Risa Kohaku

Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer Epilogue 13 (Heretical Edge)

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At four-thirty in the morning, the rural bus station in southern Ohio wasn’t exactly hopping. A few figures dotted the seats around the waiting area, most of them curled up asleep with coats and bags acting as blankets and pillows respectively. One grizzled old man in an army jacket sat at a metal table eating a sandwich from the nearby vending machine.

Sitting at a table on the opposite side of the room was a group of what appeared to be ordinary teenagers, four girls and one boy, on a trip. Given the bags and jackets they wore advertising a certain university a couple hundred miles away, they seemed to be just-graduated high schoolers out for a tour of the campus.

Which was exactly what they were supposed to look like. They had even bought tickets for a later bus heading that way, and spoke in front of the clerk about how much fun it was going to be.

At the moment, the five of them were quietly playing poker. To any outside observer, their conversation would appear to be centered around their upcoming university tour. But that was an illusion maintained by the magic coin lying on the table in front of the single male. Their true conversation was much different.

“Lobby’s still clear,” Gordon Kuhn announced, his finger idly brushing the coin in front of him as his eyes scanned the room. “We checked everyone here. As far as we can tell, they’re all ordinary Bystanders.”

“Good,” Risa Kohaku replied through the communication badges they all wore. “Keep your eyes open. With any luck this will be a simple pick-up. We’ve got no reason to think Crossroads or Garden know anything about it, but there is no reason to get sloppy.”

Across from Gordon, the smallest member of their group raised a hand, clearing her throat. “Can I just say,” Rebecca Jameson started, “talking about Crossroads like they’re the enemy is still really weird.” Quickly, she amended, “I mean, I know they are. It’s just…”

Sitting next to her, Jazz Rhodes nodded. “It’s weird. Yeah, don’t worry, we get it.” She sighed then, rubbing her hand over her hair, which had recently been shortened down to only a couple inches long, and dyed a bright neon green. She wore sunglasses with matching coloration to her hair. “It’s a lot to deal with.”

The final two girls, identical twins Sands and Scout, glanced to one another before nodding. The former spoke up. “Yeah, don’t worry. You’re definitely not alone. We’ve had a lot longer to deal with it. Considering you only found out about this stuff like… under a month ago, you’re doing really good.”

“Well,” Scout corrected her sister idly before looking to Rebecca with a small smile. “And it’ll be a month tomorrow.”

The small girl grimaced a little at that. “A month,” she echoed. “All that stuff at Crossroads happened a month ago, and we still don’t know where my parents are.” After a brief pause, she added in a softer voice, “Or what side they’re on.”

Wincing, Sands assured her, “We’ll find them, I promise. Things are really confusing right now. You’re not the only one who doesn’t know what side the rest of their family is on.” Biting her lip, she then offered, “At least your grandmother should be with this group, right?”

Making herself smile despite the worry that she felt, Rebecca gave a quick nod. “Yeah,” she murmured, “hopefully. As long as they haven’t gotten separated. Last I heard, Grandma’s group had to go through some place that was full of Garden patrols. I… I just hope she made it. I hope they all made it.”

Jazz put a hand on the other girl’s shoulder. “She’ll be here. Just don’t let this whole reunion thing make you forget that you promised you’d come to mine next month.” Despite her light, teasing words, it was clear that there was a deep underlying tension and nervousness there.

Rebecca started to say something hopefully reassuring back to the girl, but she was interrupted by Scout. “There.”

The rest of them turned to look. Sure enough, a bus had pulled into the depot. The number on the front and side read forty-six. Bus forty-six, the one they had been waiting for.

Immediately, the five of them stood up. But they didn’t all walk toward the doors. Instead, they followed the plan. Gordon and Rebecca moved to the vending machine close to that entrance and proceeded to casually discuss what to get. The twins, meanwhile, went to the restroom. And Jazz moved to the street-side entrance, pretending to read a flyer there while scanning the sidewalk and street beyond, watching for intruders. Kohaku would already be keeping a close eye on things from her own elevated position on top of a building across the street, but every little bit helped.

The bus had come to a stop then, as the passengers began to disembark. Watching them come through, Rebecca turned from the vending machine and raised a hand in a lazy two finger salute. “Howdy,” she greeted the first arrivals. “Long trip, huh?”

It was code, of course. If she had said nothing, it would have meant that the place was compromised and they all needed to scatter. If she had welcomed them home, it would have meant that their exit point was outside. And if she had said anything about food, it would have directed them to the nearest restaurant for extraction.

Her actual words, about how long the trip had been, would point them to the restroom. Those who knew what was going on, anyway. Bystanders would be clueless.

More passengers entered, as she and Gordon took turns greeting them with some variation of discussing the length of the trip. Through it all, Jazz watched the other doors, tense as she waited to see if there would be any interruption.

But there wasn’t. One by one, the arriving Heretics made their way to the restroom and the waiting extraction point. Sands and Scout were there, pointing them to the portal that had been set up. The portal that would take them to the (for now) final leg of their long journey, the Atherby camp.

Unfortunately, as smooth as the extraction seemed to be going, there was still no sign of Rebecca‘s grandmother. With each passing person and lack of recognition, the girl felt herself deflate a little bit more. She tried not to show it, but she had been really looking forward to seeing the woman again and finally being reunited with a family member. Even though she tried to tell herself that was selfish given what everyone was dealing with, it didn’t really help.

She had just resigned herself to the fact that she would half to wait for another group, when the doors opened one last time and the driver came in. He was accompanied by two other figures. One was a certain incredibly handsome dark-haired young man with very slightly Asian features. Deveron Adams. Seeing Rebecca there, he gave a brief, broad smile before looking to his companion.

There beside him stood  a certain small, brunette woman whose family resemblance to the waiting girl would have been fairly evident even without any other help.

Seeing Grandma Lillian, Rebecca’s eyes lit up. It was all she could do not to fling herself at the woman. And, given the look her grandmother gave her in return when she was spotted, the feeling was mutual.

They still had to play this cool. Until they were through that portal, anything could go wrong. Out here in the open, exposed like this, loyalist Heretics from either organization could show up any second.

Clearing her throat while fighting to keep the broad, giddy smile from her face, Rebecca intoned, “Long trip?”

The driver, clueless as to the code, gave her a brief, wary nod while muttering, “You don’t know the half of it.” He headed off to get coffee from the nearby machine then, while Lillian winked at Rebecca and moved toward the restroom.

The girl physically ached to run after her. But that wasn’t the plan. They had to make sure everyone made it through. This wasn’t the only bus carrying Heretic refugees, and the second one had already pulled in.

In the meantime, Deveron held the door open, allowing one more figure to come through. Asenath gave Rebecca a tiny nod before walking right past. She and Deveron and casually made their way across the lobby before heading for the restroom.

It took what seemed like forever, a torturous twenty minutes to make sure everyone got through the portal. But finally, it was done. There had been no interruption, no attack. The last of the arriving groups had passed through the portal in the restroom without incident.

“That’s it,” Kohaku finally announced. “You’re clear. Take the exit and head home. I’ll do clean up.”

Clean up, in this case, was part of the reason for why they couldn’t simply instantly teleport everyone home. There were spells and certain abilities that could track such transports. Anyone on the loyalists’ side who figured out the general area where a transport had happened could potentially track the destination. That would lead them to the Atherby camp. The solution was this subterfuge, as well as leaving someone behind (Kohaku in this case) to magically wipe the traces of transport so that they couldn’t be followed.

“Good work, guys,” the former Crossroads security chief added, “and thanks.”

That was all the invitation Rebecca needed. Joined by Gordon and Jazz, she all but ran to the restroom. The twins were there, along with Deveron and Asenath. When Sands saw her enter, she gave Rebecca a thumbs up. “She’s through,” the girl assured her. “We’re all good.”

Without missing a beat, Rebecca all but hurled herself at Asenath. Hugging the vampire would have been utterly horrific and terrifying a month earlier. Now, she didn’t care. She held tight while blurting,”You found her! You actually found her!”

“We said we would,” Asenath reminded her with a small smile, returning the embrace. “Though hugs are pretty good payment, I’ve gotta say. I could use more of those.”

Blushing, Rebecca took a moment to embrace Deveron as well. “Thank you,” she murmured, “Thank you for finding my grandma.”

“It really wasn’t that hard,” the man admitted. “She was helping a group of glasswalkers and they… well, let’s just say they were in good shape with her.” Stepping back, he gestured. “But enough of us. Why don’t you head through? She’s waiting for you. And let me tell you, she is one proud grandmother.”

“Yup,” Asenath agreed. “Nine hour bus ride just to make sure no one can track us back to the camp, and she hasn’t stopped talking about you once.”

The thought of that made Rebecca blush, squirming on her feet before looking over to the exit point. The portal looked like a glowing blue square on the wall. Smiling even while trying to contain her overwhelming excitement and giddiness, Rebecca stepped through. She braced herself for the brief feeling of this disorientation and slight nausea that would come from the sudden transport.

The moment cleared, and she was standing on the waiting patch of grass about fifty yards from the nearest cabin, the glistening lake visible to her right.

An instant later, she found herself suddenly grabbed in an embrace that nearly took the wind from her. “Weasel!” her ‘captor’ blurted.

“Grandma!” Rebecca clutched onto the other woman, who was no taller than she. Both quickly stepped away from the portal to avoid the others while still clinging to one another. Rebecca felt like crying, clutching her grandmother even tighter. “Grandma, you made it, you made it!”

In a soft, fond tone, Lillian Patters replied,  “Well of course I did, Weasel. Did you really think I’d leave you out here to camp without me?”

Squeezing the woman as tightly as she could for a moment while fighting to control the tears that were trying to pour down her face, Rebecca tried to get a hold of herself. Finally, she managed a weak, “Mom and Dad?”

There was a brief pause, before Lillian leaned back to look at her granddaughter. Her voice was quiet. “I haven’t heard,” she admitted. “Have you…”

Rebecca‘s head shook. “Nothing. I don’t know if they’re out in one of the groups that haven’t come in yet, or if they’re prisoners, or…” She trailed off, face screwing up a bit.

“We’ll find out,” Grandma Lillian promised while squeezing her tighter. “If they need help escaping, we’ll get them out. And if they need a little help waking up still… Well, we’ll handle that too.”

Choking back the tiny sob of relief she felt just by her grandmother’s presence, Rebecca managed a somewhat teary smile. “I’m glad you’re here, Grandma.”

“Oh Weasel,” Lillian murmured, moving a hand to cup the side of the girl’s face. “I’m glad you’re here too. I am so proud of you making it this far.”

Blushing, Rebecca shook her head. “I haven’t really done much,” she admitted. “I’ve been pretty clueless all year.”

Hesitating briefly, she peeked at the woman. “Is it really true that you were part of the very first rebellion? Right from the beginning, I mean. With Deveron and Flick’s mom.”

“Deveron…” Smiling to herself, Lillian gave a quick nod. “Yup. I knew him back before he killed that Incubus thing, when he still looked all goofy. Jos liked him even then, you know. They were…” She went quiet for a moment, looking away while lost in her memories. “They were always a thing. Even before they knew it. We knew. The rest of the…” Swallowing hard, the woman looked back to her granddaughter. “Your middle name–”

“Joselyn,” Rebecca confirmed, head bobbing quickly. “You remembered her. Sort of, I mean.”

“Sort of,” Lillian agreed. “Somewhere in the back of my mind. I…” She straightened, taking her granddaughter by both sides of the face before leaning in to kiss her forehead. “You are amazing, Weasel. You really are.”

“She is.” That was Deveron, who had come through the portal with the others. He stood there, watching the two of them with a broad smile. “You know, if you stood on each other’s shoulders, you both might reach the height of a normal human b–oww!” He grunted, stepping back as Lillian put her fist in his side.

“Same old Deveron,” the woman muttered, squinting at him. “You still don’t know when to stop talking.”

Grinning at her, the man retorted, “Worth it.”

Despite her words, Lillian was smiling as well, her hand moving to grab onto her granddaughter’s. “Your children and Joselyn’s other daughter, they’re…”

“They’re here,” Rebecca put in, squeezing the woman’s hand. “Wyatt and Abigail and… and Flick. Do… do you want to meet them?”

With a little nod, Lillian agreed, “I’d like that very much. The last time I saw… Zedekiah and Koren together, they were… well, they were still Zedekiah and Koren. And babies.”

“Go ahead,” Deveron urged the pair, glancing back over to the camp. “They’re… over that way, by the lake. Looks like all three of them are there. With the actual Koren.”

Heading that way with her grandmother, Rebecca hesitantly asked, “They said you were helping some Glasswalkers? What happened?”

So, the woman told her about how her memory had come back, and that she had helped the group of Alters escape. “They’re okay now,” she informed the girl. “They made it to another group that was going to take them to Wonderland. That’s–”

“I’ve heard of it,” Rebecca quickly informed her. “The others told me about that place. It’s like a Stranger ha–I mean Alter haven, right?”

Nodding, Lillian looked to the much younger girl. “You’ve learned a lot over the past month, haven’t you?”

“Not enough,” Rebecca admitted. “I’ve been trying to catch up, but… but it’s a lot.” She swallowed hard. “I feel stupid for going along with Crossroads for so long. I mean, they… they hurt and kill a lot of innocent creatures… I mean… people, or… or…”

“I know what you mean,” Lillian quietly assured her. “It’s okay, Weasel. Lots of people fell for their propaganda. Until Joselyn came along that first time, I did.”

“Joselyn… she was pretty special, huh?” Rebecca hesitantly offered, glancing to her grandmother.

Lillian’s smile was both incredibly fond, and incredibly sad at how much they had lost. Particularly time. “Yes. Yes, she is. She’s my best friend, Rebecca. She was my best friend for… for so long. Not since we met. We kind of… fought at first, when we were put together. We argued so much for about the first month or so. Then things changed. She saved my life on a hunt and from there… well, we were almost inseparable. I would have followed her right into a volcano. Actually, I think I did a couple times.” She laughed to herself a little before looking over to the girl. “Joselyn has a way of inspiring people to do ridiculous things.”

Her smile fell a bit then. “And now… now she’s been in this… she needed me and I wasn’t there. I couldn’t help save her twins, and then I couldn’t… I couldn’t stop Fossor from taking her. I forgot her.” Her voice was hollow, eyes filled with regret.

“You didn’t know,” Rebecca quickly put in, hating to see her grandmother like that. “It was magic, they… they erased your memory. You couldn’t have been there.” She squeezed the woman’s hand, staring up at her as their gradual walk slowed.

Breathing in, then out, Lillian gave a slight nod. “I know. But that doesn’t really help very much. Jos needed me and I wasn’t there. I haven’t been there for so long. The things Crossroads did–the things they made me do after they knew how I felt, what I chose… the…” She stopped talking then, blinking rapidly before forcing herself to focus on her granddaughter. For a moment, she just pulled the girl into a hug, needing that connection.

For Rebecca’s part, she certainly wasn’t objecting. Returning the hug tightly, she murmured, “It’s okay, Grandma. The spell’s gone. You… you remember now. And we’re gonna find Flick’s mom, before…”

Hearing the girl trail off, Lillian blinked. “Before what?” she asked with a frown.

“I…” Swallowing, Rebecca gestured toward the lake where the others would be waiting. “Flick’s birthday. Something…”

“Fossor,” Lillian guessed, eyes darkening. “He wants to take her on her birthday, doesn’t he?” Seeing her granddaughter’s hesitant nod, she cursed under her breath. “Over my dead–” Stopping herself, the woman met the younger girl’s gaze. “We’ll see about that. Now come on. I really need to see how my tiny twin tykes grew up. And if their cheeks are just as pinchable as they used to be.”

“Uh, I know you’re a real badass, Grandma,” Rebecca offered, “but you probably shouldn’t try to pinch Wyatt’s cheek.

“That just seems like a really bad idea.”

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Summer Epilogue 1B (Heretical Edge)

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In the end, the group (consisting of Dare, Kohaku, Gabriel Prosser, Sariel, Apollo, Athena, Larees, Haiden, Larissa, Theia, Metatron, Raphael, Chayyiel, Jophiel, and Cahethal) traveled through six different portals before finally reaching their destination. While the lab was located on Earth and would have been ordinarily reachable through a single portal, it was protected in a myriad of ways. One of those ways was a particular spell which functioned as a combination lock of sorts. If the person entering did not first go through each of the previous five locations just before entering the lab, all of the contents within it would disappear.

Once they were finally there, the group as a whole looked around. They had arrived in a perfectly white room just large enough to hold them. Every surface was pristine, without a single smudge or fleck of dust. The immaculate white walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to pulse a bit with power for a few seconds after their arrival.

Cahethal spoke for the first time as the pulsing glow faded. “A sterilization spell, to remove any exterior contaminants that might be brought in. And unless I miss my guess…”

Sariel confirmed, “A version of the expulsion magic, to ensure that no one enters carrying one of our people unknowingly.”

Metatron gave a dark look at that. “That spell technology is not allowed anywhere near this world. It is heavily regulated. You should not even have been taught how to use it.”

Apollo cheerily replied, “She wasn’t. She reversed engineered it after spending so much time in old Kushiel’s place.” Though his words were light, there was an underlying hardness to his tone as he stared intently at the old man while bringing up what his adopted sister had gone through.

Cahethal gave the woman a curious look at that, several different thoughts clearly playing out in her mind while she remained silent.

Metatron, however, wasn’t nearly so reserved. He gave both of the ‘twins’ a disbelieving look. “Even if that were true, which I have many reservations about, allowing power like that to be here on this planet, even in a controlled environment, is absurdly risky. If it were to accidentally find its way to anyone else—”

Apollo interrupted. “Oh, it’s finding its way to other people. Like Gabriel here. You can be damn sure that his people are going to have these things set up around their homes. So if you or any of your colleagues might have been thinking about any infiltration, they should reconsider.”

Giving them another incredulous look, Metatron snapped, “You would provide such dangerous magic to another species? Do you have any idea what you risk with such insanity?”

It was Chayyiel who spoke. “For someone who has ranted at such lengths on what sort of traitors Lucifer and Sariel are, you seem oddly surprised that they do not consider themselves loyal to our side.”

Her words were met by a brief look from the man, and a simple, vaguely disbelieving, “Our side?”

Before anyone else could respond to that, Raphael spoke up while cracking his neck. “As much fun as this banter is, it’s somewhat crowded in here, and I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. When that happens, my wings tend to come out. Which, in a place like this, could be dangerous for everyone else. What do you say we move on?”

Haiden nodded. “I’m with David Lee Roth over there. We’re not going to get along, so let’s just get this over with.”

“Yes,” Jophiel agreed quietly. “Some of us have other matters to attend to once this business is finished.”

From where she was standing, Larissa observed, “Like getting ready to leave the host you’ve been enslaving for so long once Liesje’s spell is fixed?”

Jophiel offered her a smile. “Fortunately, that is not a problem I have to contend with. The Committee’s connection to one another should be enough to dilute your little spell. At least enough for me to retain control. So I do hope that any of your future plans did not rely solely on us losing influence over Crossroads.”

While the others exchanged glances, Sariel and Apollo moved to the nearest wall and began to run through several unlocking spells together to open the way forward. it took over a minute of rapid incantation before a single doorway appeared nearby. It was a simple arch, revealing a much larger room beyond.

As a group, they moved one by one through the archway and into the lab itself. The place was as wide as a basketball court and as long as two of them. Dozens of tables were set up all around the room, with bits of equipment, half-formed spell runes, notebooks, computers, and more all over the place. In the very center of the room was a pedestal with a softly glowing blue orb slightly larger than a softball sitting on it. Patterns of white runic symbols danced across the surface of the orb, the spell that kept its contents contained, among other things. Stacks of paper as tall as a person surrounded the pedestal, while another had been knocked over so that its contents were spread all around the foot of it. There were notes sprawled on the floor, as well as on the pedestal itself. Notes which seemed to flip back and forth between Latin and English seemingly at random, as though the person taking them was absently flipping back and forth themselves.

Cahethal observed, “I see neither of you have yet mastered the art of a clean and organized workspace that I spent so long trying to instill in you. It is good to know that some things will never change.”

With a grin, Apollo agreed, “Yeah, like the way we’re still finishing the work you couldn’t get done.”

Raising a finger to point at the man, Cahethal started to retort before pausing. Then she lowered her hand and carefully replied, “The time will come, Lucifer, when we are no longer in a truce. You would do well to remember that.”

Before he could respond, Larees spoke up. “So hey, I’ve gotta ask…” She took a quick sip from her flask before continuing. “Exactly how many days or weeks do you think you devoted to trying to figure out why you couldn’t possess that Chambers girl? Is there a ream of notes with all your hypotheses about it? Ooh, or holo recordings. Because I would pay good–”

“Stop it,” Sariel snapped before adding a simple, “It’s easy to overlook the obvious answer to a problem. She’s the one who helped teach us that.”

With those words, the woman moved to the pedestal. “Come on. We’ll show you how to do this and then you can leave Earth.”

“Finally,” Metatron announced while they followed her, “you say something that I can fully and completely agree with. Being away from this planet and rid of responsibility for it, even if only for one of its years before your experiment inevitably fails, sounds quite pleasant right now.”

“If everyone is finished sniping at one another, maybe we should get on with it,” Chayyiel announced.

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed in a doubtful tone, “show us what you have done that is so different than what hundreds of our best scientists have been able to do with thousands of years of work.”

Apollo began to explain while Sariel did something with the orb. “See, your problem was that you’ve all been trying to open a new portal into Tartarus.”

A disbelieving came over Cahethal. “Yes, that is our entire purpose here. Have you misunderstood this completely?”

Sariel spoke then while rising from where she had been making one last adjustment to the pedestal. “He doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want a portal to exist. He means it’s wrong for us to try to open it. We can’t.”

Before any more exasperated demands could be made, she continued while picking up the orb. “This can. You see, thousands of years ago, long before we came anywhere near that spot of space, something came out of it. Something made that hole from Tartarus to our universe. Whatever it was punched a hole between realities. When it did, it left behind a trail of the same energy from that reality that we use to empower ourselves. Think of it as stepping out of a lake and walking on dry ground while leaving puddles behind you. It carried that energy with it when it came here. Energy which, I will remind you, can never be completely destroyed.”

“That’s what you have in that orb,” Jophiel observed.

Sariel nodded. “Yes. Over all those years, the energy trail drifted apart through the entire universe. We—” She indicated herself and Apollo. “— have been using magic to pull bits of it here for a long time. And this orb is what we have.”

Apollo clarified, “What she means is that we set it up to pull in that energy thousands of years ago and she’s been quietly working on it off and on all this time. She just needed a little help right at the end to get it fully contained and sealed up in that nice little package for you.”

Metatron raised an eyebrow. “So what you are saying is that you have worked thousands of years and have managed to collect just enough energy to empower perhaps one person. Somehow this is not the solution I believe the rest of the Seraphim were hoping for. And it is certainly not what you promised.”

Apollo just shook his head. “What you do with the orb when we give it to you is up to you. You can use it to empower one person. Or, you can be smart with it.”

Cahethal spoke then, understanding. “We can use it to get back into Tartarus. If we flood it with enough power to jumpstart it while those specific spells on that orb are active, the residual Tartarus energy will attempt to return home. We don’t have to make another portal. They will leave a hole when they pass through. A hole which we can catch before it closes and stabilize.”

Raphael gave a low whistle. “That simple, hmm?”

Chayyiel shook her head. “There’s nothing simple about it. But, yes. It should work exactly the way they say. We will be able to open the way to Tartarus once more. Or, as he said, empower a single individual.”

“I suggest you go with the first option,” Apollo put in with a smirk. “But, you know, you do you.”

“I would point out here,” Metatron noted, “that this entire situation has grown beyond your initial demand. First, you say that it is to create a deal where we will leave your family alone. And now, it is tied into the truce agreement with this planet.”

Sariel nodded. “Let’s just say our changing situation necessitated a more thorough agreement. Not that it changes anything. The Seraphim have already voted to give Earth one year to prove ourselves. And you already know that you’re agreeing to leave my family alone. We’re just putting the bow on both deals together.”

It was Raphael who agreed. “She’s right, it doesn’t change the agreement. If anything, it gives us an out. Because if this orb doesn’t do what they say it well, that provides you an excuse to break the entire deal. Or at least bring it up for review with the rest of the Seraphim. And I can pretty much guarantee that if this promise is broken, there will be enough votes to nullify the truce.”

The man let that hang for a moment before snapping his gaze to Apollo and the others. “So, I really hope that it works the way you’re saying it will. Because I kinda like this place and I’d really prefer not to go all full scale invasion and war on it. It’s a great planet to come vacation once in a while. You know, when you just need to get away from everything. It would just rip me apart to have to come here and… rip it apart.”

“It will work.” That was Kohaku. “You all sign the magical agreement to leave her family alone for good, and to uphold the truce agreement here for one year, to enact no substantial efforts against this world for that time. Then you can take that orb back to your space and play all the super soldier games you want. Go bowling with it for all we care. But take it and go.”

Raphael observed her briefly, his tone curious. “You were the one Manakel took as a host, right? I, um… I’m sorry you didn’t know him before. He used to be a lot more fun than he ended up becoming.” After a brief pause, the man took in a breath and then let it out in a sigh. “I know it means basically nothing. But I do wish you could have known him then. He would have been appalled and destroyed by what he became. And the Manakel I knew would have wanted you to have this.” Extending his hand, the man held out a simple necklace of sorts. It was a small clear crystal dangling from a leather cord.

“It’s okay. You can have all your magic experts look over it as much as you want. It’s not a trap.”

Rather than take it, Kohaku simply stared. “What the hell is it?”

It was Theia who spoke up. “Dead seer.”

Raphael nodded to her. “Exactly. See, back when Manakel was still new to his gift and exploring the art of necromancy, he created this. It doesn’t summon any ghosts or zombies or anything. Instead, when a person looks deep into the crystal, they will see an image from the life of someone they’ve lost. It’s sort of a window into the past. You can’t interact with them, you can’t bring them back, you can’t do anything except look. It’s like one of your human video tapes. Just look into it and think about who you want to see. Anyone you knew who passed away.”

Kohaku’s hand moved to close around the cord, but she didn’t take it. Her eyes bore into the ancient, powerful figure’s. “You expect me to believe that you’re just handing this over with no strings attached and no tricks. Forgive me, but I’m not exactly inclined to think the best of your people.”

Chayyiel spoke. “Manakel was his descendent, his great-great grandson, and his protégé of sorts. Raphael helped raise and protect him.”

The man himself gave a short nod. “As I said, I knew him a long time ago, and I know what he would want. He didn’t always make the right choice. And he got a lot worse over time. But he’d want you to have that. If you want to throw it away, that’s up to you. Take it, and do what you’d like with it.”

As the woman silently accepted it with a conflicted look, Metatron cleared his throat. His expression was annoyed. “If we are quite finished playing nursemaids to the humans and the traitors, perhaps we can complete this arrangement. We still need proof that the orb will work as described before we sign any deal.”

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed. “Unfortunately, we cannot risk breaching that orb to test the energy within without releasing all of it. Which would tend to defeat the purpose of taking it back with us.”

Sariel reached behind the pedestal to remove a much smaller orb, this one about the size of a marble. “That’s why we have this.” She tossed it to the woman, sending the marble perfectly into her palm. “It’s the same stuff from the orb. You can take it to the containment area there.” She pointed to where a series of protection spells had been drawn around a circle in the corner. “Do whatever tests you want until you’re satisfied.”

Apollo then added, “Though I would like to point out that it’s not exactly hard for you people to come back here if you get out to your space and find out we lied. That would be breaking the agreement. And, you know, it would also be pretty damn stupid. I mean, what are we gonna do, move the whole planet?”

After he finished that bit, it was Chayyiel who looked to him. “Our space?”

The man shrugged. “Something tells me that it doesn’t matter what kind of truce or peace agreement we set up, I am never actually going to be welcome out there. Call me crazy.”

Metatron snapped, “No one forced any of you to betray your people.” He gave Sariel, then Athena each a dark look in turn. “Or to lay with creatures far beneath us. Or tutor a man whose power could have threatened our entire civilization as a whole. You all chose that, and you will receive no pity for the repercussions.”

Waving a hand dismissively, Cahethal muttered in an uncaring and distracted voice, “Yes yes, they are such terrible people, of course. Now come here. I need your help to verify this.” Marble in hand, she moved to the containment area, with Metatron following after giving them all one more disgusted look.

As the two of them moved away, Jophiel turned her attention to Athena. “Speaking of your misguided efforts all those centuries ago, you must have been quite relieved during the… situation at Crossroads to see that your protégé’s top knight has somehow managed to survive all these years. Although, from the memories that I’ve seen, she looks more like his consort than his knight. Isn’t that funny? Because, as far as I knew, the two were secret lovers, not twins.”

From where she was standing, Theia offered, “I can go rent a backhoe if you’d like to keep digging.”

Offering the younger girl a brief smile at that, Athena nodded simply to Jophiel. “Yes, it was quite a relief to be reunited with… her. We had much to talk about.”

For a moment, it looked as though Jophiel might question what exactly they had talked about. But in the end, she simply looked away.

After a minute of silence, Raphael looked over toward Larissa and Haiden. “You know, if we’re speaking freely at the moment, I will say that I was fairly impressed by your antics in our space. Not that it would have stopped me from killing you, but still, given how isolated you were, you actually did fairly well.”

Haiden met his gaze. “Yeah, well, let’s just say you gave us plenty of incentive to get creative. Hell, if you’d just left my family alone to begin with, we never would have been out there.”

Sariel spoke up. “That doesn’t matter right now. We make this deal and our family does get left alone.”

“And you all leave,” Larissa added.

Raphael shrugged. “Well, most of us do. I’ll be sticking around for a little bit.” At the quick looks from the group he held up a hand. “Not to worry, I have no intention of violating the truce, I promise. My interest lies in reconnecting with an old friend, as I said.”

Before he could be asked for any information about that ‘old friend’, Cahethal stepped out of the containment area. A wisp of blue-black smoke was drifting around inside of it. “It’s real,” she reported. “They’ve contained the energy, and from what I can tell, it will work the way they claim. There should be enough in that orb to open the way to Tartarus once more.”

“Thank the Void,” Metatron muttered. “Then we sign the agreement and leave. I, for one, I am looking forward to not thinking about this dirt ball until the apes who live here have torn each other apart.”

“Aww,” Haiden put in, “we love you too.” He accepted the offered flask from Larees and took a swig. “Believe me, speaking for the apes, we’ll be just as glad to see you go.”

For the next two hours, the agreement was drawn up and several dozen spells were attached to it to bind all parties to the terms. If any knowingly violated those terms, there would be harsh consequences. Not only politically and monetarily, but also physically and magically. They would quite literally be putting their power and lives on the line to knowingly violate the contract.

Then it was done. All present signed the contract. Earth would be left relatively alone for one year. And Sariel and Apollo’s family would not be purposefully hunted or harmed so long as they did not initiate first attack.

Chayyiel, glancing back and forth between both groups once it was done, announced, “Good. Now those of us who wish to leave may do so. And those of us who have a little more business to take care of first can focus on that.”

Metatron gave her a look. “You have been quite thoroughly informed that your place is not here on this world,” he reminded her. “It is not your territory. An exception may have been made for this, but as I have told you many times,  I will not have you wandering this planet so long as it is under my control,.”

Chayyiel smiled slightly. “You’re right. But as you have repeatedly expressed with much gratitude and pleasure, this world is none of our responsibility after this agreement. During the truce period you are no longer responsible for it. Which means your permission for visitation to the world is not required during that time.”

As the man stared at her, barely able to keep his mouth from falling open as the trap was revealed, she continued. “Many, many years ago, you informed me that I lacked any subtlety or patience. You said that you would see through any childish plans I set toward ever coming back here. And you said that so long as this world was in your hands, I would not set foot on it.”

She let that hang in the air for a moment before taking a single step forward. In that motion, she stepped out of her shoe, placing one bare foot pointedly on the floor in front of it. Her voice was soft.

“I believe your ride is waiting.”

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Summer Epilogue 1A (Heretical Edge)

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They came in force. Three ships, each capable of carrying a hundred troops and their assorted weaponry, along with a dozen armored vehicles, all full to the brim, landed in an almost entirely empty field in the middle of Wyoming.

It was fitting that it was Wyoming, of course. Fitting that this meeting take place near the home of the girl who had helped contribute so much to this moment. Even if she was nowhere near this meeting, it helped contribute to the feeling that she was connected to it in some way.

Each ship was shaped like a letter D, the cockpit near the top or front where the curved and straight parts met. In normal flight, the ship flew like that, while in battle it would turn, the cockpit rotating to face the same direction as the flat side where dozens of cannons and launchers would emerge to create a weapons platform.

As the trio of ships landed equidistant apart, twin gang planks at both ends of each ship lowered and troops began to disembark quickly. They were followed by the tanks, all of them spreading out to take up a perimeter.

They did this in full view of their welcoming committee, which consisted of ten of the most dangerous beings to the Seosten Empire currently on Earth: Apollo, Sariel, Athena, Larees, Gabriel Prosser, Virginia Dare, Risa Kohaku, Haiden Moon, Larissa Mason, and the ‘Lie’ known to those here as Theia. Ten people who, though wildly varying in power, had managed to strike or contribute to very telling blows.

The offer that Apollo and Sariel had first extended to the Seosten Empire had been accepted, and the two groups had agreed to meet here this day. With a bit of an amendment, in that the promise to leave Sariel and Apollo’s family alone would be tied to the agreement to also leave Earth in peace for one year without bringing forces to take control of the planet by force. Both promises would be tied to the same binding magical contract.

Watching the troops spreading out, Haiden remarked, “You don’t think they’re stupid enough to try anything right now, do you? I mean, this has got to look like a pretty attractive target.” He gestured around at their assembled group.

Sariel shook her head. Her hand rose to point at the glowing blue symbol on the side of each ship. It looked like three interconnected circles with a triangle in the middle where all three overlapped. “They came under the sign of Pax, a woman from our far history who helped to unite disparate tribes and led us to perhaps the last true and lasting peace our people ever knew. If it were to get out that they broke a truce under that sign, they would face widespread riots and condemnation across the universe, from our own people.”

“As would we, for the same,” Athena noted. “We would lose all sympathy and potential allies. So no one makes a move against them unless they force it. There may be very tempting targets on their side as well. Do not take them. We need this truce now, even if it is temporary.”

Without being looked at, Theia chimed in, “We will not throw rocks first, no matter how many they deserve to be hit with.” Under her breath, the girl added, “Maybe because there aren’t enough rocks on this planet.”

She was more than a little uncomfortable right now. Not only because of the actual meeting, but also through the fact that Pace was not here. Though the two were physically separated, she still felt connected to her most recent host, and really did not like to be that far from her. She felt awkward and alone even when surrounded by many others.

Larees raised a hand as though to put it on the girl’s shoulder, then froze partway there. Her old and deeply ingrained hesitation to touch or have anything to do with a Seosten Lie was hard to shake. Finally, though she looked a little uncomfortable, the woman made a point of following through with the motion, putting her hand firmly on Theia’s shoulder. Even then, it took her a moment to speak while she kept her hand in place, refusing to allow her reflexive prejudice to control her actions. Her voice was a bit stiff, though she tried to force herself to relax a little.

“Don’t worry, we’re not going to run out of people who deserve to have rocks thrown at them anytime soon.”

Virginia Dare spoke up then, her eyes fixed on the troops. “She’s right, we have enough problems already living here as it is. I’d prefer these guys just get what they need and leave.”

Larissa glanced to her, speaking a single name. “Fossor.”

The other woman gave a slight nod, her expression darkening. “We need to focus on dealing with the necromancer before he finishes whatever plan he has for that rope. We don’t even have Gaia around right now, we—” She stopped, voice faltering a little.

“We’ll get her back,” Risa assured her. “And we’ll handle Fossor too. We’ll get Joselyn away from him. We don’t have to beat around the bush or be so quiet about it anymore. The cat’s out of the bag, so we might as well take advantage of that.”

Speaking for the first time, Gabriel Prosser announced, ”We have reinforcements coming in already, people from the old rebellion who remembered our contact channels. Some of them are bringing friends or family. We’re working on setting up new ones and verifying their intentions.” He glanced to Athena then. “Your people are handy for that. It saves Enguerrand a lot of work.”

The woman gave a very slight smile at that. “It is good for our people to contribute, and to see how well an alliance can work. Though it may be seen as unfair to some, to have their thoughts pried into.”

Risa shook her head. “They’re told what’s happening, and that it’s a condition of bringing them aboard. We have to be certain that they’re not double agents or spies. Besides, it’s good for them to see what your people are capable of. So they don’t underestimate them. Especially since we’re using that time to tell them exactly what your people have been up to and what they’re responsible for.”

“Yes,” Dare agreed. “The Seosten won’t be a secret anymore. Everyone who joins us is going to know they exist and what they’ve been doing.”

The arriving troops had settled by that point. Only a relative few were actual Seosten, of course. Most were various other species, though almost all stared at the assembled group with varying levels of disgust or distrust, particularly toward the four Seosten ‘traitors.’ Clearly the majority of this honor guard were deeply loyal soldiers, which only made sense.

There was, however, another group, located to one side and consisting of about a fifth of the assembled unit that did not look disgusted. Instead, they appeared curious, or even intrigued. A few looked as though they might come closer to talk to the group, but were prevented by decorum. Beyond that, they wore armor that seemed more individualized. Instead of the plain, uniform black, theirs were decorated with various colors and designs, some quite well drawn.

Dare started to ask why that group was different. But before she could do more than open her mouth, the rest of the soldiers all turned as one and stepped back to create a corridor. Through that corridor approached three figures. One was an elderly man, the second a young girl, and the third a tall, lanky-looking man who appeared to be almost all elbows and knees. His hair was worn long, almost to the middle of his back, and was a mix of gray and blonde. His face had a very slightly lined look that made so that if he had been human, his age could’ve been estimated anywhere between his late thirties and early fifties.

“Metatron,” Sariel whispered to the others with a nod to the elderly man. Then her eyes fell on the seemingly young girl, breath catching a bit before she added a soft, “Chayyiel.” Finally, she looked to the lanky man, who stood just over six and a half feet tall. “And—”

Before she could finish, the man himself stepped forward, tilted his head back and spread his arms wide while loudly declaring in what was essentially a shout to the heavens. “I’m home!”

Turning in a wide circle, with his arms still outstretched, the man continued while sounding almost like a rock star greeting a wild audience. “Hello, my people! Hello my beautiful, beautiful world! How are we doing today?!” He paused then, sniffing once, before doing so again. “Hmm. Bit more pollution.”

Athena spoke then, her words both a greeting and explanation to the others. “Raphael. We weren’t expecting you to come.”

“Raphael,” Larissa whispered softly. “He’s—”

Sariel nodded. “You would consider him an archangel. One of seven who were part of an earlier super soldier test like the Olympus program.”

“You’d also consider him a shit-scary motherfucker,” Larees added pointedly. “If it wasn’t clear already, don’t start anything. Like, double-don’t start anything.”

Raphael himself by that point actually came forward, his voice just as loud and carefree. “Auriel, it’s so good to see you… and not have to kill you.” The latter was added thoughtfully as he looked the woman up and down briefly. There was a hint of amusement and teasing to his voice that made it relatively unclear just how serious he was being.

Clearing his throat, Metatron stepped forward as well. “Our fellow Seraphim insisted on accompanying us for this brief visit.” His eyes narrowed at Athena. “And it will be brief. I have no wish to stay on this planet any longer than absolutely necessary to complete our… transaction.”

Giving the man a disdainful look, Athena coolly replied, “Of course. Why would you wish to spend any time on a world of such importance, which you are personally responsible for? This is your first visit ever, isn’t it? The first in thousands of years.”

The old man clearly restrained a snapped retort, settling on simply saying, “It shall cease being my responsibility for at least one of its years when we are through here. And, Void willing that your failure through that year is thorough enough, we will then exercise a far more permanent solution to the entire situation.”

“He means good luck.” The words came from Chayyiel as the girl passed Metatron. She also moved past Athena, though her hand very briefly touched the woman’s arm and squeezed. Instead, she moved straight to where Sariel and Apollo were. Stopping there, she looked calmly from one to the other, as though appraising them.

Then, without warning, she stepped forward and tightly embraced Apollo. Her arms went around the man to hug him firmly before she did the same with Sariel, hugging the woman tightly. For the latter, the girl leaned up and whispered something very quietly in her ear. It was a private, secret message that went on for several long seconds and caused Sariel’s eyes to widen a bit. Both she and Apollo belatedly returned the embrace once they recovered from the surprise of it, though whatever Chayyiel had whispered to Sariel made the woman freeze up briefly.

With a look of clear disapproval, Metatron made a noise in the back of his throat, glaring at the girl. “Have you forgotten which side you are on?” he asked in a somewhat dangerous tone.

In response to that, Chayyiel replied simply, “No, I haven’t.” She turned slightly, giving him a somewhat cheeky smile. “It’s called a truce, Metatron.  I don’t have to be enemies with anyone here right now. I can hug anyone I want to.”

As if to prove that, the girl moved to embrace Larees then, also whispering something to that woman that made her give a surprised double-take.

“Aww what the hell, she’s got a point.” That was Raphael, who abruptly and unexpectedly pulled Athena into a hug as well, while the woman made a surprised sound. “I like this human custom.”

With a clearly audible sigh, Metatron announced through gritted teeth. “We are here to complete this arrangement. Rysthael will be left to its own devices for one of its years while you find a way to prove this alliance possible. But only in exchange for what you have already promised. If you were not lying.”

Athena simply gestured then. “You have greeted us, Metatron. Of a sort. But you have said nothing to those who truly speak for this world.” She gestured then. “Humans. I’m certain you’ve heard of them.”

Taking that as his cue, Prosser stepped that way and extended a hand. As he did so, every weapon on the field was suddenly pointed his way. If he noticed, the man gave no indication. “Good afternoon, Seraphim. I am Gabriel Prosser.”

Metatron gave him a dismissive glance. “I am well aware of who you are, and how much trouble you have caused. You should count yourself lucky that we are not meeting under different circumstances.”

In response to the clear threat, Gabriel simply replied, “When I was a young child, I allowed slave owners to intimidate me. It has been a very long time since I was a child.”

He smiled then, showing a bit of his teeth while lowering his hand without shaking Metatron’s. “But as your hosts to our world, we will extend you every available courtesy.”

Bowing her head a bit, Chayyiel spoke up. “We thank you for your hospitality, Sir Gabriel. Once our field leaders to this world have arrived, we will be ready to begin.”

Field leaders. Dare and the others exchanged brief glances. They knew what that meant. They were waiting for the Seosten who had been put in charge of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden groups. Most likely they were possessing a Committee member and Victor, respectfully. Not that they would show up in their hosts. They weren’t that stupid. Still, it might possibly lead to some hint in the future.

Metatron looked reluctant to agree with Chayyiel, But protocol and decorum forced him to give a slight nod. “Yes, for a backward dust ball of a world, I have certainly seen wo—”

In mid-sentence, the man stopped. His eyes had been casually roaming over the assembled group until he saw Theia. “You.” That single word showed more disgust and anger than an entire diatribe could have. He glowered at her, his hands slowly closing into fists. “What is that doing here?” The demand came in a brittle voice.

Theia, for her part, raised a hand to wave at the man. “Hi, Grandpa,” the girl all-but chirped.

That made several dozen eyes snap to the girl, while Metatron himself simply tightened his fists. His gaze moved to Gabriel as he spoke sharply. “I know that you are unaware of our people’s customs. But we do not invite Mendacia to delicate negotiations. Particularly Mendacia who murder their own mother.”

“Lies,” Athena translated. “He means Lies.”

Nodding, Gabriel murmured, “I picked that up.” He looked to Metatron for a moment as though choosing his words carefully. Finally he spoke. “While I offer my reserved sympathies for your loss, the girl stays. I assure you, if we were to refuse conversation with everyone whom we found morally, socially, and in every other way repugnant, this negotiation would not be happening.”

Raphael, who had been observing this quietly, spoke up then. “He’s got a point. It’s their world, their people. You don’t have to like the girl, but they don’t have to get rid of her.”

For a moment, it looked as though Metatron might actually snap at the much more powerful man. But in the end he stopped himself, taking in a breath and letting it out before pointedly turning his gaze and body away from his granddaughter. “No matter. All of them are traitors. I should expect no less for its company.”

“You know,” Haiden suddenly spoke up. “Maybe the fact that you refer to a girl, let alone your own grandchild, as ‘it’ might say something about why your civilization is so fucked up.” He started to continue, but Larissa silenced him with a hand on his arm.

Metatron, meanwhile, gave the man an unimpressed look. “You should measure your tone. You, who would defile one of ours, disgust me no less than the murdering Mendacia.”

Before anyone else could say anything, a pair of portals opened nearby and two figures emerged. Both were female, one a tall, beautiful brunette, while the other was a smaller woman with light hair and incredibly green eyes.

“Jophiel,” Chayyiel greeted the former, then the latter. “And Cahethal. Nice of you both to make it.” Belatedly, she added, “Or do you prefer Aphrodite and Demeter while still on Earth?”

“Our Seosten names are fine,” Cahethal replied. “We are no longer playing make-believe gods.”

Both newcomers were subsequently deeply and thoroughly examined by all of the Earth group. These two were obviously the ones who were possessing the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden leadership. However unlikely it was that they would betray anything that gave away their host’s identities, there was always the chance.

Jophiel, in turn, seemed to study them right back. Her eyes moved over the group curiously for a moment before she spoke. “I don’t see the representative from Camelot. Is she not a part of this?“

Her words made the assembled group exchange glances before Athena replied, “Lady Lancelot is… occupied at the moment.”

“Pity,” Jophiel remarked. “I am certain we all have a great many questions for her. Particularly given her long absence.” Pausing, she added thoughtfully, “And the fact that she is a ‘her’ at all. Is she the true Lancelot, a descendant, something else?”

“Good questions,” Raphael agreed. “But they fall beyond the scope of this meeting. I believe what we should be discussing now is the main thrust of the negotiations.” He looked toward Sariel and Apollo. “The Summus Proelium Project.”

Metatron nodded. His own tone was fairly dismissive. “You claim that you can bring it back, re-open our way into that place. That is the sole reason these negotiations are happening, and I assure you, if you do not follow through, we will not hesitate to—”

Apollo interrupted. “We’ll follow through on our end, old man. Don’t worry about that. But we can’t do it here.”

Sariel clarified, “If you wish to see our work, you need to come with us. It’s not something that can be duplicated right here in some random field.”

Idly, Apollo added, “And it’s not a place that will fit all your friends here, let alone their toys.” He gestured to the gathered tanks.

Metatron gave both of the ‘twins’ a brief look, his expression barely less than a disgusted glare at their very presence. Particularly Sariel, whom his annoyed and disgusted gaze lingered on the longest. It was clear that he was deeply offended by her mere existence.

Raphael, however, spoke casually. “I assume all of even your more overzealous people understand that our entire trip here calls under the sign of Pax.”

That earned a nod from Athena. “No one will do anything untoward, Seraphims. This truce is best for all of our peoples, and they will not jeopardize that.”

The three Seosten leaders exchanged looks with each other as well as with Jophiel and the completely silent Cahethal, who had yet to so much as greet anyone. Then Metatron spoke. “Very well, the five of us shall accompany you while the honor guard stay here. But you should be well aware that should anything happen, they will be but the very tip of a full invasion.”

“But we shouldn’t have to worry about that,” Raphael insisted. “I’m sure they get the point. Now let’s do this thing before I get bored and wander off to find my old friend Michael.” He pronounced it the old way, ‘mick-aye-el’, with a full I sound in the middle.

The name made Sariel and Apollo glance briefly at one another before nodding.

“Okay,” Apollo announced.

“Then come with us, and we’ll show you how to bring back the Summus Proelium project.”

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Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Interim Incursion 43-04 (Doug)

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As the elevator descended toward the lower vaults, Doug glanced around at the others. Professor Kohaku, Dries Aken, Shiori, Avalon, Sands, Vanessa, and himself. They were the ones who were left to make the run for the vault. Everyone else was occupied, keeping most of the bad guys busy. Gaia, Gabriel Prosser, Professor Dare, so many powerful people who were solely focused, at that moment, on keeping the way to the vault as clear as possible. Even Grandpa Sulan was with Prosser’s group, along with Jazz and Gordon. If Doug couldn’t be with his (former?) teammates, he was glad that his great-great-grandfather could.

And who was he here with? The man who killed Hieronymous Bosch. The greatest traitor and murderer in Crossroads history, in Heretic history. One of the most infamous people who had ever lived, as far as Heretics were concerned. There was no single human being regarded more hatefully or as more of a monster by Heretics than the man who had murdered Bosch. Even now, knowing everything he actually knew, Doug could still feel that instinctive anger that came from so many years of hearing the stories about Dries Aken. Instead of trying to suppress it, he redirected it. He used that anger and pointed it toward all the lies that he’d been told throughout his life, all the lies that his entire family going back generations had been told.

That made it easier to not be so fucking scared right in that moment. Using the anger he felt about all of that and pointing it to this situation. The anger helped cover the terror.

Dries seemed to notice him staring, because the man’s head abruptly whipped around to face him as the elevator descended. His eyes were wild, and he demanded, “Are we enemies?”

“Err, wh-what?” Doug stammered, taken aback by that. “Uh, no? No, it’s just… I’ve heard a lot of lies about you and all that, so it’s kind of a big deal to meet you. I mean, I know it’s not true, but still, seeing you like this… I…” He tried to think of how to explain the whole ‘transferring anger to cover up his own fear’ thing, but it suddenly sounded stupid, so he clamped his mouth shut.

“It’s okay, Douglas,” Professor Kohaku calmly and knowingly informed him. “Everyone is afraid of what might happen next. Just remember, you are not alone. Stay with the others. The goal is the vault. Let me handle the worst of what we run into while you focus on getting to the vault.” Raising her voice a bit then to address everyone, she added, “You all remember the way?”

“Straight, straight, right, left, straight, straight, right, straight, straight, right.” Avalon was the one who spoke, but Doug ran the whole thing through silently in his head as well. Gaia had made sure they all memorized the exact route through what apparently was a labyrinth to get to the right vault. Doug had spent more time repeating the directions back than he had spent on actual schoolwork in the past couple months.

It would be just great, to pull all this off and then end up getting held back a year because his grades had suffered. Absurd as the thought was, considering how involved the actual headmistress was in all of this, it still made the boy swallow a bit at the thought. Another distraction, another thing to focus on instead of worrying about what was going to happen once the elevator reached the bottom of this apparently long descent.

Abruptly, a different distraction presented itself in the form of a clanking noise. It was faint, and came from the top of the elevator. For a moment, Doug almost thought that he might have imagined it, until he saw that the others had all looked up as well. They glanced toward the faint sound just as it came again, event fainter that time.

What wasn’t quiet, however, was Kohaku’s reaction. Her hand snapped up, and a pale green forcefield suddenly appeared over their heads. An instant later and with no further warning, something horrific dove through the roof of the elevator. A ghost of some kind. The thing was terrifying, its semi-translucent face looking equal parts rotted and melted. Holes in its throat revealed the inside, flaps of skin in its face showed muscles and gums, and one of its eyes was melted shut like a wax candle. Worse, the thing dove through with no warning other than those two very faint clanking sounds, rebounding off the shield that Kohaku had put up.

At a quick, sharp gesture from Kohaku, the part of the forcefield that the ghost had rebounded off of suddenly elongated into a blade, stabbing into the creature. With a terrifying shriek that half-deafened Doug and the others, the ghost exploded into what looked like blue-gray slime that splattered all over the ceiling of the elevator.

“More coming,” Kohaku snapped sharply. With one hand, she held out a bag. “You know what to do.”

Because of course Gaia and the others wouldn’t send them in unprepared for this kind of thing. Doug produced his pen, clicking it once to create a spear. As the weapon appeared in his hand, he reached into the bag that Kohaku was offering, taking out a bit of cloth before pushing it against the tip of the spear. On the cloth was a spell rune made up of a triangle surrounding a circle, while nine curly lines emerged from the triangle, three on each side. Between each of those lines was a diagonal equals sign, each pointing up and to the right of the whole thing, toward a second symbol that looked like an infinity symbol drawn around the handle of an upside down pitchfork.  

The spell, once activated, would allow the target object to actually affect ghosts and other intangible creatures for the following fifteen minutes. It was one of several bits of preparation that Gaia and the other adults that made sure to have ready since there was no way for them to know exactly what the Seosten would throw at them as they neared the vault. Aside, of course, from ‘every fucking thing they possibly could.’

The others around him were doing the same, aside from Avalon, as her gauntlet’s energy constructs could already affect things like ghosts. Kohaku, meanwhile, produced what looked like two batons. Each was only a little over a foot long. Rather than hold them by one end, however, the woman held each in the middle. At a button press, a sharp metal blade appeared from both ends of both batons. Four blades in total, each with various runes inscribed along them. And at a touch from Kohaku, each gave off a soft glow.

Dries, meanwhile, hadn’t been sitting on his hands. The man took a small lens, like one from a telescope, and brushed his thumb over it while murmuring something. Then he threw the lens at the ground, shattering it. As he did so, the walls, floor, and ceiling of the lift abruptly became just as partially translucent as the ghosts themselves were. Doug could see the shaft they were dropping through. Not that there was that much to see, aside from a few other lifts (where they went, he wasn’t sure and was kind of confused by) and the blank metal walls of the shaft.

Oh, and the ghosts. Lots of ghosts. The creatures were flying all around them. Above, below, to the sides, the whole shaft was flooded with the creatures.

“Columbus was right,” Doug found himself muttering, “we should’ve brought our necromancer.”

“I don’t think she’s ready for ghosts yet,” Shiori pointed out while holding one of her frisbee-disc things in either hand. Her eyes were snapping around, watching for the first of the horde of clearly malevolent (or at least malevolently targeted, since it probably wasn’t fair to blame them for whatever the being directing them had ordered) spirits to make a move.

“Douglas, watch the floor,” Kohaku started. “Avalon, that wall. Sands, that wall. Vanessa, behind us. Shiori, straight ahead. I’ll watch the ceiling. Mr. Aken, try to back up anyone who needs it. Thirty seconds before we reach the bottom, so they’ll be–now!”

Sure enough, the ghosts were coming. Doug’s attention snapped quickly to the floor, just in time to see two of the creatures flying straight up toward them. He readied his spear, muttering a quick series of curses under his breath. Then the first ghost was there, shoving itself up through the floor while grabbing for his ankle. Instantly, Doug stabbed his spear down into the thing’s head. It shrieked and withdrew, but there wasn’t time to celebrate, because the second ghost had already grabbed onto Vanessa’s leg and was trying to yank her down before Doug stabbed it as well. It took two more quick jabs before the thing exploded into foul-smelling goo.

All around him, more ghosts were attacking from every side. He felt one snatch hold of his elbow from the side just before Sands slammed her mace through the thing. Nearby, Shiori was yanked backward with one ghost’s arm around her neck, until Avalon killed it with a quick swipe of her humming energy blade.

Thirty seconds. They just had to keep doing this for thirty seconds. Well, thirty seconds until they were let out of the elevator. There was no reason to think that the ghosts would leave them alone after that. But there would be more room to maneuver, at least.

More ghosts. More stabbing. Doug couldn’t focus on any other spot, couldn’t think about what anyone else was doing. He was too busy keeping dozens of ghosts away from the floor of the elevator. They just kept coming. No matter how fast he stabbed with his spear, more appeared. Some of the ones he struck howled and withdrew, while others exploded. Before that thirty seconds was half-over, the entire floor was covered in their ectoplasm.

All around him, the others were in the same position. He was jostled back and forth, elbowed in the side, and even had Sands’ arm smack against the side of his head accidentally as she swung for another ghost. There wasn’t enough room here, and the ghosts were flooding the elevator from all sides. There had to be hundreds of the things.

At least they weren’t the strong kind. There were several types of ghosts, and the stronger versions would have completely overrun them in these kinds of numbers. The fact that these ones were so relatively easy to kill and didn’t set off any kind of Heretic pleasure sense when they were killed meant they were the lowest tier of ghost. Barely capable of following instructions. Which, in this case, seemed to be ‘attack everyone in that elevator’.

Still, it was only thirty seconds. Thirty of the longest seconds in all of existence that hadn’t literally been magically extended, but only thirty seconds. They made it, finally, the doors opening to let them out into a octagonal-shaped room, with different hallways along each ‘side’ of the octagon aside from the one where their elevator was.

The fight spilled out into that open room, until Dries stepped forward and put a rock he had been scribbling a rune onto against the elevator. He spoke a single word, and the stone crumbled to dust. At the same time, what looked like a massive burst of electricity shot up along the walls of the elevator, disappearing through the shaft with an echoing boom.

Silence came then. The ghosts had stopped. Doug doubled over a bit, catching his breath while staring warily at the elevator. “What–what was–”

“No more.” Dries was tapping the side of his head. “G-gone. Gone. They’re gone, and they’re not… they’re not… they won’t be here.” He nodded rapidly, his attention shifting to the floor while he shuffled back and forth on his feet, clearly uncomfortable with everyone staring at him.

“Thanks, man,” Doug finally managed, not wanting to stress the poor guy out even more, but not wanting to say nothing either. “That was cool.”

“Indeed,” Kohaku agreed. “Very cool.”

That said, the woman immediately turned away from the elevator. “We need to keep moving. Is everyone good?” She gave the group a quick once over, taking a moment to check a bit of blood on Vanessa’s arm that ended up being a deep cut. It would heal, however, and Kohaku placed a quick bandage on it to stop the bleeding. “Okay, let’s go.”

Their notes said to go straight, so the group took the hallway directly across from the elevator doors. The floor was some kind of white polished stone with little purple swirls in them, while the walls were more violet. As they entered that first corridor (which was wide enough for Kohaku, Avalon, and Shiori to jog side by side in the lead), Doug could see white double-doors set on either side, each several feet apart. There were labels above each door with either a family name or, in some cases, an alphanumeric code.

The first junction came up, with a corridor cutting across their path. Again, they went straight, before making a right a few seconds later at the next one. Then a left. Unfortunately, just as Doug made the mistake of thinking that they might have a clear shot at the vault after all, trouble found them again. Or rather, they found it, in the form of a figure standing in their path at the next junction, where they were supposed to go straight.

He was a Seosten. That much was clear, from the bodysuit that he wore, to his darkly handsome features, to the arrogant look in his gaze as he stared them down. Along his throat and apparently up over the back of his neck was a long tattoo of a coiling snake. The man’s head was bald, though not bare, as the head of that snake tattoo was visible there, with its eyes facing them from his forehead.

“Oh,” Sands muttered as they came to a brief stop. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy.”

The Seosten held that glare for a moment, before his expression abruptly shifted into a broad smile. “Hey there, good job getting this far. I mean seriously, I’m pretty sure no one thought you’d make it, which is why they don’t have an Olympian down here. Hell, you even cut through my ghosts, you’re keeping my zombies busy, and you blocked me from contacting anyone on the outside. Bravo. No, really, congratulations. But you see, I can’t let you go any further. I just… it’s my boss, you know? He can be a real pain in the ass and if you get by me…” He whistled low, shaking his head. “I’ll be in… I think you call it deep shit? Deep shit.”

His hand waved dismissively then, as the man informed them, “But I’ll tell you what. If you turn around and go back the way you came, we’ll just let bygones be bygones. No hard feelings, you gave it your best shot. Just walk away.”

Kohaku’s voice was quiet as she watched the man. “I’ll handle him. The rest of you go on to the vault.” With those words, she started to walk that way deliberately, spinning the two-bladed baton-daggers in each hand.

In response, the Seosten man cracked his neck before tapping each arm of his bodysuit in turn. At his touch, a pair of gauntlets appeared. Along the outside of each gauntlet was a long, sharp blade that ran the length of his forearm from fist to elbow. Meanwhile, a pair of electrified whips extended from the end of the gauntlets, crackling with energy.

“Well,” he announced, “if you insist on doing it the hard way.”

“Go!” Kohaku ordered while sprinting to meet the man. She dodged around one of his whips as it was sent toward her, leaving behind some kind of shadow-clone that lasted just long enough to kick the whip out of the way before falling into ashes.

Doug and the others didn’t need to be told twice. Even as Kohaku reached her target, blades colliding with his, they were already running. Avalon, Shiori, Sands, Vanessa, Dries, and Doug sprinted down that hall.

Unfortunately, the Seosten wasn’t just going to let them go. Ducking away from a swing from Kohaku, he extended his hand after them. “Sic ‘em, boy.”

At those words, as Doug looked over his shoulder that way, he saw the man’s snake tattoo come to life. Springing off the man’s head while solidifying, the blue-green snake rushed after them.

“Heh,” Sands started, “it’s a snake, are we really supposed to b–”

Before she could finish that sentence, the snake abruptly grew. Not a little bit, a lot. In a blink, the snake was suddenly large enough that it barely fit in the corridor. And it was coming very quickly. Worse, there was some kind of green smoke coming from its mouth that seemed to melt through the walls around it.

Cursing violently, Sands whipped back around. “I changed my mind, go, go, go!”

“He’s like Larees!” Vanessa blurted, even as they ran, keeping straight once more at the next intersection.

“Not enough like Larees!” Doug pointed out, already snatching his pen once more as they ran past the next section. They were supposed to turn right there, but there wasn’t time. The snake was right behind them. Right behind them. Doug could feel its acidic breath practically melting his shoes, could hear its hissing. “Avalon, don’t you talk to snakes now? Can you–”

“Not working!” the girl blurted back at him. “Probably because it’s not a real snake! It’s magic!”

Cursing, Sands waved her mace, creating a wall behind them. It lasted only a couple seconds before the snake’s acid breath melted through it enough for the creature to burst through. If anything, it seemed even bigger somehow. And angrier.

They kept running, until Sands finally made a dozen quick walls in a row at another intersection. Then she tapped her mace against the actual corridor wall before moving to make another wall over the right-hand corridor. The new constructed wall was made of the same material as the rest of the hall, so it blended in well enough to hide that there was a corridor there at all.

“Quick,” Sands blurted even as they heard the snake coming through the walls she’d thrown in its path. “Over here.” She waved to the left-hand corridor. “We hide behind another wall on that side, let our new friend keep going down the hall, then–” She made another three walls in rapid succession to keep the snake busy. “Then we go back the way we came and find the vault.”

“It’ll notice too fast,” Doug pointed out. “Then we’ll be in the same position. Someone needs to lure it away. I’ll–”

“Someones,” Vanessa corrected him. She looked to the others. “Doug and I can do this. You guys hide. Wait for the snake to chase us, then get to that vault.”

“I… yeah.” Doug tried not to look too relieved that he wouldn’t be by himself, though he still flashed the girl a brief grateful look. Then his hand gestured to the nearby wall, where a faint pen mark was visible. “I drew a line the whole way up here, since we passed that last turn. If you follow it back to where it starts, then turn left at that spot, you’ll be on for straight, straight, right.”

Sands, who had been remaking walls over and over again as fast as she could while backpedaling as the snake kept breaking through them, blurted, “Running out of room here, guys!”

There was no more time to discuss it. Avalon, Dries, and Shiori moved quickly to the other corridor. Sands joined them, blurting, “Good luck.” Then she made another wall, blocking them off and leaving Vanessa and Doug standing in the corridor alone.

“Ready to run some more?” Doug asked the girl beside him.

“We better be,” she replied, already starting to back pedal at the sound of the last constructed walls crumbling. The final one melted under the acidic breath, before the snake’s massive head slammed through. “Because here it comes!”

The snake hissed in a mixture of fury and triumph at having found them, lunging just as Vanessa and Doug both leapt back. The two turned, sprinting away with the snake right on their heels. They left the others behind, hopefully so that they would reach the vault.

But at the moment, Doug and his companion had other things to worry about.

Like not being eaten by a massive snake. That sounded like a good place to start.

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Interim Incursion 43-03 (Sean)

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There was at least one good thing about the vault mission coming a few days earlier than expected. It meant that Sean Gerardo didn’t have time to dwell on what his parents could possibly be doing with those Runner guys. It was probably just something for their work, but still, he’d been thinking about it ever since he and the others had spotted them.

Normally he was okay with his parents not really having much to do with him. He wasn’t exactly a kid anymore, after all. He’d grown up this way and it was just the way it was. He’d moved on from getting sad every time his parents failed to show interest in him. But this time, they had been right there. They were right there, and they either knew he was there on a field trip so they could have come over to say hi. Or they didn’t know, meaning they’d paid absolutely no attention to where he was and what he was doing. That one… that one kind of stung.

But now he didn’t have to focus on any of that. Because his attention was quite thoroughly occupied. If there was one thing that was going to stop him from thinking about his parents, it was a mission to prevent the intergalactic evil empire of body-snatchers from destroying the one thing that could stop them from enslaving all Heretics on Earth. That sort of had priority.

At the moment, the Seosten and their pawns at the bank were busy fighting Gaia and a bunch of other adults. They also thought that Sean and the others were safely contained under a marble dome that Sands had created at her mother’s insistence. As far as they knew, there was no way to escape that building.

But Sean’s side had a secret weapon: Dries Aken, who knew how to create temporary holes in their anti-teleportation technology. He’d done just that and extricated the group from their covered dome. So now, while Gaia and the others in there kept the bad guys busy, Sean, Avalon, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Doug, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan had joined Dries, Tangle, and Kohaku to sneak into the actual vault.

“Everyone move very slowly,” Professor Tangle quietly murmured as she led them around the side of the vans. The dark-skinned woman had one hand up, a red ball of energy pulsing with power within her grasp. From what she’d said, the ball was part of a power that would keep everyone within a few feet of her invisible against most forms of detection. They just couldn’t move too quickly or suddenly. It seemed a bit like Jazz’s invisibility power, except stronger.

Jazz. She and Gordon were with Gabriel Prosser and his people, helping to deal with the army that the Seosten had had lying in wait to act as reinforcements when the fight broke out here. Everyone was doing their part, from his group, to Gaia and the others playing distraction, to Prosser countering the Seosten’s reinforcements, to Roxa, Flick, and the others at the Alter hotel to stop the bad guys from going in the back door of the vault.

Thinking about Roxa in that moment was a mistake. It was a distraction. He couldn’t start thinking about every bad thing that could happen to her at that place, because then he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. With effort, he shoved it aside, burying those nagging worries while reaching down to put a hand on the top of Vulcan’s head for comfort. VJ (Vulcan Junior) was there too, attached to Vulcan like a backpack, since letting him fly around would have stressed the invisibility power too much.

Even with the group inside drawing so much attention, there was still security outside in the form of cameras and a couple guards standing by the actual entrance to the vaults (hidden in what looked from the outside like a grain silo). Which was why they had to stay invisible and move slowly. Even knowing that, however, Sean was still antsy. With everything that was going on and how critical this entire mission was, the idea of moving across the lot and then the field beyond at such a… gradual pace was hard to accept. Part of him wanted to just make a sprint straight for the vault. It was right there, and the people inside were busy fighting Gaia and all the others. Surely they could make it if they just ran for it. Get to the vault and teleport out. But if something happened while they were taking their time and just sort of walking that way, either to them, to the people inside, or… or to the others like Roxa, he’d… they’d…

No. As hard as it was, as much as it let his mind drift more than he wanted it to, moving slowly was the answer. The Seosten would move entire planets to stop them from reaching the vault. If they had the slightest idea that Avalon wasn’t safely contained under that dome inside, that she was so close to the spell that her ancestor had left, they’d abandon the fight in an instant.

So they walked. With Dries and Tangle at the front, Kohaku at the back, and Sean and the others between them, the group gradually moved across the parking lot and through the field that led to the fake silo. Sean could see the two guards standing out front, their attention riveted on the main house where all the fighting was going on. He wondered how much they knew about what was going on in there from moment to moment. Did they have a way to watch the battle, or were they relying on updates? How distracted were they?

Both guards were dressed in what looked like simple ranch hand clothes, jeans, flannel shirts, and thick boots, with shotguns held loosely in their hands. Despite their appearances, however, Sean and the others knew the truth. They were both incredibly powerful Heretics who were currently possessed by incredibly powerful Seosten. If Sean and the others were going to pull this off without wasting too much time or alerting the others inside, the only chance they had was in taking them by surprise.

That in itself would have been impossible without Kohaku, Tangle, and Dries. The three adult Heretics between them had enough powers and spells to keep the group hidden. Kohaku by herself had been the head of security for the school for decades, and Dries, for all his issues, was a genius at that stuff. Tangle wasn’t particularly focused on stealth or security, but she was an experienced Heretic with plenty of motivation to stop the Seosten Empire.

They didn’t approach the silo directly. Instead, Tangle and Dries led the group slowly on a curved, rounding path, ever so gradually looping in toward the group from the side. It was excruciatingly slow, and every time the guards at the silo happened to glance that way or shift their attention at all, Sean became briefly convinced they had been exposed. Walking like this, right out in the open, was basically torture.

But it worked. Gradually, the group moved out of the guards’ line of sight and looped back from the other direction. They approached the silo from the side, moving slowly enough that any disturbance in the grass and weeds could be taken as just the wind. One step after another, they drew closer and closer to that building. And closer, by extension, to finishing this whole thing.

Finally, about twenty yards from the pair of guards, Professor Kohaku moved to the front while holding a hand up to stop them. She and Dries then moved slowly that way, relying on invisibility of their own while Tangle stayed with Sean and the others to keep them hidden. While Sean watched with the rest of the group, one hand still on Vulcan’s head, Dries and Kohaku slowly made their way closer, step by step, to the unaware guards. Despite himself, Sean had to hold his breath. This was a key moment, if something went wrong here… he didn’t want to think about it, despite his traitorous brain’s insistence on doing just that.

Dries and Kohaku split up once they reached the guards, each moving behind one of them. The security chief looked back toward Tangle, holding up a hand with three fingers raised. Gradually, she lowered each finger, then made a fist.

At the end of the countdown, Tangle used the hand that wasn’t currently raised with the glowing red orb to produce a small stone with a rune on it, activating a spell that would cast an illusion over the entire area around them to hide what was about to happen from the cameras and anyone who happened to glance that way. When he was told about it, Columbus had compared it to the humans looping camera footage. In this case, it created a hologram of the past several minutes and projected it over the area, hiding what was actually happening within it.

The guards clearly noticed something happening when the spell activated. But before they could do anything about it, Dries and Kohaku struck. Moving simultaneously, the two of them quickly slapped prepared bits of cloth against each of the men’s necks. There were three spells on those cloths, each prepared by Dries, Apollo, and Sariel working together. The first would knock the man out. The second was a variant of the expulsion rune, which would instantly kick their Seosten host out of the body. And the third would cut off those Seosten’s connection to the rest of their group through that mind-link thing they tended to have. Unless any of the Seosten inside actively tried to contact them, they wouldn’t know what had happened. And with any luck, Gaia and the others would keep them too busy to think about that.

As the unconscious Heretic guards dropped to the ground, the two utterly surprised Seosten who had been possessing them were revealed. They were then just as quickly killed as Dries and Kohaku cut their throats before they could recover from their abrupt exorcism.

With the guards down and their approach hidden by the magical hologram, Sean and the others quickly raced to the door. Dries was already working on getting it open, while Kohaku checked the fallen Seosten for anything useful, taking a couple weapons and other enchanted objects and dropping them into her jacket. Tangle, finally able to stop using that cloaking power, moved to help.

Sean, meanwhile, found himself looking toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You guys ever think this year would turn out like this when it started?”

Tristan, in turn, shrugged. Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around his shoulders, basically did the same thing. How a mechanical snake managed to shrug was beyond Sean, but the creature somehow pulled it off.

“When your school year started, I was basically frozen in super-carbonite,” Tristan pointed out. “And also I was a kid.” He paused then, considering before giving a sharp headshake. “This year has been weird.”

“This life has been weird,” Vanessa corrected him. She was holding her whip with one hand and one of the Seosten laser pistols with the other after apparently commandeering it during the fight back in the building.

“Yeah,” Doug agreed. “I’ve only known most of what’s actually going on for a little while. I can’t imagine how long this year has been for anyone who saw the whole thing.”

“Some of us have been dealing with it for longer than just the year,” Avalon quietly muttered, exchanging brief looks with both sets of twins before turning her attention to Sean. “And some of us are practically saints for sticking through this even though it doesn’t directly affect them.”

“You’re my team,” Sean replied simply. “It affects me. Besides, kind of a personal connection to werewolves, remember? Getting rid of the bad Seosten and fixing this whole mess does affect me.”

“Now,” Sands started, teasing, “when you say personal connection to werewolves, do you mean through your uncle’s romance, or your own?”

Sean was saved from answering that by Dries, who announced, “It’s open.” He stood, stepping back as the twin doors into the silo slid apart, allowing them to enter.

“Move,” Kohaku urged, waving a hand quickly. “The sooner we get inside and close the doors, the sooner Dries can stop blocking the alarms about them being open.”

“Right, c’mon, buddy.” Sean waved for Vulcan to keep up, heading for the doorway. His cyberform partner followed, and they joined the others in entering the vault. Well, the building the vault entrances were kept in, anyway.

The room they entered was a couple hundred feet across and square. It was also completely empty, aside from six doors that lined the walls to either side. Twelve in total. Straight ahead and on the opposite side of the room from the entrance was a large freight elevator.

The elevator. That’s what they needed. The other doors were low-security vaults, and there was no way Liesje’s would be anywhere near ‘low-security’. They needed to take the elevator down into the bowels of this place.

Heh, bowels. He was still a teenage boy, damn it.

“No-no-nobody move. Nobody move.” Dries spoke quickly, already moving to draw something on the nearby wall while repeating those words to himself. “Not moving. I said don’t move so they better not. Better not move or this is going to go wrong. Wrong wrong, can’t go wrong. Too important. Stay–stay in place. Stay in that place. Not a prison. Have to stay out of prison. Look, do the spell. Do the spell, you can do the spell, see? See. Spell. Good, all good, it’s good.”

“Mr. Aken,” Kohaku started once she exchanged looks with the man himself, “has put a communication block over the building. Whatever happens in here, as long as the spell remains active, no one outside will hear about it.”

Raising her hand, Vanessa spoke when the woman looked to her. “Does that include the Seosten mind-link spell?”

It was Dries who answered. “Yes, yes, of course. Of course it includes that. But that–that…” He looked like he lost his train of thought for a moment, staring off at nothing long enough for everyone to look at each other, a bit antsy considering the time table they were working with. Then he just seemed to snap out of it, continuing. “That’s good and bad. It’s–it’s–it’s good and bad. It means they can’t send out a message. But it–they don’t get messages either. They don’t get messages, and they’ll know they’re cut off.”

“So any Seosten who are in here will know that they’ve been blocked,” Professor Tangle murmured. “And that means that–” In mid-sentence, the woman suddenly stopped. She pivoted on one foot, spinning completely around while her hand snapped out.

Three partially decayed figures were there, by one of the random vault doors that was suddenly open. They’d stumbled through the door and, seeing the group, started to lunge that way.

But Tangle was quicker. As she held her hand out, a ghostly image erupted from her. It looked… well, it looked like a car. A sedan, actually, aside from being grayish-blue and partially translucent. Like the… ghost of a car.

It certainly didn’t seem ghost-like, however, as the car literally slammed into the approaching zombies. It flattened two and sent one flying across the room. A second later, the ghost-car continued its path right through the far wall, disappearing without causing any other damage aside from its collision with the zombies.

Kohaku finished the creatures off, while Sean and the others simply stared with wide eyes. “What–what the hell kind of power is that?” Sean demanded.

“Not a power,” Tangle informed them. “My weapon.” She turned to show them then. It looked like a simple flashlight in her hand. “The short version is I record things and then project them doing the same thing that they were recorded doing. But more importantly, why are there zombies in here?”

“Security measure,” Scout announced, her brow furrowed as she pointed. “They’re not alone.”

She was right, there were more zombies emerging from more vaults. One that the girl herself shot, before the one that appeared beside it was taken down by a blast from Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi cannon. Another on the opposite side of the room was killed by a blast from Columbus’ goggles.

“She’s right,” Kohaku agreed. “Either an automated feature or someone below triggered them. Either way, I bet every one of these vaults is full of those annoying bastards.”

“They’ll go for the spell,” Tangle murmured. “That’s what I’d make them do. They’ll look for any unknown magic and try to destroy it. And the second they do–”

Columbus finished her words. “They’ll know we’re here. Too bad our brand-spanking new necromancer isn’t here. She’d be pretty useful right now.”

“But we can’t just stand here and babysit the spell all day,” Shiori pointed out, pretty clearly trying not to think about what Flick was doing rather than being there at the vault with them. “We’ve kinda got things to do.”

“We don’t all have to,” Sean found himself saying. “A few of us stay back, guard the spell, and the rest of you go.” Even as he spoke, a couple more zombies emerged from another vault and were put down.

“They’ll start coming faster,” Kohaku warned him. “There could be thousands of zombies in each of these vaults. You’ll need plenty of help.”

“He’s got it,” Columbus announced. “I’ll stay with him.” The two boys exchanged brief looks, their silent meaning clear. They didn’t want this to be like what happened back at the hospital, when Rudolph was… Sean shut the thought out of his head.

In the end, Tangle, Scout, and Tristan agreed to stay back as well. The five of them would guard the spell (and the exit, just in case they went for that too) from the zombies and anything else that came out. Meanwhile, Kohaku and Dries would go with Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, Sands, and Doug to find the actual vault.

Shiori, Vanessa, and Sands were obviously more than a little hesitant to leave their siblings behind, but it was the best way. And there wasn’t time for more discussion, as the zombies kept pouring in, their appearances already starting to come faster and with more numbers. There was no telling which door they would come through next, and what had once been one or two was starting to be four or five per door. Sean didn’t want to think about what would happen if they all came at once.

When. When they all came at once.

Everyone wanted to say more, but there wasn’t time. Gaia and the rest could only keep their people busy for so long in there. Not to mention how long it might be before someone noticed something wrong in here. Every second that passed… they didn’t have time.

Killing several more zombies that had appeared to clear a path, Kohaku led her group on a sprint to the freight elevator. Then they were gone, descending deep underground to find the vault. Hopefully before Sean and the others were overrun.

“Okay,” Professor Tangle murmured while looking to the small group. “Don’t break ranks. Don’t let the zombies get past you. Stand together, shoot them as they approach. Watch for groups to cluster, and make sure they’re dead. Don’t let crawling ones take you by surprise. And… I know I haven’t really had a chance to be your teacher this year, but I want you guys to know that I’m really proud of everything you’ve managed to do so far. You’re–you’re pretty amazing.”

With VJ flying over his shoulder and Vulcan in his gun form in both hands, Sean set himself. He glanced to Scout and Tristan to his right, then Columbus to his left before replying. “Don’t worry, Professor. You might not have been there for any of our classes…

“But this is definitely a kick-ass field trip.”

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