Pace

Denouement 8 – Ambuscade (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

“Four,” the quartet finished a bit smugly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And hers was real. 

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re an evil bitch,” Sands spat. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now then,” Chayyiel spoke through her. 

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

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone  gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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Patreon Snippets 6

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

Present Day – Seosten Space

“Sir? I–can I get you anything?” Teures, Puriel’s young (an incredibly fresh-faced forty-seven years) Seosten assistant tentatively asked. He stood just in the doorway of a grand, if lonely-looking library. His eyes were on the room’s only occupant, a gray-haired man standing next to a globe. The globe itself was blank at the moment, though at any point it could be set to display any of the millions of planets within the Seosten databanks.

Considering the news he had just passed along, Teures had no idea how the old man was going to react. His wife had been killed, murdered by their own daughter. How would he react to that? How could he react to that?

Teures had just opened his mouth after a few moments of silence to offer to bring the man a drink, when Puriel spoke. “I’d like to be alone, please.” His voice was quiet enough that the young Seosten had to lean closer to hear him properly. “Just… alone.”

Bowing his head, Teures gracefully replied, “Of course, sir. I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.” As he backed out of the room and closed the doors behind him, Teures had a moment to wonder why it hadn’t been one of Puriel’s old crewmates to bring him the news. Surely a man as powerful and influential as he deserved to be told of his wife’s death by someone more important than his barely-adult assistant.

In the room, Puriel waited for the doors to close. His hand played over the blank globe as he let out a soft sigh. A few short steps took him to a plush armchair, where he sat and leaned his head back. His eyes closed, and he cast himself… elsewhere.

Well, not elsewhere. The place he went was into his own mind, a mental landscape that worked much like a much more stable dream-world. It was a virtual reality of sorts, created by him and maintained by his… companion, the girl who had been possessing him for years by this point. Sariel’s possession-impaired daughter.

“Spark,” he spoke quietly while ‘appearing’ in the middle of the girl’s workshop. In reality, he was still sitting in that chair in the library, but now all of his attention was directed inward, to this simple-looking room full of tables with various architectural designs and ship blueprints. All of them created and obsessively corrected and updated by the young girl herself. The girl he called Spark, not only because of his own penchant for electricity, but also because it was her presence that had pulled Puriel himself out of what would have been a completely self-destructive cycle of grief and regret.

She was there, standing by a table. For a moment, Puriel looked at her. The truth was, they had no idea what she would look like now, given that it had been years since she had possessed him and, for obvious reasons, she had not left him in all that time. What he saw was the image she chose to present. Which happened to be a small, ten-year old girl with hair fashioned into a tight, elegant braid. One half of the girl’s hair, the left side, was very light blonde, while the right half was pitch-black. The braid itself alternated black and blonde all the way down.

Exactly why she chose to present herself that way, with hair split between light and dark, was something Puriel had wondered for some time without bringing it up. He had a feeling it was an effort on her part to show her split between being Sariel’s daughter and being raised and cared for by him.

Those thoughts and more went through the man’s mind while he watched Spark standing there by one of her tables, intently working on her latest plans for a building. Her interest in architecture, in designing buildings, cities, worlds, and even various spaceships, had started almost as soon as they had first… come together. Now, it was how she spent so much of her time, here in his mind, creating entire worlds and only able to show him.

For now. He would find a way to free the girl, a way to return her to her mother. He would… somehow.

Finally, after a couple minutes of silence (aside from the steady sound of the girl marking the paper for her new design), she looked back to him. “How do you feel?” As ever, her words were economical, saying as much as possible in as few words as she could manage.

He’d had time to anticipate the question. And yet, even then, it took Puriel a few seconds to find the words. “How do I feel? As though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders… only to settle in the pit of my stomach. The woman I once loved beyond all reason has been killed… by our own daughter, who did so to save her own life. Or the life of her host.”

The man looked away then, feeling a slight dampness in his eyes. There was an empty pit that had been hollowed out of his soul by the news of Kushiel’s death. And yet, hadn’t that pit already been there? Because he’d lost the woman that he loved long before this day. Perhaps even before they had set foot on Earth, in many ways. He had lost her gradually over the past several thousand years, and had finally begun noticing that loss… when he had saved Spark from her. When he had recognized that there was something to save the girl from. Allowing himself to accept, in his own mind, that the child had to be taken away from his wife was when he had first truly recognized just how far she had fallen, how much she had changed.

He’d gone silent, but Spark had not done anything to fill that silence. It wasn’t her way. She never filled silences with random small talk, never spoke a single word that wasn’t exactly and only what she needed to speak to make her point. She simply turned back to her work and waited for him to continue. Not because she was intentionally being rude or uncaring, but because she loathed wasting time. Standing there in silence waiting for him to say something, or worse, filling the silence with platitudes, was utterly foreign and distasteful to the girl. When he was ready to speak, she would turn her attention back to him. Until then, she focused on her designs.

Whether it was a habit she had picked up on her own and always would have preferred, or a response to his tendency to drift off into his own memories for minutes at a time, even after these past years, he couldn’t say. He did know that when something was important, she called him back. Most of his people believed that he was much better than he had been. But the truth was that his mind wandered against his will just as often. He would lose track of where and when he was, believing that he was still on the Olympus, or on Earth, or even earlier than those times. He would lose track of who he was talking to, believing them to be someone else.

Spark brought him back in those times. She guided him back to his real memories, reminding him of who he was. And in the times that she could not get him to respond soon enough, she took over his body. They had been together long enough, and he had opened up enough to her, that when he was in one of those states, she was able to take over and, essentially, fake things enough to stop any questions.

Realizing that he was drifting off into another memory hole, even if it was a minor one, Puriel focused on answering.

“I feel… the end of a great loss. As if the life that I once imagined having with the woman whom I loved was a basin of water that has been steadily draining over these years. Her death is not the greatest source of the loss of the life we could have had. It did not empty the basin. It only ensured that the basin would never be filled again.”

For a few long seconds after that, Spark said nothing. Her hands were busily moving along her paper, marking out a few adjustments. She seemed to be thinking quite hard, though he didn’t know if it was about what he’d said, or about her design. When she did finally speak, it was in a slow, careful tone. “I’m sorry for what you lost.”

Extending his hand, Puriel conjured a chair within his mind space and sat down. He genuinely wasn’t sure what difference it made whether he was standing up or sitting down in his own mind, but it felt like the right thing to do. So he sat, and spoke. “It’s okay to be glad that she won’t hurt… anyone else. It’s alright for you to be happy about that.”

Turning away from her table finally, Spark looked at him in silent thought before stepping over. She stood by his chair, shifting on her feet and, for the moment, looking like the little girl that she was. “I am. But I don’t want you to be sad.”

Letting out a breath (another thing he didn’t understand the purpose of), Puriel carefully reached out and picked the girl up. He sat her on his leg with one hand against her back while the other gently touched her face. “Listen, okay? I have done very bad things, very wrong things. You’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve ignored things I never should have. I’ve turned a blind eye to situations that I could have fixed. I’ve let people down, and I have betrayed them.

“You are quite probably the best thing that I have done. You are the very best part of my life. So believe me when I tell you, feel what you need to feel. No one who matters will ever blame you for being happy that someone cannot inflict suffering and torture on anyone else again.”

Sitting there on his leg, Spark hesitated before meeting his gaze. “You loved her.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I did love her. And I allowed that love to blind me to her many faults, to our many faults. Perhaps if I had seen them, acknowledged them, she could’ve been saved a long time ago from becoming the person she was. Perhaps I could have pulled her back from what she turned into if I hadn’t spent so long seeing her as I wished she was.”

His head shook then. “But that is for me to think of. For now, I believe what I could truly use is a distraction. Do you think you could manage that?”

With a silent nod that made her black-blonde braid bounce, Spark slipped off his leg and stood, extending a hand to him. As he took it, she led him to a door on the side of the room.

They could have simply appeared wherever in his mindscape she meant to take him. But the process of using doors felt more natural. And it also made the space seem ‘real’ in a way that was important for her. Trapped as she was within his mind, Puriel felt as though even those small things were incredibly important.

Through the open door, the two emerged into a grassy courtyard. Ahead of them was a fountain that appeared to be split in half, with a statue of an androgynous figure in the middle holding the two halves together. On each side of the fountain was another figure, both of them with with an arm extended, holding the hilt of a sword. The blades of those swords were the water, each striking one side of the statue in the middle that was trying so hard to hold the two halves together while being struck down from either side by the water-swords.

Beyond the fountain was a building shaped like an L on its side, the long part half a dozen stories higher than the short, the top three of which were cut at a slant. On top of the shorter half was another courtyard where Puriel could see tables set for what appeared to be an outdoor restaurant.

It was only his first glimpse of what Spark had been working on lately, and as the girl pulled him by the hand, Puriel knew he’d made the right choice in coming here. Because while he could not be there for his actual daughter after she had killed her mother (the Seraphim would never allow him to go to Earth in his condition, even if he did seem to be improving), this right here was a reminder that there was someone else who depended on him.

And, if Puriel was being honest, he depended on her just as much.

 

******

 

1796 – Boston

 

Two figures stood at the top of a hill overlooking the thriving city of Boston. With a population of almost twenty thousand people, it was the third largest city in the fledgling United States, just after New York and Philadelphia. Large enough that no one paid attention to the two visitors who stood on that hill, watching the busy people rushing back and forth about their daily lives. Two figures, one an adult woman with dark hair and a round face that left her looking eternally cheerful, her smile lines a permanent indent, and the other a young boy with equally dark hair that was a curly mop atop his head. The boy held the woman’s hand tightly while scanning the people in the distance with the intensity of trying to pick out faces despite the fact that they were entirely too far away to even have a chance of doing so without some form of telescopic vision.  

“Mama, are Grandpap and Grandmam tall?”

Blinking down to the boy at her side with some surprise, Edeva Atherby asked, “Why do you want to know if they’re tall, Joshua?”

“Cuz,” he replied simply, “I wanna be tall. But you’re not very tall, and Papa’s not very tall. So I was hoping they were because then maybe I could be.”

With a very faint smile, Edeva answered, “Your grandfather is a little taller than your father. And your grandmother is taller than him. She’s about…” The woman held her hand up to about the six foot mark. “Here.”

“Wow!” Smiling brightly, the curly-haired boy excitedly babbled, “I can’t wait for them to get here, Mama! Do you think they’ll bring me a present? I mean, they don’t have to bring me a present, but I would really like a new whittling knife. Or maybe a kite. Oh, oh, do you think they know it was my birthday last week?”

Smiling a little sadly at her son, Edeva nodded. “Of course they did. They sent those little candies for you, remember? You’re still saving them, right?”

“Only one a day,” Joshua dutifully reported. “Uh huh.” Belatedly, he added in a whisper, “But it’s really hard. Sometimes I wanna have two.”

Rubbing her son’s head, Edeva started to respond to that, only to be interrupted by a crisp, no-nonsense voice that sounded as though it would be right at home belonging to a schoolmarm.

“It pains me that you allow the boy to eat such filth.”

As promised, Remember Humility Bennett stood a full six feet tall, not counting the severe, tight bun her gray hair had been tied into. Her eyes were a deep, dark green, while she wore a black dress, looking as though she were in mourning. Which her countenance did nothing to dissuade.

“Hello, Mother,” Edeva quietly greeted. “I promise you, no one is eating filth. It was very good candy that you and Father provided.” The last bit was added with a pointed glance toward her suddenly shy son hiding behind her leg.

“One should never lie to their children,” Remember primly informed her in a tone that her daughter was all-too familiar with. “It sets a poor example. You’ll note that I never lied to you.”

“Yes,” Edeva readily agreed. “You always spoke the truth and nothing but, no matter how it made me feel.”

“And you are a strong woman because of it,” Remember noted before turning her attention back to Joshua. “Now, to the point of this meeting. Come here boy, I would like to have a look at you.”

At an encouraging nod from his mother, Joshua slowly slipped out from behind her and took a couple steps that way before straightening himself somewhat. “H-hello, Grandmam. I am glad to finally meet you.” His voice had the quality of clearly reciting from memory. “Oh, and thank you for the clothes you send every year.”

Nodding primly, Remember spoke again. “You are welcome. I trust you are making good use of them.”

The boy nodded quickly. “Yes, ma’am. My friend Ossy and me–”

“Ossy and I,” Remember corrected sharply.

“Ossy and I,” Joshua obediently parroted, “we took the clothes and cut up the–” Again he was cut off, this time as his mother pointedly cleared her throat, correcting himself to, “Uh, cut up a tree and I didn’t get any splinters because of the long sleeves.”

Making a noise of both disapproval and pleasure of being proven correct in her own mind, Remember looked to Edeva. “You see? Lying begets lying. If he were in our training program at the tree, he would not dare. And what sort of name is Ossy for a little boy?”

“Ossy’s not a boy,” Joshua piped up, immediately wanting to correct the woman about his friend. “She’s a girl. And she’s not human, she’s–”

“Ahem,” Remember started, looking sharply to her daughter. “I was under the impression that Lyell was in line with our beliefs. Particularly given his… history with the necromancer.”

“Lyell understands that judging trillions of beings by the actions of a few is a level of ignorant that surpasses the heat output of the sun,” Edeva informed her mother, though she did so with a bright, put-on smile and tone that would hopefully stop her son from understanding that there was a dark and dangerous argument brewing. “And that people, including he himself, can change.”

Intent on changing the subject rather than waste her son’s precious time with his grandparents after he’d pleaded for so long to meet them, Edeva pressed, “Where is Father?”

Primly, Remember replied, “You ask that as if you believe I have any sort of relationship with Bernlak. I assure you, that is not the case. Where he chooses to keep himself is precisely none of my concern.”

“And isn’t that just wonderful for me,” a new voice announced as Edeva’s father, Bernlak, appeared. As always, he wore his trademark green. This time in the form of a waistcoat and breeches, with a black silk shirt and equally dark boots. He also wore glasses with emerald lenses that tended to attract at least a little bit of attention from unawakened humans.

“Hello, Father,” Edeva greeted the man, pulling her son out in front of her once more. “Joshua, this is your grandfather. Father, this is your grandson.”

“Aww, you’re already so big!” Bernlak took a step that way, going down on one knee in front of the boy. “How old are you now, sixteen?”

“I’m eight!” the boy retorted, giggling as his head shook.

“Oh, really?” Bernlak sounded doubtful, looking him up and down. “Well, you’re going to be huge when you get older, I’ll tell you that much.”

Smiling brightly as his earlier hope was seemingly confirmed by his grandfather, Joshua eagerly asked, “Really? You think so, Grandpap?”

Watching the two of them for a moment, Edeva felt a pang. Her father was so effortlessly good with the boy, so charming and able to bond with him. And yet, she knew from experience that it wouldn’t last. Bernlak was incredibly good in the moment. He was great at making promises, but very bad at following through with them afterward. He would bond with Joshua, make all kinds of arrangements, then disappear. As soon as they were out of sight, he would forget about them, sometimes for years at a time. He was unreliable.

Given that, and her mother’s emotional distance, it was no wonder that Edeva herself had been raised almost entirely by Zedekiah Pericles at Crossroads. Her father was always off on one of his jobs as a mercenary, and her mother was… busy and never in any mood to entertain a child. Papa Pericles, as she had called him, had taken up every bit of slack to take care of her. At some point, he had told her that Gaia Sinclaire, the baroness of Desoto, had asked him to keep an eye on her given her own history with Bernlak. But he had grown to see her as his own grandchild, and she adored him as a mixture of a father and grandfather. Zedekiah was her real family, not these two.

Another new arrival yanked Edeva’s thoughts away from that, as she turned to see her husband step into view. Lyell Atherby was, as their son had noted, not a very tall man, standing only five and a half feet. Which was, to be fair, above average for the unawakened who didn’t eat nearly as well as they should. Yet for Heretics, it was on the short side.

Despite his lack of height, Lyell still cut an impressive figure. His straight brown hair reached his shoulders, and he kept a meticulously maintained goatee and thin mustache. His brown eyes were somehow piercing despite their apparent plainness. The man seemed to have the ability to look straight through someone. Which, given his age and experience (he had led the Atherby clan for several hundred years), was understandable.

“Sorry I’m late,” Lyell murmured, stepping over to his wife. “What did I miss?”

Edeva shook her head at that. “Nothing, really. Joshua’s just… getting to know his grandparents.”

With a very slight wince, Lyell put an arm around her and leaned in to whisper, “Do I need to strangle anyone?”

The words made her smile despite herself, and she once more shook her head. “Not yet.”

Her attention returned to her son and father then, as she slipped an arm around her husband. The two were already whispering conspiratorially, while Remember stood in the background, looking stiff and vaguely annoyed that this was eating into her productivity time.

But Joshua had pleaded with his mother for weeks to finally meet his grandparents, and she could not deny him that chance. While she had no faith that her father would follow up any of these promises, or that her mother would lighten up, Edeva did think that perhaps this meeting wouldn’t be so bad. Her son could have at least one decent memory with his grandparents without either of them ruining it.

But if they did, Lyell wouldn’t have a chance to strangle them. Because she might just beat him to it.

*******

Present Day – Atherby Camp

 

Three female figures stood at the head of a cobblestone path leading from the Atherby camp off into the woods. It was a small path, one that was easy to miss if you didn’t know where it was. Particularly as people tended to leave that whole area alone as a form of reverence.

“You know, you don’t… have to do this right now,” Abigail hesitantly informed Theia as she stood on one side of the Seosten girl, with one hand on her shoulder. Ever since Theia had returned separate from Pace earlier that evening, Abigail found it hard to resist the urge to keep touching her. A simple hair stroke, a shoulder squeeze, she just wanted to keep reassuring both herself and Theia that she was indeed in her own body again.

Pace, meanwhile, was also staying close and touching Theia often. And in her case, it likely meant even more that she would willingly touch her after they were finally separated. At the moment, she was standing on the other side of the girl, looking toward Abigail. Her mouth opened as if she was going to say something, but then she stopped, clearly remembering that the girl was perfectly capable of speaking for herself.

A moment later, Theia seemed to remember that too, straightening to look over at Abigail. “Is it wrong?” she asked tentatively, clearly worried. “Is it… bad?”

“Wha–bad? No. No, sweetie, no.” Quickly shaking her head as she realized just why Theia would have taken it that way, Abigail clarified. “I meant they’re going to have an official memorial service in a couple days, and I’m sure they’d let you add a few names to that. You know, so it can be official.”

Theia’s head shook, and Abigail once again marvelled at just how much the girl looked like a young Kushiel (not that she’d ever seen the monster in person, but there were images and holograms of her). It made her wonder just how others who had known Kushiel would handle seeing the girl now.

“I wish to put them to rest myself,” Theia announced carefully, clearly taking a moment to choose her words. “They do not know them. They have no reason to think of them, or care for them. I don’t… want it to be part of their memorial. It is my memorial. It is my friends’ memorial.”

Slowly nodding, Abigail looked to Pace, then back to Theia. “Would you girls like to do this alone?” Suddenly, after the girl’s words, she felt as though she might be intruding.

“No.” Theia gave a quick headshake, turning slightly to look at her. “Theia–I… mean… I… I want you to be there. Here. You are… You matter… you being here matters to me. Theia wants– I… want… you… to be here and… and… help… me.” The last few words came out through a somewhat trembling voice before the Seosten girl quickly added, “But if you want to leave, if you want to go away, that’s okay. I won’t–”

“Shhh.” Abigail put a hand out to the girl’s face, gently touching her cheek. “Theia, it’s okay. I want to be here.”

“So do I,” Pace announced firmly, her hand squeezing the other girl’s arm as reassuringly as she could. “We both want to be here, okay?”

“Okay,” Theia parroted. “Then we go.” Yet despite her words, she didn’t move. Her feet remained firmly planted, as she stared at the path. Pace and Abigail exchanged brief looks, but neither urged the girl on. This was clearly not something to rush. They stood by, patiently waiting for her to actually be ready.

Almost two full minutes of silence passed like that before Theia started to walk up the path. With Abigail and Pace right with her, she moved through the trees, their way lit by tiny candles that only came to life as they approached, providing just enough illumination to follow the winding cobblestone walkway. They moved slowly, none wanting to disturb the atmosphere by rushing things.

At their pace, it took almost five minutes of quiet walking for the group to reach the end of the path. Eventually, however, they emerged into a pretty clearing, lit by more of those candles as well as glowing lamps that projected a somewhat brighter, yet still soft, illumination. The clearing was almost fifty feet in diameter from side to side, and just as deep. A polished granite monument, semi-circular in shape, ran along every side of the clearing aside from the opening. It stood nine feet high. All along its surface were glowing golden letters, names that had been inscribed in the memorial. Names of people who had died in service to the Atherby Clan or in some way connected to them. Children recorded the names of parents who had been killed by Nocen or Heretics. Or parents recorded the names of children.

There were so many names it was staggering, Abigail almost losing a step. All of these people, so many of them… so many deaths. It brought an involuntary noise of dismay to her throat. Somehow, seeing a tangible representation of it made the whole thing that much more real.

Theia, who had also stopped short, stared at the monument for several long, silent seconds before turning to Pace. Her voice took on an urgent tone. “Is this wrong?”

Of course she would look to Pace for that. The two of them had been together for so long, had been literally in each other’s minds, that Theia’s first instinct was to ask Pace if something was wrong or right, to seek her opinion and thoughts. Thoughts which, up until a few hours earlier, she would have gotten instantly and silently.

“No, Theia,” Pace answered while meeting the girl’s gaze. “It’s not wrong. I promise.” With those words, she held up the special pen that Gabriel had provided when he learned what they wanted to do. “It’s okay.”

Still clearly uncertain, but taking Pace’s word for it, Theia took the pen. She fidgeted then, rolling it between her fingers before looking toward Abigail. Getting a nod from the woman, she hesitantly stepped up to an empty spot on the memorial, placing the pen against it before going still once more. For a minute, the girl simply stood there, silently staring at that blank bit of polished granite while her mind was clearly focused elsewhere.

When she finally spoke, it was in a voice that was clear and firm, though it obviously took some effort to make it that way. “Debba Sleus. I’m sorry–” Her voice caught, hitching a bit before she pushed on. “I’m sorry that I possessed you and… and couldn’t stop. I’m sorry Momma killed you because I–because I f… failed.”

Pace opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of interrupting. She and Abigail both exchanged looks, each wanting to stop Theia from thinking that way, but neither wanted to stop her from what she was doing. There would be time later to convince her that none of that was her fault. Let her say goodbye now, and begin healing after.

Theia, by that point, had carefully written the name. Abigail was almost certain the girl was actually using her boost solely to keep her hand steady enough to be legible. She finished inscribing it, and as she took the pen away, the letters began to glow just like the others.

She moved to the next spot down then, resting the pen there. “Tedora of Deep Rock. I… I’m sorry.” She wrote the name carefully, then moved to the next line.

“Stavin Epks Nuel Rev, I’m sorry.

“Denanine Rache, I’m sorry.”

“Valian Lien Kodian, I’m… sorry.”

It went on… and on… and on. While Pace and Abigail watched and listened, Theia dutifully continued through a list of thirty names. Thirty names. Thirty people whom Kushiel had forced her to possess and then killed when she could not stop possessing them. Thirty people who were murdered in that insane woman’s quest to ‘fix’ her daughter’s disability. She might as well have pointed a gun at the head of an innocent person and ordered a paraplegic to walk.

And then continued to do that twenty-nine more times.

By the last name, Theia finally stopped. Her hand lowered to her side, and the pen fell to the dirt. She forgot about it for the moment, staring at the names she had written. Slowly, the girl looked up, then down once more, taking them all in. Her voice was a whisper. “I’m sorry.”

Slowly, she looked toward Abigail, her mouth opening and shutting a couple times before she found her voice. “There is something wrong.”

Blinking at that, Abigail stepped that way, carefully asking, “Something wrong?”

“I… I can’t… breathe,” Theia explained a bit haltingly. “I–I… it feels like I’ve been running, but I haven’t. It feels like I’ve been running, and I can’t… can’t get enough… breath. I can’t breathe. My… my eyes. My eyes hurt. They hurt, like needles. They hurt like needles but not. Because I don’t mind needles in my eyes, but I mind this. I mind this. It hurts. There’s acid. There’s acid in my eyes. It’s wet. And it stings. And it hurts, and I don’t like it. I want it to stop. Pain is okay. But not this one. It hurts my eyes. It hurts my chest. I can’t breathe. I want it to stop, please. I want it to stop now.”

“Oh, Theia.” Gasping those words quietly, Abigail gave Pace a quick look before stepping that way to embrace the girl. She pulled her in, wrapping both arms around her to hug Theia as tight as she could. “I’m sorry, baby. That’s not how… that’s not how this kind of pain works. You have to feel it. You have to feel it, but it’s okay.”

Standing stiffly for a moment, the Seosten girl gazed up at her with wide eyes that were indeed somewhat wet. Her voice was plaintive. “But it hurts, Miss Abigail. I don’t like it. I’m think I’m broken.”

“Oh God, no. No, sweet girl,” Abigail assured her. “You’re not broken. You are not broken. Listen to me, this is good.”

“G-good?” Theia echoed, her eyes widening a bit as she stared uncertainly at the woman.

Abigail nodded slowly. “Yes. It’s very sad that you’re hurt. I’m sorry that you’re in pain. But I am glad that you still feel it, that you can still…” She trailed off, swallowing hard as she sought the right words. “You’re sad for other people, Theia. You’re sad because someone else died, and that means you’re not broken. You aren’t broken at all. You’re bent. Bent all over. But you’re not broken. You feel. And that’s good. Okay? It is good to feel, because it means you care. You care about all those names, all those people. When you look at them, when you think about them, it hurts? It hurts here?” She leaned back a bit to touch her own chest.

Theia nodded to that, her eyes blinking rapidly. “It hurts there. It hurts here.” She touched near her eyes, swallowing hard before touching her throat, then her stomach. “And here… and here. It hurts and I don’t… I don’t know what to do.”

It was Pace who spoke then, reaching out to take the girl’s hand. “Here.” Carefully, she moved Theia’s fingers to the memorial, touching them against the first name the girl had written. “Say goodbye.”

Eyes snapping to her former host, Theia echoed. “Say goodbye? Say… say…” Slowly, her eyes moved back to the name of Debba Sleus. “Good…” She stopped short, making an almost silent noise in the back of her throat before forcing the word out. “… bye. Goodbye.”

Carefully, Pace lowered the other girl’s fingers to the next name. She remained silent, but Theia knew, quietly whispering, “G-goodbye.”

There was a slight hitch of her breath then, as she moved her own fingers down to the next one, repeating the word. One by one, she said goodbye to each of the names. By the end, she could barely speak, her voice halting repeatedly as she choked out the last of her farewells.

Or perhaps not the last, as Gabriel Prosser took a step into the clearing at the end. His voice was solemn. “They will be remembered, I promise you that.” He paused then, straightening. “I’m sorry. I would never interrupt. But Theia asked me to be here for the end, to make it official.” He looked to her then. “But this isn’t the end, is it? There’s one more.” He was watching Theia, eyes soft as he added, “One more you want to write down.”

Swallowing hard at that, Theia shrank back, somehow ducking into herself. “It… it’s wrong. It can’t go there. It can’t be there with them.”

“Here.” Extending his hand, Gabriel held a stone out to her, about the size of the girl’s fist. It too looked like polished granite, as if it had been taken from the memorial itself.  

Theia took the stone, then the magic pen as Pace stooped to pick it up for her. She held the pen and the stone in each hand, staring at both for almost a full minute before carefully scrawling the last name. Her mother’s.

Abigail watched as Theia wrote Kushiel’s name on the stone. Then the girl gave one last look at the memorial, to all the names she had recorded. She mouthed one last apology before turning on her heel to begin walking quickly back along the path.

Pace, Abigail, and Gabriel exchanged brief looks before following her. Without a word, Theia continued along the path, walking all the way back into the camp before moving to the lake. She stood there, facing the water with the stone in one hand. Her knuckles were white from how tightly she was holding that stone, and she gave a slight shudder while lifting it to stare at her mother’s name.

“Goodbye, Momma.” Her voice was so soft, Abigail almost didn’t hear her. Then she reared back, hurling the stone all the way to the middle of the lake in one toss. It struck the water and dropped out of sight, falling to the bottom with a single splash.

Theia stood there, staring at the water where the rock had gone. Then she turned to Abigail. Her mouth opened, shut, then opened again. Yet no sound emerged. No sound, that was, aside from the keening sound of grief which may as well have been the opening of a deep, long-buried well of pain.

Abigail was there. Arms opening, she took the girl into them once more. This time, Theia returned the embrace. She held on tight, face dropping against Abigail’s shoulder.

And in that moment, she let go of everything she had taught herself to hold in. She let go of all the pain, all the loss, all the grief. She let it out. For the first time in over twenty years, Theia cried.

It would be a long time before she stopped.

*******

Present Day – Crossroads

 

On the far end of Crossroads Island, beyond the jungle and as far from the school as possible, Guinevere, more currently known as Harper Hayes, stood facing the ocean. Taking a step forward, she skipped a rock across the water, grinning to herself as it popped up and back down four separate times. “Whoo! Four. I mean, without any powers, that’s pretty good.”

“It’s tremendous, my queen,” Karlee, the woman who posed as Harper’s mother, announced from a few feet away. “But…” She took a step herself, arm snapping out to send a stone skipping across the water five times. “Perhaps there are still goals to reach.”

Giving the woman (who appeared to be in her forties with dyed blonde hair to hide the effects of early aging) a brief smirk, Gwen retorted, “And how long have you been practicing to show me up, hmm?”

A small smile played at Karlee’s mouth. “Would it be better if I said a very long time, or a very short time?”

Huffing, Gwen raised herself up with put-upon self-importance. “Never mind, I’ve decided I don’t care to know.”

Giving a genuine chuckle, Karlee looked out at the water once more while asking, “If you don’t mind my asking, your majesty, why did you want me to meet you here? It’s… rather dangerous, isn’t it?”

“I’ll make sure no one sees you,” Gwen promised. “But I needed someone to talk to, someone to… bounce off of.”

“About Joselyn Atherby’s daughter, and her friends?” Karlee asked. “Are you afraid that they don’t understand the danger they’re in?”

“Joselyn Chambers,” Gwen corrected absently before nodding. “And yes, them. But no, just the opposite. I’m afraid that, with everything that’s going on, all the… danger and problems they’ve gotten into, they’ll forget how to enjoy themselves. And with this… Jophiel situation, that could easily blow up in Flick’s face. They’re being forced to lie to their friends and… and that never turns out well.”

“And you’ve thought of telling them that you know, and helping,” Karlee realized.

Again, Gwen nodded. “I’ve thought about it. I just… right now, I think it’s better to wait. But I don’t know how much longer I can. What’s better, to talk to them, or wait and watch? I can’t do both. The moment I show myself, all my… anonymity is gone. But if they don’t know that they have someone else who can help them…”

Karlee hesitated then before quietly asking, “And the pieces? What of them?”

A long, heavy sigh escaped Gwen, her eyes looking away before she murmured, “Three. In the time we’ve had this year, I’ve found three of the six that we were missing. Three pieces of Arthur’s skeleton, buried or hidden somewhere here on Crossroads Island. They could be under the school, somewhere in one of the walls, even out in the middle of the jungle.”

“What about the Merlin Key?” the woman hesitantly asked. “Have you worked out which one of the students they are?”

“Not yet,” Gwen admitted. “One of the assassins who was sent after the Leven boy last month knew something, but he killed himself before I could get it out of him. He worked with Fahsteth, so I guarantee the shark-man knows. Right now, I need the pieces, then we can figure out who the Key is.”

“You’ll find them, your majesty,” Karlee assured her. “I know you will. It’s just a matter of time.”

Gwen turned a slight smile to her. “Thank you, Karlee. It’s just that time… well, that’s the one thing I’m not sure we have. Something big is going down, very soon. And when it does, I’m not sure it’ll be possible for me to stay at Crossroads anymore.”

As Karlee opened her mouth to respond to that, Gwen abruptly snapped her head around to look at the jungle. Her hand came up in a fist to stop the woman, before pointing with two fingers to her.

Karlee took that as the sign and used the teleportation stone she carried with her to vanish, disappearing from the beach an instant later.

Gwen, meanwhile, focused on the approaching presence she had sensed. Her eyes narrowed as the figure came closer and closer before eventually emerging from the bushes.

For a moment, Gwen and the new arrival stared at one another silently. Neither spoke. Neither moved more than their eyes for several long seconds.

Finally, the man spoke. “I have to say, all my powers, all our experience together, and I had no idea it was you. But Nimue? She and Apollo worked it out in a few minutes after going through all the files and recordings together.”

“Percival,” Gwen greeted the man calmly, even as she continued scanning him and the area around him for any other surprises. “You’ve changed.”

“You’ve… shrunk,” Percival casually replied, winking at her. “I remember you being taller.”

“I remember you being not allied with the enemy,” she retorted, though her voice was more appraising and calculating than accusatory.

The man lifted his chin. “I’m where Arthur told me to be. I–it’s a long story and we don’t have time. Gwen, I…” His face fell a bit and he let out a breath before looking back up to her. “There’s so much to say, but we don’t have time.”

“What’s happening?” she asked carefully, still watching him closely, though her suspicion had somewhat lessened.

The man sighed. “Let’s just say you need to get Felicity Chambers and her friends off this island, right now.

“Before they’re arrested with Gaia.”

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On The Edge 42-10

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A hand caught the back of my neck. Abaddon. He was there, lifting me up by the neck while his other hand produced what had to be a field engraver, or his version of it. He scrawled something quickly on my arm before I could react, his form blurring so much I’d barely realized what was happening before it was over. As he activated the spell, I felt a sharp but not quite agonizing burning sensation on my arm for just a moment.

Wh-what was that? I quickly blurted inwardly.

I… I dunno, Tabbris sent back. We didn’t see it. What did he do? What’s going on?

Dangling there from the big guy’s firm grip on my neck, I could do nothing while he bellowed, “Aletheia!” His voice echoed throughout the room like thunder, almost painfully loud. But hey, he was using her name. I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but it meant something.

Radueriel, who had blurred his own form to rush over to where Kushiel’s body had fallen, looked up that way. His gaze met Abaddon’s and I saw him give a slight head shake. Gone. She was gone, and there was nothing they could do to fix that.

Theia and Pace (separate now) both took a bit longer to react to the voice, each of their gazes remaining focused on Kushiel’s body for another moment. When the Seosten girl finally did look up, I saw confusion there. She looked… more lost than proud. Like she wasn’t sure what had just happened, as if killing her mother hadn’t actually set in yet. Which I couldn’t blame her for, since it hadn’t set in for me either and I had a much smaller personal stake in it. She made a noise of confusion, even as Pace slowly moved up to put a hand on her arm, stumbling slightly on the way.  

Kushiel was dead. That’s what hadn’t set in, what would take much longer to feel real. A woman who had to be close to ten thousand years old was just… dead. Just like that. Just like Manakel. And Charmiene. All these ancient people, alive for millennia, all dying within a few months of each other. No wonder their leadership was so pissed off at us.

Well, if they’d leave us alone, they wouldn’t have that problem, Tabbris primly informed me.

Abaddon continued, his gaze focused on the dark-haired girl. “That’s what you call yourself, right? Aletheia?” His tone was darkly curious. “Huh. Can’t say it’s what I would’ve gone with, but I can appreciate the whole parental rebellion thing. Though uh, you may have taken it a bit far.” As he spoke, the man used my whole body, dangling from his grip, to gesture at Kushiel’s fallen figure. Though he kept his tone fairly light, I could hear the anger only partially hidden deep under his voice. The man was keeping things incredibly professional, but it was quite clear that he was putting forth some effort to control himself.

This was a man who had spent thousands of years losing people he got close to. But Kushiel had been there for a long time, and I had the feeling that while he might not have always seen eye to eye with her, she was part of ‘his group’. And now she was dead, killed by her own daughter. A daughter who happened to be what his people called a Lie.

“She’s dead.” The words that came from Theia then sounded hollow, like they were from a foreign language that she didn’t actually understand the meaning of. “Mama’s dead.”

“That’s right.” Abaddon’s voice cracked just a little, belying the professionalism he was trying to portray. “You killed her. Congratulations, I’m sure it’s a big moment for you. But look here.” He gave my body a hard shake, making me yelp a bit despite myself. My legs still hurt. “You care about this one, right? Don’t wanna see her dead?”

Before Theia could answer that, there was another blur of motion. Radueriel. He suddenly went from crouching by Kushiel’s body, to standing just a few feet away from Abaddon. And he had Pace, his real arm wrapped around her throat while his cybernetic one produced an engraver from one finger, which he used to draw a quick spell on. Given her brief gasp, it was probably the same spell that Abaddon had drawn on me a minute earlier.

Some part of me thought I should try to free myself, but… it just wasn’t going to happen. The pain that I’d felt in my legs just from standing up before, even with the help of my staff and leaning against the wall, it was too much. I had that pain-reduction power and I could still feel it, which made me a little worried about just how badly my legs were damaged.

Theia started to move then, but Abaddon spoke quickly. “Uh uh! Stop. Look here, kid. You weren’t there when your mother’s power started up, but it used to need a bit of a cooldown after a couple times. I’m betting yours does right now too. Gonna be awhile before you can… what do they call it?”

“Spam,” Radueriel informed him simply.

“Really?” Abaddon blinked that way. “The hell does that–never mind. Gonna be awhile before you can spam it, kid. But just in case, you see those spells we just put on these two? They’re harm-bound to us. Know what that means?”

Apparently she did, because Theia answered immediately. “You get hurt. They get hurt. You die. They die.” Her eyes were narrowed at Radueriel, and I had the feeling she was a bit more concerned about Pace than me. Which, yeah, that was fair.

“That’s right, kid,” Abaddon confirmed. “Damage duplication. We get hurt, they get hurt. We die, they die. So let’s all just calm down here. You killed your mother, which…” He made a noise under his breath that sounded like a growl. “But I owe your father and… well, let’s just say that’s why you aren’t a smear on the ground right now. So instead of killing you like I probably should, you’ll come with us.”

Radueriel clarified then. “He means all four of you.” He released Pace, giving the girl a little shove away from him while looking my way. “You walk with us. First one to put up a fight… well, let’s just say that neither I nor my partner here need much of an excuse to put one of you down.”

Abaddon nodded, letting go of my neck without warning. I fell, yelping as the pain in my legs when I landed flared up dramatically, making me collapse to my hands and knees. The Seosten man looked down at me, frowning briefly. “Right, Kushiel’s blade. Afraid it won’t get better any time soon. She keeps–ahhh, kept that thing enchanted to do a hell of a lot more damage than it should. Damage that lingers. Gets into the muscles and bones and… well, it won’t heal very quick, let’s put it that way.”

While I was digesting that, he continued. “Anyway, what my partner said. No more games. One of you pulls something, someone else dies. And to be straight with you, I’m not super-particular which one right now.” His voice was hard, making it completely clear just how close the man was to losing his tenuous grasp on his anger. I had a feeling that it was only the importance of their mission that was keeping that in check even this much.

“Are we all clear?” Abaddon demanded then. “We’re walking out of here together, and none of you are going to do anything else that makes this whole situation worse. Because you give either of us an excuse, and one of you will die for it. Don’t talk back. Don’t argue. Don’t be cute. Get all those thoughts out of your pretty little heads. Walk to the door and stand there. Now.”

The others have to be coming, right? Tabbris quickly put in, even as I tried to force myself to stand up. It hurt. God, it hurt. Pain reduction or not, I could barely make myself stagger, wincing with each motion.

I hope so, I silently replied, because I think I’m basically out of tricks right now. We can’t beat two Olympians, Tabs. Not on our best day, and definitely not right now. I’m wiped. And I’m pretty sure if I tried to so much as skip, I’d break something.

As if in agreement with that, I stumbled on the next step. Nearly falling, I found myself caught by Pace, who moved quickly to support me on one side, whispering, “Are you okay?”

“Been better,” I whispered back. Not that there was much point. I was pretty sure Abaddon and Radueriel could both hear us just fine. “But hey, you’re… uh, you again. Congratulations.”

“We will have a party soon.” That was Theia, stepping over to join us on the way to the door. She supported my other side, making it a bit easier to move. “With cake and ice cream. When we get away.”

Instead of focusing on that last bit, I looked the Seosten girl up and down. It was my first real chance to get a look at her. She was, like all Seosten, incredibly pretty. Actually, I could definitely see how she was related to Kushiel. There was a distinct family resemblance, and not just when it came to the power.  

You okay?” I asked the girl quietly, after giving Abaddon and Radueriel a brief glance. They weren’t objecting to us talking just yet. Nor were they apparently ready to leave. The two of them were standing a few feet away, having a quiet (probably magically protected) conversation. But I had no doubt that if we tried to make a break for it, we wouldn’t get very far.

“We–” Theia started before stopping herself. “I… killed Mama. I killed Mama.” Again, her voice sounded almost empty. She didn’t sound happy about it. But nor did she sound sad. “Mama’s dead and… and I… I don’t know.”

Standing there while trying to think of what to say to that, I noticed the door. It was closed. But it was also lying in pieces on the floor nearby. The same door, closed in front of us yet broken on the floor. What the…

Theia noticed my confused glances back and forth, explaining, “Radueriel’s glamor spell. Makes the door look like it’s there, when it’s really there.” She gestured between the intact door in front of us and the shattered one on the floor.

Abaddon chose that moment to step over to us. “That’s right, it keeps any interruptions out. Now, we’re leaving. All of us. I’m not going to reiterate the previous threats, because I don’t believe any of your memories are that terrible. But keep them in mind.”

As he spoke, I could see Radueriel in the background, attaching some kind of badge-like device to each of the bodies. Including Kushiel’s. Once they were all attached, the man pressed a button on his cybernetic arm. A square metal block about the size of a Rubik’s cube appeared, floating to the middle of the room. As soon as it was in place, all of the bodies, unconscious and dead alike, all disappeared in various beams of light that shot into the cube. Transferred. He… transferred them into the cube.

F-Flick, Tabbris worriedly put in. I… I don’t know what to do now. I’m… I’m…

I’m scared too, I assured her without making the girl say it. But we can’t push them right now. I’ve got nothing left, partner. No tricks, no… if we tried something, I’m pretty sure they would kill one of us. We just have to… to wait and hope something happens. Trust the others. They’ll be there.

Radueriel took the cube as it floated back into his hand, nodding to his partner. In turn, Abaddon held some kind of rock above our heads, crushing it into dust, which swirled through the air. Instead of falling completely to the ground, the dust seemed to form a cloud around us and then just… stayed there. Then we stepped through the illusion of the door, moving to the hallway beyond.

Immediately, my heart jumped. Because the others were right there. Deveron, Koren, Wyatt, that Francis guy, everyone from the room. They were there, standing right in front of the door that we had just come through.

My mouth opened to blurt a warning that Pace and I were both spelled to take any damage the two Olympians took. But before I could say a word, Deveron spoke. “How do we get it open?”

Get it open? Wait–they still saw the intact door, of course. But why weren’t they reacting to–

“Scream if you want,” Radueriel informed us in the middle of my confusion. “Rant, yell for help, whatever you wish. But they won’t hear you. Nor will they see you. The dust renders us undetectable.”

“And if we grab them?” I demanded despite myself, annoyed by his smug voice. In the background, Deveron and the others were still talking as if we weren’t even there. Which, to them, we weren’t.

“Then we will be forced to kill one of you,” Abaddon put in mildly. “I’d sort of appreciate if you didn’t make us do that. Come.” He pointed with a small metal cylinder, hitting a button to create a portal. Through it, I could see a parking lot. “Time to meet with the others and see how their side of the mission went.”

Radueriel shrugged. “Either way, Sariel’s kid has the book and we have Sariel’s kid.” He gave me, or rather, Tabbris, a hard look. “So either the others took their book and we have the whole spell. Or they didn’t, but we still have ours so the humans can’t do anything with their half.”

He was right. If the spell had been split in half, them even just having half of it would prevent it from actually being useful, even if Gaia, Avalon, and the others had successfully retrieved theirs. Somehow, that thought made me feel even worse. If we’d been just a little bit faster, just a little bit… better, or smarter, or…

Kushiel’s dead, Tabbris reminded me. That wouldn’t have happened any other way, you know.

Before I could say anything to that, Radueriel gave me a firm shove toward the portal. “Have your private conversation while walking. Whatever you happen to be planning, just know that the Li–Aletheia’s former host will be the one who pays the price first.”

Pace. They would kill Pace first. She was the most immediately expendable. And they probably figured that if Tabbris and I pulled something that got Pace killed, it would turn Theia against us. Swallowing hard, I glanced back to Deveron and the others one last time. They were setting up some kind of spell to blast the door open, even though it was already open. The illusion was still affecting them. As was the dust that stopped us from being noticed.

Nothing. There was nothing else I could do. Risking Pace’s life was a non-starter. Even if I did want to risk it, there was nothing to say that I could get everyone’s attention and make them understand before they just killed all of us. They could kill me and take Tabbris.

No. No, I couldn’t–couldn’t do that. I had to hope a new opportunity to escape would actually present itself. Or that one of the others would figure something out and come after us. Francis, he’d know when we left the building entirely, right? Or Jophiel. There was also Jophiel.

Under the hard and uncompromising glares of Radueriel and Abaddon, the four of us slowly (but not slowly enough for my liking)  walked to the portal. Nothing. I couldn’t do anything. Hell, at that point, I could barely walk. Scratch that, I couldn’t walk without help from Pace and Theia supporting me on either side. Fighting would be out of the question for awhile. Every time I even took a step, even with help, shooting pain went up through each of my legs. I had to move gingerly. Every motion hurt.

We reached the portal and I still hadn’t thought of anything. We had to go. We had to move through the portal. I couldn’t endanger the others by making any kind of last ditch attack or attempt to escape. I wouldn’t stand a chance and it would only end up with at least one of us dying. I couldn’t risk that. After everything that happened, I couldn’t give them an excuse to kill Pace.

I had to let myself be taken. Swallowing hard, I took a breath and moved through that portal. Abaddon was right behind us, actually putting a heavy hand on my shoulder tightly even as I was supported by the others. Apparently he didn’t trust me not to have something ready to go to escape. Or maybe it was Tabbris he was worried about. Either way, he maintained that grip all the way through the portal and out to the unfamiliar parking lot.

I had no idea where we were, I realized almost immediately. This wasn’t the lot right outside the hotel. It was… it was… somewhere else entirely. Oh God. As the portal disappeared behind us, I finally understood that we were far from where we should have been. We were far from where anyone, anyone would expect to find us. Basically, we were screwed.

The parking lot was along the side of what looked like a grocery store that had been closed for a long time. There were a couple cars parked ahead us and a few spaces apart, dark vans that gave me child abductor vibes. On a street lamp nearby, a dark bird perched and gave a soft caw.

As all of us looked around, Radueriel spoke. “They’re not here yet, do we wait?”

Abaddon didn’t answer for a second, and I had a feeling that it was because he was instinctively waiting for Kushiel. When he realized his mistake after a couple seconds of silence, the big man started a bit. I felt him squeeze my shoulder so tightly it hurt, nearly drawing a yelp from me. Another sign, as if I needed one, of just how tenuous his grasp on his temper was.

“This is the rendezvous,”  he finally announced through gritted teeth. “We give them another few minutes to show up. It–” He stopped talking then, head turning as though listening to something. From the pause, I had the feeling there was an extensive mental conversation going on.

Finally, the big guy straightened. His eyes found me, and he coughed. “Sorry, kid, I spoke for you.”

“What?” I managed, just before his hand collided with my face. He moved so fast I didn’t even have a chance to think. It was like a truck slamming into the side of my head. I fell, sprawling out on the ground. Nearby, I heard Pace shout something, and Theia made some kind of threat. But Radueriel was restraining them.

Abaddon stood over me. “Told you, it ain’t personal. But orders from above say put you down and take the kid in. I tried to tell ‘em you could be useful. They ahh, they don’t want to play any more games. If it makes you feel any better, I don’t like it.”

Tabbris was saying something, frantically begging me to get away. My hand produced my staff, and I swung it up to… I didn’t even know at that point. Part of me was trying to hit Abaddon with it while another part thought to use the boost on it to throw myself away from them. But where I would go with legs that didn’t work right was anyone’s guess.

It didn’t matter anyway. Abaddon caught the staff, tearing it from my hand with less effort than it took to remove a toy from an infant. He tossed it aside, producing an enormous sword with his other hand. My mouth opened, but his foot lashed out, kicking me in the face so that I sprawled on the ground once more.

Tabbris was screaming. Pace was screaming. Theia was threatening. My body was screaming. I grabbed the ground, trying to push myself up even as Abaddon stood over me, his foot coming down hard on my chest. Possess him!

Couldn’t. He had a forcefield up. Couldn’t possess him. No wood. No weapon. No– nothing. Nothing. I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t think straight. I could barely understand the words that Tabbris was screaming at me, even as she took control of the body. But she couldn’t do anything either. We were trapped. As Abaddon lifted his sword and judged his aim briefly, as everyone screamed, as the bird on the nearby lamppost gave a loud cry, we were trapped. Helpless. Broken. Lost. Lost as the sword started its downward plunge.

But I never got to save my moth–

A sudden eruption of sound stopped Abaddon’s descending blade. One of the vans–no, both of the vans were blaring their horns. The obnoxious, loud and cacophonous noise filled the air, drawing everyone’s attention, while Abaddon stood with the blade hanging right near my face.

The door of the nearest van opened, and two bodies came tumbling out of it to land on the pavement with a solid thunk. Abaddon and Radueriel recoiled with collective curses, as another figure, this one standing, hopped out to stand between the two dead bodies.

“That’s my girlfriend,” Avalon announced while straightening to her feet. She looked bloodied, bruised, her clothing heavily torn… and more beautiful in that moment that I ever remembered. “Get the fuck away from her.”

“What she said.” The new voice came from Shiori, exiting the side of the second van, on the opposite side from where all of us were standing. Two more bodies fell to the ground at her feet as she stood there. We, including Radueriel and Abaddon, were between them.

The two Olympians looked to one another and then started to chuckle. Abaddon spoke calmly. “Congratulations on somehow finding the rendezvous, children. But I am afraid that you’ve made a grave error if you think you pose a threat by yourselves.”

I started to blurt a warning, but Avalon was already stepping forward. “The only error is with you people not getting it through your thick skulls to leave me and the people I care about alone.” As she spoke, the dark-haired girl ignited both of the energy blades from her gauntlets.

“Heh,” Abaddon snorted. “That’s cute. Okay then, bring it on.”

Avalon threw herself that way. Behind them, Shiori did the same. Both girls sprinted, their forms moving almost fast enough to blur like the vampires and Seosten did. Together, they went right for Abaddon, even as I screamed for them to stop.

Then Avalon did. She suddenly pivoted and dropped to the ground while pulling something from her jacket, driving it into the pavement.

At the exact same time, Shiori stopped too. But the glowing figure that leapt from her kept going. Athena. Her fist collided with Abaddon’s jaw. Instantly, I felt a horrible pain in my own face as I was knocked to the ground.

While he was reeling from the punch, Athena reared back to kick Abaddon. Once more, I felt that pain, this time in my chest. A rib or two cracked. But Abaddon had it worse. Because that kick sent him stumbling back two steps. And that put him right where Avalon had just used Athena’s magic portal dagger to make a hole leading who knew where.

Abaddon fell through. And an instant later, Athena caught Radueriel by the arm and hurled him through as well, before he knew what was happening. Both men fell through the portal in the ground just before it disappeared.

“Have a nice trip,” Shiori called from where she had skidded to a stop to let Athena jump from her. “See ya next fall.”

“Wh-what?!” The terror of nearly dying, coupled with the sudden rush of being saved by my girlfriends, and everything else that had just happened, made me feel light headed. “How–wha–what–huh?” Behind me, Pace and Theia were equally lost.

Avalon took a knee by me, her face paling a bit. “Are you alright?”

“I… I… I don’t know. What the hell happened?”

Shiori joined us. “With the vault, or right now? Because the former’s a long story. And the latter…” She turned, looking over past Athena, to the lamppost where the dark bird was still perched.

It flew down to us. Once the bird neared the ground, I saw that it was a crow. Was a crow, because it suddenly changed, shifting form until a familiar girl stood there.

Aylen. Aylen was there, except… except her hair and eyes were blue and there was… there was something alien about her.

A reaper. Aylen looked like a reaper. Like the ones I’d seen in class this year.

“Well,” Shiori finished, “the latter’s a long story too.”

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On The Edge 42-09

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Lying there, basically crippled on the floor as my injured legs refused to cooperate, I could do nothing as Abaddon approached. Not that I would have been able to do much to him even at my peak, but still. This was worse. He took his time, meandering casually across the room before stopping in front of me to look down with a slight shake of his head, almost looking regretful.

Tabs, I started inwardly.

I’m not leaving you alone here, she quickly shot back. So shut up.

Before I could retort to that and plead with her not to stay here, the Olympian spoke in a voice that made it sound like we were just having a chat. “Pretty good job back there, kid. I took a second to watch through, ah, let’s just say someone else’s eyes and I gotta say, impressive.”

From where she was standing by the pedestal that held that book, Kushiel distractedly snapped, “Stop toying with the monkey-child and kill it before something else happens to make that impossible.” She wasn’t looking our way, her attention solely focused on her goal. Yet she also wasn’t reaching for it. Instead, the woman seemed to be taking the time to disable what had to be a lot of security spells that had been placed around that pedestal.

Abaddon, however, glanced that way while musing aloud, “Kill her?” He seemed to consider that before looking back to me, his voice contemplative. “Eh, I don’t know.”

For a moment, Kushiel apparently forgot her current objective (which said something considering how obsessed the Seosten were with it), turning to face the man. Her voice was dark. “Excuse me?” she asked with icy brittleness. “You seemed very much in line with the goal of ending that monkey’s life before, so pray tell, what don’t you know now?”

The big guy shrugged one shoulder, watching me intently rather than looking to the woman. “Saw her fight,” he replied simply, “she’s pretty good. Got good instincts, good drive. Kind of be a damn shame to waste all that just because she’s on the wrong side right now.”  

“Wrong side?” I put in despite myself, a mixture of sarcasm and anger filling my voice as I shifted my weight, grimacing from the pain that hit me then. “Yeah, because I’m so sure that the people who are enslaving every other species in the universe are totally the good guys.”

A slight smile crossed his face. “Didn’t say we were the good guys. Said we were the right guys. There’s a difference.” For a moment, the man looked serious. “We do some awful shit, that’s for sure. But believe you me, it’d be worse without us. Fomorians are the real monsters out there.”

For a moment, I just stared at him in disbelief from my prone position. “I’m sorry,” I put in once I’d managed to find my (incredulous) voice, “are you actually trying to recruit me right now?”

Kushiel, who had turned back to her work of disabling the spells around the pedestal, spoke without looking. “I must agree with the monkey-child, which I will tell you right now annoys me to no end. What precisely do you think you’re doing?”

It was Radueriel who answered, from where he was standing over by the doorway. “Now, Kushiel, there’s no reason to be rude or ungracious in victory. The child did her best for her own side. Given what she faced, falling short in the end was to be expected. Still, she did quite well.” Looking to me, he added, “And in case you’re trying to stall until that headmistress of yours gets here, there’s, ahh, really no point. They won’t be showing up.”

Before I could demand to know what he meant by that, Kushiel actually elaborated for him. “Indeed. It seems that Liesje was slightly more… clever than we gave her credit for. This vault has been shifted into two connected pocket universes. The book itself was also split. One must have both halves, or it is useless. What we believed was the ‘back door’ into this vault was actually the door into the second vault. But it is no matter. We have… other forces gathering the book from the first vault as we speak.”

“The point is,” Radueriel explained, “they’re not coming, because you can’t get from one vault to the other without going through the right door, you see? That door to get to this one.” He gestured to the one we had come through. “And the ahhh, ‘front’ door to get to the other one. Two vaults. Two books. They might as well be a billion light years apart.”

“Look, kid,” Abaddon announced in a voice that rumbled like thunder while I was mentally reeling from that, “it’s like we said, you did pretty good. You even killed Manakel. Still not sure how you pulled that off, but hey, he was trying to kill you at the time, so I get it. Don’t like it, but I get it. None of this was personal.”

“Not… personal?” I managed, staring at him. “You killed Seth. You killed Seth like… less than an hour ago, and you don’t think this was personal? You don’t think it’s personal?” My voice rose at the end, almost turning to a shriek despite myself as I shoved myself up a bit against the pain.

He gave an easy nod at that. “Yeah, I did. He was a threat, so I finished it. Just like Manakel was a threat to you.” Reaching up, he pointed at me with two fingers. “Both of you. Yeah. The old man managed to let us know that you’ve got a little friend in there. Still doesn’t make sense. A kid wouldn’t be able to even pose the slightest threat to old Manakel. So what’d you do?”

They knew about Tabbris, I realized. Which made sense, considering how much time Manakel had had to send that message along while he was trying to escape the hospital. Still, I kept my face as expressionless as possible. “Maybe your old war buddy wasn’t as tough as he thought.”

If I hit a nerve, Abaddon didn’t show it. He just gave a small shrug. “Maybe. But like I said, none of this was personal. We’ve got a job to do, a war to win. I think you’d do pretty well if you just let go of all these other… distractions and worked with us instead of against us. You think we go too far? Eh, maybe. But what do you want, a universe with some jackasses like us keeping things in line, or one with the Fomorians killing everyone to remake them in their image? Sometimes you don’t get to pick the good guys, kid. Sometimes you just have to pick the less evil ones. And if it’s down to us or the Fomorians, well, I don’t think it’s much of a question, do you?”

“I think you’re all evil pieces of shit,” I snapped, “and we can do better.”

The whole time, my mind was racing. As was Tabbris’. What the hell were we supposed to do?! Where… where was everyone? Where was anyone? The Seosten were about to take Liesje’s spell, and there was no one here to help! I couldn’t stall anymore, I couldn’t fight anymore. I had no chance, none, against three Olympians at once even if I hadn’t been injured. They were going to take the spell and there was nothing I could do about it. What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to try? I had nothing. Nothing that would help. I’d thrown everything I had at delaying them this long and it wasn’t enough. It just… wasn’t enough.

As if to make that realization even worse, there was a sound of satisfaction from Kushiel just then. The woman straightened, cracking her neck with a visible smile as she glanced my way. “That’s it. The last of the Aken woman’s spells. Do you feel accomplished for delaying us from our goal for this long, monkey-child? Do you feel as though you’ve achieved something? Because you have not. You’ve done nothing, accomplished nothing. The spell,” she declared while reaching out to grab the book, “is ours. And it will be destroyed. So all this wasted effort, do you still think it was worth it?”

“Every second where you’re still a loser is most definitely worth it,” I shot back. “Hey look, there’s another one. And another, and another. Yup, still a loser.”

Her eyes narrowed, while her hand tightened around the book. “And yet, you are the one who has lost.”

“Have I?” I asked flatly. Then I moved. My hands came off the floor, creating two quick portals in front of myself. One led right in front of Kushiel, while the other led to my staff. Tabbris hit the boost, just as I grabbed the weapon and the book. Even as Kushiel started to yank the book away, I triggered the blast on my staff, sending myself flying backwards and tearing the book from the psycho bitch’s hands. My back hit the far wall, and I slammed the staff down to shove myself to my feet with the book under one arm.

All three Olympians gave me equally unimpressed looks, though Kushiel’s was mixed with obvious annoyance. “Is that all,” she demanded while taking a step my way. “You are not leaving with that book. You have no way out of here, no way to escape. What is the point of this?”

“Well, like I said,” I put in as casually as I could manage while my legs were screaming in pain from putting weight on them, “every second you’re still a loser, yada yada. You know the drill.”

“You ignorant child!” Kushiel snapped, clearly losing it then while the other two Olympians simply stayed out of the way. “You are the one who has lost! You will not leave this vault. You will die. No one is coming to save you. You will die here, right now.” As she spoke, the woman’s hand produced a gold-handled blade, which she brought to her own chest. “Even if I must do it myself.”

“Last chance, kid,” Abaddon casually remarked from where he stood with his arms folded. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d like to see what you could do for our side. But you’ve gotta give me a reason to speak up for you.”

“She wants me dead,” I replied while keeping my eyes on Kushiel as the woman held that knife against her own chest. With a single push, she could kill me. With a single push, she could end all of this. But I kept talking anyway. “But not because of this. She wants me dead because she knows. She wants to kill me because she knows, but she wants to make sure. She wants to see her.”

“What are you rambling about?” Kushiel snapped. I had a feeling that she might have just stabbed herself and been done with me for good, but Abaddon put out a hand to catch her arm. He was clearly curious himself, and maybe even serious about wanting to recruit me. Either way, it was a chance, small as it might have been.

I took it, pressing on. “You want me dead, because you know. Or maybe you’re just afraid that you know.” Raising the hand that wasn’t clutching the book, I pointed to my own chest. “You know who’s in here. That little girl that Abaddon mentioned and you just keep conveniently ignoring. You know what she is. And you know what her being with me means. That’s why I keep calling you a loser. Not this book. Her. You know where she came from. That’s why you want me dead, so you can look at her and know once and for all. Because it’s been eating you up this whole time, hasn’t it? Ever since you heard from Manakel what he saw, it’s been right there. You’ve known. You figured it out, even if you didn’t want to. So you want to look at her.”

“Pardon me.” Radueriel spoke up then, raising his cybernetic hand. “Would you mind filling in the rest of the class, or is this rambling distraction going to go on much longer?”

“Sariel,” I announced flatly, after a brief consultation with my partner. “You had her locked up. You tortured her for years. You tried to destroy her. You took everything she had, and she still beat you.”

“Sariel beat nothing!” Kushiel snapped, her voice nearly a shriek. She shoved Abaddon off of her, moving to drive the knife into her own chest to end me.

“Mother!” The shout came from the doorway where Radueriel was. But he wasn’t the one who spoke. It was Theia, of course. She was standing there, staring directly at Kushiel with narrowed eyes. “You will not harm her. You will not harm any of my friends again.”  

Radueriel himself had moved to stop her, but when she did nothing but stand there to talk, he slowed, glancing curiously to the woman in charge.

The anger that Kushiel had shown me was nothing compared to what appeared in her eyes then. Slowly, she turned to look at her own daughter (or her own daughter’s host, anyway) with a look of utter contempt and hatred. It was the kind of look that no mother should ever give their child. “You,” she snarled, that single word pouring forth centuries worth of scorn and malice. “You should not have shown yourself. It was bad enough when you were merely a failure. But a traitor? A traitor? You are not my child. You are an abomination. You are a–”  

“Tabbris!” I shouted out loud, interrupting before the head she-bitch could keep going on her rant. At the word, all of them snapped their gazes my way, even as my partner, my sister, stepped out of me. Her hands took hold of the book with Liesje’s spell, and she gave the trio of Olympians, as well as Theia and Pace, a quick wave. “Mama says hi.”

Then she recalled back to me, with the book. Both disappeared from sight.

Kushiel’s eyes went wild with fury as she lunged at me. “If you think we won’t tear Sariel’s spawn from your corpse to take her and the book, you are sadly mistaken, you–” Her voice devolved to a wordless cry of rage as she closed a hand around my neck. I was hauled off the ground and shoved hard against the wall, flailing a bit as she choked me.

“Mother!” Blurting the word again, Theia crossed half the distance between us. “Let her go! We told you, you will not harm any more of our friends. You will not kill any more of my friends.” Her voice cracked with each word, the overwhelming fear evident. In spite of it, she stood straight, staring hard at the woman who had birthed her.

In turn, I saw that blinding rage in Kushiel’s face redirected that way. She slowly turned her head to glare that way while holding me off the floor with one hand. “You…” The word came in a snarl, before she pulled me off the wall and then shoved me hard against it once more, slamming me in a blow that sent a shock of pain through my back. “I told you never to call me that. That word is not for you to use, you pathetic, filthy abomination of a Lie!” The last word came in a shout that sent spittle flying from her mouth.

The shout from Theia, however, was just as angry. Scared, trembling, but angry. “I am your daughter! Hate it, hate me, but you are my mother! You spent thousands of years wishing for a child. Then you had one. You had one! I am your child. Your flesh is my flesh, your blood is my blood!”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Radueriel start to take a step that way. But Abaddon held a hand out to stop him, giving a slight shake of his head when the man looked to him.

“Blood?” Kushiel echoed in disbelief. “Flesh? You… you are a humiliation. I should not have allowed you to take one breath more than the breath you took in the moment I learned you were a Lie!” She was shouting, her rage filling the room. “I was a fool! I believed that my child, my child could learn, that you could beat the handicap that you were born with, that you could be cured. I was wrong. You were a failure at birth and you will remain a failure to your death. Now leave that host so that I may see that that death.”

With those words, Kushiel gave me a hard throw to the side. I hit the ground, sprawling out painfully. But my focus was on the woman herself, who had produced a gleaming silver dagger. Without another word, she hurled that blade across the room. Before I could even think of focusing on a portal, the dagger embedded itself into Pace’s chest, even as both of us (all four, if we counted Theia and Tabbris) screamed.

A girl stood there, form glowing briefly before fading. Pale skin. Dark hair. Theia. The real Theia. She straightened, taking in what had to be the first breath of her own in over a year.

And then she stepped forward, revealing another girl behind her. Pace. Alive. Standing with the bloody dagger in one hand. The wound in her chest… almost nonexistent.

“Your power.” The words that came from Theia just then sounded as though they were occuring to her the moment that she said them. She realized the truth and spoke it in wonder. “It’s your power, Mother.”

As she spoke those words, Kushiel slumped to her knees. Blood thoroughly coated the front of her shirt, while she held both hands against the traumatic wound in her chest, mouth gaping like a fish.

“You killed her,” Theia continued softly, her voice dull with shock. “You killed her. But I am… I am your daughter. I have your power. I… I moved it. I moved the damage. You killed her, just long enough. But I moved it. And you can’t… reflect what’s already been reflected.”

That was it. Theia had inherited her mother’s power to transfer damage. But because Pace had taken lethal damage, even if only for a bare instant before it was transferred, that had allowed Theia to stop possessing her.

Distantly, I noticed Radueriel and Abaddon. Both seemed frozen in confusion and disbelief, incapable of driving themselves to move against what they were witnessing.

From her knees, blood soaking the floor beneath her, Kushiel held her hands tight against the wound in her chest. She lifted her head, speaking a single, trembling word in a voice still full of hate and disgust. “… L… Lie…”

“My name,” her daughter informed her while plucking the dagger from Pace’s hand, “is not Lie.

“It is Aletheia.”

Recognition for that name and what it meant abruptly dawned in Kushiel’s hateful eyes, her mouth opening to spit a denial. But Theia moved first, driving the dagger into her own throat.

Once more, the damage was reflected. And once more, Kushiel was faced with her own power being used against her, as she had used it against so many others over so many centuries. Once more she was faced with a daughter who could hurt her the way that she had hurt her and everyone else for so long.

Once more… and for the last time.

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On The Edge 42-07

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Catching the swinging arm of the fur-covered figure who was trying to claw me, I pivoted, keeping one hand on his bicep and using the other to grab the back of his neck. With a grunt, I shoved him hard into the nearest wall, then used his body to brace myself as I popped up into a double-kick into the chest of another figure. I used the force from that kick, planting both feet against him and pushing off as he was knocked to the floor, to push myself into a backward flip over the head of a man who had been coming up behind me. My foot kicked his leg out from under him, and as he collapsed I brought the same foot down hard on his back to make him hit the floor with even more force. With one foot there still, I reached out to catch hold of the shoulder of the man I had first shoved into the wall, yanking him backward while stepping aside so that he tripped over the man I had just knocked down. At the same time, three more guys who were running toward me ended up flat on their faces as a cloud of sand flew under their feet.

Got one? I sent inwardly while all that was going on.

Got it, Tabbris shot back, filling my head with the exact information about what she was doing and what she needed, even as the two men on the floor at my feet ended up in a tumbled heap and the one I had kicked was recovering from staggering backward. In the distance, the trio I had knocked down with sand were trying to extricate themselves, but my partner threw more of the sand into their faces. Which would have been bad enough, but this sand was super-heated, so they had to deal with being burned as well. It was… not going well for them.

As the two guys at my feet got themselves situated and lunged at me, I dove into a forward roll to put myself next to the man I’d kicked. All three were right there, practically on top of me as my hand slapped down against the floor. Tabbris used my instant-image power to inscribe a rune into it, before throwing in some of our combined energy to trigger it.

The reverse and increase gravity spell activated, glowing red just before the three men who were diving for me were caught by it. The trio went flying up, slamming hard into the ceiling an instant before the reverse part of the spell cut off, leaving only the ‘increase’ part. Which, of course, yanked them back down again. They landed hard and didn’t move again, aside from a couple of groans.

It was an effect that had been limited to that very small area, and only for a moment. Still, Tabbris would need to recharge for a few seconds, at least. She would watch for another opportunity to use spells that she had learned from her mother over the past couple weeks and let me know.

In the distance, I saw Asenath and Bobbi. The two of them were working together to try and clear a path to the security panel. Unfortunately, the pair had been waylaid by a few controlled security guards and a single Seosten. And they couldn’t make their efforts to clear the path to the panel too obvious, or Kushiel’s forces would figure out what we were trying to do and just destroy it. Or at least make it even harder to reach, which we really didn’t need.  And I couldn’t exactly just use a portal to reach it. I didn’t know precisely where the slot for the USB thing was, and as soon as our friends here saw me groping for it, they’d… again, know to stop me.

No, I had to get to it. And the others were trying to help that happen.

Elsewhere, I could see Roxa in wolf form leaping on top of someone, carrying them to the ground before she bit into their arm. A second later, she shifted into her human self, twisting over to kick an approaching figure hard in the stomach from her prone position, a blow that sent that person flying backward. At the same time, her arm turned into its tree form, extending into an enormous branch that slammed into four more people to knock them over.

Miranda and Theia were fighting together too, also trying to clear a way for me to get to that panel. The two of them (or three, considering Miranda had split herself several times and two of them were there) were teaming up against an adult Seosten who just would not go down.

Further down the hall, the other werewolves of the pack were also fighting. Or… most of them were. Fezzik was on the ground. The big guy… I didn’t think he was ever going to move again. I hadn’t been there to see what happened, but given the size of the silver blade embedded in his chest and the way his head was… yeah. Yeah, he… damn it. God fucking damn it. The other wolves couldn’t even mourn him just yet or they’d risk losing even more of themselves.

He also wasn’t the only one down. A couple of the Seosten who had come in with us were on the floor. I didn’t know if they were dead or not, but… I wasn’t optimistic.

Then, of course, I had another problem. One of the young Seosten who wasn’t on our side was coming after me with a laser sword. He kept slashing at me, forcing me to back up or twist from side to side to avoid each humming swipe while I watched for an opening.

Not far away, I caught a brief glimpse of a third iteration of Miranda from the corner of my eye as the other girl used the metal shield on her arm to create three quick identically-sized and shaped round forcefields before making a quick gesture that sent them flying off to collide with the side of a big guy who appeared to be made of hundreds of different coils of rope all put together into one man-shaped figure. He turned at the blows, just as yet another Miranda hopped on his back, creating some kind of burning fist with one hand as she plunged it into his neck. He roared and jerked backward to throw her off, while that first Miranda ran that way at full speed, leaping up and twisting to plant her feet in his rope-coil chest. The impact sent him falling backward while the second Miranda hopped off. Another one appeared right where the rope-man was falling, already swinging that shield. The flat of it collided with the figure’s head and sent him to the ground, dazed.

Throughout all of that (which was only a couple of seconds), I was bobbing and weaving while backpedaling as the figure with the laser sword continued doggedly after me. Watch for the opening, watch for the opening, watch for it, watch for it…

There! As the man switched up his attack to stab at me instead of slashing with that blade, I created a quick portal with one hand right where his blade was heading. The other end appeared just behind the Seosten’s left leg. Which, since he had stabbed forward, made the energy blade go through the portal to stab himself. The man cried out, dropping the sword. I caught it, spinning to slam the hilt into the side of his head while he was collapsing. He went down and stayed down. For the moment, anyway.

That was the problem. While the Kushiel-aligned Seosten and the possessed or controlled Auberge security had no problems killing any of us, we were trying our level best not to use lethal measures with at least the latter. We really didn’t want to kill the guys who didn’t have a choice with what they were doing. But that was costing us. Had already cost us.

The security panel. It was still there, just past a spot where Larees and that Hasty chick were fighting basically back to back. They were right there, the fighting going on all around the panel. But it wasn’t too damaged. Not yet. Plugging in this USB could still bring us some help. But first, I had to get there.

Briefly, I thought of just shouting out for the Seosten woman or the werewolf and telling them what to do while throwing or portaling the USB to them. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. Everyone would hear me, and I was pretty damn sure the bad guys would work out that they needed to destroy the panel pretty quick.

Had to get to it. And since whatever the floors and walls up here were made of, it wasn’t wood, I had to get there the old fashioned way. As I took a step, a figure blurred over to my right side. Theia. She flashed me a dangerous smile. “We’ll cover you. Get to the button to deploy presents for all the good boys and girls.”

Her saying the word ‘present’ instinctively made me tense up despite myself. But another voice spoke from my left. One of the Mirandas. “Yeah, we’ll cover you. Go. Go!”

No time to think about how Theia made me feel. Shaking it off, I went for it. The other two girls were on either side, covering me as we raced down the hallway. Theia’s fire and ice guns were busy. Mostly the latter, freezing people’s legs or other limbs. Meanwhile, Miranda’s energy shields kept us safe from that side. They blocked for me, and together we beelined right for that panel.

Four hefty figures were ahead of us. They looked like gray elephant-skinned orc things, and they clearly weren’t in any mood to move. Nor were they affected by either of Theia’s elemental guns, apparently simply absorbing both fire and ice with the only apparent reaction being that the parts of their bodies touched by either turned red or blue.

Oh, right, there was another effect. Namely, they spat out that fire and ice by opening their mouths to send it right back at us. We had to dive to the floor to avoid it. Then roll to either side (Theia one way and Miranda and I the other) so we wouldn’t be trampled as two of the four rushed to do just that, stampeding right where we had just been.

A quick input from Tabbris and I knew what to do next. Kicking myself up and into a roll, I ended right near the nearest gray elemental-absorbing orc and slapped a hand against the black leather pants that he wore. At that brief touch, my partner made a rune appear, once more using that instant-image power. She shoved more power into it, igniting the spell immediately.

The effect was just as immediate. The orc’s pants, and the rest of his clothes, turned to metal. He was trapped in place, utterly incapable of moving. I heard his shouts of confusion as he struggled, but the transformation extended down to his shoes. And they themselves were fused with the floor. He was stuck, and wouldn’t be a threat for awhile.

Unfortunately, there were still the other three. And while Theia/Pace and Miranda were dealing with two of them, that left one. Which was the one that yanked me up off the floor, throwing me into the ceiling hard enough to daze me. As I fell back down, a wild swing from the gray orc knocked the remaining sense from me, and I was pretty sure I blacked out for a second before the collision with a nearby wall snapped me awake once more.

Ow. Oww. At the last instant, Tabbris took over and threw us out of the way just as that same orc tried to stomp where my head had been. Then I was back in control, snapping my foot up and out of his reaching grasp. A thought sent a cloud of sand into his eyes, and I flipped myself backwards to my feet while he was recovering.

Still pain. Lots of pain. Regeneration was working on it, but this wasn’t fun.

Somewhere along the line of being thrown around, I’d dropped the laser sword that I had picked up. But I could still feel it. I knew where it was. As the gray orc–Deunren, Tabbris informed me. As the Deunren growled and lunged for me once more, I made a quick portal in the air above myself. The other end appeared right where my item-sense told me that laser sword was. It fell through, into my upraised hand. I hit the button to ignite the blade and swept it in front of myself quickly. The blade cut off both of the Deunren’s raised arms, making him stumble while crying out.

“Something something disarming pun,” I managed before slugging him in the face as hard as I could. Unable to put anything up to protect himself, he took the blow full on, crashing to the floor.

Hopping over him, I tried to reach the panel once more. There, I was there. I was right there.

Then I wasn’t. A gust of wind or something struck me. It felt like wind, but it was powerful enough to send me spinning down the hallway, tumbling into a heap.

I had no idea what had hit me, or if it had even been purposeful. There were so many powers and weapons being thrown around, I could’ve been targeted or that could’ve been accidental. But either way, now there were even more people between me and where I needed to get.

This wasn’t working. I couldn’t get there. The others couldn’t get there. Everyone who actually knew what to do at the security panel even if I could get the USB to them was pinned down. Larees was there with Hasty still, but neither of them knew what to do with it. And I couldn’t just shout across the– Wait a second. Duh. Stupid, Flick. There was something I could do for that. Part of which I had been practicing with basically all year long.

Keep them off us for a second, I sent inwardly while scrambling in my pocket. Tabbris took over my feet, making us backpedal as more enemies came for us. Two laser shots struck nearby before one hit my chest, but I absorbed it. By that point, Tabbris had sent up a cloud of sand, superheating it. The burning sand flew in a wild circle, forcing everyone back a few steps and giving us a momentary respite.

The whole time, my hands were moving. From my pocket, I managed to pull out Herbie in one hand. With the other, I produced a privacy coin. Quickly, I used it with myself as the only ‘allowed’ person to hear what I was saying.

Then I went back to fighting. Tabbris took over the other part. With Herbie in one hand, she used my–our ability to instill sound in an object. With my voice, she spoke the quick explanation, to plug the USB into the slot on the panel. The power would only let us use sounds that were a few seconds long. But there was a lot you could say in roughly five seconds if you were really motivated to make it fit.

The whole time she was fixing Herbie, I was avoiding all the guys who wanted me to be a smear on the ground. And there were a lot of them. Kushiel’s forces were everywhere. And they were clearly interested in what I was doing.

What I was doing right then, as it happened, was making a portal. The other end came out near where Larees was, and I quickly shoved a second privacy coin against Herbie, lodging it into the spot where his sword was while activating it to only allow the Seosten woman to hear. Then I chucked Herbie and the USB together through that portal while activating the sound projection on him.

She heard. And thanks to the privacy coin, no one else did. I saw Larees use her firebird to clear a space, shouting something to Hasty, who turned into a wolf and lunged onto the biggest of their opponents to clear a path. Larees went right over them, hitting the nearby panel where only a single enemy waited in her path.

The rest of the Seosten knew then. They made a beeline that way, a half-dozen of them converging on the spot where Larees was. They would get to her before she could deal with the single threat in her way and find the slot.

But a figure appeared in front of them. A very… very small figure. Namythiet. She flew down, hovering between the six enemy Seosten and Larees, with that tiny sword held out toward them. She said something I didn’t catch, but part of it was ‘Mister Seth’. The Seosten looked at each other for an instant, then ignored the tiny pixie to lunge past her.

That, ignoring Namythiet, was a mistake that they paid for immediately. Because that little pixie chose right then to show them (and me) why she had named the tiny sword of hers Cataclysm. The blade, itself about the size of a pin, began to glow bright red. A dozen lines of energy shot out away from it in the same positions as the numbers on a clockface, stretching about three feet in every direction before opening up a small portal at the end of each. And from each of those twelve portals appeared several more lines that created more. Twelve initial portals, each with three additional ones attached. Forty eight of them in all. Each were only about a few inches across. But through each of those portals appeared the barrel of various weapons. I saw cannons, rifles, wide-barreled shotguns, some kind of metal coil with electricity humming around it, even a flamethrower.

The literal arsenal instantly unleashed on the briefly paralyzed Seosten. Most of them managed to hurl themselves away from the worst of it at the last second. But two were caught right in the middle and went down for good, while the rest were at least injured. Not to mention the damage done to the wall behind them, which was quite literally blown to shreds. There wasn’t much of a ‘wall’ left to speak of.

It also gave Larees the chance she needed. The woman managed to deal with the only remaining threat that had been in her way, hopping over the falling body to reach the panel. Her hand slammed the USB into place.

And that was enough. The second the last number left her mouth, a dozen portals appeared all along the ceiling. Portals, not doorways. Which made sense. It meant that the turrets that shot down through those portals could actually be housed anywhere and just pop out where needed.

Either way, the turrets appeared and, as promised, began shooting only Kushiel’s forces with some kind of electrical stun blasts that knocked them out. Our side was completely safe, while theirs immediately began to collapse.

It was working. Between the turrets, which amounted to powerful reinforcements, and our own people, we quickly turned the tide against the mix of Kushiel’s Seosten and the controlled security forces. Getting that security to deploy had done the trick. We could hold them until the others managed to show up. We could hold them.

And then the turrets were ripped out of the ceiling. In a spray of sparks, they were torn down from the portals. The metal guns let out a scream of protest while being ripped open and flattened out. In the next second, while I was still realizing what had happened, pieces of the turrets began flying in every direction. Straight at us. One big piece slammed into my side before I could avoid it, knocking me to the ground. Then the chunk of metal literally wrapped around me, fusing itself to the floor while trapping me beneath it.

The same thing was happening everywhere else, up and down the hallway. Not just the turrets, but parts of the walls themselves, even the doors and decorations. They were all tearing their way free and trapping everyone on our side. The werewolves were being pinned in ways that would make it impossible for them to escape even if they shifted.

The green-skinned elf-like figure standing at the end of the hall with his arms going through motions like a conductor. It was him. He continued to pin everyone down. Then his form shifted once everyone was solidly trapped.

Ares. Abaddon. Whatever. It was him. He took back his normal form, while Radeuriel and Kushiel joined him. The three Olympians stood there, observing the corridor for a moment before starting to walk, calmly as they pleased, toward the door.

Where was Athena? Where was… was… anyone else? Where were they?

Not here. That was the answer, or at least the only one that mattered right then. They weren’t here.

Damn it, damn it. Move. I had to do something, anything!

There, Flick! Tabbris moved my eyes, making me look toward the unconscious figure lying nearby. It was one of the Seosten. I didn’t even know whose side they were on. He was several feet away, but that didn’t matter.

I saw Ares shift into another form as they walked, Kushiel casually telling him, “And make sure they don’t wake up any time soon.”

It was now or never. Whatever form Ares had shifted into, it would clearly knock everyone out. Quickly and as surreptitiously as possible, I made a tiny portal, just big enough to stick my finger through. With that finger, I touched the fallen Seosten and quickly possessed him.

My temporary host was unconscious, so I couldn’t see what happened. But I could hear some kind of pop in the air. I waited for a brief moment, then quickly stopped possessing him.

I was kneeling on the floor as I emerged from the unconscious man, keeping myself as low as possible. Ahead of me, the trio of Olympians had been joined by what remained of their forces. It wasn’t much, just three actual Seosten and a couple of the controlled security guards. But that was enough, considering everywhere else I looked, our side was knocked out. They’d been pinned beneath metal, then Ares had done… something. Whatever it was, whatever that popping sound had been, everyone was down. Everyone in the hallway that could have helped was unconscious.

Then it got worse. As the Olympians approached the door that led into the vault, there was a click, a chime, and then the door opened. It just opened for them. Just like that. the door was open. All that, everything we’d done, and Kushiel, Radueriel, and Abaddon were right there in front of the open door. They were about to go through it. They were about to go into the vault. Their little miniature honor guard or whatever it was had already gone inside. They were in.

We’re too late, Tabbris lamented, sounding crestfallen and about as broken as I felt then.

No, I shot back despite everything inside me saying she was right. We’re not. Boost.

With those words, I lunged to my feet. Shifting myself back to my normal form, I hurled myself that way. With everything I had, every last bit of strength and speed that I could drag from the pit of my soul, I sprinted down that hallway. The boost kicked in, and I was almost flying. My hands moved, calling my staff into their grip and pointing it behind me before I triggered the boost from that as well. And then I literally was flying. My feet left the ground as I rocketed straight to that group of Olympians.  Abaddon was at the back, then Radueriel, with Kushiel at the front. All of whom could kill me practically with a thought.

I hit them from behind. Only I didn’t hit them. I possessed them… all of them, in a line. One by one, starting with Abaddon, I possessed each one just long enough to avoid physically colliding with them before popping myself back out the front. I didn’t stay long enough to bother with a mental domination fight, because I wasn’t trying to control them. I possessed Abaddon, popped out through his front, immediately possessed Radueriel from behind before going out his front, and finally did the same with Kushiel. One by one, before my body even had time to shift properly from the glowing energy form that it took when exiting someone, I threw myself through all three of them, rocketing out of Kushiel before ending in a dive that took me the rest of the way into the vault itself.

As I passed through the last of them, my hand produced that crystal that Wyatt had given me. I let it go, before flipping over in the air. My staff was already shifting into its bow form as I took aim, drawing back an energy arrow. With a grunt, I released it, shooting the arrow back that way right as I landed in a crouch.

The arrow collided with that crystal, shattering it. I caught a brief glimpse of trio of Olympians there at the doorway, just as the spell on the crystal activated. A thick wall, appearing to be made of a mostly opaque crystal itself, appeared to block that doorway.

I was there. I was in the vault, which itself was mostly an empty circular room. Empty, that was, aside from a single pedestal in the middle of it with a book sitting on top. I was there and, for the moment, the Olympians weren’t.

It wouldn’t keep them out for long. But maybe… just maybe, it would be enough. Every second counted, and I had to hope… I had to believe that help was on its way. Deveron and the others in the panic room, Avalon, Gaia, and everyone else coming in through the other side. Seconds mattered. However long it would take Kushiel and the other two to break through that… whatever it was that Wyatt had given me, it might just be long enough.

Of course, I wasn’t in here alone. There were three non-Olympian Seosten and three other figures in here with me, all of whom looked pretty pissed off right then.

Help was on the way. It had to be. They were coming. But so were Kushiel, Radeuriel, and Abaddon. The first question was who would make it first.

And the second question, which sprang to mind as the guys in the room with me drew weapons of their own, was whether I would survive long enough for that to matter.

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