Lillian Patters

Learning Days Daze 2-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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 Yeah, on top of everything else, I was spending a lot of my evenings secretly being trained by one of the most dangerous beings in the universe. Or at least, by a sort of virtual reality copy of her. Which was pretty close. 

Tabbris knew about it, naturally. As for the others, Avalon and Shiori knew, as did my father, Dare, and Sariel herself. We were keeping it as secret as possible beyond that to avoid Fossor somehow getting wind of it, as he tended to do. Not that I didn’t trust the rest of my friends and family, of course. It was just… better to keep certain cards close to the vest until the time came to play them. The fewer people who knew about me having a copy of Chayyiel in my head, the less chance of Fossor finding out.

She was here to train me, to help me prepare for the future. That included whatever was going to happen when my birthday came around, and beyond. I’d even asked her opinion about the whole Fossor’s sister thing, and she gave me some tips. 

We split our time between her teaching me magic and teaching me to fight better. My lack of needing real sleep meant I could go through a lot more of these extended, intense virtual training sessions than others who needed more time fully shut down. 

It wasn’t exactly the same as a full physical training session, but pretty damn close. And coming from someone as skilled as she was, it was worth everything. Months of training under her several times a week was probably the equivalent of years or even decades training under other people. The extra help she was giving me this way was worth more than I could ever really repay, even if I lived a thousand years. It was completely invaluable. 

That was what I kept telling myself no matter how often she beat me up. And I got beat up a lot. The fact that this was taking place in my head apparently meant I could take all the damage in the world and then just be fine. I’d been ‘killed’ more times than I could count in these training sessions. But it was never gratuitous or anything. Chayyiel was teaching me. Or Shyel. That was what I referred to the one in my head as to separate her from the real one. Shy because she was hiding in my brain. Shy Chayyiel. Shyel. It worked. 

Shyel showed me what she was doing over and over again, getting it into my head as well as into my body until it was reflex. Then she did something else that totally destroyed me, and taught me how to handle that. Move after move, bruise after bruise, death after death, she had spent these past couple of months driving me as hard as she safely could given everything else going on. It wasn’t every night, but it was enough. At least, I hoped it would be. I hoped all of this would be enough to deal with Fossor. To say nothing of everything else that was bound to come up. After all, I had at least two members of the Crossroads Committee who were definitely royally pissed off at me. I needed all the help I could get. 

Groaning a bit as I lay half in a pile of leaves while rubbing my arm, I blinked up at the simulacrum. “You’d think that if we’re in my brain, we could make getting hit not hurt so much.”

Offering me both a smile (making her look even more like an innocent child than she already did) and her hand, Shyel replied, “It would do more harm than good to teach you how to handle something without any pain involved. It’s better for you to learn how it’s going to feel and go on through it anyway.” 

Her expression softened considerably then, as the girl helped me back to my feet. “But I’m sorry if I’m hurting you. I just know we’re running out of time and there’s so much more I want to teach you.”

“Hey, I am the one who’s supposed to be getting nervous and antsy about this whole thing,” I reminded her. “We’ve still got time. And I think I’m getting better, even if you keep taking me apart like I’m a toddler.” I didn’t have any problem admitting that, considering the real Chayyiel took basically everyone apart like they were toddlers. There was nothing to be embarrassed by. 

Hesitantly, I admitted, “I’m still not sure why you did all this, exactly. I mean why the original you went through all this trouble to help me train. I doubt you do this with everyone who gets into trouble.”

“That would be an awful lot of people to stick mental constructs of myself into,” she agreed, “even if I did only pick up the skill from Sariel recently. The truth is, I’m pretty sure you’re going to end up being important down the line, so I have a vested interest in keeping you safe and strong. And out of the hands of certain people.”

“Certain necromancers, for example,” I murmured before looking back to her. “Yeah, I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty awesome. It’s amazing, the fact that you’re doing all this. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if that gift horse keeps beating the crap out of me. But if you say I’m supposed to do something important in the future… well, somehow I’m even more nervous.” 

“I think you might do something important,” Shyel corrected. “It’s a big distinction. I haven’t used some kind of future sight prophecy spell to prove it or anything. That stuff is impossible to really rely on anyway. It makes things more complicated. I’m going off what I know about your situation, and about you yourself. It’s an educated guess. The point is, there’s no such thing as ‘grand destiny.’ You take your own actions. And I think you could take some very important ones, if you get a chance to. You’re important because of the kind of person you are, not any mythical future. I want to make sure enough people like you make it into that future in good enough shape to actually do something with it.” 

Somehow, I managed to blush inside my own head and couldn’t stop it. Which totally wasn’t fair. Coughing, I glanced away before asking, “Do you think any of this is going to be enough when the time comes and Fossor decides he wants to take me?” 

“I think every little bit helps,” she informed me. “In the end, the more options you have for dealing with it, the better off you’ll be. That’s why I’m teaching you magic as well. And speaking of which…” 

“Time for spell lessons?” I managed a slight smile at that. “Good, give my bruises a chance to fade. By which I mean the ones on my skin and the ones on my ego.” 

With a (probably unneeded) wave of her hand, Shyel turned the forest we were standing in into a classroom. There was a single desk, and I sat down while she moved up to where a row of bookshelves were waiting. “Tonight,” she started, “we’re going to learn a bit more about transmutation spells. Specifically, the ones to protect or enhance yourself.” 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “I guess I can see how those might be useful at some point.” Sitting up a bit in the desk, I added, “Sounds good, Teach. Hit me. 

“And by that, I mean with knowledge. Like I said, still bruised over here.” 

*******

The next couple days basically went like that. We had classes in the morning, split between normal academic stuff and more exotic learning, then training in the afternoon. I had another nightly training session with my brain tutor, where I got beat up a lot while gradually learning what I was doing wrong. 

Then it was Friday. My first class that morning, which I had with Aylen, Sarah and Sands, Columbus, Miranda, and Jason, was xenozoology. We would be learning about various Alter animals, like Choo’s Jekern or Salten’s Peryton. Or, hell, like the Amarok that had given me my ‘hardly ever get tired’ power so long ago. We were apparently going to get into what kind of powers and advantages they had, as well as the best ways of either taming or at least avoiding a fight with one. And, of course, how to fight or kill them if we had to. Because there would be times when that was unavoidable. Even animal-intelligence level Alters could be a real threat. Like, again, the Amarok. 

But there were potential alternatives to always killing them. Alternatives which we would be learning here, in this small forested area built into one of the side rooms of the station. The place was basically like a park, with heavy doors along the far wall, opposite where we came in. Apparently there was a whole animal care facility beyond those doors, and our teacher would be bringing the creatures in to meet us whenever needed. Eventually, we’d even have a chance to go back there ourselves. But the teacher wanted to start us off a bit more slowly than that. Apparently he had doubts about a bunch of Bosch Heretics coping well surrounded by Alter animals, for some reason. 

To be fair, he was actually a Bosch Heretic himself. Specifically, the man had been part of Eden’s Garden, apparently since its inception. His name was Scratch. Or at least, that was the only name he went by, and he’d been going by it for so long that no one Miranda talked to had ever known or been willing to say what his original name had been. Not even Seller. 

Scratch was a fairly short, thin man, barely an inch taller than me. His long, dark gray hair was tied into a ponytail, and his heavily tanned face was marked by a single curved scar, shaped kind of like a crescent moon, up under his right eye and extending onto his cheek. I didn’t know what the scar had been caused by or why it wasn’t healed, but it had to have been something pretty bad. 

“Scratch was always good with the animals,” Miranda informed me in a hushed whisper while the man himself went to one of the large doors to retrieve the first creature he wanted us to see. “He was the Dust Striders’ creature keeper, but the other tribes got help from him sometimes too. He wouldn’t let anyone abuse his, ahhh, charges, even before the whole rebellion thing.” 

By that time, the man was on his way back. A large metal cage floated along behind him. Though ‘cage’ was probably a bit of a misnomer. I knew that, like the bag Shiori had kept Choo in through a lot of last year, there was actually a lot more room than it looked like in that box for whatever was in there. It would have its own private habitat built specifically for it. Or them, considering there could be any number of animals within. The box was just what it looked like from the outside. The entrance to the habitat, or whatever. 

In any case, the box was about nine feet long, four feet wide, and six feet high. It settled to the ground directly beside Scratch, while the thirty or so other students and I watched carefully and curiously. 

When the man finally spoke, his voice was quiet and subdued. It wasn’t hard to hear, exactly, it was just… sort of restrained. It was just loud enough to understand him and no louder. “Good morning,” he greeted us, dark green eyes scanning the group. He met my gaze for a brief moment before his eyes moved on. “I assume all of you have fought and killed what you would consider a monster of some kind before? It’s okay, we’ve all done it, to protect ourselves, to protect others, or because those of higher authority told us it was the right thing to do.” 

Gradually, everyone nodded in agreement or half-raised their hands, and Scratch continued in that same soft voice. “This class is going to teach you how to handle such creatures properly. And properly means different things depending on the situation. In some cases, handling a creature will mean killing it. There’s no two ways around it, there will be times when killing is the best and perhaps only solution to a situation. But there will be other times when you may be able to control and contain the creature, taking it away from where it was doing harm and either keeping it for safe study and care by experts, or releasing it in its proper habitat.”

Again, his eyes moved over us. “Many of you who grew up with Crossroads teachings have believed that all such creatures must always be killed immediately, lest they destroy all civilization. Others, who grew up under the Eden’s Garden ways, were taught that they can be controlled, used as beasts of burden, as slaves. And, of course, there are those of you who grew up under neither system and have been taught all manner of things. Some good, some bad. But here’s the truth: killing every animal, even the ones who seem threatening and dangerous, is wrong. Now, letting them hunt and massacre civilians, that’s wrong too. The point is to learn to recognize when a situation calls for violence, and when it calls for restraint.

“A lot of you have spent your entire lives learning to fear and hate the creatures out there. So, before I teach you anything else, before we say a single word about how to fight the kind of animals you see out there, I’m going to teach you something far more important than how dangerous they can be. I’m going to show you how wondrous they are.” 

With that pronouncement, the man took a laser pointer (or what looked like one) from his pocket. He pointed it at the ground a few yards in front of the box, and the laser from it created a blue line. Gradually, he drew a semi-circle around that area from one side of the box to the other. When he clicked another button on the thing in his hand, a mostly transparent, humming  forcefield popped into existence from the line he had drawn. It stretched up and over the box like a bubble, enclosing the space directly in front of the cage. 

Scratch spoke again, once the shield was in place. “Alter animals, those not of this world, can be incredibly dangerous. Never forget that. But they can also be beautiful, wonderful creatures, worthy of our respect, and our care. There is a balance to be found between fearing or hating them, and allowing them to slaughter innocents. This class is meant to teach you how to find that balance, how to kill when you need to, and how to control them when possible. My partner and I will teach you how to recognize aggressive behavior, how to stop it, how to make these animals listen to you.” 

I was just wondering what he meant by partner, when my item-sense picked up someone coming in from behind us. Turning a bit, I saw Rebecca’s grandmother, Lillian. Mom’s old best friend and roommate. The small woman approached, giving me a brief wink as she spoke up. “That’s absolutely right. I know Crossroads, for one, never stops to show their students how truly amazing some of these creatures can be. Only how dangerous they are, and how to kill them.” 

Stepping past us, Lillian offered the group a broad smile, laying her hand on the side of the metal box. “And speaking of truly amazing creatures, how many of you have ever heard of a Taynfiel? More commonly known as a lion-bee.” 

A few hands went up, mostly among the Alters and Natural Heretics in the group. A single Eden’s Garden student put his hand up too, though he looked a little uncertain. 

“Lion-bee?” I whispered to Jason, who had his hand raised. “Why do they call it a–” 

That was as far as I got before the door of the box slid aside, and the creature within came bounding out. It was… well, yeah, I could see why it was called a lion-bee. The thing was about the size of a large dog. It had dark tan fur, with a couple black stripes. Its head was very lion-like, complete with a full-on furry mane. It had a set of large insect-like wings, and instead of a floppy lion’s tail, it had a prehensile one with a long, sharp blade at the end. Like a stinger. 

It was a lion-bee, there could be no other conceivable name for it. 

And then it made a sound. It was like a cross between a heavy purr and a deep buzz. Its wings contributed, suddenly beating very rapidly but barely moving, going up and down only a couple inches each way. The thing looked back and forth between us, giving off that wing-assisted purr-buzz. 

“This,” Lillian informed us, “is Tatters. He’s a lion-bee, a Taynfiel, who was raised in captivity from birth. The only thing he likes more than fishing with his tailblade is cuddles. The forcefield was just to make you all feel safe. But we’re going to take it down in a minute. Everyone stay fairly still. Don’t overwhelm him, and don’t make any threatening moves. Tatters is tame and friendly, but he’s still an animal and he will defend himself if need be. Stand still, let him come to you. You can pet him if you like. If you’d prefer he not come to you, go ahead and take a few steps back. No one will blame you, I promise. If you’re not comfortable yet, go ahead and step out of the group.” 

A few people did so, not trusting either themselves or the animal. The rest of us stood still, while the forcefield lowered. The fuzzy lion-bee sniffed the ground where the shield had been, then took a quick wing-assisted jump over to where Lillian was. He enthusiastically sniffed her stomach and offered hand, licking her palm once before turning his attention to us. 

I was the first one he came to. Part of me wondered if that had to do with my own werelion form. I’d used it that morning to go running around the neighborhood, could he smell it? I wasn’t sure how that worked. 

Either way, he came right up and sniffed me. Slowly, I went down to one knee and let him sniff my face. His tongue, as he licked over my cheek, was a bit rough. Still, I giggled a little. Which he liked, apparently, going by the way his wings beat a little faster, making his purr louder. 

“Hey, buddy,” I murmured with a smile, rubbing my hands up through his luxurious, fluffy mane. “Who’s a good boy, huh? You’re a good boy. Good little bee-kitty.” 

A few others had a couple minutes with him, before Lillian and Scratch announced that we should step back, because Tatters wanted to stretch his wings. We did so, and the lion-bee zoomed straight up off the ground. He flew to the ceiling, flipped over to land there, and stared at us from an upside down position for a few long seconds before zooming off again. He did a few barrel rolls and loopty-loops, very clearly showing off for a (mostly) appreciative audience. 

Aylen stood beside me, her voice a soft murmur. “My family’s back,” she informed me while we all watched Tatters. “So, I guess, if you’re up for it… they’d like you and Avalon and a few others to come over for dinner tonight. But first, meet me out in the park by our houses after lunch.

“There’s a few things I really need to explain.”  

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Denouement 12 – Life And Death (Heretical Edge)

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“You… you saw her?” Flick’s tentative, quiet voice quivered just a little as she stared at Sariel while Tabbris stood a bit out of the way. The three of them were otherwise alone in one of the Atherby cabins at this point, almost immediately after the escape from the Crossroads prison. The girl had been immediately pulled aside by Mercury and taken to where Sariel waited while everyone else was still sorting themselves out. 

With a single nod, the Seosten woman carefully replied, “Yes. She’s okay, Felicity. Or she was when I… when we left.” Her face fell a bit as she added, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t bring her out. There was no way to do it, not with the spell Fossor had on her. If I possessed her, or took her away from there, it… there wouldn’t have been time to save her. There just wasn’t time, and I didn’t want to play that kind of game with her life. I didn’t want to take that risk.” 

Flick was quiet for a few long seconds, mind lost in considering everything that could have been. So close and yet so far from being reunited with her mother. “And if you did bring her, we don’t know how much it would have helped,” she murmured quietly, clearly trying to convince herself. “She’s still under his control, still sworn to follow his commands. He probably has her under orders to come back to him the instant she’s taken away. There’s not–we don’t know what would’ve happened.” Despite her words, it was clear that Flick desperately wished that a miracle had happened. 

In the end, it was Tabbris who came forward and put a hand gently on her sister’s arm. “Flick?” she began slowly. “A… a lot of good things happened today too. We pulled off a lot of really hard things.” 

With a small smile, Flick took the girl’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re right. A lot of really hard things happened today. A… a lot of really hard things happened this whole year. Impossible things. Starting the rebellion up again, escaping Crossroads, meeting Guinevere, getting the Seosten to back off for a year, everything that…” She swallowed. “Everything that happened with us being out in space. Finding out about you…” Her free hand fondly brushed Tabbris’s hair back. “I can’t believe it hasn’t even been a year since that day on the bus. I haven’t known about all this stuff for even a year yet. I’ve said it before, but it… it feels like a lot longer. A hell of a lot longer.” 

Gazing off into the distance for a few seconds, Flick finally shook that off before focusing on Sariel. “If you think I’m going to blame you for not getting my mother out of there, you’re wrong. You did the best you could. You… you got her friends, her old teammates out. That should’ve been impossible. I know what Fossor does, how he… how he likes to be in control. I don’t know exactly what you did, but I know that if you got both of those hostages away from him, it must’ve been one of the most amazing things in a world full of amazing things. I know you must have risked a lot to save them. You could have left. You could have recalled out of there. You had to fight my mom with Fossor right there, and you stayed? You stayed and you got my mom’s friends out. You saved them. If your guilt complex thinks I’m going to be mad at you because didn’t manage to throw the game-winning touchdown through a neighboring basketball hoop to pull out that game at the same time, you’re crazy. Yeah, I wish my mom was here. I really wish we could’ve added her to the list of rescued parents this year like that. But I’m not mad because it didn’t happen. This whole thing isn’t over yet. Nowhere near it. You didn’t fail to bring her back, you succeeded at stopping him from using my mother’s friends to torture her even more. You took them away from him.” 

Through the resulting long silence as Flick finished talking, she and Sariel stared at one another. Finally, Tabbris leaned that way and stage-whispered. “See, Mama? I told you Flick’s great.” 

The words made both of the others laugh a bit despite themselves, before the girl in question cleared her throat a bit awkwardly. “Um, you said you brought Roger and Seamus out of there?” 

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “But they are… well, they’re still being tended to. We’re having them checked thoroughly for any traps or tricks. You can see them as soon as we’re absolutely certain nothing… bad will happen. I don’t believe Fossor intended them to be rescued, but we’ve already found several trap spells on the two that he clearly left just in case. We’re making sure those were the only ones before letting them anywhere near you or any of Joselyn’s family.” 

“That makes sense,” Flick muttered darkly. “I’m pretty sure Fossor doesn’t like his toys being taken away. Of course he’d have contingency measures for even ones like them. And… and my mother… he’s had her a lot longer.” Her voice shook, eyes widening with thoughts of what kind of measures the necromancer might have taken to ensure her mother would be with him forever as she clutched a hand against her suddenly queasy stomach. 

Sariel stepped that way to embrace Felicity. “I will promise you every day until it happens, we will get your mother away from that monster. Whatever we have to do, he is not going to keep her.” 

Flick, a bit surprised by the hug but going with it, swallowed hard. “I… I know. It just feels like we’ve had to ignore him for so long this year. We’ve ignored him and look what he’s done. He killed one of the Committee members and blamed Gaia for it. He stole the Hangman rope for… for whatever horrible thing he’s planning to use that for. When I met him, I had one year before he came for me. Now I have a few months. That’s it. A few months, then whatever plan he’s got for me, whatever he’s been working on this whole time, it’ll be time for it.” 

“Whatever it is,” Sariel firmly assured her. “I can’t promise we’ll be ready for it. But I can promise that we will do everything possible to make sure you’re not alone.” She released the girl, stepping back to look at her. “As long as you don’t go off on your own. You understand? I know you want to save your mother. And he will probably promise any number of things. He might tell you that if you come to him, he’ll take you instead and release her. He might even magically swear to it. Do not listen to him, Felicity. I don’t care what he promises, what he threatens. If you go to him, he will win. Your mother–” 

“Mom would kill herself before she let me trade myself for her,” Flick murmured, glancing away. It was clear the thought had occurred to her before. Particularly with the way she and Tabbris exchanged very brief glances before the older girl’s gaze found the floor. “Or she’d just kill herself trying to get me away from him. I wouldn’t be saving her, I’d be condemning her to die one way or another. Either from doing something stupid to get me out of there, or just… or just being killed by him when he didn’t need her anymore. Or because he sacrifices her for whatever plan he has. I know. I know all that. I get it. I’ve thought about it for months now, all the time.” 

“You thought about offering to trade yourself for her already,” Sariel gently noted, watching her. 

A slow nod came. “I thought about it. I even worked out how it might go, how I could maybe make sure he had to follow through.” Then she shrugged, her voice hollow. “It wouldn’t work. It would be dumb, and… I’d be betraying everyone here. My friends, my dad, the rest of my family… you guys. I’d be hurting everyone just to feel for a second like I was being proactive. It would make me feel less useless for a second or two, that’s it.” 

Smiling very faintly, Sariel noted, “The fact that you recognize that puts you quite a bit ahead of many others I could mention.” Her voice softened a little more, as she added, “You are like your mother in many ways, Felicity Chambers. Almost supernaturally surprising at times.” 

Finally glancing up, Flick met her gaze, voice hard. “Whatever happens when my birthday comes, let’s just hope that necromantic bastard gets to be surprised too. I really want him to realize he’s made a huge fucking mistake about two seconds before his head comes off and we get to play soccer with it.” 

Raising a hand, Tabbris offered, “Maybe Chayyiel could possess you again. I’m pretty sure Litonya was really freaking surprised by that.” 

The words made Sariel begin to chuckle. “Yes, I’m sure that would–” She stopped then, blinking at her daughter, then to Flick, then back again while her mouth opened and shut. “Wait…

“Chayyiel did what?!” 

*******

From the dark cabin where several of the strongest mages the combined Atherby, rebel Seosten, and former Crossroads groups could field had gone over him with a fine-toothed comb to ensure there were no spells or other magical tricks, Sean Gerardo emerged. He stepped out, feet making the porch creak heavily as he moved down onto the grass. Down into the sunlight. 

He stood there, eyes closed for a moment while he slowly tilted his head up toward the sky. There, he stayed motionless, simply breathing in the new, non-recycled air. The real, true outside. Freedom. He breathed in freedom after eight years of imprisonment. He breathed it in. 

And he cried. Hands clenched at his sides, face upturned toward the sun in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy at his own freedom, Sean cried. Tears fell freely as he let go of everything he’d been holding in for so long. The unfairness, the unjust treatment, the insanity of his parents agreeing to it. He let all of it free, allowing it to fall right along with his tears. He was lost, adrift on his own chaotic maelstrom of fears, joys, loss, and triumph. 

He was free. Yet how much had he lost? Eight years. He had been there for eight years. Eight times longer than he had even known Flick. Those people had completely lost their minds. They were insane. His parents and the rest of them, they… they had to be stopped. He understood that more than he ever had before this. He understood just how far they would go to maintain their delusions, just how obsessed they were and how willing they were to break everything to avoid admitting they were wrong. This wasn’t a case of simply misinformed people. They truly, fanatically believed that if the entirety of humanity would be erased if they didn’t do what they were doing. They believed that every single species in the universe would gleefully eradicate every human being if given half a chance, that they were the lone defending force against total human extinction. And against that kind of pressure, against the extermination of all humanity, there were no measures that were off limits, nothing some of them wouldn’t do. 

This was going to be a war, in every sense of the word. More than anything else, he had learned that over his time imprisoned. The levels they were willing to go to… This wouldn’t be some simple matter of just telling them the truth. Many would never accept it. And those… he knew what would have to be done. He didn’t like it. But it was coming. To change society, to really change it… they would have to do harsh things. 

“Hey.” 

The word caught his attention, and Sean turned a bit to see his brother there. Ian stood a few yards away, just as bloodied and dirty as he’d been back on that battlefield. It looked like he’d gone through hell. 

“Gross, dude,” Sean murmured after looking him up and down. “Ever heard of a shower?” 

A snort escaped the other man before Ian crossed the distance between them. His hand moved to take his brother’s before stopping himself. “I–sorry. That… I guess you’re probably not used to people touching you, huh?” 

Glancing away, Sean squeezed Ian’s hand a bit testingly. “It’s kind of a new experience, especially doing it for real instead of in my head.” Exhaling, he turned his gaze back to the other man’s. “And that sounded really creepy.” 

“I’m sorry, man.” Ian’s voice was quiet, his hand still holding his little–now not so little–brother’s. “I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you. Not just through this… this prison shit. Ever. I’m sorry I’ve been a shit brother for so long even before that.” 

Sean shook his head. “Part of me feels like I should make a crack about how you’re just sad that you can’t give me noogies anymore. But… but maybe that’s just because this whole thing is really awkward.” He focused once more, meeting Ian’s gaze. “Everyone keeps saying they’re sorry, as if this is their fault. But I know whose fault it is. And they’ll get theirs.” 

“Our family’s kind of fucked up, isn’t it?” Ian muttered the words under his breath before muttering several curses in Colombian Spanish. “You’re right, they’ll get theirs. Mom… Dad… and all the rest of them.” 

Before Sean could say anything to that, Sebastian came into view from the side of the cabin. “It’s not going to be easy, you know,” the man announced. “Physically or emotionally. It’s not just your parents. It’s your old classmates, your friends. It’s other people’s family, people they care about. All these people here in this camp? All the Heretics who came here, they’ve all got people they love or want to protect who stayed at Crossroads. This whole thing is going to be one big joda.” He gestured then. “Now, you two gonna hug so I can get my own out of my favorite nephew, or what?” 

“Oh, he’s your favorite nephew now?” Ian started before Sean gave him a little yank by the hand. The two embraced briefly, hands clapping each other’s backs before they stepped aside.

“Now?” Sebastian retorted while taking his turn to embrace Sean tightly. “He was always my favorite.” He leaned back then, looking up at the boy… man in question. “Even if he did get too damn tall like the rest of you.” 

With a dry chuckle, Sean replied, “Not our fault you stopped growing at sixteen, Tío Sebastian.” It was such an easy thing to say, springing straight to his lips. Then he thought about the fact that, from their point of view, he hadn’t been that much older than sixteen very recently. It was enough to cast a dark cloud over their reunion, but he pushed on anyway. Just because you couldn’t stop dark clouds from showing up didn’t mean you had to lay down in the puddles they made. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you retired.” 

Giving him a long, thorough tongue lashing in Spanish at the very suggestion that he would sit on the sidelines while his nephew was in trouble, Sebastian settled with, “And I’m not sitting out any more. Not this. Not now. This war is going to take everyone. Especially if we’re going to get anywhere with it before this whole Seosten time limit thing is up next year.” 

“That and you don’t want Mateo running off by himself,” Ian noted mildly. 

“Mateo would never be off by himself,” Sebastian informed him. “He’s got his pack. And… speaking of which.” With a brief glance over Sean’s shoulder, he took Ian by the arm. “Come on then, let’s not monopolize the boy.” He met his just-freed nephew’s gaze pointedly. “Whatever happens with your parents, Sean, you’ve still got family. Don’t you forget that.” 

Ian started to say something else, before he too looked past Sean. Raising an eyebrow, he murmured, “Muy bueno, hermano.” Then he allowed himself to be pulled away. 

With a very small smile as he shook his head, Sean spoke up. “Hey, Roxa.” 

There was a brief pause before the girl’s voice flatly asked, “Did your brother just call me ‘very good?’” 

Snorting, Sean turned to face the girl. When he saw her, bloodied, covered in mud and dirt, clothes torn, he made a noise in the back of his throat. “Oh… God. He wasn’t wrong. You… look…” Stopping himself, he winced while shaking his head. “I’m sorry. Shit. I know we had this whole thing going on and to you it was like… a couple months ago. So you really didn’t sign up for… for this. I spent eight years building you up in my head. Eight years thinking about what you looked like, making this perfect picture of you in my own imagination, some… crazy version idealized of you that couldn’t hope to match up to reality. I spent eight years building the perfect image of you in my head. 

“So how in the hell is the real you even more beautiful than I ever imagined?” 

In a rush of motion, Roxa was in front of him. Her arms went around his neck, and she hopped, legs wrapping around his waist as her mouth sought and found his. 

He kissed her. He held her. His arms clutched the now-much younger girl tight against himself, and he didn’t let go. Not for a very long time. 

His girl. 

His wolf. 

*******

“You know, if you were really that tired of being identical, there were easier ways to take care of it.” 

The words came from Sands, as she stood in the camp medical center with her hands on her hips, staring at her twin sister. Scout was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed. Or rather, most of her was. Her left arm had been removed entirely, all the way up to the shoulder. In its place was a thin rounded metal cylinder about eight inches long and three inches thick. 

In response to her sister’s worried teasing, Scout poked her in the stomach with her remaining hand, offering her a smile before simply saying, “Upgrade.” 

“Yes, yes, upgrade.” Instead of Sands, it was a short, red-skinned man with a bright shock of wild white hair who spoke then. He stood barely an inch taller than the twins, approaching with a couple fancy-looking tools in two of his four hands (he only had two arms, each splitting around the elbow into two forearms) as he offered them both a smile. “It is an upgrade. But as I said, if you would prefer to take the time to let the arm regenerate more… naturally, even with magical assistance, that is an option. With your kind of power and what was done to your arm, it will take a month or so, but it’s there.” 

“Are you sure about this, Scout?”  Larissa asked from where she was sitting, tensely watching her girls. “You don’t have to go with the tech replacement if you don’t want to.” 

Head shaking at that, Scout softly replied, “Advantages are good.” 

“Alright,” the doctor, an Alter by the name of Bhenquiet (he went by Dr. Ben) announced while using his tools to make a couple last minute adjustments to the implanted metal cylinder. “Remember, anytime you want to take it out and allow the arm to grow normally, let me know. Do not try to do it yourself. I don’t want you hurting yourself or my work. Here.” He stepped back, gesturing for Sands to do the same. “Let’s see it. Just like I told you.” 

Closing her eyes, Scout focused. It took a few long seconds before there was a flicker of an image from the cylinder. It flashed in and out a couple times, then reappeared and solidified. It was her arm. Or rather, a solid holographic projection of her arm that looked identical to the real thing.

“It’ll be stronger than your old arm was, though not as strong as you could get it to be through… powers,” Dr. Ben informed her with only a slight bit of awkwardness around the idea of her killing others to make her real arm stronger. “Right now I’ve got it programmed for the arm, a sword, a shield, and a few other basic things. You can go through them and add more. I’ll show you how, or you can get a programmer to do it. There’s some other details, about what kind of magic you can use with it, that kind of thing. Oh, and don’t forget, you can’t activate magic that requires touch with this hand. It’s not real. If you’ve gotta touch a spell to activate it, you’ve gotta use your real hand. Understand?” 

Scout nodded, before asking, “Doug and Jazz?” 

“The girl’s just fine, just a little beat up.” The answer came not from Dr. Ben, but from Donald Therasis, Rudolph’s many-greats grandfather. The older man came into the medical cabin carrying a clipboard in one hand and a leather bag in the other. He set both down on the nearby table before adding, “Douglas chose to have his own eye replaced similar to Scout’s arm, though I’ll let him share the specifics with you. I wouldn’t dream of taking that kind of surprise away from him.” 

With that, he embraced Larissa. “I’m glad you all made it out. It sounds like things were… intense.” There was a certain sadness behind the old man’s eyes. Long as he had lived, he still felt great pain at the loss of those he cared about, and he had truly cared for Rudolph.  

But he did, at least, now understand what had happened to the boy. He had the whole story, and had made the choice to come here to the Atherby camp to help in any way that he could. 

With a small smile, Larissa squeezed the man tightly. “We’re all glad you’re here, Donald. I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep you, Dr. Ben here, and a lot of other people pretty busy this year.” 

“Not too busy,” Donald replied easily, “I’ve still got a tennis game to keep up on. And speaking of tennis, how’s the girl’s new arm working out?” 

With a thought, Scout made the holographic projection of her arm turn to a sword, then back again. “Good.” 

“So she says,” her mother murmured, stepping over to put a hand on it. “Feels pretty close to the real thing, at least.” She smiled then, though it was a worried smile. “My brave girls. My Sandoval. My Scout.” 

“No,” the girl corrected, head shaking. “Not Scout. Sarah. 

“Just Sarah.” 

*******

“Joselyn should be here.” 

It was late that night, the celebrations (punctuated by careful tests for any kind of trickery or traps) having gone on throughout the day and evening. There was still a lot to do, even just counting dealing with the prisoners they had pulled out of the Crossroads prison and figuring out who could be trusted. There was more work to be done than anyone could name. But for now, for this moment, they were celebrating. 

This particular celebration, somber as it might have been, revolved around the seven figures who sat around a small campfire on the edge of the lake. Five had been former teammates. Deveron, Lillian, Seamus, Roger, and Tribald. The other two were Felicity Chambers and her father, Lincoln. As the flames crackled, the group listened to the music, shouting, laughter, and general merriment coming from the rest of the camp. 

Roger, who had just spoken, continued. “She should be here. Not… not with that psycho.” 

“She started this,” Tribald murmured quietly, the incredibly tall, disconcertingly lanky man’s knees drawn up almost awkwardly as he poked at the fire with a stick. “She should be here now that it’s back.” 

Deveron cleared his throat a little, glancing toward Lincoln and Flick. “We just have to bring her back. Even… especially if it means prying her out of that necromancer fuck’s cold dead hands.”

“I like that plan,” Lincoln put in before laying a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “I mean, I didn’t grow up with Joselyn the way you all did. I don’t know her as well. But–” 

“Yes, you do.” That was Deveron, his voice quiet, yet firm. “You might not know the Heretic, Lincoln. But you know the woman. You know Joselyn. Everything important, everything that’s her, you know.” 

The two men met each other’s gazes for a moment, a deep understanding passing between them before Lillian spoke up. “Dev’s right. You know who Joselyn is, the kind of person she’s always been. For details… we can provide those. Until she’s here to do it herself.” 

“Speaking of details,” Seamus began, reaching over with his foot to bump Deveron’s, “are you planning on looking like that for the rest of your life, or would you like to join the rest of the adults?” 

Giving him a wry smirk, Deveron gestured. “Okay, okay. I guess part of me was just waiting for the best time. But this is as good as any.” His hand reached up, producing a knife from nowhere. Drawing a thin cut across his arm, he held it out over the fire. As the blood dripped into the flame, the man murmured a spell under his breath. He grimaced then, while the blood continued to drip until a small onyx marble appeared, drawn out of his arm. The marble fell into the fire as well, breaking apart into a cloud of black smoke. 

Over the next few seconds, Deveron’s appearance changed. He grew older, appearing much like himself, but in his late twenties. While the others watched, he stretched out a bit, cracking his neck and then his knuckles. “Ahhh… there. Good to be me again.”

“Pffft.” Dismissively waving a hand, Flick informed him, “Sean already beat you to the whole ‘suddenly appearing older than he was’ trick. Now it just looks like you’re copying him.” 

“Oh good,” Lincoln muttered in the wake of that, “now I can stop feeling quite as awkward about my wife having children with a guy who looks too young to vote.” 

“Gross,” Flick informed them both before pushing herself up. As Lincoln made as though to stand up as well, she waved him off. “Stay. You guys… talk. I just need to stretch my legs. I’ll be right back.” 

With that, she looked around the fire at the group of her mother’s old friends before stepping away. Silently, the blonde girl walked away from the camp a short distance. She climbed the nearby hill, thoughts kept only to herself, as Tabbris was with her own mother and other siblings.  

At the top of the hill, Flick stood there and looked out at the camp. She watched all the people. Some were Atherby regulars. Some were Crossroads rebels. Still others were Seosten former prisoners, freed from the hell created and maintained by Kushiel. 

Finally, she raised her gaze to the sky. “Well, Mom, we’re doing it. We’re gonna keep this whole rebellion thing going. You know, until you can be here yourself to show us all how to do it right. Then you can tell us all about how bad we are at it and fix everything.” 

Smiling a little to herself, Flick repeated those words more quietly. “Fix everything. I guess that’s gonna be a lot harder than I ever thought, huh?” She sighed, long and low. “There’s so much going on, so many bad… evil… horrible people. Sometimes it feels like it’s too much. I suppose… when it comes down to it, no matter how many things you have to do, no matter how… overwhelming it feels, all you can do is take one step at a time. It might be a lot of steps. But I’ve seen the video of you teaching me how to walk. I started… running almost before I even had walking down. Okay, it was a goofy run and I nearly killed myself a few times, but still. I’ve been crossing steps faster than I was supposed to basically my whole life. Old habits die hard.  

“I love you, Mom. We’re coming for you. No matter what happens, I swear, we’re coming for you. We are. I just…” She sighed, long and heavy. “I wish… I keep wishing we had something, anything that… that was an advantage. Something to… something to hold over him, or to trick him with, or… I don’t know. It just feels like he’s always ahead. Sariel got one over on him today, but I don’t think something like that’ll work again. And I just… wish we had… anything that could–”

“Hello.” 

The greeting, coming from behind Flick, cut her off. She turned, expecting to see one of the camp people, or maybe one of the new Crossroads rebels. Instead, she found herself facing a blueish-green figure, partially transparent. The figure was a teenage girl, pretty even in that state, with short hair and a mischievous look. 

“What–who… you…” Flick stared in confusion. “You’re a… a ghost, right? You’re a ghost. Did… I call you or something? I’m not very good at this necromancer thing yet. It’s kind of a whole issue.” 

“Yes, I am a ghost,” the impish girl confirmed. “And I’m here because of your power. But also because I want to help you.” 

“Help?” Flick echoed. “How–I don’t understand. What can you help with? Who are you?” 

There was a brief silence as the ghost girl hesitated. Then she met Flick’s gaze. “My name is Rahanvael. My brother is the one you know as Fossor. 

“And I can help you beat him.” 

TO BE CONTINUED IN YEAR 2. 

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone  gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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Patreon Snippets 9 (Heretical Edge)

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Hey guys! Here are (most) of this edition of Patreon snippets. There was one request for a bit from Summus Proelium, which is awesome to already have! After some thought, I’ve decided that mixing snippets from different stories could probably get confusing for anyone who is reading through only one or the other at any given time. So I’ve decided to keep them separate. But by the same token, one 500 word snippet is entirely too short for a whole chapter. Thus, we will simply have that stuck onto the end of the next actual Summus Proelium chapter as a sort of addition, with a quick note about what exactly it is. 

As a quick reminder,  the way these work is that every month, each Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars 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. All of my gratitude and thanks go to them for making this story possible. 

“Koraug, Teragn, Meyfers, Three-oh-oh-two, Three-oh-oh-three, Zaps, and Qork, with me!” The tall, blond man calling out names from a list stood in the doorway of a large barracks-like room. Hundreds of simple cots filled the room stretching off into the distance. At least, they looked simple at first glance. In reality, there was a powerful forcefield blocking each occupant from leaving their cot or the small area immediately around it. Not only that, but while most of the cots were of generally uniform size, there were some that were either much smaller for occupants who were actually tiny, all the way up to beds that were several times larger than normal. 

Gordon Kuhn’s father, a dark-skinned man with a neatly trimmed goatee named Sindri Koraug, rose from his bed as the forcefield dimmed. His eyes, pure silver with no white or pupil to them, glanced over the other six people that had been called as they all made their way to the Eden’s Garden Heretic who had summoned them. 

A second Heretic stepped into view, this one a younger-looking dark-haired female. “The hell, Coppe? Where’re you getting all those names from? Only thing on that list is the numbers.”

The blond man replied, “Simple, Pike, I’ve asked them what their names are before. The ones who gave me a name, I use. Three-oh-oh-two and Three-oh-oh-three haven’t.” With that, the man gestured to the assembled group. “Come on, big job today.” 

He turned to leave through the doorway, followed by Pike. Sindri glanced around at his companions as they filed through as well. Teragn was a male Orc, Meyfers a female Deitezen (a humanoid species with no hair, green skin, four eyes, and no mouth who communicated telepathically and also had telekinetic abilities), Zaps and Qork were both male Gafaiez (short, squat beings who looked like piles of rocks and crystals capable of generating lasers of varying intensity from the gems that were scattered throughout their bodies), and ‘Oh Two and ‘Oh Three were Trolls. 

The group walked together through the Heretic outpost. The world they were on didn’t have a name yet. It had only recently been discovered. This was the first exploration camp sent by Eden’s Garden. By the Lost Scar tribe, specifically, to whom Sindri and all of his companions belonged. The camp itself had only been set up a couple weeks earlier, and was essentially a circle of quickly-erected buildings set down in the middle of a clearing that had been created at the edge of a forest of gray-and-black trees. The dirt under their feet was a light orange, and a mountain that the camp was near was mostly black as well. 

Given the make-up of their group, Sindri had a pretty good guess of what their job would be. His assumption was born out as they were led right up to the side of that jagged, imposing mountain.

“Boss wants a defensive station,” Coppe explained. “That means cutting into this mountain so we can use it as a backdrop. That’s your jobs today. Cut into the hill here so we can start moving buildings in. There’s a design page here.” His hand extended a sheet of paper, which Sindri took. “Follow the illustration, come if you have any questions. There’s breakfast on the table there.” He pointed nearby. “Lunch will be in four hours. If you do a good job, you’ll get double allotments for dinner tonight. Any questions?” Receiving nothing but silent looks, the man nodded. “Good. Get busy. We’ll be watching.” 

As he turned to start in on the newest job, Sindri thought briefly about his wife and the son he had not seen for so long. Were they okay? Were they safe? He had to assume they were, as if any of his captors had known anything about them, he had no doubt he would have been killed to prevent any word of human-Alter genetic compatibility. 

And that was good enough. Whatever he had to do, wherever he had to work, as long as he was put to work and treated like any other slave, it meant they didn’t know about his son. Which meant his family wasn’t in immediate danger.. 

If it meant they’d stay that way, he…

*******

“… could move mountains,” Lincoln Chambers announced. “You know, before I found out that Jos literally could at some point. But not counting powers or anything, just force of personality. Talk at a mountain and make it decide to move.”

Lillian Patters looked up from the table where she and Lincoln were sitting on the porch of one of the cabins. “Joselyn has that effect on people.” 

With a small smile, Lincoln noted, “I asked her about Lillian, you know.” 

“You asked her about Lillian?” she echoed curiously. 

The man nodded. “I asked her where the name came from. She didn’t know. She just said it was a nice name, that it made her smile and… and that she felt like our daughter would be safe with that name. Like it would watch over her.” 

With a small smile as a pang of heartache swept through her, Lillian quietly replied, “I felt the same when I suggested my daughter use Joselyn for her daughter’s middle name.  It just felt right.” She looked away then, thinking about her old best friend, her sister in almost every respect. Memories, newly unlocked, flooded her mind. Too many to focus on. 

Finally, she breathed out, forcing herself to speak through a somewhat shaky voice. “It… must have been hard for you, to believe that she would just leave her family like that.” 

Lincoln didn’t respond at first. She looked up once more to see him gazing off into the distance. His voice, when he spoke, was soft. “I didn’t believe it at all for… maybe ever. I thought she was… taken, abducted, from the beginning. The message she left, the things people said they saw when she took off, the phone call to the station… none of it was convincing. Not for me. I just… I just knew she was in trouble. Someone had her, someone was hurting her. I knew it. So I… I tried to find her. For a couple months, it was all I focused on, following every lead, harassing her old deputies, calling the FBI every day.” 

Watching his face, Lillian pointed out, “It doesn’t sound like you really changed your mind.” 

He swallowed. “I guess I kind of made myself set it aside. Two months, and… and I had to put it away. There were no leads, no signs of her, no one was taking me seriously.” 

“But you wouldn’t have given up like that,” Lillian murmured. “Not after two months. What happened?” 

“Taddy,” Lincoln answered softly, looking over to her. “Taddy was… he was the stuffed raccoon that Jos gave Felicity when she was a baby. She loved that little guy more than anything. I was still working on the case, still trying to find Joselyn a couple months after she disappeared. It was… it was getting to me. I found one of her sweatshirts that she wore the night before she disappeared and was trying to go over it for any hairs or anything that weren’t hers, in case the guy who took her made contact earlier. I guess I kind of lost myself in it, and Felicity saw me. The next thing I knew, she…” He swallowed hard once more, breathing unsteadily. “She cut it apart. She ripped it into pieces. She destroyed it, to hurt her mother, because she thought her mom hurt me.” 

Lillian winced. “That’s when you decided to focus on raising her.” 

“Yeah,” Lincoln confirmed. “That’s when I knew that… that Joselyn would want me to make sure our daughter was okay. That’s where I put everything I had, on… on raising Felicity, on being there for her. Because I realized that I was obsessing so much on finding Jos that I could lose our daughter too. I… I had to choose which one to save. I chose Felicity.”

“That’s the choice Jos wanted you to make,” Lillian assured him. She hesitated then, before asking, “What about this Flick thing? I prefer Felicity, for the record.” 

“She decided she hated the name Felicity,” Lincoln informed her. “I… I couldn’t argue with her. It made things worse. She connected Felicity to her mother, since Jos loved that name so much. It was…” He paused. “It was actually… this year, at her birthday, when she finally said she wanted me to call her Felicity again. Here I thought it meant she’d made some big breakthrough about forgiving her mother. And she had. Little did I know she made that breakthrough because the psychotic piece of shit necromancer who took her mother to begin with showed up to gloat about it and tell her that her mother never chose to abandon her at all.” 

Lillian reached out to touch his arm, squeezing it. “You and Felicity have been through a lot this year.” Pausing, she amended, “You’ve been through a lot your whole lives, even if you didn’t know it.” 

With a soft chuckle, Lincoln nodded in agreement. “Tell me about it.” He checked his watch before standing. “But do it on the way to meeting Scott. I’m told you and he have some history.” 

“Some history?” Lillian snorted. “The boy owes me fifty dollars from one of his previous lives.” She glanced to Lincoln while standing. “That must’ve been a lot for you to take in too, this boy who grew up right in your view turning out to be a lot older than that.” 

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the larger surprises, yes,” Lincoln confirmed, heading for the steps. “Kind of makes sense though. I always thought that kid’s musical taste was really old-fashioned.” 

Lillian started to respond to that, before her gaze moved to look off the porch. “Looks like we have company,” she announced with a smile at the sight of the young Seosten children rushing up to meet them, accompanied by their current (rather exhausted) babysitter. As the kids approached, they waved while loudly calling…

*******

“Walker!” 

The trio of voices chorusing his name made Jonathan Walker look up from the newspaper he had been reading while leaning against the black Mercedes that he drove for his employer. He watched as said employer’s three young children, two boys named Bart and Max who were in sixth and fifth grade respectively, and a fourth-grade girl named Erica, all ran from their school to meet him. 

“Hey, kids,” the man greeted, opening the back door of the car to let them all pile in with their backpacks. “How was school, oldest to youngest?” He walked around to the driver’s side then, getting in just in time for Bart to launch into the story of his day. 

Pulling away from the curb while listening to that with one ear, he glanced into the rearview mirror and caught sight of his own face. The way the shadows fell across them made it look as though he had two very black eyes. And in that brief second, he wasn’t in the car. He was transported back to that day forty-five years earlier, when so much had changed. 

He wasn’t born Jonathan Walker. He’d gone through several names and identities in his time, most of them bad ones. Johnny Walker just happened to be the brand of whisky that was used in the bottle that was broken over his head in the barfight that had resulted in him having two actual black eyes. 

The barfight he had lost against a normal human. He was a werewolf. A werewolf, and he had lost a fist fight with an ordinary human being. A human being named Arthur Chambers, in fact. 

That had been a wake-up call, but it wasn’t the only one. Seeing him lose a fight had made his pack abandon him. The man left on the floor of that bar with no pride, no pack, and nothing left in his life had decided to erase it all. He’d changed his name, changed his entire identity. He had remade himself, seeing that as the low point from which he would either lose himself literally, or metaphorically. 

He chose metaphorically, abandoning everything he had been. Taking the name of the last drink he’d had (as well as the one that had been broken over his head), the newly dubbed Jonathan Walker set out to educate himself, grow in every way he could, and eventually became bodyguard and driver for the rich and secretive. His current job, protecting these children, had only been a thing for a couple years. But it was already one of his favorite gigs. He loved these kids, and God help anyone who tried to hurt them. 

“Sounds great, Bart,” he spoke up then while guiding the car to a stop. “Just make sure you ask your mom or dad before having those kids over next week. You know the rules.” His eyes moved then to catch sight of the other boy. “Max, how’d that project go? You tell Miss Forter about Donny not doing his share?” 

Yes, getting the shit kicked out of him and being abandoned by his pack back in ‘73 had been a damn fine wake-up call. A lot had changed since then. For the better, as far as he was concerned. He was a different man. Without that beating, he had no idea what kind of person he would be today.

When all was said and done, he definitely owed Arthur Chambers a drink. 

******

“Four. You owe me four drinks,” Seamus Dornan informed his cousin. The red-haired man, who stood only five-foot seven inches, seemed smaller than that as he leaned over the bar scribbling notes on inventory papers. Given the time, the place was empty aside from himself and the man he was addressing. Roger Dornan, his cousin. 

Roger was an inch shorter than Seamus himself, and of even slighter stature. His own hair was a very light blond, worn down to his shoulders. At the moment, he was throwing darts at a nearby board. “We own a bar, dude,” Roger informed his cousin. “Put it on my tab.” 

“You do have a tab, you know,” Seamus retorted. “I’m keeping track of every drink you take. Every drink I know about,” he belatedly amended. “Just because we own the place doesn’t mean we get to take everything we want. We have to keep track of it, or you’ll put us out of business.” 

“And I am right on top of paying that back,” Roger distractedly and unconvincingly replied, judging his aim before throwing the dart. Halfway there, it multiplied into a dozen identical darts, all of which hit the board along the triple score band, with one hitting the exact center. “God, I am good.” 

Turning then, Roger asked, “How many are we moving this morning?” 

Flipping over a paper, Seamus replied, “Looks like nine. They’re waiting downstairs. Seven are anyway. We’re still waiting on a couple Rakshasa. Think you can get all the way to Wonderland without getting pulled over for speeding again?” 

The cousins, though they were Heretics graduated from Crossroads, had abandoned their former beliefs almost six years earlier after encountering a group of Stranger children and finding themselves both unable and unwilling to kill them or leave them to die (or direct other Heretics to the so-called threats). They’d taken care of the children, realized they couldn’t go on like that, and proceeded to fake their own deaths. 

From there, Roger and Seamus had made up new lives, purchased this bar to operate as their cover story, and began to work as transport experts, helping take fleeing Alters safely from one place to another. The two of them knew how Heretic checkpoints worked, could break the various enchantments used to track down Alters or alert Crossroads or Eden’s Garden about them, and in general could keep their charges safe. 

It wasn’t much, given everything going on, but Roger and Seamus both knew they had to do something, and with only the two of them, they didn’t dare openly go against the Establishment. Faking their deaths, using their inside knowledge to keep some Alters safe, developing contacts within that world who were only now, six years later, starting to trust them? That was something. Not much, but something. 

Then it hit. As Roger drew back his hand to throw another dart, and Seamus opened his mouth to tell his cousin to do something useful by checking on the group downstairs, both were hit by a sudden wave. A sudden rush of information… knowledge… revelations. It staggered the men, sending Seamus stumbling back a step while Roger collapsed into the nearest booth. 

Slowly, the two rose. Their gazes found one another, and the two men each spoke a single word, a single name, together. “Joselyn.” 

“She needs help,” Seamus announced, his voice cracking a little from the force of the memories and revelations still exploding through his mind. 

“Yeah,” Roger agreed, just as staggered. “But where the hell is she?” 

******

“Right in there.” 

Atop a dark roof several blocks from the glitz, glamor, and blinding lights of the Las Vegas strip, two figures stood. Their backs were to the neon paradise, attention focused instead on a building across the street. It was ostensibly a motel, though one that charged only by the hour (and in many cases, not even that much time was needed). More relevantly, it had been closed for the past week. Closed to new guests, anyway. But it was far from empty. There were lights on in many of the rooms throughout the six-story structure, and the parking lot was half-full. 

“Yeah,” Haiden Moon continued under his breath, “I’d say that’s where our friends are. Right there.”  

Beside him, Sariel nudged his arm and nodded upward toward a large winged figure on the roof. It was armed and watching for people like… well, like them. But Haiden wasn’t worried. The invisibility circle that his wife had drawn around them would stop their friend up there from noticing anything as long as they stayed within it. 

“Yeah,” Sariel agreed quietly, “I’d say this is definitely where those kids got dragged to.” There was a hardness to her voice that reminded Haiden just how personally his wife took someone putting children in danger. 

It made him smile a bit. Sure, the two of them having children was apparently impossible. But still, if they happened to adopt or… or anything in the future, it was good to know that the woman he loved was so great with kids. 

“What do you see?” Sariel asked him, her own gaze on the lookout, who had brought up his rifle to look through the scope toward the strip off in the distance. 

Haiden lowered his gaze from the sniper to the rest of the building, focusing on running through several different vision powers as he scanned the whole place. “They’ve got it pretty well shielded, but… looks like a large group of smaller energy sources on the third floor, near the middle, with three stronger sources around them.” 

“That’ll be the kids and the guys watching them,” Sariel murmured. “As close to the exact center of the building as they can get, to make it harder for any outside group to reach them before they portal away.” 

Haiden nodded. “That was my read too. Beyond that, a few dozen guys spread through the floors above, same amount below. There’s a small army in there, babe.” 

“The part of that they’re going to regret is ‘small,’” she informed him with a wink. “You ready for this? I don’t want to take the chance that they move those kids again, after taking this long to find them.” 

“Yup,” Haiden agreed, reaching into his trench coat before withdrawing four metal balls. He held them out, his attention on the building across the way as he pointed with his other hand. “See that window with the blue curtains? That one.” 

Sariel took one orb at a time, running her thumb across the spellwork inscribed in each before throwing them across the street to hit the each corner of that window. The metal balls struck the wall there before sticking firmly. Once all four were in place, they glowed red once before fading. 

The room was too magically protected to go straight through from the outside. The abductors had taken care to put a powerful shield around the space they had the children stashed. It would take too long to break through that shield before the men inside could portal themselves and their prisoners away. 

But the point of the orbs wasn’t to break through the shield. Instead, the orbs would use the forcefield, adding their own effect to it. An effect which would essentially stop any sound from outside the shield from penetrating, leaving those within deaf to anything going on outside of it. 

In other words, Haiden and Sariel could make as much noise as they wanted without alerting the people inside the room. 

“You want upstairs or downstairs?” Haiden idly asked, glancing to his wife. 

“You take downstairs,” she replied, leaning in to kiss his cheek. “I think angels are supposed to come from above.” 

With a small smile, Haiden nodded. “I guess you should stick to the brand, huh?” Running his hand through her hair, he watched for a second until their friend on the roof moved to another spot of it to check that direction. Then he moved to the edge. “Let’s do this then.” 

“Yes,” Sariel agreed, taking a few steps back before running forward. “Let’s.” 

Haiden held a hand out, waiting for his wife to get near before creating an energy platform about knee height. As Sariel leapt onto it, he made a heaving motion, sending it, and Sariel, flying up toward the top of the other building. That done, he stepped off the roof, falling several stories before landing lightly on his feet on the street, as though he’d simply stepped off the curb. Straightening, he walked toward the door of the motel. 

******

Leaping from the flung forcefield to land silently on the roof of the building, Sariel saw the tall, angular figure across from her spin that way. His rifle was already raised and ready to fire. But she was faster, her hand having lashed out to send the knife in it flying even as she landed. By the time the lookout had the barrel in line with her, the blade had already driven itself through his eye. As the weapon embedded itself there, it sent an electric shock through his body to ensure that his brain shut down entirely. He collapsed to the ground without firing a shot. 

Using her power, Sariel recalled the throwing dagger without breaking stride as she moved to the nearby hatch. Crouching, she checked the spell on it, taking a few seconds to carefully break the enchantment that would have signalled everyone below if anyone but the man lying dead on the other side of the roof had gone through. Once the spell was disabled, she opened the hatch and dropped through. 

*******

As Haiden strode toward the motel entrance, a figure stepped out to stop him. “Sorry, bud,” the man started before jerking to a halt, hand grabbing for a weapon inside his jacket as he blurted, “Heretic!” 

That was as far as the man got before Haiden abruptly appeared behind him, teleporting to the man’s back before catching him around the neck. “You know,” he murmured in the frantically struggling guy’s ear, “I’ve felt pretty guilty about willy nilly killing every non-human out there for a long time. But you? Someone who kidnaps little kids just to start a war they can profit off of? I’m not gonna feel guilty about you.” 

With that, he snapped the man’s neck with a single motion, letting the body fall as that familiar rush of pleasure went through him. He barely acknowledged it, already moving to the door. A man was there, starting to come through with his gun raised. Haiden, however, teleported across the remaining twenty feet or so in an instant, lashing out with his foot to kick the door. The blow sent it flying backward, crashing into the face of the man who was trying to come through. He stumbled, gun firing wildly twice through the gap that had been left. The bullets struck Haiden, but did nothing to penetrate his skin. 

“Dude,” Haiden informed the man while stepping through the doorway, “you’re gonna need a bigger gun.” 

Then he moved, his speed suddenly magnifying to the point that all the man in front of him would see was a blur, as he tore the extended gun from his grasp, crushing it in the same motion as he threw it away. His left hand caught the man’s side while his right held his head, and he hurled the guy sideways to crash into the wall with so much force that his skull was instantly caved in. Haiden was moving so fast in that moment that he actually spun around to the opposite wall and used it to cave the other side of the man’s head in before his death even set in. 

Another rush of pleasure, even as the sound of running footsteps filled the hall. 

*******

Landing lightly on her feet after dropping through the roof hatch, Sariel found herself standing directly between two men, with a third further down. Even as they started to react, she drove her elbow hard into the face of the man behind her while simultaneously shoving the blade in her other hand up through the throat of the one in front of her. Blood sprayed wildly from the wound as she dropped her elbow away from the first man, letting him double over, clutching his broken nose. Using that, she vaulted up and over his hunched form, landing on the far side of him even as the one further down the hall opened fire. Three of his shots hit the body of the man she had already killed, while it was still collapsing. Several more hit the wall right where she had been an instant earlier. 

The man who had been doubled over gave a shouted curse, pivoting to bring his own gun up toward her. But it was gone. The weapon in his hand had vanished, as had the one being held by his still-living partner. Both guns simply vanished from their hands. 

They reappeared in Sariel’s, one held against the near man’s cheek, while the other was aimed down the hall toward the man who had been holding it an instant earlier. Each fired once, the resulting shots putting their respective owners on the ground. 

Tossing the guns to either side, Sariel retrieved her knife from the first man’s throat before jogging for the stairs. 

******

Seven men flooded the hallway ahead of Haiden, rifles raised or hands brimming with energy of their own. One held barely-contained lightning between his palms that was ready to lash out at the threat. All of them came rushing through, saw the Heretic ahead of them, and moved to open fire. 

Just as abruptly, they jerked aside as his black sword was hurled their way. It sailed past the men, embedding itself in an open door somewhere behind them. There was the slightest pause as the group looked from the apparently wildly thrown sword, then back to the Heretic. 

“Uh,” Haiden started with a small smile, “could I get a do-over?” 

Apparently not, as all seven of the men suddenly opened fire. Bullets, lasers, fire, and lightning were sent his way, while Haiden made a pulling gesture with his hand. A sudden pillar of rock broke through the floor, rising up to impose itself between him and the incoming shots. It instantly shuddered under the assault, unable to hold up for long. 

But that was okay. It didn’t need to hold for long. Safe behind his rock wall for the moment, Haiden gave a sharp whistle. Down the hall, beyond where the men stood, his sword reacted. The black blade slid apart right where the glowing red line was, and a pair of gun barrels popped out. They swiveled around to face behind the sword before opening fire to take the gathered troops completely by surprise. 

Several of the men were cut down almost instantly, and Haiden gasped his way through the pleasure of that before forcing himself to focus. A thought and a gesture with both hands broke what remained of the rock pillar into two balls, which he quickly reshaped into spears and sent flying that way. Two of the remaining four men were taken down as the rock spears went right through their backs when they spun to face the sword. The remaining two tried to run for it, sprinting past the sword while the guns swiveled to follow them. Haiden, however, quickly teleported that way. His foot lashed out to kick one of the running men into the nearby wall, while he yanked his sword free and spun, throwing it once more. This time, the blade went right through the last guy, impaling him against the wall. 

“Do-don’t-” the man that he had kicked into the wall used the second he had as his partner’s death gave the Heretic a brief rush of pleasure to plead through the blood that soaked his face. “Just a job. It was just a job. Nothing personal.” 

Haiden lifted his chin. “My friend,” he replied, “that job was kidnapping little children.” He grabbed the man by the throat with one hand, lifting him up before making a gesture that made a rocky spike pop out of the nearby wall. “I take that very personally.” With those words, he gave a sharp shove, impaling the back of the man’s head on the spike before turning away as his aura flared up. 

******

Eventually, Haiden and Sariel met at the door of their destination. Dozens of bodies lay around them, the last stand of the guards who lay outside of the hostage room, while dozens more littered the other floors of the hotel. 

“Chinese,” Haiden informed his wife while flicking blood and… other bodily remains off his blade. “We should totally have Chinese after this. I’m starving.” 

“Once the kids are safe,” Sariel reminded him. “And you’re always starving.” 

“I work up an appetite,” he defended himself, moving to one side of the door. “Let’s see…” He focused his vision on the door, looking through it as he judged locations of the energy signatures. With a flick of his hand, he made an image appear on the nearby wall, a roughly drawn outline of the room beyond. He sketched out the square of the room, showing where the door they were standing by was, then drew in the small circles of the children in the middle, along with the exact locations of each of the three guards. One was just behind the door, one in the far corner, and one standing just over the kids. “Got it?” 

Sariel gave a short nod, cracking her neck before producing her knife in one hand and a small rubber ball with a spell inscribed on it in the other. “Go.” 

He went. Haiden kicked the door off its hinges, already hurling himself through to tackle the nearby man to the ground. 

In the same moment, Sariel hurled the knife with one hand and the ball with the other. The knife flew straight through the eye of the man in the corner, dropping him an instant before the ball bounced off the wall where he had just been standing. The ball rebounded off that wall, flying toward the remaining guard, who ducked out of the way. 

Then Sariel activated the spell on the ball, teleporting herself to it. She appeared behind the man, a second knife appearing in her hand. She drove it through his ear, triggering the brain-killing shock on the blade before giving his collapsing body a shove over the nearby bed. 

Eight children, none older than ten, sat on the floor of the motel room, staring at her and Haiden as the man rose from the body of his own target. They huddled together, a few already starting to cry, while others rose protectively in front of their frightened friends. 

“It’s okay,” Sariel assured them, making her knife disappear as she took a knee in front of the kids. Her voice was as gentle as she could make it. “It’s alright. Your parents sent us to bring you all home. You’re safe now.” 

As safe as they could be, that was, while being the youngest children of the Three Families, the trio of Akharu, Vestil, and Oni who ran Las Vegas. Their abductors had intended to renew the bloody war that had been put on tentative truce for years now. The vampires had always hated the Vestil, and both hated the Oni. But the vampires and the mages had joined forces against the Asian demons, before one of the Akharu leadership’s sons had fallen for and married one of the Vestil princesses. That locked the local vampires and mages into a somewhat shaky alliance that the Oni didn’t want to risk dealing with. So, all three sides existed in something resembling a truce, controlling different parts of Las Vegas proper, with the strip considered neutral territory. 

With their children gone and all of them blaming each other, the war would have been rekindled. Sariel and Haiden had been hired to find the kids before that happened. 

It was a living. And with their children returned to them, Haiden and Sariel’s anonymity and protection within Vegas would be assured by the Three Families themselves. 

For awhile, at least… they would be safe here. 

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Mini-Interlude 80 – Joselyn and the Codell Tornadoes

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May 20th, 1919

“Boy, this place isn’t looking so good.”

“Let’s have your home get hit by three tornadoes in three years and see how good it looks.”

The first remark came from Roger Dornan, whose small stature and light blond hair were truly at odds with his fiery temper and impulsive attacks. The reply, meanwhile, came from his cousin, Seamus, who looked similar enough to Roger that many thought they were brothers or even fraternal twins. His hair was somewhat darker and he was a couple inches taller. But other than that, the two were quite similar in appearance if not temperament.

They were two of the members of seventeen-year-old Joselyn Atherby’s Crossroads team. Around them were Joselyn herself, her roommate and best friend Lillian Patters, Deveron Adams (whose appearance had been so radically altered several months earlier after he had killed an incubus), and his own roommate and best friend, Tribald Kine. All six wore civilian clothes rather than the school uniforms (with white trim in Tribald’s case, green trim in Roger’s, blue in Lillian’s, red in Joselyn and Deveron’s, and purple in Seamus’s). This was an attempt (hopeless as it was) to not stand out as much around here.

Here, the place being discussed, was the small town that the six of them were slowly walking through. Roger, for all his lack of tact, was actually correct. It really did not look very good. Despite the last tornado striking a year earlier, there was still visible destruction. They had already passed several houses as well as a hotel that had been completely torn apart, and according to their briefing, a church and school had also been ruined, along with more houses. Some of it had been rebuilt, though not all.  

“Seamus is right,” Joselyn noted quietly, watching as a stray dog jogged down the street across from them. “Three tornadoes in three years, always on May 20th. Something’s not right here, and I doubt it’s these peoples’ fault. So keep looking.”

“I’m looking,” Deveron replied, his voice flat. “I’m looking at all the people glaring at us because they think we’re lookie-loos just here to gawk at their town if it gets hit by a tornado again.”

From the other side of the boy, Lillian reached out a hand to pat his back. “Let us know if the bad people giving you dirty looks hurts your feelings, Dev. We’ll make them knock it off.”

Rolling his eyes at the girl’s teasing, Deveron retorted, “My point is that we’re attracting attention. Which is going to make it hard to look around. We kind of stand out.”

“We would anyway,” Tribald pointed out, “no matter what day this was. It’s a small town.”

“So how exactly are we supposed to find out what caused those tornadoes, let alone stop it this time?” Roger demanded through his teeth while flashing an elderly woman staring at them from across the street a bright, toothy smile. He waved at her, and she said something most likely nasty under her breath before going back into her house.

The woman wasn’t representative of the whole town, though there had been more than a few who expressed their clear annoyance at what they thought were, as Deveron had said, curious lookie-loos just there to see if another tornado happened. There were also plenty of those who had been quite friendly about it. And, of course, the ones who were sad.

Those were the worst. While the town had been hit by three tornadoes in as many years, always on the same day, the first two had been much less devastating. Not only had they been smaller, but they had missed hitting the town head-on by going to the east and west of it, respectively. But the one the year earlier had been both much stronger than the first pair, and had gone straight through the town. The first two had only done property damage. The last had not been nearly so lucky, killing ten people.

That was why Joselyn and her teammates were here. Crossroads was incredibly busy, still dealing with the aftermath of the recent Great War among the Bystanders even six months after it had ended. It was an ongoing effort to handle everything, which meant students had to step up, such as now. Looking into the causes of the past three years of tornadoes and (hopefully) stopping it from happening again was considered their ‘hunt’ for this month. And, Lillian had noted before they arrived, was probably also part of their yearly final.

It was also the second hunt after Joselyn had had her… life-changing experience during the werebear situation, and over a month since Gaia Sinclaire had taught her to keep her revelations more quiet rather than shouting them from every rooftop. She had, however, been through all of it with her team. They were her friends, and she would not stand idly by as they unknowingly committed atrocities just because that would be easier.

The conversations had not been easy. Some harder than others. Seamus had actually been the hardest to convince, while Lillian had been the easiest. The others fell somewhere in between. But they all listened eventually, particularly with a little help from Gaia. The woman had also helped to keep Headmaster Ruthers from paying too much attention to Joselyn and her team.

Joselyn still didn’t know what they were going to do, but she knew it was something. No matter what Gaia said about taking things slowly, they still had to actually stop what was happening. Innocent people were being slaughtered by Heretics who didn’t know any better. Someone had to put a stop to that, and Joselyn was damn sure not about to wait for some other person to do it.

That was, however, a problem for later. Right now, they had to figure out this tornado situation.

To that end, Joselyn shook her head at Roger. The six of them had stopped at the end of the largest street in town after giving the whole place a slow walkthrough. “I’m… not sure. I don’t think Professor Konstant knew either. She’s probably just hoping that we’ll stumble into something by blundering around and drawing attention to ourselves.”

“If whatever’s going on is Stranger-based, that’s not a horrible plan,” Tribald admitted. “I mean, considering they have no actual leads or anything. Strangers are probably going to notice a bunch of Heretic students snooping around.”

“This feels entirely too much like being bait,” Roger muttered under his breath. “I don’t like being bait.”

“Nobody does,” Seamus assured his cousin before shaking his head in Joselyn’s direction. “So what do you want to do now, boss? Should we tell Carver we couldn’t find anything?” Alvis Carver was their team’s second-year mentor. Apparently his father, Bentley, had turned down a teaching position at the school three separate times when Headmaster Ruthers had tried to bring him on. None of the students were sure why, and Alvis didn’t talk about it much aside from noting that his father and Ruthers didn’t get along very well.

Now, Joselyn shook her head, murmuring, “Not yet. Maybe they put us out here as bait and maybe they didn’t, but either way, we’re taking it seriously. We’re going to figure this out.”

How, she didn’t know. But it sounded good, and gave her a few seconds to think.

While she was thinking, Roger grumbled, “I bet this was all Ruthers’ idea. He wants us to fail.”

“He wants Joselyn to fail,” Lillian corrected. “The rest of us are just in the crossfire.”

She started to tell her friend that they didn’t blame her for that, when Joselyn interrupted. “We’re not going to fail. We’re going to figure this out and stop it from happening again. First…” She hesitated for just a second before pushing on, shoving her indecision away, “First, we check out one of the places the tornado hit the hardest. We’ll use that magic-tracer spell Seamus was talking about the other day and see if there’s any residual magic from anything that might have drawn the spell that way. Then we’ll go from there. Hopefully that’ll at least tell us something.”

“Yeah,” Deveron agreed, “like if there’s something else drawing a new tornado today.”

Together, the six made their way back through the town, attracting a little more attention. Not as much as they could have though. Most of the people were already holed up inside, trying to wait out the day while hoping their town wouldn’t be the sight of a fourth tornado in as many years. There weren’t that many people still out on the streets. Those that were mostly either gave the group annoyed or sympathetic looks. A few called out that they should get somewhere safe, with varying levels of annoyance or genuine helpfulness.

Eventually, they reached the ruined remains of the hotel that had been destroyed by the previous year’s incident. It was pretty much an empty lot at the moment, with most of the debris taken away to build new things, such as fixing up the also-demolished school. There wasn’t much on the hotel lot aside from the foundation and just enough of the walls to know that there had once been a building there.

Carefully, the group made their way over the ruins. Their gazes moved solemnly across the very few broken bits of debris that still lay scattered through the foundation, taking in the only signs that there had ever been an actual building in this spot. None said anything for a few moments, each simply thinking about just how much power it had taken to rip through this structure and reduce it to what they now saw. And each also thinking about the fact that so many people at Crossroads itself could manage the exact same thing with a flick of their wrist.

Finally, Joselyn cleared her throat. “Um, okay. Let’s spread out and try that magic-tracer spell. Everyone pick a different spot. If it finds anything, we’ll track back along the line.”

They did so, each of them moving to a different spot before using a field-engraver to carefully use create the symbol for the magic-tracer spell. Seamus, as the member of their team both most experienced with that rune and the best with magic overall, took the time to check and make minor corrections to each to make sure the spells were perfect before they were used.

Half of the spells were too far from any residual magical tracings to detect anything, and another barely found a hint, too little to work with. But Deveron’s and Lillian’s each managed to find a single, faint trail. Both of them could see a barely visible line leading out of the remains.

“This way,” Lillian started, waving for the others as she and Deveron slowly made their way back out to the street. The lines they saw were faint enough that it would have been very easy to lose track of them entirely, so they had to move very carefully. The rest of the team followed, staying out of the way and quiet to avoid disturbing the pair while they followed those lines.

They walked for well over an hour like that, all the way out of town. The lines of magic gradually grew more visible to Lillian and Deveron, making it easier to trace them back as they left the road entirely and began walking across an empty field in the middle of nowhere. The flat Kansas terrain meant that it would have been incredibly easy to get lost without any kind of landmark. Yet they kept going, following the gradually strengthening traces of magic.

Eventually, the traces led to a stream. Following the stream, they found a very small hill. The lines of magic seemed to lead directly into that hill. As the group searched around a bit, Roger pushed aside a bush and called to the others. He’d found a small hole, just large enough for one person at a time to squeeze through. Tossing a light stone through revealed a tunnel beyond that sloped downward.

“What now?” Seamus asked, looking to Joselyn. “Do we call it in, or–”

“Let’s check it out,” she decided. “One at a time. I’ll go first. You guys come in after me. Quietly.” She looked to the others until they nodded, then laid down on her stomach before pushing her way in through the hole as quietly and carefully as she could, trying not to make any noise. They had no idea what was in here, but if it was responsible for the tornadoes, there was no sense in warning the thing too openly that they were coming.

Scooting forward enough to get out of the hole and into the tunnel, Joselyn found the space just large enough to somewhat rise in, though she had to remain crouched. She waited there, moving out of the way so the others could come through. One by one, the rest of the team joined her. Once all were ready, they slowly crept down the narrow, sloped tunnel using the light from the enchanted stone to guide their way.

For ten minutes, they moved steadily downward, until the tunnel eventually opened up into a small cavern deep underground. The cave was about thirty feet across, went back about the same distance, with a ceiling of about fifteen feet. In the center there was a small metal circle about six feet across, slightly raised off the ground. It was clearly man-made. Or at least… not natural.

After exchanging brief glances, the group cautiously approached the circle. They took the time to check for more magic, eyes scanning to see if there were runes or anything to indicate traps. Finding none, they stopped at the edge of the metal circle and looked down.

There were words etched into it. Nothing they could read, as the symbols were of foreign or alien nature. But they were definitely actual, deliberate words. They stretched across the metal.

“It’s a memorial.” The announcement came from behind the group, and all of them spun to see a figure standing there in the shadows. As their light stones illuminated him, he stepped more clearly into view, revealing a body made entirely of stone. Their Stranger-senses instantly began to blare its unneeded warning, as the rock-man held up both hands, palms out.

“Heretics, right?” he muttered, seemingly unconcerned about that fact as he stared past them toward the metal circle. “I suppose it’s just as well. Better you do it than me. And at least I’ll be too dead to care.”

Though they had all drawn their weapons, Joselyn quickly put hers out to either side to stop the others from moving. Her gaze was intense as she stared at the stone figure. “Who are you? What do you mean, it’s a memorial? And it’s better we do what than you?”

There was a slight rumble as the stone figure raised part of his brow. “Heretics who ask questions? This is a strange day indeed.”

“We’re strange people,” Lillian informed him, while holding two of her metal bracelets in each hand. “Why don’t you answer them. Are you the one who keeps sending the tornadoes?”

“Am I the one who…” Echoing her words, the stone figure gave a low chuckle that echoed through the cave. “Ahh, if only it were that simple. How much better would this be, were it as simple as killing me to end such attacks.” He paused, seeming to realize that he had said nothing that would count as any sort of answer, before slowly approaching. The group parted, three to each side, while they warily watched him step near the so-called memorial.

He stood there, staring down at it for several seconds in silence. Finally, his words filled the cavern once more. “I am Dorarg. I know not why Heretics wish to know my name, or my story, before killing me, but I will… tell you. I am what my people call Denmiek.” He pronounced the word den-my-eek. “In our language, it means ‘soul of earth.’ Your people call me rock-elemental. There are also others of my world, called Denstarel, Denpien, and Denaksen. Soul of water, soul of fire, and soul of air.”

“Water, fire, and air elementals,” Deveron murmured, glancing to the others before asking, “Is that what those tornadoes were? Air elementals?”

Dorarg was silent for a moment before heaving what seemed like a long, heavy sigh. “Esenadey. She was… Denaksen. Soul of Air. She was… she was my friend. My best friend. We came to this world together. We explored it. We… we had adventures. And she fell in love. She loved a human from this world, a man of the place called Eden’s Garden. A Heretic, though he cared more for healing than for killing.

“They loved one another. They lived for one another. And we had… lives. But those of the Garden learned the truth. They hunted Esenadey and the man, Caladrius. I… I was not there. I could not get to them in time, and both were… were slain by the Caladrius’s brother Heretics. I came too late, discovered their… remains.

“You made this memorial,” Roger realized with the rest of them. “You… buried them here?”

“I’m so sorry,” Joselyn breathed, feeling a sharp pain in the pit of her stomach. “I know it doesn’t mean anything, but… I am. We are.”

Swallowing, Seamus carefully asked, “But… the tornadoes…”

Crouching, Dorarg brushed his fingers over the memorial, tracing the words on it that only he could understand. “I… Esenadey was… with children. Our people, when they… procreate, the eggs are set into our world. They hatch once a year, beginning a year after they are first laid. As each hatches, the child is drawn directly to their mother.”

“They’re drawn here,” Lillian realized. “And they find… they find out their mother is dead.”

“They’re children,” Dorarg murmured, hands running over the metal circle. “They are born with more… understanding than human children, about your equivalent of a nine-year old. But still, children. They come here. They learn that both of their parents are dead and that there is no place for them. In their grief, they… they rage. They flee. They… do what they do not mean to do.”

“They create the tornadoes,” Joselyn started, before amending, “They are the tornadoes.”

“But wouldn’t they be half-human?” Roger pointed out. “If her… if her lover was a Heretic.”

Dorarg’s head shook. “Our people do not procreate like that. It’s more… each parent invests energy, like creating a spell. That energy is used to split off small pieces of the chosen parent, creating eggs which eventually hatch into smaller versions of that adult. Caladrius contributed his magic, a part of himself, but they were physically Denaksen, not human.”

“They’re coming here once a year to find their parents,” Joselyn muttered, “air elementals with the intellect and emotions of a nine year old. They find their parents dead and… and they don’t know what to do.”

“They flee,” Dorarg explained. “They run, they fly, they… lash out. But they are children. Grieving children, but children nonetheless.”

“So you came here to… to try to talk to the next one?” Seamus asked.

The rock man slowly shook his head. “I tried to talk to the last one. It only made things worse. Our people are… long-time enemies. Esenadey and I moved past that, yet her children are too small and too new to these things to understand. They see an enemy. When her child of last year arrived, I attempted to explain things. But… seeing me so soon after finding his parents dead only made him lash out more. When her children come here, they feel her pain. They absorb her last emotions, so they can feel how afraid she was. Between that and seeing me…”

“That’s why last year was worse,” Tribald put in. “Because he saw you and… and fled.”

“He was afraid, and… and grieving,” Dorarg confirmed. “As I said, my appearance only made things worse. So I came here today to end this problem by destroying the bodies. Destroying the remains will prevent Esenadey’s children from finding their parents. It should prevent more destruction. I spent the past year trying to find another way, but… but there is none. Should you wish to kill me after that, I will not stop you. But either allow me to destroy the remains, or… or do so yourselves, to protect the town and prevent any more deaths. Esenadey and Caladrius would want it that way.”

The group exchanged looks, silent conversation passing between them before Joselyn shook her head. “We’re not going to kill you, Dorarg. Listen, it’s a long story, but–”

Before she could say anything else, everyone felt a very faint breeze brush through their hair.

“It’s coming,” Dorarg abruptly blurted. “Her next child. We’re too late. The child is going to come through and–”

“Out,” Joselyn snapped. “Go. If the kid sees you, they’ll just freak out more.” To the others, she added, “You guys too. A bunch of us standing around is just going to make things worse. Go, hurry! Get out, I’ll meet you!”

The others hesitated, aside from Dorarg, who stepped back against the wall and melded into it, disappearing from sight immediately. Deveron and Lillian looked most resistant to leaving Joselyn alone, but were pulled away by the others, eventually going with them.

Left alone in that cavern, Joselyn waited as the wind continued to rise, throwing her short blonde hair around more wildly with each passing second.

Finally, a ghostly figure appeared almost directly in front of her, near the memorial. It looked like a small child of indistinct form, more of an impression on the air with little bits of wind gusting around in every direction around it than a physical body. A moment later they became slightly more definitive, a clearly female figure with a small glowing stone directly in the middle of the form, a stone that pulsed with magical power. This, quite clearly, was the same sort of magic that the group had followed back to this cave. It was one of these stones, the heart of the wind-elemental, that had left the trail.

The wind-girl stopped short, staring down at the memorial. She seemed to take in what was below the ground almost instantly, a sound of confusion and grief escaping her.

“Hey.” It was the only thing Joselyn could think to say, drawing the suddenly terrified girl’s attention, as the wind abruptly picked up with enough force to almost throw her against the wall.

“It’s okay!” Joselyn blurted. “I–Esenadey! Your mother, your mother was Esenadey!”

The wind didn’t stop, though it also didn’t grow any worse. The wind-girl had backed up to stand over the memorial, eyes wide as she stared at Joselyn.

Feeling that pain return, Joselyn quietly murmured, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry about your mother, and what happened to her and your dad. I–”

Before she could say anything else, the wind abruptly redoubled. Suddenly, she was thrown against the wall. A wail of rage and grief filled the small cavern, as the air elemental fled for the exit.

Seeing her go, Joselyn lunged. Her hand lashed out through the powerful winds, catching hold of the stone in the center of the Denaksen child. She held on tight then, allowing herself to be hurled through the tunnel and out of the hole into open air.

Seeing her teammates spread out, each with weapons drawn, Joselyn had time to blurt, “Don’t!” Then she was flying through the air. The Denasken took her fifty feet up, then a hundred, winds already rising. Dirt, rocks, and other random debris were thrown in every direction, while the strength of the gusts nearly threw Joselyn to the ground. Still, she clung tight to the rock, the literal heart of the tornado.

“Please!” Joselyn cried out, “don’t! I know you’re scared and I know you’re sad, but your parents wouldn’t want this! What happened to them was terrible, and wrong! It was wrong! But you can’t make things better by hurting people! I know what you’re feeling. I know it hurts! You don’t want to make other people feel that way! You don’t want to take their mothers and fathers away!”

Through all of that, the winds were getting stronger. The tornado was forming, and already it was very apparent that this would be worse than all of the others.

Using both hands to cling to the glowing, warm stone as her body was violently thrown around by the wind, Joselyn closed her eyes tightly before opening them once more. There were tears in them. “I know you feel like you’re alone. I know you feel like you have nowhere to go, and no one who cares about you. I know you feel betrayed and lost. I know you feel like there’s no one to help you, no one to teach you who you are, or who you could be.”

She paused then, glancing down. They were several hundred feet up by that point, the ground looming far below. Still, the girl pushed on, even as the winds threatened to tear her from the stone she was clinging to. “So I’m going to teach you! I’m going to teach you who you are! You want to know who you can be?! You can be the one who destroys a town full of people who didn’t do anything to you! You can be the one who lets your grief and your anger control you!

“Or you can be the one who saves my life.”

With those words, Joselyn released her grip on the stone. The winds instantly flung her away, sending the girl flying end over end through the air before she tumbled out of the tornado. She was falling, plummeting toward the ground while the sound of her friends screaming reached her ears.

Then… the falling stopped. The wind had returned, as Joselyn found herself floating in the air, the air elemental’s form directly in front of her. There was still profound loss and grief in those eyes, as the girl stared at her. They floated in silence like that, slowly sinking to the ground before the wind finally faded.

“This is who you are,” Joselyn quietly managed. “This is who your parents would have wanted you to be.”

Finally, the small, insubstantial girl spoke through the wind. It had the effect of making her voice sound as though it was coming from everywhere at once. “Mother… Father…”

“I know.” Joselyn’s own voice was quiet, strained from emotion. “I know. It’s not fair. It’s not. But you’re not alone. There’s someone here for you, someone who can help take care of you. Do… do you trust me?”

There was a brief hesitation before the Denaksen slowly nodded. The glowing stone that was her heart moved up and out toward Joselyn, as though indicating her level of trust by exposing herself.

Very slowly, Joselyn reached out, putting her hand against the stone. She felt the wind gently rush over her, almost like an embrace.

“You’re not alone,” she repeated. “You never have to be alone. I’ll be there whenever you need me. I’ll come, I promise. But I can’t raise you. I can’t teach you. Not the way you need. For that… for that you need him.”

She turned then, raising a hand to point a bit into the distance, to where Dorarg stood. Seeing the earth-elemental, the wind-child jerked back reflexively. But Joselyn quickly spoke up. “It’s okay. It’s alright. He’s a friend. He’s a friend of your parents.”

The girl was clearly still skittish, yet she stood still while Dorarg slowly approached. Together, wind and earth elemental stood facing one another. They seemed to communicate without words for a moment, before Dorarg looked to Joselyn. “She needs a name.”

It was a request that made Joselyn rock backward a bit. “A… a name? You want me to…? I… umm…” She paused, then looked at the distortion in the air that was the wind child. “… Fiona. That was the name of my–of the woman who adopted me. My mother. Fiona.”

From the way the air elemental brushed over her face and hair, Joselyn assumed she approved of the name.

She was just going to have to be very careful from now on not to laugh too much every time Papa Dustin said his wife was full of hot air.

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Summer Epilogue 14 – Lillian Meets Joselyn’s Children

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“Can I just say, I never thought I’d actually think, ‘I’m glad I don’t have Aylen’s responsibilities?’”

As she said those words, Flick shifted the fishing pole in her hands while glancing over her left shoulder to where Abigail was sitting. Wyatt was to her right, the adult twins’ younger sister sitting between them. All three held poles with the lines out in the water, perched as they were on the end of the dock.

Abigail made a face. “Telling that girl she’s supposed to be the one who awakens…” She took a breath and let it out again, looking as if she couldn’t believe she was actually saying the words. “… King Arthur. She is supposed to bring him back to life, or wake him up, or whatever she’s supposed to do? Shoving that kind of responsibility onto a teenager… telling her that she’s the only one who can do that?”

“Something tells me Aylen can handle it,” Flick pointed out. “I mean, for one thing, she was never just an average person. She’s part Reaper. She came to the school to rescue her grandfather in the first place. Her grandfather who, by the way, just happens to be the thing that gives all Bosch Heretics their power. So, that’s a thing.”

“I knew there was something off about her,” Wyatt grumbled. “I told the headmistress when she showed up that that girl knew more than she ought to, that she wasn’t surprised by enough, but did she listen? Nope. She dismissed it right out of hand. I should’ve looked deeper. I should’ve checked into her backstory even more.”

With a little smile, Flick nudged him with her elbow. “For all we know, Gaia already knew this stuff. I mean, she did have a lot of secrets.” She looked up to him then. “Besides, if you’d found out more about her, things might’ve been a lot worse. If the Seosten thought Joselyn Atherby’s son was getting too close to the Merlin Key… they might’ve reacted badly.”

While Wyatt grumbled his agreement with that, Abigail spoke up once more. “Actually, it is kind of funny that one of the biggest, most important mythical legends in European history, the one and only King Arthur of Camelot, is supposed to be awakened by a Native American.” She paused then, considering while tilting her head. “Is that cultural appropriation? I’m not sure.”

“I think it’s kind of a gray area,” Flick replied dryly.

They sat in silence for a minute, considering that. Then Wyatt nodded out into the water. “Your sharks are still watching us.”

“Yup,” Flick confirmed. “I promised them we go swimming later. And they’re still confused about why I’m bothering with this,” she hefted the pole, “instead of just letting them bring all the fish we could want. I explained it, but I’m pretty sure they still think I’m crazy.”

Coughing, Abigail replied, “So, your pet sharks think you’re crazy because you explained fishing to them? Yeah, I can’t see anything wrong with that.” Letting out a long, low breath, she muttered, “This is such a strange world.”

“It’s a lot more than that, Mom.” With those words, Koren joined the trio at the end of the dock, dropping down beside her mother. “Remember, there’s lots of worlds out there. It’s a strange universe.”

With a groan at the reminder, Abigail passed her fishing pole to her daughter. “Make yourself useful and reel in something tasty.”

Koren glanced to Flick. “Your sharks are right, by the way. You should’ve just had them bring some fish for you. That would’ve made this whole thing take like two minutes, tops. Much more efficient.”

The other girl scoffed at that, “And let them have all the fun? No way. Then we’d miss out on this.”

Squinting disbelievingly, Koren muttered, “Yeah, right. Wouldn’t want to miss out on all this excitement.” Turning back to look at the tranquil lake, she added in a low monotone, “Whooooo.”

Flick shook her head at that. “No, see, it’s not exciting. It’s calming. And that’s a good thing. Especially if you know who actually makes it today. Cuz that’s gonna be exciting enough on its own.”

Wyatt nodded quickly. “Lillian. Our mother’s old roommate.” His voice held a mixture of anticipation and worry for how that might go.

“And best friend,” Abigail added. “I wonder what she’s like. Did anyone talk to her at that family day thing before it was all…” she swallowed hard. “Before it was interrupted?”

Flick’s head shook. “I didn’t really get much of a chance. I just saw her from a distance.”

“I talked to her a little bit,” Koren put in. “You know, before…” She trailed off, making a face at the unwanted memories that crapped in despite all efforts to suppress them. “Before Ammon.” Sighing as they all thought about how that had gone in silence for a moment, she then pushed on pointedly. “She seemed nice, and funny. She was teasing Rebecca a little bit about having this crush on…” She hesitated, before shaking her head. “… on somebody. She never actually said who. Some boy in our class. Rebecca was throwing things at her to make her shut up.”

“Good,” her mother primly informed her. “It’s none of our business who Rebecca has a crush on.” She paused before but slyly adding, “Although, I wonder if it’s that boy who was…” In mid-sentence, she stopped talking, looking thoughtful.

“Who?” Koren prompted. Getting nothing but a little smile from her mother, the girl groaned and pushed her arm. “Oh come on! You can’t do that!”

Before Abigail could respond to that, Flick cleared her throat and turned to look over her shoulder. As the others did the same, they saw two figures walking toward the dock. As diminutive as both were, it wasn’t hard to know their identities at a glance, even before they saw their faces in the dim, early morning light.

“Hey, Rebecca!” Flick called, pushing herself to her feet while leaving her pole sitting right beside her. Unfortunately, the very second she let it go, something on the other end of the line bit down and the pole was yanked off the dock to disappear into the water. Spinning that way to see it go, the blonde girl exhaled long and hard. “Yeah, that figures.”

Rebecca and her grandmother had reached the dock by then, the latter stopping short as she let her wide-eyed gaze move over all four of the people there. “Oh Gods,” she murmured, “It is you. The twins. You’re alive… You’re…” Tears had already sprung to the woman’s face as she hurriedly strode that way, grabbing Abigail in a tight hug as the woman stood to meet her. “Baby girl! Oh sweet baby girl!“

Shipping on her feet, Abigail slowly return the hug while coughing. “Not gonna lie, it’s been a long time since anyone called me that.”

“Sweet little pudding cup,” Lillian managed in a teary voice as she leaned back to look up at the taller woman. “I remember holding you when you were so tiny. When they took you, when we thought you could be…” Her eyes blinked rapidly, tears streaming down her face as she looked over to Wyatt.

The man instantly froze with a deer-in-headlights look, hands up. “There’s no need for hugging,” he put in a bit stiffly. “Our introductions, or reintroductions, can proceed just fine without…” He trailed off then, as Lillian had stepped over in front of him.

“Young man,” she began, “I am not in the habit of forcing the people I care about to do anything that makes them so uncomfortable.” Clearing her throat, she raised a hand and extended it to him. “I will hug you when and if you ask, no sooner.”

Wyatt, for his part, looked a bit uncertain, but raised his hand to shake hers. He hesitated, before asking, “You really knew us as children?”

“Hardly more than infants,” the woman corrected before nodding. “But yes. You were both so clingy to each other. You couldn’t do anything unless the other one was either in your line of sight or touching you. The scene you must have made when they separated you…” She grimaced, her fist having tightened so much the whites of her knuckles were visible.

Flick and Koren exchanged glances, before the latter spoke up. “Ruthers is a real piece of work, huh?”

Squeezing Wyatt’s hand once more with a warm smile of assurance, Lillian turned to the younger girl. “And you. Somehow, I knew that you were more familiar than you should have been. I couldn’t understand it then, but now…” She took a step that way, embracing her. “I can’t believe your mother remembered the name Koren.”

Abigail nodded vigorously. “Neither can I, honestly. If I was an infant the last time I heard it, how would I remember it? The only thing I can think is that someone used the name where I could hear them when I was older, after they already adopted me out. Maybe one of the Heretics came to check in or something?”

With a slight nod of agreement, Lillian murmured, “Yes, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if that bastard sent people to check in on you through your whole life.”

Rebecca, who had been quiet throughout the encounter so far, finally spoke up. “Abigail isn’t the only one who remembered her name, though. Grandma remembered the name Joselyn, and Flick’s mom remembered the name Lillian.”

Flick glanced to the girl before returning her gaze to Lillian. “She’s got a point. And those names were magically erased.” She paused before quietly adding, “I guess that’s just how much you and Mom meant to each other, huh?”

It was her turn to be hugged then, as Lillian stepped over and pulled her into a tight embrace. “You look so much like your mother,” the woman breath while holding her tight. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I didn’t immediately see it the second I saw you. And everything you’ve done, she would be… She is so proud of you.” She leaned back them to look at the rest. “She is so proud of all of you. I know she is. You’re together. You’re helping each other. You’re…” Her head shook and she had to take a moment to collect herself. “I’m just glad you’re okay.” Pausing then, she looked over Flick’s shoulder to the water and cleared her throat. “And you’ve made some interesting friends, I see.”

Turning with the others, Flick looked that way to see one of her sharks poking her head up from the water with the missing fishing pole in her mouth. Immediately beaming, she made a small portal with one hand and stuck her hand through to reach the shark’s head, which she patted fondly. “Good girl, Simpson! See? Even if they think I’m crazy for this whole fishing pole thing, they’re still willing to help. Now let’s see…” Pulling the pole through the portal, she began reeling in the still somewhat weakly struggling fish. In the end, it came through the portal and into her hand, and she held it up, beaming. “I caught a fish!”

Koren sniffed airily. “I think your shark gets like three quarters of the credit for that one.”

“It totally counts,” Flick insisted, briefly sticking her tongue out at the other girl before admiring her catch. “See, I told you I could catch one.” Pausing, her head tilted. “Now what do we do with it?”

Lillian answered, “Gut it and clean it.”

Blanching, Flick looked at the fish in her hand, then promptly turned to throw it to the waiting shark. “You’re right,” she informed Koren. “Simpson deserves most of the credit. I shouldn’t be greedy.”

While the other is all exchanged doubtful looks, the blonde girl clapped her hands once. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but fishing and meeting people makes me hungry.

“How about we go get some breakfast?”

******

“So, you were really my mom‘s best friend?” Flick asked a couple hours later as she and Lillian walked together along the side of the lake. They had eaten breakfast with the others before the woman took a little time with just the adult twins. Now it was Flick’s turn to be alone with her.

“Am,” Lillian corrected. “I am Joselyn’s best friend. At least as far as I’m concerned. Anyone who wants to take that title away from me is going to have to fight me for it. And I bite.” She winked before looking more seriously at the younger woman. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t been there at all.”

Flinching at that, Flick quickly shook her head. “It is so far beyond not your fault, it’s not even funny. You didn’t have a choice. You didn’t remember any of it.”

Lillian stopped walking then, turning to put a hand on her shoulder. “That doesn’t stop me from being sorry that I wasn’t there. Your mother was always there for me. She helped me with so much, taught me so much. She made me laugh, she made me…” She sighed and murmured, “I should have been there. And I will be from now on.”

Hesitating, Flick asked, “What about your daughter? Rebecca’s mom, I mean.”

“I don’t know where she stands just yet,” Lillian admitted. “She or her husband. I haven’t heard from either of them. But I’m going to find out. And I’m going to make sure they understand. I’m going to bring them into this, if… if I can. I just hope they’re okay. If Ruthers’ people have done anything to them…”

“I’m sure we’ll find them,” Flick quickly put in. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel even more worried than you already are. Gabriel’s people will probably find them. Or maybe one of the other runaway Heretic groups will know something. Like your group, I mean.”

With a small smile, Lillian nodded. “Thank you, Felicity.”

Hearing that name made Flick hesitate before she quietly asked, “If you’re my mom‘s best friend, could you tell me where she got that name from? I kind of have the impression it’s something important.”

“Oh, it is,” Lillian confirmed. “I mean, first, you know what it means, right? Felicity means happiness.” When the younger girl nodded, she went on. “But of course, it’s more than that.”

“I figured it was,” Flick murmured. “Where did she get it from? Why does the name Felicity mean so much to her?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the woman replied before glancing back to the girl as she started to walk once more. “It’s because that’s where I was born.”

Blinking twice before quickly following, Flick blurted, “Wait, what? Where you grew up?”

Lillian nodded, stopping to grab a rock from the ground, which she tossed out to skip over the water as she continued to walk. “Yep, Felicity, Ohio. That’s where I was born, and where I grew up before Crossroads. It’s a tiny town. I mean, even now, let alone then. I think it’s got like a thousand people there today. It’s barely a blip on the map. Not even on lots of them. But it’s there, and it was home for a long time.” She was smiling faintly at fond memories that obviously came with those words.

Walking beside her, Flick hesitantly asked, “So, my mom named me after your hometown?”

“It was better than calling you Ohio,” Lillian teased with a wink. “But yes. It was when we were still at school. We were telling stories in our room a long time after we were supposed to be asleep. I told her a story about going camping with my brother and what it was like out there, and she said, ‘Lillian, you’re my best friend. I am going to name my daughter after you.’ But I said she couldn’t do that because then her daughter and I wouldn’t know which Lillian she loved more.”

She fell silent for a few long seconds, her eyes adopting a far-off look as she remembered those much simpler and more innocent times. Despite her silence however, Flick knew better than to interrupt or prod the woman. She remained quiet as well, walking slowly alongside her.

Finally, Lillian exhaled a little sadly before speaking once more. “Anyway, Joselyn said, ‘Fine, then I’ll name her after your hometown. I’ll call her Felicity. Because Felicity means happy, and you make me happy.’ She… she used to say that Felicity was the source of her happiness.” Pausing, she reiterated. “Felicity was the source of her happiness, because that was where I came from, and I made her happy.” There were tears in the woman’s eyes then, and it took her a moment to somewhat shakily finish with, “Because that’s where I came from. Felicity, Ohio.”

She stopped walking then, hanging her head a little. “She’s my best friend, and I haven’t been there for her at all through any of this.”

Flick didn’t hesitate. She stepped around in front of the woman and embraced her tightly. “You’re here now. You remember now. That’s what matters. I’m just glad you’re okay, and she will be too.”

Lillian returned the hug just as tightly. “Yes,” she promised. “I’m here and I’m staying. And we are going to find her, do you hear me? We are going to find that piece of shit necroasshole and get her away from him.”

Meeting her gaze for a moment, Flick slowly and seriously nodded. “Yes, we are.”

Reading her expression easily, Lillian lifted an eyebrow. “And when that fucker tries something on your birthday, we’ll be ready for him.”

Flick swallowed at that. “Right. Yeah, we’ll… be ready.” Taking another breath, she tried to make things better by asking, “Could you maybe tell me a story about you and my mom in school?”

Calming herself for the girl’s sake, Lillian managed a soft smile. “Felicity, I have more stories than I could tell you in a whole year.

“Why don’t we start with the one about the Codell Tornadoes?”

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Summer Epilogue 13 (Heretical Edge)

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At four-thirty in the morning, the rural bus station in southern Ohio wasn’t exactly hopping. A few figures dotted the seats around the waiting area, most of them curled up asleep with coats and bags acting as blankets and pillows respectively. One grizzled old man in an army jacket sat at a metal table eating a sandwich from the nearby vending machine.

Sitting at a table on the opposite side of the room was a group of what appeared to be ordinary teenagers, four girls and one boy, on a trip. Given the bags and jackets they wore advertising a certain university a couple hundred miles away, they seemed to be just-graduated high schoolers out for a tour of the campus.

Which was exactly what they were supposed to look like. They had even bought tickets for a later bus heading that way, and spoke in front of the clerk about how much fun it was going to be.

At the moment, the five of them were quietly playing poker. To any outside observer, their conversation would appear to be centered around their upcoming university tour. But that was an illusion maintained by the magic coin lying on the table in front of the single male. Their true conversation was much different.

“Lobby’s still clear,” Gordon Kuhn announced, his finger idly brushing the coin in front of him as his eyes scanned the room. “We checked everyone here. As far as we can tell, they’re all ordinary Bystanders.”

“Good,” Risa Kohaku replied through the communication badges they all wore. “Keep your eyes open. With any luck this will be a simple pick-up. We’ve got no reason to think Crossroads or Garden know anything about it, but there is no reason to get sloppy.”

Across from Gordon, the smallest member of their group raised a hand, clearing her throat. “Can I just say,” Rebecca Jameson started, “talking about Crossroads like they’re the enemy is still really weird.” Quickly, she amended, “I mean, I know they are. It’s just…”

Sitting next to her, Jazz Rhodes nodded. “It’s weird. Yeah, don’t worry, we get it.” She sighed then, rubbing her hand over her hair, which had recently been shortened down to only a couple inches long, and dyed a bright neon green. She wore sunglasses with matching coloration to her hair. “It’s a lot to deal with.”

The final two girls, identical twins Sands and Scout, glanced to one another before nodding. The former spoke up. “Yeah, don’t worry. You’re definitely not alone. We’ve had a lot longer to deal with it. Considering you only found out about this stuff like… under a month ago, you’re doing really good.”

“Well,” Scout corrected her sister idly before looking to Rebecca with a small smile. “And it’ll be a month tomorrow.”

The small girl grimaced a little at that. “A month,” she echoed. “All that stuff at Crossroads happened a month ago, and we still don’t know where my parents are.” After a brief pause, she added in a softer voice, “Or what side they’re on.”

Wincing, Sands assured her, “We’ll find them, I promise. Things are really confusing right now. You’re not the only one who doesn’t know what side the rest of their family is on.” Biting her lip, she then offered, “At least your grandmother should be with this group, right?”

Making herself smile despite the worry that she felt, Rebecca gave a quick nod. “Yeah,” she murmured, “hopefully. As long as they haven’t gotten separated. Last I heard, Grandma’s group had to go through some place that was full of Garden patrols. I… I just hope she made it. I hope they all made it.”

Jazz put a hand on the other girl’s shoulder. “She’ll be here. Just don’t let this whole reunion thing make you forget that you promised you’d come to mine next month.” Despite her light, teasing words, it was clear that there was a deep underlying tension and nervousness there.

Rebecca started to say something hopefully reassuring back to the girl, but she was interrupted by Scout. “There.”

The rest of them turned to look. Sure enough, a bus had pulled into the depot. The number on the front and side read forty-six. Bus forty-six, the one they had been waiting for.

Immediately, the five of them stood up. But they didn’t all walk toward the doors. Instead, they followed the plan. Gordon and Rebecca moved to the vending machine close to that entrance and proceeded to casually discuss what to get. The twins, meanwhile, went to the restroom. And Jazz moved to the street-side entrance, pretending to read a flyer there while scanning the sidewalk and street beyond, watching for intruders. Kohaku would already be keeping a close eye on things from her own elevated position on top of a building across the street, but every little bit helped.

The bus had come to a stop then, as the passengers began to disembark. Watching them come through, Rebecca turned from the vending machine and raised a hand in a lazy two finger salute. “Howdy,” she greeted the first arrivals. “Long trip, huh?”

It was code, of course. If she had said nothing, it would have meant that the place was compromised and they all needed to scatter. If she had welcomed them home, it would have meant that their exit point was outside. And if she had said anything about food, it would have directed them to the nearest restaurant for extraction.

Her actual words, about how long the trip had been, would point them to the restroom. Those who knew what was going on, anyway. Bystanders would be clueless.

More passengers entered, as she and Gordon took turns greeting them with some variation of discussing the length of the trip. Through it all, Jazz watched the other doors, tense as she waited to see if there would be any interruption.

But there wasn’t. One by one, the arriving Heretics made their way to the restroom and the waiting extraction point. Sands and Scout were there, pointing them to the portal that had been set up. The portal that would take them to the (for now) final leg of their long journey, the Atherby camp.

Unfortunately, as smooth as the extraction seemed to be going, there was still no sign of Rebecca‘s grandmother. With each passing person and lack of recognition, the girl felt herself deflate a little bit more. She tried not to show it, but she had been really looking forward to seeing the woman again and finally being reunited with a family member. Even though she tried to tell herself that was selfish given what everyone was dealing with, it didn’t really help.

She had just resigned herself to the fact that she would half to wait for another group, when the doors opened one last time and the driver came in. He was accompanied by two other figures. One was a certain incredibly handsome dark-haired young man with very slightly Asian features. Deveron Adams. Seeing Rebecca there, he gave a brief, broad smile before looking to his companion.

There beside him stood  a certain small, brunette woman whose family resemblance to the waiting girl would have been fairly evident even without any other help.

Seeing Grandma Lillian, Rebecca’s eyes lit up. It was all she could do not to fling herself at the woman. And, given the look her grandmother gave her in return when she was spotted, the feeling was mutual.

They still had to play this cool. Until they were through that portal, anything could go wrong. Out here in the open, exposed like this, loyalist Heretics from either organization could show up any second.

Clearing her throat while fighting to keep the broad, giddy smile from her face, Rebecca intoned, “Long trip?”

The driver, clueless as to the code, gave her a brief, wary nod while muttering, “You don’t know the half of it.” He headed off to get coffee from the nearby machine then, while Lillian winked at Rebecca and moved toward the restroom.

The girl physically ached to run after her. But that wasn’t the plan. They had to make sure everyone made it through. This wasn’t the only bus carrying Heretic refugees, and the second one had already pulled in.

In the meantime, Deveron held the door open, allowing one more figure to come through. Asenath gave Rebecca a tiny nod before walking right past. She and Deveron and casually made their way across the lobby before heading for the restroom.

It took what seemed like forever, a torturous twenty minutes to make sure everyone got through the portal. But finally, it was done. There had been no interruption, no attack. The last of the arriving groups had passed through the portal in the restroom without incident.

“That’s it,” Kohaku finally announced. “You’re clear. Take the exit and head home. I’ll do clean up.”

Clean up, in this case, was part of the reason for why they couldn’t simply instantly teleport everyone home. There were spells and certain abilities that could track such transports. Anyone on the loyalists’ side who figured out the general area where a transport had happened could potentially track the destination. That would lead them to the Atherby camp. The solution was this subterfuge, as well as leaving someone behind (Kohaku in this case) to magically wipe the traces of transport so that they couldn’t be followed.

“Good work, guys,” the former Crossroads security chief added, “and thanks.”

That was all the invitation Rebecca needed. Joined by Gordon and Jazz, she all but ran to the restroom. The twins were there, along with Deveron and Asenath. When Sands saw her enter, she gave Rebecca a thumbs up. “She’s through,” the girl assured her. “We’re all good.”

Without missing a beat, Rebecca all but hurled herself at Asenath. Hugging the vampire would have been utterly horrific and terrifying a month earlier. Now, she didn’t care. She held tight while blurting,”You found her! You actually found her!”

“We said we would,” Asenath reminded her with a small smile, returning the embrace. “Though hugs are pretty good payment, I’ve gotta say. I could use more of those.”

Blushing, Rebecca took a moment to embrace Deveron as well. “Thank you,” she murmured, “Thank you for finding my grandma.”

“It really wasn’t that hard,” the man admitted. “She was helping a group of glasswalkers and they… well, let’s just say they were in good shape with her.” Stepping back, he gestured. “But enough of us. Why don’t you head through? She’s waiting for you. And let me tell you, she is one proud grandmother.”

“Yup,” Asenath agreed. “Nine hour bus ride just to make sure no one can track us back to the camp, and she hasn’t stopped talking about you once.”

The thought of that made Rebecca blush, squirming on her feet before looking over to the exit point. The portal looked like a glowing blue square on the wall. Smiling even while trying to contain her overwhelming excitement and giddiness, Rebecca stepped through. She braced herself for the brief feeling of this disorientation and slight nausea that would come from the sudden transport.

The moment cleared, and she was standing on the waiting patch of grass about fifty yards from the nearest cabin, the glistening lake visible to her right.

An instant later, she found herself suddenly grabbed in an embrace that nearly took the wind from her. “Weasel!” her ‘captor’ blurted.

“Grandma!” Rebecca clutched onto the other woman, who was no taller than she. Both quickly stepped away from the portal to avoid the others while still clinging to one another. Rebecca felt like crying, clutching her grandmother even tighter. “Grandma, you made it, you made it!”

In a soft, fond tone, Lillian Patters replied,  “Well of course I did, Weasel. Did you really think I’d leave you out here to camp without me?”

Squeezing the woman as tightly as she could for a moment while fighting to control the tears that were trying to pour down her face, Rebecca tried to get a hold of herself. Finally, she managed a weak, “Mom and Dad?”

There was a brief pause, before Lillian leaned back to look at her granddaughter. Her voice was quiet. “I haven’t heard,” she admitted. “Have you…”

Rebecca‘s head shook. “Nothing. I don’t know if they’re out in one of the groups that haven’t come in yet, or if they’re prisoners, or…” She trailed off, face screwing up a bit.

“We’ll find out,” Grandma Lillian promised while squeezing her tighter. “If they need help escaping, we’ll get them out. And if they need a little help waking up still… Well, we’ll handle that too.”

Choking back the tiny sob of relief she felt just by her grandmother’s presence, Rebecca managed a somewhat teary smile. “I’m glad you’re here, Grandma.”

“Oh Weasel,” Lillian murmured, moving a hand to cup the side of the girl’s face. “I’m glad you’re here too. I am so proud of you making it this far.”

Blushing, Rebecca shook her head. “I haven’t really done much,” she admitted. “I’ve been pretty clueless all year.”

Hesitating briefly, she peeked at the woman. “Is it really true that you were part of the very first rebellion? Right from the beginning, I mean. With Deveron and Flick’s mom.”

“Deveron…” Smiling to herself, Lillian gave a quick nod. “Yup. I knew him back before he killed that Incubus thing, when he still looked all goofy. Jos liked him even then, you know. They were…” She went quiet for a moment, looking away while lost in her memories. “They were always a thing. Even before they knew it. We knew. The rest of the…” Swallowing hard, the woman looked back to her granddaughter. “Your middle name–”

“Joselyn,” Rebecca confirmed, head bobbing quickly. “You remembered her. Sort of, I mean.”

“Sort of,” Lillian agreed. “Somewhere in the back of my mind. I…” She straightened, taking her granddaughter by both sides of the face before leaning in to kiss her forehead. “You are amazing, Weasel. You really are.”

“She is.” That was Deveron, who had come through the portal with the others. He stood there, watching the two of them with a broad smile. “You know, if you stood on each other’s shoulders, you both might reach the height of a normal human b–oww!” He grunted, stepping back as Lillian put her fist in his side.

“Same old Deveron,” the woman muttered, squinting at him. “You still don’t know when to stop talking.”

Grinning at her, the man retorted, “Worth it.”

Despite her words, Lillian was smiling as well, her hand moving to grab onto her granddaughter’s. “Your children and Joselyn’s other daughter, they’re…”

“They’re here,” Rebecca put in, squeezing the woman’s hand. “Wyatt and Abigail and… and Flick. Do… do you want to meet them?”

With a little nod, Lillian agreed, “I’d like that very much. The last time I saw… Zedekiah and Koren together, they were… well, they were still Zedekiah and Koren. And babies.”

“Go ahead,” Deveron urged the pair, glancing back over to the camp. “They’re… over that way, by the lake. Looks like all three of them are there. With the actual Koren.”

Heading that way with her grandmother, Rebecca hesitantly asked, “They said you were helping some Glasswalkers? What happened?”

So, the woman told her about how her memory had come back, and that she had helped the group of Alters escape. “They’re okay now,” she informed the girl. “They made it to another group that was going to take them to Wonderland. That’s–”

“I’ve heard of it,” Rebecca quickly informed her. “The others told me about that place. It’s like a Stranger ha–I mean Alter haven, right?”

Nodding, Lillian looked to the much younger girl. “You’ve learned a lot over the past month, haven’t you?”

“Not enough,” Rebecca admitted. “I’ve been trying to catch up, but… but it’s a lot.” She swallowed hard. “I feel stupid for going along with Crossroads for so long. I mean, they… they hurt and kill a lot of innocent creatures… I mean… people, or… or…”

“I know what you mean,” Lillian quietly assured her. “It’s okay, Weasel. Lots of people fell for their propaganda. Until Joselyn came along that first time, I did.”

“Joselyn… she was pretty special, huh?” Rebecca hesitantly offered, glancing to her grandmother.

Lillian’s smile was both incredibly fond, and incredibly sad at how much they had lost. Particularly time. “Yes. Yes, she is. She’s my best friend, Rebecca. She was my best friend for… for so long. Not since we met. We kind of… fought at first, when we were put together. We argued so much for about the first month or so. Then things changed. She saved my life on a hunt and from there… well, we were almost inseparable. I would have followed her right into a volcano. Actually, I think I did a couple times.” She laughed to herself a little before looking over to the girl. “Joselyn has a way of inspiring people to do ridiculous things.”

Her smile fell a bit then. “And now… now she’s been in this… she needed me and I wasn’t there. I couldn’t help save her twins, and then I couldn’t… I couldn’t stop Fossor from taking her. I forgot her.” Her voice was hollow, eyes filled with regret.

“You didn’t know,” Rebecca quickly put in, hating to see her grandmother like that. “It was magic, they… they erased your memory. You couldn’t have been there.” She squeezed the woman’s hand, staring up at her as their gradual walk slowed.

Breathing in, then out, Lillian gave a slight nod. “I know. But that doesn’t really help very much. Jos needed me and I wasn’t there. I haven’t been there for so long. The things Crossroads did–the things they made me do after they knew how I felt, what I chose… the…” She stopped talking then, blinking rapidly before forcing herself to focus on her granddaughter. For a moment, she just pulled the girl into a hug, needing that connection.

For Rebecca’s part, she certainly wasn’t objecting. Returning the hug tightly, she murmured, “It’s okay, Grandma. The spell’s gone. You… you remember now. And we’re gonna find Flick’s mom, before…”

Hearing the girl trail off, Lillian blinked. “Before what?” she asked with a frown.

“I…” Swallowing, Rebecca gestured toward the lake where the others would be waiting. “Flick’s birthday. Something…”

“Fossor,” Lillian guessed, eyes darkening. “He wants to take her on her birthday, doesn’t he?” Seeing her granddaughter’s hesitant nod, she cursed under her breath. “Over my dead–” Stopping herself, the woman met the younger girl’s gaze. “We’ll see about that. Now come on. I really need to see how my tiny twin tykes grew up. And if their cheeks are just as pinchable as they used to be.”

“Uh, I know you’re a real badass, Grandma,” Rebecca offered, “but you probably shouldn’t try to pinch Wyatt’s cheek.

“That just seems like a really bad idea.”

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