Galahad

Interlude 19D – Cyber Defense (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the wake of Kushiel’s words, there was no hesitation, no moment of shock. The people she was gloating at were too well-trained for that, and none of them needed to have things spelled out even more than they already were in that moment. The whole group knew just how bad it would be to let someone like Kushiel and her… entourage take off with an assortment of incredibly powerful, giant cyberforms. Whatever she intended to do with them couldn’t be positive for basically anyone on the planet. Especially considering she was apparently working for Tartarus itself. And while the idea of a somehow sapient and evil alternate universe was still a lot to wrap their heads around, stopping Kushiel was not. That part basically went without saying. 

Less time than a blink passed from Kushiel’s announcement, before the others were moving. Tristan was first, launching himself off the ground. In the same motion, his own cyberform snake dropped from his arm, shifting to form a narrow sort-of  board under his feet with the cannon part aimed backward. It let off a blast of energy, propelling itself into the air with the blond boy balanced on top. His hand snapped out, as three feather-like metal darts rose from his wrist. As the rocket-propelled robot snake hurled him upward toward the nearest of the dragon robots, Tristan launched those three darts from his wrist. They shot unerringly that way, his inherited accuracy powers ensuring that all three struck the young Seosten boy with short black hair and incredibly pale skin who was perched on top of the mech. 

Or they would have, had the Seosten boy not just as abruptly snapped his head to the side to avoid the dart aimed for his forehead, twisted his body sideways to avoid the one aimed for his stomach, and used two fingers to snatch the one aimed for his chest out of midair. The dart disintegrated in his hand a moment later, before he could do anything more than give it a curious look. 

At the same time, Vanessa had launched herself upward as well. In her case, she didn’t rely on a cyberform partner to carry her upward. Instead, the blonde girl transformed into a raven, expertly guiding her small, black bird form through a sudden hail of gunfire that came from the second of the dragon mechs. A minigun that had popped up next to the Seosten girl there, a figure with long brown hair tied into a tight braid, and a very slim, almost anorexic-looking form. The large gun popped out of her own stolen ride’s shoulder, took aim seemingly of its own volition, and opened fire on the incoming bird. But its bullets came nowhere near Vanessa, who spun and barrel-rolled her way through the incoming fire like the most incredible ace pilot who had ever taken the controls of a plane. Where Tristan had used their mother’s perfect accuracy to send those darts at his own opponent, Vanessa used Sariel’s perfect control and understanding of her own body and its position to carry herself through the smallest of openings between incoming gunfire. She instinctively knew exactly where and how to position herself to make it safely through what should have been an impossible wave of bullets. 

Meanwhile, as the Moon siblings were busy finding their own ways up toward the dragon mechs, the other set of twins in the lot weren’t standing still. Sarah and Sands ran together, side by side. Two of the other mechs had already opened up on them with a barrage of lasers, which instantly chewed up the pavement around the pair, but they kept moving. As she snapped her rifle up with one hand, Sarah held the other one out with a bullet between two fingers, all while still running. No conversation or explanation was needed. Her sister immediately put her own hand against the offered bullet and vanished, using her object-possession ability to put herself into the thing. In the next moment, Sarah had shoved the bullet into her gun, diving into a forward roll to avoid another volley of destructive shots from hovering mechs. As she came to one knee, the girl took aim and fired. The bullet she had just loaded shot that way in an instant, heading straight for the head of the two cyberforms who had been taking careful aim at her. One would be distracted in just a moment. Unfortunately, the other, under the command of a green-haired girl crouched by its neck, was still right on top of the human girl, and began to chase her across the lot with a barrage of lasers as she ran.  

Naturally, the dragon mech that Sarah had shot that single small bullet toward initially ignored the projectile. But it couldn’t ignore Sands as she popped out of that bullet right in front of it. Especially when she went from being a five-foot nothing girl, to abruptly being thirty feet tall. Now, Sands was the same height as the mech. Her boosted threat became even more evident as her fist slammed into its head. Between her own strength and the force from being shot as a bullet, the impact knocked the dragon mech backward through the air, allowing Sands to grab onto the thing and ride it straight to the ground. It crashed hard into the pavement, sending up a shower of broken concrete. The Seosten teen who had been riding the thing, a male figure with white hair that was cut very short and a muscular build, leapt clear with a shout of annoyance, flipping over in the air before landing on Sands’ outstretched arm. Immediately, he snapped his hand down, clearly intending to possess her. 

“Yeah,” the giant Sands informed him as he reacted with confusion when nothing happened. “Good luck with that.” With that, she swung her arm sideways to throw her unwanted passenger off. He was sent flying, yet recovered in midair, producing a small pistol which he opened fire with. Several quick laser shots cut through even Sands’ incredible durability in her giant form, forcing the girl to stop short so the rest of the barrage would bounce off. 

In that same moment, Tristan leapt from Bobbi-Bobbi and landed neatly on the shoulder of the dragon mech he had been aiming for. His cyberform shifted itself once more, splitting in half as it jumped back over to attach itself to the boy’s arms, like protective gauntlets. Which was just in time, as his own opponent, the black-haired boy, ignited one of the Seosten laser swords and lashed out with it. Tristan caught the glowing energy blade against his own gauntlet, which glowed faintly with a short-range forcefield. There was a loud crack of power as blade met gauntlet, before Tristan pivoted on one foot to bring himself away from the luxensis (energy sword). His right hand snapped up, before a set of long, werejaguar claws emerged. Those claws were already dangerous enough, but they became immediately more so as the boy activated an entirely different power. This one superheated the claws, turning them bright red just as he lashed out with them. In that same moment, Tristan used his Seosten-inherited boost, pushing his speed and strength several times higher. 

The Seosten boy boosted as well, avoiding the strike… mostly. His head snapped backward, though the claws still cut along his cheek, leaving five long marks down the side of it. His luxensis blade swept upward, clearly intending to cut his opponent’s extended arm off. But Tristan was faster, abruptly shrinking several feet in height, which instantly yanked his arm away from the incoming blade. Just as quickly, he not only regained that height, but increased it further. He first went from being just under six feet tall, down to about three feet, then just as quickly grew to eight feet while driving his knee forward. It caught the Seosten in the chest, knocking him backward several steps before the other boy managed to catch himself just shy of falling from the dragon mech’s head. 

Unfortunately, Tristan couldn’t follow up with that, considering just as he took a step forward in his enlarged form with the intention of punting the other boy from the mech, a multi-barreled gun similar to the one that had just attempted to shoot down his sister popped into view partway down this dragon cyberform’s back, took aim, and opened fire. He was forced to shrink back to his normal size while throwing himself into a sideways dive, catching himself on his hand before shoving his body up and over the next wave of bullets. Just like Vanessa, he expertly avoided every incoming shot, but the very act of dodging carried him further away from his opponent and allowed the Seosten boy to regain his footing. 

For a moment, while the turret was adjusting its aim, both boys stood on opposite sides of the giant cyberform’s back. Then Tristan launched himself into a sprint that way. At the same time, his hand snapped upward, producing a small sheet of plastic just a few inches across. There was a pre-prepared rune there, which glowed pale red as he pushed the last bit of power needed into it to activate the spell that had been engraved on the thing. An instant later, several small beams of energy shot from the rune to hit the base of all those gun barrels. They were immediately severed as the metal-transfer spell took those small pieces that connected the barrels to the turret and transferred them several feet away. The turret was rendered useless as its barrels dropped and clanged loudly along the metal body before falling toward the ground. 

In the midst of all that, Columbus vanished from the spot he’d been standing on and reappeared directly behind the third male Seosten, aboard his own dragon mech. This one had yellowish-blond hair, worn down to his shoulders in luxurious locks. Between that and his well-built form, the boy reminded Columbus of one of those old romance novel models he’d seen on his adopted mother’s bookshelf. 

It was a fleeting thought in the heat of the moment, as he let off a blast of energy from his goggles. This was not a beam of concussive force. Instead, his goggles were set to project what looked like a wide burst of static electricity, which would slow his opponents movements dramatically. It was a recent upgrade he’d built, this being his first time using it in a real-world combat scenario. And, just like in testing, the blast did its job, forcing the Seosten teen to move at a tenth of his normal speed as he started to turn around while bringing his weapon up. 

Unfortunately, the mech’s attached weaponry wasn’t similarly slowed. Before Columbus could take advantage of the opening, a pair of barrels popped out of the metallic dragon’s neck and sent twin bursts of lightning his way. The boy was forced to pivot that way, bringing his arm up. As he did, a shield of amber resin appeared there, catching the electrical blasts. 

By that point, even slowed as he was, the Seosten teenager was able to use his own boost in order to get his speed up to something resembling normal. He finished pivoting around, his glowing luxensis blade snapping outward toward Columbus’s neck as the other boy stood with his side to him, blocking the incoming lightning shots on his resin-covered arm. 

But Columbus was ready for that. His other hand came up, palm extended as he created a forcefield about two feet across, just enough to catch the incoming blade and deflect it with a loud crack of energy as blinding sparks went flying in every direction. 

With the five young Heretics busy facing five of the seven mechs, that left two more. Including the largest, the fifty-foot cyberform dragon that had been one of Harrison Fredericks’ most powerful and advanced creations. One of, because his strongest creation was already glaring up that way. Galahad sighted in on his ‘big brother’ (in a manner of speaking), and the golden blonde-haired Seosten female who stood atop him. She was clearly the oldest of the group, her ponytail swaying in the breeze as the dark-skinned girl stared down at the others. Her mouth opened, and Galahad heard her voice as she shouted, “You know the job! Prove Mother’s faith has not been misplaced!” Even as she said that, the girl proved her control over the cyberform by making the metal shields covering one of its weapon sets slide out of the way. A half dozen one-foot-wide holes appeared, before the nose of a rocket poked out of each, the rumble announcing they were about to be launched.

Even as he saw that, Galahad bent at the knee before hurling himself upward. In mid-jump, his large metal body immediately began to transform. He did not, however, turn into a truck as he normally would have while out on the road. Instead, his parts shifted and twisted around until he appeared to be a VTOL Harrier attack jet. The parts of him that amounted to the ‘trailer’ for his truck form remained on the ground, turning into a surface-to-air missile platform that could provide covering fire for his jet-self. 

Vanessa, by that point, had shifted back to her human form as she landed on the shoulder of the mech she had been aiming for. The thin, brunette Seosten waiting for her gave a very slight smirk and nod before graciously gesturing. “Would you like a moment to catch your breath after such an impressive display?” 

Vanessa hesitated, but the girl’s words didn’t seem to be sarcastic. After she had sent the barrage of gunfire at the incoming bird, she really did want to give her a moment to prepare herself now that she’d actually made it. Her gaze flicked from one hovering cyberform to the other, just in time to see the giant Sands take hers to the ground. “You could just stop,” she tried, having to at least give that a shot. “Kushiel is evil, you guys don’t–” 

“Do you want to sit down for a second and catch your breath, or not?” the thin Seosten girl interrupted, eyes narrowing. It was clear that she wouldn’t listen. 

“No,” Vanessa finally replied, whip snapping out to one side. “I’m good.” As the end of her weapon snapped against the air, it left a whitish rune hovering seemingly on nothing. An instant later, the rune activated, sending a blast of wind that way.

Despite offering the other girl a break, her opponent was prepared for an attack. Before the wind blast could knock her off her perch, she dove forward, boosting herself so she could move even faster. She came up in a roll, foot lashing out to catch Vanessa in the stomach. Or she would have, had the blonde Heretic not brought her own arm slamming downward. In mid-motion, Vanessa transformed into her enormous werebear form. Her now much stronger paw casually slapped the other girl’s leg aside, throwing her clear off the mech in the process. Vanessa had known that her opponent would dive forward to avoid the wind, and had planned for that. 

That, however, wasn’t the end of it. Before she had fallen more than a couple feet, the Seosten caught herself on seemingly nothing. She stood in the air, as the empty space under her feet seemed to shimmer a little bit. Before Vanessa could see what was actually happening, the other girl threw herself back onto the mech, facing the huge bear with a reckless grin. “Now this,” she announced, “this is how I prove myself.” With that, she lashed out with one hand from several feet away. Despite the distance between them, Vanessa felt hardened air cut through her thick fur and muscles, a deep wound appearing along her side as she reeled backward. 

Was it magic? That didn’t make sense. As far as she could tell, this girl hadn’t activated any spell or anything. And she wasn’t using a weapon. She just had the ability to harden air like that. Enough to stand on, and to make those blades. But that would mean–

While Vanessa was having her realization, Sarah had taken aim through one of her scope-portals. Rather than focusing on the green-haired girl atop the dragon mech that was still chasing her across the lot with its flurry of shots, the portal she had created appeared inside the machine’s cockpit. Her body ran almost on autopilot, zigzagging across the parking lot as the enormous cyberform tracked her movement, sending dozens of deadly lasers downward. Each blast burned a hole through the pavement, while narrowly missing the girl herself. 

Then it was Sarah’s turn. Her portal was ready, as she pivoted back the way she had come, dropping into a prone position with her rifle held out. The next volley of lasers tore up the ground right where she had been heading. Before the mech could adjust its aim, she fired a single shot. Her own bullet emerged into the cockpit of the machine, struck the main controls, and then exploded dramatically. The metal dragon reeled backward before starting to pitch sideways. The green-haired Seosten girl atop it was forced to throw herself out of the way as it collapsed. Yet, as she fell, something exploded next to Sarah. She threw herself to the side, just in time to see a geyser of water from the pipe that had burst. The spray caught the falling Seosten girl, seeming to solidify somewhat under her, just enough to slow her fall so she could land gracefully. 

She controlled water. No spell, no magic, no technology. She had simply done it instinctively. But…

Galahad, by that point, had reached his own target. Still in his jet form, he shot right past the largest of the dragon mechs, before immediately transforming back to the humanoid shape. Though smaller without his trailer attachment, he was still a good fifteen feet in height, allowing him to catch hold of the fifty-foot tall dragon mech’s back and shoulders. The Seosten girl with the golden hair spun toward him, hand rising. But before she could do anything, Galahad extended half a dozen cables from his arm into the machine’s back. In an instant, he had regained control of the thing, and all the onboard weapons she had been about to direct at him abruptly turned to focus on her. She, in turn, cursed under her breath before an explosion appeared where she had been. An explosion neither Galahad nor the mech he had just regained control of had created. And the girl had vanished from that spot.

At the same time, the final mech, with the blue-haired boy on it, was taking aim at where Galahad was perched. But before it could fire, his other half made its presence known. The trailer-turned-artillery platform he had left on the ground opened up, sending three enormous laser blasts and a single powerful rocket arcing upward. Each shot struck home, sending the less advanced dragon reeling through the air as the boy fought to regain control. Then there was yet another explosion that Galahad wasn’t responsible for, as the golden-haired girl appeared next to the boy, followed by a third blast as they both vanished from that spot.

Soon, there was a rapid series of explosions all around the battlefield. The force of them threw the Heretics to the ground, while their opponents were casually picked up and carried along with the teleporting golden-haired girl.

Finally, they all picked themselves up and stood together, facing the other group as the Seosten teens appeared on the ground, the explosion that carried them there sending a shockwave through the ground. 

Vanessa was the first to speak, staring that way. “Wh-who are you?” 

It was the golden-haired girl who spoke, holding her hand up as a tiny series of repeating explosions, barely large enough to be seen, appeared in staccato bursts in her palm. “Why exactly should we tell you anything?” 

“She’s Aureus,” the thin brunette with the braid put in, giving their leader a glance. “I’m Fuscus. That’s Caeruleus, Candidus, Lūteus, Viridis, and Āter.” In turn, she had nodded toward the blue-haired male, the white-haired, muscular male, the blond romance cover male, the green-haired girl, and the pale, black-haired boy. 

“Gold, brown, blue, white, yellow, green, and black?” Sands blurted. “You’re named after Latin colors that happen to match your hair? Let me guess, the uncreative bitch over there–” 

Don’t talk about our mother that way,” Lūteus snapped. The almost-achingly handsome boy brought his hand up. As he did so, a two-foot wide, three-foot tall section of pavement next to him rose out of the ground and  formed a larger fist shape. 

Columbus shook his head quickly as they took that in. “Wait, you’re children from the Olympus. Your parents were—“

“Our mother is Kushiel,” Aureus, the golden-haired girl, interrupted. “She gave us everything, and we’ll make sure she gets everything she wants in exchange.” 

Tristan started to shrug. “Yeah, well if you want to help her now, you’ll have to–” He cut himself off, having turned a bit to look at where Kushiel should’ve been inside her forcefield cage. But there was no one there. He gave a double-take, blurting, “Where the hell did she go?” 

The group took that in before spinning back to the Seosten, as Viridis, the green-haired girl, winked and offered a sly, “I believe the term is, gotcha.”

With that, Aureus raised her hand, and another explosion enveloped the Seosten. Everyone was knocked backward, only to find the spot completely empty as the explosion cleared. Columbus was looking around, counting the mechs. “They’re all here,” he announced. “They didn’t get away with any of them.” 

“No,” Galahad agreed, his voice grim. “But they weren’t trying to. I’m afraid while we were all distracted, Kushiel escaped her cage and left with the biggest prize of all. 

“She has Fredericks.” 

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Interlude 19C – Cyber Attack (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sitting on the floor of an enormous, airplane hanger-sized laboratory (one of many in the space belonging beneath the Capitol One Arena in Washington DC), Columbus balanced his personal cyberform, Amethyst, in his lap. The robotic porcupine-armadillo made a soft chirping sound as he tinkered in one of her open compartments with a screwdriver and pen light. Testing one of the wires, he spoke up absently. “Could you hand me that box of one-inch star button head screws on the table over there?” 

“Sure thing,” came the loud, rumbling voice as the huge robotic figure crouched behind him turned a bit. Even kneeling as he was, Galahad barely fit within the space, often brushing his head against the ceiling if he sat up too quickly. An understandable issue for a thirty-foot tall blue-silver robot who could transform into a full-sized semi-truck and trailer. Of course, in most cases, he could have simply transferred his consciousness into his much smaller humanoid form, but that was busy being tinkered with by the lab’s actual owner, Harrison Fredericks. 

The man himself, responsible for the initial creation of the cyberforms that had become so useful to Heretics all over the world, was in the far corner of the lab working on that. Columbus and Galahad both doubted the distracted man had any idea they were still there, let alone that he had other visitors outside in the parking lot. He was quite occupied with his work.

Easily reaching from one side of the lab to the other, Galahad very carefully pinched the desired box between two of his fingers. His hand massively dwarfed the box of screws, yet he was delicate enough to pick it up, move his arm over, and set it down next to the boy. He had a lot of practice being careful with his large hands and great strength. Between that and the incredible work Fredericks did to begin with, he could have picked up a living mouse without harming it. Well, aside from the heart attack the poor thing certainly would have suffered. 

“Your friends are still waiting, you know,” he gently reminded the boy. 

“Almost done,” Columbus promised. “I just need to run a couple quick diagnostics and–” He had looked up and turned a bit to glanced toward a corner of the ceiling, the lenses of the goggles on his face glowing slightly as he activated the x-ray vision to see out to where Vanessa and the others had been playing an impromptu soccer game on the pavement above while they waited for him to join them for a trip to the movies. What he saw instead, however, made Columbus drop the screwdriver and penlight, bolting to his feet. “Oh shit! What the hell’s wrong with the alarms?”

“Alarms?” Galahad echoed, head tilting. “I see nothing wrong. Your friends are playing–wait.” He paused before making a noise of disbelief. “The security footage is fake. Harry!” That booming voice flooded the hangar, drawing even the distracted scientist from his work. “We have trouble.” 

“Trouble?” Fredericks dropped his tools, vanishing from where he was standing before reappearing next to Columbus. He was a remarkably short man, standing only four feet, one inch tall. His dark red hair was short, and he had a goatee that was neatly trimmed. Aside from a pair of unnaturally green eyes, his other distinguishing feature was an arm that was very clearly cybernetic. “What sort of trouble?” 

“The dangerous sort,” Columbus informed him, still staring through the ceiling even as he stopped himself from instantly transporting out there to help the others. Better to make sure Fredericks knew what was going on before this whole situation got completely out of hand. Including one incredibly important point. 

“Kushiel’s here.” 

******

Several Minutes Earlier

With a thump as the soccer ball bounced off his head, Tristan Moon watched it bounce between two small trash cans that they had set up to be a goal and pumped his fist in the air. “Ha,” he crowed, “three to two, we are so pulling ahead of you guys.” 

This side of the parking lot of the Capital One arena was essentially empty, given there were no games or events going on anytime soon. Despite that, in most cases, the security guards would have insisted several teenagers playing ball in it should leave. But those security guards were being magically charmed to ignore the group, thanks to one of many safety measures Fredericks had installed along the property. 

“Maybe by definition,” Tristan’s sister retorted to his teasing. Vanessa had her long, typically loose blonde hair tied back out of the way in a ponytail. “Three to two isn’t exactly an insurmountable lead, you know.” 

Grinning, Tristan waved that off. “You’re just jealous that we didn’t go with sibling pairs.” 

“That would’ve been cliche,” Sands pointed out as she pointed toward the ball. A blue glowing outline surrounded it, and the thing went in an exact reverse of its previous trajectory, as if it was being rewound. It was a new power she had picked up during a recent trip, when a group of Alters they had been escorting to a safehouse were unexpectedly ambushed by a trio of religious fanatics, cultists for one of the many supposed world-destroying entities that were said to live in the Earth’s core or some such. Either way, they were dead now and Sands had picked up this ability to reverse the motions of any non-living object, up to about fifty pounds, for up to thirty seconds. 

“Much as I would love to be on a team with my sister,” she added with a nod to Sarah, who stood behind Tristan, “we do have to mix things up a bit.” She left out the fact that she knew Sarah wanted to team up with Tristan, given the two of them had started going out together a few months back. It was still relatively new, and they were taking things slow. But still, Sands was happy for her sister. Even if she did have to resist the urge to take Tristan aside and warn him about what would happen if he hurt her. Tempting as that was, it wasn’t her place to play that sort of game. Sarah could take care of herself. She didn’t need her twin sister threatening her boyfriend. Even if there was a bit of uncertainty about what was going on between him and that Nereid girl, Dexamene. She had come all the way back from the future and across the universe. Yes, it was to help Flick get back to the present, and save Elisabet, but still. She was Tristan’s best friend, and maybe more than that? No one was sure, possibly not even the two of them. But whatever was going on there, Sarah, Tristan, and Dex could handle it between themselves. They didn’t need her help. 

Especially not when Sands herself didn’t exactly have any luck in the romance department. A fact that made the short (the twins were barely five feet tall) brunette give a soft inward sigh before reaching out to catch the ball as it began to make its way past her and back toward Tristan on its reverse trajectory. “Besides,” she added aloud, “hitting the ball with your head shouldn’t be allowed. I mean, it’s so hard.” To demonstrate, she reached out as though to rap her knuckles against his temple, before the boy drew back with a laugh. 

“Hard and oblong, that’s my head alright,” he replied easily. “Now are you guys gonna take the ball out so we can steal it from you and rack up another point, or what?” 

Before the others could say anything, Sarah held a hand out while speaking up. “Wait, look.” Her sister and the other two turned to see where she was pointing. On the sidelines of their impromptu ‘field’ in the parking lot, Tristan’s cyberform snake, Bobbi-Bobbi, had been curled up to watch them. Now she lay stretched out on her side, twitching a little. Nearby, one of the many cyberforms that Fredricks allowed to roam the property, a monkey robot called Tipsy, was also laying on her side with the same occasional twitch. 

“Something’s wrong,” Sarah announced, even as Tristan took off running that way. 

“Bobbi?” he called, dropping to his knees next to the snake robot. “What–” In the next instant, his hand lashed out. The bracelet on his wrist glowed brightly, producing a blue-white set of flames over his fist as the boy punched the partially transparent figure who had emerged from beneath the pavement and was halfway-into his robotic partner. “Ghost!” he shouted as his empowered fist collided with the spirit’s face. 

Unfortunately, while he had been quick enough to stop the ghost, who had been pushing its way into Bobbi-Bobbi, Tristan wasn’t able to catch the one next to Tipsy. It disappeared into the monkey robot, and an instant later, he had to throw himself backwards to avoid being kicked in the face as the cyberform abruptly shoved its hand against the ground and kicked out of him with its two long legs. Blades had emerged from Tipsy’s feet, narrowly avoiding cutting the boy’s throat. 

“Tristan!” Vanessa shouted. Before she could move that way, however, an owl and falcon cyberform who had been flying overhead dropped into view. The owl shifted into a helmet form, hovering in midair as its goggle-like eyes blasted a concussive wave of force that slammed into the blonde girl, as well as Sarah. The two were sent flying a good twelve feet before tumbling along the ground. Sands was struck as well, but she had activated the power that allowed her to remain completely motionless and protected no matter how much force she was hit with. Up to a certain level, of course, but the owl didn’t surpass that. 

She was already bringing her mace out to swing at the cyberform itself before it could blast them again, but the falcon had transformed itself into a two-bladed sword, one end swinging out toward her throat. The girl was forced to stop short, going still so her power would kick in again and force the blade to bounce off. 

Tristan, by that point, had rolled back to his feet with Bobbi-Bobbi in her cannon form on his arm. He extended it, letting off a quick shot toward the falcon-blade, while his foot lashed out to kick Tipsy as she leapt at him. “What the hell?! Since when can ghosts possess cyberforms?!” 

“Well,” an unexpected (and entirely unwanted) voice announced from nearby, “I suppose since I gave them a bit of an upgrade?” Kushiel’s own ghost hovered next to a parked car, regarding them with a mixture of contempt and amusement at their confusion. “Stand still for a moment, and you’ll see just how much of one.” 

“Kushiel?” Vanessa blurted while she and Sarah picked themselves up. Her whip was already out and ready, scanning the air for more attackers coming from that way. Distracting as Kushiel’s appearance was, it felt just like the woman to show herself just so another possessed cyberform could hit them unexpectedly. She was far from the type to fight fair. “What are you doing here?” Even as she said that, the girl’s free hand was grabbing for the emergency alert coin in her pocket that would bring a full set of reinforcements. 

Sarah, meanwhile, brought her rifle up, but stopped herself from pulling the trigger. Tempting as it was to shoot Kushiel with as many ghost-fire empowered bullets as she could, it would’ve been pointless. The woman would just pass the damage off to one of the others. Denny had already informed them that she still had that power, even after death. A fact she had apparently demonstrated quite thoroughly when the people at the Auberge had sought to interfere with her attempts to find Mordred’s sword, Clarent. She’d failed then, and the sword was now in the hands of Joselyn Chambers. So what was she doing here now? 

“Try to call for help if you like,” Kushiel informed Vanessa without apparent care, knowing exactly what the girl was doing with the hand in her pocket. “It won’t do you any good. Not anymore.” She sounded oddly casual, given her usual personality and anger. Which, to be honest, was a lot more troubling than if she had shown up in full righteous fury mode. Kushiel being calm meant she was confident, and none of them were comfortable thinking about why that was. 

Sure enough, Vanessa felt something blocking the spell that would have called her mother and others to their location. “What– you’re stopping it.” 

“Very good, abomination,” Kushiel tauntingly retorted, giving a soft clap while staring daggers through the girl. Despite her calm demeanor, it was the hatred in those eyes that truly gave away the woman’s feelings. “Your ability to state the patently obvious truly does mark you as the genius they all say you are.” 

“Genius, no,” Vanessa informed her simply. “Prepared, yes.” With that, she touched a different coin in her pocket and triggered the spell there. Instantly, the backpack she had brought with them, discarded along the side of their playing field, flipped over. The flap on it opened, seemingly by itself, before three steel balls, each about two inches across, burst out. The trio of balls flew into view and hovered in a triangular formation around the ghost woman before projecting a glowing semi-transparent blue pyramid around her. 

Arching an eyebrow, Kushiel reached out to tap the glowing wall. “A ghost capture field, hmm? And I see your mother helped you add in a bit of anti-Tartarus tech as well. It’s not quite enough to block my power entirely, but it’s certainly… muffling it a bit, I suppose. I can feel the energy it’s giving off, making it harder for me to reach for my gift. I didn’t know that was possible.” The fact that she was, even now, speaking calmly made the hair on every one of their necks stand up. Something was even more wrong than they already knew. 

“It’s not, for living creatures,” Vanessa replied flatly. “You’re a ghost. You’re different. Your connection to Tartarus is stronger, but the one into this world, the physical world, isn’t. We can trap you that way, block you that way.” 

“For a time, perhaps,” Kushiel acknowledged, sounding unconcerned. “Still, it is a remarkable effort. You and your mother have been busy little bees. But you and I both know this is a prototype. It will not hold for very long.” Her hand brushed the wall testingly. “No, not long at all.”  

Her calm demeanor in the face of being trapped was even more worrying. As was the fact that half a dozen more cyberforms of various types had begun surrounding the four young Heretics. They were all obviously possessed, but none attacked. Not yet, anyway. 

Sands, Sarah, Tristan, and Vanessa had all moved closer together by that point. Not right next to each other, as they all needed room. But close enough to watch each other’s backs. Tristan spoke up for his sister. “Doesn’t have to hold you for long. We’ll have help here soon.” 

“Sooner than you think,” Columbus, appearing nearby, announced. He was facing Kushiel as well, Amethyst perched on his shoulder to hiss at the ghost woman. “Don’t worry, Fredericks is working on a way to expel our unwanted guests from the cyberforms,” he informed the others. “It won’t take long.” 

“Oh dear!” With mock concern, Kushiel put her hands to her mouth. “I suppose I’d better hurry then. Friends, would you mind?” At her words, three of the possessed cyberforms, the owl, falcon, and a small bluejay, turned their attention toward the balls projecting the pyramid that was currently containing her. Meanwhile, the others, including Tipsy, turned their attention to the five Heretics. 

And yet, before either group could carry out their attacks, a large figure came flying down out of the sky. Galahad, still in his thirty-foot tall robot form, crashed onto the pavement after launching himself through the air. His hand lashed out, smacking half a dozen of the other cyberforms out of the way to send them tumbling across the ground. “Sorry, buddies,” he announced, “the big guy’ll fix you up as soon as we get rid of your hitchhikers.” 

Even now, Kushiel showed no particular annoyance as her plan to have several of her ghost-possessed, unwilling partners break her out of the temporary prison. In fact, she simply chuckled at the side of the giant robot figure smacking them aside. To his words, she offered a slight shrug. “Doing that may be harder than your friend suspects. And you may have even less time than you think to make it happen.” 

“What do you want?” Sands demanded, taking a step that way. As one of the possessed cyberforms made a move toward her, she quickly threw a wall up into its path with a swing of her mace. But her eyes never left Kushiel’s. “Why are you here? Too much of a coward to face your daughter or Flick again, so you thought we’d be easier targets?” 

Through all of this, Kushiel had shown herself to be unnaturally, unusually calm. Yet it was the mention of Theia that made her drop that facade, even if only a little bit. Her eyes blazed with even more anger than had already been smoldering there, as she half-spat, “The thing I spawned will meet her fate in time. As for the would-be Necromancer child, she is still no threat to me. That much should have been clear after our last meeting.” 

“I dunno,” Tristan remarked, “Flick has a way of surprising people like you. And by people like you, I mean evil, irredeemable pieces of shit. Just ask Fossor.” 

“She doesn’t have to ask anyone,” Galahad put in. “She isn’t leaving this place. Not after–” He stopped in mid-sentence, head turning toward a nearby section of the parking lot. “What…” 

“Ah yes,” Kushiel remarked, as everyone’s attention shifted that way. The dull rumble that Galahad detected was soon audible to all of them. “As I was saying, I did not show myself to all of you in order to begin carrying out my plan.” 

With that, the ground exploded outward in a violent shower of rock and pavement, as a dark-green, fifty-foot tall dragon cyberform tore its way out of the ground and flew upward with a terrifying roar. It was followed by another, slightly different one, and another. Soon, seven cyberform dragons were in view, all of them spreading out to surround the group. As they hovered there, a figure appeared on top of each of the seven dragons. These were not ghosts, but living Seosten. Young Seosten, by the look of them. They couldn’t have been older than twenty or so, which made them look only about fifteen by human standards. Four boys, three girls, all dressed in gold and black versions of the Seosten bodysuit. Black with gold piping for the girls, the reverse for the boys.  

“I showed myself,” Kushiel finished, “because my true children, born of the lab you helped destroy, have already succeeded.” 

To be continued next chapter

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Patreon Snippets 14 (Heretical Edge)

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Every month, anyone who donates 10 dollars or more receives 500 words they can devote to a snippet of their choice, either one of their own or adding onto someone else’s. Here is the next edition of those snippets, and thanks to all donators who help keep these stories going. 

Gwen and Galahad

“You know, as a parent, sometimes you… you set a lot of high standards for your child. And while… yeah, you may really hope they meet those standards, in your heart you know you’ll be happy with anything they become, as long as they try. You know that you’ll love them no matter what happens, because you know they have to be their own person, not the person you want them to be. But right now, I just have to say that all the parents… all the parents in the entire universe who have ever lived… can fucking suck it, because my son is Optimus God Damn Prime!” 

With that declaration, as she stood in the parking lot of the Capital One Arena in front of the silver and blue semi, Guinevere spread both arms wide as though to hug the truck tightly. A wide grin stretched across her face, showing her gleaming teeth as she sniffed a little as though near joyous tears. “I’m so proud of you.” 

Snorting audibly (a deliberate sound given he lacked any actual nose), Galahad promptly transformed from his semi mode into the full robot form. The former Seosten-human hybrid, who had been adopted as a child by Gwen after his true father’s people attempted to exterminate him, sat down in front of the woman so that he wouldn’t tower over her quite as much (given his thirty-foot height, even sitting made him much taller, but it was an improvement). “See, Harrison thought you might be upset about all… this.” He gestured with one large metal hand toward his body. “I told him he really didn’t know you that well.” 

“Hand up.” Gwen ordered, raising her own until her adopted son had done the same. Then she pressed her palm to one tiny part of his. It was an old ritual, though one they had most recently done while his hand was much closer to hers in size. Her voice had sobered somewhat, staring intently at their hands. “I am very sorry about… about what happened to you, my little polecat. But you are alive.” The joy and relief she felt about that fact clearly outweighed her regret about his condition, as she raised her other hand to press next to the first. “You are alive. My… son is alive.” Saying that, Gwen stepped in to embrace the raised metal arm. 

“Someday, we’ll find the magic needed to return your real body,” she assured him. Turning her gaze up, the former queen of Camelot met his robotic stare. “Whatever it takes. I have spent a thousand years preparing to bring Arthur back. I will spend however many more to restore your body.” 

“Eh, guess me being a robot means I can wait that long,” Galahad replied, before bringing his other hand in. Large as it was, he put it flat on the ground, waiting for his mother to step onto it before picking himself up to a standing position. Keeping her level with his gaze, he added, “I missed you, Mother.” 

“My boy.” Those two words were filled with such fondness, such joy in the simple fact of his existence, that they were all Gwen had to say. Floating away from his hand, she hovered over directly in front of his robotic face. Her palms moved to touch it, and he felt no disgust or regret, only love. Love and confidence that they would find a way to return his body someday. But in the meantime, she would not allow his current condition to dictate how she treated him. 

“It occurs to me,” Gwen finally continued after remaining like that for a long moment, “that you used to love going and listening to the stories from the talespinners, then watching plays, and eventually movies. Ahhh, you and movies. But you and I haven’t gone to one of those in a long time.” 

“A movie?” Galahad echoed. “I do like movies.” 

“Oh, I know you do.” Smiling, Gwen added, “I still remember going to see the Lumiere brothers little film. There wasn’t even a story but you were enthralled. It reminded me of the first time we watched a play together. You remember what it was?” 

“The play or that first movie?” Galahad countered. “Because the film was just a short bit about two guys leaving a factory. Plus some other things like that. And the play was–” He stopped belatedly. “Ah! You’re trying to trick me!” The lights of his ‘eyes’ shrank a bit as though narrowing. “You want me to say it was the Castle of Perseverance, but we saw Fulgens and Lucrece first. Because I snuck in to watch it with you and you weren’t supposed to know. But you did.” 

“I did,” Gwen confirmed with a fond chuckle. “Fulgens and Lucrece was better anyway. Less hoity toity. And who doesn’t like a good fourth wall breaking joke? The way Servants A and B seem to start outside the play and end up being part of it? I mean, come on. It was very unique for the time. They really need to put it on again. Oooh, maybe we can talk the kids at Fusion School into doing something with it.” 

“Something tells me they’ll be putting that play on soon, if you have anything to say about it,” Galahad noted. “Even if they don’t technically have a theater department.” 

“I’ll let Nimue know that I have a brilliant idea,” Gwen confirmed with a wink. “But in the meantime, you and I are going to see a movie or three. And given all the times I let you ride on my shoulders as a kid, it’ll be good to let you give me a lift into the movie.” 

“You know, I can just switch to my smaller body,” Galahad pointed out. “I know you’re cool with it, but the other people at the movies might object to me crashing through the place like this.” 

Scoffing, Gwen shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. 

“We’re totally going to a drive-in theater.” 

 

******

Maria Chambers

 

Maria Chambers had been born in 1945. Though, of course, she hadn’t been a Chambers at that point. She had originally been Maria Oscars. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, she had been… different from others. Her father had died in the last days of the second world war, leaving her mother to raise Maria and her two-years-older brother, Ronald, alone. Maria had repaid her mother’s hard work by being first a rebellious child and then a true terror as a teenager. She partied hard through high school, drinking heavily and generally causing her mother and much more straight-laced older brother no end of problems. She ran with a gang, took more than her fair share of alcohol and drugs, and generally made it her life’s goal to be a wild banshee and never care about the future.

Then came August 4th, 1962. The month before Maria’s final year in high school. On that day, Maria’s life changed forever. Because that was the day that Marilyn Monroe, beautiful, perfect, glamorous party girl of the ages, was found dead of an intentional overdose. 

The revelation that someone as… as perfect and rich and famous as Marilyn Monroe had so many problems that she had actually killed herself was… eye-opening for the seventeen-year-old Maria Oscars. She had spent that month doing a lot of soul searching, and entered her final year of high school a changed, more driven young woman. She abandoned (most of) her partying, graduated high school, went to nursing school (partly out of a desire to know more about exactly how her one-time idol Marilyn had died), and eventually served as an actual nurse. That was where she met Arthur Chambers, fixing him up after a brawl at a nearby bar. The two of them had fallen in love, and…

Well, then a whole bunch of years had passed all in what seemed like a flash. The next thing Maria Chambers knew, she was an old woman, sitting in a cabin in Alaska with her husband of nearly fifty-two years. Over half a century, she had been married to that lovable oaf now. 

“And I’ve kicked your bippy at pool the whole way here,” she announced pointedly, squinting across the dinner table at her lifelong companion. 

“Maria, dear,” Arthur asked, “were you doing that thing where you have an entire thought process in your head and only include one of us at the end when we have no Earthly idea what you’re talking about again?” 

Huffing a bit, the seventy-five-year-old woman carefully took a sip of her iced tea before pointedly replying, “All that matters is you’re terrible at pool.” 

“Well, maybe I’m just distracted whenever I play against a beautiful woman.” Arthur countered. 

Maria’s voice was dry. “I’ve seen you play old Thomas down at the rec center. He’ll be very interested to find out you think he’s such a pretty lady.” 

Before Arthur could find a retort for that, she added, “And that’s why I’ll be teaching Felicity how to hustle at the bars, thank you very much.”

With a chuckle, her husband pointed out, “You know, almost any other grandmother would be trying to steer their only grandchild away from that sort of thing.” 

“Our family’s never been ‘any other’ anything, and you know it,” Maria retorted, before adding, with a fond smile, “And Felicity exemplifies that…” With a sigh, she sat back in her chair. “Do you think Lincoln will bring her up for Thanksgiving this year? She must get so lonely in that stuffy old private school. Torn away from her father? How does Lincoln survive? That girl is his world, after…” She trailed off, forcibly directing her thoughts away from that woman

“That girl will thrive wherever she is,” Arthur reminded her, before exhaling long and low. “But I do hope Lincoln brings her for Thanksgiving. We… we all need it.” 

He was right, Maria knew. Felicity was… was so much like Lincoln. She wanted to be a reporter, just like him. She was stubborn and bullheaded, so intent on tracking down the truth. When she was in middle school, Lincoln used to send his parents weekly updates about what sort of injustice or mystery the girl was dealing with that time. She was a regular Encyclopedia Brown, her and that nice friend of hers who had eventually moved away. 

That was what worried Maria. Between losing her mother and then her best friend, she was afraid that poor Felicity would think everyone left her. She was afraid her beautiful, brilliant granddaughter would stop trusting people, stop opening up to them. And that would be such a tragedy. That was why Maria wanted Lincoln to move back to Los Angeles, so Felicity could be near them. Not only because she wanted to see her granddaughter, but because… because Felicity needed a fresh start, a big change to really, truly grow into the wonderful, brilliant woman Maria knew her granddaughter could be. A place like Los Angeles, where she could really spread her wings and her mind and be that amazing reporter she was meant to be, not stuck in a small town in Wyoming. Maria’s granddaughter deserved so much more than that. 

While she was lost in those thoughts, the door of the cabin opened and their old friend, Al, stepped inside with an armful of grocery bags. Maria quickly tried to get up with Arthur to help, but Al made it to the table first. Setting the bags down, he insisted that they stay in their seats, while reaching in to take out several beers and a couple mason jars with a strange dark green liquid in them.

“Some kind of local moonshine?” Arthur asked, eyeing the jars. He sounded quite willing to give the brew a shot. 

“More like… a chance to share the truth,” Al replied thoughtfully, his voice a bit distracted before he shook whatever it was off. “Been waiting a long time for this, and… well, now it’s time.” 

“Time for what?” Maria pressed. “And what exactly is in these jars?” 

“Like I said,” Al repeated, “the truth. But I need both of you to trust me. Can you do that?” 

“You’re being very strange, Al,” Maria informed him. “But of course we trust you. We’ve trusted you for decades, why on Earth would you need to ask now?” 

“Because now is the big moment,” came the quiet response. “Drink, and I’ll tell you absolutely everything you need to know.” 

Maria and Arthur exchanged looks. But the fact was both of them trusted Al as much as they trusted each other. He had been their very closest friend for such a long time. If he was acting odd now, there was clearly a good reason. As one, they each unscrewed the lid of their respective mason jar, popped off the top, and picked them up. 

“Well,” Arthur started while holding his jar out. “Here’s to having the slightest clue what you’re talking about in a minute.” 

“Here’s to that,” Maria agreed, tapping her jar against the other before taking first a cautious sip, then a deeper gulp of the liquid. “This… tastes funny. What did you put in it?” 

“Yes, Alcaeus,” a new voice put in, “what did you put in it?” The question came from a man who had simply… appeared in front of the door, as if he had stepped right through it. He was an enormous figure, even by the standards of the men in the room, standing an inch taller than Al did at an even seven feet. He had long jet black hair streaked with a bit of white and gray, and a bushy mustache, but no beard. 

Jerking to his feet, Arthur took a step that way. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded while Maria quickly found her feet as well. “And how the hell did you–”

But Al stepped in front of both of them, facing the strange man. “Antaeus,” he snapped in a low voice. “You shouldn’t be here.” 

Baffled, and more than a little annoyed, Maria poked her head out from behind her large husband and even larger friend. “I’m calling the police,” she announced firmly, already moving to pick up the phone. 

“Oh, I’d stop her from doing that before I do it myself,” the man… Antaeus, warned. “See, this isn’t going to go like any of our other contests.” 

With that, he pointed a hand, and… and a beam of what looked like silver light… blasted from his palm. It blew apart the entire… half of the cabin that Maria had been moving toward. Instantly, all of it was just… gone. It was gone. Chairs, furniture, the walls, even a dozen trees that had been on the other side of the wall were annihilated. Half of the cabin was simply not there anymore. 

In the second that Maria stared at that uncomprehendingly, Al had shoved her husband next to Maria and leapt to engage their intruder. And just as quickly, he was sent flying away to land hard on his side next to the two of them. 

The intruder laughed. “Oh, that’s so much better. You see how easy that was? You see how much faster, how much stronger, how much better than you I am now? Even without using any other tricks.” 

In… in over seventy years of life, Maria had never seen anything like this. She couldn’t comprehend it, couldn’t even fathom what this was. It simply did not make sense. It was a dream, a nightmare. None of this was real. None of it could be real. She had no frame of reference for this, and her heart… her heart couldn’t…

Shoving himself to his feet, Al stood in front of Maria and Arthur. “The Committee. They put you on the Committee.” 

“What committee?!” Arthur demanded. “What–how did–what the hell is going on?!” 

“They want those two,” Antaeus announced, staring at Maria and her husband. “That means I get to go through you to get to them. And… well, that’s just the icing on the–” 

On the nothing. Because they weren’t… there… anymore? 

At first, Maria thought the entire cabin had somehow vanished. But no… no, they were somewhere else. They were on grass, on an…. an island? Hand against her chest, the elderly woman looked around, mouth open as she took in the view around them. An island. They were standing on an island and… 

“What happened?” Al demanded, his voice suspicious as he made it clear that he was just as confused as the other two. “Where–” 

“Apparently, you were in mortal danger and moments from death, with no escape and no chance.” Another new voice, this one from a man who appeared to be about Maria and Arthur’s age, gray-haired with a neatly trimmed beard and thick eyebrows who stood before them wearing a brown suit and tie. “That, after all, is the condition I put in the spell that I etched into your bones when you were a child, that it would bring you to me when you were in true mortal peril from which there would be no way out.” He paused then before adding thoughtfully, “It seems you have brought friends as well.” 

“Who–who? What? Wher–What is happening?!” Arthur demanded, grabbing his wife’s arm and looking wildly back and forth between the men. 

“Well,” Al murmured, “good thing I had you drink that potion now, I suppose.” Straightening, he gestured. “Arthur, Maria… I want you to meet my old… mentor.

“Zeus.” 

 

*******

Amanirenas

Over A Thousand Years Ago, At The Fall Of Camelot

The battlefield was a wasteland. Over fifty miles of once-lush forest turned to a burned crater where little, if anything, would grow for years. All of this damage caused not by the clashing of many armies, but of a single army attacking one man. A man who was quite possibly one of the strongest beings in existence, such that the one who had finally defeated him was none other than Zeus himself. Puriel, as the Seosten called him. He who possessed such vast power to manipulate lightning, fire, even pure magic itself. And still, even he had only come out the victor of this struggle through treachery, through betraying the trust of one who saw him as a grandfather, and through bringing forth several ships-worth of armament to bombard his opponent. 

Even that may not have been enough to defeat the one called Arthur Pendragon had Puriel not been possessing the necromancy-reanimated body of the man’s own nephew. Blood magics prevented Arthur from putting his full strength against those of his family. They had weakened him, all together barely enough, to put the man down. 

Now weakened and only just capable of remaining upright through his exhaustion, the body of Mordred lying abandoned in the mud, Puriel stood over the fallen king. A Seosten shuttle was maneuvering to land, while the old captain gave orders into his communication device. “Bring the prepared container. I want the remains stored and under constant supervision on the way back to Elohim. The man may be as close to dead as he can be, but he’s a damned dragon-bonded. If I catch anyone being lax in–” 

At that precise moment, as a group of soldiers jogged toward that spot with what amounted to an enchanted sarcophagus floating in front of them, a sudden blast of pure white light lanced past Puriel to strike the fallen body of Arthur. In an instant, the body had vanished. 

A disbelieving bellowed curse burst from the old Seosten, his eyes snapping first down to the ground where the body had been, then to the source of that blast. Despite his weariness, lightning formed at his fingers, ready to lash out that way before he abruptly stopped. Nearby, the squad of sarcophagus-bearers had spun as well, their own weapons raised before seeing a single figure waiting there. 

“You…” Puriel muttered that single word, disbelief filling his voice as he stared. “What did you do?” 

The woman before him stood tall, as proud and strong as she had been a millennia earlier. She was dark-skinned, her body heavily muscled. The sword she held was as large as she was, its blade resting in the ground while she leaned on the hilt. Her one remaining eye glared at the figure in front of her with a hatred that burned as the fires of a thousand hells. The other eye had been long-since sacrificed in a ritual to empower a spell that had enabled her people to temporarily overwhelm and occupy three Roman/Seosten-held cities in Egypt. The woman who, through sheer force of will and battle acumen, had forced the Seosten-controlled Romans to allow her country to self-govern. The warrior queen who had fought enough to force a peace agreement with the Romans, preventing their further expansion for hundreds of years. 

“Amanirenas,” Puriel snarled the name while holding a hand out to stop his troops from advancing or firing. “I will ask you once more before burning you where you stand. What did you do?” 

Letting her enormous sword fall, the woman took a few steps closer, ignoring the other troops to focus solely on the subject of her hate. “I told you… long ago, that your people murdered my husband, the king of our people. You answered that by having your people kill my son.” 

“We were at war,” Puriel reminded her. “You, your son, and your people attacked our cities. We retaliated.” 

“We attacked to prevent you from invading, as you were intending!” Amanirenas snapped. “Had we not struck the first blow, your people would have destroyed us and continued your expansion. Your people began this.” Her smile was humorless, the barely-constrained fury radiating outward from her almost visibly. “Do you know what your people took from me? Do you have any idea? I sacrificed far more than my eye to give my people the strength to stand against yours. I sacrificed all other lives within me. I gave any opportunity for any future children to that spell, to give my people the strength to hold against your incursions.” 

Cracking her neck, she came even closer, her feet touching the edge of the ground where Arthur’s body had been. “It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, because I had my children. One a full man, given by my late husband. The other a child, an infant given to me by the one who replaced Teriteqas in my heart, who taught me the magic needed to see your kind burn. Your people stole both from me. Your people killed my son in battle, and trampled my infant daughter beneath their feet. The only children I could ever have were taken by your filth.” Her hateful words melted into a brief chuckle. “But I told you I would have my revenge, did I not?”

Hand snapping out to send quick bolts of energy into the ground, Puriel watched as tendrils of earth reached out, catching hold of the woman and yanking her bodily to the ground. His power overwhelmed her defensive shields, punching through her magic as though it was made of paper. She didn’t seem to mind, barely reacting as she was hauled down onto her back. 

“Tell me… what you did,” the man snapped, standing over the woman. “Or I will simply discover it for myself.” That was added while he reached down for her. 

“Your people have killed many kings, oh great and powerful god of gods,” Amanirenas snarled. “And you have never feared any of their return. Until now. And fear you should. Because the one called Arthur of the dragons will rise again. He will rise and he will destroy your kind. In time. When he is brought together once more.” 

Lowering his gaze and inhaling, Puriel murmured in realization. “You scattered the body. Do you really think that will be enough? I will reach into your mind and take the knowledge of where every piece has gone. Then all of this will be for naught.”

Amanirenas, held motionless against the ground, simply smiled. “Were that an option, do you truly believe I would have tarried here so long? I gave my first husband, my eye, my children both living and unborn, all to put a stop to your people. I make one more sacrifice to ensure your eventual destruction.” 

Those were the last words spoken by the warrior queen of Kush, who had brought the Roman expansion into her lands to a halt. She had poisoned herself before the confrontation, using the last of her power, the last of her life, to scatter the fallen body of Arthur across the world. And in that moment, she passed away. Peacefully, on her own terms, while giving one last look with her remaining eye at the man who represented the people she hated so thoroughly. At the same time, the spell she had inscribed into her own skin dissolved her body and disintegrated the remains, destroying any chance of the Seosten using their necromancer to draw her back and taking with her the knowledge of where the pieces of Arthur had been sent.

In her death, Amanirenas also carried with her the secret of what had first drawn her to Arthur, what had first led her to this place. Her second husband had sensed the man’s imminent death, and its location. It was he who had told her of what would happen, he whose words had led to this decision, even if he had not known what would happen at the time.

The Reaper who had once met Arthur as a child, shortly before his ascension as a dragon-bonded, had met Amanirenas many centuries earlier. They had borne a child together, after her son was grown. Their daughter, a half-Reaper, had been stolen from them and trampled beneath the enemy army before they could even name her. 

Or so they believed. 

Now, with her dying breath, the warrior queen had set in motion events that would eventually lead the Seosten and Arthur’s own wife, the Queen Guinevere, to desperately search out the one person capable of bringing the once and future king back to life. 

Aylen Tamaya, daughter of Bastet. Granddaughter of Amanirenas.

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Summer Epilogue 19 (Heretical Edge)

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As it turned out, Harrison Fredericks was in the so-called dragon room. As Galahad in his humanoid robot body led Columbus and Shiori, along with Vulcan, through a set of vault-like doors in a corner of the main room, the four entered what looked like a dark cave. The floor became dirt and stone, with crystalline rock walls around them. The entrance was a tunnel that sloped downward, gradually opening into a cavern even larger than the room they had just left. Straight ahead was a giant lake with a trio of underground streams feeding into it from various tunnels, one of which dropped from above in a cascading waterfall. 

Right in front of the lake stood a dragon. Well, a clearly mechanical one, anyway. It was dark green with gold patterns weaved throughout. Sitting up on its haunches, the thing was tall enough that its head just crossed the fifty-foot mark. It had a long tail wrapped around its body with what looked like four massive mini-guns mounted to the end of it, one on each side of the tail. All along the dragon-bot’s back leading clear to its head was an ungodly enormous starship-grade cannon. 

“Holy Fin Fang Foom,” Shiori breathed out, eyes wide. She’d come to a stop and stood there, staring open-mouthed at the giant cyberform. “That’s a big gun. That’s a really big gun.”

As if reacting to the sound of her voice, the cyberform dragon’s head turned a little, focusing on them. Vulcan, meanwhile, took a step forward and lowered his ears, making a soft whining sound before barking once to show that he definitely wasn’t afraid, no sir, and that if the fifty-foot tall dragon robot wanted to hurt Columbus and Shiori, he’d have to go through Vulcan to do it.

The dragon’s mouth opened, but just as Columbus was about to grab Shiori’s arm and teleport them the hell out of the way, a man appeared there… in the dragon’s open mouth. Apparently there was space inside the giant cyberform, and the mouth was a hatch of some kind. From that distance, the two now-former Crossroads students thought there was something odd about the man who stood framed in the open mouth, but couldn’t tell what it was, exactly. 

The answer to that became obvious a moment later, as the man stepped off the edge of the mouth and dropped toward them before landing easily on the ground. 

He was short. That was what the siblings had noticed from the distance. The man stood only an inch over four feet, with dark red hair cut short, and a neatly trimmed goatee. His eyes were an unnaturally bright green, and one of his arms was very clearly cybernetic.  

For a brief moment, the man stood there, squinting at two teenagers and their robotic dog. His eyes scanned them curiously and intently, as though reading everything in their lives in those couple of seconds. Just as Columbus and Shiori were starting to get uncomfortable with his attention, he straightened and abruptly announced, “What, our guests are here already? You sure are eager to get started early this morning, aren’t you?” 

“It’s mid-afternoon, sir,” Galahad politely corrected. “You were working all day again.” 

“Was I really?” The short man looked surprised by the information, blinking that way before looking back toward the teens. “Well, in that case, you’re late. What, am I not important enough to spend more time with? Tearing you away from your computers and your Playstations?” 

With a wince, Columbus started to stammer a response, only for the man to laugh and shake his head. “I’m just messing with you, kid.” With that, he thrust his flesh and blood hand out to them. “Name’s Harrison Fredericks. You knew that, but you can call me Harry. That’s what I prefer.” 

Shiori was the first to react, introducing herself while shaking the man’s hand quickly. “And for the record,” she added while waving her phone his way, “I can play plenty of games even while we’re–holy crap!” The girl blurted the last bit after glancing to her phone screen. “Did you know you’ve got a shiny Mareep in here?!” With that, the girl stepped away, eyes focused on her phone. “Uhh, just a second.” 

Snorting at his sister, Columbus started to focus on their host once more “Hi. Sorry, she gets into that stu–uhh…” 

He trailed off upon realizing that Harrison had also yanked a phone from his pocket and was furiously tapping at the screen while blurting, “There is?! I knew it, I knew they wouldn’t let me down.” 

Columbus and Galahad glanced to one another, each offering a shrug before the latter murmured, “He’ll ahhh, be right with you, I’m sure. Sometimes Harry’s priorities are just a little skewed.” 

“Tell me about it,” the boy murmured, glancing to his sister before returning his attention to the dragon-robot nearby. Only then did he actually notice that it wasn’t the only one here in the cavern. There were several others spread out throughout the wide open space. One was clinging to the ceiling, shaped more like a traditional serpent. Another was under the water, its distorted form barely visible. A few more smaller ones were up against the cavern walls, mostly blending in through a semi-chameleon quality to their exterior. Taking all those in, the boy was sure there were more he couldn’t see. “Shit,” he murmured under his breath, “no wonder people don’t try to take this place over.”

“They have before.” That was Harry, his full attention once more on his guests. “Independents, Crossroads or Garden people that just think the rules don’t apply to them, and more. Took me adding penalties where I won’t sell to any group connected to the ones that piss me off for awhile before they wised up and started policing each other. But they seem to have gotten the message now. They leave me alone, and they get to buy my little friends.” As he finished, the man shook Columbus’s hand, adding, “Don’t look so worried. I’m not about to freak out and throw you to the wolves just because you mention what side you’re on or bring up your opinion. Some of these people just need a really firm line drawn or they’ll keep pushing.” 

“I uhh,” Columbus started before hesitating. “I can see why you’d be pretty sought after.” He nodded up to the nearest, most obvious dragon. “With things like that, it seems like the ones you sell people are toys.” 

“They basically are,” the man confirmed with a wink. “I’d be an idiot if I gave out my best work. The only reason I’m not chained up in some lab somewhere, making personal versions of Tigger over there for whatever Heretic group grabbed me first is keeping the strongest guys here. You people get the small versions because that’s the way I stay independent.” 

That said, Harry took a knee in front of Vulcan, meeting the cyberform’s gaze. “Anyway, how’re you doing, buddy? These two treating you alright?” 

He reached up, rubbing Vulcan’s head and murmuring softly for a moment before glancing to Columbus. “You’re not the one he’s bonded to, are you? Neither of you are.” 

“Not… exactly,” Columbus confirmed before hesitating. “Okay, so, what I’m about to say is totally not supposed to be breaking your rules about trying to convince you to join one side or the other. It’s just… you know, the facts. Just wanted to get that out of the way.” 

With that said, he carefully gave a quick summary of what had happened to lead Vulcan to being with him instead of Sean, and where the other boy was. He tried to keep things as matter-of-fact as possible, but couldn’t keep all the anger and frustration out of his voice. Which was not helped by the way Vulcan himself gave a soft, weak little whine whenever Sean and his current imprisonment was mentioned. Hearing that just made Columbus angrier. 

Thankfully, Shiori helped partway through, taking turns explaining the rest after sliding the phone away, back into her pocket. She stood there on Vulcan’s other side, hand rubbing the cyberform canine’s back while finishing with, “So now we’re trying to figure out how to get him out.” 

Once they finished with that, Harry looked back and forth between the two for a moment, clearly lost in thought. “I see,” he murmured, “I hope your friend ends up alright. Neutral, mind you, but still. I hope he comes out all intact. And hey, if he does and this little visit today ends up alright, maybe you can bring him over. I’d like to see Vulcan here with his partner. I don’t… ahh, get that many visitors.” He looked briefly regretful about that before turning away to walk toward the nearby dragon. “Well, in any case, come on, I’ll show you what I’ve been working on lately. Then we can talk about the reason you really wanted to come here.” 

After exchanging brief glances, the two siblings shrugged at one another and followed the man. It was very clear that he was intent on not saying more about the situation than he already had. Whatever his personal opinion on the matter, he wasn’t saying. And pushing would be bad. 

On the way over to the giant cyberform, Shiori spoke up. “Ah, Mr–I mean Harry, did you say this one’s name is Tigger? As in–” 

“The one above our heads is Winnie,” the man confirmed. “The one in the water is Piglet.” He smiled over his shoulder at them briefly. “I find it helps my creative process to have a theme.”

With that, he raised his mechanical hand and snapped the metal fingers, calling, “Tigger, entrance!” 

At those words, the massive cyberform abruptly took a step back, partway entering the water before it lay down on its stomach. The mouth opened wide, and Harry led the two students, Vulcan, and Galahad around to it. There was a door there, barely visible with the mouth opened the way it was. The door was round, with a slight indent for a handle. Beside it was a red half-globe about the size of a softball that had been cut in two. It glowed as they approached. 

“Don’t get any closer,” Harry warned the pair of teenagers and their cyberform companion. “Not until I let him know you’re alright. We wouldn’t want any… accidents.” 

With that bit of warning ringing in their ears (and a pair of vivid imaginations about just what kind of ‘accident’ there could be, Columbus and Shiori stayed very, very still. After assuring himself that they had taken heed, Harry stepped up into the mouth, then froze as the red orb projected some kind of light over him. The light scanned the man up and down twice before it, and the half-globe itself, turned green. 

“Full body scanner,” Harry informed them. “DNA through the hair and skin, retinal, fingerprints, bone structure, check for active hologram or magical shapeshifting, and more. Also scans the voice for distress.” Clearing his throat, he spoke clearly, “Everything’s fine, Tigger. These two humans and their cyberform companion are friends. State your names.” 

“Oh, uh, Columbus,” the boy quickly put in. “Columbus Porter.” He went still then, as the green light turned yellow while scanning over him from head to toe. As with Harry, it repeated twice before shifting back to green. 

It then did the same with Shiori after she gave her name. In her case, however, it stopped and began to blink yellow after the first pass. A soft warning tone chimed a few times, which brought Harry’s head around sharply. “Miss,” he began with a frown. “Is there something you haven’t–” 

“My mother’s a Vampire!” Shiori quickly blurted. “I mean, I… I’m… half-Vampire. Dhampyr. I wasn’t trying to hide it or anything, I just didn’t think it was relevant, and–” 

“Stop, stop.” Harry’s head shook. “Wait, Dhampyr-Heretic? Is that even po–” He stopped himself. “No, you’re right. It’s not all that relevant. Tigger was just anxious because I introduced you as human and you’re not… not exactly. Apologies. Tigger, it’s okay. She is a Dhampyr-Heretic… apparently. It’s safe. She’s clear.” He gave her a strange look then, but kept quiet. 

The light turned green then, before moving to quickly scan Vulcan. Finally, it was done, and the half-globe turned light purple before giving a triumphant chime. As it did, Harry reached out, caught hold of the handle of the circular hatch, and pulled it open. “Come on then,” he urged, “you’ll be the first people besides Galahad there to see this new project from an… inside perspective.” He actually giggled after saying those words, clearly amusing himself before stepping through. 

The others followed, finding themselves in what looked like the entrance of a submarine. The corridor was narrow and made entirely of metal, with a few hatchways along both walls and one at the end. That was the way Harry strode, pounding a fist against each door that they passed while explaining what was beyond. “Laundry’s through here. Kitchen and dining in this area. This here on the left is a rec room to keep up spirits. The whole thing’s bigger on the inside, but you should be used to that stuff by now.” 

“Are we in a pocket dimension or something?” Columbus asked as they reached the hatch at the end of the corridor, revealing what was obviously the bridge. It was a half-circle space with a raised platform and seat in the middle for the captain, a hologram projector screen in front that seemed to show a view of the cavern they had just left, and various control panels and comfortable chairs scattered throughout. A couple more hatches leading elsewhere in the dragon interior were against the back and far walls. 

“Hey, yeah,” Shiori realized, “are we? Because otherwise, what happens when the dragon stands up?” 

“Sort of,” Harry confirmed. “The space we’re in is stable. It’s always upright, and the body of the dragon moves around it. There’s more to it, but hey, trade secrets.” He winked before gesturing around the bridge with a bright, contagious smile. “Pretty cool though, huh?” 

It occurred to both teens at the same time that this was a man who ached to show off his toys. He genuinely wanted to share what he could make with people, but the fact that anyone he let in would almost inevitably try to take advantage of that necessitated his almost hermit-like lifestyle. They were, Columbus and Shiori realized, probably seen as ‘safe’ for him to open up to just because they presented absolutely no threat of being able to imprison Harrison or take his creations away. Because people clearly had. It made them both wonder just what had happened to make him learn that lesson and both institute and strictly enforce his neutral position. 

Shaking that thought away, Shiori smiled. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. But um, what is it? I mean… you’ve got seven seats in here, counting the… captain’s? Who’s piloting this thing? I thought you didn’t send the big ones anywhere.” 

“I don’t,” Harry replied, looking away to squint at one of the nearby consoles before offering a small shrug. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t build things that could take a group. I uhh… I like to stretch my hands and my brain like that.” Tenderly, the man ran his hand over the hologram projector, his voice wistful, “It’s just too bad that Tigger’ll never have a crew.” 

Galahad stepped past the others then, resting a metal hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Hey,” he started, “why don’t we take this thing for a spin before getting down to the important stuff?” 

A broad smile broke across Harry’s face, and he nodded before stepping up to plop himself into the captain’s seat. “Right, you two, pick somewhere to sit and we’ll get underway.” 

Shiori and Columbus moved to do just that, picking a couple of the crew positions. On the screens in front of them were a couple words floating back and forth, which they barely paid attention to… at first. Columbus, however, gave a short double-take after seeing them from the corner of his gaze, eyes widening dramatically as he absorbed the words on the screen. 

Not noticing the boy’s reaction, Harry started, “Okay then, let’s talk about where we’re going on our little joy–” 

“Excuse me,” Columbus found himself interrupting, unable to look away from the screen. He pointed with a shaking hand. “What… what is that?” 

“What’s what?” Harry asked, squinting that way while leaning up off his seat. 

“This.” Columbus leaned back, letting the man see the screen. “Why does the screen… why are those words there?” 

“Those words?” Harry looked even more confused by his reaction, which was furthered by Shiori’s own gasp as she finally focused on them herself. “It’s just Latin. It means–” 

“Summus Proelium,” Shiori read out loud. “Why did you write Summus Proelium on the computers?” 

Clearly lost about why the two were reacting that way, the short man stood and moved over. He squinted at the screen before shrugging once more. “It’s just the words from the world where I… where I took my power.” The two turned baffled looks toward him, and he explained, “It was an alternate Earth. One like ours, but different. Actually, it was the future on that world at the time. I went decades back, but it was like… two-thousand something there. Dimensional travel is weird. Anyway, my group and I went there, got separated, and I ended up fighting and… and killing one of their super-powered people.” 

“But where did you hear Summus Proelium?” Columbus pressed, trying not to grab the man. That definitely wouldn’t end well. 

 “It’s how they get their powers over there,” Harrison slowly replied. “These little orbs appear, announce… well, those words, and then transport the people into some pocket dimension where they’re empowered before being sent back. Why?” 

“The orbs… say Summus Proelium?” Columbus opened and shut his mouth, making a noise in the back of his throat. “And they transport these people to some other place to give them powers? I… that… oh.” 

“What’s going on?” Galahad spoke up sharply. “How do you two know those words?” 

“Umm…” Columbus exchanged a look with his sister before slowly replying, “I know you said you never met Arthur, so I guess you never met Nimue either. But–” 

“She’s a Seosten, I know that much,” Galahad confirmed with a brief glance toward Harrison. “He knows about them too. Part of why we’re so strictly neutral. Dunno what side’s still safe from them. But what do they have to do with this other world?” 

Hesitantly, the two siblings explained where they had heard the phrase before, and about the Seosten super-soldier project that had created the Olympians to begin with. 

“So, uhh,” Shiori finished, “the odds of little orbs that say those exact words before transporting the people from that other Earth somewhere else to give them powers not being related somehow to this are umm… small.” 

“Small indeed,” Harrison muttered under his breath before straightening to his full (still not exactly impressive) height. “Well. Maybe you should bring this Nimue or Athena or whatever she’s going by here next time, so we can figure out exactly what this means.” 

“Next time?” Columbus echoed, a note of both eagerness and caution in his voice. 

The man glanced to him. “Well yes, that’s what you were going to ask, wasn’t it? If I would teach you how to work with cyberforms and perhaps even start to build them.” As the boy fidgeted and stumbled for an answer that wouldn’t be rude, Harrison chuckled. “It’s okay to be eager, kid. I’ve been looking into your history, your school records both out of Crossroads and in, ever since Broker said you were interested in coming. Yeah. Yeah, as long as you don’t do anything stupid, I’ll… ahh, I’ll give you some pointers and we’ll see how it goes. But it means coming here four days a week for the entire summer. You got that? I’m gonna work you ragged if you wanna learn from me.” 

Quickly, Columbus nodded. “Four days a week, got it. I’ll be here. Whatever it takes. I want to learn.” 

“Oh, you’ll learn alright,” Harrison agreed. “And you’ll work. But like I said, bring this Nimue with you next time. And–” he glanced toward Galahad. “And bring that Lancelot too. They need to catch up.” Belatedly, the man amended, “That is, as long as you get through this test flight here without proving to be a completely incompetent ninny. Think you can do that?” 

“I… ahh, I’ll do my best, sir,” Columbus weakly promised, swallowing hard. 

“You do that.” Turning on his heel to move back to the captain’s seat, Harrison finished with, “Now, enough talk of Seosten, Olympians, wars, and everything else. 

“Let’s focus on seeing what this puppy can really do.” 

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Summer Epilogue 18

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As he parked the beat up old jalopy he drove in the staff lot of the Capital One Arena in D.C., the Heretic known as Broker glanced toward the boy in the passenger seat beside him. “You remember what I told you?”

Columbus nodded dutifully. “Don’t try to talk him into siding with the rebellion. Don’t try to talk him into picking any side. He’s neutral and he stays neutral. If I try to talk up our side he’ll—”

From the backseat, Shiori piped up, “Throw both of us out so fast our heads spin?”

Opening his door, Broker stepped out. “Correction, he’ll throw all of us out. And I’ll have lost any good grace I had with him. I went out on a limb to get you this meeting, kid. Don’t make me regret it.”

“We won’t,” Columbus promised, opening the other door while looking over his shoulder at the backseat. “Will we, boy?”

Giving a soft wuff of agreement, Vulcan waited for the back door to be opened before hopping down. Shiori followed suit. The metal dog cocked his head sideways as though listening for a moment before trotting over to a semi truck that was parked nearby. 

Watching the cyberform sniff for a moment, Columbus turned his attention back to Broker. “The others thought I shouldn’t meet with you. They thought it was a trap or something, because you’re still connected to Crossroads.”

Shiori stepped beside her brother, adding, “Some of them were pretty adamant about it.”

The dark-skinned man chuckled, making his long, clearly dyed red braids bounce a bit as he shook his head with a flash of golden teeth as he smiled. “That’s why Prosser showed up to check things out first? Yeah, I figured it was something like that. Let’s just say maybe I inherited a little bit of my old mentor’s thing for neutrality. You seem to make a lot more money if you sell to everyone.”

Quietly, Shiori noted, “I guess we’re glad no one paid you enough to turn us in.”

To that, the man shook his head once more. “Betrayal’s bad business. It might pay off once or twice, but your customer base dries up damn quick. Fredericks taught me that too.”

Columbus, meanwhile, watched him for a moment before quietly noting, “I guess I shouldn’t try to talk you into choosing a side then either.”

Broker shrugged. “Consider it easy practice for not talking the big guy into it. Now come on, you wanna meet him or what?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around the almost completely empty lot. “Not very busy, huh? Does Fredericks still have security around here?”

“NBA and NHL are both in the off-season,” Broker pointed out. “And yeah, he has plenty of security. As your little friend there is about to find out.”

Blinking, Columbus turned to see Vulcan still curiously sniffing at one of the wheels of the silver and blue semi. His mouth opened to say something, only to stop short as the truck abruptly moved. Except it didn’t just pull forward or something simple like that. Instead, the sides of the truck cab bulged out and then extended down toward the ground. Several giant metal fingers appeared, while the back of the cab shifted and extended a pair of legs. The truck cab straightened up on those legs, a head that looked like that of a human in a full plate mail helmet appearing. 

Actually, Columbus realized, the whole thing looked like a guy in plate mail. Standing at its full impressive height of just over thirty feet, the silver and blue figure looked like an old knight combined with a…

“Transformer!?” he blurted out loud, eyes widening. For just a second, he actually forgot about everything else. “Holy shit, he made an actual Transformer?”

“Only because I asked very nicely.” The booming voice came from the upright robot itself, as he loomed over the pair. “You should’ve seen how many chores I had to agree to do.”

While Vulcan gave a single bark, Columbus opened and shut his mouth a couple times, feeling like he needed to sit down. There was a high-pitched whining sound in his head. Wait, that wasn’t just in his head. It was coming from… 

He turned, to see his sister standing there, mouth hanging open as an incredibly high-pitched squeal escaped her. The girl’s eyes practically had stars in them, and she started a full-body shake that rose up from her toes, reached her head, then extended down her arms to her hands, making her fingers all-but vibrate. 

“Is… uhhh…” The knight-robot pointed a finger to her. “Is she okay?”

“Eeeeeeeeeee!” With that glorious, delighted squeal, Shiori suddenly raised that way, arms flailing wildly before throwing herself up against the standing figure’s metal leg in a tight hug. “Ohhh my God, you are so awesome! This is the coolest thing ever! Ever! Aaaaaaahhhhh!

Tilting his head to look down, the knight-cyberform asked, “She’s not letting go anytime soon, huh?”

“Kinda doubt it,” Columbus agreed. “Maybe if you told her what your name is so she doesn’t start calling you Optimus. Wait.” He paused, frowning. “Am I talking to an actual cyberform?”

A sound that was suspiciously similar to a cough escape the giant metal figure before he reached down to gently tap Shiori with one finger. “Milady?” He opened his hand then, offering it to the girl, who gave another high-pitched squeal before climbing on so that he could lift her up, depositing her on his shoulder.  

Finally, the ‘robot’ answered. “No, I’m not a cyberform the way you know them. I used to be a… person. I was about to die and Harrison transferred me into one of his little friends.”

“Wait.” Perched on his shoulder, Shiori piped up, “He can do that? You used to be like, a human or an Alter and he just put you in a cyberform body?”

The figure was briefly quiet before replying, “I was a bit of a special case.” Looking over toward Broker then, he added, “I’ve got it from here. Harrison says he wouldn’t mind having lunch on Sunday if you’re up for it.”

Shrugging, the adult Heretic replied, “Sure, he knows my number. Assuming he didn’t lose it again.” With a wink, he pivoted to head back to his car, calling over his shoulder, “Have fun, kids.”

From her high perch, Shiori called, “Thank you for introducing us to the coolest thing ever!” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean coolest… guy?”

“I like to think of myself as still male, yeah,” the figure in question replied. “Haven’t had much luck trying to convince Harrison to make it physically official, though.”

Columbus shook his head slowly back-and-forth. “I came here to meet the father of cyberforms, and now my sister is talking about robot penises with a Transformer.”

“I know,” Shiori blurted, “isn’t it great?! Err, the Transformer part. Wait, what do we call you?  Because seriously, I am really close to the whole Optimus thing.”

“As cool as that kind of universal crossover might be,” the metal man easily replied while watching Broker’s car pull out, “you can call me Galahad.”

That made both young Heretics and Vulcan do a double take as sounds of surprise escaped all of them. Columbus blurted, “Galahad? As in the Galahad?”

There was a brief pause, before the large metal man slowly answered, “Yeah, see, I know it might be hard for you to accept if you were raised as Bystanders, but Arthur was a real person and—”

“Hard for us to accept?” Shiori blurted. “Dude, we already know that Percival guy on the Committee is one of the knights. Not to mention, ya know, Guinevere is living at the camp with us. We are already completely brought up to speed on the whole Arthur thing.”

Galahad’s gaze snapped to the girl then, head turning and shifting back so he could stare at the girl as if she had become a second head attached to his shoulder. “The who in the what is staying where?”

Snorting at his reaction, Columbus spoke up. “She’s right, Guinevere’s at the camp. She was at the school, posing as a student.”

“And she kicked Ruthers’ ass,” Shiori noted with a grin. “It was awesome. But yeah, dude, we already know all about Arthur and all that. You’re really Galahad?” 

Columbus wasn’t sure how a face that looked like the front of a plate mail helmet could look flummoxed and taken aback, but Galahad managed it. He stared at both of them, switching his attention between looking at the girl on his shoulder, then at the boy on the ground, then back again, repeating that several times before he finally spoke. “Okay, well, I definitely wasn’t expecting that reaction. She’s… she’s really at the Atherby camp? I didn’t think she’d ever join up with…” He trailed off, managing another minor miracle by looking thoughtful. 

“You were one of Arthur’s knights?” Shiori hesitantly prompted, staring at him. 

Seeming to snap out of a deep well of memories, the tall robotic figure made a noise before shaking his head slightly. “No. I mean, yes. Sort of. Yes, I was… I was part of… of that group. But I was never officially…. I started as a–I was only. I–” He stopped then, head turning toward the stadium. “Oh, uh, we should head in.” 

“Head in?” Columbus stared at him a bit doubtfully. “How are–I mean you’re pretty–wait, what do people think they’re looking at when they see you?” 

“You mean Bystanders?” Galahad shrugged the shoulder that Shiori wasn’t sitting on. “Depends. Sometimes they forget me entirely. Sometimes they act like I’m a really tall guy. I think the Bystander Effect has its work cut out for it with me in this form.” 

“In this form?” Shiori jumped on. 

He reached a hand up once more, holding it out for her to climb on before lowering her back to the ground. “That’s right. This isn’t my only body. I’ve got a handful of them scattered all over the place that I can jump between. It’s ahh… useful. Hang on, I’ll lead you in with a different one.”

His current robot body shifted back into its truck form while the two adopted siblings watched in awe and fascination. Afterward, the two of them just sort of looked at one another, then to Vulcan, who whined quietly before moving to Shiori for head pats. 

They were waiting for only about thirty seconds before a man approached. The three looked that way, a bit uncertain. The man looked perfectly ordinary, just under six feet in height, with short brown hair very slightly unkempt, slightly tanned skin, and a cleanly shaven face. He wore nondescript jeans and a brown button-up shirt. 

“Uh,” Columbus started, “hi?” Beside him, Vulcan made a curious sound, sniffing once before huffing with what sounded like amusement. 

Giving them a brief smirk, the man raised a hand to wave. “Hi, yourself,” he replied. With those words, his appearance abruptly changed. The hologram of a normal person disappeared, revealing a metal humanoid shape beneath. His body was gleaming silver, with a glowing purple line running up both legs before joining into an arrow shape on his chest. His eyes were purple as well, and glowed just as brightly. When he spoke, it came through a speaker where his mouth would be. “You guys coming or what?” 

Vulcan, for his part, trotted over that way while making a woof sound that clearly translated as, ‘Yeah, come on already.’ 

Recovering quickly, Columbus and Shiori both nodded before moving. Galahad pivoted back the way he had come and began to lead them to the stadium. As they went, Columbus spoke up. “Oh, um, this is Shiori and I’m Columbus. And that’s Vulcan. You know that already, but our parents sort of taught us that it’s rude not to introduce yourself. I’m pretty sure they meant for us to do that before we go climbing all over someone though.” He added the last bit with a squint toward his sister.

“Dude, he was a giant Transformer,” Shiori retorted defensively. “Dad would totally understand.”

“I’m with her,” Galahad put in. “I mean, if it was me, I’d understand. I mean, it was me, but it wasn’t… I mean…”

Shiori leaned close to her brother, whispering, “I honestly don’t know which is cooler, that Galahad can be a giant Transformer, or that he’s also kind of a massive dork.” 

Giving up on the semantics of what he was trying to say, the man clearly just opted to change the subject. “Right, so where was I? Oh yeah, I never actually met Arthur. I came later, after he was already… gone. My umm, my father’s people tried to kill me as a boy. Guinevere saved me. She raised me from the time I was a kid. Taught me everything I know, and… eventually knighted me.  

“So she’s kind of like a mother to you,” Shiori murmured. 

Making a soft chuckling sound, Galahad’s robot head tilted over toward the girl. “Yeah, you could say that Guinevere is like a mother to me and Lancelot is like a father. Which is kind of funny if you–” 

“Guinevere is also Lancelot,” Columbus finished for him. “She kinda gave that away too, back at the camp.” 

“Well shit, is she keeping any secrets anymore?” Galahad blurted, just as they reached a door on the side of the stadium marked for staff use only. There was a keypad there, and he reached out to hit a series of buttons until it beeped and turned green. Then he hauled the door open and gestured for them to head through. “Things must really be coming to a head if Gwen’s being open about stuff. That lady and her secrets…” 

As they walked through an ordinary looking corridor that could’ve been in any office building to a completely unlabeled door, Shiori asked, “If she meant so much to you, why did you leave?”

“Does it have to do with your, uhh condition?” Columbus added. 

Galahad opened the door and ushered them through into what appeared to be an unfinished room. “Yes, at least at first. I was… let’s just say I was magically cursed. I was going to die and there was nothing she could do about it. I didn’t want her to see me like that, and I didn’t want to see her get more and more desperate. So I left to die alone.”

Moving to the other side of the room, he reached up to the apparently blank wall and pushed something on it. There was a chime, and part of the wall slid aside to reveal an elevator. As the group stepped into the elevator, he continued. “Long story short, Harrison Fredericks found me and managed to transfer me into one of his cyberforms. He saved my life. But I wasn’t exactly… good with having robot bodies for a long time. It took a lot of effort and failure before I could control them properly.”

The elevator began to descend, as Columbus rested a hand on Vulcan’s head while speaking up. “That’s why you didn’t go back to Guinevere, at least right then?”

Galahad gave a brief nod of his metallic head. “That and I was ashamed of what I became, for awhile. Maybe it was stupid. Okay, it was definitely stupid. But I felt like I had lost who I was when I lost my body. I was a robot who couldn’t even control my arms and legs properly. It took me six months to figure out how to walk in a straight line. I didn’t want Guinevere to see me like that. After that, I just felt like I owed Harrison too much.”

As the elevator came to a stop, he added, “And by the time I felt like I could face her, I had no idea where they had moved on to. I didn’t know how to find them. She’s really good at hiding, let me tell you.”

The elevator doors opened to reveal a room whose size was truly mind-boggling. Despite the fact they had not gone down all that far, the ceiling appeared to be a good ten stories up. The room itself was circular, and the distance from one side to the other was the length of at least four football fields. Dozens of vehicles of all shapes, sizes, purposes, and conditions were scattered through the place, from bicycles to motorcycles to cars, trucks, full fighter jets, and even yachts. Various mechanical animals of literally any conceivable kind wandered or flew through the room as well, some in completely finished states, others barely more than a metal skeleton with wires and circuits hanging out. Tables piled high with equipment and tools were everywhere, along with blueprints, notes, odd ideas, and more scribbled on paper, on tables, on the side of passing cyberforms themselves (there was a half-finished cow with a sticky note on its rump about buying milk), and more. 

“Um,” Shiori started while pointing toward the far end of the room, “are those dinosaurs?” 

Sure enough, in a pen whose six foot fence seemed hilariously ill-equipped to hold them, a handful of cyberform dinosaurs, including a Triceratops, an Ankylosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus rex, and several others, wandered. 

“Yeah,” Galahad confirmed. “Harrison likes his dinosaurs. Don’t worry though, he’d never let anyone buy one of the big ones. He has a thing about keeping anything over a certain size for himself, or super-close friends. Helps maintain our neutrality.”

Stepping in front of them, he turned to spread both arms out as if to gesture around the entire facility. “Anyway, this is one of the labs. You like it? We, ahh, don’t get many visitors.”

“Wait,” Shiori realized, “one of the labs? You mean this isn’t the only one?”

Galahad chuckled. “The only one? No, there’s at least five more this same size. Some of them have more stuff than this, some of them have just one or two things that he wants to work on in private. I’m pretty sure he’s got a whale-Titanic thing in one of them. He keeps himself busy. Which is why meeting new people for once is a good thing.” Turning, he pointed toward a door on the far left side of the room, so far away it was barely visible, and only then because it was a different color than the wall. “So, you three ready to meet the man himself? Let’s go say hi.

“Oh, and if he’s in the dragon room, try not to make a lot of loud noises. They startle easily sometimes.”

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