Kutattca

Patreon Snippets 21 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 21st 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.

Virginia Dare

1943

The sound of a woman’s terrified scream filled the night air, cutting through the quiet noise of various nocturnal animals. It was a night brightly lit by a full moon and millions of twinkling stars, which shone over the narrow dirt road. It ran between two enormous fields of corn that seemed to stretch on for miles in either direction. Down that dirt road ran the woman in question, the source of the scream. Her face was covered in dirt and spots of blood from various scratches she had picked up by running through the nearby woods that had led to the road itself. The woman was barely out of her teens, a small, frail-looking thing with dark brown hair worn in a long braid. Her name was Vera Anderlie, and she was dressed in overalls and a checkered shirt, with muddy boots. 

Although Vera’s scream was loud, it was nothing compared to the deafening cacophony of half a dozen wolves howling. Large wolves, who at that very moment were tearing up the dirt slightly behind the fleeing woman. She heard them, not only the howls, but the pants, the yips, the excited, horrifyingly eager snarls. Right behind her, they were right behind her, barely a few steps back. Close enough to pounce if they had so chosen. As they had been throughout this entire chase, ever since she made the mistake of trying to walk through the woods at night. 

That was almost the worst of it, really. They were playing with her, torturing Vera by making her think she could escape while still staying right on her tail. They could jump her any time, take her to the ground and rip her throat out on this step, or the next one, or the next. Just one wolf by itself could have caught and killed her long before she even got this far, let alone all six. It was a game to them, a game with her own life. They loved hearing her whimpers, smelling her terror, the tears running down her face, the sound of her heart pounding out of her chest. 

Soon, they would end it. Any moment now, they would tire of the game. Then they would bring her to the ground with a single leap, and she would feel their teeth tearing into her. It would be the last thing she felt. The last feeling she ever had would be horrific agony, the last thought would be a desperate wish that she could go back and choose not to take a walk that night. Her last moments would be filled with nothing but terror, regret, and agony. Any second now, any step, any breath, any beat of her heart, and they would finish this the only way it could end. 

Then, a different sound pierced the air, one born not of the woman, nor her pursuers. It was a sharp, almost painfully loud whistle. Both Vera herself, and the wolves hot on her heels, stumbled to a stop and looked toward the source. 

A figure, another woman, stepped into view from where she had been hidden in the shadows of the corn. An aristocratically beautiful, blonde figure who appeared to be in her early to mid-thirties, with long blonde hair worn in a single braid similar to the girl who had been chased this far, though her own was dark compared to this woman’s quite-light locks. She wore black suit pants with a crisp white shirt that was tucked in, her entire outfit and look making the woman appear to be more at home working in an office. That was, if women could ever do such a thing without being laughed out of the building. It looked as though she had taken her husband’s work-attire and dressed in it for fun, yet the clothes fit her perfectly. 

And, of course, there was the sword hanging from a sheathe at her hip. 

“Having fun?” the blonde woman asked with a raised eyebrow. “Truly, you have my apologies. Had I but known the desperate plight of your pack, I would have extended a hand of help sooner.” Her head shook as she lamented, “To be so hard-up for food that you must hunt humans, and so pathetically weak to choose such a small, helpless woman as your target, your pack must be truly pitiful. I would suggest hunting the rats in the field behind me, but I would not wish to subject your people to such terror.”

Her words earned a low, dangerous growl from the wolves themselves. They… they understood her, Vera realized, eyes darting back and forth between the assembled monsters and the woman who stood there so casually. The wolves seemed to have forgotten her for the moment, but Vera didn’t dare move and draw their attention once more. They were slowly spreading out to arrange themselves in a half-circle around the newcomer, snarling dangerously. Clearly, they had both understood the insult, and taken offense to it. 

If she was worried by their reaction and threatening posture, the blonde didn’t show it. She simply stood there, not even so much as reaching for the sword at her hip. As the wolves gave their threatening snarls and bared their teeth, she offered them a very faint, humorless smile while making absolutely no move to prepare any sort of defense. “I would offer food of my own, but perhaps it would be better to remove a few of the mouths who need it.” 

They understood the threat just as well as they had understood the insult. As soon as the woman said that, the wolves braced themselves to lunge that way and tear her apart. However, at the last possible second, the blonde called out, “You’re some pretty big wolves, aren’t you? 

“Do you want to see a bigger one?” 

*******

The werewolves were dead. They wouldn’t bother anyone else again. Certainly not Vera Anderlie, who had fainted shortly after Virginia had grown to her full-sized gigantic amarok form. Virginia had woken the woman up once it was over and she had disposed of the corpses, telling her that she had apparently been taking a hike and passed out from dehydration. She made sure the woman got back to her farmhouse before checking the woods around the area to be absolutely certain there were no remaining members of that pack hiding around. 

Now, she was leaving the woods surrounding the farmhouse behind and heading back to the dirt road. In mid-step, she paused, head tilting a little before she spoke up. “How long have you been watching?” 

Gaia Sinclaire stepped into view, curiously asking, “In general, or tonight?” 

Seeing her mentor standing there, the woman who had been a mother to her for so long, brought a rush of very powerful feelings to Virginia. Everything she had given up and walked away from in order to protect the world from the Fomorians had always been in the back of her mind throughout the intervening decades. But now it all came flooding to the forefront, almost making her physically stagger. Seeing Gaia reminded her of her husband… and her daughter. Her daughter, Joselyn…  It took everything she had not to visibly react. 

“Is something wrong?” she finally managed to get out, keeping her voice as steady as possible. Why was Gaia here? Staying away from everyone had already been hard enough as it was, but standing here face-to-face with the woman she cared about so much? It made things exponentially worse. Everything, all of those feelings of loss, separation, the terror and horrific guilt of walking away from her only child right after the death of her husband, it… it was too much. She couldn’t do this, couldn’t be here, couldn’t see Gaia right now. She couldn’t–

And then Gaia was there. Not only in sight, but right in front of her. The woman’s arms closed around Virginia, holding her close as the blonde felt all the strength leave her. She slumped against the woman who had been so important to her for so long. It was wrong. She couldn’t do this. She had to leave, had to walk away. Please, she needed an excuse to leave right now, before–

“Yes,” Gaia was saying quietly, her grip around the other woman tightening very slightly. “Something is certainly wrong. Sadly, I don’t know what that is. You see, I had thought for quite some time that keeping you away from me was for the best, so that your reputation among our people would not be drawn into the gutters after my decision to… sacrifice Desoto. There was no reason for you to bear any measure of the reactions from those who believe they know better, who believe they could have done better. I believed that leaving you out of my life in these years was for your own good.” 

There was a brief, poignant pause then. A pause during which everything inside Virginia screamed for her to make an excuse and flee. That would be for the best, the way to protect her secret and thus protect the world. She couldn’t risk Gaia realizing the truth, couldn’t… shouldn’t… And yet, no matter what her brain told her body, her heart had taken over and refused to relinquish control. For decades, she had been alone, wandering the same world she had sacrificed everything to protect. Right now, after all those years of being apart from anyone who knew her, the idea of walking away from Gaia was too much. She was just… tired. She was so very tired. 

Gaia’s voice continued softly while she held Virginia close. “And yet, the other day, an odd fact came to mind. You have not joined this new rebellion. You certainly have not worked against it. I know that there have been offers from both sides, people attempting to recruit you. But you refuse to be involved in any of it. I know you, Virginia. I know your opinions, and I certainly know that you would be at the forefront of such a conflict. Be it on the side of Crossroads if you believed their propaganda, or on the side of the rebellion if they were who you sympathized with. But staying out of it entirely? That is not the Virginia I know. And it gave me the realization that I was not staying away from you for your protection. You have been staying away from me, from everyone. That is the mystery I have been trying to solve. Why is my student, my girl, my… Virginia staying away from everyone who could possibly care about her?” 

No. No, no, she couldn’t… Voice cracking, Virginia managed a weak, “You need to walk away, Gaia. You need to go back to Crossroads and… help them. You need to go.” 

“Virginia,” came Gaia’s quiet yet firm response, “you know me better than that. Just as I know you. The only thing that could possibly make either of us walk away from…” She trailed off. 

Oh no. Oh no, no, no, Virginia couldn’t let this happen. She had to leave, had to disappear before–

“You.” Gaia’s voice was filled with sudden realization. “It was you. Of course. How could it be anyone else? The magic made it so hard to make that connection, but–” 

Her words were interrupted by a sound. A sound that nearly tore Virginia Dare’s heart from her chest. It was the sound of an earthquake, yet not anything that simple. It was far more than simply the ground shaking. The air itself practically tore itself apart as the banishment spell surrounding the planet, the spell that kept the Earth safe from Fomorian invasion, was shaken at its very foundation. Virginia sacrificing her identity, her connections to her family, was one of the main pillars keeping that spell going. And now, with Gaia’s realization, that pillar was being violently jostled. If it fell, if that pillar collapsed and the protective spell was broken…

Both Virginia and Gaia felt the spell wavering, like a stack of plates that had been jostled and was teetering back and forth. Looking up, they could see the night sky turn a deep, blood-like red, with thick clouds that were more solid than they should be. Yellow-orange lightning lanced through those thick clouds, as something began to reach through… 

And then it was gone. The sky went back to normal, and the air around them stopped trying to crack itself apart. The magic had been damaged, but held firm. Dangerous and terrifying as that had been, the spell wasn’t broken. 

Gaia, who had released Virginia through that, turned to face her once more. “That…” she said quietly, “was quite close.” 

Swallowing hard, the pain of what she was about to say nearly making it impossible to speak, Virginia replied, “Now you know why I have to walk away again. Please, don’t make this even harder, Gaia. You have to understand why I can’t be around anyone.” 

To her surprise, however, Gaia shook her head. “Don’t you see, my dear? You may have been right at one point. But now? The damage has been done. I know the truth, and the spell has stood firm. Be that a matter of luck or not, the fact remains that it is still holding steady. I know you the most, dearest Virginia. Of those who are here in the world now, I know you better than any. And others know that. They know that you have been my student. That much was not erased. Which do you truly believe would keep those others from putting too much thought to where you are and what you have been doing all these years, being entirely on your own, apart from everyone as a hermit in the wild who interacts with none of our people… or working for your old teacher, in a school where she was recently promoted to the position of headmistress and finally given the authority to hire any staff she prefers?” 

That brought Virginia’s gaze around to stare at the other woman. “You want me to come to Crossroads? You want me to help–I can’t–my daughter. My daughter is running a reb–” 

“I know,” Gaia gently assured her. “And yet, you cannot go to her. Horrible and painful as it may be, we both know that you cannot join that rebellion. Being that close to Joselyn is too much of a risk. But you can join me at Crossroads, and start to more… subtly help those who need it. There are students who are ready to switch sides, who are the right people to point toward Joselyn’s camp. But I need help to identify them. You cannot help your daughter directly, Virginia. This is something you can do. If you choose. Come in from the cold. Hide in plain sight.” 

There was a brief pause as everything that could possibly go wrong with this idea raced through Virginia’s head. It was dangerous, wrong, she had to flee, she had to walk away and be on her own again. She had to… had to… Tired. Gods, she was so tired of being alone. So tired of having no one to confide in, no one to talk about her beautiful daughter and lost husband with. So… utterly exhausted and lonely. 

Her eyes closed, and Virginia let out a long breath, pushing all those doubts and worries out. What else might come from this… they would deal with. Because at this moment, for the first time in decades… she wasn’t alone anymore. Finally, her eyes opened and she met Gaia’s gaze once more. 

“What sort of job is it?” 

*******

Shortly after the Calendar Trio first arrived at the Fusion School 

“We know you. You’re Kushiel and Puriel’s child.” 

The announcement came from May, as she, April, and December sat together on a couch in a small waiting room outside the Fusion School principal’s office. The three were perched side by side, exactly where they had been told to wait while Abigail Fellows disappeared into the office to have had what had appeared to be the start of an intense conversation with the Olympian Athena and several others. They had been waiting for ten minutes before they were joined in the waiting room by a new, clearly familiar figure. One they had met before. 

“Theia,” the brunette girl informed them while folding her arms. Her gaze moved over the three with a look of intense scrutiny. “My name is Theia.” 

The three of them exchanged glances before looking back. December had already popped to her feet, unable to hold herself back any more. “Theywererightyoudohaveanamelikearealnamethat’sseriouslycoolhowdidyougetanameanddidyoureallykillKushielcuzsomeonesaidyoudidbutthenothersaidthat–” 

“December,” April gently interrupted, rising to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder without taking her gaze off of the subject of her wild rush of words. “She wants to know if you–” 

“I heard,” came the casual reply. “I’m a good listener.” Her eyes remained narrowed at them. “And an even better watcher. I watch and listen for bad things.” Taking a small step closer then, she added, “I like to watch and listen for bad things that might hurt my friends.” 

“We’renotgonnahurtanyonecuzwegettostayandseewhatthisplaceis–” 

May stepped forward, putting her hand on December’s other shoulder while speaking up. “She’s right. We’re not here to hurt anyone. There’s a truce, as you know. We’re just here to observe this school and inform Cahethal about how the work here is proceeding so that she can decide if she believes it should continue when the time comes.” 

Meeting her gaze, Theia retorted, “That is not up for her to decide.” 

“And yet,” April carefully put in before May could say anything, “the Seraphs will look to her for an opinion and advice when the time comes. That is what we are here to help provide, simply by informing her of what we see. That is all. We have no ill-intent, and have been up-front with our intentions. Even with the fact that we are here in the first place.” 

“You’ve changed.” That was May, her gaze scrutinizing Theia. “Last year, you didn’t have a name. You thought it was strange that we didn’t use the L word amongst ourselves, that we used other names. And now you have your own. And you killed your mother.” The last bit, though it could have been an accusation, came off more… curious, as though she still couldn’t believe that part was real. 

“Yes,” Theia confirmed. “I killed my mother, because she tried to hurt my friends. She tried to kill my friends. She…” Her gaze dropped to the floor briefly as the girl took a breath before looking up once more. “She did very bad things and did not deserve to live.” 

Her attention moved back to May, their gazes locking before she added, “And yes, I have changed. Many things have changed. Most of them, for me, because of Abigail Fellows. She is… important. So, whatever your eventual intentions, remember what you just said. I killed my mother, Kushiel. I killed her because she was a threat to my friends. Remember that, as you follow any instructions Cahethal gives you.” 

“We will remember,” April carefully agreed. “As we said, we have no ill-intentions. And we do not believe Cahethal will request any of us. Not with the amount of attention, including your own, that will be on us here.” 

A long, silent moment passed as Theia seemed to examine them each thoroughly before she abruptly straightened and smiled. “Good. Then I will tell Abigail that you should be allowed to stay.” Her voice lowered a bit conspiratorially. “She asked me to come talk to you and tell her what I thought.” 

“You truly have changed… Theia,” May noted, clearly thinking about their previous meeting. 

“Yes, I have,” came the chirped response. “And do you know what? 

“I think you will too.” 

********

Approximately Present Day

Being on the bridge of the Olympus brought back so many memories for Puriel. Some good, some very much not. But all of them, the positive and the negative, were incredibly strong and powerful memories, even after all these years. Some of that was due to the Seosten inability to forget anything without magical assistance. But most of it was far more… emotional than that. 

He stood at what had been his original station, the captain’s chair, staring through the forward viewport as his mind was cast back through images from far off centuries. Lost in those thoughts, he didn’t notice as the rest of his motley assortment of… ‘crew’ (in a manner of speaking) filed into the room and waited for him. 

Eventually, he felt a gentle, yet firm poke in the back of his mind by Spark, and looked up to see them all lined up there. Spark herself had appeared in her hardlight form, next to her brother Omni and the other seven Seosten children who had been rescued from the research facility. Behind that group stood Maria and Arthur Chambers, beside their old friend (and Puriel’s protege) Alcaeus, Kutattca, and Aletheia, the woman whom Puriel had shared nearly as much with as his wife. 

This was his crew for this ship. The old Puriel would have been horrified by that fact. Now… now the only horror he felt was at the thought of anything happening to these people. Any of them. 

But getting them back to Earth was how he would make sure that didn’t happen. And the next step of that was happening today, right now. 

“Thank you all for coming here,” he abruptly spoke, pushing all those thoughts and memories aside. “This is important enough that we felt that we should have everyone present on the bridge to witness the first test. After all, each of you helped build the system. If it works, it will be thanks to everyone here.” His gaze moved to the assortment of Seosten children who had helped carry things back and forth through long, winding corridors as he firmly reiterated, “Everyone.” 

Maria spoke up then. “This is the doohickey that’s supposed to get this spaceship past the defenses your people use to stop people from getting close to Earth, yes? The Berlin Wall of space.” 

Pausing as he realized that he truly had no idea what she was speaking of, Puriel coughed. “Ah, I assume that is an accurate comparison, yes. Ideally, we would have used the instantaneous transport system Spark designed over a year ago, but the materials needed for that are… out of our reach. Bringing the prototype vessel that is already on Earth is also not a good idea, considering we believe our people may have developed the ability to track its movements within our space, and its arrival would create… issues. Not to mention we would either be forced to abandon the Olympus or spend days or even weeks transferring the jump system and modifying it to work on a much larger scale. Neither of those options is appropriate. Thus, we find ourselves needing another way of bypassing those defenses. One that does not involve starting a war.” 

“Much as I’d like a good scrap,” Alcaeus noted, “that’s probably a good idea. So we’ve been putting this whole thing together, but I’m still not sure… exactly what it is.” 

“Brilliant,” Aletheia put in, her gaze locked on the magical holographic image of Spark. “That is what it is. Utterly brilliant.” 

“It is certainly that,” Puriel agreed, “but as for details, perhaps it would be best if Spark herself showed everyone with this test.” 

The girl in question hesitated, looking a bit uncomfortable with the attention from everyone. In the end, however, she stepped out of the group and moved over to where the pilot and navigator stations were. Her gaze passed over their seats and controls briefly before she pivoted to face everyone else. “Um… so… many ships have the ability to cloak, to turn invisible both magically and through technology. But the Seosten know how to detect that, and have lined their border with those detectors. One of their uhh, main defenses against that are what you might think of as motion detectors. They blanket an area with an extremely low-level magic field, almost imperceptible. Like a sheet of paper so thin you can see through it. Thin, but present. The moment anything disturbs that magical field, it alerts their system and the intrusion is identified. The field exists both in real-space and the pocket universe our slide-drives use.” 

“Well, that sounds like it’d be hard to get past,” Arthur noted before raising an eyebrow. “So how are we getting past it?” 

“Like this,” Spark announced before turning to touch a finger against one of the controls there. As she did so, the ship abruptly began to shudder. It rocked back and forth a few times, while an alert began to sound. That was accompanied by a distinct and prolonged sinking sensation that made everyone’s stomachs seem to rise up toward their throats. 

The others jolted a bit and looked nervous, but Puriel stayed calm and raised a hand for them to be at ease. He could sense the power through the ship, and knew things were proceeding properly. Well, as properly as a first full-scale test could, at least. If anything had gone wrong, he was fully prepared to take the energy away from the system so it wouldn’t hurt anyone. But things were going, if not perfectly, at least within reason. 

Then it was done. The alert stopped, and the sinking sensation went away. As soon as it did, Spark gave a broad smile, raising both hands above her head. “It worked!” 

“Uhh… what worked?” Arthur asked, looking around. “What happened?” 

“Computer,” Puriel announced, “bring up the view of the exterior of the ship and surrounding space, then begin panning out.” 

The computer did just that, as a hologram appeared in the middle of the room. It showed the Olympus itself as they expected to see, with its main orb surrounded by three thruster-like gunships. As soon as they recognized that, the view pulled back. Immediately, everyone saw something… unexpected. An enormous metal thing, like another ship, a much larger one.  The whole thing was twice the size of the Olympus, and they had no idea how it could possibly have gotten that close. It was shaped like two crisscrossing blades spread slightly apart, leading back to a pair of slightly thicker, circular structures at the far end that were orange rather than the gleaming silver metal. Those parts could have been the living part of the ship or station.

Then the confusing shape slowly drifted in their view, allowing them to see a word printed across the top of one of the metal blade-like parts. 

“Fiskars?” Maria blurted, eyes widening. “Are those my fabric scissors?! Did you gigantasize my fabric scissors?!” 

“The opposite,” Alcaeus realized. “The ship shrank. They shrank us down so much your scissors are twice as big as this ship.” 

Puriel gave a short nod. “Precisely. And ahh, have no fear, Maria. We will retrieve your tool. You have my word. I merely required something you would be familiar with as a demonstration.” Clearing his throat a bit uncomfortably as she squinted at him for daring to endanger something as important as those scissors, he pressed on. “As we said, whenever something passes through the field blocking off entrance to your world, it is identified. However, there are many small asteroids and comets which repeatedly pass through the field. These are identified and heavily scanned every time they pass through, looking for people attempting to hide within them. But with the ship in this small state, we can simply stop it within one of the smaller asteroids just before it passes through the field, and we will be too small to pick up in their scans. They will detect the materials of the ship, but their system will register those as microscopic amounts, not worth pursuing. Trace minerals within the asteroid itself.” 

“Well, that sounds… terrifying,” Maria noted. “But if it works and gets us back to Earth and the rest of my family, that’s good enough for me. How soon can we do that?” 

“We need to thoroughly test the system,” Spark quickly announced. “Just to make sure it won’t suddenly fail in the middle of the trip. And then wait for the right asteroid to be close. There is a good candidate about three weeks out. We… we will have to work hard to make sure everything is ready before then.” 

Arthur gave a firm nod. “Then that’s exactly what we’ll do. You tell us how to make sure this system of yours is ship-shape. Put us to work. But uhh, can we go back to being full-sized again? This is making me nervous.” 

“Being this small?” Puriel asked. 

“No,” the man replied, “having Maria’s fabric scissors floating out there in space. We need to go back to full size and pull them in. 

“If anything happened to those things, I think she’d finish manifesting your Olympian powers from the bond you made with her and kill us all.” 

******* 

Millions of years ago

“It’s coming! It’s coming, we have to hurry!” Accompanying the frantic voice was the almost deafening sound of the planet seeming to shake itself apart. Buildings were crashing throughout the city, the cacophonous screams of the dying forming a terrible chorus alongside the unending quakes and explosions triggered by untold damage to vehicles and power sources. 

The long corridor filled by the shout was triangular, rising to a point fifteen feet in height. Which made it plenty high enough for the assortment of ten-foot-tall beings who were rushing through it at that very moment. They were of humanoid-avian appearance, though with two full sets of wings attached to their backs, one at the shoulders and one around the lower-middle of their backs. The higher wing-set tucked downward, while the lower tucked upward so that both sets interlocked with one another when not in use. When extended, the lower wings would invert themselves to point downward. They possessed two lightly feathered arms, separate from the wings, a beak-like mouth, and three eyes equidistant across the front of their face, two toward the sides and capable of turning to look in opposite directions, while the third was centered. They were capable of seeing and processing the view from three entirely separate directions at once. The six beings all possessed feathers of different colors, normally one solid shade across most of the body, fading into a different color toward the head, the hands, and the ends of the wings. Their taloned feet were black, though that was impossible to see as the avian-figures were clad in gleaming metallic blue armor, which included heavy boots. Each carried a grayish-green box about a foot across.  

The beings were known as the Kelensians, and there was a very good reason these six in particular were in such a rush. Even more so than everyone else in this rapidly shattering city, as the sounds of destruction, heralding the very real end of the world, grew louder with each passing second. 

Five of the beings continued to run toward a waiting elevator, but one had stopped. His main body and feathers were a dark, burgundy red, fading to a bright, gleaming white at his fingers, across his head, and at the tips of his wings. He froze in mid-step, looking through a nearby window at the world-ending monster who was approaching. He could see very little of it from this small window, only an indistinct shape as tall as a building. One of four different creatures who had appeared in the universe decades earlier and proceeded to wreak havoc, destroying and killing everything in their paths on every world they found. And now one of them was here, in this city. It would destroy the capital, and then move on to kill the rest of the Kelsensia across the world.

“Zien!” one of the other Kelensians shouted, shifting the weight of the box she carried. “Move your tail feathers! We didn’t do all this for the past year just to fuck up now, come on!” 

“I… I…” Zien stammered, staring through the window. “What if it doesn’t work? What if–what if–” 

Cursing him, a different Kelensian stormed that way. “Forget it, you know we can’t count on him. He’s a coward. Good old Coward Zien.” Reaching out, he snatched the box away from Zien and held that along with his own before turning to rush toward the elevator once more while snapping for the others to follow. They gave one last look back toward their companion, still-petrified from terror, before regretfully leaving him there. 

They were right, he… he had to keep moving. He had to help them. It was the only chance their people had of surviving this attack. If the stranger who had come to their world was telling the truth, the spell that Zien and almost a thousand others had spent the past year inscribing all across the planet, a world-wide rune, would banish the monsters who had carved such a path of destruction across the universe. 

But if it didn’t work, they would be at the very top of the tallest structure in the city, with no time to escape. Survival right now wasn’t likely at any stretch. But if he ran away, if he fled out of the building and hid in the forests, there was the slightest chance the monster might move to a new world before finishing with this one. It had happened before, on other planets. He might survive. He might escape and hide. But if he went up to the tower with the others and the stranger’s plan didn’t work, he would be dead the moment the monster reached them. 

But… but the others, his friends. If they… he couldn’t just… They were right, he was a coward. For almost five minutes, he stood there, frozen by indecision while the monster drew closer and closer. He could run. He could escape. He could try to survive. 

Before he knew it, Zien was moving toward the elevator. Frightened as he was, he couldn’t abandon his friends. He reached the shaft, only to find it unresponsive. The forcefield that should have lifted him toward the next floor had been shut down. So, he spread both sets of wings as much as he could and flapped down hard to send himself soaring upward. It was a long, arduous, and terrifying flight, trying to rise as rapidly as he could from the bottom of the building, all the way to the tip of the tower thousands of feet up. 

Finally, he made it, landing at the entrance to the tower control room where the spell was meant to be triggered. The doors were closed, so he had to pry them open. Eventually, Zien managed to squeeze through the space, emerging into the control room. He expected to see his friends all waiting to chide him for taking so long. 

Instead, what Zien walked into at that moment was a nightmare beyond any he could have imagined. 

His companions, his friends, were dead. But more than that, they had each been nailed to the walls by all four wings, with a series of eight-inch-wide metal spikes. Their faces had been burned so thoroughly that all three eyes in their heads had burst. Their throats had been slit, and their blood used to scrawl more spell runes across the floor and walls. Worse, their torsos had been cut across the middle, allowing several organs to be removed and deliberately set at various parts of the intricate spell lines. 

And standing in the middle of all that, just as he finished carefully arranging one of the hearts, was the stranger who had come to the Kelensian homeworld and claimed he could save them, the man Zien and the others had helped for the past year. 

The man who had just finished murdering all of Zien’s friends, and arranging their blood and organs across his spell.

Now, the man looked up to stare at Zien. He looked far different than any Kelensian. He was several feet shorter, at only seven feet. He had no feathers, his skin gray and tough, with black spots and lines scattered across it. His form was very sturdily built, like a boulder, and he had four arms, two eyes in the center of his head, and a thin mouth rather than a beak. That mouth was stretched wide in a smile. “Zien, so glad you came after all.” He spoke in his own language, words that he had used magic to teach the Kelansians he interacted with the meaning of. 

Reeling from shock, Zien felt both of his stomachs twist in on themselves. A scream tore its way through his beak as he used both wings to launch himself at the monster. The one in the room, rather than the one tearing its way closer and closer to this tower with every second that passed. He wasn’t thinking about that, wasn’t thinking about the fact that he would die any second now. No, he was only thinking of tearing apart the man who had massacred his friends. 

And yet, in mid-lunge, the stranger simply spoke a word and Zien found himself bodily yanked to the ground. An invisible force held him there, while the man spoke casually. “I’m surprised you bothered trying something like that instead of just running away. After all, what was it your friends called you? Coward Zien? What was that in your words? Coward, Gala? Coward Zien. Gala Zien, that was it.” 

An inarticulate scream of anger, frustration, terror, and grief ripped its way out of Zien as he struggled helplessly against the force pinning him to the ground. 

“Sure, good luck with that, Gala Zien,” the stranger idly remarked. “I’m sure you’ll summon up the twenty tons of force needed to break that hold any second now. In the meantime, I’m just going to finish becoming immortal, if you don’t mind.” 

Head snapping that way as much as possible, Zien blurted, “Th-that will kill you!” His eyes were focused on the window where they could hear the creature steadily approaching. 

“That?” the stranger laughed. “That won’t be a problem for much longer. Why else would I come to this… primitive, backwater hole and convince all you sad, pathetic beings to create a sacrifice spell across your entire planet? You see, all spells require power. The strongest ones require a lot of power. Becoming immortal, truly immortal? That requires more power than you can even begin to imagine. The sort of power that sacrificing millions can’t come close to getting. But billions? Hell, trillions once we get into every living being on this world who isn’t actually a Kelansian. Every insect, every bird, every mammal, every living creature. Now that kind of sacrifice could fuel one hell of a spell.” 

Even as he said that, the tower violently shook. In mere seconds, the creature outside would be on top of them. So, the stranger grimaced. “Ah, sounds like The Next is almost here. Yeah, that’s what the civilized universe calls that thing. Now if you don’t mind… I need to finish this.” He reached toward a spot on the wall with just enough space between runes for his hand, already chanting words in some strange language. That spot began to glow brightly, and the man let out a cheerful, triumphant laugh while his hand reached for it. 

Then it happened. The tower shook violently once more, and a small chunk of debris from the ceiling fell. It collided with the stranger’s wrist, making him recoil with a yelp and curse. And in that instant, Zien felt the power holding him fade. He took immediate advantage, lunging to his feet and throwing himself that way. The stranger saw him coming and turned, but it was too late. Zien may not have been much of a fighter, but he had three feet on his opponent and a lot of anger fueling him. He collided with the man with enough force to throw him back against the wall, the sound of several bones cracking filling the room. 

“Won’t… take.. my… destiny!” the stranger bellowed, twisting to slap his hand out toward the still-glowing spot on the wall. 

Still bellowing mindlessly, Zien lunged to grab his hand, refusing to let him complete this spell. If he was going to die, if his world was going to die, so was this monster. However, he missed the man’s wrist. Instead, his flailing hand slapped against the glowing spot, while the stranger gave his own enraged scream. 

And then? Then there was silence. Silence, darkness, and a white-hot, agonizing pain that burned Zien up from the inside. 

It lasted for an instant.

It lasted for an eternity. 

And when it was over… he was remade. 

*******

Earth – Fifteen Years Ago

“Well, that’s certainly an ambitious story so far,” the publishing agent by the name of Edwin Marls noted as he looked up from the papers he had been reading through. “And you say that’s only the start of the book, Miss…” 

“Holt,” the dark-haired young woman reminded him as she sat cross-legged in the guest chair across the desk from him. “Vanessa Holt. And yes, that is… definitely only the start.” 

“But what happens next?” Edwin demanded to know. “Is this… alien really immortal? What about the Godzilla thing that was tearing apart the city?” 

“Oh yes,” Vanessa Holt confirmed. “He truly is immortal, in every sense of the word. Nothing can kill him. And as it turns out, the ‘Godzilla thing’ was… well, you see, when the stranger created the spell to sacrifice everything on the planet aside from the person touching that glowing spot, somehow it… actually included the monster itself. Well, not enough to actually kill it. But it did enough damage to make the thing retreat back to where it came from. Which dragged the other three monsters with it, from wherever they were. The universe was saved. Sort of, whatever was left of it. And our dear Zien, he had so much power welling up inside him, power taken from every living being on that planet, plus enough from the monster to make it retreat.” 

“And then?” Edwin prompted. “You said at the start that this… guy in your story was supposed to be some sort of intergalactic warlord, a conquering monster trying to break into our reality and destroy or enslave all of us. Something like that.”  

Vanessa offered the man a smile. “Actually, what I said was that people see him that way. They think he’s a monster. The truth… that’s a lot more complicated. 

“And if you really want to know the whole story, you’re gonna have to buy the book.”

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Commissioned Interlude 12 – Maria, Arthur, And Company (Heretical Edge 2)

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Wearing stained coveralls, a backwards cap, and goggles, with a face that was as grease-stained as the clothes themselves, Maria Chambers whistled cheerfully while focusing intently on her work. The work, in this case, involved making very specific adjustments to a series of very complicated-looking pipes and valves behind a section of wall about fifty feet forward and one floor down from the Olympus’s main engine. A very small metal ball floated in the air just to the side, its single lens projecting a holographic display of exactly where this section was, what it should look like, and what Spark needed to be done to it. A box lay nearby with the assortment of parts that the young girl wanted to be used to replace specific pieces. 

“Well, you seem to be in a pretty good mood.” The voice that interrupted Maria’s whistling came from the elderly-looking Native American man who strolled casually down the rounded corridor toward her. Though over a thousand years old (and technically believed by everyone back on Earth to be deceased thanks to an attack from his own sister, Litonya), Kutattca had a strong spring in his step and an easy smile. “Having that much fun working as a mechanic?” 

Carefully using what amounted to an incredibly fancy wrench to adjust the long, metallic green tube to the exact position Spark’s instructions specified, Maria finally turned to the man. She waggled the wrench at him pointedly. “A space mechanic, thank you very much.” With a cheerful wink, she added, “And yes, it’s quite exhilarating, honestly. And ahh, processing all these instructions, learning what these different tools do, all of it helps with the umm…” 

“With your new gifts,” Kutattca finished for her, chuckling a little while he nodded. “Yeah, believe me, I know exactly what it’s like when you start out. Actually, Boscher Heretics get that a lot. Getting new powers, figuring out how they work, slotting them into your normal rotation, all that. Especially when you make a new power work alongside something you already had. There’s just a… a really satisfying feeling when you make something new work with something old.” 

Watching him for a moment, Maria gave a very slight nod. When he spoke of being a Boscher, the same thing her granddaughter was, the man’s voice held an inescapable tone of guilt. The things he had done, the people he had killed, the ignorant hate that he had taught to others over so many years, the man clearly had a lot of feelings about all of it. Not that such things were entirely his fault, of course. The Seosten had established things, had set things up intentionally to make Earth some kind of Boscher Heretic training ground so they would be combat-capable before being sent out to the front lines of this war against the Fomorians. Still, it was obviously one thing to know that he had been manipulated into being the way he was and doing the things he did, and emotionally accepting it. The thoughts of all those likely-innocent creatures he had murdered out of a mistaken assumption of guilt had to weigh heavily on the man at times. 

While she was still focused on that, Kutattca turned his dark-eyed gaze to her and offered a very faint smile. “Then again, you have another reason to be happy right now.” 

With that thought, Maria’s own smile grew, a warmth filling her. “Yes,” she agreed. “Seeing my son and my granddaughter–well, feeling and hearing them, anyway. It was…” Trailing off, the woman swallowed. “It was very nice. I can’t wait to see them all again. Without any lies,” she added pointedly. “Not that I blame them, but… well, yes, without any lies.” Her eyes shone with delight and relief then. “And my daughter-in-law, they saved her. They truly saved her from that… monster.” Simply from what she had heard and read about the evil Necromancer, Maria knew that his death had been a long time coming. She shuddered to think of what sort of things poor Joselyn had been through over the years. And shuddered almost as much when remembering the horrible things she herself had thought about that poor woman. 

In a kind, gentle voice, Kutattca quietly replied, “I’m glad your family is safe. And you’ll get the chance to see them in person. Just as soon as we get this ship put back together and ready to go.” Turning a bit, he looked up and down the corridors, head shaking with obvious wonder. “Live over a thousand years, think you’ve seen everything, and it turns out you’re completely clueless about the real universe out there. Until my… until Litonya played her little betrayal game, I had no idea there were things like this out there. They don’t let us know about this. As far as most Boschers are concerned, so-called ‘aliens’ all come through portals or things like that. The majority of us don’t have any idea that there’s literally space empires out there, with all these fancy starships. We… we spend so long thinking they’re demons and monsters, I don’t think we could ever truly process the idea that they could put something like this together.” 

“They don’t want you to process that,” Maria gently pointed out. “The Seosten, they need you to see every other species a certain way for their little training ground to work.” With a shrug, she added, “Besides, if you don’t know anything about spaceships, it’s easier for them to hide their own. They’ve built that entire society to work one specific way for them. Leaving all those blindspots for them to manipulate and get around with, it’s not exactly surprising.” 

“Yes…” Looking back to the woman thoughtfully, Kutattca murmured, “I’ve never met him, of course, but I believe I can see why someone like Joselyn would be so attracted to your son. And any child they produced…” Trailing off once more, the man gave a very low whistle. “Well, now I truly do want to get back to Earth. This is something I have to see for myself.”

With a whoosh noise, the nearby elevator doors opened, before Arthur Chambers stepped off. He took in the sight of the two talking before shaking his head as he teased, “Oh good, you found another audience to show off for. Guess you don’t need me around then.” With that, the man did an about-face and acted as though he was about to walk right back onto the elevator.

Shaking her wrench-thing at him, Maria primly countered, “You march your little butt over here and hold this nozzle so it doesn’t turn when I start moving the pipe here. And honestly, as though you haven’t been the one showing off what you can do for days now. Don’t think I haven’t heard all about it from the children, young man.” 

“Young man?” Raising an eyebrow as he did just that, Arthur pointed out (with no small amount of obvious amusement in the words), “You do remember that I’m older than you, right?” 

A broad, knowing smile crossed his wife’s face as she confirmed, “Caught that, did you? Besides, we are young, compared to all these people we keep meeting and learning about. You and I, we’re practically infants.” She looked over her shoulder. “Kutty, how old are you, again?” 

The Native American man gave a very soft cough before simply replying, “A hell of a lot older than most and far younger than many. My sister and I were born around three hundred AD. Which doesn’t exactly make us spring chickens, but there are a lot of people older and stronger than us.” After a pause, he added, “Litonya might have an edge over them in hypocrisy.” 

“I dunno,” Arthur objected thoughtfully, “From everything we’ve heard since we got here, she has some pretty stiff competition in that field. There’s a lot of hypocrites out there.” 

Acquiescing to that with a bow of his head, Kutattca agreed, “I suppose you have a point. I’m just a little…. the situation with my sister is a lot more personal. The two of us have a long history, and I ignored far too many of the warning signs about her for far too long. To the detriment of myself, those I care about, and many others. And the world itself.” 

“You were close once, weren’t you?” Maria quietly prompted, fully facing the man by that point. Her work could wait for the moment. This was more directly important. She’d heard so much pain in the man’s voice whenever he brought up either his sister in general, or what she had done in attempting to kill him. It was obvious that Litonya’s betrayal, and her actions in general, hurt him a lot. A part of her wondered if he had ever really talked about it with anyone else, if he had ever unloaded those feelings rather than bottling them up and allowing them to fester. 

At first, Kutattca was silent, before giving a very slow, faint nod that was barely visible. “Once,” he confirmed in a soft voice. “We were inseparable, best friends. We hunted for our village, brought back food together even as children. When we were teenagers, we started hunting whales. Not by ourselves, of course. We were part of a whole hunting party, out in these long canoes. It was during one of those trips out on the boat when we saw the Thunderbird and the Haietlik.” His gaze had moved away from them by then, looking off into the distance as though staring into his own memory of that long-ago, far more innocent time. Before everything changed, before his life became something far bigger than simply hunting whales. 

After a moment, Arthur spoke up. “Haietlik, that’s what you were a Natural of, right? And Litonya was a Thunderbird Heretic. What uh, what are those, exactly? If you don’t mind me asking.” 

Shaking his head, Kutattca replied, “Not at all. The Thunderbird is ahh, well it’s a giant bird.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Puriel announced, as he approached from the opposite end of the corridor than the one Kutattca himself had come from. He was accompanied by Aletheia on one side, while Spark and Omni walked together on the other. Three of the four were covered in the same sort of grease and various other liquid stains that coated Maria. Spark, being a holographic projection, was as clean as ever. Maria had once asked the girl if she regretted not being able to get dirty, and Spark had stared at her as though she was being utterly absurd. Apparently, despite being a child, the girl had little to no interest in being messy. She was always very well collected, presenting herself in pristine clothes and skin, with hair that was immaculate and perfectly split between being blonde and black.

As soon as she saw both children, Maria took a knee and opened her arms. Omni immediately came running, throwing himself into a hug. It was a far cry from the way the boy had been not-so-long ago, convinced that he couldn’t touch anyone without using his power to shift into a younger version of who they were. Because those idiot scientists who had been working with him were more interested in testing what it could do and how they could use it than they were in teaching him to control it. Now, after enough training with Puriel and Aletheia, he only used it when he chose to. Well, for the most part. If he was overly emotional, scared, and whatnot, it tended to happen anyway. But it certainly wasn’t the uncontrollable, automatic reaction those cretins had apparently acted like it was. 

Of course, the woman embraced not only Omni, but also Spark (hard-light holograms could be hugged too, as she had made perfectly clear). With both of the kids held close, she asked, “Are the other children with Uncle Al?” 

Omni gave a quick nod, his shaggy mop of brown hair going wild. “Making pictures,” the five-year-old announced before reaching into his pocket to produce a folded up piece of paper. He proudly held it up, displaying an enthusiastic, if not incredibly skilled, drawing of Sariel herself using a bow and arrow to hunt giant scorpions.

While Maria gushed over that drawing, and the one he produced that had apparently been drawn by Spark, Kutattca glanced toward Puriel. He arched an eyebrow at what the man had said before. “Yeah, I suppose you’ve probably run into plenty of those yourself. Maybe even wherever they come from. I’ve always wondered, the Thunderbirds and Haietliks, do they and those Nemean Lions and the Amarok wolves–” 

“They come from the same planet,” Aletheia confirmed. The dark-skinned woman glanced toward the older Seosten beside her briefly before adding, “Several other ordinary animals on Earth, and derivatives of those animals, are smaller versions of those found on that other world. We are not precisely certain why, but our best guess is that they are the descendants of the remnants of other Fomorian experiments. They made humans look like us, and some of their other creations look like species from across the universe. Perhaps for eventual infiltration purposes.” 

Curious as ever, Arthur asked, “Is there a, ahhh, commanding species on that world? You know, actual advanced civilization. Cuz, you know, any species that could thrive in a place with so many of those things around…” 

“Yes,” Puriel confirmed with a slight grunt. “There is a ruling species… of a sort. They’re called the Jotunn, and they–” 

“Jotunn!” Arthur blurted, “That’s like… Odin. Are you telling me Odin really existed?” 

In response to that, Maria gave her husband a long-suffering look. “You do understand that you’re asking that of the man who was Zeus, yes? Why on Earth would that surprise you?” 

While Arthur huffed a bit, exaggeratedly, Puriel gave a very soft chuckle. “Well, yes, Odin exists. The Jotunn are actually artificial creations, created by a… well, he’s known as Ymir, and he is apparently the only surviving member of a species who lived there long before even we as the Seosten existed. They lived before the great calamity that destroyed almost their entire population, and that of most of the universe. Ymir was the only survivor of his species, and he cloned himself into several more Ymir. Together, the multiple Ymir attempted to restart their species, but were only able to create what they consider the imperfect replicas known as Jotunn. Eventually they shifted away from creating versions that looked like them and simply tried to make incredibly different Jotunn, as many they could, to see which they preferred to be the inheritors of their world.” 

“So Odin, he’s one of these Jotunn?” Arthur carefully asked, trying to think of what he could remember about the mythology. 

Aletheia, however, shook her head. “Odin was a human who somehow found his way to that world. He became close enough to one of the Ymir clones that they… bonded. Odin is the only known Ymir Heretic. Which makes him one of the only Heretics of a species that existed before the arrival of the Four.” 

Maria swallowed as a chill ran through her. “You mentioned them before. They were the giant, world-destroying monsters that almost wiped out the Suelesk before they created the first dragon eggs and fled through their portal to some other universe. Your people found one of their crashed ships on your world and it accelerated your technology.” 

“Yes.” Puriel was frowning thoughtfully, his gaze intent on the nearby wall. “Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about those creatures. Including why they disappeared. We don’t know if they were defeated and destroyed, if they followed the Suelesk elsewhere, or…” 

“Couldn’t you ask him?” Arthur pointed out. “Ymir I mean. Or one of him. If he was there at the time and survived–”

“Ymir does not speak to people very often,” Puriel flatly replied. “And he–or they, don’t speak about what they call the ‘before-times’ at all. Believe me, more powerful and more diplomatic Seosten than I have tried to get information about those creatures and what happened. The most they’ve ever managed is a single name, but we haven’t been able to get any details.” 

Standing next to Maria, both hands clutching her leg, Omni solemnly piped up, “What if they come back?” As everyone’s eyes moved to the young boy, he added, “The bad things that killed all of Ymir’s friends and family. What if they come back and kill more people?” 

“Oh, dear, now see we shouldn’t be talking about all that.” Maria stooped, picking the boy up and holding him close. “It’s not something we need to worry about now, sweetheart.” 

Clearing his throat, Kutattca nodded. “Yes, well, the point is that Thunderbirds and Haietliks are giant birds and giant snakes. The Thunderbirds–some call them Rocs, are incredibly strong. Some say they tear apart mountains. They also control lightning and storms. Hence the name. The Haietliks manipulate electricity too. They’re better at that than the Thunderbirds are, but they don’t fly on their own and they don’t control weather the way their winged partners can.” 

“Partners?” Maria asked curiously. “The giant snakes and the giant birds are partners?” 

“Oh yes,” Kutattca murmured, his attention clearly back into his own memories. “The Thunderbirds use the Haietliks as, ahhh, javelins. They carry two of them on either side under their wings, close to their bodies. When they’re hunting and spot a whale, or any other animal big enough to be food, they use their wings to project the Haietlik ‘javelins’ down to strike the target, stunning or killing it outright between the impact and the electricity from the Thunderbirds and the Haietliks.” 

He was quiet again for several long moments, once more lost in the past. Finally, the man murmured, “I’d rather not get into it right now. But… to put it simply, Litonya and I found several of those things. We were foolish children who wanted to go and see them up close, but the older hunters in the canoe forced us not to. They took the boat back to our village, saying it was too dangerous. But Litonya and I… we snuck out again, in one of the smaller canoes. We wanted to see the giant birds and snakes.” 

“Why did you remember them?” Maria put in abruptly. “Wouldn’t the Bystander Effect–you said this was around 300 AD, yes? That was a long time after it was established.” 

Puriel was the one who answered that. “It took hundreds of years for the Bystander Effect to spread across the world and grow to its full strength. Think of its original form as a virus. From where we targeted it, the spell had to be spread by people who were affected by it, to people who were not. In remote areas, such as where this tribe lived, it probably took hundreds of more years past this point before it existed in full strength.” 

As the others processed that, Kutattca continued. “We took a smaller canoe out there. We watched the Thunderbirds and the Haietliks. When they left, we saw there was still plenty of whale left. So we harvested from it. We thought… we thought we could prove to the other hunters that they were cowards to run away in the first place, by bringing back meat for the village. We took as much meat as our canoe could carry, and went back. But… but one of the Thunderbirds saw. And it was angry about us stealing their food. So it brought its flock and they all followed us back to the village. Then they, the Thunderbirds and the Haietliks, destroyed our home. They killed everyone we knew. Everyone we loved. Our warriors managed to bring down one of the birds and a couple of the snakes, but that was… they killed everyone we had ever known. But they left us alive. I still don’t know why. Punishment, maybe? Killing everyone we knew, but letting us live so we’d know what our theft cost us. Litonya and I, we ate from the bodies of dead Thunderbird and the Haietliks. It felt like some minor form of vengeance. We ate their meat raw and drank their blood. Each of us drank from both. Litonya formed a bond with the Thunderbird blood, and I with the Haietlik.” 

“And then it was just the two of you,” Maria murmured. “Alone out there, with the bodies and… and no one else.” 

“And no one else,” he confirmed. “We found others, of course, eventually. But for years, it was just the two of us. And for centuries after that, we could always count on each other. We had different opinions, but we loved each other, and we were there whenever one of us needed the other.

“I… thought my sister, for all her problems, would be there for me when I trusted her with what Joselyn Atherby had told me. I was wrong. She betrayed and attempted to murder me.” 

“And how did you survive that?” Arthur asked. 

Kutattca’s response was a very faint smile. “That, I’m afraid, is a story for another time.”

Understanding that it was hard for the man to talk about all that, Maria turned back to Puriel. “Before, you mentioned that your people managed to get some sort of name out of this Ymir when they were asking him about what happened to the world-ending monsters? What name?”  

Puriel was silent at first, before answering quietly. “We don’t know what the name means, exactly. Only that it is the name of someone connected to the end of those monsters. A survivor, their destroyer, their creator, we have no idea. Ymir offered nothing more than this single name, and title. 

“Galazien the Iron-Souled.”

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Commissioned Interlude 8 – Maria and Arthur Chambers (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is a commissioned chapter. Many thanks should go to the commissioner.

One Day After Maria and Arthur Chambers and Alcaeus Arrived In Seosten Space. 

On a small corner of the island that held Puriel’s private residence, a simple rectangular metal table had been magicked into existence, complete with chairs that looked as stiff and hard as the table itself, but were actually quite comfortable and soft to sit in. In those chairs were three men, who sat facing the water of the strange, alien (to two of the men at least) ocean. 

The sole ordinary human among the trio, Arthur Chambers, spoke up in a gruff, yet also somewhat dazed voice. “Let me go ahead and see if I’ve got this all straight in my head between everything you people’ve said since we got here. Feel like I’ve been getting the recap of that…” He paused before turning a bit to glance down the beach a bit, where his wife of over fifty years was staring intently at the ocean water. “Maria! What’s that show you like with the man who has that thing with his eye and the limping sailor? You know, the silly soap opera you watch right after lunch that puts me to sleep.”

“You only pretend to sleep, dear,” his wife primly retorted without turning away from her intense examination of the water. It was as though she was trying to spot some difference, only by eye, between the water of this world and that of Earth. “And it’s called Crescent Falls. Which you know darn well if you weren’t trying to save face about enjoying a soap opera in front of Hercules and the alien wizard. Which is quite frankly silly.” 

Clearing his throat, Arthur waved that latter part off. “Ahem, as I was saying, feels like I’ve been getting a recap of about thirty years worth of plots in that Crescent Falls spaced into about ten minutes. Only while my wonderful, beautiful wife is giving me that summary in one ear, my granddaughter’s in my other ear telling me the plot of every single comic book movie in existence in chronological, not release, order. And while all that’s going on, I’m trying to watch a history documentary.” He paused to consider how he had phrased that. “Yup, soap opera in one ear, superheroes in the other, trying to watch history.” 

“That… is not a bad comparison,” came Al’s (Alcaeus, apparently) thoughtful response. In the time since they had arrived here, the nearly seven-foot-tall man had wiped away the mixture of magic and make-up that made it look as though he had actually aged at least somewhat in the decades that they had known him. His hair was now deep black without any gray or white to it, and his face lacked even the hint of wrinkles. He had used trickery to appear to age so that he could spend more time with his friends before he would inevitably have to disappear from their lives. Or… would have had to, before all this happened. Before he had chosen to tell his friends the truth about the situation they were in, only to be interrupted by a quick burst of events that had led to them being here, on the Seosten homeworld, about as far from Earth as possible.

Arthur continued after giving Al a brief glance. “So, if I’ve got all this right, you lot…” He gestured vaguely with one hand toward the seated and silent Puriel, “have been at this space war for about three hundred thousand years now, give or take. A space war with a bunch of genocidal monsters created by some medical experiment gone wrong. Wait, pardon me, the medical experiment ran away after accidentally giving all your people the power to bodysnatchers anyone you want to. He made his own damn species of monsters, then you all went to war. You’ve been fighting it for all this time and ‘for the Greater Good’, you’ve been enslaving every God damn species you come across to use as foot soldiers cuz you are fucking outnumbered as shit. And somehow every time someone thought to bring up the thought that playing nicely with people to stop the big bad monsters might be a good idea, they… I dunno, mumbled?” 

“We tried to make allies at first.” As he said that, Puriel’s gaze flickered over to watch the water himself. “At least, that’s what the histories tell us. In those days, we didn’t live nearly as long as our people do now. Longer than humans, but not the ten thousand Earth-year lifespan of a… ahhh, modern Seosten. And we still had the same problem with birthing live children that we’ve had since the moment we gained the ability to possess people. Shorter lifespan, less children, of course we tried to partner up with other worlds, other species against this threat. The Fomorians want to wipe out everything in every universe that isn’t them or their creations. Obviously, we would do everything possible, including ally with others. But… it didn’t work out.” 

His voice turned quieter then. “Our people were betrayed. Three different species we allied with, three species we tried to stand with as friends against the Fomorians. All three betrayed us, led our people into an ambush by the Fomorians. It turned out they had made a deal to be spared if we were destroyed. The Fomorians convinced them that all they wanted was us. So they threw us away. Three hundred and thirty-seven thousand Seosten were killed in three hours.” 

After letting that sit for a few silent moments, Puriel finally went on. “Our military was devastated. In more ways than one. With those forces gone, we would have been wiped out. It was the opportunity the Fomorians needed. They would have washed over us. So… our ancestors did the only thing they could do at the time. They infiltrated the fleets and political leadership of those three species who betrayed us and forced them to come to our aid. It was a desperate move of a people who were on the very brink of being wiped from all existence.” 

By that point, Maria had abandoned her ocean vigil and moved to stand next to her husband. Laying a hand on his shoulder, she watched Puriel for a moment. “That sounds quite horrible for your people, sir. Quite horrible indeed. I know humans have never been through anything… exactly like that. But we’ve had our moments in history, our betrayals and wars. That kind of thing can set the tone between two peoples for… well, forever.” 

“Indeed,” the former captain of the Olympus agreed, watching the woman with renewed interest. “And so it set the course of my own people up to this day. Our ancestors realized… or believed that they could never rely on anyone other than ourselves. Between the initial ambush and the subsequent attacks, our military was heavily damaged. It took over a generation to fully recover to the levels it was at before. In the meantime, we relied on taking over our neighbor species and forcing them to work together. More than once, our infiltrators discovered plans for truces with the Fomorians. These other species did not understand that they were being fooled, that the monsters would never truly leave them alone. Once we were destroyed, they would turn their attention to our betrayers and wipe them out as well, no matter what ‘deals’ they had.” 

It was Arthur who found his voice next. “Sounds like a real tough time for your people.” Where some would have had no small amount of sarcasm in that sentence, he was genuine. He thought of how a place like America would have reacted to something even vaguely like that in the Cold War. If the Soviets were trying to wipe them out entirely, literally trying to kill all of them, and kept making deals with all of America’s allies to betray them? Or worse, World War 2. What if, during D-Day, the American soldiers storming Normandy had been led into a trap by their supposed allies that nearly crippled the military entirely? How would America then react to outsiders? How easy was it to see the United States, given the same ability to possess their neighbors and finding even more potential betrayal, to entirely give up on any idea of cooperation-by-choice? Look at what the country did after terrorist attacks decades in the past. Arthur Chambers had been alive for a long time, enough to see a lot of changes throughout the world and his home. He could see, all too easily, what would happen if anything remotely similar to what had gone on with the Seosten  were to happen there. 

“It was quite some time ago,” Puriel noted quietly. “But yes. As I said, it set the course for my people. It convinced us that no one could be trusted, that we were alone in this war. And yet, we could not be alone, because we would be destroyed. Our only choice, they believed, was to force all non-Fomorians in the universe to follow our commands. There were, I believe, some noble intentions to release them once the war was over. But… no one expected it to go on this long. How could they? This system has been in place for hundreds of thousands of years, and the war has no particular end in sight. We have been at what amounts to a brittle stalemate for longer than human civilization has existed. I truly do not know what a galactic society without my people in control would even look like. I can’t imagine it, much as I have recently tried.” 

“And you,” Arthur pushed on, “or your people in general, you came to Earth and you… you took human’s ability to, what was it you said…. bond? You took humanity’s ability to bond with other creatures and created a whole school out of turning kids into soldiers for your war.” 

There was a brief pause before Puriel gave a slight nod. “It took some time to get to that point, but yes. There is… perhaps some context you should hear to understand everything that has happened.” 

Maria took a seat by her husband. “By all means, let’s hear the context for everything that has happened to humanity since the Seosten arrived. 

“But something tells me you better have alcohol somewhere on this island.” 

*******

Two Weeks Later

 

“Avia?” The small, hesitant voice spoke up in the fancy Seosten kitchen. It was accompanied by the sight of a very small, very young face trying to peer up over the far side of the metal counter that filled the middle of the room. All that was visible, however, was a mop of brownish-red hair and a pair of inquisitive green eyes. The boy who was speaking was not quite three years old, small enough that he’d had to climb onto a chair just to see partway over the countertop. 

Maria Chambers looked up from the mixing bowl she had been busily stirring the contents of. A smile touched the elderly woman’s face as she saw the child peering at her. “Why, hello there, Stavin,” she greeted him while dipping the wooden spoon into the cookie batter. “Would you like to help me over here?” When the boy gave a quick nod, she set the bowl down before walking around the counter to put herself beside the chair he was perched on. “Touch okay?” 

Eagerly, Stavin bobbed his head while staring at the nearby mixing bowl. “Touch okay.” 

Only then did Maria reach down to pick the boy up and set him up on the counter. Because it was important that these Seosten children understand that they had the right to choose when and how they were touched just as much as others had the right to choose when and how the Seosten children themselves touched them. Yes, it was proper that children (or people in general) with their conditions ensure that they had permission to touch people before doing so. But it was just as proper that they themselves be given the same courtesy. 

The idea that so many within the Seosten society were treated as outcasts, as… as less than slaves, appalled Maria to an extent that she hadn’t known she was capable of being appalled. ‘Lies?’ She refused to think of them that way, let alone call them that. Nor Mendacia, considering that was only the Seosten (or Latin) way of saying the same thing. It was positive poppycock. 

After some thought on the subject, Maria had settled on referring to them as Gummies (for gum, because they were hard to get out of things if you weren’t careful). The children seemed to like the term, especially when Maria explained both what gum and gummy candy was. They were fascinated by the concept of each.

“Thank you, Avia!” the tiny boy crowed while sitting cross-legged on the table. Avia, which apparently meant grandmother, was a term the children had taken to calling Maria over these past two weeks. Arthur, meanwhile, was Avus. 

With his gaze laser-focused on the large bowl, Stavin asked, “I can help?” Belatedly, he added, “What’s poppycock?” 

Right, she’d been thinking that word when she picked him up, Maria realized after a moment of brief confusion. Because like his fellow… test subjects from the prison lab, Stavin wasn’t exactly normal even by Gummy standards. Instead of being stuck in bodies he possessed, the boy was incapable of possessing people. Rather, he would immediately hear the thoughts and feelings of anyone he touched. If he touched them long enough, he could project his own thoughts and feelings into them, making the person believe those thoughts were their own. The belief was that he would eventually be able to essentially hypnotize people this way. 

With a slight chuckle, Maria explained, “Oh, it just means nonsense, dear. And yes, you certainly can. Here.” She held the spoon out to him, waiting for the boy to take it. “Now you stir everything in that bowl up real good, okay? Then we’ll scoop them out onto the pan.” 

Tongue sticking out one side of his mouth, the tiny boy set to work stirring with both hands. The bowl moved against his efforts, until Maria reached out to hold one side so it would stay in place. With a chimed, “Thank you!” Stavis began stirring once more. 

While he was doing that, the doorway into the kitchen opened, as four more figures entered, one notably taller than the other three. The larger figure was still fairly small for being an adult, a dark-skinned woman only an inch or two over five feet, who wore a dark red Seosten bodysuit with black piping. The other three figures were more of the Seosten children. First, the tiny six-year-old (also black) Zahd, a Gummy girl who was permanently stuck in her ‘boosted’ state without Puriel’s help in draining her excess energy. Then there was the brown-haired young boy called Omni together with his sister, Spark, a girl with hair that was half blonde on one side and half black on the other. 

Maria wasn’t… fully aware of exactly what the situation with Spark was, though she had the basic idea. She was a full Gummy, not a medical experiment like the other children, and she had possessed Puriel himself so that he could hide her from the rest of the Seosten who would have hurt her. Now she was… magic. That was about as much of it as Maria understood. The girl was magic, a hologram like in those space movies. She was still physically possessing Puriel, but his own powers were enough to allow the girl to create this hologram around the house and island. A hologram that was also somehow solid. 

“Hello, Avia,” Spark politely greeted her, standing up straight with both hands interlocked behind her back. She gave a single nod. “Zahd, my brother, and I wished to offer our assistance.” 

Zahd bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh, uh huh! And not just to eat gams, even though they’re really good and stuff. But also buhcuz helping is good too and it’s good to be good.” It was very clear that she was reciting a speech she’d been told. Or at least, reciting the general gist of it. And from the way the girl looked toward Spark for approval, it was also fairly clear who the source of the speech was. 

It didn’t take long for Maria to hand out two more mixing bowls, one for Zahd and the other for Spark and Omni to use together. Which would be a lot of dough, but at least that meant plenty of cookies could be made, enough to feed almost ten hungry children. While they stirred, Omni himself piped up. The boy, as always, had dozens of questions. He was curious about every little thing, positively famished for information. The things he asked often followed no particular order or category, simply being whatever popped into his head at any given time. Maria loved that, she loved his enthusiasm for learning. 

She loved all these children, and could not fathom how their own people could abuse and mistreat them so much. 

While the kids were working on stirring up the dough, she focused on the woman who had accompanied them. “I’m sorry, it’s Aletheia, right?” Maria extended a hand to the woman after brushing it off on the apron she’d asked Puriel’s housekeeper, Olan, for. 

Accepting the offered hand, the other woman nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry I’ve been away. It’s been… difficult to prepare a way for Puriel to bring these children to Earth. Things have been very tense at the border between those who wish to leave the humans alone for good, those who wish to ally with you, and those who wish to openly invade the very moment the truce is over.”

Maria winced at that. “Yes, Puriel was explaining that. Apparently my granddaughter had something to do with the situation.” She didn’t bother keeping the proud smile from her face. Everything she’d heard from that man about what Felicity had been up to, even if, by his own admission, he only had a very small part of the story, made her love her granddaughter even more. 

The smile faded as she thought of the other things he had told her. The things about Joselyn, the truth about why that dear woman had truly disappeared. Thoughts of what she had to have been through, of what… of just what she had repeatedly sacrificed, still felt like a hand clutching Maria’s own heart. 

She owed that poor woman an apology for everything she’d thought about her. And the things she had said to her husband, even if said in error and in private, they were still wrong. And awful. 

“She was indeed,” Aletheia confirmed. “Your family has a habit of being involved in dangerous situations.”

“Why do you think I like them?” That was Alcaeus, the enormous man chuckling as he came into the room. “And that was before I even knew who the rest of the family was.” 

“Doesn’t that detract from your point?” Maria pointed out, giving him a raised eyebrow. “You never knew we were related to that Joselyn or that our granddaughter was going to this… Crossroads until recently.” 

“Semantics,” he insisted with a wink before focusing on the Seosten woman. “Puriel said you had news.” 

“Yes,” Aletheia replied. “Although it is less news and more of an… ally. An ally Chayyiel has spent quite some time procuring.” 

“You say that so dramatically,” a new voice teased as another figure entered the room. “Makes me feel like I should be a lot more help than I’m gonna be. After all, I’m not part of the Committee anymore.” 

With those words, the elderly, yet still-spry Native American man straightened to look at Maria. “Morning, Mrs. Chambers. Believe me, it is such a pleasure to meet another native Earther out here. I hear you’d like to know more about Joselyn Atherby.” 

“The name’s Kutattca, and despite my sister Litonya’s best efforts, I can tell you plenty.” 

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