Nimue/Athena

Interlude 15A – Joselyn (Heretical Edge 2)

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A black blade glowing seemed unnatural. And yet, as she stood in the mostly dark room, holding the sword in the front of herself, Joselyn could see the illumination coming from it. Not from the ruby handle or the amber jewel on the end, but from the onyx blade itself. It was casting enough light on its own to brighten the room around her to the point of being able to read a small-print book if she had so-desired. Black metal giving off light with no apparent spell or source. She hadn’t activated any sort of magic on the blade. Nothing specific anyway. It just glowed all on its own while in darkness, without any sort of obvious input. It… created light around it. 

The room itself was one of the empty magical research labs. Most of the larger ones were being used in developing the spell that would protect everyone from Seosten possession, but this one was free. She had brought the weapon here to examine it safely, where any sort of protections wouldn’t do any damage to the station. 

“Pretty snazzy sword, isn’t it?” The voice came from the nearby doorway, as Abigail stepped into the room, trailed by Athena. “I only got to look at it for a second,” she added slyly, “but I’m pretty sure that’s at least two hundred on eBay, easy.”  

Turning to face the two women, Joselyn smiled faintly at her oldest daughter before casually replying, “Maybe we could go as high as three if we put the right sort of filter on the pictures.”   

“Ooh, we’ll have to have Koren work on that then,” Abigail returned, “I’m afraid the last time I tried to upload pictures of something, all we ended up with was photos of the carpet instead of my grandmother’s silverware.” Pausing, she amended, “I mean, the grandmother that…” 

“Your grandmother,” Joselyn firmly put in. “Your parents–I mean… they raised you, Abigail. I’m not trying to take that away or anything. They raised you, they took care of you. They were there–they were there for everything.” Her voice caught a bit, the lump in her throat briefly choking the words away before she managed to swallow hard. Because that was both the truth and the problem. She hadn’t been there for anything in her eldest daughter’s life. As hard as it was to have missed ten years of Felicity’s childhood, she had missed almost everything of Abigail’s life. She’d missed her growing up, going to school, becoming a lawyer, getting married, having a child, over fifty years worth of a life, and Joselyn had missed all of it. 

She was determined to be there for her daughter any way she could now. But she would never use that as an excuse to diminish what Abigail’s adopted family had been for her. Someday, Joselyn wanted to meet them. She had no idea how that would be possible, or what sort of explanation they would give to those people. But she did want to meet them. She wanted to know the people who had raised her daughter into such a fine, wonderful woman. 

In the meantime, Athena had spoken up. “Jokes aside, if that is truly the sword of Mordred, it is priceless several times over. And I believe it truly is that weapon, from everything I have seen. Do you mind?” she asked, extending a hand that way with a raised eyebrow.

Some part of Joselyn bizarrely didn’t want to hand the sword over. For just a moment, that voice in the back of her head told her not to let the Seosten woman touch it. She hesitated, then shook that off and flipped the weapon around before handing it that way. As Athena took and examined the weapon, she focused instead on Abigail. Her voice was quiet, yet still intense. “How is she doing?” 

Abigail, of course, immediately knew she was talking about Denise. Or Denny, as she apparently preferred to go by. It had been several hours since they brought the girl up to the station and allowed some of their people to give her a once-over. Sariel hadn’t been able to pull herself away from the anti-possession spell just yet, given how critical things were with it at the moment. But they at least had enough free people to get a better idea of what was going on in that girl’s head. 

“Considering everything she’s been through, and is still going through,” Abigail replied, “she’s doing pretty incredible. That kid has been through hell and back. I can’t even think of what it would be like to have that voice in my head, his memories, his impulses. The fact that she’s kept it together this much is just… she’s amazing.” Clearing her throat, she added, “And in some ways she’s even more confused now than she was before she had any answers. Confused about how she feels, that is. It’s a lot to take in. I mean, you told her that she died. Not only that, you told her she used to be several years older than she is now. It might explain why she knows stuff she doesn’t consciously remember learning, why her education seems higher than it should be. And it explains her nightmares. It explains all of it. But she’s still confused. Just… differently confused.” 

Joselyn heaved a sigh, nodding. “Of course she’s confused. If I was in her position, I have no idea what I would do. I mean, I suppose I was somewhat close, getting memories of my old life back when Fossor found me. But even that isn’t even remotely the same. I just…” Turning, she gestured and summoned a pair of chairs from the far side of the room. As they slid closer, she moved one over to Abigail before sitting down heavily. “I want to be there for her. I want to help her. But I don’t think I’m the right person for it. My son was the one who killed her. He was the one who did all of that. It’s not right for me to try to absolve my own feelings and guilt over that. She needs to be with people who can really help her, not make her feel worse just by being there.” 

Gently, Abigail replied, “What she needs right now is time to cope with everything she’s being told. And… perhaps her parents?” She added the last bit pointedly. “That girl needs her mother and father, and we can bring them up here. We can give them the pills to temporarily restrict the Bystander Effect so they understand what we’re saying when we explain the situation. Let them decide how to handle things. They’re her parents, they deserve that chance.” 

“Yes,” Joselyn agreed. “We’ll go there and explain everything to them. She can come with and… and we’ll see what happens. That’s going to be some conversation,” she murmured the last bit with a wince. “Though not even close to the hardest one I’ve ever had.” 

Abigail opened her mouth to ask for more clarification about that, but before she could, Athena turned to them, holding the weapon up higher. “This is absolutely the real Clarent. No question about it. I have run every test I can think of, and it passes all of them. This is the genuine article. Although I have no idea how it could possibly have ended up in that hotel room, or where else it has been in the meantime.”

“Can it really do what Kushiel said?” Joselyn pressed. “Can it lead to Modred’s body? And if it does, can she really… possess that permanently the way she said she could?” 

Athena, in turn, gave a helpless shrug. “Honestly, I have no idea. I wasn’t around my people when they built this sword, or when they… prepared Mordred’s body for Puriel to use. And I certainly have no idea how Kushiel could have returned as this powerful of a ghost. You said she was too strong for even Felicity to control?” 

“Even with help from Tabbris’s Archangel boost,” Joselyn confirmed, “the best they could do was catapult her out of the hotel and into another state. Which, I know, sounds impressive. But it took everything they had to get rid of her. And they took her by surprise. Next time, I’m not sure how well that will work.” 

“Next time, we will be more prepared,” Athena insisted. “And so will your daughter. She is getting stronger with her power every day.” A sigh escaped her then, as she added, “Although again, I have no idea how this could have happened. Yes, she is being fueled by Tartarus, but… is that what will happen to all of us with enough exposure? When we die, will we be brought back as… powerful ghosts?” 

“People from your ship have died before, right?” Abigail pointed out. 

“Minor… crew members, yes,” Athena confirmed. “No one from the bridge. Perhaps it takes a certain level of exposure, of power. Or perhaps… I don’t know. There are so many unanswered questions about that place. We need to bring Apollo and Sariel in on what is happening. If anyone around here has any chance of understanding this situation, it’s the two of them.” 

“Beyond that,” Joselyn pointed out, “They both need to know about Kushiel coming back. You know she’ll go after them if she gets the chance. And have you talked to Theia yet?” She added that last bit while looking toward the other woman in the room.

Grimacing, Abigail shook her head. “Not yet. She’s working on some sort of project with Douglas Frey. I sent word for her to come see me as soon as they’re done. I don’t… I have no idea how to bring that up. How am I supposed to tell her that the woman who did all that to her for so long, who tortured her, who killed her friends, who… who did that… is back? How am I supposed to tell her?” 

“She’s not back,” Joselyn replied flatly. “She’s still dead. She’s just…” A sigh escaped her. “The difference is elementary at this point, I suppose. She can still hurt people. She can still kill people. And she’ll want revenge against her daughter as much as she does Sariel or anyone else.” 

Abigail swallowed hard, giving a short nod. “I’ll bring her in and explain what happened. She needs to know the truth, and she should hear it from me. I just… she’s doing so well lately. She’s improved so much over these months, especially after her mother died. I don’t know what this is going to do to her. But it won’t be good.” 

Athena glanced away, clearly lost in thought for a few long moments before speaking quietly. “Kushiel’s return, in any form, is going to be bad for many people. Her daughter is near the top of an extensive list. It is something we need to deal with as soon as possible. I will be searching for any information about Tartarus-empowered ghosts. I do not expect to find much, if anything. But perhaps there will be enough to point in the direction of answers. My people have studied the energy from Tartarus quite extensively over the millennia. Someone may have found something helpful.” She sounded doubtful even as the words came, yet determined to at least try. 

“I’ve already got a list of Necromancy experts,” Abigail put in. “Mostly from checking for people who could teach Felicity. I’ll see if any of them have any ideas about containing a super-boosted ghost. There have to be spells and such that can stop her. Or at least slow her down. And for the record, if I had heard myself say something like that just over a year ago, I might have had myself committed.” 

“It is a lot to come to terms with,” Joselyn murmured quietly. “And you have even more than most. You only found out about this last year, and you’ve already taken on the role of principal for all these people.” 

“Like mother, like daughter,” Athena noted, glancing back and forth between them. “I do not believe that any member of your family could stand to be an ordinary, average part of the crowd if your lives depended on it. You are all remarkable people, and none of you could ever simply blend in. I mean, look at what you did while in Laramie Falls. The youngest sheriff in county history. Even with your memories erased, you stood out and protected people. Your daughter was making a name for herself as a young reporter exposing the truth and standing up to injustice before she even reached high school.” To Abigail, she added, “You became one of the finest defense attorneys in the country. Hiding is simply not in the nature of any member of your family.”  

As she finished saying that, the nearby door slid open, and another woman entered. “I’m sorry,” Virginia Dare spoke as she took in the sight of the other three. “Am I interrupting something?” 

“No, you’re fine,” Joselyn assured her. “We were just talking about how to deal with our new ghost problem. And what to do about this body she’s supposed to be looking for.” 

“Mordred’s body,” Virginia confirmed with a heavy sigh. “I sent word to Guinevere to come back so we can find out if she knows anything about that. She’s still on that little trip with Michael to Sudan, but hopefully we’ll get a response back soon.” 

“I sure hope someone knows something about Mordred’s body and what it could possibly do,” Abigail muttered. “Because from what you people said, Kushiel knows, and I don’t think she’s going to give up on finding it just because she doesn’t have that thing.” She gestured to the sword. “She’ll keep looking for some other way to find it.” 

“Well,” Joselyn noted while glancing to the weapon in the Seosten woman’s hands, “That thing is supposed to lead straight to it, so maybe we can beat her. But how does it work, exactly?” 

Athena answered carefully. “As I said, I am far from an expert in that sword. But from what I know, it will only work properly and unlock all of its gifts for someone who has bonded to it. Which means keeping it on your person, using it in battle, training with it, and so on.” 

“In that case,” Joselyn replied, “who is going to be the one bonding to it?”   

“That, I believe, is an easy question.” Turning the sword around once more, Athena offered it back to her by the handle. “You are both a descendant of Arthur’s knights, and the leader of this rebellion in your own right. There is no better choice for who should carry this sword.” 

Joselyn, however, shook her head. “I’m not the leader of anything right now. Gabriel Prosser has been leading the rebellion for longer than I ever did. I’ve been… gone for too long. And even if they did need a leader, I don’t know whether I would be the right person for it. After everything with Fossor, all the… everything I had to do…” She trailed off, pain in her voice. 

The others exchanged glances, before Athena spoke up. “You have been through so much. Truer words have never been spoken. But you are wrong when you say that you are not the leader of anything. The Heretic rebellion was begun by you. The people who chose to abandon centuries of indoctrination did so because of you. It was your words that showed them the truth.  And it was your memory that brought them back. The rebellion exists because of you.” 

“No one wants you to step into a role you aren’t ready for yet,” Dare put in while moving closer. “You’ve been through more than enough. You deserve as much of a break as you need. Be with your loved ones, your… your family. But you are the one who should hold onto that sword. You need to bond with it, work with it, let it get to know you. And when you have, allow it to lead you to Mordred’s body.” 

“Before Kushiel finds it, preferably,” Abigail added. “Though I’m still not sure how a sword is going to lead to a body, I’ve pretty much accepted that all of this is way beyond me.” Her voice softened as she looked at her mother. “But they’re right, even if you are taking a break from it, you are the leader of the Atherby clan, and of the rebellion itself. Believe me, I hear people talk. I listen to them. The ones who came back, came because of you. And the other ones, they came because of what they heard about you and about what you’ve done.” 

Taking in a deep breath before letting it out again, Joselyn finally reached out to take the offered sword from Athena. Her voice was flat. “I don’t know if I can ever be the same person I was back in those days. That’s why I keep saying I’m Joselyn Chambers now, not Joselyn Atherby. I don’t know if that person, that woman, can ever exist the way she was, before everything that happened. Before Wyoming, before Fossor. I’m different now. I’m not the woman who started this rebellion. But then, the rebellion itself has changed. After all,” she added with a glance toward Athena, “we’re working together this time.” 

Athena, in turn, gave a nod of agreement. “Of course. Both of our organizations… all of our people, are better off now than they were before. Being allied this way, that is what will make the difference. The Seosten, those of my people who cling to the old ways, they win these wars by keeping groups separate when they would be stronger together, by taking advantage of lack of communication. We didn’t take on the entire universe at once, we took one world at a time, bringing each under our heel by targeting their leaders, by exploiting weaknesses and making them fight against one another. Even the Bystander Effect itself was about creating divisions, about turning allies against one another.”

“It’s certainly the best chance we’ve ever had of making things right,” Dare confirmed. “We have Liesje’s spell, the original rebellion, the Aelasetiam people, the Seosten have already agreed and held themselves to this temporary truce, which gives us time to put things in order. Quite frankly, I don’t believe there will ever be a better opportunity to make this world–this universe, better. And you, Joselyn, are the right person to stand at the head of that.” 

For a long moment, the woman in question gave no response. She looked away, clearly lost in thought. The flash of pain that went through her gaze was quick, but everyone in that room saw it. 

“Like I said,” she finally announced, “I’m not the woman I was back then. But maybe I can try to be better than that. Maybe it’s not about going back to being the person who started the rebellion, but about being the person who can finish it.” 

While the other three watched, Joselyn slowly turned to face them. “My father sacrificed his life to stop the Fomorian invasion. My mother allowed the memory of who she was to be erased from everyone’s mind. Now… I hope she still lives, but she could be anywhere. She sacrificed everything she was.” She gripped the weapon tightly, holding it out in front of herself as the black blade continued to give off light. “I’m tired of my family having to make sacrifices. It’s time to make some real changes. Lasting changes. The Fomorians need to be stopped for good. Which means stopping this war with the Seosten and working together. Those monsters don’t differentiate between Seosten, human, or anything else. If it’s not Fomorian, they kill it. We’re all in the same boat. And that boat is going to sink if we all keep fighting each other. Your people tried this their way,” she added with a glance toward Athena. “They’ve been trying their way for hundreds of millennia, and it’s not working. We have to show them a better way. We have to show the Seosten leadership that their best move going forward is to make the truce permanent. We have to make them see that working with us is the only way anyone is going to get anywhere. A true, lasting alliance is the only way this universe is going to survive total genocide at the hands of those monsters.” 

“You think you can make the Eden’s Garden and Crossroads loyalists actually listen to you?” Abigail carefully asked. 

“I don’t know,” Joselyn admitted. “They’re pretty stubborn. What I do know is that the best way forward is to make the Seosten leaders see that we’re a better asset than a liability. If we can make them stop backing up the loyalists, or even agree to show what they’ve done to create this situation in the first place, we’ll have a chance to change some minds. Maybe even enough to make everything better. But that’s the trick. We need to convince the Seosten to back off for good and let us bring our own people together. And we have about six months to do that. So I hope everyone enjoys the holidays and gets ready for the new year. 

“Because as soon as that anti-possession spell is in place, it’ll be time for the real work to begin.” 

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Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 22nd edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the lessons we take from them.” 

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only the bad guys,” Savvy insisted pointedly. 

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

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

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

“I missed all of you.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By all means,” Koren replied. 

“You’re welcome to try.” 

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

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Triumph 10-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It didn’t take long for Sariel to find out where Jophiel was. I wasn’t sure what she did, exactly, just that she stepped away for a few minutes before returning with the announcement that she knew where the woman was. And that Jophiel was expecting us. Honestly, I was torn between wondering if she had done some kind of special communication spell, or just used a phone. 

Either way, Tristan stayed with Vanessa and Sarah (Namythiet stayed with them too), while Tabbris and I went with Sariel and Athena to talk to their old crewmate. I was glad both of them were coming to do this, because if it was just Tabbris and me, there was no way we’d be able to stop Jophiel from running straight off to Elisabet if she had a mind to. 

As it turned out, the place Jophiel happened to be was a bar in the middle of nowhere. It was like Kansas or Kentucky or something. Whatever, it was a little truckstop-type bar somewhere off the freeway, like a million miles from real civilization. I was pretty sure even Laramie Falls would’ve seemed like a bustling metropolis compared to any place within a two hour drive. 

Why Jophiel was here, I had no idea. As we left the portal that our two escorts had created in the alley behind the building, I saw a couple guys doing their business against the nearby wall. One turned to look at us, staring for a moment until his buddy noticed that his… stream had drifted and punched him in the arm. That prompted the first guy to retaliate, and forget about us. 

“He didn’t notice the portal, right?” Tabbris piped up as we walked across the gravel-covered ground, heading for the front of the building. I could already hear loud music coming through.

“No,” Athena noted simply. “But, Bystander Effect or not, seeing several unknown figures suddenly appear in a place like this does attract attention. Even if his mind immediately filled in the blanks, believing we had simply parked nearby and walked past, we still stand out.” 

“So, why do you think Jophiel’s here?” I asked, glancing toward a couple truckers who nodded politely on their way past, then gave a double-take back toward the four of us to stare for a moment. Yeah, we were definitely attracting more attention. Which, given Sariel and Athena’s ridiculous Seosten attractiveness, wasn’t surprising in the least. At least Athena was wearing clothes that actually blended in a bit more, and not her futuristic chainmail-like armor. Gorgeous and awesome as that was, I could only imagine how much attention we would’ve pulled then. 

A big guy sitting by the front door with his feet up on the railing and hat down low on his face looked up as we approached. I wasn’t sure if he was some kind of bouncer, or just a customer taking a break. Either way, he grunted his approval as he looked us up and down, before noticing Tabbris. His voice was flat, “Hope you ain’t trying to get the kid a drink. Seems a mite bit young for it.” Immediately, the man gave a loud, rumbling laugh at his own joke. 

“She will not be drinking,” Athena noted politely, already walking past the man. Tabbris and I followed suit, with Sariel bringing up the rear. I thought I heard the guy say something else about kids in the bar, but it was a mumble and the music was loud in this place. Sariel stayed back, giving the man a folded hundred-dollar bill while replying to him before she joined us. 

There was smoke, noise, and a hell of a lot of people in this bar. The whole population of the tri-county area seemed to be centered within this single building. It was seriously packed. Everyone was drinking, laughing, shouting at one another, playing games at the tables, listening to the near-deafening country music, throwing darts, and so on. It was pretty goddamn nuts. 

My head shook in disbelief as I slowly looked around the crowded, noisy room. Raising my voice, I called, “How’re we supposed to find her in this place?! She knows we’re coming, right?!” 

Instead of answering, Sariel took Tabbris and me by the hands, leading us after Athena, who had already started walking. Together, the four of us slipped through the crowd. Somehow, they always parted at just the right moment. Maybe Athena was using her power to know just where to move. Or maybe something about the woman made people get out of the way. Whatever the case, she easily guided us through the absurdly busy bar, toward the back corner. 

There she was. Finally, we made it through the crowd and I saw Jophiel. As before, the first thing that leapt to my mind was how different she looked over the past months since Elisabet’s disappearance. She was still absurdly beautiful, of course. She was a Seosten and she had been Aphrodite. The woman positively defined gorgeous. But she wasn’t the same. She was dressed in plain jeans and a flannel shirt, her hair not particularly paid attention to. That beauty hadn’t diminished at all. She was effortlessly perfect. But it wasn’t… played up or anything.  

And, of course, she hadn’t been happy for a long time. Every time I’d seen her since Elisabet had vanished, I’d noticed how stressed and tired she was. There were always dark circles under her eyes. She just–she wasn’t herself. She was obsessed with finding Elisabet, and had obviously been working herself into an early grave (was it still considered early given how old Olympus Seosten were?) trying to do so. 

Things weren’t any different now. Or at least, they didn’t seem different at first glance. The Seosten woman was sitting at that table in the corner, drinking what was very clearly nowhere near her first drink of the evening, and watching a card game going on a few tables over. There were several large leather books sitting in front of her that looked well-worn, along with one that lay haphazardly on its front at the far side of the table, as if Jophiel had thrown it aside in annoyance or despair. I could also see a few scattered spell coins that looked half-burned, giving the impression that she’d been working on casting things. Probably more attempts to locate Elisabet herself. 

But then I noticed something new. Jophiel wasn’t alone. There was a man sitting at the table across from her. My eyes focused on him as he reached out to pick up his own glass and took a sip. He was a big guy. Even sitting down, I could tell he was tall. For a second, my mind went to ‘handsome and in-shape Santa Claus.’ Seriously, he was an old guy with pale blue eyes and shoulder-length hair with a full beard. Both of which were as pure white as perfect snow. Yeah, he looked like a tall Santa who had gone through a serious exercise regimen or something.

Seosten. I could tell at a glance that he was Seosten. At least, I was like eighty-seven percent sure. He just had that look, the one I’d come to recognize by that point. It wasn’t perfect, but given the situation, yeah. I was pretty confident. 

My assumption was proven as Tabbris caught my arm and whispered, “Sachael.” 

Sachael, right. I knew that one. He was the guy who had been Poseidon back in the old days. As far as I knew, he was still a loyal member of the Seosten Empire. But at least we had that whole truce thing going on, so this meeting probably wouldn’t end badly. I didn’t know much about the man himself, but I doubted he’d throw away the truce just to start shit right now. Especially given what we were there to tell Jophiel about.

“It’s okay,” Sariel confirmed my thoughts in a gentle, encouraging voice. “Sachael will not start anything now. Even without the truce, it is not his way.” 

As for the man himself, he had clearly noticed us by that point. I was pretty sure Jophiel had too, but she gave no sign of it. Sachael, however, lifted his glass and held it out toward our group, his eyes studying us. Mostly Tabbris and me. At least I didn’t really feel threatened by it or anything. It felt like he was evaluating us, comparing what we actually looked like to his own mental picture. 

I also noticed that the loud sounds of the bar had faded a lot. Standing close to the table where Sachael and Jophiel were, I could barely hear the previously deafening din. It sounded like it was coming through several thick walls. Magic, obviously. 

After a moment of standing there, Athena stepped over, followed by the rest of us. Her voice was cool, though not entirely unfriendly. More professional. “Sachael,” she greeted him simply. “I probably should have known you were here the moment we arrived.” 

“Athena,” the man himself replied, surprising me a bit that he used her chosen Earth-based name immediately, rather than Auriel, the name she had abandoned. That had to be intentional, right? He was pointedly calling her by the name she preferred now, even though they weren’t on the same side. “I was going to head out, but when Jophiel told me you were coming, I had to wait and say hi.” 

Okay, so at least this seemed like I was right about it not turning bad. I didn’t know anything about what kind of guy Sachael was, but he was being cordial and all. He’d even used Athena’s preferred name. That was worth some points in his favor, though I supposed we’d see if he kept them or not. Hell, for all I knew, he and Athena had some kind of nasty history that was simmering just below the surface. They had had that mythological rivalry back in the stories. And I knew she’d said something about a competition, but that had been mostly for show as far as I understood. Hopefully, this would all be okay and nothing would break out. 

By that point, the man had turned to the other Seosten woman. “Sariel.” He gave what seemed like a genuine smile. “I was so glad to hear that you were safe and sound after… all that.”  

Sariel, for her part, replied in a flat voice that did little to hide her actual feelings, “Yet not glad enough to have done anything to push toward that particular result yourself, it seems.” 

Jophiel started to say something, but Sachael spoke first, his hand touching her arm in a way that seemed like a warning or gesture for her to leave it to him. “That’s fair.” His voice was quiet, and he never broke eye contact with Sariel. “It would be easy to say that I assumed any prison you were in being maintained by an old crewmate wouldn’t be that bad. But then, I know… knew Kushiel well. We all did. We knew what she was capable of, the kind of person she was. I suppose it’s easy to lie to yourself when you aren’t directly affected. It’s easy to think of you as a traitor, Sariel. Easy to think that shutting you in a prison was the best way to deal with it. Given the Fomorians, the fact that you could just walk away and play family…” He trailed off, his eyes glancing down very briefly before he raised them once more and cleared his throat. “I want you to know that I’m glad you have a family. Whether it’s with another Seosten, a human, or anyone else, I’m happy for you. It just… took awhile to get to that point. And when you’re out of sight, when all one actually hears is the propaganda about the bad things you’ve done, it makes it easy to ignore what one really shouldn’t. 

“I’m sorry for what happened to you. Really and truly. Just as I am happy that you are safe now. And I do dearly hope that we never have occasion to face one another in battle. You are a fine warrior and, I’m sure, a fine mother as well. I would love, at some point, to meet your mate and children–ahh, pardon, your other children.” That said, the Santa-looking man looked to Tabbris. “I’ve heard a lot about this one too. And you.” His eyes flicked to me, before he rose (now towering over everyone here), extending a hand to both of us. “Good to meet you both. I am Sachael, as you undoubtedly know by now.” 

Tabbris shook his hand first, introducing herself before bluntly asking, “Are you trying to make Jophiel go back to the Seosten worlds with you?” 

While the rest of us winced from that (well, Sariel and I did, Athena just looked interested in his answer), Sachael gave the girl what appeared to be a broad, genuine smile and chuckled. “Straight to the point, aren’t you? Well, officially, no. Officially, I’m not here at all. I’m not here for work. As far as the Empire is concerned, I have a few weeks of stored up vacation time and I’m taking them. That’s really all they need to know. 

“Unofficially, I… have recently learned that knowing an old friend is in trouble and ignoring that is the wrong choice.” His pale eyes flicked slightly toward Sariel before turning back to the woman still sitting at the table. “Even if that trouble is fear for the life of someone else.” 

That made everyone’s eyes turn that way, though none of us were stupid enough to voice the obvious question. Jophiel knew though, still staring at the mostly-finished drink in front of her as she murmured, “Yes, he knows. He pretty much knew already.” 

“The lot of you always did underestimate how much I saw and understood back on the ship,” Sachael noted. “It is the First Mate’s job to know what’s going on with the crew. A job I should and could have done better in some cases. A lot of cases.”

“How does her situation make you feel?” Athena asked carefully, clearly not wanting to give anything away until we knew exactly how much he was aware of. “And how much of it are you going to acknowledge… officially?” 

In answer, Sachael glanced to Sariel first before speaking. “As I said before, I’ll be happy with anyone any of you choose to be with, unofficially. Officially, I haven’t heard anything until she makes an official report.” His voice softened then. “But I do hope you find her, Jophiel. Anything I can do to help with that while I have these vacation days… tell me.” 

That made the four of us who had come in exchange looks. Before anyone could say anything, however, the man extended his hand to me, waiting until I accepted it before speaking again. “And you are Felicity Chambers.” 

His grip was firm, though not aggressively so. He met my gaze while my hand was in his, speaking plainly. “From what I hear, you should be celebrating a pretty strong victory tonight. The death of a nemesis and the safe return of your own mother after a decade absence. That’s not something one walks away from lightly, even temporarily. Which makes me wonder what exactly has brought you here right now.”

He released my hand, raising his own with a small smile. “But, curiosity aside, you have no reason to share with me. I’ll get out of the way and let you all go about your business. I’m sure it’s important.” 

“Wait.” That was Sariel, stopping him with a raised hand. She looked to Jophiel, who had turned her attention back to the people playing darts. “Jo,” she started quietly, “we need you to be calm, but Felicity has made it back with–” 

Jophiel looked up then, focusing on me for the first time. I saw a guilty flush cross her face as she turned fully toward us, standing. “Felicity, Tabbris, I’m sorry.” There was a deep thickness to her voice. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, and that I wasn’t… there earlier today. I should have been paying attention.” 

“No, you–we made it,” I settled on before quickly adding, “We’re not here because you didn’t help. We’re here because Elisabet did.” 

My words took a few long seconds to penetrate, before the woman abruptly snapped her gaze up, staring at me. “What do you mean?” she asked very carefully, in a voice that shook a little bit as she obviously shoved hard against the hope that had flared up. “How did Elisabet help?” 

“We should sit down,” Athena started, only for Jophiel to snap a hand up to silence her, eyes locked rigidly on me. “What,” she repeated intensely, “do you mean?” 

Obviously, nothing else was going to happen until I explained. So, yet again (how many times had I told this story already?) I explained everything that had happened. I told her about Elisabet being on the Meregan world, about the whole time travel thing, Dexamene, all of it. A few times, it looked like she was going to jump in, but the woman kept herself silent and listened. 

Then I was done. I finished explaining it, just before Jophiel announced, “I’m going there. I’m going to–” 

“We are,” Athena quickly put in. “Jophiel, we are going to get Elisabet back, I promise. But you–” 

“She’s been there for months!” Jophiel blurted, voice rising with fury that I knew wasn’t actually directed at any of us. “Months! She’s been trapped with those… those abominations! If they find her, if they find–” 

“We have a plan, Jo,” Sariel interrupted, clearly trying to calm her down. “We have a plan to get over there and find both of them without giving the Fomorians any help breaking through the banishment.” 

“What?” Jophiel was very clearly barely keeping herself from running off that very instant. She had a location, and I had no doubt she could have found a way to get herself there, given the level of motivation. 

“Yes, what is it?” That was Sachael, whose presence I had forgotten for a moment. “How do you plan on pulling that off, exactly?” 

Athena regarded him before asking simply, “Are you sure you don’t want to walk away, back to the people you are supposed to be loyal to?” 

“I am still loyal,” he informed her. “I believe the Empire is the best chance this universe has against the very creatures you are about to face. But as I said, I have vacation time. And I’d like to see how this plays out, if you wouldn’t mind a little extra help.”

“Hey,” I managed, “at this rate we’ll have most of the Olympian bridge crew reassembled in no time. 

“Too bad we have no idea where the Olympus actually is, cuz that would be a hell of a reunion.” 

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Triumph 10-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It took a bit, considering the… enthusiastic partying going on around them, but I eventually managed to pull Tristan and Vanessa aside. Sarah came too, as we moved to a slightly quieter area behind one of the cabins. The celebration was still going full-force nearby, but at least we weren’t right in the middle of it. And once Vanessa had used a quick few strokes from a field-engraver against the nearby cabin wall before activating the spell she’d put there, the noise faded almost entirely. Finally, it was quiet enough to think. Quiet enough to talk.

“So, what’s up, Flicks?” Tristan was asking, giving me that usual lazily confident smile while catching Tabbris by the hand and helping her twirl in a circle while she gave a quick giggle. “Tell me you don’t have another world-ending threat you’re trying to deal with already,” he teased. 

Oh boy. Grimacing at his phrasing, I glanced toward Namythiet on my shoulder for a moment before pushing myself to respond. “Not exactly. It’s more a world-ending threat we already knew about, and the world they’ve already ended. A world that’s been ended repeatedly, actually.” 

With that, and having gained their complete attention, I explained what was going on. As gently and quickly as possible, I told them about the entire time-travel loop, about Elisabet, and about Dexamene. I explained that the two were stuck on the Meregan homeworld, hiding out from the Fomorians who had already taken it over. And that their only chance of getting out of there was for someone to rescue them. Preferably before the Fomorians figured out that one of the Committee members was there and sent a full-on assault to raze the planet getting at her. 

Halfway through the explanation, as soon as it became clear that Dexamene was in trouble, I saw Tristan’s hand snap out to grab his sister’s arm, squeezing it tightly. His face grew more distressed throughout the rest of it, mouth opening once or twice to interrupt. But he stopped himself, listening to all of it despite what was obviously a mounting rush of emotions.

Finally, I ended with, “If anyone can keep Dexamene safe for awhile, it’s Elisabet. Okay, maybe there’s a few others that could do it even better, but she’s still a decent choice.” My head shook quickly, “I mean, I think she’ll be okay, Tristan. As long as we get both of them out of there.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan’s voice was firm, the boy already turning. “As long as we get them out right now.” 

Vanessa caught his arm, head shaking. “Where are you going?” she quickly asked after giving me a distressed look. She was worried about her brother running off and doing something crazy.

“To save my friend,” Tristan informed her. “Look, Prosser’s over there. We just tell him we need to get to Aiken’te’vel, pop over, grab Dex and Elisabet, then pop back again. Easy peasy.” Despite his casual words about how easy it would be, I could hear the stress in his voice. He was clearly just this side of losing it, having been violently emotionally dropped from a celebrating mood to the realization that one of his closest friends was in horrific danger. 

“You’re right, we can tell him,” I confirmed immediately. “But he’s not going to go immediately. It’s not that simple, Tristan. With the Fomorians there, we can’t just pop out, hope we find them, and then jump back. We don’t know how their banishment would interact with a portal leading directly here. Or where Dexamene and Elisabet are. We’ll need help, resources, an actual plan.” 

The boy’s mouth opened, and for just a second, I thought he might snap at me. He was panicked, the thought of Dexamene being taken by the Fomorians driving almost all rational thought out of his mind. His eyes were wild with terror, reminding me again that he, more than most of my friend group, actually knew first-hand just how bad those monsters could be. He’d seen them during his travels with Petan. And I had no doubt that visions of what could happen to Dexamene if they got hold of her were running wild through his increasingly terrified mind. 

But he stopped himself from snapping, which honestly was pretty impressive. I wasn’t sure I could’ve done the same if it was someone I cared about the way he clearly cared about Dexamene. He caught his reaction, forcing it back with visible effort. 

Sarah was there, hand touching the arm that Vanessa wasn’t. “Jophiel,” she said simply. 

“Right,” I quickly agreed with a nod. “Jophiel needs to be here too. She might have ideas about how to get there, grab them, and get out without problems. And she’ll definitely have an idea of how to find them. Like, a spell or something once she’s on the actual planet, even if her recall still doesn’t work.” Swallowing hard, I focused on Tristan. “We’ll get Dexamene out of there.” 

He was still freaking out, obviously. I was pretty sure he was practically to the point of trying to literally punch his way through to the other universe in order to find his friend. But he knew. After all the years spent with Petan, not to mention getting his family put back together, Tristan knew better than to run off half-cocked with no plan. Hard as it obviously was, he managed to force down his blinding rush of panic, and gave a very short nod. “Find Jophiel,” he said in a quiet, yet forceful voice. “Whatever you have to do. I–we’ll get things ready here. We’ll talk to people–my parents. Our parents. Mom’ll have a plan too. And Dad, he jumped worlds a lot. We–they’ll have something.” 

Leaving Sarah and Vanessa with him to focus on that, I turned. Tabbris and Namythiet stayed with me, the three of us heading quickly through the bustling, loud crowd as I looked for someone in particular. Not Prosser. He might have some idea of how to locate Jophiel, but I had someone else in mind. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find anyone in this crowd. If anything, the celebration had gotten even louder and busier by now. There were so many people. Every few steps, someone popped out to talk at me about how glad they were I was okay, how awesome it was that Fossor was dead, and so on. 

Finally, I looked to Namythiet. “Hey, you know Athena, right? Think you could fly up and figure out where she is in all this?” I figured she, of all people, would have a good idea of either where Jophiel was, or how to find her. She seemed like the type to keep tabs on her old crewmate.

With a quick salute, the little pixie flew straight up into the air, then out over the heads of the crowd. I watched her go for a second, before looking back to Tabbris with a wince. “I really suck, huh? Can’t even let people have a single day of celebrating the death of one of the most evil pieces of shit in the universe before being like, ‘by the way, now we have this whole other life and death problem.’ What’s wrong with me?” I was only partially joking. Seeing the look on Tristan’s face as he realized how much danger his friend was in, thinking about the terror in his voice at the thought of the Fomorians getting her, made my soul want to shrivel up. 

Tabbris, however, quickly shook her head and grabbed onto me. “Nothing!” she blurted. “Don’t be stupid.” Her small fist punched me in the back mid-hug. “It’s not your fault bad people do bad things. And if Dexamene hadn’t gone there, you never would’ve gotten back here, you never would’ve stopped Fossor, and he would’ve killed all the Heretics! He would’ve killed everybody! Then the Fomorians would’ve figured out he was the only one they had to kill to cripple the entire Seosten defense, and they’d take over everything!” The kid’s voice was as firm as I’d ever heard it as she glared up at me intently. “Sometimes people have to do the scary thing to stop the terrible thing.” 

A smile, weak as it was, found its way to my face as I hugged the girl tight against me. “Do the scary thing to stop the terrible thing,” I echoed thoughtfully. “You know what? I think that’s a pretty good motto for this whole world. You should copyright it, we’d make millions.” 

In response, Tabbris just hugged me even tighter, face pressed against my shirt as she quietly murmured, “I don’t think that’s how it works, Super-Reporter.” 

Before I could respond to that, Namythiet returned. She came zipping straight down, blurting, “Found her! I said you need to talk about something important, so she’s waiting over by the docks. Errr, not the really busy ones, the old broken docks that way.” She pointed while zipping back and forth with excited energy. 

Thanking her, I headed that way. Even more people wanted to talk, or shove food at me, or just offer me a high five. A few offered a few words about their own histories with Fossor, times people they cared about were killed by him or his minions. Mostly his minions. All of this, the jubilant party, the fact that so many people had a story about losing someone (or a lot of someones) to Fossor, it all reminded me that it wasn’t just my family that was fucked with over the course of that fucker’s life. These people, some of the humans had horror stories going back a few hundred years. And the Alters? Some of them had stories that went back millennia. They had lost friends, children, entire families to that piece of shit. And had spent all these years, all that time, believing he was completely invincible, that he would never be stopped. 

No wonder they were all so happy. No wonder they were having this party, and barely noticed that I was distracted. And like hell would I argue or dismiss them. Yes, saving Dexamene and Elisabet was important. But I wasn’t going to fault these people for being happy. 

Thankfully, no one really pushed too hard. I was able to smile and nod and say a few words as I slipped through the crowd, which was only getting more rambunctious as the minutes went on. People were drinking, cheering, even screaming at one another. Not in anger, just… pure bliss. Joy. Between all the drinking, the screaming, a few playful fights, and tables laden down with food that had been brought out, this place was nuts. It was like a mixture between what I assumed a college kegger and some kind of viking feast would be like. With more magic involved. 

Yeah, it was nuts. But eventually, Tabbris and I (with Namythiet flying above our heads) managed to slip through the far edge of the main crowd. To the right was the main dock, where people were lined up to jump into what had to be freezing water, judging from some of the squeals. 

But the broken dock to the left, still cast in shadows far from the main party, was almost empty aside from the single figure who stood there watching me. Athena. She was patiently waiting, her eyes clearly evaluating me even through the shadows. It made me pause briefly before I took a breath and continued that way. 

“Lady Felicity,” the Seosten greeted once I was close enough to easily hear without raising her voice above a quiet murmur. “I wasn’t able to say this before, but it is quite good to see you and your mother returned safely.” 

“I–thanks. And thanks for being there today.” Biting my lip, I stepped up onto the wooden dock, listening to it creak under me before adding, “I’ve got a lot of people to thank, actually.” 

A very slight smile seemed to touch the woman’s face, though it was hard to see that clearly through the shadows. “And many more who wish to thank you for what you accomplished.” 

“Only with a lot of help,” I pointed out, shifting a bit self-consciously. “I never, ever would have gotten that far without everyone who showed up. I’d be dead. My mom would be dead.” 

“As, I believe, would a great deal of the Heretic population,” she pointed out gently. “You have gone through quite a lot, and have earned this victory. Do not doubt that. You had help, yes. But if I have found one thing over the course of this life, it is the bridge built by others that allows us to reach our greatest accomplishments. Sometimes, all we can do is build upon the bridge, taking it one step closer to the other side. Other times, it has been completed and we may race across. But whatever the case, any goal we reach for cannot come without striding upon stones laid by those who have come before. It is good to remember your allies.” 

Taking that as a convenient jump-on point, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, you’re right. And speaking of remembering allies, umm… there’s sort of a situation we really need to do something about.” 

So, over the next few minutes, I quickly explained what was going on yet again. Tabbris piped up now and then, while Namythiet fluttered around worrying about how Jophiel was going to react. Which actually confused me a little bit, as I didn’t know she’d had much, if any interaction with the woman. But it sure sounded like she knew her pretty well. 

In any case, I managed to get all of it out, leaving Athena silent as she considered. “Yes,” she finally murmured, “Rescuing Elisabet and this Dexamene is the new priority. But, as you say, simply creating a portal and jumping through hoping to find them before the Fomorians arrive is… inadvisable. Giving those creatures any link here to Earth would be incredibly dangerous. Even if it doesn’t allow them to bypass the banishment spell, it may give them a loophole they could exploit.” Her head shook. “Allowing them any access to Earth is a nonstarter.” 

Feeling the approach of someone through my item sense, I turned a bit to see Tristan approaching along with his mother. “Are you saying you won’t help get Dex back?” the boy demanded, sounding like he was basically just this side of completely losing it. 

Sariel quickly put a hand on her son’s shoulder, stopping him. Her voice was gentle. “That’s not what Athena meant, Tristan. Only that we must be careful.” 

Athena, in turn, nodded to her old crewmate. “Precisely. I only mean that opening a portal near Aiken’te’vel is not the correct move. Fortunately, we have other options available to us.”

Sariel seemed to realize what she was talking about, head turning a bit. “You mean–” 

“I do,” Athena confirmed. “I believe it may be the best opportunity we have to retrieve the two of them safely, without leaving a path for the Fomorians to follow or take advantage of.” 

“Um.” After blinking back and forth between the two, I glanced to Tabbris, who offered me a shrug. “You guys wanna share with the rest of us? Cuz I’m not sure what–” 

“The prototype ship,” Tristan suddenly put in. “The one that could jump universes. You guys have been working on it, right? That’s what you want to use to get over there. Except not there. You want to use it to get to the right universe, the one Aiken’te’vel is in, but far enough away that they can’t find or do anything with the portal signature.” 

That made me do a double-take, processing his words. “Wait, will that work? Can the prototype ship jump like that again?” 

“We have been working on it, as Tristan surmised,” Athena confirmed. “While the system is not perfect, I do believe it can manage a jump there and back again. If we set a jump-point far enough away from the Meregan world that the Fomorians could not find it before any lingering transportation energy was too far gone to be useful… then yes, I believe that would be workable.” 

“And we know the gun works!” Tabbris abruptly piped up. As everyone’s eyes moved to her, she turned pink and slipped back behind me to hide with a mumbled, “Well, we do.” 

Smiling despite myself, I reached back to catch the girl’s hand and squeezed it while focusing on the others. “If that’ll really make the jump, then when can we do it?” 

Tristan’s mouth opened to blurt something (probably ‘right now’), but his mother squeezed his shoulder before speaking up instead. “Very soon. We need to run checks over the ship, make sure it’s up to the job. And give people time to rest and recover after today’s fight.” 

Tristan didn’t like the idea of waiting. That much was obvious. But he gave a reluctant nod before tersely pointing out, “Dex and Elisabet don’t get to recover until we get them out of there.” 

“Tomorrow,” Athena informed him. “Get some rest tonight. If they’ve lasted this long, they can last another twenty-four hours. We will gather a few important people and ensure that the ship is prepared. With any luck, this will be a simple, quick retrieval mission. We get in, find those two, and get out with them. But one never plans for the best case scenario.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed. “And speaking of not planning for the best, can we find Jophiel? Cuz she needs to know what’s going on.” 

“I can find her,” Sariel noted, giving me a sympathetic look. “You do not have to come talk to her if you would prefer to be with your family right now.” 

“I would prefer that,” I confirmed. “But I need to be the one to tell Jophiel. After what Elisabet did to get me out of there, after what she’s–I need to be there. I owe her that. But you guys might wanna make sure you’re ready to stop her from portaling her way right over there the second you tell her where Elisabet is. And hey, speaking of Elisabet, once we get her back, maybe she can fill in a few blanks. 

“Like how she ended up there in the first place, and why she’s been cut off from Jophiel and the Committee.”

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Interlude 7B – Michael and Tabbris (Heretical Edge 2)

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With a bright flare of energy in the shape of a pair of crossed angelic wings, a slim man with narrow shoulders and gray hair appeared in the middle of the forest. To most, he wouldn’t have looked all that different than any average accountant or bank teller. He wore thin, wire-rim glasses along with a dark suit and tie. In one hand, the man carried a leather satchel which was held shut by a gold clasp that, like the portal that had brought him here, was shaped like angel wings.

Standing silently in the shadows of the heavily wooded forest for a few long seconds, Michael, the Seosten who had once founded the city and subsequent civilization of Rome, inhaled the fresh air before giving a small smile. Without turning, he casually addressed the seemingly empty foliage behind him. “I taught you better concealment spells than that, Duckling.” 

There was a brief pause, before the figure that had been hidden there emerged. The invisibility spell faded away with a shimmering effect, as though she was stepping through a waterfall. “Perhaps it wasn’t you I was hiding from, Father.” With those words, she stepped that way, embracing the man who had adopted her when she was still no more than a babe. “I had to be sure you weren’t followed, after all.” She teased him with an added, “You are getting old and slow.” Despite her words, Gwen held him as tightly as she could, knowing he could take it. 

Take it he did, returning his daughter’s hug just as firmly for those few precious seconds before each mutually released the other. “Old and slow, am I?” he shot back pointedly once they let go. “Take up your swords and we’ll see just how slow I am, little girl.” His finger moved to push against her forehead. “You know the standing invitation. You win, you get the villa in Positano.” 

“That was a really tempting offer a long time ago,” Gwen retorted. “But you do know I have my own places over there now, right? You’re going to have to up the offer if you really want to spar.” 

The old Seosten winked at her, a flash of white teeth showing from his grin. “Well, that just proves you’re a wimp who doesn’t want to risk her old man knocking her on her butt again.” 

For another couple minutes or so, the two bantered about that and other things. They had lived very long lives (extremely long, in Michael’s case), including many years with one another. There were inside references, jokes, and discussions that could be picked up at random from decades or even centuries in the past. Much in the way a Bystander family could reference something that happened nine or ten years in the past during a conversation, Michael and Guinevere were able to easily bring up and discuss such things from over a millennium earlier.  

Finally, however, Michael cleared his throat. “Ahem, if you aren’t going to let your dear papa have a nice bout with someone who can almost keep up with him on a very good day when the sun is in his eyes and she gets really lucky, I would like to see the girl.” 

With a snort, Gwen remarked, “Just had to squeeze that in there, huh?” Her head shook, and she gestured before starting to walk back through the forest. “Yeah, they’re waiting for us back at camp. And they’re pretty interested in what you might say about the whole thing.” 

Leading the man that way, she waited for a moment before quietly bringing up, “Speaking of the things they’re going to ask you about, do you know if…” 

“I don’t know if the girl is related to me or not,” Michael gently answered. “They had all of us give enough genetic samples back when they were trying to duplicate the results of the project, so it’s possible any of those samples could have made their way to Kushiel’s lab for this.” 

“I didn’t know the wings were capable of being passed on,” Gwen put in while gently brushing the low-hanging branch of a tree out of the way, holding it back for her father. 

“They’re not supposed to be,” Michael replied, shaking his head while slipping past the branch. “I mean, they haven’t been before. Trust me, the Seraphim were very… enthusiastic about those tests. They tried to create more by having us mate together and with other Seosten. Back when we first found humans and realized what they could do, there was even a separate project to bond them to one of the Dyeusai.” 

Dyeus, seen by Bystanders as the sun god of ancient Proto-Indo-European mythology, was actually the name of both the project that had created Michael and his six companion ‘archangels’, as well as what the Seosten referred to them as. An individual was a Dyeus, while as a group they were the Dyeusai. 

“Didn’t work, I take it,” Gwen remarked, stepping out of the woods and into the camp itself. The day was still early enough that there were people bustling around doing their work. One of the on-duty guards took a glance toward Gwen and Michael before doing a double-take. He’d been warned about who was coming, of course, but that was different from actually seeing the man in the flesh and suddenly realizing who this small, unassuming figure really was. 

Raising his hand in greeting to the stunned Atherby guard, Michael shook his head. “No. The Dyeus core doesn’t… pass along like that. At least it hasn’t before. I’ll explain that in a minute, when we get to the others. But the point is, they tried to make Natural Heretics and offspring from us, and never could. It was supposed to be the seven of us and no one else, ever. Until now.” His voice was quiet, but couldn’t hide his continued surprise and interest (not to mention a bit of worry) in that fact. “I’d ask if you were absolutely certain of what you said, but you wouldn’t have said it if you weren’t.” 

By that point, they had reached the door of one of the cabins, where Lincoln Chambers and Athena stood. The latter gave a look toward Michael, actually flushing just a little bit before she stepped that way. Her hand rose in a fist with her index and middle fingers extended, tapping the remaining three closed fingers of the fist against her chest in an old salute/greeting. “Michael.” She used the old form of his name, pronounced ‘Mick-Ai-El.’ “Thank you for coming so soon. I know you’ve been… busy.” She trailed off a bit at the end before adding, “Gwen tells us that you’ve met with Raphael.” 

“We had a conversation, yes,” he confirmed, leaving it at that. “And this seemed somewhat important.” His voice was dry with those words, before he offered a hand to the much taller man next to her. “Michael. You must be Lincoln Chambers. Have to say, I read your article about Wallace Prim a few years ago. Pretty glad he’s not a senator anymore. And I’m even more glad he’s not alive anymore either.” 

“I… really should stop being starstruck by meeting you people,” Lincoln managed to mumble before accepting the hand. “Or by the fact that you’ve actually read anything I’ve written. You–you’re the… they said you were the one who… Rome.” 

Chuckling, Michael nodded. “Yeah, it’s been a busy life. But let’s see your little girl, hmm? First I spend months hearing about how special she is, and now she’s got wings too? I’m already jealous of you all getting to spend so much time with her.”

Offering a very faint smile that quickly faded, Lincoln spoke in a more subdued tone. “This makes her a target, doesn’t it? If your people find out what she–what she can do, they’ll want her.” 

Sobering, Michael reached out and up to squeeze the other man’s shoulder. “Yes,” he confirmed, not mincing words. He owed Lincoln and the others that much, at least. “My people have wanted to create more of me for a long time. If–when they find out what Tabbris can do, what she is? They will target her. They will want to bring her back to the ‘safety’ of their labs, to find out exactly how this happened. They’ll try to be diplomatic at first, to keep within the bounds of the truce, but there will be… let’s call it very strong pressure to at least have her visit so they can run tests. As I was telling Gwen, they’ve tried to create offspring of the Dyeusai before, but it never worked.” 

“He said their core doesn’t pass on through Naturals or children,” Gwen noted. “Which raises the question of how it happened in this case.” 

Athena, arms folded, gave a slight nod. A faint, thoughtful frown touched upon her face. “That’s why they’ll want to see her, up close and personal. Because they’ll be asking themselves the same question. That, and about whether they can duplicate it or not.”

“Yeah, pretty sure they can’t,” Michael noted. “At least, not the way they’d want to. I need to get a look at the star herself first, to double-check a couple things.”

“They can’t check her father,” Athena noted. “They’ve used the signature spell to see who it is, but that part seems… inaccurate. All Seosten know the glyphs of the Dyeusai, and none of them are what shows up in the portion of the signature that is supposed to indicate who the father is. I don’t even know who the Seosten that particular glyph belongs to is.” 

“He probably doesn’t exist,” Michael noted with a wink. “Security feature built into our aura signatures. Our own energy fuels the spell that creates a fake result. It was supposed to protect any of our families from being targeted by giving a false answer instead of showing one of our glyphs. If someone used the signature spell to find out who someone’s parents were, they wouldn’t find out we were related.” Belatedly, he added, “I can take care of it. One of us can always signature spell the others.” 

“In that case,” Lincoln started while turning to open the door. “Let’s go in and see her.” 

They moved into the cabin together, entering a kitchen area where Sariel and Tabbris sat at a table, looking over some photographs of Vanessa and Tristan as toddlers. As soon as the group joined them, the two stood, Sariel raising her hand in the same salute Athena had given. “Michael,” she said simply, that single word betraying very little of what she was thinking. 

Tabbris, meanwhile, tightly gripped the back of her chair to stop herself from shifting over behind her mother. Her eyes darted that way, but she stood firm. “H–” Her voice caught. “Hello, Mr. Michael.” 

The unassuming-looking man smiled faintly, stepping over to offer a hand to Sariel while responding to her daughter. “Please, just Michael is fine. It’s a pleasure to see both of you. All of you, in fact.” His eyes glanced around the cabin as he added, “Everything you’ve done recently is… very impressive. Not to mention fascinating.” 

“Flick did it.” That was Tabbris, piping up firmly while stepping out from behind the chair. “Flick and Gaia. And now… now Gaia’s imprisoned and Flick is…” Her eyes darted away as her voice dropped a bit. “She’s trapped in the future.” Abruptly, she snapped her gaze back up, voice rising. “But we’re getting her back. We’re gonna pull her back here.” 

“I definitely wouldn’t bet against you,” Michael easily agreed. “Not after the things I’ve heard. And if it turns out what you need is more raw power to pull it off, just a bit more fuel for your spell, you go ahead and have Gwen give me a call. It’d be a shame to lose years of that sister of yours pissing off the right people. So yeah, I’ll give a hand if it comes down to throwing in some extra power. Though from what I hear, you might have an unexpected source of that yourself.” 

“Oh.” Face turning slightly pink, the young Seosten straightened up. It had been less than a full day since the bonding she’d experienced with Lincoln, since… it happened. “You mean these.” Her eyes closed, face scrunching up with deep, intense concentration for several tense, silent seconds. Then they appeared. Two bright, glowing white wings made of pure energy emerged from her back before extending out a bit. Just enough for one of the wings to slice through the back of the chair she’d been sitting in, sending the wood clattering to the floor. 

Gasping out loud, Tabbris quickly made the wings disappear before blurting frantic apologies. Her parents both moved as though to help her, but the girl shied away from them both, terrified of what would happen if the wings came out on their own because she was too emotional.

Holding up a hand to stop the others, Michael took a step over that way before easing himself down to one knee. “Hey.” His voice was gruff, and firm enough that the girl reflexively looked to him before he continued. “Would you like me to teach you how to switch those things into safe mode so they’re no more dangerous than a flashlight?” 

Eyes widening a bit, Tabbris stammered. “You can do that?” Belatedly, she seemed to realize it was a silly question, and turned a little more red. 

Michael, for his part, simply nodded. “I can teach you a lot of things about it. But first, would you like to know who your…” He trailed off, turning his head to glance behind him. His eyes found Lincoln first, then Gwen, his own adopted daughter. Turning back, he corrected, “You know who your father is.” 

That earned a single, firm nod. “Yes, sir. I already know who my dad is.” Pausing, she hesitantly added, “It would be nice to know who helped make me though.” 

“Then we’ll do that,” Michael agreed, rising to step over toward the table. As Tabbris and the others watched, he produced a field-engraver, waiting for the young girl to hesitantly extend her arm. Once she did so, after an encouraging nod from both parents, Michael gently held her wrist while writing in the runes for the signature spell. At the end of it, he added a small bit that wouldn’t normally be there, explaining aloud that the addition would make the spell pull his own energy out and use that to unlock the obfuscation that was producing a false result. 

With a snap of his fingers, Michael activated the spell. As he did so, three holographic shapes appeared in the air. The first looked like a circle that was broken in half, each side pulled slightly away from the other. Between the two halves was an infinity symbol, and a thick line ran over the top of the entire thing from one point of the broken circle to the other. That was Sariel’s symbol, those gathered knew. The infinity sign was attached to all Olympians, merged with their original marker. 

The third symbol in the signature, the one marking Tabbris herself, also had an infinity sign mixed into it. The symbol itself looked like a wide V with the lines stretched down to be nearly flat, with only a very slight curve. Almost like the lines drawn on a landscape painting to indicate seagulls in the distance. An equally flat M sat atop the wide V, slightly smaller so that either end of it matched with the ends of the V. Finally, the vertical infinity symbol sat atop the whole thing. 

Then there was the second symbol, the one everyone was focused on so intently. That was what would show who Tabbris’s true father was. And, of course, it was the last to fully manifest, given the way the signature spell had to first use Michael’s energy to unlock the obfuscation. 

But, after a brief moment of uncertain swirling energy, the symbol solidified. It looked like an upside down Y, with an equals sign directly behind the point where the two legs split off, and two small, backwards, somewhat slanted C’s faced in opposite directions on either side of the top of the upside down Y. The entire symbol seemed to glow brighter and bolder than the rest of the signature.

“Well, that makes sense,” Michael murmured, staring at the symbol. 

Tabbris started to ask what it meant, or rather, who it meant. But her mother spoke first, in a hushed voice. “Jegudiel.” 

“Jegudiel is the most… gung-ho warrior of our seven Dyeusai,” Michael informed those who didn’t know. “He is almost always on the front lines of the war against the Fomorians, the one most committed to what he considers the honor of battle and glory. He believes in the war beyond a fanatical degree. But even more than that, he was the one of us most disappointed by the fact that our children could not…” He glanced sidelong to Tabbris before amending, “Ahem, supposedly could not inherit our gifts. He had some idea of building a dynasty of sorts.” 

“So what you’re saying is,” Athena put in, “if he finds out about her, he’s going to… be interested.” 

“He can be as interested as he wants,” Lincoln snapped, stepping over to reach down, picking up Tabbris. “It doesn’t change anything.” 

Sariel agreed, her hand moving to cup her daughter’s face as she added toward Michael, “You said you could teach her to use them.” 

“I can,” he confirmed. “I will. Soon as you’re ready, let’s go for a walk, kid.”

******

A short time later, Michael and Tabbris were moving away from the cabin together. The girl spoke quietly. “Mr–err… Michael, why is it so hard to make more of you? How come it’s supposed to be impossible for children to inherit the wings, or for Natural Heretics to work?” 

“Because offspring and Heretics don’t have a Dyeus core.” The answer came not from Michael himself, but from a short-haired brunette woman (who bore a very close resemblance to a young Audrey Hepburn). She stood at the edge of one of the cabins, where she had clearly been waiting. 

“Tabbris,” Michael introduced with a wave of his hand back and forth, “Jeanne d’Arc. Jeanne, Tabbris.” 

Eyes widening, the young Seosten blurted, “You’re the one who uses some of Michael’s power! Wait, but that means he… he did pass some of it to you.” A frown touched her forehead. “But…” 

Michael explained, “I used a ritual spell to allow Jeanne to access a small portion of my power. It keeps her young, heals her wounds, and allows her to channel that energy through her weapons. Essentially, it links her to my Dyeus core.”

“What… what is a Dyeus core?” Tabbris stammered uncertainly. 

Glancing to the man to see if he minded her answering, Jeanne waited for a nod before speaking again. “You know about the Suelesk?” 

Tabbris bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh. The Suelesk were the species who existed a long, long, long time ago. Like over a million years. They created dragons to try to fight the four giant monsters who almost wiped out the entire universe, and went through some kind of portal to another universe to get away from them. Seosten umm… found one of their crashed ships and built the first of our space technology off that.” 

“Oui,” Jeanne confirmed. “That is precisely correct. You also know of the dragons, and how they, as eggs, are placed deep in the middle of stars, where they spend many, many millennia absorbing the energy they need to eventually hatch. Except, as it turns out, the dragons were not the first effort the Suelesk made toward harnessing the power of the stars to destroy the creatures who threatened all existence. They had attempted to create a different biological superweapon, powered by energy from multiple captured stars, that would destroy anything it targeted. A living creature capable of projecting enough firepower to casually disintegrate entire planets. Something strong enough to kill the creatures who were ending all life in the universe.” 

Tabbris stared at her, belatedly realizing she had stopped walking. “M-multiple stars? Powered by more than one?” 

Michael nodded. “Yes. The Suelesk encased entire stars in what humans refer to, hypothetically, as Dyson spheres. The enchanted metal superstructure entirely surrounded the star, drawing all of its power.” 

“Wait, wait…” Tabbris stammered, “what you call a Dyeus core is a Dyson sphere?”

“Exactly.” Jeanne offered her a faint smile. “The Suelesk never finished their superweapon. They couldn’t get it to work. Their intention was to draw the power of multiple Dyson sphere-encased stars through the body of a single creature linked to the spheres through magic. That single creature would be capable of pulverizing whole worlds, powered by a dozen entire stars.” 

Michael took up the explanation once more then. “They failed to make their experiment work in time, before the facility working on it was destroyed. Yet they did manage to complete enough work to encase a number of stars within those Dyson spheres, and started some of the work on the spells needed to link them to a biological body. When the Seosten found that research, they–we took some time to finish the uncompleted spells. Our people found that what the Suelesk wanted, channeling all that power through a single body, was impossible. But, with some effort, it was possible to channel a single star’s power using an upgraded version of the spell, one that had to be written into us at the genetic level. A spell written into our DNA that would link each of us to one of the completed Dyson spheres. That is what provides the power source we use. It allows us to create our wings, and provides the boost to our magic, our regeneration, everything. Unfortunately, our people only found enough Suelesk records to point to seven encased stars. Seven stars, seven Dyeusai. They tried linking more than one person to the same star, but it didn’t work. The way the linking spell functions, it can only be used once. It activates, links that star to that being, and that’s it.” 

 “But…” Tabbris slowly managed, “why would they think it was possible to pass that on in the first place, if you have to be connected to one of those stars? Wait, how did it get passed on to me?” She blurted the last bit with wide eyes. 

“Like he said,” Jeanne pointed out, “it was written into their DNA. The idea was that there is plenty of power in each star, far more than one person would ever use. The linking spell could only be used once, but the Seosten thought that with a genetic relation, the spell might just consider them both the same person enough to allow more than one to connect to that star. They hoped it would just see them as the same person in multiple locations. As for Heretics, they hoped the bonding would perhaps link the human to the star as well.”

“But it didn’t,” Michael noted, eying the young girl. “Until now, at least. Somehow, you were connected to Jegudiel’s star.” 

“Couldn’t they make a new Dyson sphere around a new sun and just copy the same spells to make another one of you?” Tabbris put in, looking at him curiously. “I mean, I know they’re spending a lot on the war, but they’ve gotta have the resources. And if they can just look at the Dyson spheres that the Suelesk used…” 

“That latter bit is one problem,” Michael informed her. “Our people don’t know where the stars are, so they can’t examine exactly what was done to make them work. The spells are linked to them, but the Suelesk made a point of keeping the location of their encased stars very secret, and anything that actually explained their location wasn’t… among the resources that were discovered.” 

For a moment, Tabbris just stared. “We–they–they’re using planetary destruction-level superweapons–wait, no, they’re jury-rigging planetary destruction-level superweapons and they don’t even know where the batteries the stupid things are actually pulling energy from are?!” 

“Well, when you put it like that…” Michael grimaced before nodding. “Yeah, that about sums it up. Our people were desperate for an advantage. This was even before the Summus Proelium project. They came across the remains of the Suelesk research station that was working on the weapons, managed to decipher what was going on there, and adjusted the spells to link a Seosten being to one star rather than one constructed mega-creature to all of them.” Pausing, he asked, “And speaking of linking to the stars, would you mind if I run a brief test? I promise, it won’t hurt.” 

Tabbris hesitantly agreed, and the man set out to do just that. It took him almost ten minutes of magical tests before he straightened. “Hm. I’m still not sure why it worked with you when it never worked with any of the other children. But I do see what’s happening, even if I’m unclear as to why. You are… draining Jegudiel’s own connection.” 

That made the girl give a quick double-take. “Dr-draining it? What do you mean?” 

Michael exchanged a glance with Jeanne before carefully replying, “From what I can tell, the power of the star is gradually being shifted over to you. You only possess a small portion of it right now, but over time you will become more powerful, while Jegudiel’s own link to the star wanes.”

Opening and shutting her mouth a few times, the young girl protested, “I–I didn’t mean to. I mean–I mean I didn’t–that’s–” 

Taking the girl’s hand, Michael nodded. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. And your family’s not going to let anything happen to you. Now come, I promised I’d teach you to use those wings properly.” Winking, he added, “What about flying?” 

“Flying?” Tabbris echoed before her eyes widened, a squeak of surprise escaping before she covered her mouth and mumbled through her hand, “They let you fly?” 

With a soft chuckle, Michael nodded. “Absolutely. Trust me, kid, those wings are going to let you do more than you ever thought possible. Especially when it comes to protecting the people you care about. If you want to learn.” 

“I do.” Tabbris quickly nodded. “I want to learn, please.” 

“You’re a good kid,” Jeanne quietly remarked. “Still can’t believe I didn’t know you were inside Flick Chambers. All that time and I never guessed it.” 

“All that time?” Tabbris echoed blankly, staring at her. “But we just met.” 

“Technically,” the woman agreed, “yes. But I spent a semester as one of Flick’s teachers in seventh grade, back when I was looking into what happened to her mother, and learning more about the girl for myself. An entire semester posing as Mr. Rawlings and I never had a clue she was possessed. I–” She stopped, blinking at the young girl’s wide eyes of realization. “Is something wrong?” 

Quickly, Tabbris shook her head. “N-no, ma’am. Nothing’s wrong. I’m ready to learn.” 

She couldn’t tell them. She couldn’t betray Flick’s trust when it came to personal details like that, not even for something so incredibly minor. But now Tabbris really couldn’t wait for her sister to return. Because she really wanted to see the look on the older girl’s face when Tabbris told her that the ‘man’ she had spent months crushing on back when she was thirteen was actually the woman Jeanne d’Arc. Joan of Arc. Flick had spent a large portion of seventh grade thinking she was crushing on a man when she was actually into Joan of Arc posing as a man. 

Actually, come to think of it, that kind of explained a lot.

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All-Out 3-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The day after the all those… revelations was Saturday. Which was good, because I really couldn’t deal with more classes right then. There was no way that actual school could help to hold a candle to everything we’d learned from Bastet, Sonoma, and especially Grandfather. If I’d had to sit in class, nothing would have penetrated the dense fog of wild thoughts that had filled my brain every waking hour. 

Aylen’s grandfather was a Fomorian. An incredibly nice and goofy one who seemed to be the complete opposite of most of his people, but still. That made it even more to digest. So we were waiting before finding out even more. Most of us, anyway. Sariel and Apollo were there now, going through the spell they’d created that had ended up creating copies of our entire wo–

Nope, couldn’t think about that. It was too much. Too overwhelming. Later, once… all of that had had time to settle, we would visit Grandfather again to learn more. He didn’t seem to mind the delay. Then again, I had a feeling that waiting weeks between having these kind of discussions was more like a few minutes to people like him, or even people like Sariel or Dare. 

Would such long time spans ever seem short to me? Because from where I was sitting, the previous year hadn’t seemed any shorter even if I knew it would eventually be little more than a blip of my life (assuming I survived). If anything, it felt like it had taken several years to get through that single one, especially considering everything that had happened. 

The point was, it was a lot to think about, and I couldn’t focus on anything else. Well, almost anything. There was something else that took up my thoughts. Another new revelation, this one coming from my own father. Apparently, he was something known as a Chimera-blood, meaning any attempt to perform a Heretic bond on him didn’t stick. He could temporarily bond, but it would fade over time. Which was just… it was… really? How on Earth did my mother manage to accidentally trip into marrying a Chimera-blood, when they were apparently indescribably rare?  

Regardless, something else had popped up over the previous weekend beyond all the new revelations. Something that not only landed on our plates, but immediately shot to the top of them. 

“I’m sorry.” That was Shiori, and it wasn’t the first time she’d said it in the past hour, let alone the past week. “I know there’s already a lot to deal with, with… with October coming up really fast. But now we’re dumping this on you and—”

Quickly, I interrupted, putting both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “Shy, stop. It’s okay. Of course we’re going to help with this. You found a way to maybe track down Asenath’s father. Come on, you know how much she’s already done for me. If she needs help finding her dad, I’m completely there. End of story. So no more apologizing. It’s not like there’s anything else I could really do right now anyway.”

The other girl slowly nodded, and the two of us stood there with our hands on each other‘s shoulders for a silent moment before I looked around a bit self-consciously. We weren’t exactly alone. Shiori and I were in one of the transport rooms along with Columbus, Vanessa, Tristan, Miranda, and Jason. Yeah, Jason was there. He had volunteered to come once he’d heard the basic situation. Apparently he had some experience in the place we needed to go. 

Las Vegas. That was where we were going. Not because Asenath’s father was there, but because a guy who claimed he had information about where Tiras actually was wouldn’t give us that information until he got some help tracking down a missing Vestil-Akharu hybrid grandchild who was like a princess in their alliance or something. 

Yup, it was time for a field trip to Vegas so we could start trying to find a missing princess in order to earn information that would hopefully lead us to Asenath’s father, who had been missing for a couple centuries.  

I wondered what other people were doing with their weekend. Going to see a movie? Having a picnic? Getting some extra studying in?

Okay, that wasn’t really fair. I already knew what Avalon was doing, at least. And it definitely wasn’t a picnic. She was helping Dries and Wyatt run last minute checks and tests on the possession protection spell, which would apparently be going live very soon. But they needed her blood to keep running tests on. Which meant she had to stay with them rather than go with us. Obviously, she wasn’t too happy about that, but I promised to bring her back a few Vegas souvenirs. Somehow, that didn’t seem to make her feel better, though she knew why we couldn’t wait. Not only was finding Tiras important, but there was also the missing little girl to think about. 

Oh, and as far as the Grandfather thing went, we hadn’t told anyone except a few people, because it was a lot to take in. Eventually, more people would have to know the truth, but we were waiting for a bit. So far, Avalon and I had told Shiori. Vanessa and Tristan had apparently helped their mother tell their father. And Koren and I had also told Abigail and Athena. 

Again, we would definitely explain all of this to the others eventually. We just wanted a little more time to digest it ourselves. It was a pretty huge bombshell to drop on people. Especially people like Sarah and Sands, whose lives had been shaped so fully by an evil Fomorian. We had to find the best way and time to explain it, which really made me sympathize with the way Aylen had been acting right before she told us the truth. 

In any case, right now there was this to deal with instead. So I forced my focus onto the actual current situation just as Columbus stepped over to join Shiori and me. His new porcupine/armadillo cyberform, Amethyst, was trotting along by his feet. The little thing was really shy and kept hiding behind her creator’s legs whenever anyone else looked at her. It was kind of adorable, and made me want to pick her up and hug her, dangerous metal quills be damned. 

“Flick’s right,” Columbus agreed. “We’re here because we want to be. Whatever happens, we’re gonna help you find that girl and your… uhhh… I guess… stepdad, sorta? I’m not sure what the right term is considering you’ve got a different dad, but your mom is still in love with both of them and…” Stopping, Columbus looked back and forth between Shiori and me in mounting realization. “You know what? You two actually have even more in common than I thought. It’s kinda weird.”

Tabbris, having just recalled to me, popped out at that point with a quick nod. “I know, right?” With that, she went down to both knees and held her arms out. Immediately, Amethyst made a soft squeaking sound before coming out from behind Columbus’s leg and going to her. Because, for whatever reason, Tabbris was the main exception to the cyberform’s shyness. She loved attention from my little sister, who seemed to be the only one besides Columbus and, to a lesser extent, Shiori, that Amethyst was comfortable with. 

Smiling down at the sight of Tabbris carefully but enthusiastically hugging the metal porcupine, I then looked up as the door across the room opened. Jason, Vanessa, and Tristan stepped out of the way as two figures arrived. One was Asenath. The other was Bobbi Camren. The girl had apparently insisted on being a part of this. Which was fair, considering how much she’d been involved with Asenath the year before. She’d spent more time with the vampire than I had. Besides, young as she was, the girl was powerful. She’d already proven very useful during the big attack on the Crossroads prison months earlier. 

“Everyone ready?” Asenath asked after looking around to make sure we were all there. This would be our group heading down there. Shiori, Jason, Columbus, Tristan, Vanessa, Asenath, Bobbi, Tabbris, Miranda, and me. We would probably split up down there, and also meet up with Twister, Haiden, and Jiao, who had been working the case since yesterday. 

Bobbi was already nodding rapidly. The biracial girl bounced on her heels a little while blurting, “Are you kidding? Some of us have been dying to do something useful for weeks now. Missing princess from once mortal enemies, who could tear their entire alliance apart if we don’t find her? Bring it on!”

Speaking dryly, Asenath reminded her, “Just remember you still have homework to do in between all the exciting stuff. Don’t make me regret letting you come. Because if your grades start slipping, you know Principal Fellows is going to come after both of us.”

Jason spoke up. “You guys are ready for this whole Vegas thing, right? Cuz I gotta tell ya, saying they don’t like Bosch Heretics around is kind of an understatement. It’s dangerous for people like you. They get pretty nuts about it.”

Asenath nodded. “He’s right, they do. There is a reason Vegas has managed to stay free from Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, and it’s not because they hesitate when it comes to dealing with intruders. 

Tristan shrugged. “Good thing we’re not intruders then, isn’t it? We’ve got this Bol guy giving introductions. Plus, Mom and Dad still have contacts from when they were living there. They already made some calls and gave us some people to talk to. And Dad’ll probably have even more lined up by the time we get down there.” 

With a nod, Asenath produced a wooden box. “And you’ll all have these.” She began to pass out little necklaces from the box to everyone except Jason. They had been enchanted by Sariel to hide the fact that we were Bosch Heretics, and would apparently last for a few days. I already had that ability that stopped me from pinging as one until I used any active powers, but still. It was probably a good idea to layer that kind of protection. 

“You know,” Tristan piped up after putting his own necklace on right alongside the one that was actually Bobbi-Bobbi (having her around with the actual human Bobbi was bound to get confusing very soon), “speaking of the whole Heretic sense thing, they really need to do something about that. Up here, I mean. It gives up alerting us about Alters after that first burst every morning, but every time we’re not around them for a little while, it starts up again. It’s probably the same for them. And when you’re trying to get along in a school that’s already this tense, having something like that blaring off in your head repeatedly every day doesn’t help.”

Jason agreed immediately, reminding me of the fairly unique position he and the other Natural Heretics occupied in not being like us Boshers, but not being Alters either by announcing, “Yeah, trust me, the Alters here are kind of put off by it too. They’re pretty sure you guys aren’t going to attack them by this point, for the most part anyway, but still. It’s easy to get pretty jumpy, and with everyone still trying to figure out how to get along… It’s really something that should be dealt with.” 

“It’s part of the anti-possession spell, actually,” I put in. “It’s supposed to make it so that anyone under the spell doesn’t trigger the alerts for each other.”

Tabbris piped up, “Which should also make it easier to notice shapeshifters and people with disguise spells, you know? Cuz they could still set off the alert.”

Asenath nodded. “Hopefully, they’ll have that done soon. But in the meantime, we’ve got this to deal with.”  She sounded more anxious about all of this than I had ever really heard from her, which made sense considering how much was at stake. This was her chance to find the father she had been missing for literally hundreds of years. No wonder she was tense. How on edge would I be when… when the time came to finally go after my mother? And she’d only been missing for like a decade. 

Vanessa stepped forward to join the rest of us. “Don’t worry,” she assured the vampire, “we’re going to find the girl and get the information about your dad. Ours is already down there with your mom, and he’s really good at finding things.”

“She’s right,” I agreed. “Don’t forget about the part where he tracked down a bunch of broken orb pieces across basically a whole galaxy full of hostile enemies who all wanted to kill or enslave him. He did pretty great there, and Vegas is a place he actually knows. He’s got this. We all do.”

“Exactly,” Shiori quickly put in while stepping over to embrace her half-sister. “They’re right, Senny, we’ll find this girl. Even if we have to traipse all over Vegas and turn over every stone to do it.

Exhaling, Asenath gave a brief nod, and gave all of us a brief, grateful look while taking Shiori’s hand. “Thanks. I know, you’re right. I just… This is important, so we need to get down there. We have to find this girl, and I have the feeling that I am going to need all of your help to do it. At least, if we’re going to find her in time to matter.”

“Then let’s find her,” I announced. “Everyone’s here, right? We’re just waiting for someone to make the portal. Which… who was supposed to do that, again?”

The door opened once more, in what I thought at first was an answer to my question. But the person who came through was not someone who would be teleporting us. It was Abigail, and as far as I knew, she wasn’t suddenly a master with transportation spells. 

“Hey, guys,” my much older half-sister (Holy shit, that was another thing I had in common with Shiori, wasn’t it?) greeted us. “Glad you’re still here, cuz… I have some more help for you.”

As she said that, Athena stepped through the doorway to join her. Seeing her, Tristan pointed. “Are you the ‘more help?’ Cuz if you are, I feel like she should’ve said a lot more. Maybe with all capital letters.”

With a small chuckle, Athena shook her head. “While I would love to be involved, there are other matters dragging my attention elsewhere. But I trust that you will be fine. I am simply here to vouch that your actual new assistants are… on the level, as they say.”

Blinking uncertainly back to the others for a moment, I shrugged while asking, “What new—”

Aaaand I was suddenly interrupted by a blurred form of speed that suddenly flew through the doorway and rocketed to a stop right in front of us, words flying out of the new arrival’s mouth like water from a firehose. 

“HitheytoldustowaitinthehallbutIgetreallyboredsowe’reherehi!”

Rocking backwards reflexively on my heels, I blinked at what turned out to be a young girl around Tabbris’s age. She had dark hair and wore a light hoodie that was too large for her, as well as urban camo pants. Oh, and a smile. She was grinning so wide I thought her face might break.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Abigail wince while Athena opened her mouth to say something. But another voice spoke up first, one from the doorway, as a red-haired girl who appeared to be a year or two younger than us stepped in. “Sorry, kid’s got a mind of her own sometimes. Especially when it comes to meeting new people. She doesn’t get to do that very often. Not directly, anyway.”

Tabbris, who had put herself right in front of me facing the fast-talking young girl, blurted, “Youtalkreallyfastyouknow?” She was boosting herself. 

The other girl’s smile just got wider. “IliketalkingfastitletsmeputalotmorewordsintolesssecondssoIdon’twastetimeyouknow?”

Lifting her chin, Tabbris nodded. “Yeahbutsometimesit’shardforotherpeopletounderstandisn’tit? Andiftheydon’tunderstandyouwastemoretimerepeatingit.”

I boosted myself partway through that, just enough to follow what they were saying more easily. Hearing the words, the new girl tilted her head thoughtfully before nodding. “I’m…. December.” She was clearly making a physical effort to slow her words down, counting in her head and patiently while rocking back-and-forth for a second or two before saying the name. 

“Hi, December,” the other girl greeted her. “I’m Tabbris.”

“Wait, I know who you guys are,” I suddenly blurted. “Theia mentioned you awhile ago. You’re the uhhh SPS Seosten who work for Cahethal.” I used the term that Miranda had invented (Sticky-Possession Syndrome), rather than the horrible ‘Lies’ their own people preferred. 

The red-haired girl stepped closer. “We don’t know what that means. I’m April. December and I are part of the Calendar. And yes, we work for Cahethal. But December and I, along with May, were sent to see this school for ourselves as part of the truce. And in the spirit of full cooperation, we offered to help with this.” 

Abigail spoke up. “And by offered, she means December blurted out that they know Vegas very well and that we should let them go with you if we don’t want you to die.”

“See?” December herself put in, still grinning, “we’retotallybeinghelpful… cuzmakingsureyoudon’tdie… seemsprettyhelpfultome!”

“Cahethal told us to make ourselves useful,” April announced. “So that’s what we’re doing. We’ll go down there with you and help find this missing girl. We can get into places you can’t, and we’re very good at getting information we’re not supposed to have.”

Columbus, who had stood up with Amethyst hanging off his shoulder, peeking over it at the new arrivals, spoke up. “Are you bragging or threatening?”

Carefully holding both hands up placatingly, April replied, “As I said, Cahethal sent us here under the truce. We won’t do anything to jeopardize that. We didn’t infiltrate this place. We came here openly from the very start. Right now, we just want to help.”

Athena nodded. “We’ve put them through a lot of testing. As far as we can tell, they’re being truthful about why they’re here. And now they want to help you find the missing girl. I wouldn’t throw an offer like that away just because it’s hard to trust our people.”

Before anyone else can say anything to that, Asenath interrupted. “She’s right. They’re in. Whatever it takes to find the girl and get my father back.”

Gesturing that way, I drawled, “Well, you heard the lady, and this is all her show.” With that, I clapped my hands together once. “So,

“Let’s all go to Vegas!”

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Denouement 8 – Ambuscade (Heretical Edge)

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Despite all of the attention the attack outside was getting, there were still a decent number of guards left in the prison. Those guards made their presence known as Flick and Sean’s group raced through the hallways of the facility. Most were dealt with by Athena, as she used her power repeatedly to warn her of incoming danger. Here and there, she would direct one of the others, warning them to stop, where and when to swing a weapon, and where to step to avoid the prison’s own substantial traps and defenses. 

As the group turned another corner, Sean scribbled on a piece of paper, drawing quickly while occasionally glancing up to check their progress. Finally, the boy-turned-young-man slapped the paper against a wall and blurted the activation word. As he did so, a knee-high wall apparently made of the same material as the actual wall shot out into the corridor all the way to the opposite side. A second later, the short, newly summoned wall extended itself clear back down the corridor they had just come from, curving around the bend. It seemed to stretch on for a good sixty or seventy feet, before popping upwards to fill in the space above itself, forming a full wall. A full wall almost a hundred feet long, leading back down the way they had come to close off the entire corridor for that length. 

“Been wanting to try that one for awhile,” Sean observed in a somewhat hoarse voice. “Nice to have space to actually use it.”

He tried to sound casual about it, but there was clear anger, loss, and bitterness lying just behind the words. 

They continued on, Sean laying more walls, traps, and illusions as they went. None of them were expected to actually stop any pursuit, but forcing them to deal with it would take time. As would forcing them to slow down, anticipating anything that was put in their way. 

Finally, the group reached the door leading into the room containing their part of the anti-teleportation defense. Just as they got there, however, the door opened and a guard stepped out. He didn’t seem surprised to see them, but neither was he holding any kind of weapon or making any move to attack. Athena also didn’t do anything more than raise an eyebrow at the man. The two of them stared at each other for a brief moment before the woman spoke. “You know why we came this way?”

The Heretic nodded, then grabbed the door to open it once more. “It’s all yours.”

Before Flick, Sean, Avalon, or Sands could question that, the door slammed shut once more, ripping its way out of the man’s hand. A new voice spoke up, from back the way the group had come. “It most certainly is not theirs.”

Everyone whirled that way, only to see Litonya. The ancient-looking Native American woman stood there, a scowl crossing her heavily-lined features. Power, the extent of which none of them, not even Athena, could hope to actually face straight on, emanated from the angry Committee Heretic. 

“Though I am quite certain we can find other accommodations for each of you.”

*****

A shower of tiny bone spears that had been shot from Pace’s raised hand were intercepted and destroyed by a flurry of lasers courtesy of a small, frisbee-sized drone. The drone adjusted its fire to shoot at her as well, but she blurred out of the way in a burst of super speed, catching only a couple of shots that hurt, but not nearly enough to put down a Heretic-werewolf. 

Unfortunately, she had only gone a few short feet out of the way before a heavily muscled arm slammed into her, going just as fast. Pace was knocked onto her back, as the adult male Heretic stood over her. The drone fit itself back to his arm, matching its twin on the other arm.

“Garden bitch, huh?” the man snarled while forcing a half dozen metal bands to pop from the ground and wrap around the girl as she was trying to catch her breath. “Gotta tell ya, I don’t hate the idea of killing one of those, orders be damned.”

With that, he raised his foot, silver encasing it just as he began to slam it down toward her head with a loud cry of rage. 

A small, blonde figure slammed into him from the side. It wasn’t enough to knock the man down, despite Roxa’s strength. But it did make him stagger just enough that his descending foot missed Pace’s head. It slammed into the ground a few inches away, leaving a small crater there, as rocks and dirt were sent flying. 

Before Roxa could recover from her headlong crash, the man’s hand snapped out, yanking her off her feet before he smacked her upside the head with his other hand, stunning the girl. An instant later, he shook her violently while holding the dangling girl up by her arm. “The fuck are you supposed to be, the cavalry?”

Though dazed, Roxa shook her head. A smile crossed her face as she held a small mouse up with one hand. Her answer was a quiet, “Transport.”

With that, her fingernails extended into claws, piercing the mouse’s throat. It died instantly, and a glowing figure appeared before revealing Theia, as she grabbed the man’s shoulder. “Hi, fuckface!”

She disappeared into him, possessing the man before he could do more than make a slight sound of protest. A moment later, his hand waved, removing the metal bands from Pace before helping her up while simultaneously setting Roxa down carefully. 

Wincing, Pace murmured, “Thanks, are you—”

Before she could say anything else, the man’s head abruptly jerked so hard to the side that it turned almost one hundred and eighty degrees. He fell to the ground dead, while Theia emerged from within him. 

“You could’ve passed off the damage to something else and let him go!” Pace blurted. 

“And we could’ve used his Heretic powers in this fight,” Roxa pointed out, a bit more mildly. 

To Pace, Theia sniffed. “He tried very hard to kill you. I don’t let that go.” To Roxa, she admitted, “But maybe I was a little impulsive about it. Which is very strange and out of character for me.”

The three exchanged looks, but couldn’t say anything else, as they were suddenly lifted off their feet and sent flying by a tidal wave of earth. A new threat had presented itself, and they were once more thrust into the ongoing battle. 

******

A gleaming blue sword cut rapidly through the air, intercepted three quick times by a shield that left a glowing forcefield behind. Miranda, back-pedaling with her shield raised, ducked under a fourth swing from her Heretic opponent. An instant later, the man pivoted in place, lashing out with a kick that took a second Miranda in mid-leap, colliding with her stomach and sending her to the ground. His sword snapped down to intercept the hurled forcefield disc from a third Miranda, before he used a gesture to send a diagonal pillar of stone out of the ground to collide with yet another. 

“You think you can beat me with numbers?” the man snarled. “Two can play at that game. Or should I say…”

Three more glowing figures emerged from the man. Each resolved into a near-copy of him, though rather than being exact duplicates, one was made of obsidian, one of silver, and the third some kind of red metal. 

“Four,” the quartet finished a bit smugly. 

In response, each Miranda duplicate split twice more, providing three opponents for each of the four of him. They all attacked at once, sharing powers between them as they collectively threw themselves at the man. It didn’t help that much. Despite being outnumbered, each of him was more experienced and had more abilities to work with. Several of the Mirandas were killed, briefly stunning the others. One of the Mirandas, on the ground from a particularly rough blow, slammed her hand against the dirt. As she did so, the sound of it was amplified into a shockwave that spread out from that point, staggering each of the men briefly. She then quickly rolled over, mouth opening to shout in a voice that was amplified and focused, “Hey!

The shockwave from her voice slammed into the original man, knocking him back a step. His hand snapped up, only to be hit from another side by a different Miranda using the same power with, “Leave!”

A third struck him from behind with an amplified, “Me!”

“Alone!” The final word came from the first Miranda again. But she didn’t use it to strike him. Instead, the girl turned her head toward the ground and used the force to launch herself up and at the man. He had already recovered and grabbed her leg easily. But a new Miranda burst forth from her in yet another duplication, locking her arms around the man’s neck as she shoved her face right up to his ear and used the power again. “Fuck you!”

That was enough to truly stagger the man. He went to one knee, dropping both Mirandas as blood fell from his ear thanks to his burst eardrum. 

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t keep him down long. Worse, there were still his metal duplicates to deal with, who didn’t disappear when the original lost focus as the Mirandas had hoped they might. Instead, the three metal versions of the man simply looked profoundly pissed off as they closed the distance with the various Mirandas. 

Then the girl(s) had help that actually wasn’t from herselves. A Hunga Munga throwing axe flew through the air just past the silver man, before stopping as Koren appeared, holding it. Without an instant of hesitation, she swung her second axe in the other hand. In mid-swing, the weapon suddenly grew in size, becoming almost comically enormous aside from the bit where she was holding it. The head of the axe was almost as large as the man himself. And more than its size was increased. Making it bigger also magnified the force with which she hit by many times. 

The blow literally cut the silver man in half, making the others stop short while Koren returned the axe to its normal size. “Hey,” she snapped, “didn’t my friend here tell you to leave her alone?”

Each remaining Miranda had gotten to their feet by that point. They spread out, a few more filling in their lost numbers. The man whose eardrum had been burst rose, a forcefield appearing around him as he snarled, “Traitors.”

Koren retorted, “Child-soldier rearing, mass-murdering psycho. Tell you what, when your side isn’t indiscriminately killing everything that isn’t exactly like you without so much as a trial, locking someone in solitary confinement for years, kidnapping toddlers to be held hostage, and seriously considering using a blood plague to enslave half their population, you can think about being within an airplane’s reach of the moral high ground. Until then, fuck you!

The man’s eyes narrowed as he gave a quiet snarling sound that resolved itself into the single word, “Lies.” 

With that, he teleported the distance between himself and the nearest Miranda. His hand grabbed her by the face and lifted the girl off her feet as he spun to slam her down into the ground on her back. At the same time, a group of precise waves of kinetic force struck each of the other Mirandas and Koren. They were thrown into the air with cries as the two metal duplicates each fired several bolts of electricity straight into the spot they were launched toward. Koren and the Mirandas were caught by the lightning bolts, spasmed in the air, and were dropped to the ground where they lay still. 

The man experienced a brief rush of pleasure as his blue aura flared. It wasn’t much, but then, a couple random students wouldn’t provide any huge boost. 

He exhaled after the aura faded, sighing a little as he stepped over to where Koren’s motionless form was. “Wasn’t really supposed to kill you, but oh well. Accidents happen. Guess that means you don’t have anything else to say though, huh, smarta—”

He was interrupted by the giant axe head suddenly burying itself in his chest. Blood spilled from his mouth, choking the man as he blinked down in disbelief. The axe was held by a very much alive Koren. 

“Thank my Uncle Wyatt. He made a spell that triggers a small version of the Heretic kill aura. Only works if they actually think they could have killed something. So we had to give you an opening.”

With that, she shrank the axe back down to its normal size while yanking it out of him. The man choked up more blood before collapsing to the ground. As he fell, Koren’s aura flared to life, the girl’s back arching as an unwanted cry of pleasure escaped her. 

And hers was real. 

The remaining Miranda, the one who had been slammed into the ground, found her a moment later, both of them looking very bruised and battered. “You okay?”

Koren’s head shook. “I didn’t want to kill him. I… I was going to use the transport stone. But I was afraid it wouldn’t work yet. He wasn’t that hurt. If we didn’t stop him right now, he could’ve… I mean… it was the only opening we had, and we might not have gotten another one before… I… I… oh God.”

She turned then, throwing up on the ground while Miranda quickly moved to help her. She pulled the hair away from Koren’s face, keeping an eye out around them just in case while letting the other girl purge herself of at least the physical manifestation of her revulsion. Maybe it would help for a little while. 

Both girls crouched there on the edge of the chaos, each trying to cope, and help the other cope, with the violence they had to perform. Violence they would continue to perform, no matter how sick it made them. 

This was war, and it was only going to get worse. 

******

The man who had come through the door and began to let Flick’s group pass him was yanked off the floor, hurled down the corridor, and left to slam into the wall. He slumped unconscious, as Litonya announced, “I do not know if you are a coward or a traitor. Nor do I care. You will be dealt with later.”

Her eyes focused on the group, settling on Flick first, ignoring Avalon as the dark-haired girl stepped in front of the blonde. “Gabriel should have taken my advice and had you quietly killed before you could cause this much trouble. He still hasn’t learned his lesson. So absurdly soft-hearted, having your siblings spirited from their crib before my agent in the Rebellion could eliminate them.”

A look of mixed shock and confusion leapt to Flick’s face, as she stammered, “Wait, w-what?”

Litonya shrugged. “Gabriel believed that taking the children hostage would be enough. I knew that while it may temporarily force Joselyn into compliance, it would not truly change her. We would have this same issue soon enough, as proven now. But finding her infant children murdered in their crib? That would truly break her, and we would never have to deal with her again.

“We disagreed. I overruled him and gave the order. He went around me and had the children abducted before my agent could do the work. If he had simply listened to me the first time, we wouldn’t be here now.” Her head tilted a little thoughtfully, a small sneer crossing her lined face. “And, I suppose, you wouldn’t be anywhere at all.”

Flick rocked backward from that, both hands covering her mouth as her face turned white. A sound of various mixed emotions choked its way out of her covered mouth while Avalon and Sands split their attention between her and the woman in front of them, clearly at a complete loss. 

Sean spoke up, his voice was hard. “You tried to send someone to murder innocent children? You try to have babies assassinated, and you still think you’re in the right? You somehow managed to make Gabriel Ruthers abducting infants into a moral improvement over your own plan, and you still think you’re some kind of savior?” His voice shook with a mix of disbelief and anger. Nearby, all Flick could do was stare with her hands over her mouth, completely unable to find any words at all. 

“You’re an evil bitch,” Sands spat. 

Litonya regarded her impassively. “I do what is necessary to protect the majority of this world, against any who may threaten it.” 

Her attention shifted toward Athena. “And you are one of those threats, are you not?”

The Olympian drew herself up to her full height, short brown hair seeming to glow a bit as she drew Excalibur. “Am I a threat to your world? Absolutely. I am Athena, though many on your world know me as Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.”

Litonya’s eyes narrowed. “Do you truly believe that you have the slightest—”

Her head snapped to the side then, avoiding the sword as it was thrown through the air. It sailed past, missing her throat by an inch before embedding itself in the wall beyond. 

A dry chuckle escaped the old woman then. “And here I had believed that Athena was known for some great tactical ability. I suppose such accolades were thoroughly undeserved. Throwing away the most powerful asset you have was the single dumbest thing you could have done.”

Athena looked unperturbed. “Was it? I told you, I am also called Nimue. And if you knew anything at all about my history, you would realize one very important thing. I was not known for using the sword. 

“I was known for giving it to someone far better than I.”

A sound behind her made Litonya spin, in time to see a glowing figure emerge from the man she had knocked out, the man who had been neither traitor nor coward, but possessed. The figure resolved itself into a physical form, hand grabbing Excalibur before pulling it from the wall and turning to face Litonya. 

“Hi,” Chayyiel announced. “Do you mind sharing?”

“Do I mind—” The confused Litonya began to echo the words, but they weren’t meant for her. Another glowing figure appeared, as Tabbris stepped from Flick, who made a quick portal, hand extending through it. Chayyiel caught her hand, before disappearing into her. Flick straightened, one hand holding Excalibur while the other hand held her staff. 

“Now then,” Chayyiel spoke through her. 

“What were you saying about this girl’s family?”

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Summer Epilogue 10 (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Interlude 43 – Gaia and Athena

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Sitting at a bench on the far eastern edge of a small park, away from the playground that formed the primary hub, a lone red-haired woman watched the cars passing by on the nearby road. Her eyes followed one in particular as it pulled into a simple, somewhat worn driveway of an equally simple, worn house. The occupants, a young couple with their toddler son, emerged to start hauling in groceries.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

The voice came from a beautiful woman with short brown hair who stood behind Gaia Sinclaire. To some, she was still known as Auriel. To others, she was Athena. But to those who had been a part of King Arthur’s world, she would forever be recognized as…

“Nimue,” Gaia announced softly, without turning her head. She had known that the Seosten woman would come to find her. It had been one day since she and the others had returned to Earth, and this conversation had been a long time coming.

Stepping around the bench, Athena gave a faint nod. “Morgan Le Fey.” Slowly, she turned to look toward the house that Gaia was still watching. “Do you know who lives there now?”

Nodding, Gaia replied in a quiet voice, “I’ve always known, ever since they rebuilt the village and then… added to it. I know who lives there. I know who their families are, where they end up going. I don’t know why. It’s not like the house is even in the exact same spot. The cottage that Arthur and I grew up in was further to the left and back a bit. They… when they rebuilt after everything that happened, there wasn’t anything left of the cottage. There wasn’t–” She stopped talking then, giving a slight shake of her head before announcing simply, “You did not come here to hear the history of this place and all of its occupants over the centuries.”

“Well,” Athena noted, “that depends. I came to get an idea of how you are now. Part of doing that may be to hear the history of what interests you. Particularly that house.”

Smiling very faintly, an almost imperceptible upturn of her lips, Gaia observed, “You want to know if I have changed since those days.”

“I know you have changed,” Athena gently corrected. “Perhaps more than even you know, by this point. After all, those days were quite a long time ago for someone without the Seosten memory. Details may have faded.”

“I remember everything that I did,” Gaia informed her, still not looking that way. She sat a bit stiffly, her mind focused more on the thoughts of those long-passed actions and battles than on this particular moment. “I remember every choice I made, every… word that I spoke to my brother.”

Athena was quiet for a moment before she took a seat on the bench beside the other woman. She looked toward the house in the distance before speaking softly. “He never stopped believing in you. He never stopped believing that you could change, that you could be good.” She glanced sidelong to Gaia and spoke again in an even softer voice. “He never stopped loving you. I want you to know that, without any doubt. He loved you every moment of every day. And he always believed that you could change.”

For the first time, Gaia turned to look at her. Her mouth opened, then shut. It took her a moment to find the right words. “I… was angry. I was always so angry back then. So–” Pausing, she corrected herself. “I am still angry. I simply… control it more now. I direct it, I channel it into my work. But in those days, I… embraced the anger. I thought that I could make the world better by force, that if I could just… destroy and kill all of my enemies, the world would be a paradise.”

“You began with noble intentions,” Athena murmured. “Of a sort. The men who burned the village, the ones Arthur insisted on taking back for a fair trial, they did deserve to die.”

“They also deserved a trial,” Gaia pointed out. “One that I was in no mood to give them. They were evil men and the ones who committed that… evil act deserved to be killed after they were judged. That was Arthur’s law, but I didn’t care. I wanted them dead right then and there. So I killed them. All of them. Even the ones who… probably weren’t directly involved. I killed them and that was the end of my relationship with my brother.”

“Not for him,” Athena corrected while shaking her head. “As I said, he never stopped believing that you could change. He believed in you forever.” She paused before taking a breath while looking directly to the other woman. “If he could see you right now, if he could see everything that you have done and made out of yourself, he would be so proud.”

The two women went silent then, both of them simply thinking about those days while staring at the house that sat on the land where Arthur and Morgana had grown up. Finally, after a couple of silent minutes, Athena asked, “Do you remember how proud he was when he found you that first time?”

A tiny smile touched Gaia’s face once more, as she gave a faint nod. “Yes. I remember when we first met as adults, when we realized who each other was and he… brought me back to the place he called Camelot. I remember meeting his wife, his friends, his… his people.” Her voice was a bit hoarse, the emotions associated with that time drawing damp tears to her eyes that she dared not blink away for the moment for fear of also blinking away the memories themselves.

Chuckling softly, Athena mused, “He took you in front of the entire congregation at supper. Made you stand there while he said, ‘This is my sister, Morgana’.”

“And I corrected him,” Gaia pointed out. “I said my name was Morgan le Fey. Morgan of the Fay. That was so important to me then, to be known by the name they gave me, not the name that our mother had given, not the–” She stopped, sighing. “One letter. It should not have mattered. But it did, and I corrected him in front of everyone.” A somewhat sad, almost bitter smile came then. “Perhaps he should have taken that as a sign.”

“He didn’t care about that,” Athena assured her. “He would gladly have called you anything you wanted. He was simply happy to have you there, happy to have his sister back.”

“And I was still angry,” Gaia noted in a soft voice that betrayed her inner shame. “I was angry that he left me behind all those years earlier. He promised to come back and never did. He left me to go back into the village, so he wasn’t there when…” Trailing off, she forced her mind away from that memory and sighed softly. “I was glad to see him, but I was also angry because… because he was off learning all about his new dragon powers while I was forced to be a servant to an evil man. All those years when I was… when I took myself out of that service, when I made a life for myself only for that to be taken away when those Orcs abducted me straight from my little shop, when I… all those years and he never found me. It wasn’t his fault, but part of me thought it was. Maybe that’s why it was so easy for me to turn on him when I did. Maybe that’s why I could wage war against my own brother, because in my mind, I still blamed him for taking so long to find me. And for choosing to run into a burning village rather than stay with me.”

Once more, both of them fell silent, remembering those days and everything that had come after. It was another several minutes before Athena spoke again. “When you were there, he was happier. You were–are his family. You and Chadwick, and he…”

“We would not bring Chadwick into our world,” Gaia murmured. “He deserved to have a normal life. And he did. His descendants still survive to this day. I’ve seen a couple of them become Natural Heretics over the years, but none came to Crossroads.”

“My people would never allow that,” Athena agreed. “It would risk awakening Arthur. Particularly if any of Chadwick’s descendants happened to be the Key.”

Gaia shook her head. “I don’t believe they are. This… Key of Merlin, I’ve heard of it. Do your people believe that they’re a real person?”

“They are absolutely a real person,” Athena confirmed with a nod. “I believe some even know who it is, though I’ve never been able to find out for certain. The Key of Merlin will awaken Arthur when the time comes and his bones are all collected.”

Gaia took a moment then to watch the house once more, her eyes taking in the man as he stepped out to get something else from the car that had been forgotten. “I wouldn’t know where to begin searching for Arthur’s bones. I… I have looked, but whoever has them now has gone to great lengths to keep them hidden.”

Smiling at that, Athena nodded. “Yes, well, I imagine his wife would be greatly motivated to keep Arthur’s remains hidden. From my people and from you, given your history.”

That was enough to draw Gaia’s gaze to her, eyes widening fractionally. “She still lives?”

“We have not spoken in… a very long time,” Athena noted, “but so far as I know… I believe she is. It would take quite a lot to kill Guinevere. But one thing convinces me more than anything else that she still lives.” Waiting for Gaia to raise an eyebrow curiously, she continued, “My people believe she is dead. And knowing her as I do, my people’s belief that she is gone is almost a certain testimony that she is not. No, I believe she is remaining quiet, caring for Arthur’s remains, and waiting for the right time. Perhaps she is searching for the key as well.”

Both women thought about that for a moment, their minds lost in the idea of what Guinevere could have been doing through all the years that the Seosten had believed her to be dead.

“Arthur was very happy with her,” Gaia said then, thinking back to those days. “She challenged him, made him grow, brought him up to the level he needed to be. I remember when I met her. She… ahhh, she reached out to me at first. She tried to be my friend. But I think even then, she knew there was something wrong. She was trying to get to know me, trying to feel me out for the sake of her husband. And I… I think a part of me saw her as my replacement. I was jealous, in a way. It almost felt as though Arthur had stopped looking for me when he found her.”

Chuckling just a bit, Athena replied, “There is a much longer story as to how Arthur and Guinevere met. And believe me, they did not get along at first. You’re right, she did challenge him. In more than one way. When they sparred, it was a sight to behold, particularly after an argument.”

That made Gaia raise an eyebrow. “I could not imagine those two in a serious argument.”

“Oh, they did,” Athena informed her. “They went at one another quite a lot, in the beginning. Both of them always had strong opinions, and Guinevere wasn’t about to let Arthur’s power deter her from telling him when she thought he was being foolish. She was raised by Michael. That kind of power didn’t frighten or intimidate her.”

“I don’t believe I ever met Michael,” Gaia observed thoughtfully.

“I know you did not,” Athena confirmed. “Because you still live, even after making yourself an enemy in her.”

Wincing, Gaia looked away. “Yes, I made myself quite an enemy of Guinevere, and of the rest of them… the rest of you. I did a great many things that I will regret for the rest of my life.”

“And you have survived to make amends, and to change,” Athena pointed out. “You have become a teacher, Morgan le Fay. You have helped far more than you ever hurt, after all these centuries. All the students whose lives you touched, the children you helped to raise up to become far greater than they would have been. They matter.”

“I have not done nearly as much as I wish I could,” Gaia muttered a bit darkly, her eyes glancing away. “I did not know of your people until quite recently, did not know of the… extent of their influence. Because I could not be trusted with that information. Because I betrayed Arthur all those years ago. If I had not… if I had remained loyal and learned the truth with everyone.. If I had been there when the true war broke in earnest…”

“Perhaps things would have changed,” Athena agreed. “Perhaps you would have turned the tide with your power. Or,” she observed, “perhaps my people would have gone after you specifically, to eliminate you as a threat. And if they did that, you would not be here now. You would not have done as much as you have to help others, to teach others.” She met the woman’s gaze while noting, “That is, after all, why Lucifer ensured that you were sent through time to begin with.”

Gaia blinked twice at that. “That was… him? He’s the one who sent Bernlak and I to the future after…” She flinched, looking away as her voice dropped to a whisper, “after Mordred…”

“After your son was killed, yes.” Athena raised a hand, resting it on the woman’s shoulder gently. “I am sorry about him. And about what came later.”

“They brought his body back,” Gaia muttered in a voice that dripped with an anger that would never be quenched. “Your… Puriel. He used my son’s reformed body as a host to attack Arthur. Because he was related to Arthur. The blood magic, they–” She grimaced, snapping her gaze away to glare at the ground, tears forming once more. “They used my son’s body to destroy my brother. And I was not there to help either of them.”

Athena’s hand stayed on her shoulder, squeezing firmly. “Lucifer knew they would come after you. His seers saw it, so he ensured that you would survive in order to atone for your mistakes, by sending you several hundred years into the future, long past the loss of Arthur and fall of Camelot. Because winning the war is far more important than winning a battle. Lucifer understands how to play the long game, perhaps better than almost anyone I have known.”

Taking in a long breath before letting it out as she carefully put the memories of her son back in the mental box where she kept such treasured thoughts, Gaia finally spoke. “Camelot may have been broken apart after Arthur’s… loss, but I have a very strong feeling that your people will come to lament that they never quite finished the job.”

“Such as with Guinevere,” Athena observed, bringing their conversation back to where it had been.

“Yes,” Gaia agreed, “such as with Guinevere.” Another smile touched her face at that thought, and she straightened. “However it comes out, I’m certain that your people will regret giving her so much time to do whatever it is she is doing.”

“They will regret a great many things,” Athena agreed. “We will all make certain of that.”

“Yes, we will,” Gaia agreed, bringing her mind back to the present while turning to look to the other woman once more. “We will make them regret everything they’ve done. And what they have failed to do. That… is part of what I have asked for Sariel’s help with. She has been working on a certain… project with me. And we believe that you can help to finish it, now that all the pieces have been brought together.”

Curious, Athena asked, “A project? What sort of project have you been working on with Sariel?”

So Gaia told her. She explained what she had sent Asenath and the others to gather, and why. She told the Seosten woman what she intended to do with the piece of the Hangman’s rope and every other ingredient.

By the time she was done, Athena gave a soft whistle. “You understand what that will do.”

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed. “I do. But it needs to be done.”

Thoughtfully, Athena noted, “For something like that, you would need to include someone who is actually–”

Gaia nodded again. “Yes. She knows about it. And she is ready for what it will mean… when the time comes. She is completely aware. I’ve… made quite certain of that, before we agreed to push forward.”

“Then I will help you,” Athena agreed, after looking back to the house. “Yes, I will help you finish this project of yours. And I do hope that I will have the chance to see the looks on my people’s faces when you use it.”  

With a slight chuckle, Gaia leaned back on the bench as she watched the house and thought back to the cottage that had been there before, and to the children who had played in front of it all those centuries ago. She thought of Chadwick and his chicken, of herself and Arthur playing with their stick-swords. She thought of everything that had come of their lives, memories playing out before her mind.

“Believe me,” she finally murmured almost silently, “there are many whose faces I wish to see when this spell is completed and used. Not only your people, but others. This whole thing has been a long time coming.

“And I, for one, cannot wait to see it through.”

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