Lies

Patreon Snippets 3

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The following is the third volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request 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. 

Columbus, Shiori, And Jiao

Through the pitch black night, three figures picked their way along a winding mountain trail. Trees lined both sides of the path, branches often sticking out in their way. Yet despite that, and despite the winding nature of the path that often seemed terribly random, none of the three ever missed a step. Through the complete darkness that came from the stars and moon being hidden behind clouds and the nearest city lights being many miles away, they nonetheless avoided every branch, stepped over every loose rock and random hole, hiking the trail as though it was illuminated by the bright light of noon.

Shiori, Columbus, and Jiao. Shiori and her mother had been spending a few days… or nights rather, each month meeting for things like these hikes, so that they could get to know each other. And this time, with her mother’s blessing, Shiori had invited her brother along, feeling that he really needed to get out. Manakel was now as dead as Charmiene. Avalon had been rescued and was recuperating at the Atherby camp. Things had… for the most part, settled down at least for the time being.

“Do you ever, umm, miss it?” Columbus, whose goggles really did allow him to see everything as if it was daytime, asked hesitantly while looking toward the taller of his two companions.

Jiao, whose vampiric gifts included the vision that allowed her to function perfectly in darkness, paused very briefly before guessing what he was referring to. “You mean the sun.”

Shiori paused as well, glancing over her shoulder at her mother. Though she wasn’t an actual vampire, she was a dhampyr, a hybrid. Which meant that her own night vision was good enough that she was no more inconvenienced by the darkness than either of the others. When she spoke up, her voice was hesitant. “It’s been a really long time, hasn’t it?”

“Two hundred and twenty-seven years,” the woman confirmed, her always soft voice even more so as she turned her head to look up at the dark, cloud-covered sky. “And yes, in some ways, I do miss it. It’s different now, with motion pictures. But back then, being away from the sun for so long was… sometimes very hard. All I had was my memories, and paintings. Over the years, I’ve seen more of it. Pictures, silent movies, when color came to the motion pictures, I was… I spent a long time watching them, because they allowed me to see the sun in real time.

“I–” Wincing, Columbus offered a weak, “I didn’t mean to make you sad or… or anything.”

Meeting his gaze, the Asian woman gave a slight shake of her head. “You didn’t make me sad, Columbus. At least, not in the way that you think. Yes, being a vampire means that I cannot function in daylight. But it also means that I am alive. If I had never met Tiras, if he had never shared his blood with me, I would have died in that hospital. I didn’t lose two hundred and twenty-seven years of sunlight. I gained two hundred and twenty-seven years of moonlight. Two hundred and twenty-seven years of seeing the world grow, of seeing society develop. I was sick, I was dying. I did not lose anything. I gained. I gained two incredible men that I love very much, along with two beautiful, amazing daughters whom I would not trade for any amount of sun.”

“But you haven’t seen them,” Shiori pointed out hesitantly. “You haven’t seen Tiras in… over two hundred years, almost as long as you haven’t seen the sun. And then you fell in love with… with my dad… with Liang, and you haven’t seen him for years either.”

Jiao gave the slightest nod. “You’re right. And I miss them both terribly. I still believe that I will see them again, that I will find them, or they will find me. But if we don’t… if I live a thousand years and never see them again, that won’t erase the reason that I love them, or the time that we did spend together. There are so many bad things in this world, and so many good things. If you spend all your time dwelling on the bad, like the years that you spend apart from someone you love, you’ll forget about the good, like the reason you miss them to begin with.”

Her golden-amber eyes remained locked on Columbus’s. “The trick is to remember that no matter what’s wrong… whether you feel lost, confused, alone… frightened… angry… betrayed, that they are your feelings. And there is nothing wrong with you for feeling that way.”

“I–” Columbus spoke that single word before his voice cracked, breaking right there as he gave a sharp shudder. His eyes closed behind those goggles, his voice a whisper that barely carried over the soft breeze. “I’m afraid.”

The admission was accompanied by a sag of his shoulders, his entire body slumping a bit. “I’m afraid. She’s dead. She’s gone. He’s dead too. They’re dead. I have protection. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I’m afraid. I don’t…” Squeezing his eyes shut even tighter, along with his fists, the boy shook his head. “I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be afraid.”

He felt arms wrap around him then, recognizing his sister as she embraced him tightly. “It’s okay to be afraid, Columbus. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

His mouth opened and shut before he managed to protest, “They’re dead. They’re gone. She’s dead.”

“Oh, my boy.” Reaching past her daughter, Jiao put one gentle, soft hand against the side of his face. “The hurt and fear that someone leaves behind after they’re gone doesn’t simply disappear when they do. Bad things can last for quite awhile. But so do good things, if you let them. You want to know how to fight this, how to move on? Make new memories, better memories. Be with your family, with your friends. Do things that you enjoy.

“The pain that your demons inflicted on you doesn’t fade when they die. It fades when you live.”

Columbus couldn’t speak for another few seconds, the lump in his throat taking his voice while he simply clung to Shiori. Finally, he managed to move one arm, opening it while Shiori did the same. His own voice returned, just enough for the boy to whisper, “Thank you.”

Jiao took one step closer, letting both of her arms wrap around the two. She embraced them, brother and sister, her daughter…

And the boy she would have proudly called her son.

 

******

 

Lincoln and Tabbris after the hospital.

 

The tiny blonde girl, face still adorned by fox paint, staggered through the portal that had been opened to lead her back to the Atherby camp. Two steps through, and she was there, standing on the grass next to the lake. Standing, that was, for all of a brief second. Then her legs buckled and the girl began to collapse.

She didn’t fall far, however, before a pair of strong arms caught her. Lincoln Chambers, taking a quick knee to grab onto the girl, lifted her up smoothly while rising. “Whoa, hey there.”

Starting a bit, Tabbris belatedly realized where she was, blinking up at the man who held her in his arms. A slight tremble came to the girl, before she turned a bit to hug onto him as tightly as she could manage. “M.. Mr… Mr… I… I mean… Dad. Dad. Avalon… Avalon–”

“She’s okay,” Lincoln promised. “They’re taking care of her right now. You kept her alive, Tabbris. Brave, brave girl. You kept her alive. You saved her.”

“Columbus too,” she murmured, not relaxing her grip at all. “He’s… he’s…” She could barely speak. The exhaustion from everything she had done, even with Columbus’s help, had left her entirely too far gone. She needed to sleep. But first, she needed to know that things were okay.

“He’s okay too,” Lincoln assured the girl. “And Flick. She’ll be okay.”

“R-Rudolph won’t,” Tabbris whispered, tears suddenly filling her eyes as she shuddered. “Rudolph. Rudolph’s–”

“I know.” His own voice cracking as well, Lincoln hugged the girl tight against himself. He couldn’t say it would be okay, because it wouldn’t. Not anytime soon. A boy had been murdered by a monster, and Tabbris had seen his body. She had seen… too much. She’d seen entirely too much. Not just that night, but throughout her life. She never had a real chance to be a little kid. Even when she had been hiding inside Felicity, the girl had still needed to worry about intruders, about monsters trying to enslave or abduct her charge. And she had had no one to help her.

But she would never lack for that now. Never again. Lincoln vowed that to himself. Tabbris would never have to feel that alone again.

“You’re safe,” he whispered, holding the exhausted girl close. “Flick is safe. It’s over, my little fox-girl. It’s done. You saved Avalon. You beat them.”

Her eyes blinked up at him then, still wet from tears even as she clung desperately, both to him and to consciousness itself. “Dad,” she whispered softly. “Daddy. Please don’t go away.”

Heart aching, Lincoln shook his head. “I promise, baby girl. I promise, I’m right here. I won’t leave you alone. I’m right here. My girl. My beautiful, brave little girl.”

Tears returning, Tabbris closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head. She tried to say something else, but couldn’t find the words. And the thought of opening her eyes now that they had closed seemed an impossibly daunting task.

So she didn’t. Eyes closed, the girl turned her head a little to rest it against her father’s chest. Just for a moment, just to catch her breath. Just to feel, for a second or two, the unconditional paternal love and acceptance that she had been so starved for through so much of her life.

It would be hours before her eyes opened again. And true to his word, Lincoln stayed with her through all of it.

 

*****

Lies and Pace

 

They were in the forest of Eden’s Garden. Pace with her fellow werewolves Valentine and the pack leader Lemuel. Facing them was the blonde girl that Doxer wanted to play with, that Felicity Chambers. Somewhere in the distance came the sound of the other girl, the one that Lemuel had turned into a werewolf. That one was currently going through her first change, and from the sound of things, it was not going well.

Pace, or Lies in that moment, had just shared her secret with the Felicity-girl, had just revealed the hilarious truth that she was both werewolf and Heretic.

Werewolf, Heretic, and Seosten Lie, but the girl didn’t need to know that part. That was an even bigger secret. Couldn’t tell her that. Couldn’t let her ruin it.

Aloud, she announced, “Shh. Nobody else gets to know. Don’t want you spoiling my secret fun. That’d be really, really mean.”

Technically, she was referring to the secret about her be a werewolf. But she also meant the secret about her being a Seosten. The secret that Felicity didn’t know yet. Sometimes Lies got herself confused about what people did and didn’t know. It was all so exhausting, keeping those secrets.

See? that voice in the back of her mind, the true Pace, who still refused to just be quiet and stop talking, put in. You keep pretending you don’t know her name. You call her Present to her face. But you think of her as Felicity. She’s a person. They’re all people. Roxa’s a person. Roxa. That’s her name. That’s the name of the person you let Lemuel put through hell. Felicity. That’s this girl’s name. You know her name.

The girl, Felic–Present was babbling. She was saying something, but then Rox–the new wolfie girl was very, very rude and interrupted with a scream of agony. So whatever Present was about to say had been forgotten, as she blurted the other girl’s name and moved as though to go to her.

Well, that was just rude. Growling deep in her throat at the sheer audacity, Lies quickly put herself back in front of the other girl. Her arms snapped up, her hands found both of Present’s shoulders, and she forcefully shoved her back a step. “No!” she blurted, “Bad present! You can’t see her now, the other one isn’t done making her change yet, and we promised she’d be alone the whole time. You don’t wanna make liars out of us, do you? Rude Present.”

Lies. Lies, look. Look. Focus. Look!

In mid-rant, the words of her host penetrated, and Lies found herself slowly lowering her gaze slightly, from Present’s face to a spot a bit lower. She saw then, what she had been too distracted by her anger to see before. She saw what her host had immediately seen, even in that brief split second when they had shoved Present.

She saw the other girl. She saw the child… the child inside of Felicity Chambers.

Seosten. A Seosten child. There was a Seosten child inside of Felicity Chambers. That was why she was immune to being possessed. All the manpower, all the time, all the arguments over what Joselyn Atherby had done to render her daughter immune to possession, all the ranting from Cahethal about the problem… and the answer had been that simple.

Felicity Chambers was possessed… by a child.

Chambers was saying something else, something about them making Roxa into a werewolf as that realization dawned on her.

“Isn’t it funny?!” Lies blurted with a loud, crazed cackle of laughter. She wasn’t talking about the Roxa girl. Who cared about the Roxa girl? She knew why Chambers couldn’t be possessed. She knew another secret.

But the others didn’t. No one knew what she knew. She had to cover. So she let them think she was talking about the Roxa girl, babbling on something ridiculous about not giving the girl her toy.

She brought up the choker, even flicking a finger against it, while keeping half an eye on the Seosten child. Was she a Lie too? Was she controlling this Felicity this whole time?

No. Felicity moved without the girl moving the same way. The girl wasn’t controlling her, she was just… standing there, so to speak. She was possessing her, but she wasn’t doing anything with it. She was just there… protecting the girl from being possessed.

This was hilarious. This was very… very funny.

So distracted was she, that Lies didn’t see the attack coming. She was caught flat footed as Felicity moved suddenly, lashing out with that staff of hers while triggering a kinetic blast that sent Pace flying off to hit a tree.

She recovered instantly, of course. But still, the girl sat there, thinking.

What are you going to do? The voice, fearful, came from the real Pace once more. You know the truth. So what are you going to do with it?

We could make Manakel love us forever, Lies pointed out. Manakel would love us. Cahethal would love us. Even Charmiene would be happy. They would tell Mama that we did good. Maybe–

You don’t believe that. The voice was soft, far different from the tone that had come before. Pace had seen as much of her mind as Lies had seen of hers. But you’re right about Manakel and the others. They’d be really happy. They’d reward you. All you have to do is tell them about that girl. All you’d have to do is tell them about the girl.

Chambers had sent herself through the trees, reappearing directly behind Lies as the girl picked herself up. Before that staff she had could reach her head, Lies had already reacted. She spun, ducking as she moved before lashing out with a punch.

The girl. The child. She needed to activate the choker again so that she could see the child.

The punch did the trick. As did grabbing hold of Felicity’s bicep to keep it active. Lies yanked too hard, breaking the girl’s arm as she threw her to the ground.

She could see her again. The child, right there in plain view. She was so… innocent, so young.

But they’ll take that away, Pace reminded her. You can make yourself the Seosten hero. All you have to do is sentence that girl to whatever Manakel and the others… like your mother, would put her through. Torture. Pain. Loss. They’ll take Felicity away from her. They’ll take that girl back to Seosten space and they will get answers out of her. But you’ll win. You’ll be the hero.

So again, what are you going to do?

In answer, Lies lashed out, kicking Chambers repeatedly while calling her a bad present.

Our secret, she informed her host. No one else’s. Ours. Maybe we’ll get the girl out later. Protect her. Have a friend. We could do that. That… that might be nice. But we don’t tell anyone. We don’t… do that to her. We make this look good. But we keep the secret.

She didn’t know this girl, didn’t know anything about her or why she was there. Or how she’d gotten there, for that matter. But she did know one thing. If it was the choice of  being the Seosten hero and subjecting this girl to the same kind of things she had gone through as a child, or keeping it secret… she would keep it secret.

Because what was the point of making Manakel and the others happy and finally winning the approval that she had so desperately wanted for so long… if she couldn’t live with herself?

 

******

 

Tabbris and Gabriel Prosser

 

“Mr. Gabriel, that train is pretty big. Are you sure you can stop it?”

The question from Tabbris came as the young girl waited a little bit away from the man himself. Gabriel, meanwhile, stood in the middle of a set of the road tracks, watching the incoming freight train as it bore down on him while seeming to pick up speed with each passing second. It was no ordinary freight train, but one that had been heavily reinforced, armored by both technology and magic. The train projected a force field around itself, had heavy plating mounted to it, and there were even turrets attached to the top all along its length, one to each car.

Meanwhile, the tall, yet unassuming black man stood in its path. One hand rested lightly on the handle of his ever-present shovel, which had been pushed into the ground a bit.

In answer to the girl’s question, he gave a slight nod. “It’s quite alright, thank you. Just stay there, and no one will see you.” He had put up half a dozen protection and cloaking fields around the girl.

He could have simply send her home through a portal, of course. They had been out looking at tropical fish near an island that he had wanted to show the girl when the call came in about a train carrying prisoners and slave labor toward a Seosten transport ship had come in. He could have sent the girl home then, but she had asked to stay and watch. He would still send her away the instant anything went wrong, but for the time being, he let her stay.

The train closed on him and the first few turrets spun toward the front to take aim. The ones behind the front each rose a bit more on platforms to shoot over the others. Leaving nothing to chance, as many as possible opened fire, while the train itself picked up speed, doubling in an instant, even as the force field around the front grew even brighter and stronger.

As dozens of blasts of powerful, pulverizing energy that could have punched their way through armored tanks shot toward him, Gabriel held up his free hand. The blasts were drawn toward it, narrowing into a single dazzlingly bright beam before disappearing into the man’s palm with no more apparent effect than a flashlight.

With all that power summarily absorbed, Gabriel immediately released it once more in the form of dozens of bright blades of energy, which appeared near each turret and instantly sliced through them, leaving the guns useless.

The train itself was still bearing down. As it neared him, in the bare couple of seconds before he would have been left as a smear on the tracks, Gabriel narrowed his eyes. At a thought, two things happened. First, a pair of portals appeared directly in front of him and a bit further back, just further apart than the length of the train itself.

Second, the train’s momentum was taken away. It immediately began to slow down, passing repeatedly between the two portals as it did so. He didn’t want to instantly stop the train, to avoid injuring those on board. So, he simply gradually stole its momentum while repeatedly sending it back and forth through those two portals. From the outside, the train appeared to stay almost in one place, repeatedly running over the same path of track, while from the train’s perspective, it was still covering lots of ground.

Within a few seconds, the train was safely stopped, unable to move no matter what it drivers tried. Almost as quickly, dozens of armored soldiers appeared, dropping off of the train or scrambling up on its roof to surround the man who had stop them. Their weapons were raised and ready. Before long, fifty troops of various shapes and sizes were there.

In response to all of this, as their weapons were leveled and the troops awaited the order to attack, Gabriel spoke three simple words.

“You may surrender.“

They didn’t, of course. But he had to offer. Instead, as their leader shouted a single word, the soldiers all opened fire, or used whatever ranged power they happened to have. Whatever it took, they would destroy him. Dozens of energy blasts, fireballs, jets of ice, hyper-accelerated metal balls, contained explosions, and more collided with the man in a terrifying display of power.

Then it was over. The dust cleared, and Gabriel Prosser stood entirely unaffected. Not a single attack had managed to so much as ruffle his shirt.

“Okay,” he said then, even as the troops prepared to attack again. With that simple word, Gabriel lifted his shovel from the dirt and drove it down hard once more.

As the blade of the shovel was driven through the dirt, dozens of copies of it appeared simultaneously. They shot up out of the ground, out of thin air, or out of the side or roof of the train itself. The duplicated shovel blades instantly grew to several times their normal size while glowing with unbelievable power. Each was positioned perfectly to slice straight through one of the soldiers. No armor or protection could save them. The troops, to a man, were instantly cut in half from every direction by that single thrust.

Throughout all of this, Gabriel had only moved twice. Once to raise his hand, and the second time to lift his shovel and drive it down once more. Now the train was stopped, its mounted weaponry destroyed, and its troops eliminated.

“Okay,” the man announced simply, turning to where Tabbris was.

“Let’s see how our new friends on board are doing.”

 

******

 

Young Chayyiel

 

“And then Trierarch Bayest drew his gun, pointed at the Fomorian on the ground, and said, ‘You didn’t leave one survivor, you’ve left two.’  And then he pulled the trigger and blew the Fomorian’s whole head into splatter dust like fwoomsh!

With the end of her pronouncement, the young Chayyiel suddenly threw her arms wide open, going as far as jumping into the air to demonstrate the explosive nature of the aforementioned head explosion. She added in her best approximation of gooey noises as well right at the end, as if demonstrating the resulting gore dripping from the walls.

The first of her two-member audience who had been listening to the girl’s story gave her a broad smile. Abaddon, his enormous figure completely dwarfing the child’s as they stood on one of the Olympus’s space observation decks, raised his hand. His thumb was lightly pressed against the side of his index finger, while the other three fingers were tucked down against his palm. Millennia in the future and far away, the human equivalent of that gesture would be a thumbs up.

“That’s right, aucellus,” he announced, using his favored nickname for the child. “That’s exactly how that went down. I should know, I was the other survivor. And Bayest was one of the most badass trierarchs I ever had the pleasure of serving under.”

The other occupant of the observation deck grunted in disbelief. Cahethal, her incredibly, distractingly green eyes focused on the man, disbelievingly asked, “Are you quite certain that you’re not exaggerating even a little bit? I find it difficult to believe that one man, no matter how talented he may be, was capable of single-handedly wiping out an entire Fomorian strike force, no matter how motivated he may have been.”

Grunting, Abaddon thumped a fist against his chest. “You believe what you want, science girl. I know what I saw. Bayest is the biggest damn hero of the Seosten that I’ve ever met. And there ain’t never going to be another one like him.”

“You just said—” In mid-sentence, Cahethal visibly gave up and shook her head with a sigh. “Never mind.”

She focused on Chayyiel then. “Come, you know that you are here for more than simply listening to totally exaggerated war stories.”

Obediently, Chayyiel moved over to stand next to the woman who had, over the past year or so since the ship had launched, taken up a role as one of her teachers.

Once the girl was there, Cahethal asked, “You asked to work on your experiment here on the observation deck so you could watch the stars. Are you sure you won’t be too distracted? And did you bring your materials?”

Quickly nodding, the girl promised, “I’ll work on it. I have my things right over there.” She pointed to a couple of cloth bags sitting near the entrance. “Thank you, praeceptor. It’s so boring in the test lab.”

Grunting a little, Cahethal simply gave a single nod. “Just be sure that you do not make me regret this allowance. I will return in one hour and I hope to see some definite progress.”

As the girl fervently promised to get her work done, Cahethal and Abaddon stepped out, leaving her alone for the time being. On his way, the large man glanced back and winked at her. “Biggest badass of the Seosten, kid. You remember that. Maybe you’ll get lucky and meet him one day.”

Once they were gone, Chayyiel move to the nearest wall and used the screen there to call up an exterior view of the ship. She stood there, smiling giddily at the projected image.

“Oh Olympus,” the girl murmured while running her hands through the holographic shape, “you’re the most amazing ship in the universe.”

Bias aside, the girl wasn’t that far off. Though their crew was somewhat limited only to those who had passed through the Summus Proelium Project, it was easily state of the art. The latest in technology and magic lay at their fingertips. The Olympus was truly remarkable in every conceivable way.

The main central body of the ship was made up of an orb exactly five hundred meters in diameter. This was where the living and science facilities, as well as the primary slide-drive that allowed the ship to enter what amounted to hyperspace, were. Attached to that orb in three separate places (the top and both sides) were three long structures that extended about twenty meters behind the orb, continued along the outside of the orb and ahead past it another one hundred. Each of the three structures was shaped roughly like part of a cylinder, curved inward so that they lay almost flat against the surface of the orb itself. They were wide enough that with one on top and the two equidistant apart on the bottom left and bottom right of the orb, each nearly touched one of the others. The far end of each of these half-cylinder structures narrowed into sharp points, forming a jagged end.

At an order from the ship’s captain, each of those three (or fewer if needed) could separate from the main orb. As it did so, that half-cylinder would extend its sides, opening wing-like structures so that it could function as a separate combat-capable ship. When all four of its pieces were locked in place, the Olympus was a terrifyingly powerful vessel for its size, precisely because it was essentially three gunships mounted against a very well shielded central core. It could fight like that, as one, or separate itself into the three distinct combat ships and one command orb that could stay to direct the battle, or flee with all of their intact leadership and resources if need be. The separate, incredibly heavily armed combat ships had their own slide-drives just in case, but they were only rated for a much slower jump, used for emergencies. The vast majority of their power and available space was given to shields and weapons. There was no doubt about their intended purpose.

As the girl stood there admiring the hologram, the nearby door slid open, admitting Amitiel to the observation room. “Hey, kid,” he started with a wave. “Thought you might like some company.“

Immediately smiling, Chayyiel nodded. “Hi, Uncle Amitiel.”  She paused, turning to look both ways before taking a bit of metal from her pocket. Her thumb pressed against it and she murmured a spell that she had picked up from a few of the adults. After a second of that, she nodded. “It’s okay, nobody’s watching.”

With that established, she then asked, “Did you think about what we were talking about? The bit about you having your own name, I mean.”

Shaking his head, the being who had once been known as a Lie before taking the body of the true Amitiel replied, “It might’ve been over a year, but I’m still getting accustomed to answering to his name. Besides, what’s the point of having a name that only you or I know about?”

Shrugging, Chayyiel answered, “Other people might know someday. You can trust Sariel and Lucifer, you know.”

Rather than directly respond to that, Amitiel asked, “How are you doing with them still being gone on that mission? You alright?”

Looking back that way, Chayyiel hesitated, biting her lip before honestly answering, “I miss them. I know we have to maintain radio silence and everything, but we don’t even know if they’re okay.”

“Don’t you worry,” Amitiel assured her. “You know how good those two are. Kushiel may have pushed for them to go that first time just to get rid of them, but they showed her, didn’t they?”

The girl swallowed at that memory before giving a short nod. “Why does Kushiel hate them so much?”

The question made him sigh, hanging his head before shaking it. “Why does Kushiel do anything? She pretty much hates everyone she can’t control, and you know how Lucifer is about people trying to control him or his partner.”

Frowning, Chayyiel folded her arms across her chest while her brow knitted. “Kushiel isn’t very nice. But Uncle Puriel is… usually. Except when he listens to her.” She paused briefly before amending, “Okay, sometimes he’s nice. But she’s never nice. So how come he likes her so much?”

Amitiel opened his mouth, before pausing to shake his head. “You know what kid, I think you just stumbled across one of the great mysteries of the universe. I mean, sure, she’s pretty and all, but…” He paused again, then shrugged helplessly. “Yeah, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”

Changing the subject then, the man asked, “So what kind of project are you doing for the old microscope?”

Giggling despite herself, Chayyiel chastised, “You shouldn’t call her that. Just because she’s short and has special eyes…”

“Still makes you laugh though,” Amitiel pointed out with a wink. “So about this project, you wanna show me?”

Brightening, the girl asked, “Do you want to help me with it? The stuff is right there.” She pointed to the bags next to him.

Amitiel glanced down before grabbing the bags to walk that way. “Sure, why not. Let’s see what we’re working with.

“And while we work, you can tell me what outrageous story Abaddon’s filled your head with this week.”

******

 

Aylen Tamaya

 

Alone in the room that she shared with Koren Fellows, Aylen Tamaya stood at the window, gazing down at the grassy field where her fellow students walked, sat, or even ran. They studied and worked there, enjoying the always-beautiful afternoon on the magical island.

The Native American girl’s eyes found their way to one group in particular. Sitting there on the grass, engrossed in another of their deeply private conversations, were Columbus Porter, Sean Gerardo, Felicity Chambers, Douglas Frey, and Scout Mason. Avalon wasn’t there, because she had been hurt, taken by monsters and terribly hurt in some way before being rescued by her team, and by Gaia. She was recovering now, apparently, off in some secret place with people the Crossroads headmistress trusted.

Aylen hoped that the girl was okay. Avalon had… had helped her when she really needed it. Without her, Aylen’s… secret would have gotten out. She wouldn’t have been able to stop it. She owed her life to the other girl, and so much more. If there was anything she could have done to help Avalon, she would have, without a second thought.

But the others, the rest of Avalon’s team, didn’t trust her. And she didn’t blame them. Why wouldn’t they keep secrets? After all, she was keeping a very big one. One that she had even convinced Avalon herself to keep for her. A secret from everyone, except for Avalon, now.

Whatever problems Avalon’s team was going through, Aylen wished that she could help. But that would mean revealing herself, revealing the truth about what she was. And that was… that was too much. She wanted to help, but exposing herself like that, revealing herself was… she couldn’t do that. Not yet. No matter what Avalon had said about how they could be trusted.

She’d promised to think about it, and she would, she had, quite a lot. More than once, Aylen had stood outside either Felicity or Scout’s door, sometimes in the middle of the night, and tried to work up the courage to knock. She wanted, so badly, to tell them everything.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. Not only from a lack of trust, or an overabundance of fear. But also because whatever they were going through, it would be so much worse if they had to deal with her problems too. And that wasn’t fair to them. Felicity and the others had far too much to deal with as it was without Aylen piling onto the secrets they were keeping.

With a sigh, the girl gave the group one last look before turning away from the window. She walked from there to the wall, where a mirror had been mounted. Standing there, she faced the mirror and examined herself, seeing what others saw when they looked at her.

Dark hair that fell to her shoulders. Dusky skin. High cheekbones. Dark eyes. As she examined herself from each angle, Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, made a noise from where was perched on his wooden stand. The nest that he slept in was on top of Aylen’s dresser nearby.

“I know, Sovereign,” the girl assured her partner. “We’ll leave soon, I promise. I just have to see.”

From her pocket, she withdrew a small comb. The comb had been a gift. Running a thumb over the runes etched in it, the girl slowly touched it to the side of her face, and whispered the activation spell.

In an instant, she changed. And Aylen saw her true form. Her skin was still dark, testament to her true Native American roots. Or at least, those of her mother. Or at least… one of her mothers. What the comb revealed was the genetic contributions of her other mother.

Her first mother’s contribution to the child made possible by the being known as Grandfather was her Native American appearance. Sonoma had also passed along her werecrow gifts. Aylen had kept them secret ever since she had come to this school, though she had gifted herself a few private flights with Sovereign whenever she needed to clear her head.

But as the magical comb revealed her true self, Aylen saw the parts of her that she had inherited from her other mother.

Eyes that were a deep azure blue.

Hair that was much the same. Blue. The blue of the cloudless sky.

The blue of the Reapers. Or a half-reaper, like her second mother, Bastet.  

Bastet and Sonoma, her mothers. And with any luck at all, Aylen would soon be able to save her grandfather.

No, not that one. Her other grandfather. Bastet’s father.

What Crossroads called the Heretical Edge.

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Mini-Interlude 69 – Pace and Lies

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The following takes place after Interlude 31A, at the end of which Pace first extended the idea of working together to Lies (before she was given the name of Theia), and before Interlude 32B, in which Pace-Lies was found by Seller, Miranda, and Abigail.

It is also the first of TWO interludes coming out today. The second will be out in a few hours.

“So, figured out what you want yet, hon?”

The question came from a gum-chewing woman with dyed blonde hair. The dye was cheap store brand, the gum a generic strawberry flavor whose scent did nothing to cover up the perpetual smoker’s smell that hung over her. She had stepped in stray cat excrement on the way to work before scraping the majority of it off on something, and her hands still smelled of the disinfectant soap she had scrubbed them in upon arrival. Which was precisely why they had chosen to sit at this table rather than one at the other end of the diner, which was covered by a woman who had not been nearly as careful in her washing.

Lies, sitting alone in the booth, slowly lowered the menu she had been perusing and squinted up at the woman. Her first instinct was to snap that she would tell her when she was ready.

Be nice. We can do that. She’s just doing her job. Her manager told her to hurry us along because we’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes. Don’t pretend you didn’t hear it. I’m in here too, remember?

Head tilting a little as she listened to the silent voice for a moment, Lies then turned her attention back to the woman, who was still loudly chewing gum as she waited for an answer. Pace was right, of course. They were almost alone in this diner, but it was the middle of the night. Or rather, the middle of the very early morning. Not quite dawn, and still too early for any of the work crowd, yet beyond the bedtime of even the latest of night owls.

Night owls. Were there day owls? That was, here on Earth. Of course there was always the–

Um, she’s still waiting, you know.

Of course. The waitress had clearly been getting impatient the longer she stood there without getting any response, to the point of clearing her throat a little with a significant look toward the clock on the nearby wall.

Lies took a breath, lowering the menu the rest of the way until it was flat against the table. “Yes,” she finally answered, trying for a smile. It was meant to be reassuring, but from the way the woman took a reflexive step back, she was guessing that it hadn’t exactly been successful in that.

“Yes,” she repeated, still giving that toothy smile in an attempt to look friendly. “We would like two coffees. One black, one with two sugars and one cream. We would also like a tall stack of pancakes split in two, with blueberry syrup on one half and maple syrup on on the other half. We would like four strips of bacon, two crispy and two regular. Also, two pieces of toast, one with butter and honey and the other with just strawberry jam. Oh, and eggs. We would like two eggs sunny side up and two eggs scrambled.” She thought for a moment before giving a firm nod. “That should be all of it.” Belatedly and at a slight mental prodding from Pace, she added, “Thank you for waiting for us to be ready.”

“Us… we?” A look of confusion crossed the woman’s face as she slowly turned to look at the empty side of the booth. “You expecting someone else to show up, hon?”

“If they do,” Lies informed her sagely, “they will not get any of our bacon.”

For a brief second, the woman’s mouth opened as though to question that. In the end, however, she simply shook her head. “You know what, it’s too early and you’re not the strangest person we’ve ever had in here. Pancakes, bacon, toast, and eggs, coming right up. And I’ll get your coffee out to you in just a second. One black, one with two sugars and one cream.”

“You have a good memory,” Lies complimented. “Are you sure you’re not one of us?”

That weird look came back, as the woman squinted at her before turning on her heel. She walked back to the kitchen, muttering something about needing to change shifts.

“She is very strange,” Lies murmured softly as her head tilted to follow the woman’s departure.

Yeah, she’s the strange one, Pace silently put in before adding, Thanks though. You know, for trying to get things that I like. You didn’t have to do that.

“You wished to negotiate our partnership,” Lies pointed out. “Such things should be done over a meal. That’s what the movies say. That or in a big room with a long table. But you didn’t want to go into that office building where the people in suits were.”

She heard the girl’s thoughts about what she was afraid would happen if they had gone in there, but Pace only purposely replied, I meant I know you don’t have to care what I like to eat. So thanks. It kind of helps.

For a moment, Lies didn’t say anything. She simply sat there with a thoughtful frown before looking up as the waitress came back with two cups of coffee. She set one down in front of the girl, then moved to put the other one on the opposite side of the table before looking at her questioningly. Lies pointed next to the first mug and the woman shrugged before putting it down there. Leaning back, she asked, “Anything else for you, dear?”

“Only the food we ordered, please.” Lies’ replied as sweetly as possible, trying to be nice. Her face almost immediately hardened however, as she added, “Unless you really are one of us. In which case, you should know that we will be able to tell if it’s poisoned.

Oh God, Pace quickly put in silently, laugh. Make her think that was a joke.

She didn’t need to be told twice. Lies are probably burst into a loud, manic cackle for several long seconds before cutting it off. Her face returned to being utterly impassive as she announced in a flat voice, “That was a joke. The poisoned part, not the part about us detecting it. Just in case.”

The woman raised a hand, then paused once more before her head shook. “Nope,” she said before turning on her heel to walk away again while repeating, “Nope, nope, nope, nope.”

Once she was gone, Lies turned her attention back to her host while picking up the first cup. “Why do you want to work together? I am your enslaver. You should want me dead. With extreme prejudice.” Her voice held no real accusation in it, merely curiosity.

I know that it wasn’t your choice to be like this, Pace insisted. I’ve seen your nightmares too, remember. I know what your mother did to you. I know what your society is like, what they expect everyone, especially people like you to do. And I know that you are capable of being better than that. There was a brief pause then before she added, Besides, if you die, I die. I can’t deny that’s part of it. Self-preservation. But we really can work together. What do you have to lose? No one on that side wants you around. All they do is abuse and betray you. They treat you like garbage. They call you a Lie, for fuck’s sake. They abuse you. You don’t owe them anything. You don’t owe anyone anything. And if they find you, they’ll kill you. They’ll kill us. But you and me, we don’t have to be enemies. We can get somewhere. We can do something.

“How would we work together?” Lies asked curiously while switching to the other cup of coffee for Pace’s benefit. “What do you think we should do?”

Find a way to fuck over Manakel and the rest of them, Pace promptly replied. You already kept that Seosten kid that’s possessing the Chambers’ girl secret. Hell, you kept that secret even when you could’ve used it to save yourself from Manakel in the first place. You know how much he would’ve done if you told him that part? He definitely would’ve forgiven the whole choker thing. But you didn’t. You didn’t even consider it.

Switching to the first cup once again, Lies quietly murmured, “She is a child. They would have hurt her.”

And that’s why I want to be your partner, Pace declared firmly. That’s how I know you’re not like them. All the shit they’ve done to you, and you’re still not as bad as them. I mean, sure, maybe you’re a little… off. But you’re not evil. I mean–right, it’s complicated. But you can be better. We can be better. We work together, we can fuck over Manakel and everyone else who hurt you.

“And find a way to separate us,” Lies added, switching once again to the second cup.

What… what do you mean? There was hope in Pace’s mental voice, though it was tempered by hesitation, fear of that very hope being easily torn apart in so many possible ways.

“If we are partners,” Lies pointed out, “we must both get something. You will help me control myself, help me… blend in, help me survive. You will help me with Manakel. And I will help you get your body back.”

A whole lot of emotions and thoughts ran through Pace then, more than Lies could easily keep track of. Once they settled at least a little bit, her host finally replied, If we’re going to work together, that means you need to listen to me sometimes. I know you’re better at a lot of the fighting stuff. But sometimes we need to control your impulses. We have to stop and talk to people sometimes. And not just to scare them.

Lies considered that briefly, pursuing her lips thoughtfully before giving a slight nod. “You are better at the talking. You are better at understanding people. I will listen to you then. And… I will give you a vote for what we do. I cannot give you control of your body, but I can let you vote for things. I can try to listen. That is… that is the best I can do now. You get a vote, and I will try to listen.”

It’s enough, the other girl assured her. I mean, for now. I Just–you know we’re going to have to work with the people who are fighting Manakel, right? Which means working with people that we tried to kill. People that we hurt.

“People that I hurt,” Lies corrected. “People that I tried to kill. That was not you. And if they try to take it out on you, I will–”

She stopped then, as their werewolf senses let them know that their food was being delivered. Turning her head, Lies and Pace both watched as the waitress brought the plates out, setting them down on the table with a smile that was admittedly forced, but was still a smile.

At a bit of prompting from the girl in her head, Lies piped up, “Thank you, we will enjoy this. It does not even smell poisoned.”

“Yeah,” the woman retorted easily, “I told Mario to make sure to hold the poison on this one.”

“We know,” Lies informed her. “We heard you. But it could have been a trick, a signal to add poison.”

“You heard me from–” Abruptly, the woman stopped. “Nah, that’s fine. You enjoy your food, sweetie. You’re polite enough and you haven’t thrown anything yet. Far as I’m concerned, you’re one of the best customers we’ve had at this time of night. Let me know if you need anything else.”

With a nod, Lies replied, “We will. And tell Mario that the answer is enumeration.”

Pausing, the woman blinked back at them. “I’m sorry?”

“For his crossword,” Lies explained. “After you told him to hold the poison, he asked you for thirteen across. Eleven letters, ‘the act of numbering.’ Enumeration. He should feel bad for not knowing that.”

There was pure silence for several seconds, as the woman stared at her. Slowly, she turned to look at the door into the kitchen, which was way over halfway across the diner. There was no way that the girl sitting here at the table should have heard that conversation. Not unless-

Yet, again, she simply shook it off. “I’ll… let him know.” She turned once more to head off.

Yeah, Pace put in, we should probably give her a big tip when we leave.

A really big tip.

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Interlude 32B – Miranda, Abigail, and Seller.

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“She was attacked here, and barely survived.”

The announcement came in the middle of a motel room that looked as though an entire world war had taken place inside of it. Both chairs in the room were overturned and broken into splinters, and the bed had been broken in half with bits scattered everywhere. Blood of various colors lined the walls, along with other viscera. The bathroom door had been ripped off its hinges and lay broken in half. And dozens of various sized holes dotted every wall as well as the floor and ceiling. Also, the television was on its side with one body stuck halfway into it, through the broken screen.

Seller, the man who had spoken, looked back to his two female companions, Miranda and Abigail. “Whatever attacked Lies in here, there were a lot more than one of them. My guess is that they teleported in right on top of her.”

“Them,” Miranda corrected faintly while walking forward to look at the body in the television. “Remember, there’s two of them, even if they’re sharing the same body. Lies and Pace.” She looked over to the man. “We have to save Pace.”

Abigail slowly stepped into the room as well, her head shaking. “From what little we know,” the woman announced slowly, “it doesn’t sound like these…” her face twisted with disgust, “… handicapped Seosten have any real chance in their lives.” The woman refused to use the term Lie. She found it barbaric and horrible, and flat out refused to be a part of it. “That video that you showed me of the girl, that is not a healthy individual making their own choices. And from what else we’ve found… she’s damaged. She’s as much a victim in this whole situation as anyone.”

Seller cleared his throat. “The point is,” he began flatly, “we need to find both of them. We can’t save Pace without Lies. And right now, we don’t even know if either of them are still alive.” Pointedly, he gestured around the destroyed room. “Give me a minute to look at this place over and try to put it together.”

Leaving the man to examine the place, Miranda and Abigail stepped out of the room and back into the motel parking lot. It was late at night, almost to the point of technically being morning. The place looked pretty much completely abandoned, without any lights on in any of the other rooms, and the office had the blinds pulled tightly shut. The two women glanced to one another before Miranda asked, “Do you really think that we can get through to Lies?”

“What I think,” the woman replied, “is that every single person in that girl’s life has probably used, abused, and abandoned her. She doesn’t even have a real name. So, I am not going to make any judgments about what she might be capable of if someone did give her a chance. I’m not saying that she’s some perfectly innocent, fluffy little lamb, but she could be more than they’ve made her, if someone gave her a chance.”

“Pace is innocent too,” Miranda pointed out quietly. She went silent for another few seconds before kicking hard at the ground in front of her with a harshly muttered, “Fuck the Seosten.”

“That does seem to sum it up,” the older woman agreed. Her voice softened then, as she reached out to squeeze the younger girl’s shoulder. “They will bring Felicity back, and the others.”

Flinching a bit notably, Miranda let out a long, low side before admitting quietly, “I’m scared. I know that being scared doesn’t help anything, but what if something happens to her out there? She’s my friend. I abandoned her once, because the Heretics said that it was better than getting her involved with the monsters. That was a lie. It was all a lie. They knew that she was already involved. They knew. They just didn’t want me to be a part of her life. And now, she’s all the way out there, and I can’t do anything about it at all. I feel so… so fucking helpless.”

“If it helps at all,” Abigail put in then, “I would bet that the people who actively recruited you didn’t know much about the situation with Felicity and her—I mean our mother.”

Miranda resisted the urge to cough at those words. That had been a bit of a surprise. She had known that Flick cared about what happened to Abigail, but had thought that it was because the woman was Koren’s mother. Seller, however, had taken the two of them far away from Earth, to some other planet in order to tell her the truth back when they had started this whole search. Abigail and he wanted Miranda to understand just how connected the woman was to the situation.

And finding out that Flick technically had a fifty-something-year-old sister (and brother) had taken some getting used to. Let alone the revelation that Koren was actually her niece. That was… something.

“That memory spell…” At first, Miranda thought that Abigail was referring to the same one that she had just been thinking about. Only belatedly did she realize that the woman was actually talking about the one centered on erasing Joselyn. As she spoke the words, the Abigail’s face twisted with anger, “Thanks to that, I doubt the people low enough to be recruiting you as a student knew the whole story. They probably knew that Crossroads had a claim on her, and that’s why they didn’t want you being involved with Felicity. But I doubt they actually knew about the rest of it.”

Miranda’s mouth opened and shut once or twice before she finally replied, “I’m still pissed off about it.”

“So am I,” Abigail confirmed. “So am I.”

Before either of them could say anything else, Seller stepped out of the room to join them. “Okay,” he announced while adjusting his emerald green suit, “as far as I can put it together, our little friend won her fight in there. Most of the blood is from other species. I can put together a rough estimate of how the fight went. She took some pretty bad hits, but with the werewolf regeneration and anything else she’s got, I’d say she was the one who walked out of there.” Looking around as he stood there on the sidewalk, the man raised a hand to point off in the distance. “That way,” he continued. “She went that way.”

“How can you tell?” Abigail asked curiously.

In response, the man winked. “I can smell her,” he replied easily, “and I can see the path she took through the lot.” He indicated various spots on the pavement. “I can see the disturbances where her feet came down. Trust me, with the right kind of powers, it’s not hard to notice. And besides,” he held up a finger with a bit of red on it. “Not all of the blood in there was from other people. I’ve got enough blood tracking power to get a pretty good bead on the girl.  So trust me, she’s that way.”

The three of them thought out that way, while Miranda asked, “Do you really think it’s the other Seosten who’re trying to kill her?”

“It makes the most sense,” Abigail replied. “Think about it. She’s clearly been out on her own for awhile now. We’ve picked that much up just from tracking her. And we know that the Seosten somehow knew that Felicity and the others were onto them. That’s why they sprang that trap. The only real way for them to know that would be if they knew the choker wasn’t destroyed. And if they knew that, they probably blamed Lies for losing it in the first place.”

“So they’re pissed at her and she’s on the run.” Miranda sighed. “And we’re playing rescue party for the crazy–” She stopped at a warning look from Abigail, biting her lip hard. “I mean, she’s probably not gonna be that happy to see us either, you know.”

It was Seller who responded. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes. Right now, we focus on finding and subduing her.” He gave a quick glance to Abigail, adding, “Victim or not, that girl is dangerous. We make sure she’s not going to kill any of us before trying any of this negotiating.”

For a moment, Abigail looked as though she was going to say something to that. In the end, however, the woman simply gave a tight-lipped nod.

The three of them walked on for a bit longer, and they reached what looked like an ordinary, sleepy suburban street with small, one and two story houses lining both sides before Abigail finally did speak up, looking to the man while asking, “Does your blood tracker say how far away she might be?”

“Yeah, she’s–” Seller started before falling silent abruptly. His mirrored sunglasses didn’t hide his frown. “That’s funny, she was about three blocks that way, but it just disappeared. It’s like she–”

A blur of motion filled Abigail’s vision before the woman was suddenly grabbed and yanked around. She found herself facing Miranda and Seller, while an arm was held tightly against her throat and another hand was pressed against her face. She could feel the razor-sharp claws as they lightly, yet pointedly brushed over her skin.

“Like they knew you were tracking them and waited until you were right where they wanted you to be, then blocked it?” The by-then familiar voice tickled Abigail’s ears before the girl giggled. “That was what you were about to say, right? We love winning these games.”

“Lies!” Miranda blurted. The girl already had her shield in one hand as she stood there beside Seller, facing the one who had taken Abigail hostage. “Stop, don’t hurt her! We’re not here to attack you.”

“She’s right,” Seller confirmed. The man made no move to attack, draw any weapon, or make any threatening motion. He simply stood at ease. “We didn’t come to fight.”

The girl’s response was a sharp, lilting laugh before she leaned in close to Abigail’s ear, stage-whispering, “Is that right? Are the little birds telling the truth with their chirp, chirp, chirps? Or are they mean, nasty old beavers in crocodile clothing?” As if anticipating confusion, she added in a thoughtful tone, “Beavers are mean. Territorial. Nasty. Angry. Chomp, chomp, chomp. We weren’t even trying to steal your den, we just wanted to look inside because we were curious, jerk.”

“But why would you say in crocodile clothing?” The question clearly came before Miranda could stop it, even though she felt ridiculous even as the words tumbled from her mouth. “They’re pretty bad too.”

“What?” Lies sounded honestly flabbergasted by that. “No, they’re not. They’re adorable and cuddly. Name one animal with a better smile. If people would stop being so mean to them, maybe they could all get along.”

“Um.” Trying not to shift with the girl’s claws against her face, Abigail quietly spoke up. “I think we might have drifted somewhat off-topic.”

“Let her go, Lies.” Seller’s voice was firm. “Like we already said, we didn’t come here to hurt you.”

“Funny,” the Seosten girl retorted. “We didn’t come to hurt you either. We came to hurt the bad, bad, mean guys chasing us. Set a whole trap for them and everything. Left blood for them to track, had a whole thing set up. It would’ve been spiffy. But it was you, not them. You’re chasing, but not those chasers. You’re not them. You messed it up. We should punish you for that–what? No, I didn’t. We didn’t–we–yes, but if one of them dies, that still leaves two. That’s fair, isn’t it? But they really messed up our trap and it’s not fair. We worked hard on that trap. It’s not fair.”

Miranda’s head shook at that. “No one needs to be punished, Lies. We just want to talk.”

“Oooh, nobody needs to be punished?” Lies echoed the words, her smile appearing quite similar to that of the crocodiles that she had so recently extolled the virtues of. “Maybe you pretty thing could stick around and tell the mean old Manakel that, hmm? Maybe he’d change his mind then.”

“Manakel?” Seller jumped on that. “He’s sending all those guys after you, isn’t he? That’s why we’re here. You come with us and we’ll protect you. We can help each other. All you have to do is tell us what you know. Help us deal with them and Manakel won’t be able to hurt you.”

Again, the girl giggled. “You hear that? They came to protect us. Our knights in shining armor.”

“You’re in danger,” Abigail, standing as still as possible, reminded the girl. “The other Seosten obviously want you dead. We’ve already seen some of the results of that, and they’re obviously not going to stop. You can keep going by yourself, or you can make an alliance with us. None of us have to like each other, but we can help each other. We can all get what we want, what we need.”

“But if you hurt her,” Seller added in a voice that brooked no argument, “I promise that Manakel will be the least of your worries. We can work together. But you need to let her go. Show of trust. Let her go and we’ll work all of this out. Just take it easy.”

Miranda tensed, watching the other girl intently. Yet, she had a feeling that it would be okay. As violent as Lies was, and even though she was holding Abigail hostage, there was something innately different about her than there had been before. She seemed a little more in control of herself, a little less… crazed. Still not exactly reasonable or calm, but Miranda just had a feeling that she wasn’t going to kill Abigail, or even really hurt her, despite the implicit (and explicit) threat. Being hunted by Manakel’s people, it was obvious that she’d had a long few days, or weeks, or whatever it had been. She clearly knew that Miranda and the others were her best chance at survival. The question was whether she could control her psychological problems and violent impulses long enough to let that sink in. But thus far, the fact that she had stopped to talk to them, that she had shown herself at all and was still just standing there, it was actually a good sign.

“Take it easy?” Echoing Seller’s words in a tone that was somehow simultaneously mocking and curious, Lies shook her head. “None of this will be easy. They don’t understand, do they? No. Not easy at all. But helpful?” Leaning closer to Abigail’s ear, she stage-whispered once more. “They might, maybe, possibly prove how helpful they are now.”

Abigail spoke quietly. “Like I said, we want to help you. Tell us what we can do.”

Giving a long, curious sniff, Lies nonchalantly replied, “Maybe they can kill those ones.”

“Kill what o–” Miranda abruptly cut off her own question as a series of shuffling and creaking sounds caught all of their attention.

Spinning, she and the others took in the sight of figures emerging from all around them. They came from the shadows, pushing their way through the gates of fences that encircled nearby yards, pushing up out of a manhole in the middle of the street, kicking open the doors of a few parked cars to fall out before picking themselves up. Dozens of the creatures.

“Zombies,” Seller muttered, his voice flat as he scanned the area around them. They were surrounded, more and more of the things appearing with each passing second.

“Told you,” Lies primly reminded them. “You broke our trap.”

Shaking his head, the old Heretic announced, “We don’t have to deal with this.” He held a hand out, pausing briefly before sighing. “Or maybe we do. Something’s blocking teleportation.”

“Uh huh.” Lies sounded not the least bit surprised. If anything, she clearly thought that it was all very amusing. “Manakel doesn’t like it when you run away from his surprises. Oh, and FYI, not really zombies. Super-zombies. Manakel zombies. Hades. Stronger, faster, and smell worse. And more bad things. Like skills, powers, abilities. They keep them, not like normal boring zombies.”

“We can still fight them,” Miranda insisted. She took aim at one of the creatures as the army gradually surrounded the group, encircling them and moving forward, closer with each step.

“No.” Seller put a hand out, stopping the girl. “I’ll deal with these guys. The rest of you get out of here.

“Uh.” Miranda’s head shook. “In case it escaped your attention, we kinda can’t get out of here. They’re in the way.”

In response, the man extended a hand, making a quick motion. Part of the pavement about eight feet wide beneath the feet of the shuffling zombies abruptly raised upward, knocking them aside while forming into the shape of a tunnel, creating an opening right through the middle of the horde and continuing on for what looked like several blocks, straight down the road. Meanwhile, the man raised his other hand and made a sharp pushing motion. Immediately, the air near the ‘tunnel’ blurred and turned a bit hazy.   

“What did you–” Miranda started, before Seller’s hand caught her shoulder. He gave her a solid shove right into the mouth of the tunnel. As soon as she was there, the girl felt some kind of gravity-wind-force catch hold of her, and she was rapidly hurled down the length of the several-block long raised pavement tunnel. Her body tumbled end over end in mid-air, as though she was falling sideways. A startled yelp had just managed to escape her before she was gradually slowed to a gentle stop at the far end of it. For a second, the girl continued to float there a foot or so off the ground, before even that disappeared and she dropped lightly to her feet.

“Wheeeeeeeeee!” Behind her, Lies came soaring through the tunnel like Supergirl, hands outstretched in front of her as she flew right to the end. Once the ‘ride’ stopped, she pouted. “Aww, we wanted to keep going. Can we do it again?”

“Where–” Miranda’s question was cut off as Abigail came flying through as well, the woman crying out right as she reached the end to be dropped to the ground.

Once the three of them had collected themselves, Miranda stared down the street. She could barely make out the fight that was going on, and a part of her wanted to create a duplicate that could run back to help Seller.

But to be honest, she wouldn’t really be helping. The man could handle some zombies, even the ‘improved versions’ that Manakel apparently created, whatever that meant. At best, she would be a distraction. And if more bad guys came after them while Seller was busy, she would need all her powers to deal with that, rather than splitting them between duplicates.

“We have to get out of here,” she announced. “Seller will find us, and…” She paused, looking to Lies, who had walked around behind her. “What are you doing?”

“Hmm?” Glancing up, Lies gave them an innocent look. “Oh, nothing. Other-Me just thinks you have a cute butt, so we were getting a better look.” She paused briefly while Miranda made a choking, stammering noise before adding, “I wasn’t supposed to say that. So we’d like it if you just pretended we didn’t. We never said that.” As she spoke the last line deliberately, the girl waved a hand as if she was trying to be a Jedi.  

“I–we–what?” Head shaking, Miranda started, “Why do you keep saying we–wait.”

Abigail understood already. “Pace? Is we you and Pace?” the woman carefully asked.

“Well,” the girl retorted with a sniff, “there’s hardly anyone else in here with us.”

“I’m confused.” Miranda frowned, watching her closely. “Are you trying to say that you two are… working together or something? Why do you keep saying we, and talking about what Pace wants or… or likes?”

“Me, other-me, we, Pace, all of us.” Lies gave a languid shrug. “Pacey Pace already said if we don’t work together, we’ll die. So we do. We work together. We compromise. We are together. We are we.” She gave a little giggle then. “Still working out the kinks. And speaking of kinks, could you turn around again? Other-me really does like your butt. If-” She paused, coughing. “Oh. Other-me didn’t want us to say that again. This is very hard to know what we are supposed to say or not supposed to say. Trying to be nice and let her speak, but some things she thinks we’re not supposed to say. So complicated. So many rules.”

Stepping in quickly while Miranda mentally and vocally flailed, Abigail spoke up. “So you’re already working together. You can work with us. We can all help each other.”

Finally catching herself, Miranda nodded. “We get out of here, we meet up with Seller, and you can tell us what we need to know. You can tell us about Manakel, about the rest of the Seosten, and in exchange, we can protect you.”

“Ohhh, not that easy.” Lies shook her head slowly. “Not nearly so easy. We can tell you a lot. We can tell you oh-so-much. But it’s not protection we want. No. Not protection. We need more. We know so much, we can help so much.” Her hand tapped the side of her head. “So very much indeed. But if you want it, you have to earn it. Yes. You have to give us what we really want.”

Abigail gave a slow nod, shooting a warning glance to Miranda. “Okay, what do you want?”

A slow, still-manic smile spread across the face of the Lies-possessed Pace. “Do what Mama could never do. Fix us. Help us separate. I-We-She don’t want Pacey to die. Help me-me get out of other-me. Teach me, help me, fix me. Make me whole. Make me complete. Make me a full Seosten. Fix me so I can do what I’m supposed to do. Help me let Pacey Pace go without killing her.

“Do that. Fix me… and we will tell you everything you want to know.”    

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Interlude 31A – Lies

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Please note, there was a full bonus chapter posted on Wednesday to finish off the regular arc. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

Present Day

The cold, bitter rain came down in sheets as the hour-long torrential downpour continued inexorably onward. The top floor of the parking garage, only a quarter full of scattered vehicles, was almost as much miniature lake as it was asphalt. It was easier to count the small, wet islands than it was to count the puddles, which ranged from just deep enough to soak the bottom of a shoe, all the way up to the nearly knee-deep corner opposite from the ramp.

Through the downpour, six figures stood on the roof of that parking garage, five of them surrounding the last. The five were large, heavily muscled figures of dark green skin and prodigious teeth. They wore enough leather and chains to be seen by humans as a biker gang, though those immune to the so-called Bystander Effect knew them as orcs.

That name by itself was an oversimplification since there were at least a half-dozen different species that were generally thrown into the pool of ‘orc’. All came from different planets, had wildly different original civilizations, religions, cultures, and more, and most hated the simple term ‘orc’. But due to their similar appearances to the untrained eye, most species lumped them all in together under the name of the first that had been encountered, meaning that those who had come after, with the misfortune of looking too similar to the first, had no opportunity to differentiate themselves. They were all seen as orcs, regardless of how varied they were.

The figure these so-called ‘orcs’ were surrounding, meanwhile, was much smaller. The untrained human eye would have seen her as human. But she was far more than that, in many ways. And just as the outside observer would have been mistaken in believing that they were witnessing five human bikers surround a human girl, they would have been equally mistaken in believing that the bikers were the most dangerous figures on that rooftop.

There was no discussion, no debate, threats, or offers of any kind. As the five orcs surrounded the girl, they exchanged glances with one another to assure themselves that they were all ready for what was about to happen. Or at least, that they believed they were. Then they attacked. The one directly in front of the girl drew back his meaty fist before driving it straight for her face, even as the one directly behind whipped his chain up and moved to drop it around her neck. The two to either side moved to grab her arms to immobilize her, and the final one, slightly to the left of the one at her left arm, threw his own punch toward her exposed side.

******

Twenty-One Years Ago

An orange-skinned man with a scraggly white beard trembled and quivered. His arms were raised above his head and attached to chains that hung from the ceiling. “M-Momma,” he begged in a broken voice. “Momma, I can’t. Please, Momma. Please, I can’t do it. Please.”

His whimpers were met with the sharp thrust of a stun prod, and the man arched his back, his entire body spasming as his words were replaced with agonized screams. A dozen burns scattered over his exposed upper torso made it clear that this had been going on for some time.

“Step out of the man, now.” The woman holding the electrified prod was the very definition of regal. She stood just a hair under six feet tall, with long black hair that fell to the middle of her back and was done in a single, tight braid. She wore dark red pants and a black silk shirt, both of which were enchanted to repel blood and other stains for quite obvious reasons. Around her neck was a golden choker, and she also wore an ornate, beautiful diadem with several red and violet gemstones. The diadem, choker, and other objects she wore were all heavily enchanted.

“Momma,” the man begged, his voice cracking pathetically as he hung limply from the chains. “Momma, please. I tried. I s-swear, Momma. I tried. I can’t do it.” Tears flooded his eyes as he gave a violent shudder. “Please, Momma, no hurting. Please, I’ll be g-good, Momma, ple-”

Once again, the desperate pleas turned to horrific screams as the prod was jammed into the man’s stomach. The woman raised her voice just enough to be heard over the cries. “You have not earned the right to call me that any more than you have earned a name. Step out of the man now. You want this to stop? You wish to earn my forgiveness? Then do as all true Seosten can and step out of him. Step out and there will be no more pain. Prove you are my child. Do it.”

She waited for a moment then, stepping back and watching as though she believed that either her words or the threat of more pain would actually be enough encouragement to make the impossible happen. Eyes narrowed and prod held loosely in one hand, she watched expectantly.

For a moment, the man went completely still and silent. His eyes drifted closed, his brow furrowed, and there was a somewhat childish display of concentration as the tip of his tongue poked slightly out of his mouth. The frown deepened over the next minute of silence, and new sweat appeared. His trembles and shudders turned violent from the incredible effort that was being put forth, until the man finally jerked upright, gasping for breath while shaking his head frantically. His words were pathetic, shamed sobs. “I can’t! I’m sorry, Momma, I’m so–”

With the click of a button, a blade appeared at the end of the stun prod, and the woman slit the man’s throat with a single, blindingly quick swipe. As blood poured freely down his throat and his head jerked backward, a second figure appeared directly in front of him. This one was much, much smaller. A child. A female child, barely six or possibly seven years old, with light brown hair and brown eyes. She stood there, shivering heavily as tears continued to stream down her face as she babbled apologies. “Momma. Momma, please. I’m sorry, Momma. Please.” With a weak, pathetic hope that had not yet been fully dashed, she raised her arms, desperate for just a little affection from the woman who had birthed her. “I t-tried, I rea-really tried!”

But there was no affection to be had. The woman stood, watching dispassionately before turning on her heel to walk away. “You are no child of mine,” she announced flatly. “I will not be mother to a Lie. Learn to control your power. Stop possessing your host. We’ll try again tomorrow. I have more ideas of what might properly motivate you beyond this handicap. For now, you will stay with the body until the morning.” She tugged open the heavy metal door then. “Perhaps seeing the result of your failure will convince you to make an actual effort next time.”

Standing there, the seven-year old child stared after the woman longingly. “Momma,” she called. “Momma, I love you. I love you, Momma.”

Kushiel, the Seosten once known as Hera on Earth, didn’t bother looking back before she stepped through to the next room and closed the door on her daughter with heavy clang.

******

Present Day

As the orc’s fist swung for her face, and the rest of his companions launched their own attacks, the Seosten Lie smiled. That smile carried through to her current host, the werewolf-Heretic called Pace.

She pivoted to the right abruptly, moving so quickly that her figure was barely visible. Her right hand snapped up to catch the wrist of the orc whose fist had been swinging for her face. With her other hand, the girl caught hold of the chain from the one who had been behind her. A quick yank and twist put that chain around the other orc’s wrist before either realized what happened.

The two orcs who had been on either side of her managed to grab empty air where the girl’s arms had been an instant earlier, while the final figure’s punch toward her side whiffed as well. None realized what had happened for the next second, only that they had missed.

Holding the chain tight around the first orc’s wrist, Lies gave a sharp, vicious yank at both sides of it. The chain was no ordinary metal. It was enchanted, meant to hold against almost anything. Which meant that, strong as her host was (and she was incredibly strong), she couldn’t break it.

Unfortunately for the orc whose wrist it was wrapped around, his bones were not so enchanted. With a howl of pain, his bone was crushed as the chain suddenly tightened dramatically.

The orc who was holding the chain realized what had happened, while the other three simultaneously noticed where their supposed prey had moved to. The first tried to yank back the chain to free it from his companion, while the remaining trio turned to her with identical bellows.

Lies easily yanked the chain from the orc’s grip, stepping behind the one who had it wrapped around his now shattered wrist. With that step, she gave a sharp yank to force his arm behind his back, the motion forcing a pained, gargled scream from the orc’s mouth as his demolished wrist was heavily jostled and wrenched horribly.

Once she was behind him, using the orc’s body to block the others from getting to her, Lies caught his other hand and yanked it back. With a grunt, she wrapped the other part of the unbreakable chain around that wrist as well, before grabbing hold of the middle part that hung between his now-linked hands. One more solid twist and yank crushed the new wrist while simultaneously doing unbelievable damage to the already badly broken one. She yanked both of his hands together that way, wrapped the chain around them a few more times to secure it, then gave him a solid kick in the back that sent him crashing into the arms of the orc that the chain had originally belonged to.

While those two were disentangling themselves, the other three continued to come for her. And Lies welcomed them by reaching behind her back with both hands to grab for the weapons attached to her belt. At first glance, as the girl brought her hands back out in front of herself, she appeared to be holding a pair of metal tonfas or short batons. But a quick push of a button on each proved how wrong that assumption was. From the top of each metal cylinder emerged a long blade. Once fully extended, the blades snapped downward ninety degrees, forming a sickle. Meanwhile, from the bottom of each of the ‘batons’, a long metal chain dropped into view. At the end of the chain was a small, yet heavy metal ball.

Kusarigama. The original Pace, her current host, had used the much less dangerous (and thus less fun) weapon of a couple knives that were capable of copying the physical properties of any material added to them, as well as creating various gels that could accomplish different effects. Some were explosive or acidic, while others could actually heal those they were used on.

Stabbing someone to heal them was inherently hilarious, of course. But Lies had wanted something with a bit more bang, something a bit more fun than ‘knives’. Thus, these kusarigama.

With a quick, practiced flick, the girl sent the chains out. Each wrapped around one of the wrists of two of the incoming trio of orcs, the weighted balls at the end allowing them to lock tight. Her thumbs brushed over the indented button in each handle, even as she brought both of her arms together, criss crossed over one another so that the two men were yanked together by their trapped arms, subsequently blocking the third man who had been coming up the middle.

At the simple, light button-touch, a wave of incredible cold ran down the chain of one of the weapons, freezing the trapped arm of that orc solid. At the same time, a wave of intense heat ran down the chain of the other to set that orc’s arm ablaze. The frozen arm was instantly shattered, before the heat from the flames turned it and the rain that continued to fall into a wave of steam that blinded all three of the orcs.

******

Twenty Years Ago

“Mama, don’t make me. Please, Mama. Please, I’ll do good. I’ll try harder. I promise. Please, Mama. Please.” Tears blinded the now-eight-year old Seosten child as she held tightly to her mother’s arm, pleading desperately. “Please, Mama. She was nice to me. She was my friend. She’s my friend, Mama. Please. Please, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mama, I’ll be good. I’ll try harder!”

Staring unmoved at her daughter, Kushiel gave a slight headshake before pointing to a red-skinned female child only a couple years older than the other girl. The older girl was unconscious. “You will possess her, Lie, and then you will be motivated to stop possessing her. If she is truly your friend. Because you know what will happen if you do not.”

“Mama!” A new wave of tears sprang forth as the unnamed handicapped Seosten grabbed hold of the red-skinned girl’s hand. “Please! Please, Mama! Please, please. She played with me! She was nice to me. I don’t wanna hurt her, Mama. Please, please.” By the end, her words were almost indecipherable as she sobbed uncontrollably.

“Yes,” Kushiel agreed. “And why do you think I allowed her to spend this past year with you, hmm? She is close to you because I allowed it. I allowed you to have this past year together so that you would be properly motivated now. I gave you a year with this dear friend. Now you will pay me back by proving that you are not a complete failure. You will not humiliate our name.”

“I wo-won’t do it!” the child declared, head shaking frantically. “I w-won’t, I won’t possess her! I won’t hurt her. Sh-she-she’s my friend! Please, Mama, don’t make me hurt her. Please, please, please! I’m s-sorry. I’m sorry, I’m really trying! I swear! I’m trying, but don’t make me hurt her, p-please, Mama. Please.”

Straightening to her full height, Kushiel glared down at the child. “You will possess her,” she ordered, “or I will have her eaten alive by the Tiyanak. Do you understand? I am giving you the chance to save her life. Don’t you want to save her life? If you don’t, I can simply have her taken to the Tiyanak now.

“If you care about your friend, you should try to save her.”

******

As the trio of orcs reeled and screamed, Lies threw herself that way. Three quick, vicious strikes from the bladed scythe end of her weapons opened their throats and left them lying on the ground, slowly dying and incapable of fighting back anymore.

By that point, the remaining two had finished pulling away from each other. They both turned, just in time for Lies to catch her weapons by the end of the chain and swing them outward. The chains snapped taut just as the scythe blades each embedded themselves in the middle of the orc duo’s foreheads. Their eyes crossed and then they collapsed to the ground.

As her blades came free, Lies yanked them back before triggering the change that shifted her kusarigama into their pistol forms. Extending them toward two of the three dying orcs whose throats had been cut, she fired. One of their heads froze solid before popping, while the other was melted into a bubbling pile of flesh.

The final orc, lying there choking on his own blood, twitched and gurgled a little bit as Lies moved to stand over him, pointing both pistols down at his face.

“Hi!” she announced cheerfully before dropping to one knee beside him. “Could you do me a favor?”

The orc started to gurgle a pained, desperate response before the girl suddenly dropped her pistol and drove her hand down against his chest. Her fingernails had elongated into werewolf claws, puncturing his body as the orc gave a choked scream.

“Don’t interrupt,” Lies chastised. “It’s rude. Now, I need you to do me a favor. You go back to Manakel and tell him to leave me alone. I’m not bothering him, I’m not interfering with his shit. I just want to be left alone. Maybe he doesn’t want my help anymore, but if he keeps sending fuckups like you after me, he and I are gonna have a problem. So you tell him that.”

Rising to her feet, she started to turn away before abruptly stopping. Her shoulders shook a little, and she giggled audibly. “Oh,” the girl announced, openly snickering. “I forgot. He’s got that whole necromancer thing going on, doesn’t he? Lord of the Underworld and all that. So, technically, he doesn’t need you to be alive to give him the message.”

The orc’s gurgling suddenly turned frantic and desperate, before it was silenced completely by a single shot from the girl’s heat-based pistol.

Whistling the tune from The Flintstones, Lies started to walk away through the downpouring rain.

He’s not going to listen. He’s going to keep sending more and more powerful people after you. After us. He can’t have you out here. You’re a loose end. He’s already been sending more and more of these guys. He wants you dead.

Pausing on her way off the roof of the parking garage, Lies slowly tilted her head. Or rather, Pace’s head. “Hmm? Is that my little Jiminy Cricket trying to offer advice? No sulking and crying over the poor dead orcs?”

They were trying to kill us, came the response. You defended yourself. But Manakel is going to keep sending people after you. We can’t beat all of them.

“Oh, but we can make them work for it, can’t we? Make them earn their pay, yes. We don’t have to be easy for them. Don’t have to roll over and play dead like good little puppies.” Lies snickered aloud at her own imagery. “I can kill them over and over again. Make him waste as much as possible. It’ll be fun to play that game until it’s over.”

We can do more than that, Pace insisted. We can actually accomplish something.

The girl was completely silent for a few seconds. Slowly, Lies made her host’s head turn to look back to the sky, closing her eyes and letting the rain fall over her face before opening her mouth to catch some of it. Finally, her eyes opened, and she gave a little smile.

“We?”

********

Twenty Years Ago

The body of the red-skinned girl lay on the floor, broken and empty, sightless eyes staring up at the ceiling. A jeweled knife had been embedded deep in her chest.

Beside her knelt the eight-year old Seosten child. Her hands were soaked in the blood that covered the nearby ground, and her shoulders shook. “I’m sorry,” she cried, shuddering heavily as she stared at the dead girl that had been her friend for the past year. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I tried. I tried to st-stop. I tried. I promise. Please. Please. I’m sorry.”

“Perhaps this will serve as a reminder for next time,” Kushiel coldly informed her daughter. “Think of this as motivation.” She paused then, frowning. “Clean yourself up, then come downstairs. It’s time to meet your new friend.”

With that, she pivoted on one heel before striding to the door, passing through and closing it without another word.

For a minute afterward, the Seosten girl just knelt there, staring at her dead friend, the girl who had spent the past year being nice to her. She thought of the games they had played, the stories they had told, the secrets they had shared. She thought of how desperately she had tried to stop possessing the girl, how much her friend had pleaded with her to try. And, at the end, how the girl had forgiven her. She thought of the feel of the knife plunging into her friend’s chest. She thought of her failure. Her total and complete failure.

And she thought of her next friend. The next one that she would spend time with before being forced to possess them. The next one that she would fail to save.

And the one after that.

And the one after that.

She cried for them. Cried for her friend, and for the ones she had yet to meet. Her tears fell freely as her shoulders shook with desperate, terrible loneliness. Staring down at the dead body, the eight-year old child sobbed. And as she sobbed, alone in every possible way, something within the girl broke. Something within her snapped.

“Heh…. heh… “ She went completely still, utterly unmoving to the point of being unnatural. “Heh…”

Slowly, the girl’s shoulders began to shake once more. But not from tears. Neither were the sounds she made those of a crying child any longer. Kneeling there in the blood of her friend, the lost, broken child did the only thing she could. She giggled. And then she laughed. Soon, her laughter echoed off the walls of the room.

She laughed because she could not cry any longer. She laughed because there was no alternative. She laughed because she was alone. Because no one cared about the lost, broken Seosten child.

She laughed because when all was said and done, laughter and tears were often not very different at all. Because tears were for those who had hope that their lives would be better, hope that their pain was temporary.

And laughter was for those who had none.

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Investigations 25-06 – Isaac Acosta (Interlude Arc)

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Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Isaac Acosta was a bit of a clown, but relatively harmless aside from some issues with personal boundaries. That wasn’t exactly true, since… well, there were a lot of responses that could be used to describe a boy who deliberately murdered his own older sister when he was twelve years old. But none of those responses was anything like, ‘relatively harmless’. Many responses to learning of the boy’s acts likely would have involved shouting archaic Latin at him while sprinkling holy water onto his forehead. For all the good that would have done.

No, Isaac wasn’t possessed (not that the holy water trick would’ve helped if he was). All of his choices were his and his alone. Well, the regular choices anyway. His… employers made the big choices about what he was allowed to do and how he was allowed to entertain himself. But he chose to work with them, chose to follow their instructions. And before they had found and recruited him, he had chosen to indulge his own whims. Isabella, his sister, had been his choice. As had the others. Everyone he had killed, everyone he had enjoyed, had been his choice.

Isabella had been the first, a sort-of… test case. She was babysitting him at the time, which in her case, meant that she was babbling on her phone while watching music videos on her laptop and taking up the television for some stupid celebrity dance contest reality show. Talking on the phone, watching music videos on her laptop, and hogging the TV all at the same time. Could he really be blamed for slicing her throat with the kitchen knife? It was clearly her own fault. Clearly.

After that, it had simply been a matter of staging the scene to make everything look like someone had broken in and Isabella had been murdered while heroically putting herself between him and the intruder so that Isaac could get to safety. One broken door, muddy boot trail (accomplished by stomping around the muddy flower garden in his own father’s work boots and then carefully cleaning them), and a couple more choice bits of evidence later, and he’d simply called 911 before putting on a performance that quite frankly proved that he’d deserved to be more than a fucking tree in the sixth grade play, Mrs. Kettle.

True genius was never appreciated in its time.

Now he was appreciated, though. Now, he was working for people who saw his potential, who saw what he could do for them. And those people had repaid him by putting him into a situation where he could gain superpowers simply by doing what he liked to do anyway: kill people.

Best. Bosses. Ever.

And speaking of enjoying his work, at the moment, Isaac was doing exactly that. He was sitting at a table in the kitchen of what looked like a simple wooden cabin (the place he’d been instructed to wait for contact). His enjoyment came not from his location, of course, but from the sight of the figure struggling in front of him. The female pixie, only a few inches in height, had been pinned to the table by her wings with a couple of iron nails, like a butterfly on display.

The kicking, squirming pixie was probably trying to say something, but he’d gagged her with a tiny strip of cloth from one of his socks earlier. Because damn, she complained a lot. Occasionally pushing a finger against one of her limbs until the sound of a bone snapping was never gonna stop being fun, sure, but the shrieking had been getting a bit obnoxious. Have some damn pride and self-respect.Or at least have some common courtesy. Whining was rude.

“Someone’s been playing with his food,” a voice announced abruptly from just behind Isaac.

He jumped a bit, spinning and almost falling while jerking to his feet. Hearts (he had several by that point, thanks to the experimentation he’d done with several Jekern) beating in his chest, Isaac stared at the figure that had been behind him. “Fuck’s sake, you crazy cunt, don’t do that!”

Lies, the werewolf-Heretic (or rather, werewolf-Heretic possessed by a psychotic angel), gave him a wide, uncaring smile. “Aww, poor puppy. Should’ve used the peepers on watching for anyone coming, not playing stupid torture games.” Her hand gestured to the pinned pixie.

Rolling his eyes, Isaac gave the girl a dirty look. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t put a lot of stock in the reprimand of someone who managed to get the only thing stopping everyone from knowing the body she’s possessing is a fucking werewolf destroyed. I’m sorry, how are you still useful?”

Her subsequent grin showed a partial change into her wolf-form, revealing a mouthful of sharp, entirely canine teeth. “Britches, boy. Stay in yours and don’t try to crawl into the larger ones just yet. You’ve failed too. Don’t see your team of innocents heading for the Committee, do you?”

For a moment, Isaac glared at her, before giving a tight shake of his head. “There was nothing I could do about it. Dougie-boy used his power, the one he can only use once per day. If I erased their memories and tried again, he would’ve figured out that he’d already used his power, but couldn’t remember doing it. And you know, I’m pretty sure that the big guy in charge wants these morons looking into things that could erase their memories a lot less than he wants them to go to the Committee right this fucking second. We’ll figure out how to use them as witnesses later.”

“Maybe,” the girl replied mysteriously. “Or maybe he’ll tell you to cut your losses.” She seemed to consider that for a moment before giving a careless shrug and chirping, “We’ll find out! Cuz it’s time to go see him!” With that, Lies added a sly wink, watching him. “He summoned us.” Her hand gestured toward the door of the cabin before giving an offhand gesture toward the pixie. “And do clean up your toys. Always so terribly inconsiderate. Not like my Doxer.”

Giving a careless glance down toward the pinned pixie, Isaac flicked a knife up from his belt. “Right,” he replied easily before addressing the winged creature itself, “Just so you know, your death is going to a good cause.” Leaning close, he stage-whispered, “Because killing you freaks makes me feel really, really good.” With a wink, he brought the knife over and down to cut the tiny bitch’s head off, not all that different than tugging an ant or butterfly apart with his fingers.

The knife never made it to the target. Instead, a hand caught his wrist in an iron grip, immediately crushing the bone in a way that brought a yelp from the boy. Lies was there, holding his wrist like a vice. Before he could react more than that single yelp, she was forcing his broken wrist down and back. Isaac felt the blade shove into his own chest, unable to release the thing before the thing was embedded deep inside him. Blood gushed from the wound.

His mouth opened to gurgle a demand, when her fist struck him hard in the face. So hard, in fact, that his nose broke and the boy would have gone careening backwards and fallen to the floor if the girl’s other hand hadn’t grabbed his shoulder to keep him right where he was. 

Even then, he might have defended himself, might have done something. But then the girl’s knee drove itself into his crotch, and all thought of fighting back vanished as he doubled over with a wheezing squeal of pain. Doubled over, save for the fact that her hand was still holding him up partway, just enough that she could keep hitting him.

Her fist struck his face again. Then again, and again. The girl pummeled him repeatedly, each blow knocking the boy’s head back and rattling his brain, adding to the unbelievable pain in his nether regions. He felt the blood on her hand from his shattered nose as she kept hitting him, lost in some kind of psychotic, violent freak-out. He couldn’t get a word in edgewise, couldn’t even lift a hand to defend himself in his surprise. Blows continued to hammer down on him over and over again. 

As suddenly as it had started, the attack stopped. Blinking through his bloodied daze, the boy saw Lies abruptly freeze up. She went completely still before her expression twisted. “Not… let… my… not…” The words, confusing as they were, came through harshly gritted teeth.

She turned then. Her hand, shaking violently as if she had no idea how to actually use it, snapped down toward the table. Snatching the nails out of the pixie’s wings, she grabbed the little freak before turning. A quick throw sent the thing flying out the nearby window, while Lies blurted a short, strangled entreaty, a single word. “Run!”

A choked sound escaped Isaac then, as he slumped against the table, too weak to stand and in far too much pain to think straight. The sound became a chuckle, his blood-covered hands fumbling to catch the handle of the knife in his chest. “Not… totally a puppet yet, huh… Pace?” he asked through the pain, finally managing to grip the handle so he could slowly pull the damn thing out, breath hitching a bit as he did so. Everything hurt, especially down below. But his healing was taking care of it. 

The girl, who hadn’t moved since throwing the pixie out the window, gave a sharp jerk. Her head snapped first to one side, then the other. Bringing both hands up, she slammed them down against her own legs and gave a short, almost squawk-like sound, which morphed into a laugh. “Whoo, whoo!” she repeated a couple times while giving a full-body shudder from head to toe. “What a rush. Whoo!” Another shudder and her head gave a violent shake before she clapped her hands a couple times. “Jeeze, Pacey Pace really didn’t like that, huh? Strong. Wow.”

Pace. It had been the real Pace. Somehow, she’d taken control again and stabbed Isaac before he could end that stupid fucking pixie. After realizing that, it took him another couple minutes to recover. Ripping the remains of his shirt off, he balled it up and pushed the cloth against his wound to hold in his own blood while counting on his super-charged regeneration (one of the side-benefits from all the extra killing he’d been doing) to take care of the worst of the problem. Eventually, it seemed to be under control. But it still hurt like a bitch.

Spitting blood, the boy snarled, “You know how lucky-ugh–” Stopping for a second to collect himself once more, he gritted through the pain. “You know how lucky you are that I’ve got redundant organs, huh? That cunt could’ve really killed me there.”

Her response to that was an amused giggle. “Could’ve died, didn’t die. I’m not lucky, you are.”

“Hey,” he snapped then, giving the little bitch a dark, annoyed look. “You can’t keep that little puppet in line, sounds like something the big guy needs to know about before something-”

Before Isaac could get any further, he found himself under assault once more. This time, it was definitely Lies in control. Her hand grabbed hold of his throat, nails digging painfully through the skin as she glared at him. “You won’t tell anyone,” she hissed. “Pacey Pace wants you dead. Make me mad, and she and I will be best friends. Understand? Don’t make me agree with her.”

Grimacing a little, Isaac twisted until she released his throat. Rubbing it with one bloody hand, he muttered,  “Fine, whatever. You fuck up the mission, it’s on you. Not like I really give a shit. Now, you gonna go get that little bug before she gets away, or what?”

“Eh,” the wolf-girl sniffed once before shrugging. “Gone now. Not my problem. Bad for you if Mr. Boss finds out, so maybe don’t be telling him bad things about me, and I won’t be telling him bad things about you.”

The two of them stood there glaring at one another for a moment before Lies snapped her fingers (or Pace’s fingers, whatever) and gave a sharp jerk of her head toward the cabin door. “Time to go. Can’t be late for our very important date. Not that I would date you. I like my boys more…” She paused, seeming to consider it for a moment before finishing with, “… stable.”

“Yeah?” Isaac gave a pointed nod toward his bare, bloodied torso. “Well I’m pretty sure that boss of yours won’t like me showing up to his little debriefing looking like this. I need a shirt.”

Waggling two of her fingers in his face, the green-haired Hispanic girl replied with a sing-song taunt. “Aw, psycho-boy didn’t prepare. Not a good boy scout, psycho-boy. Always prepare.” Her head nodded toward the other door in the small cabin. “There,” she instructed. “Find your size. Have to be prepared, don’t know what body I might be in later. Might be yours.” That was added with an appraising look. “Hope not. Bad hair. Creepy eyes. Murder-hands. I do have standards.”

“Right,” Isaac muttered as he walked to the other door. It led into a small bedroom with an attached bath area, and along the walls were several dressers. The bitch was right, she had clothes of all shapes and sizes in there. It wasn’t hard to find something that would fit him. Before pulling it on, however, he took a short detour into the bathroom to wash all of the blood off his chest and face. Once he was relatively clean, the boy tugged on the fresh shirt and walked back out. “Right, let’s go see the big man. Though,” he added pointedly, “I don’t see why Fetch isn’t here. He let it happen too.”

“He’s important,” Lies informed him flatly. “You’re not. In the order of expendable ones, the big guy would rather like… a hundred of you die before one of the Fetch. That’s why you have this job, because you’re expendable. No crying if you die. Just get another one.”

“Yeah, fuck you too,” he retorted. They might think he was expendable, but he was learning. He was learning more than they probably wanted him to. He was paying attention, watching everything they did. He knew that they were low on options for this mission. That was whole reason he was being included in the first place. Manakel, the angel-fuck, the one that showed up and took over after that Paschar guy recruited him, wasn’t accustomed to Earth, where he had to hide what he was constantly. No, Manakel was used to the way things were back in the angel-world, where they were lords and masters over everything and every other race were their servants. Using people like Isaac to get what he wanted, that’s what Manakel was accustomed to. And whoever they were fighting, whoever the angels were so obsessed with beating… unless he missed his guess, Manakel’s people weren’t exactly winning that particular war.

From what he’d been able to piece together, mostly from the angels treating him like a disposable idiot who turned deaf and dumb on command, they needed Avalon dead so they could use that teacher that was in a coma in the hospital to get into some vault. He had no idea what was in the vault, except that it was important enough that they were pretty desperate to get to it. Except whatever protection spell had been put on the bouncy-chested bitch was strong enough that if she was killed, everyone responsible for her death (not just the person who pulled the trigger, but also whoever had ordered it) would be marked. It was some kind of elaborate magic that would be powered by the girl’s own death. Whatever, he didn’t know how it worked, exactly. What he did know was that the only reason he hadn’t been told to slit her throat himself kamikaze-style was that the spell would lead not only to him, but also to Manakel for ordering it.

They had thought that the spell was cast by that old guy, Pericles. But even with him cold and six feet under, the spell was still kicking. Last Isaac knew, Manakel and the other angels had been arguing over whether the one responsible for the spell was the headmistress, a somehow-secretly-still-alive Pericles, or someone else. Trying to figure it out was driving them nuts. It was actually kind of fun to watch, as long as he stopped himself from reacting to any of it.

In any case, his job was to get his team to go tattle about Gaia’s secret activities to the Committee, so they had an excuse to remove her from power. The original plan for that had been for him to pick a member of his team, kill them, and then find a way to blame it on that Flick chick. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to actually have any of his fun before Roxa disappeared. Manakel thought it would be a waste not to use that, and had ordered Isaac to guide his team toward blaming Flick for what had happened. It was a task that had been made infinitely easier when Doug had ended up with the power from that juvenile Epsiteme. All of a sudden, it wasn’t Isaac trying to find a way to get them to blame Flick for it. They were doing it all by themselves. All he had to do was keep nudging them toward investigating, but not confronting. And, of course, erasing their memories any time they decided to go off and do something else that didn’t fit with the plan.

Getting them to the point where they’d willingly bypass Gaia to go to the Committee and tattle about it was tricky, but he’d almost been there with the revelation that Flick’s dad had a vampire living in his house. At least, he’d been there until they suggested the idea of actually talking to Flick about it yet again. And that time, Isaac couldn’t just erase the idea and start over, because fucking Doug went and used his power at the worst possible time, screwing everything up.

And now he had to go and explain that to Manakel yet again. Maybe Isaac should just get ‘not my fucking fault’ tattooed on his forehead and be done with it.

One thing was for sure, he wasn’t going to mention the missing pixie. He’d found her on his own, so there was no reason to tell the already-annoyed head angel guy about her escape.

Stepping through the door of the cabin with the psycho-possessed-chick led to a tiny island. Much smaller than the one the school was on, to the point that he could easily throw a rock from one side to the other. It was barely big enough for the cabin and a small beach that surrounded it. According to Charmiene, the island was one of several ‘bolt-holes’ that were semi-connected to the same pocket-dimension that the school’s island was in. There were a few different ways to get to it from the main island, if you knew what you were doing.

At the edge of the tiny beach there was a small boat that was tied to a single wooden post. Stepping into the boat before taking a seat, Isaac lounged back as much as possible while gesturing for the girl to go ahead. “Post-modern feminism and all that,” he drawled easily. “Wouldn’t dream of taking away your right to work.”

Lies stepped into the boat, giving him a short look before producing a small gold coin from her pocket. Using her thumb, she flicked the coin down into the bottom of the boat, between them. It bounced once, then seemed to melt into the surface, disappearing almost immediately.

A second later, the boat started to move seemingly by itself. Lies remained standing, giving him a disdainful look through pretty much the entire five minute trip until the boat bumped up against the dock of a slightly larger island. Another one in the pocket dimension, secretly connected to Crossroads.

Two figures stood on the dock waiting for them as they disembarked. Manakel, a man who looked a lot like that actor, James Spader, and Charmeine, a tall, dark-skinned woman with short white hair. Neither looked that happy.

“So, I gotta ask,” Isaac started as soon as he was on dry ground. “Those new stooges that just showed up from the Committee, October and Patrick? One of those guys is working for you, right? Cuz I gotta tell you, there are a lot of rumors going around about those guys.”

“Isaac, Isaac, Isaac,” Manakel tutted while stepping that way to put an arm around him. “Now, you know I can’t tell you that. Where would our operational security be? Just like I can’t tell our other agents about you. Come, have you eaten? We have a marvelous spread inside.”

Leading Isaac into the much larger cabin and to a table that was, indeed, laden with more food than all of them could’ve eaten in a week, the man urged him to take part. When Charmeine started to bring up the mission, Manakel waved her off. “After,” he ordered. “Pleasure first. I do enjoy a good meal, don’t you?” he added the last with a look toward the boy.

“Sure,” Isaac replied slowly while filling his plate. “I love gluttony. It’s my third-favorite sin, after wrath and lust. Which, you’d be surprised how often those two go together.”

“Very little about you would surprise me, Mr. Acosta,” Manakel informed him. “Very little indeed.” His look turned intense for a brief second before he shifted his eyes toward Lies. “My dear, aren’t you going to eat? There’s plenty, as you can see.”

“No thanks,” she replied easily. “I wouldn’t want to take up any of the poison that he’s supposed to get.”

While Isaac reflexively dropped the piece of chicken from his mouth, Manakel barked a short, genuine laugh. “Oh, she’s teasing you, my boy. She’s teasing you. No, if we wanted you dead, there would be no need for poison. You’re not a um, a threat, you see?” He leaned forward a bit, his tone dropping slightly. “No, if I wanted you dead, you never would have made it off the boat. And I certainly wouldn’t have you in here. A body, lying over this beautiful assortment of delights, are you mad?”

So they ate. Or Manakel and Isaac did, in any case. Lies stayed away from the table despite her boss’s words, and Charmeine seemed content to sit and watch him, plate empty.

Eventually, Manakel set down his fork, cocking his head a little bit before looking toward Isaac. “I have… asked you to do one thing. And that one thing was to ensure that these humans that you work with would take what they see and go to the Crossroads Committee. Thus far, I have been… unimpressed with your results. Now, that is not to say that you’re not trying. But the options we have as this failure continues are rapidly dwindling. At this point, we’re pretty much down to two possibilities. Either this is beyond your capability, and you are of no use. Or you aren’t trying hard enough. I would prefer it be the second option. That, at least, may be corrected.”

“Hey, I told you,” Isaac started. “There wasn’t anything I could do about it once that jackass used th–”

“One thing you should understand about me,” Manakel interrupted, “is that I abhor vulgarity as much as I do excuses. So please, content yourself to offering neither. Simply answer the question. It is a binary choice. Have you tried as hard as you can, or should you be trying a bit harder?”

Mouth opening and then shutting, Isaac finally gritted out, “I’ll try harder.”

“Excellent,” the man replied, giving a small smile before plucking up his fork to take another bite. Swallowing it, he used the fork to gesture toward Isaac. “You can start with this new mission. This trip to New York, it presents an opportunity for a boy of your… pursuits.”

“Well, now you got my attention,” Isaac replied, lifting an eyebrow. “I thought you’d be pissed that they were going there. You do know they want to have a sit down chat with girl, right?”

“Indeed.” Giving a thin, humorless smile, Manakel continued. “Fortunately, you are going to ensure that meeting never happens. Now, let me make this clear. A moment ago, when you agreed that you should be trying harder, this will be the time to raise that effort. Because if you fail this time, I…” He paused then, seeming to consider his next words for a moment. “I will spend as much time as it takes to ensure that you forget that a state other than unimaginable pain exists. I will set your body aflame and keep you alive through it, because you will not be allowed to die until I am satisfied. You are a miserable, lecherous little creature whom I despise. So give me one more reason to doubt your capability to perform these tasks, and my utter disdain for you will outweigh my need to use you. Do you understand?”

There were no smart remarks. Not at that point. Isaac simply gave a short nod. “Yes.”

The man’s demeanor shifted just as suddenly as it had changed before. He sat back, smiling slightly. “Excellent. Then there won’t be a problem.”

Looking toward Lies/Pace then, the man gave a soft smile. “As for you my dear…” A tutting noise escaped him as his head shook. “What are we going to do with you? The weres may be an alpha version of the much more useful Heretics, but they were still useful in their own way. And you–well, you kind of lost them. Lemuel is dead, as are a large number of his most important people. Of the rest who survived, they’ve all scattered. And,” he added, “Let’s not forget the part where the choker that allows you to operate within the Heretic ranks was destroyed.”

“Destroyed though,” the girl piped up. “Not stolen.”

The man gave a light, seemingly-honest chuckle. “Yes,” he replied with a smile that showed his teeth. “Yes, it was. And that’s the only reason you’re still alive, isn’t it?”

There was no response, and Manakel leaned back, taking a bite or two of his food while making a noise of enjoyment. “Mmmm, it really is delicious. You both should be indulging. You’re young,” he added with a broad smile. “Enjoy it.”

After another bite, he set the fork down and looked toward Lies. “We’ll find another job for you. I don’t throw away things that might still be useful. And you, my dear, could still be very useful indeed.”

His attention moved to Isaac then. “As for you, we’ll use this trip to our advantage. You’ll go to New York. Before this ‘meeting’ has a chance to take place, you will ensure that Miss Chambers and each member of your team aside from yourself and Mr. Fetch are all in possession of one of these.”

Laying his hand on the table, he lifted it to reveal several small, marble-sized orbs that seemed to be made out of crystal. “Once you have secretly placed one on each of their persons, you will break the last one.”

“Yeah?” Isaac’s eyes moved from the orb to the man’s face and back again. “Why? What do they do?”

It was Charmeine who answered. “Breaking the final orb will take everyone that’s closest to the other orbs and banish all of them from Earth and any pocket-dimension connected to it, sending them clear across the universe. Far beyond the reach of any magic or power that could be used to track them down.”

“Our goal,” Manakel added, “which you and Mr. Fetch will assist with through your own testimony, is to create the illusion that Miss Chambers recruited your teammates to join a… rebellion against Crossroads. You and your team leader objected, a fight ensued, and your traitorous teammates, along with the girl herself, fled.”

“They’ll look for them,” Charmeine put in then. “But they won’t find them. And losing three-quarters of a Freshman team because the Chambers girl took off with them… yeah, that’ll get the headmistress in pretty hot water.”

“Hot water,” Manakel finished, “which our ever-so-eager, yet unknowing friend Gentleman Ruthers will seize upon as a pretense for removing Gaia Sinclaire from her position so that he can install his own loyal puppet in her place. And without Sinclaire corrupting our system, this school will return to its primary purpose: creating loyal soldiers who kill anything and everything we point them toward.”

“Now, see, this was a lot of great food and all,” Isaac started while gesturing at the assortment still covering the table.

“But what you just said? That sounds absolutely delicious.”  

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Interlude 24A – Koren and Miranda

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“I’m surprised the guys in charge let you come here,” Miranda Walbern announced.

Glancing to her as the two of them walked along the freeway-sized branch of the Eden’s Garden tree (seriously, this plant was the size of the Empire State building), Koren raised an eyebrow. “By guys in charge, do you mean the Committee, or… what were your leaders called again?”

“The Victors,” Miranda supplied. “And both, actually. I didn’t think either one would let you visit.”

A slight smirk touched the Koren’s face as she gave a small shrug. “What can I say? My mom is really good at arguing with people. She told your, uh, Victors that there was some kind of provision in your laws for close relatives from Crossroads to visit family here. Then Gaia gave the Committee a message from Mom that basically said that if they wanted her to join them instead of Eden’s Garden, letting her see her daughter, me, would be the best way to do it.”

All of which had amounted to Koren being allowed to visit Eden’s Garden to see her mother now and then, such as that evening. She’d done it a couple times by that point, though the first two had been under strict supervision. This evening was the first time she’d been allowed to wander a little bit, while her mother was in some kind of meeting about a position that she was trying to get. Koren still had to be with a guide, of course, but Flick’s old best friend (who happened to be Seller’s new apprentice since Hisao was subbing at Crossroads) had immediately volunteered.

Coughing, Miranda waved a hand pointedly. “Oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard how it happened. I’m just still surprised it actually worked on some of those stubborn old bastards.”

Koren’s eyes rolled. “It almost didn’t. I guess the ‘stubborn old bastards’ just got outvoted.”

Miranda’s mouth opened, and she was obviously about to say something when another voice interrupted from behind the two girls. “Well lookie here, it’s a couple of snoopy little rats.”

Before either of them had even turned around, Miranda was already sighing and hanging her head. “Weston, how many times do we have to do this?” Pivoting, she continued, “I’m not just–” She stopped talking then, because, as she and Koren could now see, the boy she was addressing wasn’t alone. He had two other figures with him, none of whom looked very friendly.

Koren took in the sight. The one who had been talking, Weston, apparently, wasn’t that much taller than Koren herself, standing only at five foot eight or so. He was stocky in a muscular way, wearing a black tank top that showed his generous biceps along with a pair of cargo pants. His forehead was heavy and almost Cro-Magnon-like, though he also had luxuriously silky long black hair. The two on either side of him were both female, one an Asian girl and the other blonde. Both looked more like they’d been chosen to accompany Weston more for their looks than for any intelligence or personality they might’ve had, practically hanging off of his arms.

“Oh,” Miranda finally spoke after a second. “Sorry, I thought you were here to bitch at me again about Doxer picking a fight he couldn’t win, but I guess you were just looking for a quiet place for you and your… uhh, what is this, exactly?” She waved her hand to encompass the three of them with an inquisitive look before snapping her fingers. “No, wait, I’ve got it. You two are just dying for a decent day of pampering, and Weston is an absolutely killer stylist and masseuse.”  

Weston shrugged easily, while his girls continued to hang off of him. “What can I say?” He gave a smirk that made it clear that he knew how what he was about to say would be taken. “Maybe I heard about how lucky little Hannah is with her girlfriends and wanted to see what it was like.”

There was a slight pause then, as Koren and Miranda both stared. Their eyes looked first to the blonde girl hanging off of Weston’s left arm, then to the Asian girl hanging off his right. The gears turned, and then they both simultaneously audibly dry-heaved. Koren jerked a bit, face paling as she covered her mouth. “Oh god. You’re making them rolepl–I think I’m gonna be sick. Oh god.”  

Once she had her own gagging under control (which required considerable heaving), Miranda took another second to find her voice as she stared at the trio. “Congratulations, I’ve literally buried myself up to the mouth in monster guts and that was still less disgusting than whatever the fuck this shit is. And how the hell do you even know that much about what’s going on over there?”

Weston lifted his chin, smirking. “You’re not the only one with friends in far places. Maybe we talk.”

The blonde that was hanging off the boy rolled her eyes before heaving a noise that was half-sigh and half-whine. “What’s it to you, huh? You just like, get in other people’s business to distract from those man-hands and that hair? Who fucking cut it for you, Edward Scissorhands?”

“Okay,” Miranda dropped her head and shook it before looking to Koren. “Where do I start?”

Shrugging, Koren offered, “How about you start with the fact that the insult doesn’t even make sense, because Edward Scissorhands was fucking awesome at cutting hair. That was like, half the point of the whole damn movie, practically.” To the girl in question, she added, “Duh.”

The blonde sneered at that. “Like I care about some stupid Bystander movie? But you know what I do care about? Putting snotty little bitches like you back in their place.” To that end, she used the hand that she wasn’t using to hold onto Weston’s arm to snap her fingers. Instantly, a dozen floating daggers made of solid ice appeared in midair, aimed directly at Koren.  

“Weston!” Miranda stepped in front of the other girl, glaring that way. “You know the rules.”

The boy lifted his chin, pretending to think about it for a brief moment. “You mean the one about how we can’t come after you unless we go through Seller first? Yeah, sure. But that little rule doesn’t say anything about that bitch right there. Far as I can tell, she was allowed to visit. But if something happens to her and the question of who started the fight comes down to your word against Josie’s, Kumiko’s, and mine… well, I think we all know how that’ll go, don’t we?”

The Asian girl, Kumiko, finally spoke up. “I bet we can make her cry. She looks like a crier.”  

“Okay,” Koren started slowly, holding both hands up. “This all sounds really fun and all. Big fight and everything, yay. But why don’t we all just take a long, deep breath and then count to–” In mid-sentence, the brown-haired girl snapped her hand down. As she did so, the tiny gold bracelet that she’d been wearing flew off and hit the ground at the trio’s feet. The instant it did, a glowing blue dome of energy sprang up around Weston, Kumiko, and Josie, surrounding them.

Pivoting even as the ice daggers Josie had been controlling shattered against the wall of the dome, Koren grabbed Miranda by the hand to pull her. “Let’s get out of here, it won’t last long!”

The two girls ran down the branch, sprinting away from the trio, who were shouting after them. They kept going, dodging around other people who stepped out to see what all the commotion was while putting as much distance as they could between them and Weston’s little group.

Eventually, Miranda pulled the other girl by the hand over to the edge of the branch. Pointing toward a smaller outcropping of wood below, she leapt toward it. Koren followed her lead, and both girls landed on what was essentially a six-foot wide knot in the giant tree. Crouching down then, they looked up in time to see the other three go rushing past just above them.

Waiting for another moment to make sure the trio wouldn’t come back, Miranda finally let out a breath and looked back over to her companion. “What the hell was that thing back there?”

Koren shrugged at that. “It’s a protective spell that Wyatt taught me. His can take a lot more punishment than mine can, and it lasts a lot longer. I’m still not that good at making them.”

“Hey,” Miranda pointed out, “It held them off long enough for us to get away. That’s pretty good.”

Blushing a bit, Koren asked, “So who was that guy anyway? What the hell was his problem?”  

Miranda shrugged, glancing away. “Just one of my fanclub.  You know, the people who are kind of upset about the whole Avalon thing, or about Flick killing Doxer, or about Trice disappearing, or… well, any of it. They think it’s fun to harass me as much as they can get away with.”

Biting her lip, Koren started, “I thought that Mom and that Seller guy took care of that stuff.”

“They made it so that the guys can’t actually legally attack me,” Miranda replied. “They can still do basically everything up to that. You know, threatening messages, a shove here and there, dead animals in my bed now and then, that sort of thing. They’re just quieter about it, not gone.”

Looking away as she flinched at that, Koren opened her mouth to say something about it, only to suddenly stop. Her eyes widened, and she blurted, “That evil fucking bitch!”

Blinking, Miranda hesitantly started, “Wait, which one are we talking about, because–”

“Not them.” Koren caught the other girl by the arm, tugging her around to point far below them, where a figure could be seen on one of the other knots in the tree. “Am I crazy, or is that–”

“Pace,” Miranda finished for her, staring that way as well. “But,” she added slowly, “She’s–”

It was Koren’s turn to interrupt. “Setting off the Stranger-Sense. Yeah, I’m feeling it too. Does that mean that–I mean, if she doesn’t have the choker anymore, then Flick must’ve…” She trailed off then before squinting. “Wait, where’s she going?” Far below them, Pace leapt off the knot of wood. She did something to slow her own fall before landing easily on the ground even further down. As the two girls watched, her body started to contort, slipping out of her clothes before a full-sized wolf wiggled its way free and immediately began to run off through the woods.

“I don’t know where she’s going,” Miranda replied. “But I know what she’s doing. She’s getting away.” A moment of focus and there were two Mirandas standing  there. One looked over to Koren. “Can you get down from here? I’m going to get Seller and tell him what’s going on.”

Drawing her hunga munga, Koren nodded. “Sure, I can get down. And I can take you if you wa-”

The second Miranda took a quick step forward, flinging herself off of the tree. She plummeted toward the ground, falling freely while Koren stared. At the last second before the girl would’ve hit, two things happened. First, a third Miranda appeared already on the ground. And second, the Miranda who had been falling winked out of existence, disappearing entirely.

The Miranda who was still on the tree explained, “She waited until she was close enough to the ground to summon a duplicate that was already there. Then I absorbed her again before she would’ve hit. Sure glad that worked.” She gestured. “So do you wanna come with me, or–”

“I’m not leaving you alone to chase that crazy bitch,” Koren retorted before pausing. “I mean, not leaving the other you alone–as alone as you ever–fuck it, I’m going.” With that, she hurled one of her hunga munga toward the ground. A thought made the weapon stop in midair right before it would’ve hit, and she easily transported herself down to it before dropping the rest of the way.

“She’s gone,” Miranda–other Miranda announced. She was crouched by a set of wolf tracks, staring off into the woods. “What do you think happened? How’d she lose that choker?”

“I dunno,” Koren replied while tugging her phone from a pocket. “I’m texting Flick.” She hit a few buttons, quickly typing out the message before adding, “I’d call her, but I’m pretty sure if she is part of whatever just happened, she’s probably too busy to be distracted right now.”

“Yeah,” Miranda nodded. “And we don’t have time to wait anyway. The longer we sit around here, the further Pace gets. She doesn’t have her choker now. We have to catch up with her.”

Koren’s head shook then as she stared off into the forest. “How? I don’t know about you, but I can’t run fast enough to keep up with a werewolf. Especially one with a head-start like that.”

“We can’t,” Miranda agreed, already turning. “But I know someone who can.” Putting her fingers to her mouth, she gave a long, sharp whistle that filled the air for a solid three seconds.

“What was-” Koren started before falling silent as the sound of pounding hooves reached her. She turned slowly, staring at the sight of the animal that was approaching. “What the hell is–”

“Koren,” Miranda gestured to the magnificent stag that came trotting up. But it wasn’t just any old deer. This one had enormous, utterly gorgeous wings tucked against his side. “Meet Salten. Salten, this is Koren. He’s supposed to be with Avalon, but she can’t use him right now, so Seller’s been taking care of him. And I’ve been helping. We can’t keep up with Pace, but he can.” To the Peryton, she added, “The werewolf girl, she’s back and she doesn’t have her choker. We don’t know what’s going on, but she went that way and we have to catch up. Okay?”

In response, Salten took a step forward before lowering himself slightly. His head went down, and his nearest wing stretched out and down as though to form a sort-of stepladder for the girls.

Koren’s eyes widened, and she made a noise of surprise. “Wait, wait, you mean you want to–”

Quickly, Miranda clambered up onto the winged stag’s back. “You can wait here if you want to.”

“Are you fucked in the head?” Koren blurted before quickly moving that way. “You’re not going without me.” Glancing at her phone once more and finding no messages, she hurriedly used the Peryton’s wing to climb up onto his back. It was a little awkward, but she wrapped her arms around the girl in front of her while hanging on with her legs. “Okay, so how do we make him–”

Her ‘go’ was cut off in a choked, barely audible noise as Salten leapt forward. With a single sweep of his massive wings to accompany the thrust from his legs, the Peryton was suddenly in the air and a good thirty feet away from where they’d been. He stayed about fifteen feet off the ground then, wings still tight but extended just enough to almost touch the giant (though not as giant as Eden’s Garden itself) trees on either side of them.

And with that, they proceeded to blow through the forest. The winged elk flew like an arrow, darting between trees as if the girls were mounted on one of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Salten was incredibly agile in the air, tucking his wings just enough to pass through spaces that seemed to narrow to make it, dropping low to go under certain branches or flying higher to go over others, even going so far as to twist sideways while pushing one wing up to hold the girls onto his back so that he could fit through an oblong-shaped space between two boulders. And all of this passed while the magnificent creature never bothered slowing down for even a second. Koren and Miranda could barely process what was going on, let alone have any kind of input. It was all up to Salten.

As both girls continued to hang on for dear life, the Peryton abruptly flew up high. His wings flared out to slow down before he alighted on a large branch that was just big enough to hold them. Stopping there, he made a soft huffing noise while gesturing downward with his head.

After glancing to each other, Koren and Miranda slipped off the animal’s back and crept forward a step to peer down. Far below, they could see two figures. One was definitely Pace. She was still setting off the Stranger-sense. Meanwhile, the figure next to her was… less obvious. They wore a dark cloak that seemed to blend into the trees around them, and they were faced away from the girls. The only thing that Koren and Miranda could tell for sure was that the hooded figure was taller than Pace was. Other than that, they could’ve been anyone. Next to them, there was some kind of small, half-hidden hole in the tree that they could see a light coming out of.

As they watched, unable to hear anything, the larger figure smacked Pace hard enough to knock her to the ground. Then the figure kicked her against the nearby tree, almost through the hole that led inside.

The figure shouted then, though the only word that Koren and Miranda could make out was ‘worthless’. Pace said something while gesturing back to the hole, and the figure gave a sharp shake of their head before pointing. A ball of fire erupted from their hand, flying into the tree. A moment later, it was all in flames.

Pace said something else. Again, it was inaudible, but seemed sullen as she straightened up and stared at the fire. But the hooded figure didn’t seem to care what she was trying to say, grabbing hold of her shoulder before creating a portal with a wave of another hand. A second later, both of them were gone.

“The fire–” Miranda started, but Koren was already grabbing onto her. Rather than take the time to climb onto Salten, she’d take them down the quick way. Throwing one of her hunga munga, she teleported both of them to the ground right in front of the burning tree. Flames were pouring out of the opening, but the two of them could still see the shape of what looked like furniture inside.

Looking toward the other girl, Koren called over the roar of the fire, “I’m flame-proof, are you?!”

Miranda’s head shook. “Go!” she called, “get whatever you can!”

Nodding, Koren whispered a silent thanks to the fact that her last hunt had resulted in the fire-immunity before throwing herself through the opening. The smoke was still blinding, and she was choking the instant she made it inside what turned out to be a small cave-like room inside the giant tree. There was a cot there that was already engulfed with flames, along with a table with a couple of pictures on it, a padded chair that looked like it had been salvaged from a dump or something, paperback books lined up on a shelf in the corner, and a chest on the floor.

Thinking quickly, already dizzy from the smoke inhalation, Koren grabbed the chest before backpedaling out of the opening. There was too much smoke to deal with, even if she couldn’t be burned.

Stumbling on the way out, she dropped the chest and fell to her knees, coughing and hacking. Too close. She hadn’t gotten far enough out. The smoke was still surrounding her, making it impossible to see where she was going. Too dark, too hard…

A hand caught her arm, yanking Koren completely clear even as the flames continued to spread.

It wasn’t Miranda. Seller was there, holding Koren up. A wave of his hand conjured a bubble of cold water that he used to splash into her face before making another one, which popped inside her mouth to pour what tasted like the purest, coldest water she had ever tasted.

“Idiot,” the man announced once she had caught her breath. “Smoke is just as bad as the fire, if not worse.”

“Wo-worth it,” Koren choked out, coughing a few more times. “I hope. That–that must’ve been Pace’s hideout or something. What… what was in that thing?” She looked over to Miranda, who was already crouched by the now-open chest.

“Books,” the other girl answered, peering inside the thing. “Money… passports… maps, I think Pace was thinking of leaving or something. Wait, there’s also this.” Leaning in, she pulled out a battered video camera, holding it up.

“I wonder what’s on this thing…”

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Suspects 24-07

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Note: Please make sure to read my first comment after this chapter for an important announcement regarding donations for the past month and rewards. 

As the two crazed werewolves came for us, Roxa and I did the best thing we could in the moment: we went straight to meet them. With barely a glance exchanged between us, we both moved. Roxa took three steps forward before dropping a bit, bending so that my subsequent hop let me put a foot on her back to push off of into a leap. Spinning in the air, I came down between the two, behind Lemuel and facing his back but ahead of Pace with my back to her.

Bending backwards slightly, I brought my staff up in both hands, held horizontally behind my head at the last second before one of the knives that Pace had produced smacked off of it with a loud clang, narrowly stopping her from cutting straight into my neck. At the same time, I lashed out to kick Lemuel in the back in order to shove him off-balance and toward Roxa.

Unfortunately, the kick missed as the big wolf smoothly pivoted to avoid it. Roxa, who had produced a silver knife of her own, just missed cutting into the big black man’s arm. Just as quickly, he caught her wrist and I heard a snapping sound from the bone there as she yelped.

I couldn’t focus on that though. Roxa’s werewolf and Peridle healing would take care of it. Spinning toward Pace, I snapped the staff around my back and to the front to just in time to catch the knife in her left hand against the bladed end of my own weapon. Her foot lashed out at me, but I snapped my own leg up to catch it, both of our shins rebounding off each other.

Pace dropped into a low, spinning leg-sweep at the same time that I leapt and spun in a kick of my own. My leg passed over her head, while hers passed directly beneath me. At the same time, I caught the end of my staff and gave a hard swing back and down with my arm at full extension in order to reach. The blow caught Lemuel against the shoulder. It barely did any damage to the big guy, though it did slow him for half a step, giving Roxa a chance to launch herself up and forward. Her right foot hit the man in the stomach, her left foot hit his chest, and then she did a backwards flip that smacked her left foot against his chin before landing on Gidget’s back as the cyberform cougar leapt into her hoverboard form right below Roxa.

Meanwhile, as I came back down, I used the recoil from my staff bouncing off of Lemuel’s shoulder to spin the weapon back around and down into a vertical blow at the spot where Pace had dropped in her attempt to sweep my legs. It was too late, the girl was already gone. Her enhanced speed brought her back to her feet and out of the way of the staff, lashing out with a swipe from the knife in her right hand that my werewolf-enhanced reflexes barely let me jerk away from in time to avoid the worst of the damage. The blade still cut across my cheek, stinging a bit. But at least it wasn’t my throat.

Not that I had time to be glad about that fact, since Pace followed up her first swipe with half a dozen more, all of them coming so fast that I didn’t have time to block or dodge them all. I took three more cuts across my arms and shoulder while frantically spinning my staff up to take the worst of the damage. Distantly, I felt the pain, but it barely mattered. There was nothing debilitating about the damage she’d done, nothing to make me stop fighting. Not yet, anyway.

To give myself a little room, I snapped the staff up and triggered a blast of kinetic force that knocked Pace up and back about ten feet. Using the same momentum from the blast, I spun around, pivoting on one foot while swinging at Lemuel’s head with the bladed end of the staff.

His hand snapped backward, catching the staff just under the blade before yanking me off my feet. As he hauled me up, I hit the button that sent sand shooting out of the staff, directing it in a cloud to his eyes and mouth before triggering the last of the charge in my weapon. The force shot out the bottom of the staff, propelling it (with me attached) up and out of the man’s grip, flying into the air. He gave a violent snarl, lashing out at me on the way, but with the sand blinding him, he missed.

Flipping over in the air, I aimed the staff down, giving a sharp whistle toward Roxa, who was still on her board. With her attention, I shot the grapple out of my staff, launching it at Lemuel.

The big, dark-skinned half-wolf easily jerked aside, avoiding the grapple. But that was okay, I’d been expecting him to. And so had Roxa. Even as the grapple had shot downward, she already had Gidget flying forward. At the last second, she leapt off the hoverboard, catching the line from my grapple to spin herself around it, planting both feet into Lemuel’s side with all that force.

The big guy went down on his side, the blow knocking him over.

Unfortunately,  we couldn’t follow up the moment of vulnerability, because Pace had recovered by that point. She was a sudden blur, appearing out of nowhere to kick Roxa in the side, a blow that knocked the blonde girl onto her back. As Roxa hit the ground hard, Pace brought both hands up. A literal ball of flame appeared between them, which she launched at the briefly prone girl while cackling wildly.

Luckily, I had already been reacting. As I fell toward the ground, my finger found the button to make the energy-cord of the grapple retract. I was yanked forward and down, arriving just as Pace let loose with that fireball. Seeing the orb of fire coming as I landed between both other girls, I focused on the energy-absorption power that I had gained from killing Doxer. The spinning ball of heat and flame crashed into me… and disappeared. I felt warm, but not burned. And there was that familiar tingle as my body was charged up with the energy, mostly heat but also a little kinetic, that I had absorbed. For the moment, however, I held it in. Just like during training, it felt a bit like needing to use the restroom. From experience, I knew that feeling would rapidly worsen. I could only hold the energy that I had absorbed for a very brief time.

“Naughty Present!” Pace snapped out with a crazed giggle. “Using Doxer’s power, how rude.”

The good news then was that Roxa was back up. The bad news was that so was Lemuel. The big werewolf lunged at me with a roar, even as Pace’s arm lashed out, covered in that bone armor of hers. A short, sharp, eight-inch shard of the bone was already shooting toward me.

When I had faced Pace back in Wonderland, the bone-dart had been too fast for me to even see coming. But that wasn’t true anymore, not with the super-reflexes that I had absorbed from the wolves in that very same encounter. As the sharpened bone flew at my stomach, I snapped my staff up and around with my left hand to slap it out of the way. At the same time, my right hand pointed, releasing the fire that I had absorbed in a spray of flame that took the incoming Lemuel in the face. His reflexes saved him from charging straight into it, letting him recoil while barely getting singed. But it did at least stall his attack, forcing the evil pack leader onto the defensive.

It also meant that he didn’t see Gidget bounding forward until the mechanical cougar had already latched onto his arm. She yanked him down with a snarl (from both her and the wolf-man himself), just before Roxa jumped on his back. The blonde girl drove that silver knife of hers at his throat, but Lemuel snapped his head back, driving it into Roxa’s face hard enough to knock her off of him before her knife could do more than lightly scrape his shoulder.

Pace had already followed up her first thrown bone-dart by launching several more before rearing back to spit a glob of metal-eating acid right at me. Quickly, I snapped my staff around, slapping the incoming bone-darts out of the way while simultaneously releasing another burst of sand. This one was much larger than the other bit I had summoned before, as I sent most of what I had out into a large ball that collided with the acid. The caustic liquid ate through the sand almost immediately, but it was still able to block it enough that I could side-step the last of the stuff.

It did not, however, save me from Lemuel. The big werewolf had freed himself from Roxa, lunging forward to catch hold of my shoulders. Before I knew what was happening, he hauled me off my feet and slammed me into the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of me. His foot came down toward my face, and I barely had the presence of mind to jerk my head out of the way an instant before that foot slammed into the dirt, putting a foot-deep hole in the ground where I had been a half-second earlier.

Before he could lift the foot to try again, I snapped my fingers twice before opening my hand to catch the silver knife as it popped out of the watch on my wrist. Driving the blade down into the man’s foot, I couldn’t help the snarl of satisfaction at the sound of his cry of both pain and fury.

As he was reacting to that, Gidget dropped out of the sky, shifting from hoverboard to cougar just in time to land hard enough on the wolf-man’s shoulders and back to knock him into a hunched position. The cyberform leapt off him immediately, colliding with the incoming Pace while snarling. The two rolled away, tumbling end over end.

With a grimace, I lashed out at the man’s face as he was doubled over. He jerked backward, easily avoiding the blow… and put himself in the perfect position for Roxa as the other girl leapt to put her fist right in his face with enough force to snap his head to the side.

Doing a quick kip-up to bring myself back to my feet, I spun, the bladed-end of my staff lashing out at the other side of the man’s face.

Again, he caught it, snarling angrily. Before he could do anything though, Roxa was there. She drove a quick kick into his side, drawing a grunt from the man even as I triggered enough of a burst from my staff to yank it from his grasp. Using that momentum, I spun around, driving the shaft of the weapon against his stomach. It was like hitting a brick wall with my own normal human strength. The guy was tough.

And he was fast too. His fist collided with the side of my head, knocking me stumbling as white-pain flashed through me briefly. At the same time, the man back-handed Roxa across the face. As she stumbled a step, his foot kicked up. I saw the silver blade that I had driven into his foot fly up before he caught it, driving the blade backward into the girl’s chest. Making a noise of triumph, he stabbed twice more into the same spot, into her heart before kicking her away from him.

He faced me then, tossing the bloody knife away before snarling, his voice amused. “One down,” he drawled slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to play with his food, “two to–”

A blade appeared… in the man’s throat, driven through it from the back. As blood spurted forth freely, he made a strangled noise of disbelief, choking and gurgling while half turning, already stumbling a little.

Roxa stood there, still bleeding, but standing despite being stabbed in the heart with a silver blade. Her own knife was one in the big man’s throat, where she had leapt to shove it. Meanwhile, her other hand held the one that had stabbed her before he threw it away.

“Redundant organs,” she snarled at the bewildered and drastically injured man. “Extra heart. Jekern power, bitch.”

Her own dagger had nearly killed the man. And with mine, she finished the job, driving the blade up through his throat and into his brain as he choked on his own blood.

Pace, who had extricated herself from Gidget long enough to give the cyberform a kick that sent it tumbling away, spun back around in time to see her pack leader collapse to the ground. As he dropped, Roxa’s glowing bronze aura appeared, and the injured girl dropped as well, giving a moan of pleasure.

The big wolf was down. But we still had the other one to deal with. And from the look of things, Roxa wasn’t going to be able to help.

So I’d do it myself. Taking advantage of Pace’s extremely brief stunned silence, I released the charge in my staff while letting go of the weapon itself. It flew forward, slamming into the crazed (probably possessed) girl’s stomach, the force of the blow doubling her over for a second. Even as the staff started to fall away from her then, I was there, catching the other end of it. Spinning while shifting my grip on the weapon, I did a full three-sixty to put myself behind her. In the same motion, my staff hooked against the girl’s throat, hauling her up and backward while I continued my pivot. She landed hard on her back against the ground even as my staff ended up pointed down at her. An instant later, before she could recover, the silver-coated grapple shot from the end of it, tearing through the wolf-girl’s leg to pin her to the ground as she gave a howl of pain.

I was on her then, diving on top of the girl even as she gave another scream, this one mostly in rage. We fumbled a bit, she produced a wave of fire that I absorbed before she covered herself in bone-armor and launched a dozen darts. About half of them hit me, three in the arms (two in the left and one in the right), one in the leg, and two in the right side of my chest, narrowly missing anything important. Still, it hurt like a bitch. But I kept at it. My hand snapped up and closed around the choker that was on the girl’s neck before I triggered my staff. It had only charged a little bit, but it was enough to launch me up and backward away from her, while the clasp holding the choker in place snapped.

It was a close thing, but I kept hold of my prize. The choker. The thing we needed. Coming down from being launched by my staff, I hit the ground in a roll, ending on my stomach briefly, clutching the precious item against my chest.

For a second, I lay there, breathing out before rolling over. I came to my feet, choker in hand and smile on my face. “Sorry,” I announced to Pace, who was still pinned by the grapple through her leg (the energy-line attached to it had extended as I was launched away from her). “Finders-keepers?” I held the choker while stepping that way, dangling it practically in her face.

Her snarl turned to a smile. “Well,” she half-purred while staring at me intently, “you know what they say. If I can’t have it…” Abruptly, the girl spat a glob of that incredibly potent acid. My hand jerked away, but it was too late. The acid caught the choker, and I had to let it go. Stumbling back as my eyes widened, I stared at the acid-coated choker on the ground as a cry of disbelief and denial burst from my lips. The green liquid had already melted through half of it by the time it landed. A moment later, and most of it was gone. The choker had been destroyed.

Pace took advantage of my horrified distraction, reaching down to yank the grapple out of her leg before heaving herself up. She landed on her good foot, cackling like someone had just told her the most hilarious joke in the world. “I guess, I guess–” she managed between fits of laughter, “you don’t get your prize after all, huh? Uhhh oh, too bad, so sad for the little blonde wolfy-cub. Too bad for everything, all your little things. So sad. Maybe you’ll feel bad for killing my friend, huh? Maybe feel bad for Doxer.” She cackled madly once more, though I saw a brief glimpse of genuine anger and… maybe even sadness there when she mentioned her old teammate.  

Running footsteps approached, and our eyes snapped that way. Roxa had recovered from both her injury (at least enough to move, even if her regeneration wouldn’t work that well against the silver), and from the brief moment of pleasure from killing Lemuel. And she had been joined by the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were all on their way as well, the five converging.

“Oooh,” Pace all-but purred. “Friends. They can make you feel better for failing, Present. We’ll finish later.” She was still favoring her leg, the silver in the grapple stopping the werewolf regeneration from healing her so easily. Still, her amusement was obvious as she waved at me, and I saw the piece of bark from the Eden’s Garden tree in her hand. “Toodles!”

An instant later, just as the others arrived, she slammed the wood down and disappeared.

I stood there, staring at the spot where she had been before my gaze dropped to the ground where the mangled, melted remains of the choker lay. There was almost nothing left of the thing.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was hesitant. “The fight’s mostly over. They’re retreating and scattering.”

Quietly, my voice cracking just a little, I asked, “What about the kids they took?”

Tristan spoke up then. “One of the wolves spilled. They’re being held at a cabin about a quarter mile away. They’ve already got people on the way. So um…” He paused before asking, “Are you okay?”

For a moment, I didn’t answer. I just stared at the ruined choker. Then I looked up, seeing the others gathered around to stare at me. My flat, stunned expression slowly melted away as I reached into the pocket of my uniform jacket… and I smiled while producing the choker. The real choker, which I had switched with the fake one while I’d laid on the ground. The fake one that Namythiet had built at my request and secretly snuck into my jacket earlier when she dove in there back before the fight had begun, while we had been chatting at the top of the ridge.

If I was right about Pace being possessed, the other Seosten were connected to her. Even if she hadn’t escaped, they’d know the instant that we had the choker, and they never would’ve let us get away with it. They would’ve brought hell itself down on us to get the damn thing back. But now, well, I’d given the girl as big of an opening to let her destroy the fake as I could without being too obvious, and she had taken the bait. Then I’d let her escape, because it was more important that they think they’d won than it was for us to catch Pace, or Lies, or whoever she was, right then. That could wait. The important part was, now they thought the choker that could identify them was destroyed. They thought it was gone forever. They thought they were safe. Good. Let them believe that they’d won the battle.

Because with the choker, we had the means to win the war.

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