Miranda Wallbern

Interlude 19B – Rescuing Zeke (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was quick, to say the least. With Avalon, Aylen, Rebecca, Shiloh, Erin, Miranda, Eiji, Cameron, and Nevada already reacting to her appearance, the Whisper-possessed ghost instantly vanished from where she was. She reappeared directly in front of them, taking the time to give Avalon a sly, taunting smirk just as one of Cameron’s twin short swords lashed out. The blade was already glowing from a triggered ghost-fire enchantment, proving the former mentor of Vanessa, Tristan, and Erin’s team had come prepared. And yet, her blade struck nothing but empty air, as Invidia twisted sideways to avoid it. The move was relaxed, almost contemptuously so, as she shifted just enough to make the blade whiff past her. In the same motion, her hand snapped out with a deceptively casual look. The impact was anything but casual, however, as her hand slammed into Miranda’s chest with enough force to send the girl flying out the window with a violent and loud shattering of glass. 

In the next instant, Rebecca fired a blast of pulsing energy from a wrist-mounted gun of some sort, Eiji sent a burst of electricity from his hands that way, and Avalon activated her own gauntlet to produce an energy blade that would cut through ghosts. All three of their attacks, despite their close proximity to one another and the lack of warning, were reflexively situated to avoid hitting either one another or any of the others. They had trained far too much to make that sort of mistake. And yet, none of their attacks hit their actual target either. Somehow, the ghost woman moved too quickly for any of them to land a blow. The next thing they knew, she had caught hold of Shiloh by the arm and back of the neck and threw her out the window that Miranda had already gone through. Meanwhile, her foot snapped out to slam into Eiji’s stomach hard enough that he was knocked to the ground despite his size and strength. Another half second passed while Invidia spun toward Rebecca. But before she could make another move, a small green ball was tossed into her. It stopped in the middle of her ethereal form and began to glow. The ghost woman made a motion as though to move forward, only to stop short with a grunt. The ball was holding her in place. Her gaze snapped over to Nevada, who stood with her arm outstretched. In her other hand, the blonde woman held a pistol. “Everybody get down,” the former teacher  ordered while taking aim. The students all dove to either side at her words. 

Seeing a small pistol pointed at her, Invidia smirked despite the fact that she had been trapped in place. “Is that really the best you can do?” 

Meeting her gaze evenly, Nevada slyly replied,”Nope.” With that, she flipped the gun around so it was upside down in her hand. A flick of a button on the side immediately made the gun rapidly grow and transform itself. The barrel extended and separated out into several larger versions, while the sides of the gun opened to reveal pocket dimension space within where more and more pieces extended out and snapped into place. Within a few seconds, the small pistol had transformed into an absolutely enormous gatling gun that was literally larger than Nevada herself. She had to hold it by the main grip as well as an extra handle partway down the giant barrel. Invidia had just enough time for her eyes to widen as the barrels began to glow with ghost fire energy before thousands of bullets were flying her way. Bullets which were fully capable of harming ghosts. 

Invidia took several dozen of those hits, holes appearing in her form as she recoiled and hissed before managing to break the hold of the ball. It blew apart and she instantly vanished, clearly needing to regroup. Immediately, Nevada snapped toward Avalon. “Get out there and check on those two, then get those other Whispers away from Zeke. Yeah, I know, but do it. Rebecca, go with her. The rest of you watch for our new friend, because I don’t think she’s done being a pain in the ass yet.” The whole time she was speaking, Nevada had been doing something with an enchanted stone she pulled from her pocket, which disintegrated into ashes once she activated it. 

Avalon didn’t need to be told twice. While a part of her really wanted to stay behind and deal with Invidia, given the history she had with the host of the woman she was possessing, she knew better than to argue. This was too important. Without wasting another second, she pivoted and raced to that window before diving through. Rebecca was right behind her, and the two of them fell to the ground below. It was only a couple story drop, practically nothing for them by that point. They both landed smoothly next to Miranda and Shiloh, who had already picked themselves up. The four of them saw Zeke as he held his shield in front of himself. The shield was glowing with energy as he used it to deflect one of the ghost’s hands as it tried to grab him. A second ghost was coming at the boy from the right-hand side, while a third and fourth came up from behind, and a fifth was coming from his left. His free hand produced a flash of light that made the ghost to the right recoil reflexively, while he twisted away from the grasping hands of the ghosts behind him, and turned his head to look straight at the one coming up on his left. His eyes produced a pair of blueish-white beams of energy, which cut through that ghost and made it vanish. 

Which would have been all well and good, except that four more ghosts had appeared in that time and were grabbing for his arms. They all managed to catch him, but before they could solidify their grip, Avalon had produced her lizard cyberform, Porthos, and shifted him into his pistol form. She had, of course, already upgraded him to produce ghost-fire shots on command. Between having known multiple necromancers as enemies and being aware of the Whispers in general, not being prepared for something like this would have been absurd. Her first shot caught one of the ghosts in the side of the head, which wasn’t enough to destroy it, but made it recoil and let go of Zeke. Her next three shots hit each of the other ghosts, drawing their attention in rapid succession. 

Rebecca, by that point, had switched from using her wrist-mounted gun to produce her enormous cannon from that backpack she wore instead. As the nearest ghost focused on Avalon when she shot him once more, Rebecca opened up with that cannon. A positively massive blast of energy erupted that way, catching not only the one Avalon had just shot for a second time, but two others in its radius as well. All three of the ghosts were blown apart. 

“Takes awhile to recharge up to that level again, so you guys better do something!” the small girl blurted while shifting back to her wrist blaster to shoot one of the other ghosts who was flying at her. 

Shiloh held her wrist computer up and hit a couple buttons on the holographic display. And she did so, a beam of silver energy shot from that, to a nearby parked car. The engine on the car started up, before the entire thing was sheathed in the familiar ghost-fire as it abruptly drove forward to crash through two more Whisper-ghosts, dissolving them. 

“Yeah,” Shiloh called toward Avalon while directing the car toward the largest cluster of the ghosts, “you’re not the only one who prepped for more necromancer bullshit!” 

Miranda, meanwhile, was running toward Zeke. One of the ghosts went to grab her, and she smacked it away with her own glowing shield. The motion created six energy duplicates of her weapon, all of which slammed into the ghost, one after the other to drive it further back. When Miranda reached the boy, she blurted, “You need to get the hell out of here, right now!” 

He, in turn, snapped, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’ve got this, traitor!”  

By that point, Avalon and the other two had joined them. “Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “you’re hearing voices in your head. Voices that won’t shut up. It’s them, the Whispers, and you have no protection against them. You need to get the hell out of here right now.” 

From the way the boy flinched when she brought up the voices, everyone knew she was right. Still, he sneered, “What’s the matter, your girlfriend decided to come after me on her own and you didn’t like that?” 

Avalon blinked once before staring that way. “Do you think Flick’s behind this?” 

“Gee, let me think,” he retorted, “she’s some big hotshot necromancer and these are a bunch of ghosts who randomly decided they hate me in particular. Let me do the math on that one.” 

Miranda and Avalon exchange looks, both rolling their eyes. But it was Shiloh who spoke first. “Don’t be an idiot, she already told you what these things are. They can whisper in your head and take control of you if you don’t get the hell out of here right now. Use your evacuation thing, you gotta have one.” 

Rebecca added, “Have you noticed all your backup is gone?” 

While they were all saying that, the Whisper ghosts had regrouped and were surrounding them. Avalon could hear fighting going on in the building they had just come from, and silently wished Nevada and the others luck against Invidia. Right now, they had other things to focus on. 

Zeke, for his part, seemed to take a moment to consider what they were saying. He kept a tight grip on his shield, gaze snapping around very distrustingly. He clearly didn’t like any of them, to say the least. But, in the end, he admitted, “I tried, it didn’t work. They’re blocking it or something. But you probably already knew that,” he quickly added, as though he couldn’t stand not to suggest that they still could have something to do with this. 

By that point, the ghosts had begun charging in once more. Rebecca kept firing shots from her wrist blaster, while Miranda sent some more energy copies of her shield flying out to collide with them, and Avalon used Porthos.

“We have to get him out of here,” Avalon ordered. 

“On it,” Shiloh called. With that, she directed the car she had taken over to come screaming up in front of them, before the door opened. “Get in!” she shouted at Zeke. 

He, in turn, scoffed. “What the hell makes you think I’m just gonna –” 

Before he could say anything else, Avalon grabbed the back of his neck with her free hand and bodily threw him into the backseat of the car while firing three more shots in rapid succession. Then she lunged to jump on top of the car before firing yet another shot at the ghost who was trying to come from that side. Miranda jumped onto the trunk, while Rebecca and Shiloh threw themselves into the front seat of the car. And with that, the tires squealed loudly as the car took off. 

“I can’t keep the ghost-fire charge going all the time!” Shiloh shouted while her fingers danced over the controls on her wrist computer. The car went squealing around a corner, while the Whisper ghosts chased after them. 

Leaning back a bit to steady herself as she was nearly launched off the top of the car, Avalon focused on a power she had picked up by killing that Heretic back on the prison world. Her feet were immediately rooted to the metal there. As long as she didn’t want to move, almost nothing could make her. Between that and her own balance, she was able to keep herself upright and aim her pistol at the ghosts as they gave chase after the group. No matter how fast the car went, the Whispers were right behind them. Grunting, Avalon pulled the trigger several times, sending glowing bullets that way. At the same time, she dug in her pocket for a teleportation stone and looked at it before shaking her head. Crouching so she would be closer to the windows, she fired again while shouting, “Transport stones are down for us too! We’ve got to get further away!” 

Miranda, ahead of Avalon in her spot down on the trunk, shouted a warning as the pursuing ghosts sent… some sort of collective energy blast their way. It was as wide as the car itself, and looked a bit like weird glowing ectoplasm with lightning dancing through it. Whatever it was, being hit by it felt like a very bad idea. Thankfully, Shiloh reacted to the shout and sent the car into a sharp turn toward a nearby alley. They had been passing bystanders in other cars and on the sidewalks the whole time, without any of them noticing anything aside from the fact that they were speeding, of course. But now, as the car went screaming past several vehicles to cut them off, there were a few annoyed honks. As well as a scream as one of the pedestrians had to throw themselves backwards to avoid the oncoming car. Another person wasn’t fast enough on their own, but before the car could run them over, Rebecca leaned out the front passenger seat and thrust her hand that way. A glowing blue replica of her hand, several times larger, caught the person and pushed them out the way just as the car passed through the spot they had been and made it into the alley. In the next instant, the ghost energy blast hit the wall of the building they had just passed, and a ten-foot-wide section of that corner immediately crumbled into dust to reveal the interior. 

Seeing that, Miranda exchanged a quick look with Avalon above and behind her before turning her head slightly to shout, “We really, really don’t want to get hit by that thing!” 

From his own spot in the backseat, Zeke had picked himself up and demanded, “Would you people let me the hell out already?! Do you think I’m about to let you kidnap m–” 

“Shut the fuck up,” Avalon ordered without any preamble. “I don’t know why those Whispers are so intent on getting you, but we’re not about to let it happen.” The damn things were enough of a threat as it was without having control of a Heretic, even a young and incredibly annoying one like him. Besides, something told her this was more important than the Whispers simply trying to grab any random Heretic. There were too many of them here and they were too intent on their mission. Invidia was involved, and had sent what had to be over a dozen of their people after this one boy. Maybe she was just missing something or overthinking it, but it felt like there was more to the whole situation. 

And speaking of the Whispers not giving up, there they were. The alley was suddenly full of them as the ghosts chased after the car. “Can we jump yet?!” Rebecca shouted while leaning out the passenger side so she could fire a couple shots toward their pursuers. “Please tell me we can jump!” 

Checking her teleport stone again, Avalon grimaced, then fired two more shots at a couple ghosts who were getting too close.  “No! We need to go further!” 

Miranda made a noise in the back of her throat before launching three energy-duplicate shields to slow down the approaching ghosts. “Just how big is their teleportation blocker?! And can I just say, I wish Flick was here!” 

By then, they reached the end of the long alley, and the car narrowly avoided crashing into a passing box truck, which spun out of the way while the driver leaned on his horn. “You’re not the only one,” Avalon half-muttered. Then something else occurred to her and the girl’s eyes widened slightly before she turned a bit to shout toward the front of the car, “Check Zeke! He might have something on him that’s blocking the transport spells!” 

“What the hell are you talking about?!” Zeke’s voice shouted back. “I don’t have anything li– hey get the fuck off me!” 

Rebecca had jumped into the backseat with him and was checking over the boy. Despite his reflexive struggle, she shouted in his face for him to knock it off unless he wanted to be possessed and enslaved by those things that were chasing them. That was enough to make him stop, and he finally started helping her by patting himself down, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

While that was going on, Shiloh sent the car weaving back-and-forth across the entire road, moving between other cars going both directions as she used all six lanes, three on each side, to keep the car away from the ghosts chasing them. Avalon kept shooting, while Miranda used her shield replicas to help hold off their pursuers, given they couldn’t pass directly through the energy constructs and had to go around. It slowed them just enough. 

Unfortunately, it was at that moment that the ghosts sent another massive ectoplasm blast of power at them. The thing was twice as large as the last one, and seemed even more dangerous with the lightning crackling inside it. It sheared right through an oncoming van, turning half of it into dust. Worse, when Shiloh sent the car to the far side of the road, the energy adjusted course to follow. And it was catching up quickly. Seeing that, Avalon shouted, “Miranda, you’ve gotta make the biggest shield you can!” 

In response, the other girl dropped onto her backside, leaning against the rear window while lifting her arm up. A new shield-shaped energy construct appeared, projected from the physical one on her arm. This one remained attached to its parent, growing larger and larger by the second. Soon, it covered the entire back half of the vehicle, large enough that Avalon could have ducked behind it to use as a wall. 

But it wasn’t enough. The pursuing ectoplasm blast rose up over the shield, picking up speed to get in front of them before starting to come down from the top. Seeing that, both Avalon and Miranda shouted warnings, with the latter starting to lift her massive shield a bit too late. 

Then the ectoplasm was caught by a new shield, a more physical one. Zeke had leaned out the window and thrust his arm up, making his own shield grow in the process until it caught the blast. It did its job, making ectoplasm blast expend itself and fizzle out, though the shield didn’t fare much better. The thing broke apart instantly under the impact, leaving the normal-sized one behind, looking a bit charred and damaged. Zeke hissed with pain and annoyance, head turning until he saw Avalon staring down at him from the roof. There was a brief pause before he muttered, “What, as if I was gonna let that thing kill all of us, me included.” 

Avalon really wasn’t sure the Whispers had any intention of killing Zeke, but now wasn’t the time to get into that. Instead, she shouted, “Rebecca?!” That was all she said. It was all she needed to say. 

“Working on it!” the other girl shouted back from inside the car. She yanked Zeke backwards by the belt, then shoved her hand into one of his pockets while the boy yelped. Finally, Avalon heard her exclaim in relief before blurting, “Got it, got it!” 

“Good!” Avalon retorted. “Now get rid of it!”

Rebecca did just that, hurling the thing out the window. As it flew out, she shot it with a blast from her wrist. The small coin disintegrated. Yet the teleportation stone in Avalon’s hand only flickered a bit. It was waking up, but not fast enough. They had to get further away from the effect the coin had created. It was gone, but the anti-teleportation field hadn’t collapsed yet.

In that instant, she heard Shiloh curse, and Avalon turned to see a line of the Whispers ahead of them. Now they had a group behind and one in front. They had to get further away, but these guys weren’t going to let them. 

Well, they didn’t really have a say in the matter. Shiloh immediately hit something on her wrist, and that glowing ghost-fire reappeared around the vehicle. It had recharged. 

And speaking of recharging, Rebecca pushed herself halfway out of the rear passenger-side window and sat on the edge of it, turning toward the Whispers who were waiting for them. Immediately, her cannon reemerged from the girl’s backpack, extending itself to its full size. In the next instant, she fired another enormous blast. It tore through the Whispers, disintegrating several of them just before the car passed through that spot. Others tried to swarm the car from the sides, but the ghost-fire kept them away, while Avalon and Miranda protected themselves with shot after shot, and shield after shield. 

Soon, they broke through the line, and Avalon finally saw the teleportation stone in her hand light up. “We’re good, go, go, go!” She leaned over just enough to watch as Rebecca ducked back into the car, grabbing onto Zeke as she activated her own emergency exit stone. Then the two of them were gone. Shiloh followed suit, leaving the car driving along on its own toward a concrete wall, while the Whispers continued to give chase, more desperate now with their screeching. 

Exchanging one last look, Miranda and Avalon activated their own stones, and disappeared. 

Instantly, they reappeared back at one of their fallback spots, a small apartment several miles away from the bus station. Zeke was there, scrambling away from the others to put his back against a nearby wall as he blurted, “Okay, now tell me what the fuck those things were!” 

“That’s a long story,” Avalon replied evenly. 

“Yeah, are you sure you want to hear it?” Shiloh put in. “Or are you gonna assume we’re lying?” 

“You’re all just–you just–fuck you,” Zeke managed. “Just tell me what those things are and let me get the hell out of here.” 

“Zeke.” That was a new voice, speaking up from the doorway. They all turned, to see no less than the boy’s mother, Sophronia. She was there alongside Nevada, and immediately passed the others to embrace her son. “You’re safe, the Whispers didn’t take you.” 

“What?!” He blurted the words while leaning back. “You know about them? What the hell is going on?” 

While those two were talking, Avalon looked toward Nevada, who looked bloodied and haggard. “The others?” 

There was a pause before the blonde woman quietly answered, “They… they’ll be okay, with time. They were hurt, Cameron pretty badly, but they’ll live. Invidia’s gone, for now. And pretty pissed off about the whole situation.”

“Mother,” Zeke put in, “can we please get away from these traitors now?” 

Sophronia, however, was silent for a moment. Then she spoke carefully. “Under the circumstances, perhaps it’s best that you stay with the group who have far more defense against the Whispers than we do. If that is alright?” She directed the last bit toward Nevada.

“Of course,” the other woman agreed. “Zeke can stay with us.” 

The collective shout of, “What?!” may have been the first time Avalon and Zeke were both in full agreement. 

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Interlude 18A – Avalon (Heretical Edge 2)

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“A real life murder mystery, are you serious?” 

“Yep!” Avalon half-chirped and half-growled in a put-on show of casualness betrayed by her clear annoyance and frustration. “You know, just one of those things Felicity managed to trip over.” As she said those words, the girl looked over her shoulder toward Aylen, who had been the one to ask the question. The two of them were on the edge of the new Wonderland wild west ghost town, watching Salten flying overhead. Avalon had needed a distraction, so she had her Peryton friend brought down to stretch his legs and wings. One of the Wonderland kids was perched on a special saddle they’d put on him. Salten had, of course, complained, but not too much. He liked giving rides to little kids, much as he might’ve made a show of grumbling about being saddled. 

Now, of course, there was a line of kids waiting for their turn. Avalon was ostensibly making sure everyone had their fair amount of time, but mostly she had been pacing back and forth obsessing over what was going on with Flick. Then Aylen showed up and gave her a reason to rant about the whole situation. Not that she was angry with Felicity, of course. It wasn’t her fault she disappeared. They had all gone in to check that place out, after all. It was just her luck that she’d been part of the group to get sucked into what turned out to be a secret vault in a pocket dimension. 

Honestly, after the past year and a half and everything that had happened since Avalon had met Felicity Chambers, it wasn’t even that surprising. She was mostly annoyed that her girlfriend had been taken away from her yet again without either of them having any say in the matter.

Now, she faced her other girlfriend and sighed. “She’s in there right now with those kids, Marina, and Fahsteth’s daughter, trying to solve a couple murders before the computer system will let them leave. They’re stuck in that place with a murderer, and I can’t do anything about it.” After saying those words, she turned and whistled for Salten to come down so the next kid in line could have a turn. 

Aylen grimaced slightly, stepping closer before tentatively putting a hand on Avalon’s shoulder. “I, ahh, I know that has to be frustrating. I’m sorry.” She paused briefly before offering a very faint smile. “This whole situation is strange, isn’t it?” 

“Strange because I have one girlfriend trying to help me feel better about my other girlfriend being magically teleported away to solve a decades old murder?” Avalon snorted audibly. “What’s so strange about that?” Her head shook then as she pulled the other girl’s arm to tug her into an embrace. “I’m sorry you have to put up with this. I’d understand if you want to get out of here.” 

“Are you kidding?” Aylen retorted while returning the firm hug. “You’ve seen my family. This isn’t that bad. Besides, I know why you’re worried about Flick. I care about her too. Not like you do, but still. She has a habit of getting in trouble.” She paused thoughtfully before adding, “On the other hand, you know if anyone in our class group is ready to deal with a secret murderer, it’s her.” 

Still holding onto the other girl, Avalon smiled to herself. “Of course. Though she’s not the only one well-suited for it. I’m sure you could sniff out a killer pretty well.”

“Maybe if they were about to strike again,” Aylen mused while leaning back to look her in the eyes. “Even then it’s not exactly reliable. I can’t tell every time someone is about to die.” 

By that point, Salten had landed. Avalon squeezed the other girl one more time before moving to help the one boy down out of the saddle before lifting the next volunteer. The new young girl was a squirmy, bouncy Rakshasa child, who settled down once Avalon firmly told her that if she didn’t get strapped in properly she wouldn’t be going anywhere.  

Soon, she was all set, and Avalon gave Salten half an apple to chomp down before sending him back up in the air. As the other kids all oohed and ahhed, split between asking the just-finished boy how his ride had been and watching the Rakshasa girl on her own turn, Valley stepped away from them and turned her attention back to Aylen. “Miranda and I went right through that door when they disappeared. Jeanne didn’t even have a chance to use her spear. We ripped it down and got into the place. Not that it helped at all. There’s some tunnels down there with supplies that were probably meant to be sent into the vault itself at some point. But nothing useful. Jeanne was tearing through some of the mountain itself when we got the call from Flick’s dad about what happened.” 

“He’s not very happy either, I take it?” Aylen guessed, reaching out to take the other girl’s hand. 

Squeezing back as their fingers interlocked, Avalon shook her head. “Not particularly, no. But honestly, I think he’s happy this wasn’t part of some bigger plot. It wasn’t Kushiel or those Whisper things, at least.” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “I really don’t like the idea of her being in there trying to find a killer who’s been able to hide this long, but it could be worse, you know?” She paused before giving a heavy sigh. “And how bad is it that I can say that? Out of all the possibilities of what could have teleported Flick away and kept all of us from getting to her, this is pretty close to the best case scenario.” 

“There’s been a lot worse, that’s for sure,” Aylen agreed quietly. “I guess in this case the devil you know isn’t better than the one you don’t.” For a moment, the two of them stood together, watching Salten fly through the air with his newest charge. Then she added, “You know, I understand that you feel frustrated and like you can’t do anything to protect her when this stuff happens, but you’re pretty wrong about that.” 

Glancing that way, Avalon raised an eyebrow. “I’m wrong?” 

Aylen met her gaze. “Yeah, sort of. I mean, sure, you can’t always stop her from being taken away on these weird trips. You can’t lock her in a box and make sure no one bad ever so much as looks at her. To be honest, I’m pretty sure you don’t actually want to do that anyway. But you can protect her. You have protected her. Even when you don’t get taken along with Flick, you still protect her. All that fighting she can do now, a big part of that is because of you. She’s one of the best fighters in our whole–in a few different age groups. And sure, a big part of that is because of being taught by people like Deveron, or her mom, or Athena, or–yeah, there’s a list. But another big part of it is you. You laid the groundwork, and you make her keep training. You push her to be better all the time.” 

Turning to face Avalon directly, Aylen put both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “You spend all this time helping her train and teaching her how to fight even better, and then she uses it when these people drag her off like this. She knows how to defend herself and she’s really good at it, because of you. You stand here and you talk as though you can’t protect her, but you do that by teaching her and making her train all the time. All those exercises you put her through, that’s you protecting her, Avalon. Because you can’t be there all the time. She’s ready for these situations, and much worse than this, because you make sure she is.” 

Avalon processed that for a moment, before raising both hands to cup the other girl’s face. Gently brushing her fingers down Aylen’s cheeks, she leaned in to kiss her softly. Their lips barely touched, before she exhaled softly and touched her forehead against Aylen’s. “You’re pretty smart, you know that?” 

“I have good breeding,” Aylen lightly teased, adding a soft chuckle. “You know, that’s an even more fun joke to make now that you actually understand what it means.” 

For her part, Avalon chuckled as well before glancing up to make sure everything was still fine. Of course, Salten would have made certain she knew if something was wrong, but still. Sure enough, the Peryton was still flying in a lazy, casual loop while his diminutive rider squealed in joy. As she watched that, Avalon quietly asked, “Have you figured anything else out about the Arthur thing?” 

“You truly are trying to distract yourself from this, aren’t you?” Aylen gave the other girl another quick kiss before stepping back a bit while running her hands through Avalon’s long hair. 

“Just a bit,” Valley confirmed dryly. “Shiori’s already distracted. She’s off helping her sister with that whole finding the person who stole her dad’s memory thing. Meanwhile, I’m standing here watching kids fly around while I wait for Flick to solve a decades old murder in a pocket dimension. So yes, please, help me be distracted?” 

Wincing, Aylen offered a helpless shrug. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how good of a distraction it’ll be. We haven’t figured out anything new. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do to bring him back. I don’t know if it’s something about my genetics, or something I can physically accomplish, or a choice I might make, or–or anything. I’ve been talking to Grandfather and he isn’t sure either. And my mothers don’t know anything. Or they all know exactly what’s supposed to happen and aren’t telling me because it’ll change something, I’m not sure which. Either way, there’s no answers coming from that direction. And Mercury already said he doesn’t know anything beyond the fact that I’m the one who’s supposed to do it.” 

“It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?” Avalon quietly murmured, hand moving to cup the girl’s face once more. 

Sighing, Aylen leaned into the touch while giving a slight nod. “I’d say you have no idea, but you do. How did you put up with that whole ‘being the one person who can enter the blood vault and get the spell that can stop Seosten possession and change the whole balance of power in the universe’ thing?” 

“Mostly by not thinking about it in those terms too much,” Avalon replied with a cough. “It’s way too overwhelming if you let it be. Sorry I brought it up.” 

“No, no, it’s okay.” Aylen insisted. “Trust me, I think about it all the time. How can I not? I’m supposed to… you know. Do that, somehow. It’s never far from my mind. In fact, I was just thinking about–hang on.” There was a buzzing in her pocket, and she tugged a phone out before reading over the text, a grimace finding its way to her face almost immediately. 

“Something wrong?” Avalon asked while watching her expression. 

Aylen glanced up, expression darkening. “Sort of, yeah. Shiloh’s asking for help. She and a couple others were supposed to pick up some new arrivals at the bus station, but there’s some old friends there. Well, definitely not friends. Old classmates, of the sort who stayed with Crossroads. They need some help dealing with the situation.” Quickly, she added, “But I can grab a couple others to–” 

“No, I’ll go with you,” Avalon insisted. “I can’t help around here. Someone else can watch the kids and make sure they all get a chance with Salten.” 

“Are you sure?” Aylen pressed. “I don’t want–” 

Avalon immediately interrupted, voice firm. “Aylen, trust me, I do not need to stand around worrying about Flick for the next… however long this takes. Now please, just tell me where we’re going. 

“Besides, if there’s one thing that’s gonna make me feel better about all this, it’s being able to punch someone in the face.” 

******

Miranda joined them, instantly volunteering as soon as Avalon poked her head in the craft shop where the other girl had been distracting herself by talking to the elderly glassblower who had been working there and told her what was going on. The three of them were also accompanied by Nevada, as well as Erin Redcliffe. Given what Shiloh had reported about what they were facing, the five of them should have been more than enough. But better to be safe than sorry. 

According to Shiloh’s report, she and a couple others were waiting across the street and had been about to make their move to make sure the station was safe, when they noticed Zeke Leven sitting on one of the benches. From there they had identified three other students from their year, as well as a single adult who appeared to be watching over them. This was a hunt. They were clearly waiting for the bus to arrive. Which would happen in the next fifteen minutes. There wasn’t a lot of time to spare. Not if they wanted to deal with this before there were even more civilians in the line of fire. 

Now, they were all gathered inside the empty office room across the street from the bus stop. The blinds were drawn, but Avalon stood at the edge of them peering through the gap. She could see Zeke still sitting there, just barely in view, obviously watching for the bus to arrive. Part of her wondered why they would have someone who would set off every Alter’s danger alert as soon as they saw him sitting in plain view. But maybe they wanted a panic? 

“I’ll handle Gilbert,” Nevada was saying. “The rest of you pair up. There’s four of them and eight of you, so two for each. Don’t be cocky, okay?” She turned a serious expression to them, a far cry from her usual perky attitude. “Yes, you’re all better than they are. You have a lot more real-world experience. But don’t be stupid about that. Take advantage while you can.” 

The others who had been with Shiloh to make the original pick-up were Eiji Ueda, the large Japanese-Canadian boy whose study habits rivaled Vanessa’s, as well as Cameron Reid and Rebecca Jameson. 

“Right,” Shiloh started to agree. “So we all pair up and spread out to jump these guys before the bus gets here. If we’re really quick and careful, maybe we can deal with it without scaring the people we’re supposed to be protecting, right? I mean, it’s not like they haven’t been through enough.” Her voice turned to a mutter then. “The whole reason we had to move them was because their old home got burned to the ground in a raid.”

Rebecca nodded. “They lost three people. Three members of their family. We promised they’d be safe on this trip, that as soon as they got here, we’d take them to their new home.” 

“And they will be safe,” Avalon announced without taking her gaze off Zeke. “We’ll handle these guys and then take the Alters to that new house. We aren’t going to let anything happen to them.” Maybe she couldn’t help Flick right now, or contribute in any way to that whole situation, but she could help these people. She could make sure they didn’t lose any more people they cared about. She could help deal with this. She would help deal with this. 

Erin spoke up from the corner of the room where she stood with her hand on the hilt of her sword. “That bus is gonna be here in twelve minutes. If we’re going to do this without letting those people end up getting caught in the middle, we need to get out there now.” She sounded anxious. Probably because she was thinking about her own father. Apparently he was still stuck back at Crossroads. Not because he was loyal to them or anything, but because they were essentially holding him prisoner. And probably not just him, come to think of it. He was just one example. Crossroads wasn’t eager to let anyone leave to join the Rebellion, to say the least. 

Avalon knew there was something more going on with that whole situation. Erin had been spending a lot of time with Nevada trying to work it out, and the two of them seemed somewhat cagey about it. That was why the girl was with Nevada when they had called her for help with this. Hell, Erin was probably just as happy for the distraction as Avalon herself was.

“Yeah,” Rebecca spoke up, her gaze glancing toward Avalon with a nod of understanding. She was worried about Flick too. “We need to move. I’ll go with Eiji. If that’s cool?” 

The tall, muscular boy agreed easily. From there, the others paired up, with Avalon and Aylen remaining together. However, just as they were about to move out, Valley gave one last glance out the window before holding her hand up abruptly. “Wait.” 

“What do you–” Nevada started before looking that way. Clearly, she used some sort of X-Ray power, because she was staring right at the wall in the direction of where Zeke was, before cursing loudly. 

“What?” Rebecca demanded. “What’s going on? What do you guys see out there?” 

“Ghosts,” Avalon answered. “There’s a bunch of ghosts surrounding Zeke out there. And the others.” She grimaced before adding, “They don’t look very friendly.” 

“Ghosts?” Shiloh echoed in confusion. “What’re ghosts doing out there? Why’re they messing with Heretics? They don’t stand a chance, right?” 

“Oh, I don’t know about that, we can be rather surprising and tenacious when we want to be. Well, our version can, anyway.” The voice came from the far corner of the room, where there should have been no one. As they all whipped their gazes that way, weapons raised, the assembled Rebel Heretics saw a single figure standing there. Or rather, hovering. 

“Ahem, what’s the right word?” mused Invidia, the Whisper who had taken over Charmeine’s ghost. “Oh yes. 

“Boo.” 

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Growth 18-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sesh wasn’t kidding about finding the vault door. Or about how hard it was to get to. The rocks and bushes we had to squeeze through looked impossible. Out here in the middle of nowhere, I wasn’t surprised the place hadn’t been found before. We were almost a mile from the ghost town, and far from the mineshaft. There was no reason for anyone to be in this area, and certainly none for someone to actively push their way through the foliage and boulders. Even after you did that, it just opened into a small half-cave area with a partially-open ceiling. The place looked like it went nowhere, but if you pulled a bit more shrubbery out of the way, there was a low tunnel you could get down and crawl through for about thirty feet. Once you did that, it opened into a fully-enclosed space about fifteen feet wide, where there was this positively enormous steel (or maybe something more than steel) vault door built right into the side of the hill. The door itself was ten feet tall and about six feet wide. There was no handle to pull, as the door was flush with the rock around it. Instead of having a dial to turn or whatever, there was what looked like a black magnetic strip, four inches long by two inches wide, right in the center of the door. 

Seeing us look that way as we spread out to give each other room, Sesh nodded. “Yeah, I can’t figure out what that’s for, or how to open it.” 

With a small smile, Jeanne replied, “If it comes down to it, I am fairly certain my skeleton key will fit.” Saying that, they reached to their back, catching hold of something invisible there. A moment later, they pulled out a long metal spear. The tip glowed with the same sort of bright energy that came off of the archangel wings. “But,” they mused thoughtfully, “perhaps this should be a last resort. I’d hate to damage the door if we don’t have to. Is there a lever, or button?” 

So, we looked around through the small, enclosed space. But there was nothing to find. The only thing that stood out aside from the gleaming metal door itself was that small black strip. But it didn’t seem like a button, given I tried pushing it to no avail. 

“Hang on,” Marina put in, leaning closer to the thing. “Look, there’s a tiny circle right there in the middle. Maybe you have to push that bit in or something? Anyone have a paperclip?” 

“Oh!” Baidy chirped, “I do… uhh, back in my other pants. I knew  I should’ve worn the red ones today!” 

Leaning closer myself, I tried to dig my fingernail into that little hole. But the moment I put my skin up against it, I felt a sharp poke. A needle had popped out of that little hole and into my finger, drawing a tiny dot of blood. 

“Oh,” I managed, “fuck, that’s probably not–” 

I was interrupted by a rumbling sound. The walls around us were shaking just a bit, loose bits of dirt cascading toward the ground. It was the door. The thing was opening inward as we all reflexively jumped back. 

“Did that thing just take your blood before opening?” Avalon demanded. 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, you think that’s weird?” 

“It’s probably not good,” Miranda put in quietly, hand on Dakota’s shoulder. “But if the door was supposed to test blood before opening, why would it open for yours? Do you have another super special relative who built this place and we just happened to stumble across it?” From the sound of her voice, she was half-kidding about that. Which, given everything that had happened since I became a Heretic, was completely fair.  

“Look.” That was Denny, as she poked her head around me to peer into the opening that the door had revealed. “It’s a hallway.” 

She was right. Beyond the now-open door was a corridor or tunnel about twenty feet long, very slightly curved toward the right to lead deeper into the hillside. It had been dark at first, but a moment after the place opened up, a few panels in the ceiling began to glow to illuminate the hall. There was another door at the far end, but it looked like a normal one with an actual knob. 

“Oh come on,” Sesh quickly blurted, “we’ve gotta check it out. Don’t you want to know why the door opened for you?” She asked that while looking at me, her gaze eager. “There’s gotta be a reason, right?” 

“Yeah, yeah,” Baidy agreed while bobbing her head rapidly. “You gotta wanna know.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed, “I do want to know. But hang on.” Rather than walk straight in, I focused on my connection to Tabbris. It felt a bit wrong to interrupt her time with her bio-dad and the rest of her family (including our dad), but this was important. 

Flick? I heard in my head as soon as she acknowledged the mental pull. Um, are you okay? Wait– She absorbed the current situation as I opened my mind to her, before blurting, You found a secret vault door by Wonderland?! Neat! 

A smile found its way to my face as I silently replied, Yeah, it’s pretty cool. But we’re gonna step in here to look around for a minute so could you stay connected just until we know it’s safe?

She quickly agreed, and let both Dad and Sariel know what was going on. Apparently they were teaching Jegudiel how to go bowling. Which kind of made me sorry that I wasn’t there to see it, but at least I had my own neat thing to investigate. 

Once we were all on the same page, I nodded to the others. “Okay, I guess we can check this place out now. And hey, at least we’ve got a pretty damn good escort.” That bit came with a gesture toward Jeanne. “Can’t imagine the new Wonderland Tiebreaker being a pushover. Let alone someone who put up with Seth for so long.” 

Smirking just a bit, the person in question gave a slight bow. “I endeavor to do my very best.” 

From there, I was about to walk-in when I abruptly stopped and turned a bit to look at Dakota and Denny. “Err, sorry, are you guys okay with this? If you don’t want to be involved, we can take a break with this and I’ll come back later without you. No big deal.” 

The pair looked at one another, a moment of silent conversation passing between them before Denny turned back to me. She visibly gulped, but straightened pointedly. “I-it’s okay. You’re here, and Mx. Jeanne is here, and… and everyone.” Her eyes glanced toward Avalon and Miranda. “I mean, I kinda wanna see what’s in there too.” 

“See?” Sesh grinned, showing those wide, multi-layered sharp teeth. “We all want to get in there. So let’s check it out.” With that, she stepped through the opening. 

“Hang on,” I started, while stepping after her. Nothing happened, however. There was no sudden explosion, no magically-appearing enemies, nothing at all. The air inside this tunnel felt slightly cooler than the air outside, but that was about it. 

Dakota and Denny were right behind me, with Marina staying close to them. Avalon and Miranda came next, followed by Baidy, and Jeanne brought up the rear. With Sesh leading the way, we walked through the narrow corridor to the door at the far end. On the way, I kept thinking about the whole bit with the door taking my blood, asking Tabbris, Does your mom have any idea why it would do that and open for me? 

There was a brief pause before the other girl replied, Mama says it really could be an ancestor of yours, or maybe it was checking to see if you were one of the vault’s enemies, or that you were human, or a Heretic of some kind, or weren’t affected by the Bystander Effect, or–

As Tabbris was in the middle of continuing that line of thought, Sesh reached out to grab the knob on the new door. The moment she did, the lights in the tunnel abruptly went out. We were cast into darkness. Before I could even think anything, a sudden, abrupt twisting sensation of being transported filled my stomach, and I found myself dropping through open air a few feet before landing sprawled on a soft floor. Around me, I heard a few more arrivals, and heard their grunts of surprise. 

Tabbris, it was a trap! I blurted inwardly, already yanking my staff out as I jumped back to my feet. It was dark in here, but I could fix– 

The lights came on, and I blinked against the sudden brightness. I was standing in a much wider room than that tunnel had been. It was circular and about fifty feet in diameter. The floor under my feet was carpeted, though the walls themselves were still solid metal. Straight across from me, at about the twelve o’clock position, was a set of wooden double-doors. To the right, at the three o’clock spot, was a pair of plush armchairs to one side of a comfortable-looking couch, all around one of those big old-fashioned CRT television sets inside of a massive wooden cabinet. The couches and TV all looked like they came from the eighties. There was even an old Nintendo and controllers set in front of the television. 

Turning to look behind me, I saw a kitchen area at the six o’clock spot. It was literally a couple kitchen counters (including a sink) with an oldlooking microwave and blender, a big metal fridge, and a stove. Again, they all looked like they were decades old, but quite clean. Like they’d almost never been used, or were taken very good care of. They were in practically pristine condition.  

Finally, to the left at around the seven o’clock position, we could see a bathroom area. There was a toilet against the wall with a privacy screen that wasn’t pulled, along with a sink and shower. 

“It’s like an apartment,” Sesh announced while standing up beside me as she took the whole place in as well. “Like an apartment that was dropped inside a bigger room or something.” 

Quickly, I took stock. She was here beside me, but not everyone else had made it. It was the two of us, plus Marina, Sesh, Dakota, and Denny. As for what had happened to Avalon, Miranda, and Jeanne, I had no idea. 

Tabs, we just got transported to this–Tabs? I focused on my connection to the other girl, but there was no response. Uh, Tabbris? Oh come on, that’s impossible. 

And yet, as impossible as it might have been, there was no response from my little sister. It was like she wasn’t there at all. 

“Uhh, umm, what’s going on?” That was Denny, as Dakota helped her up off the floor. “What just happened?” 

Marina, shooting a quick glance toward me, replied, “Something teleported us. It’s okay, just… just stay close.” She had her corseque (sort of like a spear with two sideways blades at the end in addition to the pointed tip) in one hand while scanning the room. “Flick, can you–” 

“No good,” I replied. “Tabbris isn’t in my head anymore. Or something’s blocking her. Which, you know, is pretty damn impressive. Hang on.” With that, I tried a much more mundane solution. Namely, I took the phone from my pocket and looked at it. Unfortunately, there was no signal. Which I really shouldn’t have been surprised by, given everything. But still, a sigh escaped me. 

“Nothing?” Marina was checking her own phone, glancing toward me. When I shook my head, she grimaced. “Me neither. So we’re definitely being blocked somehow. But by who? And why?” 

Thinking about how much Miranda and Avalon had to be freaking out right now, out there with Jeanne and Baidy, I tried using one of our emergency communication coins. It was supposed to allow us to send an SOS to anyone else with the coins. But again, there was no response. So this place wasn’t just cut off from normal phone signals and my connection with Tabbris, it was even blocking magic. I was starting to get a pretty bad feeling. 

Still, there was something else I could try. I’d learned how to make a transportation spell while trapped in Fossor’s place. So, striding quickly to the nearby kitchen counter, I shoved the blender out of the way. My hand hit the surface and I activated my instant-inscription power to begin making the elaborate runes appear. Yet no sooner had they appeared, than they vanished, leaving the counter spotless once more. With a grimace, I tried once more with the same effect. Nor was trying it on the wall any better. It vanished there too. Okay, well I couldn’t exactly draw a spell if the drawing itself kept disappearing. And this sort of thing needed more space than I could get on a coin or stone. What was I supposed to do? 

Turning to face the others, I shook my head. “Okay, I can’t use magic to transport us out of here if this place won’t let me draw on anything. Maybe we should look around a little more.”  

“Why was it only us?” Dakota asked. She was holding Denny’s hand tightly, her voice making it clear that she was trying to keep it together and not freak out mostly for the other girl’s sake. “The others were in the tunnel too, so why’d it take us and not them?” 

I started to say that I had no idea, but before any words could come out, those double doors in front of us suddenly opened. We all went on guard, as a figure stepped through. It–it was a robot. Yeah, a literal robot. The thing was clearly made of metal, though shaped like a human with legs, arms, and head in all the normal places and numbers. He was even wearing clothes. A suit, in this case. He looked sort of like a butler. The eyes on his metal head looked like glowing rubies, and he had no nose. His mouth was an array of smile-shaped lights that glowed bright blue as he called, “Hello, hello, hello! It’s so nice that you’ve finally come!” 

Marina and I immediately moved in front of the two kids with our own weapons raised, while Sesh jumped to one side, with a pair of daggers held backwards in her hands. I was the first to find my voice. “Hey, stop. Who are you? Where are we?” 

The robot butler promptly came to a halt, his ruby eyes glowing a bit more. “Oh, my greatest apologies. You’re absolutely correct, introductions are in order.” The lights that made up his curved mouth-shape shifted from blue to a light green. “I am called Sitter. My master chose the name because he thought it amusing. As though I was his babysitter. Which was odd, as he was very much not a baby. Or even a child. And most children do not create their own babysitters. But I suppose it was his sense of humor. And it was my duty to ensure he ate and slept properly while lost in his work.”

I was even more confused now. His master? Why–what? Before I could say anything, Marina spoke up. “Where’s your master now? And where are we? Why can’t we contact anyone else?” 

“My master?” Sitter echoed, head tilting very slightly in a human-like display of curiosity or confusion. “But that’s why you are here, of course. As for where here is, you should know that already. We are within my master’s private vault. It is contained within a pocket universe, locked outside of normal space and time. That is why you cannot contact anyone from the outside. My master was quite insistent that there be no way for any undesirables to enter his sanctuary without permission. He was quite wary of being attacked. Which…” His mouth-lights shifted from green to a yellowish color. “I suppose was a well-founded fear after all.” 

“We’re in a pocket dimension?” That was Denny, abruptly speaking up as her voice caught a bit, turning into a squeak toward the end. “Does that mean we’re stuck here?” 

“Oh no, not all,” Sitter assured us, the lights turning back to their original blue. “Well, not for long, hopefully. I assure you, the very moment that you complete the job you were hired for, you will be able to leave.” 

“Job we were–what are you talking about?” I demanded, tightening my grip on the staff. “We weren’t hired for any job. And where’s this master of yours?” 

“But of course you were,” Sitter insisted. “You are Crossroads Heretics, are you not? The vault would not have allowed you entry if you were not Crossroads Heretics. And my master is the whole reason you are here.” 

“The blood test thing,” I realized. “It was checking to see if I was–wait, Crossroads? Your master was hiring people from Crossroads for something? Who is he?” 

Sitter’s glowing ruby eyes met my gaze. “My master’s name is Valdean Kalama Ecclestone. He was a well-known and respected member of your Crossroads community for many years, before choosing to retire in the very late eighteen hundreds, when he became dissatisfied with life as a Crossroads Heretic. Master Valdean became convinced that the beings he was assigned to hunt and kill were not deserving of such a fate. He designed this place to be his new home as well as theirs, and housed many non-humans within various apartments throughout this pocket dimension. They are all linked to this, Master Valdean’s chambers.” He waved his hand around to indicate the room we were in. 

Taking in a breath before letting it out, I started slowly. “Let me get this straight, your master was a Crossroads Heretic. Then he decided that Alters–or nonhumans– weren’t all evil after all. So he built this vault with a pocket dimension where he brought people to live so they could be completely safe from any other Heretics who wanted to kill them. But where is he now? Where’s everybody?” 

“Unfortunately,” came the response, “after many decades spent safe in here as a small, yet devoted community, there was a murder within these halls. One of our guests was killed by another. Precisely who was responsible, we did not know. Master Valdean became convinced that we required outside assistance. So, he contacted a friend in Crossroads, one whom he had recently come to know was part of a rebellion against their usual method of operation. He was a detective, one of their Bow Street Runners, named Ashby Banks. Sir Banks agreed to take the matter to his superior within the Bow Street Runners, another member of the rebellion, named Tribald Kine. He promised discretion and aid.” 

“Tribald,” I muttered, wincing inwardly as the words came softly. “He’s gone now. He died.” 

“I am very sorry to hear that,” Sitter gently replied. “It has been some time since Sir Banks agreed to take the request for aid to Sir Kine. We never heard back.” 

Thinking about that for a moment, I realized, “The Rebellion eraser. It must’ve come after Ashby Banks agreed to talk to Tribald about this place, but before he actually could. The eraser must’ve considered this information to be part of what it had to get rid of.” 

“I know that name,” Marina put in. “I’ve heard of Ashby Banks. He died a few years ago.” 

“Which explains why he never told Tribald once the eraser was undone,” I muttered. “He was already dead, so he never had the chance.” 

“This is all very distressing news,” Sitter announced. “Though it does answer our questions about the apparent abandonment. My master grew angry with getting no response, so he shut down all communication with the outside world, determined to solve this murder himself. Unfortunately, the killer struck again, and Master Valdean was their newest victim.”    

“Wait, he was killed too?” Sesh gave a double-take. “And this place has just been sitting like this for decades?” 

“We are quite able to sustain ourselves without outside interference,” Sitter informed us. “As you will see for yourselves in the course of your investigation.” 

“Investigation?” I shook my head. “What do you mean? We’re not here for that.” 

His gaze met mine. “Oh, but you must be. Don’t you understand? Before my master’s death, he ensured that only the ones from Crossroads would be able to enter this place. He agreed to the entry of only five investigators. Sir Banks, his superior, Sir Kine, and three subordinates. This is a large vault, with much space to search.” 

“That’s why the others weren’t transported in with us,” Marina realized aloud. “We were the first five in line.” 

“Quite so,” came the confirmation as Sitter’s robot head bobbed. “And I am quite afraid that my master was insistent that the killer be brought to justice. So insistent that he ensured the lockdown of this facility would not be ended until it is determined that the killer has been identified. Between that and his fear that the Crossroads Heretics would attempt to abandon their agreement, there is no way to enter or leave this place until that time.”

“What… is–is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Denny asked me, her eyes widening. 

Slowly, I nodded. “I think so. We can’t get out of here until we solve this mystery, guys. 

“Zoinks.”  

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Growth 18-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Wonderland had moved again since the last time I had visited. Now, they were set up in a literal ghost town. Literal in two different ways, actually. In the sense that there were some ghosts (mostly of the cowboy variety) hanging around, and in the fact that it had once been an actual lived-in town on the frontier of the wild west. There had been a small mining rush in the hills slightly to the north for a little while, but it hadn’t lasted long enough for the town to transition into some other way of life once the silver dried up. Plus, the railway that they had expected to come near, or even through, the town had actually been positioned about thirty miles south. So, almost as quickly as it had been built up, the town had been abandoned as its citizens sought better places elsewhere. 

Decades later, the town had been used to film a few old movies. That hadn’t lasted very long either before they moved filming to other places closer to California, but it had been big enough to have a few new buildings built on the edge of town so the people filming around the place could have places to stay. Those new buildings included the garage where we had come through the portal. Being out a short distance away from the town proper (so they could film the westerns without getting something like that in the shot) made for a decent place to have people teleport in, so they could have the anti-transportation spells and other protections up around the main area.  

From here, the nearest (legally) inhabited town was called Geraldine, about twenty miles south-westish. Population: a whole two hundred or so. The Missouri River was a few miles to the east, through a more mountainous area. In this place, they had plenty of privacy, and advance warning if anyone happened to come near. 

Marina explained all of that to us as we walked out of the garage and found ourselves standing at the top of a low hill. This was the hill where people had been mining back in the day. In fact, if we looked a bit to the right, we could see the old mine entrance. To the left was a gas station and a motel, both looking like they had come out of the 1950’s. Because they had. Neither of them were technically in service, though the Wonderland people had taken them over as well. Straight ahead, meanwhile, the old town of what had been called Gust, Montana lay stretched out away from the base of the hill. It consisted of a main street with about ten buildings on each side, including the saloon, post office, jail with the sheriff’s office attached, a boot and shoe store, gun shop, and more. Behind the left-hand side of the main street was an assortment of small houses. Behind the right-hand side, meanwhile, were the stables and a long barn-like warehouse where food and other supplies had been stored. 

“See?!” Baidy flew up into the air over our heads hovering there as she pointed toward the town. “We used to stay in a museum, but it got dangerous there so we had to move, then we lived in a big warehouse and it was really crowded, but then we moved here and it’s got a lotta space!” 

“Lots of room to spread your wings, huh, Baidy?” Marina put in with a small smile. To us, she added, “We’ve got a few who like to run a lot too. They love it here. Miles and miles of open space.” Glancing toward Denny and Dakota, she added, “Most of the kids are up in the mountains right now, but they’ll be back later. They went for a hike with a couple of the scouts, and Buddy.” 

“Yeah, I was kinda surprised he wasn’t around to say hi already,” Miranda murmured while glancing around. “Hope we get to catch up with the big guy later.” 

“You will,” Quing announced as the avian-man stood behind us. He wasn’t quite glowering, but it wasn’t an open and friendly look either. “Buddy has made it clear that he wants to say hello before you leave again. And he wishes to meet these two.” 

“M-meet us?” Denny managed a bit uncertainly. “He’s the big troll, right?” Her eyes glanced back toward me with obvious nervousness. “He’s… he’s nice?” 

“Very nice,” I confirmed. “Right, Marina?” 

The other girl gave a quick nod. “He’s a giant sweetheart. Emphasis on giant and on sweetheart. Trust us, he’s one of the nicest people here as long as you don’t try to hurt anyone he’s supposed to be protecting.” 

Swallowing hard, Denny quietly murmured, “I’ll try not to.” 

Yeah, there was definitely a whole thing there that was going to take a lot of time and therapy to work through. I watched as she absently took Dakota’s hand, the two of them standing closer together while watching the town below as though expecting a giant angry troll to come charging out at them. They were clearly still nervous about how this was going to go, which I couldn’t really blame them for. The only way to show them that it was going to be fine was to get down there and let them see for themselves. 

From the look that Marina gave me, she had the same thought. So, we started down the dirt road leading to the main part of the town. Quing stayed behind, apparently to do a patrol around the perimeter. On the way, there was a shimmering effect in the air that lasted for about fifteen feet. It kind of tickled a little bit. According to Marina, if we hadn’t been allowed through, the alarms would have sounded and we would have found ourselves in a time distortion field that would’ve slowed our movement drastically, giving the Wonderland people time to respond. 

But, obviously we were expected and had been cleared. Something told me that Quing had done something back in the garage to allow us through the security field, but had kept it secret so we wouldn’t know exactly what was done. He wasn’t a very trusting sort, that Quing guy. Wyatt would probably love him.

Either way, we went on a tour through the town. We saw how the Wonderland people were living in this place. They’d worked some enchantments on the buildings to allow for extra rooms that shouldn’t have been there so everyone could fit. Apparently most of the regular civilians stayed in the various houses or in the motel above the saloon. The Septs lived and worked in the courthouse, children were educated both in the schoolhouse and in the church building, and most of the businesses were used for crafting things to be sold in online shops so the people could have regular Bystander money. They also raised cattle out on the fields and sold the meat to butchers. 

We also met a lot of people along the way, of both the human-looking and very not human-looking variety. Some I’d seen before, though most at a distance, while others seemed new. Either way, they were friendly and cheerful. It was a lot for Denny, and even Dakota, to take in. They both kept looking around at everyone while clearly doing their best not to stare too much for fear of being rude. Still, the two of them were gawking a fair bit at all the different sights, especially when it was something like an eight-foot-tall crocodilian man putting the finishing touches on a beautifully hand-crafted grandfather clock that he planned to sell, or a cat-like Rakshasa woman brushing the coat of a preening Pegasus.  

The point was, there was a lot to see around this place, and we’d barely scratched the surface even twenty minutes later. We kept stopping to look at things and talk to people. The younger girls didn’t do a lot of talking, especially Denny, who stayed almost entirely silent the whole time. But they paid attention, and were clearly enthralled with everything. 

“You guys really like it here, huh?” I eventually asked as we stood outside the jail. Dakota and Denny were standing a few feet away, having a conversation with Baidy. They were talking about something to do with fishing, and how they couldn’t do it back anywhere near the Garden rebels place because of the whole Lotan and its pet Nuckelavee situation. 

“It’s really nice,” Marina agreed quietly. “I think they like living in a real town, even if it’s a small one. They’ve got different houses, open space for everyone to stretch their legs and wings, even a school. Hell, they have businesses. Real businesses where they can make things and get money for it. It’s… it’s a real town here, you guys.”

Avalon, who had been pretty quiet through all of this, spoke up. “I should bring Salten here. I mean, he already gets plenty of space to run and fly around on the station. They have rooms for that. But I think he’d like to set foot on Earth too. He deserves that.” 

“Don’t worry, we’ll bring him down, and Choo too,” I assured Valley while putting an arm around her and squeezing. “They can run around and play tag out there. Can you imagine it?” 

“Imagine?” Valley retorted, “I’ve seen them do it. And yeah, probably better for them to do it somewhere that Salten won’t break a window turning his head too fast.”

“So that’s what happened the other day,” I exaggeratedly gasped. “Eiji kept insisting that he looked at his reflection in the window and it blew apart.” 

“I’m not saying that couldn’t have happened too,” Valley mildly replied as a very small smile played at her face. “Salten’s only broken so many windows.” 

“Speaking of open fields and broken windows,” Miranda started while giving me a nudge from the other side, “Maybe we can get a baseball game going at some point. Didn’t you say Sarah’s a good pitcher?” 

“That’s what I’ve heard,” I replied with a nod. “And are you sure you want to do that? Remember what happened the last time you and I played baseball?” 

Miranda huffed, rolling her eyes. “Oh please, what’re the odds that you’ll go sliding into home and accidentally find a skeleton finger twice?” 

Dakota, who had been saying something about some scary movie, abruptly pivoted to face us. “Wait, what? A skeleton finger?” 

“More than just the finger, really,” Randi noted thoughtfully. “It was actually the whole hand and part of an arm, but most of it was buried. Everyone running across the bases for all that time worked away the dirt until a bit of the finger was uncovered. Flick found it the hard way.” 

“And by hard way,” I put in with a grimace, “she means I was sliding into the plate and my leg got cut on the bone. So I brushed the dirt away from it until we figured out what it was.” 

“That was a fun weekend,” Miranda cheerfully added. “Especially since it’s Flick, so you all know what she had to do.” 

Every single one of them, Miranda, Avalon, Dakota, Denny, even Baidy, simultaneously agreed, “Investigate.” 

A blush crossed my face as I huffed a little bit. “Oh come on, it was a skeleton hand buried under the baseball diamond by home plate. You don’t have to be obsessed with investigating things to want to find out more about it. I bet every single one of you, aside from Randi cuz she was there, want to know what that was all about and whose hand it was.” 

To my satisfaction, they all exchanged brief looks before giving an assortment of nods. Before they could say anything, however, I felt someone else’s presence step into range of my item-sense from the direction of the jail while a voice spoke up. “If the stories I remember hearing while I was there are any indication, this should be good.” 

Turning that way, I found myself looking at a woman who looked a fair bit like the legendary movie actress Audrey Hepburn. Her dark brown hair was cut short in a pixie style that fell just above her ears, with bangs in the front. She wore an outfit that was straight out of the sort of Western that would have been filmed here back in the day, with somewhat tattered old jeans, cowboy boots, a leather duster, button-up Western shirt, belt with a silver buckle and a pair of revolvers on either hip, and a full-on cowboy hat. 

Without thinking at all, I quietly (but not quietly enough) murmured under my breath, “Oh my God, Tabbris was right, I really did have a crush on you.” 

As everyone turned it to stare at me and I realized that I said the quiet part out loud, my blush returned with a vengeance. “I mean–I ahh–I wasn’t–who said that?” Turning, I looked over my shoulder as though searching for the culprit. “I think it came from the uhhh–yeah.” Still flushing despite myself, I focused that way while trying to ignore the assorted snickers. “You… you’re… I mean back in the day you were…” 

“When you knew me, I was Trevor Rawlings,” the woman replied. “Your seventh grade math teacher. The news about your mother had gotten around, and I wanted to see what her daughter was like. I was going to go as a history teacher, but it felt a little on the nose.” 

“You were named Trevor Rawlings?” Denny blinked back and forth between us. “Wait, is this a disguise thing, or a ‘coming to accept your true self’ thing?” 

“A disguise thing,” came the response. “I accepted my true self a long time ago. And the fact that I consider myself… fluid in that regard. I have male moments and female moments. I’m not too fussed about what I’m called, given I’ve answered to everything under the sun. But a simple ‘they’ works quite well at all times. My birth name–” 

“Joan of Arc,” Dakota abruptly blurted, her own eyes widening. “Holy crap, you’re Joan of Arc.” 

An audible chuckle escaped the w–them as they focused on the girl. “That’s one of the things I’ve been called in my life, yes. Though it was actually more of Jeanne D’arc in the old days.” They pronounced the first name something like ‘Jahn’ with a bit of a rolling Juh sound. “I have gone by a lot of different names and titles over the years.” 

“So like, you were a Heretic when you did all that stuff?” Denny hesitantly asked while biting her lip. “But why would they be able to imprison you, and then… I mean…” She trailed off awkwardly, clearly unsure how to continue that line of questioning. 

“It’s alright,” Jeanne assured her. “That wasn’t a great time in my life, but it was also very long ago. To answer your question, no, I was not a Heretic. I’m still not, actually.” 

That made most of the others do a double-take, while I snapped my fingers. “That’s right, you were empowered by Michael.” 

“Empowered in more than one way,” they confirmed. “But yes, in a literal sense, he shared a small portion of his Dyeusai power with me, after saving me from the flames that would have ended my life. The power keeps me young, heals my wounds, and allows me to channel it into a protective barrier, or into my weapon so that it may penetrate very nearly anything it comes up against.” 

“You were–umm, friends with Seth,” I put in. “He mentioned that. I mean, he mentioned a lot more than that, but I wasn’t sure how much to believe.” 

“Yes, that does sound like him.” There was clear fondness in their voice as they gazed off into the distance before focusing on us once more. “To answer your question, yes, we were involved. Well, off and on. We had our ups and downs, as any relationship spread over so many years. But whatever our complications, I was sad to hear about his death. That’s why I took up his old position as Tiebreaker for Wonderland.” 

“I can summon him down here,” I hesitantly offered. “I mean, his ghost. He’s sort of… up in the station right now. We found him–his ghost that is, in the Auberge. So, if you want, I can bring him down here. You know, so you guys can talk.” 

“I’d like that,” Jeanne quietly murmured, a thoughtful look crossing their face before they added, “But perhaps we should finish your tour first. Then I can meet his ghost, and apologize for not being there when he needed help.” It was a bit subtle, but I could hear the guilt and pain in their voice. They really had cared about Seth, that much was clear.

Before anyone else could say anything, the sound of running footsteps through the hard-packed dirt caught our attention, along with a voice calling, “Tiebreaker! Tiebreaker!” 

It was a pale girl, about my age (or at least that was how she looked, it was impossible to tell for sure in this world). Her hair was short like Jeanne’s, but rather than being pixie-cut, it was spiked up and gelled (or magicked) to stay in place. The spikes of hair looked sharp enough to cut my hand if I had entirely lost all sense and stupidly patted her on the head. It was also gray. Not old people gray. More of a shimmering sort of gray, darker at the roots and almost silver on the tips. She wore baggy cargo pants with a lot of pockets, black tennis shoes with purple laces, an Abe Sapien from Hellboy tee-shirt, and a black San Jose Sharks (the hockey team) varsity jacket. 

She came right up to us, skidding to a stop before offering a curious look. “Hiya.”  

“Hey Sesh,” Marina greeted the girl. “These guys are just visiting for awhile. This is Flick, Miranda, and Avalon. And these two are Dakota and Denny. Guys, this is Sesh.” 

Sesh had been smiling through all that, and with that smile, I noticed something else. She had multiple rows of very sharp teeth, like a shark. I knew what that meant. Or at least I was pretty sure. She was an Akheilosan. Like–

“Fahsteth,” Sesh immediately spoke up, as if she’d read my mind. Her attention wasn’t on me, however. It was on Avalon. “If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re right. He’s my dad. But believe me, nobody wants him dead more than I do.” Under her breath, she muttered, “Even if the list of people who would tap dance on his grave is pretty long.” 

“Um, who’s Fahsteth?” That was Denny, hesitantly asking the question as she looked back and forth between all of us. “I mean, besides a pretty bad guy, I guess?” 

Avalon and Sesh both answered at the same time, “A piece of shit.” 

“Jinx, you owe me a coke,” Sesh instantly announced before blanching slightly as she realized who she had said it to. “But, uh, I guess we’ll call it even on account of all of the times my Dad tried to kill you. Or helped someone else try.” 

“It’s a long story,” Avalon informed Denny. “The short version is that he was working for the Seosten who were trying to kill me through most of my life so I wouldn’t open the vault that my ancestor sealed with a blood-relation lock and take the spell that would stop the Seosten from possessing people here on Earth.” 

“The end of that story is we got in the vault anyway and that spell is what was used just a little while ago to make all our people Seosten-immune,” I added. “We can’t make it work for everyone in the world yet, but you know. One step at a time.” 

“Anyway, the point is, I heard you cut my dad in half once,” Sesh informed Valley. “And even though that still wasn’t enough to kill him, that was still the best news I got in a long time.” 

Dakota and Denny both sputtered audibly, the former blurting, “Being cut in half wasn’t enough to kill him?!” 

“He’s enhanced himself a lot,” Sesh replied with a shrug. “Or had other people do it. Actually killing him requires rolling a nat 20 like five times in a row.” 

Avalon stared at her blankly, along with the rest of us. “It requires rolling a what now?” 

Before Sesh could answer, however, Jeanne spoke up. “You were trying to get my attention? Is there a problem?”

Sesh shook her head. “Not a problem, something awesome. You’ve gotta check it out. I was hiking through the hills over there and I found a door. Like, a vault door straight out of Fallout. It’s built right into the hill, but it’s really hidden. You have to squeeze through these rocks and bushes and stuff, then crawl through a tunnel, but then it opens up and there’s this circular area with some water coming out of an underground stream, and the vault door is right there and it’s fucking cool.” 

Arching an eybrow, Jeanne replied, “Well then, why don’t we suspend the tour for a moment and go see this ‘fucking cool’ vault door?” 

Looking to the others, I shrugged. “Sure, why not? 

“But I swear, if we see the name ‘Vault-Tec’ written anywhere around there, we are walking away and never looking back.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Growth 18-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Going to visit Wonderland was a big deal for Denny. And a big deal for Dakota too, come to think of it. Neither of them had had that sort of opportunity before. The opportunity to see so many Alters in a peaceful setting, that was. Dakota spent most of her time at the Eden’s Garden Rebels place, and while they were definitely on the side of Alters not all being evil, there weren’t exactly that many around the motel. And Denny had spent time up on the station, but still didn’t trust herself around people that much so she tended to stay in either Asenath or Abigail’s apartments. Abigail had decided not to push her about going to classes for awhile, and instead let her do homeschooling stuff. Eventually she would probably need to physically attend, but there was time for that. After everything she had been through, nobody thought pushing her was the right idea. 

So, this would be a pretty new experience for both of them. I just hoped it went better than my own first visit to that place. But then again, Theia was on our side now, so we could hardly–nope. I refused to finish that thought. Not in this reality, and certainly not with the things I’d already experienced. I may have had a tendency to push my luck with fate, but that was too far. 

“You’re tempting fate again, aren’t you?” 

The demand came from Avalon, who was squinting at me as she, Miranda, and I stood at the back of the small, fenced in area behind the motel where Iskolar the old Garden lady with the giant sword had just created a new portal leading up to the Station. One we weren’t going through. 

“Who, what, me?” I blinked several times at the accusation, while Valley continued to squint. 

“She’s right,” Randi put in idly, standing a bit back with her thumbs in her pockets as she regarded me with a very small smile. “You have that ‘I just thought something dumb and now reality is gonna make me pay for it’ face. You probably just thought something about how at least we won’t get attacked at Wonderland like you did the first time you went there, huh?” 

My mouth opened, then shut, as I felt the slightest pink flush cross my face. “I need to get friends who don’t know me as well,” I muttered under my breath. 

Before either of the other two could respond to that, the portal was finished and a small figure slowly came through. It was Denny, looking quite unsure of herself. She kept glancing around, hunching her shoulders in what seemed like an attempt to make herself smaller. Or possibly she thought she was a turtle and was trying to retract her head into a shell that wasn’t there. Either way, she basically shuffled her way through and looked very much like she might just decide that jumping back the way she’d come before the portal closed would be the best idea. 

Quickly, I spoke up. “Denny, hey. I uhh, hi.” Trying not to sound (or look) awkward, I offered her a smile and gestured. “We better let Iskolar shut down the portal now, or we’ll all have to listen to her and Llars flirting for the next hour.” 

Iskolar, for her part, scoffed at me. “You make your jokes, but I’ll have you know I could teach every one of you a thing or two about good flirting,” she retorted primly. “And good dating.” 

There was a brief pause before Denny nodded and took a few more steps toward us and away from the portal. She seemed like… well, she sort of seemed like someone who was just learning how to swim and had just moved barely far enough out into the water that their feet didn’t quite touch the floor of the pool anymore. Once she heard the portal itself turn off at a gesture from the woman who had created it, Denny gave a very soft gasp. She was clenching one hand tightly.

“Oh well, hello young lady,” Iskolar greeted her. “As I’m sure you heard just now, I’m Iskolar. And you–” 

“Denny,” the girl quickly put in. “I’m Denny. Hi. Um, thanks. I mean, for the…” She gestured behind herself at the spot where the portal had been a moment earlier. “The lift?” 

“Oh, any time, dear,” Iskolar assured her with a smile. “Any time at all. I hear you’re quite the crossword champion.” 

Denny blinked at that, seeming taken aback. “How did you… Dakota?” 

“She might’ve bragged once or twice about how quick her new friend was at solving those things,” Iskolar confirmed with a wink. “Faster than me, and I’ve been doing it a wee bit longer.” 

Now Denny was blushing, squirming a little under the attention. So I spoke up. “Dakota’s just grabbing a couple things from her room. You guys, uh, you’ve been talking a lot, huh?” 

Focusing on me, the girl gave a quick, somewhat jerky nod. “Oh–uh, yeah. Um, sort of. Abigail and Mr. Tougan–he’s my therapist– thought it would help if I talked to her. Because she um, because she had some bad experiences too.” 

That was putting it lightly, considering Dakota’s entire family had been forced to kill each other by a megalomaniac super plant, which only she had survived. She ‘won’ the massacre, and now she had Kwur’s own powers. Well, his plant control powers anyway. Whether she’d inherited anything else of his was yet to be determined. So yeah, she’d definitely had some bad experiences. I could see why Abigail and this Mr. Tougan guy had thought it might help the two of them to talk to each other. 

Denny was still explaining. “Mostly we talk over the computer. We do that a lot. Really a lot.” She admitted that with a slight blush, squirming on her feet. “Maybe a little too much. But she’s… she’s good to talk to. She understands a lot of–um, she understands a lot. And we don’t just talk about bad stuff. Or even mostly about bad stuff. Usually we talk about these shows we’ve been watching on Netflix or whatever. I mean, we put the show on at the same time and talk about it while we’re watching it. Mostly about the show, but sometimes we just start talking about other things and forget what’s going on so we have to rewind and–” All at once, she seemed to realize just how much she had been saying, and how quickly she’d been saying it, and clammed up. Her blush was deeper. “And it’s not a big deal.” 

Randi grinned while speaking up. “I mean, if you’re a crossword champion, I might need to get your help with my English homework.”

“Sorry,” Denny replied with a helpless shrug, “knowing a lot of words doesn’t really make me that good at knowing the rules of grammar or whatever. And I don’t even know that many words. It’s just that I see the clues and the number of letters and then I just… know what the right word is.” 

She hesitated before starting to say something else. But before she could, I sensed Dakota approaching. Sure enough, just as I turned to glance that way, the girl in question came around the corner. She was carrying a heavy backpack over one shoulder. Seeing Denny, she darted that way to embrace her. “Hey, Kitchen!” 

Denny, after the slightest hesitation, returned the hug. “Hey, Kentucky.” 

Weirdly, it was only while seeing the two of them together right then that I realized how relatively similar they looked. At least on paper. They both had dark hair and pale skin, and they were both close to the same age. Well, Dakota was thirteen while Denny was eleven. But even that wasn’t quite right, because Denny still had some memories (and was getting more as the days went on, apparently) of being her older self before she’d died, so–yeah. It was complicated. But they did look similar, enough that they could have been sisters. I wondered, inwardly, if that helped at all. Did they get along so well because both of them really needed some form of family? Not that I thought they were pretending or anything like that, just… subconsciously, maybe it helped them talk about the things they needed to talk about with each other. 

“Kitchen?” Randi echoed Dakota’s words, then Denny’s, “Kentucky?” Then she realized. “Your names.” 

“She was Den,” Dakota confirmed. “Then it turned into Closet, or Living, or Study, or any other room.” 

Denny nodded, looking a bit more at ease than she had before Dakota showed up. “And she’s any state. Except Nevada. I um, I met Nevada. But that still leaves a lot of others, doesn’t it, Utah?” 

Dakota promptly leaned over to whisper something quietly in the other girl’s ear that I couldn’t hear. Then the two of them snickered before Denny whispered something back. 

Yeah, I was going to have to make sure Abigail was aware of what a good choice having the two of them talk had been. But then, I was pretty confident she already knew that. My older sister was pretty good at this sort of thing, apparently. 

Clearing my throat, I spoke up. “Right, so we’re going over to Wonderland. But there’s a couple of things we should probably warn you guys about so they don’t take you by surprise.” 

Looking a little hesitant once more, though bolstered by the presence of Dakota, Denny quietly asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea? If there are a lot of people there, and if I hurt anyone–” 

Stepping that way, I took her hand and squeezed it, meeting her gaze. “Listen, okay? That’s not going to happen. You’re not gonna hurt anyone. There’s a lot of protection over there, people who know how to keep everyone safe. And you’ll have us with you every step of the way. We’re all just gonna go hang out, see some cool stuff, talk to cool people, and do cool things. But no one is going to force you into it. If you really, genuinely don’t want to do this, say the word and we’ll do something else. We can all hang out in one of the rooms around here and watch a movie, or play a game, or whatever. It’s no big deal. But if you’re just afraid that you’ll hurt someone, or that someone will hurt you, I promise we won’t let that happen. 

“Those memories in your head, his voice, they don’t control you. They don’t control anything. You have his power, and you can do whatever you decide to do with it, not the other way around. And when I say his memories don’t get to control you, I don’t mean by telling you what to do. I don’t mean by puppeting you. I mean they don’t get to stop you from living your life. He’s gone. You’re not. You’re here. You won. We will do whatever you are comfortable with. Just know that we’re going to be there, and make sure it’s what you want to do. Not what his memories want to force you into.” 

Denny was quiet for a moment, staring at me as she considered all that. Then she gave a single, barely perceptible nod. “I… I kinda want to see Wonderland. It sounds fun.” She actually sounded almost guilty in admitting that she thought it would be fun. Which made me want to take Fossor’s thus-far nonexistent ghost (please God no) and Kushiel’s entirely too-extant ghost, and punt both of them into the sun for what they had helped do to this girl. Yes, Fossor hadn’t been directly involved, but it was his fault. He was responsible. And besides, it wasn’t like I needed that much of an excuse to want to kill Fossor again. He had it coming a million times over. Thankfully, that wouldn’t be an issue. Not after everything that had been done to ensure he didn’t have some sort of loophole to come back through. He was dead and gone, period. 

I should know, people kept borrowing the memory of the event that Sariel had copied out of my brain so we’d have proof of what happened. And not just my brain, Mom’s too. Both of us had seen him die, so Sariel copied our memories and allowed people to see them. Apparently Fossor didn’t exactly lack people who wanted to see exactly how he died. Let alone experience doing it themselves. 

Shoving those thoughts away, I made myself smile at the girl in front of me. “Yeah? Cool, because trust me, it’s gonna be fun. Especially when you meet Buddy System. And Namythiet. And–well, a lot of people.” 

Avalon spoke up, voice curious. “What about you, Dakota? Are you okay with going over there?” 

There was the slightest hesitation as the other girl thought that through before nodding. “Now that the vine’s working, I want to… I want to celebrate. I wanna do something new, something really different. I wanna…. I wanna be happy.” She gave a small smile toward Denny, taking the girl’s hand. “I–we didn’t make it through everything those people put us through just to act like we died when we didn’t. We’re gonna go have fun, right, Library?” 

Straightening up a little bit, though she was still smaller than the girl next to her, Denny gave a firm nod of agreement. “Right, yeah, fun. Let’s do that fun thing. You said we’d meet someone named Buddy System?” 

“Yeah, he’s one of the people we need to warn you about,” Miranda murmured. 

“He’s a troll,” I confirmed. “I mean, not a stupid internet jerk, a real live troll. But he’s really nice. He just looks scary, and we didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. Trust me, once you meet him, you’re gonna love the big guy.” Saying that, I tilted my head thoughtfully. “Actually, come to think of it, we haven’t actually seen Joan of Arc yet.” 

“I–what?” That was Denny, giving a double-take. “Haven’t seen who?” 

Grinning, I gestured toward Iskolar. “You hear that? Now she’s interested. Guess we better start up that portal and head over there. 

“Time for Denny to see just how crazy this world can get.” 

******

Marina Dupont was there to meet us when we came through the portal and into what looked like a moderately-sized garage, just big enough for two cars. The tall, pale brunette was accompanied by Quing, the avian-like Lavinisi who worked as one of Wonderland’s main security guards alongside Buddy. He was watching us intently from his spot in front of the main rolling door, his sharp eyes gazing at and through all of us as we appeared. The portal. He was watching the portal. I could see his right wing-hand touching the handle of one of his many knives, his entire body visibly tense. 

Right, of course he was a little worked up. He was responsible for the security of this place, and we had just come through a portal that led back to an encampment of a whole bunch of people who had been responsible for slaughtering a lot of Alters. Yes, the Garden people were rebelling against that and we were all trying to change things, but still. 

A moment later, the portal faded behind us, and Marina quickly stepped over, extending her hand to catch mine. But not to shake it. Instead, she pulled me into an embrace. “Hey, Flick!” Avalon got the same treatment and greeting, as did Miranda. “You guys really need to visit more. Do you have any idea how much the kids ask about all of you?” 

Even after she had sent the Crossroads children back to their parents (on either side), Marina wasn’t totally done with taking care of children. First, there were the ones over twelve who had chosen to stay at Wonderland rather than go back to their parents. That was a choice Marina and the people here had allowed them to make. With the option to go back whenever they decided to. Thus far, none had. 

But even more than that, when the Wonderland Septs had learned how good Marina was with children, they had basically assigned her as a permanent… nanny, of sorts. And from what I had heard and seen, she had never been happier. This was where she belonged, teaching and taking care of younger kids. It suited her much more than Crossroads had. 

Once she had embraced and greeted us, she turned her attention to the other two. But Marina didn’t immediately reach out to them. She didn’t try to grab and hug them. Instead, she offered both of them a smile. “Hey. I’m Marina, what’re your names?” 

The two girls exchanged glances before Denny stood up straight. “Denny,” she answered quietly. “I’m Denny.” 

“And I’m Dakota,” the slightly older girl put in. “You… you went to Crossroads?” She had heard a lot about that place over the past few months, most of it from Sands and Sarah. 

Nodding, Marina replied, “That’s right, I went there for two years. Well, basically two years. Flick and Avalon were one year under me. But you know what?” she continued with a conspiratorial tone, “With all the stuff that kept interrupting them last year, I think they attended like… three months of classes. Maybe.” 

As she winked at the two of us, Dakota and Denny snickered a little. Then Marina added, “On the other hand, I’m pretty sure they’ve been through more training and live combat than fourth-year students who are about to graduate.” She glanced up toward me, offering a little smile. “They’re bonafide badasses, and you couldn’t ask for better friends.” 

“Yeah, they’re alright.” The grunt came from Quing, whose voice continued to surprise me for how deep and gravelly it was, coming from a relatively thin bird-man. “They’ve done some good work out there.” Those laser-focused eyes settled on me, our gazes locking. “Getting rid of Fossor, that was a big deal. Thanks. I mean, I ahh, know you had your own reasons for doing it, but still. Thanks.”

Before I could say anything, Miranda piped up, “Yeah, a lot of people are glad he’s dead. I don’t think that man had any friends.”

My mouth opened, but a young voice abruptly called, “Can I come out now?” It was coming from a corner of the ceiling in this garage, where a small face with feathers and an orange-yellow beak was poking out through an opening. “Nothing blew up and the portal’s gone!” 

Quing exhaled, giving all of us another quick once-over before waving one of his wing-arms. “Yeah, come down.” 

The face at the hole disappeared, before the girl it belonged to promptly dropped through. She glided down, her own wing-arms extended until she was hovering directly in front of us. It was a Lavinisi, like Quing. Only this one was a young girl, basically a little kid. Her feathers were dark red as opposed to Quing’s blue. She also wore tan cargo pants and a gray tee-shirt with an image of the actual Falco from Star Fox on it. Underneath that, she had clearly used red fabric marker to write (in somewhat shaky lettering), ‘Uncle Quing!’ 

After taking all that in, I noticed that she clearly wasn’t actually using her wings to keep herself up off the ground. They were just sort of extended out to either side as she hovered a couple feet off the floor. The Lavinsi flight seemed to be more of the Superman-like variety, with their wings acting as rudders in the air to guide them, or whatever. 

“Hi!” the young Lavinsi chirped, her attention focused on the two girls close to her own apparent age. “I’m Baidy! You’re Dakota and Denny. I heard you. Wait, was that rude? I didn’t mean to eavesdrop or spy, but Uncle Quing said I had to hide until we knew it was safe.”  

“It’s okay, Baidy,” Marina assured her. “But you should greet everyone, remember?” 

“Oh!” Turning her attention to the three of us, Baidy quickly introduced herself once more, and made it clear that she had heard our names too. But she was clearly more interested in Denny and Dakota, which was fair. 

Clearing my throat, I gestured, “Well, it seems to me that we were promised a tour of the newest Wonderland. Pretty sure there’s no one better for that than someone who gets a birds-eye view of the place.” 

Grinning, Marina turned a bit to where Baidy was practically vibrating with excitement. “She’s right, maybe you should help lead this tour. You know where everything fun and interesting is.” 

“Really?!” Baidy brightened, literally hovering higher in the air in her excitement. “Okay! Uh, come on!” She flew straight up toward the hole in the ceiling, only to stop when she was almost there. There was a momentary pause before she slowly sank back to the ground, looking somewhat sheepish. “I uhh, um, maybe we should use the door.” Her embarrassment at forgetting that we couldn’t fly wore off instantly as she flew that way, hitting the button to make the big rolling door start to rumble its way up. “You’re gonna love it here!” She was already giggling so much she almost couldn’t get her next words out. 

“It’s wonderful!” 

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Growth 18-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Obviously, finding out that the Garden Rebels could now make their own new Heretics was a big deal, a really big deal. Seriously, if this war ended up dragging on longer than the truce with the Seosten, we would need the ability to make more Heretics. Otherwise, the Loyalists would win simply through attrition. And while I wanted to think that we would be done with this much sooner, it wasn’t a good idea to plan on that. We had to be ready for this to be a long, drawn-out thing. Being able to create more Boscher Heretics was the only way we would survive. 

All of that and more was running through my mind as Miranda and I joined Avalon at the entrance to the portal room that would lead us down to the beachfront area where the Garden people had set up. 

As soon as she saw us, Valley pushed off the wall she had been leaning against and approached to embrace me tightly. “You know what this means,” she murmured. 

My head bobbed. “Of course I know what it means. The Rebellion isn’t completely screwed if this goes on much longer. It’s a big deal. Especially since–” I cut myself off, feeling the pain of Tribald Kine’s death wash over me once more before swallowing hard. “Especially since we’re already losing experienced Heretics. We need to be able to create more.” 

Miranda spoke up quietly while standing a couple feet back. “They have a lot of experienced Natural Heretics to choose from, people who would definitely agree to take the power boost. They don’t have to start with children or people who don’t know what they’re doing.” 

“Especially considering they don’t have to brainwash or lie to them to get them to fight,” I muttered under my breath. “They don’t have to get them when they’re too young to know any better.” That applied to both groups, really. Crossroads recruited Bystander-Kin when they were teenagers at most, and Garden tended to recruit even younger than that. They pulled in children and taught them to hunt down and kill other sapient creatures. When you thought about it for a minute, it was really fucked up. 

The three of us exchanged looks for a moment, obviously thinking about that. Finally, Miranda gave a firm nod. “Come on then, let’s get down there and see what’s up. If they’re right, if Dakota really managed to get those vines and the fruit working, we… we need to thank her.” 

“Everyone needs to thank her,” Avalon agreed. “And I feel like they already are. We might need to save Dakota from being…” She considered her words. “… overwhelmed. People can be a lot, even when they’re grateful.”  A brief pause, then, “Sometimes especially when they’re grateful.”

She knew what she was talking about, that was for sure. I knew she had been dealing with people being all over her for her own contributions toward the Seosten permission-possession spell. Obviously, she was glad that people weren’t trying to kill her anymore–okay there were still plenty of people who wanted to kill her, but not like that at least. She was glad the Seosten had no reason to actively try to kill her in order to stop a spell that had already been performed. And she knew why all those people were grateful for that spell. But having so many coming up and thanking her for something she didn’t feel like she’d actually contributed much toward as herself made Valley feel weird. She had told me that much over the course of the trip to that prison planet. She had been enjoying having some time away from the station so she could relax without feeling like she would be disappointing people who wanted to talk to her. She didn’t blame them for being happy and wanting to talk about the whole situation, but it was still a lot. 

Miranda and I nodded to one another before I spoke up. “You’re right, she might need a break right now. How about, after we check on the whole vine situation, we find out if she wants to take off for a bit? I was texting with Marina earlier and she said something about us coming to see Wonderland’s newest set-up.” 

The other two agreed with that, and we went through the door to the portal room. The man there knew us by name, and immediately asked if we were going because we’d heard the news. So it had gotten all the way up here already. That made sense, but also made me even more certain that Dakota would probably need a break from people. 

We exchanged a few words with the man, an elderly Yedveleran who had white-gray skin, was only about five feet tall, and had six arms as well as eyes that were attached to the end of antennae-like stalks atop his head rather than on the front of his head. His English name was Llars, which was about as close as we could get to pronouncing his actual name. Eventually, after a brief discussion about the whole situation, he sent a message to his counterpart down in the rebel Garden area. Once he got the go-ahead, Llars opened the portal and gestured for us to go ahead. “Make sure you let the kid know she did good, you hear?” 

We promised we would, before stepping through the portal. It carried us to the small, fenced-in field behind the main motel where the Garden had set up (though they had spread out throughout this entire neighborhood, taking up in a few different motels and apartment buildings). Llars’s counterpart on this side of the portal, an actual Garden Heretic woman named Iskolar, was right there to greet us. She was elderly, like Llars himself, and from what I’d heard other people say, I was pretty sure the two of them were actually courting one another. Which was pretty great. I hoped the two of them would make it work.  

In any case, Iskolar was a fairly short woman herself, standing around the same height as me at five foot four inches. She had graying blonde hair that was very big and poofy, and a broad smile to go with her broadsword. Yeah, the weapon was practically bigger than she was, strapped to her back. I’d seen her wield it though, and she was incredibly deadly despite outwardly looking and acting like a goofy grandmother. Honestly, she made me think of Betty White cosplaying as a barbarian. I felt like she could offer us cookies with one hand while fending off a horde of snarling wolf-monsters with her sword in the other. It was a really fun image in my head. 

Before we left that fenced-in area, Iskolar insisted that we take a bag of chocolate candies that she wanted Dakota to have. She also made us promise that we weren’t going to overwhelm the poor girl and would help her get a break from everyone who was demanding more and more of her time. When we told her our plan to take the girl to see Wonderland, Iskolar was delighted. On the other hand, she also suggested that Dakota might like to see a movie as well, and that we should take her to ‘that new Humphrey Bogart film.’ So it was possible that she was somewhat behind the times. I supposed once you had been a Heretic for so long, it became harder to keep track of how lives went in the Bystander world. Still, it was the thought that counted.

Once we made our way out of there, it wasn’t hard to find where practically everyone else was. The beach across the street from the motel was packed full of people. Mostly Heretics, but also some Alters mixed in there. Standing on the sidewalk, the three of us could see the crowd over there, all packed in around something we couldn’t make out. But I had a guess. 

Sure enough, as we headed across the beach, the three of us could see through the crowd enough to catch a glimpse of the long, thick vine leading out into the ocean. They were all gathered around that single vine, though it looked like most of the people were being kept several feet back by the Rebel Victors, who were examining several golden apple-like fruits attached to the vine. The excitement in the crowd was palpable, even as they intently watched what the Victors were doing.  

No, not just Victors, I realized. Seller was there too, as was a slender woman with dyed green hair and a leather jacket who was holding what looked like a stethoscope up to one of the golden fruits. It was like she was listening to them, while Seller himself was examining a different one with a jeweler’s magnifying glass. Obviously, Seller was there because of his expertise in biological manipulation, which told me that the other woman was probably along the same lines. I didn’t recognize her, but that hardly meant anything. 

“You know that woman?” I asked the other two quietly, while scanning the area for Dakota herself. Finally, I spotted her standing a bit behind Jack Childs, the cowboy Victor. Which reminded me that we needed to talk to him and Fu Hao about that whole ‘the prison camp was actually run by Zoya Dalal and possibly my ancestor Remember Bennett’ thing. 

Miranda and Avalon both nodded, the latter replying, “Her name’s Nostrum. I don’t know the name of what she was a natural Heretic of, but it gives her the power to make real medicine out of random ingredients. Medicine that actually does what she wants it to, as long as you take it soon enough. But if anyone else put the exact same ingredients together in the exact same way, it wouldn’t work. It needs her power to actually function properly.” 

“She was almost burned at the stake for being a snake oil salesman back in the old west,” Miranda added. “She didn’t understand that leaving her medicine for too long would make it not work. Jack Childs saved her from that, and brought her into Garden. She’s really good with this sort of thing now.” 

By that point, Childs himself had caught sight of us. He said a word to someone next to him, and that man (a tall, pale figure with an old faded Levi jacket and long dark beard), straightened up before walking our way. The large crowd parted for him, as he made his way through I thought he was right in front of us. Extending a hand, he announced, “Name’s Beetle. You three should come this way, Victor Childs would like to have a chat.” He spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that made it clear the matter wasn’t up for discussion. Which was fine, considering we wanted to go over there anyway. But I still didn’t really like the feeling that I was being summoned like a servant. It irked me, though I told myself I was overreacting and pushed it aside. The guy was just a little blunt and accustomed to being quickly obeyed, given he obviously worked as some sort of assistant for the Victors.  

So, I pushed aside my initial reaction and the three of us followed him back through the crowd. Childs thanked Beetle before sending him off on some other errand. Then he focused on us. “Guess you heard the news already.” 

Looking over my shoulder at the assortment of people all eagerly waiting for the announcement of whether this was real or not, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, we heard. That’s why we’re here.”  That said, I leaned over to look at Dakota, who was standing there with her arms folded around herself, looking pretty overwhelmed. “Hey, how’s it going? You busy?” 

Visibly blushing, the younger girl looked up and met my gaze. I saw the faintest smile cross her face as she offered a shrug. “Oh, um, you know. Just doing this and that. Nothing big.” Her voice squeaked a little as she made the joke, but the important part was that she made it. She really was getting better than she had been months earlier. Being out of that hospital, and far away from Kwur’s influence, seemed to be doing wonders for her. 

Before any of us could say anything else, Seller exchanged a whispered conversation with Nostrum that was obviously magically protected. Then he turned and stepped closer, waving a hand. As he did so, some sort of small, flying insect emerged from his sleeve and spread what looked like dust through the air. Only then did he speak. “Now none of the lookie-loos can hear us, or read our lips.” He focused on me, adding, “Long time no see, kid.” His gaze took in Miranda and Avalon as well, as he added, “Kids. Wow, all three of you, huh?” 

“What’s the diagnosis?” That was one of the other Victors, a man who looked like he was in his early forties with a wide, round face that held a perpetually surprised expression, and short dark hair. Lamorak, one of Arthur’s old knights. “Is this real?” As he asked that, Lamorak glanced toward Dakota, adding, “I still think we should have done our tests first before everyone else heard about it. If this is a false positive, people are going to be upset about getting their hopes up. And it’s not us who will have to deal with the worst of it.” 

Flinching a little, Dakota straightened up, glancing at me before turning back that way. Her voice caught slightly, but she pressed on. “I–it’s real. I promise.” 

“She’s right,” Seller confirmed, offering a faint smile of his own. “Don’t get me wrong,” he informed Lamorak, “you are too. This whole thing would have been easier if we didn’t have the crowd.” 

“They are eager to know that our people can continue on,” Fu Fao noted as she stepped closer, the elderly Asian woman glancing straight at Avalon briefly before she continued. “While I agree that tests should have been completed, it was very difficult to keep the situation secret when we brought Seller and Nostrum in to do those tests. Word travels quickly. Particularly when we are so very thorough.” 

Seller shrugged. “Well, in any case, it’s like I said. The kid’s right. The vine’s doing what it’s supposed to do. The fruit we see now, that’s about all you’re gonna get for the year, but it should bloom normally next time.” 

“How many is that?” Childs asked. “What’s the crop this time around?” 

“Twenty-four,” came the answer from Nostrum, as the woman joined us. “That’s twenty-four people we can turn into Bosch Heretics, which means–” 

“Six,” Seller interrupted, sounding curious and thoughtful. “Six fruits per tribe. Four rebelled. Well, three and a half. But Aniyah and her half of the Reapers won’t see it that way.” 

“You’re right.” That, of course, was Aniyah Keita herself. The red-haired (with one spot of black in the front) Victor stepped up beside Lamorak, the man she was apparently very involved with. “Even if only half our tribe came with, we have every right to our six fruits to make our choices.” 

By that point, the final three Victors had joined the group. There was Fu Hao’s partner, the small, thin (though with arms that were tightly corded with muscle) man with dyed blue hair known as Carseus, as well as the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra (Cleo) Selene. It was the woman who spoke up. “Having six new recruits to our tribes will be very welcome.” Her dark eyes found Dakota, and the beautiful woman offered the girl a tender smile, that of a regal-yet-understanding queen. “Thank you so much for your work. We could not have done any of this without you. We would still have nothing for the future of our people.” 

Blushing so much I was afraid she might actually catch fire, Dakota stammered, “I–it’s no big deal. I mean–it is, I’m glad I could help. I just–umm–” She was scrambling a bit. 

“She’s just happy it worked,” I quickly spoke up for her, stepping that way to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Maybe it’s just six per tribe this time, but next year it’ll have more.” Behind me, Miranda and Avalon stepped over as well, all three of us standing with Dakota. 

Fu Hao cleared her throat. “Miss Chambers is correct. Though it will be five per, not six. The remaining four fruit will be put away for an emergency, just as we kept a few back before.” Her gaze found me and then Avalon in quick succession, and I knew what she was thinking about. The only reason both Avalon and Abigail had survived their own near-death situations while they were Bystanders had been because Garden had a few of those fruits stored away for such occasions. Granted, four weren’t very many, but still. I understood why she wanted to keep a few hidden away.

For a brief moment, I was afraid there might have been an argument. The Victors all exchanged long looks, before Carseus spoke up. “Ahem, I suppose that’s a good point. We do want to stick a few in a vault for a rainy day. We’ve all seen how important that can be. I suppose that means all of us need to agree together on what happens with each of those four?” 

That prompted a round of nods. They had settled that much at least. All seven Victors would vote on any use of the extra fruit, while being given five each to be used by their own tribes. I wasn’t sure how the five would be split amongst the three tribes who each had two Victors (maybe each of them would pick two and decide together for the fifth), but that wasn’t my business. 

Something else was though. Giving a quick glance toward Dakota, I spoke up. “Hey uhh, before you make the official announcement that the fruit is good and the vines are healthy, do you think you could let Dakota here slip away for awhile? That is, if she wants to.” I looked to the girl in question once more. “Sorry, do you wanna get out of here for awhile or stick around for your big–” 

“I want to get out of here,” she immediately piped up, before flushing a bit guiltily in the direction of the Victors. “I mean, sorry. I’m really glad I could help, and happy that you guys will have the fruit you need, and all that. But your people are kind of overwhelming already, and I–” 

“There is no need to apologize,” Alexander Helios, who looked as much like an old, noble emperor as his twin sister looked like a queen, announced. His dark hair was worn long, falling just past his shoulders as it gently swayed in the ocean breeze. “You have done everything we asked of you, and more than we could have truly hoped. Thank you, Dakota Coalbright. While I hope that you return for the feast in your honor later, it may be for the best for your own sense of peace if you take this portal.” He created the portal in question at that very moment, raising one hand to do so. “And I hope your friends here will escort you?” His eyes glanced back to the three of us behind her. 

That was a big deal. I knew that immediately. This girl had just fixed their special vines and given them back the ability to create new Heretics. She was indescribably important to them, and he was trusting Avalon, Miranda, and me to keep her safe. That meant a lot. 

I still wanted to talk to Fu Hao and Childs about the prison thing, but now was not the right time. They were really busy. Besides, Dakota needed to get out of here for her own sanity. So, I simply told them that we needed to talk later, then went with the others through that portal. It carried us to a spot further down the beach, out of sight from where the crowd was all gathered. A moment after we appeared and the portal had closed, we all heard a loud cheer erupt from that direction.  

“I think they told them the apples are working,” Miranda noted dryly, before glancing at Dakota with a smile. “See, you did pretty amazing stuff back there.” 

Dakota was blushing again, shaking her head. “It wasn’t just me. The others helped too. And… and those monsters are still trying to get at the fruit. They’ll be trying even harder now that the vines work.” 

“The Victors will deal with that,” I reminded her. “It’s not your job. You did your part. Now just let them handle the rest, right?” 

She hesitated slightly before giving a short nod, her voice quiet. “Right.” 

“Great.” Giving the younger girl a quick, reassuring smile, I added, “Now, Marina over at Wonderland was talking about us paying a visit, and I thought you might like to come with. What do you think? You’ve heard of that place, right?” 

Her response was a hesitant, “Umm… Yeah, I’ve heard of it. If… if you think it’s okay, then sure. Err, can we invite Denny? We’ve been talking a lot and I think… I think she needs a break too.”

“You’re probably right,” I agreed. “Yeah, let’s get Denny down here so we can all check out the new Wonderland together.

“Something tells me we should take this chance while we’ve got it.” 

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Growth 18-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Dinner that evening was really something, to say the least. We didn’t eat out in the main cafeteria, figuring this was something we would want to keep a little more private. It would’ve been pretty hard to focus on things with a couple hundred pairs of eyes from everyone else in the room constantly staring our way if we had eaten in public with someone like Jegudiel. He was the sort of guy who tended to attract attention even without the whole archangel thing. With that added in? Forget it, we never would’ve had any privacy at all. And having all those people watching our every move would have made the whole situation even more uncomfortable.  

In the end, it was still a fairly large group of us at the dinner, all lined up along either side of a long table that had been set up in the Moon’s apartment. Along one side of the table was my dad, both of my grandparents, Wyatt, Abigail, Koren, and me. Along the other side were Haiden and Sariel, Vanessa and Tristan, Jehoel, Spark, Puriel, and Tabbris. Jegudiel was at the end, with Tabbris next to him to his right (her mother on her other side) while I was next to him on the other side, across from my little sister. 

The entire table was laden with dozens of heavy platters of food. Seeing all of it, Jegudiel  clapped his hands together once very loudly, the sound echoing through the room. “Now this is a meal!” he boomed, a broad smile spreading across his face. “You make sure to eat as much as you can, little teuslin,” he teased with a look at Tabbris. “We’ve got to make sure you grow up nice and big so you can squish the heads of your enemies like geppins.” 

Blanching a little bit, the girl squirmed in her seat. “I’m not really sure I’m gonna be up to, um, you know, squishing.” 

“Oh don’t you worry,” Jegudiel informed her, “I used to be a pint-sized little thing like you too. Believe it or not, I was even smaller when I was your age. And even if you eat all you can and still turn out to be a tiny one, it doesn’t really matter. You’re big where it counts.” He offered the girl a wink as she stared at him. “Hell, from what I’ve heard, you being kind of small right now is the only thing that’s keeping you from taking on the entire Fomorian Empire by yourself!” His words right then were accompanied by a hearty laugh. 

Smiling a little despite myself, I watched the girl’s reaction while speaking up. “She’s impressive, that’s for sure. I’d be pretty dead, or worse, right now if it wasn’t for her.” 

Grandmaria took a sip of her water before speaking. “And we’re all certainly glad that didn’t happen.” She smiled my way while adding, “Plus, I can’t say I object to having another grandchild to spoil. Not to mention how much Arthur appreciates being able to buy more of those little video games and pretend they’re actually for one of them.” 

Popser made a huffing sound deep in his throat. “You know I can’t just hand those over without making sure they’re appropriate. Besides, when they put them in the system, what if they have questions about how it all works? I need to have a thorough understanding of all that.” 

From where he was sitting next to his own father, Dad leaned over and whispered something in his ear. Popser listened, then gave a short nod before adding, “And working with them gives me a chance to practice with these technology power whoozits.” 

For a moment, it looked like Jegudiel was going to say something about that, his expression curious. But Haiden spoke up first. “I’ve got a question of my own for you, big guy.” His gaze was focused down the table to the archangel. “How do you think the people on the front line of that war would feel about the idea of working with humans instead of using us as flesh-and-bone mecha to pilot around? You know, letting us have a say in what happens. Is it like people around here talking about asking their trucks for permission to drive them?” 

Obviously, he wasn’t the only one wondering that, but I was still surprised that anyone had asked so directly during the very first meal with this guy. And judging by a few of the looks he was getting from some of the others, they might’ve thought that he had gone too far. 

Jegudiel, however, observed him curiously before giving a short chuckle. “I wouldn’t have expected any other question from the one they called the Bane. You did an awful lot of damage while you were out there, you know.” He actually sounded admiring in that moment rather than reprimanding. “Kept a lot of them on their toes, so they didn’t get soft back away from the front lines.” Pausing briefly to consider, he amended, “Well, not as soft, anyway. You did some fine work. A lot of bad work too, but considering the situation… ehh, can’t say as I blame you too much. 

“Anyway, as for what you were asking about, I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t use a host unless it’s for some quick tactical advantage, making them think I’m not there or something like that. And in those cases, it doesn’t tend to last very long. If there’s some big discussion going on about that, I haven’t heard it.” He shrugged. “But then, I’m usually too busy kicking Fomorian teeth down their throats and then ripping their spleens out to get the teeth back to actually listen to stuff like that. Tell you what, I’ll have one of my people who’s actually more into that subtle talking stercus ask around to see what the general feeling is. That good enough?” 

Haiden seemed to think about that briefly before nodding. I had the feeling he was surprised to get an actual thought-out response, let alone an offer like that. “Yeah, I’d say that’s good enough.” Another pause came before he added, “Thanks.” 

From there, Wyatt asked something about a bit of Seosten magical security he had been working on taking apart, looking for advice from Jegudiel. The thing was, I happened to know for a fact that he had already long-since solved the problem he was asking about. Clearly, this was a test of some sort. He wanted to know if the man would send him down the wrong path. Whether he did or not, I wasn’t sure. Because even with the advanced lessons I had been getting, I absolutely could not follow Jegudiel’s response. And Wyatt’s next words sounded even more like total gibberish. From the way Sariel reacted, I could tell they weren’t actually just fucking with us and were actually saying real things. But damned if I could follow any of it. 

Still, at the very least, I was able to sit back in my seat and watch them go through this whole impossible-to-understand discussion. Then I looked back and forth along the table, seeing everyone watching as well. My grandparents, my dad, the Moons, we were all sitting here with Tabbris’s archangel father while he and Wyatt discussed security spells. This was all so surreal. Even in a world that had already been so impossible, a world where I had once foolishly thought I was completely beyond being surprised, this was… something. 

Sometimes, I had to take a metaphorical step back and really look at what my life had become over the past year and a half. Honestly, I had no idea how I had gotten here. 

And I certainly had no idea where I would be once another year and a half had passed. 

******

I may not have known where I would be in eighteen months, but the next morning I was attending Xenozoology class, where we learned about Alter animals. Lillian wasn’t there to help teach this time, of course. She was still with Mom in Peru, working on taking care of that whole situation. But we did have Scratch, the short guy from Eden’s Garden who I had met at the beginning of the year working with these animals. 

Obviously, he didn’t look any different now. The man still had the same long, dark gray hair tied into that same ponytail, and that crescent moon-shaped scar still marked his very tan face from just under his right eye down to his cheek. Even after all of this time, I still had no idea what had caused his scar. Nor did I know any other name he went by besides Scratch. But then, from what Miranda and Seller had said, no one else seemed to know any other name either. He simply was, and apparently always had been, Scratch. 

At the moment, the man in question was standing next to a cage that has been covered with a tarp. He was watching me and the rest of the class, his gaze making it clear that he was considering just how to start this lesson. Or possibly wondering if we were ready to hear it. Finally, he exhaled, the sound of his soft sigh stopping the whispering that was going on. Not that there had been a lot of it, but still. Everything went completely silent at the mere prospect that he was about to say something. 

“No yelling,” the man started flatly, in the same simple, soft voice I had come to expect from him. He wasn’t the type to raise his voice or act outwardly excited. He always carried himself calmly. Which was probably why he was so good with the animals. Or maybe the fact that he spent so much time with animals was why he talked like that. I wasn’t sure which came first in that particular egg and chicken situation. “No raising your voices or blurting things out if you’re not called on. I don’t want any of you scaring the poor guy, or making him think he’s in trouble. When you want to say something, raise your hand until I say your name. When I do, you talk in a normal, quiet, civilized tone. Does everyone understand?” 

He waited until we had agreed before putting his hand on the tarp. Once more, he looked over at us, his eyes inquisitive. “How many of you can tell me what this is?” With that, the man pulled the tarp away from the cage, not so much ripping it off as giving a simple gradual tug so it came up smoothly and steadily. Probably to avoid startling the creature inside. 

And what a creature it was. Now that we had a chance to look at it, I could see what looked like an ordinary wolf at very first glance. Except it was bigger in the shoulders and had paws that were more like a bear, with long claws. Which I was given a decent view of as the thing reared up on its hind legs once the tarp came off. It didn’t just briefly rear up either, it stood and stayed that way, its wolf-like head snapping first one way, then another as it took all of us in. The thing pressed its paws against the glass of the cage, deadly claws extending. Yet I didn’t get the impression that it was trying to break out, or even threaten us. It seemed more like it was showing the claws to let us know that it wasn’t helpless, and that if we tried to hurt it, there would be a fight. 

So it was a wolf with bear paws that could stand on its hind legs, but that wasn’t the only thing different about this thing. It wasn’t simply a bear-wolf hybrid. That much became clear as the large bat-like wings unfurled from its back and spread out. Probably to make itself look even bigger, to ward off any potential threats. The thing was spreading those bat-wings out from one end of the cage to the other, its eyes looking over every one of us in rapid succession to assess if we were going to try to attack. 

“No sudden movements,” Scratch reminded us in his soft tone, drawing the creature’s attention briefly before it went back to looking at the rest of us. “Don’t startle him. Just let him take it all in. He’s usually in a bigger enclosure, so he might be a little grumpy right now. But he’ll be okay. Especially once we get him some food. He’s been doing presentations with me for awhile now. Like I said, how many of you can tell me what he is?” 

Vanessa wasn’t in this class, or I was certain that her hand would have rocketed straight into the air. Instead, it was Jason Furuya, the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic, who raised his hand. The Asian guy, who had a scar of his own over his cheek (though not as pronounced as Scratch’s, waited until the teacher said his name before speaking. “He’s a Kludde, right?” It sounded sort of like ‘could’ but with the added L sound right after the kuh sound. Kludde. Like if you mixed up could and cloud and tried to say them both at the same time, or something. 

Scratch smiled faintly, giving a short nod. “That’s right, top marks, Furuya. What else can you tell me about the Kludde?” 

“Uh.” Jason hesitated. “They originated–I mean, here on Earth that is– around the Netherlands and Belgium, right? People thought they were werewolves at first. Uh, werewolves with wings, I guess.” 

“Werewolves with wings, or even the Christian devil,” Scratch confirmed. For a moment, he looked a little amused. Probably because he was thinking about the fact that even his own moniker used to be a nickname for the same devil. Old Scratch, that was. Or maybe he was thinking about the fact that we literally had Lucifer himself, now Apollo, living with us. Either way, he took a moment to smile about something before continuing. “People thought a lot of things about them, some true, some not. Who knows why they’re called Kludde?” 

Even as he asked that, the creature opened its mouth and gave a sharp barking sound. Which sounded an awful lot like its actual name. It barked again, and it sounded even more like it was saying ‘kludde.’ 

“Now that’s just cheating,” Scratch informed the creature with a sidelong look. “You’re not supposed to give them the answers, Montgomery.” 

Rebecca started to say something, a noise escaping her before she caught herself and raised her hand. When the man said her name, she asked, “Montgomery? His name is really Montgomery?” 

“That’s right,” Scratch replied with a simple nod. “Montgomery here is the nicest of his pack. There’s also Edna, Waylon, Ned, Maude, Luann and Seymour. Maybe once you all have a little more experience, I’ll let you see the rest of them. But for now, let’s stick with Montgomery. Who knows something else about the Kludde? Anything at all, I’m sure you’ve heard of them now and then.”

One of the other students, a tiny pixie with long green hair and polka dot clothes, flew up and down in the air to attract attention with her arm raised. Seeing that, Scratch pointed. “Jeckselprea?” 

“Just Jeck is fine, sir!” the pixie chirped. She sounded like Namythiet, and I found myself briefly wondering how the other pixie was doing. “And is it true that if you kill one of them, seven more appear?” 

Scratch shook his head. “No, that was either people getting them mixed up with Jekerns, or just seeing babies crawling out from under the mother’s body and thinking they magically spawned.” He paused before muttering, “People can be really stupid sometimes.” He shook that off before focusing. “If you kill a Kludde, you just end up with a dead Kludde.” 

“Are they shapeshifters?” Koren asked once she was called on. “I think I remember something about how they can change into a lot of different animals.” 

“That they can do,” Scratch confirmed. “Kludde are very powerful animal shapeshifters, almost as good as Pooka. Even stronger, in some cases. They can become plants too. Makes it a little complicated to keep track of them when they keep turning into trees and bushes in their enclosure.” He added that bit with a small smile, clearly amused by a memory of just such a situation. “Some say they can become human, but it’s rare. And even when they do, they don’t talk. They might mimic things they’ve seen humans do, just to try to blend in. Or hunt.” He added that bit with a small smirk. “Anyone else? They’re shapeshifters, they can fly with those wings even in this form, and they do not spawn seven babies when they die.” 

Ruckus, the guy who looked like an assortment of slinkies, raised one of his metal coils until Scratch acknowledged him. “They’rereallyfastright? Imeanlike… theycangetfrom… oneendofthisroom… totheother… sofastit’s… likethey’reteleporting.” 

Oh yeah, Ruckus talked like December. Except somehow, he seemed to get words out even faster. Thankfully, someone seemed to have had the same talk with him about slowing down slightly so he put some intentional pauses in his sentences. Not exactly between every word, but enough that it wasn’t completely impossible to follow what he was saying. Just difficult sometimes. It made me wonder if all of his people were like that, or if that was just a Ruckus thing. 

Scratch nodded. “Yeah, they’re pretty quick, whatever shape they’re in. I’ve clocked Montgomery here doing two hundred and ten miles per hour in a sprint. Not quite blinding speed, but you try telling a Bystander in the seventeen hundreds that what he called ‘incalculable’ speed is actually slower than the airplanes they’ll use in a couple hundred years.” He chuckled softly before sobering. “So yes, they’re very quick, even faster when they fly, and they can shapeshift. All of that makes them pretty dangerous when they want to be. Which brings me to the next question, who can tell me what they like to eat?” 

No one had any answer at first, until Shiloh raised her hand and hesitantly offered, “Um, liars?” She sounded uncertain, like she thought she might just be repeating a silly rumor. 

Scratch, however, beamed a bit. “Yes, actually. That’s pretty much right, believe it or not. The Kludde have the ability to sense when someone is lying. Not just a little white lie, but the malicious kind. They can tell when someone is keeping deep, dark secrets. Evil secrets. And the worse those secrets are, the more… evil the person is hiding inside, the tastier they are to the Kludde.” He paused then, clearly letting that sink in before dryly adding, “As you might expect, a lot of the people in positions of authority and power didn’t really like having them around. So, even before the whole… Bystander Effect came to full power, they started spreading rumors about the Kludde eating babies, literally being Satan or just a demon in general, spawning from the cremated bodies of dead witches, that sort of thing. Anything to stop people from paying attention to what–or rather who the Kludde were actually trying to eat. And, as a side note, that’s also where we get the concept of hellhounds. Well, that and the whole Cerberus thing, of course.” He gave me a brief look before continuing. “They went all-in on making these guys look as evil as possible, just so they’d be hunted to extinction. And they nearly succeeded. Montgomery and his pack are one of only a few left here on Earth. Well, somewhat close to Earth, anyway.”  

Offering us all a slight smile, the man continued. “I’m going to let my buddy here come out of the cage in a minute. Everyone just stay calm and steady. Spread out so there’s several feet between each of you. I’ll lead him to one person at a time. Let him sniff you and then put his head down. When he does that, you can touch him. Just scratch behind his ears or under his chin. And if any of you aren’t comfortable with doing that, go ahead and take a few steps back that way. No one’s going to give you a hard time. 

“And if they do, let me know. I have plenty of other fun things that could eat them.” 

******

So, I made it through the rest of that class, as well as the next couple. Eventually, I was on my way to lunch, wondering if I would see Tabbris there or if she was still busy with Jegudiel. On the way, however, I was interrupted by the sound of someone calling my name. Turning, I saw Miranda sprinting down the hall. She came to a sliding stop, blurting, “We gotta go down to the Eden’s Garden rebels, down by the ocean, the hotel, down there. We gotta check it out.” 

“What?” I blinked a few times, head shaking. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?” 

“Wrong?” she echoed, grinning. “No, nothing’s wrong. It’s right. Dakota, she did it. She finally got them working.” 

“Dakota–the vines?” I realized belatedly. “She managed to make the vines grow?” 

Miranda’s head was bobbing rapidly. “Not just grow, she managed to get a few of them to bloom. New apples. She made the vines give off new apples. 

“We can make new Heretics!”  

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At Last 16-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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To say that the Whisper-Ghosts reacted badly to their Get Into Tartarus ticket being taken away would be a bit of an understatement. In the moment after the prototype ship vanished with Puriel and the kids on-board, a near-deafening scream went up throughout the room. It came not only from the Whispers who were possessing ghost ‘bodies,’ but from all of them. Dozens of the things, most nearly entirely invisible aside from distortion in the air, expressed their fury from all along the outskirts of the room. The discordant howl of rage sent an almost painful shiver through me. There was power there. Which wasn’t surprising, given how much their voices could affect people when they whispered. An outright scream like this, coming from that many of them? No wonder it felt like the magical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Even with our protection, hearing it made me want to gouge my own ears out. 

And that was the point, I immediately realized. The scream was an attempt to push through all our protection and force us to harm ourselves. It even almost managed it, despite everything. At the moment I had that thought, the next that leapt to mind was, ‘Grandmaria and Grandpartie aren’t protected.’ Yet even as I spun that way, hand outstretched to stop them from being made to do anything drastic, I could see that the situation was already well in-hand. Both of my grandparents, Uncle Al, and that Native American guy, were all unconscious on the floor with Mom, Sariel, and Athena standing over them. Apparently they didn’t want to take any chances. Which, given how powerful the Whispers clearly were, made sense. 

Thankfully, the Whisper-scream (yeah) didn’t last for long. Which was the good part. Unfortunately, the bad part was that as soon as it stopped, the assortment of possessed Olympian ghosts and air distortions closed in on the rest of us from all sides. Invidia was, as usual, at the front as their leader. Her gaze was centered on me, and I was pretty sure that the hatred in her eyes was coming from both her and Charmeine. With that little move back there, I had just made myself the Whispers’ personal enemy. Which was just fantastic, because I didn’t have enough of those anymore. Definitely needed to add a few more to the list. 

“You,” Invidia snarled, that single word containing about a decade’s recommended allotment of spite. “You are–” 

In mid-sentence, she abruptly vanished from that spot just as my mother appeared there, sword slashing through the space she had just been in. Mom’s own voice was hard. “Stay the fuck away from her.” The tip of the sword was pointed at the spot where Invidia had reappeared, a bit further back. “You already lost. Get over it.”

“Did we?” Invidia snapped back, as the other possessed Olympian ghosts gathered around her. They were all staring past my mother to meet my gaze, and it was very clear that the animosity I had sensed was coming equally from all of them. I hadn’t just made Invidia hate me, they all did. Their whole group, if not their whole… species or whatever. Which might be a new record even for me, given how recently we’d met. 

It was actually Theia who spoke next. The Seosten girl was standing on the spot where Puriel had been when he was thrown into the other ship. “You failed to take my father, so you failed to open the rift.” Her voice was as flat and matter-of-fact as ever, yet I could sense an underlying hint of emotion there. Theia, quite understandably, probably had complicated feelings about her father. Yet these creatures had been trying to take him away from her right when she had been about to be reunited with him for the first time since she… well, since she had changed so much. They had both changed a lot, and these Whispers had very nearly snatched Puriel away from her before she ever had the chance to have a real face-to-face with him. No wonder I could hear anger in her voice. 

Although to be fair, I was pretty sure everyone in this room was angry at the moment. 

“She’s right,” Athena put in. The woman had all-but materialized on the other side of my mother, with Dare right next to her. “Your efforts were focused on using Puriel to open a new way into Tartarus. He’s gone now, and no amount of bellowing is going to change that.” 

Invidia made Charmeine’s eyes narrow, her voice low and dangerous as she stared intently through everyone else to meet my gaze. “Perhaps not, but we may still extract a high price for such a delay.” 

“Extract a high price,” Dare informed her in a voice that somehow managed to convey even more of an open threat than her actual words did, “and pay an even higher one.”

Invidia’s eyes finally turned away from mine to look to her, a snarl finding its way into her retort. “Is that so? Because it seems to me we have you outnumbered. And we gain an even better understanding of our physical capabilities with each confrontation. You cannot hold out for long. Your resources are far from infinite, this far from any reinforcements.”

“Are we far from reinforcements?” I pointed out after taking a breath. “I mean, you just saw our extra ship jump in and then out of here instantly. You really think you can finish us off before Andromeda drops off Puriel and the kids then comes back with some help?” 

“Perhaps,” Invidia snapped in my direction, though she didn’t exactly sound confident. I was pretty sure she was running the numbers in her head and didn’t like what it was coming out to. “We can handle you, at least, annoying one.” 

“You’d have to go through all of us to do it,” Avalon retorted, putting herself slightly in front of me with her arm raised, projecting a blade from her gauntlet. Miranda silently joined her, even as my mother moved closer as well.  

Beside me, Cerberus gave a low growl through each of his heads. Persephone piped up, “Felicity has many friends you would have to go through. Including us. And we just got here. We can keep playing for awhile.”

She was right, of course. First, she and Cerberus had only just gotten started, which was the whole reason I’d kept them in reserve as backup even after the Whispers first showed themselves. It didn’t make sense to blow that surprise the very moment we saw some bad guys. I’d hoped that if Kushiel was here, we could have surprised her with them if things ever got really bad. And second, because the two of them were a Revenant and robot dog respectively. They didn’t really get tired. At least, not like that. I was pretty sure Cerberus could run down enough to need to recharge or whatever, but that wouldn’t be for quite some time. His makers didn’t want to have to go find a thousand double a batteries or whatever in the middle of fighting Manakel. 

Invidia was staring that way, her gaze locked onto Persephone. “And what precisely are you even doing? You should be aiding us, not hindering our efforts. You are a puppeteer of dead things, Revenant. You worm and slide your way into the dead and control it from within. You are nothing without the dead. We are all-but family, practically your siblings. You have far more in common with us than these creatures. And even if there were no similarities between us at all, you should want what we want. Unleashing this… Tartarus as they call it will bring even more of the power you are so fond of.” Her eyes darted briefly to me as she added, “You think this child, already about to fall in on herself after so minor an exertion, can offer even a small fraction of the necromantic energy that Tartarus being fully unleashed would bring into this universe? You latched yourself to that power’s previous custodian, and now to the child for no merit of her own. You aid her for the power she controls, and yet the source of that power could be in the palm of your hand. You bow to the one who holds a flashlight, while ignoring those offering you the power of the sun itself. All you need to do is stand with us, and you shall never be in the dark again. We know you better than they ever could. This girl will never see you as a romantic partner. She’s only using you for the strength you provide.” 

The others were staring our way, and it was all I could do not to turn and look at Persephone myself. But something told me that one of the worst things I could do in that moment was show any doubt in her. No matter how worried the paranoid part of me wanted to be, I had to trust her. More than that, I had to show that I trusted her. 

To that end, I stepped forward and over slightly, putting myself not quite directly in front of Persephone, but slightly to the side and ahead. I moved to a spot that put my back to her both literally and symbolically, while simultaneously being physically closer. My voice was sharp. “You know what’s funny? You’re trying to say that you can give Percy what she wants better than any of us, but you don’t even know what she wants. You don’t know what she likes. If you did, you’d know there’s no way in hell that she’d ever want to release a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. You know, because she lives here. Percy?”

“Yes, Felicity?” she chirped a bit from behind me, sounding curious. 

“What’s your favorite thing to do at two-fifteen on Saturday and Sunday morning?” I asked without looking away from Invidia and the other Whispers. Immediately after answering the question, I spoke the answer right alongside the Revenant. 

“Sit in the fluffy blue recliner with a hot, wet towel over my feet and a bowl of popcorn, half cheese and half caramel, in my lap watching the excellent Home Shopping Network and making up stories about what the people who buy the items are like.” 

We both finished saying that, word-for-word, before I added, “How do I know that? Because I talk to her. Because I’ve asked her that four times and she’s given the same answer every time. Because I like knowing things about her. And it’s kinda hard to have a shopping network, a TV, popcorn, a towel, or a recliner if there are a bunch of monsters destroying the universe.” 

Stepping back a bit, I reached a hand behind myself to find Persephone’s and squeezed it, all still without breaking eye contact with Invidia. “You think you know her? You don’t know a damn thing about her. You think you can talk her into betraying me because you tell her I don’t have romantic feelings for her? I never lied about that, not once. I have been completely up-front about that. But me not feeling anything romantic for Persephone doesn’t mean I don’t care about her. She is my friend. And if you open your mouth to try to manipulate her again, I will come over there, rip you out of that ghost body, then twist and fold your incorporeal ass into a shape that’s so geometrically impossible you’ll end up breaking the fabric of space-time and traveling back to inspire M.C. Escher. Leave my friend alone.” 

Speaking brightly, Persephone chirped, “Thank you, Friend Felicity. But I am more than capable of speaking up for myself.” She paused briefly before giving a short nod as she focused on Invidia and the other, increasingly angry Whisper-Ghosts. “As she said, you are not my friend. She is.” Her head tilted then. “Perhaps you should not have cultivated such a strong reputation for manipulation. Nothing you say is believable.”

“Yeah, well, they’re accustomed to having the power to back it up,” Apollo noted. “When you get too dependent on using a power that lets your voice manipulate and control people, well… let’s say I know what that can be like.” 

“You are nothing to us,” Invidia snapped in his direction, clearly offended by the insinuation that there was any similarity between what they did and his own Olympian power. 

Apollo, for his part, simply shrugged as though that didn’t bother him. “Maybe not, but your thing hasn’t worked so far. Actually, you’ve kind of failed at everything you’ve been trying to do this whole time.” 

“Everything?” There was amusement mixed in with the anger in Invidia’s voice. “Is that what you think? Because from where we are standing, we are in a much better position with these… bodies than we have been before.” She gestured around at the other Whisper-possessed ghosts. “Your annoying efforts to prevent us from opening the way to Tartarus notwithstanding, our efforts here have not been wasted. Whether you survive this encounter or not remains to be seen, but we will emerge stronger than we have been in many millennia.” 

“Sure,” Apollo agreed in a tone that made it sound like that didn’t even matter. “Not to mention Tartarus clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s a whole universe out there. Not like it’s just gonna disappear.” 

“Of course not,” the Whisper retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Tartarus has existed since before the creation of this universe, and it will continue to exist long after every star which warms your worlds has burned itself out. It is infinite. And we have patience to match. Your efforts here are nothing more than a brief delay.”

“Not even a particularly good one,” Apollo noted. “You have plenty of other options for opening a rift into the place. You don’t even need any of us.” 

“No,” came the response, “we do not need you.” 

“We’re not worth your time.” 

“You’re not worth our time.” 

“You should just leave right now.” 

“We should just–wait–” The very slightly glazed look that had crossed Invidia’s face started to clear as she focused. “You–you are not–” 

Apollo spoke once more, his voice firm as it filled the whole area around us as though he was speaking through a microphone that didn’t exist. “You should leave right now and go as far away as you can.” 

That was what it took. An instant after he finished those words, Invidia and the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts vanished. As soon as they did, the blond man staggered a bit, giving a heavy wheeze. “Ohhhkay, that took a lot more than I thought it would. They’re strong.” He glanced to the rest of us. “I wanted to ask for more information about what they are, but it… they were too strong. I could feel it. I would’ve had to keep talking for another ten minutes to get anything, and she was already starting to work it out. Had to go with the quick fix instead of the long term answers. Sorry.” His last word came as a mutter, the man clearly annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get anything else out of them. 

“Dude,” Miranda started while shaking her head, “you managed to voice-manipulate a bunch of alien creatures whose entire thing is voice-manipulating people. Even if you didn’t get everything you wanted out of it, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” 

“She’s right,” Dare agreed, brushing her sleeves off a bit before focusing that way. “We should focus on the fact that we managed to get out of that situation without losing anyone. Particularly Puriel. He is safe now, and they don’t have what they need to open a way to Tartarus yet.” 

“But they still got away with new ghost bo–” I started before abruptly spinning to focus on the group who had been standing slightly away, staring at all of us through that. “Grandmaria, Popser!” The words had barely escaped me before I was dashing that way. 

“There she is!” my grandfather cheerfully called while reaching down to haul me up from the floor as soon as I was close enough. He hugged me to his chest, even as my grandmother stepped in to join the embrace as well. Soon all three of us were embracing in a big group right there. I was basically squished in the middle, but I didn’t care. My grandparents were here, they were safe. Everything else could wait for the moment. 

Actually, no, not everything. In the midst of that, I started to think about Tabbris and my father, only to hear the latter’s voice. “Mom… Dad.” 

He was there, with Tabbris right at his side. The two of them looked pretty worn, and it was obvious they’d been through a lot down there keeping the Whispers away from the Slide-Drive. But they made it, just like the rest of us. We might’ve all been exhausted, but we were alive. And, well, the universe wasn’t about to be overrun by giant monsters, which was a good thing.

Opening their arms without taking their grip off me, Grandmaria and Grandpartie beckoned for their son to come right in. He did, and then there were four of us. Which quickly became five as my grandmother reached out toward Tabbris, taking the suddenly-shy girl by the hand to pull her in close. I could see the shudder that ran through my little sister before she let herself embrace her new grandparents tightly, one after the other. And they hugged her right back. There was no hesitation, they both pulled her right in close and tight as smoothly and immediately as if they’d known her for years. Probably because they understood just how much this would mean to Tabbris, how important it was. 

Speaking of important, no matter how good this hug might’ve been, it was missing one person. Dad and I both met each other’s gazes before nodding. We knew. Turning slightly while keeping one hand on my grandfather’s arm, I looked over that way with a simple, “Mom.” 

There she was, standing just to the side as she watched what was going on with that sword still held tight (maybe a little too tight) in her grip. At the sound of my voice, Mom started a bit before sheathing the blade. Her mouth opened and then shut as she fought to find the right words. 

She might not have known what to say, but my grandmother did. Extracting herself, Grandmaria took a few steps over there. She raised both hands, voice quiet. “I owe you such an apology, Joselyn. For… for the things that–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, shaking her head. “Maria, you don’t owe anything. If I saw what you–if I…” She took a breath before letting it out, clearly trembling just a little despite herself. “I would have said even worse things than I’m sure you did. I would have done worse things.” 

“Oh,” Grandmaria half-drawled with a note of embarrassment, “I don’t know about the first bit. I said some pretty awful things.” A self-deprecating smile found its way to her face before she stepped that way, reaching out to take both of my mother’s hands. Her voice was even quieter, yet stronger. “You did what you had to do to protect your family. I–we could not be more proud of you, dear. And… knowing what we know now, I understand it may feel very silly for someone so much younger than you are to express that sort of sentiment. It may mean very little–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, voice catching a bit. “Believe me, it… it means more than you know.” 

“Joselyn,” Dad spoke a bit tenderly, reaching out that way. He didn’t say anything else, just stood there with his hand stretched toward her. 

Grandmaria, meanwhile, looked back and forth between them before taking my mother’s hand. She squeezed it, offering a faint smile before giving her a tug. And just like that, she pulled Mom over to join the embrace. And now we were finally all right there, hugging one another tightly for the next few moments. There were a lot of things to worry about, of course. But this… this was important. It was worth taking a second to enjoy. 

Soon enough (all too soon, really), we had to separate. There would be more later, but for the moment, there was still too much to do. After all, we were still out here in the middle of nowhere. And there was no telling how long it would be before the Whispers found their way back. We had to get out of here while we had the chance. 

To that end, the others hadn’t just been standing around doing nothing, apparently. Athena had already sent Mercury and Sariel back down to the bridge to get the ship moving again, while Persephone had gone with Cerberus and Apollo to bring the slide-drive back online now that the Whispers were gone and we had control of the ship. 

Of course, there was still one more person who needed a hug. My eyes found him immediately after separating from the others. “Uncle Al,” I found myself murmuring while stepping over that way. 

“Hey there, kid,” he greeted me with a broad smile. “Can I get your autograph?” 

“Only if you give me yours, Uncle Hercules,” I shot right back before embracing him tightly. In this case, I didn’t hold back any strength. He could take it, and a hell of a lot more. 

From there, a whole lot of introductions started to be passed back and forth, and I gave a double-take when they introduced the Native American guy who had been quiet up to this point. “Kutattca? As in–wait.” 

The elderly man gave a simple nod, head bowing. “Yes, actually. My sister is Litonya. If you’d like, I can apologize for her. I have been doing so for quite some time.” 

“Okay…” My mouth opened, before I stopped, realizing I had no idea exactly where to go from there. “I have so many questions. But right now, I’m pretty sure we should focus on getting back to the station so we can meet up with Puriel and those kids again and make sure everyone’s okay.” 

“Yes,” Theia spoke up in agreement. “I would very much like to speak with my father when he is not… distracted. We have a great deal to talk about.” 

“One thing, Felicity,” Athena started, with a slow, deliberate glance my way.

“Are those Elemiah’s rings you have?” 

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At Last 16-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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On the heels of Invidia’s announcement, Athena was already moving. In fact, she had been moving even before the evil creature finished talking, lunging that way with her sword slashing upward. Yet Invidia met the incoming blade with her own, its ghost-like wispy form somehow still blocking the other sword as though totally solid. She gave Athena a smirk, raising both eyebrows before the two began to exchange blows with blinding speed.

In the next instant, the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts fell in on us from all sides. Or, rather, they would have. But I had already snapped both hands up and out, summoning all the power I could to force the Olympian ghosts to stay back. Strong as they were, aided by the Tartarus energy and the fact that they were being controlled by these other creatures, it took absolutely everything I had just to make them stop moving forward. Controlling them or pushing them back was completely out of the question. I stopped them several feet away from us, and that was the extreme limit of my capability. Even that was almost too much, as I could feel them pushing against my control. 

“If one of you guys could do something to stop these fuckers right about now,” I managed through gritted teeth while struggling to maintain any sort of grip, “that’d be super-great!” 

Because it sure didn’t look like Athena was going to be done with Invidia any time soon. Just like her fight with my mother, the pair seemed perfectly matched. I had a feeling that the Whisper possessing Charmeine’s ghost was getting stronger and better with each passing moment, more attuned to working with the ‘body’ she had taken over. Every time she fought with it, she got more capable at using it. Worse, I was pretty sure that whole thing went for all these guys. All the Whispers were controlling incredibly powerful and skilled Olympian Seosten, even if they weren’t bridge crew. The longer this went on, the better they were going to get at actually using those powers and skills. We had to end this before we were totally overwhelmed. 

Oh yeah, and before they managed to take over Puriel and force him to open a portal to unleash a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. That would be nice too. 

To one side, even as I spoke those words about asking someone to do something, Sariel was drawing back her bow. But she wasn’t focused on any of the Whisper-Ghosts who were still trying to lunge at us. Instead, her gaze was on Puriel himself. In that moment, I had the sudden realization of how angry she must still be deep down for everything that had happened to her and her family. Not to mention the simple fact that her missing daughter was trapped inside Puriel himself, and as far as anyone knew, the only way to free her was for Puriel to die. 

“Sariel!” Apollo called, his hand reaching out that way, though he didn’t actually touch her. “If he dies–” 

“I know,” she interrupted, voice flat. “If he dies, they can possess him.” Still, she loosed the arrow anyway. It shot through the air, flying right between two of the Whisper-Ghosts, over the head of one of the cowering children, and struck Puriel right in the–no. At the very last instant, just before the arrow would have gone clean through the thoroughly-distracted man’s throat, it broke apart. The shaft fell away, while the arrowhead exploded into a… a cocoon of glowing reddish energy that surrounded the man. A forcefield. Sariel had put a forcefield around him. 

A sudden rush of motion just as the woman had loosed that arrow made my gaze snap over to where Theia had almost launched herself in the air after the shot. Seeing what happened, the girl froze in mid-motion. From the look on her face, I was pretty sure she was more surprised by her own reaction than she was about what the arrow had actually done. In the instant where she had thought that her father was in danger, she had very nearly thrown herself in the path of the arrow. Sure, her power meant it wouldn’t be a problem, but what she was feeling in that moment had clearly left the girl reeling. 

And speaking of reeling, I couldn’t keep this up. My control over keeping the ghosts away was already starting to falter. Honestly, the fact that I’d kept it up this long against so many of them was almost a miracle. Especially when I didn’t have Tabbris with me to provide any extra boost.  

“Everyone get to Puriel,” Sariel announced firmly while drawing another arrow and giving me a quick, somewhat reassuring glance that said she knew just how close I was to losing it. “There are already Anti-Whisper Runes all along the floor around him, but they’re running out of power. Those things have him too distracted to recharge them. We have to get over there and do it ourselves.” 

She was right, I realized. That was our best shot at stopping these things. If we could recharge the runes to drive the Whispers away from Puriel long enough for the man to catch his breath and orient himself, maybe he could deal with them for good.  

“Flick!” Miranda was right next to me, shield held up protectively. “This feels like a rainy day situation, you know? I think it might be time to use th–” 

She was abruptly cut off. Not by me losing control of the ghosts I had been shoving away from us, but from something reaching up from underneath me. It grabbed my foot, and I barely heard Miranda, Avalon, and my mother all shout my name before I was suddenly yanked down through the floor, a yelp of surprise escaping me. 

At least I wasn’t being physically slammed through solid metal. My body had turned almost ghost-like itself as soon as whatever it was grabbed me. I had no control, however, as I was pulled completely helplessly downward. 

I didn’t just get yanked through one deck either. Three full decks passed me by in a quick blur before I landed hard on the floor of the fourth one. Only then, lying on my back, did I see the glowing tentacle wrapped around my ankle. A tentacle that was attached to the outstretched arm of yet another clearly-possessed Seosten ghost. He wasn’t an especially large man, standing only a few inches taller than me. His skin–or what was supposed to have been his skin if he had been alive, was black, with intensely green eyes and a very aristocratic face. He looked almost more beautiful than handsome. Well, aside from the fact that one of his arms had transformed into a tentacle that had stretched up through four full decks to grab my ankle, turn me intangible, and yank me away from everyone up there who needed me. 

“Okay,” I grunted while jerking my leg free. As soon as I did, my form solidified once more, and I rolled backward to my feet. “I’m getting really sick of you people, and sick of getting dragged away from my family and friends. That’s double-sick, so if I was you, I’d get the fuck out of my way.” 

Unfortunately, the Whisper-Ghost wasn’t impressed by my words. He gave me a simple smirk while transforming the tentacle back into a regular arm, head cocking to the side a little. “You’re the Necromancer,” he drawled. “We have a few things in common, you and my people. We’re all quite good at controlling dead things.” 

“Is this gonna be the ‘join us and rule the universe at our side’ spiel?” I spat back at him. “Because it’s kind of surprising how seldom I’ve gotten that, considering everything I’ve been through.” Even as I said the words, I was calculating the best way to get around him and back to where I needed to be. Was it time to use the–no. No, I could wait for that. I couldn’t use it just to deal with one guy. Not when I still didn’t know for sure just how bad this whole situation was going to get.

So, I instead held my staff out to one side, activating the next ghost-fire spell so I would actually be able to hurt this piece of shit. “If so, save your breath. I’ve got much better options for that if I wanted to rule the universe alongside actual competent megalomaniacs.” 

A deep, rumbling chuckle escaped the ghost figure. “If you are so dismissive and in such a rush, why not force me to move? Surely a strong, capable dead-puppeteer like you could manage such a thing.” His teeth gleamed as he smiled. “After all, it’s just you and me.” 

I wasn’t stupid. This was bad. This whole thing was bad. I had no idea what was going on up there, how the others were doing, if they had managed to save Puriel yet or if he was–well, clearly we weren’t at the place where these guys wanted to open the rift, because the ship was still moving. But we were still on our way there. Dad and Tabbris hadn’t managed to stop the ship. I had to get through this guy and go help the others. And yet, the way he was talking…

Fuck it, I couldn’t wait around and what-if myself all day long. Since he had literally asked for it, I snapped my free hand out, forcing all the strength I could into grabbing control of the ghost the Whisper was possessing. I was throwing everything I had into making damn sure I–wait. 

At the very last possible instant, I realized my mistake. Just as my power was latching onto him, I was already releasing it, spinning around while lashing out with my staff. 

It struck home, slicing right through three different ghosts who had been silently rushing up behind me. They used the fact that the guy in front of me had grabbed my attention, letting him manipulate me into throwing everything I had into grabbing hold of him, which would leave me vulnerable to attack from behind. And it had very nearly worked. It had worked, right up until the last possible instant. 

The good news was that my wild swing caught the ghosts who were right behind me before they could carry out their sneak attack. The bad news was that they weren’t the only ones. I had just enough time to catch a glimpse of something coming toward me from the side, before it smacked into the side of my head with enough force to knock me sidelong so that I stumbled a few steps over to the nearby wall. It made me see stars briefly even without having a nearby viewport. 

Shoving myself away from the wall and spinning back that way, I found myself surrounded on all sides. The guy with the tentacles had been joined by half a dozen friends. All of them spread out, making it clear that they had no intention of allowing me to get past them. 

Then I saw what had hit me that hard. It was… a ball, like one that a kid would play with. Actually, it probably had been played with by a kid before now, one of the Seosten children who were on the ship. But the way it had hit me, the force…

Hula hoops. That was my first impression when I saw the two rings floating in the air a few feet apart. Both black on the side facing me and gold on the side facing away. They really were about the size of hula hoops, hovering roughly midway between me and a Ghost-Whisper who was standing with her hand outstretched. She was fairly tall, just over six feet, and quite thin, with narrow silvery-blue eyes and short dark hair at odds with her pale skin. I was gonna guess that she was the one who had thrown that ball. 

Even as I had that thought, she smirked at me before hurling another ball. It passed through the hoops and–fuck! The moment it passed through the first hoop, the ball’s speed doubled, before doubling a second time as it passed through the second hoop. The ball hit me before I could even hope to dodge it. The best I could do, even seeing her throw it, was twist aside enough that it slammed into my shoulder. 

The hoops flew back through the air to her, as the Whisper-Ghost laughed and caught one on each arm, spinning them. They shrank rapidly, turning into bracelets on each wrist. As they did. she punched the air a few times, her arms moving about twice as fast as they should. 

Right. This… this was gonna be a problem. Maybe I could have done something to these guys, at least enough to shove them aside so I could run past, before exhausting myself upstairs keeping all the others away from everyone. But I didn’t have that in me right now. Not when these ghosts were both powered by Tartarus and possessed by the powerful Whisper creatures. I just couldn’t muster up the strength to shove enough of them aside. Not without taking a break. And there wasn’t time for that. 

“What’s the matter?” the Whisper-Ghost who had dragged me down here in the first place taunted, already transforming his arms back into tentacles. “Feeling a bit weak? Maybe you should take a little nap.” 

“You know,” I retorted, “that’s not a bad idea. Right now, I think we’ll just kick your asses and go upstairs.” 

His eyebrow rose, while the rest of his companions slowly began to move in closer, tightening the noose they believed they had caught me in. But it was the one with the hula hoops-turned-bracelets who spoke. “We? You are alone, child. You do not even have your usual companion riding… what is the term, copilot? Your friends and family are quite occupied, and even she is no longer with you. We all know the truth. You have no one standing behind you.” 

“Behind me?” I took a breath and then shoved everything I could into pushing all the ghosts back away from me. It wasn’t a lot, and it wouldn’t hold them for long. But it gave me the time I needed to speak. “Nah, I’ve got no one behind me. But you guys might want to look behind you.” 

Most of them saw that as a very obvious and pathetic trick. But two turned, looking that way. At first, they saw nothing. Then their eyes found the small metal ball I had summoned to my hand and tossed just before getting punched in the face to knock me over to where I now stood. It was about the size of a baseball, with intricate runes all over it and a single button on top. A single button that Gus, my cyberform mouse, was holding both paws against. As soon as they saw him, he gave a single, defiant squeak, then pushed the button. 

Instantly, the ball blew apart in a blast of blinding energy. When it faded, two figures were standing there. A beautiful white-haired woman with very tanned skin and a deep blue bodysuit, standing next to a three-headed mechanical dog bigger than she was. 

A three-headed mechanical dog whose entire purpose had been to hunt and kill undead things. 

“Cerberus!” Persephone called, voice echoing through the corridor, “ghosthunt!” 

The moment she said that word, each of Cerberus’s three heads rose a bit, showing their teeth as they growled. Blue-white ghostfire played over those teeth. Simultaneously, five holes appeared along each side of the robot dog’s back, allowing ten metal coils to emerge. Each had a small camera and laser cannon attached to it, wildly pointing in every direction as though checking for threats from all sides. 

Ghost-fire filled the air, produced through every metal tooth in all three heads. Nearly two hundred teeth all-told, each a small dagger that was now capable of driving its way into intangible forms. Such as the forms of the seven Whisper-Ghosts arrayed in front of him, as Cerberus glared and growled low. The laser-holding coils, mistaken as snakes millennia ago, turned as one to focus on their targets. 

At the moment they had appeared, as he caught sight of the ghosts in front of them, Cerberus’s brand new addition had started up. It was not a weapon. Not exactly. No, what he’d had added right at the front of his body, where his three heads joined, was a speaker system. A speaker system which had begun to play the opening notes of “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, filling the air as the assortment of Whisper-Ghosts stared in shock and tried to comprehend what had just happened. And in the very moment about thirty seconds in, just before the first word of ‘Jump’ came, Persephone spoke the next command. 

“Sic ‘em, boy.” 

He was on them an instant later, ghost-fire powered teeth tearing through one of the ghosts while a paw slapped at another and actually managed to knock him backwards. At the same time, those laser cannons opened up, driving even more of them in either direction away from him. And into Persephone and me, a fact they realized just as my empowered staff slammed into one, and her ghost-fire covered fist ripped through another. 

Yeah, those guys didn’t stand a chance. Even if they had been able to stand against a giant metal dog specifically built to destroy everything Manakel could have thrown at him, between him, Persephone, and me, they were dead before they knew what hit them. Or redead. Or–they weren’t a problem for the moment. We tore through their ghost forms and scattered them. They tried to reform, but we hit them hard enough to basically turn them into dust. It would take time for the Whispers to regroup and gather that much ghost energy once more. 

Soon, only the hula hoop ghost was left. She was already retreating, but Cerberus got there first, lunging in the way while breathing out a line of ghost-fire that made her recoil. Persephone, in turn, actually grabbed onto her, shoving the intangible figure to her knees while calling to me, “Felicity, picture a hard candy shell around her, squeezing very tight with your gift!” 

Ooookay then. Focusing hard on my Necromancy power, I imagined it creating a… well, hard candy shell around the ghost while she struggled. Honestly, if it wasn’t for both Persephone and Cerberus keeping her there, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on that, given it took several full seconds of concentration where I couldn’t do anything else. I was picturing more of a net, or saran wrap, totally covering the figure from head to toe. As I did, her movements grew slower and more subdued. 

“Now, Felicity, the blade!” Persephone urged. 

So, I drove the blade of my staff right through the motionless ghost form. That time, as I did, she screamed out loud. The Whisper appeared as an air ripple in front of my face before vanishing an instant later. 

Not that I noticed really, because I was too busy doubling over from the rush of… of pleasure that went through me. Pleasure that made me gasp and stumble, eyes widening. “What–what– I just–that just–” 

“It is possible to eliminate the ghosts so that they cannot recover,” Persephone calmly and flatly informed me. “You must simply trap them within a layer of your own ghost energy so that they cannot push their own outside of it. I would not suggest attempting to do so in open combat until you are far more experienced.” 

“I… uh huh…” Breathing hard, I stared at the spot where the ghost had been. Then I looked to one side and focused for a second. Sure enough, those two gold and black hula hoops appeared, hovering in the air. 

“Her name was Elemiah,” Persephone helpfully announced. “Her gift created those two rings, which she could control the size of down to fitting on her wrists and up to about twice what you see. She was able to mentally manipulate them, and anything passing through from the gold side would be doubled in speed for a few seconds, with the effect stacking if both rings were passed through in rapid succession. Anything passing through from the black side would be slowed to half its speed, or stopped briefly if that effect was doubled.” 

Okay… okay that was pretty… A thought made the hoops jump to my wrists before shrinking down to bracelets. Quickly, I punched the air just as the Seosten ghost had. And just like when she had done it, my fist moved about twice as fast as it should have. This I could get used to. 

Except I was going to have to get used to it later, because it was really time to go. Even as that thought occurred to me, I was already pivoting to face the white-haired woman with a blurted, “Nearest elevator! We need to get back to the sealed cargo hold, the one the Seosten don’t let anyone else into!” 

In response, Persephone immediately turned, beginning to move down the corridor. “It is this way, Felicity!” As we ran, with Cerberus bringing up the rear, she added, “I am glad that I was able to assist you, as promised. But I did not see Kushiel there.” 

“Yeah, I guess she’s not involved in this bit,” I murmured. “So keeping you hidden until she showed herself wasn’t really gonna work anymore. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of other Seosten ghosts for you and our friend there to deal with. We have to–” Abruptly, the ship jerked around us, enough to make me stumble. 

“The slide-drive has been de–” Persephone started. 

We did it! That was Tabbris, in my head once more. I could tell she wasn’t actually fully here, just partially recalled. We shut it down! But–but the bad guys are still trying to restart it. We have to drive them off. We can’t leave. I can’t– 

Stay there, I put in. Stay with Dad. We’ll take care of the rest of this. Just make sure they can’t start those engines again. 

That said, I looked back to Persephone and gave her a quick summary of what we were dealing with. “And now we have to get up there and stop them from taking over Puriel, before they open a portal into Tartarus and let out a bunch of monsters to destroy everything in the universe.” 

Giving a short nod, the woman replied, “Andromeda says that if you like, she can transfer herself from the other ship to this one and assist in resisting the Whisper’s control of its systems.” 

I started to nod, before catching myself. “Wait, you’re still in contact with Andromeda?” 

With a bright smile, Persephone confirmed, “Uh huh, our connection is very special. She is still in the other ship, remaining at a distance just as you requested.” 

“In the other ship…” I opened my mouth, then shut it. My eyes widened. “No. Tell her to stay there. Don’t transfer over here. 

“I have a better idea.” 

******

A short time later, the three of us burst through the doors back into the cargo hold I had been so unceremoniously dragged out of. A quick glance around showed that the situation had not exactly improved that much. But by the same token, at least it hadn’t gotten worse. Everyone was still fighting, and the Whispers had not yet taken control of Puriel. I could see where the others had boosted the runes protecting him, yet it wasn’t enough to keep them away for good. It was a delaying action at best. What we really needed to do was bring the man under the protection of Liesje’s spell. That combined with his own strength would probably be enough to keep them out of his head. But we couldn’t do that from here. He had to be back at the Star Station for it. For now, we had to do something to end the stalemate. And I was pretty sure I knew what that something was.

Cerberus was already going to town, clearing a path through the Whisper-Ghosts (and yes, he had started the song once more) as I raced alongside Persephone right back to where everyone had formed a ring around Puriel and the children. Grandmaria and Popser were there too, being protected by Avalon and a couple Mirandas. 

Two of the Whisper-Ghosts tried to move into my path, but I thrust my arms out, willing the two bracelet-sized rings to fly forward and turned so that their gold side was toward me. As soon as they were in position and just large enough, I hurled my staff, blade out. It passed through the two rings, quadrupling in speed so that it cut into the two ghosts before they had any idea what had happened. An instant later, a thought recalled the staff back to my hand. 

Another ghost was trying to come at me from the side as I passed the rings, but I made them grow to their full size and pivot in the air to put the black side toward the intangible figure. He passed through them and froze instantly, the double-black rings halting his movement entirely for a moment.

Between that and my Persephone and Cerberus escort, it was enough to clear my path. “Boost the runes!” I shouted while running up to join the others. The rings had come spinning back, shrinking down once more to take their spots on my wrists.

My reward for the words was a simultaneous look of disbelief from basically everyone there. Theia was the one who found her voice first, speaking plainly. “We have already been taking turns doing so. It has been our entire strate–” 

“No, everyone!” I blurted. “Everyone boost the runes right now with everything you’ve got! Shove the Whispers back as far as we can, just for a few seconds!” I focused on my mother, eyes meeting hers. “Trust me, we only need one quick boost!” 

Mom gave a short nod, turning to look at Athena. “Do what she says.” 

Athena, in turn, spoke up. “Everyone do it. Touch the runes and put everything you have into them, one more time.” 

So, we did. With the Whispers regrouping and coming straight at us, everyone crouched to touch one of the runes. And in that moment, we shoved every bit of energy we could muster, supercharging the spells to fill the room, driving the Whispers backward to the far corners. As expected, it would only last for a few seconds. That was as long as it needed to.

“Felicity,” Mom was saying, “any plan you’ve got, you need to–”

“Everyone get down!” I shouted, grabbing Avalon on one side and the nearest Miranda before hurling us forward and to the floor. Thankfully, the others followed suit immediately, everyone hitting the deck quite literally. 

It was just in time, as something filled the space we had just been in a moment later. Something large, long, and roughly tube-shaped. Like a shuttle. Or like–

“The prototype ship?!” Miranda blurted from behind me as I rolled over to look that way. Sure enough, the ship was right there, its back doors open and facing not us, but Puriel and the children. Because that was the ship I’d asked Andromeda to take and follow us with, just in case.

“Mom!” I shouted, pointing. 

She got the point instantly, trusting her hands outward. An invisible force hit the kids and Puriel, throwing them onto the ship as it perched there. 

“Andromeda, go!” My voice filled the air, even as the Whispers regrouped and began to descend once more, screeching in fury. 

She didn’t have to be told twice. The doors of the prototype ship snapped shut, and with a flash of energy, it was gone. It had jumped not only out of the Olympus, but all the way back to the Star Station. Far from any Whispers. It had worked. Puriel was safe. He was gone. Now there was no way for those fuckers to open the portal to Tartarus. 

Now all we had to do now was find a way to survive their reaction to that fact, and take back the Olympus for good. 

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At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Things were even worse, if that was possible. It turned out there were protection spells that the Whisper-possessed Seosten ghosts had put up around the Slide-Drive core. Which, of course, we didn’t have time to break through so we could disable the jamming. Not with Puriel already about to be taken over by those bastards. Every second we spent down here was too long. 

In the end, we only had one choice. My dad, despite his worry about his parents, agreed to stay behind and use the spells that he knew (and what Apollo and Aletheia showed him) to break through that protection so he could disable the jamming. It wasn’t perfect, but he had Mercury’s power. Which meant he could both speed up his own magic and make the protection spells run through their own duration much faster. He just had to do so carefully to avoid setting off any bad reactions. 

Tabbris was staying with him too. That was harder, but I convinced her that if I couldn’t stay and protect our dad from any of those Whispers that might come back, she needed to. She had her wings and knew all the ghost control magic I did, even if she didn’t have the same Necromancy power. I was trusting her to keep our father safe right now, and once they were done getting through the protections and were able to shut down the jamming, she would be able to recall back to me. 

Obviously, she felt guilty about leaving me ‘on my own,’ but I was able to convince her that it was for the best. We embraced briefly before separating so the rest of us could start running. 

Through my connection to Grover, I was able to describe exactly where Puriel and the others were both in appearance and in relation to our current location. Using that, Apollo and Aletheia figured out that they were in one of the special cargo holds. It was separate from the regular hold, intended to keep sensitive cargo that the Seosten didn’t want just anyone on the ship to have access to. The place was sealed behind high-level protections, which would have been a real problem if we hadn’t run into Aletheia already. Because she had actually been traveling on the Olympus already, and was trusted implicitly by Puriel, the Seosten woman already had access to the place. If it wasn’t for her, we probably would have had to spend way too much time finding a way to get through the security defenses. More time than we had right then, judging from how many of the Whispers I had seen doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head. 

As we raced back through the engine deck toward the elevator, Avalon complained, “This Puriel guy is supposed to be one of the strongest Seosten out there. I believe the exact words were ‘master of all energy, including magic.’ Shouldn’t he be able to wave his hand and blow these things away? It should be him saving us.” 

Aletheia’s voice was flat. “Ever since the… incident with the banishment orb, his mind has not been the same. Between that and the trauma he experienced at the orphanage when the Fomorians attacked, he has moments where he zones out and is incapable of reacting to the outside world. Spark is normally good at pulling him back from those moments, or simply taking over. But it seems that these Whispers are interfering with that.”

I gave a quick nod. “That’s what it looked like to me. I mean, from the outside.” Grimacing a bit, I added, “Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time. Things were looking pretty desperate up there.”

Thankfully, we wouldn’t be alone once we got there. Hopefully, at least. First, Miranda had already jumped back to her original body (it was with Athena and Dare) and was going to give them a detailed explanation straight up. As for the other two groups, I sent several of my ghosts back out to let them know what was going on as well. Between all that, it would hopefully make them meet us on the right deck so we could all do this together. That was the plan, anyway. 

By that point, we had reached the elevator, and I scrambled on before shifting my focus so I could look through Grover’s eyes once more to check what was going on. Things aren’t any better. It looked like Uncle Al, a Native American man, and my grandparents were all surrounding Puriel and the kids, protecting them from the ghosts that the Whispers kept summoning. Worse, I could see Invidia there, already in a duel with Uncle Al. Needless to say, he was holding his own. After all, he was Hercules. 

Even my grandparents were… doing something useful. It looked like Grandpartie was using a console to direct internal security weapons to fire on the ghosts, which were actually doing some damage to them. Probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how much experience Seosten would have with ghosts and other intangible beings, but still. And Grandmaria was… uhh, as best as I could tell at a glance, using magic to create a forcefield to hold the majority of the Whispers and ghosts off. 

I wasn’t sure which was more surprising and impressive to me, my grandfather being able to manipulate the ship controls like that, or my grandmother having a strong enough grasp over magic to create that forcefield. Or–wait, was she using magic or some power? Had she bonded to something? And come to think of it, Popser was barely touching the controls. It was more like his hands were resting on it, fingers twitching now and then. What–

Shaking that off, I focused on what was important right then. Namely, the fact that they were sort of holding off the attack. But still, things weren’t great. More Whispers kept getting through to add to the pile that were doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head, and the man himself still wasn’t moving or reacting to anything. He was just standing there with his head cocked to the side. There was clearly an internal struggle going on, and if we didn’t hurry up and get there, we were going to end up having to fight a Whisper-controlled Puriel. Which basically sounded like the exact opposite of anything approaching a good time. None of us were ready to deal with something like that. Hell, we weren’t enough even if we all joined together. This was Zeus, for fucks sake. We had nothing that could challenge him if he went after us. Especially on his own ship. Between that and all the other Whispers, including the Whisper-Possessed Charmeine, we would be completely fucked, in no uncertain terms.

Instructing Grover to tell my grandparents that we were on the way, I jumped back into my own mind in time to feel the elevator rising. It was going pretty quick too, and I could see Apollo messing with an open computer panel to one side. Apparently he had disabled the safeties or something and sped the thing up. Now we were flying toward the right deck. I just hoped we would make it in time. And, of course, cursed the fact that the Whispers’ jamming included blocking transportation powers. We had to do this whole thing the long way rather than just teleporting up there. Because, of course, this had to be as hard as possible. 

One day for a party to celebrate a victory. That was all I’d asked for. But did we get that? Of course not. And we still didn’t understand why the Whispers were here trying to pilot the ship into Tartarus to begin with. What did they think they could gain from that? Hell, what even were they? There were so many questions around this entire situation, and the only creatures with answers didn’t seem inclined to explain. But hey, maybe we could beat it out of them. 

Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating them in general. It was possible that I was slightly annoyed by this entire situation. Terrified too, of course. But also annoyed. 

The elevator finally stopped at the right deck, and the rest of us exchanged quick glances before stepping off together. The room beyond was shaped like a half-circle, with a line of elevators, including the one we had been on, along the flat line part. To the left and right were corridors, with several open doors along the curve part of the half-circle ahead of us. The main doors, straight across, apparently led to the primary cargo bay. But that wasn’t where we were supposed to go. Our destination lay to the left, down that hall. 

We were cautious, even as we stepped out of the elevator, weapons at the ready considering we had no idea what sort of traps or problems the Whispers might have left to slow us down so they would have time to take over Puriel. There could be anything waiting for us up here. 

And yet, despite having that thought, I still wasn’t prepared for what I immediately saw. Coming off the elevator, my eyes immediately fell on a single, lone figure standing with their back to us, staring through the doorway toward the main cargo hold. They showed no reaction to our arrival, and I took a quick second to size them up. They were solid, not a ghost, and seemed either human or Seosten from this angle. Probably the latter. A man, several inches under six feet, though pretty well-built. His brown hair fell to just above his shoulders, and he wore gray cloth pants and a simple white shirt, his feet bare. 

Even as I took that in, the man turned to look at me. Now I could see his face. He had a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes were a brownish-green. He looked, on paper, like a completely average guy of no particular power or importance. And yet, when I met his gaze, I felt myself shrink back reflexively. A lump had formed in my throat, as an inexplicable sense of danger and power filled me. He had made no threatening move, said no threatening words, had done nothing other than turn to look at me, but I still felt his power like a crushing weight. 

Abruptly, Apollo spoke up. “I’m not picking up any surprises.” He was holding a stone in one hand, enchanted to detect traps. “Doesn’t seem right.” 

“No surprises?” I found myself blurting. “What about–” Then my eyes flicked from Apollo, back to the strangely terrifying man by the cargo bay. But he wasn’t there. In that time, in that brief instant where my eyes had moved off him, he had vanished. “Wha–what?” I stammered, completely thrown off. I shouldn’t have been, given all the incredible powers I had seen. Yet something about that guy, something about… yeah. It threw me off, to say the least.

The others were all looking at me uncertainly, and I raised a hand to point to where the man had been, quickly explaining what I had seen. But none of them had caught a glimpse of the man. Even though he had been standing in plain view as far as I was concerned, they had not seen anything. A quick check with Seth and Rahanvael, each standing beside me, revealed the same answer. I was the only person who had seen him, or sensed anything at all. None of Mom’s powers, and none of Aletheia or Apollo’s magic, had picked up the man’s presence. 

And, come to think of it, I had not sensed him with my item-detection power either. He had definitely been in range of it, but I hadn’t sensed his clothes or anything. He had looked completely solid, but wasn’t detected by anything. Except by my own eyes, and only my eyes. No one else had picked up any sense of him at all. This was… weird. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to make me feel better about the situation we were walking into. 

Mom and the two Seosten spent a tense moment focusing on that spot, but even after I pointed out exactly where the man had been, they couldn’t pick up anything at all. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. Which, again, was more than a little worrying. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to focus on any implications of that. Not with the problems we already had to deal with. We still had to get into the other room before the Whispers got through to Puriel, so any thoughts and worries about the man I had seen were just going to have to wait. All I could really do in that moment was hope that it wasn’t something that would come back and bite us in the ass before we were done with this specific problem. Hell, for all I knew, that figure was working with the Whispers. 

On the plus side, there didn’t seem to be any defenses here blocking our way. Which in and of itself was a bit surprising, but we weren’t going to dwell on that too much either. Especially not when two of the nearby elevators arrived in the next moment, with Larissa, Haiden, and Mercury emerging from one, and Sariel, Theia, and Pace from the other. With their respective Mirandas, of course. The ghosts I had sent to get them rejoined me, fading from view for the moment (though ready to be summoned back as soon as I needed them). 

“You guys okay?” I asked, thoughts of the man I had seen fresh in my mind. Much as I tried to set that aside, I couldn’t entirely dismiss his face. The way he had stared right through me, the power I had felt, it was too much to ignore. 

Theia waved. “We killed ghosts. And fuzzy-ghosts.” 

“Whispers, she means,” Pace put in, voice tense as she glanced around as though expecting to be ambushed at any second. “And we didn’t kill them so much as… make them go away for the moment.” 

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we know where they went to,” Avalon muttered, eyes on the left-hand corridor leading toward the special, extra-secure cargo hold. “They’re throwing everything they have into taking control of Puriel. Or at least turning him against the rest of us. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t fancy our odds if that happens.”

“Which is why we need to get in there right now.” That was Athena, speaking as she and Dare came off another elevator. Her attention was laser-focused ahead, a silvery-gold sword in one hand that was still glowing from ghost-fire. “Worry about specifics later,” she instructed while still walking. “Right now, all that matters is driving these creatures away and giving Puriel time to collect himself.” After a brief verbal pause, she added, “And hope that Lincoln and Tabbris break those protection spells so they can stop this ship before it’s too late to matter.” 

Oh, right, of course. We had that problem to worry about too. Even if we did manage to get the Whispers away from Puriel and the others before they turned him into a monster who would annihilate us all, it would all be for naught if this damn ship managed to take us straight into Tartarus. But, you know, it wasn’t like we were under any pressure or anything. 

Pushing aside those thoughts we started to move, I told Athena and the others what I had seen, and the fact that no one else had sensed anything. She and Sariel exchanged brief glances, before the latter spoke. “When this is over, if it is alright with you, I would like to take a look at that memory and see this man for myself. It would be better than a description.” 

I agreed easily, hoping it would lead to an actual answer. Then I pushed the thought as far from my mind as possible, focusing on the here and now. As we ran, Dare gave me a quick look, silently asking if I was all right. I gave her a thumbs up, but made it waiver a little. Between that and the look on my face, I was pretty sure she understood just how uncertain I was about the whole thing. She, in turn, took a moment to touch my shoulder in mid-run, squeezing it firmly to let me know she was there. Which was nice, but also reminded me yet again that she still couldn’t tell my mother, her own daughter, who she really was and why she cared so much.   

It was just another thing I had to push out of my head so I could focus on the problem at hand. A problem that was right in front of us, as we reached the door leading to the special cargo bay. Aletheia had already input the code, the door sliding open to reveal the same room I had seen through Grover’s eyes. And a situation that had not gotten any better in the time since I had last checked. The kids were still huddled into an even tighter circle, though Spark wasn’t visible. My guess was that she was inside Puriel, trying to keep as much control as possible away from the Whispers, who were basically flooding over his body so much that there were constant distortion waves all around him. The rest of the Whispers, and the ghosts, were being desperately held back by Uncle Al, my grandparents, and that Native American man. But they were, unfortunately, fighting a losing battle, constantly having to pull back closer to the others as the attackers continued to flood into the room. There were so many Whispers. Obviously there weren’t as many ghosts for them to control, given–well, there weren’t an unlimited number of Seosten on the Olympus who had died, even counting ‘ordinary’ crew members. Still, they were all here, and they were making a huge push. Probably because this was as much a do-or-die moment for them as it was for us. 

Seeing us enter, Grandmaria raised a hand, the other held out to reinforce the shield she had erected around them. “Good to see you, kiddo! Wish I had time to have cookies ready.” 

“Later, Maria,” Uncle Al cheerfully replied even as his fist slammed into a ghost. It shouldn’t have done anything, yet the incorporeal figure still blew apart from that single blow. “There’ll be time for cookies once we remind these bastards they’re supposed to stay gone when they die!” 

“Hurtful,” Seth remarked beside me. “But considering the situation, fair.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sariel had taken a step that way, her eyes on the huddled children trying to make themselves even smaller. Specifically, on a small boy who was peeking up to stare right back at her. Omni. He was right there. 

Unfortunately, that single step was as much as she was able to take, before a familiar form coalesced right in front of us. Charmeine. No, Invidia. Her colored-in ghost form appeared, already smirking. “Oh, you people got through those traps even faster than we thought you would. That’s surprising. And annoying. But I think that’s about far enough.” Pausing, her head tilted before she raised both eyebrows. “Ah. It seems my host here has complicated feelings about seeing you, Artemis. How interesting.” 

Traps? What traps was she talking about? There hadn’t been any traps. Huh? A moment of confusion passed through me, as I exchanged a quick glance with the others. They looked just as uncertain. 

Sariel, on the other hand, manifested her bow and drew back an energy arrow before pointing it that way. Her voice was tight. “You and the rest of your kind need to get out of here right now. Why do you even want to take this ship into Tartarus in the first place? What could you possibly hope to get out of that?” 

“A fine question,” Athena put in, stepping beside the other Seosten woman, sword at the ready. 

Invidia, in turn, glanced between them before giving a slow, audible chuckle. “Taking this ship into Tartarus?” She echoed the words as though they were the silliest thing she had ever heard, shaking her head. “Oh dear. I believe you’ve made a very dangerous assumption. We have no intention of taking this ship, or anyone on it, into Tartarus. You see, in moments we will have control of one of the most powerful and instinctive magic users in this entire universe. But even more importantly, he has a direct connection to Tartarus itself. After all, it is the source of his power.

“Once we have him in hand, we will use that power to open the portal into Tartarus. Of that, you are correct. But we will not be going inside. No, quite the opposite. When the portal is open, we will be releasing the creatures which dwell within that universe into this one. Then our people will fulfill our destiny by taking the creatures for our own use. 

“And together, we will erase everything in existence.” 

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