Koren Fellows

Interlude 5C – Tabbris, Virginia, and Joselyn (Heretical Edge 2)

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The beam of a flashlight swept across the beach of the ocean located deep within the star-station housing the Fusion School. It flickered across a few small waves lapping gently against the shore before eventually coming to a stop as the beam illuminated a small figure out in the water. The figure was blonde, laying on something that floated just under the lake’s surface. 

As the light found her, Tabbris murmured something to Princess Cuddles, the Great White shark she was laying on, and sat up to look that way. Her eyes looked bloodshot within the glare from the flashlight, stained with tears that didn’t have time to fade before more joined them. She was soaked through to the bone, her entire body drenched from drifting in the man-made ocean.  

Lincoln Chambers stepped into the water, walking out until it was up a little past his waist. Without saying anything, the man extended a hand that way. Without any particular order being given, Princess Cuddles (and the other sharks, who had been drifting around) came close enough for Tabbris to be within arms reach. But for a moment, the small Seosten girl simply sat there, trembling and shivering as she stared at the man. Her mouth opened to say something, but all that came out was a helpless whimper, words utterly failing her. 

So, Lincoln took the last two steps that way. Reaching out with one arm, he scooped the girl off the shark and brought her up to his chest before turning on his heel to walk up out of the water. He brought the arm with the flashlight in to keep her tight against him, until they were finally on the beach. There, he dropped to his knees while setting the girl down, letting the flashlight fall to the side so that it illuminated both of them as well as part of the water. 

Through those first few long seconds, Tabbris stood in front of him, her head down and shoulders hunched. Her hands were clenched together, one squeezing the other so tightly she was hurting her own knuckles. Her eyes were squeezed almost all the way shut, staring through the blurry slits that remained at the ground, too ashamed to even look at the man. Her shivering was a mix of being cold from the water that she had spent far too long in, and her clear and evident terror about the reaction of the man who knelt right in front of her. 

Lincoln, for that moment, just watched her. His face betrayed a rush of emotions before he reached up with one hand. It found the side of the young girl’s face, tilting her head up a bit to look at him. She did so reluctantly, bloodshot eyes barely able to focus on the man. The shame, already well-written across her entire face and through her body, came through clearly in her broken voice. “I… I’m… sorry, Mr… Chambers,” she barely managed, almost inaudibly. “I’m…. I’m… s….” The last word wouldn’t come out again, the girl unable to force it out past the thick knot in her throat. 

“Tabbris,” Lincoln began in a quiet, but firm voice. His hand cupped the side of her face, fingers brushing through her hair. As his thumb gently slid down the girl’s cheek to take up the tears there, the man reminded her, “Not Mr. Chambers. Not to you. You know what I am. You know who you are to me.” 

That overwhelming shame told Tabbris to flinch away from the hand on her face. She didn’t deserve it. Didn’t deserve that kind of comfort at all, let alone from… from Flick’s… Yet despite her shame, she leaned into it desperately, disgust at her own weakness twisting her expression as well as her stomach. “But… but… F-Flick… “ Her voice cracked. “I didn’t–I let her–I w-wasn’t…” 

In answer, Lincoln reached in. His arms wrapped around the girl and he lifted her from the ground while standing up. He felt her legs wrap around him as well as her arms, while he held her tightly. “Listen to me, Tabbris. We are getting her back. You hear me? And you have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. Nothing. None of us stopped that–none of us stopped him from taking her. We were all… everyone was… it wasn’t you. It was not you.” His hand rubbed her hair, pressing her face against his shoulder as he insisted, “None of that was your fault, Tabbris. He took everyone by surprise. Athena, your mother, all those people. They’re older, stronger, bigger, they were all surprised. This wasn’t your fault. You listen to me. I don’t blame you. I will never blame you. Now, if you were missing, would Flick give up on you?” 

Without hesitation, Tabbris shook her head, sniffling a little before managing a weak, “No…” 

“Damn right, she wouldn’t,” Lincoln confirmed. “She’d never give up on you. And we’re not giving up on her. You hear me? Whatever it takes, we’re getting her back.” He betrayed none of his own terror and grief in that moment, needing to be the rock for her. “Felicity and Joselyn. We’ll get them both back. Say it for me, Tabbris. What are we going to do?”

Swallowing hard, the girl hesitated, clinging to him before taking in a breath. “… Save Flick. We… we’re going to save Flick.” She said it one more time, voice still cracking, but a bit stronger. “We’re going to save Flick. And Mrs. Chambers.” 

Turning his head a bit to kiss her hair, Lincoln quietly whispered, “We are. We’ll get her back. Come on, let’s get you some dry clothes. I told your mom I’d bring you up. She thought you were asleep, you know.” 

“I woke up,” the little girl murmured a bit plaintively. Her body shook once more. “The sharks, I didn’t w-want them to be lonely. I didn’t–” She stopped, squeezing her eyes shut helplessly as she dropped her head against his shoulder and let out a weak little sob. 

Holding her close, Lincoln promised, “We’ll take care of the sharks too. I promise. Come on, you need to get dry.” He started to walk off the beach and toward the elevator. 

On the way, Tabbris managed a barely audible, “You don’t… hate me…?” 

Immediately, Lincoln squeezed her tighter, hugging the girl firmly to him. “Never. Never, my hidden girl. I’ll never hate you. Not in a million years. You’re my girl. No matter what happens, you’ll always be my daughter. Listen to me. I didn’t call you my daughter because of Felicity. I called you my daughter because of you. I am proud of you every time I see you. You are my daughter. Nothing is going to change that, ever.” 

“I’m sorry,” came the whispered response. “I’m really sorry.” 

All Lincoln said to that, the only thing he could say, was, “I love you, Tabbris.” 

“I… I love you, Dad.” 

*******

Losing people was a way of life for the woman known as Virginia Dare. Born as the first English child on the American continent, cursed from birth by a mysterious and unnamed great evil that was convinced her blood would end the world, Virginia had experienced loss after loss throughout her life. Her family had died, her colony had been destroyed, she had abandoned her mentor and father-figure, the Akharu named Tiras, to save his life from the monsters who continued to chase after her. Again and again, people she cared about had to be left behind or simply died. 

Eventually, she fell in love with Joshua Atherby, and the two of them had a daughter, Joselyn. And the three had been happy, until the Fomorians came. Until the Fomorians presented such a monstrous, world-ending threat that the only choice to stop them had been for Virginia’s family to make the ultimate sacrifice. Joshua had given his life, while Virginia had given everyone’s memories of her. She had been forced to sacrifice her ability to be a mother to her daughter. She lost her husband’s life, and the memories of everyone who could have been there for her, who could have helped her, were wiped away. She couldn’t be with her friends. She couldn’t be with her daughter, the child she had made with the man she loved. There was no way at that time for her to be in Joselyn’s life. Being there, being around those people, was too much of a risk. For the sake of the world, for the safety of the spell that kept the Fomorians blocked from Earth, she had to stay away from them. Away from everyone who cared about her, everyone who could have helped her deal with her loss. 

She was forced to deal with her grief alone, entirely and completely alone. 

Until Gaia had come to find her. Even with her specific memories about those events erased, Gaia had still wondered about the whereabouts of her student and essentially adopted daughter enough to come looking for her. And, eventually, she had put the rest of it together. 

Joselyn ran her rebellion, had children, was captured, imprisoned, and eventually erased from all memories. Just as Virginia had been, save for the fact that her own memory was erased as well. And through all of that, Virginia could not comfort her daughter. For the sake of the entire world, she could not be there for her the way she wanted to be. She could not be there for her when that evil bastard took her. And the only person in that world whom she could talk to about any of it was Gaia. 

But now Gaia was gone. Which meant that Virginia had next to no one who knew what Felicity being taken by the same monster who had taken Joselyn meant to her. Almost no one who would have any idea what she was feeling. With Gaia imprisoned and Felicity taken by Fossor, only one other person in the world knew who Virginia really was. 

“Professor?” Even as Virginia had that thought, Koren Fellows spoke up from behind her. She’d known the girl was coming, had sensed her approach while she came to the house that Virginia was using as her own and used a wood-manipulation power to open the door for her. Then she’d followed the girl’s approach through the house as Koren sought her out before finding her here on the rear balcony overlooking the rest of the staff housing area. 

“It’s alright, Koren,” Virginia assured her, finally turning away from the railing to see the young woman. “There are a dozen privacy enchantments here. No one can hear us. Or see us,” she added after a brief consideration.  

Once she said that, Koren took a step that way to embrace her tightly. She didn’t say anything, but Virginia could sense the… anger in her. The tension held tight in her arms and shoulders, the way she held herself and set her jaw. Many of the people close to Flick were sad, devastated, morose, determined… and more. But Koren… She put a hand on the back of the girl’s head and brushed fingers through her hair. “It’s okay to be mad.” 

Drawing back after squeezing even more firmly for a moment, Koren took a step away and turned to face the railing, gripping it tightly while shaking her head. “No… no it’s not. Because I’m not just mad at Fossor. I should be! I should be, I know, I just… it’s not…” 

“You feel as though you’re angry with Felicity too,” Virginia calmly noted. 

“I don’t want to be!” Koren blurted plaintively, her voice clearly louder than she intended. Sighing then, she gripped the railing even more tightly, turning her knuckles white while dropping her head and slumping her shoulders. “I don’t… want to be. I know it’s not her fault. I know it’s not her fault!” 

Stepping over that way, Virginia put a hand on the girl’s back. “Do you really think it’s her you’re angry at?” she asked gently, watching the reaction. 

“Yes, but I don’t–I mean… I…” Stopping after her initial reaction, Koren hesitated, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “I… no. I mean, I’m not… Flick’s just… gone. Flick’s gone and I don’t–I can’t do anything about it. I can’t help her. Fossor is… Fossor. Look at him. You guys, all you adults couldn’t stop him. They did this whole huge spell to banish him from Earth and all it did was make him walk on ashes. And piss him off. You all couldn’t really stop him, so what the hell am I gonna do? What could I even… you know… I don’t have a chance. I might as well throw rocks at a mountain trying to make it fall down. And Mom won’t let me go anywhere now. She thinks Fossor’s gonna try to grab me next, so I can’t even leave the station. I can’t really beat Fossor, I can’t help save Flick, and now I can’t even go on any missions to try to help people I’m capable of helping!” The last bit came out in a blurted shout before she sighed. “I’m not really mad at Flick. But I am mad at Flick.” 

Smiling faintly, Virginia squeezed the girl’s back, rubbing her hand in circles. “You’re mad that she was taken. You’re angry and you feel helpless to direct that anger anywhere useful. Which makes you even more angry.” 

Sighing, Koren turned her head to look that way. “Man, how mad are you? I mean, everyone’s paying attention to Mom, Uncle Wyatt, and me, but not… you. No one knows to pay attention to you. No one…” She flinched, turning fully to embrace Virginia once more. “I’m sorry, Great-Grandma.” Belatedly, the girl added, “I know we’re not supposed to risk saying that out loud very much, but… but right now, I don’t care.” 

“It’s okay,” Virginia assured her, returning the embrace. 

“Right now, I don’t particularly care either.” 

*******

For over ten years, Joselyn had dreaded this day. Throughout the decade between the moment she had left her beloved husband and daughter to come live with the… monster who had restored her memories, she had lived in fear. Fear of his abuses, yes. Fear of the things he made her do, the people he made her hurt. Fear of what he was turning her into. But above all, fear of the day that he would set his gaze firmly on her daughter. The terror and helplessness she felt when it came to that psychopath’s intentions for Felicity were worse than every single thing he had done or could have done to Joselyn herself throughout all those years. The fear, the unknowing dread, the… certainty that he would work to twist her daughter the way he had their son…

Ammon. He had destroyed that sweet, sensitive, wonderful little boy, had twisted him into the ugly, evil creature that he wanted. Not for any purpose other than to serve as an experiment. Fossor had barely cared when the boy was… when he was killed. He had been annoyed about something that belonged to him being taken away, of course. But not–he had not truly cared about Ammon. He had never cared about Ammon the way a father should. And the thought of Felicity having that kind of… of treatment turned to her, the thought of Fossor putting his filthy, evil hands to work hurting her, twisting her…

Joselyn would rather die. If given the choice, she would have died before allowing that to happen. But she had no choice. Fossor wanted her alive and he wanted Felicity. What he wanted them both for, what… evil, psychotic plan he was cooking up–had been cooking up for at least the past ten years, she didn’t know. But it was bad, that much she was certain of. 

But Joselyn had done more than live in fear of this day. She had done more than simply long for things to be different. Because wishing things were different wasn’t something she did. That wasn’t who she was. She didn’t wish they were different, she made them different. And despite the situation she was in, despite everything she’d been forced to do, she was still that person. 

She couldn’t do much, and not quickly. Everything she ever did had to be painstakingly slow and careful. An inch at a time. But an inch at a time over ten years could be quite a distance indeed. 

First, of course, she had needed privacy. It took years for Fossor to lower his guard even a little bit around her. But eventually, it came. He had other things to focus on. And Joselyn, despite being stripped of all the Committee’s powers, retained the magic she had learned throughout her time in the rebellion. Part of that included the sort of privacy spell that allowed their people to act right under the noses of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. Or at least allowed them to know if they were being spied on. She had those spells on her constantly. She knew when she was being observed. And she knew that her rooms were mostly left alone. Which allowed her to make her own preparations, slight as they might have been.

So long as she obeyed Fossor’s given orders, he didn’t particularly care what she did in her own time. Even his order that she be naked in her own rooms was about controlling her, not about… anything else. The man barely had anything resembling those kinds of urges. He had wanted to have a child with her, so he had a child with her. Ammon had been an experiment, nothing more. 

As long as he believed he was in control, he left Joselyn alone a decent amount of the time. She was an old toy that he didn’t like to constantly play with anymore, but would occasionally take out with him. Mostly, he made sure she was still fighting, still killing, still getting powers from his arena. Fossor wanted her to be strong. What… exactly for, she didn’t know. But it was nothing good. Nothing that she wanted herself or Felicity to be involved with. 

But she didn’t feel lost or broken when Fossor announced what he had done, when he revealed his ‘surprise’ about bringing Felicity here through a time travel spell. She didn’t feel despair, because she had felt despair a decade ago. She had felt all of that, and worked through it. Despair didn’t accomplish anything useful. It wouldn’t save herself or her daughter. It wouldn’t stop Fossor. 

Yes, she was afraid of what the future would bring. Yes, she was worried about Felicity and herself. She was afraid of what Fossor wanted. And, of course, sad that he had accomplished his goal of bringing her daughter here. But she would not allow that fear or sadness to rule her. She would not fall into the trap of wishing things were different, of regretting what was to the point of fantasizing about a better life and a better world. She would work to make those things a reality. 

She would protect her daughter as best as she could. She would keep Felicity alive, and the two of them would find a way out of this. Fossor had won a battle, not the war. And as long as his goals included keeping herself and Felicity alive, the war itself would continue. 

That was what Joselyn intended to win. Let the man have his victory for now. Let him revel in winning the battle, in dragging Felicity into this. 

Because what Fossor had never understood, even as he capitalized on that fact, was that Joselyn would do anything for her children. She had surrendered herself to the Committee and been imprisoned for decades to save her twins. She’d had her memories erased, her powers removed, her very identity taken away. She’d given herself to this monster to save Felicity. She would do anything for her children. Fossor understood that enough to know that she would swear an oath to obey him to protect Felicity. But he still thought that bringing Felicity here would break Joselyn, that it would rip her soul to see her daughter brought here after all she had done to protect her from this. 

Rising from the bed where she had been sitting, contemplating all of that, Joselyn turned to the mirror. She saw herself and stared for a moment at the tears that had soaked her face. Her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath, straightening up. The cowed hunch that had come as she had sat on that bed and folded in on herself left her figure, the haunted look left her gaze. The tears dried up. Then she opened her eyes once more and saw herself as Felicity had to, if she was going to spare her daughter any feelings of guilt. 

Because the thing that Fossor had never truly understood was that Joselyn’s true strength came from those she cared about, those she was determined to protect. In bringing Felicity here, in putting Joselyn’s daughter right in front of her, he wasn’t breaking her. He was giving her strength back. He was reminding Joselyn of exactly who she was. 

“Okay,” she announced into the mirror. 

“It’s time to work.”

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Patreon Snippets 13A (Heretical Edge 2)

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

Aylen with Grandpa Reaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting.” 

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

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

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

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

“She is alive?” 

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

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

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

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

“Tell me. 

“Tell me everything.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Former Crossroads Student Mentor Cameron Reid

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Alcaeus/Heracles

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, this was awkward. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Club

 

“This… is… cowabunga!” 

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

Oak Park Mall, in Overland Park, Kansas. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go cowabunga this mall.” 

******

Jiao

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Learning Days Daze 2-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The silence following that particular announcement seemed to last for days. We all just stared at the kindly old Fomorian like he was… well, a kindly old Fomorian. There wasn’t really a more absurd example that sprang to mind. Yet, somehow, he had managed to make the situation even more insane. Which took some doing. 

“Grandfather,” Sonoma chided, “we said we were going to ease them into that whole thing. Gently, remember?”

An expression of confusion crossed his alien features, as he looked back and forth between our shocked looks and the Native American woman. “I did, didn’t I? I said we’ll talk about it later. How could—oh! Oh, oh yes.” 

Suddenly becoming completely distracted and clearly forgetting what he had just been talking about, the old Fomorian took a step toward Dare before catching himself. “Ah, pardon me. Not to startle you into any violent reactions, Miss Dare. But would you mind if I approach?”

Dare paused. For good reason, I knew. Not only did she have a lot of bad experiences with his people, but there was a lot riding on people not realizing exactly who she was. But, either she decided there wasn’t that much of a risk, or that refusing would be even more of a potential problem. Either way, she gave a slight nod while watching him carefully.

With a broad, disarming smile, the Fomorian quickly moved forward. I had the impression he could have moved even faster, but had deliberately slowed himself to avoid upsetting people. He was right there in front of Dare, gingerly taking hold of her wrist between two of his long fingers before staring at her arm. More specifically, at the bare part of skin between her wrist and the sleeve of her shirt. He made several curious hmmm noises while turning her arm this way and that before laughing with delight. “Yes, yes, I knew it! I knew this line was important when I saw it before. Didn’t I, little buddy? Yes, you. Who’s adorable? You’re adorable! Yes, that’s a good little trooper.” 

“Um.” Beside me, Rebecca asked quietly, “is he talking to her arm like it’s a puppy?”

My head shook. “I think he’s talking to her DNA like it’s a puppy.” Which was even weirder, but still.

After making another couple cooing noises of pride and delight, the Fomorian abruptly snapped his head around. It turned a full one-eighty to look straight at me. Which didn’t do anything to make me feel less freaked out. “Oh, but of course, of course. You have been forced to stay apart for such a long time, haven’t you?”

Wait, did… did he know… my eyes glanced up toward Dare, who looked almost physically stricken, mouth opening though it was clear that she wasn’t exactly sure what to say. But she had to say something, before this guy blurted out the wrong thing and—

“Yes, you certainly have,” the Fomorian concluded with a sage nod as he released Dare, his gaze still on me. “You’ve been separated from your mother for years now.” He stepped closer, going down on one knee again in front of me. His voice, while still cheerful, had taken on a note of somberness. “I’m sorry to hear of your family’s ills and trials. They’ve been through quite a lot. And have sacrificed much.” 

He knew. I was certain of that just from his words as I stared into his eyes. He knew exactly what the relationship between Dare and me was, and why it was so important that no one else find out. Had he known the whole time, or did he figure it out just by looking at us? If he had figured it out just by looking at us, had that hurt the spell? I found myself looking upward, almost anticipating some kind of cataclysmic sign of Fomorian ships like had happened back when Koren and I found out. 

But there was nothing like that, and the figure in front of me seemed to follow my gaze upward before assuring me in a casual tone, “It’s alright. I have great trust in the abilities of all of you.” 

He stood back up then, his infectiously cheerful voice continuing. “You’ve all done such amazing things. Removing that nasty memory spell. Building the Hoover dam. Bringing down that woolly mammoth in Broken Fang canyon. Defending your dens from the coyote pack near Moon Crescent Lake.” Pausing belatedly, his head tilted before he amended, “Wait, I was thinking of ancient tigers and modern beavers for those last two. But still!”

Of all of us, it was actually Vanessa who suddenly blurted, “What were you saying about my mom making a new universe?!” Her arms were raised in total bafflement as she stared at the figure. “What was all that about?“

Tabbris’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Mom can’t make universes! I mean—” she cut herself off, shooting a quick, apologetic look to Sariel as though feeling guilty about saying there was anything her mom couldn’t do. “I mean, she didn’t make a new universe.”

Clearly chuckling despite herself, Sariel ruffled both of her daughters’ hair before nodding. “What they said.”

Grandfather looked to her, seeming to consider for a moment before he responded. “You’re right, of course. You didn’t create a new universe. Not at all. No, your work with Tartarus did that.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if that should explain everything. Which… well, given what we knew of that place, it probably did help at least a little bit. But still… not really. 

Bastet exhaled, gesturing. “Everyone sit down. We’ll explain the full situation, I promise. It does involve your work to reopen a way to the Tartarus universe, but there’s a lot more to the whole thing. A… lot.” 

“She’s not kidding,” Sonoma assured us. “That’s where we’ve been for the past few months. Though it wasn’t that long for us. It’s– complicated. Really complicated. So let’s all sit down, get comfortable, and we’ll try to get through all of it.” 

Somehow, we arranged ourselves at the tables. Though it was clear that the only thing anyone was interested in was hearing this story. I sat between Avalon and Rebecca, the three of us exchanging glances. Tabbris was by her mother and brother. Everyone was looking toward Grandfather. As for the Fomorian himself, he seemed to be considering his words carefully before straightening up, cracking his knuckles. Despite everything, I saw every single adult we had brought with us stiffen reflexively for a moment.

But Grandfather simply started to talk. “Right then.” He looked to Sariel. “You created an orb to re-open a path into the Tartarus universe. To do so, you summoned latent energy from that universe and brought it here to Earth from all over this universe, yes?” When she simply nodded, he continued. “When you brought that energy to this world, it… I suppose the best word is absorbed. It absorbed information about the Earth. All of the information about this world was imprinted upon it. Like pushing silly putty against a newspaper. That’s fun! Have you ever—”

Stopping himself, the figure shook his head and pushed on. “Ahem, in any case, the energy from Tartarus is not stable in time. It fluctuates, often very dramatically. So when it was absorbing information, it didn’t only take that data from the moment the energy was here, it did so across the planet’s entire history from conception to… well, to the moment it was drawn to. One single bit of that energy bounced back in time all the way to when the dinosaurs roamed the planet and absorbed all of the information about them. Every last detail about every dinosaur imprinted all of it into a that little spark. And the same thing happened throughout all of this planet’s history. Isn’t it glorious?” 

Tristan frowned. “I don’t get it. This weird energy stuff was making records of the world?”

Grandfather’s head bobbed quickly, eagerly. “Yes, yes! But not just normal records. No, that’s not what it was doing. It was copying entire living beings, you see? All that data about how many legs and arms something something is supposed to have, how many heads, how many teeth, or eyes, or how long their intestines should be. It was copying all of it. Physical data and mental data. Historical record and a sort of… what’s the word?”

“Photograph,” Bastet supplied. She was looking to the rest of us. “The energy was brought here to this world. It carried itself across space and time, recording all the information it could about Earth. But even for something as absurd as Tartarus energy, it can only record so much. So as far as keeping physical records, it focused on what it saw as native inhabitants. Animals native to this world, including humans.”

Gwen spoke then. “So if I have this right, this energy was called here and experienced all of human history. Somehow, for some reason, it was recording all of this. Not just the basic information but… like… physical structures of what it considered to be native animals. And plants, I assume. It was, what, taking pictures of people?”

“Oh, more than that,” Grandfather insisted, “so much more than that. It wasn’t just making pictures, it was making copies. Copies of every flora and fauna it saw as native to this world, across its entire history.”

“That’s impossible,” Vanessa blurted. “That’s over a hundred billion humans alone, let alone all the plants and animals and… do you have any idea how many different animals and people that is? Do you have any idea how many plants that is?”

Grandfather nodded excitedly. “Yes, it’s rather amazing, isn’t it? All that information locked into those tiny sparks of energy and then put in the sphere that Mrs. Moon here and her adopted brother created.”

Sariel sank back in her seat. “We sent the orb back to our people. What did we do…?”

“Very good things!” Grandfather insisted. “You remember the siphon?”

“You haven’t told them that part yet,” Sonoma gently noted. 

Finally unable to help myself, I quickly put in. “This is about the place Harrison Fredericks went, isn’t it? Columbus was telling us about that. Fredericks said he showed up in a world that was like ours, only they had… like… superheroes. Normal people with superpowers and costumes and everything. Superpowers they got from some orb that said Summus Proelium in their heads or something.”

Sariel gave a slight nod. “The orb ended up in an alternate Earth somehow. We knew that.”

Grandfather, however, shook his head quickly. “Not just an alternate Earth. One created by the orb itself. When your people activated it and sent it through to Tartarus, the safeguards that you put on the orb against danger activated. Tartarus is nothing but danger. So the orb attempted to escape. Your protection magic made it try to get out of Tartarus, out of its own home. It did so the only way that it could, by creating a new universe and popping itself out into it.”

Avalon’s voice was dull with disbelief. “The orb created an entire universe?”

It was Bastet who answered. “Not by itself. The orb was smart. Well, smart in a way, thanks to the magic put on it. It absorbed all the Tartarus energy it could and used that to both break out of there, and to create this new universe. Not a full copy, of course. It had records of where all the planets and stars and everything else were supposed to be, for the most part. But the only information about living beings it had was what it recorded on Earth.”

Sonoma took over for a moment. “The orb created an empty universe. Empty except for Earth. On that Earth, it bounced across billions of years, creating every living being in its memory. It literally created copies of every person, animal, plant, everything. It copied everything including the history. It made everything exactly the same. Only it didn’t copy Alters. Or Heretics. Because the energy saw Heretics as not being native to Earth. It copied their basic information, but not enough to create physical bodies.”

Grandfather spoke again. “This wonderful, loyal orb was trying to get home. Home to, well, its mother. But it was confused. A very brave and smart little magic orb, but not exactly perfect in its reasoning. It’s like a child, you see. It thought it could create home. So it made that Earth with everything being completely identical. It created new physical bodies of every human being it had recorded, filled them with their own memories and personalities, faked things where it needed to in order to force the history to go the way it was supposed to even without Alter influence, and generally tried its best to make what was supposed to be home.”

Avalon slowly exhaled. “You’re saying it made the history of this alternate world exactly the same as ours, even when Heretics and Alters didn’t exist, just by… forcing things to happen?” 

Again, Grandfather’s head bobbed. “Precisely! Brilliant, isn’t it? In its own way, at least. It thought it could create the perfect situation to make the world it was creating be the home that it left.” 

“But it couldn’t.” That was Bastet. “It couldn’t really make that place the way it wanted, because something was missing. It was still trying to find its mother.” She looked to Sariel. “Think of the orb as an AI. It’s been trying to find its creator and get back to you. When making this whole new world didn’t work, it had to try something else. So it created another world. It bounced back into Tartarus, absorbed more energy, then popped out again and created another Earth just like the first one it made. This time it changed a few things here and there. But you still weren’t there. So it did it again, and again, and again. It was trying to find the iteration of the world where you existed.”

It was Grandfather’s turn again, while all of us sat there stunned into silence. “The poor, loyal orb couldn’t find you anywhere, no matter how many different Earths it made. So it tried something else. I suppose it thought maybe the humans it made could find you, or become you, or help it understand what it did wrong. Maybe all of the above. The point is, it began taking Tartarus energy and using it the way it remembered from you.”

“Powers,” I realized aloud. “It started using the energy to give people powers. That’s what Fredericks saw. The orb created all these Earths and then just started turning the humans into superheroes because it was trying to find Sariel?”

“Superheroes on some worlds,” Sonoma confirmed. “Different things on others. One Earth became more of a… fantasy world of magic and monsters as the orb delivered specific Tartarus gifts unlocking the ability to use magic in the previously non-magical humans, while transforming others into approximations of what it remembered of various Alters from human memories. Other Earths it left completely alone with no interference. We believe it sees those worlds as a control group.” 

“And what was that you said about a siphon?” Koren put in, sounding just as stunned as I felt. 

“Oh yes!” Grandfather explained with infectious childlike eagerness. “Tartarus is fast and incredibly powerful. But it is not entirely without limits. This wonderful, wonderful little orb had been creating entire galaxies over and over again, and filling them with people. That takes a lot of power. Power it was draining from Tartarus, you see? It was a part of Tartarus itself, so the place couldn’t expel or stop it. But it was different, thanks to the magic placed on it. In trying to get home or create home, in trying to find its creator, it drained more and more energy from Tartarus. It’s still draining power from Tartarus. That wonderful orb is acting as a siphon, drawing power and weakening it so it can’t wake them up.”

Gabriel, who had been silent up to this point, asked, “Wake who up?”

It was Sariel who answered. “The monsters who nearly destroyed the universe before. My people developed our space flight based on technology we got from a crashed ship belonging to a race known as the Suelesk. Their entire civilization and most of the universe at the time were almost entirely wiped out by these giant monsters. Four of them. They were from Tartarus, weren’t they?”

Bastet nodded. “And it has been trying to wake them up, or find them, or retrieve them, or something. We’re not sure. Either way, it’s been using energy to try to bring them back. And it seemed like it might have been getting close. But that little orb you made keeps taking all the excess energy and stealing it. Stealing energy for its own little project, and Tartarus itself is incapable of doing anything about it.”

Vanessa spoke up quickly. “It’s like the orb infected Tartarus. Like… Tartarus knows something’s wrong, but it can’t detect the orb as an intruder because it’s all made up of its own energy.”

With clear delight on his widely smiling face, Grandfather pointed to her. “Yes! Yes, exactly! Brilliant girl. I knew your line was destined for something special the moment they used mud as a cooling agent.  Brilliant.”

Tristan patted his sister on the back. “Yeah, that’s our Nessa, always cooling off with mud.”

While Sariel sat there looking completely stunned into silence, Dare cleared her throat. “So, let’s sum up what you’re saying. The orb that was made to give the Seosten access to Tartarus again has managed to gain some vague form of pseudo-sapience. Now it’s looking for its mother, only it’s confused and thinks it can just make a new world and she’ll be on it. So it keeps making different variations of Earth based on all the information it absorbed about this place. Only on those Earths, humans are the only species who exist? Does that mean that if your people find these other universes they could have all the humans they could ever want?”

Bastet answered. “That’s part of the reason we went over there to check. No. The orb copied the physical form of humans, but it either didn’t or couldn’t replicate their bonding ability. They’re identical to humans from this Earth in almost every other respect aside from that. Even their history is basically the same all the way up to around the year two thousand. Anytime great historical events were influenced by supernatural forces on this world, the orb just faked it to try and make things as similar as possible.”

Sonoma added, “It’s been trying to throw in different variations to figure out why it can’t find its creator. So, as we said, in some worlds it introduces powers earlier than others, sometimes it introduces them in a different way or changes things, and in some it doesn’t introduce them at all.”

Remembering what Columbus had said once more, I asked, “What about the voice? It says Summus Proelium in a female voice.”

“Mrs. Moon’s voice,” Grandfather informed us. “The orb is trying to find its maker, so it uses those words to embed her voice into their minds. If they hear her voice, it will know and come to them.”

Sariel finally spoke up. “If this— If the orb is trying so hard to find me, I should go to it. It’s been creating entire universes trying to find me.” She sounded understandably dazed by the whole prospect. “It… I need to talk to it.”

Bastet replied, “The orb is bouncing wildly through time and universes. Sometimes more than one iteration of itself show up right next to each other. It seems to ignore most known rules of time travel, probably because it’s the one that created these universes. Either way, if you go there, you will probably end up drawing a lot of different iterations of it to you at the same time. It could end up causing more problems than it solves. Better to stay here and use magic to lock onto a specific version of it, pull that version to you and work things out from there.”

Sonoma added, “Besides, as they said, the orb is drawing energy that Tartarus would use to wake up universe-destroying abominations.”

Shifting up in my seat, I slowly spoke. “Sariel and Apollo accidentally created a sapient magic orb that’s saving the universe by draining power from the dimension of ultimate evil and destruction to create lots of different Earths so it can try to find its mother. Yup, that makes perfect sense to me.”

Raising her hand, Rebecca spoke up weakly. “You know, Grandma has been telling me some really crazy stories about when she and Mrs. Chambers were young. 

“But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna win the next storytime.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As far as walking into potentially dangerous situations went, it couldn’t get much better than doing so with Sariel, Gabriel Prosser, Gwen, and Professor Dare surrounding us. That assortment of incredibly powerful, skilled people went a long way toward making the idea of walking into dinner with a Fomorian somewhat less terrifying. Aylen’s assurances that ‘Grandfather’ would never hurt us and her explanation of why that was so helped a lot too, but still. I’m not sure I would’ve felt great about going to this whole thing without all the protection. I probably still would’ve done it thanks to everything she said, but I would’ve been a lot more nervous. 

The point was, with all four adults, the rest of us felt better about the whole thing. I wasn’t sure how they felt about it given they had actually fought the Fomorians for a lot longer than we had (a lot longer in Sariel’s case), but still. They were staying quiet as we walked through what turned out to be a wide open grassy field with a cottage sitting next to a small lake. There were several long tables set up behind the cottage, covered in tablecloths and stacks of dishes.

Aylen was out front, by her own insistence. Avalon, Koren, Tabbris, Rebecca, Vanessa, Tristan, and I were walking together, with the four adults spread out around us. Gabriel brought up the rear, Dare walked to the left, Sariel to the right, and Gwen was right up front, just behind Aylen. As a group, we made our way across the field, approaching that pleasant-looking little cottage. 

A figure appeared there, between two of the tables as we got closer. One second there was nothing there, then there was. It wasn’t the Fomorian, probably purposefully. Intead, the figure was a woman. She stood there in a dark blue cloak that drifted loosely in the soft breeze, the hood leaving most of her face cast in shadows save for the soft azure glow from her eyes.  

If any of the adults were taken aback by the woman’s sudden appearance ahead of us, they didn’t show it at all. The four simply stopped walking, followed belatedly by the rest of us. 

“Mother,” Aylen chided while continuing on that way. “Stop trying to intimidate my friends.” 

The voice that came from the woman was quiet, yet reached all of us easily.  “I wasn’t trying to intimidate them. I was making it clear that we would not be intimidated. There is a difference.” 

“Sorry!” That voice came from the doorway of the cottage, as another female figure came rushing out. She was Native American, a fairly small and fragile-looking woman with long dark hair framing a soft, welcoming face. She was carrying a tray full of various crackers, meats, and cheeses, hurrying over to one of the tables to put it down before brushing off her simple jeans and red flannel shirt. “I told her to be nice.” To the first woman, she reiterated, “I said be nice.” 

“I was being nice,” the cloaked figure murmured. “I didn’t say anything wrong.” Her gaze turned to us then. Or me, specifically. The two of us locked eyes, as I stared into those softly glowing blue orbs. There was an incredible amount of power and knowledge there. As well as something deeper. Pain, loss, a very real sense of… worry. Somehow, looking at her, I knew she was… afraid of how this would go. She was as nervous as any of the rest of us, afraid this whole thing would go wrong and that Aylen would have to leave us. She was afraid that this would ruin her daughter’s relationship with us, with her friends. And despite all the reassurances Aylen had given her about how we could be trusted, she was still wary of potentially having to defend herself, her wife, and the Fomorian who had cared for her for so long when no others would. 

Wait. With a jolt, I blinked rapidly and broke the connection. How… how had I gotten all that just by looking in her eyes? What the hell? I didn’t have any kind of empathic powers as far as I knew. I couldn’t read people’s emotions like that. And it had never happened that way in the past in any case. So how had I just looked into this woman’s eyes and suddenly understood all that? Was she projecting her feelings to me? But that didn’t make any sense. There was no reason for her to do that, and I had the impression that she wouldn’t have wanted me to know that much about her own personal feelings and worries anyway. So what the living hell? 

The conversation between the adults who had come with us and Aylen’s other mother had continued, as she stepped over and extended a hand toward Gwen with a voice that was clearly pushing for cheerfulness to cover the tension and uncertainty that everyone very obviously felt. “Hi, good evening. My name is Sonoma.” 

Apparently Gwen was the right person on our side to break the tension, because she immediately shook the offered hand, her smile bright and genuine. “Well hiya! I’ve gotta say, meeting you and… well, hearing about your little family has done a hell of a lot to answer some questions I’ve had for a long time.” Her words were cheerful, as she shook the hand enthusiastically. This was real, I knew. She wasn’t putting on an act or anything. It was the Harper part of her, the part of Harper that had been the real Gwen. She was open, enthusiastic, cheerful, kind of goofy… that was Guinevere, wife of King Arthur and secretly the real Lancelot. She was a bit of a dork (like me, honestly) and absolutely the right person to speak first. 

Clearly taken a bit by surprise, Sonoma smiled reflexively while returning the handshake. “Oh. Well, yeah, I suppose we probably have left a few mysteries lying around over the years.” 

“Speaking of mysteries we’ve left lying around,” the hooded woman put in, “apparently you’ve picked up my wife’s ring, though it’s a choker now.” 

While I was blinking in surprise at that, Gabriel spoke up. “The Ring of Anuk-Ite.” His gaze was on Sonoma. “You were the old chief’s daughter, the one who searched out a shaman to help… ahhh, cure his child when she was turned into an Alter.” 

“Wait, yeah, I remember this,” Rebecca blurted. “You guys were telling us about it over the summer. Old shaman couldn’t turn her human again, but she enchanted a ring for the girl that would hide her from the Heretic sense, right? But… the legends said another creature killed her and took the ring.” 

“Took the ring,” Sonoma confirmed. “Not so much with the death thing. And that much wasn’t so bad. It’s how I ended up meeting Bastet again.” Her gaze turned slightly to the hooded figure with the same kind of smile that I often found myself giving Shiori and Avalon. “She and Grandfather were the ones who made the ring in the first place. My father and I found them. Or they found us. When the ring was taken, Bastet… helped me. We’ve been together ever since.” 

Bastet. Wait a second, Bastet and Grandfather. Why did that sound so familiar when put that wa–

“Bastet and Grandfather!” That was Avalon, not me. She blurted it out loud, eyes widening. “I know you. I mean, my–Liesje Aken, my ancestor, she knew you. When I saw her–I mean when she… she recorded a memory, a ghost, sort of. Her memory-ghost told me that Grandfather and Bastet helped her create the anti-possession spell that’s been protecting her descendants. The same one that Dries, Sariel, and the others have been fixing to protect everyone back at the school.” 

Right, right, that was how I knew the name. Avalon had told me all about that. Why hadn’t the name ‘Grandfather’ tickled anything in our memories before now? Maybe it was just that generic. But still. 

Bastet had finally reached up to take the hood down, revealing a Reaper-pale face and long azure hair that matched her eyes. Her voice was slightly warmer. “I remember Liesje. I liked her. She found us without any real nudges, essentially on her own. That was… impressive.”

“Liesje found you and this Grandfather guy all on her own?” I blinked, looking over at Avalon. “Damn, your ancestor was a badass.” 

“Like we didn’t know that already,” she retorted dryly before blinking. “The story. Right. The story said that the Ring of Anuk-Ite was made by a being who lived on Earth since the first wind touched the first dust.” 

“Grandfather,” Aylen supplied. “And he hasn’t been on Earth that long, but poetic license. Like I told you, he brought ancient humans here, so he’s been around since we’ve existed, basically.”

This was all making a lot more sense. Holes in what I understood were being filled in really quickly over these past few hours. 

Another long-standing mystery was filled in a moment later as something clicked in my head. “Wait a second.” My eyes snapped over to Bastet, who was watching me with a curious expression. “You. Your aura’s gold, isn’t it? Because your father is the–the reaper back at Crossroads. He’s your father and his aura is gold, like Gaia’s and mine. And my Mom’s. We’re connected to the Reaper in the lighthouse and he’s your father so your aura is probably gold.” When the woman slowly nodded, I snapped my fingers. “You were the one who killed those eleven Heretics awhile back! The one who jumped in to stop them from massacring those Alters and killed eleven of the twelve Heretics who were there. The Committee thought it was my mother, but it was you.” 

Her head gave a slight bow. “You picked up on that quite easily. Yes, Grandfather and I have spent generation after generation working in the shadows. Sometimes I choose to be… a little more open about things. It was not my intention to cast the blame to your mother. Apparently the Heretic I left alive did a terrible job of providing a description of her attacker.” 

“Or they just weren’t listening after she said ‘gold aura’ and my mother’s name popped into all their heads,” I pointed out with a shrug. “Still, that explains it. I’ve seriously been wondering about that for months.” 

Looking back over to me, Gwen pointed out, “Now multiply that by a thousand years or so with little mysteries piling up. Yeah, this whole thing answers a lot.” She glanced to Sonoma and Bastet then while adding, “We really need to sit down at some point and talk all that out. But it can wait until after we’re all a little more comfortable with each other.” Her expression brightened. “Which, hey, is what this whole dinner is about, right?” 

Tabbris, who had been sticking pretty close to her mother as well as Tristan and Vanessa through this, spoke up. “Do we get to meet this Grandfather guy now?” 

Her mother laid a hand on the girl’s head with a nod. “Yes, I believe we are all quite interested in that prospect. Even if we are also nervous about it.” That admission came with a small smile, obviously attempting to make light of what was probably a very tense situation for someone like her. The Seosten had been fighting the Fomorians for hundreds of thousands of years and had apparently never encountered a single good version. Maybe that was because only the bad ones went out conquering galaxies, but still. The fact that she had spent so long like that meant that being willing to accept that there could be a good one even through Tartarus shenanigans was pretty big. 

There was a brief pause as Sonoma and Bastet looked at one another, exchanging some kind of silent communication before the latter turned back to us with a slight nod. “Yes. Before we eat, it’s best if you all meet him.” Her eyes narrowed, however, as she slowly looked over our entire assembled group. “But let me make something clear. I understand–we understand– that this will be a tense situation and that you have never met anyone like him. With that in mind, if anyone makes a hostile move toward any of us, including Grandfather, you will not like how this meeting proceeds.” 

“Bastet,” Sonoma spoke carefully, taking a step that way before looking to us. “You have to understand, we aren’t exactly accustomed to reaching out like this… at all. Grandfather keeps himself secret for a reason. Not only because of how people could react, but also to stay away from his other half. Opening up like this is dangerous. But we… we thought it was the right time, after everything you’ve done. Everything that’s happening, it’s… time for us to open up a little bit.” 

It was Gabriel who responded to that first. “I believe we all completely understand why you would be hesitant to trust in your situation. Just as I believe you can understand why the idea of someone like this Grandfather is very… odd. But you’re right, given how things are progressing, we need to work together. Which means trusting one another at least enough to actually meet.” 

“Great,” Koren blurted, sounding maybe just a little hysterical. “Now that we all totally understand each other, can we get on with it?”  

“You, I like,” Bastet informed her before nodding. “Yes, now that we’re on the same page.” She turned, speaking in just as normal a voice as ever without raising it at all. “Grandfather, it’s safe.”

And with that, a figure emerged from the cottage. Everyone stood there, very much trying to remind ourselves not to freak out. It was the Fomorian alright. He was tall, with the same angular features, gray skin, and big eyes as the one we’d met at Thanksgiving. He looked kind of like one of those stereotypical ‘gray aliens’ from so many sci fi and alien abduction stories. Which made sense, given how ingrained these guys (and this one in particular) had to be in the human consciousness. Seeing him raised the hair on the back of my neck, even though I had been repeatedly assured about how safe and good he actually was. 

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected this ‘good Fomorian’ to be like, honestly. I didn’t know how I thought he would act or talk. But whatever I had expected, it was obviously way off. Because the first thing this Fomorian did, as soon as we had a chance to see him, was clap his hands. His voice was bright and cheerful, totally at odds with his appearance. 

Also at odds with his appearance? His appearance. Specifically, the apron he wore. Yeah. Despite my private assertion earlier, the Fomorian was wearing an apron. It was white, with words on the front, a mixture of handwritten and carefully printed. In printed letters at the top, it read ‘We–’ followed by the word ‘Grandfather’ in neat handwriting and ‘Aylen’ in the sloppy print of a child. Next to each was a handprint, the many-fingered Fomorian to the left of ‘Grandfather’ and a small human child’s print to the right of ‘Aylen’. 

Underneath their names and handprints were the neatly printed words, ‘Cooking Buddies! Together, we can make–’ And under that was what had at one point been a lot of blank space. But almost all of that blank space was taken up by scrawled words clearly written by the young Aylen, a list of the dozens and dozens of things she’d cooked with Grandfather over the years. Just glancing at it, I could see her handwriting getting better as the list went on and she grew older. That and the things they made grew more complicated.  

While we were taking all that in, the Fomorian known as Grandfather blurted a delighted, “Yes! Yes, excellent! You’re all here! Oooh, you’re all here, wonderful! Ohhh you all look so amazing! So much hair, so much color! Your eyes! Your little fingers! Ohhh my, oh my, oh my! Beautiful, and so handsome. So very handsome. We must get pictures. Yes, yes we must have pictures for the album. Our album is so very lacking in people other than us. And one with dark skin! Wonderful, so wonderful! I think I met your original progenitor once, dear boy. I have a picture somewhere. You have his eyes. Gabriel, yes? Yes, such a wonderful name. Such wonderful people! Children, children everywhere!” He was practically crying with happiness, arms extended wide as if to literally hug all of us. At the same time, he was bouncing back and forth from foot to foot, obviously far too excited to stand still. 

Yeah, this… this was not at all what I had expected. In the background, I could see Aylen watching us all with an expression that was clearly a mixture of nervous and amused. Amused to see how we would react, and also nervous about how we would react. 

Dare was stiff, but motionless. I could see the intense emotions playing out behind her eyes. Of course, considering she’d literally sacrificed her entire identity and her husband to kick the Fomorians off Earth, this would affect her. She kept it under control, eyes flicking towards me before giving a subtle nod. She would be okay. Gwen and Gabriel were taking it in stride, the former looking more curious than anything, while Sariel… Sariel looked… relieved? Not in a ‘oh good it wasn’t a trap’ way, but more… it was deeper than that. I had a strange feeling that some part of the Seosten woman had almost been desperate for this to be real, for a living ‘good Fomorian’ to exist. 

Meanwhile, beside me, Koren made a sound deep in her throat. Quickly looking that way, I saw her eyes widen, tears starting to leak from them. She wasn’t even looking at his disarming apron. She wasn’t ready. She was back there, back almost a year ago at Thanksgiving, in the house where her real father had been murdered and the Hiding Man had forced her to stick her hands inside her mother to keep her heart pumping. 

Grandfather’s bright, cheerful expression dropped a bit when he looked at Koren. Immediately, he went down to one knee. His voice, when he spoke, was much different than I expected. He sounded… well, like a grandfather, really. He sounded old and kind and knowledgeable. He sounded wise. 

“Dearest far-child,” he said quietly, his voice much more serious and gentle than his previous loud and cheerful words. “Excited as I am to see how much you have grown from your ancestors… I remember your progenitor too. I remember the look in the eyes of your ancient ancestor, the first of your line to look upon the sky. I remember watching him take up his first rock, hold it in his hand, and scrape his name upon the wall of the cave. I was so proud of him, so proud of all of them, all of you. You are all my most tremendous, remarkable creations, who have so far exceeded any of my dreams. 

“But in my excitement, I do sometimes forget that my appearance carries its own burdens. I am so very sorry for the losses you have experienced. It was not my intention to cause you grief or fear. I care for all of you. I would never wish to bring misery or harm to you. You are all the greatest achievement I shall ever experience.” He seemed to hesitate then before softly adding, “I would… ask that you please not be afraid of me. But should my presence inspire too much ache, I will step away and not intrude again, you need only give the word.” 

With a deep gulp, Koren glanced to me before very slowly stepping closer. “You’re… you’re not like the others.” 

“No,” he promised, giving a slight shake of his head. “I’m very glad to say that I’m not.” 

There was another brief pause, before Koren exhaled, her voice quivering just a little. “I think it’s okay if you stay.” 

The smile came back, a smile that somehow seemed to light up the whole area despite the fact that we were standing in daylight. Grandfather straightened slowly, clearly making a point not to move too quickly in front of us. “Thank you, far-child,” he murmured before turning to look toward Sariel. “And you,” he asked simply. “Honorable Seosten… and your children. Are you quite alright?” 

Sariel gave a single nod. “Yes, I believe I am.” 

“Excellent, excellent, very good.” That childlike enthusiasm and happiness was back, as he clapped his hands once. “In that case, shall we eat? I’m quite eager to share all this food we’ve been making!

“And then, perhaps I can tell you about the alternate universe that your experiments into what you call Tartarus has created.” 

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Learning Days Daze 2-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, a Fomorian. We were about to go to dinner with a Fomorian. After everything I’d learned (and actually seen) about those monsters last year, the very idea of actually sitting down to a meal with one of them felt more like a threat of torture than anything else. Despite everything Aylen had said, along with everything we’d all been saying about how every species could be good, it was still pretty hard to just stop being nervous about it.  

That, more than anything else had in the past, gave me a bit of insight into how hard it was for other people who had grown up under the Bosch way of thinking to accept that their entire society had been wrong for so long. This wasn’t even my entire world view being challenged and changed. This was just accepting that, through extraordinary circumstances, one single member of an otherwise totally evil race was good. And I was still somewhat suspicious. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t quite as hard to imagine why people would stick to what they had been taught for so long. 

I shoved it down, knowing it was wrong, but that didn’t stop the hair on the back of my neck from standing up at the very thought of going to this dinner. At the very least, I definitely wasn’t going to be able to relax anytime soon. 

Lost in thought after explaining everything to a just-recalled Tabbris, I barely noticed as she turned my hair pink and looked over toward Professor Dare. We were still in the park area, aside from Aylen, who was still gone to give us all a chance to talk about what she’d said. 

“I want Mama to come,” my mouth said, before Tabbris stepped out of me. She drew herself up, looking at Dare and Gwen. “I think Aylen’s right, and telling the truth and everything, but I still want Mama to come.”

Vanessa and Tristan both nodded together, the former speaking up. “Yeah, our mom should come. She knows a lot about Fomorians. And about magical science. Which, for the record, is still a term that makes me twitch when I say it. Either way, Mom should be there.”

Dare paused before nodding. “That’s not a bad idea. If this…” She breathed in and then out, clearly having issues with the concept. “If this Fomorian is on the level, he won’t object to us having as much reinforcement as possible, within reason. And your mother is definitely within reason. But we need to keep this close and quiet. There are a lot of people who would never understand having any kind of discussion with a Fomorian, all explanations be damned. And this entire alliance is on shaky ground as it is. Until we find out more, don’t go telling anybody else about it, okay?”

Koren raised a hand. “What about my mom?”

Dare nodded to that. “You and I can go talk to her before any of this happens. Obviously, there are exceptions. I just mean in general, keep it quiet. I know this is a new year and a new school and everything. But let’s not push our luck for how much people will accept very quickly.”

She was right, and we all agreed to keep it as quiet as possible, at least until after this dinner when we would have a better idea of how on the level the whole thing was. 

We separated for the time being, Tabbris and I walking with Avalon. On the way out of the park, I looked over at the dark-haired girl beside me. “You think the Fomorian thing might have something to do with Aylen being the Merlin Key that’s supposed to wake up Arthur?”

She paused, head tilting slightly before offering me a shrug. “Could be related. Or maybe it’s still just the Reaper thing. Either way, she’s really different from most people.”

Tabbris looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and I nodded her way before speaking toward Avalon. “You kinda like her, huh?”

For once, the normally perfectly poised and graceful young woman missed a step, almost stumbling as she looked at me. “I haven’t— I mean, I wouldn’t—”

With a smile, I stepped around in front of her, putting both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “Valley, listen to me. Do you know how they said that a million Earths could fit in the sun when they were talking about how hard it would be to find this place?”

“One point three million,” Avalon corrected, “but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Imagine the biggest hypocrite who has ever existed in the history of the universe is the size of the Earth,” I explained. “If I actually had a problem with you liking somebody else, I would be the sun to that Earth. You could fit one point three million record breaking hypocrites in the hypocrite that I would be at that point. I have Shiori, remember? I have her and you. And you, just you by yourself…” Swallowing, I reached up and laid my hand against her cheek. “You’re more than I ever thought I could have. I don’t mind if you like somebody else too. It doesn’t mean we don’t still love each other.  You share love, you don’t hoard it. So trust me when I say that it’s okay if you like Aylen.” 

That all said, I leaned in and gently touched my lips to hers before leaning back to smile at her. “Okay?”

She exhaled, hands moving up to settle on my shoulders, squeezing a bit before murmuring a quiet, “Okay. You’re a pretty good girlfriend, Chambers.”

Showing my teeth in a cheesy grin, I replied airily, “It’s all thanks to Herbie. He offers excellent relationship advice.”

That all taken care of, I looked over to Tabbris. “Speaking of your mom, how’s that whole multiple recall points thing going? Wasn’t she teaching you how to work with that?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s really hard, though. It has to do with taking a little bit of the first person’s magical energy with you. But every time you take energy out of someone like that, it tries to fall out from being shaped like them to being shapeless. You have to try to keep it in the right shape the whole time until you get to somebody else and then leave it in them. Then you can trick your recall into thinking the bit of the first person that you left in the second person is actually the first person.” Her head tilted a bit and she worked through that in her head before nodding with satisfaction. “Like I said, it’s really hard. Mama does it really easily. She can take a little bit out of one person and copy it into other people. It’s crazy.”  Even as she said it, the girl was grinning broadly, unable to keep just how proud she was of her mother out of her face. 

Avalon raised an eyebrow. “That sounds pretty useful. Even just the copying someone’s magical signature part. There’s a lot you could do with that besides creating a duplicate recall point. Magical signatures are important all on their own for a lot of other things.”

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Tabbris quickly agreed. “She said we have to be really careful when we do it, because bad things can happen if it’s wrong.“

“Being careful sounds like good advice in general,” I murmured. “Especially when it comes to possession and borrowing someone’s magical energy. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that not doing that willy nilly without practice is a good idea. No wonder your mom’s being careful about who she shares that with.”

There was a general murmur of agreement from the other two before I straightened. “Now, speaking of things we’re going to have to be careful with, let’s go with Vanessa and Tristan and see about getting your mom involved in this insanity. Because in a dinner party that already involves a good Fomorian, an ancient Native American werecrow, and the half-Reaper daughter of the being who literally powers the Heretical Edge, we’d be crazy not to throw Artemis into the mix too.”

********

Eventually, after hours of worrying about it and obsessing over how this was going to go, it was time. As a group, including Sariel, we met Aylen in one of the transport rooms. They were  essentially large open metal chambers with spellwork all over them that was supposed to make it impossible, or as close as it could be to impossible, for anyone to backtrace a transport from here down to Earth. Or wherever else we went. A dozen of the best magic users we had, including Wyatt, had worked for over a month to ensure it was all as safe as possible. We knew that trying to get into this place would be one of the top priorities of the loyalists. So making sure that was as close to impossible as we could was one of our top priorities. 

Pffft, we and our. Like I had actually done anything. I’d seen some of what they were planning at the time, when Wyatt showed me his notes, and it was as far above my head as my new calculus classes would have been to a third grader. I’d say it was Greek to me, but I actually understood a little Greek. 

What it came down to was that the transport rooms were safe, and they were supposed to be the only place we transported from if there was any choice at all. It had been drilled into our heads repeatedly that just because we weren’t planning on facing any loyalists didn’t mean that they wouldn’t eventually find the spot we had transported down to, where they could possibly use residual energy to trace back to where we had come from if we didn’t use these rooms. 

Aylen was standing nearby, fidgeting with uncharacteristic nervousness as she watched everyone gather. I saw her eyes stray over toward Sariel now and then, before she finally spoke up. “Okay, um, there’s something you all should know about Grandfather before we go anywhere.”

Standing off by herself, Rebecca offered a weak, “You already told us he’s a Fomorian, what else could there be? Don’t say he’s a Yankees fan too. Hold on, wait, is that how they win all the time? Cuz that would explain a lot.

Stepping over by the tiny girl, I asked, “Your grandmother get you into Bystander sports?”

Her head bobbed. “I’m pretty sure she and Sands and Sarah’s mom tried to set up some kind of league for it awhile ago. You know, something fun that wasn’t combat training. They couldn’t get enough people interested.”

“Maybe they should try again up here,” I offered before looking to Aylen. “What did you want to warn us about?”

After a brief moment of hesitation, she explained, “Grandfather is very enthusiastic. He’s eccentric and friendly and maybe a little too forward, and very enthusiastic. He doesn’t tend to get to talk to a lot of people, for obvious reasons, so when he does, sometimes he goes overboard. Like I said, he’ll never hurt you. But he might get a bit… curious and touch you. It’s just something he does. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s eccentric, and really nice.”

Sariel, standing with all three of her children around her, lifted her chin to watch the girl for a moment while speaking. “You must have grown up in a very curious household, Aylen. I would be very interested in hearing stories about it later, if you are willing to share.”

It was kind of weird. Out of all of us, Sariel actually seemed the most at ease with the idea of meeting a good Fomorian. I didn’t know if she was just better at hiding her feelings, or if knowing them as well as she did made this easier to believe somehow, or what. Maybe seeing all the evil her own people had done made all this easier to go with. Regardless, after getting the situation explained, she’d barely batted an eye before apparently being completely on board with it.

Abigail, on the other hand, had wanted to come. She also wanted to forbid both Koren and me from going. But Dare had promised her we would be okay, and that her going was a bad idea. Not only was she not exactly huge in combat, but she was also very important as a symbol here in the school. If she left, it would raise a lot of questions from everyone here. We wouldn’t be able to keep it quiet for long. She’d had put herself in that kind of spotlight and couldn’t easily step out of it. 

So, somewhat reluctantly, Abigail had agreed. We would go down to this dinner and let her know about everything that happened during it.

Gwen stepped forward. She had been standing back with Gabriel Prosser, who had transported up here to leave with us. The two of them had been holding a long, magically quiet conversation. Whatever they had been talking about had been pretty intense, just by judging from the outside. 

Now, Gwen looked to Aylen. “I know this was probably one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, given how we could’ve reacted. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a really important secret that you’re keeping from people you care about.” Offering the much younger girl a wry smile, she added, “It must’ve been hard not knowing how it would go. Or still not knowing how it’ll go. It’s okay. Whatever happens, we’ll all try to be as diplomatic as possible. And hey, thanks for trusting us enough to even try this.”

The words were enough to draw a small smile out of Aylen, as she admitted, “Mother had me wear magic on my shoes that would have taken me out of here if you reacted badly.” She shrugged, casting a somewhat guilty look over toward Avalon. “Sorry, no offense. Our family’s just really accustomed to being careful.”

With a light chuckle, Gwen shook her head. “Believe me when I say, none taken. Isn’t that right, Gabriel?“

The large, dark-skinned man gave a single nod. “We do know something about needing to take care when reaching out to trust someone potentially dangerous.”

“And yet,” Dare pointed out, “we also know a bit about needing to take a leap of faith at times. You say this grandfather of yours is a good Fomorian? I have to admit, that’s pretty hard for me to accept, after everything I’ve seen. But, I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I didn’t at least give it a chance.”

“Earths in the sun kind of hypocrite, huh?” I couldn’t help but put in, with a wink toward Avalon. 

Dare gave me a brief, curious look before nodding. “Indeed. Earths in the sun level hypocrisy. So believe me, Aylen, we’re going to give this a shot, no matter how uncomfortable it may make some of us.” She exhaled, adding, “I just hope your family understands if things are a little bit tense for a while.”

“Oh, they’re ready for it,” Aylen assured her (and the rest of us). “Grandfather’s been so nervous that he was baking all week long.”

Baking. Wow. That just filled my head with the image of a big gray Fomorian with bulbous eyes bustling around a kitchen wearing a frilly apron and one of those fluffy white hats, making little cakes and cookies. Which, of course, was just silly. He might’ve been eccentric, as Aylen said, but there was no way he would go around like that. 

Tristan interrupted my mental image by piping up then with, “So, are we gonna do this, or what? Because I don’t know about you guys, but I’m famished. And we already know it’s gonna take forever once we meet this Grandfather dude before everyone will be satisfied enough to actually eat. Let’s get this show on the road already.”

Smiling, Vanessa clapped him on the back. “My brother, cutting through any and all diplomatic issues at warp speed because he’s hungry.”

Tristan gave a firm nod. “Damn straight. Get done with all that and move onto the important stuff, like the first course. Come on, I’m giving up Chef Gisby’s stuff here, remember? Now that’s a sacrifice that should be written about in one of those old Iliads things. Which, for the record, are total bullshit anyway. I don’t remember there being one single mindflayer in that whole story.”

Vanessa made a disgruntled noise in the back of her throat while twitching a bit, looking like she wanted to say something to her brother, who was just smirking knowingly at her. He knew exactly how to push her buttons, and delighted in doing so at any given time. Even now, when we were about to go see what was possibly the only decent Fomorian in existence. 

In the end, the blonde girl couldn’t stop herself from rising to the bait, blurting, “That’s Illithid, not Iliad!”

Snickering despite myself at her inability to resist correcting him, I put in, “The boy’s got a point. You can go on about what a biological genius this special Grandfather of yours is, Aylen, but how is he with dinner, really? Hell, how’s the rest of your family? I mean, when it was my dad and me, we didn’t exactly go all out. Our idea of a big dinner with company that Dad wanted to impress was ordering Boston Market instead of KFC or pizza. So, are we talking microwavable stuff here, or…”

While Tristan made put-on horrified sounds and faces in the background (clearly playing it up a bit when he made Tabbris giggle), Aylen simply replied, “I told you, he’s been baking all week, trying to get everything just perfect. He really wants to impress you guys. Whether he’s any good at it or not…” She shrugged, clearly content to tease us at this point. “You’ll just have to come and find out. 

“Let’s just say, my family may be new to entertaining, but they’ve had a lot of practice when it comes to food.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Abigail wanted us to have a well-rounded education. Which meant learning both Heretic and Bystander lessons. Wait, we had Alters in school now. So it really wasn’t ‘Heretic’ lessons. Supernatural lessons, maybe? Either way, she wanted us to learn both that stuff and the regular old lessons like Math, English, and so on. Just like back at Crossroads, though with fewer classes, since we were only going to them in the morning. To that end, they’d made up a system of having one day where we would have two mundane classes and one magical-type class, then the next day we’d have the opposite, two magical-type classes and one mundane class. 

Today, Tuesday, was a two mundane, one magical class day. Specifically, my schedule for the day consisted of Calculus first, then Trials of the Sea, and finally History of Africa. Though they were apparently going to teach us about both mundane and supernatural-type stuff in that last one, so maybe it counted as both. 

I had no idea what Trials of the Sea was, to be honest, but it sounded awesome. Although I was a little sad that we wouldn’t get to have Blackbeard as a guest speaker. The Committee members who were sympathetic or totally on our side still couldn’t act openly like that. The word that they had come to talk to us would somehow get out and then there would be hell to pay. 

The Committee were also still missing Elisabet. The last I’d heard, Jophiel had managed to work out through help from Sariel that her lover wasn’t on Earth and hadn’t been since the moment she disappeared. They knew she was alive, and not on Earth. That was about it. What had happened to her, where she went, what kind of condition she was in, all of that was blank. 

Jophiel wasn’t taking it too well. But, to her credit, she wasn’t letting that stop her from teaching us. Yeah, Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had some lessons with her over the summer. Even without Elisabet around for demonstration purposes, Jophiel still knew a hell of a lot about working together in a possessor-possessed partnership, and she taught us as much as possible. She’d set time out of her schedule looking for the woman she’d loved for hundreds of years, a woman who was now missing and could be anywhere in the universe, to teach us. She’d even worked as much as she could on teaching us that power-sharing spell, though it was slow-going. It was a very powerful spell, and it turned out we had to cast it ourselves. 

I had my issues with the way Jophiel did some things, but I had to respect that she was doing all this. The thought of focusing on… anything while Avalon or Shiori might have been missing like that was… impossible. Hell, I didn’t know how they had done anything back when I was missing. 

In any case, Jophiel taught us a lot. Even if every time we’d seen her, she looked more haggard, and not at all like… well, like I was accustomed to her looking. She was tired, emotionally wrecked, drained of almost everything she had. And still, she taught us for hours. She was patient, she didn’t yell or curse at us. At least, not outwardly. In short, she was a great teacher.

Which made the fact that we still had no idea where Elisabet was somehow even worse. 

Sighing as I shook that thought out of my head and walked the rest of the way through the connecting tube (filled with visions of the solar system from somewhere around Saturn) leading from the elevator room to the classrooms, I found myself stepping into what looked like any old high school on Earth. Seriously, there were lockers along the walls, kids getting stuff out of those lockers, a janitor mopping up some spilled milk or yogurt or something, and more. There was even a sign on the nearby wall above the lockers welcoming students to our new school. Hell, this looked more like an ordinary public high school hallway than Crossroads had. 

Well, except for the fact that some of those students were obviously not human. Nor was the janitor. He was an Orc of some kind, though one with four arms. Two of those arms were being used to hold the mop he was wiping up the milk with, while the other two steadied the bucket. 

Oh, and the sign welcoming all of us was some kind of projected magical hologram or something. As I watched it, the words changed from a generic welcome message to a room number and directions. It was telling me where to go for my first class. Along with a reminder note about which locker number was mine, and a countdown before school would start. It just knew all that and was able to change for each person looking at it. 

I had six minutes. Plenty of time to get to the lockers. Thanks to Abigail, I knew that Shiori, Avalon, and I all had them next to each other. There were benefits to being related to the principal.

Doug and Ruckus split off to find their own lockers, while Avalon, Aylen, and I went for ours. Aylen’s was directly across from Avalon’s, with a female Menmeran (the really muscular frog-like people) already standing at the next locker over from that one when we arrived. Aylen gave a little curtsy-bow and said something to the Menmeran girl. Apparently she was greeting her by name, calling her Pret. I only knew it was her name because Pret responded by saying Aylen’s name and doing the same kind of half-curtsy thing that Aylen had done a moment earlier.  

“She lives in the house on the other side of theirs,” Avalon informed me. “The one on the corner. We were talking for awhile last night.” 

Nodding thoughtfully, I asked, “Man, this school really is different, huh?” 

Avalon snorted once, glancing to me before replying, “Gaia would like it.” She swallowed very faintly then. 

“She will,” I corrected. “When we get her out and back here.” My hand found Avalon’s, squeezing briefly as she returned my smile silently, but clearly gratefully. Then we separated to get our stuff. 

Which was right when a pair of hands covered my eyes from behind, as a voice whispered, “Guess who.” 

“Uhhh…” Pretending to think about it, I offered, “The girl whose clothes and pocket contents my item-sense is almost as familiar with as my nose is familiar with the exact soap she uses?” 

Sulking just a little at that, Shiori took her hands off my eyes and pecked me on the cheek. “Powers make games like that too easy. I’m gonna take you by surprise someday, I swear.” 

With a smile, I turned and put both hands on either side of her face. “Shy,” I said quietly, “not being startled is not the same thing as not being surprised. And believe me, you surprise me every single day just by being the ridiculously amazing person you are.” With a little smile, I leaned in and kissed her gently, shivering as she gave a tiny whimper and clutched at me. 

Finally stepping back, I moved to the nearby locker while asking, “So is Choo back at the house?” As I spoke, my thumb pressed against the reader. It wasn’t just reading my fingerprint. Apparently it read some kind of magical signature or… something, I wasn’t sure of the specifics. Either way, the scanner went from red to green after I held my thumb against it for a couple seconds, and the door clicked. I opened the locker, finding all the books I was going to need for the semester already stacked neatly in there, as they were for everyone. My finger moved along them until I found the one for Calculus, pulling it out before tucking the book under my arm. 

Shiori was nodding, finding her own locker to open it. “Uh huh, he’s in the back yard with Salten. I think he really likes it here.” With a little smile, she glanced toward me while adding, “He liked it at the camp too, with all the kids. I can’t believe how much he likes being around people.” She had her own calculus book out by then, shutting her locker with a quiet, “Maybe it’s because he had to hide for so long before, back at Crossroads. He got really lonely in his pocket world.” 

Reaching out to catch her hand, I assured the girl, “Well hey, he’s here now. And I think he and Salten are really getting along.” With that, I glanced over to Avalon, who had closed her own locker to join us. “Though we should probably put some stuff out in the yard for them to do.” 

The others agreed, and we walked toward class with Aylen. Sands and Sarah were just outside the room, talking to Eiji Ueda and Gordon. The big (huge, he was six and a half feet tall and built like a truck) Canadian-Asian boy looked over as we approached. “Oh hey, I ahh, hope you guys don’t mind. Rebecca said it’d be okay if Raphael chilled in your backyard with your buddies.” 

Raphael, of course, was Eiji’s cyberform rhino. As far as I could tell, he and Eiji were almost perfectly matched. Both were enormous, but also incredibly smart. Eiji read very nearly as much as Vanessa did, and was just about as likely to know the answer to any given question. And, as far as I knew, he was a totally normal Heretic-born student. Aside from the fact that he was from Canada, which apparently was some kind of big deal. There was a so-called ‘King of Canada’ there that Heretics stayed away from. Even the Committee left him alone, which… yeah, that confused, intrigued, and worried me all at the same time. I’d been promised that we’d learn about the King soon, and that was something I was definitely looking forward to. Just who and what was this King of Canada that he could make all of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden too afraid to challenge him? 

Avalon told the boy it was fine and that Raphael could visit any time. The more those guys were entertained, the better. Porthos, who was riding on her shoulder, make a sound of agreement before using her hair to swing over to the opposite shoulder, landing there while pointing to the classroom with a trumpeting sound. 

“You know this is math class, right?” Avalon dryly asked the cyberform gecko while heading in. “Not dueling class.” 

Shiori went in behind Avalon. But before I could follow as well, Sarah spoke up, taking my attention. “Brom says he’ll meet us in one of the magic testing labs up here tonight right after dinner for the next session. If you’ll be settled in enough by then.” 

Right, Sarah had actually been working with Brom too. Necromancy was a lot harder to learn without inheriting (or stealing) an actual power for it, but it was still possible. At least, learning the basic stuff was possible. Sarah had said that she wanted to learn as much as she could, because knowing how to do something was a big step toward knowing how to undo it. That and she had this whole thing about being prepared for every eventuality. 

It was that thought that made me glance toward her left arm. Even though it had been almost two months, the thought that it wasn’t a real arm at all, but a magitech solid hologram of one still made me do a double-take every now and then. It looked real. It felt real. I tended to forget the truth unless I was actively thinking about it, or whenever she shifted it to one of its other forms.

“Sure,” I finally replied, shrugging. “I’ve gotta ask him some questions anyway.” Questions about getting a certain ghost back so I could talk to her and get some actual help with my own increasingly pressing necromancer problem. It was clearly time to think outside the box with this whole thing. 

“Sorry, guys,” Sands informed us, “I still think the whole necromancy thing is creepy. I mean, I get it. Useful, gotta know it to fight it, don’t throw away any potential advantage. I just… yeesh.” 

“Does this mean Sarah doesn’t get to store her rodent practice corpses in your house?” I teased, watching Sands turn several different shades of green before snickering. 

“Outside,” she informed me (and Sarah, probably). “All necromancy stuff has to be done outside. And especially nowhere near the kitchen.” 

All three of us shuddered, collectively remembering the fact that Crossroads’ chef had, for some time last year, been a zombie manipulated by Fossor. That was… an unpleasant thought, to say the least. 

“Okay,” I started with a quick headshake. “Now that we’re all thinking about something we really don’t want to, how about we get into class? I hear Calculus is really fun.

“Of course, it was Vanessa who told me that, so…” 

******* 

“Welcome!” a voice called grandly, its deep baritone filling the air, “to the Trials of the Sea!”

The place for our second class wasn’t technically an actual ‘sea’, though only because it technically wasn’t connected to an ocean. Size-wise, it almost might as well have been. It was a lake located within the station itself. Only in this case, the lake was about the size of Lake Superior back in the US. In other words, it was three hundred and fifty miles long and about a hundred and fifty miles wide. 

It was a lake… on a space station… three hundred miles long. I just… I couldn’t even fathom the size of this place. I really couldn’t. Someone back in Calculus had brought up how much room the station was taking up in the sun and Eiji had reminded them that over a million Earths could fit in the sun. It would take one point three million Earths to fill up the entire sun. This station, even with a lake this size in it, only amounted to a drop in the bucket if that bucket was the size of Texas. 

The point was, there was a lot more to the station than just the areas we were generally staying in. We’d had to take a portal to get down here, and I was sure there were more parts of this place that other teachers would have us use at some point. That or we’d end up around them for one reason or another. 

We were also on a boat. A ship. Right, ship was the proper term. I knew that much. It was an old wooden sailing vessel floating along in the middle of that lake. The portal had deposited all of us out here. And by all of us, that was about thirty students. Not everyone had every class at the same time, of course. There were way too many students for that. Of the ones here with me, I had Shiori (Avalon was in a different class this time), Jazz, Jason, Tristan, Triss, Miranda, and Koren. 

The man who was talking stood just a hair over six feet in height. His frame was muscular in a lean sort of way. His black silk pants were loose, billowing slightly in the artificial breeze. He wore a white and gold silk shirt with some ruffles to it, and the exposed skin of his arms (the shirt was sleeveless) and chest (the top few buttons were undone) was heavily tanned over skin that was already a natural Middle Eastern dark. His black hair was long, falling just past his shoulders, and he had both a goatee and a neatly trimmed mustache. His eyes were the only openly unusual part of him (aside from the fact that he was drop dead gorgeous in every way), considering they were a deep, striking gold color. 

Koren had her hand up. When the man looked that way, she asked, “Err, why is it called that? Why are we on a boat? And who are you?” Ticking them off on her fingers, she paused before nodding definitively. “I guess that’ll work for the first three questions.” 

Giving her a smile that was a mixture of gold, silver, and ruby teeth, our instructor casually replied, “And a good first three they are, Miss Fellows. I’m not just saying that because your mother’s the principal either.” With a wink, he started, “As for why we’re on a boat, that’s because every class we have will take place here or right down in the water. Or under it. Be it in this station’s water, one of the Earth’s oceans, or even the seas of a whole new world, our classes this semester will always take place there. Not in a classroom. In my experience, you learn by doing. And we will be doing a lot.” 

With a broad (very metallic) smile, the man waved a hand. “And we’ll do it in style! While having fun. Because I promise you all, having lived as long as I have, if you’re not having fun, then why the hell even bother?” 

Turning, he grabbed the nearby rope and used it to haul himself up onto the nearby railing. The man stood there, staring out over the water with a heavy, contented sigh. “The oceans are a great mystery, boys and girls and everything in between. They are rough and harsh and gentle and loving. They are dark, they are open, they are cold and they burn with the fires of a thousand, thousand, thousand mysteries. Monsters and creatures beyond your wildest imaginations and your deepest nightmares lurk there, along with wonders you could never conceive. Entire civilizations lay beneath the waves of all the oceans of the Earth. Worlds of mystery and fascination, of monsters and fables are all out there. And we will find them. We will see them. We will seek them out, explore them, and learn all the secrets I can teach you. You stay with this class and I will take you beyond all of your dreams. We will find the monsters and our fortunes in the world far beyond the land. Beyond both in distance, and in mystery.” 

“You asked who I am, and that is your answer. For all the times I have put the ocean behind me, it has never lasted. Because its power and mystery will forever call to me. The danger and wonder of what lies beneath the next wave, or beyond the next island, is one that I can never truly ignore for long. It is everything I am. It is everything I will ever be. 

“I am Sinbad, and I am here to show such wondrous things.”

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Fusion 1-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Once it was time to go to dinner after visiting a bit with the others, I headed up. Tabbris was with me, along with Miranda, Sands, Sco–Sarah, and Koren. Avalon had gone up earlier, and Shiori was stopping by the house to take a quick shower after an… incident with some mud. They and the rest would catch up. Meanwhile, the six of us were talking about an old show Randi and I used to like, explaining the details to Sands and Sarah while stepping up onto the spot of the hill where the elevator was. The forcefield walls and floor formed around us, and we began to rise. 

“Wait,” Sands blurted on the way up (thankfully, the elevator had been set to move at a normal pace instead of the incredibly slow version they’d been using earlier to get us all down here), “So the dog is a genie? Like, the full on granting wishes kind? And he can talk.” 

Miranda nodded. “He didn’t start off as a dog, and the dog didn’t start as a genie. But when the kid found him, he was lonely. His only friend was his dog. So when he found the genie and said, ‘I wish you were my best friend’, it literally turned the genie into his best friend. His dog.” 

Sands and Sarah looked at one another before speaking a single word together. “Weird.” Sands looked to us then and followed that up by herself with a flat, “Bystanders are so weird.” 

“Hey,” Koren objected with a raised hand. “That show was the bomb, don’t go dissing it. I begged my mom to get a Samoyed for months because of that show, until she caved.” 

“She let you get a dog like the one on the show?” I asked. “How was he?” 

A slightly sad smile touched her face. “I named him Whim, just like the show. He was the best dog ever. Kinda dumb, but… but he was my dog.” She swallowed hard. “Then he got hit by a car. Mom said I could get a new dog, but… but I didn’t want a new dog. I–wait.” She paused, head tilting a little as her eyes widened. “No… did he get hit by a car? I found him… I think I found him in my room. Why would he be in my room when he was… oh. Oh…” Suddenly, she turned away from us, arms folded tightly over her stomach as her face turned green. 

“The Fomorian,” I murmured, feeling a cold chill go over me. “You think it was the Fomorian.” The one who had been stalking her for such a long time, hiding around her for years. The one who had eventually shown himself, killed her father, erased him from their memories, and replaced him for a bit. The one from Thanksgiving last year, who had thankfully been killed.  

We reached the top of the dome then, passing through it while Koren nodded. “My memories are all fuzzy and messed up. When I focus on it, I can remember finding him in the street, but I can also remember finding them in my room. It gets all blurry. What else would it be?” She cringed, bowing her head. “He was around for a long time. Of course he’d fuck with me like that. He probably thought it was funny. Or he wanted to see what I’d do. Or Whim noticed him or… or something. I dunno. But he killed my father, it’s not exactly a stretch that he’d kill my dog.” 

Wincing, I hesitated before stepping over to embrace the other girl, my niece. She returned the hug after a brief hesitation, and we stood there on the elevator for a few seconds like that. It had been so easy to forget about just how long the Fomorian monster had been hiding in her house. So easy to stop thinking about him stalking Koren as a little girl. Mostly because thinking about it made me want to throw up, or scream, or both. It was too horrific and terrifying to focus on. 

After a moment of that, the two of us released each other and stepped off the elevator with the others. Only then did I look around. The station had sure been changed a lot since the last time I was here back in Seosten space. They’d done a lot of work over the summer, moving around parts of the interior and changing things up, probably remodeling as much with magic as with tech. I assumed the point was to make the place easier for all of us to navigate properly through the areas we were supposed to be around, and probably also to accommodate the larger number of students the place had now that it was (mostly) a dedicated school. 

Specifically, the area at the top of the elevator was a large circular room. The various elevators all ended up in this general area, so the floor had wide circular ‘holes’ covered by forcefields for each of them. Labeled doors were spaced relatively equally around the room. The metal plates beside each door had words in several languages stenciled into them, letting people know where each doorway led. There were seven doors from here. One was labeled ‘School and Auditorium’, another ‘Cafeteria, Kitchen, and Snackbar’, a third ‘Theater and Main Rec’, the fourth ‘Gym, Training Center, and Workshop’, the fifth ‘Spell and Power Testing’, and the sixth was ‘Transport.’ 

There was also a seventh door that was mostly unlabeled between the gym and spell testing doors. The plate there simply said, ‘Faculty And Authorized Personnel Only.’ There were several magical runes displayed openly on the door that I was sure weren’t the only protections it had. 

Tabbris went first, heading for the cafeteria door as she spoke hesitantly to Koren. “I’m pretty sure my… my Mama can probably help you get your memories about that… back, if you want? I mean, the real memories, so you’re not confused about what was real and what wasn’t. If you… if you want to know exactly what happened without the Fomorian’s tampering.” She sounded like she wasn’t sure she should say anything about it, eyes darting to me briefly through that.

Koren, however, managed a very slight smile. “Thanks, Tabbris. That sounds…” She paused, carefully choosing her words. “It sounds horrifying as far as actually remembering exactly what happened goes, but also… good. I want my own real memories, not this jumbled bullshit. Sorry.”

Sarah spoke up then, her voice a quiet murmur. “Real memories are better than fake ones.” Lifting her fake arm, the one with the solid-light hologram, she seemed to study it briefly before looking to the rest of us. “Even if they hurt.” Belatedly, she amended, “Especially if they hurt.” 

“She’s right.” That was Vanessa, as she and Tristan arrived on another elevator with Jazz. “Bad memories hurt. But they make you grow too. Ignoring them, erasing them, that doesn’t help.” 

“She says,” Tristan teased, “having never forgotten anything in her entire life.” 

Together, we headed for the cafeteria. First, we passed through the doorway and began to walk through the connecting tube. Like before, the ‘glass’ of the tube showed scenes from other parts space, though these particular ones had been changed to show a view of our own solar system from what looked like the moon. It was like we were on a station hovering above that instead of one buried deep inside the sun itself. Tabbris and I had fun explaining that to the rest. 

Others joined us on the way as we continued on, a small crowd making our way through the tube to the cafeteria station. Eventually, we all emerged into another wide circular room. We were essentially at the six o’clock position. Straight ahead across the room at the twelve o’clock spot were two wide double doors big enough to let a full sized troll pass through. Above the doors was a metal plate announcing the room as ‘Main Cafeteria.’ The doors were open and we could see tables through them. At the nine o’clock position were another set of doors labeled ‘Kitchen – Staff Only’ and at the three o’clock spot were doors labeled ‘Snackbar and Lounge.’ 

Avalon was waiting by the doors into the main cafeteria, and we met up with her while heading in. My hand found hers, squeezing briefly before I asked, “So, did the big gym meet your high standards?” She had gone up to check the place out, making sure the training center was up to the kind of workouts she wanted to put all of us through. Sure, there was one down in the living habitat, but when we really wanted to go through our paces, we’d need the main one up here.

Offering me a small smile and shrug, Valley replied, “It’s good enough for now. I’m sure we’ll find ways to improve it over the year. Plenty of time.” Her hand squeezed mine a little more firmly before she added, “There’s a lot of work to do in general, but it’s a pretty good start.” 

“I’ll tell my Mom you said that,” Koren informed her dryly, stepping aside to let others pass. “Hearing ‘pretty good start’ from Avalon Sinclaire is basically a five star review. She’ll take it.” 

Snorting at that, I looked around. The cafeteria they had set up was… similar to the one at Crossroads, but still different. The room was essentially rectangular, and set into three descending levels. The area we came in on was the highest level. To the left and straight across was the L-shaped serving counter where food could be ordered and picked up. A mixture of long rectangular and smaller circular tables filled the rest of the space. At the edge of that area to the right were stairs leading down to the middle level, where more tables were arranged. There was another set of stairs to the right of that leading down to the third and final level. There were a few tables down there, but most of the space was taken up by lounge chairs and more casual seating. There was a stage just past that where people could stand and talk, along with a screen on the far right wall, taking up the entire thing. Currently, an old Roadrunner cartoon was playing on the screen, while a bunch of people watched and laughed along with it. Some were human, some not. Regardless of species, they were all thoroughly engrossed in the video. Which kind of said something about the universal appeal of Warner Brothers cartoons. 

Heading with the others over to the counter, we found small, individual white boards attached to the counter itself, all down the line. There were markers attached to the boards, along with a metal plate below them with an explanation. You were supposed to write what you wanted, include any details if it was a special order like how you liked the steak or what dietary restrictions you had, or even detail what something was if it happened to be something unique or rare. You just wrote it down, then the writing would disappear. When it disappeared, that meant the order was received. A tray would then appear, which you took to your seat, and the food would eventually be sent to that tray. Easy enough. 

We each spread out, wrote down what we wanted for dinner, took the trays that appeared, and then went for one of the long tables on the second level, near the wall opposite the entrance. I sat next to Avalon, with Tabbris across from me and an empty seat for Shiori on the other side. 

Vanessa, who sat next to Tabbris, put her tray down with a quiet, “Being in school feels weird.” 

“Whelp, that’s it,” Tristan announced, standing right back up from his seat he had just taken next to his twin and dusting himself off. “Nessa thinking that being in school is weird is basically the final sign of the apocalypse. Our entire universe should be wiped out aaaany second now.”

Rolling her eyes, Vanessa primly informed him, “I meant that it feels weird to be in school again after what happened at Crossroads. Not to mention all this fighting that’s going on. It feels… funny sitting here, getting ready to go to classes tomorrow. Not wrong or bad. School never feels bad. Just… funny.” She shrugged a bit helplessly. “You know what I mean.” 

“Sure do,” Jazz agreed after looking up from her phone. “But you know what’s really weird?” 

Jokai finished for her, the chameleon-man appearing in time to take the seat next to his girlfriend. “Having… telephone connection inside sun.” His English had gotten better over the months since we met him, even if he still had to take the time to think through what he was saying. He was understandable. Especially when he was around Jazz. Those two were ridiculous together. Which, to be fair, was probably what people thought about me with Avalon or Shiori. 

Speaking of Shiori, she slipped into the seat beside me, with Columbus joining her. “Yeah,” the girl was already saying, “having phone service inside the sun is weird. But you know what’s weirder in that sentence? The ‘inside the sun’ part. Like, we’re literally living inside the sun. I mean, in a space station habitat thing within the sun, sure. But still! In the sun!” 

“Portals for phone service,” Avalon pointed out simply. “And forcefields protect us from damage within the sun. Forcefields that are constantly supplied with power from the sun itself.” 

Hisao arrived. The former Eden’s Garden Vigile (and Crossroads substitute teacher) stopped at the end of the table, his hand finding Miranda’s shoulder. “Hey there, you guys get settled in okay?” 

We all agreed that we had, before Miranda looked up at her former mentor. “You’re definitely gonna be one of our teachers, right?” 

“One of, yes,” he confirmed. “We’re sort of playing it by ear and taking turns with classes. You’ll have a main teacher, but also several back-ups who can teach specific subjects within that class, or take over if the main teacher is indisposed or just busy.” 

“Busy fighting the war, you mean,” I clarified, looking at the man. “They don’t want to tie up all useful people with classes, so it’s just ‘whoever’s good with that subject and not busy can teach that day.’” 

“A little more structured than that, hopefully,” he replied, “but essentially, yeah. We’re doing the best we can here. Just gotta go with it. Speaking of which, you guys know how this works, right?” He nodded to the big video screen. When we all just looked at him blankly, the man chuckled before explaining. “Right, see, you go up to that little glowing table over there and put your cell phone on it. Once you do, it’ll download a new app. You use the app to look at a list of what’s available to watch here on the screen and submit your suggestion. While a show or movie is on, there’s a list of currently submitted suggestions for the next thing. You can add your own, like I said, or add a vote to one that’s already there. Once the current thing ends, the next thing with the most votes will go on. You can only vote inside the room, and if you’re not in the room when the votes are tallied, yours won’t be counted. So you only get to use it if you’re here.” With a shrug, he added, “They’ve got the same kind of system in the rec room.” 

“Entertainment by democracy,” Columbus noted. “I guess there are much worse systems.” 

It wasn’t long after that before our food arrived, and we were basically finished eating when the video on the screen (it had been voted over to the old Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie from the seventies) paused. Abigail came over to the stage, along with a couple Eden’s Garden people and a man who was apparently an Alter from the way he made my Heretic sense shout at me. Yeah, I really hoped they found a way to do something about that, because it had been low-key going off every time I stopped looking at Alters for awhile, then did again.

Speaking up after magnifying her voice, Abigail began with, “Okay, first of all, welcome to the cafeteria. I see you all managed to find it.”  She offered a slight smile then before adding, “I did hear a few people asking about the younger students. So I’ll go ahead and tell you that their cafeteria is on the opposite side of the school area. You go through your section of the school to reach their section, and on the far side of that you’ll reach their cafeteria, then their dorms. I’m sure you’ll be able to explore all of that soon. Or just take one of the maps that will be handed out at the door. Those same maps are available for your phones if you set it on any of the pedestals you see around this place with the map icon on them.

“Your phones will also receive a copy of your schedule for the week, and a paper copy will be delivered to your mailbox each Sunday. We’re going with a weekly schedule at least for now, while we sort things out. Your classes can and will change from week to week, depending on what and who is available. But you will receive a full and balanced education. Or, as much of one as we can reasonably provide.” 

Gesturing to the Edens Garden people, as well as one of the Crossroads teachers who had been responsible for an older grade, Abigail continued. “My new friends here are going to help answer any questions you have. I’m sure there are a lot. But in the meantime, now that we’ve all moved our stuff in and had time for it to sink in, allow me to be the first to officially say…

“Welcome to the Joselyn Atherby Fusion School.” 

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Fusion 1-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Quick note – Some of you were told that today’s chapter would be the next Patreon snippets. I have, however, decided that interrupting the new year/book immediately after it starts like that is not a great idea. Don’t worry though, Patreon Snippets will be coming out tomorrow as an extra, off-schedule release. Thanks! 

Yup, school. As in classes and learning and everything else. Although it really wasn’t anything like what would be considered a normal school, even by Heretic standards. Especially by Heretic standards, come to think of it. There was, well, definitely a lot more to it.

At the moment, it was the morning after our little adventure at the theater. I was awoken, after getting the two hours of sleep I still needed, by a very small figure clambering onto the bed and falling onto me with a gleeful, “Fick!”

“Oof.” Opening my bleary eyes, I squinted at the tiny, grinning figure laying half-on me. “Hi, Savvy,” I murmured, reaching out to affectionately rub the Seosten toddler’s black hair.

“Fick!” She raised one dark-skinned hand to press against my face. “Fick up now. Bakefast.”

Chuckling despite myself, I sat up a bit and pulled the girl into a hug. “Yeah, I’m up now, so we can have breakfast.” Tickling her nose to make her smile, I asked, “Did Uncle Linc send you in here?” At her eager nod, I tickled her stomach, drawing a squeal from the girl. “I figured.”

Uncle Linc, of course, was my dad. Lincoln. Linc was easier for her to say, and Dad liked it.

With a yawn, I got up and moved over to grab some clothes. I had showered the night before, so I dressed quickly before reaching down to pick up the giggling toddler. Holding her, I headed out of my room and into the main part of my father’s cabin. I’d been living there all summer with Dad and (about half the time) Tabbris, though that would be changing somewhat as of this morning.

Tabbris and our father were both sitting at the table, watching as I came in with Savvy. Dad gave the little girl a thumbs up. “See, I knew you could get the sleepyhead up faster than I could.”

“Sleepyhead?” I retorted, “Yeah, right, sure. That’s me, totally sleeping almost three hours sometimes. The horror of such laziness.” Setting Savvy in the booster seat that Dad had put up for all the times she visited, I pulled out another chair beside Tabbris. “And not even that much with all the extra training everyone keeps demanding I do.” Between Avalon, Jophiel, Athena, and… well, more, a huge part of the last month or so of my summer ‘vacation’ (such as it was) had been taken up by near-constant training and exercises. Not that I could blame them, considering things were very unlikely to slow down any time soon. Especially with my birthday rapidly approaching. They wanted me to be as prepared as I possibly could. And so did I.

“So,” I continued while starting to fill a plate with a small pancake and some bits of sausage that I cut up, “did you ask Zadriek to borrow Savvy this morning specifically to get me up, or are you playing babysitter totally by coincidence?” With the food sufficiently cut up, I put some butter and syrup onto it, then set the plate over in front of the tiny girl in question, who squealed happily before immediately grabbing onto the stickiest bit of pancake to shove into her mouth.

Beside me, Tabbris snickered. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” She took a bite of her own breakfast before adding, “D’ya think they’re ready for us?” Though she was trying to seem calm and casual, I could hear the excitement in her voice, and her eyes were shining with anticipation.

There was a lot for Tabbris to anticipate. Not just the school thing, but it was also almost time for her and Dad to… bond. Okay, they’d been bonding over the entire summer. That was the point. They spent time together to build up the chance of a strong Bonding with a capital B. Dad was going to become a Natural Seosten Heretic. Or, more specifically, a Natural Tabbris Heretic. They’d spent the summer getting to know each other more fully. The closer their connection, the better chance the Bonding would take correctly.

Grinning, I rubbed her head. “I think between what Athena and Abigail will do if they’re not, they better be. Those two have been spending more time up there than they have in the camp.”

“Hey,” Dad objected. “Let’s not talk about that right now. I still have you girls for at least the rest of breakfast.” He made a show out of sniffing. “You’d think you couldn’t wait to get away from me… again.”

Reaching out with my foot to poke his leg, I pointed out, “Oh, stop, we’re coming back a lot.”

“Staying here every weekend,” he insisted with a nod. “And visiting more than that.”

My head bobbed. “Uh huh, for sure. And… you know… speaking of being close…”

He smiled faintly, glancing toward Tabbris. “Yup, we’re doing it two weeks from now, right, kid?”

As she quickly nodded with a bright smile, I raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’re gonna do the Heretic thing in two weeks? You think you’re ready?”

“Absolutely,” he confirmed, using his fork to point at me. “Now eat your breakfast. We’ve got about an hour before you’ve gotta head out with the others, and I mean to make the most of it.

“And just so you know, Kaste and Rain promised to show me how to create some really obnoxious nagging spells. Don’t visit every few days, and you’ll pay for it.”

I nudged Tabbris, “See how much things have changed? Dad’s threatening us with magic.”

Her answering smile was dazzling, seeming to light up the room. “Uh huh, things have changed. I get to go to school with you instead of… you know… inside you.”

From the other side of me, Sahveniah piped up a bit hopefully. “I go school?”

Reaching out, I gave the kid a tight hug around her booster seat. “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be going to school right here in the camp. I hear Aunt Sariel’s got some kid classes lined up. And before you know it, you’ll be old enough to go to the big school.” I said it with a wink and smile that made her giggle happily, but inwardly I was hoping things would be a lot different by the time Savvy was actually old enough to even think about going to the other school. I really hoped that when she was my age, she’d never have to deal with any of this.

But somehow, I was afraid this whole thing would go on much… much longer than that.

*******

After breakfast and a little time spent with Dad (and Savvy), Tabbris and I grabbed a couple of modified backpacks that we’d already prepared (Herbie, Jaq, and Gus had their little home nestled in the bottom of mine), and left the cabin to join Miranda and Koren. They were waiting on the front porch for us. My not-so-young niece was practicing with one of the powers she had received from killing that old Heretic back during the prison assault. Specifically, she was creating a glowing bubble between her hands. Within the bubble, a small, roughly eight-inch long figure of a crocodile had appeared. It was still forming as Tabbris and I approached, the shape of it becoming more distinct over those couple of seconds.

The power, as I understood it, basically allowed Koren to create small facsimiles of any creature she could think of. They weren’t real or anything, amounting mostly to glorified solid holograms. The longer she took to form the creatures within the bubble before releasing them from it, the more detailed and stronger they could be. Also, the bigger they were, the longer it took to make them. Something like this eight inch crocodile took like fifteen seconds and would last a minute or so. If she wanted something big enough to ride that would last longer than a few seconds, she had to take much longer with them. Still, being able to spend about ten minutes to make a horse that would last about an hour was pretty freaking cool. Plus, she could make more than a horse. The other day, I’d seen her take fifteen minutes to make this giant rabbit with wings.

The tiny crocodile popped out of its bubble and roared like a lion, making me raise an eyebrow. “I uhh, think your little friend there is a bit confused about what he’s supposed to be, Koren.”

In response, she sniffed at me. “He’s more intimidating this way. Besides, you’re just jealous.”

“Jealous of your roaring crocodile?” I considered before grinning a little sheepishly. “Yeah, maybe a little.” As the summoned form vanished with another disconcertingly loud roar, I snickered despite myself. “At least you didn’t make the flying bunny roar like that.”

“No, but that’s an excellent idea,” she retorted before looking to Miranda. “She’s good at that.”

With a broad smile, my long-time best friend gave me a thumbs up. “She always has been. The only real difference now is in how feasible her random thoughts are.” To Tabbris and me, she added, “So, you guys actually ready for this whole new school thing?”

I shrugged, glancing to the girl beside me. “Not sure, but I guess we’ll find out. Have they already started taking people up there?” As I spoke, I was leaning up on my toes to look out toward the lake. Sure enough, there was a crowd of people there, despite the early hour.

Miranda nodded. “Yeah, some of the others already went up. They said they’d meet us there.” With a tiny smirk, the girl added, “I kinda can’t wait to see how some of the Garden people handle it. They’ve got a portal set up over there too. Actually, I think they started an hour ago.”

The Eden’s Garden rebels weren’t making this their official school or anything. But they had sent staff to it, and were allowing students to go if they wanted to. Basically, they knew that if they were going to have any chance of surviving and even winning this civil war (not to mention getting their vines to grow), they needed help, and alliances. Thus working with this school and sending some of their people.

“It’ll be different, that’s for sure,” I agreed. “But a lot of them are already open to this kind of thing, considering they… you know, rebelled against the status quo and all that.”

“Difference between feeling or believing something and actually experiencing it,” Koren pointed out, already turning to head off the porch. “But come on, I promised Mom we wouldn’t take forever. She wants us to get up there and see what they’ve been working on all month.”

We stepped off the porch, just in time to meet up with Columbus and Shiori, who came jogging over. The former had his familiar backpack full of tools and random odds and ends, having basically gone everywhere with it over the past month while he focused almost all of his attention on practicing what he was learning from that Harrison Fredericks guy.

“Hey, Flick!” Shiori chirped before jumping in to hug me tightly. “Guess what.”

With a smile, I returned the embrace, taking a moment to kiss her briefly before leaning back. “Guess what?” I echoed thoughtfully. “Hmmm… Well, shit, I was going to come up with something completely outrageous, but after last year, nothing sounds out of the question.”

Her eyes rolled a bit. “Tell me about it. But seriously, it’s great news. Senny’s gonna be there.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Really? Asenath’s going to be at the school?”

She bobbed her head quickly, grinning. “Uh huh, she just told me last night. She’s gonna be a teacher. Apparently they knew about it all summer, but she wanted to keep it secret.”

I snorted. “Yeah, sounds like her. But that’s great, Shy, you guys can hang out a lot more.”

Her smile made my heart flip over a few times. “Uh huh, and Mom’s gonna visit too. Since, you know, she actually can.” Even as she mentioned her mom visiting, I saw the sudden look of guilt materialize in the girl’s expression, clearly thinking about the fact that my mother was still gone.

But that was silly. And dumb. She shouldn’t feel guilty about being glad that her own mother could spend time with her. So, I quickly hugged her even tighter than before. “That’s great, Shy! Come on, let’s find the others so we can get up there sometime before lunch.”  With that, I pointedly took her hand, nodded to the others, and headed for the lake with them.

On the way, Columbus spoke up. “So is it really… you know, where they say it is?”

Winking at him, I replied, “Let’s just say, it’s gonna be an interesting school year. And uhh… speaking of interesting school year, how’s… um, Sean doing with all this?”

He grimaced a little. “Oh, you know… about as well as can be expected. They tried to say that he’s free to attend classes with us, but he just said he went through eight years of being stuck in homeschooling and he’s not in any hurry to sit in a classroom anytime soon.”

“You know,” I murmured, “that’s totally fair. I just hope he’ll be okay.”

“His uncle and brother are keeping him busy,” Columbus assured me. “And Roxa, of course. Apparently they’re taking the pack to Brazil next. He made me promise to call him tonight to tell him how today goes.”

“I want in on that,” I informed the boy. “Lemme know when you’re gonna call him.”

Despite the crowd that was surrounding the lake, things were actually pretty organized. Due in no small part, I was sure, to the appearance of both Gabriel Prosser and Athena. The two of them were standing by several doors that had been summoned to stand in front of the lake, and had put people into lines based on where they were actually going. There were a few other adults, including Deveron, Nevada, and Professor Kohaku, who were going through the crowd, organizing them into the right lines.

It also wasn’t just former Crossroads students (of all four grades) lining up here. There were Alters too, as well as Natural Heretics from the Atherby camp who wanted to participate in this. The whole thing had originally sprung out of Abigail insisting that there still be school despite the war going on, that our education not completely disappear. She’d had to make a lot of adjustments to her initial idea, but with the help of Athena, Dare, and some others, it came together. And now here we were, heading out for… somehow, a school even more strange and unique than Crossroads had been. This… was definitely going to be interesting.

Avalon, with Salten walking alongside her, joined us. As I released Shiori for the moment and moved to kiss my other girlfriend (I was actually starting to get accustomed to that idea), she returned it with a fond murmur. Then she pulled back, announcing, “Don’t think you’re off the hook on training just because we’re busy this morning. We’ll find time later to make up for it.”

“I had no doubt,” I murmured with a quiet giggle, deliberately not thinking about the fact that she had been training us so hard to avoid thinking about the still-imprisoned Gaia. “After all, if you didn’t push training, I’d figure you were a doppelganger. Or a shapeshifter, or–huh. We have very strange lives, you know?”

The others agreed, just as Deveron approached. Boy, it was still odd to see him as an adult after the past year. Which just really fed into what I’d just said about the whole ‘strange lives’ thing.

“Hey guys, lookie there, I don’t have to go drag you out of bed after all,” he teased. “Without Avalon to browbeat you into sunrise training, I thought we might have some issues.”

“I still had a Savvy-shaped alarm clock,” I informed him primly. “And weren’t you the one sleeping in a lot this summer? I swear I remember something about you missing a couple training times because of that.”

“I earned it,” he insisted, winking before turning to gesture. “Okay, you guys want this line over here. No pushing, no shoving, and definitely no flinging powers around to get ahead. I know what troublemakers you people are.”

“Only when you’re the mentor,” Columbus retorted. “You’re a terrible influence.”

“Terrible, or amazing?” Deveron shot right back before giving me a brief embrace. “Head on up.”

We went to join the line there, standing just behind Rebecca, Tristan, and Vanessa. They were standing with a couple obvious Alter teenagers (one a tree-like Relukun boy and the other a white and gray female cat-girl who both set my Stranger-sense off), and a Natural Prevenkuat (the two-headed Hyena-type people who were really fast) Heretic boy whose name I thought was either Dai or Denji.

“You’re Flick, right?” Maybe-Dai-or-Denji, a dark-haired Asian boy with close-cut hair and a scar across his right cheek asked. He extended a hand to me. “I’m Jason.”

Wow. Boy, was I ever off. Where the hell did I get Dai or Denji from? Blushing a little, I took his hand. “Jason?”

He winked. “You were expecting maybe something like Haruto?” With a shrug, the boy explained, “My dad still lives in Japan. He calls me Danuja, and so do a few people around here. But I’ve lived in San Francisco my whole life… errr… or I did, before… stuff happened and I ended up here. Anyway, I’ve gone by Jason here in the states forever. Either works though. Jason, Danuja, hey you. It’s all good.”

“Then yeah, I’m definitely Flick,” I confirmed before looking to the other two unfamiliar figures alongside Tristan and Vanessa. “Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”

The cat-girl, a white and brown-furred figure with suspicious eyes, hesitantly replied, “Triss.”

“And Kersel,” the male Relukun flatly informed me. He and Triss both watched me, and the others, carefully.

Tristan spoke up brightly then, putting one arm around Triss’s shoulders. “Now isn’t this great? We all know each other.”

Despite her suspicion about me, the cat-girl (seriously, I needed to figure out what Alter she was, because referring to her as cat-girl was probably really bad) seemed more at ease with Tristan. Maybe it was the whole hybrid thing, because she wasn’t directing any kind of look toward Shiori or Vanessa either.

“Triss and Kersel, cool.” I gave them both a thumbs up. “Good to meet you guys. I guess we’ll be spending a lot of time together up there, huh?”

The two exchanged glances, a silent bit of conversation clearly passing between them before Kersel nodded. “Yes, it seems that way. We just… hope that things run smoothly.”

“We all do,” I assured him. “But even if they don’t, we’ll deal with it. We’re all in this together.”

Vanessa, who had been whispering something to Tabbris when the other girl went to greet her older siblings, spoke up. “Flick’s right. Whatever problems come up, we’ll deal with them.”

Behind us, Salten made a huff of agreement, the Peryton stepping up to my side before using a wing to nudge me until I reached out to scratch his neck. Again, the two Alters looked at each other. I had the feeling they’d been through a lot to get to this point. Between them and the stuff that Jason had hinted at about his own life, there was clearly plenty of history here I didn’t know.

But hey, there was a whole school year ahead of us. It would come up.

Together, we reached the waiting door by the beach a couple minutes later. Staring at it, I shook my head. “You know, I can’t believe I’m starting another school year by going through a magic door attached to nothing.”

“Of course, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare announced while stepping up behind me, “perhaps this time you can go through without sending a rock in first.”

“And deny Herbie the chance to have a brother?” I gasped as though scandalized, putting a protective hand against the pocket of my backpack where the rock and my cyberform mice’s house was before snickering at the look on her face. “Okay, okay. We’ll just go.”

Rebecca poked me. “It’s not really… you know… is it?”

Just like I had with Columbus, I winked. “What do you think?” With that, added. “Come on, let’s do this.” Cracking my neck, I waved to Professor Dare for the moment, then moved up to the door.

The door, which would take me to the place that would be our temporary home and school while we weren’t here at the camp or out on missions to help the rebellion. Because we were still doing that. Abigail had basically made a deal to set up a school for us to spend about half our weekdays at, so we were still getting an education. The other half of our days would be spent helping to save Alters, building and training an army to stop Crossroads and Eden’s Garden from killing everyone, and… well, plenty of other things, I was sure. We were still students, but we were also more than that. We had to be.

Taking a breath, I stepped through the door… and onto the Aelaestiam space station, the base that belonged to Athena, which Tabbris and I had spent several weeks on back in Seosten space. It had made it to Earth, apparently thanks in no small part to Chayyiel, who had been busy doing a lot more while she was here than just piloting me through the biggest fight of my life. In any case, the station was now located within Earth’s sun, and had been prepared over the past month or so to take on a lot more students than they’d had before. Students from Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, Natural Heretics, and Alters, with teachers from all three of those groups as well.

Yeah, this was definitely going to be an interesting school year.

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Denouement 11 – Polemical Kin (Heretical Edge)

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The fighting, even over a relatively short time, had been unbelievably fierce. The battlefield around the fake town concealing the Crossroads prison was covered in the effects of various supernatural and magical abilities, as well as ordinary old mundane damage. Bits of ground, metal, various elements, and deep pits leading through portals were scattered throughout the area. Several variously-sized orbs containing effects such as gravity and spatial manipulations hovered here or there to disrupt opponents, along with random clouds depositing acid rain and other harmful effects. 

Many unconscious, injured, or even dead bodies littered the ground as well, though almost all belonged to the loyalist factions. Not because the rebels never fell, but because they had been magically prepped ahead of time to be teleported out if they fell or became too injured to continue. Scout was one of those who was teleported away due to her missing arm, along with Jazz when she took a spear deep into her stomach and had to be pulled out before it got even worse. Doug had lost an eye and ended up with three quarters of his face deeply burned before being evacuated as well. 

That was how it was going. The rebels had the surprise and momentum, but with every passing minute, more loyalists showed up and kept pushing the rebels back. It wouldn’t be long before they were routed completely. Fortunately, they didn’t have to hold on forever, only long enough. 

But everyone involved hoped that the people inside would be done soon. Because this was a situation that could fall apart any second. 

Virginia Dare, in the form of a giant wolf, caught hold of one of the opposing Heretics and, with a vicious jerk of her massive head, threw him into the air. She leapt, shifting back into her human form in mid-air before driving her sword through the flailing man’s arm. In the same motion, she triggered one of the spells stored in the hilt. Immediately, the man screamed and disappeared. 

As Dare landed once more, she was met by two young-looking Heretic loyalists, clearly newer soldiers who had come in response to the emergency. Both raised their weapons, but an instant before they could do anything, an invisible force slammed into them. The pair were picked up from the ground and sent flying across the battlefield. 

Gaze snapping toward the source of the blast, Dare found herself looking at Koren. The brunette girl, bloodied and bruised, stared at her open-mouthed. “Did you just disintegrate that guy a second ago?”

Smiling very faintly at her secret great-granddaughter, Dare gave a quick shake of her head. “No, I used a spell that triggered his panic response and made him teleport away. It only works when they suffer an injury, making them believe that it’s potentially fatal. It didn’t really do all that much damage, but right now, he is convinced that he’s dying. And that… what you just did, you couldn’t do that before.”

“That… that’s pretty cool,“ Koren announced in a voice that made it clear she was purposefully avoiding the part about what she had done to the two men, “can you teach me that?”

“Yes,” Dare easily replied, “someday. Right now, let’s just try to get through all this.” Her hand reached out to gently touch the girl’s hair. “Are you okay?” Unlike so many shows of affection she wish to give her lost family, this one would be completely understandable. Koren was one of her students, someone she had reason to care about, and she was in a dangerous situation. 

The girl hesitated, like there was something she wanted to say. But in the end, she just shook her head. “Maybe later. We’re kind of busy right now, if you hadn’t noticed.” The last bit was said with a very faint smile, trying to slightly (and mostly failing) make light of the situation. 

“Indeed,” Dare agreed. “We should get back to that.” 

Koren nodded, before the two of them, secretly great-grandmother and great-granddaughter, threw themselves back into the fight, side by side. 

*****

Two of the Atherby-allied Alters were hurled to the ground by an explosion of force. They scrambled to escape, clawing at the dirt while vines popped out of the ground to hold them down. A second later, their attacker appeared between the two, a dark-skinned man holding a sword while fire crackle around him. 

“You know what I hate more than finding your filth out in the world?” he demanded. “Finding it right in my own backyard.” With those words, he brought the sword up to drive it down into the nearest of their backs. 

In mid-plunge, his blade hit a distortion field that made it much shorter than it should’ve been so that it never came close to its target. 

“Aww,” a voice from nearby giggled, “are you having performance issues?” Nevada stepped into view, holding her chainsaw-sword with one hand, while her other arm was covered by some kind of combination shield and cannon. “I’m pretty sure the Bystanders have pills for that these days. Maybe you should look into it.”

The man spun to her, sword extended her way as he demanded, “How can you side with these monsters? How could you turn against your own kind, your own people, to wallow with the likes of these creatures?” 

Nevada gave the man a humorless smile. “You know, you probably couldn’t have given me a better opening for this if you tried.” In response to his blank stare, she added, “You have no idea who I really am, do you? You have no idea what you tried to do to me. But I do. I remember that day perfectly, Jackson, because that was the day everything changed for me. That day in the mall, when you chased me from the arcade where I was doing nothing but minding my own business. The day you tried to kill me in the hallway before I was rescued.” 

Through that, the man’s eyes slowly widened and he shook his head, face red. “No. No, you were a monster, not one of us. You can’t— you’re not… No!” He spat the last word.

“Yes,” Nevada retorted simply. “But you know what? You’re not chasing a helpless, scared little girl this time.” She lifted her blade, eyes narrowing. “So bring it on.”

He did so, lunging toward the woman with a furious snarl as his sword lashed up and around. At the same time, his other hand summoned lightning to send straight at her. 

Nevada caught the lightning on her shield, absorbing the power into it while blocked his blade with her own. He was strong, almost strong enough to knock the sword from her hands. But she was strong now too. And Nevada deflected his weapon off to the side before twisting away from the violent kick that he lashed out with. With the same motion, the man launched several metal spikes up from the ground, but she leapt, flipping over in the air above his head to land behind the man while blasting him with his own lightning, launched from her shield-cannon. 

He staggered a bit, yet stayed upright. There was a sudden explosion of kinetic force that caught the blonde woman and sent her to the ground in a sprawl. Her sword went sliding across the ground. Before she could recover, he was there, his foot lashing out to kick her in the face. Then he grabbed her shoulder and yanked her up right before slamming his fist into her stomach. 

Catching the back of her head while she was doubled over, the man tried to throw her face-first into the ground. But with a thought, the woman summoned a portal in front of herself. She was thrown through the portal rather than to the ground, reappearing directly above the man before crashing into him from behind. 

With a grunt as he stumbled, Jackson covered himself with fire. The flames burned with blinding intensity, yet did nothing to the woman. 

“Yeah,” Nevada hissed in his ear, “immunity to fire was one of the first things I worked to pick up. Thanks for that phobia, Jacksass.”

“Abomination!” Jackson screamed, hand reaching back to grab her by the neck. He yanked, throwing the woman over his shoulder into the ground. His sword came down, but she summoned her own back to her hand, turning just in time to knock his blade aside before it could decapitate her. 

Nevada regained her feet, and the two fought, swords clashing loudly across the busy battlefield as they remained solely focused on one another. Jackson was intent on turning the woman into a bloody smear on the ground, his hatred and disgust at what he saw as an appalling, unthinkably disgusting abomination blinding him to everything else. Every time Nevada blocked or evaded his increasingly destructive attacks that were now leaving deep gouges in the ground, he grew more violent and unhinged. “Just die, you evil bitch! You can’t beat me. No matter what you’ve done to steal those gifts, no matter what unholy, satanic magic you’ve performed here, you will never be as strong as a true Heretic. You are going to die!

“Someday,” Nevada agreed. “But not now. Because I have a question. Do you really think the only thing I did while I was on your back was whisper to you?”

The man blinked once, then his eyes widened as he jerked his hand up. But it was too late, as Nevada spoke the command word for the spell she had quickly scrawled on his back. It detonated, launching the man forward with a cry. 

Nevada was ready, already in mid-spin as she brought her chain-sword up and around, cleaving all the way through the flailing man’s neck. His body fell to the ground at her feet while his head bounced away. 

Nevada dropped as well, falling to her knees with a gasp as her aura flared up. After all this time, after decades of nightmares that reawakened every time she happened to see the man who had tried to kill her, it was over. Jackson was dead. The man, the true monster, who had chased her through the mall over thirty years earlier and started all this, was gone forever. 

Nevada had won. 

******

Koren and Dare were still side-by-side, covering one another as they stood over several fallen forms. 

“I really hope Flick and the others hurry,” Koren announced. “Cuz I’m not—”

“Virginia!” The voice that interrupted was accompanied by seven bolts of powerful energy that shot toward the pair. Her danger sense had already warned her, so the blonde woman snapped her arm up, conjuring a forcefield that easily caught the blasts. She and Koren both spun to face their attacker. 

“Elias,” Dare greeted Sean’s father. “This would all be over much sooner if you just hand over your son. In case you’re having trouble remembering, he’s the one you’ve been torturing for the past couple months. Or, how many years is it from his point of view right now?”

“How in the hell do you—” Elias stopped himself with an audible growl, shaking his head. “That’s immaterial. You need to leave here, now. Actually, what you need to do is surrender, but I doubt you’re bright enough to do that. You’re not taking my son, and you’re not—”

And then it was his turn to be interrupted, as a gust of wind shot through the air before transforming into his other son. Ian Gerardo slammed into his father with force far exceeding what he should’ve had. One of his powers allowed him to move a fairly short distance (anywhere between a few inches and about twenty feet) at incredible, blinding speed. During that movement, he would become all but invulnerable and, upon arrival, inflict damage far exceeding his momentum. He had simply shifted from his air elemental form back to himself and crossed the foot or so distance between himself and his father in an instant, crashing into the man like a cannonball. 

Both men went tumbling end over end, Elias ending up on top, holding his son down by the shoulder while driving his fist toward his face. “Ian, that’s enough!”

His fist went through air and struck the ground, leaving a hole there as his eldest boy shifted to his elemental form. Ian flowed around his father, re-forming into a standing position while driving his foot down to kick the back of the man’s head. Once again, he drastically magnified the force of his kick, sending his father tumbling head over heels along the ground.

Elias recovered instantly, as a metal arm and fist abruptly emerged from his back, crossing the ten foot distance between them to slam up into his son’s stomach, doubling the younger man over. A moment later, a twelve foot tall tree erupted from the ground right behind them, vines from the tree lashing out to wrap around Ian before seeming to pulse with energy. Immediately, the younger Gerardo felt his energy and will to fight begin to fade very quickly. He was tired, it was hopeless, why was he bothering to do any of this? He might as well just stay right here and stop moving. Nothing else would accomplish much. 

Koren, by that point, had already started to move. But Dare put a hand on her shoulder, looking off to the side. 

Koren followed her gaze, just in time to see a tiny object fly through the air. It was a pencil, which struck the summoned tree. An instant later, the spell on the pencil activated, and the tree was reduced to ash, releasing Ian. 

All four of them looked that way, in time to see Sean Gerardo, so much older than he should’ve been, approach. His eyes were on his father. “Hi, Dad,” he greeted in a voice that was somewhat choked with restrained emotion. “Thanks for the hospitality, but they say you’re supposed to stop living with your parents in your twenties.”

“Sean!” Elias snapped, trembling with anger and frustration. “You need to stop this now. This is for your own good, you have to understand that. I’d rather have a son who lost a few years of his life, his very long life, than one who was a traitor. You don’t know what you’re doing. You and your brother are both blinded by this.” 

“That’s rich,” Sebastian Gerardo informed his brother as he approached from the edge of the chaos. Moving to stand in between his two nephews, the man continued. “Talking about other people being blind, Eli, given what you’ve been doing to your own son. Que te paso, hermano?” 

“You…” Elias snarled the word, glaring at his sibling. “How can you drag them into this? How can you… how can you get in bed with these monsters?” 

Barking a short, sharp laugh, Sebastian retorted, “Interesting phrasing. Little brother, you’ve gone off the reservation. You, Andrea, and the others. This is too much. You tortured your own son for nothing.” 

Nothing?!” Elias’s voice was a roar, his face red. “We were trying to save his soul! What is a few years against a lifetime that could stretch for centuries, or longer?! Do you think it didn’t kill us to do this?! It was all we could think of to stop him from consorting with demons, as you seem intent on doing.” 

Ian’s mouth opened to snap something, but Sebastian spoke first. “Consorting? Brother, I’ve been having unbelievable sex with what you’d call a demon for decades. And when this is over, we’re gonna go have brunch.” In response to the other man’s open mouth, he added, “But for the record, Mateo’s a werewolf, not a demon. Oh and… he also saved Sean’s life when he was a kid, so… I’m pretty sure that puts him at least a step or two above ‘imprisoning him for years in solitary confinement’ on the scale of who the real evil piece of shit is.”

Face contorting with a mixture of rage and disbelief, Elias was left briefly speechless. In the end, he could find no words for his sibling. Instead, the man snapped his gaze to his two children, as though shoving Sebastian from his mind entirely. “Ian, Sean, you need to stop now, before both of you end up regretting this for the rest of your lives.”

“I regret a lot of things, Papá,” Sean murmured, “but turning against a murderous, psychotic cult who are so convinced literally every other intelligent being in the universe is evil that they want to kill every… single… one of them? Pretty sure I’m not going to regret that. You want to murder—no, genocide literally every other species in the universe. I know that word is thrown around a lot, but in this case, it couldn’t be more literally true. You want to kill… every… last… being out there that isn’t human. You know, because they’re evil.”

Elias slowly shook his head. “I don’t care how much time you spent in there, you are still behaving like a child.” The man took a moment to glance around at the fierce fighting going on on all sides of them, though some had stopped to look at what was happening. His gaze passed over Sebastian and kept going. “You and your brother, neither of you were leaving here. We’re going to put an end to this right now.”

“Sorry, Eli,” Sebastian replied, “but I think you just proved that this isn’t ending anytime soon. The war, at least. As for this battle, I do think it’s about time we left.”

With a dark growl, the man snarled, “You’re not going anywhere. None of you are. Leaving here, I think you’ll find it rather impossible.”

“Wanna bet?” The words came from Felicity Chambers, as the girl came jogging up, accompanied by Sands and Avalon. The trio had gotten briefly occupied in dealing with another threat (as well as handling the departure of Chayyiel, who had… other matters to attend to now that they were safely out of the prison). “Because we’ve been doing a lot of impossible things lately, and I’m feeling lucky.”

Seeing the blonde girl made Elias spit a dark curse word as he lunged that way, only to be intercepted by his brother, as Sebastian caught him by the arm, spinning to throw him to the ground. 

“The other prisoners?” Dare asked. 

“Athena’s handling them,” the girl replied. 

You.” The hatred and disgust in Elias’s voice was palpable as he glowered at Flick from where his brother had thrown him. Fire coiled around his body from the force of his rage when he looked at the girl. “You and your mother, your names… your names are going to be remembered. Oh, you’ll be remembered alright. Remembered as two of the worst, most evil traitors in human history. Your names will be spoken as the most vile curses, right beside the Devil himself.”

“Hey, someone call me?” It was Apollo, popping up nearby before flashing a smile at the man. “Sorry, I think we’ve left a pretty big mess for you to clean up. Maybe you should get on that while we get out of your hair.”

“Like I said,” Elias snapped sharply while an invisible force lifted him back to a standing position, “none of you are going anywhere. Do you think we weren’t prepared for something like this? Do you honestly think we wouldn’t have a way of containing any intrusion team? You must be stupid. There are four satellites in orbit right now, and as of this moment, all of them are projecting an anti-teleportation field over an entire twenty mile radius around this facility, along with a forcefield strong enough to keep you here for hours. Satellites, as in up in space. There’s nothing you can do about it. You all walked right into a trap. Sean being out here doesn’t matter, because every last one of you is going right back inside. You haven’t escaped the prison, all you’ve done is get a little yard time. All of this is the prison.” 

Sure enough, all around them, none of the escape spells were working anymore. The injured and unconscious were falling and staying where they were, unable to be taken to safety. 

“Oh dear,” Dare replied in a voice that was far more casual than Elias liked. “I think we’ve been outplayed. Unless… let’s see, phase one was the attack on the weapons depot. Phase two was this assault right here. Phase three was the prison infiltration. Was… was there a phase four?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Flick promptly replied, “I’m pretty sure there was.”

While Elias’s gaze snapped around, trying to figure out what the hell they were talking about, Dare touched the communication badge on her shoulder. “Phase four,” she announced simply. 

A few long, tense seconds passed before a hologram of a new Heretic appeared in front of Elias, looking frantic, “One of our satellites just went down!”

“What?!” Elias snapped in disbelief. 

“Sorry,” Apollo murmured, “Did I forget to mention that my Torchbearers — yeah, they’re my people — were going up with a friendly vampire and a few others to hit your satellites and destroy them? Because I could’ve sworn I brought that up.”

“They’re down, they’re down!” The hologram’s voice was even more frantic, as he snapped his gaze over to the other man. “Satellites are down, we need reinforcements right now! Now!” 

It was too late. All around them, the rebel army was disappearing. One by one or in groups, they teleported away, leaving their loyalist opponents looking confused and lost. 

“No!” Eyes wide as the rug was yanked out from under him once again, Elias lunged toward Sean. “You’re not leaving!” 

His lunge was met by a single piece of paper, with a spell drawn on it. The spell activated, sending a blast of kinetic force into the man’s face that blew him backward and down. He landed on one knee, only for Ian to slam into him using his own cannonball power that put the man on the ground in a deep crater. He tried to pick himself up, only for Sebastian to appear over him. “Take a vacation, little brother,” he snapped while using one hand to cover the man from his feet to his neck in a metal cocoon that would momentarily resist his efforts to teleport out. “You need it.” 

Sean and Ian were there, standing on either side of their uncle, hands on his shoulders. Together, three Gerardos stared at the fourth. Unspoken emotions passed between them, as both sides of the family division stood on either side of their line… and none budged. 

“Well, I had a bigger speech planned for this,” Sean informed his father. “But you know what, I think this suffices.”

Raising a hand, he flipped off the man on the ground. And a moment later, he, his brother, and the rest of their group vanished. 

They were free.

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Denouement 8 – Ambuscade (Heretical Edge)

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Despite all of the attention the attack outside was getting, there were still a decent number of guards left in the prison. Those guards made their presence known as Flick and Sean’s group raced through the hallways of the facility. Most were dealt with by Athena, as she used her power repeatedly to warn her of incoming danger. Here and there, she would direct one of the others, warning them to stop, where and when to swing a weapon, and where to step to avoid the prison’s own substantial traps and defenses. 

As the group turned another corner, Sean scribbled on a piece of paper, drawing quickly while occasionally glancing up to check their progress. Finally, the boy-turned-young-man slapped the paper against a wall and blurted the activation word. As he did so, a knee-high wall apparently made of the same material as the actual wall shot out into the corridor all the way to the opposite side. A second later, the short, newly summoned wall extended itself clear back down the corridor they had just come from, curving around the bend. It seemed to stretch on for a good sixty or seventy feet, before popping upwards to fill in the space above itself, forming a full wall. A full wall almost a hundred feet long, leading back down the way they had come to close off the entire corridor for that length. 

“Been wanting to try that one for awhile,” Sean observed in a somewhat hoarse voice. “Nice to have space to actually use it.”

He tried to sound casual about it, but there was clear anger, loss, and bitterness lying just behind the words. 

They continued on, Sean laying more walls, traps, and illusions as they went. None of them were expected to actually stop any pursuit, but forcing them to deal with it would take time. As would forcing them to slow down, anticipating anything that was put in their way. 

Finally, the group reached the door leading into the room containing their part of the anti-teleportation defense. Just as they got there, however, the door opened and a guard stepped out. He didn’t seem surprised to see them, but neither was he holding any kind of weapon or making any move to attack. Athena also didn’t do anything more than raise an eyebrow at the man. The two of them stared at each other for a brief moment before the woman spoke. “You know why we came this way?”

The Heretic nodded, then grabbed the door to open it once more. “It’s all yours.”

Before Flick, Sean, Avalon, or Sands could question that, the door slammed shut once more, ripping its way out of the man’s hand. A new voice spoke up, from back the way the group had come. “It most certainly is not theirs.”

Everyone whirled that way, only to see Litonya. The ancient-looking Native American woman stood there, a scowl crossing her heavily-lined features. Power, the extent of which none of them, not even Athena, could hope to actually face straight on, emanated from the angry Committee Heretic. 

“Though I am quite certain we can find other accommodations for each of you.”

*****

A shower of tiny bone spears that had been shot from Pace’s raised hand were intercepted and destroyed by a flurry of lasers courtesy of a small, frisbee-sized drone. The drone adjusted its fire to shoot at her as well, but she blurred out of the way in a burst of super speed, catching only a couple of shots that hurt, but not nearly enough to put down a Heretic-werewolf. 

Unfortunately, she had only gone a few short feet out of the way before a heavily muscled arm slammed into her, going just as fast. Pace was knocked onto her back, as the adult male Heretic stood over her. The drone fit itself back to his arm, matching its twin on the other arm.

“Garden bitch, huh?” the man snarled while forcing a half dozen metal bands to pop from the ground and wrap around the girl as she was trying to catch her breath. “Gotta tell ya, I don’t hate the idea of killing one of those, orders be damned.”

With that, he raised his foot, silver encasing it just as he began to slam it down toward her head with a loud cry of rage. 

A small, blonde figure slammed into him from the side. It wasn’t enough to knock the man down, despite Roxa’s strength. But it did make him stagger just enough that his descending foot missed Pace’s head. It slammed into the ground a few inches away, leaving a small crater there, as rocks and dirt were sent flying. 

Before Roxa could recover from her headlong crash, the man’s hand snapped out, yanking her off her feet before he smacked her upside the head with his other hand, stunning the girl. An instant later, he shook her violently while holding the dangling girl up by her arm. “The fuck are you supposed to be, the cavalry?”

Though dazed, Roxa shook her head. A smile crossed her face as she held a small mouse up with one hand. Her answer was a quiet, “Transport.”

With that, her fingernails extended into claws, piercing the mouse’s throat. It died instantly, and a glowing figure appeared before revealing Theia, as she grabbed the man’s shoulder. “Hi, fuckface!”

She disappeared into him, possessing the man before he could do more than make a slight sound of protest. A moment later, his hand waved, removing the metal bands from Pace before helping her up while simultaneously setting Roxa down carefully. 

Wincing, Pace murmured, “Thanks, are you—”

Before she could say anything else, the man’s head abruptly jerked so hard to the side that it turned almost one hundred and eighty degrees. He fell to the ground dead, while Theia emerged from within him. 

“You could’ve passed off the damage to something else and let him go!” Pace blurted. 

“And we could’ve used his Heretic powers in this fight,” Roxa pointed out, a bit more mildly. 

To Pace, Theia sniffed. “He tried very hard to kill you. I don’t let that go.” To Roxa, she admitted, “But maybe I was a little impulsive about it. Which is very strange and out of character for me.”

The three exchanged looks, but couldn’t say anything else, as they were suddenly lifted off their feet and sent flying by a tidal wave of earth. A new threat had presented itself, and they were once more thrust into the ongoing battle. 

******

A gleaming blue sword cut rapidly through the air, intercepted three quick times by a shield that left a glowing forcefield behind. Miranda, back-pedaling with her shield raised, ducked under a fourth swing from her Heretic opponent. An instant later, the man pivoted in place, lashing out with a kick that took a second Miranda in mid-leap, colliding with her stomach and sending her to the ground. His sword snapped down to intercept the hurled forcefield disc from a third Miranda, before he used a gesture to send a diagonal pillar of stone out of the ground to collide with yet another. 

“You think you can beat me with numbers?” the man snarled. “Two can play at that game. Or should I say…”

Three more glowing figures emerged from the man. Each resolved into a near-copy of him, though rather than being exact duplicates, one was made of obsidian, one of silver, and the third some kind of red metal. 

“Four,” the quartet finished a bit smugly. 

In response, each Miranda duplicate split twice more, providing three opponents for each of the four of him. They all attacked at once, sharing powers between them as they collectively threw themselves at the man. It didn’t help that much. Despite being outnumbered, each of him was more experienced and had more abilities to work with. Several of the Mirandas were killed, briefly stunning the others. One of the Mirandas, on the ground from a particularly rough blow, slammed her hand against the dirt. As she did so, the sound of it was amplified into a shockwave that spread out from that point, staggering each of the men briefly. She then quickly rolled over, mouth opening to shout in a voice that was amplified and focused, “Hey!

The shockwave from her voice slammed into the original man, knocking him back a step. His hand snapped up, only to be hit from another side by a different Miranda using the same power with, “Leave!”

A third struck him from behind with an amplified, “Me!”

“Alone!” The final word came from the first Miranda again. But she didn’t use it to strike him. Instead, the girl turned her head toward the ground and used the force to launch herself up and at the man. He had already recovered and grabbed her leg easily. But a new Miranda burst forth from her in yet another duplication, locking her arms around the man’s neck as she shoved her face right up to his ear and used the power again. “Fuck you!”

That was enough to truly stagger the man. He went to one knee, dropping both Mirandas as blood fell from his ear thanks to his burst eardrum. 

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t keep him down long. Worse, there were still his metal duplicates to deal with, who didn’t disappear when the original lost focus as the Mirandas had hoped they might. Instead, the three metal versions of the man simply looked profoundly pissed off as they closed the distance with the various Mirandas. 

Then the girl(s) had help that actually wasn’t from herselves. A Hunga Munga throwing axe flew through the air just past the silver man, before stopping as Koren appeared, holding it. Without an instant of hesitation, she swung her second axe in the other hand. In mid-swing, the weapon suddenly grew in size, becoming almost comically enormous aside from the bit where she was holding it. The head of the axe was almost as large as the man himself. And more than its size was increased. Making it bigger also magnified the force with which she hit by many times. 

The blow literally cut the silver man in half, making the others stop short while Koren returned the axe to its normal size. “Hey,” she snapped, “didn’t my friend here tell you to leave her alone?”

Each remaining Miranda had gotten to their feet by that point. They spread out, a few more filling in their lost numbers. The man whose eardrum had been burst rose, a forcefield appearing around him as he snarled, “Traitors.”

Koren retorted, “Child-soldier rearing, mass-murdering psycho. Tell you what, when your side isn’t indiscriminately killing everything that isn’t exactly like you without so much as a trial, locking someone in solitary confinement for years, kidnapping toddlers to be held hostage, and seriously considering using a blood plague to enslave half their population, you can think about being within an airplane’s reach of the moral high ground. Until then, fuck you!

The man’s eyes narrowed as he gave a quiet snarling sound that resolved itself into the single word, “Lies.” 

With that, he teleported the distance between himself and the nearest Miranda. His hand grabbed her by the face and lifted the girl off her feet as he spun to slam her down into the ground on her back. At the same time, a group of precise waves of kinetic force struck each of the other Mirandas and Koren. They were thrown into the air with cries as the two metal duplicates each fired several bolts of electricity straight into the spot they were launched toward. Koren and the Mirandas were caught by the lightning bolts, spasmed in the air, and were dropped to the ground where they lay still. 

The man experienced a brief rush of pleasure as his blue aura flared. It wasn’t much, but then, a couple random students wouldn’t provide any huge boost. 

He exhaled after the aura faded, sighing a little as he stepped over to where Koren’s motionless form was. “Wasn’t really supposed to kill you, but oh well. Accidents happen. Guess that means you don’t have anything else to say though, huh, smarta—”

He was interrupted by the giant axe head suddenly bearing itself in his chest. Blood spilled from his mouth, choking the man as he blinked down in disbelief. The axe was held by a very much alive Koren. 

“Thank my Uncle Wyatt. He made a spell that triggers a small version of the Heretic kill aura. Only works if they actually think they could have killed something. So we had to give you an opening.”

With that, she shrank the axe back down to its normal size while yanking it out of him. The man choked up more blood before collapsing to the ground. As he fell, Koren’s aura flared to life, the girl’s back arching as an unwanted cry of pleasure escaped her. 

And hers was real. 

The remaining Miranda, the one who had been slammed into the ground, found her a moment later, both of them looking very bruised and battered. “You okay?”

Koren’s head shook. “I didn’t want to kill him. I… I was going to use the transport stone. But I was afraid it wouldn’t work yet. He wasn’t that hurt. If we didn’t stop him right now, he could’ve… I mean… it was the only opening we had, and we might not have gotten another one before… I… I… oh God.”

She turned then, throwing up on the ground while Miranda quickly moved to help her. She pulled the hair away from Koren’s face, keeping an eye out around them just in case while letting the other girl purge herself of at least the physical manifestation of her revulsion. Maybe it would help for a little while. 

Both girls crouched there on the edge of the chaos, each trying to cope, and help the other cope, with the violence they had to perform. Violence they would continue to perform, no matter how sick it made them. 

This was war, and it was only going to get worse. 

******

The man who had come through the door and began to let Flick’s group pass him was yanked off the floor, hurled down the corridor, and left to slam into the wall. He slumped unconscious, as Litonya announced, “I do not know if you are a coward or a traitor. Nor do I care. You will be dealt with later.”

Her eyes focused on the group, settling on Flick first, ignoring Avalon as the dark-haired girl stepped in front of the blonde. “Gabriel should have taken my advice and had you quietly killed before you could cause this much trouble. He still hasn’t learned his lesson. So absurdly soft-hearted, having your siblings spirited from their crib before my agent in the Rebellion could eliminate them.”

A look of mixed shock and confusion leapt to Flick’s face, as she stammered, “Wait, w-what?”

Litonya shrugged. “Gabriel believed that taking the children hostage would be enough. I knew that while it may temporarily force Joselyn into compliance, it would not truly change her. We would have this same issue soon enough, as proven now. But finding her infant children murdered in their crib? That would truly break her, and we would never have to deal with her again.

“We disagreed. I overruled him and gave the order. He went around me and had the children abducted before my agent could do the work. If he had simply listened to me the first time, we wouldn’t be here now.” Her head tilted a little thoughtfully, a small sneer crossing her lined face. “And, I suppose, you wouldn’t be anywhere at all.”

Flick rocked backward from that, both hands covering her mouth as her face turned white. A sound of various mixed emotions choked its way out of her covered mouth while Avalon and Sands split their attention between her and the woman in front of them, clearly at a complete loss. 

Sean spoke up, his voice was hard. “You tried to send someone to murder innocent children? You try to have babies assassinated, and you still think you’re in the right? You somehow managed to make Gabriel Ruthers abducting infants into a moral improvement over your own plan, and you still think you’re some kind of savior?” His voice shook with a mix of disbelief and anger. Nearby, all Flick could do was stare with her hands over her mouth, completely unable to find any words at all. 

“You’re an evil bitch,” Sands spat. 

Litonya regarded her impassively. “I do what is necessary to protect the majority of this world, against any who may threaten it.” 

Her attention shifted toward Athena. “And you are one of those threats, are you not?”

The Olympian drew herself up to her full height, short brown hair seeming to glow a bit as she drew Excalibur. “Am I a threat to your world? Absolutely. I am Athena, though many on your world know me as Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.”

Litonya’s eyes narrowed. “Do you truly believe that you have the slightest—”

Her head snapped to the side then, avoiding the sword as it was thrown through the air. It sailed past, missing her throat by an inch before embedding itself in the wall beyond. 

A dry chuckle escaped the old woman then. “And here I had believed that Athena was known for some great tactical ability. I suppose such accolades were thoroughly undeserved. Throwing away the most powerful asset you have was the single dumbest thing you could have done.”

Athena looked unperturbed. “Was it? I told you, I am also called Nimue. And if you knew anything at all about my history, you would realize one very important thing. I was not known for using the sword. 

“I was known for giving it to someone far better than I.”

A sound behind her made Litonya spin, in time to see a glowing figure emerge from the man she had knocked out, the man who had been neither traitor nor coward, but possessed. The figure resolved itself into a physical form, hand grabbing Excalibur before pulling it from the wall and turning to face Litonya. 

“Hi,” Chayyiel announced. “Do you mind sharing?”

“Do I mind—” The confused Litonya began to echo the words, but they weren’t meant for her. Another glowing figure appeared, as Tabbris stepped from Flick, who made a quick portal, hand extending through it. Chayyiel caught her hand, before disappearing into her. Flick straightened, one hand holding Excalibur while the other hand held her staff. 

“Now then,” Chayyiel spoke through her. 

“What were you saying about this girl’s family?”

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