Giselle Tangle

By Blood 17-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Despite the fact that we had succeeded in rescuing the prisoners, the mood as we prepared to get the hell off this planet was somber, to say the least. My peers and I might not have known Tribald Kine that well, but I had still liked him. Hell, he was the one who had originally sent me to check out the photograph in the Crossroads hallway that gave away the fact that my mother had once attended there. He set me on this whole path, in a way. And the others… Deveron, Klassin Roe, and the Dornans had all gone to school with him. He was one of their oldest friends (and teammate, in some cases). Kohaku and Tangle had both known him as a child. They taught him. They–god damn it. Now he was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

I couldn’t even summon his ghost. I tried, wanting to bring him with us. But there was no response. I even had the others boost me, and the adults made a small portal back to the prison camp. It was too tiny for anyone to get through, and in an out-of-the-way spot, just enough that I could find a connection to his ghost if it was back there. But it wasn’t. It should have been, but it just…. wasn’t there. Nor were any other ghosts, despite the fact that I knew for a fact others had died. It was like someone else had gotten there first, which…

The point was, I couldn’t summon him, which made this entire thing even worse. I felt like a failure as we carefully wrapped his body up and put it in one of the separate magical storage bags. He would stay safe there until we got back home so he could be buried properly. 

No. No, he wouldn’t be safe. He was dead. The correction blared in my mind as I closed my eyes tightly and turned away from the sight of the Dornans carefully putting the bag in the truck. On the other side of the clearing, I could see Tangle and Kohaku talking to the conscious prisoners, getting them organized to get on the truck so we could leave before the Eden’s Garden people showed up and turned this into a brawl again. I was done fighting for the moment. Hopefully for a long moment. There had been more than enough of that already. 

Avalon stood beside me, quietly speaking up. “I thought we made it without losing anyone.” 

“So did I.” As my voice murmured that, I found her hand and squeezed it. “We were close. And he would have been happy that we got the prisoners out.” Even as I said that, the words felt hollow and empty. Of course he would have liked that. But he also would have liked it to get out of there with his own life. And now I couldn’t even summon his ghost? This sucked. This whole thing was just–I wanted to leave. I really, desperately wanted to leave and never see this planet again. Between Heretics enslaving innocent people, fighting for my life repeatedly, and giant monsters fueled by blood sacrifices or whatever the fuck, if I ever saw this planet again once we left, it would be too soon. 

And yet, even as I had that thought, something made my head turn to look into the nearby trees. Nothing. There was no one there. If the Eden’s Garden people had found us, all the adults here would have reacted. They weren’t that distracted. But they just kept going about their business, getting ready to leave. 

“What?” Avalon asked, her gaze shifting between me and the woods where I was staring. I could feel her tense a bit beside me, clearly getting ready to call out a warning. 

“Nothing,” I started, before correcting myself. “I mean, I don’t think it’s anything. Just the same feeling as when we were going through the woods earlier. Like someone or something is watching. You don’t feel that?” 

There was a brief pause as the other girl considered before her head shook slowly. “No. I felt it before, but nothing right now. You still feel it?” 

A slight grimace found its way to my face before I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making it up in my head because I’m paranoid at the moment. Maybe part of me just wants there to be something else to fight so I can stab something. I just–” Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I set myself before starting to walk. “Come on, let’s check it out. Don’t worry, we’re not going to disappear into the forest, I just want a closer look.”

The twins joined us as we moved that way, and a quick consultation revealed that Sands didn’t feel anything, but Sarah did. Although she was just as unsure as I was about whether this was a real thing or just paranoia. The four of us got closer to the trees while I tried to determine where the feeling of being watched was coming from. A glance toward Sarah was met with a helpless shrug. She had no idea either. And yet, we could both still feel eyes on us. It was a creepy feeling, to say the least. Especially considering the other two didn’t feel it. Between that and the fact that we still didn’t know if it was real or just a product of our imagination… yeah. Walking toward those trees wasn’t the most fun time I’d had. I felt my stomach twisting a little the closer we got. It made my breathing instinctively get faster and deeper, like when I used to sneak peeks at scary movies as a kid when I wasn’t supposed to. The hair on the back of my neck kept standing up, and it felt like every step could result in the ground falling out from under me. I could almost hear the agitated violins in the soundtrack growing closer and closer to a terrible screech. Everything else had disappeared. I couldn’t think about the rescued prisoners, poor Tribald, or even about the fact that we had to leave before the Garden people counterattacked. I was barely cognizant of the others walking with me. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that existed, was whatever it was in that forest that happened to be staring at me. 

A hand caught my arm, stopping me in place. Only then did I consciously realize that Avalon had been repeating something for the past few seconds. I had somehow completely tuned out her voice. Now, she yanked me around, speaking louder. “Flick. What are you doing?” 

“Huh?” Blinking a few times, I looked around. We were much closer to the trees than I had planned on getting. Nearby, Sands was holding Sarah quite similar to the way Avalon was holding me. It looked like the other girl was snapping out of whatever she had been under too. 

“I–” Swallowing once more, I shook my head. “I don’t know. It just felt like I had to keep going. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t–” Cutting myself off, I gave an uneasy look over my shoulder toward the trees. The feeling of being watched was still there, but it had lessened. Now it was more like idle curiosity. Which was still enough to make me shiver a bit. “Come on, let’s get back over there. We need to get the hell off this planet.” The words ‘while we still can’ tried to emerge, but I forced them back down. No way was I going to curse us like that. 

The four of us made our way back over to the others, where Deveron was waiting. The man clearly had a lot to deal with. I could see the emotions in his eyes even as he pushed them back to focus on the matter at hand, asking what happened. So, we explained the whole thing, starting with the fact that we had felt something watching us as we walked through the forest on our way to the prison, and now what had just happened to Sarah and me. 

Taking that in, Deveron frowned and looked past us toward the woods. His eyes scanned it as though he was trying to determine if there was anything dangerous, before the man sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t see anything, but–we need to leave.” 

“That’s what I said,” I murmured before adding, “I wonder if what we are feeling has anything to do with that monster in the prison cave.” 

Deveron blinked at me, frowning. “What monster in the prison cave? Wait, Jasmine and the others were talking about some big fight down there. What was that?”

Wincing, I gestured. “It’s kind of a long story, and we don’t have a lot of time, do we?” 

“I have no idea how much time we have, but let’s err on the side of caution,” he replied before giving a sharp whistle, raising his voice to be heard through the clearing. “Everyone on the truck, we’re getting out of here! We’ll sort out details once we’ve got some distance between us and this damn place.” Even as he said that, the man was already walking that way, waving for the rest of us to follow. 

Before going anywhere, I gave the woods one last glance. Whatever was in there that had been watching us, whether it had something to do with the monster we had killed or not, I wasn’t willing to just dismiss the whole thing as a figment of our imaginations. We had definitely felt something. But it seemed like a mystery that would go unsolved, given we weren’t going to be sticking around any longer. And I, for one, wasn’t quite so obsessed with learning the truth that I would be willing to change that. If there really was something in those woods that kept watching us, it could just go ahead and stay there. 

So, we all loaded onto the truck. There wasn’t quite enough room for all of us plus the conscious prisoners in the living area, given it hadn’t been intended to hold this many people. But we were able to shift the supplies in the main area around and drop a few crates. The supplies were intended to provide water and food for the whole prison for a few weeks, So we weren’t losing much by leaving a little bit behind. It allowed us to get more room in there for everyone, which became a bit more comfortable once we took some blankets and pillows out of the cupboards and laid them down over the floor. 

Two of the prisoners who were awake and moving around were trolls, so they took up a large portion of the space we cleared out. They looked bewildered by everything that was going on, but tentatively friendly enough. They also didn’t seem to speak much English or Latin, but followed instructions cheerfully enough when they were accompanied with hand gestures. One of the other conscious prisoners, an orc who introduced himself as Teragn (terrain), said that the Heretics had simply referred to the trolls as three-oh-oh-two and three-oh-oh-three. Or just Two and Three for short. Whether they had any actual names or not nobody knew, but they responded to those names for the moment. And, again, we really didn’t have time to get into details just yet. We mostly just pantomimed at the two trolls for them to sit, and gave them a large ball of cheese and a ham from one of the boxes. They really loved that and immediately proceeded to start making ham and cheese sandwiches. Which, in their case, meant using ham as the bread and cheese in the middle. 

Soon, we had all of them on the truck. Including the still-unconscious Eden’s Garden Heretic who had apparently turned traitor. Kohaku had gone over the man with a fine-toothed comb to find any tracking spells or devices, but came up short. Still, they were keeping him secured with those cuffs and magically asleep, lying on a cot in the living area so we could talk to him later. 

Once everyone was onboard, Deveron hauled the heavy doors shut. He gave a quick glance to the clearly still terrified and confused prisoners sitting around, before speaking as gently as possible. “It’s okay. I know you don’t have much reason to believe this, but you’re safe with us. We’re going back to Earth, then you can do whatever you want from there. We’ll… we’ll talk about it on the way. Right now–” 

“They’re on us.” That came from Kohaku, who was looking at what looked like an ordinary smartphone. There was a slight grimace on her face. “No more time for explanations, we need to jump now.”  

With a muttered curse, the man immediately darted to the control board on the wall. You could also initiate the jump from the cab of the truck, but this was quicker right now. Opening the panel revealed a keypad where the coordinates were supposed to be put in, and a lever to activate it. That was how it looked normally. But now there were eight glowing little gemstones attached to the console as well. The stones were essentially magical batteries, storing a bunch of power we’d brought with us from home. And now they were plugged into the teleportation system.

The truck abruptly started to jerk backward, as if a large hand had grabbed onto it. Several people cried out, but Deveron simply shook his head. “Not today,” he muttered before yanking on the lever. 

And with that, we were gone. Whatever hand or power had been trying to pull the truck was left behind as we instantly transported off the planet. In my imagination, I could almost hear the Eden’s Garden people screaming as the truck vanished right in front of their eyes.

Instead of letting go of the lever when the jump happened, Deveron shoved it up into the default position, gave us all a look, and then yanked it down a second time. We jumped again. Of course, we weren’t dumb enough to make a single jump and allow them to track us. Each time the truck transported, two of those initial eight gemstones went dark. It allowed us to make four rapid jumps, each one bringing us slightly closer to Earth. 

By the time the fourth jump happened, the truck was shuddering and making unhappy noises. Plus the transport console was giving off a little smoke. I’d asked why we couldn’t just make every jump we needed to go straight back home instead of only going slightly over halfway, and this was the answer I’d been given. The truck could only stand up to so many transports at one time, even with extra power. Four was apparently pushing it, and no one wanted to see what happened if we went for five. It wouldn’t do us any good to push so hard to get home, only to blow up or materialize in the middle of empty space with a broken transport system. 

We also weren’t going to their normal jump points. Instead, Athena had given us a list of habitable moons along the way, and those were the coordinates we used. Just for fun, those first three jumps had been to a desert moon, an ice moon, and a forest moon. Just so those chasing us could have the full original trilogy Star Wars experience. 

Once the truck settled a bit and we were all certain it wasn’t going to catch fire on us, Deveron breathed out and nodded to Tangle, who was standing by the main door. At his nod, she unlatched it and hauled the door up, to reveal… rocks. Lots of enormous boulders all around us. 

“Look, Herbie,” I announced while hopping down onto the gravel-covered ground. I had the heroic stone in question in my palm already, turning in a circle so he could see. “It’s your homeworld.”   

As planned, the place we had landed looked like a large quarry. And in this case, large meant the size of a full city back on Earth. The rocks varied in size from pebbles all the way up to boulders the size of skyscrapers. According to Athena, there was some sort of special material within the rocks that would help block scanners if our pursuers actually made it this far. Which was doubtful to begin with, but being extra careful didn’t hurt anything.  

Tangle and the Dornans stayed with the conscious prisoners back there to tell them exactly what was going on, and who we were. Meanwhile, Asenath, Twister, Shiori, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug worked with Klassin to check on the unconscious prisoners and try to see what we could do for them. 

Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me to talk to Kohaku and Deveron about exactly what we had seen down in that cave. The six of us walked a little bit away from the truck, standing near a rock that was a good thirty feet tall and almost as wide. There, we carefully went through the whole story. We told them about the carvings we had seen and about the big hole in the floor that had clearly been covered with a forcefield at one point. And, of course, we told them about the way those tubes had clearly been draining blood from the prisoners into the hole. 

When we got to the part about the giant monster and began to describe it, I could see a flash of what looked like recognition on both their faces, before they smothered it and told us to go on. They clearly knew something, but weren’t willing to get into it just yet. Not until we told them the whole story. 

The others obviously noticed too, because when we finished, Sands folded her arms and focused on them. “You guys know something about that thing, don’t you? Come on, we killed it, you can at least tell us what the fuck it was.” 

With a heavy sigh, Kohaku shook her head. “That’s the problem, you probably didn’t actually kill the main thing. Just one of its… extensions.” 

“Extensions?” I echoed that, frowning. “You mean like the whole Nuckelavee thing? Like how they’re extensions or… or creations of that Lotan monster under the ocean?”

“Something like that,” Deveron confirmed. “Deep-Walker is just one of the names it has. No one knows very much about it, but from what I’ve heard, the thing basically… infects worlds. You know how Seosten possess people? This thing possesses planets. It produces monsters a lot like that thing you fought, and killing one of them doesn’t hurt the Deep-Walker any more than killing a Nuckelavee hurts Lotan. And… and they’re usually even stronger than that. I think you managed to get what amounts to a baby.” 

“If that was a baby,” Sands managed weakly, “I really don’t want to run into the adult version.” 

“No,” Kohaku agreed firmly, “you don’t. Nobody does. Which probably means that was what was watching us in the woods. The Deep-Walker infests planets and then controls every aspect of them. Well, eventually anyway. It takes time for it to get control.” 

“But what was it–I mean what were they–” Cutting myself off, I made a noise deep in the back of my throat. “Were they feeding it?” 

Sarah spoke up then. “Taming it.” 

Deveron cursed several times loudly, before nodding. “You know, I think that’s exactly what that stupid son of a bitch was doing. Kyril Shamon had that mountain mined out specifically to find those tunnels and then built that place to feed blood into the–he’s trying to tame and control that fucking–it’s a world-ender and he’s trying to make it his fucking pet!” 

He and Kohaku stepped aside for a minute, conversing quietly with each other. Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me by ourselves. I looked at Sands. “Do uh, do you have any idea what you got from that thing?” 

She didn’t. Fortunately, I had a Tabbris on-call. As I used our connection to let my little sister know that we had successfully escaped with the prisoners, and about our single casualty, she projected herself to me. Not a full recall. We didn’t want to pull her away from the station for that long, not when she had her newly-arrived siblings to spend time with. But she could at least temporarily project to me. 

Sorry about Mr. Kine, her voice spoke hesitantly in my mind. 

Me too, I agreed. Can you tell the others back there so they… so they know? Is my mom– 

She’s not back from her thing yet, came the response. But somebody will tell her, I… maybe Abigail? 

I nodded a bit. That’s not a bad idea. Or Deveron when he calls to check in. I think–anyway, we made it. And we’re bringing his body back. With that, I gave her a quick rundown of what had happened, with the other girl reading my mind to fill in some of the blanks. Then I asked, Sands doesn’t know what she has, so… 

She agreed to help, and I asked Sands for permission to possess her. Once she had given it, I took her offered hand and disappeared. It only took a minute for Tabbris to reach through her connection to me and scour what Sands was capable of, then report back to me.

Oh, she announced once I stepped out of the other girl, um, I think Spark needs some help. 

Go, I urged, shaking my head at how guilty she sounded. It’s okay. Thanks for the help. We’re safe now. We’re out of there, and we’ll be home in a few days. I’ll check in later too. 

If… if you’d really needed me back there, with that monster, you would’ve let me know, right? Tabbris sounded hesitant, like part of her still felt guilty for not coming along in the first place. 

Of course, I assured her. That’s the fun part of having the whole recall thing, right? Now go have fun. Or whatever. Help your other sister. 

Her presence faded from my mind before I looked back over to the expectantly-waiting Sands. “Well?” she pressed, practically bouncing on her toes. 

“Well,” I echoed, before leaning in to whisper in her ear. 

Taking in everything I said, Sands gave a double-take. “Are you serious?” When I nodded, she flashed a short grin before gesturing. “Back up. Everyone back up.” 

The three of us did, with Avalon and Sarah giving me a curious look. Once we were out of the way, Sands cracked her neck. She had to focus for a few seconds, finding the right… trigger or whatever. Even though I’d told her what she could do, it still took a bit of time to figure out how to do it. In the meantime, I called a warning over to Deveron and Kohaku, who turned to watch.

But, after a few seconds, she found it. Instantly, Sands grew in size until she stood a solid thirty feet tall. She was gigantic and could apparently take an absurd amount of damage, even considering the size. Not quite as much as the monster in the tunnel, but still a lot. 

Okay!” Sands spoke, voice booming out. “I think I can get used to this.” 

“Better not get too used to it!” I shouted up at her. “I’m pretty sure you won’t fit in the truck like that!” 

Fitting in the truck was definitely something she had to do. We might’ve had to stop to let things recharge, and there were the prisoners to deal with, both of the conscious and unconscious variety. Not to mention the fact that we had to keep an eye out for pursuers. There was plenty of work to be done. But what mattered right now was that we… most of us anyway, had gone into that prison, saved the people we went there for, and got out. Now it was time to go home. 

And for Asenath and Gordon to officially be reunited with their fathers.

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By Blood 17-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thankfully, I wasn’t out for long. When I came to a short time later, Doug was sitting over me, using one of the enchanted stones we’d all received from the adults to give me a bit of energy. Sort of like smelling salts mixed with strong coffee. My eyes blinked away the blurriness until I managed to focus on him, then started to sit up. 

“It’s okay,” he assured me. “Fight’s over. They’re… trying to figure out how to open the tubes and get everyone out without hurting anyone.” He looked over his shoulder, and I followed the boy’s gaze to where everyone else was, sure enough, working on that. Even Sands was up and moving around, talking animatedly to her sister as they crouched behind one of the tubes.

“Checking for traps?” I asked, my gaze turning toward the dead body of the giant monster. It was still there, and still just as horrifying. Okay, maybe slightly less horrifying dead than it had been when it was alive. But I still wasn’t going to get anywhere near it. Still, I took a second to stare at the thing, feeling a sense of awe and satisfaction both about the fact that we had managed to kill it, and that all those people who had been sacrificed to bring it to life had had a part in taking the the damn thing down. I’d felt their own intense relief just before they passed on.  

Doug confirmed that before hesitating. “I think I should use my question, but I’m not sure. What if we need it later for getting out of here? I’ve only got the one.”  

I knew what he was talking about, it was that thing where he could ask a question once per day and get either the answer or be directed toward the answer. It was the same thing that had pointed his team toward me when he’d asked how they could find out what was really going on with Roxa. And now he could either use it to ask how to get the prisoners out of those tubes, or save it in case we needed an answer to a more dire and immediate problem later. It had to be a hard choice to make every time he made it out in the field like this. How was he supposed to know if using his single question at any given point was the right time? It was a lot of pressure. I didn’t even like using limited quantity items in video games, let alone something like this. 

Still, I only hesitated for a moment in this case before giving a short nod. “Use it. The sooner we get them out of there and moving, the sooner everyone gets off this planet. That’s gotta be worth it.” 

Letting out an audible breath, Doug hesitated to think before starting. “Okay, well here goes nothing. How do we safely get the prisoners right there out of the tubes without harming any of them or setting off any traps?” His voice turned somewhat eerie through that, gaining a slight echoey quality to it. 

While waiting for him to get an answer to that, I looked over to where Asenath and Shiori were standing together in front of the tube that Tiras was in. His daughter had a hand against the side, clearly overwhelmed by the fact that she was seeing him in person for the first time since she was a child. Even now I couldn’t make him out very well, but she knew him. And for Asenath, ‘since she was a child’ had been a very long time indeed. I couldn’t even imagine the emotions that were going through her mind at that moment. Especially considering she was that close to him, but still couldn’t talk to him yet.  All those years and all that distance, and now the only thing between them was this tube, but she couldn’t get through it. Not yet, anyway. 

Gordon had found his father too. Standing at the far end of the line of tubes, the boy had his arms folded across his chest while he stared silently at the figure within. As always, it was hard to judge his emotions solely from the flat expression on his face but I had a feeling there were a lot swirling inside him.  

With a slight gasp, Doug started and gave a sharp shake of his head. He glanced toward me briefly before starting that way at a jog. “Hang on,” the boy called, “I know how to get them out! But uhh, they’re gonna be out of it for awhile. They won’t wake up even after we get them out of the tubes, so we’re gonna have to carry them or…” Trailing off, he frowned while taking in the amount of prisoners. Three rows of ten. Thirty prisoners. We didn’t have nearly enough people down here to carry that many. 

Fortunately, we had come prepared for that, just in case the people we were rescuing weren’t in any condition to move on their own. Granted, we were anticipating injuries or something like that, not some sort of stasis coma. 

“We’ll have to use the blankets,” Avalon murmured. “Get them out, guys.” To Doug, she added, “How do we open them up?”  

Sands, Sarah, Shiori, Jazz, and I started to pull ‘the ‘blankets’ out. They were the same sort of magical storage blankets that Kohaku had used to store the body of that Heretic up in the lighthouse. When they were placed over someone, the blanket would shift them into a special pocket dimension (one with oxygen, of course). Each blanket could be used multiple times to store up to ten people. So we had plenty for this. 

Of course, that raised another thought in my mind. We had seen prisoners walking around outside when we first arrived, doing work for these people. Where were they now? We hadn’t run into them on the way down here, so I hoped they were taking cover in one of the buildings so we could find them before we left. Or maybe Kohaku and the others already had. Either way, we just had to deal with these ones. 

By the time we got the blankets ready to go, Doug had already taken Avalon, Gordon, Shiori, and Asenath over to what at first looked like just an ordinary boulder near the wall. But when he ran his hand over it, the hologram vanished, revealing a console. He quickly started typing in a complicated sequence on the keypad there, and as he did so, each of the tubes gave an affirmative beep. Then the liquid in them started to drain out. Where it went I wasn’t sure, but it was gradually disappearing, leaving the bodies within to slump down. Then the ‘glass’ of the tubes rose upward, leaving an opening while the still-unconscious prisoners simply fell limply against the floor of their containment units. Not the most graceful way of getting them out, but at least it worked. We didn’t exactly have time to worry about treating them like they were at a five star resort right at the moment, and I doubted the prisoners would care. 

Quickly, we all started to move in pairs, Avalon and I working together, to lay each prisoner out and put one of the blankets over them. The things were made to stretch a lot and shape themselves around the person being put under it, so it wasn’t that hard. Nearby, I could see Shiori and Asenath doing that with Tiras, while Jazz helped Gordon with his father. The whole time, I just kept imagining a clock ticking down. We had no idea if the Eden’s Garden people had even managed to get any sort of message out let alone how long it would take help to arrive. It was like being in a room where there could be a bomb, but we didn’t know if it existed or how much time was on it. Not to mention, whether there were reinforcements coming or not, the adults were still out there fighting against a numerically superior force, and the element of surprise had to have worn off by now. So, we had no idea if the Victor was on his way, or how Deveron’s group was doing out there, and the longer we took with this, the worse off the situation could be. Especially after we had already taken all that time to get down here and fight that fucking monster. Stressful, to say the least. Every second we took getting these unconscious figures under the blankets to store them safely felt like an hour. 

Finally, we had all of them put away. It had obviously been hard for Asenath and Gordon to be literally touching their fathers after all this time, only to shove them out of sight again. At least it was incredibly temporary, and they knew that. We just had to get the hell out of here. 

“Okay,” Senny announced while rising with the blanket that had her father and several others stored within slung over her shoulder, “someone let them know it’s time to bug out of here.” Her voice caught just a little in the middle of that, betraying a tiny bit of the intense emotions she had to be feeling. 

I already had the coin in my hand by the time she finished saying that. Rubbing my thumb over it, I murmured the words to trigger the spell. It grew warm in my palm before letting out a loud chiming sound. In that moment, the identical coins in the pockets of Deveron, Kohaku, and all the others out there would be going off. It was the signal to let them know we had the prisoners and were on our way out, so they needed to be ready. 

Collectively, our group exchanged glances. We were exhausted from the fight, some of us even more so from multiple fights. But we had to keep going. This was almost over. We were this close to being done and gone. So, we steeled ourselves, took a breath, and then turned to run back up the tunnel we had come down. I ignored how exhausted I felt after empowering all those ghosts to hold the beast down. I ignored everything, my fear of what would happen if Victor Kyril Shamon showed up, the joy at seeing Asenath and Gordon manage to get to their fathers, my anger at what the Heretics here had been doing–wait, no, scratch that. I held onto that. I used that anger and focused on it as I ran with the others, keeping pace with them so we could all remain in a group just in case there were any bad surprises waiting for us. 

Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything in our way. I supposed that anyone who was still up and moving was probably thoroughly distracted by the huge fight going on outside. They didn’t exactly have time to set up a trap for the rest of us. No matter how long the paranoid part of my brain kept screaming that this was taking, it was all still pretty quick in the grand scheme of things. 

Shortly before we reached the entrance, as we passed through familiar parts of the tunnel, Sarah produced a second coin with near-identical runes as the one I had used before we started running. Its spell was activated, alerting the others that we were about to emerge. The first coin told them we were on our way, this one told them we were right there and they should tell us if it was safe to come out or if we should wait. 

At first there was no response and we slowed slightly while exchanging looks. Did we keep going if they didn’t respond? Or did we hold off and try to find out what was–

There. Thank God, that wasn’t a decision we had to make. Just as I was starting to think that something terrible had happened, a glowing green arrow appeared in the air in front of us. That was the signal. We were good to go. The fighting wasn’t completely over, or the symbol would have been a thumbs up. A green arrow meant it was safe to go and fairly clear, but there were still threats out there so we should keep our eyes open. A raised red hand would have meant stop, and a yellow question mark would mean there were threats right in front of the entrance that we would need to engage with. This wasn’t the absolute best response, but still. 

So, we kept going, sprinting straight out of the tunnel, through the spot where the forcefield had been before Columbus took it down. Right there, at the mouth of the cave inside the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, the Dornan cousins stood using a wave of blue-white fire from their hands to block several separate incoming blasts of energy. The Eden’s Garden people were still attacking, but Seamus and Roger were shielding the area. Tangle, looking a bit worse for wear and bloodied, was standing to one side, clearly watching for us. As we emerged, she shouted something to the other two, then beckoned for us to hurry. 

We didn’t see anyone else. They must’ve been fighting elsewhere, however, because I could hear shouting and explosions and… more going on in the distance. This place was a complete warzone, and something told me it was just going to get worse as the defenders warmed up. Let alone if they actually managed to summon reinforcements. 

Shoving that out of our minds, we ran straight toward Tangle. As we approached, the woman threw something toward the ground. It sprang up to form a door. A literal door standing right in the open, like the one I had taken to get to Crossroads. It was closed at first, but she shoved it open to reveal a clearing with black-gray trees and orange dirt on the other side. Still a place on this world, but away from the immediate fighting. A place to regroup so we could leave. 

Bobbi went through the door first, then Doug, Twister, Shiori, and the rest of us followed right behind. I was last, pausing just long enough to shout toward Tangle, “Everyone else?!” 

“Heading out right after you!” She glanced to me while shouting that. “Go!” 

Even as she said that, I could see the blue-white flame shield that Seamus and Roger were projecting start to flicker as more and more attacks hit it. Clearly, it wasn’t going to hold for much longer. Especially as the Heretics on the far side noticed the flickering and renewed their efforts. The blasts they were hitting it with were like artillery shells exploding against a forcefield of fire. It was going to fail any second now. And then, well, then we would really be in trouble. 

So, I went through the door, stumbling a bit in my rush. Then I was in that clearing with the others, who were already catching their breaths. Shiori quickly grabbed me in a hug that also pulled me away from the door just as Tangle came through. She was followed by Roger, then Seamus. Past the two of them, as I looked that way while still clutched by Shiori, I could see six Heretics coming straight toward us. They had spotted the door and were racing our way. One of them turned into a blur of motion, speeding straight at us so quickly he would’ve reached the door before anyone could react. 

At least, before I or any of my peers could react. Tangle’s hand snapped up as she turned back that way right after she and the cousins reached the clearing. A jet of water shot from her palm and between Roger and Seamus before expanding into a massive tidal wave the moment it passed the doorway. That tidal wave slammed into the approaching Heretic. I caught a brief glimpse of him attempting to fight his way through it and continue his forward momentum before the wave managed to shove him away from the door. 

That wasn’t the end of it, however. A circular blade shot through the doorway from that side, nearly embedding itself in Tangle’s throat before Roger snapped his hand out so that it embedded itself in his palm instead, making the man grunt. Meanwhile, Seamus grabbed the door to shove it closed, taking what had to be at least three or four blasts of energy against his arm and side, one of which destroyed half his shirt and left a truly nasty-looking burn across the lower half of his torso. It looked painful as fuck, to say the least. But the man showed no reaction other than to give a grunt similar to Roger’s when the blade had embedded itself in his hand.

In the next second, he had the door shut. The instant the latch clicked, the whole thing vanished. We were–okay, not safe. Not in the least. But assuming they had set this up the way we planned, we were now hundreds of miles from the prison. It would take them time to find us. Time we could use to get out of here on the– I looked around. There. The truck was waiting about a hundred feet away, just as pristine as it had been when we left it to make our scouting and sabotage trip. 

“What about the others?” Avalon was asking, panting a bit from everything. “And the rest of the prisoners? There were some out and standing, but the ones we found–” 

“Deveron and the rest have them,” Roger informed us. He was pulling the blade out of his hand. Grimacing at it, the man focused until the blade turned to dust. His wound was already starting to heal. “That’s why we had to split up. They had a bunch of slaves holed up in a corner of the compound. One of their people tried to send a bunch of fire that way to kill them off for retribution or whatever, but another guard was shielding them.” 

“Wait,” I spoke up. “You mean one of the Eden’s Garden Heretics was shielding the prisoners from getting hurt? Someone sympathetic to our side?” 

Seamus, gingerly touching his burn with a wince, shrugged. “I think they called him Coppe. Just someone who didn’t think their prisoners deserved to die like that, I guess. Can’t make him very popular with the rest of his people, though.” 

“No, probably not,” Tangle confirmed before focusing on us. “But what happened down–” 

In the midst of that clearly very important question, another door opened up nearby. We all spun that way, weapons raised. But it opened to reveal Klassin Roe, who stumbled through looking about as good as any of the other adults here. One of his arms was literally missing, and he had a hard shell of half-broken ice across half his torso, as well as a deep burn across his forehead. Clearly barely keeping himself upright, the man held the door as Kohaku appeared, followed by Jiao. The moment they were through, the trio moved away from the door, allowing a line of neon-red jumpsuit-wearing prisoners, of all colors, shapes, and sizes to pass through. A couple of them were too big for the door as it was, but it rose and changed shape to accommodate them. Soon, in addition to the thirty unconscious slaves we had taken from the tubes, there were a dozen or so more standing around. They looked bewildered, anxious, afraid, clearly unconvinced that this was a real rescue. Which I couldn’t blame them for. Not after everything they had been through, especially if they had the slightest idea what had been done to their fellow prisoners down in the caves. 

Either way, the second the last prisoner was through, another man appeared. I didn’t recognize him, but he wasn’t in prisoner clothes. He was a guard, another Heretic. Tall and blond. As soon as he was there, Roger and Seamus caught him by the arm and yanked the man out of the way. They had a pair of cuffs on him almost immediately, and Tangle used a field-engraver to put a spell on the man’s arm. She said something to him, he gave a short nod, and then she said another word and he collapsed. Roger and Seamus stopped him from collapsing, gently lowering him to the ground.

The traitor, I had already realized. It was that Coppe guy, the guard who had shielded their prisoners against his fellow Heretics’ retribution. That’s why he was here with us, but they weren’t taking any chances. He was being secured and knocked out until we could figure out what to do. 

Meanwhile, Deveron had appeared. He was dragging something with him, kicking the door shut while explosions continued on the far side. I could hear someone scream his name with rage that sent a chill through me. It was the sort of anger that promised retribution. This wasn’t over. We still had to get off the planet before they tracked us down. 

But wait. Where was–

Then I saw what Deveron had been dragging, as he carefully laid it down on the grass. No, not it. Him. Tribald Kine. Motionless, his eyes staring sightlessly toward the sky. 

We had escaped with the prisoners, for the moment. But not without cost. 

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By Blood 17-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The timing for our plan was incredibly crucial. We had to wait for enough of the guards to be thoroughly distracted by Deveron and the Dornans so the rest of us could jump them from behind. And if this whole thing worked the way it was supposed to, we would be doing that more than once. We just had to hit them just right. 

To that end, Kohaku and Tangle had the rest of us touch them and wait until enough of the guards had made their way to the gate on the far side of the complex below. Finally, it was time. There were still a few stragglers up on the buildings or coming out of side doors, but we couldn’t wait any longer. We needed enough of the guards to be over by the gate, yet if they got too far out, this wouldn’t work. So, with a word of warning, the two Heretic adults teleported all of us down to the roof of the building almost directly below us. There was a single guard there who had been taking aim with a rifle that looked a lot like Sarah’s. But even as he spun upon our arrival, Kohaku was driving her fist, abruptly shape-shifted into a glowing blade, into his gut. She cut him all the way up to his neck and then ripped her fist out. He was flailing and gasping until she transformed her hand back and caught both sides of his head so she could literally rip it from his body. It was brutal, efficient, and made my eyes widen as a noise of disbelief escaped me. The man had been gutted and then had his head torn from his shoulders before he even knew what was going on. Seeing it from this side was incredibly dark.

Meanwhile, Tangle wasn’t exactly slouching. There had been another Heretic coming out the door of the building we were standing on, and the former Crossroads teacher was already conjuring some sort of energy rope, which she threw around his neck like a noose before yanking him up to our level. He was choking and flailing even as she held the rope with one hand, produced some sort of knife with the other, and drove it into the top of his head. 

Both women acted together, and the whole thing took less than five seconds before the two guards were dead. I saw Kohaku and Tangle’s individual auras both flare, but if they noticed the rush of pleasure, neither reacted. Their attention was focused out on the yard itself, where we could see more Heretic guards racing around the fake smoldering remains of the transport truck on their way to deal with where they thought the main threat was coming from. 

Our main advantage throughout this whole thing, besides the element of surprise, was the fact that there weren’t incredibly powerful Heretics stationed here. At least relatively speaking. Honestly I thought the guy in the radio tower was powerful enough to be a problem. But the truth was that most of the people here were basically average. The strongest Eden’s Garden Heretics wouldn’t be guarding a backwater prison work camp with a few Alters digging out a mountain. They weren’t pushovers, by any means, but we weren’t dealing with the cream of the crop. And that was basically the only reason we had any chance of getting away with our small group performing a rescue mission. Especially now that we had cut off their ability to communicate easily with reinforcements. 

To the right, we could see another man come running out of the building there, shouting something about ‘the tower’ being down. Sure enough, he was pointing up toward the tower we had just come from, calling over his shoulder toward someone else inside the building. I could see him bracing himself for what was probably going to be a teleport up that way so he could figure out what was wrong with their radio. But then he caught sight of us on the roof of the other building, his attention snapping our way just in time for Tangle to hold her hand up. A strange set of dancing lights appeared in her palm. The man stopped short, staring at those rapidly moving glowing symbols with a slack-jawed expression. It only lasted for a brief moment, two seconds at most. But that was enough for Kohaku to appear behind him. And to the left of him. And to the right of him. While still standing right here with us. The two duplicate Kohakus on either side of the man caught hold of him, while the third pointed her hand into the back of his head and used the finger-laser I’d seen before. It took three or four shots, but the man went down. Which was just in time for a burst of flame from inside the building to engulf all three Kohaku clones and incinerate them. 

The regular Kohaku grimaced, then vanished from where she was standing, only to appear down there on the rear side of the building. As we watched, she raised her hands and then slammed them together. With that motion, the building crumpled in on itself, turning into a metal ball that was collapsed around the Heretic within. Unfortunately, he simply phased out of it, appearing in a ghost-like form with his gaze focused on Kohaku. 

Which meant he never noticed Tangle pointing a hand at him as she summoned a blast of electricity like the freaking emperor from Star Wars. The blast tore into his intangible form, seeming to hurt him even more than it would otherwise. With a scream, the man basically disintegrated. 

In what had to be less than thirty seconds, four Heretics were dead thanks to Kohaku and Tangle. Yes, we were taking them by surprise, and they were focused on other things. But still. 

That seemed to be all of the people who were right here, so we could move again. Our group hopped to the ground to join Kohaku, who was looking across the chaotic prison grounds. Her voice was terse. “Hit them now, hard as you can.” 

‘Them,’ in this case, were the Heretic guards on their way past the fake truck remains. They were in mid-sprint and hadn’t noticed the burst of violence behind them. We had to get their attention on us for this to work. So, Sarah brought her rifle to her shoulder and fired a shot, I transformed my staff into its bow-form to send an energy arrow that way, Avalon pointed one of her gauntlets to launch what looked like a bolt of energy similar to her constructs, and Sands drove her mace into the ground, sending a low, foot-high wall racing along the ground until it grew up and outward into a rock spike that slammed into one of the men. 

Between all those attacks and what Kohaku and Tangle sent that way as well, we definitely had some of the guards’ attention. They spun back toward us, bringing up their own weapons and powers. Which, for an instant, made this whole getting their attention thing feel like a bad idea. 

But, of course, there was a reason we wanted them to look at us. And that reason showed itself before they could launch their counterattack. From the fake rubble where they had been hiding, our companions abruptly appeared. Columbus rose, using his goggles to fire a blast of energy into one man’s side. Though strong enough to punch through rock like it was paper, the blast barely made that guy stagger a bit. He looked toward Columbus, just before Shiori launched herself at him from the side, her fist slamming into his face. Which didn’t do a lot on its own, but then six or seven glowing energy-like duplicate Shioris copied the same motion. That was enough to make him reel a bit, which was when Columbus brought both his hands together and shoved hard, sending a blast of kinetic force into the man that was hard enough to knock him a good twenty feet. And before he could crash to the ground, Bobbi was there in a blur of motion, catching the guy in the back as he was falling with a glowing energy construct of a fist the size of a small car. 

Shiori, Columbus, and Bobbi all hit that guy, while Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon hit another one, Tribald Kine and Klassin Roe hit a third, and Jiao and Asenath jumped a fourth. This was how we were hitting them, how our plan worked out to triple-ambush the prison guards. First Deveron and the Dornans unexpectedly attacked them from one side. Then, as they were running to deal with that, Tangle, Kohaku, and the rest of our group hit them from behind. And as the guards we hit were turning to deal with us, the others rose from their places hidden in the supposed wrecked remains of the truck to attack both the ones who kept going toward the gate and the ones who turned to deal with us. No matter which way they turned, the Eden’s Garden people were getting hit from behind by someone. 

Suffice to say, they were all having a bad day. And it was only going to get worse for them. They were stuck reacting to something that they hadn’t known anything about practically a minute ago. Up to that point, this had been a perfectly ordinary, mundane evening for them. And now they were under direct assault from what had to feel like all sides. They didn’t have time to adjust to what was happening, whereas our group had been planning this literally for weeks. We knew what we were doing, and we certainly weren’t going to give them time to recover. 

To that end, the second we had their attention and caught the guards between all our groups, Kohaku pointed toward the hole in the mountain. Specifically, to the cave entrance leading into what still remained of the mountain that hadn’t already been dug out. “You know your parts. Stay together, be careful.” 

That was all she had to say. Without missing a beat, Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and I were already running to the side. Twister jumped from my shoulder, transforming into a cheetah to run ahead of us. Part of me felt bad about leaving Kohaku and Tangle by themselves. But on the other hand, they could handle it. We had to do our part and get into the prison. 

Not that we would be getting in there alone. Even as we approached the cave entrance where the mountain had been hollowed out, the five of us were joined by Columbus, Shiori, Asenath, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Bobbi. 

Yes, that left Jiao, Tribald Kine, and Klassin Roe in the middle of the Heretic guards, Deveron and the Dornan cousins in front of them, and Kohaku and Tangle at the back. They were all adults. Their job was to draw attention and keep the guards focused on them. Meanwhile, the rest of us had to make our way through the deeper prison complex, staying together to handle whatever and whoever might still be down there until we reached the prisoners themselves. We had to get in there and let them out so everyone could teleport the fuck out of this place before the Eden’s Garden people managed to recover too much. Again, the plan relied a lot on timing, on hitting these guys so hard and so fast and from so many sides they never had the chance to retaliate too much before we were already gone. And there were still so many ways it could fall apart. All I could think of, even as our groups ran through the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, was that we had to hurry. 

This place was weird, to say the least. It was like a huge bite had been taken out of the hill itself, leaving just under a third of its lower portion present. There were several large digging-like machines that sat motionless and unused for the moment scattered around the massive open cavern-like space, but nothing seemed to be holding up the hundreds of tons of rocks and dirt high above our heads. I had no idea how they were stopping the upper section from crashing in, and hopefully we wouldn’t be here long enough for that to become relevant. What we were interested in was a hole in the inner wall, which led to the lower tunnels where the prisoners were supposed to be kept. At the moment, a glowing blue forcefield was stretched across that hole, blocking entrance to those tunnels, but that wouldn’t be an obstacle for long. . 

“Didn’t take all the excitement for yourselves, I see,” Jazz noted once we all came to a (very temporary) stop at that forcefield. She was panting a bit, holding her falchion in one hand, its projected flames dancing around the blade. 

“Thought about it,” I retorted, “but we figured you’d complain if you came all this way just to be bored.” 

Even as we said that, Columbus had vanished from where we were standing. He appeared on the far side of the forcefield, standing inside the enclosed, previously empty security station there. We could barely see the boy through the narrow window where the guards were supposed to stand to control the forcefield whenever people needed to move in and out. 

Thankfully, it didn’t take the boy long to figure out the controls in there. Soon, the forcefield was down, and he rejoined us as we started running together once more. Now we were inside the cavern. The entrance tunnel, carved into black and gray rock, was about twenty feet wide and equally as high. So we weren’t exactly cramped, even with a group as relatively large as this was. The tunnel sloped downward, leading deeper underground and into the darkness. So, after producing flashlights, that was the way we went, keeping our eyes and other senses open as we raced deeper into the man-made (or at least living person-made) cave. 

I didn’t sense anyone, but I did sense… something. It was weird, a feeling pressing down on me from all sides, like… I wasn’t sure. It was at the back of my mind with every step, making the hair on my neck stand up. I felt something, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t good. But there was nothing I could do about it. We had to keep going. 

“Did we ever figure out what the hell they were trying to do down here?” Columbus asked, while we continued downward, spreading out a bit to avoid making ourselves a single target. “I mean, this is a weird way to mine, isn’t it? How much effort are they spending just to keep the top of the mountain from falling in? They’ve dug out so much of this place, for what? Minerals? The hell are they looking for and why are they taking out so much of the mountain to do it without taking the top?” 

“Those are all very good questions,” Gordon agreed simply while not breaking stride. “Maybe the prisoners will know more when we find them.” 

Yeah, he couldn’t have been any more clear. What he was focused on was finding his father. Everything else, as far as he was concerned, could take a back seat, including questions about what the Eden’s Garden people were trying to do with this place. Which was fair, given I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be interested in those sorts of details if I was in his boat. Still, Columbus had a point. We had spent the past couple weeks, including the trip here, trying to work out why the mountain would have been mined out this way, without any luck. Now we were here and seeing it in person, and it seemed to make even less sense. Between that, the weird feeling of being watched that some of us had experienced coming through the forest, and now the feeling was I was getting as we descended, this planet in general was giving me the creeps. 

All of which was just more proof that we needed to get all these prisoners and leave as soon as possible. As if we’d needed any additional motivation for that.  

We were rounding a bend in the tunnel when Doug called out for everyone to wait. His flashlight was pointed toward the inner wall, where we could see what looked like words carved into it. Words that had been broken and chipped away by time or erosion or whatever. It looked like at one point there had been a full message carved there, but there were only bits and pieces of it now, words here or there. 

“Uh, can anyone read that?” I asked. It looked like gobbledygook to me. The ‘letters’ were meaningless shapes to the point that I couldn’t even tell which ones were complete and which had been broken.

We needed to hurry, obviously. But something about this made everyone stop to look at it. The message, if that’s what it was, gave me a weird feeling. I felt like we needed to know what it said. So, Bobbi produced a bit more light, a couple glowing balls to illuminate the whole thing. It took up a good ten feet of space, and had obviously been an extensive bit of writing when it was complete. Now more than three-quarters of it had been broken. 

Avalon spoke quietly. “I think I can. That… guy back in the tower, he must’ve had some sort of language deciphering power.” She lifted a hand to point. “This little bit here, it says ‘blood taken’ or maybe ‘blood given.’ And here, it says ‘legs of the world.’ Or maybe ‘legs stretched across the world.’ Down here, it says ‘deep-walker.’ and in this last bit, it says, ‘powers of blood.’ 

“Well that’s all nice and creepy,” Shiori muttered. “Wait, what about this?” Her light had found another bit near the bottom right that we had missed. This seemed somewhat more intact, several complete sentences carved near the floor. 

Crouching down, Avalon examined it, grimacing slightly. “It says, ‘Before being taken, activate disintegration.’” 

“Before being taken, activate disintegration?” I stared at the other girl. “What does that mean?” 

Her head shook. “I don’t know, but I think the bit that comes after it was instructions for the disintegration they were talking about. Maybe a spell or something.” Her finger traced along the broken bit of wall next to it. “But from the look of this whole message, the tunnel was here already. It looks like it was just buried and these guys uncovered it.” 

Asenath spoke firmly. “Whatever it’s about, we need to get to the prisoners. Everyone outside is… they can’t hold out forever.” 

Nervous as we were about whatever that message was talking about, she had a point. We had to press on quickly, or all of this would be for nothing. 

The tunnel opened up wider and wider the deeper we got. There were several more of those messages along the way, although all of them were even more damaged than the first and didn’t give any more information. At least not in the brief glimpses we gave them, and we weren’t going to stop again for a closer inspection. The longer we spent doing this, the more likely it was that we would end up being interrupted by Eden’s Garden reinforcements. So we pushed the bad feelings we were having down and kept descending through the ever-widening tunnel. 

Finally, after what felt like far too long, the tunnel opened into a truly massive underground cavern. Seriously, this place was impressive. And we were able to understand just how impressive it was right from the start thanks to the fact that the whole place was lit up by powerful stadium-like lights hooked up all along the walls. Clearly those had been recently added. The far side of the cavern from where we were standing had to be at least two football fields away, and it was almost that wide. There was a huge hole in the center of the cavern that took up about a third of the floorspace. Meanwhile, to the right was a series of what looked like tubes similar to the ones Sariel, Larees, and the other Seosten prisoners had been kept in when Kushiel was trying to transport them off that lab. They were arranged in three rows of ten, all varying sizes to accommodate a single prisoner held within. Pipes were attached to the bottom of the tubes, all leading out to a single larger pipe that ran straight to that large hole in the floor. 

Asenath sniffed once. “Blood,” she murmured. “The pipes are full of blood.” 

Oh yeah, and that feeling in the back of my head was worse. It was like… voices, almost. Not whispers, and definitely not the Whispers. It wasn’t really voices, or even thoughts. But it was like… trying to be thoughts? I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It was almost like when you saw someone shouting through a soundproof window, so you couldn’t hear them but you knew they were talking. It was like that, except in my head. 

Yeah, it made no sense at all. And I still didn’t know whether I was imagining it or not. 

“Okay, now I’m really freaked out,” Jazz announced. “The hell were they doing here? There was that warning back there, and now they’ve got all these prisoners in these tubes having their blood drained out to go into that hole? This is a horror movie. We have come into a–” 

“Papa!” Asenath blurted the word, lunging toward one of the tubes. Sure enough, there was a man floating in some semi-clear liquid there. It was hard to make out details, but if she said it was her father, I was willing to take her word for it. 

At nearly the same time, Gordon called out from where he had found his father as well. He was in one of the other tubes. Everyone started looking around, trying to figure out the best way to open those things up to let them out. 

“Um, Flick.” That was Columbus, calling me over to one side. “You see those antennae things sticking down out of the ceiling?” 

I looked. He was right, there were a dozen of the large metal ‘antennae things’ sticking down. “Uh huh.” 

“I’ve seen those before,” he informed me. “I mean, in Charmeine’s memories. They’re supposed to be producing a forcefield in the direction they’re pointing. Which would be over that hole in the floor, where those tubes were taking the blood.” 

“And now there’s no forcefield there,” I murmured. “So do you think–” 

That was when it appeared. In the midst of everyone else trying to figure out how to let the prisoners out of their tubes, a thing launched itself out of the hole. All I could see in that instant was a massive form moving very quickly. Then it landed in front of us, and we all had a good look at it. 

The thing stood on ten towering legs that were spread out around its lower body like a spider’s eight limbs, each as wide around as a school bus and at least twice as long. The body itself was more like a gigantic, very fat crocodile with those thick protective scales. A long neck like that of a giraffe, though also layered with heavy scales rather than fur, extended outward from the body, with an almost humanoid head attached to it. Almost humanoid that was, aside from the scales protecting it, and the fact that instead of two eyes, there was a ring of them all the way around it, so the creature could see in all directions. It opened its mouth, revealing a line of deadly shark-like teeth, and gave a dangerous hiss. 

“I uhh…” My voice came out soft, barely audible, a mouse-like squeak. 

“I think we just found out what they were giving blood to.” 

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By Blood 17-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The noncanon chapter for Heretical Edge was posted over the weekend and is now available for everyone to read right here

The evil-looking forest didn’t get any better when we were inside it. Actually, I was pretty sure it got worse the deeper in we went. The place really was like something out of a horrifying fairy tale, of the Grimm Brothers variety. We had yet to see or sense any animals or anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching us. Even though Tangle and Kohaku both insisted that they couldn’t feel anyone or anything and none of their warning spells were going off, it still felt like there were eyes on us. Twister even turned into an owl and took a quick flight around, but couldn’t see or hear anything. But she did agree that it felt creepy. 

In any case, creepy or not, we had a schedule to keep. And a long hike to get through. The only way we had felt safe making that portal jump was by doing so far enough from the prison that it was going to take hours for us to walk that way. Any closer and we would have run too much of a risk of detection. 

So, eyes, ears, and other senses peeled for anything more substantial than just a creepy feeling, the seven of us kept moving. The rest of the group was waiting for us to take down those scanners and the communication tower, and we couldn’t let them down. This was too important. Asenath and Gordon were counting on us to have the next step ready so they could rescue their fathers. And I’d be damned if I was going to let feeling uneasy about this forest screw that up. 

There were ways we could have moved faster, of course. But we were leaning heavily on the ‘don’t be detected’ side of things. So most of the magic that Kohaku and Tangle could use was focused on shielding us. Which meant we were sticking to some good old-fashioned hiking. 

Of course, the forest being uninhabited and hours away from the prison meant that there wasn’t really a path. We just had to stay together and work our way through the thick trees while doing our best not to end up tripping over raised roots or falling in any holes. And there were plenty of both. To say nothing of all the sharp thorns. 

All in all, it was pretty far from a walk in the park. As I hopped over a deep ditch full of what looked like long vines with dagger-sized spikes sticking out of them, my attention turned toward Sands, who was hopping over right beside me. “Not exactly what you signed up for?” 

Snorting, she reached back to catch her sister’s hand, helping her across before looking toward me. “Let’s just say that if I could tell the me from before last year what I was doing, she’d think I’d completely lost my mind. Our mind. Whatever. Or she’d think I was possessed by a body snatcher, which is pretty ironic when you think about it.” 

With a small smile, Sarah spoke up. “But we have Mom back.” 

The words made Sands brighten, even as we turned to keep walking with everyone else. “Yeah,  We have Mom back. And we’re not on the wrong side of all this, that’s a plus too.” Her eyes turned it to me once more as she quietly added, “I would not want to be on your bad side. Or the bad side of your mother. But can you imagine if we weren’t friends? If–” Her face twisted a little. “Never mind, that sucks to think about.” 

“Aww.” Reaching back, I caught her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry, I like having you as a friend better than an enemy too. I wouldn’t want to take that mace to the face, lemme tell you that much. And having Sarah shooting at me from all directions outside of training was bad enough just the one time.” Even saying that made my face twist a little. That was when Ammon had told everyone in the dorm to hurt me that one night. That… yeah, I shouldn’t have brought it up. 

From the look on her face, Sarah didn’t like to think about that time either. She took a deep breath before pushing a branch out of the way for Sands and me to move past. When she spoke, her voice was troubled. “It could have gone the other way really easy.” Stepping past the branch and letting it go, she added, “Which side we were on, I mean.” 

Sands grimaced. “Tell me about it.” She ducked under a much larger branch that was in our way, glancing to the rest of the group before turning her attention back to me. “When you first started bringing up the whole Strangers aren’t all evil thing, I…” She hesitated before admitting, “ I almost didn’t react very well. I mean, I know I didn’t react very well as it was. But I almost did something really stupid. I was almost…” She sighed. 

“You almost talked to your dad about it,” I finished for her. “Trust me, I get that. I know how hard it was not to–okay no I don’t. I’m not going to try to say I know how hard it was not to talk to your dad about that, because I’ve never been in that exact situation. But… but I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re both here.” 

Taking her sister’s hand, Sarah nodded. “We are too. Even if we have to go on long, boring hikes.” 

“The long, boring hike is the easy part.” That was Tangle, speaking up from about ten feet off and a bit ahead of us. “Don’t forget, once we actually get to this place, things get a bit more dangerous.” 

“And that’s if we’re lucky,” Kohaku pointed out from behind us where she was keeping an eye on the rear of the group. “If we’re not and they realize they have company, things will get dangerous and exciting.” 

“Let’s try to make it take as long as possible for things to get dangerous and exciting,” Avalon put in from just behind Tangle. The two of them had been having their own quiet conversation through most of this hike. From what I have been able to pick up, they were talking about their whole family situation, given they were distantly related. Which was definitely a thing. I was pretty sure they hadn’t talked very much about that before now, but it wasn’t like there was much else to do while we were stuck walking through this forest. 

Besides, I was glad Avalon was actually talking to her. Tangle and Dries were the only two blood relatives she had, as far as we knew. And the woman who had become her mother, Gaia, was still locked up. Given how worried she was about the woman, she deserved to be able to talk to what other parts of her family she still had access to. 

Yeah, Gaia was a whole other situation we needed to deal with. I hadn’t expected it to take this long to find and rescue the headmistress, and I was pretty sure Avalon hadn’t either. I knew she got more worried about her the longer she was kept prisoner, and I couldn’t help but think about my mother’s imprisonment. Not with Fossor, but with Crossroads. She had been held prisoner by the loyalists for… decades without being rescued. That wouldn’t happen to Gaia, right? We would find and save her quicker than that. 

Of course, the whole idea of this war going on for decades made my stomach twist itself in knots. I can’t even fathom something like that. And yet, it was possible. More than possible. It was not completely out of the question that we would still be in a stalemate two decades from now, or three, or even more. I had to start thinking about all of this in much longer terms. After all, the Fomorian-Seosten war had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Sariel, Athena, and the others had been alive for thousands of years themselves. My mother started this war around 1920-ish. Even with a break of a few decades, it had been going on for a long time. 

The point was, expecting to be done with it anytime soon was really dumb. We would be doing this sort of thing for a long time. Gaia being held prisoner for a few months was probably nothing in the grand scheme of things. But telling myself that didn’t really make me feel any better when I saw how much her absence hurt Avalon.

Still, right now we couldn’t focus on Gaia. We had to work on one rescue at a time. Or, well, two in this case. One rescue location at a time. The time to save Gaia would come eventually. For now, we had this one to deal with, and I couldn’t let myself get too distracted. That strange feeling of being watched was still making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And yet, a glance over my shoulder toward Kohaku was met with a slight headshake. She knew why I was looking that way, and still didn’t sense anything wrong. 

Somehow, that still didn’t put me at ease. Maybe it really was nothing. I certainly couldn’t think of any reason why none of our powers or magic had been able to detect any actual observers. Given the situation we were in, my mind playing tricks on me was certainly understandable. And yet… yeah. I didn’t like any of this. The worst part was that I had no idea if I was anxious for a real reason (beyond the obvious), or if the whole situation was just making me really jumpy. 

Still, I shoved those thoughts out of my mind and did my best to focus on walking and paying attention. I didn’t want to give into my paranoia, but staying aware of things was just common sense. So, hiking onward with my senses straining to pick up even a hint of a problem, I went back to quietly talking to the twins.  

Because Tangle and Kohaku were right, we should probably enjoy this quiet part for as long as we could. Creepy though it might be, this was still a peaceful hike through the forest. The dangerous part, where we had to sneak around the prison and take out their communications and scanners without getting caught would come soon enough. And it would rapidly be followed by the loud, violent part. 

So yeah, for the time being, I was going to enjoy the hike. And hope that if there really was something watching us with ill-intent, it would have the common courtesy to attack long before we reached the prison so that we didn’t have to deal with it and the Eden’s Garden Heretics at the same time. 

******

Well, if there was something watching us, it didn’t cause any problems throughout the rest of the hike to the prison. And yes, it did obviously occur to us that it could be some sort of security system letting the guards at the prison themselves know we were coming. But Kohaku and Tangle insisted that they weren’t getting that impression. They weren’t sensing any communication going anywhere and while they did agree that there was a strange sensation all around us, it didn’t feel malevolent or dangerous. Just… watchful. It was sort of like the feeling one would get when someone was staring at them from behind with curiosity rather than anger. 

In any case, we stayed on guard, and would be approaching the facility even more carefully than we already would have (which itself was pretty carefully). If there was something wrong, we would deal with it as best as we could when the time came. But for the moment, there wasn’t a lot we could do with ‘strange feeling.’ It wasn’t like we could call the whole mission off. We had to press forward and handle whatever happened. 

Finally, after several hours of hiking, we were approaching the edge of the prison complex security grid. It was still a good long distance from the prison itself, since the people inside wanted ample warning of anyone or anything approaching. Not to mention wanting to be able to track prisoners who got away from them. So, the initial alarm and monitoring spells were set up almost a mile away from the main fence. 

We stopped our march well-away from the spells, still hidden by the dense forest around us. The monitoring spells were obviously invisible. It wasn’t like we suddenly saw a dome or wall of energy telling us where not to go. At least, I didn’t. But apparently Kohaku and Tangle both had the sort of power needed to do just that. The two of them focused on the space between two trees just ahead of us, and began quietly murmuring to one another. They were both listing off the various bits of magic they could detect, comparing notes in case one of them missed something. The names and words they were using didn’t mean anything to me–okay that wasn’t true. I had been doing this stuff for long enough that I could follow some of it. But they were very obviously far more experienced and were using a sort of shorthand that left me completely clueless. And a glance toward the others showed that they were in much the same boat. Suffice to say, I was glad that we had them here with us. Otherwise, this would have been a pretty short rescue mission. Or at least, it would’ve turned into an open fight a lot more quickly. 

The rest of us stayed quiet while the other two began to work their way through carefully disabling the warning spells. It took almost an hour, but we weren’t going to complain. Better to sit here and quietly watch them work than end up alerting all of the guards inside that we were here. Patience was the name of the game. Taking the guards inside completely by surprise was the best chance we had at getting to the prisoners safely. If we could sneak in there and take down their communications tower, making it much harder for them to call in help (especially from their Victor), this whole thing would be a hell of a lot more doable. 

Eventually, they had done all they could. The actual alert spells had been disabled, which meant I could do my part without setting off any alarms. Or, to be completely accurate, my ghosts could do their part. I summoned Grover and Seth, both of whom had made it clear they wanted to be involved in this rescue mission. Grover because he was bored and wanted something interesting to do, and Seth because Tiras was important to him too. After all, he had been the one to save Seth’s life and turn him into a vampire in the first place, back during the American Revolutionary War. He was practically as much a father to Seth as he was to Asenath. 

With the alert spells down, the two ghosts were able to get through the actual forcefield parts of the shield to where the main sources of those shield spells were. It was very similar to the situation back at the Auberge, when I had sent Seth in to break the forcefield source so we could get to where Kushiel and Denny had been. Except in this case, we had to break two different spells in separate locations at the same time. It wouldn’t drop the entire shield, just this portion of it. Hopefully not enough to draw immediate attention, thanks to the work that Tangle and Kohaku had done. 

Once Seth and Grover were in position, I had them wait for the moment, looking over at the two teachers as I waited for them to give the go-ahead. They were straining their senses and magic to see beyond the barrier, checking for anyone who was paying too much attention our way. There were roving guards, and we wanted to wait until the nearest set had passed to give ourselves the most amount of time to get inside and do what we needed to do before they came back around. 

Finally, I saw Kohauku raise her hand while looking at me. She counted down from five, lowering a finger each time before finally making a fist. As soon as she did, I sent the impulse for Seth and Grover to do their thing while giving them enough power to become solid. Instantly, the two of them broke the part of the runes that had been carved into their respective trees, bringing down almost all of the shields that had been keeping the rest of us out.  

Almost all of the shields. There was still a single, emergency one left whose power wasn’t easy to get at. It was projected all the way from inside the prison complex. But, of course, we had plans for that too. Specifically, Seth’s anti-magic knife. Avalon already had it in hand as she cautiously approached that spot, flanked by Twister on one side and me on the other. The three of us got close enough for Valley to drive the knife into the very slightly glimmering spot in the air where the last barrier spell was. She drew the blade up and around, then down, cutting an opening into the shield. 

It was done. After all that work, we had our way through the ‘fence’ of protective spells. And, at least as far as we could tell, the guards had no idea we were here. Everything seemed quiet and normal from their side. Still, we had to keep our eyes open. It would be way too easy to get ahead of ourselves and screw this up. This was probably the most dangerous part of our part of the mission, aside from the actual fight. 

Now we were going to split up. Tangle was going with Sands and Sarah to do something about the scanners that would identify the fact that the people in the truck weren’t supposed to be there. Meanwhile, Twister, Avalon, and I were going with Kohaku to take down the communications tower. Or at least, get it set to go down. The moment the fighting broke out, we wanted to be able to shut off their contact with the outside world. Or outside worlds. 

To that end, we all exchanged good luck wishes and embraces. Then our groups split apart. Ours went north from the entrance we had made while Tangle and the twins headed south. Not that we could actually see anything yet. As far as I could tell, we were still just in the middle of a creepy forest. But Kohaku assured me that the prison was less than a mile to the west.

Now more than ever we had to be as quiet and careful as possible. So she was using several active camouflage spells to stop anyone from noticing our group unless they were basically right on top of us. 

We didn’t talk on our way to the tower. We could have, given the privacy and protection spells that we had around us, but it didn’t feel right. So, we marched in silence. Well, most of us did. Twister turned into a tiny mouse and perched on my shoulder, her ears and nose constantly twitching and turning in all directions while Avalon and I walked side by side with Kohaku ahead of us. 

Eventually, the Asian woman stopped and beckoned for us to get closer. Avalon and I exchanged silent looks before walking that way, moving up beside Kohaku. And from there, I could finally see our target. 

The prison was essentially built into the side of a low mountain. A large chunk of that mountain had been hollowed out, with the entrance to the prison and main courtyard taking up the open valley in front of it, while the buildings and actual mining operation were inside the mountain itself, leading deep underground. We were standing at the edge of the forest roughly halfway up that hillside, with the open courtyard and just a bit of the interior prison complex visible below. I could see a tall, visible forcefield wall surrounding the outer edge of the valley in a semicircle. Various magical traps filled the area in front of that wall leading out to the thick trees beyond. 

Once you got past the forcefield, there was a twenty-foot dirt space all the way around before you hit a solid steel wall, about fifteen feet high and covered by automated weapon turrets every few feet. Beyond that was another twenty-foot space filled with more magical traps set to go off, before a second fifteen foot high metal wall. That one had its own automated turrets, but also had several guard towers along it. Guard towers with actual Heretics in them. So we had to stay as far away from them as possible until we were ready for a fight. 

Beyond the guard towers was the actual open courtyard of the prison, where I could see several long, low buildings that looked like they were portable and able to be packed up and moved easily. There were a half dozen of them all along the eastern side almost directly below us, which looked like administration and guard quarters. Meanwhile, on the far western side away from us was a larger building with its own protective forcefield. The armory. A handful of prisoners in bright neon red clothes that would be easy to see in the forest were moving between buildings, escorted by watchful guards. But most of the prisoners would be inside the hollowed out mountain area that we couldn’t see much of yet. 

Once we had taken all that in, Kohaku touched Avalon and me on the shoulder before pointing upward. The communication tower was at the top of the mountain, its antennae visible sticking out just above the trees. That was where we had to go. 

Glancing back down, I focused on a relatively innocuous-looking building near the edge of the second interior wall. It was only about thirty feet wide and two stories tall, with what looked like a radar dish angled downward into the facility. That was where the scanner system was, which meant it was where Tangle and the twins were going. 

“Good luck, guys,” I murmured under my breath. 

Then I turned and started to hike up the mountain. Hopefully they would be able to do their part. But for now, it was time for us to do ours. In about twenty minutes, this whole rescue operation would shift into the next phase. 

I just hoped our luck would last through the end. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

By Blood 17-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The next several days felt increasingly odd, to say the least. Not because there was anything specifically wrong, but because there was basically nothing to do. Nothing important, anyway. Our days basically consisted of using the truck to make a single jump in the morning to the next moon or asteroid that was used as a recharge point, and then waiting around twenty-four hours until the truck was ready for the next jump. Of course, we could have used extra power to recharge the jump system faster. But the people at the prison camp knew how long the trip was supposed to take. Plus they had a system showing them when each recharge point was used. If we suddenly started coming much faster or making longer jumps, they would know that something was going on. And the last thing we wanted to do was give them a reason to call in for help or be on guard when we got there. We needed them to be as bored and convinced that this was a routine trip as possible. 

So, we did it the slow way, and spent hours just sort of hanging out and talking, playing games, or training. A lot of training, especially whenever Avalon got to choose. She made sure we trained as much as we could in the various alien environments we ended up waiting around in. There was one small moon that had this greenish-gray stuff all over its surface that alternated between being very sticky or slippery seemingly at random. Avalon had a field day getting me and the rest of the people our age (Shiori, Columbus, Sarah, Sands, Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon) to run exercises and drills across that stuff. Hell, it was even a good way of testing that rocket-burst power that the Eden’s Garden Heretic I killed back at the truck station had had, the one that projected flames from her feet and back to launch herself forward. And I wasn’t just limited to boosting myself that way. I could use the power on anything I was holding to make it swing faster and harder than I was capable of swinging it by myself. That was one of several new ones I’d picked up from her. I’d gotten a list from Tabbris when she did a partial recall to touch base with me, and used some of the downtime to practice with them a bit. Suffice to say, I would have a couple new tricks up my sleeve when the time came. 

In any case, as far as training on that weird surface went, Asenath and Twister played along too. They even got Bobbi to run some drills with us. Jiao didn’t participate with either our training or the other adults when they tried it out, but she watched all of us with quiet interest. 

In any case, Avalon really liked that stuff, even though we could never figure out exactly what made it shift from sticky to slippery or if there was any sort of pattern. She even managed to convince Deveron to dig up some of it and put it away in a sealed extra-space container so we could use it later. I’m pretty sure she was hoping to find a way to duplicate it so she could put the stuff in a real training room or even a combat arena. It was cute watching her be so excited about it. She got all science-technical about figuring it out. 

We trained, we watched movies on the televisions they had set up in the truck, played some card games, told stories (though that one was mostly us listening to stories the older people told), and in general just did whatever we could to kill time. At least the others were able to sleep more. I, of course, was awake through ninety percent of the day. Or rather, what would be the day on the planet we were heading toward. The relative time at each base didn’t really matter much. The point was, we slept during the prison’s daytime to stay on Asenath and Jiao’s schedules, and because we wanted to hit the camp in the middle of the night. But thankfully all of the adults in the group, including Deveron, Seamus and Roger Dornan, Klassin Roe, Professors Kohaku and Tangle, and Tribald Kine, had enough stamina powers of their own that they barely needed sleep either. Actually, in Kohaku’s case, I was pretty sure she didn’t sleep at all. Not even for a few minutes. I’d never seen it, anyway. So, I basically sat around with them and listened to the stories they told. It meant that I heard a lot about the first rebellion from Mom’s old teammates, and a good bit about Mom herself. Especially about when she was a student. Klassin talked about when he had still been Jonathan Ruthers, the spoiled, entitled asshole son of the one and only Gabriel Ruthers. He and Mom had really not gotten along, to the point of her punching him. Which is probably what initially led to then-Headmaster Ruthers not liking my mother very much. At least the first thing.  

I spent the week hearing all sorts of stories about all that and more. It was fun. It was… different. And yet it still didn’t detract from the utterly strange feeling that came with the fact that there was nothing important to do aside from wait to get there. We were, with any luck, going to take these prison guards by surprise. It just meant taking this long, boring, careful route to do it. 

Maybe the issue was that I felt like I had been on the opposite side of this situation. Not being a prison guard watching over a bunch of slaves doing hard labor, of course. But doing normal things while other people plotted sneak attacks against me and the people I cared about. I had been in the position these guards were about to be in, being hit by surprise in an area that was supposed to be safe. Maybe that was what made me feel odd about it. 

But then again, these people were guarding slaves, so maybe I wouldn’t spend too much time comparing myself to them. Aside from hoping that they wouldn’t be nearly as lucky as we had been when it came to reacting to being taken by surprise, of course.

The week seemed to be magical in and of itself, because it passed simultaneously agonizingly slowly and blindingly quickly. I had absolutely no idea how it could manage something like that, what sort of time magic was involved in twisting reality that way, but there it was. It took entirely too long for that single blink of an eye to pass, or something. The quick eternal week was gone before I even knew what was happening and after I spent what felt like months silently pleading for it to be over. Yes, those were utterly opposing concepts, and yet…

To be completely accurate, we weren’t at the prison camp yet. We were at the last jump point before we would get there. The jump points themselves mostly amounted to wide garages just large enough to accommodate the truck, with what looked like enormous silos to one side. There were storage rooms full of food and drinks that were kept stocked by a different truck that went through every once in awhile. None of them had living guards, but there was some sort of alarm system that was supposed to summon reinforcements to protect the station if anything happened to it. The biggest defense they had was basically being in the middle of nowhere in deep space. The odds of anyone accidentally tripping over them were literally astronomically low. And apparently there were sensors set up to detect anyone approaching them aside from those on the approved list. Like the truck we were using, for example. 

So, we were at the last station before the prison. We were all out of the truck at the moment and had been walking around the open garage area stretching our legs a bit. I was watching Shiori and Asenath talking a short distance away, when I felt Professor Kohaku approach me from behind. 

“Are you ready for this, Felicity?” the Asian woman asked, stopping a few feet back. 

Turning that way, I offered her a somewhat weak smile. “You mean am I ready for our extra little field trip? Boy, I sure hope so. Otherwise, this is gonna be a pretty short and disappointing rescue mission. Okay, it’s already not short.” Shrugging, I added, “I think I’m ready. I mean, we’re not gonna get another chance at taking these guys by surprise, so we’ve gotta do this.” 

The ‘extra little field trip’ I was referring to was an advanced jump that I and several others needed to do. The prison may have been expecting our truck, but it also had special scanners that would have detected that the wrong people were driving it. Our forward scouting group had the fun job of sneaking in ahead of time and disabling both those scanners (in a way that wouldn’t instantly alert everyone in the camp), and the communications tower. We were pretty sure that they would eventually find a way to call for help anyway, but taking out the tower would make that a lot harder and give us time to operate. And then, assuming we pulled that off without setting off a bunch of alarms and warning everyone there, we would be ready to hit the prison from a second angle the moment everyone who arrived in the truck did their thing. 

Kohaku, who was one of the people who would be going in with me (though to be entirely accurate, I was one of the people going with her), chuckled softly. “I suppose you are right about that. We don’t have much in the way of do-overs. A lot of power between all of us, yet nothing like that. Still, you have been through much worse with less. As long as we are careful, stick to the plan, and don’t… rush things, I believe we will make it through. And we will leave there with the prisoners.” A faint smile touched her face before she added, “I believe there are a few who are more nervous about this rescue than you.” As she said that, the woman was already turning to look in the direction of Shiori and Asenath, before her gaze shifted to the front of the truck where Gordon was standing by himself. 

“Yeah, getting the prisoners out of that place would definitely be nice,” I agreed. “And you’re right, they are more nervous than me. They’ve got a lot more to lose.” Once again, the thought of being like Senny and losing one of my parents for hundreds of years flashed through my mind. It made me shudder a bit. We had to find her dad, and Gordon’s dad, in that place. They had both waited more than long enough. 

Before Kohaku could say anything else, we were joined by Professor Tangle, along with Sarah and Sands. The five of us, along with Twister and Avalon, would be the forward scouting group responsible for dealing with that communications tower and the scanners that would alert the people inside the prison that we weren’t on the up and up. Asenath and Gordon both wanted to be included in that group, of course. As did Jiao. And they all would have been useful. But both Kohaku and Deveron, as the leaders of this expedition, had decided that they should stay with the main group. With their missing loved ones so close at that point, there was some fear that their judgment might be a bit impaired. Which was a point that none of them could really argue too much against, considering how important this was to them. 

Besides, they wouldn’t get to the prisoners any quicker by going with the scouting group then they would by staying here. They might be physically closer, but they wouldn’t be able to actually get to their fathers until the main assault happened anyway. Being that close and still having to wait would probably be worse than if they were back with the truck. Probably. 

“So,” Sands started, “Are we ready to head out there and play Neunrei or what?” 

Blinking at her, I held up a finger. “Uh. I think we’re ready to do something, but I’m not sure if Noon Ray is the right term for it. Actually I’m not even sure what that means. It’s definitely not noon. Or I mean, it won’t be when we go there. At least if we’ve worked out the planning on that right. I think it’s supposed to be barely–” 

Sands and Sarah were both snickering. The latter spoke up quietly. “Not Noon Ray. Neunrei.” She spelled it for me, making it clear it was one word. 

“Alexis Neunrei was a Heretic,” Tangle informed me. “He was known for being very sneaky and laying traps, for sabotaging enemy defenses. He designed some of the trap spells that we still use today. Like the one Crossroads has around the Pathmaker.” The black woman, who was in much better shape these days than when I’d first met her (once she was conscious), nodded toward the twins. “Some of the kids call it ‘playing Neunrei’ when they run around in the forest laying traps and ambushes for each other. I believe the Bystanders call it ‘going commando.’ 

My eyes widened and I quickly blurted, “Playing commando. Playing commando. Not going–just–” Coughing, I shook my head. “Just trust me, stick with playing commando.” 

The others were giving me weird looks, but before they could say anything, Twister darted over in rabbit form before shifting back to her normal self. Which meant she had that long fluffy tail that a part of me still wanted to pet, even without Tabbris’s influence. Her voice was cheerful. “So, is the Cool Kids Club ready to head out?” She paused, considering. “We need a better name than that. I’ll workshop a few and get back to you.” 

“I’m pretty sure we’re the Neunreis,” I informed her primly before looking back to the others while she was busy trying to figure that out. “And yeah, I think we’re about ready. Right, guys?” 

With a murmur of agreement, Kohaku looked over toward where Deveron was talking to Tribald Kine. She must have been using some sort of silent communication, because he immediately held a hand up to stop the other man before looking over at her. They looked at one another for a few seconds, clearly having a silent discussion. Then he nodded and whistled loudly to get everyone’s attention. Once he had that, his finger twirled in a circle over his head, as he called for everyone to gather up. It was time to go over the whole plan one more time. Then the others could wish our little group luck before we headed out. 

As everyone was gathering, Asenath caught my arm and stepped back a bit. Her voice was soft. “I know I said this before, but thank you, Flick. You know, for… well everything. I guess what I should really thank you for is listening to me that first night.” 

“If you hadn’t been there, my father would be dead,” I pointed out. “And I… well, I don’t know what I’d be. I still don’t know what Ammon was hoping to accomplish there. But… but the point is, if I hadn’t listened to you, everything would be a lot worse for both of us. So let’s just be glad you were there and that I’m stubborn enough not to be totally indoctrinated after a month or so.” 

She chuckled, but I could tell that most of her attention wasn’t on what I was saying. She was focused on what was going to happen a few hours from now, on how close she was to finally seeing her father again.

“How’s your mom doing?” I asked, glancing over to the corner of the room, where the woman in question was standing by herself. Jiao was friendly enough to everyone, but she didn’t really participate in the group stuff very much. She just stayed out of the way and did her own thing. I was pretty sure she wasn’t accustomed to working with a group. 

Asenath glanced that way as well. Her mother didn’t react, but I felt confident she could hear what we were saying. “She wants to see him even more than I do. Which is saying a lot.” Those words came dryly as she gave me a brief look. “I’m not sure what I’m looking forward to more, just getting to see and touch him again, or getting answers about what the hell happened. Has he been locked up all this time? Did he go back to his homeworld? Did–” She cut herself off, head shaking while her lips pressed together tightly to contain herself. Finally, she finished with, “Let’s just say I have a lot of questions for him.” She glanced to her mother once more. “We both do.” 

“Well, don’t worry,” I informed the vampire girl while putting a hand on her shoulder. “Or, you know, do worry a little bit, because that’s healthy. I mean don’t worry too mu–never mind. We’ll handle it.” 

“She’s right,” Shiori agreed, moving up on Asenath’s other side while giving me a quick smile. “Flick’s here, your mom’s here, and I’m here. We’re gonna get your dad back.” 

They stepped away to join the group by Deveron, and I turned my attention to Gordon. The quiet boy was watching me with his arms folded. There was a grim expression on his face, but then again, that was normal. When our eyes met, he spoke flatly. “You remember the picture.” 

His father. He’d shown me a picture of his dad during the trip, so I would know what he looked like. Immediately, I nodded. “I’ll let you know if we see him, but we’re probably not going to get a look at the prisoners any faster than you do.” 

“I know,” he replied, shifting his weight very slowly from his left foot to his right. It was only that single motion, but as far as Gordon went, it was basically fidgeting. He was nervous, and if it was enough to make him visibly show it even that much, I knew it had to be pretty bad inside. 

If I had seen most people like that, I would have embraced them, or at least squeezed their hand, or… something. But Gordon wasn’t that sort of person. Even now that we knew why he didn’t like being touched, with the whole ice thing, it wasn’t like he had suddenly become physically open. It just wasn’t who he was. So, I gave him a thumbs up instead. “We’ll keep an eye out. If they’ve got the prisoners beyond the boundary for work, or whatever, we… if we see him, if I see him, we’ll make sure he’s safe. I promise.” 

For a few seconds, it looked like Gordon wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He very slowly moved his weight back from his right foot to his left before giving a single nod. “Thank you.”

“Hey,” I replied, “just be ready to come charging in with guns and ice giant powers blazing. We hit these guys hard and fast and get out with all their prisoners, right?” 

“Right,” he confirmed. I could see just a little bit of emotion behind his eyes with that word. He was as ready to get his father back as I had been to get my mother back. 

The two of us nodded one another, just as Deveron started to speak. Turning my attention that way, I stepped up beside the others. My stomach was already trying to twist itself into knots. Despite all the ridiculous situations and the amount of training I had been through already, to say nothing of all the planning we were putting into this, I was still nervous about the whole thing. I wanted my friends to get their dads back. I wanted to free all those prisoners. 

And in just a few short hours, I’d either get what I wanted, or we would end up in a hell of a lot of trouble.

******

A short time later, our little group emerged through the portal. A little group, in this case, consisting of Tangle, Kohaku, Sands, Sarah, Avalon, Twister and me. According to the adults, the portal was far enough away from the prison camp (and shielded enough) that we wouldn’t set off their alarms. One of the reasons we had to go in a smaller group right now was specifically because sending any more people through would have raised the risk of being detected. We were pushing it a little bit as it was. Which was another reason why we’d set the portal so far away. Avoiding much magic or power use, it would take hours for us to hike to where we needed to be. And that was assuming we didn’t run into too many problems along the way. 

We had a little bit of leeway, at least. Deveron’s main group wouldn’t make the last jump until we sent the signal that their communications and scanners were down. But they could only stall so long before the prison people would get suspicious. So we kinda had to keep moving. 

Still, we had a moment to get the lay of the land. In this case, that land was a deep orange color. The dirt, that was. We had arrived in what looked like a shallow crater from an impact of some kind. It was a good three hundred feet across, though only a couple feet deep. That orange dirt was basically a fine powder, almost like sand. Behind us to the west I could see a sheer cliff face leading up and up several miles. To the south (our right), there was a deep, somehow unnaturally blue river, wide enough to need a boat to cross normally. Straight ahead to the east was a steep dropoff. And to our left, north, a dark, foreboding forest of thirty foot tall dark black and gray trees, too-deep shadows, and probably about a bazillion things ready and waiting to kill and eat us.

Yeah, we were going into the evil-looking forest, naturally. 

“We’re here, and there’s no sign of any alert,” Kohaku finally announced after taking a few seconds to assess the situation. “Let’s move.” 

“Well, okay,” I replied a bit reluctantly while my gaze turned to that forest. I could swear the trees were suddenly grinning. “But I’m telling you guys this straight up.

“If we run into a gingerbread house, I am done.”  

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Reception 13-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A little while later, I stepped through a portal leading to the Starstation, accompanied by Avalon, Shiori, and Persephone (with Cerberus cheerfully bringing up the rear). Sariel was there waiting for us, along with Abigail, Professor Tangle, and my mother. The four adults appeared to have been deep in conversation when we showed up, but cut it off the moment we appeared. 

“Girls,” Abigail started, walking up with the others right behind her, “you made it back. We heard the visit to the… alien space pirate ship was fairly productive?” Even now, after just over a solid year of being involved with this stuff, she still sounded like she couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. Which, to be fair, was a feeling I could totally understand. 

“You could say that,” I replied dryly, with a glance toward the others before gesturing at the white-haired woman and three-headed robot dog, who were both curiously watching this whole thing. “Abigail, this is Persephone and Cerberus. Persephone, this is my–” 

“Older sister!” she blurted excitedly, bounding forward with both hands outstretched as though to grab the other woman’s. At the last second, however, she stopped herself and very clearly clutched both hands to her stomach. “I’m sorry, it’s very nice to meet you, but I’m not supposed to grab people unless they say it’s okay. I forget that a lot, but not as much as I used to.” Straightening up to her full height, she very deliberately asked, “May I please shake your hand?” 

Abigail seemed a bit taken aback, which was a pretty normal reaction to Persephone. But after taking a moment to collect herself, she glanced briefly toward me while nodding slightly as though to say she understood. Then her eyes shifted back to Persephone as she extended a hand politely. “Of course, it’s nice to meet you, Persephone. Thank you so much for intervening to help my little sister, my daughter, and the others with that monster who attacked them.” 

With a little squeak of happiness, Persephone took Abigail’s hand in both of hers and eagerly pumped it up and down. Her smile was broad. “Of course, of course! I couldn’t let anything bad happen to my– I mean to Flick before I even got to know her! Because getting to know someone is very important whether it’s before something bad happens to them, or before you give them sweet and adoring nicknames. Which you aren’t supposed to call them until they say it’s okay.” She wasn’t quite ‘reading off the back of her hand’ obvious that time, but it was still clear that she was reciting what she had been told and didn’t fully understand it.

“Precisely,” Mom agreed, stepping closer before holding her hand out for all three of Cerberus’s heads to curiously sniff. “Everyone takes things at a normal pace and we all get to know each other. And whatever happens, happens. No one is obligated to do anything.” As she said that, Mom was looking directly at me, holding my gaze until I nodded with understanding. Finally, she turned her attention fully to Persephone. “Would you mind taking a walk with Sariel? She can show you where you’ll be staying. Everyone should settle down for now, and perhaps we can have you over for dinner tomorrow to meet Felicity’s father.” That last part was clearly added as a concession to show that she wasn’t actively trying to keep Persephone away from me. This whole situation was incredibly delicate and more than a little awkward. So far, the Revenant-Seosten had very cheerfully gone with the flow, and honestly seemed to be trying to accommodate us, as well as understand why we felt the way we did. It was obviously alien to her, which made me wonder how much of that was just the fact that she was what she was, and how much was the fact that she spent so much time alone. Even when Manakel had been nice to her, he still sent her away for extended periods.   

In any case, Persephone readily agreed before turning to me. Her voice was just as bright and cheerful as ever. “It has been very interesting to meet you, Flick! I’m glad I could help before, and I hope I can be helpful later too!” Her head was bobbing rapidly, eyes literally sparkling a bit with power. “I won’t say that I’m glad you killed my Mannikins, because I still really miss him. But I am glad that the person who inherited his gift was as pretty and nice as you.” 

Well, what the hell was I supposed to say to that? Opening and shutting my mouth as I fought to find words, I finally settled on, “Uh, well I’m glad you’re okay with uhh, with everything.” Yeah, wow, put that speech on a Hallmark card. Wincing, I rubbed the back of my neck self-consciously. “I mean, I’m glad you’re–I’m looking forward to getting to know you later.” God, what was with me being awkward about this whole thing? I mean, beyond the fact that it was super-awkward and confusing to begin with, of course. 

Thankfully, Persephone didn’t seem to notice. She just smiled and gave me a happy wave before skipping off to where Sariel was waiting. Both of them headed out the door together, leaving Avalon, Shiori, and me to give a full rundown of everything that had happened up on the ship to Abigail, Mom, and Professor Tangle. At first I wasn’t sure why the latter was there, but then I remembered that before she’d had that whole… situation the year before where she’d been in the hospital for so long, she had actually been the Explorer Track advisor for the first years. Explorers, as in the people who focused on going to other worlds and documenting everything about both them and the various new Alters they encountered. Yeah, I supposed her being involved in a conversation about a space pirate ship full of various strange and potentially brand new alien beings probably made sense. Especially once she started asking very specific questions about what and who we had seen up there. She wasn’t taking notes or anything, but I had the feeling she didn’t really need to. Between Abigail as a lawyer, Mom as sheriff, and Tangle as both a professor and someone who knew exactly what sort of questions to ask in this specific situation, the three of us spent the next twenty minutes or so being quite thoroughly interrogated about every little detail of our time on the ship. Not that it was bad or anything, just… very thorough. 

Finally, we told them that Doug and Theia had gone with Dare and Apollo to check on something back at the Atherby camp, and Mom said they would talk to that group soon. Then she offered us a smile. “Thank you, girls. I know it’s not fun to stand there and answer a bunch of questions, but you took it like champs. Why don’t you head on in and get some dessert or something? Then rest, it’s been a long day, and I believe everyone is going back to school tomorrow?” 

Abigail gave a firm nod. “That’s right, we don’t want everyone falling behind in classes just because you all managed to squash a genocidal cockroach. Besides, I may still be very new to all of this, but I’m fairly certain there will be plenty of excuses for more days off as the year goes on.” 

“Trust me,” I muttered, “you’re not that much newer than at least Shiori and me. And you’re probably right. Actually, at this point, the year going on without any more sudden interruptions to our class schedules would be so shocking I might just keel over.” 

“Which,” Avalon pointedly added in a flat voice, “would necessitate a change in our school schedule.” 

“Yeah, see?” I gestured. “Can’t escape it. So you’re right, we should probably go to all the classes we can manage while it’s an option.” I didn’t add that it would be nice to go back to doing something as normal as attending school again, after everything that happened with, as Abigail had put it, that genocidal cockroach. But from the look on everyone’s face, I didn’t have to. They already knew. There was a brief moment of silence before Mom reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “Go on,” she urged me. “Have some fun, get some rest, and be ready for school tomorrow. Plus, I think Tabbris and Columbus have something to show all of you.” 

That was right, Tabs had said they were working on something together. I’d forgotten, thanks to everything that happened on the ship. But now I was back to being profoundly curious about that whole thing. And hey, I could actually go find some answers now. 

That in mind, I gave my mother and sister both a hug. Then I hesitated before shrugging and giving one to Professor Tangle as well. Why not? After everything that happened last year, she could probably still use plenty of them. Hell, she was technically related to Avalon to some extent, but I don’t think the two of them ever really got into that. 

Once that was done, I followed Mom’s suggestion by heading out with my girls. Avalon, Shiori, and I made our way through the corridors before reaching the forcefield elevator leading down to the miniature town where the houses were. It was (simulated) night by that point, but plenty of people were still out walking around in groups or alone, and we ended up chatting here and there before finally making it to the house. Once there, I breathed in and let it out, smiling a bit to myself. 

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked, watching me curiously. 

My head bobbed. “Yup, I’m happy. This is two nights in a row I get to sleep in my own bed.” 

Nudging me a bit sharply with her elbow, Avalon retorted, “Let’s try to raise that to a much higher record than two, huh?” 

“That’s the plan,” I agreed while rubbing my side. “And now that I don’t have Fossor hanging over my head anymore, maybe it’ll actually happen. But hey, come on, I was promised a surprise from my little sister, and I aim to see what it is.” 

“Haven’t you had enough surprises already today?” Avalon demanded with a squint. 

“It’s okay,” Shiori quickly assured her, “this one won’t want to marry her. I mean, probably.” 

“You’re both incredibly mean,” I complained before heading toward the door. Before I got there, however, the sound of voices coming from the backyard made me adjust course to walk around the house. The other two followed, and we met a very excited Choo as he came charging around the corner, happily grunting and squeaking. Naturally, we stopped to greet the big pig, giving him rubs, pats, and scratches, much to his satisfaction as he snorted and tried to rub up against all of us at once. Shiori produced a half-full bag of popcorn from the theater and set it down for him. If he hadn’t already adored her, that definitely would have done the trick. He tore the entire bag apart getting to the popcorn, and ate the greasy remains of the bag itself too. 

Accompanied by one very happy Jekern, we continued around to the back of the house. As expected, Columbus and Tabbris were there. And they weren’t alone. Nevada was with them, along with Gordon, Jazz, and Eiji from next door. All of them seemed to be inspecting something that had been laid out on the table that we couldn’t see, and there was a spirited discussion going on about something that had to do with how ‘cool’ the something was. 

Before any of us could say anything, Nevada abruptly turned and gestured in my direction. “Well, why don’t we let the birthday girl herself decide how cool it is?”  

“Flick!” Tabbris jumped up from the table, half-falling over before catching herself. “You’re back!” Her surprise really showed just how intently she had been focused on whatever this project was, because she apparently hadn’t been paying attention to our connection. 

“Sorry,” I teased while nodding over my shoulder. “Should I go back? Maybe there’s another person waiting to fall out of the sky and declare us married. I could go for a guy this time.” 

That earned me a sharp jab in both sides from Avalon and Shiori. Meanwhile, Gordon and Jazz both stepped around the table to come more into view as they greeted us, with Eiji following suit. I didn’t know the huge Asian-Canadian boy that well, aside from the fact that he was the second-smartest person in our grade behind Vanessa. Well, that and he also had a rhino that transformed into a motorcycle (and a backpack), which automatically made him awesome. 

With a visible smirk, Jazz too-casually started to ask, “So Tabs was right? You went and got–” 

“I did not go and get hitched,” I immediately interrupted. “No one’s married. I mean, obviously a lot of people are married. Even around this station. But not me. I am absolutely and definitely not married to anyone.” After a brief pause, I amended, “Except possibly danger. I might be married to that. But that’s only because it’s hung around and been a part of my life for so long, it’s become kind of a common law sort of thing. Which is gonna make it really suck if I ever decide I can’t stand being around danger anymore, because then it’ll take half my stuff.” 

Everyone stared at me for a moment after that whole spiel, before Eiji leaned over a bit toward Gordon and quietly (but intentionally audibly) murmured, “I see what you mean.” 

Tabbris had already bounded over to where I was, catching my hand. “Is she cool, at least?” 

Feeling a slight flush across my face, I exhaled before nodding. “Yeah, she’s cool. It’ll be good to have her around. And she’s got this big robot dog with–” 

“Robot dog?” Now I had Columbus’s attention as he turned to face me, having been intently focused on doing something with whatever he was working on at the table. He had his goggles down, but I could feel his eyes staring at me intently. “You mean like a cyberform?”  

“Like a cyberform,” Shiori answered for me. “But not the same. Cerberus. You know, the Cerberus? He’s this big metal dog with three heads and he can fight ghosts and get even bigger. We didn’t get to see the big version yet, but she said it makes Amaroks look like his puppies!” From the sound of her voice, it was clear that the other girl could not wait to see something like that. She was incredibly excited about the prospect of Cerberus’s big form. 

Obviously, everyone had questions. Including Nevada. So, the three of us spent the next few minutes explaining what had happened. Not only with Persephone, but with the ship as well. They were all incredibly interested in that entire thing, especially when I brought up the anti-Whispers runes, and the fact that the person responsible for them was apparently an enhanced-intelligence troll who was looking for a ship connected to the original Tabbris. 

Yeah, that got a big reaction from my Tabbris. She wanted to know everything that had been said about that, absolutely everything. I repeated every word, and explained everything we had found out. Which was fair, considering he was her namesake. It just took awhile to get through, and I needed a bit of help from Shiori and Avalon. But eventually, the others were up-to-date. 

When we were finally done, Gordon was the first to speak, his voice as calm as ever. “Let’s hope they find this Occillo guy and he feels like answering questions.” After a brief hesitation, he added in a slightly quieter voice, “The Whispers are important to Douglas. Which means they’re important to the rest of us. I mean, his old team.”

“Damn straight,” Jazz agreed. “Doug gets real intense about those things whenever they come up. He doesn’t actually get into details about what happened out there, but it was pretty bad.”

Eiji had been sort-of standing in the background through all that. Okay, well, not really in the background. The dude was six and a half feet tall and built like a damn NFL linebacker. He may have been almost as academically inclined as Vanessa, but he looked like he belonged in the WWE or something. The point was, the guy was enormous and didn’t really ‘blend in’ very well. But he had been quiet throughout most of that, simply watching as we explained what had happened. Once in a great while, he asked a clarifying question. But it was clear that he had been brought up to date about most of this stuff at some point. Unsurprising, since he shared a house with Vanessa, Tristan, Koren, Sands, Scout, Aylen, Jazz, Jokai, and Gordon (and that boy-made-of-slinkies named Ruckus whom I didn’t know anything about but probably wasn’t relevant to this).  Between all of them, Eiji had been given enough details to follow along with most of this conversation, only needing a few bits of clarification.

Now, he spoke up. “If these Whispers are actually more widespread than that single contained colony world, they’re important to everyone.” 

Nevada gave a quick nod. “Exactly, gold star or whatever, Eiji. Sounds like we need to find this Occillo guy for several reasons, including getting everything he knows about the Whispers so we can be ready to deal with them.” Pausing, she added with a beaming smile. “Well, that and who doesn’t wanna meet a brilliant, intelligence-enhanced cyborg Indiana Jones troll? That sounds fucking awesome to me, and whoever disagrees gets an F in any of my classes.” A quick cough and correction followed that. “I’m kidding, nobody gets an F. Don’t tell Abigail I said that, she scares me.” 

We talked just a little bit more about that situation, before Tabbris finally bounced up and down eagerly. “Okay, okay, we get the point! Come on, let’s show her the new stuff. It’s all ready, right?” 

Exchanging brief glances with one another at that, Nevada and Columbus paused before the former nodded. She was grinning even more than she had a moment earlier. “Oh yeah, they’re both ready. I mean, you could probably get away with tinkering with them a little more, but it’s good enough. We can always make improvements later.” 

“What’re you guys talking about?” I demanded, looking back and forth between them. “And–wait, you called me birthday girl earlier. It’s definitely not my birthday. And I didn’t exactly have a great one this year anyway.” 

“That’s why we wanted to give you late presents,” Columbus informed me. “To make up for that. First, here.” He reached back to the table, taking a black metal bracelet thing and handing it over. “It’s like the one that Broker guy gave you before, the one that got broken or lost or whatever when Fossor took you.” 

Taking the bracelet, I blinked before asking, “You mean…” 

“He means,” Tabbris quickly put in, “it’s connected to Jaq and Gus! You can use it to see through their eyes, teleport them back to you, or teleport yourself to them.” 

“But that last one is only if you’re within about a hundred feet,” Columbus noted. “Sorry, we couldn’t get it out any further. You can still see through their eyes up to about ten miles though.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t apologize. This is awesome. Amazing. Seriously, I missed this thing. Thought I’d have to track Broker down again to get a new one. I can’t believe you made one yourself.” 

“With some help,” Columbus reminded me, glancing toward Nevada. 

She, in turn, giggled. “Hey, not as much as you’d think considering how new you are to the whole thing. Pretty soon, you’ll be making this stuff by yourself.” 

“You can play with that later!” Tabbris informed me. “Now you’ve gotta see the big thing.” 

Raising an eyebrow as I attached the wristband in place, I asked, “This isn’t the big thing?” 

Prompted a lot of snickers and excited looks between everyone else beyond Avalon, Shiori, and me. Whatever this was about, they all thought it was really cool and couldn’t wait for us to see it. 

‘It’, as it turned out, was a pair of gloves. Dark blue and black gloves with a metallic sheen to them. Columbus passed the thing to Tabbris, who passed it to me, quickly insisting, “Put them on, put them on, put them on. Please?” 

Well, who was I to argue with her? Shrugging, I did so. Of course, the gloves fit me perfectly, like a second skin. “Well, I’m definitely styling now,” I announced while holding both hands up and wiggling my fingers. 

“Check the back of the right glove,” Columbus urged. 

I did so, blinking at the outline of a Great White shark that was emblazoned there. “Hey, it’s Princess Cuddles.” 

Quickly, Tabbris told me to run my thumb across it. So I did, and the emblem changed to that of a Mako shark facing one direction, while a second rub of my thumb switched it to a Mako shark facing the other direction. I had two Mako sharks, Brody and Quint. There were also emblems of the Lemon Shark Simpson, the Bull shark Sherman, and the gorgeous blue-and-white (I’d never been sure of his species) Jabberjaw. 

“Wow, pretty emblems,” I remarked. “But–” 

“It’s more than emblems,” Columbus informed me. “Check the left glove. Feel the little button against the side of your index finger? Push it with your thumb and hold it down.” 

It took a second, but I found the tiny little button he was talking about. There was a slight click when I pushed it. Nothing else happened, at least at first. But after about three seconds, I felt the emblem on my right glove grow warm. And then? Well, then Jabberjaw appeared floating in the air right beside me. I jumped, jerking that way and half-falling while most of the others snickered. 

I wasn’t crazy, and it wasn’t an illusion. Jabberjaw was floating there. Not in empty air, but in a bubble of water that was just slightly bigger than he was. As he swam in a circle around me, the bubble went with him.

Tabbris immediately explained, “See, the gloves generate a bubble of water, and summon the shark that the image on the right one is set to. Now you can bring your sharks with you to places!” 

As soon as he realized I was there, the beautiful shark quickly swam (through the air) over to me to get rubs. Hesitantly, I glanced to the others before getting a confirming nod that it was okay. Then I reached out, my hand passing through the bubble without breaking it so I could rub his head. “Oh my God, you guys really… you really made these just so I could bring my sharks around with me? Wait, I thought you said you couldn’t teleport living things further than a hundred feet with this tech.” 

“Yeah,” Nevada confirmed. “That’s why you need this.” She picked up what looked like a regular little vial with a sealed lid on it, handing it over. “Your sharks are in there. Bigger on the inside and all that. Believe me, it’s big enough that they’ll be fine. Just make sure you check their food supply once a week or so and add more fish.”

I was holding a vial that could fit in my pocket, and it had all my sharks in it. Not only that, I could use my new gloves to bring any of them out and let them float around me in a bubble any time I wanted to. Staring between the vial and Jabberjaw (who was interestedly swimming through the air over to where Tabbris was), I opened and shut my mouth a few times. “Guys, this… you… this is amazing. Seriously. You didn’t have to–but you really–” I swallowed hard. “Thanks.” It was all I could manage. At least, until another thought occurred to me. “Oh my God!” 

“What?” Columbus quickly asked. “What’s wrong? Did–” 

“No, nothing’s wrong,” I assured him. “I just thought of the best thing ever. Quick, give me a target.”

The others all looked at each other in confusion, but Nevada reached into her pocket and then tossed something. As she did so, it expanded into a full archery-like target before landing on the ground, rocking back and forth briefly. “That work?” 

“Yup!” I chirped. Then I waved to Jabberjaw. “See you soon, buddy!” With that, I pushed the button again and the bubble with him inside vanished as he was returned to the safety of the vial, which I had already set in my pocket. Then I stepped closer to the target, judging the distance before rearing back. In the process, I activated the glove once more. As the emblem grew warm, I cocked back my fist and then swung it a good three feet or so away from the target. In mid-swing, the bubble with Jabberjaw appeared once more, crashing through the target and breaking it into splinters. 

“Hah!” I blurted, a broad smile finding its way to my face. “Screw the falcon punch. 

“I can shark punch!” 

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 20th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Vanessa

Today was a good day. No, as far as Vanessa Moon was concerned, it was a fantastic day. Nothing horrible was going on, her family was basically as safe as they could be, and no one she cared about was in immediate life-or-death danger. Which was basically the best that people like them could ask for. Everything was relatively quiet, for the moment at least. Not that she expected it to last that long, but you really had to take the opportunities you had to enjoy things.

In this case, Vanessa was enjoying things by carrying a large tray to her room. The tray was packed with a wide assortment of food. There were a dozen different dishes represented on the tray, and all of them had one thing in common. Each and every one was a different kind of potato. There was a baked potato, french fries, mashed, sweet, cheese-and-bacon covered, tater tots, hash browns, a grilled cheese sandwich with oven-baked potato slices added, latkes, potato salad, and a few others. 

Not a gigantic serving of each, of course. After making all these potatoes downstairs, Vanessa had left plenty for her housemates to pick over. No, her tray was laden with enough samples from each to keep the potato-loving girl happy for an entire afternoon. Especially considering the tray itself had a simple enchantment that allowed it to keep the food warm. She could sit for hours, pick from the tray anytime she wanted to, and the food would be plenty hot. Or cold, in the potato salad’s case, thanks to a special secondary enchantment right where it was seated.

Having all the potatoes she could possibly eat was the first half of Vanessa’s idea of a wonderful way to spend her afternoon down time. The other half was sitting on her bed when she came in. A thick, heavy leather bound book was lying there, just waiting for the girl to curl up with it.

Vanessa had never been able to explain why she loved potatoes so much, exactly. All she knew was that they were, in every single form she had ever encountered, her very favorite sort of food. They made her feel happy and safe. Some might have thought that had originated back when she had been stuck in that mental hospital and one of the orderlies (a nice man named Peter) had come by every afternoon to share some of his french fries from the lunch he would have delivered. Yet her love of the incredibly versatile vegetable extended back before then, to when she was still a very young child living at home with her family. 

In any case, even if his visits weren’t the reason for her obsession, Peter was still a fond memory within a lot of bad ones at the hospital. As scary as being in that place had been, the man was always friendly, and told her about what was going on out in the world. He also, over their shared fries, listened to the very young Vanessa telling him about what happened to her family. Unlike the doctors, he had never made her feel like she was wrong or crazy. For those few minutes each day, Peter listened and seemed to understand, even if he never really said much about it. 

She’d since wondered, of course, if Peter was some kind of Heretic, or an Alter, who really did have an idea of what was going on. Or even part of Jophiel and Elisabet’s little plan. But she’d called the hospital and Peter no longer worked there. And aside from just asking the two women about it (they had denied any relation and insisted the man was just a normal person as far as they knew) she had no other way of following up. 

In any case, eating those fries everyday had surely helped foster her already extant love of potatoes. And now, she could really indulge it. Clambering up onto the bed, she settled herself with the tray on the table next to her, then she picked up the book and examined it. It wasn’t just any other book. This one was special. Not that every book wasn’t special as far as Vanessa was concerned. But this even more so. This was a book about her mother. 

Okay, it was about more than just her mother. It was actually the first volume of the official log of the Olympus’s mission before they had come to Earth. It was details about the things her mother and her people had been up to when they were much younger. A lot of it wouldn’t be good, Vanessa knew. She wasn’t naive about the sort of things her mother had been a part of. But she still wanted to know about them. She wanted to know everything about her family, including that side of it. Her mother, Uncle Apollo, Athena, Mercury, all of them. She wanted to know about their stories, their adventures. They had gone out exploring unknown regions of Seosten space. What kind of things have they found? What kind of people have they interacted with? She wanted to know all of it, the good and the bad. She could accept the bad because she knew what kind of person her mother was now. She just needed to know. 

It had been Athena who gave her the book. Their logs weren’t normally kept on paper, of course. But she had transferred it to a real, solid book because that was Vanessa’s preference over reading things on a screen. She liked to have an actual book to hold. So, Athena produced one. 

Now, Vanessa took a sip from a cup of water, then set it down before picking up the book and settling it onto her lap. Carefully opening it, she let her eyes find the first word while picking up a fork and taking a big bite of delicious, delicious baked potato. A murmur of exquisite pleasure escaped the girl. 

Then, she started to read. 

******

Jasper Patterson

“Damn it!” 

With that blurted curse, the dark-skinned, blue-haired boy standing in the kitchen of his house on the Starstation spun and hurled the tray full of cookies in the general direction of the trash can in the corner. The tray hit the wall and most of the cookies scattered across the floor, though a few did make it into their target. 

From the doorway, a voice quietly spoke up. “Now that’s the intense Jasper Patterson I know.”  

Taken a bit by surprise, Jasper’s gaze snapped that way, before a very slightly embarrassed expression crossed his face as he took in the sight of the black woman who had been his teacher for a long time. Wincing, he replied, “Hey, Professor Tangle. Sorry, I didn’t know you were here. I uhh, I’ll clean it up.” He murmured the last bit under his breath. 

“Giselle’s fine, you’re an adult,” Tangle assured him. “I mean, you only had one more year left at school before you would’ve graduated.” 

“Yeah, one more year,” Jasper muttered, his gaze meeting hers. “Good for me, huh?” 

Rather than directly addressing that immediately, Tangle made a noise in the back of her throat before carefully stepping into the room and moving to the trash, where she reached down to pick up the still-scalding hot tray. Not that she showed any discomfort from it. Using the tray to indicate the scattered cookies, she asked, “I’m not exactly super-hip on things. Is this some new sort of diet or something? You go through all the trouble of making delicious cookies and then just throw them away?” 

Sighing heavily, Jasper shook his head. “They’re wrong. They’re just… they’re wrong.” 

Considering that for a moment, Tangle reached down to pluck a cookie off the floor. She examined it, blew on it, then took a bite. Finishing the cookie in short order, the woman looked back to him. “I think you’re being a little too hard on yourself. That was delicious.” 

“No, it’s–” Jasper started to blurt before catching himself with a sigh. “It’s… it’s not the same. There’s something missing. It’s not the way we used to make–” In mid-sentence, he stopped, looking guilty. 

“They aren’t the same as when you and your mother made them together,” Tangle finished for him, her voice quiet as she watched his reaction. “They taste different because she didn’t help you make them.” 

Jasper was quiet for a moment before giving a very slight nod. He folded his arms across his chest and looked away. “She hates me now,” he murmured. “They both do. My whole family hates me. They think I’m a… they think I’m a traitor. I mean, I am a traitor. I abandoned them, I walked away to side with people who are literally rebelling against everything my family believes. You can’t really get much more ‘traitor’ than that. I mean, you can, but… yeah.”

Tangle was quiet for a moment before she stepped over, putting the tray down on the stove. “You came because of Carly, right?” 

Jasper started to shake his head before catching himself. “No–I mean yes. I mean, I didn’t know  about the rest of this before. But Carly’s my friend, and when I found out she was–that she’s half-Strang– I mean half-Alter, it was… it wasn’t even a question. I trust her with everything. I always have, since like our first week in school three years ago. Why wouldn’t I trust her now? Nothing changed, not really. It’s not like she suddenly became half-Succubus. She was always a hybrid. It’s just, now they want to hurt her. So I helped her. I helped my friend, and things just sort of spiraled from there. Now my family hates me. All those people hate me.” 

“Do you think you were wrong?” Tangle gently asked. “Deep down, do you think you made the wrong choice?” 

His answer was immediate. “No. No, because she’s still my friend. Seriously, she’s my best friend. My family thinks it’s like a crush thing. They think it’s sexual. But it’s not. I mean, I know she’s part succubus and all, but it’s not about that. Our thing–it’s never been sexual. Sure, she’s super hot and stuff, but we’ve never… we’re friends. That’s what I care about. That’s what I want.” He sighed once more. “Besides, now that I’ve lived here, been around these other Alters, seen them… There’s no way I could go back to Crossroads. I just couldn’t. But…  but my family won’t change their minds either. And now… now I’ve just been… trying to make these cookies, and they didn’t taste right and I thought I should ask my mom what was wrong with them but–but she won’t–she can’t–” His eyes were closed tightly, tears streaming down his face as he hugged himself tighter. “I can’t ask her about the cookies. I can’t ask her about anything. I can’t even talk to them. They won’t listen.” 

Before the boy knew what was happening, Tangle had tugged him over to her and into an embrace. “I’m sorry,” she quietly murmured. “Jasper, I’m so sorry you have to go through that. Maybe your parents will come around eventually. These lives of ours can be pretty long sometimes. But even if they don’t, I want you to know that you’re right. You made the right choice. It hurts, and it can feel incredibly lonely. But you made the right choice. You make the right choice every day you stay here, hard as it is. And, no matter how your family feels, no matter what happens with them, I’m proud of you. We’re all proud of you.”

They stayed like that for awhile before Jasper pulled back, shifting a bit uncertainly. “I… the cookies, they’ll never taste the same.” 

“No,” Tangle agreed, “they won’t. But you know what? Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay if you find your own way of… of making the cookies. You find what works for you, Jasper. 

“And I guarantee, your cookies will be perfect just the way you make them.” 

*******

Haniel

The world wasn’t even important enough to have a name. Technically, it wasn’t even a world. It was a moon. The moon of a gas giant. Barely larger than Earth’s own moon, it had existed with little more than a numeric designation ever since it had been discovered by Seosten explorers a few hundred years earlier. Though inhabitable, there were only about a dozen different forms of non-bacterium life on the moon, including aquatic, and none of them were anywhere near developing sapience. 

In almost all respects, it was entirely inconsequential. Almost all. But there was one specific thing that made it a target for the Fomorians. Specifically, its location. The moon was situated entirely too close to a relatively less secure section of the Seosten lines, and would make an incredibly tempting staging point for an intense Fomorian attack. Allowing the monsters to take that place and solidify their hold over it would have been disastrous, regardless of how much other strategic value it did or didn’t have. This incredibly small, otherwise insignificant moon had to be protected to prevent the Fomorians from using it as a stepping stone to more important targets. 

By the same token of the moon being out in the middle of nowhere, it was hard for the Fomorians to get a significant foothold on it. Their Seosten enemies tended to watch the place for any intrusion, leaving a token force to slow down the attack, then send in a bigger fleet to wipe out all traces of the Fomorian incursion before they could settle on it properly. They fought back and forth over that small rock in the middle of space once every few years or so. Some battles were bigger than others, but the Fomorians never entirely gave up on their plan of finding a way to use the place for their attacks against stronger targets.

The most recent of those attacks had taken place several days earlier. The moon itself had been (as far as the Fomorians were concerned) cleared of any Seosten defenders, leaving it ripe for settling. But first, all the biological material, whether native to the place or the corpses of Seosten and Fomorian alike, had to be scavenged. That was how the Fomorians operated. They established footholds on a planet by destroying all life and then using those same biological materials to create not only their own defenses, but the building blocks for all of the troops, weapons, and even transportation the place would need to sustain itself in the war. 

At this particular moment, that was exactly what the Fomorians here on the moon were doing. A series of enormous creatures that looked roughly like oversized Earth elephants (four or five times the size of one of those) mixed with a biological dump truck (their backs had huge holes in them that were deep and wide enough to carry several tons worth of material) lumbered onward across the ground, escorted by various monsters meant to protect the supply-creatures. Any plant material was torn away to be melted down for base components, the nutrient parts added to pastes that would be used to feed the Fomorian forces. Biological materials, meanwhile, were also collected and dropped into the oversized-elephant creatures’ back holes in order to be carried back to the Fomorian staging base on this moon. The remains of native animals, Seosten defenders, and the Fomorians’ own troops alike were all dumped unceremoniously into the elephant-creatures and carried onward. 

At one pile of corpses in particular, where a particularly heavy fight had clearly occurred, the goblin-like leading Fomorian escorts (they were three feet tall and had arms that were four feet long, leading to a lot of loping movement where their arms essentially propelled them up and forward to hit the ground, then repeat) launched themselves that way to land beside the spot where two large ogres had fallen under the combined assault from a dozen Fomorian beasts. Bit by bit, the goblin-creatures pulled the pile of bodies apart, using their own considerable strength to toss their comrades up into the hole of the nearest elephant-thing. Finally, the elephant itself used its long trunks to pick up each of the huge ogre bodies one at a time, tossing them in the back as well. 

From there, the parade continued. For three more hours, the creatures moved on to collect more bodies, killing any living things they came across to add to their supplies before eventually making a wide circle to move back to their staging point. There, within the confines of the Fomorian protective (living, of course) walls, the collected remains were added to the pile there. They would be taken apart down to their base materials and used to create more troops. Or, they would have been. But someone else had plans to the contrary. 

Six hours after the pile of rotting bodies had been dumped in place, and nine after it originally been picked up, the bustling Fomorian creations were finally joined by one of their masters. An actual Fomorian, an Alpha of all things, strode into view in the middle of the camp, eyes scanning the piles of corpses. This Fomorian was twice the size of the standard Betas and Gammas that made up the bulk of their population (already relatively few in number), having upgraded his own body with longer, stronger limbs, much heavier plating that protected him from anything weaker than a capital ship barrage, and a set of dragonfly-like wings that would allow him to reach blinding speeds in the air. Along with other surprises that made him, and other Alpha Fomorians, some of the most dangerous creatures in the universe.

Standing there, flanked by a small army of guards and assorted creature servants, the Alpha Fomorian looked over the thousands upon thousands of decomposing corpses intently while sniffing. “Something,” it hissed, “lives. Something there is not dead. It–” 

In mid-sentence, the Fomorian saw it. A very small green laser shone out of the pile of corpses, the point ending right in the center of its chest. A tiny, insignificant laser point. It came from a small, cylindrical, pen-sized device that was sticking out through a hole in the chest of one of the ogres whose corpse had been picked up nine hours earlier. 

The Alpha Fomorian barely had time to consider what this meant, before a second laser struck it. This, however, was far different from the first. For one, this second laser came from the sky. No, it came from far beyond the sky. The laser came from a ship that had been hidden behind the gas giant this moon orbited. A ship that had been so well-hidden, it was incapable of being seen without being right on top of it. And, by the same measure, equally incapable of seeing anything on the planet itself. And yet, it fired a shot from its primary cannon the moment that it had a target. A target granted to it by that single laser pointer. 

When the smoke cleared from that single shot, fully three-quarters of the Fomorian base itself had been wiped out, eradicated entirely. Nothing was left where the shot had struck, save for a twelve-foot-deep, hundred-foot-wide crater. 

Nothing, that was, save for the Alpha Fomorian. Most of it, anyway. The creature, as with any of its fellows who reached the rank of Alpha, was incredibly tough. Tough enough, in fact, to stand up to a direct hit from a Seosten capital ship. Though wounded, the Alpha was not dead. Its wings had been sheared away, the force of the blast had slammed the thing flat to the ground, and it was showing severe damage. But it had survived that shot. 

It may even have survived the second and third that punched into the ground shortly after that first one. The fourth, however, probably killed it. The fifth and sixth were just to make sure. And the seventh might have been overkill. 

In the end, nothing remained of the Fomorian Alpha, or any of his troops. Once the firing had stopped, the small laser pointer was withdrawn back into the ogre corpse. A moment later, it was replaced by a much stronger laser blade, as the corpse’s occupant cut herself free. Covered in blood and the assorted internal fluids and broken organs of a half-decayed ogre, the brown-skinned and dark-haired figure, who would have been seen as stereotypically Indian (of the actual India) clambered out and brushed herself off. Taking a rag from the pocket of her mechanic-like jumpsuit, the Olympian Seosten known as Haniel wiped her gore-covered face clean, tossed the rag aside, then plucked a bottle of heavy booze from a different pocket before taking a long, sustained pull. Only once she had drained a good half of the contents did she put the bottle away and produce a communication pin, slapping it to her chest to activate the thing. “Congratulations, Trierarch, that is one dead Alpha. Now come get us so I can shower.” She could have recalled herself back to the ship, of course. That would have been the plan had she been discovered in her hiding place before the Alpha showed himself. But he had shown himself. And now they were going to mop up the remains (literally, to an extent) and take what was left to be studied by Seosten scientists. 

Soon enough, Haniel was picked up by a quick shuttle that teleported her up to it, and then returned to the capital ship. Unfortunately, before she could actually find her way to the shower, the ship’s captain, or Trierarch, met her coming off the shuttle. He was an old Seosten with a thick walrus mustache and very tired eyes. “Sorry, got new orders for you. Well, for all of us. We’re going to Rysthael to drop you off.” 

The announcement made Haniel blink. “Why would I go there? We’re still at peace, right? Truce, whatever. We’re not supposed to be doing anything over there.” 

“No idea,” came the response. “That part of the orders is sealed to your identity signature. Your eyes only. We’re just supposed to deliver you.” After a brief pause, he added, “But uhh, speaking of that truce, you think it’ll hold? I mean, do you think it’ll be permanent? You spent a long time there with those humans, right? Back when they had you running around playing Dionysus.” 

Haniel, in turn, shrugged. “Not with those humans. Err, mostly not. And there’s a lot more than humans there anyway. But uhh, yeah it’s been awhile.” She glanced away, clearly deep in thought for a few seconds before continuing. “Look, I don’t know much about what’s going on there. Kinda tuned out of that stuff for a reason. All I know is that our people, flawed as they might be, are the only ones stopping those things from overrunning the entire fucking universe.” She jabbed a finger in the direction of where other Seosten and assistants were gathering the remains of the Alpha in buckets and large steel crates. “So if these Rysthael people prove they can be an asset and work with us to do that, great. Nothing but love for them. If not, well, we need humans to be Heretics or this whole universe gets fucked over, us and them. Sometimes doing the shit that needs to be done ain’t pretty. As you can see.” Her hand indicated the assorted (quite fragrant) goo that still covered her body. 

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go soak my body in fifty gallons of scalding water, and my liver in about that much wine.” 

***********

Dylan

“This is impossible.” The words came from Haiden Moon, as the man stood a short distance away from the main collection of cabins around the Atherby camp, with his wife, his son and daughter, and another girl. Fossor had been killed only hours earlier, and yet, apparently that wasn’t enough of a shock for the day. Not if what his children were telling him was true. 

“It’s true, Dad,”  Vanessa insisted. “We did the blood test while you were busy earlier. This is Dylan, your niece. Our… our cousin.” 

“Hello,” the girl in question piped up, raising a hand in an awkward motion. “Um. I’m Dylan. She said that. I didn’t… um, mean to say that. I didn’t mean to say that either. Um. I’m not—I’m not really, um, great with this? This is…. umm, different? I–um, it’s new, and I don’t–I didn’t know it was gonna be like this. And you’re here, and I think my mom would’ve wanted to be, but she’s not, because she died and I really didn’t mean to say that either. But now I’m thinking about my mom and dad dying, and I’m sad, so… so I’m gonna go. Okay, bye.” With that, she pivoted on her heel and began to take a few steps away. 

“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Tristan quickly moved that way, gently but firmly guiding the girl back. “See, Dad, she’s definitely part of our family.” 

“Part of our…” Trailing off, Haiden glanced toward his wife before turning back to Dylan. He took a step that way before going down to one knee to reach out, his hand barely touching the side of the girl’s face as she shifted nervously from foot to foot. Her eyes met his, their gazes locking for a moment before he swallowed hard. “Vanessa…” The word was not directed toward his daughter, but toward the long-lost aunt she had been named for. Haiden’s sister, who had supposedly died during training at Eden’s Garden. 

Except she clearly hadn’t, because her daughter was here. A daughter who had clearly been born much more recently than the over hundred years it had been since his sister had ‘died.’ 

But… but if she survived and was here on Earth, with a family, why had she never reached out? Who tracked her down and killed her? Why didn’t she fight back? What–what? 

“I don’t understand,” he finally managed, voice cracking a bit. “What are the odds?” Haiden demanded. “What are the odds that you would happen to run into someone who could get in contact with us, someone who knew Vanes–her roommate, for Void’s sake. Erin was her roommate at Crossroads. What are the odds that my daughter’s roommate would happen to run into my long-lost niece? It doesn’t–” He sighed. “It doesn’t make sense.” 

“Oh, that’s easy,” Dylan promptly answered. “I used magic. I was… lonely, so I used a spell from the fox-man’s library to find out if I had any family. It was supposed to direct me to a place where I could eventually find them. It took me to the grocery store. I had to work there for a long time. So long I thought it didn’t work. But then it did. It just took awhile. And it wasn’t exactly direct about it.”

“That’s usually how that sort of spell works,” Sariel quietly put in, her voice sounding awed. “When it does anything at all. You’re–you’re really self-taught? That’s remarkable. I’ve never seen anyone take to it that well without–without any direct instruction.” 

“The fox-man’s blood made me good at magic,” Dylan replied. “And he had a lot of books.” 

“She likes to read,” Tristan piped up. “She’s definitely related to Vanessa.” 

Vanessa, naturally, squinted at him. “You’re related to me and you don’t like to read. You’re my twin.”

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed, “which obviously means you stole all my reading books DNA. It’s clearly your fault.” 

“Reading… books… DNA…” Vanessa barely managed to get those words out, looking and sounding as though she was either about to strangle the boy or cry. He, in turn, simply grinned. 

Clearing his throat, Haiden focused on the girl in front of him. “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how–what… I don’t know anything. But… but you are Vanessa’s daughter. You–” Cutting himself off, the man simply asked, “Do you, ahh, mind if I hug you?” 

“Why?” Dylan promptly asked, her eyes narrowing to a slit. “You’re not trying to plant a tracking beacon for Galazien’s forces, are you? He’s really persuasive. He can make you think he’s on your side. Quick, how long has it been since you were checked for mind manipulation?”

“Who–who is this Galazien?” Haiden managed. They had mentioned the name before, when Vanessa and Tristan were giving the quick story about what they had learned from Erin. But he was still pretty confused about the whole thing.

Dylan answered promptly. “He is the Iron-Souled, the world-devourer, the one who will reap the heavens and call the hells to tear asunder all who stand before him. He is the flash of heat felt oh-so-briefly by those who die from the cold, the warmth that causes them, in their delirium, to shed their clothes to embrace their fate. He is the inevitable, torn from this world in its infancy to spare it a youthful end. But his forces amass, and he cannot be forestalled for eternity. In his time, he will come, and he will finish what he started, all those millennia ago.” 

A few long seconds of silence passed, before Tristan leaned in to speak quietly. “I think she means he’s a bad guy.” 

“I–I have so many questions,” Haiden murmured, still reeling from shock. “But something tells me you don’t know where your mother was before she had you, or why she was pretending to be a normal human. Or… or what happened to her when she was younger.” 

Dylan, of course, shook her head. “No. I think the Fox-Man knew more, but… but he died before he could tell me.” She went quiet for a moment, clearly remembering the horrific murders of her mother and father in addition to the Kitsune. Her voice, when she spoke, was very soft. “I… think I might be okay with a hug now.” 

And that was exactly what she got. 

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Interim Incursion 43-05 (Scout)

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At least Scout knew what power she had picked up from the Seosten woman in the other building. As the swarm of the zombies made their way across the room toward the small group and the spell behind them, Scout kept trying to shoot faster to keep up with all the targets that presented themselves. Then, as if she had flipped a switch, she could suddenly think, move, and react much faster. It was like she had been thrown into fast forward, able to aim a shot, fire, aim another shot, fire, aim a third shot, and fire that as well before she normally would have finished aiming the first one.

She could only keep it going for a brief time, but in that time, she took down fifteen zombies with precise head shots. It was like that video game that Shiori had been showing her where you could use the occasional turbo boost to throw the world into slow-motion and auto-aim at your targets.

But it wasn’t enough. The zombies kept coming. They poured through every vault door, and immediately joined the horde in rushing for the spell that was blocking communication with the outside world. Even with Columbus, Sean, Tristan, and Professor Tangle adding their own firepower, there seemed to be no end to the creatures. They were killing them, but the zombies didn’t let up. More and more kept appearing, dozens at a time, even as they were mowed down just as quickly.

Beside her, Tristan took aim at a large clump of the creatures with his cannon, charged up a powerful shot, and let loose with it. The blast bowled through them and more beyond. But it was no more effective than anything else had been at actually stopping more from appearing.

Sean and the two Vulcans were laying down a dizzying hurricane of suppressive fire together. Sweeping their firing arc from one side of the room to the other constantly, they were doing the most to keep the flood of zombies from overwhelming everyone. Columbus’s goggle-blasts and Tristan’s cannon blew through the larger groups, and Scout picked off the sneaky lone figures that tried to go around.

Meanwhile, Tangle dealt with the ones that slipped through the cracks, sending waves of her ghost-like cars and other things summoned with her weapon to crash into them and knock the collective group back once more.

They were killing the zombies as fast as they could, and the flood wasn’t getting anywhere. But it also wasn’t going away. There seemed to be an unlimited number of the creatures that just kept pouring through. And eventually, Scout and the others were going to slip up, get tired, or run out of firepower. It was looking like the zombies would win this war of attrition through sheer force of numbers.

“Block the doors?” Scout blurted the suggestion in between firing three more quick shots, two of which struck home. If they could somehow close the vaults off, it could give them a break and stop the reinforcement zombies from coming through.

“With what?” Sean asked, even as he used Vulcan to tear through another handful of the relentless monsters. Hovering over his right shoulder, VJ fired a few shots of his own as if for emphasis. “We don’t have anything to block them, unless Tangle can?” He glanced that way with those words.

Tangle, for her part, grimaced while shaking her head. “Sorry, the only thing that comes to mind is–” She stopped talking for a moment, extending her flashlight-like weapon to project an elephant, which charged across the room to trample a dozen zombies under its feet. “The only thing I can think of is breaking the portals, but we’d need to be inside each vault to do that!”

“Scout!” Tristan blurted, charging up another shot to fire. “Scout, your rifle! Use the scope-portals to see into the vaults.”

“He’s right,” Tangle realized aloud. “Scout, forget shooting the zombies. We’ll handle them. Focus on getting a view into each room. Look for runes above and to both sides of the door and hit them with whatever you can to break them. Guys, hold the line until she manages that.”

Taking a half second to put a hand on Scout’s shoulder and squeeze, Tristan urged, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this. We’ll cover here.” Suiting action to words, the boy simultaneously fired a charged shot from his cannon that blew through a handful of the undead creatures while also producing a knife with his other hand. A quick flick of his wrist sent the blade through the eye socket of another zombie that he’d barely been glancing at. A moment later, a spell on the knife ignited the zombie’s head and blew it apart.

Trying not to think about how much pressure this suddenly was (or about how it felt to have Tristan’s hand on her shoulder even under these circumstances), Scout pivoted away from the group. She let them cover her, dropping to one knee while bringing her rifle up. Taking aim through her scope at a random bit of wall near the ceiling, she fired a scope-portal about midway there, above everyone’s heads. Then she switched her view to seeing through the portal, adjusting to point it toward the nearest vault doorway. From that position, she could barely see the entrance, firing to create another scope portal in the doorway, just above the heads of the zombies.

From there, it was a simple matter to make one more scope portal inside the vault itself. The whole place was literally filled with zombies. The room was the size of a football field, with the creatures packed in like sardines. No wonder they kept coming, if every room was like this one. The only thing slowing them down was the size of the doorway they were coming through.

Time to end that. Adjusting the scope-portal to see back toward the vault entrance, Scout zoomed in on the doorway. Behind her, she could still hear all the fighting going on, but had to force herself to ignore the distraction and just trust that Tristan, Columbus, Sean, and Professor Tangle could handle it.

Sure enough, there were lines of runes along the top and sides of the door. As Tangle had said, now she just had to damage it enough to break the spell creating the portal. For that, Scout flipped two switches along the side of her rifle, switching to her explosive rounds. Those weren’t as plentiful as the regular ammunition that her rifle basically generated on its own, but they would do the job of damaging that wall a lot better.

She took a breath, slowly let it out while ignoring all the fighting going on mere feet away from her, and fired the first shot through the portal. Shifting the scope slightly to the right, she fired again, then repeated it a third time after another shift. All along the spell where her shots struck it, the rounds exploded into miniature balls of fire.

That was enough. The damage to the spell disrupted it, and Scout saw the doorway leading into the main room suddenly disappear, leaving behind a blank wall and cutting off that horde of zombies waiting to emerge.

Quickly, she looked up from her rifle, glancing toward the door from this side. Yes, the first vault was cut off, stemming one source of the monsters, at least. Unfortunately, that left a lot more to go, considering there were six vaults along on either side.

Oh well, that just meant she had to get busy rather than continue patting herself on the back. Quickly disabling the scope-portals she’d used already, Scout got to work setting up a new line into the second vault. This time she had a better idea of what she was doing, firing each viewing portal in rapid succession to get a good line on the spell there. In the background, she heard Tangle telling Columbus and Sean to focus on one side, and felt someone bump against her as they adjusted their stance. Ignore it. She had to ignore it. They would handle the problem here in the room, she just had to do her job. Even if the thoughts of what was going on with her mother back in the main building, or her sister downstairs, were just as distracting as the zombies right here were.

Shutting out every other worry, Scout took more shots at the portal spell for the second vault, destroying it and cutting off that room as well. Through the scope, she could see the confused zombies stumble up against the blank wall where the doorway had been.

Two down, ten to go. Faster. She had to be faster with it and shut these vaults down before she and the others were overrun. Every second that she let pass without closing another portal was a second where a dozen more zombies could stagger through into the room to join their relentless companions.

Settling into a routine by then, Scout took out the third vault, then the fourth one. Eight to go, and there was definitely a noticeable lag to the flow of zombies by that point. It was helping. Especially as she’d focused on one side first, cutting off two-thirds of the zombie portals from that direction to allow the others to focus more attention on the other side. More attention meant more focused firepower, which took the zombies down faster.

As she turned her attention to the fifth vault, Scout paused briefly. A strange, tingling sensation, like she was being watched, came over her. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and briefly raised her head from the gun. Her eyes glanced around, but could find nothing. There were no zombies anywhere near her, and no other threat that she could see.

Apparently catching sight of her looking out of the corner of his eye, Tristan turned slightly to see what she was doing. Scout started to shake her head at him, but the moment he was facing her, she saw his eyes widen.

“Scout!” the boy blurted, lunging to grab her arm. He yanked her up and out of the way, falling backward in the process. The two of them crashed together to the floor with a pair of yelps.

Right where she had been crouching, Scout saw them. Ten little… strings? They came from above, wiggling as though in agitation. Confused, the girl raised her eyes, following the strings to their source. And then she saw him.

The man clung to the ceiling high above. His figure was… wrong. His legs were drawn up so that if he had been on the floor, he would have been kneeling. Though he was ostensibly facing the ceiling itself, his torso was twisted around unnaturally to face the floor below, while his head was twisted even further so that he was looking at them from a completely different angle than the way he should have been. His arms were wrong as well, twisted away from the direction of his torso to point straight down. His long, gangly fingers were attached to hands that seemed three times too large for the rest of his body, and those ten strings that had been about to grab onto Scout came from each of those fingers. Strings which were already slurping back up even as the man’s twisted-around head met her gaze with eyes that weren’t there, the sockets dark, empty voids.

Tristan and Scout both brought their weapons up to shoot at the thing as their Stranger senses went wild, but he had already inverted to drop to the floor nearby. With creaking bones, the figure drew himself up to his full, impressive height, standing eight feet high. He wore black pants and an old-fashioned striped tailcoat over a frilly white shirt and stained brown vest.  

Tangle had realized what was happening by then, spinning that way with her weapon up. Seeing the man there, however, she paused. “What the…”

“Hello.” The man greeted them while holding up his hands, palm out. The strings were still hanging a few inches out from his fingertips, wiggling in the air like worms. “We can’t let you break any more of our master’s toys. It’s time to sleep.”

Abruptly, the ten strings launched outward, shooting through the air toward Scout and the others. The five of them each had two strings coming their way, fast enough that even as her recently acquired boost kicked in, Scout realized that they were coming too fast for most of the others to escape. Her gun snapped up and she fired two quick shots while throwing herself to the side. Though her boost made everything else seem to be in slow motion, the strings were so fast they seemed to be moving normally.

Both of Scout’s shots went straight for the man’s head. But just before they would have struck home, that head literally opened up. A hole appeared right in the middle of the man’s face, leading through to the open air behind him just long enough for the bullets to pass harmlessly through before closing once more.

Beside her, Tristan was moving just as quickly, his own boost kicking in to send him the other way while he fired a shot of his own at the man’s chest. A shot which met with the same reaction, as his torso pulled apart with a distinct slurping noise, creating a large hole that the beam easily passed through.

The cannon on Tristan’s arm shifted then, switching from gun to gauntlet with an extended blade all along the side. With a grunt, he threw himself that way, his figure blurring as he swiped at the creepy figure. In response, the man instantly bent all the way backward at the knees, his body horizontal to the ground while the blade went through the air just above him. Staying in that awkward position, he sent those strings from his fingers up.

“No!” Tangle was there, using a wave of her hand and some kind of telekinetic or wind power to throw Tristan out of the way just before the strings would have caught him. “Don’t let those things touch you.”

“But we like to touch,” the eyeless figure announced, righting himself once more. The strings danced through the air as he wiggled his fingers. “We Strings touch and play. Strings do good work for their master.”

“If they touch you, they puppet you,” Tangle informed them, keeping a wary eye on the figure as it watched for an opening, head cocked unnaturally to the side. “Like a marionette. They’ll take control. Everything you see is strings. The whole body. That’s why it can pull apart and put holes in itself like that. The whole body is just millions of sapient strings shaped like a person. They’re a colony creature.”

A colony creature. Scout’s eyes widened at that. It was true. The whole misshapen thing was just one huge collection of strings, like a… like a puppet made of yarn.

The creature (or creatures, apparently) gave an empty smile at that. Then a dozen strings suddenly burst from their chest, rushing not for the group, but for the rune on the wall that was blocking communication with the outside world. They were trying to break the spell, but were blocked by a quick wave of fire that Tangle created, shrieking in a collective voice.

“Scout, keep killing the doors,” Tangle ordered, before going after the String-thing with Tristan right behind her. The two of them were dealing with that, while Columbus, Sean, and the Vulcans focused on the zombies.

Which left Scout to get those vaults closed off. Hurriedly, the girl returned to her work. Now it was even harder to ignore everything else that was going on. The horrible creepiness of the so-called Strings and the thought of what might happen to Tristan and the others was almost too distracting. But she bore down, forcing herself to shut that out. The sooner she closed those vaults, the better for everyone.

Finishing off the vaults on one side before turning her aim to the six on the far side, Scout heard Sean telling Vulcan to keep helping Columbus. From the corner of her eye, she saw the boy rush by her while VJ transformed into his sword mode and fell into his hand. He threw himself into the path of several more strings, slicing through them with his sword before shifting VJ to a shield and batting away another group. They had been coming for her, but Sean stopped them, standing in their path. “Keep going!” he blurted. “I’ve got you!”

Another vault down. Five left. Just five. The zombies seemed to have realized they were being cut off, so they were trying to pour out even faster. But there were still less vaults, allowing Columbus and Vulcan to narrow their firepower. She just hoped they could keep it up long enough for her to close off the rest.

Another trio of shots. Another vault down, its portal broken. Then another. Grimacing as the sounds of fighting only intensified behind her, Scout set another line of portals. She was moving as fast as she could, her inherited boost kicking in once again to slow everything down so she could line up her shots in what amounted to a second. Three more shots. Boom, boom, boom. Another vault cut off.

Finally, she was down to the last one. Just as she lined up her shot, there was a thud beside her. Scout’s eyes snapped down to see Sean on the ground, trying to roll over. Before he could get up, one of those strings came shooting through the air toward her. Scout started to jerk her gun around while half-falling backward, but it was too late.

It was not too late, however, for Tristan to throw himself into the string. Literally. He used his possession, disappearing into the string just before it would have struck Scout. Instantly, the string jerked backward away from her. Tristan came stumbling out of the string a moment later, falling to his knees and puking on the floor. At the same time, the String-creature itself (themselves?) stumbled as well. Giving a shriek, they leapt to the ceiling and scrambled away, disappearing into what looked like a second elevator shaft across the room.

She wanted to check on Tristan, but there was one more vault. Taking those last couple shots to close it off, Scout finally dropped her rifle and looked up in time to see Columbus finish the last of the zombies that had emerged. He was utterly soaked in blood and… and other things, panting as he stood in the midst of a pile of re-killed corpses. But it was done. The doors were closed, the vaults were cut off.

“Tristan?” She managed, looking that way.

“Good,” the boy himself replied, even as Tangle crouched by him. “I’m–uuulph. Not doing that again. Hive mind. Controlling one just gets all the others in your head and… not… not good. Not fun.”

His head snapped up then, almost violently. “Bomb. Bomb. There’s a bomb.”

“What?” Tangle demanded. “What bomb?”

“Strings,” Tristan hurriedly blurted, “the Strings. They have a bomb in the building. It’s a failsafe. If they really think there’s a chance of Avalon getting to the vault, they’re going to blow this whole place up. They’re probably on their way to set it right now.” He forced himself to his feet, stumbling a little. “We have to stop them.”

“But if they double back,” Sean pointed out, “and we’re not here, they could break the communication-blocking spell and get reinforcements that we can’t handle.”

Tangle nodded. “I’ll stay here. I can protect the spell myself, just in case. You saw how the bomb works?”

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “I can disable it.” He tapped the side of his head then. “I know where it is, and how to disarm the thing. Perfect memory’s good for something after all.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” Columbus hesitantly asked Tangle.

The woman gave a single nod. “Kids, I–I hate this. I hate sending you–never mind. No time. Just go. Stop the bomb. You can do this. Get past Strings and disable that bomb. Go!”

Glancing briefly to one another, Scout and the three boys ran for the elevator.

“Tell you one thing,” Sean announced as they sprinted.

“I’m about ready for a vacation from this vacation.”

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Interim Incursion 43-03 (Sean)

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There was at least one good thing about the vault mission coming a few days earlier than expected. It meant that Sean Gerardo didn’t have time to dwell on what his parents could possibly be doing with those Runner guys. It was probably just something for their work, but still, he’d been thinking about it ever since he and the others had spotted them.

Normally he was okay with his parents not really having much to do with him. He wasn’t exactly a kid anymore, after all. He’d grown up this way and it was just the way it was. He’d moved on from getting sad every time his parents failed to show interest in him. But this time, they had been right there. They were right there, and they either knew he was there on a field trip so they could have come over to say hi. Or they didn’t know, meaning they’d paid absolutely no attention to where he was and what he was doing. That one… that one kind of stung.

But now he didn’t have to focus on any of that. Because his attention was quite thoroughly occupied. If there was one thing that was going to stop him from thinking about his parents, it was a mission to prevent the intergalactic evil empire of body-snatchers from destroying the one thing that could stop them from enslaving all Heretics on Earth. That sort of had priority.

At the moment, the Seosten and their pawns at the bank were busy fighting Gaia and a bunch of other adults. They also thought that Sean and the others were safely contained under a marble dome that Sands had created at her mother’s insistence. As far as they knew, there was no way to escape that building.

But Sean’s side had a secret weapon: Dries Aken, who knew how to create temporary holes in their anti-teleportation technology. He’d done just that and extricated the group from their covered dome. So now, while Gaia and the others in there kept the bad guys busy, Sean, Avalon, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Doug, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan had joined Dries, Tangle, and Kohaku to sneak into the actual vault.

“Everyone move very slowly,” Professor Tangle quietly murmured as she led them around the side of the vans. The dark-skinned woman had one hand up, a red ball of energy pulsing with power within her grasp. From what she’d said, the ball was part of a power that would keep everyone within a few feet of her invisible against most forms of detection. They just couldn’t move too quickly or suddenly. It seemed a bit like Jazz’s invisibility power, except stronger.

Jazz. She and Gordon were with Gabriel Prosser and his people, helping to deal with the army that the Seosten had had lying in wait to act as reinforcements when the fight broke out here. Everyone was doing their part, from his group, to Gaia and the others playing distraction, to Prosser countering the Seosten’s reinforcements, to Roxa, Flick, and the others at the Alter hotel to stop the bad guys from going in the back door of the vault.

Thinking about Roxa in that moment was a mistake. It was a distraction. He couldn’t start thinking about every bad thing that could happen to her at that place, because then he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. With effort, he shoved it aside, burying those nagging worries while reaching down to put a hand on the top of Vulcan’s head for comfort. VJ (Vulcan Junior) was there too, attached to Vulcan like a backpack, since letting him fly around would have stressed the invisibility power too much.

Even with the group inside drawing so much attention, there was still security outside in the form of cameras and a couple guards standing by the actual entrance to the vaults (hidden in what looked from the outside like a grain silo). Which was why they had to stay invisible and move slowly. Even knowing that, however, Sean was still antsy. With everything that was going on and how critical this entire mission was, the idea of moving across the lot and then the field beyond at such a… gradual pace was hard to accept. Part of him wanted to just make a sprint straight for the vault. It was right there, and the people inside were busy fighting Gaia and all the others. Surely they could make it if they just ran for it. Get to the vault and teleport out. But if something happened while they were taking their time and just sort of walking that way, either to them, to the people inside, or… or to the others like Roxa, he’d… they’d…

No. As hard as it was, as much as it let his mind drift more than he wanted it to, moving slowly was the answer. The Seosten would move entire planets to stop them from reaching the vault. If they had the slightest idea that Avalon wasn’t safely contained under that dome inside, that she was so close to the spell that her ancestor had left, they’d abandon the fight in an instant.

So they walked. With Dries and Tangle at the front, Kohaku at the back, and Sean and the others between them, the group gradually moved across the parking lot and through the field that led to the fake silo. Sean could see the two guards standing out front, their attention riveted on the main house where all the fighting was going on. He wondered how much they knew about what was going on in there from moment to moment. Did they have a way to watch the battle, or were they relying on updates? How distracted were they?

Both guards were dressed in what looked like simple ranch hand clothes, jeans, flannel shirts, and thick boots, with shotguns held loosely in their hands. Despite their appearances, however, Sean and the others knew the truth. They were both incredibly powerful Heretics who were currently possessed by incredibly powerful Seosten. If Sean and the others were going to pull this off without wasting too much time or alerting the others inside, the only chance they had was in taking them by surprise.

That in itself would have been impossible without Kohaku, Tangle, and Dries. The three adult Heretics between them had enough powers and spells to keep the group hidden. Kohaku by herself had been the head of security for the school for decades, and Dries, for all his issues, was a genius at that stuff. Tangle wasn’t particularly focused on stealth or security, but she was an experienced Heretic with plenty of motivation to stop the Seosten Empire.

They didn’t approach the silo directly. Instead, Tangle and Dries led the group slowly on a curved, rounding path, ever so gradually looping in toward the group from the side. It was excruciatingly slow, and every time the guards at the silo happened to glance that way or shift their attention at all, Sean became briefly convinced they had been exposed. Walking like this, right out in the open, was basically torture.

But it worked. Gradually, the group moved out of the guards’ line of sight and looped back from the other direction. They approached the silo from the side, moving slowly enough that any disturbance in the grass and weeds could be taken as just the wind. One step after another, they drew closer and closer to that building. And closer, by extension, to finishing this whole thing.

Finally, about twenty yards from the pair of guards, Professor Kohaku moved to the front while holding a hand up to stop them. She and Dries then moved slowly that way, relying on invisibility of their own while Tangle stayed with Sean and the others to keep them hidden. While Sean watched with the rest of the group, one hand still on Vulcan’s head, Dries and Kohaku slowly made their way closer, step by step, to the unaware guards. Despite himself, Sean had to hold his breath. This was a key moment, if something went wrong here… he didn’t want to think about it, despite his traitorous brain’s insistence on doing just that.

Dries and Kohaku split up once they reached the guards, each moving behind one of them. The security chief looked back toward Tangle, holding up a hand with three fingers raised. Gradually, she lowered each finger, then made a fist.

At the end of the countdown, Tangle used the hand that wasn’t currently raised with the glowing red orb to produce a small stone with a rune on it, activating a spell that would cast an illusion over the entire area around them to hide what was about to happen from the cameras and anyone who happened to glance that way. When he was told about it, Columbus had compared it to the humans looping camera footage. In this case, it created a hologram of the past several minutes and projected it over the area, hiding what was actually happening within it.

The guards clearly noticed something happening when the spell activated. But before they could do anything about it, Dries and Kohaku struck. Moving simultaneously, the two of them quickly slapped prepared bits of cloth against each of the men’s necks. There were three spells on those cloths, each prepared by Dries, Apollo, and Sariel working together. The first would knock the man out. The second was a variant of the expulsion rune, which would instantly kick their Seosten host out of the body. And the third would cut off those Seosten’s connection to the rest of their group through that mind-link thing they tended to have. Unless any of the Seosten inside actively tried to contact them, they wouldn’t know what had happened. And with any luck, Gaia and the others would keep them too busy to think about that.

As the unconscious Heretic guards dropped to the ground, the two utterly surprised Seosten who had been possessing them were revealed. They were then just as quickly killed as Dries and Kohaku cut their throats before they could recover from their abrupt exorcism.

With the guards down and their approach hidden by the magical hologram, Sean and the others quickly raced to the door. Dries was already working on getting it open, while Kohaku checked the fallen Seosten for anything useful, taking a couple weapons and other enchanted objects and dropping them into her jacket. Tangle, finally able to stop using that cloaking power, moved to help.

Sean, meanwhile, found himself looking toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You guys ever think this year would turn out like this when it started?”

Tristan, in turn, shrugged. Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around his shoulders, basically did the same thing. How a mechanical snake managed to shrug was beyond Sean, but the creature somehow pulled it off.

“When your school year started, I was basically frozen in super-carbonite,” Tristan pointed out. “And also I was a kid.” He paused then, considering before giving a sharp headshake. “This year has been weird.”

“This life has been weird,” Vanessa corrected him. She was holding her whip with one hand and one of the Seosten laser pistols with the other after apparently commandeering it during the fight back in the building.

“Yeah,” Doug agreed. “I’ve only known most of what’s actually going on for a little while. I can’t imagine how long this year has been for anyone who saw the whole thing.”

“Some of us have been dealing with it for longer than just the year,” Avalon quietly muttered, exchanging brief looks with both sets of twins before turning her attention to Sean. “And some of us are practically saints for sticking through this even though it doesn’t directly affect them.”

“You’re my team,” Sean replied simply. “It affects me. Besides, kind of a personal connection to werewolves, remember? Getting rid of the bad Seosten and fixing this whole mess does affect me.”

“Now,” Sands started, teasing, “when you say personal connection to werewolves, do you mean through your uncle’s romance, or your own?”

Sean was saved from answering that by Dries, who announced, “It’s open.” He stood, stepping back as the twin doors into the silo slid apart, allowing them to enter.

“Move,” Kohaku urged, waving a hand quickly. “The sooner we get inside and close the doors, the sooner Dries can stop blocking the alarms about them being open.”

“Right, c’mon, buddy.” Sean waved for Vulcan to keep up, heading for the doorway. His cyberform partner followed, and they joined the others in entering the vault. Well, the building the vault entrances were kept in, anyway.

The room they entered was a couple hundred feet across and square. It was also completely empty, aside from six doors that lined the walls to either side. Twelve in total. Straight ahead and on the opposite side of the room from the entrance was a large freight elevator.

The elevator. That’s what they needed. The other doors were low-security vaults, and there was no way Liesje’s would be anywhere near ‘low-security’. They needed to take the elevator down into the bowels of this place.

Heh, bowels. He was still a teenage boy, damn it.

“No-no-nobody move. Nobody move.” Dries spoke quickly, already moving to draw something on the nearby wall while repeating those words to himself. “Not moving. I said don’t move so they better not. Better not move or this is going to go wrong. Wrong wrong, can’t go wrong. Too important. Stay–stay in place. Stay in that place. Not a prison. Have to stay out of prison. Look, do the spell. Do the spell, you can do the spell, see? See. Spell. Good, all good, it’s good.”

“Mr. Aken,” Kohaku started once she exchanged looks with the man himself, “has put a communication block over the building. Whatever happens in here, as long as the spell remains active, no one outside will hear about it.”

Raising her hand, Vanessa spoke when the woman looked to her. “Does that include the Seosten mind-link spell?”

It was Dries who answered. “Yes, yes, of course. Of course it includes that. But that–that…” He looked like he lost his train of thought for a moment, staring off at nothing long enough for everyone to look at each other, a bit antsy considering the time table they were working with. Then he just seemed to snap out of it, continuing. “That’s good and bad. It’s–it’s–it’s good and bad. It means they can’t send out a message. But it–they don’t get messages either. They don’t get messages, and they’ll know they’re cut off.”

“So any Seosten who are in here will know that they’ve been blocked,” Professor Tangle murmured. “And that means that–” In mid-sentence, the woman suddenly stopped. She pivoted on one foot, spinning completely around while her hand snapped out.

Three partially decayed figures were there, by one of the random vault doors that was suddenly open. They’d stumbled through the door and, seeing the group, started to lunge that way.

But Tangle was quicker. As she held her hand out, a ghostly image erupted from her. It looked… well, it looked like a car. A sedan, actually, aside from being grayish-blue and partially translucent. Like the… ghost of a car.

It certainly didn’t seem ghost-like, however, as the car literally slammed into the approaching zombies. It flattened two and sent one flying across the room. A second later, the ghost-car continued its path right through the far wall, disappearing without causing any other damage aside from its collision with the zombies.

Kohaku finished the creatures off, while Sean and the others simply stared with wide eyes. “What–what the hell kind of power is that?” Sean demanded.

“Not a power,” Tangle informed them. “My weapon.” She turned to show them then. It looked like a simple flashlight in her hand. “The short version is I record things and then project them doing the same thing that they were recorded doing. But more importantly, why are there zombies in here?”

“Security measure,” Scout announced, her brow furrowed as she pointed. “They’re not alone.”

She was right, there were more zombies emerging from more vaults. One that the girl herself shot, before the one that appeared beside it was taken down by a blast from Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi cannon. Another on the opposite side of the room was killed by a blast from Columbus’ goggles.

“She’s right,” Kohaku agreed. “Either an automated feature or someone below triggered them. Either way, I bet every one of these vaults is full of those annoying bastards.”

“They’ll go for the spell,” Tangle murmured. “That’s what I’d make them do. They’ll look for any unknown magic and try to destroy it. And the second they do–”

Columbus finished her words. “They’ll know we’re here. Too bad our brand-spanking new necromancer isn’t here. She’d be pretty useful right now.”

“But we can’t just stand here and babysit the spell all day,” Shiori pointed out, pretty clearly trying not to think about what Flick was doing rather than being there at the vault with them. “We’ve kinda got things to do.”

“We don’t all have to,” Sean found himself saying. “A few of us stay back, guard the spell, and the rest of you go.” Even as he spoke, a couple more zombies emerged from another vault and were put down.

“They’ll start coming faster,” Kohaku warned him. “There could be thousands of zombies in each of these vaults. You’ll need plenty of help.”

“He’s got it,” Columbus announced. “I’ll stay with him.” The two boys exchanged brief looks, their silent meaning clear. They didn’t want this to be like what happened back at the hospital, when Rudolph was… Sean shut the thought out of his head.

In the end, Tangle, Scout, and Tristan agreed to stay back as well. The five of them would guard the spell (and the exit, just in case they went for that too) from the zombies and anything else that came out. Meanwhile, Kohaku and Dries would go with Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, Sands, and Doug to find the actual vault.

Shiori, Vanessa, and Sands were obviously more than a little hesitant to leave their siblings behind, but it was the best way. And there wasn’t time for more discussion, as the zombies kept pouring in, their appearances already starting to come faster and with more numbers. There was no telling which door they would come through next, and what had once been one or two was starting to be four or five per door. Sean didn’t want to think about what would happen if they all came at once.

When. When they all came at once.

Everyone wanted to say more, but there wasn’t time. Gaia and the rest could only keep their people busy for so long in there. Not to mention how long it might be before someone noticed something wrong in here. Every second that passed… they didn’t have time.

Killing several more zombies that had appeared to clear a path, Kohaku led her group on a sprint to the freight elevator. Then they were gone, descending deep underground to find the vault. Hopefully before Sean and the others were overrun.

“Okay,” Professor Tangle murmured while looking to the small group. “Don’t break ranks. Don’t let the zombies get past you. Stand together, shoot them as they approach. Watch for groups to cluster, and make sure they’re dead. Don’t let crawling ones take you by surprise. And… I know I haven’t really had a chance to be your teacher this year, but I want you guys to know that I’m really proud of everything you’ve managed to do so far. You’re–you’re pretty amazing.”

With VJ flying over his shoulder and Vulcan in his gun form in both hands, Sean set himself. He glanced to Scout and Tristan to his right, then Columbus to his left before replying. “Don’t worry, Professor. You might not have been there for any of our classes…

“But this is definitely a kick-ass field trip.”

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