Koren Fellows

Growth 18-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Dinner that evening was really something, to say the least. We didn’t eat out in the main cafeteria, figuring this was something we would want to keep a little more private. It would’ve been pretty hard to focus on things with a couple hundred pairs of eyes from everyone else in the room constantly staring our way if we had eaten in public with someone like Jegudiel. He was the sort of guy who tended to attract attention even without the whole archangel thing. With that added in? Forget it, we never would’ve had any privacy at all. And having all those people watching our every move would have made the whole situation even more uncomfortable.  

In the end, it was still a fairly large group of us at the dinner, all lined up along either side of a long table that had been set up in the Moon’s apartment. Along one side of the table was my dad, both of my grandparents, Wyatt, Abigail, Koren, and me. Along the other side were Haiden and Sariel, Vanessa and Tristan, Jehoel, Spark, Puriel, and Tabbris. Jegudiel was at the end, with Tabbris next to him to his right (her mother on her other side) while I was next to him on the other side, across from my little sister. 

The entire table was laden with dozens of heavy platters of food. Seeing all of it, Jegudiel  clapped his hands together once very loudly, the sound echoing through the room. “Now this is a meal!” he boomed, a broad smile spreading across his face. “You make sure to eat as much as you can, little teuslin,” he teased with a look at Tabbris. “We’ve got to make sure you grow up nice and big so you can squish the heads of your enemies like geppins.” 

Blanching a little bit, the girl squirmed in her seat. “I’m not really sure I’m gonna be up to, um, you know, squishing.” 

“Oh don’t you worry,” Jegudiel informed her, “I used to be a pint-sized little thing like you too. Believe it or not, I was even smaller when I was your age. And even if you eat all you can and still turn out to be a tiny one, it doesn’t really matter. You’re big where it counts.” He offered the girl a wink as she stared at him. “Hell, from what I’ve heard, you being kind of small right now is the only thing that’s keeping you from taking on the entire Fomorian Empire by yourself!” His words right then were accompanied by a hearty laugh. 

Smiling a little despite myself, I watched the girl’s reaction while speaking up. “She’s impressive, that’s for sure. I’d be pretty dead, or worse, right now if it wasn’t for her.” 

Grandmaria took a sip of her water before speaking. “And we’re all certainly glad that didn’t happen.” She smiled my way while adding, “Plus, I can’t say I object to having another grandchild to spoil. Not to mention how much Arthur appreciates being able to buy more of those little video games and pretend they’re actually for one of them.” 

Popser made a huffing sound deep in his throat. “You know I can’t just hand those over without making sure they’re appropriate. Besides, when they put them in the system, what if they have questions about how it all works? I need to have a thorough understanding of all that.” 

From where he was sitting next to his own father, Dad leaned over and whispered something in his ear. Popser listened, then gave a short nod before adding, “And working with them gives me a chance to practice with these technology power whoozits.” 

For a moment, it looked like Jegudiel was going to say something about that, his expression curious. But Haiden spoke up first. “I’ve got a question of my own for you, big guy.” His gaze was focused down the table to the archangel. “How do you think the people on the front line of that war would feel about the idea of working with humans instead of using us as flesh-and-bone mecha to pilot around? You know, letting us have a say in what happens. Is it like people around here talking about asking their trucks for permission to drive them?” 

Obviously, he wasn’t the only one wondering that, but I was still surprised that anyone had asked so directly during the very first meal with this guy. And judging by a few of the looks he was getting from some of the others, they might’ve thought that he had gone too far. 

Jegudiel, however, observed him curiously before giving a short chuckle. “I wouldn’t have expected any other question from the one they called the Bane. You did an awful lot of damage while you were out there, you know.” He actually sounded admiring in that moment rather than reprimanding. “Kept a lot of them on their toes, so they didn’t get soft back away from the front lines.” Pausing briefly to consider, he amended, “Well, not as soft, anyway. You did some fine work. A lot of bad work too, but considering the situation… ehh, can’t say as I blame you too much. 

“Anyway, as for what you were asking about, I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t use a host unless it’s for some quick tactical advantage, making them think I’m not there or something like that. And in those cases, it doesn’t tend to last very long. If there’s some big discussion going on about that, I haven’t heard it.” He shrugged. “But then, I’m usually too busy kicking Fomorian teeth down their throats and then ripping their spleens out to get the teeth back to actually listen to stuff like that. Tell you what, I’ll have one of my people who’s actually more into that subtle talking stercus ask around to see what the general feeling is. That good enough?” 

Haiden seemed to think about that briefly before nodding. I had the feeling he was surprised to get an actual thought-out response, let alone an offer like that. “Yeah, I’d say that’s good enough.” Another pause came before he added, “Thanks.” 

From there, Wyatt asked something about a bit of Seosten magical security he had been working on taking apart, looking for advice from Jegudiel. The thing was, I happened to know for a fact that he had already long-since solved the problem he was asking about. Clearly, this was a test of some sort. He wanted to know if the man would send him down the wrong path. Whether he did or not, I wasn’t sure. Because even with the advanced lessons I had been getting, I absolutely could not follow Jegudiel’s response. And Wyatt’s next words sounded even more like total gibberish. From the way Sariel reacted, I could tell they weren’t actually just fucking with us and were actually saying real things. But damned if I could follow any of it. 

Still, at the very least, I was able to sit back in my seat and watch them go through this whole impossible-to-understand discussion. Then I looked back and forth along the table, seeing everyone watching as well. My grandparents, my dad, the Moons, we were all sitting here with Tabbris’s archangel father while he and Wyatt discussed security spells. This was all so surreal. Even in a world that had already been so impossible, a world where I had once foolishly thought I was completely beyond being surprised, this was… something. 

Sometimes, I had to take a metaphorical step back and really look at what my life had become over the past year and a half. Honestly, I had no idea how I had gotten here. 

And I certainly had no idea where I would be once another year and a half had passed. 

******

I may not have known where I would be in eighteen months, but the next morning I was attending Xenozoology class, where we learned about Alter animals. Lillian wasn’t there to help teach this time, of course. She was still with Mom in Peru, working on taking care of that whole situation. But we did have Scratch, the short guy from Eden’s Garden who I had met at the beginning of the year working with these animals. 

Obviously, he didn’t look any different now. The man still had the same long, dark gray hair tied into that same ponytail, and that crescent moon-shaped scar still marked his very tan face from just under his right eye down to his cheek. Even after all of this time, I still had no idea what had caused his scar. Nor did I know any other name he went by besides Scratch. But then, from what Miranda and Seller had said, no one else seemed to know any other name either. He simply was, and apparently always had been, Scratch. 

At the moment, the man in question was standing next to a cage that has been covered with a tarp. He was watching me and the rest of the class, his gaze making it clear that he was considering just how to start this lesson. Or possibly wondering if we were ready to hear it. Finally, he exhaled, the sound of his soft sigh stopping the whispering that was going on. Not that there had been a lot of it, but still. Everything went completely silent at the mere prospect that he was about to say something. 

“No yelling,” the man started flatly, in the same simple, soft voice I had come to expect from him. He wasn’t the type to raise his voice or act outwardly excited. He always carried himself calmly. Which was probably why he was so good with the animals. Or maybe the fact that he spent so much time with animals was why he talked like that. I wasn’t sure which came first in that particular egg and chicken situation. “No raising your voices or blurting things out if you’re not called on. I don’t want any of you scaring the poor guy, or making him think he’s in trouble. When you want to say something, raise your hand until I say your name. When I do, you talk in a normal, quiet, civilized tone. Does everyone understand?” 

He waited until we had agreed before putting his hand on the tarp. Once more, he looked over at us, his eyes inquisitive. “How many of you can tell me what this is?” With that, the man pulled the tarp away from the cage, not so much ripping it off as giving a simple gradual tug so it came up smoothly and steadily. Probably to avoid startling the creature inside. 

And what a creature it was. Now that we had a chance to look at it, I could see what looked like an ordinary wolf at very first glance. Except it was bigger in the shoulders and had paws that were more like a bear, with long claws. Which I was given a decent view of as the thing reared up on its hind legs once the tarp came off. It didn’t just briefly rear up either, it stood and stayed that way, its wolf-like head snapping first one way, then another as it took all of us in. The thing pressed its paws against the glass of the cage, deadly claws extending. Yet I didn’t get the impression that it was trying to break out, or even threaten us. It seemed more like it was showing the claws to let us know that it wasn’t helpless, and that if we tried to hurt it, there would be a fight. 

So it was a wolf with bear paws that could stand on its hind legs, but that wasn’t the only thing different about this thing. It wasn’t simply a bear-wolf hybrid. That much became clear as the large bat-like wings unfurled from its back and spread out. Probably to make itself look even bigger, to ward off any potential threats. The thing was spreading those bat-wings out from one end of the cage to the other, its eyes looking over every one of us in rapid succession to assess if we were going to try to attack. 

“No sudden movements,” Scratch reminded us in his soft tone, drawing the creature’s attention briefly before it went back to looking at the rest of us. “Don’t startle him. Just let him take it all in. He’s usually in a bigger enclosure, so he might be a little grumpy right now. But he’ll be okay. Especially once we get him some food. He’s been doing presentations with me for awhile now. Like I said, how many of you can tell me what he is?” 

Vanessa wasn’t in this class, or I was certain that her hand would have rocketed straight into the air. Instead, it was Jason Furuya, the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic, who raised his hand. The Asian guy, who had a scar of his own over his cheek (though not as pronounced as Scratch’s, waited until the teacher said his name before speaking. “He’s a Kludde, right?” It sounded sort of like ‘could’ but with the added L sound right after the kuh sound. Kludde. Like if you mixed up could and cloud and tried to say them both at the same time, or something. 

Scratch smiled faintly, giving a short nod. “That’s right, top marks, Furuya. What else can you tell me about the Kludde?” 

“Uh.” Jason hesitated. “They originated–I mean, here on Earth that is– around the Netherlands and Belgium, right? People thought they were werewolves at first. Uh, werewolves with wings, I guess.” 

“Werewolves with wings, or even the Christian devil,” Scratch confirmed. For a moment, he looked a little amused. Probably because he was thinking about the fact that even his own moniker used to be a nickname for the same devil. Old Scratch, that was. Or maybe he was thinking about the fact that we literally had Lucifer himself, now Apollo, living with us. Either way, he took a moment to smile about something before continuing. “People thought a lot of things about them, some true, some not. Who knows why they’re called Kludde?” 

Even as he asked that, the creature opened its mouth and gave a sharp barking sound. Which sounded an awful lot like its actual name. It barked again, and it sounded even more like it was saying ‘kludde.’ 

“Now that’s just cheating,” Scratch informed the creature with a sidelong look. “You’re not supposed to give them the answers, Montgomery.” 

Rebecca started to say something, a noise escaping her before she caught herself and raised her hand. When the man said her name, she asked, “Montgomery? His name is really Montgomery?” 

“That’s right,” Scratch replied with a simple nod. “Montgomery here is the nicest of his pack. There’s also Edna, Waylon, Ned, Maude, Luann and Seymour. Maybe once you all have a little more experience, I’ll let you see the rest of them. But for now, let’s stick with Montgomery. Who knows something else about the Kludde? Anything at all, I’m sure you’ve heard of them now and then.”

One of the other students, a tiny pixie with long green hair and polka dot clothes, flew up and down in the air to attract attention with her arm raised. Seeing that, Scratch pointed. “Jeckselprea?” 

“Just Jeck is fine, sir!” the pixie chirped. She sounded like Namythiet, and I found myself briefly wondering how the other pixie was doing. “And is it true that if you kill one of them, seven more appear?” 

Scratch shook his head. “No, that was either people getting them mixed up with Jekerns, or just seeing babies crawling out from under the mother’s body and thinking they magically spawned.” He paused before muttering, “People can be really stupid sometimes.” He shook that off before focusing. “If you kill a Kludde, you just end up with a dead Kludde.” 

“Are they shapeshifters?” Koren asked once she was called on. “I think I remember something about how they can change into a lot of different animals.” 

“That they can do,” Scratch confirmed. “Kludde are very powerful animal shapeshifters, almost as good as Pooka. Even stronger, in some cases. They can become plants too. Makes it a little complicated to keep track of them when they keep turning into trees and bushes in their enclosure.” He added that bit with a small smile, clearly amused by a memory of just such a situation. “Some say they can become human, but it’s rare. And even when they do, they don’t talk. They might mimic things they’ve seen humans do, just to try to blend in. Or hunt.” He added that bit with a small smirk. “Anyone else? They’re shapeshifters, they can fly with those wings even in this form, and they do not spawn seven babies when they die.” 

Ruckus, the guy who looked like an assortment of slinkies, raised one of his metal coils until Scratch acknowledged him. “They’rereallyfastright? Imeanlike… theycangetfrom… oneendofthisroom… totheother… sofastit’s… likethey’reteleporting.” 

Oh yeah, Ruckus talked like December. Except somehow, he seemed to get words out even faster. Thankfully, someone seemed to have had the same talk with him about slowing down slightly so he put some intentional pauses in his sentences. Not exactly between every word, but enough that it wasn’t completely impossible to follow what he was saying. Just difficult sometimes. It made me wonder if all of his people were like that, or if that was just a Ruckus thing. 

Scratch nodded. “Yeah, they’re pretty quick, whatever shape they’re in. I’ve clocked Montgomery here doing two hundred and ten miles per hour in a sprint. Not quite blinding speed, but you try telling a Bystander in the seventeen hundreds that what he called ‘incalculable’ speed is actually slower than the airplanes they’ll use in a couple hundred years.” He chuckled softly before sobering. “So yes, they’re very quick, even faster when they fly, and they can shapeshift. All of that makes them pretty dangerous when they want to be. Which brings me to the next question, who can tell me what they like to eat?” 

No one had any answer at first, until Shiloh raised her hand and hesitantly offered, “Um, liars?” She sounded uncertain, like she thought she might just be repeating a silly rumor. 

Scratch, however, beamed a bit. “Yes, actually. That’s pretty much right, believe it or not. The Kludde have the ability to sense when someone is lying. Not just a little white lie, but the malicious kind. They can tell when someone is keeping deep, dark secrets. Evil secrets. And the worse those secrets are, the more… evil the person is hiding inside, the tastier they are to the Kludde.” He paused then, clearly letting that sink in before dryly adding, “As you might expect, a lot of the people in positions of authority and power didn’t really like having them around. So, even before the whole… Bystander Effect came to full power, they started spreading rumors about the Kludde eating babies, literally being Satan or just a demon in general, spawning from the cremated bodies of dead witches, that sort of thing. Anything to stop people from paying attention to what–or rather who the Kludde were actually trying to eat. And, as a side note, that’s also where we get the concept of hellhounds. Well, that and the whole Cerberus thing, of course.” He gave me a brief look before continuing. “They went all-in on making these guys look as evil as possible, just so they’d be hunted to extinction. And they nearly succeeded. Montgomery and his pack are one of only a few left here on Earth. Well, somewhat close to Earth, anyway.”  

Offering us all a slight smile, the man continued. “I’m going to let my buddy here come out of the cage in a minute. Everyone just stay calm and steady. Spread out so there’s several feet between each of you. I’ll lead him to one person at a time. Let him sniff you and then put his head down. When he does that, you can touch him. Just scratch behind his ears or under his chin. And if any of you aren’t comfortable with doing that, go ahead and take a few steps back that way. No one’s going to give you a hard time. 

“And if they do, let me know. I have plenty of other fun things that could eat them.” 

******

So, I made it through the rest of that class, as well as the next couple. Eventually, I was on my way to lunch, wondering if I would see Tabbris there or if she was still busy with Jegudiel. On the way, however, I was interrupted by the sound of someone calling my name. Turning, I saw Miranda sprinting down the hall. She came to a sliding stop, blurting, “We gotta go down to the Eden’s Garden rebels, down by the ocean, the hotel, down there. We gotta check it out.” 

“What?” I blinked a few times, head shaking. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?” 

“Wrong?” she echoed, grinning. “No, nothing’s wrong. It’s right. Dakota, she did it. She finally got them working.” 

“Dakota–the vines?” I realized belatedly. “She managed to make the vines grow?” 

Miranda’s head was bobbing rapidly. “Not just grow, she managed to get a few of them to bloom. New apples. She made the vines give off new apples. 

“We can make new Heretics!”  

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Growth 18-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next few days passed relatively uneventfully, aside from the funeral for Tribald Kine. A funeral which made me feel even worse for the fact that I hadn’t been able to bring his ghost along with us. I still couldn’t understand that. I had felt other dead people there, so why couldn’t I feel him? My only speculation was still that his ghost had been taken or left before I could get to him, which… 

In any case, Mom showed up for that, taking time away from her mission to say goodbye to her friend. She spent a little time with me as well, apologizing for not being there. I could tell just how torn up she was. The guilt at the fact that she hadn’t been there to help her old friend… yeah, it was bad. And if she felt bad about not being there, I couldn’t even imagine how bad Deveron felt considering he had been there and still couldn’t save him. 

With that thought in mind, I made sure that Mom spent most of the time she had here with him, as well as the Dornans. They were the ones who needed her at the moment. Tribald had been their friend for a long time. They needed each other. Dad understood that too, and left them alone after having just a little bit of reunion time with Mom as well. We were both there for the funeral, but other than that, we let Mom, Deveron, and the others from that time mostly just be with one another. They could reminisce, focus on the good times they’d had with their friend. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it felt like remembering why they cared about him was more important than focusing on the fact that he was gone. And as my mother put it, this was not the first long-time friend they had lost. 

In any case, she stayed as long as she could before the situation in Peru forced her to go back there. Lillian too. Both of them apologized for not being able to stay longer. Yet when they left, they had company. Deveron and the Dornans were going with them, apparently against both Mom and Lillian’s objections. But the guys insisted that they needed to keep themselves busy.  

So they were busy with all that. Meanwhile, I spent the rest of the weekend resting and doing a bit of studying for classes so my parents and Abigail wouldn’t completely freak out about me missing out on school. It was kind of nice not having anything immediately demanding my attention. Not that there wasn’t plenty of stuff to worry about, between the regular Alter-rescuing missions, fights against Loyalists, and so on. Hell, that wasn’t even counting the big things like trying to find Tiras’s second family, figuring out what was going on with that prisoner camp and the monster they had been feeding, and everything to do with the Whispers. Yes, there were a lot of things I could be focused on. But between the things I couldn’t do anything about right then and the ones I had been specifically told to leave alone for the moment, I had no choice but to relax and focus on school. Honestly, I wasn’t going to complain too much. Taking a little break felt like the right thing, after that whole thing we had just been through. Which, sure, a large portion of the time had been spent sitting in that truck not really doing anything, but it was far from relaxing. Not when we could have been discovered and attacked at any point, on the way there and back. To say nothing of the actual fighting we had done once we arrived. 

The point was, being able to sit around for a few days without much in the way of responsibility or terrifying panic was good. Especially considering I could spend a lot of it with Shiori and Avalon. Even Valley toned down the obsessive need to train a little bit. Not completely, of course. She was still herself. But that whole mission had taken a lot out of her too. 

Between those two and spending time with my dad, Tabbris, and my grandparents, that was basically how my weekend went. I even had Monday off because it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Which didn’t mean all that much to anyone who had grown up in other countries, let alone other worlds (like all of Athena’s people), but they certainly understood the concept of celebrating the life of a man who had wanted everyone to get along and have the same rights. So I had a three-day weekend, which was pretty well-timed given how much I needed it.

By the time Tuesday rolled around, I felt ready to sit in class just quietly listen to the teacher. Who, in this case, was Rovon Reinswield, the guy I’d met the first time I’d visited this station way out in Seosten space, who had once been a loyal Eden’s Garden Heretic before he’d objected to the recruitment of an innocent little girl and had thus been thrown out onto the frontlines of the Fomorian war as a flesh-suit for a Seosten. Athena and her people eventually rescued him, and he had been helping teach the children they brought in ever since. 

Seeing the man sitting there at the desk after I walked into history class, I paused and tilted my head. “Don’t you usually teach the younger classes?” I knew for a fact that Tabbris enjoyed  every lesson she had with him. 

Giving me a somewhat distracted smile, the scruffy-looking man with short blond hair and round glasses nodded once. “Normally, yes. Unfortunately, your ordinary teacher for this class is a bit indisposed at the moment. As is his substitute. The sad reality of having teachers who double up as soldiers in this war. So, I volunteered to step in for the day. With any luck, I’ll avoid passing out in the middle of the lesson.” Reaching out, he picked up his mug of coffee and gestured with it. “Well, luck and a little bit of magical help.” That said, he took a sip of it and murmured appreciatively. “Mmm, abracadabra.” 

By that point, others had to started to file in, and I wished the man luck before going to find a seat next to Koren and just in front of Shiloh, the girl who had been on Harper/Gwen’s team last year, and whom I had gone through that underwater mission in Sinbad’s class with a little while back, where we had searched for treasure on that sunken spaceship. 

As I sat down, the girl behind me spoke up. “Hey, you guys found a bunch of Alters who were trapped in that prison place, right?” Brushing shaggy brown hair out of her eyes, she watched until I nodded before pressing on. “I was just wondering if you found any trolls while you were there. Two trolls, specifically. Brother and sister.” 

“I uhh, I don’t know if they’re brother and sister, or even what sex either of them are,” I admitted. “But yeah, we found a couple of trolls. They call them Two and Three, but I’m pretty sure that’s not their actual names. I think they’re still going through intake with Athena’s people so they can explain the situation. Which is uhh, taking a bit because the trolls don’t speak English or Latin. Why?”   

“We’ve got some people looking for them,” Koren put in. “From one of the rescue missions we went on a few months ago, while you were… you know.” 

Yeah, I knew. While I was trapped with Fossor. The memory made me grimace before giving a slight nod. “You rescued some people who were looking for a couple missing trolls?”  

“They heard about your mission,” Shiloh explained, shifting a little in her seat. “So they came to find us and said they had a couple troll friends who were taken to some Eden’s Garden work camp that sounded, you know, similar. I’m pretty sure they said their friends only spoke Troll and umm, what was the other one?” 

“Akkadian,” Koren answered, giving a nod my way. “They speak Troll and Akkadian. You know, from ancient Mesopotamia. If Athena’s people have anyone who can understand either of those.” 

“I’m pretty sure they can drag somebody up,” I agreed with a small smile. “Last I heard, they were having Buddy System from Wonderland talk to them. But if these people who were asking about them are around, having them up there would probably help a lot too. Especially if they’re friends. From what I could understand, I think those two have been… eager to help. They’re really friendly. Can’t understand a word I’m saying, or vice versa, but still really friendly. They smile a lot, and wave. They like waving. Shiori taught them to do a thumbs up if they like something or a thumbs down if they don’t. They like doing that a lot.” 

We talked a little bit more about that, and the other two promised to go find the people who had been asking about the trolls, so they could take them up to meet the pair and find out if they were the right ones. Shiloh sent a message to them through her wrist computer. Which literally involved her typing on the screen until a small glowing envelope appeared in the air like a hologram before it flew off. Apparently the thing would go straight to the nearest of the people they had talked to, and when that person touched it, the message to meet after our classes were over for the day would appear in the air in front of them. Which was a pretty neat trick, to be honest. Shiloh’s wrist computer seemed cooler every time I saw what she could do with it.  

Other than that, we focused on class. Despite his words about being tired, Mr. Reinswield seemed to have plenty of energy once we actually got started. Apparently the coffee had reinvigorated him, because he paced throughout the entire class, gesturing a lot while he told a story about the ancient Mayans fighting off an invasion of off-world sapient bear creatures with the help of magic and these flying snake things (not Rattlejacks). Between that and the fact that the alien bears apparently used mechs, the whole story really should’ve been made into a movie. I definitely would’ve paid money to see it, at least. And judging by the way everyone else was staring in rapt silence through the entire story, I was pretty sure the rest of the class would have too. 

Eventually, however, that class was over and I made my way to the next one for the day. Specifically, the very same Calculus class I had been studying for with Vanessa and Tristan. Between working with them and the studying I’d done during the trip, I at least felt like I hadn’t been completely left behind. Still, the teacher had me take a little ungraded quiz through the first fifteen minutes to see if I was still good to stay with the class or if I needed some extra help. Apparently I did well enough, because she gestured for me to take my normal seat before getting back to the lesson. So I was definitely going to have to let Vanessa and Tristan know that their help had paid off. 

Eventually, however, that class ended as well. As did the third and final class of the day. Well, final for everyone else. I still had some make-up to do in the afternoon, along with the others who had gone on that mission. For the moment, however, I headed for the cafeteria to meet up with Tabbris and her newly-reunited siblings so we could have lunch together. 

It only took me a moment of looking around at the entrance before I saw the girl in question standing up on her chair to wave at me from a corner of the room. As I waved back and made my way through the crowd, I eventually found the trio sitting around a table that was heavily-laden with bits of machinery, tools, and what looked like blueprints. 

“Boy,” I remarked, “doesn’t this all look positively scrumptious?” I made a show of rubbing my hands together while looking over all that stuff. “I hardly know where to start. Hmm. Oooh, I heard socket wrenches are always a good way to start off a balanced meal.” With that, I started to reach out for the tool in question as it lay on the edge of the table. 

Omni–no, he was mostly going by Jehoel now, his real name. The pale boy with shaggy brown hair quickly gave a laugh while reaching out to cover the wrench with both hands. “You can’t eat that!” he blurted, only to immediately flush guiltily, instinctively moving his hands as he withdrew as though a snake had hissed at him. “I–I mean… I mean…” It was obvious that he’d had a flash of memory about how bad it was for him to tell anyone they couldn’t do something. Let alone actually reach out to physically stop them.  

Tabbris looked like she was going to say something, but held off as I spoke up instead. “It’s okay, Jehoel. You’re right, we’re not supposed to eat tools like that. Especially not tools that belong to other people.” Offering him a little smile, I held my hand out. I didn’t just take his hand, given how important it was to convince the boy, and the other Seosten like him, that it was not only okay to touch other people, but also okay to not want to be touched as well. It was up to them to decide what they were comfortable with.

After a brief hesitation, the boy accepted my hand and squeezed it a little while giving me a hesitant smile in return. He had been working hard on being able to touch people without accidentally turning into a younger version of them. It still ended up happening sometimes when he got overly-excited about something, but he was getting a lot better about that. Still, it felt funny whenever I ended up facing the eight-year-old version of myself. But not nearly as funny as it had been to see the child version of my father. Yeah, that was a real trip. 

“So it looks like you guys have been pretty busy,” I noted as I looked over the table once more. “You mind if I ask what all this stuff is? You know, considering I’m not allowed to eat it.” I added that bit with a wink toward Jehoel, making the boy giggle once more. 

Spark was sitting on the far side of the table. Well, she appeared to be sitting there, anyway. The holographic projection of herself was here, while the real girl was still trapped inside Puriel. Sariel was good, but she wasn’t quite good enough to solve that entire situation in a month. It was going to take a bit more time for them to figure out how to extract the girl without hurting Puriel himself. But if anyone could do it, I was sure Sariel could. Especially when you added in Puriel’s power and the level of resources they were able to throw at the problem. There was no doubt in my mind that Spark would eventually be separated from Puriel. 

Regardless, the black-and-blonde haired girl was sitting next to some sort of radio-looking device with a tiny screwdriver in one hand, adjusting something on the machine. When I asked what they were working on, she sat up a bit, put the tool down, and focused on me. “It’s a secret project to help trap the Whispers when they show up again. A cage.” 

Tabbris gave a quick, eager nod. “Uh huh, uh huh. I asked Spark if she had any ideas, and she didn’t at first, but then Jehoel said something about throwing a net over them.” 

“It happened in Scooby-Doo,” the boy put in, his own face brightening as he mentioned what had apparently become his favorite thing to watch as soon as Popser had introduced it to him. Actually, I remembered my grandfather introducing me to Scooby as well, back when I was even younger than Jehoel. The image of the boy sitting on my grandfather’s lap watching the antics of Mystery Incorporated had been enough to bring a flood of nostalgic memories from those days. I was really glad Popser had someone else to share that with. And that judging by the way he had been smiling the entire time, he was too. 

“Oh, it has the Scooby seal of approval, huh?” Grinning, I gave the boy a thumbs up. “In that case, we’re in good hands.” 

“Especially with Spark designing it,” Tabbris added, practically bouncing in her seat. “She’s got a lot of good ideas now.” 

“I… am better with designing buildings and ships,” the girl in question insisted with a look of embarrassment as she squirmed. “But I think I can do something with this. It’s just the programming work that is… intimidating.” 

“Well, I know a few people who would love to help out,” I replied while taking a seat. “Actually, I was just talking to this girl Shiloh earlier, And I’m pretty sure programming is one of her big things. She was in the Development course last year. Uses a wrist computer and everything. If you’d like, I could ask if she’d come talk it over with you.” 

For her part, Spark only hesitated for a moment before nodding. “That would be nice, thank you. I didn’t want to interrupt our mother’s work to ask for her help with something else. She is… very busy.”

“I’m pretty sure she’d never be too busy to help out with anything you asked for,” I assured her, with a glance toward the other two. “Or anything any of you asked for. But yeah, let’s let her keep working on that. I’ll see if Shiloh’s interested in helping out with this Whisper cage.” 

They agreed, and we cleaned off the table before ordering actual food. For the next twenty minutes, I ate with my sister and her siblings. Well, Spark didn’t actually eat per se. But she did create a sort of holographic meal and act like she was eating just so she wouldn’t be completely left out. Which, judging from the looks that the other two were giving when they thought she wasn’t looking, I was pretty sure made them feel even more determined to help the girl separate from Puriel and get her own body back. Something told me nobody in that family was going to fully rest until that situation was taken care of. Which obviously only involved changing something that had been a thing for hundreds of thousands of years. Clearly no big deal. 

Actually, as it turned out, Sariel wasn’t even on the station at the moment. Apparently, she’d gotten a lead about some spell or something that might have a clue about dealing with the Puriel-Spark situation. So she was out chasing that down. It wasn’t the first lead she’d gotten, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be the last. According to the kids, some of those leads paid off and others didn’t. None held the full answer, of course. If it was that easy, someone would have handled the whole thing by now. It wasn’t like the Seosten didn’t have people working on it. Most of them much better at the science part of things than Kushiel had been. As far as I knew, solving that whole thing was one of their most important projects, alongside their general population problem. Which, come to think of it, was another thing that Kushiel had failed at solving. It seemed like the real takeaway here was that that psycho bitch never should have been put in charge of any project. She shouldn’t have been given authority over a science fair potato clock, let alone that whole thing. 

We were almost done with our meals when a disturbance near the entrance made me turn in my chair to look that way. There were people standing up, a large crowd forming there. I couldn’t see what they were looking at, but obviously something was going on. Everyone was talking at once, too fast and too scattered for me to pick out much in the way of specifics other than how big someone was. 

Frowning a bit, I rose from my seat while murmuring, “What in the…” It looked like people in the crowd were parting, getting out of the way. Or being pushed, I wasn’t sure which. They pulled apart closer and closer to where we were sitting. Tabbris had already moved to stand at my side, with Spark and Jehoel right behind her. 

I caught a glimpse of long black hair through the crowd, barely visible over the heads of a couple tall juvenile orcs. Then Athena appeared, sliding out of the other side of the crowd to put herself in the way. Her voice was a bit exasperated. “I asked you to wait in the other room until we could contact Sariel.” 

“I did wait,” came the heavy, deep male retort. “Then I got bored.”

He was already pushing his way forward, and as the pair of orcs slid to either side, an enormous Seosten man appeared. He was just over seven feet in height, and wore no shirt at all. The man looked like a barbarian, with black hair that went clear to the middle of his back, muscles upon muscles upon muscles, and a sword tattoo across the entire front of his torso, from his navel all the way up nearly to his throat. “Besides,” he continued in that deep voice, “how long am I supposed to sit around before I get to meet…” His eyes fell on Tabbris as she stood next to me, and a broad smile leapt to his face. 

“My daughter!” 

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By Blood 17-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At Last 16-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We weren’t trying to shove every member of the Rebellion together into the same room for this whole thing. As enormous as this station was, that just didn’t sound fun at all. And after all, one of the main points of all this was to have a party to celebrate finally getting that spell off the ground. And, more importantly, finally having a real, permanent defense against Seosten possession. Yeah, it was a big deal, and we were damn sure going to celebrate accordingly. Quite frankly, the idea of packing everyone into the same space and then setting them off made me picture a mosh pit. Which, those things were dangerous enough already, before you added in superpowers and a huge amount of size difference between various people. It–yeah. To say nothing of the fact that what the younger people would see as a good party was very different from what a lot of the older people would. 

So, we weren’t trying to squeeze everyone together. Instead, each major group had their own rooms. These were enormous chambers in their own right, like, football field-sized. I was pretty sure the various rooms had different set-ups, but this one (the one for adult students, our teachers, and a few others) had a large dance floor in the middle, long tables waiting to be filled with an assortment of food lining the sides, and smaller, circular tables to sit at toward the opposite side of the dance floor. Not that anyone was dancing or eating at the moment. We were mainly just standing around waiting and talking to each other. Or watching the screens. 

Yeah, screens. The walls were lined with dozens of them, most showing the other rooms full of people here on the station, while a few showed places away from it, like the Atherby camp, Wonderland, or the motel that the Eden’s Garden rebels had taken over. I even saw some that appeared to show completely different planets. Yeah, this was a big deal. Even bigger than I had already known. There were thousands of people pictured through these screens. And I was pretty sure I wasn’t seeing all of them. This was just… it was huge. There was no other way to put it. 

I could look around this single room and see most of the people I knew personally. And even in that case, most of the people here I didn’t know at all beyond a passing glance and name at most. I saw my teammates, my friends, my housemates, my teachers, other people from my classes, and a lot of people I had never even spoken to before. I saw dozens and dozens of people, of all shapes and sizes, whom I was pretty sure I had never seen, just right here in this room. Then I looked at the giant monitors all along the walls and recognized even less faces. but they were faces of people totally committed to this Rebellion, committed to changing things, to risking their lives in an attempt to make the world a better place. 

Only in that moment, as I stood there in our own room and stared at all these video screens showing so many people, did I really even start to grasp the size of this rebellion. Between the Alters who joined up with us, my mother’s original group of Heretics, their descendants who joined recently, those on colony worlds who wanted to be a part of it now that they knew it existed, the Garden rebels, and Athena’s group… yeah. I finally understood what a relatively small part of this whole thing I really was. 

All these people had their own reasons for being involved in this rebellion. They all had their own stories, their own battles, their own triumphs and failures. They had their enemies and friends, their lovers. They had their own everything. It would have taken a million lifetimes for me to find out even a fair percentage of all their stories. I was a piece of this, just a piece of a much larger whole. A whole which, with any luck, would use this spell as the real starting point to actually start to change not only the world, but the entire universe

Right, no wonder I suddenly felt so small. 

“It’s pretty intimidating, isn’t it?” 

Recognizing the voice, I turned to find myself staring at Avalon. She stood there, looking tired but still so incredibly beautiful. For a moment, my heart clenched. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen her at all recently. Sure, she’d been really busy helping with the spell, but she still came home most nights. We had spent time together these past few weeks, even if it was a bit short. And yet, seeing her right then, now that she was finally at the end of the long road that her ancestor’s spell had led her along, it… it meant more than I could even describe.

“Intimidating,” I found myself echoing without even thinking about it, “I’d say gorgeous.” 

Raising an eyebrow as her mouth quirked up very slightly in a smirk, Avalon casually replied, “Well, if you think all these people are gorgeous, maybe I don’t feel nearly as special.” 

Eyes widening, I flushed before quickly stepping that way to take the other girl into a tight hug. “You are definitely special,” I insisted. Just standing there with her, arms around my girl, was just… a shiver ran through me. It felt good. It felt right.

But that was nothing compared to how right and good it felt when Avalon took my chin in her hand and kissed me. At that moment, the entire world seemed to fade away. All of the hundreds of people in the room with us, the thousands on all those different monitors, everything and everyone disappeared, until it was only the two of us standing… no, floating in a void. I didn’t care about anything for those few long, precious seconds. The only thing that mattered was Avalon. 

Finally, my eyes opened as our lips parted, and I whispered, “I love you.” 

It was her turn to shiver, swallowing hard as she met my gaze. “I love you, Felicity,” Avalon murmured, gently kissing me once more. “You… you’re one of my favorite people.” 

Her eyes fell then, and I knew why. Gaia. Another of her favorite people. Reaching up, I gently cupped the side of her face, brushing my thumb just over her cheek. “We’ll get her out of there, Valley, I promise. Now that we have the possession-protection spell, we’ll find out where they’re keeping Gaia and save her. She needs to be back here. She needs to be part of this.” 

“She does,” Avalon agreed in a soft voice. Her hand moved to catch mine against her face, interlacing our fingers. “She saved me… a lot. She saved me more than I can say. I have to save her this time, okay? I can’t–I can’t just leave her.” 

“We won’t,” I promised, squeezing her hand firmly. “Whatever it takes, Valley, we’ll find her and get her back.” Then I asked about the other person she had grown quite fond of over these months. “How’s Dries doing?” 

There was a brief pause as she considered. “He’s… going through a lot right now. He’s happy that this whole thing is finally finished, after everything he and Liesje went through. But also… sad that she’s not here to see it. As good as it is, as happy as he is about the spell finally being done, the whole thing just keeps reminding him of all the bad stuff too. It’s… bittersweet.” 

Swallowing, I replied, “We have to be there for him. Make sure he knows he’s not alone. He… he deserves to have you around. You and Professor Tangle both. He needs to see and know that his family still exists, that they survived. That… you survived.” 

The two of us nodded to one another, then turned and began to make our way through the crowd together, still hand-in-hand. No way was I going to let go if I didn’t have to. We walked the room, saying hi to a few people here and there, mostly those I didn’t know but Avalon did. They were all talking to her, all congratulating and/or thanking her for everything. Valley, for her part, seemed embarrassed by the attention, but was trying to keep it together. She knew as well as I did just how big of a deal this was for the people who had lived under threat of Seosten possession for so long. Even those who had only recently found out the truth. It was big for them too. It meant that they wouldn’t have to constantly worry about the people around them being turned into spies and puppets. It was–yeah, it was a big deal. 

Eventually, the two of us found our way to a corner of the room where most of our friends were waiting. They had staked out an area with a few tables we could sit at once the whole thing got started. As we approached, Shiori hopped up from one of the tables, where she had been playing some sort of card game with Koren and Jazz. “Flick!” She came to give me a hug of her own, as Avalon released my hand so she could turn to say something to Columbus as he stepped over. I returned Shiori’s hug, pulling her to the side a bit so I could kiss her without feeling like we were being stared at the whole time. “Hey, Shy,” I murmured. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Before she could respond to that, Tabbris took her turn for a hug, whispering in my ear that December and the other Calendar people were ‘over there.’ I looked, and saw the three in question along with a couple other Seosten. They were all sitting at a nearby table, looking… well, not confused. They looked like they didn’t know if they would be welcome here or not, like they were ready to bolt for the door the moment anyone gave them a dirty look. Obviously they felt awkward about the fact that this entire thing was about their people being prevented from possessing people without permission. 

I felt like I should step over there and say something, but before I could move, Miranda was right in front of me. “Flick!” she blurted, “look at all these people.” She gestured to the monitors then. “Look at all those people. This is crazy.” 

“I guess getting the chance to be immune to Seosten possession brings a lot of people out,” I managed with a helpless shrug. “Hang on a sec.” Giving her a brief hug, I stepped around the other girl, waving the others off for the moment as I moved to find my way to where April, May, December, and those few other Seosten were sitting. “Hey there, guys,” I put in while grabbing a seat and pulling it out. “This the cool kid’s table?” 

They exchanged looks before May focused on me and quietly replied in a very stiff, yet also uncertain voice that sounded at least partially rehearsed, “We do not believe we should be here. We do not wish to intrude. This is not a place for us.”  

My head shook at that. “No, see, that’s where you’re wrong. I mean, let’s think about it for a second.” Letting my gaze move over all of them, I continued. “The main point here isn’t to stop your people from using their power. It’s to stop them from abusing their power. And I don’t just mean the possessing thing, even if that’s the main focus. It’s about stopping them from taking their power and using it to enslave, manipulate, and marginalize others.” Falling silent for a moment then, I watched the reactions of the Calendar people as well as the other couple Seosten who were sitting with them. “They do that to you guys too, even without possessing you. They abuse the difference between your powers to marginalize you. Most of them without even really thinking about it or knowing any better. And the way these situations work, nothing will change unless someone makes it change. You guys should know that most of all. Look how long your people live, and how… stuck in their ways they get. They need to be… pushed into changing. This is a push.”

April was the first to respond, her voice catching just a bit in a way that betrayed her uncertainty, much as she tried to push it down. “We are still loyal to our people, whatever faults they may have. We do not wish to make enemies of them. We…” She hesitated, clearly looking for the right words. 

One of the other Seosten, an achingly handsome guy with piercing green eyes, dark skin, and a shaved head spoke up. “We do not wish to destroy our people’s society. Only to make it better. The idea of fighting them directly, and of sitting in a room celebrating a victory over them such as this, is… not disturbing, precisely. We have made our choices. We know what is right. But it still… causes unease.”

I gave a quick nod. “That makes sense. I mean, yeah, you chose to turn against the… um, your society as a whole. Not because you want to destroy them, but because you want to make them better. That–” I sighed. “Believe me, I know how that is. You want to change things, just like we want to change Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, not destroy them. We’re sort of in a similar boat as far as that goes. Or maybe we’re just on the same river. Or–never mind, the analogy got away from me.” 

Exhaling, I pushed on. “The point is, we don’t want to fight your people. Okay, not the majority of them anyway. We don’t want to fight your people as a whole. And we sure as hell don’t want to kill all of them or destroy your society or whatever. The Fomorians are the real enemies, and we all know it. This whole thing is about forcing your people to stop using a method that obviously isn’t working and to do something new. You know, like work with other species. An alliance. That’s what we’re celebrating here. We’re celebrating taking a step that will maybe force the… hardliners among your people to come to the table and make meaningful changes. So we can all fight the real threat instead of each other. That’s why you should be here for this party. Because it’s about celebrating the chance to make things better for everyone.”   

By that point, some of the others had come over and joined us at the table. Shiloh pulled a chair over from another one and sat next to May, leaning in to whisper something to her while Eiji asked the Seosten whose name I didn’t know if he ever found some book they had apparently both been looking for. Vanessa came over, with some other Seosten boy she had been talking to nearby. Soon, there was no way to tell that these guys had initially been separate from the main group.

The air around here was practically electric. Everyone was talking back and forth. The entire room was practically vibrating with excitement. Every time I glanced around, I saw more and more people coming in and spreading out to find their own friends. Not to mention how many were showing up on the monitors. The energy level in this place was rising with every passing second. I was pretty sure if they didn’t start this thing soon, someone was going to pop like a balloon. 

Wait, given the wide assortment of powers, magic, and temperaments among everyone involved in this, I belatedly realized that I probably shouldn’t think about that. Not even as a joke. The point was, everyone wanted to get this show on the road. Which, given how long it had been coming (with various interpretations of that), was understandable. It was time to make this happen. 

As if in direct response to that thought, the lights in the room (and all the others on-screen) dimmed. The main monitor at the far end, which had been dark up to that point, came to life. We were looking at a split-screen view. On one side was the room with the spell itself. I could see people in there making last-second checks of the whole thing, including Wyatt, Sariel, and Apollo among several more. On the other side of the screen there was a small stage where others like Athena, Abigail, and my mother were having a whispered conversation slightly away from the microphone.

Eventually, there seemed to be a brief discussion about who was going to go up and talk. The others all looked to my mother, who was clearly reluctant. But finally, she rose and moved to the microphone. She was standing there, at center-stage on the main monitor, while everyone in this room and all the others stared in silence. Well, silence aside from a few scattered cheers when they saw the woman who had started this whole thing. I could tell so many others wanted to cheer too. But they wanted to hear what she had to say more. A hushed silence quickly fell over everyone. 

After a momentary pause, Mom seemed to rise slightly. She didn’t actually get any taller (though I was pretty sure she could have), but… something about the way she straightened herself up and squared her shoulders made her seem bigger than she had been. When she spoke, her voice carried through the entire room, through every room. Her eyes seemed to stare right into me just as they did everyone else. 

“My name is Joselyn Chambers. I have spent… the past hour watching these monitors. I have watched all of you, and the thing that stands out to me the most is how many of you I do not recognize. We’ve never interacted directly. I don’t know you. By and large, you are strangers to me. And… aside from my family, my husbands and my children, nothing in this life has ever made me happier than looking at these screens and seeing so many people I don’t know. 

“This… this movement started because a few of my friends and I decided we wanted to change things. We started in my room at Crossroads. We spoke in hushed, magically protected whispers. We celebrated faking the death of a single person, a man we had been sent to kill. Five of us spent days planning the rescue of one life. And in the hours of our quiet celebration that followed, I found myself standing by the window, looking out at all my classmates as I asked myself if things would ever truly change, if we could make a difference. 

“Had I the power, I would show my younger self these monitors. And when she asked who all of you are, I would tell her that I have no idea. I would tell her that one of the most remarkable and wonderful things I have ever experienced in my life is to look at all of you and have no idea who you are. I don’t know your names. I don’t know your faces. I don’t know your lives or your stories. But what I do know is that you are all here because you want to make things better. And you are willing to fight for it. To go from being five people in that room, to standing here looking at all of you is truly one of the most amazing and humbling moments of my life.  

“They say that I started this Rebellion. While there is some truth to that, a fire cannot burn without fuel, regardless of who struck the match. We will not win because of who lit the torch. We will win because of who carries it. Each and every one of you. Because as we have already seen so clearly, as long as a single torch exists, the fire will spread. They cannot snuff out every flame. And we… all of you… together we will take the injustice, the hatred, the very system which teaches us that these things are to be admired… and we will burn it to the ground. 

“This movement continues because of you. This world, this… universe will change because of you. Now it’s time for the next step of that change. With this spell, each and every one of us will be immune to unwanted Seosten possession. They will have no choice but to negotiate in good faith. No longer will they manipulate our civilization from the shadows. No longer will they turn us against one another based on lies and deceit. We will pull them to the light. All of them. And those who can stand in that light with us will be at our sides as we turn the focus of our war where it truly belongs, to those who would annihilate us all. 

“I do not know your names or your faces. But I do know this. Together, we are going to change the universe. 

“And they will all know our names.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The Runaway 15-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, Denise,” I started. 

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

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

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

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The Runaway 15-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stronger… and even more familiar than the boy. 

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

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

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The Runaway 15-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were too late. 

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The Runaway 15-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her response was a blurted, Behind you! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 22nd edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions.

Finally leaving the chaotic rush of yet another school day behind her, Abigail Fellows said goodnight to Miss Handsy before heading out of the office, satchel full of files over one shoulder and a cup of steaming hot coffee in the other hand. She was walking briskly down the hall when a voice spoke up from behind, calling her name. Abigail slowed and turned to see the dark-haired Athena approaching. Waiting for the Seosten woman, she asked, “Didn’t you have something going on over with the… what was the name of that group again? The ones who want to build an elevator to the moon.” 

“The Kalsteren,” Athena reminded her. “And not yet. They want me there for a special holiday, but it doesn’t start for two more days. They’re still setting things up. Also, the elevator thing is a bit of a misnomer. What they actually want is a stable, permanent portal to the moon. Which is a phenomenally bad idea, given… well, you know. But try telling them that.” Pausing, she murmured, “Right, I’m going to have to actually try to tell them that. We’ll see how it goes.” 

Curious, Abigail asked, “Actually, I don’t know. Why would a portal to the moon be a bad idea, exactly?” 

Athena’s mouth opened to answer, but they were interrupted as a new voice called out, “Abigail!” It was Theia, popping out of a nearby doorway. She was giving the wide smile that only ever seemed to appear that genuinely when she was talking to very few people, including Douglas Frey, Pace, Koren, Miranda, and most of all Abigail herself. 

“Hello, Theia,” Abigail greeted the girl with a smile of her own. “What can we do for you?” She didn’t outright chide her for not acknowledging Athena at all, simply choosing to point the other woman out by very slightly stressing the ‘we’ part of the sentence.

“Oh, hello, Athena,” Theia promptly greeted the other woman, voice making it clear that she hadn’t actually noticed her at all. That done, she promptly turned her attention right back to Abigail once more. “I found this.” Raising her hand, she showed both women the large, blue-and-violet seashell that took up most of her palm. “It’s lucky. You should have it on your desk.” 

“Aww, why thank you, Theia.” Accepting the seashell, Abigail nodded. “It’s very pretty.”

“It’s lucky,” the Seosten girl reiterated. “You can’t lose it. It has to go on your desk. You have to keep it safe.” Her voice was oddly urgent as she stared at the woman intently, as though expecting her to walk right back with it at that very moment. 

And that was exactly what Abigail did. With a glance toward the woman next to her, she gave a short nod. “Well then, I wouldn’t want it to accidentally get put somewhere else. Why don’t you show me the best place for it? Athena, you’re good with tactics, perhaps you’ll have a thought or two.” She gestured, inviting both of them to follow as she pivoted and walked right back to the other room, passing Miss Handsy once more with a pleasant greeting. 

Theia followed, of course, with Athena behind. Though the Olympian gave no real input on the placement of the shell, she did watch with curiosity while the other two positioned it just so. Only once she was satisfied that the shell was in its proper place, did Theia nod with satisfaction. “Good, you will have luck now,” she announced. “You need it. The job you have taken on is very difficult, and you will probably fail without a lot of luck.” With that blunt pronouncement, she offered another smile. “And now you have it, so I will leave.” Abruptly, she spun on her heel and began to walk away. 

“Oh, Theia, you’ll be over for dinner tonight?” Abigail quickly put in. “Koren wanted your help with some sort of vegetable dish she looked up. Apparently she thinks you’re better with a knife then she is.” 

“It’s true,” Theia agreed, “I have cut many things. And many people. And many things off many people.” With a bright, cheerful smile, she added, “I will be there to help cut more things.” 

And just like that, she was gone again, exiting through the door with only a belated, “Goodbye, Athena!” 

Only once she was sure the girl had left through the outer office, did Athena close the door and step over to where Abigail was. “Do you have any idea what you’re going to do about that?” she asked while nodding toward the sea shell. 

Abigail, in turn, blinked. “The shell? Well, unless you’re about to tell me that it’s actually a monster that will eat me the first chance it gets, I was planning on leaving it right there. I mean, she’s not wrong about us needing luck to pull this whole thing off without ending up in a full-scale war against your people. Though I like to think our odds aren’t quite that bad.” 

Shaking her head, Athena looked to the shell briefly before turning back to Abigail. “That is the shell of a Kaula Mehyian. They are an incredibly rare creature, whose shell only turns that color once the animal itself has passed away of old age. Which only happens after ten thousand years. The same general life span as a normal Seosten. It’s part of why our people came to see them as lucky. The shell itself is proof that the Kaula Mehyian lived a full life and died naturally. If the shell is taken early, it doesn’t turn that color. Once the animal dies, the shell falls away and changes to what you see there. For Theia to have one means she either paid… an enormous fortune for it, or experienced what for almost anyone would be a once-in-a-lifetime find, and was able to pick up one of those shells on her own. That shell by itself would be considered…” She shook her head, trying to find some sort of comparison. “Your people have your four-leaf-clovers and horseshoes and such. But you have nothing like this. There is nothing even remotely similar. A Seosten with a Kaula Mehyian shell would never give it away, save for a true fortune, or… to someone incredibly important to them.” 

“Someone incredibly important…” Abigail echoed, glancing toward the shell itself once more with new understanding. 

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “That’s what it means. Do you see the way she smiles at you? She does not smile at others that way. When she smiles at most people, it’s… awkward. Something closer to predatory. It doesn’t look quite right. And yet, with you, she’s perfectly natural about it. And one other thing, did you notice that she left without saying goodbye to you? Twice, in fact. First she announced that she was leaving and began to walk out. The second time, she specifically said goodbye to me. Not once did she say it to you.” 

“Well, I wasn’t going to bring it up,” Abigail murmured, “but I assumed she was just in a hurry. Or didn’t think it was worth saying, considering she’ll be around to help with dinner in just another hour or so. Hardly worth reprimanding her for, or even talking about, really.” 

“That’s not my point,” Athena informed her. “She isn’t saying goodbye because she doesn’t want that level of separation. It’s a… subconscious thing. If she never says goodbye to you, then you’ll never be apart from her.” She paused, then gestured with a sigh. “Sit down, please, Abigail. I think we should talk a bit more about this.” 

Her words made the school principal pause before nodding as she sat down. “You’re not about to tell me not to get so close to one of your people, are you?” Her tone was mostly light, but there was something more behind it. She would not have reacted well if the other woman actually pulled anything like that, no matter how unlikely it was. Theia meant too much to her. 

Taking the seat across from the desk, Athena shook her head. “No, Abigail, of course not. What I want is to ask you precisely how close you’re planning on being. You know how badly that girl’s mother treated her, how… rejected she was. Now I’m fairly certain she has latched onto you as… a replacement. You named her. You treated her like a real person. You… you are much more than a friend for her, and if that’s not… if that’s something you don’t want, we should find a way to take care of it before it goes too far.” 

Abigail leaned back a bit in her seat, watching the woman intently. “You mean if I don’t want Theia to see me as a mother, we should stop being so close.” 

“What I mean,” Athena clarified, “is that I think it would do her a lot of good if she didn’t have to tiptoe around the situation because part of her is afraid you will reject her if she brings it up any more directly than she already has. She needs to be accepted, fully accepted, if she’s going to move completely beyond the person her mother and our society turned her into. I think you can help with that–I think you have helped with it, more than anyone could have asked. But here I am, asking you for more. I know that’s incredibly unfair.” 

“What’s unfair,” Abigail retorted, “is what that girl went through for so long.” She exhaled, dropping her gaze to look at an unrelated folder on the desk while various thoughts ran through her mind. “She deserves a stable home, and people she can count on to be there for her. She’s had that, around here, to an extent. But you’re right, she needs more. She deserves more.” 

Both women went quiet for a moment then before Athena spoke. “As I said, I believe she has come to see you as a mother. But that leaves the question of whether you can see her as a daughter. But I think I had my answer to that when I watched your expression when you thought there was even a chance that I was going to say you shouldn’t be so close to her.” 

With a small, self-deprecating smile, Abigail admitted, “If you did try to tell me to stay away from her, I might have been thinking of throwing myself over this desk at you. You know, as effective as that would have been.” 

“Hey, you certainly would have had the element of surprise,” Athena pointed out with a smile before chuckling softly. She glanced away for a moment, seeming to think about what was next before turning back to the other woman. “My point is that what Theia needs is something more official. Something that can feel… firm to her. Something tangible, so she doesn’t need to wonder anymore about just how far your acceptance goes.” 

“Kushiel.” Abigail spoke the name with a harsh, spitting tone before shaking her head. “That woman treated her daughter like…” She trailed off, exhaling long and slow as she collected herself. “Whenever I think about how Theia was treated, it just… I want to… It makes me want to hurt people the way I’ve only ever wanted to hurt them when my… when Koren was hurt. I want… I want to be everything Theia needs. I want to be a better everything for her than her… than Kushiel was. I suppose I was just afraid that pushing on that too hard would make her think I was trying to replace her actual mother.” 

“Good,” Athena pointed out. “Kushiel should be replaced. An overfull lint trap would be a better mother than she was to that girl. The sort of upgrade you would be is just…” She coughed. “Abigail, she needs you to make it official. She needs you to be her mother. That means more than just hanging out. That means treating her the way you would Koren. It means making her part of your family, in every way. But only if you’re up for that. You can’t go halfway on it. Not with this, not with that girl. If you accept her, you have to accept all of her. Which means you’ll have to be ready to help her through some tough times. She’s been through more than either of us know, and I think there’s a fair bit she still has bottled up from the time she spent under Kushiel’s experiments.”

“And I want to be there to help her through that,” Abigail confirmed, in a soft, yet certain tone. “I want… I want to give her everything she never had the chance to have when she was with your people.” Pausing, she gave a very slight grimace. “I’d say no offense, but you know.” 

“You wouldn’t mean it,” Athena replied. “And it’s deserved. My people have a long way to go on a great many things.” With another sigh, she straightened, extending a hand. “I know there’s no real… court system for adoption up here. But I think it should be more than randomly telling her how you feel. She deserves something bigger than that.” 

Abigail accepted the hand, rising from her own seat. “Oh, don’t you worry, one word to Koren and she’ll help plan a party the likes of which you have never seen. And as for the official part, I think I can make up some papers and a certificate just fine. After all, I was a lawyer in a previous life.” 

“Well, here’s to previous lives,” Athena noted with a thoughtful gaze. 

“And the lessons we take from them.” 

*********

“You remember when we took Lincoln on that road trip across the country?” Arthur Chambers asked his wife while the two of them stood atop a hill overlooking a wide valley between a pair of silvery-red mountains whose peaks rose clear out of sight into the purple-clouded sky. The grass beneath their feet was a faint orange color, tinged with white on the tips. Before the pair, the field itself was full of enormous herd animals that looked like a cross between elephants and giraffes, with incredibly long, thick necks, tusks, and big floppy ears. They stood ten feet tall at the shoulders, the necks extending the heights of their head at full extension to nearly double that. It allowed them to reach their favorite food as it grew within crevices in the surrounding mountains. Their tusks were used to break open smaller holes to reach the moss that filled intricate cave networks throughout those mountains. And the sound whenever one of those creatures reared its head back and slammed forward to break into those caves, or simply to break apart boulders to get at the moss growing within, echoed like thunder across the field. 

“You’re thinking about the buffalo, aren’t you?” Maria replied. Her own gaze was focused on the Seosten children, who were running through the field, laughing and playing with one another. She could see Omni, pulling his sister’s hard-light form right along with them. From what Puriel had said, the two had quickly become close as soon as they met. And by now, they were all-but inseparable. 

“I’m thinking about the buffalo,” Arthur confirmed with a small chuckle at the memory. “Do you think he’d chase these big fellas?” 

“I think he learned his lesson with the buffalo,” Maria murmured before glancing that way. “You always did like going on trips. This whole thing must be your dream come true.” 

Arthur, in turn, offered a slight nod. “Hey, in more ways than one.” Tugging his wife closer by the hand, he squeezed it before putting his arm around her. “Having you here for my Star Trek adventure makes it so much better than my boyhood dreams. If Linc and Felicity were here, that’d make everything perfect.” Belatedly, he added, “And Joselyn.” That was still new, getting accustomed to the fact that the woman who had apparently broken his son’s heart and abandoned her family wasn’t the horrible person she had appeared to be. He owed that woman a lot of apologies for the thoughts he’d had over the years. 

“And Joselyn,” Maria confirmed, clearly having the same thought. Reaching out then, she pointed toward the spot where the children were running in circles. A moment of focus created a small, red ball of energy in the middle of them. The ball floated there until they had all noticed it, before abruptly zipping away from them. With a collection of squeals, the children suddenly started to chase the ball, laughing with delight as it led them on a run through the field. 

From behind the pair, Puriel spoke up as he approached. “I notice your little game there happened to lead them away from that nursing Ceurth.” He nodded toward a pair of the large animals lying together near where the kids had been moving their game. 

“No reason to interrupt a busy mother,” Maria noted without looking at him. Her attention remained on making the glowing ball lead the children on a chase. “How are the others doing with the hunting?” Alcaeus and Kutattca had gone off to get food to restock the ship’s stores. That being the main reason for this stop, aside from allowing everyone to stretch their legs. They were all down here except for Aletheia, who was still up on the ship itself as it waited for them in orbit around this unoccupied moon. 

“You think this’ll be the last stop we need to make before Earth?” Arthur added. They were far past the barrier by that point, in an area of space where livable worlds were even fewer and farther between than usual. It was Aletheia who had remembered this particular moon and ensured it would be part of their trip. 

Puriel stepped up beside the pair, watching the children below. “Yes,” he confirmed. “This is the last one. Soon, we’ll be at your home. And you can rejoin your family.” Belatedly, he added, “You are becoming quite proficient with your gift, Maria.” 

A small smile played over the elderly woman’s face as she made the ball fly straight up in the air, then down again. “It’s nothing compared to the sort of things you can do with it. Making a glowing ball of energy isn’t exactly helpful in a fight.” 

“You can be far more helpful than you realize,” Puriel informed her. “And not everything needs to be about being useful in war.”

Maria and Arthur exchanged glances then, before the latter spoke up. “From everything we’ve learned about your people, they’d really take that as a sign that you’ve lost your mind.” 

Puriel was silent for a few long moments, his gaze staring down at the children while his mind was elsewhere. “Yes, well, perhaps I have, at that.” 

Arthur cleared his throat. “He’s right about one thing, you are getting better. Almost makes me jealous that you took that gift.” 

“Don’t you start,” Maria teasingly chided. “You made your choice and have your own powers. And, the last time I checked, you were having a grand old time playing with the children with them.”  

“Yes,” Puriel agreed, “and yours have been quite useful already, even if they are still in their infancy stages. You will get better with them. But we will need to pay careful attention to that growth, and ensure there are no unwanted side effects. The DNA of that particular creature has always been a bit… unique in many ways.

“I, for one, am very interested to know whether the Djehuti gift will remain, as it is now, solely the same manipulation of technology as the woman who calls herself Gaia, or if you will eventually also manifest the same biological expertise as the man who now calls himself Seller.”

******

The house where Vanessa and Tristan lived with Sands, Sarah, and several others was dark as the blonde twins approached with Theia between them. The three were chatting about ways that they could potentially find out more about the Whispers and that whole situation, if Cahethal refused to play ball. Theia, of course, had her own ideas about good sources of information, and was just in the middle of explaining a plan that involved rigorous use of Flick’s ability to summon dead people and talk to them, when they reached the front entrance. 

As he unlocked the door, Tristan pointed out, “Hey, at least we don’t have to worry about being quiet. Even if everyone’s asleep in here, they’d all be in their soundproof roo–” 

That was as far as the boy got. Because in that moment, as he turned the knob and pushed the door open, his words were interrupted by a loud squeal. Or rather, several loud squeals, as a handful of party horns were blown all at once, to varying effectiveness. On top of that, the entryway just beyond the door was filled with people, all of them shouting something. 

Theia reacted instantly. Shoving the other two off to either side, she threw herself through the doorway and caught hold of the nearest ‘attacker’ by the arms. Her head slammed forward to crash into the person’s face, turning what had been a shout into a yelp of pain. In the next moment, she pivoted, hurling the dazed figure past the group before snatching two knives from her belt. One flew in the direction of the person she had headbutted and shoved, even as she pivoted to choose her next target with the other. 

All of that took place in what would have been a blink for most people. At her full boost, in fight or flight mode, Theia had done all of that before the average person could have even started to react. 

Which also meant it was only then that she actually took the time to see what she had thrown herself into. The people here were… Sands, Sarah, Koren, Ejji, Felix and her sister Triss, Columbus, and several more people from their classes. None were holding the weapons she had expected to see. Instead, they held balloons, whistles, and other party favors. 

“… what?” Theia finally managed, stopping short just before she would have thrown herself at the next person, blade in hand. 

“Hey!” Vanessa, poking her head in from one side of the door where she had been shoved, blurted. “What’s going on?” 

“Yeah.” Tristan joined his sister, head poking in from the other side of the door. “What gives?” 

“Uhhhhh…” The groan came from a low, wheeled table that had been brought into the hall behind the group. Jazz lay there, one hand holding her face where Theia had headbutted her. In her other hand was the blade that had been thrown, snatched out of the air before it could do any damage. Less spared, unfortunately, was the large cake that had been sitting on that table. A cake that was entirely destroyed by Jazz landing in it. 

“Happy birthday, you two?” the cake-covered, groaning girl managed, focusing somewhat bleary eyes on the twins in question. 

“And whoever’s job it was to tell Theia about the surprise, I’m gonna kick your ass.” 

********

“Fick, Fick!” The excited cries from the tiny, four-year-old Sahveniah filled the hallway. Within an instant of laying eyes on the older blonde girl, the dark-skinned blur raced across the distance separating them and hurled herself that way. 

Reacting quickly, Flick caught the girl in mid-leap and straightened, pulling her into a hug. “Hey, Savvy. Long time no see.” 

Holding on as tight as her little form was capable of (which was a surprising amount, given how quickly Seosten developed their physical prowess), Savvy didn’t respond at first. She simply clung to the older girl for several long moments before finally murmuring, “You were gone for a long time. They said you had to fight the bad guys. But you shouldna gone by yourself. You coulda beat the bad guys more easy if you wasn’t all alone.”  

Swallowing hard, Flick held the girl tighter against herself. “You’re right,” she murmured, “I shouldn’t have gone by myself. I’ll remember that. But hey, I brought my mom back.” 

“Yay!” After that initial cheer, Savvy leaned back to squint at the girl. Held up in this position, they were eye to eye. “I didna know you had a mama.” 

Flick gave a small chuckle at that before lowering herself down. She set Savvy on the floor in front of her while taking a knee right there in the Starstation corridor. “Oh yes, I definitely have a mama. You should meet her. I think she’ll like you.” 

“I’m a pirate,” Sahveniah informed her solemnly. “Does your mama like pirates?” 

“I think she’ll like one as adorable–” Flick started before amending, “Ahem, I mean as fierce and adventurous as you.” 

Her words made the younger girl give a brilliant smile, the entire hall around them seeming to light up. “When I get bigger, I’mma go on a ship, an’ take the ship, an’ go fight the bad guys, an’ steal all the bad guys’ booty. Fick? What’s a booty?” 

Coughing, Flick leaned back to sit on the floor with her back to the nearby wall, tugging the girl over. “Ah, in this case, it means their treasure.” 

Savvy cooed happily while climbing into her lap, nuzzling up against her shoulder. “What about other booties? Is there other kinds o’ booty?” 

Flick, in turn, simply hugged the girl tighter to herself. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll find out all about every kind of booty. I’m sure you’ll grow up to be the most successful and dangerous pirate queen the universe has ever seen. Entire worlds will quake at the sound of your name.” 

“Only the bad guys,” Savvy insisted pointedly. 

“Only the bad guy worlds,” Flick agreed, moving her hand to gently stroke the girl’s hair. “You’ll steal all their treasure and make them walk the airlock. And your crew will sing all sorts of songs about the dreaded and beautiful pirate captain Savvy.” 

Giggling, Sahveniah gave a nod of confirmation, still leaning against her shoulder while making soft noises of contentment in her position. Eventually, she murmured, “Fick? I missed you.” 

“I missed you too, Savvy,” came the soft, gentle response. 

“I missed all of you.” 

*******

“Alright, all of you line up!” The order came from Larian Mondo, a two-hundred year old Heretic who had been brought in to take up the position at Crossroads that Virginia Dare had so loudly vacated when she left with the rest of the traitors. He was a deceptively small-looking man, barely five-foot-seven, with wire-rimmed sunglasses and long dark hair. He wore a dark blue suit, and carried a construction mace in one hand similar to the one used by Sands Mason. 

Sands. Thinking of the girl, Zeke Leven felt a sharp pang run through him. Fuck. He liked that girl. He’d liked her for years. Then that Chambers bitch had to show up and totally screw their whole society over, and confuse Sands and her sister so much they and their mother ran off with her. Just because her mom was a crazy, deranged traitor. 

And now here Zeke was, on another student hunt just a few days before Christmas, because almost nobody was allowed to leave the school to go on holidays thanks to this war draining all their resources. 

There were two teams assembled in front of Larian in this narrow alley in the outside world. Zeke, of course, along with Malcolm Harkess, Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Laila Kassab (their sixth member, Erin Redcliffe, had disappeared during their previous hunt) for one team, and Gavin Rish, Stephen Kinder, Russell Bailey, a tall Latino boy named Martin Gutierrez, and two girls named Noelle Starson (a dark-haired, light-skinned girl with light green eyes and a wide mouth) and Tracy Faulk (a deeply-tanned blonde who was almost always laughing at inappropriate jokes) for the other.

The eleven students stood in front of Larian, while three other adult Heretics were lined up behind them, along with both team’s older student mentors. Crossroads was taking no more chances with their student hunts. Not after Erin’s disappearance. The two teams would each be accompanied by two of the adults and their student mentor.

Larian looked the group over. “Okay. Behind me and through that alley, there’s a hotel. Our info says it’s infested with some real nasty pieces of shit. The leader’s a Marakeya, so don’t let him get his hands on you or you’ll regret it. We’ll be right there with you. We start at the bottom and work our way up. One team at the front entrance, one at the back. They’re all monsters in there, so don’t let anyone escape.” He paused before adding, “And yeah, I know you’d all rather be hanging out for the holidays. Three days before Christmas and all. So thanks for coming along on this. Sometimes saving humanity means not getting a full vacation.” 

With that, he split the groups up with a few muttered words and waved hands, then pivoted, taking Zeke’s team along with their mentor (the Native American girl Namid) toward the front. One of the other Heretic adults brought up the rear, while the remaining two would escort the other team to the back of the hotel.  

Unfortunately, even as the group approached the hotel, they found their way blocked by a figure standing at the end of the alley. A figure who, by that point, was familiar to everyone. To Zeke, especially, despite never seeing her in person. He had the memory of her appearance seared into his brain from the research he’d done to find out exactly who was responsible for the society he had grown up in being torn apart not once, but twice. Seeing her, he felt a sudden rush of anger. Worse than what he felt whenever he thought of Chambers herself. 

“Joselyn Atherby,” Larian snapped, snapping his mace down before giving it a flicking motion that made a handful of steel spikes rise out of the ground, angled that way. 

The other Heretic adult abruptly disappeared from behind the group and reappeared next to Larian. Where he had disappeared from, a water-shaped version of himself was left behind before splashing to the ground, and where he appeared, a burst of flame shaped like him filled the air, then dissolved into the man’s physical form. He was holding his own weapon, a long claymore sword that could shift into a musket-like gun. “You shouldn’t be here, Atherby.” 

“Someday, I’ll tell enough of you that my last name is Chambers now, that it’ll actually stick.” After muttering those words, the blonde woman focused. “I need you to back off for a few minutes. We’re… busy. A girl’s life depends on it.”

Larian snorted, shaking his head. “I knew you were stupid enough to defend these monsters, but I thought you had some standards. Defending the things in that hotel, that’s a new low, even for you. But hey, why don’t you try your lies on someone else, like say…” He trailed off, pausing before his eyes narrowed. “You’re blocking communication back to Crossroads.”  

Joselyn, in turn, flatly informed him. “Of course I am. I’ve done this rebellion thing before, remember? And I’m not defending any of the people who willingly live in that hotel. But as I said, we’re in the middle of something. The life of a girl who is not in that hotel depends on us getting information out of the ones who are. So back off for a few minutes, then we can both… go about our jobs.” 

Larian and his partner seemed to consider that for a moment, before the first man’s eyes narrowed. “No. You know what? I think you’re stalling for something. Giving them time to get out.” With that, he waved a hand back toward the students. “Get in there, wipe out everything in your path. We’ll deal with her ourselves.” 

The next thing Zeke and the others knew, they were enveloped in a rush of energy, before finding themselves deposited in one of the side parking lots with the hotel itself visible in the distance. 

“What–what do we do?” Freya demanded. The tall, red-haired girl was looking around in confusion while holding her warhammer in one hand and shield in the other. She turned toward Namid for help. 

Rather than wait for their mentor to speak, however, Zeke was already pivoting, stalking toward the hotel. “We do what the man said. Get in there and kill everything in our way.” 

“Gonna need you to stop right there, dude.” The new voice came from a figure who rose from behind a nearby car and moved to block their path. 

“Koren?” Summer blurted. The black girl was staring that way, mouth agape. “Wha-what the hell are you guys doing? You can’t seriously think this is right. Those are bad guys in there!” 

Rebecca Jameson, moving up beside Koren, gave a short nod. “Yeah, you’re right. Those are bad guys. But we’re trying to help a girl who isn’t a bad guy. And the only way to do that is to find her in there before you guys kill them all or make them run away. Or at least find out where they took her. Mrs. Chambers told your teacher guy that, but he wouldn’t listen.” 

Malcolm, enormous sledgehammer in hand, took a step closer while tapping the head of the weapon against the ground a couple times. “You guys really need a better excuse. Now either get out of the way and let us do our jobs, or we’ll go through you. Neither of you could match me in training last year, you really think you can do it together? Let alone all six of us.”  

Heaving a heavy sigh, Namid finally spoke up. “He’s right, you two need to get out of the way. Believe me, I really don’t want to hurt either of you. This whole situation is fucked beyond belief, but we’ve got a job to do. So move.” 

The two girls exchanged glances, before turning back to the six Crossroads students. Koren spoke first. “Sorry. We can’t do that.” 

Rebecca added, “I guess you’ll just have to go through us.” 

There was a brief pause before Namid gestured. “No killing, just make them stay down.” 

Immediately, Malcolm lunged that way, already swinging his hammer. He moved so quickly, his form was a blur. Koren, however, smoothly twisted aside, pivoting on one foot like a ballet dancer as the hammer swung past her to slam into the ground. As soon as the head of the weapon hit the cement, three blunt concrete ‘spikes’ erupted from the ground right where the girl was. But Koren had already flipped up and over, landing behind the boy. She lashed out with a kick, which collided with his back, knocking him forward into the concrete slabs he had raised. Except they weren’t concrete anymore. In that moment, with a quick look, she had transformed them into a gooey, sticky, tar-like substance that gripped the boy tightly. 

Malcolm immediately used his hammer’s ability to send himself back to any of the last ten spots he had hit with it in order to teleport to where he had been standing a moment earlier. But he was still covered in tar. Tar that was rapidly solidifying, even as he blurted, “The hell is this?!” 

“Just get rid of it and focus!” Zeke snapped. The boy was already going at Koren from the side, lashing out to bash her with his shield while simultaneously creating three glass-like balls behind her, which exploded with concussive force meant to throw the girl forward into his swinging shield. 

Koren, however, wasn’t there. She had already tossed one of her Hunga Munga throwing axes into the air, teleporting herself up to it before pivoting in midair to face the boy below. A moment of focus made a wave of concussive force slam into the back of Zeke’s legs, knocking him slightly off-balance. 

He, of course, reacted by snapping his gaze up to where she was. The front of his shield shifted, producing two gun-like barrels from the middle, which fired twin bolts of electricity, powerful enough to put a bear on the ground. 

But Koren wasn’t there anymore either. Just before teleporting herself up to the first Hunga Munga, she had dropped the other one. In the instant where Zeke was shooting his electricity at her, she teleported herself down to that one, appearing in a kneeling position right next to the boy while he was facing upward. Before he could adjust, Koren lashed out with her fist, which collided with the boy’s stomach with enough force to double him over. 

Malcolm, by that point, had gotten enough of the tar off himself to come lunging to help his friend. But Koren had already torn the shield from Zeke’s grasp and pivoted, Captain America-ing the shield that way to take the charging boy’s legs out from under him. He turned the fall into a roll, coming up nearby while swinging his hammer. 

At the same time, Zeke had recovered from the punch, and swung around to clap his hands together, creating a focused sonic blast that would have burst the girl’s eardrums, staggering her just long enough for Malcolm’s attack to put her on the ground.

Would have, that was, if Koren hadn’t already made a wall of earth rise out of the ground behind herself in a semicircle. The wall caught the sonic blast, shielding her from its effects. Which allowed the girl to thrust both hands forward, hitting the charging Malcolm with a telekinetic shove that halted his forward momentum and sent him flying backward to crash into a nearby wall. 

Zeke, stumbling backward from the wall, shot a look toward Malcolm, then over to where Summer, Freya, and Laila were clearly having their own problems with the tiny waif Rebecca. “The fuck?!” He blurted the words in confusion. “You two weren’t this good last year.” 

“Things change,” Koren informed him flatly, flipping her Hunga Munga around in both hands before facing him. “You’ve been in class. We’ve been in a war. So, you guys gonna walk away?” 

In answer, Zeke made a growling noise deep in his throat, glaring at her. “You know what?” he snarled, already readying himself. “I think it’s time to shut you up.” 

“By all means,” Koren replied. 

“You’re welcome to try.” 

Wanna see more of this conflict and how it all resolves? Check out the end of arc interlude coming up in a few more chapters!

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