet. Their job was to explore, catalogue anything interesting they found, and meet back in a couple hours. They had ways of calling in if anything happened, or if they wanted to share something particularly important. Basically, the world had been cleared by actual full Heretics of anything too threatening, so it was supposed to be a relatively safe place for them to split up and look around. Safe enough for them not to (hopefully) not stumble across anything too deadly, while still unique and interesting enough to feed the curiosity and sense of wonder for anyone who had signed up for the Explorers track.

“You mean, what do we do now since we managed to get away from everyone else just in time for the meeting that the note mentioned?” Vanessa clarified while leaning down to poke her finger at the water. It shimmered under her touch, the turquoise shifting to a light purple for a moment in an area a few inches around from her finger, while making a soft chiming sound.

“Exactly.” Tristan nodded, reaching down to scratch Bobbi-Bobbi’s head as the mechanical snake arched up toward him. He had released his cyberform partner from her necklace form once they arrived to let the snake stretch her… coils.  “I mean, the note said 2:30 on this planet. But it didn’t say anything else. So how’re we supposed to know where we’re supposed to go to meet this ‘Uncle Satan’?”

“Maybe if you say his name three times real fast while staring into the water, he’ll appear.”

The suggestion came from behind the two, and as they spun, Vanessa and Tristan found themselves looking at a man who stood on top of the water a few feet from the glistening pebble-covered land bridge. He stood around six feet tall, with shaggy light blonde hair and a roguish smile that seemed especially made to melt hearts. With his thin, neatly trimmed mustache and the wink that he gave the two, the man looked like Cary Elwes in his prime.

“Or was that Bloody Mary…?” He trailed off thoughtfully before shaking it off. “I can never keep it straight. But just to be on the safe side, don’t say Biggie Smalls anywhere near a mirror. I have it on good authority that that never turns out well for anyone involved.”

Bobbi-Bobbi had started along with the other two, and now she wound her way around Tristan’s legs, up his waist, and rested her head on his shoulder while staring with beady eyes at the stranger.

“Wh–are you….” Vanessa stared at the man, eyes glancing briefly down to his feet as they continued to treat the surface of the water like it was a solid floor before darting back up once more. “Are you… the one who sent us that note?”  

The man’s head tilted, his smile growing as he gently teased her. “Oh, come on. You can say it. I was really looking forward to hearing you say it.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa glanced to her brother briefly before giving a low sigh as she turned back to the man. “Okay,” she started slowly, reluctantly asking, “Are you Uncle Satan? And… and why don’t you tell us what you want?” Lifting her chin, she added, “We don’t know who you are.”  

The man’s smile immediately changed from teasing, to genuine warmth. “Vanessa,” he spoke the name almost reverently. “I’m sorry for my jokes. There are many times when I fail to know where the line should be, particularly when I am… excited. I’ve been waiting a very long time to meet you. So long that it almost feels as if we’ve known each other for ages. But you are absolutely correct. You don’t know me at all. And you have no particular reason to trust me.”

“You’re…” Looking the man up and down for a moment, Vanessa bit her lip. “You’re a Seosten.”

“Wait, does that mean you’re actually our uncle?” Tristan quickly asked as his eyes widened. He put a hand on his snake’s head, calming her.  “And are you really Satan? Is our uncle the devil? Oh my God, what does that make our mom?”

“Technically yes, technically no,” the man replied brightly. “Lots of technicalities, I know. I’m not technically your uncle. Your mother and I aren’t related. But we were partners for a very long time, and I considered her a sister. Well, so did a lot of people, really. And, well, there’s a lot more. But we should go somewhere a little more private and safe than this if we’re gonna keep talking. Come on, I’ve got a place prepared.” Turning, he started to walk back over the lake.

“Uh.” Tristan looked to Vanessa before tentatively touching the surface of the lake with his foot. It went right through the water, creating a little splash that sent the sound of chimes into the air once more. “That might be a little harder than you think.”

“Oh!” Spinning on his heel, the man snapped his fingers, conjuring a pair of brightly colored bags. “Right, totally forgot. Here, put these on.” He tossed one of the bags to each of them. “Just consider them one of the many, many birthday and Christmas presents that I owe you.”

The twins opened the bags, only to find a pair of shoes in each in their size. The shoes looked ordinary by almost any respect, save for the symbols that could be found etched into the bottom. With a shrug, they both took off the shoes they were wearing before pulling on the new ones. Tristan shifted Bobbi-Bobbi back to her necklace form, whispering encouragement to her.

“They’re magic, right?” Vanessa straightened up, wiggling her feet a little. “What do we say to, uh, activate the spell?” 

“Actually,” he replied, “I was kind of in a Wizard of Oz mood, so all you need to do is click your heels together three times. Click your toes together three times to turn it off.”

The two of them did just that, tapping their heels against one another several times. Then, with a nod to one another, Tristan and Vanessa each stepped out. Their feet came down on the water, and stayed there. It felt solid, yet a little giving, sort of like a trampoline. After testing their balance, the two started to walk out slowly over the top of the lake.

“Holy crap, dude.” Tristan laughed, bouncing a little on the water’s surface. “This is awesome!”

The man nodded as he walked ahead of them. “You think it’s amazing now? It doesn’t just work on water. Acid, lava, mid-air. You can pretty much walk on top of anything with those things on. And yeah, magic can be pretty amazing. It’s something that school of yours could stand to focus on a little more instead of all the killing.”

He led them to the middle of the lake before giving a brief, sharp gesture with one hand. As he did so, the surface of the water itself rose up ahead of them into the shape of a cave mouth, with water falling freely off both sides. As the group got closer, Vanessa and Tristan could see a tunnel beyond. A tunnel that didn’t seem to actually be there within the water itself. It was like some kind of portal or something, though it was unlike any portal either of them had ever seen.

“It’s an invisible tunnel,” the man informed them. “Trust me, it’s safe. No one can find us in there.”

“And are we safe with you?” Vanessa asked a little pointedly, folding her arms as she stood next to her brother in front of the cave. “Why exactly should we trust a Seosten we’ve never met before who wants us to walk right into a secret, invisible cave on another world with him?”

“Yeah, that’s a fair question.” The man met her gaze. “Vanessa. There are no words that I can give you that will make you trust me. But I can say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry you grew up around people who didn’t believe you when you told them what happened. I’m sorry you had to hide how special you are for so long. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you when you really needed me. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for both of you, and for your parents. But I swear to you, on my soul, I would never, ever harm you or your brother. As I said, I see your mother as a sister. She is family to me, and so are you. I would die before I hurt you.”

It was enough. Tristan and Vanessa exchanged nods before following the man into the tunnel. After they walked a few feet further as it sloped sharply downward, the man gestured to make the mouth of the tunnel close once more. Then he led them down the (somehow brightly lit) stone corridor to a wider cave, with several chairs and a table already prepared and waiting.

“Okay,” he announced while turning to face them once more. “Here, we won’t be interrupted, and we can talk freely, about everything.”

Vanessa’s hand instantly shot into the air, waving around until the man blinked and nodded to her. “Um, could you tell us what your name really is? Cuz calling you Uncle Satan is kinda weird.”

Grinning at that, the man nodded sagely. “Well, of course. We can’t have you feeling weird. In that case, you could use my real name.” Letting that hang for a few seconds, he finally finished with, “It’s Lucifer.”

“You gotta admit, Nessa,” Tristan informed his sister as she stared open-mouthed, “you kinda walked right into that one.”

“Yes, yes, Lucifer. That Lucifer,” the man acknowledged with a wave of his hand. “But I assure you, the stories they tell about me are… well, they’re not nearly as interesting as the stories I told about them. I mean honestly, can you point to a single coherent tale of my misdeeds that isn’t logically baffling and incompatible with any other story about me? Honestly, it’s as if they just took a bunch of stories about other villainous creatures and copy-pasted my name in their place no matter how little sense they made. How would you like to piss them off and find the name Tristan Moon filled in as the dark bane of Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Twilight Sparkle?”

“They…” Vanessa murmured, blinking up at him. “You mean the other Seosten. They… they made the name Lucifer into humanity’s greatest villain and monster. Why? Because you… because you betrayed them… you pissed them off–you quit. You left, didn’t you? You left a long time ago and it pissed them off so much that they tied your name to the embodiment of evil.”

“Pretty much, yup,” the man nodded. “But I’ve been pretty unfair. Honestly, I just wanted to see your reaction when I told you what my Seosten name was. In truth, I haven’t gone by that in a long time. I prefer the name I took here on Earth a few thousand years ago.” He winked then. “So I’d much rather you call me Apollo.”

“Apollo?” Vanessa echoed, head tilting. “Wait, like, Apollo-Apollo? As in–”

“Sesenev ble’de uvun!” Tristan blurted unthinkingly, eyes widening. “If you’re supposed to be Apollo, does that mean our mom is–am I the son of Artemis?! Oh my God, that is so fucking awesome!”

Apollo dropped his head back to laugh. “Now that’s the reaction I was looking for. Though, I don’t know who exactly taught you Nereid curse words, but you have got a serious potty mouth there.” Shaking his head in wonder, the man finally added, “And yes, that’s right. Your mother was the one they called Artemis. Though, sadly, she stopped using that name when the others did.” There was a moment where the man looked regretful, sighing a little before he shook it off. “Anyway, that’s your mom. We were all part of the initial Seosten infiltration of Earth. Puriel, you saw him when he showed up at your house, he was Zeus.”

“Zeus? Zeus is that piece of shit who showed up at our–Zeus is a bad guy?! Are you seri–” Tristan started to gasp before correcting himself with a nonchalant, “Actually, no, that kinda makes sense. Yeah, I’m on board with that. Carry on.”

‘You…” Vanessa hesitated, swallowing a lump in her throat. “Do you know where our mom is?”

Face softening, Apollo shook his head. “I swear, kid, if I knew where she was, I’d already be beating down their door.”

“So why did you want us to come meet you now?” Tristan asked. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am totally up for having freaking Olympian gods in our family tree. That’s like the coolest thing ever. That’s even cooler than Grandpa Petan on our dad’s side of the family. But seriously, why now? Why here?”

“I have been a very… absent uncle,” Apollo acknowledged with a wince. “So that’s a fair question. Trust me, there are reasons for it. But right now, I needed to meet with you because of you, Vanessa.” He looked that way. “You’ve started to awaken into your Seosten gift. You can’t fully possess people yet, but you–”

The blonde girl straightened with a little gasp. “You know? You know that I’ve been getting… visions of our dad? But… but how could you possibly know that?”

“Hey,” Apollo pointed out, “you don’t get to be three thousand years old without having a few tricks up your sleeve. Especially when your entire interuniversal empire-running race wants you dead. I’ve got my ways. But the point is, you’ve been seeing through your father’s eyes. You’ve been projecting to him. Which means that you can communicate with him.”

“But… but I can’t,” Vanessa pointed out with a slight whimper. “I’ve been trying, and it doesn’t work.”

The man’s expression softened. “You can,” he assured her. “You just need a little help. That’s why I’m here. Because I can teach you everything you need to know about how to use that gift.”

Heart beating hard and fast, Vanessa stared at him. “Y-you can? You can… you can teach me to… to talk to our father in my dreams?”

Apollo smiled at that. “Kid, I’ll teach you to do it when you’re awake, any time you want to. And Tristan too, as soon as he starts developing that part. Which should happen any day now,” he added with a glance that way. “I’ll teach you both how to use it.”

“We… “ Tristan bit his lip, exchanging a look with his sister. “We want to talk to our dad, send a message to him because our friends, they’re–”

“Stuck in Seosten space,” Apollo finished for him. “Yeah. Yeah, I know about that. One of them used a secret spell that I set up a long time ago to deal with a… really nasty piece of shit that works out there. The only way they could have known about it is if I told them, or your mother did. And I never told them. Which only leaves your mom… somehow.”

Both of the twins stared at him, Vanessa blurting, “But how could Mom tell them a secret spell? She never–they never–if they–”

“Yeah, I know,” the man confirmed, “I’m confused too. Trust me, I don’t know everything. Which is kind of annoying sometimes, let me tell you. But the only way that we are going to find out the answer to that is by getting them back here. Which we can do by contacting your dad through your connection to him, so we can point them in the right direction.”

“Too bad we don’t know exactly where to send them,” Tristan lamented. “I mean, we’re probably working with a really short time frame here, and it’s a big universe.”

“Oh,” Apollo smiled then. “Don’t you worry about that. I have a ahh, certain connection to one of those kids out there. Not enough to project myself to them, but let’s just say I can tell where they are. We’ll be able to tell your dad exactly where to go. And,” he added thoughtfully, “a little birdie told me that they might want to pack a pretty powerful teleportation spell.”

“How powerful?” Vanessa asked, curiously.

The man met her gaze. “Powerful enough to move a spaceship.”

“M-magic can do that?” Vanessa blurted, mouth falling open in amazement.

“My girl,” Apollo started with a wink, “magic can do more wondrous things than you can imagine in a thousand lifetimes. I’ll help you learn as much as I can. But first, why don’t we start with contacting your dad so we can pass along that message?”

“You can really teach me just like this?” Vanessa hesitated before adding, “We don’t really have a lot of time before they’ll notice us missing. And believe me, they really aren’t in the mood to have more students go missing.”

“Actually,” the man corrected her, “we’ve pretty much got as much time as we need. Well, not all the time we need. But at least, I’d say, most of a month.”

“A month?” Tristan shook his head. “Dude, we’re supposed to meet up with the rest of our group in like… twenty minutes.”

“Remember how I told you that magic is wondrous?” Apollo asked, before gesturing toward the top of the cave they were in. As his hand moved that way, the lighting rose until they could see some of the most elaborate, intricate runework they had ever laid eyes on. There must have been over a thousand symbols, most of them carefully interconnecting with one another, lining the ceiling of the cave.

“What… what is this?” Vanessa asked in wonderment as she turned in a circle to stare at the beautiful spellforms. “It must’ve taken… years to get this all done.”

“This,” Apollo informed them, “is my planning room. It’s kind of how I come up with all my ideas without taking forever. See, with those spells up there, for every day that passes in here, about a minute passes out there. So you say you have to meet up with your group in twenty minutes? That leaves us almost three weeks to teach you everything I can. Yeah, I call this place my–”

“Hyperbolic Time Chamber!” Both Apollo and Tristan blurted. The latter kept going. “Oh my God, oh fuck! You have a Hyperbolic Time Cham–” Interrupting himself, the boy lunged that way to hug onto the man. “Best uncle ever! You are the best freaking uncle in the universe!”

“What… what…” Vanessa was staring at them, mouth working. “What are you talking about? How do you–what’s a–”

“Don’t you worry, Vanessa,” Apollo informed her while returning Tristan’s embrace. “We’ve got all the time we need to catch you up to speed, and teach you everything you need to know about contacting your dad so you can get that message to them.

“Or,” he added with a gesture. “You can leave. I want… I want to be part of your life. I want to help you. But I’m not going to force anything. If you want to walk out of here, you’re free to do so any time. I don’t… I don’t want you to feel trapped. I don’t ever want you to feel trapped, or forced into this. I want to be a part of your lives, but… but if you don’t want me around you, I understand. Especially after I was gone for so long.”

Shifting from foot to foot, Vanessa hesitated before slowly asking, “While you’re teaching us, could you… could you tell us more about our mother, about what she’s really like?”

The man smiled at that, bowing his head. “Of course, Vanessa. I’ll tell you guys anything you want to know, everything I can. Like I said, I may have been a pretty absent uncle before, but I’m here now. And I’ll teach you everything I know. And what I don’t have time to teach, you can pick up from the collection of manuscripts that I’ve picked up over the past couple millennia.” He gestured toward a corner of the chamber, and a rock wall lifted away to reveal a room about ten times larger than the one they were in, filled to the brim with full bookshelves. “After all, all these belong to you too. You’re family.”

Mouth opening and shutting a couple times, Vanessa slowly walked that way. Making a noise of  shock and wonderment, she stared at the ancient books and scrolls for a few long seconds. The girl was whimpering at the very thought of being able to look through all of them. There had to be thousands of books from the past several thousand years all lining the shelves. It was an even better collection than Crossroads had.

“Damn, Uncle Satan,” Tristan stage-whispered. “I think you broke Nessa.”  

Pivoting, the girl quickly took two steps that way before embracing the man alongside her brother. Hugging him tightly, she announced, “Tristan’s right, you’re the best uncle ever.”

Apollo returned their embraces firmly. “Guys,” he started through an obvious lump in his throat, “you…” He swallowed hard. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to meet you, how long I thought about… all of this. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there before.”

“You’re here now,” Vanessa pointed out, lifting her chin as she met the man’s gaze. “And you’re… you’re really ready to teach us everything?”

The man nodded. “Everything I can. Which means it’s gonna be a long three weeks.

“So let’s get started then, shall we?”

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