The Source 23-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, what?! No, really, what the fuck? For a moment after hearing those words come from the tape player, I just stood there and stared down at it. My thumb had hit the off switch reflexively while my brain spun out. Fomorians coming here to Earth? They always came here, of course. But they were supposed to come sometime around the year nineteen hundred, not sixteen hundred! If the woman on this tape was right, if she wasn’t full of it, the Fomorians could show up over three hundred years early. 

How much would that change history? So many of the people who had helped stop them before–or would in the future (time travel was annoying) weren’t even around yet. And the ones who were, did they even know the spell that had been used to banish the Fomorians in the first place? Would the Seosten fight back as much to save Earth at this point as they had/would at the normal invasion time, or would it be easier for them to just pull out and grab as many humans as they could to breed as weapons? 

Something told me this whole situation would be very different, and unfathomably worse, if those monsters came through right now. I didn’t even know anything about this woman on the tape other than her name, Jaquelin Prose, and the fact that she worked for Section Four, which I had heard of. And I definitely had no idea how she’d sent this tape back. But whoever she was, I couldn’t take the chance that she was right. If the Fomorians were actually about to come through–no, there wasn’t time to waste. 

All those thoughts played through my mind in just a second or two, before I hit play again. 

Jaquelin’s voice continued as I held the recorder up and listened intently. “The third building from the left of the sheriff’s office, where you were before, is a church. There’s a tunnel underneath the altar. Err, that’s altar spelled with an a, not an e.” She sounded about as anxious and nervous as I felt. “The priest is one of his minions. You–you have to get past him. Then get through the altar, find the tunnel, and follow it to the chamber where he’s been setting up the spell to summon the Fomorians. The town–the people who live there, they’ll try to stop you too. It’s not their fault. Please, don’t–just don’t kill them. The priest has been putting… things in them, so he can control them, puppet them. They’ll do anything to protect the church and the altar, even sacrifice themselves. They don’t even know why they’re doing it or why it matters. He’s just… he’s infected them, and there’s no time to try to argue with them or fix it the hard way. They won’t listen to you. The second they realize you’re trying to get into the church, they’ll try to stop you. But if you can get through the tunnel under the altar and break the ritual, you can free them from it. You can stop the Fomorians from coming here early. Once you’re in the chamber where the ritual is, you have to–” 

The tape went fuzzy then, and I frowned before hitting the button a couple more times. “What? I have to what?!” 

“It’s enchanted,” Persephone informed me. “The rest of the tape won’t play until you’re in the proper location.” 

Oh, well of course. So much for listening ahead of time to know exactly what I was walking into. Apparently I had to actually get there first. And I had to do it as quickly as possible. Which meant I needed a ride.  “Percy–”  

She was already up on Cerberus, and just as I glanced that way, her hand caught mine and hauled me up. “What about Ehn?” she asked curiously. “He is quite powerful, and quite unlikely to want the Fomorians to overrun this planet any more than we do.”

Before I could respond, Cerberus was already running back the way we’d come. Holding onto Percy ahead of me, I blurted, “I don’t know if we have time to go find him! He said this thing was some sort of buried power, not a message! Maybe this is a test, more training, or–or… I don’t know! Seth!” Belatedly, I shouted the ghost’s name, summoning him once more. “You remember the way back to the creek, right? Go there, take some of the others so you can spread out, find Ehn and tell him what’s going on! And if he already knew this was a thing, tell him it’s not fucking funny and to help!” 

I barely heard his response as he and several other ghosts took off to work on that. The only thing I could focus on was the terror I felt about what would happen if we–if I screwed this up and let the Fomorians come through. The fact that they hadn’t previously made it to Earth in this time period had to mean that I successfully stopped them, right? But were things set like that? I was pretty sure they weren’t. I could still fuck this up. Wait, was it always me that stopped them? What if Ehn was supposed to be the one who found this thing? What if he was supposed to be with me right now? Oh God, what if other versions of me who got to this point had insisted that Ehn stay with them-me so he was there to stop the Fomorians? What if them-me had had better ways of contacting him to ask for help? What if–damn it, I didn’t know! I had no idea if anything was different, or if I could still make the wrong choice and screw this whole situation up. If I did–if I messed up, I could doom the entire human species! Or at least Earth. What if–what if I created a timeline where the Fomorians overran the planet? 

Yeah, I was kind of spiraling a bit. It was a lot of pressure, and I had absolutely no idea how bad things would get if I made the wrong choice. Or if I already had made wrong choices. Still, my desperately flailing mind stopped as Persephone put her hand on mine while my arms were still wrapped around her to help stay on the running three-headed robot dog. “It’s okay, Flick,” she assured me. “We can stop them. The future message wouldn’t be here to tell you what to do if you couldn’t do it. We’ll help you. Right, Cerberus?” Her words were met with a trio of sharp barks. 

Right, yeah. Her words, and Cerberus’s agreement, helped settle my nerves a little bit. They were right. Ehn be damned, I had them. It wasn’t like the Fomorians were here already, after all. Jaquelin had said that I needed to stop ‘him.’ That was singular. Was it the priest she had mentioned? No, that couldn’t be it. She’d said the priest was one of ‘his’ minions. Whoever this ‘he’ was, that was the main threat. But whether this was one Fomorian, or some other species who was trying to bring them over, or would do something stupid that accidentally summoned them, I had no idea. Not yet, anyway. If it was a full Fomorian… well, I had Persephone and Cerberus. Not to mention all these ghosts. I wasn’t alone. 

Wait, speaking of that… Another thought came to mind, and I reached out with my Necromancy once more. Once again, I didn’t make it a demand. I requested the presence of the ghosts I had already spoken to earlier. Kehchul the goblin, Elsworn the bear-man, Avonaco the Native American, and Francis the European settler. Soon, they appeared hovering in the air as Cerberus bounded up the hillside. In a few words, I told them what was going on and where we were going. They, in turn, immediately promised to ‘rally the troops,’ and said they would meet us there. Then they disappeared again. I just hoped they’d make it back in time to help. And also that Seth and the others would find Ehn in time for him to come help as well, come to think of it.

Yeah, there was an awful lot of hoping going on right now. Including the fact that I hoped the lady on the tape knew what she was talking about. And that she wasn’t lying. That had occurred to me as well. What if this whole thing was a trick right from the start and doing what she said would be what summoned the Fomorians? What if the ritual was actually helping to keep them away? Or whatever she told me to do would finish it? Sure, it didn’t seem all that likely that I’d be necessary for that, but… but…

Yeah, I really didn’t know. The truth was that I was going to have to make that estimation when the time came. I had to wait and listen to what this lady wanted me to do once we made it to that ritual room. And if the next words out of her mouth were, ‘have Ehn kill the ultra Fomorian kaiju beast that just appeared in front of you because you’re totally no match for it’ I was probably going to scream. 

Soon enough (hopefully), we reached the edge of town once more. Now there were people outside working, talking, or just walking around instead of hiding indoors. But they all stopped short as we came into view. And why wouldn’t they? I was a blonde human girl sitting on the back of a giant three-headed robot dog behind a pale woman with snow-white hair. Granted, this was a village full of Alters with a tall, blue-scaled man and his humanoid grasshopper deputy. But still, we probably stood out a little bit. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to reassure them. And I didn’t even know what I would have said anyway. All I could do was stare for a second, wondering briefly just how badly this was going to go. I had to get into that church and go under the altar, which would probably look bad even at the best of times, let alone when the entire town was apparently brainwashed or whatever to make sure that wouldn’t happen. 

Ehn had to know about this, right? There was no way he didn’t. He’d sent me off to find this thing, talking about how it was power or whatever, and it turned out to be this? I refused to believe that he didn’t know. This was an intentional test. He wanted me to be here, taking care of this situation. Well I was going to take care of it alright. And then he and I were going to have some words about his teaching methods. 

While I slipped off of Cerberus, murmuring for him and Percy to hold off and let me handle this, Sheriff Dune approached. “Well hey, can’t say I was expecting you to come back so soon. Did your partner find the guy he was looking for?” His words were friendly enough, but I could sense a tiny bit of an edge to them. Or maybe I was just imagining it thanks to what I had been told. Either way, I doubted he’d stay as friendly over the next few moments. 

Still, I had to try. Taking a breath, I met the man’s gaze. “I have reason to believe you and your people are being… manipulated. I need to go into that church and check on something.” My hand gestured toward the building in question. “I really hope we can do this the easy way, but if you–” 

All four of his six-shooters were in his hands before I could say another word. For most people, that probably would’ve been the end of it. He was so fast, his quick draw a blinding motion that brought the barrels right in line with my head in an instant. He didn’t wait for me to explain, didn’t even listen to anything past the point when I said I had to go into the church. He just drew, aimed, and fired with the full intent (in as much as someone who was puppeted via some sort of infestation could have intent) of putting all four bullets, and probably more besides, through my skull. 

Fortunately, as fast as he was, I was faster. And I had been expecting something like that. Both of my hands snapped up. The first summoned a small portal in front of my face, with the other end appearing off in the distance to make his bullets pass right through and shoot off into the woods harmlessly. Meanwhile, a sharp gesture from my other hand sent a spray of sand into his mouth and eyes, forcing the man to recoil reflexively. Which was all the time I needed to send even more sand inside the barrels of each gun. A moment of focus on my object size-changing power made all those grains grow. They only went from being as big as… well, grains of sand to being the size of large pebbles, but still. All of them together like that within the tight space of the gun barrels was enough to twist the weapons out of shape so they wouldn’t fire properly anymore. Part of me felt bad about that, but if this all went well and the whole planet didn’t end up getting invaded by Fomorians, I’d try to make up for it. 

Of course, Dune wasn’t done just because his guns were disabled. And the rest of the town wasn’t sitting idly by either. But before any of them could do anything, I felt the arrival of Elsworn and the others. And.. and a lot more besides. When those guys said they were rallying the troops, they had meant it. Without conscious thought, I shoved power into the ghost army, my voice rising to a shout. “Don’t hurt any of them!” 

And just like that, a swarm of semi-transparent figures rushed past and over me. Dune was grabbed by six different ghosts, struggling and cursing as they hauled him to the ground. Strex, the deputy, came bounding into view just in time to be caught by two more ghosts, disarmed, and pulled all the way to the roof of a nearby building. All around us, it was the same story. Every person in town was being held down by two or three ghosts. They came because I’d asked for help, because Elsworn, Kehchul, Francis, and Avonaco explained the situation and convinced the entire army of ghosts from the forest out there to come into town and hold down these people so they couldn’t stop me. 

Yes, I had a ghost army essentially holding this entire town prisoner. But now wasn’t the time to focus on how amazing and overwhelming that was. I had to move. If this Jacqueline woman was telling the truth, if she was right, then every last second counted right now.

While the townspeople struggled to free themselves from my ghost army, I ran straight toward the church. Cerberus and Percy trailed right behind me all the way. It seemed like the closer we got to the building, the harder the people who lived in this place fought to stop us from getting to it. They really were brainwashed. All those people were basically foaming at the mouth, spitting curses and threats as they clawed the ground and heaved against the spirits. But they couldn’t get free. Especially not after I sent another burst of energy to refuel those ghosts. There were so many of them and yet I just shoved a bunch of power into them all like it was nothing. Some part of me recognized how crazy that was, but I didn’t have time to think about it. It was just a thing that sat there in the back of my mind, telling me just how difficult this should’ve been. The power I was putting in those ghosts should have staggered me. There were two or three for every townsperson. Even if this particular town was only about a hundred people, that still meant I was fueling several hundred ghosts at the same time and didn’t even feel particularly winded by it. That was absurd, right? I was pretty sure it was absurd.

A man stepped out of the church just as we neared it. But no, this wasn’t just a man. It was something worse. I could sense the evil and dark power pouring off of him even as he came into view. There was something fundamentally wrong about him. His skin was grayish brown, and he stood about average height, a couple inches under six feet. He looked human aside from his skin, and the fact that he didn’t have any eyes. Not as in he had empty holes in his face. No, there was no place for his eyes. Where they should’ve been was simply flat skin. Then he opened his mouth, extending a foot-long tongue with two small bulbous structures on either side. They started near the middle of the tongue, but rolled down to the end as the tongue pointed toward us. A second later, those bulbs twisted and opened to reveal a couple eyes staring our way. Eyes attached to his tongue. 

Okay, I was officially creeped the fuck out. Which only got worse as the men let out a banshee-like scream that filled the air. He lifted his arms and a dozen rock and dirt golems rose from the earth around him, while the figure himself flew up into the air, lightning crackling around him.

“Go, Flick!” Percy gave me a push, even as Cerberus sent a bunch of lasers lancing out toward the incoming golems. “We’ll handle this, I promise! We’ll keep him off you! Go stop the Fomorians!” 

Oh boy did tongue-eye boy want to fight me when he heard that. But even as he turned his attention my way and shrieked even louder, Percy launched herself off Cerberus and crashed into him. Both went down hard onto the roof of the building. 

There wasn’t time to argue. Percy was dealing with that guy and Cerberus would keep the golems busy. For my part, I gave one last quick glance around, gave my ghosts a bit more power, then ran for the church once more. The heavy doors surrendered after a couple hard, boosted heaves, slamming inward. There, the altar at the far end. It was enormous and appeared to be made of a mix of gold and heavy wood. Still, I didn’t care about that. All I cared about was what was under it. 

To that end, I boosted myself once more and practically flew that way. I could take the time to shove it out of the way, or break it. Or… I slammed right into and through the altar, using my wood-possession power to pass right inside. 

Sure enough, there was a tunnel underneath the thing. I sensed it immediately, wide open space beneath the heavy altar. I couldn’t see down there, but it felt like the tunnel went on for quite some distance. 

Okay, the voice on the tape had been right so far. I just had to hope she was also right that I could stop whatever was going on at the end of that tunnel. 

Because if I couldn’t, the future was going to look a hell of a lot worse than it had when I left. 

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The Source 23-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Looking down at the tape recorder sitting there innocently in the middle of that open coffin, I had a few questions. Was this the great power Ehn had been talking about, the one all those ghosts and this entire chamber were set up to protect? This was… well, it wasn’t what I had expected, to say the least. And how had it even gotten here? It was absolutely from the future, there was no question about it. Sure, the Seosten and even plenty of other species that could be here on Earth at this time could have recording and playback technology. But not exactly like this. This was a full-on classic magnetic cassette tape recorder. Not digital, not some special alien technology or magic. It was a simple handheld tape recorder from like forty years in the past of my normal timeline and several hundred years ahead of this one. Hell, I could see the faded logo. 

“Well that’s not what we expected to see, huh?” Whispering those words very softly into the previously silent air as the almost entirely irrational fear that something dramatic would happen if I spoke too loudly and disturbed this thing filled my head, I glanced over to Percy, just in case she happened to be less taken aback than me. “Unless…” 

“I am surprised too, Flick,” she confirmed, talking in just as quiet of a voice. Like she too was afraid of waking it up or something. “That device is from the future. It shouldn’t exist in this time unless it was brought back and left. Why is it here? Why in a buried and guarded coffin like this?” 

“Good questions,” I muttered. “I’d really like to find out the answers myself.” 

Of course, curious and confused as I was, I didn’t just reach out to immediately grab the thing. I wasn’t that stupid. Instead, I very carefully checked around it for magic as well as actual physical traps. There were plenty of both. Which I set out to disable, though it took some tricky work for a few. Whoever had set up these traps really knew what they were doing. If I hadn’t had so many lessons from people like Wyatt, Shyel, Athena, Gaia, even Brom Bones and Doctor Manakel, I would’ve been pretty screwed. It required every lesson I knew from all of them on the subject to disable everything protecting this machine.

While I was doing that, Percy went over to stand under the hole where Cerberus was anxiously waiting, calling up to let him know we were okay and would be out soon. I also sent a few ghosts out to keep an eye on things, while keeping the others (including Doctor Manakel himself) to consult with about what I was actually doing. The old Seosten man watched me carefully, speaking up whenever he noticed anything or thought of something I could test for. Sure, maybe Ehn would consider getting help like that against his rules or whatever, but seriously, he wanted me because of my power, and this was part of my power. Not consulting with ghosts who knew more than I did about any given situation would have been idiotic. I thought Ehn was a lot of things, some worse than others, but I was pretty sure he was not idiotic. 

In any case, I was eventually as convinced as I could possibly be that it was safe to touch the recorder. And yet, even then, I didn’t do it myself. I was going to, but Ghost Kaleigh interrupted and pointed out that one of them should do it, since they were already dead. If we had messed up and missed something, it wouldn’t matter. Well, as long as whatever happened didn’t destroy everything in this cave or something. I didn’t like having my ghost take risks that I wasn’t, but Seth called me an idiot and pointed out that it was their choice. 

So, I moved to the opposite side of the room with Percy and we watched while ghost Kaleigh carefully picked up the recorder with some energy I gave her. There was a lot of tension as she lifted the thing out of the coffin, from the two of us as well as all the other ghosts who weren’t aboveground with Cerberus. I was holding my breath for those few seconds. And yet, nothing seemed to happen. I gave it a quiet ten count while Kaleigh carefully held the thing out, before exhaling as I slowly walked that way. “Okay, well, points to all of us for actually disabling all the traps, I guess. Good job, team.” I gave the assembled group a couple thumbs up (thumb ups? thumbs ups?) before holding my hand out so Kaleigh could pass over the tape recorder. 

“Okay, so… do we listen to it?” I wasn’t sure who I was asking, exactly. Or why I was bothering. Of course I was going to listen to it. There was no way I was going to hand this over to Ehn without knowing what was on it first. After all, he hadn’t told me not to. Mostly because he didn’t tell me it was a tape recorder to begin with. But whatever, the point was, I wouldn’t be breaking any of his rules by listening to what was on this thing right now. Even if the thought did make me nervous. I was absolutely certain this thing wasn’t here by accident. Someone had brought it back from the near present day and left it in this place. Whatever was on it was something that Ehn wanted. He said it was powerful. Information was powerful. But what sort of information could be on this thing that he saw as that important? 

I had to know. Even if it was something bad and I couldn’t actually stop him from taking it, I still had to at least be aware ahead of time. If knowledge was power, I wanted to find out exactly what sort of power Ehn was after in this case. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to find out just yet. Because just as my finger hovered over the play button, there was an odd creaking or groaning sound from above. I blinked up that way, just before Percy abruptly grabbed me and lunged away from that spot as the ceiling of the cave fell in. There was a trio of yelps from Cerberus, followed by a crash as the robot dog landed down in the cavern with us, sending up a spray of dirt in every direction. 

Before Persephone and I could move from where we had landed on the far side of the cavern, the robot dog was right there. He whined and barked alternatingly between all three heads, clearly afraid that he’d done something wrong and wanted to assure us that he didn’t mean to. 

“It’s–” I coughed, then tried again while extricating myself from Percy so I could reach up and rub the nearest head with both hands. “It’s okay, boy. It wasn’t your fault. I really didn’t think it was that unstable up… there…” I had to trail off in the middle of saying that, because something was happening in the now-wider opening that had been left behind when Cerberus fell in. The hole was covered by what looked like a red glowing circle. Worse, there was blood pouring out of the circle and down into this cavern. A lot of it. Way too much. 

“Okay, I was a bit of a glutton as a vampire and even I think that’s overboard,” Seth announced as he, Grover, Doctor Manakel, Kaleigh, Jason, Emily, and Chas flickered a little. There was a lot of Necromantic power fluctuations going on right then. “Where’s it coming from?” 

“Right now, I’m more interested in where it’s going,” I replied with a frown. “Namely, in this place.” The blood really was coming in quickly. Sure, this was a pretty big cavern, but still. It was rushing like a firehose. Or several fire hoses, rather. The red sticky puddle right where the coffin had been before Cerberus landed on it was already rapidly growing. Apparently there had still been some sort of trap somewhere that we missed. Or maybe it was just something that was going to happen when we moved the tape player no matter what. Either way, it was time to get out of here. Fortunately, I had an emergency teleportation spell for just this sort of situation–okay not just this sort. We absolutely had not considered something like this. But I had brought along a teleportation enchantment that would take me to anywhere within about five hundred feet, as long as I had physically stood in that spot before. It was basically meant as a way to let me quickly escape any sort of cage or trap. Percy, Cerberus and I would be out of here before that blood could even reach our shoes. 

Or… not? When I held out the stone in question and spoke the command word, we didn’t teleport. Instead, the stone itself sparked and then essentially blew up in my hand like a firecracker, making me yelp. 

“It is the energy,” Doctor Manakel noted while hovering a bit closer to the rapidly-expanding pool of blood with an intensely curious look, “the wild fluctuations of Necromantic power all over this chamber. It’s become even worse since this started. I’m sure you’ve felt it yourself. It will interfere with any magic you attempt to cast.” He waved a hand over the expanding pool while grimacing. “And I would not allow the blood to touch you. Unless you, for some unfathomable reason, have suddenly decided that you wish to melt yourself down into more of the same red puddle.” 

Right, well that was bad news all around. So I couldn’t use magic to get out of this place, and going through the pouring blood was out as well. I’d thought about sending an energy arrow from my bow that way to see if I could break the thing that was pouring it down here and make some sort of opening, but I wasn’t even sure it was solid. It kind of looked like a mix between glass and a portal, so it could go either way. And even if I did break it, that might just send the blood stuff spraying everywhere. Which felt like a bad idea now that I knew about the whole melting thing. 

Cerberus had already started backing up from the rising pool, all three of his heads whining as he backpedaled before reaching out with one of them to tug Percy back as well. For her part, Persephone looked at me and shrugged. “I can stand in the blood just fine. But I don’t know how that will get you out. Or Cerberus.” She looked back and forth between us while biting her lip thoughtfully. “Perhaps a teleportation spell cast from the outside will work better?”

My head shook. “The energy in this place will probably still throw it off.” A glance toward Doctor Manakel made the man give a subtle nod of agreement, so I continued. “We need another way.” I took a step back as the pool got near my shoes. It was time to think quickly. Turning, I looked at the dirt wall and frowned before pointing. “Cerberus, buddy, I know you’ve got all those handy zombie-killing lasers. Could you point them at that wall there? Spread them out to make an opening just a little bigger than you are.” By then, I had to step back again. This was getting more dangerous by the second. Pretty soon the whole floor was going to be covered with this stuff. If we didn’t get out of here soon, we were going to have to get creative about standing on things. And it wasn’t like there was an overabundance of stuff in here to do so with. 

Fortunately, Cerberus immediately took my instructions to heart. Turning to face the wall, he made all those snake-like tentacle things emerge from his back and spread out before they began firing tiny rapid lasers that way. Soon, dust filled the air as he created a hole right there. 

As he was doing that, I took another step out of the way while turning to my ghosts to ask them to deal with the next part. They agreed and I looked back the other way to see Percy already perched on top of Cerberus. She held a hand out to me with a bright smile. “Time to go now?” 

Accepting the hand, I nodded as she hauled me up behind her and settled into that spot on the robot dog’s back, with laser tentacles all around me. “Yep, time to go.” I shoved the recorder in my pocket, telling myself we’d listen to it as soon as we were safe. “All right boy, let’s hit it.” 

And boy did he hit it. Suddenly, Cerberus threw himself forward, right at the hole he had made. Percy and I both ducked down a bit just to be on the safe side, as our ride ran into his own makeshift tunnel. We would have been blinded and possibly choked (well, I would anyway) by the dirt filling the air from the continued lasers, as well as the heat they were giving off in these tight confines. But that was where my ghosts came in. They were spreading themselves out through the tunnel, using the energy I’d given them to become just sold enough to act as pseudo shields. Obviously, considering what he was meant for, Cerberus was capable of hurting ghosts with his lasers. But he wasn’t doing that now. The rapidly firing beams passed right through the ones in front, tearing up the dirt while leaving the ghosts unharmed. Their semi-transparent bodies kept the dust out of our eyes and helped contain the heat just a bit. Maybe it wasn’t quite how most Necromancers would have used an army of ghosts, but hey, I was working with what I had. 

Meanwhile, more of my ghosts were staying behind to pound at the ceiling of the tunnel and knock more dirt down behind us to stop the blood from following very easily. It would still probably get in through cracks, but at least that would buy us time. Every second counted right now, as Cerberus laser-tunneled us out of there. I’d told him to run forward for a ways before going up, just to make absolutely certain we were far from any other traps that might have been waiting for us on the surface. Because I really didn’t trust that whoever had set this up would’ve been satisfied with just the acidic blood pool. For all I knew, that was just meant to chase us out into something even worse.

So, we weren’t going to take any chances with that. Cerberus kept running for almost a full mile, lasers constantly chewing up the dirt and rock ahead of us to create the tunnel he was running through, while my ghosts kept pace on all sides. Finally, he started slanting the tunnel upward when I called out for it. Over the next hundred yards, he brought us up toward the surface, before finally breaking out into open air. With a dangerous snarl that was clearly meant to warn anyone around that he was not in the mood for any problems, Cerberus lunged out and skidded to a halt in the middle of a clearing. His heads were looking in every direction, as were his laser-tentacle things. Only once it looked like the area was clear did he slowly lay down to allow Percy and me to slide off. But he kept his lasers out, clearly not fully convinced the area was safe yet. 

For our part, Percy and I looked around intently as well, while my ghosts spread out to check the surrounding area. After a few moments, Grover came back and shook his head. “All clear, boss. Except for the other ghosts around here. They’re watching, but they don’t seem to be in much of a talkative mood. Pretty sure they just want to see what happens next, you know?” 

Yeah, I suppose I couldn’t really blame them for that. After all, protecting the thing in that coffin had been the whole reason they were here in this forest for all this time. Now I had it. What was going to happen then once we left with this tape player? Would they just disappear? What about that trap we had set off? Would that acidic blood just stay there? It probably wasn’t a good idea to leave it like that, in case someone stumbled over it. Which just made me picture some little kid falling into that hole and–uugggh, no. Maybe I could convince Ehn to do something about it. 

Right now, however, there was something more important to focus on. Namely, the tape player itself. I pulled it out of my pocket and examined the thing once more. I’d already gone over it before, of course, but still. I couldn’t be completely certain that touching this thing again wasn’t going to open up another acidic blood trap somehow. And yet, going over it with a fine-tooth comb yet again revealed nothing special. It was just a tape player.

“Are you going to listen to it, Flick?” Percy prompted anxiously as her eyes glanced between me and the thing in my hands. “I think you should before giving it to Ehn. Just in case.” 

Letting out a breath, I nodded. “Yeah, let’s see what we’re dealing with here.” With that, I held the thing up between us and pressed the play button. The tape spun up with a surprisingly loud whirring noise for a moment before a female voice began to speak. 

“So I’m not sure this’ll work or not, but here’s hoping it does. I mean, we still exist in this time, so it must work, or he would’ve–never mind. Let me start over. My name is Jaquelin Prose. I’m–I was part of Section Four. We help keep everyone safe from the Boschers, keep them hidden, give them government documents, citizenship papers, that sort of thing. Some of us are cops, firefighters, doctors, anyone who can help. But that’s not–it doesn’t matter. None of that matters. If you’re listening to this, you have to be the right person. You have to be. I don’t even–” There was a heavy sigh. “If you’re listening to this, you have to be the right person. And if you’re the right person, then it’s the right time. That’s… that’s how this is supposed to work, if we did everything right. Please, you have to go to the village you first saw when you arrived in this time period. You have to go now. There isn’t any time to spare. Go there right now and stop him. 

“If you don’t, history is going to change. And the Fomorians will get here hundreds of years before they’re supposed to.” 

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The Source 23-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium yesterday focused on a look at a few Orb religions. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can read it right here

It wasn’t that often that my habit of dropping myself into the dark unknown to face certain danger was quite so literal. In this case, I was falling through the inky-black void into some sort of underground cave to find a coffin that was definitely being guarded by some sort of powerful force. Sure, the ghosts outside had decided I was okay and actually led me here. But that didn’t mean that whatever was in this place would agree with that assessment. Or that it wouldn’t just decide to test me in its own way. A way that could be pretty nasty. I had to be ready for anything. 

Even as I fell, I held up my staff with one hand and triggered a slight boost from it to slow my descent. At the same time, my other hand touched a spot on my leg, activating a spell I had already placed there. Immediately, the dark vision magic kicked in, and I could see. Which gave me a really good view of the massive cavern I was in. This place was positively enormous. I had already fallen about twenty feet, and there was still another thirty to go. From one wall to the other was about three hundred feet across. And it was empty. Just a big empty dirt cavern with no apparent tunnels or anything else.

Persephone hit the ground far ahead of me, straightening up without any apparent reaction to having fallen for over fifty feet. Then again, I’d already seen her fall from orbit without being remotely bothered by the impact, so this wasn’t exactly a surprise.

Landing next to the Revenant, I turned in a quick circle, staff up as I scanned the cavern. I was searching with both my eyes and my other senses, including my necromancy. I tried to detect any death energy, but it didn’t help. Not because there wasn’t a response, but because there was too much of one. There was death energy everywhere in this place. The whole cavern and area around it was completely drenched in the stuff. It was like looking for light while standing in the middle of the sun.

Grimacing, I looked at Percy and quietly asked, “You see anything special?”

Her head shook. “No, Flick,” she informed me quietly without actually looking my way. She was too busy continuing to scan the cave. “I don’t see anything. But there’s a lot of necromancy power in here.”

“Tell me about it,” I murmured. And the fact that she didn’t immediately start doing so said a lot about how accustomed she was to being around us by that point. 

Okay, this was weird. From what I’d heard from the ghosts combined with what I’d sensed, I really expected to find something more than an empty cavern in here. Especially considering Elsworn had said there would be other tests and challenges. Sure, the place was big, but there was nothing here. Unless the coffin was buried underground? I really wasn’t sure. And with the overwhelming amount of death energy I could feel, it wasn’t going to be as simple as sensing where the coffin was and digging it up. I didn’t really have time to go over every inch of this place. Hell, it was even worse considering this thing wasn’t necessarily in the ground. Maybe it was buried in one of the walls, or even the ceiling itself. Nor did I know for sure how deep it might be, wherever side of the cavern it was on.

No, there had to be a better way to deal with this. First, I started walking. With my staff held up defensively, I paced the whole cavern one step at a time, moving from one side to the other repeatedly, each time moving a few steps over. I was trying to see if my item sense would pick up the coffin in the ground below. Sure, it was a long shot, but it was better than trying to just dig randomly. The very thought of that possibility made me feel tired. 

Percy stayed a few feet away, following me the whole time while watching my back. The two of us were ready for anything to jump out or suddenly appear, but it never did. I walked that entire cavern as quickly as possible, and nothing happened. Nor did I sense the coffin anywhere below me. Again, not surprising, but I would’ve kicked myself if I didn’t try that first and it ended up working. Either the thing was too far down, or it was shielded from my senses. Or, I reminded myself, it was in one of the walls too high up for my sense to reach. If I had to cover every inch of those… we were going to be here for even longer. 

Right, that didn’t work. What now? Crouching down in the middle of the cavern once more with my staff held against the dirt, I frowned and tried to think. I couldn’t find the coffin by sensing for it, and there was no way I could just dig this whole place up. There had to be something else I could do. 

Hold on, maybe there was. Looking at my staff again, I switched it into the bow form. Then I drew a concussive energy arrow, took aim toward the far end of the cavern, and released it. The arrow hit the ground a few feet from the wall and sent a shower of dirt everywhere. 

Percy had already jumped to her feet, looking for a threat. Belatedly, I assured her it was okay. Then I adjusted my aim, drew another arrow, and released it. Again there was a shower of dirt and a small indentation in the ground. I repeated that over and over again, charging my bow when I needed to. I sent a couple dozen arrows through the cavern that way, constantly sending dirt flying in every direction.

Looking around at the holes I had made, Percy grimaced. “I’m very sorry to say this, Flick, but I really don’t think you’ll be able to dig up this cavern with your bow.”

Giving her a small smile, I shook my head. “That’s not what I was doing,” I assured her. “See, I figured this coffin has to be protected by more than just dirt. And what’s the best way to protect something when you can’t stand in front of it the whole time?” As I was talking, I had walked about fifteen feet to the left, near one of the holes I made with my bow. My foot reached out to brush some dirt that was seemingly floating in midair, on an invisible shield. “A forcefield.”

That had been my plan. I spaced my arrows just about as far if any area had some sort of protection on it. Creating holes all over the cavern and allowing the dirt to fly into the air before dropping back down revealed the spot where the invisible shield was. The blast created a hole and the flying dirt landed on top of the forcefield that had previously been underneath it. 

Percy clapped, making a slight blush cross my face as I crouched by the shield. Tapping the dirt around it to find the edge, I brushed more away without actually touching it. I wasn’t sure how the forcefield would react to that, and didn’t want to risk some sort of violent response. 

Fortunately, I had a thing for this too. Thanks to all my magical training with so many impressive people, I had a lot of spells in my repertoire. Which included one from Wyatt. I didn’t have Tabbris and her perfect memory, but I did have the book I’d written many spells down in, so I summoned that from the storage space in my pocket and flipped through it to find the right one. Soon, I was using my image inscription power to draw on a blank metal tablet from the same storage space.

Percy watched the whole time, very curious about what I was doing. So, I explained, talking her through the whole thing before setting the readied spell tablet next to the shield. It took about five minutes to do, but when I was done and activated the thing, all the runes I had drawn on the thing vanished. A moment later, they were gradually replaced by more writing, this time in English. It was the details of this shield. Wyatt had taught me a spell to identify magic. I wasn’t as good at it as him or even Koren, but I could do this much. Even if it did make me want to close my eyes and take a little nap. Had it really been this long of a day? The thought of doing even more made me yawn before forcing myself to focus. 

Picking up the tablet once it was done being filled out, I studied the description. “Okay, it’s a powerful shield, too strong for me to break just by hitting it. Or both of us for that matter. It’s draing power from something below, nothing I can reach and not death energy so I can’t just pull it out. Damn, I was really hoping it would be that simple.” Ugh, even with my level of stamina, this situation was exhausting. 

Shaking that off, I continued. “We can’t just dig down under it and then over, because it’s a bubble. Judging from this, I’d say the bubble’s about twice the size of a coffin. Though now that I say that out loud, they never actually said it was a human coffin, did they? It could be one for a bigger species. Or a smaller one for that matter.”

Straightening up, I paced slowly around the whole forcefield, frowning thoughtfully. “It’s too strong to beat by force, too advanced to disable with any little tricks, I can’t just drain the energy out of it… There has to be another way to turn this thing off.”

None of these spells I had access to would be enough to stop this thing. So if I couldn’t get past it that way then I had to… what? Frowning thoughtfully, I continued to stare at the dirt sitting on the invisible shield for another minute while mulling the problem over in my head. There had to be a way to get past this without taking days to do it. I just had to figure that out. I could do this. Just think, Flick. Calm down and think it through. 

So, I did. Closing my eyes, I rocked back on my heels, still crouched in front of the thing. My lips moved silently as I talked to myself inside my own head, weighing options back and forth. Through it all, Percy remained silent, watching me as I thought it through. This forcefield was so strong. How was it possible that it could just sit here for all this time and have a shield that was so effective?

As soon as I had that thought, my eyes opened. It wasn’t possible. No matter who would put this thing here, I refused to believe that they would make a shield draw that much power constantly. If they were good enough to make a shield like this, then they were good enough to not waste so much energy and effort. Why would they need to? The shield only needed to be here if someone was about to get to the coffin. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time this thing was just sitting here in the ground. Hell, as far as I understood from the ghosts outside almost no one ever got this far anyway. So having the shield be here like this all the time would have been an absolutely colossal waste of power. I didn’t think whoever had set this up would do it like that. Especially when I thought about how long this coffin was supposed to be here. This wasn’t a short-term thing. The person or people who had set this up wanted it kept safe… maybe forever. Definitely centuries at the very least. They wouldn’t have made it constantly take so much power. And honestly, I didn’t think there were many things in the universe that could keep a shield like this going for so long anyway. If there was, that probably would have been more of a prize than whatever was actually in the coffin.

With all that in mind, I straightened up and looked around once more, feeling that Necromantic energy still flooding the chamber. That was the hint. That was what I was supposed to do. 

Moving over to Percy, I took her hand and told her what I was doing. She gave me a broad smile before offering her other hand. Then, I closed my eyes and focused on the energy around us. I pulled it closer, wrapping the energy around us like a thick cloak. Because that’s essentially what it was, in every sense of the word. I was cloaking us in that energy, covering every inch of our forms with that death magic. 

It took several minutes of just standing there holding the energy tightly against the two of us. But finally, it worked. The dirt lying on top of that invisible shield fell. The shield was gone. 

The truth was that I had been slightly wrong when I said that the shield was being projected by the energy source inside. Well, not wrong, but I didn’t have the whole story. The thing inside was projecting the shield, but it was doing so by drawing power out of Percy and me, magical power. In much the same way as how the Bystander Effect drew energy from the humans it was affecting, this thing took energy from the two of us to power itself. It was pretty brilliant that way, honestly. The thing inside the shield took our energy. That was why I had been feeling more tired than I should have, even with my stamina boosts. That way, no matter how much magical power someone had, they would never have enough to break through the shield. Because it was draining their energy to fuel itself. I had no doubt that the thing was set up to drain even more magical energy if someone was actively using magic. That was why simply making that spell-identification tablet had been so tiring when it really shouldn’t have been. It took far more of my energy to do so. Someone trying a huge spell to break through the shield would definitely knock themselves out in the process. 

Which was where the death energy came in. I had considered just using a bunch of magic to exhaust my reserves enough to make the shield drop, but I was pretty sure that would’ve left me in a coma or something considering this thing was draining so much power even from me using a minor spell. Instead, I had completely covered us in that death magic, essentially to hide us from the thing that was draining our energy. I made a thick cloud of the energy that was already here to disguise my own power. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if that would have worked if I hadn’t been a Necromancer and Percy a Revenant. Our own power was already so close to matching what was in the chamber that I was able to hide us. And it had worked. The thing inside thought we were gone and it turned off the shield. Or it just didn’t have any more power to keep it up without actively draining us. Either way, it was off. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t be certain how long I would be able to keep hiding us before the thing inside would notice and put the shield up again. So, I had to move quickly. To that end, Percy and I carefully moved right over to where the shield had been and I let go of her hands to lay down on that spot, pressing my face right into the dirt as I focused on my item sense. Please, please be within range of– yes, there it was. I felt the coffin just a few feet below, with a crystal sitting on top of it. That had to be the source of the shield, the thing that had been draining our energy. I couldn’t sense what was inside the coffin itself. Either it was empty or the contents were still shielded.

Straightening to my feet and positioning my staff right over the spot, I summoned Gus and Jaq from their little storage space and waited until they were in position. Gus, my grapple-mouse, was pointed straight down. As soon as he was ready, I took a deep breath before stabbing down into the dirt with as much strength as I could muster, backed up by a slight concussive boost from the other end. The staff was driven hard into the ground, and I felt the grapple open up to catch hold of the crystal down there. Then I yanked it out and spun, giving the crystal a toss as hard as I could away from this spot before it could activate the shield again. 

Of course, I didn’t want to lose access to something that could be useful, so I didn’t let the crystal just shatter against the ground or wall. Instead, I used my five second freeze power to stop it in midair once it was far enough away that it wouldn’t be a problem anymore, jogged that way, and took hold of the thing. It was almost hot to the touch, so I quickly put inside one of my extra-space storage bags to keep it safe. I’d look it over more closely later. 

With that done, I went back over to the spot where the hole from my staff was. Percy and I exchanged a look before I reached into another storage bag and pulled out two shovels. Again, these were a product of Wyatt insisting on equipping me for every possible situation. Also, just because I thought it was funny, I’d had both shovels autographed by Gabriel Prosser. 

The two of us dug up the coffin. It was a hell of a lot easier without that spell draining my energy, that was for sure. Still, I was sweating as we finally got all the dirt out of the way and stared at the thing we had uncovered. It was a normal, human sized coffin like any other, though maybe a bit more ornate. Come to think of it, the thing looked more modern than it should have. This definitely wasn’t just some random pine box they tossed a body in. Whoever was buried in this thing was important. 

Before doing anything else, I carefully checked the whole thing over for more traps or tricks. There were about a dozen of them, and I took the time to disable each. Then I went over it again just to be certain, or at least as certain as I could be. When I was relatively convinced that it was safe, I nodded to Percy. She took one side of the coffin while I took the other, and we hoisted it out of the hole. The two of us shoved the thing out onto open ground before clambering up to kneel by it. 

Now was as good a time as ever, so I grabbed the lid and started shoving it up. It was locked, but that didn’t last long against my strength. With a grunt, I forced it open, braced myself, and peeked into the coffin. 

I had entertained many different thoughts about who or what could have been inside this thing, what Ehn would have considered ‘source of great power.’ Some of those thoughts were a fair bit more wild and ridiculous than others. But out of everything I had considered as a possibility, none came close to the truth. Because when I looked into the open coffin, the only thing I could see… was a nineteen eighties style tape recorder. 

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The Source 23-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, the four of us walked together into that small village. I was still worried about what I might’ve changed about this place and its future by dealing with those undead, but Ehn insisted that it was all fine because those creatures only attacked because we were there. I couldn’t exactly prove otherwise, and was stuck taking his word for it. But if I really had changed something drastic and we ended up going back to a present that was different, I was definitely going to have some pretty cross words for him. Maybe even some loud, four-letter ones.

The whole place seemed pretty empty at first as we approached, but I caught glimpses of people of all shapes and sizes peeking out of windows and from behind fences. They were watching us with obvious curiosity and probably more than a little apprehension. If Ehn noticed at all, he didn’t comment on it. He simply walked straight to the largest building in sight and continued through as the door opened automatically without even breaking stride. I was pretty sure that was something he had done, not anything about the door itself. Was he also telekinetic? Or had that been a spell that I hadn’t even noticed him use? Hell, for all I knew, he’d literally intimidated the door into opening. 

Whatever it was, I exchanged a look with Persephone, before she stayed outside with Cerberus to keep an eye on things while I followed the man in and prayed that we weren’t about to cause more problems for the people who lived here. Sure, I had maybe, possibly just stopped an army of monsters from doing bad things to this place, which may or may not have only come near it because we were here. Hell, for all I knew, Ehn planned on hurting this village himself.

Yeah, okay, that seemed unlikely based on what he had said he needed from these people. Or rather, from the person he was looking for. But I still didn’t have a good read on who he was and what he was capable of. I wanted to think that he would be on his best behavior just to impress me and keep me on his side, which would mean he wouldn’t do anything too bad. Yet, anything could happen and I would have no way of stopping him. That was probably the most stressful part about this. If things did happen to go wrong, there was absolutely no way I could step in and save anyone from this guy. If he decided to do things the hard way, I was kind of screwed. We all were.

Doing my best to shift that out of my mind, I focused on the room I was stepping into. This place looked like an old western sheriff’s office, complete with a couple jail cells in the back. There were two desks up front, only one of which was manned. The guy there had just stood up from the desk when I entered behind Ehn. He was a tall, heavily-muscled figure with dark blue skin and visible scales. He also had four arms, and wore a belt around his waist with four pistols arranged along it. They were all six-shooters, which gave me a bit of a mental pause, considering I didn’t think guns like that were around at this point. This was pre-American Revolution by most of a century, after all. But then again, what I had learned in my Bystander history class probably wasn’t quite right. Especially when it came to an obvious Alter like this. And a second glance at those guns, combined with a consultation with my item-sense power about what they were made out of, convinced me they weren’t exactly packing normal bullets either. They were like some mixture of an Old West and science fiction weapon. And I was going to go out on a limb and say the body armor I could sense under his old, ratty shirt was a lot more effective than anything ordinary humans would have available even in my normal time. 

“Can I help you?” the blue-scaled man asked, in the sort of voice that made clear that what he was actually saying was, ‘go away.’ His eyes shifted from Ehn to me briefly before going back again. Yeah, I couldn’t really blame him for instinctively seeing who the bigger threat was. I would’ve been paying a lot more attention to Ehn too if I was in his situation. Actually, I wasn’t in his situation and I was still paying more attention to Ehn. There was a big question remaining at the front of my mind about exactly how this was going to go. Was it weird that I kept expecting the worst? Or would it have been weirder if I didn’t? 

Ehn, at least for the moment, chose to speak in a pleasant, cheerful voice. “Good afternoon, Sheriff. Such a nice village you have here. The name is Wig. Just Wig. This is my apprentice, Felicity. I assure you, we will be out of your hair as soon as possible. As it happens, we also might be taking another problem off your hands at the same time. We’re looking for a man called Donner. Caitiff Donner.” 

Caitiff? I knew that word. It meant a coward or something like that. Despicable, that was it. The word basically meant ‘despicable coward.’ Was that this guy’s nickname? Was it meant ironically or did he just have that poor of a reputation? Either way, what could someone known as Caitiff have that Ehn would be interested in to the point of going through all this to find him? 

While I was thinking about that, the sheriff made a soft grunting sound of recognition mixed with annoyance under his breath. Then he raised himself to his full, impressive height of nearly seven feet. “Well, you can call me Dune. And before I tell you anything about the people under my care and responsibility, I need to know why you’re looking for him. Just so I can assure myself that I’m not handing over someone to a pack of wolves, you understand. Pretty though the package they come in may be.” 

Before either of us could say anything to that, the door behind me creaked open and a somewhat squeaky voice called out, “Dune, hey Dune!” The voice stopped suddenly as the person noticed us, and I turned to see a much smaller figure than the sheriff. He was still obviously an Alter, however. This guy looked like a humanoid grasshopper, standing just an inch or so taller than I was. His big, bulbous eyes took me in for a long moment, really seeming to stare longer than I was entirely comfortable with before darting to Ehn, then over to the sheriff. 

“Come in, Strex,” Dune calmly ordered him, beckoning the grasshopper man over to him. “We’ve got a couple guests, as it turns out. This is Wig and Felicity. And this,” he added in turn toward the two of us, “is Strex. He’s my own apprentice, I suppose you could say.” 

Strex murmured something about ‘it’s them’ a few times excitedly to himself before bouncing that way. He stretched himself up on his legs, which extended to make him tall enough to whisper in Dune’s ear. I caught something about ‘army’ and ‘ghosts’ and ‘dead things’ as he waved in our direction. Right, apparently someone had noticed what happened out there. And who had been responsible for it. Did that mean this was going to be more, or less complicated than it would have been? Because I was pretty sure it could go either way. 

For his part, the sheriff listened while keeping his expression neutral. Finally, he grunted and focused on us once more. “Well, it sounds like we owe you a bit of thanks for dealing with a problem out there before it came all the way to town.” His eyes found me, seeming to stare right into my soul intently for several long seconds before he spoke again. “So why don’t the two of you tell me why you’re looking for old Caitiff.” 

Hearing that name made Strex start a little bit visibly, but he quickly schooled his reaction and moved to the second desk, seeming to busy himself with several parchments he found in a drawer there. But it was obvious that he was paying rapt attention to us. I doubted he even knew what was on the papers he was shuffling around, to be honest. 

Ehn spoke up again in that same pleasant, welcoming voice. “I can promise you that our business is nothing that would bring trouble to your town here, or its people. The man I’m looking for just happens to have information I’d like to buy from him.” As he said that, his hand moved to set several golden coins on the desk. “And speaking of buying things, consider this our contribution to keeping this place safe. I’ve been looking for Caitiff for a long time now. I’d like to finish this as quickly as possible, get the information he has, and move on. With any luck, Felicity and I will be far away from this place very soon.” 

Dune seemed to be considering his options for a few seconds while staring at the coins that had been left on his desk. Finally, he used one of his four hands to pull them over while speaking brightly. Or at least as bright as his voice seemed capable of getting. “Right, in that case, you can find old Caitiff down at the prospector’s cabin. You’ll want to go out the back side of town, near the big fence. You’ll find an old apple tree there in the corner. There’s a trail that’ll lead you down to the creek. Follow the creek south until you find the cabin. It’s not far. If he’s not there, then he’s on the creek itself panning for gold. Or he took off again. That happens sometimes.” 

Ehn thanked the man and we started to leave. As I turned to the door, however, Strex spoke up. “Hey, those other two outside, are they with you?” 

Ehn looked my way, clearly leaving how to answer up to me. So I turned back that way. “Yeah, they’re my friends. Why, is something wrong?” 

“Oh no,” the deputy quickly assured me. “I just wanted to say you have a handsome dog out there.” From his desk, he pulled out a leather bag and tossed it to me. “Maybe he’d like these.” 

Looking inside, I found three brightly colored ribbons, one red, one blue, and one green. They seemed to sparkle in the sunlight coming through the window. It was a sight that made me smile a bit to myself. “Thanks,” I replied genuinely, “I’m pretty sure he’ll love them.” 

For whatever reason, my words made the grasshopper man… blush? It was hard to tell, but it seemed like he was blushing. He made a sound that was like he was trying to demure, shuffling more papers before accidentally dropping them. Then he leaned down to pick them up and bonked his head on the desk. 

“Oh honestly, Strex,” Dune admonished him, “you’ve seen a pretty girl before, pull yourself together.” 

Well, that was weird. Now it was my turn to blush as I quickly moved through the open doorway. Why was he that flummoxed by me? Okay, sure, I supposed I was at least a bit attractive as a blonde girl, especially after over a year of regeneration powers and hard exercise. But still, that was… awkward and strange. Was that why he’d spent so long staring at me when he first came in? I’d thought he was trying to assess the potential threat or something. 

Well, whatever, it was probably just because of the time period I came from. Shoving that out of my mind, I focused on Cerberus as all three of his heads turned toward me. “Hey, buddy, I’ve got a present for you from the deputy in there.” With that, I held up the colorful ribbons. 

“Oooh,” Percy put in, “those are pretty. I think the deputy likes you.” 

“Yeah, apparently he made a good first impress—” Belatedly, I blinked up that way and then poked myself in disbelief. “What, you mean me? Why would the deputy like me? And what does that have to do with giving Cerberus some pretty ribbons?” 

“He thought Cerberus was your dog,” Percy pointed out. “So he gave you a present. But because it was ‘for Cerberus’ he wasn’t so nervous about it.” 

“Okay, what?” Reflexively, I turned back to look toward the building we had just come out of. “Why would he be nervous about giving ‘me’ a present? Why would he even want to give me a present? He didn’t know anything about me. I just freaking met the guy two minutes ago.” 

Percy blinked at me a couple times before turning to Ehn. “She hasn’t figured it out yet?” 

“Apparently not,” was his flat response. “Though I imagine it wouldn’t take too much longer. Particularly if we encounter many more people of less self control than we have already.” 

I started to ask what the hell they were talking about, when Percy pulled out a small hand mirror and passed it to me before gesturing. “You should take a look. See what everyone else does.” 

Uh, okay then. Frowning in confusion, I held the mirror up and took a look. Which immediately made me almost drop the mirror as I practically jumped back in surprise. That wasn’t me!

Wait, no, it was me. Cautiously, I peered into the mirror again. Yeah, I was the one staring back. But it wasn’t the me I was accustomed to. It was like an idealized version of myself. It was recognizably the person I had always been, but every aspect was perfected. My eyes were a bit sharper, my cheekbones slightly more defined, with some sort of faint natural blush to them. My mouth was just a little… well, fuller or whatever. It was like staring at a version of myself that was perfect in every way. Which only got better (worse?) as I pulled the mirror out a bit to stare at the rest of me. Everything about my… everything was more defined and just… better than it had been before. Just what the hell was–

“The Necromancer!” I blurted with wide eyes as the truth dawned on me. “Oh shit, he was a fucking Incubus! I totally forgot what you said about–oh. Oh.” Now I felt a little dizzy, and had to put a hand out to steady myself against Cerberus. That was what I had gotten from killing that guy, besides the increase in my necromancy. And yet, it wasn’t the only thing I’ve gotten. Or the only other thing, rather. Because while I was still staring at that mirror, my features changed in a rather dramatic way. Oh, I still looked like myself, but now I was a male version of me. A pretty male, but still male. I looked all the way down, past my suddenly-flat chest and down to– yeah, I was male all over. “What the fuck?!” 

Percy quickly calmed me down, and with a little thought and effort, I was able to shift back to my female self. Once I was trying to catch my breath from that, she explained, “Remember, Flick, Incubi and Succubi are the same thing. They shift their visible sex as much as they want, like changing clothes. You felt confused and threatened when you saw how you changed, so you instinctively shifted to a male form. That’s all.”

That was all?! I wanted to blurt that back at her but caught myself and swallowed. “Uhhh right, okay then. Hang on.” I was almost afraid to do the next part, but I had to try. Besides, all my other powers worked fine, why would these ones suddenly malfunction? Maybe it was just because it felt so weird to do. Either way, I pushed aside those feelings and focused on shifting. Sure enough, just like that I was a male again. Another thought shifted me back to female. I tried that a couple more times, just to be completely certain there was nothing funky going on. But no, as far as I could tell, it was all working just fine. 

I also tried just using my facial-shifting power to at least bring that back to what I recognized as myself. Which worked for a moment, but as soon as I relaxed my focus on it, my face went back to that stunningly beautiful version. I tested that by shifting my face to look like someone completely different, and that general appearance remained but once again, the Incubus power adjusted it to be a more attractive version of what I had chosen. So, I could adjust my appearance to whatever I wanted, but the other power would always make it a better-looking version. Great. Just wonderful. 

“Fascinating,” Ehn noted, “it seems the Incubi power you have inherited is quite a bit stronger than the one you use to adjust your appearance manually.” 

“Oh yeah, it’s just fantastic,” I retorted, feeling the blush cross my face. God, this was weird and dumb. Why did I have to look different? Sure, I was still recognizably me. Someone who knew who I was wouldn’t be completely lost when they looked at me. But still, it was just… just weird. 

With some effort, I pushed that out of my mind and tried to focus on the situation at hand. “Anyway, you said you’ve been looking for this Caitiff guy for a long time, so let’s go find him. I can deal with being smacked by the hottie stick some other time.” 

Inclining his head very slightly in acknowledgment, Ehn turned to start walking once more. “Yes, of course. You need only speak if you’re in need of any… advice.” 

I had no idea what part of my situation I would ever want advice from him about, but I kept my mouth shut on that front. Instead, I just kept walking with a slightly anxious glance toward Percy and Cerberus. Whoever this Caitiff guy was and whatever Ehn wanted from him, it had to be less weird than what was going on with me, right? 


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The Source – 23-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – Hey people, we’re having a tie-breaker vote for the donator-chosen interlude so here’s the first chapter of the new arc for now!

We didn’t go straight into lessons on Necromancy. Ehn said we’d build our way into that. For the moment, he just wanted to see what sort of condition I was in. And how well my stamina power worked. Which, in this case, apparently meant having me run, a lot. He jogged with me, as did Persephone and Cerberus, as we made our way through the wilderness, avoiding the buildings I had seen in the distance. We headed for a forest and ran through that, the man simply telling me which way to turn now and then as we went on and on. 

Cerberus definitely enjoyed the run. He barked repeatedly with all three of his heads while bounding all around us. He kept switching back-and-forth between his normal large size and his gigantic size, seeming to really enjoy the opportunity to stretch his legs. Even Percy was having a good time, if the grin on her face as she chased Cerberus around was any indication.

Between my stamina, Ehn’s own power, the dog being a robot, and Percy a Revenant, it took a lot of running to leave any of us winded. We carried on for hours, and must have run over a hundred miles. I didn’t go at top speed, but still, we crossed some good distance. Or we would have, if we hadn’t essentially run in a circle to end up back where we started. We had run a full loop all the way around, which made me wonder how much of that was him testing my stamina and how much was him getting the lay of the land we were in. Was that even necessary? Honestly, I was pretty sure he could have flown straight up in the air and looked down to get a good view of everything within about ten seconds.

Either way, I had to stop and drink again, accepting the canteen the man offered. Looking toward the same buildings from before, I asked, “So now that we’ve gone all the way around, do we get to go over there? You said some mix of Alters and humans lived there, right?”

He nodded, taking a bite of jerky before tossing me a piece. “Eat, build your energy back up. Then we’ll go introduce ourselves.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, I replied, “I take it we won’t be telling them who we really are and where we’re from. Unless you’re just planning on killing everyone to maintain the timeline.”

Snorting at me, he shook his head. “I assure you, Felicity, I have no intention of indiscriminately murdering everyone we encounter. You may have justified issues with some of my methods, but I am not a complete monster. Believe it or not, I truly do wish what is best for this universe. I want to ensure every living being is safe and prosperous.”

“That doesn’t include the Fomorians,” I pointed out after taking a bite of jerky. I really was hungry by that point. It had been a while since breakfast, and I had been pretty nervous while that was going on. Hell, I was still nervous, but here we were.

“If the Fomorians had a good time, everyone else would be dead.” That was Persephone, cheerfully pointing that out while she sat on Cerberus’s back. “Their idea of a good time isn’t good for anybody else.”

Nodding to that, I agreed, “Yeah, believe me, no one except those guys would be happy for them to have everything they want. I’m just saying, they’re the ones you want to destroy, right?” I was focused on him again. “That’s the whole reason why I’m here. Because you think you can help me get strong enough to help stop them for good. But that also means that you don’t think you can stop them all by yourself, which is kind of scary considering how strong you’re supposed to be. I would’ve thought you could just offer your services to the Seosten to help end the threat. They’ve got some pretty strong people on their side too.”

Taking another bite of jerky, Ehn smiled humorlessly at me. “When the time comes, we will indeed offer our alliance to the Seosten. But it will be under our own terms, not theirs. They have had hundreds of thousands of years to handle this threat, and have not been able to do so. And their reaction to first learning of our existence was to immediately attempt to control and enslave us just as they have done so many others. Whether they have begun to learn the folly of that or not, we will negotiate from a position of strength. We will not allow ourselves to be subservient to them. I will not allow it. This will be a partnership in every way.”

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but honestly I wasn’t sure where to start or how to phrase it. The man certainly had deeply held convictions, and they weren’t completely wrong on the surface. I wasn’t sure he was the best one to be in charge of that sort of thing, but having an alliance with the Seosten really was the right way to go. Hell, it was what we were trying to do already, even if somewhat different than how he seemed to be envisioning it.

So, instead of pursuing that at the moment, I simply asked, “What are we going to do when we go over there? I mean, you had a reason for coming to this place besides this just being a good open spot with free time for training, right? We’re hundreds of years before I was born, so we could’ve gone anywhere on Earth. It’s not like we’re going to run into anyone who knows me.”

His head bowed in acknowledgment. “Yes, there is a man in that village I would like to speak to. He has a piece of information I’m willing to trade for. Something I’ve been searching out across many decades at this point. It’s taking me quite some time to narrow things down this far to find him. Consider this killing two birds with one stone. We are in a good time for your training to begin, and we can speak with this man.” 

“When you say speak with him,” I hesitantly asked, “do you mean hurt him?” Yeah, I had no idea what I was going to say or do if the answer was yes. It wasn’t like I could actually stop this guy. I wasn’t that arrogant. Still, I felt the need to at least ask so I could try to figure out how I was going to react. 

From the look on the man’s face and his voice, he was somewhat curious of how I would react in such a case as well. He paused like that for just a moment before shaking his head. “You have my word, Felicity, I mean the man no harm unless he pushes me toward such ends. My intention is to pay the man quite handsomely for what I want from him. How it goes from there is up to him. But I do not anticipate too much trouble. The difficulty in acquiring this information was in locating the man in both time and space, not in ensuring his cooperation once we’re face to face.”

I thought about that for a moment, but I probably wasn’t going to get any better answer than that. And even if he was lying and intended to destroy that entire city with a flick of his hand, again, there was very little I could do about it.

But I would still try, no matter how completely irrelevant my efforts would have been.

Percy piped up then. “Well, if you’ve been chasing down this man for so long, we better go find him. You wouldn’t want to get over there and find out he just choked on a peanut and died, or tripped and fell off a cliff, or…” She paused, face twisting a little bit. “People are very fragile when you stop and think about it.”

Unlikely as it was that the person we were apparently looking for would accidentally die just like that, she did have a point about getting this over with. So, praying this wasn’t about to turn into a huge problem, I started walking with the man as we headed for the buildings in the distance. Persephone and Cerberus brought up the rear. As we walked, I asked, “So how are the humans over here going to react when they look at our giant robot dog with three heads?”

Ehn gave a soft chuckle before responding. “Speaking quite truthfully, I’m not entirely certain myself. They live amongst as many Alters as there are humans, so it should be interesting to see.” He smiled thinly before continuing in just as casual of a voice. “Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind, please stop that creature.”

Wait, stop what– just as that thought entered my head, I sensed it. Something undead was coming toward us from the side. My head turned that way in time to see some sort of bare-chested Native American charging our way. He had several wounds over his chest and throat, his face pallid. Some Necromantic energy was piloting him and directing the man our way while he waved two small axes or tomahawks in the air and screamed at the top of his lungs, the sound just now reaching us. Or me, anyway. I had no doubt that Ehn had been hearing him for a while.

I wasn’t sure who or what had animated this guy to begin with, but it wasn’t hard to take control of him. I did it immediately, first making him stop short. Then I realized we still needed to get a good look at the guy, so I made him keep walking closer. Meanwhile, I glanced toward Percy and asked, “I don’t suppose you recognize that specific energy?” My voice was a little tense at both thoughts that had entered my head.

To my infinite relief, she immediately replied, “The creature wasn’t animated by Manakel or Fossor. That’s a strange taste. I don’t think I like it.”

Yeah, Necromantic energy tasting like something even she didn’t like? That probably wasn’t the best sign in the world. Still, I simply filed away the information while turning back to our guide on this little trip. “What about you? This from one of your old friends? Or enemies?” By that point, the zombie had reached us, and I made him stand still, giving the guy a quick once-over visually as well as with my necromancy from this close distance. “If it helps, I think he died about two months ago, and he wasn’t buried or anything. He’s had Necromancy keeping his corpse intact the whole time, that’s why there’s so little decomposition.” 

Immediately after saying that, I paused to blink a couple times and tilted my head curiously. “Huh, I guess I am getting a little better at this.” I hadn’t even needed to summon up Doctor Manakel to ask his advice as a Necromancer and, well, medical professional. And yes, I was still differentiating him in my head from the old– or rather, the version of him I had met last year by referring to this one as Doctor Manakel. Maybe it was weird and unnecessary, but it helped. 

Ehn, meanwhile, just touched the dead man’s forehead curiously. “Hm, while I was aware that this area would likely be infested with these creatures, I am not entirely certain where they originate from, or who would be sending them. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. At the very least, it should be a fun test of your abilities. I look forward to seeing how you handle all of them.”

I was about to ask what he meant by all of them, when my senses jumped in to tell me. There were more coming, a lot more. My eyes snapped the same direction this guy had come from, only to see what had to be a hundred and fifty or so more zombie warriors charging toward us. This one had just been a scout or something. And now we had a small army coming our way. An army which, judging from what the Dragon-Heretic beside me had just said, he expected me to deal with by myself.

Holding up my hands in a quick time-out motion, I looked at my guide through all this. “Uh, how much is this gonna change the timeline? We’re being attacked by an army of zombies right now, and if I do anything about that–” 

“This army is only active due to our presence here in the first place,” Ehn informed me. “You will change nothing by halting them now.” 

Right, I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but on the other hand it wasn’t like I could just allow those zombies to kill us. So, I’d just have to go with it.

Cerberus was practically dancing with excitement, all three of his heads laser-focused on the incoming zombies. I started to tell him to wait a moment, then felt something else. Another rush of the creatures coming from the other side. This one was just as large. Whoever was behind this was trying to catch us in a pincer movement or something. Looking back that way, I patted the anxiously whining Cerberus on his nearest head. He desperately wanted to go charging that way to deal with the monsters he had been created to destroy. “It’s okay, buddy. I’ll handle the other ones. You go have fun.”

That was all it took. With a near-deafening bark from all three heads at once, Cerberus charged that way, ready and eager to tear through everything in his path.

Looking at me until I nodded to show it was fine, Percy chased after him to help. I watched them go, then turned to face the second oncoming horde. I didn’t bother asking Ehn if he was going to help at all. It would’ve been a very stupid question. He could wipe every opponent in this entire area off the mountain with a flick of his finger. This wasn’t about him. It was about me and what I could do. He was testing me again. I had a feeling I was going to be going through a lot of these tests over however long this took.

This was also, I realized, why he made us run so much before we even approached the village. It was all part of the test. He wanted to wear me out as much as possible before we set off this trap or whatever it was. He wanted me to be tired when I had to start dealing with these zombies. Of course it was all intentional. I doubted very much happened by accident when it came to this guy.

Hearing Cerberus excitedly barking in the background as he and Persephone dealt with that group, I took a few steps forward to meet the other. They were all screaming and waving those weapons. These weren’t the slow, lumbering type of zombies. They were fast, racing our way at top speed. For whoever had done this to be able to fill them without much energy, and affect this many at once, they have to be a very strong necromancer. Strong enough, come to think of it, to have killed all these people. They were all just like the first one, having died several months earlier in a single battle. Unless the person controlling them was someone from their own side. What if he was one of these people, a last survivor or something, resurrecting his own to create a new army? 

Shaking those thoughts out of my head, I focused on the task at hand. Ehn wanted to see how strong I was even after he made me run for hours? Fine, I would show him.

To that end, I first focused on my own ghosts. I had brought a couple dozen with me, including Doctor Manakel, Seth, Grover, Jason, Kaleigh, Emily, and Chas. With a thought, I made all of them appear directly in the middle of the oncoming horde, solidifying them so the zombies who were still charging forward would slam into them. It effectively cut the group in half, as the zombies who had been in front continued to charge forward, and those behind bounced off my ghosts and started to mindlessly swipe at them.

Alright, now I had a smaller group to focus on. Which I did by visualizing my own necromantic power as tendrils twisting through the air. Basically, I was focusing my power into those tendril forms as I shoved them through as many of the still-charging zombies as I could. My power overrode that of whoever had created these things, allowing me to take control and force them to turn on their companions. Soon, that group was cut in half as well, as the quarter I had completely taken over jumped on a bunch of the others and both sides began to tear each other apart.

Meanwhile, the half that had run into my ghosts was being efficiently destroyed as well. I had given the ghost battalion enough energy to shift back-and-forth between solid and intangible essentially as they wished. Every time one of the zombies swiped at them, their attack went right through before the ghost they were attacking would hit them in retaliation. There might’ve been fewer of my people, but they were stronger and better.

All of which meant only about thirty of the creatures were still coming my way. Taking a breath, I focused on another lesson I had been through and reached out. I felt the energy that was maintaining them, keeping the creatures moving. I carefully work my own power up into them, visualizing it twisting around the power that was already there. With a grunt of effort, I yanked down both with my hand in the air and with that power. I tore the energy that was reanimating them out of their bodies, pulling it in to take for myself. Instantly, those zombies fell to the ground, completely lifeless corpses once more.

Using the energy I had just stolen, I did the same to the other groups I had scattered apart, or what was left of them. Soon, that whole part of the incoming army was done. 

A glance back to the other side revealed that Cerberus and Percy had finished dealing with theirs as well. Giving them a thumbs up, I focused on Ehn. “Is that good enough, or do you want to wait for another attack?”

“That will do for now,” he assured me before gesturing. “At the moment, I believe we should go to the village. With that attack, the man I’m looking for might just decide to flee. I’d like to find him before that happens.

“After all the effort I’ve gone through to locate him, that would be rather annoying indeed.”

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Greetings And Goodbyes 22-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For several long seconds after the man said those words, I simply stood there and stared at him with my mouth open. No sound escaped me at all. I was just standing like that in complete silence. Finally, I held up both hands to stop both him and Persephone from talking and turned away. Taking a few steps in the other direction, I looked over the field while trying to ignore the high pitched whistling of panic in the back of my head. Everything in me was screaming about how dangerous this was. Being cut off from everyone else aside from Percy and Cerberus, having no way to get back home or even contact anyone I knew so that I was essentially completely dependent on this guy, it all added up to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up as my flight or fight response tried to kick in. Growing up the way I had, my father had always warned me about danger signs when you were around someone who could hurt you, and this was setting off all sorts of alarms in my brain. I just had to try to ask myself if those alarms were intentional and real or just a product of Ehn not thinking about what he was doing and being accustomed to never having to explain himself ahead of time or get permission for anything.

There were some sort of buildings in the distance, but I couldn’t make out any details. We were standing in the middle of nowhere for the most part. With my back to the others, I lowered my head and took a long, deep breath. I was trying to pull myself together and figure out exactly how to react to this. My first instinct, which involved shouting, probably wasn’t a good idea.

Eventually, I closed my eyes and let out another long breath before opening them as I spoke up. “I don’t suppose you could have warned me about what was going to happen?” I didn’t shout or curse or anything, but I made it as clear as I could in my tone that I wasn’t happy. 

There was a brief pause before the man replied simply, “There did not seem to be any point. After all, this is what had to happen. Now we have enough time to get the training you need done, without forcing you to miss too much. Truthfully, I had thought you would be happy that most of your training would take place in the past so that you will only need to be away from your loved ones for a few weeks, from their point of view. You won’t miss nearly as much as you would have this way. We will, of course, still need to take some of the time in the present to do things that cannot be done here in the past. Certain events cannot begin to take place any earlier than the moment we left. But that will be the end of your training, not the beginning.”

“The end of my–” Stopping myself in mid-sentence before I could say anything else, I shook my head briefly before finally turning to face him once more. Persephone was standing a bit at the side with one hand on Cerberus’s back, looking anxiously at me. She mouthed that she hadn’t known what was about to happen, and I nodded to her before focusing on Ehn. “Look, I know you’re accustomed to doing anything you want because you’re the biggest, strongest person in any given room. Hell, on any given planet. And I know that I can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do. But this is me asking you as politely as I can to warn me when something big like that is going to happen. First of all, you want me to trust and listen to you, but I can’t do that when my brain is screaming at me that you’re a threat. You cut me off from almost everyone I care about, you made me dependent on you to get home, to even survive. For a girl–hell for anyone in a position of such a terrible power imbalance, that’s dangerous. If you want me to learn from you, I can’t be dealing with every instinct I have telling me this is dangerous and I have to run away. Sure, I couldn’t actually get anywhere if you didn’t want me to, but I also wouldn’t learn anything. I can’t get stronger, I can’t get better the way you want me to be, if I’m distracted thinking about how dangerous this situation is.” 

Once I let that sit in his head for a moment, I continued. “And second, if something goes wrong with me here in the past, my family won’t know what happened. I won’t be able to tell them. Maybe you’d explain things to them and maybe you wouldn’t, but either way they wouldn’t take it well. I needed to be able to tell them that I was going back in time. Maybe they could have done something, tell me where to go if I needed to contact someone without changing the timeline or whatever. But now my connection with my sister is broken. She’s going to freak out the second that happens. Or the second it did happen, or… whatever. The point is, they’re all going to react, and it won’t be pretty. I don’t want to put them through that. If you’d told me so I could warn them that the connection would break for a few seconds before we caught up to that time again and that I’d contact them as soon as that happened so we’d only be out of touch for a few seconds, this whole thing could’ve been avoided.” I was very careful to explain my entire point without raising my voice, trying to get the man to see how simply warning me would have been better. 

Ehn took in my words, his expression completely unreadable for a moment before he acknowledged them with a very slight nod. “Perhaps you have a point. It was never my intention to… intimidate you or make you feel unsafe. Quite the opposite, I want you to know that I both mean you no harm and will not allow any harm to befall you while under my… supervision. I suppose I hadn’t considered how it could appear from your point of view, or that being cut off from those you care about and becoming entirely dependent on someone you barely know would cause anxiety even in the best of circumstances. You don’t know me and I’ve made you reliant on a stranger to even survive, let alone find your way back home. I apologize for that. I never considered any of that the way you would see it. That’s… not something I do often.

“As for how the others will react, I simply assumed you would be able to contact those you care about as soon as we were back in the correct time. But you are correct that something could happen to you, and that even if it does not, they may react poorly even in the short time span they would be cut off. And it was wrong to make such assumptions without giving you some level of warning. I apologize for that as well.” It sounded like he was being sincere, at least. “Perhaps I might suggest a solution which does not require wasting the amount of energy and time it would take to jump all the way back to that point simply to leave a message?” 

He waited until I nodded hesitantly before continuing. “You may compose any message you wish to warn them about what just happened, and that it was my doing. I will ensure that they receive it at the very moment before your connection to them is temporarily broken. I have people in place who can make certain that happens at the correct time. That way, they will be warned. They will receive the message right before the connection breaks.” 

It was probably the best deal I could expect from the man. Honestly, I was relieved that he actually listened to my point and didn’t just dismiss it. So, I accepted that. “Right, sure. I think that’s the best way to go. But–wait. Okay, I thought being in the same time period and galaxy as another version of yourself was… uhh, explosively bad. So what’s going to happen as soon as we catch up with the time period where I was? Wait, part two, when exactly are we? How far back did we go? How–how much training are you planning on giving me?” 

I swore a very small smile played at the man’s face before he replied, “First, you’re absolutely correct. Being too close to another version of yourself at the same time is incredibly dangerous. Some do believe you cannot be in the same galaxy without explosive results, though that is not exactly true. In actuality, being in separate solar systems is generally enough distance. For obvious reasons, most people aren’t willing to risk testing that sort of thing. If your time-traveling self gets too close to the past version, the one… furthest ahead within your own personal timeline will spontaneously combust, killing you and doing substantial damage to the area around you. It is…” He actually grimaced a little. “It’s not pretty, let’s leave it at that.” 

I wanted to ask just how much experience he had with that sort of thing, and how many people had died during his experiments to get those sorts of details. Instead, I replied, “So why don’t people use that to insta-kill their enemies? Whoops, you got sent back in time five seconds to when another version of you existed in the same room. Now you’re dead. Well, that was an easy way to get rid of my nemesis, no idea why it took me so long to think of that. Let’s go get some churros.” A brief pause followed before I muttered, “I hope we’re in a time period that has churros because I just made myself hungry.” 

Before the man could answer me, Persephone piped up. “Flick is correct, churros are very good. If you have not had them before, you’re missing out, Mr. Ehn.” She said that with a broad, encouraging smile, head bobbing up and down excitedly. “Especially if you get them fresh.” 

“I shall… keep that in mind,” Ehn murmured, his expression remaining unreadable. Then he focused on me once again. “To answer your most important question, the reason this is not used as an attack is that any time travel, no matter how short the trip, requires an incredible amount of energy. Most people are incapable of doing it at all, even for themselves, let alone targeting someone else with it. And even when they are capable, the amount of preparation and energy it requires is incredibly inefficient. Even without the other reasons, killing someone by sending them back in time would be like using a planetary annihilation weapon to kill a small animal.

“Truthfully, the only people it might be appropriate to use against have their own defenses against being unexpectedly transported, either physically or temporally. Put simply, for anyone it would actually work against, there are much less demanding, not to mention dependable, methods of killing them. And for anyone for whom that amount of effort and power would be appropriate, the attempt would almost certainly fail anyway. And all of that, of course, is ignoring the instinctive double defense.” 

“The instinctive what?” I found myself asking immediately. The guy really did know a lot, that much was obvious. He also seemed to enjoy explaining things, which I wasn’t going to object to. No matter how this whole situation had come about, I’d already had a much worse teacher than this guy. He might’ve been stronger than Fossor, but he didn’t come anywhere near that level of being a piece of shit. Well, not so far anyway. I had been able to force down my reactions to that bastard enough to let him teach me something about Necromancy, so learning from Ehn was a piece of cake. 

“Instinctive double defense,” he replied. Yeah, he was definitely smiling a bit, apparently enjoying this chance to teach me stuff. “You see, whenever a person is about to be placed within the same time period and general location as another version of themselves, there is a… reaction. I’m sure you know what it’s like when you try to press two magnets together when the same–ahh what was the word you use… polarity. When you attempt to press two magnets of the same polarity together, they resist. There is a similar reaction when the same person is about to exist in the same time period and general location. They push against one another, and both are generally sent far enough away, both physically and temporally, to avoid being killed. Even those strong enough to resist the effect are also generally capable of understanding what is happening, and simply allow it to send them away. When another version of themselves is pushed into the same time period, the other one has a good chance of being shoved to another location far enough away to survive. So you see, there is very little purpose in attempting to kill someone with that method.”

Right, he had a point. I definitely hadn’t known anything about that whole magnet repelling effect for time travel, but I was willing to take his word for it. Something told me there were very few people who had the level of experience and knowledge about that stuff that he did. I filed the information away for later before focusing on him once more. “So about those other questions? The one involving when exactly we are right now so I know how long this is going to take, and the one about how we’re going to avoid having me end up in the same time period and solar system as my past self. Unless you’re planning on taking a trip to some other planet until we pass that point.” I was really trying not to freak out about how long this might actually end up taking.  

Ehn met my gaze. “Well, first of all, precisely when we currently are holds almost no bearing for how long it will take to reach your present day. We will be jumping around in time to various points when it is most useful for me to train you. I keep extensive notes of precisely what time and in what locations I happen to be in at any point so that there is no crossover. When the time comes to return to the present, we will make another jump to a point shortly after we left. Then we will continue our training in the present, until you are ready to go back to your people.” 

He gave me a moment to digest that before adding, “But to answer the basic question, we are currently in North America in what you would consider to be the year fifteen hundred and eighty-six, common era.” 

Yeah, that made me stagger a little bit reflexively. We were in 1586 CE? I’d gone back in time over four hundred years. The thought of that was… oh. Oh I really needed to sit down.

And just like that, Cerberus approached, laying down right behind me so I could lower myself against his back. All without me even saying anything. He was such a good dog. And Percy was a good friend. I was glad they were both here, because I had no idea how I would’ve gotten through this if I was alone with this guy, friendly and polite as he seemed. 

Finally, I pulled myself together, got over the shock as well as I could in the moment and looked at him once more. “Okay, one quick question. Did you know for certain that Persephone wasn’t on Earth at this point in time? Because yeah, you could’ve been pretty confident that I’ve never time traveled into the past like this, to say the least. But she’s been around for a long time. Believe me, I don’t care how strong you are. If you had just yanked us back here without any warning and ended up killing Percy because she already existed here, you and I would’ve had a pretty big problem. Even with that magnetic pole defense thing, there’s always the chance something could’ve gone wrong. So we should’ve been warned.” I was staring him down intently, trying to stop myself from shaking too much. I was even angrier at the thought that he could have hurt Percy than I’d been about being cut off from everyone else.

“Aww, thank you, Flick!” Beaming even more, Percy stepped over and sat down next to me on Cerberus’s back. Her arm went around me to squeeze firmly. “I’m also very glad I did not explode. I appreciate new experiences, but that is one I would prefer to avoid.” 

Bowing his head in acknowledgment to both of us, the man replied, “As I said, you are correct. I should have warned you about what was coming rather than simply act without your knowledge. You deserved that much, for all the reasons you stated. That said, I did indeed perform checks on whether the Revenant girl was present on this world at this time. As it happens, she left only a few years before this point on one of the many journeys the Seosten, Manakel, often sent her on in order to remove her from his presence. She will not return for a couple of decades, by which point we will have moved again. I promise you, I will ensure that she is not present in any of the time periods we move to. And if it will make you more comfortable with the situation, I will do so in part by asking Persephone herself.” He turned his attention to her then, adding, “Does that work for both of you?” 

I waited for the other girl to nod before agreeing. “Yeah, that’s–I mean sure, thanks. I just don’t want to lose her.” Flushing a little bit with embarrassment, I quickly stood up to stare off at the distant structures. “But we’re really in the fifteen hundreds, huh? So what are those buildings?” 

Without looking that way, the man answered. “Those are the homes of a native tribe, a mix of humans and what you would call Alters. Most of the humans have enough Alter blood within them to see through the Bystander Effect. It is quite strong by this point, after well over a thousand years of steady growth. But those who live here are far enough away from its origin point, and have intermixed with Alters enough, that it has less of an effect. This is something the Seosten will correct when this land is further settled.” 

Grimacing a little, I quietly guessed, “That’s why so many of them die, isn’t it? Because the Seosten are clearing out potential threats to their new system.” 

“That is part of the reason,” he confirmed. “Though they are not entirely to blame. Or even majorly. Many European settlers simply could not stand to share land with the Natives. The Seosten simply took advantage of that for their own purposes. Humans and Seosten alike are responsible for the atrocities that will be, and have been, committed upon these people.” 

After a brief hesitation, I exchanged a look with Percy while speaking up. “Uh, don’t take this the wrong way or whatever, but that’s really not how I expected you to talk. From everything I’ve heard about you, I thought you were supposed to be all rah rah humans rule over everyone, you know? I didn’t expect you to say anything bad about how we’ve acted.” 

“I do believe that humanity has a destiny,” the man agreed quietly, yet firmly. “But I also believe we have a responsibility. Part of that means accepting the bad things we have done in the past. I believe it is our place to lead and guide all other species into a glorious, prosperous future for all. That also means protecting them. We are supposed to be the guardians, protectors, as well as leaders. I wish for all species to thrive. Those humans who would unnecessarily harm, kill, or enslave others for any reason are no better than the cow pasture filth you would avoid stepping in. I do not believe that humans are inherently superior. I believe we have the potential and capacity to help create a universe that is as free from suffering as possible.” 

“So, humans who betray that, or make things worse, you see them as worse than Alters who do the same thing?” I hesitantly asked. 

“In a way,” he agreed. “I believe it is a waste of our potential. There are far better things we are capable of than what filth like that would have us do. We are capable of greatness. And we will achieve that greatness when the time comes.” 

Yeah, this guy was definitely a true believer. Which could be dangerous, obviously. But at least he actually believed that humans should be held responsible for what they did, and was disgusted by those who treated non-humans badly. He wasn’t–well he was a supremacist in a way, but I’d seen worse. I honestly wasn’t sure how to react to this sort of thing. I had to see more of how he acted, how he thought. More importantly, I had to see how he put his opinions into action. As of right now, I told myself to be incredibly cautious about how much I listened to him. I could learn a lot, but it also seemed like a very slippery slope. Even if he did think humanity should be held to a high standard, that still elevated them over nonhumans, and that was a dangerous way to think. 

Finally, I shook all that off and focused. “Well, you wanted to start this training thing, right? Maybe we should get into that. 

“After all, it sounds like we’ve got plenty of time.” 

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Greetings And Goodbyes 22-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It was a good thing that Ehn had been kidding about me only having a few minutes to get into that house and stop this guy, because I stood outside with my ghosts coming up with the best possible plan I could for a bit longer than that. I didn’t only speak with Seth, Grover, and Manakel either. I also brought out the other ghosts I’d brought along for their perspectives. That included Jason, Kaleigh, Chas, and Emily. I had intended to leave them back at the Fusion School so they could spend more time with Miles and Royce instead of separating them so quickly, but they insisted on coming. They wanted to watch my back, and thought it would be good for their living teammates to have a little time without them while still knowing they were out there. A bit of safe separation to better come to terms with their situations.  

I wasn’t sure I understood all that, but it was their choice. So they had come along, and helped out when it came to figuring out the best way to deal with this evil Necromancer suburban guy. 

I also thought about contacting people back home through my connection with Tabbris, but decided against it. While it might still be within the spirit of things to use absolutely every resource at my disposal, something told me I should at least try to handle this without getting advice from my mother and everyone else back there. As far as this test went, it was better for me to use my own resources that I had with me. Especially since if I did screw this up, Ehn was still here to put a stop to the situation before it completely spiraled out of control. Even if I died, there was no way he would allow this guy to win. 

In the end, we came up with what I thought was the best plan we could given our time and resource restraints. I sent my ghosts off before shifting my face and hair to make myself look a couple years younger. I added a pink streak down on the side of my hair, and used magic to shift my clothes to better fit some sort of school uniform. After that, I used my face shifting power a bit more to add slight dark circles under my eyes, made them a little bloodshot, and finally put a thin line across my throat to make it look like I had been strangled. A quick check with Manakel had confirmed that even though I couldn’t access my powers once I got close to the house, the physical changes I made to myself beforehand would stay. 

Finally, I blanketed myself with Necromantic energy, wrapping it around my body like a cloak. It was like summoning power to use a spell and then just not using it. 

There, perfect. Looking up and down the street to make sure it was clear, I took a breath before starting that way. My eyes were on the simple-looking house ahead of me. I could still feel all that power coming off it. If anything, the sensation was even stronger. He was getting closer to finishing this thing, and that… yeah, I was willing to take Ehn’s word for how bad that would be. This guy had to be stopped, and it was now or never as far as I was concerned. 

With that in mind, I walked across that street, up over the sidewalk, and followed the path toward the front door. I made sure to put a little bounce in my step, trying to come off as a simple, careless girl scout walking from house to house taking cookie orders. Right, nothing untowards there. I was just a tooooottally normal girl who happened to walk up to the house of a man who was about to destroy the world. 

Doing my best to give off those vibes, I politely ignored the way various decorations in the flower bed seemed to turn to stare at me as I passed, bouncing cheerfully up the stairs with an audible giggle (ugh) before grinning as unnaturally widely as I could while hitting the doorbell. There was a camera there, and I kept my smile going while calling out in a singsong voice, “Cookies for sale!” Did I feel utterly ridiculous and stupid right then? Yes, yes I did. But that was a large part of the point. I was supposed to look ridiculous right now. 

I had the feeling that a big part of the reason for the following ten seconds of silence, with absolutely no apparent response from the house, was the man in question asking himself if this was really happening. It had to feel a bit surreal from his end, especially coming right on the cusp of his total triumph. But just in case he got the idea to ignore me, I reached out and hit the doorbell again. That same absurd, and honestly probably a bit creepy, smile stayed plastered to my face while I called out once more. “They’re delicious and for a very good cause, sir! Buy two boxes, get one half off!” I was, of course, ignoring the fact that I didn’t seem to have any actual boxes with me at all. Was that normal? Did people often buy cookies at home and have them shipped later? I had never actually been a girl scout.  

I pushed all those thoughts out of my head, however, at the sound of movement behind the front door. While keeping the clueless, creepy grin on my face, I strained my senses as hard as I could. I was actually really vulnerable standing right here in front of the door. If the guy just decided to deal with the situation by firing a gun through it or something, I could be in trouble. 

God, I wished I had my item sense. This was hard. I had no powers other than my Necromancy. I couldn’t tell what he was doing over there, what he was holding, or anything. It made me anxious, though I tried to clamp down on that as best as I could. The man was there, clearly still deciding how to react to all this. I could basically feel his gaze locked on me, and did my level best to make my eyes glaze over slightly, swaying there on the porch as though I was barely able to stand. All the while, I continued to smile, my face actually hurting a bit from holding that expression. Nor was it easy to stop myself from blinking through that entire time. I was just standing there on the porch, grinning like some sort of horror creature while the rest of my expression stayed carefully blank and empty, without blinking. I was smiling like a lunatic while carefully keeping my eyes dead inside. It was a hard thing to pull off, especially considering how nervous I was. But I managed to keep it going. 

Finally, the door opened almost without warning. The young-looking (he seemed to be in his twenties) man who stood there was just over six feet tall, with long red hair and a dark green flannel shirt along with jeans. He certainly didn’t look like a powerful necromancer. But then again, neither did I. His eyes were hard as he glared at me before making a dismissive noise with his mouth as his hand flicked to one side. I felt a bit of his power crash over me before allowing myself to fall over. My body collapsed entirely, crashing off the porch and down into the nearby flower bed. I got dirt in my mouth and crushed a rose under my leg. Its thorns didn’t exactly like that. And to be honest, neither did I. Falling off that porch and into the dirt was not my idea of a good time, especially when I didn’t have any other powers to mitigate it. No regeneration, no extra strength. It was just me falling on the ground without even trying to catch myself. That was the worst of it. I had to fall without actually rolling or putting my hand out or anything, hitting the dirt hard like that. And I couldn’t yelp or anything. 

Still, I laid there in completely motionless, drawing my power completely in on myself as much as possible, smothering it. To one side, the man walked down off the porch, raising his voice. “You can come out now!” His words filled the air, actually rattling the nearby windows from the force and volume, yet no one in any of the other houses came to investigate. Probably thanks to the shield he had around his property. “Sending one of your pets to distract me might have worked for someone of a lesser skill. But you have no idea who you’re dealing with!” 

There was a brief moment of silence before Seth spoke up from the front walk. “Are you sure about that?” As he said that, the whole area around him was filled with Necromantic power. Energy I had fed into him for this moment. Normally he could have used it to remain solid for a good hour, or even get in a full-on fight. But now, he expended all of it over those brief few seconds. It was like a bright flood light had suddenly been switched on, overwhelming this guy’s senses somewhat. It wasn’t enough to completely blind him or anything, but it certainly got his attention. I felt him gathering his own power, a long-handled, black-bladed axe appearing in one hand. There was a lot of power in that axe too, as the man reared back with it. He was too close to his goal. He wasn’t going to waste any time playing with this intruder. Not when he was right on the cusp of succeeding with a plan that had been centuries in the making. Instead, he waited just long enough to get a glimpse of the man standing at the front of his property, then hurled the powerful axe that way. The weapon went spinning end over end, heading straight for Seth’s chest. And then… then it passed straight through him of course. The axe flew out into the street, crashing down onto the pavement and skidding all the way to the opposite gutter. 

The man stopped short, finally allowing the rush of power that Seth had filled the air with to dissipate enough to see what he was looking at. “You… you’re not the Necromancer.” 

That was as far as the man managed to get before my silver knife was driven through his throat, as I had managed to very stealthily pick myself up and move directly behind him while he was distracted. As my knife sliced through his jugular, sending his blood spraying as he made a loud, horrified screeching sound and flailed in shock, I announced, “Man, you worked that out quick.” 

Yeah, maybe it wasn’t a hugely elaborate plan, but ‘let the bad guy think I was a random zombie instead of his actual opponent so I could slip behind him and knife the fucker before he even knew I was a threat’ had seemed simple and clear enough considering the time we’d had to work with. And hey, here we were. 

The man gurgled something about being so close as his body struggled against the inevitable. I felt him trying to summon the energy from a bunch of living things (animals) he had trapped inside. Oh right, he was basically attempting to do the same thing Fossor had liked to do, spend ‘death energy’ to heal himself. 

Well we couldn’t have that, could we? With a grunt of effort, I caught hold of the energy he was pulling in and shoved it aside so he couldn’t use it like that. Wait, that was an option now? Boy did I ever wish I’d been able to do that with Fossor. But at least now I didn’t have to deal with this asshole fixing himself the same way. “Really?” I managed while driving the knife deeper just because I could. “My last big Necromancer threat could pull energy from clear across the universe, and I’m supposed to be impressed by you pulling it out of your own house?” 

The man said something else, but it was completely unintelligible. He was too far gone. His body slumped, falling lifelessly against me before I stepped out of the way and let it collapse completely. In that moment, I felt another rush as his power filled me. It wasn’t anywhere near what killing Fossor or Manakel had felt like, but still managed to make me gasp and take a reflexive step back. Necromancy. I was getting even more Necromancy, just like Ehn wanted. But I also felt more than that. I had gotten more Necromancy, but also something else. Was that… wait, I knew a Boscher could get more than one power by killing another Heretic, but some random Incubus Necromancer? Why was I getting more than one power from him?

Shaking off that feeling, I looked around as Seth and the rest of my current group of ghosts approached. Grover shook his head, lamenting, “I still say I should’ve been the one to stab him. That’s not fair.” 

“I’ll let you stab someone soon,” I promised. “But he could have stopped you if you got too close to him. Problems with being a ghost going up against a Necromancer. This was the best way to do it.” While saying that, I stared down at the body on the ground. I didn’t know anything about the guy, except for what I could sense and what Ehn had told me. But he really had been a powerful Necromancer. And judging by what I was still sensing inside that house, he had definitely been up to something pretty bad. 

Wait, that was right, I was still sensing something bad in there. Which was probably why Ehn hadn’t come out to join us yet. I wasn’t done fixing this situation. Turning to look at the house, I frowned before starting to walk that way. In mid-step, I spun around and came back to take my knife out of the dead man’s throat. Stowing it, I gestured for the others. “Come on, there’s still something in there. Something… bad.” 

Instead of going straight in, I stopped at the doorway and checked for traps. Naturally, he had about half a dozen spells right there, waiting to do bad things to anyone who crossed them without his permission. And he wasn’t exactly in the best state to give that permission anymore. So, I took a few moments to carefully break those spells, ensuring the entrance was safe before heading in. Kaleigh, right behind me, murmured something about the house reminding her of her grandmother’s place, including the smell. 

It really did seem like the sort of house a grandparent would live in. Well, not mine, obviously. But the stereotypical sort. There were weird knick knacks everywhere, a piano in the nearby living room that was positively covered in tiny wooden figurines, a table full of expensive china that looked like it hadn’t been touched in years, plastic covering the couch as though just waiting for a little kid to fill the room with squeaking sounds as they desperately tried to get comfortable on it, random pictures across all the walls, and very thick shag carpet that looked like a small dog could get lost inside it. 

The rest of the ghosts spread out through the room to check for anything dangerous, while Doctor Manakel appeared beside me. Well, not right beside me. He seemed to be deliberately leaving a little space between us, which I appreciated. “The man outside was certainly a powerful Necromancer,” he informed me. “Your new mentor was right about that. Still, I don’t entirely trust him.” A pause followed before he bowed his head while adding, “Not, of course, that you entirely trust me either.” 

“We’re getting there,” I informed him quietly before giving the man a brief look. Yes, our relationship was complicated to say the least. After everything he had done the year before, all the shit that had led up to his death, it wasn’t easy for me to just accept that he was different now. But he really had been helpful so far. Not just for me, but for others while I was gone. He had apparently been giving information that helped track down several hidden Seosten supply caches for weapons and tools that would end up being incredibly helpful. 

The truth was, I had to accept that people could change. Otherwise, my whole way of thinking was going to fall apart. Just because I had personal feelings about the man didn’t mean I could simply throw away his contributions now. Besides, he was a ghost and I was a Necromancer. I had a bit of an advantage if things did go wrong. 

But I couldn’t let myself think that way. Instead, I turned away and continued looking through the house with the others. My senses led us down into the basement, of course. I had no idea why I ever thought his work would be anywhere other than the basement honestly, unless there had been a handy cemetery out back. And that didn’t really seem like something that would pass the neighborhood rules. 

This place looked like it had been pretty nice at one point. There was a whole entertainment center, a bar stocked with what I assumed was decent stuff, and a children’s room. But now the majority of that had been torn up, revealing a dirt hole where our friend outside had created a whole mess of weapons using bones. Yeah, they weren’t drawn on the ground, they were shaped out of various bones from what I was pretty sure were human remains. It created a circular spell-form that was about fifteen feet across in diameter. That was where the power I was sensing was coming from. 

“Okay, guys,” I started after taking all that in. “Time to dismantle this thing properly.” 

“Not just yet,” came a response from the stairwell, as Ehn descended into view. Persephone was right behind him. Cerberus, I assumed, was staying outside for now. 

My eyes narrowed as I looked that way. “Excuse me? Wasn’t it the entire point of this to stop what this guy had planned?” I felt my hands tighten into fists reflexively. 

The man bowed his head. “Yes, and you have done that, thank you. But there is no sense in throwing away potential resources. Especially not after so much time and effort was put into gathering all this energy. It should be put to a much greater use. And as it happens, I have just the thing.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Ehn was already raising his hand, with two coins held between his fingers. Before any sound could escape me, he snapped those coins together, saying a single word. As soon as he did, I was completely blinded by a blast of light, along with a physical shockwave that knocked me backward. I felt my stomach twist inside out, losing what little I’d been able to eat in a heave as I hit the ground. 

It was over almost as soon as it started. I found myself lying on some grass in a field behind some trees. Percy was right beside me, with Cerberus on the other side, all three of his heads anxiously whining and staring down at me as he waited for some sign of life. 

“—quite alright, I assure you.” My hearing kicked back in just in time to catch the last of what Ehn was saying. 

“What–what the fuck just–” I reached out reflexively for my connection to Tabbris, only to pick up nothing. “What the fuck did you do?! I can’t sense Tabs.” I was on my feet an instant later, my staff in my hand. 

Ehn simply watched me, holding up his index finger. “One moment, Miss Chambers, and I will explain. Your sister, as well as all your loved ones, are just fine. And you will be able to tell them you are fine as well, once we catch up with them.” 

“Catch up with them?” I echoed in confusion. 

“Well yes, you didn’t expect me to give you all the training you need in a couple months, did you?” Ehn shook his head. “I need much more time than that. Which is precisely what I’ve given us. 

“We have gone back in time. Now your training can truly begin.”  

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Greetings And Goodbyes 22-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Before I could find my voice in those first moments after Ehn greeted me, Persephone stepped past and grabbed his hand with both of hers, enthusiastically shaking it up and down while giving him a bright smile. “Well I’ve definitely been waiting a long time to meet you, Mr. Dragon-Bonded sir. I’ve heard so much about you. But I think some of it was made up. You don’t really have a goat that can eat stars and flies on a rainbow sled, do you?” The whole time, she was still rapidly shaking his hand. Even Cerberus was making excited noises in the background, though I was pretty sure he was just happy in general and going along with the flow. 

Ehn paused briefly, taking that in before offering her a small smile in return. “And you must be Persephone. It’s a pleasure to meet you as well. And no, I’m afraid that although I do have a great many intriguing creatures working with me, I’ve never seen one like that. Do let me know if you happen to locate one yourself.”

“Finders keepers,” she solemnly informed him, finally releasing the man’s hand before stepping back to join me. “If you ask nice, maybe I’ll let you rent them. You know, when I find them.”

Well, if this whole situation had been surreal enough as it was, that would’ve done the trick. Part of me wondered how much of that whole exchange was Persephone just being odd, and how much was her intentionally giving me time to compose myself the best way she knew how. 

Whatever it was, it worked at least a little bit. I breathed out, no longer so totally overwhelmed by the sheer power in his aura. Not that it was totally gone, not by a long shot. But at least I was able to speak again. Even if my voice was slightly strained. “Uh, okay first of all, I know you.” Raising my hand, I pointed that way. “You were on that ship back when we were fighting the Whispers. You disabled the traps or whatever. You were there, and… Gehenna didn’t even know you left that time.” 

The man offered me an easy smile. “Well I certainly couldn’t allow such a promising asset to die so soon after taking the more troubling, problematic one off my hands, could I? You had just recently taken the Necromancy power from Fah-Seur. I was intrigued and checked in on you now and then. When there was trouble, I did what was needed to make your work somewhat easier. And now, here you are.” 

Yup, here I was. And the whole situation was feeling more surreal by the moment. And I noticed he hadn’t addressed the fact that he’d left the Gehenna prison without being noticed. Shaking that off, I replied, “Well thanks for that. I was told that you’d be interested in me visiting for a little while. But then again, I was told by other people that you were in prison, and this place doesn’t really look like jail to me.”

The man looked around the small study before shaking his head. “Well, to be quite honest with you, my actual prison didn’t look much like one either. So you wouldn’t be able to judge just based on this. But no, we are not under the care of Gehenna right now. I thought it best to begin our lessons, and our relationship in general, in a place far away from the rest of my people, particularly the one you have experience with.”

“Kwur,” I acknowledged. “Unless you mean the one you spent thousands of years turning into the biggest piece of shit evil necromancer in the universe. Because from what I hear, he was basically one of yours too.” 

Okay yeah, I had definitely gotten over my initial reaction to this guy. The anger in me was winning out a bit over the part that was screaming for me to shut the hell up before I pissed him off.

Ehn, however, didn’t seem to mind. He just inclined his head very slightly in acknowledgment. “Unfortunately, a great deal of pain and suffering is sometimes necessary in order to reach the lofty sort of goals I have in mind.”

Before I could respond to that, Persephone spoke up again. “But you’re not the one experiencing the pain and suffering, Lord Farquaad,” she pointed out flatly. Something told me she had said it before I could so that if he took offense, she would be the one bearing the brunt of it.

Once again, however, the man just nodded after a brief hesitation. “Ah, I’m afraid I have no idea who this Farquaad is, but you are right that I am not the one who suffers the most grief, pain, or loss. Yet there is more to that situation than either of you are aware of. First, however, what would you each prefer to be called? Before we get down to business, as they say, I’d like to know what names I should be using to make you both as comfortable as possible.”

Shoving aside several sarcastic reports that came to mind, I took a breath before telling him to just call me Felicity. I almost said Flick, but that felt too familiar. I didn’t want the guy to think we were friends, so Felicity was the best. Persephone followed my lead and went with her full name instead of Percy. 

Ehn bowed to each of us. “Persephone and Felicity it is. As I said, it is a pleasure to meet both of you. I hope in time that you will feel the same, though I understand your, shall we say mixed feelings at the moment.” 

With that, the man walked to the nearby door, which opened for him without any gesture on his part, revealing a hallway beyond. “If you wouldn’t mind coming with me now, we have a great deal to get through.”

Well what the hell was I going to do, refuse? I’d already come this far. Sending another message to let Tabbris know that I was still fine, I walked after him, with Persephone and Cerberus right behind me. I knew there was very little either of them could do to help if he had anything bad in mind. As strong as she was, even Percy couldn’t stand up against him. But I still felt reassured by their presence. If he turned out to be an evil piece of shit doing evil piece of shit things, we would go down fighting. We’d probably go pretty damn quickly, but it would still be fighting.

The hallway beyond that study wasn’t very large. There was another door to the right that was closed, but he turned left, moving toward a set of stairs leading down. There was also a large floor-to-ceiling window on the right-hand wall and I looked out of it to see what looked like an ordinary neighborhood street. This house wasn’t even anything all that special. Sure, it wasn’t a hovel or anything. It probably would’ve cost a few hundred thousand. But it wasn’t a castle, and it wasn’t a mansion. It was just a nice house, in a decent neighborhood of what looked like a normal American town. It was a suburb. We were standing in an average house in a suburb somewhere. Of all the places I had expected to be sent, this definitely wasn’t on the list. 

Noticing that I had stopped to stare, Ehn paused to look back. “Is something wrong, Felicity?” 

“I umm…” I hesitated before starting again. “I thought we traveled a long way from the Fusion School. I mean, I know the sun is a long way from Earth, but I thought we went a lot further than that. Like, across the galaxy further. That’s just an Earth neighborhood.” 

The man offered a faint smile. “Yes, you did travel a vast distance. And then you looped back around to come back here. Anyone attempting to follow your trail, who could have had poor intentions, would take far too long to realize the teleportation trail actually ended in the same solar system it began from. If you’re finding your connection to your Seosten sister to be somewhat strained, I’m afraid that is less a result of distance and more a side effect of the shielding I’ve put over this place to prevent others from finding us. Of course, you may feel free to inform her that you are not so far away, but I do still insist on our privacy.”  

Uhh, right. Okay, so it turned out I was just a girl walking through a suburban house on Earth with my Olympian-corpse-possessing Revenant friend, giant three-headed robot dog, and an ancient Natural Dragon-Heretic who could absolutely turn this entire neighborhood–no, city into a crater in the time it took someone to scoff and say this would make a terrible sitcom. Nothing I couldn’t deal with at this point. 

Turning away from that window, I continued to follow Ehn down those stairs and through the rest of the house. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the other rooms either, as far as I could tell. It was all just… quaint. I glanced around as we went, taking in the casual furnishings as well as several pictures on the walls. Most of them were of an ordinary-looking family. But I didn’t see any of the people in those photos in any of these rooms. 

“They aren’t dead, if that’s what you’re wondering.” Ehn said that without looking back at me, as we walked through the short hallway to what looked like the front door. We had just passed a large framed photograph of that same family. “The family who own this house have been out of the country for a month, and aren’t scheduled to arrive back home until tomorrow. We’ll be long gone before then. Or, well–” He turned slightly, just enough that I could see the slight smile on his face, a look that said he had some private joke of his own that he wasn’t sharing just yet. “Close enough, anyway. Now come, I’d like to see how you handle something. Persephone and Cerberus, kindly give Felicity time to handle the situation on her own. It wouldn’t be much of a test otherwise.” 

“What?” His words made me blink in confusion. “What situation?” 

In answer, the man opened the front door and gestured across that pleasant, if mundane-looking yard, past the quiet street, and toward the house opposite this one. “The man who lives across the street there is what you would call a Natural Incubus Heretic. He’s spent the past two hundred years sacrificing children in order to gradually build up the power he needs to unleash one god-level apocalyptic threat or another. And as of right now, he’s about…” Tilting his head as though considering, Ehn slowly finished. “… Oh, three minutes from finishing the job?” 

“What?!” I snapped. “Get over there and stop him if you want the world to keep spinning!” 

Flashing me a quick smile, the man replied, “Relax, I was only kidding. He won’t be finished for another few days. But you really should get over there. He has quite the defenses set up, and the further he goes, the stronger he’ll become. Especially now, right on the cusp of his… ahh… ascension I believe he calls it? Every day he becomes exponentially stronger. If I was you, I really wouldn’t want to face him tomorrow. I mean, this would have been a decent enough test a few days ago, but since you took a bit longer to get here… well, now it’ll be quite interesting indeed.”

Wait, was this guy seriously saying that this whole test of his would’ve been easier if I had come immediately rather than spending time with my friends and family? Was this his way of chastising me or something? 

No, I honestly didn’t think so after spending another moment staring at him. He wasn’t actually annoyed about the delay. Why would he be? He’d been waiting and planning for thousands of years as it was. Another couple days wouldn’t have mattered to him. No, he was genuinely interested in seeing how I did against this threat, and really did believe that cutting it this close would be an even better test than he had originally planned on. Which made me wonder just how strong this guy I was supposed to stop was now, and how strong he would’ve been if I had come here a few days ago. Or even weeks ago when Wukong first showed up. 

Hell, no wonder Sun had been fine with waiting all that time. He probably wanted to let this guy, whoever he was, get as strong as possible too. I could absolutely see him wanting to stretch it out even longer so I could have a bigger fight.

While I was processing all of that, Persephone spoke up. “Flick?” She clearly wanted to know if I needed her to come with me, Ehn’s words be damned. 

I thought about it for a very brief second. But ignoring his request that I do this alone probably wasn’t the best way to start off this relationship. Besides, I didn’t think he would actually let that guy destroy the planet or anything if I happened to fail. Whether he’d actually let me die or not was a little more debatable, but hey. At least it meant I only had to worry about my own life.

Besides, he wanted the powerful Necromancy to stay on the table, so I was probably safe…ish. 

So, I shook my head. “Stay here with him. I’m sure you guys can find something to talk about.” To Cerberus, I added, “If anything happens to me, help Percy annoy him with that Barbershop Quartet thing you guys have been working on.” 

In response to that, each of the three heads, one by one, gave a low howl. Then Percy joined in with her own, before they grinned at me. 

After clapping for them, I produced my staff and focused on the man himself. “Anything else I should know, that you’re actually willing to tell me?” 

Ehn regarded me briefly before answering. “Well, I didn’t bring you here to this particular threat to test your ability to manipulate sand or change your facial structure. The threat you will face in that house is one of the Necromantic variety. In fact, as soon as you pass the wards he has set up, you’ll find yourself cut off from every other power you have. Your Necromancy will be unaffected, because his must continue to function.” 

Well that wasn’t fun to hear. I did a quick double-take. “I didn’t even know that was possible! And this guy can just–he can just do that?” 

“As I said, he has worked in this single location for hundreds of years,” Ehn reminded me, “allowing the town to build up around him. You will very much be on his… home turf I believe the phrase would be? ‘Turf’ he has had plenty of time to prepare. You will only be able to use your Necromancy while facing him. I do hope you’re ready.” 

“So what if I hadn’t actually asked you to tell me everything you knew about that guy, and just went over there without knowing I was going to lose access to all my other powers?” I found myself asking with narrowed eyes. 

His response was a casual, “Well, then I dare say I would have made a grave mistake when I judged you. Which would have been egg on my face.” 

Oh boy was there a lot I wanted to say to that. So much, really. But I pushed all that down and simply gave what I hoped was a reassuring nod to Percy and Cerberus. I could do this, right? Yeah. Here went nothing. 

Taking a breath before letting it out slowly as I stared at that ordinary-looking house, I braced myself, then strode out to walk down the front steps. I really hadn’t expected to be thrown into the middle of something like this right off the bat, almost before we even said much of anything to each other. But then again, maybe that was the point. I  couldn’t assume anything when it came to Ehn. 

On my way, I summoned up several of the ghosts I had brought with me. Seth appeared first, standing at the end of the front walk, next to the mailbox. His back was to me, staring intently at the house we were heading toward. Grover appeared beside him a moment later, looking equally intense. 

“You guys sense stuff over there?” I asked, assuming they knew the basics about what was going on. The way this whole ghost thing worked was that I could summon them all the way from the Haunted Mansion, but that took a lot more power and time (for me, anyway, Fossor could do it instantly), and they wouldn’t really know what was going on until I brought them up to speed. Or I could bring them with me wherever I went. In which case they basically remained attached to my body in an unformed state until I called on them. And in that case, they were aware of what was going on. Or at least as much as I wanted them to be. Essentially I could turn off their awareness of what was happening if I needed privacy. 

It also required a bit of Necromancy energy to hold onto them like this, even in their unformed states. But it was really an inconsequential amount by this point, unless I went nuts and started holding onto hundreds of ghosts to carry around with me at all times. 

Fossor could do that too. 

“Ohhhh yeah,” Seth confirmed. “Your new pal back there is right. Actually, I bet you can sense it too. At least you could if you weren’t standing in that shielded area.” He waved vaguely toward the edge of the yard. “He’s probably got it set up so nobody notices him here. Especially the guy across the street.”  

So, I took another couple steps forward, crossing the invisible line from the house property out to the public sidewalk. As soon as I did so, I could tell what he was talking about. It was like a sudden glaringly bright beacon had been shot into the air, powerful enough to make me flinch reflexively. Yeah, it was definitely coming from the house across the street. It might as well have had a giant neon sign with ‘I Am Practicing Necromancy Using Horrific Human Sacrifices’ on the roof, with a full brass band practicing around it, and a fireworks display in the background. Actually, that probably would’ve been more subtle than this. There was so much Necromantic energy pouring off that house, I couldn’t believe no one else had shown up to do something about it yet. 

Then I looked up and down the street, and understood a little bit better. There were several spots that were working together to create another magical barrier around the whole neighborhood. It wasn’t enough to stop anyone from leaving or anything like that, but it did shield this area from outside detection. You’d have to essentially be right on top of the place to notice the obscene amounts of Necromantic energy coming off it. No wonder there weren’t a hundred Heretics kicking in this guy’s door already. He was really good at masking himself. And, apparently, good at a lot of other things too. Between that and that whole ‘not being able to use my other powers’ bit, this was going to be tricky. Which was absolutely why Ehn had brought me here, of course. I was just a little surprised he’d managed to find such a perfect test in this amount of ti–no, that was the wrong way to think about it. He hadn’t ‘just happened’ to find the perfect test in short notice, he’d arranged to have me picked up to come see him because this perfect test existed right now. The timing worked the other way around. 

By that point, Manakel’s ghost had appeared somewhat behind me. I sensed him there, but didn’t say anything for a moment while I took all that in. Finally, I lifted my chin and spoke up. “Any advice about how to handle this?” He was the one with all the experience, after all. The whole reason I’d brought him along was so he could help. Maybe not with this sort of thing specifically, but still. 

“Yes,” he replied. “Be ready before you ever cross that street. Because he’s had centuries to plan out what to do if someone interrupts him. So you need to be ready to deal with whatever he’s prepared. You can’t wing this one, especially if you don’t have access to anything other than your Necromancy.”

I slowly nodded at that. “Right. 

“Then I guess it’s time to start talking about how we’re going to do this.” 

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Greetings And Goodbyes 22-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It was time to go. I’d had my three days with everyone I cared the most about, and even snuck out early to find Professor Dare so I could spend time with her as well. She hadn’t been able to go along with us to the family outing for obvious reasons, but I’d seen her at the party the day before, and we sat in a private room talking for over an hour while I was waiting for the others to wake up. She was about as happy about me leaving as everyone else, but probably understood even better. She gave me some advice, and also a phone number to call if I wanted to talk to her privately. 

After that whole thing, I had a last minute family breakfast. That in and of itself was hard to sit through. For some reason I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wouldn’t be seeing these people for a long time. Yes, I had been away from them before. Hell, this was actually one of the better times considering all the advanced warning and how patient Sun was being about it. Which, from what I’d heard about the man, was kind of weird anyway. 

I spent that breakfast, and the subsequent moments of hugging everyone I loved, asking myself why I felt like this was going to take so long. Maybe it was just because it felt like being trained by someone like Ehn was a long-term commitment. Or I was just being paranoid because it felt like getting this advance warning and time to say goodbye was going to be matched by an even longer time away than usual. But whatever it was, I couldn’t shake the impression that I needed to make these moments last. 

Even with all the powers I’d gained ever since I came into this life, however, I couldn’t stop the passage of time. After three days that felt like they had passed by in a matter of minutes, it was time to leave. Not that I knew exactly how that was going to happen, of course. Sun had been rather evasive about that part, and he certainly hadn’t told Athena any details so she could prepare a ship or a portal or anything. It was like he didn’t want to give her any information that could possibly get back to Gehenna. Though I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have been able to actually stop any of this, judging from what I’d seen. But they would probably at least be somewhat annoying for Ehn. 

So, I had no idea how this was going to go. I’d made the deal to say my goodbyes to everyone and promise to keep in touch through Tabbris. Then I was just supposed to meet Sun in one of the departure rooms, one that had been set aside for our use. He had convinced Athena to clear the guards out of it for an hour or so, and told me I needed to show up ‘without a bunch of tagalongs’ as he put it. Obviously, my family didn’t like that very much. But considering he’d agreed to let me have three days with them, I couldn’t complain all that much, or push too hard. Besides, I had an alarm spell on me that would trigger if I said the right word, or simply tapped my fingers together in the right pattern. Wyatt had been insistent on that much. 

Taking a breath as I stood outside the room in question, I sent a reassuring feeling toward Tabbris, who was staying with my parents and her mother back at the apartment while they all waited to get word that I had finally left. Then I looked over toward the two figures standing nearby. “Ready for this?” 

Persephone gave a quick nod. She was all dressed up in khaki pants, an authentic World War 2 bomber jacket, scarf, and goggles. Yeah, she actually had goggles, though they were resting on top of her head at the moment. “Ready for the trip, Captain Flick!” Her confirmation came complete with an enthusiastic thumbs up. 

Meanwhile, Cerberus (in his ‘small’ form) gave a trio of barks from each head, before one of them leaned in to rub against me until I obediently rubbed behind his ears. Which, of course, meant I had to do so for the other two heads as well. 

Once that was done, I pushed my hand against the palm reader on the door until it clicked. As the door whooshed open, I stepped through, followed by Percy and Cerberus. The three of us found ourselves in the empty transport room. Empty, that was aside from Sun himself. The monkey-man was sitting in the middle of the room, playing some sort of fighting game on a handheld system someone had given him. Fingers dancing over the controls, he shouted something about how impossible that was and demanded his character do a spinning back kick to the left temple like he was supposed to. He launched into a big technical explanation of why someone of his height and size should’ve been able to get five percent more speed and would totally have avoided that punch before noticing us. Which immediately made him abandon the game, popping upright to grin. “You made it! So glad I didn’t have to go looking for you. That would’ve been boring and annoying. I hate being bored and annoyed.” 

“Uh, yeah, glad we could save you from that,” I managed a bit weakly. “So what’re we doing now? You said it’d take an hour to set up the portal or whatever, so if you need any help–” 

He laughed a little at that, waving his hand dismissively before replying, “Oh, nah, we can get out of here anytime. I just don’t like feeling rushed. Plus, you know, if you want we could spar a little bit before you leave?” He bounced back-and-forth on his feet like a boxer, punching the air even as he transformed into a perfect copy of me aside from the tail. “Give me a chance to see how you fight. It’ll help me pretend to be you. Except, you know, stronger. Was that rude? People always think telling the truth is rude.” 

Oh boy, did that idea ever make me nervous. At least at first, then I realized there was nothing to be nervous about at all. There was absolutely no way in any hell in existence that I could ever come close to presenting the slightest threat to the man in front of me. And with that realization, that I had no expectation of being any more effective than a small child, the pressure was off. He was going to wipe the floor with me, but this was simply a sparring match. Hell, it wasn’t even that. It was nothing more than a way to show him how I moved. So, with all that in mind, I shrugged. “Sure, I guess.” 

Sun’s eyes lit up at that. “Really?” He looked and sounded like an excited child who had just been told he could pick out any toy in the store. “Sure, sure, let’s see what you’ve got. Ahh, go full strength, don’t worry about it.” He showed his teeth in a wide smile. “I’ll be okay.” 

Yeah, somehow I wasn’t too worried about that. So, after telling Percy and Cerberus to hang back and pulling my staff out, I hesitated for just a moment before using a kinetic burst from one end to launch myself that way. Time to see just how badly this was going to go.

Aaaand the answer was just about as bad as I had assumed. I obviously hadn’t stood the slightest chance from the beginning. That much wasn’t a surprise in the least. I ended up helpless on the floor about ten times over the course of the next sixty seconds, and that was absolutely with him taking it easy on me. He let me make moves he clearly could have countered much faster and more effectively than he actually did, and held back most of his strength. He was like a grown adult ‘wrestling’ with a toddler, aside from the fact that he never even pretended to let me win. 

That was just the first sixty seconds. After that, he went even slower, focusing mainly on evading or blocking my attacks. That initial minute had been more of a game for him, but then he was very clearly studying me. He hadn’t just been saying that bit about learning how I moved as an excuse, he really did pay attention. And not just to beat me. He didn’t need to study me for that. After about ten minutes, I realized he was starting to move more like I did. He put his motions more in line with mine, copied the way I held my staff with his own, and just in general made himself more believable as me. Again, aside from the tail. I still had no idea how he was going to pretend to be me while that was out. When I asked about it, however, he just said that I would be surprised how easily people overlooked that sort of thing. Which didn’t seem like much of an answer. 

So, after another few minutes of completely getting my butt kicked all over this room, I waved a hand to call it quits, sitting there on the floor while shaking my head. “Okay, okay, I think I’m convinced you’ll be able to protect my friends better than I could.” With a small, self-conscious smile, I reached out to hold onto the intensely curious Cerberus while adding, “Just don’t be surprised when some powerful enemy shows up and tries to kidnap you if you’re pretending to be me.” 

Again, the man showed his teeth. Or rather, my teeth, considering we still looked identical. “Oh, don’t worry,” he assured me. “I’m looking forward to that part.” 

Yeah, I was sure he was. Honestly, the part of me that wasn’t busy obsessing over what I was going to end up doing while I was gone was pretty interested in seeing the look on the faces of anyone who came after him thinking he was me. It made me feel a little tingle inside. Or maybe that was still just nerves. Either way, if anyone was stupid enough to come after him-me, I was going to want to see the memories of it from every possible angle. 

For now, I just used Cerberus to pick myself off the floor and brushed the imaginary dust off my legs. Then I retrieved my staff and stowed it. “If you’re satisfied, I think we’re ready to get out of here.” I really wasn’t, but I had to tell myself I was, and doing so out loud helped somewhat. It was time to actually meet this Ehn guy and find out how training with him was going to go. And I swore to myself, if I had to go anywhere near Kwur, he was going to regret it. I didn’t know that much about the rest of Ehn’s entourage, but I did know that I didn’t like that guy. Or whatever you’d call him. Plant-infesting bacteria stuff. 

Sun, by that point, had produced several small circular metal plates about as wide as a fifty cent piece. He flipped it to Persephone and me. “Push those against your palms with your other thumb and repeat after me. Oh and uhh, push it against Spot’s back or something.” 

Right, here went nothing. Shoving all my doubts and worries out of my head as much as possible, I followed his instructions. Persephone did the same for herself and Cerberus. The small metal plate grew warm against my thumb and palm as I began to chant the words he was saying, but not painfully so. Just enough that I could tell it was doing something. And boy wouldn’t it be embarrassing if this whole thing turned out to be a trap after all and I was literally reciting a spell to disintegrate myself? I was sure someone out there would find that hilarious. 

Thankfully, I didn’t disintegrate, or die in any other way. At the last second, as the plate was warm enough to almost hurt, Sun shouted for us to throw it as hard as I could at the floor right by our feet. I did so, and the metal piece exploded in a flash of light and smoke, both of which briefly blinded me. I reeled, coughing a bit while waving a hand in front of my face. Even as I did so, I felt everything change around me. Through my item-sense, I could tell that Sun was no longer there. And the walls and floor were different. Much softer, for one. There was carpet under my feet, the room itself was somewhat smaller (to the point of being fairly cramped with Cerberus included). There were several plush armchairs, a fireplace, shelves full of books, and more all around us. We had been transported, unsurprisingly. 

Sure enough, as my eyes adjusted, I found myself standing in what looked like a small, cozy study. The fireplace was lit and a leatherbound book lay on the arm of the nearest chair. Other than that, however, there was no sign of anyone being here. The room was devoid of people aside from the three of us. I did, however, see a door next to the fireplace. For a second, I debated whether it would be better to sit down and wait or walk out and look around. Before deciding either way, however, I tested something. Tabbris, are you there? After all, it wouldn’t have been completely shocking for someone as powerful as Ehn (or Sun for that matter) to do something that could potentially have blocked our connection. 

Fortunately, I got an immediate response. I’m here! Are you okay? I mean I’m still back with your parents and Mama, but I can come over there as soon as you– 

No, it’s okay, I quickly sent back. I’m fine, I think. All three of us are. I mean we’re in some sort of study or something. I’m gonna look around. I’ll check in as soon as I know what’s going on. Hug my parents for me, tell them I’m okay. 

I could feel the distance between us, the strain and our connection. Which had to mean I was a long way from the Earth and that whole solar system. And yet, despite the distance I’d transported, I didn’t feel any sort of disorientation or anything. Whatever that teleportation spell was, it had been crafted by an expert. Which made me briefly wonder if it had been made by Sun, Ehn, or someone else. Not that it was particularly important considering everything else that was going on, but the thought wouldn’t leave my mind. 

Shaking that off as much as possible, I looked to the other two. “Sorry, you guys okay?” 

“A-okay,” Persephone informed me. “But I think we traveled really far.” 

“I’m starting to get that impression too,” I agreed while starting to walk to the door. But first I paused and focused on the book lying on that chair. After a second of consideration, I picked the thing up to look at it. As I’d expected, it was an Earth book. Specifically, the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Except this one seemed longer than the one I knew, so it had to include other stories too. Maybe more Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens stuff like Huckleberry Finn. 

Except no. As I flipped through the book, I saw the entire thing was Tom Sawyer stuff. But not the stuff I remembered. There was all sorts of new stuff, and it had to do with Alters and Heretics. Chapter after chapter was about Tom meeting various magical people, interacting with people from Crossroads, and more. I’d intended to walk out of the room and go investigate, but I found myself slowly sitting down in that chair just to read. Which I did so out loud so Cerberus and Persephone could hear as well. Seriously, Clemens had written about Tom Sawyer interacting with the non-Bystander world? What was–it was… unbelievable. Straight up incredible. My mind was blown. And it only got more so once I finished a chapter about Sawyer helping a couple werewolf kids/pups find their way past a one-eyed ogre and back to their pack, turning the page to find the title of the next chapter written plainly as, ‘Tom Meets The Atherbys.’ 

Yeah, that made me drop the book in surprise, to say the least. Was–was this some sort of joke? Or a trick or something? Obviously, whoever left this book here (absolutely certainly Ehn himself) had intended for me to find it and start reading the thing. But still, even knowing that, I didn’t care that I was being manipulated that way. I just wanted to know more. So, I picked the book up once more and found that spot again before starting to read quickly. 

It wasn’t a mistake, or a coincidence. The chapter was about Tom seeing a caravan of interesting (obvious Alter) people traveling through town. The book had already established that he could see through the Bystander Effect, though it didn’t explain how. It did note that no one else could see the things he saw, so clearly Clemens had known how that worked. Or at least enough to write that much. 

Whatever the reasoning for his immunity (was Clemens immune? was he a hybrid, or a natural something Heretic?) Tom Sawyer saw that caravan of Alters and decided to climb into the back of one of the wagons. It was a completely impulsive decision without any thought behind it other than, ‘they look neat, I wanna know where they’re going.’ so he climbed in and rode in the back with their food supplies. From there, he ended up meeting Joshua Atherby, my Grandfather. Joshua found him in the wagon and took him on a tour of the camp, a different one than where I had met them. There was a minor attack by some Nocen (evil Alter) bandits that Tom got to witness, and he even ended up helping to evacuate one of the cabins where children were hunkered down. He had a heart to heart with Joshua after that before being portaled home again. 

Reading all that, seeing how it fit into the Tom Sawyer story, it was all… yeah. I found myself staring at the last page of that chapter in disbelief. My grandfather had appeared in Tom Sawyer. Not just appeared, but had actually given Tom advice. He was a major character, albeit one who only appeared in a single chapter. 

“Pretty incredible, isn’t it?” The voice came from the doorway, even though I hadn’t heard the door open, or sensed anyone come in. My gaze snapped up, taking in the view in front of me. The man who stood there certainly didn’t look outwardly impressive, standing a few inches under six feet, with brownish-rust colored hair that fell to his shoulders and a neatly-trimmed beard. He kind of looked like one of those too-cool tech start-up guys, aside from his muscular-yet-slim build. And even that didn’t exactly clash with the image completely. He wore loose green pants secured with a drawstring, and a black long-sleeved shirt. But even though his appearance by itself wasn’t at all impressive, the power I could somehow feel coming off of him was staggering. And there was something intensely familiar about him that was tugging at my memory, though I was so overwhelmed in the moment of looking at him that my brain couldn’t communicate with itself. This was not an ordinary man. This was like looking at a nuclear reaction held tightly within the body of a person, that could explode at any time.

Or, I supposed, like looking at the power of a dragon held within a man. 

“Good morning, Felicity Chambers,” he greeted me once I’d had a chance to take in that sight. “And a good morning to you as well, Persephone and Cerberus.” Then he focused on me once more after giving both of them a simple nod. “So glad you agreed to meet with me. 

“I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people have been waiting a very long time for this moment.” 

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Greetings And Goodbyes 22-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, that was a pretty big thing. Obviously, Rahanvael was incredibly overwhelmed by the idea that these people wanted to name their homeworld, her homeworld, after her. She still felt some degree of guilt for everything that happened to them, considering it was at the hands of her own brother. They, and we, continued to try to convince her that she held no blame for that, but I had no idea how much she actually believed it. It was going to take time for the wounds to heal. Fortunately, they would have that time. And so would she. Though she had planned to allow herself to dissipate now that he was gone, and she had been returned to her home to see it was safe, those plans changed once the people of this world made it clear that they needed her. She was the only link to the past they had. And, despite the fact they didn’t want to go back to being the exact same society, they still wanted to know everything they could about what they had been before him.

So, she was going to stick around and tell them all the history she could, teach them the culture this world had had before her brother destroyed it all. He had done his level best to completely annihilate and erase everything about their world, so it made poetic sense for her to be the one who helped bring knowledge of that culture and history back. Thankfully, they had several budding necromancers of their own, who hadn’t been completely wiped out, those who had successfully hidden from Fossor before he could kill them. They didn’t know much, and could barely use their power, but it was enough for them to maintain Rahan and any of my other ghosts who wanted to stay. 

Some didn’t, of course. A lot of my ghosts, who had been unwilling servants of Fossor, just wanted to move on by now, and I absolutely couldn’t blame them for that. They were done with everything and were at least happy that they were given the opportunity to go out on their own terms, without serving as his fodder any longer.

So, I released them, allowing the ones who wanted to fade away. Which they did, after saying their goodbyes. Some wanted to make a big spectacle out of it and have a party, others simply wanted to be alone and disappear without any fuss. I did my best to cater to whatever they wanted, and in the end, about half of the ghosts I had inherited from Fossor were gone. The others were back at the haunted mansion, save for a few here, like Seth and Grover. And, I reminded myself, Chas, Emily, Jason, and Kaleigh. Those four were determined to stick around for now as well, wanting to make themselves useful, even after being killed by the Revenants. Part of me wanted to tell them they’d done more than enough already, but who was I to try to talk them out of helping? If the situation was reversed, I knew I’d want to stick around as a ghost and do anything I could.

With all that running through my mind, it was no wonder the next couple days seemed to fly by. We were taking care of even more groundwork in helping the people here be ready to take care of themselves, at least as much as they could. Athena had been working on something to that end alongside their leaders and Chayyiel, who had arrived recently. They were all cooking up something I was sure was going to be pretty impressive. I had no idea what it was, but given the people involved, and how determined they seemed to be about protecting this world from anyone else who might try to make them suffer again, it was bound to be incredible. 

At the moment, I was eating breakfast in the galley of the ship the others had brought here. Avalon and Shiori were with me as we pored over something quite a bit different than what we have been focused on for so long. Namely, math homework. Even with everything that had happened, or perhaps especially with everything that happened, Abigail and my mother were both firm that we had to keep doing our homework and stay caught up, or at least, as caught up as possible. So, we were multitasking, studying while eating breakfast. Assuming the whole universe didn’t explode, we would be going back to Earth eventually, and something told me showing up back there without all these worksheets done would be even more hazardous for our health than facing down a horde of Revenants. 

Besides, to be honest, I really didn’t mind sitting here with my girls like this. It was about as peaceful as things ever got, considering everything we always had on our plates. The people of this world were finally getting the break they deserved, and it felt appropriate that we have our own while we were sitting here. Maybe some would have quibbled about doing math homework being a break, but I was pretty sure those people had never been through the sort of things that we had.

Either way, I was just about to finish my last bite, as well as the final problem on the current sheet I’d been working on, when Tabbris came running into the room. She was going so fast and seemed so excited, that she nearly fell flat on her face before my hand snapped out to catch her arm. “Hey there, partner, what’s the rush? I promise they’ve still got plenty of pancakes back there. I totally didn’t eat all of them.” 

“Though she gave it her best shot,” Avalon put in.

Shiori, for her part, shook her head with a clearly put-on beleaguered sigh. “Honestly, how can either of us ever even hope to measure up to how much Flick loves pancakes? It’s positively impossible.”

Feeling my face turned pink, I stabbed my fork into the last of the delicious treat they were teasing me about, and pointedly shoved it in my mouth, swallowing before sticking my tongue out at them. Finally, I looked at my little sister and asked, “Is everything okay?” Yes, maybe it was a little pessimistic to think that she had come running in here like that because something was wrong, but then again, look at both my life, and what this world had already been through. With those two things combined, something else showing up to make a nuisance of itself wouldn’t have surprised me at all. Annoyed me, but not surprised me. 

Thankfully, the younger girl was smiling, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t a bad thing. She basically hopped up and down excitedly, while announcing, “Come on, come on, you’ve got to come out and see it! They made it perfect and– well, you’ve gotta see!”

Pushing myself up before picking up the plate and my books, I shrugged at the other two. “You heard her, there’s something we’ve gotta see.”

So, we all put our stuff away before following Tabbris out of the galley. On our way to the exit of the ship we ran into Persephone, who stopped short. “Oh hello Flick!” she chirped happily, almost bouncing. “I was just coming to find you.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a smile while rubbing the top of Tabbris’s head. “I hear there’s something big we’re supposed to see.” 

Persephone blinked a couple times before turning a broad smile that way. “Ooooh, I totally didn’t know you were spying on our defense preparations. You must’ve been very sneaky indeed. That’s very good to hear! Being stealthy like a wombat is very useful.”

“Wombat?” Avalon questioned. 

I shrugged that way. “We tried to tell her she means ninja, but for some reason she really likes the wombat angle.” 

Persephone grinned. “It is a fun word to say. Wombat wombat wombat. Wombatman would be much better than Batman.”

Tabbris, for her part, shook her head quickly. “Uh, I don’t know anything about what you’re talking about. I was gonna show them what the people in the village made.” 

“Yes,” Athena agreed while walking up to join us, “it’s very impressive. I think you’ll particularly enjoy it,” she informed me before adding, “but first, I’d like you to come with us to see something else.” 

Putting up a hand, I looked at Tabbris. “How important is your thing?” There was no way I was going to tell her to wait if time was vital. 

But, her head just shook. “It can wait. Trust me, it’s gonna be around for a long time.” 

Well, that was curious, as was the little giggle she added after that. But I was going to have to wait to see what she was on about. Instead, I nodded to Athena, only then realizing that I had actually held up my hand to tell her to wait. How would the me from even a year earlier have reacted to that?

I shook off that thought, while our little group followed her and Persephone off the ship and through a waiting portal to end up on a small hill about a mile from the village we had first made contact with. Several of the priests from the village were here, holding portable tablets with ongoing video conferences with elders from the other villages. We had made sure they would always be able to communicate with one another that way. 

As we came through the portal, one of the priests cheerfully called a greeting. These people were smiling so much. Which I couldn’t really blame them for at all. Honestly, I was just amazed they weren’t more downtrodden and afraid. But I supposed that once your society had gone through literally thousands of years worth of oppression, once it was gone, you probably tended to embrace every ounce of freedom you had. Fossor was the sole source of their anguish and slavery, and now that he was completely gone, they were able to smile like that. It made me wonder how I would feel and act in that situation, but of course I had absolutely no frame of reference for it.

Athena greeted them as well before speaking up. “Now that you’re all here and the other elders have tuned in, I think it is time to show you how we believe your planet will defend itself from anyone who wishes to take your freedom away again.” 

One of the priests who was here physically raised his hand. “I do not mean to speak out of turn,” he started hesitantly, “but with the power you have displayed, I am afraid we have no real chance at such defense should any who have similar power come here. You say that we have descended from common ancestors, but our people are mere peshcu–ahh small fur-covered animals who fit in the palm of our hand and can use no tools. We are peshcu compared to your people. Any who wish to put us back under their thumb would face little consequence without… without aid.” 

We all knew what he was saying. They needed us to stay and help protect them. Athena knew as well and offered the man a reassuring smile. “I promise, you will have all the protection you need. Beginning with this.” She held out what looked like an ordinary computer pad like the ones they were holding. Tapping the screen, she showed them and us a view of various planets, including this one, all taken from space. “We’ve put a series of small satellites throughout this solar system, cloaked of course. They will alert you of any approaching ships, and allow you to communicate with them. But more than that, they will allow you to deploy your defenses.” 

“What defenses?” one of the priests on one of the other tablets asked plaintively. “We have no skyboats to deploy, nor weapons like you have.” 

“You will soon,” Athena informed him. “But right now, I speak of your other defenses. The Revenants we’ve told you about. The system we’ve created will allow you to use those Revenants in defense of your world. Whenever enemy ships arrive, you may communicate with them through this system, and should they mean you harm, any three of your elders need only input their personal codes that we will give them, and this system will allow you to transport any number of Revenants from the vault they are imprisoned within, over to any ship you target. You may also draw them back to the vault with the same controls once the enemy is no longer a threat.” 

Okay, yeah, that made me do a double-take. They were turning the Revenants into what amounted to guard dogs? Really nasty, horrific, murdering monster guard dogs. That seemed incredibly dangerous. But on the other hand, now that I thought about it, what other choice did they have? It was absolutely true that this world didn’t have any ships or anything that could protect it, and we certainly couldn’t spare the forces it would take to hold the place. Sure, the Seosten leadership had so far agreed to play nice with their common ancestors from what Athena and Sariel had said after communicating with them, but they weren’t the only game in town. And they could always change their minds, or pretend not to notice a ‘rogue faction’ coming here to put who they would see as their own people under their control. 

Hell, they were already sending scientists to see how biologically compatible these people were with them, considering the common ancestor thing. The Seosten we knew had altered themselves so much over the millennia that they might not be able to have viable children, but if they could… yeah, that would be a huge thing. And if enough of the Seosten leadership decided they wanted to be in complete control of this sudden new genetic stock without giving them any say in the matter, it could go poorly. 

Maybe that was a harsh assumption, but look at everything else they had done for so long. They had absolutely earned me believing they were capable of the worst I could think of. 

But still, there was a much more important thing for me to focus on at this point. Which was–

“Are you people crazy?!” That was Shiori, blurting the words out before flushing a bit as everyone turned to her, even the faces of the other priests on the tablet screens. “Sorry, I mean, what are you talking about? Do um, do you really think using the Revenants like that is a good idea? What if your system breaks down and they lose control of them or something? I thought you guys were going to find a way to get rid of those things, not try to use them like this.” 

Chayyiel was the one who answered, offering a small smile. “Usually, you’d be right. That would be the best choice. But this planet has incredibly limited options when it comes to protecting itself. They prefer to be free, not fall under someone else’s control so soon after being released from the last monster. So we need to work with what they have. And the only real defense that’s possible are those Revenants. The system for keeping them contained is actually the most advanced I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying a lot. The people who put it together knew what they were doing. It only required a few changes and upgrades to make this possible.” 

With a nod, Athena agreed, “With other Revenants, you would be correct, Miss Shiori. These ones, however, were specifically created and… tuned, for lack of a better word, over the course of centuries to be controlled and contained by the crystal within that chamber, and the magics surrounding it. While I would not go nearly so far as to say that using it is completely safe with absolutely no risks, it would be more dangerous to allow invaders to come here while this planet has no defenses at all.” 

“Besides,” Persephone piped up, “they’re born to be Necromancers here. Give them a little time and training, and they’ll have an army that can control the Revenants themselves.” After a pause, she added, “Okay, maybe a lot of time and a lot of training. But still!” 

There was a bit more talking after that about how this all thing was going to go. They had to work out the specifics a bit better, but the system they had come up with was admittedly pretty solid, even if the idea did freak me out a bit. The plus side was that most people who might come after the planet would probably be dissuaded simply by the threat of having an army of Revenants teleported onto their ships. And the ones who weren’t, the Fomorians, well… if the Fomorians were attacking the planet, pulling out literally every possible stop by sending those Revenants after them was their only chance to survive long enough for help to show up.

Yeah, that was a depressing thought. But still, at least they would have some form of defense, dangerous as it might have been. These people deserved to feel some measure of safety while they were putting their society back together. 

Eventually, we got around to going to see what Tabbris wanted to show us. And the priests (the ones who were physically present) came as well, clearly just as excited as she was. Which raised my curiosity even more. We were led down into the city, meeting up with both my parents along the way. Soon, we were winding our way through the streets until we reached the grounds of Fossor’s burned and broken tower. Right there, in the middle of the courtyard, I saw what Tabbris had been so eager for us to see. 

“It’s a statue?” Dad started, staring at the structure. There was a five-foot high, ten-foot wide pedestal. Perched atop it was a mostly-round figure carved from something like marble. It looked like a large marble boulder, fifteen-feet wide and about ten feet tall, aside from the part that looked like a sword, which extended up another few feet and was held out toward the sky triumphantly. Two large eyes had been carved into the front. And it had a small hat tilted slightly off to one side. 

“It’s… Herbie!” I blurted, staring that way. “They made a Herbie statue!” From my pocket, I produced the little guy, holding him up to see. “Look, buddy. You’re famous!” 

Tuenfa, the main priest guy, spoke up. “Our people wished to create a statue to the ones who truly liberated us.” He gestured to my mother and me. “But the Lady Joselyn suggested that doing so might be… awkward for them. For all of you. This was settled upon as a compromise. The… rock responsible for stripping the monster’s power away, thus sparing the lives of all who remained on this world. Without that rock, we would all be dead, for he would have sacrificed every one of us before allowing himself to be killed. The rock is the only reason we are alive and free today. So, we honor it. As we honor all of you. We know you cannot stay forever, much as we might long for that. But in this way, with this statue, we will at least have some small connection to our saviors.” 

Swallowing hard, I stared at the statue. It really was incredible. All of this for a simple rock I had picked up on the very first day that I’d become involved in this life. The rock had just been laying there on the ground, waiting for me to pick it up. I threw it through that first portal leading to Crossroads. In many ways, Herbie had preceded me into this life. My little rock buddy had been there this whole time, right by my side, nestled in my pocket. He’d had so many spells put on him, had been responsible for so much. And as they said, he was the one who had stripped Fossor’s connection to this world, and arguably saved their entire population and possibly all of us as well. He was the reason Fossor was dead, and that we were alive. 

Holding my little rock up, I stared at it. “What do you think, buddy?” My voice cracked just a little. “Yeah, yeah, you’re probably right. But are you sure you can handle it? What, me? There you go, only thinking about others again. You’re such a brave little rock.” 

“Flick?” Dad started uncertainly. 

“Don’t worry, Dad, I’m not crazy,” I informed him. “I just wanted to do that one more time.” Swallowing again, I looked toward Tuenfa. “Herbie means a lot to me. But he obviously means a lot to you too. We can’t stay here forever, so maybe he can stay instead. If you keep him as a relic or whatever, put him somewhere safe. Take care of him.” 

Tuenfa met my gaze seriously. “The rock is responsible for our entire civilization’s freedom and survival. It–he would be treated as a holy relic for the rest of time.” 

Letting out a long breath, I nodded. “Okay then. Right. Then he can stay with you. 

“I guess it’s time to say goodbye to Herbie.”  

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