Rebecca Jameson

The Runaway 15-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The moment the horrible ghost woman was gone, I fell to my knees and gave a deep gasp. Even with help from Tabbris, and my ridiculous stamina, that had taken a lot out of me. A large part of it, of course, was actually channeling all that power into my necromancy and using it properly. It was a lot to push through my system. I had to sit there for a few seconds to catch my breath. Mom and Asenath had already rushed forward to see what happened to me, while Sean and Twister moved to check on Francis, who had apparently passed out the moment Kushiel disappeared. While I was busy catching my breath, I felt my little sister step out of me to quickly explain that I was okay, just really exhausted after all that. 

My head bobbed as I looked up to see them staring. “She’s gone. Not for good, but it’ll take her a while to get herself sorted out after getting hit that hard. And even then she can’t get back here without a lot of help.” Biting my lip, I looked over to where Francis’s limp form was. “Is he okay?” 

“Breathing,” Sean confirmed. “I think he’s sleeping it off. Whatever Kushiel was doing to keep him paralyzed while she wasn’t even possessing him, it looks like it packed a pretty big wallop. Which, what was she doing? How the hell is any of that possible? Is it all just Tartarus bullshit?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted weakly. “All I know is that we don’t have to deal with her right now.” 

“But we will have to deal with her eventually,” Mom murmured, her voice dark as she gazed off into the distance. “A problem that should have been dealt with and gone for good, yet suddenly she’s back again and somehow even worse. Strangely, that isn’t nearly as surprising as I feel like it ought to be.” 

Grimacing it despite myself, I offered a weak, “I’m sorry, I should have been able to handle her. I’ve got all of this power from two different necromancers, and she’s a ghost. But she was just so strong. It’s like that Tartarus place is still fueling her or something. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, she’s not just going to go away. She’ll keep trying to get that sword. I just…” 

“First, don’t apologize.” That was Asenath, her hand moving to squeeze my shoulder as I knelt there. “Seriously, if it wasn’t for you, we would have been completely screwed. She has her old power plus now she’s a ghost, so she’s even harder to hurt without the right skills. It may have taken a lot out of you, but you still got rid of her. At least for now. And next time, we’ll be more prepared. This was a complete ambush and you still handled it better than most would have.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” Sean agreed. “That bitch be as crazy strong as she is just plain crazy. At least now we’ve got the time to practice and prepare stuff for whenever she shows up again. There’s some anti-ghost spells in some of the books I’ve been looking at, and she feels like just the right pain-in-the-ass spook to use them on.” Belatedly, he glanced over to Grover and Seth. “Uh, no offense.” 

Seth just blinked at him. “Why would we be offended by you wanting to get rid of that psycho bitch? Come on, I wanted her to burn in hell when we were alive, so I’m sure as fuck not gonna start feeling attached just because we’re both dead. We’re not suddenly kin or something.”

“Yeah, man,” Grover put in. “Hashtag not all ghosts.” Leaning over, he stage-whispered to me. “Did I use that right? I feel like that’s how they were using it back in the Runaway.” 

My mouth opened to confirm that before the word ‘runaway’ suddenly made me remember the other person in the room. With a gasp, I turned and looked over to the corner. Denise was crouching back there, looking like she was trying to disappear. As everyone else followed my line of sight, she cringed. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I didn’t want to help her. I don’t even know what’s going on, I don’t–I wasn’t trying to–I was–” 

“Denise.” Speaking quietly, Mom took a step over there, going down on one knee near the girl, but not quite close enough to touch. She was clearly worried about scaring her even more. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re the ones who should apologize. We didn’t know you would remember anything. We didn’t…” She trailed off, exhaling. “We thought you could go back to a normal life. I suppose we should have known better.” There was a brief pause before she amended in an even softer voice, “I should have known better.” 

That made the girl blink in confusion, her eyes taking the rest of us in before her head shook. “I don’t know what you’re–I don’t… wait… I know you. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know you, right? But I do. But I… I don’t. You’re… I’ve seen you before. But I haven’t.” She made a helpless noise in the back of her throat then. It was clear that this was confusing her even more. 

“Denise,” I started while pushing myself up so I could move over to take a knee next to my mother. “Maybe you could tell us what you remember, then we can help by filling in the blanks. It’s okay, no matter how… strange you think it is, we’ll believe you, I promise. Just tell us what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. Just… talk to us. We’ll help, I promise.” This whole situation was so much to get into (seriously, it was so much), that it felt like the best place to start from was by finding out what the girl herself already knew. 

So, Denise launched into the story of everything that had been happening to her over the past long while. It was a horrible story to sit there and listen to, knowing how many answers we could have given her. She had been having nightmares about her death and about Ammon’s own memories. Somehow, she was dreaming about all the terrible things he had done. His memories were mixed in with hers and it was really screwing her up. Not only that, she had indeed also somehow ended up with his power. Despite the fact that the power transfer thing was only supposed to be temporary (And, I was pretty sure, was only supposed to give her his Pooka power for that temporary time rather than everything), it seemed to have been permanent. She had his power and some of his memories, though all jumbled together. That was why she was having nightmares. She dreamed of being murdered by him, and of being him as he murdered her. Seriously, how fucked up was that? No wonder this kid was having a hard time. That would have been bad enough by itself, but she was also dreaming about all the other people he had killed. And seeing ‘monsters’ because the Bystander Effect wasn’t working properly. Monsters like Mercer, whom she had used Ammon’s power to make forget about that whole debt thing. So that explained that whole situation. 

The only positive part of all this was that Ammon wasn’t actually back. Not exactly. She had some of his memories, but it was still Denise in there. She was still in control. Yeah, positive in the sense that Ammon wasn’t back. Instead, Kushiel was. Honestly, I’m not sure that was really an improvement. Sure, Ammon’s power was terrifying,  But we had people who were immune to it, and he was still just a kid. Kushiel could conceivably be a hell of a lot more dangerous. 

But in any case, right now we had to focus on Denise. Who apparently also remembered a bunch of fairly inconsequential, academic-like stuff from her previous life. She remembered math and science and history that she had learned as a high school student, despite technically looking like she belonged in middle school. Which wasn’t exactly a problem, really. But it did add on to her confusion, which was even more stressful. Yeah, this poor girl needed help. And by help, I meant an explanation. She desperately needed, and definitely deserved, an explanation. 

“Sean,” Mom started once the poor girl had finished telling her side of the story, “I believe things should be fairly safe now. Could you go down and find Mennin to let him know what’s going on, and have him send some help for Francis?”  

As if her attention had only just turned that way, Denise abruptly blurted, “I-is that a robot dog?” 

“Sure is,” Sean confirmed, putting a hand on his head. “This is Vulcan. Vulcan, why don’t you go say hi?” 

The cyberform promptly moved that way, trotting closer. He passed my mother and me, before sitting on his haunches right in front of the girl. Denise hesitated, then reached out to tentatively touch his snout. Running her fingers along his mouth curiously, she inched closer, then slowly put both arms around Vulcan in a hug. One that I was pretty sure the poor kid desperately needed. 

Apparently Sean agreed, because he told Vulcan to stay here for now. Then he headed out for the medical room, calling back that he would find out what was going on with the other guests too. 

Once he was gone, I looked toward Denise once more. She still had both arms around Vulcan, clinging to him like a lifeline. “Okay. So, we do have answers for you. Some of them are really not… some of them are gonna freak you out. But it’s the truth. We won’t lie to you, I swear.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. “You deserve… a lot. But the very least we can give you is the truth.” 

So, we started from the beginning, at least as far as we could while still being vaguely relevant to Denise. We told her about Crossroads and Heretics, about the rebellion and my mother being sent away with a new memory, and eventually being taken by Fossor. We told her about Ammon, and how he had been turned evil. Then we got into the fact that he had gone to that gas station while on his way to find me

“That girl worked there,” Denise filled in, her voice full of trepidation as she clung even tighter to Vulcan. “He killed her, didn’t he? I saw her memories too. I saw… I mean… what?” She was looking at all of us as we stared at her, clearly reading the trouble in our expressions. 

Realizing how hard this was going to be, my mother and I exchanged looks before she turned back to the girl and started to gently explain the full truth. She started by calling Twister over, before the two of them explained what a Pooka could do beyond turning into animals, how they would ‘respawn’ as a child upon being killed, then mentioned that Ammon had forced one to ‘kill’ himself, thus inheriting his power. Twister tried to explain what it was like, waking up as a child once more and then gradually getting the memories of her past lives back. 

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Denise was starting to put things together, though she was clearly still in some denial. She held onto Vulcan even tighter while watching, eyes completely unblinking as she waited for the other shoe to drop.  

In the end, Mom tried to lower the shoe as much as possible before dropping it, but there was no way to stop it from hitting the floor. Taking a deep breath, she explained exactly what had happened, that the dreams about dying Denise had been having weren’t dreams at all, but her actual memories. She told the girl exactly how that whole thing had gone down, and how she had transferred Ammon’s powers to her in order to bring the girl back to life. She also told her about how she wasn’t supposed to remember anything, and that the powers were supposed to be incredibly temporary, only lasting for a few seconds at most. Just enough to bring her back. 

“If I had had any idea that you would actually remember anything, or retain any of it, I would have… I would have made sure someone was there for you.” There was pain in Mom’s voice,  and I could tell she wanted to reach out to the girl, but didn’t know how it would be taken. She clenched her hands and quietly added, “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry no one was there to help explain things to you, and I’m sorry you’ve had to try to understand this all on your own. You deserve better than that. Much better.” 

Denise didn’t respond at first. She stared at my mother, then at me, then looked down at the floor. Her grip on Vulcan remained tight as she made a low whimpering sound deep in her throat, clearly trying to cope with what she had just been told. I tried to think about how I would feel in her position, but I couldn’t even imagine it. Even after everything I have been through, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with being given the story that Denise had just been given. It was too much. How was she supposed to cope with the amount of shit that had just been dropped on her? She wasn’t just finding out the monsters were real and all that, she was also finding out that she had literally been murdered and brought back to life as a younger version of herself. 

“I know it’s a lot, kid,” Twister put in. I expected her to add a joke or something after that, but instead, she simply added, “Some of us Pooka have a sort of group meeting sometimes where we can talk about our memories. You know, the ones about being killed, and all those times where we don’t remember our past lives and think we’re just normal people. Sometimes the real memories kicking in are… well, kicking is the right word. Like a mule. It can really hurt. So, you know, you can come and be a part of that, if you want. Anytime you want, when you’re ready.” 

Staring at the floor and silence for several long seconds, Denise finally pushed herself up and folded her arms tightly, turning away from us. Her shoulders were shaking visibly, though no sound emerged. After an extended moment of that, she took a long, deep breath before quietly speaking. “I’m scared. I thought getting answers would make things better, but now I’m even more scared. You e-explained everything, but it didn’t help. It doesn’t help. I’m–he’s… he’s still there.” She turned it back to us, fists clenched. “I can feel him. I can hear his voice. I can see the things he did, the things he wants to do. And now… now I know it’s not just in my head. He’s really evil and he really killed all those people. He killed me. They aren’t just dreams. They’re real. And the things he makes me think about when I look at my mom and dad, they’re what he wants me to do. He wants me to kill them.” Tears had flooded her eyes, as she shook violently while standing there.

It was Twister who moved first, stepping over to embrace the girl tightly. Again, there were no jokes, no off-color remarks or attempts to break the tension. She just held onto Denise and let the girl cling tightly to her as the tears continued to pour out, uncontrolled. A dam had burst, and it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Not with how long Denise had been holding so much of it back. She had answers now, but as she’d said, the answers didn’t exactly fix things. 

“But you won’t,” I found myself saying before even realizing that I was going to speak up. The words came without conscious thought. And it wasn’t because of Tabbris, because she was still out of me. “You’ve already proven you’re stronger than him, than those memories. You were all by yourself and you still beat his memories. You resisted. You already proved you can beat him. And now you’re not alone anymore.” 

Mom gave a short nod. “That’s right, and you’re not going to be alone again. I don’t… I know you probably don’t want to be around us very much. Not after what you just found out. But we have people you can stay with, others who can help you understand your… power and how to get through those memories and dreams. We have friends who can be there for you.” 

For a moment, it looked like Denise was really fighting to find the right thing to say. Her mouth kept opening and shutting before she looked back to the floor, a frown knitting her brow. “Can’t you just erase those thoughts and memories? You do things like that, right? You could take his memories out of my head, right?” 

Again, we all exchanged looks before I hesitantly answered, “We have someone who might be able to do something with that, but I don’t want to speak for her. She’s definitely an expert at that sort of thing, so if anyone can do it, she can. But she’ll have to talk to you for a while and find out for herself if it’s possible. And how to do it without hurting you.” 

Swallowing, she met my gaze. “I just want them gone. I just want him gone. I just…” Her eyes closed and I saw a few more tears fall as she whispered in an exhausted voice. “I just want to sleep without dreaming about killing people.” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I had no idea. The only words that would come was a very weak, “Come with us and we’ll get you some help. Somehow.” I didn’t know if it would be as easy as just removing those memories or not, but somehow we would help her. 

“What about my parents?” she asked then, just as weakly. “They think I’m at my aunt’s. I… I lied to them.” Her voice was even more pained than before at the admission. “It was bad. It was wrong. But I had to tell them something. I had to… I had to leave, before the dreams made me… before…” She shuddered visibly, unable to go on. 

“We’ll work out what to do with your parents, I promise,” Mom assured her. “We’ll figure all that out later. Right now, we just need to have you talk with Sariel and see what she can do. That’s the first thing.” 

Even as she said that, the doors opened and several uniformed medical people came in, escorted by Sean. He waved them over to where Francis was (someone had put a pillow under his head). One of them split off to move over to check on Denise as well, taking a knee while having her sit in a chair so he could ask medical-related questions. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us moved out of the way for the moment. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Seth there. He arched an eyebrow. “So, seems like this ghost problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Think I could tag along with you, Miss Necromancer?” 

“Do you mean the problem of Kushiel being a ghost, or of you being a ghost?” I found myself asking. 

“Sure,” he replied with a sly wink before sobering. “Seriously, better than sticking around and haunting this place even longer. Last time I checked, you’re where the action is.” 

“Yeah, hey, me too.” That was Grover. “Your life seems pretty exciting. I want to see more. Besides, you still owe me a stabbing.” 

Glancing toward Asenath, who was standing in a corner of the room trying not to stare too much, I gestured. “Yeah. You’re welcome to stay. I need more ghosts. But uhh, maybe you should go talk to her, huh?” 

Giving me a brief salute, the man turned and moved that way. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, and I didn’t want to eavesdrop. It was between the two of them. 

Instead, I looked over at the doorway, where Koren and Rebecca had arrived. They looked at me questioningly, and I exhaled before stepping over to explain what was going on.  

They listened, with obvious increasing incredulity about the whole thing. Partway through, however, I paused and looked toward my mother. “Why do you think Kushiel was so convinced that sword was in here?” 

“Oh!” Denise piped up. “Um, because it was.” As the rest of us stared, she darted off the chair, moving to the fireplace to root around inside it before coming out with something long wrapped in cloth. She carefully set it down on a table, then unveiled… the sword. It was absolutely the right one, fitting the description perfectly, with a black blade, a red handle, and an amber jewel at the end. The sword, it was here. It was right here the whole time.

“What… but… but…” My mouth opened and shut, staring at the thing. “You said you couldn’t find it.”

She, in turn, squirmed a little uncomfortably. “I thought umm, I thought it’d be bad if she got it. She said she’d kill people if I didn’t help her find it, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill people anyway. I thought if she found it, everything would be worse. If she killed people because I didn’t give it to her, she would’ve done that anyway. But if she killed even more people because I did give it to her, it would’ve been my fault. I umm… I know it’s bad to lie. Am… am I bad?” 

“No, Denise,” I started. 

“Denny,” she interrupted. “I umm, please. Please call me Denny.” 

“Sure, anything you want,” I agreed while continuing to stare in disbelief at the sword. “But you’re not bad, Denny.

“In all, I’d say you’re pretty amazing.” 

Previous Chapter

The Runaway 15-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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While the rest of us stood frozen for a moment, Mom and Asenath were already moving. They both crouched beside one of the bodies, checking it briefly before looking to one another. Some sort of silent conversation passed between them before my mother looked over at Mennin, her voice tense. “Are you sure your mother isn’t here? And Francis? Why hasn’t an alarm been sounded yet?”

“Yeah, like I said, she’s in Paris for a meeting,” Mennin informed us, already whipping a phone from his pocket. “Francis should be here. He should–The whole system is down. Alarms, communication, everything. It’s all down. Only someone with top level access should have been able to do that.” His long fingers danced over the phone, before he cursed in frustration. “They crashed the whole system. It’s a mix of technology and magic. I can bring it back up, but it’ll take time.” 

“We have to find Denise,” Asenath announced sharply while starting to rise. Half-way to her feet, she paused and tilted her head. “That blood.” Her hand rose, pointing to a small spot against the side of the bed that was almost invisible unless you were looking at the exact right place. “That’s hers. The rest of this belongs to these three, but that spot is hers. She was cut.” 

“You remember the smell of her blood from that long ago?” Rebecca asked, eyes widening. 

Asenath, in turn, gave a short nod. Her eyes had narrowed. “Yes. It was important blood. She’s still bleeding. I can track her scent if she hasn’t gone too far.”

“We can do better than that,” I replied, already moving to that spot. The blood-tracking ability the harpy had given me way back when we first ended up on the Meregan world. All I had to do was touch the spot with my finger, and…

“Top floor,” I announced, turning a bit to point. “She’s all the way up on the top floor and… and it feels like she’s moving fast, that way.” 

As I was saying that, Koren moved forward. She yanked a bit of cloth from one pocket and wiped it through the blood, then handed it to me. “So you can keep tracking her.”  

Mom immediately pointed to Mennin. “Get the system up and running again. Koren, Rebecca, December, and Tabbris, stay here to protect him, just in case. Tabbris can keep in contact with Felicity to let us know if anything happens.” To Asenath, Sean, Twister, and me, she gestured. “Let’s go find Denise. And… and stop whatever’s happening.” Her voice was thick with barely restrained emotion. It was obvious that she knew what all of this most likely meant. Ammon’s memories or… or personality, or… whatever must have managed to take over. And now she–or he–whoever she was after that, was going around the hotel doing… this. Killing people, making them shut down the whole security and communications system, and who knew what else. Whatever was actually going on, we had to find Denise and fix this, no matter what it took. That poor kid. God, fuck, how could this have happened? It didn’t even–was it just because of what Fossor had done? Did he plan for something like this, or was it all just an accident? 

Whatever it was, the point remained that we had to stop Denise and bring her back to her senses. Whether that took some sort of exorcism to get rid of the Ammon memories, or… or whatever. We had to fix this before things got even worse. And before Denise-Ammon made it out of the hotel and disappeared, since I had no idea how long this blood would keep telling me where she was. Especially considering if she–they got out of the building, I was pretty sure the Ammon part of her would be able to grab a ride and really disappear. 

Pushing that worry aside, I focused on something else that might actually be useful. “Hold on. If these guys died recently, I think I might be able to find their ghosts, if they left any. They could answer some questions.” My eyes closed, as I focused intently on my inherited Necromancy. I set aside all reflexive disgust at where the power had come from. What mattered was the fact that it could help us find out what was going on with Denise right now. It could give us answers about what had actually happened in here. Even if I was terrified as to what those answers would be. 

For a few seconds, I focused on that, before frowning. My head shook. “I don’t sense anything. I can’t feel their ghosts at all. I should be able to feel… you know, something. But it’s not there. It’s like…” I hesitated, a grimace touching my face. “It’s like someone else already took their ghosts somewhere else.” 

Everyone exchanged looks at that, their expressions making it clear that they didn’t like the sound of it any more than I did. Something was clearly very wrong here. Even more than we had already known. The thought sent a shiver through me. 

“We have to find her,” Mom announced, cutting through the brief silence that had followed my announcement. “That’s what matters. We’ll figure out the rest of it after she’s safe.” 

She was right, of course. What mattered was finding Denise and making sure she didn’t… that Ammon didn’t… making sure no one else got hurt, or worse. We could figure out the details, such as where the ghosts of these three people who had been murdered so recently had disappeared to, later. It was too bad that we couldn’t get easy answers about what actually happened, but there was no sense in wasting any more time standing around trying to figure it out. Not when Denise was right upstairs. 

Mennin apologized for the fact that he couldn’t send us directly to the top floor with the whole system being down, and gave us directions for the employee-access stairs that should go straight to the top. After a brief hesitation, he pleaded with us to hurry before focusing his attention back on getting the system running again. Apparently whatever Denise-Ammon had done was pretty extensive, because from the way the man was cursing, it didn’t sound like he was having much luck. Which really said a lot about how thoroughly it had been taken down, considering he was literally the son of the owner and apparently had the highest access. 

Either way, we left him working on that, with Tabbris (who had hopped out of me) and the others protecting him. Meanwhile, Twister, Sean, Asenath, and I jogged out of the room together with my mother, emerging into a white-carpeted hallway with various paintings along the wall. The art varied wildly in both style and ability. Next to what looked like a Renaissance masterpiece, there was a crayon piece that had to have been drawn by a child and hung up on a mother’s fridge. And right next to that one was a photo-realistic drawing of a man standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how the artwork was arranged. And we really didn’t have time to focus on that anyway, immediately turning to the left to rush down the hall.  

I could still sense Denise far above us, though now It felt like she was moving back to an area she had already passed before. I wasn’t sure if the Denise part and Ammon part of her were arguing, or if they were looking for something, chasing someone, or what. But they were definitely moving back and forth, because now I could feel her moving back the opposite way, toward the spot I’d sensed her in first. 

I informed the others, and Sean shook his head. “Is she looking for an emergency way out or something? With the whole system down, maybe the exits don’t work.”  

“Well, we got in, right?” Twister demanded. “That Tombs guy just waved his hand and made a door.” 

“He’s the son of the owner,” Mom reminded her. “That comes with privileges.” 

“Speaking of privileges,” I put in, “What exactly are we going to do when we find, uhh, them? Mom and I, we’re immune. And Koren. I mean I think we are. I mean…” Frowning, I shook my head. “Hold on, if she has his power does that mean we’re still immune or–” 

“We won’t take the chance,” Mom informed me, already reaching into her pocket. She produced a handful of coins, tossing one to each of us. “When we get close, put that against your forehead and say ‘Lestansurdi.’ It should make you deaf just long enough to secure Denise and stop her from saying anything. As soon as she’s… as soon as everyone is safe, we’ll work out how to extricate Ammon’s thoughts from her mind.” With a glance toward Asenath, she added, “Felicity, you should help Senny with that.” 

Right, because Asenath couldn’t use magic. She had been upgraded to the point that she could temporarily use other people’s powers by ingesting their blood, but magic was still a no-go for her. It had something to do with the original blood curse that the Vestil had put on the Akharu over the whole throne of the world thing. It cut them off from using any magic, and that curse extended through vampires (who were literally just Natural Akharu Heretics, if you got right down to it). Asenath had a lot of advantages, even more now that she had that upgrade, but she absolutely could not do anything with magic. 

“Uh, quick question, will that work?” Twister piped up. “I’m pretty sure the Denuvus power thing cuts through most forms of ‘can’t hear you,’ doesn’t it? Doesn’t seem like it should be that easy.”

“It worked back when Vanessa and Avalon used those earplug things last year,” I noted. “Though they said something about that being magical temporary deafness with limited charges. Only lasted a few seconds.” 

“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “They would have had to use a special sort of deafness spell to make it work. Probably similar to the one on these, but it works longer. I’ve been working on it since… since my son was given his power. It… it should work. It’s the best chance we have, in any case.”  

By that point, we had reached the end of the corridor. It was an L intersection, cutting to the right. But we didn’t turn that way. Instead, Mom moved to the small painting of a farmyard and put her thumb against the door of the barn, reciting a three sentence code that Mennin had given us. Then we held our breath for a moment. He had said that this emergency stairwell should work even with the system down, but I was pretty sure we all half-expected to be screwed over again anyway. Because at this point, it really wouldn’t have surprised us. 

Fortunately, the wall slid aside as promised, revealing a circular metal stairwell leading up. It was very narrow, only meant for one human-sized person to move up at a time. Which made sense, considering it was essentially only intended for Mennin or his mother and their immediate family to use. 

I went first, since I could detect Denise’s blood and knew exactly where she was. Asenath was behind me, with Mom right behind her. Twister, Sean, and Vulcan brought up the rear. We might have been more wary, but my ability to sense Denise eased tensions a bit. Still, we had no idea what sort of orders an Ammon-possessed (or whatever) Denise might have given anyone else in the building. So, we weren’t going to reach out for help. We had to get up there ourselves, use the special deafening spells, and… and capture Denise. After that? Yeah, I had no idea. Get Ammon’s thoughts and memories out of Denise somehow. We’d deal with that as it came. 

There were other landings to get off at more floors, but we ignored them. The only exit we needed was the one that led to Denise. And there it was. We finally made it. In the lead, I stopped by the door, focusing just a bit. It was getting harder to sense the girl’s location through the blood, but I could still do it. “This floor still,” I murmured under my breath. “Far end, all the way in the corner. I think she’s… she’s moving around one room? She keeps, like, standing in one spot, then darting to another, staying there for a few seconds, then darting to a different spot. It’s like she’s–” 

“Searching,” Asenath finished. “Whatever that room is, it sounds like she’s ransacking it. Or they are. Or–” A frown crossed her face.

Looking over my shoulder down to where she was, I gestured. “I know, confusing, right? No idea how to refer to… umm… them?”

“Them is as close as I think can be accurate,” Mom muttered. “At least until we know more about… about what happened.” 

Swallowing hard, I nodded before turning back to the exit. “Well, let’s go find them then.” Pushing the door open, I stepped out cautiously. Neither my item sense nor anyone else had picked up any sign of anyone beyond, but still. Again, with Ammon involved (in some way), there was no such thing as being too careful. They could have ordered anyone to lay in ambush in case someone came after them. 

The area we emerged into looked like (duh) an extremely high-end hotel. The floor was marble under our feet, with a very wide hallway (seriously, the corridor was like twenty feet across). The walls were this beautiful reddish wood, and chandeliers hung from the ceiling at equal intervals going down the hall. To the left, wide windows displayed various scenes from different parts of the world. To the right, spaced just as equally apart as the chandeliers, were doors leading into private suites. Next to the windows here and there were small tables with statuary, plants, chairs to sit in, and so on. 

“They’ve done some remodeling since we were here last year,” I muttered, eyes scanning the whole corridor rapidly. “The place looks different.” 

“They do that,” Mom informed me, stepping up to one side as she kept her gaze laser-focused ahead of us. “With the sort of magic and resources this place can pull in, they like to mix things up a lot. Probably even more after what you said happened. They would want to distance themselves from experiencing a full-on Seosten invasion and battle throughout their sanctuary.” 

“And now look what happened,” Sean put in flatly. He had moved up on my other side, Vulcan creeping ahead of him a bit while sniffing the air. “Their system’s down and at least three of their people are dead.”  

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out as violent as it did last time,” Twister noted. She hopped up, transforming into a small hummingbird before landing on Sean’s raised arm. 

Asenath, moving up next to Vulcan, shook her head. “It won’t. Whatever Ammon’s trying to do, whatever… whatever’s going on, we just catch Denise and evict every part of that… that… boy out of her.” It was clear that she wanted to say something worse than boy, but restrained herself with Mom right there. 

For her part, my mother simply started walking, gaze focused forward. “Yes,” she agreed, “we find Denise and free her. Whatever that takes.”

The rest of us exchanged brief looks before setting off after her. Yeah, I knew just how bad Mom was taking this whole thing. After everything she had done to make sure her own son wouldn’t resurrect, specifically so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else, and now… now he was hurting more people. Or his memories were, his thoughts, his–ghost. His something. Whatever, the point was, people were getting hurt and killed because of him. And Mom was feeling the guilt of that, magnified by the whole situation that had led to it. 

Something that struck me as odd as we ran down the hall past all these doors was the fact that we still hadn’t seen anyone else. No guests, no employees, no one. I’d expected to see a bunch of Ammon-controlled people blocking our path. Or at least a lookout or something. There should have been people ready for, if not us, then any other interruption. I was pretty sure that’s what Ammon would have done. But there was just no one. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. I had no idea if there were people inside their rooms, but there was no one out in the hall. In some ways, that was worse. It made me even more anxious. What was going on? Why was Ammon-Denise ransacking some room on the top floor instead of getting out of the hotel? What could they possibly want up there? Seriously, as far as I knew, Ammon had never even been here. He shouldn’t know anything about the place, and Denise definitely didn’t know anything about it. So what the hell was going on? We were missing something, and the closer we got to where they were without figuring out what that missing something was, the worse I thought it was going to be. 

Unfortunately, we were going to have to wait even longer to find out. Because just as we turned the corner at the end of the hall, a glowing reddish forcefield blocked our path. It stretched across the entire hallway, stopping us from moving forward. We all came to a halt, and Mom reached out to put her hand close to the thing. “It’s blocking transportation powers,” she murmured. “And it’s… really strong. I don’t think we can break through it. Not quickly, anyway. We need another way. Are they…” She looked toward me questioningly, while the others followed suit.  

“They’re still in that room,” I confirmed after a moment of focus. It was even harder now, the sense even more faded. But I could definitely still feel it, especially when I pressed my finger against the blood on the cloth. “Still moving around, just like before.” A frown touched my face once more. “I still can’t figure out what the hell they’re doing.” Looking to my mother, I asked, “Are you sure you can’t see them from here?” 

Mom shook her head. “Between the hotel’s own safety measures that are still running, and whatever they set up, I can’t see any better down this hall than you can.” 

We tried a couple of different things. Twister turned into a bug to find a way around or under the shield, but apparently it extended through the solid material. She couldn’t get anywhere. Mom, Sean, and I tried any combination of magic we knew to take the shield down, and that showed some promise, but it was too slow. Even working together, we would take at least an hour to break through the thing. And I was pretty sure we didn’t have that sort of time. We had to get in there and find out what the hell Ammon-Denise was doing. Every second that passed made me even more anxious. This was really bad. 

Punching the wall, Asenath turned to me. “Ghosts? There have to be some ghosts around here, right? Or you can use one of the others you already have. Maybe they can get through.” 

Mom was nodding. “Yes, they should be able to. Or you can summon them onto the other side. A shield like this has to have a power source somewhere nearby. If they can find and disrupt it, the shield should go down so we can get through.” 

Right, I could do that. If we needed the ghost on the other side of the shield, it was probably a good idea to reach out for one that was already over there. So, I pressed my hands against the force field, closed my eyes, and focused. Immediately, I sensed a presence. A familiar one at that. 

My eyes opened, to find the ghost boy from before, back at the other hotel. He looked the same as before, in his old-style clothing. “Hiya, boss lady,” he greeted with a casual wave. “You rang?” 

“You–how–what?” My mouth opened and shut, staring at him. “How are you…?” 

“Right, I got bored back at the motel, and your life seems exciting,” he informed me. “So, I figured I’d follow you and see what happened. You really need to get better about sensing that sort of thing. I mean, you got a lot of raw power, sure. But you need practice. No way should I have been able to follow you guys without you knowing. That’s just crazy. Probably would’ve sensed me downstairs when you were looking for those new dead folks, but I took a walk to check this place out. Pretty swanky.” 

“Felicity?” Mom prompted. “Is this a friend of yours?” 

“It’s a long story,” I replied. “Wait, not that long. He was back at the other hotel, where Mercer was. He helped me get through there. And now… now he’ll help here?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. 

He, in turn, shrugged. “I suppose. But maybe you should ask one of the ghosts who lives here. Like that guy.” Turning and moving a bit to one side, he raised a hand to point toward a dark figure that had just appeared in the hall behind him. Another ghost. I felt it. I could sense death surrounding the shape, which grew stronger as it came closer. 

Stronger… and even more familiar than the boy. 

“Well… hey there,” the figure drawled as they got close enough for everyone to see. 

“Didn’t expect to see you guys any time soon,” Seth’s ghost announced. 

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The Runaway 15-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Getting to the Auberge was a bit more complicated than just saying it, of course. Sure, we had something of an ongoing relationship witdoh them, but they were still in hiding. Between the rich and accustomed-to-comfort clientele that the Auberge tended to keep normally, and the people from Wonderland they allowed to visit and share time there, no one at the hotel particularly liked the idea of being easy to find. They kept the entrance into the hotel moving constantly, bouncing it from city to city with no set schedule or anything. There was no way to anticipate where they might be at any given moment. Because being easy to anticipate would mean being easy to kill. 

The only way we had to actually get through to them so we could schedule a meeting was to call up Abigail at the station and have her send a message that we wanted to have a face-to-face. And from there, we had to wait for her to call us back once she managed to get a response. Which left our little group holed up in an old, rundown building that had once been a tire shop. We had to put down a couple different spells that would make us hard to track, and also another couple that would alert us if anyone approached. We didn’t think that the Crossroads people would keep coming after us (they probably figured we had teleported away by that point), but it was better to be safe than sorry. 

Everyone was sitting around on a couple folding chairs, an old table that had been left behind, or just (as in my case) flopped out on the cement. I was staring at the ceiling, musing aloud. “Why does Denise keep remembering things? Why does she remember Ammon controlling her, or the gas station? And what… what made the Alter detection spell keep flickering back at the house? And smashed the gas pump? And why did Mercer forget the debt? Why did he… why?”

“I think you’ve summed up all the questions, babe,” Twister informed me, perched up on top of the nearby empty steel tool cabinet that had apparently been too heavy to bother removing. She gave me a thumbs up. “Now, can you actually answer any of them?”  

“Poor Denise.” That was Asenath, standing over by a window to watch the street beyond. She spoke in a soft, thoughtful voice. “Can you imagine going through what she is right now? She must be an Adjacent.” 

“That’s someone who had the Bystander Effect broken, but they’re still just a normal person other than that, right?” I put in, glancing toward the corner of the garage, where Rebecca and Koren were sitting together. 

Sean nodded. He had pulled a folding chair around and was sitting on it backwards, while Vulcan (with Vulcan Junior attached) lay by his feet as though resting. “Yeah, that’s right. So somehow the Bystander Effect didn’t fully take when Denise respawned. And now she’s getting nightmares about what really happened to her. And as if that’s not enough, without the Bystander Effect, she keeps seeing all these monsters and has no idea what they are. Or even that they really exist. And anyone she tried to tell wouldn’t know what she was talking about. They wouldn’t believe her. Which is… you know.” He grimaced. “Really not good.” 

Everyone was making very good points, but none of it was making me feel any better. And a glance over to the doorway where my mother was standing showed that it wasn’t making her feel any better either. We were all very anxiously waiting to see where we were supposed to go to find an entrance to the Auberge, so we could actually get some real answers. Which would be really nice, at this point, given how weird this whole thing with Denise had been so far. 

Asenath was still talking. “She’s an Adjacent, so she’s seeing all these monsters around her and no one knows what she’s talking about. Until she met those Alters.” She frowned then, looking between my mother and me. “Are you guys sure there was no other information about… you know, how she met them? Did she just go up and start talking?” 

I shrugged completely cluelessly, while Mom answered. “If he knew more than that, he didn’t include it in the spell. Felicity?” 

“Nope,” I replied. “He just said she met up with some people and went to the place he was going to name in that spell. I didn’t even know they were Alters until Mom said so. I think he was being as vague as possible intentionally. Whether he knows more than he said or not…” I hesitated before adding, “He seemed pretty competent, all things considered.” 

“So he’s probably not hanging around the place a bunch of Heretics were at just so he can be forced to answer more questions,” Sean lamented, reaching down to rub Vulcan’s head. “Too bad, it could have made this whole thing a lot easier. But then, nothing about this seems very easy so far.” He muttered the last bit thoughtfully before pushing himself up with a sigh. “Have you guys considered that there could be some sort of really powerful ghost haunting Denise?” 

Without a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve definitely been considering it. Maybe some sort of spirit that’s doing Fossor’s bidding one last time?” Glancing toward my mother, I grimaced before quietly adding, “I know you were sure that he didn’t know anything about what you did, but sending some independent ghost-thing off to screw with the one good thing you managed to do involving Ammon is… sort of completely his style, you know?” 

Mom didn’t respond at first, but after a moment, she gave a short nod. “You’re right, it does sound like him. But that still doesn’t explain why Mercer would forget the debt.” 

“Yeah, that’s really weird,” Rebecca piped up. “Unless… umm, we know the Bystander Effect isn’t working on Denise. Could it be something like… the Effect is malfunctioning on her and erasing or adjusting other people’s memories? Maybe it could even be directed by her, whether she knows it or not. Like, if she was there at the gas station and told Mercer he should forget the debt, and he just… did, because the Bystander Effect kicked in and erased his memory.” 

Thinking about that, I offered, “Maybe that’s what is making her parents not check in on her. You know, if she told them she was going to stay with her aunt before she ran away, and the Bystander Effect made it stick in their heads that way. Is that… even possible?”

We all exchanged curious looks before gradually turning our gazes, one by one, to the pair of Seosten sitting together next to the garage door. Tabbris and December looked at each other, then up to us, before the latter spoke. “Ohwe’renotexpertsaboutit. Justcuzwe’reSeosten… doesn’tmeanweknowanything….abouthowtheBystanderEffectworks.” 

Tabbris, meanwhile, pushed herself to her feet and fidgeted a little before hesitantly putting in, “I think maybe it’s possible? You should ask Mama though. She’d know a lot more about that sort of thing. But uhh, yeah maybe? The Bystander Effect is really weird and all that. It’s like, spells that are that big can have really weird side effects or go wonky if you poke them the right way. Or the wrong way.” Biting her lip, clearly uncomfortable from all the attention, she added a quiet, “I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t really help to just say ‘uh huh, maybe,’ but… uh huh, maybe.”  

“We’ll have to make do without bothering Sariel,” Mom noted gently. “We still can’t disturb them while they finish setting up that spell.” She offered the girl a soft, reassuring smile. “Your mom’s too important for that. They need her.” 

Stepping over that way, I put one arm around my little sister, tugging her closer. “That’s right, can’t finish the spell without help from the champion Seosten memory-adjuster. It’s okay, though. We’re all just spitballing here anyway. We’ll know more once we talk to Denise herself. And hey, bonus, if she really is an Adjacent, she’ll actually remember what we’re talking about.” 

Yeah, that clearly wasn’t exactly helpful in a lot of ways. Especially given the way I saw my mother flinch, subtle as it was. She had clearly been hoping to give the girl a normal life back. Forcing her to have all those memories on top of noticing the non-humans all around her, and having no one to talk to about any of it? No wonder she felt guilty. I didn’t want her to, of course. But I understood it. All I could do was hope that finding Denise and talking to her directly would settle as much of that guilt as possible. Making sure the girl was okay, that was what mattered now. And hey, maybe this would be for the best in the long run. If Mom could actually explain what happened and give Denise some closure on all that, it might be good, right? 

Reaching up behind her to grab a nearby metal railing before hauling herself up, Koren announced, “Hey, at least she’s at the Auberge, right? Face it, one little girl seeing monsters and running off on her own could have gone a lot worse than that. She found some people who listened to her enough to take her to the Auberge. That’s like…  one of the best possible outcomes, you know? If you think about it, she got really lucky there.” 

Yeah, Koren definitely wasn’t wrong, though the thought of how bad that could have gone made my stomach flip over. Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “Exactly. Now all we have to do is go there and talk to her. We’ll explain everything and help any way she needs, right?”  

The others agreed emphatically, just as Mom’s phone buzzed. She looked at it before straightening. “There’s a guide on his way. Abigail told him where to find us.” Her voice went flat. “Whatever happens, Denise needs real answers. She deserves real answers. After everything she’s been through, we owe her that much. I can’t give her back everything Ammon took with his… with what happened. But I can give her answers.” 

So, we collected ourselves and were ready a few minutes later when there was a light knock at the side door. I was the closest one to it, so I stepped closer, item-sense telling me there was one person beyond. With a shrug, I pulled the door open, before finding myself face-to-face with a familiar figure. The man in front of me was about six feet tall, with pale skin and a face that might have been incredibly handsome if it wasn’t just slightly off in subtle, yet subconsciously noticeable ways. His nose was just a tiny bit too small, and his mouth slightly too big. The proportions were just… a little off. Enough to make someone’s brain skip a little when looking at him, trying to figure out what was wrong. It was sort of uncanny valley-ish, that thing when something looks mostly human, but there’s something just wrong enough about it to make someone’s mind uncomfortable.  

“Mennin?” I managed. Yeah, it was Mennin Tombs, the son of the Auberge’s current owner, Caela Tombs. He was the guy who had been possessed by Radueriel for awhile when he, Abaddon, and Kushiel had been working on breaking into that side of the vault. “We didn’t know you were coming.” Quickly, I stepped back to let him in. 

“You kidding?” the man himself asked while stepping through the doorway. “If Mom wasn’t in the middle of a pretty intense meeting in Paris, she would have come herself as soon as she heard who was asking. And she’ll definitely want you all to stick around until she can get back to the Auberge to see…” His gaze moved around the garage before focusing on my mother. “Joselyn Atherby, I presume.” 

“It’s Chambers now,” Mom corrected with a faint smile. “But yes, and you would be Caela’s son.” With that, she stepped over and extended a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I just wish that was the only emotion connected to this moment.” 

“Right, the girl.” Mennin agreed, giving a quick glance around at the rest of us. “Sorry, some of you I know, some of you I don’t. I assume you’ve all been fully vetted?” He gave Mom a brief glance before hurriedly nodding. “Right, yeah, sorry. Habit. You know what they say about the first rule of the Auberge.” 

“Don’t tell anyone about the Auberge?” Koren piped up.

Mennin, in turn, grinned with that slightly-too-wide mouth. “That’s what I said! Err, I mean, no. The first rule is don’t let anyone who isn’t a registered guest find the Auberge. So, we’re going to have to make you all registered guests in order to keep up with that rule. We just, um, ever since last year, we’re even more careful about who we bring in. Usually that requires a lot of personal vetting. Which takes weeks. All of it to make the guests feel as safe as possible. But, you know, if anyone’s going to merit an exception, it’s Joselyn A–Chambers.” He offered Mom a smile, which then turned to me. “Not to mention the people who helped save the hotel in the first place last spring.” 

“We didn’t exactly save the–never mind.” My head shook. That was too complicated to get into. “What about Denise though? She wouldn’t have had weeks of vetting before showing up with–who did she show up with? Wait, she is there, right?” A sudden, horrible thought had just raced through my mind that this was all a wild goose chase and he would have no idea who that was. 

“Oh yes,” the man confirmed. “She is in the hotel. At least, we believe it’s her. The timeline and description both fit. Along with a few other things.”

Asenath frowned. “What do you mean you believe it’s her? Hasn’t she introduced herself?” 

With a cough, Mennin grimaced. “Not so much. I ahhh, well, see, that’s where things get a little more complicated.”

“Fantastic,” Koren blurted, “because what this whole situation was really missing was complication. It was all too simple and straightforward. Downright boring, really.” She noticed the looks everyone was giving her and flushed a bit, mumbling, “I’ll be quiet now.” 

“She is right though,” Mom noted with a look at Mennin. “This has all been quite complicated enough already. Can you tell us what you mean? Why hasn’t Denise introduced herself? Is she okay?” 

That led to another grimace from the man. “Okay, well, that’s a uhh…” He hesitated before pushing on. “After what happened last year, we had some new defenses installed. They’re spells that are supposed to expel you from the hotel if you intend to harm any of the other guests or employees. Really high-end stuff too, they had to bring in some serious mojo people to get it done. And we think that’s somehow affecting her. I mean, it hasn’t sent her out, but they’re reacting to something. She came into the hotel and barely had time for a how do you do before she just… passed out. Collapsed right there on the floor, and she’s been in a coma ever since.” 

“Wait, what?” Mom blurted. “She came in and then collapsed and she’s been in a coma for weeks? But what does that have to do with your new defenses? You said they should teleport her out of the hotel if she intended to harm your guests. But they’re not doing that.” 

His head shook once more. “Nope, they’re not. But they’re not working right either. Since the second she came in, those spells have been acting up. They’re just… off. I dunno the specifics, our mages do. They said the spells are wonky, and it started since she came in. We’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with them and her ever since. Haven’t had much luck.” 

“Not that we’re not super-glad you didn’t,” Sean put in, “but why didn’t you just send her out of the hotel if she was screwing up the protection spells by being there? Or just disable the protection spells to wake her up.”

“As far as the first bit goes, Mom wouldn’t let them,” Mennin replied. “She said there was something about the girl, she didn’t want to let anything happen to her. She couldn’t even really explain it. She just said we had to take care of her. So we’ve been trying to figure out what happened and how to wake her up. Mom had some other pretty powerful guests stop by to try their hand at it, but nothing worked. We were even going to reach out to you Rebel Heretics for help pretty soon if you hadn’t reached out first. As soon as that principal of yours described who you were looking for, we knew it had to be our coma girl.” 

He shrugged then. “And as for the other part, we did. Believe me, they disabled the spells, tried putting her in an area where they were blocked, even took her out of the hotel temporarily. Nothing worked. She’s still unconscious and still won’t wake up no matter what we do. She says some stuff sometimes, just mutters words now and then. But she’s still completely out of it.” 

“And you have no idea why the protection spells knocked her out in the first place?” I asked. “They just randomly completely messed up this one girl and threw her into a coma when she came into the hotel, all for no apparent reason?” There had to be more to it than that, of course. But damned if I had any idea. It was another piece of a very confusing puzzle. And at this rate, I was afraid we had a quarter of like six different puzzles all jumbled together. 

Mennin, in turn, replied, “Not exactly, but we think it might have something to do with her power.” 

“Wait, what?” I gave a double-take along with everyone else. 

“She doesn’t have any power,” Mom informed him, even as her eyes narrowed. “She’s a normal human. An Adjacent at most.”

“Uhhh…” Mennin looked back and forth between all of us. “Are you sure about that? Cuz that’s not what the people who brought her in said. And they were pretty confident about it.”   

Sean was the first to find his voice. “What do you mean? What–uh, powers do they think she has?” 

The man looked at us as though we’re trying to decide if we were playing some sort of prank on him or not. Finally, he took a breath before explaining what the Alters who had brought Denise into the hotel had told them. First one of the bad guys had smashed his baton into her head. When Mom heard that, she actually growled under her breath. But apparently the blow to the head, though it had knocked Denise down, hadn’t actually hurt her. She got up again, and actually punched the man who had hit her. Apparently she hit him hard enough to knock him flying backwards. Which had pissed off the second guy enough to kick her backwards into a tree. Which, again, had done nothing to the girl. 

“Then what happened?” Tabbris quickly urged once Mennin trailed off. We were all hanging off everything he said. 

“Then she uhh, she introduced herself,” Mennin replied. “At least, the people she saved think she did. They heard her say ‘My name is–’ but they didn’t catch the rest of it. She introduced herself, then told the men to stop. And–” 

“And they did,” I finished, through the hard lump that had suddenly formed in my throat. No. No, no, no, this wasn’t right. No. “Wait. Wait, did… did she say her name? Did she say Denise? Did she say ‘My name is Denise’, or… or…” 

“Ammon,” Mom finished for me. Her tone was brittle. “Did… she say… Ammon?” 

This can’t be happening. No. Ammon couldn’t actually be back. He couldn’t have been reborn in her body or whatever. A sudden rush of emotions and memories flew through me about everything we had seen up to this point. All those carvings in the wall, the dents in the side of the gas pump, Mercer forgetting the debt, all of it. Was that… was that Ammon? No. No, that didn’t make sense. He wouldn’t help people. He wouldn’t–but if he–but if she–but…

Mennin was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. They were a little preoccupied and didn’t hear everything she said. She introduced herself and told them to stop talking. Then she told them to drop their weapons and walk for an hour. When they left, our guests tried to thank her, and she begged them to help her. So they brought her to the Auberge. And then she collapsed. Now you know everything I do. Possibly more, it seems like.” 

I couldn’t even begin to sort through what I was feeling at that moment. If Ammon really was back in any form, or… or… no. No, we had to get there. We had to get there right now. I felt a sudden squeeze, as Tabbris grabbed my hand. She knew. As I glanced that way, my eyes wide, she quickly possessed me, and I felt her comforting presence like a warm embrace, from the inside. 

Mom’s voice was quiet, as she fought to keep herself together. “Take us to the Auberge,” she murmured. “Take us there, now.” 

Mennin gave a short nod, passing around what turned out to be hotel keycards. He told us to keep them in our pockets for safety purposes, against their other magical defenses. Then he held a hand up, focusing for a moment before a large, wooden door appeared in the middle of the room. Once it was there, he stepped up and turned the knob before opening it. He was already explaining, “This should take us straight to the medical wing, where–” Then he stopped talking, as he turned to face the door he had just opened. 

When the man froze, Mom moved over, gently pushing him out of the way. I was right behind her and we both stared into what looked like it had been a very nice private hospital room. Had been, that was, before all the murder. Three bodies were on the floor, two obvious nurses and one doctor. Blood literally coated the floor, like a small wading pool. It was everywhere. The bed where Denise should have been was empty, and those three were dead on the floor. 

We were too late. 

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The Runaway 15-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There was a bit of arguing back and forth between more of Mercer’s men after that. They really didn’t like the idea of letting me walk away with their boss and only one guy. But they also didn’t have that much of a choice. There was nothing they could do while I was inside him. Well, there was, but I had the impression they didn’t know the ejection spell. And even if they had, they would’ve had to get close to me and hold him down to make it work. It would’ve been a whole thing. Not to mention the fact that I could’ve killed him before they got that far. 

Either way, within about ten seconds of arguing, Beied shouted everyone else down and ordered a couple of them to go downstairs to find out what the hell was going on out there for themselves, while the rest were told to grab everything valuable and retreat to the secondary base. Whatever that was. I didn’t really care. All that mattered was finding out what this guy knew about where Denise had gone. 

That particular revelation was still rebounding through my head. My instinct back at the house has been right. She really did take off on her own. At least, it looked like that. She’d willingly gotten on a bus to leave town. Which explained why her parents and aunt both thought she was staying with the other. She’d chosen to tell them that. Though even that opened up a few more questions. Or a lot more questions. Like how she had convinced them it was happening, why they never realized there was anything wrong, and so on. It raised far more questions than it answered, really. But at least it was a direction. It would be a direction as soon as the man told me which bus she had taken. Which meant getting out of here without starting another fight. 

After ordering everyone else to step aside and make room, Beied gestured to the door. “Come with me then, Heretic. We’ll go to the roof, I’ll give you the information you want so much, and then you can let him go and we can all get back to our own very busy lives.” His eyes narrowed. “And no more funny business. You want what I know, you play nice for it. Try that possession trick on me, and this–” He drew a field-engraver of his own, giving a few quick swipes across his own forehead, “will wipe my memory of everything you’re looking for. It’ll be gone forever. So the only way you’re finding out what you want is by being nice and letting the boss go. Got it?” 

I wasn’t sure he was being truthful about what that rune on his head could do. But I also wasn’t going to take the chance. So, I gave a short nod and made Mercer start walking that way. “Sure thing,” I murmured with the man’s voice, “But like I said, we should hurry. Some of those Heretics down there are from the loyalists, the really… ambitious ones. And I don’t think my people are gonna be all that interested in stopping them from getting in here for much longer.” 

That started a little murmuring from the other guards before they were silenced with a sharp word from Beied, followed by an order to get the hell to work before the Heretics killed everyone in the hotel. Then he gave me a look and snapped that I should follow him before pivoting and walking out. I did so, though I kept a close eye on the people I was walking past, just to make sure none of them tried to do anything stupid. I didn’t think they would, given the situation. But I wasn’t going to let my guard down either. It was too dangerous to just assume none of them would get any bright ideas, either about trying to hurt me through their boss, or making a power play themselves by killing said boss while he was indisposed. After all, these guys were a gang. I had a feeling backstabbing was their most common method of promotion. And killing the boss could be a hell of a promotion, if they could hold onto it. 

But, in this case, no one tried anything. They left me alone, aside from a little grumbling under their breaths. They were not very happy with me. Which was just something I would struggle with, but with enough mental fortitude, somehow would find the strength to muddle on through it.

On the way through the corridor, as I followed after the Nekomata man, I reached out to Tabbris to find out how things were going out there. She couldn’t say much, but let me know that things were, as she put it ‘tense and a bit violent’ but that they were okay. She also wanted to know how I was doing, so I told the girl what I had found out so far, and that I was about to get more information before coming out. I was trying really hard not to focus on the fact that my little sister, mother, and friends were out there with some Heretics who probably wanted to kill all of them. The students probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but they would have adults with them. And if this went on too long, those guys might get word back to the Committee about who was here. And that… that could make this whole situation turn really bad. 

Yeah, the point was, I had to get the information and get out of here so that we could all leave. Every moment that passed was another moment that the situation could turn even more sideways than it already was. Because seriously, what were the odds that a Crossroads student hunt would happen right here, right now? I didn’t even want to try to figure that out. But hey, maybe Ambrose Keaton, my Calculus teacher, would be willing to give it a shot. 

It was just slightly possible that being forced to keep my anxiety over not knowing exactly what was going on down there in check so I didn’t screw this up was making me a little screwy in the head. Maybe more than a little. Either way, I kept a sharp lookout as we made our way through the corridor to the stairwell. This was a different one than the one I had been in before, where I had left the unconscious body. This one was labeled roof access, and there was a keypad lock. But the door was already standing open, and was held that way by a large planter. 

At a gesture from me to keep going, Beied started up the stairs, with me right behind him (keeping an eye over my shoulder just in case someone who was shielded from my item sense got any big ideas, of course). My guide’s voice was faux-casual. “So, you’re part of that Heretic rebellion thing, huh? How’s that working out for you?”

“Peachy,” I retorted before pointedly adding, “So, you’re part of a gang that terrorizes people into getting themselves killed during gas station robberies while trying to pay off a debt to you, and then also terrorizes their surviving child to try to force her into paying off the same debt, huh? How’s that working out for you? Also, just in case I wasn’t clear about this, if you or any of the people from this collection of upstanding citizens go anywhere near Kalia again, my friends and I will burn your entire organization to the ground. Your boss might have literally forgotten the debt, but you don’t get to bring it back up and go after it just because you didn’t. She’s done. She lost her dad from you fucks trying to get blood out of a stone. Either the debt is over, or you are.” 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the roof. There were guys up there who had been leaning over the edge to look at what was going on below. But they must have already been briefed about what was going on, because none of them looked surprised when we appeared. Nor did they look to their boss for orders. Instead, they shot him (me) nasty looks while obviously restraining themselves from lifting their weapons. Yeah, in about three seconds, they made it clear that they knew I was there. And that they weren’t at all happy about it. 

Beied, in response to what I had said, gave a short nod. “You can believe what you want, and make any threat that makes you feel better. But the fact is, I got no problem ignoring that debt. Far as I’m concerned, it died with the man himself. Going after family, that’s just a step too far. That’s why I didn’t remind him about it. Didn’t want it blowing back on any innocent parties. My interest was in finding out what happened to the boss to change his mind. Literally change his mind.” He paused briefly before giving me a look. “But I get the feeling you’re about as lost on that as me. So good luck. Now you ready to let him go?” 

Oh boy was I ever ready. I desperately wanted to kick my way out of this piece of shit and go down to join the others. But there was still one thing I needed. It was the entire reason we’d come this far, and I wasn’t about to run off without it. Making my host give the Nekomata man a hard look, I growled out, “Soon as you tell me everything you know about where Denise went.” 

“Of course,” he agreed. “Like you said, you and your friends can come after us and wipe us out. Pretty sure that includes if I lie to you right now. And you Heretics are good at finding people when you’re motivated. I don’t want you motivated to find me. So here it is, the full truth. That girl you’re looking for got on a bus to Chicago three weeks ago. I did a little digging after that cuz I was still curious and found out she went south to Belleville. From there, she met up with some people and went to one more place.” With that, he held up that field-engraver again, along with a flat metal sheet about three inches across. “The name of that place is right here.” He showed me the symbol he had drawn on the sheet. “Take this thing and say Maescarvien while giving it a little magic juice, and it’ll tell you where she went. Maescarvien.” He spelled it and said it once more, slowly. 

“Or you could just tell me right now,” I pointed out, making a point of glowering a bit at him. Somehow, it seemed less effective even though it was coming from a guy much bigger than I was.

“Yeah,” Beied agreed, “but see, this way you need to step out of my boss to get all the information you want. Like I said, possess me and the info’s gone. Only way you get it is with this thing right here. It’s a bit delicate, so you don’t wanna let it hit too hard. But then, I figure you Heretics have plenty of powers to help get the–oops.” Even as he said that, the man had already given the thing a toss, sending it flying off the roof.  “Might wanna get that.” 

I was already launching myself that way. With a curse, I lunged out of the man I was possessing, once more leaving an unconscious host to collapse while I dove off the roof and plummeted after the thing Beied had tossed. I heard the other guards start to shout something about shooting, but the Nekomata man called them off, telling everyone to evacuate and that they had enough problems without the rage that shooting a Heretic in the back would invite. 

Not that I was paying attention to any of that, of course. It was just noise in the background while I threw myself off the building and started to fall. All my attention was on the metal plate that guy had thrown. I could see it plummeting ahead of me, my eyes locking onto it. Nothing else mattered in that moment beyond grabbing that plate. Which wasn’t that hard, since I was finally far enough away from those magical transport defenses that a thought made a portal appear directly below the plate, while I put the other end slightly above me. As the plate passed through, I snapped my hand out and caught it. 

Right, now I had the plate. I just had to avoid hitting the ground at full speed. I was tough, but hitting the ground from like eighty feet up would probably still be pretty unfun. Thankfully, my staff had plenty of charge in it, so I managed to hold it in one hand while flipping over, triggering the boost a couple times to slow my descent before landing in a crouch on a small patch of dead grass near an empty fountain beside the hotel. 

Immediately, I shoved the plate away safely into a pocket while reaching out to Tabbris, as I could still feel her presence. Where am I going?

Her response was a blurted, Behind you! 

Yeah, I’d sensed it too in that same moment. We both felt my item-sense warning me about a figure rushing up at my back, moving completely (unnaturally) silently while reaching out with one hand. I let the person get close enough to think they were about to hit me, then pivoted and twisted out of the way. At the same time, my staff lashed out to collide with their stomach. 

Between my own strength and the other person’s momentum, I was pretty sure I hit hard enough to flatten a bear. But this wasn’t a bear. It was someone a bit more familiar. 

“Hey there, Zeke,” I breezily greeted while repositioning myself a few steps backward. “Mind if we catch up later, I’ve sorta got stuff to do.” 

Yeah, it was my old classmate. Zeke, generally speaking, didn’t exactly look that intimidating. He was physically average in most respects, standing about five foot eight, with brown hair that always looked like he had just ruffled it up after getting out of the shower and let it stay that way. He wore thin-rimmed glasses along with the Crossroads uniform with the white trim showing he had stayed in the security track. On his left arm was what looked like a metal gauntlet, but I knew it could expand into his weapon. All in all, he wasn’t the world’s most daunting figure. 

But then, neither was I. In all the time since I had woken up on that bus over a year earlier, I had long-since had to do away with any notion of what a powerful figure should look like. I knew better than to actually dismiss Zeke as a threat, especially given I didn’t really know what he was capable of. We hadn’t been close enough for me to keep track of his powers before leaving Crossroads, and it had been over six months since then. A lot could have changed in that time.

What had not changed, apparently, was Zeke’s dislike of me. His lower lip curled distastefully as he held one hand over his stomach where I had hit him. It wasn’t enough to put the boy down or anything, though from his expression it definitely hurt. “Chambers.” He said the name like it disgusted him, eyes narrowing into a dark glare. “Let me guess, the guys in this place are just tragically misunderstood orphans whose hugs cure all diseases and if we dance in a circle singing Kumbaya, it’ll erase all the effects of pollution on the planet.” 

“Those guys?” I nodded toward the hotel without taking my eyes off him. “Nah, I’m pretty sure they’re all assholes. And that’s not why I’m here anyway. Like I said, why don’t we do this another time. You go back to your… whatever you’re doing, and I’ll back off and go my own way. That way.” I used my free hand to gesture back over my shoulder. “Hotel’s all yours.” 

From the look on his face, Zeke didn’t believe me and thought it was some sort of trick. I almost wanted to just turn away from him and take off running to find the others, but there was no way I would give him that sort of opening when, again, I had no idea what he was capable of. 

Instead of just taking my offer and letting both of us move on with our lives, Zeke snapped, “Do you have any idea what Sands’ and Scout’s dad is going through right now because they listened to you? You fucking tore his family apart. You tore a lot of families apart. And you’re gonna get a lot of people killed with this bullshit.” His head shook. “But you don’t care. You never took any of this seriously. You never actually cared about any of it. The whole thing was just one big joke to you.”

“You know what, Zeke?” I shot back, “I’ve been connected to newspapers my whole life, and even I have no idea how to unpack all the issues you just threw on the table. Sands and Sarah make their own decisions. So does their mom. People make their own decisions. Good decisions and bad ones. People make choices and those choices determine what they are. That’s kind of the entire point of what we’ve been saying the whole time. If you still don’t get that, maybe I could send you a powerpoint presentation sometime if you–” 

Yeah, apparently that was more than the boy was willing to take. He abruptly lunged my way, the thing that had looked like a gauntlet on his left arm expanded into a full, circular shield. Even as I was reacting, the boy lashed out with that, sending the shield flying… not at me. Instead, it rebounded off the wall nearby before several spikey blades extended from all sides of the thing. As my head snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of a guy who had been standing just beyond the range of my item-sense, gun raised to point at me before his head was cut off by the now-bladed shield. The instant the headless figure dropped, the shield vanished from mid-air and reappeared on Zeke’s arm as he doubled over a bit, stumbling slightly from the rush of the kill. 

Two seconds passed before he looked up, focusing once more. “You didn’t hit me while you had the chance.” 

“You didn’t let that guy hit me,” I pointed out, still a bit surprised by the whole sequence. I might’ve been just as stunned as he was, despite not killing anyone. 

He, in turn, stared hard at me with a flat, “I’m not the bad guy.” 

“Yeah,” I replied, “and neither am I.” With that, I reached out with my Necromancy power, caught hold of the ghost of the man who Zeke had just killed, and made him appear directly in front of the boy. As Zeke reacted to that, I used the distraction to pivot and launch myself out of the way with a shot from my staff. In mid-air, I switched my clothes for the Seosten body-suit and transformed into the werelion form before hitting the ground running. By the time the ghost had vanished, Zeke would be left facing the empty space where I had just been. 

A few words of direction from Tabbris sent me through an assortment of alleys and side-streets before I finally came to the small dirt lot where the others had already gathered. Everyone looked more or less okay. Vulcan even seemed pretty energetic, like they had just been playing a fun game. VJ, meanwhile, was hovering up high in the air, keeping an eye out for anyone coming. 

“Felicity,” Mom started, focusing on me as I came to a stop and transformed back to my human self. “Did you–” 

“I got it,” I replied, switching the Seosten suit for my regular clothes before reaching into the pocket of my coat to take out the metal plate before asking, “What about you guys? What… what happened back there?” 

Asenath stepped closer. There was blood across her face, a bruise under her eye, and a Twister in hummingbird form perched on her shoulder. “They didn’t feel like listening to reason. As usual. What about Denise? Where is she?” 

Holding up the plate, I replied, “Let’s find out.” Of course, I didn’t just use a spell I didn’t know that had been told to me by someone who probably would’ve been just fine with all of us dying. I wasn’t quite that desperate or stupid. Instead, I told my mother what he’d said. She, in turn, looked at the plate and confirmed that the spell would do what he said. 

I gave it to her, so she could find out where Denise was. It felt like the right thing to do. While letting my mother do the spell, I reached out to take Tabbris’s hand, murmuring thanks for her help, and for staying with the others while all that was going on. She, in turn, embraced me tightly. 

After speaking the single word (Maescarvien) to trigger the spell, Mom recoiled a bit as she absorbed whatever it was saying. I heard a soft gasp escape her, before her eyes widened. 

“What? What is it?” I prompted, the sentiment echoed by the others. 

Mom, in turn, focused once more and glanced around to take everyone in. “The Auberge. The people she met are Alters. They took her to the Auberge.” 

“What?” I managed, giving a double-take. “Why would they–how would–what?” 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” my mother murmured. 

“But it’s time to go to the Auberge, find Denise, and get some actual answers.” 

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Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 22nd 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. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions.

Finally leaving the chaotic rush of yet another school day behind her, Abigail Fellows said goodnight to Miss Handsy before heading out of the office, satchel full of files over one shoulder and a cup of steaming hot coffee in the other hand. She was walking briskly down the hall when a voice spoke up from behind, calling her name. Abigail slowed and turned to see the dark-haired Athena approaching. Waiting for the Seosten woman, she asked, “Didn’t you have something going on over with the… what was the name of that group again? The ones who want to build an elevator to the moon.” 

“The Kalsteren,” Athena reminded her. “And not yet. They want me there for a special holiday, but it doesn’t start for two more days. They’re still setting things up. Also, the elevator thing is a bit of a misnomer. What they actually want is a stable, permanent portal to the moon. Which is a phenomenally bad idea, given… well, you know. But try telling them that.” Pausing, she murmured, “Right, I’m going to have to actually try to tell them that. We’ll see how it goes.” 

Curious, Abigail asked, “Actually, I don’t know. Why would a portal to the moon be a bad idea, exactly?” 

Athena’s mouth opened to answer, but they were interrupted as a new voice called out, “Abigail!” It was Theia, popping out of a nearby doorway. She was giving the wide smile that only ever seemed to appear that genuinely when she was talking to very few people, including Douglas Frey, Pace, Koren, Miranda, and most of all Abigail herself. 

“Hello, Theia,” Abigail greeted the girl with a smile of her own. “What can we do for you?” She didn’t outright chide her for not acknowledging Athena at all, simply choosing to point the other woman out by very slightly stressing the ‘we’ part of the sentence.

“Oh, hello, Athena,” Theia promptly greeted the other woman, voice making it clear that she hadn’t actually noticed her at all. That done, she promptly turned her attention right back to Abigail once more. “I found this.” Raising her hand, she showed both women the large, blue-and-violet seashell that took up most of her palm. “It’s lucky. You should have it on your desk.” 

“Aww, why thank you, Theia.” Accepting the seashell, Abigail nodded. “It’s very pretty.”

“It’s lucky,” the Seosten girl reiterated. “You can’t lose it. It has to go on your desk. You have to keep it safe.” Her voice was oddly urgent as she stared at the woman intently, as though expecting her to walk right back with it at that very moment. 

And that was exactly what Abigail did. With a glance toward the woman next to her, she gave a short nod. “Well then, I wouldn’t want it to accidentally get put somewhere else. Why don’t you show me the best place for it? Athena, you’re good with tactics, perhaps you’ll have a thought or two.” She gestured, inviting both of them to follow as she pivoted and walked right back to the other room, passing Miss Handsy once more with a pleasant greeting. 

Theia followed, of course, with Athena behind. Though the Olympian gave no real input on the placement of the shell, she did watch with curiosity while the other two positioned it just so. Only once she was satisfied that the shell was in its proper place, did Theia nod with satisfaction. “Good, you will have luck now,” she announced. “You need it. The job you have taken on is very difficult, and you will probably fail without a lot of luck.” With that blunt pronouncement, she offered another smile. “And now you have it, so I will leave.” Abruptly, she spun on her heel and began to walk away. 

“Oh, Theia, you’ll be over for dinner tonight?” Abigail quickly put in. “Koren wanted your help with some sort of vegetable dish she looked up. Apparently she thinks you’re better with a knife then she is.” 

“It’s true,” Theia agreed, “I have cut many things. And many people. And many things off many people.” With a bright, cheerful smile, she added, “I will be there to help cut more things.” 

And just like that, she was gone again, exiting through the door with only a belated, “Goodbye, Athena!” 

Only once she was sure the girl had left through the outer office, did Athena close the door and step over to where Abigail was. “Do you have any idea what you’re going to do about that?” she asked while nodding toward the sea shell. 

Abigail, in turn, blinked. “The shell? Well, unless you’re about to tell me that it’s actually a monster that will eat me the first chance it gets, I was planning on leaving it right there. I mean, she’s not wrong about us needing luck to pull this whole thing off without ending up in a full-scale war against your people. Though I like to think our odds aren’t quite that bad.” 

Shaking her head, Athena looked to the shell briefly before turning back to Abigail. “That is the shell of a Kaula Mehyian. They are an incredibly rare creature, whose shell only turns that color once the animal itself has passed away of old age. Which only happens after ten thousand years. The same general life span as a normal Seosten. It’s part of why our people came to see them as lucky. The shell itself is proof that the Kaula Mehyian lived a full life and died naturally. If the shell is taken early, it doesn’t turn that color. Once the animal dies, the shell falls away and changes to what you see there. For Theia to have one means she either paid… an enormous fortune for it, or experienced what for almost anyone would be a once-in-a-lifetime find, and was able to pick up one of those shells on her own. That shell by itself would be considered…” She shook her head, trying to find some sort of comparison. “Your people have your four-leaf-clovers and horseshoes and such. But you have nothing like this. There is nothing even remotely similar. A Seosten with a Kaula Mehyian shell would never give it away, save for a true fortune, or… to someone incredibly important to them.” 

“Someone incredibly important…” Abigail echoed, glancing toward the shell itself once more with new understanding. 

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “That’s what it means. Do you see the way she smiles at you? She does not smile at others that way. When she smiles at most people, it’s… awkward. Something closer to predatory. It doesn’t look quite right. And yet, with you, she’s perfectly natural about it. And one other thing, did you notice that she left without saying goodbye to you? Twice, in fact. First she announced that she was leaving and began to walk out. The second time, she specifically said goodbye to me. Not once did she say it to you.” 

“Well, I wasn’t going to bring it up,” Abigail murmured, “but I assumed she was just in a hurry. Or didn’t think it was worth saying, considering she’ll be around to help with dinner in just another hour or so. Hardly worth reprimanding her for, or even talking about, really.” 

“That’s not my point,” Athena informed her. “She isn’t saying goodbye because she doesn’t want that level of separation. It’s a… subconscious thing. If she never says goodbye to you, then you’ll never be apart from her.” She paused, then gestured with a sigh. “Sit down, please, Abigail. I think we should talk a bit more about this.” 

Her words made the school principal pause before nodding as she sat down. “You’re not about to tell me not to get so close to one of your people, are you?” Her tone was mostly light, but there was something more behind it. She would not have reacted well if the other woman actually pulled anything like that, no matter how unlikely it was. Theia meant too much to her. 

Taking the seat across from the desk, Athena shook her head. “No, Abigail, of course not. What I want is to ask you precisely how close you’re planning on being. You know how badly that girl’s mother treated her, how… rejected she was. Now I’m fairly certain she has latched onto you as… a replacement. You named her. You treated her like a real person. You… you are much more than a friend for her, and if that’s not… if that’s something you don’t want, we should find a way to take care of it before it goes too far.” 

Abigail leaned back a bit in her seat, watching the woman intently. “You mean if I don’t want Theia to see me as a mother, we should stop being so close.” 

“What I mean,” Athena clarified, “is that I think it would do her a lot of good if she didn’t have to tiptoe around the situation because part of her is afraid you will reject her if she brings it up any more directly than she already has. She needs to be accepted, fully accepted, if she’s going to move completely beyond the person her mother and our society turned her into. I think you can help with that–I think you have helped with it, more than anyone could have asked. But here I am, asking you for more. I know that’s incredibly unfair.” 

“What’s unfair,” Abigail retorted, “is what that girl went through for so long.” She exhaled, dropping her gaze to look at an unrelated folder on the desk while various thoughts ran through her mind. “She deserves a stable home, and people she can count on to be there for her. She’s had that, around here, to an extent. But you’re right, she needs more. She deserves more.” 

Both women went quiet for a moment then before Athena spoke. “As I said, I believe she has come to see you as a mother. But that leaves the question of whether you can see her as a daughter. But I think I had my answer to that when I watched your expression when you thought there was even a chance that I was going to say you shouldn’t be so close to her.” 

With a small, self-deprecating smile, Abigail admitted, “If you did try to tell me to stay away from her, I might have been thinking of throwing myself over this desk at you. You know, as effective as that would have been.” 

“Hey, you certainly would have had the element of surprise,” Athena pointed out with a smile before chuckling softly. She glanced away for a moment, seeming to think about what was next before turning back to the other woman. “My point is that what Theia needs is something more official. Something that can feel… firm to her. Something tangible, so she doesn’t need to wonder anymore about just how far your acceptance goes.” 

“Kushiel.” Abigail spoke the name with a harsh, spitting tone before shaking her head. “That woman treated her daughter like…” She trailed off, exhaling long and slow as she collected herself. “Whenever I think about how Theia was treated, it just… I want to… It makes me want to hurt people the way I’ve only ever wanted to hurt them when my… when Koren was hurt. I want… I want to be everything Theia needs. I want to be a better everything for her than her… than Kushiel was. I suppose I was just afraid that pushing on that too hard would make her think I was trying to replace her actual mother.” 

“Good,” Athena pointed out. “Kushiel should be replaced. An overfull lint trap would be a better mother than she was to that girl. The sort of upgrade you would be is just…” She coughed. “Abigail, she needs you to make it official. She needs you to be her mother. That means more than just hanging out. That means treating her the way you would Koren. It means making her part of your family, in every way. But only if you’re up for that. You can’t go halfway on it. Not with this, not with that girl. If you accept her, you have to accept all of her. Which means you’ll have to be ready to help her through some tough times. She’s been through more than either of us know, and I think there’s a fair bit she still has bottled up from the time she spent under Kushiel’s experiments.”

“And I want to be there to help her through that,” Abigail confirmed, in a soft, yet certain tone. “I want… I want to give her everything she never had the chance to have when she was with your people.” Pausing, she gave a very slight grimace. “I’d say no offense, but you know.” 

“You wouldn’t mean it,” Athena replied. “And it’s deserved. My people have a long way to go on a great many things.” With another sigh, she straightened, extending a hand. “I know there’s no real… court system for adoption up here. But I think it should be more than randomly telling her how you feel. She deserves something bigger than that.” 

Abigail accepted the hand, rising from her own seat. “Oh, don’t you worry, one word to Koren and she’ll help plan a party the likes of which you have never seen. And as for the official part, I think I can make up some papers and a certificate just fine. After all, I was a lawyer in a previous life.” 

“Well, here’s to previous lives,” Athena noted with a thoughtful gaze. 

“And the lessons we take from them.” 

*********

“You remember when we took Lincoln on that road trip across the country?” Arthur Chambers asked his wife while the two of them stood atop a hill overlooking a wide valley between a pair of silvery-red mountains whose peaks rose clear out of sight into the purple-clouded sky. The grass beneath their feet was a faint orange color, tinged with white on the tips. Before the pair, the field itself was full of enormous herd animals that looked like a cross between elephants and giraffes, with incredibly long, thick necks, tusks, and big floppy ears. They stood ten feet tall at the shoulders, the necks extending the heights of their head at full extension to nearly double that. It allowed them to reach their favorite food as it grew within crevices in the surrounding mountains. Their tusks were used to break open smaller holes to reach the moss that filled intricate cave networks throughout those mountains. And the sound whenever one of those creatures reared its head back and slammed forward to break into those caves, or simply to break apart boulders to get at the moss growing within, echoed like thunder across the field. 

“You’re thinking about the buffalo, aren’t you?” Maria replied. Her own gaze was focused on the Seosten children, who were running through the field, laughing and playing with one another. She could see Omni, pulling his sister’s hard-light form right along with them. From what Puriel had said, the two had quickly become close as soon as they met. And by now, they were all-but inseparable. 

“I’m thinking about the buffalo,” Arthur confirmed with a small chuckle at the memory. “Do you think he’d chase these big fellas?” 

“I think he learned his lesson with the buffalo,” Maria murmured before glancing that way. “You always did like going on trips. This whole thing must be your dream come true.” 

Arthur, in turn, offered a slight nod. “Hey, in more ways than one.” Tugging his wife closer by the hand, he squeezed it before putting his arm around her. “Having you here for my Star Trek adventure makes it so much better than my boyhood dreams. If Linc and Felicity were here, that’d make everything perfect.” Belatedly, he added, “And Joselyn.” That was still new, getting accustomed to the fact that the woman who had apparently broken his son’s heart and abandoned her family wasn’t the horrible person she had appeared to be. He owed that woman a lot of apologies for the thoughts he’d had over the years. 

“And Joselyn,” Maria confirmed, clearly having the same thought. Reaching out then, she pointed toward the spot where the children were running in circles. A moment of focus created a small, red ball of energy in the middle of them. The ball floated there until they had all noticed it, before abruptly zipping away from them. With a collection of squeals, the children suddenly started to chase the ball, laughing with delight as it led them on a run through the field. 

From behind the pair, Puriel spoke up as he approached. “I notice your little game there happened to lead them away from that nursing Ceurth.” He nodded toward a pair of the large animals lying together near where the kids had been moving their game. 

“No reason to interrupt a busy mother,” Maria noted without looking at him. Her attention remained on making the glowing ball lead the children on a chase. “How are the others doing with the hunting?” Alcaeus and Kutattca had gone off to get food to restock the ship’s stores. That being the main reason for this stop, aside from allowing everyone to stretch their legs. They were all down here except for Aletheia, who was still up on the ship itself as it waited for them in orbit around this unoccupied moon. 

“You think this’ll be the last stop we need to make before Earth?” Arthur added. They were far past the barrier by that point, in an area of space where livable worlds were even fewer and farther between than usual. It was Aletheia who had remembered this particular moon and ensured it would be part of their trip. 

Puriel stepped up beside the pair, watching the children below. “Yes,” he confirmed. “This is the last one. Soon, we’ll be at your home. And you can rejoin your family.” Belatedly, he added, “You are becoming quite proficient with your gift, Maria.” 

A small smile played over the elderly woman’s face as she made the ball fly straight up in the air, then down again. “It’s nothing compared to the sort of things you can do with it. Making a glowing ball of energy isn’t exactly helpful in a fight.” 

“You can be far more helpful than you realize,” Puriel informed her. “And not everything needs to be about being useful in war.”

Maria and Arthur exchanged glances then, before the latter spoke up. “From everything we’ve learned about your people, they’d really take that as a sign that you’ve lost your mind.” 

Puriel was silent for a few long moments, his gaze staring down at the children while his mind was elsewhere. “Yes, well, perhaps I have, at that.” 

Arthur cleared his throat. “He’s right about one thing, you are getting better. Almost makes me jealous that you took that gift.” 

“Don’t you start,” Maria teasingly chided. “You made your choice and have your own powers. And, the last time I checked, you were having a grand old time playing with the children with them.”  

“Yes,” Puriel agreed, “and yours have been quite useful already, even if they are still in their infancy stages. You will get better with them. But we will need to pay careful attention to that growth, and ensure there are no unwanted side effects. The DNA of that particular creature has always been a bit… unique in many ways.

“I, for one, am very interested to know whether the Djehuti gift will remain, as it is now, solely the same manipulation of technology as the woman who calls herself Gaia, or if you will eventually also manifest the same biological expertise as the man who now calls himself Seller.”

******

The house where Vanessa and Tristan lived with Sands, Sarah, and several others was dark as the blonde twins approached with Theia between them. The three were chatting about ways that they could potentially find out more about the Whispers and that whole situation, if Cahethal refused to play ball. Theia, of course, had her own ideas about good sources of information, and was just in the middle of explaining a plan that involved rigorous use of Flick’s ability to summon dead people and talk to them, when they reached the front entrance. 

As he unlocked the door, Tristan pointed out, “Hey, at least we don’t have to worry about being quiet. Even if everyone’s asleep in here, they’d all be in their soundproof roo–” 

That was as far as the boy got. Because in that moment, as he turned the knob and pushed the door open, his words were interrupted by a loud squeal. Or rather, several loud squeals, as a handful of party horns were blown all at once, to varying effectiveness. On top of that, the entryway just beyond the door was filled with people, all of them shouting something. 

Theia reacted instantly. Shoving the other two off to either side, she threw herself through the doorway and caught hold of the nearest ‘attacker’ by the arms. Her head slammed forward to crash into the person’s face, turning what had been a shout into a yelp of pain. In the next moment, she pivoted, hurling the dazed figure past the group before snatching two knives from her belt. One flew in the direction of the person she had headbutted and shoved, even as she pivoted to choose her next target with the other. 

All of that took place in what would have been a blink for most people. At her full boost, in fight or flight mode, Theia had done all of that before the average person could have even started to react. 

Which also meant it was only then that she actually took the time to see what she had thrown herself into. The people here were… Sands, Sarah, Koren, Ejji, Felix and her sister Triss, Columbus, and several more people from their classes. None were holding the weapons she had expected to see. Instead, they held balloons, whistles, and other party favors. 

“… what?” Theia finally managed, stopping short just before she would have thrown herself at the next person, blade in hand. 

“Hey!” Vanessa, poking her head in from one side of the door where she had been shoved, blurted. “What’s going on?” 

“Yeah.” Tristan joined his sister, head poking in from the other side of the door. “What gives?” 

“Uhhhhh…” The groan came from a low, wheeled table that had been brought into the hall behind the group. Jazz lay there, one hand holding her face where Theia had headbutted her. In her other hand was the blade that had been thrown, snatched out of the air before it could do any damage. Less spared, unfortunately, was the large cake that had been sitting on that table. A cake that was entirely destroyed by Jazz landing in it. 

“Happy birthday, you two?” the cake-covered, groaning girl managed, focusing somewhat bleary eyes on the twins in question. 

“And whoever’s job it was to tell Theia about the surprise, I’m gonna kick your ass.” 

********

“Fick, Fick!” The excited cries from the tiny, four-year-old Sahveniah filled the hallway. Within an instant of laying eyes on the older blonde girl, the dark-skinned blur raced across the distance separating them and hurled herself that way. 

Reacting quickly, Flick caught the girl in mid-leap and straightened, pulling her into a hug. “Hey, Savvy. Long time no see.” 

Holding on as tight as her little form was capable of (which was a surprising amount, given how quickly Seosten developed their physical prowess), Savvy didn’t respond at first. She simply clung to the older girl for several long moments before finally murmuring, “You were gone for a long time. They said you had to fight the bad guys. But you shouldna gone by yourself. You coulda beat the bad guys more easy if you wasn’t all alone.”  

Swallowing hard, Flick held the girl tighter against herself. “You’re right,” she murmured, “I shouldn’t have gone by myself. I’ll remember that. But hey, I brought my mom back.” 

“Yay!” After that initial cheer, Savvy leaned back to squint at the girl. Held up in this position, they were eye to eye. “I didna know you had a mama.” 

Flick gave a small chuckle at that before lowering herself down. She set Savvy on the floor in front of her while taking a knee right there in the Starstation corridor. “Oh yes, I definitely have a mama. You should meet her. I think she’ll like you.” 

“I’m a pirate,” Sahveniah informed her solemnly. “Does your mama like pirates?” 

“I think she’ll like one as adorable–” Flick started before amending, “Ahem, I mean as fierce and adventurous as you.” 

Her words made the younger girl give a brilliant smile, the entire hall around them seeming to light up. “When I get bigger, I’mma go on a ship, an’ take the ship, an’ go fight the bad guys, an’ steal all the bad guys’ booty. Fick? What’s a booty?” 

Coughing, Flick leaned back to sit on the floor with her back to the nearby wall, tugging the girl over. “Ah, in this case, it means their treasure.” 

Savvy cooed happily while climbing into her lap, nuzzling up against her shoulder. “What about other booties? Is there other kinds o’ booty?” 

Flick, in turn, simply hugged the girl tighter to herself. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll find out all about every kind of booty. I’m sure you’ll grow up to be the most successful and dangerous pirate queen the universe has ever seen. Entire worlds will quake at the sound of your name.” 

“Only the bad guys,” Savvy insisted pointedly. 

“Only the bad guy worlds,” Flick agreed, moving her hand to gently stroke the girl’s hair. “You’ll steal all their treasure and make them walk the airlock. And your crew will sing all sorts of songs about the dreaded and beautiful pirate captain Savvy.” 

Giggling, Sahveniah gave a nod of confirmation, still leaning against her shoulder while making soft noises of contentment in her position. Eventually, she murmured, “Fick? I missed you.” 

“I missed you too, Savvy,” came the soft, gentle response. 

“I missed all of you.” 

*******

“Alright, all of you line up!” The order came from Larian Mondo, a two-hundred year old Heretic who had been brought in to take up the position at Crossroads that Virginia Dare had so loudly vacated when she left with the rest of the traitors. He was a deceptively small-looking man, barely five-foot-seven, with wire-rimmed sunglasses and long dark hair. He wore a dark blue suit, and carried a construction mace in one hand similar to the one used by Sands Mason. 

Sands. Thinking of the girl, Zeke Leven felt a sharp pang run through him. Fuck. He liked that girl. He’d liked her for years. Then that Chambers bitch had to show up and totally screw their whole society over, and confuse Sands and her sister so much they and their mother ran off with her. Just because her mom was a crazy, deranged traitor. 

And now here Zeke was, on another student hunt just a few days before Christmas, because almost nobody was allowed to leave the school to go on holidays thanks to this war draining all their resources. 

There were two teams assembled in front of Larian in this narrow alley in the outside world. Zeke, of course, along with Malcolm Harkess, Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Laila Kassab (their sixth member, Erin Redcliffe, had disappeared during their previous hunt) for one team, and Gavin Rish, Stephen Kinder, Russell Bailey, a tall Latino boy named Martin Gutierrez, and two girls named Noelle Starson (a dark-haired, light-skinned girl with light green eyes and a wide mouth) and Tracy Faulk (a deeply-tanned blonde who was almost always laughing at inappropriate jokes) for the other.

The eleven students stood in front of Larian, while three other adult Heretics were lined up behind them, along with both team’s older student mentors. Crossroads was taking no more chances with their student hunts. Not after Erin’s disappearance. The two teams would each be accompanied by two of the adults and their student mentor.

Larian looked the group over. “Okay. Behind me and through that alley, there’s a hotel. Our info says it’s infested with some real nasty pieces of shit. The leader’s a Marakeya, so don’t let him get his hands on you or you’ll regret it. We’ll be right there with you. We start at the bottom and work our way up. One team at the front entrance, one at the back. They’re all monsters in there, so don’t let anyone escape.” He paused before adding, “And yeah, I know you’d all rather be hanging out for the holidays. Three days before Christmas and all. So thanks for coming along on this. Sometimes saving humanity means not getting a full vacation.” 

With that, he split the groups up with a few muttered words and waved hands, then pivoted, taking Zeke’s team along with their mentor (the Native American girl Namid) toward the front. One of the other Heretic adults brought up the rear, while the remaining two would escort the other team to the back of the hotel.  

Unfortunately, even as the group approached the hotel, they found their way blocked by a figure standing at the end of the alley. A figure who, by that point, was familiar to everyone. To Zeke, especially, despite never seeing her in person. He had the memory of her appearance seared into his brain from the research he’d done to find out exactly who was responsible for the society he had grown up in being torn apart not once, but twice. Seeing her, he felt a sudden rush of anger. Worse than what he felt whenever he thought of Chambers herself. 

“Joselyn Atherby,” Larian snapped, snapping his mace down before giving it a flicking motion that made a handful of steel spikes rise out of the ground, angled that way. 

The other Heretic adult abruptly disappeared from behind the group and reappeared next to Larian. Where he had disappeared from, a water-shaped version of himself was left behind before splashing to the ground, and where he appeared, a burst of flame shaped like him filled the air, then dissolved into the man’s physical form. He was holding his own weapon, a long claymore sword that could shift into a musket-like gun. “You shouldn’t be here, Atherby.” 

“Someday, I’ll tell enough of you that my last name is Chambers now, that it’ll actually stick.” After muttering those words, the blonde woman focused. “I need you to back off for a few minutes. We’re… busy. A girl’s life depends on it.”

Larian snorted, shaking his head. “I knew you were stupid enough to defend these monsters, but I thought you had some standards. Defending the things in that hotel, that’s a new low, even for you. But hey, why don’t you try your lies on someone else, like say…” He trailed off, pausing before his eyes narrowed. “You’re blocking communication back to Crossroads.”  

Joselyn, in turn, flatly informed him. “Of course I am. I’ve done this rebellion thing before, remember? And I’m not defending any of the people who willingly live in that hotel. But as I said, we’re in the middle of something. The life of a girl who is not in that hotel depends on us getting information out of the ones who are. So back off for a few minutes, then we can both… go about our jobs.” 

Larian and his partner seemed to consider that for a moment, before the first man’s eyes narrowed. “No. You know what? I think you’re stalling for something. Giving them time to get out.” With that, he waved a hand back toward the students. “Get in there, wipe out everything in your path. We’ll deal with her ourselves.” 

The next thing Zeke and the others knew, they were enveloped in a rush of energy, before finding themselves deposited in one of the side parking lots with the hotel itself visible in the distance. 

“What–what do we do?” Freya demanded. The tall, red-haired girl was looking around in confusion while holding her warhammer in one hand and shield in the other. She turned toward Namid for help. 

Rather than wait for their mentor to speak, however, Zeke was already pivoting, stalking toward the hotel. “We do what the man said. Get in there and kill everything in our way.” 

“Gonna need you to stop right there, dude.” The new voice came from a figure who rose from behind a nearby car and moved to block their path. 

“Koren?” Summer blurted. The black girl was staring that way, mouth agape. “Wha-what the hell are you guys doing? You can’t seriously think this is right. Those are bad guys in there!” 

Rebecca Jameson, moving up beside Koren, gave a short nod. “Yeah, you’re right. Those are bad guys. But we’re trying to help a girl who isn’t a bad guy. And the only way to do that is to find her in there before you guys kill them all or make them run away. Or at least find out where they took her. Mrs. Chambers told your teacher guy that, but he wouldn’t listen.” 

Malcolm, enormous sledgehammer in hand, took a step closer while tapping the head of the weapon against the ground a couple times. “You guys really need a better excuse. Now either get out of the way and let us do our jobs, or we’ll go through you. Neither of you could match me in training last year, you really think you can do it together? Let alone all six of us.”  

Heaving a heavy sigh, Namid finally spoke up. “He’s right, you two need to get out of the way. Believe me, I really don’t want to hurt either of you. This whole situation is fucked beyond belief, but we’ve got a job to do. So move.” 

The two girls exchanged glances, before turning back to the six Crossroads students. Koren spoke first. “Sorry. We can’t do that.” 

Rebecca added, “I guess you’ll just have to go through us.” 

There was a brief pause before Namid gestured. “No killing, just make them stay down.” 

Immediately, Malcolm lunged that way, already swinging his hammer. He moved so quickly, his form was a blur. Koren, however, smoothly twisted aside, pivoting on one foot like a ballet dancer as the hammer swung past her to slam into the ground. As soon as the head of the weapon hit the cement, three blunt concrete ‘spikes’ erupted from the ground right where the girl was. But Koren had already flipped up and over, landing behind the boy. She lashed out with a kick, which collided with his back, knocking him forward into the concrete slabs he had raised. Except they weren’t concrete anymore. In that moment, with a quick look, she had transformed them into a gooey, sticky, tar-like substance that gripped the boy tightly. 

Malcolm immediately used his hammer’s ability to send himself back to any of the last ten spots he had hit with it in order to teleport to where he had been standing a moment earlier. But he was still covered in tar. Tar that was rapidly solidifying, even as he blurted, “The hell is this?!” 

“Just get rid of it and focus!” Zeke snapped. The boy was already going at Koren from the side, lashing out to bash her with his shield while simultaneously creating three glass-like balls behind her, which exploded with concussive force meant to throw the girl forward into his swinging shield. 

Koren, however, wasn’t there. She had already tossed one of her Hunga Munga throwing axes into the air, teleporting herself up to it before pivoting in midair to face the boy below. A moment of focus made a wave of concussive force slam into the back of Zeke’s legs, knocking him slightly off-balance. 

He, of course, reacted by snapping his gaze up to where she was. The front of his shield shifted, producing two gun-like barrels from the middle, which fired twin bolts of electricity, powerful enough to put a bear on the ground. 

But Koren wasn’t there anymore either. Just before teleporting herself up to the first Hunga Munga, she had dropped the other one. In the instant where Zeke was shooting his electricity at her, she teleported herself down to that one, appearing in a kneeling position right next to the boy while he was facing upward. Before he could adjust, Koren lashed out with her fist, which collided with the boy’s stomach with enough force to double him over. 

Malcolm, by that point, had gotten enough of the tar off himself to come lunging to help his friend. But Koren had already torn the shield from Zeke’s grasp and pivoted, Captain America-ing the shield that way to take the charging boy’s legs out from under him. He turned the fall into a roll, coming up nearby while swinging his hammer. 

At the same time, Zeke had recovered from the punch, and swung around to clap his hands together, creating a focused sonic blast that would have burst the girl’s eardrums, staggering her just long enough for Malcolm’s attack to put her on the ground.

Would have, that was, if Koren hadn’t already made a wall of earth rise out of the ground behind herself in a semicircle. The wall caught the sonic blast, shielding her from its effects. Which allowed the girl to thrust both hands forward, hitting the charging Malcolm with a telekinetic shove that halted his forward momentum and sent him flying backward to crash into a nearby wall. 

Zeke, stumbling backward from the wall, shot a look toward Malcolm, then over to where Summer, Freya, and Laila were clearly having their own problems with the tiny waif Rebecca. “The fuck?!” He blurted the words in confusion. “You two weren’t this good last year.” 

“Things change,” Koren informed him flatly, flipping her Hunga Munga around in both hands before facing him. “You’ve been in class. We’ve been in a war. So, you guys gonna walk away?” 

In answer, Zeke made a growling noise deep in his throat, glaring at her. “You know what?” he snarled, already readying himself. “I think it’s time to shut you up.” 

“By all means,” Koren replied. 

“You’re welcome to try.” 

Wanna see more of this conflict and how it all resolves? Check out the end of arc interlude coming up in a few more chapters!

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The Runaway 15-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters have started to be released. You can find the Summus Proelium non-canon available for ALL readers right here, while the first Heretical Edge non-canon is available right here. And did I say first Heretical Edge non-canon? Yeah, because of a tie, there will be a second (different) non-canon released later in the week. So look forward to that!

Okay, so we had a lot of questions and not many answers. For some reason, we were picking up hints of an Alter being at Denise’s house, but it kept flickering in and out. Which was weird to begin with. To say nothing of the words carved into the wall, proving she still had some memory of Ammon controlling her. Which had to be unbelievably traumatic for a little girl. And now we had the dented gas pump where she had been killed, along with some gangster Alter, whom Denise was capable of seeing and remembering? Someone who it seemed like Ammon might have had a history with himself, if the guy he killed while stopping by the gas station really wasn’t random. And yet, even that didn’t really fit. Why would that Alter guy–Mercer, why would Mercer just suddenly forget about the debt that he’d been so focused on before? Why did the magical signs of an Alter being around Denise’s house keep flickering in and out? Why did she remember stuff she shouldn’t? How much did she remember? And what did Mercer have to do with Denise disappearing in the first place? It definitely didn’t look good when it came to that guy. I was a bit terrified about what he could have done to that poor kid.

The point was, we needed real answers. And we were on our way to get them, using the tracking spell to follow Mercer back, hopefully to wherever he lived. Or worked. Or whatever. Where he was. We just needed to find the guy and get everything he knew out of him. 

On the way, while following behind Koren and Rebecca as those two used the tracking spell and led the way, I called my mother and let her know what was going on. She had finished the spell by that point and was able to tell us that Denise was alive and in relatively good shape. She wasn’t sick or intensely injured, or in any real physical pain as far as the spell could determine. 

“Can you figure out where she is with that?”  I knew it was a real long shot, given what I had already been told about how the spell worked. But it was worth asking. Anything that might help us actually get this girl back home where she belonged, safe with her family and away from all the horrible things that kept happening to her. As it was, I was starting to think the kid was just as cursed as my family was when it came to going through shit. That and Mom and I both felt responsible for her, given the whole Ammon situation. It was all just a huge mess. That poor kid. 

Unfortunately, Mom’s answer wasn’t good news. “I’ve tried,” she murmured. “Something is blocking any attempt to directly reach her. It might be this Mercer guy, if he’s that big in this area. Wouldn’t surprise me if he had some big-shot mage working for him. Especially if this has anything to do with some history with Fossor.” There was pain in Mom’s voice, which made my stomach clench. She clearly felt responsible for what had happened to Denise. We had to find that girl and help her. If anything unfixable happened to the kid… I didn’t know how Mom would react. She had put a lot into being able to fix one single thing that Ammon had done, and now it was falling apart. And beyond that, even more importantly, was Denise herself. No matter how Mom and I felt about Ammon, Denise was the priority. We had to find the kid and help her. 

“I’m going to meet up with you,” Mom was saying. “If this Mercer really does have Denise, or knows anything about what’s going on or where she is, we’ll get it out of him.” The tone of her voice left no doubt of just how badly she would react if the guy tried to hold out. Or if he actually had hurt that girl. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Mom was not in the mood to play nice.

Checking the street sign as we passed another corner, I told my mother where we were, and she said she would find us from there in a few minutes. She was just going to check a couple more things around the house. But she also made it clear that if we found our way to Mercer’s place in that time, we were not to go inside or confront him until she got there. 

Disconnecting, I looked over to Asenath. Even through the dim glow of the nearby streetlights, I could see the hard-set expression of her face. Yeah, she wasn’t doing any better with the news about Denise going missing. “We’ll find her,” I insisted, reaching out to put a hand on the vampire girl’s arm. “Whatever happened to that kid, Mom says she’s still in good physical shape. She’s okay. All we have to do is find her and bring her back home.” Pausing, I grimaced before adding, “And find out what went wrong in the first place, why she remembers… anything, how much of it she does remember, what happened to–” I cut myself off and heaved a sigh. “The point is, she’s physically okay. It sounds like she hasn’t been in any pain or anything, as far as that spell can determine. That’s a pretty good sign, right?” 

Exhaling, Senny looked over to me and gave a slight nod. “It’s a good sign. But we still have to track her down. Whoever this Mercer is, if he’s the one who took her, I…” She took a moment, clearly gathering herself as a rush of truly violent thoughts went through her mind too quickly and in too much of a jumble to work their way out of her mouth. 

“Believe me,” I put in, “between you and my mother, I’m pretty sure there won’t be much left of this guy if he touched a single hair on that kid’s head. At the very least, we’ll definitely find out everything he knows. And I have a feeling that he won’t be running any crime around here anymore.” Even if he didn’t have Denise, which seemed increasingly unlikely (he was the best suspect we had, so where else could she have gone?), none of us were in the mood to leave this guy alone after hearing that he’d basically tormented Kalia’s dad into robbing that gas station and getting killed in the first place. He set that whole thing in motion with his obsessive fucking greed. Regardless of what he knew right now, he was still a piece of shit.    

“That’srightwe’regonnamakehimpay!” December piped up, spinning around to face us while walking backward. Seeing the way her pale eyes stared right past me was a reminder that the kid was technically blind. Of course, she could still see in many other ways beyond the usual. She saw magical energy, electrical energy, soundwaves, etcetera. I was pretty sure she could even see some level of kinetic energy. And who knew what else. The point was, ‘blind’ was a bit of a misnomer. “We’llfindhimandtrackhimdownandmakehim–” She stopped then, as Tabbris leaned over to whisper something in her ear. Which made December whisper back, while both of them continued to walk backward down the sidewalk without any issues. It was safe to say that whatever lingering clumsiness issues my little sister had had from being stuck possessing me for so long were gone by now. After almost a year of being able to get out and stretch her legs, it was starting to be a lot easier to see the kid’s relation to her Olympian mother. 

Asenath and I fell back a few steps as the other girl put her hand on my arm, waiting until December and Tabbris had gone back to their own discussion and turned back around. Then Senny looked to me, her voice very low. “Something’s bothering that kid. She’s upset.” 

“Who–December?” I asked, blinking from the girl in question to Asenath and back again. 

“Yes,” she confirmed in that same soft voice. “Believe me, I can tell. She’s really upset about something and she’s hiding it. She’s doing a pretty good job about it, but it comes out sometimes. You need to ask those two older Calendar girls what’s going on. Find out if they know what’s bothering December so much, and if it’s anything we need to worry about.” 

Right, that was something else to worry about. Letting out a breath, I gave Asenath a thumbs up. “Thanks,” I murmured. “Next chance we get, I’ll find out what’s going on.” Right after we dealt with this mess. I just hoped that whatever was wrong with December was something we could handle. Maybe it was just about going back to visit Cahethal? I knew they’d seen her recently, and the rest of the Calendar. They had gone to get information about the Whispers, the Pale Ship, and Tabbris Senior. From what I’d heard, the Seosten woman had apparently promised to gather everything she had on them, in exchange for something she was going to talk to Abigail about. Some part of me worried that whatever this favor from Abigail was might be what was bothering December. But it wasn’t exactly something I couldn’t focus on right then.

I especially couldn’t focus on it when, a moment later, we turned a corner and saw a very old hotel directly ahead of us. The place was about six stories tall, and had clearly been around for like a century or so, with very few updates or improvements. Though it had been a grand old place when it opened, that much was certain. It looked like it had hosted the rich and famous for decades before falling into disrepair. Now it was… a mess. The place looked like it wasn’t even open. There were boards across most of the windows, and the lobby was only very dimly lit. 

“That’s the place,” Rebecca announced, looking that way before turning back to face us. “The guy’s tracks go right up into that building. I mean, eventually they do.” 

“What do you mean, eventually?” Asenath asked. 

Koren answered. “They go past this place. For a really long way, it looks like. But they come back this way from the other direction and go inside. It looks like he kept walking, then worked his way back.” She shrugged. “Maybe he wanted to go for a hike.” 

Something told me there was more to it than that. But then again, come to think of it, it was kind of a little odd that a guy who was apparently as important and big in the Alter crime world around here as Mercer seemed to be would be walking anyway, wasn’t it? After all, we’d walked for awhile. And the other two had made it clear that the trail never went to a car or anything. They still could’ve followed it if it had, but no, he stayed right on the sidewalk. That was… maybe odd? Maybe not. Maybe he was just health conscious or something. Or didn’t fit in a vehicle, duh. I really needed to stop trying to make those sorts of judgments.  and yet, something kept bugging me about the fact that he walked all this way past the hotel and apparently eventually came back to it.  maybe it was the fact that he didn’t stop anywhere else? If he had been stopping at all the places where people owed him money and pushing them to pay, that would definitely be one thing. But again, from what we could tell, he just… walked straight. Yeah, it was probably nothing, but I just couldn’t entirely shut it out of my mind. 

Rather than stand right out in the open, we moved back out of sight, using the nearby parking lot of a fast food place to talk about what was going on, and wait for my mother. And Twister, whom Asenath had already gotten hold of. Both of them would be here soon. Then we could figure out how best to approach what was apparently that Mercer guy’s headquarters. 

We didn’t have to wait long for my mom to show up. She came around from the opposite side of the nearby restaurant, casually walking as though heading for her car. Yet despite the outward appearance of her stride and body language, I could see the anger on her face. Mom was definitely in the mood to, well, directly confront the man who might have been responsible for Denise’s disappearance. I had the feeling that what she really wanted to do was walk up to that hotel and blow the doors in, then deal with anyone who was stupid enough to get between her and that guy. I didn’t envy anyone who would have been that stupid, either. 

Of course, Mom had more self-control than that, so she simply stopped and gave all of us a nod before announcing, “I gave the place a once-over on the way here. There are three guards on the roof, but they aren’t paying attention. Two in the lobby, three on each floor except the top, four in the back lot messing around with a van, and one out in the pool area, doing something with the pipes out there. Those are the armed ones. There are others, unarmed, hanging around in the rooms.” Raising a finger, she added, “that’s not to say they aren’t dangerous, only that they do not have weapons on them. Don’t underestimate what sort of threat they could be. The top floor’s a little more complicated. It’s shielded from any vision powers at all. The rest of the floor’s have their own vision defenses, but that one’s a real doozy.” 

“Holy crap,” Rebecca managed while staring at her with a look of genuine awe. “You got all that from a once-over on the way over here?” 

Mom, in turn, actually smiled very faintly. It was brief, given the overriding anger at the situation, but genuine. “I have had some experience in assessing secure areas quickly, needing to move past a building without attracting attention. When you hang around too much, the wrong people can notice. Then things get complicated.” She reached out, laying a hand on the girl’s shoulder and squeezing it. “I know your grandmother as well as I know anybody, Rebecca. Believe me, you’ll be fine. You’ll develop the skills and power to do the same, probably even better than I can. Especially if you listen to her. She knows what she’s doing.”

Rebecca seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention. And also like she wanted to ask my mother something but wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. But before she could say anything, we were distracted by the sound of other people approaching from across the lot. My item sense hadn’t picked them up yet, but we heard several distinct sets of footsteps. And metallic ones. Which confused me, until we turned to see three figures approaching. There was Twister, looking basically the same as when I’d first met her though a year older. But beside her was Sean, looking far different from when I had first met him. One year after meeting him at age seventeen and thanks to that fucking prison, he looked like he was in his mid-twenties. 

Yeah, I really wanted to punt his fucking parents into the sun, to say the least. What the fuck had they been thinking, keeping him in what amounted to solitary confinement for years? The sheer fact that he was as together as he was (and I knew he had issues still) was a testament to Apollo helping to keep him together through all that. That whole situation still pissed me off more than I could even hope to express, even after all this time. So I could barely think of how angry Sean himself, or his brother, or even Roxa (an actual werewolf) were. 

At the moment, Roxa wasn’t here. But Vulcan was, trotting alongside his master. When he saw us, the cyberform dog gave a bark of excitement, waiting for Sean to give the go-ahead before he came dashing over to get all the praise and attention the rest of us heaped on him. Especially Tabbris and December, who were delighted to play with the metal dog. Sort of like when they played with Cerberus, really. Even if Vulcan only had the one head. 

Well, sort of only had one head. It was a little more complicated than that. As illustrated when, in the midst of that, the sleek metal backpack-looking thing on the cyberform detached and hovered up into the air, a pair of wings extending from it, while a slot in the front opened up to reveal a camera lens. 

“Hey VJ,” I greeted Vulcan Junior as the drone hovered right in front of my face, clearly wanting attention as well. “Long time no see. I hope you’re keeping these guys safe, buddy.” 

“Oh, he is,” Sean assured me. “Especially since we had his forcefield upgraded.” With that, he stepped over and gave me a firm embrace, his voice a quiet mutter. “Heard you were having some trouble we could help with.” 

Twister, after exchanging fist bumps with my mother (still an odd sight to see) spoke up. “Yeah, I was about to show Seanny there how to have some real fun for his last night of freedom.” 

“Last night of freedom?” I asked, blinking between them. Behind me, the others echoed that confusion. So clearly this wasn’t just something I had missed by myself. 

Koren was already giving a quick nod, her gaze on him. “What’s she talking about? Why wouldn’t you be free after tonight? And where’s Roxa?” 

Sean, in turn, coughed and looked slightly embarrassed. “First, Roxa’s dealing with some sort of situation with the pack. Don’t worry, they don’t need help. It’s an internal thing. Uncle Mateo said it’s something they have to deal with. One of their vices got a bit out of control.” 

“Vices?” I asked, frowning a little. 

“The werecreature weakness,” Asenath put in. “Beyond the silver thing. You know the whole full moon thing?” 

“You mean where they go into a blind rage?” Rebecca asked. 

Asenath gestured that way. “Sort of, but that’s just one possibility. See, every were has their own aspect of the seven vices. Wrath or rage, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, greed, and pride. Once a month, whichever one of those affects them becomes… basically overwhelming.” 

Sean nodded to that. “It only lasts for a couple days, but they kind of… yeah, lose themselves to it. Rage is just the most commonly known one. You could have a were that was afflicted by greed suddenly start breaking into jewelry stores and stealing everything shiny. ” 

“How did I not know about this before?” I managed with a squint. “I mean, I know werewolves.” 

“It’s a personal thing,” he informed me flatly. “The one you know the most is Roxa and–let’s just say she’d rather not talk about it.” Clearly changing the subject deliberately, he added, “Anyway, never mind what Twister said. I’ll still be free, she’s just being dramatic. It’s not like I suddenly have to sit in a single house for years with nobody but myself for company.” He paused for a beat, saw our expressions, then muttered, “Jeez, tough crowd.”

With that, he ran a hand back through his hair and let out a long breath. “Honestly, it’s no big deal. You don’t think Larees threw all her freedom away by joining up, do you?” 

Well that caught my attention, distracting me from thinking about the were thing. “What? Why would–what does Larees have to–” Then I realized, eyes widening. “Gehenna? Sean, what–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yeah. What can I say, one of their people came to have a talk a couple weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about it, we had some discussions, and I agreed yesterday. After talking it through with Roxa, obviously. I don’t have to go anywhere, I’ll be assigned right here on Earth. And if I do go on any off-world assignments, she gets to come with me.” There was a bark from nearby, where December and Tabbris were still crouched by Vulcan, and Sean gave a slight smirk. “And so does he.” 

“But–but Sean, you were… you were locked up for…” I trailed off, head shaking as I tried to find words. 

“Why would you want to join up with a group devoted to imprisoning people after you were imprisoned for so long?” Koren flatly asked. 

Because I was locked up for so long,” came the response. “I know what it’s like. I feel like I can–you know, help. I know what the people in there are going through. I can… you know, work within the system. Besides, we know they lock some really bad people up. I want to be a part of keeping them there.” 

Mom’s voice was soft. “You’ve truly thought it through?” When he nodded, she offered him a slight smile. “Good luck.” 

“Yeah, good luck. But don’t suddenly become a stranger,” I put in. 

“Hey,” he retorted with a broad grin and wink, “we fight the Strangers, remember?” 

“Quite,” Mom agreed. “And speaking of that…” She turned in the direction of the hotel, eyes narrowed. “Let’s discuss how we’re going to drag this Stranger out and get some answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“This feels weird, right?” Koren asked, while the two of us stood at the edge of the gas station parking lot, staring at the place ahead of us. December and Tabbris were talking about some sort of spell nearby in their rapid way, while Rebecca was checking on something in her cannon backpack, giving us time to look the place over before going in. Asenath hadn’t arrived yet. 

“Weird?” I echoed in a flat voice. “Oh, you mean seeing this place in real life after using the PAWS thing to see it in holographic form last year back in Investigation class? Yeah, it’s pretty weird.” I couldn’t stop looking at the specific pump in question, where Denise had originally been murdered by Ammon. It was the furthest one from where we were standing, past a couple other cars that were fueling up. Their drivers were just standing around, having no idea they were so close to a spot where such a horrific act had been committed the year before. Because of course they didn’t know. Even if Mom’s whole thing with Denise hadn’t actually erased the fact that someone had died right there (and I still wasn’t completely clear on how much of those memories were left in the general public, or what they knew about it), these people had no reason to pay much attention to that. Especially over a year later. The thing was just a normal gas pump for them. 

And yet, as I stood there and squinted that way, I could have sworn there was something weird about it. Frowning, I started walking that way without knowing exactly what I was seeing. All I knew was that something was off. But even under the sharp glare of the heavy canopy lighting, it wasn’t visible from where we were. I needed to get a closer look.  

The others followed without questioning it. I crossed the lot, moving around one of the cars to go straight up to the pump itself. By that point, I could see what I had only barely noticed from further away. Dents. There were dents on both sides of the pump. It looked like someone had literally slammed their hands into the thing, caving it inward partway. Not so deep that it was broken, but definitely visible. Frowning, I ran my fingers over the dents, while the others crowded around to see what I was so focused on. 

“What the hell happened to it?” Koren asked, reaching out to brush her own hand over one of them before squinting at me with a very quiet, “It looks like… you know.” 

“Pretty fucked up, huh?” That wasn’t me. It was a thin, pale guy with short blond hair and a scraggly beard in a Coke delivery uniform, coming out of the store while dragging his two-wheeled cart thing behind him. He nodded our way. “Looks like someone went after that thing with a bat or something. Damn cameras didn’t catch whoever it was though. Pieces of junk. I keep telling Zane he needs to upgrade his security. ‘Specially after that poor girl offed herself right there.” He had stopped walking by then, clearly more in the mood to gossip than get back on the road. “Such a goddamn shame.” 

Right, so they did remember that someone died. Hesitating, I asked, “A girl killed herself here? How, why? Uhh, who?” That last one was what I was really interested in, to be honest. I was curious about what exactly was in their heads after Denise’s connection to the situation was erased. Not to mention the little bit about who exactly had punched this gas pump. Because I had a feeling it was connected to our situation. It seemed a little too coincidental otherwise. 

“Oh, yeah, you didn’t hear about that?” the guy whistled, nodding to the pump we were standing by. “Happened right there. Some guy came in and tried to rob the place, but she took his gun and shot him. Guess she couldn’t deal with what happened, cuz she came out here and used the pump to drown herself.” He was grimacing then, shaking his head. “Isn’t that screwed up? I mean, sucks to kill yourself anyway. But why wouldn’t she just use the gun? Drowning herself with gasoline, just–” A sigh escaped the man before he crossed himself. “So screwed up.”  

“Who was the girl?” Rebecca piped up when the man fell silent, clearly just as curious as I was about how that had been adjusted.  

The man, however, simply shrugged. “Oh, you know, one of the girls who worked here. She was from out of town, hadn’t really lived here long. Maybe that had something to do with why she killed herself, you know? No support system, no friends. I don’t think anyone even really remembers her name. And ain’t that just awful? I mean, bad enough to go through something that screws you up that bad, but then no one even knows much about you?” He grimaced to himself, looking a bit shaken by his own words before giving us a distracted nod and heading for his truck to get back to work. 

Which left us standing there, staring at the dents on the side of the pump. My voice was quiet. “Do you think someone or something came trying to find out the truth? Someone with a connection to Fossor or Ammon. Maybe they found the pump and… got frustrated because of the spell that changed people’s memories. If they were trying to find out who the girl who died here was, and nobody could tell them…” I trailed off, mentally working through the possibilities. None of them made me exactly cheerful. Even if that was true, we still had no idea who or what could possibly have been trying to get at Ammon or even Fossor himself. It wasn’t like there was a shortage of people they had made enemies of, and I was pretty sure plenty of those wouldn’t care about hurting Denise on their quest for revenge. Especially if they hadn’t heard about both of them being dead already. Much as I wanted to think that any enemies of Fossor would be friends of ours, that wasn’t necessarily true. He’d pissed off plenty of bad people as well. 

Rebecca spoke up after a moment. “Maybe that’s how they found Denise. If she was having nightmares or just… memories, she might’ve come here. Then whatever made those dents noticed her and figured out she had some sort of connection to Ammon.”

That sounded like a strong possibility, and I was about to say so before Asenath arrived. I sensed someone approaching from behind, and turned to see the vampire girl on her way. She looked uhh, not great. Between her and my mother, I wasn’t sure which was more upset about this situation. What I did know was that I wouldn’t want to be the person responsible when those two found them. I had a feeling the results wouldn’t be pretty. 

In a low voice as she stared at the same dents in the pump, Senny announced, “You think whoever left those is the one who knows where Denise is now? Then I suppose we should find out who, or what, it was.” Glancing to the others, she added, “We probably shouldn’t all crowd around inside to ask questions. Do you think you can look around out here? Check for anything unusual. Signs of magic, anything… odd like those dents right there, whatever might be a sign that something was lurking around this place. There might even be a nest nearby, on one of the roofs or in the alleys. If something was really trying to find Ammon by coming here, it might’ve staked the place out for awhile before seeing Denise. Worth a shot, anyway.”

The others agreed with that, Tabbris mentioning that she had a couple spells that could help check. She and December split off with Koren and Rebecca, all four spreading out to search the surrounding area. Which left me to go into the shop with Asenath. The two of us headed that way together, as I glanced at the (much) older girl. “I wish I could give you a platitude that would mean anything. But I’m pretty sure it would just be insulting. We both know how bad this looks.”

She, in turn, gave a very slight nod, her mouth pressed tightly closed while she opened the door and gestured for me to go in. “Doesn’t look good, that’s for sure.” 

The shop itself was empty, save for the teenage clerk. She had dirty blonde hair and was reclined in a chair behind the counter, paying more attention to her phone than us, though she did take a second to raise a hand in silent greeting when we looked that way. Her thumbs danced over the screen, texting away while clearly waiting for us to  go about our business.  

Exchanging a look with Senny, I shrugged before walking through the store to look around to give the place a once-over. Yeah, it looked just like the simulated version back at Crossroads. And gave me even more of the creeps. Sure, it looked completely normal, but something about the place just… made a chill run down my spine. Probably because I knew what had happened here. 

“Thirsty?” Asenath asked while I was thinking about that. 

“Huh?” I blinked, then looked down. There was a Sprite in my hand that I didn’t remember picking up. “Oh. Uh, I guess.” Frowning briefly, I shook my head. “This place and me picking things up, I swear.” 

“What do you mean?” the vampire girl pressed, squinting at me. 

I shrugged. “It was… well, obviously now we know it was because of the whole Ammon being my brother thing. But back when we were looking into the recreation of this place for Investigation class, I picked up a few different things that happened to be like… the exact stuff Ammon bought when he was here.” 

Asenath raised an eyebrow. “And now you just picked up that Sprite without thinking about it?” 

“Sure, I guess. But… he’s gone,” I pointed out. “I just… picked up a soda while I was thinking about all this stuff, that’s all. I mean, that’s not that weird, right?” 

“Maybe.” From her tone, Asenath wasn’t really convinced. Which was okay, because neither was I.

But, I shook that off for now. Though I put down the Sprite before purposefully walking to the counter where the clerk was. “Hey, uhh, can I ask you something?” Might as well jump straight into things. We needed to find some answers. 

Glancing up from her phone, the girl raised an eyebrow. “You need the key to the restroom? It’s supposed to be for customers only, but you know, fuck that. If you gotta piss, you gotta piss. No skin off my back. Mostly that rule’s supposed to keep the druggies out of the restroom, anyway.” 

I checked the name tag on her shirt. “Uh, Kalia? Right, nah, it’s not about the restroom. But thanks. Actually, we were wondering if anything weird had happened around here lately. You know, anything different from usual I’d say, probably within the past few weeks. Maybe three weeks ago to be specific?” Yeah, I was being about as straight-forward as possible. There wasn’t time to be cute about it, not with Denise’s life on the line. 

Something about the question had clearly immediately struck the other girl, judging from the brief expression that crossed her face before she wiped it away and offered us a squint. “Unusual?  We get a lot of weirdos in here. Comes with the territory. You know, open all night, close to a homeless camp about three blocks that way, and an improv theater about two blocks the other way. Weirdos are like, our number one customer base. So you’re gonna have to be a bit more specific.” Belatedly, she added, “Why, you looking for someone?” 

Well, screw it, time to go all-in on that whole not beating around the bush thing. “A girl, about ten to twelve years old. This tall, dark hair. She would have come in at some point in the past few weeks. And we think she might have, uhh, been hanging around out there to get a look at the gas pump where that, uhh, girl died.” Yup, just jumping straight on into the whole thing. 

Kalia, for her part, blinked at the question. Again, there was something telling in her expression  for just a moment before she shook it off, eyes narrowing. “What, did someone send you in to play games too? Cuz it’s not fun. It wasn’t funny then, and it’s not funny now. So you can just–”

“Whoa, hey.” Asenath held up both hands while protesting. “I promise, we’re not playing games, and nobody sent us in here. What are you talking about? We’re looking for a girl who went missing, and someone said she might’ve come in here and started acting weird. That’s all.” 

I nodded. “What she said. We’re just looking for this girl. But uhh, why do you think someone’s playing very not-funny games with you? What does that have to do with a girl?” 

Kalia looked back and forth between us as though trying to decide if we were being serious.  Finally, she exhaled and answered. “A little over a year ago, a guy came into this place and started to rob it. But the clerk who worked here shot and killed him. Then she killed herself.” 

“Yeah,” I started to confirm, “we heard about that much, but I don’t–” 

“He was my dad,” the girl replied. “He came to rob the place to make up for… because he borrowed money to take care of me. He borrowed it from a really bad guy named Mercer. He’s like this gang boss or whatever. Real lowlife, but don’t let him find out I called him that. He’s scary. Like, really scary. That–that son of a bitch was gonna do–he was gonna do something bad, to me, because he wasn’t getting his money back fast enough. My dad was desperate. He came here and he got killed. The owner gave me a job because I was hanging around just trying to see the place where my dad died. He gave me a chance. But then Mercer kept coming around, trying to get money out of me instead. He wouldn’t leave it alone. Nothing was enough for him. I didn’t–I didn’t have a chance. I kept trying to tell him to wait for me to be paid enough, but he wasn’t listening. He wasn’t–and then he just… he just…” 

Frowning, I asked, “He just what? Did he do something to you?” Oh boy, was I not in the mood to find out about some guy hurting and terrorizing a girl. I was already reeling from the revelation that she was the daughter of the original robber. That was–yeah. Eesh. It complicated that whole situation, that was for sure. And now to find out that the prick who had set the whole thing in motion was still trying to force this girl to give him more money after everything she had already been through? I really wanted to find whoever that was and give him a piece of my mind. And maybe a piece of my staff while I was at it. Fucking piece of shit.  

Again, the other girl hesitated. It looked like she was afraid to get into the details. She had a pensive look on her face and squirmed a little while fidgeting with her hands.

“It’s okay,” Senny gently reassured her, raising a hand to touch Kalia’s wrist while meeting her gaze. “Trust us, we don’t have anything to do with that Mercer guy. We’re not here for him, just looking for the girl. But tell us what happened. Did he hurt you? Has he threatened you again?”  Despite the gentleness of her tone as she tried to keep the girl calm, I could tell that she was just as close as I was to demanding directions to that guy so we could do something about him. 

Kalia, however, shook her head. “No, that’s the thing–I mean he was. He was being really demanding.” A frown crossed her face again. “He was really pushing hard, wouldn’t let up about it. He was supposed to come in the other day. I was waiting for him, but he never… he never came. Then I went to see him, I had fifty dollars. And he… he said he didn’t know who I was. I mean, he took the fifty bucks, but he didn’t know my name. He didn’t know who I was or who my dad was. He terrorized my father into getting himself killed, which–which drove another girl to kill herself because of it. Then he kept pushing me for more money. And then suddenly he doesn’t know who I am?”

Yeah, she was right. That did sound pretty weird. And distinctly unnatural. Before Asenath or I could say anything, however, the girl went on. “And with that girl going on about some tattooed monster coming in, I just–it was a weird coincidence. Especially with you coming in now.” 

“Hold on, a girl asked about a tattooed monster?” Asenath pressed, giving me a brief look. 

With a nod, Kalia confirmed, “Yeah, a little girl like the one you described. First she came in and was asking me about what happened with my dad and that clerk. I mean, she didn’t know he was my dad before. But she was asking about that. Then it was like… she went nuts? She started asking about some monster with scales and tattoos before just taking off and running outside. Then I never saw her again. Hell, might not even be the right kid.” 

To that, I dug in my pocket for my phone. “Hang on, I think I have a picture.” I had a copy of the video that my mother had shown us before when she revealed that Denise was alive. Bringing up a still shot of that, I held the phone out for the other girl to see. 

Kalia’s head bobbed quickly as she pointed at the screen. “Yeah, that’s her. Who is she?” 

“Her name is Denise,” Asenath explained. “And you’re sure you haven’t seen her since that day? She hasn’t come in again, or been hanging out or anything?” 

“I mean, I’m pretty sure she hasn’t,” Kalia replied with a shrug. “She just yelled about the tattooed monster and ran out. I didn’t really think much about it until all the stuff happened with Mercer.  Like I said, he was supposed to show up that day and he didn’t. And he’s got tattoos. Big bright red ones all over his body. No scales though. But I mean, she was a little kid, and kids have imaginations, you know? It’s just really weird. He completely forgets about the whole thing and acts like he’s never heard of my family, right after this kid was asking about stuff related to that and then went off about a tattooed monster? It’s two weird things in one day, and it sort of seems like they might be related. But I just sorta decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Then you guys came in and started asking about it and are you sure you don’t know him?” 

“No, pretty positive we don’t,” Asenath murmured, gazing off into the distance thoughtfully. 

“But I’m starting to think we should.” 

*******

Leaving the store, we met up with the others just behind the building and explained what we’d discovered. Then they told us about what they had found in turn. Apparently December and Tabbris had picked up signs of a big Alter of some kind, probably accompanied by others, hanging around the store several weeks earlier, but not recently. The traces were old and pretty faded. 

“Yeah,” Rebecca put in, “That totally fits with what we heard.” She nodded in the direction of some old homeless guy laying in a doorway across the street. He had a Coke he was sipping that had clearly come from the nearby vending machine, probably courtesy of her and Koren. “Elmer over there, he told us there used to be this guy who is really bad news with tattoos and stuff that came around the station, but he stopped a few weeks ago. And, get this, he saw a little girl with dark hair too, the same day the big guy stopped showing up.” 

Yeah, this was all sounding pretty suspicious. I had a bad feeling that this Mercer guy was related to why Denise had disappeared. Which was a thought that suddenly made me wonder–

“What if Ammon killing that guy wasn’t as random as we thought?” I put in. “I mean, what if this Mercer guy actually had some connection to Fossor after all? Then Denise shows up because she’s starting to remember stuff, and Mercer finds out, so he takes her and… and goes somewhere.” 

“That doesn’t explain why he would forget about the debt,” Asenath reminded me. “This guy hounded her dad into the grave and then kept pushing her about it. And then one day he just stops completely? Not just stops, seems to literally forget about it entirely. And it doesn’t explain those dents in the gas pump, like someone attacked it. There’s something really… strange about this whole bit. It feels like we’re missing something obvious. It’s right there, but I just can’t get a finger on it.” 

Tabbris piped up, “Maybe you could just ask him why he forgot the debt. I mean, possess him and read his mind. We should be able to find his memories from back then, and Mama taught me some about finding lost memories.”

“Right,” I murmured to myself a bit thoughtfully. She had a point, that might be the easiest way to actually get a firm idea of what was going on. “We just have to find the guy.”

“Ohthat’seasy,” December immediately informed us. “Thespellwe… wereusing…thatshowedushe…. washangingaroundhere… wecanusethat… totrackwherehewent.” 

“Uh huh, uh huh!” Tabbris bobbed her head quickly alongside the other girl. “He left a trail we could follow all the way back to his base.”  

“Sounds like a plan,” Asenath murmured, already taking out her own phone. “Let me call Twister, just in case we need a little more muscle.

“Then we can pay this Mercer guy a visit, and find out what really happened that day.”  

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The Runaway 15-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As soon as they heard that something was wrong, the others wanted to come with. So, I explained what little I knew as we made our way out of the food court and found a quiet, out-of-the-way area in a corner of the underground parking garage so we could use our transport coins to get back to the station. Not that we actually needed to hide from the crowds, given the Bystander Effect. But transporting like that left energy behind that could theoretically be used to track where we went. Just to avoid anyone… bad passing close to that spot soon and being able to do anything with the energy remnants, we didn’t want to do it in a big public area. Not that we were transporting directly anyway. The spell took us to three different destinations first before depositing us on the station. But still, better safe than sorry. 

In any case, I told them what I knew while we were walking, about Denise in general and what had happened. At least as much as my mother had been able to tell me in a couple sentences. Apparently, the girl had been gone for several weeks, at least. It was hard to be specific, because her parents never actually noticed she was missing. Yeah, that sounded bad, but apparently they believed she was staying with her aunt. Mom’s friend, who went to check up on the girl, actually followed through and went to the aunt’s rather than just assuming it was fine, only to find out that she had no idea where the girl was either. Both Denise’s parents and aunt thought she was with the other. No one actually knew where she was. The girl had completely disappeared.

By the time we emerged from the last of the rapid series of transports into the receiving room on the Star Station, Rebecca was shaking her head. “But who would kidnap her? I mean, do you think it’s related to all that… Fossor stuff?” She said the man’s name in a whisper while twisting her face in disgust at even having to speak it aloud. It looked like bringing him up made her physically ill. Which was a reaction I could definitely sympathize with. 

“It’s too much of a coincidence otherwise,” Koren pointed out while we stepped down from the small platform. “Even if it’s not his people directly, it’s probably connected to him in some way. Why else would she disappear like that?” 

“That’s right.” Mom’s voice was crisp as she marched toward us from the entrance. I could hear the barely constrained emotion and guilt almost like a physical slap. “Someone out there drew a connection between her and Fossor, and now they took her. No.” She stopped, hands tightening. “They could’ve taken her as far back as three weeks ago. Anything could’ve happened to her, any–” 

“Mom.” I quickly moved that way, catching her hands. “You had no reason to think she was in any danger. She’s just a normal kid, and both Fossor and Ammon are gone. They’re gone. Nobody had any reason to think anyone would be after her. And you still sent someone to check on her. It’s– there’s nothing else you really could’ve done, not with what we knew.” 

From the look on her face, I was pretty sure that wasn’t helping. I felt my insides twist almost painfully. This was Mom’s win over what Fossor had done to her son. She couldn’t bring back any of Ammon’s other victims, she couldn’t bring back Ammon himself. She couldn’t fix what Fossor had done to him, couldn’t save her little boy. But the one thing she had been able to do was make sure that he stayed dead and couldn’t be used to do any more evil, while giving one of his victims her life back. That was the only thing she had been able to actually do for the little boy she loved. And now someone had attacked that. Someone took Denise, to do… who knew what. No wonder Mom seemed like she was right on the edge of falling apart. This wasn’t just about Denise, awful as that was. It was about Fossor, Ammon, and all the rest of that horror. This was the one thing from that time, from what had been done to her son, that she had been able to fix. 

Tabbris and December had jogged up to join us by then, and while the latter stayed back a few steps, Tabbris herself came forward and caught my mother’s arm with both hands. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “We can still find her, right? We can still figure out where she is and get her back.” Left unspoken, of course, was the fact that we would only be able to find her if she was still alive. To say nothing of the fear about what had been done to her in all that time. 

Koren spoke quickly. “Yeah, we can find her. I mean, it probably won’t be easy, but… at least we can find out how she’s doing. You know, make sure she’s still…” She trailed off, clearly not wanting to say the worst option aloud, even though we were all thinking it. 

Visibly shoving that thought down, Koren continued. “The kid had to leave DNA at her house. You know, on her toothbrush or comb or whatever. All we have to do is find some of that. There’s a spell we can use to see how she’s doing. I mean, umm, physically. It should still be connected to her enough for that.”

“Can you track her with it?” Rebecca quickly asked. “I mean, if you can use her DNA to check what sort of… umm, shape she’s in, can you use it to find out where she is?” 

“It’snotreallythateasy,” December abruptly put in. “Ifshe’snotreallyclose… towhereyou’reusingthespell….itwon’tfindheratall… oryou’dhavetouse… somuchpowertomakeit….reachasfarasitneedsto… you’ddrainalltheenergyinthiswholeplace.”

Mom gave a short nod. “December’s right. That sort of spell works at relatively close range. Even the strongest ones I’ve seen are limited to the general vicinity of a city. And we don’t have the extra power to spare for a big thing like that. Every bit of extra energy anyone’s had for the past few weeks has gone to boosting Liesje’s spell.” Her gaze hardened a bit then. “But there are other ways to find her, and we’re going to. First, we go to her house and get that DNA. I already have a few others checking the aunt’s house, just in case there’s anything there. We don’t know when exactly she disappeared. She might’ve been there for awhile after all. We just–we don’t have any time to waste. Not when she could’ve been missing for three weeks already.” 

“What about Wyatt, and Deveron?” I spoke up. “Or Sariel, they could all–” 

“No.” Her head shook, clearly regretting the answer she had to give. “They’re working on the spell. We can’t interrupt them. It’s too important and they’ve been working too hard. That sort of magic, it’s… so specific, about every little detail. Including when you cast it, and everything about the day itself. Throwing that off, even a little bit, would mean weeks more work.” Even as she said that, I could tell that it was taking everything mom had not to insist anyway. She was desperate to find Denise. But we all knew how important getting the anti-possession spell running was. Denise was important too, of course. Yet there were a lot of people who could be saved with this spell. It was so hard to even think that way. It made me feel like a monster. But we couldn’t interrupt the work on that spell. Not when they were so close after spending such a long time on it. Denise was important, but so were all the people who would be saved or protected by the anti-possession magic. If it was interrupted now, there was no telling how long it would take to reset everything. As horrible as it felt, we had to figure out what happened to the kid without pulling in the whole cavalry. 

“We’ll find her,” I announced, forcing my voice to sound confident. “We’ll do it ourselves.

“So let’s stop wasting time and get down there.” 

*******

Both of Denise’s parents were at work. Because, of course, they had no idea there was anything wrong with their daughter. And we weren’t going to tell them, at least not yet. With a lot of luck, maybe we could find the girl before that was necessary. It wasn’t as though they could actually contribute in any way to find her. Hell, they wouldn’t even be able to retain the information about what was really going on if we did try to explain the situation. 

In any case, it wasn’t exactly hard to get into the house. Mom disabled the alarm and we spread out to look around. We weren’t just looking for her DNA. We also wanted to see if there were any hints about where she might have gone or what happened. There were a few spells we could use to see if any Alters had been around the house within the past couple months, as well as a few other things. If there was anything to find in this place, we were going to find it. 

At the moment, I was down on my side, peering under Denise’s bed to see if she had left anything important there. Mom was in the hallway behind me, working on those Alter-detecting enchantments. A bit further away in one of the other rooms, I could hear one of the others playing messages off the telephone on the very slim chance that might tell us anything. 

Unfortunately, there was nothing under the bed aside from some old shoes and stuffed animals. I pushed myself out and turned just as my mother stepped into the room. She was holding a black coin the size of a half-dollar. As soon as she stepped inside, the coin flickered, glowing red very briefly, then blue, then it went back to dull black. A moment later, it flickered again before going out. Wherever she moved it while moving slowly around the room, the coin flickered for a brief second or two, went out again, then flickered once more, repeating that.  

“Uhh…” I stared that way, frowning as the thing continued to glow, then not glow, then glow again. “I thought it was supposed to glow if there was any sign of an Alter being around here. What does it mean if it flickers like that? Is it just detecting a tiny hint or something?” 

Mom shook her head, frowning as well as she held the thing out between us. “No. If it detects anything at all, it’s supposed to glow. Red is if it’s detecting only the faintest trace, blue is a little stronger. If it was green, there would’ve been an Alter here within the past few days. Flickering like this… maybe something’s blocking it. Check for any spells that might’ve been left behind.” 

So, we started to do that as well. I checked in the usual places, along the baseboard, behind furniture, in the closet, and so on. I used that time to keep looking for any clues about what happened to the girl as well, also to no avail. 

At least, to no avail until I pushed the clothes and toys out of the way to check the back wall for any runes. I didn’t exactly find a spell, but I definitely found something interesting. As my eyes scanned over what I’d found there, I felt a chill run through me. “Mom!” I called. “Look at this.” 

She came quickly, and I stepped aside a bit to show her. There were words carved into almost the entire surface of the rear wall of the closet. Two words repeated over and over again, often carved on top of each other. Him Me Him Me Him Me Him Me. It went on and on like that, the words carved with some sort of knife. It was incredibly creepy to stare at. Worse, and more tellingly just in case we hadn’t gotten the point yet, there were much larger letters carved on top of those ones. Three letters, A-M-M. Then those were crossed out with what had clearly been a quick series of sharp jagged cuts. AMM. Ammon. She started to carve Ammon into the wall. Him, Me, Him, Me, Him, Me, then the start of the name Ammon? This… this was bad. 

Also, as soon as Mom stepped up to the closet, the Alter-detection coin began to glow once more. It was still flickering, but more slowly. It stayed lit up longer between flashes of darkness.  Either whatever was partially blocking it was weaker here, or the detection itself was just stronger in this spot, or… or… I had no idea. Mom said, it wasn’t supposed to work like that. If it was detecting anything, it should just light up, period. This whole flickering thing was… weird. Between that and the words carved in the wall, a cold shiver ran down my spine once more. 

“She remembers,” Mom murmured, sounding stricken as she reached out to touch the carved letters. “That should be impossible. She shouldn’t remember anything.” Her voice shook a little from the implication that this little girl actually even partially remembered what had happened to her. 

The two of us stood there, staring at the words carved into the wall for several long seconds. Then we were interrupted when Rebecca stepped into the room behind us. She was holding what looked like an appointment book in one hand and a tablet computer in the other. “Hey, umm, I don’t know if this means anything, but it turns out this girl’s mom was trying to get her to see a therapist. I mean, she got her to see one, but the girl wouldn’t go back to her again. So she was trying to get her to go to another one. Something about nightmares she was having.” 

“That’s not all.” Koren had joined her in the doorway, holding up two thick books I couldn’t see the titles of. “These were in the garage, hidden in a box full of balls and outside toys. Looks like they were checked out of the library a few weeks ago, in her name. They’re all about umm… mind control. Pretty heavy stuff. Looks like the kid had a lot she wanted to go back over again.” She showed us where a lot of the pages had strips of cloth, string, or other bookmarks, as if the reader had simply shoved whatever was in their pocket to mark the spot. 

Yeah, this had moved further and further into unsettling and creepy. Denise, as far as she or anyone else around her should have known, was like eleven years old. Even if we hadn’t seen the partial name and those words carved into the wall, one thing still would have been clear. The only reason she could possibly have for being obsessed with reading about mind control from adult books was if she actually remembered Ammon using it on her. 

Mom’s gaze moved from the books back to the words carved into the wall of the closet. “This is all wrong. It can’t… she can’t remember this… why would she remember anything?” 

“What’s going on?” That was Tabbris, as she and December arrived. “What happened?” 

We went through it all, the books, the therapist appointments, the words carved into the wall, everything. With all that put together, it sure sounded like the girl was sort of remembering at least part of what happened to her. Which had to be unbelievably traumatizing. I couldn’t imagine being a little kid and experiencing those sort of nightmares. 

“But what about the thing with the Alter detector?” Koren brought up. “Could that maybe be from someone like… projecting memories or thoughts or whatever into her head from a distance? I mean, if they aren’t fully physically present, maybe that could screw up the detection?” 

Mom seemed to consider that for a moment, looking at the coin in question as it continued to flicker. “Perhaps,” she murmured thoughtfully, before her gaze darkened. “But when we find whoever was responsible for that, whoever… took…” She trailed off, clearly taking everything she had to control her reaction. I was pretty sure she was even more upset than I was, and that was saying something, because I felt like putting my fist through the nearby wall a few times. 

Denise was fine! Why would she–why was she–who could possibly have…

“I need to call Asenath,” I murmured. “She thought this was over too. I mean, she got into this whole thing by trying to find out what happened to Denise the first time. I have to tell her. She can help.” 

“It’ll be dark in half an hour,” my mother informed me while glancing toward the nearby window. “Let her sleep until then. Maybe we can find something else, something better than bad news.” 

“I got this,” Rebecca announced, holding up a hand with a pink and purple hairbrush. “Pretty sure it’s hers. Can you do the spell with that?” 

Mom confirmed that she could and then took the brush down to the kitchen table to get started on that. Meanwhile, the rest of us kept looking around in the vain hope of finding something else useful. I was almost afraid to look in more closets or behind more dressers, just in case there were more creepy carvings. It was horrible to think about what had to be going through that girl’s mind to wonder if Ammon was still controlling her, to the point that she was carving those words into the wood. But I did anyway. We had to know just how bad of shape she was in. Though, to be fair, maybe the fact we were to the point of checking for how many bits of wall in her house she had carved rambling, repeating words into with a knife, sort of answered the question. 

Fortunately, or unfortunately given it might have helped, we didn’t find any more carvings. Nor did we find anything that could have told us where the kid went or who took her. It would take longer for Mom to work her way through the spell, given how thorough she was being. So, when we were done with the search, I took the time to call Asenath. 

That… was not a fun conversation. As soon as I told her what had happened, at least as much as we knew, the other girl went quiet for a few seconds. I could almost picture her face, staring at open air as she fought to contain herself. I knew exactly what she was feel–no, I didn’t. Close, but I did not know exactly what she was feeling. She had been hired to find out the truth about Denise’s murder, and that was what led to her meeting me and everything else that happened since then. She’d thought she had closure on the whole thing when Ammon died, and then closure of a better sort when Mom told her about Denise being brought back. Now this had happened and that closure was ripped away. 

“Who?” Her voice was a cold demand, brittle from anger that she was barely restraining. “Who took her?” 

“We don’t know,” I admitted. “Not yet. But we’re tracking her down. Mom’s working on a spell to… you know, check on her umm, physical state. It should tell us how healthy she is, whether she’s been drugged or enchanted, that sort of thing. Might even point us in her direction if she’s close enough and they haven’t blocked that.” Not that I had much faith in whoever had taken Denise being dumb enough for that. But hey, we had to try everything. Besides, that was even considering someone had physically taken her. Considering what we’d been finding around this house,  I had this nagging thought in the back of my head that all these nightmares she was clearly having could have driven her to run away. Or maybe…

“Wait,” I said aloud. “If she was having dreams about… about what happened, do you think she might’ve actually seen where it happened? I mean, the… the gas station. What if she went there to–I don’t know, to try to get some answers? It’s nearby, right?”

Both Koren and Asenath immediately confirmed that it was only a few blocks away from the house. So, I checked in with Mom, made sure she was gonna be okay there by herself working on that spell, and told her what we were going to do. It would still be hours before the girl’s parents got home, so we were good on that front. 

“Okay, Senny,” I announced while heading for the door with the others right behind me. “We’ll meet you at that gas station. 

“Let’s hope there’s someone or something there that can give us some clue of what the hell is going on.” 

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The Runaway 15-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Believe it or not, that single day was a pretty good example of how the next three weeks went. Yeah, three whole weeks with barely any real excitement outside of training and various planned scenarios. Just about the most dangerous thing that happened was when a few people threw a surprise party for Vanessa and Tristan (their birthday had been the 29th) and didn’t happen to inform Theia of what was going on. She was with them when the surprise was sprung and, well… yeah, they needed to get a new cake. But at least they didn’t have to get a new Jazz, and it was a pretty close call on that point. Luckily, she had good reflexes. 

So yeah, everyone made a mental note not to startle Theia. Which honestly probably should’ve been underlined and bolded in all of our mental notebooks anyway, long before that. But all was well that ended well, and that day ended well indeed. 

All the days did, actually. Three weeks, and I didn’t have any truly horrifying moments, no life and death decisions, no abductions, no crying in terror. I just… lived. I spent time with my girls, my friends, my family (including my mother), and the people who were just my classmates. 

And Persephone. I spent some time with her too, throughout those days. She didn’t demand anything, of course. I had a feeling she was one of the most patient people I would ever meet. Which made sense, given her age and everything. Still, I made a point of spending time with her now and then. Sometimes it was all in a group setting, other times I sat alone and just talked, shared things about myself and asked about her in return. She had a lot of interesting stories. Not to mention incredibly amusing ones, terrifying ones, just… a lot of stories worth hearing. 

I spent all that time with the woman, listened to her, talked with her about myself, showed her the things I was interested in, introduced her to a lot of human concepts, and basically just opened up to her a fair bit. And over those weeks, I grew to like her. Well, I’d already liked her before, just from how helpful she had been, not to mention the stuff we’d learned about where she came from. But now, after hanging out with her off and on over those intervening weeks, I definitely liked her as a person. She was cool. She was fun, exciting, different…

And I absolutely, positively, did not like her the way I liked–loved Avalon and Shiori. 

Yeah, it wasn’t happening. Not like that. Again, I liked her. But it was more the way I liked Sands and Sarah, or Columbus, or Sean. I wanted to protect her, help her, even make her happy. I cared about what happened to her. But I didn’t feel anything like that for her. Three weeks of spending time together, and the more I knew her the more clear it was that I just… wasn’t going to have those feelings. There was literally no sense of romance, at least as far as I was concerned. I was afraid to ask how she was feeling, especially before I would know for certain that she understood how she was feeling. 

That was my plan as far as that went. I wanted to help Persephone figure out on her own that she would be happier with someone other than me, with someone she actually enjoyed because of who they were rather than what power they had. I wasn’t sure how that would go, but yeah. My fingers were crossed. And I was thinking about adding toes, just in case. 

Now it was Friday, December 21st. Four days until Christmas. We’d already had Hanukkah from December 2nd to the 10th, and Kwanzaa would start on the 26th. Plus there were a few other holidays mixed in there I didn’t even know much about. Apparently December was a big time for that sort of thing no matter where you came from. Or maybe holidays on other worlds tended to migrate to December because that was the general holiday time. 

The fact that it was four days before Christmas was what had led to my current life or death quest: shopping for presents. On Earth.

“Can we please, please shoot out the speakers so those fucking Christmas songs shut up?” Koren pleaded with me while walking backwards through the mall so she could stare my way. “I promise there won’t be any collateral damage. Just the music. I will buy every single one of the presents you’re getting for everyone if you let me destroy every speaker in this mall so they can never torture anyone again. We’re supposed to stop monsters, right? What are the people who play this goddamn music on a constant loop if not monsters? My logic is impeccable and you should be nodding right now.” 

Walking beside me, Rebecca noted, “I don’t think shooting out the speakers and destroying the mall’s ability to make music really fits with the whole… blending in and not attracting attention thing. I’m just saying, people might notice something like that.” 

“Ilikethesongs,” December cheerfully announced while doing a little spin as she and Tabbris walked ahead of us. “Andthedecorationsandeverythingelse. Everyone’sreallyhappyabout…itbeingDecemberand…it’sliketheylikeme.” 

“They’re all December holidays!” Tabbris giggled, nudging the other girl. “Out on the lawn there arose such a clatter. December was here, now just let me at her. Away to the window I flew with a flash.”

December was grinning broadly as she put in, “ButDecemberwasmovingand… wemetwithacrash!” 

With that, the two of them jumped into each other, stumbling backward while laughing so hard they almost fell over. Quickly, they began to make up more lyrics amongst themselves.

“Well, at least they’re having fun.” Shaking my head, I looked at Koren (who was still walking backward, expertly avoiding everything that might have been in her way without looking). “Sorry, but Rebecca’s right. I really don’t want to give your mom any reason to hold off on sending me down here again. Not with my visits coming up.” 

“When’s the first one?” Rebecca asked. “And how many?” 

“Tomorrow night,” I replied, “and ahhh, about fifteen in the first batch. They’re all pretty close together. They’re from a umm, neighborhood that Fossor went through about ten years ago.” 

Tomorrow night would be when I officially started releasing some of these ghosts. It could’ve been earlier, but I’d discussed it with all of them and they decided to go closer to Christmas. There was a larger chance of their families being around. For those who weren’t stopped by the Bystander Effect, they could actually say goodbye in person. For those who were, the ghosts could at least see them one last time. It wasn’t much, especially after everything they had been through. But it was something that I could do for them. And I definitely didn’t want to screw that up by giving Abigail any reason to see sending me to Earth as a bad idea. Not that I honestly thought she’d put a stop to the plan or anything, but still. Better safe than sorry. Besides, I didn’t want to be hit with one of her disappointed looks. 

“He killed fifteen people in one neighborhood that he just happened to pass through?” Rebecca’s voice shook a little bit as she stared at me, the small girl adding, “Where was it?” 

“He killed a lot more than that in that neighborhood,” I replied in a tight voice. Thinking about it only made me more upset. “Fifteen were all that he bothered to reanimate and use. It’s a place in Cary, North Carolina. He was looking for something that was buried around that area, and there was this neighborhood watch group that sort of… vaguely annoyed him by showing up with flashlights when he was trying to di–sorry, when he was trying to have some zombies dig for him. It started a whole commotion and he ended up killing a bunch of them and putting those fifteen to work as ghosts to keep everyone else away for the entire week he needed to find the thing he was looking for. He turned that whole neighborhood into a horror movie, made the dead people haunt their loved ones to torture all of them to give himself privacy, and for fun.” My voice was a little hollow as I explained that. I could still remember how disgusted and angry I felt when the ghosts in question had told me their story. What made it worse, of course, was the knowledge that theirs was hardly unique. All these ghosts that I was now connected to, all the spirits I had inherited from Fossor, had deeply traumatic, horrifying stories of their own. All of them thanks to that piece of shit. The only bad thing about him being dead was that we couldn’t kill him again. 

Sounding like she was having very similar thoughts, Rebecca asked, “What was he looking for out there that was so important?” 

A heavy sigh escaped me, as I watched Tabbris and December chattering happily back and forth in front of a store window ahead of us. “Who knows? The thing they helped him dig up was some little wooden chest, about a foot wide and maybe a little under a foot tall? They don’t know what he did with it, or if he even used whatever was inside. Maybe it’s sitting somewhere waiting for him. Maybe he never did anything with it at all. Maybe he already used it. Maybe…” My head shook. “A lot of maybes. The point is, he killed them and the people in that neighborhood never got any sort of closure about what happened. We can’t really give them that, not really. But we can… sort of try. We can give his victims something.” It wouldn’t be enough. It would never be enough. But it could be something. 

Pushing those thoughts away, I made myself shrug while trying to sound casual. Not that it worked that well. “But hey, he’s gone forever now, and that’s what actually matters. That and cleaning up after all the trauma he left behind. And I get to take another step on that long journey tomorrow night. It was going to be Sunday instead of Saturday, but, well, you know.” 

They both nodded. They did know. Sunday night, December 23rd, would be when the anti-possession spell went into effect. Everything was prepared, and everyone had spent the past few weeks donating power to the spell. It had taken all that time, the months since we actually saved it from the vault, for the real experts to finish the adjustments for the spell and add in all the particular details that we were looking for. They had finally come back with every (excruciatingly precise) measurement and all the special materials that have been required. Then all they needed was raw power, and they received a lot of it from everyone living on the station, and a lot more beyond that. The spell itself had been drawn within one of the rooms on the station, and that was an absolutely incredibly protected place. Even I couldn’t get in there. Almost no one who wasn’t very high up or part of the actual spell team was allowed inside. But from what Avalon (who was allowed in because it was literally her ancestor’s spell) had said, the whole place was like one of those elaborate clean rooms, complete with an airlock entrance and special suits you had to wear to avoid messing anything up by breathing on it wrong or carrying in something that might disturb it. And even the suits weren’t enough. You also stood in the airlock area and let several different scanners run over you to make sure nothing bad went in with you. Beyond that, they had these special force fields covering the floor, walls, and ceiling where the runes were drawn, and more shields surrounding the artifacts that had been added into it. Everything was precisely laid out down to the millimeter. Every tiny, microscopic adjustment had to be agreed on by all the people working on the spell, and they used these special, incredibly precise instruments to make those adjustments. 

So yeah, it was a big deal. They’d been working on it for so long, no one wanted them to have to start over. So there were always guards stationed by the room, and enough spells around the place to ensure no one could get inside without alerting people. In that room was the result of centuries of searching, months of careful preparation and research, millions of dollars-worth of ancient artifacts, and the combined magical energies from what had to be thousands of people. 

It was a big deal, and rightfully so given everything it would accomplish. So now that the spell was finally going to be put into place, we were going to have a party. A real party, across not only the station, but down in the Atherby camp and in Wonderland. Yeah, it was a big thing. That was why I couldn’t do the ghost thing Sunday night. I was going to be rather busy. 

Smiling a bit to myself at the thought, I focused on Koren. “You gonna get something good for your mom?” 

She, in turn, made a face at me. “Don’t think you can weasel your way into finding out what I’m getting her just because you can’t think of anything. In fact, why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking of so I know you haven’t already copied me?”

The two of us stared at one another for a few long seconds before I raised an eyebrow. “You got nothing, huh?” 

Deflating, the other girl lamented, “I got nothing. And I really thought it’d be easier to shop for Mom by now! Especially with everything going on, all her new responsibilities, the–all of it! But I still don’t know what to get her. I’m not going with a gift card again. That seems extra lame now.”  

Yeah, she was probably overthinking it. But then again, I had no room to talk on that front, considering how much I was overthinking what I was going to get for my own mother. Seriously, what Christmas present could I possibly give her that would come anywhere near saying how I felt about the fact that she was finally home with us? Suddenly, I understood why Wyatt had felt the need to give multiple years-worth of missed presents. The whole concept was really overwhelming. 

With that in mind, I swallowed hard before quietly telling Koren that we would help each other find a good present. Hopefully, something good enough to even register on the scale of what I owed my mother would be sitting in one of these stores. Though somehow I doubted Hot Topic or the Gap had anything that could give her a decade of her life back, and take away all the bad shit  that had happened to her. 

Rebecca shook her head while shifting the backpack on her shoulders. “You guys are overthinking this whole thing. It’s not about giving them some amazing, perfect present. It’s about the fact that they get to be there so you can give it to them in the first place. Well, that and putting thought into it. Come on, what they want are gifts that show you were thinking about them. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be from you. And something that means they were on your minds, that they matter to you.”  

Thinking about that for a moment, I offered the girl a small smile. “You’re pretty smart about this stuff.”

She, in turn, blushed and ran a hand over her face. “Yeah, well, that was mostly Grandma talking. She figured you guys would be acting crazy about this whole thing and wanted to give some advice.”

She visibly blanched then, and I knew why. Both of her parents were still with the loyalists. They weren’t listening to her or to Lillian. And they had made it very clear that they wanted Rebecca back with them.

That was what this whole conflict was doing to a lot of people. My family may have been brought back together, but a lot of them were being torn apart. It was a fact that had been made even more apparent over these holidays. 

Even as I was trying to find the right words to say to the girl, she physically shook it off before asking, “Anyway, are we ready to get to the actual shopping part? I mean, I kind of need to buy something super-good for Grandma to pay her back for that advice about how you don’t have to get super-nice presents to show you love people.”

Koren and I exchanged looks briefly before I snorted. “Yeah, sure. Let’s get going then. Besides, if we take much longer to move on, December and Tabbris might physically drag us after them.” 

As if agreeing with that, Tabbris called, “We have to find something good for Grandma and Grandpa! They’ll be here any day!” 

Yeah, she was pretty excited to meet our grandparents officially and physically. We’d talked a bit more to them over the past few weeks, but Tabbris couldn’t wait to actually see them in person in her own body and all. She was incredibly nervous about it, even though they had made it clear that they were excited to meet her as well. It was a whole thing. I was pretty sure she wasn’t exactly afraid they would reject her. Not anymore. But still, she wanted to make a good first official impression, and had been sort-of agonizing over that for awhile now. 

“You know you can call them Popser and Grandmaria, Tabs,” I reminded her. 

She, in turn, squirmed a bit on her feet, with December bouncing behind her. “I know, it’s just… I don’t wanna take your thing.” 

My head shook, as I walked up that way and put both hands on her shoulders. “They’re your grandparents too. He’s your Popser and she’s your Grandmaria, just like they’re mine.” After briefly embracing her, I straightened. “Now come on. Let’s go find the perfect presents for everyone.” 

So, we walked onward. For the next couple hours, the five of us strolled through the mall and shopped. I picked up things for the others, including my girls, and we eventually stopped at the food court for something to eat. I sat there, watching people around us go about their own holiday shopping. It felt so surreal, seeing all those people with completely ordinary lives. Not that their lives weren’t important. They were. The point was just… they had no idea what was really going on in the world. The Fomorians, the Seosten, the monster under the ocean, things like Kwur and the other Gehenna prisoners, and so on. 

Would I prefer to be like that? Would I like it better if I could live an ordinary life with my family? Just to be completely fair, assume I could keep everyone I loved and cared about with me. My family and my friends. If I could keep them, would I want to go back to a normal life, one without all the pressure and responsibility? Would I prefer to live a completely free life, with an ordinary job as a reporter/writer, and not have to deal with any of that? 

No. No, I wouldn’t. I had a chance to ride multiple spaceships. I’d been to other worlds. I had incredible powers. I knew magic. I’d met amazing people, other beings who weren’t anything close to being human. There was a lot of pressure, sure. There was so much danger. But there was so much more than that. I’d been able to be part of so many incredible, amazing things in just the past year-and-a-half. I couldn’t imagine ever giving that up. Not for anything.

Tabbris chose that moment to poke me in the chin with a pretzel. “Whatcha got serious face for? What’s wrong?”  

Smirking a bit despite myself, I poked her with my own pretzel before dipping it in cheese to take a bite. Then I smiled at her and the others as they stared at me as well. “Nothing, really. Everything’s pretty good right–” 

I was interrupted by the buzzing of the phone in my pocket. Opening and shutting my mouth a couple times, I exhaled before pulling it out. “If this is something bad, you can all hit me.” Checking the phone, I saw that the call was from my mother. So, I clicked the button to connect and answered with, “Please don’t make me look like I just jinxed everything.” 

“Felicity,” Mom started immediately. “I need you to… I need you to come back and go with me.” 

Oh boy. Hearing the tone in her voice, I immediately pushed myself up. “We’re coming back. What’s wrong? What happened? Is Dad–” 

“Dad’s fine, we’re all fine,” she assured me. “I need you to come with me, we have to find her.” 

“Find who?” I shook my head, confused. The others had all risen around me, as we started moving together. 

“It’s Denise, Felicity,” Mom informed me. “She… she’s gone. 

“She disappeared and no one knows where she is.” 

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Class Action 14-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As it turned out, my first Universal Ecology (which Ruedu outright said was an almost hilariously broad subject) lesson was focused on the Relukun. Or rather, on the effect a large group of them had had on human society here on Earth when they set up a society in the forests of England back during the middle ages. Apparently, even with the (not as strong as it was now) Bystander Effect in place, the presence of a colony of Relukun in England had led to a lot of their myths about the forest and trees in general. Such as the idea that a Rowan tree would protect against enchantment and witchcraft. The local Relukun tribe protected a village against an evil sorceress of some sort, and that had spread out through the Bystander Affected humans as ‘trees protecting people from evil magic.’ Things like that. 

There were two fur-covered lion-like boys who were wearing letterman jackets with the name of some high school in Iowa seated on the far side of the classroom from where I was. One of them raised his hand after we got through that bit. “So like, the humans remember certain pieces of what happened even with that spell? Like, subconsciously or whatever. Enough for their brains to go, ‘ooh, tree saved me’ but not enough to remember the tree walked and talked.”

With a quick, eager nod, Ruedu confirmed, “Yes! That is correct. Less so now, but still some. The memory’k is changed and suppressed, but there are still echoes, fragments. These echoes form much of human myth and legend, you’k see’k? The Relukun who’k lived in the forests there affected much of emerging human stories. Not only’k with myths of magic wood, but of monsters lurking in those forests, when the Relukun went to’k war with a tribe of were-creatures who’k insisted on encroaching upon their territory.”  

That made another boy, whom I suspected was some sort of Were himself, raise his own hand before asking, “A war with Weres? You mean like some kind of super pack, like the one–” He cut himself off briefly, looking over his shoulder in my direction for a moment before turning back and quietly finishing with, “The one Lemuel put together.” 

At a nod from Ruedu, Hazel spoke up. “That’s right, though they weren’t quite as violent or set on attacking everyone in sight as the one you’re talking about. From the different histories that came out of both groups, we’re pretty sure a lot of it was a case of miscommunication and egos. At least at first. Both groups wanted the same area, and there were some badly translated negotiations that ended up making everything worse until they started fighting. Even that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near as far as it did if it wasn’t for the Herr-Pala.” 

“The air-pay-lay?” Rebecca blurted. “What’s an air-pay-lay?” 

He spelled it for us, including the silent h at the start, which wasn’t even remotely fair. Then Hazel went on to explain, “A long, long time ago, even by our standards, the world that the Relukun call home was ruled almost entirely by a very dangerous man named Pala. If you’ve spent enough time here on Earth to understand the reference, you could compare him pretty closely to someone like Genghis Khan. Same general idea. He died forever ago, but the Herr-Pala consider themselves his heirs, his descendants. The name means saplings of Pala. Basically, they’re really mad at the rest of their people for not being more into war and battle and all that. They think the Relukun should be conquerors, the way they used to be. So they push for battle as much as they can.” 

Ruedu took over then. “Yes, yes, precisely’k. The Herr-Pala think it is bad to’k be’k passive or to’k make peace with others rather than conquering all who’k stand in their way. And of course there is something to be said for not being too’k passive.” She looked away briefly, as thoughts of the position her own people had been in for so long clearly ran through her mind. But she shook it off quickly and focused. “That can leave your species in a very bad spot. But in this case, the Herr-Pala were creating more of a problem than they were solving. They wanted war, and the disagreement with the were pack gave them an excuse. The pack called themselves ‘Of Remus.’ If you’k were a bird-were, you’k were ‘Talon of Remus’ or ‘Feather of Remus.’ A wolf were would be ‘Fang of Remus,’ or a lion or panther would be ‘Claw of Remus.’ There was some variation, enough that it would not tell you exactly what someone was by hearing their title. Which is how they wanted it. Obfuscation was useful, yes.” 

She looked to Hazel then, before the Seosten put in, “There’s some theories that the specific ‘feather, talon, fang’ and so forth also had something to do with rank within the pack, but as we haven’t been able to talk to anyone who was directly there and was a reliable source, that’s still just a maybe.” 

“What happened when the pack and the Relukun went to war?” Jazz asked. “I mean, which side won?”

“As is true’k in most such wars of territory’k and pride, there were far more losers than winners,” Ruedu answered quietly. “So many’k died. Not only’k among the pack and the Relukun, but among many’k innocents and uninvolved who’k happened to be there. War is fast and angry’k. It does not spare time to’k think of who’k is deserving or not.”

Hazel spoke up. “There’s a lot of things out there that make Bystander people afraid of the forest. Too many to count or to put the blame on any one group. But the war between the Remus pack and that tribe of Relukun sure didn’t help matters. It helped convince the people of England that there were monsters in the trees, and that even some of the trees themselves could be monsters. Or some of the trees could be helpful, like we said before. The point is, the people who grew up in those areas while that war was going on spread their stories everywhere else. And that by itself affected a lot, not only as far as the type of stories that people were telling, but also in how they interacted with their environment. Bystanders wanting certain types of wood because they thought it would protect them made others want to plant more of those trees, those flowers, and anything else that was supposed to be important like that.” 

“And that,” Ruedu explained with a glance toward me, “is one of the important things you’k will continue’k to’k learn in this class as we’k keep going. Our unit for these few weeks will focus on how situations within the Bystander world affected Alters and Bonded alike, and vice versa. We’k will be’k dividing into groups of five, and you’k will research two events of your choosing. One will be’k in how a situation within the Bystander world strongly affected the Alter world. The other will be the opposite, an event within the Alter world which strongly’k affected the Bystanders. And no,” she added with a chuckle-clatter of her mandibles, “you’k cannot use the one we’d just told you’k about.” 

That prompted a little bit of good-natured groaning from people who had thought they had a chance at an easy headstart, before everyone started to divide into groups. For me, it was easy to get a quick team of four with Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon. But that left us one short. Or it did, until Jazz darted off to grab someone. She came back with one of her (and Gordon’s) housemates, Ruckus. He was the Alter who appeared to be made out of several giant slinkies, just an assortment of metal coils. Two slinkies for his legs, a big one in the middle for his body, two for his arms, and a head that was a slinky on its side with the ends connecting to make a circle. Two glowing red orbs, barely visible between a couple vertical coils of his head-slinky, were apparently his eyes. 

I hadn’t spent much time around Ruckus before, but I did remember one thing about him. 

“Youreallywantmetojoinyourgroup? Ohmygoshyouhavenoideahowcoolthatis! Ireallydidn’tknowwhichgrouptojoinbutifyouwantmetoI’mthere!” 

Yeah, that was the bit I remembered. He was like December, if not even more of a fast-talker. Every sentence all blurred together and it took me a second to really process what he was saying. “Uh, yeah, sure. That’s cool,” I managed, holding out a hand. “Welcome to the team, partner.” 

He bounced at that, literally. His coiled metal legs extended and he launched himself nearly to the ceiling before coming back down again and bouncing a little more carefully. “Thatissocool! YesyesyesI’mthere. ImeanI’mhere!” 

Chuckling despite myself, I nodded before taking one of his metal coils in my grip. It felt a little weird to hold. He did have something approximating a hand there, though it was more of claw made out of five thin metal pincer-finger things. He had a good grip too, shaking my hand enthusiastically while promising in a rush that he would help and be a good part of the group. 

Eventually, all the groups managed to organize themselves and we were told to take some time after classes to figure out what two events we wanted to focus on. We were supposed to have a plan when we came back to this class on Friday. Actually, we were supposed to have several options, just in case two (or more) groups chose the same thing. Ruedu wanted every group to focus on different events, so if more than one chose the same, she’d pick a group out of a hat or something to decide who got to do that one. 

In any case, once that was settled and people were thinking about what events to suggest to their team, she and Hazel went back to discussing that whole war between the Relukun tribe and the Remus pack, and how it had affected Bystander history, lore, even the availability of crops in the area. That single event–okay, not a single event given it had lasted for years, but still, that one thing had created a domino effect that changed a lot in the area. And that sent waves of change throughout all of England and beyond, given how much influence people of the UK had had over the rest of the world for so long. 

Yeah, I had the feeling I was going to learn a lot from this class. And all of that made me wonder about something else important. Years, decades, even centuries in the future, how would other students in those classes learn about the whole Bosch civil war going on right now? 

And which side would they be learning those lessons from? 

******

After that, the second class I had was a little more familiar. It was Trials of the Sea, with Sinbad. Apparently this was the same class unit I had started before everything happened, he was just back around to the start. Or close enough that I could easily pick up things as we went along. 

It was, of course, a bit of a shift to go from talking about how different events affected the Bystander or Alter world in ecological terms, to standing on a wooden ship somewhere in the middle of the Starstation’s massive (three-hundred and fifty miles long and a hundred and fifty miles wide) artificial lake so we could talk all about treasure hunting, ship-to-ship combat, diving, or just plain sailing. Though referring to it as ‘plain’ was probably a bad idea, since from everything I’d heard, even totally normal sailing was never ‘plain.’ There were so many natural dangers in being out on the sea with just a wooden ship and the rest of the crew around you, let alone the living, magical, or man-made ones. Yeah, sailing the oceans was a lot of things, but it was clearly never boring. 

This particular class I was taking with Sands, Sarah, Roxa, and Shiloh (the Caucasian girl from ‘Harper’ and Eiji’s team with jaggedly-cut brown hair who used a wrist-mounted computer that could ‘hack’ into and control almost any object from computers to cars, guns, doors, etcetera). 

In Roxa’s case, apparently she was taking a lighter schedule so that she could spend more time with her pack. But she still wanted to be around some and take classes with the rest of us since she could do that while still being herself and not hiding what she was, unlike the situation with Crossroads. The rest of us were still taking three classes a day, alternating between being focused on mundane and magical. Though there was some overlap in that, since the previous class about Universal Ecology was actually considered one of the mundane ones. I supposed a better descriptor of them would be ‘academic’ versus ‘action.’ Some classes were focused on book and fact learning, others were more about getting out there and doing things. Training versus classroom learning, that sort of thing. 

Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how they determined the system, but it was apparently working well enough. And I sure wasn’t going to argue about getting another chance to take this particular class. Growing up in Wyoming meant I hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time at the ocean, or on boats in general. This was just plain neat. 

At the moment, we were all standing around on the deck of the ship after coming through the connecting portal that brought us here. There was no sign of the teacher yet, but I was pretty sure Sinbad would shrivel up and die if he didn’t get to make at least three dramatic entrances per day. 

This was technically the fifth class this group had had together, but I could catch up on anything I’d missed in my off-hours. Just another one of the benefits of never needing much sleep, which was a list that seemed to be growing long enough to reach into the triple digits. 

Oh, and there was one more benefit to having a class like this. 

“She’s so huge!” one of the other students gushed excitedly. He was a Lupera, the red-furred humanoid canine figures who were another of the four sapient species who came from the same world as the Akharu. Which was apparently called Verhava (pronounced Vare-Hay-Vuh) Anyway, the ‘she’ the Lupera student was referring to happened to be Princess Cuddles, my great white shark who was currently gliding through the water just off the side of the ship. The rest of my sharks were arranged a bit behind her as they moved almost in formation, like a squad of fighter jets. Because that was the other benefit to having this class. It meant I could be around all my sharks together. Being able to pull them to me in those forcefield bubble things was still incredible, but getting all of them together in their natural habitat was fun too. I had summoned one at a time from the bigger-on-the-inside vial and sent them down into the lake to stretch their fins there. I could almost sense their excitement with this whole thing, because they knew I’d be able to swim with them soon. And boy did they like it when I swam with them. 

Stepping over beside the boy, I leaned out to look down into the water myself. Yeah, PC was definitely playing up for the crowd of students, who all kept oohing and ahhing over all the sharks, but her in particular. Well, her and Jabberjaw, who was still Mr. Vanity, doing anything he could to get the crowd to pay attention to him. 

Realizing I was standing next to him, the Luperan boy looked over to me, a grin evident in his snout. “That must be so cool, making friends with all these sharks. They really listen to you?” 

Matching his smile with one of my own (okay, with slightly fewer fangs involved), I gave a quick nod. “It is pretty cool. And yeah, they’re my shiver. Oh, that’s what you call a group of sharks,” I added in response to his briefly confused look. 

“Awesome!” the boy barked, almost literally. Belatedly, he extended a hand. “Sorry, we all know who you are, but I’m Timmins. Actually I have like three names, one of them’s–” And then he made a long, complicated growl-bark-yip sound. “But the Trade language version is more like Seclutimminsrek. I prefer just the Timmins part.” 

“Well, Timmins it is then,” I greeted him while shaking the boy’s hand. “Did you uhh, grow up on Verhava then?” I was curious about that world in general, particularly given the fact that we were supposed to be getting close to tracking down Asenath’s father. The fact that it was the native home of four distinct and very different sapient species was pretty curious in and of itself. As far as I could tell, that wasn’t very normal. Four species, the Akharu, the Vestil, these Luperan, and finally, the last of the Verhavan natives were Incubi/Succubi. Those people were capable of shifting their sex as needed, and did a lot of the whole ‘draining people’s life force either through sex or by making bargains/deals’ thing that tended to be attributed to demons in Bystander myths. 

It was an Incubus that Deveron had killed to get his permanently radically altered appearance when he was my age. Which made me picture what seeing a female version of him would be like, and boy was that different. 

“For awhile!” Timmins enthusiastically confirmed, his ears perking up. “We took a colony ship away when I was–uhh, like the human equivalent of twelve?” His head tilted as he did a bit of mental math before giving a sharp nod. “Yeah, that!”

“You took a colony ship? Like a spaceship?” That was Shiloh, who had stepped up beside me to look down at the sharks before focusing on what he had just said. Only belatedly did she flush visibly and start to take a step back. “Err, sorry. That was rude.” 

Both Timmins and I insisted she was fine, before the Luperan boy confirmed that he did indeed mean a colonizing spaceship. “We were supposed to go to this other hidden planet behind an asteroid belt, where some of our people set up to escape all the wars. But we hit some kind of magical… portal… transport thing and ended up crashing here on Earth, in Arizona. That was like… ten years ago.” 

“Dude,” Shiloh gushed while absentmindedly brushing her uneven bangs back out of her face, “you’ve gotta–hang on.” Glancing over to the corner of the ship where she’d dumped her backpack with most of the others, the girl hit a button on her wrist-mounted computer. As she did so, a narrow beam of green light flew out to hit the bag. A second later, the thing literally floated up and moved through the air to where we were, controlled by a few short gestures from Shiloh’s hand. When it was close enough for her to grab, she did so, reaching in to take out a bag of beef jerky, which she offered to the canine boy. “Trade a snack for you telling me all about your world during lunch?” 

“Hey, I’d like to get in on that too,” I put in. “I uhh, I’ll get back to you on the bribe part.” 

“Are you kidding?” Timmins gushed. “I’d tell you guys all about home for free!” After a brief double-take at the bag of dried meat offered, he quickly grabbed it. “But uhh, if you wanna share…” He was clearly embarrassed by his own excitement over getting the jerky, his tail wagging rapidly. 

With a giggle, Shiloh gestured. “Take it, no worries. I did offer. Just make sure you’ve got some good stories to tell, huh? I’m sorta collecting them for a book. Stories about other worlds, I mean.” 

“Really?” That was news to me, and I blinked that way. “That’s pretty cool.” 

She started to nod and say something else about it, but that was the point where Sinbad chose to make his grand entrance for the day. That entrance, in this case, turned out to be descending through the sky while riding a giant feathered serpent with wings. Yeah, seriously. The thing was fifty feet long, fairly narrow like a snake along with an appropriately-shaped head, but had feathers all over it along with six large wings, three on each side all working in concert. 

As soon as the first cry went up as the feathered serpent appeared with Sinbad literally standing near the head, the thing dove fast and began to fly in circles slowly around the ship, far enough out that the wings didn’t immediately capsize us, though it did lurch under our feet a bit. The heavily-tanned man, wearing a glorious violet and silver sleeveless silk shirt, stood tall as his long, curly dark hair flew wildly in the wind. His gold eyes seemed to gleam just as much as his gold, silver, and ruby teeth as he grinned. “Good morning, my brilliant treasure seekers!

“Who’s ready for an adventure?!” 

A/N – the next commissioned chapter will be out early Friday afternoon, US mountain time.

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