Jack Childs

Growth 18-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Obviously, finding out that the Garden Rebels could now make their own new Heretics was a big deal, a really big deal. Seriously, if this war ended up dragging on longer than the truce with the Seosten, we would need the ability to make more Heretics. Otherwise, the Loyalists would win simply through attrition. And while I wanted to think that we would be done with this much sooner, it wasn’t a good idea to plan on that. We had to be ready for this to be a long, drawn-out thing. Being able to create more Boscher Heretics was the only way we would survive. 

All of that and more was running through my mind as Miranda and I joined Avalon at the entrance to the portal room that would lead us down to the beachfront area where the Garden people had set up. 

As soon as she saw us, Valley pushed off the wall she had been leaning against and approached to embrace me tightly. “You know what this means,” she murmured. 

My head bobbed. “Of course I know what it means. The Rebellion isn’t completely screwed if this goes on much longer. It’s a big deal. Especially since–” I cut myself off, feeling the pain of Tribald Kine’s death wash over me once more before swallowing hard. “Especially since we’re already losing experienced Heretics. We need to be able to create more.” 

Miranda spoke up quietly while standing a couple feet back. “They have a lot of experienced Natural Heretics to choose from, people who would definitely agree to take the power boost. They don’t have to start with children or people who don’t know what they’re doing.” 

“Especially considering they don’t have to brainwash or lie to them to get them to fight,” I muttered under my breath. “They don’t have to get them when they’re too young to know any better.” That applied to both groups, really. Crossroads recruited Bystander-Kin when they were teenagers at most, and Garden tended to recruit even younger than that. They pulled in children and taught them to hunt down and kill other sapient creatures. When you thought about it for a minute, it was really fucked up. 

The three of us exchanged looks for a moment, obviously thinking about that. Finally, Miranda gave a firm nod. “Come on then, let’s get down there and see what’s up. If they’re right, if Dakota really managed to get those vines and the fruit working, we… we need to thank her.” 

“Everyone needs to thank her,” Avalon agreed. “And I feel like they already are. We might need to save Dakota from being…” She considered her words. “… overwhelmed. People can be a lot, even when they’re grateful.”  A brief pause, then, “Sometimes especially when they’re grateful.”

She knew what she was talking about, that was for sure. I knew she had been dealing with people being all over her for her own contributions toward the Seosten permission-possession spell. Obviously, she was glad that people weren’t trying to kill her anymore–okay there were still plenty of people who wanted to kill her, but not like that at least. She was glad the Seosten had no reason to actively try to kill her in order to stop a spell that had already been performed. And she knew why all those people were grateful for that spell. But having so many coming up and thanking her for something she didn’t feel like she’d actually contributed much toward as herself made Valley feel weird. She had told me that much over the course of the trip to that prison planet. She had been enjoying having some time away from the station so she could relax without feeling like she would be disappointing people who wanted to talk to her. She didn’t blame them for being happy and wanting to talk about the whole situation, but it was still a lot. 

Miranda and I nodded to one another before I spoke up. “You’re right, she might need a break right now. How about, after we check on the whole vine situation, we find out if she wants to take off for a bit? I was texting with Marina earlier and she said something about us coming to see Wonderland’s newest set-up.” 

The other two agreed with that, and we went through the door to the portal room. The man there knew us by name, and immediately asked if we were going because we’d heard the news. So it had gotten all the way up here already. That made sense, but also made me even more certain that Dakota would probably need a break from people. 

We exchanged a few words with the man, an elderly Yedveleran who had white-gray skin, was only about five feet tall, and had six arms as well as eyes that were attached to the end of antennae-like stalks atop his head rather than on the front of his head. His English name was Llars, which was about as close as we could get to pronouncing his actual name. Eventually, after a brief discussion about the whole situation, he sent a message to his counterpart down in the rebel Garden area. Once he got the go-ahead, Llars opened the portal and gestured for us to go ahead. “Make sure you let the kid know she did good, you hear?” 

We promised we would, before stepping through the portal. It carried us to the small, fenced-in field behind the main motel where the Garden had set up (though they had spread out throughout this entire neighborhood, taking up in a few different motels and apartment buildings). Llars’s counterpart on this side of the portal, an actual Garden Heretic woman named Iskolar, was right there to greet us. She was elderly, like Llars himself, and from what I’d heard other people say, I was pretty sure the two of them were actually courting one another. Which was pretty great. I hoped the two of them would make it work.  

In any case, Iskolar was a fairly short woman herself, standing around the same height as me at five foot four inches. She had graying blonde hair that was very big and poofy, and a broad smile to go with her broadsword. Yeah, the weapon was practically bigger than she was, strapped to her back. I’d seen her wield it though, and she was incredibly deadly despite outwardly looking and acting like a goofy grandmother. Honestly, she made me think of Betty White cosplaying as a barbarian. I felt like she could offer us cookies with one hand while fending off a horde of snarling wolf-monsters with her sword in the other. It was a really fun image in my head. 

Before we left that fenced-in area, Iskolar insisted that we take a bag of chocolate candies that she wanted Dakota to have. She also made us promise that we weren’t going to overwhelm the poor girl and would help her get a break from everyone who was demanding more and more of her time. When we told her our plan to take the girl to see Wonderland, Iskolar was delighted. On the other hand, she also suggested that Dakota might like to see a movie as well, and that we should take her to ‘that new Humphrey Bogart film.’ So it was possible that she was somewhat behind the times. I supposed once you had been a Heretic for so long, it became harder to keep track of how lives went in the Bystander world. Still, it was the thought that counted.

Once we made our way out of there, it wasn’t hard to find where practically everyone else was. The beach across the street from the motel was packed full of people. Mostly Heretics, but also some Alters mixed in there. Standing on the sidewalk, the three of us could see the crowd over there, all packed in around something we couldn’t make out. But I had a guess. 

Sure enough, as we headed across the beach, the three of us could see through the crowd enough to catch a glimpse of the long, thick vine leading out into the ocean. They were all gathered around that single vine, though it looked like most of the people were being kept several feet back by the Rebel Victors, who were examining several golden apple-like fruits attached to the vine. The excitement in the crowd was palpable, even as they intently watched what the Victors were doing.  

No, not just Victors, I realized. Seller was there too, as was a slender woman with dyed green hair and a leather jacket who was holding what looked like a stethoscope up to one of the golden fruits. It was like she was listening to them, while Seller himself was examining a different one with a jeweler’s magnifying glass. Obviously, Seller was there because of his expertise in biological manipulation, which told me that the other woman was probably along the same lines. I didn’t recognize her, but that hardly meant anything. 

“You know that woman?” I asked the other two quietly, while scanning the area for Dakota herself. Finally, I spotted her standing a bit behind Jack Childs, the cowboy Victor. Which reminded me that we needed to talk to him and Fu Hao about that whole ‘the prison camp was actually run by Zoya Dalal and possibly my ancestor Remember Bennett’ thing. 

Miranda and Avalon both nodded, the latter replying, “Her name’s Nostrum. I don’t know the name of what she was a natural Heretic of, but it gives her the power to make real medicine out of random ingredients. Medicine that actually does what she wants it to, as long as you take it soon enough. But if anyone else put the exact same ingredients together in the exact same way, it wouldn’t work. It needs her power to actually function properly.” 

“She was almost burned at the stake for being a snake oil salesman back in the old west,” Miranda added. “She didn’t understand that leaving her medicine for too long would make it not work. Jack Childs saved her from that, and brought her into Garden. She’s really good with this sort of thing now.” 

By that point, Childs himself had caught sight of us. He said a word to someone next to him, and that man (a tall, pale figure with an old faded Levi jacket and long dark beard), straightened up before walking our way. The large crowd parted for him, as he made his way through I thought he was right in front of us. Extending a hand, he announced, “Name’s Beetle. You three should come this way, Victor Childs would like to have a chat.” He spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that made it clear the matter wasn’t up for discussion. Which was fine, considering we wanted to go over there anyway. But I still didn’t really like the feeling that I was being summoned like a servant. It irked me, though I told myself I was overreacting and pushed it aside. The guy was just a little blunt and accustomed to being quickly obeyed, given he obviously worked as some sort of assistant for the Victors.  

So, I pushed aside my initial reaction and the three of us followed him back through the crowd. Childs thanked Beetle before sending him off on some other errand. Then he focused on us. “Guess you heard the news already.” 

Looking over my shoulder at the assortment of people all eagerly waiting for the announcement of whether this was real or not, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, we heard. That’s why we’re here.”  That said, I leaned over to look at Dakota, who was standing there with her arms folded around herself, looking pretty overwhelmed. “Hey, how’s it going? You busy?” 

Visibly blushing, the younger girl looked up and met my gaze. I saw the faintest smile cross her face as she offered a shrug. “Oh, um, you know. Just doing this and that. Nothing big.” Her voice squeaked a little as she made the joke, but the important part was that she made it. She really was getting better than she had been months earlier. Being out of that hospital, and far away from Kwur’s influence, seemed to be doing wonders for her. 

Before any of us could say anything else, Seller exchanged a whispered conversation with Nostrum that was obviously magically protected. Then he turned and stepped closer, waving a hand. As he did so, some sort of small, flying insect emerged from his sleeve and spread what looked like dust through the air. Only then did he speak. “Now none of the lookie-loos can hear us, or read our lips.” He focused on me, adding, “Long time no see, kid.” His gaze took in Miranda and Avalon as well, as he added, “Kids. Wow, all three of you, huh?” 

“What’s the diagnosis?” That was one of the other Victors, a man who looked like he was in his early forties with a wide, round face that held a perpetually surprised expression, and short dark hair. Lamorak, one of Arthur’s old knights. “Is this real?” As he asked that, Lamorak glanced toward Dakota, adding, “I still think we should have done our tests first before everyone else heard about it. If this is a false positive, people are going to be upset about getting their hopes up. And it’s not us who will have to deal with the worst of it.” 

Flinching a little, Dakota straightened up, glancing at me before turning back that way. Her voice caught slightly, but she pressed on. “I–it’s real. I promise.” 

“She’s right,” Seller confirmed, offering a faint smile of his own. “Don’t get me wrong,” he informed Lamorak, “you are too. This whole thing would have been easier if we didn’t have the crowd.” 

“They are eager to know that our people can continue on,” Fu Fao noted as she stepped closer, the elderly Asian woman glancing straight at Avalon briefly before she continued. “While I agree that tests should have been completed, it was very difficult to keep the situation secret when we brought Seller and Nostrum in to do those tests. Word travels quickly. Particularly when we are so very thorough.” 

Seller shrugged. “Well, in any case, it’s like I said. The kid’s right. The vine’s doing what it’s supposed to do. The fruit we see now, that’s about all you’re gonna get for the year, but it should bloom normally next time.” 

“How many is that?” Childs asked. “What’s the crop this time around?” 

“Twenty-four,” came the answer from Nostrum, as the woman joined us. “That’s twenty-four people we can turn into Bosch Heretics, which means–” 

“Six,” Seller interrupted, sounding curious and thoughtful. “Six fruits per tribe. Four rebelled. Well, three and a half. But Aniyah and her half of the Reapers won’t see it that way.” 

“You’re right.” That, of course, was Aniyah Keita herself. The red-haired (with one spot of black in the front) Victor stepped up beside Lamorak, the man she was apparently very involved with. “Even if only half our tribe came with, we have every right to our six fruits to make our choices.” 

By that point, the final three Victors had joined the group. There was Fu Hao’s partner, the small, thin (though with arms that were tightly corded with muscle) man with dyed blue hair known as Carseus, as well as the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra (Cleo) Selene. It was the woman who spoke up. “Having six new recruits to our tribes will be very welcome.” Her dark eyes found Dakota, and the beautiful woman offered the girl a tender smile, that of a regal-yet-understanding queen. “Thank you so much for your work. We could not have done any of this without you. We would still have nothing for the future of our people.” 

Blushing so much I was afraid she might actually catch fire, Dakota stammered, “I–it’s no big deal. I mean–it is, I’m glad I could help. I just–umm–” She was scrambling a bit. 

“She’s just happy it worked,” I quickly spoke up for her, stepping that way to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Maybe it’s just six per tribe this time, but next year it’ll have more.” Behind me, Miranda and Avalon stepped over as well, all three of us standing with Dakota. 

Fu Hao cleared her throat. “Miss Chambers is correct. Though it will be five per, not six. The remaining four fruit will be put away for an emergency, just as we kept a few back before.” Her gaze found me and then Avalon in quick succession, and I knew what she was thinking about. The only reason both Avalon and Abigail had survived their own near-death situations while they were Bystanders had been because Garden had a few of those fruits stored away for such occasions. Granted, four weren’t very many, but still. I understood why she wanted to keep a few hidden away.

For a brief moment, I was afraid there might have been an argument. The Victors all exchanged long looks, before Carseus spoke up. “Ahem, I suppose that’s a good point. We do want to stick a few in a vault for a rainy day. We’ve all seen how important that can be. I suppose that means all of us need to agree together on what happens with each of those four?” 

That prompted a round of nods. They had settled that much at least. All seven Victors would vote on any use of the extra fruit, while being given five each to be used by their own tribes. I wasn’t sure how the five would be split amongst the three tribes who each had two Victors (maybe each of them would pick two and decide together for the fifth), but that wasn’t my business. 

Something else was though. Giving a quick glance toward Dakota, I spoke up. “Hey uhh, before you make the official announcement that the fruit is good and the vines are healthy, do you think you could let Dakota here slip away for awhile? That is, if she wants to.” I looked to the girl in question once more. “Sorry, do you wanna get out of here for awhile or stick around for your big–” 

“I want to get out of here,” she immediately piped up, before flushing a bit guiltily in the direction of the Victors. “I mean, sorry. I’m really glad I could help, and happy that you guys will have the fruit you need, and all that. But your people are kind of overwhelming already, and I–” 

“There is no need to apologize,” Alexander Helios, who looked as much like an old, noble emperor as his twin sister looked like a queen, announced. His dark hair was worn long, falling just past his shoulders as it gently swayed in the ocean breeze. “You have done everything we asked of you, and more than we could have truly hoped. Thank you, Dakota Coalbright. While I hope that you return for the feast in your honor later, it may be for the best for your own sense of peace if you take this portal.” He created the portal in question at that very moment, raising one hand to do so. “And I hope your friends here will escort you?” His eyes glanced back to the three of us behind her. 

That was a big deal. I knew that immediately. This girl had just fixed their special vines and given them back the ability to create new Heretics. She was indescribably important to them, and he was trusting Avalon, Miranda, and me to keep her safe. That meant a lot. 

I still wanted to talk to Fu Hao and Childs about the prison thing, but now was not the right time. They were really busy. Besides, Dakota needed to get out of here for her own sanity. So, I simply told them that we needed to talk later, then went with the others through that portal. It carried us to a spot further down the beach, out of sight from where the crowd was all gathered. A moment after we appeared and the portal had closed, we all heard a loud cheer erupt from that direction.  

“I think they told them the apples are working,” Miranda noted dryly, before glancing at Dakota with a smile. “See, you did pretty amazing stuff back there.” 

Dakota was blushing again, shaking her head. “It wasn’t just me. The others helped too. And… and those monsters are still trying to get at the fruit. They’ll be trying even harder now that the vines work.” 

“The Victors will deal with that,” I reminded her. “It’s not your job. You did your part. Now just let them handle the rest, right?” 

She hesitated slightly before giving a short nod, her voice quiet. “Right.” 

“Great.” Giving the younger girl a quick, reassuring smile, I added, “Now, Marina over at Wonderland was talking about us paying a visit, and I thought you might like to come with. What do you think? You’ve heard of that place, right?” 

Her response was a hesitant, “Umm… Yeah, I’ve heard of it. If… if you think it’s okay, then sure. Err, can we invite Denny? We’ve been talking a lot and I think… I think she needs a break too.”

“You’re probably right,” I agreed. “Yeah, let’s get Denny down here so we can all check out the new Wonderland together.

“Something tells me we should take this chance while we’ve got it.” 

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By Blood 17-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Christmas morning was, to say the least, a bit of a blur. It seemed weird to immediately think of it in the sense of a montage, and yet that was what it felt like even while it was happening. I had my grandparents back, and that was a whole thing. I spent hours just sitting on the couch with my parents in their apartment on the station, listening to Grandmaria and Grandpartie tell stories about what they had been through since they were transported to the Seosten homeworld. My grandfather, of course, compared everything to various adventures in Star Trek. That was a whole thing, especially since my father’s favorite captain was Picard and Popser’s was Sisko. My grandmother and mom, meanwhile, liked Kirk the best. All of which begat an entire conversation about various episodes and what-if situations. And apparently whenever Uncle Al showed up (he was giving our immediate family time to reunite), he would have his own very strong opinions to share. 

Personally, I didn’t really pay that much attention to that entire franchise, but it was still nice to just sit there and listen to them go back and forth about it. Though, to be fair, given the people involved I would have quite willingly listened to them go on about nearly anything. All that mattered was the fact that they were here now. They were all here, together on Christmas morning after we had been separated for so long. Hell, even the fact that it was Christmas was basically immaterial when you got right down to it. My grandparents had arrived. It could’ve been Arbor Day, and it would still be one of the most amazing and wonderful times of my life.

There was also the fact that through that, I found out that my grandmother had become a Puriel-Heretic. Seriously, she was bonded to him and it had stuck. She actually had his power, even if she was only a tiny fraction as powerful with it as he was at the moment. But she was learning. Baby steps, just like the way I was with my incredibly powerful Necromancy. Except even more, because it was goddamn Puriel

Which, of course, fled to a sudden moment of fear about what would have happened if the Whispers had decided to go after her instead. Whether their lack of attempt had more to do with not knowing about that, or her not being powerful enough for their purposes yet, I was just glad they had mostly left her alone. 

And she wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful grandparent I had, either. Well, she already wasn’t because of Dare, but still. She wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful paternal grandparent I had. Grandpartie had been bonded to the same sort of thing Gaia and Seller had been bonded to. He had picked up the technology control powers, like the former headmistress. Because of course he had. This was my grandfather we were talking about. He loved new technology. Given the chance to mentally control it? I was willing to bet that he had quite literally jumped at the chance. Possibly to the point of banging his head on the ceiling.

So, both of my paternal grandparents were bonded to incredibly powerful beings, and had their own absurd gifts that they were slowly learning how to harness. Which was… yeah, that was a thing. 

Not only did we sit there listening to Grandmaria and Popser tell their stories, but we also got to tell them our own. Well, mostly me. I ended up talking a lot that morning, from quite early, essentially re-telling the whole story about what had happened since I took the bus that morning a year and half earlier. A year and a half. God, it felt like so much longer. Most of a lifetime, actually. When I tried to think about what life was like before that day, through the first full sixteen years of my life, I almost couldn’t picture it. The whole thing basically felt like a story I had read somewhere, rather than what amounted to almost ninety percent of my life. 

In any case, telling the story (or many stories) about what I had been through up to this point eventually led to my grandmother insisting we make cookies and take them with us when we visited the others. She felt distraught that she hadn’t had time on Earth to actually buy presents, and assured us all that they would be doing that eventually. No amount of protests that it wasn’t necessary would dissuade her. She was going to get presents for everyone, no question about it. We would just have some sort of late/extra Christmas when the time came. 

That, of course, added to the ‘montage’ feel. I helped her bake cookies, while also taking the time to help my parents put the finishing touches on the gifts we were taking over to the others. Which was supposed to have been done the night before, but we’d been a bit occupied. 

We weren’t too far through that before Tabbris arrived. She had been spending time with her other family, and popped up to meet our grandparents for the first time in an actual peaceful, quiet situation. Or at least, that was the idea. Except as soon as she arrived and saw them in the kitchen, Tabbris immediately hid behind me with her hands on my shirt. She was clinging to me while peeking out that way, making a very uncertain noise in the back of her throat. Apparently it was one thing to meet them in the heat of the moment back on the ship with everything that had been going on, and quite another to do so right now on Christmas morning with no other distractions or anything. 

Brushing her apron off, Grandmaria took one look our way and seemed to understand. She immediately reached out, plucking one of the just-finished cookies from the tray. Her voice was chipper as she took a couple steps our way. “Now, if there’s one thing I know about my Flick, it’s that she loves my coconut chocolate chip cookies. She doesn’t share them with anyone she doesn’t really care about. She especially wouldn’t break one in half except for the most special sort of person.” 

Having said that, she extended a hand with the warm, delicious, oh-so-incredible cookie in her palm, offering it to me. In the background, I saw Popser and Dad having a quiet conversation in a corner of the kitchen while occasionally glancing our way, and Mom was pretending to be busy with the mixing bowl, all of them giving us time to get through this.

Taking the cookie, I went down to one knee and looked toward Tabbris. My hands smoothly broke the treat in half before I spoke quietly. “She’s right, you know. I don’t share my grandmother’s special coconut chocolate chip cookies with just anyone. They have to be my top most favorite people in the world. And splitting just one?” I gave a low whistle before raising my half of the cookie to take a bite. Immediately, my eyes rolled back a bit as I gave a murmur of appreciation. Then I lifted the second half and offered it to the other girl while continuing softly. “That sort of thing is only for someone I love very much.” 

There was a brief pause before Tabbris, face pink, slowly took the offered cookie half and bit into it. Immediately, she visibly shivered and gave a very quick nod. Her voice was a whisper. “I wouldn’t wanna share a whole cookie either.” Having said that, she quickly shoved the rest of the cookie in her mouth and murmured appreciatively. Then her eyes blinked open once more to focus on our grandmother, offering a tentative smile. “Um, hi… hi.”

Gesturing back and forth, I introduced them officially. “Tabbris, this is our grandmother. Grandmaria, this is Tabbris, my sister.” 

“Why, hello, Tabbris.” Grandmaria stepped over closer. She didn’t go down to one knee the way I had, instead reaching out to take the girl’s raised hand as she started to wave. “Do you know what my very favorite sorts of heroes are?” 

“Um, no?” Tabbris offered a bit uncertainly while letting the older woman take her hand (her other one was busy checking for any crumbs from that cookie). 

With a kind, gentle smile, our grandmother explained, “I have three favorites. My first favorite heroes are the very sneaky ones who do all this work to help people without getting a lot of credit for it. My second favorite are the people who help my friends and family. And my third favorite are my own family themselves. So, you know, by all that, I would say that you might just be my very most top favorite person right now. I’m not sure yet though, we need one more test, just to check.”

Eyes darting briefly to me, still kneeling beside her, and then back again, Tabbris hesitantly echoed, “One more test?”  

Still giving the same tender, welcoming and yet somehow conspiratorial smile that I recognized from so many years past, Grandmaria gently replied, “Well, yes, before I decide if someone fits the family member sort of favorite person, I have to see how good they are at hugs.” 

A giggle escaped the girl beside me, before she managed to retort with a somewhat-straight face, “I dunno, that puts a lot of pressure on a first hug.” 

With a laugh at that, our grandmother tugged her over by the hand and the two embraced. It was somewhat tentative at first on Tabbris’s part, as she was obviously still a bit nervous about the whole thing. But that quickly vanished as she felt just how intently Grandmaria was hugging her, and she ended up latching on just as tightly. 

Watching that while smiling, I straightened and glanced to my parents. They were both watching as well, and Dad gave me a thumbs up. Then he leaned over to whisper something to his own father before both of them chuckled softly. 

By the time Tabbris and Grandmaria separated, Popser was right there. He reached down, taking the little girl by both hands and squeezing them. On a ‘one, two, three, hup,’ he hoisted her off the floor and into his arms for a tight hug of his own. 

It didn’t end there either. They both passed Tabbris back and forth for several more hugs before being satisfied for the moment. Then we got back to talking while finishing the last batch of cookies as I (with help from Tabbris, Dad, and Mom) finished getting them caught up on what they had missed. Or at least as much as we could think of right then. I was sure there would be a lot more specific details we have to get into later. But they had at least the broad strokes. And it also gave me a chance to let Tabbris know about just what our grandparents had been bonded to, so I could see if the look on her face was as great as the one on mine had probably been. So, of course, she had to hear all about that. And they both had to demonstrate, which was fun. Especially when Popser got Tabbris to ‘pull his finger’ and turned every television, radio, light, etcetera in the apartment on, including setting off a couple alarm clocks. And yes, that made Tabbris fall over giggling.   

Eventually, the cookies were ready and we packed them up along with all the presents, before heading out to go see Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt. They were waiting for us in Abigail’s apartment, and we all exchanged more hugs and greetings. Grandmaria and Grandpartie were both immediately taken with all three of the others, and stories were soon flying back and forth. Wyatt wasn’t exactly shy (awkward sure, but not shy), yet even he seemed to take to our grandparents incredibly quickly. Before long, he and Popser were sitting at a corner of the room, going over some sort of security device designs that Wyatt had scrawled on the back of a napkin. They sounded like little kids conspiring to build a tree house or something. It was pretty great, even if I was a bit nervous about what they would end up with. 

Koren, standing beside me as we watched everyone interacting and laughing like that, leaned over to whisper, “Did you ever think we’d be standing here like this back at school last year?” 

The thought made me snort at first, before shaking my head. A lump had formed in my throat. Looking at everyone, I stopped to think about how lucky I was in that moment. Sure, plenty of bad stuff had happened. And plenty of other bad stuff would happen in the future. But right then, I was celebrating Christmas with my father, mother, Grandmaria, Grandpartie, Koren, Wyatt, Abigail, and Tabbris. They all knew the truth, they were all on the same page, and we were together. What would the me from the year before even do if I had told her this was what the next Christmas would be like? I honestly had absolutely no idea. 

Of course, that led to the question of what next Christmas would be like, but I wasn’t going to focus on that right now. This was a day that I wanted to savor every last minute of. 

Finally, I found my voice. “Nope. I think I can safely say that I never expected to be in a situation like this.” Then I glanced toward the other girl and added, “Especially not when we first met.” 

Koren, in turn, snorted while giving a vigorous nod. “Especially not when we met.” After a brief grimace, she offered a small shrug. “I guess that just goes to show how much things can change, huh?” She glanced over toward Wyatt before adding, “Really, really change.” 

“Here,” I raised my hand with a treat in it. “Try one of Grandmaria’s cookies. Believe me, you wanna talk about change you’ll look back on? 

“After this, everything in your life will be ‘before cookie’ and ‘after cookie.’”

*******

So, that was how Christmas went. Well, that was how Christmas with the family went. We exchanged presents and all that. Uncle Al did eventually show up, which started a whole other round of stories, especially when who he really was got pointed out. And yes, they all made me change into my werelion form to pose with him. It wasn’t exactly the same as a real Nemean Lion (I was entirely too tiny), but the others got a kick out of it anyway. 

All in all, it was fun. And I also spent time with others, besides family. It was an entire day of that stuff. Not to mention the fact that everyone else was still deep in partying mode after that whole protection spell thing. Which they had gotten Puriel and everyone else linked into, so hopefully they would be safe from Whisper counterattacks. And beyond that, they were apparently working on security updates on the station to keep them out or monitor for them. I’d tried to get more information, but Abigail basically gave me a hard stare and told me to enjoy Christmas. I sort of heard an unspoken ‘or else’ behind her words, so I left it alone for the moment. Abigail could be pretty scary in her own right when she wanted to be. 

Late that night, after almost everyone else had already gone to bed, I was sitting in the park part of our housing area, watching a few people on the forcefield elevators as they came down. I had both of the rings that I had inherited from that Seosten ghost hovering close to the ground in front of me, as Jaq and Gus played by hopping back and forth through them from both sides so they could be faster or slower. They were clearly amusing themselves quite a bit, and I couldn’t help but smile every time I glanced that way. 

“Well, it’s nice to see they’re having fun.” Asenath, seated beside me, noted. “Who gave them the Christmas hats?” 

Yeah, both cyberform mice were wearing little red Santa hats that had been attached to their equally-little heads. There were even tiny bells on the end that jingled softly whenever they did their hops back and forth. 

“Shiori,” I informed the other girl, as a fond smile found its way to my face at the thought. “I told them they didn’t have to wear the hats past the party, but you should have seen the look they gave me. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to get that girl to make a whole bunch of little hats for them to wear. Otherwise I’ll never get those ones off them.” 

With a very low chuckle, Senny took a small piece of metal about the size of the top of a soda can from her pocket and tossed it down for the pair to immediately start munching on from either side. “Well, I can’t exactly blame them. They are very stylish.” 

“That’s for sure,” I agreed, before looking toward her. “It must be weird for you. I mean, you grew up before the whole Santa myth was even–” 

“Myth?” She glanced to me and raised an eyebrow. “After all this time, you really find the story of Santa completely impossible to believe?” 

Her words made me squint at the girl. “You are not about to tell me that Santa Claus is real. I’m sorry, but if you say those words, I’m just going to get up and walk away.” 

She, in turn, gave a low laugh. “Okay, the answer is no, he’s not real. And yet he is. Sort of.” To my confused look, Senny waved a hand. “It’s the elves that are real. Or rather, the LVS.” When I didn’t get it, she spelled it out. “The L-V-S.” 

From there, she told me the story about the tiny creatures who had arrived on Earth with no memory of their past, and their only clues being a badly damaged ship with the letters L V S visible. Letters the collective amnesiac creatures had taken as their name. LVS or ‘elves.’ Apparently they had been helped a lot by the actual Saint Nicholas way back in the days that he had actually lived. Once he died, they spread his legend and basically helped create and push the whole Santa Claus thing. And they tried to give gifts as much as they could. Clearly, they couldn’t do the whole world or anything like that, but they did do what was possible. And any parents that happened to see brand new gifts under the tree with no explanation, well, that was covered by the Bystander Effect. If they even got that far. According to Asenath, a lot of people just assumed either the other parent or some relative left the gift. They ignored it. 

Hearing all that kind of made me want to meet these LVS, but apparently they were pretty notoriously secretive. Asenath herself had only met them one time, a few decades back. Still, I’d met enough important people in the past year and a half that I wasn’t going to rule out the possibility. 

Before I could say anything else about that, the phone in my pocket buzzed. I plucked it out and took a look before blinking. “Uh, maybe it’s a good thing you’re here,” I murmured. “It’s Jack Childs.” The Eden’s Garden Victor was calling me, and I could only think of one reason for that. 

“Hello?” I answered, hitting the speaker button. “It’s Flick, and Asenath is here too.” 

“Ah, good to hear,” came the response. “Heard a lot about you, Asenath. Good things, for the most part. And plenty of bad from the right sort of people.” 

“I do enjoy hearing that the right people have bad things to say about me,” Senny noted. 

We both heard the man chuckle. “Ain’t that the truth. Anyway, a happy Christmas to you both. But I think you know why I’m calling.” 

“You have a lead on Kyril Shamon’s secret prison,” I immediately replied. “I mean, where he might be keeping… Tiras.” As I said that, my eyes darted toward Asenath. She had gone a bit still, staring intently down at the phone. 

There was a very brief pause (which seemed to be a lot longer than it actually was) before Childs confirmed. “That’s right, we’ve got a lead on it. But even better, we have a lead on a transport that’s taking place. If you can take a group, subtly intercept that transport, and show up there, you’ll be able to get your entire group inside before they know anything’s wrong and when it all goes down, Shamon will think the Rebellion simply chased it down that way.” 

“So whatever resources you used to find out where it is won’t be burned,” I murmured thoughtfully. A part of me wanted to note that they also wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty, but I knew better than that. This was about more than Senny’s dad. As important as he was to her, and to Shiori and me by extension, there was a whole war for the world and beyond to deal with. The rebel Victors couldn’t blow every resource they had to help save one guy. Or even a full prison camp. 

“Yes,” came the response. “The transport isn’t for a couple weeks, but if you’re interested, you should start putting together a group to deal with it. Be ready to get into the camp, find the prisoners, and get out before Shamon finds out and sends reinforcements.” 

“Oh, we’re definitely interested,” I replied, smiling dangerously toward Senny. 

“Just give us the details. We’ll take care of the rest.” 

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Reception 13-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It turned out the Victors did like the pizza. Well, Childs liked it. Fu Hao loved it. Seriously, between all the different kinds the woman tried, she put away the equivalent of two full pizzas all by herself. Even if she did insist on carefully eating all of it with a knife and fork. In a day that was already jam-packed with incredibly surreal things, watching that Asian woman (who looked like she was in her early twenties despite being astronomically older than that) carefully and daintily eat slice after slice after slice of pizza with a pair of gleaming silver utensils was still pretty extraordinary.

The pair of them also asked Persephone a lot of questions throughout the meal. They seemed fascinated by what she was. From context, I knew they had killed Revenants before, but they obviously never actually sat down and talked to one. They seemed surprised that she was capable of holding an intelligent (if somewhat weird) conversation, and kept asking her questions about how Revenants were born or created, what sort of society they had, and more. The answers basically amounted to Persephone having no idea. She cheerfully explained that she had no memory of any others like her. She had always been instinctively aware that they existed, but had no idea about any family structure or society. Her earliest memory was in passing through a sort of alien cemetery searching for a body that ‘smelled right.’ 

Of course, there was no telling yet if her experience was universal, or if she was the equivalent of an orphan left at the side of a road or something. Both Fu Hao and Childs insisted that, while they were on the side of believing that not all Alters were inherently evil, neither they nor anyone they knew of had ever had any encounter with a Revenant that amounted to anything more than psychotic murderous violence. And when my mouth opened, they immediately reiterated that the violence was often started by the Revenant. Heretics were called to the scenes of massacres that the Revenants perpetrated to create a cache of bodies for themselves. As to the question of what they needed a large supply of meatsuits for, the answer always seemed to be ‘so they can keep killing more people.’ It all seemed a bit… circular. They needed to kill people to get more bodies to inhabit, and they needed more bodies to inhabit so they could kill more people. 

Pushing my empty plate away, I squinted. “You mean you’ve never found out what they want? They just kill someone, take over the body, run it down killing more people, take more bodies, and do that until someone stops them? Why? What’s the point? Do they get anything out of it?” 

Childs pointedly replied, “As it happens, you seem to be in a better position to get an answer to that than we’ve ever been. Like we said, never met a Revenant who bothered chatting.” 

Carefully cutting herself another bite of bacon, chicken, and onion pizza, Fu Hao added, “Indeed, I am not certain that you truly comprehend the magnitude of the opportunity for learning and study that has, ahem, fallen out of the sky for you. I hope it is not wasted. But then, if all I have heard of you is true, then I cannot imagine that it would be.”

Naturally, before I could respond to that, Persephone herself happily piped up with, “Oh yes, my wife is quite wonderful, and intelligent, and beautiful. She is–” 

“Okay, okay, that’s enough.” My face was red as I shifted to squint at the white-haired woman. “Just, uhh, well, do you have any idea why the rest of your people are so crazy murderous? And do you know why you’re not? Wait, did you used to be that way before you got that body right there that doesn’t run out? Does it have something to do with searching for the perfect body or something like that? Or did something about the body being a Tartarus-enhanced Seosten like… change you? Except, wait, you said you were drawn to them because you sensed Manakel’s power and you possessed Kore because you thought making her body move again would make him happy. So, you were like, actively trying to please him before you ever possessed her, right? What, uhh, what’s the deal there?” Belatedly, I added, “Sorry, do you mind me asking stuff like that? I mean, I don’t know how, uhh, private or whatever it might be.”  

“Oh, I’d just love to answer all the questions you have!” After that bright, cheerful assurance, Persephone’s head tilted sideways. Seriously, her cheek was touching her shoulder. It was like those overly exaggerated body expression things in anime or whatever. “But I dunno that much. It’s like I said, I don’t know anything about other Revenants, and I’ve never talked to any. I just woke up by myself in the graveyard looking for a body so I could stretch. I never really felt like killing a lot of things though, even when I was in other bodies. I liked to run around. I liked to jump, jumping’s really fun! Oh, and swimming. It took me a long time to figure out swimming. Especially when people kept interrupting me with the screaming and the fire. I had to find quiet places to practice, but it’s hard to find dead bodies that aren’t near places with a lot of people that get mad when you borrow them. Oh, maybe you could ask one of the creators.” 

I had been blankly nodding through all of that while struggling not to focus on the adorable and horrifying (adorifying was the word, right?) imagery of a young Persephone possessing various corpses and trying to learn how to swim before angry villagers attacked her. Which meant that it took a moment for the last thing she’d said to really hit me. With a quick glance toward the Victors, whose intense gazes made it clear that they too had picked up on it, I hesitantly asked, “Uhh, what exactly do you mean, ‘ask one of the creators?’” 

Her response was as simple as it was confusing. “Oh, you know, ask one of the beings who created me.” 

Childs apparently couldn’t contain himself, and immediately pointed out, “You said you didn’t know who your parents were, or even how your people reproduce. And you also said that you don’t know anything about your society, so how would you know about any religious belief?” 

With a giggle, Persephone replied, “I don’t know anything about my people. But I know who made me. I don’t know why, or how, or what makes the rest of my people do the things they do, or why I don’t, or anything like that. But I know who created us. Revenants us, not you and me us. I mean, I don’t think they created humans. I just… know. I’ve always known, right here.” Her hand indicated her stomach. “Deep inside. I know where I come from. Nothing else, just who our creators were.” 

After letting that run through my head for a moment, I took a breath and nodded. “Maybe some kind of genetic memory or something? Anyway, I’ll bite. Who created the Revenants? Anyone we know about? And I swear to everything that calls itself a god, if you say the Fomorians…” 

Looking positively delighted that she could answer one of my questions, the woman promptly replied, “Nope, not Fomorians! But you do know them. In fact, you’re already connected to them!” She spread her arms wide while brightly announcing, “You call them Reapers!” 

Yeah, it was a good thing I had finished eating already, or I probably would have choked on pizza. My eyes widened as I stared at her in confusion. “Wait, what? You mean Reapers created Revenants? But–” Glancing toward the Victors, I managed a stammered, “I sort of got the impression from talking to others over the summer that Reapers don’t exactly like necromancy, or anything connected to it. I mean, I know it’s not the same when you take over a body, but I didn’t know if they’d see it that way, or–I mean…” Realizing my rambling wasn’t getting anywhere, I gave a quick headshake. “You’re serious?” 

“No, silly,” she immediately shot back, “I’m Persephone, we already met!” With that, she doubled over laughing at her own joke before giving a rapid nod. “But yes! Those are the creators. They made us a long, long, long time ago. I dunno what they wanted us for, or why they don’t have anything to do with us anymore, or… anything else. Just that the Reapers created us. So uhh, whatever the rest of my people are doing is probably because they were told to.” 

Following that, my eyes caught movement as the two Victors both slumped back in their seats. Childs was staring not at Persephone, but me. “Well, I’ll be damned. You truly do find yourself tripping over the answers to a staggering number of old questions, Miss Chambers.” 

“Yeah,” I muttered, “and as always, those answers lead to more questions. Not to mention danger, violence, usually explosions and fire, and plenty of screaming.” 

Fu Hao was speaking thoughtfully, mostly to herself. “If it is true that the Revenants were created by the Reapers so long ago, it was likely their more… violence-oriented selves. Though long before any of our times, the Reapers were once all far closer to their so-called Hangmen versions than what we know now. They were a true scourge upon the universe, and committed truly heinous and abominable acts. It is quite possible that they created the Revenants as foot soldiers, and that the way they behave now is a result of following their creation-level instructions. They are, in short, doing what they were created to do in the first place.” 

“But the Reapers aren’t like that now,” I pointed out. “I mean, most of them aren’t. Unless they–never mind. The point is, why haven’t the umm, not-omnicidal Reapers hit the off switch or whatever? Why haven’t they stopped them, if the Revenants are their weapon?”  

“That’s a good question,” Childs agreed. “A few thoughts come to mind, but most of ‘em aren’t very good. I think the bigger point here is… what makes this one different?” Picking up the bottle of whiskey he had pulled from somewhere, the man used it to indicate the nearby Revenant. “She’s ahh, not like any of the others we’ve ever seen.”  

As though to prove that point, Persephone was currently leaning back on the table she had been sitting on, to the point of almost laying down entirely. She had two very different pizza slices, one in each hand, and was holding them above her face so that the slowly dripping cheese made it to her open mouth. Every couple of seconds, she would make a loud, exaggerated chomping sound as she took a bite from one of the slices. Then what sounded like a happy purr would emerge before she took a bite of the opposite slice and repeated it. 

“Uh, Persephone?” I somewhat awkwardly managed after watching that for a moment. “I know you said you don’t know why you’re different from the rest of your kind. You’ve never really interacted with them. But, it also took you a minute to bring up the whole Reaper connection. And I get that, it’s because you assumed we knew already, or whatever. But can you… umm, can you think of anything else that might be related to why you’re different? Even if you assumed it was something we already knew. If we haven’t outright, expressly talked about it right here, I mean. Anything at all, no matter how obvious it seems to you.” 

From the corner of my eye while the Revenant considered that, I noticed Fu Hao giving a slight, approving nod. Apparently I’d asked the right question. 

Meanwhile, Persephone tilted her head from one side to the other before sitting up straight. She shoved what remained of the pizza slice crusts into her mouth and chewed vigorously, swallowing it all before finally announcing, “Well, you know the one who created me. I can smell him on you. On all of you.” Her gaze moved to look at the two Victors. “You’re all connected to him. Could you tell me what he’s like? I always wondered, and I thought I’d be able to ask him when dearest beloved Mannikens asked all those questions before about finding him. But then I never got to talk to him, even though I helped find him before. My sweetest cupcake said it was too dangerous.” She sighed, not in annoyance but almost dreamily. “Isn’t it sweet, how much he cared about what happened to me? Even worried I’d get hurt if I met my creator.” 

Okay, that was a lot to process. Which was obviously the motto of this day. Before I could actually respond to that, Childs grunted. “The Reaper connected to the… huh. Well, I’d say that explains a lot, but not really. ‘Cept for how they targeted the thing in the first place, I suppose.” 

“Him,” I immediately corrected, thinking of how Aylen and Bastet would react to that. And my mother, come to think of it. “Not ‘the thing,’ him. But yeah, I guess they used her connection to find him and…” Trailing off, I grimaced. Boy was all that complicated. It was obvious that Persephone hadn’t intended to help lock up her creator and have him put in the position he’d been in for centuries. Manakel had used her. He’d–yeah. And I wasn’t sure how much of that I should point out, or how soon. She still called him her beloved, even if it was all connected to his power, which I now had so she wasn’t mad at me for killing him, yet she still referred to– ugh. Complicated. The whole thing was really complicated, and I couldn’t focus on that now. 

Of course, Persephone simply asked, “Is anything wrong, sweetest frosting on the cake of my new life?” 

Feeling my cheeks burn with embarrassment, I shook my head. “I’m not–I mean that’s–never mind. Just… yeah, I’ll talk to my mom about… your creator. She might have some thoughts.” 

The silence after that stretched on for a moment before Fu Hao cleared her throat. “Well, you’ve certainly given us plenty to think about. And a pleasant meal in the process. This pizza was very… delightful, Miss Chambers. And to you, Miss… Persephone, I would simply like to say thank you for the information you’ve volunteered. As has been well-established now, you are very different than the rest of your kind, and I believe we would all be delighted to hear more from you at some point.” She glanced toward me before adding, “Once everything has had a chance to settle in, of course. But, for the moment, I believe we should take the time to process all of this.” 

Childs nodded once. “And like we said, we’ll look into our old colleague, see if we can figure out where he might be keeping this Tiras guy. That’s gonna take a while. You know, if we don’t want Shamon to hear about it. Gotta be subtle and careful, so he doesn’t just move the guy.” 

“Yes,” Fu Hao agreed. “But we will do what we can, you have our word on that. Let this Asenath know that we will pay her back for everything she has done and risked to bring us to this point. It may take a few weeks to get any real results, but we will not forget. In the meantime, perhaps use this opportunity to do what it seems you have not managed in quite some time. Relax. Enjoy time with your family and your friends.” Pausing then, she looked toward Persephone before adding, “Both old and new. Embrace these breaks when they come, Miss Chambers.” 

After that, the two absurdly powerful and old Heretics excused themselves, wishing me luck while giving meaningful glances toward my new… companion. Rather than simply walking out of the room, they both literally vanished from where they were sitting. One second they were sitting at the table, and in the next, there was no sign of them. 

Which, of course, left me sitting there with Persephone. She was looking at me curiously, already slipping down off the table before popping up onto her tiptoes. “Did I do good?” 

“You, umm…” I nodded, rising to my feet. “Thanks, Persephone. I know this is all probably pretty different and new for you too. And that the way we react to things is just as confusing to you as you can be to us. I get that you’re trying, and that you think about things differently than we do. So thanks for that. And for being patient about all this.” Pausing, I added with a cough, “Oh, and thanks for not being a murderous revenge-obsessed monster trying to kill me.” 

“You’re welcome!” the Revenant chirped happily. “I’m glad I’m not a murder-monster too. But I wish I could tell you more about why. Like I said, I’ve just always been this w–oooh.” She practically dove over to the other table, having spotted one last slice of pizza with garlic, sausage, and green peppers lying in a corner of the otherwise empty box.

Watching her devour that, I half-smiled before blinking as something she had already said tickled my brain. Considering for a moment while gazing off into the distance, I finally looked back to her. “Hey, actually, I do have a question. The umm, the Seosten you took over was named Kore. And you said you never interacted with your own people. Plus, I doubt all the people who thought you were a monster took the time to name you. So where did ‘Persephone’ come from? Was that just what the Seosten decided to call you once you were on the Olympus?”

She, however, shook her head while correcting me. “Actually, it is what the people who saw me used to call me. It means ‘bringer of death.’” She said that perfectly cheerfully, before her hand snapped out to grab a piece of bacon from a nearby pizza box so she could pop it into her mouth, offering me a bright smile. “See, remember how I said that it was hard to find bodies I could use that weren’t around a lot of people? Most of the ones I found were either living all by themselves and didn’t have anyone to check on them when they died, or they were murdered by someone and the bodies were hidden. When people saw me control the bodies of the ones who were murdered, they thought I killed them. Same for the ones who didn’t have anyone to check on them to find out they were sick, or depressed, or had an accident. They didn’t know why the people died, so they thought I did it. That’s why they started calling me Persephone. Bringer of Death.” 

Once she finished explaining all that, I bit my lip and tried to think of what that was like from her point of view as well as from the point of view of all those people who had apparently seen her puppeting the corpses of people they cared about, even if she didn’t really understand what was wrong with that. Finally, I asked, “I don’t want to sound doubtful or… or anything, but you’re not actually saying you never killed people back before you were in Kore, right? I mean, I know you’re different from the rest of your people, but–”

“Oh, no.” Her head shook quickly. “I defended myself. If they tried to kill me, I fought back. Not just to wound them. I killed them, so they’d stop trying to kill me. I got really angry sometimes. But I don’t like to be angry. It makes my insides feel funny when I’m angry.” 

There was probably a lot more we could have gotten into with all that, but now wasn’t the time. Instead, I turned and started to walk. “Well, come on. We should probably get back and see what’s going on with the others. And…” Grimacing, I murmured, “And I can explain just who you are and what you’re doing here. Not to mention all this stuff about Bob. And if you’re really connected to him–err, the Reaper, I’ve got someone you should meet. It’ll probably be a whole–” 

By that point, we’d reached the exit and stepped out of the restaurant. As I did so, with Persephone happily trotting behind me, we both stopped at the sight of two figures a few yards away. They were both standing there on the curb next to the parking lot, clearly patiently waiting for us to emerge. Once we did, their gazes swept over us, lingering on Persephone before returning to me. 

“Hiya, Flick!” Shiori called, giving me a wave. 

“Yes,” Avalon agreed, “hey there, Chambers.

“So, anything new going on with you?” 

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Reception 13-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Once I briefly explained the situation, both of the Victors agreed to talk to me in private for a few minutes. Or rather, they agreed to talk to us. Yeah, Persephone wanted to come along. I felt a little awkward about that, naturally. But she had been a really good sport through the whole putting a binding spell on her thing, and I didn’t want to push it too much. Besides, I really did need to get to know her if I was going to figure out how to deal with this whole thing. And with the spell making certain that if she did betray us, there’d be immediate consequences, there really wasn’t a good reason to tell her no. After all, being allowed to spend time with me was the reason she’d agreed to have the spell put on her to begin with. I’d look pretty bad if I didn’t keep up my end of that bargain, even if it was awkward. Not to mention, I needed to get to know her as much as she wanted to know me. Not because I had any interest in this whole wife business, but because if she was going to be around, I needed to know more about her. 

So, strange as it felt, I agreed to have the woman come along. Mom looked a bit hesitant too, but didn’t object. She did, however, turn toward Sariel and Mercury as soon as the Victors started leading me to the door. I had the feeling she was about to demand a very in-depth explanation on absolutely everything they knew about my new… whatever Persephone was. 

We didn’t go too far after leaving the room. Fu Hao and Jack Childs simply led the two of us over to the restaurant attached to the motel, asking if we wanted something to eat. 

“Is there Earth Pizza?” the white-haired figure trotting along slightly behind me immediately piped up. “I have heard many wonderful things about it, and would like that to be the first meal I enjoy on this planet with my sweet darling.” 

Wincing inwardly, I turned, walking backwards as I faced the woman. “Look, it’s just Flick, okay? Flick is fine. You don’t need to call me darling, or wife, or beloved, or–yeah, any of that. The point is, we barely know each other. I’m not Manakel. You were married to Manakel, not me. I’m still figuring out who you are, and you’re definitely still figuring out who I am. So let’s just stick with names. It’ll be… less awkward, somewhat. Could you do that for me, please?” 

With a bright, cheerful smile that somehow reminded me of a puppy despite really having no similarities, Persephone eagerly nodded. “Of course, Flick! It will be very nice to get to know my…” She seemed to consider her words before ending with a simple, “My Flick.” 

Yeah, somehow even that was enough to make my face turn pink. My mouth opened to say I wasn’t exactly her Flick, but by that point we’d reached the restaurant, the doors opening to admit the four of us. 

The dining room was almost empty, save for a couple scattered groups at different tables spread out pretty far apart. They all looked up as we entered, but just as quickly turned back to their own conversations and studiously ignored us. It was clear that none of them wanted to look as though they were eavesdropping on a couple Victors, as if that was even possible. 

Fu Hao spoke as we all moved together toward the back corner of the room. “We have been attempting to expand our palette beyond what we had grown accustomed to in the Garden. I too have heard fine things about this so-called pizza. The concept intrigues me. How shall we have it brought? 

After a brief moment, I realized that all three of them were looking at me. Both Victors and the Revenant were staring, waiting for me to answer. Because, of course, I was the only one there with that kind of experience. I was standing next to this table with three indescribably powerful and incredibly old people on the planet, and none of them knew how to order a pizza. 

I’d gotten accustomed to a lot over the past year and a half, but sometimes the surrealness of this life still really struck me. Because this was really weird, wasn’t it? It felt really weird. 

Still, I pushed all of that aside and found myself nodding. “Oh, uhhh, yeah we can just order a pizza. Or a couple pizzas. Pretty sure when you guys taste the first one you’ll want more. Besides, we’ve gotta get a bunch of different kinds and find out what you like, there’s so many different top–right. Uhh, hold on.” Fumbling a bit to get the new phone that my dad had provided that morning out of my pocket, I brought up a list of nearby pizza places and called the one with the best reviews. I ordered six large pies, trying to get as much variety as possible so the other three (and whoever else ate them) could find something they actually liked. 

Once they confirmed the price and said it would be about forty-five minutes, I started to thank them, then I blinked at the phone in my hand and asked the guy to wait for a second before looking to the others. “Oh, right. We need money to pay for this.” Frowning, I slowly turned to the other three. “I, uhh, don’t suppose any of you carry cash. Or have credit cards. This uhh–” 

I had been about to say that this might be a problem, but Childs reached into his old dirty jeans before producing a rather clean and new-looking Visa card. “We’ve figured out it’s a bit easier to get around down here if you’ve got one of these.” 

As my hand rose to take the card, it occurred to me just how different this was from my first experiences with people this powerful the year before. Fu Hao and Jack Childs were Victors, the Garden equivalent of the Crossroads Committee. And I could still definitely sense the power coming off them. They were both strong enough to basically snap their fingers and kill me if they really wanted to. Or even if they had the vague notion to. As strong as I had become over the time since I had become a Bosch Heretic, I was still barely a bug to them. Strength-wise, at least. 

Yet, here I was holding a credit card from one of them while having a normal conversation, just like they were ordinary people. They were still powerful and potentially terrifying, but they weren’t mythical figures atop a mountain or whatever anymore. After everything that had happened, everything that I had been through, things were different. I was different. They could still scare me, quite easily in fact. But I wasn’t going to let that make me shake in shoes in front of them. 

Of course, maybe the fact that there was a millennia-old Revenant standing beside me who wanted to call me honeybuns and sweetums or whatever contributed to that. I was so busy being confused by that whole situation, that I didn’t have time to focus on how dangerous the Victors could be. They were the relatable/understandable figures in this situation by comparison. Which was really wild if you thought about it. 

The point was, it had been a very long year-and-a-half. A year-and-a-half that had been filled with so many people who were so much stronger than me that it honestly didn’t affect me as much anymore. I was still awed by the things they could do, of course. But I wasn’t like… overwhelmed as much. I could handle it. If they meant to do anything bad, I’d… well, I’d probably get squished like a little bug. But I wasn’t going to spend all my time bowing in terrified reverence, treating them like gods. They were people. Incredibly powerful people, but still people. They made mistakes, had prejudices, often ignored common sense, everything those less powerful than they happened to be did at times. They weren’t infallible. Which, in many ways made them even scarier than they already were, to be fair. 

But I’d deal with it. These guys were on my side–okay to be fair it was more that I was on their side. Either way, they didn’t leave me shaking and staring nearly as much as they would have a year earlier. I’d been through too much, with Fossor, with the Seosten, meeting literal Olympian gods like Artemis and Athena–fighting against those like Ares, Hephaestus, and Hera, meeting the King of Canada only to find out he was the Fae King Oberon, finding out silly, goofy Harper was actually literally Guinevere and Lancelot, or even that big Uncle Al was Hercules

Yeah, that list could go on. When it came down to it, I’d been through so much that sitting here ordering pizza for two of the Eden’s Garden Victors just wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list. 

So, holding the card, I read off the name and number for the pizza guy who was waiting patiently. The name literally said Jack Childs. Which made me wonder what sort of name someone like Ikita or Childs’ partner Lamorak used on things like this, or anything where they needed to put their name. Or Benedict Arnold, who was apparently one of the Victors as well, for the Remnant Guardians tribe. Yeah, that Benedict Arnold. Ironically, he was not one of those who had joined the rebellion. Actually–wait, that wasn’t ironic. Him being a loyalist was completely in-character. 

Shaking off those strange thoughts, I disconnected and gave Childs his card back before focusing on the beautiful, white-haired woman who was simply sitting on the edge of one of the tables nearby with her gaze intently locked on me. She had been staring my way the entire time I’d been ordering the food, never blinking as far as I could see. It made me feel weird, even the way she offered a broad, cheerful smile as soon as I looked at her. Her voice was chipper. “I’m glad that my first meal on this planet after so many years will be pizza with you, Felicity! I have heard that it is a very common food for first dates!” 

Oh boy. Coughing, I managed to keep my face mostly straight while replying, “It’s a really versatile food, that’s for sure. I uhh, hope you like it.” Hey, this was weird. I was being courted–wait, did it count as being courted in this particular case? I was… umm, getting to know Manakel’s widow, who was this cheerful, happy, sorta-kinda-undead woman that–yeah. Yeah, it was weird. No wonder I was barely fazed by the whole being around two Victors thing. Who had any time to focus on how powerful those two were with this girl sitting right there saying things like that? 

Still, I pushed that out of my mind as much as I could, and focused on taking a seat at the table where Jack Childs and Fu Hao had already sat down next to each other. The two of them looked fairly amused as they glanced from me to the woman who was still staring my way. Of course, I was sure this whole situation was pretty hilarious to people who didn’t have to find a way to navigate it. Someday, I was going to be the one on the outside watching someone else deal with something this absurd, and I was going to be just as amused, damn it. 

“Uh, thanks for doing this,” I managed, my attention centered on the two incredibly powerful Heretics sitting across from me. “I just umm, I guess you guys probably know at least a little bit about Asenath by now? She’s kinda been involved in a lot of this stuff.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Persephone produce some kind of pocket computer, mouthing ‘Asenath’ to herself as she typed the name in while kicking her legs back and forth like a little kid from her perch on the next table over. Belatedly, I realized what was going on. She was taking notes, like she was preparing for a test or whatever. She was studying my life, taking notes on people I knew or talked about. Not for anything nefarious (apparently), but just because she wanted to know everything she could about… about me. The test she was studying for was just about getting to know me. Eesh, that was an odd feeling. Then again, basically everything surrounding that woman had given me an odd feeling since the moment she showed up. Before she showed up, come to think of it. That whole sensation I had gotten before, with the hair on the back of my neck standing up, it wasn’t about the monster. I didn’t have some magic Nuckelavee detection power. But I did have a pretty strong Necromancy power, and I’d obviously felt the Revenant-possessed Olympian body rapidly approaching. 

Meanwhile, as those thoughts ran through my mind, Fu Hao had shifted slightly in her seat. The deceptively young-looking Asian woman gave a slight nod, her gaze flicking between Persephone and me curiously. “Yes, we are aware of her, thanks in large part to our discussions with Miranda and Ha… Avalon. She was the one whom Gaia Sinclaire sent to obtain the piece of rope, which was used to power the spell that reminded everyone of your mother’s rebellion.”

“That’s her,” I confirmed. “She’s been a lot of help. Not just with getting people’s memories back, but with plenty of other things too. And now she’s the one who needs help.”

Childs, leaning back in the seat a little, lifted his chin while regarding me. “I know a little bit about this vampire girl. Not much, only came close to crossing her path once before. Missed her by about thirty seconds, as I recall. Had something to do with an old ranch down in Oklahoma. When I heard she was there, looking into the same situation I was, I poked around a bit to find out what I could about her. Needed to know if she was trying to hide anything out there. From what I heard, she’s pretty capable on her own. So if you’re asking for help on her behalf, either it’s about something pretty goddamn strong, or something pretty goddamn personal.” 

“Quite,” Fu Hao agreed. “And suffice to say, we do not believe that you would be asking us to provide physical strength. You have other sources for such aid. Between that and your mention of this help involving one of our ‘old colleagues,’ I would say the girl is searching for information about someone close to her. A family member or friend, whom you believe one of the Eden’s Garden Victors has… imprisoned?” 

From a few feet to the side, Persephone piped up, “Yay! I read lots of Earth books. The ones about the private detectives are Andi’s favorites. We love the parts when the smart detective people explain how they detectived things and go through the suspects. Oooh, can I be a suspect?!”

The Victors waited for me to respond to her, naturally. Glancing that way, I hesitated (briefly wondering who Andi was) before shaking my head. “It’s not exactly that kind of situation. It’s more…” I paused to consider. “It’s the part where the detective goes to the police to find out if they know anything important that could help his case.” 

Nodding sagely at that, the white-haired woman replied in a stage-whisper while glancing toward the two indescribably powerful people sitting across from me, “Which one of them is going to turn out to be the bad guy’s secret lover and which one is going to die dramatically while they’re giving you the last clue you need to figure out his identity?” 

Before I could say anything, Fu Hao spoke up, sounding completely serious. “I would like to call–I believe the word is dibs? Dibs on the latter. I have always enjoyed acting, and a grand, dramatic death scene is quite an accomplishment.” 

Leaning sideways in his seat, Childs gave a look that way. “So you just leave me to be the traitor, hm?” After a pause, he added, “And the bad guy’s lover, come to think of it.” 

Without looking at him, Fu Hao flatly replied, “Well, you do have a mustache. I’m told that qualifies you for both.” 

Mouthing a silent, ‘wow’ toward the floor, I gave myself a firm shake before pushing on. “Yes, you’re right. Err, I mean about what she’s doing. Asenath’s looking for her father. His name is Tiras and he’s an Akharu. Apparently Kyril Shamon had him as a prisoner, at least for awhile. He gave him to that Desmoterion prison place about thirty years ago for seven or eight years, then came and took him back. That’s the last time those guys saw him. So we’re trying to find out if he, you know, still has him. Or even why he put him in that prison.”

From where she was sitting, Persephone cheerfully announced, “Sounds like he was hiding the prisoner. Did he only hide that one, or were there others?” When I looked that way, she added, “You know, that way you know if he was hiding one specific prisoner, or the fact that he had any of them.” 

“That…” Trailing off, I tilted my head, considering. “That’s a good point, actually. I don’t think they asked.”

“Yay!” Throwing both hands triumphantly in the air, the Revenant-woman declared, “I’m being helpful!” Her gaze met mine earnestly. “Would you like me to kill them for not asking the right questions?” She asked that in the same manner she might have asked if I wanted her to pick up milk or something. If getting milk had somehow become dangerous and violent enough to require someone as strong as an Revenant-Possessed Olympian. And I really didn’t want to know what sort of situation would lead to that. 

As it was, my head shook so fast I was almost afraid it might fall off. “No! You’re not killing Asenath for— why would you even ask that?!” 

“Well,” came the simple response, “That is the sort of thing my prior dearest beloved would have asked for someone who had failed him.” Pausing, she considered. “Not at first, but recently. In the past few hundred years.” She leaned closer then, putting a hand up beside her mouth to continue conspiratorially, “He got really grumpy for awhile, before you helped kill him.”

There was so much I wanted to say to that, but all of it was jumbled in my head. All I could manage was a choked noise in the back of my throat before holding up a hand. “Look, I don’t want you to kill anybody, okay? And whatever you do, unless I am in immediate mortal peril, don’t just assume I want you to kill someone at all. Ask first. Always ask first.” 

After she cheerfully agreed, I turned back to the two Garden rebel leaders. “So, do you know where Shamon might keep his slaves now? Or maybe you’ve seen this Tiras guy. Or do you know why he sent Tiras, and maybe others, to this private prison for a few years? I just–anything. We really need to find Asenath’s father. He’s been missing for a couple hundred years.”

Childs and Fu Hao exchanged glances before turning back to me. The latter spoke. “Roughly thirty years ago, the tribes of Eden’s Garden faced a unique threat on one of the colony worlds we had settled over fifty years earlier. Specifically, the invasion of alien beings who seemed drawn to humans and were uniquely suited to hunting us. They projected a sound that was debilitating to all but the strongest Heretics. The Victors agreed to a plan. Any combat-capable beings among the… slaves would be given the choice to fight these creatures and drive them from that world to save the colony. If they did and survived, they would be released. The agreement was made, and magically enforced, that should they do their best to defeat these creatures, they would be brought back to Earth safely and released to go free with no attempt to harm or track them until enough time had passed for them to safely disappear. If they were found later, that would be different. But they would be allowed to leave safely and given that single pass.” 

My mouth opened to ask what that had to do with Tiras, before I stopped myself. “Shamon didn’t want to give Tiras that chance. Let me guess, you guys all brought your combat-capable people together and asked them in a group? You gave them the choice together, and this Shamon guy didn’t want Tiras, and maybe others, to have the chance to say yes. So he snuck them out to this private prison. And that war of yours, I bet it lasted through the exact time that Tiras was in there.” 

“It ahhh, does seem to line up,” Childs agreed. 

I nodded slowly. “Right, so we know why he was in the mercenary prison. But not where he is now.” 

“Actually,” Childs corrected, “we might be able to get something else for you when it comes to that. Give us a little time, we’ll see if we can find out where he’s been keeping his prisoners lately. He tends to put them on secret projects, but we have… people who could poke around back at Garden.” 

“You’d really do that?” I asked. 

Fu Hao gave a single nod. “Of course. As you said, we owe this Asenath for everything she has done. Aiding in the retrieval of her father would be a pleasant change from what we have had to do in the past.” 

“What she’s saying,” Childs translated, “is that it’d be nice to be the good guys for once.

“Now is that pizza here yet? I’m ‘bout to eat my damn belt.” 

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Reception 13-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Summus Proelium were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

“You remember when we were little kids back in school?” Miranda’s voice oh-so-innocently asked as the girl herself sat beside me at a table. I was pretty sure she was smiling, but couldn’t tell for sure, considering my head was down against said-table. “And we all used to make jokes and–uh, well fantasies for some of them about which of us would get married first?” Yeah, she was definitely smiling. Or smirking. “I seriously never thought you’d be the one to take that pot. Congratulations, I’m pretty sure there’s like twelve bucks in change, a handful of hair scrunchies, two stuffed animals, three tubes of the good chapstick out of the Laramie Falls Junior High vending machine, and that sweet Lego watch waiting for you back home.” 

Raising my head from the table, catching a glimpse of Koren, Sands, and Sarah sitting on the other side collectively snickering in the process, I turned toward Miranda next to me and squinted at the innocently-smiling girl. “You think this whole thing is just super funny, huh?” 

Randi, of course, gave a quick nod, even adding a thumbs up. “It’s fucking hilarious, dude. Come on, this immortal Revenant girl comes out of nowhere and says she’s your wife because you killed her husband and inherited his Necromancy power, which is the real thing she made her wedding vows to? Exactly how many people would something like that happen to? This has ‘Flick’s Life’ written all over it. And for once, it’s not something horrific or sad. Yeah, it’s funny.” 

“She’s got a point, Flick,” Sands put in while reaching across the table to gently poke my shoulder. “Seriously, how often does something insane happen to you that’s just… weird and kind of hilarious instead of terrible and violent? I mean, yeah the way she showed up was violent, but she saved us from that Nuckelavee! That’s gotta put her in the positive column, right?”

“Yeah, that’s definitely positive,” I confirmed. “She showed up and took out the monster, fantastic. She says she’s friendly, double-fantastic. She also says she has no interest in getting revenge for the whole killing her husband thing, which is just extra bonus fantastic levels. But…” 

As I trailed off, Miranda asked, “Are you afraid she’s just playing the long game and is more into the whole revenge thing than she’s letting on? You know, stab when no one’s looking?” 

Koren spoke up. “From what Mercury and Sariel said, that doesn’t really sound much like her either. It kinda sounded like what you see is what you get with that chick. She’s really straightforward. If she was pissed at you, she’d say so. Which uhh, kinda goes with what we saw, you know? She doesn’t really seem like the tricks and subterfuge type.” 

My head started to shake, then I hesitated before continuing to shake it. “No–I mean, yeah, you’re right. From what those two said, that didn’t really sound like her MO. Besides, they’re checking all that.” Turning my head slightly, I looked away from the table on the playground next to the motel where we were sitting, gazing off to the main building itself. In one of those rooms was where the Seosten, along with several others (including my mother), were having a long, magically assisted chat with this Persephone chick. They’d insisted on doing a full rundown without me present, just to make sure everything really was on the up-and-up with her. 

Behind me as I was looking toward the building, Sarah spoke quietly. “Avalon and Shiori.” 

Turning back and settling once more, I nodded. “Yeah, them. I’m not sure how they’ll react or how she’ll react to them. I mean, she says she doesn’t mean me any harm and that she’s in love with the power I have and loyal to it and all. But does that extend to being nice to the girls I love? Or anyone else I care about? I just–how much is she actually going to listen to me or care about what I care about? What if she decides only she gets me and turns violent against them?” 

The other four exchanged looks for a moment before Koren spoke again. “Uncle Wyatt’s in there, and Grandma. If she’s a danger to anyone here, they’ll sniff it out. And uhh, I’m just gonna guess she won’t really mind, Flick. Seriously, I’m gonna be super-surprised if she’s the strict monogamous sort. I mean, she’s definitely not the ‘til death do we part’ sort.” 

Snorting despite myself while the others outright snickered, I waved that off. “Right, yeah, okay. Point. And yeah, they’ll probably find anything wrong in that whole interrogation thing. I just… this whole thing is weird. Better weird than usual, but still weird.” My foot was tapping nervously against the floor. “She’s… she made an oath or a vow or whatever to Manakel’s power, and now it’s my power so she thinks it extends to me. It’s like inheriting an old grandfather clock in a will, and then finding out some other person has an arranged marriage with that clock, so now you’re married.” 

With a cough, Miranda offered, “Can I give you a little advice, old best friend? Maybe don’t tell the immortal Revenant chick the comparison about her being married to a clock.” 

Blanching a little, I shook my head. “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything. I mean, she seems fine. She saved us, she was friendly, I just–I’m worried about where this is going. Everything Sariel and Mercury said makes her out to be super-loyal to Manakel. Or, you know, to his power. Which I guess maybe translates into being loyal to me, or something? But she also seems, I dunno, unpredictable? I guess I’m just afraid that this ‘not a problem’ is going to turn into ‘very big problem’ as soon as she finds out I’m already romantically involved. Yeah, you’re right about the whole multiple loves thing being pretty accepted and all, I just… I’m really confused. And maybe just a little pessimistic that this totally random thing won’t find some way to turn out to be terrifying after all. Especially if I stop worrying about it.”

Miranda put her hand on my back, squeezing it. “Don’t worry, we get it. Everyone here knows why you might be… uhh, pretty hesitant to believe this isn’t some huge problem, believe me.”  

Sands nodded. “Yeah, totally. But I’m pretty sure this is more like Tristan showing up out of nowhere while you were on that jungle hike with Deveron, Wyatt, and Koren, you know?” 

“And hey,” Koren quickly put in, “He fell out of the sky too, remember? So it’s totally like that.” 

A very slight smirk found its way to my face as I looked around at all four of them. “You guys are pretty good at the whole encouragement thing. Thanks, I–I guess I really needed that.” Letting out a breath then, I straightened and gave a firm nod. “Kay, I’ll try to believe that this whole thing isn’t about to blow up in all of our faces, but I reserve the right to scream I told you so if it does.” 

“Thankfully,” Miranda pointed out, “I’m pretty sure if it does turn into a problem, we’ll all be too busy to listen.” Coughing, she added a flat, “Anyway, are you sure you’re not just hoping it turns into a problem so you don’t have to tell Avalon and Shiori that you’re freaking married?” 

Face flushing deeply, I gave a quick shake of my head while the others snickered. “Oh come on, I am not married. If anything, my Necromancy power’s married. Hell, only half of that’s married, just the part I got from Manakel. Half of one power I have is married. So like, that barely even counts as anything, right?” Saying that, I found myself looking around at a group of pretty dubious-looking friends, before muttering under my breath, “Well, it makes sense to me.” 

“That’s good!” Koren teased, “get your excuses and explanations ready before Avalon finds out.” 

That prompted another round of snickers while I extended my leg to kick her under the table, my face still pink. “Yeah yeah, laugh it up. Believe me, someday you’re gonna be in a situation like this, and I will totally take advantage.” Without missing a beat, I added over my shoulder toward the person my item-sense power had just detected, “And you’re not allowed to protect her from my eventual cunning revenge, Wyatt.”  

Stepping closer, my (much) older brother sniffed while stopping at the end of the table. “You’re very capable,” he informed me primly, “but you can’t stop me from protecting my family.” 

Squinting that way, I pointed out, “I’m your family too, you know. You could’ve been here protecting me from all this awful teasing and mockery.” 

There was a very brief pause as the gangly-looking man seemed unsure of how to respond to that. It was a little awkward, as if he knew he wanted to say something teasing back, but wasn’t quite to the point of knowing exactly how to do so. Wyatt had gotten a lot better over the past year with all this family and friend interaction, but there were still times he just lost it a bit. 

However, that only lasted for those momentary seconds before Koren whispered something into her hand, then made a flicking motion toward Wyatt. I heard nothing, but the way the man reacted made it clear that she had somehow… thrown the whisper to him? New power, obviously. 

Sure enough, Wyatt gave a very short nod toward Koren before focusing on me once more. His voice was calm as he spoke the retort she’d given him. “Tough diddies.” 

“That’s not wh–oh never mind,” Koren waved it off before asking, “So how’s it looking over there? Is she a secret murder-assassin just waiting to jump Flick?”

“Or,” Sands put in, “is she just waiting to jump Flick.” That made her and Miranda snicker. 

Sarah, kindly stepping on her sister’s foot, pointedly spoke up. “They mean, is she safe?” 

It took a moment for Wyatt to answer, while he collected his thoughts. Finally, the man confirmed, “She didn’t trip any guilt spells, or make any of the threat-indicators light up, and the danger-gel I made her hold stayed completely calm. Everyone checked her and she…” The next words looked like it took a lot for him to say. “She appears to be on the up-and-up.” Looking straight to me, he added, “Our mother is making her take a binding oath spell to do no intentional harm, nor intentionally allow harm, to you or anyone you care about. It’s being prepared right now by Mom, Sariel, Mercury, and two of the Victors on our side.”  

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “You’re not there helping?” 

Wyatt, in turn, folded his arms, looking a little annoyed at himself. “I… might have gone a little overboard with the truth and danger sensing spells. They didn’t want to wait for me to recover. They said they have enough power to make them binding as it is.” 

Right, that made sense. He’d used so much magic making sure this woman wasn’t a threat, that he didn’t have enough left at the moment to contribute to the oath-making spell. Was it weird that I found that a little adorable despite everything? My brother really cared about what happened to me. 

As I was thinking about that, Wyatt continued. “They need you to come talk to her. The oath magic works better if you’re there for it.” His tone turned serious as he reached out to touch my arm. “But if she makes any funny moves or makes you feel uncomfortable, you say the word and she’ll be buried under so many trap spells it’ll take her a month to dig her way out.” 

“Good to know,” I replied easily while pushing myself up. Thanking the others and promising to let them know what happened, I headed off with Wyatt toward the motel building. On the way, I glanced over to him and asked, “So, what do you think of this woman? I mean, I know she’s really intense and all. And potentially dangerous, obviously. But what do you really think?”  

Wyatt didn’t answer at first. He was quiet, clearly considering the question. Which did a lot to show how much he had really changed over the past year. Before, he would have ranted on for an hour about how she was obviously plotting to kill all of us, and probably wear our skins or something. But now, while he was still suspicious, he was a lot more reasonable about it. He thought things through more and was much more in control of himself. Finally, as we were about halfway to the building, he answered. “You’re right, she could be dangerous. She’s very strong and hard to stop.” His long, beak-like nose had scrunched up a bit. “But I’ve learned two things about you this year. Okay, more than two. But two specific ones now. The first is that you’re really good at making enemies. Really horrible, strong, vicious enemies I can’t always be there to help with. Even with magic. They find a way to get past it if they have to.”

My mouth opened to say something, but he waved me off and continued. “The other important thing I’ve learned is that you’re also really good at making friends. So, my instinct is to say this girl is dangerous and just get rid of her. That’s what my brain wants to do. It’s what my heart wants to do. Just throw her out and be done with it. But we wouldn’t be done with it. Either she’d be angry and turn into a threat herself, or she just wouldn’t be here to help you with a different threat. She–she’s strong, capable, terrifying. And I’d rather you make her into a real friend, than me make her into an enemy. Even if she scares me. I… I trust you to handle it.” 

We had stopped outside the motel room by that point to finish all that. I didn’t speak at first, just looking at my awkward, wonderful, gangly, incredible brother. Then I stepped over and put both arms around him to hug tightly. “You’re pretty cool, you know that?” My voice was quiet, yet still audibly choked up. “I’m lucky to have someone like you.” 

Despite all the progress he had made, Wyatt was still reflexively stiff when I hugged him. But, after a brief moment, I felt his arms move down to return the embrace. His voice was a bit thick as well. “Be careful, okay? Not–not just because she’s dangerous. But because… because I think she’s fragile too. Not– she’s different. You could really hurt her if you wanted to.” 

That… yeah, that wasn’t at all what I’d expected him to say. Still, I nodded while releasing the man and stepping back. “Trust me, I’ll keep it in mind. The last thing I want to do is traumatize the millennia-old ghost-creature possessing an immortal dead body. Yeah, immortal dead. I said it.” 

With that promise, I turned to the motel, took in a breath before letting it out, and moved to knock on the door. Before my knuckles could actually make contact, however, it opened seemingly of its own volition, with nobody nearby. So, I shrugged before stepping in. The door closed behind me, leaving Wyatt to head back to the others. 

The motel room had had all the furniture taken out of it. The floor, walls, and ceiling were covered in various magic runes that were all centered around a single figure who stood in the middle. Persephone, of course. She stood there calmly, wearing only a sleeveless version of the Seosten bodysuit, arms extended out to either side with more spell-runes drawn along them. 

Meanwhile, Mom, Sariel, and Mercury were on one side of the room, with the two Victors opposite them. They were Jack Childs, the old cowboy from Fate’s Shepherds, and Fu Hao, the Asian woman who looked very young except for her ancient-looking eyes that had clearly seen an incredible number of years. She was one of the leaders of the Vigilant Sons. Seller and Avalon’s tribe, whom I might have had a pretty big problem with given how they had treated Valley. But apparently Fu Hao had already apologized and openly admitted fault for that. Which, given how old and powerful these people were, the fact that any of them were willing to admit when they were wrong meant a lot. I still wasn’t happy with what happened, except that if they hadn’t kicked Avalon out, I wouldn’t have met her the way I did, and–god, that same thing kept coming up, didn’t it? Bad things led to good things. It was all so complicated. 

Eyes lighting up when I entered the room, Persephone called out without moving, “Hello, beloved! Did you eat something yet? Was it good? I’ve heard very nice things about something called pizza on this planet. I’m very interested in trying it once we’re finished with all this.” She spoke so casually, as if she was just waiting for something like… toast to pop up rather than being put under an intense set of spells meant to ensure she wouldn’t kill any of us. 

Before I could say anything, Mom spoke up. “Felicity, come right up in front of her. It’s okay. Put your hands on her shoulders and we’ll finish the spell. Persephone, you know how it works.” 

The white-haired woman remained completely motionless, even as she cheerfully confirmed, “Don’t move an inch or the spell gets messed up! You got it, no moving. I am a tree. Except I smell better.” Her eyes found mine as she amended, “Not that trees smell bad, but you should sniff me, Honeycakes.” After a brief pause, she noted, “I smell like honeycake.” 

Moving that way, I hesitated uncertainly before putting both hands on the woman’s shoulders. She was taller than me by a couple inches, but shorter than Avalon. Speaking… completely academically, she was also incredibly beautiful. Like any Seosten, really. She had that totally snow-white hair and tanned skin, with a slim figure that– yeah. And yes, she absolutely smelled like vanilla cake and honey. It made me blush a little. Especially when she smiled brightly at me, clearly knowing exactly how I was reacting to all that. Oh boy, because this whole thing hadn’t already been awkward enough.  

So, for the next few minutes, I stood there basically face to face with this woman who kept calling herself my wife. Which would’ve been so much easier to deal with if she wasn’t so attractive. And cool. Seriously, she flew down out of the sky and completely exploded a Nuckelavee to introduce herself. It was–no, Flick. Knock it off. Firmly telling myself to push those thoughts aside, I focused on just looking at Persephone. 

Okay, scratch that. I focused on closing my eyes and pretending I was somewhere else. Somewhere with cake and honey. 

Damn it. 

I knew why the spell was taking awhile. Even with two strong Seosten, my mother, and a couple Victors, a Revenant was incredibly hard to target with magic that would actually stick. And one like this, who had found a body as powerful and long-lasting as Persephone had, took even more effort and time. Oh, sure, they could’ve hit her with a teleportation spell or something quite easily, shifted her somewhere else. But for an ongoing effect like this, one that would give even her enough trouble if she started to turn against us, it took a lot. According to Sariel, when they were back on the Olympus, only two people had been able to tell Persephone what to do. The first was Manakel, with the very same Necromancy power that attracted her to him in the first place. And the other was Puriel, who was basically a god when it came to magic. 

But in this case, we had enough power to put the spell on her. Plus, she was willingly cooperating, which helped. She could probably break the spell, but doing so would alert basically everyone Mom was including in the spell, so Persephone going bad would result in a whole bunch of people jumping in, while the Revenant herself was buried under a heap of targeted trap spells. They wouldn’t stop her forever, but they would, with any luck, slow her down. It was the best we could do. Between that and my own ability to sort-of control or at least push her with my Necromancy (I wasn’t as good with it as Manakel had been, so I couldn’t just order her around), this whole thing was as safe as we could make it.   

Finally, with a rush of power that even I felt closing in all around us to culminate in a burst that made my ears pop, it was done. Mom stepped over, putting her hand on my arm to tug me back. “There,” she said quietly, her eyes on Persephone. “You say you want to spend time with my daughter. You can do that, but… when she tells you to back off, do it. Sariel has an extra room you can use. You live with her, not with Felicity. You give her space when she needs it.” 

“Of course, Mother!” the woman cheerfully replied, “we wouldn’t want to rush things.” 

Oh boy. Yeah, Mom had her own reaction to that. But before she could get too into it, I quickly turned to the two Victors, who were starting to leave. “Uhh, um, excuse me?” 

Fu Hao and Childs exchanged brief looks before turning to me, the Asian woman curiously asking, “May we help you with something else?” 

Pushing aside the thought that it was really weird to ask them for anything else after they’d already done this much, I nodded. “Yeah, I uhh, I sure hope so. 

“Let’s just say I have a friend who really needs some help when it comes to one of your old colleagues.”

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Interlude 9B – Dakota (Heretical Edge 2)

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Fire. Swords swinging, shattering against the dragon’s hide. The blinding pain of an arm being horrifically burned. The determination to keep going, to serve the king as a good thane would. Anger and bitter disgust at the cowardice of those who also should have stood at their sides, but had instead fled. Resolve to stand and face the beast even at the cost of death. Terror pushed down by faith in the man ahead, and faith in the fact that such a death would be as glorious as fleeing would be shameful. Standing and fighting on against all odds and against all pain. 

With a strangled, almost gurgling cry, Dakota Coalbright suddenly snapped awake. She would have jerked upright, had she not been restrained by something pressed tight against her chest. Against her entire body, really. A series of ropes bound her to the bed, drawing a renewed panicky scream as her thoughts instantly jumped from the strange dream of another life, to genuine memories of the mental institution that she had spent so much time trapped inside of. 

“Dakota!” a voice called out from nearby. “Dakota, it’s okay, it’s you! Dakota, look!” 

Still thrashing in panic even as those words penetrated, the girl opened her eyes and looked around wildly. The vision finally settled. She wasn’t back in the asylum. She wasn’t strapped down by sturdy leather and buckles being poked and prodded by the dispassionate doctors. She was in a motel room, in a regular bed. And the things holding her down were vines. The room was filled with plants of all shapes and sizes. The foliage was so thick that the person at the door, who had called out to pull her from her panic, couldn’t easily push their way through. 

They were right. She was doing this. Somehow, Dakota had been so frightened in her dream that she had subconsciously summoned these plants, which had formed a defensive shield around her. They were trying to protect her as well as they could, reacting to that overwhelming fear by practically wrapping her into a cocoon as they blocked all access to the room itself. 

It was more plants than Dakota had ever consciously controlled. Far more. Something about the animalistic terror of her strange nightmare had made the power she’d… she’d gained from Kwur do so much more than she’d managed to intentionally make it do in the days since she had stopped actively trying to suppress and ignore it. 

Or maybe she hadn’t really totally stopped trying to suppress it, regardless of what she’d said to Miranda and Avalon. Much as she wanted to help them, wanted to help Eden’s Garden in general, she was still afraid of what this power was capable of. And horrified by the monster it had come from. Kwur made her family kill each other. She had killed… she had murdered… 

Snapping out of that with some effort, Dakota closed her eyes. The panic kept trying to take over again, making it hard to concentrate. But, with some effort, she focused on the vines, thinking about making them relax. Then she shifted that thought from making them relax to simply reassuring them, imagining herself gently petting and praising them for the help. Slowly, the tense, tight grip of the vines relented, and she was finally able to sit up in the bed.

It took more effort and a minute of concentration, but the rest of the plants blocking Dakota from the doorway eventually shifted away. Quickly, the girl scrambled from the bed, leaving the manipulated plants behind as she raced across the now-open space. 

The person at the door stepped back, giving Dakota space to escape the room and reach the open air of the parking lot beyond the door. “Are you okay?” he asked gently, voice uncertain. 

Now that she was in the parking lot, out of that room full of plants that had been trying (in their own way) to protect her, Dakota could breathe. She finally looked up, focusing on the person who had snapped her out of that blinding panic. 

His name was Noyade, a seventeen-year-old heavily tanned boy with long black hair, originally from California before being recruited by Eden’s Garden years earlier. He’d been working alongside Dakota earlier that day as the two of them tried to work on one of the special apple vines that the rebels had brought with them from their giant tree. He had several powers revolving around controlling water, which gave Dakota a chance to get down to the ocean floor and try to coax the vine they’d been given to work with into growing.

So far, it hadn’t worked, and Dakota had needed to sleep. Which led to… this. 

Hurriedly, her head bobbed. “Sorry, sorry.” A wave of confused shame had washed over her. “I just–I had a bad dream. I didn’t mean to wake you up, or–” 

Noyade shook his head. “Dude, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I was already awake, just trying to take a walk over by the pool and practice a bit. I think it–are you sure you’re okay?” 

For a moment, Dakota hesitated. It had been so realistic. She had felt like she was there, fighting a dragon, being burned by that dragon. She had been so furious with the other thanes for refusing to keep to their word, for being cowards. It was all she could do to– 

“It was just a dream,” she quickly blurted, forcing the thoughts down. If she said it outloud, maybe it would be easier to believe. Shifting uncomfortably, she rubbed her shoulder. “Do you think I woke anyone else up?” 

“Doubt it,” Noyade pointed out easily. “Everyone’s using magic to silence outside sounds that aren’t a threat. Pretty sure you could scream at the top of your lungs without them hearing. And the ones that aren’t asleep are either out patrolling or… or working.” 

Working, right. Working on their own attempt at making the vines work. Because the Garden rebels weren’t putting all their eggs in the ‘have Dakota fix it’ basket. They had a bunch of different tests and trials going on. In fact, Dakota was pretty sure most of the rebel Victors didn’t exactly buy into the idea that she’d end up being the one to make the vines grow. They were humoring Avalon and Miranda and giving her a chance to try with one of the plants. 

Noyade seemed to think that she would be upset at the idea that no one thought she could do it, so he kept apologizing or sounding awkward whenever the fact that others were trying their own thing came up. But Dakota was really hoping, almost praying, that they would manage it. Then she wouldn’t feel so much pressure. 

Instead, nothing anyone was doing seemed to work. And Dakota felt more and more like she had to do something about it. Like it actually would be up to her. Because something was blocking the plants from growing. Something was preventing the vines from taking root the way they were supposed to, the way they had been enchanted to. They should grow, they wanted to grow. But something was stopping them, and she couldn’t figure out what. 

After a brief pause, Noyade nodded over his shoulder. “You wanna take a walk down to the beach and see how our friend’s doing? You know, just in case?”

The vine. He wanted to check on the vine, since they were both awake. With a quick nod as she pushed down her own doubts and insecurities, Dakota agreed, “Sure, okay.” Maybe the fact that she’d subconsciously summoned all those plants to the room was a sign or something? 

Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Either way, she was completely awake now and wouldn’t be sleeping again anytime soon. So they might as well go check on their vine. 

As she left the motel parking lot and walked across the street with the older boy, on the way down toward the beach, Dakota used the phone she’d been given to send a text to Avalon and Miranda. Not that she expected them to respond. Apparently there had been some huge fight involving a really nasty necromancer and that Flick girl who had been lost for awhile. From what Dakota had heard, the good guys won, and everyone was celebrating. She was invited, but didn’t feel like she was really a part of that. Besides, being around lots of loud people was hard. She was too… twitchy. It wasn’t safe. Too many people, too many loud noises, too many… things. 

Still, she sent a message saying where they were going, just in case. Then Dakota and Noyade jogged through the parking lot connected to the beach before reaching the sand itself. This three hundred yard space had been magically cordoned off. No Bystanders could get there, or even notice that only this small group seemed to be using it. The Eden’s Garden rebels wanted their vine tests to be as undisturbed and safe as possible. 

There was, however, someone there on the beach as the two of them came into view. Which, at first didn’t seem too odd. After all, Dakota knew there were other people working on their own vine experiments. 

But something made her stop short at the sight of the person standing in the water. Something made her hand snap out to catch Noyade’s arm, bringing him to a halt. Together, the two watched as the figure in the water emerged… and kept emerging. 

The moon and the lamps that had been set up along the beach helped to illuminate the figure, though he was still in heavy shadows. He was riding a horse. It was a tall man riding a horse up out of the waves. A horse that had been under the water? That was possible, but why? Why would he be riding a horse under the water? And what… what was wrong with him? The figure looked wrong. It almost–it almost looked like he was attached to the–

A hand quickly grabbed her arm, squeezing tight. Noyade’s voice was a hoarse whisper, one marked by a sort of primal, animalistic fear. “Dakota, run. Use your alarm spell, call for help.” 

She didn’t hesitate. She didn’t question it. Going through what Dakota had, seeing the things she had seen, the time when she would have dumbly stood in place asking what that thing was, or what the boy was talking about had long-since passed. The instant he told her to run and sound the alarm, Dakota was already pivoting. She began to run back the way they had come, digging in her pocket for the small bell-shaped piece of metal that had been given to her. Palming it, the girl stammered the command word, only for nothing to happen. Because of the stammering. Forcing back the fear, she tried again, snapping the word out. That time, the piece of metal grew warm in her palm, and she knew it was sending the alert out to all the Heretics here. They would get up, they would be here any second, and whatever that thing was–

Something caught hold of her ankle in mid-sprint, yanking backward to make the girl faceplant against the ground even as a scream escaped her. It felt like wet seaweed, only stronger. So strong she felt it almost crush the bone. An instant later, she was yanked upside down into the air and held aloft. She could see back toward the beach. A supernaturally long, reddish-black arm, almost like a tentacle, had stretched a good hundred feet up in order to grab her. And now that thing had hold of her, the arm was pulling back, hauling the screaming, struggling Dakota with it.

That screaming only got worse, as she was hauled back to the beach and saw Noyade. Or rather, his body. The boy’s headless corpse had been impaled against one of the fence posts, and now lay limp there, spread-eagle as if in supplication. 

Still suspended upside down, Dakota was hauled up to be face-to-face with the creature that had killed Noyade so quickly and effortlessly. It was the man riding the horse. Except it wasn’t a man or a horse, she realized. It was both. It was a horse, one somewhat larger than normal, more like one of those Clydesdale horses, or even very slightly bigger than that. The ‘man’ who sat atop it was actually just a torso growing out of its back. Almost like a centaur, except instead of a horse body with a man from the waist up where the head should be, it was a fully-formed horse with the top half of a man where a normal rider would go. 

The horse part of the creature was bad enough on its own. It seemed to have no skin, only muscle and bone. Instead of two eyes, it had a single, oversized one in the middle of its face. Its mouth was large even for its enormous body, and its teeth were closer to a shark than an actual horse. Row after row of jagged, deadly fangs that were thoroughly revealed, as the thing’s mouth was open. Because she wasn’t being held by an arm or a hand as she’d thought. It was a tongue. A tongue that had shot out of the horse’s mouth, and now held her aloft in the air by the ankle while the horse seemed to cackle, its shoulders heaving with a sound akin to the screeching of an old woman, or a screech owl.  

As for the humanoid half of the monster, things didn’t get any better there. It, like the horse, was skinless, its bare muscle visible to the open air. The head had no face, no eyes, no mouth. There was a second mouth beyond the one belonging to the horse part, but it was on the humanoid torso, and much larger than it should have been. Large enough that, as that second mouth opened, the entire top half of the torso moved with it, tilting backward. Within that oversized mouth was a smaller, whitish object that it kept rolling between its teeth and tongue. 

Held aloft that way, Dakota belatedly realized that the creature was showing her the object in its second mouth. Only then, as she hung petrified in terror, did the girl realize what she was being shown. 

It was Noyade’s head. Or rather, his skull, with the skin and all the… the juicy bits slurped free to leave mostly just the bone part. 

Once it knew that she had seen and understood, the torso-mouth spat the head out, sending it out into the sand where it rolled to a stop against an old piece of driftwood, about fifteen feet from the body it had belonged to. 

For a moment, Dakota had been too terrified to shout. Now, her fear had worked its way all the way around once more, as a shrill scream filled the air. Not that the monster cared. Now that it had shown her the head, the creature simply opened its torso-mouth wide, angling to drop her in. Now that it had finished the snack, it would take Dakota as the main course. 

An instant before it would have released Dakota, aloud, echoing gunshot rang out. The bullet, blazing with light from some unknown power, cut through the tongue just above Dakota’s ankle. She dropped with a scream toward that mouth, but only fell a few inches before something else caught hold of her. It was a coat, or part of one. The coat caught the falling girl, wrapping itself tightly around Dakota before yanking her away from the monster. 

The man who stood there looked like a cowboy. A very old one, with a heavily lined face and a wide-brimmed hat that sat low, close to his steely eyes. It was his revolver which had taken the single shot that blew the monster’s tongue away. The long, leather duster he wore had extended itself out at a thought from the man, catching hold of Dakota and safely pulling her away from the thing that had been trying to eat her.

His name was Jack Childs, and he was one of the Victors of the Fate’s Shepherds tribe. The moment that Dakota was safely deposited on the sand, he aimed that revolver her way, pulling the trigger before she could so much as scream once more. 

He wasn’t killing her. The shot that he had fired sent a magic bullet that exploded halfway to the girl, creating a glowing forcefield around her huddled form. 

“The mistake you made,” Childs informed the horse-man creature, “was killing someone I’d grown more than a mite fond of. See, you was always gonna die here. But Noyade? Noyade makes it personal.” 

The creature let out that terrible scream once more, rearing back on its hindlegs before it started galloping toward them, arms flailing. But in that moment, something happened. From Dakota’s perspective, the revolver in Childs’ hand turned into a machine gun, firing hundreds of shots in the span of a bare handful of seconds. His hands were a blur of motion, as the girl belatedly realized that he was pulling the trigger six times, popping the revolver open, producing a new speed loader from nowhere, feeding it into the weapon, clicking it shut, and continuing to fire all faster than her eyes could process. He did it with so much speed that the bullets came just as quickly as they would from an automatic weapon. 

And they weren’t just normal bullets either. Each shot caused a small, yet powerful explosion. So powerful that, despite the fact that Dakota was a good fifty feet away and each was only about an inch across, she still felt the heat from every single one. She still felt force from each tiny explosion through the forcefield that was protecting her. Not a lot. Just enough to be a firm shove against her, enough to knock the girl down if she hadn’t already been lying on the ground. Enough heat to almost be painful. 

She felt all of that through the Victor-created forcefield and from fifty feet away. Each shot was like that, each tiny explosion creating enough of a shockwave that she could still feel it. And this thing was being hit by hundreds of them.

The monster was halted in mid-charge and sent staggering backward. Yet, it didn’t die. Despite taking hundreds of shots from a weapon wielded by someone as powerful as a Victor, themselves roughly equivalent to a Crossroads Counselor, the creature barely seemed wounded. The shots were keeping it busy, making it stagger and reel away, but they weren’t killing it. 

Yet, despite the fact that the thing obviously wasn’t dead, Childs finally stopped firing. The revolver spun on his finger before being coolly deposited back into its holster at his hip. 

The monster, upon realizing it wasn’t being shot anymore, rallied immediately. Both its torso and horse mouths opened to scream at them, bracing itself to lunge. 

And, in the next instant, Childs snapped his fingers while simultaneously stepping in front of the forcefield that surrounded Dakota. As he did so, duster sweeping up to block her view and save her from being totally blinded, night suddenly turned into day. There was a flash that seemed to sweep clear through the entire city, bright as the sun itself. That flash lasted for a solid three or four seconds before fading. 

The forcefield dropped, as Childs stepped aside. And Dakota saw the space where the monster had been. It was a crater, with sand blasted up and outward in every direction. Sand that had been frozen in mid-air, like dropping a rock into it and then stopping the sand that flew up before it could settle back on the ground. Like throwing a stone into water and freezing the splash. 

Glass, Dakota realized. The sand that had been blasted away from the center of the explosion had turned into a glass-like structure. A sculpture of sorts. And in the middle of that sculpture lay the scattered bits and pieces of the monster itself, blown apart from the inside. 

Facing her, Childs extended a hand. His voice was grim. “Are you okay? Sorry, took a bit to get a couple bullets through that thing’s hide so I could trigger them from the inside.”

Dakota, in turn, stared at him. “Tha-that explosion was from a couple bullets?” 

The man arched an eyebrow. “Five or six. I use really strong bullets.”  

Her mouth opened to respond, only to spot the human half of the shattered horse monster. It was hauling itself up over the sand-turned-glass, dozens of wiggling, bleeding tentacles where a human’s legs would have been serving to hurl it into the air toward them. 

She never had a chance to scream. Childs had already turned, gun back in his hand and extended. That time, however, he didn’t fire a bullet. Instead, a literal bolt of lightning leapt from the barrel, tearing through the lunging monster before arcing off into the sky with a deafening clap of thunder. 

The humanoid torso splattered like a watermelon, the smell of burnt flesh filling the air to mix with the scent of ozone from the lightning. 

Once more, Childs stowed his gun and turned back to her. That time, he gently took her hand in his own calloused grip, helping the girl to her feet. “Sorry,” he said quietly, “but I guess we know what’s been messing with our vines now.”

Dakota, for her part, clung tightly to the man. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t cry. She would not cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she babbled helplessly, shoulders shaking. Noyade. He was dead. He was dead just like her family. She got close to people, she liked people, and then they died. They died. They always died. 

“Wha-what was that thing? It-it’s dead now, right? It’s gone. We’re safe? What–what about the vines? Will they–will they grow now?” 

For a moment, Childs was quiet as he held the girl close to him. “That thing,” he answered finally, “is called a Nuckelavee. Yes, it’s dead. But… but the Nuckelavee, they’re just minions. Thugs.” 

Swallowing hard, Dakota asked, in a quiet, tentative voice, “Wh-what… what are they minions of?” 

In response, Childs turned, keeping his hand firmly on the girl’s shoulder. He looked out into the water, voice very quiet. “Something a hell of a lot worse. A creature powerful enough to take this planet apart if it ever gets free of its cage in the lowest, darkest depths of the ocean. But it can reach out of that cage. 

“And now we have its attention.” 

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