The following takes place during the time that most of the people at Crossroads were transported to various places by Fossor as a distraction for Joselyn stealing the Hangman Rope.
Metal wings sliced through the air as the cyberform hawk known as Sovereign soared high above the ground. His eyes scanned the ground below, taking in the contradictory sight.
The ruins that he could see were the desolate remains of a town that came straight out of the American old west. There was an old bank, a jail, some houses, even a saloon, and a church with a bell in the steeple. Except in this case, the town had either been transported to a jungle, or one had sprung up around it, or it had for some reason been built in a jungle. Either way, enormous trees, vines, and other greenery of all kinds had totally overgrown everything.
It also continued on for miles in every direction. The jungle, that was. Sovereign couldn’t see anything else beyond what may have been a volcano far off in the distance.
After assuring herself that nothing important (unless that volcano decided to erupt and make itself important) could be seen through her cyberform partner, Aylen Tamaya brought her vision back to her own eyes, blinking a few times to clear her senses as she came back to herself and looked around. She was lying behind the bar of the saloon that Sovereign had just been flying over. Nearby lay several of her teammates. Gavin, Stephen, and Rebecca had all somehow been transported with her to this jungle-infested western town.
Their remaining two teammates, Shiori and Koren, hadn’t shown up with them. Shiori had been eating with her girlfriend, which might have explained it. Except Koren and her mother (visiting from Eden’s Garden) were sitting at the table with Aylen and the others, yet they hadn’t shown up either. So that was confusing. And worrying.
Gavin, Stephen, and Rebecca were all unconscious. Or mostly. They moved sometimes, groaning or trying to say something delirious. For the most part, they had been out of it for the past ten minutes since the group had found themselves here. Aylen wasn’t alone in being awake and alert, however. A few adults had also been dragged along with them.
“I swear to the Edge, Brigham, if you do not stick your arm down this snake’s throat and pull out that pearl, I will yank its mouth open far enough to shove you in headfirst to get it.”
‘Adults’ may have been an optimistic term, in some cases.
The woman who had made that pronouncement from the other side of the saloon was Stephen Kinder’s mother, Diana. The target of her annoyance was Stephen’s father. Neither were married, though they did have several children together (and several with other people). They had come together to visit their son, despite the fact neither seemed to get along.
Diana was kneeling on the floor, holding the previously mentioned snake. It was a massive python that writhed and squirmed against the several hoops made of ice that trapped the thing against the ground. The hoops didn’t penetrate its body, keeping it (mostly) trapped without actually harming it. Diana and the woman beside her were both holding the upper body of the long python up, trying to keep it steady.
“Damn it,” Brigham cursed. He was a big man of swarthy complexion, his hair (both that on top of his head and his beard) long and heavily curled. “Can’t we just kill the damn thing?”
The other woman who was helping to keep the snake as still as they could was the one who had pinned the snake to the floor to begin with. Lillian Patters, Rebecca’s grandmother. Almost as small as her own diminutive granddaughter, the brunette woman nonetheless gave the man a look that could have reduced a lesser person to cinders. “This ‘damn thing’, as you put it is a beautiful creature, whose only crime was being force-fed a magical pearl that makes it super strong and aggressive. So unless you want to start arguing that laziness is an effective reasoning for murder, I suggest you get the pearl out so we can let her go on her way.”
Brigham sighed, but did as the two women ordered. Grimacing, the man carefully put his hand into the snake’s mouth while they carefully held it open. His grimace worsened as he reached further and further, fingers grasping.
“Almost there,” Lillian assured him. Her gaze was centered on the snake’s long body, apparently using some kind of vision power. “Just a little further. Tiny bit to your right–no, sorry, our right. Your left. Yeah. Yeah, you brushed it a bit with your index finger there. Yeah. There, you got it.”
As Aylen continued to peek over the top of the bar, she saw the man slowly extract his arm from the thrashing snake. Between two of his fingers, he held a glowing red ‘pearl’, which he dropped on the floor before stepping on firmly. The moment the pearl broke, the python instantly went still. Mostly, Aylen realized, because it was suddenly much weaker. Weak enough that the two Heretic women combined with the ice hoops could easily hold it still.
“There we are, beautiful,” Lillian murmured, slipping around to stand in front of the snake. She stroked its head tenderly. “Isn’t that better? Yes, yes, much better, you gorgeous thing. All right, why don’t you go off and play now, hmm?” She patted the snake’s side before making a few soft hissing noises, meeting its gaze intently. A wave of her hand disintegrated the ice hoops keeping the animal pinned, and Diana released her hold on it as well.
The snake hesitated, clearly confused by this entire situation. But at another hiss from Lillian, it dropped down and proceeded to slither its way out of the saloon, disappearing into the jungle.
“I see our new friend chose to leave.” The announcement came from the doorway, where the final adult of their group, Gavin’s father Roderick, stood. Like his son, the man was very tall and thin, standing an inch over seven feet while looking as though he’d disappear if he stepped behind a post and turned sideways. “How are the kids doing?”
“Aylen?” Lillian prompted, looking to the girl.
“Still out of it,” Aylen quietly answered. She hadn’t actually realized that whatever had sent them to this jungle western town had left the others so weak and mostly unconscious. They had been separated at first, so by the time she wandered in to join the rest, the adults had already seen her awake and alert. Since they’d already determined that it was the food that had affected everyone else, food they’d clearly seen her eat as well, she’d had to simply say that she’d ended up killing a few more regenerative creatures over the past year than the others had.
After all, she couldn’t very well tell them that poisons, magical or otherwise, didn’t affect someone who was one-fourth Reaper.
“No sign of any other problems,” Roderick continued after sighing at the news that his son, along with the other two, were still sick. “But none of the teleportation abilities I’ve tried have worked either. Whatever field that magical poison is giving off, it’s still going strong.” He paused then before adding, “I think a couple of us should try to get out of range of it to teleport out and bring back help for the kids, while the other two stay here with them, just in case something worse than that little snake shows up. Like whatever shoved that corruption gem into it.”
Diana agreed, straightening up to brush herself off. “You and I will go then,” she announced. “Brigham and Lillian can wait here with the children.” She was already walking, not to the door, but around the bar. Patting Aylen on the shoulder, she knelt and whispered something in her son’s ear that was probably meant to reassure the sick boy. Giving him a brief hug despite the fact that he was too out of it to notice, the woman rose and headed for the door then. “Right, let’s get this done. See how far we have to get before we can use transport powers again.”
Roderick took a brief moment with his son, then looked to Aylen. His gaunt features were still kind. “Think you can help keep an eye on your teammates?”
“I’ll watch your son, sir,” Aylen carefully replied. “And the others.”
“Good girl.” With that, the man headed out with Diana, who didn’t spare another look for Brigham. Apparently despite being Stephen’s parents, they weren’t that close.
The two had only been gone for a minute or two before Aylen felt a mental tug from her cyberform partner. Closing her eyes, she cast her senses up to him to see what he wanted to show her.
It wasn’t good. More animals were making their way out of the deeper jungle and into the vine-covered town ruins. Leopards, elephants, snakes, crocodiles, various birds, apes, gorillas, and more were starting to converge on the saloon. And judging from the way they were acting, all of them had been infected similarly to the earlier python. Which meant that they would be much stronger, faster, and smarter than they should be, as well as far more aggressive.
“Um, Mrs. Patters, Mr. Elwards?” Stephen’s father had already corrected her earlier that evening that his son used his mother’s last name rather than Brigham’s. “There’s some–”
“I hear them,” Brigham interrupted, frowning as he stared at the nearby wall. “And now I see them. Problem.”
Staring at a different wall, Lillian nodded. “Definite problems.” She turned back to Aylen then. “Call your partner in and armor up, Aylen. I don’t think we’re going to be able to play nice with these ones.” She sounded pained by her own words, adding, “But if we have to hurt these poor guys, I guarantee we will hurt whoever put them up to it much worse.”
Summoning Sovereign, Aylen waited while her mechanical partner dove through the horde of animals converging on the building. At the last second, as the hawk flew straight to her, she pivoted on one foot to put her back to him. Sovereign slowed just enough that he wouldn’t knock her over as he collided with the girl’s back, clinging there like a bag for a moment. Then he began to shift, expanding over Aylen to form a suit of armor that included a helmet. Within the suit, Aylen was given a heads-up display of everything around her that included things like the temperature, an analysis of nearby sounds (lots of animals approaching), and their GPS location. The latter was returning a confused garble of numbers. She could also cycle through several different vision modes, as well as a few other helpful things.
She’d barely finished suiting up in her armor before the sound of the approaching animals (especially the elephants) grew loud enough to actually be noticeable. The horde was close, and clearly knew exactly where they were going.
“Aylen, stay with the others,” Brigham instructed. He had to raise his voice over the sound of the animals, which were making no secret of their approach. Some were trumpeting, others growling and roaring, or even chittering. “We’ll try not to let anything past, but… they’re spreading out. You–”
“Wait, why can’t I see anything?” Lillian suddenly interrupted. She tapped the side of her head. “I can’t–I can’t see through the walls. They–” She stopped suddenly, because the sound of the approaching animals, which had been thunderously loud a moment earlier, had gone silent. One second, the animals had seemed to be almost right on top of them, making their presence known through their threatening cries and stomping feet that rattled the whole room. And in the next… nothing. It was silent. Eerily silent.
Aylen cycled vision modes, but it was just like Lillian had said, the walls remained opaque. Vision powers weren’t working any better than transport powers had been. Whatever was out there now, it didn’t want them to see what was going on.
“Stay quiet,” Brigham murmured. He held his blunderbuss-like rifle in one hand, his other crackling with electricity as he glared at the saloon doors. “Whatever comes through that door, be ready to–”
Footsteps interrupted the man, striding easily across the wooden patio before a shadow appeared at the swinging doors. A figure pushed their way through with a loud creak, emerging into the light to reveal themselves as a pale-skinned figure with blue hair.
Aylen abruptly started breathing again. The woman who stood in the doorway of the saloon was known, to almost all of the very few people who knew her at all, as Bastet. But to Aylen, she was called something else.
She had two. Genetically, actually, thanks to Grandfather. Two mothers, though she only referred to Bastet as mother. Sonoma was always Mama or Mom, while Bastet was Mother.
Seeing her half-Reaper mother standing in that doorway, Aylen very nearly blurted something out loud before catching herself. Still, it was all she could do not to visibly react.
Brigham, however, did react. The second that Bastet showed herself, he released the gathered electricity into a powerful, blinding bolt of lightning that shot across the room toward the woman.
In response, Aylen’s mother held what looked like a red bouncy ball in one hand. As the lightning coursed toward her, she simply raised it, and the electricity was sucked inside, disappearing harmlessly into the ball.
“Why thank you,” she remarked, “that’ll come in handy later.”
It would, Aylen knew. Those super bouncy balls were one of Bastet’s favorite creations. The woman would use them to absorb dozens of spells that were sent at her. Then, at any given time, she would unleash one by throwing it into a room and closing the door. The ball would violently bounce around the room, unleashing every spell it had absorbed into the confined space over the course of a few seconds. It was pure chaos.
“Brigham!” Lillian started, “wait until–”
But the man was apparently in no mood to either listen to what the woman was going to say, or even ask Bastet who she was or what she wanted. Instead, he launched himself that way into an attack. His ancient-looking enormous rifle snapped up, as he fired three rapid shots before his body turned to white-hot fire, intent on putting down the threat as thoroughly and violently as possible.
Two and a half seconds later, his unconscious body lay on the ground. Aylen wasn’t even sure what had happened, only that her mother had let the man lunge at her and a moment later he was down, while Bastet herself didn’t seem to have moved.
For a moment, silence reigned. Bastet looked to the unconscious body at her feet, then raised her gaze to where Lillian still stood, tense and waiting. “Aren’t you going to leap to your partner’s defense?” Aylen’s mother asked with what sounded like genuine curiosity.
Lillian, however, replied with a simple, “You could have killed him. But you didn’t. You didn’t kill the animals out there either, did you?”
Head tilting just a little, Bastet answered, “No.”
“You didn’t send them. You didn’t kill them. You didn’t kill him. So why are you here?” Rebecca’s grandmother’s curiosity was clearly rising, the answer on the tip of her tongue. “You didn’t come to attack us, you just defended yourself. But you… are you… I–”
And then she collapsed. Dropping to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut, the woman lay in an unconscious heap.
“I like her,” Bastet remarked, showing no particular effort from having knocked the woman out. “I do hope she gets her memory back soon. But we don’t have time for her to work her way through that, or to deal with it afterward.”
“Mother!” Finally freed from the constraints of secrecy, Aylen released her armor, stepping out of Sovereign before throwing herself that way to embrace the woman tightly. She and her second mother (Sonoma was ‘first mom’ in her mind for being the one who had carried and given birth to her) weren’t generally the kind to hug a lot. But this was different. She hadn’t seen either of her mothers, or her grandfather, in person for awhile.
The two held each other for a few seconds like that, before Bastet released her to meet her daughter’s gaze. “Dewa,” she started affectionately with Aylen’s nickname, a Cherokee word meaning ‘flying squirrel.’ “I hate to interrupt your… fun, and you know I wouldn’t take such steps to risk exposing your cover–”
“Something’s happening, isn’t it?” Aylen quickly cut in. “All this, it’s something big.”
Her mother confirmed that with a nod. “Turns out, someone’s stealing the rope. So yeah, I’d say it’s something big.”
“The rope…” Aylen echoed before her eyes widened. “You mean your father’s han–” She had been around the Heretics for so long, she nearly said the word ‘Hangman’, but that was incredibly derogatory. The things that Heretics didn’t understand about Reapers could fill a book by itself, and at the top of the very first chapter, bolded and underlined, would be the words, do not call them Hangmen.
Hangmen, in reality, did not exist. At least, not the way Heretics understood them. They believed that what they called Hangmen were Reapers who carried around their chosen weapon, an instrument of death that was so filled with their rage, violence, and hatred that it became an enchanted object that would infest anyone who touched or moved it with the same monstrous, murderous tendencies.
What the Heretics had missed, of course, was the rather obvious correction to that little math equation. It wasn’t that Reapers became Hangmen, then created their killing tools which then infected anyone else who touched them to turn those people equally murderous. It was that the infected tools themselves came first. It was the weapons which created the so-called Hangmen, not the other way around. The cursed objects turned the Reapers who collected them into Hangmen. Not that the H word should be used since, again, it was derogatory.
The cursed Reapers, trapped and infected by the enchanted object, would then carry on to do all the things that Heretics associated them with. But it was always the weapon itself that was controlling the Reaper, turning an otherwise peaceful observer and cataloguer of life’s endings into monsters who created those endings.
That was not to say that it was impossible for Reapers to lose their minds and become monsters. Indulging in their baser instincts by wantonly killing would eventually affect a Reaper much like it did a Heretic from Crossroads or Eden’s Garden. But that was an incredibly rare situation within their society, one that had long-since grown beyond that kind of thing. More to the point, Reapers had discovered long ago that they would lose control of themselves and become monsters if they murdered indiscriminately. Those had been… bad days. But the survivors had moved beyond it, becoming a society who traveled the universe observing death rather than causing it. They catalogued the memories given off at the end of one’s life.
So yes, it was possible for a Reaper to murder indiscriminately and become a monster much like a Bosch Heretic with a similar kill-addiction. The corruption tools, as they were called, that had been put out there to create what the Heretics knew as Hangmen were simply a way of shortcutting straight to that without any choice or action on the part of the Reaper affected short of getting near enough to the cursed object. They had, as a society, grown beyond the mentality that had almost destroyed far more than only themselves. Yet this other being had put objects out there which bypassed all of their control and discipline to turn them into monsters anyway.
The Reapers themselves would very much have liked to put a stop to the one responsible for such atrocities. Except any of them who tried only got close enough to be infected by another of the objects.
In the case of Bastet’s father, the Reaper now referred to by Crossroads as the Heretical Edge, he had been infected. But the rope had been taken from him for so long that he had reverted back to his original self. Or his mind had, anyway. His body was… very different, considering his skull was currently inside the lighthouse. His mind was intact, however. And back to his regular, non-murder-crazed self.
“Yes,” Bastet confirmed flatly. “That rope. Someone’s taking it from the Heretics.”
“Is… is it the thing that you and Mom and… and Grandfather have been worried about?” Aylen wondered tentatively, hesitant to give voice to her worry.
Thankfully, her mother shook her head. “The one who made the Corruption Tools like the rope wouldn’t need to go through all this to steal one back. Besides, they haven’t been working this openly since the attacks on the young Virginia Dare.” Pausing, she added, “Speaking of which, I think this is the point where I ask how your classes are going.”
Aylen stared at her mother, opening and shutting her mouth before gesturing around the vine and flower-filled saloon. “Are you sure this is the right time for that?”
“Your other mother worries about you,” Bastet informed her primly. “You should call more often.”
“Now you’re making fun of me,” Aylen realized, giving the much-older woman a scowl.
Winking, Bastet reached out to muss up her daughter’s hair. “Maybe a little. Now come on, let’s fix up your friends so you can get out of here.”
“Are you sure you can fix it?” Aylen started before flushing guiltily at her mother’s squint.
“I’m going to pretend that’s Crossroads idiot-propaganda making you question my skill,” Bastet retorted. “Now go outside. It’s safe. There’s a Heqet out there. Take this.” From her pocket, the woman produced a small vial. “Get some of the slime off its back. Carefully. You see or hear anything, shout. I’ll be listening. And don’t wander off.” Looking toward Sovereign then, she added, “I expect you to watch her, handsome bird.”
For his part, the cyberform hawk made a trilling sound of agreement.
“I know, Mother,” Aylen readily agreed before taking the vial. Waving for Sovereign to follow, she headed for the swinging doors and out into the jungle-infested old West town.
And then she stopped. All around her, literally covering the entire grassy road in front of the saloon and extending up and down through the ruined town were the animals from before. Elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, snakes, crocodiles, and more. It was like an entire zoo had escaped. Or possibly several zoos. And every last one of them was sound asleep. Nearby lay an enormous pile of shards, which was apparently all that remained of the fury pearls that they had been infected with. Her mother had, somehow, extracted the pearls from every last one of the creatures and put them to sleep, all without harming them, in the span of the few seconds that had passed while the adult Heretics had been unable to look outside.
Aylen had grown up being impressed by both of her parents, and Grandfather. But sometimes they surpassed even that.
Taking a minute to pick her way through the mob of slumbering animals while Sovereign flew overhead to keep an eye out, the girl eventually found the Heqet that her mother had mentioned. The massive frog would have been about eight feet tall if it stood fully upright on its hind legs. The glimmering slime covering its body was full of magical properties, particularly if it was genuinely fresh.
Uncorking the vial, Aylen carefully collected as much as it would hold before putting the stopper back in it. Giving another quick look around, she headed back in.
Her mother had Rebecca, Stephen, and Gavin laid out along the floor in the middle of the room. She’d already prepared most of the spells she needed, drawing quickly on the wood. “Good,” she announced distractedly when Aylen returned. “Put just a little bit on each of their tongues and get them to swallow it.”
Knowing better than to question her mother’s expertise on the subject twice in such a short time span, Aylen carefully did as instructed. Moving to each of her three teammates in turn, she put a little bit of the slime in their mouth and made them swallow it. None of the trio were coherent enough to have any idea what was going on. But they definitely didn’t like the taste, protesting as much as their weak, mostly-unconscious bodies would let them.
In the end, she got them to swallow, and her mother activated the spells on the floor before standing up. “Give that a few minutes to run its course, and then–wait.” Turning, she frowned at the doorway.
“Is someone–” Aylen started before stopping short as a pair of figures came through the swinging doors. It was Diana and Roderick, the latter already speaking. “What the hell happened out–what are you doing?”
Her mother was gone, Aylen realized. The woman had disappeared the instant the other two came in.
“Aylen?” Diana frowned, looking first to the obvious spells surrounding the other three students, then to the unconscious Brigham and Lillian. “What–”
That was as far as the woman got, before Bastet appeared behind both of them. The two Heretics had enough warning to start to turn, before she exhaled a cloud of blue smoke while catching both of their necks to hold them in it. There was a very brief struggle, before they collapsed.
Bastet stepped over them. “I’ll make sure they don’t remember anything before sending you back. Just make sure you act like you don’t know anything either.”
“Be clueless,” Aylen confirmed with a nod. “I can do that.”
Pausing then, her mother quietly asked, “Are you okay? I… feel like I should be saying something more substantial here. You–”
“I’m okay, Mother,” the girl quickly put in. She offered her a faint smile. “Thanks for coming.”
Bastet embraced her daughter then, taking a quiet moment with her. “Always,” she promised softly before smirking down at her. “Especially if it gives me an excuse to make the high-and-mighty Heretics look ridiculous.”
Flushing, Aylen nudged her mother. “Most of them aren’t that bad. Not the ones I’ve met anyway. They think they’re doing the right thing.”
For a moment, Bastet looked toward Lillian. “Some of them knew better for awhile. It’s… right, come on. We’ll finish the spell and get you all home so that I can go help your mom and Grandfather figure out what just happened with the rope.” She started to say something else, before hesitating. “Speaking of… grandfathers… did he say anything else to you yet?”
Aylen slowly shook her head. “Just that one greeting when I got there, and the thing at Christmas when I visited him. I think… I think he’s weak. It takes a lot for him to even pay attention.”
Rage boiled up in her mother’s gaze, simmering there just behind the surface. “We’ll get him out,” she promised Aylen. “When the time comes, we will get my father away from the Heretics.
“No matter who tries to get in our way.”