Gavant

Deliverance 7-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Fossor does not directly appear in this chapter, but there is a bit about a previous evil thing he did far in the past, unrelated to Flick or any of her people. A summary is at the bottom of the chapter for those who would prefer to skim Fossor-related content. 

I didn’t want to say that things settled into a routine, because… well, fuck those implications. But honestly, they did. The next two weeks were simultaneously the longest in my life while also blurring together. There was so much horrible dread, so much hatred and anger every time I saw or thought about the man who was holding my mother and I prisoner, so much… ugliness that the specifics all got muddled up together in my head. It got to the point that I had to stop and really think about what exactly happened on what day, even just a short time afterward. 

It helped that I kept myself busy. Or, rather, everything kept me busy. My nights were spent mostly talking to and learning from Shyel while I was asleep in my mother’s bed, and plotting with Rahanvael while I was awake. I would lie there in bed with Mom, letting her sleep while I silently communicated with the ghost girl. Whenever possible, she remained totally invisible, only answering me with positive and negative/yes and no feelings. But occasionally she did have to manifest to have a real conversation, when I needed more specifics than a simple yes or no could provide. Thankfully, she could detect any of Fossor’s little necromancy-touched minions, and he was too paranoid to let people he didn’t control come snooping around. She knew whenever any of them were coming and could hide.

Meanwhile, my days were mostly split between spending time with my mother (something I would never be able to get enough of, and the only good part about any of this), learning from Fossor with the occasional bout in the arena to show off what I’d learned, and taking care of/maintaining my golems. Not only Kendall and Gavant, but the other Meregan he’d brought with him. There were four beyond Gavant himself, none of whom I recognized specifically. Not that that mattered. They had been living beings. Worse, they had been living members of a nearly extinct species. Every time I saw them, every time I thought about how that callous, evil, vindictive piece of shit had hurt and… and destroyed the Meregan people, I wanted to scream until my own throat wouldn’t let me scream anymore. The Meregan had suffered enough. Why couldn’t they just be left alone to recover? They… they were nice to me. They didn’t deserve this. No species deserved to go through what theirs had. It wasn’t fair. 

Right, as if Fossor gave a shit about fair. All he cared about was what was good for Fossor. And, apparently, what was good for Fossor at the moment was giving me a bunch of Necromancy training. It wasn’t just with golems either. He also taught me other Necromancy tricks. Not enough to challenge him, of course. I’d need a hell of a lot more time than I actually had to be able to get close to doing that. He’d been doing this for literally thousands of years. It was like Shyel had said, my only chance was going to be in taking advantage of one mistake, in hitting him from some direction that he didn’t actually anticipate. And that was going to be tricky. 

Thankfully, I had something resembling a plan. A plan that was taking a long time to pull off, and would be really easy to fuck up, but a plan nonetheless. That was the other thing that had eaten up every spare moment I had over the past fourteen days and made everything blend together so much. Not to mention the fact that I had to spend time doing a bunch of other things that could conceivably lead to escaping just so I could drag my answer out with all of those if Fossor happened to ask (and he did) if I had physically done anything that might lead to escape.

Not that he used the Writing Room that much. Surprisingly little, actually, given the circumstances. And it wasn’t just because he was ‘saving power’ in the room or whatever, though I had a feeling that was part of it. He was also still clearly preoccupied with something else whenever he wasn’t actively teaching me or ruling over his little arena battles. He was really busy working on something else. 

The question of what was distracting him so much was, of course, pretty important. But it wasn’t like I could just start asking Fossor questions in the Writing Room myself. All I could do was quietly worry about it while focusing on my own plan. A plan I had shared with my mother a few days after conceiving it, using that same ‘secret information sharing’ spell that Prosser had taught me. That was the one single way that we had to keep things absolutely private. 

So yeah, the point was, the past couple weeks had been really busy. To say the least. I kept myself occupied to avoid dwelling on how much I missed my dad, my friends, Shiori and Avalon, and… and everyone. Between the horrors of being here under Fossor and the pain of being away from everyone I cared about other than my mother, I had a lot to distract myself from. 

At that particular moment, I was performing maintenance on Kendall after another bout in the arena. It had been my third one since that first day, a battle between both Kendall and Gavant (I was learning to switch which one was active based on what I needed) and a mixed group of a couple orcs, one lizard man, a troll, and a snake monster whose body had wrapped almost all the way around the arena. That had been… well, not fun. I was using Necromancy magic that Fossor had taught me to patch up the holes in Kendall’s body, murmuring useless apologies. 

Caleb, Miles’s father, was here as well, working on cleaning the blood off of Gavant with a rag and ladder. That was his job. The man whose species was all about protecting people had been given the duty of cleaning and patching the zombies and other dead things in Fossor’s stable. He bathed them, cleaned them, put new clothes on them, and basically just made sure they were presentable in general. He and I had talked a bit about trying to find out where his wife was being held, but neither of us had a real plan as far as that went. I wasn’t going to risk asking Fossor, because if he knew the connection between his little ‘keeper of the dead’, as he called Caleb, and someone from my real life, he would’ve found some horrific way to exploit it. 

The two of us couldn’t talk right now, because Ahmose was here. Fossor’s favorite torture ghost was watching me work. I wasn’t sure why, but it was obviously part of his orders from his master. He didn’t interrupt or anything, he just floated there in the doorway watching what I was doing. My nerves were on edge from the fear that Fossor had some idea of what I was really working on, which may have been the point. Not that the Necromancer actually knew anything, but that he wanted me to be paranoid and possibly make a mistake if I was trying something. 

That or he was simply fucking with me to see what would happen. That was basically just as likely. Fossor had all the control here, and he knew it. It was a fact he’d exploited for the past fourteen days by making me fight in his stupid arena, making me learn from him, threatening to have innocent children killed not only if I didn’t cooperate, but if I didn’t win. These fights had been hard enough without the pressure of knowing how many totally innocent people would die if I failed. It was too much, and I was terrified that I would end up being responsible for a massacre.

No. I wouldn’t be responsible. Fossor would be. I knew that. Intellectually, I knew that. I’d even said so repeatedly. But emotionally, the fear of how that would feel kept creeping up on me. 

“Are you finished?” The voice of Ahmose, coming from directly behind me as he had apparently floated up while I was distracted thinking about all that, made me jump. “You appear to be finished,” he added flatly when I jerked around to stare at him. 

“I–um, yeah. Yeah, she’s good for now,” I mumbled a bit uncomfortably. The last thing I wanted was to be near the ghost who could make me feel blinding agony just by touching me. The memory of how that punishment had felt the first day (and I’d gotten a couple reminders on Fossor’s orders since then) still made me shudder. “Why, we’re not going back to the arena already, are we?” Once before, Fossor had called me there right after I finished cleaning up from a fight, only to sit and watch some other battle. But for whatever reason, he never had me watch Mom fight. He always ordered me out of the arena before she would have her battle. I wasn’t sure why, or if there actually was a reason at all. I’d asked Mom about it, but she just told me the fights were a straight up brawl and that she couldn’t think of any reason Fossor would want me out of the room. For all we knew, it was a test to see if I’d push to see her fights or try to find a way to sneak around. 

The point was, I had yet to see my mother in combat. And I knew she was doing that right now, so the thought that Fossor might be calling me back… I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. 

“No,” Ahmose informed me in a low voice. But he didn’t elaborate beyond that. Instead, after that single word, the large, purple ghost with red eyes turned to glide silently away from me. He went through the open doorway and continued through the hallway beyond, clearly expecting me to follow after him without actually explaining anything. Which was fair enough, considering it wasn’t like I had any choice in the matter whether I’d known where we were going or not. 

I wanted to glance back toward Caleb on the way out, but there was no way that I would take that kind of risk. Not with Ahmose this close. Instead, I just exhaled and patted the dead Kendall on the shoulder before starting out of the room, summoning her to follow. One thing I knew for sure. If it was at all possible, I was going to get not only Caleb (and hopefully his wife if we could find her), but also as many of the dead bodies as possible out of here. They deserved to be put to rest. Yes, they were dead. But Fossor was defiling them by forcing their bodies to do his bidding in these sick games. If I could, if it was possible, I would get them out of this horrible place. 

Yeah, I’d get them out. Right around the time I got myself and my mother out. I wasn’t so much putting the cart ahead of the horse there as I was building an entire western theme park before I had a single foal. But hey, it was good to have goals? 

Either way, Ahmose led me through the palace. As promised, we weren’t heading back to the arena. I’d (regrettably) been in this place enough for me to have at least a basic idea of where things were, and we were heading up and away from the direction of the arena. We were heading for an area I hadn’t been in very much. It wasn’t Fossor’s private quarters or anything, just a part of the palace I’d only very briefly passed through. 

Well, sort of, anyway. I had been through this area in another way over the past week and a half, just as I’d been almost everywhere that Fossor wasn’t actively keeping me out of. But that was… different. And I certainly hadn’t been in a position to see everything the way I was seeing it now. I’d been rather occupied with my plan at the time. 

Any idea where we’re going? I directed inward toward Rahanvael, keeping an eye on Ahmose’s back as he glided along ahead of me. By that point, I was over ninety percent sure he’d never notice her presence even if she communicated (silently) with me, but I watched him a bit anyway. Sure enough, he showed no reaction at all as the negative response came back. Rahanvael didn’t know what was going on either. And from the feeling she’d expressed, I was confident that she wasn’t sensing an ambush of zombies and ghosts or whatever. 

As it turned out, the place I was being taken to was the top of one of the mansion’s towers. The west tower, actually. It was a round room, about three hundred feet in diameter, with stairs (the ones we had just come up) directly in the middle and four huge stained glass windows at the twelve, six, three, and nine o’clock positions. The images in the colorful windows depicted various horrific scenes. Straight ahead at the twelve position was an image of a medieval city street full of bodies, with a cart that had more bodies stacked up on it, being pulled through by a skeletally-thin mule. There were people leaning out of the buildings, and looks on their faces… the fact that the artist had managed to create such haunting, terrifying visages in stained glass was a testament to their skill. It also made me sick. One bit in particular showed a little girl leaning out a window with what looked like a wooden doll hanging from one hand. 

Meanwhile, the other three windows were equally horrible (in content). The three o’clock one showed bodies being burned in a pit while some actively tried to climb out of it. The six o’clock window depicted mangled, rotting corpses walking back into the same street scene from the first window and attacking the living. That girl with the doll was gone from the window and was instead down on the ground, her back to the viewer as she fled. 

And yet, it was the last image, the one for the nine o’clock position, that was somehow the worst of all. This despite the fact that it didn’t show any zombies or monsters. Or any people at all. It was a view of the same neighborhood, except it was empty, devoid of any living things. In the very center of the painting was that wooden doll from the girl. It lay on its side, with a small yet telling puddle of blood leading away from it and off ‘screen.’ 

Okay, that really fucked me up. Just standing there seeing all those windows, feeling the ‘story’ they told, made me have to close my eyes to collect myself for a moment. Thankfully, Ahmose didn’t push me to get on with it or say anything. He just waited in total silence.

Finally, I forced myself to ignore the windows. Instead, I focused on the ghost (which honestly wasn’t that much of an improvement, all things considered) and spoke in a somewhat hollow voice. “What are we doing up here? What does Fossor want from me now?” Because I sure as hell knew this wasn’t something Ahmose had done on his own. Whatever this whole thing was about, it was my piece of shit ‘host’ who was behind it. 

“We are here,” Ahmose answered in a voice that seemed to echo around me and through the room, “to continue on to the next stage of your training. Lord Fossor requires that you begin summoning and putting to work the spirits of the dead. Many such spirits are tied to this very room, through the images depicting their last days. They will be your training tools.”

The words penetrated, but made no sense for a moment. Or maybe I just didn’t want to understand. But then I did. And I immediately regretted it. My gaze first glanced toward the motionless Kendall, then snapped over to look at the first window. I stared that way for a moment, then at the rest of the windows before blurting, “Wait, you mean… you mean this is all real? Those images, they’re depicting literally real events, not just… not… the people in those windows, that little girl, they’re all… they’re all real. All of that really happened, and now they’re bound to this single room with nothing but stained glass windows showing the horror of their last days?”

There was a brief pause before the ghost gave a single nod, his blazing eyes not leaving mine. “That,” he confirmed, “is correct.”  

Now I really was going to be sick. I was supposed to call up those ghosts, I was supposed to learn how to manipulate and order them around. How was I… what was I… How…

My hands had found their way to my face. I shuddered a little despite myself. I couldn’t refuse. As much as I desperately wanted to, I couldn’t tell Ahmose to tell Fossor to go fuck himself. There was too much at stake. If he was pissed off, there were too many ways that bastard could hurt me (mostly by hurting Mom, or by killing innocent people). He was, for the moment, in total control, and he knew it. It was why he hadn’t even bothered being here for this part. He could just send his ghost minion with me, check in through him once in awhile, and make sure I did everything I was supposed to. 

I had no more choice than any of Fossor’s ghosts, really. Not in whether I followed a direct order or not. And this was clearly a direct order. I was going to learn to control ghosts, and I was going to do it with these… these poor victims. 

“Fine,” I managed in a voice that cracked just a little despite myself. It was all I could do to force those words out. “Let’s get to it then.” 

Meanwhile, inwardly all I could think was that Fossor had better enjoy the advantage he had at that moment, because eventually, my plan was going to be ready. 

And I couldn’t wait to see the look on that son of a bitch’s face when he finally found out how I was going to fuck him over. 

 

SUMMARY

Flick has spent a couple weeks learning, training, fighting, etc. And working on her escape plan, which she has secretly shared with her mother. After a session of cleaning up the damaged Kendall golem, she is taken by the ghost Ahmose to a tower room where she finds four stained glass windows depicting an old village being infected by a plague and then the dead villagers rising to kill the rest. Flick learns from Ahmose that the windows depict actual events and that the ghosts of those villagers are held within the tower room. Ghosts which she is supposed to learn to summon and control. 

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Eighteen 6-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There is a summary at the bottom of the chapter for those who would prefer to avoid Fossor. 

Powers. I could kill with these golem things and then… and then what, collect the powers/boosts they’d gained with those kills just by touching them afterward? What–how did that even–what? 

Clearly amused by the look on my face, Fossor stepped back and gestured for the audience. “You see?” he started in a sly voice, prompting a few assorted chuckles throughout the stands, “even now, after everything she went through over the past year, my girl can still be surprised. Isn’t that adorable?” 

Yeah, there were definitely a few things I wanted to say to that. But all of them would have gotten me in trouble, and the van with those Chamrosh wasn’t so far away from the school that an annoyed Fossor couldn’t have them turn around and go back. So, with a little bit of effort, I managed to clamp down on the vicious retort that jumped immediately to my lips. Later. There would be a time and place when I could tell Fossor everything I thought about him. Not now. 

Instead, I simply looked back to where my mother was watching intently. She seemed just as uncertain as I was, but gave me a short nod of encouragement. She mouthed something I didn’t quite catch, but I was pretty sure she was telling me to go ahead and ask about what happened. 

Right, I might as well. Fossor clearly already knew I was confused. So I looked to him and flatly spoke up. “What just happened? How did the… how?” That was all I could manage to get out. 

“A fine question, dearest,” Fossor patiently agreed, “but now is hardly the time for such things. My friends here have been quite patient already, waiting through all the training we’ve done simply for one little warm-up match. I believe it’s time for the main event to get started.” He waited through the roars of approval those words were met with, clearly loving the reaction. After a few seconds, he raised one hand and the cheering instantly stopped, the arena going silent as he pointedly raised an eyebrow at me. “So, unless you’d like to continue fighting, I suggest you join your mother over there and simply enjoy the rest of the show for the moment.”

Right, of course all these people wouldn’t be gathered for a bit of training and a single practice fight for me, no matter what the stakes had been. Actually, given who these people were and the fact that they were willingly associating with someone like Fossor, I was pretty sure the ‘stakes’ being the lives of all those innocent young students basically meant nothing to them. And, from glancing around the arena, I could see that they were quite eager to get the real fights underway. My entire thing had essentially been a warm-up act, which made me feel… strange. 

Still, no way did I want to be involved in the fighting anymore. So, I started to turn and walk away before stopping myself. A thought took control of Kendall and I made her walk to the gate. Then I directed my focus over to Gavant and made the enormous man stand up before moving to join Kendall. Once the gate was opened for them, I sent both out. They might’ve been dead already, sure. But I still wasn’t just going to leave their bodies standing in the arena to be torn apart. I was… responsible for them, in a way. I felt bad enough about the fact that Fossor had killed them just to give me what amounted to puppets to work with. Letting their bodies get torn apart in some arena fight that they had nothing to do with felt pretty damn disrespectful. 

After directing the two of them outside of the arena, I followed suit and walked out. Mom was already there, standing in front of Gavant with a solemn look on her face as she reached up to touch the side of his arm. I could see the pain there. She knew the man, and clearly knew how much his people had already suffered. When I got there, her voice was quiet. “I’m sorry, one-of-honor,” she whispered to the dead figure. “You deserved far better than this.” 

Behind us, more people were entering the arena, to the assorted cheers and boos of the crowd depending on who liked which person. No one was paying attention to my mother and me anymore, which was just fine as far as I was concerned. I could definitely deal with being ignored right then.

With her hand still pressed tightly against Gavant’s arm, Mom turned to me. Her voice cracked just a little bit as she quietly announced, “He was a good man. He didn’t deserve this, any of it.” 

“I know,” I agreed, forcing myself to look up into the man’s dead eyes. “I’m sorry, Gavant. I’m sorry you got dragged into all this again. I’m sorry your people were just…” Exhaling, I shook my head while looking away, my voice dropping into a mutter. “I’m sorry about everything.” 

Mom and I both let that sit for a minute, each of us looking toward the arena without actually paying much attention to what was going on in it. People were being divided up into teams or something to fight each other. Whatever. They could all just go ahead and die as far as I was concerned. They willingly worked with Fossor. They willingly participated in his little games, including the one where a bunch of innocent school children would have been killed if I didn’t win my match. At that moment, I didn’t really care if they all just spontaneously combusted. 

Finally, I felt my mother’s hand on my shoulder. When I looked that way, she asked, “Who is this?” There was still very obvious pain and grief in her voice, her eyes directed toward the other golem Fossor had forced on me. “I don’t… she’s familiar. I used to know her. Who is she?” Even as she asked that, I could tell that my mother was dreading the answer. “You said Kendall.” 

Reluctantly, I nodded. “Kendall Harver. The… the Harvers, from back home. We were sort of… we didn’t get along.” No way was I going to say that Kendall was my enemy. I’d basically forgotten about her even before going to Crossroads, and now I knew what real enemies were. “I guess Fossor thought that meant more than I did. I…” Fuck, even saying that sounded wrong. Flinching, I managed a weak little, “I didn’t want anything like this to happen to her.” God, was that even inadequate. Of course I didn’t want this to happen, what the hell was I even saying? 

“The Harvers…” Saying that name made Mom cringe, her eyes closing briefly. I felt her grip on my shoulder tighten a bit. “Sasha and Kevin. Those poor…” Cutting herself off, Mom opened her eyes to look straight at me. I could see the grief there still, but also anger, righteous rage. She was furious to a level that I wasn’t sure Fossor fully understood. That anger was going to boil out at some point. My mother was holding it in, keeping track of each and every one of the necromancer’s transgressions. And someday, he would have to pay for them. 

For the moment, however, she pushed it back down, giving a slight headshake at me. Now wasn’t the time. Angry as we both might have been, we had to control it and wait for the right moment. Instead, she simply asked, “The aura flare. Did you actually…?” 

“I think so,” I confirmed. “I mean, it felt just like when I kill something myself, just delayed until I touched her. You don’t know anything about it?” 

“No.” Mom’s head shook once more, eyes narrowed thoughtfully at the arena where the fighting had started between two groups of three (much to the excitement of the crowd). “But he was obviously expecting it.” 

She was right. Me gaining powers from Kendall like that had clearly not exactly been a surprise to Fossor. And that made me wonder if that wasn’t the whole point of the exercise to begin with. Had he actually been testing to see if it would happen that way and hiding the test behind all that extra bullshit just so he wouldn’t look bad if he was wrong? Frowning thoughtfully at that consideration, I turned my head to look up toward the man himself. 

Fossor was looking at me from that throne of his. Ignoring the fight that was going on, he was instead staring directly into my eyes when I looked up. A slight smile curved at his lips, and he gave me one single nod. 

Shuddering despite myself, I turned away from him, folding my arms over my stomach uncomfortably. Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I forced myself to pay attention to the ongoing fight. 

I might not have been interested in how it went, but I was pretty sure I would have to fight at least some of these people at one point or another. Either in the arena or otherwise. So I might as well watch to be ready for when that inevitably happened. 

******

Hours later, the fighting was finally over. A team consisting of a weresnake, a troll, and a little pixie-creature that used electricity magic or powers had won in the end. Fossor presented them with some kind of heavy wooden chest with a complicated set of runes on it which, to my limited understanding, were spells that would do very terrible things to anyone who opened it without the counterspell. Whatever was in that chest, the trio acted really happy about getting it while the teams who had lost (those who were still alive) looked pretty disappointed and annoyed. 

After handing over a parchment that was apparently the spell to unlock the chest, and informing them that they should do so somewhere safely away from where others might grab their treasure, Fossor dismissed the rest of the crowd. He played it up like a true showman in front of them, informing the crowd that they could come back for another round of fights soon enough, and that by that time his ‘new girl’ would be practiced enough to give them a real show. 

While the group filed out, Mom and I just stood there with the Kendall and Gavant bodies nearby. A few of the people passing offered congratulations to me, others offered jeers and insults. I ignored all of them, focused on watching Fossor in the middle of the arena. He wasn’t looking at us. Instead, he seemed to be deep in conversation with that ghost who had seemed so amused when he’d startled me yesterday by popping up to inform us that it was time to bathe. I was really curious about what those two were talking about, considering Fossor appeared to be pretty distracted by it (and maybe even a little annoyed). Anything that annoyed that psycho fuck was something I wanted to know more about. And possibly write a ballad about.

Beside me, my mother murmured, “He’s using magic to prevent eavesdropping. Whatever is happening, he doesn’t want either of us to know anything about it.” After saying that, she looked to me, her hand finding its way to my shoulder to squeeze reassuringly. “I’d take that as a good thing.” Despite her words, however, I could see the pain in Mom’s face. The Meregan. She was barely holding it together after seeing what had happened to all those Meregan people. The Meregan, who were already so close to being entirely wiped out. Now their world had apparently been taken over by Fomorians and this group was just… dead. After living through so much, after surviving so much, they came for help and… and Fossor had just…

Yeah, no wonder Mom wasn’t doing very well at holding back her emotions. She was barely keeping it together enough not to throw herself (utterly uselessly) in a screaming, frothing rage at the arrogant piece of shit standing right there. She knew as well as I did that it wouldn’t accomplish anything, and yet… and yet I really couldn’t blame her for being one inch from doing it anyway. I was pretty sure that only the fact that I was standing there held her in check. Just like I didn’t want Fossor to take anything I did out on her, she didn’t want me to end up hurt because of something she did. Fossor had each of us very well in hand just by threatening the other. 

Finally, Fossor’s clearly intense conversation with the ghost ended, and he waved a hand to send the transparent figure away. Then the man pivoted, looking straight to us. I had the briefest glimpse of a troubled, not-very-happy expression before it vanished and was replaced with a smile. Casually, he raised one hand and beckoned for both of us to come with two fingers. 

Resisting the urge to reply with one finger, I sighed and started out that way with my mother right behind me. Belatedly, I reached out with my necromancy power to urge the bodies of Kendall and Gavant to follow behind us.

Reaching the man himself (or rather, as close as I was going to get), I stopped and folded my arms. My voice was brittle as I made myself meet his gaze. “Are you going to tell me what happened back there with Kendall and the… the Heretic thing?” I didn’t want to learn about that from him any more than I’d wanted to learn about using my necromancy power in the first place from him. But Mom clearly had no idea what was going on there, and he did. He was my only choice. 

And, of course, he was amused by the fact that I had to ask him despite clearly not wanting to. Adopting the look of a kind professor (which just made me feel even worse about the whole thing), Fossor gave a short nod. “Yes, of course. I would love to explain it to you, my brilliant girl.” 

I didn’t know how Mom reacted to that because she was behind me, but it must have been something, because I saw the way his eyes flashed briefly to her. His smile was infuriating, and I was kind of surprised that she stopped herself from hurling something (like a fireball) at him. In the end, she did manage to restrain herself and Fossor continued. “You remember the term I used for the magic power you have… weaved around the bodies of the golems?” 

Squinting that way, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, of course I do. Web. You called it a web of power.” It wasn’t a bad term, obviously. I pulled at strands of the web to make them do things. According to Fossor, eventually I would get good enough to simply give the slightest poke at one bit of web to cause more complicated actions to happen. He’d said that it was like learning an instrument. Right now I was a novice, but if I kept at it, a real ‘artist’ (as he put it) could produce an entire symphony by plucking at various strings. He’d sounded super-excited by that possibility, which just made the whole thing even worse for me to consider. 

“That web,” Fossor was already explaining in his professor-voice, “seems to hold the death energy from the things they kill. When you touch the golem, it transfers that energy into you. I had heard of certain Reapers using golems to feed themselves, and yet this… I was afraid to hope this would work as well as it seems to have.” 

Mom blurted, “So you’re saying she can just continue gaining powers from things her golems kill?” 

“Well,” the Necromancer infuriatingly patiently corrected, “if it’s anything like how the Reapers work, the death energy will fade relatively soon when not in active combat. And it will fade incredibly quickly as soon as our brilliant girl takes her attention off of it. In layman’s terms, within a very brief time of Felicity turning her attention to something else, either her own fight or controlling a different golem, the death energy will fade. But yes, so long as she focuses on controlling a singular golem and touches that golem very soon after its fight, she will gain powers from it.” His smile was broad. “Isn’t that delightful?” 

A few words immediately leapt to mind that I really wanted to spit at him, but none of them were any synonym for delightful. So I kept them to myself, with a little effort. Instead, I simply demanded, “What happens to Kendall and the rest of the Meregan now?” 

“Well, you will be responsible for them, of course,” Fossor informed me in the same tone of voice a father would tell a child that they would need to take care of the family pet. “There’s a stable one floor down from the rooms you and your beautiful mother are staying in. That’s where the rest of the Meregan are. I believe Joselyn can show you the way. Take this Meregan there to join his people. As for the human girl, I expect you to keep her with you. Consider her an extra set of hands. Get accustomed to having her around. Keep her clean, clothed, and anything else she needs. I don’t want to ever find you somewhere without your little golem near enough to help out. Understand?” 

Waiting until I murmured an acknowledgment, the man then gestured. “Good. Joselyn dear, show our girl where to take the Meregan, then the two of you can have some lunch. I’m sure she’s worked up a big appetite.”

With that, Mom and I left, with my two…. golems following. My voice trembled a little once we were out of the arena area. “I hate him,” I whispered. “I hate him so much.” 

“I know, baby,” Mom murmured, taking my hand to interlock our fingers. “I know.” 

Together, we made our way through the palatial mansion, where the halls were so large Gavant didn’t even need to duck. Eventually, we reached an enormous set of double-doors that Mom said led into the ‘stables’, which were apparently just open-air rooms where Fossor kept various groups of his dead troops. 

As promised, the rest of that group of Meregan were here. I recognized some, a fact that made me feel even worse about the whole thing. But there were also others who weren’t Meregan, other dead bodies standing around waiting to be controlled. One in particular drew my attention, a tall, fur-covered man who kind of looked like a Wookie. Or like Bigfoot with very long arms. His back was to me, and with dread in my stomach, I stepped that way. My voice was a whisper, “Oh God, Caleb…” 

He turned around, looking at me with a startled expression. I was just as taken aback, blurting, “You’re alive! I–what–” 

“Yes,” the fur-covered man confirmed. “I… take care of the dead here. That’s my job, it’s why I get to live.” His voice was flat, but still tinged with a mixture of sadness and bitterness.  

“You–is… is your wife alive?” I reflexively asked, my eyes widening. 

The man looked confused, his brow knitting together. “How do you know my wife?” 

“I don’t.” My head shook. “I’ve never met you or your wife, sir.

“I know your son, Miles. And I know that he’s been looking for you for a long time.” 

 

SUMMARY

Flick asks Fossor what just happened with the Heretic kill-absorption activating after she touched Kendall. However, he declines to answer the question immediately, instead telling Flick to leave the arena so that the full tournament can start. Flick takes Kendall and Gavant out of the arena, where Joselyn reacts to Gavant’s death and then asks about who Kendall is. Joselyn recognizes Kendall’s last name of Harver from living in Laramie Falls, and is sad for the girl’s parents. They then watch the day’s tournament battles for a few hours, before the guests are dismissed to leave. Fossor has a brief interaction with one of his ghosts, using privacy spells to ensure that Flick and Joselyn can’t hear what’s going on. He then informs Flick that the ‘web of energy’ she uses to control the golems is what absorbs the death energy and allows her to later gain the powers/boosts by touching them as long as she does so relatively soon and without being too distracted from her control. Finally, Joselyn and Flick take Gavant to the ‘stable’ room for dead things to stay in, where Flick finds the (living) caretaker of the dead… Miles’s father.

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Eighteen 6-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As Fossor is quite active in this chapter, there is a summary at the bottom. 

There was a high-pitched roaring somewhere in the back of my head. A rush of anger, of disbelief, helplessness, and grief all welled up within me while I stared at the puppeted dead body in front of me. The dead body of a man I’d barely known, but had really liked and admired.

And that was, in some ways, what made this whole thing worse. I hadn’t even considered the Meregan as potential targets to worry about. I hadn’t been thinking about them, because they were off on an entirely different world in a different universe. They were safe from this. 

Except they weren’t, of course. Because Gavant was a Meregan, and the Meregan had already been almost wiped out by Fossor to begin with. They had offered to help when the time came to deal with him. Of course they were still a potential target, regardless of anything else. They were people Fossor already wanted to deal with, who had made him angry and then still offered to help me. The few who remained, who survived Fossor’s purge, still wanted to help stop him.

And now look. Fossor had already said there were other Meregan here beyond this one. How many, I didn’t know. But more than one. And Gavant… poor Gavant. He was dead, and turned into a puppet for Fossor to manipulate. 

No. Worse. He was a puppet for me to manipulate. That was what this motherfuckeeehhh boy that was a title I didn’t want to finish. That was what this asshole wanted. He wanted me to puppet the Meregan man, wanted me to use him as a toy soldier. Just like he wanted me to use Kendall, an innocent (overall) ordinary human girl who had definitely not deserved to die like that. Kendall and Gavant, ‘enemy’ (as far as Fossor understood) and friend. Both killed just so this Necromancer piece of shit could use them to train me into his fucking protege or whatever. 

“You see?” Fossor himself spoke up, his cruel, horrible voice cutting through that roaring in my head. “Your old friend did offer to aid you when the time came. And now, here he is, fulfilling that promise. Never say that I don’t find a way to help old friends when they need that extra push.” 

Swallowing hard, I stepped over slowly. My gaze passed over Kendall and I whispered an apology under my breath. Why, I didn’t know. She was long gone. She was dead and no apology was going to bring her back. Same went for Gavant. Poor Gavant, and poor whatever other Meregan had come with him. 

What about Tristan? Gavant being dead would have happened years earlier for him, but he still hadn’t mentioned it. Was that to preserve some kind of time thing, or because he didn’t know, or because he thought it was something other than Fossor? My bet was one of the latter two. Actually, the second one. It was possible that Gavant just wasn’t there while Tristan was flying around with Nicholas, that he had stayed behind on his world to help rebuild. That was really the only way I could understand Tristan never mentioning Gavant’s death, because he didn’t know about it. That was the only… yeah, that had to be it. 

All those thoughts ran through my mind as I reached up to put a small, trembling hand against the chest of the nine-foot-tall, gray-haired figure. There was a thick lump in my throat, tears stinging my eyes. I didn’t care about all the people around me and how they were reacting to this. I didn’t care about Fossor perched above on his throne. All I cared about was the two dead figures in front of me. Two people who had died for such stupid, meaningless reasons. 

My eyes closed, and I murmured softly under my breath. “I’m sorry.” With my right hand still on Gavant’s unmoving chest, I moved the left to Kendall’s equally-motionless shoulder. “I am so sorry. I’m sorry I… “ My voice trailed off, words stuck in my throat. What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to do right now that wasn’t utterly meaningless? They were dead. I couldn’t bring them back. Not in any real way. They weren’t even hearing any of this. Talking to them was pointless, it served no purpose other than to let me express my feelings. And that was stupid to do right here in front of everyone. None of these evil fucks deserved to know how much Fossor’s bullshit right now had affected me. Least of all the necromancer himself. No, I had to get myself under control and deal with the things that I could actually affect at the moment. Not just stand there apologizing to a couple dead people who couldn’t hear me. 

Apologies would come later. I would deal with that, with both of them, when the time came. When I wasn’t standing here in front of an audience full of psychotic evil fucks who were no doubt amused by this whole thing, then I would work my way through it, psychologically. 

But for now, I wasn’t going to give them any more of the satisfaction. Instead, I turned on my heels, arms falling to my sides as I lifted my gaze toward Fossor. “And if I tell you that I’m not going to use them?” I asked flatly, watching his expression. Not that I expected that to fly. 

Sure enough, Fossor met the question with a slight, humorless chuckle. As he did, others around the room chuckled as well, as though his reaction had given them permission to do so. They stopped instantly when he began to speak. “Well, dearest girl,” the man casually informed me, “if you are not happy with the tools I have provided, I suppose I would be forced to work my way through others in your past life until we find a pair of subjects whom you are satisfied by.” 

Others. He would keep killing people I knew until I accepted and worked with the people he gave me. Who else? Who would he see as a valid target to kill and hand over to me? Given he’d used Kendall of all people, I was pretty sure there was a very long list for him to draw from. A long list of people who would die just so Fossor could make a point about his control over me.

I couldn’t do that. As much as I loathed the idea of using my power to control Gavant and Kendall, if I didn’t, Fossor would just kill more people I knew. Many of whom wouldn’t be targeted by him otherwise. No, I had to do this. As much as it killed me on the inside, as much as it made me want to throw up and shove these stupid Necromancy powers into a deep dark hole and never use them again, I had to. Not only because of the threat to others, but also because it wasn’t the fault of the power itself. It wasn’t its fault that Fossor and Manakel had both tainted it like this. It was a power, like a gun or a sword. It could be used for good or evil. Either way, I had to do this. I had to use the power to control Kendall and Gavant. 

Logically, I knew all that. But it still took me a moment to force the words out. “No,” I finally managed. “They’ll do just fine.” I had to bite my lip to avoid adding anything nasty onto the end of that. Given the situation, I didn’t want to provoke my… host any more than I already had. Not with my mother right there and all of his guests watching this entire exchange between us. If Fossor thought he was taking too many insults and being seen as too weak in front of these people, I really didn’t want to think about how he might retaliate. Now was the wrong time for bravado, as much as it might have made me feel better for a few seconds.

From the look on his face, Fossor knew everything that I’d been thinking. He gave me a slight nod, one eyebrow raised thoughtfully. “Good,” he announced. “Then we’ll begin your training. First, you’ll learn to manipulate the smaller one. Then the larger one. Once you have the basics of moving them around and working your will through them, we’ll move on to the first match.” He gave me a slow smile, his eyes briefly moving away to look at someone off in the audience. Mom. He was looking at my mother. I knew that without even glancing that way. The expression on his face made that much clear. He was looking over to see her reaction to this whole thing. 

Then he looked right back to me, that slight smirk remaining. “I do hope you’re not a slow learner, Felicity. All of the fine people here came to see a good show. It will be very disappointing to them if we spend the entire time watching you learn to make a corpse wave.” 

I had a few thoughts about what the people around me could do with themselves if they ended up being disappointed in my performance. But I kept those words buried. Instead, I simply cleared my throat and flatly retorted, “Then I guess you should show me what to do.” 

The smile that appeared on his face when I said that made me really uncomfortable. Wearing that smile, the man stood from that throne of his. As he did so, a ghost appeared, floating in the air in front of the throne on his hands and knees as though placating himself before the necromancer. Then another appeared slightly ahead of and below the first, and another lower than that. They were forming a staircase out of ghost bodies. A staircase that Fossor casually strolled down until he was in the arena with me. While I watched, the ghosts disappeared and he moved until he was directly between Kendall and Gavant. “My dear girl,” he all-but purred. 

“All you had to do was ask.” 

Before I could shrink back, he stepped forward. His hand found its way to my shoulder, and I had to seriously work to suppress the urge to lash out. But what was I going to do? There was no way Fossor would let me get away with slapping his hand away, insulting him, or doing anything that might make him look less than perfectly in control in front of this whole audience. He would take any insult seriously personally, and while I absolutely did not care about his feelings of all things, I did care about the fact that he would likely hurt my mother in front of all these people just to punish me for acting out. So, I stayed as rigidly still as I could with that disgusting, horrible hand gently squeezing my shoulder. It felt like a venomous snake was coiled up next to my ear. Except that a snake would have been infinitely preferable to this.  

From the look on his face, Fossor was fully aware of the thoughts and impulses that had been running through my mind. He waited calmly, before smiling faintly when I managed to suppress my instinct. Our eyes met, and he actually winked at me. Yeah, that made it even harder to resist the urge to punch him in his smug fucking face. Or, better, stab him right in the throat. 

But that wouldn’t accomplish anything. Well, nothing other than killing some innocent person on his world. Which was sure would amuse Fossor to no end, but other than that. After hearing Rahanvael’s side of the story, I was even more loathe to do things to Fossor that would hurt the people on their world. Those people had been through so much for literally thousands of years. 

Honestly, I had to think about that to truly comprehend it. They had been enslaved for three thousand years. That was like if Earth had been under the sole control and power of one psychotic despot since 1000 BC. Three thousand years of being enslaved and forced to do his bidding. Three thousand years of anyone at any time just… randomly dying, or simply being injured or crippled, as Fossor passed any damage given to him off to them. Three thousand years. How many generations was that? Too many. Too fucking many. I wasn’t even sure how long their people generally lived or how similar to humans they were in that regard. But either way, it was too God damned many. They had all suffered more than any world should have. No wonder Rahanvael wanted her people to be freed from her brother. 

Stepping behind me, Fossor kept one hand on my shoulder while his other hand took my arm, lifting it to press a hand against Kendall’s forehead. Kendall. The dead… dead Kendall. Now I really needed to throw up. Or cry. Or scream. Or hit something. But I couldn’t do any of that. I couldn’t do anything except let this evil fuck touch me, his voice quiet as he murmured about closing my eyes and reaching out to sense what he called a web of power that had been woven around Kendall. He described it as similar to a net, one that had been woven around every part of the girl in front of me. Slowly, reluctantly, I closed my eyes and reached out that way, sensing through the hand that was pressed against Kendall’s head. 

I felt it. Fuck. I felt the web, felt the way the power was wound around and… and through her form. A slight tug at the web binding her arm made that arm lift, rising above her head. Then I tugged the other one up and made her hands clap together. 

Cheers filled the arena, clearly urged on by Fossor. God. No. No, God, I was going to be sick. I couldn’t do this. I had to–had to stop. I had to–

“Felicity.” It was my mother’s voice, somehow right next to my ear, a whisper that, as far as I could tell, even Fossor didn’t pick up. My head snapped that way to see her. She was standing flanked by others in the outer ring of the arena. Her lips moved, and I heard her voice once more. “I love you. It’s okay. You can do this. You can’t help either of them now. You can’t help them. You have to play along.” Her hand lifted very subtly, and I felt her touch brush down the side of my face very gently. “Please, Lissy.” 

I exhaled, giving a short nod to both her and Fossor. My voice cracked a little, but was at least audible. “I… think I get it.” Closing my eyes, I focused on tugging at the invisible webbing to make Kendall turn in a circle. It was easy. It was so easy, and that, somehow, made the whole thing worse. 

With a smile in his voice, Fossor squeezed my shoulder and arm. “You see? Very good. You are such a remarkable student, my dear. Now then… let’s see a bit more.” 

We continued that way, and… to my incredible disgust and hatred, Fossor was actually a good teacher. Yeah. Being near him was one of the most truly awful moments of my life. Listening to his voice, feeling his hands touch my shoulders and arms, having him so… fucking close and not being able to do anything about it made me want to shove my fingers through my own skull and tear my brain out. But, even with all of that in mind, he was still effective. He was patient, careful to explain things properly, made sure I understood one thing and could duplicate it before moving on to the next concept, even linking what I knew to what he was teaching me so he wouldn’t lose me after all that. 

He was a good teacher. I hated him. I loathed him. I wanted him dead and buried in the ground. But he was still a good teacher, at least of necromancy. Even (or maybe especially) in front of this audience, Fossor was so disturbingly good at just… teaching me how to control Manakel’s power. Everything he said made sense, and he weaved together the various parts of the lesson in how to move the bodies properly, how to push my own strength into them, how to essentially boost the so-called golems to be faster and stronger than they should have been. 

I hated it. I hated every single second. But I was going to use it anyway. I was going to use every little thing he taught me and be the best possible student he could ever have. Because somewhere in those lessons might possibly be something that would someday help me kill him. 

Through it all, the audience watched. They called out advice now and then, and I had the feeling that they couldn’t hear what Fossor was explaining to me. He was using some kind of magic to ensure that only I could hear his actual words. Which I supposed made sense, given he wouldn’t want to be explaining the nuances of even one part of necromancy to a whole audience. Either way, I was surprised they weren’t getting bored or complaining about the lack of fighting and blood. Maybe they just knew better than to do that in front of their host. 

Whatever it was, eventually Fossor stepped back. He gave a satisfied nod. “Now then, the best way to test what you’ve learned so far is a nice little match. Let’s have you control the little one for now. Just to start.” With a gesture, he sent Gavant to sit in the corner of the arena, leaving me standing next to Kendall. Across from us, four figures entered. Four familiar figures, at least as far as their species went. Chamrosh, they were all Chamrosh, the things that the rest of my team and I had fought for our first hunt just before the Amarok showed up. They were the younger, smaller cousins of a Griffin, each with the body of a canine and (oversized to fit the dog body) head of a bird. Of these four, one was a huge Mastiff with the head of some kind of hawk, the second had the body of a border collie and the head of a vulture, the third had the body of some kind of wolf and the head of an owl, and the last one had the body of a smaller dog like a terrier matched to the head of a woodpecker. 

The four Chamrosh spread out, staring and growling at Kendall and me. Meanwhile, Fossor took the ghost-stairs back up to his throne while informing me, “You don’t fight, my dear. Step out of the arena. You control your minion to do the fighting.” 

Turning to settle himself into his seat while his ghosts vanished into nothingness, the man added slyly, “Oh, and let’s make this a bit interesting, shall we?” With that, he snapped his fingers, and one wall above and to the left of the arena lit up. It was like a jumbotron monitor. On it, I saw… a school? Wait, my school. It was a view of the front doors and parking lot of my old middle school back in Laramie Falls. A middle school full of students walking around, heading for classes, stopping to chat, or just goofing off. It was a bunch of middle schoolers. 

There was also a moving van parked in the lot. Even as the moving van came into focus, the wall turned somewhat insubstantial, revealing the interior. An interior full of over a dozen of these same Chamroshes. 

“If you win this fight using only the girl,” Fossor’s voice informed me (and the audience), “the van drives away and nothing happens.

“But if you lose, those doors open, and we’ll see just much damage sixteen Chamrosh can do to a school full of preteen children.” 

 

SUMMARY

Flick apologizes to the (already dead) Gavant and Kendall for Fossor dragging them into this, and reluctantly agrees to use them as her golems to stop him from simply killing more people from her life. Fossor then instructs and guides her in how to control the golem bodies, and turns out (much to Flick’s annoyance) to be a very good Necromancy teacher. To test her new skill, Fossor tells Flick that she will use Kendall to fight several Chamrosh (the same animals from the first hunt way back in the first book, canine bodies with bird heads). He then adds that if she doesn’t win, a larger group of Chamrosh will be unleashed on her old middle school to kill all those innocent students.

 

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Eighteen 6-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Fossor does appear in this chapter. For those who would prefer not to read chapters with him, there is a summary at the bottom.

Mom took my hand, squeezing it while leading me that way. “You can do this,” she assured me. 

Then we passed through the doors, emerging into a circular fighting pit surrounded by raised stands for people to watch. Fossor’s seat, of course, was above everyone else’s. But there was also a surprising number of onlookers. He had brought on an audience. Showing off his new Heretic? Or was this just a normal event for him? I wasn’t sure. Either way, I was honestly surprised that he had so many living people willing to come to his home like this. Though I probably shouldn’t have been. Necromancer or not, he obviously had living allies. Or at least living people who were willing to risk being around him. After all, there were people willing to go into his arena, and they couldn’t all be dead. There wouldn’t be any way for Mom to get stronger if they had been. So, obviously Fossor had living people either allied with him or willing to be paid to stick around. I wondered briefly if they all had some connection to the people in the arena. Was there a gambling system going on? Were they bringing in their own fighters to face Fossor’s? I wasn’t sure how the whole thing worked, but I was sure I would find out soon. 

I also wondered if any of the fighters in here were either or both of Miles’ parents. I’d talked with the older boy a little bit over the past few months, enough to know that his birth father was a Kejjerfiet (or bogeyman) while his mother was a Natural Kejjerfiet Heretic and had been since she was a little girl. If they were here, I had to make sure they knew their son was okay. And try to get them out, while I was going about the already impossible task of getting myself and Mom out. Adding two more onto that list wasn’t so bad, right? Like tossing a few more rocks onto the mountain I was trying to lift.   

We weren’t actually in the main arena part just yet. There was a fairly narrow space (just large enough for something like a troll to squeeze through sideways) all the way around the fighting area, with various tunnels leading out to it. I could see several figures hanging out both in the main arena and at the ends of the tunnels. All of them turned to look as Mom and I emerged, and I immediately sensed the hostility. Yeah, no one was happy to see us, that much was for sure. 

Before I could say anything to Mom, a trio of ghosts appeared hovering above the arena. They had trumpets. Literal trumpets (which looked physical rather than ghostly, raising more questions in my mind) raised to their lips. They blew the trumpets, sending a loud cacophony of sound throughout the room which drew everyone’s attention to Fossor, who had stood up. I had no doubt that everyone would have immediately looked at him anyway without the help of the trumpets, but he had to make a whole big production out of it just to show off. 

Only once he was absolutely sure that every eye in the room was on him did Fossor speak. “Welcome, friends,” he finally began in a broad, commanding voice that easily filled the room. “It’s so good to have all of you here on this momentous occasion, when my Joselyn is joined by her daughter.” As he said that, the vile fucker gave a broad gesture toward the spot where Mom and I were standing, directing everyone to stare at us. I resisted the urge to flip all of them off. Good as it might’ve made me feel for just a moment, it either would have annoyed or amused Fossor, and I didn’t want to do either. Instead, I simply stood silently next to Mom and watched while the audience and other fighters alike stared at us like we were animals in the zoo. Animals they really wanted to kill. 

Fossor was still talking. “Of course, we know how eager some of you are to pit your champions against either of mine.” He said that pointedly while looking at me with a little smile that made my stomach turn over. “And that will come in due time! But for today, I promised my girl a very special birthday present to start things off, and I do prefer to keep my promises. So, Felicity, come to the center of the arena. Joselyn, stay where you are. That’s a good girl.” 

Feeling my mother’s hand squeeze my shoulder, I glanced that way briefly. She met my gaze and nodded while speaking in a quiet, yet firm voice. “You’ll be okay. Whatever he does, just let it wash over you. Focus on surviving and getting out of here. We can deal with things later.”

Deal with things later, right. I knew what she meant. Any trauma, horrible feelings, regret, guilt, any of that I would have to bottle up and talk through with her later, once the fighting was over and we were safely out of the arena. She would help me cope with whatever I ended up having to do. But for now, I had to actually do it. 

So, with a deep breath, I started walking that way while my heart tried to pound its way out of my chest. I was terrified about what was going to happen in that arena, what I was going to see. A heavily scarred rat-like man with three long prehensile tails used one of those tails to open the gate leading into the arena before he stepped aside. His arm was raised in a grand gesture for me to go ahead. As I passed him, the man whispered, “Gonna cut you later. See what your blood tastes like, pretty girl.”

“While you’re at it,” I retorted without thinking, “could you maybe try to come up with a less cliche threat to taunt the next girl with? Because that was pretty weak, dude. Two out of ten, would not recommend future fight banter with. It’s like you’re not even trying to be intimidating.”

The rat-guy looked like he wanted to say something else to that, but I was already moving on. I stepped over to the middle of the arena, ignoring all the people staring at me. I was being assessed from all sides, both by the fighters in and around the arena itself, and by the spectators in the stands. I was pretty sure most, if not all, of them wanted to see me die, though how much of that was personal against me or my mother (or Heretics in general) and how much was just them wanting to beat Fossor in his own house was up for debate. Briefly, I pondered what would happen if one of their people actually killed Mom or me. It was an incredibly morbid thought, but still. I was curious about what kind of things they were gambling with. Also, I wondered if Fossor would actually let them live long enough to collect any prize they were owed. 

Once I was in the middle of the arena, I stopped. Taking a moment to push down as much of my uneasiness and fear as possible, I slowly raised my gaze to look up at the spot where Fossor was sitting on his throne-like seat. A few pithy comments had jumped to my mind on the way out there, but they all vanished as soon as I actually looked at him. My voice stuck in my throat. From the outside, it might have looked like stoic silence. But inwardly, I was just terrified. I had no idea what he had in mind, what he was going to do right then. I didn’t know what this present was going to be, what he was going to make me do, what… any of it. My imagination was running wild. It was all I could do to keep myself upright, stop my legs from collapsing out from under me, and keep staring at the man. Saying something witty or insulting was completely beyond me. Actually, not saying anything at all was probably for the best, considering any attempt to talk probably would have resulted in my voice shaking and cracking. Being silent was the only chance I had at not being seen as the terrified little girl I was.

I was pretty sure Fossor knew exactly why I wasn’t speaking, because he gave me a small smile before gesturing. His voice was… ugh, fond as he announced to the gathered audience. “My brilliant girl. She was a reporter in her hometown, you know. Not for any of the more… official publications, of course. Though she did have a few short articles published in the local paper under the junior reporter byline. Her true work was in the school newspaper. Those I had to have brought here specially, as its online presence was sadly quite lacking. Not even a proper Facebook page?” 

Somehow, I found my voice. “I already totally believed you were an evil, remorseless, soul-crushing irredeemable psychopath without literally trying to push Facebook. Don’t oversell it.” 

There was a short bark of laughter from Fossor. That was the only reaction, at least at first. The rest of the audience seemed to wait to see how he would respond, before chuckling softly. Meanwhile, I was busy telling my mouth to shut the fuck up or get off my face so the rest of me didn’t get hit with the blowback from what it insisted on blurting out. 

“Yes, well,” Fossor casually drawled, “I suppose it’s time for your presents, isn’t it?” 

“Presents?” I echoed warily, frowning. I’d been worried enough about one present. But multiple? Yeah, the idea of that didn’t exactly give me warm fuzzies. “I think I’m good. What’s that religion that doesn’t do presents on your birthday? Jehovah’s Witnesses? I converted like… three minutes before you grabbed me, and I really don’t think I should push things this early. It’s not good for my growth.” 

A very slight smile touched the man’s face, as he watched me. “But if you don’t take your presents, dearest child, you’ll have no golems to fight for you in the arena.”

Confused, I ignored the snickers around me to slowly ask, “Why do I need someone to fight for me? And what do you mean by golems?” 

“Because that is your training today, of course,” Fossor patiently informed me. “You are my budding apprentice. What good does watching you get your own hands dirty do? You will learn to manipulate your necromantic powers properly. Part of that involves learning to control and empower golems. Zombies, of a sort. Dead who are raised and enhanced by your power, directed by your own tactics. Puppeted, if you like, to act as an extension of your will. You are not here now to roll in the muck with the filth. I could have pulled any fool off the street for that. My apprentice is far more special. You are here to learn to weave our power through those who have already fallen, to raise them up and put them to work serving their betters.” 

“You… you want me to fight with zombies?” I couldn’t keep the faint disgust out of my voice. 

“No,” Fossor informed me in a patient, patronizing voice. “I want you to fight using golems. As I said, they are similar to zombies. But think of them as… super-zombies. Their power, strength, all of it depends on your own power. The stronger of a necromancer you are, the better you can make your golems.” 

“My… present isn’t just teaching me about these things, is it?” I carefully asked, watching the amused reactions all around me. That fear I’d been feeling the whole time? It wasn’t getting any better. 

Fossor, meanwhile, gave a low chuckle. He was clearly enjoying himself immensely right now. “Hardly,” he replied. “I have acquired and prepared two golems for you to work with. One from your previous life, and one from your present life. One an enemy, one a friend. The enemy first, perhaps?” 

Enemy? What did he– Then I saw a figure march robotically through the crowd, step into the arena, and stop in front of me. It was… a cheerleader. There was a blonde cheerleader in front of me, which was giving me all new revulsions about what Fossor had meant when he’d said that this present was ‘perfect for me.’ 

Wait. Hold on. I knew this cheerleader. 

Kendall?!” I blurted out loud, my eyes widening. Kendall. It was that girl from Laramie Falls, two years older than me. Miranda and I had caught her stealing from a school carnival that everyone had been using to raise money for a field trip back when we were in sixth grade and she was in eighth. 

“That’s right,” Fossor agreed, while Kendall simply stared blankly at the floor. She was dead. I could sense it. I could feel it, could practically taste it. She was a zombie. Or at least something similar to one. A ‘golem’, as he had put it. There was no life or personality inside her. 

“What the hell is she doing here?” I demanded, my eyes widening. “What–you killed her?!” 

With a courteous bow of his head, the necromancer intoned, “You’re very welcome. You see? Things can be very different between us. Your enemies can be my enemies. And we can settle old feuds.”

Old… feuds… I’d barely thought about Kendall at all since leaving Laramie Falls. Actually, the only time I could even think of her coming up was when I was telling Deveron about her that one time. Sure, I’d disliked her in school. But honestly, I’d moved on basically even before ending up at Crossroads. She was just some stupid older girl who always got what she wanted because she was some smalltown princess soccer star. She left for college the summer before all this happened. She was gone, and I barely thought about her, months before I’d ever known anything about Heretics. What old feud was he…

And then I understood. I understood something important about Fossor. Something that had occurred to me somewhat before, but had never truly and fully clicked in my head until this moment. He never let anything go. Never. He didn’t understand how to move on from things. Why would he? He was a necromancer, his entire being was based around keeping things long past death. But more than that, he kept grudges going back millennia. His reaction to being cursed to stay off of Earth or risk losing all his power was to find a workaround and continue risking it just because he could not stand being told no. 

Fossor never let anything go. He never accepted being denied anything he wanted, not for long. He might temporarily retreat to attack something from a more advantageous position, sure. But he would never really abandon it, would never just move on. More than that, he couldn’t conceive of the fact that I could have some random girl I didn’t like in school and then just… move on with my life without thinking about her, without obsessing over her. Because that was just the type of person he was. 

“I see you’re overwhelmed by the generosity,” Fossor easily and casually announced, drawing chuckles and snickers from the audience. “But yes, your old rival from school, the girl who dared cause you unhappiness, will be your tool from now on. You will learn to empower and control her, to manipulate her body to fight for you.” 

Swallowing, I stared at Kendall, guilt welling up in me. If I hadn’t made… No. Push it down. I shoved it away and left those feelings for later. “You… said two,” I reminded him, my voice cracking a little. “You said there were two. One from my past life and one from… from my present life. An enemy and…” I couldn’t say it. 

“And a friend, yes,” Fossor confirmed. “You will have two bodies to practice with. This girl is the first, and the second… well, he and several more of his people came, I believe, with the intention of taking both of my girls away. I’ve put the others he came with to work on my own projects. But I decided you should have at least one. After all, they did come here because of you.”

Because of me. A group came… to save Mom and me. A rush of horrible possibilities ran through my head. Except Fossor had said more of ‘his people.’ Did that mean… what did that mean?  

While my panicked brain was trying to sort its way through everything Fossor had implied, a new figure entered through the same opening that Kendall had come through, moving the same way, as a dead puppet before stopping in front of me. I wasn’t watching them come in. I was staring at the ground, afraid of what I would see. Terrified of what… who would be in front of me. 

Finally, I exhaled and slowly lifted my gaze, steeling myself as much as I could. I looked up… and up… and up a bit more. Then I saw the person, the friend, whom Fossor had… recruited for me. And I immediately realized that this wasn’t just for me. It was also for my mother. 

Because the figure in front of me, the figure who was only one of apparently several of the same people who had tried to help us and paid the ultimate price, was one of the first friendly Alters I had met. He was someone who had remembered my mother from so many years earlier and whose beacon had originally summoned Shiori and me to their world when they sought help from Joselyn Atherby. 

The man in front of me was the nine-foot tall Meregan named Gavant. 

 

SUMMARY

Flick and Joselyn enter the arena and find it full of onlookers and other fighters. Fossor plays up to the crowd a bit, then informs Flick that she will not be physically fighting today. Instead, she will use what he calls ‘golems’  or ‘special zombies’ that she can personally direct and empower with her own strength. He has brought two so-called ‘golems’ for her to use. The first is referred to as an ‘enemy from her old life’, and turns out to be Kendall, the human girl from Laramie Falls whom Flick had several altercations with, including the time she and Miranda busted her for stealing from a school carnival. From this, Flick realizes that Fossor is incapable of understanding that someone could move on from an old grudge without being obsessed with it.

Fossor then introduces the second golem, referred to as ‘a friend from her new life.’ This turns out to be the Meregan known as Gavant, while Fossor notes that more Meregan came with him and are all his dead servants now.

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Begin Again 10-01

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“Well,” Columbus announced a few minutes later as our group stood in the room that we’d been directed to wait in while Gaia sorted out a truce between Nicholas and the Meregan. “That just happened.”

“Yuuup,” I drawled absently, keeping my eyes on the opposite wall as I thought about what the man had said. My mind was reeling, hadn’t stopped reeling since Nicholas had finished his pronouncement.

Not that he’d had much more to explain beyond that, only that these Seosten had, for some unknown reason, created the effect that made most of humanity incapable of recognizing or remembering Alters.

After that very brief exchange, we continued standing there in the room in relative silence for another minute or two, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I couldn’t begin to understand what Sands, Scout, and Sean might be thinking. They’d been raised in Heretical society, so the idea that the Bystander effect was some kind of artificial thing forced on humanity had to be hitting them harder than me.

With that thought, I looked toward the twins to see how they were doing. Scout was sitting cross-legged on the floor, chin in her hands and elbows on her legs as she looked off into space with an unfocused gaze. Whatever she was thinking about, the quiet girl clearly wasn’t in the mood to share.

Sands, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in front of her sister. She was chewing worriedly at her fingernails while muttering intently under her breath. I couldn’t actually hear most of it, but the few words I managed to pick up sounded an awful lot like she was reciting the story that Professor Ross had told us about Hieronymus Bosch’s encounter with the Hangman demon. She didn’t sound happy.

My mouth opened to ask the other girl what she was thinking, but before I could say anything, she turned abruptly. Her gaze flicked over me before focusing on the figure a little bit to the side: Asenath. The vampire was currently crouched down on one knee, petting an eager and very happy Vulcan (who didn’t seem to mind the fact that she wasn’t human one tiny bit as long as she gave him belly rubs).

“Hey,” Sands spoke up to get her attention. “Va…” Trailing off, her expression changed to a slight wince before she forced a correction. “I mean, what was it… Asen… Asenad—I don’t remember what–”

“Asenath,” the vampire calmly informed her with an even expression, looking up from the mechanical dog without stopping her gentle rubbing. “A-S-E-N-A-T-H. The name’s from the bible. You know, wife of Joseph, he who wore the coat of many colors, among other fables.” Her eyes moved to Columbus, who was opening his mouth. “And no, that’s not me. I’m not quite that old. Centuries, not millennia.”

He shrugged. “Hey, when Bystander history class is taught by the Virginia Dare, you never know.”

Sands pressed on, clearly trying to do so before she lost her nerve. She hadn’t taken her eyes off of the vampire girl. “Asenath. Sorry, I’ve got it. Asenath. I was just… you’re a… I mean you’re a St—Alter.”

“That’s right,” Senny confirmed, looking very slightly amused as she gave a single nod. “A vampire, like you said before. It’s okay to say the word. Vampire. It’s what I am. Though I do prefer my name.”

Sands went silent, biting her lip worriedly for a second. Then she let out a long breath and straightened, looking directly at Asenath once more. “Well, have you ever heard of these Seosten assholes then?”

“Would you believe the answer if I gave one to you?” Senny asked with a raised eyebrow.

Dropping her gaze briefly before looking up again, Sands met her gaze in silence for almost half a minute, just staring into Asenath’s eyes before she finally spoke. Her voice was tentative, though it grew stronger with each passing word. “I really wanted you to be evil. Not just you, all of you. Strangers, Alters, whatever. I really, really wanted you to be evil. I wanted you to be monsters. Part of me kind of… still does. Sort of. It was just… it would’ve made everything so much easier, you know?”

“It was easier to think you were just hunting evil creatures with no morality,” Senny replied in a quiet voice. “Easier to think that your family, your friends, everyone you know were only killing bad guys.”

I saw the way Sands swallowed hard before nodding. “Yeah, that’s… I don’t want my Dad to have killed good—I love my dad. I love my family. I want them to be the good guys. I really, really want them to be the good guys.” Her words trailed off into a whisper before she looked away with a visible flinch.

Senny stood and took a couple steps that way, voice quiet. “Sandoval, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your father to be a hero. Nothing. You have nothing to be ashamed of, do you hear me? I am not offended. I understand. And your father, he’s… obviously saved a lot of people’s lives. Knowing that there are good Alters out there doesn’t change that. It doesn’t take away from the good he’s done.”

“But it’s not just that,” Sands insisted, glancing down at her sister before sighing. “He’s killed a lot of Strang—Alters. And he’s taught so many other Heretics that went on to kill even more of them. It’s exponential. And our mother, and—she was—I don’t… I can’t—It was just easier if you were all evil.”

Asenath lifted a hand, gently laying it on Sands’ shoulder. The other girl flinched a little and stiffened, but didn’t pull back. “You can’t judge yourself by what you do with the wrong information, only by what you do when that information is corrected. You’re right, it’s easier when everything is black and white. So I guess the question you have to answer now is, what are you going to do now that it’s not?”

The answer came after only a second of hesitation. “I don’t know,” Sands admitted with a little shrug. “But mostly, right now, I just want to repeat my question. Have you ever heard of the Seosten?”

Senny’s head shook. “No. Maybe under a different name. There’s a few different Alter species that specialize in possession, but nothing that’s ringing a bell right now. They’d have to be very old and very powerful. Old enough that my father didn’t know anything about them. He just thought the Bystander effect—he didn’t call it that of course, but he just thought it was something you Heretics did to them.”

While Sands sputtered, I was the first to find my voice. “Something Heretics did to humanity?”

It was Shiori who spoke, her voice interrupting before Senny could reply. “Sure. Heretics keep so many secrets anyway. Why wouldn’t Alters think that hiding the supernatural from humanity to ‘protect’ them from it was a Heretic plan. Sounds pretty in line with some of the other things we’ve heard about.”

I quickly spoke up while Sands’s eyes moved to squint at the other girl. “I think the point is that none of us knew that the Bystander Effect was something made by some other group, whatever their reasons were. Which means we’re probably not going to find any information about them back in Crossroads.”

“So…” Sean started uncertainly while looking first to me, then to the others. “What do we do about it?”

Avalon, who had been silent up to that point, finally spoke up. “Nothing. We don’t do anything about it.” Once everyone was looking at her, she continued. “One, Chambers said it herself. There won’t be any information at Crossroads about it, and that’s where we’re going. And two, we have got more than enough to worry about as it is. There’s just nothing for us to go on, and if we spread ourselves too thin looking into everything, we’ll never get anywhere. So, we focus on the issues we already have and leave this whole Seosten thing for later. If more information presents itself, we’ll worry about it then.”

Rolling my eyes in spite of myself, I nodded. “She’s got a point. We’ve got entirely too many problems to deal with as it is to go throwing world-spanning mysteries on top of them. Whatever these Seosten are up to, I doubt their millennia-long plans are going to come to a head in the next few months.”

“So we focus on the mysteries we’ve got,” Columbus agreed. “Like who killed Professor Pericles.”

“Or who wants Avalon dead so badly they’re working with people from Eden’s Garden to get it,” Sands added after taking a seat next to her sister. “Which might be the same people. And are probably the same ones that summoned the zombies into the school, even if the teachers don’t think it’s connected.”

“Don’t forget Flick’s mom,” Shiori put in quickly. When the others looked at her, she shifted back a bit with a slight blush of embarrassment. Her voice turned to a mumble. “What? I know about stuff now.”

Smiling in spite of myself, I reached a foot out to poke the other girl’s leg. “Don’t worry, we’re not forgetting about my mom. Which reminds me, we still need to see if there’s any information in the school about whatever Ammon is. I mean, I know Crossroads teaches that Alter-Stranger hybrids are impossible, but there’s gotta be something in there, even if it’s purely theoretical or whatever.”

While the others were agreeing with that, I snapped my fingers, looking toward Avalon and Sean. “And that reminds me. I can tell you guys about what we found in the security room now.” Coughing, I hesitated before plowing ahead. I told them about my having two older half-siblings, and everything that Gaia had added about that, including the fact that she’d been close to telling me their names but kept getting interrupted. At some point, I was going to corner that woman and make her spit out the information before anything else happened.

“So Flick’s got older siblings too,” Sean announced, head tilted curiously. “That’s what you guys kept trying to tell us back at school?”

Columbus rolled his eyes. “Dude, you have no idea how many different ways I tried to make you remember it. It’s written on pretty much every wall of our room. Also on the ceiling. And there’s post-it notes all over your text books with the—you get the idea.”

“Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things we shouldn’t be forgetting again, there was that voice you guys heard,” Sean pointed out while nodding toward Sands and me. “The one that helped you fight that annoying son of a bitch from Eden’s Garden. You think that’s related to all this?”

I shrugged. “I think it has to be, at this point. And we still don’t know why Deveron’s in the school after he graduated a hundred years ago, why his attitude has changed so much since last year, or why no one remembers him. Even the headmistress doesn’t remember him being a student, apparently. So someone else erased him. Or he’s just–” I blinked, frowning thoughtfully. “Maybe he’s been possessed?”

“It seems to me,” Avalon pointed out, “that one of these Seosten would do a better job of blending in and behaving the same way he did last year if it was a simple case of possession. And it still wouldn’t explain much. Why use him at all when they could just possess one of the other students? They’d have to erase everyone’s memory, reduce his age, possess him, then act completely different from one year to the next. It just gets too complicated. Like I said, we should focus on what we have already.”

“Right, focus. If the world will let us,” I muttered before brightening. “At least we’re all on the same page now. And we have a fresh set of eyes to help. One that’s separate from our team, just in case.”

“Oh, that’s me!” Shiori piped up, lifting her hand and bouncing a little adorably. She cleared her throat, trying and failing to sound serious. “And I know just where we can go to find everything we want.”

“You do?” Sean asked, before Columbus’s flailing arm could slap the boy hard enough to stop him.

“Yup!” Shiori was grinning. “We just have to go to the Satisfactory.”

Columbus was pointing at me. “You. I blame you for the puns starting up again.” Despite his words, he seemed genuinely happy about that. I was about to tease him, before he spoke again and cut off any rational thought I had. “You turned her on, didn’t you?”

My only solace for the fact that it took me a solid minute to stop coughing and choking was that Shiori was in the exact same position.

******

Not very long after that, I was back on the Meregan ship, in the portal room embracing Gavant as well as I could. It felt like hugging onto my dad back when I’d been a very little girl. “Thanks for everything. You were my first, um, straight up aliens. Maybe next time we can go out into space.”

His massive hand patted my head gently. “We are being the grateful for you, Friend-Flick. You and Friend-Shiori, and Other-Friends have been done more for us than we can being thank any for doing.”

Purin spoke up. “We are being sorry that we have been brought you here to fight which is not yours.”

I shook my head quickly, releasing Gavant to hug Purin while Shiori took her turn. “Don’t be silly. You needed help to find your kids. Now you’ve got them. Plus you don’t have to fight Nicholas anymore.”

“Yes,” Gavant smiled while giving Shiori a head pat as well. “We are being have our children. That is been very good. And,” he added while looking at me. “It is something we will not been forgetting. When Friend-Flick or others need help, Meregan people will been there. Only need calling for us.”

Swallowing, I stepped back, glancing across the room to the portal. Most of my team was already heading through under the watchful eye of Gaia. They hadn’t spent as much time directly interacting with the Meregan. Only Columbus was staying back, waiting for his sister to finish saying her goodbyes. At least, that’s what he thought he was waiting for. In reality, Shiori wanted a chance to talk to him about what she really was without anyone else listening in, and Gaia was making sure she got it.

To that end, I turned my attention to the nearby boy, setting my fist against his shoulder before pushing. “Hey, Tristan. You’re heading out with your great, great, however many greats grandfather, huh?”

The kid nodded up and down quickly. “Yup. He’s already got some clues about where the rest of my family is. Plus he’s gonna teach me how to keep all his monster-people in line. You know, just in case.”

“I think the first step is to not call them monster-people,” I pointed out with a little smile, glancing toward the corner of the room where Asenath was standing. She gave me a slight nod while chuckling.

“I’m gonna see you again, right?” the boy pressed, his eyes intent on mine while he caught my hand.

“Yeah,” I promised. “After all, the Meregan still owe me a trip in space, and I plan to collect it.”

By that point, Shiori had taken Columbus by the hand and was leading him away from the group and into the same corner of the room that Asenath was waiting at. I could read the confusion on the boy’s face about what his sister wanted to tell him, but turned my attention away to give them privacy.

Instead, I gave Tristan a quick hug before stepping over to where Gaia stood. “Let me guess, when we’re back at Crossroads, we can’t talk about this stuff openly anymore.”

Her head dipped in a nod. “I’m sorry, but we do have to be more discreet. It’s impossible to say who might be listening at the wrong time. You and your friends should mostly be safe as long as you exercise caution, but as the headmistress, there are far more eyes on me most of the time. I would like to say that you should visit as much as possible, but I’m afraid the people who believe that you are a spy for your mother would see that as evidence that we are conspiring.”

“Which we are,” I pointed out mildly.

She smiled a little bit, bowing her head in amused acknowledgment. “Yes, which we are. But we hardly need to give them even more ammunition. At least until some of this settles down, it is probably better if we aren’t seen as cooperating that directly. If you need to send a message, you may do so through Avalon. Her visits will not be seen as anything strange.”

“I’ll do that,” I promised before taking a breath to steady myself. “You know what I’m gonna ask now though, right?”

She met my gaze. “You wish to know the identities of your older half-siblings.”

“Yes,” I confirmed emphatically. “We kinda figured out that we just keep adding new mysteries and issues. I’d like to solve at least this one while we have the chance. You said you knew them back before we were… interrupted.”

“I do.” Gaia nodded, a slight smile touching her face. “Though I’m not actually supposed to. Ruthers did his very best to hide them so that no one would know where they came from. But… I have my ways.”

She let me stand there like that, staring at her pleadingly for a few seconds before relenting with a chuckle. “All right, all right. Your older siblings were separated. Ruthers believed that was the best way to keep any of the rebellion from locating them, particularly their father, whoever he was. And no, that is something I do not know. The identity of Joselyn Atherby’s husband was a closely guarded secret.

“As I said, the twins were separated. Your brother was raised by a Heretic family. Knowing you were going to be here this year, I hired him to perform… security functions.”

I blinked once, then again before straightening. “Wait… Wyatt? You mean… you mean Wyatt is my…”

“Your half-brother, yes,” she confirmed. “I must caution you to be careful. Very few know of his relation to you. Not even Wyatt does, yet.”

I was trying to comprehend the idea that the ‘crazy’ security guard, the… enthusiastic guy who had thought that I was skipping class my first day on the island, was my older brother. It was… a lot to take in.

Gaia, however, had more surprises in store. “Your sister, meanwhile, was raised by a Bystander family. She’s still out there. But her daughter was brought to school just this year as well.”

“Her daughter…” I trailed off, frowning thoughtfully before my eyes snapped to the other woman’s. “Koren. Back when we picked out our weapons, I almost took the Hunga Munga because I felt drawn to them. But Koren did take them. Which means Wyatt is my brother and Koren is my… niece?” Boy did that ever feel weird to say. I reeled backward a step, trying to wrap my mind around that.

“That is… correct,” Gaia nodded after a momentary pause. “What do you plan to do with this information?”

I hesitated before shrugging a bit helplessly. “I guess I’ll do what Mom would want me to.

“I’ll get to know my family.”

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Against The Odds 9-06

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My eyes were wide with shock as I blurted out loud without thinking, “W-wait, what?! What do you mean, it was him? You’re talking about that noble guy that rescued you and Seller? He’s the bad guy?”

Gaia turned her attention to me, raising an eyebrow. “Ah. So that was your vision after all. I wondered about that. Your mother saw something… else.” Head tilting then, she added, “And you know Seller.”

Part of me wanted to reflexively flinch at that, but after thinking about it for a second, I just nodded. “We met when I visited home, just before everything happened with Ammon. Avalon set it up because I needed answers about my mother and why she and Deveron were erased from the old yearbooks.”

The older woman started to nod at that, then paused in mid-motion. I saw the way her forehead slowly wrinkled in apparent confusion before she looked up to me again. “Excuse me? Your mother and who?”

Blinking once, I went over what I’d said in my head briefly before replying, “Deveron? You know, our joke of a mentor? Mom’s classmate back when she went to Crossroads and later partner in crime? His stuff was erased from the yearbook to—aaaand you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

From the look on the woman’s face, it was clear that she didn’t. “No,” she confirmed flatly. “I’m afraid I have no idea. Which would seem to imply that the Mnemosyne spell was used more than once.”

“Mnemosyne spell,” I echoed. “You mean the spell that erased Mom and the rebellion from everyone’s memory.” Giving a quick glance toward Asenath, I added, “You mean they erased Deveron too, and this time they included you in the effect? Why? Why would they let you remember Mom but not him?”

Gaia shook her head. “The question is more complicated than that, I’m afraid. The Mnemosyne spell is entirely too complicated and power-intensive for it to have been cast without the knowledge or input by myself or any of those loyal to me who would have spoken up. The fact that it was cast without any of our knowledge is proof that it was not cast by Ruthers or anyone at Crossroads. It can’t be done.”

Shiori, shoulders hunched as she stepped back between me and Asenath, spoke up. “Eden’s Garden?”

“No,” Gaia responded quietly, her eyes narrowed in thought. “The original spell, to remove Joselyn from memory, required the input of the most powerful members from both Crossroads and the Garden. There is no conceivable way that they could have done it alone for Deveron Adams.” Looking up to me then, she added, “You said that he was your mother’s partner and schoolmate? Do you have any idea why he is at Crossroads now, or why his demeanor has changed so much in the past few months?”

“Sorry,” I replied while shaking my head. “I was kind of assuming that you put him in with us as a guide or something, or a clue or… I dunno. If you didn’t have anything to do with it, and the rest of Crossroads or Eden’s Garden didn’t either, then who the hell erased him and put him in the school?”

“That,” Gaia murmured quietly while fixing her stare on the floor, “is an extremely good question.”

For a moment I thought the woman was going to say something else about it. Instead, she simply shook her head before turning her attention back to the Meregan. “Nicholas Petan has harmed your people?”

The three tall figures looked to one another, clearly conferring silently before Gavant gave a single nod. “Enemy-Nicholas Petan has been killed many of our people. Not as many as Threat-Fossor.” His voice cracked a little. “The Threat-Fossor has been killed most of… most of our people. Enemy-Nicholas Petan has been killed some of the remains. But his focusing is not been for killing, but for taken.”

“Taking,” Asenath put in. “You mean your people. He’s been stealing your people. Your children.”

“That’s why they needed help,” I confirmed. “They sent for Mom, but… well, I don’t think Fossor was going to let her go out on a day trip to save a bunch of enslaved children.” Even saying his name made me shake a little bit, hand clenching until I felt something soft touch it. A glance down showed Shiori brushing her fingers gently against mine without looking at me, a slight blush touching her cheeks.

“I am aware of some of the situation.” Gaia’s voice was quiet and thoughtful. “But the fact that it involves Nicholas… this seems to be a much bigger threat than I originally assumed it was.”

“I don’t get it,” I started uncertainly. “He was a great guy when he saved you before. He was all honorable and stuff, like some noble knight. What—why the hell is he enslaving children now?”

Gaia’s response was a sight. “Honestly, I wish I knew. I lost contact with Nicholas… a very long time ago, even by my standards. What he’s been doing, or why he’s even here, is beyond me. I didn’t even know he was still alive.” Then her eyes narrowed. “But it is a question that I’ll be certain to ask him.”

“You’re…. you’re gonna help then?” I asked slowly, biting my lip before pressing on. “I mean, you’re actually gonna help the Meregan get their children back, even if it means fighting against Nicholas?”

“Fighting will not be my first resort,” Gaia informed us. “But if it comes down to it, yes. I will press the man for answers. Whatever his explanation, I will make certain that he does not harm anyone else.”

Asenath moved up near me, Shiori still sandwiched between us. Her eyes were narrowed, and I was pretty sure she was still plenty suspicious. Not that I could really blame her, to be honest. “If you expose yourself like that,” she pointed out quietly, “you make it harder to save the kids later. If he knows you’re involved, it gets rid of the element of surprise. He’ll put even more guards on them.”

Rather than debate the point, Gaia gave a single, accepting nod. “Yes. That’s why we won’t actually be asking him to release them. I will go to him and request an explanation. While he is… shall we say occupied, the rest of you will be rescuing the children and bringing them back here. As I said, regardless of what his eventual explanation may be, the Meregan young belong with their families.”

Surprise hit me, and I blinked at her words. “You—you still want us to go in there and rescue them?”

Gaia’s head dipped in a slight nod. “Yes. I will either get satisfactory answers from Nicholas, or distract him long enough for you to do what is needed. Either way, the children will be returned to their home.”

I had to admit, it was a better plan than I’d had. We’d honestly had no particular way to deal with the Heretic, even before finding out just who he actually was. Now, with Gaia focused on him, we could (hopefully) handle the smaller threats at least long enough to get those kids back where they belonged.

And yet… “We still need help,” I informed the headmistress firmly. “You haven’t seen that city they’ve got out there. It’s not just a little encampment, it’s a whole walled fortress. Maybe we’ll get in and out without being seen, but if not, we’re gonna need more than just us to get those kids out nice and safe. Even if you’re distracting Nicholas and the Meregan are distracting the bulk of his army. That’s why we were trying to contact the rest of my team. They…err, wait, crap, did you know that they knew?”

There was obvious amusement in Gaia’s gaze as she looked at me silently for a moment, a smile tugging at her lips before she spoke. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I am not aware of everything you’ve been up to, but I know that you have convinced Avalon and the rest of your team to help you investigate. Even Sandoval, which is a very high mark in your favor, for the record. And it proves that you are indeed your mother’s daughter. The way that Joselyn was able to pull people to her side, it was… well, if I’m being perfectly honest, I have been jealous of it in the past. Your mother is a brilliant leader.”

Something thick caught in my throat, and I had to look away for a second. Folding my arms against my stomach, I forced out a long, low breath before returning my gaze to her. “Were you keeping an eye on me the whole time? After Mom disappeared, I mean. Was Crossroads really watching for that long?”

What looked like a sad little smile touched the woman’s face that time, and she was quiet for a moment, briefly lost in her own thoughts and memories. “Yes,” she finally answered in a voice that was so quiet it was almost inaudible. “Well, Crossroads as a whole watched you because the Committee is convinced that you’re still in touch with your mother somehow. Some, led by Ruthers, believe that she was playing the long game, pretending to take herself out of your life so that we would be more likely to accept you into the school. They think that she has been secretly training and teaching you this entire time, just out of our sight, so that you might work to convert our ‘real’ students to her way of thinking.”

I stared at her open-mouthed, but it was Shiori who blurted, “That’s…. stupid! Flick isn’t—her mom wouldn’t—I don’t even know her mom and I know that’s stupid! She left her family for a decade just as part of a plan to mess with Crossroads? How… how… how arrogant are they?! Do they really think that everything revolves around them? How—how out of touch—how stupid—how crazy are–” After that, the other girl just sort of devolved into incoherent stammering, occasionally getting an actual word out.

It was Asenath who quieted her, putting an arm around the girl and leaning in to whisper something against her ear that actually made Shiori give a snort of amusement. She was still flushed with indignation however, and glanced toward me before clearing her throat. “Err, I mean it’s really dumb.”

“There are others on the Committee who agree with you,” Gaia replied easily. “That’s why nothing overt was done. Ruthers advocated picking you,” she looked toward me, “up as soon as possible. Nothing that bad,” she added quickly, “the other members of the Committee wouldn’t have gone for it. But his plan was to have you placed with a Heretic family, out of your mother’s reach and influence. He almost had them sold on it, even played up how much safer you would be with active Heretics than if any of those nasty Strangers happened to come across the great Joselyn Atherby’s daughter unprotected.”

I wanted to scream. Actually, fuck it, I did scream. “You mean he came up with that point after it was too fucking late?!” My yell echoed through the room and made Tristan jump, but I didn’t care. I was seeing red. “They threw my mom under the bus, just tossed her out into the world where anyone could find her, and only after some psychopath takes her away do they think about how vulnerable that is? And even then, it’s just part of a stupid fucking excuse to keep her child, me, away from her?!”

Gaia’s head bowed, and I saw the way she flinched. “I’m sorry, Felicity. I’m very sorry about… everything. I genuinely tried to find your mother after she disappeared. I wish I’d done more now. I wish there was more I could have done. As it was, it took all the clout I had to make the Committee see reason and leave you where you were. You belonged with your father. Taking you from him at that point… I don’t think he would have survived it. My efforts, they were centered on that, on keeping you where you belonged. By the time I was free to really search for Joselyn, the trail was just too cold. It was my choice to focus on keeping you with your father, and I would make the same choice again. But for my further failure to find your mother, to save her from this… this monster, I am very, truly sorry.”

“Yeah,” I started to speak, but my voice failed me for a moment. I had to take a breath before starting again. “I’m sorry too. But right now, those kids are still missing. And we still need the rest of my team.”

She didn’t respond at first, falling silent again for a few seconds. Then Gaia gave a slight nod and gestured toward the pool where the fountain was. The water rose once more, and I saw the image change. Instead of showing the beach, we were now seeing the hallway just outside the twins’ room.

The door opened a second later, and the two of them came hustling out together. Sands was saying something about checking with Avalon one more time. In mid-sentence, both girls went right through the portal and ended up taking several steps through the fountain before their brains caught up.

“What the–” Sands blurted, twisting around while yanking her mace into her hand. Her eyes spotted the three Meregan, and I saw the way she took a quick step through the water toward them. “Hey!”

Scout, meanwhile, had spotted the rest of us and laid a hand on her sister’s arm to stop her before pointing our way once Sands looked back toward her. The mix of confusion in both of their eyes as their gazes flicked from the Meregan and Asenath, to Shiori, Tristan, and me, then to the headmistress and back on through the line again was almost amusing. They were both completely lost.

“Flick, Shiori!” Sands blurted. “H-Headmistress? Wait, you… you said they were… wait. You said they were doing some secret job for you, but—but…” Stammering, she looked back to the Meregan.

“Hello, Sands,” Gaia greeted her calmly. “Hello, Scout. Please come out of the water, there’s a lot to talk about, but we need to bring the rest of your team over as well. Trust me, everything is… well, not fine, but well enough as far as you’re concerned. It’s all right.”

Leaning closer to the woman, I spoke quietly. “You told them we were doing a secret job for you or something?”

The headmistress gave a faint nod without looking. “It wouldn’t have been right to let them continue to tear their hair out with worry. Especially poor Columbus.” She looked toward Shiori then. “Simply leaving him in fear for what happened to his sister would have been utterly irresponsible and cruel.”

Slowly, Sands and Scout climbed out of the water. “Okay…” Sands started, still clearly feeling very defensive. She was clutching her mace. “But why are you standing next to a Stranger, and why are there giant strangers over there, at least I assume they’re Strangers even though they don’t feel like it for some reason, and…” She trailed off, eyes flicking toward me, looking for answers.

“It’s okay, Sands,” I assured her. “Both of you, it’s fine. She knows. She knows about my mom and all that. She’s on our side. I mean—you know what I mean. We’re not in trouble. Well, technically we are because there’s some bad, bad stuff going on, but the headmistress, she’s with us. You can trust her.”

“You?” Sands looked completely aghast as she stared at Gaia. “You’re part of this… this Stranger love fest? But you’re the head of the school that teaches us all about how evil they all are! Why–huh?!” That last noise sounded like the verbal manifestation of poor Sands’s brain slipping one of its gears.

“It’s a very long story, I’m afraid.” Gaia intoned with a slight smile. “Your teammate can tell you some of it. For now, we need to focus on assisting these innocent people.” she gestured toward the Meregan.

“Hello,” Purin called, waving a hand enthusiastically. “We are being glad to having meet you.”

Sands looked at the man, mouth working in silent confusion while Scout silently waved back.

Tristan, for his part, waved enthusiastically before practically sprinting that way to start talking at the two girls. Obviously, the poor kid (who should have been our age… the Heretic world was weird) was still pretty starved for human interaction.

“Now then,” Gaia cleared her throat. “To the others.”

It went on like that. Gaia pulled through Sean and Avalon next, the latter of which looked as close to utterly shocked as I’d ever seen her. Once she realized what was going on, her face actually pinked a little. “M… mother…”

“It’s quite all right, Valley,” Gaia assured her. “We’ll talk later, but… I understand.”

Valley… Avalon… Realizing that it was a shortened nickname, my eyes lit up and the girl immediately shot me a warning look, raising a finger to quiet me.

It did not, however, stop me from snickering as Tristan, standing out from the rest of us, blurted while staring at my roommate, “Ho-holy crap, dude… are you like… a… a movie star or something?”

She ignored him. Which, to be fair, was pretty reasonable for Avalon. She must like the kid or something. Maybe finding me safe had put her in a really good mood. Even teasing myself with that thought made me blush, and I found myself looking between Avalon and Shiori thoughtfully.

Vulcan, meanwhile, left Sean’s side and came running up to where I was. Smiling, I crouched down to greet the mechanical dog, rubbing his head before nodding to the boy himself. “Hey there, guys.”

Next, and finally, Gaia brought Columbus through. The boy was on his way down the stairs, taking them several at a time so that he came through the portal in mid-jump, making him crash straight down into the water with a sudden surprised yelp. “Wha—blllrggphh!”

Shiori was in the water before he had recovered, hauling her brother back up before grabbing onto him in a tight hug. “Columbus! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you worry so much. I’m sorry I ignored you. I’m sorry I was so out of it. I’m sorry, please forgive me, please. I love you. I didn’t mean to push you away, please don’t be mad at me, please?”

Looking totally taken aback, Columbus froze, standing there in the water for a second. He looked at us, then to the Meregan and then back again.

Then he just hugged his sister back, leaning down to whisper something before clutching her tighter. His second whisper was a bit louder, just enough to make out. “I missed you.”

“So…” Sean spoke up a moment later, turning away from the two of them. “Not that I don’t love going on a field trip with my school principal, my team, a little kid, a bunch of giants and… whatever you are,” he nodded toward Asenath. “But why are we here, exactly?”

“Well, Sean,” I replied after glancing toward Gaia.

“We’re about to rescue some really, really big children.”

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Against The Odds 9-05

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In the past several months, I’d repeatedly had to reassess my standard for what the true definition of being dumbfounded was. Seeing Gaia Sinclaire simply take control of alien teleporter technology while standing on a different world entirely and just nonchalantly step into the room like that took my previous definition of that word and punted it all the way down the field. I was so thoroughly shocked in that moment that I couldn’t make actual words come out of my mouth. There were just vague sounds.

In the end, it was seeing the Meregan, beings twice my size with technology beyond what I could even begin to understand, shrinking back from her that snapped me out of my shock. “H-headmistress!” I blurted while having absolutely no idea whatsoever what I was going to follow that single word with.

Her eyes turned to me, and I started to talk. The words just poured out. “You can’t hurt these people, yeah I said people because that’s what they are. I know they’re big and I know they look strange because they’re sort-of giants but that doesn’t make them evil. Yeah I know what everyone says at the school you’re in charge of and I know all of that but I think you have to do evil things to be evil.”

I was so… well, honestly terrified in that moment that the words kept coming. I was nervous so I babbled without even waiting to see how the woman was reacting. “And if you don’t do evil things I think that should mean you’re not really evil but according to your school someone is evil just because they were born different from human which really seems sort of umm, bad if you think about it which I really think you should because the letter from my mom said I could trust you and oh yeah I forgot to mention I know my Mom was a Heretic and I know I should’ve come to you sooner before this all spiraled out of control but I really, really, really, hope she was right and I really can trust you because there’s something bad happening now but they aren’t the ones doing it and if you’ll just wait a second-”

“Felicity,” Gaia spoke calmly, snapping my attention back to her. She was holding one hand up placatingly, her other hand at her side. The single word without any particular inflection or threat behind it shut me up immediately and more effectively than I could ever remember happening before.

Once I was quiet, she continued. “When I said that there are many things we need to discuss, I did not mean that each of those discussions should take place simultaneously within the next thirty seconds.”

My mouth opened and then shut again, but before I could find any more words, someone else spoke. “H-headmistress.” Shiori was on her feet, looking just as terrified as I felt, or possibly even worse. She was standing slightly in front of Asenath. As scared of Gaia as she clearly was, the girl still stood straight, planting herself between the vampire and probably the most powerful Heretic we’d ever met.

Asenath, on the other hand, clearly wanted to put herself in front of her little sister. She had a hand on the girl’s shoulder and was obviously attempting to make her stop holding herself in the way.

“Good morning, Shiori,” Gaia greeted her as simply and calmly as ever. “I see you’ve met your sister.”

Well shit, then. Even the past few months of total surprises hadn’t made me adjust my standards for being dumbfounded quite that quickly. That time, all I managed to do for a solid ten seconds or so was openly gape. Behind me, I was pretty sure that both other girls were having fairly identical reactions.

In the end, it was Tristan who broke the resulting stunned silence. The kid was standing at my side, staring up at Gaia as he blurted out loud, “Holy crap, are you Jean Grey?” When her eyes turned that way, he shifted somewhat behind me while continuing. “I mean, you sort of look like her. You know, from the comics? It’s just the—the red hair and the pretty and the, umm, yeah.” He made a sort of all encompassing gesture with his hand. “I mean, obviously you’re not, but no one else was talking.”

“I’m sorry,” Gaia answered, sounding truly regretful. “I’m afraid I’m not really her, no.”

“Wait… wait, just… just…” I held up both hands, feeling flustered and confused. Looking toward the spot where Asenath and Shiori were standing, having settled for being side-by-side when it became clear that neither of them would accept the other being in front of them, I hesitated. Then I turned back to the headmistress. “Baroness, Headmistress, Professor, Miss, whatever you want me to call you. You mean you’re not here to-I mean you’re not gonna—you know that Asenath is her—you know Asenath?”

“Pardon me one moment, please.” Holding a hand up to us, Gaia looked toward the Meregan. “Noble peoples. You have my every apology for using your transportation technology without your express permission and guidance. If any damage has been done, I will ensure that it is taken care of. You have my word that I mean neither any of you nor any of your allies, friends, family, or companions any ill will or intent. So long as myself and my students are safe, I have no particular quarrel with you.”

Gavant lifted his head, watching the smaller woman for a moment warily at first. “That is… being good, Else-Leader-Gaia. We are wishing no harm to you or yours as well. The beacon was not been hurt.”

It probably said a lot that the rest of us remained totally silent through this, until Gaia turned back our way. “Now, to start with, no, I do not know Asenath personally. I have, however, heard of her through several stories and acquaintances, including her long-standing alliance with one Joselyn Atherby.”

“Mom,” I spoke quietly, mostly under my breath while trying to process that. So Asenath really had worked with my mother after all. Since she obviously would have brought that up before, that fact must’ve been wiped out of her memory by the spell that erased everything else about my mother’s rebellion from everyone’s mind. Whatever else I could say about it, that spell was pretty thorough.

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed quietly. “Your mother. You know about what happened to her then, and why.”

“I know she led some kind of rebellion against the idea of killing every Alter in the world just because they’re not human,” I replied, watching the other woman’s reaction. “I know it went on for a long time, even after she was captured. And I know that a bunch of Heretics did some kind of spell to erase the memory of what she did from pretty much everyone’s mind just to stop the rebellion from continuing.”

After glancing away briefly, Gaia gave a single nod before speaking again. “That is true. Your mother, young as she was in the grand scheme of things, was able to lead a rebellion against those much older, more experienced, and with greater resources than she had. She was able, on her own, to fight those who should have been far stronger than she was. She was not just a great and inspiring leader, but had also somehow found a way to gain enough power to stand toe to toe against Heretics that should have been much stronger than she was, all things considered. That is what truly made the rebellion as powerful as it was while Joselyn was in charge of it. The Heretical leaders could not risk an open fight as easily as they could with any other form of conflict, because their victory was not guaranteed.”

“But if you knew all this, if you remember all of it, then you couldn’t be a part of the rebellion,” I pointed out, confused. “You’d have to have been a part of casting the spell that erased those memories.”

Gaia nodded. “You’re right, I was not a part of the rebellion. Not… openly. I felt, and your mother agreed, that the teaching of students at Crossroads was too important. If I left, or was seen as a real ally to Joselyn and her people, I would have been replaced by one much closer to Ruthers. My place was there, a quiet ally who would help where I could without giving away that connection to her enemies.”

“And they believed that,” I spoke slowly. “They believed you were on their side so much they didn’t even erase your memories about Mom or the rebellion. They… they included you in it.”

“Yes,” she acknowledged, meeting my gaze. “I added my power to the casting of that spell. But more than that, I was the one who suggested it be used, and that Joselyn be returned to the Bystander world.”

Staring at her, I demanded, “Why? Why would you do that? You obviously don’t think that every Alter or Stranger or whatever you call them should be killed, and Mom left that message about trusting you. So why, why, why would you help them erase the memory of her from everyone? Why would you help them turn her into an ordinary human again? Why would you do any of that instead of helping her?!”

Gaia waited quietly until I was done before responding, as simply as ever. “Because she asked me to.”

Well, that threw me yet again. Eyes wide, I stared while sputtering, “B-because she—what the hell?”

“You know that your mother spent more than a decade imprisoned, while the rebellion continued,” Gaia began to explain. “Toward the end of that time, Ruthers, the former Crossroads headmaster and the Committee member most devoted to ending that rebellion, came up with a plan to destroy them once and for all.” She went quiet briefly, wincing. “He planned to unleash a blood plague onto them.”

“That sick son of a bitch!” Asenath abruptly blurted, eyes wide as she took a quick step forward. “Are you serious? Is he fucking crazy? No, scratch that, of course he is. Why the hell isn’t he locked up?”

“Wha—I don’t get it, what’s a blood plague?” I asked while looking back and forth between the female figures. Shiori, who had moved up with her sister, looked just as confused and lost as I was.

It was Asenath who spoke. “A blood plague is what my father’s people, the Akharu, had done to them. Against most people, it’s an enslavement tool. Their blood itself is cursed so that they and anyone connected to them, depending on the exact spell you use, is uhh, they’re slaves. They’ll follow the orders of whoever cast it for the rest of their lives. So will their children, and their children’s children. It won’t just enslave them, it’ll enslave all future children they ever have. Forever. There’s no real cure.”

I stared at the other girl for a second, but it was Shiori who spoke, sounding just as uncertain and lost as I felt. “B-but you’re not a slave. And I don’t think your dad was? So… what, what happened?”

“The Akharu were too powerful at that point for that spell to work that well against them,” Senny explained. “They were already… okay, it’s a long story, but they were basically practically immortal already by that point. The blood plague couldn’t enslave them, because their own regeneration kept working against it. Instead, it just sort of… paralyzed them. As long as the infected blood was in their system, it left them completely paralyzed. They couldn’t move at all. They were alive, but… frozen. Turned out that they could put new blood into their system to counteract the effect, but that blood would be infected eventually. So they had to keep adding new blood every once in awhile. Hence…”

“Vampires,” I realized. “That’s why they have to keep drinking blood. But you’re not a full Akharu.”

“They went looking for a cure,” she replied softly. “When they got to Earth, the Akharu found out they could change humans into vampires. And they could have children with humans because the human blood of the offspring counteracted the curse, so their hybrid children, like me, weren’t born slaves.”

“So… so Ruthers was going to use some magic blood curse to enslave not just the rebellion, but any children they ever had, forever?” I felt sick inside, almost physically staggering from the thought.

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed. “He was waiting for approval from the rest of the committee. The majority still opposed the idea, but he was wearing them down with each successive month. I don’t know how long it would have taken for him to be given the approval he needed, but it was inevitable. Those against the plan were only a majority by one vote. At least one of those who were appalled by the idea would bend, or even die and be replaced by someone who would approve of the idea. It was only a matter of time.

“So, I went to Joselyn. I told her what was happening. Together, we came up with the only possible course of action that we could. We had to offer the Committee a different solution, one that would not result in such… barbaric action. Because it is possible to undo a memory spell. It would even be possible to make your mother into a Heretic again. But the blood plague, that could not be fixed. The Akharu have searched for such a cure for thousands of years without any success. We had to give the Committee another plan, one that would seem less extreme yet still accomplish their goals. Your mother volunteered to have her memory taken away from the people, and her power taken away from herself, in order to protect them. She surrendered everything she had worked for throughout her entire life in order to save her people from an eternity of slavery. If you learn nothing else in your life, know this, Felicity. Your mother is the most heroic person I have ever known in my long life.”

Rocking backwards on my heels from that, I worked my mouth a bit before managing, “What about her children? Her other children, I mean. Who are they? Where are they? What happened to them?”

“First, they were taken in after she was captured,” Gaia began in a slow, careful tone.

Before she could continue, however, Asenath interrupted sharply. “No.” When our eyes turned that way, the vampire girl continued while shaking her head. “You’re wrong. They weren’t taken after Joselyn was captured. They were taken before. That’s the whole reason she was captured.”

It was Gaia’s turn to look confused. Her eyes narrowed a bit. “I’m sorry?”

Asenath’s expression held a look of silent fury, a rage at what she was about to say clearly boiling over in her. “Your people, your… Ruthers, he killed children. His people set fire to a building where our families were kept, where the civilians were, where the children were. They set fire to the children’s rooms as a distraction, then they killed the guards in the nursery and stole Joselyn’s babies right out of their cribs. They wanted us to be so busy protecting and saving the rest of the children from the fire just so they could steal Joselyn’s in order to use them as leverage against her. Ruthers and his people killed innocent children that day, and used more innocent children, Joselyn’s children, to threaten her into surrendering. That’s why she turned herself in. That’s why she let them take her. That’s Ruthers’s great victory.”

Gaia looked as sick as I felt. Her voice was quiet. “Joselyn never told me… she never corrected the record that her children were taken after she surrendered… she never… “ Sighing, she lowered her head. “She was still protecting them. Still protecting everyone from that maniac.”

“Yeah,” I blurted, “And now she’s in the hands of another fucking psychopath, and this one happens to be an immortal necromancer with some kind of ash obsession.”

That brought Gaia’s gaze up. “So you do know about Fossor and your mother.”

“Fossor,” I spat the name darkly. “Yeah, I know about him. I know he took her. And you know why? Because he came for me, to turn me into a weapon against you guys. He thought it would be funny to turn Joselyn Atherby’s daughter into an obedient little toy to use against you and the rest of the Heretics. Mom convinced him to take her instead. I was seven years old and she sacrificed herself again. He’s had her for a decade. He’s got a son with her, a fucking son that’s a god damn psychopath himself! Do you know what that means? Do you know what he—what he’s done? What she’s gone through?!” I was shouting by the end.

Gaia’s face was pained. “Felicity, I… I’m sorry. Yes. I know what sort of torture and pain she has been put through. I know what she allowed to happen. If we can find her, if we can save her, I promise you that we will. Damn Ruthers, damn the committee, damn our entire society. If I can save Joselyn, I will. You have my word on that. But I will also keep you safe, and that means protecting you from the committee as well. As hard as it may be, you cannot openly rebel against them. You cannot let on that you know any of this. You must be patient.”

Before I could respond to that, Shiori spoke up. “What about me?” She took a step away from Asenath, waving the other girl back with a hand while keeping her eyes on the headmistress. “You called Asenath my sister. You knew she was a vampire, and you knew as soon as you came here that she was my sister. You knew everything. You knew before you came here. You knew while I was still in Crossroads. You probably knew even before I got there, didn’t you? You knew what I am, and what I… what I saw, what I was… what I thought.”

Gaia’s eyes closed, and I saw her flinch slightly before returned the other girl’s gaze. “Yes,” she answered quietly. “I knew who your mother was, and what you were, Shiori. I knew of your relation.”

“Why?!” Shiori blurted out loud, her voice raised into a yell. “Why would you do that? Why would you let me keep thinking I was a monster?! You had to notice what I was doing, how much it hurt, what I was… you had to know, so why didn’t you stop it?!”

Gaia’s response was simple. “I did.” Lifting her hand, she took Shiori’s and tugged her closer before enveloping the other girl in an embrace. “Did you think that you left that notebook behind accidentally, or that the specific bit of paper that would lead Felicity to realized your connection to your sister just happened to fall out right in front of her? Sometimes the best action is an indirect one. You needed help. But not from me. You needed it from Felicity. I simply pointed her toward you.”

My mouth was working in silence for a solid fifteen seconds before I finally managed, “I… god, there’s so many things I need to ask you. I’ve got questions, so many questions. But their kids,” I pointed back toward the Meregan. “Their children, the last of their race, are in danger. If you’re really on our side, if you’re really not some psycho kill all the Alters person, you have to help them. Please, please, Headmistress, please help them. They’ve been enslaved by some Heretic and he’s going to wipe out their whole race, or just enslave all of them.”

“A heretic?” Gaia lifted her chin, still embracing Shiori. “Who?”

“I—I think they said—what, Nicholas?” I asked the Meregan.

Gavant nodded. “This is being his name. Enemy-Nicholas Petan.”

Gaia’s face actually paled a bit. “Oh dear.”

“What?” I blurted, looking at her with confusion. “Do you know him?”

Slowly, the woman nodded. “Yes. I know Nicholas very well. My first encounter with Alters, as an ordinary bystander, was when I was taken and imprisoned by a group of orcs. I was taken along with another man that you likely now know as Seller, Avalon’s mentor.”

“Nicholas Petan is the man who saved us from those creatures.”

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Against The Odds 9-04

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A few minutes later, I got to see what it had looked like when Shiori and I had been transferred over. It… wasn’t anything special. Just like I hadn’t noticed that we were in a new place until afterward, I almost missed the fact that Asenath had arrived. One second there was no one standing in the designated space, and in the next, the vampire girl was suddenly there. It even took my Stranger sense a second to kick in to warn me that ‘ooh there was a big scary Alter standing there.’

Asenath had appeared with her back to us, facing the wall. She immediately pivoted back the right way, her gaze passing over the trio of tall Meregan just long enough to give them a nod of greeting before focusing on me. “Flick,” the deceptively-young looking vampire started smoothly. “Are you o–”

In mid-sentence, the girl stopped. Her head tilted slightly, and I saw her nostrils flare a little bit as she sniffed. A little frown creased her forehead for a moment as she sniffed once more. Then, silently, she took a few short steps to the side, crossing around behind me to where Shiori was partially-hidden.

At first, Asenath said nothing. She just stood there, watching the other girl with an unreadable expression. Meanwhile, Shiori just sort of shuffled from one foot to the other, unable to lift her gaze from the floor. The girl’s cheeks were pink, and I could see her mouth open and shut a couple times.

Even the Meregan didn’t say anything. They were aware of just how important this moment was. And Tristan, well, he was sitting nearby, watching what was happening with interest but staying quiet.

My own mouth opened to say something witty, but I stopped. No. Forcing the urge to break the silence back down, I made myself remain silent. This wasn’t about me, and it didn’t need any of my help.

Slowly, Asenath reached out a hand. With two fingers, she gently touched the bottom of Shiori’s chin, tilting it up. Bit by bit, the other girl’s gaze rose, until the two of them were face to face, eye to eye.

Gradually, the emotionless mask fell from Asenath’s face. I saw her wince, her lower lip trembling just a little before she spoke quietly, her voice filled with sudden understanding and regret. “Oh… Oh no.”

Before Shiori’s face could finish crumpling at the admittedly bad choice of words, Asenath stepped forward and embraced her. I could hear the other girl’s gasp as Senny wrapped both arms around her tightly. She spoke again, repeating her words. “No, oh no. I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. I’m sorry.”

Standing straight, clearly taken aback as her wide eyes found me, Shiori managed a weak, “Wh-what?”

Without releasing the girl, Asenath spoke quietly. “I didn’t know what was happening, what you were going through. I didn’t know who you were. I had no idea you were with the Heretics. If I’d known where you were, what you were going through, I would’ve.. Reathma, you must have been so scared.”

“I… I…” Shiori floundered a bit, stammering while Senny held onto her. “You know who I am?”

“Of course I know who you are,” Asenath confirmed with a tiny smile. “You think I wouldn’t recognize the scent of my own sister? I’ve made a whole career out of tracking family members for other people. Trust me, if I couldn’t figure out who you were at first scent, I’d be the worst vampire in the world.”

“But I—but you–” Falling silent briefly, the other girl hesitated. Finally, she very slowly lifted her hands to tentatively touch Asenath’s shoulders in a very tentative hug that she clearly wasn’t very certain about. “I thought I was a monster,” she whispered. “They said people like me deserved die.”

I saw the way Asenath stiffened before lifting her head to look at her sister. “Hey, listen to me, okay? I’ve been around for about two hundred and thirty years, and if there’s one thing I’ve figured out it’s that drinking blood and living a long time doesn’t make someone a monster. You know what does? Doing monstrous things. Human, Alter, Hybrid whatever you call yourself. Evil actions are evil actions.”

“I wanted to find out about my family for so long,” Shiori admitted quietly. “I kept looking for anything. And then when Professor Dare showed up to talk to Columbus and me, I thought maybe that’s why my parents disappeared, why they gave me up. I thought they were heroes, h-heroic monster slayers and they were just trying to pr-protect me. But then I saw the v-vision from the Heretical Edge a-and it was my mother giving me up. I s-saw her, she was a… a vampire. She was a vampire, and I thought that meant I was a monster too. I thought th-they’d kill me if they found out. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to t-talk to or wh-where to go. I—I… I think they know something’s wrong.”

Asenath was shaking her head, leaning back a bit to look down at the other girl. Her fingers tilted Shiori’s chin up once more. “I’m going to tell you something right now, and I want you to pay attention, okay? Both of your parents, our mom and your dad, are heroes. They did let you go to protect you, and it was very, very hard for them. It hurt so much because all they wanted to do was take care of you.”

She sighed then before continuing. “But our mom… our mother, she has enemies, enemies that wouldn’t think twice about killing a baby to get at her. That’s why she had to send you away. Hell, that’s gotta be why she let them give you a Japanese name when both our mom and your dad are Chinese. She was hiding you so that her enemies wouldn’t have a chance of tracking you down to use against her.”

Shiori barked a short, humorless laugh then, shoulders shaking. “I don’t think that worked very well.”

Making a short, slightly amused shoulder shrug, Asenath admitted, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure she didn’t expect you to end up with the Heretics. It should’ve been impossible. Hybrids aren’t ever picked up by the Edge. That’s one of the reasons we keep them secret. If Heretics knew there was a way for Alters to produce offspring with humans, offspring that they couldn’t detect, they’d go nuts with paranoia. Knowing them, the crazy ones might even come up with a way to detect you, and then hybrids would be in even worse danger. So we push the idea that it’s impossible just so they don’t have any reason to start looking that hard. The easiest way to protect something is to make your enemy think it can’t exist.”

Shiori was quiet for a few seconds before looking up again. “Do you think there’s others like me? You said the Edge isn’t supposed to pick up hybrids. But it picked up me, s-so there could be others. Others that think they’re monsters, th-that keep hearing about how evil they are and… and don’t know what to do about it. Maybe even in o-older classes. They might’ve been there for years, hearing that… stuff.”

Wincing a little noticeably, Asenath gave a slight nod. “There might be, I really don’t know. If you were taken there, I… hell, I’m surprised the Heretical Edge even worked on you. It… seems impossible.”

“So there might be others,” Shiori murmured. “Th-there might be others that are as scared as I was… am,” she amended with a little shiver. “I’m still scared. If they find out what I am—who my mom is…”

“Hey,” Asenath was holding her tighter, I could tell. “I won’t let that happen. You don’t have to go back. You can stay with me. I’ll take care of you, I promise. You don’t have to go through that anymore.”

For a few seconds, Shiori didn’t say anything. Slowly, her arms fully enveloped the other girl, hugging her older sister with much less reservation. I saw the way she pressed her forehead against Asenath’s shoulder, giving a noticeable shiver before she spoke quietly. “Yes, I do. I do have to go back there.”

Before Asenath could object, she went on. “My brother, Columbus, he’s there. My team is there. Even if they’d think… even if they’d turn on me, I have to go back. I can’t run and hide just because—just because it’s easier.” Giving a helpless little shrug, the girl murmured, “And if there’s others like me in there, others that that’ve been in my position, I have to try to find them. I have to try to help them.”

“Even if it’s safer to come with me?” Asenath’s voice sounded strained, even a bit lonely, and I thought a bit about what she’d said before about how she tended to lose people. As she’d said, she had her own abandonment issues. “I’d like to have a sister around. It… it’d be nice to have someone else to talk to.”

“I’m not saying no to having a sister,” Shiori spoke carefully then, leaning back to look at the much older girl. I saw the way their eyes met, the half-sisters, born centuries apart. “I want to have a sister. I want to know you. I want to know our—our mom, everything. But I’m not going to run and hide. All those people that the Heretics help, they do help them. Just because there’s problems doesn’t mean they’re all wrong. You don’t fix things by running and hiding. You fix them by… by working on them.

“Besides,” she added with a brief glance my way. “I… kinda don’t want to leave Flick now. Not after everything we’ve already been through. Not after what she said, what… she really made me feel better.”

Asenath was quiet for a second before she looked over at where I was. “Thanks for helping my sister.”

I shrugged a little at that, smiling in spite of myself. “Hey, you helped my dad. What else could I do?”

Returning my smile with one of her own briefly, Asenath then turned her attention to the waiting Meregan. Her tone turned a little more proper, and she made a brief bowing motion. “You have my apologies for my rudeness in not addressing you properly, sirs and miss. I’m afraid even with all the time that I’ve lived, I haven’t actually met any of your people, so I don’t know your correct greetings.”

“It is being well,” Gavant assured her. “We are being know well the missing of peoples and family. You are not being need to apologizing for such emotion. Please, do not being allow us to be interrupting.”

I saw the way Asenath bit her lip hesitantly, eyes glancing toward her little sister before she gestured. “Does that mean you don’t mind if I talk to her for awhile? We’ve got a lot to catch up on, then you can tell me about this threat, and the kids that are in danger. Unless there’s something urgent that we can-”

I shook my head. “We’ve gotta wait until we can pull the rest of my team in anyway. You can talk.”

She raised an eyebrow, watching me with a doubtful look. “You’re bringing in the rest of your team?”

“I know what you’re thinking.” I let out a long sigh before going on. “And yes, it’s not ideal. But we need help. And if we’re ever going to convince people that the way the Heretics are going about things is wrong, if we’re ever going to change what’s happening, we have to start somewhere. I honestly can’t think of a better place to start than with my own team. If I can’t get them to work with a vampire to save a bunch of children, then… then there’s no hope at all. And I’d personally rather not believe that.”

Asenath stepped away then to have a talk with Shiori, and I moved back over to where the Meregan were. My eyes found the spot where Tristan was, and I hesitated before addressing them. “You found Asenath just by using a bit of Shiori’s DNA or whatever, and some thoughts about her. Can’t you do the same thing to find Tristan’s family? He said he remembers having a mom, a dad, and a sister. He remembers being in a house. Can’t you use that and his genetics and do your little tracking thing?”

Poor Gavant look ashamed, glancing away with a flinch. “We have been tried. We are being trying more and more. This spell that is been blocked him, that keeps being return him to this world, it has being affecting our efforts as well. Without more information of what has being done, we cannot probably being do any better. But, we will not being stop trying to be finding Friend-Tristan’s family.”

“What about your own kids?” I asked then, frowning. “You could pull Shiori, Asenath, and me off a completely different world. Couldn’t you just use the technology to locate and transport your children?”

That time, it was Alecra who spoke, her voice clearly sad. “We have been tried that as well, many times. Enemy-Nicholas Petan is being aware of our power and was made protections against it.”

“Protections like the ones around Crossroads,” I realized with a sigh. “The same reason we have to wait until Avalon’s out on the beach before we can contact her and get the rest of my team out here.”

From there, I just moved to sit next to Tristan. I figured the kid could use a human to talk to. He couldn’t really tell me anything about his family or what happened to him, of course, but I managed to get him talking about other things. We should have been the same age, so I still remembered everything he did about movies, toys, games, and cartoons. It was… a little odd talking to a twelve-year old boy about stuff we both liked when we were seven-years old. But I got over it pretty quick, and we just chatted.

Before I knew it, my phone was beeping to let me know that it would be time to get up if I was home. Which meant that it would be time for Avalon to be down on the beach, considering her usual schedule.

Straightening up, I brushed off my legs and glanced to the other side of the room. Asenath was sitting there with Shiori, the latter actually asleep with her head in Senny’s lap while the other girl gently stroked her hair. For a second, I stood there and smiled at the sight before moving to where the Meregan waited. “All right, so how do we find Avalon without using any of her DNA or anything?”

“You were said that she would being on beach area where you and Friend-Shiori were being found?”

I nodded to Alecra. “Yeah, she always goes jogging around now. I mean, assuming she hasn’t changed that up since Shiori and I were taken, which… shit, she might. I mean, if they won’t let anyone out of the shield… oh crap, oh crap, why didn’t I think of that before now?” Raising my hands to my head, I let out a low groan of frustration. “Damn it, what if she doesn’t come out? What if none of them do?”

Purin laid his massive hand on my shoulder. Well, his palm was on my shoulder anyway. His whole hand covered a lot more than that. “You must being calm yourself, Friend-Flick. If there is being trouble with locating your friends, we will be settling that problem when it is being proven to exist.”

Breathing out, I made myself calm down, looking at the man with a slight smile. “You’re right, I get it. Deal with the problem if it presents itself. Right now, just focus on what we know. So how do we find her, assuming she is on the beach?”

Alecra answered. “We will being simply return the beacon focus to where it was finding you and Friend-Shiori before. If Other-Friend is there, we will being see her.”

I started to nod, then paused, glancing to her. “Hey, uhh, I thought of something else. That statue outside, the one of my mother. They said it was supposed to be some kind of message thing to let her know what was going on when she appeared. But then you said that Mom should’ve appeared in here, not outside. So why was the statue out there?”

The Meregan woman made what looked like an embarrassed smile. “The Message-Stone should being appear as near as possible to where its intended person-to-being-hear it is. It tried to being appear to you when you were being arrived here. But the Binsayeac had not even power ready. It could not being project Message-Stone far enough. It only had being put Message-Stone as close as it could.”

Nodding slowly, I glanced toward the water fountain. Already, the image in the water was showing the beach. Seeing that, I smiled. “Hey, look.” There was a female figure, slightly obscured by their nearness to the ‘screen.’ “You found her after all.”

All three Meregan looked confused, then turned their attention to the fountain as well. Gavant was talking. “We had not been done anything yet.”

“Wait, what?” I blinked, equally confused. “You mean you didn’t turn on the beacon thing? Then how did it–”

The figure on the beach came even closer to the fountain screen then, and reached out a hand. That hand actually came out through the screen, appearing inside the room with us. Then she took another step, crossing the whole way through the screen to end up inside the fountain in the middle of the room.

“Well,” Baroness Gaia Sinclaire spoke calmly while straightening to her full height.

“I believe we now have many things to discuss.”

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Against The Odds 9-03

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“Are you, uhh, are you really sure about this?” Shiori asked awhile later as the two of us followed Purin up out of the Elvis docking bay (or whatever it was called) back in the Meregan base/ship. We had raced back even faster than the trip out there, Purin seeming to trust that we knew how to drive the boulder-vehicle well enough that he pushed his own harder than he had before. It had been a wild ride.

“Because this,” Shiori continued in a quiet murmur, “seems like a plan that could go wrong really fast.”

Unable to deny that, I nodded. “You’re right, it could go wrong. It could backfire spectacularly. But if we’re gonna rescue those kids, we’re gonna need them.” Pausing then, I added, “And they’re my team.”

The girl paused briefly, a visible flinch crossing her face. “Right,” her voice faltered. “Your team.”

We were in the doorway between the vehicle garage and the corridor, and I turned to Shiori. My hand found hers almost instinctively. “Hey, I… I’m sorry, that was really insensitive. I know, you’d rather have your team here too. I’m going on about wanting my team here, and you… you… I’m sorry.”

At first, Shiori’s gaze turned down and to the side, toward the floor. Then the girl set her shoulders and physically straightened. Her eyes found mine while she shook her head. “No more sulking, remember? Yeah, it sucks that I can’t t-tell them about what I am. But… but I’m not gonna brood about it anymore.”

Her face twisted a little in thought then before she added, “Besides, do you even know how you’re gonna get Columbus and the others here anyway? Because I’m pretty sure they won’t be past the shield and out on the beach like we were. Especially in the middle of the night. It’s like four in the morning.”

“Avalon’ll be down for exercise in another hour,” I assured her. “I know her schedule like the back of my hand. She goes running on the beach at five thirty.” Looking toward Purin, who had paused to watch, I asked, “Is there any way to send a message instead of just teleporting them without warning? I’d kind of like to tell my friends what’s going on and let them choose to come help if they want.”

The big man’s head bobbed immediately. “This is being very possible to have been done, Friend-Flick.”

“That still leaves an hour and a half before she’s on the beach,” Shiori pointed out. “What do we do until then? And are we sure that this umm, Nicholas guy won’t send an even bigger army before then?”

Wincing at the thought, I started to shake my head. Before I could say anything, however, Gavant spoke up while approaching from further down the corridor. “We will being moving, Friend-Shiori. Enemy-Nicholas Petan is having a large army, yes. But he is not having large enough to be finding us.”

“Wait, so, the spaceship is ready to move?” I asked, giving a quick. nervous glance around the corridor.

Gavant winced a little before shaking his head. “Our vessel is not being space-worthy yet. More repairs are being needed. But it is being less difficult to be moving on planet. That moving we can be done.”

“Right,” I nodded. “Probably a good idea to move then, before we get any more unwanted guests.” Hesitating then, I took a breath before looking at Shiori. “As for what we’re gonna do until Avalon’s up, I’ve got an idea.” My eyes met hers while I spoke quietly. “Asenath. We can ask Asenath for help.”

The suggestion made Shiori’s eyes widen. “Asenath,” she breathed out in surprise. “You mean…”

“Yeah,” I confirmed while squeezing her hand upon realizing I was still holding it. “Your sister.”

For a second, I saw the hope in the girl’s eyes. I saw the expression of a child that only wanted to know her real family, and where she had come from. Then it clouded over with worry, like a storm crossing a bright, sunny day. “But what if she, I mean what if I… wh-what if they…” Shiori started to babble.

I responded by lifting her hand, then grabbing the other one. Interlacing our fingers together, I met her gaze while holding our hands up above our heads that way. “Hey,” I replied quietly, “it’s okay. We don’t have to tell any of the others that you guys are related if you don’t want to. Or anything else about you. I mean, I think you should tell Columbus the truth because he’s your brother and he’s been worried as hell. But that’s up to you, and no one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to. All right?”

Looking down at the floor at first, then back up again to meet my gaze, Shiori nodded. “Okay.” Her voice was quiet, yet a little hope had crept back into it. “And I would like to meet this… Asenath.”

“I know she’d like to meet you too,” I confirmed before looking back toward Gavant and Purin. “Can we do that? If I give you a um, I don’t know, an address or whatever, can you reach someone else?”

“We are not understanding what is this ‘address,’” Gavant responded with a slight frown. “But if Friend-Flick is be telling us all of who this sister of Friend-Shiori is, we can be finding her then.”

“Right, right,” I realized aloud. “It’s like you were saying about how the beacon caught me instead of my mom. It looks for similar genetics, mindsets, actions, memories, personality. You just need me to… what, talk about what I know about Asenath and then your beacon can lock onto her just like that?”

“That is being true,” he confirmed. “If it is being narrowed down to one world, it is being easier. Our beacon was been already used on your world. That will being easier than one whole new world.”

Releasing Shiori, I started to say something else, but the sound of jogging footsteps caught my attention. Not that it was hard to know who was coming, since there was only one other person in the whole ship who could run without it sounding like rumbling thunder echoing around us. “Tristan?”

Sure enough, the boy came running up, skidding to a stop. Excitement shown on his face. “They’re about to start up the engines!” He called, clearly beside himself. “They’re gonna start the ship!”

Despite the urgency of the situation, I felt a flutter of excitement and more than a little awe. I was in a spaceship, a real spaceship, and they were about to start the engines. Part of me wished there was time to bask in how amazing that was, how unbelievable, and how jealous Dad would have been if he knew.

Actually, that raised an interesting question. How would the Bystander effect work when someone was brought onto a working spaceship and taken to another world? Would they just think they were driving in a car or… going on a ship? Or would they fully process it while they were experiencing it, then forget immediately as soon as it was over? The latter seemed more likely given what I knew about the effect.

Shaking off those thoughts, I smiled in spite of myself. The boy’s obvious excitement was infectious. “I guess we better work on getting those reinforcements here then, if the ship’s already ready to take off.”

The boy looked nervous all of a sudden, kicking at the floor with his foot. “Do uhh, do you mind if I…”

Realizing what he was asking, my eyes widened. I suddenly felt like a bitch. He obviously wanted to stay around us. We were the first humans that had been here with him for years, and we’d run out with barely a word right after meeting him. “You wanna hang out while we work on getting our friends?”

Tristan’s head bobbed rapidly, his perfect blonde hair flying with the motion. Seriously, the kid would have given any of those famously cute little boy actors a run for their money without even trying that much. When he got a little bit older, he was going to end up being the subject of a ton of crushes. I had to wonder how much of that had to do with whatever his ‘other half’ besides human was. Not to mention my thoughts of whether the boy had been magically banished because of something to do with the Heretics refusal to accept that there could be human-alter hybrids.

In the end, I just gave the boy a thumbs up. “Cool.” Then I looked to Gavant. “How do we get started?”

The big man pointed down the corridor. “Explore-Master Purin will being take you to beacon room while ship is prepared for launch. It should not be interrupting your work. Meregan beacon will being unhindered by ship movements and activity unless we are being in live combat situation.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I murmured before nodding. “All right, Purin, let’s get to it.”

The other Meregan man made that salute or prayer gesture with his left hand again, where he pressed it sideways against his chest with the ring and middle fingers stretched out while the rest were pushed back against his palm. He thumped his hand against his chest that way while facing Gavant. Speaking quickly in their own language for a moment, he gave what sounded like an agreement before turning. “Come, Friends-Flick, Shiori, and Tristan. We must be hurry if we are to be finding your other people.”

The four of us jogged down the corridor, hurrying past several other Meregan who were all hard at work effecting repairs and maintenance on the ship to make sure everything was ready. As we jogged, I looked down at the boy. “So you really don’t remember anything about your family or anything?”

Tristan shook his head. “Nuh uh. They tried everything to send me back or help me remember, but it, uh, like I said, it just sends me right back.” Making a face then, he added, “I wish I could remember.”

Despite myself, I reached out to ruffle his hair as we ran. “Hey, don’t worry. We’re not just gonna run off back home and forget all about you when this is over, I promise. We’ll figure something out.”

The boy looked a bit doubtful, but nodded while remaining silent. Before I could say anything else, the jog brought us to a circular platform of some kind, with a safety rail around it that was taller than I was.

Once we were all in the circle, it started to descend, sinking deeper into the tomb-like ship. I had to wonder why so much of the Meregan technology seemed to be centered around things like rocks and rough masonry. Sure there was smooth metal in certain places, but a lot of the exterior things were very different. There was no aerodynamic structure or anything a modern human would design. Their spaceship looked more like a building than a vehicle, and their scouting vehicles looked like boulders.

As if to add to that, as the elevator stopped and a large set of doors opened in front of us, we saw what looked an awful lot like a cave in front of us. It was almost as large as the cafeteria at Crossroads. There were multicolored crystals lining the walls that fluctuated between red, blue, and green randomly. The floor was marble, and there was a wading pool in the middle of the circular chamber. In the middle of the pool there was a small fountain that shot up at least a good ten feet. And to the side, I could see one of the other Meregan, a woman with long green hair, fiddling with one of the crystals.

Shaking off my surprise at the sight, I stepped into the cavern. “Okay, so um, how does this work?”

“Oh, and we better make sure that it brings them here and not outside like we did,” Shiori added.

Pointing at her, I nodded emphatically toward Purin. “Yeah, what she said. Why did we end up out there instead of in this place anyway? Seems like that could have saved a lot of, you know, confusion.”

The Meregan woman who had already been in the cavern looked embarrassed while speaking up. “That is being my fault, Friends-Flick and Shiori. I am being Alecra, and the mistake was been mine.”

She approached, leaving the crystals behind while continuing to explain. “The beacon was been set to transport Friend-Joselyn Atherby here into this room location. But I was made mistake by not changing location to be matching new coordinates after Binsayeac was been hidden under ground from intruders.”

Quickly, Tristan murmured, “Binsayeac’s the name of the ship. They said it means, umm, Friend-Finder.” His lips were pursed a little, the anger in even his young voice apparent. “They named their ship Friend-Finder. They wanted to go out in space and find other people to talk to, other… friends. They just wanted to help and make a big intergalactic community. They never wanted to hurt anybody.”

I flinched at the thought that this race of explorers, who had gone so far as to name their spaceship after the idea of community and friendship, had been almost completely wiped out. This ship that they had made for the purpose of extending a hand of solidarity to worlds beyond their own had become the home of pretty much their entire species. And if we didn’t save their children, it might all end here.

Forcing that thought aside rather than let myself dwell on the idea of failing, I focused on what Alecra had explained, parsing it for a moment before getting it. “Oh, you set the coordinates for this room, but then they hid this ship to stay away from the bad guys, but you forgot to change the coordinates. So where we showed up would have been where the ship was before you guys took it underground.”

“That is being correct, Friend-Flick,” the tall, green-haired woman confirmed. “If we are to be bring your Friends-People here to help, we will being move the coordinates to bringing them to here.”

After making that clear, she extended a hand. “You will must come being in water if the beacon is to being correct in its search. Lord-March Gavant was said that you was to look for Friend-Shiori’s sister?”

I nodded. “She’s never met her though. Asenath’s her half-sister, but I’m the only one that knows her.”

“Then you must being both in water,” Alecra explained patiently. “The beacon will being scan Friend-Flick’s memories and will being scan Friend-Shiori’s blood and body to being make accurate location.”

With a brief glance toward the other girl, I let out a breath. “All right, let’s do it then. Wait, I can send her a message, right? We locate her and send a message first. I don’t want to just snatch her without warning. That, you know, might be bad.” I coughed, wincing at the thought of both a startled Asenath showing up here with no idea of what was going on, and Twister being left alone, equally clueless.

Beside me, Shiori got that mischievous look again, even as she tried to keep a straight face. “Yeah,” she intoned with clearly false solemness. “Pulling in a vampire without warning them ahead of time would definitely be rued.”

I blinked, blinked again, mouthed her words to myself while she just watched me with obvious amusement and self-satisfaction. Then I got it. “You spelled it r-u-e-d, didn’t—yeah you did.” Groaning while the other girl giggled, I found myself smiling anyway. Especially when Tristan apparently got it abruptly and started to snicker as well.

Finally, I looked back at the two Meregan. “Shiori’s puns aside, what about that warning?”

“Yes, Friend-Flick,” Alecra confirmed with a simple nod. “There will being a chance for conversation.”

With that, Shiori and I both started down into the pool. It was clearly meant to come up to about the knees of a full grown Meregan, which meant it was all the way up past our waists.

Alecra had us each stand on either side of the fountain, then told us to put our hands in the spray. “As the water is being hitting your skin, you are to being speaking of the person you are to being looking for.”

Meeting Shiori’s curious, obviously eager gaze, I smiled. “All right. Let me talk about what I saw when I first met Asenath, how she saved my life. Let me describe what I felt when I realized what she was, and what she did for other people. Let me tell you how grateful I am to her for everything she’s done. And how much I trust her to protect my dad.”

I’d already talked about this with the other girl, but now I went into greater detail. I described the feeling of Asenath saving me at the last second from whatever torture Ammon had had in mind. I openly admitted my own skepticism, and how the vampire had won me over, and how it had felt to see that she had stopped my father from becoming a murderer. I talked about seeing the determination in Asenath’s eyes, and the incredible compassion that had come while she was helping me process what I found out about Fossor and my mother.

Finally, I finished with a quiet, “So if certain people refuse to consider Asenath to be human, then we can’t use the word humanity to mean compassion, kindness, and just… plain caring about other people anymore. Because I’ve never met anyone in my life who embodies those concepts more than Asenath. She’s a vampire, but she’s not a threat. She’s not a monster. She’s my friend. She saved my life.

“She’s a hero.”

Alecra’s quiet voice spoke into the resulting silence. “It is been done.”

With that, the spray of water between us opened up, spreading apart to show empty space that abruptly filled with the image of Asenath herself. The vampire girl was standing on the roof of my house, looking both ways down the street. She didn’t seem to be alarmed or anything, just… watching.

Through the semi-translucent image, I could see Shiori’s face. There were tears streaming down it as she stared, lost in the image. “My…. sister…?”

“That’s her,” I confirmed quietly before looking back toward Alecra. “How do I…?”

“You are to be touching the image and speaking,” the Meregan explained. “She will be hearing your voice.”

I nodded at that, then reached up to put my hand against the image. It felt like touching silly putty that had been stretched out a long ways, yet didn’t break. “Asenath, it’s Flick.”

In the image, the girl jolted a little, turning around before frowning. I quickly went on. “I’m not there. But uhh, it is really me, I swear. Um, when we met, you said Mr. Raphardy was either racist or sexist or both, because he charged you ‘about three times what that piece of shit was worth.’”

She relaxed marginally then, and I heard her voice as she spoke. “Where are you? How are you talking like this?”

I hesitated before starting to explain. “I uh, I’m not on the planet. This other race called the Meregan pulled me and… Shiori here. Listen, there’s a lot to talk about. A lot. But we need your help. The Meregan children are in a lot of danger and… and we um, we can’t really help them without you. Can you… uhh… would you…”

“Bring me,” the vampire spoke calmly, her voice quiet yet confident. “You don’t have to ask, Flick. It’s children. Give me a minute to warn Twister.”

I wanted to tell her about Shiori, but figured that was something best talked about in person. With a glance toward the other girl, I nodded. “Okay, they’ll bring you through as soon as you’re ready.”

I turned to Shiori then, as Asenath moved to tell her partner in bodyguard-duty that she was leaving for (hopefully) a short trip. “Are you ready for this?”

Her nod was emphatic, the tears still evident. “Yes,” she replied in a quiet, barely audible voice.

“I’m ready to meet my sister.”

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Against The Odds 9-01

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A minute later Gavant led us back through the building—spaceship, I reminded myself. What appeared to be most of the surviving Meregan (and I only saw depressingly few for a group that was supposed to represent their entire living race aside from the children) were cleaning up the bodies, both their own and the others. I gave a weak shudder at the dark and unwanted realization that every Meregan they’d lost in that single battle actually affected the percentage of their surviving race significantly.

As we moved down one of the halls we hadn’t explored, I forced that extremely troublesome thought aside to ask, “What can you tell us about this enemy of yours, the one who stole your children? Do you know where he comes from, what he can do, what he wants, where he set up his base, any of that?”

He gave me a brief glance before returning his attention to the corridor. He sighed. “We are knowing much of this threat, more than we are wishing. He is being one of you, Friends-Flick and Shiori.”

“Wait, what?” Shiori put in, her own eyes widening along with mine. “What do you mean, one of us?”

“I am meaning,” the big man explained, “that he is being one of the People-Heretics. He is being one.”

My mouth worked a couple times and I stopped walking for a second, staring at the man as he turned to look back at us. “This guy that took all your children, you mean he’s a Heretic? Like, one of our Heretics? And he’s got an army of Alters hanging around him, following his orders? Are you serious? ”

“This is not being something we would be making the humor of,” Gavant’s response was solemn.

“Is he part of Eden’s Garden?” I mused with a brief look toward my companion. “I’ve, umm, heard they’re a little more lenient about the whole ‘working with Alters’ thing. Still, an army? And what’s he doing out here all by himself?” I wanted to ask if he was sure, but that felt like a really stupid question.

“I am not understanding ‘Eden’s Garden,’” Gavant answered slowly, a frown creasing his forehead. “We are only knowing that he is being one of the People-Heretics, as Friend-Joselyn Atherby was been.”

“Never mind,” I waved that off with a hand. “We’ll get into that later. Do you know what he wants here, how he made up this army, why they’re listening to him, even what his name is? Anything might help.”

Gavant nodded once, though he didn’t answer right away. It felt like he was gathering himself. “The one who is their master is being called Enemy-Nicholas Petan.” Even saying the name (the first of which which he pronounced Nee-Ko-lah without the S sound) seemed to make the man flinch inwardly.

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” I admitted. When Gavant just looked at me blankly, I amended, “I mean the name isn’t familiar.” Glancing toward the girl beside me, I asked, “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of him?”

Shiori’s head shook. “Um, n-no. But then, I’ve been kind of too… occupied for extra studying. All that broo isn’t going to ding itself. On the plus side,” she added brightly, “Heretic school seems like a place that might actually have a course in that kind of thing. If they do, I am so signing up for the AP class.”

Biting my lip to cover the smile that came then, I looked back to Gavant. “I guess that’s a no from both of us. Sorry, did my mother know about him? Were they, you know, enemies before or something?”

“We are not knowing if Friend-Joselyn Atherby was been knowing Enemy-Nicholas Petan,” Gavant admitted. “She was been the only Friend-Person-Heretic we are knowing who could been help us.”

Before I could say anything else, the big man continued. “We are knowing where Enemy-Nicholas Petan was putting his base before. It maybe been changed since we were starting long-sleep, but we will be go there. If he is being there, we will being fight him to be taking childs back.” His voice was grim, and I had the feeling that he didn’t think they’d actually survive the attempt, let alone succeed.

Swallowing hard, I nudged him with a hand. “Hey, I know it’s not much, but we’re here, all right? We’re gonna help you figure this out. Maybe we can distract this guy long enough for you to take your kids and get out of there. I mean, if he’s a Heretic, maybe he’ll want to talk to us. We could use that.”

“We are not wanting to be putting Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s child and child’s friend in danger,” Gavant protested weakly before shaking his head with another sigh. “But we are being very glad for the help.”

Moving ahead then, the man led us to a large round door that looked bronze. And that meant large for him. For Shiori and me it was positively gigantic. When he pressed his hand against what looked an awful lot like a hieroglyphic beside the enormous circular door, there was a sudden whoosh noise as it separated into sections like a pizza being cut up. The separate wedges all pulled back into the walls, revealing a dark chamber beyond. A second later, some kind of automated lighting system activated.

At a gesture from the man, Shiori and I stepped through the doorway and into what turned out to be a chamber that was even bigger than the one out in front. It stretched out almost twice as long from the look of things, and was probably at least as wide. Throughout the room there were boulders. That was the best way I could describe them. They were these huge, almost perfectly spherical rocks that were about twelve feet in diameter. Dozens of them littered the room, too uniform to be an accident.

As we looked around the boulder-filled room, I tugged Herbie from my pocket once more and held the little guy up. “What do you say, buddy? Recognize any of your big brothers? Maybe an aunt or two?”

Gavant was staring at me, his eyes lit with interest. “I am not recognizing this pet of Friend-Flick.”

“Oh, uhh.” Realizing it was kind of hard to explain, I shrugged. “It’s a long story. But Herbie’s cool.”

“He is pretty quiet though,” Shiori observed before looking back to the man. “What’re we doing here?”

The answer came not from Gavant, but from deeper in the room, behind one of the boulders. “I will being answer that.” The man who emerged with a wave toward us looked vaguely familiar somehow. Unlike Gavant, his hair was cut shorter and was a deep bronze color rather than the other man’s gray. He also seemed younger somehow, despite being bout half a foot taller, and wore a dark green uniform.

And on a sidenote, hanging around these guys too much was going to put a crick in my neck if I had to keep looking up at them like this.

It was Shiori who figured it out first. The other girl’s head tilted sideways before she asked, “Isn’t that the guy you uhh, smacked around?” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, strategically re-positioned?”

“Thanks for that save,” I murmured sidelong at her. She grinned in response, and I shook my head before focusing on the second Meregan. “Uh, yeah, that was my fault. I’m really sorry, I, uhh, I sort of thought you were a real statue, and I was afraid the big door would close and trap us in here, and–”

“It is being well, Friend-Flick,” the new man assured me, a broad smile on his face. “I was been confused to be waking up on the floor. But it is all being good now.” That smile left a moment later and he looked away, his voice softening. “Except being for our new lost.” He lifted his left hand, ring and middle fingers outstretched with the rest tucked into his palm. Pressing his hand sideways against his chest in what looked like a religious motion, the man murmured something in another language quietly.

Then he focused on us once more, blinking his eyes a few times. “I am being Purin, master of explore.”

“Master of explore?” I echoed, squinting slightly before getting it. “Oh, you mean head scout?”

“This is not being right,” the other man replied with a brief frown. “We are not being search for heads.”

Smiling a little, I gestured for him to go on. “Never mind, I get the idea. You explore places. So you’re the one who knows where this asshole’s base is?” When both Purin and Gavant opened their mouths, the confusion written across their faces, I waved them off. “I mean you know where your enemy’s base is.”

“Ah,” Purin’s head bobbed up and down. “Yes, I am knowing this. Lord-March Gavant was being wish that I will being take you to see what the invader was been done while we were been in long-sleep.”

It took me a second to parse all of that, but I got it. “Right, we can scout it out and see what’s changed. For all we know, the big guy himself already left and it’s just some minions left behind to deal with.”

“We will be hope,” Gavant replied with obvious doubt. “But it is not being likely. I will be stay here and gathering resources, preparing our people for our fight. We must being ready to save our childs.”

“All right,” I said quietly, trying to contain my jitters. Okay, it was worse than jitters. I was kind of terrified. But I pushed on anyway, trying to ignore it. “So how are we getting there? Does it have anything to do with these rocks?” I added afterward, looking at the massive boulders curiously.

Purin laid a hand on the nearest one. “This is being Meregan pride of scouting vehicles. They are being called K’lecnahn.” With an innocent smile, he added, “But Friend-Joselyn Atherby called them Elvis.”

“Elvis?” I blinked uncertainly with a glance to the boulder. “Why exactly would she call them Elvis?”

“I am not understanding so much,” Purin replied uncertainly, his hand brushing over the stone with obvious fondness. “But she had been said it is because they are rocks and they are going rolling?”

“Rock and roll,” Shiori announced with a giggle, crossing an arm over her stomach in a failed effort to contain herself. “Your mom named them Elvis because they rock and roll.” She snickered a little more.

“Oh my god.” I couldn’t entirely help the little snicker that came, but I forced it back at the thought of what else we had to do, and the problems that still lay ahead. We still had to rescue those children.

Purin gestured for us to watch, then pushed in on a spot of the boulder that was slightly lighter than the rest of it. The spot, about as big around as his hand, lit up and moved inward. A second later, the whole front half of the boulder split apart, revealing an interior that made me blink in surprise. There was a soft white cushioned spot that looked perfectly formed to let one of the Meregan lean back against it, along with several straps to keep them in place. There were two handles to either side that their hands obviously locked onto, and the front of the boulder, the parts that had opened up, had a pair of large screens on them that were showing the exterior of the boulder. One showed the front, the other the rear.

When I looked closer, I saw that the stand where the Meregan would be positioned was slightly separate from the rock itself. Which meant that as the boulder part turned and rolled, the figure inside along with the screens and the controls he was manipulating would remain upright. The boulder could roll along all it wanted (or all the driver directed it to) without spinning the occupant over and over.

“You are being understanding now?” the younger Meregan asked with a hopeful smile. It was obvious that he loved these things, and was extremely proud of them. I wondered if he’d created them.

“I think so,” I answered slowly. “But I’m not sure either of us will be able to control one of these things, and they don’t really look big enough for passengers. Even,” I added, “if we are a lot smaller than you.”

“That is being all right,” Purin assured us. “That is why we are having Elvis for Meregan cadets. Smaller being than adult Meregan.” Gesturing for us to follow, the bronze-haired man started toward another of the boulders, touching his hand against a spot on it to open the thing up. “This is not being so small for only one you, but two you can make it as Friend-Joselyn Atherby and Partner did.”

“Wait, partner?” I blinked at that, looking up at the Meregan. “What partner are you talking about?”

Gavan was the one who answered. “Friend-Joselyn Atherby had came with other-friend. Good other-friend. But name was been gone. Meregan forget other-friend name, other-friend face, other-friend all except for being. Erased, Meregan all had been forgot. No more memory of other-friend name.”

Now I was even more confused. “So you don’t remember my mom’s partner, but you do remember her? What… does that mean?” Looking helplessly toward Shiori, I shrugged my shoulders. “They erased Mom’s memory… locked specific knowledge about things like her other kids behind more magic, but neither of those things affected people on this world. On the other hand, whatever erased the memory of her partner, did affect them, and still does. Also, if her partner isn’t Deveron I will eat every last ounce of sand in this desert until it’s empty, because that’s just every single level of duh at this point.”

“Deveron,” Gavant frowned. “This name is not being familiar to us. This is more People-Heretic magic?”

I nodded with a sigh. “Definitely more People-Heretic magic. Errr, at least I assume it is.” My frown deepened a little. “Though I definitely don’t understand why it would work so differently than the magic they used on Mom did. Maybe they used a different spell, or gave it different parameters, or something?” Shaking my head, I forcibly shut it out of my mind. It was time to focus on this situation.

“Anyway, let’s go do this scouting thing. How do we drive this big boulder?” To Herbie, I added as an aside, “You hear that, buddy? We’re gonna be riding around inside your big brother.”

Purin looked just as confused about that as Gavant had, but shook it off. He stepped aside then, gesturing at the now-open Elvis. This one was a bit smaller, obviously meant for what were probably teenage Meregan. In other words, people who were closer to seven feet tall instead of nine or ten.

“Friend-Flick, you will be coming in here,” Purin announced while reaching for my hand. When I gave it to him, he hoisted me up and set me down on one side of the spot where the driver was supposed to stand. A moment later, he deposited Shiori beside me. It was kind of a close fit, but even a teenage Meregan was big enough that we mostly fit side by side.

Crouching, Purin showed us where our feet went, into these marks that looked and felt like pedals. “You must be working together,” he informed us. “Push pedal down forward to be going forward, push pedal down backward to be going backward. Friend-Flick be squeezing handle here,” he showed me where my left hand should go. “To be turning left. Friend-Shiori be squeezing handle here,” he moved Shiori’s hand up to the other handle. “To be turning right. Both be squeezing handles and pulling back to be making tunnel underground, then be pushing handles forward to be going back to surface. You are understanding?”

Closing my eyes briefly, I worked it through in my head before nodding while looking toward the other girl. “I think so. We’re gonna have to practice though.”

“That is not being bad idea,” the Meregan replied with a nod. “We are to be taking K’lecnahn to surface and allowing Friends-Flick and Shiori to practice before we are to be going to scout Enemy-Nicholas Petan.”

“All right.” Forcing my nerves to calm, helped by Shiori’s nearness, I nodded. “Let’s do this then.”

Both of the Meregan gave us a brief wave before they started to close front of the boulder again. The screen lit up, showing us the front and back view, and I had to wonder where the cameras were since the surface of the boulder had looked perfectly smooth.

“Oh my god,” Shiori announced before starting to giggle. Honestly giggle. It was kind of adorable. And amazing. “I just thought of something.” She turned her head slightly to look at me, and I found myself lost briefly in her smile.

“Err, sorry,” I managed after a moment. “What? What did you think of?”

With a broad grin, the other girl spoke, her voice full of incorrigible delight. “This thing we’re in right now. It’s a rock that spins around and around to take us places.

“You could say… We’re riding a Ferrous wheel.”

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