Lincoln Chambers

Commissioned Interlude 1 – Sariel and Lincoln (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note: Commissioned Interludes are the same as Mini-Interludes, I’ve just changed the name for this second year and reset the counting. 

“So, now you’re a teacher.” Lincoln’s words were casual as he looked around the classroom in the Atherby camp. This wasn’t a class for teenagers, of course. They would learn at the space station school up… up in the sun. And wow did that thought keep coming out of nowhere to wallop him with how ridiculous it sounded. Seriously, a school inside the sun. He’d thought they were kidding when first explaining it. Hell, it took several times to convince him both that they were completely serious and that it was safe. Or at least as safe as it could possibly be. In any case, it would be very hard for any of their many enemies to find them up there, he supposed. 

But no, this school was for children, an elementary school, essentially. This particular classroom held about twenty desks, all facing a projection screen at the front of the room, with the teacher’s desk and table to the left, perpendicular to the student’s desks. 

Sariel was there, standing by the table with a cup of coffee. She gave a slight smile to his words before taking another cup and offering it to him. “Morning, and it seems that way. My… my brother and husband seem to think that I have a way with children. Personally, I’m pretty sure they’ve decided that surrounding me with kids all day stops me from getting into trouble, though that seems a dangerous assumption.” 

Taking the coffee with a chuckle before sipping it, Lincoln nodded. “Well, from what I’ve heard, I can’t say that getting you to take a vacation from all the danger is a bad idea. And it sounds as though you like teaching children as much as they like to learn from you.” He offered her a wink before adding, “I might’ve spoken to a few of them about how their first day went.” 

“I’m glad they gave you a good review then.” Sariel watched the man for a moment before curiously asking, “And how are you doing with Felicity and Tabbris away at their own school?” 

“About as well as you’re doing with Tabbris and both of your other children away as well, I expect,” Lincoln pointed out before adding a quiet, “You always think you’ll get used to it.” 

“Some days are going to be better than others,” Sariel murmured into her coffee before looking up to him. “You just take it as it comes. And make sure they call you and visit on weekends.” 

“Oh, believe me, they’re both in trouble if they don’t come on the weekends,” Lincoln assured her with a snort, glancing that way. “I’ll find a way to get up there and embarrass the hell out of them.” 

“Consider me your escort in that case,” Sariel replied with a soft chuckle of her own. “We can embarrass all four of them together. I’m sure they’ll get the point about visiting pretty quick.” 

Lincoln gave a nod of agreement. “It’s a plan. Not that I expect them to actually be embarrassed or anything about coming back here. More like…” He trailed off, considering his words for a moment. 

“More like they’ll get too busy with whatever mysteries and adventures and… problems are occupying them at the moment,” Sariel finished in a voice that showed she’d had the same understanding for quite awhile. “And let time get away from them while they focus on that.”

“Exactly,” Lincoln confirmed, shaking his head with an added, “Making them take a break, making them come here and spend time not… not involved in any of that, it’s important.” 

Sariel agreed quietly, her eyes glancing away. “Our children are very good at finding trouble. All four of them. But at least they have each other, and the rest of their friends. Which is good, considering I’m fairly certain this year is going to be even more complicated than the last one, even if that seems impossible now.”

Lincoln was silent for a few long seconds, looking toward some of the children’s drawings on the wall. A smile touched his face before it trembled just a little. “Felicity’s birthday is coming up soon. She’ll be an adult, as far as human government is concerned. She’s…” He trailed off, fist tightening at his side before he punched a blank part of the wall with an explosive sigh. Fist still against the wall, he lowered his head, voice quiet. “It’s supposed to be a celebration. She’s supposed to be happy, starting her life, being a young adult. She’s not supposed to be afraid of what’s going to happen when her birthday comes. That son of a bitch, that evil… arrogant… monster did this on purpose.” 

Sariel nodded, stepping closer to put her hand on the man’s back. “Of course he did. He wants to scare her, to scare all of us. This way she spent a year worrying about what’s happening to her mom, and what could happen to herself. She’s spent a year with this in the back of her mind, always there and waiting for her to dwell on. And now the birthday is getting closer and it’s even bigger. Soon it will be all she can think about. Even if she tries to distract herself.”

Lincoln exhaled, his voice quiet. “I keep asking myself if he’s going to attack on her birthday, or sometime afterward. The deal, as I understand it, just says that he has to leave her alone until her birthday.”

“He could go either way,” Sariel replied. “He’s dramatic enough to go for the day of, just to prove he can beat everyone else even with a year of advanced warning. But he’s also pragmatic enough to wait and make us use all our energy protecting her for several weeks until we think the danger is over. You’re right, the deal just says until her birthday. Technically, he could wait until she’s thirty and then make his move. It’s impossible to keep someone under that much protection for their entire lives, especially someone like Felicity. And he knows it.”

Giving a soft, humorless chuckle, Lincoln turned to look at her. “You’re not exactly making me feel any better about this, you know.”

Sariel offered him a faint smile. “I’m sorry. It’s important that you fully understand the seriousness of the situation. But it’s also important that you know that you and Felicity are not alone in this. There are a lot of very good, strong people working on it. Fossor is incredibly dangerous, but he is not some omnipotent enemy. Haiden and I consider both of you family. And I can never make up for what happened with Joselyn and her other children, but I won’t stop trying to help.”

“Deveron’s still not really talking to you, is he?” Lincoln waited until she shook her head before continuing. “I can’t really say that I’d feel any different in his position, given everything. I know you didn’t mean for Ruthers to take it the way he did, but it was still taken from your suggestion.”

Sariel nodded, her eyes still showing the deep guilt that was there. Yet it was the sort of guilt that spurred action and change rather than self-loathing and pity. She had made the choices that she made in the past. Many had been wrong, others had been right. She couldn’t change them. All she could do was make future choices that would lead to better paths. Those who were angry with her, and who might be angry forever, had every reason and right to be. She would never fault them for that. 

Finally, the woman shook those thoughts away before turning to walk to the other side of the room. “In any case, I imagine you’re wondering why I asked you to come and visit so early this morning?” Her tone had taken on a sort of forced casualness that made it clear she had something important to talk to him about.

“As far as the hour goes, I presume that whatever it is needed to happen before classes,” Lincoln replied, considering the woman for a moment before walking that way as well. 

“It’s not desperately pressing,” Sariel admitted while reaching out to touch a rune on the wall. “It could have waited until later. But I do think we need to talk about it, and I’ve been putting it off for awhile until I was certain. Or at least as certain as I can be without direct testing.” Under her touch, the rune glowed before a doorway appeared on the wall, revealing stairs leading down.

“Is this supposed to feel ominous?” Lincoln asked, only half-joking as he looked to the stairs. 

Sariel offered him a reassuring smile. “Not ominous. As I said, it’s not an emergency. Nor is it… a problem, exactly. Come, it’s better if I show you while explaining.” With that, she moved through the doorway and started down the stairs, to one of her private magical science labs.

The room itself was long and mostly rectangular, aside from a half-circle bit at the far end. There were testing stations along both long walls, and a large metal table in the middle covered in scrolls, notebooks, vials of different-colored liquids that glowed brightly, and various crystals.

“This is about that sample I gave you awhile ago, isn’t it? And the other ones you asked for,” Lincoln realized, following the woman over to the table. Sitting there at the end was what looked like a table lamp, except instead of a bulb, a large magnifying glass was attached to it. Runes covered the surface of the ‘lamp’ part. 

“It’s related, yes,” Sariel confirmed while pulling on the magnifying glass part. It came out, attached to a stiff cord that left the lens in whatever position it was when released. Holding it thoughtfully, she hesitated before looking over at him. “You know that I was looking over your samples just to make sure there wouldn’t be a problem with you bonding with Tabbris. And to see just how compatible you are so that… so that we could try to make it work the first time.” 

“See, when you say it like that,” Lincoln murmured, “my first instinct is that there’s some kind of problem.” He met her gaze. “Yet, before we came down here, you said it wasn’t exactly a problem. So I’m going to guess that it’s more of a… should we call it a complication?” 

“That’s a good word for it,” the woman agreed. “Here, take a look through this.” She adjusted the position of the enchanted magnifying glass to face the table, beckoning him over while carefully moving a glass slide into position under it. “This is a magically prepared bit of your blood. I’ve set it up to mimic the bonding process as if it was still part of you.”

Lincoln gave her a brief, curious look at that before stepping over and looking down through the large lens. It was bigger than his head, magnifying the view up onto its surface to make the whole thing very easy to see. The slide with his blood was there, as Sariel reached over with an eyedropper, explaining, “This is werewolf blood.” 

Watching, Lincoln held his questions as the woman released a couple drops of the werewolf blood onto the glass slide of his own. Over the next few seconds, the blood mixed, Sariel explaining, “The enchantment will speed up the process. What you’re seeing is what would normally take place over a few days.”

The blood mixed thoroughly, his own sample seeming to latch onto and pull the werewolf blood into it. For a moment, Lincoln saw nothing different, his mouth opening to ask what he was supposed to be looking at. Then he stopped, as the blood samples abruptly separated once more, the werewolf sample being pushed out of his own. “Errr, I don’t think…”

“That’s not supposed to happen,” Sariel confirmed. “Not after a few days, not after a few months, not ever. Not with an ordinary, average human, that is. What you’re looking at is an extremely rare condition that we’ve only seen a few times before.”

Frowning and certainly, Lincoln raised his gaze from the blood samples to look at her. “What does it mean? I can’t bond properly?”

Sariel’s head shook. “Not exactly. You seem to be what we call a Chimera-blood. It means that any sort of bonding won’t fully… stick. The first time you bond with someone, it will… unlock your bonding ability. You’ll have everything from that person, such as Tabbris, as if you’d become a true Natural Heretic. But it will fade over time, depending on how much is used to bond with, anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Once it fades, you’ll go back to being the way you are now. Except… except after that first time, coming into physical contact with any bodily fluid, even through your skin, will trigger the temporary bonding process. Your body will absorb the fluid automatically and provide you with the same abilities as if you were a Natural Heretic of that being.”

Rocking backward on his heels, Lincoln stared at her, mouth working a couple times. “I… does this have anything to do with Calafia weakening the Bystander Effect before?”

Sariel’s head shook. “I don’t believe so. As I said, it’s an extraordinarily rare condition. As far as I know, it’s only come up a few times that the Seosten are aware of. I’m sure there are others in different groups we never had enough access to. But still, not many. That’s why I’ve been taking my time examining all of this and getting some advice from Apollo. I wanted to be completely certain it was real and not a contaminated sample.”

Lincoln nodded slowly. “That’s why you had me give you a couple more. I thought you were just being overly cautious because of Tabbris. I… I have no idea how… or why… why I’d be like this. As far as I know, the family on my side is normal. Back through a couple great-grandparents, anyway.”

“There doesn’t necessarily have to be anything special in your background,” Sariel informed him. “It’s some kind of random mutation, possibly caused by something, but we don’t know. I actually haven’t had much chance to study someone like you. That fell more under Cahethal’s purview, the one your people knew as Demeter. She’s still with Eden’s Garden, the counterpart to Jophiel. Or they were counterparts, until Elisabet disappeared. Now, I don’t know.”

Realizing she had gotten off on a tangent, the woman shook herself. “The point is, I’d like to do some more direct tests with you, if you don’t mind. But… but I think that even if you can’t permanently bond with her, Tabbris would still…” 

“It’s still important that she be the first,” Lincoln agreed. “We’ve been talking about it a lot. And yeah, even if I can’t be bonded to her permanently, I still want it to be her. That way she’ll always be the one who unlocked it. That’s something. And I… hold on.” He frowned again. “What about Felicity? She’s my daughter, will this… condition… I mean, does she…”

“It’s rare enough that it doesn’t seem to be automatically passed to children,” Sariel assured him. “It’s been over a year now since Felicity was bonded, I’d say she’s normal in that respect. It’s possible something may pop up in the future, and I’ll run some tests to be sure, or at least as sure as I can be. But I would be very surprised to see anything at all in her case. Quite honestly, if it was going to happen, it almost certainly would have already. As I said, though, we can run some tests the next time she comes down.” 

“Good.” Lincoln stared through the magnifying glass at his blood. “How sure are you about it having nothing to do with my family?”

Sariel’s head shook. “Not that certain at all, to be honest. It doesn’t seem to be automatically passed on or anything, as I said. We’ve seen parents with it and then it doesn’t pop up again at all throughout any of their descendants for over a thousand years. From what I know of Cahethal’s studies, it’s just as I said, a completely random mutation that, if passed on, is extremely recessive. There could possibly be something in your background, but I would have to know a lot more before making any kind of educated guess.”

Lincoln thought for a moment. “I should talk to my parents. As far as they’re concerned, Felicity and I are in a deep cover witness protection program. I keep telling them we can’t talk about it and they keep guessing which of the bad guys I report it on in LA decided to come after us. So it’s been a bit awkward. They’ll probably be even more curious if I start asking about our family history, but maybe I can convince them that it’s just to take my mind off things. I think Dad might have some old journals or something. If this is from something in my bloodline, there might be something in there.”

“Anything might help,” Sariel agreed, “especially considering I very much doubt Cahethal will exactly jump to share any of her research notes. No matter how nicely I ask.” She had a slightly bemused expression while adding, “Although, it might be worth it to see the look on her face if I did.”

Lincoln chuckled softly. “I don’t know her, but I still think I might pay for that.” He sobered quickly, however, adding, “Anyway, yeah, run any tests you need to on both Felicity and me. Whatever causes this condition, I’d rather it not take us by surprise.”

With a nod, Sariel gently teased, “I take it that means you won’t have a problem donating more blood?” She had already summoned a syringe to one hand, wiggling it at him. 

Sighing, Lincoln began to roll up his sleeve. “You know, I lived with a vampire for months and she never tried to get my blood.”

Sariel shrugged at that, replying, “Maybe she would have if she knew what a rare genetic treat it is.”

The look on his face was worth it.

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Fusion 1-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Denouement 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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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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Summer Epilogue 10 (Heretical Edge)

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“Oh damn it, I liked you as a teacher!”

The outburst came from Tristan, as the boy put the heels of both hands against his forehead, fingers pressed against his scalp. “Seriously, dude, you’re possessed too?”

Wyatt, meanwhile, had a hand against his own forehead as well. In his case, however, the man was repeatedly slapping himself. “No! No, should’ve known. I did it wrong. I knew I did it wrong. Had to test. I had to test and it was supposed to work. What did I do wrong?”

There was a brief pause as the man in the doorway blinked at her, before stepping fully inside. “First, Mr. Moon,” he began simply, “I promise, the man you enjoyed having as an instructor is basically the exact same guy you always knew. My, ahhh… influence runs pretty much the same way as Sariel there. You know, I act as subtly as possible, and only taking direct control when I absolutely have to. For the most part, all the teaching you experienced was from Benji himself.”

Flick was pointing at him. “You–that–we tested you! I tested you! I swear, I used the choker thing and you didn’t show up as Seosten. And Wyatt! He’s right! Wyatt used the ejection rune thing on everyone who came in here. Why wouldn’t it work on you? Why didn’t you show up as Seosten before? What?”

Holding up both hands for peace, the Seosten-possessed-man carefully replied, “There’s a reason for both of those not working. My old friends here, they already know.”

“Amitiel,” Sariel herself announced neutrally, already having moved to step in front of the man.  

“He prefers Mercury,” Apollo reminded her as he put himself beside his pseudo-sibling. “Right?”

The man wearing Benji Carfried gave a very slight swallow before his head bowed. “Yup. That’s right. Mercury’s my name. Just like Apollo is yours. Do you want to explain why their tests didn’t work?”

“It’s Mercury’s Olympian power,” Apollo murmured, glancing to the others. “It allows him to extend, delay, or quicken the effects of any magic that’s used on him. When you tested him with the choker, or the expulsion rune, he just delayed the effect long enough to convince you it didn’t work, then got out of sight before letting it happen.”

Wyatt, cursing rapidly under his breath, yanked a well-worn notebook from his pocket once more and set about rapidly scrawling in it. He tore three pages out, looked around briefly as though looking for somewhere to throw them, then simply shoved the paper into his mouth, chewing and swallowing before setting out to scribble even faster.

“Errr, right,” Mercury murmured at that before shaking his head. “But before we get too far with this, I ahh, I’d kind of like to speak to you guys directly. Without my host, I mean. Do you have a place for him to rest for the time being? He and I… we need to have a conversation about where we’re going from here, if he’s up for it. But that can wait. This seemed more pressing.”

“So you’re not going to try to possess him against his will again?” Flick put in, staring intently at the man. She too had enjoyed Carfried as a teacher and didn’t know what all this meant for that, despite Mercury’s words. “You’re not just gonna make some deal about jumping back in?”

The man offered her a brief, genuine smile. “You know, I’m pretty sure the days of that are almost gone as it is,” he pointed out. “After all, Liesje’s spell must be pretty close to being ready to go. So I would’ve revealed myself eventually regardless.”

He heaved a slow sigh. “No, I’ve no intention of forcing control of Benji again, after this. I’d… ahhh, kind of like it if somebody else would sorta… talk to him and explain the situation. Tell him that, if he wants, we can have a face-to-face conversation any way he wants. Or I can leave him alone. His choice. Either way, it’d  be best if he hears it from someone other than me, at first.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “You really don’t take much control of your vict–host?” She was squinting suspiciously at him.

Clearing Carfried’s throat, Mercury quietly pointed out, “Yeah, I get your doubts, trust me. All I can say is that you’ll see for yourself when you talk to him enough after I’m gone. You’ll know it’s him. He’s your teacher and he always was. I took control only when I had to for my mission. Or to protect some other Seosten secret. For the vast majority of my time with Benji, I was a passive observer.”

“He definitely sounds different,” Flick pointed out. “I can’t explain it, but he’s not really talking like Carfried does. If I didn’t know about Seosten or anything, I’d almost say they were twins.”

From the corner where she was still standing, Gwen agreed, “She’s right. This guy may look like Benji Carfried, but you can tell the difference. He’s not trying to blend in. I can’t say if that means that he wasn’t acting different before, or that it proves what he’s claiming about not taking control. But he is different now.” As she spoke, the woman continued to look the man up and down with a hard, yet thoughtful expression, still deciding exactly what she thought of him.

“I’m sorry,” Abigail suddenly put in, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around this whole ‘Flick, Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris have been co-opted by Aphrodite to convince an intergalactic evil empire to completely change everything about itself in order to win a war against another intergalactic evil empire full of even worse monsters, and they have a year to do it’… thing. Now this guy’s another Seosten?” She paused, taking a breath before exhaling long and hard while muttering, “I never thought I’d say this, but I miss law school.”

“Don’t worry,” Flick assured her sister with a hand on her shoulder, “we’ll let you learn Seosten law so you can help convince the Seraphs not to kill all of us.” As Abigail lifted her head to squint at her, the girl raised her hand to give a thumbs up. “You got this.”

Lincoln finally spoke, standing up. “Well, Mr… ahh, Mercury. Whatever’s going on, I guess you can put your… host over in the bedroom here.” He waved for the man to follow while heading that way. “He can sleep on the bed, and we’ll explain things to him later.” Pausing, he added, “I should probably make sure there’s alcohol nearby at the time.”

While the two went to do that, Gwen took a breath before quietly asking, “Are you sure we can trust him to tell us the truth about the Merlin Key?” Her eyes were on Sariel and Apollo.

The ‘twins’ exchanged glances before Sariel spoke. “He has no real reason to lie right now. It’s in the best interest of everyone who stays on Earth that Arthur be awake before the year is up. The Seraphim are much more likely to listen to alliance suggestions if we make them from a position of strength.”

Apollo nodded. “Kinda hard to get any stronger than a natural Dragon-Heretic. If you guys say that Jophiel sent him, I don’t see why he’d lie about anything here. He has to know that that would be a bad idea for the trust they’re trying to foster.”

“And,” Sariel added, “he’s the one who first convinced us to… to save Chayyiel. He begged us to find a way to get her out of Tartarus. He was willing to risk everything, willing to do anything, to save her.” She paused briefly, before finishing with, “I’d say we can trust him for that, if nothing else. Besides, as we said, he has no tactical reason to lie right now.”

Tabbris, holding onto her mother’s arm, asked, “Does he really possess people like you did?”

“As far as we know, he does,” Apollo confirmed. “Mercury was always getting in trouble for not taking more control, for not having a… firm hold on his hosts. If he says he’s barely been doing anything with Carfried, I’d believe him.”

“Thanks.” That voice, unknown to most of them until now, came from the doorway where Lincoln stood with the actual Mercury. He was shorter than the man beside him, yet taller than his host, standing just over six feet. His hair, dark red to the point of nearly being black, was worn long, with a tight ponytail, and his skin was very tanned, with firm, lean muscles. He looked like a lightweight boxer, with eyes that were bright green.

“I’d like to say it’s nice to meet all of you face to face,” the Seosten observed. “Honestly, I would’ve preferred to do it without all this tension, but I suppose that was pretty inevitable.” Taking a breath, he stepped forward and extended a hand toward them. “Let’s start this again. You can call me Mercury.”

Haiden was the first to step that way, taking the man’s hand firmly as he looked him straight in the eyes. “I hope my wife and brother-in-law are right about trusting you with this.”

“Yes,” a new voice announced from the entrance into the cabin. Athena stood there, watching the other Seosten as she let the door close after her. “So do I.” Glancing to Flick and the others, she added, “Guinevere has brought me up to date about what happened. I…” She paused to consider, then finished with, “I’m sorry you were put in that kind of position.”

Vanessa offered her a weak shrug. “We’ve been in worse. I mean, Jophiel isn’t that bad.”

With a small smile, Athena agreed, “Yes, there were certainly worse people who could have discovered Tabbris at the lab that day.”

She and Gwen exchanged brief looks and a silent conversation passed between the two before Athena turned back to the others, her gaze finding Mercury once more. “As tense as it may be for some of us, for this alliance to ever work, we are going to have to trust each other.”

“In the… interest of that,” Mercury began slowly, “there’s something that Chayyiel was trying to convince me to do a long time ago. I resisted. But it’s probably time, if it’ll help with trust.” While the rest of the room looked uncertain, he focused on Flick. “The Anuk-Ite choker, do you have access to it?”

Of all the things he could have said right then, that was probably one of the most surprising. Blinking at him, Flick hesitated before looking over toward Athena. Only when the woman nodded to her, did she hold her hand out. “Tabs?” Tabbris, in turn, produced the necklace and passed it over.

“Go ahead,” Mercury urged gently while putting his hand out, palm down. “Test me.”

“But you’re–” Stopping herself, Flick put the choker on, adjusting it. Giving one last look to the others, she shrugged before putting her hand on his. Her eyes had just begun to squint that way when she jumped, stumbling backward a step. “What–the–but you’re–”

“SPS,” Abigail murmured. “You’re an SPS-Seosten, like Theia, aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure what that stands for,” Mercury replied, “but I am what my people call a Lie, yes.”

Sariel was staring at him. “You… you’ve been like this the whole time. Back in the lab, you were supposed to have disappeared, run off with some supplies or something. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“And that’s why Chayyiel trusted you,” Apollo added. “Why you were so intent on saving her. And why you prefer the name Mercury instead of Amitiel. Because you’re not really Amitiel.”

“She kept my secret,” Mercury confirmed, swallowing visibly. “She… she was my friend, in the lab. The original Amitiel saw me in her room when I went to visit her, and jumped to conclusions. We fought. He was gonna…” He grimaced, looking away. “He was going to kill me and tell them that I was doing things to Chayyiel. She was my friend. I would never–” Cutting himself off, he sighed. “I possessed him. We… struggled. I won. I was going to turn myself in, but Chayyiel convinced me not to. So it’s been a secret. Our secret. Until now.”

Flick, who had been staring at the man that whole time, swallowed hard. “That… you’ve been keeping that kind of secret for that long?”

“Yeah,” the man murmured, “saying it out loud like this is pretty… pretty hard.”

It was Tabbris who moved to him then. Stepping in front of Flick, the young girl squinted before speaking softly. “It must’ve been really scary to hide for so long, around so many people that would’ve hated you.”

Meeting her eyes, Mercury slowly sank to one knee. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I kinda got used to it. Mostly, anyway. But I never forgot that I didn’t belong there.”

After a very brief hesitation, Tabbris reached out to embrace the man. “It’s okay,” she informed him. “You can belong here, if you want to.”

Flick glanced to her younger sister and partner before nodding. “Yeah,” she murmured, “she’s right. If you’re open about things now. Which means telling us everything about this… Merlin Key.”  

Taking that as her opening, Gwen stepped forward with a nod. “Yes. Everything.”

Glancing up to her, Mercury offered a slight smile. “Honestly, I’m kind of glad to have good news for you, your majesty. And not just because I’d rather not have to face you when you’re angry.”

He straightened then, standing up to face the woman. “I should probably explain first. You see, Chayyiel… she wants to bring back Arthur too. She had me track down and keep an eye on the Merlin Key, to make sure they’re safe.” Pausing, he amended, “Well, technically my official orders from Metatron were to make sure the Merlin Key didn’t do what they’re supposed to do, and that no one found them.”

Raising his hand, Tristan asked, “Not that I’m objecting, but they didn’t tell you to just… kill this Merlin Key?”

The man shook his head. “No one exactly knows how the Key is supposed to wake up Arthur. They’re worried that if the person is put in too much danger, that could be what wakes him up. The rules were to keep an eye on them and keep anyone else from interfering or doing anything that might set things off. Chayyiel wanted me to watch for the right moment and… help things along.” His gaze moved to Gwen. “When I saw you, as you, that’s when I figured it must be about time. At least… time to tell you all the truth about it.”

“Yeah,” Abigail put in, “I’ve kind of noticed that you’ve been really careful to not even give away the gender of this Merlin Key while you’re talking. It’s all ‘they’ and other such words.”

With a slight chuckle, Mercury bowed his head to acknowledge that. “True. I ahh, sorry, product of spending a long time keeping secrets. I’m a little too accustomed to being careful.”

“Okay,” Haiden acknowledged. “So who is this Merlin Key? Are they here at the camp?”

Holding up a hand, the Seosten man murmured, “First, yes, they are here at the camp. But before we get into the who, we need to make something clear.” His eyes moved over everyone in the room slowly, his voice firm. “This is the one chance to bring Arthur back. One. If we fuck this up, he’s gone forever. And here’s the thing, even the Imperium doesn’t actually know what might make him return. We know who is supposed to bring him back, but not how. Putting that person in danger might be the thing that triggers it. Or that might stop it. No one knows. But we do know that if Metatron and the other Seraphim find out that you know who it is, let alone that you’re trying to make it happen, they might just panic. The last thing we need is panicking hostile Seraphim in the middle of a truce. So everything we talk about here, everything, has to stay secret. I mean it cannot leave this room. At all. I don’t care how much you trust someone else, things have a way of getting out there.”

Abigail’s mouth opened to respond to that, but Athena spoke first. “He’s right. We won’t get another chance to bring Arthur back. If this goes wrong, that’s it. So we have to make it perfect. Which means not letting the information out of this room. If anyone here isn’t okay with that, you’re free to leave.”

Apollo nodded, arms folding across his chest. “Believe us, if the Seosten Empire can stop Arthur from returning, they will. Too many of them will always see him as too much of a threat to their power, instead of as the ally against the Fomorians that he could be. So we’re gonna have to play this perfectly. Which is gonna mean keeping secrets. For now.”

“We can do that.” That was Vanessa, her voice soft and reflective. “If it’s a chance to bring Arthur back to life, I think you’re probably right about keeping it secret.”

“But if the Imperium already knows who it is,” Flick put in, “what if they get jumpy and order something done about them?”

“I’ll be the one they ask,” Mercury pointed out. “And I’ll give you the heads up. That’s another reason for why we have to keep it secret. If they find out I’m talking to you, this whole thing blows up.”  

Slowly, and with various degrees of reluctance, everyone in the room agreed to keep the identity of the Merlin Key secret, until the time was right. Once they had all done so, Tristan offered, “You know, this might be a bad time to ask, but are we keeping the whole Merlin Key thing secret from… well, them? The person themselves, I mean. Cuz that could be a pretty big conversation all by itself.”

“It’s okay,” Mercury informed him simply, “that’s not a conversation you have to have. Mostly because I already had it. I’ve revealed myself to the Merlin Key and I’ve been talking them through it for the past few days. It felt like something they should know ahead of time. I’ve been helping them deal with it.”

“You have?” Tristan blurted, snapping his fingers. “Oh. Well, I was kind of thinking it’d be Avalon. You know, the name Avalon and all. It seemed appropriate.” He frowned then. “Except they were trying pretty hard to kill her before… huh. Okay, that doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s no one in this room,” Mercury assured him with a slight smile. “Though I have asked them to come here. Now that we’ve talked it out this far, they should be–”

Once again, the people in the cabin were interrupted by a knock at the door. As everyone else looked that way, Lincoln stepped over, glanced to the others, and then opened it.

Everyone watched then as the person destined to bring back the Once and Future King stepped hesitantly into the room, the door closing behind them.

“Uhhh… hi. I umm, I guess back when Arthur was still… right before his village was attacked, right before he… before he became a Dragon-Heretic, my grandfather was the Reaper who met him.

“Which I guess means,” Aylen Tamaya continued, “I’m the one who has to wake him up.”

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Summer Epilogue 9 (Heretical Edge)

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“Well, guys… you’ve assembled quite a little group here.” As he spoke, Haiden Moon glanced around at the other occupants of this small cabin. Sariel was there beside him, as were Apollo, Lincoln, Abigail, and Wyatt. They were arranged around a table, their eyes on the other side of the room where Vanessa and Tristan stood with Flick and Tabbris. Guinevere stood in the corner of the room, watching the proceedings.

“Yeah, you have,” Abigail agreed. Her gaze was focused intently on the quartet who had asked all of them to come. “I was even planning on going with Koren and the others on that hike that Klassin’s running until you asked to meet up here.”

“Don’t worry,” Tristan assured her, “there’ll be other hikes. But this is a lot bigger.”

“Why?” Abigail pressed. “What’s going on? Did… something else happen?”

Apollo, who had been watching them closely, spoke up. “I’m pretty sure something happened a couple weeks ago. Something that let them know what was going on with Sean.”

Instead of answering immediately, Flick and the other three exchanged glances. Finally, Vanessa was the first to speak. “Something did happen. But it happened awhile ago. We… umm, we couldn’t… exactly talk about it before…” She trailed off, looking uncomfortable while shifting from foot to foot.

“Hey, Nessabird,” Haiden started while frowning a little at his daughter’s nervousness. “It’s okay. You know you guys can tell us anything. No one here is gonna get mad at you, whatever it is.”

Lincoln nodded slowly, his own gaze centered on Flick and Tabbris. “Girls? Something’s been off with you lately. Especially today. But if something’s wrong, something that’s got you this… out of it, even after everything else that’s happened…”

Apollo, whose gaze had been more on Gwen than the children, spoke quietly. “Oh yeah, something’s definitely been off. But for longer than that. It’s been off since around–”

“We don’t like lying to you,” Flick abruptly blurted. “We hate it. We… hated it. But we had to.”

Raising an eyebrow, Sariel echoed in a slow, soft voice, “You… had to lie?” Her tone wasn’t accusatory, only curious, as her eyes moved from Flick to her own children. She said nothing else to prompt or push them, content even now to let the story come in their own time.

Tabbris, who was half-hiding behind Flick while clinging to the girl’s waist, nodded. “We had to. Magic ‘had to.’ It was part of the deal.”

Before Sariel or any of the others could question that, Tristan spoke up. “We should really start from the beginning instead of skipping around so much. It’d be a lot less confusing. So um, it started back on that prison lab, the one… the one Kushiel was running, when we were…” He hesitated, glancing toward Sariel. “When we were saving Mom.”

Haiden leaned forward, glancing to his wife before turning his attention back to the group that had called them all here. “That’s right, you four were off on your own at the end of that, weren’t you? You made it to the room just before Apollo showed up to help.”

“We made it a little sooner than that,” Tristan muttered. “We made it in time to hit that security field that knocked Tabs out of Flick.”

Eyes widening just a bit, Abigail blurted, “I’m sorry, what? There was some kind of anti-possession field and you walked into it with Tabbris?”

Wincing a little, Flick nodded. “Yeah, we didn’t know about that until it was too late. We walked into the room just outside the place where that transport ship thing was and suddenly she was… outside me.”

Head bobbing up and down quickly, Tabbris added, “Uh huh. It felt funny. And then Miss Jophiel showed up.”

For as simply as she stated those words, the girl might as well have thrown a bomb into the middle of the room. Two different chairs hit the floor as both Sariel and Lincoln jolted to their feet. Several people spoke at once, all talking over each other.

Finally, Apollo cleared his throat. “Ahem. Maybe it’d be easier to get the answers you’re all looking for if you let them keep talking.”

His words made Sariel flush a little, but she remained standing, her gaze fixed on her children. “What… do you mean, Jophiel was there?” Her voice was careful and deliberate, but it was very clearly a shell covering her true fear at the revelation that the other Seosten had seen Tabbris.

It was apparently Vanessa’s turn to speak, drawing her mother’s (and everyone else’s) attention with, “She came in her host.” A brief pause, then, “Elisabet, from the Committee.”

Again, there was a flurry of reactions. Lincoln was staring at Flick. While most of the others were talking, he met her gaze and silently mouthed, ‘Are you okay?’ Getting a quick nod from the girl, he relaxed just a little. It helped.

Wyatt, meanwhile, was on his feet, though he said nothing. For once, he wasn’t blurting out conspiracy theories or accusations. Instead, the man drew a notebook from his pants and proceeded to scribble in it quickly. He crossed out several entries, added a few words to others, and even seemed to draw a picture. Meanwhile, everyone else kept talking, until Sariel stepped around the table and moved to where the children were. “She… did she…”

“They didn’t hurt us,” Tabbris promised her mother, hesitating slightly before moving to embrace her tightly. “We’re sorry, Mama. We’re sorry we didn’t tell you, but we couldn’t.”

“Magic.” Of all people, it was Abigail who realized that first. “They used magic to make sure you couldn’t tell anyone about them seeing you, didn’t they?”

“That figures,” Apollo muttered, adding a few words in Latin that was clearly a curse of some kind.

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “But it’s–it’s not like they wanted to hurt us or anything. They weren’t setting up a trap or… you know, they could’ve told the Empire about Tabbris way back then. They could’ve captured us. They–right, gotta tell it in order.” He looked to his sister for help explaining.

“We freaked out,” Vanessa supplied dryly. “Especially when Jophiel, umm… revealed herself. It was scary. I mean, they knew about Tabbris, and we couldn’t exactly… fight her. We couldn’t fight either of them. But it’s like Tristan said, they didn’t want to hurt us or anything.”

“You keep saying ‘they,’” Haiden observed, trying to keep his mind from spinning out. “But it sounds like it was just Jophiel and her host. Are you saying that…”

“They’re a couple,” Flick confirmed, clearly watching everyone’s reaction to that. “Jophiel and Elisabet. I mean, even when she’s not possessed, Elisabet is head over heels for Jophiel. Still.”

Apollo coughed. “I don’t know how much I’d trust that. Jophiel’s got ways of manipulating people’s feelings. Supernatural ways.”

“Yeah, she checked that.” Flick gestured to the corner of the room where Gwen stood, the woman nodding once in acknowledgment. “She used something to block Jophiel’s Olympian power and it didn’t change how Elisabet felt. They’re in love. They’ve been in love for a long time. But that’s not the point. I mean, it really is a huge part of the point, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

Vanessa nodded in agreement. “Yeah, totally getting ahead of ourselves. Jophiel and Elisabet showed up, but they didn’t want to turn us in. They… they wanted our help.”

“Your help?” Apollo echoed, glancing toward Sariel as the woman held Tabbris close. “Help with what, exactly?”

Tristan took that one. “They don’t want to dominate humans anymore. I mean they didn’t want to, even before we got the spell from that vault.”

“Jophiel’s in love with Elisabet,” Flick added. “So she wants humans and Seosten to work together. You know, sort of… combine forces.”

Vanessa quickly pushed on while everyone stared. “They said the best way to make an alliance with the humans is to prove to the Seraphim that humans and Seosten working together willingly is better than their other system. The umm, constant enslavement and manipulation of our entire society, I mean. And the way to do that–”

Lincoln realized what she was going to say first, supplying, “–was to show them human-Seosten hybrids and a human-Seosten possession pairing worked together willingly instead of with slavery. They wanted Flick and Tabbris to show their leaders how effective a willing, cooperative partnership could be.” Pausing then, he added with a frown, “Because apparently those same leaders haven’t heard it enough times from Athena’s rebels, or that Chayyiel girl’s people. Or basic common sense. Remind me, how did they get to be your people’s leaders again?”

“Trust me, it takes a lot to convince the Seraphim of anything,” Apollo informed him in a flat voice. “It kind of needs to be hammered home a lot. And sometimes I’d really like to do that with an actual hammer.”

Looking a bit troubled, her forehead wrinkling thoughtfully, Flick put in, “Anyway, they’ve kind of adjusted a lot of the plan now, especially the timeframe, considering the whole ‘one year to prove they shouldn’t invade’ thing. But the deal we made back then was that they would teach us what they knew, that they’d… you know, train us to impress the Seraphim so we could convince them that an alliance is better than slavery.”

“And God forbid they use themselves as the example,” Abigail muttered darkly, “instead of using children. After magically forcing them to keep it a secret from their families.”

“Wait, just… wait.” Flick’s head shook. “That’s not really fair. I mean, yes, they strong-armed us into keeping it secret, but they were just protecting themselves. It’s a really big secret. Like Vanessa and Tristan said, they could have completely destroyed us if they wanted to. They could have taken us in, exposed Tabbris, kept Sariel imprisoned… they didn’t. And their plan, the one about teaching us to be an example for the Seraphim, that… like it or not, it’s a better plan than anything else we’ve got. The Seosten leaders obviously aren’t going to listen to people they see as rebels or traitors. Jophiel staying in power long enough to train us and then using us as the example might sound crazy or like they’re taking advantage of us, but they’re kind of just working with the hand they were dealt. Maybe they’re not perfect, like with the whole… being okay with enslaving other races just because they think it’s the best way to beat the Fomorians thing. But they’re not that bad.”

Vanessa was nodding. “Yeah, and really… they would be putting themselves at risk. As they pointed out already, the Seraphim aren’t stupid. They’d figure out that Elisabet and Jophiel weren’t exactly a normal Seosten-slave host relationship pretty quick once they started talking up the benefits of being partners. Like Flick said, maybe they’ve done some shady stuff, but they’ve also got the best chance of actually convincing the Seraphim of changing things. Bright wishes and hopes just aren’t going to do it. Maybe their plan can.”

“Still,” Abigail insisted, “They just had to terrorize a handful of minors into doing what they… what they…” She trailed off then, her eyes widening as something occurred to her. “Those… God… damn…” Abruptly, the woman jerked upright, staring at Flick. “They made rescuing Sariel a condition, didn’t they? They made rescuing their mother a condition.” Her hand gestured toward Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan while her voice cracked audibly. “If you guys wanted to free her, you had to agree to their plan.”

Hearing that was enough to make Sariel drop to one knee, wrapping both arms around Tabbris tightly. “You–oh. You’re right. They–she would… Jophiel would do that.” She sounded stricken upon the realization that her own imprisonment and subsequent freedom had been used to essentially blackmail her children into obeying Jophiel and Elisabet.

Swallowing hard, Flick managed, “Yes. But we would’ve agreed to a lot more than that. All they wanted was for us to meet with them for training any time they wanted so they could use us to prove their point to the Seraphim, and to keep the truth about their own relationship secret. I mean, we had to keep all of it secret. They used magic to make sure we couldn’t talk about it.”

“I knew it!” That was Wyatt, suddenly blurting out loud as he pointed at Flick. “I knew you had a different spell on you! I could smell it. I could taste it. But I couldn’t see it. They hid it really well. But I knew. Iiiii knew it. Thought I was being paranoid, huh? No! You were spelled. I tried to find the spell, but I couldn’t. I thought it was Gaia’s spell, the one she broke to let you bring back the rebellion. That was a secret spell too. So I thought the secret spell I sensed on you was that one. But it wasn’t! I mean, it wasn’t just that. You had that one and this one, and–”

He paused then, frowning at Flick. “Has it occurred to you that you get a lot of secret magic put on you?”

With a tiny smile, the blonde girl nodded to him. “It, uhhh, crossed my mind a few times, yeah.”

Haiden had moved by then to take a knee by the twins, holding one of each of their hands. “They said you had to take this secrecy spell thing to save your mom, and you went for it?”

Blinking away tears rapidly, Vanessa stammered, “W-we had to. It was Mom. It was our chance to get her back. They said that… they said they’d give us the passcode to unlock her stasis chamber.”

“That’s how you had that,” Sariel breathed, rising to step that way while pulling Tabbris with her. She embraced all three of her children, and her husband, together. “I thought there was… something about it that you weren’t telling. But I didn’t know it was anything like this.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Flick carefully explained. “They really do seem like they want humans and Seosten to work together.”

“And other species?” Abigail prompted pointedly. “How do they feel about stopping all enslavement?” Seeing the expression on her younger sister’s face, she nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. And I don’t see them speaking up to stop the mistreatment of SPS Seosten either.”

Finally speaking up for the first time, Gwen asked from her spot in the corner, “SPS?”  

“Sticky-Possession-Syndrome,” Flick supplied. “Miranda made it up. It’s better than calling them Lies.”

“Huh,” Gwen murmured thoughtfully. “Yes, I imagine it is.” She went quiet once more, allowing the group to continue their story.

Tristan was shaking his head at Abigail. “Yeah, they’re not exactly all-in on ‘everyone is equal’ yet. It’s more of a human and Seosten thing. But hey, it’s a start. It’s probably easier to go from ‘humans and Seosten should totally be allies’ to ‘all the non-assholes band together against the assholes’ than to get there from ‘everyone who isn’t Seosten is worthless.’”

Muttering something under her breath about how that should be self-evident, Abigail continued to bristle for a moment before sighing audibly. “Fine, it’s a start. But they made you lie to everyone.”

Tabbris’ head bobbed up and down while she clung to her mother. Her voice was quiet. “W-we’re sorry. We had to take the spells so we could save Mama.”

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Lincoln assured her. He exchanged a brief look with Sariel before reaching out to pick the young girl up, holding her to him. “No one’s mad at you.”

“I can think of a few choice words I have for those two, though,” Haiden put in, his eyes cloudy as he stared at the nearby wall as though imagining having a chance to confront the pair.

Looking over to Sariel, Lincoln asked, “What do you know about this… Jophiel?”

There was a brief pause from the Seosten woman before her head shook. “It’s been a long time since I had much to do with her. If she’s really in love with a human… then she’s changed a lot.”

“She is,” Gwen put in. “I put them both through enough tests to be sure of it. Elisabet’s feelings for her are real. And as far as I can tell, so are Jophiel’s toward Elisabet. It makes sense given what they’ve done. Jophiel wants to prove humans are okay to ally with so that she can be open about her relationship with Elisabet. But they want to use these kids to prove it. Which means getting them ready.”

“So they’ve been… training you?” Sariel asked carefully, her voice bristling with what was clearly tightly controlled anger.

The group exchanged glances before Vanessa nodded. “Teaching us how to use our Seosten gifts, how to fight, and… everything else they could think of that could be impressive. And they were teaching Flick and Tabbris how to work together.”

“Basically like what Athena started,” Flick put in, “but more intensive. Plus, they’ve worked together for so long, they have a lot of tips.”

“That’s just fantastic,” Haiden dryly remarked, “but how about they do it the right way, instead of sneaking around behind all our backs and magically forcing our kids to lie to us for months?” His words were followed by a collection of tight nods, as the adults tried not to let their kids see just how upset they were with the whole situation.

“What changed?” That was Wyatt, who spoke up while the others were all silent as they took in everything that the group had told them. “They had magic spells to keep you quiet. Why can you tell us now?”

Straightening a bit while still holding Tabbris, Lincoln looked toward Gwen. “That’s a good question. And I’m pretty sure it has everything to do with you.”

Flick nodded. “Yup. She umm, sort of accidentally found out part of the truth while she was posing as Harper, and I guess she followed us to find out more. She’s been keeping an eye on us.”

“And when all this went down,” the woman herself added, “there was no point to keeping my involvement secret. So we arranged a meeting a couple weeks ago and… made an arrangement for the secrecy spells to be removed. There’s little point to them. We have a year to prove to the Seraphim that invading this planet is a bad idea. Which they have their way of doing, and I have mine.”

That drew Sariel’s attention. The woman looked to her, blinked once, then realized. “Arthur. You want to bring Arthur back.”

“Having him would tend to push the Seosten toward cooperation, yes,” Gwen confirmed. “Not that I don’t like the idea of happy alliances against the bigger threat, but with people like the Seosten, it’s a good idea to extend one open hand while holding a really big gun with the other.” Pausing, she added, “No offense.”

“None taken,” Apollo and Sariel both replied simultaneously. The two exchanged looks of their own that said just how much was going through their minds, before Apollo added by himself, “We need to talk to Jophiel. About this and a lot of other things.”

“She said you’d say that,” Tristan informed them. “And they said they’ll meet with you later, once they can get away. Plus, we have this other meeting first.”

“Other meeting?” Lincoln echoed, frowning.

Gwen took over once more. “To bring Arthur back, we need to identify the Merlin Key, the prophesied figure who will wake him up. That person is supposed to be one of the students at Crossroads.”

“And Jophiel knows who?” Apollo quickly asked, his eyes widening. “I couldn’t get that much, even with what was, let me tell you, an awful lot of work.”

“She knows someone who probably knows who,” Flick informed them, biting her lip then before adding a quiet, “Mercury.”

That made the two Seosten look at each other once more, their eyes meeting before Sariel snapped, “Mercury is here too?”

The teens started to respond to that, only to stop as there was a knock at the door. Gwen, standing next to it, glanced to the door, looked it up and down before whistling softly as she reached out to tug it open, revealing a figure standing there.

“Good evening,” the man who appeared to be Benji Carfried announced. “May I come in?

“I’m told we have things to discuss.”

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Patreon Snippets 8 (Heretical Edge)

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Author note:  I have decided to present these particular snippets without a preface before each one spelling out what they are about/who they are focused on. This is for a couple reasons. First, each snippet flows into the next in a deliberate way which a note like that would interrupt. And second, I believe even without that, these snippets are better if you find out exactly what is going on as you read them. But I would definitely appreciate any feedback any of you might have as to how well that works. Thanks!  

Through an empty, long-abandoned building, six figures fled. Though the place should have been dark, the corridors they desperately raced along were lit by globes of fire, lasers that shot through the air after them, and other flashes of light which served mostly to illuminate the fact that the fleeing beings, though each shaped very differently, were all almost completely transparent.

As a species, they called themselves Sceyl. But most referred to them as Glasswalkers. The name came both from their ability to transport (as well as manipulate and shape) any and all forms of glass and similar transparent material, and from the fact that the Sceyl themselves quite literally looked like living, moving glass sculptures. Their own shapeshifting ability meant that they varied wildly in size and shape, from small figurine-sized beings who looked like ballerinas, cats, horses, or other animals, all the way up to enormous hulking (yet still clearly glass-like) troll or ogre-shaped humanoids. No two Sceyl looked much alike, aside from their transparent body structure. They considered it offensive to copy each other, and always sought to make themselves look unique in some way.

The potential for evil, for the most part, existed in all species. And the Sceyl were no different. Some of their people who would be called Nocen even took on the forms of various weapons and allowed themselves to be used by others, purely to be directly responsible for deaths and destruction.

Yet, the group running frantically through this particular abandoned building were not those types. They were simply a group of travelers, heading for a gathering of their people on the northern edge of Arizona. Unfortunately, they had been spotted by a trio of Heretics, who had spent the past ten minutes chasing the group of Sceyl down, herding them here, to this building.

The place had to have been prepared ahead of time. There was no glass anywhere in it. The windows had all been smashed out, the shards taken away. There were no mirrors, no bottles, no glass bulbs, literally nothing that could be used by the fleeing, terrified Sceyl.

As they careened around a corner, searching desperately for a way out of this trap, the group suddenly skidded to a stop. The six glass-like figures, two fairly humanoid, one looking like a walking tree, another like a pixie, the fifth like a miniature horse the size of a chihuahua, and the last like a large rolling ball three feet in diameter, all came to a halt.

One of the Heretics was in front of them, waiting in that room. “Right,” the tall, bearded man announced as the room was abruptly illuminated by several glowing balls that appeared throughout it, “I think that’s far enough. If there were any more of you monsters, they would’ve shown themselves by now.” He held a long black-metal sword in one hand.

Behind the group of Sceyl, the remaining two Heretics appeared. The first was a dark-skinned woman with white hair, holding a double-bladed axe. Her companion was also female, a quite small and somewhat pale brunette woman who appeared to hold no weapon or defense, aside from a series of dozens of metal rings lining both of her arms from wrist to shoulder.  

Looking to one another, the glass-like figures all turned to put their backs to one another. Three faced the man in front, while the other three faced the women behind. With a sound that was a mix of shattering glass and ringing chimes, the ball-figure reshaped himself into something more like a humanoid lizard with a scorpion-like tail. At the same time, the small pony became a much larger centaur.

“So,” the male Heretic snarled under his breath. “You show your true selves after all. Good. Then let’s finish this.”

The six Sceyl broke in opposite directions, lunging for the three Heretics. Unfortunately, that only lasted for an instant before a wave of force knocked five of the six to the ground as the two female Heretics each used some form of gravity power to keep them there.

The last, one of the humanoid figures, was yanked backward, his neck caught and held by the male Heretic. “Now,” the man snarled while hurling his captive down as well, leaving him prone on the floor. “You’re never gonna kill anyone else.” The ebony blade in his hand was raised high up. “Not in this–”

He stopped then. Stopped talking and even stopped moving, aside from physically reeling backward as his eyes closed briefly, the sword in his hand wavering a little. On the other side of the room, the two female Heretics did the same, a pair of gasps escaping both. The smaller, pale woman staggered back a step, almost falling before catching herself against the nearby wall.

No longer pinned, the six Sceyl stared in confusion and apprehension. After a brief moment of that, as if they had all come to the same conclusion, they tried to jerk upright. But with a sudden roar of rage, the male Heretic’s eyes opened, and he drove his blade downward, on course toward the prone figure at his feet.

With a brief whistling sound punctuated by a loud clang that echoed through the room, the sword was struck in mid-descent by a metal ring that flew through the air to collide with it. Knocked off course, the sword was driven several inches into the floor beside the terrified Sceyl’s head. The ring itself, meanwhile, bounced off the blade, then off a nearby wall, a pillar, and then returned to its owner. The pale, small woman had straightened, arm extended to let the metal bracelet fall perfectly back onto her arm to join the rest. It latched into place with a click.

“Lillian!” the dark-skinned woman nearby snapped, while the male Heretic simply stared with his mouth open. “Stop, you can’t–”

“Can’t what?” Lillian Patters asked sharply. “Can’t make my own decisions? Can’t trust the people I was supposed to be able to trust? Can’t have my own memories? Yeah, I think all of that was made perfectly clear.”

“Lillian…” Speaking slowly, the bearded man straightened his blade. Instead of pointing it at any of the utterly bewildered Sceyl, he turned the end toward the small woman. “Don’t do this. We’re on the same side.”

Lifting her chin, Lillian retorted, “I’m going to go ahead and say that my side is the one that doesn’t slaughter innocent people wholesale. Oh, and also doesn’t wipe the memories of everyone who doesn’t think the exact same way we do, and then force them to keep murdering the same innocent people they already chose not to. And what was the other thing? Oh, right.”

Her eyes hardened, and the woman snapped both arms out to either side. The series of rings that extended up to her shoulders all flew off, ricocheting around the room wildly for a second before each ended up hovering around her at various heights and angles. She was surrounded by dozens of the metal hoop-like rings that hovered there, spinning rapidly with a soft buzzing sound, like angry hornets.

“We,” Lillian finished, her voice dropping into a dangerous tone, “don’t side with people who kidnap infants and hold them hostage.”

“You’re right.” The words came from the other woman.

What?!” the man snapped, jerking his head that way.

The black woman held up her hand, voice stammering a bit. “About… about the last part. That was–I… I don’t know what… That was wrong. It was wrong. But you’re wrong too. You have to be. Lillian, please. We can figure this out. We’re friends.”

“My friend,” Lillian informed them quietly, “is Joselyn Atherby. As long as you side with the people who kidnapped her children and mindwiped the rest of us… we are not friends.”

“Fine.” Voice dripping with venom, the male Heretic snarled, “Then I suppose we’re not friends. Your choice.” He took a step that way, sword raised. As he moved, the rings surrounding Lillian all began to spin faster. Some turned white, sending off chilling waves of cold, while others turned red, flames flickering around them. The rest became yellow, electricity crackling in the air where they were spinning.

Just as it looked like an all-out brawl would break out, the dark-skinned woman suddenly appeared behind the man. Grabbing his arm with one hand and his neck with the other, she blurted toward Lillian, “I don’t want to fight you!”

Then both were gone, as the woman transported herself and their male companion away. Left facing the empty space where they had been, Lillian slowly extended her arms, summoning the rings back.

“Wh… wha… what?” The voice of one of the Sceyl finally broke the silence that settled once the rings had all stopped spinning and finished attaching themselves to the woman. “What just… happened?”

“It’s a long story,” Lillian softly informed them, her voice cracking a little. “I have to get out of here. I have to find my granddaughter, my… my… she’s at Crossroads now. And Felicity. Oh my God, her baby girl. She’s–” Snapping out of it, she looked to the group of terrified Glasswalkers. Her voice softened. “I’m sorry. I know this won’t make any sense to you, but I am so… so sorry. There isn’t time to explain.”

“Uh…” One of the Sceyl raised a hand. “We sort of picked up the gist of it from your conversation. But… just… one question.

“Who is Joselyn Atherby?”

*******

“I have no idea who Joselyn Atherby is.”

With a sigh, Abigail Fellows dropped her gaze to the glass of iced tea in front of her on the table where she sat. The plate holding the crumbs of her finished lunch was nearby. “She’s my mother. She’s my mom, and I… I never knew her. I never met her. I’ve never spoken to her, never looked her in the eyes. Not since I was an infant, anyway, and I don’t… I don’t remember any of that. Or the Edge vision, I guess. I saw her then, but I didn’t… really talk to her. I never got to know her.”

From where he was sitting across from her, the cabin’s other occupant, Lincoln Chambers, winced. “Hey, I… I didn’t know her as a Heretic either. But I know Joselyn the person. And I know she would be so… indescribably proud of you, Abigail. You raised a beautiful, brilliant girl. You’re a lawyer. You stand up for people. You defend people who don’t have anyone else to defend them.”

Swallowing before taking a breath, Abigail raised her gaze from the glass to meet his gaze. “I can find out plenty about Joselyn the Heretic by talking to… to anyone here, I guess. Especially with that memory spell gone. It’s Joselyn the person I want to know about.”

With a little smile, Lincoln nodded. “Then I’ll tell you all about her. Anything you want. I…” He paused before giving a soft chuckle. “Sorry, this whole thing is just kind of… I don’t want to say–”

“Weird?” Abigail finished for him. “Yeah, it’s okay. You can say it. It’s weird. I mean, I’m sort of like your… stepdaughter, but I’m also older than you.”

“It’s a weird situation all around,” Lincoln agreed. “For us anyway. I get the feeling it happens more than not with these Heretic people.” He smiled despite himself then, adding, “But for the record, weird as it might be, you and Wyatt are a couple of the best people I’ve met. The way you stick up for everyone, the way Wyatt plans everything out so well… that’s Jos. I just… I just hope you get to know her for yourselves. So you can see how similar you are.”

“Well,” Abigail offered, “if this whole rebellion thing works out, maybe people can focus on getting her back from that psychopath.”

“True.” Lincoln started to nod before heaving a sigh. “I still can’t believe Felicity and that headmistress of hers pulled that off. Bringing the rebellion back, restoring all those memories… If they’d been caught before they managed it, if anyone else saw what was in that notebook, or looked too closely, or–”

Abigail stopped him with a raised hand. “They didn’t. The spell worked. There’s enough things to deal with as it is without fretting about bad things that could have happened.”

Coughing, Lincoln gestured. “Right, point. See? You’re already helping your dear old stepdad feel better.”

With a squint, Abigail snorted. “Right, dear maybe. Old… ehhh, you’re still a whippersnapper.” Pausing then, she added, “Speaking of which, you know what everyone’s wondering.”

“Yeah.” The man sat up a bit more. “They’re wondering when I’m going to do the Heretic bonding thing. I just… I haven’t decided exactly who or… or what… I…”

Resting her hand against his arm, Abigail met his gaze. “No, see, if you think about it, I’m pretty sure you know exactly who you should be bonded to.”

With a slow, soft exhale, Lincoln managed a very slight smile. “I suppose you’re right. Would you believe I’m nervous?”

The woman’s response was a simple nod. “Yeah. It’s a pretty big deal. But hey, I can’t think of a better person for you to be Bonded to than the Seosten kid who sees you as her father.” Her eyes focused on him once more, as she added pointedly, “You m–” Voice cracking slightly, Abigail cleared her throat. “You make sure she knows you see her as a daughter, okay? You make sure she knows every day. You don’t make that girl think for one second that she’s not wanted.”

“Never,” Lincoln vowed, his throat tightening at the very thought. He remembered all the times he had laid in bed with that girl curled up against him. He’d thought it was Felicity at the time, sure, but that didn’t matter. He knew now. He knew and he loved that kid as much as his own. Because she was his own.

Smiling at that thought before shaking himself a bit, the man finally spoke once more. “But hey, we’ve got some pretty impressive kids all around, huh?” His bright words turned to a very slight sigh. “Bright kids who are now part of this rebellion.”

“Better than being part of monsters who hunt down and slaughter innocent people and creatures,” Abigail pointed out. “Your daughters helped stop that. Every single person out there who remembers what they really believe, who remembers the choice they made not to kill innocent people anymore? That’s because of your daughters. Both of them.”

Lincoln’s smile had returned by then. “You’re right. They’re pretty damn special. Just like their mom. And their big sister.”

Picking up her glass, Abigail took a long, slow sip of her iced tea before she spoke again. “Don’t forget their amazing, goofy, wonderful big brother.” Pulling the straw out of her glass, she teased slightly, “Who might just be listening in on us through this thing right now, for all we know.”

With a snort, Lincoln shrugged. “Well, if he is, maybe he should go ahead and turn up the eavesdropping spell. Because I’m going to tell you all about Joselyn. The Joselyn I know. The one I hope you get to know someday.”

“Before you get started,” Abigail replied, “give me a second and I’ll get him in here in person. I want Wyatt to hear about our mother too.

“After everything he’s been through, my brother deserves that.”

********

“My brother does not deserve that!”

Brown eyes blazing with rage, Ian Gerardo swung his fist. It collided with the brick wall of the building next to the alley he was in, leaving a sizable hole. He stood there, two inches over six feet in height, his broad, muscular arms exposed by the sleeveless black shirt that he wore. He also had black jeans, combat boots, and a belt with several pouches. His black hair was slicked back, and he wore a single silver earring in his left ear.

As the dust settled, his companion, a red-haired man several inches taller than even Ian was and considerably better built, nodded. “You’re right,” he agreed while shaking out his long crimson locks, which fell almost to the middle of his back. “I don’t know your brother, but no one deserves to be left in time-accelerated solitary like that. That’s fucked up.”

“Look, you don’t–” Ian’s eyes were wild. “You don’t understand. I–I’ve been a pretty shitty big brother, okay? Especially lately. But now? I can’t just leave him in that hellhole! I have to get him out! I’m gonna go to my fucking parents and make those evil, psycho–”

“Ian, Ian!” the other man put both hands on the younger Heretic’s shoulders, squeezing firmly. “Stop. Listen. If you run off half-cocked like this, you’ll just end up captured too, okay?” As Ian’s mouth opened, the man quickly pressed on. “And you think you don’t care, I get it.  You feel like you have to do something right now. But do you want to help your brother, or do you want to feel better about yourself for two seconds just to fuck it up again?”

At first, Ian glared, his rage almost transferring itself to his companion. Then he sighed and deflated. “I know. Fuck. Frode, I just… I can’t leave him in there. I can’t.”

“I know.” Speaking softer, Frode leaned back to watch the younger man, who was barely in his twenties. “Look, I owe you. Penny, Owen, and I, we all owe you.”

When the spell that restored everyone’s memories and flooded the minds of every Heretic with the full and unfiltered details of the rebellion and everything related to it had happened, Ian, Frode, Penny, and Owen had all been part of another group of Heretics. They had been out on practice maneuvers, training to head for a newly discovered potential colony world.

Then the spell had happened. Frode, Penny, and Owen had all been part of Joselyn Atherby’s group back in the day. And all three were taken by surprise when the rest of their companions acted quickly enough to the reveal to take them prisoner, preventing them from escaping to rejoin the rebellion.

Ian was too young to have been part of all that. He had been ignored, dismissed as the trio of former rebels were secured.

But young or not, Ian was capable of seeing right from wrong. Ignored as he was, he had been able to take the Crossroads loyalists completely by surprise, knocking out two of them before managing to free Frode and the others. Together, the four had escaped before they could be brought back to Crossroads.

“You guys don’t owe me anything,” Ian insisted. “You’ve got enough problems.”

“We do owe you,” Frode informed him, giving the boy a firm nod. “And we’ll repay it. Trust me, just… just stick it out a little longer. We’ve still got friends. The rebellion… we’ll get your brother out of there, okay? We just have to meet up with some people. We’ll get Sean out. But we’ll do it together. Do it the right way?” He offered his hand.

Accepting the hand, Ian nodded. “Yeah. The right way.” He sighed then. “I can’t believe Madre and Padre would do something like this. I mean… I just… you know, I wish I could just tell them exactly what I think of them right now.”

*****

“I’m sorry that you can’t tell them.”

Gaia Sinclaire’s voice was gentle as she sat on a chair across from Flick in her office. The Crossroads headmistress was watching her student carefully as she continued. “The idea of keeping secrets, especially one this important, is probably quite troubling. But it is imperative that, if our plan is to succeed, no one else know about it until it is too late.”

Shifting in her seat, Flick met the woman’s gaze. “Even me, right?” she offered with what was clearly a weak attempt at humor. “I mean, even I won’t actually remember what I’m doing or why. Once we start this, you’ll be the only person who actually knows what’s going on.”

Except that wasn’t true. Once the memory spell was in place to prevent Flick from remembering the plan she and Gaia had come up with or from consciously realizing what she was doing whenever she wrote in that notebook, there would be one more person beyond the headmistress who would remember, one person who would know what they were doing.

And neither of them knew she existed.

Tabbris was silent, as always, as she watched through Flick’s eyes. She felt a flicker of sadness at the thought of what would happen when the girl one day knew about her. As much as some small part of herself might retain a tiny spark of hope that the two of them could be friends, she knew it wasn’t to be. The betrayal and horror that Flick would feel as soon as she knew just how long Tabbris had been possessing her, that would ruin any potential there might have been for friendship.

It was too late already for any explanations. Flick would hate her, would loathe her for that violation. Tabbris knew that. She was terrified of it, but she knew it would come.

But in the meantime, she would help as much as she could. She would continue to keep Flick safe from possession. And now, she would keep this particular secret.

How much would her own people, her… her mother’s people, want to know about this? A plan to undo the revolution-eraser and restore everyone’s memories? They would, quite literally, kill to stop that from happening. They would kill Gaia, and they would kill Flick.

If they found out. Which was why Tabbris would do absolutely everything she could to stop that from happening. Because even if… even… when Flick did end up hating her, Tabbris would still do everything in her incredibly limited power to keep the older girl safe.

Restoring the rebellion. That was what Mama would do. Tabbris knew that much. If her mother was here, she would be helping Gaia and Flick. Heck, she’d already started with the plan of restoring Flick’s mama’s memories before finding out that the woman had been abducted. So she would definitely be on board with this. She probably would’ve found a way to do it by herself already… if she was here.

But she wasn’t. She wasn’t here. Tabbris didn’t even know if she wa–how she was doing. All she knew was that her mama would have helped with this if she could. And since she couldn’t, Tabbris would instead. She would keep it secret. She would make sure the notebook was safe. She would watch for anyone paying too much attention to it. She would be a second set of eyes keeping the secret safe until it would be too late for anyone to stop it.

And maybe someday… someday if–when she saw Mama again, she would look at Tabbris and say…

******

“I’m proud of you,” Sariel announced to the group of huddled, traumatized figures crouched in what amounted to a crater that had been driven into the ground by a particularly hard stomp from a passing giant. That giant’s body lay just over a hundred yards away, being literally eaten from the inside out by a swarm of Fomorian-created insects the size of large dogs. A few of those insects had crawled out of the desecrated corpse to look for their next meal, only to be set upon by a trio of griffins that came soaring down out of the sky.

“P-proud?” one of the huddled group in front of Sariel stammered. She was a Relukun, a wood-person. Her companions were an assortment of other Alters and two young Eden’s Garden Heretics who had probably only graduated within the past few years. “Wh-what are you proud of?” the Relukun demanded. “That we’re all gonna die together? If we’re lucky?”

One of the Heretics peeked over the edge of the footprint crater, a slight whimpering sound escaping him. “Di-did you see what they did to that big guy? We can’t fight that. We can’t fight them. We’re gonna die. Oh God. Oh God in heaven. We’re going to die. We are going–”

“I’m proud of you because you’re here,” Sariel interrupted, drawing their attention to her. “Live or die, you’re here. You’re trying. You’ve made it this far. You knew the odds and you came anyway.”

“If we didn’t, we’d all die anyway,” one of the other Alters put in, his voice barely audible over the sound of fighting, screaming, and dying going on all around them. “Th-those monsters, they’ll just keep coming.”

“You’re right, they will.” The confirmation came not from Sariel herself, but from the enormous (for a human) gray-haired man who dropped into the crater with them. At his full standing height, were he not crouched as he was now, the man would have been just a hair under seven feet. The incredibly muscular physique of his bare torso had been the stuff of legends for thousands of years. Though there was only one person in this deep footprint who recognized the man, who knew exactly who he truly was.

“Alcaeus,” Sariel greeted him simply, her voice careful and measured.

“Sariel,” he returned just as carefully, both of them watching one another for a moment before the man offered her a very slight grin, showing his teeth. “Of all your people that I could’ve run into in this pit, you’re one of the only ones I wouldn’t chuck right out of it.”

“I shall measure myself relieved then,” Sariel replied smoothly. Sobering then, she looked into the man’s eyes. “It’s good to have you here. The battle is…” She turned slightly to look over the edge toward the continuing violence. “It’s not going well.”

“Fighting Fomorians rarely does,” the man who had once been known as both Heracles and Hercules murmured. “But someone’s got to. Otherwise those genocidal cocksuckers will just kill every last person, plant, and animal on this forsaken planet.”

“They’re coming!” one of the other Alters blurted. His eyes were wide as he stared over the rim of their cover at the horde of variously-shaped Fomorian creations that were swarming over the open ground toward them.

With a thought, Sariel summoned her bow to her hands. “Alcaeus?”

“It’s just Al,” he corrected, straightening. “And I’m right with you.”

Giving him a brief nod of thanks, the Seosten woman addressed the others. Her voice was sharp. “The rest of you stay here until you see an opening. We’ll take the brunt of it. Hit when you get a chance, once they’re focused on us.” Sparing them a brief glance, she added, a bit more softly, “For the dead. Those who are, and those who would be.”

The sentiment was echoed by the others, just as Sariel and Alcaeus heaved themselves out of the crater. The two found themselves facing dozens of Fomorian-crafted nightmares literally running over each other to reach them. Beasts of all shapes and sizes, some with only two legs, others with more than could be easily counted at a glance. Fat, skinny, tall, slimy, furry, and some that were all of those at the same time. They were a tidal wave of monstrous flesh and claws pushing inexorably onward.

Together, the woman who had been Artemis and the man who had been Hercules met their charge.

Taking the lead, Al ran straight for the incoming mass. In mid-step, his hand touched a rune that had been drawn on his opposite shoulder, and he spoke the command word to trigger the spell attached to it. Instantly, his bare torso was covered in gleaming silver and red armor, his head encased in a helmet in the shape of a lion’s head, complete with a long, flowing mane. In both of his hands appeared enormous weapons. One held a claymore, while the other gripped a massive hammer. With both of his weapons raised high, the man bellowed a roar of challenge that matched the lion’s helmet he wore, before charging straight at his enemies.

Four arrows, released simultaneously from the woman behind him, flew past the man. Two shot under each arm. All four impaled themselves through the assorted eyes of two of the nearest creatures in the horde before bursting into flames that engulfed their targets.

Ignoring the screaming, flailing monsters, Al lunged up and over their falling bodies. His hammer came down so hard on the skull of a crocodilian creature with its jaws open wide that it literally caved in the beast’s head. Blood, brains, and other fluids (some of which should not have been fluids) went flying. At the same time, his sword was driven up under the rib cage of the furry, two-legged beast who had been reaching for him from the other side.

“Boom!” Al called, while pivoting with his sword still embedded in the fur-covered creature. It was all he had to say. Just as he presented his foe’s back to the woman behind him, Sariel shot three quick arrows into it.

The moment the arrows were in place, Al heaved the monster off his sword, tossing it back into the incoming swarm. An instant later, the explosive arrows detonated, sending chunks of the Fomorian beasts flying in every direction.

It was a good start. But Sariel and Alcaeus had a long way to go to even begin to stall the Fomorian advance. If they were going to stop Earth from being yet another in a long, long line of worlds that had been destroyed by those monsters, they would need a miracle.

But they would keep trying. Because there was an entire world’s worth of innocent lives at stake. Alcaeus, Sariel, and the others who fought would protect those people from the Fomorians. They would save them, whatever it took.

******

“Whatever it takes, I’m going to fucking kill them!

As the words burst from her lips, Roxa Pittman’s face transformed partly into her wolf-self. Her teeth grew, face elongated partway, while her eyes darkened with rage. Claws had already appeared from her fingers, as she gripped the post at the end of the basketball court tight enough to leave deep grooves in the metal.

“I know.” The more careful, measured response came from Mateo, as the slight man stood behind her. His hand found her shoulder, shaking just a little before he caught himself. He took a deep breath. “Believe me, pup, I know. Sebastian, he’s… he’s basically in the same shape as you. It’s his brother that’s doing this to his own son, to Sebastian’s nephew.”

Whirling toward him, Roxa furiously spat, “How?! How can they do evil shit like this and still think they’re the good guys?! How fucking deluded are they?!” Her fist lashed out backwards, denting the post. “They’re torturing their own fucking child!” The bellowed words echoed over the otherwise empty basketball court, before her face shifted back to normal. Tears of rage and helplessness filled her eyes. “Mateo, please! Please! We have to do something. We have to–to… to stop this! We have to get him out of there! He can’t–we can’t–he’s–” She was in such a blind panic that she kept tripping over her words.

“Roxa.” Putting his hands against either side of the girl’s face so she would look at him, so that her eyes would be focused on his, Mateo spoke in a voice that was equal parts firm and gentle, forcing confidence and reassurance into his words. “Sean is going to get out of there, okay? Whatever it takes, everyone out here is going to find a way to get him out. You know that. No one is abandoning him.”

“B-but… but…” Squirming there on her feet, trying to keep her anger at the forefront of her mind so that despair and helplessness wouldn’t overtake it, Roxa stared into the eyes of her pack leader. “What if we can’t? What if he loses his–his everything in there? How could they do that? How could they–” She closed her eyes and looked away then. “I’m not supposed to be surprised,” the girl said softly, voice cracking with each word. “I saw too much bad shit as a Bystander. This isn’t supposed to surprise me.”

“The cruelty of those who believe themselves righteous very often outweighs that of those who know that they are evil,” Mateo quietly informed her. “And it almost always strikes much harder. They are his parents. They are supposed to protect him.”

“There’s a lot of parents who don’t,” Roxa muttered darkly. “They’re nothing new.”

With a nod, Mateo agreed, “You’re right, they’re nothing new. And we’ll stop them. We’ll get Sean out of there. As soon as there’s a plan, we will get him out. Which means you have to be ready. No running off, no getting yourself hurt or… worse, okay?”

It took Roxa a moment, but she finally nodded, lifting her gaze to him. “Okay,” she murmured softly. “I’m not going to do anything stupid. But just for the record, I still want to break every bone in their fucking bodies.”

“You and me both, pup,” Mateo confirmed, thinking back to his long discussion with Sean’s uncle when Sebastian had found out what was going on. It had been much harder to talk the man out of storming off to give his brother and the man’s wife every last piece of his mind. The rage, helplessness, exhaustion, and confusion in his beloved Sebastian was also here now in Roxa. And not just in her. The same feelings were in the whole pack. The werewolves had all known Sean since he was a kid. Hearing this… hearing what those psychos were doing… it was too much. It reminded Mateo of… of times spent with his own ‘well-intentioned extremists.’ And that thought… that was almost enough to drive him into a blood-rage the depths of which he might never escape.  

“You and me both.”

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