Joselyn Chambers

The Storm 21-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Even with the prototype ship’s (Jitterbug, apparently) special transportation ability, we couldn’t go straight to Fossor’s world. The man had set up way too many automated defenses, and simply going straight to his planet would’ve tripped all of them. He may have been dead and gone, but that didn’t mean everything he had put in to protect his planet from intruders would just disappear. And fighting off every automated defense he’d thought of over the millennia he’d been in control sounded like a pretty bad afternoon to all of us. 

So, we had to disable them. Which would’ve been almost impossible in most cases, given his defenses were set up in various satellite bases scattered throughout dozens of spots in a couple different solar systems surrounding his actual planet itself. They were basically tuned to constantly scan the entire area around that world and react violently if they detected any intruders. Thankfully, there was one person besides the very-dead Fossor who knew where they all were. Rahanvael was able to tell us where each one was located. All we had to do was jump there and disable the system one at a time. Fossor had made sure they would all react at once and immediately to any attack or intrusion on the planet itself, but they could not all react in unison to protect one another just like that. Instead, some scanned one another at various times, just to check in and make sure nothing had gone wrong. If one did its periodic scan and found a problem, then the whole system would react. But Rahanvael simply told us the best route to take through disabling each one ahead of those periodic scans, so we always hit the one that was supposed to do the next scan before it could. 

Unfortunately, my ghost friend might’ve been able to tell us where each satellite base was, but she couldn’t tell us how to easily disable them. Rather than using codes or anything useful like that for her to pass along, Fossor had simply used himself as the authorization. The systems would scan all of us and if none of us were Fossor, they would attack. 

All of which meant this whole thing basically just required we methodically jump to each defensive point in turn, break through them, and physically disable the system. As in breaking or destroying it entirely. It was better than trying to fight all of them at once right on his own world, where his people had already suffered enough without becoming collateral damage. This way was slow, but definitely worth it. 

Some of the ‘bases’ were literal satellites that we just had to blast out of space once we were close enough. Others were bigger facilities inside of asteroids or small moons. Most were hidden really well, and if we hadn’t had Rahanvael to tell us exactly where they were, we would’ve been in trouble. They were set up to hide unless we were definitely close enough to see them, or even physically inside. Then they deployed everything from drone starfighters, to robots, to turrets, even automated magic defenses that had been left up. Some of which were really nasty. Again, Rahanvael helped by telling us as much as she could about each system ahead of time. She didn’t know absolutely everything Fossor had put in place, but she knew enough that we weren’t completely blindsided. 

In any case, those attacks went down fairly easily for the most part. We jumped in, blew up the satellite or went into the base, fought our way through whatever defenses were deployed, and destroyed the main computer that was controlling that station to shut the whole thing down. We took a break in between each one, not wanting to push ourselves too much. Besides, it wasn’t like they had a living boss to report to. If Fossor had been alive, we would’ve had to worry about him showing up if we didn’t move fast enough. But now there was no need to rush, aside from being ahead of the next scheduled scan. And from wanting to get this over and done with so we could get to the planet itself. But being impatient was probably a bad idea. 

The second-to-last base had been a simple satellite which deployed two drone fighters to attack us while charging for a rather explosive magical blast (one we had been prepared for thanks to Rahanvael and had disabled in plenty of time), we were all taking a break to eat something. The final defensive base in line was a full facility, and the biggest one yet. So we needed to be ready for that. Rahanvael wasn’t completely certain exactly what was inside, only that it was dug into the side of an asteroid and was probably about three miles wide by two miles long, a maze of various corridors and rooms filled with not just protective measures, but also various treasure Fossor had decided to stash there. Why he’d done that, nobody could say. Maybe he just figured putting stuff he wanted to keep safe in a place that was already designed to keep his entire planet safe was a good idea. Or maybe he didn’t want to waste all that empty space inside. Whatever the reason, there was bound to be some interesting, and incredibly dangerous, things in there.  

Mom, Mercury, Judas, Robin, and Twister were having a conversation with Rahanvael up near the pilot’s compartment, talking about what was coming up next and what we should expect to see. Meanwhile, I was sitting with Tabbris, Shiori, Asenath, Stasia, Nevada, and Persephone. We were all chowing down, though the two vampires were drinking blood from bags we’d brought along rather than eating the same sandwiches as the rest of us. 

Setting her now-empty blood bag aside, Stasia focused on me, her gaze curious. “I have heard of you, Felicity Chambers. Though what I heard was that you were being trained by Fossor himself to take up a place at his side. That… appears to have been a false rumor.” 

Flinching a bit at the memory, I replied, “Yeah, well he gave it his best shot. But that shot came back to blow his head off. Or stabbed him in the back of the head, I guess.” 

“That must have been quite the battle,” she calmly remarked. “And from other things I have heard, a very cathartic one.” 

“Boy, can you ever say that again,” Nevada put in after devouring an enormous bite of her sandwich. “That son of a bitch got what was coming to him. Just sorry it took so long.” Her gaze found me, the woman’s usual cheerful expression completely somber. “Entirely too long.” 

Swallowing hard, I made myself shrug. “Yeah, too many people suffered and died because of that bastard. But he’s dead now. And we get to tell his people they’re free.” From what I’d heard, they probably already had the basic idea. Fossor had been far too entwined with his planet for them to have no clue he was gone. But being able to tell them that he was never coming back and that they could do whatever they wanted? I was definitely looking forward to that part. 

Shiori, perched beside me, gave a quick nod. “That’s right, he’s dust. Less than dust. He doesn’t matter anymore. So why do you guys think Rasputin went there? What would he be doing on that world?” 

Persephone piped up immediately. “Oooh, ooh, very important question. Does anybody know if he went there before or after Felicity and Joselyn killed Fossor?” 

“You mean was he there doing something for that piece of shit?” Asenath thoughtfully replied. “Or did he just take advantage of Fossor being dead to head over there and get… or do… something the bastard would’ve stopped him from doing?” 

“Well, he didn’t have to go through and destroy all these defenses, right?” I pointed out. “He’s there on-planet and these things are still in place. He had to have had permission from Fossor to be there. Or maybe he stole something that would make the defenses think he had permission. Or…” I trailed off uncertainly, offering a helpless shrug. 

Stasia’s voice was flat, though I could hear the tense emotion underlying it. “We’ll just have to make sure to include that in the list of questions we’re asking him in between each punch. Believe me, he’ll answer all of them.” 

Tabbris, who had been mostly lost in her own thoughts over the past few minutes, shifted against my other side before speaking up. “He’s an Akharu too, like Tiras, right? So he’s gotta be really strong. And if he’s been around this long, he’s probably dangerous in lots of other ways.” 

“He can be as dangerous as he wants,” Stasia retorted, “it won’t save him.” She stopped after that, however, taking a moment to collect herself before relenting. “And yet, you are correct. He will be dangerous, and we cannot underestimate him. For all the time he has spent building up the reputation as a drunkard womanizer, he is powerful. Do not allow that reputation to make you see him as an easy target.” She paused briefly once more, then added, “And I will work to ensure my anger does not blind me as well.” 

“If he’s on Fossor’s world, whether he was invited or managed to get there on his own,” I put in, “then he’s definitely a big threat. No way would some random party guy who really spent all his time over the past few decades touring bars and nightclubs along the continental United States have made it onto that planet without having some secrets. Whatever he’s doing there, however he made it, there’s gotta be more to that guy.” 

We talked a bit more about that. Unfortunately, despite how long Stasia and her group had been looking for him and how motivated they were to get answers out of the guy, they didn’t really know that much about what he was capable of. He put up a really good facade of being a layabout drunk, yet he knew a lot about magic and what he called alchemy, creating various ‘potions.’ Some were simple Bystander-type science that was simply far ahead of its time, while others were actual magic imbued into liquids. 

It seemed like every day I was finding out more and more about how limited Crossroads’ understanding and teaching of magic was. Which clearly had to be intentional. The Seosten made sure we only learned and knew about the sorts of magic they could control. And it wasn’t like the hardliners back at Crossroads and Eden’s Garden would ever stop and talk to one of those ‘evil monsters’ about what sort of magic they could cast. 

Finally, Mom turned away from her own little group and spoke up. “Everyone ready for another jump, or should we take another few minutes to rest?” 

After exchanging a quick look with the others, I shook my head. “Let’s get this over with. I kinda want to know what treasures Fossor had stashed away in that place. And the sooner we break the last of these stupid bases, the sooner we can go to the actual planet. Those people deserve to find out the truth.” My gaze glanced toward Stasia before I added, “Plus, whatever this Rasputin guy is doing, I kinda doubt we want to just leave him all the time he needs for it.” 

The others agreed, so we all got ourselves strapped back into our seats. The transport would be immediate, but we couldn’t know for sure what exactly we would be jumping into. If there were already defenses deployed because of something we’d missed, or there happened to be other ships around (unlikely as that was), or… anything. Plus, the second we arrived, the base would react. Given the size of the place in comparison to what we had hit so far, and the fact that Fossor had stored some precious artifacts there, the response would probably be… elaborate and intense sounded like a couple of the right words. 

Now that we knew how to essentially take the ship out of its parked mode, the jump was smooth. One second, we were in the middle of deep space, and the next, we were right in front of the asteroid. Mercury called out a warning before sending the ship into a sideways spin, as the station’s defenses opened up with their first volley of shots. Four different cannons had appeared near the large metal hatch leading into the station itself, and they were going a bit nuts, filling every inch of space they could with lasers while Mercury nimbly danced the ship through increasingly narrow openings. This was getting nasty, and it would only get worse, as a much larger cannon was already being deployed. This one made the others look like peashooters, but it would take a few seconds to extend into place and charge up. And those few seconds were all we needed. 

Mom was standing right behind Mercury’s pilot’s seat and had her hands out, index fingers and thumbs shaped like a rectangle in front of her as she focused on the closed hatch. Despite the way the ship was spinning and turning, she kept adjusting to maintain focus on that metal door. After a couple more seconds of that, the steel, or whatever it was, turned transparent. We were still too far away to see that, of course. At least without powers that helped. But the cameras on the ship could see that far, and projected it onto a screen just above Mercury. He was looking that way, staring intently at the area revealed beyond the now glass-like door. We could see through it and into what looked like a hangar. 

The main cannon finished charging up and started to fire. But even as that massive beam made its way toward us, Mercury hit the button to make the ship jump once more. That time, we jumped into the station, since he could see exactly where to send us thanks to Mom making the metal doors transparent. 

There were still some threats to deal with inside the station, traps and defenses that Fossor had left in place. But, working together, we dealt with them. This was just another speed bump on our way to that world. We broke those defenses, disabled his magic traps, and destroyed everything in our way to the main systems. There, another magical forcefield wall blocked our way, just like every other base we had hit. But just like all those others, it had a fatal flaw. It was intended to be disabled by a ghost, and I happened to have a few of those. Granted, the ghost was supposed to know the ten-button code that Fossor included on the control panel, but Rahanvael knew that too. So, after a very brief wait once I sent her in there, the forcefield was disabled and we were in. From there, it didn’t take long for Mercury to use the console in order to shut down the rest of the system’s defenses. Then it was just a matter of physically smashing the computer, which we may have taken a bit too much joy in.

The point was, all of this was pretty routine by this point. We knew what we were doing, and just made our way through the place almost mechanically to shut down the security. And once that was done, it was time to check out what sort of treasure Fossor had stuck in this place. That part, at least, was new. 

Following Rahanvael’s directions out of the security room and down another corridor, our group was quickly approaching a set of metal doors at the far end, which were supposed to lead into the main treasure vault. There would be a few other defenses to deal with that weren’t connected to the main system, but for the most part, we were doing just–

“Wait.” Mom had abruptly paused just a few feet from the next door and tilted her head as though listening to something. 

“What?” Stasia frowned, glancing toward Asenath. “I don’t hear anything. Do you hear anything?” 

As Senny shook her head, and the rest of us exchanged confused looks, Mom held her hand up. “There’s something else here. I’m just not sure…” She turned in a circle, eyes moving quickly to look for whatever she had heard. The rest of us waited, listening intently. 

“Rahanvael,” I started to whisper, “do you think–” 

Mom spoke up. “Mercury, Nevada, come with me. The rest of you wait here, and be ready.” 

So, we waited. My mother and the other two started moving back the way we had come. I didn’t like the idea of splitting up like this, but Mom was in charge of this trip. 

Judas and Robin were talking together, while Stasia frowned and muttered something about it being just perfect if something went wrong right now. Shiori, Tabbris, and I stood together to one side, as I watched my mother, Mercury, and Nevada moving down the corridor. Twister, Asenath, and Persephone were nearby, having their own quiet conversation. All of us were mostly focused on trying to figure out what my mother had heard. 

When I saw my mother look back at us. She pulled something from her pocket, stone or whatever. As my mouth opened to ask what she was doing, a blast of purple energy erupted from the stone. It hit Mercury and Nevada, making both of them abruptly fall to the floor, apparently unconscious. 

At the same time, her hand hit… something on the wall, and an emergency siren began to wail. An entire wall came out of nowhere to slam down in front of us, cutting us off from Mom and the other two. 

It all happened that quickly. One second I was looking at her, and the next, she had knocked out Mercury and Nevada, and sealed the rest of us into this corridor. 

I was there in an instant, hitting the wall while the others shouted behind me. “Mom! What the fuck is–Mom! Rahanvael!” 

“On it,” the ghost girl quickly blurted, moving through the wall. As she did, I focused on seeing through her eyes. The hallway beyond was already empty, but Rahavael raced through it. Behind me, back with my body, I could half-hear the others saying something about getting the wall open, asking me what the hell was going on, and more. But I ignored them. My entire focus was on seeing through Rahanvael’s eyes as she rushed all the way back to the hangar. 

There. Mom was dragging Mercury and Nevada’s unconscious forms onto the Jitterbug. Rahanvael was at the edge of the hangar when the ship’s hatch closed. Not that that would stop her. She flew onward, straight toward the ship. But it was too late. The engines started up, and the thing lifted off before flying straight out into open space, leaving us behind. 

Through Rahanvael’s eyes, I saw the ship disappear into the distance. And I saw as she lowered her gaze to look at the floor where the ship had been a moment earlier. A floor where something was written in big red letters, as if spray-painted there. 

‘I’ll Be Back. This Was Denuvus.’ 

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The Storm – 21-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so we needed to go to Fossor’s world if we were going to find the guy who could tell us what had happened to Tiras’s memory. Well, that was one of the reasons. I wasn’t exactly short on them at this point. Especially considering I had been promising Rahanvael that I would take her home so she could… move on. Yeah, an awful lot had been going on to distract me, which was nothing new. But it was finally time to do this. No more excuses and no more distractions. We were going there.

We, in this case, consisted of myself, Shiori, Asenath, Twister, Nevada, and my mother. And Tabbris, naturally. Avalon wanted to go, as did plenty of others. But we wanted to keep the group small for this first excursion. Besides, Wyatt had actually managed to dig up some interesting information about where the hardliners might be holding Gaia. It wasn’t anything that would lead directly to her, but it was something that had to be followed up on quickly. So, Valley and a few others were going to check that out before the trail went cold. With any luck, they would have what we needed to actually stage a rescue when we got back. That’s what we were hoping, anyway. 

Meanwhile, Columbus and another group had to follow up with the search for where Kushiel had taken Harrison Fredericks. They had a few leads too, which had to be checked out and couldn’t wait. 

So yeah, as much as I wanted to be involved with everything and helping everyone, it couldn’t work that way. We had to split up, and there was absolutely no question about where I belonged. This was the first trip to Fossor’s world. I had to go with them. I had to take my ghosts and help them find peace if they were ready for that. Not to mention helping Shiori and Asenath. One was my girlfriend, while the other was… I couldn’t define what Senny was. A close friend. The first Alter who had taught me that they weren’t all evil? Family in a way? She was important, and if she needed something, I was going to be there. After everything she had done, like hell would I let her go off without me to find out what had happened to her father. 

Jiao was another one who could have gone with us, speaking of family. But she was staying with Tiras. They apparently had a few leads here on the planet about what might’ve happened, and the two of them were checking that out with some help from others they knew.  

In any case, the previous couple of days following the revelation of just where Rasputin was had been filled with a lot of discussions about who was going and who wasn’t, and a lot of promises to be careful. Now it was Monday, February 11th. I had spent that morning having breakfast with my dad, grandparents, and others as Mom and I swore we would be careful and let them know what was going on. And then I went around to everyone else, the rest of my friends and family, to tell them the same while extracting similar promises given the stuff they were going to be busy with. We might’ve had to split up and do our own missions, but we didn’t have to be stupid about it. 

As our group of seven made our way through the Sun Station’s corridors after giving our last-minute goodbyes and promises, we were met by the other group that were going with us. Namely, the Mevari robot Robin, the vampire Anastasia (and the fact that I barely blinked at meeting the actual Anastasia said a lot about how my life worked), and Judas Iscariot. I’d still blinked a fair bit at meeting him, so my life wasn’t completely ridicu–okay, yes it was, but still. They had been helping Asenath–or rather had been looking for Rasputin themselves for their own reasons, but those reasons didn’t conflict entirely with Asenath’s. The point was, they were coming with. 

Robin was the one I’d seen the most over the past couple days. They were spending a lot of time with the Carnival, helping them understand their now plural-state and how to share a single body. Mostly because they themselves were plural. I still wasn’t sure why, exactly, or if it was an actual Mevari thing. They didn’t think so, but a lot of their memories were scrambled from the fact that they had apparently plummeted to Earth from orbit and been buried underground for who the hell knew how long before being discovered in medieval times. Now they wanted to find Rasputin because he was supposed to know what had happened to Marian. That Marian. See? Weird fucking life. 

Anastasia, meanwhile, had spent more time with Asenath. The two of them being vampires gave them some common ground to start with. Then there was the fact that they both wanted to find Rasputin. Asenath because he had been with her father on that last mission and had to know something about what had happened to him. And Anastasia because she held the man responsible for what happened to her family. She’d promised to give Asenath a chance to get the information she needed before doing anything drastic. Apparently even in her deep-seated need for revenge, she didn’t want to take someone else’s family away. Or, in this case, take away Senny’s chance to get her father’s memory back. 

Finally, there was Judas. He… well, he was complicated. Apparently he was a Natural Seosten Heretic. And not just any Seosten. He was a Natural Charmeine Heretic. Which was kind of a lot, to say the least. Him existing, his entire history, his–all that. It was huge, and I really didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it. So mostly I just tried not to. The point was, he was Judas and he wanted to help because Rasputin had some sort of past history with Charmeine, and he thought the guy could tell us how to find her ghost now. Because her already being dead wasn’t enough, though that did apparently make him happier. He wanted to make sure she was gone forever. 

So there they were, our three new companions for this trip. All of whom had reason to want to find Rasputin. And I… wow. Just wow. Sometimes, when I took a step back and looked at the people I interacted with and my life in general, it kind of seemed a little absurd. The robot with multiple personalities including Robin Hood, Princess Anastasia the vampire, and Judas Iscariot the Natural Seosten Heretic, were all going with us on a spaceship to another world. I… just… wow. 

Leaning closer to me after seeing my expression while Mom was talking to Judas about what was going to happen next, Shiori whispered, “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded. “Yeah, you could say that. Sometimes I just think this whole life is too absurd and I’m gonna wake up back in the ordinary world.” Even as I said that, my hand slipped down to catch hers, squeezing it. “Now that would be the real nightmare.” 

Returning the hand squeeze, Shiori nudged me. “So you don’t want to go back to being a normal girl?” 

Looking at her seriously, then toward my mother, and finally the others, I gave a firm shake of my head. “No, ma’am. I’m pretty sure that would be one of the worst things that could happen to me. Not knowing you, or Valley, or getting my mom back, or… or any of this. Life might be really weird, often terrifying, bizarre… and a lot of other things, but I wouldn’t change it.” Exhaling, I added, “But yeah, this is pretty high up there on the weirdness scale.” 

“Give it time.” That was actually Anastasia–or Stasia as she apparently preferred. The slim blonde vampire princess was looking at me, speaking in her clear Eastern European accent. “You are still very young. At the rate you are going, when you reach fifty, your life shall be so absurd it will make these days seem positively quaint and boring.” 

Nevada, who had been having some sort of discussion with Robin, turned our way and nodded. “She’s right. You should probably start pacing yourself with these dramatic events, or you’ll end up fighting deities or something by the time you’re half a century old.” 

“Pfft, please,” Twister put in. The young-looking black girl glanced over her shoulder at me and smirked. “I give her another fifteen years, tops, before she makes her way up to deity-level fights. Makes the rest of us look like slackers is what she does.” 

“Ahem.” Mom turned as well, gesturing. “Let’s not give my daughter any ideas about new threats to seek out, shall we? At least not until we get back from this little trip.”

We all started moving again, while I helplessly protested that it wasn’t as though I intentionally sought out fights like that. Not that it really seemed to help much, but I still felt the need to say so. Partly because it distracted me from thinking about the fact that we were about to go visit Fossor’s world. We were going to set foot on the planet he had come from, the one he had subjugated for so long. How were the people there going to react to my presence, to the knowledge that I held his power, to… to all of that? I had no idea, and thinking about it was making me even more anxious. So distractions were nice, even if it was getting harder to focus on them the closer we got to this trip actually happening.  

Oh, and there were two more people going with our group. Two people who met us at the entrance to the hangar where the prototype ship was waiting. The first was Persephone. She was leaving Cerberus here to help Andromeda, who was aiding in the search for Harrison Fredericks. But Percy herself was going with. She had a lot more experience than basically any of us did at space travel and going to new worlds, and there was the whole Necromancy thing. Between that and how much she wanted to help out, we couldn’t tell her no. And I didn’t want to. Not this time. She deserved to come with. 

The other person waiting for us was Mercury. The six-foot, one-inch tall man with long, dark-red hair that had been tied into a ponytail was leaning against the doorway, studying a handheld computer. When the rest of us approached in a group, he looked up and straightened. “Hey there, people. I guess I’m gonna be your pilot today, huh?” 

It was still weird for me to look at this guy and know that he had been possessing Carfried for all of last year at Crossroads. Though, to be fair, he hadn’t really been controlling Carfried. So the man I knew as my Introduction to Heretical Magic teacher was still the same guy. Mercury was more of a passenger for the most part, there to keep an eye on Aylen as the Merlin Key (and we still had no idea what that meant, exactly). He and Carfried had been doing a lot of talking over these past months, and were apparently now on fairly good terms. 

“And I shall be copilot!” That was Percy, who cheerfully reminded us of that before waving my way. “Hello, Felicity! How are your lessons with Manakel going?” 

Coughing, I gestured. “Ah, they’re good, thanks. I mean, he doesn’t want me to interrupt them right now, but we really need to do this and nobody’s ready for me to take him with us on this trip.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed, “he can stay where he is. You can pick up your lessons again once we get back. Bringing him with would just make everyone too uncomfortable, here and there.” 

“That’s fair,” Mercury agreed. “This trip’s probably going to be a bit… intense as it is. But ahh, if you’re all ready, we’ll head onto the Jitterbug and get going.” 

“Err, head onto what?” Mom blinked, looking at the rest of us. “You mean the prototype ship?” 

Tabbris, lagging a bit behind me, giggled. When we looked at her, she shrugged. “Spark said she needed to name it and wanted suggestions because she’s better at designing things than naming them. I thought Jitterbug was cute.” 

“Oh, it’s definitely cute,” I agreed. “And you guys heard our pilot, it’s time to go. So let’s go get on the Jitterbug.” 

So, we did. First, of course, we let Judas, Robin, and Stasia spread out to look at the ship. They had done a lot of stuff on the planet, but this would apparently be their first trip to another world. Well, the first one Robin remembered, in their case. They had obviously been all over the universe before crashing here and damaging their memory. But for all intents and purposes, this would be all of their first times offworld. 

“You think you’ve been everywhere and done everything,” Judas remarked after running his hand along the side of the ship. “After spending a couple millennia trotting around every corner of the globe. Then you find out some teenager’s been to the far side of the universe and back again.” He glanced up, removing his sunglasses to focus on me. “Heard you took a trip to another planet within your first couple months at Crossroads.”

I had thought the man might be upset to find out that I had already killed Charmeine before he had the chance. But he wasn’t, at least, I didn’t get that impression. Mostly he’d wanted to know if I could summon her ghost with my Necromancy to tell her what he thought of her. When he found out the complication with that idea, he said he’d stick around and help deal with Invidia first, and then tell Charmeine what he thought of her, as well as make sure she wouldn’t be a threat to anyone else.

“Yeah, I guess I always liked to keep myself busy,” I murmured, before glancing toward Shiori. “But hey, she was there too.” 

“That’s true,” the other girl agreed with a shy smile my way. That had been the first time we really interacted together, the first… yeah. It happened right after I had talked to her about Asenath and how she wasn’t actually an evil monster. 

While I was thinking about that, Robin turned to look at us. Their eyes were light pink, which I remembered meant the one who liked to joke around was in charge. Quip, that was it. He–no, wait, she. Quip preferred female terms. She caught my gaze. “We also heard it took you a few trips to other worlds before you actually remembered to start taking a spaceship with you.” 

“Hey,” I retorted, “when you can just steal one from someone else once you’re there, why bother taking it with you? That way’s far more efficient.” 

Clearing her throat, Mom shook her head at me. “In this case, we are definitely taking the ship. And keeping it safe.” There was… something in her voice. I could tell she was uncomfortable with this entire thing, and part of  her probably wanted to call it off. Going to Fossor’s world, even when he was dead and gone, was a pretty big deal. It had to be hard. But we had to do it. We had to go there. His people deserved to hear the whole story, and if Rasputin was really there we had to find him. Hell, I really wanted to get him off that world if he was gonna end up bringing trouble. They’d been through enough as it was. 

“You have the ghosts who wish to accompany you?” Robin’s eyes had shifted to dark blue, meaning Sec was in charge. I had gotten the impression that in addition to being devoted to the group’s security and safety, as the name implied, Sec also handled a lot of general preparations. He even did a lot of the grocery shopping, apparently. Picturing those three walking together through a store pushing a cart loaded with food and all was fun. And distracted me, however briefly, from thinking about what we were actually doing. 

“Yeah,” I replied after a moment. “They’re all here with me, I can… feel them, basically. But they’re resting right now. Think of it like they’re sleeping. We’ve already got enough distractions as it is. When I need them, they’ll be ready.” 

“In that case,” Nevada announced, “I think we’re ready to go.” She had her crate full of weapons and supplies open in front of her, where she had been showing a couple things to Judas. Now she tapped a button on its side. The crate shrank and transformed back into its bracelet form, which she slapped around her wrist. “Unless anyone has any last second dramatic revelations before we get outta here?” 

None seemed to immediately jump out, so we all filed onto the ship while we had the chance. Or the others did, anyway. I waited by the ramp, watching as my mother seemed to stare at the doorway we had come through. When that dragged on for a few more seconds, I gestured for Tabbris to go ahead, then stepped that way. My voice was low. “Is everything okay, Mom?” There was no response, so I hesitated before repeating, “Mom?” 

Jolting slightly, Mom blinked my way as though she’d completely forgotten where she was for a moment. Then she shook it off. “Oh, yes, sorry.” Reaching out, she brushed a hand through my hair. “I was just… thinking.”

“He’s gone forever. You know that, right?” My hand moved to catch hers, interlacing our fingers. “He can’t hurt us anymore. And now we’re going to go tell everyone on his world the same thing. He can’t hurt them either.” 

Mom smiled a bit, pulling me into a brief yet tight embrace. “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Now let’s go. 

“Those people deserve to find out exactly how dead and gone that bastard is.” 

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Calm Before 20-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Children? Children of Olympians?” As he said those words, Manakel started to continue before pausing. A slight grimace crossed his face. “I would ask if you were certain, but I do not believe you would have come to me with that if you were not.”

I was back in the room where the Seosten ghost man was being held, with my mother standing at the doorway watching. She had that sword that Kushiel had wanted held in one hand, her attention torn between inspecting it and keeping an eye on every move he made. 

“Yeah,” I confirmed flatly, “we’re sure. The others saw a few of them use powers. And they basically confirmed it when it was brought up. Except they said Kushiel is their mother. Apparently they seemed pretty loyal to her.” 

Manakel absorbed that, floating backwards a couple feet as though the information itself had physically rocked him. “Kushiel having access to any children at all is very bad news. Having Olympian children is much worse, especially if they are, as you say, loyal. It sounds as though she has raised fanatics.” 

I took a breath, preparing myself. “Okay, look I just have to ask. Did you know anything about this? Did you know she had offspring like that? You or your old self or whatever. Did you have any idea?”  

The man shook his head firmly. “I assure you, I may have had a good many issues by the end, but I was loyal to my people in my own way. Had I known there were living offspring from our ship, I would have had them taken away from her to be raised properly.” 

I continued to stare at him for another few seconds, trying to read if there was anything duplicitous in his face. I wasn’t sure, not entirely. But something told me he was telling the truth about this. It didn’t take much to know that allowing Kushiel to raise a group of potentially incredibly powerful fanatical teenagers was a bad idea. So, I glanced toward my mother and gave her a short nod. As I was doing that, Manakel spoke up. “When you say these children displayed powers, what were they?” 

“They didn’t have any necromancy,” I replied simply. “At least none that they saw. But apparently not all of them used any visible powers.” I thought back to what the others had described. “There was one who controlled water, another one who made the concrete turn into fists, big ones. Another made the air solid enough to walk on or hit people with. And then there was the girl, the one in charge I mean. Apparently she made explosions and teleported? They’re not sure if those were part of the same thing or what.” 

Manakel considered that, silent thoughts clearly passing through his mind as his expression twisted. “The water isn’t hard. That must be Sachael’s child. As for the concrete manipulator, my… best guess is Orifiel. He was able to control physical buildings and similar constructs. That may be an earlier manifestation of it. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t using the power to its full extent. Either way, Orifiel… passed away over fifty years ago. Kushiel must have either kept some of his genetic material herself, or acquired it from another storage facility.” 

He went silent for a few seconds, processing his thoughts. I didn’t interrupt, and he eventually spoke again. “The girl who manipulated the air would almost certainly be the offspring of Rabia. She was… killed by the Moon girl during your assault on Kushiel’s original lab. And as for the girl who teleports via explosions…” He paused before visibly sighing. “I’m afraid I have no idea. It could be a manifestation or use of an ability I didn’t witness, or… perhaps a combination of two powers from a pair of Olympian parents, which created this form… I apologize. It could also be part of one of my removed memories.” 

“Removed–” I started before realizing. “Right, Athena and Sariel talked about that. Seosten can just… remove bits of their memory and store them somewhere else to go back for later when they need them.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “If that is the case, all you need to do is acquire my stored memories from the homeworld.” Another grimace came then, as he lamented, “I intended those words as a mixture of a joke and praise for your probable ability to actually accomplish something like that. But I’m afraid it may have come off as taunting.” 

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I pushed all of that down and simply replied, “Yeah, well until we happen to get those memories, we’ll just have to go with what you said. Which, for the record, basically matches what Sariel and the others thought.” Of course we had talked to them first before asking him any questions. I want to know if he would keep anything back. 

Manakel, in turn, gave me a short nod. “Please tell me you are going to inform my people of this.” He hesitated before adding, “If you truly wish for this peace treaty to work out, telling them is a good idea. They will not react happily should they learn about it and discover that you’ve kept it from them.” 

Before I could respond, my mother spoke up. “Yes, we are going to let your people know about it. Especially Sachael. He was already willing to help us once before, and even if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t…” She glanced away before turning back, expression hard. “I wouldn’t keep a secret like that. Your people are… you have trouble creating offspring. These children… their parents deserve to know they exist. The ones who are still alive anyway.” 

The reminder made me grimace a bit. That reminded me of another potential issue. I had no idea if that air-controlling girl, Fuscus apparently, knew that Vanessa was the one who had killed her real mother. Or if she would even care. That whole situation was complicated, to say the least. And it had the potential to become even more so. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I asked, “You were around Kushiel a lot more recently than the others here. I mean, you were on decent terms with her. Plus you uhh, you’ve had that connection to Tartarus. Do… do you have any idea why she might’ve wanted to take Harrison Fredericks? Is this a Kushiel thing, or a Tartarus thing, or–why does she want him? What is she planning to do?” We’d asked the other Seosten here on the station the same thing, of course, but they’d had no idea. 

Unfortunately, Manakel shook his head. “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly guess why she would want to abduct the creator of cyberforms, aside from forcing him to create more for her. You said her ghost companions could possess them. Perhaps she wants to give them bodies they can use so they are not limited to ghost forms. But that is merely a guess.”  

“Yeah,” I replied, “that’s basically where we’re at too.” I hesitated before looking back to him. “If you remember or think of anything else–”  

“I will tell you,” he assured me. “Even if I was not intent on making up for past mistakes, removing those offspring from her control is vital. I will attempt to think of what they could be doing with Fredericks. Of course, I can make no promises, but I… I will do what I can. You have my word, Felicity Chambers.” 

That was basically all I could ask for, and all I would trust him to say. So, excusing myself, I left him there with his thoughts. As Mom and I stepped out, we looked at each other. “This could get really bad,” I said quietly. 

Still holding that sword, Mom gave a short nod. “Yeah, it could. But we’ll handle it. Whatever she’s planning, we’ll deal with it. Now, don’t you have something else to do?” 

I blanched a little. “Right, homework. Actually, does it count as homework if we’re living on a space station in the middle of the sun? Maybe we should call it sunwork. That makes it sound exciting.” 

Mom, for her part, chuckled while reaching out to brush my hair. “You can call it anything you want, my little Felicity. Just make sure you get it done. You know the rules.”

Snickering despite myself as I pushed worry about what Kushiel and her newly revealed entourage were up to out of my head, I replied, “Yeah, yeah, I am totally not allowed to go on any life-and-death, world-saving and horrifyingly terrifying missions to far sides of the planet and or universe until I get my homework done. Sorry, my sunwork done.” 

“That’s right,” Mom confirmed, hand brushing down the side of my cheek fondly. “Now you head on back to your room to work on that, young lady. Don’t make me get Wyatt to lock you down until it’s done.

“I’m sure he’d love the challenge.” 

*****

For the next couple of weeks, things settled down for the most part. We didn’t see any sign of Kushiel, or Invidia, or any of the other Whispers or Seosten ghosts. Besides the one we had locked up here with us, of course. We had groups out searching for Fredericks with no luck. The loyalist Heretics from Crossroads and Eden’s garden had already set up camp at his lab. Well, they set up camp outside of it. Apparently they were incapable of getting inside. Which raised the question of how Kushiel had managed to go through that and get him out of there. His defenses were too much for a joint team of Heretics to properly deal with, but she got through it as a ghost? Yeah, I had a few questions about that.

But, there was nothing to be done about that for now. Not until someone managed to track them down, or at least get a lead. For the moment, we had nothing. So, I went about my days like an ordinary student. Two weeks of ordinary school days, or at least as ordinary as they got around here. 

I had spent time helping the Carnival System explore who they were. They started attending their own classes alongside Dakota, Bobbi, and others. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard for the other students to accept them. Apparently multiple minds sharing one body wasn’t all that extraordinary or weird for them. I could only imagine what it would’ve been like in the Bystander world. 

I didn’t visit Zeke, of course. We weren’t friends, and my presence wouldn’t make his staying here any better. But from what I heard, he really wasn’t happy about the situation. They had him in a comfortable set of rooms without letting him near any of the non-Heretic students. He kept going on about being a prisoner, but what else were we supposed to do? We couldn’t trust him not to react violently the first time some innocent little Alter kid went running past him. 

Malcolm, his old friend and roommate, had left Crossroads. Actually, Sophronia brought him over. Apparently he had only stayed there to try to help Zeke in the first place, not because he still believed in them. Which made me wonder how many others were there just to be with friends and family. 

Either way, Zeke might’ve been more angry with Malcolm than he was at his mother or anyone else. He refused to see him. Which had to hurt, but Malcolm seemed to roll with it.

I did go back to visit the residents in the hidden vault. I had promised we would help them, and we were. Most chose to stay and wait for us to find their missing kids with the information we had taken from Perrsnile. Information which, unfortunately, was going to take time to pan out. After all, it wasn’t like the people he had sold those kids to had all stayed in one spot. We were working on tracking them down. Which, overall, the vault people were being pretty patient about. Especially considering what they had already been through. Some chose to leave the vault and go out on their own, or even come up to live on the station. Whatever they wanted, we helped with as much as we could. 

Beyond that, I spent time with Manakel, taking lessons from him about how to use my power properly. As promised, we started with me learning how to undo the spell that had sent Grover’s friend away. It was a slow process, and I wasn’t ready to do it just yet, but it was definitely progress. I assured Grover that as soon as I had a handle on it, we would go back to that hotel and give it a shot.

So, basically, I had a lot to work on even if there wasn’t much openly happening. I definitely wasn’t bored, to say the least.

That whole not bored thing went triple at the moment, considering I was busy frantically sparring with Avalon. She was intent on making sure I wasn’t slacking in that department. And, I was pretty sure, she was also working out various frustrations of her own. She was getting more and more worried about Gaia with every day that went by. Which I couldn’t blame her for. We had to get the woman out of there. Preferably as soon as possible, and definitely before this truce with the Seosten ran out. 

Finally, after an intense series of clashes between my staff and two of the energy blades from her gauntlets, we both took a few steps back and bent over to grab our knees while panting a bit. I shook my head. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have someone like Zeke in here to beat up on?”  

She gave me a look and snorted. “Trust me, Felicity, if there was any chance I could get away with that, I would. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold back with him nearly as much as I do with you.” 

“Yeah,” I retorted, “if this is you holding back, he’d probably end up in rough shape. I’m pretty sure Sophronia would object to us handing him back to her in more than one piece.” Sobering after that, I added, “I take it there still hasn’t been any luck trying to figure out why the Whispers want him.” 

“Nothing new,” she confirmed while cracking her neck as she straightened up. “Something to do with that colony world, but we can’t go there and check it out ourselves. Crossroads still has a presence there. Athena says they’re working on getting someone there to look around, but they have to be subtle about it.” 

“Speaking of which,” I put in, “I was talking to Wyatt earlier, and he said they’ve put together another packet of information to send to Crossroads and Garden about protections against the Whispers. Everything we know about them. I mean, there’s no proof they’ll even listen to us, but we’ve gotta try, right?” 

Avalon grimaced visibly, murmuring, “Yeah, we have to try. The last thing–one of the last things we need is for a bunch of loyalist Heretics to end up being controlled by Invidia’s pack.” 

“Sure doesn’t sound fun,” I agreed, stomach twisting a bit at the thought. “I think I’m starting to understand why you want to exhaust yourself with all this.” My hand gestured around the training room before I focused on her, voice softening. “Seriously, I know it’s a lot to deal with, but we’re getting there, you know?” 

“Are we?” she replied simply. “Because it kind of seems like we keep adding new problems we need to deal with without actually handling the stuff we already have.” 

She wasn’t wrong about that, and I had just opened my mouth to try to find something I could say when there was a chime from the door, indicating someone wanted to come in. We opened it, and found Shiori on the other side. But she wasn’t alone. Asenath was there too, along with another figure I didn’t recognize, but knew immediately. They were a silver metallic android with glowing gem-like eyes. From what I’d heard, those eyes changed color, but for the moment they were an amber-brown. 

“Hey, Flick,” Shiori chirped, stepping in to embrace me tightly. She had been busy lately, helping her sister search for answers to Tiras’s lost memories. “Hey, Avalon.” 

“Hey guys,” I greeted alongside Valley. “Looks like you brought a friend.” 

Senny nodded. “Yeah, this is Robin. Ah…” She leaned around to glance at the figure’s eyes. “Hood. Yeah, Robin Hood.” 

The robot smiled brightly. “Pleased to meet you, Felicity Chambers.”

Their eyes shifted to yellow while they added, “We’ve been waiting a long time to meet the one who stomped Fossor’s stupid butt so hard!” 

Before I could respond, the eyes turned red. “I just wish we could’ve been there to lend a hand. Cuz beating the shit out of that asshole sounds like fun.” 

I’d heard about this, of course. Shiori had explained the whole situation when she heard about Denny and the Carnival System. But we still went through official introductions. This was the Robin System. The one I’d seen first, with the brown eyes, was the original–or at least the first one who had woken up here on Earth. They were Robin Hood, or the Hooded One. The yellow-eyed one was called Sprite, or the Sprightly One. Red eyes was Brawl, or the Brawling One. Med/Medical One, Chat/Chatting One, Quip/Quipping One, and Sec/Security One all had green, light blue, pink, and dark blue eyes respectively. And each took the time to introduce themselves. 

Once that was done, I smiled easily. “I take it you’re here to see the Carnival?” There had been talk about the Robins coming up to see Denny and the others, but they had been really busy the past couple weeks. Apparently it wasn’t easy to track down the Rasputin guy, even with the special information they’d received in exchange for some sort of favor they’d done for some woman. She knew places he had been, and stuff about where he might go, but not a current physical location. 

Their eyes shifted to green as Med spoke up. “Yes. We would like to speak with them and… and help ensure they understand their situation and that they are not alone.” 

Then the eyes turned yellow for Sprite once more. “And it’s fun! We like meeting others like us. We don’t… we don’t get to do that very often.” 

“Trust me, they’re excited to talk to you too,” I assured them. “Actually, I’m pretty sure we can head up there right now.” 

“Excellent,” came the response as those eyes shifted to dark blue, for Sec. “And, of course, there is the other matter we came here for.” 

“Other matter?” I echoed, exchanging a glance with Avalon. 

“Yeah…” Shiori scratched the back of her neck. “You’re not gonna believe this, Flick. But we found out where Rasputin is right now, and why it’s been so hard to actually find him.” 

Looking back and forth between them, I slowly asked, “Something tells me this is gonna be a big answer, but… where is he?” 

“Not on Earth,” Asenath informed me, voice solemn. “He’s on Fossor’s homeworld, Flick. 

“That’s where we need to go if we’re gonna find him.” 

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Calm Before 20-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and is able to be read by everyone right here

“Answer her,” Avalon was already pressing, her gaze intent as she stared that way. “Why were you looking for Hajer? And why in an old hotel that was taken over by a gang of Alters?” 

“To answer your questions in reverse order,” Manakel’s ghost informed us, “Hajer moves around quite a lot. Hence her title. I had it on quite good authority that she was there most recently at that time. Why she went to that place, I could not possibly say, only that she was at one point. Unfortunately… for me at the time, she was gone by the time I arrived. Which, as you have already learned, was not something I enjoyed learning.” He paused, giving a slight sigh before pushing on. “As to the first part, I wished to employ her services in removing the protections from Miss Sinclaire here.” His eyes moved to Avalon, who was still staring intently right back at him. “It was a long shot that she would agree to such a thing, but then, we were trying a lot of long shots at the time. And she has been surprising before in what she has agreed to.” 

Squinting, Valley slowly asked, “She’s the ancient human who was bonded to one of those Primals, right? The… whatever they were who created the weapons the King of Canada uses.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Your people would have called her a caveman. Or cavewoman. Bit offensive, but not incorrect. She was born in a time when the majority of your people did live in caves, when most of the Alters who would eventually come to call this planet home had not yet arrived. And those who had were… genuinely more threats than allies. In the early days, there were large portions of this planet which were ruled by incredibly dangerous creatures. Among those ancient inhabitants were very, very few of the beings you call Primals. Their own species was already doomed despite their vast power, and you might say a couple of those who were left… retired here. They stowed large armories of their advanced weaponry, such as what Oberon found.”

“Um, why were they doomed?” I found myself asking uncertainly. “I mean, as a species. What happened to them?” Was it weird that I was asking questions of the guy who had spent so long trying to murder my girlfriend and destroy my entire life, as though he was just another teacher? And did the fact that Avalon was right here with me, also asking him questions, make that whole situation better or worse? I wasn’t sure, but it was definitely a thing. 

“We don’t precisely know, to be honest,” was Manakel’s somewhat disappointing response. “Well, there are theories based on information we do have. I can tell you the one I subscribe to, which is that the beings we know as the Primals performed a spell that was so… dangerous and consuming, it destroyed their ability to procreate. And it did so to such an extent that even cloning would not help, because this spell they created and triggered worked by draining the life force from any iterations of their species who were not alive at the moment it was triggered.” 

I absorbed that for a moment before my eyes widened. “Wait, you mean they effectively destroyed their own ability to continue their species because they made a spell that killed any members of that species who weren’t there at the time? So they could never make any more, and the ones who died just… never got replenished?” 

“That seems like a very bad plan,” Persephone put in, gently rubbing one of Cerberus’s heads. “I don’t know what sort of goal they could have had for that.” 

“What she said,” Avalon noted dryly. She was still watching the man with obvious suspicion despite her curiosity. “What the hell were they trying to do? Are you sure they did it to themselves? That sounds an awful lot like something someone else would have done to them.” 

Mankel’s head bobbed slightly to acknowledge the point. “Yes, well, as I said, we know very little about them for certain. For the most part, they came from a time long before even my people. Certainly before we were an intergalactic civilization. We’re forced to piece things together from old records and stories. But we do know that, within the few records we have found and translated, the Primals repeatedly referred to their situation as something they had done to themselves. They blamed no outsiders, no invading enemy or force. Whatever happened, they were the source of it.” 

“So they couldn’t have any kids or create any clones, or do anything that would carry on their species,” I murmured. “And apparently this spell or whatever it was couldn’t be stopped. They were stuck with just whichever of them happened to be alive when the spell was cast, and once they died, that was it.” The idea made me shudder. What would it be like to live as a people as advanced as these Primals had been (if the weapons Oberon had found were any indication) and then become completely helpless to prevent your entire species from just dying out? 

“A few ‘retired’ to this planet, and this Wandering Woman, or Freyja, or Hajer… whatever she calls herself, she came across one of them way back in the primitive days.” Avalon frowned a bit. “If they lived so long ago that even your people didn’t know anything about them, they must live for a long time for any to have survived long enough for a primitive human to meet them.” 

The man gave a slight nod once more. “Yes, they were incredibly advanced in many ways, to the point of becoming nearly entirely immortal, in some cases. And yet, still, once one died for any particular reason, they were gone forever and the species was one step closer to complete extinction. And even they could only prolong their lives, or protect themselves from outside threats, for so long. Or perhaps some simply… chose to die, after so much of their species was wiped away with no chance to return to their former glory. They could have given up.” 

He was silent for a moment after that, clearly considering how it would feel, before visibly swallowing. Then he went on. “Hajer met one and was bonded to them. Perhaps it was an intentional way for that particular Primal to feel as though they were passing something of themselves on. Whatever the reasoning, she is quite possibly the most powerful being on this planet.” 

“She has the ability to undo things,” I remembered. “Mom said if she focuses on something or someone, she can undo the effect of anything. If you burn a house down, she can wave a hand and put it back to the way it was before the fire. Even if that means bringing everyone who was killed in the fire back to life. But like, she can even undo learning. She can make you forget things, or even erase skills out of your head by removing the fact that you ever learned them.” 

“All of which is correct.” After saying that, Manakel paused, glancing away as though losing himself in thought for a moment before shaking it off as he turned back to us. “As I said, my goal was to find her and convince her that it would be in the best interest of this world for me to succeed in my mission.” His gaze focused on Avalon as he flatly finished with, “My mission, of course, to kill you. Again, for however little it is worth, you have my apologies. Yet I did, absolutely and without question, believe what I was saying at the time. I believed that killing you, eliminating any possibility of Liesje’s spell from ever being put into the world, would maintain the peace here. Because if my people found out that spell was active, I believed they would come here in force.” 

“Yeah, they still might try that,” I muttered under my breath. “But I guess you didn’t find her.” 

“No, I did not. So I returned to other plans.” He looked to Avalon once more. “Plans which failed.” 

“Yeah, we’re all glad about that, believe me,” I noted. “But anyway, to get back to the whole reason I brought that up in the first place, you said you could help me learn to undo that… ‘severscatter’ spell that you used on Grover’s friend so we can bring her back?” 

“As I also said, it will take some time for you to learn enough to do so,” the man reminded me. “But yes, I believe it can be done. Once you have learned how, you will have to go to the spot where it occurred. And you will need to know as much about the girl as possible. That, you will need this… Grover’s aid with. But assuming all goes well enough, you should be able to, ahem, bring her back.” 

My phone buzzed at that point, so I glanced down at it before replying, “Well, I’ll definitely be coming to you for lessons soon. But in the meantime, it sounds like the others are starting to wake up.

“And I really need to get back there in time for my grandparents to meet Theodore.” 

******

Of course, Manakel had no idea what I meant by ‘Theodore,’ and I wasn’t yet to the point where I felt like explaining it. So Avalon and I left him there with Persephone and Cerberus. They had a lot to talk about, and I was pretty sure most of it was pretty private stuff. Still, I made sure Percy knew she could call for us any time she wanted, and that she absolutely did not have to do anything Manakel told her to. And I told Andromeda she should listen in and make sure nothing untoward happened. Even if he was being… well, nice now, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Having a secretly-still-evil Manakel manipulating Persephone into something bad wasn’t quite the worst situation I could think of, but it wasn’t good either. 

Either way, right now wasn’t the time to think about all that. Now was the time to focus on Grandmaria and Popser, who were standing in the kitchen alongside Dad, Mom, and me. And Loudpound, who was wolfing down a very large stack of pancakes at the table. Or rather, pancake and egg sandwiches. She took two pancakes at a time, shoved several spoonfuls of scrambled eggs between them, then ate the result like a sandwich. While sometimes dipping it in syrup. I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to try it like that, but she sure enjoyed it. 

“Uurph, I gotta tell ya, Grandma Chambers, you make some fine flapjacks,” she announced after devouring another of her concoctions. “I mean, I never actually had real ones before, just what I’ve got from borrowed memories, or how they taste inside. But if I had to have anything as my first outside meal, I’m glad it was this.” She took another huge bite then, with a murmur of pleasure, then gulped down half a glass of milk. 

Staring at the greenish-brown, taller Denny in wonder (for more than one reason, I was sure), Grandmaria finally found her voice. “Oh, well, if you think those little things are good, you should try my cookies sometime.” 

Pointing with her latest pancake and egg sandwich clutched in one hand, Loudpound declared, “I’ll hold you to that! Err–what?” She looked to the side as though listening to someone else before muttering under her breath, then turned back. “I mean, thanks. You know, for that and all this food. It’s all ahh, it’s all good.” 

Grandmaria paused before smiling. “Well, I’m just glad you’ve all been enjoying it. Or… is that just you? I’m afraid I’m not quite certain how that works with your… ahh, situation.” 

Taking another gulp of milk to finish off the glass, Loudpound shrugged. “I’m not really the explaining things type, unless you’re talking about explaining just how much it hurts to have my fist in your face. Then I’m more of what you might call an interactive teacher.” She offered a toothy grin that showed off her fangs. Then there was another pause as she listened, before shrugging. “Yeah, well, you do it.” 

With that, her body shrank down half a foot, back to the original Denny’s height. Her skin shifted away from the brownish-green and became a bright fuchsia, while her clothes were a mint and black mix. She even had a matching cape. Her eyes were yellow with no whites to them, and she had short and spiky white hair. 

“Hi!” the new arrival chirped. “I’m Tailor! Letters was gonna come out and talk, but she’s busy right now. I wanted to say I really liked the pancakes too! I probably wouldn’t have put them together with the eggs like that, but it was a new experience. I think new experiences are good! Err, most of the time. Okay, okay, maybe there’s a lot of bad new experiences, but this one was just weird, and weird isn’t bad! I like experiencing things.” 

She looked to my grandmother then. “We can taste what the person on the outside eats, but it’s like… one step removed? It’s not quite like having someone describe something to you, but it’s not exactly the same as experiencing it yourself either. It’s like, uhhhhh… you know when you eat something and then a couple seconds later you can still remember what it tastes like really well? It’s sorta like that.” She thought about her own explanation for a second, then gave a firm nod. “Basically.” 

“Well,” Popser started, “it’s certainly a delight to meet you, Tailor. I hope we didn’t annoy your… sister? I hope we didn’t annoy her too much with all our questions.” 

“Psshh, nah, she’s okay.” Tailor waved that off. “Like she said, she just doesn’t like to explain things. Or listen to things being explained. She gets bored pretty quick.” Her head tilted to look up toward the corner of the ceiling. “What? You do. I didn’t say it was a bad thing.” Looking back to my grandparents, she added, “Anyway, we decided we don’t really like the term sister or brother, because… well, some of us are more connected than others. Letters was reading stuff online earlier when she was out, and she thinks those should be called syslings. Like system siblings. That’s what we are, a System, basically. We didn’t start out the same way they do, but… I mean, it’s close enough. Anyway, we’re the Carnival System. Some of us are syslings, some of us aren’t. Mostly we’re what you call Aspects, or maybe headmates.That’s another word Letters found. Individually, we’re Aspects. When you’re talking about what we are to each other, it’s Headmates. Loudpound and Bijou are syslings because they’re really close, even though they’re pretty different. But just go with headmates for all of us as a whole.”  

Dad, who had been standing in the back corner of the room next to Mom as they watched all this, spoke up. “I had an interview with someone like that awhile back. We were trying to find out what they knew, but the one we needed to talk to was, ahh… gone. I think they said he ‘walked out.’ I ended up talking to their–what did he call himself? Archeologist, that was it. He called himself the System Archeologist. He had this mental museum of all of the pieces of memory the other parts of them left lying around. Ended up being pretty helpful. And ahh, educating.” 

We all talked a little bit more about that, before Grandmaria promised to make cookies soon, and said she would invite any of the Carnival System out to help. Then she and Popser decided they were ready to go in and see Theodore. Apparently the System had already figured out that he couldn’t manifest outside. He wasn’t exactly the same as them. They were all pieces of Denny, at least partially, so they could take over and control the body. But he was more of a separate entity inside her memories, and apparently that wasn’t enough for him to take over. Though, to be honest, I wasn’t sure he even wanted to. He was pretty nervous about interacting with anyone in there, let alone taking over the body in the ‘outside world.’ 

In any case, Tailor swapped with Walker, who grunted her own greetings before waving for us to step together. So, Mom, my grandparents, and I all moved closer. The four of us were going in. Apparently it wasn’t easy for Denny to support too many people inside herself at the same time, and we didn’t want to push things any further than that. 

We arrived in the carnival itself, and my grandparents looked around in wonder. Grandpartie went on a bit about how amazing it would be if they could make a virtual reality video game look this good, while a few of the Aspects cautiously watched from various game booths and rides. They weren’t approaching. 

Then a voice spoke up cautiously from nearby. “I… hello.” It was Theodore, of course. He tentatively stepped out from behind one of the booths, looking nervous. He had dressed up in a cute little black suit with a blue bowtie and matching boots. 

Turning that way, Popser was the first to react. “Aha!” he crowed, making Theodore jump a little. “There’s my grandson!” With a grin, he stepped that way, then paused before lowering himself to one knee. Even then, he still towered over the small boy. “I like your tie. That’s not a clip-on.” 

“No, sir,” Theodore confirmed. “Bang-bang helped me tie it.” 

“Well, he did a bang-up job.” Giving a laugh at his own joke, Popser added, “And it sounds like he’s a good friend. You can call me Popser, or Grandpartie, just like the others.” He offered his hand. “You like Theodore or Theo?” 

After a very brief pause, the boy accepted the shake, his own hand vanishing into our grandfathers’ much bigger one. “I think I usually prefer Theodore, but… Theo sounds okay coming from you, uh, sir.” 

“Theo it is, then,” Popser agreed before waving a hand. “Maria, come meet our grandson.” 

Soon, the three of them were talking animatedly. Well, our grandparents were doing most of the talking. Theodore stayed pretty quiet and just watched. But his eyes were certainly animated, as he stared at them and alternately nodded or shook his head while they asked questions. 

Stepping next to my mother as that went on, I quietly murmured, “I’m pretty sure this is good for all of them.” 

Her head gave a short nod, eyes remaining centered on Theodore while shining with half-shed tears. “Yes. It’s good for them, and for us. And I think it’s good for Denny and the rest of the Carnival as well.” Saying that, she smiled even more at the sight of Popser rising while picking Theodore off the ground so he could hold him up as high as possible, making the boy give a reflexive laugh. Her voice became so quiet, I could barely hear her next words.  

“It’s just plain… good.” 

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Calm Before 20-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – the following takes place shortly before the situation depicted in interludes 19C and 19D at Harrison Fredericks’ lab. 

After everything we had been through inside the vault, we were all exhausted by the time we got out of Wonderland. With the promise that we would go back and visit again while hopefully not ending up trapped in another pocket dimension for the entire time, of course. We were tired and just plain done with everything. So, Mom insisted that Marina, Dakota, and the Carnival (that was what Denny and all her new Aspects wanted to be called when referring to all of them together) come with us to my parents’ apartment and sleep there for the night. She said other people would ask way too many questions if we tried to go to sleep in our houses or our own rooms, and that they had plenty of space. 

She wasn’t wrong about that part, for sure. There was a big room my parents weren’t using at all, and after a quick reunion with my father and grandparents, Mom insisted they had let us sleep and that there would be more explanations in the morning. Or that she would explain things while we got the rest we needed. Either way, glad as I was to see all of them again, I was almost as glad to be able to fall into bed and completely turn my brain off for awhile. It had been a long day. Between dealing with the whole murder thing, trying to help Denny, and then running into the ghost of Manakel, it was… a lot. I just needed to stop for a bit. 

I did, of course, want to know what I had missed while we were in there. So, Tabbris caught me up to speed about the Avalon situation. Or rather, the Zeke situation. Apparently the Whispers had gone after him for some reason that no one was exactly clear on, except his mother said that it had to do with something his father had done on that same world where the Whispers had been imprisoned to begin with. Which probably meant that we really didn’t want them doing whatever they were intending with Zeke. 

So now, at Sophronia’s request, he was staying here on the station with us. And boy, from what Tabbris said, was he not very happy about that. To say the least. He still thought we were all evil cowardly traitors or something, and now he was convinced his mother was crazy. Still, he couldn’t really stop the adults here from keeping him. He didn’t know how to use transportation magic (they didn’t teach that this early at Crossroads), and any powers he had for that were short-range. He had no way of getting all the way from the sun back to Earth. Not that that stopped him from ranting about how we were holding him prisoner and all that. According to Tabbris, Abigail had tried to talk to him for awhile but gave up and told him they’d talk a bit later, once he calmed down. She did make sure he had all the food and entertainment he could need, and kept sending some of his old classmates to talk to him. Especially Erin Redcliffe and Travis Colby, his old teammates. Even that didn’t really seem to help, though. If anything, he was apparently even angrier with them.

Obviously, I wanted to talk to Avalon. But she was asleep when I got back, apparently at Abigail’s order. So was Shiori. They had both been told that there was nothing they could do to get into the vault where I was, and that if that changed, they would be informed and wouldn’t it be just terrible if there did turn out to be a way to go in and they were too exhausted to do it? 

Yeah, it was blatant manipulation and everyone involved knew that. Still, it apparently convinced them enough to lay down for a bit, so they were asleep when I got out of that place. I didn’t want to wake them up, no matter how much I wanted to see them. Besides, there was that whole thing about me needing a bit of sleep too, so my brain could actually function. So, I put off that particular reunion. Besides, as long as it had felt in the vault, we weren’t actually in there even for a full day. It just seemed like it had been a week. Or longer.

I did do one important thing before sleeping. I took Perrsnile to the haunted mansion and told the other ghosts to keep an eye on him. I also used another of those ghost containment spells just to make sure of it, and promised to explain more later after giving them a quick rundown of what was going on and who the son of a bitch was. I also dropped Ausesh off there, but let her know she could do whatever she wanted in that place and that I would turn one of the rooms into an actual lab to work in as soon as possible. Then I left to get some actual rest. 

Marina, Dakota, the Carnival, and I camped out on the floor in sleeping bags. Letters was the one who had manifested when we went to sleep, but when I came to a couple hours later (fully-rested, of course), I didn’t see her at all. Then I spotted Peanut, the tiny pixie Aspect, curled up in a nest she had apparently made out of a towel on a nearby table. She was making adorable little squeaking noises with each soft exhale, wings fluttering a bit now and then.  

Quietly getting up so I wouldn’t disturb the others, I slipped out of the room. They definitely needed more rest. After all, not everybody had the benefit of Amarok power allowing them to get away with being fully refreshed after just a couple hours of sleep at most. Though if asked, I’d have to say that I highly recommended it. Especially if you were going to throw yourself into the sort of situations that kept popping up in my life.

The only person awake in the apartment when I stepped out was Grandmaria. It was early enough that she was sitting in a kitchen illuminated only by the small light over the stove, drinking a cup of tea. As soon as she saw me, my grandmother was on her feet saying something about how she would make me some food. Before she could, I stepped over and embraced her. I’d done it earlier, just before going to sleep, but I needed another one. And it was clear she did too, from the way she squeezed me back. 

I thought about insisting that she didn’t need to make me anything, but I also knew that it made her feel like she was contributing and helping. And I didn’t want to take that away. On the other hand, I also didn’t want her to do it all by herself. So, I insisted on at least making my own drink and refreshing hers, while asking if she’d had any sleep. 

“Oh, I’ll get some rest later,” she replied shortly. “Don’t you worry about me. I want to know how that girl in there is doing.” She paused, clearly sorting through things in her head before questioning, “I mean, those people? I’m not sure what the proper… term would be…” 

Yeah, we had explained a little bit about that before crashing, and I was sure my mother had told them more before she’d gone to bed herself. Still, it was no wonder that my grandmother would probably be a bit confused about that whole situation. So, while we were making food for ourselves and something to drink, I went through the whole situation from the top and explained everything. Not just about the Carnival, but everything that happened in the vault. Some she already knew, but I could tell it helped for me to go through all of it like that. And it also helped me sort it out in my own head. 

“So, we talked about it, and if you’re talking about the body as a whole and the people inside it, they prefer ‘they or them,’” I informed her. “But each one of the different Aspects has their own preferred term. Most of them are ‘she or her,’ but there’s a couple individual ‘they or them’ and ‘he or hims.’ Like Bang-bang. The easiest thing is just to use the term for the one who is physically active and in control of the body if you’re saying something specific like, ‘do you want a soda?’ Or address all of them if you’re trying to ask the whole collective something. And don’t worry about being confused. They’re still working out that whole thing too, so it’s not like they don’t have questions themselves. All that really matters is to listen to what they say, and understand that they may share a body, but they’re individuals. They have their own likes and dislikes, so just because one of them says they prefer something doesn’t mean they all do. Denny… Denny needs a lot of help. She’s been through a lot, and she’s not ready to be in control of the body right now. I mean, she deserves a break.” 

“She does,” Grandmaria agreed with a troubled frown. “I just wish there was more we could do for her. For all of them. So many people inside one body. I… it reminds me of when you, your father, and the others came into my head while your grandfather and I were still out in space. Hearing all your voices and feeling you there, that was, well, it was a lot. If I had to share my body with you, I would do it in a second. But are we certain we can’t get them their own bodies?”

Biting my lip, I offered a shrug. “Honestly, I don’t think it works that way. They’re part of–they’re all sort of… it’s complicated. But even if it did, I’m pretty sure some–or even most of them don’t want to leave. Grandmaria, I get it. Believe me, I understand. But I don’t think this is something we need to ‘fix.’ It’s just who they are. They’re like a family living in one body. They need each other, they’re a part of each other. And that whole situation isn’t something we need to fix or change, it’s just something we need to accept. If they need help with something, they’ll ask for it. We just need to listen, and give it to them.” 

My grandmother absorbed that, clearly considering it before giving a short nod as she nibbled on some toast. “Well, if that’s what they need, it’s what they’ll get.” She hesitated then, clearly uncertain of how to bring it up before carefully adding, “But, about this other part, the… Theodore. Is he really– I mean is he only…” 

“As far as we can tell, that’s not Theodore mixed with part of Denny,” I confirmed. “He’s just the memories or… personality of him before Fossor turned him into Ammon. Before he–before he did all that. He’s like the piece of Theodore that was locked away, the part Fossor cut out or blocked off or whatever. It’s complicated, like the rest of that entire situation. But it’s him, Grandmaria. It um, it kinda freaked me out too, believe me. You didn’t know Ammon. You never met him, you never–” A shudder ran through me as my face twisted a bit. “It’s weird, seeing him now. But it’s not Ammon. It’s Theodore. He’s Theodore. Or at least as close to him as we’ll ever see. Closer than I thought. And we can talk to him. Mom already did.” 

A smile found its way to the elderly woman’s face as she sipped her tea. “Yes, she was quite happy about that. And chatty. I don’t believe I’ve seen Joselyn so talkative since…” She paused again, head tilting before her eyes found mine. “Actually, I do remember the last time she talked that much. It was over the phone just as you went into first grade. She had dropped you off, still had time before her shift, and your father was already at the paper. She needed someone to talk to, so she called us, and your grandfather put the phone on speaker. I remember sitting out on the back porch on our swing, listening to your mother telling us everything about that morning. She told us what you were wearing, how you woke up, the lunch you both made together, every single thing you said on the drive there, what you looked like going into the big, big building with that little green backpack…” She trailed off, smiling fondly at the memory. 

Then Grandmaria swallowed hard, voice troubled. “I never should have believed that she would ever willingly abandon you or your father. Not after that, let alone all the other times that… I never should have believed it.” 

“It’s okay.” That wasn’t me. It was my mother, standing in the doorway. Her voice was soft, gaze focused on the older woman. “I understand why you would.” 

My grandmother was already on her feet, moving that way to embrace her. The two of them exchanged a couple of quiet, private whispers before Mom joined us. Which meant Grandmaria was bustling around making more food. Meanwhile, I turned to my mother and I asked about Manakel. So she informed me that Puriel and the other Seosten were still with him, as far as she knew. They were keeping an eye on him while a proper containment room was prepared. He’d already agreed to stay wherever we wanted him to, but no one was going to take any chances. Not with someone like him. Yeah, I wanted to take advantage of the lessons he was offering, but we were still going to be careful with it. Even if he was telling the truth about not being a horrible person anymore, even the man himself admitted that there was no telling when Tartarus might get its hooks into him again. We had to make sure that, if something went wrong, he couldn’t do any damage to this place. Or to any of us, for that matter. 

Giving them a moment together, I stepped out of the kitchen to the main living room and simply stood by myself for a minute. Or rather, for about seven seconds, before a lump laying on the nearby couch was suddenly picking it–herself up. My item sense picked up just what I needed to tell me who it was in the relative darkness, even as I spun that way. “Shiori?” 

She threw herself at me, and I caught the other girl while taking a step back to brace myself. Then we were kissing. It was… oh, it was nice. Wow. Really nice. After a moment of that, I came up for air and smiled a bit. “I think I found the sweet spot. If I’m out of touch for just most of a day, you get worried about me without getting mad at me for being gone for much longer than that.”

Snorting at me, Shiori punched my arm. “Don’t be a jerk about it or I could be mad at you for that.” She was smiling though, beaming really. “You solved a murder mystery.” 

“That’s what they pay me the big bucks for,” I replied as casually as possible. “Maybe I should get a private office and a trenchcoat, huh? You could be one of my dames.” 

Shiori giggled, started to say something, then just hugged me tighter. That felt about as good as the kiss, honestly. I held onto her, giving a soft sigh of contentment before quietly asking, “What are you doing here? I mean, sleeping out on the couch?” 

“We didn’t wanna wake you up,” she informed me. “But we knew you wouldn’t sleep all night. I uhh–” Looking over toward one of the recliners, which had also been made up for someone to sleep in but was empty now, Shiori added, “I think Avalon went for a walk. Saving Zeke and then having him stay here was… a lot. Especially since she was worried about you the whole time.”

“I bet,” I murmured softly before kissing her once more. “I’ll find her. Are you okay though?” 

She confirmed that she was fine. She and Twister had been off helping Asenath try to track down the person who erased her father’s memory. Apparently they had some big lead with that. Asenath and Twister had found some group of other people who were also looking for Grigori Rasputin, the Akharu who had been with Tiras on that last mission. There was some woman named Inanna who could point them all in the right direction. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as just giving them a current address. Inanna had clues about where Rasputin was, and they were working on narrowing it down. The man wandered a lot, apparently. 

Either way, they were all busy with that. I made Shiori promise to let me know the second they needed any help. By that point, she was yawning, so I walked her back to the couch and got her to lay down again. But just as I was about to quietly head out, she caught my hand. “Oh, I almost forgot. Is it true about Denny having… I mean about her having a lot of people inside her head?” 

Blinking once, I nodded. “Yeah, they’ll definitely wanna talk to you when they wake up again and all that. Err… you know, I’m not sure if the inside carnival part sleeps or gets dark or… what.” Briefly, I gave her the explanation about what I was even talking about. 

Shiori, in turn, nodded slowly as she absorbed that. “You should have her–or them talk to Robin.” 

“Robin?” I echoed, tilting my head curiously. 

With an audible snicker, Shiori informed me that she was talking about Robin Hood. Or Robin Med. Or Robin Chat. And so on. Apparently one of the people Asenath was working with now was a robot. Actually, they were one of the Mevari, the incredibly powerful robots created by the Tseuckaviel like Lord Yup, the small, purple-skinned man who was capable of seeing through the eyes of any living person he’d ever seen. Now I really wanted to find Lord Yup and let him know that one of his peoples’ creations was still intact and living on Earth. 

In any case, the point was that apparently this particular Mevari had been the actual Robin Hood. And they, like Denny now, had many different personalities/minds living inside one head. I wasn’t sure how that worked, if it was an intentional Mevari thing or something new. But they had experience communicating as several people living in one body. So, Shiori thought Denny and the rest of that whole group would want to meet them. I was pretty sure of that too, but told her I’d check with them first to make sure. 

With that, I told Shiori to go back to sleep, kissed her once more, and headed out. Grandmaria and Mom were still talking in the kitchen, so I stepped out of the apartment and looked around for Avalon. Not that I had to look very hard. She was just down the hall, doing something with her phone. When I approached, I could see that she was looking at pictures of herself with Gaia that looked like they had been taken last year. 

“I didn’t know you had those,” I murmured while stepping up beside the other girl. 

She, in turn, smiled very faintly. It was almost a grimace. She was blinking rapidly as well, pushing wetness out of her eyes before she put the phone away. “Gaia sent them to me. She had cameras watching us sometimes, and they… she wanted mementos.” Swallowing visibly, she looked to me, and I could see the vulnerability there. “Felicity, we have to get her out of there.” 

Flinching, I reached out, pulling the other girl to me. We embraced tightly, and I whispered, “We will, I promise. We’ll get her out.” Putting both hands on either side of her face, I made her meet my gaze. “You hear me? We’re gonna get her back.” 

“She saved my life,” Valley murmured, staring intently at me. “More than once and in every way possible. She saved me, Felicity. We have to save her.” 

She kissed me then, and the two of us lost ourselves in one another for a few moments. I held her tight while talking about what had happened, and she told me a few more specifics about her own day. We had all very clearly been busy, to say the least. 

And something told me that between me needing to take lessons from Manakel’s ghost, Asenath getting closer to finding out who was responsible for her father’s lost memories, the whole Whisper situation with Zeke being up here now, whatever Kushiel was doing, the need to save Gaia, and the whole rebellion in general, things weren’t going to get boring anytime soon. 

But hey, if they did, I always had that private detective gig to fall back on. 

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay. Okay, okay, okay. No, no, not okay. What the fuck?! Staring at the ghost figure in front of us, I heard a sound not unlike the emergency alert tone on the television go through my head. Before I knew what I was doing, I had already shoved myself in front of the others and snapped my hand up. With a grunt of effort, I forced every bit of power I could summon toward the dead man so I could trap him in place and stop him from doing anything. But could I even manage that? I hadn’t been able to stop Kushiel before because she was empowered by Tartarus. What made me think I could do it now? And yet, what choice did I have? I had to try. 

Sure enough, I felt the same problem I had with Kushiel. My Necromancy couldn’t catch a hold of him. It kept glancing off. I was going to have to try something else. I was going to have to call someone else for help, call everyone for help. Tabbris, call– 

“Please, please,” Manakel abruptly put in, “it’s all right. Please, calm yourse–” In mid-sentence, it was his turn to be interrupted, as a sudden fireball exploded right in the middle of him. It disrupted the ghost’s form briefly, obscuring him from sight. 

Flak, who had apparently taken over from Jordan, held her hand out with another fireball forming at the tips of her fingers. “He’s a bad guy, right?! Can we go?! Can we get out of here?!” 

“Ahem.” Manakel’s ghost appeared a few feet to the side from where the fire had been. “Please, before you burn down the entire hillside and that town over there, may I speak?” 

In the back of my head, Tabbris was telling me to hang on, and that she was getting people to help. I focused on the ghost, shifting over a few steps to keep myself in front of the others. I could feel Marina lift her weapon protectively in front of Dakota as well. Still, I kept my focus on the man in question. If he could be called a man now. “So,” I managed, “you came back too?”  It really shouldn’t have surprised me. Hell, apparently this was the time for people to come back in one form or another.

Manakel hovered there, his eyes watching me. But strangely, I didn’t feel any of the hatred and utter contempt that I had felt from him before. Or even from Kushiel’s ghost more recently. Instead, I felt something more like… shame? I felt disgust, but not at me. It was… what? 

The man spoke finally, his voice quiet. “As I was saying, I owe you an apology, Ms. Chambers. I owe a great many apologies. Far too many to ever truly manage, no matter how long my… extra existence may last.” 

I was absorbing all of that, still confused beyond belief. “Are you trying to say you don’t want to kill me?” I finally managed. Even as I said that, I was still keeping a wary eye on the man while holding my staff up. A single word would activate one of the ghost-fire spells I already had prepared on it, but I held off for the moment. 

There was a brief pause before the ghost gave a slow bow of his head. His voice was soft. “Ms. Chambers, I can safely say that killing you, or any of those who might believe I hold some vendetta against them, is the furthest thing from my mind. This may be difficult, or impossible, to believe, but I am quite truly not the man you knew me to be.”

Looking over my shoulder briefly to exchange a quick look with Marina and the others, I then turned back to him. “What exactly are you saying? You died and now all of a sudden you’re not a giant piece of shit anymore?” 

Clearing his throat audibly, the man grimaced before nodding. “I suppose that is one way to put it. You are correct that in my old state of mind, I would have quite loathed you for your actions. And yet, that hatred would not have been limited to you or to any who had actually wronged me. Before my death, I was… not the sort of man I ever wanted to be.”

Before he could say anything more about that, or before we could respond, a portal opened up nearby. Several figures came rushing out. The first was Sariel, with Tabbris right behind her. They were accompanied by Athena, Mercury, and my mother. And, just behind them, Puriel came as well. 

The new arrivals spread out, and I found myself gently pressed back by my mother as she put herself in front of me. Which was funny, considering the way I had done the same to the others before.

“Manakel,” Sariel immediately started, “if you wish to enact some vendetta against the one who killed you, then look to me, not her.”

“No one is going to be the subject of a vendetta.“ That was Puriel. The man focused his gaze firmly on Manakel’s ghost. “You came back.”

With a soft, somewhat beleaguered sigh, Manakel confirmed, “Yes, apparently I have. And as I was just saying, I’ve not come to enact any revenge plot. Or any other plot. I’ve come to apologize. To a great many people, actually. But I am glad to see that several of those have already come to me.” 

None of us were going to let our guards down, obviously. But we stood there and cautiously listened while he explained. Apparently, the man had actually partially reformed shortly after his death. The connection with Tartarus had brought him back, as it had Kushiel and the others. But for some reason, that same connection had been at least partially severed. It was like he was being pulled in two directions at once, connected both to Tartarus and to something else. He couldn’t understand what that other thing was for a while, but it gave him a sense of clarity that he had not had for a long time. It made him think about the person he had become over the years. 

At one point in his past, before the Olympus had come to earth, Manakel had been a good man. That much we had heard already from others. He took care of Sariel, Apollo, and Chayyiel not only as the ship’s doctor, but as a source of advice. And he had been a close friend to Puriel, who had actually countered some of Kushiel’s influence. 

So yeah, he had, at one point, been far different from the man we had come to know. But over the centuries, he had found himself becoming more and more corrupted by that same connection to Tartarus. In his new ghost form, with that strange connection to something else, he was able to think more clearly and fully grasp the type of man he had become. Faced with the guilt of the things he had done, he let his ghost form drift in a state of near-nonexistence. He expected to be taken by the void anytime, and had even wished for that.

Mercury’s voice was quiet as he asked, “But what happened then? Pretty obvious you didn’t disappear into the Void.” Even while he was saying that, my item sense picked up something. On the man’s shirt was a button. Well, there were a lot of buttons. But this was a particular button that wasn’t a button. Instead, it was a camera. A camera that was picking up audio and visual stuff, and, I was pretty sure, transmitting it to Chayyiel. 

There was a brief pause before Manakel sighed. “No, I did not. Some time ago, I felt a rush of power, an explosion of sorts, coming from the other end of whatever I was connected to besides Tartarus, the thing that prevented me from being subjected to its control. It took me a while, but I brought myself together and followed that power to a small prison world. A human Heretic prison world.” 

Realizing what he was saying right then, my eyes widened as I blurted, “You’re talking about the place we went to. That explosion, it was me using all that necromancy in that fight. You felt me, because I’m the one you’re connected to. When I killed you— I mean when we killed you, I reaped your power. That connected you to me.”

Looking my way, he gave a short nod once more. “Precisely. I learned that you were the one preventing me from falling back under the sway of that place. You may have aided in my death, but in so-doing, you reaped my power and thus gave me a… connection which prevented me from falling entirely back under Tartarus’s influence. After that realization, it took me some time to decide what I should do about it.” 

Athena took a step forward, exchanging a look with Puriel before speaking carefully. “And what decision have you come to?” 

I could tell this was a lot for them to take in. Not only because of the whole ‘him supposedly not being an evil dickhead anymore’ part, but it was even more confirmation that if they died, they would be turned into Tartarus ghosts. That had to be hard to think about. 

Manakel was quiet for a moment before his eyes focused on me. “I wish to teach you. I have no idea how long the connection between us will allow me to maintain my own thoughts and personality. But for whatever time we have, I want to use it to help you understand how to use my power. I had millennia to practice with it.” He paused again before quietly adding, “And, with any luck, I will be able to instruct you well enough that should the time come where I no longer control myself, you will be able to send me through the void where I can no longer harm anyone. As, I hope, you will do with all of our people, removing them from Tartarus’s influence and sending them on.”

Okay, yeah, that was a lot to take in, to say the least. He wanted to teach me how to use Necromancy so that I could destroy him if he ever turned evil again? And then use that same knowledge to destroy other Olympian ghosts so they couldn’t be used by Tartarus? Even assuming that was true and this wasn’t some sort of trick, wow. I just… wow. 

Puriel spoke up carefully. I could tell he was trying not to instill his will on the situation, even if he did have an opinion. “It is true that over the centuries since we were connected to Tartarus, he did change, quite substantially. I was far too distracted to pay attention at the time. Nor… nor would I have done what I should have if I had.” 

“It… was not specifically the connection to Tartarus,” Manakel informed us. “It was the deaths. Every… every one of us who had that connection and died, some part of me felt them. Their deaths… weighed on me. Not in the normal way. I felt that connection to them.” 

It was Sariel who realized it first. “They died and were tied to Tartarus, just like every one of us who dies and becomes one of its ghosts. Like Kushiel. Even though you weren’t dead, you were connected to them. You felt its influence on you through them. Because of your necromancy. Every Olympian who died gave you another small connection to Tartarus. That… changed you.” 

Athena took over, her own voice clearly contemplative. “When you died, you should have been taken by it too. But Miss Chambers reaping your power connected you to her as well, and that… saved you. Like being thrown a safety line when you’re about to be sucked under a whirlpool.” 

“That… is an accurate assessment,” Manakel agreed. His eyes focused on me. “All of which is why I say that I hold no ill will to you, Miss Chambers. Were it not for that connection, I would have been lost entirely and would simply be a thrall of that place. The fact that I retain any of my own faculties is because of you. I wish to repay that… and make up for my actions before my death, as well as ensure those who I was given charge of are not eternally enslaved.” 

Mom‘s voice was flat and somewhat dangerous. “You want me to believe the only thing you’re here for is to teach my daughter how to stop you and the rest of the Tartarus ghosts?” 

“Mrs. Chambers,” he replied in a voice that showed far more respect than I would have expected, “to say that I understand your doubt would be an understatement of epic proportions. It is part of why I did not make myself known for some time. Not only your doubt, but that of everyone else as well.” His eyes flicked toward Athena, Puriel, and Sariel. “And yet, when I sensed Miss Chambers’ disappearance from this reality, I thought perhaps you had been taken by those still beholden to Tartarus.” He paused and let out a heavy sigh, his ghost form flickering slightly. The impression I got was that it was from the various emotions he was having. “I thought it might be too late, that I had delayed for too long, and at any moment, my connection to you would be severed. I feared I had made yet another mistake and would be back under the thrall of that place. It was… a disturbing, terrible fear.” 

I believed him. I wasn’t exactly sure why exactly, but I did. It just felt like he was telling the truth, like… I could feel his sincerity. He was terrified of being controlled by Tartarus the way Kushiel apparently was. Or, I was pretty sure, being taken by the Whispers like Charmeine had been. 

While I was thinking about that, he continued. “I understand that this is difficult to believe, if not impossible. But as I said, I mean none of you any harm. The man I was before my death, the things I did and what I became…” He bowed his head for a moment before lifting it to look at them. “I am not proud of any of it.” Looking toward Puriel, he added, “You entrusted your daughter to me, and I was not the man you believed me to be. I did not help her in any way, certainly not as you expected.”

The others looked like they were still absorbing that, while Athena spoke up. “If we are going to allow you to continue to exist anywhere near us, and particularly near young Miss Chambers, we are going to need certain assurances. Special assurances, not merely your word.” 

Mom gave a quick nod at that, not taking her gaze off the translucent man. “That’s for damn sure. You say you want to help my daughter learn to control your power better, so she can stop others like you? Maybe you’re telling the truth, but before I’d let you anywhere near her, we’re going to make sure you can’t make us regret that.” 

For a moment, Manakel looked like he was considering those words and how best to respond to them. His form flickered a little more, as the impression I got was… disgust. Not at them or any of us, but at himself. He felt sick about the fact that we, and particularly his old friends, were reacting to him this way. Sick at himself. I felt the disgust directed inward. He hated what he had been, and the things he had done. I was completely certain by now. In the time since I had first laid eyes on him, I’d come to sense his emotions and general state of being better with each passing moment. And right now, I was completely certain that he hated himself. He genuinely wanted to pass on everything he knew to me so that I could destroy him when the time came. He wanted to be sent through the Void before he could be turned against the people he cared about again.

Reaching out, I put a hand on Mom’s arm before speaking up. “You don’t have a problem with that, right? You’re okay with us making sure you can’t hurt anyone else.”

His eyes centered on me, and then softened. I knew he could tell that I sensed what he was feeling. He gave me a short nod without breaking that stare, before speaking softly. “Yes. Whatever measures you deem necessary.” 

This was still a lot to take in, to say the least. This guy had been doing his level best to destroy my life and kill my girlfriend through most of last year, and now he was dead and his ghost wanted to help? I wasn’t sure what to do with that. Part of me strongly wanted to tell him to take a hike. Of course, that would have been a waste, and yet, it was still right there on the tip of my tongue. After everything he had done, everything he tried to do, I was just supposed to forget that and accept that he had been affected or turned evil or something by Tartarus even before he died? 

I found myself looking at everyone else for a moment as they seemed to be waiting to see what I said. Apparently since I was the one he wanted to teach, they were waiting for my opinion. I still hesitated before offering a shrug. “I’ve got all this power, and I barely know how to use it. I mean, Brom is helping a lot, and so is.. uhh… Persephone…” Trailing off then, I glanced toward Manakel. He looked a little surprised to hear that she was around, and then his expression turned to one of shame. He was obviously thinking about how he’d treated her. 

Letting that go for the moment, I pushed on. “Anyway, they’re helping, but learning from someone like him? I think I need that. I think he could really help me use this power the right way, before it’s too late. I need to get better at it. And you know there’s no better teacher than him.” 

There was a moment of silence as the others absorbed that, before Athena and my mother exchanged a brief, whispered conversation. Then the Seosten woman nodded toward Manakel. “We will discuss how to contain your spirit somewhere safe within our home. You will not be allowed to leave that area, and Miss Chambers will come to you there for instruction. Is this acceptable?” 

He agreed, and then all of the Seosten started to discuss things together. Not just how to contain him, but also about everything they have missed. Leaving them to that, I turned to my mother. There was something else incredibly important that we needed to do.

First, of course, I found myself facing Tabbris. She sprang my way to give me a tight hug. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I should’ve been with you, I shouldn’t’ve–” 

“Stop,” I insisted, returning the hug. “I’m fine. You can’t be there all the time, Tabs. You have your own life. You were visiting your dad. Which–is he…” 

“He’s still here,” she replied. “He’s visiting Michael right now.” 

“Good.” Hugging her more tightly for a moment, I added, “This was a really long day, and I wanna hear about the rest of it. But uhh… first, I think–Mom? You need to meet someone.” 

Her gaze had already moved to Flak, taking in the red skin and all that. “Denny? What–” 

Boy, this was going to be complicated. Glancing toward Marina, I gestured. “Explain it to the others, please? Let them know we’re fine and we’ll be right back.” Then I turned back to Flak. “Would–” 

“Yeah, yeah,” she immediately replied, waving a hand dismissively. That shimmering wave passed over her again, as the body shifted from Flak to Walker, with her gray skin and cloak. 

Needless to say, Mom was even more confused. Her eyes widened at that, taking the whole thing in. “Okay, now I really need to know what’s going on.” 

“Mom, that was Flak. This is Walker,” I informed her. “They’re–it’s a long story, but easier to tell inside.” Reaching out, I took the gray-skinned girl’s hand, before offering my other one toward my mother and Tabbris. “Trust me?” 

They did, both reaching out to touch my arm. I waited until we were all ready, before looking back to Walker with a nod. She returned it, before visibly focusing. And then we were gone, taken inside Denny so they could meet the rest of the Aspects. 

And Theodore. 

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By Blood 17-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At Last 16-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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To say that the Whisper-Ghosts reacted badly to their Get Into Tartarus ticket being taken away would be a bit of an understatement. In the moment after the prototype ship vanished with Puriel and the kids on-board, a near-deafening scream went up throughout the room. It came not only from the Whispers who were possessing ghost ‘bodies,’ but from all of them. Dozens of the things, most nearly entirely invisible aside from distortion in the air, expressed their fury from all along the outskirts of the room. The discordant howl of rage sent an almost painful shiver through me. There was power there. Which wasn’t surprising, given how much their voices could affect people when they whispered. An outright scream like this, coming from that many of them? No wonder it felt like the magical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Even with our protection, hearing it made me want to gouge my own ears out. 

And that was the point, I immediately realized. The scream was an attempt to push through all our protection and force us to harm ourselves. It even almost managed it, despite everything. At the moment I had that thought, the next that leapt to mind was, ‘Grandmaria and Grandpartie aren’t protected.’ Yet even as I spun that way, hand outstretched to stop them from being made to do anything drastic, I could see that the situation was already well in-hand. Both of my grandparents, Uncle Al, and that Native American guy, were all unconscious on the floor with Mom, Sariel, and Athena standing over them. Apparently they didn’t want to take any chances. Which, given how powerful the Whispers clearly were, made sense. 

Thankfully, the Whisper-scream (yeah) didn’t last for long. Which was the good part. Unfortunately, the bad part was that as soon as it stopped, the assortment of possessed Olympian ghosts and air distortions closed in on the rest of us from all sides. Invidia was, as usual, at the front as their leader. Her gaze was centered on me, and I was pretty sure that the hatred in her eyes was coming from both her and Charmeine. With that little move back there, I had just made myself the Whispers’ personal enemy. Which was just fantastic, because I didn’t have enough of those anymore. Definitely needed to add a few more to the list. 

“You,” Invidia snarled, that single word containing about a decade’s recommended allotment of spite. “You are–” 

In mid-sentence, she abruptly vanished from that spot just as my mother appeared there, sword slashing through the space she had just been in. Mom’s own voice was hard. “Stay the fuck away from her.” The tip of the sword was pointed at the spot where Invidia had reappeared, a bit further back. “You already lost. Get over it.”

“Did we?” Invidia snapped back, as the other possessed Olympian ghosts gathered around her. They were all staring past my mother to meet my gaze, and it was very clear that the animosity I had sensed was coming equally from all of them. I hadn’t just made Invidia hate me, they all did. Their whole group, if not their whole… species or whatever. Which might be a new record even for me, given how recently we’d met. 

It was actually Theia who spoke next. The Seosten girl was standing on the spot where Puriel had been when he was thrown into the other ship. “You failed to take my father, so you failed to open the rift.” Her voice was as flat and matter-of-fact as ever, yet I could sense an underlying hint of emotion there. Theia, quite understandably, probably had complicated feelings about her father. Yet these creatures had been trying to take him away from her right when she had been about to be reunited with him for the first time since she… well, since she had changed so much. They had both changed a lot, and these Whispers had very nearly snatched Puriel away from her before she ever had the chance to have a real face-to-face with him. No wonder I could hear anger in her voice. 

Although to be fair, I was pretty sure everyone in this room was angry at the moment. 

“She’s right,” Athena put in. The woman had all-but materialized on the other side of my mother, with Dare right next to her. “Your efforts were focused on using Puriel to open a new way into Tartarus. He’s gone now, and no amount of bellowing is going to change that.” 

Invidia made Charmeine’s eyes narrow, her voice low and dangerous as she stared intently through everyone else to meet my gaze. “Perhaps not, but we may still extract a high price for such a delay.” 

“Extract a high price,” Dare informed her in a voice that somehow managed to convey even more of an open threat than her actual words did, “and pay an even higher one.”

Invidia’s eyes finally turned away from mine to look to her, a snarl finding its way into her retort. “Is that so? Because it seems to me we have you outnumbered. And we gain an even better understanding of our physical capabilities with each confrontation. You cannot hold out for long. Your resources are far from infinite, this far from any reinforcements.”

“Are we far from reinforcements?” I pointed out after taking a breath. “I mean, you just saw our extra ship jump in and then out of here instantly. You really think you can finish us off before Andromeda drops off Puriel and the kids then comes back with some help?” 

“Perhaps,” Invidia snapped in my direction, though she didn’t exactly sound confident. I was pretty sure she was running the numbers in her head and didn’t like what it was coming out to. “We can handle you, at least, annoying one.” 

“You’d have to go through all of us to do it,” Avalon retorted, putting herself slightly in front of me with her arm raised, projecting a blade from her gauntlet. Miranda silently joined her, even as my mother moved closer as well.  

Beside me, Cerberus gave a low growl through each of his heads. Persephone piped up, “Felicity has many friends you would have to go through. Including us. And we just got here. We can keep playing for awhile.”

She was right, of course. First, she and Cerberus had only just gotten started, which was the whole reason I’d kept them in reserve as backup even after the Whispers first showed themselves. It didn’t make sense to blow that surprise the very moment we saw some bad guys. I’d hoped that if Kushiel was here, we could have surprised her with them if things ever got really bad. And second, because the two of them were a Revenant and robot dog respectively. They didn’t really get tired. At least, not like that. I was pretty sure Cerberus could run down enough to need to recharge or whatever, but that wouldn’t be for quite some time. His makers didn’t want to have to go find a thousand double a batteries or whatever in the middle of fighting Manakel. 

Invidia was staring that way, her gaze locked onto Persephone. “And what precisely are you even doing? You should be aiding us, not hindering our efforts. You are a puppeteer of dead things, Revenant. You worm and slide your way into the dead and control it from within. You are nothing without the dead. We are all-but family, practically your siblings. You have far more in common with us than these creatures. And even if there were no similarities between us at all, you should want what we want. Unleashing this… Tartarus as they call it will bring even more of the power you are so fond of.” Her eyes darted briefly to me as she added, “You think this child, already about to fall in on herself after so minor an exertion, can offer even a small fraction of the necromantic energy that Tartarus being fully unleashed would bring into this universe? You latched yourself to that power’s previous custodian, and now to the child for no merit of her own. You aid her for the power she controls, and yet the source of that power could be in the palm of your hand. You bow to the one who holds a flashlight, while ignoring those offering you the power of the sun itself. All you need to do is stand with us, and you shall never be in the dark again. We know you better than they ever could. This girl will never see you as a romantic partner. She’s only using you for the strength you provide.” 

The others were staring our way, and it was all I could do not to turn and look at Persephone myself. But something told me that one of the worst things I could do in that moment was show any doubt in her. No matter how worried the paranoid part of me wanted to be, I had to trust her. More than that, I had to show that I trusted her. 

To that end, I stepped forward and over slightly, putting myself not quite directly in front of Persephone, but slightly to the side and ahead. I moved to a spot that put my back to her both literally and symbolically, while simultaneously being physically closer. My voice was sharp. “You know what’s funny? You’re trying to say that you can give Percy what she wants better than any of us, but you don’t even know what she wants. You don’t know what she likes. If you did, you’d know there’s no way in hell that she’d ever want to release a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. You know, because she lives here. Percy?”

“Yes, Felicity?” she chirped a bit from behind me, sounding curious. 

“What’s your favorite thing to do at two-fifteen on Saturday and Sunday morning?” I asked without looking away from Invidia and the other Whispers. Immediately after answering the question, I spoke the answer right alongside the Revenant. 

“Sit in the fluffy blue recliner with a hot, wet towel over my feet and a bowl of popcorn, half cheese and half caramel, in my lap watching the excellent Home Shopping Network and making up stories about what the people who buy the items are like.” 

We both finished saying that, word-for-word, before I added, “How do I know that? Because I talk to her. Because I’ve asked her that four times and she’s given the same answer every time. Because I like knowing things about her. And it’s kinda hard to have a shopping network, a TV, popcorn, a towel, or a recliner if there are a bunch of monsters destroying the universe.” 

Stepping back a bit, I reached a hand behind myself to find Persephone’s and squeezed it, all still without breaking eye contact with Invidia. “You think you know her? You don’t know a damn thing about her. You think you can talk her into betraying me because you tell her I don’t have romantic feelings for her? I never lied about that, not once. I have been completely up-front about that. But me not feeling anything romantic for Persephone doesn’t mean I don’t care about her. She is my friend. And if you open your mouth to try to manipulate her again, I will come over there, rip you out of that ghost body, then twist and fold your incorporeal ass into a shape that’s so geometrically impossible you’ll end up breaking the fabric of space-time and traveling back to inspire M.C. Escher. Leave my friend alone.” 

Speaking brightly, Persephone chirped, “Thank you, Friend Felicity. But I am more than capable of speaking up for myself.” She paused briefly before giving a short nod as she focused on Invidia and the other, increasingly angry Whisper-Ghosts. “As she said, you are not my friend. She is.” Her head tilted then. “Perhaps you should not have cultivated such a strong reputation for manipulation. Nothing you say is believable.”

“Yeah, well, they’re accustomed to having the power to back it up,” Apollo noted. “When you get too dependent on using a power that lets your voice manipulate and control people, well… let’s say I know what that can be like.” 

“You are nothing to us,” Invidia snapped in his direction, clearly offended by the insinuation that there was any similarity between what they did and his own Olympian power. 

Apollo, for his part, simply shrugged as though that didn’t bother him. “Maybe not, but your thing hasn’t worked so far. Actually, you’ve kind of failed at everything you’ve been trying to do this whole time.” 

“Everything?” There was amusement mixed in with the anger in Invidia’s voice. “Is that what you think? Because from where we are standing, we are in a much better position with these… bodies than we have been before.” She gestured around at the other Whisper-possessed ghosts. “Your annoying efforts to prevent us from opening the way to Tartarus notwithstanding, our efforts here have not been wasted. Whether you survive this encounter or not remains to be seen, but we will emerge stronger than we have been in many millennia.” 

“Sure,” Apollo agreed in a tone that made it sound like that didn’t even matter. “Not to mention Tartarus clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s a whole universe out there. Not like it’s just gonna disappear.” 

“Of course not,” the Whisper retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Tartarus has existed since before the creation of this universe, and it will continue to exist long after every star which warms your worlds has burned itself out. It is infinite. And we have patience to match. Your efforts here are nothing more than a brief delay.”

“Not even a particularly good one,” Apollo noted. “You have plenty of other options for opening a rift into the place. You don’t even need any of us.” 

“No,” came the response, “we do not need you.” 

“We’re not worth your time.” 

“You’re not worth our time.” 

“You should just leave right now.” 

“We should just–wait–” The very slightly glazed look that had crossed Invidia’s face started to clear as she focused. “You–you are not–” 

Apollo spoke once more, his voice firm as it filled the whole area around us as though he was speaking through a microphone that didn’t exist. “You should leave right now and go as far away as you can.” 

That was what it took. An instant after he finished those words, Invidia and the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts vanished. As soon as they did, the blond man staggered a bit, giving a heavy wheeze. “Ohhhkay, that took a lot more than I thought it would. They’re strong.” He glanced to the rest of us. “I wanted to ask for more information about what they are, but it… they were too strong. I could feel it. I would’ve had to keep talking for another ten minutes to get anything, and she was already starting to work it out. Had to go with the quick fix instead of the long term answers. Sorry.” His last word came as a mutter, the man clearly annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get anything else out of them. 

“Dude,” Miranda started while shaking her head, “you managed to voice-manipulate a bunch of alien creatures whose entire thing is voice-manipulating people. Even if you didn’t get everything you wanted out of it, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” 

“She’s right,” Dare agreed, brushing her sleeves off a bit before focusing that way. “We should focus on the fact that we managed to get out of that situation without losing anyone. Particularly Puriel. He is safe now, and they don’t have what they need to open a way to Tartarus yet.” 

“But they still got away with new ghost bo–” I started before abruptly spinning to focus on the group who had been standing slightly away, staring at all of us through that. “Grandmaria, Popser!” The words had barely escaped me before I was dashing that way. 

“There she is!” my grandfather cheerfully called while reaching down to haul me up from the floor as soon as I was close enough. He hugged me to his chest, even as my grandmother stepped in to join the embrace as well. Soon all three of us were embracing in a big group right there. I was basically squished in the middle, but I didn’t care. My grandparents were here, they were safe. Everything else could wait for the moment. 

Actually, no, not everything. In the midst of that, I started to think about Tabbris and my father, only to hear the latter’s voice. “Mom… Dad.” 

He was there, with Tabbris right at his side. The two of them looked pretty worn, and it was obvious they’d been through a lot down there keeping the Whispers away from the Slide-Drive. But they made it, just like the rest of us. We might’ve all been exhausted, but we were alive. And, well, the universe wasn’t about to be overrun by giant monsters, which was a good thing.

Opening their arms without taking their grip off me, Grandmaria and Grandpartie beckoned for their son to come right in. He did, and then there were four of us. Which quickly became five as my grandmother reached out toward Tabbris, taking the suddenly-shy girl by the hand to pull her in close. I could see the shudder that ran through my little sister before she let herself embrace her new grandparents tightly, one after the other. And they hugged her right back. There was no hesitation, they both pulled her right in close and tight as smoothly and immediately as if they’d known her for years. Probably because they understood just how much this would mean to Tabbris, how important it was. 

Speaking of important, no matter how good this hug might’ve been, it was missing one person. Dad and I both met each other’s gazes before nodding. We knew. Turning slightly while keeping one hand on my grandfather’s arm, I looked over that way with a simple, “Mom.” 

There she was, standing just to the side as she watched what was going on with that sword still held tight (maybe a little too tight) in her grip. At the sound of my voice, Mom started a bit before sheathing the blade. Her mouth opened and then shut as she fought to find the right words. 

She might not have known what to say, but my grandmother did. Extracting herself, Grandmaria took a few steps over there. She raised both hands, voice quiet. “I owe you such an apology, Joselyn. For… for the things that–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, shaking her head. “Maria, you don’t owe anything. If I saw what you–if I…” She took a breath before letting it out, clearly trembling just a little despite herself. “I would have said even worse things than I’m sure you did. I would have done worse things.” 

“Oh,” Grandmaria half-drawled with a note of embarrassment, “I don’t know about the first bit. I said some pretty awful things.” A self-deprecating smile found its way to her face before she stepped that way, reaching out to take both of my mother’s hands. Her voice was even quieter, yet stronger. “You did what you had to do to protect your family. I–we could not be more proud of you, dear. And… knowing what we know now, I understand it may feel very silly for someone so much younger than you are to express that sort of sentiment. It may mean very little–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, voice catching a bit. “Believe me, it… it means more than you know.” 

“Joselyn,” Dad spoke a bit tenderly, reaching out that way. He didn’t say anything else, just stood there with his hand stretched toward her. 

Grandmaria, meanwhile, looked back and forth between them before taking my mother’s hand. She squeezed it, offering a faint smile before giving her a tug. And just like that, she pulled Mom over to join the embrace. And now we were finally all right there, hugging one another tightly for the next few moments. There were a lot of things to worry about, of course. But this… this was important. It was worth taking a second to enjoy. 

Soon enough (all too soon, really), we had to separate. There would be more later, but for the moment, there was still too much to do. After all, we were still out here in the middle of nowhere. And there was no telling how long it would be before the Whispers found their way back. We had to get out of here while we had the chance. 

To that end, the others hadn’t just been standing around doing nothing, apparently. Athena had already sent Mercury and Sariel back down to the bridge to get the ship moving again, while Persephone had gone with Cerberus and Apollo to bring the slide-drive back online now that the Whispers were gone and we had control of the ship. 

Of course, there was still one more person who needed a hug. My eyes found him immediately after separating from the others. “Uncle Al,” I found myself murmuring while stepping over that way. 

“Hey there, kid,” he greeted me with a broad smile. “Can I get your autograph?” 

“Only if you give me yours, Uncle Hercules,” I shot right back before embracing him tightly. In this case, I didn’t hold back any strength. He could take it, and a hell of a lot more. 

From there, a whole lot of introductions started to be passed back and forth, and I gave a double-take when they introduced the Native American guy who had been quiet up to this point. “Kutattca? As in–wait.” 

The elderly man gave a simple nod, head bowing. “Yes, actually. My sister is Litonya. If you’d like, I can apologize for her. I have been doing so for quite some time.” 

“Okay…” My mouth opened, before I stopped, realizing I had no idea exactly where to go from there. “I have so many questions. But right now, I’m pretty sure we should focus on getting back to the station so we can meet up with Puriel and those kids again and make sure everyone’s okay.” 

“Yes,” Theia spoke up in agreement. “I would very much like to speak with my father when he is not… distracted. We have a great deal to talk about.” 

“One thing, Felicity,” Athena started, with a slow, deliberate glance my way.

“Are those Elemiah’s rings you have?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

At Last 16-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

On the heels of Invidia’s announcement, Athena was already moving. In fact, she had been moving even before the evil creature finished talking, lunging that way with her sword slashing upward. Yet Invidia met the incoming blade with her own, its ghost-like wispy form somehow still blocking the other sword as though totally solid. She gave Athena a smirk, raising both eyebrows before the two began to exchange blows with blinding speed.

In the next instant, the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts fell in on us from all sides. Or, rather, they would have. But I had already snapped both hands up and out, summoning all the power I could to force the Olympian ghosts to stay back. Strong as they were, aided by the Tartarus energy and the fact that they were being controlled by these other creatures, it took absolutely everything I had just to make them stop moving forward. Controlling them or pushing them back was completely out of the question. I stopped them several feet away from us, and that was the extreme limit of my capability. Even that was almost too much, as I could feel them pushing against my control. 

“If one of you guys could do something to stop these fuckers right about now,” I managed through gritted teeth while struggling to maintain any sort of grip, “that’d be super-great!” 

Because it sure didn’t look like Athena was going to be done with Invidia any time soon. Just like her fight with my mother, the pair seemed perfectly matched. I had a feeling that the Whisper possessing Charmeine’s ghost was getting stronger and better with each passing moment, more attuned to working with the ‘body’ she had taken over. Every time she fought with it, she got more capable at using it. Worse, I was pretty sure that whole thing went for all these guys. All the Whispers were controlling incredibly powerful and skilled Olympian Seosten, even if they weren’t bridge crew. The longer this went on, the better they were going to get at actually using those powers and skills. We had to end this before we were totally overwhelmed. 

Oh yeah, and before they managed to take over Puriel and force him to open a portal to unleash a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. That would be nice too. 

To one side, even as I spoke those words about asking someone to do something, Sariel was drawing back her bow. But she wasn’t focused on any of the Whisper-Ghosts who were still trying to lunge at us. Instead, her gaze was on Puriel himself. In that moment, I had the sudden realization of how angry she must still be deep down for everything that had happened to her and her family. Not to mention the simple fact that her missing daughter was trapped inside Puriel himself, and as far as anyone knew, the only way to free her was for Puriel to die. 

“Sariel!” Apollo called, his hand reaching out that way, though he didn’t actually touch her. “If he dies–” 

“I know,” she interrupted, voice flat. “If he dies, they can possess him.” Still, she loosed the arrow anyway. It shot through the air, flying right between two of the Whisper-Ghosts, over the head of one of the cowering children, and struck Puriel right in the–no. At the very last instant, just before the arrow would have gone clean through the thoroughly-distracted man’s throat, it broke apart. The shaft fell away, while the arrowhead exploded into a… a cocoon of glowing reddish energy that surrounded the man. A forcefield. Sariel had put a forcefield around him. 

A sudden rush of motion just as the woman had loosed that arrow made my gaze snap over to where Theia had almost launched herself in the air after the shot. Seeing what happened, the girl froze in mid-motion. From the look on her face, I was pretty sure she was more surprised by her own reaction than she was about what the arrow had actually done. In the instant where she had thought that her father was in danger, she had very nearly thrown herself in the path of the arrow. Sure, her power meant it wouldn’t be a problem, but what she was feeling in that moment had clearly left the girl reeling. 

And speaking of reeling, I couldn’t keep this up. My control over keeping the ghosts away was already starting to falter. Honestly, the fact that I’d kept it up this long against so many of them was almost a miracle. Especially when I didn’t have Tabbris with me to provide any extra boost.  

“Everyone get to Puriel,” Sariel announced firmly while drawing another arrow and giving me a quick, somewhat reassuring glance that said she knew just how close I was to losing it. “There are already Anti-Whisper Runes all along the floor around him, but they’re running out of power. Those things have him too distracted to recharge them. We have to get over there and do it ourselves.” 

She was right, I realized. That was our best shot at stopping these things. If we could recharge the runes to drive the Whispers away from Puriel long enough for the man to catch his breath and orient himself, maybe he could deal with them for good.  

“Flick!” Miranda was right next to me, shield held up protectively. “This feels like a rainy day situation, you know? I think it might be time to use th–” 

She was abruptly cut off. Not by me losing control of the ghosts I had been shoving away from us, but from something reaching up from underneath me. It grabbed my foot, and I barely heard Miranda, Avalon, and my mother all shout my name before I was suddenly yanked down through the floor, a yelp of surprise escaping me. 

At least I wasn’t being physically slammed through solid metal. My body had turned almost ghost-like itself as soon as whatever it was grabbed me. I had no control, however, as I was pulled completely helplessly downward. 

I didn’t just get yanked through one deck either. Three full decks passed me by in a quick blur before I landed hard on the floor of the fourth one. Only then, lying on my back, did I see the glowing tentacle wrapped around my ankle. A tentacle that was attached to the outstretched arm of yet another clearly-possessed Seosten ghost. He wasn’t an especially large man, standing only a few inches taller than me. His skin–or what was supposed to have been his skin if he had been alive, was black, with intensely green eyes and a very aristocratic face. He looked almost more beautiful than handsome. Well, aside from the fact that one of his arms had transformed into a tentacle that had stretched up through four full decks to grab my ankle, turn me intangible, and yank me away from everyone up there who needed me. 

“Okay,” I grunted while jerking my leg free. As soon as I did, my form solidified once more, and I rolled backward to my feet. “I’m getting really sick of you people, and sick of getting dragged away from my family and friends. That’s double-sick, so if I was you, I’d get the fuck out of my way.” 

Unfortunately, the Whisper-Ghost wasn’t impressed by my words. He gave me a simple smirk while transforming the tentacle back into a regular arm, head cocking to the side a little. “You’re the Necromancer,” he drawled. “We have a few things in common, you and my people. We’re all quite good at controlling dead things.” 

“Is this gonna be the ‘join us and rule the universe at our side’ spiel?” I spat back at him. “Because it’s kind of surprising how seldom I’ve gotten that, considering everything I’ve been through.” Even as I said the words, I was calculating the best way to get around him and back to where I needed to be. Was it time to use the–no. No, I could wait for that. I couldn’t use it just to deal with one guy. Not when I still didn’t know for sure just how bad this whole situation was going to get.

So, I instead held my staff out to one side, activating the next ghost-fire spell so I would actually be able to hurt this piece of shit. “If so, save your breath. I’ve got much better options for that if I wanted to rule the universe alongside actual competent megalomaniacs.” 

A deep, rumbling chuckle escaped the ghost figure. “If you are so dismissive and in such a rush, why not force me to move? Surely a strong, capable dead-puppeteer like you could manage such a thing.” His teeth gleamed as he smiled. “After all, it’s just you and me.” 

I wasn’t stupid. This was bad. This whole thing was bad. I had no idea what was going on up there, how the others were doing, if they had managed to save Puriel yet or if he was–well, clearly we weren’t at the place where these guys wanted to open the rift, because the ship was still moving. But we were still on our way there. Dad and Tabbris hadn’t managed to stop the ship. I had to get through this guy and go help the others. And yet, the way he was talking…

Fuck it, I couldn’t wait around and what-if myself all day long. Since he had literally asked for it, I snapped my free hand out, forcing all the strength I could into grabbing control of the ghost the Whisper was possessing. I was throwing everything I had into making damn sure I–wait. 

At the very last possible instant, I realized my mistake. Just as my power was latching onto him, I was already releasing it, spinning around while lashing out with my staff. 

It struck home, slicing right through three different ghosts who had been silently rushing up behind me. They used the fact that the guy in front of me had grabbed my attention, letting him manipulate me into throwing everything I had into grabbing hold of him, which would leave me vulnerable to attack from behind. And it had very nearly worked. It had worked, right up until the last possible instant. 

The good news was that my wild swing caught the ghosts who were right behind me before they could carry out their sneak attack. The bad news was that they weren’t the only ones. I had just enough time to catch a glimpse of something coming toward me from the side, before it smacked into the side of my head with enough force to knock me sidelong so that I stumbled a few steps over to the nearby wall. It made me see stars briefly even without having a nearby viewport. 

Shoving myself away from the wall and spinning back that way, I found myself surrounded on all sides. The guy with the tentacles had been joined by half a dozen friends. All of them spread out, making it clear that they had no intention of allowing me to get past them. 

Then I saw what had hit me that hard. It was… a ball, like one that a kid would play with. Actually, it probably had been played with by a kid before now, one of the Seosten children who were on the ship. But the way it had hit me, the force…

Hula hoops. That was my first impression when I saw the two rings floating in the air a few feet apart. Both black on the side facing me and gold on the side facing away. They really were about the size of hula hoops, hovering roughly midway between me and a Ghost-Whisper who was standing with her hand outstretched. She was fairly tall, just over six feet, and quite thin, with narrow silvery-blue eyes and short dark hair at odds with her pale skin. I was gonna guess that she was the one who had thrown that ball. 

Even as I had that thought, she smirked at me before hurling another ball. It passed through the hoops and–fuck! The moment it passed through the first hoop, the ball’s speed doubled, before doubling a second time as it passed through the second hoop. The ball hit me before I could even hope to dodge it. The best I could do, even seeing her throw it, was twist aside enough that it slammed into my shoulder. 

The hoops flew back through the air to her, as the Whisper-Ghost laughed and caught one on each arm, spinning them. They shrank rapidly, turning into bracelets on each wrist. As they did. she punched the air a few times, her arms moving about twice as fast as they should. 

Right. This… this was gonna be a problem. Maybe I could have done something to these guys, at least enough to shove them aside so I could run past, before exhausting myself upstairs keeping all the others away from everyone. But I didn’t have that in me right now. Not when these ghosts were both powered by Tartarus and possessed by the powerful Whisper creatures. I just couldn’t muster up the strength to shove enough of them aside. Not without taking a break. And there wasn’t time for that. 

“What’s the matter?” the Whisper-Ghost who had dragged me down here in the first place taunted, already transforming his arms back into tentacles. “Feeling a bit weak? Maybe you should take a little nap.” 

“You know,” I retorted, “that’s not a bad idea. Right now, I think we’ll just kick your asses and go upstairs.” 

His eyebrow rose, while the rest of his companions slowly began to move in closer, tightening the noose they believed they had caught me in. But it was the one with the hula hoops-turned-bracelets who spoke. “We? You are alone, child. You do not even have your usual companion riding… what is the term, copilot? Your friends and family are quite occupied, and even she is no longer with you. We all know the truth. You have no one standing behind you.” 

“Behind me?” I took a breath and then shoved everything I could into pushing all the ghosts back away from me. It wasn’t a lot, and it wouldn’t hold them for long. But it gave me the time I needed to speak. “Nah, I’ve got no one behind me. But you guys might want to look behind you.” 

Most of them saw that as a very obvious and pathetic trick. But two turned, looking that way. At first, they saw nothing. Then their eyes found the small metal ball I had summoned to my hand and tossed just before getting punched in the face to knock me over to where I now stood. It was about the size of a baseball, with intricate runes all over it and a single button on top. A single button that Gus, my cyberform mouse, was holding both paws against. As soon as they saw him, he gave a single, defiant squeak, then pushed the button. 

Instantly, the ball blew apart in a blast of blinding energy. When it faded, two figures were standing there. A beautiful white-haired woman with very tanned skin and a deep blue bodysuit, standing next to a three-headed mechanical dog bigger than she was. 

A three-headed mechanical dog whose entire purpose had been to hunt and kill undead things. 

“Cerberus!” Persephone called, voice echoing through the corridor, “ghosthunt!” 

The moment she said that word, each of Cerberus’s three heads rose a bit, showing their teeth as they growled. Blue-white ghostfire played over those teeth. Simultaneously, five holes appeared along each side of the robot dog’s back, allowing ten metal coils to emerge. Each had a small camera and laser cannon attached to it, wildly pointing in every direction as though checking for threats from all sides. 

Ghost-fire filled the air, produced through every metal tooth in all three heads. Nearly two hundred teeth all-told, each a small dagger that was now capable of driving its way into intangible forms. Such as the forms of the seven Whisper-Ghosts arrayed in front of him, as Cerberus glared and growled low. The laser-holding coils, mistaken as snakes millennia ago, turned as one to focus on their targets. 

At the moment they had appeared, as he caught sight of the ghosts in front of them, Cerberus’s brand new addition had started up. It was not a weapon. Not exactly. No, what he’d had added right at the front of his body, where his three heads joined, was a speaker system. A speaker system which had begun to play the opening notes of “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, filling the air as the assortment of Whisper-Ghosts stared in shock and tried to comprehend what had just happened. And in the very moment about thirty seconds in, just before the first word of ‘Jump’ came, Persephone spoke the next command. 

“Sic ‘em, boy.” 

He was on them an instant later, ghost-fire powered teeth tearing through one of the ghosts while a paw slapped at another and actually managed to knock him backwards. At the same time, those laser cannons opened up, driving even more of them in either direction away from him. And into Persephone and me, a fact they realized just as my empowered staff slammed into one, and her ghost-fire covered fist ripped through another. 

Yeah, those guys didn’t stand a chance. Even if they had been able to stand against a giant metal dog specifically built to destroy everything Manakel could have thrown at him, between him, Persephone, and me, they were dead before they knew what hit them. Or redead. Or–they weren’t a problem for the moment. We tore through their ghost forms and scattered them. They tried to reform, but we hit them hard enough to basically turn them into dust. It would take time for the Whispers to regroup and gather that much ghost energy once more. 

Soon, only the hula hoop ghost was left. She was already retreating, but Cerberus got there first, lunging in the way while breathing out a line of ghost-fire that made her recoil. Persephone, in turn, actually grabbed onto her, shoving the intangible figure to her knees while calling to me, “Felicity, picture a hard candy shell around her, squeezing very tight with your gift!” 

Ooookay then. Focusing hard on my Necromancy power, I imagined it creating a… well, hard candy shell around the ghost while she struggled. Honestly, if it wasn’t for both Persephone and Cerberus keeping her there, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on that, given it took several full seconds of concentration where I couldn’t do anything else. I was picturing more of a net, or saran wrap, totally covering the figure from head to toe. As I did, her movements grew slower and more subdued. 

“Now, Felicity, the blade!” Persephone urged. 

So, I drove the blade of my staff right through the motionless ghost form. That time, as I did, she screamed out loud. The Whisper appeared as an air ripple in front of my face before vanishing an instant later. 

Not that I noticed really, because I was too busy doubling over from the rush of… of pleasure that went through me. Pleasure that made me gasp and stumble, eyes widening. “What–what– I just–that just–” 

“It is possible to eliminate the ghosts so that they cannot recover,” Persephone calmly and flatly informed me. “You must simply trap them within a layer of your own ghost energy so that they cannot push their own outside of it. I would not suggest attempting to do so in open combat until you are far more experienced.” 

“I… uh huh…” Breathing hard, I stared at the spot where the ghost had been. Then I looked to one side and focused for a second. Sure enough, those two gold and black hula hoops appeared, hovering in the air. 

“Her name was Elemiah,” Persephone helpfully announced. “Her gift created those two rings, which she could control the size of down to fitting on her wrists and up to about twice what you see. She was able to mentally manipulate them, and anything passing through from the gold side would be doubled in speed for a few seconds, with the effect stacking if both rings were passed through in rapid succession. Anything passing through from the black side would be slowed to half its speed, or stopped briefly if that effect was doubled.” 

Okay… okay that was pretty… A thought made the hoops jump to my wrists before shrinking down to bracelets. Quickly, I punched the air just as the Seosten ghost had. And just like when she had done it, my fist moved about twice as fast as it should have. This I could get used to. 

Except I was going to have to get used to it later, because it was really time to go. Even as that thought occurred to me, I was already pivoting to face the white-haired woman with a blurted, “Nearest elevator! We need to get back to the sealed cargo hold, the one the Seosten don’t let anyone else into!” 

In response, Persephone immediately turned, beginning to move down the corridor. “It is this way, Felicity!” As we ran, with Cerberus bringing up the rear, she added, “I am glad that I was able to assist you, as promised. But I did not see Kushiel there.” 

“Yeah, I guess she’s not involved in this bit,” I murmured. “So keeping you hidden until she showed herself wasn’t really gonna work anymore. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of other Seosten ghosts for you and our friend there to deal with. We have to–” Abruptly, the ship jerked around us, enough to make me stumble. 

“The slide-drive has been de–” Persephone started. 

We did it! That was Tabbris, in my head once more. I could tell she wasn’t actually fully here, just partially recalled. We shut it down! But–but the bad guys are still trying to restart it. We have to drive them off. We can’t leave. I can’t– 

Stay there, I put in. Stay with Dad. We’ll take care of the rest of this. Just make sure they can’t start those engines again. 

That said, I looked back to Persephone and gave her a quick summary of what we were dealing with. “And now we have to get up there and stop them from taking over Puriel, before they open a portal into Tartarus and let out a bunch of monsters to destroy everything in the universe.” 

Giving a short nod, the woman replied, “Andromeda says that if you like, she can transfer herself from the other ship to this one and assist in resisting the Whisper’s control of its systems.” 

I started to nod, before catching myself. “Wait, you’re still in contact with Andromeda?” 

With a bright smile, Persephone confirmed, “Uh huh, our connection is very special. She is still in the other ship, remaining at a distance just as you requested.” 

“In the other ship…” I opened my mouth, then shut it. My eyes widened. “No. Tell her to stay there. Don’t transfer over here. 

“I have a better idea.” 

******

A short time later, the three of us burst through the doors back into the cargo hold I had been so unceremoniously dragged out of. A quick glance around showed that the situation had not exactly improved that much. But by the same token, at least it hadn’t gotten worse. Everyone was still fighting, and the Whispers had not yet taken control of Puriel. I could see where the others had boosted the runes protecting him, yet it wasn’t enough to keep them away for good. It was a delaying action at best. What we really needed to do was bring the man under the protection of Liesje’s spell. That combined with his own strength would probably be enough to keep them out of his head. But we couldn’t do that from here. He had to be back at the Star Station for it. For now, we had to do something to end the stalemate. And I was pretty sure I knew what that something was.

Cerberus was already going to town, clearing a path through the Whisper-Ghosts (and yes, he had started the song once more) as I raced alongside Persephone right back to where everyone had formed a ring around Puriel and the children. Grandmaria and Popser were there too, being protected by Avalon and a couple Mirandas. 

Two of the Whisper-Ghosts tried to move into my path, but I thrust my arms out, willing the two bracelet-sized rings to fly forward and turned so that their gold side was toward me. As soon as they were in position and just large enough, I hurled my staff, blade out. It passed through the two rings, quadrupling in speed so that it cut into the two ghosts before they had any idea what had happened. An instant later, a thought recalled the staff back to my hand. 

Another ghost was trying to come at me from the side as I passed the rings, but I made them grow to their full size and pivot in the air to put the black side toward the intangible figure. He passed through them and froze instantly, the double-black rings halting his movement entirely for a moment.

Between that and my Persephone and Cerberus escort, it was enough to clear my path. “Boost the runes!” I shouted while running up to join the others. The rings had come spinning back, shrinking down once more to take their spots on my wrists.

My reward for the words was a simultaneous look of disbelief from basically everyone there. Theia was the one who found her voice first, speaking plainly. “We have already been taking turns doing so. It has been our entire strate–” 

“No, everyone!” I blurted. “Everyone boost the runes right now with everything you’ve got! Shove the Whispers back as far as we can, just for a few seconds!” I focused on my mother, eyes meeting hers. “Trust me, we only need one quick boost!” 

Mom gave a short nod, turning to look at Athena. “Do what she says.” 

Athena, in turn, spoke up. “Everyone do it. Touch the runes and put everything you have into them, one more time.” 

So, we did. With the Whispers regrouping and coming straight at us, everyone crouched to touch one of the runes. And in that moment, we shoved every bit of energy we could muster, supercharging the spells to fill the room, driving the Whispers backward to the far corners. As expected, it would only last for a few seconds. That was as long as it needed to.

“Felicity,” Mom was saying, “any plan you’ve got, you need to–”

“Everyone get down!” I shouted, grabbing Avalon on one side and the nearest Miranda before hurling us forward and to the floor. Thankfully, the others followed suit immediately, everyone hitting the deck quite literally. 

It was just in time, as something filled the space we had just been in a moment later. Something large, long, and roughly tube-shaped. Like a shuttle. Or like–

“The prototype ship?!” Miranda blurted from behind me as I rolled over to look that way. Sure enough, the ship was right there, its back doors open and facing not us, but Puriel and the children. Because that was the ship I’d asked Andromeda to take and follow us with, just in case.

“Mom!” I shouted, pointing. 

She got the point instantly, trusting her hands outward. An invisible force hit the kids and Puriel, throwing them onto the ship as it perched there. 

“Andromeda, go!” My voice filled the air, even as the Whispers regrouped and began to descend once more, screeching in fury. 

She didn’t have to be told twice. The doors of the prototype ship snapped shut, and with a flash of energy, it was gone. It had jumped not only out of the Olympus, but all the way back to the Star Station. Far from any Whispers. It had worked. Puriel was safe. He was gone. Now there was no way for those fuckers to open the portal to Tartarus. 

Now all we had to do now was find a way to survive their reaction to that fact, and take back the Olympus for good. 

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