Risa Kohaku

Interlude 17A – Gordon And Sindri (Heretical Edge 2)

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Standing with his back to the transport truck, Gordon Kuhn closed his eyes for a moment and let out a long, slow breath. He wished his mother was here. After all the time they had been apart, his parents deserved their own reunions. But she was still stuck at Crossroads, essentially kept prisoner rather than being allowed to become a threat to them. She, along with a number of others, were kept locked down in some secret facility. Even more secret than the first prison that the rebellion had hit over the summer to save Sean Gerardo and others. Crossroads had… not liked that, to say the least. Wherever their new prison was, no one had been able to find out.  

Which, yes, meant that both his parents had been held captive by each Boscher organization. And now that he had finally freed his father from his long-imprisonment, the two of them could focus on getting his mother out of her own captivity. His parents would have their reunion, and they would be a family again. Gordon had told himself that repeatedly throughout the lead-up to this trip, and through the entire mission itself. It had been his silent mantra. He would help save his father, and then they would rescue his mother. Whatever happened, whatever it took, he was done having his family split apart and imprisoned.

Of course, the first thing that had to happen, before anything else as far as that went, was his father waking up. Whatever had been done to him, and his fellow prisoners who had been in those tubes, had left them thoroughly drained and in what amounted to a mild coma. According to Professor Tangle, they just needed time out of the tubes to recover. She assured Gordon and the others that the prisoners would wake up on their own, particularly if they were laid out in the open air. 

So, Gordon and the rest of the students had taken the comatose prisoners out of the storage space and laid them on other blankets arranged to one side of the truck. Aside from Asenath’s father, who was on the opposite side, shielded from the sunlight by a spell of darkness. Not that the man himself had a problem with the sun. That was limited to half-Akharu. Vampires like Asenath. Full Akharu like Tiras were just fine out in the sunlight. Gordon… had no idea why that was a thing. But then, there were a lot of aspects of the whole vampire situation that didn’t make sense. They were essentially natural Akharu Heretics, and yet they functioned a lot differently than most would. It was strange, to say the least.  

In any case, while others took turns sleeping or helping out with the conscious prisoners (talking to them about what was going on, assuring them that they would be safe and that this wasn’t some weird trick, and so on), Gordon stood by the truck and watched the comatose people laid out on the blankets. He knew Asenath was on the opposite side of the truck with her mother as they waited for Tiras to awaken. He wondered if she felt as impatient as he did. After all, she had been waiting much longer than him for that reunion. Hundreds of years, apparently. If he’d had to wait that long… he couldn’t even imagine it. This was bad enough as it was. The last time he had spoken to his father, Gordon was still a very small child. He barely remembered it, despite clinging tightly to that memory for all this time. If he’d had to wait centuries to see the man again, he didn’t know how he would have survived. Asenath hadn’t even known if her father was alive at all. She only knew that he had disappeared with no explanation, no word. He was simply gone, for all that time, and she’d barely had a whisper here or there of his survival. 

How she dealt with that, how she had moved on to focus on other things without having any idea what was going on with her father, he had no idea. And now she was sitting over there, quietly waiting for him to wake up. It was all Gordon could do not to shake his own father in a desperate attempt to hurry along his recovery so they could talk about everything. The amount of willpower it must have taken for her to silently wait had to be astronomical. 

Abruptly, Gordon’s musings about the nearby vampire were cut off by the sound of one of the prisoners waking up. It wasn’t his father, but rather a female humanoid with green skin, four eyes, and no hair. Also no mouth. According to Roger Dornan, she was something called a Deitezen, who communicated telepathically. A couple of the conscious prisoners had called her Meyfers.

The Deitezen shifted as she came to consciousness, before abruptly sitting up. Her eyes were wide, and a large stone the size of Gordon himself abruptly rose into the air before spinning around as though searching for a threat. Apparently her people were telekinetic as well. 

Before Gordon could move, Professor Kohaku was there, appearing just far enough away from the suddenly-panicked woman that it wouldn’t instantly be seen as an attack. Her hands were folded behind her back, which Gordon had heard in the Bystander world would be an indication that she was hiding something. But among Heretics and Alters, raising one’s hands was not a sign of peaceful intentions. There were far too many dangerous powers that could be launched from open palms. Folding one’s arms behind their back, in that case, was far more of an indication that one didn’t mean any harm. It didn’t rule out any possible attack, of course. That was all but impossible, particularly coming from a Heretic. But the very fact that a Heretic was taking the time and care to even slightly show lack of hostile intention would likely come as a surprise to the other woman. At least enough to make her stop for a moment. 

Sure enough, the Deitezen froze briefly at the sight. The heavy boulder spun in a slow circle over her head, like an anxious guard dog waiting for directions to attack. But she didn’t hurl it that way. Instead, she turned her head from one side to the other, taking in the sight of her fellow prisoners who had yet to wake up. A sound off in the distance caught her attention, and she quickly turned that way only to see Jazz playing some sort of ball game with the two orcs who had been freed. The sound had been the orcs laughing loudly as the ball went quite high. 

Finally, the woman looked at Gordon, eyes narrowing slightly. Then she ‘spoke,’ her voice coming into his mind. Rebel Heretics? They don’t exist anymore. 

“We do now, again,” Kohaku announced. Apparently the telepathic woman had been projecting those words into more than just Gordon’s head. “Look into my mind. I know your people can’t dig too deep from a distance, but you’ll see the answers you’re looking for.” 

After a brief pause, the Deitezen turned back that way. A few seconds of silence fast as she stared intently toward Kohaku, before jerking slightly. If she’d had a mouth, Gordon was certain she would have gasped. Joselyn of Atherby has returned? She is– she is alive. Many believed her to have been long-since murdered. My own people– my– She went silent then, clearly absorbing all that before pushing herself to her feet somewhat unsteadily. The Rebellion has returned. Your memories are restored. Yet what precisely stops them from doing the same thing again? In ancient history, humans were our allies and friends, our family. Then your memories were erased and you became monsters hunting us down. A hundred years ago, Joselyn of Atherby began a revolution and created a group that would again work with us. You were our friends and family once more. But then those memories were again erased. And again, you were our enemies. What assurances do any of us have that history will not once more repeat itself? How do we know that you are all not… what is the term? Ticking time bombs. How do we know that the clock is not counting down for the next time that your memories are erased and you yet again become monsters intent on killing us all?  

Gordon knew that some of the others might have been offended by the question. After all, they had just gone through all that to save that woman, and now she was questioning how long it would take for them to try to kill her again. But quite honestly, he couldn’t blame her. Not after everything she had clearly been through. He would have been suspicious himself. 

Even as he had those thoughts,the Deitezen spoke again, this time sounding apologetic. I am sorry. That was uncalled for. Reading your thoughts, the things you did–you have saved us. You saved our lives and protected us, and I rewarded you with suspicion. 

“It’s understandable,” Kohaku assured her. “Believe me, we have thought the same thing. But we have also taken measures to protect ourselves against that eventuality. Including having someone on the inside of the Crossroads leadership Committee who will tell us if they are attempting such a thing. And other measures, such as an alliance with some of the people responsible for the creation of those memory alterations. We will not be taken by surprise again. It will not be as it was the last time. Though I know words are cheap, we are protecting ourselves. You are far from the first to raise such a fair question.”  

There was another brief pause before the Deitezen nodded once. Still, I apologize. My name is Meyfers. And you– Her head turned to focus on Gordon. You are his son, aren’t you? As she said that, her hand rose to point toward Gordon’s father. You are Sindri’s boy. He spoke of you many times. And he allowed me to see his mental image of you, his memories. You have grown, but I can still recognize you. I see him in you, Gordon Koraug. 

Reflexively, Gordon almost corrected her that his last name was Kuhn, his mother’s name. Yet he stopped. Koraug was his father’s family name. There was no reason to correct that. Instead, he nodded. “Yes. I–I’ve been looking for him for a long time.” The words almost caught in his throat, but he forced them out past the lump. 

Yes, came the slow, silent response. I imagine you have. She glanced down to the man in question before adding, He will be beside himself to see you, young Gordon. His family has always been high on his mind. He swore he would find a way to escape and get back to you someday. But it seems you have… as I believe they say, punched him to the beat. 

“Beaten him to the punch,” Gordon corrected simply. 

Yes, that, Meyfers confirmed before turning back to Kohaku. My people are resistant to the sort of draining effect that has left my companions in this state. I believe it will be some time before the rest of them awaken. But when they do, I would like to be nearby to help explain what is happening. I believe that will help prevent any potential misunderstandings. Even as she said that, the woman lowered the heavy boulder to where it had been. 

“Of course,” Kohaku agreed immediately. “In the meantime, if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to have a more private conversation about what happened back on that planet. From what we have heard and been able to put together, it was… very bad. The creature that–” She stopped, clearly not wanting to say more right then. Instead, the woman settled on simply finishing with, “I’d like to hear some details from someone who was there the entire time.” 

Meyfers agreed and the two women stepped away to confer in the distance. They were still close enough to see if any of the others woke up, but Gordon was once more left to his own thoughts. His gaze found its way to his father, and the boy found himself very faintly smiling. On another person, it would have been a broad, almost painful grin. But Gordon didn’t tend to show that much outward emotion. He kept everything inside, thanks to a lifetime of exercising control. If he was too emotional, too wild, his powers could have hurt or killed someone. He could have frozen over an entire room, or worse. He would have exposed the truth about himself. So he had learned from a young age, thanks in part to his mother’s lessons, to control himself. 

But now, standing there looking at his living father, knowing that the man would soon wake up so that they could talk for the first time since he had been a child, that faint smile found its way to Gordon’s face. 

Very soon, after all this time, he would finally be able to say…

*****

“Hello, Father.” 

Sindri Koraug had been the last of his unconscious group, lying together on those blankets, to awaken. By the time his eyes opened, the others had all been pulled aside by Kohaku and Meyfers. First for an explanation and then for food and water, as well as a reunion with their fellow former prisoners. Through all of that, for another hour, he had slept and recuperated. 

But finally, he was awake. He had seen Meyfers standing in the distance, and took the mental download of information about what exactly was going on, and about who was here. Absorbing all that as he rose to his feet, the dark-skinned, goateed man had turned around to face the boy waiting there by the truck. His entirely silver eyes with no white or pupil had focused just in time to hear those two simple words. Words that, despite the advance explanation he had been given, still took his breath away. 

“Gordon.” Speaking that simple name, a name that had been on his mind every day for over a decade, Sindri found himself frozen in place as thoroughly as if he had been one of the people turned to ice by his own powers. He wanted to move. He wanted to cross the short distance that was now all that separated them. He wanted to take his son in his arms and hold him as tight as possible. For all these years, that had often been all he was capable of thinking about. In his waking hours as well as his dreams, seeing and touching his son (and wife) once more had kept him going through things that otherwise might have broken the man. He had clung to the hope of being reunited with his family. They were his strength, and he had spent so long planning how he would greet his child. 

And now that moment had come, yet Sindri stood paralyzed. A small part of him still wondered if this could be some sort of dream or trick, though it was easily pushed aside. Meyfers’ mental projection had given him the full summary in just a few seconds. The Rebellion had saved them. A rebellion that his own son was a part of. His son, standing there waiting for him to move. 

And move he finally did. Like one of those same frozen statues managing to shatter the ice that contained them, the man took one step, then another. He walked to his son and raised both hands. They trembled almost violently as the man slowly set his palms against either side of Gordon’s face. Neither spoke a word for those few seconds. Sindri simply closed his eyes, allowing a visible shudder to run through him he felt his now not-so-little boy’s face. After all this time, after everything that had happened and all that had been taken from him, he was finally standing here with his son. With his son. It was too much to take in at once. Seeing his boy, hearing him, touching him. Having all those sensations at once was overwhelming. Now, right now, all he could do was close his eyes, remain silent, and run his fingers over his son’s face, across his jaw, up over his hair, and against his shoulders. There. He was really there. 

Opening his eyes once more, Sindri met his son’s gaze. He tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come at first. They caught in his throat, causing a weak, barely audible noise. 

“It’s okay, Father,” Gordon finally assured him, though his own voice was weak as well. “You are safe now. You–we… I’m here.” 

Still unable to find words, Sindri nonetheless gave a quick, almost violent nod. Tears had begun to stream their way down his face, blurring his vision before he rapidly blinked them away. “Yes,” he managed in a voice that cracked audibly. “Yes, you certainly are. My boy. My son. My–” That was all he could manage to say before his throat locked up once more. And yet, though he couldn’t express his feelings in words at that moment, there was another way. His hand squeezed the boy’s shoulders, before pulling him closer. Close enough to embrace. Which was exactly what he did, arms locking around the boy tightly as he pulled Gordon to his chest and held him there. He said nothing, unable to bring any more words. Instead, the man simply stood there, clutching his son tightly. Nothing could take this moment away from him. There would be time for talking later. Right now, in this second, all that mattered was holding his child for the first time in so many years. Soon, the time would come for more details about what they were going to do. But now, he cared about nothing aside from standing here like this. 

Finally, after some time that way, Sindri relaxed his grip marginally and leaned back so he could look down at his son. “You’ve grown so much.” There was mixed pride and wonder in his voice. It was no surprise, of course. He had known his son wouldn’t remain the helpless little child that he had been when Sindri last saw him. And yet, consciously knowing something and seeing it in front of his eyes were two different things. Only now, seeing his boy as an adult, did the full weight of the years they had been separated settle on Sindri’s mind. He would truly never get to see those years he had missed. He would never see his child grow from toddler to adult. He would never see those years. Everything he had missed was gone forever. 

On the other hand, he had so much more to look forward to. So many more years that he never would have gotten without the efforts of his son and the other members of this group. Realizing that, Sindri pushed his thoughts about what he had lost aside and focused on what was still to come. 

Gordon spoke then, his own voice flat. “I’m sorry it took so long to find you.” 

With a grunt of disbelief, Sindri shook his head. “I’m amazed you found us at all. You–you are incredible, my son. My boy.” He released Gordon from the embrace, but only to move his hand back to his son’s face. “You got big. You got strong, like your mother. Who–” 

“She’s not here,” Gordon quietly informed him. “She’s not–they have her. Crossroads won’t let her leave. I don’t know how they found out she was sympathetic to the Rebellion, but they have her and others locked up somewhere. She managed to get a few messages out, but she can’t tell us where they are, or–I wanted to bring her. But I had to find you while we had the chance.” 

Easing his son’s turmoil with a gentle smile, Sindri forced his own worry and fear for his wife aside for the moment. “Then we will have to find her ourselves,” he promised the boy. “Together.” 

“But–but are you… are you alright?” Gordon quickly put in, leaning back as though to scan his father up and down. “You were in prison, that tube thing they had you in–” 

“I wasn’t there for long,” Sindri assured him. “We spent most of our time digging out that mountain and uncovering those tunnels. The… creature, whatever it was, they had only just begun to… feed it recently. 

Meeting his gaze, Gordon quietly murmured, “It’s something really bad. They were talking about it earlier, and it sounds like this Victor wants to… if he’s not stopped–” 

“Then we will stop him,” Sindri firmly announced. “We will find your mother, and we will stop the Victors of the Lost Scar tribe.” 

Gordon blinked at that. “What? No, it was Kyril Shamon of the Eternal Eye tribe. He was the one who imprisoned you.” 

“I do not know who told you that,” Sindri informed him, “but that prison camp belonged to the Lost Scar tribe. The Victors Remember Bennett and Zoya Dalal called themselves our owners, not this Kyril Shamon you mention. Dalal herself visited the camp more than once.” 

Gordon frowned. “But… but…

“What does that mean?” 

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By Blood 17-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Despite the fact that we had succeeded in rescuing the prisoners, the mood as we prepared to get the hell off this planet was somber, to say the least. My peers and I might not have known Tribald Kine that well, but I had still liked him. Hell, he was the one who had originally sent me to check out the photograph in the Crossroads hallway that gave away the fact that my mother had once attended there. He set me on this whole path, in a way. And the others… Deveron, Klassin Roe, and the Dornans had all gone to school with him. He was one of their oldest friends (and teammate, in some cases). Kohaku and Tangle had both known him as a child. They taught him. They–god damn it. Now he was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

I couldn’t even summon his ghost. I tried, wanting to bring him with us. But there was no response. I even had the others boost me, and the adults made a small portal back to the prison camp. It was too tiny for anyone to get through, and in an out-of-the-way spot, just enough that I could find a connection to his ghost if it was back there. But it wasn’t. It should have been, but it just…. wasn’t there. Nor were any other ghosts, despite the fact that I knew for a fact others had died. It was like someone else had gotten there first, which…

The point was, I couldn’t summon him, which made this entire thing even worse. I felt like a failure as we carefully wrapped his body up and put it in one of the separate magical storage bags. He would stay safe there until we got back home so he could be buried properly. 

No. No, he wouldn’t be safe. He was dead. The correction blared in my mind as I closed my eyes tightly and turned away from the sight of the Dornans carefully putting the bag in the truck. On the other side of the clearing, I could see Tangle and Kohaku talking to the conscious prisoners, getting them organized to get on the truck so we could leave before the Eden’s Garden people showed up and turned this into a brawl again. I was done fighting for the moment. Hopefully for a long moment. There had been more than enough of that already. 

Avalon stood beside me, quietly speaking up. “I thought we made it without losing anyone.” 

“So did I.” As my voice murmured that, I found her hand and squeezed it. “We were close. And he would have been happy that we got the prisoners out.” Even as I said that, the words felt hollow and empty. Of course he would have liked that. But he also would have liked it to get out of there with his own life. And now I couldn’t even summon his ghost? This sucked. This whole thing was just–I wanted to leave. I really, desperately wanted to leave and never see this planet again. Between Heretics enslaving innocent people, fighting for my life repeatedly, and giant monsters fueled by blood sacrifices or whatever the fuck, if I ever saw this planet again once we left, it would be too soon. 

And yet, even as I had that thought, something made my head turn to look into the nearby trees. Nothing. There was no one there. If the Eden’s Garden people had found us, all the adults here would have reacted. They weren’t that distracted. But they just kept going about their business, getting ready to leave. 

“What?” Avalon asked, her gaze shifting between me and the woods where I was staring. I could feel her tense a bit beside me, clearly getting ready to call out a warning. 

“Nothing,” I started, before correcting myself. “I mean, I don’t think it’s anything. Just the same feeling as when we were going through the woods earlier. Like someone or something is watching. You don’t feel that?” 

There was a brief pause as the other girl considered before her head shook slowly. “No. I felt it before, but nothing right now. You still feel it?” 

A slight grimace found its way to my face before I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making it up in my head because I’m paranoid at the moment. Maybe part of me just wants there to be something else to fight so I can stab something. I just–” Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I set myself before starting to walk. “Come on, let’s check it out. Don’t worry, we’re not going to disappear into the forest, I just want a closer look.”

The twins joined us as we moved that way, and a quick consultation revealed that Sands didn’t feel anything, but Sarah did. Although she was just as unsure as I was about whether this was a real thing or just paranoia. The four of us got closer to the trees while I tried to determine where the feeling of being watched was coming from. A glance toward Sarah was met with a helpless shrug. She had no idea either. And yet, we could both still feel eyes on us. It was a creepy feeling, to say the least. Especially considering the other two didn’t feel it. Between that and the fact that we still didn’t know if it was real or just a product of our imagination… yeah. Walking toward those trees wasn’t the most fun time I’d had. I felt my stomach twisting a little the closer we got. It made my breathing instinctively get faster and deeper, like when I used to sneak peeks at scary movies as a kid when I wasn’t supposed to. The hair on the back of my neck kept standing up, and it felt like every step could result in the ground falling out from under me. I could almost hear the agitated violins in the soundtrack growing closer and closer to a terrible screech. Everything else had disappeared. I couldn’t think about the rescued prisoners, poor Tribald, or even about the fact that we had to leave before the Garden people counterattacked. I was barely cognizant of the others walking with me. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that existed, was whatever it was in that forest that happened to be staring at me. 

A hand caught my arm, stopping me in place. Only then did I consciously realize that Avalon had been repeating something for the past few seconds. I had somehow completely tuned out her voice. Now, she yanked me around, speaking louder. “Flick. What are you doing?” 

“Huh?” Blinking a few times, I looked around. We were much closer to the trees than I had planned on getting. Nearby, Sands was holding Sarah quite similar to the way Avalon was holding me. It looked like the other girl was snapping out of whatever she had been under too. 

“I–” Swallowing once more, I shook my head. “I don’t know. It just felt like I had to keep going. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t–” Cutting myself off, I gave an uneasy look over my shoulder toward the trees. The feeling of being watched was still there, but it had lessened. Now it was more like idle curiosity. Which was still enough to make me shiver a bit. “Come on, let’s get back over there. We need to get the hell off this planet.” The words ‘while we still can’ tried to emerge, but I forced them back down. No way was I going to curse us like that. 

The four of us made our way back over to the others, where Deveron was waiting. The man clearly had a lot to deal with. I could see the emotions in his eyes even as he pushed them back to focus on the matter at hand, asking what happened. So, we explained the whole thing, starting with the fact that we had felt something watching us as we walked through the forest on our way to the prison, and now what had just happened to Sarah and me. 

Taking that in, Deveron frowned and looked past us toward the woods. His eyes scanned it as though he was trying to determine if there was anything dangerous, before the man sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t see anything, but–we need to leave.” 

“That’s what I said,” I murmured before adding, “I wonder if what we are feeling has anything to do with that monster in the prison cave.” 

Deveron blinked at me, frowning. “What monster in the prison cave? Wait, Jasmine and the others were talking about some big fight down there. What was that?”

Wincing, I gestured. “It’s kind of a long story, and we don’t have a lot of time, do we?” 

“I have no idea how much time we have, but let’s err on the side of caution,” he replied before giving a sharp whistle, raising his voice to be heard through the clearing. “Everyone on the truck, we’re getting out of here! We’ll sort out details once we’ve got some distance between us and this damn place.” Even as he said that, the man was already walking that way, waving for the rest of us to follow. 

Before going anywhere, I gave the woods one last glance. Whatever was in there that had been watching us, whether it had something to do with the monster we had killed or not, I wasn’t willing to just dismiss the whole thing as a figment of our imaginations. We had definitely felt something. But it seemed like a mystery that would go unsolved, given we weren’t going to be sticking around any longer. And I, for one, wasn’t quite so obsessed with learning the truth that I would be willing to change that. If there really was something in those woods that kept watching us, it could just go ahead and stay there. 

So, we all loaded onto the truck. There wasn’t quite enough room for all of us plus the conscious prisoners in the living area, given it hadn’t been intended to hold this many people. But we were able to shift the supplies in the main area around and drop a few crates. The supplies were intended to provide water and food for the whole prison for a few weeks, So we weren’t losing much by leaving a little bit behind. It allowed us to get more room in there for everyone, which became a bit more comfortable once we took some blankets and pillows out of the cupboards and laid them down over the floor. 

Two of the prisoners who were awake and moving around were trolls, so they took up a large portion of the space we cleared out. They looked bewildered by everything that was going on, but tentatively friendly enough. They also didn’t seem to speak much English or Latin, but followed instructions cheerfully enough when they were accompanied with hand gestures. One of the other conscious prisoners, an orc who introduced himself as Teragn (terrain), said that the Heretics had simply referred to the trolls as three-oh-oh-two and three-oh-oh-three. Or just Two and Three for short. Whether they had any actual names or not nobody knew, but they responded to those names for the moment. And, again, we really didn’t have time to get into details just yet. We mostly just pantomimed at the two trolls for them to sit, and gave them a large ball of cheese and a ham from one of the boxes. They really loved that and immediately proceeded to start making ham and cheese sandwiches. Which, in their case, meant using ham as the bread and cheese in the middle. 

Soon, we had all of them on the truck. Including the still-unconscious Eden’s Garden Heretic who had apparently turned traitor. Kohaku had gone over the man with a fine-toothed comb to find any tracking spells or devices, but came up short. Still, they were keeping him secured with those cuffs and magically asleep, lying on a cot in the living area so we could talk to him later. 

Once everyone was onboard, Deveron hauled the heavy doors shut. He gave a quick glance to the clearly still terrified and confused prisoners sitting around, before speaking as gently as possible. “It’s okay. I know you don’t have much reason to believe this, but you’re safe with us. We’re going back to Earth, then you can do whatever you want from there. We’ll… we’ll talk about it on the way. Right now–” 

“They’re on us.” That came from Kohaku, who was looking at what looked like an ordinary smartphone. There was a slight grimace on her face. “No more time for explanations, we need to jump now.”  

With a muttered curse, the man immediately darted to the control board on the wall. You could also initiate the jump from the cab of the truck, but this was quicker right now. Opening the panel revealed a keypad where the coordinates were supposed to be put in, and a lever to activate it. That was how it looked normally. But now there were eight glowing little gemstones attached to the console as well. The stones were essentially magical batteries, storing a bunch of power we’d brought with us from home. And now they were plugged into the teleportation system.

The truck abruptly started to jerk backward, as if a large hand had grabbed onto it. Several people cried out, but Deveron simply shook his head. “Not today,” he muttered before yanking on the lever. 

And with that, we were gone. Whatever hand or power had been trying to pull the truck was left behind as we instantly transported off the planet. In my imagination, I could almost hear the Eden’s Garden people screaming as the truck vanished right in front of their eyes.

Instead of letting go of the lever when the jump happened, Deveron shoved it up into the default position, gave us all a look, and then yanked it down a second time. We jumped again. Of course, we weren’t dumb enough to make a single jump and allow them to track us. Each time the truck transported, two of those initial eight gemstones went dark. It allowed us to make four rapid jumps, each one bringing us slightly closer to Earth. 

By the time the fourth jump happened, the truck was shuddering and making unhappy noises. Plus the transport console was giving off a little smoke. I’d asked why we couldn’t just make every jump we needed to go straight back home instead of only going slightly over halfway, and this was the answer I’d been given. The truck could only stand up to so many transports at one time, even with extra power. Four was apparently pushing it, and no one wanted to see what happened if we went for five. It wouldn’t do us any good to push so hard to get home, only to blow up or materialize in the middle of empty space with a broken transport system. 

We also weren’t going to their normal jump points. Instead, Athena had given us a list of habitable moons along the way, and those were the coordinates we used. Just for fun, those first three jumps had been to a desert moon, an ice moon, and a forest moon. Just so those chasing us could have the full original trilogy Star Wars experience. 

Once the truck settled a bit and we were all certain it wasn’t going to catch fire on us, Deveron breathed out and nodded to Tangle, who was standing by the main door. At his nod, she unlatched it and hauled the door up, to reveal… rocks. Lots of enormous boulders all around us. 

“Look, Herbie,” I announced while hopping down onto the gravel-covered ground. I had the heroic stone in question in my palm already, turning in a circle so he could see. “It’s your homeworld.”   

As planned, the place we had landed looked like a large quarry. And in this case, large meant the size of a full city back on Earth. The rocks varied in size from pebbles all the way up to boulders the size of skyscrapers. According to Athena, there was some sort of special material within the rocks that would help block scanners if our pursuers actually made it this far. Which was doubtful to begin with, but being extra careful didn’t hurt anything.  

Tangle and the Dornans stayed with the conscious prisoners back there to tell them exactly what was going on, and who we were. Meanwhile, Asenath, Twister, Shiori, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug worked with Klassin to check on the unconscious prisoners and try to see what we could do for them. 

Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me to talk to Kohaku and Deveron about exactly what we had seen down in that cave. The six of us walked a little bit away from the truck, standing near a rock that was a good thirty feet tall and almost as wide. There, we carefully went through the whole story. We told them about the carvings we had seen and about the big hole in the floor that had clearly been covered with a forcefield at one point. And, of course, we told them about the way those tubes had clearly been draining blood from the prisoners into the hole. 

When we got to the part about the giant monster and began to describe it, I could see a flash of what looked like recognition on both their faces, before they smothered it and told us to go on. They clearly knew something, but weren’t willing to get into it just yet. Not until we told them the whole story. 

The others obviously noticed too, because when we finished, Sands folded her arms and focused on them. “You guys know something about that thing, don’t you? Come on, we killed it, you can at least tell us what the fuck it was.” 

With a heavy sigh, Kohaku shook her head. “That’s the problem, you probably didn’t actually kill the main thing. Just one of its… extensions.” 

“Extensions?” I echoed that, frowning. “You mean like the whole Nuckelavee thing? Like how they’re extensions or… or creations of that Lotan monster under the ocean?”

“Something like that,” Deveron confirmed. “Deep-Walker is just one of the names it has. No one knows very much about it, but from what I’ve heard, the thing basically… infects worlds. You know how Seosten possess people? This thing possesses planets. It produces monsters a lot like that thing you fought, and killing one of them doesn’t hurt the Deep-Walker any more than killing a Nuckelavee hurts Lotan. And… and they’re usually even stronger than that. I think you managed to get what amounts to a baby.” 

“If that was a baby,” Sands managed weakly, “I really don’t want to run into the adult version.” 

“No,” Kohaku agreed firmly, “you don’t. Nobody does. Which probably means that was what was watching us in the woods. The Deep-Walker infests planets and then controls every aspect of them. Well, eventually anyway. It takes time for it to get control.” 

“But what was it–I mean what were they–” Cutting myself off, I made a noise deep in the back of my throat. “Were they feeding it?” 

Sarah spoke up then. “Taming it.” 

Deveron cursed several times loudly, before nodding. “You know, I think that’s exactly what that stupid son of a bitch was doing. Kyril Shamon had that mountain mined out specifically to find those tunnels and then built that place to feed blood into the–he’s trying to tame and control that fucking–it’s a world-ender and he’s trying to make it his fucking pet!” 

He and Kohaku stepped aside for a minute, conversing quietly with each other. Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me by ourselves. I looked at Sands. “Do uh, do you have any idea what you got from that thing?” 

She didn’t. Fortunately, I had a Tabbris on-call. As I used our connection to let my little sister know that we had successfully escaped with the prisoners, and about our single casualty, she projected herself to me. Not a full recall. We didn’t want to pull her away from the station for that long, not when she had her newly-arrived siblings to spend time with. But she could at least temporarily project to me. 

Sorry about Mr. Kine, her voice spoke hesitantly in my mind. 

Me too, I agreed. Can you tell the others back there so they… so they know? Is my mom– 

She’s not back from her thing yet, came the response. But somebody will tell her, I… maybe Abigail? 

I nodded a bit. That’s not a bad idea. Or Deveron when he calls to check in. I think–anyway, we made it. And we’re bringing his body back. With that, I gave her a quick rundown of what had happened, with the other girl reading my mind to fill in some of the blanks. Then I asked, Sands doesn’t know what she has, so… 

She agreed to help, and I asked Sands for permission to possess her. Once she had given it, I took her offered hand and disappeared. It only took a minute for Tabbris to reach through her connection to me and scour what Sands was capable of, then report back to me.

Oh, she announced once I stepped out of the other girl, um, I think Spark needs some help. 

Go, I urged, shaking my head at how guilty she sounded. It’s okay. Thanks for the help. We’re safe now. We’re out of there, and we’ll be home in a few days. I’ll check in later too. 

If… if you’d really needed me back there, with that monster, you would’ve let me know, right? Tabbris sounded hesitant, like part of her still felt guilty for not coming along in the first place. 

Of course, I assured her. That’s the fun part of having the whole recall thing, right? Now go have fun. Or whatever. Help your other sister. 

Her presence faded from my mind before I looked back over to the expectantly-waiting Sands. “Well?” she pressed, practically bouncing on her toes. 

“Well,” I echoed, before leaning in to whisper in her ear. 

Taking in everything I said, Sands gave a double-take. “Are you serious?” When I nodded, she flashed a short grin before gesturing. “Back up. Everyone back up.” 

The three of us did, with Avalon and Sarah giving me a curious look. Once we were out of the way, Sands cracked her neck. She had to focus for a few seconds, finding the right… trigger or whatever. Even though I’d told her what she could do, it still took a bit of time to figure out how to do it. In the meantime, I called a warning over to Deveron and Kohaku, who turned to watch.

But, after a few seconds, she found it. Instantly, Sands grew in size until she stood a solid thirty feet tall. She was gigantic and could apparently take an absurd amount of damage, even considering the size. Not quite as much as the monster in the tunnel, but still a lot. 

Okay!” Sands spoke, voice booming out. “I think I can get used to this.” 

“Better not get too used to it!” I shouted up at her. “I’m pretty sure you won’t fit in the truck like that!” 

Fitting in the truck was definitely something she had to do. We might’ve had to stop to let things recharge, and there were the prisoners to deal with, both of the conscious and unconscious variety. Not to mention the fact that we had to keep an eye out for pursuers. There was plenty of work to be done. But what mattered right now was that we… most of us anyway, had gone into that prison, saved the people we went there for, and got out. Now it was time to go home. 

And for Asenath and Gordon to officially be reunited with their fathers.

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By Blood 17-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thankfully, I wasn’t out for long. When I came to a short time later, Doug was sitting over me, using one of the enchanted stones we’d all received from the adults to give me a bit of energy. Sort of like smelling salts mixed with strong coffee. My eyes blinked away the blurriness until I managed to focus on him, then started to sit up. 

“It’s okay,” he assured me. “Fight’s over. They’re… trying to figure out how to open the tubes and get everyone out without hurting anyone.” He looked over his shoulder, and I followed the boy’s gaze to where everyone else was, sure enough, working on that. Even Sands was up and moving around, talking animatedly to her sister as they crouched behind one of the tubes.

“Checking for traps?” I asked, my gaze turning toward the dead body of the giant monster. It was still there, and still just as horrifying. Okay, maybe slightly less horrifying dead than it had been when it was alive. But I still wasn’t going to get anywhere near it. Still, I took a second to stare at the thing, feeling a sense of awe and satisfaction both about the fact that we had managed to kill it, and that all those people who had been sacrificed to bring it to life had had a part in taking the the damn thing down. I’d felt their own intense relief just before they passed on.  

Doug confirmed that before hesitating. “I think I should use my question, but I’m not sure. What if we need it later for getting out of here? I’ve only got the one.”  

I knew what he was talking about, it was that thing where he could ask a question once per day and get either the answer or be directed toward the answer. It was the same thing that had pointed his team toward me when he’d asked how they could find out what was really going on with Roxa. And now he could either use it to ask how to get the prisoners out of those tubes, or save it in case we needed an answer to a more dire and immediate problem later. It had to be a hard choice to make every time he made it out in the field like this. How was he supposed to know if using his single question at any given point was the right time? It was a lot of pressure. I didn’t even like using limited quantity items in video games, let alone something like this. 

Still, I only hesitated for a moment in this case before giving a short nod. “Use it. The sooner we get them out of there and moving, the sooner everyone gets off this planet. That’s gotta be worth it.” 

Letting out an audible breath, Doug hesitated to think before starting. “Okay, well here goes nothing. How do we safely get the prisoners right there out of the tubes without harming any of them or setting off any traps?” His voice turned somewhat eerie through that, gaining a slight echoey quality to it. 

While waiting for him to get an answer to that, I looked over to where Asenath and Shiori were standing together in front of the tube that Tiras was in. His daughter had a hand against the side, clearly overwhelmed by the fact that she was seeing him in person for the first time since she was a child. Even now I couldn’t make him out very well, but she knew him. And for Asenath, ‘since she was a child’ had been a very long time indeed. I couldn’t even imagine the emotions that were going through her mind at that moment. Especially considering she was that close to him, but still couldn’t talk to him yet.  All those years and all that distance, and now the only thing between them was this tube, but she couldn’t get through it. Not yet, anyway. 

Gordon had found his father too. Standing at the far end of the line of tubes, the boy had his arms folded across his chest while he stared silently at the figure within. As always, it was hard to judge his emotions solely from the flat expression on his face but I had a feeling there were a lot swirling inside him.  

With a slight gasp, Doug started and gave a sharp shake of his head. He glanced toward me briefly before starting that way at a jog. “Hang on,” the boy called, “I know how to get them out! But uhh, they’re gonna be out of it for awhile. They won’t wake up even after we get them out of the tubes, so we’re gonna have to carry them or…” Trailing off, he frowned while taking in the amount of prisoners. Three rows of ten. Thirty prisoners. We didn’t have nearly enough people down here to carry that many. 

Fortunately, we had come prepared for that, just in case the people we were rescuing weren’t in any condition to move on their own. Granted, we were anticipating injuries or something like that, not some sort of stasis coma. 

“We’ll have to use the blankets,” Avalon murmured. “Get them out, guys.” To Doug, she added, “How do we open them up?”  

Sands, Sarah, Shiori, Jazz, and I started to pull ‘the ‘blankets’ out. They were the same sort of magical storage blankets that Kohaku had used to store the body of that Heretic up in the lighthouse. When they were placed over someone, the blanket would shift them into a special pocket dimension (one with oxygen, of course). Each blanket could be used multiple times to store up to ten people. So we had plenty for this. 

Of course, that raised another thought in my mind. We had seen prisoners walking around outside when we first arrived, doing work for these people. Where were they now? We hadn’t run into them on the way down here, so I hoped they were taking cover in one of the buildings so we could find them before we left. Or maybe Kohaku and the others already had. Either way, we just had to deal with these ones. 

By the time we got the blankets ready to go, Doug had already taken Avalon, Gordon, Shiori, and Asenath over to what at first looked like just an ordinary boulder near the wall. But when he ran his hand over it, the hologram vanished, revealing a console. He quickly started typing in a complicated sequence on the keypad there, and as he did so, each of the tubes gave an affirmative beep. Then the liquid in them started to drain out. Where it went I wasn’t sure, but it was gradually disappearing, leaving the bodies within to slump down. Then the ‘glass’ of the tubes rose upward, leaving an opening while the still-unconscious prisoners simply fell limply against the floor of their containment units. Not the most graceful way of getting them out, but at least it worked. We didn’t exactly have time to worry about treating them like they were at a five star resort right at the moment, and I doubted the prisoners would care. 

Quickly, we all started to move in pairs, Avalon and I working together, to lay each prisoner out and put one of the blankets over them. The things were made to stretch a lot and shape themselves around the person being put under it, so it wasn’t that hard. Nearby, I could see Shiori and Asenath doing that with Tiras, while Jazz helped Gordon with his father. The whole time, I just kept imagining a clock ticking down. We had no idea if the Eden’s Garden people had even managed to get any sort of message out let alone how long it would take help to arrive. It was like being in a room where there could be a bomb, but we didn’t know if it existed or how much time was on it. Not to mention, whether there were reinforcements coming or not, the adults were still out there fighting against a numerically superior force, and the element of surprise had to have worn off by now. So, we had no idea if the Victor was on his way, or how Deveron’s group was doing out there, and the longer we took with this, the worse off the situation could be. Especially after we had already taken all that time to get down here and fight that fucking monster. Stressful, to say the least. Every second we took getting these unconscious figures under the blankets to store them safely felt like an hour. 

Finally, we had all of them put away. It had obviously been hard for Asenath and Gordon to be literally touching their fathers after all this time, only to shove them out of sight again. At least it was incredibly temporary, and they knew that. We just had to get the hell out of here. 

“Okay,” Senny announced while rising with the blanket that had her father and several others stored within slung over her shoulder, “someone let them know it’s time to bug out of here.” Her voice caught just a little in the middle of that, betraying a tiny bit of the intense emotions she had to be feeling. 

I already had the coin in my hand by the time she finished saying that. Rubbing my thumb over it, I murmured the words to trigger the spell. It grew warm in my palm before letting out a loud chiming sound. In that moment, the identical coins in the pockets of Deveron, Kohaku, and all the others out there would be going off. It was the signal to let them know we had the prisoners and were on our way out, so they needed to be ready. 

Collectively, our group exchanged glances. We were exhausted from the fight, some of us even more so from multiple fights. But we had to keep going. This was almost over. We were this close to being done and gone. So, we steeled ourselves, took a breath, and then turned to run back up the tunnel we had come down. I ignored how exhausted I felt after empowering all those ghosts to hold the beast down. I ignored everything, my fear of what would happen if Victor Kyril Shamon showed up, the joy at seeing Asenath and Gordon manage to get to their fathers, my anger at what the Heretics here had been doing–wait, no, scratch that. I held onto that. I used that anger and focused on it as I ran with the others, keeping pace with them so we could all remain in a group just in case there were any bad surprises waiting for us. 

Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything in our way. I supposed that anyone who was still up and moving was probably thoroughly distracted by the huge fight going on outside. They didn’t exactly have time to set up a trap for the rest of us. No matter how long the paranoid part of my brain kept screaming that this was taking, it was all still pretty quick in the grand scheme of things. 

Shortly before we reached the entrance, as we passed through familiar parts of the tunnel, Sarah produced a second coin with near-identical runes as the one I had used before we started running. Its spell was activated, alerting the others that we were about to emerge. The first coin told them we were on our way, this one told them we were right there and they should tell us if it was safe to come out or if we should wait. 

At first there was no response and we slowed slightly while exchanging looks. Did we keep going if they didn’t respond? Or did we hold off and try to find out what was–

There. Thank God, that wasn’t a decision we had to make. Just as I was starting to think that something terrible had happened, a glowing green arrow appeared in the air in front of us. That was the signal. We were good to go. The fighting wasn’t completely over, or the symbol would have been a thumbs up. A green arrow meant it was safe to go and fairly clear, but there were still threats out there so we should keep our eyes open. A raised red hand would have meant stop, and a yellow question mark would mean there were threats right in front of the entrance that we would need to engage with. This wasn’t the absolute best response, but still. 

So, we kept going, sprinting straight out of the tunnel, through the spot where the forcefield had been before Columbus took it down. Right there, at the mouth of the cave inside the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, the Dornan cousins stood using a wave of blue-white fire from their hands to block several separate incoming blasts of energy. The Eden’s Garden people were still attacking, but Seamus and Roger were shielding the area. Tangle, looking a bit worse for wear and bloodied, was standing to one side, clearly watching for us. As we emerged, she shouted something to the other two, then beckoned for us to hurry. 

We didn’t see anyone else. They must’ve been fighting elsewhere, however, because I could hear shouting and explosions and… more going on in the distance. This place was a complete warzone, and something told me it was just going to get worse as the defenders warmed up. Let alone if they actually managed to summon reinforcements. 

Shoving that out of our minds, we ran straight toward Tangle. As we approached, the woman threw something toward the ground. It sprang up to form a door. A literal door standing right in the open, like the one I had taken to get to Crossroads. It was closed at first, but she shoved it open to reveal a clearing with black-gray trees and orange dirt on the other side. Still a place on this world, but away from the immediate fighting. A place to regroup so we could leave. 

Bobbi went through the door first, then Doug, Twister, Shiori, and the rest of us followed right behind. I was last, pausing just long enough to shout toward Tangle, “Everyone else?!” 

“Heading out right after you!” She glanced to me while shouting that. “Go!” 

Even as she said that, I could see the blue-white flame shield that Seamus and Roger were projecting start to flicker as more and more attacks hit it. Clearly, it wasn’t going to hold for much longer. Especially as the Heretics on the far side noticed the flickering and renewed their efforts. The blasts they were hitting it with were like artillery shells exploding against a forcefield of fire. It was going to fail any second now. And then, well, then we would really be in trouble. 

So, I went through the door, stumbling a bit in my rush. Then I was in that clearing with the others, who were already catching their breaths. Shiori quickly grabbed me in a hug that also pulled me away from the door just as Tangle came through. She was followed by Roger, then Seamus. Past the two of them, as I looked that way while still clutched by Shiori, I could see six Heretics coming straight toward us. They had spotted the door and were racing our way. One of them turned into a blur of motion, speeding straight at us so quickly he would’ve reached the door before anyone could react. 

At least, before I or any of my peers could react. Tangle’s hand snapped up as she turned back that way right after she and the cousins reached the clearing. A jet of water shot from her palm and between Roger and Seamus before expanding into a massive tidal wave the moment it passed the doorway. That tidal wave slammed into the approaching Heretic. I caught a brief glimpse of him attempting to fight his way through it and continue his forward momentum before the wave managed to shove him away from the door. 

That wasn’t the end of it, however. A circular blade shot through the doorway from that side, nearly embedding itself in Tangle’s throat before Roger snapped his hand out so that it embedded itself in his palm instead, making the man grunt. Meanwhile, Seamus grabbed the door to shove it closed, taking what had to be at least three or four blasts of energy against his arm and side, one of which destroyed half his shirt and left a truly nasty-looking burn across the lower half of his torso. It looked painful as fuck, to say the least. But the man showed no reaction other than to give a grunt similar to Roger’s when the blade had embedded itself in his hand.

In the next second, he had the door shut. The instant the latch clicked, the whole thing vanished. We were–okay, not safe. Not in the least. But assuming they had set this up the way we planned, we were now hundreds of miles from the prison. It would take them time to find us. Time we could use to get out of here on the– I looked around. There. The truck was waiting about a hundred feet away, just as pristine as it had been when we left it to make our scouting and sabotage trip. 

“What about the others?” Avalon was asking, panting a bit from everything. “And the rest of the prisoners? There were some out and standing, but the ones we found–” 

“Deveron and the rest have them,” Roger informed us. He was pulling the blade out of his hand. Grimacing at it, the man focused until the blade turned to dust. His wound was already starting to heal. “That’s why we had to split up. They had a bunch of slaves holed up in a corner of the compound. One of their people tried to send a bunch of fire that way to kill them off for retribution or whatever, but another guard was shielding them.” 

“Wait,” I spoke up. “You mean one of the Eden’s Garden Heretics was shielding the prisoners from getting hurt? Someone sympathetic to our side?” 

Seamus, gingerly touching his burn with a wince, shrugged. “I think they called him Coppe. Just someone who didn’t think their prisoners deserved to die like that, I guess. Can’t make him very popular with the rest of his people, though.” 

“No, probably not,” Tangle confirmed before focusing on us. “But what happened down–” 

In the midst of that clearly very important question, another door opened up nearby. We all spun that way, weapons raised. But it opened to reveal Klassin Roe, who stumbled through looking about as good as any of the other adults here. One of his arms was literally missing, and he had a hard shell of half-broken ice across half his torso, as well as a deep burn across his forehead. Clearly barely keeping himself upright, the man held the door as Kohaku appeared, followed by Jiao. The moment they were through, the trio moved away from the door, allowing a line of neon-red jumpsuit-wearing prisoners, of all colors, shapes, and sizes to pass through. A couple of them were too big for the door as it was, but it rose and changed shape to accommodate them. Soon, in addition to the thirty unconscious slaves we had taken from the tubes, there were a dozen or so more standing around. They looked bewildered, anxious, afraid, clearly unconvinced that this was a real rescue. Which I couldn’t blame them for. Not after everything they had been through, especially if they had the slightest idea what had been done to their fellow prisoners down in the caves. 

Either way, the second the last prisoner was through, another man appeared. I didn’t recognize him, but he wasn’t in prisoner clothes. He was a guard, another Heretic. Tall and blond. As soon as he was there, Roger and Seamus caught him by the arm and yanked the man out of the way. They had a pair of cuffs on him almost immediately, and Tangle used a field-engraver to put a spell on the man’s arm. She said something to him, he gave a short nod, and then she said another word and he collapsed. Roger and Seamus stopped him from collapsing, gently lowering him to the ground.

The traitor, I had already realized. It was that Coppe guy, the guard who had shielded their prisoners against his fellow Heretics’ retribution. That’s why he was here with us, but they weren’t taking any chances. He was being secured and knocked out until we could figure out what to do. 

Meanwhile, Deveron had appeared. He was dragging something with him, kicking the door shut while explosions continued on the far side. I could hear someone scream his name with rage that sent a chill through me. It was the sort of anger that promised retribution. This wasn’t over. We still had to get off the planet before they tracked us down. 

But wait. Where was–

Then I saw what Deveron had been dragging, as he carefully laid it down on the grass. No, not it. Him. Tribald Kine. Motionless, his eyes staring sightlessly toward the sky. 

We had escaped with the prisoners, for the moment. But not without cost. 

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By Blood 17-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The timing for our plan was incredibly crucial. We had to wait for enough of the guards to be thoroughly distracted by Deveron and the Dornans so the rest of us could jump them from behind. And if this whole thing worked the way it was supposed to, we would be doing that more than once. We just had to hit them just right. 

To that end, Kohaku and Tangle had the rest of us touch them and wait until enough of the guards had made their way to the gate on the far side of the complex below. Finally, it was time. There were still a few stragglers up on the buildings or coming out of side doors, but we couldn’t wait any longer. We needed enough of the guards to be over by the gate, yet if they got too far out, this wouldn’t work. So, with a word of warning, the two Heretic adults teleported all of us down to the roof of the building almost directly below us. There was a single guard there who had been taking aim with a rifle that looked a lot like Sarah’s. But even as he spun upon our arrival, Kohaku was driving her fist, abruptly shape-shifted into a glowing blade, into his gut. She cut him all the way up to his neck and then ripped her fist out. He was flailing and gasping until she transformed her hand back and caught both sides of his head so she could literally rip it from his body. It was brutal, efficient, and made my eyes widen as a noise of disbelief escaped me. The man had been gutted and then had his head torn from his shoulders before he even knew what was going on. Seeing it from this side was incredibly dark.

Meanwhile, Tangle wasn’t exactly slouching. There had been another Heretic coming out the door of the building we were standing on, and the former Crossroads teacher was already conjuring some sort of energy rope, which she threw around his neck like a noose before yanking him up to our level. He was choking and flailing even as she held the rope with one hand, produced some sort of knife with the other, and drove it into the top of his head. 

Both women acted together, and the whole thing took less than five seconds before the two guards were dead. I saw Kohaku and Tangle’s individual auras both flare, but if they noticed the rush of pleasure, neither reacted. Their attention was focused out on the yard itself, where we could see more Heretic guards racing around the fake smoldering remains of the transport truck on their way to deal with where they thought the main threat was coming from. 

Our main advantage throughout this whole thing, besides the element of surprise, was the fact that there weren’t incredibly powerful Heretics stationed here. At least relatively speaking. Honestly I thought the guy in the radio tower was powerful enough to be a problem. But the truth was that most of the people here were basically average. The strongest Eden’s Garden Heretics wouldn’t be guarding a backwater prison work camp with a few Alters digging out a mountain. They weren’t pushovers, by any means, but we weren’t dealing with the cream of the crop. And that was basically the only reason we had any chance of getting away with our small group performing a rescue mission. Especially now that we had cut off their ability to communicate easily with reinforcements. 

To the right, we could see another man come running out of the building there, shouting something about ‘the tower’ being down. Sure enough, he was pointing up toward the tower we had just come from, calling over his shoulder toward someone else inside the building. I could see him bracing himself for what was probably going to be a teleport up that way so he could figure out what was wrong with their radio. But then he caught sight of us on the roof of the other building, his attention snapping our way just in time for Tangle to hold her hand up. A strange set of dancing lights appeared in her palm. The man stopped short, staring at those rapidly moving glowing symbols with a slack-jawed expression. It only lasted for a brief moment, two seconds at most. But that was enough for Kohaku to appear behind him. And to the left of him. And to the right of him. While still standing right here with us. The two duplicate Kohakus on either side of the man caught hold of him, while the third pointed her hand into the back of his head and used the finger-laser I’d seen before. It took three or four shots, but the man went down. Which was just in time for a burst of flame from inside the building to engulf all three Kohaku clones and incinerate them. 

The regular Kohaku grimaced, then vanished from where she was standing, only to appear down there on the rear side of the building. As we watched, she raised her hands and then slammed them together. With that motion, the building crumpled in on itself, turning into a metal ball that was collapsed around the Heretic within. Unfortunately, he simply phased out of it, appearing in a ghost-like form with his gaze focused on Kohaku. 

Which meant he never noticed Tangle pointing a hand at him as she summoned a blast of electricity like the freaking emperor from Star Wars. The blast tore into his intangible form, seeming to hurt him even more than it would otherwise. With a scream, the man basically disintegrated. 

In what had to be less than thirty seconds, four Heretics were dead thanks to Kohaku and Tangle. Yes, we were taking them by surprise, and they were focused on other things. But still. 

That seemed to be all of the people who were right here, so we could move again. Our group hopped to the ground to join Kohaku, who was looking across the chaotic prison grounds. Her voice was terse. “Hit them now, hard as you can.” 

‘Them,’ in this case, were the Heretic guards on their way past the fake truck remains. They were in mid-sprint and hadn’t noticed the burst of violence behind them. We had to get their attention on us for this to work. So, Sarah brought her rifle to her shoulder and fired a shot, I transformed my staff into its bow-form to send an energy arrow that way, Avalon pointed one of her gauntlets to launch what looked like a bolt of energy similar to her constructs, and Sands drove her mace into the ground, sending a low, foot-high wall racing along the ground until it grew up and outward into a rock spike that slammed into one of the men. 

Between all those attacks and what Kohaku and Tangle sent that way as well, we definitely had some of the guards’ attention. They spun back toward us, bringing up their own weapons and powers. Which, for an instant, made this whole getting their attention thing feel like a bad idea. 

But, of course, there was a reason we wanted them to look at us. And that reason showed itself before they could launch their counterattack. From the fake rubble where they had been hiding, our companions abruptly appeared. Columbus rose, using his goggles to fire a blast of energy into one man’s side. Though strong enough to punch through rock like it was paper, the blast barely made that guy stagger a bit. He looked toward Columbus, just before Shiori launched herself at him from the side, her fist slamming into his face. Which didn’t do a lot on its own, but then six or seven glowing energy-like duplicate Shioris copied the same motion. That was enough to make him reel a bit, which was when Columbus brought both his hands together and shoved hard, sending a blast of kinetic force into the man that was hard enough to knock him a good twenty feet. And before he could crash to the ground, Bobbi was there in a blur of motion, catching the guy in the back as he was falling with a glowing energy construct of a fist the size of a small car. 

Shiori, Columbus, and Bobbi all hit that guy, while Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon hit another one, Tribald Kine and Klassin Roe hit a third, and Jiao and Asenath jumped a fourth. This was how we were hitting them, how our plan worked out to triple-ambush the prison guards. First Deveron and the Dornans unexpectedly attacked them from one side. Then, as they were running to deal with that, Tangle, Kohaku, and the rest of our group hit them from behind. And as the guards we hit were turning to deal with us, the others rose from their places hidden in the supposed wrecked remains of the truck to attack both the ones who kept going toward the gate and the ones who turned to deal with us. No matter which way they turned, the Eden’s Garden people were getting hit from behind by someone. 

Suffice to say, they were all having a bad day. And it was only going to get worse for them. They were stuck reacting to something that they hadn’t known anything about practically a minute ago. Up to that point, this had been a perfectly ordinary, mundane evening for them. And now they were under direct assault from what had to feel like all sides. They didn’t have time to adjust to what was happening, whereas our group had been planning this literally for weeks. We knew what we were doing, and we certainly weren’t going to give them time to recover. 

To that end, the second we had their attention and caught the guards between all our groups, Kohaku pointed toward the hole in the mountain. Specifically, to the cave entrance leading into what still remained of the mountain that hadn’t already been dug out. “You know your parts. Stay together, be careful.” 

That was all she had to say. Without missing a beat, Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and I were already running to the side. Twister jumped from my shoulder, transforming into a cheetah to run ahead of us. Part of me felt bad about leaving Kohaku and Tangle by themselves. But on the other hand, they could handle it. We had to do our part and get into the prison. 

Not that we would be getting in there alone. Even as we approached the cave entrance where the mountain had been hollowed out, the five of us were joined by Columbus, Shiori, Asenath, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Bobbi. 

Yes, that left Jiao, Tribald Kine, and Klassin Roe in the middle of the Heretic guards, Deveron and the Dornan cousins in front of them, and Kohaku and Tangle at the back. They were all adults. Their job was to draw attention and keep the guards focused on them. Meanwhile, the rest of us had to make our way through the deeper prison complex, staying together to handle whatever and whoever might still be down there until we reached the prisoners themselves. We had to get in there and let them out so everyone could teleport the fuck out of this place before the Eden’s Garden people managed to recover too much. Again, the plan relied a lot on timing, on hitting these guys so hard and so fast and from so many sides they never had the chance to retaliate too much before we were already gone. And there were still so many ways it could fall apart. All I could think of, even as our groups ran through the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, was that we had to hurry. 

This place was weird, to say the least. It was like a huge bite had been taken out of the hill itself, leaving just under a third of its lower portion present. There were several large digging-like machines that sat motionless and unused for the moment scattered around the massive open cavern-like space, but nothing seemed to be holding up the hundreds of tons of rocks and dirt high above our heads. I had no idea how they were stopping the upper section from crashing in, and hopefully we wouldn’t be here long enough for that to become relevant. What we were interested in was a hole in the inner wall, which led to the lower tunnels where the prisoners were supposed to be kept. At the moment, a glowing blue forcefield was stretched across that hole, blocking entrance to those tunnels, but that wouldn’t be an obstacle for long. . 

“Didn’t take all the excitement for yourselves, I see,” Jazz noted once we all came to a (very temporary) stop at that forcefield. She was panting a bit, holding her falchion in one hand, its projected flames dancing around the blade. 

“Thought about it,” I retorted, “but we figured you’d complain if you came all this way just to be bored.” 

Even as we said that, Columbus had vanished from where we were standing. He appeared on the far side of the forcefield, standing inside the enclosed, previously empty security station there. We could barely see the boy through the narrow window where the guards were supposed to stand to control the forcefield whenever people needed to move in and out. 

Thankfully, it didn’t take the boy long to figure out the controls in there. Soon, the forcefield was down, and he rejoined us as we started running together once more. Now we were inside the cavern. The entrance tunnel, carved into black and gray rock, was about twenty feet wide and equally as high. So we weren’t exactly cramped, even with a group as relatively large as this was. The tunnel sloped downward, leading deeper underground and into the darkness. So, after producing flashlights, that was the way we went, keeping our eyes and other senses open as we raced deeper into the man-made (or at least living person-made) cave. 

I didn’t sense anyone, but I did sense… something. It was weird, a feeling pressing down on me from all sides, like… I wasn’t sure. It was at the back of my mind with every step, making the hair on my neck stand up. I felt something, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t good. But there was nothing I could do about it. We had to keep going. 

“Did we ever figure out what the hell they were trying to do down here?” Columbus asked, while we continued downward, spreading out a bit to avoid making ourselves a single target. “I mean, this is a weird way to mine, isn’t it? How much effort are they spending just to keep the top of the mountain from falling in? They’ve dug out so much of this place, for what? Minerals? The hell are they looking for and why are they taking out so much of the mountain to do it without taking the top?” 

“Those are all very good questions,” Gordon agreed simply while not breaking stride. “Maybe the prisoners will know more when we find them.” 

Yeah, he couldn’t have been any more clear. What he was focused on was finding his father. Everything else, as far as he was concerned, could take a back seat, including questions about what the Eden’s Garden people were trying to do with this place. Which was fair, given I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be interested in those sorts of details if I was in his boat. Still, Columbus had a point. We had spent the past couple weeks, including the trip here, trying to work out why the mountain would have been mined out this way, without any luck. Now we were here and seeing it in person, and it seemed to make even less sense. Between that, the weird feeling of being watched that some of us had experienced coming through the forest, and now the feeling was I was getting as we descended, this planet in general was giving me the creeps. 

All of which was just more proof that we needed to get all these prisoners and leave as soon as possible. As if we’d needed any additional motivation for that.  

We were rounding a bend in the tunnel when Doug called out for everyone to wait. His flashlight was pointed toward the inner wall, where we could see what looked like words carved into it. Words that had been broken and chipped away by time or erosion or whatever. It looked like at one point there had been a full message carved there, but there were only bits and pieces of it now, words here or there. 

“Uh, can anyone read that?” I asked. It looked like gobbledygook to me. The ‘letters’ were meaningless shapes to the point that I couldn’t even tell which ones were complete and which had been broken.

We needed to hurry, obviously. But something about this made everyone stop to look at it. The message, if that’s what it was, gave me a weird feeling. I felt like we needed to know what it said. So, Bobbi produced a bit more light, a couple glowing balls to illuminate the whole thing. It took up a good ten feet of space, and had obviously been an extensive bit of writing when it was complete. Now more than three-quarters of it had been broken. 

Avalon spoke quietly. “I think I can. That… guy back in the tower, he must’ve had some sort of language deciphering power.” She lifted a hand to point. “This little bit here, it says ‘blood taken’ or maybe ‘blood given.’ And here, it says ‘legs of the world.’ Or maybe ‘legs stretched across the world.’ Down here, it says ‘deep-walker.’ and in this last bit, it says, ‘powers of blood.’ 

“Well that’s all nice and creepy,” Shiori muttered. “Wait, what about this?” Her light had found another bit near the bottom right that we had missed. This seemed somewhat more intact, several complete sentences carved near the floor. 

Crouching down, Avalon examined it, grimacing slightly. “It says, ‘Before being taken, activate disintegration.’” 

“Before being taken, activate disintegration?” I stared at the other girl. “What does that mean?” 

Her head shook. “I don’t know, but I think the bit that comes after it was instructions for the disintegration they were talking about. Maybe a spell or something.” Her finger traced along the broken bit of wall next to it. “But from the look of this whole message, the tunnel was here already. It looks like it was just buried and these guys uncovered it.” 

Asenath spoke firmly. “Whatever it’s about, we need to get to the prisoners. Everyone outside is… they can’t hold out forever.” 

Nervous as we were about whatever that message was talking about, she had a point. We had to press on quickly, or all of this would be for nothing. 

The tunnel opened up wider and wider the deeper we got. There were several more of those messages along the way, although all of them were even more damaged than the first and didn’t give any more information. At least not in the brief glimpses we gave them, and we weren’t going to stop again for a closer inspection. The longer we spent doing this, the more likely it was that we would end up being interrupted by Eden’s Garden reinforcements. So we pushed the bad feelings we were having down and kept descending through the ever-widening tunnel. 

Finally, after what felt like far too long, the tunnel opened into a truly massive underground cavern. Seriously, this place was impressive. And we were able to understand just how impressive it was right from the start thanks to the fact that the whole place was lit up by powerful stadium-like lights hooked up all along the walls. Clearly those had been recently added. The far side of the cavern from where we were standing had to be at least two football fields away, and it was almost that wide. There was a huge hole in the center of the cavern that took up about a third of the floorspace. Meanwhile, to the right was a series of what looked like tubes similar to the ones Sariel, Larees, and the other Seosten prisoners had been kept in when Kushiel was trying to transport them off that lab. They were arranged in three rows of ten, all varying sizes to accommodate a single prisoner held within. Pipes were attached to the bottom of the tubes, all leading out to a single larger pipe that ran straight to that large hole in the floor. 

Asenath sniffed once. “Blood,” she murmured. “The pipes are full of blood.” 

Oh yeah, and that feeling in the back of my head was worse. It was like… voices, almost. Not whispers, and definitely not the Whispers. It wasn’t really voices, or even thoughts. But it was like… trying to be thoughts? I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It was almost like when you saw someone shouting through a soundproof window, so you couldn’t hear them but you knew they were talking. It was like that, except in my head. 

Yeah, it made no sense at all. And I still didn’t know whether I was imagining it or not. 

“Okay, now I’m really freaked out,” Jazz announced. “The hell were they doing here? There was that warning back there, and now they’ve got all these prisoners in these tubes having their blood drained out to go into that hole? This is a horror movie. We have come into a–” 

“Papa!” Asenath blurted the word, lunging toward one of the tubes. Sure enough, there was a man floating in some semi-clear liquid there. It was hard to make out details, but if she said it was her father, I was willing to take her word for it. 

At nearly the same time, Gordon called out from where he had found his father as well. He was in one of the other tubes. Everyone started looking around, trying to figure out the best way to open those things up to let them out. 

“Um, Flick.” That was Columbus, calling me over to one side. “You see those antennae things sticking down out of the ceiling?” 

I looked. He was right, there were a dozen of the large metal ‘antennae things’ sticking down. “Uh huh.” 

“I’ve seen those before,” he informed me. “I mean, in Charmeine’s memories. They’re supposed to be producing a forcefield in the direction they’re pointing. Which would be over that hole in the floor, where those tubes were taking the blood.” 

“And now there’s no forcefield there,” I murmured. “So do you think–” 

That was when it appeared. In the midst of everyone else trying to figure out how to let the prisoners out of their tubes, a thing launched itself out of the hole. All I could see in that instant was a massive form moving very quickly. Then it landed in front of us, and we all had a good look at it. 

The thing stood on ten towering legs that were spread out around its lower body like a spider’s eight limbs, each as wide around as a school bus and at least twice as long. The body itself was more like a gigantic, very fat crocodile with those thick protective scales. A long neck like that of a giraffe, though also layered with heavy scales rather than fur, extended outward from the body, with an almost humanoid head attached to it. Almost humanoid that was, aside from the scales protecting it, and the fact that instead of two eyes, there was a ring of them all the way around it, so the creature could see in all directions. It opened its mouth, revealing a line of deadly shark-like teeth, and gave a dangerous hiss. 

“I uhh…” My voice came out soft, barely audible, a mouse-like squeak. 

“I think we just found out what they were giving blood to.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

By Blood 17-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

And there it was. The communications tower was directly in front of us as we crouched in the bushes just a few feet away from the path leading up to the door. The tower itself looked like a lighthouse with a huge radio antenna on top. One of the metal statue guardian things, like what had been in front of the dorms at Crossroads, was perched up beside the door as though ready to deal with any threat that approached. And something told me it was probably stronger than those ones. Either way, it was a problem we were going to have to deal with, because we certainly weren’t on the list of people allowed to go in there. The only way we would be able to shut down the communications was by getting in that building. The antennae itself was surrounded by a powerful forcefield. It might have been possible to get through it, but not without drawing far too much attention first. We had to do this the quiet way for as long as we could. Our best-case scenario was the bulk of the people here having absolutely no idea that anything was wrong until the truck with all our friends in it was already in the compound. 

All of which meant we needed to sneak into this building and disable the communications without setting off every alarm in the entire prison facility.  We wanted them to have no idea the communications were even down until the moment they tried to use them. Because the longer it took them to realize there was a problem, the less time that they would have to come up with a solution. 

Kohaku had been scanning the building ahead both visually and with all of her relevant powers for the past minute. Finally, she spoke in a low voice. “One Heretic inside. From what I can tell, they’re alone and not connected to anyone. They seem to be watching a movie in there. But if we pick a fight with the guardian…” She turned her gaze to the currently-motionless statue. “Give me a moment, I may be able to disable it without a fight.” 

“That’d be nice,” Twister put in. She was back in her own form, crouched on the far side of Avalon. “You sure I can’t get up there and take a peek?” 

Avalon’s head shook. “I still haven’t seen any animals around here. There was nothing in the forest. No birds, no squirrel or rat-like things, nothing. I didn’t even see a butterfly. Or a regular fly. You turn into anything and get close, they’ll know something’s going on.” 

“Exactly,” Kohaku agreed. “The Heretic in there is distracted, but we don’t know how distracted. And we don’t know how sensitive the detector on the guardian is.” With that, she paused to consider for a moment, frowning thoughtfully. “Avalon, how long will your device take?” 

Yeah, Avalon had been part of the Developer’s track, of course. On our way over to this planet, she and Columbus had both been tinkering a bit and came up with a toy that could be plugged into the computer system. Assuming it all worked out the way it was supposed to, the device would shut down the entire network with some sort of virus or whatever. The point was, it would quietly destroy their ability to call for off-world help. At least until they could get into the system and flush out the virus. Which we weren’t planning on giving them a lot of time to do.  

Considering the question briefly, Avalon tilted her head a little before answering, “Conservatively speaking, three minutes. Just to make sure it disables all the alarms first before shutting down the network itself. Once we get to a spot where I can plug it in.” 

“Okay,” Kohaku replied, clearly coming to a decision. “Felicity, take this.” She turned a bit, passing a small silver disc the size of my fist, with several runes on it that glowed faintly. “Hand that to one of your ghosts. From what I can tell, they shouldn’t be detected if they carry it over to the guardian and place it on the back of its neck. That should temporarily disable it. Just make sure they take it slow and easy. There is no need to be in a rush.” 

Nodding, I summoned Seth once more, quietly informing the man of what he needed to do while giving him enough energy to make his hands solid so he could take the disc itself. “And Seth,” I added, “you don’t have to taunt the thing first. Stay out of its line of sight, even if you are invisible. Just to be on the safe side. Go out and around, then come up along the side of the building.” 

“Eesh, okay, Mom,” the ghost retorted with a wink as he took the disc, before his voice softened. “Don’t worry so much, Chambers. I want to get Tiras out of here as much as you do, without making all these jumpy Heretics decide to execute the prisoners. Give me a minute, babe.” His eyes passed over the others before he belatedly amended, “Babes.” 

Despite his words of assurance, I still found myself holding my breath as the ghost-figure took the disc and began to make the long, circuitous trip around toward the back of the guardian. Luckily, I could hold my breath for a long time. Ten–no, fifteen minutes. I’d gotten an upgrade from killing that Heretic lady back at the truck station. Now I could hold my breath for fifteen full minutes. And, beyond that, I was able to share that ability with anyone I was touching, though the length I could hold it for went down by about a quarter for every person I did that with. By myself I could last fifteen minutes. Holding one person’s hand dropped that to about eleven and a half, and holding two people’s hands made it seven and a half. But assuming they could hold their own breath for awhile, we could keep it going for longer.

The point was, I could hold my breath much longer than it took for Seth to work his way around to the back of the statue. And I did, staring that way while half-expecting the guardian to jerk itself into motion any second. Not that I doubted the old vampire’s ability to be stealthy. It was more about doubting our luck to actually pull this off without everything blowing up. So far so good, but we were only doing this well because the Eden’s Garden people had no reason to suspect there were any problems. Seriously, they were on a tiny, out-of-the-way planet in the middle of unknown space, far from any threats that they knew of. They were probably alert for Fomorian invasion if those fucks happened to find this place. But a tiny, quiet incursion force set to rescue their prisoners? Yeah, I doubted they had the slightest inkling that anything like that was on their doorstep. Yet one tiny mistake on our part could change that, and make this entire situation a hell of a lot harder. 

But for the moment at least, that mistake didn’t happen. As we all knelt there and watched, Seth made his way around to the back of the statue and carefully placed the disc there. The second it was in place, the guardian’s eyes started to glow, as if it had detected that there was something wrong. But before it could do anything, Kohaku spoke a single word. There was a slight puff of smoke from the disc, and the guardian immediately froze once more. Its eyes dimmed, but didn’t entirely go out. It was paralyzed, not off. For the moment, we didn’t have to deal with it. 

“Go,” Kohaku urged while tugging another coin out, triggering a new stealth spell to hide us from any extra senses the Heretic in the building might have. “Don’t worry,” she assured us as we all started to jog quickly and quietly toward the door, “it won’t be a problem.” 

No sooner had the woman finished saying those words, than her hand caught hold of my arm and yanked me to the side. In that instant, my item-sense caught the presence of something very sharp moving incredibly quickly through the air right where my head had been. It was a knife, which embedded itself deep into a nearby tree.  

I was still realizing what had just happened, even as Avalon and Twister were pivoting toward the source of that knife. But Kohaku was even faster. In the exact same motion as when she had yanked me away from the incoming blade, the woman had pivoted and brought her other hand up, sending out an invisible and mostly silent bolt of force that way. 

A radio, clutched in the hand of the man who had emerged from the trees to throw that knife at me, burst apart. It didn’t so much explode as basically break into all of its component parts when that blast from Kohaku’s hand hit it. 

The man was an Eden’s Garden Heretic, obviously. He stood a couple inches under six feet, with a blond goatee and mustache, gray eyes, and a smooth bald head. He was wearing black slacks, a loose dark green button-up shirt, and a white tie. When the radio broke in his hand, he hissed and dropped it, eyes narrowing. “Kohaku. Should’ve thrown the knife at you instead.” 

“You would have had even less luck than you did with her, Howff.” she flatly informed him. “And you couldn’t resist trying to kill Joselyn’s daughter.” 

“Eh, would’ve been pretty fun,” came the retort as his eyes briefly glanced my way. “But I guess it can wait. You people aren’t getting out of here anyway.” 

Kohaku lifted one eyebrow. “I assume you’ve already realized you can’t call for help.” Her hand rose, showing a small gray stone that was pulsing with power. As she held it, I could see the edges of a shimmering silvery dome that filled the clearing briefly glow. “As long as this spell is active, you can’t summon any friends or send any messages. Nothing you do can get beyond the walls of the dome. Even your friend upstairs can’t hear you.” She nodded toward the tower behind us. 

The man, Howff apparently, narrowed his eyes. “All that means is that I need to take that stone from you.” 

“Good luck with that,” she informed him. Her next words were for Twister, Avalon, and me. “Go. You can get through the dome. Do what needs to be done. You can handle it. I’ll stop Howff.” 

If he had thought about it more, the man probably would have focused on stopping the rest of us. Or at least slowing us down. We were the ones who would be screwed over if this took too long, after all. But his attention was centered on Kohaku. I could tell there was some sort of personal history there that was clouding his judgment. Whatever it was, I was just glad it gave us this opening. Without missing a beat, or even looking at one another, Avalon, Twister, and I pivoted and ran toward the door. The statue was still frozen in place, with that disc keeping it motionless. Meanwhile, I could hear Kohaku and Howff start to go at it behind us briefly before we passed through the edge of the magic dome and the sound was cut off. Whatever happened back there now, it was up to Kohaku to handle. We had our own job. 

The first step of that job was the door. It was locked, of course. And there were several alarm spells on it. Beyond that, the door was made of solid metal and set into thick concrete. For a lot of people, it would have taken far too long to break through quietly, and make entirely too much noise to do so loudly. 

But we weren’t a lot of people. Even as we approached the door, Avalon was producing Seth’s knife (making the ghost-man raise an eyebrow from where he was lounging next to the guardian statue). She cut straight through the spot on the door where the alarm spells were, disabling them in two quick strokes so that anything happening to the door wouldn’t alert everyone in the prison. 

Meanwhile, I stopped in front of the door. It was still locked, and according to Kohaku, the security they used here would be too strong for my auto-unlocking power. Still, I had another way of dealing with it. Taking a breath, I raised my hands up to my face with one palm facing down while the other faced outward to the right, and focused on one of the new powers I had picked up from the Heretic back on Earth. She had ripped massive slabs of concrete out of the ground. I wasn’t that strong. But I could reshape the concrete. Which, I was pretty sure, was helped along by the rock-manipulation power I’d already had. With those two combined, while I couldn’t throw huge slabs of concrete through the air willy nilly, I could manipulate and play with it almost like clay. Maybe later I would get better at lifting it up, but for now, I was a bit more limited. Thankfully, it was enough for our purposes. 

With a grunt of effort, I shoved one hand down and the other to the side. With those motions, I used that stolen power to push the concrete below the door down, and the concrete to one side of it to the right, out of the way. It took some effort, given how thick and strong the concrete happened to be, and how new to using this power I was. But the cement finally moved, and the door started to fall with those two sides no longer holding it up. 

But Twister was there, already having shifted into a gorilla form. She caught the door before it could fall and alert the guy inside, shoving it out of the way to lean against the guardian statue. 

Now we had our opening, and we didn’t waste any time. Hoping that Kohaku was doing okay, I went through the entrance first. 

There was very little immediately in-view. The room beyond the door was circular, with a few consoles along the rounded walls, and a set of stairs that spiraled upward higher into the lighthouse. We could hear the television that the Heretic guard was watching, so none of us spoke just yet. Instead, I raised my hand to point at the consoles while looking toward Avalon. Unfortunately, she took a quick glance that way before shaking her head. Those wouldn’t do. We had to get up into the main control room. Of course, I knew it couldn’t be that easy. But I’d had to at least check. 

While I was reacting to her response, Avalon tugged out a small gray stone identical to the one Kohaku was using outside to create that dome of silence. As soon as she activated it, our friend upstairs wouldn’t be able to summon help or warn anyone either. 

Rather than move directly to the stairs, I tilted my head to look up at the ceiling. At the same time, I summoned Seth, Grover, and several other ghosts who were still with me. They’d all agreed to come on this trip and help out, so I silently let them know what I wanted. The assembled group of incorporeal figures looked at one another, noded, then flew up through the ceiling. They were on their way to burst out through the floor to attack the Heretic there. Not that I or any of them expected a few ghosts to be able to win against him, but they would serve as a pretty good distraction while we made our way upstairs. I just hoped they lasted long enough. 

Grover went last, catching the activated stone as Avalon tossed it to him. He flew up the stairs to get it within range of the man up there from the moment the other ghosts ambushed him. 

Silently wishing them luck, I held a hand out toward Twister. She shifted into a tiny mouse once more, landing on my palm before running up to my shoulder. Giving Avalon a quick glance and thumbs up, I ran to the base of the stairs and then jumped. Rather than run up the steps, I used the rocket burst power I had also inherited from the Heretic woman. The flames that came out of my feet and the middle of my back weren’t actually hot. As far as I could tell, they didn’t really do any damage or anything. They were just a visual effect, showing where the kinetic force was pushing outward to shove me in the opposite direction. 

I couldn’t fly with them, unfortunately. I could get a pretty good lift off and use the power as what amounted to a rocket jump to get myself maybe thirty feet into the air before coming back down. And that was it without using my Seosten boost or added lift from my staff. With both of those, I could get even higher and further. Beyond that, the rocket burst could act as what amounted to a hover power, keeping me a few feet off the ground while moving me forward (or in other directions if I shifted where the ‘flames’ were emerging). 

I could use the rocket burst on the ground for about twenty seconds at a time before it needed to recharge. Which, with the added Seosten boost and the speed-up rings that I placed in front of me on the way, was more than enough time. I was a blur as I hover-rocketed up the stairs. Without the werewolf-enhanced reflexes combined with what the Seosten boost also gave me, I probably would have slammed right into the curved wall almost immediately. But I managed to keep going around every bend, even as Twister the mouse shoved herself inside my shirt and clung for dear life. 

I also hadn’t left Avalon very far behind. She was using the power she’d picked up awhile back to copy versions of other people’s powers in order to use the same rocket burst, and was right behind me. The two of us rocketed up the spiraling stairs, past several other floors where various unimportant rooms were. What we wanted was the very top floor, where the light would have been if this was an actual lighthouse. 

On the way, I could sense my ghosts having problems of their own. A couple of them had already been disintegrated. Not that it was permanent or anything. The magic holding their ‘bodies’ together was simply dispersed and it would take some time and effort to pull them back together. Still, I felt a pang of guilt about sending them up to get hurt like that, even if they had volunteered. I was going to have to do something nice for the ghosts for helping out so much on this trip. Even Grover, who wasn’t fighting but was floating just close enough to keep the communication-blocking spell up. 

Still, there were a few left in the actual fight, including Seth. Unsurprisingly, the dead vampire seemed to be doing the best against that Heretic. He had, after all, been the Wonderland Tiebreaker for a reason. If he had still been in his vampire form, he might even have stood more of a chance. Might have. But as it was, in this ghost body, the best he could hope to do was hold out and keep the man’s attention a little bit longer. 

Thankfully, it was long enough. I heard the Heretic cursing and threatening my ghosts just ahead of us as we reached the top of the stairs. Then we were in a wide-open circular room, much like the one at the bottom of the stairs. But this one had a lot more consoles around it, along with a central machine right in the middle that was clearly the base of the radio-like antennae. 

The Heretic was immediately visible as well. He had his back to us (I was going to assume that Seth was responsible for that), and seemed fairly unassuming in appearance. He wasn’t that big, standing only a few inches taller than me, with short blond hair and a wiry build. He wore a pair of dark cargo pants and a white muscle shirt. 

Oh, and he was holding a spear with an energy blade at the end, which he was busy driving into another of my ghosts, shattering him into ectoplasm-like stuff that quickly disintegrated. Which seemed to leave Seth as the only one left (aside from Grover out in the stairwell), having just spun out of the way from the back-handed blow that the Heretic followed up with after skewering the other ghost. 

The man instantly reacted to our arrival, sending a burst of what was clearly incredibly dangerous fire flying backward at us. But Avalon and I were ready, diving to either side as our rocket-burst wore off. The flames filled the air between us, sending a wave of almost nauseating heat over my body. Yeah, not a good idea to be hit by that. 

Avalon was already rising after that dive, pulling herself up with the help of the nearby console. Even as she rose, I could see the spot where she had stuck her device. It was out of sight from where the Heretic was standing, and already silently doing its job. 

Speaking of the Heretic, he had moved to the center of the room, his eyes darting between Avalon and me while he held his energy-bladed spear toward Seth. “Ah, traitors through and through, I should’ve known. You won’t be getting out of this alive.” 

“We’ll see,” I replied flatly, trying to keep the nerves out of my voice. Three minutes. We had to keep this guy busy for three minutes so Avalon’s device could do its thing. 

If we failed, the Eden’s Garden people would be able to summon reinforcements. And then this whole rescue mission would be over. 

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By Blood 17-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The noncanon chapter for Heretical Edge was posted over the weekend and is now available for everyone to read right here

The evil-looking forest didn’t get any better when we were inside it. Actually, I was pretty sure it got worse the deeper in we went. The place really was like something out of a horrifying fairy tale, of the Grimm Brothers variety. We had yet to see or sense any animals or anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching us. Even though Tangle and Kohaku both insisted that they couldn’t feel anyone or anything and none of their warning spells were going off, it still felt like there were eyes on us. Twister even turned into an owl and took a quick flight around, but couldn’t see or hear anything. But she did agree that it felt creepy. 

In any case, creepy or not, we had a schedule to keep. And a long hike to get through. The only way we had felt safe making that portal jump was by doing so far enough from the prison that it was going to take hours for us to walk that way. Any closer and we would have run too much of a risk of detection. 

So, eyes, ears, and other senses peeled for anything more substantial than just a creepy feeling, the seven of us kept moving. The rest of the group was waiting for us to take down those scanners and the communication tower, and we couldn’t let them down. This was too important. Asenath and Gordon were counting on us to have the next step ready so they could rescue their fathers. And I’d be damned if I was going to let feeling uneasy about this forest screw that up. 

There were ways we could have moved faster, of course. But we were leaning heavily on the ‘don’t be detected’ side of things. So most of the magic that Kohaku and Tangle could use was focused on shielding us. Which meant we were sticking to some good old-fashioned hiking. 

Of course, the forest being uninhabited and hours away from the prison meant that there wasn’t really a path. We just had to stay together and work our way through the thick trees while doing our best not to end up tripping over raised roots or falling in any holes. And there were plenty of both. To say nothing of all the sharp thorns. 

All in all, it was pretty far from a walk in the park. As I hopped over a deep ditch full of what looked like long vines with dagger-sized spikes sticking out of them, my attention turned toward Sands, who was hopping over right beside me. “Not exactly what you signed up for?” 

Snorting, she reached back to catch her sister’s hand, helping her across before looking toward me. “Let’s just say that if I could tell the me from before last year what I was doing, she’d think I’d completely lost my mind. Our mind. Whatever. Or she’d think I was possessed by a body snatcher, which is pretty ironic when you think about it.” 

With a small smile, Sarah spoke up. “But we have Mom back.” 

The words made Sands brighten, even as we turned to keep walking with everyone else. “Yeah,  We have Mom back. And we’re not on the wrong side of all this, that’s a plus too.” Her eyes turned it to me once more as she quietly added, “I would not want to be on your bad side. Or the bad side of your mother. But can you imagine if we weren’t friends? If–” Her face twisted a little. “Never mind, that sucks to think about.” 

“Aww.” Reaching back, I caught her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry, I like having you as a friend better than an enemy too. I wouldn’t want to take that mace to the face, lemme tell you that much. And having Sarah shooting at me from all directions outside of training was bad enough just the one time.” Even saying that made my face twist a little. That was when Ammon had told everyone in the dorm to hurt me that one night. That… yeah, I shouldn’t have brought it up. 

From the look on her face, Sarah didn’t like to think about that time either. She took a deep breath before pushing a branch out of the way for Sands and me to move past. When she spoke, her voice was troubled. “It could have gone the other way really easy.” Stepping past the branch and letting it go, she added, “Which side we were on, I mean.” 

Sands grimaced. “Tell me about it.” She ducked under a much larger branch that was in our way, glancing to the rest of the group before turning her attention back to me. “When you first started bringing up the whole Strangers aren’t all evil thing, I…” She hesitated before admitting, “ I almost didn’t react very well. I mean, I know I didn’t react very well as it was. But I almost did something really stupid. I was almost…” She sighed. 

“You almost talked to your dad about it,” I finished for her. “Trust me, I get that. I know how hard it was not to–okay no I don’t. I’m not going to try to say I know how hard it was not to talk to your dad about that, because I’ve never been in that exact situation. But… but I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re both here.” 

Taking her sister’s hand, Sarah nodded. “We are too. Even if we have to go on long, boring hikes.” 

“The long, boring hike is the easy part.” That was Tangle, speaking up from about ten feet off and a bit ahead of us. “Don’t forget, once we actually get to this place, things get a bit more dangerous.” 

“And that’s if we’re lucky,” Kohaku pointed out from behind us where she was keeping an eye on the rear of the group. “If we’re not and they realize they have company, things will get dangerous and exciting.” 

“Let’s try to make it take as long as possible for things to get dangerous and exciting,” Avalon put in from just behind Tangle. The two of them had been having their own quiet conversation through most of this hike. From what I have been able to pick up, they were talking about their whole family situation, given they were distantly related. Which was definitely a thing. I was pretty sure they hadn’t talked very much about that before now, but it wasn’t like there was much else to do while we were stuck walking through this forest. 

Besides, I was glad Avalon was actually talking to her. Tangle and Dries were the only two blood relatives she had, as far as we knew. And the woman who had become her mother, Gaia, was still locked up. Given how worried she was about the woman, she deserved to be able to talk to what other parts of her family she still had access to. 

Yeah, Gaia was a whole other situation we needed to deal with. I hadn’t expected it to take this long to find and rescue the headmistress, and I was pretty sure Avalon hadn’t either. I knew she got more worried about her the longer she was kept prisoner, and I couldn’t help but think about my mother’s imprisonment. Not with Fossor, but with Crossroads. She had been held prisoner by the loyalists for… decades without being rescued. That wouldn’t happen to Gaia, right? We would find and save her quicker than that. 

Of course, the whole idea of this war going on for decades made my stomach twist itself in knots. I can’t even fathom something like that. And yet, it was possible. More than possible. It was not completely out of the question that we would still be in a stalemate two decades from now, or three, or even more. I had to start thinking about all of this in much longer terms. After all, the Fomorian-Seosten war had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Sariel, Athena, and the others had been alive for thousands of years themselves. My mother started this war around 1920-ish. Even with a break of a few decades, it had been going on for a long time. 

The point was, expecting to be done with it anytime soon was really dumb. We would be doing this sort of thing for a long time. Gaia being held prisoner for a few months was probably nothing in the grand scheme of things. But telling myself that didn’t really make me feel any better when I saw how much her absence hurt Avalon.

Still, right now we couldn’t focus on Gaia. We had to work on one rescue at a time. Or, well, two in this case. One rescue location at a time. The time to save Gaia would come eventually. For now, we had this one to deal with, and I couldn’t let myself get too distracted. That strange feeling of being watched was still making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And yet, a glance over my shoulder toward Kohaku was met with a slight headshake. She knew why I was looking that way, and still didn’t sense anything wrong. 

Somehow, that still didn’t put me at ease. Maybe it really was nothing. I certainly couldn’t think of any reason why none of our powers or magic had been able to detect any actual observers. Given the situation we were in, my mind playing tricks on me was certainly understandable. And yet… yeah. I didn’t like any of this. The worst part was that I had no idea if I was anxious for a real reason (beyond the obvious), or if the whole situation was just making me really jumpy. 

Still, I shoved those thoughts out of my mind and did my best to focus on walking and paying attention. I didn’t want to give into my paranoia, but staying aware of things was just common sense. So, hiking onward with my senses straining to pick up even a hint of a problem, I went back to quietly talking to the twins.  

Because Tangle and Kohaku were right, we should probably enjoy this quiet part for as long as we could. Creepy though it might be, this was still a peaceful hike through the forest. The dangerous part, where we had to sneak around the prison and take out their communications and scanners without getting caught would come soon enough. And it would rapidly be followed by the loud, violent part. 

So yeah, for the time being, I was going to enjoy the hike. And hope that if there really was something watching us with ill-intent, it would have the common courtesy to attack long before we reached the prison so that we didn’t have to deal with it and the Eden’s Garden Heretics at the same time. 

******

Well, if there was something watching us, it didn’t cause any problems throughout the rest of the hike to the prison. And yes, it did obviously occur to us that it could be some sort of security system letting the guards at the prison themselves know we were coming. But Kohaku and Tangle insisted that they weren’t getting that impression. They weren’t sensing any communication going anywhere and while they did agree that there was a strange sensation all around us, it didn’t feel malevolent or dangerous. Just… watchful. It was sort of like the feeling one would get when someone was staring at them from behind with curiosity rather than anger. 

In any case, we stayed on guard, and would be approaching the facility even more carefully than we already would have (which itself was pretty carefully). If there was something wrong, we would deal with it as best as we could when the time came. But for the moment, there wasn’t a lot we could do with ‘strange feeling.’ It wasn’t like we could call the whole mission off. We had to press forward and handle whatever happened. 

Finally, after several hours of hiking, we were approaching the edge of the prison complex security grid. It was still a good long distance from the prison itself, since the people inside wanted ample warning of anyone or anything approaching. Not to mention wanting to be able to track prisoners who got away from them. So, the initial alarm and monitoring spells were set up almost a mile away from the main fence. 

We stopped our march well-away from the spells, still hidden by the dense forest around us. The monitoring spells were obviously invisible. It wasn’t like we suddenly saw a dome or wall of energy telling us where not to go. At least, I didn’t. But apparently Kohaku and Tangle both had the sort of power needed to do just that. The two of them focused on the space between two trees just ahead of us, and began quietly murmuring to one another. They were both listing off the various bits of magic they could detect, comparing notes in case one of them missed something. The names and words they were using didn’t mean anything to me–okay that wasn’t true. I had been doing this stuff for long enough that I could follow some of it. But they were very obviously far more experienced and were using a sort of shorthand that left me completely clueless. And a glance toward the others showed that they were in much the same boat. Suffice to say, I was glad that we had them here with us. Otherwise, this would have been a pretty short rescue mission. Or at least, it would’ve turned into an open fight a lot more quickly. 

The rest of us stayed quiet while the other two began to work their way through carefully disabling the warning spells. It took almost an hour, but we weren’t going to complain. Better to sit here and quietly watch them work than end up alerting all of the guards inside that we were here. Patience was the name of the game. Taking the guards inside completely by surprise was the best chance we had at getting to the prisoners safely. If we could sneak in there and take down their communications tower, making it much harder for them to call in help (especially from their Victor), this whole thing would be a hell of a lot more doable. 

Eventually, they had done all they could. The actual alert spells had been disabled, which meant I could do my part without setting off any alarms. Or, to be completely accurate, my ghosts could do their part. I summoned Grover and Seth, both of whom had made it clear they wanted to be involved in this rescue mission. Grover because he was bored and wanted something interesting to do, and Seth because Tiras was important to him too. After all, he had been the one to save Seth’s life and turn him into a vampire in the first place, back during the American Revolutionary War. He was practically as much a father to Seth as he was to Asenath. 

With the alert spells down, the two ghosts were able to get through the actual forcefield parts of the shield to where the main sources of those shield spells were. It was very similar to the situation back at the Auberge, when I had sent Seth in to break the forcefield source so we could get to where Kushiel and Denny had been. Except in this case, we had to break two different spells in separate locations at the same time. It wouldn’t drop the entire shield, just this portion of it. Hopefully not enough to draw immediate attention, thanks to the work that Tangle and Kohaku had done. 

Once Seth and Grover were in position, I had them wait for the moment, looking over at the two teachers as I waited for them to give the go-ahead. They were straining their senses and magic to see beyond the barrier, checking for anyone who was paying too much attention our way. There were roving guards, and we wanted to wait until the nearest set had passed to give ourselves the most amount of time to get inside and do what we needed to do before they came back around. 

Finally, I saw Kohauku raise her hand while looking at me. She counted down from five, lowering a finger each time before finally making a fist. As soon as she did, I sent the impulse for Seth and Grover to do their thing while giving them enough power to become solid. Instantly, the two of them broke the part of the runes that had been carved into their respective trees, bringing down almost all of the shields that had been keeping the rest of us out.  

Almost all of the shields. There was still a single, emergency one left whose power wasn’t easy to get at. It was projected all the way from inside the prison complex. But, of course, we had plans for that too. Specifically, Seth’s anti-magic knife. Avalon already had it in hand as she cautiously approached that spot, flanked by Twister on one side and me on the other. The three of us got close enough for Valley to drive the knife into the very slightly glimmering spot in the air where the last barrier spell was. She drew the blade up and around, then down, cutting an opening into the shield. 

It was done. After all that work, we had our way through the ‘fence’ of protective spells. And, at least as far as we could tell, the guards had no idea we were here. Everything seemed quiet and normal from their side. Still, we had to keep our eyes open. It would be way too easy to get ahead of ourselves and screw this up. This was probably the most dangerous part of our part of the mission, aside from the actual fight. 

Now we were going to split up. Tangle was going with Sands and Sarah to do something about the scanners that would identify the fact that the people in the truck weren’t supposed to be there. Meanwhile, Twister, Avalon, and I were going with Kohaku to take down the communications tower. Or at least, get it set to go down. The moment the fighting broke out, we wanted to be able to shut off their contact with the outside world. Or outside worlds. 

To that end, we all exchanged good luck wishes and embraces. Then our groups split apart. Ours went north from the entrance we had made while Tangle and the twins headed south. Not that we could actually see anything yet. As far as I could tell, we were still just in the middle of a creepy forest. But Kohaku assured me that the prison was less than a mile to the west.

Now more than ever we had to be as quiet and careful as possible. So she was using several active camouflage spells to stop anyone from noticing our group unless they were basically right on top of us. 

We didn’t talk on our way to the tower. We could have, given the privacy and protection spells that we had around us, but it didn’t feel right. So, we marched in silence. Well, most of us did. Twister turned into a tiny mouse and perched on my shoulder, her ears and nose constantly twitching and turning in all directions while Avalon and I walked side by side with Kohaku ahead of us. 

Eventually, the Asian woman stopped and beckoned for us to get closer. Avalon and I exchanged silent looks before walking that way, moving up beside Kohaku. And from there, I could finally see our target. 

The prison was essentially built into the side of a low mountain. A large chunk of that mountain had been hollowed out, with the entrance to the prison and main courtyard taking up the open valley in front of it, while the buildings and actual mining operation were inside the mountain itself, leading deep underground. We were standing at the edge of the forest roughly halfway up that hillside, with the open courtyard and just a bit of the interior prison complex visible below. I could see a tall, visible forcefield wall surrounding the outer edge of the valley in a semicircle. Various magical traps filled the area in front of that wall leading out to the thick trees beyond. 

Once you got past the forcefield, there was a twenty-foot dirt space all the way around before you hit a solid steel wall, about fifteen feet high and covered by automated weapon turrets every few feet. Beyond that was another twenty-foot space filled with more magical traps set to go off, before a second fifteen foot high metal wall. That one had its own automated turrets, but also had several guard towers along it. Guard towers with actual Heretics in them. So we had to stay as far away from them as possible until we were ready for a fight. 

Beyond the guard towers was the actual open courtyard of the prison, where I could see several long, low buildings that looked like they were portable and able to be packed up and moved easily. There were a half dozen of them all along the eastern side almost directly below us, which looked like administration and guard quarters. Meanwhile, on the far western side away from us was a larger building with its own protective forcefield. The armory. A handful of prisoners in bright neon red clothes that would be easy to see in the forest were moving between buildings, escorted by watchful guards. But most of the prisoners would be inside the hollowed out mountain area that we couldn’t see much of yet. 

Once we had taken all that in, Kohaku touched Avalon and me on the shoulder before pointing upward. The communication tower was at the top of the mountain, its antennae visible sticking out just above the trees. That was where we had to go. 

Glancing back down, I focused on a relatively innocuous-looking building near the edge of the second interior wall. It was only about thirty feet wide and two stories tall, with what looked like a radar dish angled downward into the facility. That was where the scanner system was, which meant it was where Tangle and the twins were going. 

“Good luck, guys,” I murmured under my breath. 

Then I turned and started to hike up the mountain. Hopefully they would be able to do their part. But for now, it was time for us to do ours. In about twenty minutes, this whole rescue operation would shift into the next phase. 

I just hoped our luck would last through the end. 

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By Blood 17-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next several days felt increasingly odd, to say the least. Not because there was anything specifically wrong, but because there was basically nothing to do. Nothing important, anyway. Our days basically consisted of using the truck to make a single jump in the morning to the next moon or asteroid that was used as a recharge point, and then waiting around twenty-four hours until the truck was ready for the next jump. Of course, we could have used extra power to recharge the jump system faster. But the people at the prison camp knew how long the trip was supposed to take. Plus they had a system showing them when each recharge point was used. If we suddenly started coming much faster or making longer jumps, they would know that something was going on. And the last thing we wanted to do was give them a reason to call in for help or be on guard when we got there. We needed them to be as bored and convinced that this was a routine trip as possible. 

So, we did it the slow way, and spent hours just sort of hanging out and talking, playing games, or training. A lot of training, especially whenever Avalon got to choose. She made sure we trained as much as we could in the various alien environments we ended up waiting around in. There was one small moon that had this greenish-gray stuff all over its surface that alternated between being very sticky or slippery seemingly at random. Avalon had a field day getting me and the rest of the people our age (Shiori, Columbus, Sarah, Sands, Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon) to run exercises and drills across that stuff. Hell, it was even a good way of testing that rocket-burst power that the Eden’s Garden Heretic I killed back at the truck station had had, the one that projected flames from her feet and back to launch herself forward. And I wasn’t just limited to boosting myself that way. I could use the power on anything I was holding to make it swing faster and harder than I was capable of swinging it by myself. That was one of several new ones I’d picked up from her. I’d gotten a list from Tabbris when she did a partial recall to touch base with me, and used some of the downtime to practice with them a bit. Suffice to say, I would have a couple new tricks up my sleeve when the time came. 

In any case, as far as training on that weird surface went, Asenath and Twister played along too. They even got Bobbi to run some drills with us. Jiao didn’t participate with either our training or the other adults when they tried it out, but she watched all of us with quiet interest. 

In any case, Avalon really liked that stuff, even though we could never figure out exactly what made it shift from sticky to slippery or if there was any sort of pattern. She even managed to convince Deveron to dig up some of it and put it away in a sealed extra-space container so we could use it later. I’m pretty sure she was hoping to find a way to duplicate it so she could put the stuff in a real training room or even a combat arena. It was cute watching her be so excited about it. She got all science-technical about figuring it out. 

We trained, we watched movies on the televisions they had set up in the truck, played some card games, told stories (though that one was mostly us listening to stories the older people told), and in general just did whatever we could to kill time. At least the others were able to sleep more. I, of course, was awake through ninety percent of the day. Or rather, what would be the day on the planet we were heading toward. The relative time at each base didn’t really matter much. The point was, we slept during the prison’s daytime to stay on Asenath and Jiao’s schedules, and because we wanted to hit the camp in the middle of the night. But thankfully all of the adults in the group, including Deveron, Seamus and Roger Dornan, Klassin Roe, Professors Kohaku and Tangle, and Tribald Kine, had enough stamina powers of their own that they barely needed sleep either. Actually, in Kohaku’s case, I was pretty sure she didn’t sleep at all. Not even for a few minutes. I’d never seen it, anyway. So, I basically sat around with them and listened to the stories they told. It meant that I heard a lot about the first rebellion from Mom’s old teammates, and a good bit about Mom herself. Especially about when she was a student. Klassin talked about when he had still been Jonathan Ruthers, the spoiled, entitled asshole son of the one and only Gabriel Ruthers. He and Mom had really not gotten along, to the point of her punching him. Which is probably what initially led to then-Headmaster Ruthers not liking my mother very much. At least the first thing.  

I spent the week hearing all sorts of stories about all that and more. It was fun. It was… different. And yet it still didn’t detract from the utterly strange feeling that came with the fact that there was nothing important to do aside from wait to get there. We were, with any luck, going to take these prison guards by surprise. It just meant taking this long, boring, careful route to do it. 

Maybe the issue was that I felt like I had been on the opposite side of this situation. Not being a prison guard watching over a bunch of slaves doing hard labor, of course. But doing normal things while other people plotted sneak attacks against me and the people I cared about. I had been in the position these guards were about to be in, being hit by surprise in an area that was supposed to be safe. Maybe that was what made me feel odd about it. 

But then again, these people were guarding slaves, so maybe I wouldn’t spend too much time comparing myself to them. Aside from hoping that they wouldn’t be nearly as lucky as we had been when it came to reacting to being taken by surprise, of course.

The week seemed to be magical in and of itself, because it passed simultaneously agonizingly slowly and blindingly quickly. I had absolutely no idea how it could manage something like that, what sort of time magic was involved in twisting reality that way, but there it was. It took entirely too long for that single blink of an eye to pass, or something. The quick eternal week was gone before I even knew what was happening and after I spent what felt like months silently pleading for it to be over. Yes, those were utterly opposing concepts, and yet…

To be completely accurate, we weren’t at the prison camp yet. We were at the last jump point before we would get there. The jump points themselves mostly amounted to wide garages just large enough to accommodate the truck, with what looked like enormous silos to one side. There were storage rooms full of food and drinks that were kept stocked by a different truck that went through every once in awhile. None of them had living guards, but there was some sort of alarm system that was supposed to summon reinforcements to protect the station if anything happened to it. The biggest defense they had was basically being in the middle of nowhere in deep space. The odds of anyone accidentally tripping over them were literally astronomically low. And apparently there were sensors set up to detect anyone approaching them aside from those on the approved list. Like the truck we were using, for example. 

So, we were at the last station before the prison. We were all out of the truck at the moment and had been walking around the open garage area stretching our legs a bit. I was watching Shiori and Asenath talking a short distance away, when I felt Professor Kohaku approach me from behind. 

“Are you ready for this, Felicity?” the Asian woman asked, stopping a few feet back. 

Turning that way, I offered her a somewhat weak smile. “You mean am I ready for our extra little field trip? Boy, I sure hope so. Otherwise, this is gonna be a pretty short and disappointing rescue mission. Okay, it’s already not short.” Shrugging, I added, “I think I’m ready. I mean, we’re not gonna get another chance at taking these guys by surprise, so we’ve gotta do this.” 

The ‘extra little field trip’ I was referring to was an advanced jump that I and several others needed to do. The prison may have been expecting our truck, but it also had special scanners that would have detected that the wrong people were driving it. Our forward scouting group had the fun job of sneaking in ahead of time and disabling both those scanners (in a way that wouldn’t instantly alert everyone in the camp), and the communications tower. We were pretty sure that they would eventually find a way to call for help anyway, but taking out the tower would make that a lot harder and give us time to operate. And then, assuming we pulled that off without setting off a bunch of alarms and warning everyone there, we would be ready to hit the prison from a second angle the moment everyone who arrived in the truck did their thing. 

Kohaku, who was one of the people who would be going in with me (though to be entirely accurate, I was one of the people going with her), chuckled softly. “I suppose you are right about that. We don’t have much in the way of do-overs. A lot of power between all of us, yet nothing like that. Still, you have been through much worse with less. As long as we are careful, stick to the plan, and don’t… rush things, I believe we will make it through. And we will leave there with the prisoners.” A faint smile touched her face before she added, “I believe there are a few who are more nervous about this rescue than you.” As she said that, the woman was already turning to look in the direction of Shiori and Asenath, before her gaze shifted to the front of the truck where Gordon was standing by himself. 

“Yeah, getting the prisoners out of that place would definitely be nice,” I agreed. “And you’re right, they are more nervous than me. They’ve got a lot more to lose.” Once again, the thought of being like Senny and losing one of my parents for hundreds of years flashed through my mind. It made me shudder a bit. We had to find her dad, and Gordon’s dad, in that place. They had both waited more than long enough. 

Before Kohaku could say anything else, we were joined by Professor Tangle, along with Sarah and Sands. The five of us, along with Twister and Avalon, would be the forward scouting group responsible for dealing with that communications tower and the scanners that would alert the people inside the prison that we weren’t on the up and up. Asenath and Gordon both wanted to be included in that group, of course. As did Jiao. And they all would have been useful. But both Kohaku and Deveron, as the leaders of this expedition, had decided that they should stay with the main group. With their missing loved ones so close at that point, there was some fear that their judgment might be a bit impaired. Which was a point that none of them could really argue too much against, considering how important this was to them. 

Besides, they wouldn’t get to the prisoners any quicker by going with the scouting group then they would by staying here. They might be physically closer, but they wouldn’t be able to actually get to their fathers until the main assault happened anyway. Being that close and still having to wait would probably be worse than if they were back with the truck. Probably. 

“So,” Sands started, “Are we ready to head out there and play Neunrei or what?” 

Blinking at her, I held up a finger. “Uh. I think we’re ready to do something, but I’m not sure if Noon Ray is the right term for it. Actually I’m not even sure what that means. It’s definitely not noon. Or I mean, it won’t be when we go there. At least if we’ve worked out the planning on that right. I think it’s supposed to be barely–” 

Sands and Sarah were both snickering. The latter spoke up quietly. “Not Noon Ray. Neunrei.” She spelled it for me, making it clear it was one word. 

“Alexis Neunrei was a Heretic,” Tangle informed me. “He was known for being very sneaky and laying traps, for sabotaging enemy defenses. He designed some of the trap spells that we still use today. Like the one Crossroads has around the Pathmaker.” The black woman, who was in much better shape these days than when I’d first met her (once she was conscious), nodded toward the twins. “Some of the kids call it ‘playing Neunrei’ when they run around in the forest laying traps and ambushes for each other. I believe the Bystanders call it ‘going commando.’ 

My eyes widened and I quickly blurted, “Playing commando. Playing commando. Not going–just–” Coughing, I shook my head. “Just trust me, stick with playing commando.” 

The others were giving me weird looks, but before they could say anything, Twister darted over in rabbit form before shifting back to her normal self. Which meant she had that long fluffy tail that a part of me still wanted to pet, even without Tabbris’s influence. Her voice was cheerful. “So, is the Cool Kids Club ready to head out?” She paused, considering. “We need a better name than that. I’ll workshop a few and get back to you.” 

“I’m pretty sure we’re the Neunreis,” I informed her primly before looking back to the others while she was busy trying to figure that out. “And yeah, I think we’re about ready. Right, guys?” 

With a murmur of agreement, Kohaku looked over toward where Deveron was talking to Tribald Kine. She must have been using some sort of silent communication, because he immediately held a hand up to stop the other man before looking over at her. They looked at one another for a few seconds, clearly having a silent discussion. Then he nodded and whistled loudly to get everyone’s attention. Once he had that, his finger twirled in a circle over his head, as he called for everyone to gather up. It was time to go over the whole plan one more time. Then the others could wish our little group luck before we headed out. 

As everyone was gathering, Asenath caught my arm and stepped back a bit. Her voice was soft. “I know I said this before, but thank you, Flick. You know, for… well everything. I guess what I should really thank you for is listening to me that first night.” 

“If you hadn’t been there, my father would be dead,” I pointed out. “And I… well, I don’t know what I’d be. I still don’t know what Ammon was hoping to accomplish there. But… but the point is, if I hadn’t listened to you, everything would be a lot worse for both of us. So let’s just be glad you were there and that I’m stubborn enough not to be totally indoctrinated after a month or so.” 

She chuckled, but I could tell that most of her attention wasn’t on what I was saying. She was focused on what was going to happen a few hours from now, on how close she was to finally seeing her father again.

“How’s your mom doing?” I asked, glancing over to the corner of the room, where the woman in question was standing by herself. Jiao was friendly enough to everyone, but she didn’t really participate in the group stuff very much. She just stayed out of the way and did her own thing. I was pretty sure she wasn’t accustomed to working with a group. 

Asenath glanced that way as well. Her mother didn’t react, but I felt confident she could hear what we were saying. “She wants to see him even more than I do. Which is saying a lot.” Those words came dryly as she gave me a brief look. “I’m not sure what I’m looking forward to more, just getting to see and touch him again, or getting answers about what the hell happened. Has he been locked up all this time? Did he go back to his homeworld? Did–” She cut herself off, head shaking while her lips pressed together tightly to contain herself. Finally, she finished with, “Let’s just say I have a lot of questions for him.” She glanced to her mother once more. “We both do.” 

“Well, don’t worry,” I informed the vampire girl while putting a hand on her shoulder. “Or, you know, do worry a little bit, because that’s healthy. I mean don’t worry too mu–never mind. We’ll handle it.” 

“She’s right,” Shiori agreed, moving up on Asenath’s other side while giving me a quick smile. “Flick’s here, your mom’s here, and I’m here. We’re gonna get your dad back.” 

They stepped away to join the group by Deveron, and I turned my attention to Gordon. The quiet boy was watching me with his arms folded. There was a grim expression on his face, but then again, that was normal. When our eyes met, he spoke flatly. “You remember the picture.” 

His father. He’d shown me a picture of his dad during the trip, so I would know what he looked like. Immediately, I nodded. “I’ll let you know if we see him, but we’re probably not going to get a look at the prisoners any faster than you do.” 

“I know,” he replied, shifting his weight very slowly from his left foot to his right. It was only that single motion, but as far as Gordon went, it was basically fidgeting. He was nervous, and if it was enough to make him visibly show it even that much, I knew it had to be pretty bad inside. 

If I had seen most people like that, I would have embraced them, or at least squeezed their hand, or… something. But Gordon wasn’t that sort of person. Even now that we knew why he didn’t like being touched, with the whole ice thing, it wasn’t like he had suddenly become physically open. It just wasn’t who he was. So, I gave him a thumbs up instead. “We’ll keep an eye out. If they’ve got the prisoners beyond the boundary for work, or whatever, we… if we see him, if I see him, we’ll make sure he’s safe. I promise.” 

For a few seconds, it looked like Gordon wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He very slowly moved his weight back from his right foot to his left before giving a single nod. “Thank you.”

“Hey,” I replied, “just be ready to come charging in with guns and ice giant powers blazing. We hit these guys hard and fast and get out with all their prisoners, right?” 

“Right,” he confirmed. I could see just a little bit of emotion behind his eyes with that word. He was as ready to get his father back as I had been to get my mother back. 

The two of us nodded one another, just as Deveron started to speak. Turning my attention that way, I stepped up beside the others. My stomach was already trying to twist itself into knots. Despite all the ridiculous situations and the amount of training I had been through already, to say nothing of all the planning we were putting into this, I was still nervous about the whole thing. I wanted my friends to get their dads back. I wanted to free all those prisoners. 

And in just a few short hours, I’d either get what I wanted, or we would end up in a hell of a lot of trouble.

******

A short time later, our little group emerged through the portal. A little group, in this case, consisting of Tangle, Kohaku, Sands, Sarah, Avalon, Twister and me. According to the adults, the portal was far enough away from the prison camp (and shielded enough) that we wouldn’t set off their alarms. One of the reasons we had to go in a smaller group right now was specifically because sending any more people through would have raised the risk of being detected. We were pushing it a little bit as it was. Which was another reason why we’d set the portal so far away. Avoiding much magic or power use, it would take hours for us to hike to where we needed to be. And that was assuming we didn’t run into too many problems along the way. 

We had a little bit of leeway, at least. Deveron’s main group wouldn’t make the last jump until we sent the signal that their communications and scanners were down. But they could only stall so long before the prison people would get suspicious. So we kinda had to keep moving. 

Still, we had a moment to get the lay of the land. In this case, that land was a deep orange color. The dirt, that was. We had arrived in what looked like a shallow crater from an impact of some kind. It was a good three hundred feet across, though only a couple feet deep. That orange dirt was basically a fine powder, almost like sand. Behind us to the west I could see a sheer cliff face leading up and up several miles. To the south (our right), there was a deep, somehow unnaturally blue river, wide enough to need a boat to cross normally. Straight ahead to the east was a steep dropoff. And to our left, north, a dark, foreboding forest of thirty foot tall dark black and gray trees, too-deep shadows, and probably about a bazillion things ready and waiting to kill and eat us.

Yeah, we were going into the evil-looking forest, naturally. 

“We’re here, and there’s no sign of any alert,” Kohaku finally announced after taking a few seconds to assess the situation. “Let’s move.” 

“Well, okay,” I replied a bit reluctantly while my gaze turned to that forest. I could swear the trees were suddenly grinning. “But I’m telling you guys this straight up.

“If we run into a gingerbread house, I am done.”  

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By Blood 17-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“I’ll give you this much, you make a much better teacher than you do a mentor.” 

After I spoke those words, Deveron looked up from the desk he was sitting at while raising an eyebrow. “I think I’ll take that as a compliment, even if that is a very low bar.” His face twisted into a slight grimace then before he added, “It’s vaguely possible that I should have gone a different route when it came to finding a way to avoid letting anyone at Crossroads know who I really was and what I was doing there.” He paused briefly to consider. “Then again, I do make a rather compelling lazy asshole.” 

“Like you were born for the job,” I shot back with a grin. 

It had been a couple of weeks since the arrival of the Olympus, and things had once more settled into something of a routine. At least, as much as a routine as they ever really got in this life. Puriel and the others were… well, not exactly settling in yet, but working on it. It was going to take a lot for most of the people around here to be at all comfortable with the man who had been Zeus being on the station, and probably even longer for him to be comfortable being around the rest of us. He was mostly keeping to himself, in the private apartments that he had been given to stay in. According to Tabbris, Sariel was spending a lot of time in there too, the two of them talking about… stuff. We weren’t sure exactly what was going on there, only that she was one of the few people he saw regularly beyond that Aletheia lady, Spark, the newly-dubbed Jehoel (formerly Omni), the rest of the Seosten children, and his own daughter, Theia. 

And my grandparents. I couldn’t forget about that. Any time that they didn’t spend with my dad and the rest of our family, they were with Puriel. Apparently they had gotten pretty close over the time that they had been  out there, which was just another layer of crazy for me. My grandparents were best friends with Hercules and pretty close to Zeus. I just–what was my life? 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, Deveron spoke up. “So you think I’m doing a passable job at this gig, huh? Better than the guy back at Crossroads?” His words were clearly teasing, and he was already rising from the desk while shuffling some papers together. 

I pretended to consider for a moment. “Well, the last guy was Sands’ and Sarah’s dad, sooo I’d say you’ve got a few legs up on him as far as personality goes. Don’t get me wrong, he was a pretty good English Lit teacher, really got us into some cool books. But there’s something about the way he completely betrayed you and my mom, and turned the whole rebellion into an open war that ended up killing probably thousands of people that just… I dunno, rubs me the wrong way. Maybe I’m overly-sensitive.”

Snorting audibly, Deveron shook his head. I saw a brief flash of the genuine anger he felt toward his old friend cross his face before he smothered it. “Yeah, I think he rubs me the wrong way too.” With that, he finished gathering those papers and gestured. “Your mom wanted me to make sure you eat something before we do this thing tonight. And you know she’ll ask, so let’s go. How’s your stomach? You nervous?” 

Shaking my head, I walked with him out of the classroom. “I mean, yes and no. If we’re lucky, we’re actually gonna find Senny’s dad, maybe even Gordon’s. That’s huge. And, you know, it’s dangerous, especially if we can’t get out of there before that Kyril Shamon guy shows up. Then it’ll get really bad. But I think we can do it. I think we can jump in there, deal with the guards, and get out with the prisoners. We’ve been doing that sort of thing all year, saving Alters from Loyalists. This is just… on one of their home turfs. But they have no idea we’re coming, and–” I cut myself off, grimacing. “Yeah, I keep going back and forth. But we’re ready for it. We planned it out, we’ve got the numbers, we’ve got–we’ve got this.” 

Deveron watched me briefly as we walked down the corridor, passing several other groups of people. He hesitated, clearly considering his next words before carefully asking, “Do you feel bad that your mother’s not going to be there after all?” 

Yeah, that was a thing. We had originally planned on Mom being part of this whole rescue. But a couple of days ago, a handful of very injured Alters had arrived and begged for her help. Their little haven in South America (Peru, specifically) was under assault by a group of Loyalist Eden’s Garden people, who were staging repeated attacks to weaken their defenses. Apparently some of the people there were old friends of Mom’s, people who had helped her back during the first war. She couldn’t abandon them. So she and Lillian Patters, Rebecca’s grandmother/Mom’s old roommate and best friend, had gone down there with a few others to help. Including Dare, who managed to get herself invited to help somehow without actually risking explaining just why she cared so much. 

In any case, Mom had hoped to have it taken care of by now, but it was taking too long. So she had asked Deveron to accompany us instead. Which really told me a lot about how much she trusted him, as if I didn’t already know. More to the point, I think it said a lot about how much she trusted me that she didn’t try to insist that I sit it out. 

It made sense, of course. I had been doing this stuff for quite a while before Mom was ever freed. Still, it meant a lot that she didn’t try to push the issue or protect me from everything. She trusted me to handle myself. Well, with Deveron for help, but still. I just hoped I was up to earning that trust. Which was probably a big part of why my confidence for this whole trip kept fluctuating. Was it weird that kept I thinking about how I didn’t want to disappoint my mother while going on this mission to literally save a bunch of slaves, including Senny’s dad? Just… strange priorities. 

Still, I hesitated only for a moment before shrugging. “Probably not as bad as she feels about not being there. But she’s doing important stuff too. It’s a umm, a big world, you know? Hell, where we’re going isn’t even on this world. I just mean, there’s a lot of people to take care of. Mom… they depend on her. Now that she’s back, she’s got a lot of… responsibilities.” Biting my lip briefly, I added, “All these people care about her too. And they need her.” 

Deveron’s hand settled on my shoulder, stopping me from walking. He met my gaze and gave a short nod. “You’re right, they do. That’s something I had to get used to a long time ago too. Sharing someone you love, someone as special as your mom, with the rest of the world isn’t the easiest thing. It hurts sometimes, and whenever you feel bad about it, that makes it worse. As if… as if you’re doing something wrong by being jealous, even if you don’t act on it. Even if you shove it down deep and try to ignore it. Even if it’s just a tiny little flicker of a feeling, you still feel like you did something wrong. Like you’re a horrible person for wanting her to be with you.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I put my own hand over his on my shoulder. “I guess that’s just the way it goes when you have someone as special as Mom. You have to share her. Other people need her too. I…” My throat closed up briefly before I swallowed hard. “I want to make her proud. I want her to know that she can leave us alone to take care of this other stuff and focus on the things she needs to do.” 

Deveron offered me a faint smile at that, his hand squeezing firmly. “Yeah. Well, then we’ll just have to do a good job with this thing. And like I said, part of that involves making sure you fuel up.” He pointed toward the nearby cafeteria. “So let’s get on with that. 

“Then we can meet up with everyone else, and get this show on the road.” 

*****

So, I ate food. It was pretty great, or at least I assumed it was. I wasn’t really tasting much of it. I needed it, but it was mostly just fifteen minutes of mechanical chewing and swallowing while my mind went over everything that we still needed to do, everything that we had planned. This wasn’t a fly-by-night operation by any means. Thanks to Childs and Fu Hao, we had the general layout of the camp we would be attacking. It wasn’t perfect, as there were parts they didn’t know about or didn’t have the full details of, and they couldn’t tell us the entire guard compliment or… certain other things. But it was something to work off of. We had that, and had spent these past couple weeks developing an actual plan beyond just ‘charge and pray.’ Sure, in the end, our overall goals were ‘run in, grab the prisoners, and get out again before the Victor comes to play,’ but we’d still put some more actual thought into it than that. 

That was another reason for Deveron to come along. We had made this plan thinking that Mom would be there, so he had to take her place. We needed someone the people there would recognize as a major figure in the old rebellion. And while Deveron wasn’t the huge leader that my mother was, he had definitely been prominent. After all, he was part of her original team and had been around from the very start. Anyone who knew the Rebellion knew that about Deveron. Well, now that the spell that had removed his identity from their minds had been undone by the spell that Gaia and I had done that brought back everyone’s memories of all that. I hadn’t been sure how that all worked, but according to Deveron himself, everyone else immediately remembered who he was and what he looked like as soon as we had done that. Just one of those side effects, apparently. Not that he minded, of course. By then, there had really been no point to keeping his true identity secret. 

So, Deveron was known, and we could use that to draw the attention of the guards out there. They would immediately recognize him and react. Which would give the rest of us a chance to get in there, deal with whatever guards were still left with the prisoners, and hopefully set things up to escape. 

Of course, we weren’t leaving Deveron alone to face everything he would be calling down on himself by playing distraction. Nor would he be the only distraction. Professors Tangle and Kohaku, along with Klassin Roe were going to be there too. And while Lillian wasn’t here, their other three teammates were. The cousins, Seamus and Roger Dornan, would be with Deveron while Tribald Kine came along with our group.  

Our group, which, beyond Tribald, consisted of myself, Shiori, Columbus, Avalon, Sarah, Sands, Jazz, Douglas, Gordon, Asenath, Twister, and Bobbi. Oh and Senny’s mother, Jiao. She was going along too, since she had something of a vested interest in rescuing her husband. Yeah, that obviously seemed like a lot of people. But we had no idea how much trouble we were going to run into there. And beyond that, there was the fact that the more people we had to get the prisoners together and ready to transport, the better. We needed to deal with guards in the way, take out any transport spell-blocking effects they had (and we knew there were some), and get the prisoners ready to go. 

So that was why we had so many going. Everyone in our group had their own jobs to do once we got past the initial push through whatever guards weren’t distracted by Deveron, Tangle, Kohaku, Roe, and the Dornans. Even if we were hoping the actual rescue part of this mission would be a quick in-and-out, it still required a lot of preparation and moving parts. And there were contingency plans just in case various things went wrong. 

Besides, before we could do the actual rescue part of the mission, we had to actually get to the prison. And that was… well, that was going to take awhile. 

In any case, we had drilled our way through the rescue part a few times and were… well, not exactly totally confident, but about as good as we could be. Things weren’t going to get any better, and if we waited much longer, Shamon might end up moving Tiras. Or Gordon’s father, if he was there. Besides, this was when that transport was supposed to be going there, and using the transport was incredibly important to our plans. No way did we want to wait to find another one. So even without Mom, even without having everything be perfect or having another week to run through drills, this was our time. We had to do it today. Or at least start it. The trip out to this colony world would take more than one day. We were going to have to hit the transport, get ourselves onboard, then settle in for a long journey. Yeah, we could have gotten there faster, but the transport the people there were expecting couldn’t (at least, not without expending a lot more power than they tended to), and we couldn’t give ourselves away that quickly. At least at first, we needed these prison people to think everything was totally normal. All their sensors and spells would tell them the transport was coming, and they had to think it was business as usual.

But first, we had to get the actual transport without letting them get a call off to warn anyone. This whole thing would completely fall apart if the people in the prison had any idea what was going on, or that anything was wrong. This first part might not have been as dangerous as the prison rescue itself, but we could still end up losing everything if we weren’t careful. 

“You nervous?” Jazz asked me, interrupting my thoughts as we were all milling around the portal room waiting to make the trip to intercept the supply transport. Everyone was talking in pairs or small groups, anxiousness showing even as we tried to distract one another and avoid dwelling too much on the what-ifs. 

“Me, nervous?” I tried to inject my voice with a casual air before coughing. “Yeah, I’d say I’m pretty nervous. How about you?” 

“Utterly fucking terrified,” Jazz cheerfully informed me. “Which is kind of weird, cuz we’ve done this sort of thing before, you know?” 

“Not like this,” I pointed out. “Raiding the private slave prison of one of the Eden’s Garden Victors on another colony world is a little different than a quick little in and out assault to protect some Alters somewhere here on Earth.” 

“Plus you’re nervous about helping Asenath’s dad,” Jazz pointed out before blanching a little. “Just like I’m nervous about finally finding Gordon’s.”

I nodded in agreement. “That too. I know how long Senny and Jiao have been trying to find him. I mean, I lost my mom around the same age they lost him, and I got her back like ten years later. Tiras has been missing for over two hundred years. They deserve to get him back, you know? Plus, like you said, Gordon needs his dad too. So this whole thing is super-important. To them, to Shiori, to me, to… everyone. But it’s also dangerous. There’s a lot that could go wrong.” 

“Sure is,” the other girl agreed. “But that’s part of why your little sister isn’t coming with us on the trip, isn’t it?” 

Yeah, Tabbris wasn’t going to be along for the ride. Not exactly. She was staying back here so that if anything went wrong, and our communications were cut off, she could still reach me and let the people back here know they needed to mount (another) rescue. It was one of our contingency plans. There had to be several of them because, well, again, a Victor’s prison colony on another planet. A hell of a lot of things could go wrong. We were trying to stay ahead of at least all the possibilities we could think of. It was impossible to plan for everything, but we were doing our best. 

“Sure,” I confirmed. “She… didn’t like the idea at first, but you know, it’s important. I think she thought we were just trying to keep her out of danger at first. But she understands. Besides, she deserves the chance to spend more time with her family. With the rest of her family,” I amended quietly. It had only been a couple weeks since Tabbris got her siblings back, after all. They needed to be together, that whole family. Bringing her along on this trip, which would take at least a week each direction, wouldn’t be fair. And I knew Tabbris felt torn between wanting to help me and not wanting to be away from her new siblings for that long. So, the whole ‘stay here and be ready to call in the cavalry if we need you’ was a good, valid reason to stop her from agonizing over making that decision. 

Besides, if I really needed her, she could always jump to me. 

Meanwhile, Persephone was staying back here too. She and the other Olympians around the station were working on a whole thing that had to do with the Seosten ghosts, their old crewmates. She had offered to come along, but I thought it was better that she spend time with them. She had spent so long not really being accepted by the crew of the Olympus that this chance to actually work with them was… it was important. Besides, I wanted her to know that she could be her own person with her own life, her own friends, her own… everything. She didn’t have to always be helping me or doing what I wanted her to do. 

By that point, Gordon had stepped over to join us. As always, the black boy’s face was serious and collected. But I had known the boy long enough that I could see through that. He was nervous, his eyes flicking around occasionally, while his mouth was pressed tight to stop himself from biting his lip. It was clearly all he could do to keep up appearances. And who could blame him? This was his dad we were talking about. Yeah, there was no guarantee that he was actually there, but this was undoubtedly the closest Gordon had ever gotten to finding him. 

Still, when he spoke, the boy managed to keep his voice about as flat as ever. “It’s almost time.” 

Meeting his gaze, I tentatively asked, “Think we’re ready for this?” 

He gave a single, short nod. “As ready as we’ll ever be without taking more time than we actually have.” There was a brief pause before he added, “Half of me wishes we had more time and the other half wishes it was over already.” 

I very nearly put a hand on his shoulder, but stopped myself. Gordon didn’t like to be touched.  So, instead I simply replied, “Yeah, don’t worry, I know what you mean. But no matter what happens with this, you’re gonna be closer to getting your dad back. Either he’ll be there, or someone there will know more about where he is. Even if we have to tear that whole place apart and ransack the brains of everyone there, we’ll find him.”  

Gordon looked at me in contemplative silence for a moment before replying, “I know you’re being encouraging. Thank you. But you know as well as I do that we don’t have a lot of time there. We need to get in and out before reinforcements show up. We don’t have the firepower to deal with the Victor himself.”  

“Yeah, we’ll have to work fast,” I agreed. “But we can do that. We’ve got the people, we’ve got surprise on our side, and we’re ready.” 

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Professor Kohaku announced from behind me as she and Klassin Roe approached. 

Her voice made everyone else look over and quiet down as well. Avalon came up to one side of me, and I could see Shiori meet my gaze from where she was standing next to Asenath, Bobbi, and the ghost of Seth. Yeah, he wasn’t going to be left out of this. 

“It’s time?” Gordon asked, his own voice filling the silence that had briefly settled over the room. 

Deveron, joining Kohaku and Klassin, confirmed, “Yeah, it’s time. We’re not gonna get a better chance than this. You all know your parts. You know where we’re going, how we’re hitting that transport, and how we’re gonna make sure they can’t call for help. We’ve been over it, you’re ready.

“So no more planning. No more training. Let’s load up and get out there.” 

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Interlude 15B – Senny And Denny (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You’re really a umm, a vampire? Like, a real vampire?” The question, tinged with nervousness mixed with genuine curiosity, came from the young girl who sat perched on a swing in the middle of the park in the artificial town where the Fusion School adult students lived. She was holding the chains of the swing tightly, slowly gliding back and forth on it while her eyes remained locked on the (much) older figure on the swing next to hers. 

“That’s right, Denny,” Asenath confirmed without looking that way. Her attention was on the artificial moon against the dark ceiling. “I was born in seventeen-ninety-five. Kinda crazy, isn’t it?” She asked that with a small smile, finally glancing over to the girl. 

Denny, in turn, flinched despite herself. “Everything about all of this is crazy. Are… are they really right about me? I mean, was I really older? I mean, not as old as you, but…” From the tone of her voice, it was clear that the girl knew it was true deep inside, but she needed to hear it from someone else. 

Asenath gave a short nod. “It’s true. Everything they told you is true, all of it. You were just a teenage girl minding your own business when you got dragged into this because that boy thought you would be a fun victim. It wasn’t your fault and you certainly didn’t do anything wrong. He was just… his father turned him into a monster, and he took it out on you. I’m sorry that happened. I’m sorry for everything that happened to you, and I’m sorry that you were alone for so long while you were trying to figure out what’s going on. You didn’t deserve any of that.” 

Turning away, Denny silently swung back and forth. The only sound was that of the creaking chains. Finally, after almost thirty seconds of near-silence, she spoke again. “That girl back at the gas station, Kalia, she didn’t deserve what happened to her dad either. And… and from what you guys said, that… umm, Ammon didn’t deserve to have his dad make him bad.” She sounded hesitant to even say that, but forced the words out. Her voice turned even softer. “Sometimes good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I think… I think it’s not about what anyone deserves. It’s just about what happens. Good and bad.” 

“You’re a smart… person,” Asenath replied after taking a moment to absorb that. “But I’m still sorry you had to try to deal with all that by yourself. Even the strongest, smartest people need to depend on others. You had no idea what was going on or what was happening to you, and you still handled it better than most would have. You didn’t hurt anyone. You helped those people at the bus station. And you saved the sword from Kushiel, even after she kept threatening you. You were smart enough to know that giving it to her would make things worse, and brave enough to lie right to her face. Even after dealing with… with everything else you’ve been dealing with. Even after you saw her kill those people. You still did the right thing.” 

“Brave?” Denny sounded doubtful. “I was so scared I almost threw up. I didn’t have a plan or anything. I didn’t know what to do. If she started killing people again, I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t do anything. I tried to use the voice thing, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t–I didn’t–” She cringed, hunching in on herself, voice almost inaudible. “I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t want to give her the sword. Because if I gave her the sword and she killed people with it, that would be my fault. I don’t want people to be hurt or die because of me. Because if I do… if people die because of something I do, I think that might make him stronger. He might win. He might take over.” She swallowed a hard lump in her throat, hoarsely adding, “I’m not brave. I’m terrified… of him. Of what he’ll make me do if I give him a chance.”

Shaking her head, Asenath slipped off the swing and stepped around to stand in front of the other girl. “That’s why you’re brave, Denny. Do you have any idea how many people would be curled in a ball in the corner, completely catatonic from seeing those memories and thoughts? That or they’d just give into him entirely. Going through everything you did and still keeping yourself from doing anything bad? Having bad thoughts doesn’t make you bad. Listen, I’m a… I’m a vampire. There are so many times when I look at someone, smell their blood, and I just want to give in. I want to taste them. I want to indulge. Even around people I like, sometimes it just… flares up. I used to think that made me a monster. But having those thoughts isn’t evil. You had no idea what was going on. No one explained anything to you. These memories and impulses just kept shoving their way into your head and you still resisted. You did everything you could. You helped those people. You had Ammon’s thoughts in the back of your head and you still saved them. Yes, you are incredibly brave. Braver and smarter than I think almost anyone in your position would have been. You are one incredible girl, and everyone is so lucky that you are.” 

There was a moment of silence. Even the creaking chain stopped as the girl put her feet down to stop the swing. She kept her gaze locked on the ground, staring intently at nothing as various thoughts worked their way through her mind. Finally, Denny exhaled and looked up. “I think the memories are what helped me. My memories, I mean. I… I remembered how scared I was when he… when he made that man hurt me. I remembered laying on the floor and trying to curl up so he wouldn’t kick my stomach so hard. But I couldn’t stop him. I–I remember shooting him. I remember how he looked. I remember going to the gas pump. I remember the taste of–I remember. I remember it.” She swallowed hard, a visible shudder running through her. “I remember being hurt and… and killed like that. And I never want to make anyone feel the way I did. I think that’s why I could… why I can resist him. I think remembering those things helped me not be a monster. I don’t want anyone to ever feel that scared, and that helpless.” The pain in her voice was raw as she stared at Asenath. 

Silently, Senny offered her hands to the girl. She waited until they were accepted, then pulled Denise to her feet. “I am so sorry for everything that happened to you, before and after your… death. Whatever your reasoning, you are still one of the bravest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.” Squeezing her hands, she added quietly, “Your mother never believed that you killed yourself, you know.” 

Blinking rapidly, Denny stared at her, voice tentative. “What do you mean?”  

Asenath, in turn, told the girl about being hired by her mother to find out the truth. “Everyone told her that you killed yourself, but she didn’t believe it. She hired me to find out the truth, to find out who was responsible. That’s how I got involved in this whole thing to begin with. Hell, I’d say that’s why I was there to help Felicity when he tried to hurt her. If your mother hadn’t called me, I never would have been trying to track him down. I never would have showed up at that house and been able to help stop him, save Flick from the people he was controlling, and stop her father from being forced to kill himself. I never would have been there if your mom hadn’t refused to give up on finding out the truth, if she hadn’t refused to believe what they told her.” 

Digesting all of that, Denise turned away and folded her arms tightly. She stared down at the swing she had just been sitting on, silently processing for several long seconds. Finally, she spoke in a quiet voice. “You’re saying I should go back and explain everything to her, to both of them. You think I should tell my parents what’s going on. But how?” She turned back, pivoting on one foot to stare imploringly at the older girl. “How am I supposed to tell them any of this stuff? It sounds really crazy. It sounds… it’s…” Her eyes closed tightly, a small whimper escaping her before she opened them. “And they won’t remember anyway. Isn’t that what you guys said? It’s the umm, the…” 

“Bystander Effect,” Asenath finished for her, giving a short nod. “Yes, that is a thing. But there are pills that your parents can take that will temporarily disable it. So they can remember and understand what you’re telling them, what we can show them. We will still have to convince them that it’s real, but we can stop the Bystander Effect from butting in.” 

“And… and then what?” the girl asked, biting her lip. “Do they just keep taking those pills forever? What’s going to happen to them once they know the truth? Can you just have them do that umm, bonding thingie you were talking about? What if they don’t want to? What if they think I’m a monster? What if they think everyone here is a monster? What if they try to tell the police? What if–”

Reaching out, Asenath put both hands on the girl’s shoulders and spoke gently. “I can’t tell you that everything will be fine. I can’t tell you how they’ll react or how any of that will go. I’ve seen it go really well, and really poorly. I’ve seen the best and the worst reactions. But your parents deserve the chance to show you their reaction for themselves. They deserve the opportunity to know the truth. Like I said, your mother believed in you when everyone was telling her otherwise. Maybe they won’t be able to accept this, but give them a chance, okay?” 

Remaining silent for a few seconds as a conflicting rush of thoughts and feelings worked their way through her, Denny finally gave a very short nod while swallowing a thick lump in her throat. She was clearly still terrified at the prospect, but pushed past that. “Okay,” she managed weakly, “I want to tell them the truth. But you’ll come with me, right? You’ll help stop me if–if…” She was clearly terrified not only of her parents’ reactions, but also what she herself might be tempted to do when she saw them again.

Smiling very gently, Asenath nodded. “Yes. And don’t worry, we’ll help you block those memories and the… the impulses. You’re not alone anymore, I promise. And we’ll bring some others too. Come to think of it, we still need to find out if Felicity and her family are immune to the Denuvus power or not.” 

That made Denny blink. “Immune to the what?” 

“Oh, I guess we didn’t explain that part.” Asenath gestured with one hand. “That power you have, it didn’t come from Ammon originally. It actually belongs to a guy named Denuvus. He–”

“She.” Denny immediately interrupted the other girl, head shaking quickly as she stared with rapidly widening eyes. “You mean she. She was a woman. She talked to me. She was—I mean she even tried to use the–I mean she said her name and she was trying to make me–I mean–” 

Asenath frowned, gently taking the girl’s hands. “Denny, slow down. What do you mean she talked to you? Take a breath. What happened? Do you mean someone started to talk to you about Denuvus? Or… or…” She trailed off, staring at her. This was too important to not be completely precise about what exactly had happened. 

So, Denny did just that. She took a deep breath and let it out before explaining everything about the therapist she had been sent to see. Starting from the beginning, she detailed the entire encounter, including the part when the woman had switched to the name of Denuvus and had clearly tried to control her. Now that Denny understood the power and looked back on it, the meaning behind introducing herself with that name was obvious. 

“And it didn’t work at all?” Senny pressed, thoughts whipping their way through her head. It was a lot to take in. Granted, appearing as a woman didn’t exactly mean a lot in a world of magic, especially given how secretive Denuvus was. He or she always obfuscated details about themself and used proxies to hide behind. There were a thousand different rumors about where they had come from, and she was pretty sure that at least half of them had been started by Denuvus. Being a male could have been a lie from the start, or they could have appeared in a female form to throw people off that way. When dealing with someone like that, you could never take anything at face value. And yet… and yet this was still huge. 

Denny was nodding rapidly. “Uh huh. I mean uh uh. I mean, it didn’t work. She tried to make me tell her about my dreams and then told me to sit down. And she introduced herself both times, with that weird name. I just… I guess I kinda forgot about it because of everything else that’s going on.” Cringing a bit guilty, she quickly added, “I could tell you what she looks like, and if–oh. Oh. I told her to leave me alone and go jump in a lake. I mean, I told her my name and then I told her to go jump in a lake. Umm… that didn’t work though, right?” The girl suddenly sounded pensive and worried. “If I’m immune to her, she’s immune to me, and I didn’t actually make her jump in a lake. So she doesn’t have to be mad at me or anything. She doesn’t have to be angry and–and… umm…” Trailing off, she swallowed hard at the thought of having someone that dangerous angry with her. Even if she was immune, Denny wasn’t stupid. She knew that this Denuvus wasn’t limited to simply trying to use that single power on her. She could use it to hurt other people, or use other things. 

“It’s okay,” Asenath quickly assured her, though she herself was a bit stunned by the whole situation. “Like I said, you aren’t alone. We’re all going to help you, I promise. And we’ll figure out what’s going on with this Denuvus thing. Tell us where his… or her office was and we’ll check it out. I mean, I doubt there’s anything there still, but there’s always the chance Denuvus missed something when cleaning up. Anything that helps find out more about them. I’m pretty sure you’re the only person I know of to have a face to face with them and actually remember it. So anything you can tell us, anything else you remember or think of, it could all help.”

“I don’t–I’m not–” Cringing visibly, Denny gave a quick headshake. “I’ll try. But um, I think I need to check on my mom and dad now.” Drawing herself up, clearly trying to push down all her doubts and insecurities about that, she added, “I… I need to see them. I miss them.” Her voice shook slightly with the admission, revealing just how hard it was to say. She was so afraid of accidentally hurting her parents, and equally afraid of being rejected by them when they found out the truth. Yet she desperately wanted to be with them again. 

Squeezing the girl’s hands, Asenath nodded. “It’s okay. We’ll take you there right now. You’re right, we can deal with everything else later.” Plucking a phone from her pocket, she gestured with it. “Let me just set it up.” 

Quickly, Denise spoke up. “S-so, we’re really… umm… you know, this place is really…” She looked around the park, slowly raising her gaze to look at the artificial sky before swallowing hard. “It’s not really in the sun, right? It’s just somewhere else. Like a big building. That Mr. Sean guy said it was in the sun, but he’s just teasing.”

With a small chuckle, Asenath replied, “Well, he does tease a lot. But not this time. We are one hundred percent inside the sun. It’s a really big space station with a bunch of forcefields to protect it from being burnt up and crushed. It absorbs the energy from the sun and turns that into more force field power. So we never run out.”

Denny stared at her in disbelief. “But why would you do that? Why be in the sun at all? It’s like… super-dangerous. So why take the risk? What if something goes wrong? Won’t it, umm, like, kill everybody before they can do anything? One little crack or whatever and everyone gets incinerated, or crushed. Wait, would you burn up first or get crushed by the pressure?” For a brief moment, it looked as though she was trying to calculate that before quickly abandoning the thought. Instead, she settled on, “It’s bad. It’d be really bad. So why live here?” 

Gently, Asenath explained, “First, as far as the danger goes, you’re right. If anything went wrong, it’d be pretty bad. That’s why they built over a hundred redundancy systems. If there’s any problem with the integrity of the station, everyone on it will be teleported to one of a dozen different potential safe zones down on the planet. See, the way it was explained to me, the computer that helps run this place can do over five hundred thousand trillion calculations per second. You know how many that is? If you made a stack of pennies all the way up to the moon, you’d have to make two more just like it to equal one trillion. You know how long ago the dinosaurs lived?” 

“Um, sixty-five million years?” the younger girl offered. 

“Right, so sixty-five million years,” Asenath confirmed. “A trillion seconds is thirty-two thousand years, so you’d have over two thousand trillion seconds to reach sixty-five million years. Two thousand trillion seconds between now and when the last dinosaurs lived. And this computer can calculate five-hundred thousand trillion times per second. The instant it detects a problem, it will grab everyone on the station and teleport them off. That’s faster than anyone can think.” She smiled a bit, trying to be reassuring. “You see? Does that make you feel better?” 

Flatly, Denise replied, “Sure, unless the computer goes evil and kills everybody.” 

Asenath blanched a little. “Right, that’s where some redundancies come in. But trust me, it’s all as safe as it can be. As for why we live here at all, it’s because there’s a lot of bad people out there who are really powerful, and they want to find us. They want to do a lot of bad things. So, we have to hide in a really good place to make sure everyone who lives here is safe. It could be dangerous if something goes wrong, sure. But it’d be a lot worse if those people found where we live.” 

Swallowing hard as she processed that, Denise offered a weak, “There’s a lot of bad things going on that I don’t know about, huh?” 

“And you don’t need to know about them right now,” Asenath insisted. “You need to think about your family, and deal with your own stuff. Come on, I’ll call ahead and we’ll get an escort to go down to find your parents so we can explain everything.” 

*******

Forty-six minutes later, the group arriving at the front door of Denise’s family home included the girl herself, Asenath, Sarah and Sands Mason, their mother Larissa, and Risa Kohaku. Such a large group normally wouldn’t be required for a simple pick-up job, but they were being careful given the entire situation. And they wanted Denise to know she had all the support she needed when telling her parents what was really going on. 

Besides, Risa was the one who knew how to administer the Bystander Effect-blocking pills that would allow the girl’s parents to even retain any ability to understand and remember what they were being told. 

“Girls, watch the front yard, okay?” Larissa urged her daughters, while the rest of the adults moved up to the door behind Denise herself, who leaned up to push the doorbell, looking even more anxious with every passing second. 

“Sure, we got this,” Sands confirmed, exchanging a fist bump with her sister before the two of them stepped out by the front sidewalk. They listened as the doorbell rang a couple times, then heard Denise try the door and step in, calling out for her mother and father. Silence passed for a few seconds, aside from the sound of the others moving inside. And then, that silence was broken by a scream. 

Exchanging quick looks, Sands and Sarah resisted the urge to pivot and rush that way. Their job was to watch the front walk. If they ran off now just because they were curious, and someone came right in the spot they were supposed to be guarding, it could be really bad. 

“Mom!” Sands called. “What’s going on?” 

The next thing they knew, their mother was rushing Denise right back out of the house, before the girl collapsed to her knees there in the grass and threw up. She was sobbing so hard it seemed like her whole body might tear itself apart from the inside. 

“Kushiel,” Larissa managed flatly after falling right beside the younger girl to gather Denise into her arms. She held her tightly, half-laying there on the grass. “Kushiel was here.” 

“Wh-what?” Sarah spoke up. “How do you know?” 

“She left a note above the bodies,” Larissa informed her daughters. 

“It said, ‘you should have given me the sword.’” 

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