Persephone

The Storm 21-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

So, our group walked together across the orange-red ground. It continued to crunch under our feet, more like very thin snow than the dirt it resembled. The air was almost unpleasantly hot, and filled with that sulfur scent, which threatened to make us cough uncontrollably as we got closer to the volcano. But we dealt with both using magic, specifically the fresh air spell and another one Judas knew, which basically kept the temperature around our bodies to a more tolerable level. Although he did warn us that it wouldn’t stand up to very extreme temperatures, so we shouldn’t try to go swimming in lava or anything like that. 

Jaq and Gus were riding on my shoulders, while the latter held Herbie in place on that side so he could see where we were going. I knew my little cyberform mice were worried about Mom too. She’d been giving them special treats now and then, little pieces of rare metal that was supposed to make their bodies tougher once they ingested and processed it. I wasn’t exactly sure how that worked, but apparently it was a thing for all Cyberforms. They rebuilt and repaired themselves over time using the metal they ‘ate.’ That was in addition to the way ones like Vulcan turned the ingested metal into new bullets. When they were able to get a particularly durable bit of metal, they could use that to strengthen their own form. My buddies were much tougher to squish by this point, all thanks to Mom’s help after she had been able to produce some truly rare samples. So they really wanted to find her too. 

I did think about using the speed rings to make us go faster, but as impatient as I was for this to be over, the others needed to conserve as much energy as possible. It wouldn’t do us any good to sprint all the way there, only for half of us to collapse in exhaustion right when we found ourselves in trouble. Not everyone had the near-limitless stamina I had, or were a robot like Robin.

And speaking of Robin, they were in the lead, since their senses were better than anything the rest of us could boast, even the vampires. Especially with the way the volcano was messing with that. We might’ve had the fresh air spell keeping us from choking on the fumes, but that just meant that Senny and Stasia couldn’t smell anything beyond the effect. And if we lowered it, all they’d be able to smell would be the sulfur. It affected them even more than the rest of us. 

But that was okay, because again, we had Robin. The Mevari could see and hear much further than the rest of us, even through the fog-like haze we began walking through. They made sure we didn’t stumble into any problems. Between Fossor and Denuvus, I was almost positive that there would be some sort of trap before we made it to our destination. Hell, probably more than one. For all we knew, the witch was watching us with magic right now, just waiting for us to get a little closer before–

No. No, Shiori had that power that allowed her to sense when she was being observed by someone she didn’t know about. She’d know if someone was watching us. Unless they had some way around that, of course. There was always magic and other powers to counter various abilities, including that one. And it would make sense for someone like Denuvus to have that. So really, there was nothing proving she wasn’t staring at us right now and plotting about what to do. 

Shoving that incredibly unhelpful thought out of my head, I glanced around once more. Everything still looked the same. Robin was out in front, with Judas slightly behind them. Shiori, Tabbris, and I were walking side by side a few feet behind those two. About ten feet back from us, Stasia and Asenath were walking together, having their own telepathic conversation about vampire things. And a few feet further back from them, Persephone was riding on Twister, who was in the form of a rhino. They were also having their own conversation through the magical mental connection we’d set up. I hadn’t been privy to much of it, but from what they’d said a few minutes earlier when I asked what they were talking about, it had something to do with some very minor Seosten member of the Olympus Twister had met about eighty years ago without knowing what he was. It sounded like they had got along pretty well, and she wanted to know if he had just been manipulating her for some reason or what. 

Eighty years ago would’ve been while the rebellion was still going strong. A rebellion Twister had been part of. Did her memories of meeting with this minor Olympian have something to do with that? Or was it entirely unrelated? I was going to have to ask her about that later, after we got through this whole thing. One problem at a time–okay, as few problems as physically possible at a time. 

Squeezing my hand, Tabbris spoke through that same mental conversation spell. Despite the fact that she wasn’t talking out loud, her voice still came through in a whisper. Which wasn’t really necessary, but still. Do you think the people who live here are gonna be okay? I mean, on this world. Her telepathic voice was pensive, the girl squinting off into the distance as though trying to look toward one of the cities we knew were somewhere off in that direction. There was no chance she could see it, of course. The nearest inhabited area was thousands of miles away from here. Fossor hadn’t allowed anyone to live anywhere close to his old home. I still wondered if that had more to do with him being spiteful, or because he had put something important there. Maybe a bit of both. 

Returning the squeeze, I replied, They have a much better chance of it now that he’s gone. It’ll take a long time for them to move on, but at least they’ve got the opportunity now.

Shiori nodded from my other side, speaking up equally softly through the telepathic connection. Yeah, without that evil jackass around, these people can figure out what sort of society they actually are, you know? It’s sort of like a whole new world is being born. She smiled briefly before grimacing. A world that’s been through a lot of horrific trauma.

They will heal. That was Rahanvael. The ghost girl appeared slightly ahead of us, her form coming into view as she stared at the volcano. Her mental voice was tentative, and I could tell it was all she could do to keep herself somewhat together. And yet, there was hope in her words. With my brother gone, the people of our world can move on and become something better.

I started to say something about how she had made that happen, wanting to help alleviate some of the guilt I knew she still felt. But before I could, Robin stopped up ahead and held their hand out. A small hologram projector embedded in their palm made the words, Hold here appear in the air so we could all see. They looked back at us, and I saw the dark blue eyes of Sec as the hologram changed to, There is a tunnel running below the ground. It appears to be artificial, given the metallic walls. That lasted long enough for all of us to read, before changing once more. It runs from that direction, to that direction. First he pointed off to the west, away from the volcano, then his hand moved east, to the volcano itself. We had been moving in a north-eastern direction, toward the volcano at an angle. 

Wait. Rahanvael floated that way, stopping right next to Robin. She turned, looking to the west, the way Sec said the tunnel originated from. That direction is where my brother took me that day, the day he… She trailed off, visibly frowning before turning back to the east, the way the tunnel went. And that is the direction of our old home. It is… close. Her form flickered a little, probably thanks to what had to be a wave of conflicting emotions. From here, it would only take twenty minutes to reach our old farm. Or ten minutes to reach the spot where… he took me. 

Either of those could be important to him, I agreed, stepping up next to her and Robin while reaching up to put Jaq, Gus, and Herbie away in my pockets. I guess it just depends on which one you think we should check out first.

Da, Stasia murmured as she and the others joined us. The Russian vampire stepped out a bit before crouching over the spot where the tunnel was supposed to be. It should be her choice which way we go to start. But either way, perhaps we should see if we can do so from inside. 

She had a point. Whatever we were about to find, it would be better to get there from inside the tunnel. Any defenses or traps that were set up would probably be mostly pointed toward the entrances. Not that I expected it to be completely safe going in this way, of course. We all took a minute to spread out along the apparent path of the tunnel, figuring out the best way to get inside. According to Robin, the tunnel was about ten feet wide, and equally tall. The top of it was six feet down from where we were standing. 

So, Judas started while staring at the dirt beneath our feet, what do you all think? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t bring a shovel. And even if I had, I don’t fancy spending the next couple hours doing this manually. 

Twister, who had shifted back to her normal form after Persephone dismounted, kicked the dirt. Me neither. Even if I could maybe speed it up with an animal, there’s gotta be a better way. Do you Heretics have any spiffy powers that might help? 

I–wait, maybe. Focusing on the dirt once more, I thought about my sand control power. Maybe this stuff was similar enough to that? If there was silica in it, or something that my power could pretend was silica, it might work. 

We were in luck. The dirt, or sand, or whatever we wanted to call it now, moved under my focus. I could still only move about fifty pounds at a time, but it was still faster and easier than physically digging. The others helped by pushing the loose bits back as I dug down, making sure the stuff surrounding it didn’t fall into the opening and cover it up again. Before too long, I had managed to create a hole four feet wide and six feet deep, revealing the green metal top of the tunnel.There was also some sort of energy field running along it. At first we didn’t know what it was, but the moment Rahanvael tried to float through to check the place out, she was violently hurled backward. Anti-ghost field then, apparently. 

Fossor put up an anti-ghost shield around his secret tunnel? Shiori sounded confused. Why would he do that? I mean, he was the only one who used ghosts here, right?

Rahanvael, recovering after a moment, shook her head. Our people are known for producing Necromancers. None anywhere near his level, but still. And our ghosts commonly lingered until they were sent onward by our priests. It makes sense that he would take measures to prevent any of them from reaching whatever he was hiding here.  Her telepathic voice turned a bit bitter then. Even if he did attempt to kill any who demonstrated that sort of skill. Some might have been able to hide it for a time.

Yeah, of course he would have made a point of killing any of his own people who might have posed even the tiniest bit of a threat to him, no matter how remote. That and there was the fact that he never missed a chance to be as petty as possible. 

Rahanvael continued. I think there’s a lot of that necromantic energy in the shield itself. There’d have to be, for it to react so violently and effectively against ghosts. It seems to be a mix of magic and technology. Some sort of generator he set up and fueled with-– She blanched, arms crossing over her stomach with a look of disgust. 

With more of his sacrifices, I finished for her, sighing. He’s been gone for awhile, I don’t suppose there’s any chance of it running out of energy soon?

Considering how quick he was to kill off his own people, Judas put in, I wouldn’t count on that. He’s probably got enough power in there to keep the thing running for years. You said he didn’t come back here that often anyway. The dark-haired man rubbed the back of his neck before glancing toward me with those piercing eyes that I could feel even through the sunglasses he almost always wore. And personally, I don’t really feel like sitting around waiting to see if the power goes out.

Of course. I knew Judas, Robin, Stasia, and even Asenath really wanted to focus on finding Rasputin. They were all totally willing to help with this thing, Senny especially, given how important it was to me. And, most likely, the fact that we all thought Rasputin being here probably had something to do with Denuvus as well. Sure, it was possible that they both wanted to get completely different things from this place right after Fossor was killed. But given the way things had gone so far, I was willing to bet there was some sort of connection. At the very least, it made sense for all of us to stick together and look for my mother first. Stopping her from doing whatever Denuvus had sent her to do had to be our top priority. Not only because she was my mother, but also because whatever Denuvus wanted probably wouldn’t be good for the rest of us. That and none of us liked the idea of that woman popping up out of nowhere to fuck us over while we were distracted. 

But even with all of that in mind, I couldn’t blame them for wanting to get on with this so they could find Rasputin. If he wasn’t connected to this, then they were potentially losing the chance to find him here. 

Between that and my deep-seated fear that whatever Denuvus was sending my mother to do would be very bad, it was clear that we couldn’t wait around hoping that shield went down. We had to keep moving.

Persephone straightened up after poking her finger into the dirt beside the tunnel and tasting it with a thoughtful expression. It is probable that any breach of the shield would send an alert, which this Denuvus might become aware of. If she is actually here. Or anyone else who might be nearby.

What if Flick did it? Shiori asked, turning my way. Rahanvael said the thing has a lot of Fossor’s energy in it, and you have his power. Maybe you could disable it without setting off any alarms or anything. She offered a weak shrug. I know it’s a longshot, but still. 

No, she’s right. That was Rahanvael herself, focusing on me. I think you can push the energy out of the way to create a hole. But everyone would have to create an opening in the metal quickly and go through. 

I can do that! Tabbris piped up while raising her hand. Her expression was determined. I can use my wings to cut a hole in it, I promise. I’ve been practicing. 

I knew she felt guilty about the fact that she hadn’t been able to use her wings to cut through the security door back when Mom had locked us in that asteroid station. I’d tried to tell her not to worry about it, that Mom knew about her power and had prepared for it. But I wasn’t sure it helped all that much. At the very least, she was intent on using the wings now. 

So, while the others waited, I held my hand out and closed my eyes to focus on the shield in front of me. They were right, I could feel the necromantic energy interlaced throughout it. I’d expected this to be hard and take a lot of focus, but it really wasn’t. Almost as soon as I had the thought about the energy moving, it reacted. A hole appeared in the shield right below our feet, and I blinked a bit in surprise. Uhh, go for it. I’ve got this. I really did have it too. This wasn’t difficult at all. Was that weird? Probably not, since Fossor wouldn’t have wanted to make it hard for himself to get through his own shield, and this stuff probably thought I was him. And yet, it still made me uneasy. Maybe just because of the reminder that I was using his power. I was pretty sure I’d never really get used to that. 

Tabbris, standing on the opposite side of the hole in the dirt I’d made, manifested her wings and extended them. Within a few quick thrusts, she had cut an opening in the metal ceiling wide enough for all of us to go through. And one by one, we did just that. Asenath went first, followed by Stasia, then Shiori, and the others. I went last, allowing the shield to resume its position as soon as I was through.

Soon, we were in what was essentially a long metal tube. It was lit by some sort of glowing lines along the floor in the ceiling, farther from that, it looked empty. Looking both directions, I turned back to Rahanvael and gestured. Up to you. Which way sounds best? 

She thought about it briefly before giving a decisive nod. Toward our old home. We can see what my brother hid in his secret spot after we check on what he has done with this volcano.

So, we began moving east through the tunnel, keeping our eyes open for any sort of threat. Now we had the added feeling of claustrophobia to go with paranoia, which was fun. But either way, we kept going, doing our best to ignore that feeling. 

As promised, it took about twenty minutes to reach the general area that had apparently been where Fossor had grown up as a child. We found ourselves emerging from the tunnel into a wide open underground cavern that had to be part of the volcano itself. It was a good three hundred feet wide and just as long. There were stalagmites and stalactites scattered throughout the cave, along with a small stream of crystal clear water running down the middle of it, perpendicular to where we had entered. We could also see glowing crystals embedded in the walls of various colors. Red, blue, green, white, and purple mostly, though there were a few gold and green as well. 

Uhh, what is this place? Shiori asked as we all stopped and stared. 

I have no idea, Rahavael assured us. This is… I have never seen it. She sounded confused and a bit lost, understandably. I don’t even know what those glowing crystals are. Those… are not natural. 

Biting my lip, I started to step closer to the nearest cluster of the things so I could get a better look. Just as I moved, however, the cave rumbled around us. It only lasted for a couple seconds, but it definitely got our attention. As did the hole that suddenly opened up underneath the spot where Robin and Persephone were standing together. Before any of us could react, including the Mevari and Revenant-possessed Seosten, they had fallen through the hole and were gone. The ground reappeared just as quickly. 

I dove that way, along with Judas and Stasia. But before we could do anything about it, a voice that spoke up from about a hundred feet off, far enough to be out of range of our mute spell. 

“Well how about that! I told the old lady you wouldn’t sit still on that asteroid, and lookie here.” 

It was… Trice? Fucking Trice of all people? I’d almost forgotten about him entirely, after he’d disappeared from the cell Gaia put him in so long ago. The tall, green-haired Eden’s Garden Heretic stood there next to the stream, watching us with clear amusement. He held his pike in one hand, the end of it planted on the ground like a walking stick as he stared at me. “Let me guess, you’re here to find your mom. Well, I’ve got bad news. We still need her for awhile. But don’t worry, we’ll keep you busy.” 

We? What did he mean by–

The answer came even as I had that thought. Several more figures appeared around Trice. In front was a boy, a year or two older than me, with long, shaggy dark hair and an olive complexion. His left arm was covered by a metal gauntlet. He was accompanied by a pale, red-haired girl, a slightly taller black girl, a blond caucasian guy with very piercing blue eyes, a scrawny Latino guy with short hair and a goatee, and another caucasian (though quite tanned) guy with brown hair cut into a flat top. 

At first I didn’t recognize them, but then I realized. The guy in front was Miles Cleary, the guy whose ‘bogeyman’ father had been imprisoned by Fossor. And the others were all members of his team. 

Wait, hold on. Why didn’t I… why hadn’t I talked to the guy after we found his dad? Why didn’t I… even think about him that much? The realization of just how much I had not thought about him, and how strange that was given the circumstances, had just started to fill my mind when Trice spoke again. 

“You guys heard what Denuvus said, right?” 

“Fight,” all six of the others replied together, their voices a disturbing monotone that made it clear they weren’t in control of themselves. “Hurt the intruders.” As Miles said that, the gauntlet on his arm broke apart, turning into hundreds of tiny metal cyberform bees, which quickly reshaped themselves into a sword and shield. Meanwhile, the others all produced their own weapons.  And just like that, we had seven Boscher Heretics about to launch themselves at us. Seven Boschers on their side, versus two Boschers, a tiny Seosten girl with terrifyingly powerful energy wings, two vampires, a Pooka, and a Natural Charmeine Heretic. And we had no idea what had happened to Robin and Persephone, or if they were okay.    

“Yup, that about sums it up,” Trice agreed, almost as though he’d read my mind. His eyes narrowed at me, while lifting his pike to join the other six. 

“Let’s have some fun.” 

Previous Chapter

The Storm 21-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Apparently the metals in the volcano, and possibly other things, were interfering with the sensors on the ship. We could tell there were some life signs down on that spot, probably dozens of them. But it was hard to make out specifics, and we couldn’t get a good, close visual beyond a few very static-filled images. The only solution was to land and go over there ourselves to check it out in person. We all just hoped that, whatever Mom had been sent here for, it wasn’t too late to stop Denuvus from getting it. 

And on a more personal note, I hoped that it wasn’t too late to punch Denuvus in the fucking face. Preferably repeatedly. 

Obviously, we didn’t put the ship down right where we had detected the Jitterbug. There was far too much chance of something going wrong with that, and this ship had zero defenses. It could barely actually fly, let alone get in a fight. Fortunately, at least in this case, the world didn’t seem to have any non-automated defenses. Which made sense, given Fossor wouldn’t dream of teaching his slaves how to protect themselves, or give them the equipment to do so. Given the Renaissance-level technology level we were able to pick up, it was likely that they had no idea we were here at all. We certainly didn’t pick up any activity as the ship descended toward the landing spot we had picked out, a bit of a hike away from the volcano. The cities we were able to scan seemed to be going about their days normally. Not that we had an idea of what normal was for them, either before or after Fossor’s death, but still. 

We had to take it slow going down there, considering the condition our ship was in. It wouldn’t really help us save Mom and the others if this thing burned up thousands of feet above the planet. Something told me Robin didn’t want to survive falling from orbit a second time. And the rest of us probably wouldn’t even be that lucky. So, we were heading down at what felt like a glacial pace. Even then, the ship was steadily rocking enough to make me a little nervous, though I did my best to push that out of my mind. After all, it wasn’t like I lacked other things to worry about.

Standing between the pilot and copilot seat, I reached out to indicate a few different spots on the scanner. “What are those lifesigns between the big cities? It looks like they’re moving. They’re not just animals, right? I mean, tell me those wouldn’t be the only animal lifesigns we’re picking up on the entire world, cuz…” I blanched at the horrible thought that the entire planet might have a few dozen animals out in the world. It couldn’t be that bad. Please don’t let it be that bad. 

Persephone sat up a bit, giving me a quick, encouraging smile. “They are not wild animals. The scanners are calibrated to only pick up humanoid life signs. We think those are caravans, Felicity. We have also detected large amounts of tools and food stuff being moved along with them. Probably in wagons, pulled by beasts of burden.” 

Robin gave a short nod, eyes the amber-brown of Hood as he looked over at me. “It looks like the cities nearest to one another have begun to establish a rudimentary trade network. We don’t think they have direct communication with each other yet, but there are a few smaller, faster sets of lifesigns that are probably just two people each, riding faster beasts without the supply wagons. They’re probably carrying messages, like the old Pony Express on Earth.” 

Their eyes shifted to the yellow of Sprite. “We used to ride for the Pony Express, that was fun! It was back when Sec and Brawl were the same guy. And more like a cowboy.” Her tone became a bit wistful. “I liked being a cowboy. And chasing bad guys when we were a bounty hunter. That was fun too. So was helping Eliot Ness in the 1930’s, but we didn’t get to ride horses then.” She sounded sad about that.

Ducking her head under my arm so she could see them, Tabbris piped up. “Maybe after we save Flick’s mama and the others, and get home, we can go to a ranch and see how you ride horses. I bet you’re really good at riding.” She was holding Herbie in one hand, having spent the past couple minutes getting reassurances from the brave little guy about how this whole thing was going to go. It always helped to know that, whatever happened, Herbie had our backs.

Turning away to let those two talk for a minute, I glanced to where Asenath, Shiori, and Stasia were whispering intently together. Judas was standing a bit out of the way, clearly lost in his own thoughts. He gave me a short nod before continuing to stare at the wall. It looked like he was brooding a bit. Which, given who he was and everything that happened to him, was probably understandable. On our way here, we’d asked him a bit about that, just to get his side of the story. We’d already known that he’d been possessed and used by Charmeine, of course, which helped explain why he hated her so much. But getting the details about how all of it had gone down… it was rough. He seemed relatively well adjusted now, and he was clearly glad she was dead, even if he hadn’t done the job himself. Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder how he was going to react the first time we ran into Invidia. 

I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation between the other girls, so I stepped over to stand next to him. “It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Thinking about how you’re about to set foot on a new planet, I mean.” 

Raising an eyebrow at me, he replied, “Like we said before, it seems like this is old hat for you.” 

Snorting, I shook my head. “Believe me, it’s still weird, even after it’s happened a few times. Especially–” Cutting myself off, I swallowed hard, trying to find the right words. 

“Especially considering just what planet it is?” Finishing that for me, Judas waited until I nodded before continuing. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about how I’d feel if we were about to land right next to Charmeine’s childhood home. It’s uhh…” He considered before simply finishing with, “Seems like you’re handling it pretty well, all things considered.” 

“You mean considering my mother has been puppeted by some crazy bitch to come to the planet of the guy who abducted, imprisoned, and tortured her for a decade and do fuck knows what?” Through that little bit, I had started to reflexively glare at the wall, before catching myself. A heavy sigh escaped me. “Sure, I’m doing my best not to freak out here. Glad it’s working at least externally.” 

Before I could say anything else, Robin turned to look away. Their eyes were the purple of Grease. “Okie dokes, gonna need y’all to strap on in real quick-like. We’re jest about tah set this puppy down, and it might be just a wee bit bumpy. And by wee bit bumpy, I mean it’ll be like tryna ride a greased hog into a chicken coop. After all, we’s barely holding together for the flying part. The landing part might be too much.”

“Have I mentioned I love Grease and want her to keep coming back when this is over?” Twister whispered my way. 

“You know they can hear you, right?” I whispered back. 

“Oh trust me, babe, I know.” Twister proceeded to give the Robin system a thumbs up. 

So, we did just that, strapping ourselves into the seats. The subtle vibrating by that point had become much more pronounced. Grease and Persephone were talking back-and-forth in what sounded almost like code and pointing to various instruments as they worked together to keep the landing as smooth as possible. Or at least keep the ship from breaking apart completely. Either way, the turbulence was getting pretty bad. I felt Tabbris take one of my hands from her place on my left side, while Shiori, sitting on my right, took the other. It was all I could do to offer them both encouraging smiles without upchucking from the way the ship was shaking. And boy wouldn’t that be a fantastic way to start off our whole mission here? 

The shaking was getting worse by the moment. Within a minute, Grease called back for us to brace ourselves. Then the whole ship lurched so much that I would’ve been thrown out of my seat without the safety harness. We spun around in several full circles, all of us trying not to cry out. There were at least three different warning alarms screaming through the cabin, accompanied by shouts from our pilots to one another about keeping the ship in one piece. I heard screeching metal, and then it was like the hand of a giant came up and swatted the entire ship. The lights went out completely, and we started plummeting really fast. Too fast, actually. Way too fast.

Thankfully, the ship slowed down abruptly, knocking us hard against our restraints. But on the plus side, we were now falling at a survivable rate. That lasted for just a couple seconds before we finally came down into what I prayed was the ground. And just like that, everything was completely motionless and silent, save for a slight creaking sound from the body of the ship that I was praying didn’t mean it was about to completely collapse in on us while we were sitting here. But hey, at least the alarms had stopped. Though I wasn’t entirely certain that was a good sign.

For a brief handful of seconds, we all just sat there in the dark. Then the emergency lighting came on. Well, it came on, then off, then on, then off, and finally back on and stayed relatively steady. I didn’t trust that to last, though. Hell, for all I knew, it was about to start an electrical fire. We all looked around at one another in the dim, somewhat flickering lighting before checking ourselves for injuries. Finally, Senny spoke up. “Something tells me we might want to get off this thing before it explodes.”

“Da,” Stasia agreed, already unstrapping herself as she added in a mutter under her breath. “And hope that we are not forced to use it again to get off this planet.“

Persephone promptly piped up with, “Oh, I have good news for that!” She beamed in the dim lighting. “This ship will probably never fly again. At least, not without months of work, and supplies that we can’t get on this world. So you’ll never have to ride it again.” 

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I kept my mouth shut and instead unstrapped myself. Then I had to reach down to pick Marco up off the floor. The poor beetle must’ve fallen out of my pocket while we were being jostled around so much. Together, we made our way to the exit. Robin had to shove at the door a couple times, before the whole thing completely fell off, hitting the ground beyond with a loud clang. That was punctuated by a large amount of smoke or steam filling the air in the doorway for a moment before it dissipated. Yeah, we had to get off this ship, right now. It had done a really good job of getting us to this point, but that was enough. Or at least I really hoped it was. 

Taking a deep breath while the others looked at me expectantly, I moved to that opening and looked out. They were giving me the chance to be the first of our group to stand on the planet, which I sort of appreciated. But first, I focused on Rahanvael, who had disappeared while we were descending. Looking that way as the ghost girl appeared beside me in that hatchway, I gestured with one hand. “After you.” 

She didn’t move at first, which I couldn’t blame her for at all. There had to be a lot of emotions running through the girl right now. Not only was she back on her home planet after so long, a planet that her own brother had so thoroughly devastated for millennia, but she was even back near her own actual home. Or the geographical spot where it had been, anyway. When I tried to think about how I would feel in her situation, I just… couldn’t. I couldn’t even start to comprehend what that would be like. But at the very least, I knew why she had to take a few seconds, and it seemed from the way everyone was patiently waiting, so did the others. No amount of preparing herself on the way here would have left her ready to immediately move when the time came. 

Finally, Rahanvael seemed to give herself a little nod, before floating forward. I watched as she emerged from the ship and went out several feet, clearly looking around. From the pain visible on her face when her gaze turned back my way briefly, seeing the place in person wasn’t helping. 

Looking back to the rest of the group briefly, I spoke in a soft voice. “We don’t know exactly where Mom, Denuvus, or the others are. Hell, Denuvus herself might not even be here, but let’s not count on that. You guys ready to get those spells on?” 

The others nodded, and we took out the coins we had prepared ahead of time, on our way here. There were three of them for each of us, for three separate bits of magic. The first coin had the spell that Judas had mentioned before, though modified with help from Persephone, Robin (they couldn’t cast magic but they had knowledge about a lot of it), and even Shyel. And boy had that been an interesting explanation to give. Telling the others (only Shiori and Tabbris knew before now) that I had a mental copy of Chayyiel living in my head, communicating with me while I was asleep and helping me train, had been a bit of a conversation. And had seemed to reinforce the idea of just how weird my life was. But in any case, between all of that, we’d managed to get the distance no one could talk within up from fifteen feet, all the way to about seventy-five. If we spread out when we saw Denuvus, we could make that cover a lot more ground. Which would hopefully be enough.

But if it wasn’t, we had the second spell. This one had come from Persephone originally, though like the first, we’d given it a few tweaks. If the spell picked up the words ‘My name is Den,’ it would immediately transport us to the nearest safe location at least one mile away. It shouldn’t hear that at all, given the first spell. But if, for whatever reason, that first spell failed, we had this one as a back up. It wouldn’t help us beat her, but it would remove us from the situation before she had a chance to make us do anything. That way, we could regroup. 

Finally, the third spell was specifically one that Shyel had taught me, when I told her what we were trying to do. It allowed telepathic communication amongst everyone who was using it, though only those people could send their thoughts. Others could receive them, but not send. So no matter how hard Denuvus thought her commands at us, we wouldn’t pick that up. We also wouldn’t be hearing every thought each of us had, as it only picked up what you intentionally tried to send. Now we would be able to communicate with one another even with the voice-muting spell active. 

Well, most of us would, anyway. The Robins were sort of the odd persons out on that front. Not only were they in a robot body, but that body also generated a constant field that negated active magic. The field didn’t extend any further than their body, but still. We couldn’t use any of these spells on them. Which, I still wasn’t sure how that worked with them being able to pass through portals, but maybe that was designed to be an exception or something? 

Either way, not being able to use the mute voices or instant teleportation spells on them wouldn’t really be an issue as far as Denuvus went. Her power didn’t work on machines. Which was largely why plan A for dealing with any sighting of that woman was for Robin to shut her up. We didn’t hold any illusion that it would be that easy, of course. But that didn’t stop me from smiling as I imagined the look on Denuvus’s face just before taking Robin’s fist to the face hard enough to knock her out. 

There was also the fact that the voice power wasn’t the only threat she presented. Just like Ammon, Denuvus had the same ‘kill things to gain their powers’ ability Bosch Heretics did. That’s why he’d had the ability to do that in the first place. Actually, I wasn’t sure if hers was more like ours or the stronger Natural-Reaper Heretic version. I’d never been clear on which one of those Ammon had. Either way, she obviously had a lot of powers. And we had no idea what those powers were. We had to be ready for anything.

With all that in mind, and the three spells activated, I slowly stepped through the hatch and down from the ship. My feet seemed to crunch the orange-reddish dirt, though I couldn’t hear it thanks to the silencing spell. I moved several feet away to let the others descend, while looking around. 

My first breath of air on Fossor’s planet wasn’t the best. I could smell sulfur and something else I couldn’t really identify but definitely didn’t smell good. The volcano in the distance took up almost the entire skyline. It had to be as big as the tallest mountains back home, if not more so. The whole thing was black and dark red, with imposing-looking jagged rock peaks all across it. 

Beyond the volcano and attached mountain range heading north, the ground was mostly flat and empty, with just this bare dirt. There were a few large rocks and very small hills, almost like sand dunes. Other than that, I saw no plants, no animals, nothing. 

At one point, this place had been a beautiful forest. But not anymore. Now it was barren. It was unlikely that anything could actually grow here for a very long time. Fossor had done his level best to destroy anything alive within several hundred miles of the place where he had grown up. Which seemed petty, but then again, this was Fossor. He was basically the patron saint of petty. 

Nope, nope, I didn’t like thinking of Fossor as the saint or god of anything. He was just a sick, twisted, dead piece of shit. 

Focusing on Rahanvael, I stepped that way and focused on my mental connection to her. Speaking aloud wouldn’t have accomplished anything. I know you’re not okay right now, but… I just want you to know that I’m here. And so is your world. So are your people. They survived. He’s gone. He’s dead and he’s not coming back. Your world might take a long time to get better, but now it has the chance. Your people have a chance. Thanks to you. Without you, I never would’ve survived what happened, and he… he’d still be out there. You saved your world, Rahanvael. You saved your people. Your dad would be proud of you. Your people should be proud of you. 

There was no response for a moment. She was staring off over the horizon. Finally, her gaze shifted to me, and our eyes met. Thank you, Flick, she silently sent. I think I’m ready now. 

Let’s go see my old home, and find out why Denuvus sent your mother here. 

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The Storm 21-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Our borrowed and slightly cobbled-together ship wasn’t going to win any big races, that was for sure. Not against most other ships that we could’ve been racing against, and definitely not against the Jitterbug. We were basically a guy limping along with one leg and unstable crutches, while the Jitterbug was… well, a teleporter. Mom didn’t just have a head-start, she had already won the race. The one to get to Fossor’s planet, anyway. I just had to hope that, whatever she had to do there, it would take long enough for us to finally make it and stop her. 

Stop her. Stop my mother. Fuck, god–I really did not like this Denuvus chick. I was willing to go out on a limb and say I was not a fan. Making my mother do–making anyone do something against their will made her horrible enough, but my mom? After everything she’d already been through with Fossor, and, and… and everything? Fuck that. Fuck Denuvus. If I could find her, and manage not to be completely controlled by her voice before–

Okay, thinking about the things I wanted to do to that bitch for pulling this shit with my mother wasn’t easy when I let logic slip in. She was dangerous, too dangerous for me to do anything to by myself, that was for sure. And yet, I really, really wanted to punch her. I couldn’t even picture her properly because I had no idea what she looked like, but I stmaill imagined it. 

The only advantage we really had was that we knew where my mom was going. There was really no other reason for Denuvus’s orders to kick in right now. She had to be heading for Fossor’s homeworld. We still didn’t know what the puppeteering bitch might want there, but it was the only thing that made sense. She had known that Mom was with Fossor, and almost certainly knew that he would take her to his world now and then. 

We knew where she would be, so I didn’t really have to spend any time trying to solve that particular mystery. Which meant the next few days were mostly spent doing nothing but sitting around this tiny, cramped ship, urging it to go faster with every fiber of my being. It didn’t help, of course. But I still thought about it very, very hard. 

The other thing I spent a lot of time doing, while we were all collectively sitting around rocking back and forth as though that would make the spaceship get to another planet any sooner, was talk to Rahanvael. She didn’t know what Denuvus might want there either. Not specifically anyway. She knew her brother had kept a lot of powerful items locked up in various safe locations, but it could be any of them. Or it could be something else. Hell, for all we knew, Rasputin being there and Denuvus having designs on the place (or something on it) could be related! We just had to get there and find out. 

We also checked in with the people back on Earth. Or, well, in the Sun, but still. The last person I had possessed (which was intentional) had been my dad, so I’d used the partial recall to let him know what was going on. He uhh, he wasn’t happy, to say the least. They were sending another ship out to help with this whole situation, but even with the help of some powerful transportation magic, it wouldn’t be here for awhile. Dad and I had a long conversation about that whole thing. Part of him clearly wanted to tell me to stop and wait for backup. But this was my mother, his wife. We’d just gotten her back after so long apart. There was absolutely no way I would sit around and wait to see what happened. By the time those reinforcements showed up, it could all be over. So, reluctantly, he had agreed that I needed to do this. We were the closest group to Fossor’s world. We had to stop whatever Denuvus had planned. And not just to save Mom, but also because, well, hadn’t the people of that world been through enough? We might not know what Denuvus wanted, but I was willing to bet it wouldn’t be sunshine and rainbows for anyone there who might get in the way. 

Finally, after several days of sitting in what amounted to a slightly oversized van, we were getting close to our destination. Well, somewhat closer anyway. We still had about half a day to go. Still, we were all going to be glad for the chance to get out of this thing and stretch our legs. The front of the ship had two seats, one for a pilot and one for the co-pilot, while the back had about a dozen of them arranged along the walls of the compartment. The seats could face inward, toward one another, or turn to face the front or back of the ship. They also reclined like airplane seats when in the front or back facing position, so we were able to sleep… somewhat. Still, this whole thing had been like sitting on a plane for several days in a row, and that wasn’t exactly an experience I was eager to repeat. 

“How many more do we have?” Asenath asked, while holding up the half-finished bag of blood that Shiori had passed her a minute earlier. “We should keep rationing them. We don’t know how long this’ll take, and…” She paused to consider her words. “And we don’t know what the animal situation on the world is.” 

Stasia, the other vampire in our little group, shifted in her seat while flatly putting in, “Besides which, if we cannot reacquire your special transport ship, the trip home could be very long indeed. This may have been an unpleasant few days within this ship, but an extended trip all the way back to Earth without enough blood to maintain our functions…” She trailed off before simply finishing with, “Not my idea of a good time.” 

The other thing they weren’t saying out loud, of course, was that they weren’t going to drink from the people on that world. Again, they had been through enough. Hell, for all we knew, Rasputin was there using those people as Lunchables right at this very moment. 

“Don’t worry,” Shiori quickly assured both of them. “We weren’t stupid. Athena and Wyatt were the ones who helped pack the blood reserves, and uhh…” She shifted the sack she had pulled out to show them several dozen bags of blood still inside. “They might’ve over-prepared a little bit. We could be out here for another couple months before you guys would start running out of these things, as long as you don’t gorge yourselves.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed, “for some reason Wyatt thought it might be a bad idea for us to be in a confined space all alone with a couple hungry vampires. I’m surprised he didn’t make us take a year’s worth of blood, to be honest. Maybe he couldn’t actually find that much in stock.” While saying that, I watched my new monkey-tailed beetle run back and forth along my arm, from the tips of my fingers all the way up to my shoulder and back again. I could say this much about the little guy, he definitely had a lot of energy. And he was curious. He kept crawling out of my pocket to wander around. The dude was a brave little explorer. Which was why I had decided to call him Marco, as in Marco Polo. Which worked even better considering how often I ended up calling his name while looking for him when he kept wandering off.

“How does that work, anyway?” Twister, sitting up in the copilot’s seat next to Robin (the only one of us besides Persephone knew how to pilot a ship), piped up. “I know how Senny gets blood most of the time. From people who deserve to lose a little bit of it. But how do you guys end up having hundreds of bags of blood just sitting around waiting to be part of a picnic lunch? I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but in the Bystander world, blood for hospitals is kind of important. They’d notice if a few bags went missing, and they’d definitely notice if a hundred of them disappeared. Even if you only took a couple from a bunch of different hospitals all over the world, that’s still–” 

“Don’t worry,” I quickly informed her. “We didn’t take blood bags from any hospital. You’re right, they need everything they can get. There’s volunteers on the station who give blood for any vampires we run into, or who, uh, live there sometimes.” My head nodded toward Asenath herself. “With regeneration powers, giving blood isn’t really that big of a deal. I’m pretty sure you’ve even got some of mine in there.” 

“I thought I tasted snoopy reporter turned heroic Necromancer in one of the bags,” Stasia informed me with a very slight smirk. 

Flushing a bit despite myself, I retorted, “Yeah, well if you start experiencing an abnormal amount of being abducted away from the people who care about you by megalomaniacs who deserve to swallow all of their teeth, that’s probably a side effect of my blood. Sorry about that.” 

Her gaze met mine while she gave a single nod. “I’ll keep that in mind, but do not apologize. I never object to an excuse to make someone who deserves it swallow their teeth.” 

“That said,” Judas put in, “it’s a lot more fun to make that a group activity. So let’s try not to get separated while we’re doing this.” 

“I have become slightly… fond of working alongside you and the Robins,” the woman agreed. Then she looked back to me and sobered slightly. “But speaking of working with a group, what about your food? Asenath and I aren’t the only ones who will be in bad shape if our nourishment runs out.” 

“We’re good on that front too,” I replied, “Right, Persephone?” 

Brightening a bit, the white-haired woman gave a quick nod. “Yes, Flick. We are very good on that front.” She carefully repeated my words back to me, adding a thumbs up. It was a somewhat new gesture for her, and she seemed to like making it. At the same time, she held up the other bag of provisions we’d brought so we could see inside. As promised, there was still plenty, another product of Wyatt insisting we be overly-prepared. “I assisted Mister Rendell in making many of the sandwiches, and selecting fresh fruit. He found me choosing fruit to be amusing, because of the stories of my namesake.” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded. “Yeah, well, Hades may not be here with us, but let’s still try not to get stuck anywhere. And uhh… did you choose any pomegranates?” 

She just smiled at me. “Do you enjoy pomegranates?” 

My mouth opened, then shut. “Ah, you know, I’ll wait and be surprised. Anyway, yeah, we’ve got enough food for awhile at least. And it’s probably easier for us to restock than you guys. I’m pretty sure we’re gonna run into and through a lot of other problems before food becomes an issue.” 

Judas nodded. “As far as that goes, can I just ask if we’ve put any more thought into how we’re going to stop this Denuvus if she’s on this world too? It was one thing when we were coming here to find Rasputin and possibly any allies he managed to recruit. But with your mother being compromised,” he added with a look toward me, “that complicates things to begin with. No offense, but she’s a pretty damn strong Heretic with a lot of experience. If Denuvus gave her orders to stop us with violence, that could get… bad. Add in the possibility of Denuvus herself, and I’m afraid it goes from bad to impossible.”  

“It’s not impossible,” I objected. “Difficult, sure. The main thing is to get to Denuvus, if she is around, and contain her before she can say anything. Which, I mean… that probably gets a little more difficult considering none of us actually know what she’ll look like. Denny described her, but I get the feeling she changes her appearance a lot. You know, cuz she’s sneaky like that. She could look male, female, or anything in between.”

Tabbris hesitantly spoke up. “So we have to look for someone your mama’s spending time with who isn’t someone we know? Or even if they are someone we think we know.” She frowned then. “Maybe just knock everyone out and sort through them after?”

“I like the way the kid thinks,” Judas put in. “And as it happens, I might have something that could help with any potential Denuvus shenanigans. It’s a spell that blocks anyone from talking inside a certain radius. I can’t get that radius out to more than about fifteen feet myself, but maybe with some help from those of you who can use magic, we can extend that.” 

My head bobbed. “Right, and we have Robin too. Does, uhh, can Denuvus actually affect you?” 

There was a brief pause before their eyes shifted to green for Med. “Perhaps not, but that is not something we would want to test the hard way. We have no desire to hurt any of you if it turns out her power does affect us.” 

With a grimace, Judas gestured. “Yeah, believe me, I’ve seen them go to town on someone before. You really don’t want to be on their bad side. Let’s operate under the assumption that they can be affected, just so we can be pleasantly surprised if the situation pops up and they’re not.” 

“Fair,” I agreed. “Let’s talk some more about this spell of yours, and see if we can come up with some sort of plan. Then we should get some rest, cuz it looks like we’ve got about ten hours before we get to the planet. 

“And something tells me we’re not gonna get a lot of sleep while we’re there.” 

******

Well, whatever Denuvus had sent Mom to do on this world, it wasn’t immediately apparent as we came into orbit. I finally had my first real look at the place, as we stared through the forward viewpoint. The image was enhanced somewhat on the dingy screen. We could see the land masses down there. It looked like there were three major ones. The largest was shaped like a potato with a thick stem sticking out the top, near the middle. It was big enough to take up just under half of the planet by itself. It looked like there were a lot of large lakes and rivers on it, but still. It was a huge continent, considering this planet was a little under twice as large as earth. 

Meanwhile, the other two continents were each shaped a bit like crescent moons. They were on the opposite side of the planet, where most of the ocean was. One was almost nestled inside the other, like two people spooning, though there were a few thousand miles worth of water between them. The slightly larger one on the outside looked like it was about as wide as the United States at its fattest point right in the middle, and about as long as the distance from the bottom of Mexico up to the stop of Canada. The second, smaller one on the inside was about two-thirds that size, and a lot more curved. It was more like a C than a crescent, come to think of it. 

From what we could see, the smaller continent there was mostly desert. The larger one on that side had a good bit of greenery, as well as snow toward the northern end. And the massive continent on the other side of the world had a bit of everything. There were forests, deserts, snow in the north and south, tropical areas, all of it. From here it all looked like what we might see on earth, mostly because it was all just colors and vague shapes. The clouds were even white, the water blue, it was just… immediately familiar. And yet, seeing it still made a shudder run through me.

That wasn’t fair, of course. This world had done nothing wrong to me or my family. Nor had any of the other people on it. They were even more the victims in all this than we were. And yet, staring down at it, part of me couldn’t help but think that this was where he had come from. I shoved the thought down hard and swallowed before turning to look over my shoulder. 

Rahanvael was there, hovering near the back of the ship, past everyone else. Our eyes met, and I gestured. “Come on, you should see this place.” 

She was a ghost, of course. But the others still moved out of the way as she came closer. I stepped aside as well, giving her a chance to stare through the screen at the world she had left behind. I heard the sound she made deep in her throat as she stared that way. It was a mixture of relief as well as regret. And, I was sure, a lot of grief.

“Home.” Her voice was quiet, as she raised a finger to point toward the south-central area of the large continent, just a little bit above the snow line. “Our home was there, in a city that doesn’t exist anymore.” She looked away, gaze dropping. “Now there’s a volcano where it was.” 

Fuck, he really was a spiteful piece of shit, wasn’t he? Absorbing that reminder, I sighed. “I wish we could just introduce ourselves to your people down there and talk to them about everything that happened.” 

“Soon.” That was Judas, stepping over next to me in the cramped space. He was peering at the image on the screen. “You’ll be able to tell those people what happened to the monster who enslaved them, and we’ll be able to find Rasputin. But first, priorities.” 

“Yeah, whatever Denuvus is up to is a pretty big priority,” I agreed in a soft mutter. “And so is my mom. We just have to find her. Them. Mom, Nevada, and Mercury. Before something bad happens. Sorry, something worse.” 

To that end, I glanced toward Robin and asked, “Do we have anything yet?” 

Their eyes were amber-brown at the moment, so Hood was the one talking. He was also the one who knew how to pilot the ship, as it happened. “I see a lot of dormant defenses all around the planet. Both on it, and on one of those two moons over there. If we hadn’t shut down those alert systems, we would’ve had a lot more trouble when we got here. Other than that, most of the planet appears to be stuck in very… near-Renaissance era Earth level of technology. Our scans didn’t detect any ships, except for one. I can’t say for sure, given how old and… ill-maintained the equipment on this thing is. But the basic shape and size does seem to fit the Jitterbug.” 

“Where is it?” Asenath immediately asked, leaning up over the back of the seat behind them. 

In response, Hood pointed to the exact same spot Rahanvael had earlier. “There. Near the base of that volcano.” 

We were all silent for a moment, until I sighed and reached up to let Marco crawl off my shoulder to my hand. “Well, of course, that’s where Fossor would keep something important. Rahanvael, I hope you’re ready for this. 

“Cuz it looks like you really are going home.” 

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The Storm 21-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Flick!” A voice shouted in my ear, drawing my attention away from seeing through Rahanvael’s eyes. Suddenly, I was back in the locked room, facing the others. Shiori’s hand was on my arm as she shouted my name, with Asenath and Twister right behind her. Tabbris was to one side, with Persephone, Stasia, Judas, and Robin a bit further back. All of them were staring at me intently, wanting answers about what the hell had just happened. 

My mouth opened, then shut, as a wave of confusion, fear, and guilt washed over me. Guilt that I hadn’t noticed anything wrong with my mother, no matter how ridiculous that was. Fear over what she was being forced to do and why. And confusion over what we were supposed to do now. Finally, I swallowed and quickly told them what I had seen. 

The revelation made them all reel backward. Stasia was the first to find her voice. “Denuvus? He is just a myth, a story!” 

“No, she’s not,” one of the Robins put in before adding that Denny’s power had come from Denuvus, by way of Ammon. 

“Yeah, she’s definitely more than a story,” Asenath murmured, frowning at the wall. “Even if she’s spent a lot of time and effort muddying the waters as far as that goes.”  

While they were explaining that, I looked back to the emergency containment wall. “We’ve gotta get out of this place. And then we’ve gotta find that ship, stop Mom from doing whatever Denuvus is trying to make her do, and–” I stopped myself. Focus. First we had to get out of here. Then I could think about the next part.

“Well, you can’t break it down.” That was Judas, speaking remarkably calmly considering the situation as he stepped up closer to examine it. “I’ve studied a lot of this stuff when I was trying to track down Charmeine, and this sort of seal is meant to hold in dangerous things.” 

“We can’t even break it with Robin?” Twister looked that way pointedly. “You guys are really strong, aren’t you?” 

“It’s not a matter of being strong enough,” Judas informed us. “It’s the fact that if you do break it down, the station goes with plan B.” 

“What’s plan B?” Shiori put in, giving me a quick, worried glance. 

“It vents all the atmosphere,” came the flat response. “And if that doesn’t do the trick, it gets rid of everything else. By which I mean it transports everything that is not marked as belonging in this structure out into the nearest star. Which, believe me, is harder to survive without one of those special stations you do your math homework on.” 

“He is correct, Flick,” Percy confirmed after reaching out to poke the metal wall. “This sort of system is designed to ensure that any dangerous thing–most dangerous things that might escape confinement are killed before they can become a threat.” 

Which, of course, meant Tabbris’s wings were out. She couldn’t destroy the wall that way. She and I exchanged a quick, meaningful glance. We’d both been thinking the same thing. 

Asenath sighed softly, fingers brushing the wall. “So we need a better way.”

“Yeah, and I have one,” I agreed, turning back that direction. “My ghosts. We can send them to find the control room and undo this lockdown. This place can’t be that big.” 

So, that’s what I did. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor, I focused on summoning up more of the ghosts I had brought with me, including pulling Rahanvael back and bringing Seth and Grover out. In total, I sent about twenty ghosts through the facility, telling them to look for anything that could control this security lockdown and to give a tug at our connection if they found something. 

Once they were all moving, I opened my eyes and focused on the others. They were staring at me again. Immediately, I glanced away before muttering, “I didn’t know she ever had any contact with Denuvus. When? Was Denuvus here on the station? Could she–” 

“No,” Asenath interrupted, taking a knee in front of me. Her gaze was gentle, yet I could still see the intensity buried behind it. She was suppressing all the emotions she was feeling right then, over yet another obstacle being thrown up between her and answers about what had happened to her father. “It had to be while she was with Fossor. Don’t you see? Whatever actually happened, the trigger was clearly her coming to his world. Denuvus had to have set that up while she was still with him, because she thought he’d take her back there.” 

“She’s right, Flick,” Shiori agreed, dropping down to sit next to me. “You said yourself that Fossor had a bunch of randos in that place watching his fights or whatever, right? She probably got in that way. It wouldn’t have taken long to talk to your mom and give her… whatever orders. Maybe she even told her to check in now and then without anyone knowing, so she could update them.” 

“But what orders?!” I found myself blurting. “Why–what does Denuvus want with Fossor’s world? Why is she taking Mercury and Nevada with her?! I don’t–I’m lost right now.” I felt like flailing, but instead folded my arms tight against my stomach. Even with the reassurances, I was still terrified about what Denuvus might be having my mother do, and what she might make her do when she was done. 

“We are all very confused.” That was Stasia, of all people. When I looked up, she met my gaze evenly. “And your fear is understandable. But fretting will not produce answers. Panicking will not produce answers.” She paused then before adding a bit more quietly. “Discussion can be helpful. Blaming yourself, or spiraling inside, is not.” 

Tabbris, crouched next to me, gave a quick nod. “We’ll find your mama, Flick. It’ll be okay. You know, cuz if Denuvus had her take Nevada and Mercury, it’s gotta be because she wants her to do something big, right? I mean, something that’s gonna take time. And we can use that time to get out of here and find a way to follow them, right?” She offered me a faint smile, hand touching my shoulder. “Denuvus does big plans, not little ones. And big plans take time.” 

“Besides,” Senny pointed out, “I doubt she would’ve allowed any leeway for your mom to leave the note telling you who it was if she intended to kill them. Murdering the founder of the Heretic Rebellion and letting everyone know who did it is… a bad idea.” 

She was right. They all were. Squeezing her hand, I looked over at Stasia. “Yeah, I’m not going to blame myself. I think I’ll focus on blaming Denuvus. Especially once we find her. But before that, we’ve gotta get out of here, then find my mom and the others before they do whatever that puppeteering bitch wants them to do.” 

Persephone spoke up then. “If this woman really set up these orders before your mother was ever rescued, it must be about something on that world that has been there for a long time. Something she could be certain wouldn’t be removed or leave before Joselyn could go there.” She paused then before adding, “Or die.” 

I blinked up at that. “You know, that’s a good point. This can’t be about a specific person there, because that piece of shit killed his own people all the time. He sacrificed thousands on a whim. There’s no way Denuvus could be sure that any particular person would still be alive by the time my mother was sent there. So it’s not about a person, and it can’t have any sort of time limit. It’s not a specific day or hour or time of year. Denuvus must’ve sent her for something that’ll always be there. Maybe some sort of artifact that Fossor found at some point and put in a treasure room or something?” I shrugged helplessly. 

We talked a little bit more, but didn’t really get anywhere important with it. We just didn’t know enough. Before long, however, one of my ghosts tugged at our connection. I focused on seeing through his eyes, and found myself looking at a small, twelve foot square room with a bunch of computer consoles around the sides of it and one chair with a few small beetle-like creatures crawling across it. Apparently even a place like this managed to have an insect problem somehow. In any case, I quickly thanked the helpful ghost and asked him to wait there. Then I relayed the information to the others before adding, “So, now what? How does my little buddy out there actually disable the security alarm?” 

It was Persephone who answered, her voice steady and… kind of calming, actually. In this moment, she seemed completely at ease. “Tell him to look for a series of four small light bulbs in a vertical line. The second one down should be slightly larger than the others. And there should be a horizontal lever somewhere close to it, probably a bit to the right. Do not touch it, but find the lights and tell us what color they all are.”

So, I passed the message along and then watched through his eyes as he scanned the consoles before finding what she was looking for. Speaking aloud, I informed the others, “Okay, the top light is sort of light blue, then the bigger one under it is red, and the other two below that are yellow. There’s that lever you were talking about about six inches to the right of the third bulb. Well, sort of in between the second and third.” 

“Good,” Persephone replied simply. “From the third bulb, moving to the left and slightly down, there should be a small toggle. It will be very difficult to see as it is quite small and the same color as the console, so he will probably have to look very carefully.” 

Once again, I relayed those instructions, and once the ghost found the toggle (brushing another bug out of the way in the process), I sent along Percy’s message to flip it. That turned one of the bottom two lights from yellow to red, but Percy insisted that was a good thing. And from there, we continued that way. She described what she needed to look for, I passed on the message and he found the bit in question. He pushed buttons, pulled levers, moved a small plug from one outlet to another, even ripped a couple wires out. According to Persephone, we didn’t have the actual code to shut down the alert manually, and it wasn’t as simple as just hitting a button. But apparently she knew the system well enough to actually override it. Essentially, we were hotwiring the damn thing. I had no idea the Revenant girl knew how to do something like this. But then again, she was full of surprises. 

Before long, even as a part of me was saying it was taking forever, Persephone passed along one last instruction, and when the ghost touched that final button, there was a loud buzzer that rang throughout the entire facility. Then, with a whooshing sound that was positively beautiful, the security door retracted. We didn’t waste another moment. As soon as it was out of the way, we were all running down the corridor. From my pocket, I produced the two tiny glowing rings from that power I had inherited from that Olympian ghost, Elemiah. Tossing them ahead of me, I made the rings flip around and grow so we could all run through the acceleration sides, picking up speed as we went. Soon we were running several times faster than usual. Obviously the vampires and Mevari could go even faster if they wanted to, but we were sticking together. 

We didn’t head for the hangar bay, however. We already knew that was empty. The ship we had arrived in had been the only one in there, and Mom had taken that. However, Grover had actually found another ship while he was searching for the security console. We weren’t sure what sort of shape it was in yet, considering how dark it was in the area where he found it, but it was our best shot.

Grover and Seth had used the time while we were getting the security lockdown lifted to carefully find a path through the corridors for us to take that didn’t involve needing to go through walls like a ghost. I followed that path now, with everyone else trailing right behind me. There was absolutely no time to waste. Whatever that woman had sent my mom to do, we had to catch up with them and make sure it couldn’t happen.

The area this other ship was in was some sort of maintenance hangar. Thanks to the investigation the other ghosts had done, we knew there was a sort of long, winding tube thing leading from here to the actual hangar bay. Or rather, the area underneath. We were pretty sure there was a lift or something that would carry the ship up into that so we could get out into open space once more. 

First things first, however, we had to get this ship up and running. I just hoped it being in the maintenance hangar didn’t mean it was completely broken. I was pretty sure we didn’t have time for all of us to become expert space mechanics or whatever. Even if we did apparently have a head start with Percy. 

As we went into the small hangar itself, Shiori, Judas, and I all set off light spells to illuminate the place so we could see what we were dealing with. And what I saw wasn’t exactly encouraging. My first impression was that I was looking at a Volkswagen bus. That was seriously what it looked like, though maybe a few feet longer than one of those. The main body was red, with a white trim. There were two ovular wing-like structures sticking out of the middle on either side, both of which were kind of an ugly off-green with spots of blue. The hatch on the side was actually missing. Well, it wasn’t actually missing, I could see it laying on the floor nearby. It just wasn’t attached. And the rear of the ship was open with several components lying around on the floor behind it. Also, there were more of those bugs crawling around, most heading for darker shadows. We all stood there and grimaced at the sight. So much for just jumping in this thing and turning it on. Which, to be fair, really wasn’t that surprising at this point, but still. Not surprising, and not frustrating were two different things. 

“Tell me you know how to fix this.” Judas was saying that while looking over at Persephone, his fingers visibly crossed. “Like you fixed the lockdown.” 

“Eh, I think we can do something about that ourselves.” Robin, whose eyes had shifted to purple, grunted the words while rubbing their hands together. They were staring at the bits of ship eagerly, as if they couldn’t wait to get started. Purple eyes… I didn’t know that one off the top of my head. 

“Grease?” That was Judas, blinking that way with what looked like surprise. “Haven’t seen you out for a while. I was starting to think you didn’t like us anymore.” Glancing to the rest of us, he added, “My old friend Grease here is a she/her facet. She runs most of their mechanical knowledge.” 

“Ain’t no reason for me to pop out willy nilly,” the purple-eyed Robin, Grease apparently, retorted. “But it looks like y’all need some help getting this puppy up and running.” She looked over toward Persephone. “That said, I wouldn’t mind a couple extra hands if’n ya got some idea of what you’re doing. Especially hands as lovely as those.” 

I swore Persephone actually blushed a little bit, reflexively looking down at her hands before giving a quick nod. “Yes, I believe I can help. But it would be good for you to take the lead. I am not an expert at putting space boats together.” 

“I know a thing or two about regular cars back on Earth,” Asenath noted. “It might not mean a lot when it comes to this sort of thing, but I can chip in.” 

“We will all help,” Stasia put in. “At the very least, to be extra pairs of hands. Just tell us what to do.” 

While they were starting to work on that, I turned to Grover, who was hovering in the background staring at the ship anxiously. When he saw me looking, the small ghost boy came closer, shaking his head. “Sorry, boss-lady. We tried to find something better, but that’s the best–” 

“Stop,” I interrupted. “It’s fine. It’s great. You did great, all of you. Seriously. This is a random defensive security station Fossor threw up. The odds that there would be anything we could use were pretty freaking low, dude. We can work with this. We’ll find my mom and the other two, and we’ll find this Denuvus bitch. And then–” 

“Stabbing?” Grover piped up, sounding hopeful. 

Smirking just a little despite myself, I nodded. “Definitely a lot of stabbing. As much as you can handle.” By that point, I could see Seth coming near, so I looked that way and met his gaze. “Hey, we’ll get to Fossor’s world, and find Rasputin so he can tell us what happened to Tiras.” 

“You’re right,” he agreed, “we will. But one thing at a time. You ready to see what we got?”

As he asked that, a dozen more ghosts appeared, all of them holding or dragging what looked like large pillowcases made of the same stuff they themselves were made of. Another thing I had learned from my studies was how to help my ghosts make these bags. It took a good bit of energy to make them solid enough to hold things, but I managed it. And they had put that to use while looking around for a ship we could use, grabbing as much of Fossor’s tucked away treasure and trinkets as possible. Anything that looked like it might be special. 

“No time right now,” I replied, tugging a real bag (this one with its own extended space inside so it could fit anything) from my pocket before tossing it that way. “Can you guys put all that stuff in here? We’ll look through it later. And… and thanks, without you we’d still be stuck in that room. We–I owe you guys.” 

While they were busy with that, I turned back to face the partially disassembled ship once more. The others were already starting to go about putting the thing together under Grease and Percy’s supervision. From the look of things, this wasn’t going to be easy. Some of the components literally fell apart as they were picked up. But Shiori had already found a crate of replacement parts, which she and I started sorting through together to find stuff that wasn’t completely busted. I pushed all my worries about my mother as far down as I could for the moment, and just focused on helping to get our ride working. 

In the end, it took us two and a half hours, and a lot of broken parts. But finally, we stepped back, covered in (lower case) grease and dirt. Asenath was alone inside the ship itself, and as Grease (upper case) called out for her to ‘hit it,’ she did so. There was an initial whine of protest, then a few stuttering coughs from the engines, followed by a thick plume of purple smoke, then nothing for about three seconds. But just as my heart started to sink, the engines caught and thrummed steadily, as the junky-looking little ship rose a few feet off the floor and hovered there. It was working. We’d done it. Step one was done. We had a ride. 

“Hang on, Mom,” I murmured while everyone celebrated. “We’re com–” In mid-step after catching a hint of movement, I stopped myself and looked down. Sure enough, another of those beetle-like bugs was there. It looked unique and kinda cool, so I gestured toward Robin. “Hey, can you like, scan this thing or whatever? Is it dangerous?” 

Robin, eyes shifting to green for Med, looked it over before shaking their head. “I detect nothing venomous or poisonous. It does look unique, however.” 

“Yeah, it does,” I agreed. Tentatively, I put my finger out. “Hey, little guy. You wanna come on a trip off this station?” When the beetle crawled up my finger, I straightened and grinned toward Shiori. “See? New friend. He’s coming with us.” 

Yes, I was trying to distract myself from my total panic when it came to what was going on with my mother. Seriously though, the beetle looked really cool, with its metallic, almost neon pink and blue shell, three antennae instead of two, and what looked like a tiny unicorn-like white horn coming off its head. But really, it was the small, yet clearly prehensile tail sticking off the back that really made this beetle unique. 

It almost looked like a monkey tail. 

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The Storm 21-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Even with the prototype ship’s (Jitterbug, apparently) special transportation ability, we couldn’t go straight to Fossor’s world. The man had set up way too many automated defenses, and simply going straight to his planet would’ve tripped all of them. He may have been dead and gone, but that didn’t mean everything he had put in to protect his planet from intruders would just disappear. And fighting off every automated defense he’d thought of over the millennia he’d been in control sounded like a pretty bad afternoon to all of us. 

So, we had to disable them. Which would’ve been almost impossible in most cases, given his defenses were set up in various satellite bases scattered throughout dozens of spots in a couple different solar systems surrounding his actual planet itself. They were basically tuned to constantly scan the entire area around that world and react violently if they detected any intruders. Thankfully, there was one person besides the very-dead Fossor who knew where they all were. Rahanvael was able to tell us where each one was located. All we had to do was jump there and disable the system one at a time. Fossor had made sure they would all react at once and immediately to any attack or intrusion on the planet itself, but they could not all react in unison to protect one another just like that. Instead, some scanned one another at various times, just to check in and make sure nothing had gone wrong. If one did its periodic scan and found a problem, then the whole system would react. But Rahanvael simply told us the best route to take through disabling each one ahead of those periodic scans, so we always hit the one that was supposed to do the next scan before it could. 

Unfortunately, my ghost friend might’ve been able to tell us where each satellite base was, but she couldn’t tell us how to easily disable them. Rather than using codes or anything useful like that for her to pass along, Fossor had simply used himself as the authorization. The systems would scan all of us and if none of us were Fossor, they would attack. 

All of which meant this whole thing basically just required we methodically jump to each defensive point in turn, break through them, and physically disable the system. As in breaking or destroying it entirely. It was better than trying to fight all of them at once right on his own world, where his people had already suffered enough without becoming collateral damage. This way was slow, but definitely worth it. 

Some of the ‘bases’ were literal satellites that we just had to blast out of space once we were close enough. Others were bigger facilities inside of asteroids or small moons. Most were hidden really well, and if we hadn’t had Rahanvael to tell us exactly where they were, we would’ve been in trouble. They were set up to hide unless we were definitely close enough to see them, or even physically inside. Then they deployed everything from drone starfighters, to robots, to turrets, even automated magic defenses that had been left up. Some of which were really nasty. Again, Rahanvael helped by telling us as much as she could about each system ahead of time. She didn’t know absolutely everything Fossor had put in place, but she knew enough that we weren’t completely blindsided. 

In any case, those attacks went down fairly easily for the most part. We jumped in, blew up the satellite or went into the base, fought our way through whatever defenses were deployed, and destroyed the main computer that was controlling that station to shut the whole thing down. We took a break in between each one, not wanting to push ourselves too much. Besides, it wasn’t like they had a living boss to report to. If Fossor had been alive, we would’ve had to worry about him showing up if we didn’t move fast enough. But now there was no need to rush, aside from being ahead of the next scheduled scan. And from wanting to get this over and done with so we could get to the planet itself. But being impatient was probably a bad idea. 

The second-to-last base had been a simple satellite which deployed two drone fighters to attack us while charging for a rather explosive magical blast (one we had been prepared for thanks to Rahanvael and had disabled in plenty of time), we were all taking a break to eat something. The final defensive base in line was a full facility, and the biggest one yet. So we needed to be ready for that. Rahanvael wasn’t completely certain exactly what was inside, only that it was dug into the side of an asteroid and was probably about three miles wide by two miles long, a maze of various corridors and rooms filled with not just protective measures, but also various treasure Fossor had decided to stash there. Why he’d done that, nobody could say. Maybe he just figured putting stuff he wanted to keep safe in a place that was already designed to keep his entire planet safe was a good idea. Or maybe he didn’t want to waste all that empty space inside. Whatever the reason, there was bound to be some interesting, and incredibly dangerous, things in there.  

Mom, Mercury, Judas, Robin, and Twister were having a conversation with Rahanvael up near the pilot’s compartment, talking about what was coming up next and what we should expect to see. Meanwhile, I was sitting with Tabbris, Shiori, Asenath, Stasia, Nevada, and Persephone. We were all chowing down, though the two vampires were drinking blood from bags we’d brought along rather than eating the same sandwiches as the rest of us. 

Setting her now-empty blood bag aside, Stasia focused on me, her gaze curious. “I have heard of you, Felicity Chambers. Though what I heard was that you were being trained by Fossor himself to take up a place at his side. That… appears to have been a false rumor.” 

Flinching a bit at the memory, I replied, “Yeah, well he gave it his best shot. But that shot came back to blow his head off. Or stabbed him in the back of the head, I guess.” 

“That must have been quite the battle,” she calmly remarked. “And from other things I have heard, a very cathartic one.” 

“Boy, can you ever say that again,” Nevada put in after devouring an enormous bite of her sandwich. “That son of a bitch got what was coming to him. Just sorry it took so long.” Her gaze found me, the woman’s usual cheerful expression completely somber. “Entirely too long.” 

Swallowing hard, I made myself shrug. “Yeah, too many people suffered and died because of that bastard. But he’s dead now. And we get to tell his people they’re free.” From what I’d heard, they probably already had the basic idea. Fossor had been far too entwined with his planet for them to have no clue he was gone. But being able to tell them that he was never coming back and that they could do whatever they wanted? I was definitely looking forward to that part. 

Shiori, perched beside me, gave a quick nod. “That’s right, he’s dust. Less than dust. He doesn’t matter anymore. So why do you guys think Rasputin went there? What would he be doing on that world?” 

Persephone piped up immediately. “Oooh, ooh, very important question. Does anybody know if he went there before or after Felicity and Joselyn killed Fossor?” 

“You mean was he there doing something for that piece of shit?” Asenath thoughtfully replied. “Or did he just take advantage of Fossor being dead to head over there and get… or do… something the bastard would’ve stopped him from doing?” 

“Well, he didn’t have to go through and destroy all these defenses, right?” I pointed out. “He’s there on-planet and these things are still in place. He had to have had permission from Fossor to be there. Or maybe he stole something that would make the defenses think he had permission. Or…” I trailed off uncertainly, offering a helpless shrug. 

Stasia’s voice was flat, though I could hear the tense emotion underlying it. “We’ll just have to make sure to include that in the list of questions we’re asking him in between each punch. Believe me, he’ll answer all of them.” 

Tabbris, who had been mostly lost in her own thoughts over the past few minutes, shifted against my other side before speaking up. “He’s an Akharu too, like Tiras, right? So he’s gotta be really strong. And if he’s been around this long, he’s probably dangerous in lots of other ways.” 

“He can be as dangerous as he wants,” Stasia retorted, “it won’t save him.” She stopped after that, however, taking a moment to collect herself before relenting. “And yet, you are correct. He will be dangerous, and we cannot underestimate him. For all the time he has spent building up the reputation as a drunkard womanizer, he is powerful. Do not allow that reputation to make you see him as an easy target.” She paused briefly once more, then added, “And I will work to ensure my anger does not blind me as well.” 

“If he’s on Fossor’s world, whether he was invited or managed to get there on his own,” I put in, “then he’s definitely a big threat. No way would some random party guy who really spent all his time over the past few decades touring bars and nightclubs along the continental United States have made it onto that planet without having some secrets. Whatever he’s doing there, however he made it, there’s gotta be more to that guy.” 

We talked a bit more about that. Unfortunately, despite how long Stasia and her group had been looking for him and how motivated they were to get answers out of the guy, they didn’t really know that much about what he was capable of. He put up a really good facade of being a layabout drunk, yet he knew a lot about magic and what he called alchemy, creating various ‘potions.’ Some were simple Bystander-type science that was simply far ahead of its time, while others were actual magic imbued into liquids. 

It seemed like every day I was finding out more and more about how limited Crossroads’ understanding and teaching of magic was. Which clearly had to be intentional. The Seosten made sure we only learned and knew about the sorts of magic they could control. And it wasn’t like the hardliners back at Crossroads and Eden’s Garden would ever stop and talk to one of those ‘evil monsters’ about what sort of magic they could cast. 

Finally, Mom turned away from her own little group and spoke up. “Everyone ready for another jump, or should we take another few minutes to rest?” 

After exchanging a quick look with the others, I shook my head. “Let’s get this over with. I kinda want to know what treasures Fossor had stashed away in that place. And the sooner we break the last of these stupid bases, the sooner we can go to the actual planet. Those people deserve to find out the truth.” My gaze glanced toward Stasia before I added, “Plus, whatever this Rasputin guy is doing, I kinda doubt we want to just leave him all the time he needs for it.” 

The others agreed, so we all got ourselves strapped back into our seats. The transport would be immediate, but we couldn’t know for sure what exactly we would be jumping into. If there were already defenses deployed because of something we’d missed, or there happened to be other ships around (unlikely as that was), or… anything. Plus, the second we arrived, the base would react. Given the size of the place in comparison to what we had hit so far, and the fact that Fossor had stored some precious artifacts there, the response would probably be… elaborate and intense sounded like a couple of the right words. 

Now that we knew how to essentially take the ship out of its parked mode, the jump was smooth. One second, we were in the middle of deep space, and the next, we were right in front of the asteroid. Mercury called out a warning before sending the ship into a sideways spin, as the station’s defenses opened up with their first volley of shots. Four different cannons had appeared near the large metal hatch leading into the station itself, and they were going a bit nuts, filling every inch of space they could with lasers while Mercury nimbly danced the ship through increasingly narrow openings. This was getting nasty, and it would only get worse, as a much larger cannon was already being deployed. This one made the others look like peashooters, but it would take a few seconds to extend into place and charge up. And those few seconds were all we needed. 

Mom was standing right behind Mercury’s pilot’s seat and had her hands out, index fingers and thumbs shaped like a rectangle in front of her as she focused on the closed hatch. Despite the way the ship was spinning and turning, she kept adjusting to maintain focus on that metal door. After a couple more seconds of that, the steel, or whatever it was, turned transparent. We were still too far away to see that, of course. At least without powers that helped. But the cameras on the ship could see that far, and projected it onto a screen just above Mercury. He was looking that way, staring intently at the area revealed beyond the now glass-like door. We could see through it and into what looked like a hangar. 

The main cannon finished charging up and started to fire. But even as that massive beam made its way toward us, Mercury hit the button to make the ship jump once more. That time, we jumped into the station, since he could see exactly where to send us thanks to Mom making the metal doors transparent. 

There were still some threats to deal with inside the station, traps and defenses that Fossor had left in place. But, working together, we dealt with them. This was just another speed bump on our way to that world. We broke those defenses, disabled his magic traps, and destroyed everything in our way to the main systems. There, another magical forcefield wall blocked our way, just like every other base we had hit. But just like all those others, it had a fatal flaw. It was intended to be disabled by a ghost, and I happened to have a few of those. Granted, the ghost was supposed to know the ten-button code that Fossor included on the control panel, but Rahanvael knew that too. So, after a very brief wait once I sent her in there, the forcefield was disabled and we were in. From there, it didn’t take long for Mercury to use the console in order to shut down the rest of the system’s defenses. Then it was just a matter of physically smashing the computer, which we may have taken a bit too much joy in.

The point was, all of this was pretty routine by this point. We knew what we were doing, and just made our way through the place almost mechanically to shut down the security. And once that was done, it was time to check out what sort of treasure Fossor had stuck in this place. That part, at least, was new. 

Following Rahanvael’s directions out of the security room and down another corridor, our group was quickly approaching a set of metal doors at the far end, which were supposed to lead into the main treasure vault. There would be a few other defenses to deal with that weren’t connected to the main system, but for the most part, we were doing just–

“Wait.” Mom had abruptly paused just a few feet from the next door and tilted her head as though listening to something. 

“What?” Stasia frowned, glancing toward Asenath. “I don’t hear anything. Do you hear anything?” 

As Senny shook her head, and the rest of us exchanged confused looks, Mom held her hand up. “There’s something else here. I’m just not sure…” She turned in a circle, eyes moving quickly to look for whatever she had heard. The rest of us waited, listening intently. 

“Rahanvael,” I started to whisper, “do you think–” 

Mom spoke up. “Mercury, Nevada, come with me. The rest of you wait here, and be ready.” 

So, we waited. My mother and the other two started moving back the way we had come. I didn’t like the idea of splitting up like this, but Mom was in charge of this trip. 

Judas and Robin were talking together, while Stasia frowned and muttered something about it being just perfect if something went wrong right now. Shiori, Tabbris, and I stood together to one side, as I watched my mother, Mercury, and Nevada moving down the corridor. Twister, Asenath, and Persephone were nearby, having their own quiet conversation. All of us were mostly focused on trying to figure out what my mother had heard. 

When I saw my mother look back at us. She pulled something from her pocket, stone or whatever. As my mouth opened to ask what she was doing, a blast of purple energy erupted from the stone. It hit Mercury and Nevada, making both of them abruptly fall to the floor, apparently unconscious. 

At the same time, her hand hit… something on the wall, and an emergency siren began to wail. An entire wall came out of nowhere to slam down in front of us, cutting us off from Mom and the other two. 

It all happened that quickly. One second I was looking at her, and the next, she had knocked out Mercury and Nevada, and sealed the rest of us into this corridor. 

I was there in an instant, hitting the wall while the others shouted behind me. “Mom! What the fuck is–Mom! Rahanvael!” 

“On it,” the ghost girl quickly blurted, moving through the wall. As she did, I focused on seeing through her eyes. The hallway beyond was already empty, but Rahavael raced through it. Behind me, back with my body, I could half-hear the others saying something about getting the wall open, asking me what the hell was going on, and more. But I ignored them. My entire focus was on seeing through Rahanvael’s eyes as she rushed all the way back to the hangar. 

There. Mom was dragging Mercury and Nevada’s unconscious forms onto the Jitterbug. Rahanvael was at the edge of the hangar when the ship’s hatch closed. Not that that would stop her. She flew onward, straight toward the ship. But it was too late. The engines started up, and the thing lifted off before flying straight out into open space, leaving us behind. 

Through Rahanvael’s eyes, I saw the ship disappear into the distance. And I saw as she lowered her gaze to look at the floor where the ship had been a moment earlier. A floor where something was written in big red letters, as if spray-painted there. 

‘I’ll Be Back. This Was Denuvus.’ 

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The Storm – 21-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so we needed to go to Fossor’s world if we were going to find the guy who could tell us what had happened to Tiras’s memory. Well, that was one of the reasons. I wasn’t exactly short on them at this point. Especially considering I had been promising Rahanvael that I would take her home so she could… move on. Yeah, an awful lot had been going on to distract me, which was nothing new. But it was finally time to do this. No more excuses and no more distractions. We were going there.

We, in this case, consisted of myself, Shiori, Asenath, Twister, Nevada, and my mother. And Tabbris, naturally. Avalon wanted to go, as did plenty of others. But we wanted to keep the group small for this first excursion. Besides, Wyatt had actually managed to dig up some interesting information about where the hardliners might be holding Gaia. It wasn’t anything that would lead directly to her, but it was something that had to be followed up on quickly. So, Valley and a few others were going to check that out before the trail went cold. With any luck, they would have what we needed to actually stage a rescue when we got back. That’s what we were hoping, anyway. 

Meanwhile, Columbus and another group had to follow up with the search for where Kushiel had taken Harrison Fredericks. They had a few leads too, which had to be checked out and couldn’t wait. 

So yeah, as much as I wanted to be involved with everything and helping everyone, it couldn’t work that way. We had to split up, and there was absolutely no question about where I belonged. This was the first trip to Fossor’s world. I had to go with them. I had to take my ghosts and help them find peace if they were ready for that. Not to mention helping Shiori and Asenath. One was my girlfriend, while the other was… I couldn’t define what Senny was. A close friend. The first Alter who had taught me that they weren’t all evil? Family in a way? She was important, and if she needed something, I was going to be there. After everything she had done, like hell would I let her go off without me to find out what had happened to her father. 

Jiao was another one who could have gone with us, speaking of family. But she was staying with Tiras. They apparently had a few leads here on the planet about what might’ve happened, and the two of them were checking that out with some help from others they knew.  

In any case, the previous couple of days following the revelation of just where Rasputin was had been filled with a lot of discussions about who was going and who wasn’t, and a lot of promises to be careful. Now it was Monday, February 11th. I had spent that morning having breakfast with my dad, grandparents, and others as Mom and I swore we would be careful and let them know what was going on. And then I went around to everyone else, the rest of my friends and family, to tell them the same while extracting similar promises given the stuff they were going to be busy with. We might’ve had to split up and do our own missions, but we didn’t have to be stupid about it. 

As our group of seven made our way through the Sun Station’s corridors after giving our last-minute goodbyes and promises, we were met by the other group that were going with us. Namely, the Mevari robot Robin, the vampire Anastasia (and the fact that I barely blinked at meeting the actual Anastasia said a lot about how my life worked), and Judas Iscariot. I’d still blinked a fair bit at meeting him, so my life wasn’t completely ridicu–okay, yes it was, but still. They had been helping Asenath–or rather had been looking for Rasputin themselves for their own reasons, but those reasons didn’t conflict entirely with Asenath’s. The point was, they were coming with. 

Robin was the one I’d seen the most over the past couple days. They were spending a lot of time with the Carnival, helping them understand their now plural-state and how to share a single body. Mostly because they themselves were plural. I still wasn’t sure why, exactly, or if it was an actual Mevari thing. They didn’t think so, but a lot of their memories were scrambled from the fact that they had apparently plummeted to Earth from orbit and been buried underground for who the hell knew how long before being discovered in medieval times. Now they wanted to find Rasputin because he was supposed to know what had happened to Marian. That Marian. See? Weird fucking life. 

Anastasia, meanwhile, had spent more time with Asenath. The two of them being vampires gave them some common ground to start with. Then there was the fact that they both wanted to find Rasputin. Asenath because he had been with her father on that last mission and had to know something about what had happened to him. And Anastasia because she held the man responsible for what happened to her family. She’d promised to give Asenath a chance to get the information she needed before doing anything drastic. Apparently even in her deep-seated need for revenge, she didn’t want to take someone else’s family away. Or, in this case, take away Senny’s chance to get her father’s memory back. 

Finally, there was Judas. He… well, he was complicated. Apparently he was a Natural Seosten Heretic. And not just any Seosten. He was a Natural Charmeine Heretic. Which was kind of a lot, to say the least. Him existing, his entire history, his–all that. It was huge, and I really didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it. So mostly I just tried not to. The point was, he was Judas and he wanted to help because Rasputin had some sort of past history with Charmeine, and he thought the guy could tell us how to find her ghost now. Because her already being dead wasn’t enough, though that did apparently make him happier. He wanted to make sure she was gone forever. 

So there they were, our three new companions for this trip. All of whom had reason to want to find Rasputin. And I… wow. Just wow. Sometimes, when I took a step back and looked at the people I interacted with and my life in general, it kind of seemed a little absurd. The robot with multiple personalities including Robin Hood, Princess Anastasia the vampire, and Judas Iscariot the Natural Seosten Heretic, were all going with us on a spaceship to another world. I… just… wow. 

Leaning closer to me after seeing my expression while Mom was talking to Judas about what was going to happen next, Shiori whispered, “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded. “Yeah, you could say that. Sometimes I just think this whole life is too absurd and I’m gonna wake up back in the ordinary world.” Even as I said that, my hand slipped down to catch hers, squeezing it. “Now that would be the real nightmare.” 

Returning the hand squeeze, Shiori nudged me. “So you don’t want to go back to being a normal girl?” 

Looking at her seriously, then toward my mother, and finally the others, I gave a firm shake of my head. “No, ma’am. I’m pretty sure that would be one of the worst things that could happen to me. Not knowing you, or Valley, or getting my mom back, or… or any of this. Life might be really weird, often terrifying, bizarre… and a lot of other things, but I wouldn’t change it.” Exhaling, I added, “But yeah, this is pretty high up there on the weirdness scale.” 

“Give it time.” That was actually Anastasia–or Stasia as she apparently preferred. The slim blonde vampire princess was looking at me, speaking in her clear Eastern European accent. “You are still very young. At the rate you are going, when you reach fifty, your life shall be so absurd it will make these days seem positively quaint and boring.” 

Nevada, who had been having some sort of discussion with Robin, turned our way and nodded. “She’s right. You should probably start pacing yourself with these dramatic events, or you’ll end up fighting deities or something by the time you’re half a century old.” 

“Pfft, please,” Twister put in. The young-looking black girl glanced over her shoulder at me and smirked. “I give her another fifteen years, tops, before she makes her way up to deity-level fights. Makes the rest of us look like slackers is what she does.” 

“Ahem.” Mom turned as well, gesturing. “Let’s not give my daughter any ideas about new threats to seek out, shall we? At least not until we get back from this little trip.”

We all started moving again, while I helplessly protested that it wasn’t as though I intentionally sought out fights like that. Not that it really seemed to help much, but I still felt the need to say so. Partly because it distracted me from thinking about the fact that we were about to go visit Fossor’s world. We were going to set foot on the planet he had come from, the one he had subjugated for so long. How were the people there going to react to my presence, to the knowledge that I held his power, to… to all of that? I had no idea, and thinking about it was making me even more anxious. So distractions were nice, even if it was getting harder to focus on them the closer we got to this trip actually happening.  

Oh, and there were two more people going with our group. Two people who met us at the entrance to the hangar where the prototype ship was waiting. The first was Persephone. She was leaving Cerberus here to help Andromeda, who was aiding in the search for Harrison Fredericks. But Percy herself was going with. She had a lot more experience than basically any of us did at space travel and going to new worlds, and there was the whole Necromancy thing. Between that and how much she wanted to help out, we couldn’t tell her no. And I didn’t want to. Not this time. She deserved to come with. 

The other person waiting for us was Mercury. The six-foot, one-inch tall man with long, dark-red hair that had been tied into a ponytail was leaning against the doorway, studying a handheld computer. When the rest of us approached in a group, he looked up and straightened. “Hey there, people. I guess I’m gonna be your pilot today, huh?” 

It was still weird for me to look at this guy and know that he had been possessing Carfried for all of last year at Crossroads. Though, to be fair, he hadn’t really been controlling Carfried. So the man I knew as my Introduction to Heretical Magic teacher was still the same guy. Mercury was more of a passenger for the most part, there to keep an eye on Aylen as the Merlin Key (and we still had no idea what that meant, exactly). He and Carfried had been doing a lot of talking over these past months, and were apparently now on fairly good terms. 

“And I shall be copilot!” That was Percy, who cheerfully reminded us of that before waving my way. “Hello, Felicity! How are your lessons with Manakel going?” 

Coughing, I gestured. “Ah, they’re good, thanks. I mean, he doesn’t want me to interrupt them right now, but we really need to do this and nobody’s ready for me to take him with us on this trip.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed, “he can stay where he is. You can pick up your lessons again once we get back. Bringing him with would just make everyone too uncomfortable, here and there.” 

“That’s fair,” Mercury agreed. “This trip’s probably going to be a bit… intense as it is. But ahh, if you’re all ready, we’ll head onto the Jitterbug and get going.” 

“Err, head onto what?” Mom blinked, looking at the rest of us. “You mean the prototype ship?” 

Tabbris, lagging a bit behind me, giggled. When we looked at her, she shrugged. “Spark said she needed to name it and wanted suggestions because she’s better at designing things than naming them. I thought Jitterbug was cute.” 

“Oh, it’s definitely cute,” I agreed. “And you guys heard our pilot, it’s time to go. So let’s go get on the Jitterbug.” 

So, we did. First, of course, we let Judas, Robin, and Stasia spread out to look at the ship. They had done a lot of stuff on the planet, but this would apparently be their first trip to another world. Well, the first one Robin remembered, in their case. They had obviously been all over the universe before crashing here and damaging their memory. But for all intents and purposes, this would be all of their first times offworld. 

“You think you’ve been everywhere and done everything,” Judas remarked after running his hand along the side of the ship. “After spending a couple millennia trotting around every corner of the globe. Then you find out some teenager’s been to the far side of the universe and back again.” He glanced up, removing his sunglasses to focus on me. “Heard you took a trip to another planet within your first couple months at Crossroads.”

I had thought the man might be upset to find out that I had already killed Charmeine before he had the chance. But he wasn’t, at least, I didn’t get that impression. Mostly he’d wanted to know if I could summon her ghost with my Necromancy to tell her what he thought of her. When he found out the complication with that idea, he said he’d stick around and help deal with Invidia first, and then tell Charmeine what he thought of her, as well as make sure she wouldn’t be a threat to anyone else.

“Yeah, I guess I always liked to keep myself busy,” I murmured, before glancing toward Shiori. “But hey, she was there too.” 

“That’s true,” the other girl agreed with a shy smile my way. That had been the first time we really interacted together, the first… yeah. It happened right after I had talked to her about Asenath and how she wasn’t actually an evil monster. 

While I was thinking about that, Robin turned to look at us. Their eyes were light pink, which I remembered meant the one who liked to joke around was in charge. Quip, that was it. He–no, wait, she. Quip preferred female terms. She caught my gaze. “We also heard it took you a few trips to other worlds before you actually remembered to start taking a spaceship with you.” 

“Hey,” I retorted, “when you can just steal one from someone else once you’re there, why bother taking it with you? That way’s far more efficient.” 

Clearing her throat, Mom shook her head at me. “In this case, we are definitely taking the ship. And keeping it safe.” There was… something in her voice. I could tell she was uncomfortable with this entire thing, and part of  her probably wanted to call it off. Going to Fossor’s world, even when he was dead and gone, was a pretty big deal. It had to be hard. But we had to do it. We had to go there. His people deserved to hear the whole story, and if Rasputin was really there we had to find him. Hell, I really wanted to get him off that world if he was gonna end up bringing trouble. They’d been through enough as it was. 

“You have the ghosts who wish to accompany you?” Robin’s eyes had shifted to dark blue, meaning Sec was in charge. I had gotten the impression that in addition to being devoted to the group’s security and safety, as the name implied, Sec also handled a lot of general preparations. He even did a lot of the grocery shopping, apparently. Picturing those three walking together through a store pushing a cart loaded with food and all was fun. And distracted me, however briefly, from thinking about what we were actually doing. 

“Yeah,” I replied after a moment. “They’re all here with me, I can… feel them, basically. But they’re resting right now. Think of it like they’re sleeping. We’ve already got enough distractions as it is. When I need them, they’ll be ready.” 

“In that case,” Nevada announced, “I think we’re ready to go.” She had her crate full of weapons and supplies open in front of her, where she had been showing a couple things to Judas. Now she tapped a button on its side. The crate shrank and transformed back into its bracelet form, which she slapped around her wrist. “Unless anyone has any last second dramatic revelations before we get outta here?” 

None seemed to immediately jump out, so we all filed onto the ship while we had the chance. Or the others did, anyway. I waited by the ramp, watching as my mother seemed to stare at the doorway we had come through. When that dragged on for a few more seconds, I gestured for Tabbris to go ahead, then stepped that way. My voice was low. “Is everything okay, Mom?” There was no response, so I hesitated before repeating, “Mom?” 

Jolting slightly, Mom blinked my way as though she’d completely forgotten where she was for a moment. Then she shook it off. “Oh, yes, sorry.” Reaching out, she brushed a hand through my hair. “I was just… thinking.”

“He’s gone forever. You know that, right?” My hand moved to catch hers, interlacing our fingers. “He can’t hurt us anymore. And now we’re going to go tell everyone on his world the same thing. He can’t hurt them either.” 

Mom smiled a bit, pulling me into a brief yet tight embrace. “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Now let’s go. 

“Those people deserve to find out exactly how dead and gone that bastard is.” 

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Calm Before 20-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and is able to be read by everyone right here

“Answer her,” Avalon was already pressing, her gaze intent as she stared that way. “Why were you looking for Hajer? And why in an old hotel that was taken over by a gang of Alters?” 

“To answer your questions in reverse order,” Manakel’s ghost informed us, “Hajer moves around quite a lot. Hence her title. I had it on quite good authority that she was there most recently at that time. Why she went to that place, I could not possibly say, only that she was at one point. Unfortunately… for me at the time, she was gone by the time I arrived. Which, as you have already learned, was not something I enjoyed learning.” He paused, giving a slight sigh before pushing on. “As to the first part, I wished to employ her services in removing the protections from Miss Sinclaire here.” His eyes moved to Avalon, who was still staring intently right back at him. “It was a long shot that she would agree to such a thing, but then, we were trying a lot of long shots at the time. And she has been surprising before in what she has agreed to.” 

Squinting, Valley slowly asked, “She’s the ancient human who was bonded to one of those Primals, right? The… whatever they were who created the weapons the King of Canada uses.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Your people would have called her a caveman. Or cavewoman. Bit offensive, but not incorrect. She was born in a time when the majority of your people did live in caves, when most of the Alters who would eventually come to call this planet home had not yet arrived. And those who had were… genuinely more threats than allies. In the early days, there were large portions of this planet which were ruled by incredibly dangerous creatures. Among those ancient inhabitants were very, very few of the beings you call Primals. Their own species was already doomed despite their vast power, and you might say a couple of those who were left… retired here. They stowed large armories of their advanced weaponry, such as what Oberon found.”

“Um, why were they doomed?” I found myself asking uncertainly. “I mean, as a species. What happened to them?” Was it weird that I was asking questions of the guy who had spent so long trying to murder my girlfriend and destroy my entire life, as though he was just another teacher? And did the fact that Avalon was right here with me, also asking him questions, make that whole situation better or worse? I wasn’t sure, but it was definitely a thing. 

“We don’t precisely know, to be honest,” was Manakel’s somewhat disappointing response. “Well, there are theories based on information we do have. I can tell you the one I subscribe to, which is that the beings we know as the Primals performed a spell that was so… dangerous and consuming, it destroyed their ability to procreate. And it did so to such an extent that even cloning would not help, because this spell they created and triggered worked by draining the life force from any iterations of their species who were not alive at the moment it was triggered.” 

I absorbed that for a moment before my eyes widened. “Wait, you mean they effectively destroyed their own ability to continue their species because they made a spell that killed any members of that species who weren’t there at the time? So they could never make any more, and the ones who died just… never got replenished?” 

“That seems like a very bad plan,” Persephone put in, gently rubbing one of Cerberus’s heads. “I don’t know what sort of goal they could have had for that.” 

“What she said,” Avalon noted dryly. She was still watching the man with obvious suspicion despite her curiosity. “What the hell were they trying to do? Are you sure they did it to themselves? That sounds an awful lot like something someone else would have done to them.” 

Mankel’s head bobbed slightly to acknowledge the point. “Yes, well, as I said, we know very little about them for certain. For the most part, they came from a time long before even my people. Certainly before we were an intergalactic civilization. We’re forced to piece things together from old records and stories. But we do know that, within the few records we have found and translated, the Primals repeatedly referred to their situation as something they had done to themselves. They blamed no outsiders, no invading enemy or force. Whatever happened, they were the source of it.” 

“So they couldn’t have any kids or create any clones, or do anything that would carry on their species,” I murmured. “And apparently this spell or whatever it was couldn’t be stopped. They were stuck with just whichever of them happened to be alive when the spell was cast, and once they died, that was it.” The idea made me shudder. What would it be like to live as a people as advanced as these Primals had been (if the weapons Oberon had found were any indication) and then become completely helpless to prevent your entire species from just dying out? 

“A few ‘retired’ to this planet, and this Wandering Woman, or Freyja, or Hajer… whatever she calls herself, she came across one of them way back in the primitive days.” Avalon frowned a bit. “If they lived so long ago that even your people didn’t know anything about them, they must live for a long time for any to have survived long enough for a primitive human to meet them.” 

The man gave a slight nod once more. “Yes, they were incredibly advanced in many ways, to the point of becoming nearly entirely immortal, in some cases. And yet, still, once one died for any particular reason, they were gone forever and the species was one step closer to complete extinction. And even they could only prolong their lives, or protect themselves from outside threats, for so long. Or perhaps some simply… chose to die, after so much of their species was wiped away with no chance to return to their former glory. They could have given up.” 

He was silent for a moment after that, clearly considering how it would feel, before visibly swallowing. Then he went on. “Hajer met one and was bonded to them. Perhaps it was an intentional way for that particular Primal to feel as though they were passing something of themselves on. Whatever the reasoning, she is quite possibly the most powerful being on this planet.” 

“She has the ability to undo things,” I remembered. “Mom said if she focuses on something or someone, she can undo the effect of anything. If you burn a house down, she can wave a hand and put it back to the way it was before the fire. Even if that means bringing everyone who was killed in the fire back to life. But like, she can even undo learning. She can make you forget things, or even erase skills out of your head by removing the fact that you ever learned them.” 

“All of which is correct.” After saying that, Manakel paused, glancing away as though losing himself in thought for a moment before shaking it off as he turned back to us. “As I said, my goal was to find her and convince her that it would be in the best interest of this world for me to succeed in my mission.” His gaze focused on Avalon as he flatly finished with, “My mission, of course, to kill you. Again, for however little it is worth, you have my apologies. Yet I did, absolutely and without question, believe what I was saying at the time. I believed that killing you, eliminating any possibility of Liesje’s spell from ever being put into the world, would maintain the peace here. Because if my people found out that spell was active, I believed they would come here in force.” 

“Yeah, they still might try that,” I muttered under my breath. “But I guess you didn’t find her.” 

“No, I did not. So I returned to other plans.” He looked to Avalon once more. “Plans which failed.” 

“Yeah, we’re all glad about that, believe me,” I noted. “But anyway, to get back to the whole reason I brought that up in the first place, you said you could help me learn to undo that… ‘severscatter’ spell that you used on Grover’s friend so we can bring her back?” 

“As I also said, it will take some time for you to learn enough to do so,” the man reminded me. “But yes, I believe it can be done. Once you have learned how, you will have to go to the spot where it occurred. And you will need to know as much about the girl as possible. That, you will need this… Grover’s aid with. But assuming all goes well enough, you should be able to, ahem, bring her back.” 

My phone buzzed at that point, so I glanced down at it before replying, “Well, I’ll definitely be coming to you for lessons soon. But in the meantime, it sounds like the others are starting to wake up.

“And I really need to get back there in time for my grandparents to meet Theodore.” 

******

Of course, Manakel had no idea what I meant by ‘Theodore,’ and I wasn’t yet to the point where I felt like explaining it. So Avalon and I left him there with Persephone and Cerberus. They had a lot to talk about, and I was pretty sure most of it was pretty private stuff. Still, I made sure Percy knew she could call for us any time she wanted, and that she absolutely did not have to do anything Manakel told her to. And I told Andromeda she should listen in and make sure nothing untoward happened. Even if he was being… well, nice now, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Having a secretly-still-evil Manakel manipulating Persephone into something bad wasn’t quite the worst situation I could think of, but it wasn’t good either. 

Either way, right now wasn’t the time to think about all that. Now was the time to focus on Grandmaria and Popser, who were standing in the kitchen alongside Dad, Mom, and me. And Loudpound, who was wolfing down a very large stack of pancakes at the table. Or rather, pancake and egg sandwiches. She took two pancakes at a time, shoved several spoonfuls of scrambled eggs between them, then ate the result like a sandwich. While sometimes dipping it in syrup. I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to try it like that, but she sure enjoyed it. 

“Uurph, I gotta tell ya, Grandma Chambers, you make some fine flapjacks,” she announced after devouring another of her concoctions. “I mean, I never actually had real ones before, just what I’ve got from borrowed memories, or how they taste inside. But if I had to have anything as my first outside meal, I’m glad it was this.” She took another huge bite then, with a murmur of pleasure, then gulped down half a glass of milk. 

Staring at the greenish-brown, taller Denny in wonder (for more than one reason, I was sure), Grandmaria finally found her voice. “Oh, well, if you think those little things are good, you should try my cookies sometime.” 

Pointing with her latest pancake and egg sandwich clutched in one hand, Loudpound declared, “I’ll hold you to that! Err–what?” She looked to the side as though listening to someone else before muttering under her breath, then turned back. “I mean, thanks. You know, for that and all this food. It’s all ahh, it’s all good.” 

Grandmaria paused before smiling. “Well, I’m just glad you’ve all been enjoying it. Or… is that just you? I’m afraid I’m not quite certain how that works with your… ahh, situation.” 

Taking another gulp of milk to finish off the glass, Loudpound shrugged. “I’m not really the explaining things type, unless you’re talking about explaining just how much it hurts to have my fist in your face. Then I’m more of what you might call an interactive teacher.” She offered a toothy grin that showed off her fangs. Then there was another pause as she listened, before shrugging. “Yeah, well, you do it.” 

With that, her body shrank down half a foot, back to the original Denny’s height. Her skin shifted away from the brownish-green and became a bright fuchsia, while her clothes were a mint and black mix. She even had a matching cape. Her eyes were yellow with no whites to them, and she had short and spiky white hair. 

“Hi!” the new arrival chirped. “I’m Tailor! Letters was gonna come out and talk, but she’s busy right now. I wanted to say I really liked the pancakes too! I probably wouldn’t have put them together with the eggs like that, but it was a new experience. I think new experiences are good! Err, most of the time. Okay, okay, maybe there’s a lot of bad new experiences, but this one was just weird, and weird isn’t bad! I like experiencing things.” 

She looked to my grandmother then. “We can taste what the person on the outside eats, but it’s like… one step removed? It’s not quite like having someone describe something to you, but it’s not exactly the same as experiencing it yourself either. It’s like, uhhhhh… you know when you eat something and then a couple seconds later you can still remember what it tastes like really well? It’s sorta like that.” She thought about her own explanation for a second, then gave a firm nod. “Basically.” 

“Well,” Popser started, “it’s certainly a delight to meet you, Tailor. I hope we didn’t annoy your… sister? I hope we didn’t annoy her too much with all our questions.” 

“Psshh, nah, she’s okay.” Tailor waved that off. “Like she said, she just doesn’t like to explain things. Or listen to things being explained. She gets bored pretty quick.” Her head tilted to look up toward the corner of the ceiling. “What? You do. I didn’t say it was a bad thing.” Looking back to my grandparents, she added, “Anyway, we decided we don’t really like the term sister or brother, because… well, some of us are more connected than others. Letters was reading stuff online earlier when she was out, and she thinks those should be called syslings. Like system siblings. That’s what we are, a System, basically. We didn’t start out the same way they do, but… I mean, it’s close enough. Anyway, we’re the Carnival System. Some of us are syslings, some of us aren’t. Mostly we’re what you call Aspects, or maybe headmates.That’s another word Letters found. Individually, we’re Aspects. When you’re talking about what we are to each other, it’s Headmates. Loudpound and Bijou are syslings because they’re really close, even though they’re pretty different. But just go with headmates for all of us as a whole.”  

Dad, who had been standing in the back corner of the room next to Mom as they watched all this, spoke up. “I had an interview with someone like that awhile back. We were trying to find out what they knew, but the one we needed to talk to was, ahh… gone. I think they said he ‘walked out.’ I ended up talking to their–what did he call himself? Archeologist, that was it. He called himself the System Archeologist. He had this mental museum of all of the pieces of memory the other parts of them left lying around. Ended up being pretty helpful. And ahh, educating.” 

We all talked a little bit more about that, before Grandmaria promised to make cookies soon, and said she would invite any of the Carnival System out to help. Then she and Popser decided they were ready to go in and see Theodore. Apparently the System had already figured out that he couldn’t manifest outside. He wasn’t exactly the same as them. They were all pieces of Denny, at least partially, so they could take over and control the body. But he was more of a separate entity inside her memories, and apparently that wasn’t enough for him to take over. Though, to be honest, I wasn’t sure he even wanted to. He was pretty nervous about interacting with anyone in there, let alone taking over the body in the ‘outside world.’ 

In any case, Tailor swapped with Walker, who grunted her own greetings before waving for us to step together. So, Mom, my grandparents, and I all moved closer. The four of us were going in. Apparently it wasn’t easy for Denny to support too many people inside herself at the same time, and we didn’t want to push things any further than that. 

We arrived in the carnival itself, and my grandparents looked around in wonder. Grandpartie went on a bit about how amazing it would be if they could make a virtual reality video game look this good, while a few of the Aspects cautiously watched from various game booths and rides. They weren’t approaching. 

Then a voice spoke up cautiously from nearby. “I… hello.” It was Theodore, of course. He tentatively stepped out from behind one of the booths, looking nervous. He had dressed up in a cute little black suit with a blue bowtie and matching boots. 

Turning that way, Popser was the first to react. “Aha!” he crowed, making Theodore jump a little. “There’s my grandson!” With a grin, he stepped that way, then paused before lowering himself to one knee. Even then, he still towered over the small boy. “I like your tie. That’s not a clip-on.” 

“No, sir,” Theodore confirmed. “Bang-bang helped me tie it.” 

“Well, he did a bang-up job.” Giving a laugh at his own joke, Popser added, “And it sounds like he’s a good friend. You can call me Popser, or Grandpartie, just like the others.” He offered his hand. “You like Theodore or Theo?” 

After a very brief pause, the boy accepted the shake, his own hand vanishing into our grandfathers’ much bigger one. “I think I usually prefer Theodore, but… Theo sounds okay coming from you, uh, sir.” 

“Theo it is, then,” Popser agreed before waving a hand. “Maria, come meet our grandson.” 

Soon, the three of them were talking animatedly. Well, our grandparents were doing most of the talking. Theodore stayed pretty quiet and just watched. But his eyes were certainly animated, as he stared at them and alternately nodded or shook his head while they asked questions. 

Stepping next to my mother as that went on, I quietly murmured, “I’m pretty sure this is good for all of them.” 

Her head gave a short nod, eyes remaining centered on Theodore while shining with half-shed tears. “Yes. It’s good for them, and for us. And I think it’s good for Denny and the rest of the Carnival as well.” Saying that, she smiled even more at the sight of Popser rising while picking Theodore off the ground so he could hold him up as high as possible, making the boy give a reflexive laugh. Her voice became so quiet, I could barely hear her next words.  

“It’s just plain… good.” 

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Calm Before 20-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Beside me, Persephone made a noise as though she was going to say something. Before she could, however, Avalon put a hand on her arm and looked at her. Neither of them spoke in that moment, but I could see some sort of silent communication through expressions going on. After a couple seconds, Percy bowed her head slightly as though accepting what the other girl wanted. Then she glanced toward me and whispered very faintly, “She is very persuasive.” 

“That she is,” I murmured under my breath. I honestly wasn’t sure what to make out of the fact that Valley was capable of convincing an Olympian-powered Revenant to let her go first, but it certainly wasn’t surprising. She was pretty damn special. 

Meanwhile, Avalon herself took a couple steps forward while keeping her eyes on the ghost. Her voice was flat, though I could hear the emotion layered within it. “You tried awfully hard to make sure I died last year, Manakel.” The only slight stumble in her words came when she said his name, as though she hadn’t decided until that very moment whether she was going to use any sort of honorific or not. And to be fair, I really couldn’t blame her for going with not. 

“I did,” Manakel confirmed. He seemed to consider how to respond next before speaking again. “I would say that it was not personal, but of course, it was very personal to you. And, I believe, quite personal to me by the end. I would also say that I was not myself at the time, but that should not matter to you. Both for the fact that the victim should never be made to excuse the faults of the aggressor, and because I was hardly the sole representative of my people who caused you harm. We Seosten made a bit of a habit of that.” 

Again, he fell silent for a moment, his gaze watching her. And yet, though his expression appeared fairly blank on the outside, I could feel the turmoil within the man. He really did feel guilty about the whole thing, but honestly felt as though showing his feelings that way would be selfish. The man was taking time between sentences to choose his words not in an attempt to be manipulative, but because he wanted to be careful not to turn a discussion about Avalon’s feelings into one about his own problems. 

Okay, seriously, I was getting an awful lot of information about his emotions and whatnot. Was this just because of our connection through the Tartarus thing? Because I definitely didn’t get that much detail from all my ghosts. If I did, I would’ve been able to tell whether Perrsnile or Ausesh were lying back in the vault. 

“What I can say,” Manakel eventually continued, “is that I am sorry for all suffering I was directly or indirectly involved with when it comes to your life, Avalon Sinclaire. I was performing the duties which were assigned to me, but that is not an excuse, for I had previously proven myself capable of creatively reinterpreting orders, and I certainly could have suggested other solutions to the situation. The fact is, I chose not to. For that, regardless of any outside influence I may have been operating under, you have my deepest, most unequivocal apology.” His gaze met hers. “I am sorry for hurting you, and for participating in causing you pain.”

Avalon seemed to absorb that for a moment. Watching her from behind, I could see the way her shoulders hunched slightly before she forced them down and continued to meet his gaze. After all that time, after everything she had been through when it came to the Seosten in general and Manakel in particular, she wasn’t going to look away from him or show any fear. A brief couple of seconds passed before she finally replied, very slowly and deliberately, “I’m going to be watching you, and I’ll be ready… if you end up trying anything.” Another pause, then, “For whatever reason.” Which, I imagined, was her concession that he might very well be telling the truth about being ‘better’ now, but could still end up being re-corrupted by Tartarus. 

Manakel obviously understood all that, acknowledging her words with a simple nod. “I would expect nothing less, Avalon Sinclaire. You have, in all respects, proven yourself to be a quite remarkable and resourceful young woman. Who,” he added while glancing to me very briefly, “is also very adept at finding remarkable and resourceful companions.” 

“Yeah,” Avalon retorted, “and I’m rather fond of them. So don’t think you can try something just because one of them might be… more inclined than I am to believe any story you tell.” After letting that sit very briefly, she added, “Not that I’m saying you’re lying right now. But if you are, or if your… situation changes at any point, I won’t hesitate to make sure you go away forever.” 

Beside me, I could see Persephone shift a little. I wasn’t sure what exactly she was feeling about any of this situation, let alone what Avalon was saying. It was complicated, to say the least. Whatever she was thinking, I was pretty sure it wasn’t the same thing she would’ve thought before she came here. I’d only known her for a short time, but the experience of having Sariel and several of her other former crewmates apologize for how they had treated her seemed to have meant a lot to her. Though I was also certain even she didn’t understand those feelings.

Manakel never looked away from Avalon through her words. He took them in and waited to be sure she was done before quietly replying, “I am glad to hear that. And I hope, if that time comes, you truly will ensure that I do not cause you any more harm.” 

Avalon looked like she was going to say something else briefly before deciding against it. Instead, she stepped aside, moving back toward me before glancing toward Percy with a quiet, “Sorry, he needed to hear it. And I needed to say it.” 

“It’s alright, Avalon,” Persephone brightly informed her, “sometimes we need to say things.” With those simple words, she turned her attention back to Manakel and quietly added, “Hello, my husband. You still smell of the Necromancy, though not as much. It is… filtered?” She sounded like she wasn’t sure that was the right word, but rather, the closest she could think of. 

Again, I sensed a torrent of emotions from Manakel, even though his expression remained relatively blank. He took a moment, looking like he was inhaling though of course there was no actual air involved. A habit, I supposed. Then he spoke, his voice as gentle as I had ever heard it. “Persephone, I am glad to see that you’ve made your way here. You and Cerberus.” 

Hearing his name, the three-headed robot dog immediately took a few cautious steps forward, before all six of his ears laid back as he made a soft whining sound. I knew the problem immediately. Cerberus recognized Manakel, but also knew that he was intended to fight evil ghosts. Even though I’d had him around my ghosts a few times, this specific situation was still awkward and different enough that he wasn’t sure what to do about it. And, I was pretty sure he could sense how uncertain and tense the whole thing was, which didn’t help.

Persephone moved up as well, stopping next to Cerberus once more before laying a hand on one of his heads. Her voice was still bright. “If it is true that ghosts of your people are being taken to serve this… Tartarus, then I am very glad you managed to avoid that fate.” She glanced over her shoulder toward me, offering a smile before turning back to him as she continued. “Felicity is very special. She taught me how to effectively protect my yellow pseudo-circle from the evil colored ghosts.”

Manakel, who quite obviously had no experience with Pac-Man, made a noise of uncertainty before managing, “I’m glad she’s been here for you. And that you have… grown.” 

“He means he’s glad you’re not immediately throwing yourself at him while pledging obedience,” Avalon put in flatly. “Which is one thing I think we can safely both agree with.” 

“Quite,” Manakel murmured with a glance that way before turning his attention fully to the Revenant woman. “If I owed Avalon Sinclaire an apology, I owe you more than I could ever give. My treatment of her was at least covered by duty. It was my job to find a way to kill her. But you… the way I…” He grimaced, giving a soft sigh. “I believe the part of me that was becoming increasingly influenced by my connection to my… our fallen crewmates was afraid that you might be able to detect something different about me. So I continually sent you away on long trips, under the pretense of not wanting Kore’s body to be near me. A, ahh, readily accepted excuse, to say the least.” 

After saying those words, he hovered forward a bit and focused on her. “I have failed in so many ways to give you advice, guide you along your journey of self-discovery, or in any way aid you as I should have. But if I can do any of that now, if it is not too late, I would like to say this. Listen to Felicity Chambers and to Avalon Sinclaire. And to those close to them. They are the best guides you could have when learning to exist in this universe.” 

Another pause came before he added, “And yet, you are Olympian too. You served on that ship. You performed every duty asked of you. You put yourself in danger repeatedly, and were responsible for protecting everyone there. You were a member of that crew. Don’t you let anyone take that away from you, or forget it. Sariel, Luci– Apollo, Athena, all of them, they can help you. They will… want to help you. Let them. And those who try to take away from your contributions, who try to diminish your worth… don’t accept it. You are special, Persephone, in ways I don’t believe you, I, or anyone else we know quite understands just yet. You don’t need a husband, or a wife, or any other version of someone to attach yourself to in order to be important. You always were. All you have ever needed was to be yourself. I mistreated you, took advantage of you, sent you away when you might have formed bonds with the crew so that you would remain alien to them because I didn’t want you to be too close to them. For that and everything else, I am sorry. Please, never call me your husband again. I did not treat you as one should, and I did not earn it. I would like, before my time is up and I reach whatever fate comes for me, to be able to call you a friend. But I would prefer to take our time at that.” 

Persephone seemed to take that in, considering it for a few long moments before straightening up. “I would like to call you a friend in the future as well, Manakel. And I have been told that it is rude to refer to someone by a term or name they have asked you not to use. So, just as I do not refer to Felicity as my wife, I will not refer to you as my husband. But I want you to know that, should this Tartarus attempt to claim you again, I will do everything in my power to ensure that does not happen.” 

Visibly grimacing at the very thought of that place taking control of him, Manakel hesitated before finding his voice. “I assure you, I would accept any and all aid in avoiding that.” Then he looked to Cerberus and added, “Yes, even from you, Spot.”  

Stepping forward myself while Cerberus bounced around in a happy circle at being acknowledged, I announced, “Well, we might not all be friends, but at least we can accept that Tartarus and Maestro are the real threats.” 

A clouded expression crossed Manakel’s face, and I felt a mixture of anger and fear from him. “Yes, that is…” He sighed. “Sariel asked me what I knew about that, about him. Unfortunately, the answer is nothing. All I know now is what they told me. I never heard any mention of Zadkiel, or any Fomorian-Seosten hybrid while hearing the… pardon I know the term is sensitive right now, lower-case whispers of my old crewmates.” 

“That’s right,” I put in, “You were hearing the voices from the Olympians who died. And they were actually speaking out loud. Persephone heard them, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. You…” I considered my words before just outright asking, “Why didn’t you tell anyone about that? I mean, didn’t the ship have a psychologist who should’ve been available?” 

“Miss Chambers,” Manakel promptly replied, “precisely what evidence have you seen in all your short, yet highly consequential dealings with my people which would make you believe we have a strong grasp of the necessity of mental health?” 

“Well if I was gonna think too much along those lines, I’d wonder if you people could even define the term,” I retorted before coughing. “But yeah, fine. Not telling Puriel though? He was your captain and, like, your friend, wasn’t he?” 

For a second, Manakel looked away. I could sense… well, that same regret, yet also some positive feelings. He was remembering old days with Puriel. My pointing out that they were supposed to be friends made him think about what had made them friends in the first place. The memories, happy as they might’ve been, were obviously tainted by what came later and his own regrets. Yet they existed, and for a moment he simply enjoyed those memories. Which, given the Seosten perfect recall, had to be easier to do. Yet on the other hand, it also meant that he could perfectly recall every bad thing he had done as well. 

With a visible sigh, the man focused once more, his gaze meeting mine. “He was, and I would like to say that it was the influence of Tartarus which prevented me from speaking up. Which, perhaps, became the truth eventually. But at first…at first it was selfishness. I believed that it was simply my own power allowing me to see and hear the ghosts of those who died on the ship, and I thought if I said it was happening, they would either do something to prevent it, or… or relieve me of my duties. Neither of which I wanted to happen. I wanted to continue serving on the Olympus, alongside my friend. And I wanted to keep seeing the ghosts, even if they didn’t listen to me.” 

“Didn’t listen to you?” Avalon immediately echoed. 

“That is why I believed they would either relieve me or find a way to remove the ghosts,” Manakel replied. “Unlike all other spirits, these did not obey my commands. I didn’t know if that was a psychological block on my own part, not wanting to command those I felt I had failed in allowing them to die, or… or what. Either way, the fact that they continued to appear only while I was alone, and that I could not control them, convinced me that outsiders would believe I was either losing my mind, or that I could not effectively control my own gift when it came to the deaths of my crewmates. It was… it was a conscious choice not to tell anyone when I could have. A mistake on my part.” Another slight pause, then, “One of many.” 

I had no idea what I was supposed to say to that, so I moved on. “I have another question for you. It’s important. I need you to think back to last year. There was a hotel called the Runaway. It was taken over by a bunch of Alters, a gang. You went there for some reason, and when the two ghosts who live there showed up, you asked them about something or someone named Hajer. When they couldn’t answer your question, you tried to do something to them. The girl ghost pushed the boy out of the way, so he was only slightly clipped by it, but she took the full hit.” 

Manakel seemed to be focusing on recalling that memory, before looking back to me. “You have the boy ghost, don’t you? He only took a small fraction of the hit, so he would have come back on his own eventually.” 

“Oh!” Persephone abruptly piped up. “You used a pehvne spell.” To us, she added, “I guess the best translation would be… uhh… severscatter?” 

“That is as good as any,” the man agreed. “A pehvne, or ahh, severscatter spell normally involves shoving your own magical energy into your opponent, infecting his energy, the fuel he uses to cast spells and even use many abilities, and then rip that fuel out of him before scattering it in all directions. Some levels of the spell scatter the energy within the same area, allowing it to be reclaimed quite quickly, while higher levels scatter it much further to the point that it is essentially gone forever. Which, in the case of most living creatures, means little aside from the fact that it will take them time to regenerate their own magical fuel.” He paused then, considering Avalon and me. “Having posed as one of your instructors for quite some time last year, I know that you are both very bright. And that you are aware of how that works.” 

“People gradually absorb energy from the sun or just air around them and convert it into mana, or whatever you want to call it,” I confirmed. “Once they convert it, the energy has their own sort of signature that makes it theirs, so they can use it properly. So you’re saying the power you used was supposed to take someone’s magical energy and scatter it so they can’t cast spells until their tank refills. But you used it on ghosts, and they’re basically nothing but magical energy.” 

He confirmed that with a nod before explaining, “I put enough power into that to ensure they would not come back within the next ten of your Earth years if used on both. As the girl took the brunt of it, I can only imagine it would take twenty for her to return. I was… quite angry at the time. As I recall, we had just discovered that Zedekiah Pericles was not the person responsible for Miss Sinclaire’s protection.” 

Meeting his gaze evenly, Avalon retorted, “After you people murdered him.” 

“Yes.” Manakel’s voice was flat. “After we murdered him. And yes, before you ask,” he added to me, “I believe I can help you bring the ghost back. Or teach you how to do it. That will take some time, but it is as good a place to start as any with our lessons.” 

“Well, good,” I replied. “And while we’re at it, maybe you should explain exactly what, or who, you were looking for at that place anyway. Because if not being able to find this Hajer pissed you off that much, I think it’s something we should know about.” 

“Ah,” the ghost-man replied, “well that is not difficult. You may have heard of her yourself. But I believe you would know Hajer as the ahh… Wandering Woman? Or possibly Wrethekau, Freyja, Isis, the Witch of Endor?” 

“Oh. Right, yeah, we’ve heard of her,” I agreed. “But why were you looking for her, exactly? 

“And I swear to any deity-level power you might have any shred of belief in, if any of the next few words out of your mouth have anything to do with her having any part in my or Avalon’s family histories, I may have to give Grover what he wants and stab someone.” 

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Calm Before 20-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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 After checking in on Ausesh and Perrsnile, I visited with the other ghosts for a while and took down some notes about a few things they needed or wanted. Stuff like some extra DVDs for various shows they couldn’t find on the streaming services that had already been set up for them. I also took a dozen of the ipads and electronic book readers that were lying around and updated them, downloaded some more materials, and adjusted the automatic-page turning systems so they could be turned on and off with a simple touch. That way, the ghosts would only have to use enough energy to start and stop the automatic turning, or adjust how fast it went, rather than having to do it every time they wanted to make it go to the next page. Finally, I set up a large touch screen monitor on the wall of one of the rooms with a paint program. They could stand there and brush their fingers over it to make pictures and then save them to be displayed on other screens throughout the mansion. I had set the sensitivity up pretty high so they didn’t have to use much energy to make it register the touch.

Several apologized repeatedly for even asking for stuff, but I made it clear that I wanted them to tell me when there was anything I could get for them. If I was stuck as a ghost like that, and had very limited options for entertainment, I would definitely want to be able to ask for new things to keep myself occupied. Especially if, as was the case for most of them, my previous Necromancer had been Fossor. 

“You sure I can’t get anything for you?” I finally asked Grover while standing outside in the backyard. I’d expected him to be first in line to ask about new DVDs, but he hadn’t spoken up for any of it. 

The small, yellowish-orange ghost boy with that ratty, ill-fitting patch-work suit shook his head while looking a bit pensive. If it wasn’t for the visible scales on his arms and wrists, and the curly horns that were visible sticking out from under that newsboy cap, I almost could have thought that he was a completely human kid, working up the nerve to say something. 

Glancing over my shoulder to where Avalon was examining a statue on the far side of the yard, I paused before lowering my voice. “Grover, what’s wrong? I know you’ve got a list of old shows you want me to try to get. Are you okay?” 

A moment of silence passed before he slowly looked up at me. His voice was quiet. It was nothing like the casual and confident ghost I’d known from the moment we met. “He’s here, right? Manakel.” 

The question made me blink in surprise, giving the boy another look as I reassessed him. “Wait, you know Manakel? Hold on, was he the one who…” 

“He didn’t kill me, no,” Grover informed me, but his voice still sounded off. “I had a friend for a while, a ghost friend. She was this dilly of a babe. You’d probably call her wicked cool. She uhh, she taught me everything about being a ghost. Protected me for a long time, showed me the ropes and helped me uhh… come to terms with everything. Would’ve been lost without her. Nihla, that was her name. I used to call her Wafer. You know, like those cookies, the Nilla Wafers.” 

He was gazing off into the distance, clearly lost in memory for a moment. Then his expression clouded. “We were minding our own business last year when that Manakel guy paid a visit to the hotel. He was looking for something. Or maybe someone. Whatever, the point is, the guy summoned us up as soon as he felt us in that place. He wanted us to tell him about something or someone named Hajer. We didn’t know what he was talking about, and he ahh… he didn’t like that. He did something, some sort of banishment spell. It was supposed to destroy both of us, but Nihla shoved me out of the way, so I only got hit by a little bit of it. Just enough to scatter me for a few days until I could pull myself together. But Nihla… she was gone. He destroyed her.” 

Oh boy. Taking all that in, I gave a long sigh before focusing on him. I pushed enough power into the boy to make him solid from it so I could put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m really sorry about that. I–I’m sorry.” Swallowing, I added, “That’s why you showed yourself to me as soon as I was there, isn’t it?” 

“I recognized the… scent of your power, at least part of it,” Grover confirmed. “Poked my head out to see what the hell that monster was doing back there, so when I saw you instead… I was curious. Wanted to find out why you smelled like his power. You know, if you were his kid or something.” 

Shuddering at that thought, I watched him for a moment. “Then you found out he was dead and I had his power.” 

Grover gave a very short nod. “I found out you killed him. Semantics aside, you killed him. Or your body did. Whatever. You had his power.  And you were a necromancer. I thought maybe… at some point when you were stronger…” 

I realized suddenly what he was talking about, rocking back on my heels. “You were hoping I might be able to bring Nihla back. Since I have his power.” 

He offered a weak shrug, clearly feeling embarrassed or ashamed of even bringing it up. “I know it’s probably impossible. If he destroyed her, there’s no coming back from that. But if there’s even the slightest chance that there might be some piece of her left, if anyone’s power could fix her, it’s that. And you were… not like him. I wasn’t even going to talk about it until you had a lot more training, until I did… until I did you enough favors that you might want to help.” Another pause came, before he gave a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry.” 

Taking a moment to collect my thoughts, I finally exhaled before speaking up. “Okay, first of all, you don’t have anything to apologize for. Nothing. You’ve been helping a lot, and of course you want your friend back. I mean, if she hasn’t moved on or anything like that, obviously you’d want to help her reform. There’s nothing wrong with that, so don’t apologize again. And believe me, I know what it’s like to hate that guy. Remember, he spent most of last year trying very hard to kill Avalon.” I glanced toward the girl in question briefly before turning my attention back to him. “He was responsible for a lot of bad things.”

That said, I shook my head. “And I know hearing he’s not that person anymore doesn’t really help. I could spend the next week talking about how Tartarus affected him, about how the ghosts of the other Olympians who died helped twist him into what he was. I could talk about how he’s supposed to be different now, but I don’t think it would really help. He’s still the guy who hurt, or even destroyed, your friend. Semantics don’t really matter when it comes to that.” 

Again, I hesitated, my eyes closing tightly as memories flashed through my head. “He killed my friend. He killed Rudolph, murdered him right in front of us. So yeah, I know that it’s not something you can just forget because he says he’s different now.” 

My hand clenched tightly before I forced myself to continue. “But, he’s here now. And the truth is, I need his help. This power I have is really strong. It’s got so much potential, but I can only learn so much so fast from people like Brom Bones. Don’t get me wrong, that guy’s a really good teacher. And if I had years to learn what I needed to, he’d definitely be enough. But I have to learn as fast as possible if I’m going to use it the way I need to. With the Whispers out there, and Olympian ghosts like Kushiel… it’s too dangerous for me to take my time learning. I have to get better as fast as possible. And the best way for me to do that is to learn from the man himself.” 

After letting that sit for a moment, I met the ghost boy’s gaze. “And he can teach me how to help your friend. I mean, if it’s at all possible. I could spend years, even decades, trying to understand how to fix what he did on my own, and still not get anywhere. I wouldn’t even know where to start. But if he’s right here, and he claims he wants to make up for all the terrible things he did, here’s his chance. I’ll tell him to help me find Nihla, if there’s anything… if it’s possible, and bring her back. I promise. As soon as we get things settled and all that, I’ll tell him that’s the first thing on the list. I’ll help get your friend back, Grover. If it’s at all possible, we’ll get her back.” 

I could see the way he absorbed my words, clearly doing his best not to give too much of a reaction. He didn’t want to let himself actually hope. Even then, his eyes betrayed the impact of what he was feeling for a moment before the boy got himself under control. With a very slight nod, he spoke in a flat voice. “Just don’t trust him, huh? Whatever sort of sob story he’s got about how sorry he is and how that wasn’t him, you keep your eyes on him. Maybe he can help and maybe he can’t, but you make sure he doesn’t get one over on you.” 

“Don’t worry,” I started to assure him before catching myself. “Well, do worry, but do it in moderation. We’ll both keep our eyes open, okay? Let me know if you see, or hear, anything hinky.” 

With a slight snort despite himself, Grover echoed, “Hinky. Sounds funny when you say it.” He sobered then, staring at me before giving a somber nod. “He starts trying anything, we’ll let you know. Me and the other ghosts. You can count on us.” 

“She can count on all of us,” Avalon announced while moving up on one side of me. Her attention was on him. “And like she said, if there’s any fragment of your friend out there, we’ll make him help bring her back.”

Glancing that way, I raised an eyebrow. “Pretty good hearing from the other side of the yard.” 

In response, Avalon turned her head and brushed her hair back so I could see the almost invisible hearing aid-like buds in her ears. “Just testing a new invention. If I tune it to one person’s voice, it can pick up that plus anyone directly talking to them from as far away as a hundred yards. Including through walls.” 

Grinning a bit despite myself, I poked her lightly. “Well, I do enjoy being your guinea pig.” At Grover’s exaggerated look, I rolled my eyes. “Yeah yeah, go on and get back to your thing. We’ll talk about the Manakel situation later, I promise. He’s gonna help.” 

The boy gave a very brief, yet sincere smile before switching back to his usual casual expression as he started to go back into the house. Partway there, however, he spun back to me. “Oh, well, as long as you’re already taking down a list of new DVDs you should pick up, it’d be a waste if I didn’t make sure you get some actual decent ones. 

“You might wanna get a pen and paper or something.” 

*****

Once that was done, Avalon and I made our way out of the haunted mansion. I’d barely reached the sidewalk before the sound of heavy metal running along the pavement drew my attention that way. Sure enough, Cerberus, in his, ahem, ‘small’ form, was charging toward me. All three of his heads were focused on the spot where I was standing, giving me wide puppy grins before they each barked in succession, one after the other. 

Bracing myself, I caught the two side heads as the robot-dog skidded to a halt right at my feet. Rubbing the metal there as though scratching them (something they seemed to enjoy despite the fact that it really shouldn’t have done anything), I tilted my head back and let the middle head lick my face. “Heeey, who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy! Good boy!” His tail was thumping against the ground excitedly, as he shifted the middle head out of the way so the left one could get a few licks in, followed by the right. 

Meanwhile, the ones that weren’t licking my face leaned toward Avalon, who gingerly reached out to pat them. Porthos, perched on her shoulder, gave a long and apparently quite detailed chittering lecture to them which I was pretty sure had something to do with explaining how Avalon was his partner and they should remember that. 

“He was very excited to see you again, Felicity,” Persephone cheerfully announced while approaching. She was taking her time, walking right along the curb while carefully putting one foot directly in front of the other as she balanced on the edge. “And you, Avalon, of course. But mostly Felicity, because she was missing all day and he knew she was in trouble.” Focusing on me, she added, “We were all very sorry that we could not aid you while you were Sure Locking Homes.” 

I blinked a couple times at that, before realizing. “… You mean Sherlock Holmes?” 

Grinning brightly, she replied, “That’s what I said. I do not know why a phrase about ensuring homes are locked has become synonymous with solving mysteries, but I am assured ‘playing Sure Lock Homes’ is the correct term.” 

Despite myself, I couldn’t help but smile a bit at that, shaking my head. “Come on, I’ll explain the whole Sherlock Holmes thing on the way.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, however, I hesitated. “I mean, if you’re sure you want to go see him right now?” There was no need to define exactly who I meant. She knew. 

Meeting my gaze with a serious expression, the white-haired woman gave a single nod. “Yes, Felicity. I… I have had several long discussions with Miss Sariel, Captain Puriel, and others. And with you as well, all of which I am very grateful for. But I believe that it is my… it is Doctor Manakel to whom I must speak next. That is an opportunity I believed was lost to me once, and I would not like to lose it again, should anything else happen.”

She was being so careful to explain things, and I could tell she’d rehearsed what she was going to say, probably several times. Not that I could blame her at all. I knew how hard it was for her, often, to express her thoughts and feelings in ways that were clear to the rest of us. She was different, she thought differently, in many ways. She was an alien being permanently possessing another alien being, a dead alien being at that. That whole situation was… different, to say the least.  

But really, what it came down to was that she deserved to see Manakel if she wanted to. So, I nodded, rubbed each of Cerberus’s heads once more, then started to walk. “Okay, let’s go see him then. 

“And hope that Jerry Springer never finds out about the ghost of a Greek god alien guy meeting with his Revenant-possessed ex, the girl who helped kill him, and the girl he spent most of a year trying to murder. Or he might bring his show back, and I think we all know this world can’t survive that.” 

*******

By the time we got to the room where they were keeping Manakel for the moment, only Athena and a few people I didn’t recognize but was pretty sure were major spell-users were standing outside. I’d seen Wyatt working with at least one of them before, exchanging notes about security magic. So yeah, obviously they were pulling out the big guns to make sure he stayed where they wanted him. 

It only took a minute to talk to Athena for her to agree to let us go inside. She came with, just in case, but promised to stay out of the way unless something happened. 

So, there we were, standing just inside what turned out to be a fairly empty room at this point aside from an old-fashioned Earth clock radio, a painting of a ship on the ocean, and a bookshelf with an assortment of things on it. Athena said they would be moving some things in to help him keep himself busy while he was waiting to be useful, but this was it for the moment. Just those things… and Manakel himself. 

The ghost figure was hovering near the back of the twenty-foot wide, fifteen foot long room. His gaze was focused away from us, but I knew he was aware of our presence. Still, no one said anything. Even Cerberus was quiet, sitting down on his haunches next to Percy while we all waited for something to happen. 

Finally, the man turned slowly. I watched as his gaze passed over me first, then Cerberus, Avalon, and Persephone. With each new figure, he gave a very faint, almost entirely imperceptible flinch. It was basically only visible in his eyes. Or maybe because I could sense him so well. Either way, the strongest reaction came when he focused on Persephone. Ghosts didn’t breathe, of course, but his translucent form still seemed to inhale slowly, as though preparing himself. Then he spoke in a voice that was somehow simultaneously quiet, yet filled the room, like a very low rumble of distant thunder. “Good morning, ladies. 

“I imagine it’s time to talk about a few things.” 

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At Last 16-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re not worth your time.” 

“You’re not worth our time.” 

“You should just leave right now.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are those Elemiah’s rings you have?” 

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