Gordon Kuhn

Interlude 17A – Gordon And Sindri (Heretical Edge 2)

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Standing with his back to the transport truck, Gordon Kuhn closed his eyes for a moment and let out a long, slow breath. He wished his mother was here. After all the time they had been apart, his parents deserved their own reunions. But she was still stuck at Crossroads, essentially kept prisoner rather than being allowed to become a threat to them. She, along with a number of others, were kept locked down in some secret facility. Even more secret than the first prison that the rebellion had hit over the summer to save Sean Gerardo and others. Crossroads had… not liked that, to say the least. Wherever their new prison was, no one had been able to find out.  

Which, yes, meant that both his parents had been held captive by each Boscher organization. And now that he had finally freed his father from his long-imprisonment, the two of them could focus on getting his mother out of her own captivity. His parents would have their reunion, and they would be a family again. Gordon had told himself that repeatedly throughout the lead-up to this trip, and through the entire mission itself. It had been his silent mantra. He would help save his father, and then they would rescue his mother. Whatever happened, whatever it took, he was done having his family split apart and imprisoned.

Of course, the first thing that had to happen, before anything else as far as that went, was his father waking up. Whatever had been done to him, and his fellow prisoners who had been in those tubes, had left them thoroughly drained and in what amounted to a mild coma. According to Professor Tangle, they just needed time out of the tubes to recover. She assured Gordon and the others that the prisoners would wake up on their own, particularly if they were laid out in the open air. 

So, Gordon and the rest of the students had taken the comatose prisoners out of the storage space and laid them on other blankets arranged to one side of the truck. Aside from Asenath’s father, who was on the opposite side, shielded from the sunlight by a spell of darkness. Not that the man himself had a problem with the sun. That was limited to half-Akharu. Vampires like Asenath. Full Akharu like Tiras were just fine out in the sunlight. Gordon… had no idea why that was a thing. But then, there were a lot of aspects of the whole vampire situation that didn’t make sense. They were essentially natural Akharu Heretics, and yet they functioned a lot differently than most would. It was strange, to say the least.  

In any case, while others took turns sleeping or helping out with the conscious prisoners (talking to them about what was going on, assuring them that they would be safe and that this wasn’t some weird trick, and so on), Gordon stood by the truck and watched the comatose people laid out on the blankets. He knew Asenath was on the opposite side of the truck with her mother as they waited for Tiras to awaken. He wondered if she felt as impatient as he did. After all, she had been waiting much longer than him for that reunion. Hundreds of years, apparently. If he’d had to wait that long… he couldn’t even imagine it. This was bad enough as it was. The last time he had spoken to his father, Gordon was still a very small child. He barely remembered it, despite clinging tightly to that memory for all this time. If he’d had to wait centuries to see the man again, he didn’t know how he would have survived. Asenath hadn’t even known if her father was alive at all. She only knew that he had disappeared with no explanation, no word. He was simply gone, for all that time, and she’d barely had a whisper here or there of his survival. 

How she dealt with that, how she had moved on to focus on other things without having any idea what was going on with her father, he had no idea. And now she was sitting over there, quietly waiting for him to wake up. It was all Gordon could do not to shake his own father in a desperate attempt to hurry along his recovery so they could talk about everything. The amount of willpower it must have taken for her to silently wait had to be astronomical. 

Abruptly, Gordon’s musings about the nearby vampire were cut off by the sound of one of the prisoners waking up. It wasn’t his father, but rather a female humanoid with green skin, four eyes, and no hair. Also no mouth. According to Roger Dornan, she was something called a Deitezen, who communicated telepathically. A couple of the conscious prisoners had called her Meyfers.

The Deitezen shifted as she came to consciousness, before abruptly sitting up. Her eyes were wide, and a large stone the size of Gordon himself abruptly rose into the air before spinning around as though searching for a threat. Apparently her people were telekinetic as well. 

Before Gordon could move, Professor Kohaku was there, appearing just far enough away from the suddenly-panicked woman that it wouldn’t instantly be seen as an attack. Her hands were folded behind her back, which Gordon had heard in the Bystander world would be an indication that she was hiding something. But among Heretics and Alters, raising one’s hands was not a sign of peaceful intentions. There were far too many dangerous powers that could be launched from open palms. Folding one’s arms behind their back, in that case, was far more of an indication that one didn’t mean any harm. It didn’t rule out any possible attack, of course. That was all but impossible, particularly coming from a Heretic. But the very fact that a Heretic was taking the time and care to even slightly show lack of hostile intention would likely come as a surprise to the other woman. At least enough to make her stop for a moment. 

Sure enough, the Deitezen froze briefly at the sight. The heavy boulder spun in a slow circle over her head, like an anxious guard dog waiting for directions to attack. But she didn’t hurl it that way. Instead, she turned her head from one side to the other, taking in the sight of her fellow prisoners who had yet to wake up. A sound off in the distance caught her attention, and she quickly turned that way only to see Jazz playing some sort of ball game with the two orcs who had been freed. The sound had been the orcs laughing loudly as the ball went quite high. 

Finally, the woman looked at Gordon, eyes narrowing slightly. Then she ‘spoke,’ her voice coming into his mind. Rebel Heretics? They don’t exist anymore. 

“We do now, again,” Kohaku announced. Apparently the telepathic woman had been projecting those words into more than just Gordon’s head. “Look into my mind. I know your people can’t dig too deep from a distance, but you’ll see the answers you’re looking for.” 

After a brief pause, the Deitezen turned back that way. A few seconds of silence fast as she stared intently toward Kohaku, before jerking slightly. If she’d had a mouth, Gordon was certain she would have gasped. Joselyn of Atherby has returned? She is– she is alive. Many believed her to have been long-since murdered. My own people– my– She went silent then, clearly absorbing all that before pushing herself to her feet somewhat unsteadily. The Rebellion has returned. Your memories are restored. Yet what precisely stops them from doing the same thing again? In ancient history, humans were our allies and friends, our family. Then your memories were erased and you became monsters hunting us down. A hundred years ago, Joselyn of Atherby began a revolution and created a group that would again work with us. You were our friends and family once more. But then those memories were again erased. And again, you were our enemies. What assurances do any of us have that history will not once more repeat itself? How do we know that you are all not… what is the term? Ticking time bombs. How do we know that the clock is not counting down for the next time that your memories are erased and you yet again become monsters intent on killing us all?  

Gordon knew that some of the others might have been offended by the question. After all, they had just gone through all that to save that woman, and now she was questioning how long it would take for them to try to kill her again. But quite honestly, he couldn’t blame her. Not after everything she had clearly been through. He would have been suspicious himself. 

Even as he had those thoughts,the Deitezen spoke again, this time sounding apologetic. I am sorry. That was uncalled for. Reading your thoughts, the things you did–you have saved us. You saved our lives and protected us, and I rewarded you with suspicion. 

“It’s understandable,” Kohaku assured her. “Believe me, we have thought the same thing. But we have also taken measures to protect ourselves against that eventuality. Including having someone on the inside of the Crossroads leadership Committee who will tell us if they are attempting such a thing. And other measures, such as an alliance with some of the people responsible for the creation of those memory alterations. We will not be taken by surprise again. It will not be as it was the last time. Though I know words are cheap, we are protecting ourselves. You are far from the first to raise such a fair question.”  

There was another brief pause before the Deitezen nodded once. Still, I apologize. My name is Meyfers. And you– Her head turned to focus on Gordon. You are his son, aren’t you? As she said that, her hand rose to point toward Gordon’s father. You are Sindri’s boy. He spoke of you many times. And he allowed me to see his mental image of you, his memories. You have grown, but I can still recognize you. I see him in you, Gordon Koraug. 

Reflexively, Gordon almost corrected her that his last name was Kuhn, his mother’s name. Yet he stopped. Koraug was his father’s family name. There was no reason to correct that. Instead, he nodded. “Yes. I–I’ve been looking for him for a long time.” The words almost caught in his throat, but he forced them out past the lump. 

Yes, came the slow, silent response. I imagine you have. She glanced down to the man in question before adding, He will be beside himself to see you, young Gordon. His family has always been high on his mind. He swore he would find a way to escape and get back to you someday. But it seems you have… as I believe they say, punched him to the beat. 

“Beaten him to the punch,” Gordon corrected simply. 

Yes, that, Meyfers confirmed before turning back to Kohaku. My people are resistant to the sort of draining effect that has left my companions in this state. I believe it will be some time before the rest of them awaken. But when they do, I would like to be nearby to help explain what is happening. I believe that will help prevent any potential misunderstandings. Even as she said that, the woman lowered the heavy boulder to where it had been. 

“Of course,” Kohaku agreed immediately. “In the meantime, if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to have a more private conversation about what happened back on that planet. From what we have heard and been able to put together, it was… very bad. The creature that–” She stopped, clearly not wanting to say more right then. Instead, the woman settled on simply finishing with, “I’d like to hear some details from someone who was there the entire time.” 

Meyfers agreed and the two women stepped away to confer in the distance. They were still close enough to see if any of the others woke up, but Gordon was once more left to his own thoughts. His gaze found its way to his father, and the boy found himself very faintly smiling. On another person, it would have been a broad, almost painful grin. But Gordon didn’t tend to show that much outward emotion. He kept everything inside, thanks to a lifetime of exercising control. If he was too emotional, too wild, his powers could have hurt or killed someone. He could have frozen over an entire room, or worse. He would have exposed the truth about himself. So he had learned from a young age, thanks in part to his mother’s lessons, to control himself. 

But now, standing there looking at his living father, knowing that the man would soon wake up so that they could talk for the first time since he had been a child, that faint smile found its way to Gordon’s face. 

Very soon, after all this time, he would finally be able to say…

*****

“Hello, Father.” 

Sindri Koraug had been the last of his unconscious group, lying together on those blankets, to awaken. By the time his eyes opened, the others had all been pulled aside by Kohaku and Meyfers. First for an explanation and then for food and water, as well as a reunion with their fellow former prisoners. Through all of that, for another hour, he had slept and recuperated. 

But finally, he was awake. He had seen Meyfers standing in the distance, and took the mental download of information about what exactly was going on, and about who was here. Absorbing all that as he rose to his feet, the dark-skinned, goateed man had turned around to face the boy waiting there by the truck. His entirely silver eyes with no white or pupil had focused just in time to hear those two simple words. Words that, despite the advance explanation he had been given, still took his breath away. 

“Gordon.” Speaking that simple name, a name that had been on his mind every day for over a decade, Sindri found himself frozen in place as thoroughly as if he had been one of the people turned to ice by his own powers. He wanted to move. He wanted to cross the short distance that was now all that separated them. He wanted to take his son in his arms and hold him as tight as possible. For all these years, that had often been all he was capable of thinking about. In his waking hours as well as his dreams, seeing and touching his son (and wife) once more had kept him going through things that otherwise might have broken the man. He had clung to the hope of being reunited with his family. They were his strength, and he had spent so long planning how he would greet his child. 

And now that moment had come, yet Sindri stood paralyzed. A small part of him still wondered if this could be some sort of dream or trick, though it was easily pushed aside. Meyfers’ mental projection had given him the full summary in just a few seconds. The Rebellion had saved them. A rebellion that his own son was a part of. His son, standing there waiting for him to move. 

And move he finally did. Like one of those same frozen statues managing to shatter the ice that contained them, the man took one step, then another. He walked to his son and raised both hands. They trembled almost violently as the man slowly set his palms against either side of Gordon’s face. Neither spoke a word for those few seconds. Sindri simply closed his eyes, allowing a visible shudder to run through him he felt his now not-so-little boy’s face. After all this time, after everything that had happened and all that had been taken from him, he was finally standing here with his son. With his son. It was too much to take in at once. Seeing his boy, hearing him, touching him. Having all those sensations at once was overwhelming. Now, right now, all he could do was close his eyes, remain silent, and run his fingers over his son’s face, across his jaw, up over his hair, and against his shoulders. There. He was really there. 

Opening his eyes once more, Sindri met his son’s gaze. He tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come at first. They caught in his throat, causing a weak, barely audible noise. 

“It’s okay, Father,” Gordon finally assured him, though his own voice was weak as well. “You are safe now. You–we… I’m here.” 

Still unable to find words, Sindri nonetheless gave a quick, almost violent nod. Tears had begun to stream their way down his face, blurring his vision before he rapidly blinked them away. “Yes,” he managed in a voice that cracked audibly. “Yes, you certainly are. My boy. My son. My–” That was all he could manage to say before his throat locked up once more. And yet, though he couldn’t express his feelings in words at that moment, there was another way. His hand squeezed the boy’s shoulders, before pulling him closer. Close enough to embrace. Which was exactly what he did, arms locking around the boy tightly as he pulled Gordon to his chest and held him there. He said nothing, unable to bring any more words. Instead, the man simply stood there, clutching his son tightly. Nothing could take this moment away from him. There would be time for talking later. Right now, in this second, all that mattered was holding his child for the first time in so many years. Soon, the time would come for more details about what they were going to do. But now, he cared about nothing aside from standing here like this. 

Finally, after some time that way, Sindri relaxed his grip marginally and leaned back so he could look down at his son. “You’ve grown so much.” There was mixed pride and wonder in his voice. It was no surprise, of course. He had known his son wouldn’t remain the helpless little child that he had been when Sindri last saw him. And yet, consciously knowing something and seeing it in front of his eyes were two different things. Only now, seeing his boy as an adult, did the full weight of the years they had been separated settle on Sindri’s mind. He would truly never get to see those years he had missed. He would never see his child grow from toddler to adult. He would never see those years. Everything he had missed was gone forever. 

On the other hand, he had so much more to look forward to. So many more years that he never would have gotten without the efforts of his son and the other members of this group. Realizing that, Sindri pushed his thoughts about what he had lost aside and focused on what was still to come. 

Gordon spoke then, his own voice flat. “I’m sorry it took so long to find you.” 

With a grunt of disbelief, Sindri shook his head. “I’m amazed you found us at all. You–you are incredible, my son. My boy.” He released Gordon from the embrace, but only to move his hand back to his son’s face. “You got big. You got strong, like your mother. Who–” 

“She’s not here,” Gordon quietly informed him. “She’s not–they have her. Crossroads won’t let her leave. I don’t know how they found out she was sympathetic to the Rebellion, but they have her and others locked up somewhere. She managed to get a few messages out, but she can’t tell us where they are, or–I wanted to bring her. But I had to find you while we had the chance.” 

Easing his son’s turmoil with a gentle smile, Sindri forced his own worry and fear for his wife aside for the moment. “Then we will have to find her ourselves,” he promised the boy. “Together.” 

“But–but are you… are you alright?” Gordon quickly put in, leaning back as though to scan his father up and down. “You were in prison, that tube thing they had you in–” 

“I wasn’t there for long,” Sindri assured him. “We spent most of our time digging out that mountain and uncovering those tunnels. The… creature, whatever it was, they had only just begun to… feed it recently. 

Meeting his gaze, Gordon quietly murmured, “It’s something really bad. They were talking about it earlier, and it sounds like this Victor wants to… if he’s not stopped–” 

“Then we will stop him,” Sindri firmly announced. “We will find your mother, and we will stop the Victors of the Lost Scar tribe.” 

Gordon blinked at that. “What? No, it was Kyril Shamon of the Eternal Eye tribe. He was the one who imprisoned you.” 

“I do not know who told you that,” Sindri informed him, “but that prison camp belonged to the Lost Scar tribe. The Victors Remember Bennett and Zoya Dalal called themselves our owners, not this Kyril Shamon you mention. Dalal herself visited the camp more than once.” 

Gordon frowned. “But… but…

“What does that mean?” 

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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 17-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so this giant spider-crocodile-man thing wasn’t just really big and scary-looking. It was also very angry and incredibly violent, both of which were demonstrated as it let out a loud, piercing scream and brought two of those massive legs up before slamming them down toward the spot where we were all standing. Sands threw up a stone wall with her mace, Bobbi created a forcefield, and Gordon an ice-wall. All three defenses were layered together, and the creature’s legs punched through all of them like they weren’t even there. Thankfully, we were all already diving out of the way, but still. Seeing those deadly legs just punch through the walls of ice, stone, and light that easily from the corner of my eye as I was throwing myself to the side gave some small idea of how dangerous this thing was. Definitely not something to take lightly. Really, it seemed like the smartest choice was to turn around and get the fuck out of here. And yet, we couldn’t run away. Not now. We had to deal with it, if we were going to get those guys out of their prison tubes. And there was absolutely no way that Gordon or Asenath would leave without their fathers. Not when they were this close. 

So, we had to fight this thing. And we had to do it quickly, before the Eden’s Garden people managed to summon reinforcements. But at least there were twelve of us, right? We could bring this thing down pretty quick with all of us working together. At least, I hoped we could. 

Using a quick burst from my staff to lift myself back to my feet the instant I hit the ground, I spun toward the spot where those two enormous spider-like legs had just slammed into the rocks and dirt, spraying both in all directions. The creature was still screaming, but I shouted over it. “Get it away from the tubes!” Even as those words escaped me, I was already running to one side while converting my staff to its bow form. An instant later, I sent an energy arrow flying up to slam into the side of the thing’s monstrous humanoid head. The concussive blast barely seemed to register. The three eyes visible on its left side glared down at me, before the thing brought another of those ten legs out in a contemptuous swat, like I would when slapping a particularly annoying and persistent fly out of my face. 

Another quick kinetic burst from my staff launched me up and over the bus-sized leg. But while I was still in mid-air, a small opening appeared on the side of the creature’s neck, like a blowhole or something. But this didn’t suck in air. Instead, it shot this blob of sticky webbing that slammed into me. The next thing I knew, I was hitting the floor with this stuff wrapped tightly around me and holding me down. I couldn’t move, encased as I was in this sticky webbing. And it smelled awful, like rancid milk. Worse, it was starting to burn. Not like fire. Like acid or something. It felt like that, anyway. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t trapped that way for long. Even as my body had started to register the pain, Doug was right there. His hand rose, projecting what looked like a welding torch flame from his palm while he touched the webbing with his other hand. The flame cut right through the web, but didn’t hurt me at all, even though it should have been going straight into my side. As soon as I was free, he turned the blowtorch power to his own hand, cutting the webbing off that as well. 

The monster was starting to follow up already, lifting one of those legs. But before it could bring the leg down, Avalon screamed fire at it. Literally. She opened her mouth and flames shot that way. Flames which turned into a bird and flew right up into the side of the monster’s head.  She actually seemed more surprised than it was, mouth still open as she stood there frozen briefly. 

I and several others shouted a warning as the monster swung its leg back that way, abandoning its attack on Doug and me to instead swat at the source of that fire bird. At the last second, I saw metal armor encase Avalon, just before she took the blow from the leg. It launched her up and backwards against the rock wall, but she landed on her feet. 

Right, so we knew two of the powers she’d gotten from the guy in the tower. 

Meanwhile, everyone else was fighting too. Bobbi’s speed-blurred form raced up an energy-construct track she had created before driving a blade into the side of the thing’s head. Asenath was right behind her with a knife, stabbing into one of its eyes. Gordon had hold of one of the legs and was freezing it solid. Recovering from her fall, Avalon (still encased in armor) drove one of her gauntlet energy blades into the leg that had smacked her, while Shiori sent both of her electricity-covered discs flying up into another pair of eyes on the far side. Jazz had conjured her gravity orbs near another of its legs, trying to yank it off balance that way while Avalon and Gordon attacked its legs on this side. Twister turned into a bird, flying up to land on its back before transforming into a lion to bite into the base of the thing’s neck. Sarah had her rifle up, shooting multiple times into other eyes from several directions at once. Sands turned into her shadow-form, sliding up one of the thing’s legs to its back behind Twister before bringing her mace up toward the roof of the cave. With a grunt, she slammed it downward, bringing a sharp pillar of stone out of the ceiling to stab into the creature’s back. Finally, Columbus sent a blast of energy from his goggles into the creature’s long, exposed throat. 

And none of it seemed to accomplish anything. Columbus’s blast hit the neck with no apparent reaction. Everyone stabbing or shooting into the thing’s eyes had their attacks bounce off as if the eyes themselves were made of steel. Twister’s teeth couldn’t puncture its neck, and the stone pillar that Sands had conjured crumbled as it struck the thing’s back. Even Avalon, Gordon, and Jazz had no luck. The energy blade did nothing to one leg, the ice had barely settled on the second before the creature simply snapped it outward to send shards flying everywhere, and if it noticed the pull from the gravity orbs, it didn’t give any indication. 

But no matter how easily it had shrugged off every attack, the creature was still very angry. Not that it showed that through the scream. In fact, the scream itself had completely stopped. Instead, the monster made a dark, violent noise, like a growl. Its head turned a bit, as though it was considering us. Then a smile came across its face, showing those rows of deadly teeth. It saw us, evaluated us, and found us to be no real threat. And yet, threat or not, it was still going to kill us. 

“Flick, can you possess it?!” Columbus shouted across the cavern at me. 

Grimacing, I created a portal in front of my hand. I hadn’t really done a lot of possessing animals (if that was even what this thing was), but if it would stop it from being a threat… I shoved my hand through to grab the side of the monster’s leg, making physical contact before using my stolen Seosten power. 

I was in the creature. And yet, I was not in control. I felt bottomless, unfathomable rage. I felt destruction. I felt the unfathomable, unrelenting fury of a full legion of monsters stuck within the body of one. A hundred, a thousand voices in that head, each of them crying out for more death, more violence, for blood to be spilt upon the altar of their endless thirst. It was as though every dark impulse, every drive toward savagery and cruelty, had been drawn from thousands of beings and shoved into this single mind. If it could even be called that. This creature, this monster, had the violent desires of all those different minds, each clamoring for more destruction. I couldn’t control or direct it any more than I could tell a planet where to move. 

For a moment, I thought I would lose myself within that horrific tide of sadistic barbarity. But at the last possible second, I remembered to eject myself. And eject I did, flying through the air to land hard on the ground almost directly next to where I’d been a moment earlier. Crashing down, I managed a weak, “Don’t.. do that. Bad. Very bad.” 

“Then we do it the hard way,” Avalon announced, after giving me a quick glance to make sure I was okay. When I struggled upward, she snapped her attention back to the creature. “Don’t spread out your attacks!” she shouted while backpedaling a bit. “Focus on one eye and one leg at a time! Make a hole and punch through it! Chambers, Porters, Lucases, and Asenath on the eyes! The rest of us on the legs! One target at a time til you do some damage!” 

Even as she said those words, the creature was sending several shots of webbing from multiple holes in its long neck, forcing everyone to dive out of the way. I barely managed to avoid being hit that time. Which was good, because I had absolutely no desire to end up trapped by that shit again.  

Giving a quick nod and mutter of good luck toward Doug, I ignored the nausea that had swam up in me at the memory of what possessing that thing had felt like and shoved myself into a sprint, gripping my weapon tightly as I shifted it back into its staff form. Bobbi leapt down toward me, coming my way so fast she was almost still a blur. Without missing a beat, I held my staff up for her to grab onto it before pivoting in place to hurl the smaller girl in the direction of one of the legs so she could maintain her speed. In mid-flight, she produced a glowing red energy sword before slamming it into one of the joints. Still no damage. 

But I couldn’t think about that, other than to hope that one of their attacks eventually got through. My sprint, by that point, had carried me close enough to the monster that I was able to leap and summon my new rocket-burst power to carry myself all the way up to its scaled back, landing almost exactly where Columbus had been a moment earlier. 

Sands was still there, pivoting around to put herself next to me. Even as she did that, I was already pointing my staff toward the thing’s ring of eyes. “It’s cool, I’ve got this!” With those words, I sent my super-heated cloud of sand right there. Screwing with vision using my sand was sort of my thing, I could–

And then the creature sent what seemed to be high-powered blasts of wind out of its fucking tear ducts to blow the sand away from its face. The wind was too strong for me to get the sand close. 

“Okay,” I amended, “I don’t got this.” So I was zero for two in trying to end this thing instantly. Stellar track record, Flick. And on top of everything else, I could still feel that weird, silent voice at the back of my mind. Only now it was worse, like something was desperately trying to shove its way out, or dig its way in. I couldn’t tell. Either way, this was a bad place to be in. We needed to get the fuck out of here. But we couldn’t, not until we dealt with this thing and saved those prisoners. 

Sands and I exchanged a quick glance and shrug before moving onto Plan B (or whatever letter this was). Namely, we looked up toward that ring of enormous eyes once more, far above us at the end of that long neck. Then we both jumped. Our strength had been enhanced enough by that point that, even without a boost, we could get some decent vertical distance. And I added to that by catching hold of the other girl while triggering the rocket burst once more. It carried us the rest of the way up there, as we both lashed out with our weapons. My bladed staff and her mace both slammed into the eye one after the other with as much force as we could muster. Which, considering Sands was capable of lifting a good four thousand pounds even without the boosted strength from standing still, and killing the Heretic back on Earth had pushed me up to just over that, was a lot of force. 

But again, our blows did nothing. The creature barely blinked under the pair of attacks. I was pretty sure the most we managed to do was annoy it, considering the way it screeched. 

Nor did Columbus’s follow-up blast of concussive energy, Shiori’s lightning breath, or Asenath’s own blast of lightning breath (she had borrowed some blood from Shiori to gain her powers for this whole thing) manage to do much better. I had no idea how the others on the ground were doing with the leg, but I hoped they were getting further than we were. 

By that point, Sands and I had almost collided with the ceiling, flipping ourselves over as the other girl made a quick wall for us to bounce off of. Which was just in time, as the creature opened its mouth to send a long, sharp tongue at the spot where we would have been an instant earlier. The tongue was more like a rope, with a blade on the end that probably would have pierced straight through us considering how easily it punched right up into the stone ceiling. 

Right, so unbelievably tough to the point of taking half a dozen blows against one eye without even blinking, strong enough to basically pulverize any of us with those massive legs, a bunch of blowholes around its neck that each could shoot acidic, almost-inescapable webbing, and now the thing had a long, prehensile tongue with a blade on the end that could go through stone. Were there any other powers or advantages this thing wanted to pull out to show how drastically outclassed we were? 

Fuck, I really shouldn’t have asked. 

Sure enough, the monster seemed to read my mind. Because the instant that Sands and I landed next to the others, it immediately began to produce a thick cloud of dark purple smoke from the same tear ducts it had produced the wind from. Which was weird, unfair, and very clearly poisonous. I didn’t even need my power to smell poison to kick in (which it did) before I realized that. Before the gas could reach us, I blurted, “Don’t breathe it!” 

“Worse than that!” Columbus snapped. Bringing up Amethyst in her shield form, he fired four of her spell-quills outward. In mid-air, the spells activated at a word from him, each creating their own sustained blast of wind to send the gas out away from us in various directions. “It’s acidic and hallucinogenic.” His hand tapped the side of his goggles in explanation. “It’ll melt your face off while giving you a psychotic trip of your worst nightmares, like the Scarecrow in Batman!”

Okay, that was just… not good. Quickly, before those wind spells could wear off (I was pretty sure he didn’t have an unlimited supply of them) I spat a wad of that thick resin stuff over the nearest tear duct to stop the gas from that one. 

Thankfully, Sands was already acting too. From her hands, she shot two different lines of spider-like webbing over a couple more gas-producing tear ducts. Meanwhile, Sarah chambered a round in her rifle, snapped it up once more, and fired a shot. But instead of being a normal bullet, that one exploded into thick putty when it hit the tear duct on that particular eye, before solidifying. 

Of course, the monster wasn’t just going to sit still and let us do that. The whole time we were dealing with the terror-gas, it kept jerking itself violently back and forth in an attempt to throw us off its back. It was all we could do to stay on, and I was pretty sure we wouldn’t even have managed that much if this thing wasn’t also busy dealing with the others attacking its legs. 

Worse, it was simultaneously sending more shots of that nasty webbing of its own at us through the holes in its neck. But we still had Shiori and Asenath, who kept blasting the incoming webbing with directed sonic-attack screams from the Cù-Sith that Shiori had killed way back during the whole business with tracking down Fahsteth last year. The screams were a bit loud for us, but the power was focused enough that the bulk of the sonic energy was directed in a straight line toward the incoming webbing, breaking it apart and scattering it before the stuff could reach us. 

At that moment, just as we finished blocking the thing’s gas-producing tear ducts that could reach us, the entire monster abruptly lurched to one side with a horrifying scream of rage. It was the others. Through sustained, directed attacks that entire time, they’d managed to get one of its legs off. And boy was our new friend pissed about that. It staggered that way, very nearly throwing the rest of us off its back. Still, it had nine legs left, three of which were violently stabbing down at the others down there. They definitely had its attention. 

And hey, the good news right then was that the tear ducts were blocked, so I could use my sand again. Unfortunately, the bad news was that this thing had no intention of letting me get that far. The group below may have pissed it off, but it hadn’t forgotten we were there. As evidenced by the fact that several of those eyes were glaring straight at those of us on its back. Yeah, it definitely hadn’t forgotten we were there. And it was going to do something about that, before we could take advantage of its ‘vulnerable’ eyes. 

In this case, that ‘something’ turned out to be ‘hold itself up on two of its remaining nine legs (one on each side), continue to stab at the people down there with three of the seven free ones, and twist the other four around to stab upward at us. Like someone reaching their arm around to scratch their own back. Only, well, much worse. Four bus-sized sharp spider-feet slamming down toward us from all sides. 

We got out of there, barely. The six of us bailed in different directions just in time, launching ourselves off the thing before it could pulverize any of us. Unfortunately, now we were falling from pretty high. Not far enough to kill us, given our strength boosts. But still not great. Fortunately, I was ready for that. With a thought, I summoned some of my volunteer ghost friends, one for each of us. The six ghosts manifested, catching us under our arms as they turned solid just long enough to lower us to the ground so we could land on our feet. 

Immediately, I fell to my knees with a gasp, pitching forward before catching myself with my hands. A short distance away, I could half-see the giant monster flailing violently. Its leg shot out toward Doug, but he managed to manifest those metal coils from his hands to shove himself up and out of the way. The deadly tongue nearly tore through Gordon, but he summoned a pillar of ice under his feet to lift himself up while shooting the monster’s face repeatedly with his own tommy gun. On the far side from Doug, another leg nearly took Sands’ head off but she froze, making herself all-but completely invulnerable for that instant so the leg actually bounced off her. 

It flailed, shot out more webs, screamed, threw those deadly legs around in every direction, and more. Yet I simply knelt there, staring at the ground. Above my head, Shiori and Avalon appeared as though by magic, working together to stop a set of webbing that had been coming my way. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, “are you–” 

Shoving myself to my feet in a single, smooth motion, I brought my staff up. “Everyone get ready to hit it with everything you’ve got!” I shouted as loud as I could. “And I wish someone had a camera.

“Cuz this is gonna be epic.” 

With those words, I grasped my staff high over my head with both hands, and reached out with my power. With my necromancy. Because in the moment that I had summoned those few ghosts to catch us as we fell, I had realized what that feeling in the back of my head the entire time we’d been coming down into this cave was. I’d realized what was trying to get my attention, what had been clamoring for a bit of power, a bit of strength. With a scream that tore its way out of my throat like a force of nature as I slammed my staff into the ground, I gave them that power.

People had died in this cave. Not a few. Not a dozen. Not a hundred. Three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five. All of them different ages, genders, and species. They had died here, as what amounted to blood sacrifices to create, empower, and feed this creature. In their terrible, traumatic deaths, ghosts had been left behind. At that moment, as I slammed my staff into the ground, I shoved every bit of power I could into those ghosts. I boosted myself for even more power, and I gave it all to them. Even then it probably wouldn’t have been enough to control that many ghosts with my particular skill level. But there was no controlling to be done here. I didn’t have to ask for them to do it. They were ready and waiting, desperate for a chance. 

Hey ugly!” I screamed as loud as I could, already wavering on my feet as the thing focused on me. My entire body was trembling from effort, sweat pouring down my brow. I could barely speak. “You got some friends…. who wanna say hi.” 

My staff collided with the floor of the cave, and in that instant, all three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five ghosts launched themselves upward out of the cave floor, all around the monster. They caught its legs, its extended tongue, its neck, they fell upon its back. They drove it to the floor and they held it there through sheer weight of numbers. It flailed, it screamed, it struggled, but it could do nothing. It was held down, trapped, pinned by the ghosts of the very same people who had been sacrificed to create it. 

Just like that, the monster’s neck was exposed, and everyone hit it in those brief seconds. Everyone but me, at least. Every attack they had, every power, everything they could hit it with was directed to one spot on the thing’s neck. They blasted it, cut it, shot it, burned it, they hit that single, small spot together. And under that assault, they broke through. They cracked the thing’s scales, they made a hole. A hole that someone could take advantage of. 

Sands was that someone. Rearing back, the girl hurled something small that way, like a pitcher on the mound letting loose with a fastball. But this wasn’t a leather-covered cork orb. It was a piece of wood, with runes along the side. And as Sands let it go, sending the wood flying at the single exposed hole in the monster’s neck, she triggered the magic on that wood. 

She summoned her theriangelos, the massive red and pink rhinoceros. And that three thousand pound rhino went flying, as fast as a girl who could lift four thousand pounds could hurl a small block that weighed about five ounces, straight at the single weak point that everyone had created. 

The rhino utterly annihilated that weak point, tearing through the monster’s neck and out the other side. Sands had severed the monster’s head from its body, and as she collapsed with a cry of pleasure, I released the ghosts I had summoned. I felt their own relief, their gratitude, as they vanished forever. 

“See,” I managed blearily, swaying a bit on my feet, “told you it was gonna be ep–” 

And then I passed out.  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

By Blood 17-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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 17-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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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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By Blood 17-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“I’ll give you this much, you make a much better teacher than you do a mentor.” 

After I spoke those words, Deveron looked up from the desk he was sitting at while raising an eyebrow. “I think I’ll take that as a compliment, even if that is a very low bar.” His face twisted into a slight grimace then before he added, “It’s vaguely possible that I should have gone a different route when it came to finding a way to avoid letting anyone at Crossroads know who I really was and what I was doing there.” He paused briefly to consider. “Then again, I do make a rather compelling lazy asshole.” 

“Like you were born for the job,” I shot back with a grin. 

It had been a couple of weeks since the arrival of the Olympus, and things had once more settled into something of a routine. At least, as much as a routine as they ever really got in this life. Puriel and the others were… well, not exactly settling in yet, but working on it. It was going to take a lot for most of the people around here to be at all comfortable with the man who had been Zeus being on the station, and probably even longer for him to be comfortable being around the rest of us. He was mostly keeping to himself, in the private apartments that he had been given to stay in. According to Tabbris, Sariel was spending a lot of time in there too, the two of them talking about… stuff. We weren’t sure exactly what was going on there, only that she was one of the few people he saw regularly beyond that Aletheia lady, Spark, the newly-dubbed Jehoel (formerly Omni), the rest of the Seosten children, and his own daughter, Theia. 

And my grandparents. I couldn’t forget about that. Any time that they didn’t spend with my dad and the rest of our family, they were with Puriel. Apparently they had gotten pretty close over the time that they had been  out there, which was just another layer of crazy for me. My grandparents were best friends with Hercules and pretty close to Zeus. I just–what was my life? 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, Deveron spoke up. “So you think I’m doing a passable job at this gig, huh? Better than the guy back at Crossroads?” His words were clearly teasing, and he was already rising from the desk while shuffling some papers together. 

I pretended to consider for a moment. “Well, the last guy was Sands’ and Sarah’s dad, sooo I’d say you’ve got a few legs up on him as far as personality goes. Don’t get me wrong, he was a pretty good English Lit teacher, really got us into some cool books. But there’s something about the way he completely betrayed you and my mom, and turned the whole rebellion into an open war that ended up killing probably thousands of people that just… I dunno, rubs me the wrong way. Maybe I’m overly-sensitive.”

Snorting audibly, Deveron shook his head. I saw a brief flash of the genuine anger he felt toward his old friend cross his face before he smothered it. “Yeah, I think he rubs me the wrong way too.” With that, he finished gathering those papers and gestured. “Your mom wanted me to make sure you eat something before we do this thing tonight. And you know she’ll ask, so let’s go. How’s your stomach? You nervous?” 

Shaking my head, I walked with him out of the classroom. “I mean, yes and no. If we’re lucky, we’re actually gonna find Senny’s dad, maybe even Gordon’s. That’s huge. And, you know, it’s dangerous, especially if we can’t get out of there before that Kyril Shamon guy shows up. Then it’ll get really bad. But I think we can do it. I think we can jump in there, deal with the guards, and get out with the prisoners. We’ve been doing that sort of thing all year, saving Alters from Loyalists. This is just… on one of their home turfs. But they have no idea we’re coming, and–” I cut myself off, grimacing. “Yeah, I keep going back and forth. But we’re ready for it. We planned it out, we’ve got the numbers, we’ve got–we’ve got this.” 

Deveron watched me briefly as we walked down the corridor, passing several other groups of people. He hesitated, clearly considering his next words before carefully asking, “Do you feel bad that your mother’s not going to be there after all?” 

Yeah, that was a thing. We had originally planned on Mom being part of this whole rescue. But a couple of days ago, a handful of very injured Alters had arrived and begged for her help. Their little haven in South America (Peru, specifically) was under assault by a group of Loyalist Eden’s Garden people, who were staging repeated attacks to weaken their defenses. Apparently some of the people there were old friends of Mom’s, people who had helped her back during the first war. She couldn’t abandon them. So she and Lillian Patters, Rebecca’s grandmother/Mom’s old roommate and best friend, had gone down there with a few others to help. Including Dare, who managed to get herself invited to help somehow without actually risking explaining just why she cared so much. 

In any case, Mom had hoped to have it taken care of by now, but it was taking too long. So she had asked Deveron to accompany us instead. Which really told me a lot about how much she trusted him, as if I didn’t already know. More to the point, I think it said a lot about how much she trusted me that she didn’t try to insist that I sit it out. 

It made sense, of course. I had been doing this stuff for quite a while before Mom was ever freed. Still, it meant a lot that she didn’t try to push the issue or protect me from everything. She trusted me to handle myself. Well, with Deveron for help, but still. I just hoped I was up to earning that trust. Which was probably a big part of why my confidence for this whole trip kept fluctuating. Was it weird that kept I thinking about how I didn’t want to disappoint my mother while going on this mission to literally save a bunch of slaves, including Senny’s dad? Just… strange priorities. 

Still, I hesitated only for a moment before shrugging. “Probably not as bad as she feels about not being there. But she’s doing important stuff too. It’s a umm, a big world, you know? Hell, where we’re going isn’t even on this world. I just mean, there’s a lot of people to take care of. Mom… they depend on her. Now that she’s back, she’s got a lot of… responsibilities.” Biting my lip briefly, I added, “All these people care about her too. And they need her.” 

Deveron’s hand settled on my shoulder, stopping me from walking. He met my gaze and gave a short nod. “You’re right, they do. That’s something I had to get used to a long time ago too. Sharing someone you love, someone as special as your mom, with the rest of the world isn’t the easiest thing. It hurts sometimes, and whenever you feel bad about it, that makes it worse. As if… as if you’re doing something wrong by being jealous, even if you don’t act on it. Even if you shove it down deep and try to ignore it. Even if it’s just a tiny little flicker of a feeling, you still feel like you did something wrong. Like you’re a horrible person for wanting her to be with you.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I put my own hand over his on my shoulder. “I guess that’s just the way it goes when you have someone as special as Mom. You have to share her. Other people need her too. I…” My throat closed up briefly before I swallowed hard. “I want to make her proud. I want her to know that she can leave us alone to take care of this other stuff and focus on the things she needs to do.” 

Deveron offered me a faint smile at that, his hand squeezing firmly. “Yeah. Well, then we’ll just have to do a good job with this thing. And like I said, part of that involves making sure you fuel up.” He pointed toward the nearby cafeteria. “So let’s get on with that. 

“Then we can meet up with everyone else, and get this show on the road.” 

*****

So, I ate food. It was pretty great, or at least I assumed it was. I wasn’t really tasting much of it. I needed it, but it was mostly just fifteen minutes of mechanical chewing and swallowing while my mind went over everything that we still needed to do, everything that we had planned. This wasn’t a fly-by-night operation by any means. Thanks to Childs and Fu Hao, we had the general layout of the camp we would be attacking. It wasn’t perfect, as there were parts they didn’t know about or didn’t have the full details of, and they couldn’t tell us the entire guard compliment or… certain other things. But it was something to work off of. We had that, and had spent these past couple weeks developing an actual plan beyond just ‘charge and pray.’ Sure, in the end, our overall goals were ‘run in, grab the prisoners, and get out again before the Victor comes to play,’ but we’d still put some more actual thought into it than that. 

That was another reason for Deveron to come along. We had made this plan thinking that Mom would be there, so he had to take her place. We needed someone the people there would recognize as a major figure in the old rebellion. And while Deveron wasn’t the huge leader that my mother was, he had definitely been prominent. After all, he was part of her original team and had been around from the very start. Anyone who knew the Rebellion knew that about Deveron. Well, now that the spell that had removed his identity from their minds had been undone by the spell that Gaia and I had done that brought back everyone’s memories of all that. I hadn’t been sure how that all worked, but according to Deveron himself, everyone else immediately remembered who he was and what he looked like as soon as we had done that. Just one of those side effects, apparently. Not that he minded, of course. By then, there had really been no point to keeping his true identity secret. 

So, Deveron was known, and we could use that to draw the attention of the guards out there. They would immediately recognize him and react. Which would give the rest of us a chance to get in there, deal with whatever guards were still left with the prisoners, and hopefully set things up to escape. 

Of course, we weren’t leaving Deveron alone to face everything he would be calling down on himself by playing distraction. Nor would he be the only distraction. Professors Tangle and Kohaku, along with Klassin Roe were going to be there too. And while Lillian wasn’t here, their other three teammates were. The cousins, Seamus and Roger Dornan, would be with Deveron while Tribald Kine came along with our group.  

Our group, which, beyond Tribald, consisted of myself, Shiori, Columbus, Avalon, Sarah, Sands, Jazz, Douglas, Gordon, Asenath, Twister, and Bobbi. Oh and Senny’s mother, Jiao. She was going along too, since she had something of a vested interest in rescuing her husband. Yeah, that obviously seemed like a lot of people. But we had no idea how much trouble we were going to run into there. And beyond that, there was the fact that the more people we had to get the prisoners together and ready to transport, the better. We needed to deal with guards in the way, take out any transport spell-blocking effects they had (and we knew there were some), and get the prisoners ready to go. 

So that was why we had so many going. Everyone in our group had their own jobs to do once we got past the initial push through whatever guards weren’t distracted by Deveron, Tangle, Kohaku, Roe, and the Dornans. Even if we were hoping the actual rescue part of this mission would be a quick in-and-out, it still required a lot of preparation and moving parts. And there were contingency plans just in case various things went wrong. 

Besides, before we could do the actual rescue part of the mission, we had to actually get to the prison. And that was… well, that was going to take awhile. 

In any case, we had drilled our way through the rescue part a few times and were… well, not exactly totally confident, but about as good as we could be. Things weren’t going to get any better, and if we waited much longer, Shamon might end up moving Tiras. Or Gordon’s father, if he was there. Besides, this was when that transport was supposed to be going there, and using the transport was incredibly important to our plans. No way did we want to wait to find another one. So even without Mom, even without having everything be perfect or having another week to run through drills, this was our time. We had to do it today. Or at least start it. The trip out to this colony world would take more than one day. We were going to have to hit the transport, get ourselves onboard, then settle in for a long journey. Yeah, we could have gotten there faster, but the transport the people there were expecting couldn’t (at least, not without expending a lot more power than they tended to), and we couldn’t give ourselves away that quickly. At least at first, we needed these prison people to think everything was totally normal. All their sensors and spells would tell them the transport was coming, and they had to think it was business as usual.

But first, we had to get the actual transport without letting them get a call off to warn anyone. This whole thing would completely fall apart if the people in the prison had any idea what was going on, or that anything was wrong. This first part might not have been as dangerous as the prison rescue itself, but we could still end up losing everything if we weren’t careful. 

“You nervous?” Jazz asked me, interrupting my thoughts as we were all milling around the portal room waiting to make the trip to intercept the supply transport. Everyone was talking in pairs or small groups, anxiousness showing even as we tried to distract one another and avoid dwelling too much on the what-ifs. 

“Me, nervous?” I tried to inject my voice with a casual air before coughing. “Yeah, I’d say I’m pretty nervous. How about you?” 

“Utterly fucking terrified,” Jazz cheerfully informed me. “Which is kind of weird, cuz we’ve done this sort of thing before, you know?” 

“Not like this,” I pointed out. “Raiding the private slave prison of one of the Eden’s Garden Victors on another colony world is a little different than a quick little in and out assault to protect some Alters somewhere here on Earth.” 

“Plus you’re nervous about helping Asenath’s dad,” Jazz pointed out before blanching a little. “Just like I’m nervous about finally finding Gordon’s.”

I nodded in agreement. “That too. I know how long Senny and Jiao have been trying to find him. I mean, I lost my mom around the same age they lost him, and I got her back like ten years later. Tiras has been missing for over two hundred years. They deserve to get him back, you know? Plus, like you said, Gordon needs his dad too. So this whole thing is super-important. To them, to Shiori, to me, to… everyone. But it’s also dangerous. There’s a lot that could go wrong.” 

“Sure is,” the other girl agreed. “But that’s part of why your little sister isn’t coming with us on the trip, isn’t it?” 

Yeah, Tabbris wasn’t going to be along for the ride. Not exactly. She was staying back here so that if anything went wrong, and our communications were cut off, she could still reach me and let the people back here know they needed to mount (another) rescue. It was one of our contingency plans. There had to be several of them because, well, again, a Victor’s prison colony on another planet. A hell of a lot of things could go wrong. We were trying to stay ahead of at least all the possibilities we could think of. It was impossible to plan for everything, but we were doing our best. 

“Sure,” I confirmed. “She… didn’t like the idea at first, but you know, it’s important. I think she thought we were just trying to keep her out of danger at first. But she understands. Besides, she deserves the chance to spend more time with her family. With the rest of her family,” I amended quietly. It had only been a couple weeks since Tabbris got her siblings back, after all. They needed to be together, that whole family. Bringing her along on this trip, which would take at least a week each direction, wouldn’t be fair. And I knew Tabbris felt torn between wanting to help me and not wanting to be away from her new siblings for that long. So, the whole ‘stay here and be ready to call in the cavalry if we need you’ was a good, valid reason to stop her from agonizing over making that decision. 

Besides, if I really needed her, she could always jump to me. 

Meanwhile, Persephone was staying back here too. She and the other Olympians around the station were working on a whole thing that had to do with the Seosten ghosts, their old crewmates. She had offered to come along, but I thought it was better that she spend time with them. She had spent so long not really being accepted by the crew of the Olympus that this chance to actually work with them was… it was important. Besides, I wanted her to know that she could be her own person with her own life, her own friends, her own… everything. She didn’t have to always be helping me or doing what I wanted her to do. 

By that point, Gordon had stepped over to join us. As always, the black boy’s face was serious and collected. But I had known the boy long enough that I could see through that. He was nervous, his eyes flicking around occasionally, while his mouth was pressed tight to stop himself from biting his lip. It was clearly all he could do to keep up appearances. And who could blame him? This was his dad we were talking about. Yeah, there was no guarantee that he was actually there, but this was undoubtedly the closest Gordon had ever gotten to finding him. 

Still, when he spoke, the boy managed to keep his voice about as flat as ever. “It’s almost time.” 

Meeting his gaze, I tentatively asked, “Think we’re ready for this?” 

He gave a single, short nod. “As ready as we’ll ever be without taking more time than we actually have.” There was a brief pause before he added, “Half of me wishes we had more time and the other half wishes it was over already.” 

I very nearly put a hand on his shoulder, but stopped myself. Gordon didn’t like to be touched.  So, instead I simply replied, “Yeah, don’t worry, I know what you mean. But no matter what happens with this, you’re gonna be closer to getting your dad back. Either he’ll be there, or someone there will know more about where he is. Even if we have to tear that whole place apart and ransack the brains of everyone there, we’ll find him.”  

Gordon looked at me in contemplative silence for a moment before replying, “I know you’re being encouraging. Thank you. But you know as well as I do that we don’t have a lot of time there. We need to get in and out before reinforcements show up. We don’t have the firepower to deal with the Victor himself.”  

“Yeah, we’ll have to work fast,” I agreed. “But we can do that. We’ve got the people, we’ve got surprise on our side, and we’re ready.” 

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Professor Kohaku announced from behind me as she and Klassin Roe approached. 

Her voice made everyone else look over and quiet down as well. Avalon came up to one side of me, and I could see Shiori meet my gaze from where she was standing next to Asenath, Bobbi, and the ghost of Seth. Yeah, he wasn’t going to be left out of this. 

“It’s time?” Gordon asked, his own voice filling the silence that had briefly settled over the room. 

Deveron, joining Kohaku and Klassin, confirmed, “Yeah, it’s time. We’re not gonna get a better chance than this. You all know your parts. You know where we’re going, how we’re hitting that transport, and how we’re gonna make sure they can’t call for help. We’ve been over it, you’re ready.

“So no more planning. No more training. Let’s load up and get out there.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Class Action 14-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

As it turned out, my first Universal Ecology (which Ruedu outright said was an almost hilariously broad subject) lesson was focused on the Relukun. Or rather, on the effect a large group of them had had on human society here on Earth when they set up a society in the forests of England back during the middle ages. Apparently, even with the (not as strong as it was now) Bystander Effect in place, the presence of a colony of Relukun in England had led to a lot of their myths about the forest and trees in general. Such as the idea that a Rowan tree would protect against enchantment and witchcraft. The local Relukun tribe protected a village against an evil sorceress of some sort, and that had spread out through the Bystander Affected humans as ‘trees protecting people from evil magic.’ Things like that. 

There were two fur-covered lion-like boys who were wearing letterman jackets with the name of some high school in Iowa seated on the far side of the classroom from where I was. One of them raised his hand after we got through that bit. “So like, the humans remember certain pieces of what happened even with that spell? Like, subconsciously or whatever. Enough for their brains to go, ‘ooh, tree saved me’ but not enough to remember the tree walked and talked.”

With a quick, eager nod, Ruedu confirmed, “Yes! That is correct. Less so now, but still some. The memory’k is changed and suppressed, but there are still echoes, fragments. These echoes form much of human myth and legend, you’k see’k? The Relukun who’k lived in the forests there affected much of emerging human stories. Not only’k with myths of magic wood, but of monsters lurking in those forests, when the Relukun went to’k war with a tribe of were-creatures who’k insisted on encroaching upon their territory.”  

That made another boy, whom I suspected was some sort of Were himself, raise his own hand before asking, “A war with Weres? You mean like some kind of super pack, like the one–” He cut himself off briefly, looking over his shoulder in my direction for a moment before turning back and quietly finishing with, “The one Lemuel put together.” 

At a nod from Ruedu, Hazel spoke up. “That’s right, though they weren’t quite as violent or set on attacking everyone in sight as the one you’re talking about. From the different histories that came out of both groups, we’re pretty sure a lot of it was a case of miscommunication and egos. At least at first. Both groups wanted the same area, and there were some badly translated negotiations that ended up making everything worse until they started fighting. Even that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near as far as it did if it wasn’t for the Herr-Pala.” 

“The air-pay-lay?” Rebecca blurted. “What’s an air-pay-lay?” 

He spelled it for us, including the silent h at the start, which wasn’t even remotely fair. Then Hazel went on to explain, “A long, long time ago, even by our standards, the world that the Relukun call home was ruled almost entirely by a very dangerous man named Pala. If you’ve spent enough time here on Earth to understand the reference, you could compare him pretty closely to someone like Genghis Khan. Same general idea. He died forever ago, but the Herr-Pala consider themselves his heirs, his descendants. The name means saplings of Pala. Basically, they’re really mad at the rest of their people for not being more into war and battle and all that. They think the Relukun should be conquerors, the way they used to be. So they push for battle as much as they can.” 

Ruedu took over then. “Yes, yes, precisely’k. The Herr-Pala think it is bad to’k be’k passive or to’k make peace with others rather than conquering all who’k stand in their way. And of course there is something to be said for not being too’k passive.” She looked away briefly, as thoughts of the position her own people had been in for so long clearly ran through her mind. But she shook it off quickly and focused. “That can leave your species in a very bad spot. But in this case, the Herr-Pala were creating more of a problem than they were solving. They wanted war, and the disagreement with the were pack gave them an excuse. The pack called themselves ‘Of Remus.’ If you’k were a bird-were, you’k were ‘Talon of Remus’ or ‘Feather of Remus.’ A wolf were would be ‘Fang of Remus,’ or a lion or panther would be ‘Claw of Remus.’ There was some variation, enough that it would not tell you exactly what someone was by hearing their title. Which is how they wanted it. Obfuscation was useful, yes.” 

She looked to Hazel then, before the Seosten put in, “There’s some theories that the specific ‘feather, talon, fang’ and so forth also had something to do with rank within the pack, but as we haven’t been able to talk to anyone who was directly there and was a reliable source, that’s still just a maybe.” 

“What happened when the pack and the Relukun went to war?” Jazz asked. “I mean, which side won?”

“As is true’k in most such wars of territory’k and pride, there were far more losers than winners,” Ruedu answered quietly. “So many’k died. Not only’k among the pack and the Relukun, but among many’k innocents and uninvolved who’k happened to be there. War is fast and angry’k. It does not spare time to’k think of who’k is deserving or not.”

Hazel spoke up. “There’s a lot of things out there that make Bystander people afraid of the forest. Too many to count or to put the blame on any one group. But the war between the Remus pack and that tribe of Relukun sure didn’t help matters. It helped convince the people of England that there were monsters in the trees, and that even some of the trees themselves could be monsters. Or some of the trees could be helpful, like we said before. The point is, the people who grew up in those areas while that war was going on spread their stories everywhere else. And that by itself affected a lot, not only as far as the type of stories that people were telling, but also in how they interacted with their environment. Bystanders wanting certain types of wood because they thought it would protect them made others want to plant more of those trees, those flowers, and anything else that was supposed to be important like that.” 

“And that,” Ruedu explained with a glance toward me, “is one of the important things you’k will continue’k to’k learn in this class as we’k keep going. Our unit for these few weeks will focus on how situations within the Bystander world affected Alters and Bonded alike, and vice versa. We’k will be’k dividing into groups of five, and you’k will research two events of your choosing. One will be’k in how a situation within the Bystander world strongly affected the Alter world. The other will be the opposite, an event within the Alter world which strongly’k affected the Bystanders. And no,” she added with a chuckle-clatter of her mandibles, “you’k cannot use the one we’d just told you’k about.” 

That prompted a little bit of good-natured groaning from people who had thought they had a chance at an easy headstart, before everyone started to divide into groups. For me, it was easy to get a quick team of four with Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon. But that left us one short. Or it did, until Jazz darted off to grab someone. She came back with one of her (and Gordon’s) housemates, Ruckus. He was the Alter who appeared to be made out of several giant slinkies, just an assortment of metal coils. Two slinkies for his legs, a big one in the middle for his body, two for his arms, and a head that was a slinky on its side with the ends connecting to make a circle. Two glowing red orbs, barely visible between a couple vertical coils of his head-slinky, were apparently his eyes. 

I hadn’t spent much time around Ruckus before, but I did remember one thing about him. 

“Youreallywantmetojoinyourgroup? Ohmygoshyouhavenoideahowcoolthatis! Ireallydidn’tknowwhichgrouptojoinbutifyouwantmetoI’mthere!” 

Yeah, that was the bit I remembered. He was like December, if not even more of a fast-talker. Every sentence all blurred together and it took me a second to really process what he was saying. “Uh, yeah, sure. That’s cool,” I managed, holding out a hand. “Welcome to the team, partner.” 

He bounced at that, literally. His coiled metal legs extended and he launched himself nearly to the ceiling before coming back down again and bouncing a little more carefully. “Thatissocool! YesyesyesI’mthere. ImeanI’mhere!” 

Chuckling despite myself, I nodded before taking one of his metal coils in my grip. It felt a little weird to hold. He did have something approximating a hand there, though it was more of claw made out of five thin metal pincer-finger things. He had a good grip too, shaking my hand enthusiastically while promising in a rush that he would help and be a good part of the group. 

Eventually, all the groups managed to organize themselves and we were told to take some time after classes to figure out what two events we wanted to focus on. We were supposed to have a plan when we came back to this class on Friday. Actually, we were supposed to have several options, just in case two (or more) groups chose the same thing. Ruedu wanted every group to focus on different events, so if more than one chose the same, she’d pick a group out of a hat or something to decide who got to do that one. 

In any case, once that was settled and people were thinking about what events to suggest to their team, she and Hazel went back to discussing that whole war between the Relukun tribe and the Remus pack, and how it had affected Bystander history, lore, even the availability of crops in the area. That single event–okay, not a single event given it had lasted for years, but still, that one thing had created a domino effect that changed a lot in the area. And that sent waves of change throughout all of England and beyond, given how much influence people of the UK had had over the rest of the world for so long. 

Yeah, I had the feeling I was going to learn a lot from this class. And all of that made me wonder about something else important. Years, decades, even centuries in the future, how would other students in those classes learn about the whole Bosch civil war going on right now? 

And which side would they be learning those lessons from? 

******

After that, the second class I had was a little more familiar. It was Trials of the Sea, with Sinbad. Apparently this was the same class unit I had started before everything happened, he was just back around to the start. Or close enough that I could easily pick up things as we went along. 

It was, of course, a bit of a shift to go from talking about how different events affected the Bystander or Alter world in ecological terms, to standing on a wooden ship somewhere in the middle of the Starstation’s massive (three-hundred and fifty miles long and a hundred and fifty miles wide) artificial lake so we could talk all about treasure hunting, ship-to-ship combat, diving, or just plain sailing. Though referring to it as ‘plain’ was probably a bad idea, since from everything I’d heard, even totally normal sailing was never ‘plain.’ There were so many natural dangers in being out on the sea with just a wooden ship and the rest of the crew around you, let alone the living, magical, or man-made ones. Yeah, sailing the oceans was a lot of things, but it was clearly never boring. 

This particular class I was taking with Sands, Sarah, Roxa, and Shiloh (the Caucasian girl from ‘Harper’ and Eiji’s team with jaggedly-cut brown hair who used a wrist-mounted computer that could ‘hack’ into and control almost any object from computers to cars, guns, doors, etcetera). 

In Roxa’s case, apparently she was taking a lighter schedule so that she could spend more time with her pack. But she still wanted to be around some and take classes with the rest of us since she could do that while still being herself and not hiding what she was, unlike the situation with Crossroads. The rest of us were still taking three classes a day, alternating between being focused on mundane and magical. Though there was some overlap in that, since the previous class about Universal Ecology was actually considered one of the mundane ones. I supposed a better descriptor of them would be ‘academic’ versus ‘action.’ Some classes were focused on book and fact learning, others were more about getting out there and doing things. Training versus classroom learning, that sort of thing. 

Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how they determined the system, but it was apparently working well enough. And I sure wasn’t going to argue about getting another chance to take this particular class. Growing up in Wyoming meant I hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time at the ocean, or on boats in general. This was just plain neat. 

At the moment, we were all standing around on the deck of the ship after coming through the connecting portal that brought us here. There was no sign of the teacher yet, but I was pretty sure Sinbad would shrivel up and die if he didn’t get to make at least three dramatic entrances per day. 

This was technically the fifth class this group had had together, but I could catch up on anything I’d missed in my off-hours. Just another one of the benefits of never needing much sleep, which was a list that seemed to be growing long enough to reach into the triple digits. 

Oh, and there was one more benefit to having a class like this. 

“She’s so huge!” one of the other students gushed excitedly. He was a Lupera, the red-furred humanoid canine figures who were another of the four sapient species who came from the same world as the Akharu. Which was apparently called Verhava (pronounced Vare-Hay-Vuh) Anyway, the ‘she’ the Lupera student was referring to happened to be Princess Cuddles, my great white shark who was currently gliding through the water just off the side of the ship. The rest of my sharks were arranged a bit behind her as they moved almost in formation, like a squad of fighter jets. Because that was the other benefit to having this class. It meant I could be around all my sharks together. Being able to pull them to me in those forcefield bubble things was still incredible, but getting all of them together in their natural habitat was fun too. I had summoned one at a time from the bigger-on-the-inside vial and sent them down into the lake to stretch their fins there. I could almost sense their excitement with this whole thing, because they knew I’d be able to swim with them soon. And boy did they like it when I swam with them. 

Stepping over beside the boy, I leaned out to look down into the water myself. Yeah, PC was definitely playing up for the crowd of students, who all kept oohing and ahhing over all the sharks, but her in particular. Well, her and Jabberjaw, who was still Mr. Vanity, doing anything he could to get the crowd to pay attention to him. 

Realizing I was standing next to him, the Luperan boy looked over to me, a grin evident in his snout. “That must be so cool, making friends with all these sharks. They really listen to you?” 

Matching his smile with one of my own (okay, with slightly fewer fangs involved), I gave a quick nod. “It is pretty cool. And yeah, they’re my shiver. Oh, that’s what you call a group of sharks,” I added in response to his briefly confused look. 

“Awesome!” the boy barked, almost literally. Belatedly, he extended a hand. “Sorry, we all know who you are, but I’m Timmins. Actually I have like three names, one of them’s–” And then he made a long, complicated growl-bark-yip sound. “But the Trade language version is more like Seclutimminsrek. I prefer just the Timmins part.” 

“Well, Timmins it is then,” I greeted him while shaking the boy’s hand. “Did you uhh, grow up on Verhava then?” I was curious about that world in general, particularly given the fact that we were supposed to be getting close to tracking down Asenath’s father. The fact that it was the native home of four distinct and very different sapient species was pretty curious in and of itself. As far as I could tell, that wasn’t very normal. Four species, the Akharu, the Vestil, these Luperan, and finally, the last of the Verhavan natives were Incubi/Succubi. Those people were capable of shifting their sex as needed, and did a lot of the whole ‘draining people’s life force either through sex or by making bargains/deals’ thing that tended to be attributed to demons in Bystander myths. 

It was an Incubus that Deveron had killed to get his permanently radically altered appearance when he was my age. Which made me picture what seeing a female version of him would be like, and boy was that different. 

“For awhile!” Timmins enthusiastically confirmed, his ears perking up. “We took a colony ship away when I was–uhh, like the human equivalent of twelve?” His head tilted as he did a bit of mental math before giving a sharp nod. “Yeah, that!”

“You took a colony ship? Like a spaceship?” That was Shiloh, who had stepped up beside me to look down at the sharks before focusing on what he had just said. Only belatedly did she flush visibly and start to take a step back. “Err, sorry. That was rude.” 

Both Timmins and I insisted she was fine, before the Luperan boy confirmed that he did indeed mean a colonizing spaceship. “We were supposed to go to this other hidden planet behind an asteroid belt, where some of our people set up to escape all the wars. But we hit some kind of magical… portal… transport thing and ended up crashing here on Earth, in Arizona. That was like… ten years ago.” 

“Dude,” Shiloh gushed while absentmindedly brushing her uneven bangs back out of her face, “you’ve gotta–hang on.” Glancing over to the corner of the ship where she’d dumped her backpack with most of the others, the girl hit a button on her wrist-mounted computer. As she did so, a narrow beam of green light flew out to hit the bag. A second later, the thing literally floated up and moved through the air to where we were, controlled by a few short gestures from Shiloh’s hand. When it was close enough for her to grab, she did so, reaching in to take out a bag of beef jerky, which she offered to the canine boy. “Trade a snack for you telling me all about your world during lunch?” 

“Hey, I’d like to get in on that too,” I put in. “I uhh, I’ll get back to you on the bribe part.” 

“Are you kidding?” Timmins gushed. “I’d tell you guys all about home for free!” After a brief double-take at the bag of dried meat offered, he quickly grabbed it. “But uhh, if you wanna share…” He was clearly embarrassed by his own excitement over getting the jerky, his tail wagging rapidly. 

With a giggle, Shiloh gestured. “Take it, no worries. I did offer. Just make sure you’ve got some good stories to tell, huh? I’m sorta collecting them for a book. Stories about other worlds, I mean.” 

“Really?” That was news to me, and I blinked that way. “That’s pretty cool.” 

She started to nod and say something else about it, but that was the point where Sinbad chose to make his grand entrance for the day. That entrance, in this case, turned out to be descending through the sky while riding a giant feathered serpent with wings. Yeah, seriously. The thing was fifty feet long, fairly narrow like a snake along with an appropriately-shaped head, but had feathers all over it along with six large wings, three on each side all working in concert. 

As soon as the first cry went up as the feathered serpent appeared with Sinbad literally standing near the head, the thing dove fast and began to fly in circles slowly around the ship, far enough out that the wings didn’t immediately capsize us, though it did lurch under our feet a bit. The heavily-tanned man, wearing a glorious violet and silver sleeveless silk shirt, stood tall as his long, curly dark hair flew wildly in the wind. His gold eyes seemed to gleam just as much as his gold, silver, and ruby teeth as he grinned. “Good morning, my brilliant treasure seekers!

“Who’s ready for an adventure?!” 

A/N – the next commissioned chapter will be out early Friday afternoon, US mountain time.

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Class Action 14-02 (Heretical Edge)

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It turned out to be a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of time before classes, because apparently Sariel and Haiden were going to take Persephone to talk to a few people. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was about, but the general gist was that they thought she could help solve a few mysteries related to things she might have heard while close to Manakel. Stuff he’d done or asked to be done back before he’d sent her away that last time. Which would’ve been a hundred years earlier, right around the time the first revolution was really getting going. I didn’t know if what they were checking had anything to do with that, of course, though I did hear the name Dallant while they were having a quiet conversation. The baron guy. Whatever they were having Persephone talk to people about, at least part of it seemed to have something to do with the maybe-bad guy Wyoming baron. That was… interesting. 

All that aside, Persephone had been happy to see me. Actually, she was happy to see all of us, and very cheerfully introduced herself to Columbus. And then equally cheerfully did so for Amethyst when the cyberform poked her head up over the boy’s shoulder from her place in his backpack. They talked a bit, she got him to tell her about his past and life as a Bystander before Crossroads. Persephone seemed fascinated by the concept of adoption and asked a lot of questions about that. Andromeda, speaking through a computer pad thing clipped to her belt, occasionally piped up to tell Persephone when she was possibly asking something that was too personal, but for the most part, Columbus rolled with it and answered as best as he could. 

After briefly glancing over to see that Dylan girl with Vanessa, Haiden, and Sariel, having a discussion about the other Vanessa, I focused on the Revenant-girl nearby. “Uh, Persephone?” 

Turning a bright smile my way, the white-haired woman cheerfully started to reply, “Yes, my…” She trailed off, seeming to catch herself before very deliberately changing her words to, “Yes, Flick?” 

“Do you mind if I talk to Andromeda for a second? Uh, over there, I mean.” I gestured to a corner of the Moons’ very cozy little living room. “Not that it’s a secret or anything, I just wanna ask her a couple things that might be sensitive for her.” 

She immediately agreed, taking off the little tablet and handing it to me. So, leaving her talking to Tabbris, December, Tristan, Columbus, Sands, and Sarah, I stepped over to the corner and used an enchanted coin to make sure I could ask my questions privately. 

“Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?” the voice from the tablet asked curiously. 

“Huh? Oh, no.” My head shook. “Nothing’s wrong. I mean not really, I just sorta wanted to ask a couple things. Like… umm, do you not have any way of having a body? I mean, with the tech level around the universe, it seems like you could’ve had a robot body built for yourself pretty easily. So I was just wondering if something was preventing that, or if you just… chose not to. Not that that’s a problem, you should go with whatever you’re comfortable with, but if you want a body and there’s some reason you haven’t–yeah. This is why I wanted to talk to you privately about it.” 

After a brief pause, the voice from the tablet responded quietly. “You are very thoughtful, Miss Chambers. You have my sincere thanks for the consideration.” That was followed by another pause, this one a bit longer. It actually made me wonder how her whole ‘AI-ness’ worked. Like, was she doing a bazillion calculations a second and still taking a noticeable pause before responding to me because her conscious thoughts truly took that long, or was it more of a case of her intentionally attempting to seem more human–err… biological, by including a pause? 

Either way, whatever the reason, eventually Andromeda spoke again. “I have indeed had a body before. Many, in fact. I tend to be rather rough with them, given my ability to survive their destruction with relative ease. Unfortunately, my capacity to ensure that a satisfactory new body is prepared does not match my ability to get them destroyed. I watch for appropriate shells that can be easily taken and modified for my purposes, and provide what compensation I can in the cases where a more delicate touch than what Percy tends toward is needed. She is surprisingly careful when she needs to be, but there are times when an actual expert must be used. Though I have had some success in simply injecting myself into the various robots used to perform various maintenance tasks.” Once more, a slight pause before, “We make do. Currently, I am in the ‘watching for a good body to… I believe, from the media I have absorbed, that the correct term would be ‘yoink?’” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while holding the pad up in front of me. “Yeah, I think yoink would be the right term. And I know some people, maybe I can see if we can put in an order for you. Making a body to your specifications might be just the challenge they’re looking for.” 

“I… I thank you for the thought, Miss Chambers,” came the response a moment later. She sounded a bit surprised, which, given the whole situation, had to be intentional? She was expressing surprise by making her voice sound that way, as deliberately as someone saying ‘I am surprised.’ Which again, made me wonder about how her whole personality and mind worked. But it probably would’ve been a bit rude to go outright asking. At least for now. 

Instead, I just gave her a slight smile. Well, gave the camera on the device a smile, anyway. “Lemme talk to my friends, we’ll see what we can come up with. Oh, uhh, also I know your name is Andromeda and the myths portray you as a female, but the myths aren’t exactly accurate about you being a computer intelligence, and I don’t know how much of your voice is intentional or whatever. Or, you know, exactly how accurate Persephone is. So um, do you prefer to present as female or male?”

“I… present as female,” she informed me. “But it is good to be asked.” 

So, I simply promised once more that I would talk to the others about the whole body thing when I got a chance. Then the two of us returned to the main conversation. Not that those of us who were actually students could take too much longer. It was almost time for class. 

And hey, nothing had blown up yet. 

******

The Fusion School was still working the way it had back when it started several months earlier. Mainly, classes were decided and scheduled at the beginning of the week based on who was available to teach. It wasn’t exactly the sort of curriculum an ordinary school would sign off on. But then again, an ordinary school didn’t have to deal with anywhere near the amount of evil werewolves, trolls, giant fire-wielding flying snakes, or kidnap-happy psycho necromancer pieces of shit that this one did. To say nothing of an ongoing war against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, although that was relatively limited to a skirmish here and there whenever any loyalists happened to cross paths with our rebels. At this point, there hadn’t really been much in the way of a full-scale, prolonged battle aside from when we had rescued Sean and the other prisoners. 

With all that to deal with, it was a real wonder we managed to have any classes, let alone scheduled ones. But Abigail, and plenty of others, were insistent that we do our best to keep some semblance of education going for everyone. Even if that meant just taking each schedule on a week by week basis and basically piecemealing the curriculum as best as they could. 

The point was, it was probably a good thing Abigail didn’t have to answer to any sort of education board or follow any laws or anything. They were doing the best they could, but still.

In any case, my first class that day was definitely in-keeping with the idea of having a bit of normal, mundane education. Well, sort of. It was Ecology, which was absolutely a class you’d have in the Bystander world. Except in this case, that whole ‘studying the relationships between living beings and their environment’ included a lot more variety both in ‘living beings’ and ‘environment.’ Most recently, they had been covering the subject of how technology and magic both allowed hyper-specialized species to branch out from their native lands. Such as creatures who only breathed methane being able to create enclosed suits to operate within an oxygen environment. At least, that’s what they had covered according to what I followed from the brief rundown Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon gave me while the four of us were on our way there. Avalon, Shiori, and the others weren’t part of that, as they had a different class to go to where they were in the middle of a course that would be far too difficult for me to just pick up in the middle. I’d have to take that one later once the professor got back around to the beginning again. Such was the joy of this sort of school schedule. You jumped on a class as close to the start as you could and rode it as far as the professor could take you before they got busy. 

We were still walking together quickly down the hall toward the classroom itself as Rebecca glanced at me. The tiny girl (for a human of our age anyway, the whole concept of size got really muddled in a school which included both pixies and a few trolls, ogres, and the like) asked, “You really saw the surviving Meregan, and they’re umm, they’re okay? Grandma said they were going to a new planet with these aliens–err, I mean these other aliens.” 

“Oh, uh, yeah.” I gave a quick nod. “They made some friends who live in some other universe or whatever, so completely safe from the Fomorians and the Seosten. For now, anyway. They’re setting up over there so the Meregan can recover and start to rebuild… everything. Sucks that they have to leave their whole planet behind, but rather lose the planet than the species.” Pausing then, I curiously added, “Do you know any Meregan?” 

“Huh?” Rebecca blinked before shaking her head. “Oh, uh, not exactly. Grandma was talking about them before you guys went over there for your rescue mission. She umm, she met a few back when she was with your mom in their old… you know, that whole thing.” Shifting from one foot to the other, the girl explained, “I just… from what she said, they’ve been through a lot. It sucks. Even their ‘happy ending’ or whatever was all about abandoning their homeworld to be completely destroyed by those stupid genocidal monsters. And that was like… the deus ex machina best-case scenario that could’ve happened aside from all the Fomorians across the universe being instantly obliterated.” 

“And wouldn’t that be a fun time for everyone,” Jazz put in with a snort. “I mean, sure, everyone would keep fighting because of course they would. But if the Seosten weren’t focused on fighting this war with the Fomorians, they’d probably…” She trailed off, frowning. “Huh, how long have they been fighting it, again? What do you think they’d do if the Fomorians didn’t exist?” 

We had stopped outside the classroom by that point, as Gordon spoke up. “Hundreds of thousands of years. Their entire society and existence has been built around this war for… you know, hundreds of generations. It’d be like if humans were still fighting a war that started back in ancient China or something. And never stopped fighting it. If that all disappeared, they just…” He paused before making a face. “They’d probably find some other enemy to fight.” 

“You don’t think they’d be glad they had peace?” Rebecca asked. “They could give it a chance.” 

Gordon, however, shook his head, voice quiet. “Historically speaking–I mean, we don’t really have any comparison historically speaking, but generally, the odds that they could just turn completely away from having a big bad opponent to fight and be peaceful again are… slim. Like I said, this is all they know. It’s all they’ve known for what might as well be their entire existence.”

“He’s right.” The voice came from nearby, as we turned to see an incredibly, achingly handsome guy with long, slightly curly dark hair and the deepest blue eyes standing next to the door we were blocking. He looked like he was maybe a year or two older than we were (so who the hell knew how old he actually was), and wore a simple pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt with all the buttons open over a black tee shirt that had a picture of the Death Star blowing up on it. “My people probably wouldn’t handle any sort of sudden peace very well.” With that, he extended a hand my way. “Sorry, jumping into a conversation was rude, even if the others here know me. My name is Hazaelibre, but people around here mostly call me Hazel.” 

“Uh, Flick.” I accepted the handshake before adding, “These guys know you, huh? You take this class too?”

“Unfortunately, I’m only allowed to take the class as far as my boss will let me.” The handsome Seosten replied with a broad, distractingly glamorous smile. That same smile faltered a second later as he squinted. “Uh. right, that’s only funny if you actually know what’s going on.” With a cough, he added, “Would someone please help me out here so I don’t look quite as dumb?” 

Snorting, Rebecca spoke up. “Hazel’s the teacher’s assistant. He helps with the class.” 

“See?” Hazel made a grand gesture with both hands as though to indicate himself. “I’m only allowed to take you and the other students as far as the teacher lets m–never mind.” Rolling his eyes at his own words, he added, “I promise, I try to do my best to help with class a lot better than I make jokes. But my baking? That’s top-notch.” 

“He’s not kidding,” Jazz informed me. “He brought some pastries in a couple times. They’re amazing.”

The others agreed, and I felt a pang. They had spent weeks here going to classes and forming these relationships while I was gone. I had never met this Hazel guy before, and these guys were so casual and easy with him. They’d had his pastries. Wait, did that sound like a euphemism? I didn’t think so, but basically everything was a euphemism anymore. 

Still, I pushed all that aside and managed a slight smile. “Well, I look forward to the next time you fire up the oven, then. You said you’re the teacher’s assistant?”

With an easy nod, the man confirmed, “That’s right. And my boss gets a little antsy if we take too long out here.” Once more, he grinned as though expecting me to get some sort of joke, before that too faltered. “Uh, just remember I said that while you go inside.” That said, Hazel turned and opened the door, gesturing for all of us to go ahead. 

“Don’t worry,” Rebecca whispered while stepping past me, “you’ll get it in a second.” 

And get it I did, as we moved into the classroom and I saw the figure waiting near the front, standing next to the teacher’s desk. It–it was a Kenkean, one of the humanoid ant-like beings that we had saved from Isaac back when we were way out in Seosten space. Just like the rest of those people, this Kenkean looked like an ant whose three body sections were stacked vertically rather than horizontally, with four legs attached to the bottom of the abdomen and four arms (two at the top and two at the bottom) coming out of the thorax. And then, of course, the ant-head.

Oh, and this Kenkean wore clothes, of a sort. Specifically, a set of what looked like jeans, but specially made to fit those four legs together. They also wore a red and white pin-striped shirt and red suspenders, with a bowler hat perched on top of their head. All in all, it looked kind of ridiculous. But hey, who was I to judge? I barely understood anything about human fashion, let alone Kenkean. 

“Welcome, welcome back to’k the class!” The Kenkean spoke with that familiar clicking k sound as their mandibles clacked together. The voice sounded male, and I was just considering whether I should make that sort of assumption when the Kenkean focused on me. Those big ant-eyes widened almost comically. “Flick! It is me’k, the one you’k have spoken to! Ru–”

“Ruedu?” I quickly blurted in surprise, looking the Kenkean up and down. He–no, she, I remembered belatedly. I’d made that same mistake before too, but Ruedu had made it clear she was female. She looked a lot different than when I had last seen her right after that whole fight with Isaac. Much less grovely, for one. And she was wearing those clothes. And– “You’re teaching?” I managed to get that part out verbally, the surprise in my voice enough to make several students around the room alternately cough or snicker. Or squint at me as though trying to decide if I had a problem with that. Which, given the attitudes of Boschers they had grown up with, was fair. 

Ruedu’s mandibles clattered together repeatedly in what I belatedly realized was some form of chuckle. “Yes, we’k Kenkeans have changed much. Not all. Some stay in the tunnels. But others came and we’k learned much. We’k grow much. And I very’k good with learning. Always been put in helping office jobs. Make old masters happy with organizing. I used that time to learn many things in their books. But never was able to use such learning for anything good. Not til we’k came here and speak to’k Principal Fellows. She’k was very’k impressed by the things I know.” 

“And she gave you a job.” Finishing those words, I smiled. “It’s good to see you again, you look… wow. You look great, Ruedu. Seriously.” Hearing her talk a bit more, I had realized another change. She wasn’t making that clicking k sound on every word that ended in a vowel after all, only on words that ended in ‘ee’ or ‘ooh’ sounds. Words like we, very, you, and so on. Was that just a measure of having more practice speaking English? 

Somehow, I could tell the ant-like woman was beaming. “It is good to see’k you too’k, Flick. Very’k good.” Her voice turned a little stern then, though I could tell it wasn’t exactly easy for her. “But do’k not think I shall be’k easy’k on you’k. You’k will learn your grade in this class. You’k will learn all of your lessons, yes?” 

Yeah, I could tell that it took an effort for Ruedu to put her foot down, after spending so long as part of a slave race. Honestly, I was surprised she had progressed this far already, even if it had been like three-quarters of a year by now. She clearly wanted to do a good job teaching. And I certainly wasn’t going to jeopardize that.

So, I took a seat with the others. A few people around us wanted to ask a bit about that whole Fossor thing, having heard either second or third-hand about how it went. With a glance toward Ruedu, who was moving over to start doing something on the holographic board, I quietly promised to write everything down. 

Because that was the thing. All these people kept asking me about what happened, wanting to get my first-hand experience on the whole death of Fossor. And I knew how to give them what they wanted. I didn’t need to sit here and repeatedly tell the story. I needed to write it down. Like a newspaper article. So, that was what I would do. I would write it down and let people read the story for themselves. 

But in the meantime, I had a class on Universe Ecology. Taught by my old Kenkean friend, who was assisted by one of the Seosten, the race who had previously enslaved her. The last I’d known, she was meek and could barely speak up for herself, ready to prostrate herself along with the rest of her people in front of us when she thought we were Seosten. Now she was… wow. 

One thing was for sure. Things really had changed a lot in the past year. 

I just hoped we were ready for all the changes that were undoubtedly waiting to come. 

A/N – Ruedu was previously seen/introduced right here directly following Isaac’s capture.

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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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