Omni

Patreon Snippets 21 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

Virginia Dare

1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want to see a bigger one?” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What sort of job is it?” 

*******

Shortly after the Calendar Trio first arrived at the Fusion School 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’renotgonnahurtanyonecuzwegettostayandseewhatthisplaceis–” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think you will too.” 

********

Approximately Present Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Being this small?” Puriel asked. 

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

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

******* 

Millions of years ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It lasted for an instant.

It lasted for an eternity. 

And when it was over… he was remade. 

*******

Earth – Fifteen Years Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Galazien the Iron-Souled.”

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Long Awaited 12-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we bring you all to Earth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did it go?”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Long Awaited 12-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Two Weeks Later

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 4B – Puriel and the Seosten Children (Heretical Edge 2)

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Like Earth, Elohim, the Seosten homeworld, was almost entirely covered by oceans and lakes. Seventy-five percent of its surface was water. Yet unlike that far-away world, Elohim had little in the way of full sized continents. Most of its land surface consisted of thousands of islands of varying sizes. Some were as large as Earth’s Texas or even slightly bigger. But the majority were considerably smaller bodies of land. Some were tiny enough to jump from one side to the other, barely more than large rocks there in the vast, unending ocean.  

One island in particular was roughly three-quarters of a mile wide and a mile long, shaped somewhat like a teardrop. Near the center of that island was a single, very large house. A mansion, really, with a dense yet fairly small forest behind it (on the fat end of the teardrop) and a sandy beach in front (on the pointed end of the teardrop). 

A metal landing pad rose up from part of that beach to settle into place moments before a raindrop-shaped ship came in for a gentle, if somewhat slow, landing. The pilot of the ship seemed overly cautious and vaguely unsure of themselves, yet sufficiently skilled to land safely on the barely-large enough platform with only the slightest bump. 

Once it was down, the ship went still, mostly powering off. The engines were so quiet in that idling state that the only audible sound, even for one standing directly next to it, would be the lapping of the nearby waves against the shore, and the chirping of a few birds or other animals in the slightly more distant forest. With the successful landing of the ship, all was peaceful. 

Inside the main cockpit of the ship, the elderly-looking man at the pilot’s seat remained motionless. He stared at nothing, gazing off into the distance. He appeared to be daydreaming, his mind drifting and lost for a moment, his hands unnaturally tight against the control yoke. 

Finally, after several long seconds of that, Puriel jerked a bit. His nostrils flared as his eyes widened briefly, looking around the cockpit with a gasp before coming back to himself. 

It happened again, he directed inwardly, a pained wince crossing his face to match the regret in his thought-voice as he began to unstrap himself from the seat. How long was I out this time? Ever since the incident with the banishment orb back at… at Sariel and Haiden Moon’s home, Puriel had had issues with his own mind and memory. At random times, he would simply zone out, lost in the past. Things had gotten somewhat better over the years, but it still happened. Yet now he had help, help that could take over in those times and either pull him back to himself, or pose as him long enough to make others believe there was nothing wrong.

The answer came promptly from his passenger. Or, more accurately (especially right now), his co-pilot. Only a few minutes, Spark assured him. I landed the ship. There was clear pride in her voice, despite the young (she was only eleven years old) girl’s attempt to sound nonchalant. 

Excellent work, we’re not dead, was his response. That was a joke between them. A joke… and yet more than that. ‘Excellent work, we’re not dead’ was what he said to the girl whenever she took control in any situation, no matter how inconsequential or truly important. The true meaning and intent behind the words, for the two of them, went far deeper than simple surface level. 

After saying those very important words, Puriel continued. Soon I won’t have to fly at all. You’ll be able to do all of it yourself. Perhaps I should take up a hobby to keep myself busy. Even as he gently teased the girl that way, the man who had once been known as Zeus rose from his seat and turned to face a nearby door. He stood there, watching the door in silence briefly. This time, however, it wasn’t because he had zoned out. He was entirely aware of his surroundings and situation. And certainly aware of what waited beyond that door. It is a frightening thing. 

Spark promptly corrected him with, There’s more than one. And I don’t think you’re supposed to refer to children as things. Belatedly, she added in a thoughtful voice, Or as frightening. 

Children are terrifying, Puriel insisted. But that is not quite what I meant. The responsibility, that is the frightening thing. They are here. What happens to them next is my… our responsibility. Whether they live or die, succeed or fail, rise or fall, that can all be influenced by what I do now.

Spark’s reply was curious. You’ve had a child before. And a crew.

Yes, Puriel confirmed. And I have failed each. My crew was sundered, split into two sides of a war. They loathe one another. My own actions against your mother led to… He paused, shaking his head. Because it was complicated. Spark, his… his Spark only existed because of those actions. Yet they had also been terrible, loathsome actions leading to a reprehensible situation. How did one come to terms with that? He cared for Spark as much as he had ever cared for any living being, yet he felt deep shame for the very same situation that had caused her birth. 

It was a level of complication that he couldn’t even begin to pick his way through. For the moment, he simply continued with, And my daughter… I have thoroughly failed her as well. I was not there when she needed me. I was not the person she needed me to be, to protect her from… From her own mother. He had failed to protect his unnamed daughter, who had ended up being tortured by his wife, by her mother, for years in a failed attempt to ‘fix’ her condition. 

Now his wife was dead. After all the harm she had caused, she was gone forever. And his daughter was… who even knew? He’d gotten very conflicting reports on that front. 

You are not alone, Spark reminded him. As always, there was deeper meaning behind her simple words. He was not alone as in she was there for him, and as in he had help within the house itself. He would not be solely responsible for the care of the group they had rescued. 

Still, he had reservations. But Puriel set those aside and moved to the door. A hand against the control panel made it slide open, revealing an assortment of cots, toys, books, and games that littered the floor on the other side. All eight of the Seosten children the two of them had liberated from the secret medical facility were also there. They stood together, on the far side of the room, facing the now-open door with expressions of uncertainty. None truly understood exactly what was going on, or that they had been freed from their previous lives. 

They did, at least, now have clothing. Puriel had made certain of that. Each of the eight children were clad in yellow versions of the normal Seosten bodysuits. They seemed generally uncertain as to why they were given clothing, but wore it without complaint. They complained about nothing, actually. As far as Puriel had been able to put together, the children didn’t understand the basic concept of complaining. It hadn’t so much been beaten out of them as it had never been allowed to exist in the first place. Freedom, choices, those things were foreign concepts. The children had had games and books in their cell back in the station, yet they played and read when and what they were told to. They ate what and when the scientists ordered them to, and slept when the lights were turned out. Every moment of their lives was rigidly structured. 

There was a lot of damage that needed to be fixed. Unfortunately, Puriel was far from any sort of what the humans would call a therapist. He had no idea what to do for these children. But he did have an idea of who would know what to do. For the moment, he simply announced, “We’re home. Come–” Belatedly, the man stopped himself. He’d been trying to make a point throughout this trip to not give orders. He was trying to teach the children that they did have choices. And while it was true that staying here on the ship or going out to see the house wasn’t that much of an actual choice, he still wanted them to make it for themselves. That simply felt… important, somehow. 

So, he amended his aborted words into, “Would you like to come and see the house?” 

His words were met with silent stares from all eight children. They ranged in age from a couple who were barely three or four, up to one who seemed to be as old as Spark. Each of the eight remained silent, looked to one another, then began to file toward the door and out of the room as Puriel stepped aside. 

This is going to take time, he silently informed Spark. 

Yes, she agreed with her usual economic use of words. That single syllable packed more thought and meaning than it should have been able to. 

Following the group of children out of the ship and down the ramp to the waiting beach, Puriel found a single figure waiting for them. She was an older woman, with skin that was green and lined with age. She had long black hair streaked through with dark red, a sign of the elderly in her people. 

Her name was Olan, and she was one of very few whom Puriel trusted with this. She and her husband were the only living members of his household staff whom he had not dismissed. 

“Take the children for food, please,” he requested with a look to Olan. She was already well aware of the situation thanks to multiple messages that had been sent ahead. “And has she sent any word?” He added the latter while giving a look toward the children. They were showing the first real signs of curiosity now, slowly turning in circles to take in the sky, the sand, the water. The two youngest had dropped to their hands and knees and were digging in the sand with their fingers. The eldest was staring at the nearby ocean, his hands clenching and unclenching. 

Giving a crisp nod, Olan replied, “Very good, sir. And your guest was held up. She will be here as soon as possible, but it may take some time.” She stepped over, stopping in front of the two youngest, who were still digging curiously at the sand. With a snap of her fingers, the woman summoned a pair of plastic buckets. Under the curious gaze of the two toddlers, she then scooped sand into each before straightening to hold the buckets out. Soon, they were taken by the smallest children, each of whom held a bucket of sand in one hand and dug curiously into it with the other. 

With that settled and the small ones content, Olan pivoted smartly before walking toward the nearby mansion. “Come, children. It’s lunchtime.” 

Even as the group began to obediently follow, however, Puriel spoke up. “Omni.” When the small brown-haired boy turned to face the man, he gestured. “Wait here, please. I promise you’ll eat soon too.” 

The boy did so, stepping away from the group while the other seven followed Olan inside, where they would all be well-cared for. Between Olan and Rufe, her husband, the children would be as fine as they could be, under their circumstances. 

Which left Puriel standing there on the beach with the boy who had been named Omniscereon. In the old language, the name essentially translated to ‘All Above Myself.’ Even the name that he had been given was meant to drive into the boy that he was supposed to be worthless and that every other Seosten was more important. 

Kushiel had been quite a piece of work by the end, that much was certain. 

But Puriel didn’t use that full name. Instead, he called the boy by his nickname. Omni, or ‘all.’ 

“Omni,” the man carefully spoke while taking a knee in front of him. He met the eight-year-old’s curious gaze. “Do you remember my name?” 

After a brief pause, the boy quietly answered, “Trierarch Puriel.” 

“Just Puriel,” he corrected. “Tell me, what do you know of your mother?” The question came hesitantly. He had wanted to talk to the boy more over the trip, yet he didn’t want to separate him from the group until there was someone else who could help them. With Olan and Rufe to care for the other seven children, Puriel had a chance now to have this conversation. 

“My mother’s name is Sariel,” Omni recited dutifully. “She’s a traitor who deser–” 

“No,” Puriel interrupted. Of course. Of course Kushiel wouldn’t have been content to simply leave the boy with no knowledge of his mother. She would have to rub salt in the wound. Sighing, he looked to the boy, who had fallen silent and was now simply staring at him once more with his hands linked behind his back. Most of the experiment children who were old enough to understand stood like that, the man had noticed. They stood with their hands out of the way, as though making it clear that they would not try to touch anyone. An act that, he was sure, had been drilled into them. 

“Your mother is a lot of things,” he informed the boy quietly. “She is… she is a brilliant researcher, an incredible soldier, a fine…” His voice choked itself off, and Puriel looked away. Everything he was trying to say, everything he wanted to make the boy understand, was all jumbled. He didn’t know how to put it into words. Everything just sounded wrong, in a way that it hadn’t since he was a young officer reciting his first duty chart. 

Finally, he settled on looking back to the boy with a firm, “Your mother is one of the finest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. She is a good person. A good soldier. A good mother. You deserve to have a chance to know her. And if it is the last thing I do, I will ensure that you both have that chance.” 

“Both?” The boy echoed his word, head tilting slightly. He turned, looking to his left, then to his right as though trying to find out who else Puriel was referring to. 

They had planned for this, had rehearsed it, in a way. But this was still quite new and tense. Puriel’s gaze looked to one side, as Spark borrowed his power and focused on pulling and shaping energy into light, which soon became a hologram of sorts. A hologram of Spark herself, or the way she chose to make herself look in any case. But this wasn’t just any old hologram. It also functioned as a forcefield, giving the projected body a physical presence. 

Soon, the hologram was complete, and the solid-light hologram Spark stood in front of Omni, the two facing one another. “Hello, brother,” she greeted him. 

“I’m very glad to meet you.” 

*******

Two Months Later

“Yelly?” 

Hearing the soft, plaintive voice, Puriel’s eyes opened. He had been resting in a chair on the beach. Ahead of him, the eight rescued children were scattered around. Several were up near the waves, playing in the water. The two youngest were digging in the sand to create some kind of tunnel that only they knew the purpose of. A few more were throwing a ball back and forth. 

Spark was there too, in her holographic body. They were able to essentially cheat and allow the girl to act in the real world by enchanting a stone with a spell that allowed Puriel to see and hear through it as if the stone was a camera. The stone was then placed inside the head of Spark’s hologram and pointed in the same direction as her eyes. After that, Spark simply paid attention to the information coming back through the spell while Puriel ignored it, and the girl remote piloted the hologram accordingly. It was, he supposed, somewhat similar to creating a Theriangelos and having the possessor control it while the host tuned it out. 

Spark’s hologram was with Omni, standing out by the water. The two were almost always together, having become all-but inseparable over these past days. Omni had hundreds, if not thousands of questions. He asked them constantly, for everything from deep historical questions all the way down to what various bugs tasted like. No matter the question, Spark always answered, though she drew the line at requesting that Puriel taste the bugs himself so that she could give an appropriate answer. And strongly discouraged Omni from tasting such himself. 

The boy was curious about everything, even more so than the rest of the former prisoners/experiments. They were all curious, but Omni took it to another level. He questioned everything. But he wasn’t really the sort, at least so far, to look for the answer in a book. If the person he was talking to didn’t know, Omni seemed far more likely to go and find out himself. Often through personal experimentation. He wanted to know what something tasted like, so he tasted it. He wanted to know how an engine worked, so he took it apart. He wanted to know how to bake a cake, so he experimented in the kitchen (under Rufe’s supervision). The boy was curious about everything, and solved that curiosity by acting. 

Taking a brief look around the beach to ensure everything was in order and that no one was in danger, Puriel focused then on the figure right next to his chair. It was the six-year-old girl, a dark-skinned child with bright green eyes and short black hair. She’d been given no name in the facility aside from her number, but Olan had since dubbed the child Zahd, which was apparently the word for ‘laugh’ in the language of her and her husband’s people. 

When he looked to her, Zahd bounced up and down, hands clutching the chair. “More please. Too slow, too slow. More please.” 

Zahd was the one Niekal back at the lab had mentioned who had trouble coming out of her boost. For a long time, she had functioned almost entirely in that sped-up state where everything and everyone around her was far too slow. Puriel, however, had found that he could drain energy from the girl. This slowed her boost dramatically, allowing her to function normally as long as he did that a few times a day.

He did so now, reaching out to drain the extra energy from the girl, as she let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Yelly.” 

Yelly. That was what the children called him. Somehow ‘Puriel’ had become Yel, and then ‘Yelly.’ There were members of his old crew who would have been amused by that, given his… reputation for anger back on Earth. 

Once it was done, the girl bit her lip, staring at him while hesitantly asking, “Touch please?” 

“Touch yes,” Puriel assured her. He opened his arms, and the girl stepped up to embrace him. They were trying to teach all of the children that it was okay to touch if they had permission and wanted to, if the other person was aware of their condition and accepted it. Some, like Zahd, took to it more readily than others. 

Through that short hug, Puriel heard the sound of an approaching shuttle. Which meant it was time. Releasing Zahd, he looked over to one side, finding Spark and Omni already approaching. The rest of the children gathered as well, standing in an assorted group around Puriel while they all watched the shuttle come in for a landing on a second pad that rose into place behind the ship they had come on. 

Eventually, the shuttle settled into place. A moment later, the ramp opened, and a figure appeared. She was fairly small, a dark-haired and dark-skinned Seosten woman wearing a dark red suit with black piping. For a few seconds, her gaze passed over the assembled group, before she descended the ramp. “You have been busy, Puriel.” 

“As have you, Aletheia,” Puriel replied. “But I’m glad you’re here now.” 

“We have a lot to talk about.”   

Author’s Note: As a reminder for anyone who has forgotten, an explanation of who Aletheia is was given by Sariel in 38-06, which can be found right here. Check roughly 20 paragraphs down in the first section, or do a search of that page for Aletheia. 

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