Jiao

Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azlee sat down. 

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

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

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

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

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

Fossor.

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Patreon Snippets 13A (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thanks go to all of the incredible $10+ donators to my Patreon for these snippets! Remember, $10 may get you one 500 word snippet per month, but a mere $5 gets you every chapter one day early, and $3 gets you the interludes a day early! Not to mention the ability to vote on upcoming end-of-arc interludes with bonus points! 

Aylen with Grandpa Reaper

Listening to Professor Dare extol the evils of non-humans as well as the virtues of Heretics and the creation of the Heretical Edge thanks to the incredible genius of the clearly charming and handsome Hieronymous Bosch made Aylen Tamaya want to stab herself in the ears. At least then she wouldn’t have to listen to the bullshit until her hearing came back. Though, on the other hand, doing something like that might possibly attract some curiosity from the teacher who was, at this moment, going on about how Heretics were the lone defense against the hordes of evil that would wipe out civilization and so on and so forth. Frankly, Aylen didn’t think the woman’s heart was really in her explanation. It kind of felt like she was saying the right words without totally feeling it. 

But then, Aylen was probably just projecting her own feelings onto a woman who had given this same or similar speeches for decades. The lack of true fire behind the words probably had more to do with how often she’d explained all this rather than any lack of conviction. The worst thing Aylen could do here, right in the camp of the enemy, was start thinking that any of them could be trusted. While the majority clearly believed they were doing the right thing rather than being actively malicious, that was no consolation. They’d been raised to be fanatics, and she had no doubt they would take that fanaticism far enough to kill her if they knew what she really was. 

This was dangerous. It was so dangerous. Being here, talking to these people, letting them think she was one of them… it could go wrong in so many ways. But she had to. This was the best–only chance that her family had to free Mother’s father, Aylen’s Reaper grandfather. That was confusing, given the Grandfather she had grown up with. She needed another name.  

Lost in thought as she was (not to mention the fact that she was intentionally ignoring the ‘everything else is evil, humanity fuck yeah speech), she almost missed the fact that Professor Dare was activating the lever. Light suddenly filled the room, drawing everyone’s eyes while the woman called for them to gaze into it and to not look away. With the dramatic declaration that this was the Heretical Edge, the light grew blindingly bright, taking away all other vision as the students around her were all swept away into the Edge Visions that would turn them into Bosch Heretics. 

But Aylen was different. She was already part-Reaper. Everything the Bosch Heretics could do, she was already capable of. That and more, given Grandfather’s tinkering. There was nothing for the Edge to do to her. And yet, the light still blinded her. And as her vision cleared a few moments later, Aylen still found herself elsewhere, just as her fellow students would have. 

Specifically, she was standing in her own living room–no. No, this wasn’t their most recent living room. It was the living room of the house they had lived in when Aylen was still only seven years old. That was the first time she remembered hearing enough of the story about where Mother’s father was and what Heretics were to actually understand it. It was the room Aylen had been sitting in, with Mother and Mama, when she first resolved to somehow, someday, save Mother’s papa. The thought that her beloved mother had been without her own father through her entire life had left the young Aylen stricken, and she’d promised that she would someday help free him. Neither of her mothers had taken it entirely seriously at the time, but she was determined.

And now, here she was. Years later, facing the Heretical Edge, Aylen was here in this room again. 

“Interesting.” 

That single word came from behind Aylen, and she spun to find herself facing a figure she had previously only seen in drawings and in magic projections. It was a tall man, with sharply, almost achingly pretty features that reminded her of the elves in the Lord of the Rings movies. His skin was bone-pale, his hair as blue as the sky. Eyes that were deep violet stared at her, seeming to take in every feature with an intense curiosity. He gazed into her, reading things even Aylen wasn’t aware of. The power and authority radiating from his form made her reflexively gasp. She felt, in that moment, the way ancient, primitive man gazing up into the wonder of the sun must have felt. An apt comparison, for the power in this man compared to her own was that of the sun to a primitive human. He was more than she had ever truly expected him to be. 

“Grand…. father… “ Aylen whispered, staring at him as her mouth fell open. Everything she had planned out to say, everything she wanted to explain, was washed away in that moment. She knew nothing, she thought nothing. She could only stare. 

He had only said that single word, before falling silent when she turned to him and spoke her own single word. For the several long seconds, neither said anything else. Aylen could see, could practically feel, the old Reaper taking in everything about her. His gaze, once it was done taking her in, slowly panned around the living room. He looked to the pictures and paintings on the wall, to the television where DVD’s of her favorite childhood movies were stacked up, and to the baby blanket neatly folded on the nearby chair. A blanket she still had to this day. Through it all, Aylen remained silent. Something told her not to interrupt, to let this go at his pace, not her own. 

Finally, those intense eyes returned to her own gaze. And in that moment, they softened. The dark, almost black purple turned a more gentle violet as he spoke three words in a voice that was so small, so vulnerable and hesitant that Aylen thought there was no conceivable way it could have come from the blindingly powerful figure in front of her. 

“She is alive?” 

Those three words, that single question from the being who served as the linchpin of the entire Bosch Heretic society and empowered literally thousands of beings, came wrapped in the emotion of a man who had lost his child eons ago. It was the emotion of a man who had forgotten what it was like to hope that such a child had survived, whose heart had long-since abandoned those thoughts. 

The words came from a man who had entered this room and had that hope rekindled in the form of the girl standing before him. Those long-extinguished flames had begun to smolder once more. 

Somehow, Aylen found her voice. “My… my mother. My mother is your daughter.” 

The man said nothing, not aloud anyway. But his eyes. When she looked into his eyes, Aylen saw a rush of emotion. Those embers of hope she felt before had flickered into a small, yet fierce flame with a heat that drove away what had clearly been cold certainty of his daughter’s loss. 

“Tell me. 

“Tell me everything.” 

So, she did. Walking through the house of her memories, Aylen spoke with her mother’s father for what felt like hours. She had no idea how these visions worked for the actual Heretics, but she seemed to be there for much longer than was actually possible. She told him of her mothers, of her own birth, of her other grandfather. She told him of her mission here. 

“I’m going to get you out of this place,” she promised him. By that point, the two were back in the living room. Through all of that, neither had touched the other. She didn’t feel right making that sort of assumption, and he had not extended his own hand through their discussion. “I don’t know how yet, but that’s why I’m here. It’s the whole reason I came to this place. I promise, no matter what, I–” 

In mid-sentence, the phone on the nearby wall interrupted Aylen by ringing. Her gaze snapped toward it with confusion, but her grandfather simply looked at it without moving. A moment later, it stopped. She was about to ask why the phone would ring in her vision, when he spoke instead. “You… you said your name was Aylen?” When she nodded, he continued. “Aylen, I believed my daughter, my only living heir, was dead since before I was trapped in this place. I have spent millennia believing the only child I would ever have was gone forever. Listen now. In telling me that she lives, in telling me that my… my child has survived all this time… you have already freed me from far darker a prison than this could ever be.  

“You, Aylen, are my granddaughter. You are my proof that my child is not dead, my proof that she has lived a life, that she has known happiness. Even if I could not be there, you are my proof that she has stood, learned, lived, and loved. You say you have come to free me? Your existence is my freedom.”

After saying those words, the old Reaper raised a hand. Only then did he finally touch Aylen. His palm pressed against her cheek, as he exhaled slowly. “Granddaughter. When your grandmother spoke of children, grandchildren, and on, I… I did not understand the concept. It took such time for her to explain the–” He stopped talking then, looking away as the phone rang once more. Again, the man made no move to answer it, instead staring until the ringing stopped. 

Aylen meant to ask about the phone. Instead, the words that first were, “What about Grandmother? What… happened?” 

“That is for another conversation,” he replied quietly. There was pain in his voice, a deep ache that had clearly yet to heal even all these centuries later. “I’m afraid our time here is still limited. You’ll be waking up soon. And I would rather not end our visit on such things.” 

“Grandfather, there’s… there’s more, there’s a lot more I want to say,” Aylen pleaded, though she wasn’t even sure who she was directing the plea to. He held no control over the fact that she would have to wake up and be amongst the true Heretics once more. “I don’t know how we’re going to get you out of this, but we will. I will. I’m here to find out everything I can about how the Heretics have you trapped. Once I do, Mother, Mama, the other Grandfather, we’ll all get you out. I promise. We will get you out of this. You’ll see her again. You’ll see Mother again.” 

She was embracing him. Aylen wasn’t even sure when or how that had happened. Her arms were around him, her face buried against his shoulder. She clung to the man, wanting to stay there and tell him everything about her life, everything about her mothers’ lives. That brief flicker of loss and pain she had seen when he thought of her grandmother made her want to stay forever and tell him everything he had missed. She desperately wanted to fill the emotional pit she had seen in him with everything she could. 

And then again, even as she felt herself begin to drift away from the vision, the phone rang once more. Aylen stubbornly clung to her grandfather, refusing to let go. The phone was louder. “What is it?” she demanded with confusion. “Who keeps trying to call you? I don’t–how are they calling you?” 

“It is symbolic,” he informed her in a quiet voice. “The phone you hear is a manifestation of my old power reaching out to me. If I establish contact, it will free me from this place.” 

Staring at him, aghast, Aylen blurted, “Wh-what?! Why–why wouldn’t you just answer then? If your power can free you, answer the–” 

“No.” His voice was sharp, even as Aylen realized that she had been reaching toward the phone herself. “It is the power of my darker self. The power of what the humans call a Hangman, an evil being bent entirely toward destruction and death.” 

Hand shrinking away from the phone, which had gone silent once more, Aylen murmured, “Your old power… it’s right there, and you’ve been ignoring it all this time. All you have to do is answer it, and if you did, you’d be free but… you’d be evil?” 

“Far worse than that,” her grandfather quietly replied. “I am connected to every Heretic created through the light or the apples. 

“If I become a Hangman, so will they.” 

*******

Former Crossroads Student Mentor Cameron Reid

 

“Don’t make me do this,” Cameron Reid pleaded. The black girl stood at the edge of a used car lot, beside a rusty old sedan that had been cleaned up as much as the employees could manage. She held a wicked-looking faintly curved short sword in each hand, with her favorite little friend, the blue-tongued skink named Tad Cooper (no one she talked to ever got the reference), perched on her shoulder. “Just walk away. We don’t have to do this. I don’t want to do this.” 

“You don’t?” Standing in front of her, long pike raised and pointed that way, Foster Remels snarled the two words. Foster was a light-skinned red-headed boy with the tattoo of a flaming skull on the exposed left shoulder of his sleeveless arms. “Good, does that mean you’re giving up this bullshit and not being a traitor anymore? Because that’d be pretty fucking spiffy, Cameron.” His eyes narrowed. “Otherwise, we really do have to do this. You come back, tell the Committee you’re sorry and you were just confused. They’ll understand, Cameron. Stop this. Help me kill the monsters, and we can all go home.”

At the word monsters, Cameron glanced sidelong toward the small group of blue-skinned humanoids huddled next to one of the nearby trucks. They were the owner of the car lot and his family/employees. Seeing them like that, huddled together while staring fearfully at the two squared-off Heretics, the lump in her throat at the idea of fighting one of her classmates and friends hardened. She swallowed it down, turning her attention back to Foster. “If you think not wanting to fight you is enough to make me change sides, then you don’t understand why I left in the first place.” 

“You’re right!” Foster snapped. “I don’t! We’re supposed to be the good guys, Cameron! We kill monsters and save people! We–” His burst of anger softened, the boy’s clear frustration melting into a desperate plea. “No, you’re right. I do get it. It’d be really nice to see all those creatures out there and think that we could be friends with them. I understand! I swear, I get it. And maybe someday we can! Maybe someday we can find another species to work with us! But not like this. Not by betraying our own people. Don’t you see? You and the others are doing exactly what the monsters want. They’ve been trying to create a civil war in Crossroads for all this time! They did it once before and we survived, and now they’ve done it again!”

For a moment, Cameron was silent. She thought about the students she had mentored back at Crossroads over the past year. They were all so different. Zeke, his incredible pride and hot-headedness repeatedly getting him in trouble despite his intentions. He came to her several times over the year trying to get help with his anger issues. In calm, private situations, the boy repeatedly planned out how to be ‘nicer,’ but in the heat of the moment, repeatedly fell back to the same attitude that got him in trouble. He and Malcolm Harkess, the remarkably gifted athlete and fighter despite his Bystander-kin origins who had ended up being one of Zeke’s closest friends despite their differences and constant arguments, had stayed back at Crossroads. 

Erin too. She was at Crossroads, though Cameron wasn’t sure why. She would have thought that someone like Erin would switch sides, given what she knew about the girl. And yet, here they were. 

Travis Colby, another Bystander-kin like Malcolm, had joined the rebellion. Actually, he’d followed Cameron. When she’d made the choice to follow Chambers and the others that fateful night, Travis had been behind her. She warned him about what she was doing, and he’d simply replied that if Jazz had a boyfriend who was a Stranger, then he wasn’t cool with killing all of them. 

Then there were the twins, Vanessa and Tristan. They, of course, switched sides. They were part of the switching sides. They weren’t even fully human, but hybrids. Humans mixed with a Stranger. 

Her team. The team she was responsible for mentoring, had been split in half. So why had Cameron chosen to switch sides? Why did she choose to go with the rebellion? 

“I don’t know,” she started out loud, “how many of the things out there who aren’t human are actually good. I don’t know how many of those claiming to be good for the rebellion actually are! I don’t know how many are faking it or might just go back to being monsters the second they get a chance. I don’t know! But I know one thing. I know the only way, the only real way, that someone who is bad becomes good is by being treated like they could be! If you treat people like monsters, if you hunt and kill them just for existing, you give them no choice but to act the way you’re treating them. If all you ever do is look for monsters, that’s exactly what you’ll find!

“I don’t know how much this will pay off. I don’t know if we’ll be betrayed. But we have to give it a chance. We have to try to treat them like we’d want to be treated.”

Pointing his pike past Cameron to the huddled figures, Foster declared, “They’re selling cars to humans and then selling their info to monsters who hunt down the humans in their homes.” 

“You don’t know that,” Cameron insisted. “That’s just what Crossroads told you. Why do you believe them?” 

“Because they’ve been doing this for hundreds of years!” he insisted. “Because they know better than you or me. I side with the people who protect humanity, Cameron, with the people who have always protected humanity. Maybe they’re not perfect, maybe we still have a long way to go as a group. But throwing that all away can’t be the right answer!” 

For a moment, the two squared off. Then Cameron turned her head and murmured something to Tad. The tiny lizard ran to the end of her arm, to her waiting hand. Cupped in her palm, the lizard started to glow as she used her favorite power before tossing him to the side. 

He was already growing. When he landed near the huddled family of Alters and straightened up, Tad Cooper was four feet tall and a solid twenty-feet long. He was a massive lizard, armored with scales that were as hard as steel. As he looked toward Foster, the lizard opened his mouth and sent out a rush of freezing breath that created an ice wall between them. 

“If he goes near those people, Tad,” Cameron ordered her empowered lizard, “put him on the ground.” 

Face sombering, Foster cracked his neck while lifting his pike. “So… it’s going to be like that.” 

“Yeah,” Cameron agreed, her own voice just as unhappy, yet equally resolved. “It’s going to be like that.” 

Then there was nothing more to say. The two former friends watched one another’s eyes, saw the impasse between them… and lunged to attack. 

*******

Alcaeus/Heracles

 

Of all the great, remarkable, sometimes even terrible deeds that Alcaeus, once known as Heracles, had achieved in his incredibly long life, convincing Maria and Arthur Chambers to leave their home for an extended vacation had to be one of the most impressive.  

The two were long-retired and spent every day in their California home, where they had lived for almost their entire married life. When their ‘friend Al’ had come to them with a suggestion that they join him on a tour of the world, they had been a bit… uncertain, to say the least. When he explained that he was putting together a book about various tourist destinations specifically for the retired community and that he needed their perspective on all the places he was supposed to go for the book to work as intended, they had understood a little more. Though they had still been a bit surprised that his publisher was footing the bill for three people to go on this journey. 

But even with that explanation, Maria and Arthur had been hesitant. As much as this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see everything they had ever wanted, the two were content in their lives the way they were. Not only that, but with their son (as far as they knew) on a long undercover investigative assignment and their granddaughter away at private school, the two wanted to be close to home in case either needed them. 

Fortunately, Arthur was a bit of a tech-obsessed geek, particularly for an old man. He ended up pointing out to his wife that their cell phones would take calls from their son and granddaughter no matter where they were. And beyond that, their security system would let them know if anyone showed up at the door. If it was Felicity or Lincoln, Maria and Arthur would be able to talk to them through the doorbell camera and arrange for a flight out to meet wherever they happened to be. 

That was one of Maria’s primary conditions. She and Arthur set aside money for two separate plane tickets, enough to bring Felicity and/or Lincoln anywhere they were, no matter where that was. She insisted that if her son or granddaughter needed them, they would have the money, their own money, to fly them to DC, New York, London, Hong Kong, or anywhere else in the world. 

In the end, they did at least finally agree. Which allowed Alcaeus to get them out of their house and away from home on this globetrotting trip. It was a temporary measure, of course. But it would give him time to figure out just how serious the Seosten attempts to get at the two would end up being. It was a stop-gap, yet an important one. 

At the moment, they were in Alaska, staying in a hunting lodge. Al had taken his friends out to see all the incredible wildlife and stunning visuals that the area had to offer. They were in awe of it all, of course, and their own utterly stunned reactions to these things reminded Alcaeus of how much he took for granted. He had been on this world for so long, had seen so much, that he sometimes (often) forgot just how incredible it really was. 

They deserved to know more. They deserved the whole truth. And part of this trip, if the man was being honest with himself, was his own way of deciding if he should take that step or not. Because while they deserved the truth, they also deserved to live their lives without being dragged into the whole problems of Heretics, Seosten, and everything else. 

Yet, Al asked himself while standing on the porch of the hunting lodge with Maria and Arthur cuddling on the swing behind him, weren’t they already involved? Their granddaughter was a Heretic who had found out the truth about Seosten. Their son had somehow (assuming Al’s contacts were correct, and he believed they were) broken the Bystander Effect and figured out a lot of the truth on his own, and was even now living with the old Gabriel Prosser’s people. 

Yes, they were involved. The only real question was how involved. And Al thought he knew the answer. The only real answer was to give them the truth and let them decide for themselves. It would take some effort, there were things that needed to be collected to make the spell work. But once he did, he could temporarily remove the Bystander Effect and tell them the truth. Then he would let Arthur and Maria decide if they wanted to retain that knowledge and be a part of… of all this. Because the truth was, it wasn’t his choice. It was theirs. 

For now, however, he would simply keep them safe. And show them as much of the world as he could. To that end, he raised his hand to point. “If you’re up to it, in the morning–” 

Then it happened. In mid-sentence, a rush of memories burst forth out of nowhere, an explosion of knowledge that rocked Al backward. 

He had never been an official part of Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion. But he knew of it. And he had helped now and then, when possible. For the most part, the Alcaeus of that time simply wished to be left alone, if the threats weren’t world-ending, like the Fomorians. He had been trying to keep his ever-present temper in check, had tried to find true balance in his life between the good man he wanted to be and the embodiment of rage and destruction that he was so good at becoming. 

So, he had helped when needed, had served as a sort of… babysitter at times for those who were in danger and had nowhere else to turn. He had met Joselyn Atherby, had seen the strength in her. Strength was something he liked… a lot. And he liked her… a lot. For a man like Alcaeus, liking a woman generally meant one thing. And… well, this case was no different. The two of them had, with the blessing of her husband… Deveron, that was it, taken that liking to another level once or… twice or… 

Fuck, this was awkward. 

The rush of memories, the realization that he not only knew the woman who had supposedly abandoned Arthur and Maria’s son and granddaughter, but had actually slept with her (and quite enjoyed it, honestly), was almost more than even a man as strong as Alcaeus could handle. He stumbled back a step, gasping. Rebellion, Joselyn, the Atherbys, her daughter… Her daughter had awakened those memories, had awakened the rebellion. 

Arthur was suddenly there, a hand on Al’s arm while the other caught his back. Nearly half a foot shorter than Alcaeus despite being six-foot-five himself, he was still built sturdily enough to catch the stumbling man. “Whoa there! Hey, Al, you okay?” In the background, Maria was already insisting that her husband help him over to the swing while she called for a doctor. 

“No, no, I’m okay,” Al insisted, shaking his head. “Just got a little dizzy for a second. Long day.” 

“You come right over here and sit down,” Maria Chambers insisted, pointing to the swing. “I don’t want to hear any arguments, you understand? Get off your feet, now. You men, always pushing yourselves so far. Too damned stubborn to admit you’re getting too old for these things.” 

Letting himself be pulled by Arthur to sit down on the swing, Alcaeus mused inwardly. He’d thought that explaining the truth about this whole situation to his friends was going to be awkward before. 

Now? Now he was going to have to be good and god damned drunk before even starting. 

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

Earth Club

 

“This… is… cowabunga!” 

As he blurted those words, the green-skinned boy known as Layuerk (or Lurk, as many called him), pumped his fists into the air and jumped up and down in front of the entrance to the most incredible, wonderful place he’d ever set foot near. Truly, the shining jewel of the vast universe.

Oak Park Mall, in Overland Park, Kansas. 

“It’s radical, dude.” Stepping beside his friend, the Reusfiel (essentially an anthropomorphic fox-bunny) named Grisson added, “Cowabunga’s something you yell, like neat or yay. Something can’t be cowabunga. Come on, we watched every Ninja Turtles movie last week for a reason. So we sound like normal teenagers and don’t stand out. We’re supposed to be under cover.” 

As he said that, they were joined by a new figure. She stood two inches over six feet, with body entirely made of metal, and arms that reached all the way to the ground despite her height. Ferrdreis, the Ullmis. Her male twin, Aerlicht, was right behind her. “We are very good at being under cover,” Ferrdreis announced, before looking at a passing elderly couple who were on their way into the mall. “Greetings, Bodacious Lady and Sir Dude! May your days be totally tubular and free from bogus.” 

The couple stared at them for a moment, clearly confused before hurrying off. Watching them go, Ferrdreis tilted her head. “Perhaps it is my accent?” 

These four, the full members of what they had always called the Earth Club back in Seosten space, were finally here. They were here on Earth after so many years of picking up random toys, games, movies, and more from the place they had become obsessed with. With the arrival of the Aelaestiam station and its conversion to the Fusion School for Heretics and Alters, these four were finally able to live their dream of actually setting foot on Earth. And they were making the most of it. 

“I still don’t get it,” Layuerk insisted. “So you can yell radical, excellent, awesome, all those things. You can say yell those and something can be those. Like a radical car or an excellent movie. And you can also yell cowabunga, but something can’t be cowabunga? No, I refuse. This building is totally cowabunga!” 

“If you think this mall’s cowabunga, you’re gonna flip if we ever go to Mall of America.” The drawled announcement came from the Earth Club’s adult escort for this little trip, Deveron Adams. The handsome, dark-haired man stepped up onto the curb, accompanied by his teenage granddaughter, Koren Fellows. 

“One step at a time, Grandpa,” Koren teased the man. “Don’t overload their circuits.” Even as she said it, the girl was wincing with a look toward the two metal figures. “Errr, that wasn’t supposed to be a robot joke or anything. Not that I think you’re robots, it’s just–I mean I wasn’t–” 

“Would you like me to interrupt and pretend you never said anything?” Deveron asked conversationally. When the flushing girl covered her mouth with both hands and nodded, he turned his attention to the quartet. “Alright, guys, you remember the rules. We stay together. We’ll look at what you want to look at. There’s plenty of time and plenty of stores to see. They’ve got an arcade, a mini-golf place, a food court… let’s work our way toward the food court. We’ve got two hours before the movie in the theater. We’ll mosey that way, pick up some food, then see the movie. And what do you do in case of emergency?” 

In answer, all five teenagers held up their arms to display the wristwatches that had been enchanted with spells to teleport them to safety if a command word was spoken. 

“Good job.” With a smile, Deveron gestured. “Right then,

“Let’s go cowabunga this mall.” 

******

Jiao

 

Stepping off the brightly lit sidewalk with a sharp pivot into a much darker alley, a frail-looking Asian woman wearing a long dark coat with a leather satchel over one shoulder strode smoothly in the shadows. Her feet announced her movement with each step that clicked against the dirty cement, until they simply… didn’t. Between one step and the next, she abruptly stopped providing any sound at all, her motions utterly silent. It was as if she had flipped a switch, no longer deliberately walking in a way to invite her pursuers into a false sense of superiority. 

It was to those pursuers that Jiao spoke, as she stopped walking a few feet from the wall marking the dead end of the alley. “If you would like to have a conversation, I have time now.” 

“A conversation?” The derisive voice came from the first of two orcs who stepped up into the opening of the alley. They were joined by a larger troll, who growled with annoyance while filling up the entire alley entrance. “Oh,” the orc continued, “we can have a really quick conversation. Just tell us where your husband is.” 

Still facing the wall rather than turning to them, Jiao tilted her head a little to gaze at the trio over her shoulder from the corner of her eye. “I would say you’ll have to narrow it down, given my apparent proclivity for wandering husbands. But I am afraid it would not be helpful, as I remain sadly unaware of the whereabouts of either.” 

The orc who had been speaking gave a dark chuckle. “You say a lot of words, but not the ones we wanna hear.” His eyes narrowed, and he produced a heavy flintlock-like enchanted pistol, pointing it at her. “We wanna know where Liang is. More to the point, our boss wants to know where he is. You can either tell us, or we’ll make you scream and see if he comes running.” 

Jiao’s response to the threat, as the second orc produced a glowing energy blade and the troll heaved a massive axe off his back, was a simple, “You are welcome to the attempt.” 

With a snarl, the orc pointed his enchanted gun and pulled the trigger, sending a concentrated blast of electrical energy (enough to put an Amarok on the ground), while the other orc dashed forward, energy-blade already lashing out to cut through the space the woman would have to dodge into. 

Or rather… the space she should have dodged into. But instead of moving that way, Jiao simply pivoted. Her left hand snapped upward, producing a small pistol of her own before firing off a single bullet, striking the hand of the lizard-like Alter who had been silently sneaking down the wall in an attempt to ambush her while she was distracted. With a yell as his hand was struck by the shot, the lizard-man plummeted off the wall and ended up falling directly into the path of the incoming ball of lightning. 

Meanwhile, Jiao’s other hand snapped backward and down, producing a pistol of its own before firing a shot into the knee of the orc who had just whiffed his laser-sword through the air where he’d thought she would be. He collapsed with a scream, before her pistol fired a second shot through the side of his head. 

Before the body could fall completely, the vampire used a very slight burst of speed to put herself on the opposite side of him just as another lightning ball from the first orc blew a hole in the wall where she had just been. Dropping both guns, Jiao hoisted the body of the second orc with one hand. A moment later, it was sent flying through the air. The first orc ducked, but the troll simply caught the incoming body with one hand. 

“That was pretty fucking stupid, bitch,” the orc snarled, already striding toward her with his magic pistol raised. “What the hell did you think that was gonna accomplish, huh?”

“What you should be asking yourself,” Jiao patiently and quietly replied, “is, if I threw him with one hand, why did I drop both guns?” 

“If you threw him with one–” As he echoed those words dismissively, the orc’s eyes suddenly widened as he saw that Jiao’s other hand wasn’t empty. Rather, it held a remote detonator. He spun back toward the troll, who was staring curiously at the dead orc in his massive hand. “Put him–” 

That was as far as he got, before the explosion blew the troll into little chunks. The force of the shockwave was enough to knock the living orc to the ground, where he lay with a groan before slowly lifting his head as the barrel of a pistol was placed calmly against it. 

“Perhaps,” Jiao began, as calmly as ever, “we can have that conversation about the gentleman who wishes to find my second husband now.”

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Interlude 2A – Asenath, Shiori, and Columbus (Heretical Edge 2)

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She missed Seth. 

Boy was that something that Asenath had never really thought she’d say. Not only because of how much the two of them tended to argue, but also because he was always there. Seth had been a near constant in her life for basically as long as she could remember. He was an aggravating big brother who never stopped finding new ways to irritate her. And yet, he had also been dependable when she really needed him, even if she hadn’t admitted it to herself at the time. He was a strong figure in her life throughout her development into the person she was. 

He was always there. Maybe not for everything, but certainly when she needed him. He’d be a dick about it and often make her voice regret for involving him, but those were just words. In action, he’d probably been the single most dependable figure in her life beyond her mother for the majority of it. Her father had been gone since she was a child, hundreds of years earlier. With his absence, Seth had become the most important, most stable (for what that was worth) male influence in her life. 

And now he was gone, murdered by the Seosten known as Abaddon. A Seosten who needed to die for what he’d done, whatever that took. The vampire had already promised herself that he would pay. 

But that would have to wait, possibly for a very long time. At the moment, she was riding the forcefield elevator down into what was being called Unitown (for both University Town and Unified Town), the neighborhood of houses in the dome where the mostly adult students were living. 

The faculty and other adults had their own arrangement similar to this one, though somewhat smaller. They had houses lined up in a circle surrounding a small lake. Nowhere near the size of the one where many students had already taken their first seafaring classes, and even smaller than the one back where the Atherby camp had been. But still, a pleasant little lake with large houses surrounding it for all the faculty to live in. They were allowed their own houses or they could live with others. For her part, Asenath lived with Nevada and Virginia. And Twister when she was around. 

Not that Twister was a teacher. By her own words, she didn’t have the temperament for it. But she was still helping the new and reborn Rebellion. She did her own work, helping out in ways other than working with students. Mostly that involved spying, considering her natural gifts for that sort of thing. Not only could she shift into any animal and watch people, but she was immune to Heretic’s special Reaper sense. And even when she wasn’t shifted into animal form, very few people took what looked like a preteen girl all that seriously. 

Which, given the one called Chayyiel, was a blind spot that one would think the Seosten of all people teach their puppets to get past, but neither Asenath nor Twister were going to complain. 

Bobbi Cameron was at the school too, though she was spending most of her nights in the dorm for students her own age. She would live with Asenath and the others over the weekends. Or at least, she would when she wasn’t visiting Wonderland, where Namythiet had invited her to come whenever she wanted. 

In any case, the elevator deposited her on the ground, and Asenath stepped off just in time to be grabbed in a hug by the girl waiting there.

“Oof,” she grunted with a small smile. “Hey there, sister.” Returning Shiori’s embrace, she noted, “You do remember that we just saw each other last night?”

Releasing her, Shiori bobbed her head eagerly. “Of course! Like I’d forget something like that. But this is different, cuz we’re gonna do it today.” She paused, squinting that way. “We are still doing it today?”

Asenath chuckled. “And risk withering under the destructive force of your sad puppy eyes if I said no? Of course we’re doing it today. That’s why I’m here.” She paused slightly before glancing around. “Your brother’s coming, isn’t he?”

The younger girl nodded again. “He’s in the back yard working on you-know-what. He said to get him when we’re ready. So, I guess we should go get him.” There was a clear eagerness in her voice, her excitement for the evening quite palpable. 

As they walked toward the house, Asenath asked, “You know what’s going on with Flick and the others?”

“Dinner with Aylen’s family,” came the response. “They asked if I wanted to go, but there were already a lot of people. And it seemed like it was going to be complicated anyway, so I said I’d wait to hear about it. Besides, we’ve got our own thing tonight.”

That they did. And the two of them soon found Columbus working steadily and intently in the backyard. He had a couple tables laid out with equipment and tools, a welder’s mask on as he used a powerful blow torch on something laid out on the heat-resistant table-shaped forcefield he’d set up a couple feet off the ground. 

So intent was the boy on his work that he didn’t notice his sister and adopted aunt standing there watching him for a minute. Only once he’d stopped and taken a breath with the torch held down by his leg did he seem to notice something from the corner of his eye (or perhaps through one of his powers). Either way, he glanced that way, jolting a bit when he saw them before reaching up to take the welder’s mask off with a grumbled, “Don’t do that. I know you’re a vampire and vampire-adjacent, but sneaking up on a guy and giving him a heart attack is just mean.”

“Sneaking?” Asenath echoed, a slow smirk crossing her features. “Oh, that definitely wasn’t sneaking. But since you clearly need to know the difference, I think I’ll make sure you end up getting a really good look at it.”

Groaning, Columbus hung his head. “Oh God, what’ve I done?”

“Made a very big mistake,” Shiori informed him cheerfully. Then she gestured to the thing he had been working on. “How’s it coming?” 

In response, Columbus grinned. “You’re just in time. She’s ready to turn on. I hope.” With that, he leaned down and took a moment to close up several panels on the thing he had been working with, quickly sealing them before picking the thing up, turning, and setting it on the nearby table. 

It was a porcupine. Or a metal facsimile of one, at least. The thing was about as big as a medium-sized dog. The body was black and somewhat rotund, with short, stubby legs and feet. Its face was rodent like, with gleaming purple eyes. But the bulk of its body was covered with rigid silver needles. The needles were razor-sharp, and the tips glowed faintly violet, like its eyes. 

“Okay,” Columbus murmured, “Let’s do this.” He was clearly nervous, considering this was something he’d been working on for months by this point. He had taken many lessons from Harrison Fredericks, had a couple false starts, but this was his first real test. This was his baby.

With the other two watching, Columbus reached out and placed both of his thumbs against the new cyberform’s purple gemstone-like eyes. “Zero zero zero one c, rise and shine.” His voice shook a little bit as he said the words, praying this didn’t go wrong the way A and B had in his first early attempts back when he had been entirely too eager and cocky. 

There was a slight humming noise for a few seconds as his creation slowly booted up. It lasted only for a few seconds before mostly fading. Then light came into the creature’s violet eyes, and it straightened slightly. The head tilted one way, then the other before settling its gaze onto him. Its small mouth opened and a tiny squeak came out. It sounded curious. 

Covering his mouth to muffle the sound of joy and elation, Columbus gingerly put a hand out for the creature to touch its cold metal snout against. “Hey there, girl. Run self diagnostic. How’re you doing?”

He held his breath then, watching intently while crossing his fingers. A few tortuously long seconds passed before the cyberform gave another squeak. The lights in its eyes flashed a couple times before turning a faintly lime green. A mix between yellow and green then. Red would have meant there were near catastrophic problems. Bright yellow would have meant it was functional, but only marginally. Bright green would have been perfect. Yellowish green meant it was mostly okay with a few minor issues that would need to be ironed out. That was probably as good as he could possibly have expected. 

Seeing the lime green color, Columbus couldn’t help but pump his fist into the air with an exuberant, “Yes! Hell yeah!” He immediately went to as the cyberform gave a soft squeak of alarm and shuffled a couple steps back.

“Shit, sorry, girl.” Gingerly reaching out once more to rub under the robot animal’s small snout, Columbus smiled. “It’s okay. You’re amazing. Come here, guys. Check out Amethyst.”

Stepping forward with Shiori, Asenath echoed, “Amethyst, huh? Because of her eyes and the tip of the needles?”

Columbus nodded, watching as his sister let the creature sniff at her hand. “Amethyst the porcudilo. Amy for short.”

Shiori gave him a weird look. “The hell is a porcudillo?”

With a grin, he replied, “Amethyst, dillo-mode.”

As soon as he said it, the little robot gave a chirp of acknowledgment. It straightened up a bit more, all of its needles retracting into its body with a quick whooshing sound. Once they were in, leaving only the holes behind, its entire back flipped around. The bulk of it body, save for its head, legs, and a thin layer of its ‘stomach’, completely flipped around. Now the part of its round body previously hidden inside was on the outside and the part with the needle holes was hidden inside. 

With the flipped body, a hard shell had been revealed. The shell was lined with armor that Columbus had tested against as much damage as he could. He’d gotten the metal for the armor from Athena. He wasn’t exactly sure where it had come from, but the metal had stood up to incredible amounts of damage without so much as cracking. 

“Turtle up!” he ordered, before watching in delight as Amethyst promptly rolled into a ball surrounded by her armor, a nearly impenetrable little fortress. 

Knocking against the shell, he grinned at the others. “Porcudillo. Part porcupine, part armadillo.”

Teasing the boy, Asenath informed him, “I would’ve gone with Armapine. You know, because what she’s got is the armor and the pines. The needles.”

Columbus chose to ignore the sense that made, instead looking back to his creation. “Amethyst, needle mode.” Again, a sound of pure delight and amazement escaped him as the thing he had built shifted back into its porcupine state, the gleaming needles extending into place. 

Next, Columbus carefully removed one of the needles, pulling it out of its slot to show them the small glowing marble sized orb attached to the bottom of it. “The orbs are enchanted with spells,” he explained. “Amethyst can shoot them out and make the spells hit things before they activate. It takes a while to enchant all her quills, and they can’t be that complicated, but it’s still worth it. Especially if they don’t expect the needles to do anything.”

He also showed them how the cyberform could shift into a shield form that fit on his arm in either defensive armadillo mode or porcupine mode with her sharp quills extended and ready to fire. 

“She’s a beautiful girl,” Asenath assured him while holding the cyberform from beneath and tickling under her chin. The metal creature was very shy, but seemed happy. 

“Right,” Columbus decided, “I think I’m gonna take her with us, let her stretch her legs a little bit. That is, if we’re still going?”

“Absolutely,” Asenath replied. “If you’re both ready, we can head up to the departures room. I already booked a portal.”

With Amethyst toddling along in front of them excitedly looking everywhere with constant squeaks of curiosity, they headed up. Before long, the group had been sent through the portal they had reserved and arrived near an old cabin with a tall, gnarled tree close to it. It was illuminated by the moonlight, casting a view that was equal parts eerie and tranquil. 

Shiori gave a soft gasp, slowly looking around before her gaze centered on the charming small cabin. “This is really the place? This is…”

“This is where we lived.” The response came not from Asenath, but from the doorway of the cabin as Jiao emerged. Her voice was almost as calm and serene as ever, though somewhat tainted by emotion when she looked to her two children. 

Shiori crossed that way quickly, embracing her birth mother tightly. “You made it.”

Tenderly returning the embrace, Jiao nodded. “Of course, I wouldn’t miss this little history lesson. Even if it has been quite some time since this place was home.”

Asenath exchanged embraces with their mother as well, before Jiao’s gaze turned to Columbus. “And it looks like you have a new friend,” she noted simply while nodding to Amethyst as the cyberform porcupine hid behind Columbus’s leg nervously. 

The boy introduced his creation, letting the shy creature get to know her for a minute before asking, “Our parents, they’re… okay?”

Like many of the potentially endangered parents and other relatives of Bystander-kin students, Shiori and Columbus’s adopted family had been put in a sort of witness protection program that even they didn’t know about. Their memories were adjusted and they were put into new identities elsewhere, hopefully out of the easy reach of overzealous Loyalists. It was the safest thing to do, given how dangerous all of this was. They still remembered who their children were, they simply believed the two were at boarding school. 

Jiao nodded. “I checked on them yesterday. They still believe I’m the overly friendly realtor who sold them their house. It gives me an excuse to check in now and then. And yes, they seem to be doing just fine, though they are looking forward to seeing both of you soon.”

With a somewhat guilty flush, Shiori hurriedly agreed, “We wanna see them too. I told Flick she could come with us. And… maybe Senny too? We could say that she’s my sister and we found each other online.”

Asenath chuckled. “Yeah, I think I can pull that off. I kind of want to meet them anyway.”

That settled, Columbus showed Jiao more of what Amethyst was capable of while the girls took a walk around the cabin. 

Eventually, Asenath led Shiori to the tree, standing there running her hand over it. “I was swinging from this the last day Papa was here. He saved me from breaking my neck.” A smile of both fond memories and deep longing touched her face before she gave a long sigh. “I wish we had any idea where he was.”

Seemingly in response to those very words, there was a sudden chiming sound and a soft blue glowing portal appeared nearby. An instant later, before anything else had a chance to happen, Jiao was there, standing beside her daughters with a wary eye on the portal. A pistol had appeared in her hand and was pointed that way. 

Columbus teleported over to stand next to Shiori, just has something emerged from the portal. It was a white flag, held up on a long walking stick. The flag waved back and forth a few times as if making sure it was seen before the person holding it followed, emerging slowly and carefully through the portal. 

The figure was humanoid on the surface, though he appeared to be made of very fine glass or crystal that was fully transparent. Within the glass was a mixture of smoke or gas and liquids of various colors that seemed to change (both color and state between gas and liquid) at random. Green gas would drift up through his arm, shift to blue, then red before reaching his hand, then turn into a liquid that bounced through the fingers, shifted to purple, and fell back through the arm before becoming a gas once more. There were no internal organs or skeleton visible. He was a glass figure in the shape of a man, with the shifting liquid and gas moving through his body in an intricate, beautiful pattern. His eyes were pools of that liquid. 

The shifting liquid-gas was the actual person, not the body on the outside. His glass-like humanoid ‘shell’ was what amounted to a magical projection that could be altered and reshaped at any point, including becoming much larger at the cost of more power. His people varied their shells wildly between any number of shapes. Some preferred to appear humanoid, others took on more animal forms, or even very eclectic bodies. The shell could look like anything, because it was the gas-liquid within that was the actual person. 

Asenath knew all that about the man, because she knew what he was. Not who, but what. At first glance, she knew he was–

“Vestil,” Jiao noted, not lowering her weapon an inch. 

“The mage-people from the Akharu world?” Shiori piped up. 

The man seemed to grimace a little, the colors in his glass face dimming before he quietly spoke. Except his voice didn’t come from his mouth. It came from his entire body. Or rather, it came from the swirling gas-liquid within. There was a slight humming effect to the voice, as if coming through an imperfect speaker. “In the interest of peace, I’m going to mostly ignore that you called it the Akharu world. You might as well call Earth Spanishland during the age of exploration.”

“Who are you?” Asenath demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“Ahem.” Clearing his throat, the man replied, “My name is Bol Sampson. And believe it or not, I’m here to help. I put up a spell on the edge of the property just to let me know when you were here. Apologies for the intrusion.”

Jiao narrowed her eyes at him. “Your people created the curse that forces the Akharu, and vampires, to drink blood for survival. The last time I heard from my husband, he was going to do something about your people still trying to wipe his out. Then he disappeared and we’ve heard nothing sense. You’ll forgive me if I’m somewhat skeptical about you being helpful.”

With a slight bow, Bol murmured, “You have every right to be suspicious and angry, good lady. But not all of my people are the same, as with any other species. And we have our own history as to why such a curse was our only option. The truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle. But that is neither here nor there. I haven’t come to discuss ancient history. My focus lies more in current affairs. Specifically, the current whereabouts of your husband.”

Eyes widening, Asenath suddenly blurred that way, grabbing the man by his glass-like shoulders. “You know where he is? He’s alive?”

Bol touched a ring on his hand, and a gentle, yet firm telekinetic force pushed her back a step from him. “Yes to both. At least, I have information about his recent whereabouts and situation. Information I will gladly give to you in exchange for a favor. I come from Las Vegas, I assume you know the situation there?”

Jiao nodded. “Akharu and vampires share the city with Vestil and Oni.”

“It’s a somewhat fragile alliance in many ways,” Bol noted, “but one that is very useful. We keep the fanatical Heretics out of Vegas. But now I’m afraid that alliance is endangered. The youngest grandchild of the Vestil and Akharu married family is missing. Every side in our city is already blaming the others. We need outside help. 

“Find the missing girl, and figure out who was responsible for taking her. Then I will tell you everything I know about Tiras.”

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Patreon Snippets 3

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

Columbus, Shiori, And Jiao

Through the pitch black night, three figures picked their way along a winding mountain trail. Trees lined both sides of the path, branches often sticking out in their way. Yet despite that, and despite the winding nature of the path that often seemed terribly random, none of the three ever missed a step. Through the complete darkness that came from the stars and moon being hidden behind clouds and the nearest city lights being many miles away, they nonetheless avoided every branch, stepped over every loose rock and random hole, hiking the trail as though it was illuminated by the bright light of noon.

Shiori, Columbus, and Jiao. Shiori and her mother had been spending a few days… or nights rather, each month meeting for things like these hikes, so that they could get to know each other. And this time, with her mother’s blessing, Shiori had invited her brother along, feeling that he really needed to get out. Manakel was now as dead as Charmiene. Avalon had been rescued and was recuperating at the Atherby camp. Things had… for the most part, settled down at least for the time being.

“Do you ever, umm, miss it?” Columbus, whose goggles really did allow him to see everything as if it was daytime, asked hesitantly while looking toward the taller of his two companions.

Jiao, whose vampiric gifts included the vision that allowed her to function perfectly in darkness, paused very briefly before guessing what he was referring to. “You mean the sun.”

Shiori paused as well, glancing over her shoulder at her mother. Though she wasn’t an actual vampire, she was a dhampyr, a hybrid. Which meant that her own night vision was good enough that she was no more inconvenienced by the darkness than either of the others. When she spoke up, her voice was hesitant. “It’s been a really long time, hasn’t it?”

“Two hundred and twenty-seven years,” the woman confirmed, her always soft voice even more so as she turned her head to look up at the dark, cloud-covered sky. “And yes, in some ways, I do miss it. It’s different now, with motion pictures. But back then, being away from the sun for so long was… sometimes very hard. All I had was my memories, and paintings. Over the years, I’ve seen more of it. Pictures, silent movies, when color came to the motion pictures, I was… I spent a long time watching them, because they allowed me to see the sun in real time.

“I–” Wincing, Columbus offered a weak, “I didn’t mean to make you sad or… or anything.”

Meeting his gaze, the Asian woman gave a slight shake of her head. “You didn’t make me sad, Columbus. At least, not in the way that you think. Yes, being a vampire means that I cannot function in daylight. But it also means that I am alive. If I had never met Tiras, if he had never shared his blood with me, I would have died in that hospital. I didn’t lose two hundred and twenty-seven years of sunlight. I gained two hundred and twenty-seven years of moonlight. Two hundred and twenty-seven years of seeing the world grow, of seeing society develop. I was sick, I was dying. I did not lose anything. I gained. I gained two incredible men that I love very much, along with two beautiful, amazing daughters whom I would not trade for any amount of sun.”

“But you haven’t seen them,” Shiori pointed out hesitantly. “You haven’t seen Tiras in… over two hundred years, almost as long as you haven’t seen the sun. And then you fell in love with… with my dad… with Liang, and you haven’t seen him for years either.”

Jiao gave the slightest nod. “You’re right. And I miss them both terribly. I still believe that I will see them again, that I will find them, or they will find me. But if we don’t… if I live a thousand years and never see them again, that won’t erase the reason that I love them, or the time that we did spend together. There are so many bad things in this world, and so many good things. If you spend all your time dwelling on the bad, like the years that you spend apart from someone you love, you’ll forget about the good, like the reason you miss them to begin with.”

Her golden-amber eyes remained locked on Columbus’s. “The trick is to remember that no matter what’s wrong… whether you feel lost, confused, alone… frightened… angry… betrayed, that they are your feelings. And there is nothing wrong with you for feeling that way.”

“I–” Columbus spoke that single word before his voice cracked, breaking right there as he gave a sharp shudder. His eyes closed behind those goggles, his voice a whisper that barely carried over the soft breeze. “I’m afraid.”

The admission was accompanied by a sag of his shoulders, his entire body slumping a bit. “I’m afraid. She’s dead. She’s gone. He’s dead too. They’re dead. I have protection. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I’m afraid. I don’t…” Squeezing his eyes shut even tighter, along with his fists, the boy shook his head. “I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be afraid.”

He felt arms wrap around him then, recognizing his sister as she embraced him tightly. “It’s okay to be afraid, Columbus. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

His mouth opened and shut before he managed to protest, “They’re dead. They’re gone. She’s dead.”

“Oh, my boy.” Reaching past her daughter, Jiao put one gentle, soft hand against the side of his face. “The hurt and fear that someone leaves behind after they’re gone doesn’t simply disappear when they do. Bad things can last for quite awhile. But so do good things, if you let them. You want to know how to fight this, how to move on? Make new memories, better memories. Be with your family, with your friends. Do things that you enjoy.

“The pain that your demons inflicted on you doesn’t fade when they die. It fades when you live.”

Columbus couldn’t speak for another few seconds, the lump in his throat taking his voice while he simply clung to Shiori. Finally, he managed to move one arm, opening it while Shiori did the same. His own voice returned, just enough for the boy to whisper, “Thank you.”

Jiao took one step closer, letting both of her arms wrap around the two. She embraced them, brother and sister, her daughter…

And the boy she would have proudly called her son.

 

******

 

Lincoln and Tabbris after the hospital.

 

The tiny blonde girl, face still adorned by fox paint, staggered through the portal that had been opened to lead her back to the Atherby camp. Two steps through, and she was there, standing on the grass next to the lake. Standing, that was, for all of a brief second. Then her legs buckled and the girl began to collapse.

She didn’t fall far, however, before a pair of strong arms caught her. Lincoln Chambers, taking a quick knee to grab onto the girl, lifted her up smoothly while rising. “Whoa, hey there.”

Starting a bit, Tabbris belatedly realized where she was, blinking up at the man who held her in his arms. A slight tremble came to the girl, before she turned a bit to hug onto him as tightly as she could manage. “M.. Mr… Mr… I… I mean… Dad. Dad. Avalon… Avalon–”

“She’s okay,” Lincoln promised. “They’re taking care of her right now. You kept her alive, Tabbris. Brave, brave girl. You kept her alive. You saved her.”

“Columbus too,” she murmured, not relaxing her grip at all. “He’s… he’s…” She could barely speak. The exhaustion from everything she had done, even with Columbus’s help, had left her entirely too far gone. She needed to sleep. But first, she needed to know that things were okay.

“He’s okay too,” Lincoln assured the girl. “And Flick. She’ll be okay.”

“R-Rudolph won’t,” Tabbris whispered, tears suddenly filling her eyes as she shuddered. “Rudolph. Rudolph’s–”

“I know.” His own voice cracking as well, Lincoln hugged the girl tight against himself. He couldn’t say it would be okay, because it wouldn’t. Not anytime soon. A boy had been murdered by a monster, and Tabbris had seen his body. She had seen… too much. She’d seen entirely too much. Not just that night, but throughout her life. She never had a real chance to be a little kid. Even when she had been hiding inside Felicity, the girl had still needed to worry about intruders, about monsters trying to enslave or abduct her charge. And she had had no one to help her.

But she would never lack for that now. Never again. Lincoln vowed that to himself. Tabbris would never have to feel that alone again.

“You’re safe,” he whispered, holding the exhausted girl close. “Flick is safe. It’s over, my little fox-girl. It’s done. You saved Avalon. You beat them.”

Her eyes blinked up at him then, still wet from tears even as she clung desperately, both to him and to consciousness itself. “Dad,” she whispered softly. “Daddy. Please don’t go away.”

Heart aching, Lincoln shook his head. “I promise, baby girl. I promise, I’m right here. I won’t leave you alone. I’m right here. My girl. My beautiful, brave little girl.”

Tears returning, Tabbris closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head. She tried to say something else, but couldn’t find the words. And the thought of opening her eyes now that they had closed seemed an impossibly daunting task.

So she didn’t. Eyes closed, the girl turned her head a little to rest it against her father’s chest. Just for a moment, just to catch her breath. Just to feel, for a second or two, the unconditional paternal love and acceptance that she had been so starved for through so much of her life.

It would be hours before her eyes opened again. And true to his word, Lincoln stayed with her through all of it.

 

*****

Lies and Pace

 

They were in the forest of Eden’s Garden. Pace with her fellow werewolves Valentine and the pack leader Lemuel. Facing them was the blonde girl that Doxer wanted to play with, that Felicity Chambers. Somewhere in the distance came the sound of the other girl, the one that Lemuel had turned into a werewolf. That one was currently going through her first change, and from the sound of things, it was not going well.

Pace, or Lies in that moment, had just shared her secret with the Felicity-girl, had just revealed the hilarious truth that she was both werewolf and Heretic.

Werewolf, Heretic, and Seosten Lie, but the girl didn’t need to know that part. That was an even bigger secret. Couldn’t tell her that. Couldn’t let her ruin it.

Aloud, she announced, “Shh. Nobody else gets to know. Don’t want you spoiling my secret fun. That’d be really, really mean.”

Technically, she was referring to the secret about her be a werewolf. But she also meant the secret about her being a Seosten. The secret that Felicity didn’t know yet. Sometimes Lies got herself confused about what people did and didn’t know. It was all so exhausting, keeping those secrets.

See? that voice in the back of her mind, the true Pace, who still refused to just be quiet and stop talking, put in. You keep pretending you don’t know her name. You call her Present to her face. But you think of her as Felicity. She’s a person. They’re all people. Roxa’s a person. Roxa. That’s her name. That’s the name of the person you let Lemuel put through hell. Felicity. That’s this girl’s name. You know her name.

The girl, Felic–Present was babbling. She was saying something, but then Rox–the new wolfie girl was very, very rude and interrupted with a scream of agony. So whatever Present was about to say had been forgotten, as she blurted the other girl’s name and moved as though to go to her.

Well, that was just rude. Growling deep in her throat at the sheer audacity, Lies quickly put herself back in front of the other girl. Her arms snapped up, her hands found both of Present’s shoulders, and she forcefully shoved her back a step. “No!” she blurted, “Bad present! You can’t see her now, the other one isn’t done making her change yet, and we promised she’d be alone the whole time. You don’t wanna make liars out of us, do you? Rude Present.”

Lies. Lies, look. Look. Focus. Look!

In mid-rant, the words of her host penetrated, and Lies found herself slowly lowering her gaze slightly, from Present’s face to a spot a bit lower. She saw then, what she had been too distracted by her anger to see before. She saw what her host had immediately seen, even in that brief split second when they had shoved Present.

She saw the other girl. She saw the child… the child inside of Felicity Chambers.

Seosten. A Seosten child. There was a Seosten child inside of Felicity Chambers. That was why she was immune to being possessed. All the manpower, all the time, all the arguments over what Joselyn Atherby had done to render her daughter immune to possession, all the ranting from Cahethal about the problem… and the answer had been that simple.

Felicity Chambers was possessed… by a child.

Chambers was saying something else, something about them making Roxa into a werewolf as that realization dawned on her.

“Isn’t it funny?!” Lies blurted with a loud, crazed cackle of laughter. She wasn’t talking about the Roxa girl. Who cared about the Roxa girl? She knew why Chambers couldn’t be possessed. She knew another secret.

But the others didn’t. No one knew what she knew. She had to cover. So she let them think she was talking about the Roxa girl, babbling on something ridiculous about not giving the girl her toy.

She brought up the choker, even flicking a finger against it, while keeping half an eye on the Seosten child. Was she a Lie too? Was she controlling this Felicity this whole time?

No. Felicity moved without the girl moving the same way. The girl wasn’t controlling her, she was just… standing there, so to speak. She was possessing her, but she wasn’t doing anything with it. She was just there… protecting the girl from being possessed.

This was hilarious. This was very… very funny.

So distracted was she, that Lies didn’t see the attack coming. She was caught flat footed as Felicity moved suddenly, lashing out with that staff of hers while triggering a kinetic blast that sent Pace flying off to hit a tree.

She recovered instantly, of course. But still, the girl sat there, thinking.

What are you going to do? The voice, fearful, came from the real Pace once more. You know the truth. So what are you going to do with it?

We could make Manakel love us forever, Lies pointed out. Manakel would love us. Cahethal would love us. Even Charmiene would be happy. They would tell Mama that we did good. Maybe–

You don’t believe that. The voice was soft, far different from the tone that had come before. Pace had seen as much of her mind as Lies had seen of hers. But you’re right about Manakel and the others. They’d be really happy. They’d reward you. All you have to do is tell them about that girl. All you’d have to do is tell them about the girl.

Chambers had sent herself through the trees, reappearing directly behind Lies as the girl picked herself up. Before that staff she had could reach her head, Lies had already reacted. She spun, ducking as she moved before lashing out with a punch.

The girl. The child. She needed to activate the choker again so that she could see the child.

The punch did the trick. As did grabbing hold of Felicity’s bicep to keep it active. Lies yanked too hard, breaking the girl’s arm as she threw her to the ground.

She could see her again. The child, right there in plain view. She was so… innocent, so young.

But they’ll take that away, Pace reminded her. You can make yourself the Seosten hero. All you have to do is sentence that girl to whatever Manakel and the others… like your mother, would put her through. Torture. Pain. Loss. They’ll take Felicity away from her. They’ll take that girl back to Seosten space and they will get answers out of her. But you’ll win. You’ll be the hero.

So again, what are you going to do?

In answer, Lies lashed out, kicking Chambers repeatedly while calling her a bad present.

Our secret, she informed her host. No one else’s. Ours. Maybe we’ll get the girl out later. Protect her. Have a friend. We could do that. That… that might be nice. But we don’t tell anyone. We don’t… do that to her. We make this look good. But we keep the secret.

She didn’t know this girl, didn’t know anything about her or why she was there. Or how she’d gotten there, for that matter. But she did know one thing. If it was the choice of  being the Seosten hero and subjecting this girl to the same kind of things she had gone through as a child, or keeping it secret… she would keep it secret.

Because what was the point of making Manakel and the others happy and finally winning the approval that she had so desperately wanted for so long… if she couldn’t live with herself?

 

******

 

Tabbris and Gabriel Prosser

 

“Mr. Gabriel, that train is pretty big. Are you sure you can stop it?”

The question from Tabbris came as the young girl waited a little bit away from the man himself. Gabriel, meanwhile, stood in the middle of a set of the road tracks, watching the incoming freight train as it bore down on him while seeming to pick up speed with each passing second. It was no ordinary freight train, but one that had been heavily reinforced, armored by both technology and magic. The train projected a force field around itself, had heavy plating mounted to it, and there were even turrets attached to the top all along its length, one to each car.

Meanwhile, the tall, yet unassuming black man stood in its path. One hand rested lightly on the handle of his ever-present shovel, which had been pushed into the ground a bit.

In answer to the girl’s question, he gave a slight nod. “It’s quite alright, thank you. Just stay there, and no one will see you.” He had put up half a dozen protection and cloaking fields around the girl.

He could have simply send her home through a portal, of course. They had been out looking at tropical fish near an island that he had wanted to show the girl when the call came in about a train carrying prisoners and slave labor toward a Seosten transport ship had come in. He could have sent the girl home then, but she had asked to stay and watch. He would still send her away the instant anything went wrong, but for the time being, he let her stay.

The train closed on him and the first few turrets spun toward the front to take aim. The ones behind the front each rose a bit more on platforms to shoot over the others. Leaving nothing to chance, as many as possible opened fire, while the train itself picked up speed, doubling in an instant, even as the force field around the front grew even brighter and stronger.

As dozens of blasts of powerful, pulverizing energy that could have punched their way through armored tanks shot toward him, Gabriel held up his free hand. The blasts were drawn toward it, narrowing into a single dazzlingly bright beam before disappearing into the man’s palm with no more apparent effect than a flashlight.

With all that power summarily absorbed, Gabriel immediately released it once more in the form of dozens of bright blades of energy, which appeared near each turret and instantly sliced through them, leaving the guns useless.

The train itself was still bearing down. As it neared him, in the bare couple of seconds before he would have been left as a smear on the tracks, Gabriel narrowed his eyes. At a thought, two things happened. First, a pair of portals appeared directly in front of him and a bit further back, just further apart than the length of the train itself.

Second, the train’s momentum was taken away. It immediately began to slow down, passing repeatedly between the two portals as it did so. He didn’t want to instantly stop the train, to avoid injuring those on board. So, he simply gradually stole its momentum while repeatedly sending it back and forth through those two portals. From the outside, the train appeared to stay almost in one place, repeatedly running over the same path of track, while from the train’s perspective, it was still covering lots of ground.

Within a few seconds, the train was safely stopped, unable to move no matter what it drivers tried. Almost as quickly, dozens of armored soldiers appeared, dropping off of the train or scrambling up on its roof to surround the man who had stop them. Their weapons were raised and ready. Before long, fifty troops of various shapes and sizes were there.

In response to all of this, as their weapons were leveled and the troops awaited the order to attack, Gabriel spoke three simple words.

“You may surrender.“

They didn’t, of course. But he had to offer. Instead, as their leader shouted a single word, the soldiers all opened fire, or used whatever ranged power they happened to have. Whatever it took, they would destroy him. Dozens of energy blasts, fireballs, jets of ice, hyper-accelerated metal balls, contained explosions, and more collided with the man in a terrifying display of power.

Then it was over. The dust cleared, and Gabriel Prosser stood entirely unaffected. Not a single attack had managed to so much as ruffle his shirt.

“Okay,” he said then, even as the troops prepared to attack again. With that simple word, Gabriel lifted his shovel from the dirt and drove it down hard once more.

As the blade of the shovel was driven through the dirt, dozens of copies of it appeared simultaneously. They shot up out of the ground, out of thin air, or out of the side or roof of the train itself. The duplicated shovel blades instantly grew to several times their normal size while glowing with unbelievable power. Each was positioned perfectly to slice straight through one of the soldiers. No armor or protection could save them. The troops, to a man, were instantly cut in half from every direction by that single thrust.

Throughout all of this, Gabriel had only moved twice. Once to raise his hand, and the second time to lift his shovel and drive it down once more. Now the train was stopped, its mounted weaponry destroyed, and its troops eliminated.

“Okay,” the man announced simply, turning to where Tabbris was.

“Let’s see how our new friends on board are doing.”

 

******

 

Young Chayyiel

 

“And then Trierarch Bayest drew his gun, pointed at the Fomorian on the ground, and said, ‘You didn’t leave one survivor, you’ve left two.’  And then he pulled the trigger and blew the Fomorian’s whole head into splatter dust like fwoomsh!

With the end of her pronouncement, the young Chayyiel suddenly threw her arms wide open, going as far as jumping into the air to demonstrate the explosive nature of the aforementioned head explosion. She added in her best approximation of gooey noises as well right at the end, as if demonstrating the resulting gore dripping from the walls.

The first of her two-member audience who had been listening to the girl’s story gave her a broad smile. Abaddon, his enormous figure completely dwarfing the child’s as they stood on one of the Olympus’s space observation decks, raised his hand. His thumb was lightly pressed against the side of his index finger, while the other three fingers were tucked down against his palm. Millennia in the future and far away, the human equivalent of that gesture would be a thumbs up.

“That’s right, aucellus,” he announced, using his favored nickname for the child. “That’s exactly how that went down. I should know, I was the other survivor. And Bayest was one of the most badass trierarchs I ever had the pleasure of serving under.”

The other occupant of the observation deck grunted in disbelief. Cahethal, her incredibly, distractingly green eyes focused on the man, disbelievingly asked, “Are you quite certain that you’re not exaggerating even a little bit? I find it difficult to believe that one man, no matter how talented he may be, was capable of single-handedly wiping out an entire Fomorian strike force, no matter how motivated he may have been.”

Grunting, Abaddon thumped a fist against his chest. “You believe what you want, science girl. I know what I saw. Bayest is the biggest damn hero of the Seosten that I’ve ever met. And there ain’t never going to be another one like him.”

“You just said—” In mid-sentence, Cahethal visibly gave up and shook her head with a sigh. “Never mind.”

She focused on Chayyiel then. “Come, you know that you are here for more than simply listening to totally exaggerated war stories.”

Obediently, Chayyiel moved over to stand next to the woman who had, over the past year or so since the ship had launched, taken up a role as one of her teachers.

Once the girl was there, Cahethal asked, “You asked to work on your experiment here on the observation deck so you could watch the stars. Are you sure you won’t be too distracted? And did you bring your materials?”

Quickly nodding, the girl promised, “I’ll work on it. I have my things right over there.” She pointed to a couple of cloth bags sitting near the entrance. “Thank you, praeceptor. It’s so boring in the test lab.”

Grunting a little, Cahethal simply gave a single nod. “Just be sure that you do not make me regret this allowance. I will return in one hour and I hope to see some definite progress.”

As the girl fervently promised to get her work done, Cahethal and Abaddon stepped out, leaving her alone for the time being. On his way, the large man glanced back and winked at her. “Biggest badass of the Seosten, kid. You remember that. Maybe you’ll get lucky and meet him one day.”

Once they were gone, Chayyiel move to the nearest wall and used the screen there to call up an exterior view of the ship. She stood there, smiling giddily at the projected image.

“Oh Olympus,” the girl murmured while running her hands through the holographic shape, “you’re the most amazing ship in the universe.”

Bias aside, the girl wasn’t that far off. Though their crew was somewhat limited only to those who had passed through the Summus Proelium Project, it was easily state of the art. The latest in technology and magic lay at their fingertips. The Olympus was truly remarkable in every conceivable way.

The main central body of the ship was made up of an orb exactly five hundred meters in diameter. This was where the living and science facilities, as well as the primary slide-drive that allowed the ship to enter what amounted to hyperspace, were. Attached to that orb in three separate places (the top and both sides) were three long structures that extended about twenty meters behind the orb, continued along the outside of the orb and ahead past it another one hundred. Each of the three structures was shaped roughly like part of a cylinder, curved inward so that they lay almost flat against the surface of the orb itself. They were wide enough that with one on top and the two equidistant apart on the bottom left and bottom right of the orb, each nearly touched one of the others. The far end of each of these half-cylinder structures narrowed into sharp points, forming a jagged end.

At an order from the ship’s captain, each of those three (or fewer if needed) could separate from the main orb. As it did so, that half-cylinder would extend its sides, opening wing-like structures so that it could function as a separate combat-capable ship. When all four of its pieces were locked in place, the Olympus was a terrifyingly powerful vessel for its size, precisely because it was essentially three gunships mounted against a very well shielded central core. It could fight like that, as one, or separate itself into the three distinct combat ships and one command orb that could stay to direct the battle, or flee with all of their intact leadership and resources if need be. The separate, incredibly heavily armed combat ships had their own slide-drives just in case, but they were only rated for a much slower jump, used for emergencies. The vast majority of their power and available space was given to shields and weapons. There was no doubt about their intended purpose.

As the girl stood there admiring the hologram, the nearby door slid open, admitting Amitiel to the observation room. “Hey, kid,” he started with a wave. “Thought you might like some company.“

Immediately smiling, Chayyiel nodded. “Hi, Uncle Amitiel.”  She paused, turning to look both ways before taking a bit of metal from her pocket. Her thumb pressed against it and she murmured a spell that she had picked up from a few of the adults. After a second of that, she nodded. “It’s okay, nobody’s watching.”

With that established, she then asked, “Did you think about what we were talking about? The bit about you having your own name, I mean.”

Shaking his head, the being who had once been known as a Lie before taking the body of the true Amitiel replied, “It might’ve been over a year, but I’m still getting accustomed to answering to his name. Besides, what’s the point of having a name that only you or I know about?”

Shrugging, Chayyiel answered, “Other people might know someday. You can trust Sariel and Lucifer, you know.”

Rather than directly respond to that, Amitiel asked, “How are you doing with them still being gone on that mission? You alright?”

Looking back that way, Chayyiel hesitated, biting her lip before honestly answering, “I miss them. I know we have to maintain radio silence and everything, but we don’t even know if they’re okay.”

“Don’t you worry,” Amitiel assured her. “You know how good those two are. Kushiel may have pushed for them to go that first time just to get rid of them, but they showed her, didn’t they?”

The girl swallowed at that memory before giving a short nod. “Why does Kushiel hate them so much?”

The question made him sigh, hanging his head before shaking it. “Why does Kushiel do anything? She pretty much hates everyone she can’t control, and you know how Lucifer is about people trying to control him or his partner.”

Frowning, Chayyiel folded her arms across her chest while her brow knitted. “Kushiel isn’t very nice. But Uncle Puriel is… usually. Except when he listens to her.” She paused briefly before amending, “Okay, sometimes he’s nice. But she’s never nice. So how come he likes her so much?”

Amitiel opened his mouth, before pausing to shake his head. “You know what kid, I think you just stumbled across one of the great mysteries of the universe. I mean, sure, she’s pretty and all, but…” He paused again, then shrugged helplessly. “Yeah, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”

Changing the subject then, the man asked, “So what kind of project are you doing for the old microscope?”

Giggling despite herself, Chayyiel chastised, “You shouldn’t call her that. Just because she’s short and has special eyes…”

“Still makes you laugh though,” Amitiel pointed out with a wink. “So about this project, you wanna show me?”

Brightening, the girl asked, “Do you want to help me with it? The stuff is right there.” She pointed to the bags next to him.

Amitiel glanced down before grabbing the bags to walk that way. “Sure, why not. Let’s see what we’re working with.

“And while we work, you can tell me what outrageous story Abaddon’s filled your head with this week.”

******

 

Aylen Tamaya

 

Alone in the room that she shared with Koren Fellows, Aylen Tamaya stood at the window, gazing down at the grassy field where her fellow students walked, sat, or even ran. They studied and worked there, enjoying the always-beautiful afternoon on the magical island.

The Native American girl’s eyes found their way to one group in particular. Sitting there on the grass, engrossed in another of their deeply private conversations, were Columbus Porter, Sean Gerardo, Felicity Chambers, Douglas Frey, and Scout Mason. Avalon wasn’t there, because she had been hurt, taken by monsters and terribly hurt in some way before being rescued by her team, and by Gaia. She was recovering now, apparently, off in some secret place with people the Crossroads headmistress trusted.

Aylen hoped that the girl was okay. Avalon had… had helped her when she really needed it. Without her, Aylen’s… secret would have gotten out. She wouldn’t have been able to stop it. She owed her life to the other girl, and so much more. If there was anything she could have done to help Avalon, she would have, without a second thought.

But the others, the rest of Avalon’s team, didn’t trust her. And she didn’t blame them. Why wouldn’t they keep secrets? After all, she was keeping a very big one. One that she had even convinced Avalon herself to keep for her. A secret from everyone, except for Avalon, now.

Whatever problems Avalon’s team was going through, Aylen wished that she could help. But that would mean revealing herself, revealing the truth about what she was. And that was… that was too much. She wanted to help, but exposing herself like that, revealing herself was… she couldn’t do that. Not yet. No matter what Avalon had said about how they could be trusted.

She’d promised to think about it, and she would, she had, quite a lot. More than once, Aylen had stood outside either Felicity or Scout’s door, sometimes in the middle of the night, and tried to work up the courage to knock. She wanted, so badly, to tell them everything.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. Not only from a lack of trust, or an overabundance of fear. But also because whatever they were going through, it would be so much worse if they had to deal with her problems too. And that wasn’t fair to them. Felicity and the others had far too much to deal with as it was without Aylen piling onto the secrets they were keeping.

With a sigh, the girl gave the group one last look before turning away from the window. She walked from there to the wall, where a mirror had been mounted. Standing there, she faced the mirror and examined herself, seeing what others saw when they looked at her.

Dark hair that fell to her shoulders. Dusky skin. High cheekbones. Dark eyes. As she examined herself from each angle, Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, made a noise from where was perched on his wooden stand. The nest that he slept in was on top of Aylen’s dresser nearby.

“I know, Sovereign,” the girl assured her partner. “We’ll leave soon, I promise. I just have to see.”

From her pocket, she withdrew a small comb. The comb had been a gift. Running a thumb over the runes etched in it, the girl slowly touched it to the side of her face, and whispered the activation spell.

In an instant, she changed. And Aylen saw her true form. Her skin was still dark, testament to her true Native American roots. Or at least, those of her mother. Or at least… one of her mothers. What the comb revealed was the genetic contributions of her other mother.

Her first mother’s contribution to the child made possible by the being known as Grandfather was her Native American appearance. Sonoma had also passed along her werecrow gifts. Aylen had kept them secret ever since she had come to this school, though she had gifted herself a few private flights with Sovereign whenever she needed to clear her head.

But as the magical comb revealed her true self, Aylen saw the parts of her that she had inherited from her other mother.

Eyes that were a deep azure blue.

Hair that was much the same. Blue. The blue of the cloudless sky.

The blue of the Reapers. Or a half-reaper, like her second mother, Bastet.  

Bastet and Sonoma, her mothers. And with any luck at all, Aylen would soon be able to save her grandfather.

No, not that one. Her other grandfather. Bastet’s father.

What Crossroads called the Heretical Edge.

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Tis The Season 19-07

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Explaining to my dad why I’d run out like that had been easier than I’d thought. And, at the same time, harder. I was tired of lying to him, tired of… all that. So, when I got back to the house, I was as honest as I could possibly be. I told him that there was something bothering me, but that I had to work it out on my own. I promised that if there was anything he could do to help, I’d tell him. And that when I could tell him about it, I would. All of that was true. If there was the slightest chance of my father remembering the things that I told him, I’d bring him in on things in a heartbeat, without hesitation.

I could tell that Dad wanted to talk more about it, especially about why the whole Scott thing made me run out like that. But he let it go. At least, on the surface. I wouldn’t be surprised if he started looking into everyone named Scott who ever went to my old school, had any interaction with me, or even went to Crossroads. Gaia getting a call from him asking about any Scotts there wouldn’t surprise me at all.

So Shiori, Columbus, and I spent most of the day trying to relax while talking about serious subjects whenever my father was out of the room. We tried to play some board games, and actually managed to get through a little bit here and there. I couldn’t ever quite forget about what Fossor and Ammon had done (or tried to do), but the other two gave it their best shot. And they even made me smile a little bit.

Eventually, it got late enough for Asenath to join us. Which meant it was time to exchange gifts. Dad and I had done ours, of course. But the three of us had been waiting for Senny to get up (apparently she and Dare had spent the rest of the previous night at a bar drinking the locals under the table while hustling them at pool so bad there might not have been an actual table left for them to be drunk under).

“Great,” I announced as Shiori and Columbus exchanged hugs with her. “You’re up. We thought we’d go for a walk and, you know… talk while we deal with the presents thing. Just missing one more.”

“Need one more?” Senny echoed while raising an eyebrow at me curiously. “One more person?”

Winking, I nodded upstairs while heading out of the room. “Don’t worry, they’ll fill you in.”

Columbus and Shiori told her what was going on while I poked my head in the kitchen to let Dad know that we were going out for a few minutes. Then I jogged upstairs, ostensibly to grab my coat. On the way, I poked my head in my room. “Twist,” I whispered in the direction of my bed, “You still awake?”

There was a brief pause before a dark-furred fox emerged from beneath the bed. She yawned before hopping up onto the mattress, transforming into the girl once more. “Whatsamatter?” she drawled lazily. “Your pops going out again? Need someone to tail him that isn’t spending quality sister time?”

My head shook at that. “Nope. Dad’s fine. I don’t think he’s going anywhere tonight. But you are.”

Her eyebrows raised, even as those cute fuzzy ears pricked with curiosity. “I am? And where’s that?”

“Out with us,” I informed her easily, gesturing. “It’s still Christmas, after all. And Christmas means presents. So c’mon, let’s go. I’ve never kept a vampire waiting for presents before, but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea. Do you wanna deal with a cranky, present-less vampire princess? Because I sure don’t.”

For a moment, the Pooka just sat there and looked at me. “You just want me to… exchange presents?”

Breathing out, I met her gaze. “I was thinking about what you said earlier, about Scott. I spent all day thinking about how unfair it was that all of Scott’s family and friends forget him, about how… about how much it must hurt him. But you’re a Pooka too. You’ve been through it. You even said that’s why you don’t interact with humans very much anymore, because they always forget you when you die.”

When Twister nodded silently, I coughed. “So, I mean… I know it’s not much. And maybe you think it’s dumb. But Asenath’s a vampire, and the rest of us are Heretics. The Bystander Effect doesn’t work on us. Which means we’re not gonna forget you. So come on.” I nodded over my shoulder. “Presents.”

Holding my hand out to make it clear that I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, I waited until Twister transformed into a mouse and scurried up my leg to hide in my pocket for the trip back downstairs.

So we joined the others. Twister went back into her human form and pretty much immediately latched onto poor Columbus. “Why in the dozen hells did you bother wasting so much breath talking me into coming along with this when you could’ve just told me this tall slice of chocolate cake was going?”

“Uhhh…” The boy himself coughed, squirming a little with an obviously flushed face. “Hey, Twister.”

“Hey yourself, big guy,” Twister all but purred at him. I was half-afraid she actually would turn into a cat in order to do just that. And between her and Shiori, the puns if she did might have just killed me.

Eventually, my poor teammate managed to extricate himself and we all walked down the street together. Columbus and Shiori had already grabbed the bag they’d brought with them, and I stopped long enough to get the one that I had set up earlier while we were waiting for night to fall. It was dark and cold by that point (beyond cold, considering what I was used to), but I didn’t really care. I was with my friends. The only thing that could have made it better was if Avalon was there. And that was a thought that made me glance sidelong toward Shiori as a somewhat guilty feeling bubbled up in me.

Yeah, we definitely needed to talk about that. Among every other situation that needed to be dealt with, at least that one I could actually affect. Coming clean with both of them about… about my feelings, it needed to happen before someone ended up getting their feelings hurt or there was a misunderstanding.

It didn’t take long to reach the nearest park. We went up to the pavilion and exchanged gifts there.

I gave Columbus a graphic novel collection and Senny a tan trenchcoat and deerstalker cap (so she could be a real detective). For Shiori, I had several Terry Pratchett books. They seemed right up her alley with her goofy sense of humor, and I’d made sure with Columbus that she didn’t have them.

Finally, it came time for Twister. Taking a breath, I focused on her. “I um, I called Professor Dare and asked for her help with this one, because I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be anywhere near here. At least, nowhere close enough for me to get to and back without access to teleportation. Or, y’know, a car.”

With that said, I reached into my pocket and produced a necklace (well, mostly it was a leather cord with a pendant attached to it), holding it out for the other girl to take. The pendant itself was green, and looked a bit like an infinity symbol with a third loop above the second one, or like a rope that had been twisted a couple times. It was bigger on the bottom and smaller as it went up, twisting around itself.

“Lemme guess,” Twister remarked dryly while taking it. “You saw the Twists and just thought of me.”

“It’s called a Pikorua,” I replied. “Apparently it’s a Maori thing, from New Zealand. It’s um, supposed to represent the strength and… you know, endurance of good friendship. The twisting thing is the whole… winding paths of two friends who keep crossing paths and how they’ll always be connected.”

For a few seconds, the Pooka didn’t say anything. She closed her hand around the pendant before clearing her throat as she put it on. There was a slight strain in her voice as she tried to play it off. “Gods damn it, you are bound and determined to make me feel bad about not getting you anything.”

“Are you kidding?” I retorted while giving the smaller figure a little push. “You watch my dad every single day. You keep him safe. You’ve gotten me… pretty much everything. I’m just sorry I don’t have anything better for you. It was just—kind of a rush and… and it felt like something you should have.”

There was more that I wanted to say. But before I could, Senny abruptly turned. She was sniffing, and my hackles immediately went up. As my hand wandered reflexively toward my belt, however, she touched my arm while shaking her head. “It’s not a problem,” she announced quietly. “It’s our–”

A woman stepped into the light of the pavilion. I swore she hadn’t been anywhere near there a second earlier when my searching gaze had passed over it. Yet she didn’t look like she had been running. She was just… there, stepping quietly and gracefully into view with both hands in the pockets of her coat.

She was Asian, her long hair tied into a braid. Besides the long coat, the woman also wore black slacks and a white shirt with an elegant flower design going up one side, culminating around the left breast. Over a shoulder, she carried a plain-looking leather satchel with a strange symbol that I couldn’t make out from where I was standing. But I did know that according to the power that let me know every item in my vicinity, there was nothing in it. Which meant the satchel was either actually empty, or it was magic like the storage devices that Heretics kept their weapons in. I knew which way I was guessing.

When I’d met Gabriel Prosser, his power and overall aura had filled the room completely despite the man doing nothing to play it up. Being in the same room with that man, watching as he did something as ordinary as filling up a glass of water at the sink, had still somehow been an amazing experience.

By contrast, the woman in front of us looked like she could disappear within a second and leave all of us completely unsure of whether she had ever actually been there at all. Her movement was silent, and the shadows themselves almost seemed eager to swallow her up again, clinging to her almost lovingly.

She looked older than Senny, but not by that much. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties rather than a woman who could have given birth to the eighteen-year-old that Senny looked like. There was a sort of fragile china-doll type appearance to the woman everywhere but her eyes, which were a golden amber color that looked both unnatural and beautiful.

Oh, and naturally, my Heretic-sense was kindly screaming in my ear about the woman being an Alter. Thanks, Heretic-sense. Where would I be without you?

“Mother.” The word itself might have sounded stiff and formal. But in that moment, coming from Asenath as she took a single step that way before stopping herself, there was nothing standoffish about it. Her voice portrayed the unbelievable affection and connection she obviously had with the woman, a connection that had obviously lasted for centuries by that point. Their daily lives may have drifted apart so that they spent months or even years without crossing paths. But Senny obviously loved her mother. And from the brief look that I saw flash across the woman’s eyes, the sentiment was definitely mutual.

“Hello, Sunny,” Jiao spoke in a quiet voice that, like the rest of her, seemed to fade away immediately.

“Sunny?” Columbus put in, somehow finding his voice before I did. “Isn’t it Senny? Like Asenath.”

The woman smiled a bit. “That is what others call her, Columbus. But she has always been my sun.”

“Oh, you–” he coughed a little awkwardly. “You know my name. Uh, of course you do.” Glancing sidelong toward his sister, he looked like he was going to say something, but stopped at her expression.

“I do,” Jiao confirmed, her soft smile returning. “Thank you for being such a good brother. I could not have asked for more.” Her attention turned to me then. “And thank you, Felicity, for helping my daughter so much. I owe you a debt that cannot be repaid.”

For her part, Shiori had been standing there open-mouthed. I’d seen more emotion cross the girl’s face in those few seconds than a lot of people demonstrated in an entire week. She was happy, elated, scared, angry, terrified, hopeful, and more. And all those emotions kept flicking through her expression as she stared at her mother. Behind all of it, however, there was an obviously incredibly deep longing.

Her voice, when she spoke to break the silence that had fallen, cracked a little bit. “I don’t know you.” The words were simultaneously a plea and an accusation, and I saw the tears in her eyes. “You’re my mother.” She repeated herself, voice dull with an indescribable pain that had clearly been there for such a long time yet was only now being allowed to show itself. “You’re my mother, and I don’t know you.”

From Jiao’s expression, the words clearly struck home, drawing more pain than any kind of Heretic power or weapon could have. “I know,” she replied in a voice that was somehow even softer than before. “Reathma, my daughter. My child. I wanted so much, so badly to be there for you, with you.”

I could tell that the words mattered to the girl. But she was standing rigid, clearly trying to keep herself from crying even more. Her voice sounded brittle. “Why didn’t you? Because there were bad guys after you? I still could’ve stayed with you. You could’ve protected me if you wanted to. Didn’t you want me? Was I just too much to take care of? Was it too hard to watch me, so you just had to get rid of me?”

Jiao swayed back as if physically rocked by the words. “No,” she answered in a voice that was soft, yet as firm as any monarch’s decree. “I wanted you, Reathma. Never doubt that. I love your father and you as much as I love Sunny and her father. You were never a burden, and surrendering your care to others was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. But I wanted you to be safe, and you weren’t. Not after…” She went silent.

“You said love,” Shiori managed after giving me a brief glance. One of her hands found mine, and I saw her take Senny’s hand with the other to get reassurance from both sides. “Love. Present tense. So he’s around. He’s alive. But where is he?”

Jiao’s expression fell, her gaze moving to the ground for a moment before she looked up. “He would be here if he could. I can promise you that much. If it was possible for him to be here, he would not hesitate.” She swallowed before continuing. “Your father’s name is Liang. I… I have been searching for him. I wanted to bring him to you, let him see how you have grown. That is why I was in Africa for so long. I wanted to give you that much. But he has gone missing and… and I’m afraid his enemies finally made their move against him.”

Shiori’s head shook rapidly, and I heard her breath catch. “But what enemies? The same ones that made you both give me up? Who’s my father? What enemies does he have? Where—what really happened?”

She sounded so desperate for the truth in that moment that it made me wish I could answer her. Instead, all I could do was squeeze her hand while trying not to interrupt. Now really wasn’t my time to talk.

Jiao, for her part, looked just as affected. And also like she really wanted to be the one holding her daughter’s hand (and probably more than that). She took a moment to steady herself before answering. “The short version is that your father is a member of the Ba Xian, the Eight Immortals. In human Chinese mythology, the original members are eight originally ordinary humans who gained immortality and great power. The myths vary on how this happened, but the truth was that the Eight Immortals were actually–”

“Heretics,” Shiori interrupted with a gasp. “The Eight Immortals were Heretics, weren’t they?”

Jiao inclined her head in acknowledgment. “Yes,” she confirmed. “Or at least the Ancient Chinese equivalent. They worked together, the Ba Xian. And they took on both followers and what you would call apprentices, those who could see the monsters that they did and who would take up their places. Because the Eight Immortals, while long-lived as any Heretic, were not truly immortal. They could be killed. And they knew that it would happen eventually. So they set each of themselves up as a position rather than a specific person, allowing their place, their identity to be taken up by another, and then another after that. Crossroads has their Committee, and their Chinese equivalent has their Eight Immortals, their Ba Xian.”

“Like a bunch of Chinese Dread Pirate Roberts,” Shiori murmured under her breath. “And… my father, he was—is–was–one of them?”

Jiao nodded. “He was potentially one of them, a student of theirs. And he was very loved, so loved that it was obvious he would be chosen as a successor. But not all of his fellow students liked that. There were those who saw him as a threat to their own advancement, and would use any leverage they could gain against him.”

“Including me,” Shiori finished softly, working her mouth a few times. “That’s why you had to hide me, because these… these Chinese Heretics would have taken me. Not because they’d think I was evil, but because… because it would help them become one of the official Eight Immortals.”

Jiao’s voice was barely audible. “Yes,” she confirmed with a pained expression. “We hid you, not because we didn’t want you, but because you deserved to be safe. When we found out that they knew about your existence, that they would hunt for you… I had to make sure you were safe. That meant getting you as far away from both of us as possible.”

“And now he’s missing,” Shiori muttered. “So they probably just cut out the middle man… errr, girl and went right after him.”

“I believe that is the case, yes.” Jiao hesitated then before continuing. “I haven’t given up on searching for him, Reathma. If he is still alive, I will find him. And I will bring him to meet you. That, I promise.”

Silence returned to the park. No one moved or spoke for several long seconds. Finally, I felt a tug at my hand as Shiori pulled free from both Senny and me. She took another moment to collect herself, then stepped over that way, stopping in front of the woman.

“Mother,” she spoke in a cracked, somewhat broken voice. Then the girl’s shoulders heaved a little, and I heard the tears as she spoke again, a single word that came out as a desperate plea. “Mom.”

Jiao said nothing. No other words needed to be said. The only thing left was action. One action in particular. She took her daughter into her arms, crushing the girl against her chest as tightly as possible.

And for the first time since she had been a baby, Shiori was held by her mother.

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Interlude 2 – Tiras and Asenath

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July 2nd, 1803

“Higher, papa! I wanna go higher!”

The plea was followed by a loud squeal of happiness as Asenath’s father gave the rope she was clinging to a mighty shove, sending the eight-year-old girl swinging nearly to the top of the tree that the sturdy line hung from. It took barely a fraction of the man’s strength to propel her that far, while the tree’s slight groan of protest at the force was masked beneath the exhilarated cry of pure childish glee.

“Again, again, again!” Joyfully, the girl pled for another swing, and was rewarded with one more solid shove that sent her even higher. This time, however, the branch made its objections to the force known in the most dramatic way possible. It snapped off the tall tree entirely with a near-deafening crack.

Asenath’s happy cry turned into one of fear as she lost her grip on the rope and went flying through the air, her small body tumbling haphazardly end over end. She arced up and over several bushes before dropping toward the rocky ground that marked the very edge of her family’s property.

Before she could crash down, however, there was a blur of motion so fast that it was almost impossible to follow. Her father appeared directly beneath the girl, catching her easily in his strong arms, absorbing the impact without harm by pulling his child to his chest and taking a single step back.

Upon realizing that she hadn’t splattered against the rocks after all, Asenath brightened and wrapped her arms around her father’s neck in a tight, clinging hug. “Papa! You’re fast, Papa.”

Smiling, the man called Tiras went down to one knee while setting his child on her feet. Then he leaned back to examine her. His daughter’s features were a clear mix of races. Most prominent was her mother’s Chinese heritage, though a bit of his own face could be seen as well.

His own face. Most would have said that the man who called himself Tiras hailed from the Cherokee tribes, whose lands were only a week or so ride away. That assumption, however, would have been utterly wrong. Tiras had been born much further away than most would ever come close to imagining.

Tiras was not human. His birthplace lay in another realm, another world entirely removed from this one. To those in this world, he would have been considered a monster. And perhaps he was, in a way. His strength, speed, and other gifts were far from ordinary to the inhabitants of this quaint society.

But by far his most monstrous feature was the man’s incredible hunger, his undeniable need for one thing: the blood of the inhabitants of this world that he had found himself living among.

Upon the world that Tiras had been born, his people were a race of warriors known as the Akharu. One of four separate intelligent races that warred constantly for the meager scraps of resources that their world retained, the Akharu managed to claim the throne of the world, an act that granted them relative immortality. They would not die naturally, and an unnatural death could only be achieved through extremely rigorous actions, usually requiring the complete dismemberment and disintegration of their body. Most wounds would heal extremely quickly, and their other powers grew exponentially.

It should have meant the end to eons of battles as the Akharu established dominion over their rival races. Unfortunately, not all of those races were content to allow the Akharu to win so easily. Another race, the Vestil, pooled their impressive magic in one last desperate bid toward victory. Their efforts could not undo the power that Tiras’s people had gained, but they could force a curse upon their hated rivals. This curse poisoned the blood of the Akharu. As killing them with such a curse was impossible, this poisoned blood simply paralyzed their bodies, leaving them awake and aware, but incapable of acting. They would be trapped that way, helpless to defend themselves.

As the curse spread like wildfire through their people, the Akharu had searched desperately for a cure. Eventually, they had found at least a stop-gap measure. Partaking of the blood from other creatures actually seemed to dilute their own poisoned blood, sparing them from being paralyzed and trapped. It was not a perfect solution, as the new blood would slowly become tainted by the poison, requiring them to take in a fresh batch on a regular basis in order to avoid falling victim to the Vestil’s curse.

Many of the Akharu had left their world, searching for answers and a permanent cure. Tiras had been among those explorers. His search had brought him, like many of his fellow warriors, to this small world. There, they had discovered that they could create more of their own kind from the humans of this place by feeding them their cursed blood within a short period before they died.

There was, however, a weakness to these hybrids. Somehow, the act of becoming half-Akharu left their bodies incredibly sensitive to sunlight. While Tiras and his fellow full-Akharu were perfectly fine within its rays, the altered humans they created would burn very quickly if exposed to it.

Some saw this as a way to create enough reinforcements to storm their own world, defeat the Vestil, and force them to create a permanent cure for the curse. Others, like Tiras himself, saw it as a sign that they did not need to fight such a war any longer. Their world was broken and ugly, destroyed by millennia of war. This planet was pure, nearly untouched. And they were compatible with its inhabitants. They could live here in relative peace, retiring from their very long struggle.

Some of the Akharu, Tiras included, did just that. They attempted to live normal lives, feeding when necessary either from animals or those who were considered evil. Others sought to achieve their initial goal of turning enough of the humans to create an army, while still more simply tried to carve out their own kingdoms, terrifying and enslaving the local populace.

Sadly, the retirement and peaceful life that Tiras and those like him had chosen was not to be. The Heretics, humans of this world who could see the Akharu (and other creatures who had found this world) for what they truly were did not care to make distinctions between those who killed and those who lived peacefully. They hunted down all of what they called vampires, and a steady war had been fought for centuries, a war that Tiras had been avoiding as much as possible by moving constantly.

Twelve years earlier, Tiras’s lonely journey across these lands had brought him to a hospital in what the humans called New York City. There, he had found himself drawn to a Chinese woman named Jiao who lay curled up in one of the beds. The illness she suffered from was beyond what the doctors of this place were capable of healing. They had done all they could by making the poor woman as comfortable as possible, and then simply waited for her to inevitably pass away.

Still, Jiao tried to speak with the man who stood in the doorway of her room. And Tiras had found himself sitting next to her. They spoke, and, over a very short time, he came to care for the human woman more than he had cared for anyone else in his very long life.

Unable to bear the thought of her death, Tiras shared his blood with the woman. When she passed, Jiao awoke stronger and more powerful than she had ever been in life. The two escaped the hospital in the dead of night, and began to journey together while Tiras told her the truth of his existence and origin.

Jiao stayed with Tiras, and the two of them had become inseparable, considering themselves married for all intents and purposes. For several years, the pair had traveled together, until Jiao eventually became pregnant with the daughter that they would eventually name Asenath.

With a daughter to take care of and educate, the two of them had settled on this large ranch not far from the tribe of people whom Tiras’s features most closely resembled. There, they had raised their child for the past decade in peace, feeding upon the very livestock that they raised, as well as the occasional violent bandit who mistakenly believed that the peaceful ranch would be an easy target.

That peaceful life, unfortunately, had drawn to an end very recently. As Tiras embraced his daughter, he hugged her even more tightly than usual for a few long seconds before releasing her. “You understand why I must leave you here with your mother, Senny?”

The girl smiled just a little at the use of her nickname before nodding sadly. Her voice was small. “I know. You have to stop the bad guys from making the magic blood hurt everyone.”

It was a true, though simplistic answer. Several of Tiras’s old friends had tracked him down, explaining that the Vestil had not given up on their attempts to eradicate the Akharu. Over the centuries, they had apparently created another curse. This one would kill all who shared Akharu blood, including his wife and child. Unable to let that prospect stand, Tiras had agreed to go with his people to put a stop to it.

Jiao had wanted to come, but Tiras had convinced her that she had to stay with their child. The two had spent one last night together, and now Tiras had spent the morning with his daughter. Jiao, of course, could not leave the shelter of the cabin during the daytime.

“That’s right, my little Sunny Senny,” Tiras smiled, wanting his child to be happy. “I cannot say how long it will take, but you know that I will eventually come back to you. That I swear to you, my child. If it takes a millennia, I will return to you.”

The girl made a face at him. “I’ll be really old by then, Papa. You better come back sooner.”

Chuckling, Tiras shook his head. “I have given your mother a bit of my blood, child. If the time comes and I have taken too long to return, she will give it to you. Then you will both live long enough for me to come back and find you. Do you understand? No matter how long it takes, I will find you both.”

“I understand, Papa,” Senny’s head bobbed up and down in agreement, her dark hair flying from the motion. “Please don’t take too long though, okay?”

Smiling once more, Tiras embraced his child. “I promise, my beautiful child. I will return as soon as possible. You have my vow. Nothing will keep me from my family.”

******

Present Day

Deep in the bowels of an old warehouse in the middle of Detroit, dozens of men and women dressed in light blue jumpsuits and surgical masks worked diligently to measure and pack the illicit white substance that their employer distributed throughout the state. Here and there, armed guards in black uniforms patrolled through their ranks, ensuring that no one thought sticking some away for themselves or to sell on their own was a good idea. Not that any of them were that stupid. They knew, especially after today, what happened when someone tried to cheat Raul Frein out of what he considered rightfully his.

In the midst of this busy warehouse, the sound of shattering glass abruptly filled the air as a body plummeted through the skylight. The figure, belatedly recognizable as one of the armed guards that patrolled along the roof of the building, crashed hard into the concrete floor. Its sudden and loud arrival instantly drew the attention of every person in the massive room, worker and guard alike.

Conversations halted as two of the guards, automatic rifles held tight in their hands, came close to kick a couple times at the clearly thoroughly dead figure. His head had been turned almost a full one hundred and eighty degrees from where it should have been, even before impact.

“What–” The nearest of the guards, foot still poking his dead comrade, managed to get out. Before he could continue that sentence, unfortunately, the man was interrupted by the second figure who had dropped much more silently through the now-broken skylight. She landed smoothly and effortlessly directly in the middle of the gathered crowd, beside the dead man.

“Hiya!” Asenath, long-since grown into a young woman in her very late teens or early twenties, greeted the men with a wave of one hand. “Maybe you guys can help me. See, I’m looking for the nearest piece of shit drug dealing fucktard who thinks it’s okay to kidnap innocent kids. I asked your buddy there for directions, but you know…” With a small smirk, she indicated his thoroughly and fatally twisted head. “He just got all turned around.”

To their credit, the men tried to act as quickly as they could. Unfortunately, they were still working off of human reaction times. As the nearest brought his rifle up, Asenath gracefully spun away from his line of fire. Her hand snapped out, catching the edge of the barrel and adjusting its aim just enough that the man’s reflexive shot took one of his companions in the stomach.

Exercising a relatively small portion of her strength, the two-hundred year old vampire tore the rifle from the man’s hands. In the same motion, she continued her spin and swung the weapon around and over to collide with the head of another man. She then used that as a brace just long enough, while the man was falling, to flip herself up and around sideways. Her legs wrapped around the neck of the man she had stolen the rifle from, and she gave a hard twist while her weight and force dragged his body sideways. The lifeless man collapsed to the floor, while Asenath herself landed in a crouch.

Three men down, two seconds had passed.

One of the men tried to back away while opening fire and shouting for help. Asenath threw the dented remains of the rifle into his legs, tripping him up long enough for her to spring back to her feet. The kick that she planted in the stumbling man’s stomach drove the air from his lungs and dropped him to the floor, while a follow-up kick ensured that he stayed there.

Pivoting on her heel, Asenath regarded the three guards who remained with their weapons raised. She offered them a faint smile before asking, “Anyone? Anyone want to tell me where I can find the drug dealer of the house?”

The response from two of the men were a vitriolically spat, ‘Go to hell!’ and ‘Chink slut!’

Their fingers tightened on the triggers, but Asenath was already moving. With a blur of motion, she abruptly put herself between the nearest of the two men. While the first bullets were expelling themselves from the chambers, aimed at the spot she had been standing in a bare second earlier, she reached down with both hands. Catching hold of the knife attached to each man’s hip, she tugged them up and out, then stabbed in either direction.

The stream of bullets had barely started before ending. The two men who had opened fire stood with the girl directly in between them, their own knives held in her hands with the blades buried deep in their throats.

With a slight tug, Asenath pulled the knives from the men’s necks. Their lifeless bodies collapsed, and she turned to face the sole remaining guard with a bloody weapon in each hand. Regarding him briefly, she slowly tilted her head with a questioning look.

The man promptly threw his rifle on the ground, took a deliberate step away, and raised his hand to point off through one of the doors. The same gesture was copied by the crowd of workers, all of them pointing to that single door.

“Good boy,” Asenath praised before turning on her heel to walk toward the indicated door.

As she began to leave, the remaining guard let out a breath of relief and began to take a single step toward the exit, intent on getting the hell out of there before she changed her mind. Before he could finish that step, however, Asenath called back to him, “If you’re not standing in that exact spot when I get back, I will track you down.”

He put his foot back where it had been and didn’t move again.

Reaching the heavily reinforced door, the relatively diminutive figure tilted her head while examining it. A single kick a moment later snapped it off its hinges and sent it crashing inward.

“Luuuucy!” She called out while stepping through the doorway. “You got some splainin’ to do!”

The well-dressed man on the other side of the room from the entrance stood with his revolver pressed close to the head of a small, sandy-haired boy. The man’s eyes were wild and frantic while he stared at the figure who had just literally kicked his door in. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Cunt! Back off! Back the fuck off you stupid piece of shit! I swear to god I’ll kill the kid! I’ll fucking end him, you ignorant little bitch! You back the fuck off, I don’t know what the hell you are, but back the fuck off!

Staying where she was, Asenath regarded the man. “You’ve been a bad boy, Raul.” She made a disapproving clicking noise with her tongue. “Kidnapping an innocent kid?” Looking to the terrified child, she added, “Don’t worry, Dominic, you’ll be back with your mom in a few minutes.”

Raul pressed the revolver barrel closer to the boy’s head. “Hey, hey! No he won’t. Not until Dominic’s Uncle Patrick gets me my fucking money!”

In response, Asenath’s hand snapped upward and out. One of the knives that she had appropriated flew through the air with so much speed and force that it had sliced completely through the man’s wrist, severing his hand from his arm, before he even realized what was happening. His hand, with the gun still clasped in it, dropped to the ground.

His scream had hardly begun before Asenath was on him. She gave his head a hard shove into the wall while simultaneously snatching the young Dominic away from him. With a blur of motion, she gathered the boy into her arms and ran from the building. Before the dazed child registered that they were moving, she was setting him down in the middle of the parking lot. In the distance, flashing red and blue lights could be seen rapidly approaching.

“See those cars, Dominic?” She pointed until the boy’s head bobbed up and down. “You run right to them and tell them who you are and that your mommy is looking for you. Understand?” Another nod, and she gave him a push. “Go.”

The boy took off running, and Asenath turned in the opposite direction. Another blur of motion came, and she returned to the room where she had left Raul. The man lay on his side, half-unconscious from shock as he stared at his severed hand. “B-b-b…” He stammered upon seeing her.

“I know, I know,” Asenath gave a single nod. “Bitch. I’m a bitch, right? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t leave you here to bleed out all alone on the floor. I’m not that harsh.”

Staring up at her, Raul managed a hesitant, hopeful smile.

“After all,” the woman returned the smile before slowly opening her mouth to reveal sharp fangs that slid into place.

“I’m hungry.”

Walking away from the warehouse a short time later as the police descended upon it in force, Senny drew a hand along her mouth, wiping the last few traces of blood from her lips before letting out a sigh of contentment.

It had been over two hundred years since her father had left with promises to return as soon as he could. She still held out hope that he would come back one day, but her life had moved on. She and her mother had been forced to leave their ranch or risk attracting too much attention. Over the ensuing years, Asenath herself had grown up, eventually partaking of her father’s blood and becoming a vampire alongside her mother. The two of them had experienced so many incredible things throughout the growth of this country into the force that it now was that Senny had lost track of all the things she wished to tell her father about.

She just wanted him back. Even now, two hundred years later, she yearned for her father’s embrace.

The phone in her pocket rang, interrupting her inner musings. Tugging out the cell, Asenath accepted the call with a simple, “Yeah?”

“Umm…” The tentative female voice on the other side of the line ventured hesitantly. “H-hello? I’m not sure I have the right number. I don’t even know if I should be calling. This is wrong. I just… I just…” The voice dissolved into obvious tears.

Asenath softened her own voice. “It’s all right, you called the right number. Did something happen to you? Something you can’t explain or talk to anyone else about?”

There was a moment of silence before the woman on the other end of the line whimpered slightly. “I, no, not me. My daughter. A friend said I should call this number, that you could help, but I don’t know… the police say sh-she killed herself.”

“You don’t think she did?” Asenath replied as gently as possible.

“My Denise wouldn’t do that!” The woman blurted. “And all the other things they said she did… th-they said she taped the gasoline nozzle to her own mouth, that she drowned herself on it! That she killed that poor man in the store and then killed herself, but how could she?! Sh-she couldn’t, I swear she couldn’t do that! She wouldn’t! But th-they won’t listen. They won’t listen and no one will listen and my Denise is gone, she’s gone and I can’t help her, they won’t help her!” The words turned into incoherent sobbing.

Waiting through that with long-practiced patience, Asenath eventually managed to extract enough details to understand what had happened at that gas station. Once the story was out, she glowered at the empty air. “Ma’am, it’ll take me a few days to get down there, but I will make it as soon as I can.”

“D-does this mean you’ll find out what happened to my D-Denise?” The grieving woman’s voice was a desperate, yearning plea.

“Yes,” Asenath vowed firmly as she strode into the shadowy night. “I will find out what happened to your daughter. I will track down whoever did that to her.

“And I will make that person regret they were ever born.”

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