Haiden Moon

Promise And Peril 11-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Our original idea had been that we would fly in, locate Elisabet and Dexamene, then get close enough to teleport them onto the ship and flee before the Fomorians had time to scramble too many of their defenses. Obviously that plan had been completely incinerated thanks to the fact that the fuckers were already in the middle of a pitched battle against… some unknown force. 

That unknown force wasn’t the Seosten, yet was strong enough to send a whole fleet after the Fomorians here on the Meregan world. Why? Who? How? Every possible question was swirling through my head as I simply stared open-mouthed at the screens that showed the battle going on ahead of us. For that moment, I couldn’t think, let alone speak. I had no idea what to do. And from the looks on the faces of Vanessa, Tristan, and the other students around me, neither did they. We’d thought we were ready for just about anything we could’ve run into. We were wrong.

Thankfully, we weren’t the only people here. And the others we had with us were a hell of a lot more experienced than we were. Taken by surprise or not, the real adults around us had been through more than we had (crazy as that might seem), had seen far more surprises and learned to react faster to them. Particularly the Seosten given their lifespans, but Mom and the others too. My friends and I had been through a hell of a lot in a year, but they had been through so much more for so much longer. 

Athena was the first to react, after what had to be barely a second since she had admitted that she had no idea who the other ships belonged to. “Helm, full power on sub-engines, boost forty percent from weapons and reserves split evenly. Take everything you need to do your thing. Guns aren’t going to get us through this today. Navs plot Ah and Bay courses through sector quattuor-sex-septem and feed to Helm, bracing for on-fly adjustments. Jophiel on exterior spellwatch, Haiden and Larissa back her up, you’ve done this before. December and May on secondary spellwatch. Something gets through Jophiel, call it out and intercept with counters. Sachael is on power-watch. Feed energy where it’s needed. Joselyn, Risa, back him up. If he raises a hand, he needs you to feed magic energy to him so he can shift it to the ship’s systems when needed. Helms has full control, feed everything she needs to her and let her work.”

She rattled off those instructions so effortlessly, and everyone immediately moved to follow them. Sariel was apparently Helm, while Apollo was Navs, both of them springing to action as their hands danced across the consoles, blurting words to one another in a rapid series of what had to be half-code and half-intuition from the sheer length of time they’d known each other. No wonder people had considered the two of them to be twins, because they sure communicated like they were right here and now. They were barely speaking English, just blurting sentence fragments or strings of numbers and letters, often finishing one another’s… whatever. 

Meanwhile, the others jumped right to action too. Mom and Kohaku slid closer to Sachael, who had lifted one hand to press against the wall of the ship while his other hand steadied a console and turned it closer to him, his fingers flying over the holographic buttons to make it send reports on the ship’s systems. At the same time, Jophiel (whose magical meditative-state had vanished the instant she was needed) sank in her seat a little while producing two small metal discs, one in each hand. Her eyes drifted half-closed as she began slowly moving the discs around seemingly randomly. They glowed very faintly now and then, and when they did, she would move the discs back to the spot where it had happened and murmur something. My guess was that the discs detected magic that might affect our ship or the people in it and she was ready to block such attempts. With the help of Haiden and Larissa, who had already produced what had to be counterspell-enchanted coins, ready to use them at whatever spot the Seosten woman indicated. 

May did the same as Jophiel, though her movements weren’t quite as smooth. She had December backing her up, one hand on the other Calendar member’s side as though ready to feed energy into her while her other hand held a counterspell coin of her own. 

The rest of us weren’t totally left out of things, obviously. The moment the ship took off, heading what seemed like straight for the battle, Athena turned slightly to call back, “Felicity, be ready to track the moment we’re within the atmosphere. The rest of you, prepare the transport circles just as I showed you!” 

Trying to ignore the fact that we were flying straight into the crossfire between two fleets of warring ships and had no idea whether the people fighting the Fomorians would give a shit about killing us along with them, I reached deep into my pocket, unzipping it. After digging around a bit, I came out with a small vial. A thick, pale blue liquid was visible through it as I clutched the vial tight. It was protected against damage, of course. But still, the contents were entirely too precious to risk losing. Not after we’d come all this way. 

All around me, Avalon and the others were already crouching in the bit of open space where the base of the transport circles had been started before we ever left, drawn in by Athena and Sariel the night before. Vanessa, Tristan, Roxa, and Avalon worked on one while Sands, Sarah, Columbus, and Shiori worked the other. Tabbris helped by moving between both, suggesting improvements or corrections here and there. They couldn’t finish the enchantments because the details had to be saved for when we were actually here. But my friends were quickly sketching in what was needed with a few glances toward a nearby console to get specific coordinate details. Even then, they wouldn’t be able to finish just yet. Not until we had an exact location. And that part was up to me. 

Trying not to think about what would happen if the world-shattering forces around us actually started to pay our relatively little ship too much attention, I focused on staring intently at the planet ahead while gripping the vial tight. I wanted to help the others, I wanted to do anything other than sit there. But I had to be ready. I couldn’t be distracted. Besides, as much as I wanted to contribute, they had enough people drawing in the transport spells. And I sure as hell had no idea what I was doing when it came to actually helping with the ship defense. My need to help wasn’t an excuse to get in the way. 

But, valid as that point was, it didn’t really help me feel any better. I couldn’t contribute right now. All I could do was sit there, tensely watching the battle going on ahead and all around us. Lasers, missiles, random spells, tentacles, fang-filled monstrosities, and more exploded, shot, and swarmed everywhere I looked. Our ship barrelled right on through, spinning, diving, and rolling just to get a little bit closer to the planet with each passing second. Several spells came close, but Jophiel and May, with help from the others near them, dispelled and countered them before they could do too much. Meanwhile, Athena was snapping orders back and forth between Sachael, Sariel, and Apollo. She was clearly using a mix of watching the screens and her own power to keep track of any immediate dangers, telling them where to go and when to transfer power between the shields and engines just for that little bit of a boost at the exact right time.

There was no way we could’ve made it through with this array of forces against us, on either side. The plan, again, had been to get to the planet and out before they could assemble everything we were already seeing. This ship was a prototype, intended to test the transport system, not to win (or even survive) a battle like this. And here we were, flying directly into the middle of a fight between two incredibly powerful fleets who were intent on utterly destroying one another. We were a very small bird flying through a hailstorm of lasers, missiles, and worse. 

The fact was, we probably still would’ve been destroyed if we didn’t have Athena, Sachael, Jophiel, Sariel, and Apollo. They knew what they were doing, and had fallen right back into working together as if no time had passed since they were part of the same crew. It was kind of amazing to behold, terrified as I was about the whole situation. 

And yet, above and beyond all the others, it was Sariel who got us through it. I watched her at the controls as she seemed to sit in total relaxation. She wasn’t stiff, wasn’t hunched over in her seat. Instead, she sat back, breathing calmly in and out while carefully yet coolly putting her hands up against the holographic display. Then? Then she went to work. 

When it came down to it, flying this ship through this battlefield amounted to driving a dump truck through a field full of tanks, artillery, and racecars armed with machine guns. But impossible had apparently never met Sariel’s piloting. 

A very slight touch one one hand sent the ship spinning upside down (well, relative to how we were before), while her other hand slowed our speed fractionally and touched the nose of the craft downward by maybe a meter. In that same instant, while the ship was in mid-spin, two massive laser-blasts passed through the space where it had just been. They came in at an upward angle, spaced apart just enough they passed above and below the ship itself. The fact that it was already spinning and thus at a diagonal angle was the only reason the shots missed. And, given the ship was basically a tube aside from having a flat bottom and rounded top meant the shots came really close indeed. 

No sooner had those two shots skimmed past us than we were fully upside-down, and in that instant, a flailing Fomorian tentacle passed just barely above the now-upward facing belly of the ship, while some kind of glowing ball of… something bad went sailing just above the nose of the ship that Sariel had nudged down enough to avoid that very thing. 

That was just the first half-second. Three different attacks, all avoided with a single maneuver. And then? Then it got really nuts. Sariel flew that ship like it was an extension of her own body. I’d seen her in physical action, I’d heard and seen how her power amounted to more than just being able to hit things really well. It gave her perfect accuracy. Anything whose path and motion she was capable of controlling, including herself and things she drove or piloted, she did with that same perfect accuracy. She threw and shot things like a goddess, true. But she also moved and piloted like one. If she controlled where and how something moved, it did so utterly flawlessly. 

It should have been impossible to make it through the battlefield before us. Yet Sariel made it look easy. Every motion of her hands, every control she touched, ever slight adjustment of the ship’s trajectory, speed, and more made dozens of attacks miss. Some of them (mostly from the Fomorian side) were intended for us, some were just attacks we happened to pass through on our way. But between Sariel’s piloting and the magic defenses from Jophiel, December, and May we avoided all of them. This little, flimsy, dump truck of a shuttle danced through the entire battlefield like it was nothing. 

Through it all, with each passing minute, we drew closer and closer to the planet. Yet it didn’t seem to be enough. No matter how close we got, the world seemed eternally far away. It was like staring at a pot of water while you were trying to make food, willing it to start boiling and all it would do was steam forever. Except in this case, instead of a few hunger pangs there were blindingly bright, six-meter-wide laser blasts that would have obliterated our entire ship and everyone on it if they got too close. And all I could do, the only thing I was capable of in that moment, was rocking my body back and forth in the seat, silently willing us to please go just a little bit faster. Which was about as helpful as… well, about as helpful as rocking back and forth on a spaceship to make it go faster. With the vial clutched tight in one hand, I swallowed hard past the lump in my throat. Please. Please get there. Please let us make it in time. We were so close. After everything that had happened, if Elisabet and Dexamene ended up dying anyway, or worse, I wasn’t sure how I would live with myself. To say nothing of what would happen if I managed to get myself and everyone on this ship killed by dragging them into this in the first place. 

We had just beaten Fossor. He was dead. And now I had to pull basically half the people I cared about in the world into a situation like this? Yet, what choice did I have? I owed Dexamene and Elisabet everything, everything. I owed them my life, my freedom, the lives and freedom of basically everyone I knew, everyone in the entire world if Fossor had had his way. 

We had to get there. We had to save them. 

An explosion of blue light and what appeared to be a rapidly expanding mushroom (not a mushroom cloud, a literal mushroom in the middle of space) appeared just to our left, while a beam of energy wide enough to encompass an entire football field blasted through the space to the right. But Athena had been ahead of things, snapping orders two seconds earlier that made Sariel twist the ship to fly right through the relatively narrow space between the two attacks. Immediately, the woman called out another order to Sachael to shove all the power he could to engines for the boost, and the ship sped up to narrowly avoid some kind of gravitational anomaly spell that burst to life right where we had just been. The engines strained against the force of its pull, but with the added power were barely able to pull us through. 

It went on like that, chaotic and insane. Anything Sariel herself couldn’t avoid with her expertise and power, Athena was on top of with her own. Sitting where I was, unable to actually help, I saw all of it while most of the others only seemed to be able to focus on the one thing they were trying to do. Lucky them. I sat, eyes snapping from person to person, from near-hit to near-total-destruction. I saw Apollo calculating the best approach through the dazzling array of attacks passing back and forth between the two fleets, saw my mother and Kohaku next to Sachael, feeding power to him so he could keep the ship’s systems running properly, saw my friends frantically yet carefully trying to finish the transport spells. All of this, everything around me, was happening all at the same time, throughout this chaotic battle. And through all of it, I could do nothing to actually help. I had to sit there, waiting and hoping we would get close soon. Tempting as it might have been to try to aid my friends, not only was getting in the way a bad idea, but if I ended up getting distracted with that and missed the fact that we were in the atmosphere I’d end up making the whole situation worse by dragging everything out. 

So, I waited, tensely watching throughout the fight. If it hadn’t been so terrifying and the situation so critical, I might’ve enjoyed the show. Between all the lasers, the monsters literally swimming through space with their tentacles waving out to grab passing ships, the way various spell effects triggered here and there, it was the sort of spectacle that would take a hundred million or so to make a movie of. 

Gripping the vial tight in one hand, I stared as the fighters and smaller vessels swooped here and there, or looming above and below like enormous whales in the case of the capital ships. I could hear my own breathing over the sound of everyone else calling back and forth, and forced myself to breathe. Calm. Listen. Watch. If it came down to it, knowing everything possible about these people who were fighting the Fomorians might end up being really important. So I took in everything I could, just in case. I didn’t understand much of it, to say the least. But I took it in.

Ten minutes. It took ten minutes of this, one of the longest ten minutes of my life, and our ship was a bit singed, the shields heavily damaged from a couple near-misses. But we made it. We finally penetrated the atmosphere, dropping quickly toward the world below while Athena called out for me to do my part. 

Immediately, I popped the top off the vial and poured some of the contents out into my hand. The pale blue liquid pooled in my palm. It was blood. Specifically, Dexamene’s. Yeah, we weren’t just blindly hoping I’d be able to find her when the time came. I had my harpy blood-tracking power from the last time I’d been here, fighting against Nicholas’s forces. It clearly required we be at least somewhat nearby, but I could use it as the ship skimmed through the atmosphere and point out when we were close, getting us to them through a game of hot and cold. At least, that was the idea. 

The real question was, would the fact that there was an all-out war going on just above help or hinder us? The Fomorians were already out in force rather than having to scramble the way we’d expected, but they were also busy at the moment. I supposed it really depended on how well the unknown forces did at keeping them occupied. 

But seriously, how the hell was there an entire fleet powerful enough to stand up against the Fomorians this way and none of the several very well-informed Seosten here had any idea who they were? How was that even possible? Was it just a case of space being really fucking big and therefore the Seosten simply didn’t know every force that was out there? That seemed too simple, and yet I couldn’t think of any other explanation. Especially if these people were relatively new to the scene. That made sense, sort of. I’d just spent the past year being conditioned to believe the Seosten knew basically everything about the universe, so it was a weird awakening. 

In any case, wondering about all of that could come later. Right now, I was going to hope that, whoever they were, they managed to keep the Fomorians off us. Meanwhile, I closed my eyes, focusing on the blood pooling in my palm. Dexamene… Dexamene… where was she? Please. God, please, I had to find her. I wasn’t positive of how far away I could be and still use the Harpy’s power. Hopefully not too far, or this could take a long time. 

Now it was everyone else’s turn to anxiously watch me. There were a few tense words about staying low and keeping an eye on any incoming threats, but for the most part the other people onboard simply stared and waited. I could feel their eyes on me, clearly silently urging the power to trigger just as much as I was. Please… Dexamene… please… How much time had passed? How many minutes? How much longer could we stay here? How long would it–

“There!” Without warning, and while barely consciously realizing what I was doing, my hand snapped out toward the right. “A hundred miles that way!” It was right on the edge of my senses, barely a blip, yet I was absolutely certain it was her. 

The ship instantly turned, heading the way I pointed out. As we got closer, I was able to guide them more specifically, all while praying that what I was leading us to was a living, free Dexamene and not a body. Nearby, I could see Tristan clasp his hands, staring ahead anxiously while Sarah put a hand on his shoulder. Jophiel, on the other hand, had her gaze fixated solidly on me as she waited tensely. We were close, so close. Within a few seconds of my pointing out where to go, the distance had dropped from a hundred miles to practically nothing. 

Then we were there. My power said Dexamene was directly below, and the ‘window’ at the front of the ship adjusted to show a view of what was down there. 

“Yes!” Tristan suddenly thrust his fists in the air. And I didn’t blame him, because they were there. Dexamene and Elisabet both. The two stood below, staring up at the ship. We’d made it. They were safe, they were–

Brace!” Athena abruptly shouted, an instant before… something hit us. I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that there was a bright flash, a loud bang, and the ship suddenly started spinning wildly. The view went wild, the ground coming up far too quickly. 

Then we hit, and my vision went black.

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Promise And Peril 11-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Athena was right, of course. It was a bumpy trip. The moment the prototype ship’s jump was triggered, it started shaking violently. Almost like it was trying to tear itself apart. It was like sitting on top of an overloaded washing machine or something. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had been through it before. So had Sariel, though she had been in stasis at the time. For everyone else, this was new. And apparently not the most pleasant first experience. Worse, it would start shaking violently, then stop and be still for a few seconds, then start again and repeat that. 

“Is it supposed to be doing this?!” Sands called out a bit nervously while gripping her seat armrests. She, like the rest of us, was strapped in tightly. The seats in this thing were lined facing one another along both walls, like one of those military transport jets or something. “Cuz I don’t think I like the experimental ship running an experimental jump drive shaking like this! It feels like a bad thing!” 

Tristan was the one who answered from his own spot a few seats away, “Hey, it’s not so bad! Just be glad we actually get to be strapped in this time instead of fighting a telekinetic asshole!” 

“Trying to fight,” Vanessa murmured in correction, her own voice barely audible over the rapidly rising sound of the ship jerking back and forth. “We didn’t exactly do a very good job at it.”

Theia, meanwhile, just raised her arms above her head like she was on a rollercoaster with a loud, “Wheeee!” With Roxa and Pace sitting on either side of her, she even lifted one of each of their hands up with her own. Then the ship would stop shaking, and she would pout, lowering their arms. “Aww.” It started up again, and her arms shot back into the air, carrying the other two with them. “Wheeee! Awww… Wheee! Awww… Wheee!” The fact that she was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat (as far as I knew, she basically never took it off) helped add to the impression of her being on a casual day out at the amusement park.

For their part, Roxa and Pace each half-raised their other hand to go along with Theia, exchanging looks with one another. 

While all that was going on, everyone clearly trying to distract themselves from the fear of what would happen if this jump went wrong, I found myself looking over to where Sachael was. The white-bearded Seosten was watching me with a neutral expression. If the repeatedly violently shaking ship was bothering him, he didn’t show it at all. As our gazes met, he offered me a single, simple nod without speaking. 

What was he thinking? What kind of person was he? All I knew about the man was that he was still loyal to his people, but willing to bend the rules in his off-hours. From what Sariel and Athena had said, Sachael was really devoted to the idea of separating his work life from his private life. When he didn’t consider himself to be on-the-clock, he was a lot more chill. 

As for what his opinion about me was, I had no idea. And it didn’t seem like he was eager to speak up about it. After that simple nod, the man turned his gaze to look toward Sariel. Again, his expression remained completely unreadable. I had no idea what he was thinking. 

“I-it’s longer this time!” Tabbris piped up, drawing my attention to where she sat beside me, with Tristan on the other side. “It didn’t take this long before, even though we had to go further!” 

She was right. And it wasn’t just taking longer, the shaking was noticeably worse too. The ship seriously felt like it was about to tear itself apart and send pieces flying in every direction. 

Athena, at the front of the ship near the console that controlled everything, simply called back, “Everything is fine! The ship was prepared to go to Earth before, it had a smooth path plotted out. This time it doesn’t. It will be a rough ride, but the ship will hold together. Give it a moment.” 

She sounded distracted while explaining that, and I belatedly realized she was using her power. That scattershot precognition that allowed her to see the results of actions she took several seconds in advance. She was using that to make sure the ship wasn’t about to fall apart. Which made me feel a bit better about the whole thing. But still, I really hoped this would be over soon. 

Mom, who was sitting on my other side, put one hand on my shoulder. Her voice was firm. “Whatever happens, if we see a real Fomorian, you don’t fight it.” She squeezed firmly, looking up to Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, and the others to make sure they were listening. “That goes for all of you. I don’t care if you outnumber it twelve to one. If you see a real Fomorian, you run away from it. You can fight their creatures, but if there’s an actual Fomorian, all of you run away. You fight to get clear and you run. You don’t jump in to help, you get away. Is that understood?” 

Kohaku spoke up then. “Joselyn is correct. None of you, not even together, are prepared to face a full, battle-ready Fomorian in combat. And none of us are prepared to extract you should you be captured. If you try to jump in to help, you’ll be nothing more than a distraction. That isn’t intended as an insult,” she added quickly. “You are all amazing students. You truly are. You’ve advanced far faster and further than any of us could have anticipated, and all of us are more proud of you than we can say. But this is something beyond that. If you see a full Fomorian, you retreat immediately. No macho bullshit. Run away and leave them for us to deal with.” 

The rest of the adults voiced their own agreement with that. They all wanted to make sure we weren’t going to try to go toe-to-toe with a Fomorian. But before any of us could respond, Athena abruptly called back, “Brace!” 

Her warning came just in time. As all of us grabbed our armrests, the ship’s shaking suddenly jumped into overdrive. Seriously, it made the previous shaking feel like nothing. My stomach was twisting itself into knots, as the sound of metal screaming in protest filled the air. 

Another sound filled the air too. It was Theia again, arms still held high above her head (with Pace and Roxa’s lifted too) like she was on a rollercoaster, calling out an enthusiastic, “Whoooooo!” Yeah, she was still having a grand old time. I was pretty sure if this actually was an actual ride in a park, she’d jump right back in line for it. 

Meanwhile, I was almost afraid the ship really was about to blow apart and take all of us along with it. Which would have been a pretty bad way for this whole rescue mission thing to turn out. 

But it didn’t blow apart, of course. Just as the ship’s horrific shaking hit its peak, it just as abruptly stopped entirely. Seriously, one second it felt like we were about to explode in slow motion, and in the next second everything was completely still. Like someone had flipped a switch. 

“What…” Columbus started, looking around the moment everything stopped. “Did we break it?” 

Theia, however, shook her head. She still looked exuberant, though her voice was completely matter-of-fact. “We are here, of course. If we broke it, we would all be dead.” 

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, eyes glancing around the interior of the ship as though making sure everything was still completely sealed. “It stopped shaking because we made it.” 

Athena spoke then. “Yes. We are here.” With those words, she hit a few buttons on the console, and screens appeared around us to act like windows, showing the exterior of the ship. Not that there was much to see. We were, as planned, in the middle of nowhere. I could see stars all around us, of course. Brilliantly bright now that we were away from Earth. But there were no planets nearby or anything. It was the middle of empty space. Like drifting on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Only about a million times more dangerous if anything actually went wrong.

And this was the easy part, I had to remind myself. Before too long, we’d be where the real monsters were. I just hoped we were actually ready for that. 

Apollo, who had been silently checking over a different console through all of that, finally spoke up. “We’re on target. We hit the exact coordinates. Whoever designed this thing knew what they were doing.” 

“I mean, it was Radueriel, right?” Shiori piped up. “It had to be Radueriel.” 

“No.” That was Pace, actually. The Latina girl, who had switched her green-dyed hair to a full rainbow after cutting it quite short, was shaking her head. “If it was his, he’d already be trying to get it back. Think about it, he had to know you guys took it from Kushiel’s place, a toy like this? And he has no interest in grabbing it? Not even in negotiations? If he made it, wouldn’t he want his prototype back? That’s… that’s the impression I got of him from when… from everything I learned with Theia.” 

The Olympians onboard all exchanged looks, before focusing on Sachael. He, in turn, offered a simple shrug. His voice was even. “Sorry to say, I don’t know who designed this thing. But the girl there is right. Useful as it is, I would think that someone as protective of his designs as Radueriel is would have insisted on having it back as part of the truce agreement.” 

Yeah, that was pretty close to the same thing I had thought before. It made sense. Or rather, it didn’t make sense for this to be Radueriel’s design with as little interest as he had shown in it. But again, if it wasn’t his, then who? Should we be worried about someone else in the Seosten Empire who could design a ship like this that could jump anywhere almost instantly? How many more of these things had they already made? Was there a fleet of instant-jump ships just waiting for the truce to end so they could appear over Earth before we had any warning they were coming? Was I paranoid for even thinking that was a possibility? Well, yes, maybe it was paranoia. But was it unfounded paranoia? I didn’t think so. Not after everything I’d seen. 

“Okay, so the jump was on-target.” That was Lillian, who had been staring out one of the ‘windows’ for the past few seconds. “Can this thing actually get us to the Meregan world now?”  From the sound of her voice, the small woman had her doubts on that subject. Which was fair, after we’d just spent the past few minutes feeling the thing shake itself apart around us. 

“It can,” Sariel confirmed, her fingers moving over one of the control panels that had slid around in front of her seat, sort of like a tray table thing in an airplane. “The slide-drive isn’t exactly top-of-the-line. It’s barebones and barely adequate. But it is working. We should get there in one hour.” Before anyone else could speak up about how long that would take, she added, “We’ll be taking a few separate slides just to throw off any investigation once we’re done. We won’t be coming back to this spot after we grab Elisabet and Dexamene anyway, but the Fomorians could still potentially trace our entrance point back to here. We don’t want that. So we’ll take the long route around and throw them off with those extra slides.” 

“That’s the plan, anyway,” Apollo put in. “Which means we’ve got about fifty-seven minutes now for everyone to relax and breathe, then sixty seconds to psych yourselves up, thirty seconds for that to turn into blind panic, and then another thirty seconds to calm down again. Ready? Go.”

“You remain as inspiring and helpful as ever, Apollo,” Athena quietly noted before glancing at Sachael. She paused then, looking briefly as though she was carefully choosing her words. 

Actually, wait, was she using her power to judge what the best approach would be? That felt–well not exactly manipulative, but… huh. Was it bad? That was a tough question. And the fact that she’d paused long enough to be noticeable, how many options was she playing through, if that was the case? 

Either way, cheating or not, the woman finally addressed her Seosten-loyalist former crewmate. “Which does make it feel a bit like old times, doesn’t it?” 

Seeing Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and Sachael like that, I wondered what it had actually been like back on the Olympus. With Kushiel and certain others around, it definitely hadn’t been a picnic. And yet, there had certainly been good times. They’d been together fifty years or so even before coming to Earth. Which, I knew for them was seriously a drop in the bucket. And yet so many of them defined basically everything they were around either that, or their ‘god’ identities back on Earth. Athena used her Earth-goddess name rather than Auriel because she loathed the person she had been. Apollo didn’t go by Lucifer because he saw himself as more connected to Earth than the Seosten since he had left them. Mercury still used that name because it was the first one that the SPS-afflicted man had seen as his own after taking over the original Amitiel.

But Sariel didn’t. Sariel used her Seosten name consistently. Actually, I’d almost never heard her use the name Artemis. For a moment, I wondered why that was. Did she not like the identity? Was being Sariel more important for her than holding onto their old names was for the others? Was I just reading way too much into it? 

My gaze drifted over toward Jophiel. The Seosten woman had been silent through all of this since entering the ship, her gaze unfocused as she looked off into the distance. I had no idea what she was doing, other than worrying about Elisabet, but she seemed more… passive than I would’ve expected.

“Meditation spell.” That was Lillian, whispering toward me when she saw the direction of my gaze. “Way of keeping calm and clearing your mind before something important. Think of it as a magical tranquilizer that instantly wears off when it needs to.” 

Realizing I’d missed whatever Sachael had said in response to Athena, I glanced over to my mother, grabbing her hand to squeeze it. Really, I was hiding the fact that I’d palmed one of the privacy coins and was using it to make sure only her, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon could actually hear what I was about to say. Though the only person I really didn’t want to hear was Sachael. “I don’t suppose Bob’s linked you back into the Committee now that you’re free?” I was joking, mostly. “That’d be pretty useful.” 

Mom blinked at me briefly. “Bob?” she echoed blankly, clearly trying to think of someone with that name who would be the least bit relevant to what I was talking about. 

Oh, right, she wouldn’t know about that. Belatedly, I explained that we’d named the Reaper in the lighthouse Bob, thanks to Koren. 

Once she understood, Mom chuckled a little under her breath. “Ah, I used to call him Pops. He always felt like a… grandfather to me, of sorts.”

“That’s funny,” I replied with a chuckle despite myself, “Aylen sees him the same way.” Then I saw the way Mom blinked at me, clearly unknowing, and realized she had no idea what I was talking about. Right, maybe I hadn’t been able to tell her everything that had happened over the previous year. Bringing up the whole ‘friendly Fomorian’ thing had felt like something that could wait until we were free. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up right now. 

“Never mind,” I murmured. “I’ll tell you later. But you definitely don’t feel Committee-energized?” 

From the look on her face, Mom was tempted to pursue the previous subject. But she let it go with a shake of her head. “No, I haven’t felt anything like that. I don’t know if he even knows that I’ve been–that my memories have been restored, let alone that I’m no longer with Fossor.” 

“If he doesn’t, we’ll have to find a way to give him an update,” I assured her, squeezing my mother’s hand a bit more before quietly adding, “Not just because of the power thing. But because he misses you. He–I…” Hesitating, I explained how Bob had helped me before, by instantly teleporting my friends and I so we could fight Lemuel’s were-pack and eventually get the choker that allowed us to identify who had been possessed. Avalon, Shiori, and Tabbris piped up now and then too, helping to explain that whole situation. 

By the time we were done, Mom was shaking her head. “You mentioned most of that before, but not the detail about Pops. He–he really stepped up.” She sounded sad, and I realized he was yet another person (yes, person goddamnit) my mother cared about who had been taken away from her for a long time. “I’m glad you talked to him. He… needs more people to talk to him.” 

There was more to that, I realized. It sounded like Mom wanted to say something else about Bob-Pops needing people to talk to him. But she visibly put it aside, exhaling before settling on simply adding, “He deserves better.” 

We talked a bit more over the remaining time. Not all with the privacy spells, of course. I didn’t want to be that rude or obvious about it. I’d just figured that, whatever else he’d said about not reporting everything that happened to his superiors, it was still best not to let Sachael (or the Calendar duo) know too much about Bob and the fact that he was (sort of) communicating. 

Either way, pretty soon all of that was irrelevant. Because we were getting closer to the Meregan world, as all of our conversations kind of petered out. We were thinking about what was about to happen, about what we were going to see and potentially have to do basically as soon as we got there. 

We were nervous. All of us, even the Olympians. A glance around showed me that much pretty plainly. It was immediately clear that none of us wanted to be here right now. No one wanted to go running into a Fomorian-infested planet. We were all thinking about all the ways this could go wrong, about how bad it could potentially be. And I was pretty sure that no matter how detailed our imaginations might be, reality could probably get even worse. 

Finally, Apollo counted down while we all braced ourselves for what we were about to see. “In three… two… one…” 

We came out of the slide, all of us telling ourselves that we were prepared for the worst. And yet, nothing we had braced ourselves for could have prepared us for what we saw. 

There was a battle going on. An insane space battle the likes of which I’d never seen outside of movies. It was even more intense than the battle between Athena’s fleet and Kushiel’s research station defenses back when we had been rescuing Sariel. We were just beyond the outer edges of it, with the planet dead ahead. But between us and the world were dozens of enormous ships. Half were the biological sort the Fomorians used, while the other half were definitely technological. Lasers, missiles, various spell effects, tentacles, explosions of gore and acid, gigantic whale-like monsters that swam through space with their mouths open, all of it was laid out in front of us. We’d arrived in the middle of a massive warzone. 

“What–the Seosten are here?!” Lillian blurted, her gaze snapping toward Sachael. 

“No,” Athena immediately replied, her gaze riveted to the sight before us. “Those aren’t Seosten ships.” 

“Then who the hell are they?” Haiden demanded, leaning forward to stare at the screen at the front of the ship. 

Athena’s answer filled the small space around us. 

“I have no idea.”

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Promise And Peril 11-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on Lincoln posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can read it by clicking the previous chapter button above.

Something else had happened while I was busy with the whole Jophiel thing the night before. Not to mention having some time with my family. Apparently that Dakota girl had had an encounter with a monster from the ocean called a Nuckelavee. An encounter that had resulted in the death of an older Garden student before one of the Victors stepped in. 

At least Dakota was alive. Even more traumatized than she already had been, but still alive. And, according to Avalon, she and Miranda had also had an… interesting conversation when they went to see the girl. A conversation with Gaia’s former lover… about one of Gaia’s other former lovers. Yeah, relationships among people who lived for centuries were really complicated. 

Uh, not that I had much room to talk. 

Anyway, they met Accolon, who told them that the man who was the father of her biological son (Mordred) was ready to step in and help save her. Oh, and one other tiny detail, the guy in question was Oberon, the King of Canada. Yeah. Why hadn’t he mentioned that he was so close to Gaia before, so close that they’d had a fucking son together? I had no idea. Again, relationships were weird. Coupled (hah) with people as powerful and old as Gaia and Oberon? Yeah, it was a whole thing. 

The point was, he was ready to offer aid now. Which was good, because we were going to need help if we were going to get Gaia away from the Crossroads loyalists. There was no way getting to her would be as easy (relatively speaking) as rescuing Sean had been. Wherever she was, the Committee would have her locked down tighter than basically anything else in the world. And thanks to certain binding contract spells, we couldn’t even count on getting help from the people on the Committee who were actually on our side. They couldn’t so much as tell us where to look without exposing the fact that they’d done so, allowing the loyalists to move Gaia. 

“Hey.” Avalon’s voice suddenly interrupted my musing, making my attention focus on her as the two of us sat at a table in the Atherby Camp dining cabin where we were eating breakfast. Her eyebrows were raised. “Look, knock it off. I know that look, you’re obsessing about everything that you can’t do anything about right now. Focus on the thing in front of you. We’ll get Gaia back, but we can’t do anything about that right now. That Accolon guy said Oberon was going to put some resources into finding out where the prison is, and they’ll get back to us. Nothing else we can do right this second, okay?” 

Porthos, her lizard-cyberform, was sitting next to her on the table eating his own breakfast of metal beads. He gave me a firm shake of his fist as if to punctuate Avalon’s words. 

Blinking a couple times at that, I offered her a small smile. “You’re the one giving me a pep talk, even though she’s your mother.” 

“I know Gaia,” she replied quietly, yet firmly. “She’ll be okay. When we find her, she’ll be okay. But she’s just in prison right now. The… the not-psycho Committee members won’t let the others do anything that bad. She’ll be safe. Safe enough, anyway. We’ve got a more immediate situation.” 

“Elisabet and Dexamene,” I agreed with a grimace. “Yeah, being on a planet full of Fomorians is a pretty immediate problem.” Sighing, I added, “I know it’s a lot to ask for you to focus on something other than your mom, I–” 

“Stop.” Avalon’s voice was sharp, her fist hitting my shoulder from across the table. “Don’t be an idiot, Felicity. After everything we–” She cut herself off, shaking her head pointedly. “Just don’t be an idiot. I’m with you. Of course I’m with you. When we get more about Gaia, you’ll be there.” 

I gave a short nod, moving my hand to catch hers and squeeze it. “I’ll be there,” I confirmed. 

“And I’ll be here now,” she informed me. “Besides, like I said, we can’t do anything about Gaia right this second, so I need something else to kill. A bunch of Fomorian minions sounds like just what the doctor ordered.” The smile she gave me then was basically feral. “I do have a lot of aggression to get out.” 

Snorting at her, I brought her hand in to gently kiss the fingers without breaking eye contact. “Even after that whole thing with Fossor’s zombies? I would’ve thought you’d be done fighting for awhile.” 

Lifting her chin, Avalon retorted, “Like I said, a lot of aggression.” Adding a wink, she noted, “Though I guess there are other ways to work out energy like that.” 

Oh boy. My face was suddenly hotter than my food, as I choked a bit while the other girl snickered at me. “Not fair,” I managed to croak, “definitely not fair.” 

“What’s not fair?” That was Roxa, taking a seat next to me with a plate of her own before she blinked with realization. “Oh, right, you guys are being gross. Got it.” 

“Gross isn’t the word I’d use,” I informed the other blonde while giving her a poke in the arm with my fork. “A little bird told me you were angling to come on this rescue mission.” 

Casually spearing a huge hunk of steak with her fork before lifting it to her mouth to tear a bite out of it with her teeth, Roxa replied, “Yeah, well, sounds like an insanely dangerous trip that’s gonna end up with a lot of screaming and violence. So, you know, I’m there.” 

“Hopefully not too much screaming and violence,” I murmured, looking back and forth between her and Avalon. “You guys do understand that the goal here is to fly in, grab those two, and get out without too much fighting, riiiiaaand I realize even as I say that how stupid it sounds.” 

“At least she got there on her own,” Roxa noted with a smirk, taking another bite of her huge steak, chewing ravenously before adding, “When shit goes wrong and everyone’s fighting for their lives, I wanna be there.” Her expression sobered a bit then as she met my gaze. “Seriously, I can help. I want to help. I need to do something.” 

“You’ve done plenty,” I insisted. “Roxa, everything you–yeah. You were there yesterday. You and the rest of your pack. But if you really want to be there for this, I’m not gonna say no.” 

“Good,” she shot back, “I’d hate to have to kick your ass until you change your mind.” 

“I see wolf-instincts make one delusional too,” I teased despite everything. “Good to know.” 

That prompted a lot of back and forth between the three of us, before Shiori and Columbus showed up, along with Choo. The Jekern was insistent on attention, so I stepped up and wrapped both arms around him. He was huge now, big enough for Shiori to ride on. Which was a pretty big change from the tiny thing he’d been when we first met. 

“Hey, big guy,” I murmured while hugging the warthog-like creature tight. “Thanks for taking care of our girl while I was gone.” 

Choo, in turn, huffed and made a flicker of electricity tickle my face. From his snorts, I was pretty sure he was trying to tell me off for being gone so long and making his owner sad. 

“Believe me,” I informed him, “I feel the same way.” 

Rising, I exchanged a long, tender kiss with Shiori herself, ignoring everyone else for a moment. Then I embraced the other girl tightly before announcing, “So, both my girls here and nothing’s currently on fire except for all the things that are currently on fire.” Squinting at myself, I shook my head. “That made more sense before I said it.” 

“Pretty sure it didn’t,” Columbus put in mildly, scratching under Amethyst’s chin as the cyberform lay across his shoulder. “But I think we can give you a pass, all things considered. So, what’s going on with the whole rescue mission thing?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Guys, everyone can’t go. It’s supposed to be a quick in-and-out and yes I know the odds of that, but seriously.” 

“Ship’s big enough,” the boy pointed out. “If we don’t get into a fight, great. But don’t think you’re gonna be able to run out into Fomorian space without a hell of a lot of back-up. Shiori won’t let you go without her, right?” He looked to his sister, who gave a firm nod. “Right, and she’s not going without me.” 

Exhaling, I nodded. “I get it, believe me. I’m not about to run off without you guys. Let’s just… hope that this is a quick little jump across universes to grab those two and get out again. Hope for it, but plan for the worst.” Giving them all a thumbs up, I added, “And then maybe everyone can take a real vacation. And by real vacation, I mean go back to normal school for awhile. Actual school with classes and everything. How fucking weird would that be?”

“You’ve got a point there,” Shiori agreed. 

“With you, the only possible totally unexpected thing is a completely normal day.” 

************

That night, the ship was ready. Or at least as ready as it was going to get without weeks more work, and no way were Jophiel and Tristan going to wait weeks to start this rescue mission. We were lucky the two of them had waited this long. As it was, it took a lot to keep the two of them calm enough to stick with the plan so they didn’t run off to try to rescue Dex and Elisabet alone. 

Okay, it wasn’t that bad. The two of them already understood, and they weren’t idiots. Still, I felt like we had to keep an eye on Tristan especially. Not that the boy had a way of getting to the Meregan world himself, but I wouldn’t entirely put it past him to try to find someone who could

So, we mostly focused on killing time by establishing who was actually going to go on this rescue mission. As we’d said before, the hope was that we’d barely have to fight at all. But in anything, and especially where the Fomorians were concerned, hoping for the best and planning for the worst seemed to be the best way to go. We had to have enough people to fight. 

Jophiel was going, as were Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and this Sachael guy. That was five Olympians. We also had my mother, Deveron, Lillian, Haiden, Larissa, and apparently Kohaku. 

I’d had a private conversation with Dare about that whole situation, and she said that she wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if the Fomorians had too much interaction with her, so it was for the best that she stay behind. But boy did she not like it. Five minutes after getting Mom and me back in her life (even if Mom by necessity couldn’t know the truth about all that) and she already had to watch us go right back into life-threatening danger against the very species she had basically given up her entire life for. Yeah, she wasn’t exactly enjoying that idea, to say the least.

She did give me a few emergency enchantments she’d prepared, telling me to stow them away just in case. And she made me promise about a million times that I wouldn’t do anything that stupid and insane. Oh, and the hugs. She hugged me basically as hard as I’d ever been hugged, even with my mother’s return. This whole situation was hitting her pretty badly. 

As for the rest of us, I was going of course. So were Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, Sarah, Columbus, Avalon, and Shiori. Oh, and Roxa too. And she was bringing Theia and Pace along. Finally, May and December had hopped aboard the plan. 

Of course, May and December coming along brought up another point. Sachael already knew about the situation between Elisabet and Jophiel, of course, and had agreed not to make an official report about it until she officially reported it herself. But with those two, it was a bit more complicated. We knew they were reporting things back to Cahethal, and she wasn’t nearly as likely to keep quiet about this situation. But, as it turned out, we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris. 

Actually, ‘we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris’ came up a lot, now that I thought about it. At a certain point you’d think it’d stop being a secret, but there we were. 

Anyway, the point was, we had Tabbris. And she had become basically best friends with December. She asked the other girl to please keep a certain something a secret, promised it wasn’t a direct threat to the Calendar or to Cahethal, and the three of them agreed to take oath spells to not reveal that little secret. Pretty similar to the spells that Tristan, Vanessa, Tabbris, and I had been put under by Jophiel and Elisabet in the first place, actually.  

So that was our, ahhh, ‘crew’ for this mission. We could’ve had more, obviously. But we didn’t want to involve too many people. It was already a big enough group as it was, considering Elisabet and Jophiel had been keeping their whole thing secret for so long. Though I had a feeling it would be coming out sooner than they had planned, regardless of our precautions. 

Finally, it was time to head out. Athena had brought everyone who was going to Gaia’s secret cave where the ship was being kept. They’d put some more last minute work on it to make sure it was as ready to go as possible, and now we were all standing in front of the thing. 

Even now, I still didn’t think the thing looked much like a spaceship. It was just a long, jetliner-sized tube with a ramp leading up into it. Its weapons, engines, everything was well hidden. When it was closed up, it just looked like a semi-sleek metal cylinder. Whoever had designed this ship had focused entirely on function and not at all on form. Probably because it was a prototype. It wasn’t meant to be pretty or even heavily armed as far as ships went. It was meant to test that instant-jump system. 

Which made me wonder, not for the first time, who had designed it. Because it sure wasn’t Kushiel. It had to be Raduriel, right? That was the answer that made the most sense. Though it did raise the question of why he hadn’t done more to try to get his prototype back. Yeah, there was a truce, but you’d think he’d at least ask for it. Yet he hadn’t brought it up at all. Which seemed a little odd to me, given how special the prototype ship was. 

Athena was talking. “You all know the plan. Given optimum conditions, no one will have to lift a finger. That said, assume everything is going to fall apart. Watch each other’s backs, stay together as much as you can. Don’t let anyone get pulled away and separated. Do not let the Fomorians lead you into a trap. Don’t go anywhere alone, don’t chase them even if they look weak. If they start to retreat, let them. You have no idea how many of our people have been killed because they fell for the Fomorians pretending to be routed and then falling on them from all sides, even from what were supposed to be corpses.” 

For a moment, it looked like Athena might say something else, but decided against it. Instead, she simply continued, “If things fall apart, stay with each other and watch your backs. We’ll come to you. You all have emergency beacons and teleportation stones. The green ones will try to take you back to the ship. If those fail, the red ones will pick an unoccupied space on the planet as far from Fomorian detection as possible and send an alert to the rest of us. Use them if you need to. And… and you all have the X-stones.” 

Yeah, we did. The X-stones were just what they sounded like, rocks in the shape of an x. They were intentionally made to be impossible to mix up with any other enchanted object. As for what they did, they were essentially magical cyanide pills. Yeah. If this all went wrong, we had the opportunity to end ourselves rather than risk being experimented on by the Fomorians if we chose to.  

Wasn’t this just a super-awesome happy optimistic mission we were going on? Just what I had been looking forward to once Fossor was dealt with, a nice, quiet break to just relax. 

I would get that once the other two were safe. After everything they’d done, I couldn’t relax until they were back where they belonged. Once that happened, then I’d demand a vacation. 

Mom spoke up then. “Whatever happens, the job isn’t to kill Fomorians. Remember that, we cannot beat them. They’re too numerous, too powerful, and they’ll have reinforcements on the way the moment they detect us. The job is to get in, find Elisabet and Dexamene, and get out again. We kill what’s directly in our way and then leave. That’s all. The Fomorians have already taken over the planet. We can’t stop that and we can’t save that world. Not now.” Her voice was a bit strained as she said it, reminding me of the history she had with the Meregan. It had to be killing her not to even try to save those people. 

Once everyone agreed to what they were saying, Mom and Athena exchanged looks and some kind of silent communication. Then the Olympian woman turned to start walking up the ramp. “Right then. Let’s go see what we can do. Everyone find a seat and strap yourselves in.

“This is going to be a bumpy flight.”  

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Triumph 10-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“So,” my dad faux-casually began, “exactly how long would you say you made it without getting yourself involved in another life and death struggle after Fossor died? An hour? Maybe less?” 

It was a short time after the meeting with Jophiel and Sachael. We’d left them behind with the agreement to meet the next evening, after everyone had plenty of rest. Jophiel didn’t like letting Elisabet wait that long, of course. But we had all exhausted ourselves way too much. Even if we weren’t planning on any actual Fomorian fighting (or at least as little as possible) by just jumping in, grabbing those two, and getting out again, going in this shape was a bad idea. Because whatever our intentions, we could get into another brawl. And against Fomorian-created creatures, a brawl could turn into total fucking suicide if we went in there tired. 

We had to rest for the night. Honestly, we should have rested for a week, or even a month. But there was no way in seventy-four hells that Jophiel would wait that long. We were lucky she was even waiting this much. I wasn’t sure how I would’ve felt or acted in her situation if it was either of my girls. Or Tabbris. Or–yeah. I knew just how desperate she was right now. 

In any case, we made it back and I went to where my family was to explain what was going on. Guilty as I felt for bringing the mood down right then, they all needed to know the situation. 

Cringing a little at Dad’s words, I offered a weak, “Is it better or worse if the answer is somewhere in the negative numbers, since I agreed to this rescue mission before I ever came back to the present in the first place? The only reason I was able to come back here, the only reason I wasn’t Fossor’s prisoner in the future, is because of Elisabet and Dexamene. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it back here to stop Fossor, period. I can’t abandon them now. No matter how much I just want to… enjoy this.” With those words, I cast a guilty look toward my mother. God, how I wished I didn’t have to deal with this now. My mother was back. After all these years, after all that trauma, she was here. She was here! She was right in front of me. 

But happy as I was to have her here, it would be nothing if I ignored Dexamene and Elisabet. They deserved to be here too. They certainly didn’t deserve to end up either killed or captured by the Fomorians, with the former being the absolute best-case scenario as far as that went. 

It was Deveron who spoke first. “She’s right. We can’t just abandon them. Not after what they did.” He was looking to Mom as he said it, and I realized he was simply saying what she would have. “We all know what the Fomorians are like. Not all of us firsthand, and none of us have faced a full invasion like the one that Gaia and Jos’s parents ended. But… but we all know.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. She hesitated, looking over the large front room of the cabin we were in. Deveron stood by the fireplace, with Koren sitting in front of it, perched on the fancy-looking stonework. A bit to the side was a long table, where Abigail and Wyatt sat. Dad was standing by the same table. Lillian (my mother considered her family), who had come while I was away, was standing next to him. And Mom was in the middle of the room, closer to where Tabbris and I were. She had come over to greet me when we came in, then stepped back after that quick yet tight embrace to let me get that whole story out. 

Now, she asked, “You said something about a… ship to get there.” 

With a quick nod, I explained about the prototype Seosten ship, and how they’d been working on getting it to make those instant jumps again. “They think it can probably do a jump there and back. We just have to be careful. You know, come in away from the Meregan world, fly down to get those two, then fly away and jump out when it’s safe.” 

Wyatt immediately piped up, “What if they’re dead already? The Committee woman and the Nereid. What if they’re dead and the Fomorians are waiting for someone to rescue them because they’ve already loaded up the bodies with booby traps, with biological weapons. Then you show up, think they’re alive, bring them back here, and unleash a plague.” 

“Well,” I pointed out with a shrug, “I’m pretty sure I can tell if they’re dead. I mean…” Trailing off, I felt a sharp queasiness form in my stomach at even bringing it up. “I have his power. Not his skill or anything, but between him and Manakel, I think I can tell when someone’s dead. And even if they pull some artificial life biomancer thing, I’ll make sure it’s really them.”

“We’ll make sure,” Mom amended. “There are ways.” 

“Damn right, there’s ways,” Lillian put in, stepping over to stand closer to my mother. “No one’s bringing those two anywhere sensitive until everyone’s one hundred percent sure they’re safe.” 

Wyatt, in a flat voice, retorted, “No one is ever one hundred percent safe. Eighty-seven percent is the absolute highest ‘safe’ level I’ve ever given anyone.”

“You mean besides yourself,” I pointed out. 

Koren, however, piped up with, “No, he’s eighty-five. And that’s a recent upgrade.” 

“I could have been compromised as a child,” Wyatt promptly agreed, giving a slight nod and one of his lopsided, goofy smiles toward the girl who had practically become his protege over the past year. “I can’t account for my whereabouts or memories of the first few years of my life. For all I know, I’m a shapeshifter who took over the real Wyatt as a child and had my memory wiped with implanted triggers. Stranger things have happened.” 

“I really wish I could argue with that last point,” I muttered while shaking my head. “Anyway, um, yeah, they’re working on prepping the ship. Should be ready tomorrow evening. Hopefully.” 

“You’ll need a group to go with, in case things turn sideways,” Lillian noted quietly. “People strong enough to deal with Fomorian threats long enough to get the hell out of there.” 

I nodded. “Like I said, Sachael’s going. Between him, Jophiel, Sariel, and Athena, we have four Olympians. And Haiden’s coming with, he’s pretty strong too. Tristan won’t let anyone go without him, not when it comes to Dexamene. And Vanessa won’t let the rest of her family go without her. Plus, I’m pretty sure Larissa won’t let Haiden and Sariel go potentially face Fomorians without coming along. Not after what… what happened back on that boat.”

With a sigh, Abigail spoke up. “I don’t suppose pointing out that none of you children should be going anywhere after what you’ve been through would do any good. You just… you just fought that monster. You don’t need to be rushing into this nightmare. I’ve… seen and… felt what those Fomorians do, what they’re capable of. Even if you don’t get into a fight, just–just seeing those things…” 

“None of us are children,” I pointed out as gently as I could. Technically, Tabbris was. But even then, she’d always been more than that. She’d never had a normal childhood and never would. The point stood. “We’re young, yeah. But so is Dexamene. And neither she or Elisabet deserve to be caught by those monsters. They helped me. They saved me. Dex put herself in that situation specifically to save me, to save everyone here. If I wasn’t willing to put myself in danger to get her out of it, what kind of person would I be?” 

Both Abigail and my dad looked like they wanted to argue with that. But they couldn’t. Mom, however, stepped over and pulled me to her in a tight embrace. “That’s my girl.” 

“You’re going too, aren’t you?” That was Deveron, watching her knowingly. “Five minutes out from being Fossor’s prisoner for a decade, and you’re about to throw yourself into a rescue mission against the Fomorians.” 

“Of course she is,” Dad agreed, folding his arms as he stared at both of us. “If Felicity’s going, Joselyn is. Even if she wasn’t,” he amended immediately, realizing that my going or not wasn’t the only deciding factor. It was just who his wife was. 

“Would either of you have married me if I was someone who could walk away from this?” Mom pointed out, still holding me to her as she squinted pointedly back and forth between them. 

Dad and Deveron both glanced to one another, and I saw a moment of what seemed to be silent conversation before each flushed and turned away. Dad cleared his throat, looking at my mother. “I know this goes without saying, but be careful, Jos. Please. We just got you back. Both of you. I couldn’t–” His voice choked itself off briefly before he gave a sharp shake of his head. “Be careful.” He sounded strained, like it was all he could do not to start shouting about us going into danger yet again, so soon. Honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did start yelling. I kind of wanted to yell at myself. But I also meant what I’d said. I couldn’t live with myself if I abandoned Elisabet and Dexamene to the Fomorians after everything they’d done to help me. Hell, I couldn’t have lived with myself for abandoning basically anyone to the Fomorians. 

“We don’t need to worry about it right now,” I pointed out after forcing those thoughts down. “We’ve gotta wait until tomorrow night for the rescue mission anyway. Nothing else we can do about it until then. So how about we just enjoy tonight and deal with all that later?” I felt shitty about interrupting Mom’s (and mine, I supposed) welcome home party with all that. But they’d wanted to know where I went and what was so important. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should’ve kept quiet about it until the next day.

Either way, everyone got back to the actual celebrating part pretty easily. Deveron started to say something apparently embarrassing about Mom from when they were in school, before she shut him down with a hard kick, hissing something at him about their kids being present. Then Lillian whispered something in her ear that I didn’t catch, but it made Mom turn red. 

Abigail had stood up by that point, clearing her throat, “Ah, girls, why don’t we go check out the rest of the party for a little while? At least some of us should make appearances before the crowd starts wondering if you all got kidnapped again.” She started ushering Koren, Tabbris, and me toward the door with an added, “Come on, Wyatt.” 

“Yes, I’ll ahh, help you with the crowd.” That was Lillian, who patted my dad on the shoulder before moving to join us. 

I knew what they were doing, what the whole deal with getting the rest of us out of the room to leave Mom there with Deveron and my dad was about. They deserved some time alone to figure out their whole thing. Especially after so many years and horrible things. But equally, I reeeeally didn’t want to think about any of that. 

So, after giving Mom and Dad both a quick, lingering embrace and promising I wouldn’t get kidnapped for at least a few minutes (hardy har har), I headed out with the others, to join the much louder area outside, where everyone was still partying like it was New Years or something. From the look and sound of things, they really didn’t need any us to be present right now. They were well and truly off to a rousing celebration completely on their own. One which, I was pretty sure, wouldn’t be ending any time within the next several hours. Or possibly days, for some of them. 

Which was good, because the moment we stepped outside, Shiori and Avalon were right there. I ended up being pulled out of the way with a few quick words about how they’d bring me back. Then we were off to another part of the camp, as I managed a weak, “You know, I just promised my parents I wouldn’t get kidnapped again like, fifteen seconds ago. And yet, here we are.”

“Guess we’ll just have to make breaking your word worth it, won’t we?” That was Valley, who immediately suited action to word by giving me a firm push up against the back wall of the cabin the two of them had dragged me to. 

Then, for a good long while, I forgot all about what was going on with my parents, and about the party itself. And to be honest? Yeah, it was totally worth it. 

******

“Mom?” Hours later, the two of us were standing hip-deep in the lake. I had just finished introducing her to my sharks, and apologized to them for being away for so long. I’d already thanked Tabbris, as well as Shiori and Avalon, for making sure they had enough fish to eat, and for playing with them. 

“Yes, Lissy?” Mom was brushing Quint, one of the Mako sharks. She’d been marveling a bit at how my power had actually made it possible to touch their skin like that without cutting up your hand. Well, cutting up a normal person’s hand anyway. I was pretty sure she was too tough for that to begin with. 

“I was asking Namythiet about that Wandering Woman Ruthers was talking about, and she said that she’s like… one of the first Heretics? Do you know anything about her? The way he was talking, it sounds like you do.” 

For a moment, my mother didn’t answer. She reached out to brush the snout of Brody, the other Mako shark, who had clearly been jealous of his brother. Finally, after a few seconds of silence, she replied, “Yes, I know a bit about her. We’ve had an encounter or two.” 

“Why does Ruthers think I should visit her?” I hesitantly asked, too curious to avoid the question now. 

Mom’s gaze rose to me. “Because he thinks you should give up Fossor’s necromancy.” 

The answer made me blink. “Wha–give it up? Is that even possible?” 

Again, Mom was quiet for a long few seconds before she spoke. “The Wandering Woman, Werethekau, the Witch of Endor, Isis, Freyja, any name you want to give her, she is one of the most powerful beings I’ve ever heard of, let alone encountered. She was bonded to a Primal.” 

“That’s what Namythiet said,” I hesitantly put in. “She said they were the beings who um, who made the weapons King Oberon uses up in Canada, the ones who lived here before the first humans, back around the time of the dinosaurs.” 

With a little nod, Mom explained, “Werethekau was a primitive human, one of the first from the time of stone tools, who found one of the last living Primals. One of the first of one species to find one of the last of another. No one knows what happened, but she was bonded. And in that bonding, she gained the strongest gift anyone has ever seen. The ability to undo.” 

Her words made me blink. “The ability to undo?” 

Mom’s gaze was intense. “Anything or anyone Werethekau focuses on, she can rewind the results of specific events. If you break a stick, she can unbreak it. Shatter a window, she can unshatter it. Stab a man in the heart, she can heal the injury as if it never happened. Cut every limb off, sever the head, burn the body, bury the ashes in seven different continents, she can think about that person and erase it. She can bring him back from all of that. 

“But it goes further than that. She can erase skills by rewinding the fact that you learned them. Blow up a building and she can rewind that, restore the entire place and everyone in it. And–” 

“And she can take away powers by erasing the fact that you got them,” I finished in a breath, staring open-mouthed at her. “How–how is she not ruling the entire universe right now?” 

Mom shrugged. “She has no desire to. That and I’m sure there’s limits to what she can do, but as far as most people are concerned, that might as well be chipmunks guessing about the limits of human beings. No one knows what she wants, honestly. She’s mysterious. You can find her if you know how–correction, you can try to find her if you know how, and if she feels like it, she might respond. Or she might not. You might wait a day for her, or a year, or longer. She goes and does as she pleases. She, ahh, wanders. She has existed since the time of primitive man, simply rewinding any effects of age.” 

“She’s the one who taught people here on Earth how to block time-stop spells, she–” Coughing, I realized, “It’s time-magic. Erasing injuries, restoring people from death, fixing broken things, even removing people’s powers and skills, it’s all about manipulating time. I mean, sort of. Manipulating the effects through time?” Squinting, I shook my head. “I’m not–never mind, I’m gonna go cross-eyed if I try to figure out how that actually works. But this–you’re right, Ruthers wants me to get rid of Fossor’s Necromancy. He wants me to ask this Wandering Woman to use her power to take it away. But that won’t bring Fossor back?” 

“It will not erase the fact that you killed him,” Mom quietly assured me, “only the fact that you inherited his power.” 

Staring at her, I muttered, “He wants it gone. Ruthers doesn’t want anyone to have Fossor’s necromancy. I mean, he doesn’t want the power to even exist.” 

With a sigh, Mom replied, “As long as he’s lived, he’s never understood that it’s the actions, not the powers, that make someone good or evil.” Then she looked over her shoulder at me. “But, in his own way, he is trying to help you. He thinks–never mind what he thinks. What do you want to do about it?” 

I noticed that she was being careful not to express her own opinion on the subject. She wanted it to be my decision rather than a choice I made just because of how she might feel. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. With barely a pause, I shook my head. “I’m keeping the power. Yeah, it makes me feel… gross to have something of Fossor’s. Especially necromancy. But it could also help. It’s like you said, the power isn’t evil. Not even a power like that. I can use it to do good things. Like the way I’m helping some of those ghosts get closure before they move on.” Biting my lip, I hesitantly added, “And, if there’s other evil necromancers out there, it feels like… it’s a good idea to have this power. Not just have it, use it. Exercise it.”

With a smile, Mom stepped over through the water and put both hands on my shoulders. “Have I told you how proud I am of you, Felicity?” Her voice was soft, the slightest hint of tears in her eyes as she stared at me. “You are my girl. I missed you so much.”

The words took me by surprise, a thick lump forming in my throat that made it impossible to respond. I tried, but nothing came. Nothing save for a small, almost animalistic sound before I quickly stepped forward, putting my arms around my mother to cling onto her tightly. There was so much I wanted to say right then, but I couldn’t. I had nothing. Just that simple hug. 

Mom returned it, seeming to understand that I couldn’t speak. For a minute, the two of us simply stood there, embracing as we stood hip-deep in the water. I could feel the eyes of my sharks on us, watching silently and with more understanding than any normal shark. I still wasn’t sure exactly how intelligent they were, but it was clearly pretty high, as far as animals went.

Eventually, we made our way back up onto the shore, each of us producing a field-engraver and using a spell that dried us off immediately. On the way, I looked over and saw Haiden and Sariel having some kind of intense conversation with Vanessa, Tristan, and some other girl I didn’t recognize. She was incredibly thin, almost sickly-looking, with very pale skin and dark hair. 

“Friend of yours?” Mom asked, looking the way I had glanced. Even as she said it, I saw her eyes narrow very slightly. Not at the pale girl, but at Sariel. At the same time, the blonde woman herself turned her gaze to look our way. Their gazes locked, and even though neither of them moved or said anything, there was something there. The two were exchanging some kind of communication that I was pretty sure wasn’t all one hundred percent friendly. It wasn’t actively hostile or anything, but still. Mom obviously wasn’t Sariel’s biggest fan in the world. 

Yeah, I had no idea what was going on over there with that new girl. But I was pretty sure that leading my mother away from the situation was the best thing, so I took her hand and started to head in the opposite direction. Whatever the deal was with the girl Tristan and Vanessa had brought to their parents, they could handle it. 

After all, I still had a rescue mission to a planet infested with Fomorian monsters to deal with.

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Patreon Snippets 18 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For those who read Summus Proelium who might have missed it, there was a commissioned interlude for that story posted yesterday. You can find it by clicking right here

The following is the 18th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Gabriel Ruthers 

The Necromancer was dead. After more than a dozen mortal lifetimes, after an untold number of victims and atrocities, the monster who had shown Gabriel Ruthers what the beings who lurked in the shadows were truly capable of was gone. He was dead and he would never threaten another person’s life, would never corrupt and torture another innocent soul. 

It should have been a time of joy, a time of relief and celebration. And it was, for some. For many, really. A large portion of the Crossroads population who had any clue who the man named Fossor had been were currently engaged in parties that stretched across just about every major holding their society had. There was talk amongst others in the Committee of making the day Fossor fell into a literal holiday, perhaps even working in a way to make it one amongst the Bystanders as well somehow. They were giddy with relief and joy, most not caring anything about who had struck the final blow, only that it was done and that Fossor was dead. 

But of course, it wasn’t that simple. Such things hardly ever were. Particularly these days.  

As for Ruthers himself, the man stood not at any of those parties. Nor was he celebrating more quietly, as others were, in various bars or private restaurants. No. Instead, he stood on a hill a few short kilometers north of Collobrières, in France. With one hand resting against a tree, Ruthers stared at a nearby spot between two fallen logs. To most, it would seem the same as any other patch of dirt in any other forest. Looking there, they would see nothing important, nothing special. 

Nothing that had changed the entire course of human history. 

But, of course, it was far more than that. When Ruthers looked to that spot, he saw himself, young and so naive. He saw Fossor, expertly manipulating him. The two of them had stood there, in that very spot, to finalize the ‘deal’ that was supposed to involve Ruthers and the other Heretics he had gathered together giving Fossor the power he needed to use a spell that would have eliminated the grave threat they had all faced. 

Fossor had presented himself as a friend, one they could trust. Others hadn’t believed him. Ruthers had vouched for the man. He had traveled with Fossor for months, had fought alongside him, had saved his life (or so he thought) and vice versa. For those months, Fossor had worked to convince Gabriel that he was trustworthy and honest, someone who only wanted to help. 

And Gabriel, fool that he was, had believed it. He had well and truly believed that this Fossor, though not human, was someone who could help them. He’d argued with their other allies, had nearly come to blows with them, had staked everything he was that the man at his side was one they could count on. 

It was his words, his urging, that convinced the others to take a chance. They helped contribute the power Fossor had asked for. Desperate as they were to stop the threat that had been looming in front of them, they gave the Necromancer everything wanted, everything they could give. 

Only later did Ruthers find out the truth, that Fossor’s magic on this world had been weak, thanks to the efforts of some other entity. He was–not quite cut off in the same way as the curse for stepping on Earth soil (that had been accomplished later), but his efforts to draw power here to Earth were weakened. But by convincing Gabriel and the others to give him so much power, Fossor managed to break that limitation. And, in the process, he had nearly wiped out all humanity. Killing millions of innocent people, a solid chunk of the entire population of the world at the time, and turning the slow trickle of his power on this world into the full geyser it was supposed to be, all in the same move. Which of those was his primary goal would forever be a mystery. Perhaps both. Perhaps it didn’t matter. 

What mattered was results. And the result was that because of his own naivety, Ruthers had convinced others to give Fossor everything he needed to nearly wipe out the human race and become a threat to the Earth for centuries following. Every person who had died from that disease, every person Fossor had killed since then, was because of what Ruthers had done. They were dead because he had trusted the Necromancer when everyone else had said he shouldn’t. If he had listened to them, if he just hadn’t been so stupid and naive… 

It was a mistake he would never make again. Humans. His loyalty was to humanity. After what he’d done, after what he’d helped cause, Gabriel Ruthers would never forget that. Whatever happened, he would always put humanity first. He would protect them from everything he could, no matter what. The horror and guilt he felt whenever he thought about this moment, the moment all those centuries ago when he had stood in this forest and agreed to convince his companions to trust Fossor, would never leave. After all this time, it was only stronger. 

And when he saw Joselyn, when he saw the young woman with so much charisma and power falling into that same trap, not understanding that the evil things that wanted to destroy the human race were patient enough to play nice for months and even years at a time, he wanted to scream. He wanted to grab the woman and shake her, shout in her face about what Fossor had done to him. Fossor had played him, just as those creatures were doing to her. 

His mistake had nearly resulted in the complete annihilation of the human species. Hers could be worse, if someone didn’t make her stop. She was too charismatic, too capable of convincing other people to join her. Joselyn and her daughter. The two of them together could drag humanity to destruction or complete servitude, all with the best of intentions. Because they wouldn’t listen, because they refused to understand. 

The smell of ash filled Ruthers’ nose, and he turned a bit to find the tree he had been touching had been disintegrated. Lost in his memories and thoughts as he had been as he stared at that single spot where he and Fossor had stood, his hand had subconsciously heated up to the point of burning the entire tree down to nothing. Without even thinking about it, without any conscious thought, he had destroyed a living thing that had been standing for two hundred and seventeen years. He knew that, because he had seen the tree sprout the first time. He knew every plant in this area, every rock, every creature that called it home or passed through. 

He knew this place as well as he knew his own room. Or even more, because it was far more important.  

For a moment, the man grimaced at the sight, pausing a bit before looking over to a nearby tree that was still standing. Holding out his hand, he waited until a seed from that tree flew through the air to his palm. Then he crouched as a perfectly circular hole appeared in the ground to drop the seed in. Using both hands, he pushed the dirt in on top of it, patted the ground flat, and stood. A thought made the seed begin to sprout and grow at a rapid pace, until a young but sturdy sapling stood where the previous tree had been. 

Satisfied, Ruthers stepped away from the sapling, leaving it to grow the rest of the way on its own as he moved to stand in the spot he had stood all those centuries ago. He heard his own voice, his own words agreeing to Fossor’s supposed plan. He heard the stupidity in them, the childish belief and trust. He heard everything in his own voice that he now heard whenever Joselyn or Felicity spoke. Or any of their people. 

He heard their words and he heard his own. He saw his consequences, and saw what theirs could be if someone didn’t stop them. If they were being played, if even one person in their little collection of monsters had the same intentions that Fossor had had…

He couldn’t let that happen. Fossor was dead and gone, and good riddance. Ruthers hadn’t been the one to kill him, but he truly didn’t care about that. All that mattered was that the Necromancer was dead. But if his legacy continued, if one like him managed to carry on where he had failed, because Joselyn kept the fucking door open for it…

Pivoting away from the spot with a grunt of disgust, the man began to stride away from it purposefully as a portal appeared to take him back to Crossroads. Let others celebrate. They deserved it. As for him, he had to get back to work. 

Joselyn and her people had to be stopped. They all had to be stopped. That was all there was to it. Ruthers would make absolutely certain of it. Whatever it took, whatever had to happen, he would make sure nothing like Fossor ever happened again. 

Or he would die trying. 

*******

Zeke Leven 

That Felicity Chambers chick was a pain in the ass. 

The thought, along with other similarly uncharitable ones directed toward his former classmate and her entire family, filled Zeke Leven’s mind as he repeatedly hit a punching bag that had been set up in one of the Crossroads Academy gyms. The bag was enchanted to take a lot of damage. Which was a good thing, considering the boy had gained enough power over the past year and change to pick up and hurl a decent sized Bystander car. Every punch he subjected that bag to would have turned an ordinary, mundane one into dust and shattered cloth. And he hit the thing rapidly, twenty, thirty full-force punches in the course of ten seconds. 

Sandoval was out there, along with her sister. Both of them had bought into the cuddly, friendly, oh-so-misunderstood Strangers bullshit. How? How was that possible, after everything they had seen? Scout especially should have known better. After everything she’d been through, after what their mother had–

But their mother had bought into it too. Or had she? Was the woman who had shown up really their mother, or one of those bodysnatchers that had been talked about? What kind of woman would really drag her daughters into that bullshit rebellion against humanity when they themselves were humans? It didn’t make any sense. It was bullshit. It was wrong. 

“Zeke,” a quiet voice spoke from nearby, drawing the boy’s attention. He turned, to see a familiar woman. 

“Mother,” the boy said simply, blinking a bit as her appearance threw him. “What are you doing here?” 

Sophoronia, in turn, replied, “Is it so strange for me to check on my son?” She paused, eyes flicking toward the severely punished heavy bag before they moved back to him. “How are you? I assume you’ve heard the news of Fossor’s death.”

“Heard? Yeah, I heard,” Zeke retorted, gesturing off toward the grounds. “That’s what all the screaming and partying going on out there is about. Newest excuse anyway. Not like people need much of one.” 

“Yet, you’re not celebrating with them,” his mother noted carefully, watching him.  

Zeke shrugged, folding his arms over his stomach. “We didn’t do much, did we? I mean, it was the traitors who actually killed the motherfucker.” 

“Language, Zeke,” Sophronia gently chastised before reconsidering. “On second thought, use whatever bad language you like when it comes to that creature. But please, leave that specific phrase out of things. It’s a bit too… on the nose.”

Ignoring that, the boy looked to his mother. “What are you people going to do about the traitors? They’re turning innocent people to their side now. And since they killed Fossor, I heard some people talking about how maybe they’re right. Especially since they had Strangers helping them.” 

Sophronia met her son’s gaze. “Do you know who specifically has been saying that?” 

For a few silent seconds, Zeke stared back at his mother as a handful of thoughts swirled through his head. He considered every possible answer before simply looking away with a muttered, “Just some mutters. Nobody specific. But that’s not the point. The point is people are starting to look up to them, Mother. This whole thing is going to be worse, because you guys won’t stop them and put those traitors where they belong.”

“It’s not quite that simple,” his mother quietly informed him, seeming to consider her words then before continuing. “Would you have us put everyone who has left Crossroads under this belief in prison? Including the Mason twins and others?” 

“No,” Zeke snapped quickly. “They’re just–they’ve been tricked. They’re…” He trailed off, trying to find the right words. 

“As I said,” Sophronia gently put in, “it’s complicated. And even if such a decision could be made lightly, they’re quite strong. Going to full-scale war against them could leave the Earth itself vulnerable to other threats. We have to be careful.” 

With a sigh, Zeke turned away to face the heavy bag once more. “Yeah, whatever.” 

For a moment, his mother said nothing. Then she moved closer, putting both hands on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Zeke. The work I’ve done, the things I’ve been busy with, they… I haven’t spent as much time with you as I should have.” 

“What?” He blinked, turning to look over his shoulder. “What does that have to do with anything?” 

It looked, just for a second, like his mother was going to say one thing. Then she clearly changed her mind and shook her head. “Nothing. I just… I haven’t been able to be there for you as much as I should have.” Carefully, she turned the boy around, pulling him closer into an embrace. “I just want you to make good choices. But they have to be your choices.”

Zeke, of course, had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Nor why his mother was acting so strangely. Maybe it was just the fact that Fossor, a long-time enemy, was finally dead. Maybe it made her feel nostalgic or something. 

He did know two things for a fact, however. First, the traitors were going to have a field day recruiting people after this victory that had made Crossroads look like idiots. 

And second, Felicity Chambers was definitely a pain in the ass. 

******

Sariel and Haiden 

“You know, shotgun weddings have their benefits,” Haiden Holt noted as he stood near the window of the Vegas hotel room, “but downsides too.” The man, wearing a provided bathrobe, was gazing out over the brightly lit Vegas strip far below, watching the line of cars and starry-eyed tourists. How would they react if they had the slightest idea of who the actual people who ran this city were? A trio of Strang–Alter families, vampire, Vestil, and Oni all in an uneasy truce to keep Heretics (or most of them, anyway) out. 

Come to think of it, given the mix of Bystander rumors and truth about the powers behind Vegas over the decades, maybe people wouldn’t blink too much at the truth after all. 

“Are you saying you don’t want to get married?” Sariel teased from the bathroom where she was drying off and dressing after their shower together. 

Eyeing the reflection in the window where he could barely make out the beautiful woman’s form, Haiden retorted, “Did I say anything of the sort? I just think it’s too bad that neither of us have friends we could invite. Okay, no friends that we’ve known longer than the few months we’ve known each other, anyway.” Abandoning everyone he’d ever known, as Sariel herself had on her side, had taken a lot. But the two of them had each other. And soon, once they were married, the bond between them would be a far more formal and permanent one. 

Sariel stepped out into the room, not bothering to dress as she moved up behind the man and wrapped her arms around him. “It would be nice,” she murmured, “but there’s no way it could work.” 

“You thinking about specific people you’d like to be here?” Haiden asked, as it took everything in him to focus on their conversation and not on the fact that the woman he loved was naked and clinging to him. She really was cheating. 

“Are you?” Sariel returned, before adding, “I’d like my… Apollo to be there. And a few others. My mother…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “That’s impossible for a lot more reasons. Not just because she’d probably want to kill you for being human and corrupting her daughter. But also… all that.” 

Of course, because of ‘all that.’ Haiden knew about the woman called Korsmea, how she was in some kind of Seosten mental hospital because of the curse. A curse that made her constantly forget when she was in her own personal timeline. Every time the woman woke up, or even multiple times a day, she would think she was at some different point in the several thousand years she had been alive before the curse. 

Thousands of years of memories, all being randomly relived with no way of focusing on the present. It sounded horrific, and in some ways even worse for a young child like Sariel had been to live through. 

No wonder she wanted this Apollo guy to be there. The Seosten who had been her partner, her brother of sorts, for so long. He’d tried to get Sariel to tell him more about the guy, so he could reach out to him (the man had left the Seosten after all), but she refused. She was, as far as Haiden could tell, ashamed that she hadn’t left with Apollo in the first place. Which seemed like a dumb reason not to reach out to him now, but he wasn’t going to push that. Not yet. 

“Vanessa,” he murmured, answering her earlier question in a quiet voice. “I’d like Vanessa to be here.” Which was even more impossible, given his sister had died many years earlier. She’d been killed in training back at Eden’s Garden, even before the two had graduated to full Heretics. 

With a visible wince even in the reflection, Sariel held him more tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while gently kissing his shoulder. “I wish your sister could be here too. I wish everyone we cared about could be here. I wish… a lot of things.”

Turning from the window to face her, Haiden shook his head. “It’s okay. We’ll find new people we can trust and love and open up to.” Arching an eyebrow, he pointedly looked down, then back up again. “And I can’t say I’m exactly suffering right now.” 

It was fun seeing the way he could make a woman as ancient as the original Artemis blush. A wave of pink spread over her face as she punched him in the shoulder while rolling her eyes. “I should get dressed. And you should think if there’s anyone else you wish you could invite.” Poking him in the same spot she had punched, the woman turned and started to walk away. Again, a view he didn’t exactly object to. 

Turning back to the window once she started to dress, Haiden idly remarked, “I suppose I could try to reach out to see if Lucy’s interested in showing up. I mean, after everything that guy did for me before we met, and–” 

Suddenly, Sariel was there. Her hands caught Haiden by the arm, turning him to face her. “What?” she demanded, eyes wide. “Who did you say helped you?” 

Haiden was left blinking a little, confused. “Lucy–no big deal. He was the guy, the Heretic I mentioned who helped point me to a few problems. Like the one where I found you.” 

“You never mentioned his name before,” Sariel pointed out, her grip on his shoulders still tight. 

With a confused shrug, Haiden offered, “Yeah, he had a big thing for secrecy. Has, I guess. He was huge for being anonymous, I guess I was just respecting that. He was–umm, are you okay?” He’d noticed the odd look in his fiance’s gaze. 

Sariel didn’t answer at first. She turned away, arms folding across her stomach as she stared at the floor and shivered a little. She was lost in thoughts, in memories, in doubts. 

“Hey, what–” Haiden hesitated before putting his hands on her shoulders, gently turning the woman to face him. “What’s wrong? Is this–you know this Lucy guy, don’t you? He pointed me at you for a reason.” In that moment, seeing the way the woman he loved reacted to the name, he was trying to decide if that was a good thing or if Lucy had somehow been fucking with them both. If this was a guy who hated Sariel, if they were–

“Apollo,” the woman finally spoke up, her voice cracking just a little. “It was Apollo.” She looked to him, swallowing hard. “His original name was Lucifer. They–my people made him the… yeah. Lucifer. Lucy. It was him.” 

That was a… a lot. For a moment, Haiden just stared at his fiance as he digested that. “Your brother–Apollo, the one you call Apollo, he’s Lucifer. Your people turned him into the embodiment of all evil in the Bystander Christian mythology, and he… he was the guy who sent me to you.” 

He’d known that he’d been intentionally sent to meet Sariel, of course. He’d known that there was someone who had purposefully pointed him toward her, likely with the intention of just what had happened. Except he’d never considered it being Lucy, because the man named Lucy had always presented himself as the go-between. He had simply passed along a message from the man named Nicholas. It was Nicholas, whoever he was, whom Haiden had assumed was responsible for making sure he and Sariel met. 

Except was there even an actual Nicholas to begin with? Or was that just a way for this Lucifer/Apollo to hide in plain sight? 

Focusing on Sariel, he quietly asked, “Are you okay?” She had to be reeling even more than he was, after the long and incredibly complicated relationship she’d had with the man. He knew there was more to the story, but from what he had heard, this Apollo or Lucifer had basically been the most important person in her life for… for a really long time. 

For her part, Sariel was quiet at first. She seemed to be digesting the information, her gaze moving past him to stare out the window. He saw flashes of guilt in her expression, but also wonder, relief, fear, and happiness. It was a clearly a confusing rush of emotions, before she finally looked back to him, visibly swallowing. In a very small voice, she whispered, “He sent you to me.” There were tears in her eyes, which she blinked away rapidly before repeating in an even more tender voice, “He sent you to me.” 

Before Haiden could respond, Sariel’s hands were on either side of his face, and he was pulled down. Her lips found his, in a kiss that seemed to eclipse all they had shared before that moment. 

She said nothing else after that, not for some time. Nor did he. Because nothing else needed to be said about how they each felt about each other and their relationship. 

Not with words, anyway. 

********

Guinevere and Arthur

Two teenage figures, one male and one female, stood atop a hill facing one another. In the distance, a small village could be glimpsed with smoke rising from several fireplaces. The sound of merriment for the local festival to celebrate the harvest could be heard, but neither of the teens paid attention. Their sole focus was on one another, and what they were doing. 

“So,” Guinevere began while squinting at the boy across from her, “how does this work? And if you start talking about needing some kind of kiss or something to make your power work, I shall make certain you regret it.” 

An embarrassed blush crossed the dark-haired boy’s face at her words. Which, Guinevere decided, made him look even more attractive. Not that she’d ever tell him that. 

Well, not soon, anyway. 

“I, ahh, I’m not completely sure,” Arthur confessed. “I’ve never really done this before. But Nimue says it’ll be instinct. She says dragons were always supposed to enhance the abilities of the rest of the armies they were at the head of, so I should just… um, be able to do it by thinking about it.” 

For another moment, the two just stared at each other. As it began to feel a little awkward, Guinevere offered, “Perhaps we should hold hands. As long as you don’t get any ideas.” She added the last bit primly, mostly just to see his reaction. 

And it was a fun reaction indeed. The blush that she had decided was cute spread even more, as Arthur shook his head quickly. “No, no ideas. I mean, ideas for this, but not–I mean. Here.” Quickly, he grabbed both of her hands and held them. His eyes closed briefly, but then drifted open as he stared at her. 

At first, Guinevere met his gaze only for the purpose of teasing him about staring at her. But the words faltered in her throat as their gazes locked. She stared into Arthur’s eyes, feeling her own heartbeat, hearing her breath gradually slow along with his. The two gazed at one another, as a feeling of warmth built through her. It began in her hands, clasped within his, spreading through her arms and into her core. That feeling of warmth, of acceptance, of… of power built in her. She lost herself in his gaze, tumbling endlessly and yet felt perfectly safe. 

With a sudden gasp, both Arthur and Guinevere stumbled away from one another, releasing their hands as they almost fell. 

Catching herself, Guinevere blurted, “Gods! You–that was–you just…” The feeling, it was so strong. She felt–she felt so… amazing. Turning, the girl looked toward the village and focused. The moment she did, a gasp escaped her once more. “It worked!” 

“It did?” Arthur blinked, stepping that way. “How can you–” 

“I can see a long way,” she informed him, not looking away from the village. “The griffin I was bonded to, it let me see things from a far distance. But now I can see even further. I couldn’t see the sign by the pub before. Now I can. I can count the number of coins on the bar through the window.”

That said, the girl turned away from the village, drawing a knife from its sheath at her leg. Holding the weapon up, she eyed it. At a thought, the blade bent all the way to the left, then to the right, while her smile grew. “It’s easier to control metal too. It responds faster. This is–Arthur, you made me stronger!” 

Quickly, the boy pointed out, “Nimue says that boost was growing since I was bonded. It’ll take longer to do more boosts like that. Or they’ll be smaller. And more spread out.” 

“I don’t care,” Guinevere informed him, “this is amazing.” 

After a momentary hesitation, Arthur asked, “You can fly too, right? Do… do you think you’re faster now?” 

The question made a sly smile cross the girl’s face. “Do I think I’m faster? Faster than I was, or faster than you?” She watched his reaction, giggling despite herself before reaching out to poke his nose with her finger. “I guess there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” 

With that, and with no further warning, the girl abruptly erupted from the ground. In an instant, she was a distant speck far off in the sky. 

Gazing after her, Arthur gave a slow smile of his own as he watched the figure doing loops through the air as though taunting him to catch up. 

And then he was gone too, launching himself into the sky to give chase. 

********

Joselyn and Abigail

Long after the main party celebrating the defeat of Fossor had died down, people still spoke in small, isolated groups or pairs. One of those pairs, standing on the porch behind the cabin where others of the family were resting, was Joselyn and Abigail. Mother and daughter, separated for so many decades to the point that they were entirely strangers, stood side-by-side, looking out at the forest as they bonded over the single shared experience they had: motherhood. 

“Once,” Abigail was saying, “when Koren was around eleven, she decided she really wanted a dog. I told her only if she was responsible for it, so she said she’d start feeding and walking some neighbor’s dogs to prove it. Good so far, right? Well, little did I know, my little angel wasn’t about to wait for as long as proving herself would take.

“Turns out, she had already been given a dog by one of her friends. Long story there. But she kept him out in the shed in the backyard. We thought one of the neighbor dogs was just barking a lot. She kept him out there, and when she fed the neighborhood dogs, she just kept a little bit from each in a baggy and brought it all home to put in a pan for her dog. She took him for a walk the same way she took the other dogs for walks, just pretending it was one of the neighbor’s. She played with the dog, walked the dog, fed the dog, all right in front of us while we thought it was yet another neighborhood dog she was taking care of. That kid must’ve fed, walked, and played with ten different dogs over those few weeks just to hide the fact that she already had her own dog she was taking care of.” 

With a smile, Joselyn asked her own grown daughter, “Did you let her keep him?” 

“Well at that point, what else could we do?” Abigail snorted. “I told her to prove she could take care of one, and she took care of him and nine others.” She exhaled, looking away. “We had Thumper for about three years after that, until he went missing. Koren was heartbroken. I…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “She really loved that dog.” 

For a minute or so, both women were quiet. Then Joselyn spoke up. “Felicity was in kindergarten. She was doing really well, but then she started getting in trouble. Not bad trouble, just enough to get in timeout. She refused to share, took someone else’s crayons, talked back to the teacher, little things that made them put her in the corner. All week long, every day, she did just enough to get put in timeout. The teachers couldn’t understand why, and we couldn’t either. Until I figured it out.” 

“What was she doing?” Abigail asked, curious about what her much-younger sister had been up to. 

With a chuckle, Joselyn explained, “See, I was working at the high school that week, helping with the career day events and a few other things. I thought Felicity was jealous or something, upset that I was at the high school and wasn’t visiting her school, because they were right next to each other. But when I went to visit her teacher to have a talk, I realized something. The timeout chair in the corner, it was right by a small window. And through that window, she could see the parking lot in the high school where I’d been working all week.” 

Abigial gave a double-take, staring at her. “Oh my God. You mean she was intentionally getting in trouble so they’d put her in time-out, just so she could watch you from across the parking lots?” 

A fond, tender smile touched Joselyn’s face as she nodded. “That’s right. She just wanted those few extra minutes every day to watch me, even if it meant getting in trouble to do it.” 

“Being a mom, it’s worth it,” Abigail quietly announced without taking her eyes off her own mother.

Joselyn, in turn, met her gaze while slowly lifting a hand to touch the other woman’s face. “Yes,” she agreed. 

“It absolutely is.” 

******

The Olympus

With a snap of his heels and a quick salute, the incredibly young Seosten (he couldn’t have been older than sixty or so) military guard jumped to abrupt attention at the unexpected appearance of a surprising guest. “Trierarch!” he blurted aloud, voice betraying his surprise, “Apologies, sir, if you were expected I wasn’t informed.” Belatedly after saying that, he seemed to want to correct himself to avoid potentially throwing any of his close superiors under the bus.

Puriel, however, shook his head. “Ease, peditatus. It’s okay. I know it’s early, but I ahh, just thought I’d come take a look at the old girl while the place was closed.” Meeting the other man’s gaze, he added with a very small smile, “I’d rather avoid crowds and fuss.” 

“O-of course, sir.” Quickly, the young Seosten turned toward the heavy metal door he had been half-dozing in front of before this unexpected arrival. Taking the field-engraver from its slot on his belt, he carefully touched all four points of the alarm spell, disengaging it and unlocking the door. It hissed open a moment later, as he gestured. “Right this way, Trierarch.” 

With that, he started forward through the airlock, leaving Puriel to follow. The two of them entered a long, clear tube. The Seosten homeworld of Elohim lay far below. They weren’t quite in space, being ‘only’ around thirty thousand feet up. This was the navy museum, where dozens of old, decommissioned military vessels were kept. The facility itself consisted of a maze of these clear corridors connected to various box-like structures where classes and presentations about ships (both those kept here and others that had been used throughout the long conflict with the Fomorians) were held. The ships that were actually kept here at the museum were attached to the open spaces between the main structures, able to be viewed from all sides through the maze of clear tube corridors. The entire facility was kept aloft through powerful engines at all four corners that allowed it to remain in the same relative position above the Seosten capital city.

Stepping out into that particular tube, Puriel took a look at the ship that had been his home for so long, his pride and joy, his… his true achievement. The ship that had truly meant more than he ever could have understood until long after he’d lost it. 

The Olympus. The ship itself consisted, at its base, of an orb five hundred meters in diameter. The main science and living facilities of the ship were kept there, along with the primary bridge directly in the center. Attached to that primary orb were three long gunships that were about a third of the width of the core and vaguely curved in order to attach/overlap it. The gunships were each attached equidistant around the orb, extending twenty meters behind the orb and a hundred meters in front of it, with two on what was considered the ‘bottom’ and one on the ‘top.’ It essentially looked like a long, thick metal pipe with three large cracks between where gunships were between the two and three o’clock positions, the six o’clock position, and the nine to ten o’clock positions, all surrounding a large ball trapped inside said pipe.

Not that the gunships had to stay connected. At any point, one or all of the three cylinder pieces could detach from the main orb and operate separately to provide fire support. The Olympus was essentially four vessels in one, a science orb protected by three powerful gunships. 

For a few long seconds, Puriel said nothing. He simply stood, staring silently at the sight in front of him. A myriad of thoughts, emotional, very complicated thoughts, ran through him. The memories that came when he saw that ship were… almost more than he could bear. He could feel himself start to slip away, start to lose himself the way he had done for so long after that broken banishment orb had all-but destroyed his mind. 

Spark pulled him back. He felt her presence, felt her gently catch his drifting thoughts and point him back to what he was doing, before he could entirely lose himself. 

“Sir?” It was the Seosten who had unlocked the door to let him in here so he could see the old ship. “Are you okay? Should I get someone to–” 

“No,” Puriel interrupted. “No, it’s alright. Thank you, peditatus, I–what’s your name?” 

“Eilerien, sir,” came the response. 

“Eilerien,” Puriel repeated. “Good. Would you mind giving me a few minutes here? I need to… I’d like to reminisce without feeling self-conscious.” 

The other man gave a hurried nod, clearly glad for the excuse to avoid the embarrassment of standing around while an old, retired captain stared at his ship. “Yes, Trierarch, of course. I’ll be right outside if you need anything.” He quickly moved back through the doors, shutting them behind himself to provide some privacy. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel spoke quietly, “It’s safe. We’re alone and no one’s watching.” 

Instantly, Spark appeared beside him, manifesting herself in a visible form by harnessing his own energy powers to bend the light into what amounted to a hologram. As always, she presented herself as having long hair pulled in a braid, half of it dark to match his hair and half blonde to match her mother’s. 

“It’s bigger than you imagine it,” she pointed out. 

“It feels smaller when I think about how many people we had,” he informed her. “It was home. A dysfunctional, often dangerous home, but still home. Seeing it empty… that’s what makes it seem bigger now.” 

For a few long seconds, neither of them said anything else. Spark simply stared through the clear corridor, watching the ship where her mother had served for so long. Finally, she spoke quietly, “Can you really do it?” 

Puriel didn’t answer at first. He simply stared at the ship, considering before giving a short nod. “Yes. I just need some time.” 

With that, his eyes closed, as the man reached out with his own Tartarus-granted power. The ability to control and manipulate vast amounts of energy to almost limitless ends, including magical energy. He could, in effect, create almost any spell effect he knew of simply by willing ambient magical energy to shape itself properly. Even if he didn’t know how to cast the actual spell itself, he could force the energy to follow his will. 

The ‘some time’ he had asked for turned out to be nearly an hour. A few times, he felt the guard outside the room take a glance in to make sure everything was still fine. But the man, of course, never saw anything untoward. As far as he was concerned, Puriel was simply standing there, one hand on the clear tube, as he stared at the ship and lost himself in memories. 

It would’ve been easy to actually lose himself that way, to be fair. But Spark helped keep him on-task and focused. For that hour, he worked his own power over the ship in the distance, pulling energy from the air and shaping it into the spells he needed. 

Finally, it was done. The Olympus, with a suddenness that was almost jarring despite the fact he was ready for it, vanished as though it had never been there. 

Almost immediately, alarms began to blare. The door slammed open, and Eilerien burst through, eyes wide. “Trierarch?! What happened, what–” 

He was stopped in mid-sentence, as Puriel produced a small, clear-colored orb and touched it to the man’s forehead. The memory modification spell he’d previously attached to it had already set to work, shaping itself to follow his words. But it would do more than that. The orb wouldn’t simply rewrite the man’s memory, it would also alter the holographic recordings to match. 

“I was never here. You were attacked by a band of pirates who infiltrated the facility. You managed to kill three of them at great risk to your own life, but they proved too much. Their intended target was the military vessel Aeternum, but your valiant efforts forced them to retreat to take the Olympus instead, as a secondary target. You’re proud of yourself for standing your ground and driving them away from their main target. Now, sleep.” 

With that, the guard collapsed to the ground. Stepping away from him, Puriel waved a hand to summon a portal. As it appeared, he spoke to Spark, whose holographic form stood nearby. “It’s time. 

“Let’s go take a closer look at the ship that’s going to take us to Earth.”

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Patreon Snippets 16 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following are the Heretical Edge edition of the next requested Patreon Snippets from our $10+ donators. In this case, there are only two snippets, but one is 4500 words long, so… less snippet and more ‘about a chapter and a half.’ Hope you all enjoy them, and thanks for everything!

 

Denuvus and Trice

“How is our new guest settling into his quarters?” Denuvus casually asked her young assistant. The two of them stood in a fairly dark room, with a holographic globe of the Earth hovering in the air to take up most of the space within, serving as the only source of illumination. Her fingers played over part of the globe, turning it idly while she watched a line of energy that drew itself up and away, off into what would be open space.  

“The bogeyman is fed and watered,” Trice retorted. The green-haired young Heretic folded his arms while adding, “You gonna tell Miles and his buddies that we’ve got his dad?” They had used the distraction of the assault on Fossor’s compound to snatch up the man. 

“Not just yet,” came the quiet, distracted answer as Denuvus leaned in close to examine the glowing line. “We’ll keep him safe and taken care of for now. Miles and his friends could still be of some use very soon. When the time comes, we’ll give them a target and allow them to rescue Caleb while taking care of a… situation for me. No sense in throwing away perfectly good weapons before making use of them, after all.”

“That guy finds out you’ve had his father and didn’t tell him, he’s gonna be pissed,” Trice noted. 

Denuvus’s response was a dry, “The quiver of my fear at the prospect of such a thing shall shake the foundations of the Earth. Yet I soldier on through grim determination.”

With that, the dark-haired woman raised a hand to point. “Come here and look at this, see what we’re about to do.” 

Frowning, Trice stepped that way, staring at the line. “What the hell am I looking at?” 

“This,” the woman informed him, “is the trail of the magic that our friend Fossor used to send Miss Chambers away from this world and into the future. But by the nature of time travel magic, it can be… twisted, if one acts quickly enough at the exact moment of its casting.” 

Trice gave her a look. “Is that what you were doing while I had to drag the bogeyman dude out of there? Messing with the time travel spell?” 

“I want Miss Chambers to end up where and when I need her,” came the casual reply. “Not where and when Fossor wants her to be. I simply gave the spell a slight… wait.” The calm, confident reply turned faintly, yet noticeably uncertain that last word. 

“Wait?” Trice echoed, glancing at her. “What?” 

“This,” Denuvus informed him while indicating one flickering part of the line, “is where I interfered to send the Chambers girl where I want her.” Slowly, her finger moved up to a different flickering point further along. “This is someone else.” 

“Someone else?” Trice blinked that way. “What do you mean ‘someone else?’ I thought you said you’d have to interfere with the time travel spell at practically the exact moment it was cast.” 

“Yes,” the woman confirmed, “you would. You would also have to be an incredibly gifted and powerful mage to adjust a time spell that had already been adjusted once.” 

Trice looked to the line, then back to her. “So what does that mean?” 

For once, Denuvus looked slightly annoyed, and not entirely in control of the situation. “It means,” she managed through somewhat gritted teeth, “that someone else took control of the spell to move Miss Chambers beyond where Fossor or myself wanted her.” 

“But who the hell could do that?” Trice demanded. “Who was strong enough and knew to do it at that exact time?” 

“That,” came the slow, deliberate response, “is a very good question.” 

 

***********

 

Tabbris and Lincoln

 

“Are you certain this is something you want to do right now?” Sariel Moon asked quietly as she and Lincoln Chambers watched one another in a dimly lit room, the two of them only barely visible to one another through a couple of faintly flickering candles positioned at opposite ends of the table that sat between the pair. “Unlocking your Chimera gift is something you can’t ever do again. Not like this. If you would rather wait until your older daughter is here…”  

“I need to help.” The man’s voice was rough. He’d been through a lot in a short time. They had been so close to getting both Felicity and Joselyn back, and then that was snatched away. Not to mention his discovery that both of his own parents had disappeared, with no one having any idea where they were. There’d been worry for a time that Crossroads or Eden’s Garden had grabbed them, but neither of those groups had made a peep about it. The entire point of taking them would have been as leverage against Felicity and Joselyn, and yet there was nothing. And none of the whispers that the Atherby clan and rebellion at large had heard from those sympathetic to their cause within the Heretic organizations had heard anything about it. 

Maria and Arthur Chambers had simply vanished. Which, given the kind of things Lincoln now knew were out there, made him very anxious about what had prompted such a disappearance. Between that and the thing with Felicity and Joselyn, he hadn’t been getting much sleep. 

With a low sigh, he continued. “I can’t just sit around. I need to help. Felicity–she has a way of getting in trouble. Between her and Jos, and my parents going missing, I can’t just sit here. I’ve been learning a lot about–” He coughed, forcing the word out, “–magic, and believe me, that’s still a thing I can’t believe I’m talking about seriously. I’ve been learning a lot about that, but it’s not enough. I can’t become a normal Heretic–which is also a phrase I can’t believe I’m using– because of my… whatever, my blood, my mutation. I can’t become a Natural Heretic like any of these other humans. I can’t just pick someone to bond to and naturally grow their… gifts.” 

Sariel nodded once. Lincoln was a Chimera-blood, so any bonding he underwent would be temporary. He’d have their gifts, quicker than a normal Natural Heretic would. Yet unlike a normal Natural Heretic, he would go back to normal in a few hours or days, depending on how much genetic material was used to bond him in the first place. 

“As I said,” she quietly reminded the man, “once you unlock your Chimera gift the first time, you will be able to temporarily form a bond with any Alter whose bodily fluids you come into contact with, even through your own skin. Simply touching the blood or saliva of an Alter will create the temporary bonding.” There was a brief pause before the Seosten woman added, “I’m told that the Atherby clan has their own… traditions around the bonding process. A ritual, of sorts, that they have performed for generations. I believe they would greatly appreciate your participation.”

“These people are Joselyn’s family,” Lincoln murmured quietly, watching one of the flickering candles briefly before turning his attention back to the woman. “And they’ve taken care of Felicity and me for a long time now. There’s no way I’d refuse their traditions. Not after everything they’ve done, everything they’ve risked… everything they are. So yes, I’m up for it.” Again, there was a scratchiness to his voice, emotion lurking just under the surface of his words. The Atherbys had done more for his family and the people he loved than Lincoln himself would ever understand. He knew that. And he would be damned before he refused any invitation to participate in their traditions. They were Joselyn’s people, her family, even if that fact had been stripped out of her memory when he’d known her. They were important to her, so they were important to him. The things they did and cared about were important to him. 

Sariel offered him a faint smile that was barely visible, as the shadows and candlelight dueled with one another across her face. “I’m glad our daughter has you for a father, Lincoln Chambers. Which reminds me… as far as your first bonding goes, Tabbris will be very upset if you don’t choose her.” 

“It was always going to be her,” Lincoln assured the woman. “Like you said, she’s our daughter. The kid slept with me at night before I even knew she existed, and she’s been protecting her sister since… since she came to Earth, since before she could even talk. How could I choose anyone else? 

“Besides, between you and me, pissing that kid off feels like a bad idea.” 

*******

The next evening, shortly before sundown, Gabriel Prosser stood at the edge of the lake with his hand outstretched over the water. His eyes were closed as he murmured a quiet yet long spell. The sense of power that came off of the man, power that seemed to infuse itself into the lake, was intense enough to make the hair on the back of any onlooker’s neck stand up. And there were a lot of onlookers. Every single one of the Atherby camp inhabitants who weren’t very young children, up at the Fusion school, or off on one mission or another had shown up. There were dozens of them, all standing in a group as they watched their leader work a spell that most of them knew by heart, given how important it had always been to their people. Some were even murmuring the words to the spell under their breath along with the man, almost akin to a prayer.

Between Prosser and the other Atherby people stood three figures. Sariel, Lincoln and Tabbris. The latter two wore white robes with gold trim, the hoods raised over their heads. Across the back of the robes, also in gold, was the design of a sword held high in a clenched hand. A sword that many of the clan still recognized as the blade of their original king, Arthur Pendragon. 

At Tabbris’ feet sat what looked like an ordinary, small goldfish bowl with a thin glowing forcefield across the top. It was far more than that, however. The interior of the bowl was as large as a decent sized bedroom, and was full of hundreds of bright, colorful fish of all kinds. There was an entire habitat inside that deceptively small-looking fishbowl, and Tabbris could adjust both the sides and top to look at any part of it at any time. They were her fish, the bowl a gift from her mother and its occupants gifts from… well, everyone. 

If Tabbris couldn’t have Flick here for this moment, she’d damn sure wanted her fish friends to be there. 

As he finished speaking the words of the spell, Gabriel grew silent. The rest of the clan followed suit. For a few precious seconds, the only audible sound was that of the waves gently lapping against the pebble-covered beach. There was stillness, a sort of magical peace. The sun had begun to set by that point, sending its red-orange glow across the water. Still, no one broke the silence. 

Finally, the tall dark-skinned man spoke while still facing the lake, his voice filling the air. “In the times of the king, those who were chosen as his knights, his select warriors, were gifted with a strength beyond their own. They were gifted with augmented strengths and powers, raising them above what they could achieve on their own. Arthur’s Dragon gifts allowed him to make others stronger. The man himself, our founder, did not simply protect his people. He enabled them to protect themselves. Our forebears, the people of Camelot, stood against the tyranny and darkness that have threatened this world for millennia. And their cause has not been forgotten. Their beliefs, their strengths, their ideals have not been forgotten. 

He turned then, facing the others while the lake behind him was lit by the fading sun. “In the absence of Arthur, we lack the ability to pass on the enhancement that he was capable of. Yet we are not without strengths of our own. As is the tradition of our people, those humans who join us are bonded to their Natural partner not only once, but twice.” 

Lincoln, of course, had been told about this ahead of time. As had Tabbris. They wouldn’t have ambushed the pair with such a revelation. Still, hearing it out loud like this made the man blink, his hand reaching down to touch the shoulder of his younger daughter. She leaned into it, and the two returned their attention to the man who was still speaking. 

“Our second-bonding,” Gabriel continued, “must be with the same species as the first, but need not be the same individual. A Natural Heretic who is bonded a second time this way will find their gifts growing faster and stronger than before. It is not the same as Arthur’s Dragon-boost, but it is our method of preserving that same idea. A way of giving our people any advantage we can, against the forces assembled against us.” 

As those words trailed off, the man focused on the trio directly in front of him. A slight smile touched his face. “Here we have Lincoln Chambers, husband of our true and rightful leader, Joselyn.” 

He spoke the name simply. Yet the moment the name of Lincoln’s wife left Gabriel’s mouth, every member of the Atherby clan spoke three words together. “True and free!” The words came instantly, filling the air with the force of thunder. True and free, it was a motto that had existed in one form or another since as long as almost any involved with the clan could remember. Yet that meaning had been greatly expanded, embraced, and exhibited by Joselyn herself in her time as the leader of the rebellion that the Atherby clan had been attached to. True and free. Their lives, their goals, their struggles, could be summed up, in large part, by those words. They fought for the truth and they fought for freedom. Freedom to live. Freedom to exist. 

“True and free,” Gabriel echoed in quiet agreement. It was a motto that had remained dormant for a long time, since the loss of Joselyn and her children. Invoking it now, at the moment when one of her husbands was about to go through the bonding process, felt right. It was hope, despite all the setbacks. More than that, it was a statement of determination, a declaration that Joselyn herself, and her youngest daughter, would both be free. 

Once those words had echoed across the lake, the man continued. “Lincoln is special, not only because of his family, but because he himself is quite the accomplished journalist. He is a man who seeks truth, and delivers it to others. Could any of us who know Joselyn be surprised that she would find a man like him?” He was smiling faintly, head shaking a little before adding, “And Lincoln here is also of the Chimera-blood.” That pronouncement made a few people’s eyes widen in surprise, as Gabriel went on. “The bonding process, first or second, will not be permanent. Yet it will unlock his gift to bond with any Alter much more easily. And Lincoln has agreed to undergo the second bonding as well, in keeping with our traditions. For that, we will now prepare.” 

As soon as those words were spoken, the group of Atherby clanspeople began to move. They passed Lincoln, Sariel, and Tabbris, a few offering quiet words of encouragement and gratitude. Over the next few minutes, the people spread out around the edge of the lake, putting enough distance between themselves that would reach all the way around and come back around the other side. 

“What happens now?” The question came not from any of the trio who stood there waiting, but from Abigail Fellows. Joselyn’s eldest daughter stood beside her twin brother and her father, the three having just been revealed when the rest of the clan moved to position themselves around the lake. They would not have missed this for anything. Not considering how important Lincoln was to Joselyn. 

Deveron straightened to his full height. The fact that he now looked like he was in his twenties rather than his teens still sometimes threw everyone who primarily knew him from his two years of deception at Crossroads, but they were gradually growing accustomed to it. “Now,” he answered in a soft voice, “they take the walk.” 

Wyatt, his eyes heavy and dark given the effort he was going through to find a way of bringing his younger sister back from the future, managed to mutter, “Traditions are a bad idea. People take advantage of traditions. Poison the ritual, invoke obscure rules to their benefit, create an ambush. Traditions are routines. Routines are stupid.” 

Deveron glanced to his son, casually replying, “See those birds out there?” Raising his hand, he pointed to a flock of dark crows that were gliding across the trees in a slow circle around the lake. “A few of our Seosten friends are using them to keep an eye on things. We also have guards in the woods, a few emergency teleports set up just in case, and I put a few whispers out that the Atherbys were doing something special for Lincoln near Laramie Falls, just in case.” 

There was a brief pause from Wyatt, before the gangly man gave a somewhat reluctant nod. “That’ll have to do, I suppose.” He knew himself. He knew he was anxious because of Flick, angry that he hadn’t been able to find her in time and now couldn’t drag her backwards through time to bring her back. He was running himself ragged and barely listened to anyone’s attempts to get him to rest at all. Intellectually, Wyatt knew there were few places on the planet safer for this than the Atherby camp. But that didn’t stop his imagination from running wild with all the possibilities of what could go wrong.

Meanwhile, Gabriel had turned to face Lincoln and the other two now that the rest of the clan had assumed their positions. He offered all three of them a smile, as well as his hand. In it was a small, ornate-looking dagger with a red hilt and intricate runes along the slightly curved blade. 

Seeing the blade, Sariel promptly asked, “Are you sure that’s not too big? It’s–” 

“Mama,” Tabbris interrupted while picking up her fishbowl. She held for her mother to take. “It’s okay. I can do it.” With her pets safely held by her mom, she turned back to Gabriel, her small hand rising to take the offered handle. Holding the dagger tightly, she recited the words she had been taught earlier that day. “Sire of Atherby, I am to share with one.”

“Do you share by your own will and choice?” Gabriel recited. 

Her head gave a short nod as she lowered the dagger to hold at her side. “It is a gift, given of choice.” 

“Who holds your left, and who your right?” The man’s next question came. “Who receives your left and right?” 

In some situations, a donating Alter would be attended by two, such as both parents, or siblings. In this case, only Sariel spoke. “I hold her left. I hold her right.” Tradition, of course, meant that she did not say that she held her left and right, but rather, that she spoke the words exactly as they would have been spoken had there been two people. 

Lincoln took his cue to speak then. “I receive her left and right. I accept and welcome the gift as it is offered, by one I trust with my all.” 

“Begin the walk,” Gabriel intoned, stepping back and raising a hand to indicate that they should move to the left. “And when you complete the circle, know that you will both return to this camp as more than you are now. Your bond will never be broken, however far you may part. Leave as halves, and return as whole.” 

As he finished speaking, Sariel took up the next part. “I wait to receive you both, as one.” 

With those words, Lincoln moved forward while taking Tabbris by the hand. Together, they passed Gabriel, stepping right out onto the water. As they did so, the spell that the Atherby leader had cast took effect, turning the liquid firm, yet slightly springy under their feet. 

Turning left, the two began to walk together. Tabbris’ voice was quiet. “I miss Flick.” 

Eyes closing briefly, Lincoln gave a short nod as he squeezed the young girl’s hand. “Me too, Cookie Bear.” He took a breath, forcing himself to continue. “But you know her. You know how she is, who she is. She’ll be okay and we’ll pull her back here. Or she’ll find someone in the future to… to send her back here. But we have to make sure here is as good as possible. And be ready the next time she needs help. Right?” He managed the last word through a tight throat. Keeping it together for Tabbris’s sake was actually helping Lincoln not fall apart entirely. His parents, his wife, his eldest daughter, all of them missing with no idea where or how they were doing. But he had his younger daughter here, and he would be damned before he lost it in front of her. 

By that point, the two had reached the first of the assembled figures who lined the entire length of the lake. Standing on the beach while Lincoln and Tabbris stayed atop the water, Misty (the young Natural Ogre Heretic) extended a hand with a wooden bowl held in her palm. “What do you give? What do you accept?” 

“I give of myself to this clan,” Tabbris recited, her voice cracking just a little bit as she was obviously still thinking of Flick. “I accept this bond.” 

Lincoln, squeezing the girl’s hand slightly before releasing it, spoke the next words. “I give of myself to this clan. I accept this bond.” 

“I, Misty Proell, accept this bond,” came the response, before she murmured a single word of a spell and offered the bowl forward. The bit of magic she had instilled into it made a few runes on the side of the bowl glow briefly. 

Tabbris, taking a breath, carefully raised the dagger and touched it against her forehead, then to her lips, then raised her free arm. A small opening in white robe revealed the pale skin of her arm beneath, where she touched the edge of the blade and drew a very slight cut. Blood lined the blade, before it glowed briefly and the wound healed. There was no hiss or any other reaction from the Seosten girl, given the way the dagger had been enchanted. It immediately healed any damage it did and caused no pain. Fairly useless as a weapon. But then, it wasn’t meant as one.

With a very slightly shaking hand, Tabbris touched the blade to the offered bowl. Immediately, that very small amount of blood was magically pulled from the dagger. Once she did, the bowl vanished from Misty’s hand, even as she nodded for them to continue. 

Next was Misty’s older brother Duncan, who controlled metal using his Natural Ullmis Heretic gifts. He held the bowl that his sister had held moments earlier, as it passed magically down the line to him. In a grave, serious voice, he spoke the same words she had, and they gave the same responses, and he spoke the one-word spell to add a bit of his own power to the bowl. At the proper time, when the bond was accepted, Tabbris touched the blade to her arm once more, drawing another painless, rapidly-healed cut to take another small bit of blood.

The bowl vanished from Duncan’s hand, and they moved on down the line. One by one, working their way around to the midway point on the far side of the lake from where they had started, Tabbris put more of her blood into the bowl. It was only a small amount each time, a few drops. But it added up gradually, as each member of the clan voiced their acceptance of this bonding.

Finally, they reached that halfway point as the sun finished setting, leaving the lake fairly dark. A woman stood there, clad in blue and black form-fitting armor with the white emblem of a griffin in flight across the chest. Guinevere of Camelot held the bowl, which had been about a quarter filled by that point. Rather than repeating the same thing the others up to that point had, however, she instead intoned, “In the name of the King of Kings, your bond is accepted. Your alliance is your strength, as it is all of Camelot and those who have descended from it, still holding those ideals. Let it bring forth your power, so you in turn may stand against those who would see freedom broken.” With those words, the woman spoke the same empowering spell the others had, followed by another two words. Those words triggered the power in the bowl that had been built up by everyone thus far, sending an electric crackle through the blood before she held it out to Tabbris. 

The young Seosten took the bowl, staring at the empowered blood within it. Blood that had been in her, and was now charged by magic from each of the people along the first half of the lake. Empowered so that it would be far more likely to ‘take’ and create a Natural Heretic on the first try. 

“My blood,” she announced quietly before holding the bowl out with both hands toward Lincoln. “I give it freely.” 

“I accept it freely,” Lincoln confirmed, taking the bowl gently before breathing out. They had assured him that the bowl would enchant the blood so that it tasted like nothing, but it still took some effort to get past the thought of what he was doing. Finally, the man raised the bowl to his lips and drank it down as quickly as possible. Once the bowl was empty, he bowed his head and returned it to Tabbris, who in turn returned it to Guinevere. 

Gwen, in turn, took the bowl and spoke once more. “Your gifts are received. And as you make your way back to where you began, they will be strengthened. Go, and see your bond reach beyond what you imagined.” 

For his part, Lincoln felt… stronger. He felt as though years had lifted from his body. He’d been in decent shape anyway, but his age was getting to him here and there through various dull aches. Yet all those had disappeared so suddenly their absence was immediately obvious. He abruptly felt like he was twenty years old again, though there were no physical changes. He was lighter on his feet, his hearing was better, sharper. His eyesight too, had been improved. Taking on, even temporarily, the Seosten powerset had essentially made him the best possible physical version of himself. And that was just the passive enhancements. Was this what it felt like to be a Seosten all the time? 

Turning, he and Tabbris moved to the next person along the shore of the lake. Vanessa. The blonde half-Seosten smiled at her younger sister as the wooden bowl appeared in her hands. “Your bond is unbroken,” she spoke carefully, “Let it serve those in need. Let it protect you, yours, and those who stand before evil. Let it reach from sea to stars.” With those last words, Vanessa first crouched to touch the bowl to the water, then stood and raised it toward the dark sky, as though offering it to the very stars she had just mentioned. Finally, she lowered it, extending the bowl not toward Tabbris, but to Lincoln while speaking a word of empowering magic. 

He, in turn, took the blade that Tabbris offered him, cutting a bit of his own exposed arm before allowing the blood to drip into the bowl. Then they moved on. There were no words for Tabbris and Lincoln to speak at this point. Their duty was to remain solemn and quiet, hearing the words being spoken to them. 

Tristan was next, followed by Haiden. Each spoke the same words Vanessa had, performing the same actions, touching the bowl to the water, then raising it to the sky before offering the bowl to them as they spoke the word to add their power to the spell on the bowl. Throughout that, Lincoln and Tabbris took turns cutting themselves, each mixing their blood in the bowl until they returned to the spot where they had begun. 

Finally, they stood in front of Gabriel once more. The man himself held the bowl with their mixed blood, offering them a soft smile. “Your journey has begun,” he informed the pair. “You have been bonded once, and will soon be twice. You will never be truly apart, despite any distance between you. You are forever linked through these bonds. Bonds that do not hold you, but instead free you. The clan of Atherby, descendants of Arthur’s Camelot, welcome you to our fold. We are as one.” 

With that, he spoke the words that triggered the bonding spell, sending another electric crackle through the blood before offering it to the man across from him. 

Again, Lincoln drank from the bowl. Not all of it, only about half. Then he lowered the bowl and held it to his younger daughter. “We are as one.” 

Tabbris, in turn, drank from the bowl to finish the contents before quietly echoing, “We are as one.” 

She and Lincoln both turned to face one another then, linking hands together while Gabriel put one hand on each of them (on Lincoln’s back and Tabbris’s head). The Atherby leader spoke out loud, while the rest of the clan approached from their positions, walking across the enchanted lake. “We are as one. You are bonded, linked for all of your days.” 

Together, Gabriel and all of those who had gathered to witness the event spoke seven intricate words. They were Mayan in origin, the spell a gift from those people. As the spell was triggered, the blood that had been in the bowl (and was now in both Lincoln and Tabbris) triggered. Both felt a rush of power, a burst of nearly electric shock that made them jump. The second bonding, meant to strengthen the first and give the Natural Heretic a boost to their gifts, had been successful. 

Several long seconds of silence followed, before Tabbris hesitantly and quietly asked, “Dad… are you okay?” 

Lincoln, in turn, nodded. “Yeah,” he murmured before looking back up. “It feels pretty… Tabbris?” 

“What?” Only belatedly did the young girl realize that the man wasn’t the only one staring at her. So were Gabriel, the other assorted clanspeople, her mother, siblings, everyone. “What? What? I don’t–” In mid-sentence, Tabbris turned to look to the side, only to stop short. A single brightly glowing wing made of solid-light energy was there. A glance to her right revealed the same on that side. A pair of energy wings had sprouted from her back at the moment the second bonding boost had been triggered. 

“Your father…” Sariel managed. 

“He’s one of the archangels.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The death of Kwur’s special tree had an immediate effect. Or rather, a lot of immediate effects. First, the branches and roots that had been pinning me to the wall dissolved into ash, letting me stumble a bit before catching myself. Turning quickly to look back the way I had come, I saw all the plants throughout the subway tunnel falling apart into more clumps of ash that faded into nothing after a few seconds. I wasn’t sure… why exactly, but it clearly had something to do with Kwur’s connection to the plants. We’d killed the largest concentration of his consciousness here in Vegas, and what was left wasn’t able to maintain the jungle he’d created. I hoped the fact that all of this was dissolving meant that the plant back in Gehenna was his only body now. 

Okay, I didn’t really believe the universe was that lucky. But I could at least hope that any other bodies he had were well away from Earth and too weak to pose much of a threat for awhile. 

But I still had to check on the others. We assumed that killing this part of Kwur would free those he had put under his control (that’s what Prelate had told us anyway), but I had to be sure. With a grunt, I pushed myself that way, starting to run toward the opening when I felt Tabbris’s presence as the girl did a partial recall to me, just enough to communicate. Which she did, by blurting an excited, We did it! We broke the evil Plant Man! Did you see the way he exploded?!  

Her excitement was contagious. Or maybe I was just really giddy after that whole thing. My head bobbed with an easy smile, as I passed through the subway platform and looked around at all the plants disintegrating into ash. I definitely saw, I replied. That was a really good shot, Ace. 

December did it too! She informed me. We pushed the button together! After Larees made sure the targeting was right. And then the stupid evil plant guy went fwooom! I could hear the grin in her voice. He was so surprised! 

By that point, I could see Columbus and Bobbi greeting Miranda, Sands, Sarah, Shiori, and Asenath as they emerged from the other tunnel. At first, my heart sank a little bit, a heavy stone of worry sinking into my stomach briefly. But then I saw Jiao. She was behind them, helping that Julius Harn guy walk. He looked a little roughed up, but not too bad considering the situation I’d left all of them in. Scattered around the platform were a bunch of injured and unconscious figures, or people just sitting there looking confused about the whole situation.

Bobbi raced quickly to Asenath, hugging the vampire. I heard her say something about how great it was that they’d found Jiao. Columbus, meanwhile, took his turn to embrace Shiori, the two adopted siblings holding each other for a moment. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, racing toward me after being released by her brother. I caught her, and we embraced tightly while the other girl murmured against my ear, “You did it. You did it, you killed him, you freed my mom.” There were tears in her voice as she clung tightly to me. I could feel the incredible stress and tension she’d been holding in throughout the time that her mother had been missing (and especially once we’d found her here under Kwur’s control) melting away as she shuddered emotionally. 

Holding the other girl close, I murmured reassuring words while silently telling Tabbris that I would see her soon and that she should get back to December, Larees, and the others on the ship. We would all be meeting up together to go over what had happened, and to see that the Gehenna people knew exactly what the situation with the bit of Kwur that had been out here was. And to make sure the whole thing was really over. Which… come to think of it… 

“Hey, what about that Azlee Ren guy?” I suddenly blurted, frowning as Shiori and I released each other to look to the rest of the group down here. “He’s the one who basically started this whole thing. So where is he?” My gaze found Julius Harn, who was already looking at me. He seemed really tired, barely able to stand. His heavy, beachball-like body was slumped over, using the wall to keep himself up rather than leaning against Jiao any more. “What’s going on?” 

The man breathed hard a couple times, inhaling and exhaling in slightly shuddering gasps before he managed to speak. “Never… saw a man called… Azlee. He wasn’t… down here.” 

Okay, that definitely didn’t make any sense. We knew for a fact that Azlee Ren was the guy who was behind this. Or rather, the Gehenna prison guard who had been Azlee Ren and was probably being controlled by Kwur. Why wouldn’t this Harn guy know anything about him? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be. There was just… something off. If Azlee wasn’t down here, if Harn had never seen him, what… what? 

“Maybe his memory was changed,” Sarah offered with a helpless shrug. “Like Vanessa’s.” She was leaning on her rifle, breathing almost as hard as Harn was. Now that I looked around a bit, I could see that everyone looked pretty worn out. They were barely able to keep standing, for the most part. Whatever had happened while I was gone, it looked like it hadn’t been restful, to say the least. They’d been to hell and back just fighting to keep Jiao and Harn from doing anything they wouldn’t be able to take back. It could’ve been really, unbelievably bad. The thought of Jiao coming back to herself after killing either of her daughters, or anything like… no. No, I wasn’t going to think about that. We beat Kwur, and none of us died. We won. 

Even if the pressing worry about just where the hell Azlee was kept burning like a match at the back of my mind. 

Before anyone else could say anything to Sarah’s suggestion, we heard more people approaching. Turning, we all saw Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan coming our way. They looked as worn out as the rest of us, but otherwise unharmed. 

Seeing Harn, Vanessa stopped short, staring at him. He, in turn, looked back to her, offering a slight, tired smile. “I wouldn’t… wish the circumstances on anyone,” he managed a bit weakly, “but it is still good to see you again, Miss Moon.” 

While Vanessa shook her head and stared at him helplessly, Sariel stepped in. “You do know my daughter then? You remember helping her? You remember her introducing you to Dakota?”

The man frowned in confusion. His eyes glanced from Sariel to Vanessa and back again, looking uncertain. “I… well, yes, of course I remember that. I worked with Vane–wait, are you… You’re her mother, aren’t you? And you–” He seemed to notice Haiden and Tristan for the first time, a delighted smile crossing his face. “Vanessa! You got your family back! That’s wonderful!” 

“I…” Vanessa bit her lip, wincing a little as she admitted, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t remember you. I should, but apparently somebody… somebody altered my memory. They took you and Dakota out.” 

It looked like Harn was going to say something to that, but Haiden spoke up first. “We should really talk about this somewhere else. I don’t feel comfortable down here in Kwur’s tunnels, even if he is dead.” Offering a shrug, he added, “This place gives me the creeps.”   

He definitely had a point. I didn’t feel like staying down here any longer than we had to either. So, we started out of the tunnels. It was a lot different down here without all the plants, that was for sure. I could see a group of the previously mind-controlled people standing in a clump, with that ogre-like Luiena woman from the Oni and Eldridge from the Akharu talking to them.

As we approached, Eldridge excused himself and came trotting over. “Well, hey there!” He was grinning, clearly in a good mood. “Looks like calling in some help from the Heretic Rebellion was the right move after all.” His expression sombered just a little bit then, as he added, “Seriously, thanks, guys. Thank you so much. It looks like we’ll be able to wrap things up here without everything falling into open war after all.” 

“What about the rest of the missing kids who were taken with Jiao?” I asked. “And the princess, umm… Rowan, what about her?” 

Haiden answered, “Dare, Triss, Felix, and I found them. We… dealt with the people they had guarding them. They’re with the kids now, so it’s okay.” 

Eldridge nodded easily. “That’s right, and our people are already there too. The princess and her friends are safe, it seems everyone here has made it relatively intact. This was a success.” 

“But we still don’t know where that Azlee guy is,” Miranda pointed out. 

“And something tells me that’s gonna bite us in the ass at some point.” 

*******

Rowan was a cute kid. Half-Akharu and half-Vestil, she took more after the former, having a full physical body instead of the gas form. But apparently that was only the outside. Inside her body was primarily made of that gas cloud rather than any organs. Instead of having regular eyes, the space where they should be was filled with that rapidly color-changing gas. She was half and half, an exterior humanoid (or Akharu) body with a mostly energy/liquid/gas-like interior. 

In any case, the biggest point was that she was safe. And talkative. She and her friends who had also been rescued chatted up a storm with everyone who would indulge them. Which included Tabbris and December, of course. The other two came down from the ship to meet up with everyone, and we all reunited at the Vestil casino to exchange explanations and stories. 

Barnyard the troll, Pars the werewolf, and the rest of that group were there too. I made sure they were allowed to show up so we could thank them for helping to take care of our bodies as much as they had before our positions were swapped with our Theriangelos. From what I’d seen, they had done a lot of fighting to keep more of Kwur’s forces off of us when they could have walked away. We owed them for sticking it out at the risk of their lives, even if Pars insisted they were only making up for attacking us in the first place. He was a pretty cool guy, and so was Barny. I made sure to tell Pars he should look up Mateo’s pack if he had a chance, and that Barnyard might like to see Buddy System in Wonderland. 

We also got to see the parents of the missing kids meet up with them, including Rowan’s. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and overall joyful reunions. It was actually really nice to watch, even if I didn’t know these kids at all. I was glad we’d been able to save them. Or rather, that Dare, Haiden, and the cat-girls had, come to think of it like that. 

Anyway, the point was that it was really good to see these kids actually reunited with their families after everything that had happened to them. They had to all be checked for influence by Kwur, of course. But they came up clean. They were fine, and they were back with their parents. 

Then things got even better, as we stood in one of the private lounge areas of the casino watching all of this go on. Better, in this case, because one of the nearby doors opened and Avalon entered, accompanied by Sean, Theia, and Roxa. The latter two went to greet some of the others, but Sean and Avalon came to where I was standing with Shiori, Columbus, Asenath, and Jiao. 

Sean got to me first, and we embraced. “Hey, big guy,” I murmured. And big he was. It was still so strange to see Sean as a man in his twenties, after we’d… after we’d failed to rescue him for so long. He’d spent what to him was years in that prison. I honestly had no idea how he was holding up, aside from the fact that he spent a lot of time with his uncle, brother, and Roxa. I’d heard that he mostly coped by keeping himself busy, and that he did a lot of camping outside, under the stars. And yeah, I definitely couldn’t blame him for that last part. Apparently he hated being cooped up inside, hated staying in one place for very long at all, actually. He had a thing about never sleeping in the same place more than a couple times in a row if he could help it. Which, I supposed, made him pretty well-suited to traveling with a pack of werewolves who weren’t staying in the same place longer than a day or two if they could help it. 

“Hey yourself, Flickster,” Sean murmured, releasing me from the hug. “You’ve been busy. Out blowing up trees with ship-mounted cannons, huh?” 

“Eh,” I replied, “that tree had it coming.” 

It was Avalon’s turn then, and I quickly latched on, hugging the other girl as tightly as I could. Feeling her there, holding her after everything that had happened… it really affected me. I might’ve held on longer than strictly necessary, but it didn’t seem like she was objecting very much. The two of us clung to each other, before I leaned back and smiled. A joke of some kind found its way to my lips, but Avalon’s were there before I could say it. She kissed me, and I whimpered a little. Wow, yeah, it really did affect me. For a moment, I lost myself in that kiss. 

Eventually, we pulled back, and I took a moment to catch my breath before managing to focus on the smirking girl in front of me. I felt a bit giddy. And other things beyond giddy. “Umm… hi.” Coughing as the blush stretched across my face at the look she gave me, I managed a weak, “I guess you finished the errand you were on? How did umm…” I coughed again. “How’d that go?” 

“It’s finished,” she informed me, actually smiling genuinely. It was the smile of accomplishment, of finally finishing the project that her ancestor had worked on so hard. “Close enough, anyway,” she amended. “Dries and the others are putting the last touches on it. The spell should be ready to go within the day. We found what we needed.” 

Grinning, I hugged her again. “That’s great! See, we’ve both been busy little beavers lately.” 

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready to go back to boring old normal classes for a little bit.” Pausing, she amended, “Okay, our classes are never actually boring. But still. You know what I mean.” 

I nodded. “I definitely know what you mean. Believe me, we’re all ready for a good long break. But for now, hey, let’s just enjoy the celebration. The Gehenna people should be here any minute to give us a quick debriefing about the current Kwur situation.” As I said it, I gave Deveron a little wave over where he was talking to one of the Vegas people. 

“What about Azlee?” Columbus put in. He and Sean had been having their own little reunion. “We still don’t know where he is.” 

I started to say that that was going to be a job for the Gehenna people to track down their missing guy. We’d done our part. But before I could get it out, Dare approached with a simple, “They’ve found him.” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “They found Azlee Ren?” 

She gave a short nod. “Yes. Well, it turns out Larees did. She was determined to finish the job, given her… connection to Gehenna. She tracked him down in a motel on the edge of the strip. She’s bringing him back now, and the Gehenna people are on their way to pick him up.” 

Sure enough, it wasn’t long from then before Larees came in, accompanied by a figure who looked pretty similar to Prelate, actually. He had the same reptilian blue skin, vertically-pupiled yellow eyes, and so on. This had to be Azlee Ren. 

And… there was something… almost familiar about him? At first I thought it was just because he looked somewhat similar to Prelate. But that wasn’t it. The more I looked at him, as Larees led his shackled form across the room toward us, the more something niggled at the back of my mind. Wait… wait a minute…

Without really knowing what I was doing, I moved away from the others and stepped that way. They followed, and I heard Shiori ask if I was okay. But I didn’t answer. Instead, I held my hand out and said, “Stop.” 

Azlee stopped. He stood there, staring at me. Larees stopped too, looking from him to me. Her mouth opened, but I spoke again. “Sit down.” 

Azlee sat down. 

“Flick?” Shiori asked from nearby. “What… what are you… how are you doing that? Wait, are you controlling him? Because you could only do that if–” 

Spinning on my heel, my mouth opened as I blurted, “He’s a zom–” 

That was as far as I got, before Azlee exploded. His entire body blew apart in a blast of white light. I caught a glimpse of Dare in mid-leap, my name on her lips. Avalon and Shiori were there too, just behind her. Everything seemed frozen, as that white energy sought out me specifically. I felt the heat from it envelop my body, covering me from head to toe. It stung a little bit, just this side of being painful. Then I felt it cover me. I felt my body being yanked backward. I saw Dare, Shiori, Avalon, and all of the others grow smaller, their forms fainter as I was dragged from them. The world spun. My stomach heaved. Everything was upside down and inside out. 

A stone floor came up and smacked me, almost knocking the wind from my body as I fell with a yelp. Groaning, I lifted my head and looked around. I was… I was in a room I’d never seen before, a stone room covered in still-glowing runic symbols and devoid of any furniture or decorations. It was mostly dark, save for the small pool of light that I was lying in and the faint glow from the spellwork. 

Then I saw the figure who stood nearby, watching me. I saw the flickering light illuminate his slow, satisfied, triumphant smile. 

Fossor.

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Causality And Casualty 5-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You know, I can’t believe that after everything we’ve been through and everything we’ve seen, all the magic, the aliens, traveling clear across the universe… I’ve still barely ever driven a car.”

Making that announcement while walking along a hard pavement in the middle of the hot Nevada sun, I looked over toward my two companions. “I’m almost eighteen and I’ve only legally driven like… once in the past year. Is that weird? That seems weird. Come to think of it, if I do turn eighteen and manage to not be horrifically murdered or enslaved by an evil necromancer, how do I get a new adult license? I don’t exactly live in Laramie Falls anymore.” 

The pair I was walking with were Sands and Sarah. As promised, the two of them had joined our little expedition group to try to fix what was going on with the whole Vegas kidnapped children situation. Mostly because adding more people to the search was the only real chance we had to track down where this Kwur guy’s spores were (and thus hopefully find this Azlee guy) before things escalated to the point of open warfare. Because Vegas going to war would just make Kwur stronger, and if he got strong enough to make one of his spores out here his primary body… things would get very bad. 

So yeah, we’d all met up again, bringing in a few reinforcements like the twins here. With the spore-detection enchantments finished, we split up into smaller groups and were essentially walking around hoping to find what we were looking for. Canvassing random streets wasn’t exactly the most elegant or quickest solution, but it was the best we had to work with right then. 

It was important enough that we weren’t even forced to be escorted by the Vegas people. We were checking in occasionally, but right now, we needed as many groups as possible combing the city to find any trace of Kwur’s influence before it was too late. So we divided Vegas up into a grid pattern and went out, mostly in trios and quads, to pound the pavement for hours.

Just in case someone around here happened to maybe recognize me from the chase through the city a couple days earlier, I was using my shifting power to disguise myself with black hair, slightly darker skin, and wider, lighter eyes. That should be enough for me to stay anonymous.

Sands was shrugging my way. “It’s not hard to get a license that’ll fool any Bystander system. Just–” Pausing, she thought about it for a second. “Actually, huh. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do now that we’re… now that we left Crossroads.” Her face twisted a little, looking briefly annoyed at the entire situation before she sighed. “Still, shouldn’t be a big deal. I bet our mom could help us handle that. And hey, maybe you can give us lessons. Growing up on a small island doesn’t really leave much point to driving. But now there’s gotta be times when driving would be useful, right?”

Beside her, Sarah gave a short nod. She was looking away, glancing at a couple of homeless people staggering down the street across from us. They looked drunk, given the hard time they were having staying upright. “Can’t always portal everywhere,” the girl murmured absently. 

“Especially when we don’t know how to do that spell,” I agreed. Glancing at the small green stone I was holding in one hand, I watched as it flickered slightly with a very dim glow now and then, like a mostly dead flashlight straining mightily to keep going. 

“Still not solid?” Sands asked. “So it’s still just getting traces. What was the distance for a good lock, again? It’s supposed to be obvious when we’re close enough.” 

“According to Sariel,” I replied, “it should lock on if we’re anywhere within about a block of one of them. But the range could be shorter if it’s only a small spore or if they’re shielded somehow. And yeah, it should be obvious. It’s supposed to get brighter the closer we are, and turn red as soon as we get the thing right up within spitting distance or so of the main plant that the bulk of Kwur’s… you know, consciousness or whatever is in beyond the one Gehenna’s got.” Pausing, I added, “The point is, we’ll definitely notice when it goes off.” 

Unfortunately, up to this point, all we’d managed to get was this very slight flickering. Which, according to the others, meant the stone was picking up faint traces of the plant guy. But it was so faint that it could just be from an infected person passing by sometime within the past day or so. Plus, the others had picked up similar faint signs. We were trying to follow ours in a very slow and difficult hot-and-cold game. It was hard when the slight flickering came so slowly and sporadically. The trace here was just… too faint. Hopefully, one of our groups would find something stronger soon. 

Sands started to say something else, when the communication badges we wore abruptly activated. Tristan’s voice came through. He was with Vanessa and their mother at the Vestil Casino where they had been waiting to get information about that painting. “Okay, so we’re talking to these guys and they said the guy in the painting is Julius Harn. Apparently he’s some dude who used to live in the city and contributed a whole bunch of magic, money, and time to the Separation War. You know, the battle to force Heretics out of Vegas and keep them out. He was pretty big in the city up until the eighties, even served on their ruling council for a long time and helped establish a lot of their rules. Then he sorta became a recluse and ended up disappearing entirely about twenty years ago. No one around here’s seen him since then. They checked his house and it was cleaned out. No word, no notice, nothing like that. Guy just started showing up less and less before poof, totally gone.”  

“Not totally gone,” Miranda’s voice pointed out from wherever she currently was with April and Jason in their part of this search. “Since he apparently spent a lot of time in that hospital Vanessa and that Dakota girl were at, pretending to be this Doctor Folgers. Or maybe he really was a doctor and changed his identity. Whatever, that was just a few years ago, right? So he didn’t die or anything. He showed up there and helped Dakota seal off the plant at her house.”

Shiori spoke up then. She, Asenath, Columbus, and Bobbi were in their own group. “Maybe he had to take on another identity because of someone here in Vegas, one of the powerful players.” 

“We’ll ask him if we find him,” Haiden assured us. While the rest of his family was at the casino, Haiden was with Dare, Triss, and Felix. “All we know for sure is that he’s connected to Kwur through Dakota. How he connects to this Azlee Ren guy, who knows. We’re still missing things.” 

Thinking about that for a second, I touched the badge that was hooked against the pocket of my red button-down tee-shirt before speaking. “What if Folgers-errr, I mean Julius Harn wasn’t completely safe when he locked away that plant in Dakota’s house? What if Kwur’s spore was able to worm its way into him and that’s what brought Kwur’s attention to Vegas as a good target? If Harn was such a big player for so long setting this place up, he’d know a lot about the people here, even if he was out for a couple decades. You know, cuz if Kwur’s spore was able to grow and eventually twist this guy to his own ends over the past couple years, that might explain why Vegas was targeted to begin with as soon as they had Azlee’s help to pull it off.”

Sariel agreed, her voice thoughtful as it came through the badge. “I believe you may be right. We need to find Kwur or Harn to verify, but it fits what we know. If Harn was infected at the time, even faintly, Kwur’s spore could have laid in waiting for the right time. You said that the Gehenna people told you they transfer Kwur around a lot. Perhaps this is the first time he’s been here on Earth at a time when the spore had enough control over Harn to push this ploy.”  

“So nothing’s changed, right?” That was Asenath. “We trace the spores until we find Harn, Azlee, or whoever else they lead to. Then we get answers out of them about where Mom and those kids are. And we do it before these guys manage to start this war they want so badly.” 

“Yeah, keep looking,” Sariel confirmed. “We’ll check a little bit more around here in case anyone has unofficially seen Harn since he disappeared. Then we’ll hit the streets if we don’t find anything useful. Keep checking in and let everyone know the moment any of you get a hit.” 

We agreed before signing off. Then I looked back to the twins. “Well, I guess we just keep moving then? What do you say we head over to that apartment building on the corner and take a ride up and down the elevator just for the hell of it? Maybe the traces this thing’s picking up comes from someone on one of those floors.” 

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a long, low sigh. “And if that doesn’t work, the map says there’s a mall right down the street that might be a–” She paused then, glancing over to her sister with a frown. “Sarah? You okay?” 

In answer, Sarah looked back to us and gave a slight shake of her head. Her voice was low. Belatedly, I noticed that she had activated one of the privacy coins and held it low. “Those guys over there aren’t actually drunk,” she informed us softly. “Don’t look at them right now.” 

Thankfully, I’d already managed to stop myself from reflexively glancing that way, instead focusing on the girl herself with a confused frown as I slowly asked, “The homeless guys who were wandering around across the street? What do you mean, they’re not actually drunk?” 

Sands, who had caught herself in mid-turn and used the motion to instead scratch the back of her neck idly, nodded. “Yeah, how do you know? They looked pretty drunk to me.” 

“One at a time,” Sarah informed us. “They… stagger one at a time. One staggers and almost falls over, but the other catches him, balances him. Then they switch. They’re play-drunk.” 

Raising a hand, I pointed to the apartment building I’d mentioned before, pretending to be suggesting we go there. With my other hand, I activated the badge. “Could someone check with our hosts to find out if they have a couple watchdogs pretending to be homeless drunks keeping an eye on us? I don’t want to go anywhere with this if it turns out they’re just secret babysitters.” 

It took a moment, through which Sarah, Sands, and I pretended to debate about which way we should go next. I used the time to get a look at the men in question once more through the corner of my eye. They’d settled in an alley across the street and a little bit up from where we were, and were currently passing a bottle back and forth as they took turns swigging from it. 

Finally, Sariel’s voice came back. “They’re not official watchers. Someone back up the girls.” 

Do you need help? Tabbris’s voice came through my mind through our connection as she used the partial recall without actually coming all the way to me. I could–

No, it’s okay, Tabs, I assured her. You and December stay where you are. What you’re doing is a lot more important than a couple of maybe bad guys. Plus, we wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. 

Sands was saying much the same to Sariel. “It’s two guys. We can at least check them out. We’ve got this.” 

While Sariel and Haiden both warned us to be careful, and Miranda checked in to say her group would head our way to play back-up, I thought about it. Then I nodded while starting to move to that apartment. “Come on, I’ve got an idea. Act like we’re going this way. Can you cover me?” 

The twins did so, both stepping up to position themselves so that the guys across the street wouldn’t see exactly what I was doing. I used that to summon a small, prepared bit of wood to one hand. With my other hand, I created a quick portal that was blocked from view by Sands’ body, activated the spell on the wood, and quickly tossed it through the portal before letting it close. The other end of the portal was on the far side of the street, near a couple mailboxes.

“You’re gonna have to guide me,” I warned the other two before focusing my attention on the spell I’d just activated. It was my Theriangelos, of course. The fox. Or Marian, as Tabbris called her. Seeing through her eyes in addition to my own, I closed mine, taking the hand that Scout offered so she could guide me while I focused mostly on controlling my little summoned friend.

Right, the fox was crouched by the garbage cans, staring at a wall with random graffiti on it. Quickly, I made her turn around and peek out from behind them. Ahead, I saw the two ‘drunk’ guys watching our group walking away from them. Their act had disappeared as soon as it became clear that we were leaving and (apparently) not paying attention. I saw one of the guys saying something, but couldn’t hear what it was even with Marian’s keen sense of hearing. She was still too far away. But I did notice that the other guy didn’t respond at all. Yet a few seconds later, the first guy nodded and said something else. He wasn’t talking to his partner. He was speaking through some kind of communication device or spell, like we had been. Either to whoever they were working for, or maybe to other partners they had to catch up with us. Whichever it was, neither seemed to be in a hurry to follow. Instead, they turned and walked back into that alley. 

After checking to make sure the coast seemed clear and that no one was watching, I sent Marian after them. The tiny fox went running silently along the sidewalk, sticking near the edge of the nearby building to be as invisible as possible. The fact that it was red brick and the fox was also reddish-brown helped with that. 

Actually, wait a second. Thinking about it, I wondered if I could channel my shifting powers through the Theriangelos. Some Heretic-gained powers seemed to work easily, others took a lot more practice or didn’t work at all. Focusing on the brick I could see next to the fox, I thought about shifting her fur to more fully match. After a moment of that, while still trotting along, I had her glance down. Sure enough, she was more… brick-colored. Huh, that was cool. Chameleon-fox. 

By then, Marian had reached the edge of the alley. There was a dumpster there, and I quickly sent her under it so she could peer out from relative safety. It wasn’t hard to spot our two watchers. They were nearing the far end of the alley, where there was seemingly nowhere else to go. But one of the men simply reached out, pressing his hand into one of the bricks there. It pushed inward, before there was a slow grinding noise as a doorway-section of bricks moved out of the way, admitting the two men. 

“Diagon Alleying!” I blurted through my own mouth. “They’re Diagon Alleying!” While Sands asked what the fuck that meant, I quickly directed Marian to follow. She darted out, running quickly along the ground before slipping into the doorway just before the bricks could slide back into place. Passing through the opening, the little fox emerged into what was actually a dingy, very dimly-lit concrete stairwell. But it was wide, not narrow, with a metal handrail in the middle. Ahead, the stairs led down. It was dark that way, but I could hear the footsteps of the men who had been watching us. Actually, the whole place reminded me of…

“Subway,” I said aloud. “Brick wall with a hidden door leads to some old subway entrance. But… uhhh that sounds wrong. Unless I’m really behind, Vegas doesn’t have a subway service. Hold on, let me see…”

With that, I sent Marian scampering down the stairs. On the way, I matched her fur to the color of the concrete in an attempt to blend in a bit more. The fox’s night vision was pretty good, which helped as things got even darker away from the entrance. Ahead, I could hear the men still descending, talking to each other in low voices. Before long, I was actually able to make out what they were saying. 

“—get so close in the first place?” one voice asked with obvious annoyance. 

“Some kind of detector,” the second, more patient one replied. “A spell or tech from Gehenna. Whatever it is, they’re picking up traces of the Potentate.” 

Potentate. I knew that word, it was like… king or ruler or whatever. A monarch. Were they talking about Kwur? He was (apparently) just one of that evil Dragon-Heretic guy’s minions. But that was probably good enough to be a king to most people. And I had to figure that anyone nasty enough to be one of the most dangerous and evil prisoners in the universe almost had to have the kind of ego that would make his minions call him their king, or some version of that. 

“Will they track him here?” the first voice asked while the sound of the footsteps on stairs quickened a bit. I sent Marian scampering faster, hopping from step to step to catch up. 

“No,” came the response. “Whatever means of detection they have won’t penetrate our hiding spells. The Potentate will be safe.”

A moment later, Marian reached the bottom of the stairs. Sure enough, it opened up into what looked… well, like a subway station. Seriously, there was a wide platform, a spot for the train itself straight ahead, and the entrance into the tunnel at either end. It was a subway. It looked like any other subway I’d seen in movies and stuff. Except for one thing… the plants. 

Yeah, plants. They were everywhere. I saw vines covering the walls, flowers and bushes along the floor, a couple small trees growing out of the railway tracks, and more. It was a miniature garden down here. Actually, not-so-miniature. 

“Guys, we’ve got it,” I said aloud. “We’ve got the bad guy.” 

“Flick,” Sarah’s voice cut in, sounding urgent. 

So, I opened my eyes and looked around. We were behind that apartment building from before. And we weren’t alone. A small army of heavily armed figures stood around us. They were a mix of humanoid and very, very not. All of them looked very pissed off. Which seemed at odds with the flower leis they wore, unless you knew what Kwur’s whole deal was. Yeah. These people were clearly all under his thrall, and we were surrounded by them.

“Got news for you,” Sands informed me. 

“We’ve got more than one bad guy.”

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Perennial Potentate 4-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so… that was a lot to process, to say the least. We’d gone to Vegas to help find a missing little girl. When we were there, more kids as well as Asenath’s mother were abducted too. Then Heretics attacked one of the casinos and the information our two groups had gained led us up to Canada to meet King Oberon. From there, we’d been directed to some pure Alter town in the north wilderness. And because that clearly wasn’t enough, there turned out to be an outpost of an interuniversal prison up there, who were on Earth partially to eventually do something about Fossor. But while they were here, one of their other dangerous prisoners, a… sapient plant of some kind, had extended pieces of himself into the outside world, where they were infecting people to do bad things. If he managed to make enough bad things happen, he’d be able to manifest his primary consciousness in the outside world, escaping prison to do horrific things. 

Okay, one, my life was really fucked up. And two, the most surprising thing about all of this was that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Seosten at all. According to Prelate, the Seosten mostly left them alone (though they did have a few Seosten members), recognizing that the Gehenna provided an invaluable service. And, I imagined, recognizing the futility of attacking a group who could just decide to unleash all of the most dangerous and deadly monsters in the universe if you really pissed them off. 

So yeah, now we had at least some idea of what was going on. Even if it was really fucked up. Somehow, one of the Gehenna guards, this Azlee Ren, had been infected by spores from the prisoner they called Kwur. Azlee had set about trying to create a war in Las Vegas by abducting the princess, Rowan with the help of mercenaries he either contracted or infected with more spores. Or both. Probably both. Some of those mercenaries thought they were working for Gehenna itself, which was why Sarez sent us up here to Canada. They’d also abducted the other kids as well as Jiao to continue pushing Vegas toward outright war with each other.  

It wasn’t a bad plan, overall. Especially when he brought Heretics into it. Vegas was a powder keg that could easily blow up. Seriously, I didn’t know much about the Oni, but the Vestil and the Akharu were eons-old enemies. They had found peace in Vegas because two of their number married and started a family. The best way to break that peace was obviously to break the family. They took the kid to light the fuse, then took more kids to make things even worse. And now, if we didn’t do something to stop it, Vegas would go to war and Kwur would be free. 

Obviously, we asked Prelate why they couldn’t just move this Kwur guy off-world. He said it wouldn’t make any difference. Kwur’s spores were out there now, and moving the main body wouldn’t change that. Someone had to find the spores and either bring them back to the prison to join up with the main body, or destroy them. That was the only way to actually fix this whole situation before everything ended up getting a hell of a lot worse. 

Prelate had also mentioned that they couldn’t just kill Kwur because if they killed the part of his body that held the core consciousness, that would allow him to manifest it into one of the other parts of his body. And while he was handing out warnings, he’d mentioned that possessing anyone who was infested would be a bad idea, because that would give Kwur a chance to infest the person doing the possessing. 

So yeah, that was all just great. We had to retrieve or destroy all the pieces of that plant asshole the hard way. Oh, and save the kids and Jiao, of course. We had to get those children back to Vegas to prove what really happened. 

And there was another reason to solve all this, as if we needed more incentive. According to Prelate, they could help me with my Fossor situation by giving information that might be useful. But they would only do that if we helped solve this problem and get their prisoner back under control. You’d think they’d be super-invested in dealing with Fossor too, but apparently this Kwur thing was a more immediate and dangerous problem. Which–yeah, I could see how him getting out would be bad. If he was capable of spreading through all of the plants on an entire world (or even potentially beyond)? That could be apocalyptically bad. So we had to make sure that didn’t happen. We had to find his spores and deal with them before he managed to provoke enough violence to escape his prison.

Find and destroy the spores, save Jiao and the kids, return said kids to Vegas, avert a war, and in doing so, get information from the Vegas people about where Asenath’s father was, as well as information from the Gehenna group that might end up helping me deal with Fossor. 

There was just one problem with all that, of course. We had no idea where this Azlee Ren was. Or where any of the spores were. What were we supposed to do? How could we track them down? Finding Azlee was the key, but Gehenna had no idea where he was. So what now? 

We were all still wondering about that an hour later, as we left the prison outpost to meet up with our escorts, and the rest of our group, once more. Prelate had said that they would help in any way they could to deal with Kwur. They had numbers, power, weapons, they just didn’t know where his spores were. Or what they called his spores. I’d come to find out over that hour that his ‘spores’ were essentially any plant that wasn’t part of his main self. So finding infested ones? Not easy. They’d given us a spell that was supposed to identify any infected plant or person once it was applied to them. But we couldn’t just wander the entire North American continent using the spell on every person and plant we saw. That would get tedious pretty damn fast. 

We were just going to have to talk it through and see if any of us could come up with a good idea of how to find these people. And I really hoped that one of the others would have something, because I was drawing a really unusual blank. All I could think about was the fact that those guys in that tower were supposed to keep Fossor prisoner, and the fact that he had escaped in the first place to ever be a threat here on Earth was their fault. And how did I meet up with them in the first place? Because another prisoner of theirs had at least partly escaped. 

Okay, I knew that wasn’t fair. These people were responsible for the worst of the worst. They kept the vast majority of them contained. Having one of their charges escape a few thousand years ago, and then another work on escaping now was hardly the worst track record. 

Still, logic didn’t always work against emotions. And my emotions right now were telling me that Fossor wouldn’t ever have been a problem at all if these guys had kept him under control. I just had a lot of extremely complicated feelings about this whole messy situation, to say the least. 

Nuliajuk was talking as we left the tower to join up with the others out front where they were still waiting. “This is very… troubling news. If the plants themselves may become our enemies, sparking violence in those who inhale their scent, King Oberon must be warned. Canada,” she added in a dry voice, “as you may have noticed, has something of an abundance of plants. Something will have to be done to ensure they do not present a threat to the Court.” 

April piped up, “You’re not going to burn all of them are you?” Her voice sounded accusatory as she squinted at the Inuit woman. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of those plants are completely innocent. You can’t just take a flamethrower to every tree and flower in the area because one–” 

“We are not going to burn our gardens and trees,” Nuliajuk assured her calmly. “But precautions will have to be taken while this situation persists. As I said, the King must be informed of this.” 

“Informed of what?” That was Paul Bunyan, speaking up as he approached, still in his much smaller (yet still tall) form. He stopped in front of us, hugely muscled arms folded across his chest. “And what’s this about burning plants? You know if you need a plant taken care of, all you have to do is point Babe at it. If there’s plants to eat, he’d give me the silent treatment for a month if I didn’t give him first crack at it.”

Vanessa, meanwhile, was staring at us. She clearly had been paying attention to what happened in there through her father, judging from the look on her face. Tristan seemed to know what was going on too, as he leaned over and whispered something in his sister’s ear. 

“We’ll tell you on the way,” Haiden replied with a glance toward the rest of us. “Right now, we need to get back to King Oberon and tell him what’s going on. Then we can start helping these Gehenna people put a stop to this whole situation. And that’s gonna be fun, let me tell you.” 

Decker and his group of armed soldier-types (Strangers, as they deliberately called themselves) escorted us back to the bus. We would take the bus to the hangar and then portal to Oberon. Even if we had wanted to stay longer, Strangefield’s residents apparently weren’t interested. Well, the ones who knew we were there weren’t interested, at least. They wanted us out of their territory so they could go back to their ‘normal’ Heretic/human-free lives as soon as possible. Which, again, was fair. These people had been screwed over by humans losing their memories of being allies and then trying to kill them more than once. I couldn’t blame them for giving up on us.

During the ride back to the hangar, we carefully filled the others in on the whole situation and everything we’d found out. I saw Decker and a couple of his men give us double-takes once in awhile, but they stayed out of the conversation. Clearly they were all serious about not getting involved in this kind of business anymore, and just keeping to themselves. Still, I was pretty sure they would be paying a lot of attention to any plants that were in their city once they got back.

Meanwhile, April and December were deep in a private conversation that seemed pretty intense. I wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that the guy we were after was a magic plant monster and they served the Seosten who had posed as Demeter, who was basically supposed to be goddess of the plants or whatever. Not that I thought there was any kind of connection between them beyond that, but still. Maybe they thought there was? Or that she could do something? 

“Prelate gave us a stone that we can use to contact him as soon as we have anything substantial about this Kwur guy,” Haiden was saying. “And he said their people are going to continue doing their jobs to track down those spores themselves. But for the most part, we’re on our own with this. They have no idea where Azlee might be holed up, but it must be somewhere near Vegas if he’s trying to start a war there. Not that ‘somewhere near Vegas’ tells us much.” 

Paul spoke up thoughtfully, “Now that the conditions of the secrecy spell have been fulfilled, King Oberon might be able to tell you more. Maybe he’ll have something you can use.” 

“Unless there’s a magic ‘point me at the evil plant dude’ spell,’” Tristan pointed out, “I don’t think even the King of Canada can help that much. I mean, he’s crazy super powerful, sure, but how do you narrow down a search like that? Besides having lots of manpower, and I don’t think sending a huge force of Canadian Alter troops to Vegas would do much to calm the situation. You’d be playing right into what this Kwur wants, provoking a war. Seriously, it doesn’t matter if it’s one he made or another, right? Violence and anger is violence and anger, and he’ll be right there to soak it in.” 

“At least he has to be nearby,” Miranda muttered. “Imagine if he could just take in violence from anywhere in the world to get stronger.”

April’s reply to that was flat, seemingly emotionless. “If he gets strong enough to spread, that’s exactly what he’ll be able to do. Think about it,” she added after letting that hang for a moment, “his growth is exponential. As soon as he’s strong enough to break out of that prison and put his full consciousness into the outside plants, he can spread through those and keep growing. He’ll spread himself out to everywhere there’s conflict, and keep generating more of that to get even bigger. The more violence and anger he incites, the stronger he gets, which will allow him to incite more violence and anger in more areas.” 

Asenath, speaking up for the first time since we’d left the tower, murmured a quiet, “This could be very bad.” Her voice was subdued. I had a feeling that she was getting more and more worried about her mother’s prospects with every bit of information we found out. After she said that simple sentence, Shiori leaned in and hugged her sister, the two of them sitting quietly like that. 

“The Heretic war,” I pointed out after swallowing hard to push away the thought of anything happening to Jiao. I had to focus. “The Rebellion. If he gets a taste of that, he’ll make it worse. It’s hard enough to negotiate and have conversations with Hardliners, but with someone like Kwur inciting things in the background? There’d be no chance for peace or any kind of… of understanding. He’ll make sure everyone kills each other, just for the power boost he’d get.” 

“Basically, the whole world is fucked if that son of a bitch breaks out of that cell,” Haiden summed up. “And he’s not even the biggest threat they’re holding in that place.” 

Nuliajuk, with what I was pretty sure was deceptive calmness to her voice, spoke. “That is perhaps the most pressing issue. This Kwur will not simply content himself to ravaging this world. He will put his efforts, once he is strong enough, toward freeing his master, the Dragon-Heretic they call Ehn. If that happens, I fear the fate not only of this world, but of all worlds.” 

“But no pressure or anything, right?” I managed with a slightly crazed, high-pitched laugh. “No big deal, just stop Apocalypse Plant from unleashing evil Dragon God and destroying everything everywhere.” 

“It’s okay, Flick,” Tristan assured me. “We can handle this. We just need… I don’t know, Vanessa, what do we need?” 

Promptly, the girl replied, “What you really need is a spell to track this plant guy, or his spores.”

Tabbris piped in with, “You could do that with the spell they gave you, but if you want to do it… you know, faster and less… tediously, you need someone who was infested before, but isn’t now. I think…”  As everyone watched her, she went on eagerly with, “Yeah, yeah, that’s what you need. Someone who was infested but isn’t now. And is still alive. See, it’s like… there’s a couple spells that are kinda sorta right, especially if we change them a little bit. But none of those ones are ever gonna tell you exactly where to go. You can’t just like… enchant Google Maps and get an exact place.” 

Vanessa nodded along with our younger sister. “What she said. Basically, if you combine a tracking spell with the identification spells they already gave us, then get some of the plant or its remains, and some material from a previously infested person, you could probably jury-rig a spell to tell you if you’re anywhere near another infested or the plant itself. But the range wouldn’t be that long. You’d have to be within a short distance, like… a block or so, maybe? I’m not sure.”

“Butifit’sthateasy,” December demanded while her head snapped back and forth between Tabbris, who was sitting across the aisle from her, and Vanessa, several rows forward, “thenwhydon’ttheGehennaguysjustdothat? It’stheirjobtokeep… theplantguyinprisonright?” 

“Because it won’t be easy, right?” I put in. “I feel like we kind of skimmed over the ‘find someone who was infested, but isn’t now’ part. But wait, what about Sarez? You know, dealer guy? He was infected, he had to have–wait. No. Shit. Was he infected or just being used? Prelate said they used hired mercenaries who thought they were working for Gehenna because of who he was and–shit, he’s not, is he?” 

“We’ll find out,” Haiden announced. He took the phone from his pocket, making a call. As the rest of us watched, he went through a quick, private phone call. I saw him make a face several times, and it made my heart sink. 

“Okay,” the man finally announced while disconnecting the call. “That’s a no-go. Let’s just say if we need a living subject, Sarez isn’t going to be best choice. Someone assassinated him in the cell where they were keeping the guy. They’re working on finding out who did it, if it’s connected to our big bad or just one of their own people getting pissed off and making a move. The point is, he’s not gonna be providing any living material.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I managed. “So we have no host to work with. Which means we’re back to the plan of going door-to-door in Vegas looking for this Azlee guy. If we can find him, we can use him to find any of Kwur’s spores and deal with them. But we have to find him. Unless anyone happens to know where any other former Kwur hosts might be? Yeah, I didn’t think–” 

My phone rang. Blinking down at it, I checked the name. “It’s Sands. I–hold on.” Answering the phone, I started with, “Hey, Sands, we can’t really–wait…

“I’m sorry, you’re standing there with a little girl who was what?!

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Perennial Potentate 4-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Okay uh, wait, wait, wait! What do you mean you’re here to recapture Fossor?” Shiori demanded while I just stood there with my mouth open, unable to even think straight, much less talk. “You’re saying that you people are the good guys?! And you’re actually going to deal with the problem of the psycho evil necromancer who escaped from your prison?” Her hand was squeezing my arm almost painfully as she stared at the blue-scaled man. “Are you serious?” 

“Seosten call them Gehenna,” April informed us with a curious expression. She looked like she suddenly understood a few things better. “I’ve never seen any of them, but…” She glanced to Prelate Kotter. “Now that you’ve explained that much, that is who your organization is, yes?”

His head gave a short nod. “Yes, the Seosten and their adjacent peoples refer to our organization as Gehenna. We take the most wicked, those who could pose a true threat to the overall universe, and hold them where they cannot harm others. It is our purpose, and we hold no allegiance or debt to any government or individual save our own. We are neutral in all things save for our duty.” 

Haiden stepped in front of us, his back stiff as he stared at the man. “And the reason King Oberon didn’t tell us you were up here when we spoke to him was the oath of secrecy our friend over there mentioned?” he asked with a gesture toward Decker, standing nearby. “You actually got the King of Canada to agree to be bonded under a magical oath like that somehow?” 

“The good king understands that the service we provide to the universe should not be threatened,” Prelate replied simply. “The more who know of our presence and location on this world, the more dangerous that presence becomes, both to us and to his people.” 

Finally, I found my voice. “Because there’s gotta be a whole lot of bad guys out there who would love to smash their way into your prison here and release your inmates, right? I bet someone could cobble together a pretty damn good army that way. And if the people you’re holding on to are as dangerous as you’re saying they are… if they’re on the level of Fossor? That’d be bad. And you guys are up here all by yourselves.” 

“Indeed, Miss Chambers,” the man agreed. “It would be very… bad, as you say. Two points of correction, however. First, we are not alone. Not only would others of our organization arrive in short order to assist, but we would also have the aid of those who bear the Mark of Gehenna to bring forth their Leau Drema, their… as you would say, Spirit Animal.”

“Spirit Animal,” I echoed, blinking a couple times. “Mark of Gehenna, spirit–you mean tattoos? Like Larees, she has a–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yes, a phoenix Leau Drema. Larees bears the Mark of Gehenna, and is thus bound to aid our organization when called for. Those of the Mark swear oaths to ensure, at any time of need, that our most important prisoners do not escape, and to thwart all attempts of their minions and sycophants to retrieve them.”

“But we saw another guy,” Vanessa pointed out. “He had a tattoo that could become a giant snake, and he’s definitely still loyal to the Seosten.” 

Prelate gave a short, careless shrug. “Loyalties to governments and ideologies do not matter when Gehenna is in need. The one you speak of is named Nahash. He and Larees may fight on opposite sides at any other time, as may any of our other Marked. But when Gehenna calls, they will fight together to ensure the overall preservation of the universe at large.” 

That said, the man looked back at me. “The second point of correction to your earlier remark is that our prison is not ‘here.’ The structure you see behind me contains an entrance to our prison, along with multiple temporary holding cells and a barracks for our troops on this world. But it is not the actual prison itself. There are several such buildings like this one spread across the universe, wherever Gehenna establishes an outpost. But there is only one full prison, connected through magic to each outpost for immediate transport of our subjects.”

“Sounds like the Pathmaker,” I murmured before focusing. “The King spoke to you before sending us up here, didn’t he? That’s what he was doing that whole time.” 

Again, he nodded. “He made arrangements for this meeting, but we asked that he not give you the full story until we were able to speak in person. You may call us paranoid, but keeping our secrets is an important part of how our prison remains secure. We asked for the favor that he direct you our way, yet allow us to decide when and how to speak to you directly. He agreed, again, because not allowing word of our presence here to leak is in everyone’s best interests.” 

“Wait, hold up.” That was Jason. “I know I’m just the clueless nobody new guy around here, but if that place right there is just an entrance that connects to the prison, couldn’t you just shut it down if you were attacked here? I mean, yeah, they’d probably be able to breach the building itself with a strong enough force, but then what do they have? If you turn off the connection to the prison or whatever you use, they’ve basically got nothing. So what’s the big deal, exactly?”

Tabbris was the one who answered him. “There’s still a connection to the other place even after they shut it down. Especially if the link between locations has been there for a long time.” 

Prelate actually gave a faint smile at that, bowing his head in acknowledgment. “Yes, as the young miss said. If they were to take this structure, we would of course close the connection to the prison. But a force that was strong enough to take this place from us would likely be skilled enough to reopen that connection through the lingering magic from the previous link. Perhaps before sufficient aid could arrive.”  

“The same reason we have to be careful about where we connect portals to our own base,” Haiden reminded us, while clearly taking care not to give away any more information than necessary about the star station. “Because Crossroads and Eden’s Garden could potentially grab the lingering energy from a recent portal and use it to create another one, leading them to our home.” 

“Right, I guess that makes sense. Bad idea to let them do that.” As he said that, Jason looked over to Columbus. “Didn’t you say those goggles of yours can see lingering magical energy?” 

“Among other things,” the boy confirmed while looking toward our new host. “And if I can do it, anyone strong enough to attack this place and get anywhere definitely could. Plus, they’d actually know what to do with it. So, we can’t really blame these guys for being paranoid.” 

“Blame them for being paranoid?” Asenath echoed, her voice sharp. “No. But I do want answers, and I want them now.” She moved up, stepping beside me to focus on Prelate Kotter. “Someone kidnapped the princess from Las Vegas. When we investigated, they came back and abducted several more children and my mother. One of the people who helped them get away with that second abduction was a blackjack dealer, who told us to come here to Canada for answers. And while that was going on, a group of Heretics invaded another casino. When one of them was possessed, he gave us a single name. Azlee Ren Kotter. Whoever helped the Heretics break into the casino was going to take the kids they abducted to see that person.” 

If he had any reaction to hearing that, the man didn’t show it. Which was probably because he’d already heard all of it from Oberon the night before. Instead, he gave us a slight nod before replying, “There is much to discuss. Which we should do inside. But first, there are a few steps to take to ensure that you may safely enter the outpost without any… unfortunately accidents. We need to sync you to our security spells to make the system see you as our guests.” 

December’s hand snapped up quickly. “Waitwhenyousayguestsdoyoumeanguestsorguests?” Her eyebrows waggled pointedly. “Youknowwiththesinistermusicandstuff. Cuzthosearedifferent.” 

“What the kid said,” Haiden agreed. “Exactly what do you mean by making us your guests?” 

In the background, I could see Paul (with Babe) and Nuliajuk watching us from their place beside Decker. None of them looked like they were about to interrupt, though the big lumberjack (still in his smaller, more manageable form) did meet my gaze briefly and wink with a mouthed, ‘It’s okay.’ Somehow, that actually was reassuring. Knowing that… okay, believing that they had our backs if this went wrong helped a bit. As strong as this Gehenna group might’ve been, I refused to believe that they would just willy nilly piss off the King of Canada by attacking us right now. 

“Your caution is understandable, given this situation,” Prelate was saying. “I can assure you that we mean you no harm. But, for your own peace of mind, if you would like, you are free to leave some of your number here. They may, in turn, act or call for assistance should you not return promptly and safely. It is entirely your own decision. But I can only answer further questions inside.” 

As a group, we all exchanged glances. I was going in there, no matter what. They didn’t just have information about the missing kids and all that. They also knew things about Fossor. Things that might end up being useful, when… when the day came that I had to face him. So, whatever the others decided, I knew that I had to go in and find out whatever I possibly could. 

Apparently that wasn’t even much of a surprise, considering Shiori promptly announced, “I’m going in with Senny and Flick.” Yeah, she knew Asenath would go in there too, for her mother. 

“We can stay outside,” Vanessa pointed out. “If Tristan and I each possess someone who goes in for a second, we can use that connection to know if anything bad happens in there.” 

“The last person I possessed is back home at the school,” Tristan put in. “If I just stand out here and don’t possess someone, but Vanessa does, she can tell me if something bad happens. Then I can recall to the school and grab a whole crapload of cavalry. You know, like Mom.” 

“Whatever you decide to do,” Paul Bunyan spoke up after exchanging a few quiet words with his group, “Decker and I’ll stay with whoever waits out here. Nuliajuk can go inside with the rest.” 

In the end, we went with Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, December, and Bobbi waiting outside with Paul. Tabbris had the same benefit with me that Vanessa had with her own father (he was the one she chose to briefly possess). She could check in on me from outside to make sure we were safe. And December wanted to stay with her. With Bobbi, Paul, Babe, and (hopefully) Decker’s group protecting them, there was at least a decent chance they’d be okay long enough for Tristan to recall up to the station and get help. Which… yeah, we were probably being overly paranoid, but still. Wyatt would say we weren’t being cautious enough. This felt like the least we could do while still getting the information we needed. At least, assuming this Prelate guy was on the up and up. And I thought he was.

Yeah, if this Gehenna group had anything bad in mind, the people out here were in as good of a position to deal with it as they could possibly be given what we had to work with. 

Which left Haiden, Asenath, Miranda, Shiori, April, and me to go inside. With Nuliajuk, of course. Once we’d sorted all that out, Prelate nodded acceptingly and stepped over to Haiden first.  Carefully, he used what appeared to be their own version of a field-engraver to draw a magic symbol on the man’s arm. When he was done, he powered it and the spellwork disappeared, apparently activated. His voice was calm. “For the next twenty-four hours, or until it is revoked, our defenses will not bother you. Do not attempt to replicate the spell you just witnessed. There are elements you could not see, and specifics are changed often.” 

“Darn,” Haiden replied, “And here I was hoping to cover my body in spell tattoos and magic Michael Scofield my way into your prison.”  

“He broke out, not in,” Tristan reminded him. 

“Depends on the season you’re talking about,” April of all people put in. “And it depends on–” 

“Are you guys really having this discussion right now?!” an exasperated Vanessa demanded. Despite everything, the look on her face was actually pretty funny. I stifled my reaction though. 

Under Vanessa’s squinting gaze, the rest of us had our spell tattoos put on. Once we were suitably protected from the prison’s defenses, Prelate pivoted on his heel and started to move while beckoning. A massive ruby-red door with a bunch of white spell runes appeared at the base of the building as we followed him toward it. When we got closer, the man held up his hand. I had a brief glimpse of white spell runes on his palm before he held them in front of the door. The spells on the building seemed to glow brighter for a second, then the door opened. 

We stepped through that massive door and found ourselves in the lobby. But this definitely wasn’t a welcoming lobby. There were heavily armed troops, a dozen of them, waiting for us. They were dressed similarly to Prelate, each of them holding a complicated-looking advanced  rifle of some kind that probably shot lasers or nuclear explosions or something. They weren’t pointing them at us or anything, But I had the feeling that it wouldn’t take much if we were to act up. Plus, these guys were reinforced by a bunch of turrets all along the walls and ceiling. And I saw more spell work along every surface. Those runes glowed briefly when we stepped onto the floor, and I saw the spell that had been painted on my arm flash back to life for a second before it faded once more, with the defensive spells doing the same. Somehow, I was really glad that I hadn’t stepped into this place without that. It wouldn’t have ended well, that was for sure.

As for the room itself, it was circular, about a hundred feet in diameter, with a ceiling that was slightly curved and around thirty feet high. Beyond the turrets that I could see, there were also spots where I was pretty sure more defenses could pop out if need be. We weren’t seeing everything. Probably because they wanted to keep at least some secrets in case this went badly.  

Prelate said something in another language to the assembled soldiers, and they dispersed into pairs, going through various doors that appeared and opened as they approached before immediately disappearing again. He looked to us then, his tone softening somewhat. “Pardon our paranoia, this is quite an unusual situation. If you’ll come with me, I’ll explain what’s happening and how we can help each other.” 

So, we did. What else were we gonna do, leave? We trailed after the man as he walked to the middle of the room. Once there, a circular portion of the floor around us began to sink, as we were taken down on an elevator. There were smooth metal walls around us, with more obviously defensive spellwork.

Asenath clearly couldn’t wait any longer. She squinted at the man, demanding, “Would you like to finally explain what your people have to do with those kids and my mother being abducted? Because right now, it’s not looking very good for your people, I’ve gotta tell you.” 

“I’d also like to know why it seems that your people are trying to start a war in Las Vegas and using Heretics to do it,” Haiden lightly noted, though there was a slight edge to his voice. I was pretty sure he didn’t actually think the man in front of us was an enemy, but he also definitely wasn’t in the mood for any kind of runaround. 

“Yes,” Prelate agreed with them both. “First, I must confess that the spell I used to allow you into this building did more than what I said. Nothing harmful, but it also tested you for infection.”  

We all started to ask what he meant by that, but the elevator stopped. Rather than doors appearing, part of the wall turned transparent and we could see into a large chamber. It looked like some kind of zoo exhibit or something, a big rectangular room, about fifty feet by eighty feet with a twenty foot ceiling. The whole place was filled with plants. There was grass, a few gnarled-looking trees, some bushes, flowers everywhere, vines along the walls, the works.

The man spoke while we were taking that in. “As I said, we hold the most dangerous threats in our prison. But the single greatest threat is the being the prison was originally created for. The first prisoner. Or, as we call him, Ehn. One, in your language. Prisoner number one. Ehn, in our language. He is actually from your world originally. A human who became what you call a Heretic, bonded to a dragon.” 

That made Shiori’s gaze snap around, blurting, “Wait, like Arthur?” 

Like the king known as Arthur, but not him,” Prelate informed us. “Ehn predates that man by quite a bit. And he is far, far more dangerous. He is a monster who must remain contained. As must his closest followers. There are eight of them. The next eight prisoners after Ehn. All are potential world-ending catastrophic threats, given their own proclivities, strengths, and the fact that Ehn spent a long time using his dragon abilities to boost his lieutenants. They are dangerous, and they can never be allowed to escape.” 

He nodded then to the room ahead of us. “I already mentioned Kwur, or Three in your words. Kwur is different from the others. He cannot be left in the same place for long and must be moved every few months. The longer he stays in one general location, the stronger his ability to influence emotions becomes.” 

“Influence emotions? So he makes people violent, scared, that kind of thing?” Columbus asked. “And where is he, behind one of those bushes or in one of the trees?” 

“He is the bushes and the trees,” Prelate corrected. “Kwur is a plant-based life-form, of sorts. He grows and spreads through the plants. They are his body. And yes, he can influence those within a certain range of himself to feel strong, uncontrollable emotions, given the opportunity and enough time in an area. Normally that is a fairly short time, but our defenses render him mostly safe, for awhile. Eventually, however, his power will overload our ability to contain it and he has to be moved again. This was his time to be here, in this outpost. Unfortunately, it seems that some of his spores managed to infect one of our people somehow, and that person carried more spores into Las Vegas.”

“But why?” Miranda asked. “Wait, spores? Like… pieces of himself?” 

“Yes,” the man confirmed. “While he is capable of influencing people’s emotions, he is also able to influence them even more strongly, sometimes directly, by infesting them with his spores. That is what happened with the Azlee Ren you are looking for. Ren was infested with spores and, in turn, infested several others. We learned the truth too late, and they escaped. We didn’t know where they escaped to, but sent forces to search for them, to no avail until we were contacted by King Oberon, who told us of your questions. We now believe that the infested Ren and the others have contracted mercenary groups on this world for aid.” 

“But why?” I asked. “And what does that have to do with Las Vegas, and those kids? And why did that guy tell us to come to Canada to find them?”

In answer, Prelate replied, “Kwur feeds off of hatred and violence. His spores can grow faster and stronger in the middle of a warzone. Particularly one where peace previously existed. We now believe that Ren and the others under his influence are attempting to create a war in Las Vegas in order to grow his spores. The more of his spores grow, the more people he will be able to infest. And the more he infests, the greater his ability to provoke even more hatred and violence on an exponential scale.

“As for the man who sent you to us, it is very possible that at least some of the mercenaries employed by Ren and the others are under the impression that they are following our instructions, that Ren is acting in some official capacity. Whatever they believe, the result is that they are working to destabilize Las Vegas in order to create an environment which will best allow Kwur’s spores to grow much stronger and more numerous. If they grow strong enough, he will be able to manifest his core consciousness beyond this prison. 

“And if that happens, his evil will spread through every plant on this world, locking every being who lives here in a never-ending cycle of violence and hatred.” 

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