Sitting on the floor of an enormous, airplane hanger-sized laboratory (one of many in the space belonging beneath the Capitol One Arena in Washington DC), Columbus balanced his personal cyberform, Amethyst, in his lap. The robotic porcupine-armadillo made a soft chirping sound as he tinkered in one of her open compartments with a screwdriver and pen light. Testing one of the wires, he spoke up absently. “Could you hand me that box of one-inch star button head screws on the table over there?”
“Sure thing,” came the loud, rumbling voice as the huge robotic figure crouched behind him turned a bit. Even kneeling as he was, Galahad barely fit within the space, often brushing his head against the ceiling if he sat up too quickly. An understandable issue for a thirty-foot tall blue-silver robot who could transform into a full-sized semi-truck and trailer. Of course, in most cases, he could have simply transferred his consciousness into his much smaller humanoid form, but that was busy being tinkered with by the lab’s actual owner, Harrison Fredericks.
The man himself, responsible for the initial creation of the cyberforms that had become so useful to Heretics all over the world, was in the far corner of the lab working on that. Columbus and Galahad both doubted the distracted man had any idea they were still there, let alone that he had other visitors outside in the parking lot. He was quite occupied with his work.
Easily reaching from one side of the lab to the other, Galahad very carefully pinched the desired box between two of his fingers. His hand massively dwarfed the box of screws, yet he was delicate enough to pick it up, move his arm over, and set it down next to the boy. He had a lot of practice being careful with his large hands and great strength. Between that and the incredible work Fredericks did to begin with, he could have picked up a living mouse without harming it. Well, aside from the heart attack the poor thing certainly would have suffered.
“Your friends are still waiting, you know,” he gently reminded the boy.
“Almost done,” Columbus promised. “I just need to run a couple quick diagnostics and–” He had looked up and turned a bit to glanced toward a corner of the ceiling, the lenses of the goggles on his face glowing slightly as he activated the x-ray vision to see out to where Vanessa and the others had been playing an impromptu soccer game on the pavement above while they waited for him to join them for a trip to the movies. What he saw instead, however, made Columbus drop the screwdriver and penlight, bolting to his feet. “Oh shit! What the hell’s wrong with the alarms?”
“Alarms?” Galahad echoed, head tilting. “I see nothing wrong. Your friends are playing–wait.” He paused before making a noise of disbelief. “The security footage is fake. Harry!” That booming voice flooded the hangar, drawing even the distracted scientist from his work. “We have trouble.”
“Trouble?” Fredericks dropped his tools, vanishing from where he was standing before reappearing next to Columbus. He was a remarkably short man, standing only four feet, one inch tall. His dark red hair was short, and he had a goatee that was neatly trimmed. Aside from a pair of unnaturally green eyes, his other distinguishing feature was an arm that was very clearly cybernetic. “What sort of trouble?”
“The dangerous sort,” Columbus informed him, still staring through the ceiling even as he stopped himself from instantly transporting out there to help the others. Better to make sure Fredericks knew what was going on before this whole situation got completely out of hand. Including one incredibly important point.
Several Minutes Earlier
With a thump as the soccer ball bounced off his head, Tristan Moon watched it bounce between two small trash cans that they had set up to be a goal and pumped his fist in the air. “Ha,” he crowed, “three to two, we are so pulling ahead of you guys.”
This side of the parking lot of the Capital One arena was essentially empty, given there were no games or events going on anytime soon. Despite that, in most cases, the security guards would have insisted several teenagers playing ball in it should leave. But those security guards were being magically charmed to ignore the group, thanks to one of many safety measures Fredericks had installed along the property.
“Maybe by definition,” Tristan’s sister retorted to his teasing. Vanessa had her long, typically loose blonde hair tied back out of the way in a ponytail. “Three to two isn’t exactly an insurmountable lead, you know.”
Grinning, Tristan waved that off. “You’re just jealous that we didn’t go with sibling pairs.”
“That would’ve been cliche,” Sands pointed out as she pointed toward the ball. A blue glowing outline surrounded it, and the thing went in an exact reverse of its previous trajectory, as if it was being rewound. It was a new power she had picked up during a recent trip, when a group of Alters they had been escorting to a safehouse were unexpectedly ambushed by a trio of religious fanatics, cultists for one of the many supposed world-destroying entities that were said to live in the Earth’s core or some such. Either way, they were dead now and Sands had picked up this ability to reverse the motions of any non-living object, up to about fifty pounds, for up to thirty seconds.
“Much as I would love to be on a team with my sister,” she added with a nod to Sarah, who stood behind Tristan, “we do have to mix things up a bit.” She left out the fact that she knew Sarah wanted to team up with Tristan, given the two of them had started going out together a few months back. It was still relatively new, and they were taking things slow. But still, Sands was happy for her sister. Even if she did have to resist the urge to take Tristan aside and warn him about what would happen if he hurt her. Tempting as that was, it wasn’t her place to play that sort of game. Sarah could take care of herself. She didn’t need her twin sister threatening her boyfriend. Even if there was a bit of uncertainty about what was going on between him and that Nereid girl, Dexamene. She had come all the way back from the future and across the universe. Yes, it was to help Flick get back to the present, and save Elisabet, but still. She was Tristan’s best friend, and maybe more than that? No one was sure, possibly not even the two of them. But whatever was going on there, Sarah, Tristan, and Dex could handle it between themselves. They didn’t need her help.
Especially not when Sands herself didn’t exactly have any luck in the romance department. A fact that made the short (the twins were barely five feet tall) brunette give a soft inward sigh before reaching out to catch the ball as it began to make its way past her and back toward Tristan on its reverse trajectory. “Besides,” she added aloud, “hitting the ball with your head shouldn’t be allowed. I mean, it’s so hard.” To demonstrate, she reached out as though to rap her knuckles against his temple, before the boy drew back with a laugh.
“Hard and oblong, that’s my head alright,” he replied easily. “Now are you guys gonna take the ball out so we can steal it from you and rack up another point, or what?”
Before the others could say anything, Sarah held a hand out while speaking up. “Wait, look.” Her sister and the other two turned to see where she was pointing. On the sidelines of their impromptu ‘field’ in the parking lot, Tristan’s cyberform snake, Bobbi-Bobbi, had been curled up to watch them. Now she lay stretched out on her side, twitching a little. Nearby, one of the many cyberforms that Fredricks allowed to roam the property, a monkey robot called Tipsy, was also laying on her side with the same occasional twitch.
“Something’s wrong,” Sarah announced, even as Tristan took off running that way.
“Bobbi?” he called, dropping to his knees next to the snake robot. “What–” In the next instant, his hand lashed out. The bracelet on his wrist glowed brightly, producing a blue-white set of flames over his fist as the boy punched the partially transparent figure who had emerged from beneath the pavement and was halfway-into his robotic partner. “Ghost!” he shouted as his empowered fist collided with the spirit’s face.
Unfortunately, while he had been quick enough to stop the ghost, who had been pushing its way into Bobbi-Bobbi, Tristan wasn’t able to catch the one next to Tipsy. It disappeared into the monkey robot, and an instant later, he had to throw himself backwards to avoid being kicked in the face as the cyberform abruptly shoved its hand against the ground and kicked out of him with its two long legs. Blades had emerged from Tipsy’s feet, narrowly avoiding cutting the boy’s throat.
“Tristan!” Vanessa shouted. Before she could move that way, however, an owl and falcon cyberform who had been flying overhead dropped into view. The owl shifted into a helmet form, hovering in midair as its goggle-like eyes blasted a concussive wave of force that slammed into the blonde girl, as well as Sarah. The two were sent flying a good twelve feet before tumbling along the ground. Sands was struck as well, but she had activated the power that allowed her to remain completely motionless and protected no matter how much force she was hit with. Up to a certain level, of course, but the owl didn’t surpass that.
She was already bringing her mace out to swing at the cyberform itself before it could blast them again, but the falcon had transformed itself into a two-bladed sword, one end swinging out toward her throat. The girl was forced to stop short, going still so her power would kick in again and force the blade to bounce off.
Tristan, by that point, had rolled back to his feet with Bobbi-Bobbi in her cannon form on his arm. He extended it, letting off a quick shot toward the falcon-blade, while his foot lashed out to kick Tipsy as she leapt at him. “What the hell?! Since when can ghosts possess cyberforms?!”
“Well,” an unexpected (and entirely unwanted) voice announced from nearby, “I suppose since I gave them a bit of an upgrade?” Kushiel’s own ghost hovered next to a parked car, regarding them with a mixture of contempt and amusement at their confusion. “Stand still for a moment, and you’ll see just how much of one.”
“Kushiel?” Vanessa blurted while she and Sarah picked themselves up. Her whip was already out and ready, scanning the air for more attackers coming from that way. Distracting as Kushiel’s appearance was, it felt just like the woman to show herself just so another possessed cyberform could hit them unexpectedly. She was far from the type to fight fair. “What are you doing here?” Even as she said that, the girl’s free hand was grabbing for the emergency alert coin in her pocket that would bring a full set of reinforcements.
Sarah, meanwhile, brought her rifle up, but stopped herself from pulling the trigger. Tempting as it was to shoot Kushiel with as many ghost-fire empowered bullets as she could, it would’ve been pointless. The woman would just pass the damage off to one of the others. Denny had already informed them that she still had that power, even after death. A fact she had apparently demonstrated quite thoroughly when the people at the Auberge had sought to interfere with her attempts to find Mordred’s sword, Clarent. She’d failed then, and the sword was now in the hands of Joselyn Chambers. So what was she doing here now?
“Try to call for help if you like,” Kushiel informed Vanessa without apparent care, knowing exactly what the girl was doing with the hand in her pocket. “It won’t do you any good. Not anymore.” She sounded oddly casual, given her usual personality and anger. Which, to be honest, was a lot more troubling than if she had shown up in full righteous fury mode. Kushiel being calm meant she was confident, and none of them were comfortable thinking about why that was.
Sure enough, Vanessa felt something blocking the spell that would have called her mother and others to their location. “What– you’re stopping it.”
“Very good, abomination,” Kushiel tauntingly retorted, giving a soft clap while staring daggers through the girl. Despite her calm demeanor, it was the hatred in those eyes that truly gave away the woman’s feelings. “Your ability to state the patently obvious truly does mark you as the genius they all say you are.”
“Genius, no,” Vanessa informed her simply. “Prepared, yes.” With that, she touched a different coin in her pocket and triggered the spell there. Instantly, the backpack she had brought with them, discarded along the side of their playing field, flipped over. The flap on it opened, seemingly by itself, before three steel balls, each about two inches across, burst out. The trio of balls flew into view and hovered in a triangular formation around the ghost woman before projecting a glowing semi-transparent blue pyramid around her.
Arching an eyebrow, Kushiel reached out to tap the glowing wall. “A ghost capture field, hmm? And I see your mother helped you add in a bit of anti-Tartarus tech as well. It’s not quite enough to block my power entirely, but it’s certainly… muffling it a bit, I suppose. I can feel the energy it’s giving off, making it harder for me to reach for my gift. I didn’t know that was possible.” The fact that she was, even now, speaking calmly made the hair on every one of their necks stand up. Something was even more wrong than they already knew.
“It’s not, for living creatures,” Vanessa replied flatly. “You’re a ghost. You’re different. Your connection to Tartarus is stronger, but the one into this world, the physical world, isn’t. We can trap you that way, block you that way.”
“For a time, perhaps,” Kushiel acknowledged, sounding unconcerned. “Still, it is a remarkable effort. You and your mother have been busy little bees. But you and I both know this is a prototype. It will not hold for very long.” Her hand brushed the wall testingly. “No, not long at all.”
Her calm demeanor in the face of being trapped was even more worrying. As was the fact that half a dozen more cyberforms of various types had begun surrounding the four young Heretics. They were all obviously possessed, but none attacked. Not yet, anyway.
Sands, Sarah, Tristan, and Vanessa had all moved closer together by that point. Not right next to each other, as they all needed room. But close enough to watch each other’s backs. Tristan spoke up for his sister. “Doesn’t have to hold you for long. We’ll have help here soon.”
“Sooner than you think,” Columbus, appearing nearby, announced. He was facing Kushiel as well, Amethyst perched on his shoulder to hiss at the ghost woman. “Don’t worry, Fredericks is working on a way to expel our unwanted guests from the cyberforms,” he informed the others. “It won’t take long.”
“Oh dear!” With mock concern, Kushiel put her hands to her mouth. “I suppose I’d better hurry then. Friends, would you mind?” At her words, three of the possessed cyberforms, the owl, falcon, and a small bluejay, turned their attention toward the balls projecting the pyramid that was currently containing her. Meanwhile, the others, including Tipsy, turned their attention to the five Heretics.
And yet, before either group could carry out their attacks, a large figure came flying down out of the sky. Galahad, still in his thirty-foot tall robot form, crashed onto the pavement after launching himself through the air. His hand lashed out, smacking half a dozen of the other cyberforms out of the way to send them tumbling across the ground. “Sorry, buddies,” he announced, “the big guy’ll fix you up as soon as we get rid of your hitchhikers.”
Even now, Kushiel showed no particular annoyance as her plan to have several of her ghost-possessed, unwilling partners break her out of the temporary prison. In fact, she simply chuckled at the side of the giant robot figure smacking them aside. To his words, she offered a slight shrug. “Doing that may be harder than your friend suspects. And you may have even less time than you think to make it happen.”
“What do you want?” Sands demanded, taking a step that way. As one of the possessed cyberforms made a move toward her, she quickly threw a wall up into its path with a swing of her mace. But her eyes never left Kushiel’s. “Why are you here? Too much of a coward to face your daughter or Flick again, so you thought we’d be easier targets?”
Through all of this, Kushiel had shown herself to be unnaturally, unusually calm. Yet it was the mention of Theia that made her drop that facade, even if only a little bit. Her eyes blazed with even more anger than had already been smoldering there, as she half-spat, “The thing I spawned will meet her fate in time. As for the would-be Necromancer child, she is still no threat to me. That much should have been clear after our last meeting.”
“I dunno,” Tristan remarked, “Flick has a way of surprising people like you. And by people like you, I mean evil, irredeemable pieces of shit. Just ask Fossor.”
“She doesn’t have to ask anyone,” Galahad put in. “She isn’t leaving this place. Not after–” He stopped in mid-sentence, head turning toward a nearby section of the parking lot. “What…”
“Ah yes,” Kushiel remarked, as everyone’s attention shifted that way. The dull rumble that Galahad detected was soon audible to all of them. “As I was saying, I did not show myself to all of you in order to begin carrying out my plan.”
With that, the ground exploded outward in a violent shower of rock and pavement, as a dark-green, fifty-foot tall dragon cyberform tore its way out of the ground and flew upward with a terrifying roar. It was followed by another, slightly different one, and another. Soon, seven cyberform dragons were in view, all of them spreading out to surround the group. As they hovered there, a figure appeared on top of each of the seven dragons. These were not ghosts, but living Seosten. Young Seosten, by the look of them. They couldn’t have been older than twenty or so, which made them look only about fifteen by human standards. Four boys, three girls, all dressed in gold and black versions of the Seosten bodysuit. Black with gold piping for the girls, the reverse for the boys.
“I showed myself,” Kushiel finished, “because my true children, born of the lab you helped destroy, have already succeeded.”
To be continued next chapter