The Next Step 8-08

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Gavant ordered Tristan to stay where he was. Then he, Shiori and I raced back through the narrow passage toward the central room. The sounds of fighting were getting louder with each passing second, and by the time we made it (Gavant having a pretty substantial lead due to his size), the battle was well under way.

I had a quick second to take in the scene. On the plus side, the lights had been restored to the room. Unfortunately, that also meant that I could see just how badly things looked. The Meregan were scattered around the room, being attacked by what looked like an entire contingent of various creatures. I saw more of those little sand goblins, along with several of what looked like the same kind of Orc creatures I’d seen during the vision of Gaia and Seller that the Edge had given me. There were also a few humanoid goat figures, a couple large pale men who would have looked gigantic if it wasn’t for the Meregan’s own size, and an obscenely fat man that was as tall as the Meregan themselves and much wider around, with long thick dreadlocks for hair that reached the floor. There were even more than that, but I couldn’t process them all at once.

Oh yeah, and my Heretic sense was helpfully informing me that all of these figures were Alters.

Thanks for that, Heretic sense. Super useful.

Gavant’s rifle was in his hands and up as we came out into the large chamber. He fired twice in quick succession toward one of the goat figures who was holding a makeshift spear high above one of the fallen Meregan. Rather than bullets, a couple short dark blue lasers leapt from the barrel of the rifle. The first missed, but the second hit the goat-man directly, leaving a hole in the middle of his chest that he blinked down at before collapsing. His spear clanged off the floor next to him before rolling away.

Beyond that, it was chaos. Total and complete chaos. Screams, lasers, blood, and more filled the room around us. Pandemonium ruled, and it was obvious that in spite of their size and technology, the Meregan really weren’t warriors. Most of them didn’t look like they knew what they were doing while trying to defend themselves from the smaller, less technologically equipped barbarian-like creatures.

A hand caught mine, fingers interlacing to squeeze briefly, and I looked that way to find Shiori gazing at me silently. No words were exchanged between us. None needed to be. She just squeezed my hand, the promise fully evident in her gaze. She had my back. She was with me, and she wouldn’t let anyone take me by surprise. Whatever came next, however this fight went, we were in it together.

Then the moment was gone and the two of us were running together. I wasn’t even completely sure which of us had moved first. Was one of us leading, or had we both leapt into motion at the same time? We were running across the open chamber, and my staff was in my hand, already charging up.

One of the big Orc figures, a massive double-sided axe in his meaty hands, turned toward us. Just as he bellowed in warning, Shiori threw both of her discs past the figure on either side of his head. As they went by, a chain of electricity formed between the discs to briefly electrocute him. The eight-foot tall figure recoiled back a step, giving an angry, pained howl that sounded like the squeal of a large pig.

The electric chains wrapped around the Orc’s neck just long enough to change the discs’ directions. They came snapping around before the chain disappeared, flying off perpendicular to their original course. One smacked off the face of one of those sand goblins, briefly shocking it, while the other rebounded off a wall. Both returned to Shiori’s outstretched hands as her gloves summoned them.

Two more steps of my own, and I pointed the staff behind me at the ground before triggering just enough of the charge to send myself flying up into the air and forward. The Orc had just started to recover, shaking off the electric shock and turning back to us as both of my feet took him in the face.

The force of the blow knocked the big creature over onto his back with a bellow of both anger and pain. I saw several of his teeth go flying, even as I rolled forward off his face before he could grab me.

Normally, getting up would’ve taken a second. But I still had enough charge built up in my staff to point it at the floor as I rolled, triggering it to shoot myself into the air, twisting to land on my feet.

The Orc was (rather impressively given his size) up as well, his face bleeding and bruised from my (essentially) jet-propelled kick. He was screaming something I couldn’t understand while clutching that double-sided axe. Before I could move, he lashed out, swinging one of those blades for my head.

Except I wasn’t alone. Even as the axe came swinging down, Shiori’s discs flew past the weapon. Again, she triggered the electrical chain between them. It caught the handle of the axe, yanking it off course to hit the floor a bit to the left of me while simultaneously shocking the big, ugly figure.

I didn’t give him a chance to recover. Stepping in, I kept my staff charging while spinning around to build up momentum. Then my weapon lashed out in a two-handed swing that took the Orc in the chest.

Normally, a little girl like me wouldn’t be able to hit something as big as this Orc hard enough to actually matter very much, even with a big stick like mine. But with the kinetic-charge, the blow hit the big guy so hard I actually heard the air rush out of his lungs in a long, sustained squeal. He was lifted off his feet and thrown backwards, much like the Meregan that I had thought was a statue had been.

As the Orc landed hard on his back once more, Shiori was there, standing behind his head. She had her discs back, the chain of electricity sharp between them as she charged it up. The Orc had time to let out a weak, strangled bellow before the other girl dropped to her knees while bringing the discs down with her, straight to the floor on either side of the creature’s head. With a sickening sound, the electricity chain cut right through his exposed throat, thoroughly severing the Orc’s head from his body.

A second later, Shiori’s back arched as a bright red aura appeared around her. She gave a thoroughly distracting moan that almost made me drop my staff before remembering where we were. Bad idea.

It also served to attract more attention, and I threw myself that way in time to bring my staff up, intercepting the spear from one of the goat-men as he stabbed it toward Shiori’s back.

No wonder Heretics were taught to fight in teams. Every time we killed something, we were distracted for a few seconds by a rush of pleasure that was almost orgasmic. Sure, the older Heretics got used to it, but without partners and teamwork, I doubted most of us would survive many long, involved fights.

Still, I managed to block the goat-man’s spear, knocking it out of the way before placing myself between Shiori and her attacker. He bleated angrily at me once before coming in for another stab.

Again, I blocked with my staff, knocking the blade of the spear aside with one end before smacking the goat-man in the face with the other. Then I snapped the staff up and around to hit him even harder with the opposite end that had deflected his weapon. As it was knocked aside, I shoved the staff up to his neck to get his attention. “I don’t want to kill you!” I shouted over the din of battle. “Just surrender!”

I didn’t know if it would work. I didn’t even know if the creatures could understand me. But I had to try.

For his part, the goat-man just stared at me with his beady little black eyes for a second. In the end, it wasn’t he that spoke, but Shiori. The other girl shouted a warning, and I caught a glimpse of one of the sand-goblins leaping up toward me out of the corner of my eye. I snapped my head backwards, but my classmate was already there. Her hands caught hold of the goblin in mid-leap before she threw it away.

The goat-man had recovered by that point. He lashed out quickly and repeatedly with his spear, but I was ready, deflecting each blow one after the other while inwardly thanking Avalon for the intensive training she had put me through. Every swing and thrust from his weapon was met with one from mine. One blow after another, I blocked before catching my breath long enough to make a sharp gesture with a hand that sent a pile of sand up off the floor and straight into his eyes. While he was recoiling, I spun myself into a kick that took him hard in the stomach, doubling him over. Left open like that, I came back around with my thoroughly charged staff, triggering it just as the weapon connected with his head.

The goat-man’s head basically exploded, sending goo and bits of skull in every direction while I jerked backwards with a yelp that morphed quickly into a gasp as my own golden aura rose up. The pleasure from my own kill overwhelmed me for a second in spite of my best efforts to the contrary.

Thankfully, Shiori was there to cover me. She sent one of her discs to crash into not just one, but two of the sand-goblins, bouncing it between them and electrifying both before it returned to her waiting hand.

“I don’t think they’re in the mood to surrender,” the other girl informed me with a quick glance my way.

“I had to try,” I replied quietly, watching the rest of the battle going on. She was right. They weren’t here to play nice. They weren’t playing at all. I saw one of the big Meregans on the ground, crying out for mercy as one of the Orcs stood over him with a massive, jagged sword raised. At the last second, a trio of shots from Gavant’s rifle took him in the chest, knocking the Orc backwards with a cry.

That one was saved, but others hadn’t been so lucky. Several of the Meregan lay dead on the floor, and the sight sobered me considerably. Tightening my grip on the staff, I nodded to Shiori. “You good?”

She returned the nod, placing her back close to mine while confirming, “I’m good.”

“Great,” I put my back against hers and faced the rest of the room. “Because here they come.”

Two of the goblins came for me, flying in on a whirlwind of sand. A flick of my hand sent both flying sideways out of control. As it turned out, I could control their bodies when they were turned to sand. I took advantage of that by yanking them toward me. They got the idea and switched back to their flesh and blood forms, but it was too late, as my own charged up staff slammed into them with enough force that both goblins were taken to the floor, their bodies broken. The brief, resulting wave of pleasure almost made me drop the staff, but I tightened my grip on it and rode the wave with gritted teeth.

That was followed up by what looked like an ugly, five foot tall figure whose skin was covered in rough bark. He had a sword in one hand and some kind of thin dagger in the other, and he was screaming a terrifying war cry while rushing forward. I met the stab of his sword with my staff, side-stepped the blow from the knife, and smacked the staff across his wooden face to very little effect.

In response, the wood-man made another quick slashing motion with his knife, catching the edge of my arm enough to draw a thin line of blood. Thankfully, the Peridle’s regeneration not only would take care of it, but also dulled the actual pain itself enough that I barely noticed, already bringing my staff up and around in a second blow. This one was aided by a burst of kinetic energy, enough to knock the wood man sideways, and I used the opening to kick the knife from his hand before spinning the staff up over my head and back around again. The brief helicopter spin made it quickly charge up enough of energy that the next blow tore the sword out of his hand. Without wasting any time, I put the point of the staff right into his eye while triggering the last of the built up charge. He didn’t survive the impact.

Once again, I spent a few seconds struggling not to bask in the pleasure that killing the wooden-man had provided. The glow of my aura was bright in the dark room, alerting Shiori to my distraction almost as well as my gasp probably did, and I wondered if that was part of an intentional design. The aura could apparently only be seen by other Heretics. Was it meant as a warning that the Heretic experiencing it would be distracted for a couple seconds, so that others would watch their back?

By the time I recovered, Shiori had already dealt with another of the goat-men. Her red aura flared up, reminding me to watch her back, and I turned in time to see two cloaked figures on the other end of the room with bows drawn and arrows nocked. Just before they let loose, I summoned the sand that was around me, gathering it with a quick gesture while praying I was fast enough. Then the arrows were flying. They came entirely too close before my frantically summoned sand knock them out of the air.

I didn’t stop there though. Shoving my hand forward, I sent the sand that I had gathered straight under their hoods, aiming for where their eyes should be while calling out for Shiori, “Get the archers!”

The other girl reacted instantly, sending her discs flying at the hooded figures as they reeled.

Unfortunately, another threat decided to take advantage of her temporarily disarmed state. One of those big, pale figures came running our way with a long knife in each of his hands. When he opened his mouth, I saw multiple rows of jagged teeth, like a shark. I immediately thought of the creature that Avalon had described, the one that had attacked her and her father. Fahsteth. Which probably meant this creature’s blades were just as poisoned as his had been, and while I was pretty sure the Peridle healing could handle it, I didn’t want to take the chance. Besides, even just being poisoned for a few seconds would probably put us down long enough for the rest of the invading Alters to finish the job.

Turning on my heel, I called, “Shiori, sand!” Then I swung the staff, praying that she’d understood, because the big guy was almost right on top of us.

She had. Her body turned to sand just before my staff would have crashed into the back of her head. Instead, the weapon went right through her, scattering some of her sand in the process before it slammed into the big shark-toothed man’s stomach just as I triggered the charge. The blow doubled the man over, and Shiori did this quick backward flip thing, turning solid long enough to kick him in the face in mid-flip before she landed beside me.

“Sand,” I repeated simply. I’d felt the connection to her shifted state, and after killing the two additional goblins, I wanted to try something.

Shiori promptly turned to sand once more, and I made a thrusting gesture with one hand while focusing my effort into her. Sure enough, the other girl was sent flying up into the air, high over the shark-man’s head just as he began to recover from the blow to the stomach and kick to the face. She flipped over in the air, then turned solid before actually sticking to the ceiling. Huh. I didn’t know she’d gained that power.

The shark-man’s focus was on me, as he sniffed. “Oh, I’m gonna have fun eating you, Blondie.”

“Eh,” I replied casually. “I may be Blondie, but you look like a Dagwood to me. I’m pretty sure you’ve got the same taste in sandwiches.”

With a roar, the man leapt at me then. Before he could take more than a step, however, Shiori sent her recovered discs flying. They shot down toward us, rebounding off the man long enough to send a jolt of electricity that stopped him in mid-charge, making his mouth open in a bellow of surprised pain.

I met his bellow by… sending as much sand as I could into his open mouth. He choked, reeling backwards while I kept shoving more and more of it into him.

“Get it?” I asked while the shark-man stumbled and fell, choking as more and more of the stuff filled his mouth and poured down his throat. “Sandwiches?”

Somehow, I didn’t think he appreciated the nuances of my humor.

Shiori dropped beside me, just as the shark-man stopped struggling. I braced myself, but that time the pleasure was so much it actually dropped me to one knee. Dear god, it wasn’t as big as the Amarok had been, but still.

“How… many more…?” I asked after working my way through that.

“None,” Shiori replied, and I looked up to see the rest of the invading army had taken the hint. They were retreating. A few of the Meregan were giving chase, but the battle appeared to be over. Losing several of their big guys like that must have changed their minds. I even saw that massive fat figure squeeze his way through the doorway on his way out.

“I guess they don’t want to play anymore,” I muttered while watching the departing creatures flee from the room.

“They will be returning to the one who is their master.” Gavant appeared beside us while speaking a bit morosely. “He will already be using our childs. We must be saving them. We must be trying. Even without the aid of Friend-Joselyn Atherby.”

His eyes met mine, and he spoke gently. “We would never choose to be endangering one of Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s childs. She was been done much for the Meregan people. We cannot ask your aid in this. Give us time to be preparing, and we will be sending you back to the home of school to be safe. Then we will be saving our childs.”

Not wanting to speak for both of us, I looked toward Shiori questioningly. She met my gaze for a moment before straightening and turning her attention back to Gavant. “I just spent a long time thinking that I was a monster, sir. With all due respect, I’m not going to let myself turn into one now by leaving when you’ve got children in danger. I’m staying to help.”

Smiling a little bit, I nodded while sliding my staff back into its case. My hand found Shiori’s without really thinking about it. “She’s right,” I said quietly. “We’re not leaving you alone, not with your children in trouble.”

Gavant swallowed noticeably, blinking a few times before he spoke. “Standing with dhampyr, helping the Meregan. Saving our childs. You are… more like Mother-Joselyn Atherby than you were appeared.”

“Gavant, sir,” I replied in a low voice. “I’m just starting to learn the truth about my mom, about who she was and what she meant to people.

“But I’m pretty sure that’s the best thing you could ever say to me.”

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The Next Step 8-07

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I was so taken aback in that moment that I completely lost track of the floating throne that was carrying poor Herbie. The sand fell apart, and my little buddy started to drop toward the floor. He would’ve fallen all the way without the help of Shiori and her reflexes as she snapped her hand out to catch him in mid-drop. It seriously almost looked like a cobra lashing out at some unsuspecting prey.

“Okay, one, thanks.” I took Herbie back from her offering hand. “Two, you are like some kind of mutant ninja cat or something. I mean, damn. Good catch.”

The other girl shrugged, not taking her eyes off the big man. “Wh-what can I say? I like having the little guy around. I guess holding onto him makes me feel a little boulder.”

“Holding onto him makes you feel a little boul-” In spite of everything, I laughed abruptly. “Okay, mopey Shiori can stay locked in her room for awhile. You, I really wanna keep.”

Shiori blushed while I looked back to the tall man (while questioning my priorities), and finished with, “Anyway, glorious puns aside… three, you know Joselyn Atherby? I—she’s my mom, my mother.”

Well that certainly got the people behind the gray-haired man whispering among themselves. The man let it go on for a second, his own eyes showing surprise before he raised a hand to stop them. The group immediately fell silent, and he focused on me again. “You are one of Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s childs?”

It hadn’t escaped me that these people hadn’t set off my Stranger sense either, just like Twister. And a quick, questioning glance toward Shiori confirmed the same thing for her. Just how common was that?

Biting my lip while rubbing a thumb over Herbie reflexively, I slowly nodded. “Yeah, that’s right.”

The man regarded me for a few seconds in silence, clearly trying to decide if he believed me. The rifle didn’t waver. Clearly these people weren’t real big on immediate trust. “You are not both Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s childs. They were one boy, one girl. This we know truth from lie. Where is the boy-child?”

Realizing what he was talking about, I shook my head quickly. “No, not the twins. I’m her younger daughter, the one she had after she… I mean…” Hesitating as I tried to work out how to explain all of this quickly, I sighed. “It’s a long story. You know what she was? You know she was a Heretic.”

“Was?” The man’s head tilted, a frown creasing his face. “Past tense. Previous. Why do you not say is? Present tense. Alive. Safe. Friend-Joselyn Atherby must be is, not was. You are misspeaking.”

“No, no, she’s alive,” I said quickly, praying that I was right. “She’s alive, she’s just… the Heretics took her power away. They used a spell to make her a normal human again, you know, a um, a Bystander?”

The man turned his head and spat. “Friend-Joselyn Atherby was taken? It is answered why our distress beacon did not locate her for so long. It would fail to see one changed so much from our memory.”

“Why did it pick up us though?” I asked carefully. “We were just sitting on the beach by Crossroads-”

The name of the school made several of the tall figures make angry muttering noises, and I could see the way they held their weapons more prominently. Apparently they knew the place after all.

The gray-haired man stopped them with a hand, his eyes still on me for a few seconds before slowly looking toward Shiori. Scanning the other girl up and down in a blatantly appraising fashion that made me want to step in front of her protectively, he finally nodded. “You are not just Heretic or Bystander.”

Flinching, Shiori nonetheless gave a tiny, almost imperceptible nod. “No, sir. My umm…” She trailed off, obviously having a hard time getting the words out before managing, “My mother is a vampire.”

“Dhampyr,” he replied. “One parent vampire one parent not. Vampeel two parents vampires.”

“So a dhampyr is a half-vampire who has one human parent, and a vampeel is a half-vampire whose parents are both vampires?” I wondered just how common that was. Maybe Asenath would know.

“Not only human parent,” the man corrected. By that time, he had finally lowered his rifle. I had the feeling he was more comfortable explaining things, teaching things than he was as a soldier. He seemed to fall into it naturally. “Dhampyr half-vampire, half-anything. Vampeel only both vampire parents.”

“So if my mother’s a vampire, my father could be a human, or… anything else?” Shiori put in hesitantly.

The man nodded once more. “You were knowing this,” he guessed, turning his attention to me. “You were knowing this dhampyr and you were not killing her, were not threatening her, were helping.”

“Yes, sir,” I answered promptly after glancing toward Shiori once more. “I—she was having some problems. I was trying to help, trying to help her see that she’s not evil just because she’s part-vampire.”

Turning his head a little, the man spoke a few words in another language to the people behind him. They quickly dispersed, starting to head back through the narrow corridor. Then he looked back to us, once it was just him and the little boy, who had been silent up through all this. “That is why,” the man announced with a nod of understanding. “That is why the emergency beacon has brought you here.”

“Uhh, if you know why, could you fill us in?” I asked with a confused shrug. “Because I’m still lost.”

“I have not been polite,” the tall man announced then. “Please be accepting of apologies. Our signal was meant to alert our ally of our plight. We did not expect one of her childs to be brought to us. But I am not understanding. How is Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s child at the Crossroads if she is not Heretic?”

Oh boy. “This is a pretty long story, uhhh, Mister…” I trailed off, squinting a little before extending a hand to him. “Why don’t we start with actual introductions? My name is Flick. This is Shiori. Hey wait, new question. How are you speaking English right now? I mean, mostly English.”

The man looked at my hand like he was confused for a moment before realization dawned. Slowly, he put out his own massive hand, engulfing my own before shaking with obvious special care not to crush it in his powerful grip. “Friend-Flick, Friend-Shiori. I am called Gavant, of the Meregan people. And we have been knowing the language of your people from Friend-Joselyn Atherby and Friend-Tristan.”

“Gavant,” I tried out the name. “Nice to meet you, Gavant. I mean, really confusing to be here, but nice. You were, uhh, saying something about why the beacon brought us?”

Gavant slung his rifle over his shoulder while explaining, “The beacon is working by connecting our thoughts of Friend-Joselyn Atherby with other tests. Blood tests. Being tests. Thought tests. Action tests. It is working by sending test until it has found match. Blood match. Action match. Person match. You helping dhampyr triggered match when beacon scanned. Not Joselyn-Friend, but close. Daughter, helps Dhampyr, compassion for not-humans. Beacon thinks you are correct and brings you here.”

“What about me though?” Shiori put in quickly. “Why would it bring me with her, just because I was there?”

He shook his head then. “You are being very similar to another who was with Friend-Joselyn. One of her allies.”

“Asenath,” I realized belatedly, eyes widening. “Asenath’s her half-sister. She must’ve… I dunno, she must’ve been one of my mother’s friends? And then the spell made her forget.”

Shaking off that little revelation and setting it aside for later, I focused on the current situation. “But your place was buried,” I pointed out. “Buried under sand. And my mother’s been… not a Heretic for a long time, and she was imprisoned before that. So how long have you guys been waiting?”

“Our records are saying we have slept five revolutions,” the man answered after a moment of silence.

The boy, Tristan apparently, spoke up then. “That’s five years! I was a rock-guy for five years? Man, I wish I could’ve moved, I would’ve been like the Thing. Raaaaaar, it’s clobberin’ time, screw you Reed!”

“Wait, Thing?” Shiori did a quick double take from her place beside me. “You know—you’re human.”

“Friend-Tristan is part-human,” Gavant corrected. “Part-other. We are not knowing which other.”

“But how did you get here?” I asked in confusion, looking at the little boy. If they’d been frozen for five years, that would mean that he should be about my age, shouldn’t it? Would he have been a classmate? Also, for something that was supposed to be impossible, I was sure running into a lot of half-Alters.

The boy shrugged, and I could see the frustration on his face. “I dunno. I remember being in a house, with my mom, my dad, and my sister. Then it kinda goes blank, and I was just here, on this world. Oh, if you didn’t know, this is a new world.” Leaning closer to me, he stage-whispered, “It’s really cool.”

Then his face fell. “But I’m lost. I can’t get home, and I don’t remember who my parents are. I don’t even remember my sister’s name. It’s always right on the tip of my tongue, but… but I can’t remember.”

Stricken by that, I reached out to grab the boy’s hand, tugging him into a hug that he accepted. “I don’t understand, why don’t they just send you back to Earth? I mean, our Earth. They brought us here.”

“We have attempted such a thing,” Gavant explained, the sadness at their apparent failure easily readable on his face. “We have three times sent Friend-Tristan to his home world. The Banish crystal has cursed him to always return here, no matter other steps we take to send him away. He has been affected by magics to be sent here and to stay here. We are not knowing how to undo what it has done.”

“They tried for a long time.” Tristan confirmed. “I was um, seven when I first came here, I think. They keep trying, but nothing works. They send me home and a few seconds later, I show up here again.”

“Who the hell magically banished a seven-year old?” Shiori demanded, the anger in her voice apparent.

Praying that the answer wasn’t Crossroads for once, I shook my head before looking toward the gray-haired man. “Is that why you sent the beacon to look for my mother, to get her help with Tristan?”

“It is not why,” the man denied. “That is for a much greater threat. But I am still not understanding. Friend-Joselyn Atherby was removed from her power. This is sad for all. But where is she being now?”

Flinching at the question, I let out a long sigh before starting to explain. “The Crossroads Heretics captured her, imprisoned her, and… they made her a Bystander again, like I said. They sent her out into the world without her memory. She met my dad, fell in love, and they had me. Then someone found her. One of the really, really bad guys. He gave some of her memories back somehow, I don’t know how, but he gave her enough of her memories to understand who he was. Then he said he was going to take me. I was just a little kid and he was going to take me away. Mom…” Closing my eyes as I felt the tears well up again, I forced myself to finish. “Mom traded herself for me. She went with Fossor.”

“Threat-Fossor?” The anger in Gavant’s voice made me look at him quickly. His eyes were blazing, and I saw the way his fists clenched hard. “He is the one who has taken Friend-Joselyn Atherby?”

“I uhh, I take it you know him,” I managed a bit weakly. “How do you know Fossor?”

Gavant scowled, the anger never leaving his gaze. “Threat-Fossor has being responsible for the deaths of many of our people. What you are seeing of us here, in this place, Friend-Flick, are all that are remaining of the Meregan. We had being many, spread of the world like your humans. Now we are this, because of Threat-Fossor. We are all who survive, and we only because we were not here for fighting.”

“Not here?” I asked, confused as I looked around. “You mean not on this world? Where did you–”

“It’s a spaceship!” Tristan interrupted, his eyes wide with delight. “We’re on a spaceship! They said they could take me up in it if they ever get the supplies they need to fix it, and um, if I get unbanished.”

Gavant nodded. “The Meregan were being explorers. We searched the stars, but returned when our people sent their distress beacon, like the one we sent for Friend-Joselyn Atherby. When we returned, our people, all but those on this ship, were no-more living. Dead. Gone. Taken. Threat-Fossor is using them for his powers, his control over the dead. They are being no more than weapons now. More weapons.” His voice shook with each word, the distress obvious as he failed to contain his emotion.

“Oh god,” Shiori’s hand found her mouth as she gaped in horror. “You mean he killed a-all your people on this world? All of them? Then he—but…” She looked at me. “How do you beat someone like that?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted quietly, forcing the words out through the thick knot in my throat. “But I have to. I have to figure it out, because he has my mom. I have to save her. I… I won’t give up on her.”

Not this time, I reminded myself. This time I couldn’t give up on my mother. Not after everything she did to protect me. Not after everything I’d learned about the kind of person she’d been. Especially now.

“If Threat-Fossor has taken Friend-Joselyn Atherby,” Gavant announced, “then you will be having our aid.” His face fell a bit then, the sorrow even more apparent. “Not that we can be providing much.”

“Trust me, I’ll take all the help I can get,” I assured the tall man. “If there’s a way to beat Fossor, any chance at all, you’re welcome to join in. You deserve that much at least, after what he did to you.”

Shiori spoke up slowly then, a frown creasing her forehead. “But if you didn’t send the beacon thing for Flick’s mom because of Tristan, why did you send it then? And why were you guys all statues?”

“Statues?” Gavant echoed before nodding. “Ah. You are calling our long-sleep as statues. That is how the Meregan do safely travel through space for very long times. It is a technology, a learning that we make and use to seal ourselves so that are not aging through the years that we are going in space.”

That reminded me, and I gave a little yelp. “Oh god! I knocked one of your people over and shoved him under the front entrance.” I stared at the big man. “I’m sorry, I thought it was a real statue and I was afraid the door would slam shut or something like in all those movies, but I really didn’t mean–”

The big man chuckled, a loud rumbling noise of amusement. “That is being why Purin was woken there. It is being well, Friend-Flick. You were not knowing. Purin was being very confused.”

Flushing a little at that, I asked, “What about the statue out front? The one that looks like my mom.”

“A message-stone,” the man replied easily. “It will take the shape of the one it is meant for, and when that person is touching it, the message-stone will collapse, imparting its message and knowledge into the one it is meant for. We had left Friend-Joselyn a message stone to revive us from our long-sleep.”

“Guess it’s a good thing you did it accidentally anyway,” Shiori pointed out quietly.

Nodding, I asked the man, “So you guys froze yourselves as stones and sent out an emergency beacon for my mother, asking for her help. Was it about Fossor? Was that why you sent the beacon?”

“No.” Gavant shook his head, his eyes downcast for a moment. “We had called for the help of Friend-Joselyn Atherby because of another threat. Another has appeared on our world, with an army of his own. He has assaulted our home here, and did steal our childs. He and his forces had taken our childs. We are needing her help in returning them.” Now his distress was even worse. I could see the frustration, fear, and loss in his sad gaze. “They are all of the Meregan future. We are not knowing how to save them. We only protect them while waiting for Friend-Joselyn Atherby by using long-sleep.”

“Wait,” I started. “So that thing you did, it made them all statues too? Are you sure he wouldn’t just… umm, hurt the statues?”

“He cannot be doing this,” Gavant answered solemnly. “The long-sleep is being protecting from all damage. A Meregan in long-sleep would be safe in the heart of the sky-light.”

Sky-ligh—sun, I realized belatedly. “So they’re protected. Or they were protected. But what about now? If you guys all woke up… does that mean–”

“Our childs will be awake,” Gavant confirmed, his eyes widening a bit. “You Friend-Flick did not use the careful instructions of waking only our beings and not our childs beings.”

“If they’re awake,” Shiori started. “And this bad guy kept them around, then he probably…”

“Knows that you guys are awake too,” I finished. “Quick, we need to–”

That was as far as I got before the shouts of warning and fear started. They were accompanied by screams of pain, of challenge, and by the sound of a massive, terror-inducing battle cry.

The bad guys were here.

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