Miranda Wallbern

Reception 13-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Summus Proelium were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

“You remember when we were little kids back in school?” Miranda’s voice oh-so-innocently asked as the girl herself sat beside me at a table. I was pretty sure she was smiling, but couldn’t tell for sure, considering my head was down against said-table. “And we all used to make jokes and–uh, well fantasies for some of them about which of us would get married first?” Yeah, she was definitely smiling. Or smirking. “I seriously never thought you’d be the one to take that pot. Congratulations, I’m pretty sure there’s like twelve bucks in change, a handful of hair scrunchies, two stuffed animals, three tubes of the good chapstick out of the Laramie Falls Junior High vending machine, and that sweet Lego watch waiting for you back home.” 

Raising my head from the table, catching a glimpse of Koren, Sands, and Sarah sitting on the other side collectively snickering in the process, I turned toward Miranda next to me and squinted at the innocently-smiling girl. “You think this whole thing is just super funny, huh?” 

Randi, of course, gave a quick nod, even adding a thumbs up. “It’s fucking hilarious, dude. Come on, this immortal Revenant girl comes out of nowhere and says she’s your wife because you killed her husband and inherited his Necromancy power, which is the real thing she made her wedding vows to? Exactly how many people would something like that happen to? This has ‘Flick’s Life’ written all over it. And for once, it’s not something horrific or sad. Yeah, it’s funny.” 

“She’s got a point, Flick,” Sands put in while reaching across the table to gently poke my shoulder. “Seriously, how often does something insane happen to you that’s just… weird and kind of hilarious instead of terrible and violent? I mean, yeah the way she showed up was violent, but she saved us from that Nuckelavee! That’s gotta put her in the positive column, right?”

“Yeah, that’s definitely positive,” I confirmed. “She showed up and took out the monster, fantastic. She says she’s friendly, double-fantastic. She also says she has no interest in getting revenge for the whole killing her husband thing, which is just extra bonus fantastic levels. But…” 

As I trailed off, Miranda asked, “Are you afraid she’s just playing the long game and is more into the whole revenge thing than she’s letting on? You know, stab when no one’s looking?” 

Koren spoke up. “From what Mercury and Sariel said, that doesn’t really sound much like her either. It kinda sounded like what you see is what you get with that chick. She’s really straightforward. If she was pissed at you, she’d say so. Which uhh, kinda goes with what we saw, you know? She doesn’t really seem like the tricks and subterfuge type.” 

My head started to shake, then I hesitated before continuing to shake it. “No–I mean, yeah, you’re right. From what those two said, that didn’t really sound like her MO. Besides, they’re checking all that.” Turning my head slightly, I looked away from the table on the playground next to the motel where we were sitting, gazing off to the main building itself. In one of those rooms was where the Seosten, along with several others (including my mother), were having a long, magically assisted chat with this Persephone chick. They’d insisted on doing a full rundown without me present, just to make sure everything really was on the up-and-up with her. 

Behind me as I was looking toward the building, Sarah spoke quietly. “Avalon and Shiori.” 

Turning back and settling once more, I nodded. “Yeah, them. I’m not sure how they’ll react or how she’ll react to them. I mean, she says she doesn’t mean me any harm and that she’s in love with the power I have and loyal to it and all. But does that extend to being nice to the girls I love? Or anyone else I care about? I just–how much is she actually going to listen to me or care about what I care about? What if she decides only she gets me and turns violent against them?” 

The other four exchanged looks for a moment before Koren spoke again. “Uncle Wyatt’s in there, and Grandma. If she’s a danger to anyone here, they’ll sniff it out. And uhh, I’m just gonna guess she won’t really mind, Flick. Seriously, I’m gonna be super-surprised if she’s the strict monogamous sort. I mean, she’s definitely not the ‘til death do we part’ sort.” 

Snorting despite myself while the others outright snickered, I waved that off. “Right, yeah, okay. Point. And yeah, they’ll probably find anything wrong in that whole interrogation thing. I just… this whole thing is weird. Better weird than usual, but still weird.” My foot was tapping nervously against the floor. “She’s… she made an oath or a vow or whatever to Manakel’s power, and now it’s my power so she thinks it extends to me. It’s like inheriting an old grandfather clock in a will, and then finding out some other person has an arranged marriage with that clock, so now you’re married.” 

With a cough, Miranda offered, “Can I give you a little advice, old best friend? Maybe don’t tell the immortal Revenant chick the comparison about her being married to a clock.” 

Blanching a little, I shook my head. “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything. I mean, she seems fine. She saved us, she was friendly, I just–I’m worried about where this is going. Everything Sariel and Mercury said makes her out to be super-loyal to Manakel. Or, you know, to his power. Which I guess maybe translates into being loyal to me, or something? But she also seems, I dunno, unpredictable? I guess I’m just afraid that this ‘not a problem’ is going to turn into ‘very big problem’ as soon as she finds out I’m already romantically involved. Yeah, you’re right about the whole multiple loves thing being pretty accepted and all, I just… I’m really confused. And maybe just a little pessimistic that this totally random thing won’t find some way to turn out to be terrifying after all. Especially if I stop worrying about it.”

Miranda put her hand on my back, squeezing it. “Don’t worry, we get it. Everyone here knows why you might be… uhh, pretty hesitant to believe this isn’t some huge problem, believe me.”  

Sands nodded. “Yeah, totally. But I’m pretty sure this is more like Tristan showing up out of nowhere while you were on that jungle hike with Deveron, Wyatt, and Koren, you know?” 

“And hey,” Koren quickly put in, “He fell out of the sky too, remember? So it’s totally like that.” 

A very slight smirk found its way to my face as I looked around at all four of them. “You guys are pretty good at the whole encouragement thing. Thanks, I–I guess I really needed that.” Letting out a breath then, I straightened and gave a firm nod. “Kay, I’ll try to believe that this whole thing isn’t about to blow up in all of our faces, but I reserve the right to scream I told you so if it does.” 

“Thankfully,” Miranda pointed out, “I’m pretty sure if it does turn into a problem, we’ll all be too busy to listen.” Coughing, she added a flat, “Anyway, are you sure you’re not just hoping it turns into a problem so you don’t have to tell Avalon and Shiori that you’re freaking married?” 

Face flushing deeply, I gave a quick shake of my head while the others snickered. “Oh come on, I am not married. If anything, my Necromancy power’s married. Hell, only half of that’s married, just the part I got from Manakel. Half of one power I have is married. So like, that barely even counts as anything, right?” Saying that, I found myself looking around at a group of pretty dubious-looking friends, before muttering under my breath, “Well, it makes sense to me.” 

“That’s good!” Koren teased, “get your excuses and explanations ready before Avalon finds out.” 

That prompted another round of snickers while I extended my leg to kick her under the table, my face still pink. “Yeah yeah, laugh it up. Believe me, someday you’re gonna be in a situation like this, and I will totally take advantage.” Without missing a beat, I added over my shoulder toward the person my item-sense power had just detected, “And you’re not allowed to protect her from my eventual cunning revenge, Wyatt.”  

Stepping closer, my (much) older brother sniffed while stopping at the end of the table. “You’re very capable,” he informed me primly, “but you can’t stop me from protecting my family.” 

Squinting that way, I pointed out, “I’m your family too, you know. You could’ve been here protecting me from all this awful teasing and mockery.” 

There was a very brief pause as the gangly-looking man seemed unsure of how to respond to that. It was a little awkward, as if he knew he wanted to say something teasing back, but wasn’t quite to the point of knowing exactly how to do so. Wyatt had gotten a lot better over the past year with all this family and friend interaction, but there were still times he just lost it a bit. 

However, that only lasted for those momentary seconds before Koren whispered something into her hand, then made a flicking motion toward Wyatt. I heard nothing, but the way the man reacted made it clear that she had somehow… thrown the whisper to him? New power, obviously. 

Sure enough, Wyatt gave a very short nod toward Koren before focusing on me once more. His voice was calm as he spoke the retort she’d given him. “Tough diddies.” 

“That’s not wh–oh never mind,” Koren waved it off before asking, “So how’s it looking over there? Is she a secret murder-assassin just waiting to jump Flick?”

“Or,” Sands put in, “is she just waiting to jump Flick.” That made her and Miranda snicker. 

Sarah, kindly stepping on her sister’s foot, pointedly spoke up. “They mean, is she safe?” 

It took a moment for Wyatt to answer, while he collected his thoughts. Finally, the man confirmed, “She didn’t trip any guilt spells, or make any of the threat-indicators light up, and the danger-gel I made her hold stayed completely calm. Everyone checked her and she…” The next words looked like it took a lot for him to say. “She appears to be on the up-and-up.” Looking straight to me, he added, “Our mother is making her take a binding oath spell to do no intentional harm, nor intentionally allow harm, to you or anyone you care about. It’s being prepared right now by Mom, Sariel, Mercury, and two of the Victors on our side.”  

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “You’re not there helping?” 

Wyatt, in turn, folded his arms, looking a little annoyed at himself. “I… might have gone a little overboard with the truth and danger sensing spells. They didn’t want to wait for me to recover. They said they have enough power to make them binding as it is.” 

Right, that made sense. He’d used so much magic making sure this woman wasn’t a threat, that he didn’t have enough left at the moment to contribute to the oath-making spell. Was it weird that I found that a little adorable despite everything? My brother really cared about what happened to me. 

As I was thinking about that, Wyatt continued. “They need you to come talk to her. The oath magic works better if you’re there for it.” His tone turned serious as he reached out to touch my arm. “But if she makes any funny moves or makes you feel uncomfortable, you say the word and she’ll be buried under so many trap spells it’ll take her a month to dig her way out.” 

“Good to know,” I replied easily while pushing myself up. Thanking the others and promising to let them know what happened, I headed off with Wyatt toward the motel building. On the way, I glanced over to him and asked, “So, what do you think of this woman? I mean, I know she’s really intense and all. And potentially dangerous, obviously. But what do you really think?”  

Wyatt didn’t answer at first. He was quiet, clearly considering the question. Which did a lot to show how much he had really changed over the past year. Before, he would have ranted on for an hour about how she was obviously plotting to kill all of us, and probably wear our skins or something. But now, while he was still suspicious, he was a lot more reasonable about it. He thought things through more and was much more in control of himself. Finally, as we were about halfway to the building, he answered. “You’re right, she could be dangerous. She’s very strong and hard to stop.” His long, beak-like nose had scrunched up a bit. “But I’ve learned two things about you this year. Okay, more than two. But two specific ones now. The first is that you’re really good at making enemies. Really horrible, strong, vicious enemies I can’t always be there to help with. Even with magic. They find a way to get past it if they have to.”

My mouth opened to say something, but he waved me off and continued. “The other important thing I’ve learned is that you’re also really good at making friends. So, my instinct is to say this girl is dangerous and just get rid of her. That’s what my brain wants to do. It’s what my heart wants to do. Just throw her out and be done with it. But we wouldn’t be done with it. Either she’d be angry and turn into a threat herself, or she just wouldn’t be here to help you with a different threat. She–she’s strong, capable, terrifying. And I’d rather you make her into a real friend, than me make her into an enemy. Even if she scares me. I… I trust you to handle it.” 

We had stopped outside the motel room by that point to finish all that. I didn’t speak at first, just looking at my awkward, wonderful, gangly, incredible brother. Then I stepped over and put both arms around him to hug tightly. “You’re pretty cool, you know that?” My voice was quiet, yet still audibly choked up. “I’m lucky to have someone like you.” 

Despite all the progress he had made, Wyatt was still reflexively stiff when I hugged him. But, after a brief moment, I felt his arms move down to return the embrace. His voice was a bit thick as well. “Be careful, okay? Not–not just because she’s dangerous. But because… because I think she’s fragile too. Not– she’s different. You could really hurt her if you wanted to.” 

That… yeah, that wasn’t at all what I’d expected him to say. Still, I nodded while releasing the man and stepping back. “Trust me, I’ll keep it in mind. The last thing I want to do is traumatize the millennia-old ghost-creature possessing an immortal dead body. Yeah, immortal dead. I said it.” 

With that promise, I turned to the motel, took in a breath before letting it out, and moved to knock on the door. Before my knuckles could actually make contact, however, it opened seemingly of its own volition, with nobody nearby. So, I shrugged before stepping in. The door closed behind me, leaving Wyatt to head back to the others. 

The motel room had had all the furniture taken out of it. The floor, walls, and ceiling were covered in various magic runes that were all centered around a single figure who stood in the middle. Persephone, of course. She stood there calmly, wearing only a sleeveless version of the Seosten bodysuit, arms extended out to either side with more spell-runes drawn along them. 

Meanwhile, Mom, Sariel, and Mercury were on one side of the room, with the two Victors opposite them. They were Jack Childs, the old cowboy from Fate’s Shepherds, and Fu Hao, the Asian woman who looked very young except for her ancient-looking eyes that had clearly seen an incredible number of years. She was one of the leaders of the Vigilant Sons. Seller and Avalon’s tribe, whom I might have had a pretty big problem with given how they had treated Valley. But apparently Fu Hao had already apologized and openly admitted fault for that. Which, given how old and powerful these people were, the fact that any of them were willing to admit when they were wrong meant a lot. I still wasn’t happy with what happened, except that if they hadn’t kicked Avalon out, I wouldn’t have met her the way I did, and–god, that same thing kept coming up, didn’t it? Bad things led to good things. It was all so complicated. 

Eyes lighting up when I entered the room, Persephone called out without moving, “Hello, beloved! Did you eat something yet? Was it good? I’ve heard very nice things about something called pizza on this planet. I’m very interested in trying it once we’re finished with all this.” She spoke so casually, as if she was just waiting for something like… toast to pop up rather than being put under an intense set of spells meant to ensure she wouldn’t kill any of us. 

Before I could say anything, Mom spoke up. “Felicity, come right up in front of her. It’s okay. Put your hands on her shoulders and we’ll finish the spell. Persephone, you know how it works.” 

The white-haired woman remained completely motionless, even as she cheerfully confirmed, “Don’t move an inch or the spell gets messed up! You got it, no moving. I am a tree. Except I smell better.” Her eyes found mine as she amended, “Not that trees smell bad, but you should sniff me, Honeycakes.” After a brief pause, she noted, “I smell like honeycake.” 

Moving that way, I hesitated uncertainly before putting both hands on the woman’s shoulders. She was taller than me by a couple inches, but shorter than Avalon. Speaking… completely academically, she was also incredibly beautiful. Like any Seosten, really. She had that totally snow-white hair and tanned skin, with a slim figure that– yeah. And yes, she absolutely smelled like vanilla cake and honey. It made me blush a little. Especially when she smiled brightly at me, clearly knowing exactly how I was reacting to all that. Oh boy, because this whole thing hadn’t already been awkward enough.  

So, for the next few minutes, I stood there basically face to face with this woman who kept calling herself my wife. Which would’ve been so much easier to deal with if she wasn’t so attractive. And cool. Seriously, she flew down out of the sky and completely exploded a Nuckelavee to introduce herself. It was–no, Flick. Knock it off. Firmly telling myself to push those thoughts aside, I focused on just looking at Persephone. 

Okay, scratch that. I focused on closing my eyes and pretending I was somewhere else. Somewhere with cake and honey. 

Damn it. 

I knew why the spell was taking awhile. Even with two strong Seosten, my mother, and a couple Victors, a Revenant was incredibly hard to target with magic that would actually stick. And one like this, who had found a body as powerful and long-lasting as Persephone had, took even more effort and time. Oh, sure, they could’ve hit her with a teleportation spell or something quite easily, shifted her somewhere else. But for an ongoing effect like this, one that would give even her enough trouble if she started to turn against us, it took a lot. According to Sariel, when they were back on the Olympus, only two people had been able to tell Persephone what to do. The first was Manakel, with the very same Necromancy power that attracted her to him in the first place. And the other was Puriel, who was basically a god when it came to magic. 

But in this case, we had enough power to put the spell on her. Plus, she was willingly cooperating, which helped. She could probably break the spell, but doing so would alert basically everyone Mom was including in the spell, so Persephone going bad would result in a whole bunch of people jumping in, while the Revenant herself was buried under a heap of targeted trap spells. They wouldn’t stop her forever, but they would, with any luck, slow her down. It was the best we could do. Between that and my own ability to sort-of control or at least push her with my Necromancy (I wasn’t as good with it as Manakel had been, so I couldn’t just order her around), this whole thing was as safe as we could make it.   

Finally, with a rush of power that even I felt closing in all around us to culminate in a burst that made my ears pop, it was done. Mom stepped over, putting her hand on my arm to tug me back. “There,” she said quietly, her eyes on Persephone. “You say you want to spend time with my daughter. You can do that, but… when she tells you to back off, do it. Sariel has an extra room you can use. You live with her, not with Felicity. You give her space when she needs it.” 

“Of course, Mother!” the woman cheerfully replied, “we wouldn’t want to rush things.” 

Oh boy. Yeah, Mom had her own reaction to that. But before she could get too into it, I quickly turned to the two Victors, who were starting to leave. “Uhh, um, excuse me?” 

Fu Hao and Childs exchanged brief looks before turning to me, the Asian woman curiously asking, “May we help you with something else?” 

Pushing aside the thought that it was really weird to ask them for anything else after they’d already done this much, I nodded. “Yeah, I uhh, I sure hope so. 

“Let’s just say I have a friend who really needs some help when it comes to one of your old colleagues.”

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Long Awaited 12-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, what the hell was it with this day finding new ways to shock me into open-mouthed silence? It was starting to become a thing. And this time was a bit worse than my mother having something surprising to say. This was the wife, wife–correction, widow of one of my worst enemies suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Did we even know Manakel was married? Was that a thing? Seriously, could someone have possibly warned me that that was a thing?! 

I was still staring at the woman, no sound having found its way to my lips. She wasn’t glaring or anything. She wasn’t making any threatening moves, or even attacking. She was just standing there, grinning a bit lopsidedly at all of us. If this was a threat, it was a very casual one. 

On the other hand, she had basically just plummeted out of the sky and disintegrated something as powerful as a Nuckelavee, then got up as if nothing had happened. So maybe she didn’t really need to go out of her way to look intimidating. Honestly, that was pretty damn impressive all on its own. And now she was looking at me. Looking at me because I had killed her husband. 

Before I could move or find any words, Miranda was suddenly standing in front of me. She had her shield up, projecting a force field. “Flick, get out of here,” the girl snapped over her shoulder in a voice that was tense and brittle, like she was barely keeping it together. Yeah, seeing this chick blow through the Nuckelavee that easily had gotten to her too. “You guys get help, we–” 

Abruptly, the woman started walking toward us. And that was apparently the trigger for everyone to react. Miranda sent the force-field flying that way, while Sands made a thick, solid rock wall rise out of the ground in the woman’s path just as the forcefield flew past that spot. At the same time, Koren made a wall of earth rise up to match and reinforce the rock. Finally, Sarah had her rifle in her hands, and took three quick shots through a scope-portal she had positioned above and to the left to hit the advancing figure from behind. They all acted instantly to protect me

And all of it did essentially nothing. The force-field hit the advancing figure and shattered into bits of light without apparent effect. The bullets bounced off of her, and she walked through the rock and earth walls as though they weren’t there, leaving a her-shaped hole behind. She didn’t even slow down at all. Though on the other hand, she also wasn’t sprinting or anything. She was just walking at a normal pace. It was like she didn’t even really notice the attempts to hurt or stall her. She brushed off the frantic series of attacks as easily as a semi brushed off the flies that bounced off its windshield. And with even less notice.  

Through it all, there was a strange sensation at the back of my mind. It felt familiar somehow. She felt familiar, in a strange way. Wait a second, I knew what this was. I knew what this sensation meant. It was absurd, crazy, but I knew what I was feeling in that moment. 

The strange woman was still walking toward us, casual as could be, while the other three began to launch another wave of attacks as they shouted for me to move my ass and get out of there already, while I still could. Instead, I quickly held up both hands, shouting, “Stop!” 

My friends listened and stopped attacking. But, more importantly, the strange woman halted. I felt my power reach out to her. My necromancy power. Yeah, she was dead. At least, I thought she was. It was a strange sensation. It was like she was sort of dead, but not completely. I had no idea what that meant, only that I had recognized the feeling that my power could affect her. My necromancy had wrapped itself around the woman and held her steady when I shouted for everyone to stop. And, just like that, she had stopped. 

“Uhh, Flick?” Koren was looking back and forth between the apparently frozen woman and me. “What–huh?” 

For a brief second, I had a flash of intense worry. This was at, least partially, power that had belonged to her dead husband, and I was using it to make her stop walking. I was using her dead husband’s power to stop her from enacting righteous vengeance for his death, or whatever. She was probably about to lose her shit on us, and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to keep her in place through something like that. Oh God, this was about to get bad, wasn’t it?

Except, the woman didn’t actually look mad at all. Instead, that smile she’d had the entire time just got wider as she clapped. Yeah, I felt her casually break the hold my power had over her just enough to bring her hands together a few times with obvious delight. 

“I knew it!” the woman actually cheered while hopping up and down. “I knew you had it now. Do it again, do it again!” With that weirdly ecstatic cry, she started walking toward us once more, arms raised extended out to either side. I swear, it looked as though she was trying to hug me. Which was a hell of a lot more confusing than if she had been screaming at me in anger and attacking. At least that I would have understood. This? This I had absolutely no idea how to react to. And neither did the others. 

Before any of us could figure out what to do, another interruption came. This one was in the form of half a dozen adult Garden Heretics, who appeared between us and the strange woman in a flash of light. No, they weren’t just Garden Heretics. They were Unset, led by Croc himself. The enormous Native American man in dark red armor loomed right in front of me, bellowing for the woman to halt even as two metal coils tore their way out of the ground and wrapped around her arms. The five other Heretics had produced weapons and seemed ready to lunge at her. Not that the woman seemed at all put off by that. If anything, she was smiling even more than before, as if the whole thing was just one big game. Hell, considering I kept getting the impression that she was at least partially dead, maybe it really was a game. 

Well, there was clearly something very weird going on with this whole thing, so I quickly blurted out once more, “Croc, stop! Everybody stop. Just stop! Hold on for a minute!” 

To their credit, the Unset stopped. So did my friends, who had looked as though they were about ready to jump into the fray again themselves. Everyone froze, even the strange woman herself, though she still looked like she wanted to hug me. Which was very much not the reaction I expected to get from a woman who claimed I killed her husband. This whole thing was even more baffling than my life usually was. And that was definitely saying something.

“Flick,” Sands demanded with her mace out and ready. “What the hell is going on?” 

“Yes,” Croc agreed flatly, not moving his eyes off the woman herself, who was still at least nominally held by those metal coils around her arms. “Who is this?” 

My mouth opened to say I wasn’t sure who she was, exactly. But before I could actually get the words out, another voice spoke up from nearby. “Persephone?”

It was Mercury. The real Mercury, not possessing Carfried as he had through most of last year. The somewhat tall (just over six feet, so fairly diminutive next to other people like Croc), leanly muscled man with very dark red hair worn in a ponytail stood there, beside one of the Unset people. He sounded just as surprised as the rest of us felt. Though perhaps in a different way. “When did you get to Earth?” Even as he spoke, the man was moving over to stand between me and the woman. I had the feeling he wasn’t exactly positive that she wasn’t going to attack after all. Which didn’t exactly help my confidence in the situation, considering he was the only one here who had any idea who she was. If he thought this might still be a problem, I wasn’t going to let my guard down anytime soon. And neither was anyone else, judging from the general reaction of everyone around me. 

If she cared or even noticed that everyone facing her was right on the edge of violence, the woman–Persphone apparently, didn’t actually show it. Instead, she positively beamed. “Murky! You made it! And you’re not hiding! It’s so good to see you! It’s been a long time, huh?”

Sarah managed to catch my gaze, silently mouthing a confused, ‘Murky?’ She still had hold of her gun, but had lowered it to rest at her side in one hand. Her other hand, the artificial one, was touching Sands’ arm as though telling her to wait. 

Mercury, who had put himself right in front of me (in front of Miranda and the others too) and near Croc, spoke carefully. “Yeah, been awhile. I ahh, I thought you were busy chasing down that crystal Manakel sent you after. How long ago was that?” 

“Oh, that one took a long time!” Persephone piped up, sounding completely unbothered and casual as she added, “He asked me to find it about a hundred years ago. It was really hard! They kept moving it a lot, and I had to find someone who knew where it was, only he was hard to find and then he died so I had to find his friend on this other planet, then that guy ran away for some reason and I had to go find him again, and it was a whole thing.” Through all that, the woman was squinting thoughtfully, before abruptly brightening. “But I found it! I really found it! It took me so long, but I found it and I knew Manakel was going to be sooo happy and proud of me!” That proud, cheerful smile turned contemplative, her voice quieting a bit as her gaze moved past the others to focus on me. “And then I found out Manakel died, because she killed him.” 

“No,” a sudden new voice spoke up then, as Sariel emerged from the crowd to stand beside Mercury before giving him a nod of thanks, apparently for summoning her. “She didn’t kill Manakel, Persephone. I did. If you want vengeance for his death, I’m the one you owe it to.”  

Oh boy, I really wanted to jump in and argue there. Not that she was wrong about the fact that she had basically been the one responsible for Manakel’s death (I certainly would’ve been completely screwed without her), but I really didn’t think it was a good idea to essentially call this strange, clearly powerful woman’s attention onto her like that. And, from the look of things, basically everyone else around us was ready to object and jump in to interrupt as well. 

But, before any of us could say anything, Persephone reacted in a way that was, uhh, a little confusing. Not that that didn’t describe this entire encounter, but still. She laughed. Okay, it was more of a giggle. Yeah, a simple, casual little giggle. Her hand waved dismissively. “Ohhh no, silly goose. You helped! You were there, sure. But that doesn’t matter. You don’t have his power.” Slowly, her eyes moved over to lock onto mine, past everyone who was standing in front of me. “She does. She has his power. I knew it. I knew it before, when they said she killed him. And I felt it just now. She made me stop. She used his power to make me stop.” Her voice, strangely, didn’t sound angry or indignant about that. She was talking about me using her husband’s power to make her stop walking, and yet she didn’t sound pissed off about that. She didn’t even sound resentful or anything. No, she actually sounded positively delighted

Sands slowly raised a hand. “Okay, so is anyone else really fucking confused right now?   

Beside her, Sarah offered a hesitant and clearly uncertain, “She didn’t like Manakel?” 

“She was devoted to Manakel,” Mercury put in. “Obsessed with him. You heard her earlier, he sent her to get something it took a hundred years to find and she still did it. She tracked it across the universe. He did that a lot, and she always managed to find whatever she was sent for. And she always brought it to him. The only thing he could never get her to do was leave forever. She always came back and always did everything she could to help. She loved him.”  

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Persephone agreed easily, bouncing up and down a bit. In the process, the metal coils that had been wrapped around her arms simply snapped like they were made of tissue paper. If she had the slightest bit of worry about the fact that she was still surrounded by a bunch of very tense looking and powerful Heretics who had their weapons out and pointed at her, she didn’t show it. Instead, she smiled broadly while continuing with, “I loved him. And now I love her.” 

Yeah, she uhh, she pointed at me. And it was a good thing I wasn’t drinking at all, because it all would have ended up on the ground as I spat it out. As it was, a fit of coughing grabbed me as I stared that way. After the first few violent heaves from my chest, I managed a weak, “What?” 

“The power,” Sariel abruptly put in. “You loved Manakel because of his power. You…” Trailing off, she glanced around, raising her voice a bit to address all of us. “She’s a Revenant.”  

Oh. Well that sort of explained part of why she was so powerful. I’d learned about them in school. They were spirit-like creatures who were weak in their natural state, but when they possessed a dead body, they became almost unstoppable. The problem for them was that they tended to run through a body pretty quickly. It would age rapidly and fall apart around them as they used it. They were incredibly strong while possessing a corpse, but all you had to do was wait for the body to run out, and then hit them when they were in their natural state again.  

“We found her while the Olympus was out exploring other parts of space,” Mercury added. “There was another of us, another Olympian named Kore. She… something happened and she was infected by these parasites. We couldn’t save her. She was dying in the medical bay and no one could do anything. Even her own power wouldn’t save her.” 

“Her power?” Croc asked, voice a bit tense for utterly understandable reasons. 

Sariel answered. “Any physical condition Kore created in any living being, she could recreate in that same being at any point after that. If she broke someone’s nose, any time she saw them again after that, she could re-break it just by looking at them. If she stabbed them in the stomach, she could recreate the same stab wound in that same person later with a glance. On the other hand, if she used magic to heal someone’s broken arm, she could re-heal that same arm later. It worked on herself. Except… except the parasites couldn’t be removed that easily. She could reset her body as much as she wanted, but they were separate organisms. She… she couldn’t save herself. We couldn’t save her. And when she died, the Revenant called Persephone possessed her body.” 

“Oh my God,” I realized aloud, “that’s why she’s still here. She’s still using the same body after all this time because… because Revenants make their hosts age while they use them. They age really quickly until they die. But Olympians are immortal. I mean, they never get any older. So she can–she can just possess her forever. She’s a Revenant with a permanent body.” 

While everyone else (aside from the two Seosten who already knew what was going on), reacted to that, Persephone gave a near-blinding smile. “See?! I knew she was smart. She had to be smart to help beat Manakel. He was really strong. You beat him, and you took his power!” 

She was smiling at the fact that I helped kill her husband. This was a man she’d been devoted to for thousands of years, doing everything he said, including scouring the universe for a century just to find something he wanted. That was how much she cared about him. That–wait a minute. 

“It wasn’t Manakel,” I abruptly blurted as the sudden realization came right then. “She wasn’t in love with Manakel. It wasn’t him she was so devoted to. It was his power, his Necromancy. She was… like, drawn to it? She loved his Necromancy. And now… now I have his Necromancy.” 

“Exactly!” Persephone sounded like this was all very obvious and not insane in the least. “You have his power, so you’re the one I love. If you want, we can play games. Manakel and I used to play games, like Hold This Bomb, or Airlock Jump. We usually played hide-and-seek after Airlock Jump, cuz the ship would fly away and then I’d have to find it. Sometimes it took a long time cuz they went really far! But it was fun, and Manakel was always excited when I found him again. He drank a lot to celebrate.” 

Squinting toward Mercury and Sariel despite myself, I hissed, “You guys just got her to jump out the airlock and then left?” 

“Or put a bomb in her hands so it’d explode?” Miranda added sharply. She was squinting that way too, sounding just as offended. 

Sariel shook her head. “Not us. Manakel and Puriel were afraid of what would happen if she ever turned, if she ever changed her mind about being so devoted. She was–she’s a Revenant with a permanent body. They were trying to find out what weaknesses she might have, just in case.” 

“And,” Mercury added in a slightly quieter voice, “she’s possessing Kore. A lot of people liked Kore, including Manakel. He felt like–he felt like he completely failed her. He was the ship’s main doctor, and he couldn’t save her. He couldn’t save Kore. When Persephone started… started walking around as her, possessing her body, it really messed a lot of people up. Including Manakel. Especially when she went on about loving him and all.” 

Sounding completely innocent, the Revenant in question spoke up. “I thought they’d be happy, because I made her walk again. I tried to say hi, but people were… they were still sad. And they were angry too. I didn’t… I didn’t understand.” Her voice had gone soft, gaze focused off into the distance as though trying to comprehend those emotions. 

Swallowing hard, Sariel murmured, “It was a lot to deal with. People were upset. There were all those emotions every time anyone saw her, for a long time. And as I said, they were terrified of how much damage she could do if she wanted to.”

Persephone, of course, wasn’t suddenly deaf. At that, she promptly piped up. “That’s true, I can be pretty scary. Raaaawr.” She held up both hands in front of herself like a monster, growling in a way that could only be described as unbelievably cute.  

Fuck, stop it, Flick. What the hell was wrong with me? 

There was a flurry of murmured words between all of the Unset, before Croc spoke up. “We need to make the rounds to check for any more Nuckelavee. Is uhh…” He awkwardly gestured back and forth between the woman and me. “Is whatever this is under control?” 

“Persephone,” Sariel spoke then, her voice careful. “You don’t want to kill Felicity Chambers?” 

Persephone, in turn, giggled as though that was the silliest question she had ever heard. “Why in the Void would I want to kill her? She has the power. She took Manakel’s power. That means she took me. You don’t kill the person you’re married to, unless they hurt you. That’s just rude.”  

It took a second for her words to really penetrate, a moment for me to actually comprehend what she was saying. Then I was sputtering all over again, my eyes widening. Despite myself, I moved that way quickly and put myself next to Sariel. “Hold on, wait, what did you just say? What was that about being married? Cuz you’re not talking about us. You can’t be talking about us. We’re not married. I don’t even know you. I don’t know anything about you except for what I’ve heard in the past, like, thirty seconds. I haven’t even met you until right now. You and me, we’re not–we’re definitely not married.” 

In the background, I could see Croc getting his people to head off to do their search. None of them wanted to be involved in this now that it wasn’t turning into a fight. Which was fair, but still. Cowards. 

Persephone, still grinning just as cheerfully as ever, corrected me. “No, see, Manakel and I were married. We took the binding oaths to each other. But I didn’t make the oaths to him. I made the oaths to the power, to his Necromancy. We were linked through that. He’s dead, but you have his power. He’s dead, but I took the marriage oaths to his power, and that’s not gone. You took it. That means you took my oath. You own it. So, my marriage isn’t over. It just transferred to you. You own my loyalty. Like I said, we’re married! Isn’t that fun?” 

“I…” My throat was dry. The sudden rush of terror, confusion, then more terror, then even more confusion over the past few minutes from the moment the Nuckelavee had shown up had taken its toll. And this? How was I supposed to deal with this? What was I–how was I–where was…

“I think I need to sit down.”

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Long Awaited 12-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Well, after that little revelation and explanation, it was time to find out what Asenath had wanted to talk about. And as it turned out, she had a mix of good and bad news herself. Namely, she finally had more information about where her long-lost father was. That was the good part. The bad part was that the information she had pointed to one of the Garden Victors (a guy I didn’t know by the name of Kyril Shamon) being the guy who was holding Tiras. Or had been holding him several decades earlier. For all we knew, those guys traded their Alter slaves like Pokemon cards. Or Pokemon themselves, come to think of it. Why were cards my first thought? 

In any case, Asenath went through explaining all that, with some input from Twister about how fucking cool it had been to ambush the man they got the information from with what was apparently Senny’s first field-use of her new ability to borrow powers through drinking blood. 

“I mean,” the Pooka was saying, “we basically made her into a vampire that can turn into a bat. By which I mean, a proper vampire. Kinda silly that the rest of them don’t, you know?”

“I’ll bring it up at the next convention,” Asenath dryly replied, “make sure everyone knows just how silly it is that we don’t have the power to shapeshift. Maybe we can get it in the next patch.”  

“You’re teasing,” Twister noted while pointing at her. “But a vampire convention would be awesome. Especially if there was like, a werewolf convention next door and the walls fell down. Battle royale, last person standing is the champion of that old rivalry once and for all.” 

Shaking her head as she muttered something about having no idea where the idea of a werewolf-vampire rivalry had come from when the real Akharu rivalry was with Vestil, Asenath eventually looked at Mom and me. “Anyway, that’s where we are now. It’s… it’s something, at least. After all this time, I finally have a name to go off of.” 

“A name is a good thing to have,” I agreed. “Especially when you’ve been looking for this long without even having that much. But uhh, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this Kyril Shamon.” 

“I have.” That was my mother, her voice contemplative. “Though he’s better known as Tarhunz.” 

“Wait, wait,” Twister suddenly put in, “he’s not the Tarhunz, right? I mean, when it comes to really powerful Heretics, it’s just good to check now and–you’re nodding why are you nodding?” 

Offering the girl an apologetic grimace of sorts, Mom quietly confirmed, “Yeah, that Tarhunz. Or Tarhunna, as the Hittites knew him. Or even Teshub, as the Hurrians knew him. He got around.”

“Uh, I’m sorry, what?” My hand was raised as I looked back and forth between the other three. “Can someone stop to fill in the person without a degree in ancient mythology? Tarhunz, Tarhunna, Teshub, whatever he used to go by, who is this guy? Or who was he? Why is him being these other names scary? I mean, we’ve met a lot of scary people already, you know?” 

Mom and Twister looked to each other, with the former gesturing for the latter to go ahead. Which made the Pooka girl grin happily as she turned back to me and launched into an explanation. “Tarhunz, he was basically this super-badass weather god for these bronze-age people in the Middle East. Like, their main guy. When he was Tarhunna for the Hittites, he and the Sun goddess of Arinna were top of the top. They ruled the heavens or whatever. This guy was the chief god for a lot of people back then. Even Bystanders know that from their little history clubs.” She gave me a pointed look, fox ears twitching. “You know what it means in real terms if Bystanders know this guy was god-level important back then. God-level important means–” 

“Means god-level powerful,” I finished with a grimace. “And you said bronze-age. That’s before the Bystander Effect. Which means humans and Alters all lived together, people knew about magic, yada yada. So this guy couldn’t just do a few little tricks, make a couple sparks fly, and maybe summon a little drizzle to really impress everyone. If they saw him as a god at that point, he had to be really strong. Strong enough to hold onto that position through the people who would’ve been trying to knock him out of it. And he did that for, you said three different groups of people back in those days?” Heaving a sigh, I shook my head. “Right, and if he was that strong even before getting the Victor upgrade–hang on, what kind of Heretic was he before?” A sudden thought had struck me in that exact moment, and I really didn’t like it. “I mean, what was he a Natural Heretic of? Cuz, like, being a super-powerful storm manipulator makes me think–”

“He’s not a Sachael Heretic,” Mom assured me, erasing that particular worry from my mind, at least. “He was linked to a Raijin, a Japanese storm-being. How that happened is anyone’s guess. He doesn’t exactly give classes on the subject, from everything I’ve heard. He’s quiet about his past. Quiet in general, really. Except when it comes to fighting. Then he gets loud.” 

Yeah, a guy who was known as a storm god for a bunch of ancient, magic-using civilizations getting ‘loud’ didn’t sound like a good thing to me. Especially not when that same guy was apparently now an Eden’s Garden Victor, and had apparently been holding Asenath’s dad prisoner for awhile. All that just seemed to add up to very bad things, as far as I was concerned. 

Apparently Asenath agreed, because she heaved a long, audible sigh. “Like I said, good news and bad news. Now I have a lead on my father, but that lead just happens to be someone powerful enough to backhand swat me across the continent if I try to demand answers.” 

Reaching out, I touched the other girl’s arm. “Guess it’s a good thing you’re not alone then, huh? Trust me, Senny, if you ask that guy for answers, you’re gonna do it with a lot more than just yourself standing there.” With a small smile, I added, “I mean, you’re my girlfriend’s sister. Like either of us are actually gonna let you just go off and pick a fight with a Victor all by yourself?” 

“She’s right,” my mother agreed quietly, her eyes glancing to me briefly before she focused on Asenath. “You have many friends. When the time comes, you won’t be alone. We’ll help you.” 

“Exactly, dude.” With a thumbs up, Twister teasingly added, “And you know what? You’ve been such a good friend for all these years, I’ll even give you a ten percent discount for my help.” At a trio of looks from all of us, she snickered before relenting. “Okay, okay, I’m there regardless, eesh. You people want me to starve.”  

For Senny’s part, she was quiet after that, seeming to consider for a few long seconds before nodding. “I know. And I’m… I’m grateful to all of you. Truly grateful that I–that there are people who would help me find my father. My mother, she’ll want to be there too. But before we do anything about that, we need to know more about him. And, preferably, if he even has my dad at all. Or, for that matter, keeps him anywhere nearby. I mean, it’s possible my father is part of some group this guy stuffed into a random work camp somewhere and that we can save him without ever actually seeing Shamon, or whatever name he goes by, face to face.” 

“Possible,” Mom allowed in a very careful tone before adding, “but you know what they say.” 

“Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” Senny confirmed. “Which means we need to know more about him. Knowing is half the battle and all.” She paused briefly, then looked to the two of us. “And there’s always the chance that he was holding my dad as a favor for his Victor partner. Which means we’d have to know as much as we can about both of them.” 

My mouth had just opened to ask who that was, when Mom answered, “Ikita. The two of them run the Eternal Eye tribe. I don’t know much about her, only that she’s always seemed fairly reasonable about things, even if she is loyal to a bunch of murderous–” Stopping herself from what clearly would have been a very in-depth rant, she sighed before pushing on with the actual point. “In my experience, both Ikita and Shamon have always struck me as the type to play things quietly and close to their chests. They watch a lot, pay attention–there’s a reason their tribe is called the Eternal Eye, the watchers, the ones who wait and see things. They’re careful and they take their time. They are not as quick to jump to action as some of the other tribes. Which, in some ways makes them safer, and in other ways it makes them more dangerous.” 

“They were also Miranda’s original tribe,” I quietly pointed out. “She might know a lot more about them than any of us do just being on the outside. They were her leaders. Even if they didn’t stick their necks out to save her or anything, she probably spent time around them. And from the sound of things, we could use all the information we can get. About both of them, just in case.”

Asenath’s head bobbed quickly. “Miranda, yes. Her and anyone else we can talk to who’s had a lot of experience with these two, or just that tribe in general.” She frowned, mind clearly racing frantically from the very thought of how close she was, relatively speaking, to finally finding her dad. “There are some other Eternal Eye tribespeople with the Garden Rebellion, aren’t there?” 

“Some,” I confirmed. “Most of the tribe stayed loyal, but some of them left. We could probably talk to them too, besides Miranda. And Seller.” To that last bit, I added, “He wasn’t part of that tribe, but he spent plenty of time around all the Garden people. He’d probably know something important.”

For a brief moment, it looked as though Mom was going to say something about that. But in the end, she just offered a very faint smile. “Yes, there’s people we can talk to. No one is going to run into this blind but, I promise, Asenath, we will do absolutely everything we can to find your father.” She exhaled, a flash of emotion running across her face briefly before focusing. “After everything you’ve done for my family, I owe you that and so much more. When the time comes, we will all be there to help get your dad back, no matter where he is or who has him.” 

“Same.” With that word, Twister gave Asenath a quick, firm swat on the back. “She just said it a lot more poetically than I could. Or whatever. Point is, I’m right behind you. Or maybe in front of you. Or above, if I’m a bir–hey, the point is, I’ll be there. I mean hell, after all this time, I really want to meet the man behind the myth, the guy who helped give the world all this awesome.” Along with her words, the Pooka gestured pointedly up and down Asenath like she was a prize.

With a cough, Senny shook her head. “So, right now we just need more info. As much as we can get. Which means a lot of talking to people.” Offering me a slight smile, she added, “Good thing at least two of us have a lot of interest and experience with interviews, isn’t it?” 

“Three,” Mom put in. “I did more than my share back in Laramie Falls as the sheriff. And I figured out pretty quick how to tell when people knew more than they were saying, back during the… the first rebellion.” Her last words came quietly, as she gazed off into the distance. “It took awhile for me to learn how to tell who could be trusted, but I got there. Just a little too late.” 

Liam, I knew. She was thinking about Liam, and the fact that his betrayal had been what forced the Rebellion to go loud in the first place, instead of staying a quiet, subtle thing that could have built up a lot more strength and potentially beaten the loyalists. Instead, they had been forced into the open, leading to everything that happened. In a way, leading to my own existence. No wonder Mom seemed to have complicated feelings about that whole thing. I got the impression that she really would have liked to be in a room alone with Liam Mason for awhile. Though what would happen in that room, exactly, I didn’t know. And I was pretty sure she didn’t either.

Twister was already waving her hand. “Yeah, yeah, you’re all amazing investigators, whatever. Some of us spend our super-long lives doing far more awesome things. But hey, I think I can lower myself to doing a few interviews around here, for a good cause like this. Hey, if nothing else, I make pretty good muscle standing in the background being intimidating.” To demonstrate, she immediately transformed into an enormous grizzly bear standing on her hind legs, showing her teeth. 

With a cough, Senny nodded. “I’m not sure how much we’re going to have to intimidate the people who are on our side, but yeah, you’re always helpful, Twist.” Exhaling then, she folded her arms, clearly containing the emotions she was still feeling about finally having actual information she could use. Yeah, it wasn’t an immediate, easy jump from that to having her dad back, but it was something. It was an actual step, and for someone who had been stuck on the edge of a half-finished bridge with nowhere to put her feet next, having something firm extended to her so she could actually take that next step was important. I knew that from experience. 

Now all we had to do was take that little bit of information and turn it into something we could actually act on. No one was going to run up to this Shamon guy and get anywhere by demanding answers out of him. But, if we could get the right information about who he was and what he was up to, even where he might keep his prisoners, maybe we could actually find Tiras. Right now, it seemed like the best way to start would be to find and talk to my old best friend. 

And I could definitely think of worse ways to spend a few hours than hanging out with Miranda. 

******

As it turned out, Miranda wasn’t actually up on the station today. She was down with Dakota at the place where the Garden rebels had set up, helping with more of that whole ‘making the vines work’ thing. The good news on that front was that they now had an idea of what had been stopping the vines from working even after they were planted in the right place. The bad news, of course, was that the things responsible for hurting the vines were the Nuckelavee, servants of the big bad nasty thing living at the bottom of the ocean. No one knew why said big bad nasty thing was so interested in the vines, but it was obviously nothing good. 

But, knowing what the problem was had apparently led the Garden people to at least put up guards all around the spots where they were planting the vines, down on the ocean floor. They used strong enough Heretics, spaced close enough together, to make sure the Nuckelavee, or anything else their master sent, didn’t have a chance to get close to their prizes. It wasn’t a solution that could last forever, of course. But at that point, I was pretty sure the Garden rebels  just wanted to prove that they could keep the fruit coming. They’d deal with how to keep it safe in the long term once they actually got the damn things growing properly.

In any case, I eventually headed down there to find my friend. Mom didn’t come with me, since she still wanted to spend at least some time with the rest of the family. And, she said she’d contact a few other people to find out what they might know about Shamon.  

Spreading out to ask people things made sense, of course. That was why Asenath and Twister weren’t coming with me either. The two of them had been joined by Shiori and were going to talk to a few Alters up on the station or down in the Atherby camp who’d had run-ins with the Eternal Eye Victors or those close to them (apparently there were at least a couple who had once been held prisoner at Eden’s Garden). Which would hopefully lead to something. Especially the ones who have been prisoners. If they could tell us where the Eternal Eye prisoners were kept… yeah, it was a serious longshot that any would still be kept in the same place, of course. But it was something. And right now, we kind of needed any kind of lead we could get. 

At least I wasn’t alone heading down there. As soon as they found out what was going on, Koren, Sands, and Sarah had all volunteered to come with. I’d also taken the time to tell the three about the situation with Denise and what my mother had done, since they had been part of looking into that whole thing back during our first real Investigation Track meeting. All four of us had learned about Denise’s death before we even knew Ammon existed. That was when I’d been drawn to pick up the exact same things he had bought at the gas station when–huh. Did I ever find out why that had happened? Was it just a weird half-sibling connection thing, or some kind of… I didn’t know. Thinking about Ammon made me feel sick. 

We had called down ahead to let Miranda know we were coming, so she was already waiting there in the field behind one of the motels that the garden Rebels had taken over. As soon as we appeared, Randi came jogging up and embraced me tightly. The two of us hugged like that for a few seconds before releasing each other so we could step back and breathe. 

“Already throwing yourself into something new to take care of, huh?” the other girl teased. 

“More like something old,” I corrected. “This is dealing with something that’s been waiting to be dealt with for a long time.” With a grimace, I added, “And hey, it’s not like we can exactly hurl ourselves into certain death yet. We’re just…” 

Sarah finished for me, her voice flat. “Just doing the boring legwork to hurl ourselves into certain death later.” 

“Which,” Sands put in, “you have to admit, is a step-up from our usual way of doing things.” 

Coughing, I waved both hands. “Come on, no one’s hurling themselves into–okay yes we’re talking about a Victor. But the entire reason we’re talking about all this is to avoid that kind of danger. You know, find a way around him or how to… how to deal with it without a fight.”

Sands nodded. “Like I said, a step-up from our usual way of doing things.”

Before any of the others could say anything to that, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. An instant later, we all heard the sound of alarms going off, and calls to action from around the motel. Someone shouted something about Nuckelavee, which was just fantastic. 

My mouth opened, but a shout from Koren interrupted. The other girl jerked her hands outward, and a column of dirt rose up beneath the five of us, pitching our whole group out of the way. Flipping over in the air, I landed on my feet with one hand down for balance, sliding backward a couple yards. Around me, the others more-or-less managed the same, all of us staring toward the spot where we had just been. 

Sure enough, a Nuckelavee was there. God, the thing looked horrific. Like a horse with a rider, but all the same being. Covered in exposed muscle, with the human-part’s torso tilting back around the middle to reveal a huge secondary mouth beyond the horse-part’s. And speaking of the horse part, it had only a single, too-large eye, with an enormous, tentacle-like tongue that whipped back and forth threateningly. 

In the background, we could already hear other Garden people fighting. Which meant there were more than one of these things. Where had this one come from? It was just… there, all of a sudden. 

Wherever it came from, it was here now. And the rest of the Heretics around this place were busy. Which meant we had to deal with it. I just hoped we–

Koren’s hand grabbed my arm, as she blurted. “What the hell is that?!” 

I was about to remind her of what a Nuckelavee was. Then I realized she wasn’t talking about the thing in front of us. No, she was referring to the object or… or something that was streaking down out of the sky directly above our heads. For a second, all of us, even the Nuckelavee, looked up that way as the object–no… person got closer. A person who was flying down out of the sky, screaming in terror. Wait… no, that… that wasn’t terror. 

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” 

And with that, the falling figure slammed into the Nuckelavee with so much force that the thing actually fucking exploded. Seriously, it was like Gallagher hitting a watermelon. Chunks of that monster went flying in every direction, splattering across the ground–and across all of us. Fucking gross, yeah. But mostly we were stuck staring that way in shock, none of us having a clue what the hell was going on. 

And then the figure who had fallen out of the sky popped right back to their feet–to her feet. She stood up in the midst of the… the splattered remains of what had once been a Nuckelavee. The girl was drenched in gore, but she appeared to be like twenty-one or so. Her skin was very tan, and she had long, snow-white hair that fell to her mid-back. She wore what looked like skin-tight leather clothing, but I couldn’t tell what color it was because all of it was entirely covered in bits of dead monster. 

“Hello, Felicity Chambers!” the woman blurted. “I’m so glad I finally found you!” 

“You killed my husband, Manakel.” 

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Long Awaited 12-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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I didn’t need much sleep, obviously. But I did stay in bed with my girls for as long as possible. I just laid there and enjoyed being with them while not having anything super-immediate and right in my face that had to be taken care of. Sure, there were things to do, but they could either wait on their own, or we had no choice but to wait because we had no way of affecting the situation yet. Whichever, the point was, I had no flashing life-or-death emergencies at the moment. 

Eventually, of course, I did need to get up and move around. I extricated myself from the bed and slipped downstairs, heading outside to practice with my staff in the backyard. I was mostly just running through some training drills, moving almost entirely on autopilot. It helped me clear my head a bit, even with the audience I attracted as Raphael, Eiji’s rhino cyberform in the backyard next door, moseyed over to the chain link fence and watched me curiously. Of course, I sent Jaq and Gus over there to keep him company, which led to both of the mice perching on each of the rhino’s horns so that all three could watch as I did my thing. I had the feeling that If any of the three that had the ability and materials to write, they would have held up number cards like a scoring table. Actually, come to think of it, that would be a pretty good skill to teach them. Could they learn to write? Because that would be a good way of passing information or relaying an emergency when we didn’t have any other way of–later. I’d think about it later. 

Another thing I had to think about for later was replacing the wristband that had previously allowed me to teleport myself to where my mice were or vice versa. It had been destroyed at Fossor’s, and now that I was back, I really needed a new one. 

When I was done staff-training, I took a jog around the neighborhood. Between my enhanced speed, strength, and stamina, taking a little jog wasn’t exactly going to do a lot for me. Or anything at all, really. But it passed the time and I enjoyed it. Plus, it was a way of re-acclimating myself to the neighborhood, considering how long it had been since I’d actually lived here. God, it felt like I’d been gone for a year, not just a couple months. One of which I’d literally skipped over. I didn’t even know what day it was. Seriously, Petan and his people had made such a big deal about getting me back to the right day, but it had all been in relation to when Fossor’s spell was cast, and was more of a… conceptual date for me. I had the vague idea that it was late November, but God only knew exactly which day. Was it close to Thanksgiving? Had we already passed it? Actually, yeah we had. Fossor made us have that… feast. But I still wasn’t sure what day it actually was. Did it really matter? Probably not, but I was curious. Honestly, I wanted to know when the first real holiday would be where Mom would actually be with us. Mom here with us and safe, Dad safe, my paternal grandparents… not exactly here, but on their way. Hell, maybe they’d make it before Christmas. Wouldn’t getting them back here be a great way to celebrate everything? 

Yeah, okay, my whole family situation was still complicated. Especially when you added in Dare and that whole… yeah. But still, I wasn’t going to let that get me down. This was basically the best condition my family had been in in years. My mother was here, and whatever happened next, she would be with us. Fossor hadn’t won. He’d lost. He was dead. I could let myself be happy about that, damn it. The universe wasn’t going to implode just because I let myself be a little optimistic about things. Not cocky or dismissive, just… optimistic. That was safe, right? 

Eventually, I worked my way back to the house, where I went inside and met up with Rebecca, Miranda, Doug, and Jason, who were all in the kitchen making breakfast together. When I came in, they had a whole thing about welcoming me home and all. It was pretty cute, especially when Jason held up a banner he’d made with those very words across it, which looked so hastily-done I was pretty sure he’d scribbled it out when he saw me coming back from jogging (which, given his ability to multitask, he’d probably done while preparing the food). I didn’t care. I exchanged embraces with everyone, thanking them. Most of them I’d already reunited with back at the Atherby camp before, or on the literal battlefield where Fossor had died. But I still hugged them all as if I hadn’t seen them in years. It was really good to be home, in more than one way. 

Pretty soon, they all went back to getting breakfast ready. I did my best to help, which mostly meant doing exactly what I was told and staying away from the stove just in case. It seemed to work, because nothing blew up and the pancakes, eggs, and sausage all managed to survive without being burnt to a crisp. Which was good, because Tabbris, Avalon, Columbus, Shiori, and Triss had joined us by that point, so there were a lot of hungry stomachs.

Shiori let Choo out of his ball (it wasn’t like he was cramped in there or anything, given the size of the pocket dimension within) in the backyard. The poor guy had exhausted himself during the fight back on the Meregan world and had slept through basically the entire flight home and all that. I couldn’t blame him either. That had been a huge, nasty fight, and the big guy really came through. As far as I was concerned, he’d earned all the naps and extra food he wanted. 

Shiori, of course, had no intention of giving him sausage. Yeah, it wasn’t exactly cannibalism given he wasn’t really a normal pig and all that. But, as she put it, it was close enough to be uncomfortable. Still, he got his share of pancakes and eggs, and he really seemed to enjoy them. We could hear the Jekern happily going at it in the big feeding bowl on the back porch. 

“Should we be saving some of this for Kersel?” I spoke up while everything was being passed around. The wooden Relekun guy was the only member of our house who wasn’t down here, and I kind of felt bad. I didn’t know him very well, or really at all. But still, he was part of the house, even if he did tend to keep to himself. 

“He’s kind of a vegetarian,” Jason informed me with a glance toward the others. “He’s got his own stuff in the fridge. Just make sure you don’t eat or drink anything with his name on it.  Seriously, he gets really particular about that.” The boy said that while scratching the back of his neck in a way that made it clear he’d been on the wrong side of that ‘particularness.’ 

Rebecca spoke up then. “He’s just kind of… shy. Okay, not shy. He doesn’t like to be around people very much. It’s not just Heretics either. Err, Boschers. It’s not just Boschers like us. He doesn’t like crowds or loud noises or having to talk to people in general. He just… keeps to himself. He doesn’t even say much in class.” 

Briefly, I wondered if that had anything to do with an experience the Relekun boy had had, or if it was just the way he was without any tragic backstory. Either way, pushing on that front was probably overstepping to the point of rudeness. He deserved some privacy. So, I focused on the people who were here. And on eating a little bit of breakfast. Emphasis on little bit, considering I still had to eat something with Mom and Dad. No way was I going to miss out on that, no matter how good this breakfast was. 

“Actually, hey, is it a school day?” I suddenly found myself blurting. “I don’t even know what the date is. Or anything.”

That made everyone exchange glances before Avalon answered, “It’s Tuesday, November 27th. They cancelled classes for a few days to let everyone celebrate Fossor dying.” 

“Oh,” I murmured. Yeah, of course that was a big deal for everyone else too. He’d sort of terrorized and murdered a hell of a lot more people than just my family. 

Tabbris, who had been running around the backyard with Choo after scarfing down about half a plate of food (she was holding out for family breakfast too), came trotting back in, out of breath and moved to take several gulps from her own glass of juice. Watching that, I chuckled softly. “Okay, well, thanks for the welcome breakfast, guys. And the banner.” I gestured to where Jason had hung the sad, but cute little thing across the wall with tape. “This is all awesome. And hopefully, this time I’ll stick around long enough to–” 

“Chambers,” Avalon spoke warningly, her gaze intent on me. “Do I need to get a spray bottle and start squirting you and hissing every time you try to tempt fate?” 

Coughing, I shook my head. “No, ma’am.” With that, I pushed myself up and exchanged a kiss with both her and Shiori. Promising to come find each of them later (And, in the latter’s case, that I would talk to Asenath about whatever her thing was), I said goodbye to the others and headed out with Tabbris to go upstairs. The two of us made our way through the maze of corridors to find the right door. Mostly thanks to my Seosten little sister and her perfect memory, of course. 

The door unlocked for us automatically, and we stepped inside just in time to hear laughing and the sound of pots and pans clanging in the kitchen. Exchanging brief glances, we moved that way, finding Mom and Dad working around the stove, chatting with each other. Mostly Mom was teasing him about never learning how to make real food, while he insisted there was some kind of magic anti-cooking curse specifically targeting him, which had clearly passed down to me. 

They were both just… laughing and talking and teasing each other. For a moment, Tabbris and I stood there, taking that in. She reached out to take my hand, squeezing it while giving me a quick, happy look. It was a look that I returned. 

Mom knew we were there, of course. Eventually, she waved us in and set us to different chores for getting this breakfast ready. Omelettes. She was making omelettes. Tabbris and I jumped to follow instructions, and soon the four of us were joined by Deveron, Abigail, Wyatt, and Koren. Then the kitchen was really busy. Not to mention loud. Everyone was talking back and forth, food was sizzling, we were all joking, teasing… laughing… being a family. We were being a family. It was… wow. 

Wyatt even let Corporal Kickwhiskers wander around on the floor, where he, Jaq, and Gus chased each other back and forth through the living room. Of course, Wyatt said it was good training for the little cat’s hunting instincts and ability to quickly assess and adjust to potential danger. I wasn’t sure what kind of training ‘lots of scritches from everyone in the room’ was, but Kickwhiskers definitely got that too. We ate, we talked, we laughed, it was all great. Just… really great. And nothing interrupted. There were no explosions, no sudden emergencies or problems. We got through that entire full breakfast together, and another hour or so afterward of just talking. Deveron told a story about Mom as a student when she was organizing some kind of protest about the way Ruthers was running this one training tournament, and how the old Crossroads Headmaster had practically ripped his hair out because of all the shit she had been piling onto him from getting the other students involved in that whole thing. It sounded pretty great, and I could see just how much they loved each other in the way he and Mom exchanged glances. It was the same sort of look I’d also been seeing between her and Dad. It was–yeah. That was definitely complicated. I was glad that my own joint relationships were more… had started at the same time, basically. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be involved with Avalon for literally decades, then lose and eventually completely forget her for decades, get involved with Shiori, then get my memories of Avalon back. It was all… yeah, complicated. But they seemed to be working their way through it, even if it was clearly going to take time to really figure it out. 

Seeing Mom with Abigail, Wyatt, and Koren was kind of amazing too. For awhile, I just sat back and watched the four of them interact. Koren actually seemed to be the most comfortable, even repeatedly calling her ‘Grandma’ in what I was pretty sure was meant to be a teasing way. But Mom seemed to like it. She chuckled, pulled Koren over to sit on her lap, and started teasing her right back, about what kind of student she was, what kind of boys she might like and if there was anyone special, just general stuff like that. Which made Koren bring up that Wyatt had a thing for Croc over at Eden’s Garden, leading to a whole bunch of chattering back and forth. Wyatt himself seemed kind of overwhelmed and a little reflexively defensive, but he settled down easily enough. Especially when Mom went on to talk about memories she had of Croc, something Wyatt was pretty interested in. I had no idea how that whole thing was going, but apparently he had spent some more time with the guy. Which was great. I really, really wanted good things for Wyatt. After the kind of life he’d had to lead to all his issues, he deserved as many of those as possible. Thankfully, this moment right here counted. For both of us, actually. 

Come to think of it, we all deserved this and more. Tabbris had spent years basically alone. No, worse, she was around Dad and me but had to hide from us. Deveron had lost his wife and children for almost a century. Wyatt had been raised by horrible people who gave him all sorts of legitimate paranoia issues. Dad himself lost his wife for years, thinking she had intentionally abandoned him and his daughter, me. Koren had spent years with the spectre of the Hiding Man looming over her, and the trauma of all that in her memories while no one else in her family remembered anything. 

Out of all of us, Abigail had apparently had the most normal life up until she was traumatically brought into this by that same Fomorian monster. But even she’d been taken away from her real mother, father, and twin brother, and had to grow up in a different place, with different people. I hoped she had a happy childhood and all, but either way, she was still kidnapped from her family. She still lost time, moments, memories that she should have had. Even if it did lead to her having Koren, whom she clearly wouldn’t give up for anything. Hell, that was like the fact that Mom losing everything in Heretic society had led to her having me. It was… complicated. Even Abigail finally being brought into things had come with the cost of losing her husband. And Koren losing her father. He was a man I never knew anything about, and the Fomorian piece of shit had just murdered him to take his place for fun.

So yeah, we all deserved to have as many of these moments, these breakfasts, these mornings, these days as possible. We deserved to have years and years of them all in a row, without interruption. We’d never get that, of course. Hell, lots of stuff was already lining up to call for our attention within the next few months, let alone years. So, I would just enjoy these moments when they came. I would gorge myself on the enjoyment of just being with my family. 

Eventually, Mom asked if I wanted to go for a walk with her. And, judging from the way she was looking at me, I was pretty sure there was something important she wanted to talk about in the process. Of course, I wasn’t going to object to spending more time with her, so we excused ourselves, heading out with just the two of us. 

Whatever Mom wanted to talk about, she didn’t immediately get into it. So, I just showed her around the station for a while, mostly focusing on the school and adult student living areas, considering those were really the only places that I knew. There were a lot of people who wanted to see Mom and ask her questions. That part was unsurprising, but there were others who wanted to talk to me. Yeah, apparently the fact that I had been the one to finally get the killing blow on Fossor had been spreading around, and people wanted to talk about how that felt, or just shake my hand. It was awkward, especially when a couple people asked if I’d really picked up his necromancy and wanted to know if I’d show it to them. 

Thankfully, Mom helped extricate me from the most awkward situations without hurting anyone’s feelings or being rude. She was smooth and very charismatic with them. Better than I ever could have been, that was for sure. If I’d ever had any question as to how she could have been the one to lead that first rebellion, which I really didn’t, I wouldn’t have after this. 

In any case, we talked to people, we wandered around, and I showed her the house I was now living in, along with the others in the neighborhood. I was going to ask if she wanted to go inside and see the others, but Mom suggested we walked to the park so she could talk, and show me something. What she wanted to show me, I had no idea. But it was clearly something important.

Whatever it was would take me a few more minutes to find out, apparently, because when we got to the park, a voice called out my name. It was Asenath, approaching along with Twister. Both of them were focused on me being there, but stopped short when my mother turned that way. 

“Asenath,” Mom immediately greeted, “and Twister. You’re still going by Twister, right? I’d hate to think you went and changed nicknames when you forgot about me.” 

“Forgot you came up with it,” the Pooka girl cheerfully answered, “but I definitely didn’t forget the name. It’s a hell of a lot better than Esevene, that’s for sure.” That said, she made a fist and bumped it against Mom’s. “Still looking good, Jossy.” 

“I’d say the same to you,” my mother replied, “but you’re a bit shorter than I remember you being. Gotta watch out for the people you piss off.”

“Right back atcha, babe,” Twister retorted. 

With that, Asenath coughed and reached out to take Mom’s hand, squeezing it firmly before speaking up. “It is great to see you around again, Joselyn. And to remember who you are.”   

“I enjoy all of that too,” Mom confirmed with a soft smile, pulling Asenath into an embrace. “And I’m glad to hear that you helped my daughter here more than once.” 

Glancing my way, Asenath gave a short nod. “Yeah, well, I sort of tripped over her when I was trying to help the mother of a dead girl get some justice. I–” 

Mom interrupted. “That’s what I wanted to talk to Felicity about, actually. It’s good you’re here.” She glanced toward Twister before adding, “good all of you are here.” She hesitated then, taking a breath before letting it out. “As… you all know, my son… my youngest son, Ammon, was… killed.” Her voice was quiet, and she spoke up quickly when the three of us looked at each other. “Fossor destroyed him long before he… long before he was finally killed. And by that point, the death was more of a mercy. Not only for him, but for everyone else he would have hurt and killed because of what Fossor turned him into.” Even as she said the words, Mom’s voice cracked. I knew it was hurting her to say all this, hurting her to even think that one of her children dying was a good thing. 

She kept going before any of us could find the right words to say anything. “But, you should also all know that he used his power on a man named Scott, and made him kill himself. Scott, he’s a–” 

“A Pooka,” I suddenly put in, a mixture of dread and confusion suddenly rising up in me as I glanced toward Twister. “Wait, Mom. Wait. Are you saying… are you telling us that–” 

Mom, instead of answering, took a phone from her pocket. “I asked a friend to go over and record this for me yesterday before we went on the ship. Watch.” Her voice was quiet as she held the phone up, playing a video on it. 

Twister, Asenath, and I exchanged pretty loaded glances once more before focusing on the screen. There, we saw a house. It was a pretty simple, suburban place. My fists were tight as I waited to see my Pooka-resurrected half-brother show up. How could this be happening? Would he be evil again? He had to be, right? They got all their memories back eventually, so everything that he’d been, everything that he was and what he’d done, it would all–

The front door of the house opened, and a girl emerged. She looked to be about eleven years old or so, with dark hair and a quick smile as she shouted over her shoulder that she was going to someone named Carly’s house. Whoever was taking the video must’ve been invisible or something, because the girl didn’t even look at them despite jogging down the sidewalk right in front of the camera. Watching her, I felt a sense of familiarity somehow. It was like I knew the girl from somewhere. Seriously, I knew her. It was right there on the tip of my tongue.

When she got right up close, her face framed in the video, Asenath suddenly snapped her hand out with vampire speed, pausing it. She was even more pale than usual. “That’s… that’s… how? I know that face. She’s younger now, but I know her. It’s the girl from the gas station. The girl Ammon murdered. Joselyn, how the fuck is Denise Cartland alive? And why is she a kid?” 

“Simple,” came Mom’s quiet response. 

“I used my son’s Pooka respawn power to bring her back, instead of him.” 

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Interlude 10A – Avalon (Heretical Edge 2)

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Avalon needed a distraction. She’d already slept for a few hours before waking up, restless and incapable of drifting off again. So, after several minutes of tossing and turning, she finally gave up and left the Atherby cabin where she’d been resting, emerging into the open, somewhat chilly air. It was to the point where it was hard to say whether it was very late night, or very early morning. The party had, for the most part, died down save for pockets of either die-hards or night-dwelling people here and there who were still up and talking or playing games. 

Flick was home. Felicity was back. After months of being terrified about what was happening to the other girl, Felicity was finally safe. Well, as safe as she could be. None of the many, many worst-case scenarios that had constantly run on a loop through Avalon’s mind throughout the time that Flick had been gone had come to pass. She was here and Fossor was fucking dead. 

Avalon wouldn’t have let the other girl out of her sight, except that would have been selfish. Other people missed her too, other people needed her. Like her family, whom Flick was spending well-deserved time with. Sleeping by now, most likely. But still. She was busy with them. Avalon would get more time with her later, and she was fine with waiting her turn.

At least, she told herself that. Her subconscious wasn’t sure it agreed, given the dreams she’d had and the feeling of disappointment when her eyes had opened to realize Flick wasn’t there. Yeah, maybe that was why it was so hard to sleep more than a few hours. 

Either way, she was awake now, and clearly wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep anytime soon. So, Avalon made her way off the porch of the cabin and began to take a walk around the lake, deep in thought. Or brooding, she supposed some would say. 

Flick was safe, which gave Avalon time to focus on the person she’d had to put aside for the time that the other girl had been gone. Gaia. Blurting out that demand to Ruthers back at the quarry hadn’t accomplished much, aside from the man claiming he wouldn’t use her as a hostage. Not that Avalon trusted that, whatever he might say. If things got bad enough, if it looked like the revolution might win, she had no doubt that he or one of the other loyalist Committee members would absolutely do whatever they thought was necessary. Including holding a gun to Gaia’s head to try to make the people who cared about her stand down.

That couldn’t happen. They had to save Gaia from the Crossroads prison before it got that far. But how? They didn’t have any idea where it even was, let alone how to get Gaia out of it. This wasn’t like finding the prison where Sean had been. That was hard enough, but this? They would be far more careful about keeping Gaia locked down somewhere safe, especially after that last prison break. For someone as important as Gaia, finding and getting her out was going to be nearly impossible. 

Then again, getting Flick back from Fossor with her mother, both of them safe, should have been nearly impossible too. And it happened. Avalon refused to believe it was impossible. There had to be a way to find out where the prison was. That was the place to start, just finding out where it was. They could work from there. But that would mean getting that kind of information from someone. And who would both know where the prison was and tell them? 

One of the semi-rogue Committee members? There were a few who sympathized with the rebellion to various degrees, Avalon knew. But the one time she’d brought up the question with Jophiel while Flick was gone, the Seosten had told her that none on the Committee could tell her even if she found one willing to. According to her, the remaining Committee members would certainly have taken a magically-enforced agreement not to reveal Gaia’s location without approval. If they did, that fact would be revealed to every other member of the Committee. Which would basically destroy the entire point of finding out, because then they’d just move her. 

So, getting the information from one of them was out of the question. But there had to be another choice, right? There had to be someone who wasn’t on the Committee who could tell them where to go, without exposing the fact that they’d told. Except… who? 

“You can’t sleep either, huh?” Miranda (or possibly just one of her, Avalon was never sure) spoke up while emerging from the shadows to join her. “I think I crashed for like two hours. Feels like Christmas, except we already got our presents.” As she said that, the other girl moved up beside Avalon, looking out at the water. “I keep feeling like there’s something else going on.” 

“Like getting Flick back is just a dream, and if you go to sleep, you’ll wake up in the real world?” Avalon asked flatly, her voice barely audible. She’d stopped walking, standing with her shoes right up at the very edge of the gently lapping waves. “Or like something else bad is happening while we’re celebrating.” 

“Both,” Miranda admitted with a shrug. “Partly the former, a lot of the latter.” She gave a side-glance toward Avalon. “I guess you’re in the same boat. That and, you know, the headmistress.” 

Avalon, in turn, nodded in confirmation. “All three. We’ve got Felicity, now we need Gaia. But…” She trailed off, frowning. “But something else.” It hadn’t been clear until she’d said it out loud a moment earlier. “It feels like there’s another problem. Something bad happening.”

“Yeah, it feels like we’re missing something.” With that, Miranda blew out a long, low breath. “Except I have no idea what it could be. You think we’re just being paranoid because having Flick back feels too easy?” 

“Nothing about today was easy,” Avalon countered pointedly, before dropping her gaze back to the water with a sigh. “But I don’t know. Maybe it is just paranoia. Except if we’re both feeling it…” 

“We both care about Flick,” Miranda pointed out with a shrug. “Both went through a lot trying to get her back, and now we’re sitting here trying to let her have time with her family instead of forcing ourselves in there just to keep her in our sight. It makes sense that we’d both be out here feeling antsy.” 

“True.” With that simple, one-word response, Avalon fell silent, as did Miranda. The two of them stood there, staring out at the dark water for another minute or so in quiet contemplation. The uncertainty seemed to build in the air throughout that time, until she finally added a quiet, “But that’s not it.” 

Miranda’s head shook quickly, the girl letting out a nearly-explosive breath of relief. “No, it’s not, is it? There’s something else. I swear, it’s like my skin is almost on fire. My hair keeps standing up. Feels like there’s something behind me, but I keep looking and no one’s there. I feel like I’m going insane. It’s just–just something. But it’s nothing, right? It has to be nothing.” 

Before Avalon could respond, there was a buzzing in Miranda’s pocket. Looking surprised that she’d actually thought to grab her phone before coming out here, she pulled it out to look. “Dakota,” she announced for Avalon’s benefit, before adding, “Calling this early.” 

The two girls exchanged looks before Miranda answered the phone with a simple, “Yeah.” For a few moments, she spoke quietly, mostly listening and giving one or two word answers aside from asking if Dakota was okay after whatever had happened. Because something obviously had. Finally, the girl promised that they would be there soon, before disconnecting. 

“What?” Avalon immediately asked. The bad thing they’d both been feeling, it obviously wasn’t about getting Flick back. It had been about this, about Dakota. 

“She’s safe now,” Miranda assured her straight off. “Victor Childs got there in time to save her.” 

Avalon felt a small weight lift, but only a very small one. Knowing that Dakota wasn’t in immediate danger after the two of them had left her with the Eden’s Garden people was one thing, and yet the fact that something had happened… “Save her from what?”

So, with a small sigh, Miranda explained what had happened to Dakota and to the older Garden student she’d been working with. Hearing about the Nuckelavee made the hard lump in Avalon’s stomach return. Yes, it wasn’t about Fossor or Flick, but in the short time since they’d started working with Dakota, Avalon had come to like the kid. Hearing that she’d gone through yet another trauma, when she was just trying to help… it pissed Avalon off. 

Not to mention, finding out that the Nuckelavee and their master had apparently set their eyes on the vines that the Garden rebels needed to get working… that was bad on a totally different level. If they couldn’t safely plant the vines and get them growing, the rebels would have no way of creating new Bosch Heretics, and the loyalists would eventually outstrip them in power. 

One thing was certain, that bad feeling that Avalon and Miranda had been having was completely accurate. They’d simply mistaken who the bad feeling was about. 

******

Rather than bother everyone else, especially given how much Flick clearly needed the break with her family, Avalon and Miranda called up Seller and had the man give them a teleportation lift over to the Garden rebels so they could find Dakota. Once there, the two were directed to a small motel room where the young girl was seated in the corner with her knees drawn to her chest. A cup of water and a sandwich sat untouched on a tray nearby. 

The older girls exchanged looks, before Avalon nodded for her companion to go on. She was pretty sure of the two of them, Miranda would be better at talking to the kid when it came to this sort of thing. 

Miranda, for her part, took a step that way before crouching down. “Hey, Dakota,” she started, “I… I’m sorry about Noyade.” 

Her words were met, for a moment, by silence. The thirteen-year-old stared past them, toward the opposite corner of the room. Her eyes were hollow, the memory of seeing the older boy’s headless corpse impaled against the fence, his skull slurped clean of all its flesh parts within the monster’s torso-like mouth, clearly playing through her memory. 

What kind of horrific world did they live in where that was probably playing a distant fifth or sixth as far as terrible memories this kid had, considering what she’d gone through when Kwur had forced her and the rest of her family to kill one another? What the fuck did this kid do to deserve that? 

Nothing, Avalon knew. It wasn’t about deserving, as much as it should have been. The kid hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t supposed to be. It just was. You dealt with it or you didn’t. But having people in your corner helped with the dealing with it part. 

Before she met Flick, before she bonded with the girl and the others on their team, Avalon had had only a few people in her corner. Torv had been one, and the Seosten fucks had destroyed that, had forced her to kill her best friend in self-defense. Seller was another, and that same event had made him send her away to protect her. 

Then there was Gaia. Gaia had saved Avalon’s life back when she was Hannah. She was the first person in then-Hannah’s life who had ever really gone to bat for her. The first person to be there for her. And then she had been there for Hannah again, adopting her not only for political reasons, but for real reasons. She gave Avalon her new name, her new life. She protected her, guided her. 

Gaia was her mother. And now? Now Gaia was the one who needed help. 

By that point, Dakota had exhaled and finally spoke in a quiet voice. “He saved me. He told me to run. He tried to distract the… the monster. It killed him.” Her words were flat as the girl’s eyes closed for a moment. A visible shudder ran through her, lips quivering as she fought to find words. “Th-they said… they said those things are hurting the ground, poisoning it or something so the v-vines won’t grow. A-and that… that they’re not the ones in charge. Something else is telling them to do it.” 

With a nod, Miranda put a hand on the other girl’s arm very gently. “Those things, they’re called the Nuckelavee, and they were created by this thing that lives–I mean it’s trapped at the bottom of the ocean. The deepest part of the ocean. Something or someone trapped it there. We don’t know very much about it. Except it’s really big. Big enough that it has umm… tentacles that can stretch out for hundreds of miles. And it’s really evil. Really powerful. Just… bad. It’s really bad and it’s trying to get out, trying to break whatever its prison is.” 

“What is it?” Dakota asked in a quiet voice, turning her eyes from the corner to meet Miranda’s gaze. She wanted to know exactly what kind of monster the thing was. 

Avalon was the one who answered, when her companion hesitated. “They call it Lotan. No one’s gotten close enough to know what it looks like or how exactly it’s imprisoned. Magic viewings and things like that tell us enough to know that it’s big enough to swallow entire aircraft carriers if it ever gets free. And… and the only people who have managed to get a good look at it, the ones who used their vision powers to really see the thing and look into its eyes, they… they’re never the same after that.” 

“It’s the monster’s eyes,” Miranda confirmed. “They drive anyone who looks at them mad. It… it burns its way into their brain, and they start talking like they’re–like they’re part of it. Everyone who does that is either put down, or locked up forever.” 

Dakota gave a soft whimper, but focused on the two, looking back and forth between them before nodding once. She digested the information, absorbed it, and asked, “So it’s… they know it’s there but they can’t just kill it? There’s a lot of really powerful people here.” 

“Everyone’s afraid of what might happen if they take a shot at the thing and don’t manage to kill it,” Avalon informed her. “If they end up breaking its cage instead of destroying Lotan itself, they could’ve just released a world-ending threat. Like we said, just getting a look at its eyes drives people insane, bonds them to it. And that’s from where it is. If the thing ever got out, it could… it could possibly destroy the entire planet, just tear it apart.”

“That’s what it’s trying to do now, isn’t it?” Dakota asked in a quiet, knowing voice. “That’s why it wants to corrupt the vines, or… or whatever it’s making the Nuckelavee do. Because it wants the power in them t-to escape or something.” It was clearly all she could do to get the words out as she trembled visibly, curling in on herself some more. “How can they stop it? Is… is it even possible? If they can’t plant the vines in the ocean, what do… what do we do?”

“We can’t destroy Lotan,” Miranda answered while moving to sit next to the girl. “But we can hurt it. Those tentacles, it spawns the Nuckelavee with them. So there has to be one close enough to send them this way. If we can destroy the tentacle, it’ll stop Lotan long enough to get the vines growing. It’s not… fast. It’s not quick about acting, especially once you hurt it. If you can destroy one of its tentacles, it usually takes months before another one shows up. The main tentacles are really slow. I mean, they’re gigantic, but the ocean is too big. It takes time for them to move far enough to get here, just–just from the sheer scale, you know? They’ve gotta move thousands of miles.” 

“Find the tentacle and kill it,” Dakota echoed, her voice still hollow. “But there’ll be a lot of those Nuckelavee around. And Victor Childs had to try to kill one of them. A Victor had to try.”

“It’ll be dangerous,” Miranda confirmed. “But don’t worry. We’ve got a lot of dangerous people. And you won’t be anywhere near any of it. They’ll put a force together, all the Victors, and go after the tentacle. They can handle it, now that they know what the threat is.”

Avalon took a seat on the other side of Dakota, nodding once. “They’ll have to. It’s the only way to make the vines work. And if the vines don’t work, we can’t make more Bosch Heretics. 

“Which would be a really shitty way to lose this war.” 

******

An hour later, the kid was asleep. Who knew how long she’d stay that way, but Miranda had volunteered to remain with her, so Avalon stepped out. She needed air. Leaving the motel room, she saw a few people she recognized from her time at Garden. No one she knew by name, but she’d seen them around. All took a look at her, whispered amongst themselves, and headed off with an air of awkwardness. 

Yeah, that was about what she’d expected. Rolling her eyes, the dark-haired girl started to turn to the left. At the last second, however, she abruptly spun back to the right. The simple wristband on her arm expanded out to become the full gauntlet just before a blade of energy appearing from it. 

Avalon stopped the blade just in front of a dark-haired, clean-shaven man with brown eyes. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, though that meant several tons of nothing. He wore blue jeans and a dark button-up shirt. When the blade of energy swept to his face before stopping barely an inch away from his nose, the man did not so much as blink. Instead, he simply spoke with a casual, “A fine swing, milady.” 

Turning off the blade after a moment, Avalon grunted, “Who are you? What do you want?” 

The man gave a slight bow. “Apologies. My name is–well, I am known as Accolon, formerly of Avalon. I come to offer aid on behalf of the king.”

The girl squinted at him. “I’m sorry, formerly of who?” 

He, in turn, chuckled. “I suppose that is a bit confusing. Sorry, not formerly of you. Formerly of the organization known as Avalon, the group of loyalists who followed Guinevere after the fall of Camelot.” 

Absorbing that, Avalon blinked. “Accolon. I know that name. You were Gai–Morgana’s um… lover.” She’d had a long conversation with her mother about her past as Morgana before the woman’s imprisonment, and had subsequently done her own attempt at research into the subject. “I mean, in some versions, anyway.” 

“We had a little fling,” the man confirmed with a shrug. “Not too serious. Not as serious what she had with the king.” 

“With the king–Arthur? Wait, no.” Avalon frowned in confusion. “‘What king? The only king I know of right now is–” 

“Oberon, King of Canada,” Accolon finished with a nod. “Precisely. I come with a promise of what aid he can spare, to locate and rescue your mother from her imprisonment. Given my history with her, he thought I would be a useful go-between for this cause.” 

Ever-suspicious, Avalon demanded, “But why would he care what happens to Gaia?” 

Accolon, in turn, offered her a small smile. “They may have drifted far from what they were, but the king still cares deeply for the woman he once loved more than life itself. 

“After all, she bore his tragically-fated first son, Mordred.” 

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Kairos 9-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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I had thought that the fight in this quarry was insane and chaotic before. But all of that had been nothing compared to this. Hundreds of thousands of undead creatures, all rushing in every possible direction, even up into the air, to escape. Any of them could have been Fossor in disguise, so all of them had to be stopped. They all had to be either destroyed or exposed as the Necromancer himself. We couldn’t let even a single one get out of this quarry. 

“Mom!” I blurted, even as a skeletal deer-like thing tried to sprint past me. My staff snapped that way, shoving through the bones of the thing’s neck just before I triggered a kinetic blast that blew the head into splinters and sent the rest of the bones tumbling to the ground before they broke apart into dust. “What do we do?! How’re we supposed to find the right one?!” 

My mother, for her part, had just finished catching five zombies and a ghost inside some kind of gelatinous cube thing that instantly incinerated itself and them once they were all caught inside it. “Rahanvael,” she said quickly while pointing her hand to send a single, tight-beam laser that caught three more fleeing zombies who had been making a break for it through a small opening. 

I didn’t have to voice the question. Rahanvael was already there, appearing in front of me while shaking her head quickly. “I–I don’t know! His power is everywhere, he’s obfuscating himself somehow! He knows I can find him by tracking his power, so he–he’s spread it everywhere! I can’t focus–I need… I need…” It was obvious that she was going to say she needed time. Time we didn’t have, because of all this chaos. Even in that moment, I was shifting my staff into its bow form and firing a single energy arrow that made a huge Meregan zombie stumble so that Roxa in werewolf form could leap onto its back. She was followed by several more of her wolf pack, who all took the Meregan to the ground together, tearing the already-dead body apart.  

“Time, I know!” I quickly put in, spinning back to hock a wad of that amber-like spit toward a skeleton that was trying to rush past Shiori while her back was turned as she caught one of her spinning discs. It caught the thing’s feet and the ground, pinning it there so she could finish it off. 

“You need time?” That was Avalon. She pivoted to face me from a few yards away while the gauntlet of her extended arm projected a blade that cut the head from another zombie. “We’ll cover you.” Despite everything going on around her, despite her own heavy panting as she continued killing these things, Avalon’s voice was still calm and collected. “Do what you need.” 

“Damn straight!” That was Columbus, appearing to one side. He had Amethyst, his porcupine cyberform, in her shield form with the quills pointed out. Two of those quills flew off, and when they hit this huge, winged-zombie creature in mid-flight, the ice spells on them activated, freezing the thing solid just long enough to bring it crashing back to the ground with a heavy thud as dust flew everywhere. “Focus on finding the chief asshole, we’ve got these ones!” 

Shiori, Koren, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were right there too. All of them spread out around me, focused on keeping the fleeing undead away from me. Away from us. 

Quickly, I looked to Rahanvael. “One chance,” I said quickly. “We have to hurry, or–”

“I know.” Rahanvael said simply. There was no need for me to continue. We both knew. If we didn’t identify exactly where Fossor was before he managed to escape, this whole thing would’ve been for nothing and he would just try all this again. She looked at me intently. “I need to… to possess you, basically. I need your power, your connection to the undead to weed all the extra out.” 

I didn’t even hesitate. With all the insanity around us, as practically everyone I knew who could fight did so against hundreds of thousands of Fossor’s forces, I extended a hand to her. “Do it.”

It wasn’t the same as Seosten possession, of course. If nothing else, I already had one of those with my sister. This was ghost possession, and as Rahanvael’s hand touched mine, I could tell the difference. This was… cold, for lack of a better term. I felt a chill that seemed to run through my actual soul, as this ghost merged fully with me. I could feel her thoughts, her terror that the creature her brother had turned into would actually escape again. I could feel her determination that he not do so, that he be stopped for good here and now. I could feel everything, just as she could undoubtedly feel all of my own thoughts and feelings. 

I have to put everything into finding him, Rahanvael’s voice informed both Tabbris and me. Everything. 

She wasn’t exaggerating. The whole world went dark then. I couldn’t see or hear anything around us. I couldn’t even sense anything with my powers. It was one huge black void. All my senses were turned off, aside from… wait. Energy. I could… feel energy. Life energy–no, not life. Death. I could feel death energy around us. Literally everywhere around us. It was a hurricane of Necromantic energy. No wonder it was so impossible for Rahanvael to differentiate anything. Fossor really was hiding himself in a giant storm of power. The only chance we had was that he was cautious. He wouldn’t make the first run for an escape. He’d wait to see where an opening appeared. But he also wouldn’t wait too long, because he only had so many forces to keep our people busy with. Wherever that piece of shit was, he would make his move soon. 

We had to find him before that. It was the only choice, the only chance we had. Find him. Stop him. 

This was terrifying. I knew there was violence going on around me. I could feel the undead through their energy. But I couldn’t feel my friends. I had no idea how they were doing. I just… I just had to trust that they were safe, that they were still right there protecting Tabbris and me. I had no idea how the fight was going, if they were hurt or… or worse. My only choice was to stand here, blind and deaf, and trust that my friends could take care of themselves. 

Fuck, this was hard. 

I could feel Rahanvael taking control of my Necromancy power, could sense how she was using it to direct the death energy around us. I wasn’t yet powerful enough, even with her help, to take control of more than a few of these things at a time. But she wasn’t trying to take control of them. She was infecting them with my power, letting that power spread quickly through the army, sort of like a virus. I couldn’t actually make them do anything with that tiny amount of power, but I could see where it went, the way it mixed with Fossor’s own power. Through what felt like hours, my power spread through the undead within the quarry, just a dot of it here or there. Not enough to actually do anything with them, but enough to mark all of them. 

All of them, that was, except for one. One spot where my power couldn’t infect Fossor’s. One spot. One being who was immune to being touched by my own Necromancy. 

Him. It was him. 

We found him. 

My eyes opened as Rahanvael separated herself from me, and I saw the carnage around us. It was clear that Fossor had left his horde instructions not only to escape, but also to kill me if they could manage it. All around us were dozens upon dozens of dead (or redead) things, or just the dust and ectoplasm from skeletons and ghosts. My friends, my teammates, had been joined by others. My mother, Deveron, the rest of her own team, Asenath, Bobbi, Vanessa and Tristan, and more. It had clearly taken all of them to keep these things off me through the time that I had been indisposed. 

There wasn’t time to thank them. There wasn’t time for anything. Not when I knew where Fossor was. I could still feel him, could still sense the way his own power was so different from mine. Now that it had been so thoroughly pointed out to me, it was a difference I could never forget. The man himself was like a bright shining beacon, so different from the rest of the creatures around him now that they had all been marked by my power. 

And he was making his move. Even as I focused on my ability to sense him, I could feel the Necromancer bolting for an open spot. The fighting had spread out too far. Our forces were thin on the edges. He had the opening he wanted, the opening he needed to escape. 

Like fuck would I let that happen. 

“Got him!” I blurted, spinning toward the direction I could still feel the bastard in. Unfortunately, that just put me face to face with a veritable wall of both enemies and friends. The battle raged on ahead of me, not only on the ground but in the air too. There was no way I could get through all that in time to reach Fossor before he managed to escape. He was already making his move!

At least, there was no way I could do that alone. But I wasn’t alone. The moment they realized where I was trying to go, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Asenath, and all the others launched themselves that way. The wall of enemies in the way collapsed inward as my people, my friends, barrelled headlong into it. A hole, they were making a hole for me to get through. 

I took advantage without thought. I would thank them later, I would say… everything that needed to be said later. Right now, only one thing mattered, getting to Fossor and stopping him once and for all. 

It wasn’t as easy as just going through a single opening and then having a free run to where the evil piece of shit was, of course. The entire quarry was filled with these creatures, all of them in my way. Or at least, they tried to be in my way. But Avalon and the others stayed just ahead of me, tearing their way through the enemies. Here, Sands made a wall to block off one section to create an opening. There, Gordon encased himself in enormous ice armor and used one long arm to swat a group of zombies away. There, Sean and Vulcan worked with Sarah and her own gun to put down a group of fliers that were trying to swoop in from above. 

Koren and Miranda worked together to deal with a massive skeleton giant to the left. To the right, Vanessa and Tristan were stopping a cloud of angry ghosts from reaching us. Bobbi and Asenath raced ahead, each grabbing a rotting zombie barbarian creature, tearing the pair apart from each other and out of the way. 

Deveron and Lillian were there, the latter using a summoned wind storm to hurl a dozen undead into the air before the former incinerated them with a blast of white-blue fire from his pistol. The Dornans and Tribald Kine were stopping a literal giant (the thing towered at least twenty feet tall, twice the size of a Meregan) from stomping down on the spot just ahead of me. 

Everyone, everyone was helping. They were clearing the path. I was taking advantage, racing through the holes they created. I didn’t have time to slow down, didn’t have time to help. Getting to Fossor was all that mattered. They had this. I had him. 

Or rather, we had him. Because my mother was right beside me. The two of us sprinted onward, Mom right at my side. The others could barely keep up with clearing the path, not even worrying about killing everything in the way. They were purely focused on simply moving the enemies. Even then, it was only the fact that we had so many on our side, so many friends and allies right there with us, that allowed Mom and I to keep running without slowing down to engage with the minions ourselves. Neither of us spoke. Neither of us needed to. We were together right here, at this last moment. That was all that mattered, the two of us being together, side-by-side, as we made one final run to either stop Fossor from escaping, or die trying. 

A blast from Columbus’s goggles slammed into a huge, twelve-foot tall troll zombie that had been looming up in front of us, the concussive force putting the thing on its back long enough for my mother and I to leap over it. I had to boost to make the full jump, while my mother used some kind of gravity manipulation power to keep herself in the air long enough to make it from the troll’s feet all the way past its head. It was starting to recover, starting to grab for us, but we were already gone. Behind us, I heard a howl as Dare, in giant wolf form, landed on top of the thing to make sure it would never be a threat again.

I could feel him. I could still feel Fossor. He was… he was there. He was just ahead of us. But, close as he was to us, he was also close to the edge of the quarry, and thus close to escaping the spell that was keeping him trapped here. The moment he made it over that line, the very second that monster managed to edge a foot out of the magic that stopped him from teleporting, he would be gone. He would escape. He would leave and go back to being a threat for everyone in the world, a threat that would hurt and kill everyone I cared about. 

Fuck. That. 

Tabbris! I shouted inwardly, even as Mom intercepted some kind of spinning ghost armed with glowing blades that came in out of nowhere. That wing blast thing, can you do it again? I had no idea what all that was about, and there wasn’t time for details. All that mattered was whether she had another one in her or not. I’d had the impression that she couldn’t do that constantly, that it needed time to recharge. But had it been enough time yet? 

There was a brief hesitation, even as I pivoted to stab the blade of my staff through a zombie that came lunging at us from that side. He was with a horde of others, but our friends had managed to intercept the rest. I could feel Tabbris’s doubt, but it was quickly replaced by firm determination. Yes, she insisted. I can do it again. 

Good, ready? I let her take in exactly what I wanted to do, what I was planning. 

Ready! I could feel that she was afraid, afraid of her own power, afraid of this whole situation, of messing up and letting Fossor escape. She was terrified. But she was here. She was here with me, and determined to make this work. Whatever it took. 

“Mom!” I blurted out loud. “On three, hit me with the strongest energy blast you can and get us into the air. One… two… three!”

As I said that, my hands gripped my staff, triggering the boost to start my launch upward. At the same time, I felt my mother’s hands grab my shoulders as she used her gravity power to send us flying even higher than my staff could manage. On the way, her hands glowed and I felt her pouring energy into me. Energy that I focused on absorbing. 

We were in the air. More enemies came in from all sides, but between Mom and our friends below, they were dealt with. 

Most importantly, I could see him. I could see the single ‘zombie’ making a flat run for the line. Fossor had abandoned blending in by that point. No one was around him, they were all engaged with other threats and too far away. No one could stop him. 

Or so he thought. The second I saw that clear path to the monster, I blurted both inwardly and aloud, “Do it now!” 

It was like before, when we had used a powered up blast to destroy the creatures blocking me from reaching Fossor the first time. But now, we weren’t shooting an army. Nor were we shooting Fossor himself. Tabbris and I both knew the man would just shove the effect off onto any of his creatures who were still here. Then he’d keep going and escape. 

No, we didn’t shoot Fossor. We shot the ground. Those bright light wings appeared from my back and a blinding blast of power, a ten-foot-wide eruption of energy hurtled itself down out of the sky, tearing into the Earth with a deafening blast that sent dirt, dust, and rocks in every direction. 

Through that blinding, choking cloud, Mom and I fell. We landed together, and my mother used a quick gust of wind to send the dust away. 

We were in a hole. A twenty-foot-wide, twelve-foot-deep hole. About as wide as a boxing ring without the ropes. A boxing ring with a single opponent who stood facing us, hatred and disbelief twisting his features. 

“Leaving so soon?” I demanded, taking a quick step away from my mother so we wouldn’t be caught in the same attack. “And without us? I thought we were supposed to be a family and all that.” 

“Yes, brother,” Rahanvael agreed, appearing beside me. “We are family.” 

“We are family,” Mom corrected pointedly, straightening up as she focused on Fossor. “Not him.” Her hand snapped out, throwing some kind of enchanted marble into the air. As it hit the top of the hole we were all in, a glowing energy shield appeared, creating a forcefield ceiling to keep all of us, Fossor included, right here in the hole. 

This was it. No other tricks. No escapes. No new allies or friends. They were all busy, all occupied. My mother and I (with Rahanvael and Tabbris), facing the man who had done so much to tear our family apart. Just us. Just him. For the last time. 

One way or another, this was the end.

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Kairos 9-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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In that moment, it would’ve been easy to think that we outnumbered our opponent. But, of course, we didn’t. Not in the least. Fossor, after all, commanded and controlled more than an entire world’s worth of slaves he could kill and bring to his aid at a moment’s notice. From what I’d been told, he was at least limited from bringing over literally billions of ghosts with a snap of his fingers, because even he was only so powerful. Particularly when it came to transporting his troops intergalactic distances. 

But while he couldn’t easily bring over billions, or even millions of his cannon-fodder, there was nothing stopping him from bringing over thousands. Which he did, in that exact moment. With no warning, none at all, the quarry was suddenly overrun. Thousands of ghosts, zombies, skeletons, everything dead that Fossor could push his control into, manifested and attacked. They tore their way out of the ground, descended from the air, or simply appeared around us, tearing their way into apparent existence as though ripping through the fabric of space itself. 

In my case, it started as the huge fist of a (dead) Meregan male punched its way out of the dirt. It came so unexpectedly that I took the blow head-on and was sent crashing to the ground, even as the ten-foot-tall figure clambered out of the dirt. The giant zombie roared, slamming both fists down toward me just before Tabbris took control and threw us into a backward roll. 

Mom was fighting her own Meregan giant, along with a handful of fire-manipulating ghosts that seemed intent on trapping her. No, intent on cutting us off from each other. More and more of Fossor’s newly summoned troops were flooding the area between us. 

It was the same all around me. Everyone who had come to help, my old team, my mentors, my friends, my family, everyone was being swarmed. While pushing myself up, from the corner of my eye, I saw Avalon, beautiful amazon that she was, take the heads off of three zombies with a single swipe of a glowing energy blade projected from her gauntlet. In the next second, her hand snapped out to touch one of the collapsing bodies. Under her grip, the zombie disintegrated into a cloud of dust. That dust, at a quick gesture from Avalon, flew into an incoming ghost before suddenly igniting into green flames. Those flames, in turn, destroyed the ghost, making it blow apart with a scream. 

Others, there were others. Shiori of course. God, Shiori. And not only them, not only my girls. But Sands, Koren, Sarah, Sean, Columbus–everyone. I wanted to see them. I wanted to check on them, wanted to help them. But I couldn’t. That fleeting glance was the best I could manage, before my own giant Meregan opponent hurled himself at me. 

But Fossor had taught me a lot. More than I wanted to know really. Particularly about controlling zombies and Meregan in particular. My right hand snapped up, stopping the charging giant in his tracks. He literally froze, just for a moment. I could feel Fossor’s power warring against mine. It would win out in the end. But I only needed a moment. In that time, I snapped my hand down and out, making both of his much larger hands follow suit, slamming into a few smaller skeletal-creatures who had been rushing past him to reach me. 

Meanwhile, completely on her own, Tabbris had taken control of my left hand, the one with the staff. She triggered the cloud of sand to shoot out, superheating it in the process before sending the sand through three zombies that had been coming at us from behind. At the same time, even as the sand was burning through them, she used my mouth to trigger a renewed ghost-fire spell on the staff itself, as the other one had run out. With the staff newly-empowered, Tabbris hurled it through a ghost that was coming up from our other side, before recalling it. 

All of that simply in the time it took me to take control of the Meregan and have him smash those skeletons. We were working together, cooperating and multitasking the way Elisabet and Jophiel had been helping teach us to. In this moment, as we fell instantly back into sync, it was like we’d never been separated. Both of us using my body, my powers, to attack multiple enemies at the same time in entirely different ways. 

And yet, even with that, there were still so many enemies around us. Prosser by himself had been set on by wave after wave of the strongest undead I’d ever seen. Even he, powerful as he was, couldn’t easily swat them aside. He, Gwen, Sariel, Athena, all of them were being attacked by so fucking many of the empowered necromantic creatures. The entire quarry was swarmed, covered, engulfed by these monsters. They came from everywhere, tearing, slashing, clawing, even biting at everyone who sought to stop their master. If Mom and I had been on our own against that kind of onslaught, we never would have lasted as long as we had. It wouldn’t even have been close. 

But, of course, Fossor hadn’t been trying with us as much as he was now. It was patently obvious that, even while he was angry and fighting my mother and me, he’d been dramatically holding back. He still wanted to pull off his spell, after all, and had been saving power for that. That and he was just so accustomed to two people, especially the two of us, not being any real threat, that he didn’t need to go all-out. But now? Now he’d been backed into a corner. He was surrounded by an army of super-powered, pissed off people who wanted him dead. So there were no more half-measures. He was showing us, and everyone else, why he was such a threat. Even in the face of so many absurdly powerful beings, Fossor still had the advantage. Because, powerful as all these people were, cutting through literally billions of hostages in order to actually hurt the son of a bitch himself would take too long. Especially when he could send tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands given enough time, of those same hostages to actively attack. 

But none of that mattered. Not in the long run. It was all noise, distractions from the main point, the main problem: Fossor himself. Because the necromancer hadn’t given up on his plan. Even as a warzone raged around him, even as thousands of his troops were repeatedly summoned and destroyed by some of the most powerful beings on the planet, he was still moving to that altar. He’d been knocked back a couple hundred feet by Gabriel’s shovel-blow. But he was making up the difference, heading right for the altar while using his minions as cover. Strong as everyone here was, even they could only work so fast. Fossor didn’t need to win this fight, he didn’t need his undead minions to actually succeed at beating all of us. He only needed them to play distraction long enough for him to reach that altar and finish his spell. 

I couldn’t let that happen. We couldn’t. With a quick thought, I shoved all the knowledge of what was going on and the risks of just how bad it could be into Tabbris so she would know how important this was. At the same time, I made my commandeered Meregan zombie pivot back that way and sent him running to tackle another of his own (dead) people. I’d worry about the horrors of what I was doing in that moment later. Right now, the only thing that mattered, the only thing, was stopping Fossor. Whatever it took. 

Even as I started to throw myself into a sprint that way, Tabbris was absorbing what I’d ‘told’ her. She gave no verbal response, because one wasn’t needed. Instead, I felt her take control of the burning sand once more, using it to help clear the path and leaving me to focus on actually getting to Fossor in time. The white-hot cloud flew ahead of us, burning through the legs of two zombies so they would fall and allow me to jump over them. Just as quickly, even as I was still in mid-air from that jump, she used my hands to convert the staff into its bow form and sent a shot off to the side to hit three skeletons who were tearing their way out of the ground. 

So many. Fuck, there were so fucking many of these things! Too many to find a way to portal through. They were everywhere, so many I couldn’t even actually see Fossor himself anymore after that brief glimpse. Everywhere I glanced there were hundreds of them, swarming in out of nowhere. He was dumping dozens on top of us with every passing second, filling up every inch of space. For every undead minion that one of us killed, ten more appeared. Between the noise, the screams, the clash of weapons, gunshots, the fwoom and crash of powers, it was utter insanity. No one could keep any of this straight. No one could be expected to focus through all of that. Which, of course, was what Fossor was counting on. Chaos was where he thrived, in this moment. All he had to do was keep everyone busy for these crucial seconds. After that it would all be over, in every way that mattered. 

I only managed two more steps past the legless zombies before a ghost appeared in front of me. This one looked like some kind of reptilian crocodile-humanoid, about nine feet tall and covered in some kind of crackling electricity. Electricity that the semi-translucent figure sent flying at me with a snarl of rage that I was pretty sure actually came from Fossor himself. 

The electricity never reached me. Before I could even move, a sudden wall of stone emerged from the ground to catch the attack. A second later, stairs rose as well, giving me a way over it.

“Go!” Sands blurted, even as she spun to slam her ghost-fire enchanted mace into the side of the spectral-reptilian’s head with so much force he was blown apart in a spray of ectoplasm. “We’ll cover you, we’ve got you, just go!”

As if in response to her words, three zombie heads suddenly exploded, as a shot from Sarah’s rifle blew through them in a line. An instant later, a ghost that had appeared behind Sands was disintegrated by a second quick shot. 

I wasn’t alone anymore. Not in any way. With a quick, blurted thanks, I raced up the stairs that Sands had created. Once I reached the top, the other girl made a sharp gesture with her mace, extending a bridge out from the wall that I could run along. 

She couldn’t get me all the way there, of course. And even from that height, there were still so many ghosts flying through the air that getting a good look at Fossor or the altar was impossible. I still couldn’t just launch or portal myself there. There were too many threats in the way, too many minions that would stop me. 

But the bridge that Sands had created at least got me closer. I was able to run a good twenty feet along it, over the heads and grasping hands of the zombies below. On the way, Tabbris focused on keeping the various dead things from scrambling their way up with us, using burning sand and the staff to either blast them with stored kinetic force directly or to create mines that blew them away from us. A couple managed to climb onto the path ahead of us, but I just leapt up and over them without breaking stride. With my copilot, my little sister, on board once more, I didn’t have to worry about watching my back. She did that. She helped keep the damn things off us so I could focus on moving forward. Without her, I would’ve had to slow down. Without her, I never would have caught up with the piece of shit who was trying to kill and enslave everyone I cared about. 

Reaching the end of the bridge, I was met by an enormous ghost with four arms and some kind of rhino-like horn, hovering there. The ghost gave a wide (too-wide) smile with its large, gaping mouth before that horn started to glow even brighter than the rest of it. 

In the next instant, before I even had a chance to avoid whatever rhino-ghost wanted to do, a blonde figure leapt between us. Nevada. She had that chainsaw-sword of hers, and it was apparently enchanted to hurt ghosts as well, because my would-be attacker gave a violent scream as the buzzing, rapidly-rotating chain sword was shoved into and through him. As the ghost blew apart, Nevada lashed out with her free hand to send a small red ball into a group of skeleton-creatures nearby. The ball exploded into a blast of energy that blew the skeletons apart into pieces of bone, then sort of… reformed and sucked the remains into it. Seriously, it basically hoovered the pieces of bone all back inside it after blowing apart, then returned to Nevada’s hand. 

Meanwhile, I kept moving. Even as the ball returned to its creator’s hand, Nevada pivoted and pointed with the hand that still held her sword. A ring on one of her fingers glowed, sending out a solid-light extension of the stone bridge that reached about thirty feet closer. As I passed her, she turned back to keep my pursuers away. 

Even with her help, Tabbris and I weren’t alone on this bridge. We had to fight our way through every inch of space, as more and more creatures were sent after us. Some kind of flying zombie, a rotting thing with bat-wings and a head that was as large as its body, flew down to grab me by the shoulders while both of us were focused on other threats. 

But it didn’t hold on for long. A beam of concussive force passed right over my head, blowing the flying zombie’s head off before it could so much as screech. 

Columbus. He’d teleported onto the bridge and was already using another couple quick blasts from his goggles to blow away two more of those flying zombies who had been trying to swoop in. He’d also brought Sean with him, who turned back the other way with Vulcan in his minigun form, opening up a devastating hail of bullets that tore through all the creatures who had been blocking our path, opening it up. 

“Better get going, Flickster!” Sean called, still sweeping Vulcan back and forth to pick off those who were still moving. Hundreds of bullets tore through the things. “These hijueputas ain’t gonna stop coming!” 

There was so much I wanted to say right then. But I couldn’t. There wasn’t time. There just… wasn’t time. So, I kept moving, sprinting between the two while praying that there would be a ‘later’ to actually say all the things I wanted to. 

At the end of this second bridge, I was met not by a threat, but a friend. My oldest friend, actually. Miranda was there, using her shield to block several sprays of what looked like acid spit from far below before raising one hand. A distortion in the air, like an almost-invisible tennis ball made of violently twisting and spinning air, appeared in her grasp. With a grunt, she threw it right into the midst of the creatures who were attacking from below, and I arrived just in time to see the tightly-contained winds within it blow apart, sending the creatures violently flying in every direction. 

Even as I reached her, Miranda split off a duplicate, both of them giving me quick, wild grins. “You made it!” one blurted, before the other added, “Wish we could talk, but–” 

“I know,” I interrupted. “Gotta stop him!” With that, I snapped my staff down, using the kinetic force it had charged up to launch myself up and away from them. Fossor. I had to get to Fossor. 

Two more of those flying zombies tried to intercept me in mid-flight. But they were both literally smashed into pieces by two pillars of dirt and rock that tore their way out of the ground to slam into one another, catching the winged-monsters between them. Koren. The girl was below, using one hand to form the arch she’d created out of the two pillars into a raised platform for me. Meanwhile, one of those solid-energy animals she could make, a full-sized wolf in this case, was tearing apart a skeletal figure that had tried to attack the girl. 

I landed on that platform, using it to get a look below. Fossor. There. There he was, getting closer to the altar with each step while the cataclysmic battle raged around him. With a grunt, I launched myself that way, using a blast from my staff to send myself right toward the bastard. 

More undead tried to stop me, only to be caught by the people who cared about me. 

A screaming, banshee-like spirit was captured in a forcefield-like cage by Risa Kohaku, before the cage shrank itself into a tiny ball, destroying its prisoner in the process. 

A four-legged bull-like zombie thing ripped up from the ground and opened its mouth to send a disgusting, horrifyingly long tongue up to grab me. But the tongue and the bull-zombie itself were literally frozen into a solid ice statue by Gordon Kuhn, who stood behind the thing and grabbed it. 

A giant, almost-entirely rotted humanoid corpse, so large it made the Meregan look small, tried to snatch me out of the air. But Hisao was there. Though he only came up to the undead creature’s knee, he punched the thing so hard in that knee that its leg snapped. As it fell, Hisao caught the body, pivoting to slam the thing into the ground so hard the Earth itself seemed to shake. Then I was down. I was on the ground, already running. Everyone behind and around me was still fighting for their lives. And for the lives of everyone else. No matter where I looked, I could see people I cared about being set upon by dozens of undead creatures. Roxa, Carfried, Haiden, Rebecca, Jazz, Doug, everyone and anyone. They were all doing literally everything they could to deal with the literal legion of monstrosities that Fossor had summoned. It was an army of everyone I cared about versus an army of the undead. 

As for the piece of shit himself, he’d… stopped. I realized that even as I came rushing up behind him. The man was a good thirty feet from his altar, but there was someone in his way. 

No, someones. My mother was there, but she wasn’t alone. Deveron was there too. And so were Lillian, Roger and Seamus Dornan, and Tribald Kine. Her old team. Her friends. They were right alongside her, blocking Fossor’s path. 

From the sound of his growl, the man wasn’t exactly in a good mood. I wondered why. He glanced over his shoulder at me, eyes narrowing. “It seems our girl has decided to join us all by herself,” he noted in a dark, threatening voice. 

“No, she hasn’t.” That was Avalon. Valley. She was there, right beside me. “She’s not by herself.” 

“She never is.” Shiori, appearing on my other side, put in. Both of them, both my girls, standing right there on either side of me. Both glaring at Fossor. Not only that, but Asenath was by Shiori as well, standing with her sister. 

Before the man could retort, another voice spoke up from behind the four of us. “They’re right about that, Fossor.” Dare. It was Dare, standing with her sword out to one side as her own gaze narrowed at the man who had unknowingly hurt her family so much. “Felicity will never be alone. Not in the way that you will always be.” 

“Always.” That was Rahanvael, appearing slightly in front of me. Her voice was solem. “You will always be alone, Fossor.” She was clearly making a point by using that name rather than the one belonging to her brother. “You have lived alone. And you will die alone.” 

Fossor, in turn, actually growled a little bit. He looked toward my mother and her people, then back toward me and mine. “You think so?” His words were a snarl through gritted teeth. “Come then.

“Let us see who dies today.”

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Kairos 9-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who haven’t seen it, there was a new commissioned interlude posted yesterday that focused on the Alter-Natural Heretic organization Section Four. If you haven’t read that, you can click the previous chapter button above to do so. 

“Kill me?” Fossor chuckled, though it sounded more deranged and emotional than he probably meant it to. “Has that ever worked for you, my dearest woman, mother of my child? Oh…. I suppose I can’t call you that now, can I? Not after our girl over there got her own brother killed. Now how is that going to affect your relationship?” 

Mom’s voice was calmer than I would have expected. Cold, really. “Over ten years together. More than a decade. And you still know nothing about me.” 

“He knows little about what it means to care for anyone at all.” Those were the words that came from Rahanvael, as the ghost girl hovered nearby, her hand lightly touching her own throat, where I could see what looked like… marks of some sort. As if Fossor’s invisible grasp had left an impression in the… well, ‘skin,’ or whatever that would be called. 

As for the Necromancer himself, he actually looked a bit upset by what she’d said, his face flushing a bit as he snapped, “I have always cared for you, Rahan.” Again, he pronounced it ‘Rain.’ “Everything I have done, everything I’ve become, everything that has– it was all because I loved–love you. It was all because I wanted to protect you! I only wanted to keep you safe.” 

“You’re right.” Rahanvael’s voice was soft, barely audible, yet somehow filled with raw emotion. It quaked, the words hoarse and broken. “Everything that you have done started because you were trying to protect me. We lost our mother, and when we visited her spirit to say goodbye, you felt her. You tried to keep her there. That’s how you found out about your power, Mera. You felt her and you tried to stop her spirit from moving on, and when they wouldn’t let you, when our father forced you to let her go, you… you were so afraid. We lost our mother and you were afraid you would lose me, lose your twin. So you did what? You withdrew even more. You spent seven years obsessing over learning to control your power on your own, experimenting on animals in the woods. Seven years when we could have been living our lives.” 

“If you and Father had only listened to me, we could have had an eternity together!” Fossor… yeah, he was clearly unstable. Facing his sister like this wasn’t doing wonders for his emotions. Still, he took a moment, mastering himself (at least outwardly) before speaking again, a bit more coldly. “But you didn’t. He didn’t. He–he interrupted. I would have brought you back.”

“You did bring me back,” Rahanvael reminded him, voice still quiet. “And I have spent millennia watching you commit more atrocities, more… evil than I could have imagined entire civilizations being capable of. Your crimes may have begun when you cut my throat, Mera. But everything you’ve done, everything you’ve become, that is what tears my heart from my chest.” 

Her voice was even more hollow by that point. She finished with the last thing she needed to say. “I loved my brother. He was my everything, my Mera. You are not him. You are an empty, soulless abomination that needs to die.” 

“You…” For a moment, Fossor looked… almost lost, really. It was so brief that I might have passed it off as my imagination. But it was there. It was absolutely there. He saw his sister, saw the way she looked at him, heard what she said, and it looked like those words struck home, for just a moment. But then it vanished, either hidden away or dismissed entirely. In its place was anger. Cold anger, the sort that would leave any soul that could feel such emotion a barren wasteland. 

He spoke again, voice far emptier than I had ever heard it. “Each of you will learn the cost of your efforts. Because you seem to have forgotten one very important thing. You cannot harm me.” 

With those simple words, he straightened, blue-white flames flickering around his feet before extending out into the shape of a serpent that coiled up and around him almost protectively. It was like a… ghost. It was a ghost snake. A giant ghost snake. Fun. 

“My life is connected to those of my world–of our world,” he amended, with a look toward his sister. “How many of our people will you allow them to sacrifice before bowing to the inevitable? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? More? How many will you let them put to the flames?” 

His words had an impact. I could tell that much. Rahanvael swallowed, floating there next to me. But she refused to break eye contact, staring back at him with a sad, broken voice. “Whatever it takes,” the girl informed him very quietly. “You must be stopped. A man who has already murdered millions cannot bargain with the lives of those he would kill anyway.” 

The ghost-serpent around Fossor drew itself up a bit, even as the man coldly snarled, “Then, by all means. Come and stop me.” 

Even as he said those words, the ghost-snake launched itself toward us. The thing was as big as a bus, mouth stretching wide as though it was going to try to eat us. I had no idea if it was even capable of that, given the whole ghost thing. But nor was I going to test it. With a quick thrust of my staff, I triggered the boost on it, sending myself up and over the lunging snake. Below me, Mom vanished from where she was standing, appearing off to the side while producing a glowing blue energy sword in one hand that she used to cut into its side. 

The snake wasn’t the only issue, of course. Fossor still had a literal army of ghosts and zombies he could throw at us. And throw them at us he did, as what looked like a tidal wave of the undead creatures came swarming in from all sides. The Necromancer wasn’t fucking around anymore. Even as I launched myself up, I could see an army of the creatures coming in from all sides, practically falling in on us like a tidal wave. This wasn’t a few ghosts, or a handful of zombies. This wasn’t something he expected us to fight. He expected us to be massacred. 

In mid-air, I dropped my staff, focusing on using the object-stopping power I’d just learned about. The staff froze, even as my feet came down on it. The freeze would only last for a few seconds, of course. But for those few seconds, I could stand on the staff in mid-air as though I was on solid ground. And I used that by summoning a dozen or so coins to each hand. Coins I had prepared over my time spent in the future waiting for the time travel spell to be ready. 

With those coins in hand, as I perched on my frozen staff, a very slight, humorless smile touched my face. Then I threw the coins out in every direction, scattering them through the air while blurting the command word. 

That swarm of Fossor’s minions kept coming, even as the coins were flung into their midsts. Then the spells activated, and the coins exploded into several clouds of blue-green mist. Every ghost or zombie that was touched by the mist immediately turned on one another. Which made others around them, those not affected by the clouds, turn back to defend themselves or be dragged to the ground. No longer were they a coherent army sent to attack us. Thanks to my frenzy-undead spells (learned courtesy of Petan himself, actually), huge portions were stuck blindly fighting each other.

By that point, the item-freeze had ended, and I grabbed my staff while it fell. A quick burst sent me flying forward and to the ground, where I landed on both feet in an open space that had been created by the frenzy spells. 

Mom was still dealing with the giant snake. Fossor was moving to the altar. More of his minions who hadn’t been either affected by the frenzy spells or attacked by those who had been were closing in on me. I’d dealt with a large portion of his army with that little trick (one I’d deliberately been saving until Fossor actually committed himself to using more of his forces), but not nearly enough. There were still dozens, even hundreds in the way, coming for me. Coming to stop me from getting to their master. 

But it wasn’t enough. Not this time. I wasn’t going to let anything, not even a literal army, stop me from getting to that son of a bitch. Focusing, I took off, running straight toward Fossor, which put me on a collision course with the largest concentration of the undead creatures. 

I couldn’t control all of Fossor’s minions. I wasn’t that strong or skilled yet. Fossor was far better than I was at Necromancy. At most, I could control a few at a time, even after all the practice I’d had recently. 

But here was the thing. I didn’t need to control all of them. I only had to control the ones directly in front of me, the ones close enough to actually touch me. Because only those few were a real threat. Only those few, the ones near enough to reach out and scratch, claw, or bite me were the ones I needed to worry about. And those were the ones I took control of. With effort that manifested itself into a literal scream tearing its way out of my throat, I shoved my will into the handful of ghosts and zombies that were directly in my way. The four nearest pivoted, throwing themselves into those behind them to form physical blockades. 

Dashing through the opening that created, I instantly released my hold on those four, shifting it over to the next small handful. Two ghosts and three zombies all turned on their companions, freeing up another small bit of space for me to move through, even as I shifted my control yet again. 

I made my way through Fossor’s army like that. Yeah, I couldn’t come close to matching his power or skill, even while he was distracted. But there was only so much space around me, so all I had to do was control the ones right there for the few seconds while passing through the area. It didn’t deal with the problem entirely, but that was a lost cause anyway. The problem was Fossor, not his minions. He was the one I had to get to. 

Between using my own Necromancy to briefly control very specific figures, my ghost-fire enchanted weapon to cut through others, and a few strategic boost from my staff, I made my way quickly through the army that was trying to cut me off. Fossor. I had to get to him. That was all that mattered. Nothing else. All I had to do was stop him from getting to that altar. 

He could have made it. Even with everything I’d done, all the practice I’d had, he could have gotten there if it wasn’t for one thing: my mother. It was obvious that, while he’d dumped an army in front of me and left them on their own, my mom was a different story. She’d already dealt with that giant ghost snake, but Fossor kept sending more and more things at her with each step he made toward his actual destination. Burning metal spikes tore themselves up out of the ground. A dark, acidic fog that dissolved anything it touched. Skeletal creatures with a few scraps of rotted flesh hanging from their bones. Balls of greenish-white flames. Anything and everything he could summon was being thrown at my mother just to keep her busy, just to keep her away from him while he took those last few steps toward his destination. He wasn’t worried about me. He was worried about her, and it showed in how much focus and effort he was putting toward occupying her. The power, the spells, the sheer force of everything he was dumping into that one small spot where my mother stood was staggering. 

And yet, Mom met everything. She shattered his attacks, broke them apart like waves crashing against a boulder. Her powers, her skill, her magic, all of it matched what he was sending at her. He was so much older, so much stronger, but he couldn’t break her. Not as distracted as he was. His attention was torn between trying to get to that altar and keeping her busy. All while he simply ignored me, trusting the army he’d tossed my way to be enough. 

It was a mistake I would be glad to make him pay for. 

With a violent, inarticulate scream, I tore my way through the last of the ghosts in my way, the blade of my staff cutting through the glowing figure. The ghost disintegrated, leaving a clear, open space between us. Between Fossor and me. 

Four steps. He was four steps from the altar. My hand thrust out, creating a portal even as I triggered the boost from my staff and gripped the small bit of wood that was installed near the middle. A piece of wood that allowed me to possess it, disappearing into my own staff while the boost I had triggered sent it flying through the portal I’d created. 

I came out through the portal directly in front of Fossor, emerging from my staff immediately and catching it in one hand while glaring at him as I stood in his way. “No.” My voice was flat. I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t make some kind of cutting remark or give a witty comment. That single word was all I could force out through the thick lump that had formed in my throat. 

A cloud of ashes swirled around Fossor, pulled from that canteen before they settled in front of his feet as he took one more step to put himself closer. In the same motion, he lashed out as though to backhand me despite the fact that he wasn’t quite close enough. Still, my staff snapped up to block it. 

But he wasn’t trying to hit me with his hand. Instead, in response to his gesture, a giant skeletal version, almost as large as my entire body, tore itself out the ground and slammed into me with so much force I was sent staggering backward. He immediately followed that up by summoning two more smaller hands to grab my ankles, but I stopped one by throwing my own will against it, forcing the hand to freeze. The other I cut off with a quick slash of my staff. 

Fossor was there, right in front of me. His fist lashed out, and I ducked, my staff snapping up to drive the blade into the side of his wrist. I might as well have been hitting a mountain for all the good it did. His arm didn’t even move. The blade of my staff did nothing to him, any damage it might have been capable of simply and casually passed off to any of the billions of hostages he had. 

The Necromancer, clearly angry by that point, followed up with three more snake-quick strikes. I blocked one, twisted around the second, but the third caught me. He was so fast. Loathe as he obviously was to actually physically involve himself in a confrontation, he was still so fucking fast. And strong. That single blow, a contemptuous backhanded strike, knocked me to the ground. It was a momentary opening, but one that Fossor took advantage of, foot snapping out with deceptive casualness to kick me in the face. It was like being hit by a train. I was thrown to my back, dazed and barely conscious through those brief, crucial seconds. 

Standing over me, Fossor moved to finish up by summoning some kind of ghostly spear, sending it down at my chest with a quick, dismissive gesture. 

But I wasn’t alone. In that instant, the very moment that I was in real danger, Mom was there. She appeared, glowing blade lashing out to cut through the ghostly spear and knock it aside. Instantly, she followed up by summoning a ball of flame, sending it into Fossor’s face. 

It did nothing. He passed off the damage, snarling in annoyance before launching himself at my mother. Not just the man by himself. He summoned more arms, more flames, more blades, all of it filling the air with two intentions: to kill me and to kill my mother. 

If I had been by myself, I would have been dead. But I wasn’t. Mom protected me. With every motion, every snap of her sword, every flick of her finger, she stopped another attack, broke another of Fossor’s summoned blades, or disintegrated another of his ghosts. 

Through that, I somehow forced myself to my feet, intercepting a couple of those attacks myself. And beside me, Rahanvael appeared. She couldn’t do much, but, being a ghost, she could catch some of the intangible spears and blades that were sent at us. She was one more thing to take some of the attacks. 

Between us, between Rahanvael and myself, we managed to give Mom an opening here and there to actually counter-attack. She didn’t have to put everything she had toward saving us. She had a few moments to lash out with attacks of her own. Attacks that would have killed him. Again and again, my mother could have put that fucker in the ground. Her blade cut through his throat, tore into his stomach, her fire engulfed him. But nothing stuck. Nothing could stick. He passed all of it off to his hostages. No matter what we did, no matter how many times Mom fucking killed him, it never mattered. 

Finally, glowing ghost-like bars appeared, rising around Fossor to cut us off from him. I could see the effort on his face, could see that we’d had an effect, no matter what he may have wanted us to think. He was angry. But more than that, he was winded. Everything we’d done, it mattered. He couldn’t dismiss us, couldn’t just knock us aside like weeds. 

“You,” the bastard snarled, “cannot stop me. You will fail. You will fall. Your bodies will be buried here, alone and forgotten. Y–” 

And then a shovel slammed through those summoned bars, shattering them like crystal before crashing into Fossor’s face to send him flying backward from the sheer force of the blow. The evil fuck crashed onto the ground a good couple hundred feet back, just as one of his ghosts disintegrated itself under him so his body wouldn’t hit the dirt without the protective ashes. 

“Not alone,” Gabriel Prosser informed him, straightening to stand beside my mother. “And never forgotten.” 

Nor was he alone. All around us, throughout the quarry, more figures appeared. Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Gwen, Nevada, Kohaku, Carfried, Hisao, Asenath, Seller, Twister, Brom Bones, Mercury, and more appeared. Mateo and his werewolves were here, including Pace and Roxa. May and April were here. Misty and her brother Duncan appeared. Enguerrand, Larissa, and Haiden too. My brother, Wyatt, appeared with Koren beside him. Avalon and Shiori, standing together with Aylen, Miranda, Columbus, Sands and Sarah. Sean was there too, in his still-confusingly older form right alongside his brother Ian.

“No…” Fossor snarled, his eyes darting around to find himself surrounded as he picked himself up. “No, this is–no, you cannot be here! The beacons have not yet broken through the shielding! You cannot have been summoned, you cannot be here!” 

“We had a little help finding the place,” Apollo casually informed him. And with those words, more figures appeared. Ghosts, but ones who had not been summoned by Fossor. 

They were the ghosts I had freed, the ones I’d given the same power as Rahanvael by cutting them away from Fossor’s control. I saw Ahmose at their head, his eyes blazing with fiery hatred for the man who had destroyed and enslaved him for so long. 

“It ends,” the ghost informed his former master, his words echoed by the rest of the ghosts who had accompanied him to this final confrontation. The ghosts who, instead of running and hiding from the monster who had done so much to them, had found my friends, my allies, and brought them here to stop him once and for all. 

A hand touched my arm. My gaze turned, and I saw her. My little sister. Tabbris stood there, tears filling her eyes as she stared at me. “You’re okay,” she whispered, voice so soft it seemed as though she was afraid I would shatter. 

“I’m okay,” I confirmed. Then I extended my hand to her. “You ready for this?” 

Her tears melted away, expression hardening into determination, as she met my hand with her own. “Ready.” 

Then she disappeared, possessing me once more. Back where she belonged. Back with me. 

Now it was time. Either we would stop Fossor here and now. Or we would die, and the Earth would be his forever. 

As one, the army that had arrived to end Fossor once and for all fell in on him. 

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Interlude 6B – Avalon and Miranda (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You know the problem with trying to plant something in Desoto?” Miranda Wallbern noted while she, Avalon, and Hisao stood on the beach looking out at the gulf of Mexico. “There is no Desoto!” With that blurted exclamation, the girl waved both hands wildly out toward the water. “There hasn’t been for over a hundred years, so what the hell are we supposed to do?” 

Taking a knee next to the gently lapping waves, Hisao was silent for a moment. The young-looking yet ancient Asian man (his birth apparently predated even the Seosten’s arrival on Earth, despite his casual nature and tendency to avoid standing out or drawing power to himself) put his hand against the water and seemed to be focusing. Finally, he spoke quietly. “The Victors are convinced that the vines will be able to grow on Desoto soil. They’ve done the rituals, the fortune-seeing spells, everything they can do. It all says that the vines will grow properly and bear more fruit once they’re planted in Desoto.” A wry smirk touched his face as he half-turned to glance at the girls. “They’re also convinced that you two can help make that work. I guess the spells told them that part too. Something about you being able to produce what is needed to bring the plants to life and make them bear fruit in the soil of Desoto.” 

Avalon, who had been quiet the whole time, moved a few steps closer. Her voice was flat. “There is no soil of Desoto,” she pointed out while sitting down with her feet in the water. She wore no shoes or socks at the moment, letting her bare toes get soaked as the waves lapped over them. “It was all destroyed to eliminate the Fomorian threat. Or at least delay it. Wasn’t the point of the spell that all of Desoto had to be erased? If there was still part of it here, that would make the Fomorians still a threat, wouldn’t it?” As she said it, Avalon frowned at the water. 

Despite her frown, Avalon actually didn’t mind being out here. Solving this problem was important, even if she was utterly baffled about why she was needed. Sure, she was the descendant of the man who had supposedly created the Edge. But Bosch had been possessed. It wasn’t really him. Maybe there was some kind of bloodline thing or… something. Who knew. 

But in either case, being out here also distracted her from obsessing over Felicity. Flick. They would find her. That much Avalon was positive about. Fossor wouldn’t have spent ten years planning out how to abduct her just to kill the girl. He wanted her around. The thought of what she was almost certainly going through, the thought of her being at Fossor’s mercy… that was enough to bring Avalon to multiple moments of screaming, frothing rage over the past few weeks. But she kept those moments mostly under control, and focused on keeping busy. 

They were planning out how to find Fossor. They had multiple leads, multiple chances. And she had made it damn clear to everyone involved just how annoyed she would be if they tried to leave her out of things or didn’t include her in the rescue. They knew how she would react, and she’d been promised by multiple people including Dare, Abigail, and Kohaku that she would be included and kept up to date on what was going on, that they would tell her the second they knew anything useful at all. It wasn’t enough to stop her from obsessing, of course. Not nearly. Yet it did, at least, soothe the young woman enough that she could try distracting herself here. 

Fossor would get what was coming to him. She would get Flick back. That much Avalon was absolutely certain of. It was just… the waiting. The being terrified of what the girl she loved was going through. Being helpless to do anything or even talk to her. She missed talking to Flick. 

“It could still mean to plant the vines at the bottom of the gulf, right?” Miranda offered weakly, her face grimacing a little. “I know it’s like a mile deep, but that shouldn’t be anything to Heretics. Hell, they could probably just create a big, permanent shield dome or something to have air and plant them safely without having to worry about water or anything.” 

“They’ve tried that,” Hisao informed them. “Unfortunately, the vines don’t like the soil down there. Plus they need sunlight. They’ve tried artificial light, portals to bring sunlight down into that area, everything. The vines won’t grow down there. It’s close. Their botanists say that the vines are really close to taking root. But it’s like they’re missing something. They were hoping that one of you would be able to provide that missing thing. Or at least figure out what it is. Seller’s been down there for weeks off and on, trying to use his own powers to make the plants take root.” 

“His own powers?” Miranda echoed. “Oh, you mean his original powers. The biology manipulation or whatever.” Seller and Gaia had both received powers from the same creature when they had first become Natural Heretics. The creature had been a Djehuti, and unlike most inherited powers, the Djehuti split its own gifts in two. Gaia had received its incredible, vast control over technology, while Seller had received vast knowledge of how to create and manipulate the genetics of non-sapient living things. It made him almost as good at making or fiddling with living bodies (not only plants, but animals too) as the Fomorians were. Unfortunately, it was a gift he used quite sparingly in the wake of the invasion from those monsters, given how such things were viewed now. But at the time, it had also made him an invaluable resource for combating them. 

In any case, Seller had deep expertise with manipulating plants, so he had eventually been put at the head of the project for getting these Eden’s Garden vines to take root. 

Hisao was nodding. “Yeah, the original powers. He’s having trouble getting the vines to stop being giant pains in the ass, his words. Keeps getting close, but it’s not enough. He says he needs something else. There’s something about the vines that resists him fiddling with them. Seems like when they made the damn things, they put in a lot of protections against exactly what he’s doing. Probably so the Fomorians didn’t grab a sample for themselves and make their own version. Just in case. Which, you know, not a bad idea given who we’re talking about. But it still screws us over.” 

Miranda sighed heavily, kicking out to send a spray of sand out into the water. Like Avalon, she was dealing with Flick’s abduction about as well as she possibly could. In her case, it meant having multiple duplicates who were all out helping in various places. They were at school, on various training missions, on actual missions, helping out at the Atherby camp, and one was even in the Bystander world working at a homeless shelter. Miranda coped with feeling helpless by putting a dozen versions of herself to work all day long, then absorbing them at the end of the day and feeling everything they had accomplished. It didn’t solve the problem or anything. It didn’t make her forget that she could do nothing for Flick. But it… helped, somewhat. It was something. And at that point, every little thing that helped her get through each day until they could actually find Flick and get her away from that monster was worth it. 

“Okay,” the dark-skinned girl began, “so the plants won’t grow at the bottom of the gulf, but they’re close to growing. You said it’s just like there’s something stopping Seller’s power from working on them? And according to those fortune spells, the answer is something that Avalon and I can give. So… what is it? What are you guys missing that Avalon and I could give you?” Pausing, she shook her head and corrected, “Wait. What are you missing that either of us could provide? That’s important, right? It’s an important distinction. It has to be something that either of us could provide, not just one of us. Because if it was something that only Avalon could provide, I wouldn’t have been included.” 

“Or,” Avalon pointed out mildly, “it’s two things, one that you can provide and one that I can provide. My blood or something, maybe. If Radueriel tied Bosch’s blood to the Edge, it could still be tied to the vines… somehow. Maybe they need my blood in the soil to take root properly.” 

“Yeah, but what the hell could I provide?” Miranda asked with a confused wave of both hands. “Seriously, you might be special and all, but I’m just a normal Heretic student. Which, yeah, I know that’s not really normal at all, but still. I don’t have anything to do with this ancient stuff. Why would the vines need anything I could give them that other Garden people couldn’t? What do I have that others don’t? I’m not some super botanist. Hell, Seller can’t make the vines grow and he has the power to fuck around with the their genetics and all that shit. I don’t even have that. I definitely don’t have magic plant growing powers.” 

Hisao straightened up and took a step away to watch from nearby, silently observing the two girls while they debated back and forth about what the fortune-seeing spells could possibly have meant when they claimed that the two of them could provide the last bit that the vines needed to take root and begin growing properly. A curious look, followed by a brief flash of realization had crossed the man’s face, but he smoothed it out and waited for the girls to get to that point themselves. Old as he was, Hisao had long-ago mastered the art of patience. The girls would get there eventually. Best if they managed it themselves, and grew from the experience. 

It took a few more minutes of the two girls throwing out thoughts, shooting them down, considering everything they were capable of, and asking Hisao what had been tried. Then Avalon went quiet. Her head tilted curiously, a frown crossing the girl’s face as she stared at the sand. Hisao could almost see the wheels turning in her head, before she slowly looked over at the girl next to her. “What was that you said a minute ago, about magic plant growing powers?” 

Miranda, in turn, blinked at her in confusion. “Uhhh, what? Oh, I just said I don’t have magic plant growing powers. I mean, as far as I know. Maybe I have a super green thumb and never–” 

“Wait.” Avalon interrupted sharply. Her brow was knitted into an intensely thoughtful frown. “It’s something that both of us could provide. Or either of us. We were both part of Eden’s Garden, so their fortune spells considered us inside their… group or whatever. We were the part of Eden’s Garden who were most likely to be able to provide what the vines need. It has nothing to do with my blood or any power either of us have.” 

“It doesn’t?” Miranda started blankly, staring at the other girl. 

“No,” Avalon confirmed. She glanced toward Hisao pointedly. “You said Seller’s been trying to make the vines grow with his own power, but they keep resisting it. He needs help.” 

“Yes,” the man replied simply, watching her reaction. “They do have other plant-experts, even those with related gifts. But nothing has worked. It’s like the vines are actively resisting being grown anywhere beyond Eden’s Garden. That’s what Seller says, anyway. He thinks there might have been some kind of genetic-level modifications to ensure no one did… well, exactly what we’re trying to do. He’s trying to bypass it, but not having much luck so far.” 

“He needs help getting past that block,” Avalon pointed out. “Right now he’s just trying to overpower it, and I’m pretty sure Radueriel and his cronies would’ve been ready for that. That’s the whole problem. The Seosten who created the Eden’s Garden tree, or… or helped it be created, or whatever, they put in protections against genetic tampering just like what Seller’s trying to do. Because they didn’t want the Fomorians to take samples and create their own tree. And any defenses they included against the Fomorians are also going to stop Seller. I mean, maybe he can eventually get around it and force the vines to grow with enough effort, but we don’t have time for that. We need a way to bypass those protections so Seller’s power can work and he can make them grow right. Someone who can force the vines to do what they’re told that isn’t about messing with their genetics the way the Fomorians or Seller do.” 

“And you know someone like that?” Miranda asked, raising an eyebrow while racking her brain. 

“We both do,” the other girl informed her. “At least, we know someone with the potential to do that. That’s the entire reason those fortune spells kept pointing at us. Because we’re former Eden’s Garden students who have the exact connection needed. We’ve been loyal to Garden and we know the exact right person to help. The only person who could end up with the right powers.” 

For a moment, Miranda blinked at her. “Wait, someone with the potential to do that? Someone who could end up with–” Then she did a sharp double-take, eyes widening with realization. “Whoa, whoa! You don’t mean–but she hasn’t–” 

“Not yet,” Avalon agreed. “At least, not that we know of. But can you think of anyone else with the potential to do what we need? Who else fits that bill? It’s someone we both have a connection to and someone no one else has thought of asking for help from yet. So it can’t be anyone whose gift is well-known.” 

For a long moment, Miranda just stared. Then she looked toward Hisao and squinted. “How long ago did you figure it out?” the girl demanded. 

His response was a simple smile. “Not long, I promise. Just in the past few minutes. But yeah, I think you’re both right. She’s the only one who might fit. The best guess we’ve got right now, anyway.” 

“Right,” Avalon pushed herself up, turning away from the water. 

“Let’s go talk to the kid.” 

*******

“What?!” Eyes wide with confusion, thirteen-year-old Dakota Coalbright jerked to her feet from the kitchen table in the house where Sands, Sarah, Vanessa, Tristan, Koren, Aylen, Gordon, Jazz, Eiji, and the slinky-like Alter known as Ruckus lived. Dakota had been staying there as well, despite her younger age, because being near Vanessa was where she was most comfortable. And above all else, Principal Fellows and the other staff wanted her to be comfortable. 

Unfortunately, she was definitely not that right now. She was in the kitchen with Avalon and Miranda, who had both asked to talk to her. Hisao leaned against the nearby doorway, giving the girls room to talk. And in this moment, comfort was about as far as possible from Dakota’s mind. 

“I don’t have–I’m not–I don’t have plant powers!” she blurted, head shaking so fast it almost might’ve popped off her shoulders. She denied it a little too firmly. “I don’t do anything like what–what he does! I’m not like that!” Her voice grew louder by the word, making the girl sound almost hysterical. 

Miranda took the lead, quickly raising both hands. “We know, we know. You’re not like him. You’re not like Kwur, not–not at all. Trust me, Dakota, we know you’re nothing like him. No one thinks you are. Nobody. You’re different. But…” She hesitated, then stepped over, tugged a chair out, and sat down. Her voice was quieter. “But there’s gotta be a reason Kwur wanted you taken care of. Whatever deal he and Fossor made, it included you being visited and checked up on, or whatever. Sariel and Apollo, they broke through the memory blocks on Vanessa and Julius Harn. They know Fossor was at the hospital. And with everything else they’ve worked out, and what… what Kwur said, it’s obvious that he wanted you kept alive for a reason.” 

Arms folded protectively against her stomach, Dakota shook her head just as frantically as before. “No. No, no. I’m not like that. I’m not–” 

“It doesn’t mean you’re evil.” That was Avalon, stepping forward. Her voice was as calm as she could make it, under the circumstances. She knew too well the sort of thoughts that were running through this girl’s head. “Having a connection to an evil thing doesn’t make you evil. If… Kwur putting his seed in your head before did make you a Natural Heretic of him, that doesn’t mean you’re anything like him. Yes, Dakota, we think that’s what the fortune spells that pointed at us meant, that we were supposed to involve you. We think you have Kwur’s powers, or at least some version of them. And if you do, you can convince the vines to grow in a way no one else could.” 

“You can talk to the vines,” Miranda agreed. “You can get around the blocks that the Seosten installed. No one else could do that. If… if you do have these powers, you’re the only person in the world who can make the vines take root before it’s too late.” 

Avalon nodded. “That’s not evil, Dakota. If you can do that, you’ll be giving a lot more people the chance to fight against evil. Power isn’t evil just for existing. What you do with it is good or evil.” 

Squirming, Dakota opened and shut her mouth a couple times. She still looked pale (though she always did) and afraid. But there was something else there, a sort of very faint, yet growing determination. At the moment, it was just a seed, but it was there. 

“But I… I…” She cringed, the admission coming in a hollow voice. “… I think I made a flower grow once. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t. I just–I–I never did it again!” Admitting that she really had used those plant-powers despite claiming she didn’t have them made the girl wilt inwards with shame and fear of their reaction. 

“It’s okay,” Miranda quickly assured her. “It’s okay, Dakota. We know why you… why you’ve been avoiding it. Why you’ve been pushing the powers away. But if you can help, if you can make these vines grow so that we can make more Heretics… you could help the Rebellion. You could save a lot of people.” 

For a moment, there was no response other than a few quiet sniffles. The very thought of actively using a power that belonged to the abomination who had forced her and the rest of her family to kill each other was… was…

“Okay,” came the very soft, almost inaudible voice.

“I’ll try.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The death of Kwur’s special tree had an immediate effect. Or rather, a lot of immediate effects. First, the branches and roots that had been pinning me to the wall dissolved into ash, letting me stumble a bit before catching myself. Turning quickly to look back the way I had come, I saw all the plants throughout the subway tunnel falling apart into more clumps of ash that faded into nothing after a few seconds. I wasn’t sure… why exactly, but it clearly had something to do with Kwur’s connection to the plants. We’d killed the largest concentration of his consciousness here in Vegas, and what was left wasn’t able to maintain the jungle he’d created. I hoped the fact that all of this was dissolving meant that the plant back in Gehenna was his only body now. 

Okay, I didn’t really believe the universe was that lucky. But I could at least hope that any other bodies he had were well away from Earth and too weak to pose much of a threat for awhile. 

But I still had to check on the others. We assumed that killing this part of Kwur would free those he had put under his control (that’s what Prelate had told us anyway), but I had to be sure. With a grunt, I pushed myself that way, starting to run toward the opening when I felt Tabbris’s presence as the girl did a partial recall to me, just enough to communicate. Which she did, by blurting an excited, We did it! We broke the evil Plant Man! Did you see the way he exploded?!  

Her excitement was contagious. Or maybe I was just really giddy after that whole thing. My head bobbed with an easy smile, as I passed through the subway platform and looked around at all the plants disintegrating into ash. I definitely saw, I replied. That was a really good shot, Ace. 

December did it too! She informed me. We pushed the button together! After Larees made sure the targeting was right. And then the stupid evil plant guy went fwooom! I could hear the grin in her voice. He was so surprised! 

By that point, I could see Columbus and Bobbi greeting Miranda, Sands, Sarah, Shiori, and Asenath as they emerged from the other tunnel. At first, my heart sank a little bit, a heavy stone of worry sinking into my stomach briefly. But then I saw Jiao. She was behind them, helping that Julius Harn guy walk. He looked a little roughed up, but not too bad considering the situation I’d left all of them in. Scattered around the platform were a bunch of injured and unconscious figures, or people just sitting there looking confused about the whole situation.

Bobbi raced quickly to Asenath, hugging the vampire. I heard her say something about how great it was that they’d found Jiao. Columbus, meanwhile, took his turn to embrace Shiori, the two adopted siblings holding each other for a moment. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, racing toward me after being released by her brother. I caught her, and we embraced tightly while the other girl murmured against my ear, “You did it. You did it, you killed him, you freed my mom.” There were tears in her voice as she clung tightly to me. I could feel the incredible stress and tension she’d been holding in throughout the time that her mother had been missing (and especially once we’d found her here under Kwur’s control) melting away as she shuddered emotionally. 

Holding the other girl close, I murmured reassuring words while silently telling Tabbris that I would see her soon and that she should get back to December, Larees, and the others on the ship. We would all be meeting up together to go over what had happened, and to see that the Gehenna people knew exactly what the situation with the bit of Kwur that had been out here was. And to make sure the whole thing was really over. Which… come to think of it… 

“Hey, what about that Azlee Ren guy?” I suddenly blurted, frowning as Shiori and I released each other to look to the rest of the group down here. “He’s the one who basically started this whole thing. So where is he?” My gaze found Julius Harn, who was already looking at me. He seemed really tired, barely able to stand. His heavy, beachball-like body was slumped over, using the wall to keep himself up rather than leaning against Jiao any more. “What’s going on?” 

The man breathed hard a couple times, inhaling and exhaling in slightly shuddering gasps before he managed to speak. “Never… saw a man called… Azlee. He wasn’t… down here.” 

Okay, that definitely didn’t make any sense. We knew for a fact that Azlee Ren was the guy who was behind this. Or rather, the Gehenna prison guard who had been Azlee Ren and was probably being controlled by Kwur. Why wouldn’t this Harn guy know anything about him? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be. There was just… something off. If Azlee wasn’t down here, if Harn had never seen him, what… what? 

“Maybe his memory was changed,” Sarah offered with a helpless shrug. “Like Vanessa’s.” She was leaning on her rifle, breathing almost as hard as Harn was. Now that I looked around a bit, I could see that everyone looked pretty worn out. They were barely able to keep standing, for the most part. Whatever had happened while I was gone, it looked like it hadn’t been restful, to say the least. They’d been to hell and back just fighting to keep Jiao and Harn from doing anything they wouldn’t be able to take back. It could’ve been really, unbelievably bad. The thought of Jiao coming back to herself after killing either of her daughters, or anything like… no. No, I wasn’t going to think about that. We beat Kwur, and none of us died. We won. 

Even if the pressing worry about just where the hell Azlee was kept burning like a match at the back of my mind. 

Before anyone else could say anything to Sarah’s suggestion, we heard more people approaching. Turning, we all saw Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan coming our way. They looked as worn out as the rest of us, but otherwise unharmed. 

Seeing Harn, Vanessa stopped short, staring at him. He, in turn, looked back to her, offering a slight, tired smile. “I wouldn’t… wish the circumstances on anyone,” he managed a bit weakly, “but it is still good to see you again, Miss Moon.” 

While Vanessa shook her head and stared at him helplessly, Sariel stepped in. “You do know my daughter then? You remember helping her? You remember her introducing you to Dakota?”

The man frowned in confusion. His eyes glanced from Sariel to Vanessa and back again, looking uncertain. “I… well, yes, of course I remember that. I worked with Vane–wait, are you… You’re her mother, aren’t you? And you–” He seemed to notice Haiden and Tristan for the first time, a delighted smile crossing his face. “Vanessa! You got your family back! That’s wonderful!” 

“I…” Vanessa bit her lip, wincing a little as she admitted, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t remember you. I should, but apparently somebody… somebody altered my memory. They took you and Dakota out.” 

It looked like Harn was going to say something to that, but Haiden spoke up first. “We should really talk about this somewhere else. I don’t feel comfortable down here in Kwur’s tunnels, even if he is dead.” Offering a shrug, he added, “This place gives me the creeps.”   

He definitely had a point. I didn’t feel like staying down here any longer than we had to either. So, we started out of the tunnels. It was a lot different down here without all the plants, that was for sure. I could see a group of the previously mind-controlled people standing in a clump, with that ogre-like Luiena woman from the Oni and Eldridge from the Akharu talking to them.

As we approached, Eldridge excused himself and came trotting over. “Well, hey there!” He was grinning, clearly in a good mood. “Looks like calling in some help from the Heretic Rebellion was the right move after all.” His expression sombered just a little bit then, as he added, “Seriously, thanks, guys. Thank you so much. It looks like we’ll be able to wrap things up here without everything falling into open war after all.” 

“What about the rest of the missing kids who were taken with Jiao?” I asked. “And the princess, umm… Rowan, what about her?” 

Haiden answered, “Dare, Triss, Felix, and I found them. We… dealt with the people they had guarding them. They’re with the kids now, so it’s okay.” 

Eldridge nodded easily. “That’s right, and our people are already there too. The princess and her friends are safe, it seems everyone here has made it relatively intact. This was a success.” 

“But we still don’t know where that Azlee guy is,” Miranda pointed out. 

“And something tells me that’s gonna bite us in the ass at some point.” 

*******

Rowan was a cute kid. Half-Akharu and half-Vestil, she took more after the former, having a full physical body instead of the gas form. But apparently that was only the outside. Inside her body was primarily made of that gas cloud rather than any organs. Instead of having regular eyes, the space where they should be was filled with that rapidly color-changing gas. She was half and half, an exterior humanoid (or Akharu) body with a mostly energy/liquid/gas-like interior. 

In any case, the biggest point was that she was safe. And talkative. She and her friends who had also been rescued chatted up a storm with everyone who would indulge them. Which included Tabbris and December, of course. The other two came down from the ship to meet up with everyone, and we all reunited at the Vestil casino to exchange explanations and stories. 

Barnyard the troll, Pars the werewolf, and the rest of that group were there too. I made sure they were allowed to show up so we could thank them for helping to take care of our bodies as much as they had before our positions were swapped with our Theriangelos. From what I’d seen, they had done a lot of fighting to keep more of Kwur’s forces off of us when they could have walked away. We owed them for sticking it out at the risk of their lives, even if Pars insisted they were only making up for attacking us in the first place. He was a pretty cool guy, and so was Barny. I made sure to tell Pars he should look up Mateo’s pack if he had a chance, and that Barnyard might like to see Buddy System in Wonderland. 

We also got to see the parents of the missing kids meet up with them, including Rowan’s. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and overall joyful reunions. It was actually really nice to watch, even if I didn’t know these kids at all. I was glad we’d been able to save them. Or rather, that Dare, Haiden, and the cat-girls had, come to think of it like that. 

Anyway, the point was that it was really good to see these kids actually reunited with their families after everything that had happened to them. They had to all be checked for influence by Kwur, of course. But they came up clean. They were fine, and they were back with their parents. 

Then things got even better, as we stood in one of the private lounge areas of the casino watching all of this go on. Better, in this case, because one of the nearby doors opened and Avalon entered, accompanied by Sean, Theia, and Roxa. The latter two went to greet some of the others, but Sean and Avalon came to where I was standing with Shiori, Columbus, Asenath, and Jiao. 

Sean got to me first, and we embraced. “Hey, big guy,” I murmured. And big he was. It was still so strange to see Sean as a man in his twenties, after we’d… after we’d failed to rescue him for so long. He’d spent what to him was years in that prison. I honestly had no idea how he was holding up, aside from the fact that he spent a lot of time with his uncle, brother, and Roxa. I’d heard that he mostly coped by keeping himself busy, and that he did a lot of camping outside, under the stars. And yeah, I definitely couldn’t blame him for that last part. Apparently he hated being cooped up inside, hated staying in one place for very long at all, actually. He had a thing about never sleeping in the same place more than a couple times in a row if he could help it. Which, I supposed, made him pretty well-suited to traveling with a pack of werewolves who weren’t staying in the same place longer than a day or two if they could help it. 

“Hey yourself, Flickster,” Sean murmured, releasing me from the hug. “You’ve been busy. Out blowing up trees with ship-mounted cannons, huh?” 

“Eh,” I replied, “that tree had it coming.” 

It was Avalon’s turn then, and I quickly latched on, hugging the other girl as tightly as I could. Feeling her there, holding her after everything that had happened… it really affected me. I might’ve held on longer than strictly necessary, but it didn’t seem like she was objecting very much. The two of us clung to each other, before I leaned back and smiled. A joke of some kind found its way to my lips, but Avalon’s were there before I could say it. She kissed me, and I whimpered a little. Wow, yeah, it really did affect me. For a moment, I lost myself in that kiss. 

Eventually, we pulled back, and I took a moment to catch my breath before managing to focus on the smirking girl in front of me. I felt a bit giddy. And other things beyond giddy. “Umm… hi.” Coughing as the blush stretched across my face at the look she gave me, I managed a weak, “I guess you finished the errand you were on? How did umm…” I coughed again. “How’d that go?” 

“It’s finished,” she informed me, actually smiling genuinely. It was the smile of accomplishment, of finally finishing the project that her ancestor had worked on so hard. “Close enough, anyway,” she amended. “Dries and the others are putting the last touches on it. The spell should be ready to go within the day. We found what we needed.” 

Grinning, I hugged her again. “That’s great! See, we’ve both been busy little beavers lately.” 

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready to go back to boring old normal classes for a little bit.” Pausing, she amended, “Okay, our classes are never actually boring. But still. You know what I mean.” 

I nodded. “I definitely know what you mean. Believe me, we’re all ready for a good long break. But for now, hey, let’s just enjoy the celebration. The Gehenna people should be here any minute to give us a quick debriefing about the current Kwur situation.” As I said it, I gave Deveron a little wave over where he was talking to one of the Vegas people. 

“What about Azlee?” Columbus put in. He and Sean had been having their own little reunion. “We still don’t know where he is.” 

I started to say that that was going to be a job for the Gehenna people to track down their missing guy. We’d done our part. But before I could get it out, Dare approached with a simple, “They’ve found him.” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “They found Azlee Ren?” 

She gave a short nod. “Yes. Well, it turns out Larees did. She was determined to finish the job, given her… connection to Gehenna. She tracked him down in a motel on the edge of the strip. She’s bringing him back now, and the Gehenna people are on their way to pick him up.” 

Sure enough, it wasn’t long from then before Larees came in, accompanied by a figure who looked pretty similar to Prelate, actually. He had the same reptilian blue skin, vertically-pupiled yellow eyes, and so on. This had to be Azlee Ren. 

And… there was something… almost familiar about him? At first I thought it was just because he looked somewhat similar to Prelate. But that wasn’t it. The more I looked at him, as Larees led his shackled form across the room toward us, the more something niggled at the back of my mind. Wait… wait a minute…

Without really knowing what I was doing, I moved away from the others and stepped that way. They followed, and I heard Shiori ask if I was okay. But I didn’t answer. Instead, I held my hand out and said, “Stop.” 

Azlee stopped. He stood there, staring at me. Larees stopped too, looking from him to me. Her mouth opened, but I spoke again. “Sit down.” 

Azlee sat down. 

“Flick?” Shiori asked from nearby. “What… what are you… how are you doing that? Wait, are you controlling him? Because you could only do that if–” 

Spinning on my heel, my mouth opened as I blurted, “He’s a zom–” 

That was as far as I got, before Azlee exploded. His entire body blew apart in a blast of white light. I caught a glimpse of Dare in mid-leap, my name on her lips. Avalon and Shiori were there too, just behind her. Everything seemed frozen, as that white energy sought out me specifically. I felt the heat from it envelop my body, covering me from head to toe. It stung a little bit, just this side of being painful. Then I felt it cover me. I felt my body being yanked backward. I saw Dare, Shiori, Avalon, and all of the others grow smaller, their forms fainter as I was dragged from them. The world spun. My stomach heaved. Everything was upside down and inside out. 

A stone floor came up and smacked me, almost knocking the wind from my body as I fell with a yelp. Groaning, I lifted my head and looked around. I was… I was in a room I’d never seen before, a stone room covered in still-glowing runic symbols and devoid of any furniture or decorations. It was mostly dark, save for the small pool of light that I was lying in and the faint glow from the spellwork. 

Then I saw the figure who stood nearby, watching me. I saw the flickering light illuminate his slow, satisfied, triumphant smile. 

Fossor.

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