Nicholas Petan

Patreon Snippets 10 (Heretical Edge)

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

 

A few thousand years ago

The Phej were a tall, roughly humanoid species, standing just over two and a half meters in height, with dark blue, almost purple skin that grew darker at their heads, feet, and hands. They had four eyes spaced evenly around their face in a square pattern, with two vertical slit mouths parallel to one another in the middle. They smelled through organs within the mouths themselves. One mouth produced half the sounds their people were capable of, while the other, connected to entirely differently shaped vocal chords, produced the other half. The two worked in concert. 

At the moment, six of the Phej were striding purposefully through the corridor of their most powerful command ship. Four wore the uniforms of security personnel, while the remaining two were officers, the equivalent of a lieutenant and admiral (mnent and tauta respectively in their own language). They walked confidently, but quickly. Particularly when the ship shuddered under what was obviously an attack, the lights briefly dimming before returning to their steady blue emergency glow. 

The doors ahead of of the group swooshed open smoothly, admitting the six into a dimly lit, circular chamber that was just large enough for all of them with the control console and holographic display arranged in the middle of it. 

“Mnent,” the ship’s commander (and commander of the fleet itself) spoke, addressing his fellow (though much lower-ranked) officer. “Bring up the sitview.” 

Mnent Faa did so, pressing three quick holographic buttons on the console. In response, a display of the area surrounding their ship appeared. The Phej home planet lay relatively ‘below’ them to the left, with their own ship and a dozen others spread out to face the enemy fleet. Too many enemy ships, not enough Phej. But that was okay. Because they had a secret weapon, one that they had been working on for many decades for just such an occasion. 

“Are you sure it’s ready, Tauta Krin?” Faa asked a bit tensely. “If we take this shot and miss, we won’t get another one.” 

“It’s ready, Faa,” Krin assured the other man. “And if we wait any longer, there won’t be a point to using it. Bring up the targeting data for their ships. All of them.” He waited while the mnent did that, watching as white targeting reticles appeared on each of the twenty-seven enemy vessels. So many of their own ships had been destroyed by that fleet. That ended now. 

The reticles went from white, to green, and finally to the hard blue. With a low snarl through his twin mouths, he began to give the order to fire. 

In that instant, two of the security officers who had accompanied them abruptly drew their sidearms and fired. The shots instantly killed the other two guards. As Faa spun that way, hand groping for his own weapon, a shot took him in the face. 

With a bellowed curse of defiance, Krin dove for the control. But the glowing energy figure emerging from one of the ‘traitor’ guards caught him first, as the blonde Seosten dove into him. His hand stopped right next to the button. 

Head snapping to the side sharply with the distinct sound of a neck breaking, the remaining guard fell, revealing a dark-skinned Seosten woman, who grinned and pumped her fist. “Whoo! How great was that? We were right on top of them and they didn’t have a clue.” Charmiene turned then, spitting on one of the dead. “Think we’re just gonna let you blow up our people, assholes? Think again. We gave you a chance to surrender.” 

Her attention turned back to the possessed leader, pressing, “Come on, Brainiac, you said you knew how to work this system, right? So are we good or what?”

Perusing it briefly, Sariel finally spoke through the man. “Yes. Just a moment.” Her fingers danced over the controls, as she ignored the mixed pleas and threats from her host. “There.” 

On the holographic screen, the reticles over the Seosten fleet disappeared, replaced by more over each and every Phej ship. In addition, several targeting markers appeared on the planet itself. 

“What are those?” Charmiene asked, pointing to the latter. 

“Military bases, supply depots, places this man knew about that would make good targets,” Sariel replied with his voice. “One shot from this weapon of theirs, and we not only take out what’s left of their entire fleet, we cripple any potential resistance on the ground and their entire system of government.” 

Her words were met with a feral grin from the other woman. “So let’s do it and call Puriel to tell him how awesome we are. What are we waiting for?” 

Hand lingering over the button while her host desperately begged her to have mercy, to let them surrender, to spare his people, Sariel watched the holographic battle. 

“Nothing,” she finally replied. 

And then she pushed the button. 

*******

Immediately after the prison escape

 

As the Atherby camp and their allies celebrated their success in retrieving not only Sean Gerardo, but a good number of other prisoners, as well as powerful Crossroads weapons from the depot, and the destruction of several important Crossroads satellite stations, a single pale figure stood far away from all of it. With her back to the proceedings, Larees leaned against a tree and watched the sky while taking a long, lazy pull from her trusty flask. 

“You gonna come talk sometime tonight, kid?” she drawled casually, “or just stand back there and lurk some more?” 

Behind her, Theia slowly emerged from the darkness and approached. She paused while coming parallel with the woman, glanced that way, and then walked on past. Moving to another nearby tree in front of Larees, she positioned herself there before noting, “You are not celebrating.” 

“Ah, correction,” Larees countered while raising her flask to indicate it. “I’m not at the celebration. I am most definitely celebrating. In my way.” 

“Your way of celebrating does not look different from any other day,” Theia pointed out. 

Snorting, Larees replied, “Maybe I’m just celebrating all the time.” Raising the flask to her lips, she gulped a mouthful of the smooth, burning liquid before adding, “You’re not at the party either.” 

There was a moment of silence from Theia before she quietly said, “I make some of them uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do that to them all night long.” 

Instead of responding to that right away, Larees just watched her in silence for a few long seconds. When she did speak, it was a quietly muttered, “Your mother was a real piece of shit, you know that?” 

“I did not kill her simply because she forgot my birthday,” Theia pointed out, head tilting. “But what does she have to do with this?” 

“Sorry,” Larees muttered, head shaking as she pushed away thoughts of the children she had been forced to bear before they were taken from her, one by one. “It’s nothing. I was just…fuck. Never mind. You want a drink?” She held the flask up, nodding to it. 

Eyes centering on the offering, Theia pointed out, “Most of our people would never be comfortable sharing that with a Lie.” 

“You’re right,” the older Seosten agreed, glancing to the flask briefly as she considered. Then she tossed it that way. “Careful, it kicks pretty hard. Take it slow.” 

Catching it with one hand, Theia stared briefly at the woman, before gradually putting it to her lips. She took a sip, then another, before coughing loudly and repeatedly. 

A laugh escaped Larees. “Told you. It kicks.” 

Theia forced herself to take another drink just to prove she could, before clearing her throat. She glanced to her, hesitating before offering, “Do… you believe you’ll ever find your children? The ones that…” She trailed off, watching the woman’s face. “Is this one of those things I shouldn’t have said?” 

Larees opened her mouth, then hesitated before swallowing hard. She stepped over, took the flask back, and had a long drink from it before answering. “No, it’s–no, I don’t think I will. It’s a big universe and… and they could be anywhere. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see them. If any of them are even alive.” 

Theia’s voice was quiet. “I’m sorry about what my mother did to you.” 

For a moment, Larees didn’t respond. Then she held the flask back out once more for the girl to take again. “I’m sorry about what your mother did to you.” 

Trying the harsh drink once more, Theia still coughed, though she was more prepared that time. Her gaze found the other woman’s. “She was a… real… piece of shit?” 

“Yeah, kid,” Larees agreed. “But you know what, she did do at least one good thing in her miserable life.” 

Uncertain, the younger Seosten tilted her head. “What?” 

“Simple, kid,” her companion replied, taking the flask back for a long pull. 

“She made you.” 

******

Shortly Under A Year Ago

 

“Dude, you’re like… a king or something.” The words came in an awed voice as the young boy named Tristan Moon stared at the man in front of him. The two of them were alone in a side room, where Tristan had been ushered in order to meet his ancestor. “My great-whatever grandpa’s a king! That’s ffffffuuuuureaking awesome.” 

Nicholas Petan, a dark-haired, handsome man with just enough gray to be distinguished offered the boy a slight chuckle while shaking his head. “Not hardly a king, I’m afraid.” He paused then before offering a wink. “Maybe a baron.” 

A stunningly bright smile leapt to the boy’s face. “But you’re like this badass knight commander guy! That’s so cool! I bet you–wait, but… but your guys hurt my friends.” He frowned at that thought, clearly at a loss about whether he could still be excited or not. 

With a low sigh, Nicholas stepped over and took a knee in front of his descendant. “That… whole thing was a very tragic and… unexpected oversight. A mistake. I made a mistake when I passed orders to my subordinates. My phrasing when I asked them to retrieve you could have been better.” He glanced to the side, features briefly marred by a frown before a glance back to the charming blond-haired boy in front of him made it melt away. “But we will deal with that later, I promise. I’ll show you what we do to maintain the loyalty of our troops. Both magically and otherwise. You don’t want to rely entirely on magic. But I will teach you all of that on our way.” 

“You mean…” Tristan hesitated before asking, “You mean I can go with you? Wait, where are we going?”  

“Go with me?” Nicholas put a hand out to rest on his shoulder. “Greats-grandson, we are going many places. Most importantly, we are going to find your family. I have some… leads on that front.” 

That disarmingly brilliant smile returned for a moment, then Tristan hesitated. “I… what about the spell that keeps bouncing me back here? And… and… my new friends?” 

“The Heretics you will see again,” Nicholas assured him. “They have their own things to do, but your paths will cross soon enough. As for the Meregan, I’ve spoken a bit to their leader and… while a few will stay here, we will be working together. Some will come with us.” 

He exhaled then. “And the banishment spell, I have some ideas about that. It’s weaker than it should be, so we should be able to stop it from booting you back here unless you actually go back to Earth. That’s what it’s banishing you from. I can keep you with me, and we’ll work on finding a way to disable the spell entirely.” 

“And find my family?” the boy asked, hopefully.

“Yes,” Nicholas assured him, “and find your family. Most certainly that. That is… if you are… okay with the idea of living aboard a starfaring vessel traveling the universe searching out danger. If you– Tristan?” He blinked, waving a hand in front of the boy’s face as his descendant stared at him with eyes as wide as saucers, mouth open. 

Gradually, a sound similar to a tea kettle’s whistle emerged from Tristan, before he literally threw himself at Nicholas with a joyful shout, clinging to him while babbling something about someone named Picard. 

“I… ahhh… shall take that as agreement.” 

*******

Sometime over the summer

 

Feet pounding against the ground, Tabbris raced through the forest, chancing a glance now and then over her shoulder. Her heart beat faster with each desperate step, her breath hard and ragged. She fled blindly, dodging around one tree before leaping over a raised section of roots. Coming down, the young Seosten nearly lost her footing and sprawled, but caught herself at the last instant before pushing off once more. Behind her, she heard her pursuer getting closer with each step, the sound of their feet snapping twigs and branches growing louder by the second. 

She had nearly reached the next large tree, eyes focused ahead with the desperate certainty that at any second, a hand would grab her shoulder, when a figure emerged from that very tree. Her pursuer jumped into view, arms outstretched. She came within a bare instant of being caught, but triggered her boost just in time. The world slowed, and Tabbris dropped into a slide through the dirt that carried her under those open, anticipatory arms. 

Her pursuer spun, reaching down to grab for the back of her shirt. But she managed to throw herself forward from her slide, rolling to her feet before springing up. She didn’t want to waste her boost, but kept it going a moment longer. Just enough to let her leap from a standing position to the lowest branch in the tree. 

It was risky. The one chasing her could travel through the tree, like Flick did. Every step Tabbris took was another step where they could catch her. But she had to try. Running along the outstretched branch, she heard the figure jump into the tree. They would reach her any second… any…

She leapt from the branch just barely ahead of the arm that extended from the branch to grab for her. Tabbris flew from the tree, arms and legs windmilling wildly as she let out a loud squeal just before landing on her backside at the very edge of a steep slope that the edge of the branch had been hanging over. Aimed perfectly as she was, the girl slid on her back down the slope, half-falling all the way to the bottom before rolling to a stop. She lay there on her back, panting hard. 

“Hey!” A voice called from up above, prompting the girl to open her eyes. She saw her pursuer, a male Relukun (or wood-person) maybe a year older than she was. “No fair, you used your boost!” 

Staying on her back, Tabbris stuck her tongue out at him. Then she wondered if he could actually see it from up there. “You used your tree-walking power, Pickle!” she shot back. “Fair’s fair! You didn’t tag me, and I can still make it to base!” 

His name wasn’t really pickle, but the boy liked them so much, that’s what he became known as. Now, the tree-boy shook a wooden fist at her. “You’ll never make it, vile beast!” 

“Wanna bet?!” Tabbris retorted. She watched as he started to scramble down the hill after her, before laughing while scrambling back to her feet. A head start. She could make it to the boulder they’d picked out as home base, especially now that she’d had a chance to lay down for a few seconds and breathe. 

Then it would be her turn to chase Pickle, and she already had a plan. 

******

Shortly after the prison attack

 

Standing in the Committee headquarters, directly in front of the door leading into Counselor Litonya’s office, Liam Mason raised his hand to knock. Before he’d even gone halfway through the motion, the door opened and a voice within beckoned, “Come.” 

Thank God, he’d been losing his mind out here. After the day that had just happened, and everything he’d heard about how the traitors had attacked them, Liam needed to hear that things would be okay. More importantly, he needed to hear, from someone who had been there, how his family was doing. And who better to look to for reassurance on both fronts than one of the Crossroads Committee? 

The man stepped over the threshold, hearing the door click closed behind him. He was in a sparse room that looked quite similar to a Japanese dojo. The walls were lined with weapons, with a couple small tables of various food, drink, and other objects, while the floor was some kind of training mat. It was empty, save for a single figure who sat cross-legged in the middle. A figure who stood when he arrived, turning to face him. 

For a brief moment, Liam couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at. Counselor Litonya stood in front of him, but not… not all of her. She stood there with one entire arm missing, along with her other hand. It was… it couldn’t… that wasn’t…

“You requested this meeting for a reason other than gawking, I hope,” Litonya reminded him in the voice of a stern old school marm. As she spoke, the woman stepped over to a nearby table. A glowing blue semi-translucent image of an arm and hand appeared as she reached for the pot of tea, manifesting a similar hand on her other side to move a cup closer. 

“I–” Part of Liam wanted to ask if she was okay. But that was absurd. It was like asking a star if it was okay. The star was–it was a star. Barring age, of course it was okay.  It was–you didn’t ask a Committee member if they were–

But one had been killed earlier that year. They could be killed, he knew that. It had happened before. Hell, another of the Committee was currently missing. Yet somehow… somehow being killed or out of contact didn’t strike him as… as vulnerable as seeing one of the Committee members… maimed. Maimed. The very word was ridiculous. They were–if they–

“Mr. Mason,” Litonya urged him while looking that way as she took a sip. “Speak, or leave.” 

Swallowing, he forced himself to speak. “I just–I was… told that you saw one of my daughters earlier.” 

“I did,” she confirmed. “Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to speak much.” Her smile was thin. “She did call me an evil bitch, if you were curious.” 

Making a sound of shocked disbelief, Liam shook his head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I–it’s… it’s that girl. She’s–and Larissa is… that Felicity girl. She’s… they’re twisting everything around. It’s still–they’re still dancing to Gaia’s tune, Gods damn it! I don’t care that she’s locked up, she planned all of this, all of it, and she’s been manipulating them and they don’t know where to–” 

“Liam,” Litonya spoke sharply. “We are all well aware of how the creatures Sinclaire allied herself with have manipulated our people. Rambling accomplishes nothing.” 

“Who… who did… what happened to you?” He tried to stop himself from asking, but it came out anyway. “Why don’t you just… heal?” 

There was a low chuckle, like the sound of dry leaves being crushed. “Miss Chambers herself. Or rather, the creature she allowed to possess her.” Reading his wide eyes and open mouth, she interrupted his question. “It is a question I don’t wish to get into. Suffice to say, they possess the sword of the old King, and the wounds it causes take a very long time to heal.” 

“A… I don’t–” How could someone actually hurt you, even if it was with Arthur’s sword?! “What about… prosthetics?” 

“Believe it or not,” the woman’s sharp tone retorted, “you are not the first to suggest such a thing. Unfortunately, the reason the wounds take so long to heal is that the sword leaves lingering minor magical energy which slowly disintegrates anything it touches. Anything that comes into contact with… the wounds is gradually destroyed or at least damaged to the point of being structurally compromised. This–” She indicated her summoned solid-energy limbs. “–will have to do. Now, is there anything else? As you might imagine, I am rather occupied.” 

Hesitating briefly, Liam swallowed before asking, “That other thing that I asked about before. The one about the Chambers girl claiming her mother was taken by Fossor. Have you–” 

“She is with the necromancer,” Litonya confirmed. “That much we know. It was unfortunately rather brutally confirmed by the scouts who were sent to confirm Joselyn’s presence in a mall earlier today. Yet another part of the traitors’ plans, no doubt, meant to divide and conquer.” 

“Jos, she’s… she’s working with Fossor, willingly?” Liam murmured, shock touching his features almost as much as seeing Litonya’s injuries had. 

“That appears to be the case,” the woman informed him. “She has now taken to luring our people into traps in order to gain power by ambushing and murdering them. Now, if you will excuse me, I have pressing matters elsewhere. The Committee must choose three new members to count among our number.” 

“Wha–three? You’re choosing three new Counselors?” he blurted with surprise. That didn’t happen. 

“Pressing times call for pressing measures,” Litonya replied simply. “Our enemy has outmaneuvered us for far too long, has taken far too many of our people and assets. Don’t worry, Mr. Mason. We have just the people in mind for these positions. 

“And when confrontation comes again, it is the traitors who will find themselves at a disadvantage.” 

*****

Sometime over the summer. 

 

It was a short, very stocky man who stood in front of an unlabeled heavy metal door somewhere in Pittsburgh. He wore an olive green overcoat and a heavy beard. An old mangy cat of no possible discernible breed sat at his feet and licked his paws while the man reached up with one gloved hand to bang on the door. 

A moment later, a slot in the door slid open, allowing three eyes to peer out. “Whatayawant?”

In response, the man held up a leather bag, shaking it a bit to create a jingling sound. “Entrant’s fee,” he muttered in a deep, gravelly voice. 

The eyes disappeared, replaced by a single thin hand with too many fingers. The man put the bag in the palm, and it was withdrawn. There was another pause, before several locks were disengaged and the door was pulled open. The three-eyed man with too many fingers on his hands stood there watching him with a shotgun. “Name.”

Bowing his head a bit, the man in the olive coat replied, “Dark. John Dark.”

For a moment, the two stared at one another, the three-eyed man clearly sizing him up before finally offering him a broad smile as he stepped back and raised his arm to indicate past himself. “Well, John Dark, you just bought yourself into the auction. Congratulations, and don’t go blowing all your coin on the first decent beast you see.”

Returning the man’s smile with a nod of appreciation, Dark walked past him through the narrow corridor. The cat followed at his heels, offering a quiet meow. 

The corridor lead to a large circular room, big enough to be a concert hall. Throughout the room were dozens of beings of all shapes and sizes. And cages. Cages that were staggered randomly throughout the room, holding even more wildly varied beings. They were prisoners, slaves to be auctioned off for those who bought them, the people who were now examining their potential merchandise. 

The din of conversation continued for another few minutes before a new figure in a garish bright red coat and top hat swept his way into the middle of the room with a raised hand. Under the top hat, he had dark blue skin and hair like a mythical gorgons, full of living snakes. 

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he called loudly to draw all attention to him. “Welcome to our humble auction! We’ll get things started right away, but first—“

“One silver.”

John Dark spoke up loudly, interrupting the auctioneer with that single word. It drew everyone’s attention to him, and the snake-haired man frowned, his serpents hissing. “I am afraid we haven’t started the auction yet, good sir. And when we do, you shall have to pay a lot more than one silver if you wish to take any of our fine, quality merchandise home.”

John Dark spoke again, before the man could redirect everyone’s attention. “You’re wrong about two things there. First, I wasn’t offering one silver for one of your slaves. I offered one silver for all of them. One silver on top of whatever you value your lives at. I assume, quite a lot. You can claim that reward by leaving this place now, and never looking back.”

Dozens of weapons were drawn at his words, along with magic and other powers being readied. Around the room, security guards appeared, levying their own weapons at this simple-looking stranger. 

If he was put off by the display of force, the man gave no indication. He simply continued. “As for the second thing you were wrong about… I am no sir.”

With that, the ‘man’ swept off the coat to reveal a lithe, feminine figure beneath. Also hidden beneath the coat had been a heavy shield and spear, mounted to her back. 

Pulling both to her hands, the woman held the shield up as every non-slave in the room unleashed on her. Bullets, lasers, fire, wild attacks of every kind erupted through the room, centered on the spot where she stood. A spot where a glowing gold light had flared up. 

After almost thirty full seconds of non-stop attack, the slavers and their customers finally relented. They had poured enough fire power into that spot to kill nearly anything. 

Nearly. 

The woman still stood. Her false beard was gone, revealing a face that many could, and had, called beautiful, with a distinct resemblance to the classic actress, Audrey Hepburn. Her shield glowed brightly, almost blindingly so, extending its energy in a field that encased and surrounded her body like a second skin. 

“My name,” she began through the baffled silence, “is Jeanne d’Arc. And you are wretched, evil beasts. You enslave and sell the innocent as your chattel. You are a plague upon this land, and your judgment has come due.”

With those words, the woman known more commonly as Joan of Arc raised her spear. It began to glow with the same energy as her shield. It was the energy gifted to her through ritual by the angel… the Seosten… Michael. Only a small portion of his gift, yet enough to keep her alive all these years after he had saved her from the fire. A sliver of his energy which healed her wounds, ceased her aging, and allowed her to channel it through her shield to create an impenetrable barrier around herself or others, and through her spear to allow it to cut through near anything in existence. 

Many had wondered over the years what sort of Heretic Jeanne was. In truth, she was no Heretic at all, merely a human gifted incredible power through ritual magic. 

Incredible power which she put to use now, as the slavers opened fire once more. Joan went to work. 

Before long, it was over. The slavers and their customers were dead, and the prisoners were being escorted to safety by several people Jeanne had let into the building after dealing with the three-eyed man at the front. As she stood out of the way, a small, green-furred figure approached tentatively. “Err… what… what is this?” he asked with obvious confusion. “Are you with that… that new Heretic rebellion?”

A taller, gray-skinned figure spoke up then. “H-hey, yeah, that rebellion’s going again. I heard that… that Atherby woman came back.” His own voice was hopeful, wide eyes staring at their rescuer. “Are–do you know her? Is she really back? Is she–” 

“I’m sorry,” Jeanne gently interrupted, raising a hand to quiet the man in a soft voice. “I am with Wonderland, not the Rebellion, though we are connected. And I’m afraid that Chevalière Atherby is not… she has not returned.” For a moment, she thought of what she knew of the woman’s daughter, the girl who had brought back the rebellion. Jeane knew enough of her, both thanks to friends within the Atherby camp and Crossroads itself, and thanks to her own curiosity in the past. Not to mention the words of her off-and-on lover, the vampire Seth. His death had brought Jeanne to Wonderland to pay her respects, where she had agreed to take his place as their Tiebreaker for the time being. 

She and Seth had had their ups and downs, but they had loved one another for most of their time together. Even if that love turned to heated arguments now and then. She had mourned his loss, cursed the fact that she had not been anywhere near to aid him, and vowed to find the creature who had murdered him. This Seosten, the one called Abaddon. She would find and kill every body he manifested until she reached the last one. This she had sworn upon Seth’s grave. 

In any case, Seth knew Felicity. Or Flick, as she preferred to go by. He’d initially been curious about her when he found out she was dating the girl who was… essentially his step-sister, in a lot of ways. He’d asked Jeanne look into her, to see what kind of person she was beyond simply being her mother’s daughter. She, in turn, had told him that she didn’t need to look into the girl then, because she already had rather thoroughly in the past, and that he had nothing to worry about. Over time, Seth had actually gotten to know the girl a bit more for himself, and confirmed her assessment. It was no surprise to Jeanne whatsoever that the girl had brought back her mother’s rebellion. Not after being her teacher for most of a semester back in junior high.  

Seeing the look of disappointment on the two men’s faces after telling them that she wasn’t with that particular group, Jeanne assured them, “Her children are part of that rebellion. Her youngest daughter brought it back.” 

“Her youngest daughter?” one of the men breathed. “Who is she, do you know her? Did you know her mother?” 

A fond smile touched the woman’s face. “Joselyn… yes, you might say our paths have crossed. As for her daughter, she does not know it, but we have met. And eventually, we will meet again.” She offered them a slight shrug then. “As I said, Wonderland may not technically be part of them, but we have contact. Do you… have friends there?” 

“I don’t know,” the short, furry man lamented. “Maybe. Everything was so… so confusing in the escape from those tunnels, my people said they knew where to go to find them, but I don’t know if they did.” 

“Come then,” she urged, turning to gesture ahead. “Let us go see if your people are there. And if they are not, I will help you find them. 

The taller, gray man blinked. “You… you’d do that? But you don’t even know us.” 

Meeting his gaze, Jeanne replied simply, “My hands have no eyes, no ears. They need not know a man to bring him up, to offer him food, shelter, or aid. My oath is to help those who need it, not only those whom I have called friend. Now come, we will find your family and friends.” 

“If they’re not with the rebellion,” the green-furred man lamented, “they may have fallen in with other evil men, like these.” His small hand indicated the bodies around them. 

“If that is the case,” Jeanne informed him, “and your people have been taken by more evil men, 

“Then more evil men will die.”

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Interlude 15 – Nicholas Petan

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Five Years From Now, In An Alternate Dimension

“My Lord?” the soft voice of a young female with teal skin and bright white hair spoke up tentatively.

Nicholas Petan turned away from the window of the ship where he had been studying the green and brown planet that they were approaching. He took in the sight of the Nereid, pausing for a moment to remember her name. At one time, it wouldn’t even have taken him that long. But, as the years and centuries passed, the number of those he was responsible for had grown beyond what he could have imagined when he was still young. Even then, however, it often felt as though he had done too little.

After that brief pause that actually only lasted a couple of seconds, he had it. “Yes, Dexamene?”

“Um, I was just… I was wondering, sir…” Dexamene hesitated. She looked nervous, and Petan recalled that this was the first time the sea nymph had addressed him directly. She was the daughter of one of the ship’s top navigators and a marine, but she herself had only graduated from their shipboard academy a month earlier. Shortly before they had sent Tristan back in time, actually. Now that he thought about it, she and his descendant had been friendly with one another. Which probably meant…

“You would like to know if Tristan arrived at his destination correctly and safely?” he guessed.

Judging from the way the nymph flushed, she was embarrassed. Yet her head bobbed up and down quickly even as she fidgeted there. “Y-yes, my Lord. I-if it’s not too much trouble, I mean. I was just—um, w-worried about him. I know we can’t—umm, that we can’t contact him or anything because of the um—the time travel. But do we—umm, can we know if he’s—umm–” She stopped, swallowing hard.

Lifting his hand, Petan settled it on the girl’s shoulder. He felt her cringe a little, and shook his head in wonder at just how shy and easily embarrassed she was. “Dexamene,” he assured her. “He is all right.” When she looked up at him, eyes hopeful, the man gave her the slightest smile in an attempt to be at least a little bit reassuring. It felt strange on his face, especially after he’d had to send Tristan away.

The boy had been a breath of fresh air around the ship, particularly once they had worked out the way to have the boy on the ship with them by anchoring him to Nicholas himself. That particular anchor had been enough to allow him to leave the Meregan’s world, but not enough to take him to their home dimension and planet. The Seosten magic barring him from that dimension was entirely too strong.

So, in between their battles with the Seosten and other enemies, Nicholas’s army (including their new Meregan allies) had searched for another solution. It wasn’t their primary task, of course. There were far too many other things commanding their attention. But they had tried several things over the years.

In the end, the best solution had been an alternative to the one they had used to allow the boy to leave the planet and stay with Nicholas: the anchor. But they had needed a better anchor, since Petan’s connection to his former homeworld had faded too much over the centuries that he had been away.

The magic barely recognized him as being from there at all. So, they had needed to anchor the boy to someone from there, who still lived there and whom he had at least a somewhat close connection with. And since Tristan couldn’t remember anything about his family (Nicholas’s stories about them didn’t seem to be able to jog the boy’s memory) that left pretty much only two choices: Felicity Chambers or Shiori Porter. Tristan had chosen Felicity. Unfortunately, so much had changed in those years that there was no connection between Tristan and the Felicity of the current time. So, they had anchored the boy to the Felicity from five years in the past, when she was still the way that the boy remembered her. And now, well, now he was there. And then. As Dexamene had said, it was impossible to contact him.

“I miss him too,” he told the young nymph in a confidential tone that made her blink up at him with wide eyes. “But yes, as far as I am aware, Tristan arrived safely. That is the best we could hope for.”

The teal-skinned girl bobbed her head quickly once more. “Good! I mean, I—h-he’s good. He’s home. I–” She shifted again, looking away for a moment as a very brief look of shame crossed her face.

Raising an eyebrow, Petan paused to consider her for a moment. “Is there something else wrong?”

“N-no, I–” Dexamene stopped, still looking embarrassed and ashamed as she admitted, “I kn-know he had to go home, b-but I… I w-wish I’d told him that I… that I umm…” She went silent once more.

“You cared for him a lot,” Petan realized, straightening a little then. “As far more than simply friends.”

The sea nymph looked stricken for a second before she caught herself. Swallowing hard, she gave one more nod. “I—w-wanted to tell him, but… but I knew he didn’t feel the same way. W-we were friends, sir. I didn’t wa-want to ruin that, and I didn’t… I didn’t want to say anything that would m-make him feel guilty about leaving. Now I… w-wish I did. But I’m g-glad I didn’t. But I’m sad. It’s… hard.”

Remaining silent to gather his thoughts, Nicholas wished that he had any idea of what to say to the girl. She had sent away a boy she cared deeply for, a boy she obviously had a very strong crush on, without telling him how she felt in order to avoid making him choose between staying with her and going home. She had let him go without doing anything that would make him feel guilty about his choice.

Finally, he squeezed her shoulder until she met his gaze once again, her violet eyes wide from the attention. “Dexamene,” the man informed her succinctly, “you are an incredible asset to this crew, this ship, and to me. I am very grateful that people like you are here. Thank you, for continuing to serve.”

“I—I–um–” The poor teal-skinned teenager worked her mouth before quickly stepping back. She gave him a somewhat shaky, but still acceptable salute, which he returned crisply. Then she mumbled an embarrassed thank you followed by an apology as she asked to be dismissed. When he gave that permission, the girl practically fled down the corridor, her embarrassment too much to handle by then.

As he watched her go, Nicholas smiled faintly before turning his attention back to the window. The ship was coming in for a landing by that point, and he could already see the Seosten defensive forces readying themselves. Not that many, if any were actually Seosten themselves, of course. The body-possessing false angels used subjugated races for that kind of grunt work. Besides, there weren’t enough actual Seosten to create entire armies across multiple worlds and hold them. At most, there would be two or three of the creatures on-world to ensure that things continued to run smoothly.

A few of the defense forces that settled into place even took (entirely useless) potshots at the incoming ship before their superiors obviously ordered them to hold fire and wait to concentrate on the doors that the invading troops should have begun pouring out of as soon as the ship settled into place.

“Captain,” he spoke while touched a finger to the communicator on his wrist. “Are the troops ready?”

The crisp response came immediately, confirming that the troops were indeed prepared. Smiling to himself, Nicholas touched the circle that he had already drawn on the wall beside the window. Investing it with power, he activated the spell while pressing his palm against the middle of it.

As soon as the spell triggered, several dozen of the ship’s finest and best trained troops (an eclectic assortment of various Alters, some armed with weapons while others relied on their own innate gifts and abilities) disappeared from where they had been waiting, and immediately reappeared directly behind the defensive position that the Seosten defense troops had set up. The scene dissolved into instant chaos as the troops were taken by surprise when the intruders came at them from behind.

They turned to meet the threat, and as soon as they did, then the doors of the ship opened up. The rest of Nicholas Petan’s army poured out, attacking from that side as well. Trapped in the middle, the Seosten defense forces stood little chance. Most surrendered after only a relatively brief skirmish.

Nodding in satisfaction, Nicholas started to turn away from the window. It was time to free the slaves on this planet, see what kind of supplies they could take from this minor Seosten outpost, and move on.

Unfortunately, just as he began to turn, a shadow darkened the sky and left the troops outside in darkness. His gaze flicked back that way while his communicator popped. “My Lord!” the voice of the ship’s captain came through. “We have three ships on sensors. They came out of nowhere, sir.”

“Seosten?” Petan asked, his voice tense as he prepared to move once they knew what was going on.

“No, my Lord,” the captain denied. “The ships, they’re reading as… alive, sir. They’re biological.”

Straightening at that, Nicholas took a moment before the word escaped him in a hiss that was equal parts anger and worry. Not for himself, but for those he was in command of, those who trusted him.

“Fomorian.”

******

Blood, screams, and worse filled the air. The Fomorians had wasted no time. Before Petan could prepare another spell to withdraw his troops, or even join them, they had already sent their drop-tubes to the surface. Essentially, the drop-tubes were incredibly long tentacles that shot from the bottom of their ships and attached themselves to the planet itself. Once they were hooked in, the various biological horror shows that the Fomorians had created were dropped down through the tube in egg-like structures, which burst upon contact with the ground and allowed the creatures to pour forth.

Both the previously-surrendered Seosten soldiers and Petan’s own troops were almost immediately engulfed by more types of literal monsters than Nicholas had ever seen before, even in his long life. They ranged from an enormous crocodile-like creature that was over sixty feet long and twenty feet high, all the way down to insect-sized bug things which injected a deadly poison into their targets.

His Alters were doing their best to defend themselves, and their efforts were admirable. Yet they hadn’t been expecting that kind of fight, not against those biological horror-shows. The Fomorians deliberately crafted their creatures to combat specific Alter-abilities, tailoring each creation as needed.

He had to involve himself, and quickly. Rather than taking the time to make it to the actual exit, Nicholas scrawled a quick spell on the floor of the ship, focused on himself. In that moment, he dearly wished that he was actually one of the Heretics whose abilities came from the Reapers or Hangmen, so that he could have absorbed the powers of those he had fought for so long. Instead, he was a natural Heretic, and his gifts had originally come from a troll whose body he had been buried with so long ago. Their blood had mixed, and granted him incredible regeneration and immunity to both disease and aging, strength, an utterly inhuman resistance to damage other than fire, the ability to adapt to his environment so that no temperature variation or even lack of oxygen bothered him, and the ability to induce fear in a target.

And, of course, having the Bystander-effect removed had restored what should have been his natural ability to use magic. All of that combined had made him a formidable opponent to his enemies over the centuries, and it would do the same here and now. But even then, he would have preferred an instant teleportation ability, something that could transport him out there immediately before more of his troops, his people, were killed. Every second he wasted creating and investing energy into the magic to take him out there was another one where the people who swore loyalty to him were suffering.

Finally (after what had honestly only been less than thirty seconds, even if it felt like an eternity), the spell was ready. Nicholas pressed his hand to the runes he had drawn and activated it. The hastily drawn spell lit up, and he was immediately transported from the ship to the middle of the battlefield.

He appeared in front of one of his Dryads, who was laying on the ground, bleeding from a severe stomach injury. A creature that looked like a scorpion with a snake instead of a stinger came lunging forward, tail lashing out with the poisonous serpent’s mouth wide open as it aimed for his arm.

Petan caught the snake, twisting sharply while giving a yank that tore its head from the rest of the body. Even as the scorpion part of the creature made a sharp screaming noise and tried to snatch him with its pincers, he delivered a harsh kick that put his foot through the thing’s face. The scorpion collapsed, and he tossed the snake-head aside before turning back to the injured Dryad.

“Here,” he announced, producing a small metal button from his pocket which he dropped onto her chest. “Hold it and you will be safe until we retrieve you when the battle is finished.”

As the Dryad closed her hand around the button, it activated and her body turned into what looked a lot like stone, but was actually much stronger. One of the advantages of allying with what remained of the Meregan. Considering that the ‘statue’ could have been thrown into the sun without being harmed, nothing the Fomorian horror show could do would be able to penetrate it.

That done, Nicholas straightened and turned his attention to the rest of the creatures. Perhaps someone else would have said something pithy or uplifting about the situation, something that would have lightened the mood. But that wasn’t the sort of man that Nicholas Petan was. He relied on results.

And, as he waded into the battle, delivering single blows that took the creatures apart with as little wasted motion or effort as possible, results were what he delivered. He wasn’t fancy. When he finally drew his sword to cleave the head from a charging tentacle-laden creature, he remained as silent as ever. Not a breath, nor a motion, nor an actual attack was in any way wasted. His style was an economy of motion and energy, even as he picked his way through this army. What took even the strongest of his troops three or four blows to bring down, Nicholas managed with a single swipe of his blade.

He was making his way to the worst, most dangerous threat on the battlefield: that giant crocodile. Now that he was closer, the man could see that it had a slightly smaller, humanoid (vaguely ape-like) torso, head, and arms attached just under its much larger and more prominent reptilian head. The ape arms would grab hold of prey beneath it and pass them up into the mouth of its crocodile-half.

He had to put a stop to this thing, before more of his people were killed. Yet even as Petan took a step that way after killing the last creature that had barred his path, he saw one of the Seosten troops already running toward it. Whatever race the figure was, he appeared to be humanoid, with onyx-black skin and a wiry build under his Seosten uniform.

He was also carrying some kind of double-blade sword, a staff with a blade at each end in one hand. In the other, he held what looked like a grenade launcher.

A handful of other abominations, smaller than the main target, emerged from behind its feet before moving to intercept the Seosten guard. But he spun smoothly, easily avoiding the nearest as it swiped at him with long claws. As he twisted, his bladed staff spun upward and sliced the creature’s head from its shoulders as easily as one would chop a carrot.

In the same motion, the onyx-skinned figure flipped up and around, planting one foot into the face of the next attacker to drive him backward a step. That bladed staff went through the arm and then the upper torso of the third creature, before he used the momentum from kicking off of the second one to flip himself around in the air. Adjusting his blade, he came down hard, cutting that second creature in half lengthwise, straight down the middle from his head to his torso.

The figure was practically poetry in motion, flowing like an unstoppable river to cut through two more creatures that sought to interfere. By that point, only one was left: a monster about the size and general shape of a gorilla, with six arms and hard, rock-like skin.

The thing came at the guard, bellowing a loud challenge. That challenge, however, was erased (along with the creature itself), as the figure simply raised not the double-bladed staff, but the weapon in his other hand: the grenade launcher. He triggered the weapon, and the monster was engulfed by the explosion.

Petan briefly thought the strangely competent Seosten soldier was too close, but even as the explosion itself neared him, he was lifting a hand. Somehow, possibly an ability of of his race, he absorbed the shockwave and heat, then directed it under his feet to boost himself into the air.

The giant monster’s ape-half grabbed for the rising figure. Yet even as Nicholas watched, the Seosten soldier twisted in the air to plant his feet against the nearest of the incoming hands. A quick swipe from that double-bladed sword cut clear through the wrist of the opposite hand, cutting it free. As the beast howled, the figure pushed off that hand, firing a shot from the grenade launcher into the ape-head.

Again, he absorbed and redirected the energy from the explosion to drive himself even higher. Now, the figure was level with the enormous crocodile head. It opened that massive maw and lunged inward, toward its tiny snack.

The soldier, however, was ready. He fired a handful of shots from the grenade launcher into the thing’s face. The monster reeled from the explosions, stumbling a little as it roared.

While it was recovering, the unknown Seosten guard flipped over in the air, coming down on top of the monster’s massive snout. Even as its dull eyes tried to focus on the figure, he was already aiming that grenade launcher essentially straight down before pulling the trigger.

The explosion was unbelievable that time. Nicholas realized that the soldier must have used up the last of the thing’s energy supply in one final blast.

And yet, the thing still wasn’t dead. It had been knocked to the ground, but even then, the giant crocodile was trying to pick itself up, using its ape-half’s remaining hand to push off of the ground.

Neither, apparently, was the Seosten soldier dead. He had clearly absorbed all of that energy from the point-blank explosion. And now, he was running up its snout toward its eyes. The grenade launcher was gone, and the man now held his double-ended blade in both hands. Nicholas heard a distant scream of effort and exhilaration as the guard lashed out. Both ends of the blade lit up, all of the power that the man had absorbed from the explosion filling it even as he drive the blade down into the thing’s skull right between its eyes.

The blade, enhanced and empowered by the captured energy from the explosion, cut straight through the monster’s head, all the way down through its mouth, and out the other side. The head was literally cleaved into two halves that fell away from the main body even as the man himself landed in a crouch on the ground far below where he had been.

It was down. Dead. Gone. The last of the troops that the Fomorians had sent to the ground.

“Who are you?” Nicholas demanded, stepping that way to put himself between his remaining people and this figure. “The Seosten would not have someone of your… skill protecting a backwater outpost.”

The man pushed himself up, breathing hard before focusing on Nicholas. “You’re right,” he said simply. “They wouldn’t.”

With that, the onyx-skinned man fell forward, collapsing even as a second, female figure emerged from within him. The second figure was ghost-like for a moment before solidifying. She wore some kind of environment suit that covered her whole body and face, yet was skintight.

The soldier had been possessed.

“Seosten,” he started to spit the name, bringing his sword up.

But the female figure shook her head. “Not quite,” she replied before reaching up to take off the mask of the suit. “I just killed a couple and stole their power. But trust me, they really had it coming.”

Then the mask was off, and Nicholas found himself staring for a moment before he found his voice. “You do not… appear to be five years older.”

“I’m not,” she replied. “It’s only been about a year for me, since you sent Tristan back. And now I need you to do the same for me. Send me back four years, to when I… when I left.”

“If you don’t,” Felicity Chambers finished, “Fossor is going to use my mother to kill every Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretic in existence.”

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Against The Odds 9-09

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“Wait, what?” Columbus demanded, looking between Shiori and me. “That one kid? You think he’s–”

“It makes sense,” Avalon interrupted with a frown. “He’s the only human here, and the Meregan have been taking care of him. Maybe this Nicholas guy thinks they’re holding him prisoner or something.”

Sands rolled her eyes. “Well that’s just stupid. They’re fighting over a miscommunication? Have they ever considered just talking things out so they don’t run into these kind of prob—wow is that really me saying that?” She made a face of confused discomfort for a brief moment before shaking her head.

Beside her sister, Scout made a slight snickering sound before quietly putting an arm around her.

I glanced to Senny first. The vampire girl was standing near the doorway, listening intently. Noticing my attention, she shook her head to indicate that no one was coming. Not yet anyway. I had no idea how much longer we’d have before being interrupted, so I quickly returning my attention to the Meregan boy who had been talking. Making myself smile, I asked as gently as I could, “Listen, uhh, what’s your name? I’m Flick. This is Avalon, Shiori, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Sean, and Asenath.”

Something nudged my leg then, and I looked down before smiling slightly. “Oh, right. This is Vulcan.”

The boy took a hesitant step forward, still clearly uncertain about the situation. But he did smile a little at the mechanical dog, slowly reaching an open hand to him. “I am being… the… one of named Dis.”

While Vulcan curiously sniffed at the large boy’s hand and then nuzzled it eagerly, Sean’s eyes grew wide with delight at the obvious possibilities. “Wait, wait, lemme get this straight. Dis is your name?”

“Work out your Who’s On First routine later,” Avalon instructed before turning her attention back to the boy. “You were statues until just a few hours ago, weren’t you? What happened when you woke up?”

Dis blinked once, his head tilting a little curiously. “We are… were… being awakened in small room in talling building.” He pointed in the direction of the tower outside. “We were… being… much hunger.”

“You were frozen for a long time,” I acknowledged quietly. “I bet you were hungry. What happened?”

“Man-Nicholas had being surprise,” Dis answered promptly. “But he had being giving food and bringing I and others here to wait. He was being putting Other-Things to find Dis and other parents to trade Dis and others to giving them for boy-thing-human-person child-long-many-childs. Dessadant.”

“Descendant,” I corrected absently, frowning a little. “So he sent those people to contact the Meregan? If that’s true, why did they attack as soon as they found them? Why are they constantly fighting at all? Because I don’t believe the Meregan would just make that up. They said he’s been attacking them. That’s the whole reason they initiated the umm, statue thing, because they couldn’t save you without help after he kidnapped you to begin with.” My head shook. “We’re missing something important.”

“Yes,” the voice of Gaia replied. The woman herself appeared in the middle of the room. Except she wasn’t really there. Her form was semi-translucent, like a hologram. “You are missing something. It’s all right, there’s no need to fight anymore. We’ve… worked it out. You can come to the tower, and bring the Meregan children with you. The guards won’t try to stop you. There is… a lot to discuss.”

“No offense,” I retorted, glancing to the others. “But how do we know that’s really you, Headmistress?”

A slight smile touched the woman’s face and she gave a short bow of her head in acknowledgment. “Very good, Felicity. How do you know it’s me? I suppose I’ll just have to promise that we will find your mother and that when this situation is over, I will tell you the identities of her other two children.”

My mouth opened and shut before I coughed while looking to the others. “It’s either her, or she’s being controlled somehow. If it’s the latter, I think we’re kind of utterly screwed no matter what we do.”

Sands shifted her weight, clearly uncomfortable with the situation even as she gave a faint nod. “G-good point. If the headmistress was taken over, there’s no way we’d ever get out of here anyway.”

There was a general murmur of agreement from the others, and Gaia’s image gestured. “Come to the tower. The guards there will let you in and guide you up to where we are. Trust me, you’ll all be fine.”

Left with little option other than to trust that things were kosher, we slowly left the building along with the Meregan kids (most of whom were as tall or taller than us). In the street outside the building, three of those hooded cat-figures stood a few yards away. They stiffened as we emerged, but did nothing. After a few seconds, the trio stepped out of the way, hands raising together to point to the tower.

“Well, that’s not creepy or anything,” Sands muttered under her breath. Her eyes were moving quickly from side to side, clearly anticipating some kind of betrayal or attack either from the cat-people or some other source, but she didn’t say anything else as we moved past them and toward the tower.

I noticed Columbus and Shiori talking quietly to each other as we walked, and when I glanced that way, they waved me back to them. I looked to the tower briefly, then took a step back. “What’s up, guys?”

“We think we both got the same power,” Shiori answered quietly after glancing toward her brother.

Columbus nodded. “It’s some kind of metal manipulation. Moving it, I mean. Shy-guy killed two of these yellow humanoid things back there, so it was probably them since she’s not just manipulating it.”

“Not just manipulating it?” I echoed, looking to the other girl for clarification. “What else can you do?”

For a second, Shiori hesitated before lowering her voice. “I was experimenting while you were talking to Gaia, and I can sort of… hear and see through it? The metal that I control, I mean. I tried it with one of my discs, and I heard those cat-people talking. It wasn’t English or anything, but the voice talking to them was. It was some kind of radio or phone or something they were listening to, taking orders from.”

Pausing, I looked toward Avalon as the group neared the doors that led into the tower. There were a couple more Alters there, including one that looked like an enormous, very ugly man with three different heads that were all facing different directions. One of those heads was glaring at us.

“What did you hear, exactly? Are we in trouble?” I asked quietly, hand lowering a little to my belt.

But Shiori shook her head. “No. I mean, I don’t think so. The guy talking to the cat-people was ordering them to stand down. It sounded like they were sort of arguing, but then he said they could either obey him or lose his protection and risk being taken by ‘them.’ That made them stop arguing really quick.”

Asenath stepped up on Shiori’s other side. Her voice was quiet. “The question is, who is ‘them?’”

The boy glanced to her, mouth open to say something, but Shiori spoke first. “Did you hear them too?”

“Yes,” Senny confirmed. “They weren’t there before, but they came just as your headmistress started to talk. Whatever they were saying to the man talking to them, they obviously weren’t happy about standing down. I don’t speak their language, but I’m pretty sure they wanted revenge for the ones that Flick and I… ahhh, killed.” Her eyes glanced toward me briefly. “Oh, and they’re called Rakshasa.”

“Oh good,” I muttered. “It’s probably a good idea to know the name of the race that wants to kill me.”

“Hey,” Senny replied with a casual, confident wink. “At least you’re not the only one they’re mad at.”

By that point, we had reached the doors of the tower itself and passed inside. The entranceway was shaped like a Y, with two separate, wide corridors splitting off from the main doors and a set of stairs directly in the middle that led up in a spiral shape. The floor looked like obsidian, while the walls were some kind of shiny, reflective metal that had been polished so much we could see ourselves in them.

Even more Alters of every kind I’d seen so far, and more that I hadn’t, stood along the walls. Most were glaring, obviously not happy about our presence. But none of them made any move toward us. They simply stood out of the way, glowering with a sense of silent vindictiveness, their anger palpable.

Only one made any move toward us. He was a shorter figure, his skin a pale blue while his hair was sea-green. He had four eyes, two stacked on top of each other on either side of his face. When he spoke, his voice was melodious, like a pleasant song. “The children of Crossroads, students of Gaia?”

Avalon answered for us, nodding once without taking her eyes off the figure. “Yes, that’s us.”

The blue-skinned man, who wasn’t quite as tall as I was, inclined his head acceptingly. His voice remained song-like. “I am called Valecie and will bring you to your teacher for discussions.”

He made an elaborate bowing gesture then with his arms spread wide, then pivoted smartly before starting to the stairs. As he climbed, the rest of us looked at one another. I could read the hesitation on all of our faces. But as we’d already established, at this point we didn’t have much choice otherwise.

Besides, the Meregan kids were already following, and we had to quickly catch up or risk letting them go on without us. So we trailed after the blue man, passing more silently hostile figures on the way

“Valecie,” I spoke as we continued to climb after passing a couple Alters that had practically been quivering with barely contained rage. “I know why all your people are… angry. And okay, I get it. We killed some of their friends, their families maybe. I know why they’re mad. But why aren’t they doing anything about it? How were Nicholas and Gaia so sure we could walk past all of them without someone getting pissed off enough to risk getting some revenge? I mean, if they’re that angry…”

A brief pained expression crossed the man’s face for a moment before he shook his head once. “It is very true that some of our united kind are angry with the students of Crossroads and would seek retribution if given no other recourse. But they will not, for the pain of loss pales against the threat of being cast away from Heretical protection and left as prey for Seostenic capture and entrapment.”

“Seostenic capture and entrapment?” I echoed the words, frowning. But before we could get any clarification about what the man meant, he stepped off the stairs at the very top and gestured to an enormous, dark red door that was almost fifteen feet tall, and wide enough to drive a car through.

“Our Lord Petan awaits you within, Students of Gaia, children of Crossroads. Do not tarry for long.”

Dis actually stepped closer to me. There was a look of uncertainty on the very big kid’s face. “We… we will being go to parents and families?” he asked hesitantly. The slight quiver of his lip reminded me that, as large as he and the others were, they were still just kids. There were a couple as small as Scout and Sands that were probably only six or so. Most probably didn’t understand anything we were saying.

Asenath was the one who spoke, her hand moving to squeeze the boy’s arm as she smiled. “Trust us, Dis. You and your friends are going to be home with your parents very soon. What’s your dad’s name?”

“P-Purin,” Dis answered. “He is being putting in charge of K’lecnahn.” There was pride in his voice.

Beside me, Shiori put in, “We met your dad, Dis.” When the boy looked toward her with a clearly hopeful expression, she slowly reached out a hand to lay against his arm reassuringly. “He’s okay.”

My eyes moved from seeing the girl comfort and reassure the Meregan boy, to the spot where Sands was standing silently watching this. I couldn’t read the expression on her face, but it wasn’t exactly anger. It wasn’t even the confusion that had been there so many times. Now, she just looked thoughtful.

By that point, Avalon had reached up to shove the door open with help from Columbus and Sean.

I’d been expecting some kind of throne room on the other side. Instead, what I saw looked more like a war room. It was enormous, easily as long as a football field and just as wide. Throughout the room there were long tables scattered around that were covered with maps, papers, parchment, and what looked like weird pyramid-shaped figurines whose purpose I was unsure of. Alters of every size and type surrounded these tables, talking with each other, pinpointing places on maps, arguing, and seemingly acting out what looked like war plans. Along the walls I saw even more maps, not only of land, but some that looked like actual star maps, as well as photographs of multiple different planets.

At the far end of the room, Gaia stood next to the man that I immediately recognized from my vision. He looked a bit older by that point, enough to have some gray in his hair. But it was definitely him.

The Alters in the room, the ones who had been so busy with whatever wars they were planning, stopped talking one by one and straightened. All of them stared at us as we moved gradually past them. There was that same anger and frustration in their eyes. Yet, as promised, none moved to threaten or attack us.

Whatever this Seostenic thing was, the threat was stronger than their anger about the ones we’d killed.

Gaia stepped over as we approached, her gaze taking us in briefly before she focused on the Meregan. Her voice was as gentle as I’d ever heard it. “Children, are you ready to return to your families?”

Dis translated that for the rest of his friends, and there was a collection of quick nods. Apparently they understood at least enough English to know that that was confirmation. That or it was the same in the Meregan language. I wasn’t sure which was more likely. Either way, they were talking excitedly.

“They may leave,” Nicholas spoke smoothly, though it seemed like he was addressing the other Alters in the room more than the Meregan or any of us. “And I have summoned the expedition force back from their pursuit of the Meregan ship. We have an arrangement, and I have kept to my end of it.”

“Yes,” Gaia agreed. “And we will have Tristan here soon, I promise you that. First,” she held a hand out, making a quick circle motion before murmuring something under her breath. One of the rings on her hand began to glow bright blue before literally disintegrating in front of our eyes. As it faded away, the air in front of Gaia changed to reveal the interior of the Meregan ship, in the transport room.

“Go, children,” the woman instructed, holding the portal open while the Meregan kids quickly rushed through. On the other side, I could hear a cry of delight and surprise from Alecra.

Once they were through, Gaia collapsed the portal before looking back to the man. “The students deserve an explanation, and it should come from you, Nicholas.”

“They are not all students,” he observed, his eyes landing on Asenath. “Are you sure she can be trusted? They might have taken her.”

“She is safe,” Gaia informed him. “I am as certain of that as I am of anything else.”

“What—what are you talking about?” I finally blurted, unable to take any more of this. “What do you mean ‘taken’ her? Who’s they? What’s going on? Why did you attack the Meregan instead of just asking for Tristan? Why didn’t you explain any of it to them? Do you know who cursed him? Do you know where the rest of his family is? What are you doing out here? What’s with this army? What does ‘Seostenic’ mean? Why are these people so afraid of that’s more important than revenge for killing their friends and family? I thought my mom was the only Heretic who had an army of Strangers.”

Nicholas held a hand up to stop me by the end. “First, I will answer what I can, but some of your questions will have to wait for a later time, when you are more ready to hear them.”

I stared at him in disbelief, but it was Sean who spoke. “What kind of bullshit excuse to be cryptic is that?”

“Sean,” Gaia warned. “There’s more going on here than any of you know, and yes, some of it is going to have to wait. Explain what you can, Nicholas. Quickly.”

The man obliged. “Suffice to say, there is a… group. We call them Seosten, but they have many other names that you would recognize more quickly if they were used. This group has the ability to… among other things, capture and possess the bodies of Alters, taking them over entirely. Their identities, wants, desires, all are suppressed in favor of the Seosten who is controlling them.”

“You mean they’re possessed, like demons or whatever,” Columbus put in.

Nicholas gazed at him briefly before nodding. “The idea of such possession stems from the capabilities of these Seosten. Once they have taken someone, it is impossible to tell them apart from the real person. They gain access to all of their victims’ thoughts and memories. But the true individual is trapped, incapable of expressing themselves in any way. The Seosten has complete control of them.”

Sands was the next to speak. “You didn’t talk to the Meregan because you thought they were controlled by these Seosten people. You thought that’s why they had your descendant.”

“I have been their enemy for a very long time,” Nicholas confirmed. “I’ve learned magic that makes those loyal to me immune to the Seostenic possession. So long as they remain loyal, the creatures can’t take them over. My goal was never to destroy what remains of the Meregan race.”

“No,” I shot back. “You just sent your thugs to attack them for fun. I can’t believe I looked up to you when I–” Closing my mouth, I just shook my head angrily.

The man winced. “I instructed my people to retrieve the Meregan survivors. Their… interpretation of that order leaves something to be desired. For that I will make amends. My… attention has been elsewhere, I’m afraid. Until Gaia appeared, I was not physically present here. I believe that some of my people have creatively reinterpreted my orders in my absence, stretching the spirit of obedience as far as they can while remaining within the protection it provides.”

“And Tristan, was that why he’s been cursed?” Shiori pressed. “Did the… Seosten curse him because he’s related to you?”

Nicholas shook his head. “I do not believe that it is related, no. Well, only tangentially so. My descendant—Tristan’s father sought to kill one of the Seosten. Instead, he fell in love with and married her.”

I straightened at that, my eyes widening. “They said Tristan was half human and half something else, but they didn’t know what that other part was. Just that he wasn’t fully human.”

“Indeed,” Nicholas bowed his head slightly. “He and his sister are the products of a Heretic-Seosten coupling. I believe that his banishment was an unplanned side effect of whatever was used to retrieve my descendant’s Seostenic wife.”

“I don’t get it,” Columbus started with a frown that we all shared. “Have any of you even heard of these Seosten before? What’s the big deal? Aren’t they pretty much any other Stranger, only with a possession trick?”

Nicholas’s gaze was hard. “Any other Stranger? Hardly, child. The Seosten are not just Strangers, they are responsible for the very concept of Strangers.

“The Seosten created what you call the Bystander Effect.”

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