Maria Chambers

Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the lessons we take from them.” 

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only the bad guys,” Savvy insisted pointedly. 

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

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

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

“I missed all of you.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By all means,” Koren replied. 

“You’re welcome to try.” 

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

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Patreon Snippets 21 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 21st edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Virginia Dare

1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want to see a bigger one?” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What sort of job is it?” 

*******

Shortly after the Calendar Trio first arrived at the Fusion School 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’renotgonnahurtanyonecuzwegettostayandseewhatthisplaceis–” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think you will too.” 

********

Approximately Present Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Being this small?” Puriel asked. 

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

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

******* 

Millions of years ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It lasted for an instant.

It lasted for an eternity. 

And when it was over… he was remade. 

*******

Earth – Fifteen Years Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Galazien the Iron-Souled.”

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Long Awaited 12-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Out of everyone involved in our little Choo maneuver to connect my dad to my grandmother, the only one whom I had been completely confident was safe from any kind of emotional explosion during the whole thing was Sariel. After all, she might have issues with Puriel, but she knew how to handle those and she knew just how dangerous he was. She also had the most experience, by a magnitude of like a million, with possessing people and using recall. There was no reason to think she would have any trouble at all keeping things calm. Hell, she was the one who was supposed to remind the rest of us not to lose it. She was the main stabilizing factor. 

Except all of those assumptions were from before. Before those words came out of my grandmother’s mouth. Before she said what was, if not the very last thing I had ever expected to hear (the bar for that was set pretty damn high by now), at least really far up there. 

Her children. The girl with half-black and half-blonde hair, and the brown-haired boy. They were Sariel’s children. More of her children. Two more kids whom she very clearly hadn’t known about at all, and was now being smacked right in the face (and heart) by the existence of.  

If she lost it now, if she pushed to physically be where these brand new, previously unknown children were, what could we do about it? Would Tabbris, Dad, and me be enough to hold us back, even with the added help from the spell that Dare and Mom were doing? That whole thing was never intended to keep the ancient Seosten woman from recalling, it was supposed to help her stop the rest of us from doing so. 

I felt… the burst of emotion from the woman. Considering the situation, it wasn’t as much as most would have shown, of course. Her control was too good for that. But the fact that I could pick up anything from her was pretty telling. And while the reaction was somewhat muted, there were still a lot of different parts to it. I sensed confusion, hope, joy, loss, anger, love, disbelief, and more. Tiny fractions of those emotions, just what bled out. But again, feeling anything was a lot.

Mama. Tabbris was the first to find her voice after that, even as I realized that my grandmother and the kids had continued talking in the background. Mama, are you okay? Are you–

Yes. Despite the rush of emotions, Sariel’s actual voice (or thought-voice) was fairly steady. I was pretty sure that hearing from one of her other children was exactly what she had needed. Tabbris being here, being able to speak to her mother and draw her attention, probably saved us in the end. It’s alright. I just… I don’t… how? There was wonder in her voice, and I could tell she was drinking in every detail she could while Grandmaria was talking to the two kids. 

We can ask, Dad reminded her gently. We’re here to get details. We can ask what happened. 

Just like that, my father had switched from his own issues in needing to know about what was happening to his parents, to helping Sariel with hers. Or rather, accepting hers with his, I supposed. Either way, it was an immediate shift. This was about both of them now. And, I realized, they were both helping to keep the other centered. 

Ask… Sariel echoed that single word, trailing off before seeming to collect herself for a moment. The emotions I was feeling from her didn’t exactly disappear, though they did dampen a bit, replaced by determination. She was going to find out how two of her children were here. And, more importantly, she was going to get them the hell away from Puriel, whatever it took. 

By that point, Grandmaria had called the rest of the assortment of kids over and was showing them how to form the vegetable and meat mixture she had been putting together into some kind of patty, which was apparently going to be cooked like a veggie-beef burger. She made them all wash their hands one at a time before being able to form their own patties they would eat. It was–it was Grandmaria. It was just the way I remembered her, though with different ingredients and in a very different kitchen. But beyond those specifics, I could remember essentially this exact same scene playing out with my grandmother and me. It made me oddly nostalgic in that moment. Almost painfully so. Boy, were those incredibly and far simpler times, before I had any worries about–well no, I wouldn’t trade those days for these because now I had my mother back. Still, I missed my grandmother so much right then, it was an almost physical ache. 

“Oh, I miss you too, sweetie.” The words were spoken aloud by Grandmaria seemingly before she even knew that she had said them. Immediately, I sensed a sudden spike of confusion and a bit of worry. We were keeping ourselves separated from her enough that we weren’t picking up her thoughts directly, in an attempt to avoid being physically transported. But I could still feel an echo of her concern that she had started to lose it, imagining her granddaughter’s voice. Meanwhile, the other kids were looking at her, also confused. One of the group who apparently weren’t Sariel’s spoke up slowly to ask if she was okay. He sounded genuinely worried at the prospect that something could be wrong. Actually, they all looked worried. 

Mom. My father’s voice was urgent, yet clearly as calm as he could make it. He was doing his best not to freak her out. I had the strangest feeling that might be a bit of a lost cause. Listen, it’s Lincoln. Lincoln and Felicity, with… with a couple friends. You’re not hearing things, you’re not imagining it. I know this is probably impossible to understand but–

“Oh, Lincoln!” My grandmother’s voice was both cheerful and decidedly not confused. “There you are. Are you using magic or one of those Seosten possession-mind transfer thingamaroos?” Without missing a beat, she waved one hand to calm the kids down while pointing to her head with the other. “It’s okay, it’s my son and granddaughter in my head. Spark, sweetie, would you be a dear and tell Puriel that–” 

No! That, of course, was Sariel. Her blurted word came quickly and with such force that it made Grandmaria stagger back a step. Immediately, all of the kids came rushing up asking if she was okay, and I felt a pop in the air, even through Grandma’s senses. Teleportation. It was a sudden burst of magic, as an older guy with gray hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and bushy eyebrows appeared right where the pop in the air had been. He was already turning our way. “Maria?” 

Boy, now I really felt it. Sariel was angry.  She had missed out on getting her own justice against Kushiel, had lost that chance to Theia, who was probably the only person we knew who had a better claim for it. That woman, who had tortured her for so long, who had taken so much away from her, was dead already. And good riddance. 

But Puriel was alive. And Puriel was the one who had created the situation that led to Sariel losing her family for over a decade. Puriel was the one whose actions resulted in her being tortured, imprisoned, becoming a lab experiment repeatedly, being forced to be pregnant over and over again, losing gods only knew how many of those in the process and having any who might have survived taken away from her save for the one she had managed to sneak out. It was Puriel who had come to take her away from Haiden and her first two children. 

And yet, it was those very actions that had led to Tabbris even existing. That realization, that thought, was what I could feel Sariel cling to in order to stop herself from doing anything too bad. She held to that, held to the sense of Tabbris right there with her, to stay anchored and not yank us all the way out into Seosten space just to attack the man in front of us the way a large part of her desperately wanted to. She knew it was futile, knew how much stronger than her the man was. But that didn’t matter. She wanted to take a chunk out of him. But, again, she stopped herself, albeit barely. 

“Oh dear,” Grandmaria murmured under her breath while glancing toward Puriel. “This woman with my son and granddaughter, she truly does not like you.” 

I saw the man absorb those words, processing them even as the door slid open and Popser came rushing in. “Maria, is everything–” 

“Sariel.” Puriel interrupted. There was… emotion in his voice. It cracked slightly, his gaze locked on my grandmother. But, of course, he wasn’t really looking at her. He was looking through her, to the woman whose family he had torn apart. “It’s really you, isn’t it?” 

I need…. a minute. Speak to your mother, Lincoln. Sariel’s voice was tight, clearly taking everything she had not to do something we would all regret. 

Mom, it’s us. Dad was clearly shaken and uncertain, but he spoke up. I don’t know how you–tell him if he hurts you–

“My dear boy, he’s not going to hurt us.” There was a mixture of gentle understanding and almost playful reprimand in my grandmother’s voice. She looked to Puriel again, adding, “Yes, she’s there too. But I feel that… it may take her a moment to be ready to talk again.” 

Grandmaria! The word escaped me in a blurted rush. You’re okay! You and Grandpartie, how–where did–how did you–what happened?! 

“There she is. There’s my granddaughter.” Those proud words from Grandmaria sent a tingle through me. And that tingle got even stronger when Grandpartie came forward to stare intently into his wife’s eyes, the same eyes we were seeing through. 

“Lincoln and lil’ Flick’s in there?” he asked with a broad smile. “Well, what took you so long? We were starting to think we wouldn’t hear from you until we trotted our butts right back there to Earth ourselves.” 

I… I don’t… I can’t–what? Dad sounded just as flabbergasted as I felt. This whole thing was not at all how I had expected this to go. Seriously, we had anticipated finding my grandparents locked in a cell or something, where we could quietly communicate with them to let them know we were going to save them. But this? This was something totally different and strange. This was like… like… 

Are you friends?! The blurted question came before I could even think about it. Are you friends with Zeus?! 

Of all the reactions she could possibly have, Grandmaria chuckled softly. “I’ve missed you, Felicity my dear, so very much. You always did know how to get right to the important questions. Now, I think we all need to take a minute to go back and forth and explain a few things, don’t you all agree?” She was addressing not only those of us inside her head, but Puriel and Popser too. And the kids, who had all remained silent through this whole thing. “That’s what I thought. Let’s sit down, take turns, and get all of us on the same page.” 

Okay, well, I could say one thing for sure at least. Okay, two things. First, this was still not going at all the way I had expected.  

And second, even Zeus himself couldn’t stop Grandmaria from taking charge of things. 

*******

So, while Sariel collected herself and pulled it together, Dad and I went back and forth quickly with Grandmaria and Grandpartie, with a few interjections from Puriel when needed. They explained everything that had happened to get them out there, and what had happened next. We heard about the attack by Antaeus, about being teleported all the way to Puriel’s own home island on the Seosten capital world, meeting the man himself along with these kids, finding out just who their long-time friend Al really was, all of it. A lot we had put together already as far as what happened at the cabin went. But it was still good to get it from their point of view. Plus I just loved listening to my grandparents explain things. It was like getting them to tell me a story. 

For Grandmaria and the others’ part, they wanted to know everything that had happened to all of us in the past year. But that would have taken way too long. So, we just gave them a quick set of highlights and promised to say more later. Apparently they’d gotten some of the details already from Puriel, which helped. 

And yet, it also led to a few very obvious questions. The most pressing of which was finally voiced by Sariel after she and Tabbris had collected themselves through all of that. 

Why, the Seosten woman put in. Her voice was still tight from emotion, but she had control of it.  Why is he doing this? What does he get out of it? What does he want from you? And who are these children? With that final question, her voice finally cracked just a little, as Grandmaria’s eyes moved briefly to where those kids were standing in a huddled group with the two who had been singled out as hers standing at the front as they all stared at her. At us. 

“Puriel,” my grandmother spoke gently to draw the man’s attention. “She’s ready to hear from you.” 

I saw what I swore were a rush of emotions play out across the man’s face. He hesitated before stepping over carefully. Putting himself directly in front of my grandmother, the old Seosten spoke carefully. “Sariel. I have made more mistakes in my long life than I could begin to count. And yet, perhaps one of my largest failings was in how I treated you. You and your family. I was obsessed with the idea that our people were better than all others, that every other species was inferior. An inescapable pitfall of how our people operate in this universe, perhaps. It is hard to be a species that enslaves all others for what they call the greater good if you do not see yourselves as ultimately more important, stronger, better. When I saw you, as I believed at the time, lowering yourself by marrying a human, having children with him, it…” He sighed, clearly taking a moment to put his words together properly. “It made me believe that you were soiling our species. Physical intimacy was one thing, some of our people do that, even if it’s not spoken of very much. But you–you were being romantic with him. You were treating him as your equal. And that… At that time, I did not see it as raising the humans or any other species to our own perceived level. I didn’t see it as meeting in the middle. I didn’t even see it as being equal at all. I saw it as you lowering yourself to wallow in the mud, as you putting yourself even lower than the humans. I saw it as dirty and wrong, not for the physical pleasures, but for the fact that assuming our species deserved to be equal with the humans would mean that we were as low and inferior as I believed they were. That is why I could not accept your relationship, your family, any of it.” 

There was a brief pause then, during which Sariel spoke up. He keeps talking as though this is past tense. What would have changed? Why would he feel differently now? Again, there was a tightness to her voice that made it clear she was barely keeping herself in check, and that it was taking a lot to avoid transporting us there.

Grandmaria passed that along, and I saw Puriel wince. From the expression on his face, it was obvious that he didn’t want to talk about it. But he did. Meeting our gaze, the man carefully explained what had happened to him after being hit by the shattered banishment orb. His mind and memories had been broken, making him incapable of remembering anything about who he was. He had ended up on some other world far away, and had been taken in by some sort of Alter orphanage. An orphanage full of innocent children and their caretakers from all manner of species. There, he’d had a good life for awhile. He got along with everyone, as they helped him try to remember who he was. The children and staff had all become his friends. 

Then the Fomorians had come. Somehow, they had learned about his presence, and about how important he was. They came for him, and the people of the orphanage suffered and died for it. They hid him away and refused to surrender him. 

It was that trauma, hearing the suffering and dying of those he had grown to care about, that finally unlocked Puriel’s memories… for the most part. Remembering who he was at that moment, he had destroyed the Fomorians who were attacking. But it had been too late to save the people of the orphanage. 

Puriel had apparently returned to his own people then. But his mind still wasn’t fixed. The damage the shattered banishment orb had done to it was too thorough. He constantly lost track of where he was, what he was doing, even when he was in his own memories and thoughts. 

I felt something else then, a new rush of emotion from the woman but I didn’t quite understand. Hearing that had made her feel something important. As soon as Puriel mentioned losing himself in his memories, something in her impression of him softened.   

“And then… she came.” Reaching one hand out, Puriel beckoned until the black-and-blonde haired girl moved closer. The smaller boy was right with her. 

“Sariel,” the man continued, “this… this is your daughter. Kushiel–she brought her to my medical room as a–I don’t know. A prize? She is… she is what our people call a Mendacia. Kushiel referred to her as–never mind. It doesn’t matter. But she would have done very terrible things to the girl. It made me remember how I treated you and your family on Earth. So I did the only thing I could in that moment, the only thing that came to mind to protect the one child of yours I still could. I allowed her to possess me, and she has been doing so ever since. What you see here, she is using magic to project an image.” 

I had no idea what Sariel was feeling right then. She had closed off entirely through his explanation of who the girl was. 

Sister? That, of course, was Tabbris, her voice trembling. She’s really a sister? 

“I–what?” Grandmaria was clearly taken by surprise. “A sister?” 

That made Puriel’s gaze snap up. “Your other daughter–wait, which…” 

Stop, Sariel immediately demanded. Just stop. Maria, please, just… look at her. Look at them.

My grandmother did so, holding a hand out for Puriel and the others to be quiet. She got closer, staring directly at the girl and boy. I could feel Sariel drinking in their appearances, seeing herself in them. Mine… they are my children. There was wonder and awe in her voice then. Puriel… saved my… children.  

Once it was clear what was happening, Puriel quietly spoke. “Her name–I have called her Spark. She saved my life, Sariel. She has saved me in more ways than I could ever explain. She is brilliant and perfect. And your son–we only met him recently, but he is so very curious about everything. We call him Omni.” 

For their part, both kids stared right up through Grandmaria’s eyes and into the gaze of their mother. The boy found his voice first, quietly murmuring, “Mater?” He was reaching up as though to touch her face before seeming to catch himself. The boy looked… oddly ashamed before quickly lowering his hand, and I felt a pang of shame from Sariel that she couldn’t pick him up. 

So, Grandmaria did just that. She reached out and picked the boy off the ground. Which was surprising, given I didn’t remember her being strong enough to do something like that before. Sure, he was only a little kid, but still. She plucked him off the floor and held him up easily, before reaching out. Her hand brushed slightly over Spark’s face. Apparently her image had been created out of a solid-light hologram. 

“Mater,” Spark quietly spoke, “he did bad things. He knows that. But he helps now. He saved me. We saved Omni, and… and the others.” She raised her hand to gesture to the other children. “They were experimenting on them, and we saved them. He didn’t have to. But he did. We did.” 

At that moment, I felt a decision come over Sariel. The confusion and uncertainty melted away, along with most of the emotions when it came to Puriel. It was clear that the woman had decided only one thing mattered. She spoke in her own voice, and Grandmaria translated aloud. 

How do we bring you all to Earth?

Puriel’s voice actually almost sounded amused. “Actually, we’re working on that ourselves. Do you recognize this kitchen?” He gestured around them, and Sariel finally seemed to pay attention to the place after being distracted for so long. 

…. The Olympus. This… this is your own personal kitchen on the Olympus. 

After Grandmaria translated that, Puriel gave a short nod. “Exactly. We–ahh, liberated it from storage, thanks to a little advice from Arthur there. It’s not quite ready to go yet, but with some more work, we’ll get underway eventually. And with Spark’s improvements, it won’t take long to get to Earth once we do.” 

Wait, Tabbris immediately put in uncertainly, Spark’s improvements? 

Once that message was passed along, Puriel smiled proudly. “Oh yes. Sariel, I told you, your daughter is brilliant. She is, to put it simply, the best ship and weapon designer I’ve seen since Radueriel himself, and she does it with no extra powers or inherited gifts. Believe me, I checked. As a matter of fact, she designed something I hear you’re acquainted with. A ship capable of instantly jumping from one universe to another, from planet to planet in no time at all.” 

The prototype ship?! Spark–this kid–was the one who designed the prototype ship?!

Just as we were all reeling from that, I felt a tug, followed by a rush of emotion from Sariel. We can’t maintain the connection for long. We’re being pulled back. We’ll come again, we’ll talk again. Please, tell them. 

So Grandmaria did. And for the next few seconds, she embraced Omni before putting him down to do the same with Spark’s solid-light holographic form. She hugged them for Sariel. And for Tabbris, who was clearly overwhelmed by all this but still introduced herself. She introduced herself to her brother and sister, through my grandmother’s words as the older woman acted as a go-between. It was rushed, and it was awkward, but it was also perfect in its own way. Tabbris met her Seosten brother and sister for the first time. 

Then Sariel and Tabbris both focused on doing all she could to hold us there while Dad and I had a moment with my grandparents. A moment where there was so much more all of us wanted to say, yet so little time to do so. Instead, we mostly focused on saying how glad we were that they were okay, and in promising to visit soon to see how they were coming along. With each passing moment, I felt our grip slipping. We were going to be pulled away any second. 

“Sariel.” It was Puriel, speaking up once more even as we started to be pulled away. “I will bring your children to you. I will bring Maria and Arthur to the Chambers. Whatever it takes, I promise you that. I will bring them safely to Earth. You have my life oath on it. Whatever else happens, I will get them to Earth.” 

Those were the last words we were able to hear. Because an instant later, our grip on my grandmother failed entirely, as we were sent rebounding back to our physical bodies on Earth like a rubber band had snapped.  

We literally popped apart once we hit our physical bodies, all of us separating from our combined possession form to fall apart from each other and collapse to the floor. As we lay there on our backs, Mom appeared standing over us. “So? 

“How did it go?”

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Long Awaited 12-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Yeah, bringing up the Godfather thing for Dare and Aylen could definitely wait. Especially since the only thing I could think about right then was what the hell someone like Puriel was doing with my grandparents. And why he’d taken them to begin with. That just didn’t make sense at all. He had to grab them from clear across the universe right at that moment, and why would he? He didn’t even know my grandparents. I mean, sure, there was that whole connection between Hercules and Zeus, but if it was just that, wouldn’t he have only grabbed Uncle Al? Also, at some point I was going to have to actually process the fact that Uncle Al was goddamn Hercules. Seriously, the fact that that whole revelation was basically a minor footnote said a hell of a lot about my life, didn’t it? 

Anyway, Puriel hadn’t only picked up Al. He took my grandparents too, and why? Why would his spell have taken them? Why would he care? It couldn’t have been to save them. He wouldn’t have cared if they were taken or killed. He couldn’t have cared. Really, everything I’d heard about the man made that impossible. 

Well, except maybe what Sachael had said. According to that man, Puriel had sent his SPS daughter to Manakel not to punish her or whatever, but to save her from Kushiel. Supposedly he’d wanted to give her a chance at a better life and hadn’t realized just how much his old friend had changed over the years. Which, well, I was taking that claim with a grain of salt for now, considering the possibly biased source. Plus, just because he might’ve cared about his own daughter enough to make his wife stop torturing her and send the girl to someone he thought would help her didn’t mean he gave a rat’s ass about what happened to a couple humans he didn’t even know. He was the one who had broken up Vanessa and Tristan’s family, after all. He didn’t care about them. According to Vanessa, he’d called her and Tristan ‘lies’, equating them with SPS Seosten. He’d wanted to drag Sariel back to her own people, forcing her to abandon her husband and children. Which, if you knew anything about Sariel, you would’ve known just how stupid and evil that was. So I definitely didn’t believe that a man who had done that would suddenly care about what happened to my totally-human grandparents. 

In any case, Sean and Aylen eventually stepped out of the room, the latter letting me know she was going to see how Avalon was, while Sean was heading for Roxa. Watching them go, I smiled faintly despite myself. For a moment, I was distracted from focusing so much on what was going on with Puriel. Was it weird that I was glad Aylen cared about Avalon so much? I mean, obviously I had Shiori and Avalon, so it made sense that both of them could have someone else. And it was okay. I liked Aylen. Not like that, really. But I did like her. And I was glad Aylen and Avalon had a thing together. Some part of me, probably the part raised in normal Bystander society for almost seventeen years, thought I should have some kind of issue with this entire situation. Err, the romantic one. But I just… didn’t. I had Avalon and Shiori. Avalon had me and Aylen. Shiori had me and… well if she found someone else she liked being with in that way, that would be fine too.

It sounded weird in my head when I actually thought about it. But in practice, I was fine with it. Which, some part of me briefly wondered if that had anything to do with the whole Heretic thing. Did being connected to the Edge sort of… make us more okay with this kind of relationship, either from a Reaper thing or from the Seosten wanting their Heretics to have lots of children and interconnected relationships like that? I–huh. Well that was a terrifying rabbit hole to peer into. 

Whatever, I’d think about that more later. Or not. Or I’d just ignore the thought entirely and–fuck. Well, right now I was going to focus on this situation. My eyes focused on Mom and Dad even as Tabbris was urgently giving them advice about safely projecting without going that way. She had also insisted that Dad not do anything until her mother made it here to give her own advice and to be present just in case something went wrong. Which, yeah, that was completely fair. 

We didn’t have to wait long for Sariel to show up, either. Apparently when her daughter called for urgent help about a family situation, she didn’t waste any time. Before we even had to start worrying about Dad asking more questions about how our mission had gone, the woman had arrived at the door. She and my mother exchanged brief glances, Mom bowing her head slightly as if in acknowledgment and adding a quiet murmur of thanks. It was met by a very faint smile and nod from the Seosten woman. 

That done, she closed the distance from the entrance and asked what exactly was going on. So, we told her the full situation. Dare filled in most of it, giving Dad time to just sit with Mom while Tabbris perched on his lap. And wow, Sariel had an even bigger reaction than the rest of us had to the reveal about Puriel. She reached down to cover Tabbris’s ears before speaking a few choice words in a mixture of English, Latin, and some other language I didn’t even know. But none of the words were polite. 

Tabbris, of course, squirmed her way free and squinted that way. “Mama, I’ve heard bad words before.” 

“Of course you have, my brave girl,” Sariel agreed, running a hand through her hair. “But there’s bad words and then there’s the words that come to mind when that man is involved. Different levels.” 

With that, the woman straightened. “Okay. You’re right, the easiest way to find out what’s going on would be to project yourself to your mother. But over that distance, with you having so little experience, and everything Puriel might have put in the way to shield himself, I don’t think you should do it alone.” 

Her words made Tabbris gasp. “Dad! You can still be possessed, so they can help you do the projecting thing!” 

Oh, right. Yeah, that hadn’t occurred to any of us. Wow, we really were worn out from everything. Sariel and Tabbris had a point. Dad didn’t have much experience with this stuff beyond a little bit of practice with Mercury, but someone who did, or just had more power, could possess him and help. Hell, that would probably even be a good way of pulling him back if he started to be physically yanked there. Someone else being connected to him could act as a sort of anchor. And even if it didn’t, if worse came to worst and he was pulled that way, at least he wouldn’t be completely alone. 

That, naturally, led to a bit of a discussion about who should do the possessing. And we realized something else. It didn’t have to be just one person. Sariel, Tabbris, and I could all form a Choo-maneuver stack. With three of us it would be even better. Tabbris and I could help anchor Dad because of who we were, because of our connection to him. And Sariel had the power and expertise to help direct the projection in the first place. 

Unfortunately, Mom couldn’t be a part of that. Which I was pretty sure she wasn’t happy about. But she kept it quiet, obviously not wanting to make the situation harder or more complicated. That said, I was pretty sure that if any bad Seosten had presented themselves as a target right then for Mom to take a gamble on getting their possession power, she wouldn’t have hesitated. 

Then Sariel, after a slight pause, turned toward Mom. Her voice was quiet. “Joselyn, if you like, I can help you with a spell that will allow you and Virginia here to serve as… anchors of a sort. Think of the spell that you will maintain as a bright beacon to help guide us back here across the long distance. Your husband’s body will be here the entire time, but our minds will be there, and this spell will help him, and the rest of us, find our way back to this spot.” 

Mom didn’t hesitate. No matter how she might have felt about Sariel herself, the instant the woman made that suggestion, she nodded. “Yes. Whatever we have to do. If you say it’ll help…” Only then did she pause very, very briefly before repeating. “If you say it’ll help, then yes.” 

Dare nodded in agreement. “Of course. Anything to help make certain this goes well.” While Sariel and Mom were focused on each other, she gave me a brief glance. We locked gazes, and I nodded in understanding. This… this would be the first time Dare did a spell with Mom, considering my mother had been a tiny child the last time she knew who Dare really was. It would be the first time that Dare did a spell with her daughter. It was such a big moment… and we couldn’t actually tell Mom what that meant. Damn it, we couldn’t even tell her how important it was, or that it was important at all. Dare had to play this whole thing completely cool, had to not give away how much the situation meant to her or how–

Fuck. This wasn’t fair. Not one single part of my grandmother’s situation was fair. Why couldn’t we find a way to just stabilize the banishment spell so that she didn’t have to live like this all the time? How long was this going to go on? How long was she going to have to pretend her own daughter, my mother, wasn’t basically the most important person in the world to her? It couldn’t be forever, could it? There had to eventually be a way to fix this, a way to make it so Virginia Dare could be known for who she really was. Right? God, I hoped so. I really, truly hoped so. 

In any case, that led to Sariel giving Mom and Dare a bit of a crash course in how to create the spell she’d been talking about. It was complicated, but both of them understood magic well enough for Sariel to feel comfortable with letting them do it with minimal guidance. Though it wasn’t like we had a lot of choice unless we wanted to wait an extra two or three weeks for a full battery of lessons. 

Yeah, that might’ve been smart. But we were working with what we had. We needed to get to the bottom of what Puriel was doing with my grandparents, and that couldn’t wait weeks. We had to find out right now. 

Once that was done, and I managed to tear my attention away from the fact that Mom and Dare  were working together (and everything that meant), I found myself facing Sariel, Tabbris, and my father. “I guess we need blood now.” 

Tabbris, of course, wanted to use her blood, but her mother’s was stronger, especially as far as possession went. She’d had a lot longer for her possession power to grow. So, it made more sense to use her blood. And she already had some prepared in a small curved glass dish, holding it out for Dad to put his finger into. He did so, and a moment later he was, temporarily at least, a Natural Sariel Heretic. Suddenly, I kind of wanted to see how good he was at playing darts. But that would have to wait. This was a lot more important. Seriously though, we needed to check on that at some point. 

With that in mind, I cleared my throat before hesitantly speaking up with,  “We’re ready for this, then?” 

Tabbris grabbed my hand while nodding. “Uh huh! We’ll find out what that jerk’s up to and get your grandparents back! Right, Mama?” 

A very faint, yet clearly worried smile, Sariel looked to her daughter. “Yes. First, I need you all to know, digging through this woman’s mind would be a very bad idea. I know it will be tempting to search her memories to see what exactly is going on. But you have to resist that. The more you try to look into her mind, the more of a chance you will lose your grasp back here and end up physically transporting everyone. Stay out of her mind as much as possible.” 

She waited for everyone to nod and agree before adding, “Also, speaking of transporting, no transporting. Period. No matter what happens, we will come back here. Do you understand?” She was looking to me and then to my dad. “Even if something bad is happening, I promise you that we do not stand a chance against Puriel. Whatever it is, whatever he’s doing with them, we come back here and get the reinforcements we need to do something about it. This is just a reconnaissance check.” Her voice was firm, eyes staring intently at Dad, almost looking through him. “No matter what.” 

My father’s reply was quiet, yet firm. “Yes. I understand the stakes. They’re my parents, but these are our girls. I’m not not risking my daughters just to make a pointless stab at hurting the man who played the king of the gods. But I still have to know. I need to know what’s going on.”

There was a brief pause while Dad, Mom, Dare, and Sariel all exchanged glances and what seemed to be silent communication. Finally, Sariel gave a nod of satisfaction. “Good. Let’s do this then. Remember, if something goes wrong, focus on the anchors here. You’ll feel the spell that Virginia and Joselyn are performing. Let that pull you back to this spot.” 

With that, Tabbris gave me a tight hug before disappearing as she possessed me. Comforted by her familiar presence, I turned toward Sariel, who was holding a hand out to me. I repressed the nerves that left me tingling before taking the offered hand. A second and a bit of focus later, and I disappeared into her. Not that I had any chance of controlling the woman, of course. Tabbris and I were both just along for the ride while Sariel turned to put a hand on our dad’s shoulder.

Like that, we were inside him. I could feel my father’s worry about his parents, and his anxiousness as far as this whole situation went. I also felt his relief that both of us were home and safe, along with a certainty he felt that there was something about what happened while we were gone that we hadn’t told him yet. But it was clouded over and distracted by his focus on his own mother and father. 

Sariel didn’t waste any time. Lincoln, focus on your parents. Think about them, what they look like, what they sound like, what they feel like. Girls, you do the same. You both met them, you know them. All three of you. Focus on everything you know about those two. I’ll direct the recall power, but you have to focus on them to help guide it. 

So, I did just that. My thoughts focused on all the times I’d spoken to Popser and Grandmaria. I thought of sitting in our kitchen when they visited, of helping my grandmother make dinner (those were basically the only times our oven got used correctly), of being in the backyard with my grandfather to watch the stars. I thought of running and squealing before he picked me up. I thought of hugging them both at night. I thought of talking to them on the phone, of every moment I’d interacted with them. I thought of how much I cared about my grandparents. Distantly, I could sense Tabbris doing the same, though her thoughts and memories were all tinted by a sadness that they’d had no idea she was there. As well as a worry about how they would react if they did. 

Before I could focus too much on that, I felt a sort of whooshing sensation. It was working. We were being mentally (our physical bodies stayed firmly planted in the Starstation) projected far, far away. It was all a jumble rush of motion and light that almost made me feel sick. 

Then we were there. We were right there. I felt my grandmother’s presence even as I was staring through her eyes to see… a kitchen? Yeah, it was definitely a kitchen. Not an Earth-based one, of course. This was the same sort of high-tech, sci-fi kitchen I’d seen while out in Seosten space. Full of weird gizmos I still couldn’t even begin to understand the function of. Again, that wasn’t saying much, considering I didn’t understand the function of a lot of Earth-based kitchen gadgets.

Still, we were definitely seeing through my grandmother’s eyes. I could see her hands as she carefully mixed what looked like some vegetables and meat together in a bowl. She didn’t… seem to be a prisoner. She was humming a song to herself as she worked, before turning a bit toward the other side of the kitchen. There, we could all see a collection of Seosten children lining a table as they worked on chopping more vegetables and meats, filling bowls with them, or otherwise clearly helping to prepare whatever meal this was. 

One of those children, a girl with hair that was half-black and half-blonde, was standing next to the table, beside a much-younger boy with brown hair. The two seemed to be talking quietly before the boy got up. Together, they stepped over to where my grandmother was. 

“Does our mother cook?” the boy asked, sounding curious. The girl, his sister apparently, was watching silently from just behind him. 

“Oh, sweetie, I’m afraid I don’t know your mother enough to say how much cooking she does,” Grandmaria answered. “But I’ll tell you what, if she doesn’t, you can show her what we learned here, okay? 

“I may not know much about this Sariel, but from what I’ve heard, she’ll adore learning from her children.”

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Patreon Snippets 19 Including Fomorian Origin Story (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 19th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Months Ago, During The Night Of The Rebellion Being Reformed

There were three incredibly important things that one had to know about Malcolm Harkess’s father, Shane, if one was going to understand his son. First, the man was very rich. He had inherited a decent amount (seven figures) of money as an eighteen-year-old orphan. Second, despite inheriting such cash, Shane Harkess was still incredibly driven to earn his own way. He went into the US Marines and served his country for ten years on three different continents before retiring as a first sergeant. From there, he used the money he had originally inherited as well as the contacts he made in the service to start-up an armed private security company. 

Those were two of the three important things to know about Shane Harkess. The third, even more vital piece of information, was that he was also incredibly paranoid. Shane had been convinced since the time that he was a child that some sort of very dangerous and devastating war was coming. A war which would begin with most technology in the world being wiped out or eliminated. Which, of course, would make supplies quite hard to come across. Thus, he trained the men in his security company not only how to fight using their fancy guns and equipment, but also in much more archaic forms of combat. He had trained in medieval weapons construction, upkeep, and fighting, hand-to-hand, various survival and concealment techniques, and so on since before he had even entered the military itself. The Marines, of course, had taken these skills to the next level. And he passed that level to everyone who ended up working for him. 

But it wasn’t only his men that he taught. Shane Harkess passed everything he knew, everything he had trained himself to do, on to his son. Malcolm, from the time he had been barely old enough to walk, had been taught how to fight and survive by his father, as well as his father’s military buddies and security subordinates. He learned how to clean, maintain, and fire every type of gun imaginable, as well as how to fight without such an advantage. He learned to survive in the woods with nothing but a knife, and eventually with less than that. 

All that training had been instilled so thoroughly in Malcolm that he was incredibly competitive. That competitive streak had accompanied him here, to Crossroads. Yet no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he worked, he could never manage to beat Avalon Sinclaire. And he so desperately wanted to. Not because he particularly disliked the girl or anything. Not even because she was a girl, that was stupid. He knew too many really strong females to think something idiotic like that. 

No, Malcolm wanted to beat Avalon simply because she was better than he was. And if he beat her, he’d know he was improving. It was nothing personal. But he could never do it. Which led to him pushing himself harder and harder, training more, to the point that he received special permission to train in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. 

And that was why he was standing in the middle of the gym that night, when everything went down and that blaring music began to play. Malcolm had had no idea what was going on, only that he was locked in the gym by a passing security guard who told him to stay put. From there, he stared through the doors and out the various windows, trying to figure out what had happened. 

Then it came. The sudden rush of understanding that left Malcolm staggering backward. The rebellion, Flick’s mom, everything that had been done to shut them down. She–that chick did something to fill everyone’s heads with all that information. All that–and now they were leaving. They were going to take off. He could see the large group down by the ocean, through the window. Something was going on down there, and he had to get the hell out of–

“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” 

The voice came from behind Malcolm, and he spun to find a completely unexpected figure standing there. 

“Counselor Leven?!” It was her. Zeke’s mother and member of the Crossroads Committee. “What–what’re you doing? Shouldn’t you be down… uhh, down there?” He gestured toward the scene going on in the distance through the window.

“Hello, Malcolm,” the beautiful, auburn-haired woman greeted him. “And no, I believe what happens there will happen regardless of my presence, or lack thereof. I’m more interested in what you plan to do now.” 

“I–uhh…” The tall, muscular boy hesitated, feeling uneasily intimidated by the smaller, yet profoundly more powerful woman. “That stuff, the memories or whatever, is it true?” 

There was a short pause from Sophronia before she gave a very slight nod. “You want to go with them?” 

The pause from Malcolm, in turn, was much longer than hers. Finally, he carefully replied, “I’m not sure how to answer that, ma’am.” 

“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Then allow me to tell you what I would like. You are the closest friend my son has, Malcolm Harkess. Which, given his typical dismissal of Bystander matters, is quite remarkable in and of itself.” 

Offering him a very faint smile, she continued. “Zeke will not leave this place now, it’s not… it’s not who he is, yet. I believe he can be better, I have to. But I also believe that your leaving will sour him against the subject permanently. He will view his best friend joining the rebellion as a betrayal, rather than an informative moment.” 

Malcolm stared at her briefly before slowly asking, “You saying you want me to stay here because it’ll piss your son off if I leave?” 

“What I am saying,” she informed him, “is that if you choose to leave I will not stand in your way. I will even aid you in reaching those who are fleeing. But I ask… not as a Heretic, not as a member of the Committee, as a mother. As a mother, I ask that you stay and try to help my son. If you leave, he will be alone save for those who wish to make him even more of a fanatic.” 

“What about you?” the boy demanded. “You’re his mom.” 

“And there is some I can do, yet not enough,” Sophronia replied. “I am his mother, and also a member of the Committee. What I do, particularly around my son, is watched more than what you do. You are his friend, someone he has chosen to open up to despite his own prejudices. I believe that, with time and effort, it may be possible to reach him. If we do so gradually and give him more reasons to doubt his own beliefs.” 

Reaching out, she put one hand on his shoulder. “Say the word, and I will take you to the newly-budding rebellion. Or choose to stay. Not for me. For my son. I want him to be better, but it’s something he has to choose for himself. I would prefer he have a better chance of doing so by being connected to a good influence. Your influence.” 

Once more, Malcolm was silent, glancing to her hand and then to the window where people were retreating. Where the new rebellion was escaping. His expression was indecisive. Finally, he exhaled long and low. “Fine. 

“I’ll stick around for Zeke.” 

*****

Puriel And Company

With a slight squeak of metal, a two-foot wide, square panel was pried away from a wall. Doing so revealed an intricate network of tubes and wires surrounding brightly colored lights. Some of the tubes seemed to carry liquid of one kind or another, while others appeared empty. The lights blinked in various patterns that surely meant something to… someone. 

“Welp,” announced Arthur Chambers, who was not one of those someones, “Have you checked the oil?” 

Slowly, the man standing beside him, Puriel, turned his head to look that way. “Have we what?” As he spoke, the man was setting the metal panel against the nearby wall with a very soft ting. 

The two of them were in one of the Olympus’s many vast corridors. The hall was only lit by the dimmest of lighting, as most of the ship remained on extremely low power for the time being. It was an effect which left both men barely visible to one another. And most of that was thanks to the colored lights from the newly-opened panel. 

“Sorry,” Arthur murmured with a shrug, having turned his attention back to what they had revealed. “Usually the first thing you’re supposed to ask when someone’s checking for engine trouble. But ahhh, this might be slightly beyond anything I’ve ever worked with.” Glancing back that way, he added, “Not diesel, is it?”  

There had been a time when Puriel would have scoffed at that, when he would have treated the human as a useless primitive, barely capable of speech. Now, he paused before snorting softly. “No, Mr…” He hesitated before amending. “… Arthur. I don’t believe it’s diesel. Though as far as my people are concerned, most of this ship is little more than a quaint antique. Top of the line in her day, yet… yet she has fallen behind.” Despite his words, there was a clear fondness in his voice, while the man gently ran one hand along the wall. For a moment, he was lost in memories. 

“You think the kid can really bring her up to snuff?” Arthur asked after giving the other man a few seconds to reminisce. “That Spark, she’s like a real genius at this stuff. That’s not normal for your people, is it? Sorry, I mean it’s not usual.”

“Indeed.” The answer came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The small, black Seosten woman approached through the winding corridor, accompanied by Arthur’s wife, Maria, as well as the enormous figure of Alcaeus. “Spark is very much an unusual level of genius,” Aletheia continued to confirm, once they had all arrived. “Happily for us.” 

“How are they doing?” Puriel asked, his question directed toward Maria. He could easily tell for himself, of course. Spark was still connected to him, after all. She was simply using the projection spell to put an image of herself elsewhere. All he really had to do was stop actively shunting his attention away from the spell she was using to see through that hologram. But he preferred to give the girl as much privacy as their unique situation allowed. 

Maria, in turn, offered a grandmotherly smile. “Spark is assisting her brother and the rest of the children with sandwich preparations. Kutattca is with them. You don’t exactly have peanut butter and jelly here, but I believe Grandpa Kutty and I managed to piece together effective substitutes from the new supplies.” She looked toward Aletheia then, adding, “Your friend here is very good at acquiring things.” 

“Always has been.” That was Al, grunting the words before stepping up to join the men in staring at the flashing lights, wires, and coils. “So like Artie here said, between all of us and the kid’s super-genius, can we really get this ship into good enough condition to make it to Earth?” 

“With some luck and a lot of work from the rest of us, yes,” Puriel confirmed. “At least, I believe so. This ship was intended to operate under a much larger and… no offense intended, much better trained crew. But between general improvements, automation spells we can set up, and Spark’s own inspired upgrades, we should be able to pull it off, eventually.”

There was a brief exchange of looks then, before Maria cleared her throat. “Oh, honestly, would you all just spit it out.” To Puriel, she flatly continued with, “Everyone wants to know if that genius kid of yours got her spiffy tech skills from whoever her father might be. You know, since you said those superpowers could be passed on after all.” 

“You’re asking if Spark’s father is Radueriel,” Puriel finished for her. He paused, waiting for the collection of nods before giving a very slight shake of his head. “No. I have been through all of my late wife’s records. Spark’s father was an unremarkable volunteer from the front lines of the war, who wished to have some chance at passing on his genetics. He was unaware of the extent of what was happening at the lab, only believing that some of our scientists were working on creating children through… artificial means.”

The others absorbed that, before Arthur asked, “Does that mean she’s just… naturally coming up with this stuff? No offense, just seems like it’s about the same as a twelve-year-old on our world with no training randomly inventing… well… one of these.” He gestured at the ship around them. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel nodded once. “As far as we can tell, yes. There is nothing in her genealogical history that would account for some special Tartarus-derived power to explain her skills in design. Her mother’s ability is nothing like that, and her biological father has no such power, nor any particular skill in technology. From all of the very extensive research I have done, Spark’s genius is simply that. Her genius.”

Taking that in, the others exchanged looks once more before Arthur eventually spoke once more. “I suppose if Spark’s father is some random guy, so is Omni’s.” 

“Oh, no, not at all,” Puriel corrected. “Omni’s father is very much someone we know. 

“His name is Abaddon.” 

*****

Fomorian Origins

A/N – Sariel first told Larissa the Seosten understanding of the origins of Cronus and the Fomorians back in Mini-Interlude 37, right here for those who would like to compare.

Throughout the vast, unfathomable reaches of space, trillions of worlds existed. Some dark, dormant, and cold, others bright shining beacons. Some were small, churning balls of hot gases that would melt and twist steel within seconds, while others were goliaths of frozen liquids and mountains that towered into the sort of immeasurable size that would make the Earth itself vanish within a single cavern of such a world. 

Such incalculable cosmic phenomena existed within the bounds of only one universe, let alone several interconnected realities, that it was beyond the capabilities of even the most celebrated Seosten scientist to document even a decent fraction of them. Despite their own ten thousand year average lifespan and infallible memories, space was simply too large to be accurately understood and charted.

If it was beyond even the Seosten’s ability to fully detail the worlds within their own area of space, then those that lay beyond the battlelines of their war with the Fomorians were as mysterious and unknown as the land of Earth’s moon would have been to primitive, pre-fire humans. And like those ancient, aboriginal societies, many stories had been made up and spread throughout the Seosten Empire of what the Fomorian-controlled worlds were like. Or what Fomorian society itself, if it even truly existed, might have been. The Seosten scientists who detailed these ideas of their enemy’s society based them on millennia of observation and evidence that had been collected by their peers, or pieced-together witness reports from a few scattered survivors. They put together as clear of a picture of the Fomorian ‘society’ as they could. 

And they were, in almost every countable way, entirely wrong. Personal prejudices, misunderstood or even deliberately falsified evidence, survivors whose stories were exaggerated or whose memories had been tampered with by either side, and more problems made it entirely impossible for anyone to have anything even remotely close to an accurate view of what the Fomorians were like away from the front lines of their war. Or what the origin of their species had truly been. Their own worlds, the center of their society, were entirely cut off from any outsiders. Not one single non-Fomorian had laid living eyes upon those original worlds since before the great war between the genetic monstrosities and the Seosten Empire had begun, hundreds of thousands of years earlier. None who were not Fomorian themselves had ever stood upon the soil of their capital world and seen the truth of who and what these creatures were. 

Most importantly, none had ever laid eyes upon the world where all Fomorians were born.

There were many reasons for this, from the vastness of their owned space, to the ferocity with which they defended (and constantly expanded) their borders, to the atrocities committed by their people on those who wandered anywhere near the edges of their territory, let alone getting close to the center. But above all, there was one primary reason for why no living, non-Fomorian being had ever seen the planet all of them were born on, the seat of their civilization. Because the Fomorians, as the universe knew them, were not born on any world. 

They were born on a ship. 

——–

Under a veil of darkness, one pair of eyes opened. Those eyes, bred and enhanced through hundreds of generations, were capable of viewing the world around them through any of a dozen different vision modes. They could see perfectly within pitch-black night, would have been capable of counting the hairs on the leg of a common Earth housefly from a mile away, could stare directly into a star for hours without harmful effect, and could even view ultraviolet and infrared waves, as well as literal magical energy itself. Nothing that was capable of being seen by a living being (and many things that technically weren’t) could be hidden from this single pair of eyes. 

And yet, at that particular moment, the eyes saw nothing. The area around them was not simply dark, it was obscured, physically covered by something. The being attached to the eyes floated within what amounted to very thick, almost pudding-like nutrient liquid of pure black coloration, their body held rigid and motionless by four muscular tentacles coiled around their arms and legs (two of each). Those tentacles were attached to the inner walls of the cocoon or egg-like structure the being had awoken within. A cocoon which entirely encased the being and produced the nutrient paste their body had used to grow to its full size, while its attached tentacles held the being by the arms and legs. 

For many years, the body within this cocoon had been nurtured and maintained. Now, as the eyes of the body within opened and the body began to twist a bit, its job was done. The tentacles holding the being’s limbs retracted at the very instant that the occupant began to struggle in earnest, while the cocoon itself began to dissolve. The hard outer shell, capable up until that point of standing against even a full barrage from a capital starship, melted into the same pudding-like gel that had filled its interior. The tentacles followed suit, the resulting pool of thick liquid dripping through a thin, yet incredibly tough membrane that made up the floor below it.

As the cocoon dissolved and dripped through the floor, the being that had been held within was left crouching, naked on a small platform in the middle of a cavernous structure surrounded by dozens more eggs just like the one they had just emerged from. The walls of the cavern were flesh, with visible rib-like bones across the domed ‘ceiling’, and an overall general structure that looked like the inside of a mostly-hollowed out whale. 

After what would have been considered several Earth-minutes, the crouched, naked being straightened. Their gaze slowly turned to take in the area around them, absorbing the sight of those other cocoons before lowering their eyes to take in the sight of their own raised hands. Gray-green hands, thin yet unbelievably strong. Powerful, tough, incredibly dexterous, and… wrong. 

“No,” the being murmured under their breath, their head starting to shake. “No, this is wrong.” The words that emerged from their strange, unfamiliar mouth were what people of Earth would consider Latin. The Seosten language, though the exact words and pronunciation were quite different in many ways than what most would understand. Different, because they were many, many centuries out of date. 

“This isn’t me!” The being was shouting out loud by that point, their bellows filling the egg-filled cavern. “What is this?! Hey, what in the void is going on here?! Hey!” They pivoted, moving toward the nearest cocoon. If they had been trapped inside, maybe others they knew were trapped within the rest. 

Stop.” The loud, booming voice came from everywhere, yet nowhere. It seemed to emerge from the walls themselves, echoing throughout the biological cavern. It was a voice which, despite the confused and frantic newly-emerged being’s desperation, made them follow that single order and halt instinctively before slowly looking around as though searching for the source. 

“Where–where are you? Where am I? What is this? Come out, now!” The shouted command was a mix of fearful and angry, the being’s confusion warring with their rising emotions about where they had found themselves, and in what state. “I swear, if you don’t show yourself right now–” 

“Apologies.” The voice came from behind the confused new hatchling, and they spun to find a figure standing between two other eggs. Unlike their own awkward, unfamiliar gray-green body, the person who had now revealed themselves had pale skin, long brown hair, a slightly muscled physique, and soft green eyes. He wore nothing more than loose brown pants, and appeared completely out of place here in this cocoon-filled flesh cavern specifically because he looked entirely human. Entirely human, or–

“Seosten!” the hatched figure blurted abruptly, their surprise and relief audible. “You’re Seosten! Like me, like…” Trailing off, they looked down at their hands. “Like I’m… supposed to be. What did they do to me? What–I’m not–” Looking up again, voice and bulbous, too-large eyes pleading, they continued. “What is this? Wh-what happened to me? Is this… is this aliens?” Their voice had turned tentative, fearful as they took a step that way, reaching out to desperately grasp at the arm of the Seosten man. “Where are we?” 

After a very brief pause, the pale, shirtless man offered a slight smile before taking one of the confused, frightened figure’s hands. Squeezing reassuringly, he turned and began to walk. “Come, I’ll show you exactly what has happened. It’s alright, you have nothing to be afraid of. Please, what’s your name?” 

“I… I’m Lailah,” came the hesitant answer. “And I’m not-not this thing.” Their hands gestured toward the strange, unfamiliar body. “I’m a Seosten like you! I mean, a female Seosten. Not this, I’m not–I’m not this thing! What happened to me?! Please, just–just tell me what happened? Was it an accident in the lab? Was it–” 

“Shh, please, it’s alright.” Gently soothing her with his voice, the shirtless Seosten man continued to lead her through the large cavern as he asked, “I promise, we’ll get to the bottom of this, and you will be okay. Just try to calm down a little bit. Can you tell me the last thing you remember before waking up here?” 

“The last thing I remember?” Lailah echoed uncertainly. She had to think about it. And thinking was rather hard right then, though something about the man’s voice made it easier than it should have been to follow his instructions. He asked her to calm down, and part of her did, despite the insanity and terror of waking up in a strange body. “There was some kind of accident in the lab I was working at. We were investigating experimental treatments for diseases, like the one Caelus Euven–he’s my boss–the one his son has.” 

There was a brief pause while her guide stopped walking. He glanced away and seemed to think about her words before curiously asking, “Cron?” 

“You know him?” Blinking that way with more than a little surprise, Lailah nodded. “Yes, he’s been in our lab for a few months now. His father’s desperate to find a cure. I’m afraid… I’m afraid he’s been cutting a few safety corners. He has this strange idea that he can create a secondary… wait a minute.” As she trailed off, those large, alien eyes widened. “He wanted to make a new body and transfer his son from the sick one to the healthy one. Did–did he do this?” She had stopped walking again, raising those strange greenish hands up in front of her face to stare at them in horror. “Was I–was I his test subject? Wait, those other cocoons. Those other–the rest of–” 

Turning to face her, the still normal-looking Seosten man held his own pale hands out. “Easy–” 

“Easy?!” she echoed, blurting the word in disbelief and anger. “Have you looked at me?! What am I! What did he do to me?! What did that monster do?!” 

Immediately, the man closed the distance between them. Fury blazed in his eyes as he raised a hand, shaking from emotion. “He is not a monster. It wasn’t his fault. He was trying to save me!”   

“Trying to save…” Once more, the woman trailed off. She stared at him, placing the face as a very soft gasp escaped her. “Cron–no. You’re young–barely more than a child. How are you–years. Whatever happened, whatever this is… I’ve been out for years.” 

“Years?” A faint note of amusement entered the voice of her guide, Cron. “Oh, Lailah. It’s been a bit longer than that. Though, I suppose it really depends on how you count, to be honest. By your personal measure, it’s been a very, very long time. By mine, we had this conversation a few months ago. And a few years before that. And perhaps a decade earlier–your model is very prone to arrogance. It gets you in trouble.” 

“My–my model?” She took a step away from him, mouth working a bit as a wordless sound of confusion escaped her. “What are you talking about? What–what’s happening?” 

“It’s more about what already happened,” came the casual response. “And what happened is that my father succeeded–in a manner of speaking. He created a new body for me, with the help of you and your colleagues, of course. He also gave me the ability to create a connection to the new body, so I could transfer myself into it. Unfortunately, that new body he transferred me into wasn’t some empty, blank slate. 

“You see, it turns out there was a mind in there already, because one of your other colleagues had a brother who got into an accident and brain-damaged. This other doctor, he thought he could use my father’s work temporarily, just enough to transfer his damaged brother’s mind into the new body to have one last conversation. To say goodbye. He did the same thing to his injured brother that my father did to me, performed alterations to his DNA so that he could match it to the new body. He even managed to make that connection. He managed to transfer his almost brain-dead brother to the new body. But my father interrupted, and wouldn’t listen before he started the procedure for me. So when I was transferred, there was already a mind inside what should have been an empty body. A mind that was terrified and confused. He lashed out. I fought back. We struggled, and then my father tried to hug me. He didn’t understand what was happening. He didn’t know there was a problem. A problem which got worse, because the method he used to allow me to transfer myself into the new body extended to taking him into the body as well. We absorbed him, my father.” 

“I…” Lailah was gazing off into the distance as screams and orders echoed through her mind. “I remember. I think I remember, anyway. We tried to stop it. We tried to get the situation under control. We were trying to sedate the body, but it didn’t work. He–you–it fought back. It… I was… you picked me up.” She stared at him, voice shaking. “You threw me across the room. I hit a table and… and then the wall. You were standing over me. You reached down, and I… and I was gone. Then I woke up here. Why–” She stopped, clearly trying to understand something. “Why can’t I be angry with you? Why can’t I–I want to yell at you. I want to hit you. I want to scream and run away. I can’t. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I do any of that?” 

Sounding unconcerned, the man pivoted and began to walk once more through the flesh and bone tunnel. “Come, you’ll understand eventually. Or not, but it hardly matters. I suppose there was a time when I would have tried harder to make you understand. And knowing how these things fluctuate, there will come a time when I try harder again.” 

As they walked, he explained, all-too-casually, what had happened to the Seosten after her memories faded out. He told her about how the combined form of Caelus and Cron, now called Cronus, kept absorbing more and more people in an increasingly desperate attempt to possess enough mental power to solve their problem and save themselves. He told her about how that was quickly twisted, their original goal forgotten as they sought only to absorb more Seosten for no particular reason, and how the genetic alterations to their body mutated, spreading out from them in virus-form to infect even those they didn’t absorb. He told her about how that mutation rapidly propagated through the remaining Seosten population, granting them the ability to possess and control others, and about how the subsequent war between Cronus and the rest of the Seosten population devastated their planet to the point of reshaping the world itself by turning what had been a singular massive continent into a much smaller one surrounded by thousands of islands. He was fairly candid about the lengths he–or Cronus–went to in their mad attempt to absorb as many people as possible. Thousands upon thousands of minds, hundreds of thousands, even. A million or more. All of them taken into one body, and all contributing to make him less and less sane. 

Finally, Cronus had left their homeworld. He–or they– abandoned Elohim using the experimental spaceship the Seosten had been working on, and set out to find a new home where they could sort through what was, by that point, hundreds of thousands of voices from all of the people they had absorbed.

Entranced by his story, Lailah only belatedly noticed that they had reached the end of the biological tunnel, and were now standing in what appeared to be the cockpit of that same, just-mentioned spaceship. Though there were various… additions to the space. Mostly consisting of several tentacles spread across the metal walls and over the controls. Tentacles with living, beating/pulsing organs attached to them, like those of a living creature that had been directly connected into the technology. 

“What… what is this?” Lailah tried to demand, yet her voice came out as a soft, uncertain question. 

“What is it?” her guide echoed before pointing toward the main screen in the center of the fairly cramped (particularly with the organ-covered tentacles running through it) cockpit. “Look, and see where we are. See the heart of what we have achieved. Or perhaps a better term would be, the womb.” 

As he spoke, the view on the screen flickered, before abruptly showing the outside of the ship itself from up close. They could see the cockpit window, could see themselves watching the screen. Seeing that, Lailah glanced that way, but the window was mirrored from this side, making it impossible to see anything beyond. 

Turning her attention back to the monitor, she watched as whatever was out there transmitting the signal began to pull back. She saw more of the ship. It was essentially a thick silver-white oval, like a semi-flattened egg. Larger tentacles, like the ones within the cockpit running through all the controls, were wrapped around it. They looked like the roots of a giant tree that had grown to envelop the ship, leading back to… to…

The best way Lailah’s mind could describe it was a gigantic snail, complete with (a soft, pulsing) shell. It was over a thousand miles from one end to the other. The opening of the ‘shell,’ where the snail’s head would emerge, instead had hundreds of various-sized tentacles. Some were as small as ordinary tree vines, while others were miles across. One singular tentacle-like tube attached the moon-sized soft-looking shell to the ship they were now standing on. That was the organic tunnel they had walked through to get here, and the cocoon-filled chamber was but one of what had to be hundreds within the shell itself. 

“We traveled for decades on this ship,” her guide murmured. “Years upon years where we spent most of the time hardly cognizant of our surroundings. We found that our body didn’t need nutrients. It took what it needed from the people we absorbed, storing the energy from their bodies and keeping it for later. Many thousands of our people, converted to the nourishment our combined self required. For decades, the ship traveled through space while we drifted within our own minds. Close to a million minds and personalities, all fighting and struggling to be heard, to be released, to be noticed. Many living out entire fantasy dream scenarios. It was impossible to think, impossible to focus through the noise. We lost ourselves for a long time. Years upon years passed while those minds within us fought for attention, or simply played out their imagined lives. We lived every life of every person we had taken, our focus and attention drifting from one to the next, aimless and chaotic. 

“Finally, we could go no further. Our ship reached this point, this empty area of space, and would proceed no more. We had fixed it before, but there was no fixing this. It was done, our physical, outward journey over. Yet our mental path, the dreams of nearly a million minds longed to have showed no signs of ending. For another dozen years after our ship had stopped, we lay here on the floor just where you stand, our body incapable of moving because of so many minds arguing over which direction it would go. Perhaps we would have stayed there forever, until the energy we had absorbed from all those bodies finally faded, and we simply died there. Perhaps, save for a single, chance encounter.” 

For a few long seconds, he simply stood there, staring off at nothing as though lost in those memories. Finally, the man slowly turned his gaze to her, their eyes meeting before he continued. “An alien ship found us. A ship full of refugees and explorers, who sent a team aboard. They found our body lying there, and they made perhaps the worst mistake they ever could have. They tried to save us by taking our body back to their ship, to their medical center. There, our body continued to lay while their doctors did what they could to determine what was physically wrong with us. They even installed a translator device allowing us to understand them.

“The main doctor had a child with them, a young boy who sat with us for hours that night, telling us stories of his world. He wanted to help us. His father told him that we could hear, because their instruments showed a mental reaction to his words. So he told those stories. Some were amusing, some were adventures, but many were horror. The boy liked those, the scary, disgusting stories the most. They were all nice to hear. We enjoyed them. We couldn’t show it, couldn’t find the way of guiding every mind within us to thank the boy for his stories.” 

“Did you kill him?” Lailah’s voice was quiet, though tinted with emotion. “Did you kill the alien boy and everyone else on that ship just like you killed all of us?”

He didn’t respond at first, instead simply meeting her gaze in silence before carefully answering with a firm, “No. The mistake those people made was not in taking us aboard and trying to help. It was in stopping to do so. They did not want to go any further until they understood what had happened to us, lest it be something that could affect them. So they waited. They stayed here in this spot where our ship had stopped. And that was their undoing. The monsters they fled from, soldiers from their own world who served a genocidal dictator, tracked them down to this spot. Their ship was overrun, and they were all slaughtered. Thousands of them, killed without mercy. The boy who told us stories was one of the last. He was here, hiding, when they came. He pleaded for help. His words, his voice… he begged for us to save him. We heard, and saw, as they gleefully murdered the boy. 

“And that was when our souls became united in one single, solitary goal. For the first time in decades, every mind we had absorbed had one thought: to kill those monsters. Our confusion lifted, burned away by white-hot rage. We moved. For the first time in so long, we moved of our own volition, and tore into those things. We avenged the deaths of those who had tried to help us. We killed every single invader who boarded the ship. Unfortunately, a few escaped back to their own vessel and fled.” 

Reaching out to gently stroke one of the nearby tentacles thoughtfully, the man continued after another moment. “We were alone again. Alone with a million minds trapped within us. But we did not fall back into our motionless coma, because we had a goal. Some of those monsters had escaped. And the dictator who led them, the one their victims had fled from in the first place, was still safe and sound back on their world. He would continue to thrive after his men butchered the people who had been kind to us. That was something we could not allow to stand. Our fury remained, the rage that gave us the focus we needed to be united. 

“But we knew that we could not accomplish true revenge in our current state. Powerful as we were, there was but one of us. One body. We had been defeated and chased away from our own home by our people because of that, because we were outnumbered by so much. That was our weakness. A weakness we had to do something about. And now, we had the materials to work with.” 

Swallowing hard, Lailah quietly put in, “the corpses who were left behind, the bodies of those who tried to save you, and of the ones you killed in retaliation.”   

“Precisely,” he confirmed. “Our rage gave us what we needed mentally. It united us, gave us a purpose to move toward. The purpose of vengeance. With that unity, we took the minds we had absorbed and put them all toward one goal: fixing the corpses left behind on that ship to create new bodies for all of the people who were inside us. We would overcome our singular weakness of being a legion trapped within one body, by creating a legion. We put the bodies back together, upgraded them, used materials from those too broken to be useful in order to add to others.” 

Slowly, Lailah held up her own green-gray arms. “These? This is what the aliens looked like. This is what their bodies were.”

With a slight nod, the man continued. “It took months of work. But we put the bodies back together. Hundreds of them, then over a thousand. They could support life again, yet had no minds within them. That was when the truly hard work began. Over more months, twice as long as it took to put the physical bodies back together, we learned to project those we had absorbed into those bodies. The first few attempts were… failures. We pushed too many minds, or broke the mind irreparably in the process of the transfer. Yours was one of those injured. We managed to put it back together, but your memories were damaged in the process. Now you and others who were similarly damaged in the process of our testing must be told the truth of things whenever you reawaken.” 

Lailah was about to jump on the many questions she had about that, but he had already pushed on. “With trial and error, and far too many losses, we finally managed to perfect the process of transfer. Over a thousand bodies now had minds within them, and we were alone no longer. And with our new bodies, we set to work repairing the damage to the alien ship that had been done during the invasion. When it was ready to travel once more, we used their computer to send the ship back where it had come from, back to their home planet.” 

From there, while Lailah watched and listened with rapidly increasing unease, the man detailed how their new army had flown back to the alien planet and began to attack them. They spread like a virus across the other world. For every member of the other species they killed, Cronus was able to put the body back into working order and inject one of his stolen Seosten minds into it. With that, their numbers expanded exponentially, and they began to use the biological expertise, which had been cultivated and boosted in order to make repairing the bodies possible in the first place, to enhance the bodies they were given. They didn’t have the original Cronus’s ability to absorb anyone they touched, yet their biological enhancements meant they remained a terrifyingly effective invasion force. 

The Seosten’s own homeworld had barely survived the attacks from Cronus specifically because he’d only had one body. With an exponentially growing army, that weakness was removed. The aliens didn’t stand a chance, particularly when they failed to recognize the true extent of the threat early on. Soon, there were enough dead aliens to give a (soon enhanced and improved) body to every stolen Seosten mind. Yet they were not themselves anymore. Decades of being part of a single body and connected to the corrupted mind of Cronus had twisted them beyond all recognition. One and all, the former-Seosten obeyed their master, the one called Cronus. 

There were, of course, far more dead bodies than they had minds to inject into them. At most, there were under a million Seosten minds, and billions of dead aliens. Not wanting to let such resources go to waste, and still needing more troops in order to continue spreading their war across the planet, Cronus and his former-Seosten began to use those bodies, and those of random animals they came across, to create even more troops. These had no real minds, no real sapience. They were simply predators, monsters who were twisted, improved, and turned against the world’s inhabitants as shock troopers. Soon, the despotic leader who had been responsible for sending his army to track down and murder the original refugees was dead, along with all of those who had supported him. 

“But you didn’t stop–we didn’t stop,” Lailah quietly murmured. “Why? You–we… killed the dictator and his men, but you kept going. You spread over the entire world, you killed all of them. Every single person on the world. Why didn’t we spare the innocents?” 

“The innocents?” her companion snarled in disbelief, shaking that off. “There were no innocents left on that planet. The innocents were those who fled and tried to help us. Anyone left behind was complicit with their leader. They all got the justice they deserved for aligning themselves with the monster. You may not remember the pleading of the child who told us stories, but we do. We hear his voice. We hear his screams, his terror. And we enacted his revenge.”

For years, then decades, and then centuries after that, Cronus and his altered people continued to grow and enhance themselves. They used the resources of the world they had taken over to make their bodies stronger, spending hundreds of years perfecting their skills of biological manipulation and enhancements. As they were no longer truly Seosten, they took the name of the species they had so thoroughly destroyed and whom they now resembled (save for the enhancements each member performed on themselves), the Fomorians. 

During the original fighting, it had been found that any of the former-Seosten whose new body was destroyed would instantly find their mind back within the body of Cronus himself. They were, in effect, immortal. Dying simply meant being sent back to Cronus and then injected into a new body. And over those centuries, they developed a new system. Rather than being put back within Cronus upon the ‘death’ of their physical body, their minds were sent to a ‘hive’, where new bodies based on the original Fomorian prototype were created within egg-like structures before they were released once more. This hive, the center of the Fomorian life, was created in where their original ship had shut down, built around the precise spot where the refugee ship had been. 

“Yet it wasn’t enough,” Cronus quietly noted. “Our guilt, over our failure to protect the child, over the loss of our original identity as a species, over everything…” 

“Everything we did,” Lailah put in. “We felt guilty because we were monsters. You turned us into monsters. You twisted us, made us… wrong. We were supposed to be Seosten and you made us something far worse. We spent decades with our minds trapped inside your body, our thoughts, loyalties, and personalities manipulated and corrupted. Then you put us in these strange, unfamiliar bodies. We were breaking down, our… our minds were falling apart.”

“And I fixed it,” the man informed her. “I removed the guilt, the confusion, the fear. Every new body your minds inhabit includes enhancements which ensure you feel none of that. You feel loyalty to me, and a desire to expand our people. Nothing more than that. You feel no sadness or guilt for what must be done. You do not feel the horrific remorse over everything that has been done to us, or that we have done. You feel none of it. You are incapable of feeling such things. That is my gift to all of you. One of them. The other is the promise that we will rewrite this universe–all universes. We will make everything like us. Connected, beautiful, and perfect. There will be no more random disease that ravages an innocent child, killing him in his bed while his father stands helpless and ashamed of his own failures. Everything in this universe will be connected to us. It will work. It will make sense, because we will create it to make sense.” 

That was the truth of the Fomorians. Almost one million former Seosten, their minds twisted in every conceivable way, with their new bodies intentionally engineered to render them incapable of feeling things like regret, guilt, compassion, or even empathy. They felt nothing, save for love of their own species and a desire to spread what they were across the universe. They saw every other living creature, everything not created and manipulated by them, as the enemy. And felt no pity for them. The only thing they truly felt was a hatred of everything different, everything  that was not Fomorian. 

“When you die as a Fomorian,” Cronus informed her, “your mind is reset to what it was before. Some of you are cast back to earlier times, some later. Either way, your memories return to your former selves, temporarily. But in time, anywhere from seconds to hours, the improvements I’ve included in your bodies do their work, and you become my people once more.”

There was no response at first. The figure he was speaking to stood silently, gazing off at nothing as though they didn’t hear him at all. Finally, after almost a minute of that, the figure straightened and looked to him. And in that gaze, he knew it was over. There was nothing of Lailah’s original mind left at that moment. The Fomorian body had done its job in suppressing her personality entirely. 

“Ahh, apologies, Lord Cronus. I appear to have experienced some… setbacks. There were humans there, on the Meregan world. More Heretics there to… rescue the one we were attempting to capture. And they were with Seosten.”

“Tell me more,” Cronus ordered, turning his back to the view of the birthing hive in order to focus all of his attention on his newly-reborn subject. “You say there were humans and Seosten working together. Elaborate. I want to know everything about them.

“This sounds… interesting.”

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Patreon Snippets 17 (Heretical Edge)

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And here is the next edition of Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge! Thanks to all $10+ donators for choosing/adding words to what they wanted to see.

Ruthers and Antaeus

Loud country music played through the smoke-filled bar, its crooning singer and strumming guitar leaving many of its occupants idly tapping their feet or bobbing their heads as they sipped at cold drinks. Behind the bar itself, the tender pointed the remote at the television in the corner, changing the channel from news to a football game that had been requested. Two men in front of the nearby jukebox were debating which song to put in next, while their dates watched them from a table with a mixture of amusement and exasperation at the fact that they couldn’t agree.

And in the back of the room, sitting alone at a table with a half-empty beer bottle and a small bowl of peanuts in front of him, was an enormous figure. At his full height, the man would stand seven feet tall. He appeared old enough that his long, formerly jet-black hair and thick mustache were streaked through with bits of white and gray. His dark eyes regarded the bottle in front of him for a moment before he pursed his lips and blew a small stream of ice-cold breath, restoring the chill to the beer. 

“You ruin it that way, Antaeus.” The voice came from directly beside the table, where no one had been a moment earlier. Now, Gabriel Ruthers stood there. In many situations, Ruthers himself would have been an imposing figure. Yet, even standing while the other man was sitting, he still appeared much smaller in this particular case. Both men were tall for humans, but the man with the beer was in an entirely different league.  

Antaeus, far from showing any surprise at all when the other man appeared beside the table, simply took a long and slow pull from his newly icy beer. “Ruin it, Gabriel? Have a seat.” 

Instead of doing so, Ruthers simply stood where he was while replying, “Good beer’s not supposed to be practically frozen. You’ve got English ale. It should be a bit cool, not ice cold.”   

“Heh.” Antaeus chuckled humorlessly once before shaking his head. “I like it the way I like it. Helps me forget the desert. What do you want? Thought I made it clear I was busy.” 

“I told you I wanted to talk about what happened,” Ruthers reminded him. As a waitress stopped by to ask if he wanted anything, he gave a shake of his head and sent the woman on her way before turning his attention back to the table. 

“And like I said,” came the flat response as soon as the waitress was gone, “I’m busy. Not in the mood to repeat myself.” Taking another long pull from his drink, Antaeus added, “Don’t think you can order me around either, Gabriel. Last I checked, you and me are peers now.” Finally, he turned a bit, looking over to the other man. “After all, we’re both members of the Committee and all that.” A very slight smile appeared, showing hints of his teeth. “Equal footing.” 

For a brief moment, Gabriel returned the smile. “Equal footing,” he echoed easily before adding in a pointed, deceptively calm-sounding voice, “If you don’t get up and walk out with me now, I’m going to hit you hard enough to make even someone as thick as you feel it.”  

The threat made the other man’s eyes narrow. “Don’t threaten me, Gabriel,” he half-snarled. “We may have to play nice in front of the others thanks to the rules. But if you start something, I’ll finish it and say we were sparring. And I’ve changed my mind. You’re not invited to sit with me. Get out.” 

Two things happened then. First, the air around the pair wavered until they were in a forest rather than a bar. And, just as Antaeus realized there was no longer a seat under him, Ruthers’ fist slammed into his face with enough force to send a violent shockwave through the forest itself, literally knocking over several nearby trees while the loud boom echoed like a gunshot. 

Antaeus hit the ground for a brief instant before he was abruptly and immediately back on his feet. Standing, he towered over the other man, staring intently down at him. “You always start your fights with cheap shots?” 

“Is it a cheap shot when I told you exactly what was going to happen?” Ruthers countered, not the least bit deterred. “We need to talk about what you did with Maria and Arthur Chambers.” 

“Them?” Antaeus gave a disbelieving look before shaking his head. He touched his readied fist against the front of his face where the other man’s blow had landed. There was no visible sign of any damage at all. Only his pride was stung. “I reported what happened. What more do you want? And talk fast, cuz in a second, I’m gonna show you why you shouldn’t start something you can’t finish.” 

“Gentlemen.” The voice came from the side, as Litonya, the elderly Native American Committee member, leaned a bit on a cane while watching them. “Is there some sort of problem here?” 

Antaeus jerked his head that way. “This guy wants to know about Grandma and Grandpa Chambers. Why don’t you tell him. It was your idea for me to go find them.”

“Your idea?” Ruthers turned his attention to Litonya. “I thought I made it clear that Felicity’s grandparents were to be left alone. They’re human, they have nothing to do with any of this.” 

For her part, the old woman regarded him passively for a few seconds before pointing out in the tone of a scolding schoolteacher from the days of switches and paddles, “People who have nothing to do with ‘this’, as you put it, would not have had Heracles himself protecting them. And even absent that evidence, they were involved through virtue of their son and granddaughter. Bringing them in was the correct move. The only fault was in its failure.” That last bit was added with a sharp look toward Antaeus himself. 

“Hey,” the old wrestler snapped, “I told you what happened. I would’ve handled Alcaeus, but that magic kicked in and took all of them away. I was ready to deal with him, not that. You didn’t say anything about that kind of power.” 

“Indeed,” Litonya agreed. “That is what we should be discussing.” She squinted toward Ruthers. “Steps were taken to ensure that prepared spells could not be used to remove the elderly Chambers. Those protections were entirely useless against the magic that teleported them. I shouldn’t need to remind you of how difficult that should have been. Whoever prepared the spell that took them away was powerful enough to entirely dismiss the strength of three Committee-level casters.” 

Three. Ruthers squinted. Antaeus and Litonya were two. That meant one other member of their group had been in on this attempt to abduct Maria and Arthur Chambers. “We have absolutely no indication that Alcaeus had any connection to the current rebellion. Whatever the reason for his presence, it doesn’t change the fact that neither of the Chambers should have been approached, let alone threatened. They are ordinary humans, Bystanders. They were to be left alone.” He repeated the last point firmly, eyes narrowing. “You know if you had brought this plan up with the others, you would have been outvoted. That’s why you went behind our backs.” 

“Yes,” Litonya agreed without reservation. “In some respects, you can be as weak and foolish as the rebellion sympathizers, Gabriel. You refuse to focus on what must be done to maintain or restore order. Like it or not, Felicity’s grandparents are involved in this war. As I said, removing them from play was the right move to make. If we held them right now, we could have used that to force their granddaughter to make a choice to either surrender them or face the consequences of refusal.” 

“Consequences of refusal?” Ruthers echoed in disbelief tinted with anger. He took a few steps that way. “If you’re actually implying–” 

“I imply only what would be for the betterment of this world as a whole,” came the sharp retort. Litonya met his gaze, unmoved by his obvious anger. “I would think you, of all people, would understand that. It would not be the first time you allowed innocents to be threatened in order to prevent further conflict and bloodshed.” 

You intended to have the children killed,” Ruthers reminded her in a sharp voice whose tone showed that he had not forgotten just how far she had been willing to go. “You thought having Joselyn’s children murdered would break her spirit.” 

“And you had them taken instead,” Litonya retorted. “You could have returned them, but you kept them. You kept them and used their lives to force Joselyn into compliance. Then, you understood that the ends justify the means. Why are you so squeamish about that fact now? This is no different from that.” 

For a moment, Ruthers was silent. A mixture of emotions played very faintly over his face. Subtle as they were, the fact that they could be seen at all spoke volumes as to what he was feeling. It was quite brief, yet telling. 

“You’re wrong,” the man finally replied in a quiet voice. “It is different.” Letting that hang in the air briefly, he added gravely, “What I did was worse.” That said, Ruthers straightened, his eyes glancing between his two fellow Committee members. “I used two innocent children as hostages to force their mother’s cooperation. Whatever my intentions, regardless of the fact that I never intended them to actually be hurt, it wasn’t right.” The admission, both to himself and aloud, was so soft it was almost inaudible. “I thought saving them from your assassin was enough and that keeping them to ensure Joselyn’s compliance was justified in the name of ending the war. I was wrong.”  

“Wrong?” Litonya stared at him in clear disbelief, her heavily-lined face showing her incredulousness. “You removed Joselyn from the rebellion. Do you have any idea how much more damage she could have done to this world and our society if she had remained free through all that time? Holding two infant children for a time, when they were never in any actual danger? How could that be wrong when measured against the lives that were saved?”

Ruthers knew what she was really saying. Litonya had murdered her own brother, a man she had loved through their incredibly long lives, after he expressed a belief in Joselyn’s mission. She would never accept that anything was wrong when it came to stopping the rebellion. If she could kill her own flesh and blood, the brother who had been a part of her life for over fifteen hundred years, she would never believe that any measures taken to stop the rebellion were too far. 

And yet, he still gave a short nod. “I took Joselyn off the board. I could have given her children back, and didn’t, just to make her surrender. You’re right. And yes, it worked. But to what end? The rebellion continued even without her. And now, her new daughter has brought it back. We have done nothing to address the root of the problem, only swept it away for a time.” 

“Which,” Litonya retorted, “is precisely why you should have allowed my assassin to do his job. If Joselyn’s children were eliminated, she never would have allowed herself to live long enough to make any of this a concern. Her emotions would have driven her to a suicidal attack, and we could have worked together to remove her entirely and permanently.” 

For a few long seconds, Ruthers was silent. He stared at the woman, barely paying attention to Antaeus, who stood in the background glaring at him. Finally, he found his voice. “Arthur and Maria Chambers are not to be harmed. Whatever happened, they are not to be put in danger. They will not be used as hostages. Period. When we find them, they are to be returned safely to their home and then… whatever they choose to do is up to them. That is something I will put to the rest of the Committee. And I promise you, it will not go your way.” 

Litonya and Ruthers stared one another down for several long, very tense seconds. Finally, the old woman exhaled. “It shall be as you say, and the consequences will be on your head. But perhaps, if you are finished with such posturing, you would like to know more about the magic that took them away to begin with.”

“What is there to know?” Ruthers countered. “You just underestimated the amount of power that the Rebellion put into their protection spells. Does it surprise you that they would take those kinds of measures after what we did to Joselyn’s children?” 

“Perhaps not,” came the simple, knowing response. “But that is not the intriguing part. You see, from the traces we’ve performed, the spell that took them away did not deliver the Chambers and their bodyguard anywhere on Earth. 

“It took them somewhere very… very far away.” 

********

Arthur Chambers

“More security at the border?” As he voiced that question, Arthur Chambers glanced toward the gray-bearded man who stood beside him on the balcony overlooking the small island. It was the same island, on the same world, where he, his wife, and their long-time friend Al (recently revealed to be Alcaeus/Heracles) had been magically transported after being attacked in Alaska.

“Yes.” Puriel murmured. His blue eyes remained centered off in the distance. Out on the grass, the two men could see Maria with the assortment of Seosten children. She had them all sitting on the grass around the large easel-like hologram projector that had been set up. It functioned a lot like a chalk/whiteboard in schools, projecting a flat glowing surface that could be written on using a special metal pencil-like tool. 

At the moment, Maria was teaching the children some basic science (at least as much as she could), but she also taught other things. Particularly with help from Aletheia for math, and from the old Native American Heretic Kutattca for History and English. They had an actual room for lessons, but Maria preferred to teach the children outside in the fresh air as much as possible after they had been kept imprisoned in that sterile lab for so much of their lives. 

Puriel’s attention was centered on the small girl with the black and blonde hair. Spark. From what Arthur understood, she was one of the Seosten whose possession power malfunctioned. Puriel had forced her to possess him in order to save the girl from his wife, and now she only manifested in this ghost-like form using the man’s own energy manipulation powers. Here at Puriel’s home, far away from any prying eyes, it was safe for her to manifest anywhere on the island. Yet, it still seemed hard for the man to let her out of his sight for long, despite the fact that she was technically always connected to him. They were safe on this island, and would have plenty of advance warning if anyone dangerous approached. Logically, there was no reason to worry. 

But logic often didn’t factor into things when you were worried about someone you saw as your child. That much Arthur understood, even if a lot of this was still incredibly alien… literally, to him.

“There was an incident,” Puriel continued after that moment of silence. His voice held a slight hint of curiosity. It was clear he hadn’t been told as much as he would have preferred. “Some sort of pirate ship raided one of the border stations that prevent transport to Earth. They managed to do enough damage to make a temporary hole and pass through.” 

Arthur opened his mouth, only to stop and consider the entire situation. He was discussing an alien spaceship raiding some sort of magic starbase with an alien who was actually Zeus. Zeus. The mythological god. Would Arthur ever stop being awed by that? How did his son and granddaughter even function if they regularly interacted with people and… and situations like this? How did they avoid being completely overwhelmed to the point of being gibbering wrecks? It seemed as though every time he started to talk, the sheer scale and enormity of all this left him incapable of even thinking straight, let alone contributing in any meaningful way. 

Finally, he managed to sort himself out enough to speak. “Seems like that’s not an easy thing to do.” 

“No, it’s not.” The response came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The slender, dark-skinned woman came through the doorway behind them. “It should have been impossible for a single pirate ship to accomplish something like that. At least not as quickly as they did. They were through and gone before reinforcements could arrive. For a group that small and relatively weak to do such a thing…” 

“They had assistance,” Puriel murmured. “Either a mole within the station itself who could prevent or slow down certain security measures, or someone far stronger than the rest of the pirates on the ship with them. Someone who was using the pirates as transport.” Pausing, he allowed, “Perhaps both.” 

“Whatever happened,” Aletheia replied after stepping over to stand on the opposite side of Arthur, “security has been drastically raised. They won’t allow anyone through now. It won’t be possible to get to Rysthael–Earth, until things calm down there. Not even for someone like you,” she added with a look toward Puriel. “They have Raduriel working on some new protective measure.” 

“He had ideas about that for some time,” Puriel noted. “But the Seraphim wouldn’t provide the resources he wanted for it. They said the border was secure enough without such an expenditure.” 

“They changed their minds,” Aletheia murmured quietly, eyes on the children and Maria in the distance. “Now they’re giving him everything he wants. Apparently part of his argument was that if his creation works, it could be used in other places to guard against Fomorian intrusion as well.” 

Reminding himself that these two beings had been alive for literally longer than recorded human history, Arthur felt like a very small child as he spoke up. “This ahhh… Radueriel, you said he’s the inventor, the uhhh… Hephaestus.” 

“That is how your people know him, yes,” Puriel confirmed before looking that way. “He is also very dangerous. He and his husband, Abaddon. The one you know as Ares.” 

“Right, you mentioned…” Trailing off thoughtfully, Arthur exhaled. “Which means he’s really good at his job. Between that and the fact that there’s a lot of attention on the border… we’re not going back home anytime soon.” 

“I told you that I would find a way to get you there,” Puriel reminded him. “Just as I promised Spark that I would get her to her mother. That has not changed. Somehow, I will keep my word.”

“Kutattca has thoughts on that subject,” Aletheia informed them. “He believes his sister could be the key.” 

“His sister?” Arthur echoed. “You mean the same one who tried to kill him and is currently part of the group that wants to turn my daughter-in-law, son, and granddaughter into a bunch of red paste? That one?”

Aletheia gave a single nod of confirmation. “Indeed, one and the same. Kutattca believes there may be a way of using both their close blood relation and the fact that she is a powerful Heretic to create a link that can be used similarly to the way Puriel brought you here to begin with.” 

Arthur glanced between them. “You couldn’t do the same thing to send us back because you already had the spell created on Earth, so the link between Al and you was established while you were there, and sort of… pulled through the border with you when you left. Like a string that just kept stretching, right?” 

“Yes.” Puriel glanced to Aletheia, then back to Arthur. “I believe what Kutattca is suggesting is that we create a bond with him, and somehow transfer it to his blood relation through the connection both have to the Reaper that gives Bosch Heretics their power. He and his sister are both connected to this Heretical Edge, and if we could use that link…” Trailing off, the man nodded. “This will require some thought. And a lot of work.” 

“Well, whatever Maria and I can do to help,” Arthur offered. “Which isn’t much, I know. But–” 

“You may be able to do more than you think,” Puriel pointed out quietly. 

“Oh?” Arthur blinked that way. 

“Yes,” came the slow reply. 

“I have a few thoughts.” 

*********

Tabbris, December, Theia, and Doug, sometime during Flick’s disappearance but before Tabbris’s wings were revealed. 

“You guys really didn’t have to come with me, you know,” Doug Frey informed his three Seosten companions as the group walked through an enormous room filled with dozens of large marble-like monuments. Each was roughly eight feet in height and twelve feet wide, with thousands of different names inscribed upon all four sides. “I’m just saying hi.” 

Tabbris, Theia, and December exchanged glances. As usual, it was the latter who spoke first. “Ohit’sokay… Wedidn’thavealot… todootherthanhelpTabbris… worryaboutFlick… andshedoesn’tneedhelpwiththat.” 

Flushing visibly, Tabbris folded her arms against her stomach while changing the subject. “You remember where Paul and Rudolph’s names are?” 

Doug nodded, starting toward the monument in question. “Yeah, it’s this one over here.” Finding the name of his murdered teammates, he reached out to gently run a finger along both engraved names, side by side. “They umm, they asked us which one we thought they’d want their names to be on. We… we thought they’d like to be next to each other. Paul and Rudolph… damn it, this sucks.”

“Would you prefer a larger monument? Or a private one?” Theia put in curiously. “Did they spell the names wrong? They spelled the names wrong, didn’t they?” 

“What?” Doug blinked that way before shaking his head. “No, I just… I just meant that them being dead sucks. It just…” Trailing off, he stared at Doug and Rudolph’s names before quietly asking, “Do you guys–sorry, I mean the Seosten. Do the Seosten believe in any kind of paradise after death or… or reincarnation or anything?” 

December was, once more, the one who spoke first. “There’sthecusp…butwedon’tgettogothere.” 

“What?” Tabbris blinked at her friend. “I… I’ve heard a little about the Cusp. It’s sort of like an afterlife, isn’t it?” 

“Cusp, Rim, Edge, it has a lot of names,” Theia put in a bit absently, her own attention mostly on staring at the memorial in front of them. Realizing belatedly that the others were watching and waiting for her to continue, she straightened, offering an awkward smile before she continued. “Seosten think beings split into three parts when they die. Magic, life, and self.”

“Magic is like ghosts, right?” Doug noted. “That whole thing where ghosts are a person’s magic shaped and sort of… formed into an echo of them.” 

Theia’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! That’s one. The life part is someone’s… life. Their health, their living energy. That part goes back into the universe and gets…” Her face screwed up a bit thoughtfully. “… recycled? It’s recycled, like cans and paper and bottles. The life force is recycled back into the universe and used to make more living things.” 

Doug thought about that briefly. “So Seosten believe that the energy of a living being is split in three parts when they die. The magical energy goes to make ghosts… sometimes, and the life energy gets put back into the universe as fuel for future lives. But what’s the third part?” 

“Self,” Theia reminded him. “Self is the part that goes to the Cusp. Or Rim, or Edge, or whatever you want to call it. The Cusp is where a person’s mind or personality goes. They stay in the Cusp, watching over everyone they want to, in any world. They can’t affect anything, but they can watch.” Pausing at that for a moment, she quietly added, “Does that sound creepy?” 

“A little,” Doug acknowledged, “but it’s not really different from other ideas of an afterlife, I suppose. Lots of people think the dead stay in some form of heaven or whatever forever.” 

“Oh, not forever.” Theia corrected him. “That’s why it’s called the Cusp. You only stay there for awhile, before your Self falls into the Void and disappears forever. You stop existing then.” 

“Youcanstayforalongtime,” December quickly put in. “Centuriesandcenturiesormore. Aslongaspeoplerememberyou.” 

Theia’s head bobbed in agreement with the younger girl. “Yup. You stay in the Cusp and keep watching over everyone you want to as long as enough people remember you, as long as they know about you. The more people remember you and the more they know about you, the longer you can stay in the Cusp without falling into the Void.” 

Doug took that in, murmuring, “Which… I guess that means a lot of your people want the Olympians, like Sariel and Apollo, to remember them. I mean, they’re supposed to be immortal, right? As long as they don’t get killed. They won’t die naturally. So as long as they remember someone, and with the perfect memory your people have, they will, anyone they know who died will stay in the Cusp.” 

“Yes,” Theia confirmed. “And even the Olympians who are killed will be in the Cusp forever, because no one will ever forget them. At least not for a longer time than the Seosten have existed so far.” 

“Seepeoplearegonnaknowyouforalongtime,” December informed Tabbris. “Evenifyoudieyou’llstayintheCusp. I’lltrytowaveonthewaytotheVoid.” 

“We’re not gonna die,” Tabbris curtly retorted. “Not for a long time anyway. And not–if we do, we’ll hang out in the Cusp together. We’ll watch people.”

December, however, shook her head. “That’snothowitworks. Liesdon’tgettostayintheCusp.” 

“Hey, don’t call yourself that,” Tabbris quickly blurted. “And what do you mean, you don’t get to stay in the Cusp?” 

It was Theia who answered. “That is why Lies don’t have names. Our people do not want Lies to be a part of the Cusp, where they could infect generations-to-come. We are not given names, so that, at death, we will fall directly into the Void.” 

For a long moment after that, Tabbris and Doug both stared at Theia and December. Doug was the one who finally found his voice. “Just when I think I can’t possibly loathe your people any worse for how they treat those like you, we break through into whole new levels of hatred. They deliberately–they don’t give you names because they want your soul to disappear for eternity as fast as possible so you don’t infect their descendents?! That–you–that–” His face twisted as the boy tried and failed to put words to his fury and disgust. Finally, he blinked toward Theia. “Wait, you–when Principal Fellows gave you a name, she was… she was actually giving you… she was… oh. Oh damn.” 

“You need a name!” Tabbris blurted, suddenly throwing herself at December to hug the girl tightly. “You need a real name, a name that’s just you, not a title! Everyone’s gonna remember you forever and ever!” 

“ButIamDecember,” the other girl pointed out in a voice tinted by confusion, not only at Tabbris’s words, but still at least partially at the fact that the girl actually willingly touched her. “I’mpartoftheCalendar. Youcan’ttakemeawayfromthat. TheCalendararemyfriends. Ican’tabandonthem. WearetheCalendar.” 

“You won’t abandon them,” Tabbris solemnly promised, still not releasing her tight grip. “We’re gonna name all of you. Real names that are just for you! You’re not gonna fall into the Void.

“Even if we have to find every Seosten we can and stamp your names directly onto their skulls so they don’t have any choice but to remember you.” 

********

Sophronia and Gaia

“Did it help?” Sophronia Leven spoke aloud while standing in front of the tube that held Gaia frozen in stasis. Her hand was pressed against the metal plate allowing the link to the woman. “Do you think he listened?” 

He, in this case, was Liam Mason. The man had just left after his own discussion with the former Crossroads Headmistress, before Sophronia herself entered to have this conversation. 

Somehow, despite only being able to communicate mentally, Gaia managed to convey a heavy sigh. I do not know. Liam is very stubborn, and lost in a way that may be unreachable. The choices he has made… if he is ever to change, it will only be by his own decision. 

“It would mean accepting a lot of mistakes,” Sophronia quietly noted, her gaze meeting Gaia’s frozen, motionless eyes. “More than most people could. Given what he’s already allowed those mistakes to cost him, repeatedly…”

It is not impossible for him to change, Gaia insisted. Speaking as someone who made more than my share of ‘mistakes’, often born from my own stubbornness and emotions. Heretics live a very long time. He can become a new person, if he wishes to. 

“If he wishes to,” Sophronia agreed pointedly. Then she changed the subject. “Ruthers, Litonya, and Antaeus had a confrontation over the disappearance of the elderly Chambers. You were right, Ruthers didn’t order it. And he was pretty unhappy.” 

Gabriel believes in leaving humans out of any such conflict, Gaia noted. He would never have agreed to send Antaeus, or anyone else, to abduct Felicity’s grandparents. This is something else. 

After a brief, pointed pause, Sophronia carefully asked, “And you’re absolutely certain it wasn’t you? Something you set up and wouldn’t want anyone to know about, no matter how much you trusted them, because of compartmentalization?” 

Gaia managed a mental chuckle. I assure you, this was not me. I do not believe it was the Atherbys either. 

“I know it wasn’t them,” the other woman confirmed. “I have… friends who keep me informed about certain things on that side. They don’t have any idea who took the Chambers or where they are. Do… do you think it was Fossor? He might have taken the grandparents to use in some kind of spell related to bringing Felicity back from the future and enforcing obedience.”

There was a brief pause as Gaia considered that. No, she finally answered. I don’t believe Fossor is connected to this. It’s too convenient that they disappeared with Alcaeus right when they were in danger. You said they appeared to be transported offworld?” 

Sophornia gave a short, pointless nod. “Yes. We can’t trace the spell all the way to the source, only that it’s very far away. Too far to track. It–wait. You think it was those Seosten. But why would the Seosten take Felicity’s grandparents?” 

I’m not certain, came the response. But I wonder if we are not coming at this from the wrong angle. We have been assuming that whoever was responsible abducted the Chambers and accidentally took Alcaeus as well. What if it was the other way around? 

“You mean the Seosten took old Heracles and Felicity’s grandparents were just caught in it by accident?” Sophronia considered that. “But why? Why would they go through the effort of using the kind of power it would take to transport him and two others, the latter by accident, all the way across the universe?” 

Again, Gaia was silent (even mentally) for a few long moments. I do not know, she finally admitted. There is a very large piece of this puzzle that is missing. It would be nice to have some answers before Felicity returns. 

“You think she’ll make it back to this time then?” 

I know she will. Felicity Chambers will find her way back to this time. When she does, I believe it will spark the final, direct conflict between her and Fossor. 

A conflict only one of them will walk away from. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Two Weeks Later

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patreon Snippets 14 (Heretical Edge)

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Every month, anyone who donates 10 dollars or more receives 500 words they can devote to a snippet of their choice, either one of their own or adding onto someone else’s. Here is the next edition of those snippets, and thanks to all donators who help keep these stories going. 

Gwen and Galahad

“You know, as a parent, sometimes you… you set a lot of high standards for your child. And while… yeah, you may really hope they meet those standards, in your heart you know you’ll be happy with anything they become, as long as they try. You know that you’ll love them no matter what happens, because you know they have to be their own person, not the person you want them to be. But right now, I just have to say that all the parents… all the parents in the entire universe who have ever lived… can fucking suck it, because my son is Optimus God Damn Prime!” 

With that declaration, as she stood in the parking lot of the Capital One Arena in front of the silver and blue semi, Guinevere spread both arms wide as though to hug the truck tightly. A wide grin stretched across her face, showing her gleaming teeth as she sniffed a little as though near joyous tears. “I’m so proud of you.” 

Snorting audibly (a deliberate sound given he lacked any actual nose), Galahad promptly transformed from his semi mode into the full robot form. The former Seosten-human hybrid, who had been adopted as a child by Gwen after his true father’s people attempted to exterminate him, sat down in front of the woman so that he wouldn’t tower over her quite as much (given his thirty-foot height, even sitting made him much taller, but it was an improvement). “See, Harrison thought you might be upset about all… this.” He gestured with one large metal hand toward his body. “I told him he really didn’t know you that well.” 

“Hand up.” Gwen ordered, raising her own until her adopted son had done the same. Then she pressed her palm to one tiny part of his. It was an old ritual, though one they had most recently done while his hand was much closer to hers in size. Her voice had sobered somewhat, staring intently at their hands. “I am very sorry about… about what happened to you, my little polecat. But you are alive.” The joy and relief she felt about that fact clearly outweighed her regret about his condition, as she raised her other hand to press next to the first. “You are alive. My… son is alive.” Saying that, Gwen stepped in to embrace the raised metal arm. 

“Someday, we’ll find the magic needed to return your real body,” she assured him. Turning her gaze up, the former queen of Camelot met his robotic stare. “Whatever it takes. I have spent a thousand years preparing to bring Arthur back. I will spend however many more to restore your body.” 

“Eh, guess me being a robot means I can wait that long,” Galahad replied, before bringing his other hand in. Large as it was, he put it flat on the ground, waiting for his mother to step onto it before picking himself up to a standing position. Keeping her level with his gaze, he added, “I missed you, Mother.” 

“My boy.” Those two words were filled with such fondness, such joy in the simple fact of his existence, that they were all Gwen had to say. Floating away from his hand, she hovered over directly in front of his robotic face. Her palms moved to touch it, and he felt no disgust or regret, only love. Love and confidence that they would find a way to return his body someday. But in the meantime, she would not allow his current condition to dictate how she treated him. 

“It occurs to me,” Gwen finally continued after remaining like that for a long moment, “that you used to love going and listening to the stories from the talespinners, then watching plays, and eventually movies. Ahhh, you and movies. But you and I haven’t gone to one of those in a long time.” 

“A movie?” Galahad echoed. “I do like movies.” 

“Oh, I know you do.” Smiling, Gwen added, “I still remember going to see the Lumiere brothers little film. There wasn’t even a story but you were enthralled. It reminded me of the first time we watched a play together. You remember what it was?” 

“The play or that first movie?” Galahad countered. “Because the film was just a short bit about two guys leaving a factory. Plus some other things like that. And the play was–” He stopped belatedly. “Ah! You’re trying to trick me!” The lights of his ‘eyes’ shrank a bit as though narrowing. “You want me to say it was the Castle of Perseverance, but we saw Fulgens and Lucrece first. Because I snuck in to watch it with you and you weren’t supposed to know. But you did.” 

“I did,” Gwen confirmed with a fond chuckle. “Fulgens and Lucrece was better anyway. Less hoity toity. And who doesn’t like a good fourth wall breaking joke? The way Servants A and B seem to start outside the play and end up being part of it? I mean, come on. It was very unique for the time. They really need to put it on again. Oooh, maybe we can talk the kids at Fusion School into doing something with it.” 

“Something tells me they’ll be putting that play on soon, if you have anything to say about it,” Galahad noted. “Even if they don’t technically have a theater department.” 

“I’ll let Nimue know that I have a brilliant idea,” Gwen confirmed with a wink. “But in the meantime, you and I are going to see a movie or three. And given all the times I let you ride on my shoulders as a kid, it’ll be good to let you give me a lift into the movie.” 

“You know, I can just switch to my smaller body,” Galahad pointed out. “I know you’re cool with it, but the other people at the movies might object to me crashing through the place like this.” 

Scoffing, Gwen shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. 

“We’re totally going to a drive-in theater.” 

 

******

Maria Chambers

 

Maria Chambers had been born in 1945. Though, of course, she hadn’t been a Chambers at that point. She had originally been Maria Oscars. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, she had been… different from others. Her father had died in the last days of the second world war, leaving her mother to raise Maria and her two-years-older brother, Ronald, alone. Maria had repaid her mother’s hard work by being first a rebellious child and then a true terror as a teenager. She partied hard through high school, drinking heavily and generally causing her mother and much more straight-laced older brother no end of problems. She ran with a gang, took more than her fair share of alcohol and drugs, and generally made it her life’s goal to be a wild banshee and never care about the future.

Then came August 4th, 1962. The month before Maria’s final year in high school. On that day, Maria’s life changed forever. Because that was the day that Marilyn Monroe, beautiful, perfect, glamorous party girl of the ages, was found dead of an intentional overdose. 

The revelation that someone as… as perfect and rich and famous as Marilyn Monroe had so many problems that she had actually killed herself was… eye-opening for the seventeen-year-old Maria Oscars. She had spent that month doing a lot of soul searching, and entered her final year of high school a changed, more driven young woman. She abandoned (most of) her partying, graduated high school, went to nursing school (partly out of a desire to know more about exactly how her one-time idol Marilyn had died), and eventually served as an actual nurse. That was where she met Arthur Chambers, fixing him up after a brawl at a nearby bar. The two of them had fallen in love, and…

Well, then a whole bunch of years had passed all in what seemed like a flash. The next thing Maria Chambers knew, she was an old woman, sitting in a cabin in Alaska with her husband of nearly fifty-two years. Over half a century, she had been married to that lovable oaf now. 

“And I’ve kicked your bippy at pool the whole way here,” she announced pointedly, squinting across the dinner table at her lifelong companion. 

“Maria, dear,” Arthur asked, “were you doing that thing where you have an entire thought process in your head and only include one of us at the end when we have no Earthly idea what you’re talking about again?” 

Huffing a bit, the seventy-five-year-old woman carefully took a sip of her iced tea before pointedly replying, “All that matters is you’re terrible at pool.” 

“Well, maybe I’m just distracted whenever I play against a beautiful woman.” Arthur countered. 

Maria’s voice was dry. “I’ve seen you play old Thomas down at the rec center. He’ll be very interested to find out you think he’s such a pretty lady.” 

Before Arthur could find a retort for that, she added, “And that’s why I’ll be teaching Felicity how to hustle at the bars, thank you very much.”

With a chuckle, her husband pointed out, “You know, almost any other grandmother would be trying to steer their only grandchild away from that sort of thing.” 

“Our family’s never been ‘any other’ anything, and you know it,” Maria retorted, before adding, with a fond smile, “And Felicity exemplifies that…” With a sigh, she sat back in her chair. “Do you think Lincoln will bring her up for Thanksgiving this year? She must get so lonely in that stuffy old private school. Torn away from her father? How does Lincoln survive? That girl is his world, after…” She trailed off, forcibly directing her thoughts away from that woman

“That girl will thrive wherever she is,” Arthur reminded her, before exhaling long and low. “But I do hope Lincoln brings her for Thanksgiving. We… we all need it.” 

He was right, Maria knew. Felicity was… was so much like Lincoln. She wanted to be a reporter, just like him. She was stubborn and bullheaded, so intent on tracking down the truth. When she was in middle school, Lincoln used to send his parents weekly updates about what sort of injustice or mystery the girl was dealing with that time. She was a regular Encyclopedia Brown, her and that nice friend of hers who had eventually moved away. 

That was what worried Maria. Between losing her mother and then her best friend, she was afraid that poor Felicity would think everyone left her. She was afraid her beautiful, brilliant granddaughter would stop trusting people, stop opening up to them. And that would be such a tragedy. That was why Maria wanted Lincoln to move back to Los Angeles, so Felicity could be near them. Not only because she wanted to see her granddaughter, but because… because Felicity needed a fresh start, a big change to really, truly grow into the wonderful, brilliant woman Maria knew her granddaughter could be. A place like Los Angeles, where she could really spread her wings and her mind and be that amazing reporter she was meant to be, not stuck in a small town in Wyoming. Maria’s granddaughter deserved so much more than that. 

While she was lost in those thoughts, the door of the cabin opened and their old friend, Al, stepped inside with an armful of grocery bags. Maria quickly tried to get up with Arthur to help, but Al made it to the table first. Setting the bags down, he insisted that they stay in their seats, while reaching in to take out several beers and a couple mason jars with a strange dark green liquid in them.

“Some kind of local moonshine?” Arthur asked, eyeing the jars. He sounded quite willing to give the brew a shot. 

“More like… a chance to share the truth,” Al replied thoughtfully, his voice a bit distracted before he shook whatever it was off. “Been waiting a long time for this, and… well, now it’s time.” 

“Time for what?” Maria pressed. “And what exactly is in these jars?” 

“Like I said,” Al repeated, “the truth. But I need both of you to trust me. Can you do that?” 

“You’re being very strange, Al,” Maria informed him. “But of course we trust you. We’ve trusted you for decades, why on Earth would you need to ask now?” 

“Because now is the big moment,” came the quiet response. “Drink, and I’ll tell you absolutely everything you need to know.” 

Maria and Arthur exchanged looks. But the fact was both of them trusted Al as much as they trusted each other. He had been their very closest friend for such a long time. If he was acting odd now, there was clearly a good reason. As one, they each unscrewed the lid of their respective mason jar, popped off the top, and picked them up. 

“Well,” Arthur started while holding his jar out. “Here’s to having the slightest clue what you’re talking about in a minute.” 

“Here’s to that,” Maria agreed, tapping her jar against the other before taking first a cautious sip, then a deeper gulp of the liquid. “This… tastes funny. What did you put in it?” 

“Yes, Alcaeus,” a new voice put in, “what did you put in it?” The question came from a man who had simply… appeared in front of the door, as if he had stepped right through it. He was an enormous figure, even by the standards of the men in the room, standing an inch taller than Al did at an even seven feet. He had long jet black hair streaked with a bit of white and gray, and a bushy mustache, but no beard. 

Jerking to his feet, Arthur took a step that way. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded while Maria quickly found her feet as well. “And how the hell did you–”

But Al stepped in front of both of them, facing the strange man. “Antaeus,” he snapped in a low voice. “You shouldn’t be here.” 

Baffled, and more than a little annoyed, Maria poked her head out from behind her large husband and even larger friend. “I’m calling the police,” she announced firmly, already moving to pick up the phone. 

“Oh, I’d stop her from doing that before I do it myself,” the man… Antaeus, warned. “See, this isn’t going to go like any of our other contests.” 

With that, he pointed a hand, and… and a beam of what looked like silver light… blasted from his palm. It blew apart the entire… half of the cabin that Maria had been moving toward. Instantly, all of it was just… gone. It was gone. Chairs, furniture, the walls, even a dozen trees that had been on the other side of the wall were annihilated. Half of the cabin was simply not there anymore. 

In the second that Maria stared at that uncomprehendingly, Al had shoved her husband next to Maria and leapt to engage their intruder. And just as quickly, he was sent flying away to land hard on his side next to the two of them. 

The intruder laughed. “Oh, that’s so much better. You see how easy that was? You see how much faster, how much stronger, how much better than you I am now? Even without using any other tricks.” 

In… in over seventy years of life, Maria had never seen anything like this. She couldn’t comprehend it, couldn’t even fathom what this was. It simply did not make sense. It was a dream, a nightmare. None of this was real. None of it could be real. She had no frame of reference for this, and her heart… her heart couldn’t…

Shoving himself to his feet, Al stood in front of Maria and Arthur. “The Committee. They put you on the Committee.” 

“What committee?!” Arthur demanded. “What–how did–what the hell is going on?!” 

“They want those two,” Antaeus announced, staring at Maria and her husband. “That means I get to go through you to get to them. And… well, that’s just the icing on the–” 

On the nothing. Because they weren’t… there… anymore? 

At first, Maria thought the entire cabin had somehow vanished. But no… no, they were somewhere else. They were on grass, on an…. an island? Hand against her chest, the elderly woman looked around, mouth open as she took in the view around them. An island. They were standing on an island and… 

“What happened?” Al demanded, his voice suspicious as he made it clear that he was just as confused as the other two. “Where–” 

“Apparently, you were in mortal danger and moments from death, with no escape and no chance.” Another new voice, this one from a man who appeared to be about Maria and Arthur’s age, gray-haired with a neatly trimmed beard and thick eyebrows who stood before them wearing a brown suit and tie. “That, after all, is the condition I put in the spell that I etched into your bones when you were a child, that it would bring you to me when you were in true mortal peril from which there would be no way out.” He paused then before adding thoughtfully, “It seems you have brought friends as well.” 

“Who–who? What? Wher–What is happening?!” Arthur demanded, grabbing his wife’s arm and looking wildly back and forth between the men. 

“Well,” Al murmured, “good thing I had you drink that potion now, I suppose.” Straightening, he gestured. “Arthur, Maria… I want you to meet my old… mentor.

“Zeus.” 

 

*******

Amanirenas

Over A Thousand Years Ago, At The Fall Of Camelot

The battlefield was a wasteland. Over fifty miles of once-lush forest turned to a burned crater where little, if anything, would grow for years. All of this damage caused not by the clashing of many armies, but of a single army attacking one man. A man who was quite possibly one of the strongest beings in existence, such that the one who had finally defeated him was none other than Zeus himself. Puriel, as the Seosten called him. He who possessed such vast power to manipulate lightning, fire, even pure magic itself. And still, even he had only come out the victor of this struggle through treachery, through betraying the trust of one who saw him as a grandfather, and through bringing forth several ships-worth of armament to bombard his opponent. 

Even that may not have been enough to defeat the one called Arthur Pendragon had Puriel not been possessing the necromancy-reanimated body of the man’s own nephew. Blood magics prevented Arthur from putting his full strength against those of his family. They had weakened him, all together barely enough, to put the man down. 

Now weakened and only just capable of remaining upright through his exhaustion, the body of Mordred lying abandoned in the mud, Puriel stood over the fallen king. A Seosten shuttle was maneuvering to land, while the old captain gave orders into his communication device. “Bring the prepared container. I want the remains stored and under constant supervision on the way back to Elohim. The man may be as close to dead as he can be, but he’s a damned dragon-bonded. If I catch anyone being lax in–” 

At that precise moment, as a group of soldiers jogged toward that spot with what amounted to an enchanted sarcophagus floating in front of them, a sudden blast of pure white light lanced past Puriel to strike the fallen body of Arthur. In an instant, the body had vanished. 

A disbelieving bellowed curse burst from the old Seosten, his eyes snapping first down to the ground where the body had been, then to the source of that blast. Despite his weariness, lightning formed at his fingers, ready to lash out that way before he abruptly stopped. Nearby, the squad of sarcophagus-bearers had spun as well, their own weapons raised before seeing a single figure waiting there. 

“You…” Puriel muttered that single word, disbelief filling his voice as he stared. “What did you do?” 

The woman before him stood tall, as proud and strong as she had been a millennia earlier. She was dark-skinned, her body heavily muscled. The sword she held was as large as she was, its blade resting in the ground while she leaned on the hilt. Her one remaining eye glared at the figure in front of her with a hatred that burned as the fires of a thousand hells. The other eye had been long-since sacrificed in a ritual to empower a spell that had enabled her people to temporarily overwhelm and occupy three Roman/Seosten-held cities in Egypt. The woman who, through sheer force of will and battle acumen, had forced the Seosten-controlled Romans to allow her country to self-govern. The warrior queen who had fought enough to force a peace agreement with the Romans, preventing their further expansion for hundreds of years. 

“Amanirenas,” Puriel snarled the name while holding a hand out to stop his troops from advancing or firing. “I will ask you once more before burning you where you stand. What did you do?” 

Letting her enormous sword fall, the woman took a few steps closer, ignoring the other troops to focus solely on the subject of her hate. “I told you… long ago, that your people murdered my husband, the king of our people. You answered that by having your people kill my son.” 

“We were at war,” Puriel reminded her. “You, your son, and your people attacked our cities. We retaliated.” 

“We attacked to prevent you from invading, as you were intending!” Amanirenas snapped. “Had we not struck the first blow, your people would have destroyed us and continued your expansion. Your people began this.” Her smile was humorless, the barely-constrained fury radiating outward from her almost visibly. “Do you know what your people took from me? Do you have any idea? I sacrificed far more than my eye to give my people the strength to stand against yours. I sacrificed all other lives within me. I gave any opportunity for any future children to that spell, to give my people the strength to hold against your incursions.” 

Cracking her neck, she came even closer, her feet touching the edge of the ground where Arthur’s body had been. “It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, because I had my children. One a full man, given by my late husband. The other a child, an infant given to me by the one who replaced Teriteqas in my heart, who taught me the magic needed to see your kind burn. Your people stole both from me. Your people killed my son in battle, and trampled my infant daughter beneath their feet. The only children I could ever have were taken by your filth.” Her hateful words melted into a brief chuckle. “But I told you I would have my revenge, did I not?”

Hand snapping out to send quick bolts of energy into the ground, Puriel watched as tendrils of earth reached out, catching hold of the woman and yanking her bodily to the ground. His power overwhelmed her defensive shields, punching through her magic as though it was made of paper. She didn’t seem to mind, barely reacting as she was hauled down onto her back. 

“Tell me… what you did,” the man snapped, standing over the woman. “Or I will simply discover it for myself.” That was added while he reached down for her. 

“Your people have killed many kings, oh great and powerful god of gods,” Amanirenas snarled. “And you have never feared any of their return. Until now. And fear you should. Because the one called Arthur of the dragons will rise again. He will rise and he will destroy your kind. In time. When he is brought together once more.” 

Lowering his gaze and inhaling, Puriel murmured in realization. “You scattered the body. Do you really think that will be enough? I will reach into your mind and take the knowledge of where every piece has gone. Then all of this will be for naught.”

Amanirenas, held motionless against the ground, simply smiled. “Were that an option, do you truly believe I would have tarried here so long? I gave my first husband, my eye, my children both living and unborn, all to put a stop to your people. I make one more sacrifice to ensure your eventual destruction.” 

Those were the last words spoken by the warrior queen of Kush, who had brought the Roman expansion into her lands to a halt. She had poisoned herself before the confrontation, using the last of her power, the last of her life, to scatter the fallen body of Arthur across the world. And in that moment, she passed away. Peacefully, on her own terms, while giving one last look with her remaining eye at the man who represented the people she hated so thoroughly. At the same time, the spell she had inscribed into her own skin dissolved her body and disintegrated the remains, destroying any chance of the Seosten using their necromancer to draw her back and taking with her the knowledge of where the pieces of Arthur had been sent.

In her death, Amanirenas also carried with her the secret of what had first drawn her to Arthur, what had first led her to this place. Her second husband had sensed the man’s imminent death, and its location. It was he who had told her of what would happen, he whose words had led to this decision, even if he had not known what would happen at the time.

The Reaper who had once met Arthur as a child, shortly before his ascension as a dragon-bonded, had met Amanirenas many centuries earlier. They had borne a child together, after her son was grown. Their daughter, a half-Reaper, had been stolen from them and trampled beneath the enemy army before they could even name her. 

Or so they believed. 

Now, with her dying breath, the warrior queen had set in motion events that would eventually lead the Seosten and Arthur’s own wife, the Queen Guinevere, to desperately search out the one person capable of bringing the once and future king back to life. 

Aylen Tamaya, daughter of Bastet. Granddaughter of Amanirenas.

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Patreon Snippets 13A (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thanks go to all of the incredible $10+ donators to my Patreon for these snippets! Remember, $10 may get you one 500 word snippet per month, but a mere $5 gets you every chapter one day early, and $3 gets you the interludes a day early! Not to mention the ability to vote on upcoming end-of-arc interludes with bonus points! 

Aylen with Grandpa Reaper

Listening to Professor Dare extol the evils of non-humans as well as the virtues of Heretics and the creation of the Heretical Edge thanks to the incredible genius of the clearly charming and handsome Hieronymous Bosch made Aylen Tamaya want to stab herself in the ears. At least then she wouldn’t have to listen to the bullshit until her hearing came back. Though, on the other hand, doing something like that might possibly attract some curiosity from the teacher who was, at this moment, going on about how Heretics were the lone defense against the hordes of evil that would wipe out civilization and so on and so forth. Frankly, Aylen didn’t think the woman’s heart was really in her explanation. It kind of felt like she was saying the right words without totally feeling it. 

But then, Aylen was probably just projecting her own feelings onto a woman who had given this same or similar speeches for decades. The lack of true fire behind the words probably had more to do with how often she’d explained all this rather than any lack of conviction. The worst thing Aylen could do here, right in the camp of the enemy, was start thinking that any of them could be trusted. While the majority clearly believed they were doing the right thing rather than being actively malicious, that was no consolation. They’d been raised to be fanatics, and she had no doubt they would take that fanaticism far enough to kill her if they knew what she really was. 

This was dangerous. It was so dangerous. Being here, talking to these people, letting them think she was one of them… it could go wrong in so many ways. But she had to. This was the best–only chance that her family had to free Mother’s father, Aylen’s Reaper grandfather. That was confusing, given the Grandfather she had grown up with. She needed another name.  

Lost in thought as she was (not to mention the fact that she was intentionally ignoring the ‘everything else is evil, humanity fuck yeah speech), she almost missed the fact that Professor Dare was activating the lever. Light suddenly filled the room, drawing everyone’s eyes while the woman called for them to gaze into it and to not look away. With the dramatic declaration that this was the Heretical Edge, the light grew blindingly bright, taking away all other vision as the students around her were all swept away into the Edge Visions that would turn them into Bosch Heretics. 

But Aylen was different. She was already part-Reaper. Everything the Bosch Heretics could do, she was already capable of. That and more, given Grandfather’s tinkering. There was nothing for the Edge to do to her. And yet, the light still blinded her. And as her vision cleared a few moments later, Aylen still found herself elsewhere, just as her fellow students would have. 

Specifically, she was standing in her own living room–no. No, this wasn’t their most recent living room. It was the living room of the house they had lived in when Aylen was still only seven years old. That was the first time she remembered hearing enough of the story about where Mother’s father was and what Heretics were to actually understand it. It was the room Aylen had been sitting in, with Mother and Mama, when she first resolved to somehow, someday, save Mother’s papa. The thought that her beloved mother had been without her own father through her entire life had left the young Aylen stricken, and she’d promised that she would someday help free him. Neither of her mothers had taken it entirely seriously at the time, but she was determined.

And now, here she was. Years later, facing the Heretical Edge, Aylen was here in this room again. 

“Interesting.” 

That single word came from behind Aylen, and she spun to find herself facing a figure she had previously only seen in drawings and in magic projections. It was a tall man, with sharply, almost achingly pretty features that reminded her of the elves in the Lord of the Rings movies. His skin was bone-pale, his hair as blue as the sky. Eyes that were deep violet stared at her, seeming to take in every feature with an intense curiosity. He gazed into her, reading things even Aylen wasn’t aware of. The power and authority radiating from his form made her reflexively gasp. She felt, in that moment, the way ancient, primitive man gazing up into the wonder of the sun must have felt. An apt comparison, for the power in this man compared to her own was that of the sun to a primitive human. He was more than she had ever truly expected him to be. 

“Grand…. father… “ Aylen whispered, staring at him as her mouth fell open. Everything she had planned out to say, everything she wanted to explain, was washed away in that moment. She knew nothing, she thought nothing. She could only stare. 

He had only said that single word, before falling silent when she turned to him and spoke her own single word. For the several long seconds, neither said anything else. Aylen could see, could practically feel, the old Reaper taking in everything about her. His gaze, once it was done taking her in, slowly panned around the living room. He looked to the pictures and paintings on the wall, to the television where DVD’s of her favorite childhood movies were stacked up, and to the baby blanket neatly folded on the nearby chair. A blanket she still had to this day. Through it all, Aylen remained silent. Something told her not to interrupt, to let this go at his pace, not her own. 

Finally, those intense eyes returned to her own gaze. And in that moment, they softened. The dark, almost black purple turned a more gentle violet as he spoke three words in a voice that was so small, so vulnerable and hesitant that Aylen thought there was no conceivable way it could have come from the blindingly powerful figure in front of her. 

“She is alive?” 

Those three words, that single question from the being who served as the linchpin of the entire Bosch Heretic society and empowered literally thousands of beings, came wrapped in the emotion of a man who had lost his child eons ago. It was the emotion of a man who had forgotten what it was like to hope that such a child had survived, whose heart had long-since abandoned those thoughts. 

The words came from a man who had entered this room and had that hope rekindled in the form of the girl standing before him. Those long-extinguished flames had begun to smolder once more. 

Somehow, Aylen found her voice. “My… my mother. My mother is your daughter.” 

The man said nothing, not aloud anyway. But his eyes. When she looked into his eyes, Aylen saw a rush of emotion. Those embers of hope she felt before had flickered into a small, yet fierce flame with a heat that drove away what had clearly been cold certainty of his daughter’s loss. 

“Tell me. 

“Tell me everything.” 

So, she did. Walking through the house of her memories, Aylen spoke with her mother’s father for what felt like hours. She had no idea how these visions worked for the actual Heretics, but she seemed to be there for much longer than was actually possible. She told him of her mothers, of her own birth, of her other grandfather. She told him of her mission here. 

“I’m going to get you out of this place,” she promised him. By that point, the two were back in the living room. Through all of that, neither had touched the other. She didn’t feel right making that sort of assumption, and he had not extended his own hand through their discussion. “I don’t know how yet, but that’s why I’m here. It’s the whole reason I came to this place. I promise, no matter what, I–” 

In mid-sentence, the phone on the nearby wall interrupted Aylen by ringing. Her gaze snapped toward it with confusion, but her grandfather simply looked at it without moving. A moment later, it stopped. She was about to ask why the phone would ring in her vision, when he spoke instead. “You… you said your name was Aylen?” When she nodded, he continued. “Aylen, I believed my daughter, my only living heir, was dead since before I was trapped in this place. I have spent millennia believing the only child I would ever have was gone forever. Listen now. In telling me that she lives, in telling me that my… my child has survived all this time… you have already freed me from far darker a prison than this could ever be.  

“You, Aylen, are my granddaughter. You are my proof that my child is not dead, my proof that she has lived a life, that she has known happiness. Even if I could not be there, you are my proof that she has stood, learned, lived, and loved. You say you have come to free me? Your existence is my freedom.”

After saying those words, the old Reaper raised a hand. Only then did he finally touch Aylen. His palm pressed against her cheek, as he exhaled slowly. “Granddaughter. When your grandmother spoke of children, grandchildren, and on, I… I did not understand the concept. It took such time for her to explain the–” He stopped talking then, looking away as the phone rang once more. Again, the man made no move to answer it, instead staring until the ringing stopped. 

Aylen meant to ask about the phone. Instead, the words that came first were, “What about Grandmother? What… happened?” 

“That is for another conversation,” he replied quietly. There was pain in his voice, a deep ache that had clearly yet to heal even all these centuries later. “I’m afraid our time here is still limited. You’ll be waking up soon. And I would rather not end our visit on such things.” 

“Grandfather, there’s… there’s more, there’s a lot more I want to say,” Aylen pleaded, though she wasn’t even sure who she was directing the plea to. He held no control over the fact that she would have to wake up and be amongst the true Heretics once more. “I don’t know how we’re going to get you out of this, but we will. I will. I’m here to find out everything I can about how the Heretics have you trapped. Once I do, Mother, Mama, the other Grandfather, we’ll all get you out. I promise. We will get you out of this. You’ll see her again. You’ll see Mother again.” 

She was embracing him. Aylen wasn’t even sure when or how that had happened. Her arms were around him, her face buried against his shoulder. She clung to the man, wanting to stay there and tell him everything about her life, everything about her mothers’ lives. That brief flicker of loss and pain she had seen when he thought of her grandmother made her want to stay forever and tell him everything he had missed. She desperately wanted to fill the emotional pit she had seen in him with everything she could. 

And then again, even as she felt herself begin to drift away from the vision, the phone rang once more. Aylen stubbornly clung to her grandfather, refusing to let go. The phone was louder. “What is it?” she demanded with confusion. “Who keeps trying to call you? I don’t–how are they calling you?” 

“It is symbolic,” he informed her in a quiet voice. “The phone you hear is a manifestation of my old power reaching out to me. If I establish contact, it will free me from this place.” 

Staring at him, aghast, Aylen blurted, “Wh-what?! Why–why wouldn’t you just answer then? If your power can free you, answer the–” 

“No.” His voice was sharp, even as Aylen realized that she had been reaching toward the phone herself. “It is the power of my darker self. The power of what the humans call a Hangman, an evil being bent entirely toward destruction and death.” 

Hand shrinking away from the phone, which had gone silent once more, Aylen murmured, “Your old power… it’s right there, and you’ve been ignoring it all this time. All you have to do is answer it, and if you did, you’d be free but… you’d be evil?” 

“Far worse than that,” her grandfather quietly replied. “I am connected to every Heretic created through the light or the apples. 

“If I become a Hangman, so will they.” 

*******

Former Crossroads Student Mentor Cameron Reid

“Don’t make me do this,” Cameron Reid pleaded. The black girl stood at the edge of a used car lot, beside a rusty old sedan that had been cleaned up as much as the employees could manage. She held a wicked-looking faintly curved short sword in each hand, with her favorite little friend, the blue-tongued skink named Tad Cooper (no one she talked to ever got the reference), perched on her shoulder. “Just walk away. We don’t have to do this. I don’t want to do this.” 

“You don’t?” Standing in front of her, long pike raised and pointed that way, Foster Remels snarled the two words. Foster was a light-skinned red-headed boy with the tattoo of a flaming skull on the exposed left shoulder of his sleeveless arms. “Good, does that mean you’re giving up this bullshit and not being a traitor anymore? Because that’d be pretty fucking spiffy, Cameron.” His eyes narrowed. “Otherwise, we really do have to do this. You come back, tell the Committee you’re sorry and you were just confused. They’ll understand, Cameron. Stop this. Help me kill the monsters, and we can all go home.”

At the word monsters, Cameron glanced sidelong toward the small group of blue-skinned humanoids huddled next to one of the nearby trucks. They were the owner of the car lot and his family/employees. Seeing them like that, huddled together while staring fearfully at the two squared-off Heretics, the lump in her throat at the idea of fighting one of her classmates and friends hardened. She swallowed it down, turning her attention back to Foster. “If you think not wanting to fight you is enough to make me change sides, then you don’t understand why I left in the first place.” 

“You’re right!” Foster snapped. “I don’t! We’re supposed to be the good guys, Cameron! We kill monsters and save people! We–” His burst of anger softened, the boy’s clear frustration melting into a desperate plea. “No, you’re right. I do get it. It’d be really nice to see all those creatures out there and think that we could be friends with them. I understand! I swear, I get it. And maybe someday we can! Maybe someday we can find another species to work with us! But not like this. Not by betraying our own people. Don’t you see? You and the others are doing exactly what the monsters want. They’ve been trying to create a civil war in Crossroads for all this time! They did it once before and we survived, and now they’ve done it again!”

For a moment, Cameron was silent. She thought about the students she had mentored back at Crossroads over the past year. They were all so different. Zeke, his incredible pride and hot-headedness repeatedly getting him in trouble despite his intentions. He came to her several times over the year trying to get help with his anger issues. In calm, private situations, the boy repeatedly planned out how to be ‘nicer,’ but in the heat of the moment, repeatedly fell back to the same attitude that got him in trouble. He and Malcolm Harkess, the remarkably gifted athlete and fighter despite his Bystander-kin origins who had ended up being one of Zeke’s closest friends despite their differences and constant arguments, had stayed back at Crossroads. 

Erin too. She was at Crossroads, though Cameron wasn’t sure why. She would have thought that someone like Erin would switch sides, given what she knew about the girl. And yet, here they were. 

Travis Colby, another Bystander-kin like Malcolm, had joined the rebellion. Actually, he’d followed Cameron. When she’d made the choice to follow Chambers and the others that fateful night, Travis had been behind her. She warned him about what she was doing, and he’d simply replied that if Jazz had a boyfriend who was a Stranger, then he wasn’t cool with killing all of them. 

Then there were the twins, Vanessa and Tristan. They, of course, switched sides. They were part of the switching sides. They weren’t even fully human, but hybrids. Humans mixed with a Stranger. 

Her team. The team she was responsible for mentoring, had been split in half. So why had Cameron chosen to switch sides? Why did she choose to go with the rebellion? 

“I don’t know,” she started out loud, “how many of the things out there who aren’t human are actually good. I don’t know how many of those claiming to be good for the rebellion actually are! I don’t know how many are faking it or might just go back to being monsters the second they get a chance. I don’t know! But I know one thing. I know the only way, the only real way, that someone who is bad becomes good is by being treated like they could be! If you treat people like monsters, if you hunt and kill them just for existing, you give them no choice but to act the way you’re treating them. If all you ever do is look for monsters, that’s exactly what you’ll find!

“I don’t know how much this will pay off. I don’t know if we’ll be betrayed. But we have to give it a chance. We have to try to treat them like we’d want to be treated.”

Pointing his pike past Cameron to the huddled figures, Foster declared, “They’re selling cars to humans and then selling their info to monsters who hunt down the humans in their homes.” 

“You don’t know that,” Cameron insisted. “That’s just what Crossroads told you. Why do you believe them?” 

“Because they’ve been doing this for hundreds of years!” he insisted. “Because they know better than you or me. I side with the people who protect humanity, Cameron, with the people who have always protected humanity. Maybe they’re not perfect, maybe we still have a long way to go as a group. But throwing that all away can’t be the right answer!” 

For a moment, the two squared off. Then Cameron turned her head and murmured something to Tad. The tiny lizard ran to the end of her arm, to her waiting hand. Cupped in her palm, the lizard started to glow as she used her favorite power before tossing him to the side. 

He was already growing. When he landed near the huddled family of Alters and straightened up, Tad Cooper was four feet tall and a solid twenty-feet long. He was a massive lizard, armored with scales that were as hard as steel. As he looked toward Foster, the lizard opened his mouth and sent out a rush of freezing breath that created an ice wall between them. 

“If he goes near those people, Tad,” Cameron ordered her empowered lizard, “put him on the ground.” 

Face sombering, Foster cracked his neck while lifting his pike. “So… it’s going to be like that.” 

“Yeah,” Cameron agreed, her own voice just as unhappy, yet equally resolved. “It’s going to be like that.” 

Then there was nothing more to say. The two former friends watched one another’s eyes, saw the impasse between them… and lunged to attack. 

*******

Alcaeus/Heracles

Of all the great, remarkable, sometimes even terrible deeds that Alcaeus, once known as Heracles, had achieved in his incredibly long life, convincing Maria and Arthur Chambers to leave their home for an extended vacation had to be one of the most impressive.  

The two were long-retired and spent every day in their California home, where they had lived for almost their entire married life. When their ‘friend Al’ had come to them with a suggestion that they join him on a tour of the world, they had been a bit… uncertain, to say the least. When he explained that he was putting together a book about various tourist destinations specifically for the retired community and that he needed their perspective on all the places he was supposed to go for the book to work as intended, they had understood a little more. Though they had still been a bit surprised that his publisher was footing the bill for three people to go on this journey. 

But even with that explanation, Maria and Arthur had been hesitant. As much as this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see everything they had ever wanted, the two were content in their lives the way they were. Not only that, but with their son (as far as they knew) on a long undercover investigative assignment and their granddaughter away at private school, the two wanted to be close to home in case either needed them. 

Fortunately, Arthur was a bit of a tech-obsessed geek, particularly for an old man. He ended up pointing out to his wife that their cell phones would take calls from their son and granddaughter no matter where they were. And beyond that, their security system would let them know if anyone showed up at the door. If it was Felicity or Lincoln, Maria and Arthur would be able to talk to them through the doorbell camera and arrange for a flight out to meet wherever they happened to be. 

That was one of Maria’s primary conditions. She and Arthur set aside money for two separate plane tickets, enough to bring Felicity and/or Lincoln anywhere they were, no matter where that was. She insisted that if her son or granddaughter needed them, they would have the money, their own money, to fly them to DC, New York, London, Hong Kong, or anywhere else in the world. 

In the end, they did at least finally agree. Which allowed Alcaeus to get them out of their house and away from home on this globetrotting trip. It was a temporary measure, of course. But it would give him time to figure out just how serious the Seosten attempts to get at the two would end up being. It was a stop-gap, yet an important one. 

At the moment, they were in Alaska, staying in a hunting lodge. Al had taken his friends out to see all the incredible wildlife and stunning visuals that the area had to offer. They were in awe of it all, of course, and their own utterly stunned reactions to these things reminded Alcaeus of how much he took for granted. He had been on this world for so long, had seen so much, that he sometimes (often) forgot just how incredible it really was. 

They deserved to know more. They deserved the whole truth. And part of this trip, if the man was being honest with himself, was his own way of deciding if he should take that step or not. Because while they deserved the truth, they also deserved to live their lives without being dragged into the whole problems of Heretics, Seosten, and everything else. 

Yet, Al asked himself while standing on the porch of the hunting lodge with Maria and Arthur cuddling on the swing behind him, weren’t they already involved? Their granddaughter was a Heretic who had found out the truth about Seosten. Their son had somehow (assuming Al’s contacts were correct, and he believed they were) broken the Bystander Effect and figured out a lot of the truth on his own, and was even now living with Gabriel Prosser’s people. 

Yes, they were involved. The only real question was how involved. And Al thought he knew the answer. The only real answer was to give them the truth and let them decide for themselves. It would take some effort, there were things that needed to be collected to make the spell work. But once he did, he could temporarily remove the Bystander Effect and tell them the truth. Then he would let Arthur and Maria decide if they wanted to retain that knowledge and be a part of… of all this. Because the truth was, it wasn’t his choice. It was theirs. 

For now, however, he would simply keep them safe. And show them as much of the world as he could. To that end, he raised his hand to point. “If you’re up to it, in the morning–” 

Then it happened. In mid-sentence, a rush of memories burst forth out of nowhere, an explosion of knowledge that rocked Al backward. 

He had never been an official part of Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion. But he knew of it. And he had helped now and then, when possible. For the most part, the Alcaeus of that time simply wished to be left alone, if the threats weren’t world-ending, like the Fomorians. He had been trying to keep his ever-present temper in check, had tried to find true balance in his life between the good man he wanted to be and the embodiment of rage and destruction that he was so good at becoming. 

So, he had helped when needed, had served as a sort of… babysitter at times for those who were in danger and had nowhere else to turn. He had met Joselyn Atherby, had seen the strength in her. Strength was something he liked… a lot. And he liked her… a lot. For a man like Alcaeus, liking a woman generally meant one thing. And… well, this case was no different. The two of them had, with the blessing of her husband… Deveron, that was it, taken that liking to another level once or… twice or… 

Fuck, this was awkward. 

The rush of memories, the realization that he not only knew the woman who had supposedly abandoned Arthur and Maria’s son and granddaughter, but had actually slept with her (and quite enjoyed it, honestly), was almost more than even a man as strong as Alcaeus could handle. He stumbled back a step, gasping. Rebellion, Joselyn, the Atherbys, her daughter… Her daughter had awakened those memories, had awakened the rebellion. 

Arthur was suddenly there, a hand on Al’s arm while the other caught his back. Nearly half a foot shorter than Alcaeus despite being six-foot-five himself, he was still built sturdily enough to catch the stumbling man. “Whoa there! Hey, Al, you okay?” In the background, Maria was already insisting that her husband help him over to the swing while she called for a doctor. 

“No, no, I’m okay,” Al insisted, shaking his head. “Just got a little dizzy for a second. Long day.” 

“You come right over here and sit down,” Maria Chambers insisted, pointing to the swing. “I don’t want to hear any arguments, you understand? Get off your feet, now. You men, always pushing yourselves so far. Too damned stubborn to admit you’re getting too old for these things.” 

Letting himself be pulled by Arthur to sit down on the swing, Alcaeus mused inwardly. He’d thought that explaining the truth about this whole situation to his friends was going to be awkward before. 

Now? Now he was going to have to be good and god damned drunk before even starting. 

***************

Earth Club

“This… is… cowabunga!” 

As he blurted those words, the green-skinned boy known as Layuerk (or Lurk, as many called him), pumped his fists into the air and jumped up and down in front of the entrance to the most incredible, wonderful place he’d ever set foot near. Truly, the shining jewel of the vast universe.

Oak Park Mall, in Overland Park, Kansas. 

“It’s radical, dude.” Stepping beside his friend, the Reusfiel (essentially an anthropomorphic fox-bunny) named Grisson added, “Cowabunga’s something you yell, like neat or yay. Something can’t be cowabunga. Come on, we watched every Ninja Turtles movie last week for a reason. So we sound like normal teenagers and don’t stand out. We’re supposed to be under cover.” 

As he said that, they were joined by a new figure. She stood two inches over six feet, with body entirely made of metal, and arms that reached all the way to the ground despite her height. Ferrdreis, the Ullmis. Her male twin, Aerlicht, was right behind her. “We are very good at being under cover,” Ferrdreis announced, before looking at a passing elderly couple who were on their way into the mall. “Greetings, Bodacious Lady and Sir Dude! May your days be totally tubular and free from bogus.” 

The couple stared at them for a moment, clearly confused before hurrying off. Watching them go, Ferrdreis tilted her head. “Perhaps it is my accent?” 

These four, the full members of what they had always called the Earth Club back in Seosten space, were finally here. They were here on Earth after so many years of picking up random toys, games, movies, and more from the place they had become obsessed with. With the arrival of the Aelaestiam station and its conversion to the Fusion School for Heretics and Alters, these four were finally able to live their dream of actually setting foot on Earth. And they were making the most of it. 

“I still don’t get it,” Layuerk insisted. “So you can yell radical, excellent, awesome, all those things. You can say yell those and something can be those. Like a radical car or an excellent movie. And you can also yell cowabunga, but something can’t be cowabunga? No, I refuse. This building is totally cowabunga!” 

“If you think this mall’s cowabunga, you’re gonna flip if we ever go to Mall of America.” The drawled announcement came from the Earth Club’s adult escort for this little trip, Deveron Adams. The handsome, dark-haired man stepped up onto the curb, accompanied by his teenage granddaughter, Koren Fellows. 

“One step at a time, Grandpa,” Koren teased the man. “Don’t overload their circuits.” Even as she said it, the girl was wincing with a look toward the two metal figures. “Errr, that wasn’t supposed to be a robot joke or anything. Not that I think you’re robots, it’s just–I mean I wasn’t–” 

“Would you like me to interrupt and pretend you never said anything?” Deveron asked conversationally. When the flushing girl covered her mouth with both hands and nodded, he turned his attention to the quartet. “Alright, guys, you remember the rules. We stay together. We’ll look at what you want to look at. There’s plenty of time and plenty of stores to see. They’ve got an arcade, a mini-golf place, a food court… let’s work our way toward the food court. We’ve got two hours before the movie in the theater. We’ll mosey that way, pick up some food, then see the movie. And what do you do in case of emergency?” 

In answer, all five teenagers held up their arms to display the wristwatches that had been enchanted with spells to teleport them to safety if a command word was spoken. 

“Good job.” With a smile, Deveron gestured. “Right then,

“Let’s go cowabunga this mall.” 

******

Jiao

Stepping off the brightly lit sidewalk with a sharp pivot into a much darker alley, a frail-looking Asian woman wearing a long dark coat with a leather satchel over one shoulder strode smoothly in the shadows. Her feet announced her movement with each step that clicked against the dirty cement, until they simply… didn’t. Between one step and the next, she abruptly stopped providing any sound at all, her motions utterly silent. It was as if she had flipped a switch, no longer deliberately walking in a way to invite her pursuers into a false sense of superiority. 

It was to those pursuers that Jiao spoke, as she stopped walking a few feet from the wall marking the dead end of the alley. “If you would like to have a conversation, I have time now.” 

“A conversation?” The derisive voice came from the first of two orcs who stepped up into the opening of the alley. They were joined by a larger troll, who growled with annoyance while filling up the entire alley entrance. “Oh,” the orc continued, “we can have a really quick conversation. Just tell us where your husband is.” 

Still facing the wall rather than turning to them, Jiao tilted her head a little to gaze at the trio over her shoulder from the corner of her eye. “I would say you’ll have to narrow it down, given my apparent proclivity for wandering husbands. But I am afraid it would not be helpful, as I remain sadly unaware of the whereabouts of either.” 

The orc who had been speaking gave a dark chuckle. “You say a lot of words, but not the ones we wanna hear.” His eyes narrowed, and he produced a heavy flintlock-like enchanted pistol, pointing it at her. “We wanna know where Liang is. More to the point, our boss wants to know where he is. You can either tell us, or we’ll make you scream and see if he comes running.” 

Jiao’s response to the threat, as the second orc produced a glowing energy blade and the troll heaved a massive axe off his back, was a simple, “You are welcome to the attempt.” 

With a snarl, the orc pointed his enchanted gun and pulled the trigger, sending a concentrated blast of electrical energy (enough to put an Amarok on the ground), while the other orc dashed forward, energy-blade already lashing out to cut through the space the woman would have to dodge into. 

Or rather… the space she should have dodged into. But instead of moving that way, Jiao simply pivoted. Her left hand snapped upward, producing a small pistol of her own before firing off a single bullet, striking the hand of the lizard-like Alter who had been silently sneaking down the wall in an attempt to ambush her while she was distracted. With a yell as his hand was struck by the shot, the lizard-man plummeted off the wall and ended up falling directly into the path of the incoming ball of lightning. 

Meanwhile, Jiao’s other hand snapped backward and down, producing a pistol of its own before firing a shot into the knee of the orc who had just whiffed his laser-sword through the air where he’d thought she would be. He collapsed with a scream, before her pistol fired a second shot through the side of his head. 

Before the body could fall completely, the vampire used a very slight burst of speed to put herself on the opposite side of him just as another lightning ball from the first orc blew a hole in the wall where she had just been. Dropping both guns, Jiao hoisted the body of the second orc with one hand. A moment later, it was sent flying through the air. The first orc ducked, but the troll simply caught the incoming body with one hand. 

“That was pretty fucking stupid, bitch,” the orc snarled, already striding toward her with his magic pistol raised. “What the hell did you think that was gonna accomplish, huh?”

“What you should be asking yourself,” Jiao patiently and quietly replied, “is, if I threw him with one hand, why did I drop both guns?” 

“If you threw him with one–” As he echoed those words dismissively, the orc’s eyes suddenly widened as he saw that Jiao’s other hand wasn’t empty. Rather, it held a remote detonator. He spun back toward the troll, who was staring curiously at the dead orc in his massive hand. “Put him–” 

That was as far as he got, before the explosion blew the troll into little chunks. The force of the shockwave was enough to knock the living orc to the ground, where he lay with a groan before slowly lifting his head as the barrel of a pistol was placed calmly against it. 

“Perhaps,” Jiao began, as calmly as ever, “we can have that conversation about the gentleman who wishes to find my second husband now.”

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