Roger Dornan

Growth 18-04 And Patreon Snippets 25B (Heretical Edge 2)

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Eventually, we left Tabbris with Sariel, our dad, and Jegudiel so the four of them could talk in a private room for awhile. Athena said something about needing to send a message to Michael, and dismissed herself. 

Before long, it was time for me to go back to class for my extra afternoon make-up stuff. I’d offered to blow it off for the day with a straight face, and Dad, Tabbris, and I all shuddered at how Abigail would have reacted to that. I’d already missed plenty while on that trip. If she found out I was skipping classes while literally here on the station, let alone the extra classes I was supposed to be taking to make up for being gone on that mission, I was afraid that she might actually go nuclear, excuses be damned.

Honestly, it was more of a study hall/tutoring session anyway. All of us who had been on that mission, as well as some others who were busy with other things, were in an unused classroom with an old Crossroads teacher who had left with the rest of us. His name was Bentley Carver, and he had been the Development instructor for the seniors/fourth years. He was an elderly guy who looked kind of like Einstein, but with bright blond hair, bushy eyebrows, and an even bushier mustache. I’d met him briefly the year before when he’d stepped in to help save me from being interrogated by a bunch of other students about what happened with Doxer. And he was sure excited to see us today, making sure we knew that if we needed any help going over any of the extra worksheets that our teachers had provided, all we had to do was ask. 

He spent some time with an older student who was apparently having some trouble with his quantum mechanics work, which was fine with me. I sat with Avalon, Shiori, Jazz, Doug, Columbus, Sands, and Scout. Gordon was out with his dad still. Even Abigail didn’t expect him to be back at school already. Everyone was quietly focused, and I ignored all the thoughts of what Tabbris was doing with Jegudiel right then, trying to busy myself with my own stuff. I spent a good twenty minutes flipping between the worksheet and textbook for what had been a two-week course on how enners (the coins used to contain magical energy to use as currency) were created. Well, they called it a textbook. It was more of a hand-written journal that had been magically copied a bunch of times. But the guy who had written it had good handwriting, at least.

And he had a lot of interesting things to say about how people used to trade magical energy. Apparently at one point, a lot of people had actually literally touched each other to send the power into them. Which was dangerous for a variety of reasons, not to mention inconvenient. So they started putting it in random objects that were enchanted to hold the power. Unfortunately, that wasn’t great either, particularly because sometimes those objects disappeared for whatever reason. They would end up in the Bystander world and the magic that was put in them would ‘go funny,’ affecting the world around them. That was a big reason behind the Bystander stories about cursed artifacts, dolls that moved on their own, that sort of thing. One guy would put magic in a doll because he happened to have it lying around, then he’d lose track of it and it would end up in the Bystander world where the stored magic would act up and make it do funny (or terrifying) things. All in all it just wasn’t a very good idea, especially because it was so hard to know what had been given magic to store if you happened to forget. Or never knew in the first place. 

Which was why they came up with the Enner system. And, lo and behold, it wasn’t Heretics who created it at all. The original system that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden ended up ‘borrowing’ had actually been created back in Ancient Egypt, though the coins themselves looked different, and weren’t called enners. It had spread out from there, and when Crossroads was first established, began to be taught amongst their classes. Of course, they didn’t exactly credit the original source. 

I was filling in the worksheet where it was asking about the different shapes of older enners when Professor Carver stepped over to help Doug with his own worksheet. I could hear them murmuring in low voices about energy flow levels for the first primitive enners. Which brought Jazz in, as she had apparently been having her own issues with how that worked.  

When he was done helping them get back on track, the man turned my way, his voice low as he glanced between Avalon, Shiori, and me. “Everything okay over here? Looks like you’re trucking along. Ah, Miss Sinclaire, would you mind giving this to Dries when you see him?” He set a glass figurine of a ballet dancer, about six inches tall, on her desk. “We were having a small discussion the other day about an old dancer whom we both adored from the origins of ballet itself. I remembered a student of mine provided this likeness of her quite some time ago, and I would like him to have it. I dare say he was even more enamored of her than I, given she was his sister.”

That made Avalon do a double-take, eyes darting from the glass figurine of the dancer to the man himself. “Dries’ sister was a ballet dancer?” 

“One of the very first,” Carver confirmed. “Dries was incredibly proud of her, of course. Unfortunately, she was killed when they were both still in their teens. Long before he even met Liesje or Hieronymus. But he still holds her close to his heart. I am certain that he would be more than willing to talk to you about her, if you ask him when you pass the figurine along.” 

Yeah, something told me he could just as easily have given the thing to Dries himself, but had wanted to give Avalon an opening to talk to her ancestor about his past.

After that, he looked at me. “Miss Chambers, I recall teaching your mother during her second year. I ahhh, I am ashamed to say that we didn’t get along for some time. I considered her too stubborn to learn new things, and believed that she would get herself killed by not listening to her instructors. I am quite glad that I was wrong about that.” Even as he said that, the man’s brow furrowed. “Except, perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. Telling a girl that you expected her mother to get herself killed through stubbornness was… yes, I probably shouldn’t have said that.” 

Coughing a bit, I shook my head. “I get it. At least you’re on the same side now? Err, were you part of the Rebellion back–” 

“Not… precisely,” he answered with a slight grimace. “Not at first, anyway. I’m also ashamed to say that it was not until shortly before your mother’s… imprisonment that I found myself truly questioning what I had always taken as simple facts. The inherent evil of non-humans, that is. To be frank, it was not until I learned that my own son had joined the Rebellion. After that, actually. My initial response was to drag him back where I felt he belonged. When I found him, we fought. He was young, but quite… skilled. Enough that he was able to talk to me a bit before I could subdue him. The things he said, the words he used… maybe it was simply that it came from someone I cared a great deal about, but I listened. I didn’t want to, but I did. I listened to enough to actually hear the words that your mother and others had already been saying. So, I gave him a chance to show me these Alter societies. I spent a little time with them. Which, of course, made my previously-held convictions fall just about as quickly as the shame for my actions rose.” He offered us a somewhat sad smile then. “I resolved to do what I could to direct potentially sympathetic students toward the Rebellion, even after your mother was imprisoned. At least, until my memory of all of that was erased some decades later.” 

Looking like he was a bit lost in those recently-restored memories, Carver frowned before shaking himself. His gaze focused on me once more, and he smiled while tapping his knuckles lightly on the desk. “In any case, you let me know if you need any help. All of you.” That was added with a glance to the others before he headed off to respond to another student with their hand raised. 

Leaning closer to Avalon’s desk, Shiori examined the glass figurine there. “Wow, there’s a lot of detail on this thing. She’s really pretty.” Her eyes glanced up to the other girl. “Actually, she kinda looks like you a little bit.” 

I leaned closer as well and squinted at it before blinking a couple times. “Hey, yeah, she does look like you, Valley. Her face is practically the same.” 

Flushing a little bit, Avalon shrugged. “Well, I’m definitely not a ballet dancer. So there’s a pretty big difference. And even if I wanted to be, I don’t have the body type for it. They’re thin and… thin.” Her face was pink, and she reached out to pick up the figurine. “I’ll take it to Dries later. Come on, we need to get back to work.” 

Shiori and I exchanged glances, before I nodded. “Right, yeah, of course. Back to work.” With that, I settled in my seat once more and turned my gaze back to the book. Still, I couldn’t help but think about Dries. His sister had died while he was still a teenager. Then he had fallen in love with Liesje and that whole thing had… yeah. That poor guy. 

Of course, that whole thing also made me think about my own little sister. How was Tabbris doing with her birth-father? He seemed nice enough for the moment, but I was still unsure how that whole thing was going to go. I was worried about her, and had to resist the urge to reach out through our connection to check on her. She deserved time with him without me snooping or bothering her, no matter how curious and worried I was. 

So, with some effort, I shoved those thoughts aside and forced myself to focus on the book in front of me. I would find out how that whole thing had gone later. But one thing was for sure. 

Wings or no wings, Jegudiel was going to find himself in a world of hurt from a lot of people if he ever made Tabbris sad. 

********

Tabbris was fine, of course. Well, pretty much fine. There was obviously a lot she had to work through when it came to the idea of her birth father visiting. On the plus side, she also seemed at least a bit happy about getting to meet him when I talked to her later that day. She was overwhelmed by the whole thing and would need time to process, but it definitely could have gone a lot worse. Apparently she had requested that Vanessa, Tristan, Spark, and Jehoel all go in as well to meet the man, and Jegudiel had given every single one of them a hug. Yeah, a literal hug. Hybrid human-Seosten, SPS Seosten projected as a hologram, and experimented-on kid who turned into younger versions of the person he was touching instead of possessing them, none of that mattered. He embraced all four. I was kind of sad that I had missed that.

Apparently he’d also thanked Dad for taking care of Tabbris for so long, and actually called her our daughter. Actually, given the way loyalist Seosten normally–it seemed a little odd that he was so quickly willing to not only accept Dad like that, but also treat the other four so well. But maybe that was just me being overly suspicious again. Just because this guy was loyal to the Seosten government and all that didn’t mean he was incapable of being decent. After all, there were plenty of them who truly believed that if the Seosten didn’t rigorously control… enslave all these populations, then the Fomorians would wipe out everyone. Seosten, human, and every other species in the universe would be utterly destroyed. Plus, from what I had heard, this guy spent most of his time on the front lines of the war. He literally watched the Fomorians try (or succeed) to genocide entire worlds over and over again. So maybe his perspective was a little different than people who only saw the Seosten forcing other species to work on equipment and resources to send to that frontline. Perspective was pretty important, after all. At least, that was what I kept telling it myself. 

I was thinking about that among other things (my brain was pretty full), as I took a walk through the station later that evening. It wasn’t quite dinner time yet and I was trying to clear my head, considering Jegudiel was supposed to be there to eat with us. Which… yeah, clearing my head was a good thing. 

I rounded a corner, lost in my own thoughts, only to very nearly run right into Roxa coming the other way. The power that made her untrackable unless you were looking right at her affected my item sense as well. Which I knew, but still didn’t help me avoid jumping backward with a fairly undignified yelp. 

“Hey, Flick,” Roxa casually announced while watching me collect myself with a very tiny smile. “Sorry, I probably should’ve said something before. Guess I wanted to see if you’d notice, or just how distracted you were.” Her teasing tone softened as she added, “How’s Tabbris doing?” 

“You heard about that, huh?” I asked while glancing past her to Pace, as the Latina girl approached. 

“Basically everyone has,” Roxa confirmed. “I mean, one of the archangels shows up and starts walking around the station? And it’s one of the archangels who isn’t Michael? It’s news.” 

“Big news,” Pace added, stopping next to the other girl. “Even bigger than the whole Dracula thing.” 

She said that while looking past me, and I turned to look back down the hall. Sure enough, Theia was there, along with April and June. Or rather, the man who had once been called June. Yeah, coming back here to find out that one of the Calendar people was actually Dracula himself, and had decided to start hanging out here on the station was… something. Especially when I found out why he had decided to be around now. 

Speaking of which, the man had spotted us by then and was approaching with April and Theia trailing behind. He met my gaze with an expression that was half-smile, half-smirk. “Felicity Chambers, a pleasure to see you once again. And you, Roxanne and Pace. I hope the three of you are well. And assume you haven’t been visited by any more Seosten ghosts today.” 

“I haven’t seen Kushiel,” I confirmed. That was why he was here, why he had decided to start staying on the station. Apparently he had a thing about Kushiel and now that she was back as a ghost, wanted to make sure something was done about her. I had no idea what their whole history was, but he wanted her dead, and that was good enough for most people around here. Enemy of my enemy, and all that. But I was still concerned about what his intentions beyond that were. Something about the guy just rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was that he was so cavalier about killing a lot of people. Or that he made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t here because he believed in our cause or anything, but rather because he thought we could help get rid of Kushiel for good. 

Unfortunately, he also apparently knew a lot about her resources and secret places here on Earth. So the adults had decided not to cast him out immediately. The way they put it, dealing with someone like Kushiel in the best-case scenario required doing things you might not want to. Now that she was some sort of super ghost, we needed every advantage we could get. Even when that advantage was this guy. He didn’t care about our cause and he didn’t care about any of us. Well, that wasn’t true. He cared about the other members of the Calendar. At least Abigail said he did, and some of the stuff I had seen seemed to lend credence to it. He cared about Theia too. Other SPS Seosten, he cared about them. He was almost tender with them at times. Seeing him interact with them was the only time I didn’t think he was putting on a show of being nice. And that was specifically Seosten with that condition, not his entire species. I was pretty sure he lumped everyone into two categories: SPS Seosten, whom he cared about, and everyone else, whom he didn’t. He reminded me a bit of Magneto, from the X-Men. He wanted to protect his people, no matter what happened to anyone he didn’t consider one of his.

The smile he gave me then didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, you know, just let me know. Let everyone know. Trust me, you don’t want to face her alone.” 

“She won’t,” Roxa put in, stepping beside me. “Anyone comes at Flick, they’ve got to deal with a lot of other problems.” 

“Kushiel found that out the first time,” Pace added while stepping up on my other side. “Right, Theia?” 

Rubbing a hand over the cap that Doug had given her, Theia gave a little nod and straightened. “Yes,” she agreed quietly. “My mother took too many of my friends away. I could not allow her to take you.” Her eyes moved back and forth between Pace and me. “Either of you.” 

Drake (he said we should call him that, given he didn’t want to go by June anymore and thought Dracula might sound a little silly) smiled sidelong at the Seosten girl. “And I’m so very glad you did. Even if it didn’t quite stick. The next time we kill her, it will.” He showed his teeth then, his canines somehow extended like the fangs of his namesake. I still wasn’t sure how he did that, given he wasn’t actually a vampire. 

“I wish my mother’s spirit to be banished as well,” Theia agreed before looking at April, who was staying back a bit. “But I remain certain she will not show herself here any time soon. Particularly not before we collect December for the ice–” 

“Icecreamicecreamicecream!” Speak of the dev–well, superfast little girl, December herself came zooming down the hall from the way the others had come. April calmly stepped out of the way and put her hand down just in time to catch the girl by the top of her head, halting her in place. The kid was literally bouncing up and down. “Ifinishedthehomework, sowecango geticecreamnow?” She waved to everyone in turn in a rush of motion that was practically a blur, greeting each of us. “HeyPacehiFlickheyRoxa…… Hiya, Ju–Drake.” She had to correct herself, her words so slow at that point that it actually sounded like she was speaking normally. 

“Hey there, kid.” Drake gave another genuine, gentle smile that way. “You’re going to go get ice cream, huh? I’d tag along, but I haven’t had dinner yet–hold on, you’re not spoiling your appetite are you? Are they letting you have ice cream for supper?” He adopted a teasingly authoritative tone. 

Giggling, December shook her head. “Nowehad… dinnerafew… minutesago! Wehaditearly…cuzwedidn’tgo… tolunchcuzwe… werebusyreportingin.” 

“Ah, and how is the old–” In mid-sentence, Drake caught a look from April and cleared his throat. “How is Cahethal?”

“She’s very curious about you, that’s for sure,” April informed him in a flat voice. “You know she wants to have a discussion.” 

“And the very moment I have literally any interest in that, I’ll get right on it,” Drake replied casually, clearly unconcerned. “But in the meantime, if you’re all going to talk about ice cream, I suppose I’ll head out. Don’t want to be tempted to be bad about my diet, after all.” He winked, then started to walk away, calling back toward me, “Remember, Miss Chambers, the instant you see any sign of Kushiel, let me know.” 

Waiting until he was gone, I looked toward the others. “How’s it been going with searching the addresses he’s been giving? Any luck? Any sign that he’s actually on the up and up?” 

Theia answered immediately. “He has given valuable information. True information.” 

“She’s right,” Pace confirmed. “Kushiel hasn’t been at any of the places they went to check, but it was obvious that she had people keeping them up for her. You know, from before she died. Err…” She frowned then. “This whole situation is weird. She died, she should stay that way. This isn’t Dragonball Z.” 

“Don’t forget, she is still dead,” I reminded her. “This is just her… leftover we’re dealing with. Her ghost. Her echo or whatever.” 

“She’s a pain in the ass, that’s what she is,” Roxa announced. 

“You’re not wrong about that,” I agreed, frowning a bit in thought before looking at the others. “And I’m worried that we haven’t heard from her in so long. She made a big show about being back, then just… disappeared for over a month? That just tells me she’s up to something big. 

“And we are definitely gonna regret finding out what.”  

********

Patreon Snippets 25B

Two of Joselyn’s old teammates back when she attended Crossroads were Seamus and Roger Dornan, cousins. They’ve been seen a few times in the story (including in the recent rescue mission), and the first time they were seen as adults (taking place right after Flick gave everyone their memories of the Rebellion back) was in one of the ninth Patreon Snippets right here. In that snippet, it was established that despite their memories of the Rebellion being erased, they had semi-recently turned against Crossroads entirely on their own and began helping Alters. According to that snippet, they decided to turn against Crossroads and stopped believing that all Strangers were evil after encountering innocent children while on a hunt. The following is that specific scene

Six And A Half Years Ago

“Hey, hold up there.” 

As the nine-year-old girl started to turn off the sidewalk to head into the nearby alley, a fairly short, red-haired man wearing construction clothes with a reflective vest stepped in the way with one hand up to block her. “Sorry, Miss, we’re doing some work down there. Can’t use the shortcut today.” 

The girl wasn’t very happy about that, given not using the shortcut would add a full ten minutes to her route home. But she finally moved on down the street, trudging a little bit with the knowledge that she was going to miss the first minutes of the show she liked to get home for. On the way, the kid absently tossed the brown paper bag lunch sack she was carrying into a trash can before breaking into a run. Maybe she wouldn’t miss too much. 

Watching her go, Seamus Dornan spoke without looking over his shoulder. “We set up?” 

“Damn straight we are.” Behind the man, his cousin Roger brushed a hand through light blond hair that fell to his shoulders. Standing an inch shorter than Seamus and also wearing construction clothes along with an expression of barely constrained anger at the moment, he added, “And the things that keep stalking that kid through this alley every day should be here any minute, so let’s get in position.” 

At the mention of the reason they were here and had steered the kid away, Seamus grimaced. They had seen some signs that there were Strangers in this area, and had taken the past week to track down the source. Learning that those things, whatever they were, were waiting in the alley for that poor kid to go past every day made him shudder to think about what could have happened. Why they were waiting so long to make their move, he couldn’t say. Maybe they liked to make a game of it. Maybe they were waiting for her to get a little bigger, or for the moon to be in the right phase, or… whatever. Who knew what went through the minds of monsters? As far as he was concerned, however, that was over. Whatever those things were up to, they wouldn’t be hurting this little girl. Not while he and Roger were here. 

To that end, the two of them stepped fully into the alley. Roger had set up a couple of ‘notice-me-not’ circles, one about halfway down the alley next to a dumpster and the other a bit further on, closer to the exit but up on the lowest landing of the fire escape. That latter one was where Seamus would set himself. The two of them took their positions and waited. 

They weren’t waiting very long before catching the sound of something–no, several somethings approaching from the far end. Several small figures came into view, moving directly under Seamus. They wore heavy hooded jackets that made it hard to make out any details, even if he had been down on the ground rather than above them. He could see Roger watching them from the protection of his own magic circle next to the dumpster, pistol raised as he waited to take these nasty things by surprise. 

Gripping a construction mace in his own hand, Seamus made himself wait. They had to be sure that there were no more of these things lingering behind. This had to be a full wipe if he was going to feel like that poor kid was safe. 

The trio of small figures moved to the dumpster itself, their movements slow and cautious. The nearest one reached up into the wide metal slot that the garbage truck would use to pick up the dumpster eventually. There was a brief pause, then a whispered, “It’s not here.” The voice sounded stressed, worried, and something more. “Did she–” 

Roger, who had always been more impulsive and less patient, stepped from his circle, gun raised. “Looking for someone?”  

Muttering something about waiting for a signal, Seamus leapt from his perch to land behind the trio. A gesture with his mace made a solid wall right behind him to block them up from that direction. And they sure as hell wouldn’t be getting past Roger to go the other way, whatever they were. 

As soon as they saw the Heretic in front of them, the trio… screamed. They spun to retreat, only to spot Seamus and the wall rising into place. Two of the figures fell to the ground right there, a sound of… a sound of… was that…

Were they crying? 

The hoods had fallen off the two who had fallen down by that point, leaving Roger and Seamus staring at what looked like a cat-like Rakshasa and wolf-like, red-furred Lupera. A juvenile Rakshasa and Lupera. Kids. Two tiny, terrified Lupera and Rakshasa children, lying there on the ground with tears in their eyes, shielding their faces with their arms.

Meanwhile, the still-standing figure shouted, “Get away!” The words came with a voice that shook, cracking with audible terror. Their own hood fell as well, when they snapped their head back and forth to look at Roger and Seamus while putting one hand down in front of the other two, as though shielding them. This third one was also a child, a reptilian figure who looked like they might be a couple years older than the first two. 

The two on the ground, if they had been human, might’ve been five or six from the look of them. The one standing in front of them, arms out to block the Heretics from the two cowering figures, was maybe eight years old. They hissed a little, frills on the side of their neck standing out as though to make themselves look bigger. “G-go away!” they repeated, though it was more of a desperate wish than a demand. Their voice sounded… broken. Empty. Lost. They sounded like a person who was already dead. They… both the kids on the ground and the one standing in front of them, all sounded like they had nothing left. No hope. They were just… they were…

“Roger,” Seamus started, making his own cousin gasp slightly as he was startled out of his own long, silent stare, “watch them. Don’t… don’t.” He left it at that while walking past the trio. They shrank back even more as he moved, the reptilian figure physically pushing their two companions back against the dumpster as though it would protect them. 

Walking back to the front of the alley, where he’d turned the girl away, Seamus left for a moment. He was back shortly, carrying the small paper sack she had thrown into the trash can down the street. Moving purposefully, he opened the bag, emptying it out on the ground in front of the huddled trio. Out fell a sandwich wrapped in a plastic baggie, an orange, a carton of juice, and a bag of chips. 

“This?” he started, his own voice cracking very slightly. “This is why you’ve been following that girl?” 

The lizard girl said nothing, looking more confused and wary than anything. The younger Lupera girl spoke up with a tiny, frightened, “Sh-she doesn’t eat her lunch, she never eats her lunch.” 

“She throws it away so her mom won’t get mad,” the Rakshasa boy added. “P-please, please, we’ll go away. We won’t take her food anymore, ple–” 

“Don’t bother, Teumni,” the reptilian whispered, sounding just as hollow and resigned, yet still refusing to move from their spot in front of their younger companions. “They won’t listen. They never listen.” They met Seamus’s gaze, eyes wide with terror. They were so afraid they could barely string the words together, so lost in despair and dread that they would have fallen over. They would have cowered. Yet they didn’t. They stood in front of their younger companions because they were all they had. They stood because there were no others to stand for them. 

They were, at once, the most terrified and most brave being Seamus had ever seen in his life. 

Swallowing, Seamus moved his gaze away from the three and toward Roger. Their eyes locked, a long, silent moment passing between them. He stooped very slowly, his movements making the three Strangers cower in against one another, the reptilian more determinedly holding their arms out to cover the other two. But Seamus didn’t reach for them. He picked the wrapped sandwich up from the ground, unwrapping it carefully before taking a sniff. “Peanut butter,” he murmured. “It’s a peanut butter sandwich.” His words were soft, incredulous over this whole situation. 

Again, he looked toward Roger. They both stared silently at one another, before the other man gave a very slight nod of agreement. Seamus, in turn, slowly raised the unwrapped sandwich, holding it out that way. 

The reptilian child stared at the offered sandwich, a whimper escaping them at what they perceived as a taunt. “What… what do you want?” they brokenly asked. 

“What do I want?” Seamus echoed, staring at the sandwich in his outstretched hand as though it held the answer. “What I want…” The truth came to him as he sank to one knee, the mace falling from his other hand to clatter against the ground. “What I want is for no one to ever look at me the way you are right now.” He was speaking mostly to himself, as surprised by the sound of his own voice as he was by the content of it. 

Someone finally took the sandwich away, but it wasn’t any of the three Stranger children. It was Roger, who looked at the food in his hand, then tossed it aside before going down on one knee as well, next to his cousin. “Yeah, I’m not really a fan of it either,” he murmured before focusing on the kids. “Listen, we… we’re not gonna hurt you.” 

“Y… you’re not?” That was the Lupera girl, her snout twitching a little. 

“No,” Seamus agreed. It was the first thing he had been completely certain of since he’d dropped into the alley. “We’re not.”

“Where are your parents?” Roger asked. 

There was no immediate answer, as the three looked at one another before the reptilian answered in a quiet, flat, “Your people killed them.” 

That landed hard, like a jab to the stomach. Seamus felt it, his body wincing inward slightly as though it had been a physical blow. Words came to mind, but none were sufficient. And yet, the fact that he felt the impulse to say them, the fact that he felt any… guilt about what they said, the fact that the children themselves were so affected, the fact that… that any of this was happening…

“Come on,” he finally announced while pushing himself to his feet. In that moment, he had come to a decision. Beside him, Roger stood as well, the two in silent agreement despite not doing anything to communicate with each other.  

“Wha-what?” The reptilian stammered, terror palpable in their voice as they stared at him while keeping their arms resolutely in front of the other two. “Y-you said–” 

“We’re not going to hurt you,” he interrupted, assuring them of that in as firm a voice as he could manage. “But since my cousin threw your sandwich away, we owe you some food, and there’s a McDonald’s right around the corner. So what do you say we get some lunch, and do something I’m starting to think we should have done a long time ago. 

“Talk.” 

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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)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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 17-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A loud clang filled the air as my staff snapped up just in time to catch the descending blade of a sword. The owner of that sword, a woman a couple inches taller than me, with long red hair tied into a braid, snarled darkly at me. “I know you. You’re that little girl who helped start this whole Rebellion up again. You really think you’re some sort of hero for helping these monsters?” Even as she asked that, the woman was spinning away from me, hand rising as she made a dozen pebbles from the ground around us float into the air. They also became ultra-hot judging from the way they immediately turned bright-red, before she sent them flying at me. 

Our attack against the transport was proceeding, well, about as expected. We knew it wouldn’t be super-easy, but we had to make it quick, before anyone who might have been paying attention noticed the delay. We were using jammers of our own this time, so they couldn’t call out for help, and we’d arranged this little attack to come right when they were just finishing up loading the semi truck with supplies. That was what this transport was meant for. They were at a warehouse on the edge of some random city in the southern United States, cramming the truck full of various foodstuffs, tools, and whatnot. Then they would be making the long journey to that prison colony. At least, that was their plan. We had sort of interrupted that with our attack. 

Some of us were stopping the drivers, or the loaders, or protecting the jammers, or attacking various Heretic guards. That last bit was where I came in. My job, at the moment, was to deal with this particular guard. But there were two problems with that. First, the person I was assigned to was supposed to be a student, someone closer to my age and all that. But this was definitely an adult Heretic. And the second problem was that it turned out she wasn’t really in the mood to be dealt with. She was much more in the mood to try to stab me repeatedly with her sword. 

The two of us were out near one of the corners of the warehouse, and I could hear more fighting going on behind me. But I couldn’t spare the time to glance that way. All I could do was hope that everything was going okay back there, while using a burst of energy from my staff to launch myself up and over the incoming burning pebbles. Flipping over in the air, I converted my staff into its bow form, and sent a shot past the woman. The energy arrow exploded a second later, sending a concussive force wave that… well, it was supposed to knock my opponent forward so that my foot could collide with her face as I came down. Unfortunately, she apparently wasn’t affected by it. No, scratch that, the concussive force seemed to empower her. She absorbed it, grinning at me as my foot whiffed through the air where I had expected her to be. Worse, her eyes were glowing. Glowing very–

At the last possible second, I focused on my energy absorption power, just as the other Heretic shot a laser beam out of her eyes at me. Apparently she could absorb kinetic energy and turn it into eye lasers. Which was probably a good thing to know before I went and smacked her with my staff. 

Shoving all that power I had just absorbed (wait, did that mean I had essentially absorbed the power from my staff, with this chick as an intermediary?), I threw it into my boost while lunging back that way. At the same time, I made both of my rings grow large in front of me, boosting my speed even further as I hopped through them. Now I was using my full Seosten boost, charged by the power I had just absorbed, and then boosted further by those rings. I was moving faster in that moment than I ever had, at least under my own power.

And yet, my opponent was fast enough to keep up. Her sword slashed out, nearly taking my head off as I got near. I barely managed to snap myself out of the way, my hand smacking against her shoulder to–not possess her. It was weird, I could feel her arm, but I couldn’t–

Forcefield. She had a skin-tight forcefield all around herself. I caught a glimpse of it then, flickering over her face. It wasn’t over her clothes, but it was definitely under them, and seemed to extend over her whole body, if a glance toward her very faintly glowing hands was any indication. Yeah, she definitely had a forcefield over herself, just under her clothes. Whether it was specifically to protect herself from being possessed, or simply a bit of added defense I wasn’t sure. But it was there. 

Also there in that instant? Her sword. But I managed to duck out of the way just in time before spinning into a sideways kick. She took it, absorbing the kinetic impact from the super-strong kick to give herself a quick burst of eye lasers. But that time she didn’t shoot at my chest. No, she sent a bright burst toward my eyes, briefly blinding me. Then she quickly followed that up by pivoting to one side before driving her sword toward my stomach. Clearly trying to take advantage of my momentary blindness. 

Fortunately, I still had my item sense. I knew exactly where she was, and managed to make my staff grow just enough to intercept her sword. The end of the staff slammed into the ground, and I used that as a pivot to come around, my foot colliding with her shoulder. 

Once more, she absorbed the impact and my vision cleared just in time to see her sending another shot my way. That time, I created a quick portal in front of my raised hand, redirecting the laser blast into her opposite shoulder. 

Apparently she felt that one, because a curse escaped the woman while she flipped her sword around and glared at me. “Your traitor mother failed before, and she’ll fail this time too. You and all those like you will either be killed or mind-wiped again so things can go back to normal. We won’t let you endanger all of humanity with your naive bullshit.” 

“Killed or mind-wiped for disagreeing with slavery and genocide,” I pointed out flatly. “And you still think you’re the good guys? I’d ask how you live with yourself, but I get the impression it involves a lot of not thinking about it, combined with a dash of murder. And anyway, debating with you is obviously a waste of breath, so I have only two words to say to you. Shark punch.”

Even as I said that, my fist was lashing out as I summoned Princess Cuddles in one of those forcefield bubble things. The woman might’ve been tough, but very few people could stand unaffected with an enormous great white shark coming straight at their face, mouth open. She flinched sideways, just a little. Her focus was centered on the incoming bubble-encased shark. Which was enough for me to literally spit a glob of that quick-drying resin stuff right onto her face. At the same time, I dismissed Princess Cuddles. She was tough, but I really didn’t think she was up to taking a full blow from a pissed off Heretic. 

And boy was she pissed off. The hardened resin was only covering her face for a few seconds before she literally screamed so loud the stuff basically disintegrated. And without missing a beat, she made several large chunks of concrete rise into the air, literally ripping them out of the ground with her mind. Soon, a half-dozen thick slabs were floating around her, all of them burning hot. “You wanna play games now, traitor?” she demanded while making the burning concrete slabs spin wildly around us. “Let’s see how your mother likes getting you back after you’ve been pounded into a thick paste and then burned until there’s nothing left.” 

Part of me wanted to point out that my mother wouldn’t be getting anything back if this woman burned my remains until there was nothing left. But I didn’t think she’d appreciate the correction. Besides, I really had to focus in that instant. She was already sending all six of those large slabs of concrete flying at me from every direction, with varying angles and speeds. It was nearly impossible to find a safe route through them. But only nearly. With a combination of my enhanced speed from a renewed boost (sadly not enhanced by absorbed energy anymore), my item sense, and the enhanced werewolf agility, I… still couldn’t have gotten through them. Not the way they were closing in around me. Fortunately, those weren’t the only gifts I had. I had those new rings too. They snapped up into place in front of two of the slabs, positioned to slow them down as they passed through. At the same time, I focused on the third one, stopping it completely with my power to halt objects for a few seconds. 

The result of slowing two of the slabs down and stopping a third completely left just enough space for me to launch myself up and out of there just before the burning concrete pieces slammed into the spot where I had just been. In mid-air, I sent my grapple outward and up to catch hold of a piece of the warehouse roof, yanking myself that way to land on the very edge of it. 

Snarling as she glared up at me with those concrete slabs (even more of them now that they had broken apart into several separate pieces) floating around her, the Eden’s Garden Heretic snapped, “You really think you can start this fight and then run away like a little coward?” With those words, she was already launching herself upwards after me. As she did so, a couple flame-like energy bursts appeared under her feet and the small of her back, carrying her upward almost like rocket boots or something. 

As soon as she started to lunge, I had the rings at full size in front of her. She just gave me a dark look while bringing two of those concrete slabs under her feet to boost herself even faster. The flames that had also been boosting her appeared under the pieces of concrete. Now she was lifting herself with both the rocket burst power and by telekinetically (or whatever) lifting the concrete under her feet.  

Unfortunately, she had made a couple of mistakes. First, the rings weren’t set to slow her down. They were set to speed her up. So, whatever boost she was getting from the combination of the concrete and the rocket burst, going through the rings doubled it. Suddenly, she was going much faster than she expected. At the same time, just as the woman realized something was wrong, I made it even worse. Back when I had kicked her a few moments earlier, it wasn’t just a kick. I had used my instant-inscription power to put a very simple spell against her jacket. The first spell I’d ever learned, actually. It was the flash-bang spell, though a stronger one than I had been capable of before. And in that instant, just as she was flying up toward me much faster than she expected, I triggered that spell. There was a sudden boom and flash of light, leaving the woman blind and deaf at the worst possible second. The worst for her, that was. Because I was already diving out of the way while leaving a rock where I had been standing. A rock which instantly grew up to the size of a large boulder with my growth power, while simultaneously freezing in the air thanks to my item-stop power. 

It was a case of an unstoppable object, the blind and deaf super-fast Heretic, versus an immobile one, the frozen rock. In this case, the Heretic won—sort of. The boulder shattered as she slammed into it, but it was a very close call. She hit the roof on the other side, coming down in a heap while coughing weakly. I could see several bones sticking out, her foot was twisted around the wrong way, and there were cuts and bruises all over her body. She’d hit the boulder hard, shattering both it and her forcefield, and doing a hell of a lot of damage to herself in the process. 

“You–” She snarled, catching herself against the roof on her hands and knees. 

“Me,” I agreed, while driving the blade of my staff down through her back as hard as I could. I was boosting with everything I had, and between that and my own enhanced strength, I still barely managed to get the blade to go through her, even without her forcefield. She was incredibly tough. But it made it. My staff went all the way through and out the other end, speared through the woman from behind. 

Even that wasn’t quite enough. I could still see those chunks of burning concrete as they came flying toward me. But before they could get there, I abandoned my staff and dove into a backward roll, going just under them. 

The woman shoved herself upward, staff still shoved through her. Blood was pouring from her mouth and the wound, but she refused to go down. Her sword was long gone, somewhere off on the other side of the roof. Yet she ignored that as much as she was ignoring the huge weapon through her chest, snarling hatefully while starting to throw herself at me, hands outstretched. 

“Gus, go!” I shouted. Immediately, the grapple shot forward, launching itself past me to embed in the nearby chimney, before beginning to pull the staff after it. And that hauled the injured woman along for the ride, drawing a strangled scream from her as she was yanked off the ground and sent flying toward me. 

Spinning aside, I snapped my hand out and summoned my silver knife. It cut through the woman’s throat on her way past. Even with the speed she was traveling at, even with my own strength, even with the enhanced sharpness of my silver knife, it still barely managed to cut her. I felt blood from her throat, but it didn’t take her head off or do nearly as much damage as it should have. Still, in the same motion, I recalled the staff back to my other hand, finished pivoting as she sailed past me, and then hurled it as hard as I could into her back once more. 

That was enough. Between slamming through the frozen boulder, taking a bladed staff through her back once, getting her throat cut, and then taking the bladed staff through her back again, the woman was done. She hit the ground frozen, motionless. 

And then I felt it. A rush of pleasure that made me fall to my knees with a gasp, staff and knife both dropping from my hands. It was a blinding, overwhelming rush. Not quite like when I had killed Fossor. It didn’t knock me out or anything, but damn was it close. 

By the time I managed to come back to myself, Asenath and Avalon were standing over me up there on the roof. They both stared down while I lifted my gaze, looking back and forth between them. It took me a moment to find my voice, managing a somewhat weak, “Did umm, did we win?” I felt almost delirious in that moment, still riding high off the rush from that.. that kill. Eesh.

“Yeah,” Avalon informed me while holding out a hand. “We won. You know you weren’t supposed to go after a full Heretic by yourself, right?” 

Taking the hand, I let her pull me up while shrugging. “We didn’t expect a fully-trained adult Heretic to be one of the perimeter guards. Weren’t they supposed to be down to using more trainees for that with this whole war thing going on?” Brushing myself off, I added in a slightly more serious tone. “Tell me this doesn’t mean they had some sort of warning.” 

Asenath spoke quietly. “They didn’t have any warning. Looks like you just happened to get unlucky with that guard. Maybe she was filling in for someone else, or working on training. Either way, they had no idea we were coming.” 

A bird flying overhead came down close, transforming in mid-flight into Twister before landing smoothly. She straightened up, voice flat. “Yeah, and they didn’t get a warning out either. Those jammers blocked everything they had on them, and you guys hit them hard and fast enough that they couldn’t pull anything more elaborate together. It’s all good.” Her gaze found me then before she slyly added, “And those moves back there…” She whistled low. “Kinda know why this one and the one down there have the hots for you.” Her hand gestured toward Avalon and down presumably in the direction of Shiori. 

Flushing just a little, I shook my head. “Just trying to survive and stop the other person from surviving. I didn’t–” Pausing, I took a breath. Now that the rush of battle was over, the truth about just how easily I could have died back there was starting to wash over me. It made me feel… a little giddy. Was that weird? Hell, was it weird that this particular fight was affecting me more than so many others? Was it just because I had been going up against a full Heretic who very easily could (and would) have snapped me in half? Of course I’d fought Heretics before, particularly over the summer, but not… not like that. Or was it because of what she’d said about my mother, making it more personal? I needed some time to think about all that. 

Fortunately, I would have all the time I needed for that on this trip. But we couldn’t wait around too much right now. So, I shook off those thoughts and focused. “I didn’t do all that just so we could lose our advantage by letting Shamon’s people figure out something’s wrong before we want them to know.” 

The others agreed, and we rejoined the others on the ground. Deveron gave me a quick look, waiting for me to nod that I was okay before he spoke up. “Okay, the lot’s secure. We’ve got the bodies, and prisoners, already sent back to the station. Except the one on the roof.” Again, he glanced my way. “I’ll grab her. The rest of you, finish loading those crates onto the back of the truck. We have no idea how much of those supplies we might end up needing. Especially if we get out of that prison camp with everyone we’re going in there for.” 

So, that was what we did, grabbing the crates to carry over to what would be our Trojan horse. The truck itself looked like an ordinary semi from the outside. But once the back doors were opened, it revealed a much larger interior. Like, three times normal size, including a pretty large space for the people who weren’t driving to comfortably stay in. Essentially it was a large RV-type space on one side (complete with cots, couches, televisions, a full-sized stove and fridge, and more) and a storage compartment for all these crates on the other, with a metal wall dividing them. Say what you would about Shamon, but he let his people travel in comfort… when they were transporting supplies to his slave camp. Huh. 

Looking over toward Sands and Sarah as the twins walked with me from the warehouse to the truck, I hefted the large crate in my arms before asking, “Is it weird that we’re taking a truck to go to another planet? I feel like that’s probably weird.” 

“Um!” Bobbi, zooming up from behind us while floating a couple crates of her own in a pair of energy-construct bubbles, raised a hand. “Yeah, I had a question about that. Huh?” She considered briefly before giving a nod of satisfaction. “That’s the question.” 

“Yeah, ‘huh’ sums it up for me too.” That was Columbus, as he hopped down from the truck after carrying his own heavy crate into it. “I mean, does the truck transform into a spaceship? I was really picturing a spaceship when we were planning this whole thing.” He gave the truck a look as though it had personally betrayed him by not being a sleek starcruiser, perhaps equipped with heavy laser cannons and missiles. 

“Don’t worry, kid, I was disappointed about the lack of a cool spaceship too.” Seamus Dornan, one of my mother’s (and Deveron’s) old friends and teammates, spoke up. He was a red-haired man who was only a few inches taller than me, and pretty slender overall. “Feels like a gyp.” 

“Shouldn’t say that word, man.” That was Seamus’s cousin, Roger. He was an inch shorter than even Seamus, with light blond hair rather than red, though his went all the way to his shoulders. “It’s offensive. Like a slur against the Romani people. You know, making a whole word based on what they used to be called mean ‘to rip someone off’? Pretty fucking bad, dude.” To the rest of us, he added, “And he thinks he’s the responsible one.” 

“Remind me,” Seamus shot back, “how much money do you owe on drinks at our bar?” 

“I’m sorry, say that again.” Roger scoffed audibly. “Our bar. You don’t have to buy drinks at your own bar. That’s like, the main benefit of owning one.” 

“Actually,” Seamus informed him, “the benefit of owning a bar is making money off of said bar. Which is hard to do when your business partner throws away half your stock between his own drinking and giving out rounds on the house.” 

To the rest of us, Roger stage-whispered, “He’s really cranky about this whole ‘not a spaceship’ thing.” 

“It might not be a spaceship,” Tribald Kine put in as the tall, incredibly thin man approached, “but it’s still going to take us to other worlds.” As the others looked to him, he explained, “The truck is equipped with a portal-generator. But it doesn’t have the power to go straight from here to our destination. That’s too far. They’ve got seven different jump points on small, shielded asteroids or moons between here and there. The truck makes a jump to one spot, then needs about twenty-four hours to recharge for the next one.” 

“Right,” Deveron confirmed while approaching after apparently having taken care of the body up on the roof, “Which is why this is going to take us a week to get there and a week to get back. We’ve got some… extra plans for the return trip, but we’ll see about that when we come to it. For now, everyone aboard the truck. Time to play delivery people.

“And in this case, we’ll owe a lot more than a free pizza if we’re late.” 

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Kairos 9-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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I had thought that the fight in this quarry was insane and chaotic before. But all of that had been nothing compared to this. Hundreds of thousands of undead creatures, all rushing in every possible direction, even up into the air, to escape. Any of them could have been Fossor in disguise, so all of them had to be stopped. They all had to be either destroyed or exposed as the Necromancer himself. We couldn’t let even a single one get out of this quarry. 

“Mom!” I blurted, even as a skeletal deer-like thing tried to sprint past me. My staff snapped that way, shoving through the bones of the thing’s neck just before I triggered a kinetic blast that blew the head into splinters and sent the rest of the bones tumbling to the ground before they broke apart into dust. “What do we do?! How’re we supposed to find the right one?!” 

My mother, for her part, had just finished catching five zombies and a ghost inside some kind of gelatinous cube thing that instantly incinerated itself and them once they were all caught inside it. “Rahanvael,” she said quickly while pointing her hand to send a single, tight-beam laser that caught three more fleeing zombies who had been making a break for it through a small opening. 

I didn’t have to voice the question. Rahanvael was already there, appearing in front of me while shaking her head quickly. “I–I don’t know! His power is everywhere, he’s obfuscating himself somehow! He knows I can find him by tracking his power, so he–he’s spread it everywhere! I can’t focus–I need… I need…” It was obvious that she was going to say she needed time. Time we didn’t have, because of all this chaos. Even in that moment, I was shifting my staff into its bow form and firing a single energy arrow that made a huge Meregan zombie stumble so that Roxa in werewolf form could leap onto its back. She was followed by several more of her wolf pack, who all took the Meregan to the ground together, tearing the already-dead body apart.  

“Time, I know!” I quickly put in, spinning back to hock a wad of that amber-like spit toward a skeleton that was trying to rush past Shiori while her back was turned as she caught one of her spinning discs. It caught the thing’s feet and the ground, pinning it there so she could finish it off. 

“You need time?” That was Avalon. She pivoted to face me from a few yards away while the gauntlet of her extended arm projected a blade that cut the head from another zombie. “We’ll cover you.” Despite everything going on around her, despite her own heavy panting as she continued killing these things, Avalon’s voice was still calm and collected. “Do what you need.” 

“Damn straight!” That was Columbus, appearing to one side. He had Amethyst, his porcupine cyberform, in her shield form with the quills pointed out. Two of those quills flew off, and when they hit this huge, winged-zombie creature in mid-flight, the ice spells on them activated, freezing the thing solid just long enough to bring it crashing back to the ground with a heavy thud as dust flew everywhere. “Focus on finding the chief asshole, we’ve got these ones!” 

Shiori, Koren, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were right there too. All of them spread out around me, focused on keeping the fleeing undead away from me. Away from us. 

Quickly, I looked to Rahanvael. “One chance,” I said quickly. “We have to hurry, or–”

“I know.” Rahanvael said simply. There was no need for me to continue. We both knew. If we didn’t identify exactly where Fossor was before he managed to escape, this whole thing would’ve been for nothing and he would just try all this again. She looked at me intently. “I need to… to possess you, basically. I need your power, your connection to the undead to weed all the extra out.” 

I didn’t even hesitate. With all the insanity around us, as practically everyone I knew who could fight did so against hundreds of thousands of Fossor’s forces, I extended a hand to her. “Do it.”

It wasn’t the same as Seosten possession, of course. If nothing else, I already had one of those with my sister. This was ghost possession, and as Rahanvael’s hand touched mine, I could tell the difference. This was… cold, for lack of a better term. I felt a chill that seemed to run through my actual soul, as this ghost merged fully with me. I could feel her thoughts, her terror that the creature her brother had turned into would actually escape again. I could feel her determination that he not do so, that he be stopped for good here and now. I could feel everything, just as she could undoubtedly feel all of my own thoughts and feelings. 

I have to put everything into finding him, Rahanvael’s voice informed both Tabbris and me. Everything. 

She wasn’t exaggerating. The whole world went dark then. I couldn’t see or hear anything around us. I couldn’t even sense anything with my powers. It was one huge black void. All my senses were turned off, aside from… wait. Energy. I could… feel energy. Life energy–no, not life. Death. I could feel death energy around us. Literally everywhere around us. It was a hurricane of Necromantic energy. No wonder it was so impossible for Rahanvael to differentiate anything. Fossor really was hiding himself in a giant storm of power. The only chance we had was that he was cautious. He wouldn’t make the first run for an escape. He’d wait to see where an opening appeared. But he also wouldn’t wait too long, because he only had so many forces to keep our people busy with. Wherever that piece of shit was, he would make his move soon. 

We had to find him before that. It was the only choice, the only chance we had. Find him. Stop him. 

This was terrifying. I knew there was violence going on around me. I could feel the undead through their energy. But I couldn’t feel my friends. I had no idea how they were doing. I just… I just had to trust that they were safe, that they were still right there protecting Tabbris and me. I had no idea how the fight was going, if they were hurt or… or worse. My only choice was to stand here, blind and deaf, and trust that my friends could take care of themselves. 

Fuck, this was hard. 

I could feel Rahanvael taking control of my Necromancy power, could sense how she was using it to direct the death energy around us. I wasn’t yet powerful enough, even with her help, to take control of more than a few of these things at a time. But she wasn’t trying to take control of them. She was infecting them with my power, letting that power spread quickly through the army, sort of like a virus. I couldn’t actually make them do anything with that tiny amount of power, but I could see where it went, the way it mixed with Fossor’s own power. Through what felt like hours, my power spread through the undead within the quarry, just a dot of it here or there. Not enough to actually do anything with them, but enough to mark all of them. 

All of them, that was, except for one. One spot where my power couldn’t infect Fossor’s. One spot. One being who was immune to being touched by my own Necromancy. 

Him. It was him. 

We found him. 

My eyes opened as Rahanvael separated herself from me, and I saw the carnage around us. It was clear that Fossor had left his horde instructions not only to escape, but also to kill me if they could manage it. All around us were dozens upon dozens of dead (or redead) things, or just the dust and ectoplasm from skeletons and ghosts. My friends, my teammates, had been joined by others. My mother, Deveron, the rest of her own team, Asenath, Bobbi, Vanessa and Tristan, and more. It had clearly taken all of them to keep these things off me through the time that I had been indisposed. 

There wasn’t time to thank them. There wasn’t time for anything. Not when I knew where Fossor was. I could still feel him, could still sense the way his own power was so different from mine. Now that it had been so thoroughly pointed out to me, it was a difference I could never forget. The man himself was like a bright shining beacon, so different from the rest of the creatures around him now that they had all been marked by my power. 

And he was making his move. Even as I focused on my ability to sense him, I could feel the Necromancer bolting for an open spot. The fighting had spread out too far. Our forces were thin on the edges. He had the opening he wanted, the opening he needed to escape. 

Like fuck would I let that happen. 

“Got him!” I blurted, spinning toward the direction I could still feel the bastard in. Unfortunately, that just put me face to face with a veritable wall of both enemies and friends. The battle raged on ahead of me, not only on the ground but in the air too. There was no way I could get through all that in time to reach Fossor before he managed to escape. He was already making his move!

At least, there was no way I could do that alone. But I wasn’t alone. The moment they realized where I was trying to go, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Asenath, and all the others launched themselves that way. The wall of enemies in the way collapsed inward as my people, my friends, barrelled headlong into it. A hole, they were making a hole for me to get through. 

I took advantage without thought. I would thank them later, I would say… everything that needed to be said later. Right now, only one thing mattered, getting to Fossor and stopping him once and for all. 

It wasn’t as easy as just going through a single opening and then having a free run to where the evil piece of shit was, of course. The entire quarry was filled with these creatures, all of them in my way. Or at least, they tried to be in my way. But Avalon and the others stayed just ahead of me, tearing their way through the enemies. Here, Sands made a wall to block off one section to create an opening. There, Gordon encased himself in enormous ice armor and used one long arm to swat a group of zombies away. There, Sean and Vulcan worked with Sarah and her own gun to put down a group of fliers that were trying to swoop in from above. 

Koren and Miranda worked together to deal with a massive skeleton giant to the left. To the right, Vanessa and Tristan were stopping a cloud of angry ghosts from reaching us. Bobbi and Asenath raced ahead, each grabbing a rotting zombie barbarian creature, tearing the pair apart from each other and out of the way. 

Deveron and Lillian were there, the latter using a summoned wind storm to hurl a dozen undead into the air before the former incinerated them with a blast of white-blue fire from his pistol. The Dornans and Tribald Kine were stopping a literal giant (the thing towered at least twenty feet tall, twice the size of a Meregan) from stomping down on the spot just ahead of me. 

Everyone, everyone was helping. They were clearing the path. I was taking advantage, racing through the holes they created. I didn’t have time to slow down, didn’t have time to help. Getting to Fossor was all that mattered. They had this. I had him. 

Or rather, we had him. Because my mother was right beside me. The two of us sprinted onward, Mom right at my side. The others could barely keep up with clearing the path, not even worrying about killing everything in the way. They were purely focused on simply moving the enemies. Even then, it was only the fact that we had so many on our side, so many friends and allies right there with us, that allowed Mom and I to keep running without slowing down to engage with the minions ourselves. Neither of us spoke. Neither of us needed to. We were together right here, at this last moment. That was all that mattered, the two of us being together, side-by-side, as we made one final run to either stop Fossor from escaping, or die trying. 

A blast from Columbus’s goggles slammed into a huge, twelve-foot tall troll zombie that had been looming up in front of us, the concussive force putting the thing on its back long enough for my mother and I to leap over it. I had to boost to make the full jump, while my mother used some kind of gravity manipulation power to keep herself in the air long enough to make it from the troll’s feet all the way past its head. It was starting to recover, starting to grab for us, but we were already gone. Behind us, I heard a howl as Dare, in giant wolf form, landed on top of the thing to make sure it would never be a threat again.

I could feel him. I could still feel Fossor. He was… he was there. He was just ahead of us. But, close as he was to us, he was also close to the edge of the quarry, and thus close to escaping the spell that was keeping him trapped here. The moment he made it over that line, the very second that monster managed to edge a foot out of the magic that stopped him from teleporting, he would be gone. He would escape. He would leave and go back to being a threat for everyone in the world, a threat that would hurt and kill everyone I cared about. 

Fuck. That. 

Tabbris! I shouted inwardly, even as Mom intercepted some kind of spinning ghost armed with glowing blades that came in out of nowhere. That wing blast thing, can you do it again? I had no idea what all that was about, and there wasn’t time for details. All that mattered was whether she had another one in her or not. I’d had the impression that she couldn’t do that constantly, that it needed time to recharge. But had it been enough time yet? 

There was a brief hesitation, even as I pivoted to stab the blade of my staff through a zombie that came lunging at us from that side. He was with a horde of others, but our friends had managed to intercept the rest. I could feel Tabbris’s doubt, but it was quickly replaced by firm determination. Yes, she insisted. I can do it again. 

Good, ready? I let her take in exactly what I wanted to do, what I was planning. 

Ready! I could feel that she was afraid, afraid of her own power, afraid of this whole situation, of messing up and letting Fossor escape. She was terrified. But she was here. She was here with me, and determined to make this work. Whatever it took. 

“Mom!” I blurted out loud. “On three, hit me with the strongest energy blast you can and get us into the air. One… two… three!”

As I said that, my hands gripped my staff, triggering the boost to start my launch upward. At the same time, I felt my mother’s hands grab my shoulders as she used her gravity power to send us flying even higher than my staff could manage. On the way, her hands glowed and I felt her pouring energy into me. Energy that I focused on absorbing. 

We were in the air. More enemies came in from all sides, but between Mom and our friends below, they were dealt with. 

Most importantly, I could see him. I could see the single ‘zombie’ making a flat run for the line. Fossor had abandoned blending in by that point. No one was around him, they were all engaged with other threats and too far away. No one could stop him. 

Or so he thought. The second I saw that clear path to the monster, I blurted both inwardly and aloud, “Do it now!” 

It was like before, when we had used a powered up blast to destroy the creatures blocking me from reaching Fossor the first time. But now, we weren’t shooting an army. Nor were we shooting Fossor himself. Tabbris and I both knew the man would just shove the effect off onto any of his creatures who were still here. Then he’d keep going and escape. 

No, we didn’t shoot Fossor. We shot the ground. Those bright light wings appeared from my back and a blinding blast of power, a ten-foot-wide eruption of energy hurtled itself down out of the sky, tearing into the Earth with a deafening blast that sent dirt, dust, and rocks in every direction. 

Through that blinding, choking cloud, Mom and I fell. We landed together, and my mother used a quick gust of wind to send the dust away. 

We were in a hole. A twenty-foot-wide, twelve-foot-deep hole. About as wide as a boxing ring without the ropes. A boxing ring with a single opponent who stood facing us, hatred and disbelief twisting his features. 

“Leaving so soon?” I demanded, taking a quick step away from my mother so we wouldn’t be caught in the same attack. “And without us? I thought we were supposed to be a family and all that.” 

“Yes, brother,” Rahanvael agreed, appearing beside me. “We are family.” 

“We are family,” Mom corrected pointedly, straightening up as she focused on Fossor. “Not him.” Her hand snapped out, throwing some kind of enchanted marble into the air. As it hit the top of the hole we were all in, a glowing energy shield appeared, creating a forcefield ceiling to keep all of us, Fossor included, right here in the hole. 

This was it. No other tricks. No escapes. No new allies or friends. They were all busy, all occupied. My mother and I (with Rahanvael and Tabbris), facing the man who had done so much to tear our family apart. Just us. Just him. For the last time. 

One way or another, this was the end.

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Kairos 9-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Eight geysers of blood blew their way out of the ground, each like a firehose of red-stained water turned on full blast. Those eight sanguine jets hardened immediately into long, deadly spikes and rushed toward Shiori, Avalon, Asenath, and me. Two for each of us, and they came in the blink of an eye, faster than most people would have been able to even think, let alone dodge. 

But we weren’t most people. Even as my pair of red-tinted spikes were about to shove themselves through my stomach and chest, I was already pivoting while lashing out with my staff. A quick kinetic blast blew the sharpened ends off, making those ends shift back into liquid form to spray off to the side. 

Meanwhile, just to my left, Shiori slipped directly between her own incoming spears, catching hold of one before flipping herself up onto it. She then opened her mouth and used the Cù-Sith’s sonic scream, projecting a blast of sound that was so loud and so focused on a very small area, that it literally shattered part of the red spikes a bit closer to the point where they had popped out of the ground, making both fall apart. Shiori, of course, ended up covered in blood as her temporary perch went from solid to liquid. 

Avalon and Asenath were dealing with theirs too, but they were behind me, so I had no idea what they did. Only that they were alive and still moving, according to my item sense. 

Unfortunately, no sooner had we broken Fossor’s blood spikes and made them turn back into liquid, than they were suddenly solid again. And this time, they weren’t spikes. Instead, dozens of snakes, spiders, and scorpions, all made of solid-formed blood, erupted from those puddles and were set upon us. They were everywhere, dozens of them biting and stinging while we tried to smack them away. But whenever we tried to hit them, they turned back into liquid and just reformed an instant later. It was like trying to punch water. It was all we could do to survive those few precious seconds. Alone, even the four of us probably would have been overwhelmed. 

But we weren’t alone. And not only because of my mother and her team fighting Fossor on the other side in a fast-pitched battle I couldn’t even hope to keep track of while in the midst of my own. Virginia Dare was with us too, a fact she made sure to remind the son of a bitch of by appearing directly in between our group, a quick teleport. She had her spell-loaded sword in one hand, already shouting a command word while she drove the blade through one of the blood-formed snakes that had been trying to lunge at me. As the blade passed through the crimson serpent, it turned liquid once more. But then it also turned into powder and dust, blowing apart. An instant later, the rest of the blood-creatures did the same as the spell apparently passed to them. We were clear, for a brief moment anyway. 

In that moment, I caught a glimpse of my mother fighting alongside her oldest friends (and first husband). The magical energy blade she summoned extended itself out to be ten feet long for a single swing, cutting through a giant skeletal hand that had been ripping its way out of the ground toward them. Even as the bones fell, Tribald Kine clapped his own hands together, creating some kind of wind-ball that flew out from him, caught the shattered bones, and sent them flying away. Meanwhile, Deveron and Lillian were both dealing with a small army of giant zombified vulture-creatures, and the two Dornan men had a dozen ghosts captured in some sort of energy net. 

That was all I was able to see in that brief glimpse, before a backhanded, almost contemptuous gesture from Fossor sent a brand new threat our way. This one came in the form of a deep, incredibly heavy fog. Suddenly, it was all-but impossible to see more than a foot or so in front of our faces. Worse, the fog was cold. So cold I felt ice immediately start to form around and on me. It was an oppressive, magic sort of cold. It made me want to just…. stop, just lie down and stay completely… just… take a little nap, a quick one. It wouldn’t hurt that much in the long run, would it? I could close my eyes, curl in on myself, and then go right back to the important business of… of whatever I was doing. Yeah, it couldn’t be that–

FLICK! 

It was Tabbris, screaming in my head as she took over my body to trigger the boost from the staff, launching us upward. We flew out of the magic fog, and I felt the supernatural cold fade, along with the overwhelming tiredness and confusion. I could see Mom and the others on her side fighting Fossor head-on. They hit him repeatedly, but of course nothing stuck. He just passed off everything that could possibly hurt him to any of his billions of magical hostages. It was taking everything they had just to stop him from progressing. They couldn’t actually hurt him. And in a fight like that, it didn’t matter how powerful or skilled they were. Fossor would win through sheer attrition. Eventually they would slip up, no matter how good they were.  

Worse, I couldn’t see Dare or any of the other three through that thick fog. I’d only managed to avoid falling to it thanks to my partner. The others didn’t have that bit of help. I had to do something to clear it out. But what? 

All of that, taking in what my mother’s group was doing, along with the rush of thoughts about Avalon and the others, came even as I started to fall back into the fog. The blast had only taken me up so far. But I compensated by using the Lemevwik’s power on the feet part of my Seosten bodysuit, freezing their descent. Again, it would only last for a few seconds. But for those seconds, the feet of my suit, and thus my whole body, stopped falling. It was like standing on solid ground. 

A few seconds. I had a few seconds to figure out how to get rid of that magic fog. But how? How?! I didn’t have the power to just blow it away, and there wasn’t–

Wait. There. One second into my frantic rush of thoughts, I saw a small hole in the ground just beyond the fog. It would have been impossible to notice from below, but from this angle it was visible. The hole was only a few inches across, and the fog was being projected from it. That was the source. 

Without wasting another instant, I shifted my staff back into its bow form. Even as the Lemevwik’s power faded and my body started falling once more, I managed to send a kinetic-energy arrow right at that hole. It struck home, blowing a spray of dirt and rock in every direction and destroying the spell rune that Fossor had apparently placed there ahead of time, no doubt when he was prepping this place for an event like this. And I had no doubt there were more surprises like that all over. After all, the man was annoyingly good at being prepared. A place where he was setting up his final, apocalyptic spell to kill and take over all Bosch Heretics and subsequently all of Earth? After his regular home had been attacked? Yeah, he would have tricks and traps like that all over the place, just ready to be triggered. 

This one, however, was dealt with. The instant I blew apart the bit of ground where the spell rune had been, the magic freezing fog vanished like it had never been there. I landed in a crouch, just beside Avalon even as the other girl straightened from where she had been hunched in on herself. 

“Flick,” she managed, in a voice that cracked from emotion. 

“I know,” I managed, though there was so much more I desperately wanted to say. “Later. This first. This now. We stop Fossor. It’s all that matters.” 

She gave a very short nod, a bare acknowledgment. She knew. We all knew. Nothing mattered except for putting Fossor in the fucking ground for good. Ending him before he ended us. That was all there was to it. Nothing else, not my love for Avalon and Shiori, not my desperate need to reunite with my mother, not my relief to have Tabbris back with me, not my worry about Dare being my actual grandmother, none of that held a candle to stopping Fossor right now

Without another word exchanged between us, Avalon and I ran together toward the monster himself. Within two steps, Shiori was on my other side, joined by Asenath. 

An army of undead rose into our path. Hundreds of rotting corpses tore their way out of the ground, forcing themselves between us and our target. I couldn’t control that many, not even close. And fighting them would slow us down. It was too much, this fucker never ran out of troops! 

A deafening roar filled the air, and I saw an Amarok–Dare. It was Dare, in her full Amarok form. The giant wolf, bigger than a city bus, lunged over our heads and landed right in the middle of the largest concentration of zombies. She spun, taking half a dozen into her mouth and pitching them away even as her tail and legs knocked more flying. A path, she was clearing a path. 

The four of us raced right between the giant wolf’s legs, sprinting together into the semi-open space she was creating. 

Semi-open, because there were still zombies around, still undead tearing their way out of the ground and toward us. Dare-Wolf was doing everything she could to clear space for us to move, but we still had to deal with plenty of them ourselves. 

Avalon pivoted toward me, Porthos (her lizard-cyberform) in his pistol form clutched in one hand as she fired three quick shots. They came so close that one brushed through my hair, each hitting a different zombie behind me in the head. At the same time, her other arm stabbed to her left, gauntlet manifesting a buzzsaw blade that took the head off a fourth zombie that was coming toward Shiori before the buzzsaw immediately transformed into two horizontal blades faced in opposite directions that extended outward to spear through the heads of two more enemies. 

Shiori, at the same time, was hurling her electrified discs through the foreheads of a couple different zombies while simultaneously lashing out with a kick against a third into its chest. That third zombie was sent stumbling backward, just as a second Shiori appeared. But it wasn’t actually a second Shiori. Not in the same way that Miranda duplicated herself. Instead, this version seemed more ghost-like, only partially visible, like a flickering image. It only appeared long enough to duplicate the exact same move Shiori had just done a moment earlier, kicking the zombie further away. Then it vanished and a third Shiori appeared, this one even more indistinct and flickering, kicking the zombie yet again in the exact same way. That continued through a total of five increasingly flickering and gradually almost invisible duplicates, all doing the exact same thing until the zombie was positioned directly under Dare-Wolf’s giant foot just as it came down hard, smashing the undead thing. 

Meanwhile, as Avalon fired those three shots past my head and Shiori’s repeated semi-tangible duplicates kicked the zombie into position for Dare, I drove the blade of my staff down through a portal I had created. The other end of the portal opened up behind Valley, sending the blade into the head of the zombie that had been moving up behind her even as she focused on watching the backs of Shiori and me. Just as quickly, I yanked the staff out of the portal, shouting her name as I threw myself that way. 

Avalon reacted instantly, ducking down and bending forward to present her back to me, which I used by planting one hand on it to vault over her while lashing out with my staff. The bladed end cut through two zombies that were coming up on that side, while I simultaneously launched the grapple-end into the face of another one, retracting it to rip the head off entirely. 

Behind me, Avalon had straightened in time to switch Porthos to his lizard form, tossing him onto the shoulder of another incoming zombie. Porthos, in turn, pulled his tail free, using it as his sword to stab into the neck of the undead creature he was perched on. With a rush of chittering nonsense words that sounded like his own version of some epic declaration, the tiny cyberform stabbed the zombie repeatedly in the neck, severing the head and riding the body to the ground. 

Just beyond Avalon’s lizard, as I shifted my staff to its bow form and fired a shot into a group that was moving to cut us off, Asenath had flipped up and over a zombie that was lunging for her, hurling two daggers into the foreheads of a couple others who were coming toward her. As she landed, the girl produced a third dagger, driving it backwards through the back of the first zombie’s head. Then she pivoted, lashing out with a roundhouse kick that hit the hilt of that last knife so hard, it was projected all the way through the zombie’s head and out the other side to fly into the throat of yet another one. 

The zombies kept coming, making us pay in drastic violence for every single inch of ground we gained. Even with Dare-Wolf above us, dealing with the largest concentration of them (and she was doing a hell of a lot more than biting them, actually involving a lot of lightning, fire, and wind in the process to blow them away), there were still a fair number who made it through. 

And yet, we pressed on. I took two steps, then ducked and spat a glob of quick-hardening resin against the feet of two zombies who were in mid-lunge. They were stopped short in their tracks, just before Shiori’s hurled discs tore through their necks, leaving the heads to fall to either side. But before the two bodies could drop, Avalon was there. She grabbed both by the chests, disintegrating them into dust the way I’d seen her do earlier. Her hands snapped outward then, sending the disintegrated zombie dust flying onto another pair before it ignited in green flames once more. The zombies were melted by the intense heat. 

A skeletal form tore its way up from the ground to grab Avalon’s ankles and bite into her leg, but I was already there. I’d felt the thing arriving, and my hand snapped up, forcing the undead creature to stop in mid-lunge. It released her, and with a quick gesture from both hands, I made it scramble its way out of the hole before sending it running into another of its own kind. They collided violently and collapsed together, leaving a tangled heap of bones on the ground from the impressive tackle. 

While I was doing that, Tabbris took control of my right hand, creating a quick portal before stabbing the blade of the staff through it to punch into the side of another zombie’s head just before it could grab Shiori. That girl, in turn, had been in the midst of catching a skeleton’s incoming swinging arm against both of her discs, before she gave a sharp whistle and made the thing’s head blow apart into bone-dust. 

A quick burst from my staff sent me flying that way, just in time to put my foot through the chest of a zombie that had been right between my girls. And that was literally through the chest of the zombie. It was gooey. 

Even as that one was falling, Avalon blurted my name while seemingly punching right at my face. I ducked, letting her extend the blade to take the head off the thing that had been coming up behind me. 

At the same time, Shiori extended her own hand, snapping, “Gun!” Which was all it took for Valley to backhand toss Porthos to her before the other girl snapped him up in his pistol form and fired three rapid shots that took yet another trio of zombies out that had been coming up from behind Avalon. 

Kill, punch, stab, dodge, kick, power. It went on and on. Dozens and dozens of the things fell, and yet dozens and dozens remained. There was no limit to them, none. We were closer to Fossor, but he was also closer to the altar, gradually forcing my mother and her team back inch by inch. And we weren’t closing the gap fast enough. It was all Dare could do to keep things as clear as they were so that we weren’t completely overwhelmed. Not to mention everyone else who was here fighting in the quarry. Fossor had billions of forces at his disposal. Even if he could only bring over so many at a time, our small group would have been completely destroyed without literally everyone else who had our backs. 

But it wasn’t enough. There were still… fuck, way too many zombies in our way. Fossor had flooded the area between us with another hundred or so, and there wasn’t time to deal with all of them. There just wasn’t time! 

Flick! Tabbris’s voice in my head blurted. Tell Shiori to electrocute you, absorb it all, then on the count of three, boost with everything you’ve got. All of it! 

I didn’t question it. I had questions, for sure. But I trusted my sister. “Shiori!” I snapped. “Shock me, now!” 

To her credit, she didn’t question it either. I felt her slam both her discs against my back, flooding me with electricity while I focused on absorbing everything I could. In the back of my mind, I heard Tabbris counting. On three, I shoved everything I’d absorbed into my boost. I felt Tabbris doing the same, adding her own boost to mine. 

The world slowed down dramatically. I saw the incoming horde blocking our way. I saw every detail of their rotting faces. I saw my mother and her people on the far side of Fossor, fighting to stop him from getting any closer to his target. I saw all of it. 

My staff hit the ground, slammed down by Tabbris as she triggered the kinetic blast while simultaneously leaping with our feet. We hurled up into the air, just barely missing colliding with Dare as the giant wolf moved aside. The horde of zombies stretched out below us, while more flying versions were already incoming. But for this single moment, we had an opening. 

And boy did Tabbris use that opening. As we were briefly suspended there in mid-air, I felt… power unlike any I had ever felt before. Wings made of golden light erupted from my back, extending outward to either side to flare like a literal fucking angel. 

Then… annihilation. The wings fired a massive laser, empowered by our combined super-charged boosts, which tore through the line of zombies below and utterly decimated them. There was nothing left but a crater full of random assorted body parts. Nothing. 

A second later, we landed in a crouch right in front of Shiori, Avalon, and Asenath, with Dare already reverting to her human form right behind all of us. 

I… had questions. God damn did I have questions. But there wasn’t time. All that mattered was getting to Fossor. And right now, the way was open. 

But it wasn’t open for long. While the five of us raced that way, more of those undead troops were rising to plug the gap that Tabbris had created. They fell in behind and around us like a flood of water rushing to fill in a brief hole. Even as we ran, they kept coming. Dare pivoted, using a forcefield to block a rush from behind us. With one hand, she tossed something to me. It was a round piece of metal with a rune inscribed on it. 

“Get it to your mother! She can use it to break the altar!” 

With the enchanted bit of metal in one hand, I sprinted. Avalon shouted for me to keep going, focusing her own efforts to the left side to keep those ones down. Shiori and Asenath turned to the right, repeating Valley’s words. 

And me? I ran straight on. Fossor was there, face to face with my mother. Most of the others were caught up, dealing with other things he had summoned. But Mom still stood in his way, albeit barely. They were only a few feet from the altar, and she was faltering a bit. Nothing she did actually stuck. She could kill this fucker a dozen times over or more and it wouldn’t matter. 

Then she saw me, and steely resolve returned to her gaze. Her sword snapped up, actually cutting through the one that Fossor had summoned, before she lashed out with a kick that sent him stumbling backward toward me. As she did so, I used a quick portal, shoving my hand through to drop Dare’s magic bit of metal into Mom’s grasp. I felt her fingers against mine ever-so-briefly.

Then my hand pulled back as the portal disappeared. Mom had the thing in her grasp. Our gazes met. We locked eyes. And then my mother did the one thing Fossor never could have expected. 

She turned her back to him and focused on the altar itself. 

In that moment, at that very instant, my mother… trusted me to handle Fossor for the few seconds it would take. She didn’t rush to protect me. She didn’t focus on keeping him away from me. She trusted me. And she put my fate in that trust, while she herself dealt with the threat to the actual world. 

Fossor, taken aback, screamed a threat while Mom raised the enchanted metal disc above the altar. He saw what she was doing, and it was apparently a real threat, because suddenly he was very focused on killing her. 

But I wouldn’t let that happen. With my own scream, I launched myself at him. His free hand lashed out to contemptuously smack me away… except I wasn’t there. Instead of blindly flinging my body at him, I had used a short burst from my staff to arrest my motion in mid-leap. Dropping to a crouch just as Fossor’s hand passed right over my head, I triggered the grapple, launching it full-force into the hand that he was pointing at my mother. The grapple itself passed right over his arm, but the energy rope part caught him, yanking his extended hand to the side just before he could finish whatever he had been intending to do to stop her. 

And then it was too late. Mom’s hand with that disc came slamming down as she blurted a single command word. With a brilliant, blinding burst of energy and light, the altar literally disintegrated before our eyes. Every bit of magic that Fossor had put into it just… fell apart. 

As for the man himself, he… wasn’t happy. To say the least. A deafening scream of rage erupted from him, and he was suddenly moving at me. I brought up my staff to defend myself, but he smacked it aside easily. “You take what I want?!” he bellowed at my mother, while a flickering green forcefield sprang up around us, cutting her off even as she lunged to save me. 

The world spun as Fossor easily manhandled me, throwing me against the ground so hard it took my breath away. His foot stomped down on my chest, making that whole breathing thing worse. Then he stomped hard on my arm, snapping it. Pain filled me as I cried out, only for the man to stomp down on my wrist that time. That broke too, renewing my cry. It would heal, pretty fast considering everything I’d gotten regeneration from. But not quick enough for me to defend myself. Beyond the forcefield, Mom was shouting at him. 

Fossor didn’t care. A snarl filled his voice. “You take what I want?” he repeated, “I will take what you want. But first, I will… break!” With that word, he stomped on my hand, and I felt something snap there. “Every!” Another stomp, and two more fingers broke. “Bone!” He stomped yet again. My hand felt like he was crushing it. Agony filled my every thought. 

Well, almost every thought. I did have one more…

“In!” Fossor continued, his foot coming down once more. Except… this time he didn’t hit my hand. His foot collided with something solid. And as he did, a thunderclap, loud enough to rock the heavens, filled the quarry. A level of power I had never experienced, not even when Fossor had sent me to the future, suddenly washed through the air like a shockwave going in every direction. 

He knew something was wrong. He felt it immediately. Doubling over with a gasp of genuine shock, Fossor snapped, “What–what… my world… my world, I can’t–what did…” 

Yeah, Fossor’s connection to his own world was gone. He’d triggered the curse that said setting foot on Earth ground without stepping on ashes from his people would sever his connection to his homeworld and all those people. Suddenly, he wasn’t a necromancer who controlled billions. All he had was what was already here on Earth. No more unlimited reinforcements. No more passing off every bit of damage that was done to him to literally billions of hostages. 

He was vulnerable. 

In his shock as to how that was possible, Fossor lifted his foot, the one he had been using to stomp my hand into dust. Clenched there in my palm, right where he had technically ‘stepped’, was a small… entirely Earth-bound stone. An Earth-bound stone wearing a hat and holding a tiny sword. 

“That’s right, you piece of shit,” I managed through gritted teeth. 

“Herbie says hi.”

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Kairos 9-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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In that moment, it would’ve been easy to think that we outnumbered our opponent. But, of course, we didn’t. Not in the least. Fossor, after all, commanded and controlled more than an entire world’s worth of slaves he could kill and bring to his aid at a moment’s notice. From what I’d been told, he was at least limited from bringing over literally billions of ghosts with a snap of his fingers, because even he was only so powerful. Particularly when it came to transporting his troops intergalactic distances. 

But while he couldn’t easily bring over billions, or even millions of his cannon-fodder, there was nothing stopping him from bringing over thousands. Which he did, in that exact moment. With no warning, none at all, the quarry was suddenly overrun. Thousands of ghosts, zombies, skeletons, everything dead that Fossor could push his control into, manifested and attacked. They tore their way out of the ground, descended from the air, or simply appeared around us, tearing their way into apparent existence as though ripping through the fabric of space itself. 

In my case, it started as the huge fist of a (dead) Meregan male punched its way out of the dirt. It came so unexpectedly that I took the blow head-on and was sent crashing to the ground, even as the ten-foot-tall figure clambered out of the dirt. The giant zombie roared, slamming both fists down toward me just before Tabbris took control and threw us into a backward roll. 

Mom was fighting her own Meregan giant, along with a handful of fire-manipulating ghosts that seemed intent on trapping her. No, intent on cutting us off from each other. More and more of Fossor’s newly summoned troops were flooding the area between us. 

It was the same all around me. Everyone who had come to help, my old team, my mentors, my friends, my family, everyone was being swarmed. While pushing myself up, from the corner of my eye, I saw Avalon, beautiful amazon that she was, take the heads off of three zombies with a single swipe of a glowing energy blade projected from her gauntlet. In the next second, her hand snapped out to touch one of the collapsing bodies. Under her grip, the zombie disintegrated into a cloud of dust. That dust, at a quick gesture from Avalon, flew into an incoming ghost before suddenly igniting into green flames. Those flames, in turn, destroyed the ghost, making it blow apart with a scream. 

Others, there were others. Shiori of course. God, Shiori. And not only them, not only my girls. But Sands, Koren, Sarah, Sean, Columbus–everyone. I wanted to see them. I wanted to check on them, wanted to help them. But I couldn’t. That fleeting glance was the best I could manage, before my own giant Meregan opponent hurled himself at me. 

But Fossor had taught me a lot. More than I wanted to know really. Particularly about controlling zombies and Meregan in particular. My right hand snapped up, stopping the charging giant in his tracks. He literally froze, just for a moment. I could feel Fossor’s power warring against mine. It would win out in the end. But I only needed a moment. In that time, I snapped my hand down and out, making both of his much larger hands follow suit, slamming into a few smaller skeletal-creatures who had been rushing past him to reach me. 

Meanwhile, completely on her own, Tabbris had taken control of my left hand, the one with the staff. She triggered the cloud of sand to shoot out, superheating it in the process before sending the sand through three zombies that had been coming at us from behind. At the same time, even as the sand was burning through them, she used my mouth to trigger a renewed ghost-fire spell on the staff itself, as the other one had run out. With the staff newly-empowered, Tabbris hurled it through a ghost that was coming up from our other side, before recalling it. 

All of that simply in the time it took me to take control of the Meregan and have him smash those skeletons. We were working together, cooperating and multitasking the way Elisabet and Jophiel had been helping teach us to. In this moment, as we fell instantly back into sync, it was like we’d never been separated. Both of us using my body, my powers, to attack multiple enemies at the same time in entirely different ways. 

And yet, even with that, there were still so many enemies around us. Prosser by himself had been set on by wave after wave of the strongest undead I’d ever seen. Even he, powerful as he was, couldn’t easily swat them aside. He, Gwen, Sariel, Athena, all of them were being attacked by so fucking many of the empowered necromantic creatures. The entire quarry was swarmed, covered, engulfed by these monsters. They came from everywhere, tearing, slashing, clawing, even biting at everyone who sought to stop their master. If Mom and I had been on our own against that kind of onslaught, we never would have lasted as long as we had. It wouldn’t even have been close. 

But, of course, Fossor hadn’t been trying with us as much as he was now. It was patently obvious that, even while he was angry and fighting my mother and me, he’d been dramatically holding back. He still wanted to pull off his spell, after all, and had been saving power for that. That and he was just so accustomed to two people, especially the two of us, not being any real threat, that he didn’t need to go all-out. But now? Now he’d been backed into a corner. He was surrounded by an army of super-powered, pissed off people who wanted him dead. So there were no more half-measures. He was showing us, and everyone else, why he was such a threat. Even in the face of so many absurdly powerful beings, Fossor still had the advantage. Because, powerful as all these people were, cutting through literally billions of hostages in order to actually hurt the son of a bitch himself would take too long. Especially when he could send tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands given enough time, of those same hostages to actively attack. 

But none of that mattered. Not in the long run. It was all noise, distractions from the main point, the main problem: Fossor himself. Because the necromancer hadn’t given up on his plan. Even as a warzone raged around him, even as thousands of his troops were repeatedly summoned and destroyed by some of the most powerful beings on the planet, he was still moving to that altar. He’d been knocked back a couple hundred feet by Gabriel’s shovel-blow. But he was making up the difference, heading right for the altar while using his minions as cover. Strong as everyone here was, even they could only work so fast. Fossor didn’t need to win this fight, he didn’t need his undead minions to actually succeed at beating all of us. He only needed them to play distraction long enough for him to reach that altar and finish his spell. 

I couldn’t let that happen. We couldn’t. With a quick thought, I shoved all the knowledge of what was going on and the risks of just how bad it could be into Tabbris so she would know how important this was. At the same time, I made my commandeered Meregan zombie pivot back that way and sent him running to tackle another of his own (dead) people. I’d worry about the horrors of what I was doing in that moment later. Right now, the only thing that mattered, the only thing, was stopping Fossor. Whatever it took. 

Even as I started to throw myself into a sprint that way, Tabbris was absorbing what I’d ‘told’ her. She gave no verbal response, because one wasn’t needed. Instead, I felt her take control of the burning sand once more, using it to help clear the path and leaving me to focus on actually getting to Fossor in time. The white-hot cloud flew ahead of us, burning through the legs of two zombies so they would fall and allow me to jump over them. Just as quickly, even as I was still in mid-air from that jump, she used my hands to convert the staff into its bow form and sent a shot off to the side to hit three skeletons who were tearing their way out of the ground. 

So many. Fuck, there were so fucking many of these things! Too many to find a way to portal through. They were everywhere, so many I couldn’t even actually see Fossor himself anymore after that brief glimpse. Everywhere I glanced there were hundreds of them, swarming in out of nowhere. He was dumping dozens on top of us with every passing second, filling up every inch of space. For every undead minion that one of us killed, ten more appeared. Between the noise, the screams, the clash of weapons, gunshots, the fwoom and crash of powers, it was utter insanity. No one could keep any of this straight. No one could be expected to focus through all of that. Which, of course, was what Fossor was counting on. Chaos was where he thrived, in this moment. All he had to do was keep everyone busy for these crucial seconds. After that it would all be over, in every way that mattered. 

I only managed two more steps past the legless zombies before a ghost appeared in front of me. This one looked like some kind of reptilian crocodile-humanoid, about nine feet tall and covered in some kind of crackling electricity. Electricity that the semi-translucent figure sent flying at me with a snarl of rage that I was pretty sure actually came from Fossor himself. 

The electricity never reached me. Before I could even move, a sudden wall of stone emerged from the ground to catch the attack. A second later, stairs rose as well, giving me a way over it.

“Go!” Sands blurted, even as she spun to slam her ghost-fire enchanted mace into the side of the spectral-reptilian’s head with so much force he was blown apart in a spray of ectoplasm. “We’ll cover you, we’ve got you, just go!”

As if in response to her words, three zombie heads suddenly exploded, as a shot from Sarah’s rifle blew through them in a line. An instant later, a ghost that had appeared behind Sands was disintegrated by a second quick shot. 

I wasn’t alone anymore. Not in any way. With a quick, blurted thanks, I raced up the stairs that Sands had created. Once I reached the top, the other girl made a sharp gesture with her mace, extending a bridge out from the wall that I could run along. 

She couldn’t get me all the way there, of course. And even from that height, there were still so many ghosts flying through the air that getting a good look at Fossor or the altar was impossible. I still couldn’t just launch or portal myself there. There were too many threats in the way, too many minions that would stop me. 

But the bridge that Sands had created at least got me closer. I was able to run a good twenty feet along it, over the heads and grasping hands of the zombies below. On the way, Tabbris focused on keeping the various dead things from scrambling their way up with us, using burning sand and the staff to either blast them with stored kinetic force directly or to create mines that blew them away from us. A couple managed to climb onto the path ahead of us, but I just leapt up and over them without breaking stride. With my copilot, my little sister, on board once more, I didn’t have to worry about watching my back. She did that. She helped keep the damn things off us so I could focus on moving forward. Without her, I would’ve had to slow down. Without her, I never would have caught up with the piece of shit who was trying to kill and enslave everyone I cared about. 

Reaching the end of the bridge, I was met by an enormous ghost with four arms and some kind of rhino-like horn, hovering there. The ghost gave a wide (too-wide) smile with its large, gaping mouth before that horn started to glow even brighter than the rest of it. 

In the next instant, before I even had a chance to avoid whatever rhino-ghost wanted to do, a blonde figure leapt between us. Nevada. She had that chainsaw-sword of hers, and it was apparently enchanted to hurt ghosts as well, because my would-be attacker gave a violent scream as the buzzing, rapidly-rotating chain sword was shoved into and through him. As the ghost blew apart, Nevada lashed out with her free hand to send a small red ball into a group of skeleton-creatures nearby. The ball exploded into a blast of energy that blew the skeletons apart into pieces of bone, then sort of… reformed and sucked the remains into it. Seriously, it basically hoovered the pieces of bone all back inside it after blowing apart, then returned to Nevada’s hand. 

Meanwhile, I kept moving. Even as the ball returned to its creator’s hand, Nevada pivoted and pointed with the hand that still held her sword. A ring on one of her fingers glowed, sending out a solid-light extension of the stone bridge that reached about thirty feet closer. As I passed her, she turned back to keep my pursuers away. 

Even with her help, Tabbris and I weren’t alone on this bridge. We had to fight our way through every inch of space, as more and more creatures were sent after us. Some kind of flying zombie, a rotting thing with bat-wings and a head that was as large as its body, flew down to grab me by the shoulders while both of us were focused on other threats. 

But it didn’t hold on for long. A beam of concussive force passed right over my head, blowing the flying zombie’s head off before it could so much as screech. 

Columbus. He’d teleported onto the bridge and was already using another couple quick blasts from his goggles to blow away two more of those flying zombies who had been trying to swoop in. He’d also brought Sean with him, who turned back the other way with Vulcan in his minigun form, opening up a devastating hail of bullets that tore through all the creatures who had been blocking our path, opening it up. 

“Better get going, Flickster!” Sean called, still sweeping Vulcan back and forth to pick off those who were still moving. Hundreds of bullets tore through the things. “These hijueputas ain’t gonna stop coming!” 

There was so much I wanted to say right then. But I couldn’t. There wasn’t time. There just… wasn’t time. So, I kept moving, sprinting between the two while praying that there would be a ‘later’ to actually say all the things I wanted to. 

At the end of this second bridge, I was met not by a threat, but a friend. My oldest friend, actually. Miranda was there, using her shield to block several sprays of what looked like acid spit from far below before raising one hand. A distortion in the air, like an almost-invisible tennis ball made of violently twisting and spinning air, appeared in her grasp. With a grunt, she threw it right into the midst of the creatures who were attacking from below, and I arrived just in time to see the tightly-contained winds within it blow apart, sending the creatures violently flying in every direction. 

Even as I reached her, Miranda split off a duplicate, both of them giving me quick, wild grins. “You made it!” one blurted, before the other added, “Wish we could talk, but–” 

“I know,” I interrupted. “Gotta stop him!” With that, I snapped my staff down, using the kinetic force it had charged up to launch myself up and away from them. Fossor. I had to get to Fossor. 

Two more of those flying zombies tried to intercept me in mid-flight. But they were both literally smashed into pieces by two pillars of dirt and rock that tore their way out of the ground to slam into one another, catching the winged-monsters between them. Koren. The girl was below, using one hand to form the arch she’d created out of the two pillars into a raised platform for me. Meanwhile, one of those solid-energy animals she could make, a full-sized wolf in this case, was tearing apart a skeletal figure that had tried to attack the girl. 

I landed on that platform, using it to get a look below. Fossor. There. There he was, getting closer to the altar with each step while the cataclysmic battle raged around him. With a grunt, I launched myself that way, using a blast from my staff to send myself right toward the bastard. 

More undead tried to stop me, only to be caught by the people who cared about me. 

A screaming, banshee-like spirit was captured in a forcefield-like cage by Risa Kohaku, before the cage shrank itself into a tiny ball, destroying its prisoner in the process. 

A four-legged bull-like zombie thing ripped up from the ground and opened its mouth to send a disgusting, horrifyingly long tongue up to grab me. But the tongue and the bull-zombie itself were literally frozen into a solid ice statue by Gordon Kuhn, who stood behind the thing and grabbed it. 

A giant, almost-entirely rotted humanoid corpse, so large it made the Meregan look small, tried to snatch me out of the air. But Hisao was there. Though he only came up to the undead creature’s knee, he punched the thing so hard in that knee that its leg snapped. As it fell, Hisao caught the body, pivoting to slam the thing into the ground so hard the Earth itself seemed to shake. Then I was down. I was on the ground, already running. Everyone behind and around me was still fighting for their lives. And for the lives of everyone else. No matter where I looked, I could see people I cared about being set upon by dozens of undead creatures. Roxa, Carfried, Haiden, Rebecca, Jazz, Doug, everyone and anyone. They were all doing literally everything they could to deal with the literal legion of monstrosities that Fossor had summoned. It was an army of everyone I cared about versus an army of the undead. 

As for the piece of shit himself, he’d… stopped. I realized that even as I came rushing up behind him. The man was a good thirty feet from his altar, but there was someone in his way. 

No, someones. My mother was there, but she wasn’t alone. Deveron was there too. And so were Lillian, Roger and Seamus Dornan, and Tribald Kine. Her old team. Her friends. They were right alongside her, blocking Fossor’s path. 

From the sound of his growl, the man wasn’t exactly in a good mood. I wondered why. He glanced over his shoulder at me, eyes narrowing. “It seems our girl has decided to join us all by herself,” he noted in a dark, threatening voice. 

“No, she hasn’t.” That was Avalon. Valley. She was there, right beside me. “She’s not by herself.” 

“She never is.” Shiori, appearing on my other side, put in. Both of them, both my girls, standing right there on either side of me. Both glaring at Fossor. Not only that, but Asenath was by Shiori as well, standing with her sister. 

Before the man could retort, another voice spoke up from behind the four of us. “They’re right about that, Fossor.” Dare. It was Dare, standing with her sword out to one side as her own gaze narrowed at the man who had unknowingly hurt her family so much. “Felicity will never be alone. Not in the way that you will always be.” 

“Always.” That was Rahanvael, appearing slightly in front of me. Her voice was solem. “You will always be alone, Fossor.” She was clearly making a point by using that name rather than the one belonging to her brother. “You have lived alone. And you will die alone.” 

Fossor, in turn, actually growled a little bit. He looked toward my mother and her people, then back toward me and mine. “You think so?” His words were a snarl through gritted teeth. “Come then.

“Let us see who dies today.”

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Denouement 12 – Life And Death (Heretical Edge)

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“You… you saw her?” Flick’s tentative, quiet voice quivered just a little as she stared at Sariel while Tabbris stood a bit out of the way. The three of them were otherwise alone in one of the Atherby cabins at this point, almost immediately after the escape from the Crossroads prison. The girl had been immediately pulled aside by Mercury and taken to where Sariel waited while everyone else was still sorting themselves out. 

With a single nod, the Seosten woman carefully replied, “Yes. She’s okay, Felicity. Or she was when I… when we left.” Her face fell a bit as she added, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t bring her out. There was no way to do it, not with the spell Fossor had on her. If I possessed her, or took her away from there, it… there wouldn’t have been time to save her. There just wasn’t time, and I didn’t want to play that kind of game with her life. I didn’t want to take that risk.” 

Flick was quiet for a few long seconds, mind lost in considering everything that could have been. So close and yet so far from being reunited with her mother. “And if you did bring her, we don’t know how much it would have helped,” she murmured quietly, clearly trying to convince herself. “She’s still under his control, still sworn to follow his commands. He probably has her under orders to come back to him the instant she’s taken away. There’s not–we don’t know what would’ve happened.” Despite her words, it was clear that Flick desperately wished that a miracle had happened. 

In the end, it was Tabbris who came forward and put a hand gently on her sister’s arm. “Flick?” she began slowly. “A… a lot of good things happened today too. We pulled off a lot of really hard things.” 

With a small smile, Flick took the girl’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re right. A lot of really hard things happened today. A… a lot of really hard things happened this whole year. Impossible things. Starting the rebellion up again, escaping Crossroads, meeting Guinevere, getting the Seosten to back off for a year, everything that…” She swallowed. “Everything that happened with us being out in space. Finding out about you…” Her free hand fondly brushed Tabbris’s hair back. “I can’t believe it hasn’t even been a year since that day on the bus. I haven’t known about all this stuff for even a year yet. I’ve said it before, but it… it feels like a lot longer. A hell of a lot longer.” 

Gazing off into the distance for a few seconds, Flick finally shook that off before focusing on Sariel. “If you think I’m going to blame you for not getting my mother out of there, you’re wrong. You did the best you could. You… you got her friends, her old teammates out. That should’ve been impossible. I know what Fossor does, how he… how he likes to be in control. I don’t know exactly what you did, but I know that if you got both of those hostages away from him, it must’ve been one of the most amazing things in a world full of amazing things. I know you must have risked a lot to save them. You could have left. You could have recalled out of there. You had to fight my mom with Fossor right there, and you stayed? You stayed and you got my mom’s friends out. You saved them. If your guilt complex thinks I’m going to be mad at you because you didn’t manage to throw the game-winning touchdown through a neighboring basketball hoop to pull out that game at the same time, you’re crazy. Yeah, I wish my mom was here. I really wish we could’ve added her to the list of rescued parents this year like that. But I’m not mad because it didn’t happen. This whole thing isn’t over yet. Nowhere near it. You didn’t fail to bring her back, you succeeded at stopping him from using my mother’s friends to torture her even more. You took them away from him.” 

Through the resulting long silence as Flick finished talking, she and Sariel stared at one another. Finally, Tabbris leaned that way and stage-whispered. “See, Mama? I told you Flick’s great.” 

The words made both of the others laugh a bit despite themselves, before the girl in question cleared her throat a bit awkwardly. “Um, you said you brought Roger and Seamus out of there?” 

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “But they are… well, they’re still being tended to. We’re having them checked thoroughly for any traps or tricks. You can see them as soon as we’re absolutely certain nothing… bad will happen. I don’t believe Fossor intended them to be rescued, but we’ve already found several trap spells on the two that he clearly left just in case. We’re making sure those were the only ones before letting them anywhere near you or any of Joselyn’s family.” 

“That makes sense,” Flick muttered darkly. “I’m pretty sure Fossor doesn’t like his toys being taken away. Of course he’d have contingency measures for even ones like them. And… and my mother… he’s had her a lot longer.” Her voice shook, eyes widening with thoughts of what kind of measures the necromancer might have taken to ensure her mother would be with him forever as she clutched a hand against her suddenly queasy stomach. 

Sariel stepped that way to embrace Felicity. “I will promise you every day until it happens, we will get your mother away from that monster. Whatever we have to do, he is not going to keep her.” 

Flick, a bit surprised by the hug but going with it, swallowed hard. “I… I know. It just feels like we’ve had to ignore him for so long this year. We’ve ignored him and look what he’s done. He killed one of the Committee members and blamed Gaia for it. He stole the Hangman rope for… for whatever horrible thing he’s planning to use that for. When I met him, I had one year before he came for me. Now I have a few months. That’s it. A few months, then whatever plan he’s got for me, whatever he’s been working on this whole time, it’ll be time for it.” 

“Whatever it is,” Sariel firmly assured her. “I can’t promise we’ll be ready for it. But I can promise that we will do everything possible to make sure you’re not alone.” She released the girl, stepping back to look at her. “As long as you don’t go off on your own. You understand? I know you want to save your mother. And he will probably promise any number of things. He might tell you that if you come to him, he’ll take you instead and release her. He might even magically swear to it. Do not listen to him, Felicity. I don’t care what he promises, what he threatens. If you go to him, he will win. Your mother–” 

“Mom would kill herself before she let me trade myself for her,” Flick murmured, glancing away. It was clear the thought had occurred to her before. Particularly with the way she and Tabbris exchanged very brief glances before the older girl’s gaze found the floor. “Or she’d just kill herself trying to get me away from him. I wouldn’t be saving her, I’d be condemning her to die one way or another. Either from doing something stupid to get me out of there, or just… or just being killed by him when he didn’t need her anymore. Or because he sacrifices her for whatever plan he has. I know. I know all that. I get it. I’ve thought about it for months now, all the time.” 

“You thought about offering to trade yourself for her already,” Sariel gently noted, watching her. 

A slow nod came. “I thought about it. I even worked out how it might go, how I could maybe make sure he had to follow through.” Then she shrugged, her voice hollow. “It wouldn’t work. It would be dumb, and… I’d be betraying everyone here. My friends, my dad, the rest of my family… you guys. I’d be hurting everyone just to feel for a second like I was being proactive. It would make me feel less useless for a second or two, that’s it.” 

Smiling very faintly, Sariel noted, “The fact that you recognize that puts you quite a bit ahead of many others I could mention.” Her voice softened a little more, as she added, “You are like your mother in many ways, Felicity Chambers. Almost supernaturally surprising at times.” 

Finally glancing up, Flick met her gaze, voice hard. “Whatever happens when my birthday comes, let’s just hope that necromantic bastard gets to be surprised too. I really want him to realize he’s made a huge fucking mistake about two seconds before his head comes off and we get to play soccer with it.” 

Raising a hand, Tabbris offered, “Maybe Chayyiel could possess you again. I’m pretty sure Litonya was really freaking surprised by that.” 

The words made Sariel begin to chuckle. “Yes, I’m sure that would–” She stopped then, blinking at her daughter, then to Flick, then back again while her mouth opened and shut. “Wait…

“Chayyiel did what?!” 

*******

From the dark cabin where several of the strongest mages the combined Atherby, rebel Seosten, and former Crossroads groups could field had gone over him with a fine-toothed comb to ensure there were no spells or other magical tricks, Sean Gerardo emerged. He stepped out, feet making the porch creak heavily as he moved down onto the grass. Down into the sunlight. 

He stood there, eyes closed for a moment while he slowly tilted his head up toward the sky. There, he stayed motionless, simply breathing in the new, non-recycled air. The real, true outside. Freedom. He breathed in freedom after eight years of imprisonment. He breathed it in. 

And he cried. Hands clenched at his sides, face upturned toward the sun in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy at his own freedom, Sean cried. Tears fell freely as he let go of everything he’d been holding in for so long. The unfairness, the unjust treatment, the insanity of his parents agreeing to it. He let all of it free, allowing it to fall right along with his tears. He was lost, adrift on his own chaotic maelstrom of fears, joys, loss, and triumph. 

He was free. Yet how much had he lost? Eight years. He had been there for eight years. Eight times longer than he had even known Flick. Those people had completely lost their minds. They were insane. His parents and the rest of them, they… they had to be stopped. He understood that more than he ever had before this. He understood just how far they would go to maintain their delusions, just how obsessed they were and how willing they were to break everything to avoid admitting they were wrong. This wasn’t a case of simply misinformed people. They truly, fanatically believed that the entirety of humanity would be erased if they didn’t do what they were doing. They believed that every single species in the universe would gleefully eradicate every human being if given half a chance, that they were the lone defending force against total human extinction. And against that kind of pressure, against the extermination of all humanity, there were no measures that were off limits, nothing some of them wouldn’t do. 

This was going to be a war, in every sense of the word. More than anything else, he had learned that over his time imprisoned. The levels they were willing to go to… This wouldn’t be some simple matter of just telling them the truth. Many would never accept it. And those… he knew what would have to be done. He didn’t like it. But it was coming. To change society, to really change it… they would have to do harsh things. 

“Hey.” 

The word caught his attention, and Sean turned a bit to see his brother there. Ian stood a few yards away, just as bloodied and dirty as he’d been back on that battlefield. It looked like he’d gone through hell. 

“Gross, dude,” Sean murmured after looking him up and down. “Ever heard of a shower?” 

A snort escaped the other man before Ian crossed the distance between them. His hand moved to take his brother’s before stopping himself. “I–sorry. That… I guess you’re probably not used to people touching you, huh?” 

Glancing away, Sean squeezed Ian’s hand a bit testingly. “It’s kind of a new experience, especially doing it for real instead of in my head.” Exhaling, he turned his gaze back to the other man’s. “And that sounded really creepy.” 

“I’m sorry, man.” Ian’s voice was quiet, his hand still holding his little–now not so little–brother’s. “I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you. Not just through this… this prison shit. Ever. I’m sorry I’ve been a shit brother for so long even before that.” 

Sean shook his head. “Part of me feels like I should make a crack about how you’re just sad that you can’t give me noogies anymore. But… but maybe that’s just because this whole thing is really awkward.” He focused once more, meeting Ian’s gaze. “Everyone keeps saying they’re sorry, as if this is their fault. But I know whose fault it is. And they’ll get theirs.” 

“Our family’s kind of fucked up, isn’t it?” Ian muttered the words under his breath before muttering several curses in Colombian Spanish. “You’re right, they’ll get theirs. Mom… Dad… and all the rest of them.” 

Before Sean could say anything to that, Sebastian came into view from the side of the cabin. “It’s not going to be easy, you know,” the man announced. “Physically or emotionally. It’s not just your parents. It’s your old classmates, your friends. It’s other people’s family, people they care about. All these people here in this camp? All the Heretics who came here, they’ve all got people they love or want to protect who stayed at Crossroads. This whole thing is going to be one big joda.” He gestured then. “Now, you two gonna hug so I can get my own out of my favorite nephew, or what?” 

“Oh, he’s your favorite nephew now?” Ian started before Sean gave him a little yank by the hand. The two embraced briefly, hands clapping each other’s backs before they stepped aside.

“Now?” Sebastian retorted while taking his turn to embrace Sean tightly. “He was always my favorite.” He leaned back then, looking up at the boy… man in question. “Even if he did get too damn tall like the rest of you.” 

With a dry chuckle, Sean replied, “Not our fault you stopped growing at sixteen, Tío Sebastian.” It was such an easy thing to say, springing straight to his lips. Then he thought about the fact that, from their point of view, he hadn’t been that much older than sixteen very recently. It was enough to cast a dark cloud over their reunion, but he pushed on anyway. Just because you couldn’t stop dark clouds from showing up didn’t mean you had to lay down in the puddles they made. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you retired.” 

Giving him a long, thorough tongue lashing in Spanish at the very suggestion that he would sit on the sidelines while his nephew was in trouble, Sebastian settled with, “And I’m not sitting out any more. Not this. Not now. This war is going to take everyone. Especially if we’re going to get anywhere with it before this whole Seosten time limit thing is up next year.” 

“That and you don’t want Mateo running off by himself,” Ian noted mildly. 

“Mateo would never be off by himself,” Sebastian informed him. “He’s got his pack. And… speaking of which.” With a brief glance over Sean’s shoulder, he took Ian by the arm. “Come on then, let’s not monopolize the boy.” He met his just-freed nephew’s gaze pointedly. “Whatever happens with your parents, Sean, you’ve still got family. Don’t you forget that.” 

Ian started to say something else, before he too looked past Sean. Raising an eyebrow, he murmured, “Muy bueno, hermano.” Then he allowed himself to be pulled away. 

With a very small smile as he shook his head, Sean spoke up. “Hey, Roxa.” 

There was a brief pause before the girl’s voice flatly asked, “Did your brother just call me ‘very good?’” 

Snorting, Sean turned to face the girl. When he saw her, bloodied, covered in mud and dirt, clothes torn, he made a noise in the back of his throat. “Oh… God. He wasn’t wrong. You… look…” Stopping himself, he winced while shaking his head. “I’m sorry. Shit. I know we had this whole thing going on and to you it was like… a couple months ago. So you really didn’t sign up for… for this. I spent eight years building you up in my head. Eight years thinking about what you looked like, making this perfect picture of you in my own imagination, some… crazy version idealized of you that couldn’t hope to match up to reality. I spent eight years building the perfect image of you in my head. 

“So how in the hell is the real you even more beautiful than I ever imagined?” 

In a rush of motion, Roxa was in front of him. Her arms went around his neck, and she hopped, legs wrapping around his waist as her mouth sought and found his. 

He kissed her. He held her. His arms clutched the now-much younger girl tight against himself, and he didn’t let go. Not for a very long time. 

His girl. 

His wolf. 

*******

“You know, if you were really that tired of being identical, there were easier ways to take care of it.” 

The words came from Sands, as she stood in the camp medical center with her hands on her hips, staring at her twin sister. Scout was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed. Or rather, most of her was. Her left arm had been removed entirely, all the way up to the shoulder. In its place was a thin rounded metal cylinder about eight inches long and three inches thick. 

In response to her sister’s worried teasing, Scout poked her in the stomach with her remaining hand, offering her a smile before simply saying, “Upgrade.” 

“Yes, yes, upgrade.” Instead of Sands, it was a short, red-skinned man with a bright shock of wild white hair who spoke then. He stood barely an inch taller than the twins, approaching with a couple fancy-looking tools in two of his four hands (he only had two arms, each splitting around the elbow into two forearms) as he offered them both a smile. “It is an upgrade. But as I said, if you would prefer to take the time to let the arm regenerate more… naturally, even with magical assistance, that is an option. With your kind of power and what was done to your arm, it will take a month or so, but it’s there.” 

“Are you sure about this, Scout?”  Larissa asked from where she was sitting, tensely watching her girls. “You don’t have to go with the tech replacement if you don’t want to.” 

Head shaking at that, Scout softly replied, “Advantages are good.” 

“Alright,” the doctor, an Alter by the name of Bhenquiet (he went by Dr. Ben) announced while using his tools to make a couple last minute adjustments to the implanted metal cylinder. “Remember, anytime you want to take it out and allow the arm to grow normally, let me know. Do not try to do it yourself. I don’t want you hurting yourself or my work. Here.” He stepped back, gesturing for Sands to do the same. “Let’s see it. Just like I told you.” 

Closing her eyes, Scout focused. It took a few long seconds before there was a flicker of an image from the cylinder. It flashed in and out a couple times, then reappeared and solidified. It was her arm. Or rather, a solid holographic projection of her arm that looked identical to the real thing.

“It’ll be stronger than your old arm was, though not as strong as you could get it to be through… powers,” Dr. Ben informed her with only a slight bit of awkwardness around the idea of her killing others to make her real arm stronger. “Right now I’ve got it programmed for the arm, a sword, a shield, and a few other basic things. You can go through them and add more. I’ll show you how, or you can get a programmer to do it. There’s some other details, about what kind of magic you can use with it, that kind of thing. Oh, and don’t forget, you can’t activate magic that requires touch with this hand. It’s not real. If you’ve gotta touch a spell to activate it, you’ve gotta use your real hand. Understand?” 

Scout nodded, before asking, “Doug and Jazz?” 

“The girl’s just fine, just a little beat up.” The answer came not from Dr. Ben, but from Donald Therasis, Rudolph’s many-greats grandfather. The older man came into the medical cabin carrying a clipboard in one hand and a leather bag in the other. He set both down on the nearby table before adding, “Douglas chose to have his own eye replaced similar to Scout’s arm, though I’ll let him share the specifics with you. I wouldn’t dream of taking that kind of surprise away from him.” 

With that, he embraced Larissa. “I’m glad you all made it out. It sounds like things were… intense.” There was a certain sadness behind the old man’s eyes. Long as he had lived, he still felt great pain at the loss of those he cared about, and he had truly cared for Rudolph.  

But he did, at least, now understand what had happened to the boy. He had the whole story, and had made the choice to come here to the Atherby camp to help in any way that he could. 

With a small smile, Larissa squeezed the man tightly. “We’re all glad you’re here, Donald. I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep you, Dr. Ben here, and a lot of other people pretty busy this year.” 

“Not too busy,” Donald replied easily, “I’ve still got a tennis game to keep up on. And speaking of tennis, how’s the girl’s new arm working out?” 

With a thought, Scout made the holographic projection of her arm turn to a sword, then back again. “Good.” 

“So she says,” her mother murmured, stepping over to put a hand on it. “Feels pretty close to the real thing, at least.” She smiled then, though it was a worried smile. “My brave girls. My Sandoval. My Scout.” 

“No,” the girl corrected, head shaking. “Not Scout. Sarah. 

“Just Sarah.” 

*******

“Joselyn should be here.” 

It was late that night, the celebrations (punctuated by careful tests for any kind of trickery or traps) having gone on throughout the day and evening. There was still a lot to do, even just counting dealing with the prisoners they had pulled out of the Crossroads prison and figuring out who could be trusted. There was more work to be done than anyone could name. But for now, for this moment, they were celebrating. 

This particular celebration, somber as it might have been, revolved around the seven figures who sat around a small campfire on the edge of the lake. Five had been former teammates. Deveron, Lillian, Seamus, Roger, and Tribald. The other two were Felicity Chambers and her father, Lincoln. As the flames crackled, the group listened to the music, shouting, laughter, and general merriment coming from the rest of the camp. 

Roger, who had just spoken, continued. “She should be here. Not… not with that psycho.” 

“She started this,” Tribald murmured quietly, the incredibly tall, disconcertingly lanky man’s knees drawn up almost awkwardly as he poked at the fire with a stick. “She should be here now that it’s back.” 

Deveron cleared his throat a little, glancing toward Lincoln and Flick. “We just have to bring her back. Even… especially if it means prying her out of that necromancer fuck’s cold dead hands.”

“I like that plan,” Lincoln put in before laying a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “I mean, I didn’t grow up with Joselyn the way you all did. I don’t know her as well. But–” 

“Yes, you do.” That was Deveron, his voice quiet, yet firm. “You might not know the Heretic, Lincoln. But you know the woman. You know Joselyn. Everything important, everything that’s her, you know.” 

The two men met each other’s gazes for a moment, a deep understanding passing between them before Lillian spoke up. “Dev’s right. You know who Joselyn is, the kind of person she’s always been. For details… we can provide those. Until she’s here to do it herself.” 

“Speaking of details,” Seamus began, reaching over with his foot to bump Deveron’s, “are you planning on looking like that for the rest of your life, or would you like to join the rest of the adults?” 

Giving him a wry smirk, Deveron gestured. “Okay, okay. I guess part of me was just waiting for the best time. But this is as good as any.” His hand reached up, producing a knife from nowhere. Drawing a thin cut across his arm, he held it out over the fire. As the blood dripped into the flame, the man murmured a spell under his breath. He grimaced then, while the blood continued to drip until a small onyx marble appeared, drawn out of his arm. The marble fell into the fire as well, breaking apart into a cloud of black smoke. 

Over the next few seconds, Deveron’s appearance changed. He grew older, appearing much like himself, but in his late twenties. While the others watched, he stretched out a bit, cracking his neck and then his knuckles. “Ahhh… there. Good to be me again.”

“Pffft.” Dismissively waving a hand, Flick informed him, “Sean already beat you to the whole ‘suddenly appearing older than he was’ trick. Now it just looks like you’re copying him.” 

“Oh good,” Lincoln muttered in the wake of that, “now I can stop feeling quite as awkward about my wife having children with a guy who looks too young to vote.” 

“Gross,” Flick informed them both before pushing herself up. As Lincoln made as though to stand up as well, she waved him off. “Stay. You guys… talk. I just need to stretch my legs. I’ll be right back.” 

With that, she looked around the fire at the group of her mother’s old friends before stepping away. Silently, the blonde girl walked away from the camp a short distance. She climbed the nearby hill, thoughts kept only to herself, as Tabbris was with her own mother and other siblings.  

At the top of the hill, Flick stood there and looked out at the camp. She watched all the people. Some were Atherby regulars. Some were Crossroads rebels. Still others were Seosten former prisoners, freed from the hell created and maintained by Kushiel. 

Finally, she raised her gaze to the sky. “Well, Mom, we’re doing it. We’re gonna keep this whole rebellion thing going. You know, until you can be here yourself to show us all how to do it right. Then you can tell us all about how bad we are at it and fix everything.” 

Smiling a little to herself, Flick repeated those words more quietly. “Fix everything. I guess that’s gonna be a lot harder than I ever thought, huh?” She sighed, long and low. “There’s so much going on, so many bad… evil… horrible people. Sometimes it feels like it’s too much. I suppose… when it comes down to it, no matter how many things you have to do, no matter how… overwhelming it feels, all you can do is take one step at a time. It might be a lot of steps. But I’ve seen the video of you teaching me how to walk. I started… running almost before I even had walking down. Okay, it was a goofy run and I nearly killed myself a few times, but still. I’ve been crossing steps faster than I was supposed to basically my whole life. Old habits die hard.  

“I love you, Mom. We’re coming for you. No matter what happens, I swear, we’re coming for you. We are. I just…” She sighed, long and heavy. “I wish… I keep wishing we had something, anything that… that was an advantage. Something to… something to hold over him, or to trick him with, or… I don’t know. It just feels like he’s always ahead. Sariel got one over on him today, but I don’t think something like that’ll work again. And I just… wish we had… anything that could–”

“Hello.” 

The greeting, coming from behind Flick, cut her off. She turned, expecting to see one of the camp people, or maybe one of the new Crossroads rebels. Instead, she found herself facing a blueish-green figure, partially transparent. The figure was a teenage girl, pretty even in that state, with short hair and a mischievous look. 

“What–who… you…” Flick stared in confusion. “You’re a… a ghost, right? You’re a ghost. Did… I call you or something? I’m not very good at this necromancer thing yet. It’s kind of a whole issue.” 

“Yes, I am a ghost,” the impish girl confirmed. “And I’m here because of your power. But also because I want to help you.” 

“Help?” Flick echoed. “How–I don’t understand. What can you help with? Who are you?” 

There was a brief silence as the ghost girl hesitated. Then she met Flick’s gaze. “My name is Rahanvael. My brother is the one you know as Fossor. 

“And I can help you beat him.” 

TO BE CONTINUED IN YEAR 2. 

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Denouement 9 – Matres Dimicatio (Heretical Edge)

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The first attack came instantly, as a jet of white-hot fire erupted from Joselyn’s outstretched hand, straight toward Sariel. The Seosten boost kicked in and she threw herself into a sideways roll just as the lance of flame shot through the air where she had been. 

Coming up to one knee, Sariel managed to snap her arms up to deflect the kick from the other woman, who was suddenly in front of her. Despite her Tartarus-enhanced strength, and the similarly enhanced boost, she was barely able to deflect the kick from Joselyn. Instinct very nearly kicked in for her to possess the woman in that moment, but that would be very bad for both Joselyn and the other two prisoners. 

Using the moment it took the other woman to recover from her leg being thrown aside, Sariel came to her feet. “Joselyn, I know you have to do what he says.” She took a quick step back from the blade the woman produced from her arm that swiped through the air, before pivoting away from the follow-up kick. “So I—” 

The kick had been more than a kick. With that same motion, Joselyn brought a sharp spike of metal out of the carpeted floor. Sariel noticed it at the last instant, throwing herself into a backward flip almost too late, as the jagged steel spike lanced up to collide with the ceiling, cutting along her left arm in the process to draw a line of blood. 

Spinning around the spike, Sariel produced several metal throwing daggers. Her hand snapped out to send them flying toward Joselyn, but the woman was no longer there. She vanished from that spot, leaving the daggers to narrowly miss Roger. 

“Ooh, gotta be careful there,” Fossor noted. He was eating a small bowl of ice cream from the shop in the mall, while casually leaning against the door jam. “You kill one of these guys and it kind of defeats the entire purpose. It would be pretty fun for me though. So carry on.”

Joselyn was behind her. Sariel’s head snapped forward and down just as the woman’s blade arm cut through the space there, taking a bit of her hair with it. “I won’t try—” she began again while pivoting to face her as the blade cut close once again. Only her exact motion as she turned made it narrowly miss. “—to tell you to fight it or anything. And—”

Gravity reversed itself, abruptly making Sariel fall toward the ceiling. Joselyn created a dozen balls of green glowing energy and sent them flying up after her while snarling a dark and angry, “My children.”

As she hit the ceiling, metal coils popped out of it to restrain her, but Sariel quickly kicked off, launching herself into a flip. She twisted and corkscrewed through the air perfectly to avoid the coils just before the balls of energy exploded. Sariel had managed to evade the worst of them, but the force of what did hit was enough to throw her out of range of the gravity reversal and to the ground, where she rolled and tumbled end over end before coming to a stop with a cough and grunt. 

“Yeah. Your children.” The words were a quiet murmur as she frowned inwardly before pushing herself up once more, just in time to snap her head back from the decapitating strike that Joselyn sent at her neck. She danced backward, head shaking. “Joselyn, I’m sorry. I am so—”

Once more, she was interrupted, as the other woman teleported right beside her, blade stabbing for her stomach. Sariel’s bow appeared in her hand, fully extended as she used the upper part of it to deflect the blade. She blocked several more furious follow-up swipes, backing up the whole time while Joselyn gave chase. Dancing back with a bit of boost to get a couple feet of distance, she quickly nocked an arrow by pulling the string and sent a shot at the incoming blade. It bounced off, spinning through the air before cutting into the wall a few inches from Seamus’s cheek on the other side of the room, to Fossor’s obvious amusement as he raised the bowl of ice cream like a toast to her nearly killing the man.  

Grimacing, Sariel quickly ducked under a lunge, pivoting while staying bent over to avoid the follow up swing, before quickly snapping her body upright once more as Joselyn adjusted for a vertical slash. That last was so close it cut along her leg, drawing more blood.  

“I love my children,” she announced quietly while launching another shot that missed Joselyn’s head by a hair’s-breadth, taking a small nick out of the top of the woman’s ear before embedding itself in the wall. “I love them more than anything in this world or any other.” 

Joselyn’s hands snapped out, sending a torrent of fire that singed the other woman as she threw herself backward. Sariel’s back hit the wall next to Roger, and she blinked a bit, dazed for a brief second while Joselyn came for her. At the last possible instant, she recovered just enough to snap her head out of the way as the other woman’s blade cut past her to hit the wall. 

Joselyn tried to snap the blade back and down to cut through Sariel’s side while simultaneously using a telekinetic shove to push her into it, but the Seosten woman was ready for it. A small blue stone appeared in her free hand, the command word leaping to her lips even as she was shoved toward the blade by an invisible force. Instantly, the prepared spell made a glimmering forcefield appear directly behind her. Joselyn’s blade struck that, while the telekinetic shove knocked Sariel into the opposite side of it. Blade and woman were millimeters apart, separated by that simple glowing shield of energy. In the next instant, Sariel used the command to disable the shield, sending the kinetic energy it had absorbed from the blade blow back out the same way it came in. The force knocked Joselyn back a step, her arm snapping out as she grunted. 

Sariel tried to use that, pivoting around while notching three arrows at once. All of them were loosed toward Joselyn… and none reached their target. The one sent near her face was caught in a simple exhale of frost breath that caught the arrow in the air, stopped it short while ice formed around it, and dropped it to the ground. The other two, aimed for her left shoulder, were knocked aside by that blade arm and sent spinning off. One struck the wall across the room, once more almost taking Seamus in the throat. The other went straight for Fossor’s right eye before it was caught in the air by a ghost, who solidified just in time to catch the arrow. The necromancer didn’t blink. He simply took another spoonful of ice cream and smiled faintly. 

With a grunt, Joselyn sent herself up and back. She hovered near the ceiling while summoning a veritable armada of metal spikes, each about four inches long and razor-sharp. They were like Sariel’s throwing daggers, yet there were hundreds of them, all floating in the air around and in front of her. Her chin gave the slightest gesture, and they all flew at Sariel, like a swarm of angry wasps. On the way, they turned white-hot, and a small shield of energy appeared around them. The kind of energy that would allow the blades to pierce any more forcefields Sariel tried to summon on short notice. 

So, she didn’t summon a shield. Instead, Sariel threw herself into a long, backward fall while notching her bow once more. This time, she drew back not one arrow. Not even three arrows. Six. Six arrows were notched onto her bowstring. Two between her pinkie and ring finger, two between her ring and middle finger, and two between her middle and index fingers. As she threw herself onto her back, an instant before landing on the floor, she loosed those arrows toward the incoming swarm of blades. The arrows shot out, spreading to strike six separate incoming blades at seemingly random points. Those six blades were each knocked off course, crashing into six others, then a few more beyond that. The second set that were hit collided with more. Soon, most of the hundreds of hurled blades were sent flying into the floor, against the walls, or even up into the ceiling. 

In the end, only a handful of blades made it through and kept going. Three struck the floor where Sariel had landed, except she had already flipped herself up and over to land on her feet as the trio of blades sank into the floor. One remained, which skimmed past her cheek, drawing a thin red line there while also cutting a lock of her hair on its way past. 

Joselyn was behind her, and Sariel felt a sudden crushing force all but knock the wind out of her as she was slammed into the ground by the woman’s telekinesis. Landing hard, she was held in place by that same crushing force, which stopped her from moving and seemed as though it would collapse her chest and shatter her ribs any second. Standing above her, Joselyn looked wide-eyed and conflicted, her fury fueling the order she had been given, while her very nature and personality made her instinctively try to draw back from following through on this attack. But she couldn’t. Her deal with Fossor had been made. Killing Sariel in no way, as far as they knew, put Felicity in direct danger. And the sheer anger and grief that Joselyn felt so deeply at what had been taken from her so long ago made it nearly impossible for her to even slightly resist the order she’d been given to kill Sariel. Any hesitation, any at all, took a truly Herculean effort. 

So, Sariel didn’t rely on anything like that. As the invisible force continued to push down on her, she focused, summoning a new prepared spell-stone to her hand. As the blue rock with the rune inscribed in it appeared, she immediately spoke the command word while she still had a bit of breath to do so. The spell activated, sending a narrow burst of kinetic force almost straight up in the direction Sariel was looking: directly at Joselyn. It struck the other woman in the chest hard enough to knock her back a few steps, breaking her concentration. Instantly, the telekinetic force vanished and Sariel was able to flip herself to her feet. 

Even as she landed, another geyser of flame was coming at her. A new stone appeared, and she spoke the command to fill the air on that side with a wave of cold that froze the flame. 

Six metal coils popped from the ground like tentacles, attempting to grab Sariel. Yet another stone-summoned spell sent a cloud of reddish-brown dust in every direction. Wherever the dust struck, the metal coils rusted completely through instantly and fell apart. 

More powers were sent at Sariel. But while she was not a Heretic, Sariel had something almost as good in this moment. She had magic. Magic she had spent quite a long time preparing. And the weaknesses most mages possessed in needing to reach for their prepared-spells, she didn’t have. Her Tartarus gift meant that she could instantly summon any small object she focused on to her hand, including her spell stones. Dozens upon dozens of enchanted rocks and bits of paper were stored on Sariel’s person, and she could summon any of them to her hand with a thought. That was the only way she had to counter the powers Joselyn was sending at her. 

Finally, the oath-bound Heretic switched back to a more direct, physical attack. Appearing beside Sariel, she shifted her hand into a blade once more while lashing out for the other woman’s arm. Quick as she was while boosted, Sariel still only barely managed to avoid taking the full cut and possibly losing her arm entirely. As it was, Joselyn’s blade cut deep across her bicep. And the woman didn’t stop there, following up with a dozen rapid-fire cuts, all of them aimed to disable Sariel. She’d worked out that she couldn’t put her opponent down with one well-placed stab, so she was working to wear Sariel down with multiple small injuries, cutting her here and there while constantly forcing her on the defensive. She attacked relentlessly, never giving the Seosten woman time to regroup. 

Then she kicked it up a notch. Suddenly, Joselyn was moving faster than she had before, faster than even Sariel in boost. Her bladed arm snapped out cobra-quick, nearly taking her opponent’s throat in the sudden burst of speed. Sariel, in turn, barely managed to use the body of her bow to deflect the blade off into the wall, her retreat backward stopped as she ran into Roger. 

“I’m sorry,” Joselyn murmured while shifting her hand to a red metal as she slammed it toward the other woman’s stomach with enough force to punch through a stone wall. 

Before the fist could strike her, however, Sariel had already summoned something else to her hand. This was not a spell rock, however. It was a small metal ball that disintegrated as soon as her hands touched it. Within the ball was a tiny chipmunk. The tiny creature had time to look surprised for just an instant before Sariel disappeared into it, possessing the animal just as Joselyn’s empowered blow demolished a good portion of the wall behind them. 

As the chipmunk, Sariel landed on the floor before quickly jumping to bounce off of the woman’s leg then to the wall, parkour style. Clinging to the wall, she ran up and around it, past Roger’s head as the blade struck out multiple times, each cut coming within millimeters of taking the tiny animal’s heart out. 

In mid-run sideways along the wall, Sariel abandoned the chipmunk, leaping out while leaving it to continue running. Her energy form appeared in midair, reforming into her physical body, already holding her bow up and ready. Before landing, she shot off three arrows at once, then rolled and came up to one knee while loosing yet three more. 

The first three were shattered in mid-flight as Joselyn simply waved a hand. The other three were subsequently smacked aside by her blade and sent flying away. Before she could rise from her knee, a pillar of ice erupted from the floor under her, slamming Sariel upward toward the ceiling. She barely managed to fling herself off before she would have been crushed, flipping over in the air as she brought several more throwing daggers to her hand and sent them at the figure below her. Joselyn stopped them all in midair with a hand, while Sariel landed on her feet. But an instant later, the Seosten spoke the command word, making the daggers explode with enough force to stagger the enslaved Heretic. 

Sariel didn’t give her time to recover, instantly using her bow to launch five more arrows at the woman before launching herself into a sprint straight at her. Joselyn, stumbling slightly and off-balance, still managed to smack the arrows out of the way. All save one, which struck her hip. It didn’t do much, aside from draw blood. But Joselyn reacted, ripping the arrow out and disintegrating it into dust just as Sariel reached her, swinging the bow at her face. A thought brought the bow up short, stopping it just before the thing would have struck her. Joselyn could see the sigils glowing on the weapon, proof of the spell that would have affected her had she simply allowed it to hit. 

For a moment, the two women stood face-to-face, simply staring at one another. Sariel’s expression softened, as she met Joselyn’s gaze. “I am sorry for what happened to your children. I never intended that. Never. But I did intend for your husband to be used as a hostage to force you to surrender. I was doing my job, trying to end the war and bring things under control. I thought… I thought things could change without everyone killing each other. I thought we could fix things peacefully. I thought…” She breathed in and out. “I thought a lot of things that were wrong.” 

“You keep apologizing,” her unwanted opponent managed to hiss. “But my children were still taken away. I lost decades of my life.” 

Joselyn came after her with the blade again, attacking relentlessly and with incredible speed. As before, even with boost, Sariel could barely keep up. Joselyn was faster, but Sariel had the edge in experience and the added benefit of a perfect knowledge and understanding of her own body’s positioning at all times. She kept moving, alternately ducking and using her bow to deflect incoming swings. Her opponent was like a woman possessed, power coiling around her as she attacked again and again, from every angle, a blur of motion. Sparks flew from the weapons as they clashed, along with the sound of the blade hitting the walls now and then. Back and forth they went, blade and bow clashing and swinging through the air in a wild, yet beautiful ballet of danger and violence. 

Finally managing to throw herself backward, Sariel notched an arrow and loosed it in one motion. The enchanted shot triggered as it hit the floor, sending a burst of kinetic energy. Joselyn was ready for it, raising a shield to absorb the impact. But it did slow her down a couple steps, giving Sariel time to speak as she notched more arrows and loosed them one at a time in quick succession while backing up. Each word came with another arrow. “I thought I could fix everything, if I talked to your husband.” 

Twelve words, twelve arrows. None actually hit Joselyn. They were deflected in one way or another, mostly knocked aside or disintegrated.

They were back to fighting straight on, Joselyn right in front of her as Sariel continued, blocking and dodging. “I thought if he was captured, I could find a way to talk to him privately. Get him to understand the stakes and that you needed to work more quietly, that we could change things from the inside if you negotiated. I thought I could set that up. I thought I could control what Ruthers did. 

“I was wrong. You and your children, your family, paid the price.” 

Through it all, they were a barely visible rush of motion back and forth through the room. Powers flew, and were countered by spells. The blade came closer and closer, nicking Sariel here and there. Light to moderate cuts were all over her body, and both women were breathing heavily by that point as they put everything they had into this. 

“And I know. I know what that’s like,” Sariel informed the other woman in a soft, somewhat broken voice as they both broke apart briefly to regroup. “I know what it’s like to lose your children, to have them taken away from you. For that, I… for my part in that, I can never, never apologize. Not enough. I can never make that right. I’m sorry. From the depths of my soul and with everything I am or could ever be, I am sorry. I will bring you back. You have my word, my life on it. I will protect your children, and I will find a way to bring you back to them, back to your family, Joselyn Chambers. I swear to you.” 

Tossing his empty bowl aside, Fossor spoke up. “Ah, maybe you should focus on exactly what you’re going to take away from her right now so you can add that to the apology list. Just a thought.” 

Joselyn had stopped for the moment as Fossor spoke, giving herself and Sariel time to breathe. The Seosten woman gave a faint shake of her head without looking away from the powerful Heretic. “Nothing. I am taking nothing away from her. Not this time.” 

A light chuckle escaped Fossor. “You know the rules. You let her kill you, and Seamus dies. You kill her, and… well, you’ve taken her away from her. And also Roger will die, though I suppose that’s more pettiness on my part than anything else. You run away, they both die. So I must say, if you plan on getting out of this without taking anything from her… that would be a very good trick.” 

“Trick?” Sariel quipped. “It’s called an illusion. And the thing you should have remembered through all of this, Necromancer…

“… is that I don’t miss.” 

As she spoke those words, Fossor and Joselyn both looked, really looked at the room around them. The marks, the ones on the walls next to Roger and Seamus. The arrows that had been deflected that way, the thrown daggers, even the marks from Joselyn’s own blade as Sariel had lured her back and forth, they weren’t random. Some were, of course. She couldn’t control every deflection and some weren’t perfect. But enough were. The ones that mattered. The marks from arrows, daggers, and blade had been carefully planned throughout that entire fight, to form a very specific design around each of the men. 

Not just a design. A spell. Sariel had used her own deflected shots and Joselyn’s blade to mark both walls with a spell, while also using her telepathic connection with the other three Seosten to warn them to leave the mall. 

Fossor’s mouth opened, a command leaping to his lips even as several of his ghost servants appeared. But in that exact instant, as planned through their telepathic link, Mercury triggered the spell he had set up. All of the man’s zombies in the mall immediately blew apart or disintegrated, while the force of their destruction was sent back along the connection they had with their creator. Fossor literally staggered against the wall and fell, a cry of disoriented pain escaping the man as blood fell from his mouth and eyes to pool on the ground. Over only a few seconds, all of the fear, pain, and death he had inflicted on the people he’d turned into his zombies here in this mall was shoved right back into the man. He survived through his link to the people on his own world, but was deeply disoriented and hurt by the backlash. 

The oath Joselyn had sworn forced her to both obey and protect Fossor. She did so the only way she could in that moment, by lunging toward the Seosten woman. But Sariel was faster. With three rapid words and a rush of power that she shoved into the runes she had so carefully drawn out, the woman activated the teleportation spell. 

And in that second, she and both of the imprisoned men vanished, escaping safely while Fossor was left coughing up blood on the floor.

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