Joselyn Chambers

Interlude 15A – Joselyn (Heretical Edge 2)

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A black blade glowing seemed unnatural. And yet, as she stood in the mostly dark room, holding the sword in the front of herself, Joselyn could see the illumination coming from it. Not from the ruby handle or the amber jewel on the end, but from the onyx blade itself. It was casting enough light on its own to brighten the room around her to the point of being able to read a small-print book if she had so-desired. Black metal giving off light with no apparent spell or source. She hadn’t activated any sort of magic on the blade. Nothing specific anyway. It just glowed all on its own while in darkness, without any sort of obvious input. It… created light around it. 

The room itself was one of the empty magical research labs. Most of the larger ones were being used in developing the spell that would protect everyone from Seosten possession, but this one was free. She had brought the weapon here to examine it safely, where any sort of protections wouldn’t do any damage to the station. 

“Pretty snazzy sword, isn’t it?” The voice came from the nearby doorway, as Abigail stepped into the room, trailed by Athena. “I only got to look at it for a second,” she added slyly, “but I’m pretty sure that’s at least two hundred on eBay, easy.”  

Turning to face the two women, Joselyn smiled faintly at her oldest daughter before casually replying, “Maybe we could go as high as three if we put the right sort of filter on the pictures.”   

“Ooh, we’ll have to have Koren work on that then,” Abigail returned, “I’m afraid the last time I tried to upload pictures of something, all we ended up with was photos of the carpet instead of my grandmother’s silverware.” Pausing, she amended, “I mean, the grandmother that…” 

“Your grandmother,” Joselyn firmly put in. “Your parents–I mean… they raised you, Abigail. I’m not trying to take that away or anything. They raised you, they took care of you. They were there–they were there for everything.” Her voice caught a bit, the lump in her throat briefly choking the words away before she managed to swallow hard. Because that was both the truth and the problem. She hadn’t been there for anything in her eldest daughter’s life. As hard as it was to have missed ten years of Felicity’s childhood, she had missed almost everything of Abigail’s life. She’d missed her growing up, going to school, becoming a lawyer, getting married, having a child, over fifty years worth of a life, and Joselyn had missed all of it. 

She was determined to be there for her daughter any way she could now. But she would never use that as an excuse to diminish what Abigail’s adopted family had been for her. Someday, Joselyn wanted to meet them. She had no idea how that would be possible, or what sort of explanation they would give to those people. But she did want to meet them. She wanted to know the people who had raised her daughter into such a fine, wonderful woman. 

In the meantime, Athena had spoken up. “Jokes aside, if that is truly the sword of Mordred, it is priceless several times over. And I believe it truly is that weapon, from everything I have seen. Do you mind?” she asked, extending a hand that way with a raised eyebrow.

Some part of Joselyn bizarrely didn’t want to hand the sword over. For just a moment, that voice in the back of her head told her not to let the Seosten woman touch it. She hesitated, then shook that off and flipped the weapon around before handing it that way. As Athena took and examined the weapon, she focused instead on Abigail. Her voice was quiet, yet still intense. “How is she doing?” 

Abigail, of course, immediately knew she was talking about Denise. Or Denny, as she apparently preferred to go by. It had been several hours since they brought the girl up to the station and allowed some of their people to give her a once-over. Sariel hadn’t been able to pull herself away from the anti-possession spell just yet, given how critical things were with it at the moment. But they at least had enough free people to get a better idea of what was going on in that girl’s head. 

“Considering everything she’s been through, and is still going through,” Abigail replied, “she’s doing pretty incredible. That kid has been through hell and back. I can’t even think of what it would be like to have that voice in my head, his memories, his impulses. The fact that she’s kept it together this much is just… she’s amazing.” Clearing her throat, she added, “And in some ways she’s even more confused now than she was before she had any answers. Confused about how she feels, that is. It’s a lot to take in. I mean, you told her that she died. Not only that, you told her she used to be several years older than she is now. It might explain why she knows stuff she doesn’t consciously remember learning, why her education seems higher than it should be. And it explains her nightmares. It explains all of it. But she’s still confused. Just… differently confused.” 

Joselyn heaved a sigh, nodding. “Of course she’s confused. If I was in her position, I have no idea what I would do. I mean, I suppose I was somewhat close, getting memories of my old life back when Fossor found me. But even that isn’t even remotely the same. I just…” Turning, she gestured and summoned a pair of chairs from the far side of the room. As they slid closer, she moved one over to Abigail before sitting down heavily. “I want to be there for her. I want to help her. But I don’t think I’m the right person for it. My son was the one who killed her. He was the one who did all of that. It’s not right for me to try to absolve my own feelings and guilt over that. She needs to be with people who can really help her, not make her feel worse just by being there.” 

Gently, Abigail replied, “What she needs right now is time to cope with everything she’s being told. And… perhaps her parents?” She added the last bit pointedly. “That girl needs her mother and father, and we can bring them up here. We can give them the pills to temporarily restrict the Bystander Effect so they understand what we’re saying when we explain the situation. Let them decide how to handle things. They’re her parents, they deserve that chance.” 

“Yes,” Joselyn agreed. “We’ll go there and explain everything to them. She can come with and… and we’ll see what happens. That’s going to be some conversation,” she murmured the last bit with a wince. “Though not even close to the hardest one I’ve ever had.” 

Abigail opened her mouth to ask for more clarification about that, but before she could, Athena turned to them, holding the weapon up higher. “This is absolutely the real Clarent. No question about it. I have run every test I can think of, and it passes all of them. This is the genuine article. Although I have no idea how it could possibly have ended up in that hotel room, or where else it has been in the meantime.”

“Can it really do what Kushiel said?” Joselyn pressed. “Can it lead to Modred’s body? And if it does, can she really… possess that permanently the way she said she could?” 

Athena, in turn, gave a helpless shrug. “Honestly, I have no idea. I wasn’t around my people when they built this sword, or when they… prepared Mordred’s body for Puriel to use. And I certainly have no idea how Kushiel could have returned as this powerful of a ghost. You said she was too strong for even Felicity to control?” 

“Even with help from Tabbris’s Archangel boost,” Joselyn confirmed, “the best they could do was catapult her out of the hotel and into another state. Which, I know, sounds impressive. But it took everything they had to get rid of her. And they took her by surprise. Next time, I’m not sure how well that will work.” 

“Next time, we will be more prepared,” Athena insisted. “And so will your daughter. She is getting stronger with her power every day.” A sigh escaped her then, as she added, “Although again, I have no idea how this could have happened. Yes, she is being fueled by Tartarus, but… is that what will happen to all of us with enough exposure? When we die, will we be brought back as… powerful ghosts?” 

“People from your ship have died before, right?” Abigail pointed out. 

“Minor… crew members, yes,” Athena confirmed. “No one from the bridge. Perhaps it takes a certain level of exposure, of power. Or perhaps… I don’t know. There are so many unanswered questions about that place. We need to bring Apollo and Sariel in on what is happening. If anyone around here has any chance of understanding this situation, it’s the two of them.” 

“Beyond that,” Joselyn pointed out, “They both need to know about Kushiel coming back. You know she’ll go after them if she gets the chance. And have you talked to Theia yet?” She added that last bit while looking toward the other woman in the room.

Grimacing, Abigail shook her head. “Not yet. She’s working on some sort of project with Douglas Frey. I sent word for her to come see me as soon as they’re done. I don’t… I have no idea how to bring that up. How am I supposed to tell her that the woman who did all that to her for so long, who tortured her, who killed her friends, who… who did that… is back? How am I supposed to tell her?” 

“She’s not back,” Joselyn replied flatly. “She’s still dead. She’s just…” A sigh escaped her. “The difference is elementary at this point, I suppose. She can still hurt people. She can still kill people. And she’ll want revenge against her daughter as much as she does Sariel or anyone else.” 

Abigail swallowed hard, giving a short nod. “I’ll bring her in and explain what happened. She needs to know the truth, and she should hear it from me. I just… she’s doing so well lately. She’s improved so much over these months, especially after her mother died. I don’t know what this is going to do to her. But it won’t be good.” 

Athena glanced away, clearly lost in thought for a few long moments before speaking quietly. “Kushiel’s return, in any form, is going to be bad for many people. Her daughter is near the top of an extensive list. It is something we need to deal with as soon as possible. I will be searching for any information about Tartarus-empowered ghosts. I do not expect to find much, if anything. But perhaps there will be enough to point in the direction of answers. My people have studied the energy from Tartarus quite extensively over the millennia. Someone may have found something helpful.” She sounded doubtful even as the words came, yet determined to at least try. 

“I’ve already got a list of Necromancy experts,” Abigail put in. “Mostly from checking for people who could teach Felicity. I’ll see if any of them have any ideas about containing a super-boosted ghost. There have to be spells and such that can stop her. Or at least slow her down. And for the record, if I had heard myself say something like that just over a year ago, I might have had myself committed.” 

“It is a lot to come to terms with,” Joselyn murmured quietly. “And you have even more than most. You only found out about this last year, and you’ve already taken on the role of principal for all these people.” 

“Like mother, like daughter,” Athena noted, glancing back and forth between them. “I do not believe that any member of your family could stand to be an ordinary, average part of the crowd if your lives depended on it. You are all remarkable people, and none of you could ever simply blend in. I mean, look at what you did while in Laramie Falls. The youngest sheriff in county history. Even with your memories erased, you stood out and protected people. Your daughter was making a name for herself as a young reporter exposing the truth and standing up to injustice before she even reached high school.” To Abigail, she added, “You became one of the finest defense attorneys in the country. Hiding is simply not in the nature of any member of your family.”  

As she finished saying that, the nearby door slid open, and another woman entered. “I’m sorry,” Virginia Dare spoke as she took in the sight of the other three. “Am I interrupting something?” 

“No, you’re fine,” Joselyn assured her. “We were just talking about how to deal with our new ghost problem. And what to do about this body she’s supposed to be looking for.” 

“Mordred’s body,” Virginia confirmed with a heavy sigh. “I sent word to Guinevere to come back so we can find out if she knows anything about that. She’s still on that little trip with Michael to Sudan, but hopefully we’ll get a response back soon.” 

“I sure hope someone knows something about Mordred’s body and what it could possibly do,” Abigail muttered. “Because from what you people said, Kushiel knows, and I don’t think she’s going to give up on finding it just because she doesn’t have that thing.” She gestured to the sword. “She’ll keep looking for some other way to find it.” 

“Well,” Joselyn noted while glancing to the weapon in the Seosten woman’s hands, “That thing is supposed to lead straight to it, so maybe we can beat her. But how does it work, exactly?” 

Athena answered carefully. “As I said, I am far from an expert in that sword. But from what I know, it will only work properly and unlock all of its gifts for someone who has bonded to it. Which means keeping it on your person, using it in battle, training with it, and so on.” 

“In that case,” Joselyn replied, “who is going to be the one bonding to it?”   

“That, I believe, is an easy question.” Turning the sword around once more, Athena offered it back to her by the handle. “You are both a descendant of Arthur’s knights, and the leader of this rebellion in your own right. There is no better choice for who should carry this sword.” 

Joselyn, however, shook her head. “I’m not the leader of anything right now. Gabriel Prosser has been leading the rebellion for longer than I ever did. I’ve been… gone for too long. And even if they did need a leader, I don’t know whether I would be the right person for it. After everything with Fossor, all the… everything I had to do…” She trailed off, pain in her voice. 

The others exchanged glances, before Athena spoke up. “You have been through so much. Truer words have never been spoken. But you are wrong when you say that you are not the leader of anything. The Heretic rebellion was begun by you. The people who chose to abandon centuries of indoctrination did so because of you. It was your words that showed them the truth.  And it was your memory that brought them back. The rebellion exists because of you.” 

“No one wants you to step into a role you aren’t ready for yet,” Dare put in while moving closer. “You’ve been through more than enough. You deserve as much of a break as you need. Be with your loved ones, your… your family. But you are the one who should hold onto that sword. You need to bond with it, work with it, let it get to know you. And when you have, allow it to lead you to Mordred’s body.” 

“Before Kushiel finds it, preferably,” Abigail added. “Though I’m still not sure how a sword is going to lead to a body, I’ve pretty much accepted that all of this is way beyond me.” Her voice softened as she looked at her mother. “But they’re right, even if you are taking a break from it, you are the leader of the Atherby clan, and of the rebellion itself. Believe me, I hear people talk. I listen to them. The ones who came back, came because of you. And the other ones, they came because of what they heard about you and about what you’ve done.” 

Taking in a deep breath before letting it out again, Joselyn finally reached out to take the offered sword from Athena. Her voice was flat. “I don’t know if I can ever be the same person I was back in those days. That’s why I keep saying I’m Joselyn Chambers now, not Joselyn Atherby. I don’t know if that person, that woman, can ever exist the way she was, before everything that happened. Before Wyoming, before Fossor. I’m different now. I’m not the woman who started this rebellion. But then, the rebellion itself has changed. After all,” she added with a glance toward Athena, “we’re working together this time.” 

Athena, in turn, gave a nod of agreement. “Of course. Both of our organizations… all of our people, are better off now than they were before. Being allied this way, that is what will make the difference. The Seosten, those of my people who cling to the old ways, they win these wars by keeping groups separate when they would be stronger together, by taking advantage of lack of communication. We didn’t take on the entire universe at once, we took one world at a time, bringing each under our heel by targeting their leaders, by exploiting weaknesses and making them fight against one another. Even the Bystander Effect itself was about creating divisions, about turning allies against one another.”

“It’s certainly the best chance we’ve ever had of making things right,” Dare confirmed. “We have Liesje’s spell, the original rebellion, the Aelasetiam people, the Seosten have already agreed and held themselves to this temporary truce, which gives us time to put things in order. Quite frankly, I don’t believe there will ever be a better opportunity to make this world–this universe, better. And you, Joselyn, are the right person to stand at the head of that.” 

For a long moment, the woman in question gave no response. She looked away, clearly lost in thought. The flash of pain that went through her gaze was quick, but everyone in that room saw it. 

“Like I said,” she finally announced, “I’m not the woman I was back then. But maybe I can try to be better than that. Maybe it’s not about going back to being the person who started the rebellion, but about being the person who can finish it.” 

While the other three watched, Joselyn slowly turned to face them. “My father sacrificed his life to stop the Fomorian invasion. My mother allowed the memory of who she was to be erased from everyone’s mind. Now… I hope she still lives, but she could be anywhere. She sacrificed everything she was.” She gripped the weapon tightly, holding it out in front of herself as the black blade continued to give off light. “I’m tired of my family having to make sacrifices. It’s time to make some real changes. Lasting changes. The Fomorians need to be stopped for good. Which means stopping this war with the Seosten and working together. Those monsters don’t differentiate between Seosten, human, or anything else. If it’s not Fomorian, they kill it. We’re all in the same boat. And that boat is going to sink if we all keep fighting each other. Your people tried this their way,” she added with a glance toward Athena. “They’ve been trying their way for hundreds of millennia, and it’s not working. We have to show them a better way. We have to show the Seosten leadership that their best move going forward is to make the truce permanent. We have to make them see that working with us is the only way anyone is going to get anywhere. A true, lasting alliance is the only way this universe is going to survive total genocide at the hands of those monsters.” 

“You think you can make the Eden’s Garden and Crossroads loyalists actually listen to you?” Abigail carefully asked. 

“I don’t know,” Joselyn admitted. “They’re pretty stubborn. What I do know is that the best way forward is to make the Seosten leaders see that we’re a better asset than a liability. If we can make them stop backing up the loyalists, or even agree to show what they’ve done to create this situation in the first place, we’ll have a chance to change some minds. Maybe even enough to make everything better. But that’s the trick. We need to convince the Seosten to back off for good and let us bring our own people together. And we have about six months to do that. So I hope everyone enjoys the holidays and gets ready for the new year. 

“Because as soon as that anti-possession spell is in place, it’ll be time for the real work to begin.” 

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The Runaway 15-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The moment the horrible ghost woman was gone, I fell to my knees and gave a deep gasp. Even with help from Tabbris, and my ridiculous stamina, that had taken a lot out of me. A large part of it, of course, was actually channeling all that power into my necromancy and using it properly. It was a lot to push through my system. I had to sit there for a few seconds to catch my breath. Mom and Asenath had already rushed forward to see what happened to me, while Sean and Twister moved to check on Francis, who had apparently passed out the moment Kushiel disappeared. While I was busy catching my breath, I felt my little sister step out of me to quickly explain that I was okay, just really exhausted after all that. 

My head bobbed as I looked up to see them staring. “She’s gone. Not for good, but it’ll take her a while to get herself sorted out after getting hit that hard. And even then she can’t get back here without a lot of help.” Biting my lip, I looked over to where Francis’s limp form was. “Is he okay?” 

“Breathing,” Sean confirmed. “I think he’s sleeping it off. Whatever Kushiel was doing to keep him paralyzed while she wasn’t even possessing him, it looks like it packed a pretty big wallop. Which, what was she doing? How the hell is any of that possible? Is it all just Tartarus bullshit?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted weakly. “All I know is that we don’t have to deal with her right now.” 

“But we will have to deal with her eventually,” Mom murmured, her voice dark as she gazed off into the distance. “A problem that should have been dealt with and gone for good, yet suddenly she’s back again and somehow even worse. Strangely, that isn’t nearly as surprising as I feel like it ought to be.” 

Grimacing it despite myself, I offered a weak, “I’m sorry, I should have been able to handle her. I’ve got all of this power from two different necromancers, and she’s a ghost. But she was just so strong. It’s like that Tartarus place is still fueling her or something. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, she’s not just going to go away. She’ll keep trying to get that sword. I just…” 

“First, don’t apologize.” That was Asenath, her hand moving to squeeze my shoulder as I knelt there. “Seriously, if it wasn’t for you, we would have been completely screwed. She has her old power plus now she’s a ghost, so she’s even harder to hurt without the right skills. It may have taken a lot out of you, but you still got rid of her. At least for now. And next time, we’ll be more prepared. This was a complete ambush and you still handled it better than most would have.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” Sean agreed. “That bitch be as crazy strong as she is just plain crazy. At least now we’ve got the time to practice and prepare stuff for whenever she shows up again. There’s some anti-ghost spells in some of the books I’ve been looking at, and she feels like just the right pain-in-the-ass spook to use them on.” Belatedly, he glanced over to Grover and Seth. “Uh, no offense.” 

Seth just blinked at him. “Why would we be offended by you wanting to get rid of that psycho bitch? Come on, I wanted her to burn in hell when we were alive, so I’m sure as fuck not gonna start feeling attached just because we’re both dead. We’re not suddenly kin or something.”

“Yeah, man,” Grover put in. “Hashtag not all ghosts.” Leaning over, he stage-whispered to me, “Did I use that right? I feel like that’s how they were using it back in the Runaway.” 

My mouth opened to confirm that before the word ‘runaway’ suddenly made me remember the other person in the room. With a gasp, I turned and looked over to the corner. Denise was crouching back there, looking like she was trying to disappear. As everyone else followed my line of sight, she cringed. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I didn’t want to help her. I don’t even know what’s going on, I don’t–I wasn’t trying to–I was–” 

“Denise.” Speaking quietly, Mom took a step over there, going down on one knee near the girl, but not quite close enough to touch. She was clearly worried about scaring her even more. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re the ones who should apologize. We didn’t know you would remember anything. We didn’t…” She trailed off, exhaling. “We thought you could go back to a normal life. I suppose we should have known better.” There was a brief pause before she amended in an even softer voice, “I should have known better.” 

That made the girl blink in confusion, her eyes taking the rest of us in before her head shook. “I don’t know what you’re–I don’t… wait… I know you. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know you, right? But I do. But I… I don’t. You’re… I’ve seen you before. But I haven’t.” She made a helpless noise in the back of her throat then. It was clear that this was confusing her even more. 

“Denise,” I started while pushing myself up so I could move over to take a knee next to my mother. “Maybe you could tell us what you remember, then we can help by filling in the blanks. It’s okay, no matter how… strange you think it is, we’ll believe you, I promise. Just tell us what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. Just… talk to us. We’ll help, I promise.” This whole situation was so much to get into (seriously, it was so much), that it felt like the best place to start from was by finding out what the girl herself already knew. 

So, Denise launched into the story of everything that had been happening to her over the past long while. It was a horrible story to sit there and listen to, knowing how many answers we could have given her. She had been having nightmares about her death and about Ammon’s own memories. Somehow, she was dreaming about all the terrible things he had done. His memories were mixed in with hers and it was really screwing her up. Not only that, she had indeed also somehow ended up with his power. Despite the fact that the power transfer thing was only supposed to be temporary (and, I was pretty sure, was only supposed to give her his Pooka power for that temporary time rather than everything), it seemed to have been permanent. She had his power and some of his memories, though all jumbled together. That was why she was having nightmares. She dreamed of being murdered by him, and of being him as he murdered her. Seriously, how fucked up was that? No wonder this kid was having a hard time. That would have been bad enough by itself, but she was also dreaming about all the other people he had killed. And seeing ‘monsters’ because the Bystander Effect wasn’t working properly. Monsters like Mercer, whom she had used Ammon’s power to make forget about that whole debt thing. So that explained that whole situation. 

The only positive part of all this was that Ammon wasn’t actually back. Not exactly. She had some of his memories, but it was still Denise in there. She was still in control. Yeah, positive in the sense that Ammon wasn’t back. Instead, Kushiel was. Honestly, I’m not sure that was really an improvement. Sure, Ammon’s power was terrifying,  But we had people who were immune to it, and he was still just a kid. Kushiel could conceivably be a hell of a lot more dangerous. 

But in any case, right now we had to focus on Denise. Who apparently also remembered a bunch of fairly inconsequential, academic-like stuff from her previous life. She remembered math and science and history that she had learned as a high school student, despite technically looking like she belonged in middle school. Which wasn’t exactly a problem, really. But it did add on to her confusion, which was even more stressful. Yeah, this poor girl needed help. And by help, I meant an explanation. She desperately needed, and definitely deserved, an explanation. 

“Sean,” Mom started once the poor girl had finished telling her side of the story, “I believe things should be fairly safe now. Could you go down and find Mennin to let him know what’s going on, and have him send some help for Francis?”  

As if her attention had only just turned that way, Denise abruptly blurted, “I-is that a robot dog?” 

“Sure is,” Sean confirmed, putting a hand on his head. “This is Vulcan. Vulcan, why don’t you go say hi?” 

The cyberform promptly moved that way, trotting closer. He passed my mother and me, before sitting on his haunches right in front of the girl. Denise hesitated, then reached out to tentatively touch his snout. Running her fingers along his mouth curiously, she inched closer, then slowly put both arms around Vulcan in a hug. One that I was pretty sure the poor kid desperately needed. 

Apparently Sean agreed, because he told Vulcan to stay here for now. Then he headed out for the medical room, calling back that he would find out what was going on with the other guests too. 

Once he was gone, I looked toward Denise once more. She still had both arms around Vulcan, clinging to him like a lifeline. “Okay. So, we do have answers for you. Some of them are really not… some of them are gonna freak you out. But it’s the truth. We won’t lie to you, I swear.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. “You deserve… a lot. But the very least we can give you is the truth.” 

So, we started from the beginning, at least as far as we could while still being vaguely relevant to Denise. We told her about Crossroads and Heretics, about the rebellion and my mother being sent away with a new memory, and eventually being taken by Fossor. We told her about Ammon, and how he had been turned evil. Then we got into the fact that he had gone to that gas station while on his way to find me

“That girl worked there,” Denise filled in, her voice full of trepidation as she clung even tighter to Vulcan. “He killed her, didn’t he? I saw her memories too. I saw… I mean… what?” She was looking at all of us as we stared at her, clearly reading the trouble in our expressions. 

Realizing how hard this was going to be, my mother and I exchanged looks before she turned back to the girl and started to gently explain the full truth. She started by calling Twister over, before the two of them explained what a Pooka could do beyond turning into animals, how they would ‘respawn’ as a child upon being killed, then mentioned that Ammon had forced one to ‘kill’ himself, thus inheriting his power. Twister tried to explain what it was like, waking up as a child once more and then gradually getting the memories of her past lives back. 

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Denise was starting to put things together, though she was clearly still in some denial. She held onto Vulcan even tighter while watching, eyes completely unblinking as she waited for the other shoe to drop.  

In the end, Mom tried to lower the shoe as much as possible before dropping it, but there was no way to stop it from hitting the floor. Taking a deep breath, she explained exactly what had happened, that the dreams about dying Denise had been having weren’t dreams at all, but her actual memories. She told the girl exactly how that whole thing had gone down, and how she had transferred Ammon’s powers to her in order to bring the girl back to life. She also told her about how she wasn’t supposed to remember anything, and that the powers were supposed to be incredibly temporary, only lasting for a few seconds at most. Just enough to bring her back. 

“If I had had any idea that you would actually remember anything, or retain any of it, I would have… I would have made sure someone was there for you.” There was pain in Mom’s voice,  and I could tell she wanted to reach out to the girl, but didn’t know how it would be taken. She clenched her hands and quietly added, “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry no one was there to help explain things to you, and I’m sorry you’ve had to try to understand this all on your own. You deserve better than that. Much better.” 

Denise didn’t respond at first. She stared at my mother, then at me, then looked down at the floor. Her grip on Vulcan remained tight as she made a low whimpering sound deep in her throat, clearly trying to cope with what she had just been told. I tried to think about how I would feel in her position, but I couldn’t even imagine it. Even after everything I have been through, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with being given the story that Denise had just been given. It was too much. How was she supposed to cope with the amount of shit that had just been dropped on her? She wasn’t just finding out the monsters were real and all that, she was also finding out that she had literally been murdered and brought back to life as a younger version of herself. 

“I know it’s a lot, kid,” Twister put in. I expected her to add a joke or something after that, but instead, she simply added, “Some of us Pooka have a sort of group meeting sometimes where we can talk about our memories. You know, the ones about being killed, and all those times where we don’t remember our past lives and think we’re just normal people. Sometimes the real memories kicking in are… well, kicking is the right word. Like a mule. It can really hurt. So, you know, you can come and be a part of that, if you want. Anytime you want, when you’re ready.” 

Staring at the floor and silence for several long seconds, Denise finally pushed herself up and folded her arms tightly, turning away from us. Her shoulders were shaking visibly, though no sound emerged. After an extended moment of that, she took a long, deep breath before quietly speaking. “I’m scared. I thought getting answers would make things better, but now I’m even more scared. You e-explained everything, but it didn’t help. It doesn’t help. I’m–he’s… he’s still there.” She turned it back to us, fists clenched. “I can feel him. I can hear his voice. I can see the things he did, the things he wants to do. And now… now I know it’s not just in my head. He’s really evil and he really killed all those people. He killed me. They aren’t just dreams. They’re real. And the things he makes me think about when I look at my mom and dad, they’re what he wants me to do. He wants me to kill them.” Tears had flooded her eyes, as she shook violently while standing there.

It was Twister who moved first, stepping over to embrace the girl tightly. Again, there were no jokes, no off-color remarks or attempts to break the tension. She just held onto Denise and let the girl cling tightly to her as the tears continued to pour out, uncontrolled. A dam had burst, and it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Not with how long Denise had been holding so much of it back. She had answers now, but as she’d said, the answers didn’t exactly fix things. 

“But you won’t,” I found myself saying before even realizing that I was going to speak up. The words came without conscious thought. And it wasn’t because of Tabbris, because she was still out of me. “You’ve already proven you’re stronger than him, than those memories. You were all by yourself and you still beat his memories. You resisted. You already proved you can beat him. And now you’re not alone anymore.” 

Mom gave a short nod. “That’s right, and you’re not going to be alone again. I don’t… I know you probably don’t want to be around us very much. Not after what you just found out. But we have people you can stay with, others who can help you understand your… power and how to get through those memories and dreams. We have friends who can be there for you.” 

For a moment, it looked like Denise was really fighting to find the right thing to say. Her mouth kept opening and shutting before she looked back to the floor, a frown knitting her brow. “Can’t you just erase those thoughts and memories? You do things like that, right? You could take his memories out of my head, right?” 

Again, we all exchanged looks before I hesitantly answered, “We have someone who might be able to do something with that, but I don’t want to speak for her. She’s definitely an expert at that sort of thing, so if anyone can do it, she can. But she’ll have to talk to you for a while and find out for herself if it’s possible. And how to do it without hurting you.” 

Swallowing, she met my gaze. “I just want them gone. I just want him gone. I just…” Her eyes closed and I saw a few more tears fall as she whispered in an exhausted voice. “I just want to sleep without dreaming about killing people.” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I had no idea. The only words that would come was a very weak, “Come with us and we’ll get you some help. Somehow.” I didn’t know if it would be as easy as just removing those memories or not, but somehow we would help her. 

“What about my parents?” she asked then, just as weakly. “They think I’m at my aunt’s. I… I lied to them.” Her voice was even more pained than before at the admission. “It was bad. It was wrong. But I had to tell them something. I had to… I had to leave, before the dreams made me… before…” She shuddered visibly, unable to go on. 

“We’ll work out what to do with your parents, I promise,” Mom assured her. “We’ll figure all that out later. Right now, we just need to have you talk with Sariel and see what she can do. That’s the first thing.” 

Even as she said that, the doors opened and several uniformed medical people came in, escorted by Sean. He waved them over to where Francis was (someone had put a pillow under his head). One of them split off to move over to check on Denise as well, taking a knee while having her sit in a chair so he could ask medical-related questions. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us moved out of the way for the moment. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Seth there. He arched an eyebrow. “So, seems like this ghost problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Think I could tag along with you, Miss Necromancer?” 

“Do you mean the problem of Kushiel being a ghost, or of you being a ghost?” I found myself asking. 

“Sure,” he replied with a sly wink before sobering. “Seriously, better than sticking around and haunting this place even longer. Last time I checked, you’re where the action is.” 

“Yeah, hey, me too.” That was Grover. “Your life seems pretty exciting. I want to see more. Besides, you still owe me a stabbing.” 

Glancing toward Asenath, who was standing in a corner of the room trying not to stare too much, I gestured. “Yeah. You’re welcome to stay. I need more ghosts. But uhh, maybe you should go talk to her, huh?” 

Giving me a brief salute, the man turned and moved that way. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, and I didn’t want to eavesdrop. It was between the two of them. 

Instead, I looked over at the doorway, where Koren and Rebecca had arrived. They looked at me questioningly, and I exhaled before stepping over to explain what was going on.  

They listened, with obvious increasing incredulity about the whole thing. Partway through, however, I paused and looked toward my mother. “Why do you think Kushiel was so convinced that sword was in here?” 

“Oh!” Denise piped up. “Um, because it was.” As the rest of us stared, she darted off the chair, moving to the fireplace to root around inside it before coming out with something long wrapped in cloth. She carefully set it down on a table, then unveiled… the sword. It was absolutely the right one, fitting the description perfectly, with a black blade, a red handle, and an amber jewel at the end. The sword, it was here. It was right here the whole time.

“What… but… but…” My mouth opened and shut, staring at the thing. “You said you couldn’t find it.”

She, in turn, squirmed a little uncomfortably. “I thought umm, I thought it’d be bad if she got it. She said she’d kill people if I didn’t help her find it, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill people anyway. I thought if she found it, everything would be worse. If she killed people because I didn’t give it to her, she would’ve done that anyway. But if she killed even more people because I did give it to her, it would’ve been my fault. I umm… I know it’s bad to lie. Am… am I bad?” 

“No, Denise,” I started. 

“Denny,” she interrupted. “I umm, please. Please call me Denny.” 

“Sure, anything you want,” I agreed while continuing to stare in disbelief at the sword. “But you’re not bad, Denny.

“In all, I’d say you’re pretty amazing.” 

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The Runaway 15-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Seeing Seth as a ghost had been a pleasant sort of surprise. This? This was basically the worst kind. Seeing Kushiel there, even as a ghost, made me reel backward. This was wrong. This was all wrong. She was supposed to be gone completely. And how was she possessing Francis? I didn’t–what–how? All those questions rushed through my head as I stared open-mouthed at the figure. 

“Lady,” Mom announced, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re going to explain just what the hell is going on here. And let Francis go. Now.” Even as she spoke, my mother focused, producing a gleaming silvery-gold sword out of nowhere, with runes inscribed on it that were glowing with energy. I had no idea what it was or where it came from, but it seemed pretty dangerous. My mother clearly wasn’t playing around. 

“It’s Kushiel,” Sean informed her in a flat voice, without taking his eyes off the woman in question. He had one hand on Vulcan’s head, while the cyberform gave a low growl. “Puriel’s wife. Theia’s mother.” 

“Her name is not Theia!” Kushiel practically thundered. Seriously, the room shook a little bit, with paintings and light fixtures rattling against the walls. Her ghostly figure turned a bit red, and seemed to actually give off a bit of heat. “She has no name, she is Mendacia. She could have earned a name if she worked hard enough to help fix what she is, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t. She has no name. And even if she did, it certainly wouldn’t be that name.”

“What are you doing?” I put in, before we could get more off track. Besides, I really didn’t feel like letting her talk about Theia at all. She didn’t deserve to. “How are you controlling Francis? And what the hell did you do to Denise?” Even as I said that, I gave the girl in question a quick glance. She had moved to hide behind the nearest couch, peeking over it with a tiny whimper when I said her name. 

“What am I doing?” Kushiel echoed, her voice reverberating through the room once more. “Well, little girl, as it turns out, it would seem that being dead is not exactly the end for those of us with enough of a Tartarus gift. We still have things to do. That energy, that power… I can still feel it.” She looked at her own semi-translucent hand, clearly marveling. “Yes, I am a ghost. But you can feel for yourself, not the ordinary sort. Tartarus sustains me, gifts me with the strength to resist even your control. I even maintain my ability to possess and control others.” She glanced over her shoulder at the motionless man behind her. “In exchange for service.” 

“Something’s wrong,” I murmured. “This isn’t her. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. She’s different.” 

“Different?” Kushiel glowered at me, gaze seeming to burn straight into my soul. “If I have changed in some way, perhaps it is the fault of the creature who murdered me.” 

“That creature is your own daughter!” I snapped back. “The one you abused and tortured for most of her life, just because she’s different.” 

“She is an abomination!” The ghostly figure roared. That time, several of the paintings fell off the walls and I felt a blast of heat fill the room. It was enough to make me wince a little bit, though it only lasted for a moment. “And I assure you, she will get what is coming to her.” 

Mom spoke up then. “You are not going to hurt anyone else.” As she said that, the sword flared to life with light blue flames. A form of ghostfire, I was pretty sure. 

“You might want to think twice about using that,” Kushiel retorted darkly, even as her form seemed to fade just a little bit. She didn’t disappear, but most of her body turned even more translucent. Except for her eyes. Those flared even brighter. “Even in life, I was a bit harder to harm than you might assume.” 

“She reflects damage to other people,” I put in. Mom knew that, she’d heard the stories. But I wanted to make sure everyone remembered, just in case. High as tempers were right now, one wrong move could turn incredibly bad. “You hurt her, she makes it hurt someone else instead.” 

Kushiel’s cold, dead gaze focused on me. “Very good, child. Gold star for you. That is what they say on this backwater, nothing world, isn’t it? Several gold stars. Have all you want. For all the good they will do you.” 

Twister, straightening up beside Sean, replied, “How do you know she even still has that power? I mean, she’s a ghost. Did she really get to smuggle that sort of gift past Death Customs?”

A look of amusement crossed the woman’s gaze, as she stared Twister down. “Oh, by all means, have a go if you wish to see for yourself. Or, perhaps you should ask the child there.” 

Denise, with a tiny gulp, managed to weakly put in, “They tried to hurt her when she showed up. Mr. Gale did, before she… before she took him. But everything they hit her with, it… it hurt other people.” 

Great, so there was our confirmation. Kushiel really had kept her power after death. Because that was fair. Sometimes I really just wanted to look at the sky and scream bullshit as loud as I could. Not that it would actually help anything, but it might make me feel a little better for a few seconds.  

Asenath finally spoke up, her voice quiet. “But what does Denise have to do with any of this?” 

“That child?” the tall, ghostly woman gave a contemptuous glance that way, making the girl in question whimper and duck down again. “Everything and nothing. I sensed the dark presence in her as soon as they brought her in. The power she has, I can smell it. For months, I had no firm presence in this place. I floated through its walls, my form… scattered. It was so… difficult to focus, to think. I was dreaming of Tartarus, of what has to happen. Dreaming of what must come, but unable to bring myself together. I could not force myself to coalesce, no matter how hard I tried. Like attempting to wake from a deep slumber. The protections within this place forced me to continue my aimless drifting, my sleep, my dreams. When that child was brought into this place, I felt her presence like a beacon. It helped me bring myself together, just a bit more. Not enough, but it was better than nothing. And then… when the man who has been entrusted with this hotel’s care left the premises, my head cleared even more.” 

Mennin, I realized. His mother was gone, and when he had left to come collect us, it somehow removed the protections that had stopped Kushiel from bringing herself together fully. I didn’t know how or why that was a thing in the first place, but it was the only way this made sense. For a certain definition of ‘making sense.’ The thought that all of this had started happening just because we pulled the man away from the Auberge was enough to send a cold chill through me. 

“I felt my strength return,” Kushiel was saying. “For the first time in months, I truly felt like myself. And I knew what to do. I took their protector.” She gave a dismissive wave of her hand toward Francis, who was still standing motionless, staring at nothing. “I took his body for my own. He fought me, as she said. But it was both meaningless and too late. And, of course, it did not help that he was distracted attempting to aid the child there.” 

“She killed them,” Denise managed in a voice that cracked from fear and grief. “They were trying to h-help me, and she… she killed them. She killed them and their… their ghosts were there. But sh-she took them. It was like she… swallowed their ghosts.” 

That was enough to make Grover and Seth each take a step back, while Kushiel gave them a dark smile. “Yes, absorbing other ghosts does seem to help with my own focus and strength. And I am getting a bit peckish.” 

Denise went on quickly. “I tried to stop her, I tried to use the voice, but she didn’t listen. It didn’t work. I-it didn’t do anything.” 

Kushiel was immune to Ammon’s power? That raised even more questions. Was it a ghost thing or–yeah, I had no idea. Not to mention the way Denise talked about it seemed to indicate that she wasn’t actually being controlled by Ammon’s memories or whatever. But that opened a whole new confusing can of worms that we didn’t have time to get into thanks to the elegantly dressed and psychotic ghost elephant in the room. 

Denise was still talking. “Sh-she said she’d stop killing people here if I helped her find the thing she’s looking for. I-I didn’t want to, but she promised she’d leave everyone else alive if I found it.” 

“Yes, and you have failed at that repeatedly, haven’t you?” Kushiel shot back, her harsh voice making the girl recoil and drop back behind the couch once more with a choked sound of terror. 

Asenath quickly snapped, “Leave her alone! What the hell are you even looking for in here? What do you want?”  

From the corner of my eye as she was saying that, I noticed Seth move to put his hand on her shoulder, only to fail as it simply passed through the girl. He glanced down at his hand and grimaced. 

“What do I want?” Kushiel echoed the question, just as she had the earlier one. “What I want is what belongs to me. Perhaps if you children assist that one in finding it, I will be grateful enough to allow you, and everyone else who still resides in this pit, to live for the time being. Who knows, if I get what I want, I may be so pleased that I will spare you permanently.”

We really were in trouble here. I had been trying to get hold of her ghost form with my power this whole time, to no avail. It was that Tartarus energy. Not only was it somehow sustaining her as a ghost and allowing her to do far more than she should have been able to, it also made it impossible for me to make my Necromancy latch onto her. It was shielding her or something. Or it just made her ghost too different for my power to get a good grip. I could sense her pretty well now. Hell, I could even sense the link she had to Francis, like a piece of her sitting inside him. Her recall point. 

Either way, beating her the easy way was out. At least for now. Worse, none of us had the sort of power it would take to kill Kushiel without having it rebound back on one or more of us. I was curious whether Tabbris’s wings could destroy her without being reflected, but I wasn’t sure. And that really wasn’t the sort of thing that you could just test. If I was wrong and the damage from the wing blasts could be reflected, whoever it hit would be obliterated. We couldn’t risk that. 

On the other hand, thinking about that made another thought pop into my head. Immediately, I blurted, “Well, it’d be pretty hard to help you find whatever you’re looking for when we don’t even know what it is.” 

“I-it’s a sword,” Denise put in. “A sword with a red handle, a umm, a little yellow jewel at the end, and the blade is black. Like, totally black.” 

“Shit, you really think you can find that thing?” That was Grover, of all people. The young-looking ghost boy had floated up to one side of me, staring at Kushiel. “You know how many of our folks have scoured the whole world for that sword? It’s a myth. And not the real sort of myth. The fake kind. You think you’re the first dead thing to try to get it? I had a pal who wasted two centuries looking for that thing. Never got anywhere. You know why? Because it’s a dumb bedtime story. It ain’t real and it never was.” 

Kushiel looked like she was about to retort, before giving a double-take, her eyes narrowing. “I have no idea who you are.” The words came in a suspicious snarl. 

“Grover Clyde, at… her service,” he replied with a nod toward me. “And like I said, lady, if hundreds of ghosts over the past thousand years can’t find that sword, what makes you think you can within five minutes of waking up?” 

Glowering once more, as her ghostly form gave off even more heat, Kushiel snapped dangerously, “Perhaps it is the fact that I was there when it was enchanted, simpleton. I know who took it. And I know he stayed in this hotel, in this room. It may have been changed and redecorated many times over the centuries, but I know it was here. The blade is in this room somewhere. I can feel it.” 

“Uh, for those of us who have no clue what the hell you’re talking about,” Sean spoke up, “how about you tell us what the hell you’re talking about? What sword? Why do you want it so bad? And why were a bunch of ghosts looking for it?” 

Kushiel’s glower turned that way. For a moment, I was afraid she’d get so hot she might start incinerating things. It was almost like that old Disney Hercules movie, when Hades would get so pissed off he turned red. But this wasn’t funny. It was dangerous, and we still didn’t have a way to safely counter her. Especially not when she could jump back into Francis at any point and suddenly be in control of a Steward-Hybrid within his own home. That was a recipe for disaster. 

In the end, however, I supposed her need for the sword was stronger than her rage. Because the ghost woman calmed a bit, lifting her chin thoughtfully. “You want to know what this sword is? Why doesn’t your little friend there tell you all about it? Given his clear expertise, and all.” 

“Yeah.” Seth was looking at Grover as well. “I’m kinda curious about that myself.” 

Grover, in turn, shrugged carelessly. “Well sure, I guess. According to the myth, because that’s all it is, the sword is called Clarent.” 

“Wait, hold on,” I blurted. “I know that one. That’s the, you know, the sword Mordred used. G–Morgan’s son. That was his weapon, right?” Yeah, I had done a little research after the whole Guinevere revelation. Not to mention finding out that Aylen was supposed to be the one that brought Arthur back to life somehow. That was still a doozy. 

“Very good, another gold star,” Kushiel put in, a bit tauntingly. It made my mother growl just a little while stepping closer to me. If the Seosten woman cared, she didn’t show it. Instead, she simply offered me a very faint, humorless smile. “But then, from everything I have heard, you were always an ambitious little go-getter. I’m not surprised you did your homework.” 

Grover quickly pushed on. “Well, uh, anyway, according to all the rumors, this Clarent can be picked up and used by ghosts. Or anyone else of a less-than-tangible nature. It’s got a lot of powers attached to it. And it’s supposed to help you find his body. Mordred’s that is.” 

That made me do a double-take, though Sean spoke first. “Why would you want to find that body?” 

The ghost-boy’s eyes glanced toward me before he flatly replied, “Because that body is special. You know, according to the legend. Yeah, even ghosts have legends. If you believe them, a ghost is supposed to be able to possess that body and control it permanently. You know, basically coming back to life. And you get all his power and everything too. Supposedly.” 

Turning my gaze sharply back toward Kushiel, I snapped, “That’s what you want? You want to find that sword so you can get to that body and possess it?” 

“What can I say,” she lazily replied, “there’s a few bells and whistles on that corpse that would be very useful for someone as living-impaired as I happen to be. To say nothing of some other benefits. My little friend behind me there is a decent temporary fix, but maneuvering him is so much more awkward than it should be. He’s always fighting me. But with the body that Manakel and my dear husband prepared? It would be exactly like coming back to life again. Or, as close as one can get. Add a little magical shapeshifting, and I’ll be as good as–well, better than new, really.” 

Yeah, this was definitely bad. One of the last people I wanted to find a way to come back to life again was Kushiel. Not exactly the very bottom of the list. That spot was and always would be reserved for a certain necromancer. But she was definitely pretty far down there. We couldn’t let her find that sword or that body. And we absolutely couldn’t let her kill anyone else in this place. But we still couldn’t fight her directly. Anything we tried to hurt her with, she would just reflect back at one of us. 

“How do you even know that sword is in this suite?” Sean demanded with a glance toward me. “Seems to me like the kid over there has been tearing this place apart without much luck. Maybe you got your rooms wrong. Did you mix up the one and the seven, or maybe the nine and the six? People do that all the time. I’m just saying, we could expand the search.” 

Kushiel was… unamused. She gave him a withering stare before retorting, “The sword is here. I know it is here. And now that you are all here as well, you can help find it.” 

Taking two steps forward, my mother spoke quietly. “And just what on this planet, or any other, makes you think we would ever help you find something that would allow you to be that dangerous?”

Unmoved, Kushiel flatly replied, “Because unlike me, your daughter is not a disappointment. Truly, you have so much to be proud of.” Her eyes moved to me, and I felt a shiver run down my spine at the coldness of that gaze. “She has done so much to gain the enmity of me, and my people. But given our respective sides, I believe that makes you care for her even more. As you care for all these people. So allow me to put this plainly. Find me what I am looking for, and I shall take my leave of this place and you may all go about your day. Perhaps you may even discuss a way to kill me again.

“But deny me? Try to keep my property away from me? Should you make such a foolish choice, I will have the gentleman behind me incinerate every room in this hotel. Believe me when I say he is capable of it. This is a true Steward Hybrid.  And this is a home full of so many gifts for him. You cannot harm or stop me without killing yourselves. And should you try, I will burn this entire place to the ground and retrieve my property from the ashes.”

Mom started to say something to that, but I quickly interrupted. “You were right about something else, you know.”

That made Kushiel look at me, eyes narrowed. She was clearly suspicious, and yet too arrogant to act on that suspicion. Which said a lot given the fact that she was literally dead thanks to underestimating someone. “I have been correct about a great many things, child. Perhaps you should be more specific.”

For a moment, I didn’t respond. Instead, I took in a deep breath and let it out, eyes closing briefly. Then I opened them and looked at her. I intentionally kept my voice as calm and steady as possible. “A minute ago, you said I was an overachiever. I guess I have been in some ways. It’s been that way for a long time. I always felt this extra drive to try harder at something I cared about. And awhile back, I found out why that was, where that extra drive came from. The truth is, I was feeling the drive of two people. There is always someone right there with me cheering me on, encouraging me, pushing me to do better. She was right there, every time I needed her.”

Kushiel raised a hand, but it was too late. Because in that moment, Tabbris, whom I had spent the past several minutes summoning and silently conferring with, made her presence known by manifesting those glowing wings out of my back. 

But we didn’t use them to blast the woman, not without knowing whether it would work or not. Instead, every ounce of the power they could provide was pushed into my necromancy. The wings flared blindingly for one instant before fading, as I felt their strength flood through me. 

“Bye, bitch.”

With those words, I pushed as hard as I could with every ounce of power I now had.

And with a scream of rage that seemed to shake the entire building to its foundation, Kushiel’s connection to Francis was snapped, and the ghost herself was sent far, far away. 

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The Runaway 15-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For several long seconds, all of us just stared at the ghost figure. My mouth had fallen open, a noise of disbelief escaping me. Somehow, in the rush of trying to find out what had happened to Denise, I had entirely forgotten that Seth had been murdered right here in this building. Abaddon. Abaddon had killed him. Of course it made sense that one of the ghosts I would feel was him. He had to be one of the most recently killed people, aside from… aside from those three below and whoever else Denise-Ammon had killed. Of course it made sense. But I hadn’t thought about that at all. It had completely slipped my mind until he was standing right in front of us. 

Asenath was the first to actually find her voice, stepping right up to the shield. “Seth,” she managed, eyes wide. “You–you actually left behind a… you.” 

“A ghost?” He winked casually. “Yeah well, you didn’t think I was just gonna fade away into nothing, did you? Someone like me, we pretty much have to leave a mark on the world. In my case, it turns out that mark is literally a copy of myself.”  He squinted thoughtfully before adding, “I suppose there’s a story in there somewhere.” 

“That’s the sort of story that can come later,” Mom put in. “Can you do what we need?” 

“Oh, hey there, Jos.” Seth turned his attention to her and gave a little bow, his look one of familiarity. “I heard a few of the people around here talking about you getting out from under that fuck’s heel. Good for you. Wish I’d been there for that little scuffle. I had a few things I wanted to say to the bastard. As for this, yeah, I know where the power source for the shield is, but I need a little boost.” His eyes found me. “Can’t really generate enough physical force to break it without some help. Suppose that’s the problem with being dead.” As though to demonstrate, he waved his hand through a nearby wall. “If you wouldn’t mind, Miss Necromancer? I hear you’re pretty strong with that these days.” Raising a hand to the side of his mouth, he stage-whispered, “Ghosts gossip.”

Yeah, it was definitely him. Even in this sort of situation, Seth just didn’t take anything seriously. If I had thought his own death might change that, I was sorely mistaken. Or maybe it was just that ghosts were literally an impression of the original person left on the world using their magical energy. Either way, he was definitely still Seth. I was sorry that Shiori wasn’t here to see him. I knew how much she had liked the guy. 

Pushing all that out of my mind immediately, I gave a short nod. “I’ve been practicing,” I confirmed before closing my eyes. I focused on the energy in front of me. It took a moment to reach past the forcefield in order to feel Seth himself, but I managed it. With a little bit of effort, I pushed more power into him. I could feel his form solidify a little bit. It was somewhat like filling up a balloon with water, if that balloon had already held its shape for the most part. He became more present, more capable of acting on the outside world. 

“Ah, better.” Seth exhaled. “There we go. Now you all sit tight here. I’ll be right back.” With that, the man spun on his heel and walked into one of the nearby rooms we could see. The rest of us exchanged anxious looks. 

“Damn,” Twister noted, “even dead, he’s still pretty damn cu–”

“Don’t say it,” Asenath interrupted. “Trust me, he can hear you. Even as a ghost, he’ll never miss out on a chance to hear someone saying something that could inflate his ego.” 

“So what’s the deal with that guy?” my ghost buddy from the other hotel spoke up. “Sounds like you guys all know each other. C’mon, gimme the story. I like stories almost as much as stabbings. Especially if the story involves stabbing.” 

“I don’t think–hang on, what’s your name, anyway?” I realized I had never asked him. Mostly because I’d been a bit occupied back at Mercer’s place (not that I wasn’t occupied now), and didn’t think I’d ever see him again. 

“Grover,” he replied. “Grover Clyde, at your service.” He flashed me a smile that had probably melted a lot of hearts back when he was a living little boy. 

Over the next twenty seconds or so, I quickly gave Grover the rundown on who Seth was and what had happened. When I was done, he actually seemed to blanch a bit. “Damn. That sucks, man.” 

“Tell me about it,” Senny murmured. There was clear emotion in her voice, despite her attempt to play it off casually. For all that she had given Seth shit for being… well, Seth, it had always been obvious that she cared a lot about him. He was basically a brother to her, and I knew she felt horrible for what she saw as ‘letting him die’ before they could find her father. Who, of course, had been the one to turn Seth into a vampire in the first place. Tiras had brought him into their family. Asenath saw his death as a personal failure on her part. Which wasn’t really fair, but feelings and emotions seldom took fairness into account. 

Reaching out to avoid focusing on that, I looked through Seth’s eyes. He was standing in front of a black crystal about the size of a bowling ball. It was red and silver, floating in the air on a cushion of magical energy. That same magical energy surrounded the thing, seeming to form a sort of shield around it. Seth had already punched the thing a couple times, wearing out some of the power I’d given him. So, I filled him up with more, shoving my own energy into the ghost-man. He gave a gasp, before I saw him look down at his hands, clenching them into fists. “Why, thank you.” He was clearly talking to me, before rearing back to punch the shield surrounding the crystal once more. That time, it was enough, and the shield shattered. Which allowed Seth to reach in and grab the floating thing. He held it up above his head, grunted, and then slammed it down to the ground. The crystal shattered entirely, and I snapped myself back to seeing through my own eyes just in time to witness the forcefield that had been blocking our path completely vanish. 

Immediately, we all started to run that way. Twister flew down in hummingbird form, transforming to herself briefly before shifting into a wolf that raced alongside us. Even Seth jogged along with the group as soon as we passed the room where the crystal had been. I could still feel Denise ahead, on the far end of this floor. And yet, something was bugging me. I quickly spoke up, “Where did Denise-Ammon get a big crystal to power that forcefield?” 

Mom pivoted, facing me while still moving. “What big crystal?” 

Seth explained what he’d had to break in order to make the forcefield come down. Which brought my mother to a momentary halt. “Wait,” she spoke up sharply, making the others stop as well. “Felicity’s right, why–how would Denise, or Ammon if his memories have taken over, have that crystal? It’s… possible that it was already here, for some other purpose and they just took it.” Even as she said that, I could hear the doubt and uncertainty in her voice. And I didn’t blame her for that. There was just something very strange about the fact that crystal was there. Strange and convenient for trying to keep people like us away from them. There was a lot about this whole thing that wasn’t adding up. Could someone else be involved? That felt like wishful thinking. 

“Ammon… Ammon probably made someone tell him where he could get an energy source,” Asenath pointed out. “There have to be a lot of them around here.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, fair point. Still, something just seems…” 

“Off,” Twister agreed, rising up into her human form. “Yeah, babe, it’s felt off since we’ve been here. And it’s not just the fact that there were three dead bodies waiting for us. This whole place is just… it feels like someone’s watching us, you know?” She shivered, folding her arms. “I thought it was my imagination, paranoia from that whole creepy Ammon thing. But I dunno.” 

“We need answers,” Mom pointed out, gazing in the direction of where I could still feel Denise. “The best way to get those is to find that girl, make sure she can’t hurt anyone else, and then ask her some questions.” 

“Ahh, just out of curiosity here, what girl are you all talking about?” Seth put in. He rocked back and forth on his heels, his gaze sweeping over us. “I didn’t exactly see what happened here before you showed up, but I’ll tell you this much, there was definitely more than one person. I heard lots of voices, and some of the scuffles that happened, it wasn’t some little girl doing it.” 

“She could have put people in the hotel under her power. Or his power. Or–” Shaking off the whole confusion of that, I focused, telling Seth what we believed had happened. “The Ammon part of her has probably put some of the hotel guests and staff under her control and made them fight the others. That makes sense, right?”

“It does,” Mom reluctantly confirmed. “But we should still make sure we know what we’re walking into.” It sounded like the last thing she wanted to say. Mom needed to get in that room and stop Denise from doing… whatever she was doing. But she was right, we needed to know more. We weren’t going to do her or anyone else any good if we ran straight into some sort of trap. Sure, maybe this whole thing was just a result of Denise being taken over by Ammon’s memories/personality and using his power to make people in the hotel do things (including bringing out that crystal and setting up the forcefield), but even that still left a lot of questions. Including a lot of whys. Why would she want to do that? Why was she still spending time in this hotel instead of leaving? What was she looking for up here? What were we missing? Besides a lot. I was pretty sure one of the main answers to that last question was, ‘a lot.’ 

With a slight shudder to myself about how badly this whole situation could go, and was already going considering the dead people, I offered, “Maybe Grover and Seth could scout ahead and see what’s going on first?” Belatedly, I looked at the two ghosts. “That is, if you guys don’t mind that.”

The two, who had just met, immediately and without hesitation replied together, “Sure, what’re they gonna do, kill me?” They both then pointed and blurted, “Jinx!” 

Quickly, I waved my hands. “Just go see what’s going on in there!” Something was wrong. Something more than we knew. The urge to brush down this last hallway and run right into the room where I could still feel Denise moving around was almost overwhelming. I had to grab my own arms and make myself stop. A glance over to the side showed that Mom was basically in the same situation. She was staring that way, tightening and loosening her fists repeatedly. We had to help Denise. But we had to actually help her, not go rushing into a trap, or whatever this was, just because we were anxious. 

So, hard as it was, we waited. At least I had it a little easier than my mother. I was able to close my eyes and focus on the vision of one of the ghosts so I could see what was going on. I chose Seth. 

Immediately, I saw the door he was looking at. It was clearly an entrance into one of the fancier suites. Which also meant that it had a lot of magical shielding around it. Or at least, it had had a lot of magical shielding. Even while looking through Seth’s eyes, I could see where over a dozen different protective runes had been expertly broken. He and Grover were both leaning in to stare at where the shielding had been destroyed, clearly checking to see if there was any protection left. But I could tell already that there wasn’t. The room was completely open, at least as far as its magical defenses went. 

Sending a silent message for the two of them to wait for a moment, I opened my eyes and turned back to the others, telling them what we had seen. My head shook once I’d finished. “Does Ammon know how to break magic like that?” 

“Not that I’m aware of,” Mom murmured thoughtfully. “But it’s possible that his father taught him without my knowledge, or that he forced someone else to teach him at some point. It’s also possible that he controlled someone here into doing it. Through Denise.” With those last two words, her eyes darkened considerably.   

While she was saying that, another problem had jumped into my mind. If Denise had Ammon’s memories, or his personality had taken over, or… or whatever, did that mean that she remembered what had happened to kill him? More to the point, did she know that Dare was immune to him, and what that must mean? We hadn’t seen the sky crack apart temporarily like it had back when Koren and I had figured it out, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen at any second. Hell, it could have happened outside now without us knowing, right? Because what I really needed right now was another huge problem to worry about. If Denise really did have Ammon’s… everything, I had to find a way to make sure it didn’t get blurted out in front of everyone. Or we would risk an entire Fomorian invasion taking over the planet and probably killing billions of people in the process.

But hey, at least there was no pressure or anything. 

Realizing that the others were looking at me expectantly, I tried to shake that off and focus on the problem right in front of us. First we had to figure out what was going on with Denise. Then we could deal with the fallout of everything related to it. 

To that end, I focused on the two ghosts once more, seeing through their eyes as I asked them to turn invisible and poke their heads through into that room. There were no more defenses, so hopefully they wouldn’t have any problem taking a peek. We had to know what the hell was going on there. Especially considering my blood sense was still pointing directly through that doorway. Denise should be in the room right in front of them. For better or for worse, we were about to find out what she was doing. 

Holding my breath, I reached out for my mother’s hand blindly while watching through Seth’s eyes as he and Grover leaned over to peek through the door. The instant their heads passed through, we could see the grand entryway of the suite beyond. It was even bigger and more lavish than the other room, with an actual foyer beyond the entrance with a marble floor and a couple statues of centaurs holding up spears over the archway leading into the living area beyond. A staircase to the left (before the archway) spiraled up to a second floor with a balcony just over the arch where someone could stand and look down, and a doorway behind that seemed to lead into a library of some sort. Through the arch back down on the first level, there was a front living area, with several plush couches just in view surrounding a massive fireplace. 

While we were taking that in, a small, dark-haired girl went running past the archway, inside that front living area. Denise. Her sudden appearance made me reflexively jump, but she wasn’t attacking or hiding or anything. It didn’t look like she knew anything about the ghosts who had just poked their heads in. Rather, I realized as she darted past the archway again, dropping to her knees to peer under a couch, it seemed like she was looking for something. Rather frantically, if I wasn’t mistaken. 

Sure enough, a moment later we heard the girl blurt in a desperate voice, “I don’t know! I don’t know where it is! You have to be more specific. They moved everything around or something. Are you sure it’s in here?” There was a brief pause before her head shook quickly. “I know, I know! I’ll find it, I promise. I’ll find it, just… just don’t hurt anyone else, please? You don’t have to hurt anybody else, I’ll find it.”

Telling Grover and Seth to wait again, I popped back out of their vision. The others were watching expectantly, so I quickly explained what I had seen. Not that it gave a lot of answers, but still. With a grimace, I finished, “It sure doesn’t sound like she’s turned to evil or anything.” 

“She’s talking to someone,” Asenath murmured. “Ammon, maybe? Or the Ammon in her head. Maybe she’s trying to appease his voice or personality. You didn’t see anyone else in the room?” 

“No, and no one said anything when she stopped talking, before she responded,” I confirmed. “So yeah, that does kind of sound like a voice in her head. But if Denise is still herself enough to argue with the Ammon part that much, maybe we can actually pull her out of it and get her back to normal.” I gave my mother a hopeful glance at that. 

“Yes,” she confirmed, “that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Keep the deafening spells handy, but only use them if it looks like she’s about to do something with that power. I want to give her a chance to explain what’s going on.” With that, she started moving that way, while the rest of us quickly followed after. Now that we knew Denise was in there, and seemed to be alone, Mom wasn’t going to wait any longer. She wanted to get in there and help that girl. Asenath was right beside her, with Twister, Sean (with the Vulcans), and me bringing up the rear. 

On the way, I gave one more peek through the ghosts. But nothing had really changed. Denise was still looking for… whatever it was. At the moment, she had her body half-twisted inside the fireplace, peering up the chimney as she insisted there was nothing in there. Still, there was no sign of anyone else. And I heard nothing during the pause while she was silent before responding to whatever it was she heard, quickly pleading for more time. It sounded like the voice in her head was getting pretty impatient. I really didn’t want to think about what it might be threatening to terrify the girl so much. This whole situation was creeping me out even more with every passing moment. We had to get in there and deal with whatever this was. 

It didn’t take long for us to reach the entrance to the suite. As Grover and Seth glanced over to us, looking just as uncertain as the rest of us were, my mother kept going. She didn’t even break stride while waving her hand to make the doors swing open so she could pass through, Asenath right at her side. As we followed right behind, Mom’s voice called, “Denise? Denise Cartland!” 

With that, we were there, passing through the foyer and standing in that archway. And I could see Denise with my own eyes. She had jolted at the sound of my mother’s call, jerking upright from where she had been peering behind one of the statues in a corner. Eyes wide, she pivoted to face us, looking panicked. “N-no! No, what are you doing here? You can’t be here. Please, please, go away. If you don’t leave, she’ll hurt you.” 

“It’s okay, Denise,” Mom assured her. “We know what…” She trailed off then. “What… do you mean, ‘she?’ You mean he.” 

“Wh-what?” The girl, looking even more terrified as she saw how many of us there were, pressed her back against the wall as her head shook wildly. “N-no, no, she. She made him do it. She made him hurt them. She–she hurt–she–” 

“That’s enough, dear.” A new, yet vaguely familiar voice spoke from the other side of the room. Our gazes snapped that way, to see a man standing in one of the doorways. A man I knew, with light-blond hair, a slim build, and amber eyes. As with the last time I’d seen him, he wore a pristine white trench coat over a red silk shirt with buttons down the front, and white slacks.  Francis Gale, the Steward Hybrid. The Auberge’s head of security, essentially. He was there. But… but…

Even as a rush of confusing thoughts ran through my mind, a glowing figure emerged from him. My first thought was ‘Seosten.’ But I immediately felt the difference. This was a ghost. An incredibly powerful ghost. Instantly, I reached out with my power, attempting to halt it in its tracks. But my power just slid off it. The thing was too powerful, shrugging away my attempt to grab it. 

“I’m sorry dear,” the figure informed me, as the glow faded. “You’ll have to try harder than that. Perhaps you should go practice. In the meantime, where is my daughter? 

“We have some catching up to do,” Kushiel’s ghost announced.  

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The Runaway 15-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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While the rest of us stood frozen for a moment, Mom and Asenath were already moving. They both crouched beside one of the bodies, checking it briefly before looking to one another. Some sort of silent conversation passed between them before my mother looked over at Mennin, her voice tense. “Are you sure your mother isn’t here? And Francis? Why hasn’t an alarm been sounded yet?”

“Yeah, like I said, she’s in Paris for a meeting,” Mennin informed us, already whipping a phone from his pocket. “Francis should be here. He should–The whole system is down. Alarms, communication, everything. It’s all down. Only someone with top level access should have been able to do that.” His long fingers danced over the phone, before he cursed in frustration. “They crashed the whole system. It’s a mix of technology and magic. I can bring it back up, but it’ll take time.” 

“We have to find Denise,” Asenath announced sharply while starting to rise. Half-way to her feet, she paused and tilted her head. “That blood.” Her hand rose, pointing to a small spot against the side of the bed that was almost invisible unless you were looking at the exact right place. “That’s hers. The rest of this belongs to these three, but that spot is hers. She was cut.” 

“You remember the smell of her blood from that long ago?” Rebecca asked, eyes widening. 

Asenath, in turn, gave a short nod. Her eyes had narrowed. “Yes. It was important blood. She’s still bleeding. I can track her scent if she hasn’t gone too far.”

“We can do better than that,” I replied, already moving to that spot. The blood-tracking ability the harpy had given me way back when we first ended up on the Meregan world. All I had to do was touch the spot with my finger, and…

“Top floor,” I announced, turning a bit to point. “She’s all the way up on the top floor and… and it feels like she’s moving fast, that way.” 

As I was saying that, Koren moved forward. She yanked a bit of cloth from one pocket and wiped it through the blood, then handed it to me. “So you can keep tracking her.”  

Mom immediately pointed to Mennin. “Get the system up and running again. Koren, Rebecca, December, and Tabbris, stay here to protect him, just in case. Tabbris can keep in contact with Felicity to let us know if anything happens.” To Asenath, Sean, Twister, and me, she gestured. “Let’s go find Denise. And… and stop whatever’s happening.” Her voice was thick with barely restrained emotion. It was obvious that she knew what all of this most likely meant. Ammon’s memories or… or personality, or… whatever must have managed to take over. And now she–or he–whoever she was after that, was going around the hotel doing… this. Killing people, making them shut down the whole security and communications system, and who knew what else. Whatever was actually going on, we had to find Denise and fix this, no matter what it took. That poor kid. God, fuck, how could this have happened? It didn’t even–was it just because of what Fossor had done? Did he plan for something like this, or was it all just an accident? 

Whatever it was, the point remained that we had to stop Denise and bring her back to her senses. Whether that took some sort of exorcism to get rid of the Ammon memories, or… or whatever. We had to fix this before things got even worse. And before Denise-Ammon made it out of the hotel and disappeared, since I had no idea how long this blood would keep telling me where she was. Especially considering if she–they got out of the building, I was pretty sure the Ammon part of her would be able to grab a ride and really disappear. 

Pushing that worry aside, I focused on something else that might actually be useful. “Hold on. If these guys died recently, I think I might be able to find their ghosts, if they left any. They could answer some questions.” My eyes closed, as I focused intently on my inherited Necromancy. I set aside all reflexive disgust at where the power had come from. What mattered was the fact that it could help us find out what was going on with Denise right now. It could give us answers about what had actually happened in here. Even if I was terrified as to what those answers would be. 

For a few seconds, I focused on that, before frowning. My head shook. “I don’t sense anything. I can’t feel their ghosts at all. I should be able to feel… you know, something. But it’s not there. It’s like…” I hesitated, a grimace touching my face. “It’s like someone else already took their ghosts somewhere else.” 

Everyone exchanged looks at that, their expressions making it clear that they didn’t like the sound of it any more than I did. Something was clearly very wrong here. Even more than we had already known. The thought sent a shiver through me. 

“We have to find her,” Mom announced, cutting through the brief silence that had followed my announcement. “That’s what matters. We’ll figure out the rest of it after she’s safe.” 

She was right, of course. What mattered was finding Denise and making sure she didn’t… that Ammon didn’t… making sure no one else got hurt, or worse. We could figure out the details, such as where the ghosts of these three people who had been murdered so recently had disappeared to, later. It was too bad that we couldn’t get easy answers about what actually happened, but there was no sense in wasting any more time standing around trying to figure it out. Not when Denise was right upstairs. 

Mennin apologized for the fact that he couldn’t send us directly to the top floor with the whole system being down, and gave us directions for the employee-access stairs that should go straight to the top. After a brief hesitation, he pleaded with us to hurry before focusing his attention back on getting the system running again. Apparently whatever Denise-Ammon had done was pretty extensive, because from the way the man was cursing, it didn’t sound like he was having much luck. Which really said a lot about how thoroughly it had been taken down, considering he was literally the son of the owner and apparently had the highest access. 

Either way, we left him working on that, with Tabbris (who had hopped out of me) and the others protecting him. Meanwhile, Twister, Sean, Asenath, and I jogged out of the room together with my mother, emerging into a white-carpeted hallway with various paintings along the wall. The art varied wildly in both style and ability. Next to what looked like a Renaissance masterpiece, there was a crayon piece that had to have been drawn by a child and hung up on a mother’s fridge. And right next to that one was a photo-realistic drawing of a man standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how the artwork was arranged. And we really didn’t have time to focus on that anyway, immediately turning to the left to rush down the hall.  

I could still sense Denise far above us, though now It felt like she was moving back to an area she had already passed before. I wasn’t sure if the Denise part and Ammon part of her were arguing, or if they were looking for something, chasing someone, or what. But they were definitely moving back and forth, because now I could feel her moving back the opposite way, toward the spot I’d sensed her in first. 

I informed the others, and Sean shook his head. “Is she looking for an emergency way out or something? With the whole system down, maybe the exits don’t work.”  

“Well, we got in, right?” Twister demanded. “That Tombs guy just waved his hand and made a door.” 

“He’s the son of the owner,” Mom reminded her. “That comes with privileges.” 

“Speaking of privileges,” I put in, “What exactly are we going to do when we find, uhh, them? Mom and I, we’re immune. And Koren. I mean I think we are. I mean…” Frowning, I shook my head. “Hold on, if she has his power does that mean we’re still immune or–” 

“We won’t take the chance,” Mom informed me, already reaching into her pocket. She produced a handful of coins, tossing one to each of us. “When we get close, put that against your forehead and say ‘Lestansurdi.’ It should make you deaf just long enough to secure Denise and stop her from saying anything. As soon as she’s… as soon as everyone is safe, we’ll work out how to extricate Ammon’s thoughts from her mind.” With a glance toward Asenath, she added, “Felicity, you should help Senny with that.” 

Right, because Asenath couldn’t use magic. She had been upgraded to the point that she could temporarily use other people’s powers by ingesting their blood, but magic was still a no-go for her. It had something to do with the original blood curse that the Vestil had put on the Akharu over the whole throne of the world thing. It cut them off from using any magic, and that curse extended through vampires (who were literally just Natural Akharu Heretics, if you got right down to it). Asenath had a lot of advantages, even more now that she had that upgrade, but she absolutely could not do anything with magic. 

“Uh, quick question, will that work?” Twister piped up. “I’m pretty sure the Denuvus power thing cuts through most forms of ‘can’t hear you,’ doesn’t it? Doesn’t seem like it should be that easy.”

“It worked back when Vanessa and Avalon used those earplug things last year,” I noted. “Though they said something about that being magical temporary deafness with limited charges. Only lasted a few seconds.” 

“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “They would have had to use a special sort of deafness spell to make it work. Probably similar to the one on these, but it works longer. I’ve been working on it since… since my son was given his power. It… it should work. It’s the best chance we have, in any case.”  

By that point, we had reached the end of the corridor. It was an L intersection, cutting to the right. But we didn’t turn that way. Instead, Mom moved to the small painting of a farmyard and put her thumb against the door of the barn, reciting a three sentence code that Mennin had given us. Then we held our breath for a moment. He had said that this emergency stairwell should work even with the system down, but I was pretty sure we all half-expected to be screwed over again anyway. Because at this point, it really wouldn’t have surprised us. 

Fortunately, the wall slid aside as promised, revealing a circular metal stairwell leading up. It was very narrow, only meant for one human-sized person to move up at a time. Which made sense, considering it was essentially only intended for Mennin or his mother and their immediate family to use. 

I went first, since I could detect Denise’s blood and knew exactly where she was. Asenath was behind me, with Mom right behind her. Twister, Sean, and Vulcan brought up the rear. We might have been more wary, but my ability to sense Denise eased tensions a bit. Still, we had no idea what sort of orders an Ammon-possessed (or whatever) Denise might have given anyone else in the building. So, we weren’t going to reach out for help. We had to get up there ourselves, use the special deafening spells, and… and capture Denise. After that? Yeah, I had no idea. Get Ammon’s thoughts and memories out of Denise somehow. We’d deal with that as it came. 

There were other landings to get off at more floors, but we ignored them. The only exit we needed was the one that led to Denise. And there it was. We finally made it. In the lead, I stopped by the door, focusing just a bit. It was getting harder to sense the girl’s location through the blood, but I could still do it. “This floor still,” I murmured under my breath. “Far end, all the way in the corner. I think she’s… she’s moving around one room? She keeps, like, standing in one spot, then darting to another, staying there for a few seconds, then darting to a different spot. It’s like she’s–” 

“Searching,” Asenath finished. “Whatever that room is, it sounds like she’s ransacking it. Or they are. Or–” A frown crossed her face.

Looking over my shoulder down to where she was, I gestured. “I know, confusing, right? No idea how to refer to… umm… them?”

“Them is as close as I think can be accurate,” Mom muttered. “At least until we know more about… about what happened.” 

Swallowing hard, I nodded before turning back to the exit. “Well, let’s go find them then.” Pushing the door open, I stepped out cautiously. Neither my item sense nor anyone else had picked up any sign of anyone beyond, but still. Again, with Ammon involved (in some way), there was no such thing as being too careful. They could have ordered anyone to lay in ambush in case someone came after them. 

The area we emerged into looked like (duh) an extremely high-end hotel. The floor was marble under our feet, with a very wide hallway (seriously, the corridor was like twenty feet across). The walls were this beautiful reddish wood, and chandeliers hung from the ceiling at equal intervals going down the hall. To the left, wide windows displayed various scenes from different parts of the world. To the right, spaced just as equally apart as the chandeliers, were doors leading into private suites. Next to the windows here and there were small tables with statuary, plants, chairs to sit in, and so on. 

“They’ve done some remodeling since we were here last year,” I muttered, eyes scanning the whole corridor rapidly. “The place looks different.” 

“They do that,” Mom informed me, stepping up to one side as she kept her gaze laser-focused ahead of us. “With the sort of magic and resources this place can pull in, they like to mix things up a lot. Probably even more after what you said happened. They would want to distance themselves from experiencing a full-on Seosten invasion and battle throughout their sanctuary.” 

“And now look what happened,” Sean put in flatly. He had moved up on my other side, Vulcan creeping ahead of him a bit while sniffing the air. “Their system’s down and at least three of their people are dead.”  

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out as violent as it did last time,” Twister noted. She hopped up, transforming into a small hummingbird before landing on Sean’s raised arm. 

Asenath, moving up next to Vulcan, shook her head. “It won’t. Whatever Ammon’s trying to do, whatever… whatever’s going on, we just catch Denise and evict every part of that… that… boy out of her.” It was clear that she wanted to say something worse than boy, but restrained herself with Mom right there. 

For her part, my mother simply started walking, gaze focused forward. “Yes,” she agreed, “we find Denise and free her. Whatever that takes.”

The rest of us exchanged brief looks before setting off after her. Yeah, I knew just how bad Mom was taking this whole thing. After everything she had done to make sure her own son wouldn’t resurrect, specifically so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else, and now… now he was hurting more people. Or his memories were, his thoughts, his–ghost. His something. Whatever, the point was, people were getting hurt and killed because of him. And Mom was feeling the guilt of that, magnified by the whole situation that had led to it. 

Something that struck me as odd as we ran down the hall past all these doors was the fact that we still hadn’t seen anyone else. No guests, no employees, no one. I’d expected to see a bunch of Ammon-controlled people blocking our path. Or at least a lookout or something. There should have been people ready for, if not us, then any other interruption. I was pretty sure that’s what Ammon would have done. But there was just no one. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. I had no idea if there were people inside their rooms, but there was no one out in the hall. In some ways, that was worse. It made me even more anxious. What was going on? Why was Ammon-Denise ransacking some room on the top floor instead of getting out of the hotel? What could they possibly want up there? Seriously, as far as I knew, Ammon had never even been here. He shouldn’t know anything about the place, and Denise definitely didn’t know anything about it. So what the hell was going on? We were missing something, and the closer we got to where they were without figuring out what that missing something was, the worse I thought it was going to be. 

Unfortunately, we were going to have to wait even longer to find out. Because just as we turned the corner at the end of the hall, a glowing reddish forcefield blocked our path. It stretched across the entire hallway, stopping us from moving forward. We all came to a halt, and Mom reached out to put her hand close to the thing. “It’s blocking transportation powers,” she murmured. “And it’s… really strong. I don’t think we can break through it. Not quickly, anyway. We need another way. Are they…” She looked toward me questioningly, while the others followed suit.  

“They’re still in that room,” I confirmed after a moment of focus. It was even harder now, the sense even more faded. But I could definitely still feel it, especially when I pressed my finger against the blood on the cloth. “Still moving around, just like before.” A frown touched my face once more. “I still can’t figure out what the hell they’re doing.” Looking to my mother, I asked, “Are you sure you can’t see them from here?” 

Mom shook her head. “Between the hotel’s own safety measures that are still running, and whatever they set up, I can’t see any better down this hall than you can.” 

We tried a couple of different things. Twister turned into a bug to find a way around or under the shield, but apparently it extended through the solid material. She couldn’t get anywhere. Mom, Sean, and I tried any combination of magic we knew to take the shield down, and that showed some promise, but it was too slow. Even working together, we would take at least an hour to break through the thing. And I was pretty sure we didn’t have that sort of time. We had to get in there and find out what the hell Ammon-Denise was doing. Every second that passed made me even more anxious. This was really bad. 

Punching the wall, Asenath turned to me. “Ghosts? There have to be some ghosts around here, right? Or you can use one of the others you already have. Maybe they can get through.” 

Mom was nodding. “Yes, they should be able to. Or you can summon them onto the other side. A shield like this has to have a power source somewhere nearby. If they can find and disrupt it, the shield should go down so we can get through.” 

Right, I could do that. If we needed the ghost on the other side of the shield, it was probably a good idea to reach out for one that was already over there. So, I pressed my hands against the force field, closed my eyes, and focused. Immediately, I sensed a presence. A familiar one at that. 

My eyes opened, to find the ghost boy from before, back at the other hotel. He looked the same as before, in his old-style clothing. “Hiya, boss lady,” he greeted with a casual wave. “You rang?” 

“You–how–what?” My mouth opened and shut, staring at him. “How are you…?” 

“Right, I got bored back at the motel, and your life seems exciting,” he informed me. “So, I figured I’d follow you and see what happened. You really need to get better about sensing that sort of thing. I mean, you got a lot of raw power, sure. But you need practice. No way should I have been able to follow you guys without you knowing. That’s just crazy. Probably would’ve sensed me downstairs when you were looking for those new dead folks, but I took a walk to check this place out. Pretty swanky.” 

“Felicity?” Mom prompted. “Is this a friend of yours?” 

“It’s a long story,” I replied. “Wait, not that long. He was back at the other hotel, where Mercer was. He helped me get through there. And now… now he’ll help here?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. 

He, in turn, shrugged. “I suppose. But maybe you should ask one of the ghosts who lives here. Like that guy.” Turning and moving a bit to one side, he raised a hand to point toward a dark figure that had just appeared in the hall behind him. Another ghost. I felt it. I could sense death surrounding the shape, which grew stronger as it came closer. 

Stronger… and even more familiar than the boy. 

“Well… hey there,” the figure drawled as they got close enough for everyone to see. 

“Didn’t expect to see you guys any time soon,” Seth’s ghost announced. 

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The Runaway 15-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Getting to the Auberge was a bit more complicated than just saying it, of course. Sure, we had something of an ongoing relationship witdoh them, but they were still in hiding. Between the rich and accustomed-to-comfort clientele that the Auberge tended to keep normally, and the people from Wonderland they allowed to visit and share time there, no one at the hotel particularly liked the idea of being easy to find. They kept the entrance into the hotel moving constantly, bouncing it from city to city with no set schedule or anything. There was no way to anticipate where they might be at any given moment. Because being easy to anticipate would mean being easy to kill. 

The only way we had to actually get through to them so we could schedule a meeting was to call up Abigail at the station and have her send a message that we wanted to have a face-to-face. And from there, we had to wait for her to call us back once she managed to get a response. Which left our little group holed up in an old, rundown building that had once been a tire shop. We had to put down a couple different spells that would make us hard to track, and also another couple that would alert us if anyone approached. We didn’t think that the Crossroads people would keep coming after us (they probably figured we had teleported away by that point), but it was better to be safe than sorry. 

Everyone was sitting around on a couple folding chairs, an old table that had been left behind, or just (as in my case) flopped out on the cement. I was staring at the ceiling, musing aloud. “Why does Denise keep remembering things? Why does she remember Ammon controlling her, or the gas station? And what… what made the Alter detection spell keep flickering back at the house? And smashed the gas pump? And why did Mercer forget the debt? Why did he… why?”

“I think you’ve summed up all the questions, babe,” Twister informed me, perched up on top of the nearby empty steel tool cabinet that had apparently been too heavy to bother removing. She gave me a thumbs up. “Now, can you actually answer any of them?”  

“Poor Denise.” That was Asenath, standing over by a window to watch the street beyond. She spoke in a soft, thoughtful voice. “Can you imagine going through what she is right now? She must be an Adjacent.” 

“That’s someone who had the Bystander Effect broken, but they’re still just a normal person other than that, right?” I put in, glancing toward the corner of the garage, where Rebecca and Koren were sitting together. 

Sean nodded. He had pulled a folding chair around and was sitting on it backwards, while Vulcan (with Vulcan Junior attached) lay by his feet as though resting. “Yeah, that’s right. So somehow the Bystander Effect didn’t fully take when Denise respawned. And now she’s getting nightmares about what really happened to her. And as if that’s not enough, without the Bystander Effect, she keeps seeing all these monsters and has no idea what they are. Or even that they really exist. And anyone she tried to tell wouldn’t know what she was talking about. They wouldn’t believe her. Which is… you know.” He grimaced. “Really not good.” 

Everyone was making very good points, but none of it was making me feel any better. And a glance over to the doorway where my mother was standing showed that it wasn’t making her feel any better either. We were all very anxiously waiting to see where we were supposed to go to find an entrance to the Auberge, so we could actually get some real answers. Which would be really nice, at this point, given how weird this whole thing with Denise had been so far. 

Asenath was still talking. “She’s an Adjacent, so she’s seeing all these monsters around her and no one knows what she’s talking about. Until she met those Alters.” She frowned then, looking between my mother and me. “Are you guys sure there was no other information about… you know, how she met them? Did she just go up and start talking?” 

I shrugged completely cluelessly, while Mom answered. “If he knew more than that, he didn’t include it in the spell. Felicity?” 

“Nope,” I replied. “He just said she met up with some people and went to the place he was going to name in that spell. I didn’t even know they were Alters until Mom said so. I think he was being as vague as possible intentionally. Whether he knows more than he said or not…” I hesitated before adding, “He seemed pretty competent, all things considered.” 

“So he’s probably not hanging around the place a bunch of Heretics were at just so he can be forced to answer more questions,” Sean lamented, reaching down to rub Vulcan’s head. “Too bad, it could have made this whole thing a lot easier. But then, nothing about this seems very easy so far.” He muttered the last bit thoughtfully before pushing himself up with a sigh. “Have you guys considered that there could be some sort of really powerful ghost haunting Denise?” 

Without a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve definitely been considering it. Maybe some sort of spirit that’s doing Fossor’s bidding one last time?” Glancing toward my mother, I grimaced before quietly adding, “I know you were sure that he didn’t know anything about what you did, but sending some independent ghost-thing off to screw with the one good thing you managed to do involving Ammon is… sort of completely his style, you know?” 

Mom didn’t respond at first, but after a moment, she gave a short nod. “You’re right, it does sound like him. But that still doesn’t explain why Mercer would forget the debt.” 

“Yeah, that’s really weird,” Rebecca piped up. “Unless… umm, we know the Bystander Effect isn’t working on Denise. Could it be something like… the Effect is malfunctioning on her and erasing or adjusting other people’s memories? Maybe it could even be directed by her, whether she knows it or not. Like, if she was there at the gas station and told Mercer he should forget the debt, and he just… did, because the Bystander Effect kicked in and erased his memory.” 

Thinking about that, I offered, “Maybe that’s what is making her parents not check in on her. You know, if she told them she was going to stay with her aunt before she ran away, and the Bystander Effect made it stick in their heads that way. Is that… even possible?”

We all exchanged curious looks before gradually turning our gazes, one by one, to the pair of Seosten sitting together next to the garage door. Tabbris and December looked at each other, then up to us, before the latter spoke. “Ohwe’renotexpertsaboutit. Justcuzwe’reSeosten… doesn’tmeanweknowanything….abouthowtheBystanderEffectworks.” 

Tabbris, meanwhile, pushed herself to her feet and fidgeted a little before hesitantly putting in, “I think maybe it’s possible? You should ask Mama though. She’d know a lot more about that sort of thing. But uhh, yeah maybe? The Bystander Effect is really weird and all that. It’s like, spells that are that big can have really weird side effects or go wonky if you poke them the right way. Or the wrong way.” Biting her lip, clearly uncomfortable from all the attention, she added a quiet, “I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t really help to just say ‘uh huh, maybe,’ but… uh huh, maybe.”  

“We’ll have to make do without bothering Sariel,” Mom noted gently. “We still can’t disturb them while they finish setting up that spell.” She offered the girl a soft, reassuring smile. “Your mom’s too important for that. They need her.” 

Stepping over that way, I put one arm around my little sister, tugging her closer. “That’s right, can’t finish the spell without help from the champion Seosten memory-adjuster. It’s okay, though. We’re all just spitballing here anyway. We’ll know more once we talk to Denise herself. And hey, bonus, if she really is an Adjacent, she’ll actually remember what we’re talking about.” 

Yeah, that clearly wasn’t exactly helpful in a lot of ways. Especially given the way I saw my mother flinch, subtle as it was. She had clearly been hoping to give the girl a normal life back. Forcing her to have all those memories on top of noticing the non-humans all around her, and having no one to talk to about any of it? No wonder she felt guilty. I didn’t want her to, of course. But I understood it. All I could do was hope that finding Denise and talking to her directly would settle as much of that guilt as possible. Making sure the girl was okay, that was what mattered now. And hey, maybe this would be for the best in the long run. If Mom could actually explain what happened and give Denise some closure on all that, it might be good, right? 

Reaching up behind her to grab a nearby metal railing before hauling herself up, Koren announced, “Hey, at least she’s at the Auberge, right? Face it, one little girl seeing monsters and running off on her own could have gone a lot worse than that. She found some people who listened to her enough to take her to the Auberge. That’s like…  one of the best possible outcomes, you know? If you think about it, she got really lucky there.” 

Yeah, Koren definitely wasn’t wrong, though the thought of how bad that could have gone made my stomach flip over. Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “Exactly. Now all we have to do is go there and talk to her. We’ll explain everything and help any way she needs, right?”  

The others agreed emphatically, just as Mom’s phone buzzed. She looked at it before straightening. “There’s a guide on his way. Abigail told him where to find us.” Her voice went flat. “Whatever happens, Denise needs real answers. She deserves real answers. After everything she’s been through, we owe her that much. I can’t give her back everything Ammon took with his… with what happened. But I can give her answers.” 

So, we collected ourselves and were ready a few minutes later when there was a light knock at the side door. I was the closest one to it, so I stepped closer, item-sense telling me there was one person beyond. With a shrug, I pulled the door open, before finding myself face-to-face with a familiar figure. The man in front of me was about six feet tall, with pale skin and a face that might have been incredibly handsome if it wasn’t just slightly off in subtle, yet subconsciously noticeable ways. His nose was just a tiny bit too small, and his mouth slightly too big. The proportions were just… a little off. Enough to make someone’s brain skip a little when looking at him, trying to figure out what was wrong. It was sort of uncanny valley-ish, that thing when something looks mostly human, but there’s something just wrong enough about it to make someone’s mind uncomfortable.  

“Mennin?” I managed. Yeah, it was Mennin Tombs, the son of the Auberge’s current owner, Caela Tombs. He was the guy who had been possessed by Radueriel for awhile when he, Abaddon, and Kushiel had been working on breaking into that side of the vault. “We didn’t know you were coming.” Quickly, I stepped back to let him in. 

“You kidding?” the man himself asked while stepping through the doorway. “If Mom wasn’t in the middle of a pretty intense meeting in Paris, she would have come herself as soon as she heard who was asking. And she’ll definitely want you all to stick around until she can get back to the Auberge to see…” His gaze moved around the garage before focusing on my mother. “Joselyn Atherby, I presume.” 

“It’s Chambers now,” Mom corrected with a faint smile. “But yes, and you would be Caela’s son.” With that, she stepped over and extended a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I just wish that was the only emotion connected to this moment.” 

“Right, the girl.” Mennin agreed, giving a quick glance around at the rest of us. “Sorry, some of you I know, some of you I don’t. I assume you’ve all been fully vetted?” He gave Mom a brief glance before hurriedly nodding. “Right, yeah, sorry. Habit. You know what they say about the first rule of the Auberge.” 

“Don’t tell anyone about the Auberge?” Koren piped up.

Mennin, in turn, grinned with that slightly-too-wide mouth. “That’s what I said! Err, I mean, no. The first rule is don’t let anyone who isn’t a registered guest find the Auberge. So, we’re going to have to make you all registered guests in order to keep up with that rule. We just, um, ever since last year, we’re even more careful about who we bring in. Usually that requires a lot of personal vetting. Which takes weeks. All of it to make the guests feel as safe as possible. But, you know, if anyone’s going to merit an exception, it’s Joselyn A–Chambers.” He offered Mom a smile, which then turned to me. “Not to mention the people who helped save the hotel in the first place last spring.” 

“We didn’t exactly save the–never mind.” My head shook. That was too complicated to get into. “What about Denise though? She wouldn’t have had weeks of vetting before showing up with–who did she show up with? Wait, she is there, right?” A sudden, horrible thought had just raced through my mind that this was all a wild goose chase and he would have no idea who that was. 

“Oh yes,” the man confirmed. “She is in the hotel. At least, we believe it’s her. The timeline and description both fit. Along with a few other things.”

Asenath frowned. “What do you mean you believe it’s her? Hasn’t she introduced herself?” 

With a cough, Mennin grimaced. “Not so much. I ahhh, well, see, that’s where things get a little more complicated.”

“Fantastic,” Koren blurted, “because what this whole situation was really missing was complication. It was all too simple and straightforward. Downright boring, really.” She noticed the looks everyone was giving her and flushed a bit, mumbling, “I’ll be quiet now.” 

“She is right though,” Mom noted with a look at Mennin. “This has all been quite complicated enough already. Can you tell us what you mean? Why hasn’t Denise introduced herself? Is she okay?” 

That led to another grimace from the man. “Okay, well, that’s a uhh…” He hesitated before pushing on. “After what happened last year, we had some new defenses installed. They’re spells that are supposed to expel you from the hotel if you intend to harm any of the other guests or employees. Really high-end stuff too, they had to bring in some serious mojo people to get it done. And we think that’s somehow affecting her. I mean, it hasn’t sent her out, but they’re reacting to something. She came into the hotel and barely had time for a how do you do before she just… passed out. Collapsed right there on the floor, and she’s been in a coma ever since.” 

“Wait, what?” Mom blurted. “She came in and then collapsed and she’s been in a coma for weeks? But what does that have to do with your new defenses? You said they should teleport her out of the hotel if she intended to harm your guests. But they’re not doing that.” 

His head shook once more. “Nope, they’re not. But they’re not working right either. Since the second she came in, those spells have been acting up. They’re just… off. I dunno the specifics, our mages do. They said the spells are wonky, and it started since she came in. We’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with them and her ever since. Haven’t had much luck.” 

“Not that we’re not super-glad you didn’t,” Sean put in, “but why didn’t you just send her out of the hotel if she was screwing up the protection spells by being there? Or just disable the protection spells to wake her up.”

“As far as the first bit goes, Mom wouldn’t let them,” Mennin replied. “She said there was something about the girl, she didn’t want to let anything happen to her. She couldn’t even really explain it. She just said we had to take care of her. So we’ve been trying to figure out what happened and how to wake her up. Mom had some other pretty powerful guests stop by to try their hand at it, but nothing worked. We were even going to reach out to you Rebel Heretics for help pretty soon if you hadn’t reached out first. As soon as that principal of yours described who you were looking for, we knew it had to be our coma girl.” 

He shrugged then. “And as for the other part, we did. Believe me, they disabled the spells, tried putting her in an area where they were blocked, even took her out of the hotel temporarily. Nothing worked. She’s still unconscious and still won’t wake up no matter what we do. She says some stuff sometimes, just mutters words now and then. But she’s still completely out of it.” 

“And you have no idea why the protection spells knocked her out in the first place?” I asked. “They just randomly completely messed up this one girl and threw her into a coma when she came into the hotel, all for no apparent reason?” There had to be more to it than that, of course. But damned if I had any idea. It was another piece of a very confusing puzzle. And at this rate, I was afraid we had a quarter of like six different puzzles all jumbled together. 

Mennin, in turn, replied, “Not exactly, but we think it might have something to do with her power.” 

“Wait, what?” I gave a double-take along with everyone else. 

“She doesn’t have any power,” Mom informed him, even as her eyes narrowed. “She’s a normal human. An Adjacent at most.”

“Uhhh…” Mennin looked back and forth between all of us. “Are you sure about that? Cuz that’s not what the people who brought her in said. And they were pretty confident about it.”   

Sean was the first to find his voice. “What do you mean? What–uh, powers do they think she has?” 

The man looked at us as though we’re trying to decide if we were playing some sort of prank on him or not. Finally, he took a breath before explaining what the Alters who had brought Denise into the hotel had told them. First one of the bad guys had smashed his baton into her head. When Mom heard that, she actually growled under her breath. But apparently the blow to the head, though it had knocked Denise down, hadn’t actually hurt her. She got up again, and actually punched the man who had hit her. Apparently she hit him hard enough to knock him flying backwards. Which had pissed off the second guy enough to kick her backwards into a tree. Which, again, had done nothing to the girl. 

“Then what happened?” Tabbris quickly urged once Mennin trailed off. We were all hanging off everything he said. 

“Then she uhh, she introduced herself,” Mennin replied. “At least, the people she saved think she did. They heard her say ‘My name is–’ but they didn’t catch the rest of it. She introduced herself, then told the men to stop. And–” 

“And they did,” I finished, through the hard lump that had suddenly formed in my throat. No. No, no, no, this wasn’t right. No. “Wait. Wait, did… did she say her name? Did she say Denise? Did she say ‘My name is Denise’, or… or…” 

“Ammon,” Mom finished for me. Her tone was brittle. “Did… she say… Ammon?” 

This can’t be happening. No. Ammon couldn’t actually be back. He couldn’t have been reborn in her body or whatever. A sudden rush of emotions and memories flew through me about everything we had seen up to this point. All those carvings in the wall, the dents in the side of the gas pump, Mercer forgetting the debt, all of it. Was that… was that Ammon? No. No, that didn’t make sense. He wouldn’t help people. He wouldn’t–but if he–but if she–but…

Mennin was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. They were a little preoccupied and didn’t hear everything she said. She introduced herself and told them to stop talking. Then she told them to drop their weapons and walk for an hour. When they left, our guests tried to thank her, and she begged them to help her. So they brought her to the Auberge. And then she collapsed. Now you know everything I do. Possibly more, it seems like.” 

I couldn’t even begin to sort through what I was feeling at that moment. If Ammon really was back in any form, or… or… no. No, we had to get there. We had to get there right now. I felt a sudden squeeze, as Tabbris grabbed my hand. She knew. As I glanced that way, my eyes wide, she quickly possessed me, and I felt her comforting presence like a warm embrace, from the inside. 

Mom’s voice was quiet, as she fought to keep herself together. “Take us to the Auberge,” she murmured. “Take us there, now.” 

Mennin gave a short nod, passing around what turned out to be hotel keycards. He told us to keep them in our pockets for safety purposes, against their other magical defenses. Then he held a hand up, focusing for a moment before a large, wooden door appeared in the middle of the room. Once it was there, he stepped up and turned the knob before opening it. He was already explaining, “This should take us straight to the medical wing, where–” Then he stopped talking, as he turned to face the door he had just opened. 

When the man froze, Mom moved over, gently pushing him out of the way. I was right behind her and we both stared into what looked like it had been a very nice private hospital room. Had been, that was, before all the murder. Three bodies were on the floor, two obvious nurses and one doctor. Blood literally coated the floor, like a small wading pool. It was everywhere. The bed where Denise should have been was empty, and those three were dead on the floor. 

We were too late. 

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The Runaway 15-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There was a bit of arguing back and forth between more of Mercer’s men after that. They really didn’t like the idea of letting me walk away with their boss and only one guy. But they also didn’t have that much of a choice. There was nothing they could do while I was inside him. Well, there was, but I had the impression they didn’t know the ejection spell. And even if they had, they would’ve had to get close to me and hold him down to make it work. It would’ve been a whole thing. Not to mention the fact that I could’ve killed him before they got that far. 

Either way, within about ten seconds of arguing, Beied shouted everyone else down and ordered a couple of them to go downstairs to find out what the hell was going on out there for themselves, while the rest were told to grab everything valuable and retreat to the secondary base. Whatever that was. I didn’t really care. All that mattered was finding out what this guy knew about where Denise had gone. 

That particular revelation was still rebounding through my head. My instinct back at the house has been right. She really did take off on her own. At least, it looked like that. She’d willingly gotten on a bus to leave town. Which explained why her parents and aunt both thought she was staying with the other. She’d chosen to tell them that. Though even that opened up a few more questions. Or a lot more questions. Like how she had convinced them it was happening, why they never realized there was anything wrong, and so on. It raised far more questions than it answered, really. But at least it was a direction. It would be a direction as soon as the man told me which bus she had taken. Which meant getting out of here without starting another fight. 

After ordering everyone else to step aside and make room, Beied gestured to the door. “Come with me then, Heretic. We’ll go to the roof, I’ll give you the information you want so much, and then you can let him go and we can all get back to our own very busy lives.” His eyes narrowed. “And no more funny business. You want what I know, you play nice for it. Try that possession trick on me, and this–” He drew a field-engraver of his own, giving a few quick swipes across his own forehead, “will wipe my memory of everything you’re looking for. It’ll be gone forever. So the only way you’re finding out what you want is by being nice and letting the boss go. Got it?” 

I wasn’t sure he was being truthful about what that rune on his head could do. But I also wasn’t going to take the chance. So, I gave a short nod and made Mercer start walking that way. “Sure thing,” I murmured with the man’s voice, “But like I said, we should hurry. Some of those Heretics down there are from the loyalists, the really… ambitious ones. And I don’t think my people are gonna be all that interested in stopping them from getting in here for much longer.” 

That started a little murmuring from the other guards before they were silenced with a sharp word from Beied, followed by an order to get the hell to work before the Heretics killed everyone in the hotel. Then he gave me a look and snapped that I should follow him before pivoting and walking out. I did so, though I kept a close eye on the people I was walking past, just to make sure none of them tried to do anything stupid. I didn’t think they would, given the situation. But I wasn’t going to let my guard down either. It was too dangerous to just assume none of them would get any bright ideas, either about trying to hurt me through their boss, or making a power play themselves by killing said boss while he was indisposed. After all, these guys were a gang. I had a feeling backstabbing was their most common method of promotion. And killing the boss could be a hell of a promotion, if they could hold onto it. 

But, in this case, no one tried anything. They left me alone, aside from a little grumbling under their breaths. They were not very happy with me. Which was just something I would struggle with, but with enough mental fortitude, somehow would find the strength to muddle on through it.

On the way through the corridor, as I followed after the Nekomata man, I reached out to Tabbris to find out how things were going out there. She couldn’t say much, but let me know that things were, as she put it ‘tense and a bit violent’ but that they were okay. She also wanted to know how I was doing, so I told the girl what I had found out so far, and that I was about to get more information before coming out. I was trying really hard not to focus on the fact that my little sister, mother, and friends were out there with some Heretics who probably wanted to kill all of them. The students probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but they would have adults with them. And if this went on too long, those guys might get word back to the Committee about who was here. And that… that could make this whole situation turn really bad. 

Yeah, the point was, I had to get the information and get out of here so that we could all leave. Every moment that passed was another moment that the situation could turn even more sideways than it already was. Because seriously, what were the odds that a Crossroads student hunt would happen right here, right now? I didn’t even want to try to figure that out. But hey, maybe Ambrose Keaton, my Calculus teacher, would be willing to give it a shot. 

It was just slightly possible that being forced to keep my anxiety over not knowing exactly what was going on down there in check so I didn’t screw this up was making me a little screwy in the head. Maybe more than a little. Either way, I kept a sharp lookout as we made our way through the corridor to the stairwell. This was a different one than the one I had been in before, where I had left the unconscious body. This one was labeled roof access, and there was a keypad lock. But the door was already standing open, and was held that way by a large planter. 

At a gesture from me to keep going, Beied started up the stairs, with me right behind him (keeping an eye over my shoulder just in case someone who was shielded from my item sense got any big ideas, of course). My guide’s voice was faux-casual. “So, you’re part of that Heretic rebellion thing, huh? How’s that working out for you?”

“Peachy,” I retorted before pointedly adding, “So, you’re part of a gang that terrorizes people into getting themselves killed during gas station robberies while trying to pay off a debt to you, and then also terrorizes their surviving child to try to force her into paying off the same debt, huh? How’s that working out for you? Also, just in case I wasn’t clear about this, if you or any of the people from this collection of upstanding citizens go anywhere near Kalia again, my friends and I will burn your entire organization to the ground. Your boss might have literally forgotten the debt, but you don’t get to bring it back up and go after it just because you didn’t. She’s done. She lost her dad from you fucks trying to get blood out of a stone. Either the debt is over, or you are.” 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the roof. There were guys up there who had been leaning over the edge to look at what was going on below. But they must have already been briefed about what was going on, because none of them looked surprised when we appeared. Nor did they look to their boss for orders. Instead, they shot him (me) nasty looks while obviously restraining themselves from lifting their weapons. Yeah, in about three seconds, they made it clear that they knew I was there. And that they weren’t at all happy about it. 

Beied, in response to what I had said, gave a short nod. “You can believe what you want, and make any threat that makes you feel better. But the fact is, I got no problem ignoring that debt. Far as I’m concerned, it died with the man himself. Going after family, that’s just a step too far. That’s why I didn’t remind him about it. Didn’t want it blowing back on any innocent parties. My interest was in finding out what happened to the boss to change his mind. Literally change his mind.” He paused briefly before giving me a look. “But I get the feeling you’re about as lost on that as me. So good luck. Now you ready to let him go?” 

Oh boy was I ever ready. I desperately wanted to kick my way out of this piece of shit and go down to join the others. But there was still one thing I needed. It was the entire reason we’d come this far, and I wasn’t about to run off without it. Making my host give the Nekomata man a hard look, I growled out, “Soon as you tell me everything you know about where Denise went.” 

“Of course,” he agreed. “Like you said, you and your friends can come after us and wipe us out. Pretty sure that includes if I lie to you right now. And you Heretics are good at finding people when you’re motivated. I don’t want you motivated to find me. So here it is, the full truth. That girl you’re looking for got on a bus to Chicago three weeks ago. I did a little digging after that cuz I was still curious and found out she went south to Belleville. From there, she met up with some people and went to one more place.” With that, he held up that field-engraver again, along with a flat metal sheet about three inches across. “The name of that place is right here.” He showed me the symbol he had drawn on the sheet. “Take this thing and say Maescarvien while giving it a little magic juice, and it’ll tell you where she went. Maescarvien.” He spelled it and said it once more, slowly. 

“Or you could just tell me right now,” I pointed out, making a point of glowering a bit at him. Somehow, it seemed less effective even though it was coming from a guy much bigger than I was.

“Yeah,” Beied agreed, “but see, this way you need to step out of my boss to get all the information you want. Like I said, possess me and the info’s gone. Only way you get it is with this thing right here. It’s a bit delicate, so you don’t wanna let it hit too hard. But then, I figure you Heretics have plenty of powers to help get the–oops.” Even as he said that, the man had already given the thing a toss, sending it flying off the roof.  “Might wanna get that.” 

I was already launching myself that way. With a curse, I lunged out of the man I was possessing, once more leaving an unconscious host to collapse while I dove off the roof and plummeted after the thing Beied had tossed. I heard the other guards start to shout something about shooting, but the Nekomata man called them off, telling everyone to evacuate and that they had enough problems without the rage that shooting a Heretic in the back would invite. 

Not that I was paying attention to any of that, of course. It was just noise in the background while I threw myself off the building and started to fall. All my attention was on the metal plate that guy had thrown. I could see it plummeting ahead of me, my eyes locking onto it. Nothing else mattered in that moment beyond grabbing that plate. Which wasn’t that hard, since I was finally far enough away from those magical transport defenses that a thought made a portal appear directly below the plate, while I put the other end slightly above me. As the plate passed through, I snapped my hand out and caught it. 

Right, now I had the plate. I just had to avoid hitting the ground at full speed. I was tough, but hitting the ground from like eighty feet up would probably still be pretty unfun. Thankfully, my staff had plenty of charge in it, so I managed to hold it in one hand while flipping over, triggering the boost a couple times to slow my descent before landing in a crouch on a small patch of dead grass near an empty fountain beside the hotel. 

Immediately, I shoved the plate away safely into a pocket while reaching out to Tabbris, as I could still feel her presence. Where am I going?

Her response was a blurted, Behind you! 

Yeah, I’d sensed it too in that same moment. We both felt my item-sense warning me about a figure rushing up at my back, moving completely (unnaturally) silently while reaching out with one hand. I let the person get close enough to think they were about to hit me, then pivoted and twisted out of the way. At the same time, my staff lashed out to collide with their stomach. 

Between my own strength and the other person’s momentum, I was pretty sure I hit hard enough to flatten a bear. But this wasn’t a bear. It was someone a bit more familiar. 

“Hey there, Zeke,” I breezily greeted while repositioning myself a few steps backward. “Mind if we catch up later, I’ve sorta got stuff to do.” 

Yeah, it was my old classmate. Zeke, generally speaking, didn’t exactly look that intimidating. He was physically average in most respects, standing about five foot eight, with brown hair that always looked like he had just ruffled it up after getting out of the shower and let it stay that way. He wore thin-rimmed glasses along with the Crossroads uniform with the white trim showing he had stayed in the security track. On his left arm was what looked like a metal gauntlet, but I knew it could expand into his weapon. All in all, he wasn’t the world’s most daunting figure. 

But then, neither was I. In all the time since I had woken up on that bus over a year earlier, I had long-since had to do away with any notion of what a powerful figure should look like. I knew better than to actually dismiss Zeke as a threat, especially given I didn’t really know what he was capable of. We hadn’t been close enough for me to keep track of his powers before leaving Crossroads, and it had been over six months since then. A lot could have changed in that time.

What had not changed, apparently, was Zeke’s dislike of me. His lower lip curled distastefully as he held one hand over his stomach where I had hit him. It wasn’t enough to put the boy down or anything, though from his expression it definitely hurt. “Chambers.” He said the name like it disgusted him, eyes narrowing into a dark glare. “Let me guess, the guys in this place are just tragically misunderstood orphans whose hugs cure all diseases and if we dance in a circle singing Kumbaya, it’ll erase all the effects of pollution on the planet.” 

“Those guys?” I nodded toward the hotel without taking my eyes off him. “Nah, I’m pretty sure they’re all assholes. And that’s not why I’m here anyway. Like I said, why don’t we do this another time. You go back to your… whatever you’re doing, and I’ll back off and go my own way. That way.” I used my free hand to gesture back over my shoulder. “Hotel’s all yours.” 

From the look on his face, Zeke didn’t believe me and thought it was some sort of trick. I almost wanted to just turn away from him and take off running to find the others, but there was no way I would give him that sort of opening when, again, I had no idea what he was capable of. 

Instead of just taking my offer and letting both of us move on with our lives, Zeke snapped, “Do you have any idea what Sands’ and Scout’s dad is going through right now because they listened to you? You fucking tore his family apart. You tore a lot of families apart. And you’re gonna get a lot of people killed with this bullshit.” His head shook. “But you don’t care. You never took any of this seriously. You never actually cared about any of it. The whole thing was just one big joke to you.”

“You know what, Zeke?” I shot back, “I’ve been connected to newspapers my whole life, and even I have no idea how to unpack all the issues you just threw on the table. Sands and Sarah make their own decisions. So does their mom. People make their own decisions. Good decisions and bad ones. People make choices and those choices determine what they are. That’s kind of the entire point of what we’ve been saying the whole time. If you still don’t get that, maybe I could send you a powerpoint presentation sometime if you–” 

Yeah, apparently that was more than the boy was willing to take. He abruptly lunged my way, the thing that had looked like a gauntlet on his left arm expanded into a full, circular shield. Even as I was reacting, the boy lashed out with that, sending the shield flying… not at me. Instead, it rebounded off the wall nearby before several spikey blades extended from all sides of the thing. As my head snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of a guy who had been standing just beyond the range of my item-sense, gun raised to point at me before his head was cut off by the now-bladed shield. The instant the headless figure dropped, the shield vanished from mid-air and reappeared on Zeke’s arm as he doubled over a bit, stumbling slightly from the rush of the kill. 

Two seconds passed before he looked up, focusing once more. “You didn’t hit me while you had the chance.” 

“You didn’t let that guy hit me,” I pointed out, still a bit surprised by the whole sequence. I might’ve been just as stunned as he was, despite not killing anyone. 

He, in turn, stared hard at me with a flat, “I’m not the bad guy.” 

“Yeah,” I replied, “and neither am I.” With that, I reached out with my Necromancy power, caught hold of the ghost of the man who Zeke had just killed, and made him appear directly in front of the boy. As Zeke reacted to that, I used the distraction to pivot and launch myself out of the way with a shot from my staff. In mid-air, I switched my clothes for the Seosten body-suit and transformed into the werelion form before hitting the ground running. By the time the ghost had vanished, Zeke would be left facing the empty space where I had just been. 

A few words of direction from Tabbris sent me through an assortment of alleys and side-streets before I finally came to the small dirt lot where the others had already gathered. Everyone looked more or less okay. Vulcan even seemed pretty energetic, like they had just been playing a fun game. VJ, meanwhile, was hovering up high in the air, keeping an eye out for anyone coming. 

“Felicity,” Mom started, focusing on me as I came to a stop and transformed back to my human self. “Did you–” 

“I got it,” I replied, switching the Seosten suit for my regular clothes before reaching into the pocket of my coat to take out the metal plate before asking, “What about you guys? What… what happened back there?” 

Asenath stepped closer. There was blood across her face, a bruise under her eye, and a Twister in hummingbird form perched on her shoulder. “They didn’t feel like listening to reason. As usual. What about Denise? Where is she?” 

Holding up the plate, I replied, “Let’s find out.” Of course, I didn’t just use a spell I didn’t know that had been told to me by someone who probably would’ve been just fine with all of us dying. I wasn’t quite that desperate or stupid. Instead, I told my mother what he’d said. She, in turn, looked at the plate and confirmed that the spell would do what he said. 

I gave it to her, so she could find out where Denise was. It felt like the right thing to do. While letting my mother do the spell, I reached out to take Tabbris’s hand, murmuring thanks for her help, and for staying with the others while all that was going on. She, in turn, embraced me tightly. 

After speaking the single word (Maescarvien) to trigger the spell, Mom recoiled a bit as she absorbed whatever it was saying. I heard a soft gasp escape her, before her eyes widened. 

“What? What is it?” I prompted, the sentiment echoed by the others. 

Mom, in turn, focused once more and glanced around to take everyone in. “The Auberge. The people she met are Alters. They took her to the Auberge.” 

“What?” I managed, giving a double-take. “Why would they–how would–what?” 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” my mother murmured. 

“But it’s time to go to the Auberge, find Denise, and get some actual answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters have started to be released. You can find the Summus Proelium non-canon available for ALL readers right here, while the first Heretical Edge non-canon is available right here. And did I say first Heretical Edge non-canon? Yeah, because of a tie, there will be a second (different) non-canon released later in the week. So look forward to that!

Okay, so we had a lot of questions and not many answers. For some reason, we were picking up hints of an Alter being at Denise’s house, but it kept flickering in and out. Which was weird to begin with. To say nothing of the words carved into the wall, proving she still had some memory of Ammon controlling her. Which had to be unbelievably traumatic for a little girl. And now we had the dented gas pump where she had been killed, along with some gangster Alter, whom Denise was capable of seeing and remembering? Someone who it seemed like Ammon might have had a history with himself, if the guy he killed while stopping by the gas station really wasn’t random. And yet, even that didn’t really fit. Why would that Alter guy–Mercer, why would Mercer just suddenly forget about the debt that he’d been so focused on before? Why did the magical signs of an Alter being around Denise’s house keep flickering in and out? Why did she remember stuff she shouldn’t? How much did she remember? And what did Mercer have to do with Denise disappearing in the first place? It definitely didn’t look good when it came to that guy. I was a bit terrified about what he could have done to that poor kid.

The point was, we needed real answers. And we were on our way to get them, using the tracking spell to follow Mercer back, hopefully to wherever he lived. Or worked. Or whatever. Where he was. We just needed to find the guy and get everything he knew out of him. 

On the way, while following behind Koren and Rebecca as those two used the tracking spell and led the way, I called my mother and let her know what was going on. She had finished the spell by that point and was able to tell us that Denise was alive and in relatively good shape. She wasn’t sick or intensely injured, or in any real physical pain as far as the spell could determine. 

“Can you figure out where she is with that?”  I knew it was a real long shot, given what I had already been told about how the spell worked. But it was worth asking. Anything that might help us actually get this girl back home where she belonged, safe with her family and away from all the horrible things that kept happening to her. As it was, I was starting to think the kid was just as cursed as my family was when it came to going through shit. That and Mom and I both felt responsible for her, given the whole Ammon situation. It was all just a huge mess. That poor kid. 

Unfortunately, Mom’s answer wasn’t good news. “I’ve tried,” she murmured. “Something is blocking any attempt to directly reach her. It might be this Mercer guy, if he’s that big in this area. Wouldn’t surprise me if he had some big-shot mage working for him. Especially if this has anything to do with some history with Fossor.” There was pain in Mom’s voice, which made my stomach clench. She clearly felt responsible for what had happened to Denise. We had to find that girl and help her. If anything unfixable happened to the kid… I didn’t know how Mom would react. She had put a lot into being able to fix one single thing that Ammon had done, and now it was falling apart. And beyond that, even more importantly, was Denise herself. No matter how Mom and I felt about Ammon, Denise was the priority. We had to find the kid and help her. 

“I’m going to meet up with you,” Mom was saying. “If this Mercer really does have Denise, or knows anything about what’s going on or where she is, we’ll get it out of him.” The tone of her voice left no doubt of just how badly she would react if the guy tried to hold out. Or if he actually had hurt that girl. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Mom was not in the mood to play nice.

Checking the street sign as we passed another corner, I told my mother where we were, and she said she would find us from there in a few minutes. She was just going to check a couple more things around the house. But she also made it clear that if we found our way to Mercer’s place in that time, we were not to go inside or confront him until she got there. 

Disconnecting, I looked over to Asenath. Even through the dim glow of the nearby streetlights, I could see the hard-set expression of her face. Yeah, she wasn’t doing any better with the news about Denise going missing. “We’ll find her,” I insisted, reaching out to put a hand on the vampire girl’s arm. “Whatever happened to that kid, Mom says she’s still in good physical shape. She’s okay. All we have to do is find her and bring her back home.” Pausing, I grimaced before adding, “And find out what went wrong in the first place, why she remembers… anything, how much of it she does remember, what happened to–” I cut myself off and heaved a sigh. “The point is, she’s physically okay. It sounds like she hasn’t been in any pain or anything, as far as that spell can determine. That’s a pretty good sign, right?” 

Exhaling, Senny looked over to me and gave a slight nod. “It’s a good sign. But we still have to track her down. Whoever this Mercer is, if he’s the one who took her, I…” She took a moment, clearly gathering herself as a rush of truly violent thoughts went through her mind too quickly and in too much of a jumble to work their way out of her mouth. 

“Believe me,” I put in, “between you and my mother, I’m pretty sure there won’t be much left of this guy if he touched a single hair on that kid’s head. At the very least, we’ll definitely find out everything he knows. And I have a feeling that he won’t be running any crime around here anymore.” Even if he didn’t have Denise, which seemed increasingly unlikely (he was the best suspect we had, so where else could she have gone?), none of us were in the mood to leave this guy alone after hearing that he’d basically tormented Kalia’s dad into robbing that gas station and getting killed in the first place. He set that whole thing in motion with his obsessive fucking greed. Regardless of what he knew right now, he was still a piece of shit.    

“That’srightwe’regonnamakehimpay!” December piped up, spinning around to face us while walking backward. Seeing the way her pale eyes stared right past me was a reminder that the kid was technically blind. Of course, she could still see in many other ways beyond the usual. She saw magical energy, electrical energy, soundwaves, etcetera. I was pretty sure she could even see some level of kinetic energy. And who knew what else. The point was, ‘blind’ was a bit of a misnomer. “We’llfindhimandtrackhimdownandmakehim–” She stopped then, as Tabbris leaned over to whisper something in her ear. Which made December whisper back, while both of them continued to walk backward down the sidewalk without any issues. It was safe to say that whatever lingering clumsiness issues my little sister had had from being stuck possessing me for so long were gone by now. After almost a year of being able to get out and stretch her legs, it was starting to be a lot easier to see the kid’s relation to her Olympian mother. 

Asenath and I fell back a few steps as the other girl put her hand on my arm, waiting until December and Tabbris had gone back to their own discussion and turned back around. Then Senny looked to me, her voice very low. “Something’s bothering that kid. She’s upset.” 

“Who–December?” I asked, blinking from the girl in question to Asenath and back again. 

“Yes,” she confirmed in that same soft voice. “Believe me, I can tell. She’s really upset about something and she’s hiding it. She’s doing a pretty good job about it, but it comes out sometimes. You need to ask those two older Calendar girls what’s going on. Find out if they know what’s bothering December so much, and if it’s anything we need to worry about.” 

Right, that was something else to worry about. Letting out a breath, I gave Asenath a thumbs up. “Thanks,” I murmured. “Next chance we get, I’ll find out what’s going on.” Right after we dealt with this mess. I just hoped that whatever was wrong with December was something we could handle. Maybe it was just about going back to visit Cahethal? I knew they’d seen her recently, and the rest of the Calendar. They had gone to get information about the Whispers, the Pale Ship, and Tabbris Senior. From what I’d heard, the Seosten woman had apparently promised to gather everything she had on them, in exchange for something she was going to talk to Abigail about. Some part of me worried that whatever this favor from Abigail was might be what was bothering December. But it wasn’t exactly something I couldn’t focus on right then.

I especially couldn’t focus on it when, a moment later, we turned a corner and saw a very old hotel directly ahead of us. The place was about six stories tall, and had clearly been around for like a century or so, with very few updates or improvements. Though it had been a grand old place when it opened, that much was certain. It looked like it had hosted the rich and famous for decades before falling into disrepair. Now it was… a mess. The place looked like it wasn’t even open. There were boards across most of the windows, and the lobby was only very dimly lit. 

“That’s the place,” Rebecca announced, looking that way before turning back to face us. “The guy’s tracks go right up into that building. I mean, eventually they do.” 

“What do you mean, eventually?” Asenath asked. 

Koren answered. “They go past this place. For a really long way, it looks like. But they come back this way from the other direction and go inside. It looks like he kept walking, then worked his way back.” She shrugged. “Maybe he wanted to go for a hike.” 

Something told me there was more to it than that. But then again, come to think of it, it was kind of a little odd that a guy who was apparently as important and big in the Alter crime world around here as Mercer seemed to be would be walking anyway, wasn’t it? After all, we’d walked for awhile. And the other two had made it clear that the trail never went to a car or anything. They still could’ve followed it if it had, but no, he stayed right on the sidewalk. That was… maybe odd? Maybe not. Maybe he was just health conscious or something. Or didn’t fit in a vehicle, duh. I really needed to stop trying to make those sorts of judgments.  and yet, something kept bugging me about the fact that he walked all this way past the hotel and apparently eventually came back to it.  maybe it was the fact that he didn’t stop anywhere else? If he had been stopping at all the places where people owed him money and pushing them to pay, that would definitely be one thing. But again, from what we could tell, he just… walked straight. Yeah, it was probably nothing, but I just couldn’t entirely shut it out of my mind. 

Rather than stand right out in the open, we moved back out of sight, using the nearby parking lot of a fast food place to talk about what was going on, and wait for my mother. And Twister, whom Asenath had already gotten hold of. Both of them would be here soon. Then we could figure out how best to approach what was apparently that Mercer guy’s headquarters. 

We didn’t have to wait long for my mom to show up. She came around from the opposite side of the nearby restaurant, casually walking as though heading for her car. Yet despite the outward appearance of her stride and body language, I could see the anger on her face. Mom was definitely in the mood to, well, directly confront the man who might have been responsible for Denise’s disappearance. I had the feeling that what she really wanted to do was walk up to that hotel and blow the doors in, then deal with anyone who was stupid enough to get between her and that guy. I didn’t envy anyone who would have been that stupid, either. 

Of course, Mom had more self-control than that, so she simply stopped and gave all of us a nod before announcing, “I gave the place a once-over on the way here. There are three guards on the roof, but they aren’t paying attention. Two in the lobby, three on each floor except the top, four in the back lot messing around with a van, and one out in the pool area, doing something with the pipes out there. Those are the armed ones. There are others, unarmed, hanging around in the rooms.” Raising a finger, she added, “that’s not to say they aren’t dangerous, only that they do not have weapons on them. Don’t underestimate what sort of threat they could be. The top floor’s a little more complicated. It’s shielded from any vision powers at all. The rest of the floor’s have their own vision defenses, but that one’s a real doozy.” 

“Holy crap,” Rebecca managed while staring at her with a look of genuine awe. “You got all that from a once-over on the way over here?” 

Mom, in turn, actually smiled very faintly. It was brief, given the overriding anger at the situation, but genuine. “I have had some experience in assessing secure areas quickly, needing to move past a building without attracting attention. When you hang around too much, the wrong people can notice. Then things get complicated.” She reached out, laying a hand on the girl’s shoulder and squeezing it. “I know your grandmother as well as I know anybody, Rebecca. Believe me, you’ll be fine. You’ll develop the skills and power to do the same, probably even better than I can. Especially if you listen to her. She knows what she’s doing.”

Rebecca seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention. And also like she wanted to ask my mother something but wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. But before she could say anything, we were distracted by the sound of other people approaching from across the lot. My item sense hadn’t picked them up yet, but we heard several distinct sets of footsteps. And metallic ones. Which confused me, until we turned to see three figures approaching. There was Twister, looking basically the same as when I’d first met her though a year older. But beside her was Sean, looking far different from when I had first met him. One year after meeting him at age seventeen and thanks to that fucking prison, he looked like he was in his mid-twenties. 

Yeah, I really wanted to punt his fucking parents into the sun, to say the least. What the fuck had they been thinking, keeping him in what amounted to solitary confinement for years? The sheer fact that he was as together as he was (and I knew he had issues still) was a testament to Apollo helping to keep him together through all that. That whole situation still pissed me off more than I could even hope to express, even after all this time. So I could barely think of how angry Sean himself, or his brother, or even Roxa (an actual werewolf) were. 

At the moment, Roxa wasn’t here. But Vulcan was, trotting alongside his master. When he saw us, the cyberform dog gave a bark of excitement, waiting for Sean to give the go-ahead before he came dashing over to get all the praise and attention the rest of us heaped on him. Especially Tabbris and December, who were delighted to play with the metal dog. Sort of like when they played with Cerberus, really. Even if Vulcan only had the one head. 

Well, sort of only had one head. It was a little more complicated than that. As illustrated when, in the midst of that, the sleek metal backpack-looking thing on the cyberform detached and hovered up into the air, a pair of wings extending from it, while a slot in the front opened up to reveal a camera lens. 

“Hey VJ,” I greeted Vulcan Junior as the drone hovered right in front of my face, clearly wanting attention as well. “Long time no see. I hope you’re keeping these guys safe, buddy.” 

“Oh, he is,” Sean assured me. “Especially since we had his forcefield upgraded.” With that, he stepped over and gave me a firm embrace, his voice a quiet mutter. “Heard you were having some trouble we could help with.” 

Twister, after exchanging fist bumps with my mother (still an odd sight to see) spoke up. “Yeah, I was about to show Seanny there how to have some real fun for his last night of freedom.” 

“Last night of freedom?” I asked, blinking between them. Behind me, the others echoed that confusion. So clearly this wasn’t just something I had missed by myself. 

Koren was already giving a quick nod, her gaze on him. “What’s she talking about? Why wouldn’t you be free after tonight? And where’s Roxa?” 

Sean, in turn, coughed and looked slightly embarrassed. “First, Roxa’s dealing with some sort of situation with the pack. Don’t worry, they don’t need help. It’s an internal thing. Uncle Mateo said it’s something they have to deal with. One of their vices got a bit out of control.” 

“Vices?” I asked, frowning a little. 

“The werecreature weakness,” Asenath put in. “Beyond the silver thing. You know the whole full moon thing?” 

“You mean where they go into a blind rage?” Rebecca asked. 

Asenath gestured that way. “Sort of, but that’s just one possibility. See, every were has their own aspect of the seven vices. Wrath or rage, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, greed, and pride. Once a month, whichever one of those affects them becomes… basically overwhelming.” 

Sean nodded to that. “It only lasts for a couple days, but they kind of… yeah, lose themselves to it. Rage is just the most commonly known one. You could have a were that was afflicted by greed suddenly start breaking into jewelry stores and stealing everything shiny. ” 

“How did I not know about this before?” I managed with a squint. “I mean, I know werewolves.” 

“It’s a personal thing,” he informed me flatly. “The one you know the most is Roxa and–let’s just say she’d rather not talk about it.” Clearly changing the subject deliberately, he added, “Anyway, never mind what Twister said. I’ll still be free, she’s just being dramatic. It’s not like I suddenly have to sit in a single house for years with nobody but myself for company.” He paused for a beat, saw our expressions, then muttered, “Jeez, tough crowd.”

With that, he ran a hand back through his hair and let out a long breath. “Honestly, it’s no big deal. You don’t think Larees threw all her freedom away by joining up, do you?” 

Well that caught my attention, distracting me from thinking about the were thing. “What? Why would–what does Larees have to–” Then I realized, eyes widening. “Gehenna? Sean, what–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yeah. What can I say, one of their people came to have a talk a couple weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about it, we had some discussions, and I agreed yesterday. After talking it through with Roxa, obviously. I don’t have to go anywhere, I’ll be assigned right here on Earth. And if I do go on any off-world assignments, she gets to come with me.” There was a bark from nearby, where December and Tabbris were still crouched by Vulcan, and Sean gave a slight smirk. “And so does he.” 

“But–but Sean, you were… you were locked up for…” I trailed off, head shaking as I tried to find words. 

“Why would you want to join up with a group devoted to imprisoning people after you were imprisoned for so long?” Koren flatly asked. 

Because I was locked up for so long,” came the response. “I know what it’s like. I feel like I can–you know, help. I know what the people in there are going through. I can… you know, work within the system. Besides, we know they lock some really bad people up. I want to be a part of keeping them there.” 

Mom’s voice was soft. “You’ve truly thought it through?” When he nodded, she offered him a slight smile. “Good luck.” 

“Yeah, good luck. But don’t suddenly become a stranger,” I put in. 

“Hey,” he retorted with a broad grin and wink, “we fight the Strangers, remember?” 

“Quite,” Mom agreed. “And speaking of that…” She turned in the direction of the hotel, eyes narrowed. “Let’s discuss how we’re going to drag this Stranger out and get some answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As soon as they heard that something was wrong, the others wanted to come with. So, I explained what little I knew as we made our way out of the food court and found a quiet, out-of-the-way area in a corner of the underground parking garage so we could use our transport coins to get back to the station. Not that we actually needed to hide from the crowds, given the Bystander Effect. But transporting like that left energy behind that could theoretically be used to track where we went. Just to avoid anyone… bad passing close to that spot soon and being able to do anything with the energy remnants, we didn’t want to do it in a big public area. Not that we were transporting directly anyway. The spell took us to three different destinations first before depositing us on the station. But still, better safe than sorry. 

In any case, I told them what I knew while we were walking, about Denise in general and what had happened. At least as much as my mother had been able to tell me in a couple sentences. Apparently, the girl had been gone for several weeks, at least. It was hard to be specific, because her parents never actually noticed she was missing. Yeah, that sounded bad, but apparently they believed she was staying with her aunt. Mom’s friend, who went to check up on the girl, actually followed through and went to the aunt’s rather than just assuming it was fine, only to find out that she had no idea where the girl was either. Both Denise’s parents and aunt thought she was with the other. No one actually knew where she was. The girl had completely disappeared.

By the time we emerged from the last of the rapid series of transports into the receiving room on the Star Station, Rebecca was shaking her head. “But who would kidnap her? I mean, do you think it’s related to all that… Fossor stuff?” She said the man’s name in a whisper while twisting her face in disgust at even having to speak it aloud. It looked like bringing him up made her physically ill. Which was a reaction I could definitely sympathize with. 

“It’s too much of a coincidence otherwise,” Koren pointed out while we stepped down from the small platform. “Even if it’s not his people directly, it’s probably connected to him in some way. Why else would she disappear like that?” 

“That’s right.” Mom’s voice was crisp as she marched toward us from the entrance. I could hear the barely constrained emotion and guilt almost like a physical slap. “Someone out there drew a connection between her and Fossor, and now they took her. No.” She stopped, hands tightening. “They could’ve taken her as far back as three weeks ago. Anything could’ve happened to her, any–” 

“Mom.” I quickly moved that way, catching her hands. “You had no reason to think she was in any danger. She’s just a normal kid, and both Fossor and Ammon are gone. They’re gone. Nobody had any reason to think anyone would be after her. And you still sent someone to check on her. It’s– there’s nothing else you really could’ve done, not with what we knew.” 

From the look on her face, I was pretty sure that wasn’t helping. I felt my insides twist almost painfully. This was Mom’s win over what Fossor had done to her son. She couldn’t bring back any of Ammon’s other victims, she couldn’t bring back Ammon himself. She couldn’t fix what Fossor had done to him, couldn’t save her little boy. But the one thing she had been able to do was make sure that he stayed dead and couldn’t be used to do any more evil, while giving one of his victims her life back. That was the only thing she had been able to actually do for the little boy she loved. And now someone had attacked that. Someone took Denise, to do… who knew what. No wonder Mom seemed like she was right on the edge of falling apart. This wasn’t just about Denise, awful as that was. It was about Fossor, Ammon, and all the rest of that horror. This was the one thing from that time, from what had been done to her son, that she had been able to fix. 

Tabbris and December had jogged up to join us by then, and while the latter stayed back a few steps, Tabbris herself came forward and caught my mother’s arm with both hands. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “We can still find her, right? We can still figure out where she is and get her back.” Left unspoken, of course, was the fact that we would only be able to find her if she was still alive. To say nothing of the fear about what had been done to her in all that time. 

Koren spoke quickly. “Yeah, we can find her. I mean, it probably won’t be easy, but… at least we can find out how she’s doing. You know, make sure she’s still…” She trailed off, clearly not wanting to say the worst option aloud, even though we were all thinking it. 

Visibly shoving that thought down, Koren continued. “The kid had to leave DNA at her house. You know, on her toothbrush or comb or whatever. All we have to do is find some of that. There’s a spell we can use to see how she’s doing. I mean, umm, physically. It should still be connected to her enough for that.”

“Can you track her with it?” Rebecca quickly asked. “I mean, if you can use her DNA to check what sort of… umm, shape she’s in, can you use it to find out where she is?” 

“It’snotreallythateasy,” December abruptly put in. “Ifshe’snotreallyclose… towhereyou’reusingthespell….itwon’tfindheratall… oryou’dhavetouse… somuchpowertomakeit….reachasfarasitneedsto… you’ddrainalltheenergyinthiswholeplace.”

Mom gave a short nod. “December’s right. That sort of spell works at relatively close range. Even the strongest ones I’ve seen are limited to the general vicinity of a city. And we don’t have the extra power to spare for a big thing like that. Every bit of extra energy anyone’s had for the past few weeks has gone to boosting Liesje’s spell.” Her gaze hardened a bit then. “But there are other ways to find her, and we’re going to. First, we go to her house and get that DNA. I already have a few others checking the aunt’s house, just in case there’s anything there. We don’t know when exactly she disappeared. She might’ve been there for awhile after all. We just–we don’t have any time to waste. Not when she could’ve been missing for three weeks already.” 

“What about Wyatt, and Deveron?” I spoke up. “Or Sariel, they could all–” 

“No.” Her head shook, clearly regretting the answer she had to give. “They’re working on the spell. We can’t interrupt them. It’s too important and they’ve been working too hard. That sort of magic, it’s… so specific, about every little detail. Including when you cast it, and everything about the day itself. Throwing that off, even a little bit, would mean weeks more work.” Even as she said that, I could tell that it was taking everything mom had not to insist anyway. She was desperate to find Denise. But we all knew how important getting the anti-possession spell running was. Denise was important too, of course. Yet there were a lot of people who could be saved with this spell. It was so hard to even think that way. It made me feel like a monster. But we couldn’t interrupt the work on that spell. Not when they were so close after spending such a long time on it. Denise was important, but so were all the people who would be saved or protected by the anti-possession magic. If it was interrupted now, there was no telling how long it would take to reset everything. As horrible as it felt, we had to figure out what happened to the kid without pulling in the whole cavalry. 

“We’ll find her,” I announced, forcing my voice to sound confident. “We’ll do it ourselves.

“So let’s stop wasting time and get down there.” 

*******

Both of Denise’s parents were at work. Because, of course, they had no idea there was anything wrong with their daughter. And we weren’t going to tell them, at least not yet. With a lot of luck, maybe we could find the girl before that was necessary. It wasn’t as though they could actually contribute in any way to find her. Hell, they wouldn’t even be able to retain the information about what was really going on if we did try to explain the situation. 

In any case, it wasn’t exactly hard to get into the house. Mom disabled the alarm and we spread out to look around. We weren’t just looking for her DNA. We also wanted to see if there were any hints about where she might have gone or what happened. There were a few spells we could use to see if any Alters had been around the house within the past couple months, as well as a few other things. If there was anything to find in this place, we were going to find it. 

At the moment, I was down on my side, peering under Denise’s bed to see if she had left anything important there. Mom was in the hallway behind me, working on those Alter-detecting enchantments. A bit further away in one of the other rooms, I could hear one of the others playing messages off the telephone on the very slim chance that might tell us anything. 

Unfortunately, there was nothing under the bed aside from some old shoes and stuffed animals. I pushed myself out and turned just as my mother stepped into the room. She was holding a black coin the size of a half-dollar. As soon as she stepped inside, the coin flickered, glowing red very briefly, then blue, then it went back to dull black. A moment later, it flickered again before going out. Wherever she moved it while moving slowly around the room, the coin flickered for a brief second or two, went out again, then flickered once more, repeating that.  

“Uhh…” I stared that way, frowning as the thing continued to glow, then not glow, then glow again. “I thought it was supposed to glow if there was any sign of an Alter being around here. What does it mean if it flickers like that? Is it just detecting a tiny hint or something?” 

Mom shook her head, frowning as well as she held the thing out between us. “No. If it detects anything at all, it’s supposed to glow. Red is if it’s detecting only the faintest trace, blue is a little stronger. If it was green, there would’ve been an Alter here within the past few days. Flickering like this… maybe something’s blocking it. Check for any spells that might’ve been left behind.” 

So, we started to do that as well. I checked in the usual places, along the baseboard, behind furniture, in the closet, and so on. I used that time to keep looking for any clues about what happened to the girl as well, also to no avail. 

At least, to no avail until I pushed the clothes and toys out of the way to check the back wall for any runes. I didn’t exactly find a spell, but I definitely found something interesting. As my eyes scanned over what I’d found there, I felt a chill run through me. “Mom!” I called. “Look at this.” 

She came quickly, and I stepped aside a bit to show her. There were words carved into almost the entire surface of the rear wall of the closet. Two words repeated over and over again, often carved on top of each other. Him Me Him Me Him Me Him Me. It went on and on like that, the words carved with some sort of knife. It was incredibly creepy to stare at. Worse, and more tellingly just in case we hadn’t gotten the point yet, there were much larger letters carved on top of those ones. Three letters, A-M-M. Then those were crossed out with what had clearly been a quick series of sharp jagged cuts. AMM. Ammon. She started to carve Ammon into the wall. Him, Me, Him, Me, Him, Me, then the start of the name Ammon? This… this was bad. 

Also, as soon as Mom stepped up to the closet, the Alter-detection coin began to glow once more. It was still flickering, but more slowly. It stayed lit up longer between flashes of darkness.  Either whatever was partially blocking it was weaker here, or the detection itself was just stronger in this spot, or… or… I had no idea. Mom said, it wasn’t supposed to work like that. If it was detecting anything, it should just light up, period. This whole flickering thing was… weird. Between that and the words carved in the wall, a cold shiver ran down my spine once more. 

“She remembers,” Mom murmured, sounding stricken as she reached out to touch the carved letters. “That should be impossible. She shouldn’t remember anything.” Her voice shook a little from the implication that this little girl actually even partially remembered what had happened to her. 

The two of us stood there, staring at the words carved into the wall for several long seconds. Then we were interrupted when Rebecca stepped into the room behind us. She was holding what looked like an appointment book in one hand and a tablet computer in the other. “Hey, umm, I don’t know if this means anything, but it turns out this girl’s mom was trying to get her to see a therapist. I mean, she got her to see one, but the girl wouldn’t go back to her again. So she was trying to get her to go to another one. Something about nightmares she was having.” 

“That’s not all.” Koren had joined her in the doorway, holding up two thick books I couldn’t see the titles of. “These were in the garage, hidden in a box full of balls and outside toys. Looks like they were checked out of the library a few weeks ago, in her name. They’re all about umm… mind control. Pretty heavy stuff. Looks like the kid had a lot she wanted to go back over again.” She showed us where a lot of the pages had strips of cloth, string, or other bookmarks, as if the reader had simply shoved whatever was in their pocket to mark the spot. 

Yeah, this had moved further and further into unsettling and creepy. Denise, as far as she or anyone else around her should have known, was like eleven years old. Even if we hadn’t seen the partial name and those words carved into the wall, one thing still would have been clear. The only reason she could possibly have for being obsessed with reading about mind control from adult books was if she actually remembered Ammon using it on her. 

Mom’s gaze moved from the books back to the words carved into the wall of the closet. “This is all wrong. It can’t… she can’t remember this… why would she remember anything?” 

“What’s going on?” That was Tabbris, as she and December arrived. “What happened?” 

We went through it all, the books, the therapist appointments, the words carved into the wall, everything. With all that put together, it sure sounded like the girl was sort of remembering at least part of what happened to her. Which had to be unbelievably traumatizing. I couldn’t imagine being a little kid and experiencing those sort of nightmares. 

“But what about the thing with the Alter detector?” Koren brought up. “Could that maybe be from someone like… projecting memories or thoughts or whatever into her head from a distance? I mean, if they aren’t fully physically present, maybe that could screw up the detection?” 

Mom seemed to consider that for a moment, looking at the coin in question as it continued to flicker. “Perhaps,” she murmured thoughtfully, before her gaze darkened. “But when we find whoever was responsible for that, whoever… took…” She trailed off, clearly taking everything she had to control her reaction. I was pretty sure she was even more upset than I was, and that was saying something, because I felt like putting my fist through the nearby wall a few times. 

Denise was fine! Why would she–why was she–who could possibly have…

“I need to call Asenath,” I murmured. “She thought this was over too. I mean, she got into this whole thing by trying to find out what happened to Denise the first time. I have to tell her. She can help.” 

“It’ll be dark in half an hour,” my mother informed me while glancing toward the nearby window. “Let her sleep until then. Maybe we can find something else, something better than bad news.” 

“I got this,” Rebecca announced, holding up a hand with a pink and purple hairbrush. “Pretty sure it’s hers. Can you do the spell with that?” 

Mom confirmed that she could and then took the brush down to the kitchen table to get started on that. Meanwhile, the rest of us kept looking around in the vain hope of finding something else useful. I was almost afraid to look in more closets or behind more dressers, just in case there were more creepy carvings. It was horrible to think about what had to be going through that girl’s mind to wonder if Ammon was still controlling her, to the point that she was carving those words into the wood. But I did anyway. We had to know just how bad of shape she was in. Though, to be fair, maybe the fact we were to the point of checking for how many bits of wall in her house she had carved rambling, repeating words into with a knife, sort of answered the question. 

Fortunately, or unfortunately given it might have helped, we didn’t find any more carvings. Nor did we find anything that could have told us where the kid went or who took her. It would take longer for Mom to work her way through the spell, given how thorough she was being. So, when we were done with the search, I took the time to call Asenath. 

That… was not a fun conversation. As soon as I told her what had happened, at least as much as we knew, the other girl went quiet for a few seconds. I could almost picture her face, staring at open air as she fought to contain herself. I knew exactly what she was feel–no, I didn’t. Close, but I did not know exactly what she was feeling. She had been hired to find out the truth about Denise’s murder, and that was what led to her meeting me and everything else that happened since then. She’d thought she had closure on the whole thing when Ammon died, and then closure of a better sort when Mom told her about Denise being brought back. Now this had happened and that closure was ripped away. 

“Who?” Her voice was a cold demand, brittle from anger that she was barely restraining. “Who took her?” 

“We don’t know,” I admitted. “Not yet. But we’re tracking her down. Mom’s working on a spell to… you know, check on her umm, physical state. It should tell us how healthy she is, whether she’s been drugged or enchanted, that sort of thing. Might even point us in her direction if she’s close enough and they haven’t blocked that.” Not that I had much faith in whoever had taken Denise being dumb enough for that. But hey, we had to try everything. Besides, that was even considering someone had physically taken her. Considering what we’d been finding around this house,  I had this nagging thought in the back of my head that all these nightmares she was clearly having could have driven her to run away. Or maybe…

“Wait,” I said aloud. “If she was having dreams about… about what happened, do you think she might’ve actually seen where it happened? I mean, the… the gas station. What if she went there to–I don’t know, to try to get some answers? It’s nearby, right?”

Both Koren and Asenath immediately confirmed that it was only a few blocks away from the house. So, I checked in with Mom, made sure she was gonna be okay there by herself working on that spell, and told her what we were going to do. It would still be hours before the girl’s parents got home, so we were good on that front. 

“Okay, Senny,” I announced while heading for the door with the others right behind me. “We’ll meet you at that gas station. 

“Let’s hope there’s someone or something there that can give us some clue of what the hell is going on.” 

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The Runaway 15-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Believe it or not, that single day was a pretty good example of how the next three weeks went. Yeah, three whole weeks with barely any real excitement outside of training and various planned scenarios. Just about the most dangerous thing that happened was when a few people threw a surprise party for Vanessa and Tristan (their birthday had been the 29th) and didn’t happen to inform Theia of what was going on. She was with them when the surprise was sprung and, well… yeah, they needed to get a new cake. But at least they didn’t have to get a new Jazz, and it was a pretty close call on that point. Luckily, she had good reflexes. 

So yeah, everyone made a mental note not to startle Theia. Which honestly probably should’ve been underlined and bolded in all of our mental notebooks anyway, long before that. But all was well that ended well, and that day ended well indeed. 

All the days did, actually. Three weeks, and I didn’t have any truly horrifying moments, no life and death decisions, no abductions, no crying in terror. I just… lived. I spent time with my girls, my friends, my family (including my mother), and the people who were just my classmates. 

And Persephone. I spent some time with her too, throughout those days. She didn’t demand anything, of course. I had a feeling she was one of the most patient people I would ever meet. Which made sense, given her age and everything. Still, I made a point of spending time with her now and then. Sometimes it was all in a group setting, other times I sat alone and just talked, shared things about myself and asked about her in return. She had a lot of interesting stories. Not to mention incredibly amusing ones, terrifying ones, just… a lot of stories worth hearing. 

I spent all that time with the woman, listened to her, talked with her about myself, showed her the things I was interested in, introduced her to a lot of human concepts, and basically just opened up to her a fair bit. And over those weeks, I grew to like her. Well, I’d already liked her before, just from how helpful she had been, not to mention the stuff we’d learned about where she came from. But now, after hanging out with her off and on over those intervening weeks, I definitely liked her as a person. She was cool. She was fun, exciting, different…

And I absolutely, positively, did not like her the way I liked–loved Avalon and Shiori. 

Yeah, it wasn’t happening. Not like that. Again, I liked her. But it was more the way I liked Sands and Sarah, or Columbus, or Sean. I wanted to protect her, help her, even make her happy. I cared about what happened to her. But I didn’t feel anything like that for her. Three weeks of spending time together, and the more I knew her the more clear it was that I just… wasn’t going to have those feelings. There was literally no sense of romance, at least as far as I was concerned. I was afraid to ask how she was feeling, especially before I would know for certain that she understood how she was feeling. 

That was my plan as far as that went. I wanted to help Persephone figure out on her own that she would be happier with someone other than me, with someone she actually enjoyed because of who they were rather than what power they had. I wasn’t sure how that would go, but yeah. My fingers were crossed. And I was thinking about adding toes, just in case. 

Now it was Friday, December 21st. Four days until Christmas. We’d already had Hanukkah from December 2nd to the 10th, and Kwanzaa would start on the 26th. Plus there were a few other holidays mixed in there I didn’t even know much about. Apparently December was a big time for that sort of thing no matter where you came from. Or maybe holidays on other worlds tended to migrate to December because that was the general holiday time. 

The fact that it was four days before Christmas was what had led to my current life or death quest: shopping for presents. On Earth.

“Can we please, please shoot out the speakers so those fucking Christmas songs shut up?” Koren pleaded with me while walking backwards through the mall so she could stare my way. “I promise there won’t be any collateral damage. Just the music. I will buy every single one of the presents you’re getting for everyone if you let me destroy every speaker in this mall so they can never torture anyone again. We’re supposed to stop monsters, right? What are the people who play this goddamn music on a constant loop if not monsters? My logic is impeccable and you should be nodding right now.” 

Walking beside me, Rebecca noted, “I don’t think shooting out the speakers and destroying the mall’s ability to make music really fits with the whole… blending in and not attracting attention thing. I’m just saying, people might notice something like that.” 

“Ilikethesongs,” December cheerfully announced while doing a little spin as she and Tabbris walked ahead of us. “Andthedecorationsandeverythingelse. Everyone’sreallyhappyabout…itbeingDecemberand…it’sliketheylikeme.” 

“They’re all December holidays!” Tabbris giggled, nudging the other girl. “Out on the lawn there arose such a clatter. December was here, now just let me at her. Away to the window I flew with a flash.”

December was grinning broadly as she put in, “ButDecemberwasmovingand… wemetwithacrash!” 

With that, the two of them jumped into each other, stumbling backward while laughing so hard they almost fell over. Quickly, they began to make up more lyrics amongst themselves.

“Well, at least they’re having fun.” Shaking my head, I looked at Koren (who was still walking backward, expertly avoiding everything that might have been in her way without looking). “Sorry, but Rebecca’s right. I really don’t want to give your mom any reason to hold off on sending me down here again. Not with my visits coming up.” 

“When’s the first one?” Rebecca asked. “And how many?” 

“Tomorrow night,” I replied, “and ahhh, about fifteen in the first batch. They’re all pretty close together. They’re from a umm, neighborhood that Fossor went through about ten years ago.” 

Tomorrow night would be when I officially started releasing some of these ghosts. It could’ve been earlier, but I’d discussed it with all of them and they decided to go closer to Christmas. There was a larger chance of their families being around. For those who weren’t stopped by the Bystander Effect, they could actually say goodbye in person. For those who were, the ghosts could at least see them one last time. It wasn’t much, especially after everything they had been through. But it was something that I could do for them. And I definitely didn’t want to screw that up by giving Abigail any reason to see sending me to Earth as a bad idea. Not that I honestly thought she’d put a stop to the plan or anything, but still. Better safe than sorry. Besides, I didn’t want to be hit with one of her disappointed looks. 

“He killed fifteen people in one neighborhood that he just happened to pass through?” Rebecca’s voice shook a little bit as she stared at me, the small girl adding, “Where was it?” 

“He killed a lot more than that in that neighborhood,” I replied in a tight voice. Thinking about it only made me more upset. “Fifteen were all that he bothered to reanimate and use. It’s a place in Cary, North Carolina. He was looking for something that was buried around that area, and there was this neighborhood watch group that sort of… vaguely annoyed him by showing up with flashlights when he was trying to di–sorry, when he was trying to have some zombies dig for him. It started a whole commotion and he ended up killing a bunch of them and putting those fifteen to work as ghosts to keep everyone else away for the entire week he needed to find the thing he was looking for. He turned that whole neighborhood into a horror movie, made the dead people haunt their loved ones to torture all of them to give himself privacy, and for fun.” My voice was a little hollow as I explained that. I could still remember how disgusted and angry I felt when the ghosts in question had told me their story. What made it worse, of course, was the knowledge that theirs was hardly unique. All these ghosts that I was now connected to, all the spirits I had inherited from Fossor, had deeply traumatic, horrifying stories of their own. All of them thanks to that piece of shit. The only bad thing about him being dead was that we couldn’t kill him again. 

Sounding like she was having very similar thoughts, Rebecca asked, “What was he looking for out there that was so important?” 

A heavy sigh escaped me, as I watched Tabbris and December chattering happily back and forth in front of a store window ahead of us. “Who knows? The thing they helped him dig up was some little wooden chest, about a foot wide and maybe a little under a foot tall? They don’t know what he did with it, or if he even used whatever was inside. Maybe it’s sitting somewhere waiting for him. Maybe he never did anything with it at all. Maybe he already used it. Maybe…” My head shook. “A lot of maybes. The point is, he killed them and the people in that neighborhood never got any sort of closure about what happened. We can’t really give them that, not really. But we can… sort of try. We can give his victims something.” It wouldn’t be enough. It would never be enough. But it could be something. 

Pushing those thoughts away, I made myself shrug while trying to sound casual. Not that it worked that well. “But hey, he’s gone forever now, and that’s what actually matters. That and cleaning up after all the trauma he left behind. And I get to take another step on that long journey tomorrow night. It was going to be Sunday instead of Saturday, but, well, you know.” 

They both nodded. They did know. Sunday night, December 23rd, would be when the anti-possession spell went into effect. Everything was prepared, and everyone had spent the past few weeks donating power to the spell. It had taken all that time, the months since we actually saved it from the vault, for the real experts to finish the adjustments for the spell and add in all the particular details that we were looking for. They had finally come back with every (excruciatingly precise) measurement and all the special materials that have been required. Then all they needed was raw power, and they received a lot of it from everyone living on the station, and a lot more beyond that. The spell itself had been drawn within one of the rooms on the station, and that was an absolutely incredibly protected place. Even I couldn’t get in there. Almost no one who wasn’t very high up or part of the actual spell team was allowed inside. But from what Avalon (who was allowed in because it was literally her ancestor’s spell) had said, the whole place was like one of those elaborate clean rooms, complete with an airlock entrance and special suits you had to wear to avoid messing anything up by breathing on it wrong or carrying in something that might disturb it. And even the suits weren’t enough. You also stood in the airlock area and let several different scanners run over you to make sure nothing bad went in with you. Beyond that, they had these special force fields covering the floor, walls, and ceiling where the runes were drawn, and more shields surrounding the artifacts that had been added into it. Everything was precisely laid out down to the millimeter. Every tiny, microscopic adjustment had to be agreed on by all the people working on the spell, and they used these special, incredibly precise instruments to make those adjustments. 

So yeah, it was a big deal. They’d been working on it for so long, no one wanted them to have to start over. So there were always guards stationed by the room, and enough spells around the place to ensure no one could get inside without alerting people. In that room was the result of centuries of searching, months of careful preparation and research, millions of dollars-worth of ancient artifacts, and the combined magical energies from what had to be thousands of people. 

It was a big deal, and rightfully so given everything it would accomplish. So now that the spell was finally going to be put into place, we were going to have a party. A real party, across not only the station, but down in the Atherby camp and in Wonderland. Yeah, it was a big thing. That was why I couldn’t do the ghost thing Sunday night. I was going to be rather busy. 

Smiling a bit to myself at the thought, I focused on Koren. “You gonna get something good for your mom?” 

She, in turn, made a face at me. “Don’t think you can weasel your way into finding out what I’m getting her just because you can’t think of anything. In fact, why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking of so I know you haven’t already copied me?”

The two of us stared at one another for a few long seconds before I raised an eyebrow. “You got nothing, huh?” 

Deflating, the other girl lamented, “I got nothing. And I really thought it’d be easier to shop for Mom by now! Especially with everything going on, all her new responsibilities, the–all of it! But I still don’t know what to get her. I’m not going with a gift card again. That seems extra lame now.”  

Yeah, she was probably overthinking it. But then again, I had no room to talk on that front, considering how much I was overthinking what I was going to get for my own mother. Seriously, what Christmas present could I possibly give her that would come anywhere near saying how I felt about the fact that she was finally home with us? Suddenly, I understood why Wyatt had felt the need to give multiple years-worth of missed presents. The whole concept was really overwhelming. 

With that in mind, I swallowed hard before quietly telling Koren that we would help each other find a good present. Hopefully, something good enough to even register on the scale of what I owed my mother would be sitting in one of these stores. Though somehow I doubted Hot Topic or the Gap had anything that could give her a decade of her life back, and take away all the bad shit  that had happened to her. 

Rebecca shook her head while shifting the backpack on her shoulders. “You guys are overthinking this whole thing. It’s not about giving them some amazing, perfect present. It’s about the fact that they get to be there so you can give it to them in the first place. Well, that and putting thought into it. Come on, what they want are gifts that show you were thinking about them. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be from you. And something that means they were on your minds, that they matter to you.”  

Thinking about that for a moment, I offered the girl a small smile. “You’re pretty smart about this stuff.”

She, in turn, blushed and ran a hand over her face. “Yeah, well, that was mostly Grandma talking. She figured you guys would be acting crazy about this whole thing and wanted to give some advice.”

She visibly blanched then, and I knew why. Both of her parents were still with the loyalists. They weren’t listening to her or to Lillian. And they had made it very clear that they wanted Rebecca back with them.

That was what this whole conflict was doing to a lot of people. My family may have been brought back together, but a lot of them were being torn apart. It was a fact that had been made even more apparent over these holidays. 

Even as I was trying to find the right words to say to the girl, she physically shook it off before asking, “Anyway, are we ready to get to the actual shopping part? I mean, I kind of need to buy something super-good for Grandma to pay her back for that advice about how you don’t have to get super-nice presents to show you love people.”

Koren and I exchanged looks briefly before I snorted. “Yeah, sure. Let’s get going then. Besides, if we take much longer to move on, December and Tabbris might physically drag us after them.” 

As if agreeing with that, Tabbris called, “We have to find something good for Grandma and Grandpa! They’ll be here any day!” 

Yeah, she was pretty excited to meet our grandparents officially and physically. We’d talked a bit more to them over the past few weeks, but Tabbris couldn’t wait to actually see them in person in her own body and all. She was incredibly nervous about it, even though they had made it clear that they were excited to meet her as well. It was a whole thing. I was pretty sure she wasn’t exactly afraid they would reject her. Not anymore. But still, she wanted to make a good first official impression, and had been sort-of agonizing over that for awhile now. 

“You know you can call them Popser and Grandmaria, Tabs,” I reminded her. 

She, in turn, squirmed a bit on her feet, with December bouncing behind her. “I know, it’s just… I don’t wanna take your thing.” 

My head shook, as I walked up that way and put both hands on her shoulders. “They’re your grandparents too. He’s your Popser and she’s your Grandmaria, just like they’re mine.” After briefly embracing her, I straightened. “Now come on. Let’s go find the perfect presents for everyone.” 

So, we walked onward. For the next couple hours, the five of us strolled through the mall and shopped. I picked up things for the others, including my girls, and we eventually stopped at the food court for something to eat. I sat there, watching people around us go about their own holiday shopping. It felt so surreal, seeing all those people with completely ordinary lives. Not that their lives weren’t important. They were. The point was just… they had no idea what was really going on in the world. The Fomorians, the Seosten, the monster under the ocean, things like Kwur and the other Gehenna prisoners, and so on. 

Would I prefer to be like that? Would I like it better if I could live an ordinary life with my family? Just to be completely fair, assume I could keep everyone I loved and cared about with me. My family and my friends. If I could keep them, would I want to go back to a normal life, one without all the pressure and responsibility? Would I prefer to live a completely free life, with an ordinary job as a reporter/writer, and not have to deal with any of that? 

No. No, I wouldn’t. I had a chance to ride multiple spaceships. I’d been to other worlds. I had incredible powers. I knew magic. I’d met amazing people, other beings who weren’t anything close to being human. There was a lot of pressure, sure. There was so much danger. But there was so much more than that. I’d been able to be part of so many incredible, amazing things in just the past year-and-a-half. I couldn’t imagine ever giving that up. Not for anything.

Tabbris chose that moment to poke me in the chin with a pretzel. “Whatcha got serious face for? What’s wrong?”  

Smirking a bit despite myself, I poked her with my own pretzel before dipping it in cheese to take a bite. Then I smiled at her and the others as they stared at me as well. “Nothing, really. Everything’s pretty good right–” 

I was interrupted by the buzzing of the phone in my pocket. Opening and shutting my mouth a couple times, I exhaled before pulling it out. “If this is something bad, you can all hit me.” Checking the phone, I saw that the call was from my mother. So, I clicked the button to connect and answered with, “Please don’t make me look like I just jinxed everything.” 

“Felicity,” Mom started immediately. “I need you to… I need you to come back and go with me.” 

Oh boy. Hearing the tone in her voice, I immediately pushed myself up. “We’re coming back. What’s wrong? What happened? Is Dad–” 

“Dad’s fine, we’re all fine,” she assured me. “I need you to come with me, we have to find her.” 

“Find who?” I shook my head, confused. The others had all risen around me, as we started moving together. 

“It’s Denise, Felicity,” Mom informed me. “She… she’s gone. 

“She disappeared and no one knows where she is.” 

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