Puriel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Galazien the Iron-Souled.”

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Long Awaited 12-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we bring you all to Earth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did it go?”

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Patreon Snippets 19 Including Fomorian Origin Story (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 19th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Months Ago, During The Night Of The Rebellion Being Reformed

There were three incredibly important things that one had to know about Malcolm Harkess’s father, Shane, if one was going to understand his son. First, the man was very rich. He had inherited a decent amount (seven figures) of money as an eighteen-year-old orphan. Second, despite inheriting such cash, Shane Harkess was still incredibly driven to earn his own way. He went into the US Marines and served his country for ten years on three different continents before retiring as a first sergeant. From there, he used the money he had originally inherited as well as the contacts he made in the service to start-up an armed private security company. 

Those were two of the three important things to know about Shane Harkess. The third, even more vital piece of information, was that he was also incredibly paranoid. Shane had been convinced since the time that he was a child that some sort of very dangerous and devastating war was coming. A war which would begin with most technology in the world being wiped out or eliminated. Which, of course, would make supplies quite hard to come across. Thus, he trained the men in his security company not only how to fight using their fancy guns and equipment, but also in much more archaic forms of combat. He had trained in medieval weapons construction, upkeep, and fighting, hand-to-hand, various survival and concealment techniques, and so on since before he had even entered the military itself. The Marines, of course, had taken these skills to the next level. And he passed that level to everyone who ended up working for him. 

But it wasn’t only his men that he taught. Shane Harkess passed everything he knew, everything he had trained himself to do, on to his son. Malcolm, from the time he had been barely old enough to walk, had been taught how to fight and survive by his father, as well as his father’s military buddies and security subordinates. He learned how to clean, maintain, and fire every type of gun imaginable, as well as how to fight without such an advantage. He learned to survive in the woods with nothing but a knife, and eventually with less than that. 

All that training had been instilled so thoroughly in Malcolm that he was incredibly competitive. That competitive streak had accompanied him here, to Crossroads. Yet no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he worked, he could never manage to beat Avalon Sinclaire. And he so desperately wanted to. Not because he particularly disliked the girl or anything. Not even because she was a girl, that was stupid. He knew too many really strong females to think something idiotic like that. 

No, Malcolm wanted to beat Avalon simply because she was better than he was. And if he beat her, he’d know he was improving. It was nothing personal. But he could never do it. Which led to him pushing himself harder and harder, training more, to the point that he received special permission to train in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. 

And that was why he was standing in the middle of the gym that night, when everything went down and that blaring music began to play. Malcolm had had no idea what was going on, only that he was locked in the gym by a passing security guard who told him to stay put. From there, he stared through the doors and out the various windows, trying to figure out what had happened. 

Then it came. The sudden rush of understanding that left Malcolm staggering backward. The rebellion, Flick’s mom, everything that had been done to shut them down. She–that chick did something to fill everyone’s heads with all that information. All that–and now they were leaving. They were going to take off. He could see the large group down by the ocean, through the window. Something was going on down there, and he had to get the hell out of–

“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” 

The voice came from behind Malcolm, and he spun to find a completely unexpected figure standing there. 

“Counselor Leven?!” It was her. Zeke’s mother and member of the Crossroads Committee. “What–what’re you doing? Shouldn’t you be down… uhh, down there?” He gestured toward the scene going on in the distance through the window.

“Hello, Malcolm,” the beautiful, auburn-haired woman greeted him. “And no, I believe what happens there will happen regardless of my presence, or lack thereof. I’m more interested in what you plan to do now.” 

“I–uhh…” The tall, muscular boy hesitated, feeling uneasily intimidated by the smaller, yet profoundly more powerful woman. “That stuff, the memories or whatever, is it true?” 

There was a short pause from Sophronia before she gave a very slight nod. “You want to go with them?” 

The pause from Malcolm, in turn, was much longer than hers. Finally, he carefully replied, “I’m not sure how to answer that, ma’am.” 

“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Then allow me to tell you what I would like. You are the closest friend my son has, Malcolm Harkess. Which, given his typical dismissal of Bystander matters, is quite remarkable in and of itself.” 

Offering him a very faint smile, she continued. “Zeke will not leave this place now, it’s not… it’s not who he is, yet. I believe he can be better, I have to. But I also believe that your leaving will sour him against the subject permanently. He will view his best friend joining the rebellion as a betrayal, rather than an informative moment.” 

Malcolm stared at her briefly before slowly asking, “You saying you want me to stay here because it’ll piss your son off if I leave?” 

“What I am saying,” she informed him, “is that if you choose to leave I will not stand in your way. I will even aid you in reaching those who are fleeing. But I ask… not as a Heretic, not as a member of the Committee, as a mother. As a mother, I ask that you stay and try to help my son. If you leave, he will be alone save for those who wish to make him even more of a fanatic.” 

“What about you?” the boy demanded. “You’re his mom.” 

“And there is some I can do, yet not enough,” Sophronia replied. “I am his mother, and also a member of the Committee. What I do, particularly around my son, is watched more than what you do. You are his friend, someone he has chosen to open up to despite his own prejudices. I believe that, with time and effort, it may be possible to reach him. If we do so gradually and give him more reasons to doubt his own beliefs.” 

Reaching out, she put one hand on his shoulder. “Say the word, and I will take you to the newly-budding rebellion. Or choose to stay. Not for me. For my son. I want him to be better, but it’s something he has to choose for himself. I would prefer he have a better chance of doing so by being connected to a good influence. Your influence.” 

Once more, Malcolm was silent, glancing to her hand and then to the window where people were retreating. Where the new rebellion was escaping. His expression was indecisive. Finally, he exhaled long and low. “Fine. 

“I’ll stick around for Zeke.” 

*****

Puriel And Company

With a slight squeak of metal, a two-foot wide, square panel was pried away from a wall. Doing so revealed an intricate network of tubes and wires surrounding brightly colored lights. Some of the tubes seemed to carry liquid of one kind or another, while others appeared empty. The lights blinked in various patterns that surely meant something to… someone. 

“Welp,” announced Arthur Chambers, who was not one of those someones, “Have you checked the oil?” 

Slowly, the man standing beside him, Puriel, turned his head to look that way. “Have we what?” As he spoke, the man was setting the metal panel against the nearby wall with a very soft ting. 

The two of them were in one of the Olympus’s many vast corridors. The hall was only lit by the dimmest of lighting, as most of the ship remained on extremely low power for the time being. It was an effect which left both men barely visible to one another. And most of that was thanks to the colored lights from the newly-opened panel. 

“Sorry,” Arthur murmured with a shrug, having turned his attention back to what they had revealed. “Usually the first thing you’re supposed to ask when someone’s checking for engine trouble. But ahhh, this might be slightly beyond anything I’ve ever worked with.” Glancing back that way, he added, “Not diesel, is it?”  

There had been a time when Puriel would have scoffed at that, when he would have treated the human as a useless primitive, barely capable of speech. Now, he paused before snorting softly. “No, Mr…” He hesitated before amending. “… Arthur. I don’t believe it’s diesel. Though as far as my people are concerned, most of this ship is little more than a quaint antique. Top of the line in her day, yet… yet she has fallen behind.” Despite his words, there was a clear fondness in his voice, while the man gently ran one hand along the wall. For a moment, he was lost in memories. 

“You think the kid can really bring her up to snuff?” Arthur asked after giving the other man a few seconds to reminisce. “That Spark, she’s like a real genius at this stuff. That’s not normal for your people, is it? Sorry, I mean it’s not usual.”

“Indeed.” The answer came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The small, black Seosten woman approached through the winding corridor, accompanied by Arthur’s wife, Maria, as well as the enormous figure of Alcaeus. “Spark is very much an unusual level of genius,” Aletheia continued to confirm, once they had all arrived. “Happily for us.” 

“How are they doing?” Puriel asked, his question directed toward Maria. He could easily tell for himself, of course. Spark was still connected to him, after all. She was simply using the projection spell to put an image of herself elsewhere. All he really had to do was stop actively shunting his attention away from the spell she was using to see through that hologram. But he preferred to give the girl as much privacy as their unique situation allowed. 

Maria, in turn, offered a grandmotherly smile. “Spark is assisting her brother and the rest of the children with sandwich preparations. Kutattca is with them. You don’t exactly have peanut butter and jelly here, but I believe Grandpa Kutty and I managed to piece together effective substitutes from the new supplies.” She looked toward Aletheia then, adding, “Your friend here is very good at acquiring things.” 

“Always has been.” That was Al, grunting the words before stepping up to join the men in staring at the flashing lights, wires, and coils. “So like Artie here said, between all of us and the kid’s super-genius, can we really get this ship into good enough condition to make it to Earth?” 

“With some luck and a lot of work from the rest of us, yes,” Puriel confirmed. “At least, I believe so. This ship was intended to operate under a much larger and… no offense intended, much better trained crew. But between general improvements, automation spells we can set up, and Spark’s own inspired upgrades, we should be able to pull it off, eventually.”

There was a brief exchange of looks then, before Maria cleared her throat. “Oh, honestly, would you all just spit it out.” To Puriel, she flatly continued with, “Everyone wants to know if that genius kid of yours got her spiffy tech skills from whoever her father might be. You know, since you said those superpowers could be passed on after all.” 

“You’re asking if Spark’s father is Radueriel,” Puriel finished for her. He paused, waiting for the collection of nods before giving a very slight shake of his head. “No. I have been through all of my late wife’s records. Spark’s father was an unremarkable volunteer from the front lines of the war, who wished to have some chance at passing on his genetics. He was unaware of the extent of what was happening at the lab, only believing that some of our scientists were working on creating children through… artificial means.”

The others absorbed that, before Arthur asked, “Does that mean she’s just… naturally coming up with this stuff? No offense, just seems like it’s about the same as a twelve-year-old on our world with no training randomly inventing… well… one of these.” He gestured at the ship around them. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel nodded once. “As far as we can tell, yes. There is nothing in her genealogical history that would account for some special Tartarus-derived power to explain her skills in design. Her mother’s ability is nothing like that, and her biological father has no such power, nor any particular skill in technology. From all of the very extensive research I have done, Spark’s genius is simply that. Her genius.”

Taking that in, the others exchanged looks once more before Arthur eventually spoke once more. “I suppose if Spark’s father is some random guy, so is Omni’s.” 

“Oh, no, not at all,” Puriel corrected. “Omni’s father is very much someone we know. 

“His name is Abaddon.” 

*****

Fomorian Origins

A/N – Sariel first told Larissa the Seosten understanding of the origins of Cronus and the Fomorians back in Mini-Interlude 37, right here for those who would like to compare.

Throughout the vast, unfathomable reaches of space, trillions of worlds existed. Some dark, dormant, and cold, others bright shining beacons. Some were small, churning balls of hot gases that would melt and twist steel within seconds, while others were goliaths of frozen liquids and mountains that towered into the sort of immeasurable size that would make the Earth itself vanish within a single cavern of such a world. 

Such incalculable cosmic phenomena existed within the bounds of only one universe, let alone several interconnected realities, that it was beyond the capabilities of even the most celebrated Seosten scientist to document even a decent fraction of them. Despite their own ten thousand year average lifespan and infallible memories, space was simply too large to be accurately understood and charted.

If it was beyond even the Seosten’s ability to fully detail the worlds within their own area of space, then those that lay beyond the battlelines of their war with the Fomorians were as mysterious and unknown as the land of Earth’s moon would have been to primitive, pre-fire humans. And like those ancient, aboriginal societies, many stories had been made up and spread throughout the Seosten Empire of what the Fomorian-controlled worlds were like. Or what Fomorian society itself, if it even truly existed, might have been. The Seosten scientists who detailed these ideas of their enemy’s society based them on millennia of observation and evidence that had been collected by their peers, or pieced-together witness reports from a few scattered survivors. They put together as clear of a picture of the Fomorian ‘society’ as they could. 

And they were, in almost every countable way, entirely wrong. Personal prejudices, misunderstood or even deliberately falsified evidence, survivors whose stories were exaggerated or whose memories had been tampered with by either side, and more problems made it entirely impossible for anyone to have anything even remotely close to an accurate view of what the Fomorians were like away from the front lines of their war. Or what the origin of their species had truly been. Their own worlds, the center of their society, were entirely cut off from any outsiders. Not one single non-Fomorian had laid living eyes upon those original worlds since before the great war between the genetic monstrosities and the Seosten Empire had begun, hundreds of thousands of years earlier. None who were not Fomorian themselves had ever stood upon the soil of their capital world and seen the truth of who and what these creatures were. 

Most importantly, none had ever laid eyes upon the world where all Fomorians were born.

There were many reasons for this, from the vastness of their owned space, to the ferocity with which they defended (and constantly expanded) their borders, to the atrocities committed by their people on those who wandered anywhere near the edges of their territory, let alone getting close to the center. But above all, there was one primary reason for why no living, non-Fomorian being had ever seen the planet all of them were born on, the seat of their civilization. Because the Fomorians, as the universe knew them, were not born on any world. 

They were born on a ship. 

——–

Under a veil of darkness, one pair of eyes opened. Those eyes, bred and enhanced through hundreds of generations, were capable of viewing the world around them through any of a dozen different vision modes. They could see perfectly within pitch-black night, would have been capable of counting the hairs on the leg of a common Earth housefly from a mile away, could stare directly into a star for hours without harmful effect, and could even view ultraviolet and infrared waves, as well as literal magical energy itself. Nothing that was capable of being seen by a living being (and many things that technically weren’t) could be hidden from this single pair of eyes. 

And yet, at that particular moment, the eyes saw nothing. The area around them was not simply dark, it was obscured, physically covered by something. The being attached to the eyes floated within what amounted to very thick, almost pudding-like nutrient liquid of pure black coloration, their body held rigid and motionless by four muscular tentacles coiled around their arms and legs (two of each). Those tentacles were attached to the inner walls of the cocoon or egg-like structure the being had awoken within. A cocoon which entirely encased the being and produced the nutrient paste their body had used to grow to its full size, while its attached tentacles held the being by the arms and legs. 

For many years, the body within this cocoon had been nurtured and maintained. Now, as the eyes of the body within opened and the body began to twist a bit, its job was done. The tentacles holding the being’s limbs retracted at the very instant that the occupant began to struggle in earnest, while the cocoon itself began to dissolve. The hard outer shell, capable up until that point of standing against even a full barrage from a capital starship, melted into the same pudding-like gel that had filled its interior. The tentacles followed suit, the resulting pool of thick liquid dripping through a thin, yet incredibly tough membrane that made up the floor below it.

As the cocoon dissolved and dripped through the floor, the being that had been held within was left crouching, naked on a small platform in the middle of a cavernous structure surrounded by dozens more eggs just like the one they had just emerged from. The walls of the cavern were flesh, with visible rib-like bones across the domed ‘ceiling’, and an overall general structure that looked like the inside of a mostly-hollowed out whale. 

After what would have been considered several Earth-minutes, the crouched, naked being straightened. Their gaze slowly turned to take in the area around them, absorbing the sight of those other cocoons before lowering their eyes to take in the sight of their own raised hands. Gray-green hands, thin yet unbelievably strong. Powerful, tough, incredibly dexterous, and… wrong. 

“No,” the being murmured under their breath, their head starting to shake. “No, this is wrong.” The words that emerged from their strange, unfamiliar mouth were what people of Earth would consider Latin. The Seosten language, though the exact words and pronunciation were quite different in many ways than what most would understand. Different, because they were many, many centuries out of date. 

“This isn’t me!” The being was shouting out loud by that point, their bellows filling the egg-filled cavern. “What is this?! Hey, what in the void is going on here?! Hey!” They pivoted, moving toward the nearest cocoon. If they had been trapped inside, maybe others they knew were trapped within the rest. 

Stop.” The loud, booming voice came from everywhere, yet nowhere. It seemed to emerge from the walls themselves, echoing throughout the biological cavern. It was a voice which, despite the confused and frantic newly-emerged being’s desperation, made them follow that single order and halt instinctively before slowly looking around as though searching for the source. 

“Where–where are you? Where am I? What is this? Come out, now!” The shouted command was a mix of fearful and angry, the being’s confusion warring with their rising emotions about where they had found themselves, and in what state. “I swear, if you don’t show yourself right now–” 

“Apologies.” The voice came from behind the confused new hatchling, and they spun to find a figure standing between two other eggs. Unlike their own awkward, unfamiliar gray-green body, the person who had now revealed themselves had pale skin, long brown hair, a slightly muscled physique, and soft green eyes. He wore nothing more than loose brown pants, and appeared completely out of place here in this cocoon-filled flesh cavern specifically because he looked entirely human. Entirely human, or–

“Seosten!” the hatched figure blurted abruptly, their surprise and relief audible. “You’re Seosten! Like me, like…” Trailing off, they looked down at their hands. “Like I’m… supposed to be. What did they do to me? What–I’m not–” Looking up again, voice and bulbous, too-large eyes pleading, they continued. “What is this? Wh-what happened to me? Is this… is this aliens?” Their voice had turned tentative, fearful as they took a step that way, reaching out to desperately grasp at the arm of the Seosten man. “Where are we?” 

After a very brief pause, the pale, shirtless man offered a slight smile before taking one of the confused, frightened figure’s hands. Squeezing reassuringly, he turned and began to walk. “Come, I’ll show you exactly what has happened. It’s alright, you have nothing to be afraid of. Please, what’s your name?” 

“I… I’m Lailah,” came the hesitant answer. “And I’m not-not this thing.” Their hands gestured toward the strange, unfamiliar body. “I’m a Seosten like you! I mean, a female Seosten. Not this, I’m not–I’m not this thing! What happened to me?! Please, just–just tell me what happened? Was it an accident in the lab? Was it–” 

“Shh, please, it’s alright.” Gently soothing her with his voice, the shirtless Seosten man continued to lead her through the large cavern as he asked, “I promise, we’ll get to the bottom of this, and you will be okay. Just try to calm down a little bit. Can you tell me the last thing you remember before waking up here?” 

“The last thing I remember?” Lailah echoed uncertainly. She had to think about it. And thinking was rather hard right then, though something about the man’s voice made it easier than it should have been to follow his instructions. He asked her to calm down, and part of her did, despite the insanity and terror of waking up in a strange body. “There was some kind of accident in the lab I was working at. We were investigating experimental treatments for diseases, like the one Caelus Euven–he’s my boss–the one his son has.” 

There was a brief pause while her guide stopped walking. He glanced away and seemed to think about her words before curiously asking, “Cron?” 

“You know him?” Blinking that way with more than a little surprise, Lailah nodded. “Yes, he’s been in our lab for a few months now. His father’s desperate to find a cure. I’m afraid… I’m afraid he’s been cutting a few safety corners. He has this strange idea that he can create a secondary… wait a minute.” As she trailed off, those large, alien eyes widened. “He wanted to make a new body and transfer his son from the sick one to the healthy one. Did–did he do this?” She had stopped walking again, raising those strange greenish hands up in front of her face to stare at them in horror. “Was I–was I his test subject? Wait, those other cocoons. Those other–the rest of–” 

Turning to face her, the still normal-looking Seosten man held his own pale hands out. “Easy–” 

“Easy?!” she echoed, blurting the word in disbelief and anger. “Have you looked at me?! What am I! What did he do to me?! What did that monster do?!” 

Immediately, the man closed the distance between them. Fury blazed in his eyes as he raised a hand, shaking from emotion. “He is not a monster. It wasn’t his fault. He was trying to save me!”   

“Trying to save…” Once more, the woman trailed off. She stared at him, placing the face as a very soft gasp escaped her. “Cron–no. You’re young–barely more than a child. How are you–years. Whatever happened, whatever this is… I’ve been out for years.” 

“Years?” A faint note of amusement entered the voice of her guide, Cron. “Oh, Lailah. It’s been a bit longer than that. Though, I suppose it really depends on how you count, to be honest. By your personal measure, it’s been a very, very long time. By mine, we had this conversation a few months ago. And a few years before that. And perhaps a decade earlier–your model is very prone to arrogance. It gets you in trouble.” 

“My–my model?” She took a step away from him, mouth working a bit as a wordless sound of confusion escaped her. “What are you talking about? What–what’s happening?” 

“It’s more about what already happened,” came the casual response. “And what happened is that my father succeeded–in a manner of speaking. He created a new body for me, with the help of you and your colleagues, of course. He also gave me the ability to create a connection to the new body, so I could transfer myself into it. Unfortunately, that new body he transferred me into wasn’t some empty, blank slate. 

“You see, it turns out there was a mind in there already, because one of your other colleagues had a brother who got into an accident and brain-damaged. This other doctor, he thought he could use my father’s work temporarily, just enough to transfer his damaged brother’s mind into the new body to have one last conversation. To say goodbye. He did the same thing to his injured brother that my father did to me, performed alterations to his DNA so that he could match it to the new body. He even managed to make that connection. He managed to transfer his almost brain-dead brother to the new body. But my father interrupted, and wouldn’t listen before he started the procedure for me. So when I was transferred, there was already a mind inside what should have been an empty body. A mind that was terrified and confused. He lashed out. I fought back. We struggled, and then my father tried to hug me. He didn’t understand what was happening. He didn’t know there was a problem. A problem which got worse, because the method he used to allow me to transfer myself into the new body extended to taking him into the body as well. We absorbed him, my father.” 

“I…” Lailah was gazing off into the distance as screams and orders echoed through her mind. “I remember. I think I remember, anyway. We tried to stop it. We tried to get the situation under control. We were trying to sedate the body, but it didn’t work. He–you–it fought back. It… I was… you picked me up.” She stared at him, voice shaking. “You threw me across the room. I hit a table and… and then the wall. You were standing over me. You reached down, and I… and I was gone. Then I woke up here. Why–” She stopped, clearly trying to understand something. “Why can’t I be angry with you? Why can’t I–I want to yell at you. I want to hit you. I want to scream and run away. I can’t. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I do any of that?” 

Sounding unconcerned, the man pivoted and began to walk once more through the flesh and bone tunnel. “Come, you’ll understand eventually. Or not, but it hardly matters. I suppose there was a time when I would have tried harder to make you understand. And knowing how these things fluctuate, there will come a time when I try harder again.” 

As they walked, he explained, all-too-casually, what had happened to the Seosten after her memories faded out. He told her about how the combined form of Caelus and Cron, now called Cronus, kept absorbing more and more people in an increasingly desperate attempt to possess enough mental power to solve their problem and save themselves. He told her about how that was quickly twisted, their original goal forgotten as they sought only to absorb more Seosten for no particular reason, and how the genetic alterations to their body mutated, spreading out from them in virus-form to infect even those they didn’t absorb. He told her about how that mutation rapidly propagated through the remaining Seosten population, granting them the ability to possess and control others, and about how the subsequent war between Cronus and the rest of the Seosten population devastated their planet to the point of reshaping the world itself by turning what had been a singular massive continent into a much smaller one surrounded by thousands of islands. He was fairly candid about the lengths he–or Cronus–went to in their mad attempt to absorb as many people as possible. Thousands upon thousands of minds, hundreds of thousands, even. A million or more. All of them taken into one body, and all contributing to make him less and less sane. 

Finally, Cronus had left their homeworld. He–or they– abandoned Elohim using the experimental spaceship the Seosten had been working on, and set out to find a new home where they could sort through what was, by that point, hundreds of thousands of voices from all of the people they had absorbed.

Entranced by his story, Lailah only belatedly noticed that they had reached the end of the biological tunnel, and were now standing in what appeared to be the cockpit of that same, just-mentioned spaceship. Though there were various… additions to the space. Mostly consisting of several tentacles spread across the metal walls and over the controls. Tentacles with living, beating/pulsing organs attached to them, like those of a living creature that had been directly connected into the technology. 

“What… what is this?” Lailah tried to demand, yet her voice came out as a soft, uncertain question. 

“What is it?” her guide echoed before pointing toward the main screen in the center of the fairly cramped (particularly with the organ-covered tentacles running through it) cockpit. “Look, and see where we are. See the heart of what we have achieved. Or perhaps a better term would be, the womb.” 

As he spoke, the view on the screen flickered, before abruptly showing the outside of the ship itself from up close. They could see the cockpit window, could see themselves watching the screen. Seeing that, Lailah glanced that way, but the window was mirrored from this side, making it impossible to see anything beyond. 

Turning her attention back to the monitor, she watched as whatever was out there transmitting the signal began to pull back. She saw more of the ship. It was essentially a thick silver-white oval, like a semi-flattened egg. Larger tentacles, like the ones within the cockpit running through all the controls, were wrapped around it. They looked like the roots of a giant tree that had grown to envelop the ship, leading back to… to…

The best way Lailah’s mind could describe it was a gigantic snail, complete with (a soft, pulsing) shell. It was over a thousand miles from one end to the other. The opening of the ‘shell,’ where the snail’s head would emerge, instead had hundreds of various-sized tentacles. Some were as small as ordinary tree vines, while others were miles across. One singular tentacle-like tube attached the moon-sized soft-looking shell to the ship they were now standing on. That was the organic tunnel they had walked through to get here, and the cocoon-filled chamber was but one of what had to be hundreds within the shell itself. 

“We traveled for decades on this ship,” her guide murmured. “Years upon years where we spent most of the time hardly cognizant of our surroundings. We found that our body didn’t need nutrients. It took what it needed from the people we absorbed, storing the energy from their bodies and keeping it for later. Many thousands of our people, converted to the nourishment our combined self required. For decades, the ship traveled through space while we drifted within our own minds. Close to a million minds and personalities, all fighting and struggling to be heard, to be released, to be noticed. Many living out entire fantasy dream scenarios. It was impossible to think, impossible to focus through the noise. We lost ourselves for a long time. Years upon years passed while those minds within us fought for attention, or simply played out their imagined lives. We lived every life of every person we had taken, our focus and attention drifting from one to the next, aimless and chaotic. 

“Finally, we could go no further. Our ship reached this point, this empty area of space, and would proceed no more. We had fixed it before, but there was no fixing this. It was done, our physical, outward journey over. Yet our mental path, the dreams of nearly a million minds longed to have showed no signs of ending. For another dozen years after our ship had stopped, we lay here on the floor just where you stand, our body incapable of moving because of so many minds arguing over which direction it would go. Perhaps we would have stayed there forever, until the energy we had absorbed from all those bodies finally faded, and we simply died there. Perhaps, save for a single, chance encounter.” 

For a few long seconds, he simply stood there, staring off at nothing as though lost in those memories. Finally, the man slowly turned his gaze to her, their eyes meeting before he continued. “An alien ship found us. A ship full of refugees and explorers, who sent a team aboard. They found our body lying there, and they made perhaps the worst mistake they ever could have. They tried to save us by taking our body back to their ship, to their medical center. There, our body continued to lay while their doctors did what they could to determine what was physically wrong with us. They even installed a translator device allowing us to understand them.

“The main doctor had a child with them, a young boy who sat with us for hours that night, telling us stories of his world. He wanted to help us. His father told him that we could hear, because their instruments showed a mental reaction to his words. So he told those stories. Some were amusing, some were adventures, but many were horror. The boy liked those, the scary, disgusting stories the most. They were all nice to hear. We enjoyed them. We couldn’t show it, couldn’t find the way of guiding every mind within us to thank the boy for his stories.” 

“Did you kill him?” Lailah’s voice was quiet, though tinted with emotion. “Did you kill the alien boy and everyone else on that ship just like you killed all of us?”

He didn’t respond at first, instead simply meeting her gaze in silence before carefully answering with a firm, “No. The mistake those people made was not in taking us aboard and trying to help. It was in stopping to do so. They did not want to go any further until they understood what had happened to us, lest it be something that could affect them. So they waited. They stayed here in this spot where our ship had stopped. And that was their undoing. The monsters they fled from, soldiers from their own world who served a genocidal dictator, tracked them down to this spot. Their ship was overrun, and they were all slaughtered. Thousands of them, killed without mercy. The boy who told us stories was one of the last. He was here, hiding, when they came. He pleaded for help. His words, his voice… he begged for us to save him. We heard, and saw, as they gleefully murdered the boy. 

“And that was when our souls became united in one single, solitary goal. For the first time in decades, every mind we had absorbed had one thought: to kill those monsters. Our confusion lifted, burned away by white-hot rage. We moved. For the first time in so long, we moved of our own volition, and tore into those things. We avenged the deaths of those who had tried to help us. We killed every single invader who boarded the ship. Unfortunately, a few escaped back to their own vessel and fled.” 

Reaching out to gently stroke one of the nearby tentacles thoughtfully, the man continued after another moment. “We were alone again. Alone with a million minds trapped within us. But we did not fall back into our motionless coma, because we had a goal. Some of those monsters had escaped. And the dictator who led them, the one their victims had fled from in the first place, was still safe and sound back on their world. He would continue to thrive after his men butchered the people who had been kind to us. That was something we could not allow to stand. Our fury remained, the rage that gave us the focus we needed to be united. 

“But we knew that we could not accomplish true revenge in our current state. Powerful as we were, there was but one of us. One body. We had been defeated and chased away from our own home by our people because of that, because we were outnumbered by so much. That was our weakness. A weakness we had to do something about. And now, we had the materials to work with.” 

Swallowing hard, Lailah quietly put in, “the corpses who were left behind, the bodies of those who tried to save you, and of the ones you killed in retaliation.”   

“Precisely,” he confirmed. “Our rage gave us what we needed mentally. It united us, gave us a purpose to move toward. The purpose of vengeance. With that unity, we took the minds we had absorbed and put them all toward one goal: fixing the corpses left behind on that ship to create new bodies for all of the people who were inside us. We would overcome our singular weakness of being a legion trapped within one body, by creating a legion. We put the bodies back together, upgraded them, used materials from those too broken to be useful in order to add to others.” 

Slowly, Lailah held up her own green-gray arms. “These? This is what the aliens looked like. This is what their bodies were.”

With a slight nod, the man continued. “It took months of work. But we put the bodies back together. Hundreds of them, then over a thousand. They could support life again, yet had no minds within them. That was when the truly hard work began. Over more months, twice as long as it took to put the physical bodies back together, we learned to project those we had absorbed into those bodies. The first few attempts were… failures. We pushed too many minds, or broke the mind irreparably in the process of the transfer. Yours was one of those injured. We managed to put it back together, but your memories were damaged in the process. Now you and others who were similarly damaged in the process of our testing must be told the truth of things whenever you reawaken.” 

Lailah was about to jump on the many questions she had about that, but he had already pushed on. “With trial and error, and far too many losses, we finally managed to perfect the process of transfer. Over a thousand bodies now had minds within them, and we were alone no longer. And with our new bodies, we set to work repairing the damage to the alien ship that had been done during the invasion. When it was ready to travel once more, we used their computer to send the ship back where it had come from, back to their home planet.” 

From there, while Lailah watched and listened with rapidly increasing unease, the man detailed how their new army had flown back to the alien planet and began to attack them. They spread like a virus across the other world. For every member of the other species they killed, Cronus was able to put the body back into working order and inject one of his stolen Seosten minds into it. With that, their numbers expanded exponentially, and they began to use the biological expertise, which had been cultivated and boosted in order to make repairing the bodies possible in the first place, to enhance the bodies they were given. They didn’t have the original Cronus’s ability to absorb anyone they touched, yet their biological enhancements meant they remained a terrifyingly effective invasion force. 

The Seosten’s own homeworld had barely survived the attacks from Cronus specifically because he’d only had one body. With an exponentially growing army, that weakness was removed. The aliens didn’t stand a chance, particularly when they failed to recognize the true extent of the threat early on. Soon, there were enough dead aliens to give a (soon enhanced and improved) body to every stolen Seosten mind. Yet they were not themselves anymore. Decades of being part of a single body and connected to the corrupted mind of Cronus had twisted them beyond all recognition. One and all, the former-Seosten obeyed their master, the one called Cronus. 

There were, of course, far more dead bodies than they had minds to inject into them. At most, there were under a million Seosten minds, and billions of dead aliens. Not wanting to let such resources go to waste, and still needing more troops in order to continue spreading their war across the planet, Cronus and his former-Seosten began to use those bodies, and those of random animals they came across, to create even more troops. These had no real minds, no real sapience. They were simply predators, monsters who were twisted, improved, and turned against the world’s inhabitants as shock troopers. Soon, the despotic leader who had been responsible for sending his army to track down and murder the original refugees was dead, along with all of those who had supported him. 

“But you didn’t stop–we didn’t stop,” Lailah quietly murmured. “Why? You–we… killed the dictator and his men, but you kept going. You spread over the entire world, you killed all of them. Every single person on the world. Why didn’t we spare the innocents?” 

“The innocents?” her companion snarled in disbelief, shaking that off. “There were no innocents left on that planet. The innocents were those who fled and tried to help us. Anyone left behind was complicit with their leader. They all got the justice they deserved for aligning themselves with the monster. You may not remember the pleading of the child who told us stories, but we do. We hear his voice. We hear his screams, his terror. And we enacted his revenge.”

For years, then decades, and then centuries after that, Cronus and his altered people continued to grow and enhance themselves. They used the resources of the world they had taken over to make their bodies stronger, spending hundreds of years perfecting their skills of biological manipulation and enhancements. As they were no longer truly Seosten, they took the name of the species they had so thoroughly destroyed and whom they now resembled (save for the enhancements each member performed on themselves), the Fomorians. 

During the original fighting, it had been found that any of the former-Seosten whose new body was destroyed would instantly find their mind back within the body of Cronus himself. They were, in effect, immortal. Dying simply meant being sent back to Cronus and then injected into a new body. And over those centuries, they developed a new system. Rather than being put back within Cronus upon the ‘death’ of their physical body, their minds were sent to a ‘hive’, where new bodies based on the original Fomorian prototype were created within egg-like structures before they were released once more. This hive, the center of the Fomorian life, was created in where their original ship had shut down, built around the precise spot where the refugee ship had been. 

“Yet it wasn’t enough,” Cronus quietly noted. “Our guilt, over our failure to protect the child, over the loss of our original identity as a species, over everything…” 

“Everything we did,” Lailah put in. “We felt guilty because we were monsters. You turned us into monsters. You twisted us, made us… wrong. We were supposed to be Seosten and you made us something far worse. We spent decades with our minds trapped inside your body, our thoughts, loyalties, and personalities manipulated and corrupted. Then you put us in these strange, unfamiliar bodies. We were breaking down, our… our minds were falling apart.”

“And I fixed it,” the man informed her. “I removed the guilt, the confusion, the fear. Every new body your minds inhabit includes enhancements which ensure you feel none of that. You feel loyalty to me, and a desire to expand our people. Nothing more than that. You feel no sadness or guilt for what must be done. You do not feel the horrific remorse over everything that has been done to us, or that we have done. You feel none of it. You are incapable of feeling such things. That is my gift to all of you. One of them. The other is the promise that we will rewrite this universe–all universes. We will make everything like us. Connected, beautiful, and perfect. There will be no more random disease that ravages an innocent child, killing him in his bed while his father stands helpless and ashamed of his own failures. Everything in this universe will be connected to us. It will work. It will make sense, because we will create it to make sense.” 

That was the truth of the Fomorians. Almost one million former Seosten, their minds twisted in every conceivable way, with their new bodies intentionally engineered to render them incapable of feeling things like regret, guilt, compassion, or even empathy. They felt nothing, save for love of their own species and a desire to spread what they were across the universe. They saw every other living creature, everything not created and manipulated by them, as the enemy. And felt no pity for them. The only thing they truly felt was a hatred of everything different, everything  that was not Fomorian. 

“When you die as a Fomorian,” Cronus informed her, “your mind is reset to what it was before. Some of you are cast back to earlier times, some later. Either way, your memories return to your former selves, temporarily. But in time, anywhere from seconds to hours, the improvements I’ve included in your bodies do their work, and you become my people once more.”

There was no response at first. The figure he was speaking to stood silently, gazing off at nothing as though they didn’t hear him at all. Finally, after almost a minute of that, the figure straightened and looked to him. And in that gaze, he knew it was over. There was nothing of Lailah’s original mind left at that moment. The Fomorian body had done its job in suppressing her personality entirely. 

“Ahh, apologies, Lord Cronus. I appear to have experienced some… setbacks. There were humans there, on the Meregan world. More Heretics there to… rescue the one we were attempting to capture. And they were with Seosten.”

“Tell me more,” Cronus ordered, turning his back to the view of the birthing hive in order to focus all of his attention on his newly-reborn subject. “You say there were humans and Seosten working together. Elaborate. I want to know everything about them.

“This sounds… interesting.”

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Patreon Snippets 18 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For those who read Summus Proelium who might have missed it, there was a commissioned interlude for that story posted yesterday. You can find it by clicking right here

The following is the 18th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Gabriel Ruthers 

The Necromancer was dead. After more than a dozen mortal lifetimes, after an untold number of victims and atrocities, the monster who had shown Gabriel Ruthers what the beings who lurked in the shadows were truly capable of was gone. He was dead and he would never threaten another person’s life, would never corrupt and torture another innocent soul. 

It should have been a time of joy, a time of relief and celebration. And it was, for some. For many, really. A large portion of the Crossroads population who had any clue who the man named Fossor had been were currently engaged in parties that stretched across just about every major holding their society had. There was talk amongst others in the Committee of making the day Fossor fell into a literal holiday, perhaps even working in a way to make it one amongst the Bystanders as well somehow. They were giddy with relief and joy, most not caring anything about who had struck the final blow, only that it was done and that Fossor was dead. 

But of course, it wasn’t that simple. Such things hardly ever were. Particularly these days.  

As for Ruthers himself, the man stood not at any of those parties. Nor was he celebrating more quietly, as others were, in various bars or private restaurants. No. Instead, he stood on a hill a few short kilometers north of Collobrières, in France. With one hand resting against a tree, Ruthers stared at a nearby spot between two fallen logs. To most, it would seem the same as any other patch of dirt in any other forest. Looking there, they would see nothing important, nothing special. 

Nothing that had changed the entire course of human history. 

But, of course, it was far more than that. When Ruthers looked to that spot, he saw himself, young and so naive. He saw Fossor, expertly manipulating him. The two of them had stood there, in that very spot, to finalize the ‘deal’ that was supposed to involve Ruthers and the other Heretics he had gathered together giving Fossor the power he needed to use a spell that would have eliminated the grave threat they had all faced. 

Fossor had presented himself as a friend, one they could trust. Others hadn’t believed him. Ruthers had vouched for the man. He had traveled with Fossor for months, had fought alongside him, had saved his life (or so he thought) and vice versa. For those months, Fossor had worked to convince Gabriel that he was trustworthy and honest, someone who only wanted to help. 

And Gabriel, fool that he was, had believed it. He had well and truly believed that this Fossor, though not human, was someone who could help them. He’d argued with their other allies, had nearly come to blows with them, had staked everything he was that the man at his side was one they could count on. 

It was his words, his urging, that convinced the others to take a chance. They helped contribute the power Fossor had asked for. Desperate as they were to stop the threat that had been looming in front of them, they gave the Necromancer everything wanted, everything they could give. 

Only later did Ruthers find out the truth, that Fossor’s magic on this world had been weak, thanks to the efforts of some other entity. He was–not quite cut off in the same way as the curse for stepping on Earth soil (that had been accomplished later), but his efforts to draw power here to Earth were weakened. But by convincing Gabriel and the others to give him so much power, Fossor managed to break that limitation. And, in the process, he had nearly wiped out all humanity. Killing millions of innocent people, a solid chunk of the entire population of the world at the time, and turning the slow trickle of his power on this world into the full geyser it was supposed to be, all in the same move. Which of those was his primary goal would forever be a mystery. Perhaps both. Perhaps it didn’t matter. 

What mattered was results. And the result was that because of his own naivety, Ruthers had convinced others to give Fossor everything he needed to nearly wipe out the human race and become a threat to the Earth for centuries following. Every person who had died from that disease, every person Fossor had killed since then, was because of what Ruthers had done. They were dead because he had trusted the Necromancer when everyone else had said he shouldn’t. If he had listened to them, if he just hadn’t been so stupid and naive… 

It was a mistake he would never make again. Humans. His loyalty was to humanity. After what he’d done, after what he’d helped cause, Gabriel Ruthers would never forget that. Whatever happened, he would always put humanity first. He would protect them from everything he could, no matter what. The horror and guilt he felt whenever he thought about this moment, the moment all those centuries ago when he had stood in this forest and agreed to convince his companions to trust Fossor, would never leave. After all this time, it was only stronger. 

And when he saw Joselyn, when he saw the young woman with so much charisma and power falling into that same trap, not understanding that the evil things that wanted to destroy the human race were patient enough to play nice for months and even years at a time, he wanted to scream. He wanted to grab the woman and shake her, shout in her face about what Fossor had done to him. Fossor had played him, just as those creatures were doing to her. 

His mistake had nearly resulted in the complete annihilation of the human species. Hers could be worse, if someone didn’t make her stop. She was too charismatic, too capable of convincing other people to join her. Joselyn and her daughter. The two of them together could drag humanity to destruction or complete servitude, all with the best of intentions. Because they wouldn’t listen, because they refused to understand. 

The smell of ash filled Ruthers’ nose, and he turned a bit to find the tree he had been touching had been disintegrated. Lost in his memories and thoughts as he had been as he stared at that single spot where he and Fossor had stood, his hand had subconsciously heated up to the point of burning the entire tree down to nothing. Without even thinking about it, without any conscious thought, he had destroyed a living thing that had been standing for two hundred and seventeen years. He knew that, because he had seen the tree sprout the first time. He knew every plant in this area, every rock, every creature that called it home or passed through. 

He knew this place as well as he knew his own room. Or even more, because it was far more important.  

For a moment, the man grimaced at the sight, pausing a bit before looking over to a nearby tree that was still standing. Holding out his hand, he waited until a seed from that tree flew through the air to his palm. Then he crouched as a perfectly circular hole appeared in the ground to drop the seed in. Using both hands, he pushed the dirt in on top of it, patted the ground flat, and stood. A thought made the seed begin to sprout and grow at a rapid pace, until a young but sturdy sapling stood where the previous tree had been. 

Satisfied, Ruthers stepped away from the sapling, leaving it to grow the rest of the way on its own as he moved to stand in the spot he had stood all those centuries ago. He heard his own voice, his own words agreeing to Fossor’s supposed plan. He heard the stupidity in them, the childish belief and trust. He heard everything in his own voice that he now heard whenever Joselyn or Felicity spoke. Or any of their people. 

He heard their words and he heard his own. He saw his consequences, and saw what theirs could be if someone didn’t stop them. If they were being played, if even one person in their little collection of monsters had the same intentions that Fossor had had…

He couldn’t let that happen. Fossor was dead and gone, and good riddance. Ruthers hadn’t been the one to kill him, but he truly didn’t care about that. All that mattered was that the Necromancer was dead. But if his legacy continued, if one like him managed to carry on where he had failed, because Joselyn kept the fucking door open for it…

Pivoting away from the spot with a grunt of disgust, the man began to stride away from it purposefully as a portal appeared to take him back to Crossroads. Let others celebrate. They deserved it. As for him, he had to get back to work. 

Joselyn and her people had to be stopped. They all had to be stopped. That was all there was to it. Ruthers would make absolutely certain of it. Whatever it took, whatever had to happen, he would make sure nothing like Fossor ever happened again. 

Or he would die trying. 

*******

Zeke Leven 

That Felicity Chambers chick was a pain in the ass. 

The thought, along with other similarly uncharitable ones directed toward his former classmate and her entire family, filled Zeke Leven’s mind as he repeatedly hit a punching bag that had been set up in one of the Crossroads Academy gyms. The bag was enchanted to take a lot of damage. Which was a good thing, considering the boy had gained enough power over the past year and change to pick up and hurl a decent sized Bystander car. Every punch he subjected that bag to would have turned an ordinary, mundane one into dust and shattered cloth. And he hit the thing rapidly, twenty, thirty full-force punches in the course of ten seconds. 

Sandoval was out there, along with her sister. Both of them had bought into the cuddly, friendly, oh-so-misunderstood Strangers bullshit. How? How was that possible, after everything they had seen? Scout especially should have known better. After everything she’d been through, after what their mother had–

But their mother had bought into it too. Or had she? Was the woman who had shown up really their mother, or one of those bodysnatchers that had been talked about? What kind of woman would really drag her daughters into that bullshit rebellion against humanity when they themselves were humans? It didn’t make any sense. It was bullshit. It was wrong. 

“Zeke,” a quiet voice spoke from nearby, drawing the boy’s attention. He turned, to see a familiar woman. 

“Mother,” the boy said simply, blinking a bit as her appearance threw him. “What are you doing here?” 

Sophoronia, in turn, replied, “Is it so strange for me to check on my son?” She paused, eyes flicking toward the severely punished heavy bag before they moved back to him. “How are you? I assume you’ve heard the news of Fossor’s death.”

“Heard? Yeah, I heard,” Zeke retorted, gesturing off toward the grounds. “That’s what all the screaming and partying going on out there is about. Newest excuse anyway. Not like people need much of one.” 

“Yet, you’re not celebrating with them,” his mother noted carefully, watching him.  

Zeke shrugged, folding his arms over his stomach. “We didn’t do much, did we? I mean, it was the traitors who actually killed the motherfucker.” 

“Language, Zeke,” Sophronia gently chastised before reconsidering. “On second thought, use whatever bad language you like when it comes to that creature. But please, leave that specific phrase out of things. It’s a bit too… on the nose.”

Ignoring that, the boy looked to his mother. “What are you people going to do about the traitors? They’re turning innocent people to their side now. And since they killed Fossor, I heard some people talking about how maybe they’re right. Especially since they had Strangers helping them.” 

Sophronia met her son’s gaze. “Do you know who specifically has been saying that?” 

For a few silent seconds, Zeke stared back at his mother as a handful of thoughts swirled through his head. He considered every possible answer before simply looking away with a muttered, “Just some mutters. Nobody specific. But that’s not the point. The point is people are starting to look up to them, Mother. This whole thing is going to be worse, because you guys won’t stop them and put those traitors where they belong.”

“It’s not quite that simple,” his mother quietly informed him, seeming to consider her words then before continuing. “Would you have us put everyone who has left Crossroads under this belief in prison? Including the Mason twins and others?” 

“No,” Zeke snapped quickly. “They’re just–they’ve been tricked. They’re…” He trailed off, trying to find the right words. 

“As I said,” Sophronia gently put in, “it’s complicated. And even if such a decision could be made lightly, they’re quite strong. Going to full-scale war against them could leave the Earth itself vulnerable to other threats. We have to be careful.” 

With a sigh, Zeke turned away to face the heavy bag once more. “Yeah, whatever.” 

For a moment, his mother said nothing. Then she moved closer, putting both hands on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Zeke. The work I’ve done, the things I’ve been busy with, they… I haven’t spent as much time with you as I should have.” 

“What?” He blinked, turning to look over his shoulder. “What does that have to do with anything?” 

It looked, just for a second, like his mother was going to say one thing. Then she clearly changed her mind and shook her head. “Nothing. I just… I haven’t been able to be there for you as much as I should have.” Carefully, she turned the boy around, pulling him closer into an embrace. “I just want you to make good choices. But they have to be your choices.”

Zeke, of course, had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Nor why his mother was acting so strangely. Maybe it was just the fact that Fossor, a long-time enemy, was finally dead. Maybe it made her feel nostalgic or something. 

He did know two things for a fact, however. First, the traitors were going to have a field day recruiting people after this victory that had made Crossroads look like idiots. 

And second, Felicity Chambers was definitely a pain in the ass. 

******

Sariel and Haiden 

“You know, shotgun weddings have their benefits,” Haiden Holt noted as he stood near the window of the Vegas hotel room, “but downsides too.” The man, wearing a provided bathrobe, was gazing out over the brightly lit Vegas strip far below, watching the line of cars and starry-eyed tourists. How would they react if they had the slightest idea of who the actual people who ran this city were? A trio of Strang–Alter families, vampire, Vestil, and Oni all in an uneasy truce to keep Heretics (or most of them, anyway) out. 

Come to think of it, given the mix of Bystander rumors and truth about the powers behind Vegas over the decades, maybe people wouldn’t blink too much at the truth after all. 

“Are you saying you don’t want to get married?” Sariel teased from the bathroom where she was drying off and dressing after their shower together. 

Eyeing the reflection in the window where he could barely make out the beautiful woman’s form, Haiden retorted, “Did I say anything of the sort? I just think it’s too bad that neither of us have friends we could invite. Okay, no friends that we’ve known longer than the few months we’ve known each other, anyway.” Abandoning everyone he’d ever known, as Sariel herself had on her side, had taken a lot. But the two of them had each other. And soon, once they were married, the bond between them would be a far more formal and permanent one. 

Sariel stepped out into the room, not bothering to dress as she moved up behind the man and wrapped her arms around him. “It would be nice,” she murmured, “but there’s no way it could work.” 

“You thinking about specific people you’d like to be here?” Haiden asked, as it took everything in him to focus on their conversation and not on the fact that the woman he loved was naked and clinging to him. She really was cheating. 

“Are you?” Sariel returned, before adding, “I’d like my… Apollo to be there. And a few others. My mother…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “That’s impossible for a lot more reasons. Not just because she’d probably want to kill you for being human and corrupting her daughter. But also… all that.” 

Of course, because of ‘all that.’ Haiden knew about the woman called Korsmea, how she was in some kind of Seosten mental hospital because of the curse. A curse that made her constantly forget when she was in her own personal timeline. Every time the woman woke up, or even multiple times a day, she would think she was at some different point in the several thousand years she had been alive before the curse. 

Thousands of years of memories, all being randomly relived with no way of focusing on the present. It sounded horrific, and in some ways even worse for a young child like Sariel had been to live through. 

No wonder she wanted this Apollo guy to be there. The Seosten who had been her partner, her brother of sorts, for so long. He’d tried to get Sariel to tell him more about the guy, so he could reach out to him (the man had left the Seosten after all), but she refused. She was, as far as Haiden could tell, ashamed that she hadn’t left with Apollo in the first place. Which seemed like a dumb reason not to reach out to him now, but he wasn’t going to push that. Not yet. 

“Vanessa,” he murmured, answering her earlier question in a quiet voice. “I’d like Vanessa to be here.” Which was even more impossible, given his sister had died many years earlier. She’d been killed in training back at Eden’s Garden, even before the two had graduated to full Heretics. 

With a visible wince even in the reflection, Sariel held him more tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while gently kissing his shoulder. “I wish your sister could be here too. I wish everyone we cared about could be here. I wish… a lot of things.”

Turning from the window to face her, Haiden shook his head. “It’s okay. We’ll find new people we can trust and love and open up to.” Arching an eyebrow, he pointedly looked down, then back up again. “And I can’t say I’m exactly suffering right now.” 

It was fun seeing the way he could make a woman as ancient as the original Artemis blush. A wave of pink spread over her face as she punched him in the shoulder while rolling her eyes. “I should get dressed. And you should think if there’s anyone else you wish you could invite.” Poking him in the same spot she had punched, the woman turned and started to walk away. Again, a view he didn’t exactly object to. 

Turning back to the window once she started to dress, Haiden idly remarked, “I suppose I could try to reach out to see if Lucy’s interested in showing up. I mean, after everything that guy did for me before we met, and–” 

Suddenly, Sariel was there. Her hands caught Haiden by the arm, turning him to face her. “What?” she demanded, eyes wide. “Who did you say helped you?” 

Haiden was left blinking a little, confused. “Lucy–no big deal. He was the guy, the Heretic I mentioned who helped point me to a few problems. Like the one where I found you.” 

“You never mentioned his name before,” Sariel pointed out, her grip on his shoulders still tight. 

With a confused shrug, Haiden offered, “Yeah, he had a big thing for secrecy. Has, I guess. He was huge for being anonymous, I guess I was just respecting that. He was–umm, are you okay?” He’d noticed the odd look in his fiance’s gaze. 

Sariel didn’t answer at first. She turned away, arms folding across her stomach as she stared at the floor and shivered a little. She was lost in thoughts, in memories, in doubts. 

“Hey, what–” Haiden hesitated before putting his hands on her shoulders, gently turning the woman to face him. “What’s wrong? Is this–you know this Lucy guy, don’t you? He pointed me at you for a reason.” In that moment, seeing the way the woman he loved reacted to the name, he was trying to decide if that was a good thing or if Lucy had somehow been fucking with them both. If this was a guy who hated Sariel, if they were–

“Apollo,” the woman finally spoke up, her voice cracking just a little. “It was Apollo.” She looked to him, swallowing hard. “His original name was Lucifer. They–my people made him the… yeah. Lucifer. Lucy. It was him.” 

That was a… a lot. For a moment, Haiden just stared at his fiance as he digested that. “Your brother–Apollo, the one you call Apollo, he’s Lucifer. Your people turned him into the embodiment of all evil in the Bystander Christian mythology, and he… he was the guy who sent me to you.” 

He’d known that he’d been intentionally sent to meet Sariel, of course. He’d known that there was someone who had purposefully pointed him toward her, likely with the intention of just what had happened. Except he’d never considered it being Lucy, because the man named Lucy had always presented himself as the go-between. He had simply passed along a message from the man named Nicholas. It was Nicholas, whoever he was, whom Haiden had assumed was responsible for making sure he and Sariel met. 

Except was there even an actual Nicholas to begin with? Or was that just a way for this Lucifer/Apollo to hide in plain sight? 

Focusing on Sariel, he quietly asked, “Are you okay?” She had to be reeling even more than he was, after the long and incredibly complicated relationship she’d had with the man. He knew there was more to the story, but from what he had heard, this Apollo or Lucifer had basically been the most important person in her life for… for a really long time. 

For her part, Sariel was quiet at first. She seemed to be digesting the information, her gaze moving past him to stare out the window. He saw flashes of guilt in her expression, but also wonder, relief, fear, and happiness. It was a clearly a confusing rush of emotions, before she finally looked back to him, visibly swallowing. In a very small voice, she whispered, “He sent you to me.” There were tears in her eyes, which she blinked away rapidly before repeating in an even more tender voice, “He sent you to me.” 

Before Haiden could respond, Sariel’s hands were on either side of his face, and he was pulled down. Her lips found his, in a kiss that seemed to eclipse all they had shared before that moment. 

She said nothing else after that, not for some time. Nor did he. Because nothing else needed to be said about how they each felt about each other and their relationship. 

Not with words, anyway. 

********

Guinevere and Arthur

Two teenage figures, one male and one female, stood atop a hill facing one another. In the distance, a small village could be glimpsed with smoke rising from several fireplaces. The sound of merriment for the local festival to celebrate the harvest could be heard, but neither of the teens paid attention. Their sole focus was on one another, and what they were doing. 

“So,” Guinevere began while squinting at the boy across from her, “how does this work? And if you start talking about needing some kind of kiss or something to make your power work, I shall make certain you regret it.” 

An embarrassed blush crossed the dark-haired boy’s face at her words. Which, Guinevere decided, made him look even more attractive. Not that she’d ever tell him that. 

Well, not soon, anyway. 

“I, ahh, I’m not completely sure,” Arthur confessed. “I’ve never really done this before. But Nimue says it’ll be instinct. She says dragons were always supposed to enhance the abilities of the rest of the armies they were at the head of, so I should just… um, be able to do it by thinking about it.” 

For another moment, the two just stared at each other. As it began to feel a little awkward, Guinevere offered, “Perhaps we should hold hands. As long as you don’t get any ideas.” She added the last bit primly, mostly just to see his reaction. 

And it was a fun reaction indeed. The blush that she had decided was cute spread even more, as Arthur shook his head quickly. “No, no ideas. I mean, ideas for this, but not–I mean. Here.” Quickly, he grabbed both of her hands and held them. His eyes closed briefly, but then drifted open as he stared at her. 

At first, Guinevere met his gaze only for the purpose of teasing him about staring at her. But the words faltered in her throat as their gazes locked. She stared into Arthur’s eyes, feeling her own heartbeat, hearing her breath gradually slow along with his. The two gazed at one another, as a feeling of warmth built through her. It began in her hands, clasped within his, spreading through her arms and into her core. That feeling of warmth, of acceptance, of… of power built in her. She lost herself in his gaze, tumbling endlessly and yet felt perfectly safe. 

With a sudden gasp, both Arthur and Guinevere stumbled away from one another, releasing their hands as they almost fell. 

Catching herself, Guinevere blurted, “Gods! You–that was–you just…” The feeling, it was so strong. She felt–she felt so… amazing. Turning, the girl looked toward the village and focused. The moment she did, a gasp escaped her once more. “It worked!” 

“It did?” Arthur blinked, stepping that way. “How can you–” 

“I can see a long way,” she informed him, not looking away from the village. “The griffin I was bonded to, it let me see things from a far distance. But now I can see even further. I couldn’t see the sign by the pub before. Now I can. I can count the number of coins on the bar through the window.”

That said, the girl turned away from the village, drawing a knife from its sheath at her leg. Holding the weapon up, she eyed it. At a thought, the blade bent all the way to the left, then to the right, while her smile grew. “It’s easier to control metal too. It responds faster. This is–Arthur, you made me stronger!” 

Quickly, the boy pointed out, “Nimue says that boost was growing since I was bonded. It’ll take longer to do more boosts like that. Or they’ll be smaller. And more spread out.” 

“I don’t care,” Guinevere informed him, “this is amazing.” 

After a momentary hesitation, Arthur asked, “You can fly too, right? Do… do you think you’re faster now?” 

The question made a sly smile cross the girl’s face. “Do I think I’m faster? Faster than I was, or faster than you?” She watched his reaction, giggling despite herself before reaching out to poke his nose with her finger. “I guess there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” 

With that, and with no further warning, the girl abruptly erupted from the ground. In an instant, she was a distant speck far off in the sky. 

Gazing after her, Arthur gave a slow smile of his own as he watched the figure doing loops through the air as though taunting him to catch up. 

And then he was gone too, launching himself into the sky to give chase. 

********

Joselyn and Abigail

Long after the main party celebrating the defeat of Fossor had died down, people still spoke in small, isolated groups or pairs. One of those pairs, standing on the porch behind the cabin where others of the family were resting, was Joselyn and Abigail. Mother and daughter, separated for so many decades to the point that they were entirely strangers, stood side-by-side, looking out at the forest as they bonded over the single shared experience they had: motherhood. 

“Once,” Abigail was saying, “when Koren was around eleven, she decided she really wanted a dog. I told her only if she was responsible for it, so she said she’d start feeding and walking some neighbor’s dogs to prove it. Good so far, right? Well, little did I know, my little angel wasn’t about to wait for as long as proving herself would take.

“Turns out, she had already been given a dog by one of her friends. Long story there. But she kept him out in the shed in the backyard. We thought one of the neighbor dogs was just barking a lot. She kept him out there, and when she fed the neighborhood dogs, she just kept a little bit from each in a baggy and brought it all home to put in a pan for her dog. She took him for a walk the same way she took the other dogs for walks, just pretending it was one of the neighbor’s. She played with the dog, walked the dog, fed the dog, all right in front of us while we thought it was yet another neighborhood dog she was taking care of. That kid must’ve fed, walked, and played with ten different dogs over those few weeks just to hide the fact that she already had her own dog she was taking care of.” 

With a smile, Joselyn asked her own grown daughter, “Did you let her keep him?” 

“Well at that point, what else could we do?” Abigail snorted. “I told her to prove she could take care of one, and she took care of him and nine others.” She exhaled, looking away. “We had Thumper for about three years after that, until he went missing. Koren was heartbroken. I…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “She really loved that dog.” 

For a minute or so, both women were quiet. Then Joselyn spoke up. “Felicity was in kindergarten. She was doing really well, but then she started getting in trouble. Not bad trouble, just enough to get in timeout. She refused to share, took someone else’s crayons, talked back to the teacher, little things that made them put her in the corner. All week long, every day, she did just enough to get put in timeout. The teachers couldn’t understand why, and we couldn’t either. Until I figured it out.” 

“What was she doing?” Abigail asked, curious about what her much-younger sister had been up to. 

With a chuckle, Joselyn explained, “See, I was working at the high school that week, helping with the career day events and a few other things. I thought Felicity was jealous or something, upset that I was at the high school and wasn’t visiting her school, because they were right next to each other. But when I went to visit her teacher to have a talk, I realized something. The timeout chair in the corner, it was right by a small window. And through that window, she could see the parking lot in the high school where I’d been working all week.” 

Abigial gave a double-take, staring at her. “Oh my God. You mean she was intentionally getting in trouble so they’d put her in time-out, just so she could watch you from across the parking lots?” 

A fond, tender smile touched Joselyn’s face as she nodded. “That’s right. She just wanted those few extra minutes every day to watch me, even if it meant getting in trouble to do it.” 

“Being a mom, it’s worth it,” Abigail quietly announced without taking her eyes off her own mother.

Joselyn, in turn, met her gaze while slowly lifting a hand to touch the other woman’s face. “Yes,” she agreed. 

“It absolutely is.” 

******

The Olympus

With a snap of his heels and a quick salute, the incredibly young Seosten (he couldn’t have been older than sixty or so) military guard jumped to abrupt attention at the unexpected appearance of a surprising guest. “Trierarch!” he blurted aloud, voice betraying his surprise, “Apologies, sir, if you were expected I wasn’t informed.” Belatedly after saying that, he seemed to want to correct himself to avoid potentially throwing any of his close superiors under the bus.

Puriel, however, shook his head. “Ease, peditatus. It’s okay. I know it’s early, but I ahh, just thought I’d come take a look at the old girl while the place was closed.” Meeting the other man’s gaze, he added with a very small smile, “I’d rather avoid crowds and fuss.” 

“O-of course, sir.” Quickly, the young Seosten turned toward the heavy metal door he had been half-dozing in front of before this unexpected arrival. Taking the field-engraver from its slot on his belt, he carefully touched all four points of the alarm spell, disengaging it and unlocking the door. It hissed open a moment later, as he gestured. “Right this way, Trierarch.” 

With that, he started forward through the airlock, leaving Puriel to follow. The two of them entered a long, clear tube. The Seosten homeworld of Elohim lay far below. They weren’t quite in space, being ‘only’ around thirty thousand feet up. This was the navy museum, where dozens of old, decommissioned military vessels were kept. The facility itself consisted of a maze of these clear corridors connected to various box-like structures where classes and presentations about ships (both those kept here and others that had been used throughout the long conflict with the Fomorians) were held. The ships that were actually kept here at the museum were attached to the open spaces between the main structures, able to be viewed from all sides through the maze of clear tube corridors. The entire facility was kept aloft through powerful engines at all four corners that allowed it to remain in the same relative position above the Seosten capital city.

Stepping out into that particular tube, Puriel took a look at the ship that had been his home for so long, his pride and joy, his… his true achievement. The ship that had truly meant more than he ever could have understood until long after he’d lost it. 

The Olympus. The ship itself consisted, at its base, of an orb five hundred meters in diameter. The main science and living facilities of the ship were kept there, along with the primary bridge directly in the center. Attached to that primary orb were three long gunships that were about a third of the width of the core and vaguely curved in order to attach/overlap it. The gunships were each attached equidistant around the orb, extending twenty meters behind the orb and a hundred meters in front of it, with two on what was considered the ‘bottom’ and one on the ‘top.’ It essentially looked like a long, thick metal pipe with three large cracks between where gunships were between the two and three o’clock positions, the six o’clock position, and the nine to ten o’clock positions, all surrounding a large ball trapped inside said pipe.

Not that the gunships had to stay connected. At any point, one or all of the three cylinder pieces could detach from the main orb and operate separately to provide fire support. The Olympus was essentially four vessels in one, a science orb protected by three powerful gunships. 

For a few long seconds, Puriel said nothing. He simply stood, staring silently at the sight in front of him. A myriad of thoughts, emotional, very complicated thoughts, ran through him. The memories that came when he saw that ship were… almost more than he could bear. He could feel himself start to slip away, start to lose himself the way he had done for so long after that broken banishment orb had all-but destroyed his mind. 

Spark pulled him back. He felt her presence, felt her gently catch his drifting thoughts and point him back to what he was doing, before he could entirely lose himself. 

“Sir?” It was the Seosten who had unlocked the door to let him in here so he could see the old ship. “Are you okay? Should I get someone to–” 

“No,” Puriel interrupted. “No, it’s alright. Thank you, peditatus, I–what’s your name?” 

“Eilerien, sir,” came the response. 

“Eilerien,” Puriel repeated. “Good. Would you mind giving me a few minutes here? I need to… I’d like to reminisce without feeling self-conscious.” 

The other man gave a hurried nod, clearly glad for the excuse to avoid the embarrassment of standing around while an old, retired captain stared at his ship. “Yes, Trierarch, of course. I’ll be right outside if you need anything.” He quickly moved back through the doors, shutting them behind himself to provide some privacy. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel spoke quietly, “It’s safe. We’re alone and no one’s watching.” 

Instantly, Spark appeared beside him, manifesting herself in a visible form by harnessing his own energy powers to bend the light into what amounted to a hologram. As always, she presented herself as having long hair pulled in a braid, half of it dark to match his hair and half blonde to match her mother’s. 

“It’s bigger than you imagine it,” she pointed out. 

“It feels smaller when I think about how many people we had,” he informed her. “It was home. A dysfunctional, often dangerous home, but still home. Seeing it empty… that’s what makes it seem bigger now.” 

For a few long seconds, neither of them said anything else. Spark simply stared through the clear corridor, watching the ship where her mother had served for so long. Finally, she spoke quietly, “Can you really do it?” 

Puriel didn’t answer at first. He simply stared at the ship, considering before giving a short nod. “Yes. I just need some time.” 

With that, his eyes closed, as the man reached out with his own Tartarus-granted power. The ability to control and manipulate vast amounts of energy to almost limitless ends, including magical energy. He could, in effect, create almost any spell effect he knew of simply by willing ambient magical energy to shape itself properly. Even if he didn’t know how to cast the actual spell itself, he could force the energy to follow his will. 

The ‘some time’ he had asked for turned out to be nearly an hour. A few times, he felt the guard outside the room take a glance in to make sure everything was still fine. But the man, of course, never saw anything untoward. As far as he was concerned, Puriel was simply standing there, one hand on the clear tube, as he stared at the ship and lost himself in memories. 

It would’ve been easy to actually lose himself that way, to be fair. But Spark helped keep him on-task and focused. For that hour, he worked his own power over the ship in the distance, pulling energy from the air and shaping it into the spells he needed. 

Finally, it was done. The Olympus, with a suddenness that was almost jarring despite the fact he was ready for it, vanished as though it had never been there. 

Almost immediately, alarms began to blare. The door slammed open, and Eilerien burst through, eyes wide. “Trierarch?! What happened, what–” 

He was stopped in mid-sentence, as Puriel produced a small, clear-colored orb and touched it to the man’s forehead. The memory modification spell he’d previously attached to it had already set to work, shaping itself to follow his words. But it would do more than that. The orb wouldn’t simply rewrite the man’s memory, it would also alter the holographic recordings to match. 

“I was never here. You were attacked by a band of pirates who infiltrated the facility. You managed to kill three of them at great risk to your own life, but they proved too much. Their intended target was the military vessel Aeternum, but your valiant efforts forced them to retreat to take the Olympus instead, as a secondary target. You’re proud of yourself for standing your ground and driving them away from their main target. Now, sleep.” 

With that, the guard collapsed to the ground. Stepping away from him, Puriel waved a hand to summon a portal. As it appeared, he spoke to Spark, whose holographic form stood nearby. “It’s time. 

“Let’s go take a closer look at the ship that’s going to take us to Earth.”

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Patreon Snippets 17 (Heretical Edge)

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And here is the next edition of Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge! Thanks to all $10+ donators for choosing/adding words to what they wanted to see.

Ruthers and Antaeus

Loud country music played through the smoke-filled bar, its crooning singer and strumming guitar leaving many of its occupants idly tapping their feet or bobbing their heads as they sipped at cold drinks. Behind the bar itself, the tender pointed the remote at the television in the corner, changing the channel from news to a football game that had been requested. Two men in front of the nearby jukebox were debating which song to put in next, while their dates watched them from a table with a mixture of amusement and exasperation at the fact that they couldn’t agree.

And in the back of the room, sitting alone at a table with a half-empty beer bottle and a small bowl of peanuts in front of him, was an enormous figure. At his full height, the man would stand seven feet tall. He appeared old enough that his long, formerly jet-black hair and thick mustache were streaked through with bits of white and gray. His dark eyes regarded the bottle in front of him for a moment before he pursed his lips and blew a small stream of ice-cold breath, restoring the chill to the beer. 

“You ruin it that way, Antaeus.” The voice came from directly beside the table, where no one had been a moment earlier. Now, Gabriel Ruthers stood there. In many situations, Ruthers himself would have been an imposing figure. Yet, even standing while the other man was sitting, he still appeared much smaller in this particular case. Both men were tall for humans, but the man with the beer was in an entirely different league.  

Antaeus, far from showing any surprise at all when the other man appeared beside the table, simply took a long and slow pull from his newly icy beer. “Ruin it, Gabriel? Have a seat.” 

Instead of doing so, Ruthers simply stood where he was while replying, “Good beer’s not supposed to be practically frozen. You’ve got English ale. It should be a bit cool, not ice cold.”   

“Heh.” Antaeus chuckled humorlessly once before shaking his head. “I like it the way I like it. Helps me forget the desert. What do you want? Thought I made it clear I was busy.” 

“I told you I wanted to talk about what happened,” Ruthers reminded him. As a waitress stopped by to ask if he wanted anything, he gave a shake of his head and sent the woman on her way before turning his attention back to the table. 

“And like I said,” came the flat response as soon as the waitress was gone, “I’m busy. Not in the mood to repeat myself.” Taking another long pull from his drink, Antaeus added, “Don’t think you can order me around either, Gabriel. Last I checked, you and me are peers now.” Finally, he turned a bit, looking over to the other man. “After all, we’re both members of the Committee and all that.” A very slight smile appeared, showing hints of his teeth. “Equal footing.” 

For a brief moment, Gabriel returned the smile. “Equal footing,” he echoed easily before adding in a pointed, deceptively calm-sounding voice, “If you don’t get up and walk out with me now, I’m going to hit you hard enough to make even someone as thick as you feel it.”  

The threat made the other man’s eyes narrow. “Don’t threaten me, Gabriel,” he half-snarled. “We may have to play nice in front of the others thanks to the rules. But if you start something, I’ll finish it and say we were sparring. And I’ve changed my mind. You’re not invited to sit with me. Get out.” 

Two things happened then. First, the air around the pair wavered until they were in a forest rather than a bar. And, just as Antaeus realized there was no longer a seat under him, Ruthers’ fist slammed into his face with enough force to send a violent shockwave through the forest itself, literally knocking over several nearby trees while the loud boom echoed like a gunshot. 

Antaeus hit the ground for a brief instant before he was abruptly and immediately back on his feet. Standing, he towered over the other man, staring intently down at him. “You always start your fights with cheap shots?” 

“Is it a cheap shot when I told you exactly what was going to happen?” Ruthers countered, not the least bit deterred. “We need to talk about what you did with Maria and Arthur Chambers.” 

“Them?” Antaeus gave a disbelieving look before shaking his head. He touched his readied fist against the front of his face where the other man’s blow had landed. There was no visible sign of any damage at all. Only his pride was stung. “I reported what happened. What more do you want? And talk fast, cuz in a second, I’m gonna show you why you shouldn’t start something you can’t finish.” 

“Gentlemen.” The voice came from the side, as Litonya, the elderly Native American Committee member, leaned a bit on a cane while watching them. “Is there some sort of problem here?” 

Antaeus jerked his head that way. “This guy wants to know about Grandma and Grandpa Chambers. Why don’t you tell him. It was your idea for me to go find them.”

“Your idea?” Ruthers turned his attention to Litonya. “I thought I made it clear that Felicity’s grandparents were to be left alone. They’re human, they have nothing to do with any of this.” 

For her part, the old woman regarded him passively for a few seconds before pointing out in the tone of a scolding schoolteacher from the days of switches and paddles, “People who have nothing to do with ‘this’, as you put it, would not have had Heracles himself protecting them. And even absent that evidence, they were involved through virtue of their son and granddaughter. Bringing them in was the correct move. The only fault was in its failure.” That last bit was added with a sharp look toward Antaeus himself. 

“Hey,” the old wrestler snapped, “I told you what happened. I would’ve handled Alcaeus, but that magic kicked in and took all of them away. I was ready to deal with him, not that. You didn’t say anything about that kind of power.” 

“Indeed,” Litonya agreed. “That is what we should be discussing.” She squinted toward Ruthers. “Steps were taken to ensure that prepared spells could not be used to remove the elderly Chambers. Those protections were entirely useless against the magic that teleported them. I shouldn’t need to remind you of how difficult that should have been. Whoever prepared the spell that took them away was powerful enough to entirely dismiss the strength of three Committee-level casters.” 

Three. Ruthers squinted. Antaeus and Litonya were two. That meant one other member of their group had been in on this attempt to abduct Maria and Arthur Chambers. “We have absolutely no indication that Alcaeus had any connection to the current rebellion. Whatever the reason for his presence, it doesn’t change the fact that neither of the Chambers should have been approached, let alone threatened. They are ordinary humans, Bystanders. They were to be left alone.” He repeated the last point firmly, eyes narrowing. “You know if you had brought this plan up with the others, you would have been outvoted. That’s why you went behind our backs.” 

“Yes,” Litonya agreed without reservation. “In some respects, you can be as weak and foolish as the rebellion sympathizers, Gabriel. You refuse to focus on what must be done to maintain or restore order. Like it or not, Felicity’s grandparents are involved in this war. As I said, removing them from play was the right move to make. If we held them right now, we could have used that to force their granddaughter to make a choice to either surrender them or face the consequences of refusal.” 

“Consequences of refusal?” Ruthers echoed in disbelief tinted with anger. He took a few steps that way. “If you’re actually implying–” 

“I imply only what would be for the betterment of this world as a whole,” came the sharp retort. Litonya met his gaze, unmoved by his obvious anger. “I would think you, of all people, would understand that. It would not be the first time you allowed innocents to be threatened in order to prevent further conflict and bloodshed.” 

You intended to have the children killed,” Ruthers reminded her in a sharp voice whose tone showed that he had not forgotten just how far she had been willing to go. “You thought having Joselyn’s children murdered would break her spirit.” 

“And you had them taken instead,” Litonya retorted. “You could have returned them, but you kept them. You kept them and used their lives to force Joselyn into compliance. Then, you understood that the ends justify the means. Why are you so squeamish about that fact now? This is no different from that.” 

For a moment, Ruthers was silent. A mixture of emotions played very faintly over his face. Subtle as they were, the fact that they could be seen at all spoke volumes as to what he was feeling. It was quite brief, yet telling. 

“You’re wrong,” the man finally replied in a quiet voice. “It is different.” Letting that hang in the air briefly, he added gravely, “What I did was worse.” That said, Ruthers straightened, his eyes glancing between his two fellow Committee members. “I used two innocent children as hostages to force their mother’s cooperation. Whatever my intentions, regardless of the fact that I never intended them to actually be hurt, it wasn’t right.” The admission, both to himself and aloud, was so soft it was almost inaudible. “I thought saving them from your assassin was enough and that keeping them to ensure Joselyn’s compliance was justified in the name of ending the war. I was wrong.”  

“Wrong?” Litonya stared at him in clear disbelief, her heavily-lined face showing her incredulousness. “You removed Joselyn from the rebellion. Do you have any idea how much more damage she could have done to this world and our society if she had remained free through all that time? Holding two infant children for a time, when they were never in any actual danger? How could that be wrong when measured against the lives that were saved?”

Ruthers knew what she was really saying. Litonya had murdered her own brother, a man she had loved through their incredibly long lives, after he expressed a belief in Joselyn’s mission. She would never accept that anything was wrong when it came to stopping the rebellion. If she could kill her own flesh and blood, the brother who had been a part of her life for over fifteen hundred years, she would never believe that any measures taken to stop the rebellion were too far. 

And yet, he still gave a short nod. “I took Joselyn off the board. I could have given her children back, and didn’t, just to make her surrender. You’re right. And yes, it worked. But to what end? The rebellion continued even without her. And now, her new daughter has brought it back. We have done nothing to address the root of the problem, only swept it away for a time.” 

“Which,” Litonya retorted, “is precisely why you should have allowed my assassin to do his job. If Joselyn’s children were eliminated, she never would have allowed herself to live long enough to make any of this a concern. Her emotions would have driven her to a suicidal attack, and we could have worked together to remove her entirely and permanently.” 

For a few long seconds, Ruthers was silent. He stared at the woman, barely paying attention to Antaeus, who stood in the background glaring at him. Finally, he found his voice. “Arthur and Maria Chambers are not to be harmed. Whatever happened, they are not to be put in danger. They will not be used as hostages. Period. When we find them, they are to be returned safely to their home and then… whatever they choose to do is up to them. That is something I will put to the rest of the Committee. And I promise you, it will not go your way.” 

Litonya and Ruthers stared one another down for several long, very tense seconds. Finally, the old woman exhaled. “It shall be as you say, and the consequences will be on your head. But perhaps, if you are finished with such posturing, you would like to know more about the magic that took them away to begin with.”

“What is there to know?” Ruthers countered. “You just underestimated the amount of power that the Rebellion put into their protection spells. Does it surprise you that they would take those kinds of measures after what we did to Joselyn’s children?” 

“Perhaps not,” came the simple, knowing response. “But that is not the intriguing part. You see, from the traces we’ve performed, the spell that took them away did not deliver the Chambers and their bodyguard anywhere on Earth. 

“It took them somewhere very… very far away.” 

********

Arthur Chambers

“More security at the border?” As he voiced that question, Arthur Chambers glanced toward the gray-bearded man who stood beside him on the balcony overlooking the small island. It was the same island, on the same world, where he, his wife, and their long-time friend Al (recently revealed to be Alcaeus/Heracles) had been magically transported after being attacked in Alaska.

“Yes.” Puriel murmured. His blue eyes remained centered off in the distance. Out on the grass, the two men could see Maria with the assortment of Seosten children. She had them all sitting on the grass around the large easel-like hologram projector that had been set up. It functioned a lot like a chalk/whiteboard in schools, projecting a flat glowing surface that could be written on using a special metal pencil-like tool. 

At the moment, Maria was teaching the children some basic science (at least as much as she could), but she also taught other things. Particularly with help from Aletheia for math, and from the old Native American Heretic Kutattca for History and English. They had an actual room for lessons, but Maria preferred to teach the children outside in the fresh air as much as possible after they had been kept imprisoned in that sterile lab for so much of their lives. 

Puriel’s attention was centered on the small girl with the black and blonde hair. Spark. From what Arthur understood, she was one of the Seosten whose possession power malfunctioned. Puriel had forced her to possess him in order to save the girl from his wife, and now she only manifested in this ghost-like form using the man’s own energy manipulation powers. Here at Puriel’s home, far away from any prying eyes, it was safe for her to manifest anywhere on the island. Yet, it still seemed hard for the man to let her out of his sight for long, despite the fact that she was technically always connected to him. They were safe on this island, and would have plenty of advance warning if anyone dangerous approached. Logically, there was no reason to worry. 

But logic often didn’t factor into things when you were worried about someone you saw as your child. That much Arthur understood, even if a lot of this was still incredibly alien… literally, to him.

“There was an incident,” Puriel continued after that moment of silence. His voice held a slight hint of curiosity. It was clear he hadn’t been told as much as he would have preferred. “Some sort of pirate ship raided one of the border stations that prevent transport to Earth. They managed to do enough damage to make a temporary hole and pass through.” 

Arthur opened his mouth, only to stop and consider the entire situation. He was discussing an alien spaceship raiding some sort of magic starbase with an alien who was actually Zeus. Zeus. The mythological god. Would Arthur ever stop being awed by that? How did his son and granddaughter even function if they regularly interacted with people and… and situations like this? How did they avoid being completely overwhelmed to the point of being gibbering wrecks? It seemed as though every time he started to talk, the sheer scale and enormity of all this left him incapable of even thinking straight, let alone contributing in any meaningful way. 

Finally, he managed to sort himself out enough to speak. “Seems like that’s not an easy thing to do.” 

“No, it’s not.” The response came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The slender, dark-skinned woman came through the doorway behind them. “It should have been impossible for a single pirate ship to accomplish something like that. At least not as quickly as they did. They were through and gone before reinforcements could arrive. For a group that small and relatively weak to do such a thing…” 

“They had assistance,” Puriel murmured. “Either a mole within the station itself who could prevent or slow down certain security measures, or someone far stronger than the rest of the pirates on the ship with them. Someone who was using the pirates as transport.” Pausing, he allowed, “Perhaps both.” 

“Whatever happened,” Aletheia replied after stepping over to stand on the opposite side of Arthur, “security has been drastically raised. They won’t allow anyone through now. It won’t be possible to get to Rysthael–Earth, until things calm down there. Not even for someone like you,” she added with a look toward Puriel. “They have Raduriel working on some new protective measure.” 

“He had ideas about that for some time,” Puriel noted. “But the Seraphim wouldn’t provide the resources he wanted for it. They said the border was secure enough without such an expenditure.” 

“They changed their minds,” Aletheia murmured quietly, eyes on the children and Maria in the distance. “Now they’re giving him everything he wants. Apparently part of his argument was that if his creation works, it could be used in other places to guard against Fomorian intrusion as well.” 

Reminding himself that these two beings had been alive for literally longer than recorded human history, Arthur felt like a very small child as he spoke up. “This ahhh… Radueriel, you said he’s the inventor, the uhhh… Hephaestus.” 

“That is how your people know him, yes,” Puriel confirmed before looking that way. “He is also very dangerous. He and his husband, Abaddon. The one you know as Ares.” 

“Right, you mentioned…” Trailing off thoughtfully, Arthur exhaled. “Which means he’s really good at his job. Between that and the fact that there’s a lot of attention on the border… we’re not going back home anytime soon.” 

“I told you that I would find a way to get you there,” Puriel reminded him. “Just as I promised Spark that I would get her to her mother. That has not changed. Somehow, I will keep my word.”

“Kutattca has thoughts on that subject,” Aletheia informed them. “He believes his sister could be the key.” 

“His sister?” Arthur echoed. “You mean the same one who tried to kill him and is currently part of the group that wants to turn my daughter-in-law, son, and granddaughter into a bunch of red paste? That one?”

Aletheia gave a single nod of confirmation. “Indeed, one and the same. Kutattca believes there may be a way of using both their close blood relation and the fact that she is a powerful Heretic to create a link that can be used similarly to the way Puriel brought you here to begin with.” 

Arthur glanced between them. “You couldn’t do the same thing to send us back because you already had the spell created on Earth, so the link between Al and you was established while you were there, and sort of… pulled through the border with you when you left. Like a string that just kept stretching, right?” 

“Yes.” Puriel glanced to Aletheia, then back to Arthur. “I believe what Kutattca is suggesting is that we create a bond with him, and somehow transfer it to his blood relation through the connection both have to the Reaper that gives Bosch Heretics their power. He and his sister are both connected to this Heretical Edge, and if we could use that link…” Trailing off, the man nodded. “This will require some thought. And a lot of work.” 

“Well, whatever Maria and I can do to help,” Arthur offered. “Which isn’t much, I know. But–” 

“You may be able to do more than you think,” Puriel pointed out quietly. 

“Oh?” Arthur blinked that way. 

“Yes,” came the slow reply. 

“I have a few thoughts.” 

*********

Tabbris, December, Theia, and Doug, sometime during Flick’s disappearance but before Tabbris’s wings were revealed. 

“You guys really didn’t have to come with me, you know,” Doug Frey informed his three Seosten companions as the group walked through an enormous room filled with dozens of large marble-like monuments. Each was roughly eight feet in height and twelve feet wide, with thousands of different names inscribed upon all four sides. “I’m just saying hi.” 

Tabbris, Theia, and December exchanged glances. As usual, it was the latter who spoke first. “Ohit’sokay… Wedidn’thavealot… todootherthanhelpTabbris… worryaboutFlick… andshedoesn’tneedhelpwiththat.” 

Flushing visibly, Tabbris folded her arms against her stomach while changing the subject. “You remember where Paul and Rudolph’s names are?” 

Doug nodded, starting toward the monument in question. “Yeah, it’s this one over here.” Finding the name of his murdered teammates, he reached out to gently run a finger along both engraved names, side by side. “They umm, they asked us which one we thought they’d want their names to be on. We… we thought they’d like to be next to each other. Paul and Rudolph… damn it, this sucks.”

“Would you prefer a larger monument? Or a private one?” Theia put in curiously. “Did they spell the names wrong? They spelled the names wrong, didn’t they?” 

“What?” Doug blinked that way before shaking his head. “No, I just… I just meant that them being dead sucks. It just…” Trailing off, he stared at Doug and Rudolph’s names before quietly asking, “Do you guys–sorry, I mean the Seosten. Do the Seosten believe in any kind of paradise after death or… or reincarnation or anything?” 

December was, once more, the one who spoke first. “There’sthecusp…butwedon’tgettogothere.” 

“What?” Tabbris blinked at her friend. “I… I’ve heard a little about the Cusp. It’s sort of like an afterlife, isn’t it?” 

“Cusp, Rim, Edge, it has a lot of names,” Theia put in a bit absently, her own attention mostly on staring at the memorial in front of them. Realizing belatedly that the others were watching and waiting for her to continue, she straightened, offering an awkward smile before she continued. “Seosten think beings split into three parts when they die. Magic, life, and self.”

“Magic is like ghosts, right?” Doug noted. “That whole thing where ghosts are a person’s magic shaped and sort of… formed into an echo of them.” 

Theia’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! That’s one. The life part is someone’s… life. Their health, their living energy. That part goes back into the universe and gets…” Her face screwed up a bit thoughtfully. “… recycled? It’s recycled, like cans and paper and bottles. The life force is recycled back into the universe and used to make more living things.” 

Doug thought about that briefly. “So Seosten believe that the energy of a living being is split in three parts when they die. The magical energy goes to make ghosts… sometimes, and the life energy gets put back into the universe as fuel for future lives. But what’s the third part?” 

“Self,” Theia reminded him. “Self is the part that goes to the Cusp. Or Rim, or Edge, or whatever you want to call it. The Cusp is where a person’s mind or personality goes. They stay in the Cusp, watching over everyone they want to, in any world. They can’t affect anything, but they can watch.” Pausing at that for a moment, she quietly added, “Does that sound creepy?” 

“A little,” Doug acknowledged, “but it’s not really different from other ideas of an afterlife, I suppose. Lots of people think the dead stay in some form of heaven or whatever forever.” 

“Oh, not forever.” Theia corrected him. “That’s why it’s called the Cusp. You only stay there for awhile, before your Self falls into the Void and disappears forever. You stop existing then.” 

“Youcanstayforalongtime,” December quickly put in. “Centuriesandcenturiesormore. Aslongaspeoplerememberyou.” 

Theia’s head bobbed in agreement with the younger girl. “Yup. You stay in the Cusp and keep watching over everyone you want to as long as enough people remember you, as long as they know about you. The more people remember you and the more they know about you, the longer you can stay in the Cusp without falling into the Void.” 

Doug took that in, murmuring, “Which… I guess that means a lot of your people want the Olympians, like Sariel and Apollo, to remember them. I mean, they’re supposed to be immortal, right? As long as they don’t get killed. They won’t die naturally. So as long as they remember someone, and with the perfect memory your people have, they will, anyone they know who died will stay in the Cusp.” 

“Yes,” Theia confirmed. “And even the Olympians who are killed will be in the Cusp forever, because no one will ever forget them. At least not for a longer time than the Seosten have existed so far.” 

“Seepeoplearegonnaknowyouforalongtime,” December informed Tabbris. “Evenifyoudieyou’llstayintheCusp. I’lltrytowaveonthewaytotheVoid.” 

“We’re not gonna die,” Tabbris curtly retorted. “Not for a long time anyway. And not–if we do, we’ll hang out in the Cusp together. We’ll watch people.”

December, however, shook her head. “That’snothowitworks. Liesdon’tgettostayintheCusp.” 

“Hey, don’t call yourself that,” Tabbris quickly blurted. “And what do you mean, you don’t get to stay in the Cusp?” 

It was Theia who answered. “That is why Lies don’t have names. Our people do not want Lies to be a part of the Cusp, where they could infect generations-to-come. We are not given names, so that, at death, we will fall directly into the Void.” 

For a long moment after that, Tabbris and Doug both stared at Theia and December. Doug was the one who finally found his voice. “Just when I think I can’t possibly loathe your people any worse for how they treat those like you, we break through into whole new levels of hatred. They deliberately–they don’t give you names because they want your soul to disappear for eternity as fast as possible so you don’t infect their descendents?! That–you–that–” His face twisted as the boy tried and failed to put words to his fury and disgust. Finally, he blinked toward Theia. “Wait, you–when Principal Fellows gave you a name, she was… she was actually giving you… she was… oh. Oh damn.” 

“You need a name!” Tabbris blurted, suddenly throwing herself at December to hug the girl tightly. “You need a real name, a name that’s just you, not a title! Everyone’s gonna remember you forever and ever!” 

“ButIamDecember,” the other girl pointed out in a voice tinted by confusion, not only at Tabbris’s words, but still at least partially at the fact that the girl actually willingly touched her. “I’mpartoftheCalendar. Youcan’ttakemeawayfromthat. TheCalendararemyfriends. Ican’tabandonthem. WearetheCalendar.” 

“You won’t abandon them,” Tabbris solemnly promised, still not releasing her tight grip. “We’re gonna name all of you. Real names that are just for you! You’re not gonna fall into the Void.

“Even if we have to find every Seosten we can and stamp your names directly onto their skulls so they don’t have any choice but to remember you.” 

********

Sophronia and Gaia

“Did it help?” Sophronia Leven spoke aloud while standing in front of the tube that held Gaia frozen in stasis. Her hand was pressed against the metal plate allowing the link to the woman. “Do you think he listened?” 

He, in this case, was Liam Mason. The man had just left after his own discussion with the former Crossroads Headmistress, before Sophronia herself entered to have this conversation. 

Somehow, despite only being able to communicate mentally, Gaia managed to convey a heavy sigh. I do not know. Liam is very stubborn, and lost in a way that may be unreachable. The choices he has made… if he is ever to change, it will only be by his own decision. 

“It would mean accepting a lot of mistakes,” Sophronia quietly noted, her gaze meeting Gaia’s frozen, motionless eyes. “More than most people could. Given what he’s already allowed those mistakes to cost him, repeatedly…”

It is not impossible for him to change, Gaia insisted. Speaking as someone who made more than my share of ‘mistakes’, often born from my own stubbornness and emotions. Heretics live a very long time. He can become a new person, if he wishes to. 

“If he wishes to,” Sophronia agreed pointedly. Then she changed the subject. “Ruthers, Litonya, and Antaeus had a confrontation over the disappearance of the elderly Chambers. You were right, Ruthers didn’t order it. And he was pretty unhappy.” 

Gabriel believes in leaving humans out of any such conflict, Gaia noted. He would never have agreed to send Antaeus, or anyone else, to abduct Felicity’s grandparents. This is something else. 

After a brief, pointed pause, Sophronia carefully asked, “And you’re absolutely certain it wasn’t you? Something you set up and wouldn’t want anyone to know about, no matter how much you trusted them, because of compartmentalization?” 

Gaia managed a mental chuckle. I assure you, this was not me. I do not believe it was the Atherbys either. 

“I know it wasn’t them,” the other woman confirmed. “I have… friends who keep me informed about certain things on that side. They don’t have any idea who took the Chambers or where they are. Do… do you think it was Fossor? He might have taken the grandparents to use in some kind of spell related to bringing Felicity back from the future and enforcing obedience.”

There was a brief pause as Gaia considered that. No, she finally answered. I don’t believe Fossor is connected to this. It’s too convenient that they disappeared with Alcaeus right when they were in danger. You said they appeared to be transported offworld?” 

Sophornia gave a short, pointless nod. “Yes. We can’t trace the spell all the way to the source, only that it’s very far away. Too far to track. It–wait. You think it was those Seosten. But why would the Seosten take Felicity’s grandparents?” 

I’m not certain, came the response. But I wonder if we are not coming at this from the wrong angle. We have been assuming that whoever was responsible abducted the Chambers and accidentally took Alcaeus as well. What if it was the other way around? 

“You mean the Seosten took old Heracles and Felicity’s grandparents were just caught in it by accident?” Sophronia considered that. “But why? Why would they go through the effort of using the kind of power it would take to transport him and two others, the latter by accident, all the way across the universe?” 

Again, Gaia was silent (even mentally) for a few long moments. I do not know, she finally admitted. There is a very large piece of this puzzle that is missing. It would be nice to have some answers before Felicity returns. 

“You think she’ll make it back to this time then?” 

I know she will. Felicity Chambers will find her way back to this time. When she does, I believe it will spark the final, direct conflict between her and Fossor. 

A conflict only one of them will walk away from. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Two Weeks Later

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patreon Snippets 14 (Heretical Edge)

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Every month, anyone who donates 10 dollars or more receives 500 words they can devote to a snippet of their choice, either one of their own or adding onto someone else’s. Here is the next edition of those snippets, and thanks to all donators who help keep these stories going. 

Gwen and Galahad

“You know, as a parent, sometimes you… you set a lot of high standards for your child. And while… yeah, you may really hope they meet those standards, in your heart you know you’ll be happy with anything they become, as long as they try. You know that you’ll love them no matter what happens, because you know they have to be their own person, not the person you want them to be. But right now, I just have to say that all the parents… all the parents in the entire universe who have ever lived… can fucking suck it, because my son is Optimus God Damn Prime!” 

With that declaration, as she stood in the parking lot of the Capital One Arena in front of the silver and blue semi, Guinevere spread both arms wide as though to hug the truck tightly. A wide grin stretched across her face, showing her gleaming teeth as she sniffed a little as though near joyous tears. “I’m so proud of you.” 

Snorting audibly (a deliberate sound given he lacked any actual nose), Galahad promptly transformed from his semi mode into the full robot form. The former Seosten-human hybrid, who had been adopted as a child by Gwen after his true father’s people attempted to exterminate him, sat down in front of the woman so that he wouldn’t tower over her quite as much (given his thirty-foot height, even sitting made him much taller, but it was an improvement). “See, Harrison thought you might be upset about all… this.” He gestured with one large metal hand toward his body. “I told him he really didn’t know you that well.” 

“Hand up.” Gwen ordered, raising her own until her adopted son had done the same. Then she pressed her palm to one tiny part of his. It was an old ritual, though one they had most recently done while his hand was much closer to hers in size. Her voice had sobered somewhat, staring intently at their hands. “I am very sorry about… about what happened to you, my little polecat. But you are alive.” The joy and relief she felt about that fact clearly outweighed her regret about his condition, as she raised her other hand to press next to the first. “You are alive. My… son is alive.” Saying that, Gwen stepped in to embrace the raised metal arm. 

“Someday, we’ll find the magic needed to return your real body,” she assured him. Turning her gaze up, the former queen of Camelot met his robotic stare. “Whatever it takes. I have spent a thousand years preparing to bring Arthur back. I will spend however many more to restore your body.” 

“Eh, guess me being a robot means I can wait that long,” Galahad replied, before bringing his other hand in. Large as it was, he put it flat on the ground, waiting for his mother to step onto it before picking himself up to a standing position. Keeping her level with his gaze, he added, “I missed you, Mother.” 

“My boy.” Those two words were filled with such fondness, such joy in the simple fact of his existence, that they were all Gwen had to say. Floating away from his hand, she hovered over directly in front of his robotic face. Her palms moved to touch it, and he felt no disgust or regret, only love. Love and confidence that they would find a way to return his body someday. But in the meantime, she would not allow his current condition to dictate how she treated him. 

“It occurs to me,” Gwen finally continued after remaining like that for a long moment, “that you used to love going and listening to the stories from the talespinners, then watching plays, and eventually movies. Ahhh, you and movies. But you and I haven’t gone to one of those in a long time.” 

“A movie?” Galahad echoed. “I do like movies.” 

“Oh, I know you do.” Smiling, Gwen added, “I still remember going to see the Lumiere brothers little film. There wasn’t even a story but you were enthralled. It reminded me of the first time we watched a play together. You remember what it was?” 

“The play or that first movie?” Galahad countered. “Because the film was just a short bit about two guys leaving a factory. Plus some other things like that. And the play was–” He stopped belatedly. “Ah! You’re trying to trick me!” The lights of his ‘eyes’ shrank a bit as though narrowing. “You want me to say it was the Castle of Perseverance, but we saw Fulgens and Lucrece first. Because I snuck in to watch it with you and you weren’t supposed to know. But you did.” 

“I did,” Gwen confirmed with a fond chuckle. “Fulgens and Lucrece was better anyway. Less hoity toity. And who doesn’t like a good fourth wall breaking joke? The way Servants A and B seem to start outside the play and end up being part of it? I mean, come on. It was very unique for the time. They really need to put it on again. Oooh, maybe we can talk the kids at Fusion School into doing something with it.” 

“Something tells me they’ll be putting that play on soon, if you have anything to say about it,” Galahad noted. “Even if they don’t technically have a theater department.” 

“I’ll let Nimue know that I have a brilliant idea,” Gwen confirmed with a wink. “But in the meantime, you and I are going to see a movie or three. And given all the times I let you ride on my shoulders as a kid, it’ll be good to let you give me a lift into the movie.” 

“You know, I can just switch to my smaller body,” Galahad pointed out. “I know you’re cool with it, but the other people at the movies might object to me crashing through the place like this.” 

Scoffing, Gwen shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. 

“We’re totally going to a drive-in theater.” 

 

******

Maria Chambers

 

Maria Chambers had been born in 1945. Though, of course, she hadn’t been a Chambers at that point. She had originally been Maria Oscars. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, she had been… different from others. Her father had died in the last days of the second world war, leaving her mother to raise Maria and her two-years-older brother, Ronald, alone. Maria had repaid her mother’s hard work by being first a rebellious child and then a true terror as a teenager. She partied hard through high school, drinking heavily and generally causing her mother and much more straight-laced older brother no end of problems. She ran with a gang, took more than her fair share of alcohol and drugs, and generally made it her life’s goal to be a wild banshee and never care about the future.

Then came August 4th, 1962. The month before Maria’s final year in high school. On that day, Maria’s life changed forever. Because that was the day that Marilyn Monroe, beautiful, perfect, glamorous party girl of the ages, was found dead of an intentional overdose. 

The revelation that someone as… as perfect and rich and famous as Marilyn Monroe had so many problems that she had actually killed herself was… eye-opening for the seventeen-year-old Maria Oscars. She had spent that month doing a lot of soul searching, and entered her final year of high school a changed, more driven young woman. She abandoned (most of) her partying, graduated high school, went to nursing school (partly out of a desire to know more about exactly how her one-time idol Marilyn had died), and eventually served as an actual nurse. That was where she met Arthur Chambers, fixing him up after a brawl at a nearby bar. The two of them had fallen in love, and…

Well, then a whole bunch of years had passed all in what seemed like a flash. The next thing Maria Chambers knew, she was an old woman, sitting in a cabin in Alaska with her husband of nearly fifty-two years. Over half a century, she had been married to that lovable oaf now. 

“And I’ve kicked your bippy at pool the whole way here,” she announced pointedly, squinting across the dinner table at her lifelong companion. 

“Maria, dear,” Arthur asked, “were you doing that thing where you have an entire thought process in your head and only include one of us at the end when we have no Earthly idea what you’re talking about again?” 

Huffing a bit, the seventy-five-year-old woman carefully took a sip of her iced tea before pointedly replying, “All that matters is you’re terrible at pool.” 

“Well, maybe I’m just distracted whenever I play against a beautiful woman.” Arthur countered. 

Maria’s voice was dry. “I’ve seen you play old Thomas down at the rec center. He’ll be very interested to find out you think he’s such a pretty lady.” 

Before Arthur could find a retort for that, she added, “And that’s why I’ll be teaching Felicity how to hustle at the bars, thank you very much.”

With a chuckle, her husband pointed out, “You know, almost any other grandmother would be trying to steer their only grandchild away from that sort of thing.” 

“Our family’s never been ‘any other’ anything, and you know it,” Maria retorted, before adding, with a fond smile, “And Felicity exemplifies that…” With a sigh, she sat back in her chair. “Do you think Lincoln will bring her up for Thanksgiving this year? She must get so lonely in that stuffy old private school. Torn away from her father? How does Lincoln survive? That girl is his world, after…” She trailed off, forcibly directing her thoughts away from that woman

“That girl will thrive wherever she is,” Arthur reminded her, before exhaling long and low. “But I do hope Lincoln brings her for Thanksgiving. We… we all need it.” 

He was right, Maria knew. Felicity was… was so much like Lincoln. She wanted to be a reporter, just like him. She was stubborn and bullheaded, so intent on tracking down the truth. When she was in middle school, Lincoln used to send his parents weekly updates about what sort of injustice or mystery the girl was dealing with that time. She was a regular Encyclopedia Brown, her and that nice friend of hers who had eventually moved away. 

That was what worried Maria. Between losing her mother and then her best friend, she was afraid that poor Felicity would think everyone left her. She was afraid her beautiful, brilliant granddaughter would stop trusting people, stop opening up to them. And that would be such a tragedy. That was why Maria wanted Lincoln to move back to Los Angeles, so Felicity could be near them. Not only because she wanted to see her granddaughter, but because… because Felicity needed a fresh start, a big change to really, truly grow into the wonderful, brilliant woman Maria knew her granddaughter could be. A place like Los Angeles, where she could really spread her wings and her mind and be that amazing reporter she was meant to be, not stuck in a small town in Wyoming. Maria’s granddaughter deserved so much more than that. 

While she was lost in those thoughts, the door of the cabin opened and their old friend, Al, stepped inside with an armful of grocery bags. Maria quickly tried to get up with Arthur to help, but Al made it to the table first. Setting the bags down, he insisted that they stay in their seats, while reaching in to take out several beers and a couple mason jars with a strange dark green liquid in them.

“Some kind of local moonshine?” Arthur asked, eyeing the jars. He sounded quite willing to give the brew a shot. 

“More like… a chance to share the truth,” Al replied thoughtfully, his voice a bit distracted before he shook whatever it was off. “Been waiting a long time for this, and… well, now it’s time.” 

“Time for what?” Maria pressed. “And what exactly is in these jars?” 

“Like I said,” Al repeated, “the truth. But I need both of you to trust me. Can you do that?” 

“You’re being very strange, Al,” Maria informed him. “But of course we trust you. We’ve trusted you for decades, why on Earth would you need to ask now?” 

“Because now is the big moment,” came the quiet response. “Drink, and I’ll tell you absolutely everything you need to know.” 

Maria and Arthur exchanged looks. But the fact was both of them trusted Al as much as they trusted each other. He had been their very closest friend for such a long time. If he was acting odd now, there was clearly a good reason. As one, they each unscrewed the lid of their respective mason jar, popped off the top, and picked them up. 

“Well,” Arthur started while holding his jar out. “Here’s to having the slightest clue what you’re talking about in a minute.” 

“Here’s to that,” Maria agreed, tapping her jar against the other before taking first a cautious sip, then a deeper gulp of the liquid. “This… tastes funny. What did you put in it?” 

“Yes, Alcaeus,” a new voice put in, “what did you put in it?” The question came from a man who had simply… appeared in front of the door, as if he had stepped right through it. He was an enormous figure, even by the standards of the men in the room, standing an inch taller than Al did at an even seven feet. He had long jet black hair streaked with a bit of white and gray, and a bushy mustache, but no beard. 

Jerking to his feet, Arthur took a step that way. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded while Maria quickly found her feet as well. “And how the hell did you–”

But Al stepped in front of both of them, facing the strange man. “Antaeus,” he snapped in a low voice. “You shouldn’t be here.” 

Baffled, and more than a little annoyed, Maria poked her head out from behind her large husband and even larger friend. “I’m calling the police,” she announced firmly, already moving to pick up the phone. 

“Oh, I’d stop her from doing that before I do it myself,” the man… Antaeus, warned. “See, this isn’t going to go like any of our other contests.” 

With that, he pointed a hand, and… and a beam of what looked like silver light… blasted from his palm. It blew apart the entire… half of the cabin that Maria had been moving toward. Instantly, all of it was just… gone. It was gone. Chairs, furniture, the walls, even a dozen trees that had been on the other side of the wall were annihilated. Half of the cabin was simply not there anymore. 

In the second that Maria stared at that uncomprehendingly, Al had shoved her husband next to Maria and leapt to engage their intruder. And just as quickly, he was sent flying away to land hard on his side next to the two of them. 

The intruder laughed. “Oh, that’s so much better. You see how easy that was? You see how much faster, how much stronger, how much better than you I am now? Even without using any other tricks.” 

In… in over seventy years of life, Maria had never seen anything like this. She couldn’t comprehend it, couldn’t even fathom what this was. It simply did not make sense. It was a dream, a nightmare. None of this was real. None of it could be real. She had no frame of reference for this, and her heart… her heart couldn’t…

Shoving himself to his feet, Al stood in front of Maria and Arthur. “The Committee. They put you on the Committee.” 

“What committee?!” Arthur demanded. “What–how did–what the hell is going on?!” 

“They want those two,” Antaeus announced, staring at Maria and her husband. “That means I get to go through you to get to them. And… well, that’s just the icing on the–” 

On the nothing. Because they weren’t… there… anymore? 

At first, Maria thought the entire cabin had somehow vanished. But no… no, they were somewhere else. They were on grass, on an…. an island? Hand against her chest, the elderly woman looked around, mouth open as she took in the view around them. An island. They were standing on an island and… 

“What happened?” Al demanded, his voice suspicious as he made it clear that he was just as confused as the other two. “Where–” 

“Apparently, you were in mortal danger and moments from death, with no escape and no chance.” Another new voice, this one from a man who appeared to be about Maria and Arthur’s age, gray-haired with a neatly trimmed beard and thick eyebrows who stood before them wearing a brown suit and tie. “That, after all, is the condition I put in the spell that I etched into your bones when you were a child, that it would bring you to me when you were in true mortal peril from which there would be no way out.” He paused then before adding thoughtfully, “It seems you have brought friends as well.” 

“Who–who? What? Wher–What is happening?!” Arthur demanded, grabbing his wife’s arm and looking wildly back and forth between the men. 

“Well,” Al murmured, “good thing I had you drink that potion now, I suppose.” Straightening, he gestured. “Arthur, Maria… I want you to meet my old… mentor.

“Zeus.” 

 

*******

Amanirenas

Over A Thousand Years Ago, At The Fall Of Camelot

The battlefield was a wasteland. Over fifty miles of once-lush forest turned to a burned crater where little, if anything, would grow for years. All of this damage caused not by the clashing of many armies, but of a single army attacking one man. A man who was quite possibly one of the strongest beings in existence, such that the one who had finally defeated him was none other than Zeus himself. Puriel, as the Seosten called him. He who possessed such vast power to manipulate lightning, fire, even pure magic itself. And still, even he had only come out the victor of this struggle through treachery, through betraying the trust of one who saw him as a grandfather, and through bringing forth several ships-worth of armament to bombard his opponent. 

Even that may not have been enough to defeat the one called Arthur Pendragon had Puriel not been possessing the necromancy-reanimated body of the man’s own nephew. Blood magics prevented Arthur from putting his full strength against those of his family. They had weakened him, all together barely enough, to put the man down. 

Now weakened and only just capable of remaining upright through his exhaustion, the body of Mordred lying abandoned in the mud, Puriel stood over the fallen king. A Seosten shuttle was maneuvering to land, while the old captain gave orders into his communication device. “Bring the prepared container. I want the remains stored and under constant supervision on the way back to Elohim. The man may be as close to dead as he can be, but he’s a damned dragon-bonded. If I catch anyone being lax in–” 

At that precise moment, as a group of soldiers jogged toward that spot with what amounted to an enchanted sarcophagus floating in front of them, a sudden blast of pure white light lanced past Puriel to strike the fallen body of Arthur. In an instant, the body had vanished. 

A disbelieving bellowed curse burst from the old Seosten, his eyes snapping first down to the ground where the body had been, then to the source of that blast. Despite his weariness, lightning formed at his fingers, ready to lash out that way before he abruptly stopped. Nearby, the squad of sarcophagus-bearers had spun as well, their own weapons raised before seeing a single figure waiting there. 

“You…” Puriel muttered that single word, disbelief filling his voice as he stared. “What did you do?” 

The woman before him stood tall, as proud and strong as she had been a millennia earlier. She was dark-skinned, her body heavily muscled. The sword she held was as large as she was, its blade resting in the ground while she leaned on the hilt. Her one remaining eye glared at the figure in front of her with a hatred that burned as the fires of a thousand hells. The other eye had been long-since sacrificed in a ritual to empower a spell that had enabled her people to temporarily overwhelm and occupy three Roman/Seosten-held cities in Egypt. The woman who, through sheer force of will and battle acumen, had forced the Seosten-controlled Romans to allow her country to self-govern. The warrior queen who had fought enough to force a peace agreement with the Romans, preventing their further expansion for hundreds of years. 

“Amanirenas,” Puriel snarled the name while holding a hand out to stop his troops from advancing or firing. “I will ask you once more before burning you where you stand. What did you do?” 

Letting her enormous sword fall, the woman took a few steps closer, ignoring the other troops to focus solely on the subject of her hate. “I told you… long ago, that your people murdered my husband, the king of our people. You answered that by having your people kill my son.” 

“We were at war,” Puriel reminded her. “You, your son, and your people attacked our cities. We retaliated.” 

“We attacked to prevent you from invading, as you were intending!” Amanirenas snapped. “Had we not struck the first blow, your people would have destroyed us and continued your expansion. Your people began this.” Her smile was humorless, the barely-constrained fury radiating outward from her almost visibly. “Do you know what your people took from me? Do you have any idea? I sacrificed far more than my eye to give my people the strength to stand against yours. I sacrificed all other lives within me. I gave any opportunity for any future children to that spell, to give my people the strength to hold against your incursions.” 

Cracking her neck, she came even closer, her feet touching the edge of the ground where Arthur’s body had been. “It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, because I had my children. One a full man, given by my late husband. The other a child, an infant given to me by the one who replaced Teriteqas in my heart, who taught me the magic needed to see your kind burn. Your people stole both from me. Your people killed my son in battle, and trampled my infant daughter beneath their feet. The only children I could ever have were taken by your filth.” Her hateful words melted into a brief chuckle. “But I told you I would have my revenge, did I not?”

Hand snapping out to send quick bolts of energy into the ground, Puriel watched as tendrils of earth reached out, catching hold of the woman and yanking her bodily to the ground. His power overwhelmed her defensive shields, punching through her magic as though it was made of paper. She didn’t seem to mind, barely reacting as she was hauled down onto her back. 

“Tell me… what you did,” the man snapped, standing over the woman. “Or I will simply discover it for myself.” That was added while he reached down for her. 

“Your people have killed many kings, oh great and powerful god of gods,” Amanirenas snarled. “And you have never feared any of their return. Until now. And fear you should. Because the one called Arthur of the dragons will rise again. He will rise and he will destroy your kind. In time. When he is brought together once more.” 

Lowering his gaze and inhaling, Puriel murmured in realization. “You scattered the body. Do you really think that will be enough? I will reach into your mind and take the knowledge of where every piece has gone. Then all of this will be for naught.”

Amanirenas, held motionless against the ground, simply smiled. “Were that an option, do you truly believe I would have tarried here so long? I gave my first husband, my eye, my children both living and unborn, all to put a stop to your people. I make one more sacrifice to ensure your eventual destruction.” 

Those were the last words spoken by the warrior queen of Kush, who had brought the Roman expansion into her lands to a halt. She had poisoned herself before the confrontation, using the last of her power, the last of her life, to scatter the fallen body of Arthur across the world. And in that moment, she passed away. Peacefully, on her own terms, while giving one last look with her remaining eye at the man who represented the people she hated so thoroughly. At the same time, the spell she had inscribed into her own skin dissolved her body and disintegrated the remains, destroying any chance of the Seosten using their necromancer to draw her back and taking with her the knowledge of where the pieces of Arthur had been sent.

In her death, Amanirenas also carried with her the secret of what had first drawn her to Arthur, what had first led her to this place. Her second husband had sensed the man’s imminent death, and its location. It was he who had told her of what would happen, he whose words had led to this decision, even if he had not known what would happen at the time.

The Reaper who had once met Arthur as a child, shortly before his ascension as a dragon-bonded, had met Amanirenas many centuries earlier. They had borne a child together, after her son was grown. Their daughter, a half-Reaper, had been stolen from them and trampled beneath the enemy army before they could even name her. 

Or so they believed. 

Now, with her dying breath, the warrior queen had set in motion events that would eventually lead the Seosten and Arthur’s own wife, the Queen Guinevere, to desperately search out the one person capable of bringing the once and future king back to life. 

Aylen Tamaya, daughter of Bastet. Granddaughter of Amanirenas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m very glad to meet you.” 

*******

Two Months Later

“Yelly?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have a lot to talk about.”   

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

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Commissioned Interlude 4 – Sariel’s Last Unknown Child (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is a commissioned interlude. The next regular chapter will be out as scheduled tomorrow. 

The elegant, gleaming silver ship dropped smoothly through the air of the water-covered planet, slicing right through the hurricane-like weather without any apparent issues. The ship itself was shaped much like one of the millions of raindrops that were currently pelting it in this tumultuous storm. It seemed to pay no more heed to the weather than it did to the warning hails being sent to it from the world’s single inhabited surface, a tiny island with a lighthouse taking up almost the entirety of its surface. The lighthouse turned its beam upward, illuminating the approaching ship.

As the beam passed over the ship, it did far more than light it up. It also acted as a scanner, detailing just how many people were inside the ship (one, as far as the scanning beam could tell), its offensive and defensive capability (incredibly high, in both cases), and other details. 

The ship’s (apparently) only occupant sat in the pilot’s seat, watching the console light up with demands that he answer hails or be shot down. His ship was broadcasting all required security clearances, but that apparently wasn’t enough for the people down there. Which made sense, given how unaccustomed they were to getting visitors. And, of course, what they were doing. 

For a handful of seconds, Puriel watched the frantic lights on the console in silence. He knew what was going on down there. The codes he was transmitting, as well as the ship he was flying, were too high level for them to risk shooting him down without some kind of confirmation that he was actually a threat. Yet the longer he went without answering their hails, the more nervous they would get. There was a fine art to letting the people get just worried enough that they would be glad he was answering, yet not so worried that they would do something stupid.

Finally, he acquiesced, activating the comm. Not by reaching out to press the button or anything as mundane as that, but by directing just enough energy through the console with his own Tartarus ability. Electronics were easy enough to manipulate by moving electricity through them properly. Particularly for something as simple as what amounted to turning on the radio. 

“Now see here,” the old Seosten who appeared on the holo-screen in front of him immediately blurted as soon as the connection was established, “I want to know exactly who you think you… you…” He trailed off, his eyes finally taking in the full answer to his half-spoken demand. 

“Niekal,” Puriel spoke calmly, his storm-gray gaze betraying no emotion. “It seems that you aren’t at the facility on Clypeus-Septem after all. I hope they’re redirecting your mail properly.” 

Saying things like that, things that quickly challenged what people he was talking to might expect him to say, were a good way of putting them off-balance, Puriel had found. And people who were off-balance were far more likely to be accidentally honest. Or at least less prepared with their lies. It made them stumble, and in their stumbling, he could find out important things. 

In this case, the elderly (he was quite near final retirement by this point) Seosten on the holo-screen cleared his throat uncertainly. “Ah, yes, I… that is, Trierarch Puriel, I will have the landing bay prepared for your arrival. Do take care to, ahh, mind you don’t get wet.” 

As the man said that, a hole opened up in the ocean below, just in front of the island where the lighthouse stood. Forcefields from the ocean floor all the way up to the surface activated, extending outward to push the water away from a circular opening that was eventually wide enough to fly several of Puriel’s ships through side by side. A brief glance toward the scanner showed him that the opening through the ocean connected to a metal tunnel in its floor. The tunnel seemed to lead another twenty kilometers or so deep, beyond passive scanning range. 

“I’ll do my best to avoid clipping the edges of your front door,” he informed the other man, before disabling the comm with a thought as he angled the ship into a dive through the opening in the ocean. It was a ten kilometer drop from the ocean’s surface to its floor, and the man found himself watching hundreds of sea animals as they went about their business beyond the faintly glowing forcefield. Was this a normal event for them, he wondered. How often did this happen? 

As the ship continued downward, he closed his eyes and looked inward. Within his mind, he saw the girl who had possessed him years earlier. Sariel’s daughter. She stood in her mental workshop, the main table temporarily clear of its usual assortment of neatly-drawn blueprints for various buildings and ships. Over the years, the girl had designed dozens of them. She had a remarkable gift for such things, partially drawn from her ability to scan Puriel’s own mind for his knowledge of them, information gained from his millennia of life. Yet what she produced was far more than simple reconstructions. She took what she learned and used it to create ideas for even grander designs. If she had been what the Seosten saw as ‘normal’, the girl would have been fast-tracked through the highest schooling to become one of their foremost ship designers.

But given her… disability, she would never be allowed anywhere near such important things. Her incredible gift for design wouldn’t matter. The Seosten leadership would never permit a Mendacia to create their ships. They would never believe that one such as her could be so brilliant. The stain of her handicapped possession power would blind them to everything else. 

And not so long ago, Puriel himself would have agreed with that completely. He would have seen it as unfortunate, yet perfectly reasonable. He might even have felt sorry that what should have been a great gift in a young mind had been tarnished and broken by her status as a Mendacia. He would have dismissed those arguing against such things as fanatical idealists. 

It had taken the deaths of so many who had helped him when they had no reason to do so in order to change his mind. The blood of those who had saved him had finally opened his eyes. 

Too late for them. Too late for so many others. Yet soon enough to protect this girl. Soon enough to have protected Sariel’s child from the depths to which his own wife would sink to exploit her. 

And, if the two of them were right about the results of the records they had pored through after Kushiel’s death, perhaps soon enough to save another of Sariel’s children from those depths.

As he looked inward to her, the girl looked down at her empty table. She wasn’t distracted or unaware of his attention. She knew he was there. Yet, as always, she said nothing that did not need to be said. That was her way, to speak only when necessary. Her hair, split evenly with one side pale blonde and one side pitch-black, the tight braid alternating dark and light, drew his focus as she gave a slight shake of her head to send that braid bouncing. “They don’t want you here,” she announced with certainty, her voice flat. Turning from the table finally to look at Puriel, Spark met his gaze while simply adding, “They’re ashamed of what is down here.” 

“Ashamed,” Puriel echoed thoughtfully, glancing outward to ensure that the ship was still descending as it should. They had just passed into the metal tunnel, the massive hatch on the ocean floor closing behind them so that the forcefield could be released to allow the ocean back into its normal state. “You think Niekal is ashamed of the work he’s been doing in this place?” 

“You think that,” Spark reminded him, stepping away from the table to stand at his side. The eleven-year-old reached up, her small hand catching his much larger, more calloused one as she added, “You saw it in his eyes when he recognized you. He is afraid of your judgment.” 

That much was true, Puriel knew. Even if he had been ignoring it consciously, his little passenger never lied about such things. She saw his thoughts, his memories, his opinions as easily as a normal person read the cover of a book placed in front of them. They had been together this way for years by this point. A fraction of an instant for his lifetime, yet somehow… somehow more than that. In many ways, Puriel felt as though he had not truly been alive until Spark became a part of him, until the girl entered his life and his soul (in more than one way).

“Kushiel’s records of this place were vague,” he noted after a moment of silence. “We don’t know what she used it for. But I believe if your… brother had been killed, she would have noted it. As far as she was aware, he is still alive. And if he is, we will remove him from this place.” 

“And the others who are here, yet are not related to Mother?” Spark prompted, looking up at him curiously as her hand squeezed his. Or rather, as the mental projection of her hand chose to make it feel as though it was squeezing the mental projection of his hand. The girl, of course, had not possessed a physical body since the moment she had possessed him years earlier. 

Puriel knew what she was asking. She wanted to know what he would do with the rest of the people who were here, in this place that its own head scientist was ashamed of. A place like this, whatever was going on, it was enough to make Niekal flinch at the thought of Puriel seeing it. Taking Sariel’s remaining child away under some pretense was one thing, but what of the others? It was a question he couldn’t rightfully answer just yet. Not until he saw more of this. 

By that point, it was time to focus on landing the ship. While a part of him remained there in that workshop within his own mind, holding Spark’s hand, Puriel directed most of his attention outward. He took the controls, guiding the ship out of the tunnel and into a large landing bay. The facility here was clearly enormous, hidden deep beneath the floor of the ocean world. This single room was large enough to hold two dozen ships the size of his. At the moment, there were several of what were clearly cargo vessels parked on the far side of the bay, while the rest remained empty save for various pieces of equipment and people. Several of the latter were approaching the spot where Puriel’s ship was landing, preparing to help him disembark. 

As the ship settled into place on the landing struts, the man straightened and stood from the seat. Turning crisply on one heel, he walked to the hatch, a thought sending the right power through it to make the door open and the ramp extend. Before his welcoming party could get fully into position, he was already descending while raising his voice to greet the assortment of soldiers. “Good morning. I hope you all weren’t pulled too rudely out of your beds by my arrival.” 

That said, he took a brief look at them. Three of the nine troops who stood there at attention were Seosten. The rest were various other species, though he couldn’t say just yet whether those were possessed by more of his people or not. They stood at attention, a couple clearly having thrown their uniforms on at the last possible moment. This was not a facility that was accustomed to being visited at all, let alone by any superior officers. They had been alone, here in this secret lab, for a very long time. And unless he missed his guess, Kushiel hadn’t visited this place much either. Not in person, at least. That was… curious. 

While he was taking that in, Niekal joined them, arriving slightly out of breath from what was clearly a headlong sprint to reach this point. “Welcome, Trierarch. I must admit, we are surprised to see you here. You did not have to concern yourself with our work while mourning the loss of your life partner.” 

“Kushiel kept herself busy in her life, as shall I in her death,” Puriel replied simply, essentially explaining nothing. “The details of this place were very scarce. Yet there is one… patient that she specifically noted as being sent here. The one she called Omniscereon.” 

“Omni,” Niekal murmured, giving Puriel a brief look before nodding once. “Of course, you would want to see the son of your former…” He paused, shaking himself rather than continue. “Ah, come this way, Trierarch.” 

They walked, flanked by the troops, who were all exchanging looks. It was clear that they didn’t know what to think of their unexpected visitor either. Puriel ignored them, while following Niekal through the maze of corridors that lay beyond that initial landing bay. As they walked, he spoke up. “The work you do here, it’s not exactly open-book.” He focused on the man who was studiously not looking at him. “You run experiments on those my wife and those like her deemed unacceptable for normal lives. Hybrids. Mendacia. Non-Seosten rebel prisoners.” 

“We do what we must to stand a chance against the machinations of our enemies,” Niekal replied, though it was clearly a rehearsed answer. “The Fomorians will not allow ethics or compassion to stray them from their goal of total conquest. We cannot handicap ourselves in our defense against the same.” 

“Some would say that your experiments here are inhumane,” Puriel calmly pointed out. “I’ve seen very little of the details, yet… I am glad that those here are of no importance to the Empire.” The words were ash in his mouth, but it was important to say them, to calm those around him. 

It worked, at least enough to make Niekal visibly relax somewhat, the tension mostly leaving his face as he glanced to Puriel with a quiet, “The experiments we run here should not be subjected to any being. But they are necessary for our survival as a species, as a society, and as life itself beyond the vile monstrosities that the Fomorians would see the whole universe become.” 

“And this Omniscereon,” Puriel made himself ask in as flat a voice as possible, “what of him? What have you learned from your tests upon the male child of Sariel?” 

Rather than answer verbally, Niekal gestured to the door they were standing in front of. “This way, perhaps it’s better for you to see for yourself.” 

Through the door, the group entered what was clearly a sort of prison cell. The floors and walls were spotless, gleaming white. Straight ahead was a slightly shimmering forcefield blocking off the majority of the room. In that blocked-off cell was a single toilet, a sink, a shelf of toys and ancient-style books, and a shower in one corner. 

There were also Seosten children in the cell. Eight of them, of varying ages and genders from toddlers up to what appeared to be Spark’s age. All were naked, save for metal bands around their wrists, ankles, and necks. The room itself would have been fairly crowded with only four of them. With twice as many, Puriel was unsure how they managed to all find space on the empty floor to sleep in peace. 

“As you know,” Niekal was explaining, “Kushiel was adamant in discovering a cure for our species’ reproductive issues in general, and for the Mendacia complication in particular. She had experiments run on the women and the unborn fetuses in the regrettably now-ruined fertilization lab. Some of those resulting children were born as Mendacia themselves. Others came with various… other complications, some of which we have never seen before. Those latter children were brought here, to this place, where we hope to study their conditions enough to come to an understanding that will allow us to eliminate the condition once and for all.” 

Keeping his tone as flat as possible, Puriel summed up, “The children were experimented on in the womb, or even before, to try to curb the potential to become Mendacia. Instead of erasing that possibility entirely, the experiments altered their possession abilities in other ways. Now you want to use them to find out what went wrong and end the Mendacia mutations here, in this lab.” 

“Essentially, yes,” the other man confirmed. “Though not only their possession abilities were altered. In some, they were mutated in other ways. One of our charges is incapable of coming out of their boosted state for more than a few minutes a day, existing almost exclusively in a very slowed-down world, from their own perspective. Another changes sex to match the last person they touched at any given point. And there are more.. interesting alterations.” 

“What of the boy?” Puriel asked, taking care not to make it sound like a demand. 

“Omniscereon,” Niekal spoke up loudly. “Come to the front.” 

They all watched then, as a brown-haired child picked his way out of the group and approached to stand in front of the forcefield. He was as naked as the others, his hair long enough to fall partly into his eyes. 

Brother. In that single word that Puriel heard in his own head, Spark showed more emotion than she generally did within an entire speech. Not that she was emotionless, he knew. Far from. She simply didn’t tend to show it in her words. But here, now, she did. She saw the boy and knew him on some deep, instinctive level. 

Niekal was talking. “Omni, show our guests what you are capable of.” He then nodded to one of the guards, who sighed, clearly uncomfortable with this whole thing, before stepping over to put his hand through the forcefield. Apparently it was of the type that allowed people on one side to pass through unhindered. Or perhaps it only stopped those with the shackles and collars. 

Either way, the guard (A fox-like Reusfiel) held his hand through the forcefield. With a moment of hesitation, Omniscereon raised his own hand to tentatively touch it. As soon as he did, there was a brief flash, and the boy staggered backward with a gasp. His body glowed for a moment, shifting and transforming in front of their eyes. 

Then the glow faded, and the boy stood straight. Only he wasn’t the boy they had seen before. He was a young Reusfiel, a child version of the very guard who was now withdrawing his hand, looking very disturbed. 

“Wh-where am I?” the transformed Omni stammered, sounding completely lost and confused, even terrified, as he looked around the cell and stared at the men in front of him. “P-please, please, I don’t–I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m supposed to be here. My name’s Kapper, m-my mom lives at–” 

Niekal extended a hand, using a remote that clearly activated the collar on the boy’s throat, because he jerked and yelped in pain. His body shifted back to his normal state, abandoning its borrowed fox-like form. 

“Instead of possessing those he touches,” Niekal explained, “the boy transforms his own body into that person at an age that matches his own. He appears to take on their old memories and personality at that time as well, curiously enough. We’re still working on understanding exactly why and how his possession ability was altered in this way. But we should have answers soon.” 

“Answers soon,” Puriel echoed, staring at the naked boy, at all of the naked children. “This place… this is only one cell. Surely you must have more than these few children to work with.” 

“We have many experiments running within this facility,” Niekal confirmed. “Kushiel’s work was only one such effort. But I assure you, we will not abandon it simply because of her loss.”

For a few long seconds, Puriel said nothing. He looked inward instead, seeing Spark there. She stood in her workshop, staring at him pleadingly. She opened her mouth, a single word escaping. 

“Brother.” 

Clearly uncomfortable with the silence, Niekal continued. “You need not worry, Trierarch. Your wife’s legacy will not be forgotten.” 

Rather than respond to that, the old Olympian captain stepped forward. He passed through the forcefield and stood fully within the cell. The collection of children looked up at him, as his gaze passed over them all before fixing on the boy in front. “Your name is Omni?” 

Despite the boy’s ragged appearance, Puriel could see Sariel in his eyes as he looked up. “Yes, sir,” he answered quietly. “Are you a doctor?” As he asked the question, the boy automatically raised and extended his arm as though offering it. Puriel saw the marks of the blood, marrow, and tissue samples that had been taken incessantly likely throughout the child’s entire life. 

Behind him, Niekal spoke up. “We try to avoid extended contact with the subjects outside of testing parameters, sir. Particularly so many at once. It’s not good to rile them up.” 

Puriel didn’t turn around. He stood facing the children, with his back to Niekal and the guards, a forcefield still separating them. “You are cut off here from the rest of the Empire,” he noted. “Very few know this place exists. If you were attacked by the Fomorians, or some rebel group, it would be very hard for any assistance to arrive. It could take some time before your loss was even noticed.” 

The old scientist paused before replying carefully, “Your concern is noted. But our advantage is that no one knows we exist here, Trierarch. Rest assured, we and our experiments are perfectly safe. Our work will continue.” 

In that moment, the lights in the room vanished, plummeting it into darkness. Yet not only in the room. The corridor beyond, and indeed the entire facility, was completely without power. All lights, all security measures, all communication methods, were entirely cut off. 

Then a pair of small lights returned. A crackling of electricity that sparked once, then again, before settling into a pair of tiny, gleaming orbs as Puriel faced Niekal and the guards. His thundercloud-eyes were aflame with lightning that provided the only illumination in the entire facility. 

“No,” the man who had once been Zeus replied to his companion’s fateful last words. 

“It won’t.”

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Patreon Snippets 6

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

Present Day – Seosten Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

1796 – Boston

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

“Mama, are Grandpap and Grandmam tall?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ossy and I,” Remember corrected sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Present Day – Atherby Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stavin Epks Nuel Rev, I’m sorry.

“Denanine Rache, I’m sorry.”

“Valian Lien Kodian, I’m… sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would be a long time before she stopped.

*******

Present Day – Crossroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before they’re arrested with Gaia.”

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